Julius Caesar Themes

The main themes in Julius Caesar are public and private selves, power and ethics, and words and letters.

  • Public and private selves: While the rift between Caesar’s public and private selves contributes to his downfall, Brutus’s undoing can be partially attributed to the close alignment between his public and private selves.
  • Power and ethics: Power is embodied in people, whether individuals or crowds, and proves a source of potential danger unless handled ethically and pragmatically.
  • Words and letters: Julius Caesar demonstrates the power of words to impact events and comments on the role of poets and other wordsmiths in society.

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Themes

Public and Private Selves

An interesting segue into the theme of public and private selves in Julius Caesar is through exploring notions of femininity and masculinity. Fear is often described as “womanish,” while the posturing of valor is described as manly. Similarly, various characters set up dichotomies between controlled and emotional, and strong and weak, among other binaries. For the male characters, this dichotomy also finds a parallel in public and private selves. For instance, Caesar is often described as “superstitious,” a quality considered cowardly and therefore feminine. This assessment of Caesar as superstitious is not off the mark, as can be seen in act 2, when he asks the priests to read the entrails of a sacrifice and tell his fortune. However, his public self cannot accommodate this weakness, which is why he publicly shuns the soothsayer who warns him about the Ides of March and rejects the entreaties of Artemidorus. Significantly, suppressing his private (feminine) self is what seals Caesar’s fate. The weight of his image begins to crush him, as he now has to live up to his own legend. Tellingly, he increasingly begins to refer to himself in the third person, the Caesar-self too ponderous for “I” to accommodate. From statements like “I rather tell thee what is to be feared / Than what I fear, for always I am Caesar” (act 1, scene 2), Caesar moves to

. . . 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.
And Caesar shall go forth. (act 2, scene 2)

The fissure between Caesar’s private and public selves also proves his weakness, which his foes exploit. For instance, Decius Brutus deliberately taunts Caesar with the danger of being perceived as cowardly if he stays home on his wife’s exhortation. Decius knows that Caesar—who is prone to epileptic seizures and physically not very strong—is prickly about projecting an unassailable, masculine self and bound to take his bait. Thus, Caesar sacrifices his private self for his public self, which, of course, means he is left with no self at all.

Antony uses the dichotomy between public and private more effectively. He publicly dissembles before the conspirators, only to privately curse them before Caesar’s corpse. Publicly, he promises Romans Caesar’s will, and privately he withdraws the promise. Yet Antony is not the tragic hero of the play; that is Brutus. It should be noted that not only are Brutus’s public and private selves closely aligned, but that closeness itself constitutes his dramatic flaw. Because Brutus’s own selves are aligned, he loses the ability to sense duality in others, becoming a target for their manipulation, be it from Cassius or Antony. Thus, the play does not offer a neat resolution to the problem of warring selves. Brutus’s consistency is perhaps desirable, at least earning him a great reputation. However, the realistic, cynical world of the play cannot allow him any more than a noble name.

Power and Ethics

In one sense, Julius Caesar is a meditation on the idea of power. In the play’s universe, even when radiating from a single person or ruler, power manifests itself through the people. The political structures in the play have vestiges of democracy, and democratic power is what the play’s...

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