Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Julius Caesar
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Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

by Simon Usher

           'How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!'

Cassius III.1.112-114


Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor on holiday in England from September 18 to October 20, 1599, includes this record in an account of his travels:

'On the 21st September, after lunch, around two o'clock, I went with my companions over the water, and in the strewed roof house saw the tragedy of the first emperor Julius Caesar with nearly fifteen characters very well acted; at the end of the comedy, in conformity with their custom, they danced with all possible grace, two dressed in men's clothes and two in women's, marvelously with one another.'

The 'strewed roof house' was almost certainly the recently opened Globe theatre on Bankside and the play Julius Caesar, in its first run at any Elizabethan playhouse. The play remained in the repertory of Shakespeare's Company long after 1599, and was performed several times at Court almost forty years later. It has been popular on stage ever since.


The play's strong narrative is derived from Shakespeare's chief source, Sir Thomas North's translation of Amyott's 16th century French version of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Plutarch's Lives had been used by playwrights before Shakespeare, usually in Latin editions and remained popular long after Shakespeare in translations by Dryden and A H Clough. They were admired more for their insight into character than their historical veracity, and North's translation, though not from the original Greek, preserves much of the energy of Plutarch's characterisation. Shakespeare makes particular use of the Lives of Antony, Caesar and Brutus (Editions in 1579 and 1595), selecting key passages and incidents to construct his play. These he edits with ingenious skill, but extreme faithfulness, into bold dramatic montage, sometimes transferring vivid images from North's text into his play verbatim.


As there is no Quarto of the play, the First Folio of 1623, including The Tragedie of Julius Caesar, is our only source for the text. Without a Quarto it is difficult to see how the play has been composited. Use of a manuscript in Shakespeare's hand is unlikely, as there are no examples of characteristic Shakespearian spellings in the First Folio text. But it is generally accepted that the First Folio version was printed from an original theatre text, either the official prompt book, itself a scribal 'fair copy', or from a transcript of it. There is certainly convincing evidence of this in the play as it stands. Stage directions are frequent and often technical, a large number of off-stage noises are indicated and speech-prefixes are consistently clear. There are several passages which it is likely Shakespeare intended to cancel or revise. When Messala announces Portia's death Brutus seems not to know, but he has told Cassius himself only fifty lines earlier. But it is thought to be the best printed play in the First Folio.

The Play

'Th 'abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power; ...,

Brutus II.1.18-19

The second of Shakespeare's Roman plays (the first was Titus Andronicus, 1593-4), Julius Caesar is one of the shortest plays in the canon. Of the major tragedies only Macbeth is shorter. The events of three years are focussed on five separate days, and each day is effectively broken up by fast-moving scenes of the kind later refined in Antony and Cleopatra.

'Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away'

Hamlet (Act V.1.235-236)

As a political drama, Julius Caesar moves beyond the more parochial concerns of the English History plays, and marks an extension of Shakespeare's range and self-consciousness as a dramatist. The play introduces themes of authority and identity which are taken up again in Hamlet, written the year after in 1600-01, and the later Roman plays, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. The two incidental allusions to Julius Caesar in Hamlet suggest that Shakespeare was still pondering on the material of his last play.

But it is primarily through the accessibility of the versification that Shakespeare converts a detailed history into a compelling story full of complex reverberations and political reflection.

Rome (45-42 B.C.)

'Brutus rose against Caesar this is my answer: Not
that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves,
than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men ?'

Brutus III.2.21-24

The play's provenance in Roman History is important, Shakespeare is dramatising the end of the Roman Republic. The conspiracy against Caesar (44 B.C.) represented the last stand for the Republican cause. For although Caesar refused the crown offered him by Antony three times, the Republican idealists' traditional fear of kings made even the possibility of a restoration intolerable to Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators. This was a real danger after the Pompeian Wars, as Rome was prepared to give Caesar considerable latitude on the grounds that the aristocratic oligarchy would not be sufficient to prevent further strife:

'The Romans, inclining to Caesar's prosperity, and taking a bit in the mouth, supposing that, to be ruled by one man alone, it would be a good means for them to take breath a little, after so many troubles and miseries as they had abidden in the civil wars: they chose him perpetual dictator. This was a plain tyranny: for to this absolute power of dictator, they added this, never to be afraid to be deposed.

(Plutarch's Life of Caesar)

To committed Republicans this arrogation of power justified tyrannicide. It was a matter of honour to put the well being of Rome before trust in Caesar, But Caesar's death led to further civil war, the establishment of the Triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus and Octavius, and eventually to the rule of Augustus and the loss of the Republican ideal forever. This is an irony implied in the elegiac register of much of Shakespeare's play, particularly in Act IV.

England (1599 AD.)

'Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we could then come by Caesar's spirit.'

Brutus II.1.166-169

The issues of kingship, dissent and tyrannicide raised in Julius Caesar would have given an Elizabethan audience much to think about. Elizabeth, childless, was in the last years of her reign. 1599 was incidentally the year Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene and propagandist of the Elizabethan Empire, died, and Cromwell was born.

Despite its historical distance and the legendary reputation of Caesar in Renaissance Europe, the play is deeply touched by an Elizabethan sensibility. The political dealings have the flavour of sixteenth century England And although it is in no sense a partisan play, it would have penetrated to a contemporary audience's fear of regicide and political upheaval. A strong monarch could provide peace and prestige, whereas the reversal of the old order would involve a protracted and bloody struggle. The Wars of the Roses had struck an irreversible blow to the aristocracy, while Cromwell's revolution was the beginning of a class struggle. With the Elizabethan order drawing to an end, the individual's place in the world was under threat, and would soon become vertiginous and dark. The sacrificial killing of Caesar and the symbolic beheading of Charles I had a purpose in common. And both have been treated ambiguously in literature.

'This was that memorable hour
Which first assured the forced power.
So when they did design
The Capitol's first line,
A bleeding head where they begun
Did fright the architects to run.

(Horatian Ode: Marvell)


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