Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, King James paid Shakespeare’s theater company the greatest possible compliment by endowing its members with the status of king’s players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theater.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some scholars have concluded from this lack and from Shakespeare’s modest education that his plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates. The evidence for this claim, however, is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and few take the theory very seriously.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Julius Caesar takes place in ancient Rome in 44 b.c., when Rome was the center of an empire stretching from Britain to North Africa and from Persia to Spain. Yet even as the empire grew stronger, so, too, did the force of the dangers threatening its existence: Rome suffered from constant infighting between ambitious military leaders and the far weaker senators to whom they supposedly owed allegiance. The empire also suffered from a sharp division between citizens, who were represented in the senate, and the increasingly underrepresented plebeian masses. A succession of men aspired to become the absolute ruler of Rome, but only Julius Caesar seemed likely to achieve this status. Those citizens who favored more democratic rule feared that Caesar’s power would lead to the enslavement of Roman citizens by one of their own. Therefore, a group of conspirators came together and assassinated Caesar. The assassination, however, failed to put an end to the power struggles dividing the empire, and civil war erupted shortly thereafter. The plot of Shakespeare’s play includes the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar as well as much of the subsequent war, in which the deaths of the leading conspirators constituted a sort of revenge for the assassination.
Shakespeare’s contemporaries, well versed in ancient Greek and Roman history, would very likely have detected parallels between Julius Caesar’s portrayal of the shift from republican to imperial Rome and the Elizabethan era’s trend toward consolidated monarchal power. In 1599, when the play was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I had sat on the throne for nearly forty years, enlarging her power at the expense of the aristocracy and the House of Commons. As she was then sixty-six years old, her reign seemed likely to end soon, yet she lacked any heirs (as did Julius Caesar). Many feared that her death would plunge England into the kind of chaos that had plagued England during the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. In an age when censorship would have limited direct commentary on these worries, Shakespeare could nevertheless use the story of Caesar to comment on the political situation of his day.
As his chief source in writing Julius Caesar, Shakespeare probably used Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, written in the first century a.d. Plutarch, who believed that history was propelled by the achievements of great men, saw the role of the biographer as inseparable from the role of the historian. Shakespeare followed Plutarch’s lead by emphasizing how the actions of the leaders of Roman society, rather than class conflicts or larger political movements, determined history. However, while Shakespeare does focus on these key political figures, he does not ignore that their power rests, to some degree, on the fickle favor of the populace.
Contemporary accounts tell us that Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s shortest play, was first performed in 1599. It was probably the first play performed in the Globe Theater, the playhouse that was erected around that time in order to accommodate Shakespeare’s increasingly successful theater company. However, the first authoritative text of the play did not appear until the 1623 First Folio edition. The elaborate stage directions suggest that this text was derived from the company’s promptbook rather than Shakespeare’s manuscript.