Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Caesar in Elsinore and Elsewhere: Topicality and Roman History

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Caesar in Elsinore and Elsewhere: Topicality and Roman History

Article excerpt

As Lisa Hopkins argues in The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage, a spate of thematic correspondences between Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Hamlet lend weight to the idea that the historical narrative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty provides a frame through which English audiences would have understood the trials of the Danish court both in Hamlet and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.1 Correspondences of this kind might also make it reasonable to expect that there may be something sustained and deliberate in the way in which the Julio-Claudian dynasty provides a referential anchor for the presentation of more topical material throughout Shakespeare's career. This paper will consider the uses of the Caesars by focusing on Julius Caesar, chiefly on the basis that the coincidence of this name enabled Shakespeare's company to make a series of thinly-veiled references to the prominent lawyer and eventual Chancellor of the Exchequer who also bore this name. Sir Julius Caesar-he was among those who were knighted by James en route to London in 16032-was, I contend, a perfect target for topical treatment by the players: his name could be mentioned explicitly via reference to the historical Caesar, with no more than a choice phrase needed to then cue a topical reference for the play's Elizabethan or Jacobean audiences. Given the coincidence in name, there is surely merit in speculation over which of the myriad references to the historical Caesar might also be read as a reference to Sir Julius, but my goal is to go beyond the sort of 'political lock-picking' that David Bevington rightly set out to counter nearly five decades ago.3 If, as Bevington noted, topical references can be unlocked today, then they would certainly have been identified by Elizabeth and her court, where such lock-picking is known to have taken place. In addition to pointing out the topical references in a play, we must attempt to account for why they would be countenanced in the first place. This is a question of their use. I will attempt here to unpack topical material with a view to offering a plausible account of the utility of references to Sir Julius given that all such references also explicitly entail a configuration of the mythography of ancient Rome.

Topical reading assumes that the reference is sufficiently well-known at the time for it to be understood as such by its immediate audience. Sir Julius was certainly a man of no small importance: his father, Caesar Adelmare,4 had been physician to Elizabeth, and Sir Julius was throughout his own life to acquire numerous high offices. Born in 1557, he became a ward of the Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, following Adelmare senior's death in 1568.5 Later, Cecil and Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, helped him to gain quick preferment. He gained his Doctorate in Law from the University of Paris in 1581, and was immediately made a commissioner responsible for controlling piracy, then appointed as the High Judge of the Court of the Admiralty in accelerated fashion in 1584, before becoming the Master of the Chancery in 1588 and Master of the Court of Requests in 1595. He was appointed Chancellor and Under Treasurer of the Exchequer by James in 1606, holding that post until 1614, before being appointed Master of the Rolls directly afterwards. His career is marked by a pattern in which, as Lamar Hill has explained, Sir Julius 'sought a place for which he was not seen to be fully qualified, he tried to turn out an incumbent, he employed the good offices of powerful patrons, and he willingly ventured a great deal of money.'6 This adventurous approach with money manifested in him a propensity for pursuing his share of returns too aggressively in the opinions of others. Hill's biography of Sir Julius is filled with accounts of the squabbles between him and other prominent figures, usually over money, and even records Sir Julius's own complaints about the visits he received from the Queen, since such visits demanded the outlay of a gift, which he claimed was unlikely to ever be returned to him via direct financial reward in spite of the several preferments he received-it was common knowledge after 12 September 1598, for example, that during the Queen's visit to Caesar's estate at Mitcham, he had identified himself in his supplication as 'the eldest judge, the youngest and the poorest', in reference to his frequent pleas regarding financial hardship. …

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