Julius Caesar (play)

From Academic Kids

Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare probably written in 1599. It portrays the conspiracy against the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, his assassination and its aftermath. It is one of several Shakespeare plays that are based on true events from history.

Unlike the other titular characters in Shakespeare's plays (e.g. Hamlet, Henry V), Caesar is not the central character in the action of the play, appearing in only three scenes and dying at the beginning of the third Act. The central protagonist of the play is Brutus and the central psychological drama is his stuggle between the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship.

The play is notable for being the first of Shakespeare's five great tragedies (the others being Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth) and the first of Shakespeare's Roman plays (the other two being Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus).

Most Shakespeare critics and historians agree that the play reflected the general anxiety of England due to worries over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and first performance, Elizabeth I, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that of Rome's might break out after her death.

Contents

The Plot

Brutus is Caesar's close friend (there are suggestions that he was his illegitimate son) whose ancestors were famed for driving the tyrranical Tarquin kings from Rome. Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators because of a growing suspicion - implanted by Cassius - that Caesar intends to turn Rome into a monarchy under his own rule. Traditional readings of the play maintain that Cassius and the other conspirators are motivated largely by envy and ambition whereas Brutus is motived by the demands of honour and patriotism; in fact one of the central strengths of the play is that it resists categorising its characters as either simple heroes or villains.

The early scenes deal mainly with Brutus's arguments with Cassius and his struggle with his own conscience. After Caesar's death, however, another character appears on the scene, in the form of Caesar's devotee, Mark Antony, who, by a rousing speech over the corpse -- the much-quoted Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears... -- deftly turns public opinion against the assassins and rouses the mob to drive them from Rome.

The beginning of Act Four is marked by the quarrell scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide by accepting bribes ("Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?/ What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,/ And not for justice?", IV.iii). The two are reconciled, but as they prepare for war with Marc Antony and Caesar's great-nephew, Octavian, Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of defeat ("thou shalt see me at Philippi", IV.iii). Events go badly for the conspirators during the battle; both Brutus and Cassius commit suicide rather than be captured. The play ends with a tribute to Brutus, who has remained "the noblest Roman of them all" (V.v) and hints at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavian which will characterise another of Shakespeare's Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.

Julius Caesar was first published in the First Folio in 1623. The play's source was Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Brutus and Life of Caesar.

Dramatis Personae

Movie versions

Stage productions

  • 1599: A Swiss traveller in London, Thomas Platter, recorded seeing a performance of a play about Julius Caesar on September 21, 1599 - this was probably the original production of Shakespeare's play. He also described the actors dancing a jig at the end of the play, a convention of the Elizabethan theatre.
  • 1926: By far the most elaborate performance of the play was staged as a benefit for the Actors' Fund of America at the Hollywood Bowl. Caesar arrived for the Lupercal in a chariot drawn by four white horses. The stage was the size of a city block and dominated by a central tower eighty feet in height. The event was mainly aimed at work-creation for unemployed actors: three hundred gladiators appeared in an arena scene not featured in Shakespeare's play; a similar number of girls danced as Caesar's captives; a total of three thousand soldiers took part in the battle sequences.
  • 1937: Orson Welles' famous production at the Mercury Theatre drew fervoured comment as the director dressed his protagonists in uniforms reminiscent of those common at the time in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as drawing a specific analogy between Caesar and Mussolini. Opinions vary on the artistic value of the resulting production: some see Welles' mercilessly pared down the script (the running time was around 90 minutes without an interval, several characters were eliminated, dialogue was moved around and borrowed from other plays, and the final two acts were reduced to a single scene) as a radical and innovative way of cutting away the unneccessary elements of Shakespeare's tale; others thought Welles' version a mangled and lobotomised version of Shakespeare's tragedy which lacked the psychological depth of the original. Most agreed that the production owed more to Welles than it did to Shakespeare. However, Welles's innovations have been echoed in many subsequent modern productions, which have seen parallels between Caesar's fall and the downfalls of various governments in the twentieth century.

External links

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