What Was Shakespeare's Source for "Julius Caesar"?

by John Cagney Nash

William Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" follows the exploits and eventual demise of the eponymous character, an emperor of ancient Rome. Caesar aims to become dictator, and a supporting cast both helps and hinders this ambition. Marcus Brutus is a senator who eventually becomes integral in a plot to bring down--and in fact murder--Caesar. Mark Antony is Caesar's friend; he speaks perhaps the play's most famous line, "Friends, Romans, countrymen...," at Caesar's funeral. The play was first performed between 1599 and 1601, but most likely in 1599. It's set in Rome and on the battlefield of Philippi, and categorized as a tragedy.

Julius Caesar's Saga in Wider Society

The true story of Julius Caesar and the history of ancient Rome were both well known to the educated Elizabethan English population. The better-off felt that British civilization--which was then ascending to become a world power--owed much of its structure to the Romans. A rumor of the time held that the Tower of London was actually constructed by Julius Caesar. As an educated Englishman Shakespeare would've been well versed in the emperor's story. Translating the events to the stage could be compared to present-day directors who make movies dealing with real events, often coloring them with their own unproven interpretations, in the vein of Oliver Stone's "JFK."

Provenance

William Shakespeare did not publish any of his plays; it wasn't until seven years after his death that a somewhat authorized collection was produced by actors who were both the author's contemporaries and friends. Because there were no copyright laws at the time Shakespeare was active, other people could transcribe his plays as they were performed, and it's only through their then-unscrupulous profiteering that much of his material exists today. No original manuscripts have survived, and no documents are available to incontrovertibly demonstrate how or from where he sourced his material.

Plutarch's "Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans"

Plutarch's "Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans" had been translated into English--by Thomas North--only 20 years before Shakespeare's play was first produced, and the text was extremely popular with the social circles in which the playwright moved. His text and the content of Plutarch's writings on Caesar and Brutus are so abundant with similarities that, instead of making a case that Shakespeare referenced Plutarch, it's all but impossible to prove that he didn't. The plot lines are to all intents and purposes identical, although language differs and narration sometimes becomes stage direction. In many instances Shakespeare copies Plutarch almost word for word, which in modern context would be outrageous plagiarism. As an example, in Act V, as Brutus' army prepares for war Plutarch has Cassius say, "If the battle fall out otherwise today then we wish or look for, we shall hardly meet again." In Shakespeare's script, Cassius says, "If we do lose this battle, then is this / The very last time we shall speak together."

Shakespeare's Divergence from Plutarch

Shakespeare's input was largely to translate Plutarch's research into an actable format and dialog, and to condense the timeline. He did insert material that apparently came from his own knowledge, perhaps gleaned from conversations with other members of his literary-aware society. One major difference exists: The English crown sponsored Shakespeare's livelihood, and to maintain that relationship he changed aspects of Plutarch's history to portray Caesar as principled and not entirely seduced by power. Shakespeare's Caesar does indeed wish to be dictator, but for largely noble and upright reasons; he is portrayed as a tragic figure upon whom leadership has been forced, not the power-hungry man of history.

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