Introduction: Julius Caesar

December 13, 2009 in Introduction

First performed in 1599, Julius Caesar is remarkable for being one of the best preserved of Shakespeare’s plays, not to mention one of only a very handful on which we have contemporary comment: Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor from Basle, went to see an early performance and found it to be “very pleasingly performed” and to include an “admirably” danced jig at its conclusion. That jig would have come as a stark contrast to the events of a play that concludes with the suicides of Cassius and Brutus and pivots on the moment where the conspirators strike down Caesar in the name of “Liberty!” and “Freedom!”. These events and others are taken from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, principally those of Caesar and Brutus, although critics have also identified thematic elements originating in those of Alexander and Dion.

The Rome of Shakespeare is far more multi-faceted than that of Plutarch, particularly in the way each character seems aware of Elizabethan interpretations of their actions. Brutus’ description of Caesar as a “tyrant” echoes, for example, a verdict delivered in Elyot’s Book of the Governour”. Such theatrical and cultural self-consciousness comes to a peak in *Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, but is already present here in an obsession with representation and interpretation that spans the length of the play. The word “like”, picked up from North and found in such phrases as “like himself”, highlights the sceptical difficulty of knowing another human, whilst the deciphering of Caesar’s dream proves to be a crucial moment of the plot.

Since the performance seen by Platter, the play has enjoyed a great deal of popularity, and is still frequently performed today, often with a political message. Certain lines, “Et tu Brute”, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears”, and “The evil that men do” have entered modern popular culture, the last featuring in both an Iron Maiden song and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel.

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