More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar begs a good many questions. Who are the heroes? Where are the out and out villains, the machiavels, who are so evident in many of Shakespeare’s other plays? Where are the women? Is their relative absence significant? What does it say about politics and politicians? What does it say about the people? As a play which showcases the art of rhetoric, what does it say about rhetoric itself? If the play is to be considered a tragedy, where is there evidence of nobility or the tragic flaw which is nobility’s undoing? What is the moral perspective?
Before we begin answering the multifarious questions that Julius Caesar poses, let’s look at the historical context in which it was written.
It seems likely that Shakespeare wrote the play shortly after the so-called Bishops’ Ban had forbidden the printing of new English history plays. Prior to the Ban, which became law in June 1599 at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, Shakespeare had written many plays depicting episodes from English history in a manner which satirized his own time. Plays such as Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and Richard II were seen to be thinly veiled attacks on Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic regime. Such satires were no longer legal under the Ban. Prompted to look further afield for the setting of his plays in order to circumvent the law, Shakespeare relocated his drama to the ancient world; Julius Caesar was the first of several plays set in classical times.