Among the dramatists of his age, only Shakespeare had a continuous grasp of the interests of sixteenth century historians. In the composition of his English history plays Shakespeare's principal source for Julius Caesar was Plutarch's Lives in North's English translation. In Plutarch - principally the lives of Caesar, Brutus and Antony - Shakespeare found a wealth of information on their lives and on those of Cicero, Cassius and Octavius. In accordance with his eclectic method Shakespeare used other sources such as other classical historians and other works, notably the Bible and Ovid. None of Shakespeare's sources dictated the form of the play. During the eighteenth century a number of critics seriously doubted, after reading North's edition of Plutarch, Shakespeare's powers of creativity.Plutarch
Plutarch provided a powerful account of Julius Caesar, stressing his authority and martial valour and dexterity, despite a weak condition and epilepsy. Plutarch's Brutus is a moral, studious, and active politician, governed by noble principles and reason. Antony, in the Greek historian's portrait, is recorded as contradictory in politics, loved by the army and the people. Reading Plutarch's biographies, Shakespeare would have realized the immediate dramatic potential for the story of Caesar's fall from power and the defeat of Brutus and Cassius. The evidence suggests that the late Tudor and early Stuart readership absorbed Plutarch for his lively historical account of Rome and its political figures.
The Lives were translated from Greek into Latin, and thus circulated through Europe during the Middle Ages. Humphrey Duke of Gloucester had a copy in his library at the University of Oxford, and references were increasingly were made in English Renaissance literature - for example Thomas Elyot's The Book Named the Governor. A Frenchman, Amyot, translated the Lives into his native tongue in 1567, in Humanist fashion directly from the Greek, correcting the Latin and previous French editions. Shakespeare read Aymot's version as well as the English edition of Thomas North (1579), itself taken from Aymot. With reference to Plutarch's Caesar Shakespeare pivoted his play around the assassination. Of the important historical background, he alludes to the foundations of Caesar's power - i.e. the war with Pompey and victory in Spain - in I.1. This is indicative that his audience would, as with English history, be fully aware of the relatively narrow chronological span of Shakespeare's play. Though Shakespeare made extensive use of Plutarch, he did alter and adapt the information given in the Lives for dramatic purposes. A selection of examples is given below.
- Caesar's preference for fat and long-haired men, and his fear of pale thin ones such as Brutus and Cassius, is found in his biographies of Brutus, Caesar, and Antony. Plutarch in all three Lives records physical descriptions of Cassius and Brutus as 'leane and whitely faced fellows'; Shakespeare however only applied it to Cassius in his play. Why? Superficially it would detract from the image of 'noble' Brutus; however it would also mean Caesar referring to Brutus much earlier in the play - as it stands he does not do so until II.2 before he enters the Senate. Caesar does not know or suspect Brutus as an antagonist until his assassination in III.1.
- The Lion in Caska's account of portents in I.3 was Shakespeare's invention; everything else came from Plutarch's account of the storm and portents that appeared in Rome (though Megarian lions do feature earlier in Brutus as one of the injuries Cassius felt he had suffered under Caesar).
- Shakespeare invented Cassius' stories of Caesar's feebleness (i.e. being unable to swim, and fragility under fever).
- By providing his audience with the identities of the conspirators some time before the assassination Shakespeare ensures the actual moment is forceful. We are not shown the precise moment when Cassius seduces Brutus to the conspiracy: the indeterminacy in II.1 when Cassius and Brutus whisper away from the audience.
- Plutarch records that it was Brutus who demanded to lead of the right wing at Philippi; in Shakespeare's version of events it is Antony. The purpose of the switch - i.e. that the quarrel ('I do not cross you: but I
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