Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, is based on the assassination of Julius Caesar, the historical event occurring on the ides of March (March 15) in 44 BCE. While the plot of the play centers on the assassination and its aftermath, the story focuses on Brutus, a Roman senator and Caesar’s friend who joins the conspiracy to kill Caesar only after much deliberation. Brutus’s feelings about murdering Caesar serve as the central conflict in the play; a man of honor, Brutus weighs his love of freedom and of Rome itself against his personal loyalty to a friend. In Shakespeare’s drama, Brutus ultimately is manipulated into joining the conspiracy and participates in stabbing Caesar to death on the floor of the Roman Senate. Julius Caesar, however, does not end with the assassination. In the wake of Caesar’s shocking and brutal murder, events unfold quickly in Rome, and later on the plains of Greece, as leaders and armies fight for political power and Brutus faces the tragic consequences of his actions.
Likely written in 1599 to open the new Globe Theatre, Julius Caesar reflects a political concern of the time: Queen Elizabeth I was an aging monarch with no heir to the throne. Shakespeare’s play about a leader who died without an heir and whose death prompted a civil war reflects the concern in England that civil war would break out when Queen Elizabeth died without a direct successor. Moreover, since Shakespeare staged his productions at the pleasure of the Queen, his plays’ political themes are far from controversial in the context of his era, and this, too is reflected in Julius Caesar. As Caesar’s assassination results directly in political turmoil, suffering, and bloodshed, the play can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the perils of usurping political power, a theme sure to have been embraced by an English sovereign.
Julius Caesar is drama, not history, but specific events in Roman history serve as antecedent action in the play, and Shakespeare alludes to some of them in establishing his characters’ motivations for assassinating Caesar. Under Julius Caesar, Roman armies conquered much of France and Belgium and crossed the English Channel to lay claim to Britain, as well. Called home, Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon River in Italy with his army, despite the fact that to come this close to Rome with an army was illegal. Caesar knew his action would lead to civil war, with the Roman Senate, and more importantly, with the great Roman general Pompey allied against him. Caesar defeated Pompey’s forces, assumed control of Roman affairs, and was named dictator, an appointment made in times of emergency. The title and the political power conferred with it were meant to be temporary, but Caesar’s ambitions to retain both became increasingly clear. In 44 BCE, Caesar was appointed dictator for life. This alienated many senators, some of whom, led by Cassius and Brutus—both in life and in the play—killed Caesar soon after, on the ides of March that same year. In Julius Caesar, various references to Pompey’s fall and to Caesar’s having “grown so great” are allusions to actual events.
Because Brutus is both Caesar’s friend and colleague, the play develops themes of friendship vs. civic duty, public vs. private identity, and loyalty vs. betrayal. The meaning of honor is explored as Brutus struggles to define it in his own character and to determine its role in making the critical decision that will profoundly affect the future freedom of Rome and his countrymen. Political intrigue, scheming, and rhetorical speech (the art of persuasion) dominate the drama, too, and are as relevant to politics today as they were in both Caesar’s and Shakespeare’s time. In its characters, deeply human and often flawed, and in its conflicts and themes, Julius Caesar continues to appeal to a universal audience.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the definitions of antagonist and protagonist and discuss Shakespeare’s development of these roles in Julius Caesar.
2. Identify the primary conflicts and themes in Julius Caesar.
3. Identify symbols found in Julius Caesar and discuss their interpretations.
4. Explain notions of democracy vs. tyranny and allegiance vs. rivalry and duplicity and describe how these are developed thematically in the play.
5. Identify and understand the various allusions to death and violence throughout Julius Caesar.
6. Identify and discuss examples of fate, fortune, and the supernatural in the play.
7. Identify examples of motifs found in Julius Caesar and discuss their significance.
8. Identify and discuss the literary devices and language techniques employed by Shakespeare.
9. Determine what makes Julius Caesar a timeless and popular work and relate events in the play to contemporary world events.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary...
(The entire section is 1329 words.)
1. Brutus joins the conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar because he believes that “power corrupts.” Do you think that Brutus’s motives are valid and that power does, indeed, corrupt a person regardless of their initial intentions? Please provide examples for your argument.
2. Blood is a symbol of destruction and excess throughout the play. Cite several examples of its representation in the play, and discuss why the symbolism is effective.
3. If you were to cast a movie of Julius Caesar, whom would you choose to play key characters? What attributes would you expect each actor to convey in his or her role?
4. Compare and...
(The entire section is 688 words.)
accout’red (accoutered): outfitted and equipped
Aeneas: Roman mythology a Trojan hero
aught: archaic anything
awl: a small tool used for making holes, especially in leather; in context, a pun, meaning “all”
bade: archaic told, ordered
barren: sterile, fruitless
chafing: rubbing against and causing irritation
chanced: to do something by accident, without design
cogitations: considerations, meditations
countenance: noun the face
dost: archaic does
doublet: archaic a shirt
durst: archaic past tense of...
(The entire section is 1031 words.)
alchemy: a medieval forerunner of chemistry focused on the transmutation of base metals into gold and discovering a path to immortality
bestow: to confer or present (such as an honor)
conjointly: in the manner of being combined or united
factious: relating or inclined to a state of internal dissention
gait: a manner of walking
ghastly: hideous, horrible
menace: a threat, a danger
offal: waste parts; refuse, rubbish
portentous: ominous, foreboding
prodigies: persons endowed with extraordinary qualities
prodigious: abnormal (in context)
redress: remedy or...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
appertain: to relate to, to concern
augerers: fortunetellers, soothsayers
augmented: made greater
betimes: archaic soon, early
carrions: archaic decaying flesh; decaying corpses
cautelous: cunning, sly
dank: moist, wet, and clammy
entreated: asked for something earnestly
exhalations: the sound of the crowds speaking in awe (in context)
faction: a small group part of a larger whole
hark: to listen
hew: to shape
ingrafted: pulled together from different plants, breeds
instigations: incendiary actions that...
(The entire section is 1419 words.)
amiss: not quite right; inappropriate or out of place
conquest: victory; subjugation of one’s enemies
emulation: imitation, simulation
expounded: explained, commented on
lest: archaic in case
liable: likely, susceptible, prone
relics: items that remain from a past era; remnants
revel: to celebrate, to take part in festivities
statua: archaic statue, image
take heed: to pay attention to
tinctures: paints, colors
whelped: given birth (used in reference to animals)
1. A motif in Julius Caesar is the supernatural. What...
(The entire section is 753 words.)
beseech: to ask, to beg
besmear: archaic to rub onto, to smear with
confounded: confused, surprised
cur: a mongrel dog
enfranchisement: the state of possessing certain rights and liberties
enterprise: an endeavor, an undertaking
fare you well: archaic take care, best wishes
fell deeds: archaic negative actions
firmament: the heavens, the skies
fray: a quarrel, a skirmish, a fight
leagues: units of distance approximately three miles in length
lofty: heady, high
praetors: judges in ancient Rome
pre-ordinance: a decree, a...
(The entire section is 1330 words.)
bondman: a slave
censure: to condemn, to rebuke
clamours: shouts noisily in demand
commonwealth: part of a territory; surrounding lands
drachmas: archaic silver coins
dwell: to stay, to live
grievous: injurious, most serious
heir: one who inherits the property or position of another
mantle: a sleeveless cape or cloak
marr’d (marred): damaged, spoiled
parchment: paper made of goatskin
rendered: represented, depicted
testament: proof, evidence
treason: an act of rebellion against a government or a ruler
(The entire section is 853 words.)
by and by: as things go
corporal: physical, tangible
covetous: greedy, envious
crests: part of a coat of arms
fashion: a trend
gallant: courteous, brave
hither: archaic here
itching palm: archaic someone who takes bribes
levying: imposing a tax, fee or fine; gathering troops and waging war
niggard: stingy, miser
omitted: kept out
orts: archaic scraps, leftovers
provender: a store of hay or grain for animals
rash choler: hot temper
selfsame tenor: same voice and...
(The entire section is 1398 words.)
consorted (with): associated with, spent time with
ensign: a lower military rank
Epicurus: an ancient Greek philosopher
exigent: urgent, pressing
parley: to speak together
steads: places or positions occupied by a person or thing
1. How does Antony explain the conspirators’ meeting him and Octavius at Philippi before the battle begins?
Octavius teases Antony because Antony did not believe that the conspirators had the courage to meet him and Octavius at Philippi, yet there they are. Antony says that it is mock courage and posturing: “With fearful bravery, thinking by this face / To fasten...
(The entire section is 376 words.)
behold: to observe
disconsolate: dejected, without hope
envenomed: filled with hate, poison
office: a place (in context)
rites: ceremonial acts or procedures
smatch: a taste, a tincture
tarrying: delaying, lingering
vessel: a container, a receptacle
1. Why does Pindarus kill Cassius with Cassius’s own sword?
When Pindarus was Cassius’s prisoner in Parthia, Cassius made him swear that he would do whatever Cassius said. Cassius now tells him that Pindarus should kill him and...
(The entire section is 564 words.)
1. What does Brutus admit to Cassius?
A. He no longer enjoys being a senator.
B. He is unhappy at home.
C. He is afraid the people want Caesar to be king.
D. He is worried that war in Rome is imminent.
E. He is afraid that the people want Antony to reign.
2. What does the soothsayer tell Caesar as a warning?
A. “Beware the Senate.”
B. “Beware of Octavius.”
C. “Beware of a good friend.”
D. “Beware of Brutus.”
E. “Beware the ides of March.”
3. Why does Portia confront...
(The entire section is 1242 words.)
1. Consider the theme of ambivalence throughout Julius Caesar and how characters use speech and the power of the group to manipulate others.
The central conflict in Julius Caesar is Brutus’s quandary about killing his friend, Caesar, because of his loyalty to the concept of Rome as a republic. From the moment we are introduced to Brutus in Act One, Scene Two, we are introduced to themes of friendship versus duty that run throughout the play. Brutus says to Cassius:
. . . . Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which give some soil perhaps to my behaviors;
But let not therefore my good friends be...
(The entire section is 3392 words.)