‘Fake news!’: Julius Caesar and the “alternative facts” of Shakespeare’s Rome

The following essay is adapted from a lecture presented at the King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon in May 2017, for the Grays Thurrock Rotary Club. 


Friends, readers, countrymen – lend me your ears! In what follows I will attempt to link the tragedy of Julius Caesar to: a grammar school education and rhetorical devices, the death of Queen Elizabeth, the lives of a penniless troupe of actors, early modern medical theory, and tenuous references to Donald Trump’s “alternative facts”. Let’s see how this goes.

Julius Caesar was an important play for Shakespeare, personally and professionally. Written in 1599, the play was probably the first to be performed at the newly erected Globe theatre on London’s south bank. [1] The Globe was a large and expensive theatre that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were under pressure to fill, not least of all because its erection came after a period of near bankruptcy for the company. [2] In the years preceding the first performance of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare tended towards crowd-pleasing comedies over tragedy with some of his biggest hits being plays like Much Ado About Nothing (1599) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597). [3] However after the pivotal Julius Caesar, Shakespeare moved towards the most artistically successful phase of his career; the timeless tragedies Hamlet (1602), Othello (1603), Macbeth (1606) and King Lear (1606) were all written and performed in the years following Julius Caesar.

And as fresh starts go, Julius Caesar succeeds on a number of different levels. In a purely mercantile sense, Shakespeare’s move towards a Roman tragedy to open the Globe may be evidence of his cash-strapped company’s need to draw in the gentry, those who would have been paying more for premium seats and extra luxuries, such as cushions. [4] Money aside, however, you’ll struggle to find entertainment more appealing than Julius Caesar. This is a play about blood and betrayal; political (and literal) backstabbing; premonitions and ghosts and a fatal case of mistaken identity… these are the stuff that theatrical dreams are made on. What is more, the central story would have been familiar to the wealthier part of Shakespeare’s audience: different versions of Caesar’s life and death had been enacted on the early modern stage on several occasions in the preceding years. Roman history was also, of course, a vital part of the curriculum at any grammar school.

An Elizabethan grammar school education was founded on the learning of Latin. Boys at grammar schools would have learnt to read and write in Latin, to translate passages from, or into Latin, and grasp the grammatical and rhetorical structure, as well as memorise, passages in Latin. As Stanley Wells comments, “at the end of his schooldays, when he was around fifteen years old, an Elizabethan boy of average ability would have acquired as good an education in Latin language and literature as an honours graduate of the present”. [5] Shakespeare would have benefitted from such an education when he attended the King’s New School (now King Edward VI School), and at an early age Shakespeare would have been well-acquainted with Horace, Livy, Ovid, Cicero (who appears in the play Julius Caesar) and works by Julius Caesar himself. In the 1588 publication The Education of Children in Learning, a teacher’s manual, we read that Julius Caesar was “the first and greatest Emperour that ever lived,” who “with a most pure stile, set foorth the histories of his times and certayne books of Grammar.” [6] A play about Julius Caesar therefore needed no introduction – especially for those audience members in the more comfortable seats.

Not that one needs a classical education to grasp the events of the play (although even after all these years it is still surprising to see how small a part Caesar himself actually plays in his own tragedy, getting killed off before the halfway mark). The plot is concerned with universally-understood themes of blood, jealousy, and political jostling. As with all of Shakespeare’s best works, though, the play also comments in subtle, powerful ways on the time it in which it was written. In particular, the tragedy seems to have much to say about the impending death of Elizabeth I.

Garry Wills maintains that the play “is distinctive because it has no villains”. [7] Arguably, there are no heroes either. Instead, the central conflict of the play is one of perspective. The two warring factions – the republican co-conspirators and Mark Antony’s rebel army – posit two political viewpoints concerning the future of Rome. For Brutus, the potential dangers represented by Caesar’s plans for Rome are cause enough to put him to death in order to protect the republic: “[Caesar] would be crowned. / How that might change his nature, there’s the question. / It is the bright day that brings forth the adder” (2.1.12-14). On the other hand, Mark Antony’s support for his friend Caesar exposes the weakness in Brutus’ decision for a pre-emptive strike:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar (3.2.75-77)

Mark Antony rouses the mob against the conspirators in outrage at what he argues is an unjust killing of a state leader – the act of civil blood making uncivil hands unclean, to paraphrase Romeo and Juliet. However, it would not have been lost on Shakespeare’s audience that Mark Antony’s companion in the second half of the play, the historical Octavius, nephew to Caesar, went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor whose epic fornications brought about an end to the Roman republic. While Mark Antony’s speech purports to stand for justice, his actions directly result in civil war and eventually – in a way he could never have predicted – the end of the Roman establishment of his day.

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar”, 1953.

Anxieties over the instability of the state would have been all too familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. England in the early 1590s was marked by inflation and heavy taxation to support the war against Spain, seriously weakening the economy. [8]  However, the greatest source of instability in the period came from uncertainties surrounding the successor to the throne. In 1599, the ageing, unmarried Queen Elizabeth I showed no signs of producing an heir. Tudor England was rapidly fading, and fears grew surrounding the future of the English monarchy. Shakespeare’s subtle parallels between anxieties in classical Rome and Tudor England are clear: without a ruling monarch, could England be plunged into chaos or mob rule? Would a self-styled leader emerge, and could they survive? Could Elizabeth’s impending death create an environment for civil war to break out?

Perhaps you can start to see why a play tackling such issues may still be relevant today. The locus of political uncertainty guided by manipulative rhetoric brings us neatly into the twenty-first century. Surrounding President Donald Trump, Brexit and a snap general election, we are inundated with lies and half-truths, facts and “alternative facts”. The modern political landscape has never foregrounded so explicitly the ability to twist – or outright invent! – information to suit the speaker’s purpose. Julius Caesar explores with transcendent relevance the dangers of political spindoctoring – most famously in Act 3 Scene 2, Caesar’s funeral.

At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus, Caesar’s murderer, speaks first. He manipulates his account of murder and presents what we might today call the “alternative facts” version. Brutus posits himself as a charming and sympathetic paradox – a friendly murderer, for the murder does not distract from Brutus’ love of Caesar: “any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his” (3.2.18-9). A love of a single man, however, is eclipsed by a greater love, that of state, for inevitably, Brutus murders Caesar, “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” (3.2.21-2). Perhaps, we might modernise it: “Make Rome Great Again”. Despite the obvious ethical questions raised by his speech, Brutus is successful in persuading his audience. He quite literally gets away with murder, and he does so by using the same kinds of rhetorical techniques that Shakespeare would have learnt from his studies of the Roman philosophers in the school four and a half centuries ago. He addresses the plebeians – and us in the audience – with a tricolon dripping in pathos: “Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause” (3.2.13-4). He begs that we “have respect to mine honour that you may believe” (3.2.14-6), and appeals to his audience’s understanding nature, asking that they “censure me in your wisdom and awake your senses that you may the better judge” (3.2.16-7). With their wits thus prepared, Brutus softens the blow of his murderous act with a series of equivalent clauses, “tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honour for his valour, and death for his ambition” (3.2.27-8). It is, undeniably, a rhetorical tour de force.


Brutus’ plan works, and the plebeians elect that he should “live! Live!” (3.2.47). Deflecting a riot, Brutus circumvents any legal proceedings and delivers the power to “judge” directly to the mass of lower-classed plebeians. The plebeians refuse to accept the evidence in front of them, of a murder carried out in broad daylight, but are content to have that evidence translated for them into something more palatable. In empowering the mob to decide his fate, Brutus manipulates theirs, and manages to do what Donald Trump promised at his inauguration – to give the power back to the people – in order to benefit himself.

It is a critique of Brutus’ audience (and, by extension, Shakespeare’s) that they choose to accept his weak testimony – a vague, unsubstantiated attack on one man’s “ambition”. This is a grotesque display of a people happy to be duped into accepting the perpetrator of a heinous crime as leader because he claims he acted in their name. “Alternative facts”, it seems, are winning.

But audiences are fickle, as every politician knows. Mark Antony uses this fact to his advantage, and when he takes to the centre stage he uses his own rhetorical mastery to take control of the perceived truth – and also to burn Brutus’ new Rome down to the ground.

Despite his claim that he comes to “bury Caesar, not to praise him”, he succeeds not only in praising Caesar but in inciting a rebellion against the “honourable” murderers whom the public had embraced just moments earlier. He begins in a similar, but far more persuasive, vein to Brutus: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (3.2.73). By asking his audience to listen rather than commanding them, as Brutus does (“hear me” [3.2.13]), Antony establishes himself as “one of the people” from the offset, thereby locating everything that follows within the realm of public opinion. This small, powerful distinction throws into doubt the veracity of Brutus’ earlier speech, and flavours Mark Antony’s refrain – “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man” – with a delicious irony. Mark Antony thus appeals to the audience’s wit, both onstage and in the theatre, even as the content of his speech illuminates his audience’s fickle attitude. By the end of his speech, the plebeians are now convinced that the man who earlier persuaded them by appealing to his “honour” is not truly, as Antony states “an honourable man”.

Antony’s opening lines are a good start, then, and set the table for his greatest trick in reclaiming the political high ground: he makes Caesar’s corpse speak for him through the fresh-bleeding wounds.

The belief the dead could ‘speak,’ as it were, through their (often excessively) bleeding wounds in order to incriminate those guilty of murder would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. On stage, references to wound testimony acted as a tangible reminder that, as Macbeth fears, “blood will have blood” (3.5.142). In Julius Caesar, the dead Caesar’s body communicates information regarding the quality of the murderous act, or at least is said to do so by rhetorical maestro Antony. In stark contrast to Brutus’ defence of noble “pity” (3.1.184) – “I slew my best lover for the / good of Rome” (3.2.36-7) – Caesar’s wounds divulge a mens rea of “private griefs” which led to “bloody treason” (3.2.209, 189). However, the testimony of Caesar’s wounds is based on Mark Antony’s subjective interpretation, who filters the tangible evidence provided by the boday through his own bias. Though he shrewdly claims to be “no orator” (3.2.213), Antony inverts the idea of wound testimony by speaking for the wounds of freshly-murdered Caesar, even while professing to the citizens in attendance the exact opposite – that the “poor dumb mouths … /… speak for me”. Animated by Antony’s rhetorical wizardry, Caesar’s very wounds thus become witnesses in the name of justice. Indeed, ironically, Caesar is more communicative in death than he ever was in life!

Again, Antony’s skills of persuasion come directly from Shakespeare’s education in Stratford-upon-Avon, and are the most significant factors towards inciting the revolt that leads to the play’s bloody conclusion. Antony’s voice “paradoxically translates itself into reality”, as David Lucking argues, “precisely by denying its capacity to influence reality at all, converting what appears to be vacancy – silence, gaping wounds, death itself – into active and vocal presence”. [9] “They that have done this deed are honourable”, Antony reiterates, and “What private griefs they have, alas, I know not, / That made them do it” (3.2.208-10). Evidence to contradict honourable Brutus, Antony suggests, could come only from the tongueless wounds of the victim.

Carl Theodor von Piloty, “Caesar’s death” (1865)

However, even as we admire the manner in which Antony re-shapes the truth for ostensibly noble purposes, we must still question the wisdom of one who fights “alternative facts” with his own brand of “fake news”. It is precisely Antony’s reliance on Caesar’s corpse as a tool of justice that sways the plebeians from applauding the actions of “noble Brutus” to condemning Brutus and his fellow conspirators as “traitors, villains” (3.2.12, 3.2.198), Antony’s heartfelt speech capitalises on the public’s belief in Caesar’s post-mortem testimony in order to supplant their initial sentiments – “We are blest that Rome is rid of him” (3.2.66) – with a frenetic desire to see justice done: “Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!” (3.2.201). At the same time, though, we cannot ignore the fact that Antony presents claims to the plebeians, based on imaginary testimony by a dead body, as evidence no less tangible than the blood-stained robe which he holds in his hands. As such, Antony’s address to the plebeians offers no more transparency than Brutus’ – particularly when one considers that he uses the corpse of the political leader to incite a rebellion that will ultimately destroy the body politic.

And so to the end of the play, which resolves very little.

Mark Antony’s final speech heaps praise over Brutus’ corpse, and in doing so casts ambiguity and doubt over Rome’s future.

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them. (5.5.67-71)

Admitting that Brutus’ intentions were, as he had contested, for the “common good”, Mark Antony’s declaration of Brutus as “noblest Roman of them all” conflicts with his earlier ironic assessment of Brutus as an “honourable man” (3.2.82). Mark Antony’s duplicity is evident – if he truly believed Brutus’ testimony that he was acting for the “good of all”, while rallying the mob against him, can any of Mark Antony’s statements be trusted? And what future government could Rome expect? The very rhetoric that seems to heal the social rift of the play ultimately succeeds only in threatening it. In this play, at least, “alternative facts” are contagious.

To conclude then, as we in the audience lend Antony our ears and witness Caesar, buried, not praised, we should enjoy the verbal fireworks for what they are. It is what Shakespeare would have wanted, after all. Those same fireworks, though, burn Rome to the ground, and serve as a warning against the power of “honorable men”.


[1] See Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare For All Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003). 56-7. and Hadfield, Andrew David. ‘Introduction to Julius Caesar’. In Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Andrew Hadfield (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007). 1.

[2] See Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999). 265-73.

[3] Wells. 56-7.

[4] Honan. 271.

[5] Wells. 12.

[6] K. W. The Education of children in learning: Declared by the Dignitie, Utilitie, and Method thereof. 1588., sig, DI. qtd in Park. 272.

[7] Willis, Gary. Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011). 118.

[8] See Hadfield. 17-8.

[9] Lucking, David. The Shakespearean Name: Essays on “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Tempest”, and Other Plays (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2007). 133. Here, I use Antony’s words as an example in Shakespearean drama of the dead ‘speaking’, or being imagined as doing so, and thus taking on a quality traditionally reserved for the living. There is, however, a large body of discourse related to interpreting and appropriating the speech of wounds in early modern drama, which lies outside the scope of this essay. Lucking (2007) explores the ways in which “the word can be made flesh … precisely because broken flesh can be made word” (133) as it relates to wounded bodies both living and dead in Shakespeare (131-156); for a gender-based discussion of Shakespeare’s wound-centric Roman plays, see: Kahn, Coppelia. Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women (Routledge: New York, 1997). Kahn reads Caesar’s punctured body as a “feminized object through which the conspirators try to restore their manly virtue as citizens of the republic” (17).

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