Publication History: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is believed to have been written in 1599 and initially performed at the Globe Theater the same year. The text of the play was printed for the first time in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, as part of a collection of his plays published in a book titled Mr. William Shakespeares [sic] Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. The book is known as the First Folio, “folio” referring to the large sheets of paper on which the works were printed. Publishers Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard printed the collection of plays after two of Shakespeare’s friends from the King’s Men acting company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, brought them the texts.
Julius Caesar in the Context of Shakespeare’s Tragedies: The first of Shakespeare’s five plays featuring a tragic hero, Julius Caesar has never received the critical acclaim afforded to the four that followed: Hamlet (first performed in 1602), Othello (1603), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1606). Each of these subsequent dramas bears the name of the play’s tragic hero, but in respect to Julius Caesar, interpretations vary regarding whose tragedy it depicts. Is Caesar the tragic hero, or is Brutus? The play is named for Caesar, but his character is assassinated early in the third act, and the central conflicts that drive the plot through five acts are Brutus’s, not Caesar’s. Consequently, a convincing argument can be made that Brutus is the tragic protagonist of the play.
Julius Caesar as a History: Also distinguishing Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s other tragic-hero plays is that the drama presents a well-documented historical event— the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. In writing the play, Shakespeare drew extensively on Sir Thomas North’s translation of a French translation of Plutarch’s Lives. From Plutarch’s biographical and psychological studies of Caesar, Marcus Brutus, and Marcus Antonius, Shakespeare selected the historical details he would incorporate into Julius Caesar, often compressing the timeline of events for dramatic purposes. While remaining true to Plutarch’s descriptions of the historical figures, he employed dramatic license in developing them as characters in the play and in examining their relationships, motivations, and conflicts. Thus, Shakespeare dramatizes the history of Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath, creating fictional scenes and soliloquies through which the characters are revealed and the play’s universal themes emerge.