For William Shakespeare, setting five of his plays in the Roman Empire was good business. English children read the works of the great Roman writers as the foundation of their classical education. A new translation of the historian Plutarch’s biography of the great Romans sold well, and plays about Rome filled theatres. In fact, the name of Julius Caesar appears in 17 different plays by Shakespeare, including his plays about English history. Clearly, Shakespeare’s England (itself a burgeoning empire in the 1590s) saw itself as the intellectual and historical heir to Rome. “To Shakespeare’s original audiences,” writes the scholar Marjorie Garber, “a play about ancient Rome was not an escapist document about a faraway world, but a powerful lesson in ethics and statecraft. The Elizabethan view of history suggested that the Romans provided models of conduct, that history taught, and that its lessons could—and should—be learned.” Rome was the specter that haunted and illuminated Shakespeare’s England.
If Roman history was Shakespeare’s touchstone for understanding contemporary history, it should come as no surprise that he chose the use of history as the subject for his greatest Roman plays. In his cycle of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—as presenting the two plays together shows, they tell one epic story—Shakespeare explores the ways in which successful leaders employ and reshape history to their advantage, and unsuccessful leaders fail to tame or escape history. The characters in these plays practice, or fatally forget, George Orwell’s famous axiom that “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
The real Julius Caesar all but invented the art of consolidating political power by controlling history. When he served as a general in Gaul, he delivered his reports to the Senate in the form of a literary narrative with himself as the hero. He realized that history is controlled by those who write it, and so became his own historian. He was famously vain about his appearance and held almost monthly triumphs, symbolic public processions to celebrate military victories. When he returned to Rome after winning a bruising civil war, he made sure that his name was always followed by the words “Father of his Country.” By February of the year 44 B.C., the war-scarred Senate and people were all too happy to name him dictator for life, the end result of his lifetime of self-mythologizing.
In Shakespeare’s play, Caesar carefully cultivates his image in order to dominate Rome. He refers to himself in public as “Caesar,” as though speaking of someone else. He punishes the tribunes, Murellus and Flavius, not for attacking him but for defacing his “images.” And he calls himself “constant as the Northern Star,” all but placing himself in the heavens. His rival Brutus, by contrast, rises against Caesar because he feels subject to the force of history. The ideal of the Republic, established when Brutus’ ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus threw the king out of Rome, puts the assassin’s knife in Brutus’ hand as surely as his co-conspirators do. But because Caesar established his historical image so perfectly in life, no assassin can truly kill him. Antony is able to use Caesar’s image as “Father of his Country” to turn the people against Brutus and drive him from Rome. When Caesar’s ghost finally appears to Brutus before his battle for Rome, he does so almost as the spirit of inescapable history, dragging Brutus down. As his friends fall around him and he faces his own death, Brutus can only marvel, “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet.”
But the ghosts of history, powerful though they may be, cannot rule Rome. Caesar’s teenaged great-nephew and heir Octavius deftly stepped into the void created by the assassination, and began to shape the future by controlling the past. First, he officially changed his name to Julius Caesar, immediately winning the loyalty of both the people and Caesar’s military legions on the historical strength of the name alone. And when he split with his former ally Antony, he embarked on a systematic propaganda campaign to depict Antony as an enemy of Rome. He read Antony’s private will in the Senate, revealing that Antony had made Cleopatra’s children his heirs and requested to be buried in Egypt. Octavius made sure that all of Rome knew of Antony’s associations with the shameless foreign queen Cleopatra. “Contemning Rome, he has done all this,” says Shakespeare’s Octavius, all but erasing Antony’s history as a defender of Rome and of Caesar’s memory. After defeating Antony and Cleopatra in battle, he finished the job his great-uncle Caesar had begun; the Senate granted him dictatorial powers, and the Roman Empire was founded. Caesar’s ghost of history could finally rest, and Octavius received the new name Augustus (“the lofty one”).
Antony critically underestimated both the power of image to change the future and Octavius’ skill at the manipulation of that image. Shakespeare’s Antony sees himself as an invincible general and cannot conceive of losing a battle to Octavius, whom he remembers as a boy who “no practice had in the brave squares of war.” When he loses to Octavius’ talented lieutenants, the shame is too great to bear. Octavius portrays Antony as a hopeless case and an enemy of Rome, and Antony’s allies defect to Octavius without resistance. Dogged by his own history, by the memory of the great man he used to be, Antony would prefer death to “the inevitable prosecution of disgrace and horror.” The man who had shaped history so skillfully at Caesar’s funeral now becomes one of its victims. Octavius wins the war more through public relations than through warfare.
“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner in his novel Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” The past lived on in the Elizabethan present through the staging of Roman stories for English audiences and continues to live on in the staging of Shakespeare’s Roman stories in a future he could only imagine. The lesson of history and its uses feels as current today as it did in Caesar’s and in Shakespeare’s times. - Akiva Fox, Literary Associate