"Julius Caesar" in London, 1599
Exactly why Shakespeare chose in 1599to write a play based on the assassination of Julius Caesar cannot ever be fully known. There are, however, strong indications in earlier works that Shakespeare had been thinking of Caesar as the subject for a play for some time. Henry V, the play Shakespeare completed in the summer of 1599, celebrates a virtuous monarch engaged in providential deeds; however Shakespeare's Henry V is constrained by the machinations of domestic politics, and his victories culminated in civil war. By this time Shakespeare had, during the previous ten years, written plays that dramatized the Wars of the Roses. It is plausible that Shakespeare had in mind a comparative study with Rome: as the clash of Lancastrians and Yorkists was concluded by the long Tudor peace, so the most important civil war in Rome's history ended with the achievement of extended peace under Augustus. Shakespeare's interest in turning points in history need not be stated here.
Furthermore, the English history plays contain numerous references to Julius Caesar. In 2 Henry VI the penultimate words of Suffolk are: 'Brutus' bastard hand / Stabb'd Julius Caesar' (IV.1.136-7), whilst in 3 Henry VI Queen Margaret after witnessing the murder of her son Edward, cries out 'They that stabb'd Caesar shed no blood at all' (V.5.52). In this year Shakespeare found great interest in recasting well- known stories such as the victory at Agincourt. The assassination of Caesar was the best-known event of Roman Antiquity. In addition during the 1580s and 1590s Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives was becoming a regular feature of households - five editions were published before 1630. The first scene acted at the Globe can be interpreted on one level as an attempt to legitimise the Shakespearean stage and promote it as separate from London's artisanal culture. Finally, Shakespeare's interest in the nature and processes of statecraft is well known and the fact he wrote plays on various 'moments' in Roman history suggests he had an interest in exploring the nature of political power and the actions of individuals.
The staging of Roman plays, in contrast to the plays of British history, distanced a past of republican and imperial politics while avoiding genealogies that implied a relationship with the present. For early modern England, the lessons and history of republican Rome stood for a world of alternate allegiances, values and political language. While the events of the republic were uncomfortably close to home in some respects, they recorded a very different and distant past. Dramatic coverage of contemporary political issues could be explored in terms that were less subject to censorship than the reigns of English kings, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in particular. Shakespeare explores Roman republicanism and the power of the ideology behind the tyrant. Plays based on Oriental tyrants were becoming increasingly popular during the late sixteenth century, and Ben Jonson's Roman play Sejanus is the most outstanding representation of imperial tyranny that survives from the period 1580-1610. Roman plays of the later Elizabethan and early Jacobean period favoured the era of Caesar and Pompey. During the Renaissance, Roman history was perceived as providing the greatest of historical and political lessons. The reasoning behind this was that it provided one of the few bodies of consistent and continuous historical material. During this period, the principal moral purpose of history, and of Roman history in particular, was to instruct monarchs and statesmen. Reynoldes' Chronicle of all the noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571) recalled the Renaissance humanist function of history:
'An historie is the glasse of Princes, the image most lively bothe of vertue and vice, the learned theatre or spectacle of all the worlde, the councell house of Princes, the trier of all truthes, a witness of all tymes and ages... '
This idea of offering a prince the 'glasse', or mirror, of tyranny is commonplace in Renaissance literature. The precept being that the presentation of tyranny persuades the prince to rule well; or further, that showing a tyrant his own image, tragedy brings him to shame.
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