At a Glance
- Ambition is one of the central themes of Julius Caesar, as well as the reason Brutus cites for Caesar's assassination. In their jealousy of Caesar, however, the Roman conspirators reveal themselves to be among the most ambitious characters in the play.
- Questions of military might and political authority feature prominently as the Roman tribunes debate what gives one the right to rule—or to overthrow a ruler. Ultimately, the conspirators decide that Caesar's popularity and ambition pose a threat to the Roman Republic.
- Illness becomes an important theme as the play progresses. The conspirators believe that Caesar's ambition has weakened the Republic, leaving the state "sick" and in need of their protection. Ironically, the conspirators themselves experience symptoms like insomnia after the assassination, suggesting that their actions were "sick" or morally corrupt.
Politics and Authority
The crux of Julius Caesar is a political issue that was as urgent in Shakespeare's Elizabethan England as it was in Caesar's day. It revolves around the question of whether the killing of a king is justifiable as a means of ending (or preventing) the tyranny of dictatorship and the loss of freedom. Brutus strikes Caesar down is the name of liberty, fearing that absolute power and Caesar's view of himself as more than a mere mortal will enslave Rome to the will of a single man. This was a problem with which the educated members of Shakespeare's society grappled, with those believing in a divine right of kings to rule pitting themselves against the claim that regicide is warranted when liberty is at stake. Brutus, at least, seems to be motivated by this Republican doctrine. It is important to note that none of the conspirators are champions of popular rule. Indeed, Brutus fears that the people will anoint Caesar as their absolute monarch (I.ii.77-78). The violent actions of the base mob confirm his view of the common people as an irrational body capable of surrendering their liberty (and that of Rome's nobles) to Caesar.
Immediately after Caesar is slain, Brutus proclaims to his fellow conspirators that "ambition's debt is paid" (III.i.82). Ambition is in fact a central theme of the play. Its centrality is underscored by Mark Antony's use of the word "ambition" in his funeral oration for Caesar. He asks the crowd the rhetorical question: "Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?" after recounting that Caesar enriched the public coffers and wept when the poor cried. If this was "ambition," Mark Antony argues, then it should be made of "sterner stuff." Having secured the people's tacit assent to the view that Caesar was not ambitious, Mark Antony then points out that Brutus claims that Caesar was ambitious and that Brutus is an "honorable" man (III.ii.90-95). The discordance here leads to the conclusion that Brutus and others were wrong about Caesar and that they are, therefore, not honorable men. Caesar, as Shakespeare clearly shows, was in fact ambitious. He is lured by Decius into coming to the Senate by the prospect of his being crowned king. Ironically, though, the most ambitious of the play's characters is not Caesar or Brutus, but Mark Antony, who exploits the situation at hand to become a member of the ruling triumvirate along with Julius Caesar's heir apparent Octavius (Augustus Caesar).
Ambition, in the conventional meaning of the word, is the cause, but not the primary motive, of the conspiracy against Caesar. For all of the conspirators except Brutus, envy and resentment toward Caesar fuel their individual decisions to assassinate this "colossus." Envy is most evident in Cassius, who complains:
And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature, and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.
Cassius measures himself against Caesar and finds no reason that he should not hold the same power as this self-proclaimed "god." There is, however, no explicit plan for Cassius to seize the rule of Rome...
(The entire section is 1,821 words.)