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Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare | Biography


Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was a celebrated playwright who acted with, wrote for, and managed a theater troupe called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In 1599 Shakespeare and his business partners built the Globe Theater, which became part of his legacy. His play Julius Caesar, produced at the Globe that same year, may have been the first play to be performed there.

Shakespeare based Julius Caesar on Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar (Parallel Lives). The play initiated for Shakespeare a series of three Roman plays. He followed Julius Caesar with Antony and Cleopatra (1607) and Coriolanus (1605–1608). Julius Caesar is recognized as the first of Shakespeare's great tragedies.

The real events on which Julius Caesar is based took place from 44 to 42 BCE. Shakespeare compressed the two-year timeline for dramatic effect, and the play's action takes place in a matter of days.

He probably tackled the story of Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE), one well known to theatergoers in his day, in response to England's political climate. The powerful, and controversial, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was about to leave the throne with no named successor. Shakespeare and his contemporaries feared a more repressive government would mark the end of England's "Golden Age."

Shakespeare's audience would have known that after Julius Caesar's death, Caesar's great-nephew and adopted son Octavius (63 BCE–14 CE, also known as Augustus Caesar) took over and began Rome's transition from republic to dictatorial empire. The assassination of Julius Caesar, an act meant to liberate Rome's citizens, put Rome in a worse situation. The play hints at this outcome and its consequences, though the political oppression coming to Rome is left for the audience to imagine.

Censorship prevented Shakespeare from addressing England's situation directly. He could, however, present a distant tragedy with parallels to his own time and indirectly counsel the audience to learn from history.

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