A tragedy in five acts,
first produced in 1599-1600 and published in the First Folio of 1623 from
a transcript of a promptbook. Julius Caesar was the earliest of Shakespeare's
three Roman history plays. Like Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Julius
Caesar is a dramatization of actual events, Shakespeare drawing upon the
ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives of Caesar and Based on Sir Thomas
North's 1579 translation (via a French version) of Plutarch's Bioi paralleloi
(Parallel Lives). Brutus, and Mark Antony as the primary source of the
play's plot and characters. The play is tightly structured. It establishes
the dramatic problem of alarm at Julius Caesar's ambition to become "king"
(or dictator) in the very first scene and introduces signs that Caesar
must "beware the Ides of March" from the outset. Before its
mid-point, Caesar is assassinated, and shortly after Mark Antony's famous
funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, and countrymen
setting shifts permanently from Rome to the battlefields on which Brutus
and Cassius meet their inevitable defeat. Julius Caesar is also a tragedy,
but despite its title, the tragic character of the play is Brutus, the
noble Roman whose decision to take part in the conspiracy for the sake
of freedom plunges him into a personal conflict and his country into civil
Two tribunes, Flavius and Murellus, find
scores of Roman citizens wandering the streets, neglecting their work
in order to watch Julius Caesar's triumphal parade: Caesar has defeated
the Roman general Pompey, his archrival, in battle. The tribunes scold
the citizens for abandoning their duties and remove decorations from Caesar's
statues. Caesar enters with his entourage, including the military and
political figures Brutus, Cassius, and Antony. A Soothsayer calls out
to Caesar to "beware the Ides of March," but Caesar ignores
him and proceeds with his victory celebration (I.ii.19, I.ii.25).
Cassius and Brutus, both long-time intimates
of Caesar and each other, converse. Cassius tells Brutus that he has seemed
distant lately; Brutus replies that he has been at war with himself. Cassius
states that he wishes Brutus could see himself as others see him, for
then Brutus would realize how honoured and respected he is. Brutus says
that he fears that the people want Caesar to become king, which would
overturn the republic. Cassius concurs; Caesar is treated like a god though
he is merely a man, no better than Brutus or Cassius. Cassius recalls
incidents of Caesar's physical weakness and marvels that this fallible
man has become so powerful. He blames his and Brutus's lack of will for
allowing Caesar's rise to power: surely the rise of such a man cannot
be the work of fate. Brutus considers Cassius's words as Caesar returns.
Upon seeing Cassius, Caesar tells Antony that he deeply distrusts Cassius.
Caesar departs, and another politician, Casca,
tells Brutus and Cassius that, during the celebration, Antony offered
the crown to Caesar three times and the people cheered, but Caesar refused
it each time. He reports that Caesar then fell to the ground and had some
kind of seizure before the crowd; his demonstration of weakness, however,
did not alter the plebeians' devotion to him. Brutus goes home to consider
Cassius's words regarding Caesar's poor qualifications to rule, while
Cassius hatches a plot to draw Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar.
That night, as a metaphor for the coming
action, Rome is plagued with violent weather and a variety of bad omens
and portents. Brutus finds letters in his house apparently written by
Roman citizens worried that Caesar has become too powerful. The letters
have in fact been forged and planted by Cassius, who knows that if Brutus
believes it is the people's will, he will support a plot to remove Caesar
from power. A committed supporter of the republic, Brutus fears the possibility
of a dictator-led empire, worrying that the populace would lose its voice.
Cassius arrives at Brutus's home with his conspirators, and Brutus, who
has already been won over by the letters, takes control of the meeting.
The men agree to lure Caesar from his house and kill him. Cassius wants
to kill Antony too, for Antony will surely try to hinder their plans,
but Brutus disagrees, believing that too many deaths will render their
plot too bloody and dishonour them. Having agreed to spare Antony, the
conspirators depart. Portia, Brutus's wife, observes that Brutus appears
preoccupied. She pleads with him to confide in her, but he rebuffs her.
Caesar prepares to go to the Senate, though
his wife, Calpurnia, begs him not to, describing recent nightmares she
has had in which a statue of Caesar streamed with blood and smiling men
bathed their hands in the blood. Caesar refuses to yield to fear and insists
on going about his daily business. Finally, Calpurnia convinces him to
stay home-if not out of caution, then as a favour to her. But Decius,
one of the conspirators, then arrives and convinces Caesar that Calpurnia
has misinterpreted her dreams and the recent omens. Caesar departs for
the Senate in the company of the conspirators.
As Caesar proceeds through the streets toward
the Senate, the Soothsayer again tries but fails to get his attention.
The citizen Artemidorus hands him a letter warning him about the conspirators,
but Caesar refuses to read it, saying that his closest personal concerns
are his last priority. At the Senate, the conspirators speak to Caesar,
bowing at his feet and encircling him. One by one, they stab him to death.
When Caesar sees his dear friend Brutus among his murderers, he gives
up his struggle and dies.
The murderers bathe their hands and swords
in Caesar's blood, thus bringing Calpurnia's premonition to fruition.
Antony, who was led away on a false pretext, returns, and pledges allegiance
to Brutus but weeps over Caesar's body. He shakes hands with the conspirators,
thus marking them all as guilty while appearing to make a gesture of conciliation.
When Antony asks why they killed Caesar, Brutus replies that he will explain
their purpose in a funeral oration. Antony asks to be allowed to speak
over the body as well; Brutus grants his permission, though Cassius remains
suspicious of Antony. The conspirators depart, and Antony, alone now,
swears that Caesar's death shall be avenged.
Brutus and Cassius go to the Forum to speak
to the public. Cassius exits to address another part of the crowd. Brutus
declares to the masses that though he loved Caesar, he loves Rome more,
and Caesar's ambition posed a danger to Roman liberty. The speech placates
the crowd. Antony appears with Caesar's body, and Brutus departs after
turning the pulpit over to Antony. Repeatedly referring to Brutus as "an
honourable man," Antony's speech becomes increasingly sarcastic;
questioning the claims that Brutus made in his speech that Caesar acted
only out of ambition, Antony points out that Caesar brought much wealth
and glory to Rome, and three times turned down offers of the crown. Antony
then produces Caesar's will but announces that he will not read it for
it would upset the people inordinately. The crowd nevertheless begs him
to read the will, so he descends from the pulpit to stand next to Caesar's
body. He describes Caesar's horrible death and shows Caesar's wounded
body to the crowd. He then reads Caesar's will, which bequeaths a sum
of money to every citizen and orders that his private gardens be made
public. The crowd becomes enraged that this generous man lies dead; calling
Brutus and Cassius traitors, the masses set off to drive them from the
Meanwhile, Caesar's adopted son and appointed
successor, Octavius, arrives in Rome and forms a three-person coalition
with Antony and Lepidus. They prepare to fight Cassius and Brutus, who
were driven into exile and are raising armies outside the city. At the
conspirators' camp, Brutus and Cassius have an intense argument regarding
matters of money and honour, but they ultimately reconcile. Brutus reveals
that he is sick with grief, for in his absence Portia has killed herself.
The two continue to prepare for battle with Antony and Octavius. That
night, the Ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus, announcing that Brutus will
meet him again on the battlefield.
Octavius and Antony march their army toward
Brutus and Cassius. Antony tells Octavius where to attack, but Octavius
says that he will make his own orders; he is already asserting his authority
as the heir of Caesar and the next ruler of Rome. The opposing generals
meet on the battlefield and exchange insults before beginning combat.
Cassius witnesses his own men fleeing and
hears that Brutus's men are not performing effectively. Cassius sends
one of his men, Pindarus, to see how matters are progressing. From afar,
Pindarus sees one of their leaders, Cassius's best friend, Titinius, being
surrounded by cheering troops and concludes that he has been captured.
Cassius despairs and orders Pindarus to kill him with his own sword. He
dies proclaiming that Caesar is avenged. Titinius himself then arrives-the
men encircling him were actually his comrades, cheering a victory he had
earned. Titinius sees Cassius's corpse and, mourning the death of his
friend, kills himself.
Brutus learns of the deaths of Cassius and
Titinius with a heavy heart, and prepares to take on the Romans again.
When his army loses, doom appears imminent. Brutus asks one of his men
to hold his sword while he impales himself on it. Finally, Caesar can
rest satisfied, he says as he dies. Octavius and Antony arrive. Antony
speaks over Brutus's body, calling him the noblest Roman of all. While
the other conspirators acted out of envy and ambition, he observes, Brutus
genuinely believed that he acted for the benefit of Rome. Octavius orders
that Brutus be buried in the most honourable way. The men then depart
to celebrate their victory
Literary scholars have debated for centuries
about the question of who exactly is the protagonist of this play. The
seemingly simple answer to this question would be Julius Caesar himself-after
all, the play is named after him, and the events of the play all relate
to him. However, Caesar only appears in three scenes (four if the ghost
is included), thus apparently making him an unlikely choice for the protagonist,
who is supposed to be the main character. Meanwhile, Brutus, who is in
the play much more often than Caesar (and actually lasts until the final
scene), is not the title character of the play, and is, listed in the
dramatis personae not only after Caesar, but also after the entire triumvirate
and some senators who barely appear in the play. Determining the protagonist
is one of the many engaging issues presented in the play.
The play has been called the tragedy of Brutus,
an honourable man caught up in a fate he cannot understand. Shakespeare
examines the nature of rebellion and political power and employs dramatic
irony to great effect.
The figure of Julius Caesar held particular
fascination for the Elizabethans. He was a soldier, scholar, and politician
(Francis Bacon held him in special regard for the universality of his
genius); he had been killed by his greatest friend (Shakespeare alluded
to the "bastard hand" of Brutus in Henry VI, Part 2); and he
was seen as the first Roman to perceive and, in part, to achieve the benefits
of a monarchical state.
Shakespeare's Caesar appears in just three
scenes and is murdered before the play is half finished, though several
characters respond to and reflect upon the central fact of the great man.
This is the dramatic strategy of an ironist, or of a writer who wishes
to question human behaviour and to observe interactions and consequences.
In fact, Caesar influences the whole play, for he appears after his death
as a bloodstained corpse and as a ghost before battle. Both Brutus and
Cassius die conscious of Caesar and even speak to him as if he were present.
And then his heir takes command, to "part the glories" of what
is for him a "happy day."
other ways Julius Caesar is shaped differently from the histories and
tragedies that precede it, as if in manner as in subject matter Shakespeare
was making decisive changes. The scene moves only from Rome to the battlefield
and with this new setting language becomes more restrained, firmer, and
sharper. Extensive descriptive images are few, and single words such as
"Roman," "honour," "love," "friend,"
and proper names are repeated as if to enforce contrasts and ironies.
In performance this sharp verbal edge--linked with commanding performances
and the various excitements of debate, conspiracy, private crises, political
eloquence, mob violence, supernatural portents, personal antagonisms,
battle, and deaths--holds attention. The play continues to have popular
appeal and to fascinate.