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COMPARATIVE drama 1 Volume 16 Summer 1982 Number 2 Julius Caesar from a Euripidean Perspective J. A. Bryant, Jr. A quarter of a century has passed since the late Ernest Schanzer began publishing the studies on Julius Caesar that eventually found their way into his book The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (1963). The “problems” that Schanzer announced there—whether or not the play has a principal character, whether it is a true tragedy, and whether Shakespeare presented the assassination as damnable or praiseworthy—are matters that have always intrigued students, but they are not things to be solved definitively! Brutus is clearly the character in the play who gets the most attention, the play as a whole is certainly a tragedy according to some of the norms by which we apply the term, and the assassination of Caesar, a murder by almost any norm that one can think of, is a tangled mixture of good and bad. All three concerns provoke ambivalent responses and work with other similar concerns to establish Julius Caesar as Shakespeare’s transition from the relatively simple technical achievements in the two early tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet (one might add here Richard III and Richard II), to the marriage of mastery and comprehensive vision in such plays as Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra. In this respect J. A. BRYANT, JR., is Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. He has published widely on Shakespeare and Renaissance topics. 97 98 Comparative Drama Shakespeare’s mature work in tragedy, of which Julius Caesar is the first example, seems not so much another sophisticated metamorphosis of the Senecan play as a continuation of Greek drama in its own right—in particular, of the drama and vision of Euripides. The objective of the present essay is to show what kind of play can emerge from the text of this work if we divest ourselves of our academic obligations to honor Aristotle and make something Sophoclean of it, and instead look at the genuinely Euripidean, even late Euripidean, quality of the action and the principal characters. One need not assume that Shakespeare consciously chose Euripides as a working model for Julius Caesar; it is enough simply to entertain the notion that Euripides was somewhere in the back of his mind. Emrys Jones in a recent study confirms what scholars should have suspected all along, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries shared the universal admiration of the sixteenth century for at least two plays by Euripides, Hecuba and Phoenissae, and he notes further that Englishmen probably knew also Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, which Erasmus had translated.2 He writes: “We can, I think, assume that with Eramus’s imprimatur on them, both his Hecuba and his Iphi­ genia would have stood a strong chance of being widely read for educational purposes (particularly perhaps in the middle decades of the sixteenth century, when his influence was especi­ ally strong) .”3 For our purposes it is worth noting that both the Hecuba and the Iphigenia deal with “bloody sacrifices,” of Polyxena in one and presumably of Iphigenia in the other, which place the perpetrators of those sacrifices in the position of having sought to appease cosmic forces with a gesture that is almost certain to outrage human ones. Both plays leave us uncertain about the reaction of the gods to the blood that has been offered them; both, in fact, in keeping with Euripides’ normal practice, are equivocal about whether there are any gods at all. The sacrifices make pious pronouncements; the victims submit with something like grace; and the survivors, or at least some of them, react with promises of additional bloodshed that will be less ritualistically defensible. We as spectators may well wonder whether humanity for all its noble apologetic is simply incapable of moving forward without taking its toll of blood, and we react in much the same way to the butchery that Shakespeare’s Brutus (though not Plutarch’s) would attempt to dignify by calling it J. A. Bryant, Jr. 99 a sacrifice. On the night before Caesar’s murder, we recall, Brutus declines to approve the killing of Antony also and gives his reasons: . . . Antony is...


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