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Julius Caesar: About the Play

 

It was about 100 years after the death of the first Roman dictator Julius Caesar that the great historian Plutarch (46–120 CE) wrote a biography. Of his examination Plutarch said, "It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue of vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die" Plutarch (Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar, Parallel Lives, [translated by E.L. Bowie]). And it was probably this source, translated from Greek to French and French to English in 1579 by Thomas North, which fell into the hands of the ‘upstart crow’ playwright William Shakespeare.

It may have been Shakespeare’s own worries about the future of his own country that prompted him to tackle Julius Caesar for his next play in 1599. After all, by that year Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne forty-one years. Though she was growing weak in body, her power, especially after the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada, had never been greater. She was very popular with her people, who even established a religious cult devoted to her. Yet all of England knew that she had continually refused to name an heir to her throne. Many feared a return to civil war after her death. To Shakespeare such a war may have been reminiscent of the strife caused by Caesar’s unexpected assassination.

History had proved that though Brutus and the other conspirators believed that Caesar’s death would save the republic from tyrannical leadership, it had the reverse affect. It was only two years after the deaths of Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and Mark Antony, that Octavian, Caesar’s grand nephew, was crowned as the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. It must have seemed likely that Elizabeth’s own removal from the throne, the end of her “Golden Age,” could have similar dictatorial backsliding consequences on a nation that was already beginning to feel the stirrings of a republican revolution that would come forty years later. (Auspiciously future Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599.)

This time of political transition also marked a shift in Shakespeare’s writing. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet are among the first of his great tragedies written from 1599 to 1608. Julius Caesar is the most cerebral of these tragedies. The audience is not particularly sympathetic to the murdered Caesar, as he is hardly alive on stage long enough to seem a fully developed character. In his few scenes he appears as a charming, affable, if somewhat big-headed military leader, with a boyish sense of invincibility. With such a brief introduction it is difficult for the audience to take the threat of his overthrow of the republic very seriously. As the author of an 1817 article stated, “We do not much admire the representation here given of Julius Caesar, nor do we think it answers to the portrait given of him in his Commentaries. He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches, and does nothing” (Hazlitt, Williams, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays [C.H. Reynell: London] 1817).

The lack of action and pensive attitude of the first half of the play perfectly set up the furious scenes of revolt and battle displayed in the second half. This opposition makes clear Shakespeare’s feelings about the dangerous impact of the deaths of powerful leaders.

And yet, Caesar’s lack of action and scant appearance in on stage action shift the audience’s focus to the dealings of Brutus and Cassius. As Brutus cries to the heavens near the end of the play, “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!” (5.4.100) As the action of the play moves forward the audience the effects of their murderous decision on themselves and also for the Rome they claim to love.

The play has been popular throughout the 400 years since its initial performance it has been performed by casts of hundreds, as wells by school children around the world. Its universal themes of loyalty, flattery, political necessity, and fate continue to strike chords in the heart’s of audiences around the world and has lent itself to production alterations like all female casts, relocating the action into updated political settings, and has also been adapted to the screen with such major film stars as Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando.

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