Download Julius Caesar Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Political Dilemma in Julius Caesar

The political events dramatized by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar actually occurred, the play's narrative line following the accounts of Caesar's assassination as recorded by ancient Roman historians, most notably by Plutarch in his Lives. Indeed, the killing of the foremost political and military figure in Rome in 44 B.C. shook the world, influencing the development of the Roman state, its empire and civilization. The significance of Caesar's assassination as a political issue transcended the fall of Rome some five hundred years later. In Shakespeare's age, the Renaissance and the Reformation required a re-definition (or at least a re-statement) of what makes for legitimate power, of sovereignty and of kingship. The conservative camp with which Shakespeare is most often associated, saw the murder of Caesar as a heinous crime, as a regicide, and as the inevitable cause of civil war. Examples of regicide in more recent English history stood out in the minds of Shakespeare's audiences. At the same time, the experience of political tyranny was also fresh among the Elizabethans, and with it, the assertion that the killing of a "king" is justifiable for the sake of human liberty.

The primary issue of order versus freedom is framed in the play's first scene. As the Roman crowd awaits the celebration of Caesar's triumph over his arch-rival Pompey, it is plain that they are prepared to accept his absolute rulership over Rome. It is then that the tribunes Flavius and Marcellus challenge this exaltation of Caesar into an absolute Emperor by tearing down symbolic decorations of his victory and power. We note that Caesar does not threaten to seize power: in Act I, scene ii., the crowds cheer Caesar on to wear the crown of an emperor. He protests his election by popular acclaim, but he clearly awaits his elevation into a tyrant by the Roman Senate and is lured to his death by word that his confirmation by the aristocracy lies at hand. Less than half way through the play (Act III, scene i.) Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators take matters into their own hands. They stab Caesar and cry out, "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" with the "honorable" Brutus declaring that "ambition's debt is paid." But the side of Freedom, those who commit regicide in the name of Liberty unleash chaos, mayhem, and then, civil war.

This leads to the closely related matter of popular government. It is essential to note that the conspirators are not champions of democracy. Indeed, the demos or common people are part of their problem. The mob here, as in all of Shakespeare's political works, is fickle, self-interested, and vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues. Brutus fears that the ignorant plebians will proclaim Caesar as Rome's absolute monarch (I, ii, ll.77-78), and he is right. Caesar plays the mob with his feigned, ceremonial refusal of the crown from their hands. Mark Antony's famous funeral oration is a model of rabble-rousing propaganda, raising the crowd's feelings toward Brutus and the rest, then shaping those feelings into hatred before motivating them through the promise of material gain according to Caesar's will. Granted, Brutus, Cassius and their cohorts flee Rome, but what is most striking about the crowd's reaction is not its pointed animosity toward the conspirators, but its mindless frenzy. With tyranny vanquished by lethal force, authority is cut asunder and men at large (at least the mass of them) return to a savage, pre-civil state, where poets are killed for having the wrong name.

Lastly, as in other of Shakespeare's plays, the conspirators against "legitimate sovereigns" ultimately fall out amongst each other. Beyond the need for addressing the crowd, Cassius, Brutus, and the rest do not have a plan for restoring order, choosing a successor, or restructuring government. They lack a unifying vision. Most of them take part in the assassination due to envy or personal resentment: Brutus appears to have higher motives. Yet they lack a...

(The entire section is 7,464 words.)