Study Guide

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Essay - Critical Commentary

Critical Commentary

Act I Commentary

Scene i: The opening scene of the play is meant to establish the differences of opinion among the Roman citizens and the commoners regarding Julius Caesar. Caesar, who is extraordinarily popular among the common people, excites Rome when he defeats Pompey, who formerly possessed popularity among the Roman masses, in battle. However, not everyone is thrilled at Caesar's victory, as Flavius and Marcellus, among the elite of Rome, chastise the people for their celebration and proceed to tear down celebratory decorations, an act which will result in their arrest. The anger and mistrust of Caesar demonstrated by Flavius and Marcellus in this scene reflect the sentiments of the conspirators, who are disturbed by Caesar's rise to power and willing to risk punishment to stem it.

Scene ii: The action of the play begins in this scene. The first section of the scene begins with Caesar ordering Marc Antony to touch Calphurnia during the chariot race in an effort to cure their marriage of barrenness. Caesar's lack of a son is important because he wishes to become king and needs an heir. Octavius, Caesar's nephew, will also eventually become Caesar because of this, which is why he is involved in the triumverate. After this order, the soothsayer comes to warn Caesar to "beware the ides of March," or March 15. This is the first of several signs or omens that occur during the play, which brings about one of the play's central themes—fate and free will. In this case, Caesar dismisses the soothsayer as a "dreamer" and does not question him further about his warning, ignoring the sign being given to him. Caesar will ignore several other omens before his death in Act III due to his own ego, which also surfaces in this first section when he refers to himself in royal terms: "I hear a tongue shriller than all the music/Cry 'Caesar.' Speak. Caesar is turned to hear" (ll. 19-20). Although Caesar has a great deal of power, he is not a king, and his reference to himself as Caesar belies his great belief in his own power, for he is, as he puts it, "always Caesar."

In the second section of the scene, Cassius attempts to discern Brutus' position on Caesar as king. This introduces the conspiracy element to the play, as well as Brutus' love for both his friend Caesar and for his country. Unlike most of Rome, Brutus is not celebrating Caesar's victory because he knows that Caesar is almost certain to become king. Although Caesar is already Emperor, it is an...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Act II Commentary

Scene i: The complication in Act II begins with Brutus, who begins to receive the various notes left by Cassius. Brutus ponders Caesar's ambition, which is the main root of his fear that Caesar will become a tyrant. Although Brutus knows that his friend is extremely ambition, he has never seen anything that would indicate that Caesar might become tyrannical if crowned king. However, the mere thought of giving Caesar the opportunity to become a tyrant is enough to frighten Brutus into action. Brutus also notes that the only way to stop Caesar from becoming king is to kill him, and becomes resolved to do this upon reading the letters. Brutus also recalls the soothsayer's warning, and realizes that Caesar must be killed the next day (the ides of March) before he can be crowned.

When the conspirators arrive, Brutus immediately takes charge of the situation, despite his previous reticence about participating at all. It is Brutus who refuses to let the conspirators swear an oath to kill Caesar, and remind them that shaking hands should be enough to bind them together. Brutus also rejects involving Cicero in the conspiracy despite his good and wise reputation because he does not finish what he starts. Most importantly, Brutus rejects the notion of killing Antony, who Cassius notes is a "shrewd contriver" whose ambition may hurt the conspirators. Despite this, Brutus convinces Cassius to allow Antony to live because they will have killed too many people. Brutus also underestimates Antony in this scene, claiming that Antony is nothing more than a playboy puppet of Caesar. Cassius, of course, proves himself to be correct by the end of Act III—if Antony had been eliminated, the conspirators might well have succeeded in winning over the Roman public to their opinion. However, now that Brutus is committed to the conspiracy, he is the one who will make all of the decisions, whether or not they are accurate ones.

Another side of Brutus' character is revealed in his conversation with Portia. Portia is not the typical Roman wife—she is educated and beautiful, and has, until this point, shared a fairly equal relationship with her husband. Portia notices that Brutus is...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Act III Commentary

Scene i: Although the conspirators escort Caesar to the Senate House, both Artemidorus and the soothsayer are able to speak with Caesar prior to his entry into the Senate. Caesar brags that the ides of March have come (implying that there has been no major incident), but the soothsayer reminds him that the day has not yet passed. Despite this, the warning is ignored. Artemidorus fares no better—when he gives Caesar the letter informing him of the conspiracy, Caesar chooses to read the one from Trebonius first, stating that what concerns him personally will be the last issue to be addressed. Although both of these warnings worry Casca, who fears the conspiracy has been discovered, they do not touch Caesar at all because Caesar refuses to see what the conspirators are capable of.

The murder of Caesar is couched in an appeal to Caesar. Metellus Cimber begs that his brother, Publius Cimber, be allowed to return to Rome as an enfranchised citizen. Caesar refuses, stating that while lesser men can be flexible, he must be "constant." He also tells the conspirators that he does not want anyone kneeling before him because he does not want that kind of flattery. Despite this, the conspirators all kneel, and because Caesar refuses to repeal Publius Cimber's banishment, Casca begins the murder. Although all of the conspirators stab Caesar, Shakespeare implies that it is Brutus who actually kills him: "Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar" (l. 85). Indeed, it is Brutus who has given legitimacy to this plot, and the conspirators may not have carried it out without him. He is also the one who has taken charge of the conspiracy even though he did not originally want to participate in it. Because of this, the idea that Brutus is the one who actually kills Caesar is at least figuratively correct.

Although the conspirators are successful in stopping Caesar from becoming king, they have little idea of how to proceed next, which is evident in their dealings with Antony and the Roman public. Antony, who chooses to flatter Brutus so that he will survive to avenge Caesar, shakes hands with the conspirators, indicating that he will agree to their plans. Cassius, however, is once again suspicious of Antony, and attempts to bribe him with thoughts of power, but this offer is ineffective. Brutus, too moved by the murder that has just occurred and too anxious to justify his actions, tells Antony that there are reasons for Caesar's death and that Antony can speak at Caesar's funeral if he agrees not to speak against the conspirators (although censorship is certainly not a part of the freedom and liberty that the conspirators claim they have provided to Rome). Cassius, of course, turns out to be correct in his assessment of Antony—Antony intends...

(The entire section is 1122 words.)

Act IV Commentary

Scene i: The triumverate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus begin this scene much in the same way that the conspirators planned in Act II, scene 1. They make several decisions about who will live and who will die, citing reasons for each. They also attempt to extract money from Caesar's will, despite Antony's assurances in Act III, scene 2 that much of the money will go to the general public. Once Lepidus leaves, Octavius and Antony dispute his usefulness. Although Antony criticizes Lepidus as a horse that always needs direction, Octavius comes to his defense because he is a good soldier. Despite Octavius' young age, he is now Caesar, and he makes it clear in this scene that he will not be brushed aside by Antony despite...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Act V Commentary

Scene i: The discord in the conspirator camp during the last scene is once again paralleled by the disagreement between Octavius and Antony in this scene. Despite his lack of military experience, Octavius correctly predicts that the conspirators would attack at Phillipi, even though Antony thought they would not. Octavius also demands that he be the one to attack from the right side. When Antony asks why Octavius continues to question him, Octavius simply tells him that he is not crossing Antony, but will do as he pleases despite Antony's suggestions. It is clear from the opening part of this scene and the previous scene that no matter who eventually wins this battle, there will be no harmony in Rome.

Once the...

(The entire section is 913 words.)