What Happens in Julius Caesar?

Charismatic military leader Julius Caesar returns to Rome in glory, having just defeated the sons of Pompey, a fellow member of the first Roman triumvirate. Caesar’s growing popularity inspires jealousy and fear amongst the Roman tribunes, and a conspiracy against Caesar takes shape, with Cassius at its head.

  • A storm hits Rome. Cassius recruits Caesar’s friend Brutus, who fears that the people have chosen Caesar as their king. Caesar ignores the warning of a soothsayer who tells him to beware the Ides of March. He heads to the Capitol, where the conspirators, Brutus included, stab him to death.
  • Mark Antony volunteers to speak at Caesar’s funeral and rouses an angry mob with his speech. Brutus and Cassius quickly flee the city. Caesar's nephew Octavius arrives in Rome, where he forms a new triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus.
  • In Greece, Brutus and Cassius amass an army, declaring war on Antony and Octavius. The two armies clash at the Battle of Phillippi. Antony's forces soon overwhelm Brutus' men. Before he can be killed, Brutus asks his soldiers to help him commit suicide. He runs into a sword and is later granted an honorable burial.

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Probably written in 1599, Julius Caesar was the earliest of Shakespeare's three Roman history plays. Like Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Julius Caesar is a dramatization of actual events, Shakespeare drawing upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony as the primary source of the play's plot and characters. The play is tightly structured. It establishes the dramatic problem of alarm at Julius Caesar's ambition to become "king" (or dictator) in the very first scene and introduces signs that Caesar must "beware the Ides of March" from the outset. Before its midpoint, Caesar is assassinated, and shortly after Mark Antony's famous funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, and countrymen … "), the setting shifts permanently from Rome to the battlefields on which Brutus and Cassius meet their inevitable defeat. Julius Caesar is also a tragedy; but despite its title, the tragic character of the play is Brutus, the noble Roman whose decision to take part in the conspiracy for the sake of freedom plunges him into a personal conflict and his country into civil war.

Literary scholars have debated for centuries about the question of who exactly is the protagonist of this play. The seemingly simple answer to this question would be Julius Caesar himself—after all, the play is named after him, and the events of the play all relate to him. However, Caesar only appears in three scenes (four if the ghost is included), thus apparently making him an unlikely choice for the protagonist who is supposed to be the main character. Meanwhile, Brutus, who is in the play much more often than Caesar (and actually lasts until the final scene), is not the title character of the play and is listed in the dramatis personae not only after Caesar but after the entire triumvirate and some senators who barely appear in the play. Determining the protagonist is one of the many engaging issues presented in the play.

Extended Summary

Act I, Scene 1

On a street in Rome, two tribunes named Flavius and Marullus are angrily confronting a crowd of commoners. Rome used to be ruled by a triumvirate of three men, but because of the recent civil war, Julius Caesar has emerged as the single most powerful man in Rome. This troubles Flavius and Marullus because they think that Caesar’s growing power will threaten the stability of the Republic. They yell at the commoners for celebrating Caesar’s return, reminding them that they once supported Pompey, one of the triumvirate who was killed in the civil war. After they drive the commoners off the streets, Flavius and Marullus decide to remove all the decorations from statues of Caesar.

Act I,...

(The entire section is 2,554 words.)