One of Shakespeare’s early Roman Plays, Julius Caesar was partly derived from an anonymous play: “The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey, or Caesar’s Revenge” (c. 1595). The precision and quality of the text suggests a theatre promptbook for its original source. The Folio version omits the last four words in the phrase “Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause”. Although Caesar’s triumph took place in October 44BC, Shakespeare aligns it to the Roman Lupercalia which took place in February, allowing for dramatic reference to the inauspicious Ides of March. Similarly, Brutus and Cassius withdrew from Rome more than a year after the assassination and not immediately as is depicted in the play. These changes or historical discrepancies might have been distorted purely for dramatic effect.
As in Anthony & Cleopatra here the Glory of Rome with all its pomp and then its eventual demise is magically transported to the London Theatre. This was a watershed moment for the sixteen players, the theatre and the self-made literary genius and it required a gargantuan statement veiled in prosaic mist to define it in popular history. Presumably, certain parallels or topical allusions could have been drawn to suggest that the succeeding monarch, James was himself extremely afraid of dying by assassination. Like Caesar, he was also convinced of his “divine right” or invincible role in the affairs of the realm regardless of the wishes of the populace or state. The dying monarch, Elizabeth herself had faced this fear of sudden attack from an unknown quarter for a large portion of her reign. The threat came largely from Rome but was supported in other dominions such as the north and east of England in the advent of Reformation and counter-reformation. Would that fear as a poisoned cup now be passed onto James Ist and was this play a portent of the political future? In the light of the Gunpowder Plot to come in 1605 it is not impossible to surmise from events that the writing was already on the wall. On the death of Caesar, Cassius proclaims:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
So could an ailing republic regress into an autocratic rulership and would assassination be the only virtuous and expedient solution? Holding this type of “Roman Mirror” to an Elizabethan audience would have been perceived as a clue to whoever harboured such thoughts and ideas to search one’s own conscience than as a definitive answer to the archetypal question. Clearly, in purely analytical terms we are also faced with the paradoxical dilemma of determining whether Brutus was the heroic defender of human liberty or a cowardly and conspiratorial villain exercising ruthless expediency. In contrast to that of Caesar, his character and role is developed and drawn out as an example of someone prepared to sacrifice self-interest and preserve his loyalty to family and friends. In contrast Cassius responds to the demands of the moment and Antonius is largely self-serving. But in his Divine Comedy Dante places both Brutus and Cassius into the depths of the infernal realms. Petrarch’s Trionfi (Di Viris Illustribus) condemns Brutus and Cassius as traitors, conversely Chaucer in the Monk’s Tale deplored his assassination, Lydgate did likewise in his “Fall of Princes” (1431-9) and “The Serpent of Division” (1422), in “The Governor” (1531) Thomas Elyot suggests Caesar is a great ruler and general, while in John Stow’s Chronicle (1580) Caesar is an ambitious traitor to the republic justifying Brutus and Cassius. It would seem therefore that the perplexity we endure over who or what is wrong and right is part of the deliberate dramatic structure of this play and could never be resolved or fully understood unless we resolve it within ourselves. Ultimately, that is according to Medieval philosophy, a King or Queen is born and divinely chosen to their role and destiny but an Emperor is made of the moment and the people. In act 1, scene iii, the Emperor Julius Caesar describes his role as follows:
I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
Nevertheless, it seems that the people can be as capricious as their rulers and their representatives not entirely clear in anticipating their reactions or those of their protagonists. In act I scene 2 Cassius attempts to explain this fundamental discrepancy with a reference to astrological prognostication:
The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
This, it seems is how history is made. Whether or not controversial theatrical performances can alter moral decisions that lead to criminal or adverse political action is another matter. It is difficult to define Julius Caesar as a history play, not many people in Shakespeare’s time had a true understanding or perspective of how the Romans lived or how they behaved let alone how they were ruled. For Shakespeare the Romans as well as the Greeks had a special appeal and a convenient tag or standard which would have been especially attractive to Elizabethans. This retrospective use of historical melodrama as a dramatic device is still being employed by film-makers and playwrights today, in that the historical truth is either ignored or distorted to provide the audience with a sensual and visceral experience along with the right ambience. The fact that clocks are heard to strike or that assassins stroll out of Rome a year later after the Emperor’s betrayal are in the final analysis unimportant. Shakespeare, for whatever reason, drags 1st century Rome into 16th century London in great literary style which is quite an achievement on its own.
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows: