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Yale University Press
Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

by Garry Wills


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A many-faceted examination of how Shakespeare brought Rome alive for his readers through a masterful manipulation of ancient rhetoric

Renaissance plays and poetry in England were saturated with the formal rhetorical twists that Latin education made familiar to audiences and readers. Yet a formally educated man like Ben Jonson was unable to make these ornaments come to life in his two classical Roman plays. Garry Wills, focusing his attention on Julius Caesar, here demonstrates how Shakespeare so wonderfully made these ancient devices vivid, giving his characters their own personal styles of Roman speech.

In four chapters, devoted to four of the play’s main characters, Wills shows how Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Cassius each has his own take on the rhetorical ornaments that Elizabethans learned in school. Shakespeare also makes Rome present and animate by casting his troupe of experienced players to make their strengths shine through the historical facts that Plutarch supplied him with. The result is that the Rome English-speaking people carry about in their minds is the Rome that Shakespeare created for them. And that is even true, Wills affirms, for today’s classical scholars with access to the original Roman sources.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300188004
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/29/2013
Series: The Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities Series
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 758,600
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Garry Wills is professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wills is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other publications.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt

Rome and Rhetoric

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
By Garry Wills

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2011 Garry Wills
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17849-4

Chapter One


Mighty Yet

To begin with Caesar is to begin with a puzzle. Why is it called The Tragedy of Julius Caesar? Why not The Tragedy of Brutus? Brutus, after all, speaks almost five times the number of lines that Caesar does. For that matter, Cassius has three times the words of Caesar. Antony has twice as many. Even the minor character Casca has almost as many lines (139) as Caesar does (155).1 Caesar dies halfway through the play. Barbara Gaines, the director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, tells me it is hard to cast a great actor as Caesar. Who wants to perform half a play? (As we shall see, the great exception here was John Gielgud, with a definitive performance of the role in 1977.) When Caesar comes briefly back as a ghost, he speaks only sixteen words. What kind of play backs its main character off into a corner this way?


I would like to wind my way into this problem with an even odder use of a character. Cicero is much on the minds of the play's conspirators. They talk almost obsessively about him, yet he is allowed to speak only nine measly lines. I will argue that the reasons for Caesar's small role and for Cicero's are connected. But first, consider how much people say about Cicero, who is held to almost total silence himself. In the first scene where Brutus speaks, he watches the company leave the site where Caesar was offered a crown. He describes the reaction of Cicero, which was obviously one of disgust at the charade:

The angry spot doth glow on Caesar's brow, And all the rest look like a chidden train. Calphurnia's cheek is pale, and Cicero Looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes As we have seen him in the Capitol Being crossed in conference by some senators. (1.2.183–88)

Brutus wants to know more about Cicero's reaction to the offered crown. When Casca, who was there, describes what happened, Brutus asks:

Did Cicero speak anything?

CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.

BRUTUS: To what effect?

CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, I'll ne'er look you i'th'face again. But those that understood him smiled at one another, and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me. (1.2.278–84)

The whole point here was original in Shakespeare, since Plutarch expressly says that Casca did speak Greek. Shakespeare wanted to hint at some sardonic comment by Cicero without having to spell it out. It would make it harder for Brutus to exclude Cicero from the plot against Caesar if the orator's opposition to Caesar were too heavily emphasized. Plutarch repeatedly tells us that Cicero was famous for witty and cutting remarks, which made him many enemies.

Since we are alerted to the fact that Cicero opposed the crowning of Caesar, we must wonder why he is not taken into the conspirers' circle. Whatever the ancient or modern views of Cicero, the Renaissance revered him as a champion of liberty and the republic. That is how he figures in Shakespeare's source, Plutarch. Every one of the conspirators against Caesar, all but Brutus, wants Cicero to be a confederate in their attempt.

CASSIUS: But what of Cicero? Shall we sound him?

I think he will stand very strong with us.

CASCA: Let us not leave him out.

CINNA: No, by no means.

METELLUS: O, let us have him, for his silver hairs

Will purchase us a good opinion

And buy men's voices to commend our deeds.

It shall be said his judgment ruled our hands.

Our youths and wildness shall no whit appear,

But all be buried in his gravity. (2.1.140–48)

Though Brutus excluded Cicero from the attack on Caesar, it was Cicero who made the most eloquent speeches (his so-called Philippics) against Antony when Antony became the champion of Caesar's legacy. And Plutarch treats Antony's revenge on Cicero as his most heinous crime:

And Antonius also commanded them to whom he had given commission to kill Cicero, that they should strike off his head and right hand, with the which he had written the invective Orations (called Philippides) against Antonius. So when the murtherers brought him Cicero's head and hand cut off, he beheld them a long time with great joy, and laughed heartily, and that oftentimes for the great joy he felt.

That reflects a common view in antiquity, that Antony took a savage revenge on Cicero. The Roman poet Martial said that this guarantees that every tongue in the world will speak out against Antony.

The shock of Cicero's death is registered in the play when Messala reports the proscriptions:

MESSALA: Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus

Have put to death an hundred senators.

BRUTUS: Therein our letters do not well agree.

Mine speak of seventy senators that died In their proscriptions, Cicero being one.

CASSIUIS: Cicero one?

MESSALA: Cicero is dead,

And by that order of proscription. (4.3.174–79)

Why, given Cicero's opposition to Caesar's faction as carried on by Antony, was he not included in the plot, where his judgment and white hairs could have justified the plotters' cause? Brutus gives his reason in the nighttime meeting at his orchard. When the others ask for Cicero to join them, he says:

O, name him not! Let us not break with him, For he will never follow anything That other men begin. (2.1.150–52)

That is not the reason given by Plutarch for excluding Cicero from the coup against Caesar. Plutarch says that Cicero is too fainthearted as well as too old—though Shakespeare's Metellus says that his old age would be an advantage to the younger conspirators. Brutus attributes to Cicero what is in fact his own failing—Plutarch said that Brutus could not be content to hold a second place. Plutarch, while admitting that Cicero was vain about his own accomplishments, asserted that he was extraordinarily generous in recognizing the achievements of others, just the opposite of what Brutus alleges:

Yet did he not malice or envy any other's glory, but would very frankly praise excellent men, as well those that had been before him, as those that were in his time.... There was not a famous man in all his time, either in eloquence, or in learning, whose fame he hath not commended in writing, or otherwise in honorable speech of him.

The image of Cicero that Shakespeare wants for his play is the typical Renaissance attitude of respect for the champion of liberty. In the Renaissance, Cicero was at the peak of his reputation as the defender of the Republic, and that is how he was portrayed on the English stage of the time—in Thomas Kyd's Cornelia (1594), the anonymous Caesar's Revenge (1595?), and Ben Jonson's Catiline's Conspiracy (1611). In Shakespeare's play he makes an impressive figure in his one speaking appearance. In the midst of a storm, which has cowed the cheeky Casca, who first came on making smart-aleck comments, Cicero rebukes Casca's superstition:

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time. But men may construe things after their fashion Clean from the purpose of the things themselves. (1.3.33–35)

This fashioning of "construction" totally ("clean") divorced from reality shows that Cicero is an Academic, just as Plutarch said of him—a doubter of the certainties of most philosophical schools of his time. But the source of this pregnant passage, with the key use of the term "fashion," is a speech by the Epicurean Cassius in North's Plutarch. Shakespeare freely applies to one character in his Roman plays what was said to or by another character in Plutarch. When Brutus shows the same kind of superstitious terror that Casca does in the play, Cassius tells him:

In our [Epicurean] sect, Brutus, we have an opinion that we do not always feel or see that which we suppose we do both see and feel; but that our senses, being credulous, and therefore easily abused (when they are idle and unoccupied in their own objects), are induced to imagine they see and conjecture that which they in truth do not. For our mind is quick and cunning to work (without either cause or matter) anything in the imagination whatsoever. And therefore the imagination is resembled to clay and the mind to the potter; who without any other cause than his fancy and pleasure, changeth it into what fashion and form he will. And this doth the diversity of our dreams shew unto us. For our imagination doth, upon a small fancy, grow from conceit to conceit, altering both in passions and forms of things imagined. For the mind of man is ever occupied; and that continual moving is nothing but an imagination. But yet there is a further cause of this in you. For you, being by nature given to melancholic discoursing, and of late continually occupied, your wits and senses, having been overlabored, do easylier yield to such imaginations. For, to say that there are spirits or angels, and if there were, that they had the shape of men, or such voices or any power at all to come unto us, it is a mockery.

Since Shakespeare gives Cicero this dignified philosophical speech in his one brief speaking appearance, and since he has created a character others wonder about and connect with republican aspirations, why does Shakespeare bring him onstage only one earlier time, and then without letting him say a word?

This is the scene where Brutus and Cassius look at the crowd coming back from the Lupercalia. Caesar and his train enlist almost all of the actors except the two who observe it pass. No one speaks as they go by until, at the end, Caesar tells Antony that Cassius is lean and dangerous. We know from Thomas Platter, the Swiss visitor to London in 1599, that the play's thirty-seven named characters were played by approximately fifteen actors, so some parts had to be doubled. Cicero does not speak at this appearance because the other character who doubles him when he appears later in the storm is onstage now. Thus Brutus describes the people passing by in what we should call a teikhoskopia ("ramparts view") technique. The word comes from the passage in Homer's Iliad where Helen, on the walls of Troy, identifies the Hellenic warriors deploying against the city. The scene is imitated by Virgil and Milton in their epics, but it is especially useful in plays, where offstage or silent action can be described.

In Julius Caesar, the train of people goes by and then Caesar and Antony either hold up at the end to speak their lines, or actually come back to look at Cassius, who had been absent from the Lupercalia. One of the people in the procession is clearly the man who doubles as Cicero later on. Which speaker is it, Caesar or Antony? Mere economy would suggest that it is the one with fewer lines (Caesar's 155 to Antony's 369). Caesar and Cicero are played by the same actor. An indirect proof of this doubling is that in modern productions where doubling is not used, the use of a separate actor to speak Cicero's few but impressive lines in the storm is uneconomical—so the lines are dropped, the actor eliminated.

Who then, in playing Caesar, doubled Cicero? I suggest it was none other than Richard Burbage. This goes against the general impression that Burbage would play the character with the most lines, Brutus. But a consensus has now formed that in the spectacularly busy 1599 season, Julius Caesar was sandwiched between Henry V in the spring and Hamlet in the fall. Burbage would thus have been rehearsing two of the longest roles in the canon, Henry V and Hamlet, during their overlap with Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was letting him get a comparative rest in this play, while using his major resource effectively. (Burbage undoubtedly played the lead role of Cicero in the 1611 Catiline's Conspiracy by Ben Jonson.)


But is Caesar majestic in this drama? He is often played as a vain and foolish dictator, old if not decrepit, though Plutarch makes it a point to say that he was only fifty-six when he was murdered and that his health, despite his epilepsy, was vigorous, his physical skills outstanding (he could gallop a horse bareback with his hands behind him). There is no reason to believe Cassius—in fact, there is good reason to reject him—when he describes Caesar's vulnerabilities to prod Brutus toward the assassination. His words about Caesar's pitifully weak begging for water and his flailing attempts at swimming say what Shakespeare knew from Plutarch was wildly false. Brutus' willingness to believe such lies shows that he was predisposed to despise Caesar already. This is what Shakespeare knew of Caesar, and of the great loyalty his troops felt for him:

They did not wonder so much at his valiantness in putting himself at every instant in such manifest danger, and in taking so extreme pains as he did—knowing that it was his greedy desire of honor that set him afire and pricked him forward to do it—but that he always continued all labor and hardnesses, more than his body could bear, that filled them all with admiration. For, concerning the constitution of his body, he was lean, white and soft-skinned, and often subject to headache, and otherwhile to the falling sickness (the which took him the first time, as it is reported, in Corduba, a city of Spain) but yet therefore yielded not to the disease of his body, to make it a cloak to cherish him withal, but contrarily took the pains of war as a medicine to cure his sick body, fighting always with his disease, travelling continually, living soberly, and commonly lying abroad in the field.

Cassius' defiance of reality is proved when he says that Caesar was so poor a swimmer that he had to save him. Plutarch tells us that when Caesar's men were in danger off the shore of Alexandria, Caesar leaped into a boat to rescue them, and when his boat went down, he not only saved himself by swimming with one hand, but held books above the water with his other hand.

He leaping into the sea, with great hazard saved him self by swimming. It is said that, then holding divers books in his hand, he did never let them go, but kept them always upon his head above water and swam with the other hand, notwithstanding that they shot marvelously at him, and he was driven sometime to duck into the water.

Suetonius repeats the story of that famous event. Caesar's swimming skills were widely celebrated in antiquity, as by Appian in Civil Wars 2.150:

In his war at Alexandria, when stranded on a bridge with danger all around, he threw off his purple cloak and dove into the sea. With his foes on the lookout for him, he burrowed underwater for a great distance, surfacing rarely to snatch a breath of air, until he reached a friendly ship and, waving his arms, showed himself and was saved.

Though swimming was no part of the athletic/ military training in Greece, it was respected as a martial art in Rome. Plutarch praises Cato the Elder for the way he taught his son "to storm his way through the swirls and surges of Tiber." When Nero plotted to kill his mother by sinking the ship she was on, that tough woman outwitted him by swimming to safety. The differing heroic ideals can be seen in the fact that the shipwrecked Odysseus rides a bit of his ship's timber while his Greek troops drown, but Aeneas's Romans swim in the waters that whelmed their boat.

Plutarch, admittedly, criticizes Caesar as ambitious, but he praises his courage, leadership, and skill. Taking over frightened troops in Gaul, he earns their trust by joining the front line of infantry, sending off the horse that could carry him out of danger, saying he would ride from the battlefield only after taking a horse from the defeated enemy. When, later, his men hesitate to take on larger numbers of German fighters, he says he will go forward alone, with only his loyal Tenth Legion, which shames the rest into continuing their fight.

Plutarch says that Caesar was resented less for his own ambition than for the arrogant behavior of his soldiers, and especially of Mark Antony, in acquiring riches for themselves. Shakespeare shows that he had noticed this claim in Plutarch when he makes Brutus say:

What, shall one of us That struck the foremost man of all this world But for supporting robbers ... (4.2.73–75)

Plutarch, moreover, believed it was a good thing that Caesar founded an empire—Plutarch not only lived under the Roman Empire (in its conquered Greek territory), but considered that empire divinely ordained:

Caesar's power and government, when it came to be established, did indeed much hurt, at his first entry and beginning, unto those that did resist him: but afterwards unto them that, being overcome had received his government, it seemed he rather had the name and opinion only of a tyranny than, otherwise, that he was so in deed. For there followed not any tyrannical nor cruel act but, contrarily, it seemed that he was a merciful physician whom God had ordained, of special grace, to be Governor of the Empire of Rome, and to set all things again at quiet stay, the which required the counsel and authority of an absolute Prince. And therefore the Roman people were marvelous sorry for Caesar after he was slain.

Brutus himself says he cannot ascribe any tyrannical act to Caesar.

Th'abuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power. And to speak truth of Caesar, I have not known when his affections swayed More than his reason. (2.1.18–21)

Caesar is played as vainglorious in most modern productions. But some of his boasts are a matter of Roman honor. When, for instance, Artemidorus tells Caesar to look first at his document, since it concerns Caesar's own safety, Caesar grandly replies

What touches us ourself shall be last served. (3.1.8)

This has been called the tragic flaw that leads to Caesar's death—he refuses to learn of the conspiracy against him, thinking he is invulnerable. When he dismisses another plea, he preens himself on being able to turn down requests:

These couchings and these lowly courtesies Might fire the blood of ordinary men ... If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him I spurn thee like a cur out of my way. (3.1.35–36, 45–46)


Excerpted from Rome and Rhetoric by Garry Wills Copyright © 2011 by Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ONE Caesar: Mighty Yet....................1
TWO Brutus: Rhetoric Verbal and Visual....................37
THREE Antony: The Fox Knows Many Things....................79
FOUR Cassius: Parallel Lives....................113

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Philip Freeman

Rome and Rhetoric is a fascinating look at the way Shakespeare has shaped our view of ancient Rome through the characters of his Julius Caesar.—Philip Freeman, Author of Julius Caesar

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