Authors: William Shakespeare
The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editors: Jan Sewell and Will Sharpe
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro,
Dee Anna Phares, Héloïse Sénéchal
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Erin Sullivan and Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Esme Miskimmin
In Performance: Karin Brown (RSC stagings) and Peter Kirwan (overview)
The Director’s Cut (interviews by Jonathan Bate and Kevin Wright):
Edward Hall, David Farr, and Lucy Bailey
Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theater Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Professor and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK
2011 Modern Library Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2007, 2011 by The Royal Shakespeare Company
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York.
and the T
Design are registered trademarks of
Random House, Inc.
“Royal Shakespeare Company,” “RSC,” and the RSC logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of The Royal Shakespeare Company.
The version of
and the corresponding footnotes that appear in this volume were originally published in
, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, published in 2007 by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © Simon Winnall/Getty Images
Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, recommended the study of history with an eye to its contemporary applications: “in the reading of histories as you have principally to mark how matters have passed in government in those days, so have you to apply them to these our times and states and see how they may be made serviceable to our age.” It was in this spirit that Sir Thomas North produced his translation of Plutarch’s
Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
, the main source for Shakespeare’s dramatizations of the events leading to the deaths of Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius, Marcus Antonius and his beloved Cleopatra, and Caius Martius Coriolanus.
, performed at the Globe Theatre in 1599, was the first of the three plays in which Shakespeare followed Plutarch closely in exploring key moments of transition in the history of Rome.
Unlike Plutarch, though, Shakespeare begins with the people rather than the politicians. The common tradesmen are taking a day’s unofficial holiday in celebration of the return of the conquering Caesar. But the victory in question is not an imperial one: Julius Caesar has defeated another Roman general, Pompey the Great, in a civil war. The play will end with renewed civil war. Elizabethan political culture was much exercised by the dangers of, on the one hand, the civil strife concomitant upon uncertainty over the transmission of power and, on the other, the potential for tyranny if too much power were invested in an individual. In the opening scene the Tribunes—official spokesmen for the popular will—are worried that the military supremo is proving too popular. They demand the removal of the tokens honoring Caesar that have been draped over the statues in the Capitol. We learn a little later that for their pains in doing so they have been “put to silence.” This kind of detail lends support to Orson Welles’s influential 1930s production of the play with its jackbooted Caesar and its handling of Antony’s funeral oration as something out of a Nuremberg Rally.
We should, however, be cautious in fully endorsing such a reading. The conspirators are not disinterested idealists. Brutus, the most thoughtful of them, does not initially focus his fears on Caesar’s ambitions; such a prospect is conjured into him by Cassius’ cunning rhetoric. “[T]he quarrel,” remarks Brutus in soliloquy, “Will bear no colour for the thing he is.” He only persuades himself to join the conspirators by “fashioning” the argument that the act of crowning Caesar might itself be the egg that, when hatched, would unleash tyranny upon the state. The historical irony for Rome, and the personal tragedy for Brutus, is that the conspiracy itself proves to be the thing that divides the city and lets slip the dogs of a civil war that only ceases at the end of
Antony and Cleopatra
, when Octavius becomes Augustus and ushers in the imperial phase of Rome’s history.
For over a thousand years, Rome was the city of the world. The Romans ruled the greatest empire that had ever been seen. Even after its decline and fall, the name of Rome lived on for centuries by providing the Western world with models of excellence in every dimension of human life from military technology to political sophistication to theory of moral character to cultural glories such as architecture and epic poetry.
Shakespeare’s England was a small, vulnerable, upstart nation near the northwestern edge of the known world. When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, the country was in a state of near psychotic self-division as a result of her father’s break from that latter-day Roman empire, the universal Catholic church. But in the course of her reign, aristocrats, intellectuals, seamen, poets, and theater people forged an amazingly bold new vision: that one day, their tiny island-nation might become a second Rome. They laid out the building blocks for the future. Naval power held off the might of Spain and planted the name of the Virgin Queen on distant shores. Politicians honed a system of checks and balances between the two houses of parliament and the monarchy—a system based on the Roman model of senators, tribunes, and emperor, but with a more flexible legal system, based on common law “precedent” rather than a fixed code of rules. Educators opened grammar schools for the middle classes, steeping the future administrators of nation and empire in both the Latin language and the Roman character of firm backbone and stiff upper lip (known technically as Stoicism). And Shakespeare’s actors staged epic dramas in which they told the heroic history both of their own nation and of the Romans who were their ideal. So it was that when Britannia came to rule the waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare’s
was central to the education and character formation of aristocrat, politician, and imperial civil servant alike. Mark Antony’s great speech that sways the popular will—“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—was learned by rote in school and analyzed as the exemplary piece of persuasive oratory (not least because of its witty trope of denying its own force—“I am no orator”).
The year 1599, when the play was written and performed, was a time of intense political debate. The second Spanish Armada had been broken up by bad weather two years before, so superpower rivalry was no longer the most pressing issue of the day. The problem now was how to deal with a country that was apparently harboring rebels and terrorists who were a threat to the new world order. That country was Ireland. Was the answer negotiation or brute force?
The argument that prevailed might be described as the neoconservative position. It went something like this. England stood on the threshold of greatness. Having seen off Spain, it had the potential to become the greatest empire in the modern world. And so to the classic conservative move: look to the past in order to understand the present. The greatest empire in history was that of the ancient Romans. But Rome hadn’t been built in a day. It had only achieved its power by building a mighty army and developing military technology of unprecedented sophistication. Above all, it needed a military genius, an all-conquering general who could hold whole continents in the palm of his hand. His name, of course, was Julius Caesar.
The leading exponent of this position was the Earl of Essex. He sponsored the authorship of historical works and translations of classical texts that supported his ideals of Roman virtue and fortitude. He offered himself to Queen Elizabeth as a modern Julius Caesar. In March 1599 he set off for Ireland at the head of a mighty army. In the autumn he skulked back to the queen’s court in London, having ignominiously failed to defeat the Irish rebels. Superior firepower could not deal with the guerrilla tactics of the insurgents. Shakespeare’s play was written in the fearful interim between the first motion against the insurrection and the realization of the hideous dream of failure.
Essex’s image of himself as Julius Caesar went to his head. His Rubicon moment came eighteen months later when, “assisted by sundry Noblemen and Gentlemen” (Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, among them), he marched against the queen herself, vainly imagining that the people of London would flood into the streets and offer him the crown. He was executed for his pains.
Shakespeare had a very different take on his material from that of Essex. He was fascinated by the assassination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath because this was the period in Roman history that asked the most fundamental questions about politics: does authority belong to the people, to an individual ruler, or to an abstraction called the “state”? What is the most effective form of government—a monarchy, an empire, an oligarchy, a republic?
At the beginning of the play, the long-established Roman republic, with its system of checks and balances (senators representing the patricians and tribunes the plebeians), is in crisis. If Caesar is not stopped, democracy will be destroyed. But are the men who try to stop him acting out of duty to the state or personal ambition? And what happens once the knife has gone in? Chaos, civil war, and then the events of the play’s sequel,
Antony and Cleopatra
, in which there is a failed attempt to divide rule between three men and then the rise to power of a new Caesar, Octavius, who would later be called Augustus, the inaugurator of the imperial phase of Roman history.