My class seems to have been one of the few that didn’t read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school. Because this play contains a lot of famous lines, I knew how it went (not to mention that I had at least a Wikipedia knowledge of Roman history). Therefore, I admit that I found the play somewhat lacking in depth.
The plot is very exciting: Julius Caesar is conspired against and then killed; the conspirators are then drawn into a civil war with Caesar’s supporters and those who want to exploit the power vacuum for themselves; and we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger that Shakespeare would resolve in Antony and Cleopatra.
Furthermore, the motivations of the characters are intriguing – which is undoubtedly why this play is studied so often. Some are motivated by the need for personal gain, some because they are jealous of Caesar, and still some because they genuinely find Caesar’s growing tyrannical popularity to be worrisome.
Shakespeare wrote at a time when monarchy was absolute and few questioned it as the best form of government. Yet Elizabethan England also held up Ancient Roman leaders like Julius Caesar as heroes. Ancient Roman and Greek culture were being revived and reintroduced, but with Elizabethan morals. Thus this play ultimately reaffirms the common sense notion (of the time) that a strong state needs a strong ruler, as otherwise the society will fall into warring factions and the people cannot be trusted to make good decisions. At the same time, it was introducing ancient Roman political figures to a wide audience.
Unlike his comedies or tragedies, Shakespeare’s historical plays have not aged well. We have grown used to portrayals of history in the media that take liberty with the facts for the sake of a good story, but we have improved upon our expectations of accuracy. We have created better plays, books, and films about Rome in the past four hundred years. Furthermore, the moral of Julius Caesar is somewhat lost on modern audiences. Are we supposed to sympathise with Brutus, who kills Caesar out of a sense of duty for the state? Are we supposed to sympathise with Cassius, who feels that Caesar is no better of a man than himself and thus refuses to submit to him? Are we supposed to sympathise with the confused common people? With Caesar?
I enjoyed the play and it was fun to finally hear popular lines in context. Compared to Shakespeare’s historical plays about more recent history, it was fairly accurate. But as it was history, it also didn’t really finish properly. We are left with the conspirators dead and Octavian being proclaimed the new Caesar, much to the consternation of Marc Antony. We know what happens next (or we could check Wikipedia if we don’t).