Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599. It portrays the conspiracy against the Roman dictator of the same name, his assassination and its aftermath. It is one of several Roman plays that he wrote, based on true events from Roman history, which also include Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.
Although the title of the play is Julius Caesar, Caesar is not the central character in its action; he appears in only three scenes, and is killed at the beginning of the third act. The protagonist of the play is Marcus Brutus, and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship.
The play reflected the general anxiety of England over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and first performance, Queen Elizabeth, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that of Rome might break out after her death.
Date and text
Julius Caesar was first published in the First Folio in 1623, but a performance was mentioned by Thomas Platter the Younger in his diary in September 1599. The play is not mentioned in the list of Shakespeare's plays published by Francis Meres in 1598. Based on these two points, as well as a number of contemporary allusions, and the belief that the play is similar to Hamlet in vocabulary, and to Henry V and As You Like It in metre, scholars have suggested 1599 as a probable date.
The text of Julius Caesar in the First Folio is the only authoritative text for the play. The Folio text is notable for its quality and consistency; scholars judge it to have been set into type from a theatrical prompt-book. The source used by Shakespeare was Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Brutus and Life of Caesar.
The play contains many anachronistic elements from the Elizabethan period. The characters mention objects such as hats and doublets (large, heavy jackets) - neither of which existed in ancient Rome. Caesar is mentioned to be wearing an Elizabethan doublet instead of a Roman toga. At one point a clock is heard to strike and Brutus notes it with "Count the clock".
Deviations from Plutarch
- Shakespeare makes Caesar's triumph take place on the day of Lupercalia instead of six months earlier
- For greater dramatic effect he has made the Capitol the venue of Caesar's death and not Curia Pomperiana (Theatre of Pompey).
- Caesar's murder, the funeral, Antony's oration, the reading of the will and Octavius' arrival all take place on the same day in the play. However, historically, the assassination took place on March 15 (The ides of March), the will was published three days later on March 18, the funeral took place on March 20 and Octavius arrived only in May.
- Shakespeare makes the Triumvirs meet in Rome instead of near Bolonia, so as to avoid a third locale.
- He has combined the two Battles of Phillipi although there was a twenty day interval between them.
- Shakespeare gives Caesar's last words as "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!" ("And you, Brutus? Then fall, Caesar."). Plutarch says he said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.. However, Suetonius reports his last words, spoken in Greek, as "καί σύ τέκνον" (transliterated as "Kai su, teknon?"; "You too, child?" in English)..
Shakespeare deviated from these historical facts in order to curtail time and compress the facts so that the play could be staged more easily. The tragic force is condensed into a few scenes for heightened effect.
- Julius Caesar
- Octavius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, M. Aemilius Lepidus: Triumvirs after the death of Julius Caesar
- Cicero, Publius, Popilius Lena: Senators
- Marcus Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Trebonius, Ligarius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Cinna: Conspirators against Julius Caesar
- Flavius and Marullus: Tribunes
- Artemidorus: a Sophist of Cnidos
- A Soothsayer (Also called Fortuneteller)
- Cinna: a poet, who is not related to the conspiracy
- Lucilius, Titinius, Messala, Cato the Younger, Volumnius: Friends to Brutus and Cassius
- Varro, Clitus, Claudius, Strato, Lucius, Dardanius: Servants to Brutus
- Pindarus: Servant to Cassius
- Calpurnia: wife of Caesar
- Portia: wife of Brutus
is Caesar's close friend; his ancestors were famed for driving the tyrannical King Tarquin
from Rome (described in Shakespeare's earlier The Rape of Lucrece
). Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators
because of a growing suspicion—implanted by Caius Cassius
—that Caesar intends to turn republican Rome into a monarchy
under his own rule. Traditional readings of the play maintain that Cassius and the other conspirators are motivated largely by envy
, whereas Brutus is motivated by the demands of honour
; other commentators, such as Isaac Asimov
, suggest that the text shows Brutus is no less moved by envy and flattery. One of the central strengths of the play is that it resists categorizing its characters as either simple heroes or villains.
The early scenes deal mainly with Brutus' arguments with Cassius and his struggle with his own conscience
. The growing tide of public support soon turns Brutus against Caesar (This public support was actually faked. Cassius wrote letters to Brutus in different handwritings over the next month in order to get Brutus to join the conspiracy). A soothsayer warns Caesar to "beware the Ides of March
," which he ignores, culminating in his assassination at the Capitol
by the conspirators that day.
Caesar's assassination is perhaps the most famous part of the play, about halfway through. After ignoring the soothsayer as well as his wife's own premonitions, Caesar comes to the Senate. The conspirators create a superficial motive for the assassination by means of a petition brought by Metellus Cimber, pleading on behalf of his banished brother. As Caesar, predictably, rejects the petition, Casca grazes Caesar in the back of his neck, and the others follow in stabbing him; Brutus is last. At this point, Caesar utters the famous line "Et tu, Brute?" ("And you, Brutus?", i.e. "You too, Brutus?"). Shakespeare has him add, "Then fall, Caesar," suggesting that Caesar did not want to survive such treachery. The conspirators make clear that they did this act for Rome, not for their own purposes and do not attempt to flee the scene but act victorious.
After Caesar's death, however, Mark Antony, with a subtle and eloquent speech over Caesar's corpse—the much-quoted Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...—deftly turns public opinion against the assassins by manipulating the emotions of the common people, in contrast to the rational tone of Brutus's speech. Antony rouses the mob to drive the conspirators from Rome. Amid the violence, the innocent poet, Cinna, is confused with the conspirator Cinna and is murdered by the mob.
The beginning of Act Four is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide by accepting bribes ("Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake? / What villain touch'd his body, that did stab, / And not for justice?", IV.iii,19-21). The two are reconciled; they prepare for war with Mark Antony and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian (Shakespeare's spelling: Octavius). That night, Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of defeat ("thou shalt see me at Philippi", IV.iii,283). During the battle, Cassius commits suicide after seeing the death of his best friend,Titinius. After Titinius, who wasn't really killed, sees Cassius' corpse, he commits suicide. However, Brutus wins the battle. Brutus, with a heavy heart, battles again the next day. He loses and commits suicide. The play ends with a tribute to Brutus by Antony, who has remained "the noblest Roman of them all" (V.v,68) because he was the only conspirator who acted for the good of Rome. Then it is hinted that the friction between Mark Antony and Octavius which will characterise another of Shakespeare's Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
Analysis and criticism
Critics of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar
differ greatly on their views of Caesar and Brutus. Many have debated whether Caesar or Brutus is the protagonist of the play. Intertwined in this debate is a smattering of philosophical and psychological ideologies on republicanism and monarchism. One author, Robert C. Reynolds, devotes attention to the names or epithets given to both Brutus and Caesar in his essay “Ironic Epithet in Julius Caesar”. This author points out that Casca praises Brutus at face value, but then inadvertently compares him to a disreputable joke of a man by calling him an alchemist, “Oh, he sits high in all the people’s hearts,/And that which would appear offense in us/ His countenance, like richest alchemy,/ Will change to virtue and to worthiness” (I.iii.158-60). Reynolds also talks about Caesar and his “Colossus” epithet, which he points out has its obvious connotations of power and manliness, but also lesser known connotations of an outward glorious front and inward chaos . In that essay, the conclusion as to who is the hero or protagonist is ambiguous because of the conceit-like poetic quality of the epithets for Caesar and Brutus.
Myron Taylor, in his essay “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Irony of History”, compares the logic and philosophies of Caesar and Brutus. Caesar is deemed an intuitive philosopher who is always right when he goes with his gut, for instance when he says he fears Cassius as a threat to him before he is killed, his intuition is correct. Brutus is portrayed as a man similar to Caesar, but whose passions lead him to the wrong reasoning, which he realizes in the end when he says in V.v.50-51, “Caesar, now be still:/ I kill’d not thee with half so good a will” .
Joseph W. Houppert acknowledges that some critics have tried to cast Caesar as the protagonist, but that ultimately Brutus is the driving force in the play and is therefore the tragic hero. Brutus attempts to put the republic over his personal relationship with Caesar and kills him. Brutus makes the political mistakes that bring down the republic that his ancestors created. He acts on his passions, does not gather enough evidence to make reasonable decisions and is manipulated by Cassius and the other conspirators .
The general conclusion among critics is that Brutus is in fact the protagonist of the play Julius Caesar, although some have tried to prove otherwise.
Gender studies approaches
Gender critics argue that the bonds between the men in Julius Caesar appears to exceed mere friendship, or homosociality, and cross the line into homosexuality. Some critics, such as Barbara Parker even argue that homosexual love among Roman men is an implicit theme in the play. According to this argument, Brutus and the conspirators kill Caesar for the same reasons that Brutus and Cassius argue at the end of the play: admiration has turned to desire for sexual domination. This is based on the idea that, in Shakespeare's day, in an England ruled by Protestantism, Catholic Rome was often viewed as the "Whore of Babylon". Many church leaders in Rome were rumored to have practiced sodomy, and the area was frequently alluded to in England as being full of homosexuals. Thus, where Brutus says: "But, woe the while! our fathers' minds are dead / And we a govern'd by our mothers' spirits", Gender critics see Brutus expressing a homosexual femininity. Caesar, also said to be feminine, wishes only for the company of men, and the women around him are sidelined. Men engage in more loving conversations with the men in their lives than with their own wives. Parker thus portrays the relationship between Brutus and the rest of the conspirators as more like a group marriage than simply a friendship.
Using phallic and yonic symbol theory, gender critics suggest that the funeral scene is both the climax of the action of the play as well as the sexual climax. Behind the rhetoric of Mark Antony, Parker sees a sexual rhetoric of seduction. Antony uses his funeral oration to seduce the crowd from Brutus back to Caesar. The wounds in Caesar's naked body, for Parker, represent vaginal orifices. Antony also mentions Caesar's will several times. It signifies both his actual will as well as his sexual will (chastity) that kept him from coming at the conspirators' request. In this view, the funeral represents all the stages of sex, ending with the burning of Rome representing orgasm. Antony thus re-energizes the Romans and Brutus and Cassius have to leave the city.
The play was likely one of Shakespeare's first to be performed at the Globe Theatre
. Thomas Patter, a Swiss
traveller, saw a tragedy about Julius Caesar
at a Bankside
theatre on September 21
and this was most likely Shakespeare's play, as there is no obvious alternative candidate. (While the story of Julius Caesar was dramatized repeatedly in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, none of the other plays known are as good a match with Patter's description as Shakespeare's play.)
After the theatres re-opened at the start of the Restoration era, the play was revived by Thomas Killigrew's King's Company in 1672. Charles Hart initially played Brutus, as did Thomas Betterton in later productions. Julius Caesar was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was not adapted during the Restoration period or the eighteenth century.
- 1864: Junius, Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes Booth made their only appearance onstage together in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar on November 25, 1864, at the Winter Garden Theatre. Junius, Jr. played Cassius, Edwin played Brutus and John Wilkes played Marc Antony. This landmark production raised funds to erect a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, which remains to this day.
- [May, 1916] An one-night performance in the natural bowl of Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood drew an audience of 40,000 and starred Tyrone Power, Sr. and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The student bodies of Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools played opposing armies, and the elaborate battle scenes were performed on a huge stage as well as the surrounding hillsides. The play commemorated the tercentenery of Shakespeare's death and is still talked about today. A photograph of the elaborate stage and viewing stands can be seen on the Library of Congress website.
- 1926: Another elaborate performance of the play was staged as a benefit for the Actors' Fund of America at the Hollywood Bowl. Caesar arrived for the Lupercal in a chariot drawn by four white horses. The stage was the size of a city block and dominated by a central tower eighty feet in height. The event was mainly aimed at creating work for unemployed actors. Three hundred gladiators appeared in an arena scene not featured in Shakespeare's play; a similar number of girls danced as Caesar's captives; a total of three thousand soldiers took part in the battle sequences.
- 1937: Orson Welles' famous production at the Mercury Theatre drew fervoured comment as the director dressed his protagonists in uniforms reminiscent of those common at the time in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as drawing a specific analogy between Caesar and Mussolini. Opinions vary on the artistic value of the resulting production: some see Welles' mercilessly pared-down script (the running time was around 90 minutes without an interval, several characters were eliminated, dialogue was moved around and borrowed from other plays, and the final two acts were reduced to a single scene) as a radical and innovative way of cutting away the unnecessary elements of Shakespeare's tale; others thought Welles' version was a mangled and lobotomized version of Shakespeare's tragedy which lacked the psychological depth of the original. Most agreed that the production owed more to Welles than it did to Shakespeare. However, Welles's innovations have been echoed in many subsequent modern productions, which have seen parallels between Caesar's fall and the downfalls of various governments in the twentieth century. The production was most noted for its portrayal of the slaughter of Cinna (Norman Lloyd). It is the longest-running Broadway production of this play at 157 performances. Welles's Julius Caesar opened at the Comedy Theater in the fall of 1937, and then was transferred to the National Theater on West 41st Street, later renamed the Neiderlander Theater. This famous production also toured the country in 1938.
- 1950: John Gielgud played Cassius at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre under the direction of Michael Langham and Anthony Quayle. The production was considered one of the highlights of a remarkable Stratford season, and led to Gielgud (who had done little film work to that time) playing Cassius in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 film version.
- 1977: John Gielgud made his final appearance in a Shakespearean role on stage as Julius Caesar in John Schlesinger's production at the Royal National Theatre.
- 2005: Denzel Washington played Brutus in the first Broadway production of the play in over fifty years. The production received universally terrible reviews, but was a sell-out because of Washington's popularity at the box office.
- See also Shakespeare on screen (Julius Caesar)''
Adaptations and cultural references
The Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster parodied Julius Caesar in their 1958 sketch Rinse the Blood off My Toga. Flavius Maximus, Private Roman I, is hired by Brutus to investigate the death of Caesar. The police procedural combines Shakespeare, Dragnet, and vaudeville jokes and was first broadcast on the Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1973 the BBC made a television play Heil Caesar, written by John Griffith Bowen, an adaptation of the play put into a modern setting.
In 1984 the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York City produced a modern dress Julius Caesar set in contemporary Washington, called simply CAESAR!, starring Harold Scott as Brutus, Herman Petras as Caesar, Marya Lowry as Portia, Robert Walsh as Antony, and Michael Cook as Cassius, directed by W. Stuart McDowell at The Shakespeare Center.
In 2006, Chris Taylor from the Australian comedy team The Chaser wrote a comedy musical called Dead Caesar which was shown at the Sydney Theatre Company in Sydney.
In the season 2 premiere of The Venture Bros., Powerless in the Face of Death, the Monarch is betrayed by his prison inmates in an attempted escape out of prison. When his most trusted inmate, King Gorilla, betrays him as well, he says, "Et tu King?," being an obvious parody to, "Et tu, Brute?".
Editions of Julius Caesar
- Dorsch, T. S., ed. 1955. Julius Caesar. By William Shakespeare. The Arden Shakespeare, second series. London: Methuen. ISBN 0416474004.
- Spevack, Marvin, ed. 1988. Julius Caesar. By William Shakespeare. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521222206.
- Wells, Stanley, and Gary Taylor, eds. 1988. The Complete Works. By William Shakespeare. The Oxford Shakespeare. Compact ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198711905.
- Boyce, Charles. 1990. Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare, New York, Roundtable Press.
- Chambers, Edmund Kerchever. 1923. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 volumes, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198115113.
- Halliday, F. E. 1964. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Shakespeare Library ser. Baltimore, Penguin, 1969. ISBN 0140530118.
- Houppert, Joseph W. “Fatal Logic in ‘Julius Caesar’ ”. South Atlantic Bulletin. Vol. 39, No.4. Nov. 1974. 3-9.
- Kahn, Coppelia. "Passions of some difference": Friendship and Emulation in Julius Caesear. Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays. Horst Zander, ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. 271-283.
- Parker, Barbara L. "The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeares's Julius Caesar." Studies in English Literature (Rice); Spring95, Vol. 35 Issue 2, p251, 19p.
- Reynolds, Robert C. “Ironic Epithet in Julius Caesar”. Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 24. No.3. 1973. 329-333.
- Taylor, Myron. "Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Irony of History". Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 24, No. 3. 1973. 301-308.
Wells, Stanley and Michael Dobson, eds. 2001. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Oxford University Press