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The Elizabethan Context of Julius Caesar
CP English 10
Read the following passage about the Elizabethan context of Julius Caesar.
As you read, take notes on a separate sheet of paper. Use whatever note
taking method is most comfortable for you.
When you finish, jot down two questions about the passage that you would
like to discuss tomorrow.
Words and terms in bold may not be familiar to you, but they are necessary in
understanding the passage. Some of them necessitate a small bit of research (possibly
going beyond looking up a basic definition).
Julius Caesar takes place in ancient Rome in 44 BC, when Rome was the center of an
enormous realm. Yet even as Rome grew stronger, so 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.
It also suffered from a sharp division between patricians, who were represented in the
senate, and the increasingly underrepresented plebeian masses.
A few men aspired to become the absolute ruler of Rome, but only Julius Caesar
seemed likely to achieve this status. The citizens who favored a more democratic rule
feared that Caesar’s power would lead to the enslavement of Roman citizens.
Therefore, a group of conspirators came together and assassinated Caesar. The
assassination, however, failed to put an end to the power struggles dividing Rome, and
civil war erupted shortly after. The plot of Shakespeare’s play includes the events
leading up to the assassination of Caesar as well as much of the subsequent war.
Citizens of England, knowledgeable in ancient Roman history, would very likely have
detected similarities between the play’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 chaos.
In an age when censorship would have limited public commentary on these worries,
Shakespeare could still use the story of Caesar to comment on the political situation of
his day. Shakespeare emphasized how the actions of the leaders of Roman society
determined history. However, while he did focus on a few key political figures, he did
not ignore that their power lies, to some degree, on the fickle favor of the populace.
(adapted from SparkNotes)