The comparison between Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Hamlet in terms of how implied, or latent elements and themes in one were transmitted and developed in the other can lead to unveiling the transformations Shakespeare was envisaging with the writing of Hamlet. In the Introduction to the 1987 Oxford University Press edition of Hamlet, G. R. Hibbard stated that “Hamlet was written after, but not long after, Julius Caesar, which can be dated with unusual accuracy as having been compose in the late summer of 1599” (4).
From the arguments that Hibbard gives to support his argument (that there are two allusions in the text of Hamlet to Julius Caesar) we can see the strong connections between the two plays.
In a way, both Julius Caesar and Hamlet represent thresholds in the development of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. However, Hamlet moves in a different direction. If Julius Caesar is set in a distant past and can only hint to the humanist themes in Shakespeare’s world, Hamlet shifts the tone of Shakespeare’s plays to a more private and Elizabethan center of interest.
This paper argues that the themes and motifs that were merely suggested or hinted to or implied in Julius Caesar and which were elaborately developed in Hamlet are significant in determining the specificity of Shakespeare’s later historical tragedies. The analysis of devices, motifs and themes in the two plays will illustrate this argument.
The device of foregrounding is employed in Julius Caesar in the first act as a warning sign to Caesar from the Soothsayer. It is a clear and unmistakable omen of Julius Caesar’s death, especially given the drama’s historical grounding. This device is used in this play only to trigger the conflict – the death of Caesar will generate the actual drama. Because of its lack of ambiguity and its limited dramatic span, the foreshadowing in Julius Caesar does not have the same impact as it does in Hamlet.
In Hamlet, the device of foreshadowing becomes a trigger for the play’s resolution and also represents the dramatic subtext which drives the whole chain of events towards the tragic end. In Act 1 Scene 1, we witness the apparition of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This episode is marked by the use of special imagery and allusions. Horatio gives the decisive argument in identifying the ghost with tthe murdered king. The ghost figure is clearly employed in this first act as a means of foreshadow ing not only the conflict of the story but also its resolution: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (The Tragedy of Hamlet 148).
The image of Fortinbras is another ominous motif by which Shakespear alludes to the later developments in the play. Moreover, the reader is given a preliminary explanation of the Medieval code of honor, by which the king’s son has to avenge his father’s death. The story of Fortinbras and his father parallels and motivates the complex relationship between Hamlet and his own father. Duty is presented as a crucial motivation, which determines the hero’s actions and even consciousness.
Another element which is only suggested in Julius Caesar is the characters’ ambivalence – no character is essentially “evil” or “bad”. Brutus, before deciding to join the conspirators, condemns this act:
They are the faction. O conspiracy
Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough/ To mask thy monstrous visage?
Seek none, conspiracy;” (Julius Caesar, Act 2 Scene 1).
Brutus is therefore shown to have a moral conscience, a conscience dramatically and fatally opposing his actions. The paradox of a noble man’s evil actions might find its explanation through an analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of the first act.
Hamlet’s soliloquy and corruption in the forth scene points to a specific image idea Shakespeare had about the human mind and behavior: it appears that the seeds of evil can be ingrained in the most noble of spirits or, conversely, that goodness can be the host of evil. This feature is presented in fatalistic and deterministic terms and becomes another motivation for the tragic resolution:
So, oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them
As, in their birth – wherein they are not guilty […]
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens […]
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 181)
The chain of events leading to the fatal ending is thus linked to the dictum of “blind fate”. By foregrounding the ambivalence of human nature, Shakespeare gives a more complex perspective on his characters’ motivational resorts and transcends the limitations of a completely “good” or a completely “evil” model.
In another scene, the King admits to his having murdered Hamlet’s father. He is presented as having pangs of guilt – “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 273):
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven.
It has the primal eldest curse upon’t –
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not. (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 272).
Cluadius’ questions show the character in a new, humanizing light, which eliminates the image of the stereotyped villain.
Many of the elements that are only latent, or implied, in Julius Caesar, are to be fully found in Hamlet’s soliloquies. The motif of Brutus’ suicide, for instance, which is not fully developed in the play, becomes one of the themes of reflection in Hamlet’s soliloquies. Hamlet’s considerations on suicide, on the other hand, elaborate much on this theme. There are several acceptions which are discussed in the protagonist’s soliloquies and they are testimony to Shakespeare’s insight of the human mind:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, […]
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will. (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 240-241)
Moreover, in another passage, Hamlet gives another interpretation of his own reluctance to commit suicide, which is presented in light of the protagonist’s fear of God and social status:
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 240). Closely linked to this theme, there is the notion of the vanity of existence which is only implied in Julius Caesar through the foregrounding of the emperors’ rise and fall and in the parallels drawn in this respect among Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Brutus. However, this theme is not fully problematized in the play – probably because it does not come in agreement with the historical and philosophical repertoire of Ancient Rome.
In Hamlet, however, this theme becomes predominant and one of the character’s privileged objects of reflection. The “What is a man” soliloquy hints to the vanitas vanitatum of Renaissance and humanist philosophy of the finitude of man and of the ultimate insignificance of all earthly possessions. Moreover, Hamlet’s soliloquy incorporates another one of the humanist concerns, which was that of the perfectibility of man’s spirit and destiny through God-given language and thought:
What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more (The Tragedy of Hamlet, 298).
To conclude, this paper has illustrated the ways in which themes and motifs which were latent in Julius Caesar are given prominence in Hamlet, especially through the protagonist’s soliloquies. In a way, it is the very shift from the predominance of the oratorical speech and its dialogic character in Julius Caesar to the primacy of the soliloquy and its monological quality in Hamlet that provides the key for understanding the reasons behind the amplification of devices and themes from one play to the other. With Hamlet, Shakespeare’s historical tragedies become more intimate and, at the same time, more openly philosophical and universal.