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Shakespeare and Caesar

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare, the famous English playwright, known to schoolchildren mainly as the creator of Hamlet and Macbeth, wrote many plays about the lives of historical figures, mainly of the old English kings. Among his works, however, there are also some directly related to ancient Rome, such as the drama about the life and the death of Julius Caesar. How faithfully did the writer render the events of March and the days after them? Did he change and colour the story, or did he base his work on detailed accounts of ancient historians?

First of all, it should be said that Shakespeare has departed significantly from what actually happened in the last days of Caesar, his murder and what followed after him. Researchers recognize that in most cases this was due to the requirements of pace and drama. However, in some cases, despite the plot deviating from reality, there are still references to facts and, despite the changing scenery or time, the author seems to be aware of his creative modifications.

Already at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare combines the events actually separated by several months – the triumph of Caesar and Lupercalia. Caesar returned to Rome in 45 BCE and its triumph came shortly after, and the celebration of Lupercalia did not take place until February. The fact is that Marcus Antony offered Julius Caesar a tiara, the symbol of the Greek monarchs, but it was not, as Shakespeare portrayed, a crown, nor was Caesar forced to say three times. Also in the pivotal murder case, the author condensed many events and even changed their order – while in fact Caesar’s will was read three days after his death and his funeral followed two more, the play suggests that the death, funeral, reading of the will, and the arrival of Octavian occur on the same day. In fact, Octavian did not come to Rome until May.

In addition to Brutus and Cassius, there were actually about sixty other conspirators during the when only 10 were depicted in the play. For additional drama, the writer also added a prophecy of death (“Beware the ides of March…”), which is not confirmed by any historical source. Also Caesar’s last words (“Et tu, Brute?”) Were made up, although they were copied from other Elizabethan plays, and Suetonius mentions that there were unconfirmed accounts that Caesar was going to say “You too, young man?” in Greek. The several-week period between the two clashes that made up the Battle of Philippi the author completely eliminated, telling the heroes to finish the battle on the same day.

The very site of the art scene’s climax was changed – when in fact Caesar died in Pompey’s Curia, the meeting place at Pompey’s Theater, Shakespeare transferred the event to the Senate. However, he did not diminish the drama of Caesar’s relationship with Pompey – at the author’s will, Caesar’s body fell at the foot of the Pompey statue…

Author: Jakub Ernt (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
  • Suetonius, Caesar

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