The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy and Conspiracy Theories

“There is a tendency for us to view Shakespeare as this unquestionable monolithic genius. But there is also in us all that iconoclast that wants to tear him off his pillar or plinth.”

Dr. Katrina Marchant

There are few things that will drive a Shaespeaeran scholar more skull-shatteringly livid than when someone asks them if Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. There are dozens of YouTube rants, bile-dripping academic papers, tinfoil-hat Tweets, and of course, centuries of anti-academic book bashing and counter-bashing research on the subject. So I won’t try to settle this debate, but I think the debate itself is worth looking at.

The authorship controversy is essentially a conspiracy theory- Was some unknown writer sending scripts to Shakespeare’s company and using the actor from Stratford as a patsy, or a pen name? Is there a massive cover-up to disguise the author of the most celebrated works in the English language? If so, why? How? and what else are they hiding?

The Malleus Malefecarum, “The Witch’s Hammer,” a 15th century book that posits that there is a vast conspiracy of witches living among us.

Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years is that it’s extremely rare to change anyone’s mind about any kind of conspiracy theory, and there are hundreds! Ancient Aliens, Bill Gates, Covid vaccine microchips, Elvis isn’t dead, The Illuminati, Kennedy Assassination, Pizzagate, Q-Anon, Trump’s Russia connections, the list goes on. Several recent studies show that the majority of Americans have heard at least one conspiracy theory, and many of us believe these theories to varying degrees. Sadly, the internet, which was designed to share information, is extremely good at sending misinformation as well.

So as an en educator and a father, I want to focus on the Shakespeare conspiracy not just because it gets my dander up, but also because, compared to these other theories, it is actually one of the least harmful. Conspiracies like the Plandemic hoax are extremely dangerous because they dissuade people from getting a life-saving treatment, and allow this pandemic to continue. By contrast, ultimately it doesn’t really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, so I think this kind of exercise is useful for educators to challenge students to think critically about this low-stakes theory, and then applying the same skill to others to become better-informed thinkers.

How to break down the Shakespeare conspiracy theory

First, let’s summarize the most compelling points of the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. This is a video by director Roland Emmerich, which he made to help promote his film “Anonymous.” Emmerich dramatizes the controversy by portraying the Earl of Oxford writing the plays of Shakespeare anonymously, and sending them to Shakespeare’s company, giving the man from Stratford credit for writing them.

There’s an old saying in science that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” and, aside from the fact that the Earl of Oxford wrote poems, there is no evidence that Oxford ever even spoke to Shakespeare’s company. In fact, almost none of this video is supported by any historical evidence. Now it would be a lot of work to refute each argument of this video point by point right? And surely I have better things to do than do a point-by-point refutation, but…

A Point-by Point refutation of the Roland Emmerich video:

– Shakespeare did leave evidence of his handwriting, just not evidence of his dramatic writing. The fact that his correspondence didn’t survive doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. The kind of cheap parchment that writers of the period used dissolved very easily, especially when they used ink with high iron content. The examples we have of Shakespeare’s writing are mainly legal records and books that were designed to last. In short, there’s no conspiracy to hide Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they simply didn’t survive.

The dedication page of the 1623 First Folio.

We don’t know for sure that his parents were illiterate, or that his daughters were. That is based on an urban legend, not actual proof. Also, plays were not written to be read, that’s why TV viewers are viewers and the grounding are called an audience.

A. Shakespeare wrote about aristocratic people because they were paying his rent. His company was literally named “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” One reason why Shakespeare was more successful than Ben Johnson was that he was deferential and obsequious to the English aristocracy; he had to sing their praises to stay in business.

Dedication page of Venus and Adonis, which Shakespeare wrote to the Earl Of Southampton.

B. Every character that Emmerich mentions is not an aristocrat- Bottom is a lower-class weaver, Mistress Overdon is an inn-keeper. The only aristocrats Shakespeare ever insults are Polonius (who isn’t real), and Sir John Oldcastle in the early draft of King Henry IV, which he immediately changed to Sir John Falstaff once Oldcastle’s family members complained about it to Shakespeare’s company. Emmerich is flat-out lying when he says Shakespeare mocks the English upper class like an equal.

C. There’s a very simple explanation of how Shakespeare was able to write about the manners and lives of the English aristocratic class: he didn’t. All of Shakespeare’s comedies (except for Merry Wives which has the aforementioned Falstaff as a character), and tragedies take place in other countries like Italy, France, Sicily, or Greece. His History plays are set in England, but they dramatize events that happened 100-200 years before Shakespeare was born, meaning that he didn’t need to know too much about contemporary court politics. Furthermore, the majority of the plots he used were recycled from history books, poems, and prose romances.

It’s useful to think of Shakespeare not as a novelist like Dickens or Tolstoy and more like a TV or film screenwriter like George Lucas or Aaron Sorkin. He didn’t write based on real-life experiences or conjure new ideas out of thin air. He was a popular dramatist who adapted existing works of literature to be dramatized onstage. This is why I created my YouTube comedy series “If Shakespeare worked for Disney.” Emmerich, like many Anti-Stratfordians, is assuming that Shakespeare couldn’t have written plays about the nobility without being one himself, but that’s not what Elizabethan dramatists did- they adapted pre-existing work to fit on the public stage, which means anyone with a good education and knowledge of the theater could have written them, regardless of his or her upbringing.

If you are wondering how I could possibly know Shakespeare’s writing process,, the answer is simple: All of Shakespeare’s sources have survived, which means that I can prove that his plays are adaptations. This is a common problem with most conspiracy theories- they never take the straightforward way to explain something. Instead, they take a theory and twist facts to suit that theory. In this case, they twisted the facts about the Earl of Oxford’s life to make him look like Hamlet and based on that, they made him look like the true author of Shakespeare.

D. Honestly the handwriting is the weakest point- yes Shakespeare spelled his name differently in documents but this was before standard English spelling. The first English dictionary was at least 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. This point is clearly designed to discredit Shakespeare and make him seem uneducated. But again, this point is irrelevant when you consider that Shakespeare wrote for theater, where standard spelling is completely unnecessary.

By the way, Ben Johnson spelled his name differently in his manuscripts.

The Debate- Feelings vs. Facts. Modern vs. early modern

When I was in high school, taking my first class on Shakespeare, I watched this documentary which almost convinced me that Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare. The researcher they interviewed seemed so passionate and I wanted to believe what he said was true. But that was before I started reading about Shakespeare’s life for myself, and looked at the evidence myself.

How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory

https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/conspiracy-theory-handbook/

The common traits of Conspiracy Theories from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook

If you look at many different conspiracy theories, they often exist in a form outside of normal reality, to the point where the believers have no interest in any kind of contrary evidence, logic, or any person who even questions it. Essentially the conspiracy becomes their identity, and they will virulently defend this conspiracy from anyone and anything that opposes it. Below is an explanation of the basic parts of a Conspiracy theory, with some points on how they all apply to the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

Contradictory Beliefs:

Believers in conspiracies are motivated by feelings, not facts, and they don’t care how inconsistent those theories are. For example, the same people who believe Joe Biden lost the presidential election, also believe that the president (Joe Biden) is also being played by an actor. This might explain why many people believe that people like Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare, despite the fact that he died 9 years before Shakespeare started writing.

Overriding suspicion:

Again, since the believer is motivated by feelings, they are naturally suspicious of any contrary evidence and just assume anyone who contradicts them is in on the conspiracy. This is called self-sealing the conspiracy.

Nefarious intent:

One question that inevitably comes up with the Shakespeare Authorship debate is: “Who cares?” Usually, this means “Does it really matter who wrote the plays?” However, I want to use this question in this context: “Why go through the trouble to conceal who wrote these plays?” As I mentioned earlier, though Shakespeare is very famous and culturally important now, he certainly wasn’t back in his lifetime. Playwriting was not a venerated profession, and socioeconomically, Shakespeare was little better than a tailor. Why would it be worth it to conceal who wrote a few, fairly popular plays in 1616?

It would take an enormous amount of effort to conceal who wrote these plays for 400 years- you’d have to pay off publishers, fake court records (like the one I showed you above), keep an entire court quiet, and make sure nobody ever wrote down the truth for 400 years. Why would it be worth it? This kind of logic is why the Moon Landing and the Flat Earth conspiracies don’t hold up to rational thought- there’s simply no reason to go through the effort of concealing the alleged truth. The truth itself is just easier to defend.

Something Must be wrong:

As the name implies, Anti-Stratfordians don’t so much believe in Bacon, Pembroke, Oxford, etc, so much as they actively choose not to believe in William Shakespeare of Stratford. This means they will use every bit of their energy trying to prove that theory, and won’t stop until they find something, no matter how nonsensical, to prove their Shakespeare is the real Shakespeare.

Persecuted victim:

Let me be blunt- a conspiracy is very simmilar to a delusion, and any attempt to shatter that delusion is a form of persecution for the conspiracist. The most infamous example of how conspiracy theorists can feel persecuted and empowered at the same time is the way it permeated Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi units. Hitler came to power by spreading the theory that the Jews were secretly controlling the world and Germany was persecuted, while at the same time, Germany was destined to control the world in the eyes of the Nazis. I mention this not because I think Anti-Stratfordians are Nazis (how could I watch I Claudius otherwise?), but that conspiracy theories are potentially very dangerous because they foster a self-serving victim mentality where people are constantly looking for someone to blame for their problems and they will sometimes become violent against anyone who challenges them.

Immune to Evidence

One of the most important concepts in law is the notion that someone is ixznnocent until proven guilty. Along those lines, the prima facie, the accepted truth is accepted as truth, until new evidence contradicts it. If you look at the Supreme Court mock trial for the Authorship question back in 1987, that was the conclusion they came to in the end. Though little historical evidence for Shakespeare has survived, there is NO PHYSICAL evidence that contradicts it, so in the interest of prima facie evidence, they ruled for Shakespeare.

Now real conspiracy believers never believe in the merits of contrary evidence. They will just assume it is manufactured or faulty; part of the attempts of those nefarious truth concealers to pull the wool over their eyes.

Re-Interpreting Randomness

I’ve seen many people claim that the evidence for conspiracies is not found in documents or in scientific explanation, it’s in some kind of code or cipher or series of clues that only the believers understand. As you’ll see below, some of the most famous Anti-Stratfordians claimed to find hidden codes and ciphers in Shakespeare’s plays that prove that he was concealing his true identity. They will also cite coincidental details like the fact that the crest of Edward DeVere was an eagle shaking a spear, and claim this proves his identity as the true author of the plays. When you see a theory like like this, remember, correlation is not causation. Just because a few bad things happened when a few people said “Macbeth,” does not mean Macbeth is cursed. Some things actually are coincidences and not everything has a dramatic or sinister cause. This brings me to my next point:

The real enemy of conspiracies: Disappointing facts (Spoilers ahead for the movie “Coco”)

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s imagine that you were Miguel from Disney’s Coco, and you discovered that your hero Ernesto Dela Cruz murdered your grandfather Hector, but (unlike in the movie), he actually DID write the songs he said he did. How would you feel about Hector? Would you hope and pray that Ernesto lied and your virtuous grandfather was the real author? Might you even concoct a conspiracy theory to rewrite Ernesto’s history and get Hector celebrated as the real author of “Remember Me?”

I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare is guilty of murder, or any other crime (apart from usury, hoarding grain, and a few minor tax violations). What I’m trying to do is to draw parallels between two men who are icons that are beloved by their hometowns, who created work that resonates with a lot of people.

We all have a tendency to take people we admire and put them on pedestals, (like the quote at the beginning mentions), and many people try to identify with their heroes. This is really easy with Shakespeare because most of the personal details of his life have vanished, so we can imbue him with our own sensibilities. Case in point- when Mya Angelou read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a little girl, she initially thought that he was a black girl. Likewise, Eugene O’Neill and other Irish and Irish American writers have thought he might be been Irish.

Some of the most outrageous anti-Stratfordians clearly have an axe to grind because they have a family connection (real or imagined) to the man they believe to be Shakespeare. In the 19th century, Delia Bacon wanted to prove that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was the 17th-century poet, philosopher, and essayist, SIR FRANCIS BACON. Ms. Bacon hated Shakespeare because she thought he was an illiterate sheep-poaching commoner. She, therefore, used her theory to hoist Shakespeare off his literary pedestal, and therefore elevate herself because she believed she was descended from Sir Francis (though in reality, she wasn’t).

Rather than using any kind of historical evidence to prove her theory, Ms. Bacon claimed there was an elaborate code hidden in the iambic pentameter. Subsequent literary pseudo-scholars have attempted to hack the code and prove that they can prove that Sir Francis was the real author of the plays. In the late 1800s, American politician and author Ignatius Donnelly appropriated Ms. Bacon’s theory and claimed he had found the code, which rested on the pagination of the First Folio.

Donnelly had a knack for spreading conspiracy theories; as the title page of his book shows, he also authored a book where he claimed he correctly identified the location of the lost city of Atlantis. He also hated Shakespeare because Donnelly believed he was nothing more than a businessman, exploiting the talent of others, so like Bacon, he cooked up these ‘facts’ to suit his theory in order to take Shakespeare down.

Like many conspiracy theories, Anti-Stratfordians don’t have any factual basis for the ideas they hold, they are responding to an emotional need or desire. Donnelly and Bacon wanted fame, recognition, and revenge against a man they hated. J. Thomas Looney, who proposed that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare, wanted a ‘fairy prince’ that is, a semi-mythical Bard who would lead England into a golden age. All these people were dissatisfied with the man from Stratford, so they created a Shakespeare of their own, and tried to justify his existence.

Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays.
Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

To briefly sum up why the Bacon/ Donnelly theory is false, it hinges on the page numbers of the Folio, but Shakespeare didn’t print the first Folio. If you look at the title page, it was assembled by two actors from Shakespeare’s company- Henry Condell and John Hemmings, and it was printed by Isaac Jaggard, the same man who printed Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. Writers had no say in how their work was printed and in fact Jaggard actually printed the sonnets without Shakespeare’s permission! The notion that Jaggard had any interest in properly printing a secret code in the pages of his posthumous book seems to me, incredibly unlikely at best.

Lesson plan

I’ve adapted a lesson plan about conspiracy theories to include a discussion of the Shakespeare authorship question. I’ll also include a worksheet that you can use in your classroom to distribute among your students if you choose to use it as well. I think it’s a good way to foster critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and historical curiosity, and if it prevents more people from joining Q-Anon, so much the better!

This lesson plan makes use of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, and it has great, easy to read activities about how to spot a conspiracy theory, how to talk to a conspiracy theorist, and how to avoid being taken in by a conspiracy.

Sources:

https://www.americanprogress.org/press/release/2020/10/13/491521/release-new-survey-shows-conspiracy-theories-thriving-u-s-election-nears/:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2020/06/29/how-many-americans-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/?sh=62b9725d5e94

https://www.c-span.org/video/?618-1/shakespeare-author-pseudonym#

Today in history: End of the American Civil War

Shakespeare and the Civil War are forever linked. All the major players had a connection to the Bard, and some might surprise you:

1. Did you know US Grant played a woman in a Shakespeare play!

US Grant as a US army colonel in the Mexican American War, c. 1846

We rarely see images of the future general and future president without his well-kept beard, but if this apocryphal tale is true, Grant might have grown a beard after he was embarrassed by the reaction of his fellow soldiers during a performance of Othello, where Grant rehearsed the part of Desdemona:

That December, officers decided to stage “Othello.” They looked for someone to play the beautiful Desdemona. Grant was urged to try out for the part. He had a trim figure and almost girlish good looks; his friends called him “Beauty.” Though the costume fit perfectly, the officer playing the Moor couldn’t look at Grant without laughing. They sent to New Orleans for a professional actress to play Desdemona. After that, Grant grew a beard to hide his girlish good looks. He was “Beauty” no more.

Civilwartalk.com

#2. President Lincoln, Shakespearean Gentleman

A copy of Shakespeare’s Plays, c. 1865. In the top-right corner, written in pencil is inscribed “A. Lincoln.”

I’ve talked before about how, to the South, President Lincoln was as big a tyrant as Julius Caesar, and how John Wilkes Booth was determined to cast himself as a real life Brutus

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-american-presidents-and-shakespeare

What you might not know is that Lincoln’s favorite Shakespeare play was Macbeth. I find a more fitting character for the compassionate and eloquent president would be the good King Duncan from Macbeth. According to Whitehousehistory.org. Lincoln quoted some lines about the good king’s death, a few days before his own:

On Sunday, April 9, 1865, with the war over, he was returning to Washington on the River Queen from City Point, Virginia, where he had visited the front, and he talked Shakespeare to his companions, read aloud to them, and recited his favorite passages from memory. He spent most of his time on Macbeth. “The lines after the murder of King Duncan. Lincoln’s companions were struck by the slow, quiet way he read the lines:

“Duncan is in his grave;

After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well,

Treason has done his worst; not steel, nor poison,

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch

him farther.”

When Lincoln finished, he paused for a moment, and then read the lines slowly over again. “I then wondered,” reflected one of his friends, “whether he felt a presentiment of his impending fate.”

Whitehousehistory.org.

If you choose to sign up for my Outschool class: The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar, I compare Antony’s speech, (which essentially started a civil war in Rome), with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I also discuss John Wilkes Booth and his obsession with the character Brutus.

Title image for my Outschool class: “The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar.

#3: Ex Confederates hid out in Shakespeare’s home town!

Ex-Confederate soldiers gathered in Royal Leamington Spa in England, c. 1865.

I was pretty shocked to learn this one, and it took a while before I found a decent amount of evidence to justify reporting on it here, but apparently a few ex confederates fled to England after the war, and took refuge at inns and houses in and around Stratford, including Royal Leamington Spa, which is a town just 12 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

I had scarcely become domesticated before the visits of the Confederates began, & we have now quite a little Southern Society. Mr & Mrs Fry of N. York, & Mrs Leigh reside very near us. Mr & Mrs Westfeldt also; but just now they are absent. Mr & Mrs Dugan, Mr & Mrs & the Misses
Stewart, Mrs Hanna & Miss Reynolds, Mr & Mrs Clements, Mr & Mrs Skinner, Capt Flinn, & various others who are here, off & on, compose the little nest of Confederates in Leamington.

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, US Consul, 1861

England was anti Slavery in the 1860s but they were also partners with the Confederates in the lucrative cotton trade. CSA president Jefferson Davis dispatched a number of ambassadors and negotiators to hopefully gain support from the English to help them fight the US in the Civil War.

Once President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, England politely declined to aid the confederacy militarily, but Davis’ visits opened the door for Confederates in England, and that is why they wound up living in Leamington Spa.

While they were there, some purchased English warships to become part of the Confederate Navy. Some even got married!

Sources:

1. Shakespeare and US Presidents: Whitehouse History.com

2. Civilwartalk.com

3. New York Times: John Wilkes Booth

4. Leamington History: “A Confederate Nest in Leamington.”

The Ides of March

A historical Account

However, the Romans gave way before the good fortune of the man and accepted the bit, and regarding the monarchy as a respite from the evils of the civil wars, they appointed him dictator for life. This was confessedly a tyranny, since the monarchy, besides the element of irresponsibility, now took on that of permanence

Patrick Stewart (Cassius), convinces Brutus (Ian Richardson), to betray Caesar, RSC, 1970

Under these circumstances the multitude turned their thoughts towards Marcus Brutus, who was thought to be a descendant of the elder Brutus on his father’s side, on his mother’s side belonged to the Servilii, another illustrious house, and was a son-in‑law and nephew of Cato. 2 The desires which Brutus felt to attempt of his own accord the abolition of the monarchy were blunted by the favours and honours that he had received from Caesar. 3 For not only had his life been spared at Pharsalus after Pompey’s flight, and the lives of many of his friends at his entreaty, but also he had great credit with Caesar. 4 He had received the most honourable of the praetorships for the current year, and was to be consul three years later, having been preferred to Cassius, who was a rival candidate. 5 For Caesar, as we are told, said that Cassius urged the juster claims to the office, but that for his own part he could not pass Brutus by.105 6 Once, too, when certain persons were actually accusing Brutus to him, the conspiracy being already on foot, Caesar would not heed them, but laying his hand upon his body said to the accusers: “Brutus will wait for this shrivelled skin,”106 implying that Brutus was worthy to rule because of his virtue, but that for the sake of ruling he would not become a thankless villain. 7 Those, however, who  p589 were eager for the change, and fixed their eyes on Brutus alone, or on him first, did not venture to talk with him directly, but by night they covered his praetorial tribune and chair with writings, most of which were of this sort: “Thou art asleep, Brutus,” or, “Thou art not Brutus.”107 8 When Cassius perceived that the ambition of Brutus was somewhat stirred by these things, he was more urgent with him than before, and pricked him on, having himself also some private grounds for hating Caesar; 

So far, perhaps, these things may have happened of their own accord; the place, however, which was the scene of that struggle and murder, and in which the senate was then assembled, since it contained a statue of Pompey and had been dedicated by Pompey as an additional ornament to his  p597 theatre, made it wholly clear that it was the work of some heavenly power which was calling and guiding the action thither.

Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus,110 who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; 5 but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tulliusº Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. 6 But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. 7 It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. p599 8 At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”

9 So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. 10 But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; 11 for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. 12 And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. 13

And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. 14 For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.

-Plutarch’s Life Of Caesar

Artwork

Video 📹

Commentary

James Shapiro in his book 1599, addresses the common complaint that in the play that bears his name, Julius Caesar dies halfway through the play and has little time onstage to make a connection with the audience. The play is about tyrananicide, what causes it, what it looks like, and especially its aftermath. In a time when Jesuits and Catholic radicals threatened to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare wrote a powerful story about how fragile government systems can be; how striking the head off Rome leads to anarchy and sometimes tyranny.

Crafting a Character: Brutus

Happy Ides of March every one. I hope you have enjoyed all the posts for my Roman week. If I have time, I will try to post a few more, since I have not touched on Cymbaline or Titus Andronicus.This will not be an in depth character analysis. I won’t go into every scene and speech of Brutus’. My goal is to look at the history and the actions of Brutus in the play to show why he is such an amazing and ambigous character.

Marcus Brutus was born in 85 BC. Shakespeare’s source for the play, Plutarch’s lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, mentions that his desire to kill Caesar might have been tied to his family: Brutus’ ancestor was Lucius Junius Brutus, the man who drove out the last king of Rome, and first consul. Below is the famous painting of Lucius foiling a plot to restore the monarchy, but to do so, he had to sentence his own sons to death:

Jaques Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789.

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/v/david-the-lictors-returning-to-brutus-the-bodies-of-his-sons-1789

This was how seriously the Brutus family took defending the Roman Republic, they valued it even beyond their own family.

Brutus’ mother was Servilia, half sister of Caesar’s longtime critic, the senator Cato. He even married Cato’s daughter Portia! So you can see that once Caesar starts acting like a king, Brutus must have felt a tremendous amount of pressure from his Family to stay true to his Republican ideology. On the other hand, Servillia was actually Caesar’s mistress and Brutus owed his life to Caesar. After Brutus fought against Casesar, they reconciled after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC:

Most of those who were taken alive Caesar incorporated in his legions, and to many men of prominence he granted immunity. One of these was Brutus, who afterwards slew him. Caesar was distressed, we are told, when Brutus was not to be found, but when he was brought into his presence safe and sound, was pleased beyond measure- Plutarch, retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html

Despite his close ties to Caesar, Brutus chose to betray and assassinate him, so the question remains, why?

In the play and in Plutarch, Brutus is persuaded by Cassius Longinus, his brother in law and colleague in the Roman Senate. As you remember from my post on “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” there are three basic kinds of persuasive speech, and Cassius uses all three:

1. Ethos “If you do know that I do fawn on men, and hold them hard, and after scandal them… then hold me dangerous.”

2. Logos- Cassius points out a series of embarrassing stories about Caesar that set up the following argument:

• Caesar is weak and frail

• Gods cannot be frail

• Why is Caesar treated like a god?

3. Pathos

• The people

• Fear of tyranny

• Brutus’ family honor- this is the real knife that kills any doubt Brutus had. Cassius reminds Brutus of his ancestor Lucius and how he would rather die than see a king in Rome again.

The soliloquy

Brutus. It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

• This speech is a direct predecessor for “To be or not to be,” and Macbeth’s “If it were done,” soliloquy. https://youtu.be/IoDwXjKIenI

  • All three speakers are talking about murder and can’t bring themselves to say either the word murder, nor mention the name of the man who will die.

• All references to murder are in passive voice, as if Brutus wishes a lightning bolt would kill Caesar, so he doesn’t have to accept the responsibility of killing.

•Compared to Hamlet and Macbeth, Brutus’ text is flat, The speech depends on the actor to show the torment in his soul.

  • One question that the actor must answer for himself is, is Brutus really concerned for the well being of Rome, or does he want Caesar dead for another reason?

After the soliloquy, Brutus throws himself into the role of head conspirator: https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU

You can see in this video that Brutus speaks eloquently about how just the cause is and how only Caesar will die. This illustrates that Brutus is well spoken but not pragmatic. As we all know, Marc Anthony eventually gets the crowd to turn on Brutus and will become part of the army that hunts him and Cassius down. The dramatic irony is what helps the argument that Brutus is the real tragic hero of this play.

The murder and its aftermath

The rest as they say, is history. On March 15th, 44 BC, Brutus and the conspirators stabbed Caesar 17 times. In the play, before Caesar dies, he utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!”

The line stands out because it is the only time anyone in this Roman play speaks in Latin. Now, I have heard a compelling argument from Professor J. Rufus Fears, that this might actually be a misquote, and what Caesar really said will amaze you. As I have mentioned, Brutus’ mother was Caesar’s mistress and the two of them were very close. At the time of Caesar’s death he was 40, while Caesar was 16 years his senior. Why did Caesar forgive Brutus fighing against him? Is it not possible that what he actually said was: “Et tu, son?” That’s a question for directors and actors, but it does heighten Brutus’ emotional conflic. Much like his ancestor Lucius, Marcus Brutus is caught between his ideals and his family.

During the funeral, Brutus has a very well crafted speech where he lays out his reasons for killing Caesar. He sets himself up as the friend of Rome. This video from the Royal Shakespeare Company explores the techniques that Brutus uses to get the crowd on his side: https://youtu.be/nyPlvuv8SSk

After Antony makes his speech however, the mob burns Brutus’ house and even slaughters a man just because he shares a name with one of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius take their armies and flee Rome, and prepare to take on Antony and Octavian. The adversity Cassius and Brutus go through pushes them together and they behave like brothers; they fight and reconcile constantly: https://youtu.be/K9EAxjVC22M

In a way, these men are two sides of the same coin: Cassius is fiery but pragmatic while Brutus is stoic and idealistic. It’s like a tragedy in and of itself that these men weren’t melded into one man with Brutus’ heart and Cassius’ mind.

Is Brutus A Traitor?

Unlike Macbeth, Shakespeare’s text leaves it ambiguous as to whether Brutus was right or wrong to kill Caesar. Even Antony, who leads an army against him, ends the play by calling Brutus “The noblest Roman of them all.” Shakespeare also gives us few clues to Brutus’ motivations other than the speech I quoted earlier. Mainly we have to go on Brutus’ actions and their consequences.

One moment that I think perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of Brutus’ actions is the moment where he’s visited by Caesar’s ghost. In other tragedies like Macbeth and Richard III, the villain is tormented by the ghost or ghosts of people he murdered. The ghost serves as a manifestation of the murderer’s guilty conscience and torments him before his death. When Brutus sees Caesar, he does not follow this trope. He isn’t horrified, not struck by guilt, in fact, he wishes that the ghost would stay longer.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar book cover

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In Act 4, why does Caesar’s ghost appear? I don’t understand why Caesar’s ghost shows up. I dont understand the significance of that scene.

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JUANAMAC

eNotes educator

| CERTIFIED EDUCATOR

Shakespeare, as other Elizabethan writers, uses the idea of ghosts in his plays usually as a foreshadowing of events to come. In “Hamlet,” Hamlet has to deal with working out what to do with his father’s request for revenge, and also, whether the ghost is indeed his father. In “Macbeth“, Macbeth has to deal with the Ghost of Banquo showing up to dinner, literally haunting him. In “Richard III“, Richard deals with the ghosts of the men he has wronged right at the start of the play.

This haunting is significant also in “Julius Caesar“. The Ghost of Julius arrives on the eve of battle to literally haunt Brutus. Brutus had hoped that by killing Caesar he would enact change in Rome, however, the Roman Empire goes on, as does the reign of Caesar (albeit, a new Caesar).

As Brutus goes into battle, and the battle doesn’t go his way, he again turns to Julius Caesar, blaming him for the outcome of the battle,

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.94–96)

Shakespeare’s ghosts are visible to one person (as well as the audience, clearly) so those who react to the ghost are the ones who are supposed to learn from the arrival of the ghost, heeding the message from beyond the grave.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR

How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

GHOST

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

BRUTUS

Why comest thou?

GHOST

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Well; then I shall see thee again?

GHOST

Ay, at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost

Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee.

The ghost itself also resists the clearcut definition as a sign of a guilty conscience. It doesn’t accuse Brutus of murder, it doesn’t curse in fact, all the ghost says is that Brutus will see him at Philippi. Unlike Richard III or Macbeth, the ghost utters no curses or scare Brutus out of his mind.

The only conclusion that Brutus gleans is that his end is near. According to Dr. John Langdon, many Elizabethan ghosts serve as a shorthand to indicate that the play’s denouement is on its way. Brutus seems aware of this as well- he knows that if he sees a ghost, he’s likely to be one soon. Yet the reality of his impending death doesnt change Brutus; he doesn’t express remorse like Richard III or hopelessness like Macbeth, if anything his stocism and seeming world weariness makes him seem more like a hero like Hamlet during his “Not a whit, we defy augery,” speech. This passive embrace of fate is at the core Brutus and it illustrates how hard it is to truly decide if he is a villain or a hero.

Though Shakespeare wrote the character of Brutus as ambiguous, over the centuries many artists and cultures have passed judgment on Brutus. Dante in his book Inferno example places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell, who along with Judas Iscariot, are being forever devoured by Satan himself, imagined below in a medieval illustration as a three-headed beast. You can see the name Brut in the head on the right.

By contrast, during the French Revolution, many statesmen referred to Brutus as a hero for his noble attempt to destroy a corrupt monarchy.

One day men will be astonished by the fact that humanity in the eighteenth century was less advanced than in the time of Caesar. Then a tyrant was slain in the midst of the Senate with no formalities but thirty blows of a dagger and with no other law save the liberty of Rome Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, November 13th, 1792, (2 months before the execution of Louis XVI).

As I have written before, in the 20th and 21st centuries, America has a somewhat more complex relationship with the character of Brutus. On the one hand, America was founded on the principle of resisting tyranny; it’s even on the state flag of Virginia, which is why some early productions of the play make Brutus a hero. On the other hand, as you see above, rebels and traitors like John Wilkes Booth have also taken inspiration from Brutus. His father and brother’s middle name was Brutus and all three brothers performed in the play one year before John turned theater performance into American tragedy.

Like Brutus, Booth seemed amazed with the world’s reaction to his deed, for after he assassinated the president, he wrote this in his journal:

[W]ith every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

John Wilkes Booth, April 21, 1865.

The most recent controversy over Brutus’ actions is the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Caesar directed by Oscar Eustis. As I wrote before, when portraying Caesar as an American president, it tends to anger the political party of his supporters, but the play shows how unplanned political violence can destabilize a country. In these productions, Brutus seems a bit of a well meaning dupe or an naive patsy acting out of fear. On the other hand in cultures that have suffered many violent uprisings, Brutus is a figure that is all to common in places like Uganda, Iran, and the Taliban controlled world: https://youtu.be/5HU8SA33j2w

Brutus is a great character because Shakespeare keeps enough of his motives in the dark to allow for new interpretations, but also showing a man with relatable desires and fears get swept up in a dangerous and unpredictable time.

Scary Shakespearean Stories!

“Let us sit upon the ground, and tell… THE MOST MESSED UP, MACABRE, EVIL SHAKESPEARE STORIES EVER!”

I have three macabre stories that are 100% true relating to Shakespearean plays, just in time for Halloween!

Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Tale #1: Life Assassinates Art. Everyone knows John Wilkes Booth was an actor who murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Fords Theater, on April 14th 1865. However, not too many know that he was a Shakespearean actor, and that his experience with the Bard’s play of Julius Caesar, might have encouraged Booth’s murderous hand!

The whole Booth family were  a Shakespearean theatrical dynasty; John Wilkes and his two brothers, Edwin and Junius-Brutus Booth Jr were professional actors. The three brothers only appeared together onstage once: in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar- which as you know from my previous posts, is a play where the noble Roman Brutus becomes the head of a conspiracy to assassinate a dictator in the name of peace and freedom. Booth’s father coincidentally was Junius Brutus Booth, and many scholars suspect that Brutus’ son might have taken inspiration from this ancient Roman assassin. In John Wilkes Booth’s mind, Lincoln was a tyrant oppressing the south, and it was up to him to “nobly” sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic.

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of "Julius Caesar," starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
In the photo on the left, you can see the three Booth brothers onstage as Julius Caesar. In a true twist of fate, John Wilkes did not play one of the conspirators Brutus or Cassius, (who stab Caesar in the back), but Marc Antony, the man who spoke for Caesar at his funeral and incited all Rome to avenge his murder. Five months after this photo was taken, Booth shot Lincoln onstage at Ford’s Theater, and shouted in Latin: “Thus shall it be to all tyrants.”

And the Julius Caesar parallels don’t stop there: just as Caesar’s wife had dreams predicting his murder, President Lincoln was haunted by dreams that warned him of his own death which he told his own wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Days before the assassination, Lincoln himself had a terrifying vision:

“About ten days ago, I retired late. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.

“It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me, but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.

” ‘Who is dead in the White House?’, I demanded of one of the soldiers.

” ‘The President’, was his answer, ‘He was killed by an assassin.’

“Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (reprinted from http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html). 

The tragic tale of Lincoln mirrors in many ways the assassination of Caesar, a man who to some was a tyrant and to many was a savior. Surely few other moments from history demonstrate Shakespeare’s poignancy, in a more gruesome and macabre way.

Works Cited:

  1. Andrews, John F. “Was the Bard Behind it,” The Atlantic. Accessed from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/10/was-the-bard-behind-it/308480/
  2. http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_g2bridge&view=gallery&Itemid=256&g2_view=core%3AShowItem&g2_itemId=15120&g2_imageViewsIndex=1
  3. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689283/
  4. http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html