Julius Caesar | 2015, 2009
About the Play by John Dunlap
“Congratulations to the cast and crew of JC… I have taught and direced a lot of children in Shakespeare, and last night the text work I witnessed by actors of all ages was very, very, strong. It was wonderful to see.!”
– Online feedback about Julius Caesar, 2015
The probable date for the composition and first production of Julius Caesar is 1599, placing it dead center on the standard list of thirty-seven plays credited to Shakespeare. At age 35, the Bard was fast approaching the heights of his genius, and even though the other “Roman plays” inspired by Plutarch were yet to be produced, Julius Caesar is arguably the best.
It is certainly the best known. Every year, thousands of school kids are regaled with the familiar story of Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., followed by a bitter renewal of civil war that wears on for 13 years until the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, followed in turn by the establishment of the Principate in 27 B.C. by Julius Caesar’s victorious nephew Octavius, exalted now by the Roman Senate as Augustus, supreme leader of a united Roman Empire.
The play itself, based closely on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans,directly concerns the assassination and its immediate consequences for the conspirators, particularly Brutus, whom many critics have taken to be the principal figure of the tragedy. The noble Brutus is persuaded by Caius Cassius that Caesar—Brutus’ friend and benefactor—intends to stretch his temporary dictatorship into a permanent monarchy and thus destroy the republic. Brutus joins the conspirators and participates in the climactic assassination.
Brutus pleads the justice of the deed successfully to the Roman people in front of the Capitol, but in his funeral oration, Caesar’s former aide Marc Antony turns the fickle mob against the conspirators, who flee Rome to gather armies in opposition to the new ruling triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus, and Caesar’s young nephew Octavius. In Brutus’ tent on the field at Sardis, a stunning quarrel and reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius is followed by Brutus’ vision of the ghost of Caesar portending defeat for the armies of Cassius and Brutus at Philippi, where the two conspirators each commit suicide. The play ends with Antony’s famous tribute to Brutus (“the noblest Roman of them all”)—but the final words are given to the relatively minor character Octavius in anticipation of his destiny on a much larger historical canvas.
That huge canvas may help explain why Julius Caesar has perplexed the critics and scholars for generations, pitting them against one another in conflicting interpretations of character and motive and theme and style. Is Brutus a tragic hero or just a befuddled idealist? Does the play approve or disapprove of monarchy? Is Caesar himself a character at all or a mere abstraction? Is there really any poetry in this play, or is the language all oratory?
Yet the sheer dramatic energy of the play is indisputable, and amid all the obscure motives and conflicting thoughts, one resonant theme — classical in origin, implicit in Plutarch, recurrent in Shakespeare — seems enough to give the play its unity: Character is destiny.