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Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Medieval English Stage Tyrant


Patrick Gray


Shakespeare’s representation of Julius Caesar differs notably from that of his contemporaries, as well as the picture of Caesar that emerges from his most obvious classical source, Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch’s Caesar is shrewd, resilient, and relatively dignified; Shakespeare’s in contrast is physically weak and surprisingly obtuse; prey to laughable grandiosity. Other early modern authors such as Marc-Antoine Muret and William Alexander model their versions of Caesar on Seneca’s Hercules, as well as Plutarch’s biography. Shakespeare, however, seems to draw inspiration for his departure from Plutarch from the conventional depiction of Julius Caesar’s successor, Augustus, in medieval English mystery plays. Like Lucifer and Herod, as well as Antichrist himself, “Caesar” in the mystery plays is typecast as a blustering, comically inadequate parody of Godhead. Vaunting speeches proclaiming his supreme worldly might echo the language of God the Father. These boasts are then belied, however, by his inability to forestall the coming of Christ, whom he fears as potential political rival. Mystery plays, naturally enough, tend to focus on Augustus Caesar, emperor of Rome at the time of Christ’s Nativity. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, however, stands in the same medieval tradition. As a type of Antichrist, he is a foil for the future Christ. His failure sets the stage for a different and paradoxically more powerful Messiah.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.