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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599. It is one of several plays written by Shakespeare based on true events from Roman history, which also include Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.
Although the title is Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar is not the most visible character in its action; he appears in only five scenes. Marcus Brutus speaks more than four times as many lines and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism and friendship.
Triumvirs after Caesar's death
Conspirators against Caesar
Loyal to Brutus and Cassius
Marcus Brutus is Caesar's close friend and a Roman praetor. Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators because of a growing suspicion—implanted 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", which he ignores, culminating in his assassination at the Capitol by the conspirators that day, despite being warned by the soothsayer and Artemidorus, 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 (the other is Mark Antony's oration "Friends, Romans, countrymen.") 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, Bruté?" ("And you, Brutus?", i.e. "You too, Brutus?"). Shakespeare has him add, "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'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, yet there is method in his rhetorical speech and gestures: he reminds them of the good Caesar had done for Rome, his sympathy with the poor, and his refusal of the crown at the Lupercal, thus questioning Brutus' claim of Caesar's ambition; he shows Caesar's bloody, lifeless body to the crowd to have them shed tears and gain sympathy for their fallen hero; and he reads Caesar's will, in which every Roman citizen would receive 75 drachmas. Antony, even as he states his intentions against it, 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 is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide by accepting bribes ("Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake? / What villain touch'd his body, that did stab, / And not for justice?") The two are reconciled, especially after Brutus reveals that his beloved wife Portia had committed suicide under the stress of his absence from Rome; they prepare for war with Mark Antony and Caesar's adopted son, Octavius. That night, Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of defeat ("thou shalt see me at Philippi").
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, 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. 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 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 for the good of Rome. There is then a small hint at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavius which will characterise another of Shakespeare's Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare deviated from these historical facts to curtail time and compress the facts so that the play could be staged more easily. The tragic force is condensed into a few scenes for heightened effect.
Julius Caesar was originally published in the First Folio of 1623, but a performance was mentioned by Thomas Platter the Younger in his diary in September 1599. The play is not mentioned in the list of Shakespeare's plays published by Francis Meres in 1598. Based on these two points, as well as a number of contemporary allusions, and the belief that the play is similar to Hamlet in vocabulary, and to Henry V and As You Like It in metre, scholars have suggested 1599 as a probable date.
The text of Julius Caesar in the First Folio is the only authoritative text for the play. The Folio text is notable for its quality and consistency; scholars judge it to have been set into type from a theatrical prompt-book. The source used by Shakespeare was Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Brutus and Life of Caesar
The play contains many anachronistic elements from the Elizabethan era. The characters mention objects 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. At one point a clock is heard to strike and Brutus notes it with "Count the clock".
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Maria Wyke has written that the play reflects the general anxiety of Elizabethan England over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and first 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.
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 Three, Scene One. But Caesar compares himself to the Northern Star, and perhaps it would be foolish not to consider him as the axial character of the play, around whom the entire story turns. Intertwined in this debate is a smattering of philosophical and psychological ideologies on republicanism and monarchism. One author, Robert C. Reynolds, devotes attention to the names or epithets given to both Brutus and Caesar in his essay "Ironic Epithet in Julius Caesar". This author points out that Casca praises Brutus at face value, but then inadvertently compares him to a disreputable joke of a man by calling him an alchemist, "Oh, he sits high in all the people's hearts,/And that which would appear offence in us/ His countenance, like richest alchemy,/ Will change to virtue and to worthiness" (I.iii.158-60). Reynolds also talks about Caesar and his "Colossus" epithet, which he points out has its obvious connotations of power and manliness, but also lesser known connotations of an outward glorious front and inward chaos. In that essay, the conclusion as to who is the hero or protagonist is ambiguous because of the conceit-like poetic quality of the epithets for Caesar and Brutus.
Myron Taylor, in his essay "Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Irony of History", compares the logic and philosophies of Caesar and Brutus. Caesar is deemed an intuitive philosopher who is always right when he goes with his instinct, for instance when he says he fears Cassius as a threat to him before he is killed, his intuition is correct. Brutus is portrayed as a man similar to Caesar, but whose passions lead him to the wrong reasoning, which he realises in the end when he says in V.v.50–51, "Caesar, now be still:/ I kill'd not thee with half so good a will". This interpretation is flawed by the fact it relies on a very odd reading of "good a will" to mean "incorrect judgements" rather than the more intuitive "good intentions."
Joseph W. Houppert acknowledges 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 republic over his personal relationship with Caesar and kills him. Brutus makes the political mistakes that bring down the republic that his ancestors created. He acts on his passions, does not gather enough evidence to make reasonable decisions and is manipulated by Cassius and the other conspirators.
Traditional readings of the play may maintain that Cassius and the other conspirators are motivated largely by envy and ambition, whereas Brutus is motivated by the demands of honour and patriotism. But one of the central strengths of the play is that it resists categorising its characters as either simple heroes or villains. The political journalist and classicist Garry Wills maintains that "This play is distinctive because it has no villains".
It is a drama famous for the difficulty of deciding which role to emphasise. The characters rotate around each other like the plates of a Calder mobile. Touch one and it affects the position of all the others. Raise one, another sinks. But they keep coming back into a precarious balance.
Wills' contemporary interpretation leans more toward recognition of the conscious, sub-conscious nature of human actions and interactions. In this, the role of Cassius becomes paramount.
The play was likely one of Shakespeare's first to be performed at the Globe Theatre. Thomas Platter the Younger, a Swiss traveller, saw a tragedy about Julius Caesar at a Bankside theatre on 21 September 1599 and this was most likely Shakespeare's play, as there is no obvious alternative candidate. (While the story of Julius Caesar was dramatised repeatedly in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, none of the other plays known are as good a match with Platter's description as Shakespeare's play.)
After the theatres re-opened at the start of the Restoration era, the play was revived by Thomas Killigrew's King's Company in 1672. Charles Hart initially played Brutus, as did Thomas Betterton in later productions. Julius Caesar was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was not adapted during the Restoration period or the eighteenth century.
One of the earliest cultural references to the play came in Shakespeare's own Hamlet. Prince Hamlet asks Polonius about his career as a thespian at university, Polonius replies "I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i' th' Capitol. Brutus killed me." This is a likely meta-reference, as Richard Burbage is generally accepted to have played leading men Brutus and Hamlet, and the older John Heminges to have played Caesar and Polonius.
In 1851 the German composer Robert Schumann wrote a concert overture Julius Caesar, inspired by Shakespeare's play. Other musical settings include those by Giovanni Bononcini, Hans von Bülow, Felix Draeseke, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, John Ireland, John Foulds, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Manfred Gurlitt, Darius Milhaud and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
The Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster parodied Julius Caesar in their 1958 sketch Rinse the Blood off My Toga. Flavius Maximus, Private Roman Eye, is hired by Brutus to investigate the death of Caesar. The police procedural combines Shakespeare, Dragnet, and vaudeville jokes and was first broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The 1960 film An Honourable Murder is a modern reworking of the play.
In 1973 the BBC made a television play Heil Caesar, written by John Griffith Bowen. This was an adaptation of the play put into a modern setting in an unnamed country, with references to recent events in a few countries. It was intended as an introduction to Shakespeare's play for schoolchildren, but it proved good enough to be shown on adult television, and a stage version was later produced.
In 1984 the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York City produced a modern dress Julius Caesar set in contemporary Washington, called simply CAESAR!, starring Harold Scott as Brutus, Herman Petras as Caesar, Marya Lowry as Portia, Robert Walsh as Antony, and Michael Cook as Cassius, directed by W. Stuart McDowell at The Shakespeare Center.
The line "The Evil That Men Do", from the speech made by Mark Antony following Caesar's death ("The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.") has had many references in media, including the titles of ...
Shakespeare's use of this line may have been influenced by the Greek playwright Euripides (c. 480-406 BC), who wrote, "When good men die their goodness does not perish, but lives though they are gone. As for the bad, all that was theirs dies and is buried with them."
The 2009 movie Me and Orson Welles, based on a book of the same name by Robert Kaplow, is a fictional story centred around Orson Welles' famous 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. British actor Christian McKay is cast as Welles, and costars with Zac Efron and Claire Danes.
In the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451, some of the character Beatty's last words are "There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!"
The play's line "the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves", spoken by Cassius in Act I, scene 2, has entered popular culture. The line gave its name to the J.M. Barrie play Dear Brutus, and also gave its name to the bestselling young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and its film adaptation. The same line was quoted in Edward R. Murrow's epilogue of his famous 1954 See It Now documentary broadcast concerning Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. This speech and the line were recreated in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. It was also quoted by George Clooney's character in the Coen brothers film Intolerable Cruelty.
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