Julius Caesar (or How William Shakespeare Hit a Grand Slam)

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Last week we took a glimpse into the theatrical life of Julius Caesar as we listened to Mark Antony give his famous oration about the slain ruler of Ancient Rome. After the Assassination of Julius Caesar, we hear Antony exclaim Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!

Today we are going to delve deeper and take a look at what is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar!

The first page of Julius Caesar, printed in the Second Folio of 1632.

Written by William Shakespeare, this aptly named tragedy was believed to have been written in 1599. It is one of several plays written by Shakespeare based on true events from the History of Rome, which also include Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.

Although the title is Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus (Brutus) speaks more than 4 times as many lines as the title character. Also, the central psychological drama of the play focuses on Brutus’ struggle between the conflicting demands of honor, patriotism, and friendship.

Title page of the First Folio, 1623. Copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.

Julius Caesar was originally published in the First Folio of 1623, but a performance was mentioned as early as September 1599. However, the play was not mentioned in the list of Shakespeare’s plays published by Francis Meres in 1598.

The text of Julius Caesar in the First Folio is the only authoritative text for the play. The Folio text was notable for its quality and consistency.

The play contains many anachronistic elements from the Elizabethan era, 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, and a clock is heard to strike and Brutus notes it with “Count the clock”.

The Triumphs of Caesar created by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (1484 – 1492).

The play opens with the people of Rome celebrating Caesar’s Triumphus (Roman Triumph) defeating Pompey‘s sons at the Battle of Munda. Two Tribuni (Tribunes), Lucius Caesetius Flavus (Flavius) and Gaius Epidius Marullus (Marrullus), discover the commoners celebrating, insult them for their change in loyalty from Pompey to Caesar, and break up the crowd.

There are some jokes made by the commoners, who insult them back. The Tribunes also plan on removing all decorations from Caesar’s statues and ending any other festivities.

Beware the Ides of March!

In the next scene, during Caesar’s parade on the feast of Lupercalia, a soothsayer warns Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” Caesar disregards the warning, and the action then turns to the discussion between Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (Cassius).

Cassius has a conspiracy to kill Caesar in the works and desperately wants Brutus to be part of it. In this conversation, Cassius attempts to influence Brutus’s opinions into believing Caesar should be killed.

Caesar rejecting the laurel crown

Brutus and Cassius then hear from Servilius Casca (Casca) that Mark Antony has offered Caesar the crown of Rome 3 times and that each time Caesar refused it, fainting after the last refusal. Later, in Act 2, Brutus eventually joins the conspiracy.

It was after much moral debate that Brutus decided that Caesar, although his friend and never having done anything against the people of Rome, should be killed to prevent him from doing anything against the people of Rome if he were to become Rex Romae (King of Rome). He compares Caesar to a snake that has yet to be hatched, and by killing it now would thusly save the world from the ill deeds the snake is capable of doing.

Caesar’s assassination is one of the most famous scenes of the play, occurring in Act 3, Scene 1. After ignoring the soothsayer, as well as Calpurnia’s (Caesar’s wife) own premonitions, Caesar comes to the Senatus Romanus (Roman Senate). The conspirators create a superficial motive for coming close enough to assassinate Caesar by means of a petition brought by Lucius Tillius Cimber (Metellus Cimber), pleading on behalf of his banished brother.

Caesar predictably rejects the petition, and this is the signal to kill Caesar. Casca grazes Caesar in the back of his neck, and the others follow in stabbing him in the chest, back, arms, hands, and abdomen.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Brutus is last to stab Caesar, and it is at this point Shakespeare has Caesar utter the famous line Et tu, Brute? (And you, Brutus?). Shakespeare has Brutus reply “Then fall, Caesar!” suggesting that such treachery destroyed Caesar’s will to live.

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 is killed, Brutus delivers an oration defending his actions, and for the moment, the crowd is on his side.

Antony’s oration of Caesar

It is now that Mark Antony makes a subtle and eloquent speech over Caesar’s corpse, beginning with the much-quoted “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” In this way, Antony deftly turns public opinion against the assassins by manipulating the emotions of the Plebeians, in contrast to the rational tone of Brutus’s speech, yet there is method in his rhetorical speech and gestures.

Antony reminds the people of the good Caesar had done for Rome, his sympathy with the poor, and his refusal of the crown at the Lupercalia, thus questioning Brutus’s claim of Caesar’s ambition. Then Antony shows Caesar’s bloody, lifeless body to the crowd to have them shed tears and gain sympathy for their fallen hero.

The People of Rome riot upon hearing Caesar’s will.

Continuing, Antony reads Caesar’s will, in which every Roman citizen would receive 75 drachmas. Even as he states his intentions against it, Antony rouses the mob to drive the conspirators from Rome.

Amid the violence Cinna, an innocent poet, is confused with the conspirator Lucius Cinna and is taken by the mob. The poet is subsequently torn to pieces for such “offenses” as his bad verses that were supposedly committed against Caesar.

The beginning of Act 4 is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for supposedly soiling the noble act of regicide by having accepted bribes. The pair then reconcile, especially after Brutus reveals that his beloved wife Porcia Catonis (Portia) had committed suicide under the stress of his absence from Rome.

The ghost of Caesar taunts Brutus about his imminent defeat. Copperplate engraving by Edward Scriven from a painting by Richard Westall (London, 1802).

The conspirators now prepare for a war against Mark Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius Caesar. That night, Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of impending defeat at Philippi.

At the Battle of Philippi, Cassius and Brutus, knowing that they will probably both die, smile their last smiles to each other and hold hands. During the battle, Cassius has his servant Pindarus kill him after hearing of the capture of his best friend, Titinius.

After Titinius, who was not really captured, sees Cassius’s corpse, he commits suicide. Brutus wins that stage of the battle, but his victory is not conclusive however.

Brutus takes his own life

With a heavy heart, Brutus battles again the next day. He loses and commits suicide by running on his own sword, which is held by a soldier named Strato.

The play ends with a tribute to Brutus by Antony, who proclaims that Brutus has remained “the noblest Roman of them all” because he was the only conspirator who acted, in his mind, for the good of Rome. There is then a small hint at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavius which characterizes another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.

Caesar and Brutus

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, because of the title character’s death in Act 3, Scene 1.

The logic and philosophies of Caesar and Brutus have even been compared, for Caesar is deemed an intuitive philosopher who is always right when he goes with his instinct. Brutus is portrayed as a man similar to Caesar, but whose passions lead him to the wrong reasoning, which he realizes in the end.

It has been acknowledged 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 Res Publica Romana (Roman Republic) over his personal relationship with Caesar and kills him.

Did Brutus truly help kill Caesar due to his love of Rome?

He acts on his passions, does not gather enough evidence to make reasonable decisions, and is manipulated by Cassius and the other conspirators. Instead of saving the Republic, Brutus makes the political mistakes that ultimately bring down the Republic that his ancestors created.

Caesar compares himself to the Northern Star, and perhaps it would be foolish not to consider him as the character around whom the entire story turns. Intertwined in this debate is a smattering of philosophical and psychological ideologies on republicanism and monarchism.

The Northern Star himself, Gaius Julius Caesar.

It has also been written that the play reflects the general anxiety of Elizabethan England over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and initial 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.

We hope you have enjoyed today’s journey. With so many variations of Julius Caesar that are available, there really is no losing in this game.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Evans, G. Blakemore. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1974.

Shakespeare, William. Arthur Humphreys, ed. Julius SYSR. Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-283606-4.

Taylor, Myron. “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Irony of History”. Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 3, 1973.

Wells, Stanley and Dobson, Michael eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wills, Garry. Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Yale University Press, 2011.

No Fear Shakespeare – Includes the play line by line with interpretation.

Julius Caesar – The British Library

Julius Caesar – from Project Gutenberg

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