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.
Usually, Shakespeare’s appropriation of his sources is subtle and mutated. Here, however, some of his borrowings seem more wholesale than understated. Let me show you what I mean…
[Note: 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.]
In the book on Caesar, Plutarch writes of the two tribunes that appear in Shakespeare’s opening scene:
- Lives, Caesar: 21696
In the play, we see them decide to pull off the decoration in Act One, Scene One, and we hear of their arrest from Casca a scene later.
In the next scene, when Caesar’s train returns to the stage after the offering of the crowns, Caesar tells Antony,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
In the book on Brutus, Plutarch describes Caesar’s statement to Antony: “he said it was not the fat and long-haired fellows that troubled him, but those pale and lean ones; meaning Brutus and Cassius” (Lives, Brutus: 29005).
In the same book on Brutus, Plutarch describes Portia’s attempts to convince Brutus to trust her and his response:
- Lives, Brutus: 29074
Upon seeing this, Brutus “amazed, and lifting his hands to heaven, prayed that he might succeed in his undertaking and thus show himself a worthy husband of Porcia” (Lives, Brutus: 29082). Compare this with what Shakespeare does with the Plutarch text and how he puts it into the mouths of Portia and Brutus:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh.
O you gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
Plutarch gives Artemidorus a cameo role (Lives, Caesar: 21752) and Shakespeare follows suit (II.iii).
When Caesar reaches the Capitol, Plutarch says,
- Lives, Caesar: 21726
Is is almost perfectly mirrored in the play:
The ides of March are come.
Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
In the books of both Caesar and Brutus, Plutarch makes Casca the initial attacker: “It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger” (Lives, Caesar: 21771), and “Casca, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one” (Lives, Brutus: 29134). Shakespeare does the same and gives him a line of dialogue as well: “Speak, hands, for me!” (III.i.76).
After the assassination, Plutarch describes how the conspirators made public their act:
- Lives, Brutus: 29151
Shakespeare, as is his want, puts the description into action-based dialogue, with Brutus telling his co-conspirators:
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
In the book of Brutus, Plutarch describes what happened when Caesar
- Lives, Brutus: 29137
Shakespeare puts that description into the mouth of Antony at the funeral oration:
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquished him. Then burst his mighty heart,
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue
(Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell.
Again, Plutarch describes, in the books of both Brutus and Caesar, what happened to the poet with the same name as one of the conspirators:
- Lives, Brutus: 29190
- Lives, Caesar: 21811
Shakespeare turns this into Act Three, Scene Two’s frightening mob-rule attack.
Before the Battle of Philippi, Brutus and Cassius “indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations” (Lives, Brutus: 29373), with the latter finding
- Lives, Brutus: 29392
Shakespeare has Brutus present his argument a tad more poetically:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?
What villain touched his body that did stab
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes
And sell the mighty space of our large honors
For so much trash as may be graspèd thus?
I had rather be a dog and bay the moon
Than such a Roman.
Plutarch describes the death of Portia as:
- Lives, Brutus: 29111 and 29657
Shakespeare has the grieving but Stoic Brutus describe the incident far more bluntly: “she fell distract // And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire” (IV.ii.207-8).
Plutarch describes the appearance to Brutus of Caesar’s Ghost:
- Lives, Brutus: 29404
(Note: the Ghost’s statement is repeated in the book of Caesar at location 21831)
In Shakespeare, the appearance and exchanged is mirrored:
Ha, who comes here?—
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
BRUTUS Why com’st thou?
To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.
BRUTUS Well, then I shall see thee again?
GHOST Ay, at Philippi.
Plutarch describes an omen seen by the conspirators:
- Lives, Brutus: 29421
Shakespeare has Cassius relate the vision:
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perched,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands,
Who to Philippi here consorted us.
Plutarch, in the book of Caesar, notes that Cassius “slew himself with that very dagger which he had used against Caesar” (Lives, Caesar: 21820), while Shakespeare has Cassius’ final words as “Caesar, thou art revenged // Even with the sword that killed thee” (V.iii.45).
And finally, Plutarch recounts that
- Lives, Brutus: 29311
Which Shakespeare turns into Antony’s eulogy for Brutus:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them.
His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man.”
I find it absolutely stunning how closely Shakespeare hewed to the Plutarch text. It makes me want to go back and revisit some of the other sources for Shakespeare (i.e. Hollinshed for the English histories) to see if they get the same pickpocket approach.
I’m telling you: if this happened today, the playwright would be pilloried. Can you even imagine the snark-filled tweets that would fly?