Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a play about a political killing. It is a tragedy of an assassin who is too honourable to succeed. It is a story about civil war, about revenge and regretted decisions. Julius Caesar is fundamentally about power – it reveals the processes how it works and implications it has to individuals. Practically, each main character in the play is involved into the intoxication of power but eventually all become prey to ambition, resulting in atrocity and treason.
The description of political situation in Rome transfers us to the time when democracy appeared under threat. The reason for it was Caesar’s successes among people. His strong leadership skills made him potentially too powerful leader who tends to centralize his power. Consequently he becomes inexplicable to his people and other statesmen. This is what made Cassius and Brutus so worried: “Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe?” (1.2) Caesar is blamed for his excessive ambitions the feature that cannot be justified by any other virtues “as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him” (3.
2). But virtually Caesar does not show tendency to establish dictatorship in Rome republic because for several times he refuses to take crown. He was a general who could have become a king but he refused.
So one may urge the question: Why kill Caesar? Cassius and Brutus arrived to such decision, but out of different motives. Cassius wants to kill Caesar out of wounded vanity. Brutus, the general who reads philosophy in his field tent, does not want to kill Caesar at all but feels compelled to do so for philosophical reasons.
After all, Caesar has indeed gone too far. He’s not paying attention. He likes adulation too much, and has crossed all sorts of lines. Cassius is sure it is, Brutus much less so. When he stabs Caesar, he is as unsure as Caesar is surprised. That lack of surety is reflected later, in the two friends’ mistakes on the battlefield and their squabbles in 4.3 in Brutus’ tent.
This glimpse at the image of Caesar would not be complete without a parallel look at his killer. Brutus’ story features privileged family with ties to the people, in this case to the founder of the Roman Republic. He grows to political maturity under the party of Caesar’s rival, Pompey. Even though he takes the side opposite Caesar in the civil war, Brutus’ integrity prompts the victor to pardon him, and to award him a governorship. Somewhere in observing Caesar’s rise, Brutus fears the consequences of an unchecked ruler.
Other discontented politicians encourage his suspicions. He is torn between his love for Caesar and his sincere concern for Rome. Brutus’s decision to murder Caesar is a choice that resolves an opposition between the demands of friendship and the demands of citizenship. Brutus’s second decision, how to murder Caesar, involves an opposition between the demands of the politician and the requirements of his morality, his honour. Brutus is an extremely civilized man. If we think in terms of moral probity, courage, selflessness, good-humour in the face of adversity, honesty, incorruptibility, tenderness and kindness, courtesy and politeness—the criteria, which must stand high on any ethical scale, then Brutus comes out as an extremely virtuous man.
And the virtuousness, having everything to do with what it is to be civilized and socialized consists in a readiness to use the powers of his mind to calculate maximum benefit for others and thereby to make morally responsible judgements. And what this virtuous, civilized, intelligent and painstaking man achieves is utter desolation. He murders his friend; he brings about mob violence and civil war leading eventually to the disenchanted suicides of himself and another friend; and he shatters his domestic peace to such a degree that his erstwhile tranquil and devoted wife runs distracted and aggrieved at Brutus’ absence that kills herself in a particularly hideous fashion, by swallowing hot coals:
Impatient of my absence,
And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony
Have made themselves so strong:–for with her death
That tidings came;–with this she fell distract,
And, her attendants absent, swallow’d fire. (4.3)
In Marcus Brutus we see the image of a traitor on the one hand and the patriot on the other.
After Caesar’s assassination the Senate pardons Brutus, rewards him, but then prosecutes him. We know what will happen and it happens. The civil war is waged. The battle opens with a taunting ceremony between the opposing sides (5.1), followed by the solemn farewell of Brutus to Cassius:
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then this parting was well made. (5.1)
Later, Brutus even mentions Caesar’s ghost, which has kept its promise:
The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And this last night, here in Philippi fields.
I know my hour is come. (5.5)
The battle is portrayed by means of a series of short scenes, giving an impression of numerous actions spread over a large and confusing territory. Much of the dialogue transmits information about what is happening elsewhere. This hurry and scurry serves as a matrix for the trio of suicides–Cassius’s, Titinius’s, and Brutus’s–which bring the action to a close.
It is ironically that Cassius, so complex, so often at odds with himself, should finally die upon a misperception. Titinius, sent by Cassius to identify a nearby troop of horsemen on the battlefield, is seen surrounded by this troop; in actuality he has met a group of friends, but Cassius assumes he has been captured. To avoid his own capture, Cassius then arranges his death. On returning Titinius finds Cassius dead and follows his friend committing suicide with the same sword.
The world which is to replace that formerly dominated by Caesar is indeed mean, petty, and dangerous. The triumvirs are already engaged in the first stages of a ruthless struggle for power. As soon as Lepidus has been dispatched for the will, Antony refers disparagingly to him “a slight unmeritable man”; “meet to be sent on errands” (4.1) and proposes his elimination.
Octavius, whose moment is still to come, bides his time “he is a tried and valiant soldier” (4.1) and is answered by Antony with a further display of cynicism. “So is my horse, Octavius”; with Lepidus thus removed from consideration, the two leaders return to discussion of the “great things” in which their own future is involved. The last words of the scene, spoken by Octavius, stress the insecurity that now surrounds the entire political future:
some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.
Such is the world which has survived Caesar, and in which his avengers are fated to move.
The heroic Caesar and the struggling Brutus are two identifiable conceptions in Shakespeare’s play. The lesser roles of Antony and Cassius deserve some attention as “antagonists.” All of them aspired to acquire power to achieve their goals and all of them partially got what they wanted, however none of them fulfilled their dreams.
Shakespeare, William (1959) The Tragedy of Julius Caesar New York: Washington Square Press Retrieved Feb 05, 2006 from