Friday, September 13, 2013

Julius Caesar: The Authority of Plutarch

Julius caesar study guides.jpg

William Shakespeare Chandos Portrait.jpg
Julius Caesar draws upon the historical authority of Plutarch, as do the later Roman tragedies, an authority which theElizabethans held in great veneration. Shakespeare doubtless felt freer to alter the materials of Holinshed for his dramatic purposes; at least, hit Roman plays follow Plutarch for the most part with dote fidelity. Furthermore, the very name of tragedy, for Shakespeare’s age, summoned up the authority both of ancient matter and of ancient dramatic form — the formal precedent, that is, of mainly, which makes itself felt throughout the tragedies of Shakespeare, as in those of Chapman and others of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The treating of familiar themes drawn from ancient history and “climbing to the height of Seneca his style” became almost as much an obligation for the popular dramatist of the end of Elizabeth's reign as it was within the coterie of the Countess of Pembroke. It was to be expected that Shakespeare, as a practising dramatist, would turn his hand to something in the classical manner, or what would be accepted as the classical manner. Actually, the treatment of the theme would be in the tradition of the living theatre of Shakespeare's day, and just as truly aimed at popular appeal as was Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet; in the hands of Shakespeare the treatment would be incomparably more skillful than the academic exercises of the English Senecans; but it would also, and necessarily, bid for the attention of the learned — Ben Jonson's scornful comment bout “Caesar did never wrong but with just cause” is well known — and Shakespeare doubtless felt some constraint in undertaking it. Certainly, it is one of his more careful pieces of workmanship, as we now have it.