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Caesar 6 Essay, Research Paper
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Julius Caesar is a play about a political assassination. The
question it asks is: is it ever right to use force to remove a ruler
from power? You, as readers, can answer that question in terms of your
own experience in the last quarter of the 20th century. But if
you’re going to figure out what Shakespeare thought, you’ll have to
know something about the values and concerns of the Elizabethan
world in which he lived.
History plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616)
because this was the Age of Discovery, and English men and women
were hungry to learn about worlds other than their own. But the
Elizabethans also saw history as a mirror in which to discover
themselves and find answers to the problems of their lives. A play
like Julius Caesar taught the Elizabethans about Roman politics; it
also offered an object lesson in how to live. What was Shakespeare
trying to teach his contemporaries?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at Elizabethan
attitudes toward (a) monarchy and (b) order.
Today we believe in democracy and are suspicious of anyone who seeks
unlimited power. We know what can happen when a Hitler or a Stalin
takes control of a government, and we know just how corrupting power
can be. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries had no such prejudice
against strong rulers. Their queen, Elizabeth I, ruled with an iron
hand for forty-five years (from 1558 to 1603), yet her subjects had
great affection for her. Under her rule the arts flourished and the
economy prospered. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in war,
mostly between Catholics and Protestants, England enjoyed a period
relatively free from civil strife. Elizabeth’s reign- and the reign of
other Tudor monarchs, beginning with Henry VII in 1485- brought an end
to the anarchy that had been England’s fate during the Wars of the
Roses (1455-84). To Shakespeare and his contemporaries the message was clear: only a strong, benevolent ruler could protect the peace and
save the country from plunging into chaos again. Shakespeare would
probably not have approved of the murder of Caesar.
In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Elizabeth was old
and failing. She had never married and had no children to succeed her.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have worried greatly that
someone (like Brutus? like Cassius?) would try to grab power and
plunge the country into civil war.
When the Elizabethans spoke of order, they didn’t just mean
political or social order. Though they lived during what we call today
the English Renaissance, they still held many medieval views about man
and his relation to the universe. They knew the world was round, and
that the earth was one of many planets spinning in space. And they
knew from explorers that there were continents besides their own.
But most believed, as people in the Middle Ages believed, that the
universe was ruled by a benevolent God, and that everything, from
the lowest flower to the angels on high, had a divine purpose to
fulfill. The king’s right to rule came from God himself, and
opposition to the king earned the wrath of God and threw the whole
system into disorder. Rulers had responsibilities, too, of course:
if they didn’t work for the good of the people, God would hold them to
account. No one in this essentially medieval world lived or functioned
in isolation. Everyone was linked together by a chain of rights and
obligations, and when someone broke that chain, the whole system broke
down and plunged the world into chaos. What destroys the divine
harmony in Julius Caesar- Cassius’ jealousy, Caesar’s ambition, or the
fickleness of the mob- is something you’ll have to decide for
yourself. But whatever the cause, the results offend the heavens and
throw the entire country into disarray.
Today a sense of hopelessness and despair hangs over us: a
mistake, a simple misunderstanding, and the bomb may drop and
destroy life on earth. Our fate, we feel, is out of our control. But
the Elizabethans were much more optimistic. Forget chance: if
something went wrong, then someone had broken God’s laws, the laws
of the universe. Many would suffer, but in the end the guilty would be
punished and order restored.
Julius Caesar begins with a human act that, like a virus, infects
the body of the Roman state. No one is untouched; some grow sick, some
die. But in time the poison works its way out of the system and the
state grows healthy again. In Shakespeare’s world, health, not
sickness, is the natural condition of man in God’s divine plan.
- THE PLOT
The working people of Rome are overjoyed: Julius Caesar has beaten
Pompey’s sons in battle, and everyone’s getting a day off from work to
celebrate Caesar’s triumphant return. But two Roman officers,
Flavius and Marullus, chase the crowds away: how dare the citizens
support a tyrant who threatens to undermine hundreds of years of
Republican (representative) rule! Don’t they know that Caesar wants to
Caesar parades by in full glory, just in time to help celebrate
the races on the Feast of Lupercal. A soothsayer bids him “Beware
the ides of March” (March 15), but Caesar- anxious not to show fear in
public dismisses the man as a dreamer. The procession passes by,
leaving behind two Roman Senators: Cassius, a long-time political
enemy of Caesar, and Brutus, Caesar’s friend. Like other members of
the Senate, Brutus and Cassius are aristocrats who fear that Caesar
will take away their ancient privileges.
Cassius now goes to work on Brutus, flattering him, reminding him of
his noble ancestry, trying all the while to determine just how unhappy
Brutus is with Caesar and just how willing Brutus is to join the
conspiracy. Does Brutus know where Cassius is leading him? It’s hard
to tell. Brutus admits only that he’s dissatisfied, and agrees to
discuss the matter further.
Caesar, now back from the races, tells his friend Antony that he
doesn’t trust a man like Cassius, with his “lean and hungry look.”
He has good reason to be suspicious.
Casca tells Brutus and Cassius how the Roman people three times
offered Caesar the crown, and how three times he refused it. Perhaps
Caesar doesn’t want to be king- that’s what his friends would argue;
but to his enemies, Caesar was merely playing on the gullibility of
the people, pretending to be humble in order to win their support.
On a stormy night full of mysterious omens, Cassius converts Casca
to his cause and arranges for Cinna, a fellow-conspirator, to throw
a message through Brutus’ window. The note will, he hopes, win the
noble Senator to their side.
Alone in his garden, Brutus tries to justify the part he is about to
play in the murder of his friend, Caesar. He decides finally that
Caesar’s ambition poses a grave danger to the future of the Republic
and that Caesar should be destroyed, not for what he is, but for
what he’s likely to become. The conspirators arrive at Brutus’ house
and agree to murder Caesar the next day at the Capitol. They would
like to murder Antony, too, but Brutus, anxious to keep his hands
clean and to preserve his precious honor, insists that Antony be
After the conspirators leave, Brutus’ wife Portia enters. She
wants to know what’s happening. Brutus worries that the news may be
too frightening for her to bear, but nevertheless confides in her.
Caesar has had a restless night, too. His wife Calpurnia tries to
keep him home- she senses evil in the air- and at first he relents.
But the conspirators arrive and persuade him to go to the Senate as
planned. What would happen to his reputation if his public thought the
mighty Caesar was swayed by a superstitious wife!
Calpurnia’s fears turn out to be more than superstitions, for the
day is March 15, the ides of March. Caesar ignores two more warnings
and, after delivering a speech full of extravagant self-praise, he
is stabbed by the conspirators and dies.
Antony, learning of the murder of his dearest friend, begs the
conspirators to let him speak at the funeral. Believing that right
is on his side, Brutus agrees, over the objections of his more
realistic friends. Left alone, Antony vows to revenge the death of
Caesar, even if it means plunging his country into civil war. In the
meantime, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavius, has arrived on
the outskirts of Rome, and Antony advises him to wait there till he
can gauge the mood of the country.
Brutus’ funeral oration is a measured, well-reasoned speech,
appealing to the better instincts of the people and to their
abstract sense of duty to the state. For a moment he wins them over.
But then Antony inflames the crowds with an appeal to their
emotions. Showing them Caesar’s bloody clothes turns them into an
angry mob, hungry for revenge. Blind with hate, they roam the
streets and tear apart the innocent poet Cinna.
Antony and Octavius now join forces with Lepidus to pursue and
destroy the conspirators, who have fled from Rome. Anyone who might
endanger their cause is coldly put to death. Brutus and Cassius
await this new triumverate at their camp near Sardis in Asia Minor.
Should Cassius let an officer take bribes? Brutus, standing on his
principles, says no, and vents his anger on his friend. At the root of
his anger, however, is his unspoken sorrow at the death of his beloved
wife Portia. Apparently unable to deal with such an unsettling
situation, she went mad and took her life by swallowing hot coals.
Sadness over her death brings Brutus and Cassius back together
again, closer perhaps than before.
At night Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar, who vows to
meet him again on the battlefield at Philippi in Greece. The next
day the two armies- the army of Brutus and Cassius, and the army of
Antony and Octavius- stand in readiness at Philippi while the four
generals battle each other with words. In the first encounter, Brutus’
troops defeat Octavius’, and Antony’s troops overcome Cassius’.
Cassius, retreating to a nearby hill, sends his trusted friend
Titinius to find out whether approaching troops are friends or foes.
Is Titinius captured? It appears so; and Cassius, believing he has
sent his good friend to his death and that the battle is lost, takes
If only Cassius hadn’t acted so rashly he might have saved his life,
for the reports turn out to be false and Titinius still lives. Brutus,
not the enemy, arrives, and mourns the death of his friend.
The tide now turns against Brutus. Sensing defeat, and unwilling
to endure the dishonor of capture, he runs on his sword and dies. Like
Caesar and Cassius, he thinks in his final moments not of power or
personal glory, but of friendship.
Antony delivers a eulogy over Brutus’ body, calling him “the noblest
Roman of them all.” Octavius agrees to take all of Brutus’ men into
his service, a gesture of reconciliation that bodes well for the
In order to discuss Shakespeare’s play intelligently you have to
make up your mind about (1) Caesar’s character, and (2) Caesar’s
threat to the Roman Republic. Either Caesar deserves to be
assassinated, or he doesn’t. On your answer hangs the meaning of the
On one hand, Caesar is a tyrant whose ambition poses a real danger
to the Republic. In that case, the hero of the play is Brutus. On
the other hand, Caesar may be vain and arrogant, but he is the only
ruler strong enough to hold the Roman Republic together, and a
flawed ruler is better than none at all. In that case, Brutus
becomes an impractical idealist who is manipulated by a group of
Whatever your position, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare wants to
show us the private side of a public man, and to remind us that our
heroes are, like the rest of us, only human. In public, Caesar is
worshipped like a god; in private, he is superstitious, deaf, and
subject to fits of epilepsy (falling sickness). Caesar’s public
image is like a mask he wears to hide his weaknesses from others and
from himself. Yet at the moment of death his mask slips, and we see
another Caesar who values friendship above all.
Let’s look at Caesar in three different ways.
1. Caesar’s personal shortcomings are one reason to remove him
from power. Another is his ambition, which threatens to undermine
the power of the people and their elected representatives.
It’s true that Antony calls Caesar “the noblest man / That ever
lived in the tide of times” (Act III, Scene i, lines 256-257), but why
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