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

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Last Updated on April 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1351

Introduction

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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Plot Summary

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, Cinna, Metellus, and Trebonius. The conspirators choose the ides of March, the fifteenth day of the month to assassinate Caesar in the Senate.

The meeting ended, Brutus’s wife, Portia, questions him about his recent changed behavior and dark moods. Moved by Portia’s entreaty, Brutus promises to gradually reveal his secret to her.

The next scene takes place in Caesar’s house on the morning of the fateful ides of March. The preceding night has been stormy and filled with supernatural omens, such as graves opening up to yield their dead. Having seen his bleeding statue in a nightmare, Calpurnia implores Caesar to stay home. At first reluctant to appear cowardly, Caesar ultimately accedes to Calpurnia’s wishes. However, the conspirators have cleverly anticipated such an outcome and turn up at Caesar’s house to persuade him to come to the Senate with them. Decius Brutus plays on Caesar’s weaknesses—his ego and his ambition—to make him overturn his previous decision and accompany his “good friends” to the Senate. The conspirators also ensure that Caesar’s loyal friend Mark Antony is kept away from the Senate that morning.

In the scenes that follow, Artemidorous, a well-wisher of Caesar’s who has gained some knowledge of the conspiracy, prepares a letter of warning, which he plans to press into Caesar’s hands on the steps of the Capitol. However, Caesar, blinded by his ego, refuses to read the letter.

Inside the Senate, the conspirators crowd around Caesar on the pretext of making a request. Kneeling around him as if in supplication, they pull out their concealed daggers and swords and stab him. They then proceed to wash their hands and clothes in Caesar’s blood.

Mark Antony, loyal to Caesar, reaches the Senate. Struggling to control his grief at the sight of Caesar’s body, Antony requests to be allowed to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Fearing Antony may rouse the people of Rome against the conspirators, Cassius objects. However, Brutus grants Antony permission to speak, on the condition that Brutus himself will first address the Roman crowd. Brutus’s confidence that his speech will outweigh Antony’s is a critical reminder of his myopia.

In a measured, logical speech, Brutus shows the crowd that in order to safeguard the freedom of Rome, it was necessary to kill Caesar. Won over by Brutus’s argument, the crowd seems indisposed to Antony, who follows Brutus. However, Antony quickly shifts the crowd’s mood with a pathos-filled, emotional speech. Using powerful rhetoric, Antony strips Caesar’s murderers of their cloak of nobility and has the crowd baying for the blood of the conspirators. As the crowd runs amok through the streets of Rome, the conspirators flee the city.

As act 4 begins, Antony has joined forces with Octavius Caesar, Caesar’s adopted son and grandnephew, and Lepidus, a banker, to avenge Caesar’s death. The triumvirate meticulously prepare a list of enemies they must destroy in order to gain control of the Roman Empire. The contrast between the passionate Antony of the previous scene and this cold, strategic Antony could not be greater. Thus, Antony is shown to be a superior strategist to Brutus.

Antony and Octavius’s forces pursue those of Brutus and Cassius. Camped at Sardinia in western Asia, Brutus and Cassius appear divided, and their infighting seems to prove true Antony’s curse of “civil strife.” However, the friends eventually reunite. Brutus reveals to Cassius that his wife, Portia, has committed suicide by “swallowing fire.” That night a sleepless Brutus is visited in his tent by the ghost of Caesar, who tells him that he will see Brutus at Philippi.

At the “Philippi fields” in Macedonia, Brutus and Cassius meet Antony and Octavius in battle. Before the battle, Brutus has another ominous vision of Caesar’s ghost.

Once again Cassius suggests caution in dealing with Antony, advising Brutus to hold their defensive position, and once again Brutus overrules him. Brutus decides to attack Octavius’s side of the battle, leaving Cassius to take on Antony. At first, the conspirators appear to have the advantage, but in the confusion, Cassius is mistakenly convinced that all is lost, and he asks his servant Pindarus to kill him, significantly with the very same sword that Brutus used to murder Caesar. With fate seemingly against him, Brutus finds himself fighting a lonely, hopeless battle. To avoid being captured and enslaved, Brutus asks his servant Strato to hold his sword as he runs into it and takes his own life, crying, “Caesar now be still.”

As the play ends, Antony delivers a eulogy over Brutus’s body, calling him “the noblest Roman of them all.”

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