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Have your parents ever warned you about hanging out with the wrong crowd? You might be like, "Pssht, whatever Mom, my friends are awesome." And sure, your friends may seem awesome enough, but when push comes to shove, will they have your back, or will they turn around and throw you under the bus?
Julius Caesar found this lesson out the hard way—to the tune of 33 stab wounds and a betrayal so scandalous, we're still talking about it two thousand years later.
Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, written sometime around 1599. As movie posters and book covers like to say, the play is "based on a true story": the historical events surrounding the conspiracy against the ancient Roman leader Julius Caesar (c.100-44B.C.) and the civil war that followed his death. Fun times—guess they should have thought their plans through a little more. Shakespeare portrays Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March (March 15) by a group of conspirators who feared the ambitious leader would turn the Roman Republic into a tyrannical monarchy.
Julius Caesar was most likely the first play performed at the Globe Theater. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1599, just after he had completed a series of English political histories. Like the history plays, Julius Caesar gives voice to some late-16th-century English political concerns. When Shakespeare wrote Caesar, it was pretty obvious that the 66-year-old Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) wasn't going to produce an heir to the throne, and her subjects were stressed out about what would happen upon the monarch's death. Would chaos ensue when Elizabeth died? Who would take the queen's place? Would the next monarch be a fit ruler or a tyrant? In other words, Julius Caesar asks its audience to think about the parallels between ancient Roman history and contemporary politics. Clever, huh?
Shakespeare' s main source for the play is Plutarch's famous biography The Life of Julius Caesar, written in Greek in the 1st century and translated into English in 1579 by Sir Thomas North. This is no big surprise, since Shakespeare and his contemporaries were completely obsessed with Roman culture and politics. (In fact, Elizabethan schoolboys spent most of their time reading and translating ancient Roman and Greek literature. Apparently that's what kids did in the days before TV and the Internet.)
Today, along with Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar is often taught in 9th grade classrooms as an introduction to Shakespeare. The relatively straightforward language and simplicity of plot make it a good starting point for students new to 16th-century drama. Julius Caesar is also considered to be the least sexy of Shakespeare's dramatic works, which, for some, makes it a "safe" option in classrooms full of teenagers.
Nothing gets our attention quite like a good, juicy political scandal. Julius Caesar is jam-packed with issues that resonate with our world today. Sorry to go all inventory on you, but Shmoop loves lists:
Betrayal. Brutus places his ideals (Rome as a republic) over his friend, Julius Caesar, and is willing to kill Caesar to protect the Republic.
Fear. Incredibly afraid of losing Rome as a republic, Brutus is willing to murder Caesar before the guy even does anything wrong. In his mind, it's better to sacrifice an innocent ruler than risk his becoming a tyrant.
Political Turmoil. Things don't go according to plan. The politicians are like, "the citizens are going to kiss our togas for eliminating the tyrant Caesar! Down with absolute power." But the citizens are like, "What! You killed Caesar? We loved him." Let's just say that the politicians aren't exactly tuned in to the citizens' wants and needs.
Reason vs. Passion. With his clear, cool logic, Brutus convinces the concerned public that Caesar was a tyrant who needed to be eliminated in order for them to be free. Then along comes Antony, with his passionate, emotional appeal, who just as easily swings the public in the other direction, turning them into an angry mob determined to avenge their beloved Caesar.
Sacrificing Personal Morals for the "Greater Good." Brutus is well-known for being a moral and honest guy, yet he decides to commit murder and sacrifice his morals in hopes of ensuring a better future for Rome.
We're sure you can find other intense issues from the play that are highly relevant to our modern world. Chew on these questions for us, and fill in the blanks about how each of these points resonates with your personal life, your experience at school, or even in the country or world as a whole. It seems like the real question is: how can you not care about Julius Caesar?
Julius Caesar, with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.
Julius Caesar, with Charlton Heston as Mark Antony.
BBC Television Shakespeare version of Julius Caesar.
Marlon Brando as Antony
A young Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors of all time, delivers Antony's speech, one of the greatest in all of literature.
Supercool if you can make this work…
These are recorded rehearsals of Welles’ production of Julius Caesar, as well as a treasure trove of other bits from the The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a radio drama featuring the drama company Orson Welles and John Housman founded in the 1930s.
Manga Shakespeare Cover Art
Check out the cover art for Manga Shakespeare's graphic adaptation of Julius Caesar. We love how the illustration seems to draw its inspiration from Cassius' famous description of Caesar: "he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves"(1.2.134-137) – even while it adapts Shakespeare's setting (ancient Rome) to a futuristic city state.
John Wilkes Booth's Diary
Check out excerpts from John Wilkes Booth's diary, where the infamous assassin (and professional actor) paints himself as an American hero and compares himself to Brutus after shooting President Abraham Lincoln.
Online Text of the Play
MIT's online edition of Julius Caesar.
Biography of Julius Caesar
Want to know more about the historical figure Julius Caesar? Check out PBS's Caesar biography.
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