Caesar 6 Essay Research Paper THE AUTHOR

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

Caesar 6 Essay, Research Paper



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 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

be king?

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

his life.

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

scheming politicians.

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

the world?

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

both lights.


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

From Brutus:

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

from him.

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

live in.


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

reestablish order.

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

view her.


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

is sterile.

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

a tyrant.

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.


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

is destroyed.


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.


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),

as nouns:

I’ll about

And drive away the vulgar from the streets (I, i, 72)

‘Vulgar’ is the equivalent of ‘common people’.


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

exaggeration’ in:

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.