By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Shakespeare may have written Julius Caesar to be the first of his plays to take the stage at his acting company’s new Globe theater in 1599. At this important point in his career as a playwright, Shakespeare turned to a key event in Roman history. Many people in the Renaissance were passionately interested in the story of Caesar’s death at the hands of his friends and fellow politicians. There was much debate about who were the villains and who were the heroes. According to the fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante, Brutus and Cassius, the foremost of the conspirators who killed Caesar, were traitors who deserved an eternity in hell. But in the view of Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir Philip Sidney, Caesar was a rebel threatening Rome, and Brutus was the wisest of senators.
Shakespeare’s dramatization of Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath has kept this debate alive among generations of readers and playgoers. Is Brutus the true hero of this tragedy in his principled opposition to Caesar’s ambition to become king of Rome? Or is Caesar the tragic hero, the greatest military and civic leader of his era, struck down by lesser men misled by jealousy and false idealism? By continuing to address these questions, our civilization engages not only in the enjoyment of a great play but also in an examination of the ways it chooses to govern itself, whether through the rule of the one (Caesarism, monarchy) or the rule of the many (republicanism).