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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Julius Caesar is a play about a political assassination. The question it asks is: is it ever right to use force to remove a ruler from power? You, as readers, can answer that question in terms of your own experience in the last quarter of the 20th century. But if you're going to figure out what Shakespeare thought, you'll have to know something about the values and concerns of the Elizabethan world in which he lived.
History plays were popular during Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616) because this was the Age of Discovery, and English men and women were hungry to learn about worlds other than their own. But the Elizabethans also saw history as a mirror in which to discover themselves and find answers to the problems of their lives. A play like Julius Caesar taught the Elizabethans about Roman politics; it also offered an object lesson in how to live. What was Shakespeare trying to teach his contemporaries?
To answer that question, let's take a look at Elizabethan attitudes toward (a) monarchy and (b) order.
Today we believe in democracy and are suspicious of anyone who seeks unlimited power. We know what can happen when a Hitler or a Stalin takes control of a government, and we know just how corrupting power can be. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries had no such prejudice against strong rulers. Their queen, Elizabeth I, ruled with an iron hand for forty-five years (from 1558 to 1603), yet her subjects had great affection for her. Under her rule the arts flourished and the economy prospered. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in war, mostly between Catholics and Protestants, England enjoyed a period relatively free from civil strife. Elizabeth's reign-and the reign of other Tudor monarchs, beginning with Henry VII in 1485- brought an end to the anarchy that had been England's fate during the Wars of the Roses (1455-84). To Shakespeare and his contemporaries the message was clear: only a strong, benevolent ruler could protect the peace and save the country from plunging into chaos again. Shakespeare would probably not have approved of the murder of Caesar.
In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Elizabeth was old and failing. She had never married and had no children to succeed her. Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have worried greatly that someone (like Brutus? like Cassius?) would try to grab power and plunge the country into civil war.
When the Elizabethans spoke of order, they didn't just mean political or social order. Though they lived during what we call today the English Renaissance, they still held many medieval views about man and his relation to the universe. They knew the world was round, and that the earth was one of many planets spinning in space. And they knew from explorers that there were continents besides their own. But most believed, as people in the Middle Ages believed, that the universe was ruled by a benevolent God, and that everything, from the lowest flower to the angels on high, had a divine purpose to fulfill. The king's right to rule came from God himself, and opposition to the king earned the wrath of God and threw the whole system into disorder. Rulers had responsibilities, too, of course: if they didn't work for the good of the people, God would hold them to account. No one in this essentially medieval world lived or functioned in isolation. Everyone was linked together by a chain of rights and obligations, and when someone broke that chain, the whole system broke down and plunged the world into chaos. What destroys the divine harmony in Julius Caesar-Cassius' jealousy, Caesar's ambition, or the fickleness of the mob-is something you'll have to decide for yourself. But whatever the cause, the results offend the heavens and throw the entire country into disarray.
Today a sense of hopelessness and despair hangs over us: a mistake, a simple misunderstanding, and the bomb may drop and destroy life on earth. Our fate, we feel, is out of our control. But the Elizabethans were much more optimistic. Forget chance: if something went wrong, then someone had broken God's laws, the laws of the universe. Many would suffer, but in the end the guilty would be punished and order restored.
Julius Caesar begins with a human act that, like a virus, infects the body of the Roman state. No one is untouched; some grow sick, some die. But in time the poison works its way out of the system and the state grows healthy again. In Shakespeare's world, health, not sickness, is the natural condition of man in God's divine plan.