Probably written in 1599, Julius Caesar was the earliest of Shakespeare's three Roman history plays. Like Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Julius Caesar is a dramatization of actual events, Shakespeare drawing upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony as the primary source of the play's plot and characters. The play is tightly structured. It establishes the dramatic problem of alarm at Julius Caesar's ambition to become "king" (or dictator) in the very first scene and introduces signs that Caesar must "beware the Ides of March" from the outset. Before its midpoint, Caesar is assassinated, and shortly after Mark Antony's famous funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, and countrymen … "), the setting shifts permanently from Rome to the battlefields on which Brutus and Cassius meet their inevitable defeat. Julius Caesar is also a tragedy; but despite its title, the tragic character of the play is Brutus, the noble Roman whose decision to take part in the conspiracy for the sake of freedom plunges him into a personal conflict and his country into civil war.
Literary scholars have debated for centuries about the question of who exactly is the protagonist of this play. The seemingly simple answer to this question would be Julius Caesar himself—after all, the play is named after him, and the events of the play all relate to him. However, Caesar only appears in three scenes (four if the ghost is included), thus apparently making him an unlikely choice for the protagonist who is supposed to be the main character. Meanwhile, Brutus, who is in the play much more often than Caesar (and actually lasts until the final scene), is not the title character of the play and is listed in the dramatis personae not only after Caesar but after the entire triumvirate and some senators who barely appear in the play. Determining the protagonist is one of the many engaging issues presented in the play.
Act I, Scene 1
On a street in Rome, two tribunes named Flavius and Marullus are angrily confronting a crowd of commoners. Rome used to be ruled by a triumvirate of three men, but because of the recent civil war, Julius Caesar has emerged as the single most powerful man in Rome. This troubles Flavius and Marullus because they think that Caesar’s growing power will threaten the stability of the Republic. They yell at the commoners for celebrating Caesar’s return, reminding them that they once supported Pompey, one of the triumvirate who was killed in the civil war. After they drive the commoners off the streets, Flavius and Marullus decide to remove all the decorations from statues of Caesar. [Extended Summary and Analysis of Act I, Scene 1]
Act I, Scene 2
Caesar and a procession of people—including his wife, Calphurnia; his friends; and a few conspirators against him—are on their way to the Coliseum for a celebratory footrace. On the way there, a soothsayer calls out a warning to Caesar, telling him to “Beware the ides of March.” Caesar dismisses the man, and the procession continues to the Coliseum. However, Brutus and Cassius remain behind. Brutus tells Cassius that he has been distracted by conflicting emotions lately, admitting he is afraid that the people have chosen Caesar to be king. Cassius takes this opportunity to start undermining Caesar as a man who is too weak to be a sole ruler. After this conversation, the games end and the rest of the procession return. When Caesar sees Brutus and Cassius together, he feels uneasy, but dismisses the threat because of his vain self-assurance. He and his followers leave, but a sarcastic tribune named Casca stays to tell Brutus and Cassius what happened at the race. Apparently, Antony presented Caesar with a symbolic crown three times, and Caesar refused it each time. When Casca describes how Caesar fainted afterward (he has epilepsy), Casca reveals that he doesn’t approve of Caesar. The scene ends with a soliloquy by Cassius. He reveals that he is conspiring against Caesar and wants to trick Brutus into joining the conspiracy. [Extended Summary and Analysis of Act I, Scene 2]
Act I, Scene 3
A month later, on the night before the ides of March, there is a storm raging in Rome. Casca meets Cicero, a senator, on the streets and describes all the frightening and unusual signs he has witnessed lately. Then Casca meets Cassius, who is not concerned at all about the storm because he thinks they are divine warnings against Caesar. Cassius tells Casca that the senators plan to make Caesar king and convinces Casca to join the plot to kill Caesar. Another conspirator, Cinna, enters and tells them that the other conspirators are waiting at Pompey’s Theater. They decide to first go to Brutus’s house and give him one last push to join the conspiracy. [Extended Summary and Analysis of Act I, Scene 3]
Synopsis of the Play
Synopsis of the Play
The play begins in Rome in 44 B.C. on the Feast of Lupercal, in honor of the god Pan. Caesar has become the most powerful man in the Roman Republic and is eager to become king. Caesar, however, has many enemies who are planning his assassination. When Caesar and his entourage appear, a soothsayer warns him to “Beware the ides of March,” (March 15), but Caesar is unconcerned.
Cassius tries to convince Brutus that Caesar is too ambitious and must be assassinated for the welfare of Rome. Cassius is determined to win Brutus to his cause by forging letters from citizens and leaving them where Brutus will find them. The letters attack Caesar’s ambition and convince Brutus that killing...
(The entire section is 361 words.)
One-Page Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
At the feast of Lupercalia all Rome rejoices, for the latest military triumphs of Julius Caesar are being celebrated during that holiday. Nevertheless, tempers flare and jealousies seethe beneath the public gaiety. Flavius and Marallus, two tribunes, coming upon a group of citizens gathered to praise Caesar, tear down their trophies and order the people to go home and remember Pompey’s fate at the hands of Caesar.
Other dissatisfied noblemen discuss with concern Caesar’s growing power and his incurable ambition. A soothsayer, following Caesar in his triumphal procession, warns him to beware the Ides of March. Cassius, one of the most violent of Caesar’s critics, speaks at length to Brutus of the dictator’s...
(The entire section is 1128 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Flavius and Marullus: tribunes opposed to Caesar’s growing power
Roman Citizens: among them a cobbler and carpenter, supporters of Caesar
The setting is February 15, 44 B.C., the Feast of Lupercal, on a street in Rome. After the death of Pompey, Caesar has returned to Rome as the most powerful man in the Republic. The play begins on a Roman street with a confrontation between Flavius and Marullus (Roman tribunes) and a crowd of citizens out to celebrate Caesar’s arrival for the games. The tribunes are concerned about Caesar’s growing power and popular support and how it may destroy the Roman Republic. They scold the citizens and remind them of the love and support Rome...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Caesar: the most powerful man in the Roman Republic after the death of Pompey
Calphurnia: Caesar’s wife
Brutus: friend of Caesar, concerned about the welfare of Rome
Cassius: brother-in-law of Brutus and leader of the conspiracy against Caesar
Casca: a conspirator against Caesar
Antony: a close friend of Caesar
Soothsayer: one who sees the future and tries to warn Caesar
The setting for this scene is another Roman street on the Feast of Lupercal. Caesar enters at the head of a procession (triumph) with a flourish of trumpets, accompanied by his wife, friends, and some of the conspirators who will...
(The entire section is 1349 words.)
Act I, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Cicero: a Roman senator and orator
Cinna: a conspirator against Caesar
It is the night before the ides of March, and a terrible storm is raging. A frightened Casca, with his sword drawn, meets Cicero on a Roman street. Casca describes to Cicero all the unusual things he has witnessed: heaven “dropping fire,” a man with his hand ablaze but not burning, a lion in the Capitol, an owl hooting in the marketplace at noon, and men on fire walking through the streets. Casca interprets all these signs to mean either the gods are engaged in civil war, or they are determined to destroy Rome. They mention Caesar’s plans to be at the Capitol in the morning, and...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Lucius: Brutus’ servant
Decius: conspirator who plans to flatter Caesar and bring him to the Senate House
Metellus Cimber and Trebonius: conspirators against Caesar
Portia: wife of Brutus
Caius Ligarius: ill friend of Brutus; the last to join the conspiracy
The setting for the scene is before three o’clock in the morning of the ides of March, and Brutus is alone in his garden. He is unable to sleep. His mind is still disturbed as he wrestles with what to do about Caesar. In a soliloquy, Brutus considers the possibilities. He has no personal feelings against Caesar, yet he must consider the good of Rome. Caesar has not...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
Act II, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
It is almost eight o’clock in the morning on the ides of March at Caesar’s house. Caesar is awakened by Calphurnia crying out in her sleep. Caesar orders his servant to have the priests sacrifice an animal and bring back word of the results. Calphurnia asks her husband to stay at home because she is afraid he will be murdered, but the proud and haughty Caesar refuses to take her warning. Caesar’s servant returns with word from the augurers (priests), who want Caesar to remain inside because, “They could not find a heart within the beast.” (43)
Caesar interprets this differently. He says, “The gods do this in shame of cowardice. / Caesar should be a beast without a heart / If he should...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
Act II, Scenes 3 and 4: Summary and Analysis
Artemidorus: teacher and friend of some of the conspirators; he has learned about the plot against Caesar
The setting is a Roman street on the ides of March shortly before the planned assassination. Artemidorus, a teacher and friend of some of the conspirators, has learned about the plot to kill Caesar. He has written a letter naming each man and warning Caesar to be on his guard. He plans to wait for Caesar to pass and then present the letter as a suitor looking for a political favor.
At the same time, on another part of the street, an agitated Portia tells Lucius to run to the Capitol and report back to her everything his master, Brutus, says and does. The...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Act III, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Lepidus: one of the three rulers of Rome after Caesar’s death
Publius: elderly Roman senator who escorts Caesar to the Senate
Popilius Lena: senator who wishes success to Cassius
Servant: messenger from Octavius
Caesar arrives at the Senate House on the ides of March. Artemidorus tries to give Caesar his warning letter, as Decius offers Caesar a petition. Artemidorus presses Caesar to read his letter first because it “touches Caesar nearer.” (7) Caesar responds, “What touches us ourself shall be last served.” (8) In other words, he ignores the letter because it is of a personal nature. Cassius is afraid that their plans are...
(The entire section is 1265 words.)
Act III, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis
Plebeians: Roman citizens at Caesar’s funeral
Servant: messenger from Octavius
Cinna the Poet: a poet with the same name as one of the conspirators
The setting is in the marketplace at Caesar’s funeral shortly after his death. The agitated crowd demands an explanation for Caesar’s assassination. Cassius leaves with some of the crowd to give his version of why Caesar was killed, while Brutus remains behind with the others to give his own account of the events. Brutus explains that although he was Caesar’s friend, and loved him, Caesar was ambitious and had to be killed for the good of Rome. If allowed to live, Caesar would have made slaves...
(The entire section is 1201 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Octavius: Caesar’s nephew and one of the three leaders to rule Rome after his death
Lepidus: the third leader to rule Rome after Caesar’s death
The setting is a house in Rome some time after Caesar’s death. The Republic is in turmoil, as Antony predicted. Rome is in the hands of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus. They are compiling a death list of their political enemies. Antony sends Lepidus to “fetch” Caesar’s will so they might reduce some of the legacies mentioned by Antony to the citizens in his funeral speech. When Lepidus leaves, Antony tells Octavius that Lepidus is unfit to have so much power. Antony plans to use Lepidus to achieve his...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
Act IV, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis
Pindarus: servant to Cassius taken prisoner in Partheia
Lucilius: officer in Brutus’ army
Messala: officer in Brutus’ army
Titinius: friend of Cassius and Officer in his army
Varro: soldier in Brutus’ army
Claudius: soldier in Brutus’ army
Poet: jester who enters Brutus’ tent
The setting is the camp of Brutus in Sardis, Greece. Brutus and his soldiers are awaiting the arrival of Cassius and his army. When Pindarus, a slave to Cassius, brings his master’s greetings, Brutus indicates his misgivings about the course of events. He confides to...
(The entire section is 1156 words.)
Act V, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
The setting is on the battlefield at Philippi. Antony and Octavius, at the head of their armies, are preparing to begin the battle. Through spies Antony knows the enemy is not ready for the fight. A messenger brings word that the battle is at hand. Before the combat, Antony and Octavius go into the field to exchange insults with Brutus and Cassius. They call each other traitors to Rome. Cassius says to Brutus that Antony would not be alive if Cassius had his way on the ides of March. They break off and plan to settle matters with their swords.
Cassius confides in Messala that he is reluctant to fight this battle on his birthday. He has seen signs that have convinced him that they are going to lose....
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Act V, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis
Cato: Brutus’ brother-in-law and a soldier in his army
The battle begins as Brutus orders Messala to send all of his legions against Octavius’ army. While Brutus gains the advantage on another part of the field, Cassius is in retreat, surrounded by Antony’s forces. Pindarus, the slave of Cassius, enters with a warning for his master to fall back further. But Cassius decides that he has retreated far enough. He asks his friend, Titinius, to ride his horse and determine if the soldiers in his tents are friend or enemy. As Pindarus climbs the hill to report Titinius’ progress, Cassius considers the real possibility that his life has reached its end on his birthday....
(The entire section is 818 words.)
Act V, Scenes 4 and 5: Summary and Analysis
Clitus, Dardanus, Strato, and Volumnius: soldiers in Brutus’ army
At the height of the second battle Brutus charges into the field. Young Cato is killed and Lucilius, an officer in Brutus’ army, is captured. To confuse the enemy soldiers, Lucilius tells them he is Brutus, and offers them money to kill him. Antony identifies their captive and tells the soldiers to keep Lucilius safely under guard.
On another part of the field, after hours of fighting, Brutus and his men are in retreat. They have lost the war. Brutus begs Clitus, Volumnius, and Dardanus to assist him in his suicide, but they decline and run off as Antony and Octavius advance. Brutus...
(The entire section is 634 words.)