Explain the Julius Caesar?
If you find Julius Caesar dry and dull, you are not alone! But perhaps if I provide a broader context for this play, it’ll help you. Here goes!
In the three years before Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, he had been preoccupied writing the last of his history plays, where he investigates the character of past English kings and the proper use and responsibilities of power. So it is no surprise that in this tragic play, Shakespeare weaves tragedy and history together, investigating the TRAGIC implications of the abuse of power in a real, historical story.
If he can’t change the ending, or the overall structure of these ancient stories, then what makes Shakespeare’s dramatic versions different from a history book? A good question! And in searching for an answer, we will discover some very interesting things about Shakespeare’s plays.
First of all: as to the story itself. Shakespeare chose the story of Julius Caesar for its situation: what is the best course of action when you think someone is abusing power? This certainly seems a relevant question for us today.
Shakespeare picks the situation, but CANNOT change the facts of the story: Caesar will be assassinated by a group of conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius. And those conspirators will be hunted down by Antony and Octavius and die in the end.
But Shakespeare DOES change the PACE of the story. What in real life took several years to occur, Shakespeare compresses into what seems a few months. Such compression allows him to focus OUR attention on a few important details of the story. So for the first half of the play, Shakespeare spends most of his stage time showing us Cassius convincing Brutus to join in the conspiracy; Brutus’ deliberations; and the plotting of the conspirators to achieve their goals. After the assassination, most of the stage time focuses upon the funeral orations (Brutus and Antony), the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, and their individual death scenes.
This focus upon deliberation, quarrelling, and decisions to kill oneself all point to Shakespeare’s main concern in this play: CHARACTER. If he can’t change the story, at least he can show the main characters struggling with important decisions, and as such develop their characterizations.
In the second scene of the play, Brutus explains his being distracted as "poor Brutus, with himself at war, / Forgets the shows of love to other men." "With himself at war" is a perfect metaphor for the entire play, for over and over again we will encounter men whose natures seem divided against themselves. We meet Caesar, an arrogant man who is beloved by many; Brutus, an honorable man who engages in dishonorable acts; Cassius, an envious malcontent with a strong sense of justice and compassion; Marc Antony, a flatterer of Caesar’s seeming little more than a toady, who becomes a political genius and master general.
The divisions aren’t just within one person, either. Take the quarrel between Cassius and Brutus, or the disagreements between Antony and Octavius. Or the split opinions about Julius Caesar—is he friend or tyrant; or the actual "civil war" between Roman factions that occupies the final 2 acts of the play. See if you can notice other divisions.
Many times directors, in order to have their production of Julius Caesar make a mark, will take liberties with Brutus’ character. They might make Caesar a monster, and Brutus a noble liberator. Such views reduce the complexity of the play…and Shakespeare wants us to struggle with that dual nature, the good and bad of both men. Brutus is sympathetic, but WRONG in his actions, a noble man who is a poor judge of character and ignorant of political machinations.
Despite the play being titled Julius Caesar, Caesar dies at the beginning of the Third Act and Marcus Brutus has by far the largest speaking part.
If Brutus is the main character, why isn’t the play named after him? Remember: although the conspirators kill Caesar halfway through the play, his ghost appears in the 4th and 5th acts, and he is very much on the minds of ALL the characters in the final two acts—especially in the minds of Cassius and Brutus just before they kill themselves. It is as if there were 2 Caesars, the man of the first half of the play, and the spirit who haunts the 2nd half.
We might be reminded of Brutus’ words to the conspirators:
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it.
Ironically, Brutus and his fellow conspirators wanted to kill Caesar’s arrogant tyrannical spirit, which they hated and feared; all they did was kill the body of the man they admired as a friend. His spirit triumphs in the end: revenged upon Brutus and Cassius, and to a certain extent embodied in Antony and Octavius.
The play is called Julius Caesar because it is about BOTH these parts of Caesar: beloved and admired friend AND arrogant, conceited tyrant; man AND spirit. These are the two sides of the nature of power: how it can encourage and nurture, AND also how it can oppress and destroy.
Shakespeare recognized the complexity of power and its effect on people in all times and places—whether in ancient Rome or in Renaissance England. In what ways can these issues help us understand what is happening in our world today? For example, what about leadership and power in politics? In your school? At home? Or in the business world?