Julius Caesar – What Shakespeare did with Plutarch

Shakespeare used his source for Julius Caesar carefully, which tells us about his purposes

You can still stand where great history has taken place. You can set your feet in the Roman Forum, in the spot where Mark Antony brought forth the body of Julius Caesar to show to the crowd, after Caesar’s murder by the conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. You could recite a few lines from Antony’s funeral oration:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

North’s Plutarch

Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar often provides a person’s main knowledge and understanding of Roman times. Shakespeare didn’t make the whole thing up; naturally he used sources to give him the key information for his play, and primarily he used a translation of Plutarch’s Life of Caesar written by a man named Thomas North. North was older than Shakespeare by about 30 years, but they were contemporaries. North published his first edition of Parallel Lives in 1579 and a second edition in 1595. Julius Caesar was first seen on stage in about 1599 and owes a considerable debt to North’s work. Interestingly, North was working from a French translation of Plutarch, so he was still at a distance from the original. The same could be said of Plutarch himself, a Greek writer working between 50 and 100 AD. As Caesar was killed in 44 BC, this separates Plutarch from the historical events by a century or more. As a Greek, writing so much later, it is inevitable that not everything he wrote was completely accurate. He also had an agenda to promote Greek values as he paralleled the lives of great Romans with great Greeks. As with all writing of history, there was an angle that Plutarch wanted to promote. His work, however, was praised by many, including Romans, and was influential throughout Europe up to and beyond the time of Shakespeare.

Although Plutarch was a Greek with a strongly Greek perspective, he nevertheless recognised Caesar as a great military and political man, even if he did not see him as pivotal in the destiny of the world. Shakespeare’s play focuses on Caesar’s last days and is therefore focused on his twilight and frailties which lead to his fall. Shakespeare’s other plays show a very different Caesar, with references to his power and military prowess in plays as far apart as Hamlet and Richard III. However, in the play that bears his name, although he has just returned from a victorious war with Pompey, he is portrayed as vain, naïve and physically frail.

Different Versions of Caesar

However, Shakespeare used his copy of North’s Plutarch closely; it is how he used it which is significant. An example is Caesar’s epilepsy – Plutarch records that Caesar suffered from ‘the falling sickness’ and commends the way he dealt with it, using ‘the pains of war as a medicine’. In Shakespeare, the information comes as part of Cassius’ litany of complaints against Caesar as he builds a picture of a physically weak man. While this suggests a weakness in Caesar, it more tellingly characterises Cassius as sniping and devious. This is developed by Shakespeare when Cassius also tells of Caesar failing in a challenge to swim across the Tiber. Plutarch records Caesar escaping from the Egyptians at Alexandria by swimming with one hand held out of the water because he was grasping books rescued from the burning of the library. Similarly, Cassius describes Caesar suffering from a fever in Spain and crying ‘like a sick girl’ for water. While Plutarch records instances of epilepsy and other illnesses, there is no direct parallel for this, and again Shakespeare seems to be saying as much about Cassius with these anecdotes than about Caesar.

Caesar’s Murder

In the events leading to Caesar’s death, however, Shakespeare follows Plutarch very closely. Plutarch refers to Caesar’s ‘covetous desire to be called king’ and refers to his contemptuous and histrionic behaviour, which is mirrored in the early scenes of Julius Caesar. Caesar’s response to Antony offering him a crown, narrated in the play by Casca, is taken from North’s Plutarch, but again the manner of the speech characterises Casca as well as informing the audience about what happened. Crucially, the events leading to Caesar’s murder all faithfully follow Plutarch, but the speeches are Shakespeare’s own. Caesar’s references to himself as ‘Olympus’ and ‘constant as the northern star’ are self-aggrandising and key parts of Shakespeare’s own characterisation of Caesar.

Shakespeare’s Focus

So what was Shakespeare up to, with careful use of North’s Plutarch in some places, and clear invention in others? A key is that Julius Caesar, in the play named after him, is dead before half way through. That shows that his interest in the play is not Caesar himself, but the motivations for rebellion and the aftermath of his murder. Julius Caesar is a play that is interested in shifts in politics rather than in biography. For this, Shakespeare needed a Caesar who had been great, but against whom revolt was comprehensible – focusing on Caesar’s weaknesses allowed Shakespeare to explore different motivations among the conspirators, from Brutus’ idealism to Cassius’ personal jealousy. In this play, Caesar is the fall guy; the references to him in other plays show that Shakespeare selected from Plutarch judiciously and knew that there was more to Julius Caesar than this.