Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘Of Higher State / Than Monarch, King or World’s Great Potentate’: The Name of Caesar in Early Modern English Drama

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘Of Higher State / Than Monarch, King or World’s Great Potentate’: The Name of Caesar in Early Modern English Drama

Article excerpt

Scholars have long acknowledged and widely commented on the emphasis placed in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1599) on the titular character's third-person self-referencing and relentless repetition of his own name as parts of a well-devised strategy of self-aggrandizement.1 However, they have paid virtually no attention to the appearance of similar features in other early modern English plays portraying Caesar as a stage character, such as Thomas Kyd's Cornelia (1594), the anonymous Caesar's Revenge (c. 1595), William Alexander's Julius Caesar (1607), and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The False One (c. 1620). The primary aim of this essay is to offer a comprehensive and comparative view of Caesar's self-naming in early modern English drama. It will therefore first provide an in-depth discussion of Caesar's self-mythopoeic use of his own name so abundantly displayed in Shakespeare's play, backed by an unavoidable survey of the main critical contributions on the subject. Then, it will especially focus on the broader significance attached to Caesar's name in medieval and early modern England and attempt an explanation of its ubiquity in early modern English drama at large as a particular manifestation of certain late Elizabethan and Jacobean political misgivings and anxieties.

Caesar's habit of speaking of himself as though he were speaking of another person, probably inspired by Xenophon's Anabasis, is a peculiarity of the Commentarii de bello gallico, where Caesar repeats his own name no fewer than 775 times.2 This narrative device marks a clear separation between Caesar-as-narrator and Caesar-as-actor. It is usually interpreted as an attempt on Caesar's part to convey a semblance of 'epistemic objectivity' by stepping outside himself and making the reader believe he is describing situations as though he were a mere observer.3 The perspective illusion entailed by the use of third-person narration indeed produces remarkable results in terms of credibility. As Giovanni Cipriani observes,

[Caesar], hidden behind the voice of an 'impersonal' narrator, [...] can use [...] an unusual alibi, by which he is apparently bound to know only as much as the Caesar-character does [...]. This intelligent use of internal focalization allows him to adjust the richness and completeness of information as he pleases, since he need not [...] possess a unified and [...] complete vision of the events he is reporting.4

Words seemingly become impersonal, and the third-person self-referencing combines both psychological (the dissociative distancing of the individual from his or her own actions) and sociological (the idea that a name represents a unit within a social structure) aspects.5 Whatever the most appropriate explanation for the strategy used by Caesar in the Commentarii may be, it is not hard to see how the third-person self-referencing could be readily put to dramatic use, as it easily merged with one of the most obvious and essential theatrical needs, that is, the convention by which now and then characters have to speak of themselves in the third person to help their identification by the audience.6 However, as this essay will make clear, what really carries special significance in both Shakespeare's and several other early modern English 'Caesar' plays is not so much Caesar's third-person self-referencing in general as the specific insistence with which he and the other characters repeat his name.

'Caesar' is the proper name most often spoken in Shakespeare (346 times). It acquires supreme importance in the eponymous play, where Caesar appears alive in only three scenes (1.2, 2.1, 3.1) out of a total of eighteen, pronouncing only 150 lines (out of a total of 2,500!) and 1,126 words, equating to no more than 5.8 per cent of the text.7 At first, Caesar's insistent repetition of his own cognomen (nineteen times in the entire play) and of personal pronouns referring to himself (an impressive seventy-one instances) might mistakenly appear to be nothing more than a distasteful exhibition of haughtiness or an instrument to express his hubris. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.