Julius Caesar has remained one of the most poignant stories about a power struggle in the English language. It is precisely because personality cults have consistently eroded institutions of public office that this play will always remain relevant. The play illustrates not only that a popular yet unorthodox leader may sweep away democratic and free institutions, but that killing such a leader might result in even more turmoil. This was the quandary of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, who recognized the power usurpations of a man who trusted him, Salvador Allende, and had him killed with the eventual intention of returning the country from the brink of communism only to become its dictator. That such a play could capture the imagination of a country that had never known republican rule begs for a careful analysis of the context into which Shakespeare introduced his play.
Most of Shakespeare's historical information was drawn from Holinshed's Chronicles, a compendium of the history of the British Isles written in 1577 by Raphael Holinshed for the Queen's printer. These chronicles not only provide us with the information that Shakespeare bases his plays on, but are instrumental in gaining a perception of life in Elizabethan London.
William Harrison was a colleague of Holinshed that was responsible for writing descriptions of Britain and England. It is insightful with respect to the mentality of the time to note that Harrison starts by breaking the Britons into their respective castes and ranking them. This was a hold-over from the medieval period, where a "Great Chain of Being" placed God above kings, kings above barons, barons above peasants, peasants above dogs and so forth.
Harrison ranks these castes, from the top down, as being: gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or labourers. His description of the clergy of England is particularly insightful and amusing:
whose countenances in time past were much more glorious than at this present it is, because those lusty prelates sought after earthly estimation and authority with far more diligence than after the lost sheep of Christ, of which they had small regard.
Here we see that the English of the time had lost their respect for the religious establishment and yet retained esteem for the parochial system that dictated that certain men were better than others according to their ancestry. We do not, however, gain a sense that people at the lower rungs of such a system disdained it; it could be said that it afforded them less responsibilities without compromising their ability to survive as a merchant class. In 1600, London had a population of 200,000 people in a country of five million and was the second largest city in Europe after Amsterdam.
The play was written and performed in 1599 at the Globe theater in Southwark, London. Southwark is located on the south bank of the Thames river, and was traditionally considered the vice district. This section of London was home to 10% of its population, and more than its share of the city's beggars. In 1594 the Lord Mayor, Sir John Spencer, asserted that parts of Southwark were "very nurseries and breeding-places of the begging poor" who swarmed the streets of the City. He estimated the number of these beggars at 12,000, and requested a meeting of several local magistrates in an attempt to banish them from the City or prevent them from crossing the Bridge.
For many years, this area had been home to royally sanctioned prostitution. One would assume that the church would be against such activity, whereas in fact a series of bishops owned many whorehouses in the Bankside section of Southwark. Many of these brothels were disguised as taverns. In segregating this element of society across the river from the rest of the city, the Cities of London and Westminster managed to compartmentalize this seedier aspect of their society. Suburbs in general were considered inferior to the city itself in the late 16th century. A 1596 Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex illustrates the popular view of suburbs like Southwark:
great nomber of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterles men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.
Nightlife, drinking, and dancing were all to be found in Southwark, where most of the city went to entertain themselves, whether or not they took advantage of the prostitutes. Before the social changes brought about by radio and television, playhouses were the most common organized entertainment for the masses, and often cohabited parts of cities that were known to be the haunt of prostitutes. Many of the people who would, in modern times, be considered performers were generally regarded by classist Elizabethan society as vagrants; of the lowest class. There were more people considered vagrants than just beggars. Vagrants were "Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, & c."
It is understandable that Shakespeare's players would have felt at home among these people in Southwark, and it was to this community of misfits that Shakespeare brought the Globe.
Prior to the winter of 1598, The Globe was known as "the Theater" and was north of the Thames. It was at this time that Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, the owners of the Theater faced increasing rents. They demolished the building piece by piece, shipped them across the Thames and reconstructed them in Southwark. The reconstructed theater, which they re-named the Globe, was opened in 1599. Julius Caesar was one of the first plays to be presented. The Globe was constructed of wood and lacked a roof. This was rather intelligible for a low-budget theater of the day, as a roof would have necessitated ample lighting and the prospect of having that many burning candles inside a huge wooden structure crowded with people seemed to be a foolish prospect. The Globe was one of four major theatres in the area -- the other three being the Swan, the Rose, and the Hope. It was three stories high, could seat up to 3,000 spectators, and had a diameter of approximately 100 feet. The rectangular stage platform on which the plays were performed was nearly 43 feet wide and 28 feet deep. This staging area most likely housed trap doors in its flooring and rigging overhead for various stage effects.
All of the actors of Shakespeare's day were male. This was implicitly regarded as a firewall against the prospect of Southwark's courtesans using the stage as a gambit to advance their careers. Because the theatergoers were a daytime, daylight crowd, many of those in attendance were women. In Elizabethan times, it was not as important to eradicate prostitution as it was to shelter the gentle eyes of respectable women from its corrupting influence.
It is precisely because Shakespeare was not writing plays for the royal court that he was given such license in penning works that had a broad-based popular appeal. Julius Caesar was his first play in the Globe and as such, was targeted at traditional Southwark playgoers. The position of Brutus as the tragic hero of the play has lead many to claim that the play should have been named after him. This would have proved financially unsound; your average Londoner was sure to know the name of Julius Caesar, while only students of the classics could be expected to be familiar with Brutus. At this time, there was a controversy among the English over whether or not to adopt the new Gregorian calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. The death of Caesar as subject for the play was a propos, in that England was being strong-armed to abandon the Julian calendar by a religion that it had abandoned under Henry the 8th. The play is said to have opened on the 12th of June in the last year of the Julian calendar, although the first recorded performance was on the 21st of September in the same year.
One could be lead to ask why a subject such as tyrannicide was presentable in a country governed by a monarch. Elizabeth I ruled England at the time. Elizabeth was a widely popular queen, who had governed England with aplomb for forty years. Despite her power as a monarch that preferred to make her own decisions, Elizabeth forswore the religious persecutions that currently plagued continental Europe. France and Spain were both ruled by Catholic kings that championed the persecution of protestant minorities, often executing…