What are the major themes in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Shakespeare based his political play Julius Caesar on actual events from 44 B.C.  Caesar was assassinated by a group of Roman senators.  Their reasons were both personal and public.  There are several themes that Shakespeare illustrates in the play.

1st theme--

One theme emphasized by Shakespeare is friendship.  There is really only one friendship that comes from the play: Cassius and Brutus.  Obviously, Caesar has no real friends; even Antony was really just a worker for Caesar.  Yet, from the beginning. Cassius claims Brutus as his friend.

You bear too stubborn and too strange a hand
Over your friend that loves you.

Cassius did manipulate Brutus, but he needed him for the conspiracy to be successful.   This did not supplant his real esteem and respect for Brutus.  Brutus did not really dislike anyone.  Even though he was part of the conspiracy, Brutus still loved Caesar. 

Throughout the play, Cassius and Brutus may argue or disagree.  Still, they make up their friendship and move on with their goals. 

2nd theme-

Fate becomes a pervading influence in the play.

Cassius tells Brutus:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

To prove that he does not believe in fate, Cassius throws out his chest daring the gods to strike him with lightning. Cassius believes that it is up to individuals to make their own decisions and choose their own way.  Sounds logical except that at every turn someone is referring to the fates. In addition, there are  many portents or omens throughout the play.  The stormy night with men on fire, lions walking around, the owl seen at noon time--all point to the theme of free will versus fate

3rd theme

Individual honor conflicts with public honor in several situations.  The most evident situation concerns Brutus and his indecision to be a part of the assassination.  Brutus would not murder Caesar except for the honor of Rome.  His own individual honor is set aside.  On the other hand, Antony in his funeral oration ironically and sarcastically mocks  Brutus and the conspirators repeatedly by saying:

I should do Brutus wrong and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honorable men. 
I rather choose to wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you, Than I will wrong such honorable men.

Of course, Marc Antony means exactly the opposite.  He does want harm to come to the assassins and it wil come from Anotny. 

4th theme-

Power and Regicide

This is a political play written during the reign of Elizabeth I.  There was always intrigue and secrecy in the court during this time. Caesar is killed for having or possibly having too much power.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about. To find ourselves dishonourable graves. 

Regicide takes place in Caesar's time.  The killing of a leader does not solve any problems; usually, it creates them.  Such is the case in this assassination.  After Caesar's death, civil war ensues and the conspirator's are hunted down and killed.  The new triumvirate does not last.  Octavius assumes the power. 

Read the study guide:
Julius Caesar

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