The Medical in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

We do not know what Shakespeare really believed, save that he liked money and feared the mob: for he was a stern creditor, and whenever a mob appeared in his plays it was sure to be foolish, fickle and stinking, at the mercy of the last orator it heard. So it is in Julius Caesar: the mob first believes Brutus, then Mark Antony, and tears the old poet Cinna limb from limb simply because he bears the same name as one of the conspirators against Caesar, a different Cinna. Thus Shakespeare recognised that people in crowds may do what they would not do as individuals.

But did Shakespeare really believe that joining a political plot could cure the ague, presumably (considering the proximity of the action to the Pontine Marshes) malaria? In Act 2, scene I, Brutus successfully persuades Caius Ligarius, who is sick of the ague, to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Ligarius says:

By all the gods that Romans bow before,
I here discard my sickness.

And he does.

Likewise, did Shakespeare really think that plague (a disease rampant in London while he was writing the play) was truly the reward of morally reprehensible behaviour? Reproaching members of the mob for welcoming Caesar into Rome after his defeat of Pompey, whereas shortly before they had welcomed Pompey, Marullus says:

Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light upon this ingratitude.

We do not know whether Shakespeare thought that epidemics really were divine vengeance upon men’s wickedness, or whether he simply used the trope because it would have been highly plausible to his audience.

Brutus opposes Caesar, though he is Caesar’s close friend and acknowledges his virtues, because he fears that he will soon turn into a tyrant; the other conspirators in the plot to kill him are more self-interested. Cassius decries Caesar for a weakling by describing his behaviour while ill in Spain:

He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake; ’tis true, this god did shake;
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.

This is authentically callous and patently unfair; but Shakespeare intends it to be.

Caesar, of course, ‘hath the falling sickness,’ but it is a manifestation of Shakespeare’s clinical acumen that he should make Caesar have a fit, fall unconscious and foam at the mouth precisely at a moment of high emotion, when – unwillingly – he turns down the crown offered him for the third time.

Perhaps the strangest medical incident in the play is the suicide of Portia, Brutus’s wife. Missing her husband, and fearing that he will be killed by Octavius and Mark Antony in their struggle for power:

… with this she fell distract.
And her attendants absent, swallowed fire.

North’s translation of Plutarch, from which Shakespeare took his plot, has this to say:

She, determining to kill herself, took hot burning coals and cast them into her mouth, and kept her mouth so close that she choked herself.

As for her friends, they were negligent; knowing her to be sick, ‘they would not help her, but suffered her to kill herself.’

Negligence is nothing new.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

2 thoughts on “The Medical in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  1. Jaxon

    Plague as divine vengeance sounds like so much excellent foppery to me and, I think, Shakespeare would have thought so.
    It’s years since I read Thucydides but I seem to recall he had a remarkably enlightened, objective, view on such matters. It is none the less as good as a divine gift in so far as a theatrical device.


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