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By several of the older editors Julius Cæsar is considered as one of Shakespeare's later plays; but the range of dates of composition stretches between 1599 as the earliest, down to and including 1608. Of the thirty commentators who have discussed this question, seven are in favour of 1607; six, in favour of 1601; five, in favour of 1599; three, in favour of 1603; two, for 1600. The remaining five are somewhat non-committal, preferring a date within certain limits, with no more definite assignment. That the two dates, 1601 and 1607– separated by six years-should be thus so closely shared by the larger number of editors—seven for the later date; six for the earlier
seems, at first sight, somewhat odd; the reason is, however, not far to seek: The first editors, beginning with Capell, all accepted the later date, partly on account of the style and general treatment of the tragedy as showing the maturer poet; partly on account of its apparent close relation to Hamlet; and it was not until HALLIWELL in 1865 pointed out a passage in Weever's Mirror of Martyrs, published in 1601, wherein there is a reference to the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony on the death of Cæsar, and, though Weever does not mention Shakespeare's play, his use of the word 'ambitious' as that of Brutus, and his saying how Mark Antony by his eloquence showed Cæsar's virtues, point pretty clearly to the fact that he had before him the memory of a very striking scene. Whether it were that in Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar who shall say? Halliwell himself later was disposed to discount somewhat the value of this piece of external evidence, characterising it as a 'possibility derived from an apparent reference' to Shakespeare's play; but, nevertheless, his discovery turned the tide in favour of the earlier date for the composition, 1601. The Mirror of Martyrs was, however, written two years before its publication-Weever says so in his dedication-moreover, Meres, in his Palladis Tamia, 1598, among other works of Shakespeare, does not enumerate Julius Cæsar; these two facts will account for the year 1599 being accepted by the other editors. It is, I think, well-nigh impossible to assign the date within limits closer than these two years, 1599 to 1601, and, therefore, accept that period as its time of composition. The whole question is, however, purely academic, and whether Julius Cæsar were written in 1599 or 1607 can in no way
affect our admiration of Antony's oration; the scenes between Brutus and Cassius; or the wonderful dramatic climax.
Shakespeare's indebtedness to Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch for the plot of his tragedy, and for countless details, has been universally admitted. The lives of Julius Cæsar, Marcus Brutus, and Antonius are so wonderfully blended that a narration of the plot of the play forms a remarkably coherent story; and it is only by seeing the many passages that have been used in its composition that we realise Shakespeare's marvellous ingenuity in dramatic construction. Certain details have been omitted; others given prominence; incidents widely separated are placed in close sequence, and the auditor is now hurried on, now held back. What cares he that actually more than a year elapsed between the murder of Cæsar, the proscriptions of the Triumvirate, and the first battle at Philippi? Or that, in reality, three weeks separated the first encounter at that place from the death of Brutus?
In the Appendix will be found a transcript from Leo's facsimile of those portions of North's Plutarch, ed. 1595, on which are based the incidents of the tragedy; throughout the Commentary references are, however, made to the passages in SkEat's volume, Shakespeare's Plutarch-this for two reasons, first, Skeat's text is that of the edition of 1603, and it is at times interesting to note the slight verbal changes between the two editions; secondly, for convenience of reference; the chapter divisions as in Skeat's work are entirely absent in the earlier edition.
That Shakespeare consulted the works of other Roman historians is not impossible, but that he made any extensive use of The Lives of the Cæsars, by Suetonius, is, I think, doubtful; Philemon Holland's translation did not appear until 1602, which is late if we accept the date of composition as between 1599-1601. Malone's references to Holland's Suetonius are based on his belief in the later date, 1607. With Appian's Civil Wars the case is different; of this a translation by Bynniman was made in 1578. Shakespeare has apparently taken certain points in Antony's oration over Cæsar from the harangue as given at length in Appian's account of the funeral. Plutarch mentions the displaying of the blood-stained mantle by Antony and the frenzy of the people, but does not give the substance of the speech. That Appian's report is authentic is not contended-it was written over two hundred years after the event-it is merely what Appian thought Antony should have said. On the same principle Samuel Johnson wrote the Parliamentary Debates, and did not, as he said, allow 'the Whig dogs to have the best of it.'
Satisfactory evidence of Shakespeare's acquaintance with the other Greek historian, Dion Cassius, is, so far, not forthcoming. His Annals of the Roman People was but little known in Shakespeare's time; no translation appeared until early in 1700; the work was, therefore, accessible to those only who could read it in the original Greek.
Too little attention, I think, has been paid heretofore by editors and commentators of the present play to the writings of Cicero—not that Shakespeare has made use of these, but that they contain many valuable hints in regard to contemporary events, and thus furnish a check upon the incidents related by Plutarch. Taken together, Cicero's Letters and the Philippics give almost a daily record of those troublous times preceding and following the assassination of Cæsar. For example, in Plutarch's Life of Cæsar it is said that Decius Brutus was the conspirator who drew Marc Antony out of the way during the murder; in the Life of Brutus this office is given to Trebonius; but the question of identity is settled at once by a letter to Trebonius, 2 February, B. C. 43, from Cicero, who, in referring to the assassination, says: 'In fact, for Antony's having been taken out of the way by you,... I sometimes feel, though perhaps I have no right to do so, a little angry with you.' (See note on III, i, 33.) Again, Cicero's letter to Atticus, wherein he gives his opinion of the oration by Brutus after Cæsar's death, is an interesting piece of testimony from one who was an acknowledged master of the art of the orator. Cicero's letter, also, to Brutus, offering his sympathy on the death of Portia, is corroboration of Plutarch's statement that her death preceded that of Brutus.
Although, as has been shown, Shakespeare follows where North leads and trusts to his guide for the salient points of his drama, there is a curious discrepancy as regards the character of the protagonist, Julius Cæsar. The reader of North’s Plutarch is at once struck with the nobility of the character of Cæsar, the intrepid warrior, astute statesman, and sagacious governor, and although his biographer does not disguise the fact that in his later years Cæsar became vain and arrogant, that side of his character is not given undue prominence. Very different is, however, the Cæsar of Shakespeare. He is a braggart, inflated with the idea of his own importance; speaking of his decrees as of those of a god. The Roman Senate is his Senate, and himself like Olympian Jove. In fact, in his life nothing becomes him like the leaving it; his most dignified action is that of his death, with his face muffled in his mantle. Wherefore then did Shakespeare depart thus from his authority? We know, from many references in the other plays, that Julius Cæsar was one in whom Shakespeare ever took a keen interest. In the present tragedy Antony speaks of him as the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times; and Brutus, as the foremost man of all this world. The solution of this is found in the fact that Shakespeare is but following the traditional representation of Cæsar as manifested in the writings of his predecessors. The gradual evolution of the braggart Cæsar from its direct prototypes— the Hercules of Seneca, and the Ajax of Sophocles--is the subject of a careful study by H. M. AYRES, the main points of which, so far as they relate to the Character of Cæsar, will be found in the Appendix.
Although Julius Cæsar apparently held a prominent place as an historic character in Shakespeare's regard, as such he occupies but comparatively a small part in the tragedy which bears his name. The themes of the action are the conflict in the mind of Brutus between two opposing interests—love of country and love of Cæsar as friend and benefactor; his decision to sacrifice that friend upon the altar of his country; and his tragic suicide in ignorance of his complete failure as a patriot. It would almost seem as though Brutus were rightly the titular hero. The bodily presence of Cæsar, it is true, disappears from the scene at the beginning of the third Act, yet thereafter his spiritual presence is omnipresent and brings about the final catastrophe. Antony's prophecy, that Cæsar's spirit shall come forth ranging for revenge, is fulfilled. Brutus recognizes its power at the death of Cassius, and his last words bear witness to his belief that by his death alone will that perturbed spirit find rest. This is but the carrying out of the classic idea of tragedy: mortals striving impotently against fate; and Shakespeare, according to his invariable custom, has chosen the most dramatically effective treatment of his material. If any tragedy is to be named from that character which is its dominant force, then this can be called by no name other than Julius Cæsar.
The incidents connected with the career of Cæsar, especially his rivalry with Pompey, have been made the subject of dramas by other authors. As early as 1561 there was performed at Whitehall a play entitled Julius Cæsar, which is mentioned by COLLIER* as the earliest instance of a subject from Roman History being brought upon the English stage. Not all of these dramas are extant; such of them as have survived are now known in only their printed form; some never even gained a hearing in the theatre; but they one and all bear witness within themselves to the cause of their early deaths: they are unrelievedly tedious. That one which is perhaps the best known, chiefly on account of MALONE's references in his notes on the present play,
is The Tragedy of Julius Cæsar, by Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (or Sterline, as he himself prints in his title-pages). His tragedy is based upon Plutarch's Life of Cæsar, and was composed probably in 1604 or 1606, though not published until 1607. It has been lately shown that, in large part, Alexander's work is a translation of a tragedy by Jules Grévin, which, in turn, is based on one in Latin by Muret.* The one or two points wherein Alexander's tragedy coincides with Shakespeare's may be ascribed to the fact that their source of information was identical, namely, Plutarch. Alexander's final and authorised edition of his Tragedy was published, with his other works, in a volume entitled Recreations with the Muses, in 1637. A reprint of this is included in the Appendix to the present volume.
A work on somewhat the same theme, by an author now unknown, entitled The Tragedy of Cæsar and Pompey, or Cæsar's Revenge, was performed at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1605, and published in 1607. Its chief claim to notoriety now is that it was the first drama in English, on a classic theme, performed at either of the Universities. It is thoroughly academic in treatment; at no point does it rise above a uniform level of dulness, and one is divided in opinion as to which deserves the more commiseration—the unhappy performers on that occasion or their patient auditors.
George Chapman's Tragedy, of the same title as this Trinity College play, was probably composed some years before its publication in 1631. Like its predecessor, it is academic in form, and is based upon the lives of Cæsar, Pompey, and Marcus Cato as related by Plutarch; but neither in point of poetic style nor in dramatic construction is it worthy of comparison to Chapman's later works.
While, as has been said, the story of Cæsar's life was the first subject from Roman history to be cast in dramatic form for the English stage, Shakespeare's tragedy was the first of all his works to be translated into German, and through which he became first known in Germany. This translation was by Caspar Wilhelm von Borck, who was Prussian envoy in London from 1735 to 1738, its title-page is as follows: Versuch einer gebundenen Uebersetzung des Trauer-Spiels von dem Tode Julius Cæsar. Aus dem Englischen Werke des Shakespeare. Berlin, bey Ambrosius Hande—1741.7 Ten years before this date Voltaire had composed his tragedy, La Mort de César, which he did not hesitate
* H. M. AYRES: Shakespeare's Jul. Cæs. in the Light of Some Other Versions, p. 220.
† W. PAETOW: Die Erste metrische Deutsche Uebersetzung, passim.