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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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Shakespeare found his basic material for Julius Caesar in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, written by a Greek named Plutarch in the first century after Christ. Plutarch, like Shakespeare, wrote history as a guide for his contemporaries. It's not surprising that Shakespeare was attracted to Plutarch, for Plutarch was more a biographer than an historian, and his tales are full of wonderful dramatic touches.

Shakespeare did not read Plutarch in Greek. The Lives was translated into French by Jacques Amyet in 1559 and then from French into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579. That was 20 years before the first production of Julius Caesar.

Plutarch wrote separate biographies of Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Antony, and often gives three different accounts of the same events. It's fun to read these biographies today to see which accounts Shakespeare followed, which he ignored, and which he transformed for his own dramatic purposes. At times Shakespeare lifted material directly from Plutarch. Shakespeare's Caesar, for example, says:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look, He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.



Act I, Scene ii, lines 194-195

Notice how close that is to Plutarch's version:

Caesar also had Cassius in great jealousy and suspected him much, whereupon he said on a time to his friends: "What will Cassius do, think ye? I like not his pale looks."

Plutarch's Brutus can do nothing wrong. Some of you will want to argue that Shakespeare thought less of Brutus; others will want to quote Plutarch to prove that Shakespeare's Brutus was indeed a noble man.

As for Caesar, Plutarch's portrait is close to Shakespeare's: a ruler guilty of great pride and ambition, but also a benefactor of the people.

Shakespeare's portrait of Caesar may also have been influenced by Elizabethan attitudes toward him. Some saw Caesar as a hero; others, as a tyrant and a traitor. Shakespeare may have enjoyed exploiting these differences, playing them against each other without ever resolving them. Shakespeare may also have drawn Caesar's portrait from the vain and boastful heroes (such as Tamburlaine) brought to life on stage during his lifetime.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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