The exact date of the publication of ‘Julius Caesar’ is not absolutely certain. However, most critics agree that the play was written sometime between 1598 and 1608 - during, or just after, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. ‘Julius Caesar’ is the first of Shakespeare’s three Roman Plays, the other two being ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Coriolanus’.
As with his other Roman Plays, ‘Julius Caesar’ is based on Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans’ from a translation by Sir Thomas North in 1579 from an earlier French version. The two texts have only minor differences – the majority of the plot is taken from Plutarch and most of the speeches, most significantly excepting Antony’s famous oration, are North’s words in verse. The play is also greatly influenced by the Elizabethan attitudes prevalent at the time for example, superstition. Several anachronisms are used in the Play - for instance, “...he plucked me ope his doublet”. Elizabethans wore doublets; Romans wore togas fastened at the shoulder.
The character of Julius Caesar particularly fascinated the Elizabethans. He was a soldier, scholar and politician and he was the first Roman to realise the benefits of a monarchical empire - like England was at the time of Elizabeth I - over a democratic state. To add to the intrigue surrounding him, he had also been killed by one of his closest friends.
In the 6th century B.C.E, Lucius Junius Brutus, an ancestor of Marcus Brutus, led the citizens of Rome in rebellion against Tarquin the Proud, ruler of Rome at the time. Tarquin had reigned as a cruel tyrant, loathed by everyone. He was deposed by the Romans, and in 509 B.C.E, Rome was declared a republic. Brutus was glorified for his honourable actions, and since then, most Romans feared the title ‘rex’ – king.
Five hundred years later, early in the first century B.C.E, Gaius Julius Caesar was born to an impoverished patrician family. Despite the fact that his family was not a prominent one, he had many influential relatives who helped him in his rise to supremacy. Later on in that century, Caesar allied with Pompey and Crassus to form the First Triumvirate, an important part of Roman history. The Roman Empire, which comprised of the majority of the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, was shared out equally between them. However, when Crassus died in battle against the Parthians in 53 B.C.E; there was conflict between Caesar and Pompey since neither of the two wanted to share their power. Consequently, civil war broke out in Rome. Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius were among those who fought with Pompey against Caesar; but when Caesar defeated Pompey, and later on Pompey’s two sons, he pardoned Brutus and befriended him, and allowed Cassius to return to Rome at Brutus’s request.
After his victory, Caesar continued to climb in politics, religion and in the military. Although formerly two consuls had been elected as prime authority in Rome, Caesar alone ruled now, and as the majority of the Senate were his supporters, any decree he made would be carried out. Caesar was king of Rome - in effect, if not in title.
Several fiercely democratic families realised this and feared a replay of Tarquin’s tyrannical reign. Determined that Rome should remain a republic, a conspiracy of over 60 senatorial families was formed by Brutus and Cassius with the aim of murdering Caesar. To an extent, the plot succeeded. Caesar was assassinated on the 15th of March in the Capitol.
However, far from being regarded as the heroes of Rome, as Lucius Junius Brutus and his followers had been five hundred years back, the conspirators were forced to flee Rome by Antony, Caesar’s close friend, and Octavius, his great-nephew and heir. Once again, civil war broke out in Rome, resulting in the deaths of Brutus and Cassius and most of their army. Antony and Octavius returned to Rome victorious and formed the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus, a general of Caesar’s army.
Eventually, Antony and Lepidus withdrew from the triumvirate and Octavius alone was left to rule the great Roman Empire. He adopted his great-uncle’s name ‘Caesar’ along with the name ‘Augustus’. He was now known as Augustus Caesar, and to this name he also added the title of ‘Princeps’ – the chief one. From then on, Rome officially ceased to be a republic.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a historical tragedy. Brutus is the tragic protagonist, Caesar is the titular hero. As with all Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one basically follows Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:
- The protagonist is a popular and noble man.
Brutus is well loved by all Romans – “O, he sits high in all the people’s hearts”.
- The protagonist is led into a fatal calamity.
Cassius convinces Brutus to join the conspiracy against Caesar.
- The protagonist’s actions lead to hamartia.
Brutus is led to believe that there is no doubt that Caesar will become a cruel tyrant, and must therefore be killed for the good of Rome.
- The protagonist defies moral laws and the prohibitions of the gods which take the form of hubris.
Caesar is killed against the will of the gods, an awful storm is sent by them as a portent to the chaos that is going to rule Rome shortly. Brutus’ hubris is that he is convinced that, because he has Rome’s interest at heart, any decision he makes must be correct, and nothing he does is wrong.
- The protagonist’s character is seen to degenerate from noble to evil.
Far from being “the noble Brutus”, he was before the murder, he has now become Brutus the traitor and villain – “We’ll burn the house of Brutus.”
- At the end of the tragedy, the protagonist realises his hamartia and hubris, but, nevertheless, divine retribution must take place, and he must die.
Brutus does not see the error of his ways until his dying day – his “evil spirit”, i.e. Caesar’s ghost, has made him realise his mistake. He wished to kill Caesar’s spirit and let his body live; he only succeeded in doing the opposite.
“Caesar, now be still;
I killed not thee with half so good a will.”
Brutus is greatly admired among all Romans; they respect him for his honourable character and ideas of right and wrong. Ligarius, like all the other conspirators, has complete trust in Brutus. They trust him to lead them along the right path:
“And with a heart new-fir’d I follow you,
To do I know not what; but it sufficeth
That Brutus leads me on.”
At the same time, they abuse the love that the Romans have for Brutus:
“O, he sits high in all the people’s hearts,
And that which would appear offence in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.”
Casca’s words are in fact very ironic: the ‘science’ of alchemy has never succeeded, and even Brutus’ “countenance” cannot succeed in making such a heinous sin as they are about to commit appear praiseworthy.
Caesar himself holds Brutus in high regard; he is shocked when he sees that Brutus is among his assassins, and drops all defences when he realises it is true:
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“Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.”
Brutus laments the fact that he and Caesar are only “like friends” as opposed to real friends – he sees the ambiguity in Caesar’s innocently uttered comment:
“And we, like friends, will straightaway go together…”.
When, at the end of the play, Brutus asks all his friends to help him kill himself, they all shrink back from the duty: “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord.”
Only Strato agrees to assist his master in taking his life, but he does so with reluctance:
“Give me your hand first: fare you well, my lord.”
Brutus is a very naïve, idealistic man. He is not a good judge of character at all, and cannot see that Cassius is manipulating him to his own advantage in trying to convince him to join the conspiracy. We can see that he is deceiving himself into believing that he is doing the right thing for Rome by killing Caesar, but he is wholly persuaded that what he is doing is indeed honourable and noble. He is making a terrible mistake: he is planning to kill Caesar because of the general conduct of ambitious people rather than the behaviour of Caesar in particular. As he himself acknowledges:
“to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason”.
However, Brutus is a philosopher and reasons that if other men aspiring to greatness abuse their power once they have gained it, why should Caesar not?
“lowliness is young ambition’s ladder…
…But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks into the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.”
Brutus’ fatal characteristic is his desire for everything he is connected with to be honourable and noble – Antony, in his speech, refers to Brutus’ honour, using it against Brutus. It is not only in this speech that this trait, usually considered an estimable virtue, works against Brutus. It is in real life as well.
From Brutus’ language, we can see that he is a rather pompous, self-righteous man: “I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.”
This “name of honour” only leads him into trouble. He claims that, on the day that Rome may be benefited by his death, he is willing to be killed by any Roman, just as he killed Caesar. In this he speaks true, for, at the end of the play, he gladly kills himself, thus returning Rome to a state of peace and tranquillity. However, since he is a Stoic, and does not believe death to be a fatal calamity but only a rest from life’s troubles, this may not have been a very difficult test for Brutus.
It is ironic to see how Brutus’ reasons for entering the conspiracy, and the precautions he took to make the murder appear sacrificial, all backfired on him. He entered the conspiracy in order to help cleanse Rome of a harmful thing, i.e. Caesar. Consequently, civil war broke out among the Romans – just what Brutus had been trying to avoid by murdering Caesar. In order that the act should not be considered one of butchery, but one of sacrifice, not only is Antony not killed, he is even allowed to make a speech at the funeral, directly resulting in mutiny and the deaths of Brutus and Cassius.
Although Brutus kills Caesar for fear of his ambition, he himself is not entirely free of high hopes and aspirations. After only just becoming a part of the plot to murder Caesar, he takes it over; all decisions are made by him, and any he vetoes are not carried out. This is ironic, because he rejects Cassius’s idea of including Cicero in the plot because “he will never follow anything
That other men begin.”
However, despite all this, there is no doubt that Brutus is a responsible, caring individual. Before deciding to join the plot, he ponders it deeply. Although his reasons are warped, he does at least have (what seem to him to be) good reasons for his actions. As Antony says at the end of the play:
“This was the noblest Roman of them all
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar”.
For him, the period before the murder is infinitely worse than the murder itself. He suffers many sleepless nights; his conscience is bothering him. He cannot decide whether his loyalties should lie with his friend or his country. When Portia remonstrates with him for his behaviour towards her during the past few days, his only argument is
“I am not well in health, and that is all”.
We are touched by the affection which he shows his wife; this shows us the more personal side of his character.
“You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.”
He recognises the fact that he has not been treating her as he should recently; he appreciates Portia’s true worth and strength:
“O ye gods
Render me worthy of this noble wife”.
Portia returns this love when Brutus has gone to the Capitol on the Ides of March. She tenderly worries about her husband’s welfare, and tells Lucius to “commend me to my lord”, to remind him that he has a wife at home thinking about him. We see the extent of Portia’s greatness from the way that Cassius’ reacts upon hearing of her death – he remains in shock for a while afterwards: “Portia, art thou gone?”
The kind and compassionate manner in which Brutus treats Lucius also shows us a softer side to his Stoic nature; in fact, many critics are of the opinion that Shakespeare only created the character of Lucius, in order that the audience see this:
“Gentle knave, good-night;
I will not do thee so much wrong to wake thee”.
Again we see Brutus’ patriotism in his speech. Unlike Antony, whose opening words are “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, Brutus starts his speech with “Romans, countrymen, lovers” - as usual, putting the fact that they are all Romans before the fact that most of them are friends, or at least acquainted with each other. He thinks of himself as the ideal Roman; patriotic and honourable, and imagines that every other Roman feels this way. However, these complicated emotions are not so well understood by the simple citizens as the straightforward sentiment of friendship that Antony puts forward before mentioning their nationality.
Both Brutus and Antony speak of the honour of Brutus, but while Brutus tells the Romans to “Hear me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe”, Antony uses this attribute to Brutus’ detriment. Antony holds a bigger grudge against Brutus than against any of the other conspirators because Brutus was Caesar’s trusted friend, while Caesar was more wary of most of the others, especially Cassius. Therefore, in his speech, Antony repeatedly states that “Brutus is an honourable man” so that the citizens will feel that he is the one chiefly to blame, and will direct their wrath at him more than at anyone else. Antony’s powerful rhetoric is such that by the end of his speech, the people see ‘honourable’ to be almost synonymous with ‘dishonourable’.
Antony comes to the pulpit saying he has comes “to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, knowing that the citizens dislike him at the moment after having just heard Brutus’s speech. Soon, however, he has convinced the citizens that Brutus is a tyrant and Caesar was a saint. Brutus asks many rhetorical questions in his speech, - this is a sign of a good education and powerful oration. He knows that no one will answer in the negative, especially in front of him; “Who is here so rude that would no be a Roman?”. He praises Caesar, but says that his one vice, i.e. ambition, was enough to overpower any virtues he might have had, and so, he had to be killed. The citizens are satisfied with the explanation he gives, and had he not allowed Antony to address the mob, everything would probably have ended there and then. Even though he makes sure the citizens know that Antony is only speaking “By our permission”, Antony twists this fact when he is addressing the people so that it sounds like the conspirators have consented to him degrading them in the eyes of the public.
Antony pretends to be overcome with sorrow so as to arouse the compassion of the mob – his grief may be real, but it is certainly exaggerated. Although he has convinced them almost thoroughly of Caesar’s innocence and the villainy of the plotters, he wishes to bait them still further by showing them Caesar’s will. The angrier he can make them, the better, as far as he is concerned. He makes the citizens feel important – while Flavius and Marullus called them “blocks…stones…worse than senseless things”, Antony tells them “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men”. They “compel” Antony to read the will – they feel that they have influenced him in some way, and so they love him more. He links himself with them – “Then I, and you, and all of us fell down”, making them feel that they are his equals unlike Brutus, who set himself apart from them.
While Brutus talks of honour, and the reasons for the assassination, Antony shows the citizens things they can relate and respond to – the corpse, Caesar’s cloak. He personifies every tear in Caesar’s cloak, making the scene all the more poignant. The crowd is convinced: the conspirators, especially Brutus, must be sought and killed for having committed such an odious sin.
Antony has succeeded: “Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!”
Here we see Antony’s ambition; while Caesar was alive, he was content to be his friend and influence his decisions regarding Rome, but once he was dead, Antony would stoop to any means to attain power over Rome.
From the reaction of the crowd to these two speeches, we see their fickleness and disloyalty. Anyone with the power of persuasion could easily convince them to follow in his way of thinking. At the beginning of the play, a holiday has been called in honour of Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s sons. A few months later, “This Caesar was a tyrant”, and barely two hours after that, he is once again “Most noble Caesar”. When we think of Rome, we do not visualise a city of inconsistent, weak citizens but a great and advanced culture, well built cities filled with powerful, important men. Yet, the common people could have played a vital role in Roman life – it was up to them who would be their leader and what kind of a leader he would be. Cassius laments the fact that “our fathers minds are dead”, replaced by “our mothers’ spirits”.
Remarkably, during the first three acts of the play, Antony is not mentioned much. All we know about him before Act III is that he is a lively sportsman, he loves plays, and he “revels long o’ nights”. Brutus imagines that Antony is “but a limb of Caesar”, that he will be unable to do anything once Caesar is gone. This image of a dependent, helpless man changes during the play. Like Cassius, Antony takes advantage of Brutus’ political naivety to make his powerful speech. He shakes the dirtied, bloody hands of the conspirators – this image of Antony shaking the hands of the murderers of his best friend forms a powerful impression in the minds of the audience. He is, in reality, a callous, unscrupulous man, as we see when he, Octavius and Lepidus “prick” down the names of those on their list who must die. The way that Antony condemns his nephew to death - “with a spot I damn him” - bespeaks a heartless and cruel nature.
At the beginning of Act V, we see his pride, as well as Octavius’, through a trifling incident – both of them want to lead their army on the right side of the battlefield, which was considered the more honourable side. The more experienced general would usually go on the right, and the younger, less skilled commander would stay on the left. Neither of the two is willing to give in on this seemingly trivial point.
Antony and Octavius end the play in victory, but according to Brutus, it is a “vile conquest”, and he is happier losing than winning the war because he lost honourably while they won ignobly. He committed suicide rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome as a prisoner – this was the respectable thing for a Roman to do
Earlier on in the play, Cassius compared Caesar to a wolf and the Romans to “hinds”, unable to think for themselves, totally in the power of whoever is in command at the time. Antony likens Caesar to a “deer, strucken by many princes”, and the conspirators are the hounds who have “bay’d” the noble “hart”. He implies that they have treated Caesar like an animal and nothing more – the very idea Brutus wanted to prevent!
There are two sides to Caesar’s character – he has a public face and a private face. In public, he is always much more pompous and overbearing, much prouder and always unwilling to admit that he has any weaknesses at all. In private, he is less defensive, but still proud, still ashamed of his physical infirmities, i.e. his epilepsy, weakness in water, and the fact that he is deaf in his left ear. Because of his variable moods, at some points we pity him and at others, we see Brutus’ point of view and agree with it. When all the conspirators come to his house in order to accompany him to the Capitol where they will assassinate him, the hospitality Caesar shows his murderers makes him a pathetic creature. Consequently, when he is in the streets on the way to his death and he refuses to take Artemidorus’ “petition” - which could save his life if he would read it, because “What touches us ourself shall be last served” we wish he were not so chivalrous. It is ironic that the one time he should have acted as he usually did, putting himself before all else, he did not.
Subsequently, when he is in the Capitol facing death, Caesar becomes so arrogant and over-confident again that we fear that if he should be left to live much longer, Rome will transform once again into the hell-like place it was during the reign of Tarquin the Proud. The fact that he “put to silence” Flavius and Marullus at the beginning of the play just for “pulling scarves” off his statues justifies Brutus fears that Caesar would become a tyrannical dictator. He undoubtedly has ambition – he turned down the crown three times, “every time gentler than the other”, but Brutus cannot know to what extent this ambition will carry him. Moreover, apart from the example regarding Flavius and Marullus, there is no other undisputable indication that would suggest that Caesar wants to lead Rome into chaos and disaster.
He does not like to listen to anyone’s advice in public – when the soothsayer entreats him to “beware the Ides of March”, Caesar’s response is:
“He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.”
Since believing in a soothsayer’s prophecies would insinuate that Caesar was superstitious, and because Caesar believed himself to be above mortal emotions, this was the only response he could have given “for always I am Caesar.” Yet, Cassius observes that Caesar is “superstitious grown of late” – perhaps he showed some fear on the night of the storm. We see that although he disregarded the Soothsayer’s prophecy, he was clearly uneasy on the Ides of March for he told his “augurers” to:
And bring me their opinions of success”.
We find more evidence of Caesar’s somewhat elevated opinion of himself in other parts of the play. Minutes before his murder, we see him boasting that he is “constant as the northern star”. It is almost as though he believes that he is nearer the status of a god than that of a human – “Know, Caesar doth not wrong”. However, it is doubtful whether Caesar’s claims to unswerving constancy are true. When Calphurnia is coaxing him to stay at home on the Ides of March, he eventually submits to her will calling the Senators “greybeards” – it is enough for them to know that Caesar “will not come.” He then succumbs to Decius’ flattery and persuasion “lest I be laugh’d at when I tell them so”.
We see that he is also a shallow man – so much so that he does not recognise Decius’ obsequious flattery for what it is; he is so haughty that to him it is but a simple truth. It is interesting to note that both Caesar and Cassius compare Caesar to a lion, but for each, the lion takes on a different connotation. Cassius speaks of Caesar as a lion:
“That thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars
As does the lion in the Capitol”
while Caesar says that he and danger are: “two lions litter’d in one day
And I the elder and more terrible”
Caesar dies physically after being slain by Brutus and the other conspirators. It is ironic that he falls by the base of Pompey’s statue – though he defeated Pompey in life, he died by the hands of Pompey’s supporters. However, his spirit lives on – his ghost comes to haunt Brutus twice, once in Sardis and once in Philippi. Both Brutus and Cassius die with Caesar’s name on their lips; Brutus entreating Caesar’s phantom to “now be still” and Cassius with the words, “Caesar, thou art reveng’d
Even with the sword that kill’d thee”
Cassius is, perhaps, the character through which Shakespeare displays most of his writing skills. A pun is included when Cassius, straight after Caesar’s murder, says:
“How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er
In states unborn and accents yet unknown”.
While Cassius is simply saying that the conspirators will be lauded for their heroic actions, Shakespeare is insinuating that his play will be acted by people of different countries who speak different languages.
Brutus compares Cassius to a horse “hot at hand”, very eager when it is first acquired but which will late “sink in the trial”.
Cassius has a quick temper: “O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark
And straight is cold again”.
Although Cassius is generally acknowledged to be a bitter, malcontent man, jealous of Caesar’s power, he does have some good qualities. Brutus is an unrealistic man, inexperienced in politics and Cassius is by far the more knowledgeable on the subject of leadership and battle. Nevertheless, he always gives way to Brutus’ blundering decisions, even though he knows they are wrong. Moreover, there is only one time when he is seen to admonish Brutus for ignoring him after he has been proved right: “Now, Brutus, thank yourself:
This tongue had not offended so today
If Cassius might have rul’d.”
Again Shakespeare uses ambiguous language through Cassius when he leaves Brutus’ tent in Sardis with the words, “This was an ill beginning of the night”.
On a simple level it means that Brutus and Cassius have argued – not a good sign. However, it could also allude to the mistake that Brutus has just made by deciding that they should march to Philippi rather than wait for the enemy to come to them.
Cassius is a good judge of character – he can see through Antony’s suave speeches after Caesar’s death, and he realised he was a danger to them long before this. He takes advantage of Brutus’ naïve character to convince him to become a part of the conspiracy. He is very cunning and persuasive, as good an orator as Antony is, as we can see by the way he manages to win Brutus over. He hints at the things that Brutus holds in highest regard – honour, nobility, patriotism, and reveals his character in such a way that Brutus believes his personality contains none of the vices he speaks of:
“Were I a common laughter, or did use
To stale with ordinary oaths my love
To every new protester;”.
Unlike Brutus, Cassius does not deceive himself – he deceives others. Decius Brutus, another of the conspirators is somewhat like Cassius in that he will cross lines in order to fulfil his purpose. He says it is only his “dear dear love” for Caesar that makes him advise Caesar to go to the Capitol that day, whereas, in reality he wants Caesar at the Capitol in order to be able to murder him. We can see the conspirators are nervous about the murder from their idle chatter about the rising of the sun in Brutus’ home. They disguise themselves on the way to his house, afraid to show their faces even at night. After the murder, the conspirators do their best to stay cheerful – they do not want to admit to themselves that they have done anything wrong by killing Caesar, but cannot deny the fact that as yet, there is no-one applauding their deed.
Cassius is evidently envious of Caesar’s power, especially so because of Caesar’s physical defects. “Ye gods, it doth amaze me,
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world
And bear the palm alone.”
Perhaps he also dislikes being in Caesar’s debt, for had Brutus not begged Caesar to recall Cassius to Rome, Cassius would have been banished from the city forever. Caesar does not like him either; Cassius is too observant, too “sleek” not to be harmful to Caesar in some way or another. Like most of the other conspirators, Cassius kills Caesar for personal reasons, and not for the honour of Rome.
We see how Cassius’ attitude to superstition changes during the play. At the beginning of it, during the storm, he is fearless, telling Casca that he has been walking about the streets “thus unbraced, Casca, as you see”. The storm does not frighten him; he believes that it only represents Caesar’s dictatorial reign over Rome. Later on in the play, he claims that though, previously, he “held Epicurus strong
And his opinion”,
i.e. he never used to believe in superstition, following the beliefs of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, “now I change my mind”. When the eagles which accompanied their army on the way to Philippi “fled away” and ravens, crows and kites took their place, Cassius is fearful lest they be an evil portent signifying their defeat. He declares he is “ready to give up the ghost”, prepared to lose this war and end his life in battle.
In spite of Cassius’ manipulation of Brutus, and Brutus’ blunders, these two men are great friends. They love each other for their qualities and accept each other’s vices.
“For ever, and for ever, farewell Brutus.
If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed;
If not, ‘tis true this parting was well made.” Cassius and Brutus depart, never to meet again, with these words. This phrase proves that behind Brutus’ stiff, cold character and Cassius’ cunning, calculating personality, there are two sensitive human beings.
The characters of Brutus and Cassius provide a perfect foil for each other. They complement one another wonderfully.
When they killed Caesar along with the other conspirators, they did so without having proven the fault for which they murdered him, i.e. his tyranny. In the eyes of the Romans, Julius Caesar was a good, important and powerful man. We see how, at the beginning of the play, they “cull out a holiday” in honour of Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s sons. He is a leader loved by the people; when he faints in a fit of epilepsy on the Feast of Lupercal, they do not condemn him for his physical defect but cry out “Alas! good soul,”.
This image of a great but kind leader appealed to the Elizabethans. Caesar was human; therefore, like any other human, he was bound to have faults. However, his ambition to be sole ruler of Rome had not yet been realised and he was a popular figure in the Empire. Therefore, although the Elizabethans appreciated the fact that Julius Caesar and Rome had had a great influence on their society, their interest lay in the intrigue of Caesar’s life and in how his death is avenged – for avenged it must be in order to satisfy poetic justice.
The picture that Shakespeare had of Rome and the image we have nowadays are not so very different. Rome reigned over most, if not all, the civilised world in its day and had influential and wealthy men as its leaders. Rome was a city of beauty – Caesar’s “private arbours” and “new-planted orchards” are described as
To walk abroad”. Of course, the mention of Caesar’s generous will would also make the Elizabethans anxious to see revenge taken for his death..
All the principal characters in ‘Julius Caesar’ are men from patrician families, educated and sophisticated. They are intelligent, well brought up and know well the rules of etiquette. The art of rhetoric in public speaking is also essential to the Roman leader so as to gain the support of the Roman commoners.
The two main women in ‘Julius Caesar’, i.e. Calphurnia and Portia, also play an important role. They care deeply for their husbands, and Portia especially is also extremely courageous. In order to convince her husband that she is brave enough a woman to share his secrets with, she stabs herself with a sword:
“Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh:” Later on, she “swallow’d fire” in her distress upon hearing that her husband had been unsuccessful in his “enterprise” and was now in battle.
Calphurnia, unlike Portia, has no noble objectives for herself or her husband. However, like Portia, she suffers because of her husband’s actions. It is through her that we see Caesar’s more human dimensions – in spite of her small role in the play, she is vital to its development. Caesar agrees to stay at home “for thy humour” – he evidently loves her, although he does not show his love as openly as Brutus does; possibly he thinks that love is another emotion confined only to ordinary mortals. Calphurnia is very superstitious. Her dream of Caesar’s statue spouting blood “in which so many smiling Romans bathed” is prophetic, she realises that “when beggars die there are no comets seen” therefore, the terrible tempest must be an omen of Caesar’s downfall.
The Elizabethans were also great believers in superstition, and could therefore identify with Calphurnia’s fears. They understood that whenever Shakespeare used storms or other natural disasters in his plays, he was portraying the anger of G-d.
To the Elizabethans, Rome was synonymous with power. This belief was based on historical knowledge, as it was well known that Rome was a great and important empire. They expected ‘Julius Caesar’ to be about power and ambition because it fitted in with their idea of Rome. Loyalty was expected from the Roman subjects – but allegiance to the country did not necessarily mean devotion to the ruler. However, in the opinion of the Elizabethans, Caesar was worthy of their loyalty.