Thomas Kullmann – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the (Re-)Invention of Tragedy: A Response to Angelika Zirker and Susanne Riecker

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the (Re-)Invention of Tragedy: A Response to Angelika Zirker and Susanne Riecker

Thomas Kullmann

Published in Connotations Vol. 32 (2023)


In their contribution, Zirker and Riecker provide a comprehensive survey of how Shakespeare used his sources, especially Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and Life of Brutus, when writing Julius Caesar. Their claim that Shakespeare had to overcome the historical “fetters” of Plutarch and the generic fetters of tragedy, however, can be questioned. Shakespeare was not in any way fettered by his sources but in a position to pick and choose from the rich “banquet” of historical and literary material on offer in the Renaissance.

The same applies to the genre of tragedy, which was a rather loose concept and did not fetter Elizabethan dramatists in any way. Julius Caesar can even be considered to mark a new departure, in that Shakespeare invents, or re-invents, a tragic pattern which he would repeat in Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. It involves a central hero who makes a mistake which causes enormous suffering and will result in the hero’s self-recognition and death. This pattern, of course, resembles that of classical Greek tragedy, as summarized by Aristotle. While Elizabethan scholars did not usually have direct access to the Greek tragedians, Plutarch’s Life of Brutus may be considered the “missing link” between Greek an Shakespearen tragedy, as it contains all the features of tragedy mentioned.

In a rich and well-researched contribution, Angelika Zirker and Susanne Riecker provide a thorough and comprehensive survey of the ways in which Shakespeare made use of his historical sources when writing Julius [→ page 101] Caesar. As Zirker and Riecker explain, Shakespeare used many of the details reported in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and Life of Brutus in a creative way, “to the effect of a structural re-configuration of the historical matter and, more importantly, the relation of the characters involved” (134). This structural reconfiguration manifests itself, among other things, in his divergence or specification of “Plutarch’s order of events leading up to the assassination” (135), in the “acceleration and temporal condensation of the events” (135-36), in producing “a hightened sense of anticipation” (137), in his extended usage of “the fire imagery as used by Plutarch” (138), and in giving Calphurnia’s dream (as reported by Plutarch) “a more urgent spin” (140). Most notably, Shakespeare introduces numerous references to Christian motifs, as Zirker and Riecker demonstrate in great detail (140-43), and makes Caesar use a memorable Latin tag when speaking his last words, instead of the Greek words reported by Suetonius or the address to Casca found in Plutarch (144).

What I would like to question, though, is Zirker’s and Riecker’s use of the “fetters” image. Zirker and Riecker contend that Shakespeare manages to achieve a “creative liberation from the fetters presented by history and the main source text” (135) and the “generic restraints of tragedy” (135). I would like to argue that the “fetters” and “restraints” imagery is quite out of place here because it provides a wrong idea of how we should conceptualize either Renaissance culture in general or Shakespeare’s dramatic art in particular.

Let us look at the historical “fetters” first: Plutarch provided the material for Shakespeare to work with; he does not put fetters on him. No one demanded of Shakespeare to adhere to the details of his sources or the particulars of historical “truth.” If Plutarch had not written the “Life of Brutus” and “Life of Caesar,” or if Shakespeare had not had access to North’s translation, he would not have enjoyed greater liberty. On the contrary: his scope of creativity would have been much restricted. In order to expand or contract, to deviate from or to rearrange Plutarch’s text it needed to be available in the first place. If we were to look for an apt metaphor to describe Shakespeare’s use of his sources, I would choose that of a rich banquet, or buffet, with Shakespeare being free to choose the most tasty bits. [→ page 102] In Andrew Marvell’s “Dialogue of the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure”, Pleasure invites the Soul to partake of “nature’s banquet” (Complete Works 25, l. 14). Similarly, the Renaissance dramatist could partake of culture’s banquet, a buffet whose sumptuousness was unprecedented in European history. To Shakespeare this banquet was made up of the Latin instruction received at the Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school (which included Virgil and Ovid as well as Cicero and, quite probably, Erasmus; cf. Mack 12-14), the religious disputes which obviously rendered Shakespeare’s hometown (with a Catholic-leaning town council but Protestant ministers and a strictly Protestant landlord) an exciting intellectual battleground (Cf. Greenblatt 87-117), the Kenilworth entertainments of 1575 (which Shakespeare certainly witnessed), performances by travelling actors, the aristocratic life and libraries (possibly) of the Hoghton family in Lancashire (see Honigmann) and (quite probably) the Pembroke family in Wiltshire (Kullmann, “Poeticising Emotion” 245-55), the contact with his fellow-dramatists and university wits as well as the law students of the Inns of Court in London and the ubiquitous debates concerning the conflicts of Puritanism and High Church liberalism as well as those surrounding the issue of the Queen’s legitimacy. The book market, to be sure, constituted a banquet by itself, as it included numerous translations from Latin, Greek, Italian, French and Spanish, thus opening up avenues to worlds beyond England, beyond the world of commoners and beyond Christianity.

One of the dishes on offer was the story of Caesar’s assassination—and what a wonderful story it was (and still is, of course), raising as it does fundamental ethical and political questions: Was the murder of Caesar justified? Was Caesar a tyrant or a benefactor? Was Brutus honourable? What is more important, friendship and loyalty, or the welfare of the state? Is the old Roman republic or the imperial constitution initiated by Caesar’s successors the better political system? Suetonius and Plutarch did not answer these questions, and thereby provided posterity with endless food for thought.1 Apart from the political questions Caesar’s assassination raises, it provides great drama, with Caesar entering the senate as prospective king, and being attacked by 23 of his closest friends. The story of Caesar’s assassination was omnipresent in early modern England and a favourite of [→ page 103] London dramatists of the 1590s (see, for example, Ronan), and may well have been a story a grammar school teacher like Thomas Jenkins of Stratford could have transformed into a theatrical play and asked his Latin scholars to perform (cf. Greenblatt 27-28).

Shakespeare, to be sure, was bound to stick to the basic cornerstones of this story: Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March; his murderers included Brutus and Cassius who attempted to restore Rome’s republican constitution but were defeated in the battle of Philippi. These cornerstones, however, should not be called “fetters”; they offered manifold possibilities of political, ethical and psychological speculation. Furthermore, they were instruments to reach out to audiences not quite as educated as the dramatist was himself, but knowledgeable enough to have heard of Rome, and of Caesar. Beyond these cornerstones Shakespeare was at liberty to provide his own visions of politics as well as the dramas of friendship and married life (see Zirker and Riecker, 145-48), and the personal tragedies resulting from lacking self-knowledge and wrong decisions.

With regard to the genre of tragedy Shakespeare was not fettered by any restraints, either—for the simple reason that there were no such restraints. Tragedy was, as David Scott Kastan notes (esp. 5-6), a very loose concept.2 Its only definite generic feature was obviously that the protagonist or title character dies in the course of the play. It is true that sets of rules for the genre of tragedy were available. Educated Elizabethans could read Seneca’s tragedies, either in the Latin original or in an English translation (Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581). They would have been able to follow Senecan models when writing tragedies of their own. There would also be a set of classicist rules, based on Renaissance (mis-)interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics, available in English in Sidney’s Defence of Poetry and Puttenham’s Art of English Poesy. Few (if any) Elizabethan dramatists, however, chose to follow these rules (see Burrow 9-10). Thomas Kyd and William Shakespeare, it is true, were inspired by Seneca to write The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus; inspired, that is, not fettered.3 Both dramatists adopted the gruesome plots involving multiple killings and the eating of human flesh, but neither adhered to the “unities” of time and place.

At the same time we can certainly determine structural features which connect Julius Caesar to other Shakespearean tragedies, most notably to [→ page 104] those often denominated “great”: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. In all of these tragedies there is a central hero, a man of high rank and admirable qualities, who makes a mistake, a mistake which is due to a miscalculation and a lack of self-knowledge. This mistake then brings about enormous suffering to many people, not least, however, to the tragic hero himself, and will ultimately result in the hero’s recognition of his mistake and his death at the end of the play. The audience is invited to sympathize with this hero and to share his sufferings.

The critic who first provided an outline of this tragic pattern was, of course, A. C. Bradley. As Bradley notices, Shakespeare’s tragedies (except for the two “love-tragedies” [2], Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra) are about one person, a person of “high degree” (4, cf. 13), whose story is characterized by “exceptional suffering and calamity” (3) and leads up to this person’s death, thus becoming “a chief source of the tragic emotions, and especially of pity” (3). The hero’s calamities, Bradley explains, “proceed mainly from actions, and those the actions of men” (6); and the hero “always contributes in some measure to the disaster in which he perishes” (6), his deeds being “characteristic deeds,” they issue from his character (7) and often follow upon an “inward struggle” (12). These deeds are invariably due to a “fatal imperfection or error” (15) or at least “some marked imperfection or defect” (25).

If we apply this concept to Julius Caesar, two things become obvious:
First: The play’s hero is Brutus, not Caesar. It is Brutus whose miscalculation brings about suffering and destruction, in spite of his good intentions and high-mindedness. His introspection (2.1.10-34) prefigures that of tragic heroes like Hamlet and Macbeth (see Kullmann, “Ambiguities of Honour” 171-72). It is he, not Caesar, whose fortunes the spectator follows with pity and fear.4 While Caesar marches to his destruction like an automaton, “a blind victim of the fate to come” (Grene 26), Brutus ruminates over his decision to kill Caesar. His wife justifiably fears for his safety, and we, as the audience, fear with her. We pity Brutus for being driven out of Rome and for quarrelling with Cassius, we fear his final overthrow at Philippi, and we may accept his end after listening to Octavian’s final speech. These observations do not invalidate Zirker’s and Riecker’s remarks about the [→ page 105] parallelism found in the characters of Caesar and Brutus (144-45). While Caesar, however, only experiences a brief moment of recognition in the moments before his death, Brutus’ career is consistently marked by caution and doubt, and his obvious realization, triggered by the appearance of the ghost of Caesar, his “evil spirit” (4.3.280), that he has made a mistake is clearly dramatized.

The fact that the play is called Julius Caesar, rather than “Marcus Brutus,” should not bother us. To advertise his play Shakespeare obviously decided to build on his audience’s foreknowledge and expectations (as Zirker and Riecker remark as well [137]), and Caesar was certainly better known than Brutus. We could compare this title with that of A Merchant of Venice. While the merchant in question is by no means the most important or the most interesting character of the play, the title aptly produces the background image of the famous Italian city of commerce and trade. Shakespeare’s tendency to build upon audiences’ previous knowledge can also be seen in The Comedy of Errors, which replaces the city of Epidamnum of the Plautine source with Ephesus, which was known from the New Testament.

Second: The structure of Julius Caesar marks a new departure in Shakespeare’s career. Rather than following an established pattern (let alone being fettered by such a pattern), he creates a new one.5 In none of the previous tragedies do we find this interplay of nobility, good qualities, mistakes, suffering, recognition, death and the arousal of pity and fear, which would become a hallmark of the “great tragedies” mentioned.

Speaking of “mistakes,” “recognition,” “pity” and “fear” we allude, of course, to the uncanny resemblance of Shakespeare’s tragedies with Classical Greek tragedy, most notably the tragedies of Sophocles, like King Oedipus, Antigone, and Electra, and their treatment in Aristotle’s Poetics.6 In providing his sketch of the structure of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Bradley implicitly followed Aristotle, who also contended that a tragic hero is a man of high moral and social standing (1454a-54b) who because of a mistake (hamartía, 1453a) brings about suffering and destruction, raising pity and fear in the audience, who will, in the end, be released from these emotions (kátharsis, 1449b). The plot of a tragedy, according to Aristotle, should contain elements of the fearful and pitiable. This can best be achieved if something happens which is not expected but nevertheless appears as a [→ page 106] logical consequence of previous happenings (1452a); pity and fear are intimately connected with an unexpected turning (peripéteia) and a recognition (anagnórisis) (1452a).

It has often been remarked that Bradley’s notion of a character flaw which triggers the tragic chains of events in Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, does not quite correspond to Aristotle’s notion of hamartia, which may refer to a flaw in the hero for which the hero is not personally responsible, like the facts that Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother (see, e.g., Burrow 1-2). We should, however, note that the element of character is not absent from the Greek notion of hamartía.7 Oedipus is not just punished for his inadvertent crimes but also for his hubris, which makes him seek for the origin of the plague with everybody but himself. In this, he does resemble Othello, or Lear.8

It was Wolfgang Schadewaldt, the German classical scholar, who most memorably put to words the resemblances between Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. According to Schadewaldt, Oedipus and King Lear, as well as Hamlet and Electra, are connected by “some kind of secret blood relationship” (“Shakespeare und die griechische Tragödie” 8; my trans.). Both Oedipus and Lear, Schadewaldt contends, are victims of “Verblendung,” ‘blindness’ (“Shakespeares ‘König Lear’” 34), and in the course of the respective plays give words to the utmost abyss of despair, while retaining their royal dignity (29-32). In sharing their suffering, audiences are confronted with the basic facts of the human condition and will learn to endure it (“Shakespeare und die griechische Tragödie” 13, “Shakespeares ‘König Lear’” 30).9

But how did Shakespeare learn about the Greek concept of tragedy? We can dismiss Schadewaldt’s naive notions that Shakespeare’s “small Latin and less Greek” allowed him to imbibe ideas of the tragic by reading classical sources, or that conversations “with learned men like Ben Jonson” provided him with insight into these ancient Greek conceptions (“Shakespeare und die griechische Tragödie” 26; see also Harvey 267). There is no trace of the Sophoclean concept of tragedy in Jonson, nor was Sophocles within easy reach of learned Elizabethans. As all students of Classical Greek will confirm, the language of the Greek tragedies is particularly [→ page 107] challenging, and while learned poets like Sidney and Chapman read and understood Plato and Homer, Sophocles seems to have been out of reach.10 The first translation of King Oedipus which allowed English readers an insight into Sophocles’ tragic art was obviously Theobald’s, published in 1715.

We could, of course, argue that Shakespeare’s genius or his deep and unprecedented “humanity” made him develop a concept of tragedy (singlehandedly, so to speak) which happens to be similar to that of those other experts in humanity, the Greek tragedians. Our awareness, however, that Shakespeare, for all his excellence, was only human (see Greenblatt 216) should make us look for a different explanation. This leads us back to the banquet image mentioned above: what Shakespeare excelled in was a cultural ecleticism based on the vast buffet or storehouse of Renaissance discourses and artefacts.11 Within this storehouse we should therefore look for a “missing link” between classical Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s own concept of the tragic which we first come across in Julius Caesar.

This missing link, I would like to suggest, is Plutarch’s “Life of Brutus”, which Shakespeare read in Sir Thomas North’s translation. Plutarch’s Brutus embodies all the qualities which in Aristotle’s Poetics characterize a tragic hero. He is of noble descent (242-43), very learned (243-45), and his moral qualities are considered perfect:

But this Marcus Brutus [...] having framed his manners of life by the rules of vertue and study of philosophy, and having employed his wit, which was gentle and constant, in attempting of great things: methinks he was rightly made and framed unto vertue. (242)

His love of liberty and hatred of tyranny are noble qualities (277-79, see also “The Comparison of Dion with Brutus” 316-17)—qualities which set him apart from the other conspirators who are driven by ambition, egoism and spite (280, see “The Comparison of Dion with Brutus” 317). Cassius, in particular, is described as “a hot, choleric, and cruel man, that would oftentimes be carried away from justice for gain” (279). When Brutus finds himself engaged in a civil war against Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, his military conduct is characterized by fairness and “courtesy” (281, 284, [→ page 108] 302). When he realizes that he has lost, he acknowledges his own responsibility (310) and resorts to the noble act of ending his own life (312), while his victorious adversaries recognize his nobility (312-13).

As indicated above, Plutarch carefully avoids passing judgment on whether the murder of Caesar was justified, but it is obvious that this act was at least morally questionable. It is evil men, like Cassius, who persuade Brutus to take a leading part in the assassination (“The Comparison of Dion with Brutus” 314); and when comparing Brutus to his Greek counterpart, Dion (who killed Dionysius, the Syracusian tyrant), Plutarch points out that Dionysius was undoubtedly evil and tyrannical (315), unlike Caesar, who “it seemed he had rather had the name and opinion only of a tyrant than otherwise that he was so indeed” (315). Caesar, moreover, had saved Brutus’s life and honoured him “above all his other friends” (316). The implication is that Brutus, in spite of his noble intentions (317-18), should not have given in to his friends’ persuasions, and that this is his fault, his hamartía, for which he is finally punished. He put too deep a trust in his friends’ moral and political reasoning, as well as in his own ability to set things right after the potential tyrant has been removed. As with Agamemnon and Orestes, the descendants of Tantalus, his decision to act may have been influenced by his ancestry: Plutarch begins his account with a reference to Junius Brutus, who reputedly “put down the Tarquins from their kingdom of Rome” (242). Even though Marcus Brutus does not share his ancestor’s “sour stern nature, not softened by reason” (242), he may not have been able to shed this hereditary predisposition.12

Plutarch’s account also resembles Greek tragedy in its plotting and its management of pity and fear. As in Aristotle’s concept of tragedy, there are unexpected turnings, which, however, appear as the logical consequences of previous actions (such as the expulsion of Brutus and his friends from Rome in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder). Before we read of the final battle at Philippi we are told of his military successes so that the battle constitutes a peripéteia or turning-point, which goes along with Brutus’ recognition (anagnórisis) of his failure and guilt. Following Brutus’ career we pity his misfortunes, we are on his side when reading about his quarrels with his evil friends (286-88), we share his fears when he encounters his “evil spirit” (289).13

[→ page 109] I would like to suggest that it was mainly from this text that Shakespeare learned about the Greek conception both of personal tragedy and of the main dramaturgical possibilities of the tragic genre. He may also have taken from Plutarch two features which ancient Greek tragedies do not necessarily possess. One of them concerns the ethical quality of the hero’s tragic mistake. Aristotle contends that the best kind of tragic plot is one in which the hero commits a deed without at first realizing how terrible it is, like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who later learns that he has killed his own father (1454a). Unlike Oedipus, however, who has killed his father inadvertently, Plutarch’s Brutus knows he is killing a friend. It is only later, however, that he realizes that his decision to kill Caesar was based on an error of judgment.14 Similarly, Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth know they are killing, or rejecting, a person close to them, and only realize later that they should not have done so. The reason why Brutus (in Plutarch and Shakespeare) allows his friends to persuade him to kill Caesar, in spite of his better judgment, is obviously rooted in his friendliness and nobility, i.e. in his character. As with Shakespeare’s later heroes of tragedy, his good qualities are commingled with a tragic flaw which leads to a fatal error.

The other innovative feature which Shakespeare may have taken from Plutarch’s “Brutus” is the dramaturgical one of controlling the readers’/audiences’ sympathies. In Sophocles’ King Oedipus, this king is decidedly unlikeable for most of the play. It is only after his recognition of his tragic mistakes that we pity him. In his “Life of Brutus,” by contrast, Plutarch from the beginning presents Brutus as an admirable person whose fortunes we sympathize with, no matter which mistakes he will make in his subsequent career. In this he becomes the prototype of the Shakespearean type of tragic hero, which will recur in Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth. We not only fear for and pity these heroes, we also sympathize with them, no matter how absurd their errors of judgment (Othello) or how heinous their crimes (Macbeth) may be.15 With the deaths of these heroes we are finally released from our contradictory feelings, and may perhaps experience an Aristotelian kátharsis. Far from liberating himself from generic fetters, Shakespeare used Plutarch’s tragic “Life of Brutus” as an inspiration to invent (or re-invent) a tragic recipe of his own, which happened to resemble the Sophoclean/Aristotelian conception of tragedy and would [→ page 110]  become constitutive for later conceptions of the tragic in post-Renaissance Europe.16

Universität Osnabrück

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