BMCR 2007.04.36

M. A. Muret, Iulius Caesar, M. Virdung, Brutus: Zwei Neulateinische Tragödien, Text, Übersetzung und Interpretation

, , , M.A. Muret, Julius Caesar, M. Virdung, Brutus : zwei neulateinische Tragödien : Text, Übersetzung und Interpretation. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 235. Munich: Saur, 2006. x, 336 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783598778476 €84.00.

As the title indicates, this book contains the Latin text of two sixteenth-century plays, Iulius Caesar by Marc-Antoine Muret, and Brutus by Michael Virdung. Hagmaier has added a translation of each play into lucid German prose, a conspectus metrorum, and a commentary. Muret’s play is the first in a long line of Renaissance dramatizations of the death of Julius Caesar, probably known to Shakespeare. Virdung’s is likely to be less familiar to modern readers1 but at least as good a play. Although H’s edition will certainly be useful to scholars of Renaissance drama, anyone who teaches Latin might also have a look: after all, these plays were originally written for high-school students.

Marc-Antoine Muret (1526-1585) wrote his Iulius Caesar in the 1540s and published it in 1552 with other juvenilia (p. 5-9). It was performed by his students at the Collège de Guyenne, possibly including Michel de Montaigne. It is his only drama. The play is 570 lines long, divided into five acts separated by choral songs; H points out that Muret and Virdung were both careful to follow the “rules” of ancient drama as they had learned them from Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and observation of Seneca’s practice (p. 149); of course both Muret and Virdung accepted all ten of the plays in the Senecan corpus as genuine. The action takes place on the Ides of March, 44 BC. The first act is a speech by Caesar in which he expresses his great ambition:

Quid ergo restat, quidve dignum Caesare
Subacta tellus exhibere ultra potest?
Caelum petendum est; terra iam vilet mihi. (lines 24-26)

The second act begins with a matching speech by Brutus, in which he reminds himself that he is a descendant of the Brutus who drove out the tyrants. Cassius enters and encourages him. The third act is a scene between Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and her nurse: Calpurnia has had a dream which makes her fear for Caesar’s life. In the fourth act, she has told her husband about the dream, but he insists on going to the senate anyway. Decimus Brutus also appears in this act, for no very strong reason. The fifth act opens with Marcus Brutus and Cassius addressing the Roman people:

Spirate cives: Caesar interfectus est. (l. 438)

They celebrate the liberation of Rome, then exit; Calpurnia enters and laments. After a brief song from the chorus, Caesar speaks from heaven, explaining that he is now a god. Calpurnia is consoled. “Sunt manes aliquid,” say the chorus as they begin the closing song.

Michael Virdung (1575-1637) wrote several tragedies, including Saul and Thrasea as well as Brutus. He was professor of history and rhetoric, later also of political science, in the University of Nuremberg, at Altdorf. His Brutus was first published in 1596, and revised significantly for the 1609 edition. H’s main text is the 1609 version, but he includes as an appendix the 1596 version and the relatively small changes made to the play in 1598.

Virdung’s Brutus takes place some years later than Muret’s play, at the time of the battle of Philippi. It begins as Muret’s ends, with the ghost of Julius Caesar, though instead of rejoicing at his apotheosis, this Caesar anticipates a bloody battle which he hopes will lead to vengeance for his own murder. The title character appears in the second act, expressing his fears about the coming battle. His friend Lucilius enters and offers encouragement. In the third act we see Antony, rather more confident than Brutus. By the fourth act the battle is nearly over, and Brutus proposes to flee, but not on foot ( Fugiamus, at non pedibus, l. 523) — that is, to kill himself. The final act opens with a jubilant Antony ( Exsultat animus, mens triumphat gaudio, l. 600) celebrating victory and ends as he orders that Brutus be buried honorably.

Both plays are in good Latin, sounding much like Seneca or Ovid. I found more striking lines in Virdung than in Muret (for example, illutibarbum, crinibus squallentibus (B. l. 235), describing a corpse), but each play is quite readable.

Along with the texts, H gives an apparatus criticus for each play, based on the previous printed editions. In the case of Muret’s play, there are editions at intervals through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, two in the nineteenth, and four twentieth-century editions, by J. Foster, D. Schmitz, P. Blanchard, and V. Leroux. Virdung’s play has not been re-edited since 1609. Because these are early modern texts, in print rather than in manuscript, there are fewer textual problems than a classicist expects to find in ancient texts: no lacunae, no seriously distorted words. H records differences in punctuation as well as in actual readings; for Brutus, since he prints the previous edition in its entirety, this is the only apparatus. For Julius Caesar, there are some four pages of variant readings, relatively few given the length of the play.

Each play is also furnished with a conspectus metrorum. The dialogue is in iambic trimeters throughout. The choruses use stichic meters or simple stanza forms (alcaic stanza, sapphic stanza). All of the meters of the choral songs are used by classical Roman poets, and almost all occur in Seneca’s choruses; the primary exception is the alcaic stanza of Julius Caesar l. 196-239, which Seneca does not use. Muret also has a passage in glyconics alternating with lesser asclepiads (glyconic with choriambic expansion), l. 52-91. Seneca uses each of these meters separately, but not together. H has little to say about the meters in his commentary, as they are quite straightforward, though there are occasional good observations, such as the comment that the run of short syllables in l. 135 ( At nomen illud refugit et oblatas sibi | Reicit coronas.) reflects Caesar’s brusque rejection of the crown (p. 93-94).

The translations are printed facing the Latin. They are in prose, in somewhat simpler style than H’s introductions and commentary. H is quite careful to use consistent equivalents for key terms; for example, sors, a frequent word in both plays, is always Schicksal. He reproduces the elaborate periphrases rather than glossing, so for example resurgens aureis Phoebus comis ( Julius Caesar l. 2) is Phöbus … mit seinem goldenen Strahlen erhebend instead of simply die Sonne or the like. As a result, the translation gives a good sense of how the Latin reads as well as just what it says.

The heart of the book is the commentaries on the two plays, which are extensive and detailed, with lists of parallel passages in classical authors. For example, on the line quoted just above, H cites three plays of Seneca, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ennius, Catullus, Lucretius, and Vergil, accounting for the use of various words and collocations. The commentary considers the plays both in themselves, with particular attention to character development, and as successors to Senecan drama. Additional essays discuss sources, mostly Plutarch, and how these plays fit into Renaissance conceptions of literary and dramatic genre. H’s careful close reading illuminates the style and structure of the two plays.

The book closes with a brief bibliography: two pages listing previous editions, mostly of the Muret play, and two pages of references to scholarship (covering five languages and as many centuries). Clearly there is scope for more work here, both on these plays and on Renaissance Latin drama in general, and it is to be hoped that this excellent book will inspire it.


1. Virdung’s name does not appear in the index to either the Companion to Neo-Latin Studies (J. Ijsewijn, Leuven: 1990) or The Classical Tradition (G. Highet, Oxford: 1949).