Essay, Research Paper
by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Type of Work:
Rome,- 44 B.C
Julius Caesar, popular Roman general and statesman
Brutus, a prominent and devout Roman, and close friend to Caesar
Cassius, a conspiring enemy of Caesar
Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s supporter, a brilliant politician
Rome was in an uproar. General Julius Caesar had just returned after having defeated his rival, Pompey His many military triumphs had made him the most powerful man in Rome. The commoners – blindly cheering whoever was in power – flocked into the streets to hail him.
As Caesar passed through the city, a soothsayer caught his attention and called out: “Beware the Ides of March.” But the general ignored the warning; he was too busy refusing the crown offered to him by his compatriot and fellow politician, Marcus Antonius. This humble denial of power fanned within the masses an even greater devotion to their beloved Caesar.
Meanwhile, among the throng stood Cassius, Caesar’s avowed political opponent, and Brutus, the general’s personal friend. Envious of Caesar’s growing popularity, Cassius probed to discover where Brutus’ deepest sympathies lay. He voiced a concern he had: Caesar was becoming overly “ambitious.” Unless something was done to check his fame, he would soon seize all power for himself. This could, effectively, turn the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. Cassius then apprised Brutus of a plot he had hatched : He and a band of other prominent Romans were planning to assassinate Caesar. Was Brutus willing to join in the conspiracy?
Brutus admitted that he shared the same inner concern: “I do fear the people choose Caesar for their king.” But still Brutus hesitated to involve himself in such a plot. After all, he dearly loved and admired Caesar. Even so, he couldn’t deny that Caesar’s rapid rise to power constituted a potential threat to the Republic. Brutus promised Cassius that he would consider the matter, but would withhold his decision until the following day.
The dilemma weighed upon Brutus throughout the night: should be aid in the killing of his beloved friend Caesar, or should he sit by and watch as Caesar destroyed the State?
The plotting band, hoping to gain the support of the highly respected Brutus, paid him an early morning visit. Referring to Caesar as an “immortal god,” presenting false evidence of his intentions, and playing on Brutus’immense love for Rome, Cassius finally prevailed on him to help see to the man’s death; Brutus agreed to take part in his friend’s assassination, to “think of him as a serpent’s egg, which, hatched, would as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.” Assassination – a certain “righteous treason” Brutus reluctantly decided, was justified under the circumstances.
Caesar had announced that he would appear before a vast crowd at the Capitol the next morning – the Ides of March. There the conspirators planned to attack and dagger him to death.
After an eerie night, filled with reports of gaping graves and wandering ghosts throughout the city, Caesar set out early toward the Capitol, despite three separate warnings: an oracle, the self same soothsayer from before, and finally, his wife, Calpurnia, who experienced a violent and horrible dream, all prophesied that his life was in jeopardy.
As predicted, while Caesar stood addressing the multitude, his conspirators surrounded him and stabbed him, one by one. As Brutus finally stepped forward to thrus this dagger into his friend’s side, Caesar whispered, “Et to, Brute?” (”You too, Brutus?”). The great general then fell dead from twenty-three knife wounds.
The onlooking Romans were stunned and horrified, and Brutus immediately arranged for a public funeral where he could placate the masses by justifying the assassination. Then the conspirators bathed their hands in Caesar’s blood and marched through the marketplace, brandishing their weapons over their heads, crying, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
At the funeral, Brutus sought to convince the angry mourners why it was requisite that Caesar die. Despite his love for Caesar, he frankly and honestly felt that he had been forced to kill him in order to save Rome from dictatorship. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” he began.
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it, as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There are tears, for his love, joy, for his fortune; honour, for his valor; and death for his ambition … as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself when it shall please my country to need my death.
His eloquence won over the heart of every Roman in the throng. They forgave Brutus and even cried, “Let him be Caesar!” But then, ill-advisedly, Brutus invited Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s right-hand man, to address the crowd. Though Antonius had pretended at the time to tolerate the conspirators and accept their action, in fact, he regarded them as “butchers,” and secretly vowed to avenge the murder. Antonius rose to deliver an even more brilliant and impassioned speech, in which he defended Caesar and forcefully, yet indirectly, condemned Brutus:
Friends, Romans, country men, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar.
The noble Brutus both told you Caesar was ambitious; If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer’d it, here, under leave of Brutus and the rest …. For Brutus is an honourablc man; so are they all, all honourable men.
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious: And Brutus is an honourable man. He [Caesar] both brought many captives home to Rome, whose ransoms did the general coffersfill; Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept; ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man. You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice prese led him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, surely, he is an Honourable man …
Antonius’ listeners were so moved by his words that they now turned in rage against Brutus, driving him and his cohorts from the city. Then Antonius, with the help and encouragement of his friend, Octavian, an adopted relative of Caesar’s, raised an army to hunt down the confederates.
But Brutus, having fled to Sardis, mustered his own army to counter this attack. Joined by Cassius and other insurgents, he determined to meet Antonius’ troops at Phillipi.
The night before the battle, however, everything went askew for Brutus and his allies. Cassius and Brutus quarreled constantly over military strategy; then, news came that Brutus’ wife, ashamed by her husband’s actions, had killed herself at Rome; and, if this were not enough, Brutus received a visit to his tent from an alarming guest: none other than the Ghost of Caesar himself. The tide of fortune had long turned against the conspirators; they were soundly defeated the next day. In the heat of battle, Cassius, rather than be captured, took his life with his own sword, while calling up slain Caesar’s spirit with the words: “Caesar, thou art revenged, even with the sword that killed thee.” Brutus, seeing Cassius’ body, likewise sensed the presence of Caesar’s ghost, and cried, “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!”
When Brutus found his army surrounded, he begged that his men kill him. They refused. The commander then ordered a servant to hold his sword and to avert his face. Brutus ran onto the sword and died an agonizing death.
Before returning to Rome, Octavian, the future emperor, along with Caesar’s loyal friend Antonius, paid tribute to Brutus; for here was a man, struggling in the midst of a tragic clash between two great loyalties, who, though deceived, had proved with his own blood and the blood of a friend be loved, his unconquerable devotion to his country. “This was the noblest Roman of them all…
The reader cannot study Julius Caesar with an eye to learning Roman history. As usual, Shakespeare significantly alters actual sequences and events. For instance, the play is compressed into six days’ time, while the events, as recorded in history, took place over the space of three years.
The play’s central figure turns out to be not Julius Caesar at all, but Brutus, who (like Hamlet) feels compelled to commit a murder for the sake of a principle. All his life noble Brutus had been faithfull- and through a labyrinthine tangle of plots, politics, and power bids, he had distinguished himself for his integrity, honor, and courage, so that, even after his defeat, his enemies recognize him as their moral superior.
Aside from the political intrigue of the plot, the play is filled with brilliant speeches, timeless both for their declamatory techniques and for the passions they reflect and evoke. Read from Cassius’ speech as he fumes over Caesar’s faults; or turn to the touching plea of Brutus’ wife for her husband to surrender and return home to her. And certainly, the two speeches delivered by Brutus and Antonius at the funeral are classics in oratory.