Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a game of mirrors

During the year 1599 Shakespeare was to bring forth two high comedies, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, the last of his plays dedicated to English sovereigns, Henry V, and a roman play, Julius Caesar, while probably preparing Hamlet. Though the shortest of them all and considered simple and straightforward enough so as to be chosen a typical high school reading, Julius Caesar gives rise to a series of questions that cannot easily be answered. These range from trying to decide who the true hero of the play is, Brutus or Julius Caesar, to whether the hero is a tragic one in the classic sense or not, in what way Shakespeare followed suit or fruitfully betrayed his sources, how to make a historically contextualized reading of the play in order to draw the supposedly many parallels between Rome and Elizabethan England, or the making of a comparative reading between Julius Caesar and Hamlet, as both portray the story of a victim and its killer. Furthermore, as H. Bloom points out, Brutus is difficult to characterize. In fact, his ambiguity is such that some critics have considered it to be the real theme of the play, while others have said that it is “a play about a problem: the difficulty – perhaps the impossibility – of knowing the truth of men and of history”[1]

The aim of this paper is to offer possible answers from the starting point of Shakespeare’s sources. The process is as follows: by analyzing what Shakespeare probably took to be the true facts of the real characters depicted in the play, according to his sources, and then considering how and why he adapted this “truth” to his own interests, we might reach the core of the play. At the same time I will draw parallel lines with what I consider to be a key issue to the understanding of the play: the fact that the characters of Brutus and Hamlet were very closely linked in Shakespeare’s mind and intentions.

Who was Brutus? This somewhat shady personage was known to Shakespeare –and to most English- since grammar school, though he became more acquainted with him by means of North’s translation into English of Amyot’s translation into French of Plutarch’s work Parallel Lives. Other sources, with other implications, have been pointed out, such as Orlando Pescetti’s Cesare, John Hayward’s The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV, or Tacitus and the myth that his Annals originated of Brutus being Julius Caesar’s illegitimate son, which Shakespeare decided to ignore.

Brutus aligned during his lifetime with different political factions, initially against the First Triumvirate, one of whose members, Pompey the Great, had killed his father, Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder. However, during the 49 B.C. Civil War, Brutus supported Pompey against Caesar. Having lost this war, Brutus was granted swift pardon by Caesar, who made him a member of his inner circle, governor of Gaul and finally city praetor. For this latter post he bitterly measured himself against Cassius, but was eventually favoured by Caesar. This seemingly random political behaviour also finds reflection in his private life, for he was first married to Claudia and afterwards divorced her without any particular reason, just to marry Portia.

All of this was known to Shakespeare through his main sources. However, the character he decided to depict, as well as his desire to set up a coherent play, required him to make a series of significant changes. Furthermore, the spectre of Hamlet might have been roaming in his mind already, most probably so, conditioning the kind of hero Brutus was going to be.

The first problem Shakespeare had to face was the question of around which character the play was going to spin, who the tragic hero was to be. From the title of the play one would think it was Julius Caesar, but this does not necessarily follow, as Shakespeare had already made his Henry IV evolve around Hal, the future Henry V. We could also try and decide which character would interest Shakespeare more in that particular moment of his life and in the political circumstances of his time. According to Marvin Spevack, “Shakespeare’s interest (was) in public affairs, in problems of power and rule, in the qualities of the ideal governor, in the confrontation of ideologies, in the clash of armies, in civil conflict, in the collision of the high and low members of the body politic, in history qua history (as well as in) the crystallization of character in history, the emergence of individual personalities, and thus the inextricability of public and private affairs.”[2] Due to the recent tensions with Essex and the scandal of John Hayward’s book, all historical dramas on English issues were banned, despite which Shakespeare was still intent on depicting the conflicts of his time. A shift to Rome was most convenient. However, England is properly there. Caesar’s disabilities (his deafness, his fits of epilepsy, his incapacity to produce an heir –though Calpurnia is put to blame- and his feeble fears of omens) echo Elisabeth’s ageing majesty, Brutus’ plot to kill Caesar reminds the many plots Elisabeth survived, as well as curiously anticipating Essex’ own plot against her, and finally, Elisabeth was probably becoming in the eyes of her people the tyrant that Caesar, according to Cassius, was bound to become. On the other hand, and confronted with a more natural ending of her reign, caused by the inevitable death by old age, what greater praise to her than making her spirit, the spirit of her reign, unassailable, eternal? For that is what the spirit of Caesar becomes. Caesarism survived and was to be, for centuries, all pervading in the Roman Empire. Whether this be good or bad, is another matter.

Thus, accordingly, Shakespeare’s play revolves around the figure of Caesar, which is its centre. What is more, the character of Caesar properly fits into the qualities of the tragic hero. He is of high birth, he has tragic flaws, namely his suggested lust for power as shown in his playing with the crown and his eventual arrogance in facing the omens, which bring about his peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, his death, and he has his brief moment of anagnorisis, when recognising Brutus among his killers and consequently submitting to them. The fact that Caesar dies at such an early stage of the play or that his part is so small compared to that of Brutus or Cassius, the other candidates to being the tragic hero, does not diminish his stature at all. In fact, his disappearance favours his growing abstract presence, as if he had put on Tolkien`s one ring.

However, is not the Caesar we are constantly shown, no matter if before or after his death, seen from the eyes of Brutus? For though there is no specific point of view in a play, we are inclined to stand by Brutus from the onset. And is not Brutus’ tragedy, the tragedy of “a man of moral excellence (who) yet murdered the greatest man in the world”[3], a greater and much more interesting tragedy than Caesar’s? And here we must remember that Brutus, in spite of being Plutarch’s pattern of perfection, was made even more perfect by Shakespeare, who avoided putting into Brutus’ portrait some of the dubious elements of his character that do appear in Plutarch. Shakespeare definitely wanted to rescue Brutus from the innermost circles of Hell where Dante had put him.

This brings me back to the close reading of the sources that Shakespeare used, following the detailed study made by M.W.Maccallum.[4] Herewith I will point out the different ways in which Shakespeare altered his main source, while expanding further in those cases that affect the role of Brutus.

Shakespeare concentrates the action that verily took place over a period of three years (October, 45 B.C. to October, 42 B.C.) into five days. Such a concentration and overlapping of time helps avoiding some embarrassing details concerning, for example, Brutus’ wife, Portia, who had been married before, as well as he. “The ideal beauty of their relation is unbrushed by any hint of their previous alliances.”[5]

The initial coolness between Brutus and Cassius is attributed to “Brutus’ inward conflicts and to Cassius’ misconstruction of his preoccupation”, instead of to the conflict they had had over the position of City Praetor. “But it would not answer Shakespeare’s purpose to show Brutus as moved by personal ambition”. The nature of Brutus’ preoccupation is a point we will further on return to.

Cinna’s end is a completely original element introduced by Shakespeare. So is also introducing Calpurnia showing her to be so far barren. Furthermore, the spirit-ghost of Caesar is also absent from Plutarch and draws from the Senecan tradition of introducing supernatural elements into a play.

Plutarch thought Brutus to be a Platonic, but Shakespeare chose Stoicism better for him. Indeed, the Old Academy of Platonism that started around 80B.C. considered stoicism as a modern corruption of Platonism, but that is not mentioned in Plutarch, where, when comparing Brutus with Dion, he insists on Brutus’ Antiochean Platonism. This issue is far from venial, as Platonism is centered on the impossibility of knowing the truth about things, while Stoicism is interested mainly on the control and repression of emotions in order to reach happiness, and on the philosopher not sacrificing his peace of mind for the public good.[6] Indeed, it suited Shakespeare to have an initially stoic Brutus, who could thus worry about taking action or not against Caesarism, though, in truth, had he made him a real Stoic, he should not even have worried about living under a tyrant, as, according to Stoicism, the wise are always free, as freedom is the sister of wisdom. But his ultimate decision of participating in the tyrannicide is more closely linked to his Platonism. Having Brutus hover between these two philosophical trends was Shakespeare’s original choice.

Considering that Brutus was a firm Roman republican, it is most surprising that during his first soliloquy he mentions he would not mind Caesar was made king.

And for my part

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crowned:

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10)

So, what kind of murderous radical republican is Brutus? Is he radical? Is he republican? As Coleridge points out, quoted by Maccallum, “nothing can seem more discordant with our historical preconceptions of Brutus, or more lowering to the intellect of the Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide than (…) that he would have no objection to a king, or to Caesar, a monarch in Rome, would Caesar but be as good a monarch as he now seems disposed to be. (Lectures and Notes of 1818)” So here we have a political idealist ready to shed his principles. Maybe because of having deeper ones. Therefore he “seeks to find something that will satisfy his reason” in order to be able to kill Caesar.

Curiously, this need Brutus has to find weighty reasons that may rid him of his scruples to act is a trait he has in common with Hamlet. Eventually, Brutus will kill Caesar not for what he is but in anticipation of what he might become, while Hamlet is delayed by his reasonings, not being able to kill his uncle until he becomes again, this time before his eyes (in the play within the play they perform), the person he has surely been.

This reminds me that Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” in Kenneth Branagh’s film takes place in front of a mirror. Hamlet looks at himself and slowly approaches his own image as the speech proceeds. The two Hamlets we see suggest the two paths he is faced with. But he could be looking at somebody else as well, maybe at Brutus, faced with the same two paths, holding the dagger in his hand that was to kill Caesar, approaching him from the depths of time. For, could not Brutus have pronounced those same words, when moving himself into action? Or couldn’t Brutus have been warning Hamlet of the consequences of his acts? Couldn’t he be trying to convince Hamlet that in spite of the righteousness of his actions, they will be doomed to turn awry, becoming thus the ultimate cause of Hamlet’s delay?

On the other hand, there is a short speech voiced by Brutus that summarises what the whole play of Hamlet is going to be. This one could have been pronounced by Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.

The genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in council, and the state of man,

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.                                (2.1.63)

According to Maccallum “Shakespeare’s position may be thus described. He read in Plutarch that Brutus, the virtuous Roman, killed Caesar, the master-spirit of his own and perhaps of any age, from a disinterested sense of duty. (…) But he also read that Brutus was a philosophic student who would not accept or obey the current code without scrutinising it and fitting it into his theory (…) The one argument with which he can excuse to his own heart the projected murder, is that the aspirant to royal power, though hitherto irreproachable, may or must become corrupted and misuse his high position. (…) But the introspection, the self-examination, the craving for an inward moral sanction that will satisfy the conscience, and the choice of the particular sanction that does so, are as typical of the modern as they are alien to the classical mind. It is clear that an addition of this kind is not merely mechanical or superficial. (…) Shakespeare transforms the whole story. He reanimates Brutus by infusing into his veins a strain of present feeling that in some ways transforms his character; and transmuting the character in which the chief interest centres, he cannot leave the other data as they were. (…) It is the dead who speak; but they speak through the life that Shakespeare has lent them.”

And it is clear that Shakespeare has poured more of his life-blood into Brutus than into Caesar. And though the spirit of Caesar, Caesarism, is all pervading, even the ghost of Caesar proclaims who he really is:

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.                   (4.3.282)

“Fate itself is the imperialistic inspiration which makes up the significance of Caesar, and therefore the play is fitly named after him”. But the play’s tragic hero is and can only be Brutus, who measures himself against Caesarism and fails.

Considering the features of the tragic hero, we have to admit that Brutus also complies with them, even more than Caesar, as his character is more developed and we have more insight into his mind. The fact that Shakespeare apparently leaves out of Plutarch’s picture of Brutus “two particulars full of personal pathos which (he) cannot have failed to note, and which lend themselves to dramatic purposes (…)” does not, in my opinion, diminish the character of Brutus enough to privy him of his rile of hero. “One of them (…) would darken the assassination into parricide.”[7] The other is “the circumstance that Brutus had fought on Pompey’s side, and that thereafter Caesar had spared him, amnestied his friends, and loaded him with favours. (…) The victim and the sacrificer are thus set before us, each with an unstained record”[8]. These facts, exactly the opposite of the situation we find in Hamlet, where all kind of flaws can be ascribed not only to the victim but also to his sacrifice and where the personal issue if clearly established, are “the rub”, as Hamlet would say. But I would argue that, on the one hand, Machiavelli, one of the most influential and widely read writers of the Renaissance, pointed out that princes should run their state like fathers, and that power and fatherhood, “almost synonymous in archaic and primitive societies, are often associated in Classical and medieval history”[9], so even though Caesar were not actually Brutus’ father, he holds a similar position, justifying, accordingly, the many manifestations of affection that Brutus makes about him. On the other hand, I do believe that Brutus’ personal indebtedness to Caesar has not been completely left out of the play. It lives in its margins. I will come back later to this point. So, on the whole, this lowering of the tragic pathos does not really take place, it is only made subtle, though maybe only to us, not so to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Anyway, this subtle –ambiguous- picture of Brutus makes him a very modern hero, makes him, in spite of all, a man close to us, a man who is given no excuse to act but his most intimate sense of duty, needing no other complement. It might sound little epic but, nevertheless, quite heroic.

Measuring precisely this extremely pure sense of duty with Hamlet’s, Brutus cannot but grow in our eyes. Measuring also Brutus’ dilemma with the motives of the other main characters in the play competing with him for the role of tragic hero, we see that, ultimately, Caesar, Cassius and Anthony all act upon political reasons, while only in Brutus “the moral issue is fought out”[10].

Now let us see Brutus’ features as a tragic hero in the light of his particularity.

In the first place, Shakespeare has given us the picture of Brutus as a man “who is so at home in his study with his books, who is so exemplary in all the private relations of friend, master and husband; predestined, one would say, for the serene labours of philosophic thought and the gracious offices of domestic affection, sweeps from his quiet anchorage to face the storms of political strife, which such as he are not born to master but which they think they must not avoid”, according to Maccallum. He has made him so by shedding from him all other personal cause or intention he could have in the matter of tyrannicide. He has definitely made him a man unprepared for what destiny is holding in store for him. Much so Hamlet. Fate falls on both of them, a fate too heavy for men not meant for action. Thus, a tragic destiny.

Neither of them can, accordingly, ever be successful in their acts. And while Hamlet made a blunder of his whole affair of making things right, Brutus, though acting in a most reasonable way, ends up the same. They are the two faces of the same coin, one full of passion, the other dispassionate, but one coin after all, as both are set against this tragic destiny that cannot be overcome.

As to Brutus’ tragic flaws, his incapacity to judge others because of his excessive good faith and “his intellectual sense of justice”[11], we see them take body in the three tragic mistakes he makes, but even so before, when having to convince himself that Caesar is “a serpent’s egg” that he must kill “in the shell”. He will successively also misjudge Cicero, Anthony and Octavius, the two last mistakes being the cause of his peripeteia or reversal of fortune, as Anthony will turn the populace against him and Octavius will end up defeating him in battle. His anagnorisis is worded when, after Cassius’ death, he is forced to admit that Caesarism, Imperialism, cannot be stayed:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet,

Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails.                                  (5.3.94)

Not only does our ultimate sympathy remain with Brutus, but also Anthony’s and Octavius’, when they bid farewell to him in the following way:


This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he,

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’


According to his virtue let us use him,

With all respects and rites of burial.                            (5.5.68)

On the other hand, and if we look at this play from the question of what thesis is its centre, we again stumble on Brutus as the only possible tragic hero. “If indeed Julius Caesar is a political play centered around the theme of power, Brutus, and Brutus alone, transforms it into a moral one.”[12] And here is one of the main links with Hamlet, a play that hovers around similar dilemmas: thought versus action and justice versus power. “The story of Brutus, like the story of (…) Hamlet, exposes the drama of the intellectual who realizes the necessity of action. (…) Brutus’ intellectualism and the questions and problems of turning intellectual meditation into definite resolutions and actions may well be the centrepieces of his tragic failure”.[13]A tragic failure that is even more enhanced by the fact that Brutus’ murderous act is eventually futile. For there is no factual mystery in any historical play. In much the same way as the public always knows that Oedipus’ efforts to find the murderer of Laius will only lead to his own tragic outcome, the public is also aware that Brutus is a doomed man. The same happens with Caesar, who can never elude his own death, whatever his reaction to the omens. But there is no doubt that Brutus’ agony is much longer. It lasts all the play. Furthermore, in his death, Caesar rises from the human to the conceptual and symbolic, which renders him eventually immortal. Brutus, on the contrary, ends up being a man whose time is passed, as he must submit to the fact of “the reality of absolute power as a necessity that transcends justice and morality. (…) (His is the) tragedy of fighting both a new system in the name of traditional values and an accepted and recognized evil such as power –represented by Caesar’s dictatorship- in the name of justice. The modern state has no more use for these Brutuses.”[14]

I will now come to an issue I have mentioned above: the margins of the play. I have always found something highly disturbing in how Brutus is first presented to us by Shakespeare, about which no critic seems to have commented anything consistent –as far as I have been able to discover-, but which taints his whole picture from the very onset of the play.

BRUTUS                                                 Cassius,

Be not deceived. If I have veiled my look

I turn the trouble of my countenance

Merely upon myself. Vexed I am

Of late with passions of some difference,

Conceptions only proper to myself,

Which give some soil, perhaps to my behaviours.


Poor Brutus, with himself at war,

Forgets the shows of love to other men.          (1.2.37)

What is worrying Brutus? This has been said to be a veiled allusion to the tensions between him and Cassius with regard to the post of City Praetor, but Brutus particularly mentions the problem has nothing to do with Cassius. I believe the problem to be of greater transcendence. Marcus Junius Brutus “is often called the descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus and especially the inheritor of his role as a liberator”[15] Lucius Junius belonged to “early Roman legend, the hero who freed the city from its cruel last king, Tarquin the Proud.”[16] A few lines later Cassius says

… It is very much lamented, Brutus,

That you have not such mirrors as will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye

That you may see your shadow. I have heard

Where many of the best respect in Rome

(Except immortal Caesar,) speaking of Brutus

And groaning underneath this age’s yoke,

Have wished that noble Brutus had his eyes.


Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,

That you would have me seek into myself

For that which is not in me?                    (1.2.35)

It seems as if Cassius was referring to Brutus’ destiny as heir to this role of liberator, and not to Brutus’ inherent noblesse, to draw him into his plotting against Caesar. (Cassius appeal draws directly from Plutarch, who makes him say “What, knowest thou not that thou art Brutus?” adding the Romans will suffer any hardships for Brutus’ sake “if thou wilt show thyself to be the man thou art taken for and that they hope thou art”.) And Brutus answers it is not in him, meaning he is no heir of Lucius Junius, and, accordingly, there is no reason why he should carry that weight on his shoulders. However his name does bring him down. Indeed, his being or not of the line of Lucius Junius could be the personal problem that is affecting him intimately, as it would be forcing him to assume in the face of others, as it eventually does, a role which in no way belongs to him. For, in truth, otherwise why would Brutus join the plot? He would not mind Caesar being king, he loves Caesar and has no personal grudge against him, the act he binds himself to commit disgusts him, he ends up turning to unreasonable reasons in order to justify it, and he does not suit the role he assumes as he has no lust for power nor ability to handle it, as his virtues are not fit for ruling.

Cassius has asked before “Tell me Brutus, can you see you face?” to which Brutus has duly answered “the eye sees not himself but by reflection, by some other things” (1.2.51) Cassius wants Brutus to see his predecessor behind his own features, and Brutus clears the path to this –his tragic destiny- by saying it is the possible reflection of himself on the face of his false predecessor what really troubles him. Indeed, his name weighs him down. Assuming this false link with Lucius Junius that Cassius desires him to acknowledge (further in, in line 158, Cassius makes another, this one direct, allusion to Lucius Junius, provoking Brutus “O, you and I have heard our fathers say/there was a Brutus once that would have brooked/th’eternal devil to keep his state in Rome/as easily as a king”), it follows he needs to justify the repetition of Lucius Junius’ tyrannicide in some way that suits his own traits. Having incurred in one falsity, it need not be so hard to incur in another. Thus it follows that Caesar will become the tyrant he in no way is as yet, because greatness leads necessarily to abuse of greatness.

This could then be the cause of Brutus’ tragic flaws. He cannot rightly judge others because, in the first place, he cannot judge himself, as he does not even know who he is. This problem of identity, which I believe to be Brutus’ intimate initial worry and lies completely on the margins of the play, is, in my opinion, the core of the play. And it will find a future echo in Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be”, because Brutus’ problem is precisely who to be and choosing wrongly. Finally, as history is more powerful that individuals, Brutus is confronted with his destiny of assuming the role of liberator of the people, defender of republicanism, and as Derek Traversi puts it “solving his tragic disharmony through an act of decision foreign to his nature.”[17]

Such as Lucius Junius Brutus killed the tyrant Tarquin, so, by history repeating itself through a game of mirrors, Marcus Junius Brutus kills the tyrant-to-be Caesar. Furthering this game of mirrors,   Anne Thomson says that “Caesar’s spirit pursues the assassin Brutus over sea and land to Denmark and there kills him again in the body of Hamlet”[18]. For Brutus mirrors Hamlet. What the former is in the public sphere, Hamlet becomes in the private one. Philip Edwards points out that “Hamlet is a reworking of the basic underlying theme of Julius Caesar, namely the commitment of the philosopher-hero to violent action in order to remove an intruder from the government of the state and restore an ideal condition.”[19] In Hamlet there is no doubt as to who the tragic hero is. And it is curious to note how Shakespeare, in the depicting of Hamlet, draws from Brutus’ distant relative Lucius Junius. For this supposed founder of the Brutus family line “determined to expel him (Tarquin) and establish the republic (and) as a means of concealing his intentions took the part of a dullard, a brute, feigned madness, and was successful”[20]. In no way did this line of action suit the serious, honourable stoic that the Brutus in Julius Caesar was, a historical character after all, but it fitted in the wide range of possibilities a fictional character such as Hamlet allowed. But the parallel between the two is beyond doubt. Looking back from Hamlet to where Brutus stands, he might seem smaller but never less tragic, he might have less resources but was also bound by history, he might be less passionate, but not less emotional. All of these constraints in Brutus’ character, necessary as not to disfigure a historical character known to his public, were, besides, adequate to Shakespeare’s intentions of bringing home a series of ideas concerning rule and rulers. And this will be the final part of my argumentation in defence of Brutus as the tragic hero of the play.

Despite the fact that Shakespeare makes a portrait of Caesar that balances from godlike arrogance to very humane feebleness, despite making Brutus love him and the populace adore him, there is an obvious touch in him of the tyrant. As Rolf Soellner points out “it is a subtle portrait (for) he is neither simply a hero nor clearly a villain”.[21] But he shows himself to be in a way that “would have influenced favourably the Elisabethans’ attitude towards Brutus: Caesar shows himself as ‘ambitious’ – a word they uniformly took in a bad sense. (…) It would have made an Elisabethan audience conclude that Caesar is, or aspires to be, a tyrant. (…) In Elisabethan English, this word had strong emotional associations; it evoked fear of misrule and of the vengeance of God. Shakespeare’s audience would transfer to Caesar some of the apprehension they felt about a tyrant like Richard III”.[22]It would, thus, never do that Brutus backed out of his tragic destiny. On the contrary not only the populace in the play but also the audience of the play would be pressing Brutus to assume the role of liberator. Although liberator of an ambitious to-be tyrant in the play and of  ambitious plotters against Elisabeth’s legitimate rule in real life.

I have already mentioned above the parallel traits between Caesar and Queen Elisabeth. Of course, it made no sense accusing Elisabeth of being ambitious as she already possessed, as a monarch, unquestionable and legitimate power. But the line separating a monarch from a tyrant in the Renaissance world was subtle for after all, they both had absolute power. And there comes Brutus, representing not the check on wanting-to-be tyrants but a much more complex idea, for he “expresses a deep sense of uncertainty about the individual’s ability to shape personal destiny”[23] in the face of such absolute power. This position turns him into a tragic character, and more so, into a myth and a tragic hero, as he cannot but fail.

“In the Brutus-Caesar theme (…) Shakespeare found the perfect metaphor for his analysis of power at the dawn of the modern age and at the beginning of the modern monarchical state. The principal subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (…) is a new understanding of monarchical power and how it is justified, envied, imitated, attacked, and compromised in the presence of its opposing form, republicanism. (…) Despite the hatred it drew and all the constitutional limitations it violated, absolute power became a necessity for the new European monarchies (…) necessary for the state’s survival.”[24]The fact that power is also “often the result of evil machinations, is represented by Antony (…) the ultimate political survivor (of the play) who manages to turn a negative situation to his advantage. (…) The play’s significant ending with the victory of Antony and Octavian (…) confirms a negative and evil view of power.” However, knowing history, this “evil view” is veiled, as Caesar is shown to outlive, as an idea of Imperialism, his physical life span. And this idea is again confirmed in Augustus’ eventual rise to power as its representative, inaugurating Rome’s most glorious period. So, in spite of allowing us to sympathise with Brutus, Shakespeare is stating the fact that he can never win. In fact, his attempt at restoring republicanism brings about a civil war more dreadful than Caesar’s reign could probably ever have been. Only to end up with Imperialism after all. Being his motives pure and just, he fails to see that Caesar is a man with a vision of times to come, and thus he becomes a symbol of times passed. Caesar prevails. Brutus is blind to reality, a characteristic of the tragic hero that Caesar does not share. Eventually, Caesar does not die, while Brutus does, another feature of the tragic hero that only Brutus possesses.

Hamlet’s end is similarly dramatic in the fact that, having done in all the members of his family who could be candidates to the throne, including himself, eventually Fortimbras takes over, the enemy though a man better prepared to rule than Hamlet could have been. History puts things in their place after all. And that both history and destiny care for the necessities of state in the face of idealism is what the text ultimately seems to imply.

I will conclude by saying that, in a time when power was most watchful of opposition and subversion, this play became a great public success, though there exist only three more records of performances at the time. If Elisabeth, who had sat on the throne at the time of the first performance of the play for about forty years, and whose imminent, heirless death was feared by many for what turbulent times would ensue, saw any allusions to her persona or to what extent the audience itself was aware of this, it is difficult to know. But Shakespeare’s history plays (and we would include Julius Caesar here both for temporal proximity as for being its Rome a historical parallel of Elisabethan England) have been described by Stephen Greenblatt as both deeply conservative and deeply radical. Shakespeare is not only “the dramatist who organizes his representation of English history around the hegemonic mysticism of the Tudor myth”, but also “a relentless demystifier, an interrogator of ideology”[25]. To this Jonathan Dollimore was to add that, being the Elisabethan English society deeply theatrical, they often appropriated the plays themselves as both a means of defending and defying authority.[26] The intrinsic ambiguity of the play as to who its tragic hero was and, as follows, whose position was eventually upheld as the correct one, could then have become a resource to tackle censorship.

However, Brutus as hero, Caesar as hero, no hero at all, it makes no difference in the end. It is the moral issue that prevails:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.                      (Hamlet, 3.1.57)


Greenblatt, S. Shakespearean Negotiations University of California Press, 1988

Hartsock, M. The Complexity of Julius Caesar Vol. 85 Nº 1, Modern Language Association, 1966

Maccallum, M.W. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays and their Background, Forgotten Books, 2012.

Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare’s Reading, Oxford University Press, 2000

Piccolomini, M. The Brutus Revival. Parricide and Tyrannicide During the Renaissance. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991

Penedo, A y Pontón, G. editores Nuevo Historicismo, compilación de textos, Arco/Libros, 1889, incluye el texto de J. Dollimore, Shakespeare, Materialismo Cultural y Nuevo Historicismo.

Schanzer, E. The Tragedy of Shakespeare’s Brutus in Discussions of Shakespeare’s Roman Plays. Ed. Maurice Charney Boston, Heath, 1964

Sedley, D. The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius.

Serpieri, A. Reading the signs: towards a semiotics of Shakespearean drama in Alternative Shakespeares, Ed. John Drakakis, Methuen, 1985

Shakespeare, W. Julio César. Ed. Ángel-Luis Pujante, Espasa 2012

Shakespeare, W. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Ed, Philip Edwards, 1985

Shakespeare, W. Julius Caesar. Ed. Marvin Spevack, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 2004

Soellner, Rolf Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-knowledge. Ohio State University Press, 1972

Traversi, D. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford University Press, 1965

Walton Williams, G. Antique Romans and Modern Danes in Julius Caesar and Hamlet. In Literature and Nationalism Edited by Vincent Newey and Anne Thomson. Liverpool University Press, 1991

[1] The complexity of Julius Caesar, Mildred Hartsock

[2] Julius Caesar, W. Shakespeare. Edited by Marvin Spevack. The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[3] Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-knowledge Rolf Soellner

[4] Shakespeares Roman Plays and their Background. M.W.Maccallum. Originally published in 1925, reprinted by Forgotten Books in 2012.

[5] Maccallum.

[6] The ethics of Brutus and Cassius by David Sedley

[7] Maccallum

[8] Maccallum

[9] The Brutus Revival. Parricide and Tyrannicide Duaring the Renaissance. Manfredi Piccolomini

[10] Ernest Schanzer The tragedy of Shakespeare’s Brutus in Discussions of shakespeare’s Roman Plays Ed. Maurice Charney Boston: Heath 1964

[11] The Brutus Revival. Parricide and Tyrannicide Duaring the Renaissance. Manfredi Piccolomini,

[12] Piccolomini.

[13] Piccolomini.

[14] Piccolomini.

[15] Piccolomini.

[16] Piccolomini.

[17] Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: the Roman Plays, Stanford UP, 1965

[18] Anne Thomson Literature and Nationalism.

[19] Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip Edwards, Cambridge 1985

[20] Antique Romans and Modern Danes in Julius Caesar and Hamlet, George Walton Williams in Literature and Nationalism.

[21] Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-knowledge Rolf Soellner

[22] Soellner

[23] Piccolomini.

[24] Piccolomini.

[25] Greenblatt, Invisible Bullets, in Shakespearean Negotiations.

[26] Jonathan Dollimore, Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism and New Historicism


Un pensamiento en “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a game of mirrors

  1. Hi! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!


Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Google+ photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google+. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )


Conectando a %s