The full title of Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives begins: “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together…” And sometimes this is abbreviated to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, referring to the correspondences that Plutarch drew between Greek and Roman rulers. North then used this same framework for his histories and tragedies, drawing parallels between the main characters in his plays and the historical figures of his translations, e.g., Henry V and Alexander1, King Lear‘s Edgar and Epaminondas; and Northumberland and his son, Hotspur (in 1, 2 Henry IV) and Marcus and Publius Crassus. Similarly, the parallels between Apollonius of Tyre and North’s Pericles were so numerous that, in the play, he switched Appolonius’s name to Pericles.
North also draws similar Plutarchan parallels in Hamlet. For example, Polonius, the busy-body counselor to the murderous Claudius, explains that he once enjoyed acting: “I did enact Julius Caesar,” he says. “I was killed i’th’ Capitol; Brutus killed me.” Hamlet responds with a double-pun: “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there” (3.2.101-6). This is a Northern joke. In his chapter on the death of Caesar, North explains that “brutes” was a term used to mock Brutus’s family name (792). Hamlet’s “capital” also puns on the location of the murder, and his description of Caesar as a “calf” recalls Brutus’s desire to obscure the crime’s savagery by treating its victim as an exalted sacrificial animal: “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers” (2.1.167), says Brutus. As we discovered in his allusion to the story of the tyrant of Pherae, Hamlet knows North’s Plutarch and is able to cite it for appropriate situations. But there is a more ominous purpose to the exchange as well: Hamlet would soon play Brutus to Polonius’s Caesar and stab the counselor to death. Harold C. Goddard also noted these resemblances:
Throughout Hamlet and the early English histories, North stresses the similarities between the civil wars in Caesar’s Rome and the later internal conflicts in both England and Denmark. In all three cases the national strife begins with the same sinister omens—or what North described as the “strange and wonderful signs that were said to be seen before Caesar’s death.” This includes ghosts running up and down the streets, the unusual prominence of owls and other night-birds, especially in the day time, and many “fires in the element,” that is, shooting stars and other strange celestial phenomena. In fact, North’s vivid description of these events appear in Julius Caesar with little change:
|North’s Plutarch||Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar|
|… touching the fires in the element and spirits |
running up and down in the night, also the solitary birds to be seen at noondays sitting in the great market-place… men were seen going up and down in fire;
and, furthermore, that there was
a slave of the soldiers that did cast a marvelous burning flame out of his hand …
|Casca: A common slave—you know him well by sight— |
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn …
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday upon the marketplace,
Hooting and shrieking …
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts
Calpurnia: And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds
— 1.3.15-16, 25-28; 2.2.18-19
This same passage also inspired a speech by Hamlet’s friend Horatio in the opening scene of the tragedy in which he observes that the supernatural phenomena recently observed in Denmark—fiery shooting stars and the ghost of Hamlet’s father—were much like those that preceded the chaos of Caesar’s Rome:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome, A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets; As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood … (Hamlet, 1.1.117-21)
This same foreshadowing “of feared events” (1.1.125), Horatio says, is now rattling Denmark. Horatio, who, like Hamlet, also attends Wittenberg University, evidently shares with the Prince a knowledge of Plutarch.
The last acts of Hamlet also include a number of details related to the history of Caesar that extend the similarities to the chaos involving the Roman civil wars. For example, just before the murder of Polonius, his daughter, Ophelia, tells him how she saw the Prince walking about as if in a trance—silent, distracted, staring, sighing, and unbraced (i.e., with his shirt unbuttoned). Likewise, in Julius Caesar, just before the assassination, Portia describes Brutus, her husband, as walking about as if in a trance—silent, distracted, staring, sighing, and unbraced. The similarity of the reaction arises from the similarity of the circumstances. Brutus and Hamlet are both contemplating regicide.
The parallels continue post-mortem. After Polonius’s death, Claudius worries that his unceremonious burial has agitated the citizenry: “the people muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers / For good Polonius’ death—and we have done but greenly, / In hugger-mugger to inter him” (4.5.82-85). Hugger-mugger is a peculiar Northern phrase suggesting a secret, rushed, and disorderly process. North uses it in an eerily similar circumstance, describing Mark Antony’s concerns that a hasty and clandestine burial of Caesar may anger the public: “Then Antonius thinking … that his body should be honorably buried, and not in hugger mugger, least the people might thereby take occasion to be worse offended” (1063-64).
The suicide of Mark Antony figures the end of the Julian-saga, and in Antony and Cleopatra the dramatist stages the scene: Antony asks his friend and attendant, Eros, to help him with the task. “Thou art sworn,” says Antony, that in such ruinous times as these “on my command / Thou then wouldst kill me: Do’t. The time is come” (4.14.62, 66-67). Eros reluctantly agrees, telling Antony to turn his head so the attendant would not have to look upon Antony’s “noble countenance,” says farewell, and asks “Shall I strike now?” “Now, Eros,” Antony says. But his friend strikes himself with the sword instead: “Thus I do escape the sorrow / Of Antony’s death” (4.14.85, 93-94), says Eros as he dies.
Likewise, Hamlet’s dear friend, Horatio, also decides on suicide as he comforts the dying Prince: “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” Horatio says, as he takes the cup of poison that was meant for Hamlet—just as Eros applies the sword meant for Antony. “Here’s yet some liquor left” (5.2.343-44). But Hamlet stops him and demands that he live to tell his story.
Thus, all throughout the play in Hamlet, the dramatist draws parallels to the events of Rome surrounding Brutus’s assassination of Julius Caesar.
 Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, reprint 2009), 339