Julius Caesar as a Historical Play
Table of Contents
Shakespeare derived his historical material for the writing of the play Julius Caesar from a book by a Greek historian by the name of Plutarch. Of course, Shakespeare knew no Greek. He consulted an English translation of the original work, and he took from that translation the material which he needed for his play. However, he did not stick closely to the material which he got from that source. He changed, altered, or modified the historical material to suit his own purposes. Of course, he does depict in his play the main historical events. The assassination of Caesar, the civil war that followed, and the defeat of the republican forces are some of the outstanding events of history, and these occur in Shakespeare’s play also.
But in certain cases Shakespeare modifies the historical portraits of the main personages involved; and in the case of historical events, he condenses his material for the sake of economy or dramatic effect. Thus Shakespeare, in writing this historical play, does not observe the accuracy of a historian. A literary writer thinks that he has a right to take liberties with historical facts to suit his particular aims and purposes. However, it is possible for us to question this attitude of a literary writer. We do not think that history should be altered or modified in any literary work because such a treatment of history means a distortion of history. The student, who has studied history, would therefore feel outraged to find that a dramatist or a novelist has altered or modified the facts of history and also drawn the portraits of historical personages in such a way as to give an impression about them which is different from the impression which books of history have given him.
Compression and Condensation of the Historical Events
To consider Shakespeare’s treatment of the historical facts first, the Celebration of Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s sons occurs in the play on the same date the celebration of the least of the Lupercalia. But historically, Caesar’s victory had taken place six months before the feast of Lupercalia Then in Shakespeare’s play, the murder of Caesar, the speeches delivered by Brutus and Antony to the Roman mob, and the arrival of Octavius in Rome, take place on the same day. But historically, these events occurred over several days. Here Shakespeare combines several separate incidents in such a way that they appear to have taken place on the same day. This is a process of condensation. This condensation produces a strong dramatic effect which would be weakened if the incidents were shown to me as occurring on different days separated from each other by intervals of time. Similarly, in the play only one battle is shown as having been fought in the plains of Philippi Historically two battles occurred at this place, with an interval of twenty days between them. Shakespeare has combined both the battles in to, one for the sake of economy and also to impart a greater unity to the action of the play. If Shakespeare had followed the historical events closely and faithfully the dramatic effect of the play would have been weakened; and the events would have lost that cohesion which they now possess. A faithful observance of the facts of history would have produced an effect of diffuseness.
Shakespeare’s Caesar, Different from the Historical Caesar
Coming to the portrayal of the historical personages, we find that Shakespeare has considerably deviated from history. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caesar differs greatly from the historical Caesar. The historical Caesar, as portrayed by Plutarch, was a great conqueror and a heroic personality. Plutarch shows Caesar as being intellectually brilliant, highminded, and exceptionally intelligent. But Shakespeare represents Caesar as suffering from several physical infirmities. In Shakespeare’s play, Caesar is deaf of one ear, he suffers from the falling sickness (or epilepsy) he seems to be a man of a wavering mind, superstitious, and highly prone to flattery. Plutarch does mention one or two physical infirmities of Caesar, but Shakespeare has added to them.
Of course, Caesar in Shakespeare’s play does have a certain degree of greatness, and he certainly dominates the action of the play. Caesarism proves triumphant in the play, just as it had proved triumphant in history. At one or two places in the play, Caesar shows also a certain dignity which raises him in our estimation. His fearlessness in face of danger, his disregard of the evil omens, and his penetrating remarks about the character of Cassius undoubtedly show the bright side of Caesar’s character. But, on the whole, Caesar, as depicted by Shakespeare in his play. falls far below the greatness of the historical Caesar as depicted by Plutarch. Now, in thus giving us a changed view of the historical Caesar, Shakespeare did have his reasons. Shakespeare wanted Brutus to be regarded as the hero of the play, and he therefore felt compelled to bring Caesar down from the high pedestal which he occupied in history. Caesar had to be robbed of some of his greatness so that Brutus should appear to be the greater man, of course, even now Caesar does not lose his historical importance, but Brutus certainly wins greater admiration from us than Caesar does
Alterations in the Portrayals of Antony and Cassius
Certain minor changes introduced by Shakespeare in his play may also he mentioned. Historically the murder of Caesar took place in the porch of the Senate-house but Shakespeare makes the murder occur inside the Senate-house. In Plutarch’s book, Antony is depicted as vulgar and immoral; but Shakespeare has imparted a certain dignity to this man in order to raise him in our estimation. Shakespeare did not want that a supporter and a loyal friend of Caesar should appear to us to be a contemptible person. Even in Shakespeare’s play, Antony is shown to be a man without any moral scruples; but here he does not arouse much dislike in us because he shows himself to be a highly gifted man in other respects Similarly, Shakespeare represents the character of Cassius as being nobler than it is in Plutarch’s history. Here Shakespeare’s motive was that the noble Brutus should not have a man of low mentality as his collaborator In the quarrel scene of the play, Cassius rises to a certain dignity, and so he wins our deepest sympathy when he is about to commit suicide. Even in the earlier portion of the play, Cassius’s assertions of republicanism and his love of freedom have a genuine quality.
Shakespeare’s Additions to His Historical Material
Antony’s oratory in Shakespeare’s play is Shakespeare’s own because Plutarch does not provide any model for it. Likewise the fickleness of the Roman mob and its passions are almost entirely Shakespeare’s own invention. Shakespeare’s portrayals of Casca and Octavius are somewhat more elaborate than are to be found in Plutarch. Similarly. Plutarch provides only very slight sketches of Portia and Calpurnia, but Shakespeare has enlarged them.
The Spirit of History, Not Violated
In spite of his departures from history, and in spite of the alterations he has made in depicting the historical events and historical personages. Shakespeare has been able to preserve the historical spirit of the times. The play depicts the conflict between imperialism as represented by Caesar Antony, Octavius, and republicanism as represented by Brutus, Cassius, and the others, and the play depicts the triumph of the former because the people were not yet fit to achieve a democratic political system in the Country. Shakespeare’s play represents the truth of history very ably, and with great dramatic effect. In the latter part of the play the counsels of the army commanders and the uncertainties of the war have most convincingly been depicted, just as in the earlier portions the discussions among the conspirators are most realistically depicted. On the whole, therefore, Shakespeare deserves our admiration for the manner in which he has dealt with his historical material. By his dramatic genius, Shakespeare has transformed his historical material into a closely knit and swiftly moving drama which may aptly be described as a “political thriller”.