Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: John D. Cox
Not Peer Reviewed

Plutarch: Introduction


Plutarch's Lives: Introduction

1At some point in the 1590s, Shakespeare discovered Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which had been published in 1579. The book transformed Shakespeare's conception of ancient Rome, as we can tell by comparing his early play, Titus Andronicus, with the three plays about Rome that he wrote after reading Plutarch: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Written under the twin influences of the young Shakespeare's awe-inspiring contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, and the ancient Roman playwright, Seneca, Titus Andronicus has no clear historical source and a vague sense of ancient Rome. The plays Shakespeare wrote after reading Plutarch are altogether different. As noted in the Introduction [link to be added], Shakespeare did not follow his newly discovered source slavishly, but he paid attention to Plutarch's selection and arrangement of events, to the general assessment of those Plutarch wrote about, and to particular points in Plutarch's description of character.

2Reading North's translation today has the advantage of allowing one to read the same words Shakespeare did, even though North's spelling, punctuation, syntax, and vocabulary are sometimes difficult. (Spelling and punctuation are modernized in this edition, and notes are designed to reduce some of the difficulties in syntax and vocabulary.) Shakespeare would not have found North's prose as challenging as we do, and he was sometimes so impressed with it that it comes through directly in his own writing. At the same time, it is fair to say that Shakespeare's way of imagining events is a good deal clearer than North's, and Shakespeare selection, invention, and rearrangement of events heightens suspense, creates symmetry and thematic richness in the action, and renders character even more thoughtfully and more evocatively than his source.

3As noted in the introduction to this edition, Shakespeare paid considerable attention to the ideas his characters hold in Julius Caesar, especially stoicism, Epicureanism, and skepticism. Stoicism was the most familiar philosophy in Elizabethan England; it had not only been adapted to Christian theology in various ways since the time of the late Roman Empire but had also enjoyed a recent resurgence in its own right in European royal courts, including Elizabeth's. Shakespeare would have encountered stoicism as a distinct body of beliefs from reading Cicero's De officiis in school. Cassius twice refers to "philosophy" with the clear intention of meaning stoicism (TLN 2132, 2442), and his first reference identifies stoicism as Brutus's philosophy in particular: "Of your philosophy you make no use / If you give place to accidental evils." As for skepticism, Shakespeare may well have read Cicero's Academica as well, which was a principal source of skepticism for Elizabethans as well as for the ancients (St. Augustine knew it, for example). Cicero himself appears very briefly in Julius Caesar, and his comments about the storm that breaks on the night before Caesar's assassination seem designed to emphasize his skepticism, as the notes to this edition make clear.

4Epicureanism would have been less familiar to Shakespeare. We have no evidence that he knew Lucretius' De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the most important extant classical treatment of Epicureanism, and we cannot be sure that he knew Montaigne's Essays by 1599, from which he could have picked up a good portion of Lucretius' philosophical poem, because Montaigne quotes it liberally, though not always distinctively, i.e., as a separate body of ideas (as in the accompanying essay in this edition, "That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die"). Still, Shakespeare mentions in Julius Caesar that Cassius is an Epicurean (TLN 2416-17), and his authority is Plutarch. After Brutus sees an apparition at Sardis, Plutarch says that Cassius interpreted it skeptically, "being in opinion an Epicurean." Plutarch's extensive quotation by Cassius would have been enough in itself to give Shakespeare the gist of Epicureanism, even if he had no other source, and he seems to have made Cassius think consistently in his way, as the notes to this edition indicate. In brief, Epicureans were materialists, insisting that nothing exists except what the senses apprehend. The soul is therefore inseparable from the body, and the gods (if they exist at all) have no interest or concern with human beings. The gist of Cassius' comment about the spirit that Brutus has seen is therefore that it was probably a hallucination. For reasons of his own, Shakespeare in effect makes Brutus and Cassius trade philosophical places: Cassius comes to doubt his own Epicureanism, and Brutus's first response to the spirit he sees is that it must be a figment of his overtired imagination (TLN 2289-90).

5In this abbreviated edition of three of Plutarch's Lives, sections are numbered as they are in North's translations. The italicized summaries in square brackets are marginal glosses in North's edition.