If Shakespeare had written nothing but Julius Caesar, he would still be the greatest of all the recreators of the glory of Rome and that intensity of restraint – so much fire, so much ice – that you get in Cicero’s speeches (‘O tempora. O mores!’), which is given an apparitional power in Cassius’s speech seducing Brutus to sedition. ‘Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves.’ Which is one reason why T.S. Eliot said Shakespeare got more history out of Plutarch than someone else would have got out of the British Museum.
Julius Caesar is kicked on tremendously by the fact that these speeches, which have such grandeur in themselves, also further the action, and that action results in civil war, so that politics is brought alive by its transfiguration into drama of the most stirring sword-and-sandals variety.
All you need for Julius Caesar are three, preferably four, leading men, drawn from the best pool available to you. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 film, which tends to be the yardstick, we have James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius, and the young Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, fresh from A Streetcar Named Desire and proving what a staggering classical actor he would have been if he’d stuck to Shakespeare. The Caesar is the veteran American actor Louis Calhern, and his wife Calpurnia is played by Greer Garson, while Portia, Brutus’s beloved, is Deborah Kerr.