How does Shakespeare use Plutarch as his source to discuss the nature of political power, both in his own age and in general, in Julius Caesar?

This year I have introduced a Shakespeare essay prize for my Lower 6th. The idea is that any topic is open to the students and that they are exploring well beyond their current studies as laid down by the syllabus. I will post the winner and two runners up.

This is the winning entry by Asher Weisz. Asher is in my Lower 6th English set and has aspirations to read Classics on leaving school. Please take a moment to read his submission, and remember: thisis the work of a 17 year old, in his spare time.

In 1599, Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar burst forth upon a troubled London. The streets echoed with talk of revolution, censors burned books, rising stars at court awaited the queen’s death. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare turned to Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. There, he found narratives which formed the basis for not just a tragedy, but also a five-act debate on the nature of political power. Whilst others, like the Earl of Essex’s personal secretary Henry Cuffe[1], dabbled in the new craze for Tacitus, Shakespeare’s focus not on the imperial era itself but on the fall of the Republic, and the way in which he modified his source material to fit his aims, created a play which dealt with power in a way which was both nuanced and daring: Shakespeare presents to his audience two violently different world views on a collision course, and attacks the one- the tendency to monarchy, or even to tyranny- without letting its alternative- republican revolution- go without criticism. Shakespeare takes the relevant Lives of Plutarch and uses them to demonstrate an ongoing paradox regarding power: monarchy robs men of their liberty, but the quest to recover that liberty can imperil it further. From this central dilemma comes a wider discussion. We are given rival arguments for the overthrow of Caesar which go to the heart of response to monarchy in the 16th Century and universally: Cassius is disgusted at Caesar, the autocrat, but Brutus is persuaded to act by autocracy itself. In the difference between their views, derived from Plutarch’s accounts, Shakespeare discusses the personal aspect of monarchical power, at the forefront of his audience’s mind as the succession issue loomed, and its relation to opposition to monarchy. Shakespeare also masterfully picks up on the detail of Plutarch’s Lives by choosing the Lupercalia as the point at which his play begins, so initiating an exploration of the link between power and ceremony which runs through the play, both in the character of Caesar and in those who wrangle for control after him. Shakespeare also pays close attention to the link between mob rule and popular power, whether monarchic or republican: he shows that the order and peace of Caesar’s dictatorship is the product of manipulation of popular sentiment, but the same popular sentiment, in a power vacuum, is capable of incredible destruction under the influence of Antony. In all respects, Shakespeare gains not just from Plutarch his plot: study, but a contemplative history of a power struggle on which to build a play chiefly dealing with power.

A principal way in which Plutarch’s Lives are used in the play to explore political power is how Shakespeare uses his source material to explore the position of the monarch as an individual. Plutarch’s explanations of Cassius’ and Brutus’ motives for Caesar’s assassinations are picked up upon and given a radical importance in the plot of the play to achieve this. The obvious starting points in the text for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Brutus as a conspirator against an idea and Cassius as a conspirator against an individual, and thus the exploration of personality in monarchy, are Plutarch’s reference to how Antony ‘spake it openly divers times, that he thought, that of all them that had slain Caesar, there was none but Brutus only that was moved to do it, as thinking the act commendable of itself’, and also his note that ‘it is also reported, that Brutus could evil away with the tyranny, and that Cassius hated the tyrant’[2](Dorsch, 1955). Yet because Plutarch claims that these reports ‘holdeth no water: for Cassius, even from his cradle, could not abide any manner of tyrants’[3] (Dorsch, 1955), Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cassius shows that he used his source selectively with a purpose in mind: to set up, at crucial moments in the play, a clash between two views of autocracy, one which sees it as an impersonal idea, the other which opposes it on personal grounds. One such moment is Brutus’ soliloquy at the beginning of Act II. From these scraps of Plutarch, Shakespeare constructs a full discourse on the conflict between personality and politics which is heightened in situations of autocracy: ‘I know no personal cause [for Caesar’s assassination]’, Brutus reminds himself, but still he resolves that, since Caesar, having ascended ‘young ambition’s ladder’, might ‘scorn the base degrees’, he must take action. Brutus’ soliloquy is the striking contrast of Cassius’ earlier reasoning for the assassination in Act I:ii, where Caesar’s invalid status as a ‘sick girl’ causes him to ask Brutus ‘why should that name be sounded more than yours?’ That is the question of one who, in Plutarch’s words, hated ‘Caesar privately more than he did the tyranny openly’, but the contrast between Brutus’ reasoning and Cassius’ fits perfectly with Shakespeare’s time as well. As war with Spain continued, Elizabeth I’s hold on power began to be questioned. By 1599, she was being attacked both from the Cassius and the Brutus perspective. At Court, the place where her power was most linked to her persona, her old age aided the cause of young, loose-cannon buccaneers like the Earl of Essex, whose every manoeuvre was a badly disguised preparation for the monarch’s ever-approaching death, and in the 1597 Parliament fears had been aired over the ever more hungry uses of the Royal Prerogative. Thus Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in a world where personal leadership and its importance was at the forefront. Whilst he need not make blunt and obvious political points, or draw crude parallels, and the play has too great a scope to limit itself to passing debates, Shakespeare nonetheless depicts in Brutus and Cassius a clash relevant to his time as much as it is universally relevant. In the conspirators, there is both quasi-Essexian sly personality politics, seeing the rule of the individual through the lens of individual suitability alone, bred of jealousy and opportunism, and the constitutional worry which an anti-monopolies parliamentarian of the late 16th Century would recognise well. Shakespeare’s discussion of political power goes beyond whether monarchy is correct, but what the nature of monarchical power is: his utilisation of Plutarch, whose focus on the supposed motives of the conspirators is so important, shows the importance of his source to this discussion.

Shakespeare also uses Plutarch to explore the importance of ceremony and image, religious or secular, to political power. This is evident from the very beginning of the play. Casting aside the vast majority of the Life of Caesar, Shakespeare dives into the Roman world at a point most might be forgiven for ignoring: ‘at the time the feast Lupercalia was celebrated’[4] (Dorsch, 1955), runs North’s translation, and it is at that exact moment in the text, at this anecdotal aside, that Shakespeare begins. This places the relation of ceremony and image to political power at the heart of the play. The opening with the tribunes Flavius and Marullus confronts this point. Plutarch writes only that ‘there were set up images of Caesar in the city, with diadems upon their heads like kings. Those the two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, went and pulled down, and, furthermore, meeting with them that first saluted Caesar as king, they committed them to prison’[5] (Dorsch, 1955). Shakespeare takes this little information and uses it to portray a nascent monarchy which cements its power through spectacle, and to show the principled resistance to it. When Marullus asks the plebeians if they ‘now strew flowers in his way, that comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?’, Shakespeare elevates a detail of Plutarch to a moral castigation against the use of public ceremony to legitimise tyranny: Marullus’ argument may be that these same commoners ‘knew’ Pompey and now betray him personally, but, in a wider sense, the sight of Romans rejoicing in the fall of their fellow Romans, the sons of Rome’s greatest general, is an immediate demonstration of the incredible potency of public image to enable the construction of autocracy and the hijack of political power. It is after this that the importance of the Lupercalia as a starting point is seen: when Flavius tells his fellow tribune to ‘disrobe the images, if you do find them deck’d with ceremonies’, Marullus asks whether they may do so, since ‘it is the feast of Lupercal’. The juxtaposition of the ‘images’ with the Lupercalia gives a new context to the tribunes’ anger, one which would have been familiar to an Elizabethan audience: Caesar’s triumph coincides with a religious festival, co-opting its legitimacy and popularity for his growing personality cult. Not only is this a shocking opening for a play about power, and a perfect example of the role of image and ceremony in power, but it would also have served as veiled current political commentary for the Globe’s theatregoers. As James Shapiro writes, ‘Elizabethan audiences were likely to grasp more quickly than modern ones what’s implied but won’t be made explicit until the following scene: the appropriation of a religious holiday for political ends’[6] (Shapiro, 2005). Elizabeth’s desire to keep hold of a volatile country which had been ripped apart by religion before her reign led to the creation of Accession Day, on the same day as St Hugh of Lincoln’s Day[7]. The old religious calendar was being remodelled for the gain of the monarch. Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the significance of ceremony to political power, because in the 16th Century they went hand-in-hand. Flavius and Marullus’ outrage at Caesar’s images would also bring to mind the growing use of public image by Elizabeth. Paintings like William De Heere’s 1571-72 Allegory of the Tudor Succession[8] projected an image of rightful power which protected the monarch’s authority. Yet Shakespeare does not just explore the connection with relation to monarchy and to monarchs. The assassination of Caesar appears in the play as highly choreographed, like a sacrifice, a portrayal which finds its roots in Plutarch:

‘… Caesar turned him no where but he was stricken at by some, and still had naked swords in his face, and was hackled and mangled among them, as a wild beast taken of hunters. […] then he pulled the gown over his head, and made no more resistance, and was driven either casually or purposely, by the counsel of the conspirators, against the base whereupon Pompey’s image stood, which ran all of a gore blood till he was slain’[9] (Dorsch, 1955).

Here is assassination as performance art: the presence of Pompey’s statue, and the description of Caesar as ‘a wild beast taken of hunters’, who pulls ‘the gown over his head’, as if a Roman priest making a sacrifice, creates a picture of political power transfer as a quasi-religious act, the effect being to emphasise the importance of the moment as a power shift: for Plutarch, the republicanism of Pompey visually triumphs over Caesar’s monarchy. Shakespeare preserves the spirit of the original text, but changes it to fit his narrative. Brutus exhorts his fellow conspirators to ‘bathe [their] hands in Caesar’s blood’ (III:i): the sacrificial nature of the assassination in Plutarch is clear, but it is now ascribed to Brutus, the philosopher conspirator, in particular. Shakespeare, by doing this, shows that such symbolism is integral to the republican (rather than personal) aims of the conspirators. They, like Caesar, realise that power is cemented and legitimised through ceremony, including bloody ceremony. Brutus’ earlier proposition, ‘let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (II:i), summarises the position of the conspirators as those who must destroy a monarchy secured by ceremony with ceremony itself. Shakespeare, in his use of Plutarch, shows that political power is closely tied to spectacle and image, whatever its form.

Shakespeare’s envisagement of political power in Julius Caesar, autocratic or otherwise, is closely linked to popular support. From this develops a discussion of order, and of the grave risks to uprooting a political system. In this, Plutarch’s account of events is critically important. Plutarch represents the Roman mob as a volatile force which can be controlled or let loose, and the responses of Brutus and Antony to the plebs sordida, conveyed by Shakespeare in their respective speeches, comes from this. Early in the play, Caesar’s triumph and the plebeian reaction to it shows that the support of the mob is the secret to power: ‘we make holiday to see Caesar, and to rejoice in his triumph’, the cobbler tells Flavius and Marullus (I:i). Here, once more, Shakespeare’s use of Plutarch is selective. The image of Caesar as a populist which runs through the whole of his Life is maintained, ignoring a detail of Plutarch’s account of the triumph: Plutarch records that ‘men did not think it meet for him to triumph so for the calamities of his country’ and the triumph ‘did as much offend the Romans’[10] (Dorsch, 1955), but Shakespeare shows a happy proletariat, even if the patricians and magistrates might despair. Thus his portrayal of Caesar and the masses is the more simple relationship Plutarch tells us of when he claims that ‘the people loved him marvellously also, because of the courteous manner he had to speak to every man’ and that he ‘was very liberal besides: the which indeed did advance him forward, and brought him in estimation with the people’[11] (Dorsch, 1955). Shakespeare takes this character sketch and uses his first scene not to show Caesar, but to show his reputation among the people. At no other point in the play will the populace be this docile; by showing political power as mob manipulation at the beginning, the anarchy following Caesar’s death is amplified and put in context as the result of the removal of an established mob control. It is then that the speeches of Brutus and Antony are offered up, based on Plutarch, as a lesson in the perils of demagoguery and disorder, and how the former exploits the latter for power. Brutus speaks from patriotic reason, and the mob want to ‘let him be Caesar’ (III:i) for a moment, hankering still for a new tyrant. However, it is the emotional plea of Antony, he who speaks of ‘bloody treason’ (III:ii) and bribes them with Caesar’s will, who prevails, unleashing bloodshed and mob rule. The portrayal of Antony’s speech in Plutarch gave Shakespeare a clear base from which to build: Plutarch tells us that ‘he mingled his oration with lamentable words; and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts’ (Dorsch, 1955). Shakespeare takes this description of Antony as one who appeals to ‘hearts’ rather than minds, and conveys it in the speech. The play henceforth shows us two scenarios in opposition to each other: power drawn from mob control with Caesar, and power drawn from anarchy with Antony. Autocracy, it seems, offers order through the people’s- still undesirable- relinquishment of their rights, whereas the removal of autocracy in the name of liberty, if mishandled, can spell further disaster for liberty. The savage murder of Cinna the Poet- a detail also picked up from Plutarch[12] and highlighted by Shakespeare, is the ultimate sign of this theme, but the rise of Octavius, a man coldly ruthless enough to demand of Lepidus that his brother ‘must die’ (IV:i), is the ultimate result. For the contemporary audience, living in a time where revolt had come increasingly to depend on popular support, the dilemma posed by Shakespeare would have been particularly clear. Popular support was a lethal weapon, and the thoughtless removal of order could further endanger the rights of man.

In Plutarch, Shakespeare discovered a narrative which pulsated with political energy. The ancient account provided him with much of the plot and a good deal of the characterisation from which came a discourse on the nature of political power. It was the inherent qualities and attributes of Plutarch- an anecdotal style, an attention to grand themes, a focus on character- which enabled Shakespeare to craft a play which spoke to the dilemmas not only of political power in his own time, but the dilemmas of political power universally. That universality has made Julius Caesar a source of political warning and inspiration for centuries. Ben Jonson may have been correct to say that William Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’[13], but his use of North’s Plutarch in Julius Caesar shows that skill at classical interpretation certainly did not elude him.

Essay body: 2,970 words


[1] Shapiro, J. (2005) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. London: Faber and Faber

[2] From Plutarch’s Life of Brutus (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[3] From Plutarch’s Life of Brutus (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[4] From Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[5] From Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[6] Shapiro, J. (2005) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. London: Faber and Faber

[7] Shapiro, J. (2005) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. London: Faber and Faber

[8] MacGregor, N. (2012) Shakespeare’s Restless World. London: Allen Lane

[9] From Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[10] From Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[11] From Plutarch’s Life of Antonius (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[12] From Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (translated by Sir Thomas North) included in Dorsch, T.S. (Editor) (1955) Shakespeare W. Julius Caesar. London: Methuen and Company

[13] Bate, J. (1997) The Genius of Shakespeare. London: Picador