A Note On Anachronisms In Julius Caesar

In writing historical plays Shakespeare was anxious to recreate the personages spirit of the age which was being portrayed and to bring to life the that played the leading roles at the time. In this he has been very successful. But he did not care to be accurate in painting the dresses, manners, customs and usages of the time. He makes them wear dresses which were worn by Englishmen of his own day. His ascribes to them customs which were then unknown and makes them refer to things which had not even been invented. These are the anachronisms in the play.

Thus Shakespeare makes his Caesar wear a doublet (I. ii. 262) which was a common dress with Elizabethan Englishmen but which was unknown in the days of Caesar. Casca and Brutus both appear “unbraced” (I. ii. 49 and II. i. 262), a thing which was unthinkable in Roman dress. The broad-brimmed hats (II. i. 73) came into vogue fifteen hundred years after the death of the conspirators who are supposed to have worn them. It was a practice in Shakespeare’s time for sick people to tie a kerchief about their necks. Shakespeare, therefore, makes Ligarius do the same thing (II. i. 315). Brutus seems to look centuries ahead when he speaks of the pocket of his gown (IV. iii. 253).

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Shakespeare does not care to find out the manners of Rome of that age but freely introduces Elizabethan customs in the Rome of his creation. When Portia speaks of that great “vow which did incorporate and make us one, she seems somewhat un-Roman, for her creator is thinking of the Elizabethan type of marriages. The Romans of the day used to burn their dead but Shakespeare speaks of the burial of Caesar and Brutus (III. ii. 76 and V. v. 77).

A clock strikes in Julius Caesar (II. i. 191) although clocks were invented several centuries later. The Romans in this play count the time as we do (V. iii. 109) although this was unknown in 44 B.C. A Roman poet would never have rhymed as Shakespeare does (IV. iii. 131). Nor were books with leaves that might be “turned down” employed by the Romans. There were no watchmen in Rome at this time and so when Shakespeare mentions “horrid sights seen by the watch” he was thinking of his own London watchment.

The reasons for these inaccuracies is not far to seek. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be staged and not to be read. And on the Elizabethan stage the actors always wore Elizabethan dresses whether the persons they were portraying belonged to Rome or to Illyris or to Milan and irrespective of the age which was being portrayed. What was the good of the dramatist bothering about the manners of the particular age when on the stage everything would be represented in the Elizabethan style?



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