William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar combines various genres, most importantly the historical and tragic genres. Although the play is structured like a classical tragedy and borrows its plot and themes from history, the blend of the two genres results in a play that is notable and unique for the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare's interest in creating a sort of hybrid between classical tragedy and history drama is evident in his borrowed plot and character elements and ideas from the historical genre while simultaneously creating a classical-tragic structure in five acts for Julius Caesar.

One of the most notable deviations from classical tragedy that Shakespeare made in Julius Caesar in order to accommodate his blend of classical tragedy with historical drama is in the use of two nearly equal primary characters: Julius Caesar and Brutus. Most classical tragedies focus on a single hero to the exclusion of the other characters, whereas Shakespeare in Julius Caesar blurs the line on exactly which character is the hero if the play.

Since Caesar is murdered in Act 3, he participates in the last two acts as a ghost and the bulk of the action is comprised with scenes involving Brutus. Meanwhile, in the first three acts, Brutus undergoes a tragic fall from trusted confidante to conspirator. His identification with Caesar in the following scene is shown to be dangerous - that his vision of himself as equal to Caesar is a narrow but possible avenue of approach for the other conspirators: "Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius, That you would have me seek into myself, For that which is not in me? (Shakespeare 6); but the subtext of his words is that he actually does have it in him to murder Caesar and his fellow-conspirators to realize this.

If the plot and characterization of Julius Caesar provide a strong mix of historical and tragic genres, the appearance of Caesar in acts 4-5 as a ghost, with a vengeful agenda, borrows from a third theatrical genre: the revenge-play. Unlike classical tragedy and historical drama, revenge-play is considered a "lower" form of art and a less dignified genre than tragedy or history. By combining elements of classical drama with elements of populist drama, Shakespeare was able to give Julius Caesar a unique quality which still endures to this day.

Despite Shakespeare's innovative use of genre-bending in Julius Caesar, the play retains many traditional attributes. Line for line, the play's diction and dialogue are not as innovative as some of Shakespeare's other plays such as King Lear and Hamlet, but the dialogue fulfills the "classical" requirements of certain scenes, most obviously, Caesar's death scene:

Cæs. Et tu, Brute?--Then fall Cæsar! Dies.

Cin. Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! 85 Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets!

Cass. Some to the common pulpits and cry out "Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!"

Bru. People and Senators, be not affrighted.

Fly not; stand still. Ambition's debt is paid.

(Shakespeare 45)

In that scene, the dialogue compresses the historical and classical elements into a single entity. The audience expects some kind of classical "Roman" epitaph to be spoken by Caesar as he dies and Shakespeare, in fact, has Caesar deliver his dying lines in Latin. Similarly, when Caesar reappears as a ghost, his words: "Thy evil spirit, Brutus" (Shakespeare 79) reveal a distinct change in the elevated diction of the death-scene.

In conclusion, Shakespeare seems to have adopted a rather "free-wheeling" attitude towards the blending of classical and populist techniques and methods in his genre-mixing play Julius Caesar. The end result of his careful blending of useful elements from many various sources resulted in a play which is timeless, unique, and still commands critical and popular interest to this day.