Biographia Dramatica (1812), 3:437 Google Books:
Julius Caesar. Trag. by Thomas May. The original MS. of this play, which is in five short acts, is in the possession of Mr. Stephen Jones. The author has affixed his name at the conclusion of the piece.
The manuscript referred to in this passage is now lost, and there exists no more detailed description of its content.
It has been suggested (see "Critical Commentary" below) that the play may have been performed either at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, or at Gray's Inn, but there is no compelling evidence to support these claims.
Latin tragedy (Harbage); closet (?).
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
Although May's passionate interest in Lucan makes the latter's Civil War appear as the most probable source of the play, Caesar's legacy had reached the Renaissance through many other texts, such as Appian's Civil Wars, Plutarch's Lives, Lucan's Civil War, Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Cassius Dio's Roman History and Caesar's own works. In no way can the use of these be ruled out, especially in the light of the plurality of sources May resorted to while composing his other plays with a classical setting.
For Cleopatra, May used, apart from Lucan, "Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and Dio Cassius' Roman History, with details from Pliny's Naturalis Historia, Suetonius' Divus Augustus, Florus' Epitomae, Strabo's Geographica" (Bentley, 4:834, usefully summarizing the scrupulous and painstaking work carried out by Wolf). In the case of Julia Agrippina, he "used the Annales of Tacitus, Joannes Xiphilinus' epitome of Dio Cassius' Roman History, and scattered material from Suetonius, Petronius Arbiter, Sallust, Pliny, and Virgil" (Bentley, 4:838), while "he drew upon Seneca, Statius and Lucan" in the writing of Antigone (Bowers, 192).
For a summary of Catiline's conspiracy, in which Caesar was rumoured to have taken part, see "Catiline's Conspiracy"; for the main events of Caesar's life from the so-called First Triumvirate to his assassination on the Ides of March 44 BCE, see "Caesar and Pompey".
References to the Play
Moore Smith (105) suggests, without providing any kind of evidence, that a production of the play took place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, possibly c. 1616. This is unprovable and not especially probable, even though it is true that "May distinguished himself as a classical scholar" already during his Cambridge years (Bowers, 192).
As far as the dating of the play is concerned, Chester (99) contends as follows:
If we exclude the possibility that May wrote it during the tender years of his residence at Cambridge, two possible dates of composition suggest themselves. The first of these is the period of May's residence at Gray's Inn – that is, 1616 or 1617 – when the play may have been written for performance at the Inns of Court. A more plausible supposition would be a date between 1625 and 1630, during which years May's attention was engaged by Roman history, as witness his English tragedies and his translation of the Pharsalia, the latter a work which undoubtedly served as an important source for the play.
With reference to what is reported in the Biographia Dramatica, Bentley (4:838) suspects "that most of this information is not first-hand. Dr. Chester searched for the manuscript without success. ... The evidence for the authorship or even the existence of this play is so slight as to make speculation concerning its date futile."
Norbrook (ODNB) argues that this play may have shared the political concerns of Julia Agrippina (1628), which "drew on Lucan in a stark portrayal of imperial corruption."
Wiggins (serial number 1669) proposes 1612 as the best guess for the date of composition on the grounds that the play was written in Latin and, therefore, is likely to have belonged to a university context. This leads him to concur with Moore Smith in arguing that May must have written the play during his stay at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (1609-13), even though that specific college 'had no known tradition of any kind of drama'. Wiggins adds that 'composition as a purely literary exercise cannot be ruled out' but excludes the possibility of a performance at Gray's Inn because 'the Inns of Court had no tradition of Latin drama.'
For What It's Worth
Amidst Cleopatra (1626), Antigone (1627-31) and Julia Agrippina (1628), "Julius Caesar" eminently stands out as May's only play with a classical setting to feature a male title character and to have been written in Latin. Given that Cleopatra was performed in 1626, that the first three books of May's translation of Lucan were published in the same year and the complete ten-book version in 1627, and that his Continuation of Lucan's Historical Poem till the Death of Julius Caesar appeared in 1630, it seems overwhelmingly likely that May worked on the play between 1625 and 1630, as suggested by Chester. As Paleit (215) remarks, May's Cleopatra, translation and Continuation initiated his "complex and sustained association with Lucan, which lasted until his death in November 1650. Until then ... he had been primarily a comic dramatist, with a sideline in minor translation work.' May could have written the play while working on the Supplementum Lucani, a translation of his Continuation into Latin dactylic hexameters published in 1640. However, there is no allusion to the play in the Dutch scholar Daniel Heinsius's letters of the period mentioning the fact that May wrote the Supplementum in the Netherlands (Paleit, 286).
In the light of May's admiration of Lucan, the main source of the play was probably the Bellum civile, as was the case with Cleopatra. As Paleit (224-225) points out, close analysis of May's production of the 1620s suggests that he was carefully exploring the multiple analogies between late republican Rome and Caroline England and that he "perceived the English political order ... to be under threat from the claims and practices of Stuart absolutism in the same way that, in Lucan's narrative, the Roman senatorial republic had been threatened (and then overturned) by Julius Caesar and his supporters." May's "Julius Caesar" was possibly informed by similar concerns, and it may have offered a depiction of Caesar akin to the "unflattering portrait of the early Augustus ... offered in Cleopatra, ... criticizing arbitrary distribution of rewards" (Paleit, 236). Moreover, as Jonson exerted a major influence on May’s dramatic writing all along, the latter's play may have also drawn upon the former’s highly negative depiction of Caesar in his 1611 Catiline His Conspiracy (see Lovascio).
The play may have taken the shape of a reduced dramatic version of Lucan's poem and May's own Continuation, and it may have elaborated May's favourite Lucanic themes, namely loss of liberty, the ruinous consequences of ambition and the unintelligible role of providence. However, it is also intriguing to wonder whether the play followed the Continuation and Supplementum in portraying Caesar on the Ides of March as "more of a martyr than a villain" (Norbrook, 63), "as a necessary victim of the historical forces he unleashed though his illegal act of usurpation" (Paleit, 282) despite the overall anti-Caesarean tone of both works. And also, did the play end with Caesar's death like the Continuation and Supplementum or did it include the ensuing war between Brutus and Cassius on the one side, and Antony and Octavian on the other, in attempt to imitate Shakespeare?
The fact that the play remained in manuscript may suggest that the piece was never intended for performance but rather for circulation among a select group of close friends. As writing in Latin may have made him feel somewhat freer to express a stronger anti-Caesarean – and by extension anti-absolutist – sentiment than in his other writings, May might have ended up feeling so uncomfortable with the final content of the play that he never circulated it, fearing to lose any chance of advancement at court. Such a hypothesis would be consistent both with the absence of contemporary references to the play and with May's characteristic uneasiness in publicly taking strong stands on political issues.
Will the manuscript containing the tragedy ever be recovered? As early as 1909, Ayres asked in Notes and Queries: "Can any one tell me where the MS. of Thomas May's tragedy on Julius Caesar is to be found?" Nobody replied. Over 100 years later, the hopes of recovering it appear exceedingly faint.
Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 21 January 2016.