Julius Caesar William Shakespeare In William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius plot to assassinate Rome's most famous emperor, Julius Caesar. After they accomplish this in perhaps the most famous death scene ever written — "Et tu, Bruté?" — Antony and Octavius pursue the conspirators across Italy, climaxing in one final, epic battle. Julius Caesar is Shakespeare's fascinating tale of political intrigue, betrayal, and vengeance — set against the rich tapestry of ancient Rome.
In 1599, when William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was performed at the new Globe Theatre, Elizabeth I was an aged monarch with no legitimate heir — neither a child of her own nor a named heir. The people of England worried about succession, fully aware of the power struggles that could take place when men vied for the throne of England. They were also aware of the realities of the violence of civil strife.
It is no surprise, then, that the subject matter of this play was relevant to their concerns, even as the content of this play drew on and adapted ancient history. In 44 BC, Rome was at the center of a large and expanding empire. The city was governed by senators but their politics were plagued by in-fighting, and the real glory and strength belonged to generals like Caesar and Antony. In addition, a new group, the Tribunes, had entered the political field. After a hard-won battle, the plebeians, the working class of Rome, had elected these men as their representatives and protectors (as represented by Flavius and Marullus in Act I). The return of the triumphant Caesar and his desire to centralize power went against the grain of the decentralizing that was taking place. Such a setting was fraught with the makings of dramatic conflict.
Shakespeare took this potential for upheaval and used it to examine a leadership theme. Concentrating on the responsibilities of the ruling class, he looked at what could happen if that class no longer had a unified vision and had lost sight of what it meant to be Roman. In fact, the characters of the play lose touch with the tradition, glory, integrity, and stoicism of their past. As you read the play, note the way that Cassius uses the memory of that glorious past to persuade men to become conspirators, and the way that the actions of the conspirators do or do not return Rome to its golden age.
Persuasion, too, is a concept at the center of this play. Everyone seems to be trying to convince someone else of something: Caesar tries to create an image in the public's mind of his crowning (an ancient form of spin doctoring); Cassius finds the best way to manipulate each man he seeks to bring to his side; and Brutus, whom the reader hopes will refuse to participate, takes longer than the others to respond to Cassius' manipulations, but eventually does respond and even finishes the job for him by persuading himself (see his soliloquy in Act II, Scene 1). This pivotal scene, when Brutus joins the conspirators, is also interesting because Portia, Brutus' wife, serves as the voice of Brutus' conscience. Portia is, in some ways, a stronger character than Brutus and yet, because of her position as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world, her role is minimal.
If gender is not a central issue to this play, questions of masculinity and effeminacy are. Caesar's weakness — his effeminacy — makes him vulnerable. On the other hand, the incorporation of the so-called feminine traits of compassion and love into the friendship between Brutus and Cassius paradoxically allows the men to show greater strength and allows the audience to have greater sympathy for them.
Finally, it is important to have a look at the end of this play and consider what kind of resolution it actually brings. In fact, this approach helps analyze any of Shakespeare's plays. Near the end of Julius Caesar, lessons appear to have been learned and Brutus seems to have received his proper due, but audience must not forget that the final speakers, Antony and Octavius, have not always been truthful men and may not be in the future. The ambiguity of the ending of this play is characteristic of Shakespeare's work. The more neatly things seem to be resolved, the more likely it is that the action has just begun.
Major Characters (text from Shakespeare A to Z by Charles Boyce)
Marcus Brutus (c. 85-42 B.C.)
Historical figure, leader of the assassins of Caesar and of the forces opposing Mark Antony in the subsequent civil war. He is the protagonist of Caesar, is representative of the moral ambiguity that is the play's central theme. He seems both good and evil: a patriotic and honorable man who nonetheless brings about Rome's downfall and his own.
Drawn by Cassius to lead a plot, he debates himself: Shall his patriotism be stronger than his love and respect? But this is seemingly a cover for Brutus to pursue power for himself. A possible source of Brutus' self-deception is his repeated denial of his emotions and thus his inability to recognize his own drives. The tragic grandeur of Brutus' moral imperfection lies in his effort to transcend human limitations and create a political world without the potential for evil and exploitation.
The historical Brutus was a rather different person than the one depicted in Shakespeare; however, he did emulate Shakespeare's crowd by switching from the side of Pompey after his defeat to that of Caesar once the Battle of Pharsala (48 B.C.) was so decisively decided.
Brutus resembles a tragic hero due to his virtuous actions that have evil in their consequences. He attempted great things and failed through his own psychological flaws.
Mark Antony (c. 82-30 B.C.)
Historical figure, leads forces opposing the assassins of Julius Caesar. Antony is a courageous but crafty schemer whose political skill brings about a civil war. He helps to demonstrate the social harm done by the powerful when they pursue their political ends.
He is an emotionally honest man and a sympathetic character. It makes him both a positive and negative figure who greatly contributes to the moral uncertainty that is at the heart of the play.
Part of his power comes from Shakespeare's careful presentation of him. Only referred to by other characters until Act 3, having only 33 lines until that point, but the other characters seem to revere his potential greatness. His boldness and fervor are both powerful and charming, but he disqualifies himself from moral sympathy with the long soliloquy in which he proposes a ghastly civil war.
Video Link of Antony's speech
Cassius presents two quite different aspects in the course of the play. He first appears as a cynical, unscrupulous conspirator whose scheming stresses the evil side of political ambition. However, he later proves to be a courageous fighter, a sensible general, and a friend to Brutus. Cassius can thus be seen as a foil for Brutus and his two sides. Cassius' two faces reinforce the play's insistence that the qualities that make up a political leader result from the continuous interaction of good and evil.
Prior to Caesar's murder, Cassius is bitterly envious of his power, and his diatribes against the leader are hysterically petty. Although it is typical of Brutus to not recognize Cassius for what he is, Caesar analyzes him with great perceptiveness.
Cassius preys on Brutus' sense of honor, and manipulates thorough his Machiavel understanding of the political world, and is an unstable personality.
Fickle Roman Patricians
The patrons of Rome are depicted as those who will follow the strongest, dismissing one leader and clinging to another at nearly the drop of a hat. It is important to watch their development in the opening (1.1) and throughout the play's climactic moments (3.1-3.2) to gain a full understanding of why this is their nature.
It seems as though the people will emulate the exterior that Shakespeare gives to the leader: of Caesar, the confident exterior glossing internal demons; of Brutus, sincerity and trust for those around; and Antony, a tremendous emotional upheaval into the civil strife.
A tribune of Rome and ally of Brutus. He and Flavius criticize the disloyalty of the crowd to Pompey the Great, whom they had supported earlier and whom Caesar had defeated in the civil war. After the crowd disperses, Marulluas and Flavius (pictured, on right) destroy the public decorations that have been put up in Caesar's honor becasuse they fear the triumphant general will become a tyrant. This scene establishes a wide-spread mistrust of Caesar from the outset of the play.
The Second Triumvirate--Antony, Octavius and Lepidus
The three person governing body that took control after the death of Julius Caesar.
Antony's ally against Brutus and Cassius. Octavius is a cool, self-possessed and efficient leader, whether hearing out Antony's criticisms of Lepidus in 4.1, claiming command of the right wing---properly Antony's---before the battle in 5.1, or ordering the honorable burial of Brutus in 5.5.
Shakespeare captures something of the personality of the historical Octavius but ignores the events of his life for the most part. In his will, Julius Caesar formally adopted Caius Octavius--the grandson of his sister--and made him the heir to his name and three-quarters of his immense fortune. Octavius, who had been physically frail as a child, was a 19-year-old student in Athens when Caesar died. When he returned to Italy to claim his inheritance, he immediately asserted himself politically but was not taken seriously at first.
Unlike in Julius Caesar, Octavius was a rival of Antony's from the outset, and their alliance--joining with Lepidus in the Triumvirate--was sealed only after 18 months of antagonism that approached full-scale war.
At Phillipi he was notably unsuccessful, and the defeat of Brutus and Cassius was largely the work of Antony. However, Octavius was to assume the leadership of much of the Roman world.
Caesar and Calphurnia
Julius Caesar was an ancient Roman politician whose role in the play is major, although his appearance is minor. It may seem odd that a title character would be killed before the half-way point of the play, but it is appropriate here as Caesar's spirit continues to dominate through the rest of the play.
His greatest importance lies in the action he stimulates: his assassination. The murder of the seemingly tyrannical leader that ignites a civil war, and that which would lead to even worse times under his grand-nephew Octavius, helps Caesar to symbolize a social good that is flawed by the potential evil of tyranny.
Calphurnia was the wife of Caesar and thought by contemporaries to be a genuinely devoted wife; after the assassination she assisted Mark Antony's campaign against the conspirators by turning over to him some papers and a large amount of cash.
She is the person who provides an element of foreshadowing into the manner of Caesar's death, by releasing the omens into the audience's mind and uses this incident to remind us that the assassination was a domestic tragedy as well as a political event...which humanizes the play's account of murderous intrigue.
In 2.1, observing her husband's great emotional distress, Portia insists on sharing his trouble. She insists her stature as the wife of a great Roman and the daughter of another warrants her inclusion in matters of importance. She shows Brutus a wound in her thigh that she has given herself to demonstrate that she has the Roman virtue of self-control.
Although we do not see her being told of the conspiracy, she is greatly distressed in 2.4, where it seems she is almost hysterical with concern. In both of the scenes, Portia's concern for her husband's welfare is strong, giving the audience another positive viewpoint of Brutus, and her distress also raises the emotional pitch of the play.
In 4.3 we learn the she has committed suicide, convinced that Brutus cannot survive against the tremendous power that she knows has been sent against him.
Portia is intended to show the Roman virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. She is said to have 'swallow'd fire' (4.3.155). This follows Shakespeare's source where she is said to have put hot coals in her mouth and kept her mouth closed until she choked to death. This seems improbable, and scholars have speculated that this report may reflect her actual death by carbon monoxide poisoning, produced by a smoky charcoal fire in a closed room.
A vain hypocrite who often swiftly changes his opinions on matters and has a difficult time maintaining the same demeanor throughout. Thought to be a very vile or vicious person, Casca's temperment is of note in the play when speaking of Cicero.
Minor but notable character who provides Caesar with the warning, "Beware the Ides of March" (1.2.18, 23).
In Shakespeare's source, Plutarch's Lives, the Soothsayer is reported to have delivered his warning long before; he was probably not a real person, because predictions such as his were commonly devised after the fact in ancient accounts of great events.
Script of the Play!
Literary Terms to Know
Foil Character Foreshadowing Homophones Iambic Pentameter Inference Internal Conflict Inverted Word Order Loaded Words Mood Paraphrase Protagonist Puns Repetition Rhetoric Rising Action Run-on line Setting Soliloquy Style Symbolism Synthesizing Tone Tragedy Tragic Flaw
Tragic Hero Turning Point
Written Text-Analysis/Study Guide p760-886
The Play is a symbolic look-in to the effects of violence. The murder of a public figure. An assassination which can take but a split second and change the course of history. The information from this play was drawn from a biographical text called The Parallel Lives written by Plutarch, a Greek writer and biographer who lived close to the times of Julius Caesar. Greek and Roman history had great appeal for the English of the Elizabethan Age. They tended to see their own age mirrored in those great ancient civilizations.
Forces at work in Julius Caesar's time are still evident in the news. Wars, terrorism, mob violence, and assassinations are still problems today. People today are swayed and even controlled by powerful and persuasive individuals and groups. How do we decide to join one group and to oppose another? What do we do when appeals to our ambition conflict with our sense of honor?
In all of Shakespeare's plays, the characters inhabit a world that is run by a just God who ultimately rewards good and punishes evil. People who lived in Shakespeare's day believed that the universe was essentially good and orderly. All order stemmed from the authority of God, the supreme ruler. The monarch's right to rule came from God too, and so opposition to the anointed ruler was considered opposition to God. Whole societies plunged into disorder when this chain of authority was broken.
QUESTIONS TO BETTER UNDERSTANDING: (In chronological order, by act, scene)
1. How many puns can you find in lines 10-26?
2. Of what is Marullus accusing the crowd in 34-55?
3. What two external conflicts are revealed in Flavius's speech 69-75?
1. What is the connection between the Feast of Lupercal and Calphurnia?
2. What is the effect of the soothsayer repeating the warning?
3. Caesar has expressed belief in one form of superstition. Why do you think Caesar dismisses the soothsayer's omen so quickly?
4. What does Brutus mean when he says he is "with himself at war"?
5. What is Cassius telling Brutus in 54-62?
6. What is the internal conflict that Brutus reveals in line 82?
7. What do lines 88-89 tell the reader about Brutus?
8. Provide at least two ways in which Cassius speaks vilely of Caesar in his speech from 97-131.
9. What is Cassius suggesting by comparing Caesar to a Colossus, and Brutus and himself to petty men who "peep about" under his legs?
10. What is Cassius's notion of fate, since he rejects the classical one (l. 139-142)?
11. What is Cassius telling Brutus in lines 143-153?
12. Do you think Brutus is aware that Cassius is hinting at a conspiracy against Caesar? Do you think Brutus also understands that Cassius is trying to manipulate and flatter him?
13. What does the remark in 192-194 reveal about Caesar's character?
14. Although his analysis about Cassius reveals an impressive insight into others, how do these lines show another side of Caesar's character?
15. Do you believe that Caesar is not afraid of Cassius?
16. How did Caesar act when he refused the crown?
17. Why do you think that Shakespeare chose to put Casca's lines in prose instead of blank verse? (Note that blank verse was used for speech of comic or minor characters)
18. Identify the anachronism in line 265.
19. What do you think Cicero might have said?
20. Do you agree with Cassius's assessment of human nature in lines 310-312?
21. What is Cassius planning to do?
1. What change does Casca's character reveal in the opening lines?
2. What does Casca's interpretation of the strange occurrences foreshadow?
3. Cicero claims that men may be manipulate supernatural signs for their own purposes. How might these events be construed?
4. How does Cassius interpret these strange occurrences?
5. Lines 79-80...whose earlier statement do these lines parallel?
6. Why is Cassius's pun on the word hind especially effective?
7. To what does Cassius now compare the appearance of the sky?
1. How does Brutus begin to justify joining the conspiracy against Caesar in the opening lines of his soliloquy?
2. How does Brutus use extended metaphor to describe how Caesar may act if crowned king?
3. What do you think of Brutus's analysis of the situation? Do you think Caesar deserves to die?
4. How might you interpret Brutus's inability to sleep?
5. Brutus uses political diction in lines 63-68 to describe his internal conflict. What words in this passage are political references?
6. Why does Brutus personify the conspiracy?
7. Lines 101-112...what are several purposes that this conversation serves?
8. According to Brutus, why do the conspirators have no need to swear an oath?
9. Why does Brutus feel the conspirators should not murder both Caesar and Antony?
10. In lines 184-189, Brutus and Cassius have their most significant disagreement in the play. How do Brutus
and Cassius differ in thinking.
11. Who else in the play, just as Decius reveals he will Caesar (lines 201-208), is being manipulated by flattery?
12. How does the passage from lines 224-228 compare to Brutus's earlier comments about the monstrous visage of the conspiracy (77-85) and the honest faces of the conspirators (114-140)?
13. What unusual actions lead Portia to conclude that Brutus is deeply disturbed?
14. What does Portia reveal about her relationship to Brutus in lines 279-287?
15. What does Ligarius's response to Brutus reveal about Brutus's reputation?
16. Why does thunder roar at the conclusion of Ligarius's lines?
1. Note the reference to the motif sleep in the first lines of the passage. Note any further references as well.
2. What flaws in Caesar's character are most evident in this comment?
3. Why is this statement, lines 26-29, ironic?
4. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once...death...will come when it will come."
5. Is Caesar afraid to tell the senators the truth?
6. Decius's interpretation of Calphurnia's dream is an example of what repeated theme?
7. What conclusions can you draw about Decius from his interactions with Caesar here?
8. Provide three ways in which Decius convinces Caesar to go to the Senate.
9. What is the irony in Trebonius's statement?
10. How do Caesar's repeated expressions of friendship make you feel about the conspirators?
1. Who is Artemidorus? What does he know?
2. How is dramatic tension increased at the end of the scene?
Act 2.4-**Note: this scene is normally removed in the production of this play.
1. What is the conversation between Portia and the soothsayer?
2. What does Portia say about women and secrets?
3. Does Portia know what is going to happen?
1. Re-read the view of the Elizabeth universe before beginning this section.
2. Why does Decius mention Trebonnius's suit?
3. Does Caesar's statement here seem out of character?
4. Why do the conspirators send Metellus Cimber to "prefer his suit to Caesar?"
5. Why is Caesar's reply, lines 39-43, ironic?
6. Is the assassination of Caesar justified because of his arrogance? Explain.
7. What does Caesar mean in line 74?
8. Why is line 77 significant?
9. In lines 98-100, Brutus discuss the three fates. Discover their names and what each represents.
10. Why does Brutus ask the conspirators to join him in bathing his hands in Caesar's blood?
11. How are Cassius's and Brutus's comments almost comically ironic?
12. Do you believe what Antony's servant says that Antony will do?
13. What is Antony implying by offering his life to the conspirators in lines 151-163?
14. What is the double meaning of "slippery ground" in line 191?
15. How do you feel about Antony? Is he a coward or a flatterer? Or neither?
16. Who else used an image of the hunt to describe the murder of Caesar?
17. Predict what Antony will do at the funeral.
18. Brutus's fatal decision to allow Antony to speak at the funeral marks the turning point of the play. What is likely to happen as a result of this poor decision?
19. Why is the decision to allow Antony to bring Caesar's body to the funeral a mistake?
20. What conclusions can you draw from this soliloquy about Antony's true feelings?
21. What evidence created the conclusion you devised in #20?
22. Why does Antony tell Octavius's servant to wait for the outcome of his oration before reporting to Octavius?
1. Brutus speaks in prose, and uses parallelism in his speech. Identify the specific use of parallel structure.
2. What is the flaw in Brutus's argument?
3. What do you think of Brutus's decision to leave the forum while Antony deliver his speech?
4. Antony's speech is in blank verse. What is the effect of the difference in the rhetorical styles?
5. identify some of the uses of verbal irony in Antony's speech.
6. How does Antony attack Brutus's argument?
7. How does Antony use repetition effectively in this speech?
8. What is Antony's argument?
9. Why does Antony mention the will if he does not mean to read it?
10. Do you believe the crowd could be swayed so easily?
11. How does Antony go about provoking pity and compassion for Caesar in his speech?
12. Brutus has already given his reasons to the people. Why does Antony say he does not know the conspirator's "private griefs?"
13. Antony says that he has not, in lines 223-228, come to "steal away hearts." Is this true? Explain.
14. Why does Antony remind the crowd about the will?
15. What is the example of personification in lines 262-263?
1. What purpose do the comic touches in this scene serve?
2. Can you think of an instance in another movie or play that a mob of people have acted in such a horrifying manner?
1. Why should we judge Antony harshly during this opening scene?
2. What are your first impressions of Octavius?
1. In lines 18-24, does Brutus give an accurate assessment of human nature? Explain.
2. What do you think of Brutus's advice to Cassius in lines 41-47?
1. Identify the tragic pathos and tragic irony in this scene.
2. Why is Cassius upset with Brutus?
3. What is Brutus's metaphor in line 24?
4. Who else in the play makes a similar comment to lines 28-32?
5. Discover what were the "four humors" that were predominant in a person, in the Elizabethan view.
6. What side of his character does Brutus reveal in lines 65-82?
7. When is it appropriate to point out a fault or weakness in a friend or another person?
8. When has Cassius threatened suicide before?
9. How does Brutus use an extended metaphor to describe Cassius's temperment?
10. From the exchange in lines 112-122, what conclusions can you draw about Cassius?
11. What do you think of Brutus's response to Portia's death? Do you admire his restraint or feel that he is carrying self-control too far?
12. How is Cassius in 158-160 a sharp contrast to the character of Brutus?
13. Who presents the more effective plan, Cassius or Brutus?
14. How would you paraphrase Brutus's extended metaphor in lines 211-222?
15. Cassius surely knows his judgment is better than Brutus's. Why does he give in once again?
16. How does the tone of the quarrel between Cassius and Brutus differ from the disagreement between Antony and Octavius in Scene 1?
17. Find the anachronism in lines 250-251.
18. In contrast to the self-righteous, caustic side of Brutus we saw earlier in the scene with Cassius, what part of Brutus's character do we get a glimpse of in lines 252-272?
19. Why do you think Shakespeare included this scene?
20. On a symbolic level, what might the Ghost represent?
21. What were Brutus's words in Act 2.1, lines 167-170? How do they relate to Line 279?
22. What is the Ghost seemingly foreshadowing for Brutus?
1. What does Octavius tell Antony at the beginning of the scene?
2. To what words are the men referring in lines 28-38?
3. To what animals does Antony compare the conspirators?
4. What is a masker? How does Cassius make Antony compare to this type of person?
5. What are the effects of the alliteration, assonance and consonance in lines 67-68?
6. What does Cassius's change of mind toward the omen signify?
7. Who are the Stoics? What do they believe? Who was Cato? Who did he side with in the original war?
8. How would Brutus's inconsistency be explained in lines 104-107?
9. Predict the outcome of the battle.
1. What is the shift in the battle that takes place in this scene?
1. Who are the "villains" that Cassius refers to?
2. What is it that Cassius asks Titinius to do?
3. Does Pindarus actually see Titinius taken by Antony's troops? Explain.
4. What significance do you see in the fact that Cassius dies with Caesar's name on his lips?
5. Why is the comparison of Cassius's death to the sunset effective?
6. Find the example of apostrophe in the passage spoken by Messala (lines 66-71).
7. What other character in the play makes a cry similar to the one on line 94?
1. What does Cato do?
2. Who does Lucilius pretend to be? Why does he do this?
3. How does Antony feel about Lucilius's deception?
1. What is Brutus asking Volumnius to do?
2. How does Brutus reconcile his internal conflict? (look back to the view of suicide, 5.1, lines 100-113)
3. Why is the death of the protagonist in this story not a total loss? Has Brutus accepted his death?
4. Is Antony's final tribute to Brutus a surprise, considering how he ridiculed his honor at Caesar's funeral?
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