Study Guide

Julius Caesar

by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Essay - Essays


The Political Dilemma in Julius Caesar

The political events dramatized by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar actually occurred, the play's narrative line following the accounts of Caesar's assassination as recorded by ancient Roman historians, most notably by Plutarch in his Lives. Indeed, the killing of the foremost political and military figure in Rome in 44 B.C. shook the world, influencing the development of the Roman state, its empire and civilization. The significance of Caesar's assassination as a political issue transcended the fall of Rome some five hundred years later. In Shakespeare's age, the Renaissance and the Reformation required a re-definition (or at least a re-statement) of what makes for legitimate power, of sovereignty and of kingship. The conservative camp with which Shakespeare is most often associated, saw the murder of Caesar as a heinous crime, as a regicide, and as the inevitable cause of civil war. Examples of regicide in more recent English history stood out in the minds of Shakespeare's audiences. At the same time, the experience of political tyranny was also fresh among the Elizabethans, and with it, the assertion that the killing of a "king" is justifiable for the sake of human liberty.

The primary issue of order versus freedom is framed in the play's first scene. As the Roman crowd awaits the celebration of Caesar's triumph over his arch-rival Pompey, it is plain that they are prepared to accept his absolute rulership over Rome. It is then that the tribunes Flavius and Marcellus challenge this exaltation of Caesar into an absolute Emperor by tearing down symbolic decorations of his victory and power. We note that Caesar does not threaten to seize power: in Act I, scene ii., the crowds cheer Caesar on to wear the crown of an emperor. He protests his election by popular acclaim, but he clearly awaits his elevation into a tyrant by the Roman Senate and is lured to his death by word that his confirmation by the aristocracy lies at hand. Less than half way...

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The Character of Brutus: Is He an Honorable Man?

The use of the word "honorable" in explicit or implicit conjunction with the name of Brutus has become a coded way of casting doubt upon the motives and morals of a speaker's opponents. Today, when said with a knowing inflection, the statement that someone is an "honorable man" recalls Marc Antony's famous funeral oration in which he subtly twists the word "honorable" into its opposite meaning. When Marc Antony tells the crowd after Caesar's assassination that Brutus is "honorable," his ultimate innuendo is that his reputation as a man of principle is now proven false by the heinous crime that he has committed in the very name of principle (Act III, scene ii, ll.90-95). Yet this sly inference of dishonor takes on a much richer meaning when we recall Cassius's reference to Brutus as a "honorable man" in his frank soliloquy of Act I, scene ii. For Cassius, a man who acts against Caesar from personal motives, Brutus's "honor" is an obstacle to be overcome if his plot to kill the Emporer is to succeed. Ironically, this suggests that Marc Antony's inference is false, that Brutus is, indeed, an honorable man, albeit one committed to a bad cause.

What is Brutus's motive for taking part in the conspiracy and can this reconcile his crime with his reputed honor? At the beginning of Act II, Brutus speaks to his servant Lucus about his fears that Caesar may become a tyrant if he is crowned king. Just then, he receives a letter written by Cassius urging him to protect the Roman Republic from just such a course. This strongly suggests that Brutus's motives, if not his actions, are those of an honorable man, a patriot defending his homeland at the cost of killing a man for whom he otherwise bears deep affection. Brutus acts "honorably" in the aftermath of the assassination. He takes open responsibility for the murder, washing his hands in the fallen leader's blood, and urging his fellow conspirators to do the same. In Act III, scene ii, Brutus addresses the...

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Speechmaking in Act III, Scene ii

Act III, scene ii of Julius Caesar is one of the most critical points of the entire play. Caesar has just been murdered, and the conspirators have yet to justify their action to an angry Roman public. Antony, meanwhile, has sworn to avenge Caesar's death while publicly agreeing to the conspirators' demands. The outcome of the entire play depends on who can gain the trust of the crowds, which both Brutus and Antony attempt to attain through speechmaking. Both speeches reveal not only the purposes of the speakers, but also their understanding of the events that have unfolded as well as aspects of their character. Because Antony, like his mentor Caesar, understands what motivates the crowds, he is able to successfully persuade the Roman public to turn against the conspirators and sweep them out of the city.

Brutus is the first to speak to the crowds after the assassination of Caesar. He speaks first because, as he explains to Cassius in Act III, scene i, he hopes to gain an advantage with the crowds by showing Caesar respect:

I will myself into the pulpit first
And show the reason of our Caesar's death.
What Antony shall speak I will protest
He speaks by leave and by permission
And that we are contented Caesar shall
Have all true rites and lawful ceremonies (ll. 261-266).

This demonstrates Brutus' motivation not only for the next scene but also for the act of killing Caesar—he wants to do what is honorable and good for Rome without seeming like a butcher. This is also the same reason that Brutus refuses to allow the conspirators to kill Antony. Cassius, by contrast, does not concern himself with appearing savage, but tells Brutus that allowing Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral is not a good idea, as Antony may be able to sway the public. Brutus then makes the mistake of believing that he can control Antony's influence by dictating what Antony may say at the funeral:

You shall not in your funeral speech blame us
But speak all good you can devise of Caesar
And say you do't by our permission,
Else shall you not have any hand at all
About his funeral. And you shall speak
In the same pulpit whereto I am going,
After my speech is ended (ll. 269-276).

Brutus mistakenly believes that by not allowing Antony to say anything bad about the conspirators and that by making Antony speak after Brutus, he will be able to control any influence Antony may have over the people. As we shall see, Antony obeys both instructions in his funeral oration but is still perfectly capable of turning the crowds against the conspirators.

When the plebians demand an explanation for Caesar's murder, Brutus begins his appeal. Brutus' first statement to the crowds is that they should listen to him because he is honorable, which should engender respect for him. He then makes an appeal to the crowd's logic: "Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses that you may the better judge" (ll. 17-19). This appeal is critical to Brutus' argument. The entire premise of the conspirators' plot to kill Caesar is that Caesar must die because he may become a tyrant. They have no proof that Caesar would become one, but they infer that he will because he has the power to do so. This argument is logical in nature rather than emotional, and it is what has led Brutus to the conspiracy even though he loves Caesar. In order for the crowds, who also love Caesar, to accept the actions of the conspirators, they must, in Brutus' opinion, hear and believe the argument of the conspirators and repress their emotions, which is why Brutus asks them to use their own logic in listening to his justification. In order to remind the crowds why they should put aside their love for Caesar, Brutus then reminds them that he, too, loves Caesar, probably more than any other, but that even Caesar is not more important than the love of Rome. At this point, Brutus is making an appeal to love of country, which is often considered a "higher" love than that of an individual (This is similar to the appeal to respect for honor that he makes in the beginning of the speech). Brutus combines love of country and logical thought by asking the public if they would have preferred to be slaves than for Caesar to die. He urges the Romans to appreciate all of the benefits that Caesar brought to Rome, but not to forget that they might have become slaves because of Caesar's ambition. Brutus then ends the first section of his speech with a series of questions to indicate that none of the Romans have been offended or harmed by the death of Caesar. All of these arguments demonstrate what Brutus himself believes to be important: honor, freedom, and love of country.

The second section of Brutus' speech occurs as Antony is...

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The Role of Omens in Julius Caesar

One of the minor but still important themes of Julius Caesar is the issue of omens. There are several instances in the play where incidents or statements predict an all-too-accurate future, yet the characters almost entirely ignore these warnings despite noting their significance. What are these warnings, then, and what is their importance if the characters in the play do not heed them? The answer lies in the faults of the characters themselves.

One of the most prevalent examples of omens in the play is the Soothsayer. The Soothsayer first appears in Act I, scene ii, to give Julius Caesar the famous (or infamous) warning to beware the ides of March. The timing of this warning reveals an important aspect of Caesar's...

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The Protagonists and Antagonists of Julius Caesar

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...

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Women in Julius Caesar

The women characters in Julius Caesar are not themselves instrumental in the plot and therefore have little importance as characters in their own right. To a certain extent, they serve to illuminate the more personal, as opposed to the public, sides of their respective husbands. They also provide elements of love and loyalty in a play that is largely concerned with death and intrigue.

Portia is the more fully described of the two women and provides a portrait of a woman of above average strength and quality. Throughout the play, references to womanly qualities are used to denote the weaker sides of men's characters. Women are supposedly weak physically and intellectually. Thus for a man to be called womanly is an...

(The entire section is 938 words.)