Even people who haven’t read the play can recite lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Et tu, Brute;” “I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him.” But the well-worn quotations produce a simplified sense of the plot, evoking an atmosphere of tyranny and retribution instead of the quickly shifting political landscape that makes up the drama’s core.
Shakespeare’s presentation of the political backstory is a model of economy, as he skillfully sums up the players, their alliances and their differing motivations. The nobility of Brutus is well-captured, as is the jealousy of Cassius and the fluid adaptability of Mark Antony.
But even as these iconic characters drive the action, they are also driven by the fickleness and easily kindled rage of the Roman mob. Citizens throng the streets, burn buildings and commit murder. Their allegiances flit back and forth on the basis of the latest soliloquy. To Shakespeare’s credit that these shifting loyalties never descend into deus ex machina. Instead, they seem to reflect the bloodsport of Roman politics, where leaders attempt to direct the mob even as they’re surrounded by it.
Shakespeare also adds his trademark psychological torment to the mix. As Brutus plans to strike down Caesar, he reflects:
“Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream: The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council; and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.”
The language throughout is choice and fluid, and it’s funny that Shakespeare’s phrasings have come to define our view of Roman culture. (See how many period films have characters speaking in English accents; the HBO miniseries Rome, which we just began watching, is one of them.) Even as Shakespeare evokes the era, he remains faithful to the larger movements of history, making Julius Caesar a fine summation of its time as well as an excellent work of drama.