Why is the play named Julius Caesar and not Marcus Brutus?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Brutus seems to be a much more important character in the play than Julius Caesar. Caesar not only has few appearances in the opening acts, but he is assassinated in Act 3, only halfway through the play. Yet Shakespeare chose to call the play Julius Caesar. No doubt this was because Julius Caesar was one of the greatest names in history, while Brutus was not well known to the general public, including the playgoers of Elizabethan England. Brutus really does seem like a tragic figure. Caesar, in Shakespeare's play, seems like a minor character by comparison. We find it hard to pity Caesar because we hardly get a chance to know him.

On the other hand, the play may not feature Caesar but it is all about Caesar. There is hardly a scene or a page which is not concerned with Caesar. In Act I, Scene 2, we see Cassius and Brutus talking about Julius Caesar. Then they are joined by Casca, and he has a lot to say about Julius Caesar. If you open the play anywhere at random, you will very likely to see that whatever is going on has something to do with Julius Caesar. For example, I open my Pelican Shakespeare of Julius Caesar more or less in the middle--and what do I find? Marc Antony is about to speak at Caesar's funeral on page 67.

When the play opens, a group of working men are honoring Julius Caesar, and two tribunes break them up because these officials are against Caesar. In fact, the whole city of Rome seems to be for or against him. Julius Caesar as a character may not be appearing frequently in the play, but his power, his influence, his ambition, his popularity, his plans for Rome, his secrets, his gravitas, and his will are felt consistently, which is undoubtedly the way Shakespeare planned it. Everything in the play has to do with Julius Caesar. He is so powerful and so important that he hardly even has to make appearances.

In Act III, Scene 1, Marc Antony addresses Caesar's dead body in terms that suggest the unstoppable will of this mighty man.

Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar's spirit ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

When Cassius and Brutus commit suicide on the battlefield at Philippi, they both acknowledge the omnipotence of Caesar in causing their defeat and their deaths. In Act V, Scene 5, Cassius says:

Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that killed thee.

And Brutus says:

Caesar, now be still.
I killed not thee with half so good a will.

Antony and Octavius have won the battle, but they are only fighting Brutus and Cassius over the right to inherit the empire which was virtually the property of Julius Caesar. Octavius becomes one of the triumvirate only because he was Julius Caesar's nephew and his heir. Antony was Caesar's best friend and most loyal follower. 

Shakespeare had a problem writing a play about Julius Caesar. He could not cover all over Caesar's long and eventful life, so he focused on Caesar's assassination and its aftermath. But if Caesar dies, isn't the rest of the play anticlimactic? This was what Shakespeare must have had in mind when he decided to give so much importance to the character of Brutus. Brutus provides a thread to follow from the beginning to the very end. This probably helps to explain why we feel more sympathy for Brutus than for Caesar. But Caesar was a far more important figure. As Cassius says to Brutus early in the play:

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 dishonorable graves.     Act I, Scene 2

Read the study guide:
Julius Caesar

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