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In approaching Shakespeare, we must remember that he wrote, not for a small
group of intellectuals, but for every man, from courtier to apprentice,
for the man in the street, for anyone who could be lured to pay a penny
or a tuppence to get into the theatre to see a play. Shakespeare wrote
with one or both eyes on the box office. He wanted to be popular and he
tried to write in such a manner and on such themes that Everyman would
welcome his efforts-and pay for them.
"He is a dreamer, let us leave him: pass," says Caesar, dismissing
the Soothsayer who called out to him "Beware the ides of March."
The event showed that he dismissed him at his peril. Shakespeare was growing
more convinced that we neglect dreams and dreamers at our peril. He was
a humanist, to be sure, and remained one to the end of his days. But from
Julius Caesar on, his greater characters and greater plays are touched
with the dream-light and dream-darkness of something that... transcends
the merely human.... The secret of human life, [Shakespeare] seems to
say, lies beyond... life as well as
Caesar, unlike other Shakespearean characters who suffer from ambition, never says he wants the crown. But even if he did, would it seem so wicked to an Englishman, living under the rule of Elizabeth, that a man already at the helm of state should seek to be King? We know from the historical plays that Shakespeare thought it wrong to usurp a crown, but Caesar would not have been usurping one. What the Senate planned to offer him was only the outward and visible form of a power he already enjoyed.
It has also been argued that Caesar is shown in the play as an arrogant and unyielding man who has the soul of a despot and who could reasonably be expected to trample any remaining liberties of the Romans under his feet. Of course, the pomposity of Caesar's speeches offers some support for this, but I doubt that Shakespeare intended Caesar to be as pompous as his part reads to a twentieth-century eye. It is true that he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, which has a grandiloquent ring in a nonmonarch, but he is the undoubted ruler of a great empire, and Shakespeare may have considered this form of expression perfectly fitting. He allows many rulers in his plays to take themselves very seriously indeed without seeming to denigrate them. What seems pompous to us, accustomed as we are to the compulsive humility of our own political candidates, may have appeared to Elizabethans as the gravity and majesty expected of a chief of state.
Caesar's statements about Cassius and his distrust of thin men are frequently
read as the mutterings of a dictator who cannot abide the least independence
of thought. But Caesar has every justification for distrusting Cassius,
who is already plotting his murder, and he puts his finger on Cassius'
primary motive, which is simple envy.
The essential greatness of Caesar being thus assumed, Shakespeare is free to exhibit in him human weaknesses apparently inconsistent with it. There are many advantages in this method of presentation. It gives reality to Caesar, the man; it suggests that Caesar's spirit is mightier than his person, a suggestion which is essential to the unity of the play; it enables the dramatist to present him in flesh and blood without reducing in stature the men who murder him; finally, it permits the audience to sympathise with Brutus just sufficiently to give poignancy to the disaster which overtakes him.
This last point is of major dramatic importance. The play could not easily have risen to the level of tragedy if Caesar had been portrayed consistently in full majesty. The conspiracy must then have inevitably impressed the audience as no more than a stupid plot contrived by a group of self-seeking politicians under the leadership of a misguided political crank. Such, in effect, it was, but the skillful dramatist, if he is to retain the sympathetic attention of his audience, will not obtrude the fact, but allow it to become fully apparent only at the close.
The infirmities of Caesar are not inventions of the dramatist. They are in part historical and in part derived from Plutarch's delight in the foibles of great men and his tendency to find such foibles more pronounced in his Roman heroes than in the heroes of his native Greece.
John Palmer, "The Character of Caesar," from Political Characters of Shakespeare, reprinted in Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, 1969
Perhaps more than any other figure in history, Julius Caesar has evoked a divided response in the minds of those who have written about him. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that such a response, made up of attraction and repulsion, admiration and hostility, was the prevailing one among informed and educated men throughout Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, so that we can speak of it as forming a tradition extending from Caesar's own day down to that of Shakespeare.
In Plutarch's attitude towards Caesar dislike and admiration mingle.... However divided in his attitude
In a sense, all that Shakespeare does is to dramatize the views of Caesar
and the conspirators which he found in his 'sources', and especially Plutarch,
distributing what are the divided and contradictory responses of a single
writer among several characters who take different sides...