In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare engages with a period of history when the prevailing moral assumptions were utterly different to those inherited by his own age. An early modern play about a pre-Christian world, Julius Caesar can obviously reveal much about Shakespeare’s view of history. But given the considerable gulf between pagan and Christian values, close study of his representation of ancient Rome can also yield greater understanding of Shakespeare’s ethical instincts. First staged in 1599, Julius Caesar was produced one and a half millennia after the events it depicts. It was written by a man born well after the emergence of Christianity and raised in a world where the abiding cultural influence of Christian values, as opposed to the pagan values which animated the Roman world, was unchallenged.
Friedrich Nietzsche is an indispensable guide to the changing history of morality. In The Genealogy of Morals, he explains what he deems to be the core difference between ancient Roman and Christian ethics, drawing a dichotomy between “master morality” and “slave morality.”
It is worth emphasizing that Nietzsche was not the first philosopher to highlight the stark discrepancy between the Christian ideals and those of ancient Rome. If anything, his ideas share a continuity with observations made by near-contemporaries of Shakespeare, such as Machiavelli and Rabelais. In Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli credits belief in an afterlife with producing a retreat from the Roman obsession with conquest, arguing that the Christian promise of heaven led men to “esteem less the honour of the world, whereas the Gentiles [pagans], esteeming it very much and having placed the highest good in it, were more ferocious in their actions.” Rabelais also observed a disparity with respect to virtue, pointing out in Gargantua and Pantagruel that the ethical “intuitions of the ancient heroes—Hercules, Alexander, Scipio, Caesar, and so on—is the contrary to the teachings of our Gospel… And what the Saracens and Barbarians once dubbed prowess, we now call brigandage and evildoing.” In other words, there are plenty of Renaissance precursors to Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals is just a modern, more systematic attempt to distinguish ancient from Christian ethics.
According to Nietzsche, master morality hails from a pagan age in which “the word ‘good’ [was] far from having any necessary connection with selfless acts,” as it does today. Epitomized by the great heroes of ancient Rome, the master values are instead “knightly-aristocratic”: they extol strength and look down on weakness. They rest, therefore, upon “powerful physical development, a richness and even superabundance of health, together with what is necessary for maintaining life, on war, adventure, the chase, the dance, the tourney—on everything, in fact, which involves strong, free and joyous action.” The centrality of these ideals is clear in the life of Julius Caesar, which is rich with examples of master morality in action. This can be seen in everything from his brutal conquest of Gaul to his willingness—in his 58BC campaign against the Helvetians—to break Roman laws that were written in order to regulate the abuses and restrain the ambitions of provincial governors. This second example is especially significant. Indeed, according to Nietzsche’s conception of master morality, the truly noble man cannot abide restraint imposed from an external source, legal or otherwise, since that would mean subjugating the exercise of his own will to the will of someone else. It is this inflexible mentality which Nietzsche regarded as the supreme ethical principle of the greatest pre-Christian historical figures—exemplified among the Romans by the likes of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Cato the Younger.
But Shakespeare, as we have noted, was born and raised in a wholly different moral atmosphere. It was Nietzsche’s belief as an historian of morality that the master values described above—which privilege strength, will and conquest—were eclipsed by the slavish humility of Christianity. Nietzsche viewed the process, this “slave revolt in morals,” as regressive and “born of weakness.” His claim was that slave morality, being founded on the Christian virtue of pity, simply amounted to an unhealthy obsession with vulnerability and lowliness. Nietzsche parodies the core principles of slave morality in the following lyrical passage:
the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome are the only ones who are pious… but you, on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are for all eternity the evil.
The style is characteristically polemical, but Nietzsche’s fundamental point is clear: that, in the form of Christianity, slave-morality became a revolutionary force which, directed at worldly power, served to engineer “a radical transformation in values.” By trusting in the divinity of Christ, the weak could now invoke a universal morality which sanctified their weakness. Moreover, they could use this faith to rein in the cruel ambitions of the strong, preaching to would-be Caesars that it is not the mighty but the meek who, by God’s grace, stand to inherit the earth.
Shakespeare thus lived at a time when master morality had been all but extinguished by the cultural dominance of Christ. And yet, he wrote four Roman plays in which that illustrious ancient civilization, whose prevailing values had been side-lined by centuries of Christianity, is brought to life and its most memorable figures dramatically examined. In these plays, Shakespeare reanimates characters who lived on the opposite side to himself of the “slave revolt in morals,” and this ethical chasm between the playwright and his subjects raises important questions about Julius Caesar. How true is Shakespeare’s representation of the Romans to Nietzsche’s later, highly compelling version of moral history? Does Shakespeare diverge from his main source, Sir Thomas North’s 1595 English translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in his portrayal (and implied assessment) of the characters? Is he critical of Caesar, for example, where the pagan Plutarch is laudatory?
Julius Caesar is one of the greatest figures in world history. He is probably as close as any mortal can get to historical legend, and he was perceived as such by his own age. During his lifetime, Caesar was acclaimed with the title Imperator—from the Latin “to order” and designed to convey his reputation as a strong and ruthless commander. Following his assassination, he achieved an even higher accolade, Divus Iulius, marking his ascent to the status of a god.
Plutarch’s profile of Julius Caesar in Parallel Lives is largely faithful to this grand conception of the Roman leader. We are presented with a man marrying bold ambition with noble deeds, laying waste to rival civilizations and skilfully consolidating power for himself in Rome. Plutarch leaves readers with an overarching impression of a great figure who, through the exercise of his own intractable will, commanded the course of history while refusing to be commanded himself. His Caesar is the epitome of master morality. We are at a loss, then, to understand why Shakespeare’s depiction of Julius Caesar, which drew upon Plutarch’s biography, makes little mention of the Roman leader’s superhuman feats and qualities. In Shakespeare’s play, we encounter a Caesar who is being shaped by historical forces, rather than directing them to his own ends. At times, his very character is held up and exposed to ridicule. He is not just portrayed as a sinister tyrant, as he often was in other early modern depictions by such playwrights as Thomas Kyd, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson; to Shakespeare, Caesar is someone altogether more pathetic, fraudulent, even pitiable. Demoted from his reputation as a great man, he instead becomes the subject of a damning, more general critique, informed by sixteen-hundred years of Christianity, of the cardinal Roman values.
At the beginning of North’s 1595 translation of Plutarch, we are told that, with respect to campaigns of conquest, Caesar held himself to extraordinary standards, measuring his own record against that other figure of legend, Alexander the Great:
Do ye not Think said he, that I have good cause to be heavy, when King Alexander being no older than my self is now, had in old time won so many nations and countries: and that I hitherunto have done nothing worthy of my self?
More importantly, Caesar’s solemn reflection is followed by an account of his triumphs in Spain against the Calaicans and Lusitanians, where he distinguished himself by “subduing all the people which before knew not the Romans for their lords.” Plutarch’s Caesar does not resent the achievements of past military heroes for setting unrealistic standards for would-be imitators to follow. He vows and acts so as to be admitted to the pantheon himself.
But Caesar is praised for more than just acting within a remarkable martial tradition. To some extent, Plutarch praises him for remaking it: “he excelled them all [past military figures] in the number of battels he had fought, and in the multitude of his enemies he had slain in battell.” This comes straight after the description of Caesar’s astounding victory over the Gauls, in which he is said to have slaughtered more than one million men. But perhaps the starkest example of Caesar’s master morality occurs when, defying Roman law, he leads his army across the Rubicon:
A desperate man feareth no danger, come on: he passed over the river, and when he was come over, he ran with his coach and never stayed, so that before daylight he was within the city of Arminum, and tooke it.
The resolved coolness conjured up by this description reveals something deep within Caesar’s character: a refusal to recognise any authority outside himself. We are also told that Caesar’s appetite for conquest is uniquely insatiable. Newly acquired lands are credited with “still kindling more and more in him, thoughts of greater enterprises, and desire of new glory, as if that which he had present, were stale and nothing worth.” Thus, a driving desire to surpass even himself is fundamental to Caesar’s value structure. In Parallel Lives, the overarching sense of Caesar’s character is unmistakable: a master of destiny, outdoing rival civilizations, his Roman countrymen, and even the best episodes in his own past.
By contrast, a striking feature of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the absence of those triumphs which so dominate Plutarch’s biography. Critics over the centuries have expressed much surprise that, in a drama about a legendary military statesman, Shakespeare should leave out all the most impressive moments in Caesar’s life. The artist and man of letters William Hazlitt noticed this oddity in the early 19th century, drawing attention to the unduly weak appearance of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play: “He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches, and does nothing.”
The first thing we notice about Shakespeare’s Caesar is that he seems to suffer from a deficiency of foresight or agency, all while labouring under the delusion he has both in abundance. When, following a dream in which Caesar is murdered, his wife Calphurnia expresses concern that his presence at the Senate could well prove deadly, Caesar initially decides to placate his anxious wife: “for thy humour I will stay at home.” But he is easily hoodwinked by the conspirator, Decius, who flatters him into believing that Calphurnia’s fateful dream merely “Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood.” This calculated piece of rhetoric plays a pivotal role in sealing Caesar’s death—and it succeeds precisely because Decius turns one of Caesar’s ostensible virtues, unyielding self-belief, against him. The dramatic irony is increased later when, entreated by Senators to pardon Cimber’s banished brother, Caesar pronounces himself unmoved by “sweet words, / Low-crooked curtsies and base spaniel fawning”—the very devices which have brought him to the mortal danger of the Senate in the first place. He is soon to be killed.
This is far from the shrewd and resilient Caesar Shakespeare that we encounter in North’s Plutarch. Of course, some of the foregoing episodes do appear in Parallel Lives, like Calphurnia’s dream and Decius’s urgency to get Caesar to attend the Senate. But, equally, much of what Shakespeare includes is curiously missing from his source. In Plutarch’s narrative, Decius makes no attempt to feed Caesar’s self-assurance with a flattering interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream. Nor does Caesar drastically reverse-course on whether to adjourn the Senate. These new elements, entirely of Shakespeare’s own making, seem designed to expose a disparity between Caesar’s grand perception of himself and his actual nature as a human being, capable of delusion and susceptible to emotional manipulation.
This brings us to a central tension between the Roman and early modern visions of the individual self. In Mirages of the Selfe, Timothy Reiss gives a history of the changing conceptions of personhood, covering the very different times in which both Caesar and Shakespeare lived. Reiss draws an important distinction between ‘impassibility’ and ‘passibility,’ which he uses to characterize the outlooks of pagan Rome and early modern Christendom respectively. Passibility names those “experiences of being whose common denominator was a sense of being embedded in and acted on,” in contrast to impassibility which confers an untouchable independence upon its (usually divine) possessor. Just as Nietzsche recognised the ultimate triumph of slave morality over Roman mastery, so the Christian acknowledgement of passibility has had great influence, providing the modest understanding of personhood inherited by Shakespeare’s age. In other words, free will is a central presupposition of Shakespearean drama, but so are the limits under which every individual—even those as outstanding as Caesar—necessarily acts.
Paradoxically, though Shakespeare makes Julius Caesar faithful to this principle of limited sovereignty, his title character is truly Roman: perfectly unaware that any such constraints should apply to someone as extraordinary as himself. Shakespeare depicts a Caesar utterly obsessed with impassibility, which the Roman imperial statesman credits for making him “Unshaked of motion.” However, in Shakespeare’s rendering, impassibility—or imagined impassibility—takes on the aspect of a complacent vice, rather than a divine virtue. It blinds Caesar to his mortality, such that he stops entertaining fear at all: “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.”
Belief in his apparently invincible nature persists throughout the play, even up to his death. Just a few lines before the conspirators draw their knives, Caesar is still engaged in a short-sighted tribute to his own godlike qualities: “I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament.’” His supposedly peerless embodiment of constancy resembles Nietzsche’s belief that true virtue can be practised only by an “aristocratic” minority. But this noble self-image exists alongside a strong sense that Caesar is about to suffer an unforeseen death. Only when he is dying does Caesar finally appreciate the hollowness of his boasts: “Et tu Brute? – Then fall, Caesar.” Containing both a sorrowful affection for Brutus and an implicit admission of his own folly, these last words reflect well on Caesar, being a sincere and poignant expression of the very human vulnerability he has been trying to live down. Shakespeare pitifully represents Caesar as failing precisely because his motivating ideal, impassibility, cannot be realized by the human condition. The playwright strikes deeply at a general moral failing: Rome’s tendency to glorify impossible, even life-destroying ideals.
Literary critic Harold Bloom took a more equivocal view of Shakespeare’s title character, writing that “Shakespeare decided that his play required exactly a waning Caesar, a highly plausible mixture of grandeurs and weaknesses.” As we have seen, the “weaknesses” to which Bloom alludes are readily apparent and conveyed with skilful dramatic irony. The “grandeurs”are rather more difficult to identify, especially in those scenes which feature the all-too-human Caesar himself. When Bloom offers examples, we learn that he locates these “grandeurs” in Caesar’s achievement of a certain mastery in death, arguing that his great triumph is “the promulgation of his myth by [Mark] Antony’s dangerous eloquence. In death, Caesar devours all of Rome.” The conspirators are justly defeated at Philippi, the Roman Empire is established under Augustus, and thus Caesar’s spirit survives in the form of his legacy on Rome and its political order.
Bloom might credit Caesar with assuming a form of power after death, but this still distinguishes Shakespeare from Plutarch, whose masterwork, as its title suggests, was really concerned with the greatness of men in their lives. The prophetic warnings of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus and the reincarnation of his spirit in the form of Octavian do add to a strange impression that Caesar is made stronger by defeat; that like Anteaus before him and Obi-Wan Kenobi after, Caesar once struck down becomes more powerful than his opponents can possibly imagine. But while it is fair to recognise the posthumous influence he exerts on the play’s events, it does not alter Caesar’s almost comically weak appearance as he lives and breathes on the stage. In this all-important respect, Shakespeare’s Caesar bears a closer resemblance to the anti-Christs of Medieval English mystery plays than to the heroes of Star Wars or Greek mythology.
It is therefore difficult not to regard Bloom’s emphasis on Caesar’s triumphant afterlife as an exercise in stressing marginal content at the expense of the larger work. Foremost in our minds should be the way in which Shakespeare subjects Caesar to a revolutionary critique.
Even Mark Antony, beholding his comrade’s dead body, cannot quite believe what Shakespeare has done to Julius Caesar: “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, / Shrunk to this little measure?” These lines perfectly capture how Shakespeare downgrades Caesar from the lofty pedestal built for him by his pre-Christian admirers. The disparity between these two images of Caesar stems from an irreconcilable difference of values, especially concerning pride. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare shows great skill as an historian of moral values, painting a convincing portrait of the Roman leader as he likely was, animated by these long-eclipsed pagan ideals. Clearly, he did more than simply dress early modern Englishmen in togas, as Goethe was inclined to believe about Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Alexander Pope was closer to the mark when he praised Shakespeare for treating audiences to a compelling encounter with the ‘Spirit’ and ‘manners’ of a distantly ancient world. Still, Shakespeare displays a readiness to pass judgement on the world which he so faithfully resurrects. The constant focus given to Caesar’s ultimate weakness reveals how fully Shakespeare’s ethical instincts were coloured by the Christian culture in which his powers grew. It is as though his Caesar is intoxicated with the reputation later fashioned for him by admirers like Plutarch, and that Shakespeare, with his humbler, Christian view, dramatically reminds us that Caesar shares in a human condition which can never achieve deity.
In this sense, Julius Caesar reveals the tragic way in which a muddled, anti-human value-structure can spell the death of an individual. But in the mentality of the conspirators, something more terrifying is played before our eyes: the beginning of the end for an entire community.
This essay is the first in a three-part series.