Honourable Men:

Militancy and Masculinity in Julius Caesar



 . . . the principall and true profession of a Courtier ought to bee in feates of armes.

(Baldassaro Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 35)

  1. No explicit ideology of masculinity in early modern England circulated so pervasively as the need to demonstrate and maintain a reputation for valour, whether it was on the battlefield or in private quarrels. Valour paradoxically was an absolute that a man either had or not, while also being quantifiable when a man compared his valour to another's. It was not just the key to being a man, it was also a principal means of differentiating men. 1 William Segar, in his 1602 anatomy of honour, is typical in using courage to explain the origin of social hierarchy:

    Who so desireth to knowe the originall name and dignitie of Knighthood, it behooveth him to be enformed, that the Romanes, among whome Martiall discipline was first esteemed, and titles given to men for valourous merit, divided their people into Patritii and Plebaei (Segar 1602, 51).

    Thomas Trussell's The Soldier Pleading His Owne Cause says of nobles: 'Their honour that they so much glory in, and are so much lifted up with-all, whence had it beginning, or how did their Ancestors attaine unto it? Even by the exercise of Armes, the most honorable titles being bestowed upon the most deserving' (Trussell 1619, 28). Following this Roman and early modern ethical system, Julius Caesar's Brutus establishes his social position when he says: 'My ancestors did from the streets of Rome/ The Tarquin drive, when he was called a king' (II.i.53-54). 2

  2. Taking this justification for degree to its end, many early modern writers argued that the monarch, as the head of the nobility, should be exceptionally skilful in arms. Thomas Elyot, for instance, defends absolute monarchy primarily because central leadership is needed in war. Like Segar and Trussell, he uses Roman history to support his contention: 'Surely when there was any difficult war imminent, then were they constrained to elect one sovereign and chief of all other, whom they named Dictator, as it were commander, from whom it was not lawful for any man to appeal' (Elyot 1962, 10). In another text largely supported by Roman practices, Machiavelli's The Arte of Warre, princes are generally lauded for fighting alongside their men (Machiavelli 1560, Dd4). Machiavelli makes an even bolder assertion in The Prince: 'A prince . . .  should have no other object, no other thought, no other subject of study, than war, its rules and disciplines; this is the only art for a man who commands . . . ' (Machiavelli 1992, 40). Contemporary ideologies of masculinity, making valour a defining characteristic of powerful rulers, struggled to accommodate a conflict-shy leader. Yet such accommodation was achieved in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, neither of whom entered war lightly.


  3. That Elizabeth I, the theoretical head of armed forces, was unable to lead a fighting army was problematic for the queen from the beginning of her reign. John Knox, the vitriolic author of The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, suggests that a female monarch would necessarily strip Englishmen of their valour: ' . . . albeit the owtwarde form of men remained, yet shuld they judge that their hartes were changed frome the wisdome, understanding, and courage of men, to the foolishe fondnes and cowardise of women' (Knox 1895, 13). Even John Aylmer's 1559 defence of Elizabeth's rule concedes throughout that the military power of England is lessened by a female head of state. Aylmer counters this objection to female rule, however, by suggesting that God especially protects the weak:

    Placeth [God] a woman weake in nature, feable in bodie, softe in courage, unskilfull in practise, not terrible to the enemy, no Shilde to the frynde, wel, Virtus mea (saith he) In infirmitate pficitur [sic]. My strengthe is most perfight when you be moste weake, if he joyne to his strengthe: she can not be weake (Aylmer 1559, B2v-B3).

    Aylmer argues that a female monarch is a lesser head, but should be respected as God's choice: ' . . . whosoever rule, man or chyld, male or female, God must be our shilde, fortresse, and bulwarke: Let us do our dutie bi trusting him, and he wyl do his, by helpying us . . . ' (Aylmer 1559, M1v). Both early defences of and attacks on female monarchs take women's lack of military prowess as a given, and, in the case of Aylmer, it is a central anxiety.

  4. This anxiety shapes some of the wartime rhetoric of Elizabeth, who, like Aylmer, repeatedly suggested that God supplements her weakness. In 1593, fearing a second Armada, Elizabeth opened Parliament by proclaiming:

    For mine own part I protest I never feared and what fear was my heart never knew. For I knew that my cause was ever just and it standeth upon a sure foundation—that I should not fail, God assisting the quarrel of the righteous, and such as are but to defend (Perry 1990, 296).

    Elizabeth's prayer given at the Thanksgiving Service, after the Armada failed, more strongly suggests that God will supplement her military deficiency: 'I . . .  do tender my humblest acknowledgements and lowest thanks. And not least for that the weakest Sex hath been so fortified by the strongest help, that neither my people need find lack by my weakness nor foreigners triumph at my ruin' (Perry 1990, 290-91). Elizabeth, aware of her position as a 'weak' military leader, cleverly augmented it by representing herself as a figure of God's will.

  5. Elizabeth also coped with military weakness by fashioning a valiant image, most famously by appearing at Tilbury before the Spanish invasion. 3 Elizabeth arrived on a white steed, wearing a silver cuirass. In a speech she may or may not have delivered, 4 she proclaims:

    I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport; but being resolved in the midst of the heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for my God and for my Kingdom and for my people my honor and my blood even in the dust (Elizabeth 1951, 96).

    Elizabeth attempted here to forge a reputation for just courage, yet reading too much bravery into this appearance is a mistake. Belying her intentions, Elizabeth retired to safety before the Spanish arrived. 5 Elizabeth may have spoken bravely at Tilbury: 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,' but must concede, 'In the meantime, my lieutenant-general shall be in my stead . . . ' (Elizabeth 1951, 96). Yet there can be little significance attached to whether Elizabeth was courageous or not. What is significant is that she tried to appear courageous. Aware of the necessity of working within monarchical tradition, Elizabeth fashioned herself as a brave king.

  6. Many of Elizabeth's contemporaries, in fact, accepted Elizabeth's constructed bravery. James Aske in 1588 describes Elizabeth's entry at Tilbury as if she personified courage. She was:

    Not like to those who coutch on stately Doune,
    But like to Mars, the God of fearfull warre.
    And heaving oft to Skies her war-like hands,
    Did make her selfe Bellona-like renown'd (Aske 1588, 18).

    This fashioning obviously counters the fact that Elizabeth did not fight or lead her troops, but shows how her posturing could be effective. By simply appearing at Tilbury, Elizabeth provided sufficient material to publicise the idea of a courageous queen. 6

  7. This publicity could be persuasive only to a certain extent, however, and had little effect on many of the glory-seeking men at court. For these men, Elizabeth's sex was a barrier to their loyalty. The French ambassador, André Hurault, Sieur de Maisse, noted that: 'Her government is fairly pleasing to the people, who show that they love her, but it is little pleasing to the great men and the nobles; and if by chance she should die, it is certain that the English would never again submit to the rule of a woman' (Hurault 1931, 11-12). More explicitly linking femininity and peace, Fulke Greville justified Elizabeth's anti-war stance because she 'resolved to keep within the decorum of her sex' (Greville 1986, 47). Although Greville probably mistook Elizabeth's motivation, her prudence was seen as effeminate, and her anti-war efforts caused tensions, because many advisers supported a more aggressive military stance.

  8. In no other literary work are these tensions as apparent as in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, especially in Books Two and Three. In Book Two Spenser traces Elizabeth's lineage through the prophecy of Merlin. The most telling feature of Spenser's mythico-historic genealogy is the militarism of its members. Elizabeth is: ' . . . descended farre / From mightie kings and conquerors in warre . . . ' (Spenser 1916, II.x.4). The few female rulers he lists, including Guendolene and Bonduca, are also especially noted for their valour (cf. II.x.18 and II.x.54). 7 An overt militarism is disclosed in the insistence that Elizabeth has a propensity for aggression in her blood.

  9. In Book Three, 'Of Chastity', Spenser continues his contextualisation of Elizabeth by refiguring women as the Golden Age's most valiant sex:

     . . . by the record of antique times I find,
    That women wont in warres to beare most sway,
    And to all great exploits them selves inclind:
    Of which they still the girlond bore away,
    Till envious Men fearing their rules decay,
    Gan coyne streight lawes to curb their liberty (III.ii.2).

    By refashioning history and Elizabeth's personal and political heritage, Spenser creates the possibility of a warmongering Queen.

  10. Once this possibility opens, he tells Elizabeth: 'Be thou faire Britomart' (III.ii.3). Britomart is Spenser's cross-dressing female knight, especially noted for her valour. She gives her life's philosophy thus:

    All my delight on deedes of armes is set,
    To hunt out perils and adventures hard,
    By sea, by land, where so they may be met,
    Onely for honour and for high regard,
    Without respect of richesse or reward (III.ii.7).

    Thus, when Spenser says 'Be thou . . .  Britomart' he clearly wants Elizabeth to pursue, or at least direct England to 'deedes of armes'. 8 Later in the same Book, Spenser as narrator laments women's lost bellicosity:

    Where is the Antique glory now become,
    That whilome wont in women to appeare?
    Where be the brave atchievements doen by some?
    Where be the battels, where the shield and speare,
    And all the conquests, which them high did reare,
    That matter made for famous Poets verse,
    And boastfull men so oft abasht to heare?
    Bene they all dead, and laid in dolefull herse?
    Or doen they onely sleepe, and shall againe reverse? (III.iv.1).

    Spenser tries to shame contemporary women for their cowardice, and Elizabeth, as leading woman in England and responsible for military affairs, is unavoidably implicated. Spenser later directs similar criticism to the nobility's insufficient militarism, when he presents the Amazon region (conflating ancient myth and newly discovered geographic reality) as held by female warriors:

    Joy on those warlike women, which so long
    Can from all men so rich a kingdome hold;
    And shame on you, O men, which boast your strong
    And valiant hearts, in thoughts lesse hard and bold,
    Yet quaile in conquest of that land of gold (IV.ix.22).

    By slating modern men and women for insufficient aggression, Spenser advocates a martial policy which, he suggests, England and its leader lack. 9


  11. Before and after the publication of The Faerie Queene, Elizabeth was thought by some to be reluctant to pursue a militant foreign policy. Martial-minded men, like Spenser, responded to the lack of opportunity by pressuring Elizabeth, through literary or other means, to make war. Courtiers had highly political reasons for exerting such pressure. War was not simply a favourite aristocratic pastime; military success was a way courtiers could guarantee a rise at court. 10 Even the queen had difficulty denying honours to a victorious army; hence the Earl of Essex got away with his prodigal knightings at Cadiz. Conversely, by restricting military achievement, Elizabeth could distribute honour according to her standards of personal service. She decided who gained titles, government positions, and money (especially through monopolies). She even, though fairly unsuccessfully, controlled who married whom. Without their traditional outlet of military achievement, where success allowed some autonomy in gaining honour, aristocrats were wholly dependent upon Elizabeth. The queen, suppressing the military route to favour, thus tightened her position as the sole source of honour (cf. Stone 1965, 200ff).

  12. Further tensions arose because Elizabeth was notoriously stingy with honour. Fulke Greville, giving a brief tribute to her reign, writes ' . . . she made merit precious, honour dainty and her grants passing rare . . . ' (Greville 1986, 112). This situation was particularly problematic, because, as Richard Barckley puts it: ' . . . men given to vertue, take it as a great offence & disgrace, when there is no respect had of their merites' (Barckley 1598, 519). Earlier I noted Knox's belief that a female monarch would effeminise her underlings simply because of her femaleness. But the actual effeminisation of courtiers was a product of the progressive royal monopoly of power, especially the power to fight.

  13. The English nobility fought hard against this reduction of their power. Like the courtiers in All's Well that Ends Well, English noblemen wanted to fight in wars whether England was directly involved or not (I.ii.13-17). Francis Bacon supports such a desire in his essay, 'Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates'. He writes: 'No body can be healthful without exercise, neither natural body nor politic: and certainly to a kingdom or estate, a just and honourable war is the true exercise . . . for in a slothful peace, both courages will effeminate and manners corrupt' (Bacon 1985, 153). Thomas Churchyard spoke for many by saying: ' . . . no great fame is found where is no war' (Churchyard 1596, C3). War was needed to sustain male honour. Acting upon such ideology, militant Elizabethan courtiers frequently violated the law and monarch's will by duelling or advocating war, willing to do almost anything, including sedition, to gain Churchyard's 'great fame'.

  14. The Earl of Essex is a well rehearsed case in point, but it is worth recalling how his fall relates directly to his desire for military glory. This started as early as 1588, when the queen awarded Charles Blount a golden chessman for winning at the tilts. Essex insulted Blount and elicited a challenge, because he thought that the queen's judgement of military matters was dubious. Blount wounded Essex in the thigh, and the queen banished both from court until they became tractable (Williams 1972, 311-12). Ten years later, Essex provoked Elizabeth's ire by advocating war with Spain in a published letter to Anthony Bacon:

    But if I allow our peacemakers their assurance of peace, let me see what is their purchase, if they can make any peace with Spaine good for us, it must be by including our confederates in the low countries, or excluding them, but I suspect neyther of these can be good or safe for us, therfore I judge they can make no good peace at all (Essex 1603, C2).

    Essex's inappropriate behaviour, such as the circulation of this letter, finally grew into rebellion. He justified his various disobediences by protesting that military skill did not carry sufficient weight at court. He says in his defence: 'I know great scandal lieth upon the profession of Armes, as if it were a schole of dissolutenesse: but that groweth by cómandemét & charg given to dissolute chiefs, & it is a fault of the professors not of the profession' (1603, B3). It is no exaggeration to say that all of Essex's sedition related to his desire for military honour (cf. James 1986, 416).

  15. Essex may be an extreme example, but he did not hold his militaristic views alone. Walter Raleigh, for instance, writes after the Queen's death:

    If the late Queen would have believed her men of war as she did her scribes, we had in her time beaten that great empire in pieces and made their kings kings of figs and oranges as in old times. But her Majesty did all by halves and by petty invasions taught the Spaniard how to defend himself . . .  (quoted in Johnson 1974, 325).

    Reflecting the popularity of this ideology, Hubert Languet describes the English nobility's excessive interest in killing: ' . . . most men of high birth are possessed with this madness, that they long after a reputation founded on bloodshed, and believe that there is no glory for them except that which is connected with the destruction of mankind' (Sidney 1845, 147). Despite the prevalent desire for violence, however, Englishmen had less opportunity for fighting in international conflict than ever. Due to its infrequent use, military skill was being devalued in Elizabeth's court.

  16. Further cause of tension came because not all of the nobility was advocating war. A powerful anti-military faction, led by the Cecils, countered the war party in the late 1590s. Their lack of interest in war is represented by William Cecil advising his son not to bother teaching children to be soldiers:

    Neyther by my advise shall you traine them up to warres: For . . .  it is a science no lôger in request then use: for Souldyers in Peace, are like Chimneyes in Summer, like Dogges past Hunting, or Women, when their beautie is done (Cecil 1617, 9-10).

    Barnaby Riche, in 1581, gives similar council:

    And, my good companions and fellow soldiers, if you will follow mine advice, lay aside your weapons, hang up your armor by the walls and learn an other while, for your better advancements, to piper, to fiddle, to sing, to dance, to lie, to forge, to flatter, to carry tales, to set ruff or to do anything that your appetites best serve unto, and that is better fitting for the time (Riche 1992, 130).

    Central to Cecil and Riche's opposition to military service is its lack of reward. The desires of the militant, no matter how traditionally linked to nobility, were proving unfruitful.


  17. Tensions emanating from the female monarch and conflicts between war and peace factions proliferated in the 1590s. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, written and performed in 1599, reflects and comments upon these tensions. A focus on valour, seemingly a defining factor of Roman virtus, is situated within a political context that is more Elizabethan than akin to Plutarch's Rome. From the opening scene of the play, valour is connected to Roman manliness, and all of the major characters shape their actions to fit the courageous ideal. The strongest suggestion that valour is the signifier of manliness in Julius Caesar's Rome comes, ironically, from Portia, who tries to gain Brutus' ear by dispelling her femininity:

    I grant I am a woman; but withal
    A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
    I grant I am a woman; but withal
    A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
    Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
    Being so fathered and so husbanded? (II.i.292-98).

    To demonstrate her divorce from 'femininity', she stabs herself in the thigh (II.i.300-2). Portia shows that valour for its own sake is a central feature of the play's Romanitas and the most important trait to present to fellows.

  18. Despite the importance of demonstrating fortitude, however, Julius Caesar's relation to valour extends beyond a simple formula of mettle proving merit. Caesar, as military conqueror, gets considerable glory, as the opening triumphal procession reveals, yet this glory is more complex than it immediately appears. Alongside the common cheers, the tribune Marullus attacks the plebeians' celebration of Caesar's victory: 'Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? / What tributaries follow him to Rome, / To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?' (I.i.32-34). Caesar's valour, so impressive to the plebeians, is subject to alternative representation. Valour is in a dangerous predicament in Rome: mirroring its place in Elizabeth's court, its status as a virtue is subject to (potentially devaluing) interpretation. 11 The valiant cannot simply prove their worth by spilling blood. The personalities involved take greater importance. The variability of interpreting exactly what constitutes valour – depending largely on the personalities of killer and killed – makes demonstrating courage doubly hazardous. Brutus and Cassius attempt this hazard, using Rome's affection for valour to assist their 'honourable-dangerous' levelling of Rome. Their success in the act of valour, however, is subsumed by their failure to justify it afterwards.


  19. Julius Caesar's situation within early modern ethics of valour emerges most conspicuously in the representation of Caesar, whose ability to rule is contingent upon his ability to fight. Seemingly aware of this, Caesar fashions himself as a courageous ruler. After his seizure reveals signs of weakness, he re-stages his valour by opening ' . . . his doublet and offer[ing] them his throat to cut' (I.ii.263). He later proclaims:

    Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear . . .  (II.ii.32-35).

    And it is fear of being thought fearful which gets Caesar to visit the fatal Senate. Decius' winning argument is: 'If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper / "Lo, Caesar is afraid"?' (II.ii.100-1). Caesar and the conspirators recognise that valour is the emblem of his leadership, and attempt to enhance or distort that emblem to suit their political needs. This obsession with valour and its absence recalls the same concern with the militant faction of Elizabeth's court.

  20. As some of Elizabeth's courtiers positioned her as a valiant ruler, many of the play's critics believe that Shakespeare's Caesar is a strong military figure. James Emerson Phillips writes: 'As a military leader Caesar brings victory abroad and peace at home, enriching the state with ransoms from his captives and reducing to ordered tranquillity the civil strife in Rome' (Phillips 1940, 178). Gail Kern Paster argues that Caesar destroys the possibility of Romanitas in others by fulfilling its dictates so supremely (Paster 1985, 86). Critical history has tended to agree with Roman history and puts Caesar's military virility 'beyond question' (MacCallum 1910, 221).

  21. Despite these views, Shakespeare altered centuries of mythology to deflate Caesar's reputation. The play's most important source, Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, positions Caesar as the best military hero in history:

    For whosoever would compare the house of the Fabians, of the Scipioes, of the Metellians, yea those also of his owne time, or long before him, as Sylla, Marius, the two Lucullians, and Pompey selfe . . .  it will appeare that Caesars prowes and deedes of armes, did excell them all together (Bullough 1964, 65).

    Montaigne has similar praise: ' . . . for truly he ought to be the Breviary of all true Souldiers, as being the absolute and perfect chief patterne of Military profession' (Montaigne, 2.464). Yet Shakespeare invents Cassius' defamations, Caesar's infertility, and his deafness. Furthermore, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, there seems to be little explanation for Caesar's obviously pre-eminent position in Rome, because his military history is occluded. An audience may know that Caesar's historic military prowess led to his rise, but the play undermines notions of Caesar as soldier. Jacqueline Pearson rightly calls Caesar 'the decayed hero' (Pearson 1984, 168). Although Caesar would undoubtedly be effeminised by the assassination, because, as William Ian Miller points out, 'A male victim is a feminized male' (Miller 1993, 55), the play takes pains to highlight his weakness before death. Julius Caesar represents a decrepit Caesar, who is no longer virile, and by the conspirators' reasoning, no longer qualified to rule.

  22. But Caesar does, in fact, rule, and his effeminacy causes a crisis of valour and honour. For both Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's Rome, honour is the reward of virtue, valour is the chiefest virtue, and ruling is the highest honour. These maxims do not hold, however, when the non-valiant secure the highest status. The easiest way for a ruler to deal with this disruption of social order is to decrease valour's importance or link with virtue. As I have shown, Elizabeth used this tactic while also attempting to represent herself as valiant. Shakespeare's Caesar, however, is not so prudent; instead, he simply affects unqualified valour and, when he fails to live up to it, subjects himself to the daggers of his underlings.

  23. Elizabeth's nobles desired valour, above their monarch, as the self-enacted determinant of their honour. A similar ideology emerges in Julius Caesar's Rome. Brutus, as chief conspirator, is a case in point. Although he only slowly realises his growing political displacement, it soon provides his chief motivation. Early in the play he asserts his ability to secure reputation on his own terms when he says:

    If it be aught toward the general good,
    Set honour in one eye, and death i'th' other,
    And I will look on both indifferently;
    For let the gods so speed me as I love
    The name of honour more than I fear death (I.ii.85-89).

    Brutus hopes to choose honour and/or death. However, since Caesar has control of honour – and we know that 'When Caesar says "Do this", it is performed' (I.ii.10) – then Brutus' autonomy is a delusion based upon the equation of bravery with glory.

  24. Later, in the soliloquy notorious for its confused reasoning (II.i.10-34), Brutus' thoughts centre on virtue not receiving its due reward. He worries that Caesar 'disjoins / Remorse from power' or, even worse, 'unto the ladder turns his back, / Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees / By which he did ascend' (II.i.18-19, 25-27). Brutus fears that Caesar will not justly reward the aristocrats of Rome, which discloses his motivation, if we can discover any in the muddled reasoning, as based upon fear of losing self-determined status. Cassius' seduction technique, dropping flattering letters at significant landmarks and saying: 'honour is the subject of my story' (I.ii.92), is also based on the assumption that Brutus desires greatness in the eyes of Rome.

  25. Like Brutus, but more forthrightly, Cassius does not want his position to fall below another's. Cassius tries to secure his place by shaping, to his advantage, political standing as physical strength. First he recounts Caesar's inability to swim the Tiber, comparing his rescue of Caesar to an act of Rome's founding father:

    I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
    Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
    The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
    Did I the tirèd Caesar (I.ii.112-15).

    Next he exemplifies Caesar's unworthiness by citing his 'fever when he was in Spain' (line 119). With telling personification, Cassius links cowardice and effeminacy with an inability to rule:

    His coward lips did from their colour fly,
    And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
    Did lose his lustre. I did hear him groan –
    Ay, and that tongue of his, that bade the Romans
    Mark him, and write his speeches in their books,
    Alas it cried 'Give me some drink, Titinius,'
    As a sick girl (lines 122-28, italics mine).

    His direction now obvious, Cassius frankly states that Caesar's lack of valour makes him unworthy to rule Rome:

    Ye gods, it doth amaze me
    A man of such a feeble temper should
    So get the start of the majestic world
    And bear the palm alone (lines 128-31, italics mine).

    Cassius slights Caesar's valour, not his ability to rule, but the two traits are inseparable in the play's aristocratic ethos.

  26. Cassius similarly invokes courage by asserting that the Romans lack valour for allowing Caesar to rule. He reminds Brutus that Rome's past swells with valiant and magnanimous deeds:

    O, you [Brutus] and I have heard our fathers say
    There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
    Th'eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
    As easily as a king (I.ii.158-61).

    And again, in the next scene, Cassius says:

    for Romans now
    Have thews and limbs like to their ancestors;
    But – woe the while! – our fathers' minds are dead,
    And we are governed with our mothers' spirits (I.iii.80-83).

    Twenty lines later, Cassius says of Caesar: 'Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep. / He were no lion were not Romans hinds' (I.iii.104-6). Within another twenty lines he calls the conspiracy: 'an enterprise / Of honourable-dangerous consequence' (I.iii.123-24). Cassius wants Caesar dethroned because he is insufficiently valiant – or too effeminate – to rule. He also wants the Roman aristocrats to establish their valour by slaying Caesar.

  27. As the assassination draws nigh, even Brutus, who was much more subtle in expressing his motivation before, directly pleads for valour and masculinity to win over his fellow conspirators:

    But if these [motives] –
    As I am sure they do – bear fire enough
    To kindle cowards, and to steel with valour
    The melting spirits of women, then, countrymen,
    What need we any spur but our own cause
    To prick us to redress? (II.i.119-24, italics mine).

    Again we have an intermingling of the two prime prompts to the conspiracy, courage and masculinity. Brutus similarly uses valour to prevent oath taking later in this speech: 'Swear priests, and cowards, and men cautelous,/ Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls/ That welcome wrongs' (II.i.129-31). 12 Brutus and Cassius present the conspiracy as fit for valiant men only. Courage is the perquisite the conspirators demand, and Romans find the conspiracy much more enticing because of it.

  28. That the conspiracy was a product of the desire to regain masculinity through valour is most strongly suggested after the fact. Standing before Caesar's corpse, Brutus says:

    Stoop, Romans, stoop,
    And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
    Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
    Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
    And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
    Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom, and liberty!' (III.i.105-10).

    René Girard notes the self-contradictory nature of Brutus' histrionics: 'Brutus wants the murder to be as discreet, orderly, and "non-violent" as it possibly can. Unfortunately for the conspiracy, he himself proves incapable of abiding by his own rule' (Girard 1991, 194). Brutus' final rhetorical flourish in the forum is: 'With this I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death' (III.ii.43-46), again revealing how the appearance of valour shapes his epistemology. And, it is not simply bloodlust, but lust for reputation, that drives them. Cassius predicts their glory: 'How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!' (III.i.111-13). Their final exultation reiterates their desire to be known for their valour: ' . . . every man away, / Brutus shall lead, and we will grace his heels / With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome' (III.i.119-21).

  29. Bravery punctuates the pre- and post-assassination discourse, lasting until the conspirators' deaths, where they employ suicide to ' . . . have glory by this losing day / More than Octavius and Mark Antony / By this vile conquest shall attain unto' (V.v.36-38). The desire to display physical prowess and determine reputation through bravery, mirroring that of the militant Elizabethan nobles, plays a large part in the assassination. Although Cassius and Brutus have very different political methods, both seek to restore the system of virtue determining place within the male hierarchy. They enact an Elizabethan fantasy (attempted by Essex) of aristocrats determining their own position through the age-old criterion of valour, divorcing themselves from dependence upon the whims of a non-valiant monarch. A crisis of manhood and valour instigates the assassination in Julius Caesar, just as it caused anxiety in 1590s England.


  30. The story of valour in Rome does not end with the assassination, however, as new leaders forge a more sophisticated response to Roman notions of courage. After Caesar's fall, Antony and Octavius must employ valour to overcome the conspirators, who have just demonstrated their valour by killing Caesar. But no longer is valour alone enough to gain political supremacy; it must be coupled with the kinds of representational strategies successfully used by Elizabeth. For conspirators and Caesareans alike, valour provides a stepping stone to leadership, yet the wiser faction tempers their valour with policy.

  31. After the rather reductionist identification of masculinity as valour in the first half of the play, it is surprising to find Antony disclose a detachment from valour heretofore unthinkable in Rome. When Octavius says that Lepidus is valiant, Antony responds: 'So is my horse, Octavius, and for that / I do appoint him store of provender' (IV.i.29-30). Like the horse, the valiant have a place in civilisation, but it is no longer at the top. Other traits were becoming necessary to get ahead under Elizabeth, and Antony reflects this shift's parallel in Rome by de-emphasising valour as the foundation of honour.

  32. But although Mark Antony dismisses courage when appropriate, he still realises that it is a perquisite for power in Rome. This is not to say that Cassius and Brutus ignore the representation of valour; but they spend most of their energy attempting to have it as well. The people's respect for valour leads Antony to unleash 'the dogs of war' as an uncertain, but decisive, Empire-gaining policy (III.i.273). For the same reason, Antony repeatedly tries to reduce the appearance of Brutus and Cassius's valour. Brutus begins his persuasion in the forum with: 'Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe' (III.ii.14-16). Antony knows that he must turn this honour on its head to have any hope of avenging Caesar's death; hence, he ironically repeats: 'Brutus is an honourable man' (III.ii.82ff). Later Antony rewrites the conspirators' acts, undermining their claim for valour:

    You showed your teeth like apes, and fawned like hounds,
    And bowed like bondmen, kissing Caesar's feet;
    Whilst damnèd Casca, like a cur, behind
    Struck Caesar on the neck (V.i.42-45).

    Antony's slights of the conspirators' bravery show that valour still has its place for shaping reputation. The Caesareans' awareness of this is further demonstrated when they try to show courage on the battlefield. Just like Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Octavius fight for control of military policy, and both seek possession of the prestigious right flank (V.i.16-20). But Antony (like Queen Elizabeth) knows that the appearance of valour is malleable. No longer is simple valour enough to gain political supremacy, it must be fortified with an awareness that valour is representational.


  33. Valour has fallen as Rome's top virtue, because it is subject to political contortion. Yet alongside Antony's manipulative use of valour comes a stronger subversion of it. Over the course of Julius Caesar both women and plebeians employ 'courageous' violence, which is supposedly the trait of the aristocrats alone (and the justification of their place). The plebeians shout: 'Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!' (III.ii.199), after Antony's eulogy, and they prove that they can be just as 'valiant' as the conspirators when they kill Cinna the poet (III.iii). It is only a semantic variation that makes aristocratic violence valour and mob violence disorder. Aristocratic masculinity is also undercut because its second delimitation, sex, becomes destabilised. The female practice of valour, of course, comes through Portia, who stabs her thigh and swallows coals. As Coppélia Kahn recently suggests: ' . . . that this virtue [Kahn here refers to constancy, but her comment could apply to any 'male' virtue] might be imitated by a woman de-naturalizes it and suggests that it isn't native to the male gender; it is learned behaviour' (Kahn 1997, 101). Valour never delimits aristocratic male behaviour in Julius Caesar as strongly as the conspirators wish, and that it can appear in a woman points strongly to an alternative reading of female weakness, the alternative that Elizabeth invoked by appearing at Tilbury, and Spenser shaped in his literary construction of female bravery.

  34. Julius Caesar shows that 'Valiancy hath her limits, as other vertues have, the which if thou once overpasse, thou shalt straight finde thy selfe in the path of vice' (De Loque 1591, 62). Like those who advocated war in 1590s England, the conspirators completely misread their political climate. Although they believe valour to be a convincing expression of their nobility, the people in Rome easily find other criteria for judging them. Julius Caesar may represent the desires of a newly debilitated aristocracy, but the aristocratic tendency towards warfare and lesser violence is not validated in the play. Potential challenges to the suitability of an 'effeminate' monarch are contained, laying the ground for the next ruler, who was even more reluctant than Elizabeth to fight.


  1. Although critics have discussed gender and politics as separate issues in Julius Caesar, the interdependence of these two struggles has been neglected. Robin Headlam Wells recently notes that critics have not 'explain[ed] that masculine honour was a political issue throughout the period when Shakespeare was writing his tragedies and tragi-comedies', in Shakespeare on Masculinity (2000, 5). Wells's book mentions Julius Caesar only in passing. Bruce Smith's recent book, Shakespeare and Masculinity, also has very little to say about Julius Caesar, but the one extended comment he makes about the play differs strongly from my reading by painting masculinity with a much broader brush: 'Nobility, honesty, gentleness, honour, virtue: in the world of Julius Caesar these are the qualities that make a man a man. A good argument can be made that they are the very qualities that define ideal manhood in early modern England as well' (2000, 42).


  2. All references to Julius Caesar cite Arthur Humphreys's Oxford edition (Shakespeare 1994). References to other works by Shakespeare cite the Oxford complete works (Shakespeare 1988).


  3. Louis Adrian Montrose highlights the potentially gender-subverting nature of this episode, saying that Elizabeth is ' . . . representing herself as an androgynous martial maiden, like Spenser's Britomart' (Montrose 1986, 79).


  4. Susan Frye discusses the dubious nature of the evidence for Elizabeth speaking at Tilbury (Frye 1992, 95-114).


  5. Paul Johnson, Elizabeth I: A Study of Power and Intellect (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 321.


  6. Elizabeth's reputation for power in war lasted beyond her reign. Fulke Greville says of Elizabeth in 1612: 'Yet as this wise and moderate governess was far from encroaching upon any other prince's dominions, so wanted she neither foresight, courage nor might both to suppress all insolencies attempted against herself, and to support her neighbours unjustly oppressed' (Greville 1986, 124).


  7. Spenser's second genealogy, again spoken by Merlin, re-emphasises the martial women in Elizabeth's lineage (cf. III.iii.54-56).


  8. Britomart is one of many allegories of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene, but I think that Spenser is most insistent upon fashioning this character as a reflection of his own ideal queen. Julia M. Walker agrees: 'Neither the perpetually deferred Gloriana nor the fatherless Belphoebe with her twin sister Amoret offers as accurate a reflection of Elizabeth as does Britomart, the heir of her father's kingdom and a figure of female power – not in Faerieland or on the lower slopes of Olympus but in a male-dominated society' (Walker 1992, 176).


  9. See also Book V, Cantos x-xi for further hopes of England's conquest.


  10. That 'honourable' violence is a counterweight to the absolute power given in the monarch's distribution of honours is substantiated and detailed by Mervyn James (1986, 314ff).


  11. Caesar's victory was not considered an example of valour in Plutarch, either: 'But the triumphe he made into Rome for the same, did as much offend the Romanes, and more, then any thing that ever he had done before: bicause he had not overcome Captaines that were straungers, nor barbarous kinges, but had destroyed the sonnes of the noblest man in Rome, whom fortune had overthrowen' (Bullough 1964, 77).


  12. Tom McAlindon briefly notes that 'For Brutus valour is the essence of honour . . . ' (McAlindon 1991, 89).


List of Works Cited

Alexander, William. 1607. Julius Caesar. The Monarchicke Tragedies. London. STC 344; Film 818.

Aske, James. 1588; facs. 1969. Elizabetha Triumphans. New York: Da Capo.

Aylmer, John. 1559. An Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjecttes, agaynst the late blowne Blaste, concerninge the Governmét of Wemen. London. STC 1005; Film 194.

Bacon, Francis. 1985. The Essays. Edited by John Pitcher. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Barckley, Sir Richard. 1598. A Discourse of the Felicitie of Man: Or His Summum Bonum. London. STC 1381; Film 912.

Bullough, Geoffrey. 1964. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 5. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Castiglione, Baldassaro. ND. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Sir Thomas Hoby. London and Toronto: Dent.

Cecil, William, Lord Burghley. 1617. Certaine Precepts, or Directions, for the Well Ordering and Carriage of a Mans Life. London. STC 4897; Film 1405.

Churchyard, Thomas. 1596. A Pleasant discourse of Court and Wars: with a replication to them both, and a commendation of all those that truly serve Prince and countrie. London. STC 5249; Film 526.

Early English Books, 1475-1640. Microfilms. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International. All references to STC films cite this series.

Elizabeth I. 1951; repr. 1966. The Public Speaking of Queen Elizabeth. Collected by George P. Rice, Jr. New York: AMS.

Elyot, Sir Thomas. 1962; repr. 1970. The Book named The Governor. London: Dent.

Esler, Anthony. 1966. The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Essex, Robert Devereux, Earl of. 1603. To Maister Anthonie Bacon. An Apologie of the Earle of Essex, against those which jealously and maliciously tax him to be the hinderer of the peace and quiet of his country. London. STC 6788; Film 275.

Frye, Susan. 1992. 'The Myth of Elizabeth I at Tilbury.' Sixteenth Century Journal 23: 95-114.

Girard, René. 1991. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Greville, Fulke. 1986. A Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney. The Prose Works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Edited by John Gouws. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Headlam Wells, Robin. 2000. Shakespeare on Masculinity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurault, André, Sieur de Maisse. 1931. A Journal of All that Was Accomplished by Monsieur de Maisse . . . . Trans. R. A. Jones. Bloomsbury: Nonesuch.

James, Mervyn. 1986. Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Paul. 1974. Elizabeth I: A Study of Power and Intellect. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Kahn, Coppélia. 1997. Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women. London and New York: Routledge.

Knox, John. 1895. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. Edited by Edward Arber. Westminster: Archibald Constable.

Loque, B. de. 1591. Discourses of Warre and single Combat, by B. de Loque. Trans. John Eliot. London. STC 16810; Film 476.

McAlindon, T. 1991. Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacCallum, M. W. 1910; repr. 1967. Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background. London: Macmillan.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. 1560; facs. 1969. The Arte of Warre. Trans. Peter Whitehorne. Amsterdam and New York: Da Capo.

—. 1992. The Prince. Trans. Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York and London: Norton.

Miller, William Ian. 1993. Humiliation and Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort and Violence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Montaigne, Michel, Lord of. ND. Essays and Belles Lettres. 3 vols, trans. John Florio. London: Dent.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. 1986. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form.' In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 65-87.

Paster, Gail Kern. 1985. The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Pearson, Jacqueline. 1984. 'Romans and Barbarians: The Structure of Irony in Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies.' In Shakespearean Tragedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20, edited by M. Bradbury and D. J. Palmer. New York: Holmes and Meres, 158-82.

Perry, Maria. 1990. The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell.

Phillips, James Emerson, Jr. 1940. The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays. New York: Columbia University Press.

De La Primaudaye, Peter. 1586. The French Academie. Trans. T. B. London. STC 15233; Film 257.

Riche, Barnaby. 1992. Barnaby Riche His Farewell to Military Profession. Edited by Donald Beecher. Ottawa: Dovehouse.

Segar, William. 1602. Honor, Military and Civil. London. STC 22164; Film 1006.

Shakespeare, William. 1988. The Complete Works: Compact Edition. Ed. Stanley Wells et al. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

—. 1994. Julius Caesar. Ed. Arthur Humphreys. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Sidney, Sir Philip. 1845; repr. 1971. The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet. Edited and trans. by S. A. Pears. Westmead: Gregg.

Smith, Bruce R. 2000. Shakespeare and Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spenser, Edmund. 1916. The Faerie Queene. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Edited by J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt. London and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Lawrence. 1965. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trussell, Thomas. 1619. The Soldier Pleading His Owne Cause. London, 1619. STC 24298; Film 1040.

Walker, Julia M. 1992. 'Spenser's Elizabeth Portrait and the Fiction of Dynastic Epic.' Modern Philology 90: 172-99.

Williams, Neville. 1972. All the Queen's Men: Elizabeth I and Her Courtiers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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Contents © Copyright 2001 Eugene Giddens.
Format © Copyright 2001 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 5, Number 2, Winter 2001.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 10 January 2002.