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 through the play (Act III, scene i.) Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators take matters into their own hands. They stab Caesar and cry out, "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" with the "honorable" Brutus declaring that "ambition's debt is paid." But the side of Freedom, those who commit regicide in the name of Liberty unleash chaos, mayhem, and then, civil war.
This leads to the closely related matter of popular government. It is essential to note that the conspirators are...
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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 crowd, and tells him that he took part in the killing of Caesar "not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more."
To this juncture, we have no reason to question Brutus's explanation, and it is consistent with that of an honorable person acting for the greater good. Marc Antony, of course, calls his honor into question, but this is for propaganda reasons. When all is said and done, Antony proclaims the fallen Brutus to be the "noblest Roman of them all," who alone among the...
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The Character of Marc Antony
Marc Antony has the distinction of being a leading character in two of Shakespeare's Roman plays, the relatively early Julius Caesar and the mature Antony and Cleopatra written a decade later. It is also a mature Antony who romances Cleopatra, his Roman nobility being coupled with her Egyptian charms. In the earlier play, however, Antony has not yet emerged as a global giant in his own right. At the outset of Julius Caesar, he is the title character's protégé, but not his heir apparent, and although the conspirators consider him to be a potential threat, his powers of retaliation are dismissed, the consensus being that once Caesar has been dispatched, Antony will fall in line with the new regime. This does not occur. Remaining in the background until his mentor is killed, Antony emerges from the shadows into the role of Caesar's main avenger in his funeral oration over Caesar's body, propelling himself into political power. It is Antony who comes out as the winner of the civil war, becoming a co-ruler of the entire Roman Empire. And, above all, it is Antony who harbors ambition, coordinating his military plans with security for the person that will lend the new government legitimacy, the boy Octavian, whom he will encounter again in Antony and Cleopatra. When Brutus proclaims that "ambition's debt is paid" with the death of Julius Caesar, these words take on ironic force as the play proceeds, for "ambition" is quickly resurrected in Marc Antony.
As the adage goes, "it takes on to know one," and when Cassius characterizes Mark Antony as a "shrewd contriver" (II, i. l. 158), the events of the play bear him out. With Antony's ultimate fate unsettled, word arrives through one of Antony's servants that while his master loved Caesar, he does not love Caesar as much dead as he loves Brutus alive. The momentum against him forestalled, Antony appears in the flesh and offers his life to the conspirators. His appeal is to Brutus (whom he knows to be honorable), and it is Brutus who intercedes on Antony's behalf. But when he is left alone on stage, Antony reveals that he will avenge Caesar's death. He then agitates the mob after concealing his intentions from the other conspirators, playing upon the basest instincts of the rabble.
Moreover, it is not merely for the good purpose of deceiving wrong-doers so that he can exact justice upon them that Antony speaks words that are at odds with his demeanor....
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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...
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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 character. He has just ordered Calphurnia to stand close enough to Antony during the chariot race so that he can touch her, which will hopefully cure her of sterility. This order indicates that Caesar is superstitious, at least in regard to his wife. However, when the Soothsayer warns Caesar to beware the ides of March, Caesar dismisses him as a "dreamer." This is typical of Caesar throughout the play—he will often ask about the future, but if he receives an unfavorable reply, he ignores it because he refuses to accept or even contemplate failure. This fault helps contribute to his death, despite the Soothsayer's early warning.
The Soothsayer appears two more times in the play in order to remind the audience that Caesar is indeed destined to die. While the Soothsayer merely warns Caesar of an impending problem on the feast of Lupercal, the Soothsayer's motives are made more explicit in Act II, scene iv, in his conversation with Portia. Here the Soothsayer reveals that he will go to the Capitol in an effort to beg Caesar to "befriend himself" (l. 30). This demonstrates deliberate action on the part of the Soothsayer, who has already warned Caesar about this day. Furthermore, the Soothsayer also mentions that he will have a great deal of trouble trying to gain Caesar's attention because of the narrowness of the streets and the great crowds that constantly surround Caesar, which "will crowd a feeble man almost to death" (l. 36). In order to avoid this, the Soothsayer will have to go to a place that is less crowded. This is a great deal of effort from the Soothsayer, and it is clear that he wants Caesar to avoid the impending harm that the Soothsayer "fears." However, despite all of this effort from the Soothsayer...
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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 appear in the play. Determining the protagonist is only a part of the issue, because the identification of the protagonist also defines who the antagonists of the play are. If Caesar is the protagonist of the play, then Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the conspirators are antagonists whose function is to interfere with the goals of the protagonist. If Brutus is the protagonist, then Caesar and the triumvirate become the antagonists who complicate his goals.
Given that the play is called Julius Caesar, let us first consider Caesar as the protagonist of the play. Caesar's status and goals are clearly delineated in the first two scenes of the play. In the first scene, we learn that the Roman public generally loves Caesar, while some of the Roman citizens are angered by his popularity. In Act I, scene ii, Caesar's weaknesses and desires are revealed. He lacks an heir, which is why he makes Calphurnia stand where Antony can touch her. He is not afraid of anything because he is "always Caesar," but he is wary of Cassius. He is deaf in one ear and, as revealed by Cassius, has suffered through many medical conditions, including epilepsy. He will play to the Roman crowd in order to maintain his popularity, which is why he refuses the laurel with which Antony presents him. Most important of all, we learn in this scene that Caesar hopes to be crowned king by the Roman Senate. Although this is the only scene in this act that Caesar appears in, a great deal of his character is revealed in it, and his motivations and goals are clear.
The aspects of Caesar's character in Act I, scene ii, are expounded upon in Caesar's two other scenes. In Act II, scene ii, Caesar's refusal to comply with Calphurnia's request...
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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 insult to his strength of character. Cassius is especially prone to making such equations between women and weakness and less worthy qualities of character. In pointing to the cowardice of the population in accepting Caesar's rule, he states
Our father's minds are dead
And we are governed by our mothers’ spirits. (I. iii. 82-3)
Portia is an example of a woman who does not conform to the prevailing idea of the limitations of women in general. As the wife of Brutus and the daughter of Cato, she regards herself as necessarily stronger than the rest of her sex. To prove herself, she wounds herself in the thigh to show she is physically capable of bearing pain. So, too, she concludes, has she the strength of mind to bear Brutus’s secret.
But Portia also retains her womanly qualities. Worried at her husband's melancholy mood, his troubled thoughts and his new impatience, she persistently uses her womanly guile to draw his secret from him. She is aware that Brutus’s anxiety is not a physical sickness. As his wife, it is her right to share his every thought, and she appeals to him, through love, and on her knees, to divulge his secret. Portia demands that he remember their marriage vows. He should treat her as a wife, not as a harlot who would only know the outer man, not the inner, thus instilling a guilt in him. Brutus must admit her nobility.
Though Portia has strengths normally attributed only to men, she also possesses womanly qualities:
I have a man's mind but a woman's might. (II. iv. 8)
Her anxiety over Brutus's mission, she also considers a weakness, as though love were...
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