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Robert A. Albano

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Robert A. Albano

First Printing: August 2010

All Rights Reserved 2010 by Robert A. Albano The text presented in this volume appeared earlier as part of Understanding Shakespeare's Tragedies (2009). No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

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Introduction . Act I ................................................. Act II ................................................. Act III ................................................. Act IV ................................................. Act V ................................................. Final Remarks .................................................

11 17 49 73 89 101 115

Other Books by Robert A. Albano Middle English Historiography Lectures on Early English Literature Lectures on British Neoclassic Literature Understanding Shakespeare's Tragedies Understanding the Poetry of William Wordsworth

Robert Albano is an Associate Professor of English Literature in Taiwan.

NOTE: All act and scene divisions and lines numbers referred to in this text are consistent with those found in The Norton Shakespeare (Stephen Greenblatt, editor).


The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not a play about Julius Caesar. If that may seem strange to the audience of today, it was equally strange to the audience of Shakespeares own time. William Shakespeare was a writer of imagination and invention. Moreover, he was a playwright who appeared to enjoy breaking the conventions and traditions of drama to create new and brilliant plays that were unlike any tragedy or comedy that had been produced before. Certainly, the people going to see a play entitled Julius Caesar in the Elizabethan era would have expected the play to be about Julius Caesar. But what they instead witnessed for the first time back in 1599 was indeed far more surprising and entertaining and delightful than what they had hoped for. Shakespeare time and again surpassed the expectations of his audience, and he certainly did so in this particular tragedy. In the first half of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents his audience with two central figures: Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. A reader would be correct in viewing the play as essentially two tragedies fused into one play: the tragedy of Caesar and the tragedy of Brutus. Indeed, in the play Shakespeare even sets up comparisons and contrasts between the two characters and, in essence, reveals 11

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar how the fate of one character is intertwined by the fate of the other. Yet, surprising and, perhaps, a bit shocking to the Elizabethan audience is that Shakespeare presents the scene where Caesar is assassinated at the beginning of the third act. Traditionally, the assassination of Caesar would be the climax, the highest point of tension in the drama; and such a scene should naturally come toward the end of the play. And, indeed, the Renaissance audience would consider a play to be most strange in which the playwright killed off his protagonist before the play is even halfway over. But Caesar is not the protagonist of Shakespeares play. Brutus is. Shakespeare was not concerned with following dramatic conventions, nor was he particular worried about presenting accurate historical facts in his play. Shakespeare was concerned about drama. He was concerned with creating intriguing and vivid characters that appealed to his intellect and imagination and that would appeal equally to the intellect and imagination of his audience. In Marcus Brutus, Shakespeare found a fascinating individual who was thrust into one of the most intriguing and difficult conflicts in all the records of history. Shakespeare recognized that the personal conflict, the psychological conflict which afflicted Brutus, provided the kind of subject matter that great tragedy is made from. Shakespeare thus took a person who historically appeared of secondary


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar importance and placed him at the center of his great tragic work. At the core of this play, then, is the internal conflict or inner turmoil that rages within Brutus. Essentially, this is what is frequently referred to as a man vs. himself conflict. Brutus has to make a choice. He has two options, but neither option is pleasant or desirable to him because, whichever option he chooses, the results or consequences will be dark and deadly. Brutus must choose between two evils. This type of situation is often referred to as a moral dilemma. Brutus must make a painful choice; but he knows that whichever choice he makes, he cannot win. He will lose something of himself either way. And either way, others will also suffer as a result. The fate of the Roman Empire rests in the palm of Brutus hand. And his decision changed the path of history. Although people going to see Shakespeares play, back in 1599 and even today, do not have the fate of an entire empire depending upon the decisions they make, most people can relate to the figure of Brutus. There comes a time in everyones life when he or she must make an uncomfortable decision, a decision that will have negative results regardless of which choice is made. Thus, the audience can sympathize with the true protagonist of this play because they realize that Brutus is in a situation where he cannot possibly win. Brutus must choose the path that he feels will be the best for others 13

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar around him. Brutus must choose what is frequently referred to as the lesser of two evils. But in choosing evil, even the lesser evil, Brutus is bringing doom and destruction upon himself. According to diaries and notes from the time of the Elizabethan era, there were several other plays that focused on the figure of Julius Caesar for their subject matter. One diary notes the existence of a lost English play about Julius Caesar performed in 1562. But since Shakespeare was born in 1564, he may have never seen that one. Another lost English play on Caesar appeared in 1594. Shakespeare was already well known in London at that time and would most definitely have been aware of this plays existence. According to the diary entry on this 1594 production, the story was in two parts, in two separate plays; but that does not necessarily indicate that any special attention was given to Brutus. In any event, the 1594 play was not performed for very long. It did not have a long successful run. But there might have been in it something which inspired Shakespeare to write his own version. Shakespeare may have taken a minor idea from this play and transformed it into a central conflict in his own. Shakespeare may have also been aware of and influenced by two French versions of the play that appeared during the sixteenth century. In these plays the character of Caesar is depicted as proud, arrogant, and boastful. Shakespeares Caesar certainly has some of those qualities as well. But Shakespeare was 14

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar not one to allow his major characters, even if they are not protagonists, to be depicted as simple stock characters or two-dimensional stereotypes. Shakespeare presents a more complicated Caesar who is driven by his ambition (not unlike Macbeth), by his desire for acceptance and flattery, and by his own personal vision of how the political state of the Roman Empire should be maintained. The story of Julius Caesar has long intrigued readers and theater audiences. The assassination of Caesar is one of those momentous occasions in history that cause many people to look back in wonder and amazement. And today, when most people think about Julius Caesar, they think about him the way Shakespeare portrayed him. Shakespeares thoughtful and psychologically fascinating portrait keeps the character of Julius Caesar and his fate vivid and alive in the imaginations of people today. But, more importantly, Shakespeare additionally brings to the play an even more intriguing story: the story of Marcus Brutus. The story of Caesar involves a unique and awful moment in time, but the story of Brutus presents a conflict of depth and emotion. And Shakespeare certainly knew that a truly great tragedy must certainly have just such a powerfully emotional conflict to make the play touch his audience at a deeply intellectual and emotional level. And, in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has both the


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar horror of a stunning historical event and the misfortune of a mans moral struggle.


ACT I, 1: THE FICKLE COMMONERS The first scene of the play does not include Caesar or Brutus. Rather, it includes minor characters in what may, at first, appear to be events unrelated to the main plot. However, Shakespeare does not just set up mood and setting in his opening. He is actually establishing crucial key thematic concepts that will play a vital role in the audiences understanding of later developments in the play. The scene is set on the streets of Rome. Tradesmen (skilled workers) and other commoners are roaming about the streets in a carefree, holiday mood. Two tribunes (Roman officials) named Flavius and Murellus approach the commoners and ask them why they are not working. The day is not a holiday, and the tribunes are upset that the tradesmen are not at their places of work. The workers, however, act in a holiday manner and respond with jokes when the serious tribunes question them. Flavius tells the tradesmen that they should be displaying the sign of your profession (lines 4-5). He is saying that they should be wearing their work clothes and carrying the tools of their business. Murellus then asks one particular tradesman about his profession, and then the puns begin. The tradesman is a cobbler (a man who makes or repairs shoes), but he responds with a laugh or a large smile 17

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar that he is a cobbler (11). The word cobbler actually has two definitions in Renaissance England: (1) a bungler, that is, someone who performs tasks badly and who always makes a mess of things, and (2) a shoemaker. Because of the tradesmans joking manner, the serious Murellus thinks the cobbler means that he is a bungler. So, Murellus repeats his question. The cobbler then responds with another pun: he says that he is a mender of bad soles (14). The word soles sounds the same as souls. And a mender of bad souls would be a priest. The tradesman is obviously not a priest, so Murellus becomes angry at his answer. Once again, Murellus repeats his question; and once again the cobbler responds with a joke: Be not out with me. Yet if you be out, sir, I can mend you (16-17). The expression to be out means to be angry. The cobbler is telling Murellus not to be angry with him. But the second part of the quote has two separate meanings: (1) If your toes are sticking out of your shoes, I can mend or fix them. (2) If you are angry, I can mend or fix you (get revenge against you). The word mend can mean both repair and get revenge. The funny cobbler has told a very clever joke, but the severe Murellus does not get the joke. Murellus only understands the second meaning. And, so, Murellus 18

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar becomes angrier. During the course of the conversation, the other tradesmen would be listening and laughing at the clever jokes of their friend. Their laughter would also contribute to upsetting the two tribunes. Renaissance audiences always appreciated puns and humor in their tragedies, and Shakespeare was certainly among the best at delivering clever wordplay in his dramatic works. The scene is important in establishing the carefree mood of the workers. They are happy. They are celebrating. But the scene also establishes a conflict of seriousness vs. frivolousness. The same conflict appears in the contrast between the serious Brutus and the seemingly frivolous (playful, lighthearted) Antony. In the first scene, the serious Flavius and Murellus underestimate the intelligence of the lighthearted commoners. Similarly, Brutus underestimates the ability of the lighthearted Antony. Flavius finally gets a serious answer out of the cobbler, for the cobbler tells him that the tradesmen are celebrating the recent victory of Julius Caesar (line 30). That news also bothers and angers the two tribunes, and the furious Murellus delivers a speech (beginning in line 31) criticizing the commoners. A note on Roman history is needed here. Julius Caesar was one of three leaders of the Roman Empire. The three leaders were referred to as a Triumvirate. The other two members of the 19

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Triumvirate were named Crassus and Pompey the Great. The three leaders became involved in disagreements and disputes with one another, and the disputes led to conflict and civil war (a war involving just one country or nation). Crassus was quickly eliminated, and a war between Caesar and Pompey ended with Pompeys defeat and, later, his death. Julius Caesar, then, was the one remaining member of the Triumvirate to survive and lead the Roman Empire. Not everyone was happy with these results, and the sons of Pompey started another conflict and battle against Caesar. At the time that the play opens, Caesar has just won this conflict. And the tradesmen are celebrating this victory. The reason that Flavius and Murellus are angry with the tradesmen is that the two tribunes were supporters and followers of Pompey the Great. And Murellus criticizes the commoners because they too, at one time, were supporters of Pompey. Murellus reminds the tradesmen that not so very long ago they would wait in the streets all day long so that they could cheer and applaud to see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome (41) whenever Pompey won a victory against a foreign enemy. In Roman times the leader in such a victory would drive his chariot (a small two-wheeled horse-drawn wagon) through the streets with his soldiers and his prisoners following behind him. During these parades, the commoners would get a holiday and cheer the victors.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Essentially, Murellus is accusing the tradesmen of being fickle (of easily changing their feelings or affections for someone). A fickle girl will love one boy today and a different boy tomorrow and yet a third boy on the day after. And a fickle crowd of citizens will love one leader today, but tomorrow they will hate that first leader and love a second leader in his place. So, Murellus asks the commoners, Do you now strew flowers in his way that comes in triumph over Pompeys blood? (4950). The word that actually means who, a pronoun referring to Caesar. Caesar has defeated the sons (blood) of Pompey, whom the commoners until recently cheered as their beloved leader. Flavius and Murellus then accuse the tradesmen of ingratitude (54) and order them to leave the streets of Rome. The fickle and emotional nature of the crowd or mob plays a key role in the plot later in the play. Brutus does not really consider this quality, but the clever Antony makes use of it. At the end of the scene, Flavius and Murellus decide to go through the streets of Rome and remove all of the trophies (line 68: decorations or banners) from the statues and other objects that have been decorated in celebration of Caesars victory. The two tribunes want to end the holiday mood and celebration. Flavius and Murellus show loyalty to Pompey, the leader whom they loved so dearly. And loyalty was certainly an important attribute or virtue of the 21

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar age. But the two tribunes make a mistake in doing this. Pompey is dead. Caesar is alive. And Caesar is the one who now holds power in Rome. Thus, Flavius and Murellus act as the enemy to Caesar, which is extremely foolish. Their actions will lead to their own downfall.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: ENTER CAESAR The second scene begins with a brief section showing Julius Caesar with his wife Calpurnia as well as Mark Antony and others. The scene not only introduces Caesar to the audience, but it also reveals two significant traits of his character. First, the scene reveals how Caesar demands obedience. When Caesar asks Antony to do something, Antony responds by saying, When Caesar says Do this, it is performed (12). Caesars word is law, and his followers know they should not deny him. Moreover, whenever Caesar speaks, everybody must be absolutely quiet. Music is playing and people are shouting in holiday spirit, but twice the Roman official named Casca orders the musicians and everybody else to be quiet when Caesar wishes to speak (lines 2 and 16). And everybody remains absolutely quiet until Caesar is finished speaking. The second aspect of Caesars character that is revealed is his wavering or inconsistent personality. Antony is about to run in a race, and Caesar asks him to touch Calpurnia as he passes by her. The race is a holy one taking place on a holy day (called Lupercalia), and the runners taking place in this holy event were believed to possess spiritual or magical qualities. Caesar believes that his wife, who is barren (unable to produce children), will become pregnant if Antony touches her during the race: 23

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

The barren, touched in this holy chase, Shake off their sterile curse. (10-11)

Thus, Caesar reveals that he is a superstitious man. Yet, when a soothsayer (a fortune-teller) warns Caesar to Beware the ides of March (line 19: the word ides refers to the middle of the month), Caesar thinks that the soothsayer is just an idle dreamer (26) and ignores his advice. Thus, Caesar appears to be both superstitious and not superstitious. He accepts some superstitions, but ignores others. Caesar wants to appear before the public as a man of courage, who is somehow above the forces of fate or the supernatural. Yet, one part of Caesars personality also believes and fears the supernatural. This aspect of his character plays a role later in the story when his wife Calpurnia has a prophetic dream about him.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: CASSIUS TESTS BRUTUS After Caesar and his followers pass by, Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus remain on the stage. Cassius is not loyal to Caesar, and he is not his friend. And now that the Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) no longer exists, Cassius fears that Caesar will be crowned as the king or emperor of Rome. As emperor, Caesar will have absolute power, including the power to get rid of his enemies. In order to prevent that from happening, Cassius is plotting a conspiracy to assassinate (to kill) Caesar. But Cassius is also an extremely clever man, and he knows that he needs the support of some notable officials in Rome. Without such support, an act of assassination would result in Cassius own death. Brutus is one of the highest officials in Rome; and Cassius knows that if he can get Brutus to join the conspiracy, then it could be successful. And it could also then result in the conspirators becoming the new leaders of the Roman Empire. Like the character of Iago in Othello, Cassius is a shrewd and clever judge of people. Cassius has observed Brutus carefully and is already aware that he is troubled and bothered by the idea that Caesar will become emperor. But Cassius is also aware that Brutus is an honorable man. Brutus would never willingly play a role in an act of treachery or betrayal unless there were no other choices. Therefore, Cassius must speak slowly and cautiously with 25

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Brutus. He wants to convince Brutus to join the conspiracy, but he also realizes that Brutus himself must see the necessity for such an action. Brutus must admit that there is no other choice. Cassius begins by suggesting that Brutus has been acting in an unfriendly manner toward him lately (lines 35-36). Brutus apologizes for his unfriendly attitude and tells Cassius that he is with himself at war (48). That is, Brutus is having an internal conflict (man vs. himself). Brutus is, of course, troubled about what to do regarding Caesar becoming king. Cassius immediately realizes that his guesses or beliefs about Brutus are correct, and so he now attempts to move Brutus into action by making an indirect remark. Cassius tells Brutus that many of the noblest officials in Rome have wished that noble Brutus had his eyes (64). This is a synecdoche, a kind of metaphor in which a part signifies the whole. For example, a captain in an army may refer to a soldier as a foot. If he says that he has 5000 feet ready to fight, that means he has 5000 soldiers available. In Cassiuss line, the word eyes means way of thinking. Cassius is thus telling Brutus literally that many noble Romans wish that Brutus felt the way they did about Caesar. What Cassius is implying is that many nobles object to Caesar being their leader. They do not want Caesar as their king. Brutus understands what Cassius is implying and asks Cassius what dangers (65) he wants 26

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Brutus to be a part of. Cassius exclaims that he is not dangerous (80). Cassius protests that he speaks only openly and directly and to the point. He says that he will simply supply the function of a glass (70: a mirror) so that Brutus can better see or understand himself. And Cassius is an accurate mirror of Brutus thoughts. Cassius knows what Brutus wants to do about Caesar even though Brutus cannot admit it to himself. Before Brutus can respond, they are interrupted by a large noise of shouting and cheering from offstage (after line 80). Caesar is making a speech before the citizens of Rome, and the people are shouting in response. When Brutus hears the noise, he responds quite openly, I do fear the people choose Caesar for their king (81-82). Cassius then directly asks if that means Brutus does not want Caesar for a king. Brutus then asks Cassius to come to the point and to state what he wants:
If it be aught toward the general good, Set honor in one eye and death ith other, And I will look on both indifferently; For let the gods so speed me as I love The name of honour more than I fear death. (87-91)

There are three main concepts here: honor, death, and public welfare (the general good). Brutus loves honor and fears death. But the idea of public welfare is more important to him than either honor or death. 27

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Looking indifferently on honor and death means that Brutus will ignore or forget about his love of honor and his fear of death if he can do anything (aught means anything) to help the people of Rome and the nation of Rome. Brutus believes that the most important task that he can ever do in his life is to help Rome. Brutus is full of public zeal. He has a passion and enthusiasm and eagerness to help Rome above anything else. It is this quality (this zeal) that will move Brutus to join the conspiracy. Despite his speech, Cassius knows that Brutus also loves honor and will not easily proceed in any activity that might appear to be dishonorable. And treachery and disloyalty are most certainly dishonorable qualities. So, before asking Brutus to join in a conspiracy, Cassius first tries to persuade Brutus that the assassination of Caesar would actually be the honorable path to take.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: THE STRATEGY OF CASSIUS CONTINUED Cassius then begins the next part of his strategy: first, to reveal the weaknesses of Caesar and, second, to show the change in Caesars personality now that he has become the sole ruler in Rome. Cassius relates an anecdote, a little story, about a time when he and Caesar were younger men and engaged in a swimming contest (lines 102-17: the story may remind the reader of the swimming contest between Beowulf and Breca in the epic Beowulf). Dressed in armor, Cassius and Caesar both jump in the Tiber River. They attempt to swim across it despite the force of the rushing waters. Caesar weakens and starts to drown. Cassius rescues him. Cassius relates a second story about how Caesar suffered from a fit of epilepsy and became weak and shook and cried out like a sick girl (lines 121-30). Cassius point in these two stories is to emphasize that not only is Caesar a mere man, just like himself or Brutus, but that Caesar is even weaker than or inferior to them. Cassius is thus illustrating the idea that Caesar is unfit to rule over them. Now that Cassius has spoken of Caesars weaknesses, he then moves on to speak of the change in Caesar. Cassius uses the simile of the Colossus of Rhodes. The Colossus was an enormous statue of the god Apollo. It stood in a harbor with its legs spread apart. So tall was it that ships could sail 29

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar between the legs. Cassius compares Caesar to this statue. Caesar has become a giant in Rome. In other words, Caesar has become the most powerful man in Rome. And everyone else in Rome has become small or petty (137) by comparison. The nobles of Rome are no longer equals, and this is a dishonorable situation (139). Like Iago and other Shakespearean villains, Cassius scoffs (makes fun of) fate.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves that we are underlings. (141-42)

The reference to stars is a reference to astrology and how destiny is fixed or determined for all men. But Cassius is like the Humanists. Humanism was the prevailing philosophy of the Renaissance. A humanist believed that he was capable of creating or changing his own destiny simply through the powers of his human intelligence and the desire to make a change. Cassius is telling Brutus that the nobles of Rome have become weak because they are too weak or afraid to make a change. Cassius is essentially telling Brutus that he can make a change. All that he has to do is act. He is telling Brutus that he should not sit idly by and do nothing. Cassius then compares Brutus to Caesar (beginning in line 143). He is suggesting that Brutus could be the next leader of Rome just as easily as 30

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Caesar. Brutus is intelligent, and he is respected by the citizens of Rome. More importantly, he has a concern for the public welfare whereas Caesars concern seems to be only for Caesar himself. To emphasize the comparison and the point he is making, Cassius uses irony:
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar. (148)

To start a spirit means to raise a spirit from the dead, to bring the dead back to life. Cassius is implying that only gods have this kind of power and that neither Caesar nor Brutus are gods. Thus, neither one can raise a spirit from the dead. Cassius point is that some people in Rome now treat Caesar as if he were a god, and Caesar himself almost believes that he is godlike. Caesar thinks that he is superior to the rest of mankind. Continuing the irony and adding sarcasm as well, Cassius asks, Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed that he is grown so great? (150-51). With the word meat, Cassius is referring to ambrosia, the food of the gods. In ancient times people believed that by eating ambrosia, they could become godlike. And, quite obviously, Cassius does not think that Caesar is anything like the gods. The final part of Cassius strategy is to make an appeal to Brutus noble heritage and his sense of patriotism. Cassius remarks that the people living in the present age should feel shame for allowing a 31

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar single man, Caesar, to become a king and tyrant over them (line 151). He also remarks that in the past ages the Romans would never allow such an event from happening (lines 155-56). And then he specifically mentions Brutuss own ancestor:
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked Theternal devil to keep his state in Rome As easily as a king. (160-62)

Cassius is also using irony here. The word brook means to allow or to endure; and to keep state means to rule or to hold absolute power. Cassius is saying that Brutus ancestor (who was named Lucius Junius Brutus) would have allowed the devil to rule Rome just as easily as he would allow a single leader (a king) to rule the Roman Empire. But Lucius Brutus did not allow the Rome to be ruled by one man. Instead, Lucius Brutus expelled the Tarquins, who were kings and tyrants of Rome, so that Rome could be a republic (a political state in which there is no monarch or king). A king or monarch often meant a ruler who was a tyrant back in those times. Thus, having a king or emperor implied a loss of freedom for the citizens. Cassius does not want this, and he knows that Brutus does not want it either.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: BRUTUS RESPONDS Brutus responds in a short speech (beginning line 163) that he needs time to think the situation over. But he adds that he will consider Cassius offer (line 169). Brutus is still in conflict. Even though he had earlier said that he would most willingly place the general good or welfare of Rome above his own sense of personal honor (see lines 87-89), doing so is not easy. Brutus is considering an act of betrayal and treachery to a man who is both his master and his friend. The reader should remember that Dante, in The Divine Comedy, depicted hell as having nine levels; and the lowest levels were for the worst sinners. Sinners of treachery were placed in the ninth, the lowest, level. Even though Brutus was living in pre-Christian times, the Romans thought of treachery as the Christians did. It was hateful, horrible, and most certainly dishonorable. Taking such a step is not something Brutus would do unless there was no other choice. But Brutus answers Cassius with these words:
Brutus had rather be a villager Than to repute himself a son of Rome Under these hard conditions as this time Is likely to lay upon us. (173-76)

Brutus is essentially stating that he cannot live in Rome if there is a tyrant who rules over it. He is 33

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar suggesting that a nobleman who lives under the control of a tyrant is worse off than a poor peasant living in the countryside. Thus, Brutus is also suggesting that some action must be taken to prevent a tyrant from ruling Rome. But Brutus is not sure yet if Cassius plot is the only means to stop Caesar from becoming king.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: A LEAN AND HUNGRY LOOK The conversation between Brutus and Cassius comes to an end as Caesar and his followers cross past them on one side of the stage. Brutus notes that Caesar looks angry (Casca will explain later in the scene why Caesar is indeed angry). As Caesar glances at Cassius, he whispers the following to Antony (so that Cassius cannot hear):
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous. (195-96)

Antony responds that Cassius is a good Roman and that Caesar has no reason to fear him. Caesar then immediately replies, I fear him not (199). Caesar believes he is above ordinary men. He always wants to show that he is a man of great courage, afraid of nothing. Yet Caesar then adds that if he did fear anyone, that person would be Cassius. Caesar describes Cassius quite accurately and astutely:
He is a great observer, and he looks Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays, As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music. (203-05)

Caesar and Cassius share several qualities, especially that both of them can look through the deeds of men. Caesar means that Cassius understands what 35

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar motivates men. Cassius understands human nature. Cassius has just given the audience a demonstration of this ability, for Cassius has accurately determined the cause of Brutus worry and has also quite smoothly persuaded Brutus to consider joining the conspiracy. But also, somewhat ironically, Caesar has also given a demonstration of this same ability in describing Cassius. Caesar is also quite accurate in looking through the deeds of Cassius. And, perhaps even more ironically, a great playwright also needs to look through the deeds of men. Shakespeare, too, may have had a lean and hungry look. But unlike Cassius, Shakespeare loved plays. The reference to Cassius not loving theater or music was (as the Norton editors note) considered an indication of evil or wickedness. Men who take no pleasure in life are more likely to spend their time scheming and plotting. They are more likely to take part in anti-social or criminal activities. And, in this particular case, they are more likely to become traitors to their ruler. The reader may wonder, though, how much Caesar himself loved plays and music.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: CASCAS REPORT After Caesar exits the stage, Brutus and Cassius continue their conversation. Cassius asks Casca to join them. Casca had been watching the speech and activities of Caesar, and he relates to Cassius what he had seen. The reader should note the switch to prose at this point (beginning in line 216). This is reported speech, an explanation of what had happened previously. Shakespeare usually presents reported speech, like the reading of letters and messages, in prose. Casca explains how Mark Antony offered a crown to Caesar. In fact, he offered the crown to Caesar three times (lines 229-30). And each time Caesar refused to accept. And after each refusal the people shouted and begged Caesar to accept. Caesar was acting like a humble man, like someone who believes he is not worthy to be king. But this is not actually the case. Caesar is pretending. Caesar really wants the crown (to be king), but he is acting meek and modest in order to get the citizens of Rome to support him. The entire event was staged. It was set up for this purpose. Antony giving the crown to Caesar would not be an official or legal course of action anyway. His offer is meaningless. But most of the Roman citizens do not know this, and they believe that Caesar is a good and humble man. However, not everyone was tricked by the proceedings. Casca explains, It was mere foolery, I 37

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar did not mark it (235-36). By foolery, Casca means idiotic and unbelievable. And not marking it means that he did not believe it. Casca further explains that the crown offered to Caesar was not even real:
I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown yet, twas not a crown neither, twas one of those coronets and as I told you he put it by once; but for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. (236-39)

The word coronet here refers to a decorated headband, not an official crown that would actually be worn by a king. It is like a fake crown that would be used in a stage play. But even though Caesar himself knows it is a fake crown, Casca reports that he really wants it (the word fain means gladly). Casca is suggesting that Caesar is not a very good actor. To anyone with intelligence, Caesars acting was not believable. Casca also reports how, during the third time that he was offered the crown, Caesar had a fit of epilepsy and fell to the ground (line 246). This explains why Caesar was so angry after the event. But Casca explains that Caesar apologized to the people and continued acting like a humble man Casca also relates another piece of news to Brutus and Cassius. He explains how Flavius and 38

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Murellus, the Roman nobles who broke up the holiday and accused the artisans of being fickle (in scene one), were put to silence (280). The note suggests that this means that they had lost their office, but it could also imply that they were imprisoned or even executed. As mentioned before, it was most unwise of them to support Pompey, the fallen enemy of Caesar.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 2: CASSIUS SOLILOQUY After Brutus leaves the stage, Cassius is left alone and makes a short speech or soliloquy (a speech representing his thoughts and not intended to be realistic speech). In the first sentence, Cassius states, Thy honourable mettle may be wrought from that it is disposed (303-04). The word mettle means quality or spirit, the word wrought means changed, and the word that is used for what. Cassius is thus saying that Brutus honorable nature can be easily changed from its natural state. The word mettle is also a pun for metal. This is an allusion to alchemy. In medieval times some scientists believed they could turn base metals, like lead or tin, into gold if they knew the secret. Here, Cassius is a reverse alchemist. He is attempting to turn Brutus gold (his honor) into tin. He is attempting to make Brutus dishonorable. Cassius explains that Brutus is too honorable, and this is his weakness. Honorable men should stay with only other honorable men (line 305), for dishonorable men like Cassius can easily corrupt them. Cassius adds that were the situation reverse, Brutus would never be able to influence him. An honorable man cannot change the dishonorable man. Tin (dishonor) cannot be turned into gold (honor). To ensure his success, Cassius decides to trick Brutus. Cassius plans to write several letters with different handwriting in each (lines 309-14). But each letter will basically state the same message: that 40

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar the people of Rome are looking to Brutus to save them from tyranny. Cassius will then plant these letters in Brutus home so that Brutus will read them and then believe he has the support of many people in Rome to assassinate Caesar.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 3: STORM AND OMENS Storms are always symbolic in Shakespeare plays, and such symbolism appears in the beginning of the third scene. The stage direction calls for thunder and lightning. Thunder and storm sounds could easily be produced by rattling large sheets of metal and banging on large kettle drums. The actors words and actions supply the rest of the illusion. Casca meets the Roman senator Cicero on the streets and exclaims how he had never seen such a wild storm in all of his life. Casca adds that he also saw fire falling from the skies (line 10). Casca fears that the gods are angry and are going to destroy mankind. Casca then lists four other omens that he saw:
(1) A slave whose hand was on fire, but whose hand did not feel any pain or get hurt (2) A lion on the streets that looked angry but did not attack (3) Men completely covered in flames walking through the streets (4) An owl (a bird of the night) sitting in the marketplace during the middle of the day

As Casca concludes, these sights are portentous things (31). They are omens. They are supernatural


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar signs that some disaster has happened or will happen to the ruler of the nation. The State of the State Reflects The State of the King. In other words, the condition of a kingdom or nation depends upon the condition of the king. This is an old myth that goes back to ancient times. One of the oldest myths upon record is that of the Fisher King. A king has become ill or is dying, and everyone in his nation suffers from diseases, plagues, and disasters. Only when a hero solves the problem or finds a miraculous token does the king, and thus the kingdom, become cured. This myth was adapted by the Christians to become the Myth of the Holy Grail (the grail being the chalice or cup that Jesus Christ used during the Last Supper). A version of this myth also appears in numerous other works, like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey by Homer, and Beowulf. The idea also appears in Sophocles Oedipus the King. In that play the city of Thebes is experiencing plague, famine, and ruin because King Oedipus has killed his father and slept with his mother. In this story, then, the king is infected with evil; and so his entire kingdom is suffering. As long as a king is good and well, his kingdom is well. But, if a king is ill or evil, then the entire kingdom suffers. In other words, there is a relationship between the nation and the ruler, and so natural or supernatural troubles occur when the king is ill or in trouble. Shakespeare uses omens in other plays as well to indicate the fall of a king. In Macbeth (see 43

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act II, 3: 50-56), for example, omens occur before the murder of King Duncan. Shakespeare also uses a storm in a symbolic manner in other plays as well: see, for example, Othello (Act II, 1: 1) and King Lear (Act II, 4: 282). Shakespeare, time and again, suggests that a greater force, a supernatural force, plays a role in the lives of mankind.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 3: CASSIUS AND THE STORM Cassius does not agree with Casca about the storm and the omens. In fact, Cassius appears to be absolutely fearless in regards to the strange events. Casca meets Cassius after he is has just left Cicero. Cassius is unbraced (48): his doublet (or jacket) is open. Cassius is daring the gods to strike him with their lightning. Cassius does not truly believe that the strange events have any significance at all. He claims that only old men, fools, and children calculate or believe in them as omens (line 65). Cassius is suggesting that he is above such forces. He believes himself to be above the power of fate (not unlike the character of Iago in Othello). But like Iago, Cassius will later learn that no one is actually superior to the force of fate. Cassius then suggests an alternative interpretation. He states that if the strange events do have any meaning, then they concern Caesar himself. The monstrous quality of nature relates to the monstrous state (lines 68-71). By the word state, Cassius is referring to the government of Rome in general and to Julius Caesar specifically. Omens do not relate to the common man, Cassius believes, but only to kings and rulers. Cassius thus interprets the events or omens, if they have any meaning at all, to indicate the success of his plot to assassinate Julius Caesar.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 3: THE ALTERNATIVE TO TYRANNY Cassius convinces Casca to join his conspiracy (see line 119). Cassius explains to Casca that death is preferable to a life of tyranny:
I know where I will wear my dagger then: Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius. (88-89) That part of tyranny that I do bear I can shake off at pleasure. (98-99)

Cassius is exclaiming that he will kill himself with his own knife or dagger before he allows himself to live a life of slavery or bondage under the rule of Caesar. Cassius is arguing that the conspirators have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If they succeed in assassinating Caesar, they will have freedom. If they do not succeed, then they can still kill themselves and avoid a life of slavery. In essence, then, he is saying that they should either kill Caesar or themselves. Given those two choices, Casca can only agree with Cassius.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT I, 3: A COMPARISON TO ALCHEMY The final lines of the scene are devoted to Cassius talking to Casca and Cinna (another conspirator) about their plot to assassinate Caesar. Cassius gives the phony letters to Cinna (line 142) so that Cinna can place them around Brutus house. Cassius also informs Casca that Brutus will be joining the conspiracy: Three parts of him is ours already (154-55). Cassius is saying that Brutus is already three-fourths (or 75%) convinced to join, and the fake letters will convince him the rest of the way. Cassius is a shrewd man, and he is not wrong about Brutus. Casca is pleased that Brutus will be joining the conspiracy, and he uses a simile to alchemy to indicate how valuable Brutus will be:
that which would appear offence in us His countenance, like richest alchemy, Will change to virtue and to worthiness. (158-60)

By this, Casca means that people will consider the assassination as a virtuous and worthy act if Brutus plays a part in it. Otherwise, people will view the act as sinful or criminal. Without Brutus, the other conspirators would most likely end up being executed for the crime of killing Caesar. But with Brutus, the conspirators could become the new rulers of Rome. 47

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar One man does make a significant difference in this case. Shakespeare is thus illustrating how acts of political violence can be viewed in either a positive or negative manner depending on minor details. The public will not view the act of murder itself as either positive or negative. They will instead look at the motivation (or what they believe to be the motivation) of the murderers. They will view the why as being more important than the what. After the assassination is over, Shakespeare will explore this idea of public perception in greater detail. When Brutus makes a speech to the citizens of Rome, the people then perceive the act in a positive manner. But, later, when Antony makes a speech, their perception changes. The act of murder remains the same either way. What has changed is the peoples perception as to the motivation of the act.


ACT II, 1: IT MUST BE BY HIS DEATH The beginning of the second act opens with Brutus calling for his servant; but, after the servant exits, Brutus then has a soliloquy (beginning in line 10). The soliloquy begins with the following:
It must be by his death. And for my part I know no personal cause to spurn at him, But for the general. (10-12)

The pronouns his and him indicate Julius Caesar. Like all soliloquies, this speech represents the thoughts of the speaker, not realistic speech. In the first line, Brutus is already declaring his decision. Brutus realizes that only by Caesars death can Rome be free. And so Brutus has already decided to join in the plot to assassinate Caesar. But he does not like that decision. The remainder of the speech explains why Brutus believes his decision is the right one. Brutus is not joining the conspiracy for personal reasons (line 11). He is very much unlike Cassius then. Cassius is jealous of Caesar and also worries about what his enemy (Caesar) will do to him once he becomes a supreme ruler of Rome. Brutus, on the other hand, is joining the conspiracy for the general good of Rome (line 12). Brutus is acting out 49

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar of public zeal. He truly wants what is best for Rome. Where Cassius is selfish in his reasons, Brutus is selfless (noble and unselfish). Brutus knows Caesar extremely well, and he understands how Caesar will change once Caesar is given unlimited power. Brutus explains his reasoning with the metaphor of the adder (a poisonous snake line 14). At nighttime the adder is asleep and therefore not dangerous. But during the daytime, the adder comes out and is dangerous. Caesar is like the adder at nighttime. He is not an immediate danger. But once Caesar is crowned as king of Rome, he will be like the adder in daytime. He will be dangerous. Brutus perceives the potential danger in Caesar, Brutus describes the change that will occur in Caesar with another notable line:
Thabuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power. (18-19)

The Norton editors suggest that remorse means conscience. It can also mean compassion or regret. Brutus worries that once Caesar has become crowned as king, once he has power, he will no longer feel compassion toward others. Brutus emphasizes the potential danger in Caesar and asserts that Caesar has not yet been dangerous to Rome. Brutus comments, I have not known when his affections swayed more than his 50

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar reason (20-21). In essence, Brutus is saying that Caesar has always been able to maintain his reason over his emotions (affections). In the conflict of Reason vs. Emotion, the reason in Caesar has always controlled his passion. But, as Shakespeare clearly reveals throughout many of his works, no man is capable of always keeping his emotions in control. Note, for example, the situation in Othello! The noble Othello was a cool, level-headed, and reasonable individual until the emotion of jealousy took over. Brutus, however, believes that Caesar will lose the control over his reason once he gains power. Brutus then uses another metaphor, that of the ladder, to explain his opinion: lowliness is young ambitions ladder (22). The word lowliness here stands for humility or even possibly meekness. Brutus explains that a young person, as he attempts to climb the ladder of success, acts humbly (acts with humility). He is gentle and obedient to those who are in power over him. But after that person finally gets to the top of the ladder, once he obtains success and greatness and no longer has people who are in power over him, then he changes. He then looks in the clouds (26). In other words, he no longer cares for those who are beneath him. He is like a god with his head in the heavens. He is without humility. A famous quote from the late nineteenth century echoes Brutus belief: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 51

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar This line was written by a man named Lord Acton in 1887; and the idea became a central theme in many twentieth-century works of fiction, notably George Orwells fable Animal Farm (published in 1945). Shakespeare was essentially expressing the same idea back in 1599. Brutus recognizes that Caesar will become corrupted absolutely once he is crowned as emperor of Rome. Brutus uses one additional snake metaphor to explain the necessity of assassinating Caesar: Caesar is a serpents egg (32). A serpent or poisonous snake, while it is still in the egg, is harmless. But once that egg hatches, then the serpent becomes dangerous. Brutus is asserting that Caesar will be a danger to Rome just as surely as a poisonous snake is dangerous to man. There is no doubt in Brutus mind that Caesar will be dangerous.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 1: A MICROCOSMIC REBELLION Two words that literature students should be familiar with are microcosm and macrocosm. A microcosm is a smaller system that is similar to or a comparative to a larger system. For example, a town meeting of the small towns leaders may be viewed as a microcosm of a large nations legislative (or government) meeting. The legislative meeting would be the macrocosm. In early Christian belief, events on earth were sometimes viewed as the microcosm of events in Heaven (the macrocosm). A political rebellion on earth, for example, would be a microcosm of the rebellion of Lucifer against God. Brutus expresses a similar idea to describe his own feelings about joining the conspiracy. He describes the time between thinking about action and actually doing that action like a nightmare (line 65), and then adds the following:
The genius and the mortal instruments Are then in counsel, and the state of man, Like to a little kingdom, suffers then The nature of an insurrection. (66-69)

By genius, Brutus means soul or immortal spirit; and mortal instruments refer to the body. The word counsel actually means debate here. Brutus is thus declaring that his body and soul are in conflict (body vs. soul). He is saying that his body is about to 53

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar participate in an action that his soul disagrees with. Brutus is describing the discomfort and grief that he is feeling within his own conscience, within his own heart. Brutus then proceeds to his microcosmic metaphor. He states that the state or condition of man is like the condition of a little kingdom that is experiencing an insurrection or rebellion (lines 6769). During a rebellion, the people of a kingdom or nation are fighting among themselves. Similarly, Brutus is fighting himself. His public zeal is in conflict with his conscience (public zeal vs. conscience). It is a conflict that Brutus cannot win. The use of personification a few lines later emphasizes the trouble stirring in Brutus conscience. Brutus personifies Conspiracy (line 77), who, Brutus declares, is ashamed to show his face even in the darkest night. The face of Conspiracy is indicated by the words brow (line 78) and visage (line 81). Actually, brow is another example of synecdoche (a kind of metaphor in which a part signifies the whole). But the important idea here is that Conspiracy represents Brutus. Conspiracy is ashamed or embarrassed to show his face, and he hides his shame with smiles and pretended friendliness (line 82: in this case, the fake friendliness is what the conspirators will show to Caesar). In other words, Conspiracy is a hypocrite. And, thus, Brutus, too, is a hypocrite. It is a role that he does not enjoy. Rather, Brutus feels disgraced. 54

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

ACT II, 1: NO, NOT AN OATH When the conspirators arrive at Brutus home, Cassius suggests that they swear an oath to their enterprise, to their plot to assassinate Caesar (line 112). But Brutus responds with a lengthy speech that no oath is necessary. He explains that oaths are only necessary when men have little or no motive to act in a certain manner. For Brutus, the desire to defeat tyranny is the only motive they need. He adds that this single motive is strong enough to kindle cowards (120: to encourage cowardly men to act bravely) and to steel with valour the melting hearts of women (120-21: to make weak women strong and courageous). Brutus then asks the following:
And what other oath Than honesty to honesty engaged That this shall be or we will fall for it? (125-27)

By the word honesty, Brutus means integrity, honor, and truth. Brutus is stating that they are acting out of honor, with honorable intentions, to perform an honorable act and that they are willing to die (fall) to accomplish this honorable act. Brutus is assuming that all of the conspirators are acting for the same noble or honorable reasons as he. Of course, that is not entirely true. 55

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

ACT II, 1: A FATAL DECISION (HAMARTIA) The conspirators then proceed to discuss the details of their plot. Cassius suggests that perhaps the conspirators should ask Cicero to join the group (line 140). Cicero is an old and wise Roman senator, and his presence, like that of Brutus, would make the conspiracy appear to be a noble one. However, Brutus contradicts Cassius. Brutus explains that Cicero is a leader, not a follower, and that he would not be a good addition to the group. He would possibly try to upset their plans. Brutus is wiser than Cassius on this point, and Cassius then agrees that Cicero should not join the conspiracy. But then Cassius brings up another issue or point where Brutus is not so wise. Cassius suggests that the conspirators should kill not only Julius Caesar, but they should kill Mark Antony as well (lines 155-57). Cassius explains his reasons:
We shall find of him A shrewd contriver. And you know his means, If he improve them, may well stretch so far As to annoy us all. (157-60)

Cassius wisely and correctly evaluates the danger that Antony is capable of. Moreover, these lines foreshadow the events to follow. Earlier Cassius had correctly analyzed the thoughts of Brutus and was 56

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar able to convince him to join the conspiracy. Cassius looks quite through the deeds of men (I, 2: 203-04) as Caesar had said of him earlier. Cassius understands the psychology of men, where Brutus does not. Cassius is correct: Antony is a shrewd contriver. He is extremely clever and resourceful and can create successful plots and strategies. And Antony also has vast means. He has numerous resources, men and money, which will make him a powerful enemy. And, later in the play, Antony will annoy Brutus and Cassius. Antony will lead a war against them. As he had done earlier, Brutus disagrees with Cassius. Brutus does not want the conspiracy to engage in a terrible slaughter of many men. And Brutus does not think that Antony is a threat:

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, To cut off the head and then hack the limbs, Like wrath in death and envy afterwards For Antony is but a limb of Caesar. (162-65)

Brutus speaks in metaphors. Julius Caesar, the leader of Rome, is the head. The men who serve directly under him (his generals) are his limbs or arms. Brutus argues that if a man cuts off the head of his opponent, then the arms of that opponent are useless. They no longer have any power to strike. Brutus suggests that Antony is just the right arm of 57

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Caesar. He is saying that when Caesar is dead, Antony will no longer have any power. Antony will no longer be a threat. Brutus argues that killing Antony or other followers of Caesar will be too violent. Again, Brutus also uses personification. He suggests that too much violence will make them appear like Wrath (or anger) and that killing Antony will make them look like Envy. Both wrath and envy are negative emotions, and they belong among the Seven Deadly Sins (a Christian concept although the play is set in pre-Christian times). What Brutus is arguing is that the conspirators should not appear as if they acted because these negative emotions took control over them. Rather, they should act reasonably and coolly. Cassius allows Brutus to have his way on this matter too. But Cassius lets Brutus know that he does not like this decision:
Yet I fear him; For the engrafted love he bears to Caesar. (183-84)

Cassius is suggesting that Antony has a close emotional connection to Caesar. Antony loves Caesar as a very close friend. And Cassius knows only too well that this emotional connection to Caesar will make Antony their enemy after they have killed the leader. Nothing that Brutus or anyone else


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar can say will be able to stop Antonys anger and revenge. This scene is clear example of hamartia or tragic flaw. A hamartia is an error in judgment, according to Aristotle's Poetics. The tragic flaw does not refer to a flaw in character (as some critics mistakenly believe). It basically refers to a bad decision made by the protagonist. Aristotle discusses hamartia in his section on plot (not in his section on character). And, in regard to the plot of this play, Brutus is clearly making a mistake by not accepting the advice offered by Cassius. Brutus is making a mistake in allowing Antony to live, for Antony will cause Brutus to fall. Actually, Brutus makes three fatal decisions: 1st: to join the plot (and to assume that all of the conspirators have noble intentions) 2nd: to allow Mark Antony to live 3rd: to allow Anthony to speak at Caesars funeral If Brutus had decided differently on any one of these three matters, the plot of the play would have been vastly different. Brutus is responsible for his fall because of the decisions that he makes.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 1: SOME SICK OFFENCE WITHIN YOUR MIND After the conspirators leave, Brutus has a scene with his wife Portia. The scene is important for two reasons: (1) It provides the audience with further insight about the character of Brutus and how deeply troubled he has become for joining the conspiracy. And (2) the relationship with his wife further elaborates upon the concepts of honor and worthiness of character. Portia mentions to Brutus that he has been acting strangely lately. He has been having trouble sleeping at night (line 237), and he abruptly leaves the dinner table before he finishes eating and takes a walk while lost deep in his thoughts (lines 237-39). Moreover, he refuses to answer his wife when she asks him what is bothering him (lines 240-46). Brutus can neither eat, nor talk, nor sleep (251). Brutus tries to avoid the question. He tells his wife that he has just been sick lately, but Portia is wiser than to accept such an answer. She tells him, You have some sick offence within your mind (267). The problem is psychological, not physical. Brutus and Portia have an extremely close relationship, and they have always shared their innermost thoughts with each other until now. This is a true marriage, as Shakespeare believes. To have a marriage that is anything less would not be a genuine marriage. Portia herself expresses the idea 60

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar when she states that without such closeness, Portia is Brutus harlot, not his wife (286). A harlot is a whore or prostitute. Shakespeare is providing social commentary here. In many marriages during the Renaissance and for many years afterwards, the husband treated his wife as property or as something lower than himself. A good marriage, however, is not based on sovereignty (power and control over another); it is based on equality. In this respect, Shakespeare would be in agreement with Geoffrey Chaucer (see his marriage group of tales within the Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale, The Merchant's Tale, and The Franklin's Tale). Portia is suggesting that Brutus is treating her like an inferior when she uses the word harlot. Brutus realizes that his wife is right, and he expresses regret that he has not been so open and honest with her: O ye gods, render me worthy of this noble wife! (301-02). Brutus then immediately promises that he will reveal to Portia all of the secrets of my heart (305). This scene takes on even greater significance when it is compared to the scene between Caesar and his wife Calpurnia (in Act II, 2).


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 1: LIGARIUS The first scene of Act II closes with a brief dialogue between Brutus and a Roman named Ligarius. The scene reveals how Brutus is the crucial (the decisive or most necessary) element of the conspiracy. Ligarius tells him, With a heart newfired I follow you to do I know not what; but it sufficeth that Brutus leads me on (331-33). Ligarius is stating that Brutus makes him feel alive and hopeful and that he will do anything that Brutus commands him to do. Ligarius is symbolic of a large number of Romans who admire and respect Brutus and will follow him wherever he leads. Cassius was wise in getting Brutus to join his plot. Without Brutus among them, the conspiracy might not have been successful and Caesar would not have been assassinated. Brutus is a leader, where Cassius is not. And any scheme or plan without a strong leader can never continue for very long.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 2: COWARDS DIE MANY TIMES BEFORE THEIR DEATHS In the second scene, which involves Caesar and his wife Calpurnia, three concepts are evident: (1) Caesars desire to appear fearless; (2) Caesars fear of superstitions, prophecies, and omens; and (3) Caesars reaction to flattery. Calpurnia is worried because of all of the terrible omens that had occurred during the night and because of a terrible nightmare that she had regarding her husband. Calpurnia is superstitious, and she asks her husband not to go outside on that day (line 9). Caesar, however, states that he has no fear of the omens because the omens could refer to anybody in the world, not just to himself (lines 28-29). But Calpurnia argues that When beggars dies, there are no comets seen (30). She is arguing that omens only appear when a king or prince of the land is in danger. Omens do not appear to announce the death of a commoner. Caesar responds with these famous words:
Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. (32-33)

This is Caesars philosophy regarding fear. He is suggesting that every time a man becomes afraid, a part of him dies. He is suggesting that fear destroys a man and makes him weak. Fear causes him to 63

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar become less of a man. So, each time he becomes afraid, a man experiences a psychological loss of his essential human nature. The brave or valiant man, by contrast, never experiences fear. So, he dies only once. He dies only physically, but never psychologically. Shakespeare is explaining, in a clever manner, how fear cripples or reduces a man so that such a man no longer can function normally in society or feel healthy in that society. Caesar further adds that men should especially not fear death since death is inevitable (to be expected). It will come when it comes, and there is nothing man can do about it (lines 35-37). But then, in a clever example of verbal irony, Caesar appears to contradict himself. A servant enters at this point, and Caesar immediately turns to him and asks, What say the augurers? (37). An augur (or augurer) is one of a group of ancient Roman religious officials who foretold events by observing and interpreting signs and omens. Basically, then, the augurs were fortune tellers. Despite his strong words about fear and his fearless demeanor (manner or behavior), Caesar is really worried about the omens. He is worried that Calpurnia may be correct. He actually wants the augurs to confirm his opinion that he can go outside without worry. But the fortune tellers instead have the opposite advice. Animal sacrifice was one method used by fortune tellers in Roman times. They would kill a 64

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar lamb or other animal and then open it up. By looking at the entrails (line 39: the intestines or insides) of the animal, they would then make their predictions (not unlike a gypsy fortune teller reading tea leaves). In this play, the augurs state that they could not find a heart in the animal. Thus they interpret that to mean that Rome should not have a heart that day that Caesar should stay home. Caesar was a man of many contradictions. He is disappointed to hear that the augurs do not believe as he does, and he states that they have misinterpreted the entrails. He states, Caesar should be a beast without a heart (42). The heart is the seat of fear. A man without a heart is fearless. And Caesar wants everyone to know that he fears nothing. Caesar asserts this with a metaphor that also involves personification. He explains that he and Danger are twin lions littered or born on the same day (line 46). And he, Caesar, was the lion that was born first. What Caesar means is that he is more dangerous and more fearless than Danger itself. But again there is the contradiction. Calpurnia begs him to stay at home and even gets upon her knees to make her request (line 54). Caesar is moved by his wifes actions, and he agrees to stay at home (line 56).


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 2: THE FLATTERY OF DECIUS When Caesar announces that he will not go out to meet the Roman senate, Decius (who is one of the conspirators) asks for a reason so that he can tell the others. Although Caesar officially declares that this is just his will (line 71: his wish or desire), he privately explains his concern regarding Calpurnias nightmare. Calpurnia dreamt that Caesar was a large water fountain with a hundred spouts. But instead of water coming out, blood was pouring out. The dream is both a vision of the future and foreshadowing of the plot. Decius had earlier told the conspirators how Caesar claims to hate flatterers but actually loves to be flattered (another contradiction):
But when I tell him he hates flatterers; He says he does, being then most flattered. (II, 1: 207-08)

So, Decius flatters Caesar in order to convince him to go to the Senate that day. Decius explains that Calpurnia misinterpreted the dream (II, 2: 83). Decius states that the blood of Caesar is a positive symbol, that it is a reviving blood that will bring new life and vitality to Romans and Rome (line 88). In other words, Decius portrays Caesar as a hero and a god in his interpretation of the dream. He portrays Caesar as the savior of Rome. Caesar naturally 66

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar prefers this interpretation. So, once again, he contradicts himself. He tells his wife that will go to the Senate after all (line 107).


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 2: A DIALOGIC RELATIONSHIP The use of parallels between the first and second scenes of Act II is an intentional theatrical device by Shakespeare that modern critics refer to as dialogic. The word dialogic, broken down, has the prefix dia-, meaning across, and the root logic, indicating sense or meaning. Thus, simply stated, dialogic suggests that the meaning of one scene should be applied to a second scene, and the meaning of the second scene should be applied to the earlier scene. The connections between the two scenes are indicated by the use of signs (semiotics), words or ideas that are repeated with slight or little variation. Both the first and second scenes of Act II contain husband and wife dialogues, and in both cases the wives are making a request of their husbands. One of the semiotic devices (or signs) that occurs in the play is kneeling (getting down on ones knees). Both Portia and Calpurnia kneel down to their husbands. Members sitting in the audience will readily recall the events of the previous scene as they watch the latter one. In their minds, perhaps subconsciously, they will then compare the two scenes.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

ACT II, 1 Brutus and Portia husband and wife dialogue (line 232+) Portia worried about Brutus Brutus troubled about conspiracy Portia kneels when she asks Brutus to reveal his troubles (line 269)

ACT II, 2 Caesar and Calpurnia husband and wife dialogue (line 8+) Calpurnia worried about Caesar Caesar troubled about omens and dreams Calpurnia kneels when she asks Caesar to stay at home (line 54)

More important than the similarities are the differences. The scene between Brutus and Portia ends with Brutus agreeing to do as his wife asks and recognizing the worthiness of the woman he married (Act II, 1: 301-07). But the scene between Caesar and Calpurnia ends with Caesar disagreeing with his wife and referring to her worries as foolish (Act II, 2: 105-07). The excellent relationship that Brutus has with his wife is in contrast to the relationship between Caesar and his wife. Moreover, the concepts of love, truth, and honor underscore (or emphasize) heavily the relationship between Brutus and Portia. But the concepts of fear, contradiction, and false bravado (or boasting) are more evident in the relationship between Caesar and Calpurnia. Caesar is less honorable and less honest than is Brutus. Thus, the tragedy of Brutus is far more


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar regrettable, sad, and heartrending than that of Caesar. Brutus is a better tragic character than is Caesar.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT II, 3-4: BRUTUS KEEPS HIS WORD There are two short scenes at the end of the second act. In Scene 3, a Roman named Artemidorus has heard about the conspiracy. However, he thinks it is wrong and decides to write a letter of warning to Caesar that he can hand to him when Caesar walks past him. Artemidorus worries that his letter may not be read in time, and he states that if he is not successful, the fates with traitors do contrive (Act II, 3: 15). Shakespeare time and again makes reference to the power of fate in most of his plays. Here, then Shakespeare is asserting that fate seems to be on the side of the conspirators. Caesars assassination was an act of fate. The final scene of Act II revolves around Portia. Brutus has told her about the conspiracy and his role in it, and she is now in deepest worry. Portias fears about the result of the assassination attempt are too hard for her to bear. So deep are her worries that she nearly faints (II, 4: 45). Portia is intellectually strong, but her emotions are too powerful: I have a mans mind, but a womans might (8). This scene is important for two reasons: (1) it shows that Brutus keeps his promise to his wife about revealing the reason why he is so deeply troubled; and (2) it explains (at least to some extent) why Portia will later commit suicide (referred to in Act IV, 2: 208).


ACT III, 1: THE NORTHERN STAR AND OLYMPUS The most intense moment of action in the play occurs in the first scene of Act III. This is the assassination scene. As noted previously, a protagonist in a tragedy falls (or perhaps dies) late in the fourth act or in the fifth act of the play. Caesar dies before the play is even half over. Caesar thus becomes a lesser character in the play that is named for him. And Brutus thus becomes the sole protagonist of the drama. The first part of this scene also serves to show the pretense, the stubbornness, and the godlike ambition of Caesar. Brutus is correct in evaluating Caesar as the serpent in the egg. Brutus is right in seeing how dangerous Caesar would be for Rome. But even though Brutus, the tragic hero, is right and even though he has only noble and pure intentions, he will nevertheless encounter disaster. The force of fate seems to overpower both Caesar and Brutus. As the scene opens, both the Soothsayer (the fortune teller) and Artemidorus (who knows about the conspiracy) attempt to warn Caesar. But Caesar ignores them. His desire to appear fearless and his pretense to be unselfish do not serve him well. When Artemidorus attempts to hand him a note of warning, Caesar responds, What touches 73

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ourself shall be last served (8). Caesar is saying that he puts the needs of Rome above his own. Of course, that is not true. But because Caesar wants others to believe that it is true, he refuses to read the note. In the Senate, Caesar, as leader of Rome, sits to hear petitions to hear the requests or pleas of the Roman people. Metellus Cimber, who is one of the conspirators, then goes to Caesar and petitions that Caesar remove the banishment placed on his brother (Publius Cimber) and allow his brother to return to Rome. Caesar refuses and tells Metellus that no amount of begging or flattery (sweet words in line 42) can get him to change his mind. Then both Brutus (in line 52) and Cassius (in line 55) join Metellus; and all three of them kneel before Caesar and ask Caesar to allow Publius Cimber to return. Of course, all of this is part of the scheme or plot. This action allows the conspirators to move closer to Caesar in a group. Caesars stubborn refusal continues. He tells the men, I am as constant as the Northern Star (60). The North Star or Polestar was invaluable to sailors. They could always find their direction at night by finding the North Star. Other stars move in the sky. But the North Star never changes. Thus, the star became the symbol of constancy (firmness or resoluteness). But this simile here also has an added meaning. It also suggests Caesar seeing himself as belonging to the heavens, as belonging among the gods. When other conspirators join Metellus and 74

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Brutus and similarly kneel before Caesar, Caesar asks them, Wilt thou lift up Olympus? This is a metaphor that also has a double meaning. Olympus is an extremely high mountain in Greece, and the ancient Greeks believed that the gods lived on the top of the mountain. Caesar is stating that getting him to change him mind is as impossible as lifting up this extremely huge mountain. But the word also suggests that Caesar places himself with the gods. It symbolically suggests that Caesar sees himself as a god. But this Roman god does not live long, for at this point in the play the conspirators, now gathered closely around Caesar, move in on him and stab him to death (line 76). Brutus is the last to stab him, and the dying Caesar asks, Et tu, Brut? (76). This is And you, Brutus in Latin. Caesar knows that Brutus is a noble and virtuous Roman, and he is shocked that Brutus could betray him. But Caesar dies immediately before Brutus can respond. Brutus is deeply troubled and bothered at this moment, but he has no time to think about his deed now. Most of the senators and officials did not know about the conspiracy, and shock and panic afflict the people.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT III, 1: MARK ANTONY Mark Antony similarly is shocked by the murder of Caesar, and he also is aware that he could be killed himself. So, he quickly leaves the senate building (line 97). The conspirators now need to explain their actions to the public. Mark Antonys servant then comes up to Brutus, and the servant declares that Antony is willing to serve Brutus now that Caesar is dead if Brutus will explain why Caesar deserved to die (lines 131-38). Brutus tells the servant that Antony may return without fear, and Antony soon appears before Brutus and the others at the senate building (line 148). Antony is emotionally upset at seeing the bloody corpse of Caesar. Brutus assures Antony that he is safe, and Cassius even tells Antony that they will include him in the creation of the new government that they will need to establish (lines 178-79). Antony is still emotionally upset by the death of Caesar, his friend. But he tells the conspirators that if they can explain their actions, he will join them: Friends I am with you all, and love you all (222). These words, as events will show later, are lies. Antony then makes a request. He asks Brutus if he can make a speech at Caesars funeral (line 232). Brutus agrees. Cassius however, is not happy with this idea. He whispers to Brutus (in an aside dialogue not heard by Antony) that Antony may 76

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar provoke or move the listeners to do harm against the conspirators. But Brutus whispers that Cassius has no need to worry because Brutus will make a speech first and show the reason of our Caesars death (239). Brutus is convinced that if the people understand their reasons for killing Caesar, then those reasons will be sufficient. He expects the people of Rome to be reasonable and logical. But the people of Rome are really quite fickle, as noted previously. They are not always logical. Here again Brutus is making another fatal error or mistake (hamartia). Brutus underestimates the emotional nature of men in general. More importantly, he also underestimates the ability of Antony to move or affect the people of Rome. Cassius was right all along. Antony is dangerous, and Antony is a shrewd contriver (Act II, 1: 158). Antony is a clever and malicious schemer. After Brutus and Cassius leave the senate, Antony is alone on stage and delivers a soliloquy (a speech indicating his thoughts). In this speech Antony declares his intentions to get revenge against Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators:
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy. (265-67)

Antony (actually Shakespeare) foreshadows the civil war that will afflict the Roman Empire, the events of 77

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar which form the subject matter of the last two acts of the play. Antony will not rest until he brings the conspirators to justice, and the Roman Empire will become torn apart as the forces of Antony will wage war against the forces of Brutus and Cassius. After the soliloquy, the servant of Octavius Caesar enters. Octavius (also known as Augustus Caesar) is a nephew (actually grand-nephew) of Julius Caesar. Octavius will later rule Rome from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. But when Caesar was killed in 44 BC, Octavius was about 19 years of age. But even then he was a man of wealth and power. Antony warns the servant that Rome is not safe for Octavius and that he will get a message to Octavius later after he makes his speech to the people of Rome. In history, and in this play, Octavius will join forces with Antony in the war against the conspirators. Actually, a new Triumvirate will form: Antony, Octavius, and a Roman named Lepidus. They will become the new leaders of the Roman Empire.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT III, 2: LEND ME YOUR EARS The actual centerpiece or outstanding attraction of this play is the speech given by Mark Antony in the second scene of Act III. This speech is not only a splendid example of rhetoric (persuasive speaking), but it is also one of the finest speeches written by Shakespeare. The speech is full of irony and dissembling (lies, false statements). Antony is attempting to persuade and urge the people to take vengeance against the conspirators, and he is most successful in accomplishing that goal. The greatness of the speech is enhanced by its relationship to theme of fickleness set up in Act I and, more importantly, by the contrast to Brutus and the speech Brutus makes just before Antony presents his own. As mentioned earlier, Brutus had decided to present a speech before Antony gave his so that the crowd would not be influenced by anything that Antony might say. Unfortunately for him, Brutus completely underestimates the feelings of the crowd and the ability of Antony to move or persuade them according to his will. The following chart highlights the differences in the two speeches:


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

BRUTUS Short (lines 13-37) Prose Appeal to Reason Direct and Logical Sincere use of the word Honor

ANTONY Long (lines 70-241) Poetry Appeal to Emotion Subtle and Deceptive Ironic use of the word Honor

Shakespeare definitely wanted his audience to compare and contrast the two speeches. Thus, the reader should note that the playwright sets up a dialogic contrast. That is, the meaning of one speech functions to comment upon the other. Shakespeare even uses semiotic devices (or signs) to suggest the relationship between the two scenes. The first sign he uses is the opening address to the public:
BRUTUS: Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause. (13) ANTONY: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. (70)

Lend me your ears is another way of saying hear me or listen to me. The word lover was often used as a synonym for friend. Thus, both Brutus and Antony begin their speeches in exactly the same way. But the similarity ends there. A second semiotic device that connects the two speeches is the inclusion of the word honour or honourable. But although both speakers use the 80

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar word, they use it in far different ways. Brutus is sincere when he attributes his action to his honorable desire to serve Rome, but Antony uses the word ironically. Antony calls Brutus and Cassius honorable men, but the other lines of his speech hint or suggest that that they are actually extremely dishonorable for killing Caesar. Brutus is a stoic. In other words, Brutus strongly believed in the philosophy of stoicism. Stoicism was extremely popular in Roman times. It taught the development of self-control as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. Thus, Brutus relied on his reason and logic to determine his course of actions, and (in his speech) he similarly assumes that other Romans also value the stoical approach. Here, of course, is where Brutus makes another big mistake. In many of his plays and poems, Shakespeare often develops a theme concerning the conflict of Reason vs. Emotion. Although Christian leaders taught the idea that Reason is a gift from God by which man can control his emotions and passions, Shakespeare (and other poets, like Sidney, for example) indicates that on occasion the emotions can take control over a person no matter how hard that person struggles to be reasonable or logical. And when the emotions take control, even the noblest and strongest of men can become wild and irrational. Shakespeare understood that emotions can overpower reason. Antony also understands this, but Brutus does not. 81

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar In his appeal to his listeners, Brutus is logical and rational. He tells the people that his actions were done so that they would not become slaves (line 22) under the tyrant that Caesar would become once he gained absolute power. The appeal is a good one. The Romans respond positively to Brutus. They do not want to be slaves, and they do not want a tyrant ruling them. However, this appeal to logic is not good enough. As the first scene in Act I reveals, the Roman crowds are fickle. People are emotional creatures, and their love for a man can easily turn to hate (as it did for Pompey the Great). Antony not only knows this, but he depends upon it to accomplish his goal.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT III, 2: THE STRATEGIES OF ANTONY Antonys speech is full of lies, deceptions, and ironies. He states that he comes to bury Caesar, not to praise him (71). But then he praises Caesar. He tells the Romans that the good things a man accomplishes in life are usually forgotten after he dies, and he adds that such should also be done with Caesar (lines 73-74). But then he goes on to tell the Romans all of the good things that Caesar did for Rome. Antony uses irony when he states that Brutus is an honorable man (lines 79, 91, 96, 121, and so forth). As he proceeds in his speech, he depicts the assassination of Caesar as a most despicable act perpetrated (or committed) by the most dishonorable of men. At first the Roman crowd accepts Antonys statement regarding Brutus honor as truth. But as the speech progresses, the crowd responds with the opposite. They shout that Brutus and Cassius were traitors, villians, and murderers (lines 150 and 152). Like a contestant in a debate, Antony also uses the words of Brutus to turn the crowd against him. In addition to the word honor, Antony also makes use of the word ambition. Brutus claimed that the conspirators killed Caesar because of his ambition (line 26). Antony contradicts Brutus by stating that Caesars victories over his enemies did the general coffers fill (86). The coffers refer to the public treasury of the empire. Caesar helped to make 83

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Rome wealthy. And so Antony asks, Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? (87). Naturally, the crowd responds by thinking that Caesar was certainly not ambitious because he had the good of Rome as his intention. This is not actually true, but this is what Antony wants them to believe. Antony certainly knows that Caesar was an excessively ambitious man. Another wonderful line brimming with irony occurs when Antony criticizes the public for not mourning the death of Caesar:
O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason! (101-02)

Antony is suggesting that any reasonable man would mourn or cry over the death of Caesar and that even animals (which are emotional, not rational, creatures) seem to have more judgment or reason. The fine irony here is that Antony does want the crowd to lose their reason. He wants them to become angry and mad so that they will act as a wild mob and enact (or perform) a ruthless revenge against the conspirators. The reader should note the stage direction after these lines. Antony weeps. He begins to cry. Are these real tears? Most likely not! Antony is putting on a show. He is acting to move the audience. Antony certainly is not appealing to the reason or logic of his listeners. He is appealing to their emotions. And, as most advertisers are aware, an


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Appeal to Emotions is always more effective than an Appeal to Reason. A good actor often relies on props, and Antony uses two props to enhance his message. The first prop he uses is a parchment, a document. Antony pulls out the document from his robes and shows it to his listeners, and then he tells them that the document is Caesars will (126). The careful reader here should be suspicious. Antony did not have any time to go to Caesars house and get his will. No one else actually sees what is written on the document. It could be anything. It could even be blank. But the crowd believes Antonys lies. Antony also knows how to create excitement and suspense in his audience. He relies on their curiosity when he tells them I do not mean to read it (128). Antony then hints at the contents and how Caesar had the public good in mind when he wrote his will. But Antony does not yet read this fake will immediately. He first speaks at length about Caesars death and the conspirators actions. Only after he gets the crowd extremely angry about the assassination does he then reveal the contents of the will (lines 232-40). Antony claims (more lies) that Caesar left money to every citizen of Rome and that he left his private orchards to become parks for public use. Now the angry crowd feels that the conspirators have cheated them, and their anger becomes extreme. They go off in search of revenge. They have become a wild mob that nothing can stop. 85

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar The other prop that Antony uses effectively is the bloody corpse of Caesar. He uses the dead body to indicate the horror of the murder and the ingratitude of the assassins. Antony dramatically steps down from the stage or pulpit where he is delivering his speech and stands before the table where the body is lying (line 158). He points to the bloody robe or mantle that is covering the body. Then he states that he remembers the first time Caesar wore the robe: he claims that Caesar first wore that robe on the day that Rome celebrated an important victory over the Nervii, their enemy (line 167). Is that true? Probably not! But Antony cleverly uses the robe itself as a prop to remind the public how Caesar helped Rome to defeat their enemies and how the people of Rome celebrated the occasion with a holiday. The Romans had strong and positive feelings for Caesar then, and Antony awakens those feelings. Antony then points to one of the bloody tears or rips in the robe where one of the assassins knives went in. He then asserts that Cassius had run his knife through that spot (line 168). He points to a second tear and claims it was made by Casca, and then he points to a third tear and claims it was made by Brutus (lines 169-70). Again the careful reader should be skeptical here. Antony could not really know which assassin made which tear. The action happened quickly, and Antony left once it started because he was in fear of being assassinated himself. 86

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Antony does not really know who made which tear. Antony is describing a fictional re-creation of the events to rouse or stir up the emotions of his listeners. And, after he has described the horror of the murder, he then pulls the cloak off of the body (line 191). The bloody corpse thus serves to illustrate the horror that Antony had been describing. The crowd responds exactly as Antony had wished. They rush off to seek a bloody vengeance against the conspirators. Antony is satisfied and says to himself, Mischief, thou art afoot (249). Mischief or Trouble is personified here to suggest that trouble, havoc, destruction, and chaos will now be the common activity in the streets of Rome for some time to come.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT III, 3: CINNA THE POET A brief scene closes the third act to reveal the effectiveness of Antonys speech. The angry citizens know the names of the conspirators. And so they know that one of the conspirators is named Cinna. But the Roman citizens are crazy with anger and act as a wild mob. They come upon a man named Cinna, but he is not Cinna the conspirator. He is Cinna the poet (28). This Cinna had nothing to do with the conspiracy. He is completely innocent of any crime. But the irrational people in the mob do not stop to think. They hear the name Cinna and immediately begin to attack and kill the innocent man. Reason is gone. The people are swept up by their emotions of anger and hate. Cinna symbolically represents the violence and murder that the crazed mob enacts throughout the streets of Rome. This is Mischief, running loose and wild and furious. The conspirators have lost. They can never again recover their place in Roman society.



ACT IV, 1: THESE MANY, THEN, SHALL DIE The tone and action of the play change significantly in the fourth act. Shakespeare has, in essence, given his audience two plays neatly packaged into one. Where a theme concerning civil liberty dominates the first three acts, a theme involving civil war takes over in the remaining two acts. Yet the central figure of the play, Marcus Brutus, smoothly unites the two parts. In both the first and second parts of the play, Brutus personally struggles with acting nobly and selflessly for the public good and maintaining a stoic calm in the midst of chaos. Fate has turned against Brutus. The one truly good man cannot hope to achieve success in a society and government where ruthlessness and cunning are necessary elements. Such ruthlessness is evident in the first scene of the fourth act. With Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators driven from Rome, the new leaders of the Empire are Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus. These three men form the new Triumvirate the three leaders who equally share the leadership of Rome. And their first order of business is to protect their government from those who would change it to eliminate the threat posed by Cassius and Brutus. 89

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar The scene begins with the three leaders writing down a list of their enemies as Antony states, These many, then, shall die (1). This scene provides a sharp contrast to the scene where the conspirators meet to decide the details of the assassination (in Act II, 1). In that earlier scene, Brutus worried about their actions being too bloody, and he argued that Antony and other close followers should be allowed to live. The more ruthless Cassius had wanted Antony assassinated as well. And Brutus would have been wise to accept Cassius proposal. But Brutus was too noble, and he expected Antony to be as noble in response. Brutus made a mistake. He had allowed a snake (Antony) to live, and now that snake is coming back to bite him. The new leaders of Rome, however, do not worry about being too bloody. Lepidus allows his own brother to be put on the death list, and Antony adds his own nephew to the list as well (lines 2-6). None of the new Triumvirate leaders allows his personal feelings or family considerations to interfere with the merciless business of permanently getting rid of their enemies. The will of Julius Caesar, which Antony had lied about so effectively in the previous act, is mentioned again here (lines 8-9). But this time Antony is trying to figure out a way to cheat the heirs so that the Triumvirate can take the money for themselves in order to support their war against


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Brutus and Cassius. Antonys true nature his ruthless nature thus reveals itself. One further aspect of that ruthlessness appears after Lepidus leaves the other two men. Antony then remarks to Octavius that after the civil war is over, they should get rid of Lepidus. Antony notes that Lepidus is a weak leader and undeserving to be one of the rulers of such a vast empire. Yet Antony realizes that, for the moment, they need Lepidus and the army he leads to help them against the conspirators. But after the conspirators are killed, they will no longer need Lepidus. Octavius remarks that Lepidus is a brave and reliable solider, but Antony compares Lepidus to his horse (lines 29-40). Just because his horse has been brave and reliable during times of war, Antony would not make his horse a leader of Rome. Antony concludes his remarks about Lepidus with the following: Do not talk of him but as a property (39-40). And once that property or object is no longer useful, Antony will throw it away. The killing of his nephew, the cheating of the heirs of Julius Caesar, and the cold decision to eliminate Lepidus: these three actions reveal the callous and cruel aspect of Antonys true nature.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT IV, 2: A HOT FRIEND COOLING Brutus and Cassius at this time have fled from Rome and are now living in Sardis (a city in western Asia). But unlike Antony and Octavius, who are coolly in agreement about how to proceed, Brutus and Cassius are in conflict with each other. Brutus views Cassius as a hot friend cooling (19). Their once close friendship is no longer so close. Brutus is unhappy that Cassius and Cassius men have become corrupt and are accepting bribes to make quick money (lines 75-78). Cassius, on the other hand, is angry that Brutus condemned and humiliated one of his men for taking bribes (lines 54-55). Brutus feels that their honorable notions about eliminating a tyrant have become dishonored by Cassiuss open corruption. So, a heated argument between the two men then occurs. A careful reader should keep in mind that Brutus is a stoic he follows the philosophy of stoicism and the notion that a man should always be in control of his emotions. Yet, in this scene, Brutus does become quite emotional. He becomes quite angry with Cassius. The dialogue is not only emotionally charged; it is also childish:


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

BRUTUS I had rather be a dog and bay the moon Than such a Roman. CASSSIUS Brutus, bay not me. Ill not endure it. You forget yourself To hedge me in. I am a soldier, I, Older in practice, abler than yourself To make conditions. BRUTUS Go to, you are not, Cassius. CASSIUS I am. BRUTUS I say you are not. CASSIUS Urge me no more, I shall forget myself. (79-88)

The dialogue is not unlike two schoolboys in a schoolyard getting ready to fight: Im stronger. No, Im stronger. No, I am. Brutus even dares Cassius to start the fight (lines 105-06), but Cassius knows that Brutus is a better soldier and backs down. Brutus then complains to Cassius how he denied him money when he asked for a loan (lines 130-32). The expenses of war are high, and Brutus is in great need of money to maintain his army. So, he is upset that Cassius his friend refused to help him. Cassius in all likelihood did refuse Brutus the money. But Cassius claims that his messenger had made a mistake (lines 138-39). Cassius is smart enough to know that without Brutus, he will stand no chance against the armies Antony and Octavius. He needs Brutus. So, Cassius makes an impassioned 93

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar plea, an emotional appeal, to Brutus and claims that he loves Brutus like a brother (line 150). Cassius even dramatically gives Brutus his dagger (line 154) and tells Brutus to stab him rather than to hate him. The dramatics work. Brutus calms down, and the two men become friends once more. The curious reader should wonder why Brutus, the cool and rational stoic, should become so intensely emotional over money. But, Brutus emotional state actually has a far different cause; and that cause concerns his wife.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT IV, 2: PORTIA IS DEAD A crux (a puzzling problem) appears in the second scene of Act IV. The problem involves the death of Portia, Brutus wife. In his conversation with Cassius, Brutus informs his comrade that Portia is dead (lines 199-201). But only forty lines later, when Messala informs Brutus that Portia has died, Brutus responds as if he is hearing this news for the first time (lines 239-42). Brutus does not seem to know already that Portia is dead. Some critics have suggested that the reason for this problem or inconsistency in the play is a result of poor editing. These critics suggest that possibly Shakespeare revised his play and had forgotten to remove the earlier reference to Portias death. These critics, however, are most likely mistaken. The two references to Portias death are placed so closely together that is highly improbable that Shakespeare would have missed such a problem. Rather, Shakespeare did intend for both passages concerning the death to be included in the scene. The careful reader should examine the contexts in which the two passages occur. In the first passage Brutus is in his tent with Cassius, and they have just finished a rather heated argument or verbal fight. Cassius is surprised that Brutus could have been so angry (195). He then tells Brutus, Of your philosophy you make no use, if you give place to 95

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar accidental evils (197-98). By accidental evils Cassius means misfortunes or bad luck, and by give place Cassius means to become emotionally affected. But the key words in this passage are your philosophy. As explained earlier, Brutus is a stoic: he follows the philosophy of stoicism. Stoics believe they should always be in control of their emotions. Thus, Cassius is extremely surprised that Brutus could become so angry and so emotional over this small matter of bribes. This type of behavior is certainly not typical of Brutus. At this point in the scene Brutus then announces Portias death: No man bears sorrows better. Portia is dead (199). By bearing sorrows Brutus means controlling emotions. Brutus is explaining to Cassius why he became so emotional during their argument. Brutus had never before allowed his emotions to take over his reason in the past (the Reason vs. Emotion conflict). But his grief and sorrow over the death of his wife were just too much to control, even for the most stoical of Romans. As seen earlier, Brutus was extremely close to his wife. She was his spouse, best friend, and confidant Thus, Shakespeare is revealing once again in his plays that even the most rational and noblest of men must give in to their emotions when those emotions are so strong. It was not anger that caused Brutus to argue with Cassius. The cause was grief. The cause was sorrow.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Brutus, then, revealed the cause of his emotions to Cassius within the privacy of his own tent. Brutus was, perhaps, surprised himself that he had become so emotional; and he felt that he owed Cassius an explanation. Later, after the Romans Titinius and Messala enter the tent, Brutus tells Cassius to speak no more about Portia: No more, I pray you (218). They are no longer alone, and Brutus does not wish to appear emotional or weak before his men. Brutus returns to being the cool and rational stoic once more. So, when Messala informs Brutus that Portia is dead (in line 241), Brutus responds with cool and unemotional words: Why, farewell, Portia (242). And, thus, Brutus presents his usual calm and rational self to his men. Brutus must lead these men into war, and he certainly does not wish to appear weak or wildly emotional before them. And, so, with the two passages concerning Portias death, Shakespeare reveals the emotional nature and feelings of Brutus while yet preserving the stoical aspect of his personality. Shakespeare both illustrates Brutus stoical persona and yet also presents the conflict of reason vs. emotion in this, the noblest of men. Shakespeare reveals that even in a Brutus, there can occur a time when the emotions overpower the reason.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT IV, 2: THE GHOST OF CAESAR As evening approaches, Brutus continues to be distracted and sorrowful. He worries about the battle that must take place on the next day, and his grief over Portias death is still with him. Brutus is unable to sleep, and he asks his young servant to play his musical instrument and sing a song. The servant, however, is extremely tired and falls asleep in the midst of his own song (line 318). Brutus then decides to read a book by candlelight. According to medieval superstition, the light of a candle will flicker or appear dim if a ghost is in the room. Brutus complains about his candle (line 326) and then realizes that there is someone else in the tent with him. He then sees the ghost of Caesar. The appearance of a ghost in a Shakespeare play may be viewed either literally or symbolically. On the literal level, the ghost is indeed a supernatural creature that has come down to harm (or occasionally help) the person he is visiting. On the symbolic level, the ghost represents a psychological fear or anxiety of the person he is visiting. But in most of the plays, Shakespeare apparently wants his audiences to see the ghost on both the literal and symbolic levels. In addition to his worries and sorrows, Brutus also is still experiencing guilt over the death of Julius Caesar. Caesar was Brutus friend, and Brutus loved Caesar like a brother. Brutus participated in the assassination reluctantly. He decided that serving the 98

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar people of Rome was more important than his own personal feelings for Caesar. But no matter how much time has passed, feelings of guilt never entirely disappear. This, too, is an extremely strong emotion. And it is an emotion that Brutus had sought to bury deep within himself. Thus, the ghost of Caesar is a psychological manifestation (or expression) of that guilt. Yet Shakespeare also believes in forces that surpass nature. Fate is one such supernatural force, and fate is a concept that Shakespeare examines throughout many of his plays. Thus, the ghost in this play could be the spirit of the dead or some god, some angel, or some devil (330). Whatever the ghost might be, Brutus realizes that its appearance does not signify anything good. The ghost warns (or perhaps threatens) Brutus that he will appear again before Brutus on the battlefield at Philippi (line 335). Brutus knows that his future depends upon his success or failure on that battlefield. If a ghost, which is most likely an omen (or prediction) of death, is to appear before him, that cannot be a positive sign. However, before Brutus gets his courage up to ask the ghost any other questions, the ghost disappears. Brutus then wonders if the image he saw before him was just his imagination or a dream. And, in that way, Shakespeare leaves his audience wondering that too. Is the ghost a real ghost? Or is it a product of Brutus imagination?


ACT V, 1: WHY DO YOU CROSS ME? Act V begins with a disagreement between Antony and Octavius. The battle is about to begin, and Antony directs Octavius to take the left side of the battlefield where he can there fight against the army of Cassius. Antony wants to take the right side against the bigger and superior army that is led by Brutus. Antony and his army are stronger and more experienced than Octavius army. So, Antony is correct in thinking that the Triumvirate will stand a better chance of success if he fights against Brutus on the right side of the battlefield. Octavius disagrees, however. He wants to fight against Brutus on the right side, and he orders Antony to take the left side (lines 16-17). Antony is surprised by this, and he asks Octavius why he crosses (or disagrees) with him in regards to this decision. Octavius responds, I do not cross you, but I will do so (20). Octavius does not really want to explain his reason, and his obscure response relies upon a pun. The word cross does mean to disagree, and Octavius is disagreeing with Antony. But the word cross also literally suggests to cross over in front of anothers path. Octavius is saying that his army will not cross over or cut in front of Antonys army on the battlefield. In other words, Octavius is 101

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar telling Antony to keep to the left side and there will not be any problems. In the second part of Octavius response, the word will indicates a wish or desire. Essentially, Octavius is saying that he will fight on the right simply because he wants to do so. Octavius realizes that he will gain more glory or prestige if his army fights against the superior forces belonging to Brutus. Octavius does not want to appear as if he is weaker or inferior to Antony. This argument, to some extent, foreshadows the conflict that will occur between Antony and Octavius in a later play, Antony and Cleopatra. Antony is a better and more experienced soldier, but he never is able to win an argument or a fight against Octavius. In this instance, Antony is also much wiser. For, as the audience will soon see, Octavius army will lose to those commanded by Brutus; but Antony will defeat the forces of Cassius and then rescue Octavius against Brutus army.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT V, 1: A PARLEY Before the armies of the Triumvirate engage in battle against the armies of the conspirators, the leaders of the army meet in the middle of the battlefield for a parley. A parley is a conference between enemies to discuss a possibly peaceful solution to the conflict. In this particular case, though, the parley is merely a meaningless (but dramatic) gesture. Peace is not possible between these enemies. Antony implies that Brutus is a hypocrite because he said kind words to Julius Caesar at the same time that he was assassinating him (lines 30-32). And Cassius responds by suggesting that Antony is also a hypocrite who uses honey-sweet words to the very people he intends to rob (lines 3435). Cassius comment should remind the reader of Antonys sweet lines to the Romans in his speech during Caesars funeral. The discussion regresses into name-calling: Antony refers to the conspirators as villains, apes, hounds, bondmen (slaves), and flatterers (lines 40-45). Later, Cassius refers to Octavius as a foolish schoolboy (line 61). Obviously, peace between the two sides is impossible. During the conversation, Cassius reminds Brutus of his fatal error in judgment regarding Antony: This tongue had not so offended today if Cassius might have ruled (47-48). Cassius is referring to the meeting of the conspirators before the assassination occurred (in Act II, 1: 155-57). Then, 103

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Cassius proposed that the conspirators should have killed Antony as well as Caesar; but Brutus thought that killing Antony was unnecessary. If they had killed Antony back then, none of their other problems would have taken place. Octavius would never have been able to fight against the conspirators on his own.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT V, 1: EPICURUS AND CATO Two philosophers are directly referred to at the end of the first scene in Act V. The first one is Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who did not believe that natural or supernatural events were omens or predictions of the future. Rather, Epicurus believed that the only relationship between such an event and the affairs of man was merely coincidence. Cassius is a follower of this belief. The reader should recall the first act, where Cassius walked through the storm with his jacket open (Act I, 3: 41). Cassius disregarded the lightning and the fire falling from the sky because he did not believe that these events had any direct connection to his own actions. Shakespeare often portrays a character that seems to have no regard for fate or destiny early in a play later regret that opinion (see, for example, Iago in Othello or Edmund in King Lear). Cassius, too, changes his mind. He tells his companion Messala, You know that I held Epicurus strong, and his opinion. Now I change my mind (76-77). Cassius then proceeds to explain how the appearance of ravens and scavenger birds perching on their military banners casts a fatal shadow (87). The word fatal suggests both deadly and fateful. Cassius, though, despite his change of heart, feels ready to face the battle whatever the outcome might be. The second philosopher mentioned is Cato, a Roman who committed suicide when Caesar 105

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar conquered Pompey. Brutus felt that Cato was morally wrong and weak to commit suicide. Rather, Brutus admires the belief of Plato, the Greek philosopher who spoke against suicide. Brutus tells Cassius that suicide is cowardly and vile (103) when Cassius asks what Brutus would do if Antony and Octavius were to capture him. But Brutus also knows that if he is captured, then Antony and Octavius will put him in chains and parade him through the streets of Rome in an act of dishonor and disgrace. Brutus, as noted earlier, holds his honor dearly. He could never allow such disgrace to happen to him.
Think not, thou noble Roman, That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome. (111-12)

And so, like Cassius, Brutus will have to contradict one of his deep philosophical beliefs. This scene foreshadows what is to come: Brutus will choose suicide over public humiliation and disgrace. Shakespeare appears to be indicating that in times of great stress or great adversity, any man could act against a belief that he had held all of his life previously to be important and essential to his very nature. There are times when one belief or philosophy will be in conflict with another belief or philosophy. All men are human. And all men, even the noblest, are full of contradictions. 106

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

ACT V, 2: THE BATTLE BEGINS The extremely brief second scene is to inform the audience that the battle has begun and that Octavius is not doing well. Brutus believes that he will soon defeat Octavius forces.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT V, 3: DRAMATIC IRONY Cassius is not doing well against the forces commanded by Antony. Cassius own cowardly men are running away (lines 1-2). Meanwhile, Brutus soldiers believe they already have the victory and have stopped fighting. Instead, they turn to looting (line 7: looting means robbing the dead soldiers on the field). Cassius is standing on a hill with some of his soldiers. He sees in the distance a fire where his camp is located. So, he asks his officer Titinius to ride his horse down to the camp and find out what has happened (lines 15-17). Then, Cassius asks his servant Pindarus to climb a higher hill so that he can get a better view of the campsite. Pindarus calls down to Cassius that he sees Titinius surrounded by horsemen. He then tells Cassius that Titinius has climbed off his horse and is taken prisoner by those other men (lines 31-32). Cassius is extremely unhappy that his good friend and officer Titinius has been captured (line 35). Cassius blames himself and believes that the battle is now over. He believes that the forces of the conspirators have lost. Cassius then decides to commit suicide. He asks his servant Pindarus to assist him since the sword is too long for him to hold it himself (lines 4044). With his dying breath, Cassius utters these


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar words: Caesar, thou art revenged, even with the sword that killed thee (44-45). A stunning moment of dramatic irony occurs next. Titinius returns. The soldiers who had taken him were not those belonging to the enemy. Rather, they were Brutus own soldiers who had come to inform Cassius that Octavius army is completely defeated. Titinius returns to share this good news with Cassius, but he is too late. Instead he finds the dead body of his commander (line 57). Cassius had killed himself because of misinformation. It was a mistake. It was an error. Messala, another of Cassius men, describes the situation using metaphor and personification:
Mistrust of good success hath done this deed. O hateful Error, Melancholys child, Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men The things that are not? O Error, soon conceived, Thou never comst unto a happy birth, But killst the mother that engendered thee. (65-70)

Metaphorically, Error is the child of Melancholy and Cassius (in this instance):
MELANCHOLY (father) ------ CASSIUS (mother) | | ERROR (child)


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Cassiuss melancholy or sadness causes or creates the error. Thus, Cassius is the mother of Error. And because of that error or mistake (in this case, believing that the battle is over and that he has lost), Cassius kills himself. Thus, Error is responsible for the death of Cassius (who is Errors mother). Titinius is full of grief and sorrow that Cassius is gone. And, so, Titinius kills himself (line 89). Brutus is troubled by the news that both Cassius and Titinius are dead (line 97). But he does not give up. He sends the bodies off to be buried properly and then plans to lead his forces into a second battle against his enemies (lines 103, 109).


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT V, 4: A FALSE BRUTUS In the brief fourth scene, one of Brutus soldiers is killed (line 9) and one of his officers, Lucillius, is captured. Lucillius is masquerading as Brutus. That is, he is dressed like Brutus so that the enemy will go after him instead of the true leader. Antony immediately realizes that Lucillius is not Brutus; and Lucillius tells him that Brutus will never be captured alive (line 22). But the death of one soldier and the capture of another is used symbolically to let the audience know that the battle is not going well for Brutus. Brutus is losing.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar ACT V, 5: THE NOBLEST ROMAN OF THEM ALL The final scene begins with Brutus realizing that he has lost. He asks his men to assist him with suicide, but his men love and respect him so much that none of them want to see Brutus die. Each of his officers refuse him: Clitus (line 6), Dardanius (line 8), and Volumnius (line 29). In speaking to Volumnius, Brutus also mentions that the ghost of Caesar returned to him on the battlefield (lines 17-19). And Brutus realizes that the appearance of the ghost is a sign that he will lose: I know my hour is come (20). The alarums the sounds of the approaching enemy cause Brutus officers to flee for their lives. Brutus knows that the enemy will soon capture him, so he asks Strato, the one remaining soldier, to hold his sword while he runs onto it (line 50). Brutuss final words are these:
Caesar, now be still. I killed not thee with half so good a will. (50-51)

The use of rhyme draws the attention of the audience to the words. By will, Brutus means wish or desire. He is saying that he finds it far easier to kill himself than it was to kill Caesar. Brutus was extremely reluctant to kill Caesar. Such an act went against his


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar conscience and his moral core. He regrets that assassination far more than the loss of his own life. Soon, the enemy finds the body of Brutus. Antony, his own enemy, makes this short speech about Brutus:
This was the noblest Roman of them all. All the conspirators save only he Did that they did in envy of great Caesar. He only in a general honest thought And common good to all made one of them. His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him that nature might stand up And say to all the world This was a man. (67-74)

Despite Antonys angry words to Brutus before the battle, Antony understands the true nature of Brutus. He is saying that all of the other conspirators acted out of selfish reasons. Brutus alone acted out of good intentions. Brutus became one of the conspirators because of his public zeal, because of his desire to help everybody in Rome (the common good). Antony speaks of Nature, personified as the creation goddess, in his lines. Nature is proud of her creation. Brutus is the model of man that all other men should seek to emulate (or imitate). All men should try to be like Brutus, for he was the ideal man. He stood for the best that is in man.


PLOT As suggested previously, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is actually two tragedies pasted together, for the play depicts the falls of both Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. In fact, a reader could even argue that the play depicts the falls of three Romans, for the play also develops the character of Caius Cassius and portrays his fall as well. On the other hand, a reader might also argue that Cassius is a man without honor from the very beginning of the play. So, he cannot fall from a position of honor and respect as does Brutus. But, regardless of how a reader may regard the figure of Cassius, the play is certainly unusual because of the manner in which Shakespeare approaches his topic. Audiences during the time of the Renaissance would naturally expect as would audiences of today that the central figure in a play entitled The Tragedy of Julius Caesar would be Julius Caesar. But Shakespeare enjoyed experimenting with dramatic conventions and delighted in giving his audiences a play that surpassed their expectations. And Shakespeare certainly does so with this play. Julius Caesar is not the central figure of the play. He is not the protagonist. Caesar is assassinated early in Act III. From that point on, the audience becomes more 115

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar concerned with the character of Brutus. And even in the first two acts of the play, the playwright devotes more time to Brutus and elaborates upon the conflict that plagues him. Thus, a more precise title for this play would be The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus. At the heart of this play is the internal conflict that weighs down Brutus. Brutus is opposed to himself (a man vs. himself conflict). He must choose between his great friendship for Caesar and his devotion to the public welfare. Or, another way to express this conflict is that Brutus must choose between his love for Caesar and his love for Rome. The first is a personal love, but the second is a patriotic one. Since Brutus is truly a man of honor, he cannot place his personal feelings above his public zeal. In that sense, then, Brutus really has no choice. Circumstances force him to join the conspiracy and engage in an act that is loathsome and detestable to him. Brutus is a victim of fate (thus, the reader could also view the play in terms of the man vs. fate conflict), and his guilt and remorse over his role in the assassination plague him and torment him until the time of his death. The climax (the point of highest tension) of the play comes with the death of Cassius. With his death the forces of the conspirators cannot hope to win against the combined forces of Antony and Octavius. And, so, Brutuss fall becomes inevitable (expected) at that point. The resolution (the point in which the central conflict is over) of play comes, 116

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar naturally, with the suicide of Brutus. The suffering and guilt that Brutus experiences during the course of the play can only end with his death. And, so, the life of a noble man who acts solely out of pure and good intentions ends his life most tragically.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar SOURCES: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

1. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch: Plutarch was a Greek biographer and philosopher who lived, approximately, from 46 AD to 120 AD. This source was extremely popular in Shakespeares time, and Shakespeare relied upon it extensively for several of his plays. The source is often referred to simply as Plutarchs Lives. A translation of Plutarch into French by Amyot, c. 1565 A translation of Plutarch into English by Sir Thomas North, 1579. North probably based his text on Amyots version. Lost English play in 1562 on Caesar A diary entry notes its existence. Shakespeare may possibly have seen it. Lost English play (in two parts) in 1594 on Caesar. This is also noted in a diary. Shakespeare would definitely have known about this play since he was already in London at that time. 16th century tradition of Caesar Caesar was portrayed as an arrogant, self-assured boaster in two French versions: a) Marc-Antoine Muret 1544 b) Jacques Grevin 1559 Caesars Revenge registered 1606 This English play was probably written after Shakespeares version.

2. 3.






Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar CHARACTER: BRUTUS The character of Brutus is one of Shakespeares most sympathetic heroes. This exceptionally noble protagonist is trapped in a moral dilemma: he wishes to rid one evil (the tyranny posed by Caesar) by committing an act of evil (assassinating Caesar). Several qualities factor in motivating Brutus: (1) his love of honor (2) his sense of loyalty (3) his public zeal (4) his love for and friendship with Caesar And Brutus own goodness, coupled with a firm belief in the goodness of those Romans with whom he is associated, lead to his several fatal flaws or fatal decisions (as noted in the discussion of Act II above): 1: to join the plot (and to assume that all of the conspirators have noble intentions) 2: to allow Mark Antony to live 3: to allow Anthony to speak at Caesars funeral Brutus makes all three of these decisions because of his belief in the rationality and goodness of mankind. But men are essentially irrational creatures who may act selfishly, foolishly, or immorally. 119

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar An intriguing aspect of the real Brutus character was his personal regard for the philosophy of stoicism. Shakespeare skillfully makes dramatic use of this quality in the creation of his character, and this aspect of Brutus is especially noticeable in the second half of the play (in Act IV, 2) where Brutus appears to accept Portias death in a stoic or calm manner, but his argument with Cassius indicates that even he the most noble and stoical Roman of all cannot remain rational on an occasion of overpowering emotion. Shakespeare thus reveals once again that in regards to the conflict of reason vs. emotion, there are times in every mans life when reason will abandon him and emotion will take over. Later, with the vision of Caesars ghost, Shakespeare also reveals the emotional quality of Brutus. The audience could interpret the ghost both symbolically and literally. As a symbol, the ghost indicates Brutus guilt. His conscience is bothering him. His mind no longer functions rationally, and his surrender to his emotions indicates or hints at the tragic fall occurring within himself.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar CHARACTER: CASSIUS Although the character of Cassius is not a villain or an antagonist, he shares a number of qualities that are evident in other great Shakespearean villains or anti-heroes (such as Iago or Richard III). Cassius also serves to function as a literary foil or contrast to Brutus. Both Cassius and Brutus are leaders of the conspiracy, both are intelligent men well read in philosophy, and both of them recognize the threat to Rome once Caesar becomes supreme ruler of the empire. Yet, where Brutus is motivated by his own sense of honor, nobility, and public zeal, Cassius is motivated by envy and pride. Where Brutus is selfless, Cassius is selfish. However, with the frequent references to one another as friend and brother, Shakespeare indicates that Cassius and Brutus complement each other. Each possesses qualities that the other lacks. Cassius best lines come in the second scene of Act I. He is well aware of the significance of honor in Brutus, and Cassius is able to play upon Brutus sense of honor and desire above all costs to promote the public welfare. Cassius is extremely clever, and he knows how to see into the thoughts of men and manipulate them. In this respect, he is not unlike the figure of Iago in Othello. But despite all his cleverness, he cannot hide his jealousy. Shakespeare carefully fashions Cassius speech so that his words both deeply affect Brutus (an aspect of 121

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar plot) to join the conspiracy yet, at the same time, reveal to the reader Cassius own faults and desires (an aspect of characterization). The student should also note how Shakespeare provides rich and poetic language for this character. For example, Cassius often employs synecdoche and simile. A fine example of a synecdoche occurs when Cassius uses the word eyes for way of thinking (in Act I, 2: 64). Another notable example of Cassius poetic phrasing occurs when he uses the Colossus simile (I, 2: 137). Cassius is a rhetorician, and coupled with his intelligence, he is able to convince Brutus quite easily about the necessity for assassinating Caesar. Cassius reference to Brutus ancestor (I, 2: 160 and footnote 3) marks the final touch necessary for pushing Brutus to his way of thinking. Brutus sense of honor is mingled with a sense of family pride as well. Brutus does not wish to be ignoble in the eyes of Rome or in the eyes of his family. Of course, Brutus is an intelligent man who is not persuaded easily to engage in an act that he finds vile. Part of Brutus, even before he converses with Cassius, knows that some action should be taken to prevent Caesar from becoming a tyrant. Yet Cassius is crafty enough to know how to take that hidden fear deep within Brutus own bosom and bring it out in the open. The careful reader should also note how Cassius follows the philosophy of Epicurus in regards to having no belief in the forces of fate or 122

Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar destiny (Act V, 1: 76). Yet, he changes his mind at the plays conclusion. Shakespeare may be indicating that Cassius is a victim of foolhardy or wrong-headed thinking.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar CHARACTER: JULIUS CAESAR Despite being the title character in this play, Julius Caesar is less interesting and not as deeply developed as either Brutus or Cassius. The firmness or stubbornness of his character makes him, to some extent, nearly two-dimensional. Yet, Shakespeare raises the character above the two-dimensional level by giving Caesar an indecisive attitude and certain contradictions. The reader should especially note the following qualities of Julius Casear: (1) his hubris or hybris excessive pride, (2) his love of flattery, (3) his fear of Calpurnias dream while attempting to remain fearless, and (4) his decision to ignore omens yet having mixed feelings regarding a belief in destiny. Caesars use of the Northern Star simile (Act III, 1: 60) to describe himself is also noteworthy. Caesar sees himself as a star or constellation, as a god. The simile indicates his pride, yet the audience can see that Caesar is not as constant as the Northern Star when he first decides to stay at home to satisfy his wifes (and his own fears) but quickly changes his mind when he is urged by Decius to interpret his wifes dream in a positive way.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar THEMES The following ideas and concepts suggest some of the possible themes in the play.
jealousy friendship kingship / rule freedom destiny tragedy honor moral dilemma guilt hubris / excessive pride idealism stoicism mob fickleness power virtue free will fate / destiny public zeal love

Although all of these issues are significant in the play, the reader should keep in mind that this is essentially a play about Brutus and the tragic decision that he faces. Brutus cannot win. Thus, he is suffering from a severe moral dilemma that involves his notions of friendship, kingship, honor, idealism, and public zeal. These feelings move him, reluctantly, to undertake an action that is immoral and corrupt. And that action then leads or progresses to his own inevitable sense of guilt and blame.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar FROM THE CRITICS Katherine E. Maus

in The Norton Shakespeare (p. 1526):

In England in 1599 Queen Elizabeth I at sixty-six was a very old woman by Renaissance standards. It was unclear who would succeed her. In a state in which censorship made direct commentary on contemporary political affairs virtually impossible, the story of Caesars death and its calamitous aftermath provided an opportunity to reflect, at a suitably prudent distance, upon what might happen when accepted methods of allocating and transferring sovereign power disintegrated. Harold Bloom
in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (p 104):

Julius Caesar was a great favorite in school use in those days, because it is so well made, so apparently direct, and so relatively simple. The more often I reread and teach it, or attend a performance, the subtler and more ambiguous it seems, not in plot but in character.


Understanding Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Joseph Rosenblum

in A Readers Guide to Shakespeare (p. 169):

Julius Caesar marks the advance of Shakespeares artistry in its use of dramatic irony. In this play, the Shakespearean audience itself almost becomes a character in the drama, as it is made privy to the knowledge and sympathies not shared by all the characters on the stage. This pattern occurs most notably in Decius speech interpreting Calpurnias dream, showing the ability of an actor to move men to action by well-managed duplicity. Frank Kermode
in The Riverside Shakespeare (p. 1100):

It has long been commonplace that Brutus is a kind of sketch for Hamlet; but now it is almost as equally commonplace that Shakespeare could hardly have brought to his play about the great crisis of Roman history and institutions a mind void of political interests. One consequence of this trend is that Julius Caesar, so lucid at first reading, has recently, and more than once, been called one of the most difficult of Shakespeares plays to assess and interpret.