In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I, the Tudor Queen, was in the final years of her 45-year reign (1558–1603). It was a period of history called the “Age of Discovery,” a time of scientific growth, a rebirth of the arts, and exploration of the recently discovered continents of North and South America. Historical plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people were eager to learn about worlds other than their own. A play like Julius Caesar taught them about Roman history, and at the same time, provided them with a mirror of their own society—a peacetime monarchy after a hundred years of warfare and before the Civil War that began in 1642.
Elizabeth’s reign was one of the most secure known by the English in hundreds of years. But her throne came under attack from Roman Catholic plots to replace the Protestant monarch with a Catholic. While Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, Elizabeth’s own favorite, the Earl of Essex rebelled in 1601, intending to replace the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, with a group of young aristocrats. His plan failed. But even more damaging attacks on the idea of monarchy came from loyal Puritans. Radicals like Peter Wentworth and John Field wanted democracy and called for “liberty, freedom and enfranchisement,” words echoed in Shakespeare’s play.
Like Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth had no heirs to follow her on the throne. In 1599, when she was ill, people feared that civil war and religious struggle would be the only way the question of her succession could be answered.
Although Shakespeare was writing about Rome, he was also posing questions about his own times. Who is fit to have authority? Who is fit to take this authority away? Is authority justified by legal or divine right? Can rebellion against authority ever be justified? All of these concerns can be found in Julius Caesar.
Performance of the Play
In September of 1599, a Swiss doctor visiting London wrote in his journal that he crossed the Thames and “there in the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first emperor Julius.” This entry is one of the few surviving pieces of information about the production in the original Globe Theater.
We know that a performance of Julius Caesar included realistic sound effects for thunder and battle scenes. The actor playing Caesar probably had a pig’s bladder filled with blood under his costume, and when he was stabbed, he and the conspirators were covered with blood. About 15 men played all the parts in the play, memorizing several parts each. The two female roles were played by boy apprentices. There were no woman actors in the theater at this time.
Today critics are divided over Julius Caesar. Some consider it flawed because it is the only Shakespearean tragedy where the title character is killed halfway through the play. Also, the focus of the action is never clear. Who is the hero of the play? Is it Caesar or Brutus? What is the message Shakespeare intends? Certainly, they agree, the play is not as powerful as Hamlet or King Lear.
In reading the play today, we tend to judge it by our modern standards and concepts of democracy and freedom. When you read the play, try to see it through the eyes of one who lived in England at the beginning of the 17th Century. It was a time of change and discovery, yet it was a time of divine right, monarchy, order and obligation. Without these things the world would be in chaos. What destroys the harmony in Caesar’s Rome—Caesar’s ambition for power? Cassius’ jealousy? Brutus’ naivete? Or the fickleness of its citizens?
*Rome. Capital of the ancient Roman Empire in which the bulk of the play is set. The various settings within the city used in the play are represented sparsely on stage; most of the Roman scenes are set in outdoor places, particularly public streets. The Elizabethan theater was a nonrealistic theater that operated within a...
(The entire section is 2,416 words.)