Article Title

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Erasmus's De Copia, and Sentential Ambiguity


Jeffrey J. Yu


This paper presents a new reading of Julius Caesar through the lens of Tudor grammar school pedagogy, specifically the use of sententia and the elaboration of them according to the teaching of Desiderius Erasmus. Because of the complexity and contradictory nature of Renaissance conceptions of Caesar, Shakespeare made the very ambiguity of Caesar and his assassination the focus of his play, encapsulated by Cicero in the following sententia: “Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time: / But men may construe things, after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1.3.33–5). Interpretation, Cicero tells us, is a woefully subjective enterprise, and while the primacy of his sententia has been noted in the past, I argue that Shakespeare, following his grammar school training, analyzes and amplifies it according to Erasmus’ instructions in his De Copia. Thus, Cicero’s “things” include omens, portents, other characters, and characters’ own identities in a process of self-fashioning. Moreover, characters’ “fashions” are also fashioned by others, often resulting in misinterpretations. Ultimately, tragedy befalls those who are either ignorant of or refuse to heed Cicero’s sententia. Interpretation is fraught with the perils of error, and Julius Caesar is full of such errors—and perils—especially for those who blind to the “fashions” of others and their own.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.