The more or less agreed order of composition of the plays shows Julius Caesar coming after Henry V. Since the latter might be seen as the culmination of a process that had begun with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (2 Henry VI), continuing via Richard III, Richard II, King John and the two parts of Henry IV, Julius Caesar might be seen as Shakespeare's move from English to Roman history - an interest manifested earlier in Titus Andronicus, first printed in 1594, and the poem The Rape of Lucrece, entered into the Stationers' Register on 9th May of the same year.
English popular interest in Roman history was immense. Not only were there key translations before 1600 (Herodian 1550; Eutropius 1564; Appian 1578), but Philip Henslowe's Diary lists the names of several plays on that theme, produced in the 1590s. For Shakespeare, however, the chief source is Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutach's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, (1579; 1595; 1603), itself derived from a translation into French by Jacques Amyot.
Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor, on a visit to London, records that on 21st September 1599 he had seen the play “very pleasingly performed” at the newly-built Globe Theatre. There is therefore the possibility that Julius Caesar might well have been the first play produced at that straw-thatched building on the south bank of the Thames. Produced at Court (1613), at St. James's (New Year 1636-7), and at the Cockpit (November 1638), there are references to at least 10 productions by 1649. Henslowe even tried to cash in on the immediate popularity by putting on a rival version in 1602.
The opening scenes are set in 44BCE. Roman imperial power now stretched from Britain to the Near East, yet triumph abroad was mirrored by a sense of collapse at home. The Senate, rulers of the Republic on behalf of (mostly) the patrician class, was faction-ridden. while the generals who had successfully waged wars abroad now demanded rewards. Furthermore, while the plebeians, after long struggle, were now able to elect two “tribunes” to speak on their behalf, women were, of course, excluded from these deliberations.
These elements are all present from the outset. The tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, at first speak to the plebeians with ill-disguised contempt -- though that will change when they hear that the masses they are supposed to represent are filling the streets to celebrate the return of Julius Caesar (1.1). They remind the revellers how, on an earlier occasion of a similar kind, they turned out in honour of Pompey the Great (106 - 48 BCE), a member of the First Triumvirate who later became a rival to Julius Caesar, was defeated by him at the Battle of Pharsalia, and then assassinated. They tell the revellers that their fickleness towards their betters should be atoned by a mass weep on the banks of the river Tiber. Meantime, especially since it was the day of the feast of Lupercalia, (a festival to enable fertility and ward off evil in which two male youths dressed in goatskins - the embodiment of male sexuality - ran around the city touching individuals with goatskin strips), the tribunes are especially keen to see that images connecting the feast with the return of Caesar are removed from view.
Caesar makes precisely this connection in 1.2, asking his wife Calpurnia to stand directly in the way of the young Anthony, who was going to be one of the runners; he also specifically asks Anthony to touch Calpurnia in the hope that his wife's sterility will cease. The continuing hold of popular belief is further evidenced by the warning from the Soothsayer that Caesar should beware the Ides (the half-way point of the month) of March. By contrast, the first meeting between Brutus and Cassius is suffused with the political wheeling and dealing. Though Brutus is afraid that Cassius will require him to “seek into myself / For that which is not in me”, these two agree on the danger posed by Caesar, who “doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves” (1.2.134-137).
Chaning attention to the other pair of men, Caesar rejects Anthony's evaluation of Cassius as a “noble Roman”, draws attention to his “lean and hungry look” and adds an itemised account of other shortcomings: he reads much; he is a great observer; he does not love plays; seldom smiles, and when forced to do so, does it in a manner as if he was mocking himself (1.2.191-213). Finally, Casca enters and tells how the people had cheered when Antony thrice offered Caesar a crown (in a state that was a consitutional republic) and Caesar thrice put it by, then fainted in an epileptic fit. Cassius turns this anecdote upon itself: it is they, not Caesar, he says, who suffer from the falling sickness, falling for the charisma of tyranny. Almost as an afterthought there are two bits of information will take on great significance later on: (a) that Cicero -- the famous orator, jurist and politician -- addressed the crowd in Greek so only a few could understand his meaning; (b) that because the tribunes Flavius and Marullus had been seen taking down images of Caesar, they had been “put to silence”. In this Rome the games between boys are played to deadly effect.
In 1.3 a storm bursts and Casca's reading of its portents reinforces the sense of a world out of joint, of a natural order disturbed. Though Cicero warns that in a “strange-disposed time” in which “men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1.3.33-35), Cassius enters to say how the portents are “instruments of fear and warning / Unto some monstrous state”. He further accuses the Romans of having become “governed with our mothers' spirits / Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish” (1.3.82-84) because they will not stand up for the Republic against encroaching tyranny. His care to insist that the problem is not that Caesar wants to be a wolf, but that the Roman people want to be sheep (1.3.103-115), provides (in part) the foundations for the conspiracy being forged. Casca hints that he has “moved already / Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans / To undergo with me an enterprise / Of honourable dangerous consequence” - except for Brutus. Having him as participant would ensure that acts that would be seen by the masses as “offense” would, “like richest alchemy”, be proof of “virtue and worthiness” (1.3.157-160).
Act Two opens with the soliloquy in which Brutus provides reasons for his participation in the uprising: “It must be by his death; and for my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn him, But for the general. He would be crowned” (1.3.10-12). The ambitious man, having attained power, turns his back on those below him who had made it possible. The unsigned letter that had been thrown through his window, urging his support, followed by a visit from his brother Cassius, who brings with him the “faction” (Cassius; Casca; Decius; Cinna; Metellus [Cimber]; Trebonius), for a brief moment makes Brutus aware of the nature of a conspiracy ashamed of itself even by night, “when evils are most free”. But such thoughts immediately give way to practical matters. Cicero is left out as being “not fit”; the proposition by Cassius that Antony be put to death with Caesar is rejected by Brutus, who argues that Antony is merely a limb of the head to be cut off, and that those who perform the act should be “called purgers, not murderers”.
The following scene between Caesar and his wife, Calpurnia, could not be more different. Not only is there thunder and lightning, omens that presage disorder, but Caesar tells of having heard Calpurnia crying out for help three times in her sleep because of her dream that her husband was being murdered. When Calpurnia insists that he should not leave the house that day, he rejects her request as cowardice. These disturbances in the heavens lead her to observe that “When beggars die there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. But Caesar responds in heroic mode: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once” (2.2.32-33). When a messenger comes with the news that even the augurers recommend Caesar stay home that day, he at first, rejects their advice then whimsically agrees that Mark Antony apologise to the Senate for his absence.
When Decius arrives he is asked to carry the message to the Senate, and to explain that Calpurnia dreamt Caesar's statue “like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans / Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it” (2.2.77-80). Decius, however, interprets the portent as a sign of how “from you great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood” (2.2.87-88). Furthermore, since the Senate would again offer the crown, “it were a mock, / Apt to be rendered, for some one to say / 'Break up the Senate till another time, / When Caesar's wife shall meet with better dreams' ” (2.2.96-98). So, when Brutus and some of the conspirators arrive to escort Caesar to the Senate, he goes with them.
Act Three reveals Caesar as high-handed and presents the murderous climax of the plot. Artemidorous and Publius vie for the right to have their petition heard first. At the same time, fearful that the plot has been discovered, Brutus urges Cassius to hurry and Trebonius draws Mark Antony away from Caesar. When Metellus Cimber attempts to present his grievance to Caesar, it is scornfully rejected: “I spurn thee like a cur out of my way. / Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause, / Nor without cause will he satisfied” (3.1.46-48). The petitioner's appeal that someone else should speak on his behalf is answered by Brutus but equally firmly rebutted by Caesar, who says he is “constant as the Northern Star, / Of whose true fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” ((3.1.60-62). Finally, when Cinna, Decius and Casca join Brutus, Caesar asks, prophetically, “Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?” and the assassins fall on him, Caesar's dying words being “Et tu, Brute? -- Then fall Caesar” (3.1.77).
While Antony flees the scene of the assassination and Cinna shouts “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” (3.1.78), Cassius asks that the slogan “Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement” (3.1.81) should be proclaimed in the streets. For Brutus the death is proof that “Ambition's debt is paid” (3.1.83) and he echoes Cassius by urging his fellow conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar's blood and besmear their swords “And waving our red weapons o'er our heads / Let's all cry, 'Peace, Freedom and Liberty'.” Indeed, the player acting the role of Cassius presciently asks “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” (3.1.109-113). When a messenger arrives from Antony, asking what the conspirators want from him, he is assured of his safety and arrives soon after to reflect on how low the mighty Caesar now lies. Brutus counsels that he not judge them till they have had a chance to give reasons for the act. Against Cassius' advice, Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at the funeral. Brutus tells Cassius that he will speak before Antony and make it clear than Antony speaks by their permission. When the conspirators leave the scene, Antony offers a celebrated soliloquy:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds do I now prophesy -
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue -
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds.
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, and with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war.
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (3.1.254-275).
Having told a messenger from the newly-arrived Octavius to postpone his entry into the city, Brutus carries the corpse into the market-place which resounds to the cries of plebeians who wish to know why their hero has been slain. Brutus calms them with his speech “Romans, countrymen, and lovers” (3.2.13-33), but his words - rendered in dull prose, not in verse - are promptly turned upside-down by Mark Antony's finely-crafted eulogy --
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them:
The good is ofter interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar. . . . ” (3.2.74-78)
-- a brilliant and perturbing display of political rhetoric which indeed praises Caesar whilst appearing not to, and damns Brutus whilst appearing to praise him -- “For Brutus is an honourable man” (3.2.83). News that Octavius and Lepidus have arrived at Caesar's house and that “Brutus and Cassius / Are rid like madmen through the gates of Rome” is followed by the killing of Cinna the poet by the mob. His name alone ensures it. If he is not Cinna the conspirator, he deserves death “for his bad verses” (3.3.30).
The first scene of Act Four shows Antony, Octavius and Lepidus the names of those to be “pricked” - marked on a wax or clay tablet for death, banishment or imprisonment. Lepidus, later one of the Triumvirate, is here referred to by Antony as “a slight, unmentionable man, / Meet to be sent on errands” (4.1.13). Antony is clear about the real-politik that underpins his actions. He equates Lepidus to the ass who bears the heavy burden which, “having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load, and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons” (4.1.24-27). When Octavius observes that Lepidus is a “tried and valiant soldier”, Antony retorts: “So is my horse”. Whereas Brutus sought a philosophical and moral case for killing Caesar, these remarks indicate that assassination of a tyrant pales beside the coming power struggle between the ruthless inheritors of his power. Indeed, in the very next scene, we see the beginnings of accusation and counter-accusation between Brutus and Cassius in which each reminds the other of days past when they had all been friends with the now dead Caesar (whose ghost will soon appear to the sleepy Brutus to tell him that they are to meet at Philippi, the battleground for these adversaries).
In the first few scenes of Act Five each continues to excuse their role in the assassination. When it is clear to Cassius that the battle is lost, he asks Pindarus to carry out his promise to kill him. His last words, before he dies, are “Caesar, thou art revenged, / Even with the sword that killed thee” (5.3.45-46). Meantime, the captured Brutus is discovered, sitting with some of his key supporters, all of whom he urges to flee - except for Strato, who is asked to turn his head away from his leader while the latter runs on the former's sword. It is left to Antony to utter the final evaluation:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to the world 'This was a man!' (5.5.68-75).
Antony's closing praise leaves the play deeply ambiguous: whilst Caesar was justly famous and loved by the people, he was about to be seduced into becoming king and tending towards tyranny; Brutus, as his honourable assassin, remains a hero, even if he works with those whose motives are less noble. Antony, on the other hand, through his speech in the market-place, followed by his manipulation of Lepidus, shows just how dangerous a true political operator can be. The function of the crowd -- realised in the theatrical space of The Globe by the penny stinkers in the pit -- is crucial to how the play works, for the audience is swayed by Antony just as effectively as the imagined crowd in Rome's market-place. The play loves its theatrical power, and shows how rhetoric puts truth at risk.