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Velz, John W. "Clemency, Will, and Just Cause in
'Julius Caesar'." Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 109-118.

Thesis: Vlez's topic is whether Shakespeare's audience would have seen Caesar as a kind king or a willful tyrant. Velz's starting point is a long-standing controvery about what Caesar says shortly before he is stabbed to death.

Ben Jonson, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, wrote that many times Shakespeare "fell into those things could not escape laughter." As an example, Jonson cited some lines in Julius Caesar in which Caesar answers the protest "Caesar, thou dost me wrong" by saying, "Caesar did never wrong but with just cause." Jonson called Caesar's reply "ridiculous." However, in the text as we have it, no one says, "Caesar, thou dost me wrong." Caesar says—at the end of a longish speech about how he cannot be moved by flattery—"Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause / Will he be satisfied."

Velz asserts that if Shakespeare did write the lines which Jonson attributed to him, "we might have a clue to the difference between Caesar as he is seen and Caesar as he sees himself" (111). Drawing on the thought various influential Roman and Renaissance writers, Velz explains how Caesar could have thought of himself as a king who was cruel only to be kind, one who did "wrong" only to those who would destroy the state. On the other hand, Caesar could be easily seen as perfectly fitting the definition of a tyrant, one who comes to power in an illegitmate way and who exercises power solely according to his own will.

Velz's conclusion is that "there can be no resolution of the inconsistencies, that this is a problem play in which the conspirators and their victim both are tainted—that, like the great tragedies which follow in the cannon, Julius Caesar is rooted in moral ambiguity" (114).

Bottom Line: Another route to a common conclusion.

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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 10 August 2005
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