William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar works convincingly for audiences today not only because of its truth historically, but because of its truth of character, historically. As with the rest of the English bard’s canon, it is the character driven aspect of the writing that continually reminds you of the play’s purpose. Because the characters are so fantastically dissimilar, in behavior and language, the play comes alive. In Julius Caesar, two aspects come alive most: the world of aristocracy in the Roman Empire, and most especially the distinct characters themselves that populate this play’s vision of that aristocracy.
Primarily the world of Roman aristocrats is presented by the representation of the complete world of governance through three aspects. They complete the triumvirate behind the triumvirate, so to speak. Shakespeare creates this world by showing us the rulers at the top (after Caesar’s death), the senators who provide or take away power from the rulers in the new post dictator rule, and the conspirators who provide or take away power from all behind the scenes. Had Shakespeare shown the Roman aristocracy without these three elements, we would have been left with little understanding of how the empire got to where it did at the time of Julius Caesar.
This is his awesome creative power. The playwright didn’t just give lines to players to tell the history, and he didn’t rely upon narrative choruses. Instead, he created the world for us by putting the whole picture in front of us; all of the power aspects are there on the stage. Naturally, behind the instruments of power are found powerful characters, each with distinct qualities that bring the story to life. I will rely upon one character from each area above to examine just how they are treated – what manages to give them memorable traits and believable motives.
William Shakespeare utilized language and behavior to motivate his characters. Julius Caesar works because of this. Marcus Antonius is a fine example of this. Shakespeare provided him with the lines and actions to show him to be a manipulative instrument of power. He is truly a favorite of audiences. Antonius is ready to say anything and do anything to keep his place in the world, to preserve his power. When the conspirators realize their plans to kill Caesar, it is Antonius that encourages the accomplices, and convinces them that he is on their side. In other words, he is saying that ‘I will preserve your power if you preserve mine.’
This is the meaning behind his words to Brutus and accomplices: “Friends am I with you all and love you all, upon this hope, that you shall give me reasons why and wherein Caesar was dangerous” (III.i.219) and then, “That’s all I seek” (227) when he receives an answer which is not exactly satisfactory at all. The complete vision of this self serving future ruler of Rome is provided only moments later, when Shakespeare reminds us of the duplicity of Antonius when we see he did not act in accord with his heart, but with his advantage seeking. “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” (255).
The next example comes from the senators – Cicero specifically. How does Shakespeare impart a distinct character in him that sets him apart from both the rulers and the conspirators? This is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of how Shakespeare can imbue qualities into characters. It is also one of the most convincing tools he possesses to bring the audience into participation with this history of his. The senators are important to Julius Caesar because they represent blind and timid bureaucracy. They are there merely to maintain the status quo and to enter into the political realm without actually entering into politics. Shakespeare is in this play explaining that power rests either within the current ruler (such as Caesar or one of the triumvirate), or within the conspirators who would oust the ruler, through any means necessary. Between the two groups are the people who hold very little power themselves. They are the rank and file ruling class; in this case the senators.
Notice how Cicero does not even have any lines? How then does he represent so much to the play? How can we understand the Roman aristocracy so clearly in him, then? Of him we have no lines, but an awareness. He is an orator. He is skilled in rhetoric. And yet, what does he actually convey through his words? Nothing. He is a rhetorical, political blowhard. Concerning his speech during Caesar’s triumphant parade, consider this dialogue between Cassius and Casca:
Cassius: “Did Cicero say anything?”
Casca: “Ay, he spoke Greek.”
Cassius: “To what effect?”
Casca: “…for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” (I.ii.281-284)
In other words, it was just words. The senators are not to be understood. Therefore they are not a threat to emperor, conspirators or the common man. They play the part of the aristocracy that simply stands for aristocracy. By withholding lines from the most loquacious senator, Shakespeare creates a distinct vision of both Cicero and the part of the Roman aristocracy which he serves.
The final character that serves great importance to Julius Caesar, of course, would be Brutus. He comes from the conspirator caste and is such a powerfully rendered character that he has become a virtual stereotypical vision of bloody revenge and betrayal. When audience think traitor, they inevitably think Brutus. What is special about him in Shakespeare’s hand? It is the absolute single mindedness of this villain (or hero as the case may be). He does not waver as does Antonius. He does not shrink back like Cicero. He is Brutus. His lines and his actions represent someone who is an ideologue. He has fiercely held ideals and he has fiercely held ways of acting those out. Nothing will get in his way. That is the vision of this aspect of Roman aristocracy. It is the power outside of the powerful. This line from Brutus sums up this chief trait of his, and compels us to see it this way.
“We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (IV.iii.218–224)
These may not be the most well known of Brutus. However, they make the point clear about how Shakespeare imbues the distinctiveness of character into him. It is this set of lines that speaks the most about his place as a character and about his place within the world of Roman aristocracy. We can see just how much power the conspirators wield. They turn out to be much more powerful than the Senate, and perhaps even more powerful than the rulers, whether Caesar or one of the triumvirate. It is because, Shakespeare says, that Brutus and his companions can afford to be single minded and focused on their ideals and tasks at hand. It is what makes the success of the plans visible from the outset.
The question then of just how William Shakespeare creates the world of Roman aristocracy and gives each player the distinct character that is so important to Julius Caesar is answered by the same fashion. The two are irrevocably intertwined. It is a concurrent twofold plan. First, Shakespeare creates convincing facets of the historical world; in this case the facets are the different aspects of Roman aristocracy as seen through the rulers, the senators and the conspirators. Next, and simultaneously, he populates these aspects with their stereotypical, archetypical characters. Because they fully belong to their separate classes, the very descriptions of them seen through their lines and actions fulfill the historical picture and provide every bit of drama that a contemporary audience needs.