Historical Context in Julius Caesar

When Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, Queen Elizabeth I was nearing her death and the end of her reign. Anxiety over the succession of the crown spread across England. In the context of this anxiety, Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, a play whose events parallel the political shifts in Elizabethan England. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor even led to speculations that England might erupt in civil war, as Rome did following Caesar’s death.

Historical Context Examples in Julius Caesar:

Act I - Scene I 3

"So do you too, where you perceive them thick. These growing feathers pluck'd from Caesar's wing Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,(75) Who else would soar above the view of men And keep us all in servile fearfulness...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Flavius’s metaphor here of Caesar as a bird is likely a reference to the “Aquila,” the eagle the Romans used to symbolize their military might. If Caesar is the eagle, the people in support of him are his feathers. According to Flavius, the key to toppling Caesar lies in drawing the public away from him. We see again the importance of the public’s approval in the complex political landscape of the play.

"May we do so? You know it is the feast of Lupercal...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Lupercalia was an ancient Roman festival held in mid-February to celebrate the beginning of Spring. The festival honors Rome’s foundation story as well. The Lupercal is the mythical cave in which the she-wolf Lupa raised Romulus and Remus. There is a thematic analogy at play here. Shakespeare draws attention to the founding of Rome at the play’s beginning before showing us the fall of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire.

" [Rome. A Street.]..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The date: February 15th, 44 BCE. Julius Caesar takes place at the end of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire. In the decade before the events of the play, a trio of men referred to as the “Triumvirate” came to power: Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Linius Crassus. In 53 BCE, Crassus died and tensions arose between Caesar and Pompey. In 49 BCE, while Caesar was campaigning abroad, Pompey attempted to strip Caesar of power. This sparked a civil war. By 44 BCE, Pompey and his generals had been killed, leaving Caesar as Rome’s sole ruler. Caesar’s enemies feared he might override the Republican system and become a dictator. So begins Shakespeare’s play.

"Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Brutus justifies killing Caesar by stating that Caesar's personal ambition threatens the Roman Republic. He tells the other conspirators that they cannot kill Marc Antony because they are not butchers, but sacrificers. They will kill Caesar and offer him to the gods — he will become a human sacrifice fit for the gods. This metaphor invokes the Roman myth of Tantalus and his son Pelops. When Tantalus invoked the gods's anger by stealing ambrosia from their banquet to give to his people, Tantalus sacrificed his son Pelops and served him to the gods for dinner. The gods were horrified by this act and condemned Tantalus to eternal hunger and thirst. Clotho, one of the fates brought Pelops back to life and restored him into a handsome youth. Brutus uses this story to make his metaphor, but he seems to forget the lesson Tantalus learned about making a sacrifice for the gods's meal.