Shakespeare’s Sources – Julius Caesar

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Continuing the series on Shakespeare’s sources – I turn my attention to Julius Caesar. Mark Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen …’ speech existed in several versions and was famed in Shakespeare’s life as a great rhetorical speech. Shakespeare may even have had to study a version of this speech at school – noting the rhetorical flourishes for his own education. He probably enjoyed the chance in adulthood to write his own version of this famous speech and in rising to the challenge of shaping the rhetoric which turned the crowd from supporting to detesting the conspirators.

Like many of Shakespeare’s Roman plays Julius Caesar is primarily based on Plutarch’s version of history in his life of Julius Caesar. But as always Shakespeare adds depth and personal interest to his version of historical events.

This is Plutarch’s version of the murder of Caesar…

“So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word.  But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. […]it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.”

Shakespeare’s version is more personal – rather than there being people who knew about the plot and people who didn’t, the plot remains secret until executed and the only warnings are in the form of dreams and prophesies, which Caesar disregards as superstitious.  The details of the conspirators and their decisions are rich and detailed in Shakespeare’s play including the relationship between Brutus and Cassius as Brutus is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspirators.

In keeping with this the actual murder is also more personal – rather than a huge crowd of people striking at Caesar the attention of the audience is drawn to the actions of a few men and to Brutus’s personal betrayal.


Speak, hands for me!

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR


Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.

[ Caesar Dies]


Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.


Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’


People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: ambition’s debt is paid.

There are many little details which remain the same from Plutarch to Shakespeare for instance the crowd planning to burn the conspirators houses.

In Plutarch…  “the multitude saw his body carried through the forum all disfigured with its wounds, they no longer kept themselves within the restraints of order and discipline, but after heaping round the body benches, railings, and tables from the forum they set fire to them and burned it there;  then, lifting blazing brands on high, they ran to the houses of the murderers with intent to burn them down, while others went every whither through the city seeking to seize the men themselves and tear them to pieces.”

And in Shakespeare…

First Citizen

Never, never. Come, away, away!
We’ll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses.
Take up the body.


Although Shakespeare’s version is shorter and more concise, partly by its conversion from a description of events to the spoken conviction of one individual, Shakespeare’s version is considerably more personal and dramatic.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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