Julius Caesar: Targeting Plutarch (the hits)

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:

So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison.
  • 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,

Let me have men about me that are fat,
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.
  • I.ii.193-6

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:

She took a little knife, such as barbers use to cut the finger nails, and after banishing all her attendants from her chamber, made a deep gash in her thigh, so that there was a copious flow of blood, and after a little while violent pains and chills and fever followed from the wound.
  • 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!
  • II.i.298-301


Plutarch gives Artemidorus a cameo role (Lives, Caesar: 21752) and Shakespeare follows suit (II.iii).


When Caesar reaches the Capitol, Plutarch says,

he greeted the seer with a jest and said: “Well, the Ides of March are come,” and the seer said to him softly: “Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.”
  • Lives, Caesar: 21726

Is is almost perfectly mirrored in the play:

The ides of March are come.
Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
  • III.i.1-2


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:

Brutus and his associates went up to the Capitol, their hands smeared with blood, and displaying their naked daggers they exhorted the citizens to assert their liberty.
  • Lives, Brutus: 29151

Shakespeare, as is his want, puts the description into action-based dialogue, with Brutus telling his co-conspirators:

                   Stoop, Romans, stoop,
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!”
  • III.i.106-11


In the book of Brutus, Plutarch describes what happened when Caesar

saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of Casca which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes
  • Lives, Brutus: 29137

Shakespeare puts that description into the mouth of Antony at the funeral oration:

For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
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.
  • III.ii.181-6


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:

He was seen, however, and being thought to be, not the Cinna that he really was, but the one who had recently reviled Caesar before the assembled people, he was torn in pieces.
  • Lives, Brutus: 29190


For there was among the conspirators a man who bore this same name of Cinna, and assuming this man was he, the crowd rushed upon him and tore him in pieces among them. This more than anything else made Brutus and Cassius afraid, and not many days afterwards they withdrew from the city.
  • 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

fault with Brutus on the ground that he was too observant of law and justice at a time which demanded a policy of kindness. But Brutus bade him remember the Ides of March, on which they had slain Caesar, not because he was himself plundering everybody, but because he enabled others to do this; since, if there is any good excuse for neglecting justice, it had been better for us to endure the friends of Caesar than to suffer our own to do wrong. “For in the one case,” said he, “we should have had the reputation of cowardice merely; but now, in addition to our toils and perils, we are deemed unjust.” Such were the principles of Brutus.
  • Lives, Brutus: 29392

Shakespeare has Brutus present his argument a tad more poetically:

Remember March; the ides of March remember.
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.
  • IV.ii.70-80


Plutarch describes the death of Portia as:

Finally, as the time grew long, her bodily powers could no longer endure the strain, but were relaxed and enfeebled as her perplexities threatened to drive her mad…she now desired to die, but was opposed by all her friends, who kept strict watch upon her; whereupon she snatched up live coals from the fire, swallowed them, kept her mouth fast closed, and thus made away
with herself.
  • 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:

Then, as he was meditating and reflecting, he thought he heard some one coming into the tent. He turned his eyes towards the entrance and beheld a strange and dreadful apparition, a monstrous and fearful shape standing silently by his side. Plucking up courage to question it, “Who art thou,” said he, “of gods or men, and what is thine errand with me?” Then the phantom answered “I am thy evil genius, Brutus, and thou shalt see me at Philippi.”
  • 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.
  • IV.ii.326-35


Plutarch describes an omen seen by the conspirators:

two eagles perched upon the foremost standards and were borne along with them, and they kept the army company, being fed by the soldiers, as far as Philippi.
  • Lives, Brutus: 29421

Shakespeare has Cassius relate the vision:

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perched,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands,
Who to Philippi here consorted us.
  • V.i.79-82


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

Antony at least, in the hearing of many, declared that in his opinion Brutus was the only conspirator against Caesar who was impelled by the splendour and by what seemed to him the nobility of the enterprise, whereas the rest banded together against the man because they envied and hated him
  • Lives, Brutus: 29311

Which Shakespeare turns into Antony’s eulogy for Brutus:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
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.”
  • V.v.67-71


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?

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