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Analysis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Julius Caesar is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in 1599; the play is based on the assassination in 44 BC of the ancient Roman dictator and its aftermath in the Battle of Philippi.  While Dante, in his Inferno, portrayed both leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, as traitors whose treachery is comparable to that of Judas Iscariot, Shakespeare portrays Brutus as being the only conspirator who acted selflessly, for the good of Rome.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Beware the ides of March.” –Soothsayer, Act I, Scene ii, line 18

2. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs, and peep about/To find ourselves dishonourable graves./Men at some time are masters of their fates:/The fault, dear Brutus, is  not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”    –Cassius, Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-141

3. “…but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” –Casca, Act I, Scene ii, around line 282

4. “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once./Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come.” –Caesar, Act II, Scene ii, lines 32-37

5. “Et tu, Brute?  –Then fall, Caesar!” –Caesar, Act III, Scene i, line 77

6. “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” –Mark Antony, Act III, scene i, line 274

7. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones;/So let it be with Caesar.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii. lines 73-77

8. “But Brutus says he was ambitious,/And Brutus is an honourable man.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii, lines 86-87

9. “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries./On such a full sea are we now afloat;/And we must take the current when it serves,/Or lose our ventures.” –Brutus, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 216-222

10. “Caesar, now be still:/I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” –Brutus, Act V, Scene v, lines 50-51

The main theme of this play is constancy versus inconstancy, everyone in the play manifesting varying combinations of these two opposites.

First, we’ll look at examples of constancy.  At the end of the play, Mark Antony honours Brutus for being the one conspirator who acted not out of envy, but for the good of Rome.  Indeed, his constant loyalty to Rome even outweighs his loyalty to his friend, Caesar.  In all of Brutus’ speeches, be they public or private, he always puts Rome first.  In his home at night, before the other conspirators arrive, he speaks of how those who gain power often ignore the base degrees from which they’ve climbed.

“Th’abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar,/I have not known when his affections sway’d/More than his reason.  But ’tis a common proof/That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,/Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;/But when he once attains the upmost round,/He then unto the ladder turns his back,/Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees/By which he did ascend.  So Caesar may.” (Brutus, Act II, Scene i, lines 18-27)

During the plotting with the conspirators that night, Brutus rejects Cassius’ recommendation to kill Mark Antony, too, feeling their “course will seem too bloody”.  Only Caesar has to die.  After killing Caesar, Brutus tells the other conspirators to dip their hands in Caesar’s blood, and to plead their cause to the people: killing Caesar was for the good of Rome, not for the conspirators’ private profit, and they are to reveal themselves proudly as liberators from Caesar’s growing tyranny (Act III, Scene i).

Later in that scene, Brutus’ constancy is so full that he would allow Mark Antony to honour Caesar in his funeral for the good he did in his life; this generosity, of course, is a risk Brutus is taking, and one that ultimately leads to his death, but it also shows how constant he is .

When Brutus learns of officers in Cassius’ army taking bribes, he shows his opposition so openly that he wounds Cassius’ pride, resulting in a quarrel (Act IV, Scene iii).  Brutus’ duty to Rome outweighs his kindness to his friends; such noble constancy is rare.

Finally, when all is lost in the wars between Brutus’ army and those of Mark Antony and Octavius (later Augustus), Brutus runs into his sword, accepting the continuing power of Caesar even after his death (see quote 10).

Portia, Brutus’ wife, is offended that he won’t tell her what’s troubling him and keeping him awake at night (Act II, scene i); she feels he doubts her constancy, which she proves by cutting a wound in her leg.  Later, when she fears for him and his shaky fortunes in the wars after killing Caesar, we learn she’s killed herself by swallowing burning coals, or fire, as it says in the text (Act IV, scene iii).

Julius Caesar’s constancy seems the greatest of all.  Though fearing suspicious types like Cassius, he insists “always I am Caesar” (Act I, scene ii).  He says “I am constant as the northern star” when he is asked for pardon for the banished brother of Metellus Cimber, one of the conspirators (Act III, scene i).  The conspirators, of course, almost immediately after, in the same scene, show their inconstancy to Caesar by stabbing him to death.

His power lives on after his death, though, for Mark Antony and Octavius act as his avenging agents.  His ghost appears to Brutus (Act IV, scene iii), showing us how Caesar still exists, even if no longer in physical form.  Brutus acknowledges the constancy of Caesar’s power when his avengers defeat Brutus and Cassius in the battles toward the end of the play, causing Cassius and his loyal friend, Titinius, to kill themselves.  “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails.” (Brutus, Act V, scene iii, lines 93-95)

Now we’ll examine inconstancy, of which there’s plenty in this play.  Cassius’ inconstancy is particularly blatant.  He fears the growing power of Caesar, but is inconstant with the truth when he forges letters of complaint about Caesar’s tyranny, and has them tossed in the windows of Brutus’ home to trick him into joining the conspirators.  “I will this night,/In several hands, in at his windows throw,/As if they came from several citizens,/Writings, all tending to the great opinion/That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely/Caesar’s ambition shall be glanced at.” (Cassius, Act I, scene ii)

Cassius is opposed to Caesar’s corruption, but is lenient over the bribery his soldiers are guilty of; hence Brutus’ accusation that Cassius has an “itching palm” (Act IV, scene iii, line 10).

Cassius is constant, though, towards his friend, Titinius, when he, believing his friend has been taken by the enemy, kills himself.  “O, coward that I am to live so long/To see my best friend ta’en before my face!” (Cassius, Act V, scene iii, lines 34-35)  When Titinius, having not been taken, returns and sees Cassius lying dead on the ground, he kills himself, too.  “Brutus, come apace,/And see how I regarded Caius Cassius./By your leave, gods.  This is a roman’s part./Come, Cassius’ sword, and find Titinius’ heart.” (Titinius, Act V, scene iii, lines 87-90)

Conflicted Brutus is constant in his loyalty to Rome, but inconstant is his loyalty to his friend Caesar; hence, after his reluctant stab at Caesar, the betrayed, dying dictator gasps out his last words, “Et tu, Brute?” (Act III, scene i, line 76)

When Brutus, Cassius, Titinius, and Messala discuss the battle plans against the army of Mark Antony and Octavius, there is disagreement over where to meet the enemy: should they wait for them to arrive, tired from long marching, while their own armies are well-rested and ready, or should they march on and face the enemy farther ahead?  Cassius argues for the former, while Brutus argues the latter, based on the principle of inconstancy.

“The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground/Do stand but in a forc’d affection;/For they have grudg’d us contribution./The enemy, marching along by them,/By them shall make a fuller number up,/Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encourag’d;/From which advantage shall we cut him off,/If at Philippi we do face him there,/These people at our back/…You must note beside/That we have tried the utmost of our friends,/Our legions are brim full, our cause is ripe./The enemy increaseth every day:/We, at the height, are ready to decline” (Brutus, Act IV, scene iii, lines 202-210, 210-215; then see Quote 9 above)

Brutus wants to fight Mark Antony and Octavius while his and Cassius’ armies still have the men “‘twixt Philippi and this ground” on their side, for, being “but in a forc’d affection”, those men may switch to the enemy’s side if Mark Antony and Octavius meet them before the battle.  If Brutus’ and Cassius’ armies cut the enemy off before they can meet those men in between, inconstancy won’t have an opportunity to give those men over to the enemy.

Elsewhere, Mark Antony seems constant in his loyalty to Caesar and to Rome in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, in which he passionately demonstrates Caesar’s love of the Roman people while sarcastically parroting Brutus’ “honourable” intentions.  Once he has the ever-malleable crowd following him, however, he seems happier to use this support for his own political ascendancy than for Caesar’s revenge.

“Now let it work.  Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt,” Antony says as he watches the people of Rome riot, loot, and search for revenge for Caesar’s death (Act III, scene ii, lines 261-262).

Caesar himself is mostly constant, though he fears “lean and hungry” Cassius, and wants fat men about him; almost in the same breath, however, he says, “always I am Caesar”.  Also, he thrice refuses a kingly crown, though, as Casca reports, he refuses it less and less.  (Act I, scene ii, lines 220-240, etc.)

On the day of his murder, he allows the entreaties of his wife, Calpurnia, to make him stay at home (Act II, scene ii) when she tells him of a dream she’s had, seeming to portend his bloody death; yet when Decius Brutus gives a misleadingly positive interpretation of the dream, Caesar quickly changes his mind and leaves home with the conspirators.

The most blatant example of inconstancy, however, is that of the crowd of common Romans outside the Capitol after Caesar’s murder.  At first, they’re shocked and horrified that their beloved leader has been assassinated in a conspiracy (Act III, scene ii); Brutus quickly sways their opinion in his favour in a brief speech:

“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his.  If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?”

Then Mark Antony sways the people’s opinion back against the conspirators in his repeated ironic reference to Brutus, Cassius, et al as “honourable”, during his “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” speech.  All of this swaying of public opinion happens in the same scene, within a period of about a half hour.  How quickly a mob can be manipulated.  As passionate as they may be, they are rarely constant.


About Mawr Gorshin

I write and self-publish mostly erotic horror (find me on Amazon and Literotica), but I blog about a variety of topics, including literary and film analyses, anarchism, socialism, libertarian Marxism, and psychoanalysis.

2 responses to “Analysis of ‘Julius Caesar’

  1. Pingback: Detailed Synopsis of ‘Julius Caesar’ | mawrgorshin

  2. Pingback: Detailed Synopsis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ | mawrgorshin

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