Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Garry Wills. Yale Univ, $25 (192p) ISBN 978-0-300-15218-0
Pulitzer Prize–winner Wills, who penetrated Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric in Lincoln at Gettysburg, now shows how the four major characters in Julius Caesar reveal Shakespeare’s uncanny, effortless, and intuitive mastery of Quintilian, Socrates, and other rhetorical stylists of the ancient world. Although Shakespeare draws from Plutarch—at third hand, from a French translation that was itself translated into English—his familiarity with the art of rhetoric gives playgoers a far more fleshed-out depiction of Roman life at its height than does his hypereducated rival, Ben Jonson. Along the way, Wills treats readers to many observations and speculations on the bread and butter of Shakespearean theatrical magic: for example, “the economy of Shakespeare’s casting practice” suggests that both major women characters in Julius Caesar were almost certainly played by a single boy actor, and how Caesar’s relatively few appearances in the play are in part explained by the same actor playing both Cicero and Caesar. Overall, this tour de force, based on a lecture series at Bard College, shows why our view of ancient Rome is very much Shakespeare’s. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 09/05/2011
Release date: 11/01/2011
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