History Schmistory – Caesar Is A Play About Power


Artistic Director Scott Palmer talks about his approach to Shakespeare’s “history” play, Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is categorized as a history play, but it is not history. Like most of Shakespeare’s work, he played incredibly fast and loose with facts, details, nuances and history in favor of a good story that resonated with his particular audience. As Horst Zander in Julius Caesar, New Critical Essays, writes, Shakespeare was so successful at painting a picture of the fictional Julius Caesar, he nearly eclipsed the historical facts about the real Julius Caesar. Zander writes, “Although the case is not as bad as that of Richard III, where generations of historians have struggled in vain to revise the portrait dramatized by the playwright, attempts by historians to present a “faithful” picture of Caesar often seem to be marred by the one popularized in Shakespeare’s drama.”

That hasn’t stopped Caesar from being one of the single most successful of all Shakespeare’s plays, and, surprisingly, it is one of Shakespeare’s plays that people are most familiar with: Zander writes, “Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy has run through more editions, and more copies, than any play in any language. […It] has introduced generations of school children to Shakespeare and to Roman society. Unique in the canon, Julius Caesar has never been out of vogue. It has been continually recalled to the stage for four hundred years-a play for all times and all audiences. As a consequence of this enormous popularity-the image of Caesar created by Shakespeare is quite dominant in the public view, and one has to remind oneself that Shakespeare, not Caesar, gasped “Et tu, Brute?”

Zander continues, “It has frequently been demonstrated how effectively Shakespeare manages to condense an action that stretches over a considerable time and takes place at various sites into a tight temporal and spatial textual web. Historically, the events of the play cover a period of about two and a half years…” and Shakespeare takes this historical data and crams it into the space of a few short weeks. By doing so, Shakespeare highlights some of his favorite  characters and puts forth their actions as a means of advancing a very specific political view that was particularly relevant to Elizabethans and to Queen Elizabeth: Who has the right to rule? What is just rule? What is the best nature for our leaders? What is the nature of good in politics?

These are powerful questions and Shakespeare crafted his play to ask them…he did not craft his play as a tool of historical accuracy. Quite the contrary, Shakespeare adapted the tale of Caesar with a specific series of moral questions by using a pretty shoddy respect for history.

That is why I have no problem at all rewriting the history of Julius Caesar: Shakespeare wasn’t interested in presenting a history play, he was interested in using, abusing and manipulating history to ask resonant, powerful and relevant questions about the nature of power and political justice. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it is certainly good enough for us…

Online Shakespeare Resource tells us that Shakespeare’s main source in writing the play was Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Plutarch wrote in the first century A.D. and is thought to have recorded his biographies as an early historian.

Shakespeare condenses the action in Julius Caesar (as in many of his historical dramas), breaking away fairly dramatically from Plutarch. Online Shakespeare Resources tells us, “For example, Shakespeare places Caesar’s triumph over Pompey’s sons with the Lupercalia in February, whereas Plutarch indicates the victory took place in October. With this time change, the assassination on the Ides of March appears to be in response to Caesar’s growing influence and arrogance. Furthermore, in Shakespeare’s version, Brutus and Cassius flee from Rome immediately after Antony’s speech to the Roman mob, but Plutarch describes them withdrawing from the city over a year after Caesar’s funeral. These differences cause the Roman leaders’ personal flaws and strengths to appear far more important in shaping the action of the plot.”

Shakespeare’s cast for Julius Caesar includes numerous characters, some of whom were not particularly relevant to the historical actions of the assassination, some of whom were but who are reduced in scope by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare also plays fast and loose with the facts as they related to Portia and to Calpurnia….Perhaps one of the greatest historical inaccuracies in Shakespeare’s play is his treatment of Caesar himself.

It is inconceivable and not historically accurate that Caesar played such a small role in the days and weeks preceding his assassination. “Shakespeare creates only a limited depth to Caesar’s characterization, mainly relying on the negative reports from those most hostile to him…” as they were reported by Plutarch.

Shakespeare never intended the play to be historically accurate: he puts a freaking mechanical clock in the play. Mechanical clocks hadn’t been invented yet!

Dana Jackson writes, “It is hard to dispute that Shakespeare based this play almost entirely on what he had read from Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated into English by Thomas North in 1579, the text was popular and Shakespeare certainly had access to it. Although Shakespeare found use for most of the material through his several Roman plays, for Julius Caesar he focused on Plutarch’s Lives of Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus….Like all great writers, however, Shakespeare did more than simply reiterate from the source he drew on. Shakespeare made many alterations to Plutarch’s account, including those that change the narration into a dramatic stage format and those that transcend both Plutarch and the theater to reveal something of Shakespeare’s own understanding of this Roman history.”

One of my favorite and most useful examples of this condensing of history by Shakespeare is the assassination itself. Michael Billington, a historian and Shakespeare scholar, writes, “The assassination of Caesar, as recorded in Suetonius (another historian) is a prolonged, messy fight to the death…” and not the one, two, three, Caesar is dead portrayal Shakespeare gives us.

But all of this doesn’t stop critics, and some scholars, from calling upon theatre folk to “stay true to the history…”

Charles Culbertson, writing in the theatre magazine Footlights and Spotlights in 2011, “At some point over the last few years, theaters around the world decided that no one would ever again see Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as it was written – that is, set in Rome in 44 B.C. and centering on the famous emperor, his assassination and the political vacuum that followed. Directors have set it among warlords of Africa and paramilitary revolutionaries in Belfast, populated it with all-female casts and bastardized it in a thousand other moronic, socio-political ways. Shakespeare wasn’t known for historical accuracy in his plays, but “Julius Caesar” is somewhat on point even though the Bard did do some telescoping of dates and events. Because of this uncharacteristically accurate treatment of historical matter – he follows pretty closely Plutarch’s narrative in “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans” – it makes all the tortured reworkings by modern theater types just that much more irritating.”

I would argue that, in many ways, being wedded to the play as a piece of history is even more problematic because, let’s be honest, the play isn’t Shakespeare’s best history play nor is it his best piece of drama. Yes, it has some of his best verse, some of his grandest rhetoric, some of his most inventive stage pictures, but it is a play of two halves in which the first half is dominated by the build up to the assassination and a second half that is mostly rhetorical wordplay and an overly complex and almost impossible to follow series of time-bending scenes and the introduction of new characters introduced in the vein of the Miss Universe pageant’s opening credits….

Charles Spencer of The Telegraph writes about Caesar, “after the thrilling oratory and bloody assassination of the first three acts, Shakespeare’s play dwindles into tedious inconsequentiality”.

One critic calls Caesar, “Curriculum-staple Caesar is a sub-par play of two bewilderingly different halves.”

In 1712 John Dennis criticized Shakespeare’s ignorance of ancient works, which led Dennis to portray Caesar as “but a Fourth-rate Actor in his own Tragedy.”

Twenty years earlier, Thomas Rymer had maintained that Shakespeare misrepresented not simply the protagonist but all the major characters: he “sins… against the most known History and the memory of the noblest Romans.”

Rymer specially condemned the depiction of Brutus, picking his speech as entirely inappropriate, “unless from some son of the Shambles, or some natural offspring of
the Butchery.”

He alludes to Shakespeare’s connection to the cattle industry through his father’s early work as a glover, which John Aubrey embellished as follows: “his father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he kill’d a calf, he would do it in high style, and make a speech.”

Lloyd Davis in Embodied Masculinity in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, writes, “For Rymer and Dennis, the gap between history, genre, and Shakespeare’s characterization threatens to expose and undermine historical tradition.”

From my perspective, aggressively and irrationally adhering to the “history” of Caesar is just as bad as not recognizing that the play has serious dramatic and structural problems…problems that were apparent when it was first written and for hundreds of years afterwards.

But, having said that, there is also a danger in OVER-REACTING to these problems and staging the play in a context or using a vehicle that destroys what strengths the script DOES possess; ambiguity of character motives that complicate an audience’s reactions, the complexity of moral questions and the nuanced layers of sympathy and revulsion that audiences feel about the main characters, and the kick ass fight scenes.

What I have tried to do in this adaptation is to address what I see as some of the narrative issues with the second half by condensing it into a shorter, more easily followed narrative structure that focuses on the characters introduced in the first half. In addition, we (like Shakespeare) have done away with the pesky need to adhere to a strict historical timeline and, instead, condense the action into a few days following the assassination and the escape of Brutus and Cassius.

Perhaps more provocative is my choice to give Portia the chance to die ONSTAGE rather than offstage and altered the text to allow Brutus to learn of Portia’s death AFTER his argument with Cassius about justice. These two elements are consistently criticized by literary critics and, rather than retain such weak narrative structure, we have tried to fix them by moving a few things around and also giving Portia an opportunity to die in view of the audience.

There are other things we have changed, and lots of things we have cut, but we have also tried to address the one great flaw in Shakespeare’s great work: the painfully small role that Caesar himself plays in his own life and death. To do so, I have incorporated text from both Colley Cibber’s Caesar In Egypt which includes a long and passionate debate between Caesar and Antony about the nature of power and the reasons for Caesar’s ambitions. I think it helps to clarify and deepen our understanding of Caesar’s motives and also gives the actor playing the role a little more to do in the title role.

There is more (not least of which is the choice to cast all women in the roles but, given that the play would have been performed exclusively by men when first written, this feels to me to be among the least interesting alterations)…but ultimately what we are trying to do is to cast aside the chains of Shakespeare’s perceived HISTORY in favor of a script that grapples with questions of morality, justice, governance, guilt and power; an exploration that is truly universal and very, very timely.