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REVIEW
Ornstein, Robert. "Seneca and the Political Drama of
Julius Caesar," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 57 (1958), 51-56.


Thesis: Ornstein asks, "how can Brutus play the dominant role the political drama of Julius Caesar if, as critics have repeatedly said, his political principles are muddled and obscure?" (51). Ornstein goes on to describe the muddle of Brutus' reasoning, his use of his political principles "to escape from the realities of his relationship with Caesar and of the political situation in Rome" (53), then asks his key question: "Now is this ironic view of Brutus an invention of modern critics, too politically sophisticated for an Elizabethan to have conceived or grasped?" (54). Ornstein's answer to his own question is that this view of Brutus was readily available to Shakespeare and his audience via a well-known essay, De Beneficiis, by Seneca, a famous Roman philosopher and dramatist. Seneca, though he considered Brutus to be a great man, was astonished that he could believe that "'civil rights might still exist and laws maintain their rightful place there where he had seen so many thousands of men fighting to decide, not whether, but to which of the two masters, they would be slaves!'"(55). (Seneca is alluding to the war between Pompey and Caesar, which is the background of the opening scene of Julius Caesar.) Seneca also wrote that Brutus was "'forgetful . . . either of the law of nature or of the history of his own city, in supposing that, after one man had been murdered, no other would be found who would have the same aims'" (55). Ornstein concludes that "following Seneca's train of thought, Shakespeare realized that the essential drama of Brutus' role in the conspiracy lay not in a conflict of republican and monarchal theories but in a tragic disparity between naïve illusions and political realities" (56).

Bottom Line: Classical support for a common observation.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 22 June 2005
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