Julius Caesar: A Guide to the Play

By Jo McMurtry | Go to book overview

4
THEMES

A theme, as students generally have little difficulty in grasping, is different from a plot summary or a character description, either of which is concerned with the finite particulars of the literary work under consideration. Themes deal with universals that form a bridge between the lives of the fictional characters in the literary work and the life of the reader (or, in a dramatic work, of the audience member).

In experiencing Julius Caesar, we are aware that we do not live in ancient Rome or fight battles with sword and shield, that these people and these times are remote from us; and, of course, we are also aware that although Shakespeare based his play on historical records, he has produced a work of creative art that inhabits its own world, so to speak, its own dimension. Just the same, because of the universal themes that we recognize, consciously or unconsciously, as analogous to our own lives, this faraway world becomes accessible and significant to us.

Themes are often supported by patterns of imagery, and in drama the term "image" can be taken beyond the mere limited denotations of metaphor, personification, and other rhetorical devices. A play is by nature a metaphor, a representation; the audience knows that the figures on the stage are actors, that when the performance is over they will go on with their individual lives. Consequently, even quite literal ingredients of a play can function as images, whether or not verbal description is involved. If an actor takes out a dagger onstage, the dagger is (within the metaphorical world of the play) a real one, not a verbal comparison; yet it can take part in a pattern of imagery, some of which is rhetorical and some of which is tangibly in view, and thus point to one or more of the play's themes.

Themes often overlap, or link up with one another. In Julius Caesar, for example, the same image (Calphurnia's dream, say, of Caesar's statue spouting blood) might support a theme of violence and destruction if viewed from one angle, or of omens and prophecies if viewed from another. Often, too, we can perceive a large-scale, overarching theme encompassing a number of other themes--subthemes so to speak. In Julius Caesar, the major theme of order versus disorder encompasses many of the

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Julius Caesar: A Guide to the Play
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Greenwood Guides to Shakespeare ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • ABBREVIATIONS OF CITED WORKS xi
  • 1 - Textual History 1
  • Notes 10
  • 2 - Contexts and Sources 11
  • Notes 26
  • 3 - Dramatic Structure 29
  • Notes 59
  • 4 - Themes 61
  • Notes 83
  • 5 - Critical Approaches 85
  • Notes 96
  • 6 - The Play in Performance 99
  • Notes 128
  • SELECTED ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY 133
  • Index 141
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