#14. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Part 1: Julius Caesar
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, also known simply as Julius Caesar, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. It was originally published in the First Folio of 1623 complete with act but not scene divisions. It is believed to have been written in 1599, as it was mentioned by Thomas Platter the Younger in his diary in September of 1599, but was not mentioned in a list of Shakespeare’s plays published by Francis Meres in 1598. It is thought to be one of the first plays to be performed at the new Globe Theatre, the construction of which began in January of that year.
Julius Caesarportrays the 44 BC conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination and the defeat of the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi. It is one of several Roman plays that Shakespeare wrote, based on true events from Roman history, which also include Coriolanusand Antony and Cleopatra. Although the title is Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar is not the most visible character in its action; he appears in only three scenes, and is killed at the beginning of the third act. Marcus Brutus speaks more than four times as many lines, and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honor, patriotism, and friendship.
Marcus Brutus is Caesar’s close friend and a Roman praetor. A praetor is a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army (in the field or, less often, before the army had been mustered); or an elected magistratus (magistrate), assigned various duties (which varied at different periods in Rome’s history). Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators because of a growing suspicion carefully planted by Caius Cassius that Caesar intends to turn republican Rome into a monarchy under his own rule.
The early scenes deal mainly with Brutus’s 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” (March 15th), (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 18), which he ignores, culminating in his assassination at the Capitol by the conspirators that day, despite being warned by the soothsayer and Artemidrous, one of Caesar’s supporters at the entrance of the Capitol.
Caesar’s assassination is one of the most famous scenes of the play, occurring in Act 3, Scene 1 (the other is Brutus’s oration “Friends, Romans, countrymen.”) (Act 3, Scene 2, starting line 12). 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?) (Act 3, Scene 1, line 77). Shakespeare has him add in the same line, “Then fall, Caesar“, suggesting that Caesar did not want to survive such treachery, therefore becoming a hero.
The conspirators make clear that they committed this act for Rome, not for their own purposes and do not attempt to flee the scene. After Caesar’s death, Brutus delivers an oration defending his actions, and for the moment, the crowd is on his side. However, Mark Antony, with a subtle and eloquent speech over Caesar’s corpse—beginning with 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 Lucius Cinna and is murdered by the mob.
The beginning of Act Four Scene 3 is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide (the deliberate killing of a monarch) by accepting bribes (“Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake? / What villain touch’d his body, that did stab, / And not for justice?“) (Lines 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 (“…shalt see me at Philippi”) (Act 4, Scene 3, Line 283).
At the battle, Cassius and Brutus knowing they will probably both die, smile their last smiles to each other and hold hands. During the battle (Act 5 Scene 3), Cassius commits suicide after hearing a falsity of the capture of his best friend, Titinius. After Titinius, who wasn’t really captured, sees Cassius’s corpse, he commits suicide. However, Brutus wins that stage of the battle – but his victory is not conclusive. With a heavy heart, Brutus battles again the next day. He loses and commits suicide.
The play ends with a tribute to Brutus by Antony, who proclaims that Brutus has remained “the noblest Roman of them all” (Act 5, Scene 5, Line 68) because he was the only conspirator who acted for the good of Rome. There is then a small hint at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavius which will characterize another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
It is thought that the source for this play was the translation of Plutarch’s Life of Brutusand Life of Caesar that was translated by Sir Thomas North into English in 1579, with the text being reprinted in 1595. It’s important to note that Shakespeare did not hold to historical accuracies. On the other hand, Plutarch was more of a better moral philosopher than a historian, and one could say that his words are not historically accurate either. Here are the notable differences:
• Caesar’s triumph over political rival Gnaeus Pompey, does not take place on the day of Lupercalia (Feb 15th). On October 2nd, 48 BCE, he was presented the head of Pompey when he landed in Alexandria. When he arrived back in Rome in October, 45 BCE, the celebration by Caesar took place. Caesar was named dictator perpetuus. On February 15, 44 BCE, at the feast of Lupercalia, Caesar wore his purple garb for the first time in public. At the public festival, Antony offered him a diadem (symbol of the Hellenistic monarchs), but Caesar refused it, saying Jupiter alone is king of the Romans (possibly because he saw the people did not want him to accept the diadem, or possibly because he wanted to end once and for all the speculation that he was trying to become a king). Caesar was preparing to lead a military campaign against the Parthians, who had treacherously killed Crassus and taken the legionary eagles; he was due to leave on March 18. Although Caesar was apparently warned of some personal danger, he nevertheless refused a bodyguard.
• Caesar historically dies at the Theatrum Pompeium (Theatre of Pompey) instead of the capitol. It is thought that it was not only for greater dramatics that he was killed at the capitol, but also it was one less location to create a scenery for.
• Historically, the assassination takes place on the Ides of March, Caesar’s will was published on March 18th, the funeral was on March 20th, and Octavius arrived May, not on the same day, as Shakespeare had.
• There was actually a 20-day interval between the two Battles of Philippi, not on the same day.
• While Shakespeare has Caesar speak his famous last words, Plutarch recorded that he said nothing, but rather pulled his toga over his head and uttered nothing. We must remember Plutarch’s guidance, however. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (also known as Suetonius), a Roman historian, states Caesar’s last words in Greek, as “καί σύ τέκνον” (“Kai su, teknon?“; “Even you too, child?“) directed at Brutus. The Latin words Et tu, Brute?, however, were not devised by Shakespeare for this play, since they are attributed to Caesar in earlier Elizabethan works and had become conventional by 1599.
One notable performance that must be mentioned is the performance acted in 1864 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. Edwin Thomas Booth, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. and John Wilkes Booth made their only appearance onstage together in a benefit performance on November 25th, 1864. Edwin played Brutus, Junius Jr. played Cassius and John Wilkes played Mark Antony. This landmark production raised funds to erect a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. That statue remains there yet today.
There is controversy about whether or not Shakespeare wrote any of his successful pieces, and that if a more political patron of the theatre wrote his pieces for him. It has been stated that the play reflects the time period in England, when Queen Elizabeth had not successor and refused to name one, leaving thoughts and worries over a civil war similar that which broke out in Rome, should she die without a successor. There are other possible correlations between Queen Elizabeth I and Julius Caesar, which expand to women attempting to prove themselves as good as men, and the age and illness that affected both. There were also rebellion parties facing both of these political figures.