Comment om Shakespeare's use of irony, giving at least 3 examples, in Julius Caesar.

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is ironic that Brutus kills Caesar for being ambitious, that Antony calls Brutus an honorable man, and that Cassius killed himself when he thought that he was losing when he was in fact winning. 

There is irony throughout this play.  Irony is when something unexpected happens, or someone says something and means the opposite.

The first example of irony is when Brutus kills Caesar for being ambitious.  This is ironic because Brutus is actually being ambitious here too.  He says he is killing Caesar before he can do anything dangerous.

And, to speak truth of Caesar,

I have not known when his affections swayed

More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof

That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,

Whereto the climber-upward turns his face (Act 2, Scene 1)

Brutus is basically saying that Caesar hasn’t done anything, but he might!  If he gets any more power, oh, he will be dangerous.       

Ah, Brutus, what did you think would happen?  The plot to kill Caesar was incredibly ambitious.  Brutus and the others thought that they could kill Caesar and they would be hailed by the people as tyrant killers.  They thought there would be parades in the streets.  That is not how it happened at all.  People were afraid.  Brutus tried to explain why they did it in a speech to the people.

As he was valiant, I

honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.

There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor

for his valor, and death for his ambition. Who is

here so base that would be a bondman? (Act 3, Scene 2)

Granted, the people in that particular crowd seem convinced, but they also seem to be a pretty malleable crowd.  You have to remember that in Ancient Rome, politicians gave speeches quite a lot.  These same people are soon swayed by Mark Antony, and it does not take long.  Brutus was doomed.

That brings me to Irony Number Two.  This is of course the most famous one from the play.  It seems pretty close to sarcasm.  This is where Antony, is his eulogy-turned-political oration, declares Brutus and his cohorts, Caesar’s assassins, honorable men.  He means it not a lick.

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,

Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,

And sure he is an honorable man.

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know. (Act 3, Scene 2)

In one speech, Antony manages to undo any good will that Brutus acquired in convincing the people that he and the others killed Caesar for good reasons, and also convince them that he is Caesar’s heir and should be the one leading Rome. 

When Antony says that Brutus and the others are honorable men, he is saying just the opposite.  He means it in the most sarcastic and ironic way possible.  He is saying that they have no honor.  He is calling them liars and murderers.  He brings out Caesar’s body and points to where they stabbed him.  Antony calls the crowd into a frenzy, and they are ready to kill the conspirators and burn down their houses.  “Honorable” is the last word they would use to describe them.

Finally, when Brutus and Cassius are on the run and backed into a corner, on the battlefield, we have the last irony.  Cassius thinks that he is losing when he is actually winning.  He mistakes a victory for a loss and kills himself. 

Cassius sends Pindarus to tell him what is going on.  He reports back, and tells him that Titinius is captured.  Cassius is upset, to say the least.

Come down, behold no more.—

O, coward that I am to live so long

To see my best friend ta’en before my face! (Act 5, Scene 3)

Of the two generals, Brutus and Cassius, Cassius was definitely doing better.  When he thinks that Titinius is captured by the enemy, he basically gives up.  Unfortunately, what Pindarus sees and reports is friendly soldiers embracing Titinius, happy that they won, not capturing him.  Still, Cassius ironically completely misjudges the scenario, does not wait for confirmation, and kills himself (Pindarus stabs him).

Irony is a part of life. Sometimes things happen when we least expect it. It is part of history, too. Shakespeare makes good use of pointing it out, so that we do not miss it. 

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