Julius Caesar Play & Summary
Julius Caesar is one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies. It was written around the year 1599 and is still revered around the globe today. It portrayed the story of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar and the conspiracy led against him which eventually resulted in his assassination.
Despite the focus of the play’s name, Caesar is not the central character in the play. The story revolves around Marcus Brutus; the protagonist who was party to the conspiracy. It is also regarded as an expression of the anxiety in the English monarchy in those days which was in peril and feared a breakout of similar civil warfare after the death of Queen Elizabeth.
William Shakespeare: The English Poet and Playwright
William Shakespeare was baptized on the 26th of April, 1564 (his actual birthdate is unknown) in Warwickshire, England. He is considered by many as the greatest writer in the history of the English language which is why he remains in odes of admiration today. He is also regarded as England’s national poet and the ‘Bard of Avon’.
He married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18 and rose to be an actor, playwright and the owner of a theatrical enterprise which was later known as King’s Men. He died in 1616 at the age of fifty two. Today, four hundred years later, his legacy is no stranger to conspiracy and controversy regarding the originality of his work, his appearance, his sexuality and his beliefs.
Julius Caesar’s Setting and Script
The play was set in ancient Rome where the emperor Julius Caesar was surrounded by conspiring individuals. The play portrays feelings of honor, patriotism and friendship. It also delves deeply into human desire for power and jealousy which results in the events that unfold during the play. It shows the chinks in the armor of the Roman governance. The story is from the golden era of the Roman Empire during which it saw its peak, and its eventual downfall and nadir.
Why did Shakespeare Write the Play?
One would wonder whether the play reflected figurative inferences in literature drawn from Shakespeare’s era and whether these inferences were symbolic of the English society of the time. It is commonly argued that Shakespeare was hinting at the similarities of the fall of the Roman Empire with the situation that had put the British Crown in peril. Queen Elizabeth, an ageing English monarch who had no legal heirs and had failed to nominate a successor, was ruling the empire at the time. There was fear that her passing would bring about political strife and possibly civil war over the succession of the crown.
Shakespeare warned that this could bring about political strife similar to the one that Rome faced over a thousand years earlier which would bring about great suffering and would further fragment the already cracked and brittle bonds that held the country together. In order to raise awareness and wisdom in a politically clueless society, William Shakespeare used the power of his quill to bring the lessons of history to the English society. This is believed to be the primary motivator behind the plot and is the reason why Shakespeare wrote the play.
Which characters took the limelight and made Julius Caesar the play that it is?
- Julius Caesar: The infamous Roman emperor who was assassinated by his close aides.
- Calpurnia: Caesar’s wife.
- Octavius Caesar: Who rose to fame in the later years
- Marcus Antonius.
- Cicero and Publius: Senators in the Roman government
- Marcus Brutus: The main conspirator and close aide of Caesar who betrays his friendship
- Cassius, Casca: Other conspirators
- Portia: Marcus Brutus’ wife
- Cinna: A poet who is oblivious to the conspiracy that is being hatched against the emperor
Who does the story revolve around?
Despite the name, the play does not revolve around Julius Caesar’s life. It focuses on the aftermath of his assassination and the individual lives of the aides who conspired against him. It has been debated whether Julius Caesar or Marcus Brutus was the protagonist of this play. Some argue that the play showed the gut-originated wisdom of Caesar and the fact that the whole conspiracy revolves around his behavior.
Others argue that Marcus Brutus is the main driving force of the play and tends to have reasons for his actions. He is not shown as demonic as one would imagine. His motivations for such drastic actions are highlighted to show his perspective on the issue faced by the empire.
When were some notable performances of the play conducted?
- 1864: By Junius Edwin and John Wilkes Booth; the latter being the assassin of the American President Abraham Lincoln.
- 1916: This performance was revered by an audience of forty thousand people in Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood.
- 1926: Another performance in the Hollywood Bowl, which was mainly for helping out unemployed workers, was set on a stage the size of a city block.
- 1937: By Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre which showed the protagonists dressed in uniforms reminiscent of fascist regimes and drew a correlation between Caesar and Benito Mussolini.
- 1950: At the Shakespeare Memorial Theater by Michael Langham and Anthony Quayle.
- 1977: At the Royal National Theater.
- 1994: By Arvind Gaur in India for the Shakespeare Drama Festival.
- 2005: Featuring Denzel Washington in a Broadway production which received generally negative reviews.
Adaptations of Julius Caesar
There have been three major film adaptations of the play titled Julius Caesar in 1950, 1953 and 1960 respectively. The Canadian comedy Wayne and Shuster produced a parody of the play in 1958. It was also adapted into a BBC television play in 1973 titled Heil Caesar. It is also used in several music lyrics and movie dialogues till date.
How is a five hundred year old play about a two thousand year old story relevant in the modern world?
Although the play was written in times when monarchy was the dominant system of governance and it referred to an empire which preceded that time by fifteen hundred years as well, it reflects the human psyche when it comes to politics and individual gain. It also shows the effects of ill-founded reasoning which leads to passionate and vociferous implications. These factors are evident even in the political scenario of today’s world. Although it may be more subtle and hushed in the modern era, the human psyche has not evolved much over the ages and Julius Caesar is the literary proof.
Famous Quotations from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. (2.2.30)
Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come. (2.2.34)
He that cuts off twenty years of life cuts off so many years of fearing death. (3.1.101)
O! That a man might know the end of this day’s business, ere it come; but it sufficeth that the day will end, and then the end is known. (5.1.131)
There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. (4.3.218)