Discussion Topic

The significance of the title "Julius Caesar" despite Brutus's prominence

Summary:

The title "Julius Caesar" is significant despite Brutus's prominence because Caesar's influence and the repercussions of his assassination drive the plot. Caesar's presence and legacy affect every character's actions and decisions, making him the central figure around whom the story revolves, even though Brutus is a key player in the narrative.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play called "Julius Caesar" and not "Brutus", despite Brutus being the main character?

Shakespeare himself must have realized that Brutus was a more sympathetic character, but he wanted his play to be titled Julius Caesar because l Caesar was one of the most famous figures in world history, whereas Brutus did not distinguish himself as much and was remembered mainly as one of Caesar's assassins.

Shakespeare had his reasons for not writing a play which would end with the death of Caesar. For one thing, the aftermath of the assassination was of great dramatic interest, especially the way Antony turned the mob against the conspirators and then defeated them at Philippi.

Shakespeare must have been fascinated and inspired by the challenge to write his version of Antony's funeral oration in his own English iambic pentameter. The speech is one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements, possibly the best thing he ever wrote. It not only turns the Roman mob around, but it turns Shakespeare's audience around. They have been identifying with Brutus and Cassius up to this point in the play; now they are identifying with Antony and Octavius--as well as with the vengeful spirit of the mighty Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare tries very hard to maintain the impression that Julius Caesar is still a dominant presence even after his death. Antony sets the tone in a marvelous soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1.

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,--
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue--
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;    
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Antony says Caesar's spirit will be responsible for all the death and destruction that will follow. Then Antony uses Caesar himself to inflame the Roman mob. Antony reminds them of Caesar's victories, of his concern for the people, shows them his bloody mantle, then his mutilated corpse, and finally reads Caesar's will.

Before the Battle of Philippi, Brutus is visited in his tent by Caesar's ghost. Brutus later says that Caesar has appeared to him on two different occasions. This is apparently intended to remind the audience that Caesar is still present in spirit and that everything is happening because he is directing it, just as Antony predicted.

When Cassius and Brutus kill themselves to avoid being captured, both men acknowledge in the last scenes of the play that they have been vanquished by Julius Caesar.

CASSIUS

Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that kill'd thee.
 Dies                                              

BRUTUS

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.

Runs on his sword

Caesar, now be still:
I kill'd not thee with half so good a will.

Dies                               

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play called "Julius Caesar" and not "Brutus", despite Brutus being the main character?

This is an understandable question, because Brutus does play a central role, but there are several other points to consider.

First, if you look at things from a historical perspective, not many people know who Brutus is and the only reason why people do know him is because he was one of the chief assassins. The point is that Brutus is a small figure in the larger scheme of things, whereas Caesar is one of the greatest figures of ancient history.

Second, in light of the first point, Shakespeare's play should be entitled after the great historical figure of Julius Caesar.

Finally, the aftermath of Roman history as is shaped by Caesar. His adopted son, Octavius comes to power and begins the Roman Empire.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play called "Julius Caesar" and not "Brutus", despite Brutus being the main character?

Brutus seems to be a much more important character in the play than Julius Caesar. Caesar not only has few appearances in the opening acts, but he is assassinated in Act 3, only halfway through the play. Yet Shakespeare chose to call the play Julius Caesar. No doubt this was because Julius Caesar was one of the greatest names in history, while Brutus was not well known to the general public, including the playgoers of Elizabethan England. Brutus really does seem like a tragic figure. Caesar, in Shakespeare's play, seems like a minor character by comparison. We find it hard to pity Caesar because we hardly get a chance to know him.

On the other hand, the play may not feature Caesar but it is all about Caesar. There is hardly a scene or a page which is not concerned with Caesar. In Act I, Scene 2, we see Cassius and Brutus talking about Julius Caesar. Then they are joined by Casca, and he has a lot to say about Julius Caesar. If you open the play anywhere at random, you will very likely to see that whatever is going on has something to do with Julius Caesar. For example, I open my Pelican Shakespeare of Julius Caesar more or less in the middle--and what do I find? Marc Antony is about to speak at Caesar's funeral on page 67.

When the play opens, a group of working men are honoring Julius Caesar, and two tribunes break them up because these officials are against Caesar. In fact, the whole city of Rome seems to be for or against him. Julius Caesar as a character may not be appearing frequently in the play, but his power, his influence, his ambition, his popularity, his plans for Rome, his secrets, his gravitas, and his will are felt consistently, which is undoubtedly the way Shakespeare planned it. Everything in the play has to do with Julius Caesar. He is so powerful and so important that he hardly even has to make appearances.

In Act III, Scene 1, Marc Antony addresses Caesar's dead body in terms that suggest the unstoppable will of this mighty man.

Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar's spirit ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

When Cassius and Brutus commit suicide on the battlefield at Philippi, they both acknowledge the omnipotence of Caesar in causing their defeat and their deaths. In Act V, Scene 5, Cassius says:

Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that killed thee.

And Brutus says:

Caesar, now be still.
I killed not thee with half so good a will.

Antony and Octavius have won the battle, but they are only fighting Brutus and Cassius over the right to inherit the empire which was virtually the property of Julius Caesar. Octavius becomes one of the triumvirate only because he was Julius Caesar's nephew and his heir. Antony was Caesar's best friend and most loyal follower. 

Shakespeare had a problem writing a play about Julius Caesar. He could not cover all over Caesar's long and eventful life, so he focused on Caesar's assassination and its aftermath. But if Caesar dies, isn't the rest of the play anticlimactic? This was what Shakespeare must have had in mind when he decided to give so much importance to the character of Brutus. Brutus provides a thread to follow from the beginning to the very end. This probably helps to explain why we feel more sympathy for Brutus than for Caesar. But Caesar was a far more important figure. As Cassius says to Brutus early in the play:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.     Act I, Scene 2

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play titled Julius Caesar, when Brutus has more prominence?

Amy, an excellent point. He is the catalyst, the "star in the firmament" and fixed and true and reliable. The other characters are more reactive and take unreliable actions. Question for Maria, if you're still following this: why do you think acts 4 and 5 focus on acts of war, with Brutus leading his troops and disagreeing with Cassius, while Antony and Octavius struggle in their ranks, but eventually emerge victorious? What do these events say about the importance of both Caesar and other characters such as Brutus and Antony? (I wouldn't leave out Cassius, either.) Shakespeare was interested in the complex characterizations, I believe, which is part of what gets at your question.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play titled Julius Caesar, when Brutus has more prominence?

Everything happens in the play because of Julius Caesar.  He may not have an active role in the play after his death (disregarding the appearance of the ghost, of course), but he is responsible for the motives and actions of all the other characters.  Cassius, Brutus, Octavius, Antony, Calpurnia, everyone...they act and react because of Caesar and the actions he put forth both before his death and after --the result of many men reacting to his death.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the play titled Julius Caesar, when Brutus has more prominence?

A great question to explore! First, some historical context: growing up in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare most likely attended grammar school, where boys mastered the history of Ancient Rome. The star was Julius Caesar. Theatergoers coming to see Shakespeare's tragedy would already know Caesar was a great general and leader who died tragically at the hands of conspirators. So Shakespeare doesn't need to take much time to prove that Caesar is great; he needs only a few moments such as Marc Antony's grieving over Caesar's corpse ("...the noblest man/That ever lived in the tide of times" III, i, 256-257). It's generally believed that Elizabethans would need no more convincing.

So if Caesar is a great man, the hero who is butchered by Act III, then can there be another hero? That's what makes Shakespeare so wonderful: his ability to allow two protagonists to share the stage. How do we know Brutus is great, too? What makes him outstanding? Yes, he kills Caesar, but why? What does Antony say about him in the final lines of the play? Finally, what is Brutus's struggle throughout the play? Answering those questions get to the psychological complexity of Brutus that captured Shakespeare's imagination. Brutus has a conflict and that makes for a powerful tragic hero.

It's also worth noting that Caesar, though somewhat of an icon in the play, has complexities and frailties, too. They aren't as compelling as those of Brutus who gets time in act V.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on