Historical Background

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Historical Background

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...

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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?

Modern Connections

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One of the major issues Julius Caesar deals with is the overthrow of a ruler. In this play, Shakespeare raises the question of whether this is ever justified and if so, under what circumstances. At the time Shakespeare was writing, a commonly held view on this topic was that the overthrow of any ruler—good or bad—was morally wrong. This view is prevalent in Dante's The Inferno (a part of a longer work completed between 1308 and 1321). In the poem, Dante (an Italian poet) put Brutus and Cassius in the lowest level of Hell as punishment for their rebellion. This concept was well-known in Shakespeare's time through literature such as The Inferno and through the views of England's rulers. The two English monarchs during Shakespeare's lifetime, Queen Elizabeth and King James I, shared the view that an attack on the ruler was deeply immoral and dangerous to the kingdom. James I felt that even a bad ruler should not be overthrown, for such a person was sent by God to test and mature the character of the Christian subject of the ruler. Hence, in no situations should the subject turn to rebellion. Both Elizabeth and James were the targets of plots against them, but both survived the plots.

A view opposite to the medieval one of Dante was put forward by some Renaissance thinkers in their writings. Two Renaissance writers who supported the overthrow of a tyrant ruler were the Italian political writer Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and the French essayist Michel Eyquem Montaigne (1533-92). In their philosophical arguments, they discussed the causes which would lead people to seek to overthrow a ruler. Additionally, some Catholic and Protestant polemicists advocated the overthrow and assassination of an unjust ruler when specific circumstances, such as lack of religious toleration in the kingdom, applied.

In Julius Caesar, Brutus argues that Caesar was killed because of his ambition. He worries about the change that Caesar might undergo if he were to acquire more power. The historical Julius Caesar was able to achieve a level of personal power exceeding that which the ancient Roman political system was designed to allow. The main governing body in Rome in Caesar's time was the Senate. In Julius Caesar, most of the central characters—Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony—are members of the Senate. The principal officials of the Senate were known as consuls. Two consuls were elected from the Senate by the general public. These two consuls served alternate months during the same year. The power of a consul was intended to be checked by the presence of the second consul and by the short term of office. However, in a period of civil wars, many exceptions to these rules were made for the victorious military leader, Caesar. The Senate awarded additional honors and power beyond that of a consul to Caesar due to his successful military exploits. Later, Caesar claimed even more power for himself.

Like the ancient Roman legal system, the modern democratic system is one in which officials are elected by the general public and in which checks and balances are incorporated into the governing process. In a democracy, people have the power to vote out of office individual leaders who are not representing their views in the passing of laws. A system of checks and balances exists with the division of the U.S. government into three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. Informal checks are also in place which prevent one person from amassing too much power. Such checks include regularly scheduled elections, campaign laws, independent media, a system of public education, well-trained lawyers and a jury system, separation of church and state, and lobbyists for various constituencies.

Another area of interest for the modern audience is the difference between the historical record, mainly as found in the writings of Greek biographer Plutarch (died c. 120 A.D.), and Shakespeare's use of the record. Much of Shakespeare's story for Julius Caesar is found in Plutarch. However, Shakespeare omits a number of things: 1) reference to Portia's first marriage or her offspring from that marriage 2) the fact that Caesar saved Brutus's life after the battle of Pharsalus 3) the comment that Brutus stabbed Caesar in the "privities." Suetonius, a Roman biographer/historian and contemporary of Plutarch, reported on a tradition that Brutus was Caesar's illegitimate son, another aspect of Roman record which is not mentioned in the play. It has been suggested that perhaps Shakespeare omitted such information in order to depict Brutus in a sympathetic manner. Additionally, there are a number of other differences between Plutarch's historical record and Shakespeare's play, including compressions of time. Similarly, modern artists rely on historical or official records for inspiration. The artist—whether he or she is a poet, an author, a playwright, a director—may interpret or embellish aspects of such documents for any number of reasons, including theatrical or political purposes. One modern example of variation between the record of an event and an artist’s interpretation of that event is the difference between the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the movie version depicted by film director Oliver Stone.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading