An Even Closer Look at Caesar’s Final Moments
B. A. Lewis wrote recently on this blog about the Ides of March and whether Julius Caesar really said, “Et tu, Brute?” He concluded thus:
Shakespeare is not entirely without historical basis to have him say, “Et tu, Brute?” But all five early accounts that survive—Nicolaus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio—favor the view that Caesar said nothing at all to Brutus, but perhaps responded to his betrayal with silent grief and despair.
Is Shakespeare’s line a pure fabrication? No. Is it the most historically accurate account? Probably not. Is it effectively dramatic and justly famous? You bet.
Though Lewis is careful not to overstate his case, his discussion is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it fails to engage the historical sources in any kind of critical way. Second, it fails to point out the numerous ways that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar does follow the historical sources. Let us consider each of these in turn.
Lewis does not engage the historical sources. He simply quotes at length from Nicolaus of Damascus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio. He does not discuss their historical context, the authors’ relationship to the Empire and possible resulting bias, or any evidence of their literary embellishment of the historical account. In his defense, Lewis was no doubt limited by the length and scope of a blog post. Most blog readers have neither the interest nor the time to read a detailed scholarly analysis of ancient historical texts. And yet, if Lewis had taken the time for such a discussion, his conclusion could have been very different.
Let us take one example. Nicholas of Damascus, the earliest historical source for Caesar’s death, was a political ally and close associate of Augustus, the adopted nephew and heir to Julius Caesar. So Nicholas was predisposed to think favorably of the Roman Empire, and had a vested interest in portraying Caesar in a positive light. The image of a silent Caesar in Nicolaus is entirely consonant with the Roman aristocratic ideal of a calm resolve in the face of death. For a Roman reader, there is something noble in the portrayal of Caesar silently receiving thirty-five wounds and breathing his last. By contrast with this imperial figure, the assassins seem a rather clumsy lot. They stab each other in their frenzied excitement: “It looked as if they were fighting over Caesar.” Surely one could ask whether, given the author’s close ties to Augustus, this version of events was not putting Julius Caesar in the best possible light. Could it be that Nicolaus omitted the tradition of Caesar speaking to Brutus because it portrayed a kind of human weakness or distress, rather than a stoic resolve to accept one’s fate? Could it be that it didn’t fit his intended contrast between the self-possessed Caesar and the bumbling assassins? These are the kinds of questions one asks in a serious consideration of historical sources.
But much more problematic is Lewis’s silence on the ample agreement between Shakespeare and the historical sources. Leaving aside the events leading up to the assassination, we see at least six examples from the death scene alone (Act 3, Scene 1) that Shakespeare closely followed historical sources:
1. Shakespeare’s characters in the scene include Metellus Cimber, Brutus, Casca, Decius Brutus, Cassius, Cinna, Trebonius, and Antony. All of these are accounted for in the ancient historical sources, though Metellus Cimber is called Tullius Cimber or Tillius Cimber.
2. Shakespeare has Trebonius detain Caesar’s friend Antony in conversation outside the senate meeting, a detail recorded in Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio.
3. Shakespeare makes the assassination begin with Cimber appealing to Caesar on behalf of his brother, a detail recorded in Nicolaus, Suetonius, Plutarch and Appian.
4. Shakespeare has Casca deal the first blow, a detail found in Nicolaus, Suetonius, Plutarch, and Appian.
5. Shakespeare has Brutus make reference to Caesar lying dead at the foot of Pompey’s statue (“Caesar…that now on Pompey’s basis lies,” Act 3, Scene 1, lines 115-6), a detail recorded in Nicolaus, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio.
6. Four of the ancient historical sources—Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio—specifically mention Caesar reacting to Brutus, either by speaking in grief and surprise at Brutus’ betrayal, or else by pulling his own toga over his head in grief or despair; so Shakespeare has solid historical basis for portraying Caesar reacting in some way to Brutus.
Thus, on closer inspection the assassination scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has several points on which it closely follows ancient accounts. Lewis’s discussion does not give an accurate impression of Shakespeare’s relationship with the historical sources.
By focusing exclusively on the issue of one line—“Et tu Brutè? Then fall, Caesar.”—Lewis ignores the historical and literary context of the ancient sources and (more importantly) overlooks the many ways Shakespeare does follow the historical accounts of Caesar’s death. The result is a skewed representation of Shakespeare’s achievement in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare is not playing fast and loose with the history in an effort to heighten the tragedy. Rather, Shakespeare’s play deftly combines great drama and considerable fidelity to ancient historical sources.