Caesar 6 Essay, Research Paper
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Julius Caesar is a play about a political assassination. The
question it asks is: is it ever right to use force to remove a ruler
from power? You, as readers, can answer that question in terms of your
own experience in the last quarter of the 20th century. But if
you’re going to figure out what Shakespeare thought, you’ll have to
know something about the values and concerns of the Elizabethan
world in which he lived.
History plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616)
because this was the Age of Discovery, and English men and women
were hungry to learn about worlds other than their own. But the
Elizabethans also saw history as a mirror in which to discover
themselves and find answers to the problems of their lives. A play
like Julius Caesar taught the Elizabethans about Roman politics; it
also offered an object lesson in how to live. What was Shakespeare
trying to teach his contemporaries?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at Elizabethan
attitudes toward (a) monarchy and (b) order.
Today we believe in democracy and are suspicious of anyone who seeks
unlimited power. We know what can happen when a Hitler or a Stalin
takes control of a government, and we know just how corrupting power
can be. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries had no such prejudice
against strong rulers. Their queen, Elizabeth I, ruled with an iron
hand for forty-five years (from 1558 to 1603), yet her subjects had
great affection for her. Under her rule the arts flourished and the
economy prospered. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in war,
mostly between Catholics and Protestants, England enjoyed a period
relatively free from civil strife. Elizabeth’s reign- and the reign of
other Tudor monarchs, beginning with Henry VII in 1485- brought an end
to the anarchy that had been England’s fate during the Wars of the
Roses (1455-84). To Shakespeare and his contemporaries the message was clear: only a strong, benevolent ruler could protect the peace and
save the country from plunging into chaos again. Shakespeare would
probably not have approved of the murder of Caesar.
In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Elizabeth was old
and failing. She had never married and had no children to succeed her.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have worried greatly that
someone (like Brutus? like Cassius?) would try to grab power and
plunge the country into civil war.
When the Elizabethans spoke of order, they didn’t just mean
political or social order. Though they lived during what we call today
the English Renaissance, they still held many medieval views about man
and his relation to the universe. They knew the world was round, and
that the earth was one of many planets spinning in space. And they
knew from explorers that there were continents besides their own.
But most believed, as people in the Middle Ages believed, that the
universe was ruled by a benevolent God, and that everything, from
the lowest flower to the angels on high, had a divine purpose to
fulfill. The king’s right to rule came from God himself, and
opposition to the king earned the wrath of God and threw the whole
system into disorder. Rulers had responsibilities, too, of course:
if they didn’t work for the good of the people, God would hold them to
account. No one in this essentially medieval world lived or functioned
in isolation. Everyone was linked together by a chain of rights and
obligations, and when someone broke that chain, the whole system broke
down and plunged the world into chaos. What destroys the divine
harmony in Julius Caesar- Cassius’ jealousy, Caesar’s ambition, or the
fickleness of the mob- is something you’ll have to decide for
yourself. But whatever the cause, the results offend the heavens and
throw the entire country into disarray.
Today a sense of hopelessness and despair hangs over us: a
mistake, a simple misunderstanding, and the bomb may drop and
destroy life on earth. Our fate, we feel, is out of our control. But
the Elizabethans were much more optimistic. Forget chance: if
something went wrong, then someone had broken God’s laws, the laws
of the universe. Many would suffer, but in the end the guilty would be
punished and order restored.
Julius Caesar begins with a human act that, like a virus, infects
the body of the Roman state. No one is untouched; some grow sick, some
die. But in time the poison works its way out of the system and the
state grows healthy again. In Shakespeare’s world, health, not
sickness, is the natural condition of man in God’s divine plan.
- THE PLOT
The working people of Rome are overjoyed: Julius Caesar has beaten
Pompey’s sons in battle, and everyone’s getting a day off from work to
celebrate Caesar’s triumphant return. But two Roman officers,
Flavius and Marullus, chase the crowds away: how dare the citizens
support a tyrant who threatens to undermine hundreds of years of
Republican (representative) rule! Don’t they know that Caesar wants to
Caesar parades by in full glory, just in time to help celebrate
the races on the Feast of Lupercal. A soothsayer bids him “Beware
the ides of March” (March 15), but Caesar- anxious not to show fear in
public dismisses the man as a dreamer. The procession passes by,
leaving behind two Roman Senators: Cassius, a long-time political
enemy of Caesar, and Brutus, Caesar’s friend. Like other members of
the Senate, Brutus and Cassius are aristocrats who fear that Caesar
will take away their ancient privileges.
Cassius now goes to work on Brutus, flattering him, reminding him of
his noble ancestry, trying all the while to determine just how unhappy
Brutus is with Caesar and just how willing Brutus is to join the
conspiracy. Does Brutus know where Cassius is leading him? It’s hard
to tell. Brutus admits only that he’s dissatisfied, and agrees to
discuss the matter further.
Caesar, now back from the races, tells his friend Antony that he
doesn’t trust a man like Cassius, with his “lean and hungry look.”
He has good reason to be suspicious.
Casca tells Brutus and Cassius how the Roman people three times
offered Caesar the crown, and how three times he refused it. Perhaps
Caesar doesn’t want to be king- that’s what his friends would argue;
but to his enemies, Caesar was merely playing on the gullibility of
the people, pretending to be humble in order to win their support.
On a stormy night full of mysterious omens, Cassius converts Casca
to his cause and arranges for Cinna, a fellow-conspirator, to throw
a message through Brutus’ window. The note will, he hopes, win the
noble Senator to their side.
Alone in his garden, Brutus tries to justify the part he is about to
play in the murder of his friend, Caesar. He decides finally that
Caesar’s ambition poses a grave danger to the future of the Republic
and that Caesar should be destroyed, not for what he is, but for
what he’s likely to become. The conspirators arrive at Brutus’ house
and agree to murder Caesar the next day at the Capitol. They would
like to murder Antony, too, but Brutus, anxious to keep his hands
clean and to preserve his precious honor, insists that Antony be
After the conspirators leave, Brutus’ wife Portia enters. She
wants to know what’s happening. Brutus worries that the news may be
too frightening for her to bear, but nevertheless confides in her.
Caesar has had a restless night, too. His wife Calpurnia tries to
keep him home- she senses evil in the air- and at first he relents.
But the conspirators arrive and persuade him to go to the Senate as
planned. What would happen to his reputation if his public thought the
mighty Caesar was swayed by a superstitious wife!
Calpurnia’s fears turn out to be more than superstitions, for the
day is March 15, the ides of March. Caesar ignores two more warnings
and, after delivering a speech full of extravagant self-praise, he
is stabbed by the conspirators and dies.
Antony, learning of the murder of his dearest friend, begs the
conspirators to let him speak at the funeral. Believing that right
is on his side, Brutus agrees, over the objections of his more
realistic friends. Left alone, Antony vows to revenge the death of
Caesar, even if it means plunging his country into civil war. In the
meantime, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavius, has arrived on
the outskirts of Rome, and Antony advises him to wait there till he
can gauge the mood of the country.
Brutus’ funeral oration is a measured, well-reasoned speech,
appealing to the better instincts of the people and to their
abstract sense of duty to the state. For a moment he wins them over.
But then Antony inflames the crowds with an appeal to their
emotions. Showing them Caesar’s bloody clothes turns them into an
angry mob, hungry for revenge. Blind with hate, they roam the
streets and tear apart the innocent poet Cinna.
Antony and Octavius now join forces with Lepidus to pursue and
destroy the conspirators, who have fled from Rome. Anyone who might
endanger their cause is coldly put to death. Brutus and Cassius
await this new triumverate at their camp near Sardis in Asia Minor.
Should Cassius let an officer take bribes? Brutus, standing on his
principles, says no, and vents his anger on his friend. At the root of
his anger, however, is his unspoken sorrow at the death of his beloved
wife Portia. Apparently unable to deal with such an unsettling
situation, she went mad and took her life by swallowing hot coals.
Sadness over her death brings Brutus and Cassius back together
again, closer perhaps than before.
At night Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar, who vows to
meet him again on the battlefield at Philippi in Greece. The next
day the two armies- the army of Brutus and Cassius, and the army of
Antony and Octavius- stand in readiness at Philippi while the four
generals battle each other with words. In the first encounter, Brutus’
troops defeat Octavius’, and Antony’s troops overcome Cassius’.
Cassius, retreating to a nearby hill, sends his trusted friend
Titinius to find out whether approaching troops are friends or foes.
Is Titinius captured? It appears so; and Cassius, believing he has
sent his good friend to his death and that the battle is lost, takes
If only Cassius hadn’t acted so rashly he might have saved his life,
for the reports turn out to be false and Titinius still lives. Brutus,
not the enemy, arrives, and mourns the death of his friend.
The tide now turns against Brutus. Sensing defeat, and unwilling
to endure the dishonor of capture, he runs on his sword and dies. Like
Caesar and Cassius, he thinks in his final moments not of power or
personal glory, but of friendship.
Antony delivers a eulogy over Brutus’ body, calling him “the noblest
Roman of them all.” Octavius agrees to take all of Brutus’ men into
his service, a gesture of reconciliation that bodes well for the
In order to discuss Shakespeare’s play intelligently you have to
make up your mind about (1) Caesar’s character, and (2) Caesar’s
threat to the Roman Republic. Either Caesar deserves to be
assassinated, or he doesn’t. On your answer hangs the meaning of the
On one hand, Caesar is a tyrant whose ambition poses a real danger
to the Republic. In that case, the hero of the play is Brutus. On
the other hand, Caesar may be vain and arrogant, but he is the only
ruler strong enough to hold the Roman Republic together, and a
flawed ruler is better than none at all. In that case, Brutus
becomes an impractical idealist who is manipulated by a group of
Whatever your position, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare wants to
show us the private side of a public man, and to remind us that our
heroes are, like the rest of us, only human. In public, Caesar is
worshipped like a god; in private, he is superstitious, deaf, and
subject to fits of epilepsy (falling sickness). Caesar’s public
image is like a mask he wears to hide his weaknesses from others and
from himself. Yet at the moment of death his mask slips, and we see
another Caesar who values friendship above all.
Let’s look at Caesar in three different ways.
1. Caesar’s personal shortcomings are one reason to remove him
from power. Another is his ambition, which threatens to undermine
the power of the people and their elected representatives.
It’s true that Antony calls Caesar “the noblest man / That ever
lived in the tide of times” (Act III, Scene i, lines 256-257), but why
believe Antony- a man blindly devoted to his master, who is so bad a
judge of character that he says of Cassius:
Fear him not, Caesar, he’s not dangerous;
Act I, Scene ii, line 196
Caesar’s refusal to accept the crown is no more than a cynical
political gesture to impress the masses. His speech comparing
himself to the North Star is the height of arrogance and blasphemy.
His refusal to pardon Publius Cimber is the mark of a man incapable of justice or pity. Such a man is a tyrant who knows no limits and
deserves to be destroyed.
2. Caesar may be ambitious, but what of it? Ambition in itself is
neither good nor bad. Today, in our democratic age, we are
suspicious of politicians who seek unlimited power, but the
Elizabethans in Shakespeare’s time lived under a strong monarchy and
would have had no such prejudice against strong rulers. If Shakespeare
had wanted to show that Caesar was unfit to rule, he could have
found evidence to support that point of view in Elizabethan history
books; but nowhere in the play does he show Caesar suppressing civil
liberties. Brutus himself is forced to admit:
and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason.
Act II, Scene i, lines 19-21
A politician should be judged for his accomplishments, not for his
private life. Even if Caesar is inflexible, the times demand such
In his personal life, Caesar is considerate to his wife, courteous
to the conspirators, and generous to the Roman people. He may be vain,
but he has something to be vain about. Friends and enemies alike
praise his courage and his accomplishments on the battlefield- can
they all be wrong?
3. Caesar may be neither a hero nor a villain, but, like people in
real life, a mixture of both. Educated theater-goers in
Shakespeare’s time had this double image of Caesar, and Shakespeare
may have enjoyed reinforcing and undercutting their preconceptions
without ever resolving them.
Shakespeare had one other reason to make Caesar a mixture of good
and evil: if Caesar were too noble, Brutus would become a simple
villain; if Caesar were too evil, Brutus would become a simple hero.
In either case the moral dilemma raised by the assassination would
no longer exist.
How you yourself react to Caesar will perhaps say as much about
you as it says about him. People with a strong need for political
order in their lives may want to defend him. Those of you with a
more democratic faith in the individual may prefer to see him as a
threat to the people, and sympathize with Brutus.
Scholars, actors, students- all have disagreed about Brutus and will
continue to disagree as long as Julius Caesar is being read and
You can view Brutus as a man of high principles and integrity- a man
who is defeated, not by any personal shortcomings, but by the
underhandedness of Cassius, the fickleness of the mob, and the
inevitable march of Roman history from a republic to a monarchy.
You can also see Brutus as a windbag- an unfeeling, self-righteous
bore who cloaks his evil deeds in high principles and plunges his
country into civil war.
Which is the “real” Brutus? It depends in part on whether you
think the assassination was necessary. It also depends on whether
you think Brutus uses language to convey the truth, or to hide from
it. Take these lines of his:
For let the gods so speed me, as I love
The name of honor more than I fear death.
Act I, Scene ii, lines 88-89
Brutus thinks he is telling the truth- but is he? Would a truly
honorable man need to call attention to his honor?
One point is indisputable: Brutus believes in his principles, and
his principles do, to some extent, control his behavior. He stands
apart from all the other characters in the way he is influenced by
ideas, rather than by feelings or the wish for personal gain.
Cassius assassinates Caesar because he is jealous of him; Brutus
acts only for what he considers the best interests of the state.
Antony is a man of action who pauses only to consider the best way
of getting from A to B; Brutus is a man of ideas who weighs his
behavior in terms of Right and Wrong. Antony believes that brute
strength and passion rule the world, and manipulates people
accordingly; Brutus believes that reason rules the world, and that
people can be swayed by the power of truth and logic. Cassius and
Antony see life as a game or competition in which reewards go to the
strongest or swiftest; Brutus sees life as a confrontation of ideas in
which rewards go to the just. He is such a private and
self-contained man that he won’t even share the news of his wife’s
death with his good friend Cassius.
Brutus is high-minded, but his principles do not seem to prepare him
very well for dealing with a corrupt world. He cannot recognize
motives that are less noble than his own, and is therefore preyed upon
by unscrupulous politicians. As Cassius himself says behind Brutus’
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honorable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed; therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so from that cannot be seduced?
Act I, Scene ii, lines 308-312
Brutus’ principles force him to spare Antony’s life and to let
Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. His own speech lacks power (compared
to Antony’s) because he assumes that people can be led by reason. An
honorable man, he uses language to communicate the truth rather than
to stir up the emotions of the people; he doesn’t understand that
people want to be led- if not by Caesar, then by someone else.
Some readers see Brutus as a bookish man who can function only in
a world of ideas. True, he is not much of a politician; but is it fair
to describe him as a man whose head is in the clouds? Cassius, after
all, is constantly asking and taking his advice. It is Brutus who
calls for action and who takes the offensive at Philippi; and it is
Brutus, not Antony, who wins the battle. Brutus does make some
unwise decisions, but does that mean he is incapable of functioning in
Almost all the characters in Julius Caesar struggle to be better
than they are, and Brutus is no exception. He, too, falls short of his
ideals. Although he insists on living by the loftiest principles,
Cassius gets him to join the conspiracy by flattering him and
appealing to his sense of family pride.
Brutus tries to live by reason alone, yet he cannot sleep at
night, and is so plagued by a guilty conscience that Caesar’s ghost
appears to him in a dream. In his argument with Cassius, Brutus is
reduced to a squabbling child- perhaps because he is mad with grief
(though he tries not to show it) over the death of his wife. In the
end Brutus takes his own life, in violation of his Stoic philosophy,
which demands that he accept whatever fate holds in store for him.
Is Brutus a hero, then- or is he a villain? Let’s look at him in
1. Brutus is a man who cares more about principles than people-
who uses principles to justify the murder of a friend. He is so
blinded by ideals that he cannot see into his own heart, or
recognize the needs of the world. He is a moral snob who dislikes
debate or compromise and always insists on getting his own way.
This Brutus knows exactly what Cassius is up to, but lets himself be
led in order to keep his own hands clean. He is a hypocrite who
hides behind lofty principles and pretty phrases. Despite his
reputation for honor, he is easily flattered and concerned about his
reputation. His pride causes him to dismiss Cicero- a potential rival-
even though Cicero is the greatest orator of the times.
In his refusal to accept his human limitations, Brutus is as vain
and dangerous as Caesar.
2. Brutus is simply too noble for the world he lives in. He
sacrifices his friend Caesar to do what is best for his country. He
remains faithful to his principles to the end. Everyone, even
Caesar, admires him and seeks his friendship. He is a tragic figure
only because he tries to be better than he can, and falls.
Hero or villain- could Brutus possibly be both? Does the world
need more men of principle, or less? Shakespeare forces us to ask
these questions, but lets us find answers for ourselves.
There are many sides to Cassius. This makes him difficult to pin
down or sum up in a phrase- but it also makes him true to life.
Here are two opinions of Cassius. From Caesar:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Act I, Scene ii, lines 194-195
The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow [equal].
Act V, Scene iii, lines 99-101
Both judgments are true- and false, for Cassius is different men
to different people. Depending on how a person treats him, he can be
loving or ruthless, gentle or hard, passionate or aloof. One moment he
is deceiving his dear friend Brutus; the next, he is craving affection
When we first meet Cassius, he is busy lying, flattering, forging
letters, subverting the principles of his good friend Brutus. Caesar’s
opinion of him seems right on target. He’s not motivated by the best
interests of Rome, but by the desire for revenge on a man who
doesn’t like him, Jealousy moves him- jealousy of the fame and power
of a man he considers no more worthy than himself.
Caesar calls Cassius a “lean and hungry” man, and you may want to
take this as the final word on Cassius and interpret all his actions
in this light. But Caesar’s verdict is not the only one. Cassius’ love
for Brutus, for instance, seems quite genuine- particularly after
the assassination. Cassius has many admirers and friends who are
willing to fight and die for him. After the argument with Brutus,
Cassius shows good-natured tolerance for the Poet. As death
approaches, Cassius realizes that he is not the measure of all things,
and that there are forces at work in the universe beyond his
understanding and control. He takes his life, not because he has
lost the battle, but because he believes (mistakenly) that he has
caused the death of a friend.
Almost everything Cassius says and does, both before and after the
assassination, can be interpreted as a direct, emotional reaction to
people. He responds to people as Brutus responds to ideas. Whether
he is conspiring to kill Caesar or asking for Brutus’ love, Cassius is
motivated by a boyish need for affection, and by a boyish hatred of
those who refuse it. His reasons for killing Caesar seem to be
strictly personal. Caesar, his close boyhood friend, has rejected him.
“Caesar doth bear me hard,” he says- Caesar bears a grudge against
me and therefore must be destroyed.
When Cassius meets Brutus, he is disturbed by the absence of “that
gentleness / And show of love as I was wont [accustomed] to have” (Act
I, Scene ii, lines 33-34). In the quarrel scene, Cassius tells Brutus,
like a pouting child, “You love me not” (Act IV, Scene iii, line
88). What upsets Cassius most are not Brutus’ accusations but the fact
that Brutus does not have “love enough” to bear with him.
Cassius’ spitefulness and his craving for affection are childlike.
He seems genuinely perplexed that Caesar, a man no stronger than
himself, could become so powerful. He behaves like a boy who discovers
that his idol has clay feet, and destroys it rather than live with its
imperfections. “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease” (Act I, Scene
ii, line 208), says Caesar.
If you reread Cassius’ speech against Caesar (Act I, Scene ii, lines
90-161), you’ll see how Cassius equates worthiness with such
traditionally masculine traits as physical strength and endurance.
Perhaps because he has so little sense of himself, and of his own
worth, he suffers from a sensitive ego, and measures himself not
against some abstract standards of right and wrong (as Brutus does),
but against others.
Cassius blames himself for giving Caesar so much power:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Act I, Scene ii, lines 140-141
These are the words of a spiritual outcast, who sees himself alone
in the universe. Only as death nears does Cassius recognize himself as
part of a divine plan, and achieve some measure of peace.
Cassius, we learn from Caesar, “hears no music.” Here’s what Lorenzo
in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice says about his type:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted
Act V, Scene i, lines 83-88
To Shakespeare, an inability to hear music was, quite literally,
an inability to hear the harmonies of the universe. The fact that
Cassius hears no music does not in itself make him evil, but it does
reveal a lack of inner harmony, and a restlessness that can never be
Cassius and Caesar are enemies in life, but the two are almost
indistinguishable at the moment of death. Both let their masks slip,
and reveal the gentleness that lies beneath. At this moment of
truth, there is no masculine talk of revenge- no war cries or
curses- but a simple lament for the betrayal of friends.
There are many “Antonys.” One of them is passionate and impulsive;
the other is in complete control of his emotions. One can cry over the
death of his dear friend Caesar; the other condemns his associates
to death without batting an eyelash. One makes a powerful political
speech with perfect understanding of human nature; the other can be so
mistaken about human nature that he calls Cassius “not dangerous.”
Can such opposites exist within the same man? It’s possible that
Shakespeare couldn’t make up his mind about Antony, and painted an
unfinished portrait of him. It’s also possible that Shakespeare was
trying to portray the many sides of an opportunist. An opportunist
is a person who adjusts his values to suit his purposes; who uses
people and events to get what he wants, regardless of principles or
consequences. If Antony is such a man, it is understandable that, like
a chameleon, he would change colors from one moment to the next.
How different Antony is from Brutus! Brutus stands behind his
principles, refusing to be swayed by circumstance; Antony never lets
principles stand in the way of success. Brutus’ conscience keeps him
up at night; tactics, manoeuvres, schemes- these are what concern
A modern man, Antony takes the world as he finds it and uses
whatever means are necessary to get what he wants. Life for him is a
game- serious, but a game nonetheless- and he is a skillful player who
knows how to win.
Antony is an opportunist, yes, but is he evil? Look closely at his
words and actions, and you can find evidence to support that point
of view. In his famous funeral oration, for instance, nothing could be
more offensive than the way he fires up the masses by appealing to
their basest emotions. And nothing could be more irresponsible than
the way he unleases the “dogs of war”- bringing death and
destruction to innocent and guilty alike.
Antony is cynical, callous and unprincipled, yet he is motivated not
by personal ambition but by the desire to revenge the death of a
friend. His almost dog-like devotion to Caesar reveals a deep capacity
for loyalty and affection. He is cunning, but, unlike Brutus,
completely honest with himself. He may manipulate people, but he
speaks with conviction, and what he says is deeply felt. His funeral
oration is more effective than Brutus’ because he speaks from the
In the end, Antony (with Octavius’ help), triumphs. Is Shakespeare
suggesting that realists like Antony are the hope of the future?
Perhaps Shakespeare is merely pointing out that Antony and his kind
are more likely to succeed in a world as imperfect as the one we
Octavius- Caesar’s adopted son- is more important a character than
his appearances (only four) and his lines (only 30) would indicate,
since the fate of Rome rests in his hands after the death of the
conspirators. From such limited information, we have to decide whether
Rome has been left in good hands.
What we should be able to agree on is this: Octavius is a capable
soldier who accomplishes the work at hand by whatever means are needed to achieve it. Honorable men like Brutus can be dangerous; perhaps Rome needs pragmatists like Octavius to reestablish order.
The first time Octavius appears (Act IV, Scene i, line 2) he is busy
checking off names of people who must die- including the brother of
his friend Lepidus. Is he a cold-blooded murderer, then? Perhaps.
But he is also a hardened soldier, who knows that it is sometimes
necessary to sacrifice individuals for the sake of victory. Like
Brutus, he kills for what he considers the greater good; but, unlike
Brutus, he has no qualms about it.
Moments later (Act IV, Scene i, lines 27-28), Octavius tries to save
Lepidus’ life. Since he showed no mercy to Lepidus’ brother, we can
assume he is not just being a good guy, but that he recognizes the
practical value of having a “tried and valiant soldier” in his ranks.
Yet Octavius lets Antony decide Lepidus’ fate. Is this a sign of
weakness? Or is it the wise decision of a practical man, who knows the
issue isn’t worth fighting over?
The second time Octavius appears (Act V, Scene i, lines 1-20), he
ignores Antony’s wishes and insists on keeping his forces to the right
side of the battlefield. “I do not cross you,” he tells Antony, “but I
will do so.” Octavius seems to be behaving like a willful young
Caesar, insisting on his natural right to rule. Whether his tone is
spiteful, or firm but polite, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Only moments later (line 24), Octavius asks Antony if they should
attack, and this time he gives in to Antony’s wishes. Once again
you’ll have to decide: is Octavius incapable of important decisions-
or is he simply smart enough to listen to someone with more
The four generals now confront each other before the battle (lines
27-66)- Octavius and Antony on one side, Brutus and Cassius on the
other. Antony, Brutus and Cassius squabble like children- only
Octavius keeps his perspective. “Come, come, the cause,” he says-
let’s keep our sights on what’s important and get to the matter at
The third time we see Octavius (Act V, scene v, line 60), he
offers to take all of Brutus’ men into his service. This may be an act
of charity, but from what we know of Octavius, he is probably
motivated by the practical need to end the war and bring both sides
together under his single rule. His intentions may not matter so
much as the fact that he is trying to end the bloodshed and
As the successor to Caesar, Octavius is given the final words of the
play. It is as a soldier, not as a noble man, that Octavius praises
Brutus, for nobility is a quality Octavius seems indifferent to. His
tribute to Brutus may not be genuine- he is probably only doing what
is expected of him- but whatever his motives, he seems to have no
interest in revenge. His desire to reunite the country bodes well
for the future of Rome.
(The historic Octavius did restore order. He also restored the
Republic- but more in name than in fact. The Senate retained its forms
and privileges, but the power resided in Octavius, who controlled
the army. In 27 B.C. Antony took the name of Augustus and became the
first Roman Emperor. Shakespeare portrays him principally as a
soldier, yet during his reign he became more interested in peace
than in war, and his rule became known as the golden age of Roman
literature and architecture.)
There are two ways to view Portia. Let’s look at them.
1. Portia is often seen today as a champion of women’s rights- a
feminist living nearly four centuries ahead of her time.
According to this view, Portia is a woman who demands equality
with her husband. She insists on being treated as an individual, not
as an object or an idea. She speaks of herself and Brutus as “one”
(Act II, Scene i, lines 261-278), and of Brutus himself as “your self,
your half.” She demands to know his secret, however painful it may be.
She will not be condescended to; she will not be treated as a child.
This Portia is strong-willed but modest, dignified but tender. She
is one of the few characters in the play who uses language to
communicate the truth rather than to hide from it. She has an innate
sense of wisdom that lets her see through words to the very heart of
things. (When Brutus attributes his moodiness to bad health, for
instance, Portia immediately knows he is lying to protect her.) Though
Portia is high-minded and independent, she is also a loving and
devoted wife, who kills herself rather than live alone.
2. That is one view of Portia- there is another.
According to this less flattering view, Portia makes the mistake
of trying to be more than a woman, fails miserably, and brings about
her own destruction.
Portia points proudly to her self-inflicted wound (Act II, Scene
i, lines 299-302) to prove to Brutus just how capable she is of
functioning in a world of men. She also prides herself on being the
daughter of Cato, a man famous for his integrity, who took his own
life rather than be taken prisoner (in the civil war between Caesar
and Pompey). Says Portia:
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so fathered and so husbanded?
Act II, Scene i, lines 296-297
Brutus takes her at her word, confides his secret to her, and what
happens? Portia goes mad with grief, and eventually takes her own
Portia’s mistake is to confuse her private self with her public
image as Cato’s daughter. Like Brutus and Caesar, she tries to live up
to her name and be someone she is not- with disastrous results. In her
death- as in Brutus’ and Caesar’s- we see the danger of wearing a
public mask, and forgetting whom we are underneath.
Note that Portia wants to be Brutus’ equal only so that she can be
more a part of his life; nowhere does she suggest that she expects him
to be part of hers. The very fact of losing him drives her mad. Portia
thus sums herself up best:
Ay me, how weak a thing
The heart of woman is!
Act II, Scene iv, lines 39-40
Is this Shakespeare’s unhappy view of women, and the final word on
Portia? Or are the other critics right- the ones who see her as the
ideal, modern woman, who dies for love?
Either interpretation can be correct- depending on how you choose to
Caesar’s wife speaks only 26 lines, so we never get to know her very
There are at least two ways to view her- one of them more flattering
than the other.
On one hand, she is undignified, nervous, and weak. She is also
superstitious and haunted by unreasonable fears, and Caesar cannot
be blamed for treating her like a child.
On the other hand, Calpurnia is a devoted wife- as concerned about
Caesar’s well-being as Portia is about Brutus’. True, she has
strange dreams, but all of them come true. Perhaps in her intuitive,
female way she is closer to the truth than Caesar.
Whichever way you view Calpurnia, you will have to admit that her
relationship with Caesar is less than ideal.
Calpurnia’s talk with Caesar follows closely on Portia’s meeting
with Brutus, as if Shakespeare were drawing attention to the
differences between the two relationships.
Portia greets her husband with respect as “my lord” (Act II, Scene
i, line 234). She may be flattering him to get what she wants, but she
at least follows the forms of courtesy. Brutus is as concerned about
her health as she is about his.
How does Calpurnia greet Caesar? With an order:
Think you to walk forth?
You shall not stir out of your house today.
Act II, Scene i, lines 8-9
And Caesar replies:
Caesar shall forth.
Calpurnia is foolish enough to turn her request into a battle of
wills. She makes the mistake of treating her husband in public as
the mortal he is; and Caesar, to preserve his public image, has to
take a stand against her.
Caesar, of course, has been equally tactless or unfeeling-
announcing to all the world (Act I, Scene ii, lines 6-9) that his wife
Can you blame a wife for treating her husband as a mortal and not as
a god? The fact that she can see the man behind the mask points up her
strength- or her weakness.
All scenes through Act IV, Scene i are set in Rome. Act IV, Scenes
ii and iii, take place near Sardis in Asia Minor. All of Act V is
set near the plains of Philippi in Greece. The play begins on February
15, 44 B.C., on the Feast of Lupercal; continues through the
assassination of Caesar a month later; and concludes with the Battle
of Philippi in 42 B.C., when Brutus and Cassius commit suicide and
Caesar’s heir, Octavius, assumes power. Shakespeare, of course, was
a dramatist, not a playwright, and in order to preserve the dramatic
unity of the action he telescoped a period of three years into six
Here is a list of the major themes of Julius Caesar. They will be
studied in depth in the scene-by-scene discussion of the play.
Notice that some themes contradict each other- since critics disagree,
it’s up to you to decide which ones are true. This book will help
you find evidence to support your position.
1. A PORTRAIT OF CAESAR OR OF BRUTUS
The play is a portrait of Caesar- why else would Shakespeare name
the play after him? Though Caesar is killed in the third act, his
spirit- what he stands for- dominates the action of the play until
Brutus’ death, and then is reborn in the person of Octavius.
The play is a portrait of Brutus- why else would Shakespeare end the
play with Brutus’ death, and with the opposition’s tributes to him?
Brutus is studied in greater depth than any other character, and the
action of the play revolves around his role in the assassination.
Shakespeare called his play Julius Caesar only because he was
writing about the period in Roman history when Caesar reigned.
Friendship is at the center of Shakespeare’s vision of an ordered,
harmonious world. Disloyalty and distrust cause this world to crumble.
Relationships suffer when people put their principles ahead of their
affections, and when they let their roles as public officials
interfere with their private lives. As death approaches, characters
forget their worldly ambitions, and speak about the loyalty of
We think of language as a way of sharing our thoughts and
feelings, and of communicating the truth; but in Julius Caesar
people use language to disguise their thoughts and feelings, and to
distort the truth. Language is used to humiliate and flatter. Words
are powerful weapons that turn evil into good and throw an entire
country into civil war.
4. A STUDY OF HISTORY
Shakespeare is dramatizing an important period in Roman history,
when Rome developed from a republic (with a representative form of
government) to a monarchy (with a single ruler). He is not blaming
or praising anyone, but objectively portraying the major factors
that contributed to this development: Caesar’s ambition; the
frustrations of a weakened and divided Senate; and the needs and
wishes of the Roman people.
5. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC FIGURES
We like to think that our political heroes are free from ordinary
human weaknesses. Shakespeare reminds us that behind their masks of
fame are mortals like the rest of us- with the same prejudices,
physical handicaps, hopes, and fears. When these public figures try to
live up to their own self-images, they bring destruction on
themselves, and on the world.
6. FATE AND THE SUPERNATURAL
A sense of fate hangs over the events in Julius Caesar- a sense that
the assassination is inevitable and that the fortunes of the
characters have been determined in advance. The characters are foolish
to ignore prophecies and omens, which invariably come true; yet they
are free to act as though the future were unknown. They are the
playthings of powers they can neither understand nor control, yet they
are held accountable for everything they do.
7. PRAGMATISTS AND MEN OF PRINCIPLE
Shakespeare is comparing two types of people: the man of fixed moral
standards, who expects others to be as honorable as himself; and the
pragmatist, who accepts the world for what it is and does everything
necessary to achieve his goals. The pragmatist is less admirable,
but more effective. Shakespeare is either (a) pointing out the
uselessness of morals and principles in a corrupt world, or (b)
dramatizing the tragedy of a noble man destroyed by a world less
perfect than he is.
8. THE ASSASSINATION
The Murder Is Just
A ruler forfeits his right to rule when he oversteps the
heaven-appointed limits to his power. Caesar deserves to die on two
counts: first, he considers himself an equal to the gods; and
second, he threatens to underline hundreds of years of republican
(representative) rule. Brutus sacrifices his life to preserve the
freedom of the people, and to save his country from the clutches of
The Murder Is Unjust
Shakespeare’s contemporaries respected strong rulers, who could
check the dangerous impulses of the masses and protect their country
from civil war. They believed that order and stability were worth
preserving at any price. Shakespeare’s play may therefore be a warning
against the use of violence to overthrow authority. The
assassination destroys nothing but the conspirators themselves,
since Caesar’s spirit lives on in the hearts of the people.
There’s not much poetry in Julius Caesar. Perhaps because the action
takes place in Rome, the characters all seem to speak like orators. On
the battlefield, or even with friends, they’re always making speeches!
Read some of the longer ones aloud; you’ll see how alike everyone
sounds, how everyone speaks clearly and simply and says exactly what
he thinks. The men in Shakespeare’s play are politicians who avoid
flowery language and metaphor; they express themselves often in
one-syllable words strung together in simple, declarative sentences.
This is the language of people who are- or who try to be- in control
of their emotions, and who use words not to create beauty, but to
manipulate each other and to get things done. Shakespeare may be using
language to mirror the restrained and formal mood of classical Rome.
Perhaps, too, he wants to show how people use language to mask their
feelings from themselves and from others. As readers, we have to
look beneath these masks and ask ourselves: who are these people? what
do they really think, and what are they really saying?
Shakespeare found his basic material for Julius Caesar in The
Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, written by a Greek named
Plutarch in the first century after Christ. Plutarch, like
Shakespeare, wrote history as a guide for his contemporaries. It’s not
surprising that Shakespeare was attracted to Plutarch, for Plutarch
was more a biographer than an historian, and his tales are full of
wonderful dramatic touches.
Shakespeare did not read Plutarch in Greek. The Lives was translated
into French by Jacques Amyet in 1559 and then from French into English
by Sir Thomas North in 1579. That was 20 years before the first
production of Julius Caesar.
Plutarch wrote separate biographies of Julius Caesar, Brutus, and
Antony, and often gives three different accounts of the same events.
It’s fun to read these biographies today to see which accounts
Shakespeare followed, which he ignored, and which he transformed for
his own dramatic purposes. At times Shakespeare lifted material
directly from Plutarch. Shakespeare’s Caesar, for example, says:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Act I, Scene ii, lines 194-195
Notice how close that is to Plutarch’s version:
Caesar also had Cassius in great jealousy and suspected him much,
whereupon he said on a time to his friends: “What will Cassius do,
think ye? I like not his pale looks.”
Plutarch’s Brutus can do nothing wrong. Some of you will want to
argue that Shakespeare thought less of Brutus; others will want to
quote Plutarch to prove that Shakespeare’s Brutus was indeed a noble
As for Caesar, Plutarch’s portrait is close to Shakespeare’s: a
ruler guilty of great pride and ambition, but also a benefactor of the
Shakespeare’s portrait of Caesar may also have been influenced by
Elizabethan attitudes toward him. Some saw Caesar as a hero; others,
as a tyrant and a traitor. Shakespeare may have enjoyed exploiting
these differences, playing them against each other without ever
resolving them. Shakespeare may also have drawn Caesar’s portrait from
the vain and boastful heroes (such as Tamburlaine) brought to life
on stage during his lifetime.
AN HISTORICAL NOTE
When you think of Senators, you naturally think of elected
representatives of the people. But in ancient Rome the Senate was made
up of wealthy aristocrats and conservatives who sought to defend their
ancient privileges. Caesar was a reformer who wanted to reduce the
power of the Senate, and to share their lands and privileges with
the common people.
Both Senators and reformers looked to the generals for support.
Pompey represented the interests of the Senators,- Caesar defended the
reformers. In 47 B.C. Caesar crossed the Rubican and defeated
Pompey; two years later he defeated Pompey’s sons in Egypt. No
wonder the Roman officers Flavius and Marullus (Act I, Scene i) are
upset by Caesar’s triumphant return from battle! And no wonder the
common people are overjoyed! Caesar may have wanted to be king or
dictator, but it was he, not the Senators, who had the interests of
the people at heart. Perhaps that’s why in Shakespeare’s play we never
see Caesar depriving the Romans of their civil liberties, or the
Senators discussing what they’ll do for the people of Rome once Caesar
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice
are apparent even between parents and their children. If language
differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected
that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will
diverge markedly from the English used today. The following
information on Shakespeare’s language will help a modern reader to a
fuller understanding of Julius Caesar.
MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular
classes in Shakespeare’s day. Verbs were often used as nouns. In Act
II, Scene ii, line 16 ‘watch’ is used to mean ‘watchmen’:
There is one within…
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
Nouns could be used as adjectives as when cross is used to mean
crossed or forked:
And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open
The breast of heaven… (I, iii, 50)
and as verbs as when ‘joy’ is used to mean ‘rejoice’:
My heart doth joy (V, v, 34).
Adjectives could be used as adverbs:
…thou couldst not die more honourable (V, i, 60),
And drive away the vulgar from the streets (I, i, 72)
‘Vulgar’ is the equivalent of ‘common people’.
CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be
illustrated by the fact that ‘chip’ extended its meaning from a
small piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words
in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed.
The change may be small, as in the case of ‘modestly’ meaning ‘without
I your glass
Will modestly discover to yourself… (I, ii, 68-69)
or more fundamental, so that ‘naughty’ meant ‘worthless’ (I, i, 15),
‘tributaries’ meant ‘conquered rulers who paid tribute’ (I, i, 35),
’shadow’ meant ‘reflection’ (I, ii, 58), ’speed’ meant ‘prosper’ (I,
ii, 88), ‘temper’ meant ‘constitution’ (I, ii, 129) and ’sad’ meant
…Casca, tell us what hath chanced today
That Caesar looks so sad. (I, ii, 217)
Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded
from the language. In the past, ‘leman’ meant ’sweetheart’, ‘regiment’
meant ‘government’, and ‘fond’ meant ‘foolish’. The following words
used in Julius Caesar are no longer current in English but their
meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.