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.
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 wellThat 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 highest ideas try to defend. However, does the mantle of democracy immunize power against corruption? What is unique about Julius Caesar’s treatment of power is that the play does not offer conclusive answers to these thorny questions, leaving them open-ended.
The theater of power in the play always includes...
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the masses as a participating audience. Tellingly, the play opens in a public setting, where commoners are celebrating Caesar’s homecoming on the street. The opinion of the masses is always filtered and censored by their leaders, as in the case of Marullus and Flavius, the tribunes who instruct the masses not to celebrate Caesar. Thus, though the will of the people is important, those in power constantly try to police it. Brutus, who forms the center of ethical politics in the play, is convinced he is acting in the public interest of the Romans, yet he kills Caesar in the enclosedprivate space of the Senate and not on the street. Thus, he is well aware that he is taking a decision on behalf of Rome, with the vast majority of Romans knowing of the decision only after the fact.
Antony represents another kind of political leader, the charismatic orator who manipulates the public for his own ends. Though he may be popular, his moral authority is ambiguous. In the manner in which Antony whips the masses into bloodlust at Caesar’s funeral, there is a remarkable prescience about twentieth-century dictators like Benito Mussolini. Thus, what moves the masses may not be good for them or others. That which appeals to the reason of the people is infinitely better, to borrow Brutus’s favorite word. Brutus believes that the masses share his love for reason. However, the masses are governed less by reason than by emotion and may not always be ethically sound, as is revealed in their gruesome murder of the poet Cinna.
In Julius Caesar, Caesar’s tendency toward tyranny is not merely a fabrication of his enemies. Caesar’s increasing tendency to refer to himself in the third person, describe himself in a hyperbolic mode as the “North Star,” and dismiss the concerns of his well-wishers show his ambition is indeed excessive. However, the conspirators who desire to overthrow Caesar are not as noble as they’d like to be considered, not even Brutus. The flaws in their characters and strategy plunge Rome into chaos and unnecessary strife. The answer does not lie in Mark Antony either, whose dynamism is tempered by opportunism, such as when he diverts some of Caesar’s bequests to himself. The play—and history—suggests young Octavius Caesar is the answer. However, this hope is merely hinted at, and power in the universe of Julius Caesar remains a dangerous entity unless handled with a mixture of nobility and pragmatism.
Words and Letters
The role of words and letters, artists and poets, is significant in the play. Words are powerful in the world of Julius Caesar, which is why Cassius forges letters, purportedly from Roman citizens, to manipulate Brutus into joining their cause. Later, Artemidorus drafts a warning letter to Caesar, which, if Caesar deigns to read it, could save his life. Thus words are no less than a life-or-death matter. Yet they are frequently ignored, misconstrued, and rejected. Caesar ignores the soothsayer’s warning about the Ides of March, Brutus is conned by Cassius’s forgery, Artemidorus’s missive is never read. Often, failing to interpret words correctly or recognize the truth behind them can cost characters greatly. In act 4, the misguided exchange of words between Cassius and Pindarus ultimately leads to Cassius’s death, while in In act 3, Antony’s words trigger “civil strife.”
Against this backdrop, the role of those who live by words—poets, writers, teachers, and soothsayers—gains great importance. It is interesting that the play often depicts these characters with limited power, despite the importance of words. In act 3, Cinna the poet is attacked and killed by a mob, initially mistaken for Cinna the conspirator. However, the mob kill him even after they learn his true identity, “for his bad verses.” The soothsayer’s and Artemidorus’s warnings also go unheeded.
Through these characters, Shakespeare is making a commentary on the state of poets in his society. They may be valued, but their value is often questioned. Too often they are shunned for knowing too much, reading human nature too deeply, or making art that is thought irrelevant. Because chaotic Rome mirrors some of the uncertainty of Elizabethan society, Shakespeare seems to be saying that a society where poets do not have a place is a society that suffers.