A lost play titled Julius Caesar was performed before Queen Elizabeth and her court on February 1, 1562. Thomas Sackville plausibly wrote this early Julius Caesar, for the following reasons: he brooded on Brutus’s and Cassius’s fates in his 1563 poem The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham; arranged for the theatrical performance of a scene from an ancient Roman play exploring how politicians win the public to their side in the early 1560s; and was the leading poet and playwright of the early Elizabethan period. The plot of Julius Caesar hinges on whether Caesar’s friends or the conspirators will win the public to their side after Caesar’s murder.
The detailed argument:
As a young man Thomas Sackville was fascinated by Greek, Roman, and English history, with a particular interest in exciting stories from the past involving murders and political upheavals. In his early poetic works Sackville strove to achieve an organized understanding of history. He reported on famous battles of the past, planned to tell a sequence of stories about princes brought down by fortune’s spite, discussed which great Romans the common people turned on, reflected on famous people from ancient history who took blood only to reach a bloody end, and listed the ancient kings and queens said to have unnaturally killed their own children. Sackville’s extended meditation on the patterns of human history when he was young would have given him an exceptional ability to call on apt historical and mythological analogies in later works, as Shakespeare did with apparent effortlessness.
Among the historical stories that intrigued him as a youth, Sackville showed a marked interest in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus and Life of Caesar (the key historical sources for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). Like Shakespeare, Sackville was struck by Plutarch’s description of Brutus’s troubled conscience after conspiring to murder Caesar:
O bloody Brutus, rightly didst thou rue… (Sackville’s Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham)
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel…Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful… (Brutus in Julius Caesar)
Sackville and Shakespeare also found it intriguing that Cassius killed himself using the same sword he had earlier used to kill Caesar:
O Cassius, justly came thy fall, that with the sword, wherewith thou Caesar slew, murderedst thyself, and rent thy life withal. (Complaint)
Caesar, thou art revenged, even with the sword that kill'd thee… (Cassius as he impales himself on his own sword in Julius Caesar)
During the very period when Thomas Sackville penned these lines about Julius Caesar’s murder in Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham, he was preoccupied by the question of how clever politicians win the public to their side, a key plot driver in Julius Caesar. This remarkable fact is known only because Sackville’s handwritten manuscript copy of Induction and Complaint was deposited many years ago (no one knows when or by whom) with the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where it was rediscovered in the early twentieth century. After writing the word finis after the final stanza of Complaint, Sackville jotted down a rambling, stream-of-consciousness poetic fragment of some hundred lines. At the end of this fragment, he reminds himself that a “Master Burden” had promised to let him organize a show of one of the Roman playwright Seneca’s choruses about “the capitation of aurem popularem” – the capturing of the people’s favor, or the political art of winning over the public:
Remember Master Burdens promise for the showing of
Seneca’s chorus touching the capitation of aurem popularem.
Sackville’s interest in how politicians gain public favor is a specific and unusual trait that he shares with Shakespeare, who explored this topic in depth in his two plays about Roman political life, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. The plot of Julius Caesar hinges on whether Caesar’s friends or the conspirators will win the public to their side after Caesar’s murder. As the play begins, Caesar is a military hero beloved by the people of Rome. He has become so popular that a group of senators fear that he plans to convert their republic into a monarchy. Caesar’s friend Brutus joins the conspirators in stabbing Caesar in the Capitol, motivated by loyalty to the Roman republic. At Caesar’s funeral Brutus gives a rational and measured speech laying out the reasons for the conspirators’ actions. The mob’s sympathies are with Brutus until Caesar’s loyal friend Mark Antony gives a second oration over Caesar’s dead body. Antony wins the people to his side through his virtuosic rhetoric: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” Antony’s speech contains many oft-quoted lines, including “The evil that men do lives after them,” “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” and the often repeated phrase, “But Brutus is an honorable man.” By the end of Antony’s speech, Brutus—whether honorable or not—is a doomed man who has lost control over Rome’s destiny because he failed to keep the public on his side.
The question of how politicians win and lose public favor is also critical to Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s other play about political strife in ancient Rome. When the military hero Coriolanus returns to Rome after a great victory, expecting to be rewarded with a consulship, he is rejected by the common people—whom he disdains—because he refuses to “flatter them for their love.” Coriolanus assumes he is entitled to political honor, but his inability to become popular with the populace leads to his downfall. He is eventually expelled from Rome because he does not know how to win the love of the masses.
Two relevant facts have thus far been established concerning Thomas Sackville’s literary inclinations in the early 1560s: he had a definite interest in Julius Caesar’s murder at the hands of Brutus and Cassius, and he had a definite interest in using the drama as a vehicle to explore how clever politicians win the public to their side. A third fact is that Thomas Sackville was England’s greatest poetic trailblazer in the early 1560s; his co-authored 1561 play Gorboduc was England’s first blank verse drama, first classically-inspired drama, first play to dramatize events from English history, and first play to use dumb shows. For many reasons it is likely that Sackville went on to write other innovative plays in the 1560s.
Now consider a fourth fact. Two weeks after Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s play Gorboduc was acted before Queen Elizabeth at Whitehall Palace on January 18, 1562, a play titled Julius Caesar was performed at court, as the London citizen Henry Machyn noted in his diary entry for February 1, 1562. (If Machyn’s useful diaries extended past the year 1563, more would surely be known about the obscure origins and early development of the Elizabethan drama.)
Nothing else is known with certainty about the 1562 Julius Caesar or its connection to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Many fundamental questions surround this innovative play, England’s first known dramatization of events from ancient Roman history. Who wrote it? Why? Who chose to have it performed at court two weeks after Gorboduc’s debut? Which group of actors performed it? And finally, what—if any—is the relationship between the 1562 Julius Caesar and Shakespeare’s ~1599 Julius Caesar?
In the absence of definite answers, one can speculate that Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc might have been so well received at court on January 18, 1562 that Queen Elizabeth asked the gentlemen of the Inner Temple if they had any other plays of similar excellence. Perhaps Sackville had already written or co-authored an early version of Julius Caesar by January of 1562, and the gentlemen of the Inner Temple decided to perform it for Elizabeth two weeks later. Although there is no evidence for this scenario, it is not impossible or even unlikely.
One piece of external evidence hints at the possibility that Shakespeare wrote a version of Julius Caesar before 1599, the year often assigned to its composition. Shakespeare’s Caesar famously says “Et tu, Brute” after his friend Brutus stabs him in the Capitol. This is not a literal English translation of Caesar’s last words as related by Plutarch, which would instead be rendered “And you, Brutus?” or alternatively, “Also you, Brutus?” The phrase “Et tu, Brute” had certainly entered the popular English vernacular by 1582 or 1595 as the ultimate expression of betrayal. Richard Eedes’s 1582 Latin play Caesar Interfectus uses the phrase, and in the “bad quarto” version of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Three, printed in 1595, Prince Edward says to his brother Clarence, “Et tu, Brute, wilt thou stab Caesar too?” Perhaps Caesar’s memorable last words originated with the 1562 Julius Caesar.
Hamlet contains a curious reference to an early play about Julius Caesar. Polonius tells Hamlet that when he was young, he played Julius Caesar and was killed by Brutus in the Capitol.
Hamlet My lord, you played once i' the university, you say?
Polonius That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet What did you enact?
Polonius I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the Capitol; Brutus killed me.
If Thomas Sackville wrote and acted in the 1562 Julius Caesar, he might have included this passage in Hamlet as a private remembrance of the play.