From the very beginning of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we hear rumblings of sedition. We witness the tribunes Flavius and Murellus resisting Caesar’s growing cult of personality, denuding his statues of their ornaments and generally undermining the Lupercalia festival being held in his honour. But what starts as an act of civil disobedience by two unimportant officials soon escalates into the most famous assassination in history, committed by senators intent on saving their beloved Republic from Caesar’s royal ambitions.
Shakespeare took this event and placed it at the centre of his Roman drama. Moreover, he staged it at a time in history when even the casual mention of regicide, let alone its artistic portrayal, was almost as politically sensitive as publishing government secrets is today. Queen Elizabeth I had been England’s Queen for forty years and there were notoriously harsh laws against treason on the statute books, as the likes of Mary Stuart and Edmund Campion discovered to their peril. Added to this political background was the sophisticated framework of Christian doctrine, which took a clear position on the question of regicide, prohibiting this crime in the most unequivocal terms. Killing the monarch was a greater matter than just transgressing secular authority: “To act against the king,” writes the historian David Starkey, “was to rebel against God.” The theological reasoning behind this stance can seem fairly complex to our modern minds, but it is nevertheless made clear in texts from the time. One such work explaining the blasphemous nature of regicide was even produced by a sovereign himself. James I’s Trew Law of Free Monarchies, published in 1598 when he was king only of Scotland as James VI, provides a thoroughly consistent view of monarchy as a sacred, untouchable seat of authority, and essentially resembles the official Church of England position on regicide at the time Shakespeare was probing the issue in Julius Caesar.
Most God-fearing people accepted the orthodox position, advanced at great length in Trew Law, that killing whoever wears the crown was an unspeakable sin. Much of James’s case against regicide rests upon Biblical exegesis. James observes that “we never reade [in the Bible], that ever the Prophets perswaded the people to rebell against the Prince, how wicked so ever he was.” He gives the example of Jeremiah threatening God’s people with “utter destruction for rebellion to Nabuchadnezar the king of Babel, despite his being an idolatrous persecuter, a forraine King, a Tyrant, and usurper of their liberties.” James categorically condemns revolutionary action against even the cruellest monarchs, always on the religious grounds that “it is a sure Axiome in Theologie, that evill should not be done, that good may come out of it.” He never, however, describes crowns as conferring an unqualified mastery on their possessors. His ideal monarch is not Nietzsche’s exemplar of master morality, engaging without external restraint in “strong, free and joyous action.” James simply argues that the abominable deeds performed by kings are for God to punish, rather than self-appointed individuals vying to displace royal power. He even makes the point that monarchs will be judged in a uniquely devastating manner, since their responsibility before God is greater than any subject’s: “Jove’s thunderclaps light oftener and sorer upon the high and stately oakes, than on the low and supple willow trees.”
Examining James’s arguments, we perceive a clear distinction between the unyielding mentality of Caesar’s assassins and the meek Christian doctrines which restrained any temptation to dethrone kings while Shakespeare was alive. Though written to reinforce royal power, Trew Law is still concerned with defining the limits of that power—which, flowing from God, places even kings in a servile relationship to their Creator, to whom they are accountable after death. Christians during Shakespeare’s time were expected to rest content with this divinely sanctioned order, and tyrannical kings, if ever they rose to power, were to be “met with nothing more than prayers, sighs, and tears.” Nietzsche would surely belittle such passivity as the morality of slaves. Indeed, a devotee of master values would never tolerate domination by another, but confidently exercise his own will in rebellion against his lowly status. In direct contrast to James’s obediently Christian subjects, the conspirators of Julius Caesar exhibit precisely this wilful outlook, murdering the Roman leader before he has even reached his full tyrannical potential. Brutus states as much: “think him as a serpent’s egg / Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous, / And kill him in the shell.” By the conspirators’ own admission, then, the central event in Julius Caesar is more than a simple tyrannicide; it is a pre-emptive assassination, containing all of the ruthless inflexibility of Roman morality. The Christian prohibition of regicide, defended by James and deemed common knowledge among 16th century English subjects, is absent from the conspirators’ moral universe. Brutus and his entourage are not detained by the subtleties of Christian doctrine as they conspire to kill the Roman leader.
In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche uses the word “ressentiment” to describe the phenomenon whereby injured parties, as a disguise for their own failure, cunningly transfer their sense of pain onto an external scapegoat. The concept is well-expressed in Nietzsche’s metaphor of the bird and the lamb: “It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs.” Nietzsche believed this perfectly characterised the cynicism of Christian slave morality, which ludicrously “demands of strength that it should not express itself as strength.” As such, we might have expected Nietzsche to scorn the conspirators as case studies in ressentiment—pathetic lambs compared to Caesar, the great bird of prey. Shakespeare’s title character looks down upon Cassius for projecting this very sense of wounded inferiority: “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves.” Cassius often lives up to the description when agonising over Caesar’s success: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about.” On their own, these moments in Julius Caesar might easily be identified with Nietzschean ressentiment. But it is important to reemphasise that, unlike James’s more servile Christian subjects, the conspirators do not condemn Caesar merely to excuse their own weakness; they do so in order to provide a foundation for their defiant act of regicide.
In this way, they imitate Caesar’s values, seeking to defeat him on his own terms. So it is no real surprise that Nietzsche, in reading Julius Caesar, in fact identified the assassination with great spiritual strength, admiring Brutus’s renunciation of friendship for “independence of the soul!” He adds: “No sacrifice can be too great for that: one must be capable of sacrificing one’s dearest friend for it, even if he [Caesar] should also be the most glorious human being.” There is a real sense, then, in which Caesar and his killers, despite having divergent political ideals, essentially conform to a shared ethical standard. Like true Roman masters, the conspirators resolutely reject submission, preferring death in pursuit of their worldly ideal, the Republic, than domination by an all-powerful Caesar.
Woodcut illustration of Porcia Catonis counseling Marcus Junius Brutus; Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus; and Porcia’s suicide (1474).
Indeed, unlike Nietzsche’s lamb stressing its virtuous distinctness from the bird of prey, Cassius eagerly lists his similarities with Caesar: “I was born free as Caesar, so were you; / We have both fed as well, and we can both / Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.” Caesar and the conspirators display a shared Roman mentality, holding values like strength and constancy in the highest regard, however they might apply them politically. Shakespeare has Cassius articulate these Roman standards, upbraiding his fellow conspirator, Caska, for insufficiently meeting them: “those sparks of life / That should be in a Roman you do want.” Cassius invokes this ideal while trying to rouse colleagues to virtuous rebellion against the domineering Caesar. Cassius’s preoccupation with resisting submission and retaining his nobility echoes Brutus’s contempt, recorded in Plutarch’s profile of him, for those senators who lacked the necessary fortitude—the Roman “sparks of life”—to participate in the conspiracy.
Brutus said… that he could not but greatly reproue his friends he had at Rome who were slaues more through their own fault than through their valiantnes or manhood which vsurped the tyrannie: considering that they were so cowardly and faint harted, as to suffer the sight of those things before their eies.
This is a typical case of master morality: Brutus denouncing the weak for their passivity, while extolling himself as strong for not enduring slavery without a fight. Elsewhere in Plutarch, we read Cassius urging the importance of constancy, warning Brutus that favours bestowed by Caesar should be regarded as mere ploys to “weaken his constant minde, framing it to the bent of his [Caesar’s] bow.”
Shakespeare clearly imbibed a comprehensive sense of the conspirators’ value structure from his source and did his best faithfully to represent their striving after mastery. As such, Shakespeare’s conspirators, just like his Caesar, exhibit a deeply rooted belief in their own power: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” This famous line lyrically expresses Cassius’s confidence in his ability to shape both his own destiny and the history of the world. And Cassius’s fellow senators, or at least those who were not insufficiently Roman, follow through on this self-assurance, reversing their status as “underlings” by stabbing Caesar to death. But having created a compelling picture of the mentality behind the assassination, Shakespeare then invites us to view the consequences.
Immediately, we see Brutus’s and Cassius’s sense of self-determination enlarged by their success. It is as though Caesar’s delusions of grandeur, having themselves been exposed as fatally hollow, are instantly bequeathed to his killers, whose own celebrations will also be revealed as hubristic. Brutus urges calm, declaring confidently that “Ambition’s debt is paid.” Just as Caesar’s obsession with invulnerability blinded him to threats, the conspirators’ short-term success makes them oblivious to the dangerous power vacuum they have just created—which they mistake, idealistically, for “Peace, Freedom and Liberty.” Having stayed close to Plutarch’s account of the assassins’ motivations, Shakespeare diverges drastically from his source in portraying a sort of Ides of March afterparty. There is no basis in Plutarch for the conspirators’ dramatic ritual of smearing their hands with Caesar’s blood. Nor is there any precedent for Cassius’s painfully ironic prediction that history will come to crown him and his colleagues as peerlessly noble for outdoing the great Caesar:
How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?
These embellished details were likely included by Shakespeare to tease out the conspirators’ misguided sense of their own control over the process they have set in motion. As the action develops, it becomes obvious that the conspirators’ regicidal measure, far from making them the heroes of dramas, is no more than a prelude to their own demise.
The central problem arises from the conspirators’ failure to appreciate how their own striving after mastery will inevitably come into conflict with the same instincts in other Romans, like Mark Antony and Octavian. The senators are hyperrational in deciding to murder Caesar and their celebratory cries following his death emerge from the mistaken assumption that, once their impeccable reasoning is shared with the Roman people, they will be admired as saviours of the Republic. They do not anticipate that strong feelings will be incited by Caesar’s murder, especially when helped along by Antony’s rousing eloquence. They become defenceless against the emotional reaction Antony excites in the plebeians, who suddenly lament the passing of “royal Caesar!” and vow to “revenge his death.” Antony showcases an ability to out-master the conspirators’ rational basis for regicide with a raw appeal to Roman feeling, before coolly observing: “Mischief, thou art afoot.” Using the power of rhetoric to distort and amplify natural feeling, he issues a deadly challenge to the idealism of Brutus and Cassius. In other words, by murdering Caesar, the conspirators demonstrate a commendably Roman refusal to endure submission. But alongside Antony’s equally strong resolution not to abide regicide, and his masterful incitement of popular feeling, their act is revealed as a guarantor not of peace and liberty, but of factionalism and civil war. The consequent tragedy is all-encompassing, such that not even the most unassuming citizens are safe: Cinna the poet is mistaken for Cinna the conspirator and torn to pieces by a mindless mob.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare demonstrates an acute awareness of the pitfalls of a system where the main political actors, valuing mastery above all else, become morally averse to power-sharing. We witness the Roman preoccupation with dominance displacing the more harmonious aspects of human relations, such as pity, love, and loyalty—the true, ultimately Christian measures of a strong and lasting community.
Of course, pity is never wholly absent from Shakespeare’s Rome. On occasion, Brutus tries to conciliate Antony, stating on behalf of the conspirators that “our hearts / Of brothers’ temper, do receive you in, / With all kind love, good thoughts and reverence.” But this generous tone is difficult to take seriously, given the murder in which Brutus has been involved. Thus, a compassionate readiness to share power may not be completely missing; but it is fatally eclipsed by the masterly passions which even the most level-headed Romans are inclined to nurture and embody. This essential ruthlessness, epitomised by the conspirators’ regicide, is also visible in the unforgiving response of Antony and Octavian, who indiscriminately murder “an hundred senators” without any regard for the presumption of innocence. From the early modern perspective, personal ethics more than institutional systems was considered the ultimate bedrock of political life. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that Shakespeare likely blamed the fall of Rome on precisely these moral failings, as the unyielding masterly instincts of the conspirators and the vengeful Second Triumvirate clash in deadly fashion. A shared sense of power as the measure of virtue, combined with irreconcilable differences about Rome’s future, come to spell the death of an entire civilised order.
Literary scholar Geoffrey Bullough credits Julius Caesar with lacking “the overt didacticism of the English histories.” But overtly or otherwise, Shakespeare still does seem to draw important moral lessons from the shortcomings of Roman history. Another literary critic, Paul Cantor, believes that his Roman plays form “a negative judgement of the Empire in specifically political terms.” But is judgement passed only on Empire? Shakespeare devotes as much forensic attention to the weaknesses of those seeking to uphold the Republican constitution as he does to Caesar. The conspirators exhibit the same obsession with constancy; and as with Caesar, their attachment to this value comes with tragic ironies. A subtle example occurs in one of Cassius’s asides about Brutus: ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ It is significant that Shakespeare’s Romans can appreciate the essential passibility in everyone else, but never in themselves. Cassius’s acknowledgement of Brutus’s susceptibility to seduction implicitly concedes that Roman values like firmness and constancy can only take even the most noble individual so far: that if everyone is immovably firm, then human relations come to a halt. Having asserted his own power over events, Cassius later undergoes an anagnorisis on this score, when witnessing ravens, crows, and kites flying ominously over his head at Philippi: “their shadows seem / A canopy most fatal, under which our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.” These birds are a solemn metaphor for the way in which, aiming to command the historical process, Cassius overestimated himself and underestimated the stars.
Caesar’s assassins act out of a profound sense of their own honour, which they fear is being eclipsed by the Roman dictator’s intensifying power: “this man / Is now become a god, and Cassius is / A wretched creature, and must bend his body / If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.” Shakespeare displays a compassionate understanding of the conspirators’ core ethic, while nevertheless clarifying its deadly consequences for Roman culture. Where King James mounted theological objections to regicide, Shakespeare seems much more interested in questioning the practicality of allowing absolute power to prevail over compromise and understanding, as the conspirators do. What St. Augustine called libido dominandi may be conducive to existential vitality in an individual life, and Nietzsche pays tribute to Brutus on this score. But pursued by warring aristocrats, neither of whom are willing to cede ground, it can wreck a community of individuals. Julius Caesar, then, is remarkably faithful to Nietzsche’s later expressed understanding of Roman honour, except that Shakespeare focuses less on its fiery virtuousness than its ultimate tendency towards breakdown. Competing claimants to power, exercising their own master moralities, produce only a loveless and precarious social order. The very virtues celebrated for making Rome distinct among civilisations are seen, with tremendous irony, to cause its ultimate undoing. So the sickness does not begin with Caesar; but nor does it end with the conspirators’ reckless idealism.
Approaching their end, Brutus and Cassius attempt to snatch virtue from the jaws of defeat. Unable to deal a deadly blow to the Second Triumvirate, the conspirators pursue glory by murdering themselves.
This essay is the second in a three-part series.