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About this book

Julius Caesar: A New Casebook provides students and academics with a selection of important essays by leading contemporary critics on Shakespeare's first "Globe" play. New historicist, feminist, psychoanalytic and Marxist readings of the tragedy have been chosen to highlight the urgency with which this drama of prophecy, interpretation and political crisis speaks to twenty-first century concerns about democracy, the media and mass communication.

Table of Contents


There is a special necessity for a New Casebook on Julius Caesar because by the year 1999 this play of 1599 had become one of the most quoted texts in debates about critical theory. And this prominence was intriguing because Shakespeare’s tragedy was no longer a favourite of actors, as it had been for most of the twentieth century. Less staged than studied, the Roman play had become an ironic instance of its own theme of the gap between ideas and action. But one reason why it had become so influential in theorising the relation of the word to the world was that its imaging of the moment ‘Between the acting of a dreadful thing’/ And the first motion’ (II.i.63) appeared to anticipate so much of postmodernism.1 Here was a text that dreamed the past as a museum, the present as a market, and the future as a kind of movie, in which there would be no telling ‘How many ages hence’ its plot would be ‘acted over,/In states unborn and accents yet unknown’ (III.i.11). From museum, to market, to movie: it was because Julius Caesar seemed sure of the power of representations to pre-programme reality that it invited such close attention from critics themselves convinced that the present was the incomplete project of Shakespeare’s era. Whether dramatising controversy about mass culture in the Colosseum; conflict over public information in the Senate; contest for audience ratings in the Forum; or war conducted by surveillance and misinformation, this drama spoke directly to poststructuralist anxiety that there was nothing outside of texts and simulation. As Barbara Freedman wrote in her 1991 book, Staging the Gaze, when Brutus admits that ‘The eye sees not itself/But by reflection’ (I.ii.53) Julius Caesar comes very close to our own videomania, and a play which consists of ‘the continual posing and reposing of the interplay of regards … confirms the power of theatre as theory’.2 Shakespeare’s tragedy emerged as such a prime site for theorists, then, because it was itself so virtually theorised.
Richard Wilson

1. The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar

In the late summer or autumn of 1599, Shakespeare’s company brought to the stage the tragedy of Julius Caesar.2 Although it is often read as a play about the killing of a king and expressing a real ambivalence on that score, it would be equally productive to see it as depicting a struggle among aristocrats — senators — aimed at preventing one of their number from transcending his place and destroying the system in which they all ruled as a class.3 In this perspective, then, the assassination is not regicide, but an attempt to restore the status quo ante. The conspirators strike down an individual, Julius Caesar, whose behaviour displays and is characterised in terms that could not help but suggest emulation to an Elizabethan. However, the assassination is carried out by individuals whose actions are presented in the play in exactly the same way. In other words, although the motives of the conspirators, and especially those of Brutus, must be distinguished from Caesar’s as well as Antony’s and Octavius’ in many respects, all are nevertheless animated by the same fundamental drive, the drive to excel all others, to ‘out-imitate’ their fellows.
Wayne Rebhorn

2. ‘Is this a holiday?’: Shakespeare’s Roman Carnival

Julius Caesar was the first Shakespearean play we know to have been acted at the Globe, and was perhaps performed for the opening of the new Bankside theatre in 1599. The Swiss tourist Thomas Platter saw it on 21 September, and his impressions help to locate the work within the different cultural practices that went to make the Elizabethan playhouse. To our minds, accustomed to a decorous image of both Shakespeare and ancient Rome, it is just this collision of codes and voices which makes the traveller’s report so incongruous and jarring:
After lunch, at about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the river, and there in the house with the thatched roof we saw an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first emperor, Julius Caesar, with about fifteen characters; and after the play, according to their custom, they did a most elegant and curious dance, two dressed in men’s clothes and two in women’s.1
Richard Wilson

3. ‘Fashion it thus’: Julius Caesar and the Politics of Theatrical Representation

In David Zucker’s 1988 film of The Naked Gun, a hapless Los Angeles Chief of Police, Lieutenant Frank Drebin, is warned by his relatively pacifist Mayoress employer to curb his propensity for violence. Drebin, himself an exaggerated postmodernist collocation of easily recognisable film texts, counters with a policy statement of his own sufficient to rival any pronouncement of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry:
Yes, well when I see five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of a hundred people, I shoot the bastards. That’s my policy.
John Drakakis

4. The Roman Actor: Julius Caesar

Dismissing the conspirators, Brutus gives them this final piece of advice:
Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily. Let not our looks put on our purposes, But bear it as our Roman actors do, With untired spirits and formal constancy.
(Julius Caesar, II.i.224–7)1
Jonathan Goldberg

5. Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar

The theatre deals with human conflict. Curiously, dramatic criticism discusses the subject very little. Can we automatically assume that Shakespeare shares the commonsense view according to which conflict is based on differences? Can we assume that tragic conflict is due to the different opinions or values of the various protagonists? This is never true in Shakespeare. Of two persons who do not get along, we say: they have their differences. In Shakespeare the reverse is true: the characters disagree because they agree too much.
René Girard

6. ‘Thou bleeding piece of earth’: The Ritual Ground of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar begins at the Feast of the Lupercal, the Roman celebration on 13–15 February which later became St Valentine’s day and often coincides in the Christian calendar with Mardi Gras and the Carnival season, and which, in Shakespeare’s play, quickly passes into history’s most famous ides of March. An earlier generation of critics explained the conflation of the festival and Caesar’s assassination primarily as a ‘dramatic economy’, a structural device for the exposition of the main characters and the juxtaposition of the rather ‘sporty’ aspects of the holiday to the more serious political business of the conspiracy, murder, and civil war to follow.1 But perhaps because of the shift in anthropological theory since the late 1960s away from ‘concern with consensus at the expense of conflict’, more recent studies2 consider the play’s opening on the Lupercal as a very different kind of ‘dramatic economy’. It is the strategically applied marker for a ritual whose purpose and practice, had devolved by the time of the play’s historical setting to an ambiguously construed Derridean ‘event’.3 The first Act’s Lupercalian setting is an effective context for a play shot through with socially and politically disastrous misconstructions and mis-recognitions, beginning with the opening scene’s confusions about exactly what — or who — is being celebrated. It situates Brutus’s idea of the assassination as a ‘sacrifice’, the ultimate failure of the design, and the cataclysmic political and religious changes in Rome in 44 BCE.
Naomi Conn Liebler

7. ‘In the spirit of men there is no blood’: Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar

What follows is intended to further two projects of historical reconstruction of the early-modern period: the first involves writing the body into cultural history; the second, deciphering the complex annotation of gender difference in apparently unambiguously gendered characters.1 In this essay these two projects come together through an interrogation of Shakespeare’s use of the bodily signs of blood and bleeding, particularly in Julius Caesar. At certain discursive occasions in the play, these signs function as historically specific attributes of gender, as important tropes of patriachal discourse. The meaning of blood and bleeding becomes part of an insistent rhetoric of bodily conduct in which the bleeding body signifies as a shameful token of uncontrol, as a failure of physical self-mastery particularly associated with woman.
Gail Kern Paster

8. Portia’s Wound, Calphurnia’s Dream: Reading Character in Julius Caesar

Roland Barthes sardonically described the Mankiewicz film of Julius Caesar as portraying ‘a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead’.2 The film’s use of hair fringes to signify Roman identity and its use of sweat to signify thought were to Barthes examples of ‘degraded spectacle’, for according to his professed ‘ethic of signs’, ‘it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified’ (p. 28). Barthes approves those signs which are, ‘openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra’ and those which are ‘deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept’. He objects to ‘hybrid’ (p. 28) forms — those which are intentionally presented as naturalistic.
Cynthia Marshall

9. Bardicide

Act III, scene iii, of The Tragedie of Julius Caesar ends with the murder of a poet. It begins with a stage direction: ‘Enter Cinna the Poet, and after him the Plebeians.’ This direction creates two oppositions. The poet is opposed to the plebeians. And ‘Cinna the Poet’ is opposed to ‘Cinna the Conspirator’ (III.iii.32/1682), a character with the same name but a different vocation.1 On these two oppositions — between poet and plebeians, between poet and conspirator — Shakespeare builds his narrative of bardicide.
Gary Taylor

10. Vicissitudes of the Public Sphere: Julius Caesar

My discussion turns on two terms which, to this point at least, I have refrained from either defining with any precision or relating to each other: ‘mass culture’ and ‘public sphere’. The latter term in particular has become associated with the name of Jürgen Habermas. His book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), addresses the crisis of ‘public opinion’ in post-liberal capitalism. It also constructs a distinctive historical narrative about the decay of the public sphere and the rise of mass culture which has become the focus of considerable debate.1 Habermas’s views on mass culture are clearly influenced by Frankfurt School figures such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but in a general way they also echo the views of more conservative English modernists such as Eliot and Leavis. I want to treat Habermas as an exemplary modernist here, and to test his narrative of the rise and decline of public culture against the case of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Richard Halpern
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