Shakespeare’s History of Rome

The assassination of Caesar. (Photo taken from the RSC).

On this, the Ides of March, I thought it might be appropriate to delve into the most recent production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, currently running at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although I think this is one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays I ever read in school, this was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to see it staged. This, in and of itself, was rather interesting for me for a couple of reasons. I’m sure I am not the only person who finds the works of Shakespeare so much more evocative (and understandable) performed than read from the page (even if reading aloud in a group), so for that alone, I was pleased to see the play. But as an ancient historian, I am, of course, well schooled in the narrative of Caesar’s downfall that was shaped largely by the aftermath of his assassination, the war (literal and figurative) against the conspirators led by Mark Antony and Octavian, and the eventual dominance in contemporary culture of Octavian’s view of his great-uncle as a divine character, a saviour of the Roman people to be forever after worshiped. Watching Shakespeare’s version then, which focuses on Brutus‘ difficulty with his role in the conspiracy and the fallout of Caesar’s death from the perspective of the conspirators, is a different approach than one I am used to.

This led me to think quite a bit about Shakespeare’s sources for ancient history, and the view of antiquity that his work has presented to the world for the last four hundred years. It is well known that much of Shakespeare’s material came from the work of Plutarch – specifically his Parallel Lives. These include the lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony – all of whom feature in Shakespeare’s telling of these events. The issue with Plutarch as a source, as any historian can tell you, is that he was writing comparative biographies, not histories, in addition to writing in the 2nd century AD, long after any of the events he describes took place. Beyond the issues this presents with the ancient material, Shakespeare, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t read ancient Greek, the language in which Plutarch wrote. However, the first English translation of Plutarch’s Lives appeared in 1579, the work of Sir Thomas North. North, however, doesn’t seem to have read Greek either, as his was actually a translation of an earlier French work, produced by Jacques Amyot about twenty years earlier. The use of a translation of a translation is something that is highly suspect in academic circles for the potential of errors, and misunderstandings of language. Whilst this does not seem to have created many issues for Shakespeare, anyone who has read a bit of Plutarch as well as other ancient historical texts know that the version presented in the plays is not entirely without some artistic license.

There was, however, one rather brief reference to another ancient figure that struck me as potentially problematic. In Act I, Scene ii, Brutus and Cassius have a long discussion about Caesar’s actions, and the dilemma they find themselves in. In the middle of a long speech Cassius says:

‘Caesar cried “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar.’

Aeneas, the son of Troy who fled the end of the war to (eventually) found Rome on the shores of Alba Longa, was popularised  as a figure by the poet Vergil, in the late first century BC, after Caesar’s death. His inclusion in the lines of Shakespeare, therefore, seem a little bit incongruous with the historical chronology. What is interesting is that Aeneas as a character was known of long before this time – he features in both the Iliad and Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite, as well as in bits of pieces of other ancient writing, both Greek and Roman. Besides the obvious creation of the Roman origin story in the Aeneid, what Vergil did in his epic poem was amalgamate various disjointed tales and characteristics and create a singular figure, a hero, a Roman, out of bits and pieces. His Aeneas, unlike those that predate Vergil, is a solid, tangible character with a clear origin and narrative. That Cassius compares himself to Aeneas as he does in this speech suggests to me an idea of the Vergilian character, not the less formidable one of Greek myth. As the Aeneid was available at the time Shakespeare was writing (apparently a Scots version was published as early as 1513), it seems likely that this character was well known to him, even if Shakespeare’s chronology was off by about thirty years or so.






I’m going to deviate from topic here just a bit, if you will allow a small foray into Greek tragedy. I saw the new production of Electra at the Old Vic, starring Kristin Scott Thomas in the titular role on Saturday evening. It is, perhaps surprisingly, the first time I have seen an ancient play performed rather than just reading the text, and that in itself (nevermind the Hollywood status of the lead actor) was quite stunning.

Electra, for anyone unfamiliar, is one of the children of the ill-fated marriage of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Caught up in the cycle of the Trojan War, her father sacrificed one of her sisters, Iphigenia, at the start of the war so that the Greeks would have a favourable wind, and thus could sail east to besiege Troy. Still distraught over this incident, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed Agamemnon when he returned from the war. Sophocles‘ version of the play, written in the fifth century BC, picks up a number of years later, with Electra still mourning the death of her father, and hoping for the return of her brother, Orestes, so that they may seek revenge upon their mother and her new husband, who has taken up the thrown of Argos in their father’s stead.

Unlike some of the other Greek tragedies that have survived the centuries, there is no real sense of conflict in the character of Electra: she is adamant in her anger, her despisal of her mother and her husband, and focuses on her desire for revenge above all things. Whilst this might seemingly make the play somewhat flat, as there is no possible outcome for Electra other than death – either her’s or that of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus – the tragedy of it is not about the end result, but about the suffering Electra endures. Her grief consumes her almost to the point of madness, and whilst the overwhelmingness of it is clear on the page, on stage it becomes real. The Electra of Kristin Scott Thomas is a manifestation of torment. Her pain, her grief, is tangible, from the moment she walks onto the stage. Though others have seen her intensity, her inability for stillness ,as a bit over the top, I recognised it as the physical outlet of deep emotional suffering, of the kind that makes one tremble merely from the struggle to keep from falling apart entirely. For Electra, the tragedy comes from within, from her battle to cope with the pain others have brought into her life, and the knowledge that once she gets her revenge, she will have nothing left. This leaves no room for the catharsis typical of this type of tragedy, and leaves the audience with as much emptiness as Electra undoubtedly feels herself.

I hate to take any credit away from Sophocles, for it is his words that filled the stage (for the most part), but I cannot help but think a lesser actress would not have been able to convey the emotional turmoil, the heartfelt agony of loss and grief, and the physical intensity of mental anguish as readily. Quite simply, Kristin Scott Thomas is Electra.