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TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CÆSAR.
The First Edition. Julius Cæsar was first published in the Folio of 1623. It was printed with exceptional care, and its text is so accurate, that (as the Cambridge editors rightly observe) it may perhaps have been printed from the original manuscript of the author. In this respect it contrasts strongly with the play preceding it in the Folio, the tragedy of Timon of Athens. It would seem that the printing of Julius Cæsar was proceeded with before the Editors had procured the copy of Timon (vide Preface to "Timon").
The play is mentioned in the Stationers' Registers, under date of Nov. 8, 1623, as one of sixteen plays not previously entered to other men.
The Source of the Plot. Shakespeare derived his materials for Julius Cæsar from Sir Thomas North's famous translation of Plutarch's "Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans," and more especially from the Lives of Cæsar, Brutus, and Antony. In this play, as in the case of Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, it is impossible to over-estimate Shakespeare's debt to North's monumental version of the work which has been described as "most sovereign in its dominion over the minds of great men in all ages." In Julius Cæsar, as in the other Roman plays, the dramatist has often borrowed North's very expressions,* while "of the incident there is almost nothing which he does not owe to Plutarch." * One example will suffice to show the correspondence of the verse and prose :"I dare assure thee that no enemy
Shall ever take alive the noble Brutus :
He will be found like Brutus, like himself."
(V. iv. 21-25.
Cp. "I dare assure thee, that no enemy hath taken or shall take Marcus Brutus alive, and I beseech God keep him from that fortune; for wheresoever he be found, alive or dead, he will be found like himself.”—(North's Life of Brutus.)
Nevertheless, a comparison of the play with its original reveals the poet's transforming power; he has thrown "a rich mantle of poetry over all, which is not wholly his own.” *
The literary history of North's book is briefly summarised on its titlepage:"The Lives of the Noble Grecians, compared together by that grave learned philosopher and historiographer PLUTARKE OF CHERONIA, translated out of Greek into French by JAMES AMYOT, Abbot of Bellozane, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the King's Privy Council, and great Amner of France, and now out of French into English by THOMAS NORTH. 1759."†
Specially noteworthy is Shakespeare's compression of the action, for the purposes of dramatic representation, e.g. (i) Cæsar's triumph is made coincident with the Lupercalia (historically it was celebrated six months before); (ii) the combination of the two battles of Philippi (the interval of twenty days being ignored); (iii) the murder, the funeral orations, and the arrival of Octavius, are made to take place on the same day (not so actually).
Again, Shakespeare departs from Plutarch in making the Capitol the scene of the murder, instead of the Curia Pompeiana. In this point, however, he follows a literary tradition, which is already found in Chaucer's Monk's Tale :
"In the Capitol anon him hente (i.e. seized)
This false Brutus, and his other foon,
And stikked him with bodëkins anoon
With many a wound, and thus they let him lie."
(It will be remembered that Polonius in his student-days "did enact Julius Cæsar," "I was killed i' the Capitol; Brutus killed me.' "It was a brute part," observed Hamlet, "to kill so capital a calf there," Hamlet, III. ii. 108-110.)
The Date of Composition.
Perhaps the most valuable piece of external evidence for the date of Julius Casar is to be found in Weever's
* Vide Trench's Lectures on Plutarch (pp 64-66).
The best modern edition is that now in course of publication in Mr Nutt's "Tudor Translations"; Vol. I. contains an excellent introductory study by Mr Wyndham. Prof. Skeat's Shakespeare's Plutarch (Macmillan) is a valuable and handy book for students.
It is impossible to say which edition of North's Plutarch was used by Shakespeare: new editions appeared in 1595, 1603, and 1612. As far as Julius Cæsar is concerned the choice is limited to the first and second editions. The Greenock 1612 edition, with the initials W. S. and with some suggestive notes in the Life of Julius Cæsar, was certainly not used for the present play (vide Preface to Coriolanus).
Mirror of Martyrs, printed in 1601; the following lines are obviously a direct reference to the present play :
"The many-headed multitude were drawn
By Brutus' speech, that Cæsar was ambitious.
His virtues, who but Brutus then was vicious?"
Similarly, Drayton's Barons' Wars—a revised version made before 1603 of his Mortimeriados, 1596—contains what may possibly have been a reminiscence of Shakespeare's famous lines :
"His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him," etc.*
This external evidence, pointing to circa 1601 as the date of the play, is borne out by general considerations of style and versification. The paucity of light-endings and weak-endings (10 of the former, and none of the latter) contrasts with the large number found in the other Roman plays (71 and 28, respectively, in Antony; 60 and 44 in Coriolanus).
An interesting suggestion connects Julius Cæsar with the political affairs of 1601, to wit, Essex' reckless conspiracy. It is probably saying too much to make the play a political manifesto, but the subject would certainly "come home to the ears and hearts of a London audience of 1601, after the favourite's outbreak against his sovereign. Et tu Brute!' would mean more to them than to us" (Dr Furnivall, Academy, Sept. 18, 1875).
Julius Cæsar and Hamlet. Brutus and Hamlet are, as it were, twin-brothers,-idealists forced to take a prominent part in the world * It is remarkable that the 1619 edition of The Barons' Wars, containing a further revision of the passage, comes very near indeed to the passage in Shakespeare, e.g. :— "As that it seemed, when Nature him began
She meant to show all that might be a man."
+ Mr Fleay thinks that the present form of the play belongs to the year 1607, and that it represents an abridgement of a fuller play; hence "the paucity of rhymes, the number of short lines, and the brevity of the play." The same critic holds that Ben Jonson abridged the play. "Shakespeare and Jonson probably worked together on Sejanus in 1602-3. He having helped Jonson then in a historical play, what more likely than that Jonson should be chosen to remodel Shakespeare's Cæsar, if it needed to be reproduced in a shorter form than he gave it originally? And for such reproduction (after Shakespeare's death, between 1616 and 1623) to what author would such work of abridgement have been entrusted except Shakespeare's critical friend Jonson? Fletcher would have enlarged, not shortened" (cp. Shakespeare Manual, pp. 262-270). But would the learned Jonson have permitted such errors as "Decius" Brutus, and the like? The student should contrast the archæologically "correct," but lifeless, Sejanus, with Shakespeare's living characters infused with the Roman spirit.
of action, when they would fain contemplate the actions of others; action brings ruin alike to the reckless philosopher and to the irresolute blood-avenger. Shakespeare recognised the kinship of the two characters, and it would seem, from internal evidence, that his mind was busy with the two conceptions at about the same time. Polonius, as has already been pointed out, prides himself on his personation of Julius Casar, while at the University; Horatio, who is "more an antique Roman than a Dane," sees in the apparition of "the buried majesty of Denmark" the precurse of fierce events, even as
"In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets";
Hamlet, in the graveyard, moralises on "Imperious Cæsar, dead and turned to dust"; when the King, watching the poison of deep grief' in poor Ophelia, reproaches himself for having done but greenly "in huggermugger" to inter her father, who can doubt that the strange phrase is a reminiscence of North's Life of Brutus ? *
The Speech of Brutus. If, as is most probable, Julius Cæsar preceded Hamlet, it is not altogether surprising to find in the latter play these striking references to the former subject. It would, however, prove a matter of greater interest and importance were we to discover in Julius Cæsar some direct connexion with the subject of Hamlet. The present writer ventures to think he may have found some such connexion. Brutus' famous address to the assembled Romans (III. ii.) has an irresistible fascination for the student of the play. Its curtness is said to be in imitation of the speaker's "famed laconic brevity," whereof Shakespeare found a vivid account in North's Life of Brutus,† but one looks in vain for any suggestion of the speech in any of the Lives.‡
The original of the speech, according to the theory here hazarded, is
Antony thinking good that Cæsar's body should be honourably buried, and not in hugger-mugger."
"When the war began he wrote unto the Pergamenians in this sort: 'I understand you have given Dolabella money; if you have done so willingly, you confess you have offended me; if against your wills, shew it then by giving me willingly.' Another time again unto the Samians: 'Your councils be long, your doings be slow, consider the end '" (Life of Brutus).
Similarly, no direct source for Antony's speech to the citizens (III. ii.) is to be found in Plutarch. It is just possible that a few bare hints were derived from Appian's History of the Civil War, which had been translated, from Greek, into English before 1578.