Julius Caesar Critical Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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Act I Commentary

Scene i: The opening scene of the play is meant to establish the differences of opinion among the Roman citizens and the commoners regarding Julius Caesar. Caesar, who is extraordinarily popular among the common people, excites Rome when he defeats Pompey, who formerly possessed popularity among the Roman masses, in battle. However, not everyone is thrilled at Caesar's victory, as Flavius and Marcellus, among the elite of Rome, chastise the people for their celebration and proceed to tear down celebratory decorations, an act which will result in their arrest. The anger and mistrust of Caesar demonstrated by Flavius and Marcellus in this scene reflect the sentiments of the conspirators, who are disturbed by Caesar's rise to power and willing to risk punishment to stem it.

Scene ii: The action of the play begins in this scene. The first section of the scene begins with Caesar ordering Marc Antony to touch Calphurnia during the chariot race in an effort to cure their marriage of barrenness. Caesar's lack of a son is important because he wishes to become king and needs an heir. Octavius, Caesar's nephew, will also eventually become Caesar because of this, which is why he is involved in the triumverate. After this order, the soothsayer comes to warn Caesar to "beware the ides of March," or March 15. This is the first of several signs or omens that occur during the play, which brings about one of the play's central themes—fate and free will. In this case, Caesar dismisses the soothsayer as a "dreamer" and does not question him further about his warning, ignoring the sign being given to him. Caesar will ignore several other omens before his death in Act III due to his own ego, which also surfaces in this first section when he refers to himself in royal terms: "I hear a tongue shriller than all the music/Cry 'Caesar.' Speak. Caesar is turned to hear" (ll. 19-20). Although Caesar has a great deal of power, he is not a king, and his reference to himself as Caesar belies his great belief in his own power, for he is, as he puts it, "always Caesar."

In the second section of the scene, Cassius attempts to discern Brutus' position on Caesar as king. This introduces the conspiracy element to the play, as well as Brutus' love for both his friend Caesar and for his country. Unlike most of Rome, Brutus is not celebrating Caesar's victory because he knows that Caesar is almost certain to become king. Although Caesar is already Emperor, it is an appointed military position, and the Roman Senate is the body that holds the true power in Rome. By making Caesar king, Caesar would have absolute power for the rest of his life and then pass down that power to his heir, and the Senate would be at his mercy. Brutus, having been born a "free man," resists the tyranny that such an appointment could represent, although he loves and values Caesar as his best friend. Cassius also resists the idea of Caesar becoming king, but it is clear in this scene that Cassius resents Caesar's rise to power, especially considering that Caesar is epileptic, deaf in one ear, physically weak, and no greater than any other man. Cassius attempts to manipulate Brutus into participating in the conspiracy to come, using Brutus' love for the empire and his devotion to freedom as means. Brutus, however, is aware of the "dangers" into which Cassius would lead him, and hesitates until he learns from Casca that Marc Antony has tried to give Caesar a crown, which leads him to agree to meet Cassius the next day.

The failed coronation leads back to the nature of Caesar's character. As reported by Casca, Caesar is offered a laurel or coronet three times in this scene, and refuses all three times. The purpose of this, from Casca's view, is to win the crowd's approval. Caesar also knows that without the approval of the Roman Senate, the crown means very little, which is why Casca refers to the incident as "mere foolery." Caesar's action here is amplified by a sudden swoon, which leads the...

(The entire section is 4,597 words.)