Notes on The Opening Scens of  Julius Caesar (from Shapiro’s 1599, ch. 8 “Is This a Holiday?” pp. 138-170)

In Julius Caesar Shakespeare collapses the differences between Classical Rome and Elizabethan London so that he can explore the anxieties gripping the Globe’s audience in 1599 as the end of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign drew near. England at the end of the 16th c. remained riven by competing Catholic and Protestant factions. Elizabeth had long sought to contain religious violence by delaying, then finally refusing marriage, and never choosing an heir, but her position atop the throne had always been precarious. Ever since her 1570 papal excommunication, English Catholics had been encouraged to assassinate her. In 1599 there had been a rash of recent assassination attempts on the Queen. Edward Squiers tried to poison her (by rubbing an arsenic lotion onto her saddle) and had been discovered only by the capture of two other Catholic assassins who had sought an audience with her. 

In his reading of Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar, Brutus and Marc Antony, Shakespeare recognized many parallels between the situation Caesar faced in 44 BC and the one in he observed in Elizabethan London. The threat of assassination and looming civil war, the fear of tyranny, the confusion and passion of the masses—Shakespeare exploits all of these elements to open his tragedy at the highest pitch of political drama. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare makes a case for the conspirators’ murder of a potential tyrant, but at the same time he shows the chaotic bloodletting which inevitably results when the process of political succession breaks down.

To translate Plutarch’s version of Caesar’s assassination to the stage, Shakespeare condenses six months of time into two days. Caesar’s triumph celebrating his defeat of Pompey’s sons in Spain (thus achieving military hegemony over the Mediterranean world) had occurred in September 45 BC. Shakespeare moved the date of this spectacular parade of war trophies to coincide with the Feast of the Lupercal, a pagan fertility ceremony which included sacrifices, foot races, and mass reveling that could easily grow wild. The Feast of the Lupercal typically comes in mid-February, at the same time in the Church calendar that Shrove Tuesday gives way to Lent, but Shakespeare sets Lupercal instead on the eve of the Ides of March, closer to Easter. Telescoping the action elides Caesar’s bid for the crown and his subsequent assassination with the dark, ancient rites of sacrifice associated with Greek tragedy.  Shakespeare is preparing his audience for the coming sacrifice of Caesar, but in these opening scenes he also connects Caesar’s situation to the immediate situation facing Elizabeth in 1599 London.

The start of Julius Caesar sweeps its audience up into a dizzying overlap of religion and politics, past and present. Shakespeare’s Caesar has chosen the Feast of the Lupercal to launch his bid to seize power from the senate, consuls and tribunes of Rome by having the people declare him a monarch out right. Two toga clad tribunes berate a crowd of common citizens (wearing the blue woolen caps required in decades past on an official London holiday). The people have turned out en masse to cheer Caesar’s triumph, but tribunes Flavius and Marullus shout down the crowd and remind them how they had cried out just as loudly for glorious Pompey’s triumph a few short years before. The tribunes incite the crowd to tear down decorations which have festooned the statues and busts of Caesar lining the triumph’s route. 

 "Queen Elizabeth I being carried in Procession Eliza Triumphans c.1601" oil on Canvas (attr. to) Peake, Robert

The Globe audience would recall Elizabeth’s glorious ‘Roman triumph’ through the streets of London in 1589 to celebrate the sinking of the Spanish Armada. They would recognize how Elizabeth’s own youthful image had long been the chief public brand of her government’s propaganda. (Defacing them was a capital crime.) Elizabeth and her ministers’ efforts to convert Catholic ritual into a new secular, nationalist mythology had been built around her image as the Virgin Queen. In recent years, though, Elizabeth had grown increasingly frail as her age advanced (In 1599 she was 67 years old), so her ministers sserted direct censorship of any public discussion of her age or speculation over her successor. They maintained special control over all representations of the Queen’s image in public, and on special occasions these images were festooned with decorations just as Caesar’s statues have been on the route of his triumph.

In the wake of the English Reformation, not only Catholic ceremony and liturgy, but also the calendar of holidays and festivals honoring the Catholic saints had been banned by the Protestants.  Since medieval times, the church calendar had been set to celebrate key moments in the natural cycle of planting, renewal and harvest.  The impact of the new bans on holy days and folk festivals, the whitewashing of the churches, the replacing of stained glass, the new liturgy… all had deeply disoriented English culture.


Elizabeth I The Pelican Portrait
by Nicholas Hilliard. (1575)  
The pelican was thought to wound her breast to nourish her young, and became a symbol of Passion and Eucharist, adopted by Elizabeth portraying herself as the "mother of the Church of England."
.The ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
by Nicholas Hilliard (1575)
Oil on panel, c.1575 This portrait is known as the 'Phoenix' portrait after the prominent phoenix jewel that Elizabeth wears at her chest, which was an emblem for rebirth and chastity. She also wears a heavy jewelled collar with a red and white Tudor rose in the centre.

Shakespeare’s audience would keenly respond to Caesar’s attempted appropriation of a religious holiday for political purposes.  Elizabeth’s Accession Day had long been a national holiday meant to fill with patriotic fervor part of the void left in English cultural identity by the suppression of religious idols. Caesar, no doubt, hoped for a similar yearly celebration far into the future of the day he had become monarch. Little did he know that the Ides of March would forever commemorate his own notorious assassination. In scene two we find that the crowd has failed to play its part in his planned coronation even though Mark Antony offers Caesar the crown three times. Amid the stinking breath of the crowd, Caesar’s coup has gone awry, and he collapses into an epileptic fit!
 
Shakespeare’s own career as a playwright had largely been made possible due to noble patronage and support from Elizabeth’s court. Shakespeare’s theatre also benefited immeasurably from its appropriation of Catholic ceremony and spectacle for theatrical purposes. After all, Elizabeth’s  ministers had hired Shakespeare to create whole series of patriotic history cycles celebrating the rise of the Tudors and the realm’s relative security after an era of endless century of civil war. So too, many in Rome hoped that Caesar’s raw power play might bring an end to decades of infighting and civil war amid generals whose legions struggled for control of the empire. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had recently been named one of two companies receiving official permission to perform in London, and they were frequent performers at court events. Julius Caesar itself had been written in 1599 to open the new Globe Theatre in Southwark in a season that would also include the premiere of As You Like It.

Portrait of Elizabeth I
attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts, ca. 1595