Like all of Shakespeare's plays, his Julius Caesar is of course written and performed almost entirely in English. But there is one line of this particular play - perhaps the most famous - which is always reproduced in the original Latin:

CASCA: Speak, hands, for me!

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR

CAESAR: Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.


-- Act III, Scene I (bold emphasis mine)

I've actually never liked this change in language, because it spoils my suspension of disbelief - it reminds the audience that these characters were in ancient Rome and likely to be speaking Latin rather than English, and therefore that all the rest of the dialogue in the play isn't true to life - so I'm curious about what it's supposed to add to the play.

Why this brief switch from English to Latin?

  • 6
    Most probably, Caesar would have said the line in Greek rather than Latin: "Και συ τέκνον", as reported by Suetonius
    – VicAche
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 17:57
  • 1
    @VicAche the greek quote you mentioned and the Latin quote mean slightly different things Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 20:09
  • 2
    Possibly the answer is simply the author's genius, validated by how famous the line has become since his play. (i.e. it has a "ring" to it. My guess is it was probably merely an aesthetic choice, but a very, very good one.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 14:52

1 Answer 1


It's not for the sake of veracity

Whether the historical Caesar pronounced or not the said words is disputed. Of five Antique sources on Caesar's death:

  • Nicolaus of Damascus, Plutarch and Appian do not report the quote
  • Suetonius and later Cassius Dio report it only as a dubious variant to the tradition, but using Ancient Greek rather than Latin: Και συ τέκνον

There is debate as to why Caesar would have switched to Greek for this admonition but as every Roman in the upper circles, Caesar was probably raised in a Greek-speaking environment before learning Latin, and this can be interpreted as a regression to the language of his childhood.

The fact that no ancient sources report the quote in Latin has lead the French and Italian versions to retain another translation, Tu quoque mi fili, probably coined by Lhomond in the 18th century, which brings us to why Shakespeare used another translation of the quote to Latin, Et tu, Brute, in his masterpiece.

It sounded OK to the medieval ear - or even stylish

Mixing Latin and vernacular language was a widespread practice in Medieval Europe. Latin was still the language of scholars and clerics, while vernacular language was taking the spot gradually, so mixing both languages would not have shocked an educated audience in the 14th century. But Shakespeare worked later, and his inclusion of a Latin hemistich was probably motivated by style consideration, mimicking a practice that came to life in 15th century Italy where poets would alternate verses in Italian and Latin. It was probably considered fashionable by Shakespeare to include some Latin at climactic moments of his plays, you can find a list in the article Latin on ShakespearesWords.com.

The sentence was probably proverbial in English at the time

Shakespeare himself used it (in Latin) in Henry VI and Richard Edes features it in Caesar Interfectus in 1582 (17 years before the play we're discussing), which hints toward the fact that the sentence was probably often quoted in the context of similar fates for those that reach power before being used in the play. The audience, I would say, would have been expecting the line and waiting for it rather than shocked by its appearance.

Being "true to life" is by no means one of the objectives of Shakespeare's plays, or at least not being constantly true to life. Alternating between ghosts and lively maid scenes was the man's genius, and realism should definitely not be judged in this case using modern standards.

  • 6
    One other point is that it's (1) Latin and (2) pithy, so it's clearly what Caesar should have said. Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 6:59

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