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The Body, the Soul and the Law in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

by Cameron Christie

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1

First published April 2020, Manchester



At its core, Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is about whether we should transgress the laws of democracy in order to preserve it. This response discusses the competitive relationship between concepts of the body, soul and law in the play and argues that their composition characterises differing aspects of Roman identity. Namely, the valuation of law over the body of Caesar by Brutus and his co-conspirators. My discussion relates this Roman political conflict to Shakespeare’s contemporary Elizabethan debate about whether a state’s religious authority should stem from monarchs or the population. Criticism of Shakespeare’s Roman plays from Coppélia Kahn is incorporated to illuminate the metaphorical significance applied to Brutus as a regulator of “true” Roman identity. Consequently, the validity of having a “true” national identity, and whether or not there is justification for enforcing it is explored with reference to the play’s genre of tragedy.


Shakespeare’s historical tragedy Julius Caesar differentiates itself from his other tragedies by its adherence to the Hegelian concept of tragedy as comprising of contradictory yet justifiable truths (see note 1). The potential threat Caesar’s increasing political power and ambition poses to the laws and values of Roman democracy constitutes an ideological conflict without an objective solution. By interpreting the role of Brutus within the text and relating it to Elizabethan political discourse, it is the purpose of this response to argue that Shakespeare constructs a competitive relationship between the body, soul and law as components of Roman identity. The nature of this relationship in the text exposes Elizabethan concerns about sources of political and religious authority and relates it to the concept, of the body politic. Shakespeare’s construction of the body, soul and law as competitive components of the self is mirrored by critic Mark Rose’s claim about sources of religious authority;

Perhaps the reformers’ claim to an authority derived not from the crown but from God and the congregations of the faithful led Shakespeare to conceive an analogy between the ancient tribunes and the Puritan preachers of his day (see note 2).

There is considerable evidence to support the existence of such an `analogy’. After the Northern Rebellion of 1569, Queen Elizabeth appropriated the Catholic holiday dedicated to St Hugh to celebrate her Accession Day – the 17th of November. Roy Strong writes, `the accession day festivities were the adaptation of an old Catholic festival to the ethos of Protestantism' (see note 3). However, this adaptation was met with great criticism. Puritan Robert Wright felt the use of a holy day to celebrate a living monarch went too far in suggesting ecclesiastical authority derived from the monarch and was imprisoned for his views (see note 4). A similar frustration at the religious veneration of a ruler is ostensible in Flavius’ lines during Act 1 of Julius Caesar:

It is no matter. Let no images 
Be hung with Caesar’s trophies…

These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch, 
Who else would soar above the view of men,
And keep us all in servile fearfulness

Flavius expresses an anxiety, similar to Wright’s, about the growing influence of a ruler by objecting to their religious idolisation. In Flavius’ case, the religious `feast of Lupercal’ (I. 1 .67) is appropriated by Caesar’s followers, `to rejoice in his triumph.’(I. 1 .31) (Strong writes that Accession Day, `became a feast day of the established Church.’ [see note 5]) Flavius’ language produces Caesar as a bird of prey who would `keep us all in servile fearfulness’, and thus undermine the manly virtues of Roman democracy that rely on equal representation for men. The `trophies’ and `images’ signifying his reverence are related to his `growing feathers’, an indication of his increasing power. This conflict between Caesar’s metaphorical body and the laws of Roman democracy is reinforced by imagery juxtaposing Caesar’s animalistic `feathers’ with the `view of men,’ that he `soar[s] above’. By nature of this conflict, Caesar’s increasing political power is portrayed by Flavius as undermining Roman democracy. Such criticism of Caesar’s religious reverence echoes the Puritan belief that religious authority originates from a social body and not a dictator. Consequently, the existence of Shakespeare’s analogy reflects how concerns surrounding the legitimacy of Caesar’s authority in relation to Roman values is manifest in the relationship constructed between body, soul and law as components of Roman identity. In extension, such a competition is apparent in the composition of Brutus’ Roman identity. His valuation of the idea of Rome over his love for Caesar nuances our understanding of the body, soul and law as conflicting components of Roman identity in the play. Roman law functions as a regulating principle that governs the actions and beliefs of Brutus, in other words his body and soul. In justifying the assassination, Brutus declares, `not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more' (III. 2 .21-21). The parataxis juxtaposes the value of Roman democracy against Brutus’ friendship with Caesar, who represents a threat to the status quo of Rome. In other words, the law of Rome is held more important by Brutus than the body of Caesar. In agreement with this notion, Coppélia Kahn writes, `[i]t is the mythos of the republic that impels Brutus to lead the conspiracy against Caesar, that compels the conspirators’ belief in their cause’ (see note 6). Kahn’s verb choice demonstrates her designation of Brutus as the embodiment of the principles of Rome. ‘Impels’ has the impression of an internal drive, whilst `compels’ carries the implication of coercion. Consequently, Kahn suggests Brutus represents the `mythos of the republic’ more closely than other conspirators. Considering this in relation to the conflict between body, soul and law, it is indicated that, for Brutus, Roman law takes priority over the body in forming his identity as a Roman citizen. This is supported by Mark Antony’s judgement of Brutus after his suicide, ‘[t]his was the noblest Roman of them all’ (V. 5. 69). Clearly, a strong national identity is respected by Roman citizens as it transcends difference of opinion. Brutus and Mark Antony were on opposing sides during the Battle of Phillipi yet Antony venerates his former enemy. The vehement loyalty of Brutus to the values and laws of Rome thus indicate its regulating function on his body and actions, suggesting that they are components of his identity.

The fact that law is not the only governing influence on Brutus’ actions furthers this suggestion. His Roman identity is also configured from the conception of his soul as representing immaterial perceptions of the self. Brutus defends Roman law by killing Caesar but is plagued by guilt declaring, `the ghost of Caesar hath appeared to me’ (V. 5. 19). The spirit, or soul, of Caesar after his death represented by his `ghost’ haunts Brutus’ conscience. In this case, the soul regulates the body as a component of Roman identity. Brutus sacrifices his body to ensure that he `shall have glory by this losing day’(V. 5. 36). Such an act succeeds in preserving his legacy, cementing his reputation as `the noblest Roman of them all.’ (V. 5. 69) It is fitting, then, that Caius Ligarius refers to Brutus as the ‘Soul of Rome’ upon hearing about his intention to preserve Rome’s honour (II. 1. 322). This suggests that Brutus, as the architect of the conspiracy to protect Roman laws and values by assassinating Caesar, is a physical embodiment of Rome’s regulator - the soul of the republic, who eliminates threats to the values of Roman identity. Pierre de la Primaudaye’s assertion in the 1586 The French Academie enhances this interpretation;

The Lawe is in the citie, as the spirite is in the body. For as the body without the spirite vndoubtedly perisheth: in like maner euery citie & Commnwealth that hath no law, falleth into ruine and perdition. Therefore Cicero calleth lawes the soules of Common-wealths (see note 7).

Primaudaye, and Cicero before him, highlights the parallel between `lawe’ and `spirite’ as essences of public and individual bodies respectively. He holds the view that without these essences, the body will, `vndoubtedly perisheth’. This echoes Thomas More’s claim, `a kingdom in all its parts is like a man’ (see note 8). Both More and Primaudaye proffer the existence of a body politic; a political concept widely referred to in Elizabethan England. For example, Queen Elizabeth I’s 1559 Accession speech differentiates between her `body natural’ and her role at the head of the `body politic' (see note 9). The political theory situated monarchs as the head of a society with their subjects as the body in an interdependent relationship. Its influence on politics today is ostensible in common use of the term “head of state” to describe leaders of national governments. Prophetically, Shakespeare’s adherence to this principle is evident in his loyalty to the source material: Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. North’s translation mentions Brutus’, `ancestor Junius Brutus, [who] drave the kings out of Rome’ (see note 10). Through North, Plutarch’s reference to the involvement of Brutus’ ancestor in driving out the tyranny of the Tarquin dynasty and birthing the Roman republic reflects how the protection of Rome’s political system against potential tyranny contributes to Brutus’ identity as a Roman citizen. Shakespeare borrows the verb `drave’ from North’s translation in Brutus’ soliloquy contemplating the conspiracy;

Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was called a king. (II. 1. 52-54)

Here, Brutus’ awareness of his family history feeds into a sense of responsibility to protect Rome from tyranny. Prepositionally, Rome standing `under one man’s awe’ echoes Flavius earlier image of Caesar, `soar[ing] above the view of men’, emphasising the obligation Brutus feels to check the hubristically increasing power of Caesar. Brutus’ rhetorical questioning of Rome’s susceptibility to the `awe’ of Caesar strengthens his identification with the republic’s values because the proxemics of the scene dictate that Brutus stands on his own during these lines. Brutus’ death after the enactment of this responsibility aligns his role as the `Soul of Rome’ with Primaudaye’s concept. In direct opposition to the aims of the conspiracy, to preserve Roman democracy, the assassination of Caesar leads to the end of the Roman Republic and the subsequent birth of the Roman Empire with Caesar’s adopted son Octavius, later known as Augustus, as Emperor. It is then intimated that Brutus’ death, as the metaphorical soul of Rome’s democratic body politic, results in the death of the body of democratic Roman law. Therefore, Shakespeare’s representation of the soul in Julius Caesar as a component of Roman identity and essential to its preservation, mirrors Primadauye’s claim that laws serve the same function in relation to `Common-wealths.’ Evidently, Brutus operates as the bridge between these parallel concepts, functioning as both an individual Roman citizen and the soul of Roman democracy. Yet the fact that Brutus’ values and actions fail in preserving Roman democracy highlights how concepts of body, soul and law are at conflict in the composition of Roman identity.

Shakespeare’s construction of the body, soul and law as competing components of Roman identity gestures to the contemporary political debate surrounding sources of authority in an act of profound mimesis. In doing so, he demonstrates that the debates surrounding the correlation of increasing political power with tyranny were not exclusive to his society. In favour of taking a stance on the debate, Shakespeare produces a balanced dichotomy between the contradictory yet justifiable values of democracy and authoritarianism. He relates the functions of the soul, as the immaterial perception of the self, to that of the law as regulating components on individual and political bodies. The alignment of his protagonist with such a function exemplifies the conflict, and by configuring his play through the genre of tragedy, Shakespeare suggests that transgressing the values of an ideology in order to preserve it can be fatal.



1: William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. by Arthur Humphreys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) Further references to this text will be made following the quotations in the body of the essay.

2: Mark Rose, ‘Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony. History, and Authority in 1599’, English Literary Renaissance, 19.3, (1989), 291-304 (292)

3: Roy C. Strong, ‘The Popular Celebration of the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 21.1/2, (1958), 86-103 (88)

4: James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber and Faber, 2005) p.166

5: Strong, p.94.

6: Coppélia Kahn, ‘Mettle and Melting Spirits in Julius Caesar’, in Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, wounds and women (London: Routledge, 1997), p.77.

7: Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French Academie, 1586.

8: Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, ed. by Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p.141.

9: Queen Elizabeth I, Accession Speech, 1558.

10: Sir Thomas North, 'The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579)', p.110; William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. by Arthur Humphreys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p.235.

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