Julius Caesar: NOT Targeting Plutarch (on purpose)

As I mentioned last month, the primary source material Shakespeare used in the composition of Julius Caesar was Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by the Greek historian Plutarch. Lives was translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s. Shakespeare used North’s translations, particularly those sections on Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Antony.

And a couple of days back, I noted that contrary to Shakespeare’s usual modus operandi of appropriation then mutation of his sources, he hewed pretty damn close to his sources in Julius Caesar.

So if Shakespeare made such a point of specifically using (or some might say “copying”) Plutarch, what does it say when he deviates from the source?

[Again: for the following, since I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the North translations, I’m using the eBook version of the Delphi Complete Works of Plutarch (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 13) as translated by Bernadotte Perrin, and published by Delphi Classics 2013. The references are noted with the book (Caesar, Antony, or Brutus), and the electronic location within Lives.]

So, we know Shakespeare had Caesar’s final words as “Et tu, Brute” even though Plutarch doesn’t have Caesar saying anything (he just “covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes” [Lives, Brutus: 29137]). However, Plutarch does describe Brutus’ attack: “Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin” (Lives, Caesar: 21778).

Say what?

Many believe that this supports the Brutus-as-son-of-Caesar theory, in some kind of Oedipal attack (even though this is nearly 2000 years before Freud). Earlier in the month, I made mention that Antony’s repeated use of “kind” in his funeral oration pointed toward this theory as well. So why not include this description? Well, since we know that there’s not a lot of stage direction in Shakespeare, it would need to be conveyed in dialogue. Not easily done. What, is Casca supposed to say to Cassius later, “Whoa, did you see Brutus give Caesar the business down low in the gonadular region?” I guess Antony could have mentioned it in the funeral oration, but even there it would feel sensationalistic, and would take away from the subtlety of the “kind” rhetoric.

According to Plutarch, after the assassination, Antony

called the senate together and spoke in favour of amnesty and a distribution of provinces among Brutus and Cassius and their partisans, and the senate ratified this proposal, and voted that no change should be made in what Caesar had done. So Antony went out of the senate the most illustrious of men; for he was thought to have put an end to civil war, and to have handled matters involving great difficulty and extraordinary confusion in a most prudent and statesmanlike manner.
  • Lives, Antony: 27114

What? Antony spoke in favor of AMNESTY for Brutus and the assassins? True. It happened in the days that passed between the assassination, the reading of the will (three days after the killing), and the funeral oration (two days after that), at which time public opinion had so turned against the conspirators that they were driven from Rome. There’s no way to present this in the play, and still create the immediate turnaround of Antony’s funeral oration that happens with hours of the killing. The drama of this reversal of fortune outweighs the political complexity of reality.

This dramatic compression of events, quickening of pace, and telescoping of time, is seen again at the Battle of Philippi in Act Five. In reality, there were two Battles of Philippi, separated by “twenty days” (Lives, Brutus: 29572), but only hours in the play (“‘Tis three o’clock, and, Romans, yet ere night // We shall try fortune in a second fight” [V.iii.108-9])

The final major deviation from the source material is in the appearance to Brutus of Caesar’s Ghost… for the second time. While Plutarch tells of “the phantom visit(ing) Brutus again, manifesting the same appearance as before, but went away without a word” (Lives, Brutus: 29582), when Brutus “was about to fight the second battle” (Lives, Caesar: 21834). Brutus mentions that it has happened (V.v.17-9), but we, as an audience, don’t see it happen.

It’s interesting that all of these deviations occur after the assassination. And each seems eliminate complexity and streamline the events of the second half of the play…

Shakespeare speaks from the grave to every director of Julius Caesar: push the pace, up the momentum. Once decisions have been made, there is no turning back. Fate is relentless. Tragedy is inevitable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *