From the Bookshelf: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.
This week, The Reader's Marketing and Communications Manager, Rachael Norris, discusses Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.
Words by Rachael Norris
It’s all Greek to me! Familiarity and strangeness in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
When I started reading this play with my Shared Reading group recently (we have read 8 Shakespeare plays together so far since the group started in 2019), we talked about our points of reference – historical, cultural, and personal.
As a millennial, my point of reference was the iconic ‘we should totally just stab Caesar’ moment from the 2004 film Mean Girls - another in the group joked about ‘infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in-for-me!’ from the 1964 film Carry on Cleo.
Now that our own reading of the play is underway, I have been blown away by how many ‘golden nuggets’ (as we call them in the group) there are. Any Shakespeare fan, or anyone who has unwillingly endured Shakespeare at school, will know that lots of our words and common phrases in the English language come from the bard himself. Here are my top three popular sayings that originated from Julius Caesar.
- It’s all Greek to me - Casca says that a speech by Seneca was deliberately given in Greek so that some people in the crowd would not understand it.
“For mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
- Act 1 Scene 3
- Friends, Romans, countrymen...- The famous speech of Mark Antony
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
-Antony, Act 3, Scene 2.
- The fault in our stars – fate, the universe and everything (Is this where John Green got the title of his YA book ‘The Fault in Our Stars’?)
"Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
-Cassius, Act 1, Scene 2.
Embarking on the first history we’ve attempted so far (I think technically Julius Caesar is both a history and a tragedy), the actual story of the Roman emperor and his famed assassination (sorry if this is a spoiler!) felt really familiar.
The finer details of the political landscape of Rome in 44 BCE felt trickier but getting to know the following has helped me:
- During the civil war that resulted in the creation of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar defeated Pompey and gained the position of Consul, or dictator, for life— which gave him unlimited power.
- The play starts with Caesar making his triumphant return home from defeating Pompey on the feast of Lupercal. Every year on the 15th of February, Romans would celebrate with rituals to honour Lupercus the god of farmers, harvesting, and packs of wild animals in Roman mythology.
- At the celebration of Caesar’s victory – a soothsayer comes out of the crowd to warn Caesar - ‘beware the Ides of March!’ This was a date marked in the Roman calendar as a deadline for settling debts.
Once we can get beyond the cultural references though, and experience the real action of the play, we are presented with moral questions and forced to ask them of ourselves.
How do you keep democracy fair? Does power always lead to corruption? How do you overthrow a bad leader and can a leader ever be good?
The key moment for me came in Act 1 Scene 3 – during a huge storm, a band of rebels get together to plan the insurgency against Caesar – they go to Brutus, a friend of Caesar, as they know they will need him on their side. Ahead of their arrival, Brutus opens a letter that was planted by the group that calls for him to stand up and do what is right to protect Rome from becoming a dictatorship.
“Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,”
How’s that for a mic drop moment? Modern adaptations of the play have often made really pointed current political parallels. The abuse of power by those who have it again feels really familiar – what's strange is that we can recognise it so clearly in a play set, and written, so long ago.
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