MODERN JULIUS CAESAR HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar takes place in Rome around 44 B.C. At that time, the Roman Empire was at its largest, and, as a result, political division was occurring throughout the country. Many men tried to step up and unify Rome, but only Julius Caesar came close to being successful. Several members of the Roman aristocracy, fearing Caesar would become a tyrant, plotted to assassinate him. Instead of bringing peace to Rome, however, Caesar's death fueled a bloody civil war.
Shakespeare's play is a dramatized version of these historical events, focusing specifically on the height of Caesar's power and popularity, his assassination by the political conspirators, and the beginning of the civil war. Most scholars believe that Shakespeare got his historical information from Plutarch's The Life of Julius Caesar, a well-known and trusted biography written during the Greek and Roman times, and later translated into English.
Julius Caesar was likely performed sometime between 1599 and 1601 at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The official text, however, was not published until 1623, in the first compilation released after Shakespeare's death. The original manuscript doesn't exist, and it is likely that the play was based off the Theatre manuscripts. Because the play was released at the height of Shakespeare's popularity and resonated with the political turmoil of the time, it became one of his most famous historical tragedies. While many of his other plays went in and out of style throughout the years, Julius Caesar has remained consistently popular.
Shakespeare himself was born in 1564 to middle-class parents in England. He received limited schooling and married in 1582 to an older woman. In 1590, Shakespeare left his family and moved to London to start his career, and soon became immensely successful. At the height of his career, he helped build the Globe Theatre to accommodate the popularity of his plays. Because of the high demand for new entertainment, Shakespeare wrote a total of 37 known plays and numerous poems. Julius Caesar was likely the first play performed at the Globe Theatre.
After his death in 1616, he quickly became known as England's best playwright and remains highly influential to this day. Because so many facts about Shakespeare's life are unknown, there are some who think that Shakespeare was a woman, or that someone else actually wrote the plays. However, there is no hard evidence to back these conspiracies up. While people may always argue about Shakespeare's true identity, his plays, and especially Julius Caesar, have become an indispensable part of literary history.
MODERN JULIUS CAESAR THEMES
Many of the conflicts in Julius Caesar revolve around the concept of fate. Some characters, such as Caesar himself, realize that some things cannot be prevented. When Caesar is going to leave his house, he notes that everybody dies and that it does no good to run from death. Other characters, such as Cassius, do not want to believe in fate. Cassius, by killing Caesar, seeks to change his fate by making himself famous throughout history. Ultimately, however, Shakespeare does not clearly state whether or not fate in his story is real, but rather balances the ideas of fate and free will.
Misinterpretation of Signs
Part of what makes Julius Caesar a tragedy is the constant misinterpretation of signs and symbols. Every character interprets the various bad omens in the story based on their own wishes. Cassius, for instance, takes the storm, and its strange occurrences to be proof that Caesar's rise to power is causing unrest. However, based on the end of the play, the bad omens were most likely foreshadowing what would come after Caesar's death. Certain characters do interpret the signs right, Calphurnia, for instance, interprets her dream to mean Caesar's death. Decius, to convince Caesar to leave, gives him the interpretation Caesar wishes to hear, and leads Caesar to his death.
The Power of Persona
Caesar's power over the Roman Empire is based entirely on his persona, his public image, rather than the man himself. Cassius assumes that, because Caesar is weak of body, he will be easy to overthrow. He does not realize, however, the extent to which Caesar's name and the connotations that go along with it hold enormous power. At the end of the play, when Octavius Caesar rebukes Antony's orders and establishes himself as the center of command, Antony begins referring to Octavius as Caesar. Thus, even though Julius Caesar died, his persona lived on in the form of his name.
The Tragic Hero
Although the play is named after Julius Caesar, it is debatable whether or not Caesar is actually the tragic hero. On one hand, Caesar directs the action of the other characters, forcing them to act because of his rise to power. He also refers to himself as the "northern star" and his death is certainly noble. On the other hand, Caesar only appears briefly in the play, and does not possess near as many lines as Brutus. Brutus, as the protagonist, is mourned after his death by the reader and is even recognized as a tragic hero by Octavius and Antony. While there is much debate over who is the "true" tragic hero, Brutus' status as the protagonist and more emotional death point to him being the tragic hero of the story.
Julius Caesar is primed to take control of Rome when it has become so large it has lost its purpose. Thus it is no surprise that many of the characters in the play have different views on what is means to be a true Roman. Brutus is the most obvious example of a true Roman and is even recognized by his enemies as being such. They praise him for putting the needs of his country above everything else, and, even though he assassinated Caesar, his motives gave him more honor than the other conspirators.
Betrayal and Revenge
The most famous betrayal in Julius Caesar occurs when Brutus, one of Caesar's best friends, stabs in him the back. When Caesar sees that even Brutus has betrayed him, he accepts his death. Brutus' actions, however, do not go unpunished. He is haunted by Caesar's ghost, the physical manifestation of his betrayal to the man, until his own tragic death. Brutus' and the other conspirator's private betrayal against Caesar the man are justified by the common good, but Shakespeare hints that is not an excuse by having Caesar's ghost haunt Brutus and Cassius.
The majority of the characters in Julius Caesar use manipulation or persuasion to get what they want. Perhaps the most manipulative character in the play is Cassius, who forges letters falsely denouncing Caesar and leaves them for Brutus to read. Antony purposefully manipulates the crowd at Caesar's funeral through clever words and emotional appeals, saying one thing but putting the oppose idea in his speech to incite riot. Because Brutus is not skilled at manipulation, he rather attempts to view things rationally, in the end he ultimately dies.
Like many of Shakespeare's plays, the supernatural has a strong presence throughout and helps aid in the resolution of the plot. The night before Caesar is assassinated, many strange sights are seen. Dead men are seen walking, men are on fire but do not burn, etc. These are taken as omens by the characters, who interpret the signs as they want. The most blatant case of the supernatural is the ghost of Julius Caesar who appears to Brutus twice. Because of Caesar's direct interference from the other side of the grave, Brutus kills himself after losing the battle.
All the conspirators who kill Caesar are, to some extent, motivated by fear. Brutus fears that Caesar will become a tyrant; Cassius fears he will never receive recognition or fame. Caesar himself is perhaps the only character who does not succumb to fear. Even though, because of many signs and warnings, he is aware that there is danger to his person, he consciously chooses not to succumb to fear.
The masculine versus feminine sides, although not of central importance, run through the entirety of the play. Masculinity is seen as having the public self and is embodied in the sort of thinking Brutus acts on. He ignores his personal feelings and acts on the good of Rome. The female characters of the play, on the other hand, represent the private, feminine self. Caesar, especially, is prone to analysis. Cassius views Caesar as not being able to rule because his body is weak. He has seizures, gets sick, and asks for help. These are all feminine traits. However, Caesar's powerful public persona is overwhelmingly masculine, and he deliberately chooses to ignore his wife's pleas (his feminine side), which ultimately leads to his death.
EXCERPT FROM JULIUS CAESAR STUDY GUIDE
Act I, Scene I
Rome. A street.
The stage opens with Flavius, Marullus and a group of commoners milling about. Flavius goes up to a couple of workers and asks them what they are doing. He accuses them of being lazy, and demands to know their trade. The first commoner answers that he is a carpenter. Marullus asks the commoner where his tools are, and why he is wearing his best clothes. He then turns to the second carpenter, demanding to know his trade.
The second commoner answers vaguely that he is a cobbler, and Marullus, not satisfied with the tone of the man's statement, tells him to answer the question directly. The commoner calls himself a "mender of soles", as in the soles of shoes, but this is still too vague for Marullus who is now frustrated. He once again asks what the man's trade is, and the commoner tells Marullus not to be mad, adding that if his soles are bad he can mend them. Marullus is offended by the idea that he needs "mending", and asks the commoner the exact meaning of his statement.
Flavius, seeing that Marullus is getting nowhere, intervenes, clarifying that the commoner is a cobbler. The commoner says he is a cobbler and brags on his skill at mending nice shoes. Flavius wants to know why he is not in his shop, and why there are so many men hanging about the streets. The cobbler jokes that the men are out here to wear down their shoes and give him more business, then answers seriously that they are all waiting to see Caesar in his triumphant return.
Marullus mocks Caesar's "victory", asking the carpenter and the cobbler if they remember cheering for Pompey, the man Caesar has defeated, just as they are cheering for Caesar now. He points out the shallowness of cheering for Pompey's victories, as well as his defeat, and insists that Caesar's victory is worth nothing, as it brings no glory to Rome. Marullus then accuses the commoners of being disloyal and tells them to go home and pray.
The commoners leave, and Flavius tells Marullus to go to the Capital and take down and decorations that have been placed on Caesar's statues. Marullus questions whether that is okay, and Flavius assures him it is. Flavius also tells Marullus to drive the commoners indoors wherever he sees them. They want to try and make sure Caesar does not become too popular, and thus too powerful.
Act I, Scene II
The same. A public place.
Caesar, Antony (dressed for the ceremonial run), Calphurnia (Caesar's wife), Portia (Brutus' wife), Pecius, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Casca enter the scene. A sizeable crowd follows them, and along with the crowd comes a Soothsayer, a prophet. Music is playing, and everyone is talking.
Casca quiets the crowd so that Caesar can speak. Caesar calls on his wife, and tells Antony to make sure and touch her during his run. He says that the elders believe a touch from the ceremonial runner will cure barrenness in women. Antony agrees, and states that if Caesar says so, it must be true.
The Soothsayer calls out Caesar's name in the crowd. Caesar hears him and allows him to speak. The Soothsayers tells Caesar to "beware the ides of March" (March 15th). Caesar dismisses the warning and tells everyone to continue on. Everyone exits except for Brutus and Cassius.
Cassius asks Brutus if he is planning on watching the run, and Brutus says no. Cassius then expresses concern for Brutus, saying that, as his friend, he has noticed a change in his temper. Brutus tells him that he has had a lot on his mind, and not to take his behavior as a sign of unfriendliness. Cassius admits he misunderstood Brutus' actions, and also hints that he might know what is troubling Brutus.
Offstage, there is a trumpet and a shout. Brutus hears the trumpet and fears that Caesar has been crowned king. Cassius picks up on this, and asks Brutus if he doesn't want Caesar to be king. Brutus says he loves Caesar, but that he doesn't believe Caesar should be king. Cassius agrees and goes on a tirade about how Caesar is just an ordinary man. He remembers one time they were swimming in the river, and Cassius had to save Caesar because he was weak. He remembers another time where Caesar had a fever in Spain and had a shaking fit. He laments that he should not have to worship someone as ordinary as he is.
Offstage, there is another trumpet sound and more shouts. Brutus again worries that Caesar is having more honors heaped on him. Cassius remarks that Caesar's status is unfair, and wonders why the name "Caesar" is any better than "Brutus" or "Cassius". He admits that in Rome, there is only room for one man, but thinks that could change. Brutus tells Cassius that he gets where he is going with the conversation and says he will think over what Cassius said.
Caesar enters with his train. Caesar looks angry, and Calphurnia looks pale. Cassius tells Brutus to pull on Casca's cloak as he will know what happened.
Caesar calls for Antonius and talks so no one else can hear. He complains that he does not want Cassius close to him anymore, and Antonius tells Caesar that Cassius should not be feared. Caesar arrogantly replies that he does not fear anyone, but also says that Cassius is too observant and unsatisfied with his station. He tells Antonius to come over to his right side, because his left ear is deaf, and tell him his thoughts. Caesar and his group exits except for Casca.
Casca wants to know why Brutus pulled his cloak, and Brutus asks to know what happened. Casca tells them that the shouts occurred each time Caesar was offered a crown by Antony. Caesar refused the crown each time, even though Casca noticed he wanted to keep it badly. After the third refusal, the crowd shouted, and Caesar fainted. Brutus comments that Caesar must have the "falling sickness" (epilepsy). When Caesar came to he apologized for his behavior, and Cicero spoke something in Greek. Casca did not understand what was said, but knows that Flavius and Marullus were punished for pulling decorations off the statues.
Casca exits after agreeing to have dinner with Cassius later that evening, leaving Brutus and Cassius on the stage. Brutus tells Cassius they will talk tomorrow and exits, as well. Cassius remarks to himself that Brutus is noble, but that he might be swayed. Cassius plans on forging several letters from "commoners" denouncing Caesar and worshipping Brutus instead, and to leave the letters on Brutus' doorstep.
Act I, Scene III
The same. A street. Thunder and lightning.
Casca, carrying a drawn sword, and Cicero enter the stage from opposite sides. They meet in the street, and Cicero greets Casca, asking why is out of breath and staring strangely. Casca remarks that the raging storm must be a sign from heaven. He has seen strange things happen, such as a slave with his hand on fire yet not in pain, a lion in front of the Capitol, women claiming to have seen burning men walking the streets, and an owl in the marketplace during daylight. Casca believes these things to be more than coincidence. Cicero agrees that it is strange, but also says that men will see what they want to in the signs. He then changes the subject, wanting to know if Caesar will be in the Capitol the next day. Casca says he will be, and Cicero exits.
Cassius enters, asking who is there. Casca replies "a Roman", and Cassius recognizes his voice from the reply. Cassius tells Casca that it is a pleasing night "to honest men", and reveals that he has been walking around as if oblivious to the storm, with his shirt unbuttoned. Casca wonders why he would tempt heaven, as the gods are obviously sending a warning along with the thunder and lightning. Cassius tells Casca that he has lost his wits if he cannot see what the signs mean, and states that he can think of one man who has a lot in common with the strange occurrences during the storm. Casca realizes he is talking about Caesar and complains that Caesar is going to be crowned King the next day by the Senate.
Cassius is angered by this news and reveals that he has a dagger he plans to use on himself to commit suicide if Caesar is crowned King. He would rather be dead than be submissive to a tyrant. Casca agrees, and Cassius goes on to rant that Rome is trash if they let a weak man such as Caesar rule. Cassius wants to know if Casca agrees with what he is saying, and Casca does. Not only that, but he promises to support Cassius as far as he is willing to go. The two shake hands, and Cassius reveals that he is on his way to a meeting. Because of the storm, the streets are empty, so it is the ideal time to talk unheard.
Cinna enters the stage. Casca tells Cassius to stop talking because he hears someone approaching. Cassius recognizes Cinna's walk and greets him. Cinna is a fellow conspirator against Caesar and is glad Casca is on their side. Cinna says he was out looking for Cassius, and that the others in the group are waiting for them to return. He also reveals that many of the men have seen strange sights. Cinna believes that if Brutus joins them, they will be successful.
Cassius has a plan to get Brutus' support. He gives Cinna three letters and tells him to place one under Brutus' chair, one inside his window, and the last on the statue of his ancestors. After Cinna is done doing this, he should return to Pompey's house, where the rest of the group is meeting.
Cinna leaves to complete the errand, leaving Cassius and Casca alone again. Cassius is sure that Brutus is almost won over to their cause and hopes the letters will be the final push. Casca admits that the people love Brutus and that his help might be just what they need to succeed. Cassius tells Casca to hurry, they are going to go to Brutus' house and gain his support before sunrise.