Exploring Shakespeare’s portrayal of Julius Caesar, and its accuracy.

This is one of the runner-up entries in the John Lyon Shakepseare essay prize. I hope you all enjoy it. I find it refreshing to see such cross-curricula endeavour in the Lower 6th this year.

See this post also: The winning essay


In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare aggrandises and poeticises one of the most influential figures of the end of the Roman Republic. But in his portrayal there are certainly elements of truth. Roman authors describe Antony’s loyalty to him, his apparent apotheosis and the idea of Caesar as a god’, the man himself his relationship with other characters (’I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him’) and historical accuracy.


Shakespeare portrays a glorified view of Rome and its characters, reminiscent of the crisp white marble “imported” by Elgin that shapes the modern romantic view of the Ancient World, looked at through a lens of legend and convention. But with his characters he colours a world that, in Shakespeare’s time, would be perhaps void of vividness. In this essay I will be exploring the two different “Caesars” in the play – the man and the god, the character who is crucial to the plot and its structure, and in a wider sense, history as a whole, using historical and scholarly evidence to see whether Shakespeare presents a clear picture of Caesar, his role in the world and an accurate portrayal.


It is first crucial to analyse the Shakespearian depiction of this character. Caesar is less of a true figure in the play, but more of a concept, as if the character is more a mediator between Caesar the god and the Cives Romani, evident in his constant use of third person, reflective of Caesar’s own writing style[1]; this is clearly shown in line 17, where Caesar says ‘Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear”, which introduces into the play the idea of Caesar as a concept rather than a man – this is perhaps Shakespeare reflecting on the fact that all subsequent emperors would be referred to as Caesar, in recognition of Rome’s first true dictator – hence Caesar the person is only a mortal embodiment of Caesar the concept, in a way that would be familiar to most Christians. This is further shown through the fact that after Gaius Julius Caesar dies in the play, the concept of his semi-divine rule still lives on, whether it is in the dreams of Brutus or the banner under which Antony rallies the people. Caesar the man barely appears throughout the first half of the play up until his death, and has only brief lines until the grand speeches before his murder.


The conflict between caesar and the senate, hence between the old world and the new, is implied in the first scene of the play where the tribunes Flavius and Murellus dismiss the plebeians for celebrating the return of Caesar to Rome, as if it is some kind of religious festival, evident in the line ‘is this a holiday?’, showing the contrasting nature of the old senatorial system to the new almost-theocratic religious one, and absolute power to shared power; this is shown in more detail by the line ‘knew ye not Pompey?’, a general who, despite naming himself Magnus, history has not been kind to, and Shakespeare would be acquainted with such views[2] , showing the republic’s abandonment of old values – this is significant to Caesar as it shows that “godhood” brings him above all other generals in terms of status, and that he transcends the senate and Res Publica itself.


Despite his lack of presence, almost every conversation in the play leading up to his assassination is in regard to Caesar, and the play itself is named for him – despite the main characters being Cassius, Brutus and Antony, Caesar is still the godly force that moves them all and shapes all events, and the only evidence of whose mortality is that  he is murdered by those who are jealous of him and seem fated to kill him, paralleling another one of Shakespeare’s tragic quasi-histories, Macbeth. Much of the conversation between (arguably) the two protagonists, Brutus and Cassius is in regard to Caesar, and it is through their jealous perspectives that we get a varied view on Caesar the man. One perspective we have from another character on Caesar is Cassius: this is clearly shown when Cassius explains how he had to save Caesar from drowning in the tiber – ‘Caesar cried, “help me Cassius, or I sink!’, which is one of the few instances of Caesar showing himself as a mortal who requires the aid of others; however, Cassius then goes on to almost switch role with Caesar, as he compares himself to a legendary hero who founded Rome (this is dramatic irony, as Cassius ends up being partially responsible for the destruction of the Roman senate): ‘Ay, as Aeneas, our great ancestor, did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder the old Anchises bear, so from the waves of tiber did I the tired Caesar’; this is perhaps oxymoronic, as despite the fact that Anchises is the grandfather of Aeneas who represents the elderly of Troy, Cassius is representative of the elderly constitution of Rome, hence why he is afraid of Caesar; the fear of Caesar by senators is certainly backed up by historical evidence, due to his trouble with other patricians in his younger years –  ‘he was suspected of having made a conspiracy with Marcus Crassus’[3].


This fear however does not manifest in hatred, but jealousy, shown in the line ‘Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed that he is grown so great? Age, art thou shamed! Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!’, again highlighting the contrast between the Rome of Cassius and of Caesar, of the Senate and the Republic, and also reflecting the view of conservative Roman historians who believed that the end of the republic came with the end of the oligarchy [4]. It is not surprising that, after Caesar’s death, Cassius is the one who believes that all of the Roman people will share his view on the fact that liberation has been achieved by Caesar’s death, shown in the line ‘Some to the common pulpits, and cry out, ‘liberty, freedom and enfranchisement’, which has tragically ironic, in the sense that Cassius assumes that Caesar’s godhood will stop with his death, and the people will praise the conspirators and those standing against Caesar – this was a common mistake of those in the senate, most of all Pompey[5]. It is important to look at Cassius’ relationship with Caesar in relation to the portrayal of Caesar as a whole due to the latter’s lack of speech within the play – it is through the opinions of others that we get an impression of the dictator during his final years, especially his rivals. But Cassius’ jealousy, just like Caesar’s overconfidence, ends up being his downfall, showing them both to be tragic characters – one through fear, and one through boldness.


Perhaps the most striking line of dialogue Caesar has is ‘Know Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause will he be satisfied’, showing that Caesar thinks of himself to be above all sin in a Christ-esque way, perhaps appealing to a Christian audience in the guiltless way that he portrays the ambitious Caesar. The difference between him and the common man is shown through some of his last words, with use of phrases  such as ‘ordinary men’ and the ‘law of children’, implying that this particular portrayal of Julius Caesar certainly has a Christian portrayal on it; this would also make sense in a contextual way, due to the fact that there were multiple “miracle children” being born at this point, not just Jesus of Nazareth – one of whom appears later in the play in the form of Octavius[6], before his ascension to Augustus. This is further emphasised by the jealous speech of Cassius about Caesar near the start of the play, when he says ‘Why, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves’, again deifying the concept of Caesar’s power. This Christian perspective on Caesar is most evident in the fact that he is a martyr, who is killed through betrayal, and becomes more powerful than any of them through his death. There are further implications that Caesar is like a Christian god in the fact that the servant of Antony has to refer to Caesar as ‘bold, loving and royal.’


But this leaves us with a question: if Caesar the martyr and Caesar the god are representative of the Christian deity, who is the third? History (albeit biased[7]) answers this question: following the deaths of almost all his immediate family, Caesar makes a young patrician named Octavius his son, who carries on his work in an arguably more violent way; the first time we see Octavius, he is writing down the lists of those who will be proscripted – his first line in the play shows the brutality by which he reformed the Roman state: ‘Your brother too, must die; consent you, Lepidus?’, the blunt nature of the question showing us the savage way in which he destroyed the patriciate, also shown later when he orders the death of Lucius – this is perhaps evidence of a more honest portrayal, which may be due to the fact that this is before his grand ascendancy – rather than calling him Augustus, Shakespeare instead decides to call him by his birth name. This is relevant to the portrayal of Caesar as it marks the contrast between the divine concept of Caesar we see through Julius, and those who actually bore the name, pressure and concept of “Caesar”, showing that the holy trinity outlook with which some may look at it is flawed.


This portrayal of Caesar is hardly surprising, given the Classical literature that Shakespeare had read about him[8].  Famously, Shakespeare read North’s translation of Plutarch and gets the majority of his ideas about the dictator’s final days from it[9]. Plutarch’s glorification of conservatism and monarchy is reflected in Shakespeare’s own time, due to the fact that his histories were persistently pro-Tudor, in the same way that Plutarch was pro-dictatorship. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caesar as someone who is extremely calculated and stern (but still mortal) is not only backed up by Plutarch, but by Suetonius as well. In his Divus Iulius, we see much the same figure that we do in Life of Caesar – a man who is the new nation’s founder, constantly spouting iconic lines, just as the Shakespeare’s Caesar. It was this glorified picture of dictatorship that found its way from late republican and early principate writing right into Shakespeare’s own, and as he does with Roman comedy[10], he adapts it to his own time, that a modern audience might understand not just Caesar the man, but Caesar the concept.


In conclusion, the Julius Caesar we see in Shakespeare’s play, despite being more of a concept than a character, is still accurate to the literature that Shakespeare had read, and even that which we believe he did not have access to. We see him mainly through the eyes of other characters, in lenses of jealousy and reverence, giving us an extremely varied view on this so-called god, who is eventually proven to be mortal. He is commanding and hubristic, disregarding what the even the gods themselves have to say, which is ultimately his mortal downfall. But Shakespeare shows us that the concept of Caesar has outlived even those gods themselves.

[1] C. Iulius Caesar, De Bello Gallico

[2] Plutarch, Lives – Pompeius

[3] Suetonius, Divus Iulius

[4] Sallust, The War with Catiline

[5] R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, ch. Caesar the Dictator

[6] P. Vergilius Maro, Eclogae 4

[7] Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti

[8] Plutarch, Lives – Caesar

[9] G. Highes The Classical Tradition – Greek and Roman influences on Western Literature, page 211 – ‘Take North’s version of Plutarch’s life of Caesar … Every single sentence in (this passage) is used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, but the details, instead of being crowded together, are scattered over the first three acts.’

[10] Plautus, Brothers Menaechmus and Shakespare, Merchant of Venice