William Shakespeare obviously had a fondness for Classical history and literature. Here's a-Antony and Cleopatra-Coriolanus-The Phoenix and Turtle-Julius Caesar-Pericles-Cymbeline-Timon of Athens-Troilus and Cressida-Venus and Adonis-The Rape of Lucrece-Titus Andronicus -Midsummer Night's Dream But the Bard left school at age fourteen, so how'd he learn so much history of antiquity? Was British schooling in the 1570's that good, or is this another triumph of homeschooling? ;) Haha! It seems likely Shakespeare was an autodidact, but what references did he have at his disposal? The introduction to the Penguin edition of Plutarch's The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives claims Shakespeare was profoundly influenced by that book. I can believe it. It's very engaging, and covers the rise and fall of Julius Caesar extensively. It's a great reference for the place-and-date historical details of who killed Caesar, when, where, and how. But of course any historical record going that far back will have its limits; there are a lot of details about Caesar's fall that will never be known: what did Caesar and his wife talk about at breakfast the morning of his assassination? What reservations did Brutus have about the success of the assassination plot? What was going through Cassius' head as he fled Octavius and Marc Antony? There's no written record to tell us, but Shakespeare fills these moments with inspired dialogue, nonetheless. He makes Julius Caesar an enjoyable drama, without taking excessive factual liberties. Only a talented writer with a genuine love for the subject could do this- and thank God he did, because the end product is not a flat schedule of historical events, it's a gripping drama of human foibles.Consider Caesar: at once a megalomaniacal dictator but also very human. He was an accomplished general, but prior to the Roman civil war, his reputation couldn't touch Pompey's. Pompey was the popular favorite to come out on top when the First Triumvirate fell apart. Only through a combination of bold tactics and luck did Caesar prevail. Fortune favors the bold. Imagine what that victory did for Caesar's ego... no wonder he started to believe hype that he was a god! Coasting forward on such success, he tried to replay his audacious strategy in the political arena: he arranged for the weak and corrupt Roman Senate to declare him dictator for life. Aside: "dictator" in this sense was a specific, heretofore temporary, office. It was intended to streamline executive decision-making in emergencies, by removing need of Senate approval. The whole rise of Palpatine in Star Wars III has strong Caesarian overtones. Usually dictatorship was only granted for 6 month intervals, however, and was never intended to be a lifetime office. On one hand, Shakespeare delivers a convincing sense of Caesar's hubris; showing him ignore the soothsayer's warnings to "Beware the Ides of March", and dismissing his wife Calphurnia's foreboding dream. On the other hand, Caesar is human, and subject to insecurities. He ought to be, considering his steady decline in popularity, once he started to implement his domestic agenda. Playing on these insecurities, Calphurnia manages to convince JC to stay at home, until the day of his prophecized doom passes. It is only Decius' malevolent intervention that turns JC back around, and gets him out of the house. Big mistake. Caesar is powerful and cunning, but not perfect. He's not a great a judge of character, and he's easily manipulated by appeals to his vanity. Like I said: he's human.Now let's examine the lead conspirator, Brutus: He comes across every bit as three-dimensional as Caesar. Why does he want Caesar dead? For one thing, he knows Caesar's nature: cruel, arrogant and ambitious; and he knows dictatorship for life will only exacerbate these. Brutus tells Lucius:"It must be by his death, and for my partI know no personal cause to spurn himBut for the general. He would be crowned.How that might change his nature, there's the question. It is the bright day that brings forth the adderAnd that craves wary walking. Crown him that.And then I grant we put a sting in him That at his will he may do danger with." Star Wars fans will see shades of this dialogue in Mace Windu's words to Anakin, (~3:07) regarding Palpatine. Master Windu is a bit more idealistic than Brutus, though. The real Brutus- Marcus Junius Brutus was not so selfless. He had been a top aide to Pompey. Had Pompey won the Roman civil war, Brutus would probably been groomed as his successor. It's a nice touch on Shakespeare's part that Brutus put the final blade into Caesar, and then let him fall at the base of Pompey's statue. One of Caesar's fatal errors was failing to recognize what a conniver Brutus was. When Caesar is slain, it is Brutus who magnanimously allows Marc Antony to eulogize him. Clearly Brutus' is on the pathway to greater power at this point, as he no doubt intended. If the cold-blooded motive isn't dramtic enough for you, cosider the hot-blooded motive: jealousy. Cascus plants this seed in the first act, telling Brutus:"Why, man, [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow worldLike a Colossus, and we petty menWalk under his huge legs and peep aboutTo find ourselves dishonorable graves.Men at some time are masters of their fates.The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our starsBut in ourselves, that we are underlings.Brutus and Caesar- what should be in the "Caesar"?Why should that name be sounded more than yours?Write them together, yours is as fair a name.Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well.Weight them, it is as heavy. Conjure with 'em,"Brutus" will start a spirit as soon as "Caesar"....So by Act II, there's a whole stew of emotions simmering in Brutus' brain. Who can say which single motive drove him hardest? People are complex, and Shakespeare had that rare gene, or synaptic arrangement, which allowed him to capture that. On to Marc Antony: also very human, and in a way, a negative image of Brutus. Antony loves Caesar. He's enamored with the larger-than-life military superman, who vanquishes all enemies, foreign and domestic, with his ever-confident blade. A typical Roman, MA believes a strong military man at Rome's helm can only be a good thing for the Republic, naively failing to understand that the Republic is imperiled by the very selfsame arrogance he admires. It's a lot like Republicans who admired the flight suit-clad George W. Bush, thinking he stood as a symbol of a strong America, instead of an internal threat to the nation. When Antony turns the crowd against the conspirators with his speech, it is a fortuitous political move, but was not necessarily intended as such. I think it's really more about revenge. Marc Antony is genuinely angry at Brutus, and maybe pained, as well. It depends on how an actor plays this part, but the line, oft repeated, could be either sarcastic or pleading: "Brutus is a good and honorable man". In his mourning, with his personal hero torn down before his eyes, and with the fate of Great Rome hanging in the balance, Antony could be crying out: "Please! Somebody show me that Brutus is a good and honorable man! Show me that these terrible deeds had a virtuous design, and that Caesar's fall was an inescapable price of Rome's continued glory!" I could buy that interpretation. What a play! Without altering a single word, a skilled actor could play these words either way. See? That's the good stuff, right there. Marlon Brando does a fantastic job with the role in the 1953 film, by the way. (Confession: my wife and I saw it this weekend, and I'm sure I breezed through the re-read faster because of that.)Naturally, Shakespeare always liked to season these dramas with a hint of the supernatural. The blind soothsayer does nicely in this capacity. "Beware the Ides of March" It's sort of religion without the religion. It reminds the audience with a sense of humility, that we aren't in complete control of our fates, without pouring on the religious propaganda that surely would have been required, had Shakespeare been writing two or three hundred years earlier. It's an all-purpose religiosity that works well for drama.Hey, I wrote all this so far, and I'm only half-way through? How can that be? I can remember reading this play for the first time. I figured once Caesar fell, that would be the closing act. What more is there to tell, once the title character has been felled? I wasn't until I read [a:Plutarch, and Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that I got a better sense of how much history pivots on the assassination of Julius Caesar. His untimely death gives Octavius (aka Augustus) an opportunity to seize power, to establish legitimacy to rule, and to lead troops in battle (an important box to check, for any would-be Emperor). He and Marc Antony join forces effectively (later to be Yoko Ono-ized apart by Cleopatra), and rapidly eliminate many obstacles Octavius would have had to overcome later, had Caesar lived. These are all part of constructing the foundation for Empire. Had Caesar avoided assassination, he may have become a petty dictator, but who knows? Between corruption and decadence, there's any number of ways he could have been removed from power without being succeeded by Octavius. It's really Octavius who founded the enduring Roman Empire we all know. Shakespeare saw what I didn't: that the story of Julius Caesar loses most of its significance unless it is bridged to Octavius, and in turn the modern world. In this sense, Acts III-V really show off the Bard's broad view of history. On a more minor note, Shakespeare lets some cynicism show about Brutus and politics in general, during the fourth act: Octavius, Marc Antony and Lepidus have formed the Second Triumvirate; their first act is to assemble a list of political enemies to be executed. This is one of the abuses which made Julius Caesar so unpopular. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." This play is full of stuff like that. It's one of Shakespeare's best, and an absolute must, if you've got an interest in Roman history.