Julius Caesar Summary
by William Shakespeare

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Julius Caesar Summary

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is a play about the assassination of Caesar, the leader of the Roman Republic.

  • Caesar’s growing popularity inspires jealousy among the Roman tribunes, and a conspiracy against Caesar takes shape.
  • Cassius recruits Caesar’s friend Brutus to help. At the Senate, they and the other conspirators stab Caesar to death.
  • Mark Antony volunteers to speak at Caesar’s funeral and infuriates a mob with his speech. Brutus and Cassius quickly flee the city to raise an army. 
  • The two armies clash at the Battle of Philippi. Antony's forces soon overwhelm Brutus's men. Before he can be killed, Brutus kills himself.

Summary

First performed in 1599, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a five-act history play and tragedy, the plot of which Shakespeare sourced from The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, written by the Greek historian Plutarch around the first century. Shakespeare uses the Roman plot as an allegory for the political mood of England in his times, and the play has stood the test of time in its remarkable, prescient treatment of themes like the dangers of concentration of power, as well as its complex, flawed, and fascinating characters.

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The action of the play begins in February 44 BCE, when Julius Caesar, a great general and senator, returns to Rome from Spain, where he defeated the sons of Pompey, the leader whom he overthrew and killed to become the most powerful man in Rome. Caesar’s homecoming is marked by crowds celebrating in the streets. One such celebration is broken up by the tribunes Flavius and Marullus.

The next scene introduces Caesar, along with his wife, Calpurnia, and commander, Mark Antony. Cesar asks Calpurnia to stand in Antony’s way as he races for the Coliseum as part of the Lupercal fertility celebrations, since it was believed the touch of the victor would reverse barrenness. A soothsayer appears from the crowd, warning Caesar to beware “the ides of March,” or the fifteenth day of March, which Caesar ignores.

As Caesar leaves, Marcus Brutus, a beloved friend of Caesar’s, and the senator Cassius, whose loyalties are ambiguous, stay behind. Cassius is quickly established as a catalyst in the play’s action, sounding out the reasons for Brutus’s “vexed” look. Cassius soon deduces that Brutus is unhappy at Caesar’s meteoric ascent and urges him to take action. Brutus reveals that though he “loves” Caesar, he would not have him emperor, indicating he senses a tyrannical streak in Caesar. Brutus agrees to discuss his “aim” with Cassius at a more opportune time. Brutus is revealed to be a somber, idealistic man, as opposed to the more plainspoken and craftier Cassius.

Returning from the Coliseum, Caesar notices Cassius, whose “lean and hungry” look unsettles him, and asks Antony to keep Cassius away from Caesar’s person. Caesar’s perceptiveness fits into the play’s larger theme of portents, dreams, premonitions, and the supernatural.

Portents gain center stage in the final scene of act 1, when a stormy night follows an inauspicious day in which lions have been seen in the street and owls heard shrieking at midday. It is revealed that Cassius has won over a group of senators ready to try any means to check Caesar’s power. The only man left to join their ranks, one who will lend their enterprise a cover of “honor,” is respectable Brutus. Cassius is certain Brutus is almost won over to their end, and to ensure a complete capitulation, he forges letters from Roman citizens urging Brutus to resist tyranny.

Act 2 opens with Brutus in deep turmoil about Caesar’s fate. However, notably, it is Brutus who is the first in the plot to state clearly that only death can check Caesar’s power.

It must be by his death, and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him
But for the general.

Discovering Cassius’s forged letters cements his resolve. He is soon joined in his house by Cassius and the other conspirators: Casca, Decius Brutus,...

(The entire section is 1,346 words.)