The only authoritative edition of Julius Caesar is the 1623 First Folio, which appears to have used the theater company's official promptbook rather than Shakespeare's manuscript. Some anomalies exist, most notably in Act Four where there is confusion concerning the parts of the minor characters. Also, in writings from 1614 and 1625 Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson makes fun of a line from 3.1 where Caesar says, "Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause." The First Folio omits the final four words, yet the fact that Jonson was writing in 1625 appears to indicate that the words may have been used in productions of the play even after the publication of the First Folio. The Oxford edition chose to add the four words back into the play, arguing that the apparent contradiction helps to more fully portray Caesar's characteristic god-like aspirations.
Julius Caesar opens in 44 B.C., at a time when Rome ruled territories stretching from as far north as Britain to as far east as Persia. However, Rome's military success had come at a serious cost to the political situation in the home city, which was governed by a senate. Rome's senators became increasingly factionalized causing internal disarray, which allowed the more successful military generals gain power. Furthermore, the state suffered from class divisions, and the plebeians had managed to win the right to elect "tribunes," or representatives, giving them some political power. However, women and most of the plebeian men remained excluded from this franchise. Thus, although the republic showed some signs of democracy, the majority did not participate in the general politics.
Several men attempted to take over the government during this tumultuous period, most failing in the endeavor. Julius Caesar was a Roman general who had made a name for himself through his successful campaigning of northwest Europe. His advantage lay not only in winning battles, but also in his popularity among the poorer classes in Rome. He possessed innate talent, charisma, ambition, and luck, which, when combined, allowed his political power to increase. Supporters of the traditional form of government realized that men like Caesar posed a serious threat to the republic, and when legal and military attempts failed to stop him, conspirators led by Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus assassinated him.
The death of Caesar undermined the very political institution it was meant to defend. Rome was soon split by civil war, and the armies of the conspirators were defeated by Caesar's friend Mark Antony and his heir, Octavius. The culmination of these events was the defeat of the senate and the installment of Octavius as emperor Augustus.
Contemporaries of Caesar quickly grasped the importance of these events, documenting them well. Throughout the centuries since, the events of Caeser's time have been interpreted and discussed at length, and continue to be alluded to even in present day politics. Political commentators have interpreted the actions of the main figures differently. For example, Michelangelo viewed Brutus as a defender of human liberty, while Dante placed him (and Cassius) into the deepest circle of hell in his Inferno. For Shakespeare, this historical drama presented numerous possibilities for analyzing and exploring conflicting perspectives of these events, and thus was a logical choice for one of his plays.
The story of Caesar's death and the resulting political upheaval was especially salient in Shakespeare's time. The play is thought to have been written in 1599, when Queen Elizabeth was sixty-six years old. Europe and England were ruled by monarchs struggling to consolidate their power. In England, the monarchy ran into opposition from the established aristocracy and elected representatives in the House of Commons. Since Elizabeth had no direct heirs, many feared England might decay into civil chaos similar to that of the fifteenth century. Fear of censorship prevailed in matters relating to political discourse, and so for Shakespeare, the story of Julius Caesar provided a safe way to comment on many of the important questions of the time.
Shakespeare's main source in writing the play was Thomas North's English translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Plutarch wrote in the first century A.D. and recorded his biographies as an historian. His description of the Roman Republic stated that it was ruled by at least one or more powerful men, yet rarely more than a few men. Shakespeare adopts this concept of Rome for Julius Caesar, focusing on the actions and influences of a few remarkable individuals rather than dealing with larger social movements. However, this approach does not imply a limited awareness of Rome's social problems, as the play's opening scenes clearly address Rome's social divisions.
Shakespeare condenses the action in Julius Caesar as in many of his historical dramas, breaking slightly from historical accuracy. For example, Shakespeare places Caesar's triumph over Pompey's sons with the Lupercalia in February, whereas Plutarch indicates the victory took place in October. With this time change, the assassination on the Ides of March appears to be in response to Caesar's growing influence and arrogance. Furthermore, in Shakespeare's version, Brutus and Cassius flee from Rome immediately after Antony's speech to the Roman mob, but Plutarch describes them withdrawing from the city over a year after Caesar's funeral. These differences cause Roman leaders' personal flaws and strengths to appear far more important in shaping the action of the plot.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is composed of several characters, none of whom dominate the plot; even the titular hero is merely one of the several personalities in the play. Indeed, Shakespeare creates only a limited depth to Caesar's characterization, mainly relying on the negative reports from those most hostile to him. However, when onstage, Caesar does not live up the reputation his enemies claim for him, thereby undermining his ability to dominate the plot at any point.
Brutus is a much fuller character. As the friend and murderer of Caesar, he provides tremendous insight into his personality through soliloquies in which he discusses his motives and the consequences of his actions. Brutus also is portrayed in many different roles, including husband, military leader and assassin. These different roles allow us to see the internal strife inherent in Brutus' character; he is a man who must justify his extralegal murder while simultaneously remaining a faithful and good husband.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare utilizes one of his great techniques, often called "gradual release", slowly providing pertinent plot information as the play progresses, forcing the audience to continually revise its interpretation of the action. A good example of this is when Antony climaxes his famous eulogy by reading Caesar's will and speaking of the generosity Caesar has shown to the common people, mentioning that Caesar has left them all some money. However, only two scenes later we see him trying to minimize the cost of this generosity by reducing the amount of money that needs to be given out. The combination of the two scenes forces the audience to reevaluate everything we know about Antony, and denies us the ability to fix firm motives on any of the play's characters.
Shakespeare never intended the play to be historically accurate. In fact, he clearly expected the actors to appear in Elizabethan dress. Furthermore, he gives Rome the medieval invention of the mechanical clock, a notorious anachronism. However, Shakespeare's Romans share a distinct cultural heritage and society, including Roman society's implicit ideals and assumptions. When Antony calls Brutus, "the noblest of the Romans," he is referring to the specific "Roman" virtue, associated with the Republican government Brutus dies defending. The protagonists in the plot are never able to overcome the pressure of the Roman values, and thus are not completely free to invent themselves, relying instead on the cultural values provided.