Shakespeare creates a Rome in which he brings together and reinvents Rome's political and military brilliance and the work of its greatest poets and historians. As Shakespeare's Romans have become to a great extent "our" Romans, the critical tendency has been to ignore his manipulations and read these plays as promulgating and continuing a unified tradition of "classical" values.
But the line of descent is not so clear, and Shakespeare's Roman individuals are, in fact, diminished by this tradition. His Rome often seems to function less as a place name than as an incantation of history and ideology, while his individual Romans struggle to escape this cultural determination. They speak and act as though defining individual identity were simply a matter of defining this cultural entity, this "Rome," but reveal (in soliloquy, by juxtaposition with alternate social constructions, and through class conflict) their inability to construct cohesive private states of being. Shakespeare's Roman plays thus become tacit investigations into the core ethical foundations upon which Rome built its classical legacy.
Romanness in Shakespeare connotes a divided quality of being; the cultural legacy shared by all Romans makes every Roman an avatar of the state, but individual Romans cannot fully translate their shared history into present action. The conflict is one between the passive acceptance of a generic and glorious past, and the implementation of this past at the expedient level demanded by the action of the plays: determining reasons to kill Caesar in Julius Caesar, transferring martial prowess into bureaucratic efficiency in Coriolanus, and interpreting masculine glamor through the critical perceptions of a feminine culture in Antony and Cleopatra . The plays are linked by the gap between Rome as a cultural entity and its citizens, who are searching for a practical and individual ethic.
The chapters are organized as they illuminate this division. I introduce the major Roman plays with a general discussion of Rome's paradoxical status: as a system or culture it continually disappoints the citizens who turn to it for ethical instruction, while at the same time it produces individuals who identify completely with it. Next I discuss the stoicism of Julius Caesar as it is an emblematic philosophy of Rome's ethical failure. In Coriolanus, the nascent republic of Rome tries and fails to carve out a sphere of self-containment and self-renewal, a failure paralleled by Coriolanus' failure to adequately represent it. Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes Rome at its most powerful and most fragile. It is at the peak of its imperial efficiency, yet vulnerable to Cleopatra, and Shakespeare draws an imaginative and potential correlation between the apparently dissimilar states of Rome and Egypt. The final chapter looks briefly at Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline, as plays bracketing the major works (and Shakespeare's career) but sharing an ethical viewpoint that looks ahead to later seventeenth-century depictions of Rome.