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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and King James

On 15 March 44 BC, Emperor Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by a mob of 60 men.

Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

This shocking event was all the more shocking because the mob wasn't a group of criminals or common men who suddenly killed their ruler -- this was a planned assassination by some of the most powerful men in Rome -- they were aristocratic Senators.

The events before and after the assassination were depicted in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.

From this play we get the famous line "beware the Ides of March" spoken by a Soothsayer to Caesar, warning him about the 15th of March. He doesn't take heed of her warning and he is assassinated.

We also get the famous "Et tu, Brute?" (which translates as "And you too, Brutus?") which Caesar says when he is surprised that Brutus would stab him, too.

There is so much written about Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, and I encourage you to read as much about it as possible.

There are a couple of things I find fascinating about this play, and I do want to mention.

This was the very first play Shakespeare and his company of actors performed to inaugurate the brand new Globe Theatre.

They had been performing at The Theatre in Shoreditch, which was the first theatre built for the purpose of performing plays in England since the Roman times.

They moved their act, and took every last piece of wood from The Theatre, across the Thames to Bankside, where they rebuilt it and gave it a new name -- The Globe.

This was an exciting moment in the career of William Shakespeare. You would think that he would want to open the doors of The Globe with a bang -- and he would feel the pressure to write a hit, something that would secure their future and their fortunes.

Did he write a romantic comedy? A bawdy farce? Did he write another history play about a famous English king?


He wrote a play about the assassination plot of Julius Caesar.

Not only that -- he put the actual killing on stage, for everyone to see. Shakespeare didn't always show the death scenes, or executions of his characters. But for Julius Caesar he did.

I find that truly remarkable. Do I think that Shakespeare was trying to incite the crowd to kill Queen Elizabeth? No, but I do think he was trying to capture the spirit of the times, and by 1599, at the end of Elizabeth's reign, I do think there was a lot of loose talk about a regime change.

It is also interesting that Julius Caesar was murdered at the Theatre of Pompey -- which was one of the first permanent theatres in Rome.

Theatre of Pompey 

In 2012, archeologists found what they believe to be the precise spot where he was stabbed to death -- article here.

The location of Julius Caesar's murder

So Shakespeare performs a play, about the killing of the Emperor at one of the first permanent theatres in Rome, in a new theatre that was made from the same wood taken from one of the first permanent theatres in England since the Roman times.

Hmmm. Interesting. You can't tell me that this was lost on Shakespeare. This is not a mere coincidence.

But just in case you think that Shakespeare was trying to start a plot to assassinate the Queen right there on the stage of The Globe in 1599, he did something very shrewd and very telling.

He changed the story. In his play, Julius Caesar is killed not at the Theatre of Pompey -- but at the Capitol!

For those in the audience who did not read, nor know the true story, Shakespeare had defused what could have been a very incendiary play.

For those in the audience who could read and knew the true story, they would not fault Shakespeare, since the play might not have been approved by the royal censor, the Master of the Revels.

But those who knew the true story understood what Shakespeare was writing and what it meant. It is very difficult to understand these things today, because Shakespeare didn't write the play for us. He wrote for his audience in 1599, to open his new theatre.

Finally, it is interesting that the reason the Senators plot to kill Caesar is because they are afraid that he will turn the republic of Rome into a monarchy, with him as king.

What does this say about England in 1599, not a republic but very much a monarchy?

But wait, there's more!

I have never read it written anywhere, by any Shakespeare scholar, about the other significance of 15 March.

On 15 March 1604, the ceremonial entry for King James into London was celebrated.

King James

He had been crowned king the year before, when Queen Elizabeth died.

Soon after she died, he arrived in London, but the city was hit by a very bad period of the plague. They postponed any ceremonies to welcome James.

Shakespeare and his fellow actors had become King's Men, the official players for the king. They were given red sashes to wear, for the ceremonies.

It took a whole year until things calmed down enough for James to be seen by the crowds of Londoners who wanted to welcome him as their new king.

It had been a busy year -- what with the plague and the fact that there were not one but two plots against his life that had to be put down -- the Main and Bye plots.

He must have been afraid for his life, in his first year as King of England.

As he tried to enjoy this ceremony on 15 March 1604, he was probably afraid for his life again.

He had good reason to be afraid. There were more people plotting to kill him.

Not two years later, he would be the target of the most infamous terrorist plot in England's history -- the Gunpowder Plot.

Shakespeare, like anyone in England, or Europe for that matter, was watching this new king very closely, and everyone -- down to the beggar on the street -- was aware that King James had been born during a time of great violence, his parents met violent ends, and he may very well meet a violent end himself one day.

These are the kinds of things that Shakespeare would be thinking in 1604 when he attended to his king during these ceremonies.

I find it very hard to believe that Shakespeare, as he celebrated with King James on 15 March 1604, would not stop and reflect on the fact that it had been 1647 years since Julius Caesar was killed.

Would Shakespeare, who wrote the words "Beware the Ides of March" think that it was a bad omen that King James was officially entering London on the Ides of March?

At some point, Shakespeare was reminded of another Roman Emperor, named Otho.

Because he would write, later that same year, one of his greatest masterpieces -- Othello.

It was a play written for, and about, his new king.


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified

The Birth of The Theatre and The Birth of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and The Great Theatre Heist

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