Dr. Ralph's Brief
1. When was the play first peformed?
2. Where was the play first performed?
This may have been the first play by Shakespeare performed at the new Globe. If not, it was one of the last performed at the Theatre in Shoreditch.
3. How does the play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
Written near the middle of his playwriting career, Julius Caesar began Shakespeare’s run of famous tragedies. His next will be Hamlet, in which Shakespeare playfully refers back to this play by having the actor playing Polonius say, “I did enact Julius Caesar.”
4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
Like his later Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Julius Caesar mines the material Shakespeare found in the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch (46 – 120 AD). As usual in Shakespeare, the characters in Julius Caesar lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. His depiction of Brutus, for example, seems to ignore the centuries-old view that he was a worldly version of Judas (Dante puts his Brutus in the lowest circle of hell) and gives us instead a character that plays equally well as a hero.
5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
Spoiler alert: the title character dies halfway through the play.
6. What do scholars think about this play?
One thumb up. My own view is that this is a much better play than high school has taught us. Yes, the play features four of the ancient world’s most famous men and speeches that can serve as rhetorical models for young minds, but it also gives us a withering (and sometimes comic) look at the dangers of a phallocentric society.
7. Are there any controversies surrounding the work?
Yes, the best kind, the kind that you can decide. Is the play a totally unexpected endorsement of the values of a republic from a 16th-century author who is in all other respects a monarchist? Or, is it the very opposite – an indictment of any kind of democratic rule?
8. What characters should I especially look out for?
At least five:
- Brutus, for the reasons I mention above
- Cassius, for his mostly overlooked sympathetic qualities
- Antony, for the seeds of the man who will die for Cleopatra in a later play
- Caesar, for his remarkable but wholly familiar self-obliviousness
- Portia, for a portrait of a wife straight out of Mad Men, or any contemporary spouse whose partner has stopped partnering.
9. What scene should I especially look for?
The play is chock full of great scenes, but especially look at the way that the “tent” scene between Brutus and Cassius in the second part of the play bookends the “orchard” scene between Brutus and Portia in the first half.
10. What is the language like?