The history is fairly straightforward, and if you’re worried about spoilers, um… sorry? A 400-year-old play? I’m guessing you know most of the details. As the play opens, Caesar has already defeated Pompey in a Civil War and is taking his place as the sole ruler of Rome. Many of Pompey’s supporters in the Senate, however, are either jealous of Caesar’s rise or fearful that he’ll become a dictator and end the Republic, or both. The play itself includes some three years of actual history, condensed into five days of action in the drama.
The first day is when Cassius, the Senator who is most jealous of Caesar, enlists Brutus in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. The second day is the Ides of March (March 15th), when Caesar goes to the Senate and is murdered, followed by his funeral. The third day is when Mark Antony, Octavius (Caesar’s nephew and adopted son), and the general Lepidus–the three of whom rule as a triumvirate after Caesar’s death–organize their armies in Rome. The fourth day, Cassius and Brutus plan their attack on Antony’s army. And the final day is the battle in Greece at Philippi.
What’s eerie about reading this play today is how many chills come from associations with our own political turmoil. Let’s start with the mob. Shakespeare holds the mob in contempt for how easily manipulated they are. At the beginning of the play, they are staunchly behind Caesar, but then when Brutus addresses them after the assassination, they switch to support him, even suggesting he should rule. Then just moments later, Antony manipulates them once more and they fall into line behind him and against Cassius and Brutus. The American electorate, social media, and fake news… what’s the difference between us and Shakespeare’s mob?
One of the most important conflicts in the play is the tension between the idea of a republic and a monarchy. Caesar was not king, but the Romans feared he might become one and that would signal the end of their republic. But for Shakespeare, who is writing this for an audience that wasn’t well-versed in Roman history, and at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was aging and had no heir, was strongly in support of a monarchy. The audience for this play would have been horrified by the assassination of Caesar. The instability of the Wars of the Roses was still vivid in Elizabethan memories and fears about what would happen after Elizabeth’s death were ripe.
There are several levels of meaning going on here, and I find it fascinating how they relate to our current political climate. First, while the play is a historical retelling, it’s about a potential dictator and the noble Senator who joins the plot to assassinate him. Second, it’s about the challenge of finding a suitable leader and in assessing the true nature of others. And finally, it is about the abuse of power. Take out the assassination plot and it could be 21st-Century America.
But the main character is Brutus, not Caesar. Is he a tragic character? Did his own miscalculations cause his demise? Were his decisions ultimately honorable?
I feel like a student again today, getting to read and research details about this play. I would think this one would be a great choice to teach today as a way of opening some contemporary political and ethical discussions. I know I enjoyed reading the play and the history and criticism about it. (I’ll spare you the footnotes from my research, but nota bene: the critical ideas I laid out here come from a variety of sources.)