Was Julius Caesar ambitious?

Julius Caesar most certainly was ambitious. However, Shakespeare makes it seem that he was somewhat less so. He presents Caesar as a modest man who very publicly turns down the chance to be king of Rome. Yet his opponents are not convinced. They see his ambition and so determine to have him killed.

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The question of whether or not Julius Caesar is ambitious is one that plagues Brutus, though he comes to the conclusion that Caesar is indeed an ambitious, dangerous man—one who is determined to disband the Republic and rule Rome as a dictator. There is no question that the historical Julius Caesar was an ambitious, driven politician and general who dismissed the Senate's ultimatum by crossing the Rubicon and inciting a civil war. However, Shakespeare portrays Julius Caesar as a rather cordial, experienced politician who is not overtly ambitious. Julius Caesar is certainly a supercilious, vain individual who recognizes his importance and popularity, but at no time in the play does he overstep his boundaries.

Caesar not only refuses to accept the crown three times in front of the Roman masses but Mark Antony makes a moving argument during Caesar's funeral that he was not an ambitious man. It is evident that Caesar's true intentions are obscure and indiscernible, which influences the audience to sympathize with Brutus's difficult situation. By depicting Caesar as a complex, ambiguous character, the audience experiences Brutus's inner conflict as they also struggle to correctly examine and judge Caesar's ambitious nature in the play. Although one could argue that Caesar's actions and words in act 3, scene 1 reveal his true colors, Caesar never expresses his desire to become emperor or reveals his intentions to disband the Republic. Given the lack of evidence and difficulty of establishing Caesar's motives, it would be hard to identify him as an ambitious character in the play.

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In real life, Julius Caesar was an incredibly ambitious man, entirely in keeping with the standards of his class. Men of noble birth such as himself were expected to gain as much glory as possible for themselves, for their families, and, of course, for Rome. Caesar was no exception in this regard; over the course of his political and military career, he set out to amass as much power as he possibly could. Unfortunately for him, this put him at odds with Roman Republicans, who feared that he wanted to make himself king. And it was this fear that led some of them to have Caesar assassinated.

However, after watching Shakespeare’s play, one might wonder what all the fuss was about. Caesar is presented to the audience as quite a selfless man who only wants the best for Rome. Far from being overly ambitious, he’s rather modest as Roman statesmen go, openly and very publicly turning down the mob’s offer of kingship. The problem, though, is that Caesar’s opponents are not in the least bit convinced by any of this; they regard it as nothing more than a tawdry piece of street theater. They remain certain that Caesar intends to make himself king, end the Republic, and make slaves of the people of Rome.

To some extent, Caesar’s modesty is mainly a result of his not having much stage time. Although the play is named after him, Caesar is not the main character or even one of the main characters, come to that. Among other things, this means that it’s difficult to establish his precise motives. That being so, most audience members tend to find themselves in sympathy with Caesar, regarding as they do the actions of his assassins as being both morally wrong and excessive.

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In Shakespeare's classic play, Julius Caesar is portrayed as a shrewd politician who is clearly egotistical and domineering. Despite being a self-centered narcissist, Caesar's ambition remains ambiguous, which emphasizes Brutus's internal struggle to join the conspirators or reject their proposal. Brutus's decision to join the conspirators relies solely on his belief that Julius Caesar is ambitious. In act two, scene one, Brutus voices his concerns regarding Caesar's ambition in a moving soliloquy, where he likens Caesar to a "serpent's egg," which will become dangerous after it hatches. Despite Brutus's belief that Caesar is ambitious and motivated to become emperor, there is no clear evidence that unquestionably proves that Caesar is ambitious.

In act one, scene two, Casca informs Brutus and Cassius that Caesar reluctantly pushed the crown away when Mark Antony offered it to him in public. Although Casca tells them that Caesar "was very loath to lay his fingers off it," one cannot trust his opinion as solid proof that Caesar desired to be crowned king.

However, one cannot deny the fact that Caesar is an egotistical, self-centered man. He constantly refers to himself in the third-person, says that he is more dangerous than danger itself, and compares himself to the North Star. He also dismisses the soothsayer's warnings, rejects his wife's advice not to go to the Capitol, and exercises his authority by refusing to restore Publius Cimber's citizenship.

Despite his confidence, narcissistic personality, and domineering nature, one cannot definitively prove that Julius Caesar was ambitious, which is what makes his assassination and Brutus's participation dramatic and intriguing.

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Shakespeare downplays Caesar's ambition right up until the moment he is attacked by the conspirators. In the first two acts of the play Caesar is offstage much more than he is on. When onstage, he is portrayed as a sort of portly politician who is acting democratic, friendly, cordial, and humble in order to make as many friends as possible among the patricians and to make a favorable impression on the plebeians. Shakespeare evidently intended to have Caesar show his true self just before he is assassinated, which would contribute to the dramatic impact of that bloody scene and would prove to the audience that the conspirators might have been justified in plotting his death. The fact that Caesar knows he is going to be made king has gone to his head. He disregards his wife Calpurnia's pleas to stay at home, the warnings of the Soothsayer to "Beware the Ides of March," and all the supernatural omens that seem to have been sent as warnings. He also insults all the petitioners surrounding him, getting them to grovel and then expressing his contempt for their groveling. Perhaps he feels that his coronation is all but certain and now he can stop being so cordial and democratic. Just before he is stabbed to death, he makes his most revealing speech:

I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world, 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.

And when Cinna starts to remonstrate, Caesar says,

Hence! Wilt thou life up Olympus?

Then they all close on him with swords and daggers. Though we know it was planned beforehand, it still almost seems as if Caesar provoked them into doing it.

When Caesar says "If I could pray to move," he seems to be implying that he does not believe in prayer, possibly that he is above prayer because of his distinction. He cannot pray to the gods because he secretly feels like he is a god. This conviction is further implied when he says, "Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?" The summit of Mount Olympus was the home of the gods, and Caesar evidently imagined himself up there among them, drinking nectar and eating ambrosia. Caesar is so ambitious that he won't be satisfied with being a mere king. The next step up what Brutus called "young ambition's ladder" is to become a god. That would not have been hard to achieve in ancient Roman times. The Senate could declare a person to be a god and order everyone in the empire to worship him or her as such. Caesar's successor Octavius Augustus became a god by Senate decree, as did Caligula. Augustus Caesar's fiendish wife Livia was declared a goddess posthumously on the orders of Emperor Claudius. Julius Caesar himself was also made a god posthumously by public acclamation.

So perhaps even Cassius and Brutus did not fully comprehend how ambitious Julius Caesar actually was. When Antony makes his famous funeral address, he does not seem to deny Caesar's ambition because it was all too obvious. Antony may not have realized that his good friend's ambition went beyond being a mere mortal.

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