Caesar in Elsinore and Elsewhere: Topicality and Roman History

Laurie Johnson


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 Shakespeare’s play and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This essay investigates the capacity of such thematic correspondences and the Roman history on which they are based to constitute a field of relatively stable reference points onto which Shakespeare’s plays also pin topical correspondences. While topical readings have for the most part hinged on references to Elizabeth and James and the politics of the Court, I am interested in a play’s treatment of those figures or events that may strike closer to the home for both the players and their immediate audiences. If we look to the ways in which the historical narrative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty is referenced across Shakespeare's career, we can pinpoint topical references to a significant London figure with a distinctly Julio-Claudian name: the lawyer and public servant, Julius Caesar. The plays thus pass comment on contemporary figures by reconfiguring London personalities and their factions through the lens of Roman history.


Shakespeare, Heywood, topicality, Julius Caesar, Court of Requests

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