As the play opens, people have gathered in the streets to celebrate Caesar’s returning to Rome in triumph. He has defeated Pompey, whom the crowds had cheered in the past. Do you think people always cheer for the winner? Are they ever loyal to a loser? What evidence do you have that confirms your opinion about how people react to winners and losers? The Roman tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, try to drive the crowds from the streets of Rome. Describe a time when you or someone else was told to “move along.” What was the situation? What was the result?
Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, is based on the assassination of Julius Caesar, the historical event occurring on the ides of March (March 15) in 44 BCE. While the plot of the play centers on the assassination and its aftermath, the story focuses on Brutus, a Roman senator and Caesar’s friend who joins the conspiracy to kill Caesar only after much deliberation. Brutus’s feelings about murdering Caesar serve as the central conflict in the play; a man of honor, Brutus weighs his love of freedom and of Rome itself against his personal loyalty to a friend. In Shakespeare’s drama, Brutus ultimately is manipulated into joining the conspiracy and participates in stabbing Caesar to death on the floor of the Roman Senate. Julius Caesar, however, does not end with the assassination. In the wake of Caesar’s shocking and brutal murder, events unfold quickly in Rome, and later on the plains of Greece, as leaders and armies fight for political power and Brutus faces the tragic consequences of his actions. Likely written in 1599 to open the new Globe Theatre, Julius Caesar reflects a political concern of the time: Queen Elizabeth I was an aging monarch with no heir to the throne. Shakespeare’s play about a leader who died without an heir and whose death prompted a civil war reflects the concern in England that civil war would break out when Queen Elizabeth died without a direct successor. Moreover, since Shakespeare staged his productions at the pleasure of the Queen, his plays’ political themes are far from controversial in the context of his era, and this, too is reflected in Julius Caesar. As Caesar’s assassination results directly in political turmoil, suffering, and bloodshed, the play can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the perils of usurping political power, a theme sure to have been embraced by an English sovereign. Julius Caesar is drama, not history, but specific events in Roman history serve as antecedent action in the play, and Shakespeare alludes to some of them in establishing his characters’ motivations for assassinating Caesar. Under Julius Caesar, Roman armies conquered much of France and Belgium and crossed the English Channel to lay claim to Britain, as well. Called home, Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon River in Italy with his army, despite the fact that to come this close to Rome with an army was illegal. Caesar knew his action would lead to civil war, with the Roman Senate, and more importantly, with the great Roman general Pompey allied against him. Caesar defeated Pompey’s forces, assumed control of Roman affairs, and was named dictator, an appointment made in times of emergency. The title and the political power conferred with it were meant to be temporary, but Caesar’s ambitions to retain both became increasingly clear. In 44 BCE, Caesar was appointed dictator for life. This alienated many senators, some of whom, led by Cassius and Brutus—both in life and in the play—killed Caesar soon after, on the ides of March that same year. In Julius Caesar, various references to Pompey’s fall and to Caesar’s having “grown so great” are allusions to actual events. Because Brutus is both Caesar’s friend and colleague, the play develops themes of friendship vs. civic duty, public vs. private identity, and loyalty vs. betrayal. The meaning of honor is explored as Brutus struggles to define it in his own character and to determine its role in making the critical decision that will profoundly affect the future freedom of Rome and his countrymen. Political intrigue, scheming, and rhetorical speech (the art of persuasion) dominate the drama, too, and are as relevant to politics today as they were in both Caesar’s and Shakespeare’s time. In its characters, deeply human and often flawed, and in its conflicts and themes, Julius Caesar continues to appeal to a universal audience.