The facts of Julius Caesar’s assassination are a matter of historical record; consequently, even before the play begins, Shakespeare’s audience knows Caesar’s fate and how it consumed him on the ides of March, 44 B.C. How then does the playwright manage to create and sustain suspense? The answer lies in the difference between suspense and surprise. An unexpected event surprises, but suspense is created when an audience wonders how an event will come to pass and what will happen in the interim. Thus the suspense in the play is achieved by Shakespeare’s turning history into drama. Caesar’s assassination is historical fact, but the play is fiction, and through plot and character development, Shakespeare generates suspense that keeps an audience engaged.
The first moment of suspense occurs in an episode of plot development in Act I, Scene ii when the Soothsayer calls out to Caesar from the crowd. Caesar is about to leave, but hearing a voice call his name, a voice so insistent it is “shriller than all the music,” he pauses. “Beware the ides of March,” the Soothsayer warns Caesar ominously, making the audience wonder how Caesar will respond. The suspense is heightened when Caesar orders that the Soothsayer be brought before him. “Let me see his face,” he commands. Standing before Caesar, the Soothsayer repeats his warning, and the suspense is sustained until Caesar decides not to question him and then dismisses him as a “dreamer.”
Act II, Scene ii illustrates clearly the difference between surprise and suspense and how Shakespeare creates and sustains suspense through character development. The audience knows Caesar will be murdered in the Senate the following day (that’s no surprise)—but how will the conspirators convince him to go to the Senate despite the advice of the augurers and Calpurnia’s fear for his safety? The scene is developed at length, examining Calpurnia’s terror and establishing her relationship with Caesar. Suspense ensues when Caesar declares that out of concern for Calpurnia, he will not go to the Senate; it is sustained as the conspirators strive to change his mind; it is resolved when Caesar admonishes Calpurnia for her “foolish” fears and declares, “Give me my robe, for I will go.” Through the clever arguments the conspirators employ in manipulating Caesar to reverse his decision to remain at home, Caesar’s ego, arrogance, and ambition are made evident.
In Act II, Scene iii and Scene iv, Caesar’s assassination is imminent, and suspense builds as Shakespeare introduces the character of Artemidorus and brings the Soothsayer back into the plot. Scene iii consists entirely of Artemidorus, standing on a street near the Capitol, reading aloud a message he has written in which he warns Caesar of the conspiracy and lists each of the conspirators by name. “Here I will stand till Caesar pass along, / And as a suitor will I give him this,” Artemidorus says, adding “If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live; / If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.” The audience knows Artemidorus will not save Caesar, but will he manage to deliver the message? What else will occur as the Fates “contrive” with the conspirators?
Shifting immediately to “another part of the same street” in Scene iv, Shakespeare sustains and then heightens the suspense in a conversation between Portia and the Soothsayer. He is on his way to the Capitol, he tells Portia, “to take my stand / To see [Caesar] pass ….” He intends to speak to Caesar, to “beseech him to befriend himself.” As Act II concludes, the audience wonders if Artemidorus and the Soothsayer will succeed in delivering their warnings—and if they do succeed, what will transpire between each of them and Caesar? Furthermore, how has Artemidorus learned of the conspiracy? Does anyone else know about it? Will someone else attempt to prevent the assassination?
Caesar dies in the first scene of Act III, but Shakespeare sustains the suspense until the moment the conspirators strike. The Soothsayer intercepts Caesar at the Senate, but his warning is interrupted when Artemidorus desperately attempts to deliver his written message. Decius intervenes, presenting Caesar with a document, and the audience waits to see which paper Caesar will read. If he reads Artemidorus’s letter, how will the conspirators’ plans be affected? Caesar rejects the letter, proceeds into the Senate House, and his murder is at hand.
Shakespeare, however, keeps the audience in suspense a bit longer and intensifies it as Popilius speaks to Cassius, expressing hope that “your enterprise today may thrive,” and then moves directly toward Caesar. Fearing their plot is about to be revealed, Cassius, Brutus, and Casca watch in alarm as Popilius gains Caesar’s attention, and they wait in suspense, as does the audience, to see what will transpire in the next few seconds. The moment of suspense is resolved when Popilius smiles, and “Caesar does not change.”
As Caesar takes his place in the high Senate chair, the audience wonders if anything else will complicate the conspirators’ plans or delay the arrival of Caesar’s fate, but Shakespeare has kept everyone waiting long enough. Only a few speeches remain before the conspirators, led by Casca, stab Caesar to death. The assassination and the manner in which Caesar is murdered come as no surprise, but many moments of suspense are generated before he utters, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!”