A striking feature of Shakespeare’s plays is the way they often focus on a transfer of power of one kind or another. At times this may be achieved peacefully – as happens, for example, when Duke Senior is exiled from power to the forest in “As You Like It”; at others it may be accompanied by an embarrassment of blood and gore. One thinks of Macbeth returning from murdering Duncan with so much blood on him, the seas will never wash him clean.
It was quite natural for Shakespeare to be preoccupied with the theme of power, authority and political change. After all, he lived in a country ruled by an absolute monarch who, after forty years on the throne, had no named successor. In one sense this was not a problem since by one calculation there were at least a dozen different aspirants with a decent claim on the throne, but therein lay the rub. When it comes to potential successors in early modern England, one is company but twelve’s a crowd.
In practice the queen had banned discussion of this subject and had forgone the opportunity to name a successor since she feared that opposition to her authority might easily coalesce around a young pretender to her throne. The subject was exceptionally sensitive, as many of those who talked or wrote about it found out during the many long days they spent in the Tower of London as a result.
For Shakespeare, the 1590s had been a highly productive decade, most notable perhaps for the sequence of history plays he produced, covering the period from the Hundred Years War to the Wars of the Roses. These are narratives in which the transfer of power from one authority to another is centre stage. But in 1599 the Bishops issued a ban on writing about history (among other themes), forcing Shakespeare to look elsewhere for his raw material.
One place he looked was Ancient Rome. By writing about contemporary events under the guise of exploring – for example – the nature of ambition, deceit, the abuse of power and the struggle for authority in places like Rome, he found he could explore contemporary events while staying out of jail. After all, plays about politicians who win the argument on an avalanche of lies, about demagogues adroit at manipulating the masses and about the mob rule that results – plays like these did not need a Roman setting to resonate in Tudor hearts and minds. Nor indeed do they need one now.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Caesar returns in triumph after his victory – for some lower-class Romans it’s a day to be celebrated.
But others believe it’s just a working day, and fear Caesar is out to “keep us all in servile fearfulness”.
Act One Scene Two
Casca, Calpurnia and Antony all reflect in various ways the reverence with which Caesar is regarded.
Amid the throng, a soothsayer advises Caesar to be cautious this day, but the warning is dismissed.
Alone with Cassius, Brutus apologises to him that he has been distracted and withdrawn recently.
Disturbed by distant shouts, Brutus admits that he does not want the people to make Caesar king.
Cassius resents the fact that, having once saved Caesar’s life, “this man / Is now become a god”.
Cassius urges Brutus to see himself as valuable as Caesar, and argues that Rome deserves better.
Brutus suspends their sensitive discussions for the time being as Caesar and his party return.
Caesar believes Cassius is too serious-minded, and “dangerous” if he believes himself inferior.
Casca reveals that Caesar was three times offered the crown by Antony, and three times refused it.
He adds that the crowd cheered enthusiastically for Caesar but he would have happily cut his throat.
Casca and Brutus leave Cassius alone to reflect that though Brutus is noble, he can also be pliable.
Tonight, says Cassius, I’ll forge letters from ordinary Romans, supporting him and opposing Caesar.
Act One Scene Three
Cicero and the conspirator Casca meet in the street at night as thunder and lightning rage overhead.
Casca reports he has seen many fearful sights: Cicero is ambivalent about how these are interpreted.
Cicero departs; Cassius appears, clearly at ease with elements made, he believes, for “honest men”.
He feels the “impatience of the heavens” is a warning that Rome is falling into a “monstrous state”.
He claims to know of a man much like himself who is just as “monstrous” and “fearful” as the night.
Casca reports tomorrow the Senate will make Caesar king over Roman territories beyond Italy.
If that happens Cassius believes that his dagger will liberate Rome from “bondage” and “tyranny”.
Casca and Cassius bond together in their plan to free Rome and Italy from “So vile a thing as Caesar”.
Cinna, a fellow conspirator, reports the arrival of other plotters and receives Cassius’s instructions.
Casca and Cassius must persuade Brutus to join them since “he sits high in all the people’s hearts”.
Act Two Scene One
In a soliloquy, Brutus admits that Caesar has never been guilty of abuse of power in the past.
But he fears that Caesar, having achieved power, will scorn society’s “base degrees”.
Better to destroy him now, like a serpent’s egg, before it hatches and grows “mischievous”.
He is shown the forged letter and is immediately persuaded to answer the call to save Rome.
With an image of blade-sharpening, Brutus admits it was Cassius who did “whet me against Caesar”.
Cassius arrives and repeats his injunction from 1.2 to Brutus to think more highly of himself.
The high-minded Brutus denies the conspirators need an oath to keep their word to fulfil the plot.
Cassius suggests Antony should also die but Brutus objects that would leave the wrong impression.
Cassius fears Caesar may remain at home today but Decius says he will “bring him to the Capitol”.
Portia asks Brutus to explain why he is distracted: he has “some sick offence” in mind, she believes.
Brutus refuses to level with his wife, but will “unfold” the plot to Ligarius as they head to the Capitol.
Act Two Scene Two
Caesar’s wife dreamed of his murder overnight, so priests are being consulted for their “opinions”.
She lists the unnatural events from last night, but Caesar accepts whatever fate is in store for him.
A servant reports ominous results from the sacrifice, and Caesar accepts his wife’s need for caution.
But Decius says dreams of bleeding statues imply that Rome will draw “Reviving blood” from Caesar.
Caesar is “ashamed” he listened to his wife, and accompanies Antony and Brutus to the Capitol.
Act Two Scene Three
Artemidorus hopes he may be able to warn Caesar about the dangers posed by his companions.
Act Two Scene Four
A soothsayer reveals to Portia his fears for the safety of Caesar but her concerns lie with Brutus.
Act Three Scene One
Caesar is confident of his personal safety but Cassius sees the plot unravelling and urges swift action.
Senators kneeling to petition Caesar can avoid “Low-crooked court’sies and base spaniel-fawning”.
But when Caesar rejects the petition, the stabbing begins with Casca and ends with Brutus.
Amid the panic, Antony has disappeared while Brutus claims that Caesar benefits from his murder.
Antony’s servant returns to ask why Caesar had to die and to pledge his loyalty to “noble Brutus”.
Antony returns to face the assassins, ready to die, but ends “shaking the bloody fingers of thy foes”.
Suspicions remain between Antony and Cassius, but Brutus allows him to take control of the corpse.
Brutus reassures Cassius when they address the public, Antony speaks “by leave and by permission”.
Brutus instructs Antony that his funeral speech must not blame the conspirators but praise Caesar.
Left alone, Antony predicts that “fierce civil strife” will bring “Blood and destruction” across Italy.
Octavius’s servant is to tell his master that this is “a dangerous Rome”, and to keep his distance.
Act Three Scene Two
Speaking in prose, Brutus explains he assassinated Caesar not out of hatred but out of patriotism.
Caesar was too ambitious, he tells the citizens, and had he lived, they would have ended up slaves.
Antony arrives with Caesar’s corpse, allowing Brutus to leave with the acclaim of his audience.
Antony repeats that Brutus is “honourable” despite Caesar’s many virtues and services to Rome.
The citizens begin to think Caesar unjustly killed, though Brutus and Cassius are “honourable men”.
Antony says he cannot read the will since if the citizens heard its contents they would be “inflamed”.
He recalls how the “well-beloved” Brutus stabbed Caesar: “Then I, and you, and all of us fell down”.
Antony says he lacks rhetorical power but reading Caesar’s generosity in his will enrages the citizens.
The crowd disperses leaving Antony to reflect that the mischief he has provoked is out of control.
Act Three Scene Three
The crowd, furious at Caesar’s death, mistake Cinna the poet for Cinna the assassin, and murder him.
Act Four Scene One
Antony and allies decide in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder which of their enemies will have to die.
Antony has doubts about sharing power with Lepidus, whom he thinks of as an obedient servant.
Meanwhile Brutus and Cassius are raising an army, and preparations must be made to counter them.
Act Four Scene Two
Brutus is conscious his relationship with Cassius is not as warm as it was: he is a “hot friend cooling”.
Cassius arrives and accuses Brutus of wronging him – Brutus suggests this is a discussion for indoors.
Act Four Scene Three
Brutus claims Cassius has “an itching palm” and legitimises corruption by selling “offices for gold”.
In a critical spirit, he reminds him Caesar was killed “for justice’ sake” and “for supporting robbers”.
Brutus describes Cassius as a “madman”, and accuses him of being “rash”, “proud” and “testy”.
Cassius feels “Hated by one he loves” and incites Brutus to plunge his dagger into his “naked breast”.
Brutus concedes he was “ill-temper’d”, and Cassius admits his “rash humour” makes him “forgetful”.
Brutus reveals Portia is dead having “swallow’d fire” – now he buries his feelings in “a bowl of wine”.
News comes that Antony and his allies have killed dozens of senators while raising a “mighty” army.
Brutus refuses to discuss Portia’s death, saying only that “We must die” and he is able to “endure it”.
Cassius and Brutus disagree about the best strategy for countering the army raised by Antony.
Brutus’s strategy – to meet Antony at Philippi – is accepted and he and Cassius part on good terms.
Alone with his staff Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar predicting they will meet again at Philippi.
Emboldened, Brutus is ready to speak to the “evil spirit”, but it vanishes after he’s “taken heart”.
He interviews his servants, to find that he alone witnessed the ghost’s appearance and prediction.
Act Five Scene One
Octavius refuses to accept Antony as military leader and decides for himself what role he will play.
Meeting Brutus and Cassius before battle is joined, Antony revisits his anger at Caesar’s murder.
But Octavius is ready to avenge “Caesar’s three and thirty wounds” or be slaughtered in the attempt.
Cassius, conscious of the omens, spots vultures circling overhead, as if his forces were “sickly prey”.
Brutus says he prefers death to capture, and focuses on ending the work begun with Caesar’s death.
Cassius revisits the idea that he’ll never see Brutus again, but it seems his anxieties are not shared.
Act Five Scene Two
Brutus messages Cassius information about a weakness on the flank of Octavius’s forces.
Act Five Scene Three
It seems Brutus had a chance to punish Octavius but missed out, and now Antony has the advantage.
In the distance Cassius thinks he can see his tents on fire, and charges Tintinius to investigate.
But Tintinius is surrounded by troops whose loyalties are unclear, and is “enclosed round about”.
Shocked at Tintinius’s apparent fate, Cassius instructs his slave Pindarus to assist him in his suicide.
Tintinius returns with news of Brutus’s triumph over Octavius, only to find that “Cassius’ day is set”.
Tintinius bitterly laments that his encounter was “misconstrued” by Cassius, and he too kills himself.
Brutus senses the “spirit” of Caesar is to blame for these set-backs, but urges his men to fight again.
Act Five Scene Four
Lucilius claims to be Brutus on his capture, but is recognised by Antony, and is assured of his safety.
Act Five Scene Five
Brutus asks his soldiers to aid his suicide but they demur – finally Strato is willing to hold the sword.
Brutus dies, calling on Caesar’s spirit to be “still”, claiming he only aided his assassination reluctantly.
Antony feels Brutus’s motives in Caesar’s murder were idealistic, wishing only “common good to all”.
Flavius and Marullus emerge as forceful characters in the first scene of the play – but don’t reappear thereafter, except in reports that they have been silenced for opposing Caesar. It seems they have a specific function to perform in the play: to reflect the unease felt by the ruling class in Rome about Caesar’s popularity among ordinary workers. They fear that Caesar has too much power, that part of his power lies in his popularity, and that he’ll use it to repress the ruling class – “us all”, as they describe the governing elite. Two themes emerge from this scene: Caesar is not trusted by the Roman establishment; but he is cheerfully revered by ordinary citizens.
Cassius says he has spoken “weak words” to Brutus, but the logic of his argument is strong: that Caesar is too powerful and will have to be confronted. Brutus understands Cassius’s feelings and shares his misgivings, but is more cautious and asks Cassius not to go further yet. But he admits that he is open to further discussions: “what you have to say”, he tells Cassius, “I will with patience hear”. So though Cassius is the prime mover against Caesar, Brutus is a willing accomplice.
Casca’s description of the moment when Caesar is offered the crown three times by Antony (and three times rejects it) is shot through with contempt for the ordinary people of Rome: he calls them “the rabblement”, the “tag-rag” people and “the common herd”, and he adds that their hands are “chapped”, their night-caps “sweaty” and their breath “stinking”. Every noun acquires an adjective, and each adjective is pejorative. After 1.1, it’s clear that an important undercurrent of the play is the tension between the lower-class supporters of Caesar and his upper-class rivals and enemies.
In the centuries before Shakespeare, ordinary people would routinely entertain themselves with the Mystery or Miracle Plays – simple narratives put on stage and acted out to illustrate either a biblical or moral story. Common to many of these plays was a character called The Vice, whose role was to act as a catalyst for unrest and division. Shakespeare inherits this convention, and evidence of The Vice may be seen in characters like Iago (in “Othello”) or Don John (“Much Ado About Nothing”), Edmund (“King Lear”) or Bertram (in “All’s Well That Ends Well”): scoundrels all. To this Rogues’ Gallery may be added the name of Cassius, whose provocative ideas and manipulative methods are vividly on show in the play’s second scene.
Cassius is quick to draw comparisons between Caesar and others – not always to Caesar’s advantage. In 1.2 he is keen to persuade Brutus (“I was born free as Caesar; so were you”, he tells him) that the two of them are at least Caesar’s equal; and in 1.3 he employs the same trope to persuade Casca to join him in his campaign: Caesar, he believes, is “A man no mightier than thyself or me / In personal action”. It’s almost as if he is desperate to convince himself of his own worth. Certainly Caesar thinks so. Catching sight of Cassius in 1.2, Caesar observes that men like him are “never at heart’s ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves” – and as a result, he says, are “very dangerous”. Comparisons, as the saying goes, are odious.
The first act ends with the conspiracy to persuade Brutus by fair means or foul to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Brutus is important because he has integrity and is popular among the ordinary citizens: “he sits high in all the people’s hearts”, as Casca observes. But he needs to be persuaded, and to achieve that he needs to be deceived: that is the task Cassius issues to Cinna when he instructs him to leave forged letters at his home and in the senate. Forged letters are a familiar feature of Shakespeare’s plays – Edmund in “King Lear”, for example, persuades his father Gloucester of his brother’s treachery in this way – and they are a reminder that Brutus was ambivalent at best about the plot to murder Caesar.
When Brutus recollects that his ancestors “did from the streets of Rome / The Tarquin drive”, he is referring to an incident in Roman pre-history in which the Emperor Tarquin raped the wife of one of his generals, and was driven out of Rome. This episode is referenced in no fewer than five of Shakespeare’s plays: perhaps best-known is Macbeth’s reference to “Tarquin’s ravishing strides” before he murders Duncan. The story is given its most complete exposition in Shakespeare’s long poem “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594).
Portia’s conversation with Brutus in the small hours of the morning in 2.1 does little to settle her unease about her husband’s recent evasive behaviour. He refused to talk to her “yesternight, at supper”. Portia insisted – “yet you answer’d not”. Now Brutus can only claim to be “not well in health”, and as for his wife: “Good Portia, go to bed”. It’s illuminating to compare Portia with Lady Macbeth before the murder of Duncan mentioned above: so driven by her plan to kill the king as to be almost a force of nature, she simply refuses to accept Macbeth’s reservations. By contrast, Portia is “my true and honourable wife”, and Brutus is saved from further interrogation by a knock at the door.
It’s an understatement to describe “Julius Caesar” as a somewhat male-dominated play. There are two female parts: Portia, wife to Brutus, and Calpurnia, wife to Caesar. Both are marginalised by their husbands: Portia’s attempts to work out what is going on in Brutus’s mind are brushed to one side (as we saw above) – in much the same way as, in “Henry IV Part One”, Henry Hotspur dismisses his wife’s enquiries: “I must not have you henceforth question me,” he tells her, “Whither I go, nor reason whereabout”. In Act Four, we discover that Portia has committed suicide, by eating hot coals. Calpurnia, meanwhile, sees her anxieties about Caesar’s prospects on the day of his murder confidently dismissed: “How foolish do your fears seem now”, Caesar tells her. Events, however, prove she was right.
While Caesar dithers in 2.2 over whether to head to the Capitol, Shakespeare is allowing three radical ideas to settle in the audience’s unconscious: first, that dreams may act as predictions, and any warnings they issue should be noticed; second, that unnatural events (the clouds that “drizzled blood upon the Capitol”, for example) may also be interpreted as omens, or sign-posts for the future; and third – given that Calpurnia’s anxieties about the day’s events ought to have been respected – that women’s intuition is more dependable than men’s. The first two of these ideas were widely accepted in Tudor England, the third not so much. It’s probably fair to say that in the modern era, this summary would be reversed.
Caesar is assassinated, we are told, because his lust for power is out of control. Yet the day before he is killed, he rejects the crown three times, and on the day of his assassination, described in 3.1, he is petitioned by fellow-senators on their knees – and he coolly tells them to get up. None of this suggests that Caesar’s ego is a threat to the state. It seems Shakespeare goes to some trouble to invest Caesar with a sympathetic humanity, in the process implicitly condemning his murder.
Antony’s plaintive oration over Caesar’s corpse finds a surprising but effective metaphor for the fallen leader: “Here wast thou bay’d, brave hart,” he laments, referencing a male deer, “Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand”. This metaphor recalls the powerful figurative description of Anne Boleyn in “Whoso list to hunt” by Thomas Wyatt, written in the early 1530s. Here the young woman is described as “an hind” – the female equivalent of the hart: “Whoso list to hunt,” says Wyatt, “I know where is an hind”. The hind was Anne and the violence implied by the metaphor proves justified by events.
In his rousing speech to the citizens in 3.2, Antony claims he is nothing but a “plain blunt man” who lacks “the power of speech”. In practice, his oratory is supremely skilled, and it achieves the desired result: “Mischief,” he concludes, “thou art afoot, / Take what course thou wilt!” Antony’s main tool in arousing the citizens has been irony – or at least sarcasm: that is, very little of what he says is meant literally. “With irony” says the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartres, “a man gives and takes away at the same time. He leads the reader on to believe in order not to be believed”. This is a good definition of Antony’s strategy. Every time he reminds the audience that “Brutus was an honourable man”, it becomes a little harder to believe him until, in the end, his contempt for what he is saying is almost audible.
The murder of Cinna the poet by the mob in 3.3 seems an odd scene, but its purpose is to underline the descent into chaos facing Rome in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder. Rhyme and reason are jettisoned, as a poet is beaten to death on the streets of the city for no worse a crime than sharing the name of one of Caesar’s assassins. It’s an economical but effective way for Shakespeare to suggest the mayhem likely to arise in the aftermath of Caesar’s death.
As the main theme of Act Three is the death of Caesar, so Act Four is preoccupied with its aftermath. Unity is now in short supply, as Antony’s impatience with Lepidus boils over and Cassius airs his suspicions of Brutus to his face. Around half of Shakespeare’s plays contain, like “Julius Caesar”, a significant transfer of power: often the demise of a legitimate ruler is followed by division and conflict – as happens in “Macbeth”, for example, after the murder of Duncan. “Julius Caesar” was written in 1600, the year Queen Elizabeth – an absolute monarch, with no named heir – celebrated her 67th birthday.
In his conversation with Cassius, Brutus lets slip that his wife Portia died when she “swallow’d fire”. Shakespeare’s sources for this play fill in the details here – she died of swallowing hot coals, which presumably destroyed her insides. Brutus consoles himself with fatalism and wine. Having achieved his aim of killing Caesar, he might like to reflect on Lady Macbeth’s observation after she becomes queen: “Nought’s had, all’s spent, / When our desires are got without content”.
Why exactly did Caesar have to die? In 4.3 Brutus reminds Cassius it was “for justice’ sake” and “for supporting robbers”. Earlier in the play the audience understood that the motive was a reaction to Caesar’s arrogance, and to prevent him making slaves of free men: so the explanation is a work in progress. But actually – how arrogant was Caesar? Certainly he didn’t approve of excessive grovelling – or as he put it, “Low-crooked court’sies and base spaniel-fawning”. Students of such practices might like to study the performance of Cassius as he mends his fences with Brutus: “I cannot drink too much of Brutus’ love”, he opines.
As Act Four closes, the ghost of Caesar appears, describing itself as “Thy evil spirit, Brutus”. A brief dialogue ensues, from which it emerges that the ghost will reappear at Philippi. Ghosts appear in five Shakespeare plays in all: “Richard III” (as here, on the eve of battle), “Macbeth” (immediately after he has had Banquo murdered), “Cymbeline”, “Hamlet” (shortly after his father’s murder) and here in “Julius Caesar”. In two of these plays the ghost appears in a dream and in a third (“Macbeth”) he does not speak. The ghost in “Hamlet” is seen by various other characters whereas in “Macbeth” the ghost of Banquo is invisible to all but our hero. The implication in the latter case is that ghosts are the product of over-anxious imaginations, which is the analysis Brutus accepts: “I think it is the weakness of mine eyes,” he proposes, “That shapes this monstrous apparition”.
As he prepares for battle in 5.1, Cassius reveals to Messala that it is his birthday. Later that day, he will meet his end, the victim of suicide (discussed below). So he shares the fate of his author, who also (it seems) died on his birthday.
Cassius cuts a pretty unimpressive figure in this play – even his best friend finds him challenging company. His death does nothing to brighten the negative impression we form of him: in 4.3, Brutus denounces him as “rash”, and so it proves, as he impulsively draws the wrong conclusions from some confused skirmishing he can see in the distance. His hapless suicide – completed with some relish (it might seem) by his slave while the general covers his face – marks the end of a life sold cheap, comically discarded on the back of fake news. An appropriate fate, some might feel.
By deliberate contrast (on Shakespeare’s part), the death of Brutus is both heroic and appropriate. He faces his fate squarely, and is helped to accomplish it in a respectful spirit by his men. Moreover, his bones are taken up and placed carefully in Octavius’s tent, “Most like a soldier, order’d honourably”.
Who’s Who / Characters
His loyalty to Caesar is established early in the play – hence Cassius’s misgivings when Antony leaves the scene of the crime to address the citizens in the aftermath of the assassination. Cassius’s suspicions are justified as Antony’s increasingly ironical take on the motives of the assassins enrages a crowd which, not long before, had consented to Caesar’s demise. Later Antony’s ruthless side emerges in reports that he has seen off up to a hundred senators, and his anger at Caesar’s death, expressed in 5.1, is assuaged only in the generous tribute he pays to Brutus once victory is secured.
An idealist among assassins, deceived into joining the conspiracy by forged letters (which he impetuously trusts), he’s important to the plotters because he “sits high in all the people’s hearts”. Explaining himself to the citizens in 3.2, he claims to have acted out of patriotism, and his “honourable” instincts are repeatedly praised by Antony, though with diminishing sincerity, it seems. Isolated and remote from his wife, he treats her suicide fatalistically, drowning his sorrows in a bowl of wine. When battle is joined in Act Five, he claims he’d rather die than be taken prisoner, a preference satisfied by his suicide at the play’s close.
Manipulative and deceitful, he’s the brains behind the plot to murder Caesar, whom he resents (he says) because “he’s become a god”. He recruits Brutus to his apparently idealistic conspiracy with forged letters, oblivious to any irony. Caesar doesn’t trust him – he has a “lean and hungry look” – an attitude which Brutus himself will come to share when, approaching the final battle at Philippi, he refuses to share with him his feelings about Portia’s suicide. Described by Brutus as “rash” and “a madman”, he proves the point by misreading what he thinks he sees as the battle progresses and committing suicide on a misunderstanding. His death is not regretted.
- How many times is Caesar offered the crown by Antony in 1.2?
- What appointment does Casca say the senate has in store for Caesar?
- Who does Cassius suggest should also die with Caesar?
- Who volunteers to make sure Caesar comes to the Capitol?
- How does Antony signal he accepts what has happened to Caesar?
- Give the name of the poet murdered by the mob.
- Name the crime of which Brutus accuses Cassius in 4.3.
- How did Portia die, according to Brutus?
- How many wounds did Caesar sustain at the Capitol?
- Who does Cassius enjoin to assist in his suicide?
- Three times
- King of the Empire beyond Italy
- He shakes the bloody fingers of the assassins
- She “swallowed fire”
- “Three and thirty”
The embargo on women appearing on the Tudor stage does not seem to have restricted the range of prominent female characters Shakespeare brings to life in his plays. True, his history plays are male-dominated, but his romances are notable for the string of striking female characters they present, and his tragedies, similarly, have no shortage of distinctive female characters: Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Desdemona.
Modern scholarship has established that Shakespeare’s theatre troupe – The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, becoming, after the accession of James I, The King’s Men – probably contained two young men adept at playing female roles. So to them must have fallen, for example, the roles of Olivia and Viola in “Twelfth Night” or Rosalind and Celia in “As You Like It”. In “Julius Caesar”, they would perhaps have fielded the parts of Portia and Calpurnia.
Were these plum roles? Maybe not. Portia does all she can to understand the way her husband Brutus is thinking, but he resists her attention and evades her questions: “I asked you what the matter was,” she points out, “Yet you answer’d not”. She doesn’t find out until it’s too late, and then, “Impatient of my absence,” as Brutus explains to Cassius later, “she fell distract, / And … swallow’d fire”. In Shakespeare’s source text, this translates as swallowing hot coals.
Calpurnia has a similarly marginal role. On the morning Caesar goes to the Capitol, she wakes from dreams that suggest it’s a day to stay at home: “You shall not stir out of your house today”, she tells her husband. At first she succeeds in persuading him, but Decius arrives to re-interpret the dreams and lead Caesar to his doom. “Your wisdom,” she tells him, “is consumed in confidence” – an analysis he confirms when he derides her advice as he leaves: “How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!” he tells her. “I am ashamed I did yield to them”.
In the end, events sit in judgement on Caesar’s decisions. Calpurnia’s fears, it emerges, were well-founded, her intuition sound and her advice too good to be dismissed so boldly. Calpurnia does not reappear in the play and her name is not mentioned again, but in the modern sense of the phrase, Caesar’s fate seems ironically – like Shakespeare himself – to have given Calpurnia the last word.