William Shakespeare, renowned worldwide as one of the greatest playwrights of all time, was a man who was captivated by history. He wrote a number of histories for previous kings of England, including Richard the Lionheart, Henry VIII, and King John, but it is for his tragedies, which he is best known. Shakespearean tragedies manage to convey more than they intend to in their study of life and its essential futility, and are by far Shakespeare’s most acclaimed works. From HAMLET to ROMEO AND JULIET, Shakespeare’s classic plays concerning the great inevitable are arguably his best. JULIUS CAESAR is no exception.
The real Julius Caesar was a man of great compassion who desired power, but above all, wanted to see the citizens of Rome prosper. After defeating the armies of Pompey and gaining control of all of Rome, Caesar began to institute changes intended for the betterment of the Roman society and quickly became beloved by his citizens. Unfortunately, his forgiving nature misled him into pardoning and later befriending a former ally of Pompey’s named Marcus Brutus. Caesar placed Brutus in several positions of power within the Republic and trusted the young man above all his allies. Brutus soon began planning the assassination of Caesar with another holder of a high office named Cassius.
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He felt that the power Caesar held would go to the dictator’s head, and in the case of a weaker man, this would have been true, but certainly not Caesar. Why would a man who twice refused a crown upon its offering in rapid succession begin to misuse his power and let it get the better of him? The conspirators, however, let this not get in the way of their hunger for power, merely disguised as concern for the welfare of all of Rome. Despite some misgivings, Brutus aided in the assassination of Caesar and was soon an enemy of the Roman Republic under the adopted son of Caesar, Octavius. Before he and Cassius could be hunted down by the new leader of Rome, however, they committed suicide.
Octavius Caesar later took the name of Augustus and ushered in a golden age for Rome. Shakespeare’s play, however, only covers events up to Caesar’s death. Despite some historical inaccuracies, Shakespeare managed to remain, for the most part, accurate in his depiction of the assassination. A few things that Shakespeare changed were the character of Brutus, whom he changed from shameless conspirator to misguided hero of the people, the dates in between the offering of the diadem wreathed with laurel to Caesar from Mark Antony and Caesar’s untimely death, and the reason Brutus hesitated in participating in cold-blooded murder.
In the play, Brutus hesitates because he is unsure if he will be helping the people of Rome or not. In actuality, according to the history of Caesar written by Plutarch, Brutus did not immediately join the conspiracy because he was fearful for his own life, and did not know if the people of Rome would accept him for his actions. He hesitated solely for the sake of deciding whether or not the assassination would lead to ascension of power for him or die.
Another liberty that Shakespeare took was in the nobility of Mark Antony. According to history, Antony neglected Rome after being charmed by the enchanting Cleopatra, who had ambitions of ruling all of Rome. She soon had him turning against Octavius, who declared war on the traitor Antony. After failing to defeat Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony committed suicide with Cleopatra. ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, another tragedy written by Shakespeare, details the relationship and its disastrous consequences in full. In JULIUS CAESAR, however, Antony, much like Brutus, is seen as a selfless ally to Rome who would sacrifice his life for Caesar, and upon hearing of the death of the grand dictator, immediately seeks revenge. History says that Shakespeare was right in his portrayal of Antony to an extent, for Antony was certainly an ally of Julius Caesar, but not necessarily of Rome.
Regardless of the liberties, Shakespeare took in writing the play, JULIUS CAESAR is, nevertheless, a beautifully written play that not only provides a mostly accurate view into the final days of Caesar but also gives the reader a view into the mind of William Shakespeare. How did this man write so many excellent works and yet never ascend from the shadows of anonymity as either scholar or literary genius during the rule of Elizabeth I? Baconians will tell you that it was because William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays, but instead, it was Francis Bacon. Anyone who has ever read more Shakespeare and Bacon will tell you that this is obviously rubbish. Others will say that it is due to the fact that more than one author penned the plays.
This belief, however, gets contradicted after a simple analysis of Shakespeare’s plays, which are written too alike to have been penned by anyone but one man. It is my personal belief that a middle-class gentleman of Stratford named William Shakespeare wrote all of the sonnets, plays, and poems attributed to him, but did not receive a large amount of renown and acceptance because of the fact that acting was considered a lowly profession back during the Elizabethan Age. Considering the fact that the playwright never received real acceptance until the Shakespeare Boom of the early eighteenth century, it is safe to draw the conclusion that Shakespeare was so far ahead of his time that his work was only comprehended until a century after his death. Even today, Shakespeare as both man and writer remains an enigma.
JULIUS CAESAR is a testament to Bard’s ability at writing. Today it is read by high schools across the country, but usually to no avail. In my personal opinion, teaching teenagers about William Shakespeare is like trying to get middle school students to comprehend the works of James Joyce. Not only is it impossible, it is also futile. I’ve always felt that students should work their way up on a literary ladder instead of simply being thrown into Shakespeare, where they are more than likely to fall instead of fly with the playwright’s work. The current belief among my peers is that Shakespeare is boring. Given the time, though, I am sure he could be made interesting for students, but alas, the Great Educational Roadblock known as high school fails to even attempt to try this.
Despite how unprepared students are for Shakespeare, I have met a good number of students who have read the play, were fully able to comprehend it, and think it is a work of genius. It is this small fraction of the school populace that gives me hope for the literary world’s future, and for that of the memory of Shakespeare.
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