There’s something slightly unreal about these final couple of days before we start work at the location for Julius Caesar. If all goes well, cleaning and prepping the site starts tomorrow, and then the art department will get going on Monday. A week later, on the morning of 23 April, we’ll be shooting the first scene. Lots of people are in the middle of lots of preparatory work, but at the same time there’s still some crucial paperwork to complete. To get through the final negotiations on that, the only thing to do is to keep calm and carry on. As Brutus says to the assembled and angry populace, ‘Be patient till the last.’ I thought therefore that it might be a good time for a little history. So, class, if you could open up your copies of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, we’ll begin.
Shapiro’s wonderfully accessible book, which was published in 2005, takes the reader through the year of its title, which is when Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and then drafted Hamlet. A professor at Columbia University in New York, Shapiro draws together the social and political history of late Elizabethan England with detailed analysis of these four plays in particular but also Shakespeare’s writings more generally. If you want to do a little background reading before we get stuck into production there are few better places to start.
One strand of the book is concerned with the history of Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their new theatre, the Globe (for the opening of which Julius Caesar may well have been written). In the summer of 1599 they were facing increased competition from rival companies – and Shakespeare needed to write new plays that showcased the experience and achievement of the actors in the Chamberlain’s Men. Which is one reason why Julius Caesar has four great roles for male actors – Brutus, Cassius, Caesar and Mark Antony.
Shapiro also notes that the playwright seems to have been able to call on the services of two excellent boy actors, for whom he wrote the short but powerful parts of Calphurnia and Portia. The latter’s speeches in particular are filled with tricky shifts in tone and sentence structures. Following their presumed success, Shapiro speculates, Shakspeare felt sufficiently confident to write them the wonderful roles of, first, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and then Hamlet’s Gertrude and Ophelia.
The final years of Elizabeth’s reign were a time of active censorship and vigorous state control of what could be printed and played. As Shapiro writes, ‘No play by Shakespeare explores censorship and silencing so deeply as the one he was writing during [the spring of 1599], Julius Caesar.’ Earlier in the year the lawyer John Hayward had seen the publication of his book The First Part of the Life Reign of King Henry IV. Dealing inevitably with the overthrow of King Richard II by Henry (as did Shakespeare’s play Richard II), Hayward’s book became a best-seller and attracted much discussion (and the attention of the state) because of the implict parallels between Richard and Queen Elizabeth.
Shapiro is clear that Hayward’s book (along with Plutarch’s Lives) was a key influence on Julius Caesar:
One of the lessons Shakespeare had confirmed by reading Hayward was the dramatic advantage of juxtaposing competing political arguments, balancing them so neatly that it was impossible to tell in favour of which the scales tipped. He would put the insight to good us as he explored the tragic collision of Brutus and Caesar, individuals who embodied irreconcilable political positions.
There is also a broader shift here in Shakespeare’s art, as Shapiro details so tellingly:
Something extraordinary was beginning to happen as Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the spring of 1599. The various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other. Brutus’ and Antony’s long funeral orations notwithstanding, Shakespeare was writing in an exceptionally spare and compressed style… In contrast to all the inconsistencies and second thoughts that characterised the writing of Henry the Fifth, the streamlined Julius Caesar feels as if it was written without interruption in a few short weeks.
The religious divisions of the last decade of the sixteenth century also shaped Julius Caesar. A Catholic succession to the aged, childless (and Protestant) Elizabeth was feared by many, and there were Catholics who saw the assassination of the queen as a possible path to this end. With Elizabeth dead, a Spanish invasion, aided by the rebellion of England’s Catholics, could restore Catholic rule. Shapiro notes that in the months just before the composition of Julius Caesar there were a number of attempts on Elizabeth’s life.
Moral qualms asid, the real problem with political assassination for Elizabethans – and Shakespeare’s play makes this abundantly clear – was that it unleashed forces that could not be predicted or controlled. Assassination was linked with chaos, blood-letting and potential civil war because this was what it inevitably led to. However noble Brutus’ motives, however morally and politically justified his actions, it would have been clear to many in Shakespeare’s audience that he hadn’t thought things through.
The question of what follows a political assassination is as pointed and as pertinent in the second decade of the twenty-first century as it was in the last one of the sixteenth – and indeed in the dying days of the Roman Republic.
James Shapiro also spins a fascinating analysis out of line 2 of the play, which has Flavius saying, ‘Is this a holiday?’ But I’ll lave that for you to explore in chapter 8 of his book. Here he also considers the deliberate anachronisms of the text and points up the numerous parallels between the civic pageantry of Ancient Rome and late sixteenth-century London: ‘Shakespeare didn’t invent this blurring of Roman past and Elizabethan present – he found it all around him.’
‘No Elizabethan dramatist,’ Shapiro concludes, ‘had ever done anything quite like [Julius Caesar], and audiences must have been struck by how Shakespeare’s retelling of this classical story seemed to speak so clearly to their moment.’ The minor Jacobean poet Leonard Digges, whose stepfather was appointed as one of the two overseers of Shakespeare’s will, wrote a little later of the play: ‘Oh, how the audience / Were ravished, and with what wonder they went hence.’
There’s a worthy aspiration for our – and every – production.
Previously on the Julius Caesar blog:
‘Now they are almost on him’, 6 April
‘A mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome’, 2 April
‘Tell us what hath chanced today’, 30 March
‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’, 29 February
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’, 24 November
Image: a detail of George Gower’s painting of Queen Elizabeth I (‘Armada Portrait’), c. 1588.