The Political Dilemma in Julius Caesar

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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.

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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 constructive purpose, and ultimately Brutus comes into conflict with Cassius, the two arguing first over Marc Antony's fate, then squabbling over petty rumors, and then disagreeing about military strategy. The consequences of killing a king, then, are presented by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar as worse than the problem of tyranny, for with the death of the king comes the collapse of authority and the need for a bloody conflict among clashing powers.

The Character of Brutus: Is He an Honorable Man?

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The use of the word "honorable" in explicit or implicit conjunction with the name of Brutus has become a coded way of casting doubt upon the motives and morals of a speaker's opponents. Today, when said with a knowing inflection, the statement that someone is an "honorable man" recalls Marc Antony's famous funeral oration in which he subtly twists the word "honorable" into its opposite meaning. When Marc Antony tells the crowd after Caesar's assassination that Brutus is "honorable," his ultimate innuendo is that his reputation as a man of principle is now proven false by the heinous crime that he has committed in the very name of principle (Act III, scene ii, ll.90-95). Yet this sly inference of dishonor takes on a much richer meaning when we recall Cassius's reference to Brutus as a "honorable man" in his frank soliloquy of Act I, scene ii. For Cassius, a man who acts against Caesar from personal motives, Brutus's "honor" is an obstacle to be overcome if his plot to kill the Emporer is to succeed. Ironically, this suggests that Marc Antony's inference is false, that Brutus is, indeed, an honorable man, albeit one committed to a bad cause.

What is Brutus's motive for taking part in the conspiracy and can this reconcile his crime with his reputed honor? At the beginning of Act II, Brutus speaks to his servant Lucus about his fears that Caesar may become a tyrant if he is crowned king. Just then, he receives a letter written by Cassius urging him to protect the Roman Republic from just such a course. This strongly suggests that Brutus's motives, if not his actions, are those of an honorable man, a patriot defending his homeland at the cost of killing a man for whom he otherwise bears deep affection. Brutus acts "honorably" in the aftermath of the assassination. He takes open responsibility for the murder, washing his hands in the fallen leader's blood, and urging his fellow conspirators to do the same. In Act III, scene ii, Brutus addresses the crowd, and tells him that he took part in the killing of Caesar "not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more."

To this juncture, we have no reason to question Brutus's explanation, and it is consistent with that of an honorable person acting for the greater good. Marc Antony, of course, calls his honor into question, but this is for propaganda reasons. When all is said and done, Antony proclaims the fallen Brutus to be the "noblest Roman of them all," who alone among the conspirators was moved by "a general honest thought/And common good to all" (Act V, scene v, ll.68, 71-72). In the last word, Brutus's honor is restored to him according to its normal meaning.

But the last word falls to Marc Antony, and he has already misused the very term "honor" in relation to Brutus. After he has killed Caesar and fled Rome, Brutus appears somewhat less honorable than he was in the first half of the play. He argues with Cassius about trifles and is anything but democratic in his insistence on moving forward to meet the army of Antonio and Octavius. Most telling of all, he is haunted by Caesar's ghost on the eve of the Battle of Philippi, and this clearly shows us a guilty conscience that does not square with the mind of an honorable man. Indeed, in the play's final scene, Brutus is unable to complete his suicide pact with Cassius as planned. He cannot stab himself and must ask one of his loyal soldiers to perform the task. The sense that we gain is that Brutus is honorable until the time that he actually kills Caesar, but that the commission of this crime wounds his own "honorable" self.

Speechmaking in Act III, Scene ii

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Act III, scene ii of Julius Caesar is one of the most critical points of the entire play. Caesar has just been murdered, and the conspirators have yet to justify their action to an angry Roman public. Antony, meanwhile, has sworn to avenge Caesar's death while publicly agreeing to the conspirators' demands. The outcome of the entire play depends on who can gain the trust of the crowds, which both Brutus and Antony attempt to attain through speechmaking. Both speeches reveal not only the purposes of the speakers, but also their understanding of the events that have unfolded as well as aspects of their character. Because Antony, like his mentor Caesar, understands what motivates the crowds, he is able to successfully persuade the Roman public to turn against the conspirators and sweep them out of the city.

Brutus is the first to speak to the crowds after the assassination of Caesar. He speaks first because, as he explains to Cassius in Act III, scene i, he hopes to gain an advantage with the crowds by showing Caesar respect:

I will myself into the pulpit first
And show the reason of our Caesar's death.
What Antony shall speak I will protest
He speaks by leave and by permission
And that we are contented Caesar shall
Have all true rites and lawful ceremonies (ll. 261-266).

This demonstrates Brutus' motivation not only for the next scene but also for the act of killing Caesar—he wants to do what is honorable and good for Rome without seeming like a butcher. This is also the same reason that Brutus refuses to allow the conspirators to kill Antony. Cassius, by contrast, does not concern himself with appearing savage, but tells Brutus that allowing Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral is not a good idea, as Antony may be able to sway the public. Brutus then makes the mistake of believing that he can control Antony's influence by dictating what Antony may say at the funeral:

You shall not in your funeral speech blame us
But speak all good you can devise of Caesar
And say you do't by our permission,
Else shall you not have any hand at all
About his funeral. And you shall speak
In the same pulpit whereto I am going,
After my speech is ended (ll. 269-276).

Brutus mistakenly believes that by not allowing Antony to say anything bad about the conspirators and that by making Antony speak after Brutus, he will be able to control any influence Antony may have over the people. As we shall see, Antony obeys both instructions in his funeral oration but is still perfectly capable of turning the crowds against the conspirators.

When the plebians demand an explanation for Caesar's murder, Brutus begins his appeal. Brutus' first statement to the crowds is that they should listen to him because he is honorable, which should engender respect for him. He then makes an appeal to the crowd's logic: "Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses that you may the better judge" (ll. 17-19). This appeal is critical to Brutus' argument. The entire premise of the conspirators' plot to kill Caesar is that Caesar must die because he may become a tyrant. They have no proof that Caesar would become one, but they infer that he will because he has the power to do so. This argument is logical in nature rather than emotional, and it is what has led Brutus to the conspiracy even though he loves Caesar. In order for the crowds, who also love Caesar, to accept the actions of the conspirators, they must, in Brutus' opinion, hear and believe the argument of the conspirators and repress their emotions, which is why Brutus asks them to use their own logic in listening to his justification. In order to remind the crowds why they should put aside their love for Caesar, Brutus then reminds them that he, too, loves Caesar, probably more than any other, but that even Caesar is not more important than the love of Rome. At this point, Brutus is making an appeal to love of country, which is often considered a "higher" love than that of an individual (This is similar to the appeal to respect for honor that he makes in the beginning of the speech). Brutus combines love of country and logical thought by asking the public if they would have preferred to be slaves than for Caesar to die. He urges the Romans to appreciate all of the benefits that Caesar brought to Rome, but not to forget that they might have become slaves because of Caesar's ambition. Brutus then ends the first section of his speech with a series of questions to indicate that none of the Romans have been offended or harmed by the death of Caesar. All of these arguments demonstrate what Brutus himself believes to be important: honor, freedom, and love of country.

The second section of Brutus' speech occurs as Antony is bringing the body of Caesar out from the Capitol. Brutus reminds his audience that he has not offended or harmed anyone, and that Caesar would have eventually harmed them all because of his ambition. He also reminds them that they will all receive the benefit of Caesar's death—freedom from tyranny. Once again, all of these arguments are designed to appeal to the logic of the audience, and because Brutus speaks first, the audience is convinced. They even go so far as to demand that Brutus be named Caesar, showing the same fickleness that moved them from support of Pompey to Caesar in the first place. Brutus does offer two dramatic actions to reinforce the good opinion of the crowd at the end of his speech. First, he offers to kill himself if his country needs him to do so (which the crowd begs him not to), and then he demands that the crowd stay and listen to Antony's funeral oration while Brutus departs alone. The first action is extremely dramatic yet underscores the logic of Brutus' arguments because the whole point of killing Caesar is that it is best for Rome. The second action, leaving before Antony's speech and demanding that the crowd stay, is intended to show Brutus' faith in his own argument (and, quite possibly, his overconfidence). By insisting that the public stay to for the funeral, Brutus appears to be fair and honorable, qualities that he has been attempting to put forth during his speech. And for the moment, the crowd believes him.

Unlike Brutus, Antony recognizes the gullibility of the Roman public and turns it to his advantage, while at the same time obeying Brutus' strictures about not speaking against the conspirators. Although it seems as if the Romans cannot be swayed after hearing Brutus' speech, Antony knows that the crowd easily changes opinions and manipulates them by appealing to their emotions and to their own greed. Unlike Brutus, Antony is not concerned with what is "honorable"—he only wants to avenge Caesar's death and to stop the conspirators. In the first section of Antony's speech, he appears to be doing nothing more than following Brutus' lead:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him ...
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it (ll. 82-89).

With this opening, Antony seems to be in agreement with the conspirators. Antony begins this way because the crowds have already been convinced by Brutus' arguments, and Antony must lure them back bit by bit. Recognizing that the crowds believe Brutus to be honorable (as Brutus spends so much of his speech reminding them that he is), Antony uses the statement "Brutus says he [Caesar] was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man" to bring the crowd from this belief in Brutus into an entirely different opinion of Brutus and the conspirators. The first time Antony uses this statement is when he mentions to the public that the conspirators have allowed him to speak, which he agreed to do in the previous scene. The second time he uses it is after he notes that Caesar was a good and just friend, reminding the crowd that he too was close to Caesar. Antony then proceeds to subtly attack Brutus' assertion that Caesar's ambition made him dangerous to Rome. He reminds the crowd that Caesar brought a great deal of money through captive ransoms, he cried for the poor and assisted them, and three times refused the crown that Antony offered him at Lupercal. These statements, which are interspersed with the mantra "Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man," make the crowds begin to question if Caesar was indeed ambitious and tyrannical despite all of the benefits he brought to Rome. This motivates the crowd not only to question Brutus' assertions, but also to understand Antony's sorrow over Caesar's death. Antony emphasizes this in an appeal to the crowd's emotions when he takes the dramatic pause at the end of the first part of his speech. This action is much like the swooning of Caesar when Antony offers him the crowd—it is meant to manipulate the crowd for their support and sympathy. And, just like Caesar, Antony's dramatic action stimulates the crowd's pity.

Now that he has stemmed the hostility of the crowd, Antony turns to motivating them to attack the conspirators. After reminding the public once again that Brutus and the conspirators are honorable men, he mentions the topic of Caesar's will. Instead of reading it immediately, Antony stirs the crowd's curiosity by only mentioning that if he were to read it, the will would upset them because they would realize Caesar's love for his countrymen. When the plebians begin to demand that Antony read the will, he continues to refuse for the crowd's own "benefit," which, of course, makes the crowd more insistent. By doing this, Antony has not only restored the love of the crowd for Caesar, but he has done so by getting the crowd to make him do it instead of openly betraying the conspirators. This allows Antony to show Caesar's body to the crowd, an action they would not have been influenced by earlier in his oration. However, now that Antony has motivated their love for Caesar, their curiosity, and their greed, the sight of Caesar's mangled body moves the crowd toward vengeance and rioting.

Although Antony may well have manipulated the crowd enough to destroy the conspirators by this point, he ensures his success by a few last tactical decisions. First, he once again reminds the crowd that the conspirators are honorable and will have answers for the points that have come up during his funeral speech. The effect of this reminder, of course, is to anger the crowd further and make them less likely to listen to the conspirators, which occurs. Antony also says that he is not an orator as Brutus is, and has no power to convince the crowd of anything. This appearance of being weak in comparison to Brutus makes Antony seem pitiable while Brutus appears ambitious and powerful, the two traits Brutus has spent so much effort to eradicate. Once again, Antony is not concerned with the truth of his statements—he knows he is a good speaker because he is manipulating the crowds. Finally, Antony ensures his success when he reads Caesar's will, which gives every citizen money and leaves all of his property to the state for public use. This final reminder of Caesar's love for his people, which results in a monetary benefit for every citizen, stirs the greed in the crowd and starts the rioting. Antony is able to succeed in his attempt to turn the Roman crowd against the conspirators despite their earlier support of Brutus because Antony tailors his appeals to what matters most to the Romans—their own material well-being.

The Role of Omens in Julius Caesar

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One of the minor but still important themes of Julius Caesar is the issue of omens. There are several instances in the play where incidents or statements predict an all-too-accurate future, yet the characters almost entirely ignore these warnings despite noting their significance. What are these warnings, then, and what is their importance if the characters in the play do not heed them? The answer lies in the faults of the characters themselves.

One of the most prevalent examples of omens in the play is the Soothsayer. The Soothsayer first appears in Act I, scene ii, to give Julius Caesar the famous (or infamous) warning to beware the ides of March. The timing of this warning reveals an important aspect of Caesar's character. He has just ordered Calphurnia to stand close enough to Antony during the chariot race so that he can touch her, which will hopefully cure her of sterility. This order indicates that Caesar is superstitious, at least in regard to his wife. However, when the Soothsayer warns Caesar to beware the ides of March, Caesar dismisses him as a "dreamer." This is typical of Caesar throughout the play—he will often ask about the future, but if he receives an unfavorable reply, he ignores it because he refuses to accept or even contemplate failure. This fault helps contribute to his death, despite the Soothsayer's early warning.

The Soothsayer appears two more times in the play in order to remind the audience that Caesar is indeed destined to die. While the Soothsayer merely warns Caesar of an impending problem on the feast of Lupercal, the Soothsayer's motives are made more explicit in Act II, scene iv, in his conversation with Portia. Here the Soothsayer reveals that he will go to the Capitol in an effort to beg Caesar to "befriend himself" (l. 30). This demonstrates deliberate action on the part of the Soothsayer, who has already warned Caesar about this day. Furthermore, the Soothsayer also mentions that he will have a great deal of trouble trying to gain Caesar's attention because of the narrowness of the streets and the great crowds that constantly surround Caesar, which "will crowd a feeble man almost to death" (l. 36). In order to avoid this, the Soothsayer will have to go to a place that is less crowded. This is a great deal of effort from the Soothsayer, and it is clear that he wants Caesar to avoid the impending harm that the Soothsayer "fears." However, despite all of this effort from the Soothsayer to gain access to Caesar, he only exchanges one sentence of a reply to Caesar in Act III, scene i. Caesar, who recognizes the Soothsayer from Lupercal, brags to him that "The ides of March are come," to which the Soothsayer's response is merely "Ay, Caesar, but not gone" (ll. 1-2). Although this final warning is ominous, it is also ambiguous, which gives Caesar the ability to ignore it, especially given Decius's assurances that he will receive a crown from the Senate. The ambiguity of the Soothsayer's warnings, then, provides Caesar with an excuse to ignore them so that he can be blinded by his own power.

Another type of omen occurs at the end of Act I and throughout Act II. Instead of someone foretelling the future, this type of omen is a sign, and there are several of them in this part of the play. In Act I, scene iii, a typically stoic Casca is terrified by the events occurring throughout the city on the night before Caesar's murder. Casca tells Cicero that there has been a firestorm, a slave whose hand is on fire but not burned in the least, a lion who is running around the capitol, a hundred horrified women who swear they have seen men in flames walking the streets, and an owl shrieking in the middle of the marketplace in the middle of the day. These events have frightened even Casca into believing that "they are portentous things/unto the climate that they point upon" (ll. 31-32). Even Cassius, who later claims he has never believed in omens until the final battle of the play, recognizes that these signs warn of the death of Caesar. (In fact, Cassius is so certain of this that he even dares the heavens to strike him with lightning). These omens, along with the news that the Senate has decided to name Caesar king, serve to motivate Cassius and the conspirators into enacting their murder plot before Caesar can arrive at the Senate because the heavens are clearly on their side.

Meanwhile, a sign as well as another type of omen, a dream, will be delivered to Caesar. In Act II, scene ii, Calphurnia begs Caesar not to go to the Senate on the ides of March because she has had three dreams that Caesar will be murdered. These omens worry the otherwise-implacable Caesar, and he requests that the priests do a sacrifice to tell him what the day's events will bring. This request, like the one he makes in Act I, scene ii, show that Caesar does hold some belief in omens. The problem, however, is that Caesar's inflated notion of his own power makes him insensitive to the warnings presented to him. This is clear in his response to Calphurnia's news about the omens in the city (where she notes that numerous ghosts have been seen in addition to the events that Casca lists in Act I, scene iii). Caesar, of course, is not frightened by this news, and simply dismisses the events as a warning for the world instead of for himself. Even when Caesar is presented with the findings of the priests, who could not find a heart within the beast that they sacrificed (the beast was alive without a heart), Caesar refuses to stay home until Calphurnia literally gets on her knees to beg him. Caesar makes it clear in this scene that he only stays home to calm Calphurnia, and does not recognize the danger to himself because he thinks he is more powerful than danger. This is how Decius is able to persuade Caesar into coming to the Senate despite his promise to Calphurnia and the multitude of omens throughout the play—by appealing to Caesar's ego. Thus, even though Calphurnia believes and attempts to heed the warnings of the omens, Caesar's overconfidence in his own power renders Calphurnia's beliefs useless.

Caesar, however, is not the only character who overestimates his own power and ignores the omens presented to them. In Act IV, scene iii, another type of omen, a ghost appears to Brutus on the night before the final battle. The ghost of Caesar informs Brutus that they will see each other again at Philippi. Brutus' fear of the ghost stops him from asking anything other than why the ghost has come and if he will see the ghost again, but the message is plain—Brutus' battle plan will not succeed. Despite this warning (as well as the objections of Cassius), Brutus insists on attacking at Philippi because he sees it as the most logical plan of action. Brutus has demonstrated great faith in the power of logic, a belief that motivates his actions in Act III, scene ii. This belief in the power of logic is as strong as Caesar's belief in his ability to overcome danger, and it blinds both characters from clearly seeing and understanding the events around them. Like Caesar's faith in his own power, Brutus' belief that his logic is more powerful than the omen or the forces of Antony and Octavius will lead to his downfall.

One final sign appears in the beginning of Act V that actually convinces one of the major characters of its power, but is rendered useless by circumstances. Cassius notes that a pair of eagles who had accompanied his legions from Sardis has flown away, and ravens, crows, and kites (scavengers) have come in their place. Cassius, who claims to be a follower of Epicurus (who refused to believe in superstition or omens), now changes his mind and "partly credit things that do presage" (l. 78). However, Cassius's reaction to the terrifying omens of Act I, scene iii, indicates that he must have some belief in the power of signs. One explanation for this is that in the beginning of the play, Cassius, like Caesar, only acknowledges the power of the supernatural when it suits his purposes. However, unlike Caesar and Brutus, Cassius eventually comes to recognize the power of omens even when they foretell something bad. Despite this belief, the battle is already about to occur, and there is nothing that Cassius can do to stop it. This situation creates a parallel between Cassius and Calphurnia—both recognize the dangers in the omens, but they cannot convince the victims of them. Despite all of the signs, ghosts, and soothsayers in this play, the characters of Julius Caesar fall victim to their own faults and render any warning of the future useless.

The Protagonists and Antagonists of Julius Caesar

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Literary scholars have debated for centuries about the question of who exactly is the protagonist of this play. The seemingly simple answer to this question would be Julius Caesar himself—after all, the play is named after him, and the events of the play all relate to him. However, Caesar only appears in three scenes (four if the ghost is included), thus apparently making him an unlikely choice for the protagonist, who is supposed to be the main character. Meanwhile, Brutus, who is in the play much more often than Caesar (and actually lasts until the final scene), is not the title character of the play, and is listed in the dramatis personae not only after Caesar, but after the entire triumvirate and some senators who barely appear in the play. Determining the protagonist is only a part of the issue, because the identification of the protagonist also defines who the antagonists of the play are. If Caesar is the protagonist of the play, then Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the conspirators are antagonists whose function is to interfere with the goals of the protagonist. If Brutus is the protagonist, then Caesar and the triumvirate become the antagonists who complicate his goals.

Given that the play is called Julius Caesar, let us first consider Caesar as the protagonist of the play. Caesar's status and goals are clearly delineated in the first two scenes of the play. In the first scene, we learn that the Roman public generally loves Caesar, while some of the Roman citizens are angered by his popularity. In Act I, scene ii, Caesar's weaknesses and desires are revealed. He lacks an heir, which is why he makes Calphurnia stand where Antony can touch her. He is not afraid of anything because he is "always Caesar," but he is wary of Cassius. He is deaf in one ear and, as revealed by Cassius, has suffered through many medical conditions, including epilepsy. He will play to the Roman crowd in order to maintain his popularity, which is why he refuses the laurel with which Antony presents him. Most important of all, we learn in this scene that Caesar hopes to be crowned king by the Roman Senate. Although this is the only scene in this act that Caesar appears in, a great deal of his character is revealed in it, and his motivations and goals are clear.

The aspects of Caesar's character in Act I, scene ii, are expounded upon in Caesar's two other scenes. In Act II, scene ii, Caesar's refusal to comply with Calphurnia's request that he stay at home because of the terrible omens that have occurred throughout the night is a direct result of his weaknesses. Caesar is unafraid of the omens because he refuses to show fear: "Caesar should be a beast without a heart/If he should stay at home today for fear" (ll. 42-43). Caesar's reputation, then, is more important to him than ensuring his own safety. This attribute of Caesar is compounded by his overestimation of his own power. Because he is "always Caesar," Caesar believes that he can overcome anything, even danger itself:

Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions littered in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible (ll. 44-47).

This inflated notion of Caesar's abilities is even criticized by Calphurnia in her response: "Alas, my lord,/Your wisdom is consumed in confidence!" (ll. 48-49). It is a combination of this overconfidence, the desire to appear unafraid of anything, and ambition to become king that allows Decius to convince Caesar to come to the Senate, even though he has already told Calphurnia he will stay home. These aspects of Caesar's character also appear in his final scene (alive) in the play. Caesar's overconfidence is displayed in his boast to the Soothsayer that the ides of March have come without incident. His refusal to read Artemidorus' petition and to allow Metellus Cimber to kneel before him recall his manipulation of the Roman public in Act I because Caesar pretends that he cares more about Rome than himself. Caesar's overconfidence in himself and his decisions also lead him to reject Cimber's suit, because he is too "great" to be inconsistent and change his mind (although this is what he does in Act II, scene ii). By the end of three scenes, then, Shakespeare has managed to give us a complete picture of this would-be protagonist for whom the play is named. We know Caesar's strengths, his weaknesses, and his desires. All of the aspects of the protagonist are fulfilled, including whether or not the protagonist attains his goal, which Caesar does not because he is killed. Furthermore, the rest of the play hinges on the death of Caesar and its consequences. The speeches of Act III, scene ii, the rejection of the conspirators, the forming of the triumvirate and the war at the end of the play are all a direct result of Caesar's death. Also, Shakespeare no longer focuses on any one specific character after this scene, as the play alternates between the conspirators (mainly Brutus and Cassius) and the triumvirate (mainly Antony and Octavius). All of the events in the last half of the play are overshadowed by the specter of Caesar, both figuratively, and, in the case of Act IV, scene iii, literally. These arguments would support the identification of Caesar as protagonist, and of Brutus, Cassius, and the conspirators as antagonists.

Despite this, there are compelling reasons to argue that Brutus, and not Caesar, is the protagonist of the play. Like Caesar, Brutus is also prominently featured in Act I, scene ii, and Brutus' character traits are also revealed in depth in this scene. Cassius immediately notes Brutus' apparent anguish over the idea of Caesar as king. This observation demonstrates that Brutus, although Caesar's best friend, puts the affairs of his country above his own personal concerns. This "honorable" attribute makes it difficult for Brutus to accept the loss of freedom that will occur if Caesar becomes monarch. It is also the means that Cassius will use in order to persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy. Brutus will spend the first two acts of the play attempting to reconcile his love for his country and his love for Caesar. The development of Brutus' character from this internal conflict is illustrated throughout the first half of the play, and the time that Shakespeare takes to focus on it suggests that we are meant to view Brutus as the protagonist.

Not only is Brutus' decision about whether or not to join the conspiracy the main focus of the first two acts of the play, his final decision to become a conspirator eventually makes him the leader of the group. Although Cassius is the one who organizes the conspiracy and works very hard to ensure Brutus' participation in it, it is Brutus who determines the plans of the conspiracy once he decides to join it. This is evident in Brutus' rejection of the idea of killing Antony (although Cassius is clearly correct in fearing Antony's love for Caesar). Brutus' power in the murder scene is also clear. Caesar does not fall until Brutus stabs him, even though he is the last of the conspirators to do so: "Et tu, Brute?—Then fall Caesar" (Act III, scene i, l. 76). The implication here is that it is Brutus that murders Caesar, and not the rest of the conspirators. Once Caesar falls, Brutus is the one who directs the course of events. He tells the conspirators to bathe in Caesar's blood, and he is the one who decides that Antony should be allowed to speak at Caesar's funeral, despite Cassius' warnings that he should not. Brutus' role as leader of the conspirators remains intact throughout the rest of the play, and is what leads to the eventual failure of the conspiracy.

Brutus is the only character who is clearly a focus point throughout the play. Caesar dies in Act III, and he never appears in a scene in which Brutus does not also appear. Antony does not become a major character until after Caesar's death. Cassius begins the conspiracy, but allows Brutus to take charge and determine the fate of the conspirators, despite Cassius' better judgment. Brutus is also the only character whose development and progression is actually portrayed on a consistent basis throughout the play, and his death at the end of Act V is as momentous and riveting as Caesar's. Also, Brutus' concerns for Rome if Caesar were to become king are valid—liberty would be in danger because freedom would be only at the whim of Caesar, and Caesar could very well have become a tyrant because of it. Caesar's pursuit of monarchy arguably becomes antagonistic to the needs of Rome and its citizens. If one accepts these arguments, it is Brutus who is the protagonist of the play, and Caesar and the triumvirate, especially Antony, who become the antagonists, especially because they attempt to enslave the free men of Rome.

Unlike many of Shakespeare's other plays, Julius Caesar has no clear protagonist. The case can be made that Caesar is the central figure because of his dominance of the play's events. Brutus, too, can be viewed as the protagonist, as he is the character with the most progression and has much more time on stage than Caesar. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is the Elizabethan public, who had two minds about the historical death of Caesar. During the medieval period, the murder of Caesar was seen as horrendous, but during the Renaissance, some argued that the conspirators were correct in attempting to preserve their freedom. Some literary critics argue that these two opinions find their way into the play by Shakespeare's presentation of both points of view. If this is the case, there can be no one clear protagonist because that would give us only one focal point when we are meant to look at both sides of the issue.

Women in Julius Caesar

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

The women characters in Julius Caesar are not themselves instrumental in the plot and therefore have little importance as characters in their own right. To a certain extent, they serve to illuminate the more personal, as opposed to the public, sides of their respective husbands. They also provide elements of love and loyalty in a play that is largely concerned with death and intrigue.

Portia is the more fully described of the two women and provides a portrait of a woman of above average strength and quality. Throughout the play, references to womanly qualities are used to denote the weaker sides of men's characters. Women are supposedly weak physically and intellectually. Thus for a man to be called womanly is an insult to his strength of character. Cassius is especially prone to making such equations between women and weakness and less worthy qualities of character. In pointing to the cowardice of the population in accepting Caesar's rule, he states

Our father's minds are dead
And we are governed by our mothers’ spirits. (I. iii. 82-3)

Portia is an example of a woman who does not conform to the prevailing idea of the limitations of women in general. As the wife of Brutus and the daughter of Cato, she regards herself as necessarily stronger than the rest of her sex. To prove herself, she wounds herself in the thigh to show she is physically capable of bearing pain. So, too, she concludes, has she the strength of mind to bear Brutus’s secret.

But Portia also retains her womanly qualities. Worried at her husband's melancholy mood, his troubled thoughts and his new impatience, she persistently uses her womanly guile to draw his secret from him. She is aware that Brutus’s anxiety is not a physical sickness. As his wife, it is her right to share his every thought, and she appeals to him, through love, and on her knees, to divulge his secret. Portia demands that he remember their marriage vows. He should treat her as a wife, not as a harlot who would only know the outer man, not the inner, thus instilling a guilt in him. Brutus must admit her nobility.

Though Portia has strengths normally attributed only to men, she also possesses womanly qualities:

I have a man's mind but a woman's might. (II. iv. 8)

Her anxiety over Brutus's mission, she also considers a weakness, as though love were a weakness. Her final proof of strength comes when she horribly kills herself because of Anthony's growing power which is a threat to her husband.

Portia, more than Calphurnia, is a character in her own right. Calphurnia serves merely to illustrate the weaker side of Caesar's character. Caesar has lately become superstitious. When Calphurnia dreams of his death, declaring it a portent of what is to come, Caesar tends to believe her because she is not normally inclined to attach importance to such omens. He himself is led to order sacrifices to be made to find whether they forebode good or ill. Calphurnia knows the portents are specifically for her husband’s benefit. Caesar, on his part, wants to suppress this weaker side of himself that would give credence to the omens, and concludes that no-one can change what the gods ordain. The signs, he continues, are for the world in general. Calphurnia is convinced that such storms and thunder and lightning that have recently taken place, do not foretell the death of common people.

Caesar professes not to fear death. Only the valiant do not think of death constantly. But the results of the sacrifices strengthen Calphurnia’s fears. For his part, Caesar is afraid to be called a coward should he fail to appear at the Capitol, and for this reason does not want to heed Calphurnia, that is, his weaker side. He is, he says, more dangerous than danger. Calphurnia retaliates by warning him that confidence is obscuring wisdom. But her wisdom is intuitive. Brutus professes to match Calphurnia’s love for Caesar with love plus reason, and appeals to Caesar's vanity by pointing out that he will be called a coward for staying away from the Capitol because of his wife's whims. Thus Caesar is forced to feel ashamed of yielding to Calphurnia’s and by extension, his own fears embodied in her dreams. Calphurnia is willing that he use her fear and weakness as an excuse for his own. For her, love overrules courage, which will lead Caesar to his death. Unlike Brutus, she cannot offer the ‘manly’ quality of reason. She has nothing to substantiate her fears. Though, like Portia, she uses womanly charm in supplication by kneeling to her husband, he cannot heed the ‘womanly’ in himself. She begs his compliance, knowing she can save him but he must suppress this weaker side of his nature. His ‘womanliness’ is externalized in Calphurnia.

Part of Portia's role is to point out Brutus’s indecision and his basic nobility, for the scene between husband and wife proves Brutus’s genuine distress at having to kill his friend. In private, with his wife, we know the full extent and effect of this distress, and how it has changed his demeanor. He has become impatient and can neither eat nor sleep, Portia bears witness to the difficulty of his position.

Calphurnia reflects the dichotomy of Caesar as man and husband. In ignoring her advice, he acts like Caesar the soldier and politician. He is a little ashamed of Caesar the husband, for this role embodies his weaknesses. The scene with Calphurnia serves to show these conflicting traits that make up the total man.

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