Julius Caesar eText - Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

William Shakespeare

Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

As you read, look for the themes and elements described below.

Personal vs. public responsibility: Throughout the play, Brutus comes across opportunities to seize power, but he always weighs them against his belief in the “general good.” What does Caesar think about this general good? What kinds of things does he consider before making a decision?

Pragmatism vs. idealism: Cassius and Antony are shrewd politicians; they make plans after weighing the risks and benefits. Brutus, however, is an idealist, motivated only by his love of Rome and his strong convictions. In fact, Brutus meets his tragic end because of his idealism—a fact that even his enemies realize. He is too noble to survive in the corrupt and violent Rome that he has helped create.

Omens/Fate vs. Free Will: Plutarch, the Roman author who wrote The Life of Julius Caesar (upon which Shakespeare's play is based), often mentions omens— signs of things to come. On the day of Caesar's assassination, for instance, the augurers (priests who predict the future by examining the organs of birds and animals) supposedly found no heart in their sacrificed beast.

Shakespeare brings out his characters' views on destiny and free will by showing their belief, or lack of belief, in omens. Note any mention of the following:

  • alignments of the stars

  • meteors

  • unusual animals

  • ghosts

How do Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius interpret these signs?

Honor vs. Power: Cassius believes that political power must be taken by cunning and force; to him, it is an end in itself. Honor is Brutus' motivating force; he feels that power is, at best, a tool, and at worst, a burden.

Problems with democracy: The masses are fickle, and can be incited to riot. On the other hand, autocracy is dangerous. Even the most noble men can be corrupted by power.

Tragic flaw: a weakness in a character that leads to his or her destruction. Brutus' tragic flaw is his inability to confront reality.

Rhetoric: Notice how the art of verbal persuasion is both used and abused. Antony can completely reverse a situation by appealing to the plebians' emotions; Decius can change Caesar's mind by playing on his pride.