Study Guide

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Essay - Criticism



Lawrence Danson
[Danson presents an in-depth overview of Julius Caesar, focusing on how the linguistic strategies in the play's major scenes contribute to the overall tragic progression of the play. The critic also assesses whether Caesar or Brutus is the tragic hero of the drama and examines the circumstances surrounding Caesar's assassination and Mark Antony's subsequent funeral speech (III. ii 73ff.). Danson concludes the essay by briefly contrasting the themes developed in Shakespeare's tragedy with the known historical facts of Brutus's conspiracy and Caesar's murder, ultimately arguing that the two points of view cannot necessarily be reconciled.]

In Julius Caesar we find ... those problems of communication and expression, those confusions linguistic and ritualistic, which mark the world of the tragedies. The play opens with the sort of apparently expository scene in which Shakespeare actually gives us the major action of the play in miniature. Flavius and Marullus, the tribunes, can barely understand the punning language of the commoners ... It is ostensibly broad daylight in Rome, but the situation is dream-like; for although the language which the two classes speak is phonetically identical, it is, semantically, two separate languages. The cobbler's language, though it sounds like the tribunes', is (to the tribunes) a sort of inexplicable dumb show.

And as with words, so with gestures; the certainties of ceremonial order are as lacking in Rome, as are the certainties of the verbal language. The commoners present an anomaly to the tribunes simply by walking "Upon a labouring day without the sign / Of [their] profession" [I. i. 4-5]. To the commoners it is a "holiday," to the tribunes (although in fact it is the Feast of Lupercal), a "labouring day." The commoners have planned an observance of Caesar's triumph—itself, to the tribunes, no triumph but rather a perversion of Roman order—but the tribunes send the "idle creatures" off to perform a quite different ceremony:

Go, go, good countrymen, and for this fault
Assemble all the poor men of our sort;
Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.
[1.1. 56-60]

Thus, in a Rome where each man's language is foreign to the next, ritual gestures are converted into their opposites; confusion in the state's symbolic system makes every action perilously ambiguous. The tribunes, having turned the commoners' planned ritual into its opposite, go off bravely to make their own gesture, to "Disrobe the images" of Caesar [I. i. 64]: but shortly we learn that they have actually been made to play parts in a bloodier ritual (one which, as we shall see, becomes increasingly common in the play). And when, in a later scene, we find Brutus deciding upon his proper gesture, the confusions of this first scene should recur to us.

The second scene again opens with mention of specifically ritual observance, as Caesar bids Calphurnia stand in Antony's way to receive the touch which will "Shake off [her] sterile curse" [I. il. 9]. Perhaps Shakespeare intends to satirize Caesar's superstitiousness; at least we can say that Calphurnia's sterility and the fructifying touch introduce the question, what sort of ritual can assure (political) succession in Rome? Directly, the Soothsayer steps forth, warning Caesar, "Beware the ides of March." But this communication is not understood: "He is a dreamer; Let us leave him. Pass" [I. ii. 24].

What follows, when Caesar and his train have passed off the stage leaving Brutus and Cassius behind, is an enactment—virtually an iconic presentation—of the linguistic problem. More clearly even than the first scene, this scene gives us the picture of Rome as a place where words and rituals have dangerously lost their conventional meanings. As Cassius begins to feel out Brutus about the conspiracy—telling him of Rome's danger and wishes, of Caesar's pitiful mortality, of Brutus's republican heritage—their conversation is punctuated by shouts from offstage, shouts at whose meaning they can only guess (pp. 52-3).

Casca, an eye-witness to the ritual in the marketplace, finally arrives to be their interpreter; but even he has understood imperfectly. Caesar (he says) has been offered the crown, but

I can as well be hang'd as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown—yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets ...
[I. ii. 235-38]

Caesar refused the crown, but Casca suspects "he would fain have had it." "The rabblement hooted," and Caesar "swooned and fell down at" the stench [I. ii. 244, 248], As for the rest, Cicero spoke, but again the language problem intervened: "He spoke Greek" [I. ii. 279]. There is other news: "Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence" [I. ii. 285-86]. And, "There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it" [I. ii. 287].

The dramatic point of it all lies not so much in the conflict between republican and monarchical principles, as in the sheer confusion of the reported and overheard scene. It is all hooting and clapping and uttering of bad breath, swooning, foaming at the mouth, and speaking Greek. Casca's cynical tone is well suited to the occasion, for the farcical charade of the crown-ritual, with Caesar's refusal and Antony's urging, is itself a cynical manipulation. The crowd clapped and hissed "as they use to do the players in the theatre" [I. ii. 260]—and rightly so.

These two opening scenes give us the world in which Brutus is to undertake his great gesture. When we next see Brutus, his decision is made: "It must be by his death" [II. i. 10]. Behind Brutus's decision is that linguistic and ceremonial confusion which is comic in the case of the commoners and sinister in the case of Caesar's crown-ritual. The innovations in Rome's ceremonial order give evidence to Brutus for the necessity of his gesture. But those same innovations, attesting to a failure in Rome's basic linguistic situation, also make it most probable that his gesture will fail. Brutus is not unlike Hamlet: he is a man called upon to make an expressive gesture in a world where the commensurate values necessary to expression are lacking. The killing of Caesar, despite the honorable intentions that are within Brutus and passing show, will thus be only one more ambiguous, misunderstood action in a world where no action can have an assured value. Brutus's grand expression might as well be Greek in this Roman world.

Brutus's position is not unlike Hamlet's, but he does not see what Hamlet sees. Indeed, he does not even see as much as his fellow conspirators do. To Cassius, the dreadful and unnatural storm over Rome reflects "the work we have in hand" [I. iii. 129]; to the thoughtful Cassius, the confusion in the heavens is an aspect of the confusion in Rome. But Brutus is, typically, unmoved by the storm, and calmly makes use of its strange light to view the situation: "The exhalations, whizzing in the air, / Give so much light that I may read by them" [II. i. 44-5]. And what he reads by this deceptive light is as ambiguous as the shouts of the crowd at the crown-ritual: the paper bears temptations slipped into his study by the conspirators, words that mislead and may betray. On the basis of this mysterious communication, revealed by a taper's dim light and the unnatural "exhalations" above, Brutus determines to "speak and strike" [II. i. 55]. Every sign is misinterpreted by Brutus; and the world that seems to him to make a clear demand for words and gestures is in fact a world where words are equivocal and where gestures quickly wither into their opposites.

The situation, as I have so far described it, forces upon us the question critics of the play have most frequently debated: who is the play's hero? A simple enough question, it would seem: the title tells us that this is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. But that answer only serves to show the actual complexity of the question, for if Caesar (who is, after all, dead by the middle of the play) is to this play what say, Hamlet is to his, then Julius Caesar is, structurally at least, a most peculiar tragedy. The question of the hero—and a glance at the critical literature shows that the position is indeed questionable—bears upon fundamental matters of meaning and structure.

Now it is a curious fact about Shakespeare's plays (and, to an extent, about all drama) that the questions the critics ask have a way of duplicating the questions the characters ask, as though the playwright had done his best to make all criticism redundant. As if the play were not enough, nor the characters sufficient unto their conflicts, the critical audience continues to fight the same fights and ask the same questions the characters in the play do. Of Julius Caesar, as I have said, the question we most often ask concerns the play's hero: Caesar or Brutus? I have not bothered to tally the choices; for our purposes it is more interesting to notice the mode of critical procedure and the way in which it tends to imitate the actions of the characters in the play. Both critics and characters tend to choose sides in their respective conflicts on the bases of political prejudice and evaluations of moral rectitude. Since the moral and political issues in Julius Caesar are themselves eternally moot, it is not surprising that the critical debate continues unresolved.

About Caesar, for instance: if we try to make our determination of herohood on the basis of Caesar's moral stature, we are doing precisely what the characters do; and we find, I think, that he becomes for us what he is for Shakespeare's Romans, less a man than the object of men's speculations. Caesar is the Colossus whose legs we may peep about but whom we can never know; characters and audience alike peep assiduously, each gives us a partial view which simply will not accord any other. Within the play, Caesar is virtually constituted of the guesses made about him: Casca's rude mockery, Cassius's sneers, Brutus's composite portrait of the present Caesar (against whom he knows no wrong) and the dangerous serpent of the future, Antony's passionate defense, the mob's fickle love and hate: these are the guesses, and contradictory as they are, they give us the Caesar of the play—and of the play's critics.

Of Caesar's, or for that matter of Brutus's, moral status we can have little more certain knowledge than the characters themselves have. What we are in a privileged position to know is the structure of the play: the characters' prison, the play's encompassing form, is our revelation. What I propose to do, therefore, is to look at the implicit answer Brutus gives (through his actions) to the question, who is the play's tragic hero?, and compare that answer to the answer revealed by the play's unfolding structure.

Everything Brutus does (until the collapse of the conspiracy) is calculated to justify the title of the play, to make it indeed The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. As we watch Brutus directing the conspiracy,
that Caesar indeed be its hero-victim. The assassination, as Brutus conceives it, must have all the solemnity and finality of a tragic play. The wonder of the spectacle must, as in tragedy, join the audience (both within and without the play) into a community of assent to the deed. For his part, Brutus is content with a necessary secondary role, the mere agent of the hero's downfall ... (pp. 54-7).

But of course Brutus's plot (in both senses of the word) is a failure. The withholding of assent by the audience (again, both within and without the play) proves his failure more conclusively than do moral or political considerations. Brutus misunderstands the language of Rome; he misinterprets all the signs both cosmic and earthly; and the furthest reach of his failure is his failure to grasp, until the very end, the destined shape of his play. Brutus's plot is a failure, but by attending to the direction he tries to give it we can find, ironically, a clear anatomy of the typical tragic action.

Brutus makes his decision and in Act II, scene i he meets with the conspirators. Decius puts the question, "Shall no man else be touch'd but only Caesar?" [II. i. 154]. Cassius, whose concerns are wholly practical, urges Antony's death. But Brutus demurs: the assassination as he conceives it has a symbolic dimension as important as its practical dimension; and although Brutus is not able to keep the two clearly separated (he opposes Antony's death partly out of concern for the deed's appearance "to the common eyes" [II. i. 179]) he is clear about the need for a single sacrificial victim. His emphasis on sacrifice indicates the ritual shape Brutus hopes to give the assassination:

Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Cassius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds ...
We shall be call'd purgers, but not murderers.
[II. i. 166-74, 180]

The "sacrifice" must not be confused with murder, with mere butchery. The name of the deed becomes all important, indicating the distance between a gratuitous, essentially meaningless gesture, and a sanctioned, efficacious, unambiguous ritual.

But Brutus's speech, with a fine irony, betrays his own fatal confusion. "In the spirit of men there is no blood," but in this spirit—this symbol, this embodiment of Caesarism [dictatorship]—there is, "alas," as much blood as Lady Macbeth will find in Duncan. Whatever we may feel about Brutus's political intentions, we must acknowledge a failure which has, it seems to me, as much to do with logic and language as with politics: Brutus is simply unclear about the difference between symbols and men. And his confusion, which leads to the semantic confusion between "murder" and "sacrifice," and between meaningless gestures and sanctioned ritual, is the central case of something we see at every social level in Rome. The assassination Brutus plans as a means of purging Rome dwindles to just more of the old ambiguous words and empty gestures. The assassination loses its intended meaning as surely as the commoners' celebration did in scene i.

The assassination is surrounded by Brutus with all the rhetoric and actions of a sacrificial rite. It becomes ritually and literally a bloodbath, as Brutus bids,

Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
[II. i. 105-07]

Even the disastrous decision to allow Antony to address the mob arises from Brutus's concern that "Caesar shall / Have all true rites and lawful ceremonies" [III. i. 240-41]. In Brutus's plot, where Caesar is the hero-victim whose death brings tragedy's "calm of mind, all passion spent," no one, not even Antony, should be left out of the ceremonious finale. With the conspirators' ritualized bloodbath, indeed, the implied metaphor of the assassination-as-drama becomes explicit—if also horribly ironic:

Cas. Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Bru. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport ...
[01. i. 111-14]

Trapped in their bloody pageant, these histrionic conspirators cannot see what, in the terms they themselves suggest, is the most important point of all: this lofty scene occurs, not at the end, but in the middle of a tragic play.

Brutus's plot is not Shakespeare's; and immediately after the conspirators have acted out what should be the denouement of their tragic play, the actual shape of the play (the one they cannot see as such) begins to make itself clear. Antony, pointedly recalling Brutus's distinction between "sacrificers" and "butchers," says to the slaughtered symbol of tyranny, "O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!" [III. i. 254-55], and announces the further course of the action:

And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
[III. i. 270-75]

Brutus's revolutionary gesture, which was intended to bring to birth a stabler order, has been (in an esthetic as well as a political sense) premature. His ritual has failed, and now, as Caesar's spirit ranges for revenge (for there is blood in the spirits of men), it still remains for the proper ritual to be found. Now Brutus will at last assume his proper role: Brutus must be our tragic hero.

Of course he does his best to deny that role. His stoicism—the coolness, for instance, with which he dismisses Caesar's ghost: "Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then" [IV. iii. 286]—is hardly what we expect of the grandly suffering tragic hero. Still, it is to Brutus that we owe one of the finest descriptions of the peculiar moment in time occupied by a Shakespearean tragedy:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
[II. i. 61-9]

The moment is suspended, irresolute, but charged with the energy to complete itself. The separation of "acting" from "first motion," of "Genius" from "mortal instruments," is an intolerable state—the measure of it is the insomnia—which demands resolution ... [It] is the tragic moment, and Brutus, for all his Roman calm, must pass through it to its necessary completion.

The acting of the "dreadful thing"—or, rather, what Brutus thinks is the dreadful thing, Caesar's death—does not bring the promised end; that is made immediately clear. Antony's funeral oration shows that Brutus's grand gesture has changed little. Antony easily converts Brutus's sacrifice into murder. In Rome ... men's actions merely "seem," and Antony can shift the intended meaning of Brutus's action as easily as the tribunes had changed the intended meaning of the commoner's actions in Act I, scene i. Antony can use virtually the same words as the conspirators—he can still call Brutus an "honourable man" and Caesar "ambitious"—and yet make condemnation of approval and approval of condemnation. Even after the revolutionary moment of Caesar's death, this Rome is all of apiece: a volatile mob, empty ceremonies, and a language as problematic as the reality it describes.

Even names are problematic here. It was with names that Cassius first went to work on Brutus:

'Brutus' and 'Caesar'. What should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together: yours is as fair a name.
Sound them: it doth become the mouth as well.
Weigh them: it is as heavy. Conjure with 'em:
'Brutus' will start a spirit as soon as 'Caesar'.
[I. ii. 142-47]

Cassius's contemptuous nominalism reminds one of Edmund in King Lear, who also thinks that one name—that of "bastard," for instance—is as good as any other. Names, to Cassius and Edmund, are conventional signs having reference to no absolute value, and they may be manipulated at will.

In his funeral oration, Antony also plays freely with names; and with the repetition of those two names "Brutus" and "Caesar" he does indeed conjure a spirit. It is the spirit of riot, of random violence, and its first victim (with a grotesque appropriateness) is a poet and a name:

3 Pleb. Your name sir, truly.
Cin. Truly, my name is Cinna.
1 Pleb. Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator!
Cin. I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet
4 Pleb. Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!
Cin. I am not Cinna the conspirator.
4 Pleb. It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
3 Pleb. Tear him, tear him!
[III. iii. 26-35]

"Pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going": it is like Brutus's impossible, "And in the spirit of men there is no blood" [II. i. 168]. Again, it is the confusion between symbol and reality, between the abstract name and the blood-filled man who bears it. Poets, whose genius it is to mediate symbol and reality and to find the appropriate name to match all things, generally have rough going in Julius Caesar. Brutus the liberator shows how he has insensibly aged into a figure indistinguishable from the tyrant when he dismisses a peace-making poet with a curt, "What should the wars do with these jigging fools?" [IV. iii. 137]. And Caesar, too, had rebuffed a poetical soothsayer.

The gratuitous murder of Cinna the poet reflects ironically upon the murder of Caesar. The poet's rending at the hands of the mob is unreasonable, based solely on a confusion of identities (of names, words), and while it bears some resemblance to the sacrifice of a scapegoat figure, it is really no sacrifice at all but unsanctioned murder. Caesar's death, similarly, was undertaken as a sacrificial gesture, but quickly became identified with plain butchery. In the mirror of the Cinna episode the assassination is seen as only one case in a series of perverted rituals—a series that runs with increasing frequency now, until the proper victim and the proper form are at last found.

Immediately following the murder of Cinna we see the new triumvirate pricking the names of its victims. The death of Caesar has released the motive force behind the tragedy, and that force runs unchecked now until the final sacrifice at Philippi. From the very first scene of the play we have witnessed ritual gestures that wither into meaninglessness; with the conspiracy and Caesar's death, we become aware of sacrifice as the particular ritual toward which the world of the play is struggling: the series of mistaken rituals becomes a series of mistaken sacrifices, culminating at Philippi.

The wrong sacrifice, the wrong victim: the play offers an astonishing gallery of them. It has been noticed that all of the major characters implicate themselves in this central action:


(The entire section is 9535 words.)

Roman Politics

Alice Shalvi
[Shalvi seeks to determine whether Shakespeare condemns or condones Caesar's assassination. The critic argues that while Shakespeare makes it evident that Brutus's fears of Caesar's tyranny are justified, he nonetheless presents the murder as an immoral act that must be avenged. In Shalvi's opinion, Brutus's sole motive for participating in the plot against Caesar is to safeguard the liberty of the Roman citizens; ironically, however, it is this noble purpose that causes his political ineptitude and contributes to the failure of the conspiracy. Despite the play's insistence on the idea that "blood will have blood," the critic argues, Julius Caesar is more than a revenge tragedy, for it dramatizes the...

(The entire section is 10751 words.)

Public and Private Values

Maynard Mack
[Mack discusses the public and private values of Brutus and Caesar in terms of what he views as the primary theme of the play: "the always ambiguous impact between man and history." The private Brutus, the critic asserts, is a gentle, sensitive, and studious man who loves Caesar and deplores violence, while the public figure is a noble idealist who participates in the conspiracy because he believes he must act on behalf of the state. Mack contends that in the first half of the drama Shakespeare focuses on "human will as a force in history" by portraying individuals, such as Brutus, choosing courses of action and controlling events; in contrast, the second half of Julius Caesar demonstrates the...

(The entire section is 6322 words.)


Brents Stirling
[Stirling discusses the significance of ritual and ceremony to the thematic design of Julius Caesar. According to the critic, the play is structured around a central ceremonial rite—Brutus's attempt to raise Caesar's assassination to the level of formal sacrifice. Nearly every scene prior to Caesar's murder, Stirling asserts, features a ceremony, which is then followed by a counter-ritual mocking it. The effect of these satirical scenes, the critic argues, is to reveal Brutus's self-deception in thinking he can purify Caesar's assassination through ceremony. After Caesar's death, Stirling continues, the hollowness of the ritual surrounding the murder and the savagery of the conspirators' act are...

(The entire section is 3767 words.)

Imagery and Language

Maurice Charney
[Charney provides a detailed analysis of the principal image patterns in Julius Caesar—the storm and its supernatural elements, blood, and fire—and demonstrates how each set of images connotes two contradictory meanings that contribute to the thematic ambiguity of the play. According to the critic, the violent storm in Act I, scene iii can be interpreted as evidence of either the evil of Caesar's tyranny or the evil of the conspirators who plot to assassinate him. Charney also suggests that blood imagery in the play may, on the one hand, be viewed as a symbol of the injustice of Caesar's murder and the conspirators' guilt or, on the other, as a ritual blood-letting that restores the Roman...

(The entire section is 10759 words.)

Julius Caesar

Ernest Schanzer
[Schanzer suggests that Shakespeare intentionally presented an enigmatic, or contradictory, portrait of Caesar to satisfy the different views of him held by Elizabethan audiences. By the close of Act III, the critic declares, various characters offer evaluations of Caesar's nature that bear little resemblance to one another. Shakespeare calls into question the validity of each of these estimates, at the same time presenting Caesar as a figure who is alternately pompous, shrewd, and benevolent. The dramatist thus provides no direct response to the question of who is the real Caesar. Noting that our view of Caesar depends to a large extent on our estimate of the justifiability of the assassination,...

(The entire section is 4329 words.)


T. S. Dorsch
[Dorsch argues that critics have generally viewed Brutus as a more admirable person than Shakespeare intended him to be. While acknowledging Brutus's honor and virtue, Dorsch contends that he is arrogant, self-righteous, and opinionated. According to the critic, Brutus honestly believes that Caesar's death will benefit Rome, but he is blind to the consequences of the assassination and to his fellow conspirators' lack of moral principles. Dorsch does note, however, that Brutus is capable of expressing love and tenderness, as shown by his relationships with his wife Portia and his servant Lucius.]

Brutus is the dramatic hero of Julius Caesar. He is the most prominent figure, and at...

(The entire section is 2623 words.)


M. W. MacCallum
[Focusing on Cassius's intellectual preoccupations, self-sufficiency, championship of liberty and equality, and rejection of the supernatural, MacCallum contends that the character's behavior is guided by his belief in the philosophy of Epicureanism. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who asserted that pleasure was the highest good in life. For Epicurus, the greatest joy derived from emotional calm and serenity; he therefore considered intellectual activities superior to all others. The philosopher also extolled the virtues of freedom and denied that gods had any control over human affairs. MacCallum also discusses Cassius's strengths and weaknesses of character, faulting his spitefulness, jealousy,...

(The entire section is 2312 words.)

Mark Antony

Harley Granville-Barker
[Granville-Barker maintains that on the surface Antony appears to be a "good sort," initially supporting the conspirators after they have assassinated Caesar; but underneath he is really an instinctive politician, the critic declares, who demonstrates his opportunism by manipulating the crowd to avenge Caesar's death. Granville-Barker further contends that Antony's rousing the Roman populace is not altogether mischievous; rather, it also reflects his empathy for them because he considers himself a common man whose sensibilities are outraged at the injustice of Caesar's murder.]

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)