Why did Shakespeare choose to write about Julius Caesar?

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We cannot know with any certainty why Shakespeare wrote about Julius Caesar, as he left no explicit explanation of his choice. Understanding some of the cultural background of Shakespeare's period will help us understand why Shakespeare's choice to write about Caesar would have appeared perfectly natural to his contemporaries, but that is not the same as elucidating his personal intentions, something to which we have no access.

First, education in Shakespeare's period in England was almost exclusively focused on the Bible and classical antiquity. Renaissance English authors did not study English literature in school; instead, they studied Greek and Roman literature, most commonly Roman literature in the original Latin. Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico was a standard school text due especially to its clear and simple Latin. Plutarch's account of Caesar's life, the source of Shakespeare's play, was also quite well known to the average educated English person. Thus dramatizing the end of Caesar's life was writing about an iconic figure quite well known to Shakespeare's audience. 

Next, the story is one that lends itself to drama, especially in its tension between Brutus's love of Caesar and his loyalty to the Republic. Finally, Brutus was considered a representative of the Stoic school of philosophy which was undergoing a major revival when Shakespeare wrote his play. 

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I believe that there is a further answer to this question which lies in the politics and recent history of the times in England.  Shortly before writing Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had completed his cycle of plays dealing with the history of Elizabeth I' s ancestors who had wrested the throne from Richard II which resulted in the War of the Roses, a series of Civil wars between rivals for the throne.  Obviously since Shakespeare was dependent on patronage from the crown and her supporters, Shakespeare's portrayal of the Queen's ancestors was positive showing them to hold the moral high ground.  By setting a story of royal revolt and murder in in a distant time and place, Shakespeare could comment on the evil of revolt against a blameless ruler and the resulting civil wars without angering Elizabeth.  Thus I believe, Shakespeare used Julius Caesar to make a non threatening comment about the political questions of his day

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For many living writers, we have extensive records of their thoughts about their works. We have journals, interviews, even websites. We don't have those for Shakespeare. For the most part, we must deduce his intentions and reasoning from the works themselves.

If we do that, and we look at Julius Caesar as a subject matter in context, we get several reasons he might write about him. First and most simply, it's a juicy subject matter for plays. Second, and almost as simply, there was a long tradition of writing tragedies about the upper classes—think of Hamlet, who is a prince, and Lear, who is a king. There are, however, two more likely reasons. One is that Shakespeare invented very few of his plots, working instead from fairly known source works or historical stories. In this case, his source was likely to have been Plutarch's Lives. The final and most pressing reason is that there are elements of Julius Caesar's life that echo contemporary politics, and using a distant figure with the same concerns was a way to comment on current politics without cutting too close to home.


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To address this question it's necessary to look at the political background against which Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar. Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for forty-one years. Under her rule, England had reached a zenith of power, wealth, and influence. The Queen was widely hailed as Gloriana, a wise, tough-minded monarch, both loved and respected by millions.

At the same time, however, it was notable that Elizabeth had not openly named her successor. Many people at the time, including Shakespeare, thought that the Queen's silence on the succession issue was causing much instability within the realm. There was a genuine fear among many that the handover of power upon Elizabeth's death would be far from smooth; indeed, the kingdom might even experience the bloodshed and chaos of civil war. The prospect was simply too terrible to contemplate.

So Shakespeare, in writing Julius Caesar, was drawing the attention of his fellow Englishmen to the potentially dangerous consequences of the death of a great leader. Even though Brutus and some of the other conspirators genuinely believed that they were overthrowing tyranny, their actions led to the establishment of an even greater one under Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare cautions his fellow countrymen not to rock the boat, not to allow their political ambitions to get the better of them and potentially usher in an extended period of civil strife which could well lead to dictatorship.

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Why did Shakespeare call this play Julius Caesar?

Many questions have been asked in eNotes about whether the play should be considered the tragedy of Caesar or of Brutus. Shakespeare seems to be indicating--especially in the way he speaks of himself just before his death-- that it is definitely Caesar's tragedy and that his "tragic flaw" is hubris. For example:

I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world, 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one.

Hubris was the flaw that the gods traditionally punished severely, and Caesar's behavior right up until the time Casca strikes the first blow seems intended to display the hubris that is Caesar's chief character trait as well as his tragic flaw. He is a truly superior man in many respects, but he makes himself unsympathetic to the audience by his egotistical utterances. We can see that he would become a terrible tyrant--comparable to Adolf Hitler in modern times--if he had absolute political power and command of all the Roman military forces.

It is significant that just before the conspirators close in, Caesar asks one of them:

Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?

Olympus was the home of the gods. It would appear that Caesar's hubris goes beyond wishing to be a mere king: he would like to become a god and consort with Jupiter, Apollo, Minerva, Venus, and the others. When he asks, "Wilt thou lift up Olympus?" he is asking, in effect, "Wilt thou argue with a god or demigod like me?" As a matter of historical fact, Julius Caesar was made a god posthumously. His successor Octavius Caesar officially became a god and had to be worshiped as such throughout the empire. Most of the twelve Caesars also became gods. Since they had absolute political and military power, they were able to dictate to the senate and have themselves officially proclaimed gods, including the monster Caligula.

When Casca stabs Caesar saying, "Speak, hands, for me!" he is suggesting that if he were eloquent--which he knows he is not-- he would say something to the effect that the victim fully deserves to die because of his outrageous, insufferable and impious hubris. 

In Greek tragedy hubris meant excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis, or downfall. The gods especially disapproved of hubris in mortals because it was a sign of competing with or actually threatening the gods.

In Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar the Greek historian portrays Caesar as amazingly self-confident, arrogant, strong-willed, domineering, and egotistical throughout his life. In Shakespeare's play Marc Antony says that the conspirators did what they did because of "envy." This may be true enough--but they could also see, as Brutus did, that Caesar was a terrible threat to their freedom and their very lives.

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Why did Shakespeare call this play Julius Caesar?

The actual title of the play is, the Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare and the play's focus in on one of the most influential people on Rome. Shakespeare lived to tell about the reality of Caesar'a death, which included themes of love, betrayal, jealousy, fate, free will, etc.. A playwright would be a fool not to take advantage of this story. 

Additionally, the whole first half of the play involves the plotting and indecisiveness of assassinating Caesar. The second half of the play focuses on the aftermath of his tragic death. He reappears to Brutus to remind him that his legacy will live on informing him that he will see him on the battlefield at Phillipi. It is a great interpretation of Caesar's tragic death. 

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