Type of Work
is a stage tragedy centering on the assassination of
the title character and the downfall and death of the
leader of the assassins, Marcus Brutus. Because
Shakespeare based the drama on historical events, it
may also be referred to as a history play.
Shakespeare probably wrote the play in 1599. Foolproof
documentation for the year, or years, of composition
is lacking. It is possible that he began the play in
1598. He was in his mid-thirties at the time.
The play probably debuted at London's newly
constructed Globe Theatre
in September 1599. Evidence
suggesting this date appears in the diary of Thomas
Platter the Younger, a Swiss physician and traveler.
Here is what he wrote:
On September 21st after lunch, about two
o'clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there
in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an
excellent performance of the tragedy of the first
Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen
people; when the play was over, they danced very
marvellously and gracefully together as is their
wont, two dressed as men and two as women.
The play was published in London in 1623 as part of
the First Folio
, the first
authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare based the play on “Caesar,” a chapter in Lives of the Noble
Greeks and Romans (also called Parallel Lives),
by Plutarch (AD 46?-120?), as translated by Sir Thomas
North (1535-1604) from a French version by Jacques
Amyot (1513-1593). The French version was a
translation of a Latin version of Plutarch’s original
Greek version. Shakespeare may also have borrowed
ideas from The
Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321),
in which Brutus and his co-conspirator Cassius occupy
the lowest circle of hell. Finally he may have
borrowed from The
Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer
(1343?-1400), in which “The Monk’s Tale” presents
Caesar as a victim rather than a villain.
The play begins in Rome on February 15, 44 BC, and
ends in Philippi, Greece, in 42 BC, when Cassius and
Brutus commit suicide after battling the pro-Caesar
forces of Mark Antony and Octavius. Part of the action
is also set in the camp of Brutus and Cassius near
Sardis (in present-day Turkey).
The dominant tone of the play is ominous and
foreboding. In the first scene of the first act, the
tribune Marullus chides tradesmen for leaving their
jobs to join throngs cheering Julius Caesar passing in
a triumphal parade. (A tribune was an elected official
charged with protecting the rights of ordinary
citizens.) After the tradesmen move on, the companion
of Marullus—a tribune named Flavius—criticizes Caesar,
saying, "Who else would soar above the view of men /
And keep us all in servile fearfulness" (1.1.66-67).
The cheers of the crowd contrast with the attitude of
the tribunes, establishing the existence of mixed
feelings about Caesar—and a tiny hint that doom may be
stalking the dictator. Then, in the second act, a
soothsayer warns Caesar of danger as the parade
continues, saying,“Beware the Ides of March” (1.2.23).
It is clear by this time that Caesar might become a
target for foul play. Next, Cassius, a prominent
senator, reveals his enmity for Caesar and recruits
Brutus, another prominent senator, in a plot to
assassinate Caesar. Cassius and Brutus meet that
evening with other plotters. Thunder cracks. The night
is violent. Caesar's wife sees terrible omens. The
following day, the Ides of March, the ominous mood
continues, and Caesar is assassinated.
Sometime later, when Antony's troops chase down those
of Brutus and Cassius, a "canopy" of ravens, crows,
and kites flies over the heads of the two
conspirators, presaging doom for them just as the
soothsayer did for Caesar.
Antagonists: Antony, Caesar
(Gaius Julius Caesar): Triumphant general and
political leader of Rome. Although he is highly
competent and multi-talented, he is also condescending
and arrogant. In his conversation, he frequently uses
the third-person "Caesar" instead of the first-person
"I" to refer to himself and also sometimes substitutes
the kingly "we" for "I." He depicts himself as a
man of unshakable resolve, but he proudly and
recklessly ignores warnings about his safety. Rumors
abound that he plans to be crowned king. Historically,
evidence to support the view that Caesar sought
elevation to a throne is inconclusive.
(Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger): Roman senator and
praetor who helps plan and carry out Caesar's
assassination. Historically, Marcus Junius Brutus
(84-42 BC) enjoyed a reputation in his day among Roman
republicans as a noble and fair-minded statesman.
However, his opponents—notably supporters of
Caesar—regarded him as a traitor. First, Brutus sided
with Pompey the Great against Caesar when the Roman
Civil War started in 49 BC. After Caesar defeated
Pompey at Pharsalus, Greece, in 48 B.C., he pardoned
Brutus and appointed him governor of Cisalpine Gaul in
46 BC. and a praetor of Rome in 44 BC. But Brutus
turned against Caesar a second time, helping to lead
the conspiracy that led to Caesar’s assassination in
44 BC. Brutus believed the action was necessary to
prevent Caesar from becoming dictator-for-life,
meaning that all power would reside in Caesar and not
in the delegates representing the people. In
Shakespeare’s play, Brutus’s nobility and idealism
gain the audience’s sympathy. But in the ancient Roman
world of power politics, characterized by perfidy and
pragmatism, it is his virtues that doom him. His
downfall and death are the real tragedy of the play,
not the death of Caesar.
(Marcus Antonius): A member of the ruling triumvirate
after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Marcus is
also known as Mark Antony, or simply Antony. He is
cunning and pragmatic, a thoroughgoing politician who
can wield words just as effectively as he wields
weapons. Antony is a main character in another
Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra.
(Gaius Cassius Longinus): Clever and manipulative
senator who persuades Brutus to join the assassination
conspiracy. Unlike Brutus, Cassius is no idealist; his
primary motivation for conspiring against Caesar
appears to be jealousy. Though small-minded and
mean-spirited early in the play, he later displays
courage and a modicum of honor on the field of battle.
Julius Caesar's wife.
(birth name: Gaius Octavius): Grandnephew of Julius
Caesar and a member of the ruling triumvirate after
the assassination of Julius Caesar. In his will,
Julius Caesar made Octavius his adopted son and heir.
Octavius, also identified in history books as
Octavian, later became emperor of Rome as Augustus
(Marcus Aemilius Lepidus): Member of the ruling
triumvirate after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Because he is weak, he is easily pushed aside.
, and Popilius Lena
Roman senators. Cicero, a supporter of republican
government, is killed by the supporters of Caesar in
the aftermath of Caesar's assassination. However,
Cicero did not take part in planning or carrying out
(Publius Servilius Casca): One of the leading
conspirators against Caesar. According to the Greek
biographer Plutarch (AD 46?-120?), Casca was the first
of the conspirators to stab Caesar, plunging a dagger
into his back. The historical Casca was a tribune of
the people, an elected officer who represented the
plebeians, or commoners.
, Decius Brutus
, Metellus Cimber
, Lucius Cornelius Cinna
Citizens who join Cassius and Brutus as conspirators.
(Note: At least 59 conspirators participated in the
actual assassination of Caesar in 44 BC.)
Exiled brother of the conspirator Metullus Cimber.
Publius is spoken of, but does not appear in, the
suspicious of Julius Caesar. They chase commoners away
when Caesar parades triumphantly through Rome in the
first act of the play. A tribune was an elected
official charged with protecting the rights of
Teacher of rhetoric who attempts to warn Caesar that
Brutus, Cassius, and others have turned against him.
Seer who warns Caesar to beware of the ides of March
(March 15). Shakespeare does not name the soothsayer.
However, in ancient texts by Plutarch and Suetonius
(AD 75-150), the soothsayer is identified as an
astrologer named Spurinna.
Helvius Cinna): A poet unrelated to Cinna the
conspirator. However, because Roman citizens mistake
him for Cinna the conspirator, they kill him.
, Young Cato
of Brutus and Cassius.
Acquaintance of Cassius who accepted bribes. Cassius
speaks of him, but Pella does not appear in the play.
Servants of Brutus
Varro, Clitus, Claudius, Strato, Lucius, Dardanius.
Servant of Cassius
Senators, citizens, commoners, soldiers, guards,
The play begins in 44 BC. It is February 15, the day
of the annual Festival of Lupercalia, honoring
Lupercus (also called Faunus), the Roman god of
fertility. On this special day, Romans performed rites
to promote the fertility of croplands, forests, and
women of child-bearing age. The Romans also
commemorated the legend of the she-wolf that nurtured
the mythological founders of Rome—Romulus and Remus,
twin sons of Mars, the god of war. It was in the cave
of Lupercus, on Rome’s Palatine Hill, that the wolf
suckled the twin boys. Oddly, while glorifying the
memory of the she-wolf during Lupercalia, the Romans
also gave thanks to Lupercus for protecting shepherds’
flocks from wolves. In Shakespeare’s play, Lupercalia
takes on even more significance, for it is the day
when mighty Julius Caesar parades through the streets
near the Palatine Hill in a triumphal procession
celebrating his victory over Pompey the Great in the
Roman Civil War.
On February 15, the day of the annual Festival of
Lupercalia, tradesmen gather in streets near the
Palatine Hill in Rome to watch mighty Caesar as he
passes by in a procession celebrating his triumph over
Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War. Two tribunes,
Flavius and Marullus, reproach the tradesmen for their
adoration of Caesar. Marullus cries, “You blocks, you
stones, you worse than senseless things!” (1.1.27).
Once upon a time, he says, the populace gathered to
cheer Pompey as he passed in procession. Now, Marullus
says, the same people are closing their shops to honor
a man who “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood”
(1.1.43). Flavius and Marullus then chase the
tradesmen home. The two tribunes distrust Caesar,
thinking him ambitious and covetous of kingly power.
However, their efforts against a handful of tradesmen
do little to intimidate the thousands of others
gathered to applaud the great general as he and his
entourage make their way to the public games.
Mark Antony (also called Marcus Antonius), a military
commander who fought against Pompey and later became a
consul of Rome, is “running the course,” a Lupercalia
ritual in which the runner strips naked and races
through streets with a thong cut from a sacrificial
goat. Along the way, the runner strikes any woman he
encounters to promote her fertility. Caesar tells him
to be sure to strike Calpurnia, the wife of Caesar,
and Antony assures him that he will. From somewhere in
the crowd, a soothsayer cries out to Caesar: “Beware
the Ides of March” (1.2.23). When Caesar calls him
closer, the soothsayer repeats his warning. Caesar
says, “He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass”
(1.1.30). The soothsayer apparently knows what Caesar
and his intimate friends don’t know: that prominent
citizens are plotting against Caesar and may act
against him one month hence, on the Ides of March
(March 15), to prevent him from centering all power in
Observing Caesar at some distance is Gaius Cassius
Longinus, a former military leader. (According to
historical accounts, he serves as praetor perigrinus,
a high judicial official who decides legal cases
involving foreigners.) He is a ringleader of the
disenchanted Romans. Envious of Caesar’s power,
Cassius tells another prominent citizen, Marcus Junius
Brutus—a former military commander who now serves as
praetor urbanus, a high judicial official who decides
cases involving Roman citizens—that Caesar has become
much too powerful:
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.
Among those accompanying Caesar on the festive day is
Casca, a friend of Cassius. As Caesar’s entourage
leaves the games, Cassius urges Brutus to pull Casca
aside and ask him for a report on what Caesar and his
friends did during the games. When Brutus does so,
Casca gives this account: Mark Antony offered Caesar a
crown. Well aware that accepting it might anger the
crowd, Caesar refused it. Antony offered it two more
times, and Caesar twice more refused it—each time with
greater reluctance than before. Then he suffered an
epileptic seizure but recovered moments later. Nearby,
the Roman senator Cicero (a political opponent of
Caesar) spoke to his friends about what had taken
place, and they smiled and shook their heads. But his
comment was in Greek, and Casca did not understand it.
At any rate, one thing seems clear: Caesar wants to be
crowned, when the time is right.
Cassius presses Brutus to take part in an
assassination plot against Caesar. The perceptive
Caesar, meanwhile, smells trouble from Cassius when he
looks upon him. “Yond Cassius,” he tells Mark Antony,
“has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much:
such men are dangerous” (1.2.204-205). Cassius works
hard to win over Brutus to his deadly ways and,
through crook and hook, eventually convinces him that
Caesar must die. Brutus is a sincere, highly respected
man of principle; if he says Caesar must go, Cassius
knows, other disenchanted Romans will surely follow
his lead. Cassius is right. After other citizens learn
that Brutus has sided against Caesar, they follow his
lead. On March 14, the conspirators meet in Brutus’s
orchard to make final plans to kill the Great One in
the Capitol the next day, the Ides of March. After the
meeting, Portia, Brutus’s wife, notices a change in
her husband’s demeanor, saying “You have some sick
offence within your mind” (2.1.288), and prods him to
reveal his thoughts. But Lucius, the servant of
Brutus, interrupts their conversation to present a
visitor, Ligarius, and Portia leaves the room.
Ligarius then pledges his support for the plot against
The night is violent: Thunder booms, lightning
strikes. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, dreams that
catastrophe will smite her husband and begs him not to
go to the Capitol on the Ides. She tells him what she
saw in the dream:
A lioness hath
whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them. (2.2.21-30)
Caesar says, “Cowards die many times before their
deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once”
(2.2.37-38). Thus, because he is not a coward and
because he does not fear death, which he says “will
come when it will come” (2.2.42), he refuses to change
his plans. But after Calpurnia prevails on him
further, Caesar agrees to stay home, saying, “Mark
Antony shall say I am not well” (2.2.63). However, one
of the conspirators, Decius, comes to Caesar’s house
at dawn and persuades him to go the Capitol as
planned, telling him that his wife’s dream was
The image of blood she saw, Decius says, means “that
from you [Caesar] great Rome shall suck / Reviving
blood. . .” (2.2.97-98). Caesar says, “How foolish do
your fears seem now, Calpurnia!” (2.2.115). At eight
o’clock, other conspirators—Cassius, Brutus, Ligarius,
Metellus Cimber, Casca, Trebonius, and Cinna—enter to
escort Caesar to the Capitol. Caesar tells them he
will be speaking at the Capitol for an hour and says,
“Be near me, that I may remember you” (2.2.138).
Trebonius replies, “Caesar, I will,” then completes
his statement with an aside, speaking only loudly
enough for the other conspirators to hear: “and so
near will I be / That your best friends will wish I
had been further” (2.2.139-140).
Out on the streets, Artemidorus, a teacher of rhetoric
who has come into knowledge of the conspiracy, is
reading to himself from a paper. It says,
Caesar, beware of Brutus; take heed of Cassius; come
not near Casca; have an eye to Cinna; trust not
Trebonius: mark well Metellus Cimber: Decius Brutus
loves thee not: thou hast wronged Caius Ligarius.
There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent
against Caear. If thou beest not immortal, look about
you: security gives way to conspiracy. (2. 3. 3)
Artemidorus then stands along the route to the
Capitol to await Caesar. Nearby is the soothsayer.
When Caesar approaches, he tells the soothsayer that
“The Ides of March are come” (3.1.3), as if to say
that there is no need to "beware the Ides of March";
all is going well for Caesar. However, the soothsayer
responds that the day is still young. In other words,
Caesar remains in danger. Artemidorus then importunes
Caesar to read his message. However, Decius Brutus
also asks Caesar to read a document—a suit on behalf
of Trebonius. When Artemidorus interrupts, trying to
gain Caesar’s attention, Caesar becomes irritated and
ignores him. He then enters the Senate building.
Inside, Metellus Cimber approaches him to beg mercy
for his banished brother, a pretense that allows him
and the other conspirators to draw close in apparent
support of Cimber but, in actuality, to post
themselves at dagger distance. Caesar arrogantly
rejects Cimber’s plea, saying the decree against
Cimber’s brother is final. Brutus, Cassius, and Cinna
also speak up for Cimber’s brother. But Caesar,
comparing his own constancy to that of the North Star
(the brightest in the constellation of Ursa Minor) and
his immovability to that of Mount Olympus, brushes
aside their pleas. Casca then stabs Caesar and the
other conspirators join in, stabbing him again and
again. As he dies, Caesar looks up and sees his old
friend Brutus among the conspirators. “Et tu, Brute?”
(3.1.87), he says. (The words are Latin for “And you,
Brutus?”) Obviously, Caesar is pierced to his heart
with the knowledge that the noble Brutus was among the
assailants. After Caesar dies, Cinna shouts, “Liberty!
Freedom! Tyranny is dead! / Run hence, proclaim, cry
it about the streets” (3.1.88-89). At a suggestion of
Brutus, the conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s
blood so that they can show the people of Rome that a
tyrant is dead and liberty rules. Cassius thinks the
generations to come will remember them as heroes who
Mark Antony’s servant arrives with a message: Although
Antony loved and served Caesar, he does not love
Caesar the dead man; he loves Brutus the living man.
Brutus, believing the message was sent in good faith,
sends the messenger back to tell Antony that Brutus
holds no grudge; Antony may move freely about without
coming to harm. Antony himself arrives on the scene
shortly thereafter and shakes the bloody hands of the
Friends am I with you
all and love you all,
Upon this hope, that you shall give me reasons
Why and wherein Caesar was dangerous. (3.1.241-243)
Clever Antony, however, has no intention of allying
himself with Brutus and Cassius. Later on the streets,
Brutus wins over a mob with a speech explaining that
even though Caesar had his good points he suffered
from a fatal flaw, ambition—ambition for power—that
would have enslaved the citizens. Brutus says he had
no choice but to rid Rome of Caesar and thereby win
freedom for everyone. Antony comes forth with Caesar’s
body, and Brutus tells the mob to listen to what he
has to say, no doubt expecting Antony to endorse the
action of the conspirators. Antony’s speech begins as
if he indeed approves of the assassination of Caesar:
He acknowledges that Caesar was ambitious and praises
Brutus as noble. But Antony then begins to laud Caesar
as a man who promoted the people’s welfare:
He hath brought many
captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Antony shows the people the bloody garment Caesar was
wearing when he died, pointing out the slits opened by
the plunging daggers. Then he discloses provisions of
the will: Caesar bequeathed the people seventy-five
drachmas (ancient monetary unit) each and left them
his private walks, arbors, and orchards to use for
their pleasure. One citizen shouts, “Most noble
Caesar! We’ll revenge his death” (3.2.222). Having
lost the support of the mob, Brutus and Cassius flee
the city. Civil war erupts. On the streets, angry
citizens attack a poet who has the misfortune of
bearing the same name—Cinna—as one of the
conspirators. When he informs them that he is Cinna
the poet, not Cinna the conspirator, one citizen
shouts, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his
Antony forms a new government with two other leaders,
Octavius and Lepidus; all three share power. While
Brutus and Cassius raise armies of loyalists and make
camp at Sardis (in present-day Turkey) on the Aegean
coast, Antony and Octavius lead their forces to
Philippi (modern Filippoi), near the Aegean coast in
Meanwhile, Brutus has received word that his
wife, Portia, believing all was lost for her husband
and herself, committed suicide by swallowing hot
coals. Messala, a soldier under Brutus, then reports
that he has received messages saying that Antony,
Octavius, and Lepidus have purged Rome of their
political enemies, killing one hundred senators,
including one of the Senate’s greatest orators and
statesmen, Cicero, a proponent of republican
government. Cicero played no part in the conspiracy
against Caesar; he simply had the misfortune of being
on the wrong side in Roman politics.
When Brutus and Cassius confer on war plans, Cassius
argues in favor of waiting for the forces of Antony
and Octavius to come to Sardis; the march will weary
them and make them easy prey. But Brutus argues for
attack, noting that the enemy is increasing its forces
daily while the forces of Cassius and Brutus are
already at their peak strength and can only decline.
Brutus says, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, /
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”
(4.3.249-250). Cassius yields, agreeing to attack at
Philippi, and the two men retire for the evening.
During the night, the Ghost of Caesar appears to
Brutus, but Brutus does recognize it as such.
Identifying himself as “Thy evil spirit” (4.3.327),
the Ghost says Brutus will see him again at Philippi.
At Philippi, Cassius and Brutus ride forth and meet
Octavius and Antony for a parley, but only insults
come of it. Later, Cassius tells Messala he has seen
ill omens. Cassius says that
crows and kites,
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.
The armies clash, and the forces of Antony and
Octavius eventually gain the upper hand. When
Cassius’s friend Titinius is captured, Cassius decides
it is time to end his struggle and orders another
soldier, Pindarus, to kill him—with the same weapon
Cassius used against Caesar. Elsewhere on the
battlefield, Brutus orders Clitus to kill him, but he
refuses to do so. Brutus gives the same order to
Dardanius; he also backs away. Before asking a third
man, Volumnius, to help him die, Brutus tells him that
the Ghost of Caesar appeared to him—first at Sardis,
then at night on the Philippi battlefield—an omen
signifying that all is lost. He then asks Volumnius to
hold his sword while he runs on it, but Volumnius,
too, refuses to be an instrument in the death of his
commander. Finally, Brutus talks a fourth soldier,
Strato, into holding the sword at the proper angle.
Brutus falls on it and dies. After Antony and Octavius
come upon his body, they pay him homage:
was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’
OCTAVIUS: According to his virtue let us
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order’d honourably.
So call the field to rest; and let’s away,
To part the glories of this happy day. (5. 5.76-89)
For centuries, Rome was a republic run by a senate and
elected consuls. But when Julius Caesar rose to power
after his military conquests between 59 to 45 BC, the
politically ambitious Caesar had consolidated power in
himself. In 44 BC, it appeared that representative
republican government was doomed and that Caesar would
become the absolute ruler of Rome. Consequently,
conflict developed between supporters of republican
government and Caesar. In Shakespeare's play, Senators
Cassius and Brutus are the chief opponents of Caesar
and his supporters. Along with other senators, they
form a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. After they
kill him, the conflict continues as Mark Antony takes
up the banner of Caesar and eventually defeats Brutus
and Cassius, the point in history when Shakespeare
play ends. Unfortunately, the damage had been done.
Rome went on to become an empire ruled by a single
man, Augustus Caesar (Octavian in Shakespeare's
The High Price of
Brutus has respect, a comfortable home, a loving wife,
friends. Yet he willingly risks everything—and
ultimately loses everything, including his life—to
live up to his ideals. This motif is a major one
in history and literature. The Greek philosopher
Socrates (470-399 BC) accepted a death penalty—taking
poison—rather than recant his beliefs; Christ suffered
crucifixion after spreading His message of love and
peace. The French mystic and soldier Joan of Arc
(1412?-1431) was burned at the stake for heresy and
witchcraft after holding fast to her ideals in a
trumped-up trial. The English statesman Thomas More
(1478-1535) was beheaded after refusing to support
King Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In
Lear, the noblest character, Cordelia, is
ordered hanged by the villainous Edgar. In Charles
Dickens's A Tale of
Two Cities, Sidney Carton goes to the
guillotine to save the life of the husband of the
woman Carton loves.
Harbinger of Destruction
“Beware the ides of March,” a soothsayer tells
Caesar (1.2.23). But Caesar ignores the warning. Then,
upon noticing Cassius in a crowd, Caesar tells Antony:
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks
too much: such men are dangerous” (1.2.204-205). In
other words, Cassius is hungry for revolution,
reprisal, against the man he envies; he would bring
Caesar to ruin. Nevertheless, Caesar says he does not
fear Cassius, “for always I am Caesar” (1.2.222),
meaning he is the greatest of men and therefore
invincible. Later, he ignores the warnings of his
wife, who tells him of many omens that bode ill for
him if he leaves home on March 15 (the Ides of March)
to go to the senate. Apparently, in his arrogance,
Caesar believes he is invulnerable; he is an Achilles
without a weak spot. And so, in the plumage of his
pride, Caesar makes himself an easy target for Cassius
and his other enemies.
Fate Versus Free Will
Which force drives the action of the play, fate or
free will? Which causes the downfall of Caesar,
Brutus, and Cassius? On the one hand, omens,
prophecies, dreams, and seemingly supernatural events
suggest that fate determines the destiny of human
beings. On the other, decisions by Caesar and his
enemies suggest that free will determines destinies.
The play introduces the topic of fate vs free will
when Caesar parades through Rome in triumph. A
soothsayer tells him, “Beware the ides of March”
(1.2.23). The seer's warning carries a double meaning.
First, it suggests that danger awaits him on the ides,
as if destiny has marked Caesar to be a victim of
misfortune or treachery. However, the warning also
suggests—with the word beware—that Caesar can
act to avoid or thwart the threatening event. But
Caesar dismisses the warning, saying, “He is a
dreamer; let us leave him: pass” (1.2.30). When
Cassius and Brutus observe Caesar passing before them
in the triumphal procession, Cassius opines that
Caesar plans to become the autocratic ruler of Rome.
But Cassius does not attribute Caesar's rise to fate.
Rather, he attributes it to the failure of the
citizenry, including himself, to act against Caesar.
Men . . . are masters of their
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (2.1.147)
Cassius then persuades Brutus to take part in a
conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.
Later, a raging electrical storm rips through Rome and
the earth shakes. Casca
prominent citizen, is unnerved. He tells Cicero, a
senator, that during the storm he saw “the ambitious
ocean swell and rage and foam, / To be exalted with
the threat’ning clouds” (1.3.8-10). In addition, he
says, he witnessed other frightful sights: a slave
holding up a burning hand without feeling pain, a lion
walking through the streets, a night owl shrieking in
the marketplace in broad daylight—all signs, he says,
of impending catastrophe.
When he later runs into Cassius, the latter says Casca
has nothing to fear from the portents he saw, for they
are all directed at one man: the overly ambitious
Caesar. The only way to rid Rome of him is to kill
him, he says. He then persuades Casca to join the
conspiracy. It seems clear by this time that Cassius
puts little, if any, faith in omens; he believes that
only decisive human action can bring about change.
At the beginning of the third scene of the second act,
the teacher Artemidorus warns Caesar of a plot against
him, implicating Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Cinna,
Trebonius, and others as participants. It is not clear
whether Artemidorus heard rumors of a conspiracy or
“divined” the plot in some way. The ambiguity thus
focuses further attention on the question of whether
fate or free will rules Rome.
At Caesar's home, his wife, Calpurnia cries out three
times in her sleep: “Help, ho! They murder Caesar!”
(2.2.5). Later, she tells him of “horrid sights” seen
by the watch:
A lioness hath whelped in the
And graves have yawn’d and yielded up their
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the
In ranks and squadrons and right form of
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol. (2.2.21-25)
Using these ill omens, she persuades Caesar to remain
home on the ides. But after speaking with Decius
Brutus, he changes his mind and goes to the senate,
where the conspirators kill him.
After Antony and Octavian track down Brutus and
Cassius, the latter speaks of an omen that seemed to
foretell doom for him and Brutus. Messala advises him
not to believe in the omen. Cassius replies,
I but believe it partly,
For I am fresh of spirit and resolv’d
To meet all perils very constantly. (5.1.103-105)
So, at the end of the play, the question remains: does
fate or free will dictate the course of human events?
It seems that Shakespeare is leaving open that
question, as did many people in Shakespeare's time.
Today, some people still believe in fate. Others,
however, believe inherited traits, the home
environment, individual human psychological makeup,
and free will combine to determine a person's destiny.
There are those, too, who believe free will alone
determines one's destiny.
Greed for Power
The conspiracy against the politically ambitious
Caesar begins to form after other government leaders
and prominent citizens perceive him as power-hungry.
They believe he will end representative government and
rule as a tyrant, consolidating all power in himself.
While pretending to be loyal to Caesar, Cassius and
Brutus—along with their followers—connive behind his
Words as Weapons
Daggers kill Caesar, but words sharpened the weapons.
Consider Cassius's artful use of words to enlist
Brutus as a conspirator. Consider, too, the flattery
that Decius Brutus uses to persuade Caesar to go to
the senate on March 15. Finally, consider Mark
Antony's brilliant funeral oration. It turns a crowd
sympathetic with the conspirators into an angry mob
demanding the death of the conspirators.
One Man’s Hero
Is Another Man’s Villain
Caesar and Brutus are each a villain and each
a hero, depending upon the philosophical and moral
vantage points of the observers. As Barbara Mowat and
Paul Werstine observe:
Many people in the Renaissance were
passionately interested in the story of Caesar's
death at the hands of his friends and fellow
politicians. There was much debate about who were
the villains and who were the heroes. According to
the fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante, Brutus
and Cassius, the foremost of the conspirators who
killed Caesar, were traitors who deserved an
eternity in hell. But, in the view of Shakespeare's
contemporary Sir Philip Sydney, Caesar was a threat
to Rome, and Brutus was the wisest of senators.
Shakespeare's dramatization of Caesar's
assassination and its aftermath has kept this debate
alive among generations of readers and
playgoers.—Mowat, Barbara, and Paul Werstine, Eds. The New Folger
Shakespeare Library: Julius Caesar. New
York: Washington Square Press, published by Pocket
Books, 1972 (page ix).
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as
a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the
turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve
itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and
most exciting event in a series of events. There are
three key events in Julius
Caesar that each appear to qualify as the
climax: first, the meeting of the conspirators at
which they approve the plan to kill Caesar; second,
the assassination of Caesar; and, third, the deaths of
Cassius and Brutus, ending all hope of retaining
republican government. However, only one of these
events appears to meet the requirements of both parts
of the definition of climax—the assassination of
Caesar. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to argue
that either of the other two events is the climax, as
many Shakespeare scholars have done.
The conclusion, or denouement, consists of the action
following the climax.
Two prominent examples of foreshadowing occur in the
first act. The first is the warning of the soothsayer:
"Beware the ides of March" (1.2.23 and 1.2.29). The
second is Caesar's comment upon seeing Cassius:
Yond Cassius has a
lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
The soothsayer's warning and Caesar's observation
foreshadow his assassination.
In the second act, Cassius's reservations about Antony
foreshadow the latter's campaign against the
conspirators after Caesar's death:
think it is not meet,
Mark Antony, so well belov’d of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar: we shall find of him
A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all; which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together. (2.1.170-176)
Another example of foreshadowing occurs after Brutus
approves Antony's request to speak at Caesar's
funeral. Cassius protests the decision, saying
Antony's speech could arouse sympathy for Caesar and
enmity against the conspirators. Cassius tells Brutus,
You know not what you
do; do not consent
That Antony speak in his funeral:
Know you how much the people may be
By that which he will utter? (3.1.255-258)
Description of the Assassination
A Greek-born Roman biographer and historian named
Plutarch (AD 46-120) wrote the following passage
(translated by M.H. Chambers) about Caesar's
assassination in Lives
of the Noble Greeks and Romans (also called Parallel Lives
Caesar . . . entered,
and the senate rose in his honor. Some of the
conspirators then moved into position behind
Caesar's chair, while others, approaching him from
the front as if in support of a petition being
pleaded by Tillius Cimber on behalf of his exiled
brother, gathered closely around Caesar's chair to
argue the case. Sitting down, Caesar tried to brush
them off, but they continued to harass him with
their request until Caesar was driven to show some
violence of temper. It was then that Tillius gave
the signal to begin the attack, jerking Caesar's
toga down from both his shoulders.
Casca was the first to strike, stabbing Caesar in
the neck with his dagger, but because he was
understandably nervous about initiating a deed of
such daring, the wound was neither deep nor deadly,
and Caesar was able to turn around, grab the knife,
and hold it away.… So the attack began. Those who
were ignorant of the plot stood there in shock,
neither fleeing nor coming to Caesar's defense with
so much as a shout. Those in the know and intent on
murder, however, all drew their knives in a ring
around Caesar, so that whichever way he turned he
was exposed to blades aimed at his face and eyes,
trapped like an animal and struck by every hand.
Since all of the conspirators had to take a part in
the sacrifice, as it were, and to taste of Caesar's
murder, Brutus also stabbed him once, in the groin.
Some say that up until then Caesar was shouting and
attempting to deflect and dodge the blows of the
others but when he saw that Brutus too had drawn his
sword, he pulled his toga over his head and sank
down (whether by chance, or pushed there by his
killers) at the base of Pompey's statue, spattering
it with blood so that it seemed his former enemy in
war stood over him in vengeance, with Caesar laid
out at his feet quivering from his multitude of
wounds. It is said he had been stabbed twenty-three
times in all. Many of his assassins also received
stab wounds, having struck one another by accident
in their attempt to land so many blows on one body.
After experiencing frightful premonitions, Calpurnia
persuades Caesar to stay home on the Ides of March.
When Decius Brutus (one of the conspirators) arrives
at Caesar's residence to escort him to the senate
house, Caesar informs him of his decision to remain
to-night she saw my statua,
Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans
Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it:
And these does she apply for warnings and portents,
And evils imminent; and on her knee
Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day.
Unless Decius can change Caesar's mind, the
conspirators will miss their opportunity to execute
their plan, raising the possibility that Caesar could
learn of it and that key conspirators will lose their
nerve and decide not to participate in the plan.
Thinking fast, Decius then appeals to the great one's
ego, telling him,
This dream is all
It was a vision fair and fortunate:
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bath’d,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance.
This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified.
When Caesar seems to accept this interpretation,
Decius then appeals further to Caesar's ego:
The senate have concluded
To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.
If you shall send them word you will not come,
Their minds may change. Besides, it were a mock
Apt to be render’d, for some one to say
‘Break up the senate till another time,
When Caesar’s wife shall meet with better dreams.’
If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper
‘Lo! Caesar is afraid?’ (2.2.103-111)
And so mighty Caesar falls victim to the clever
psychology and rhetoric of Decius—and later to the
ruthless thrust of conspiratorial knives.
Figures of Speech
ranks among Shakespeare's finest plays, in part
because of its highly effective imagery. Among the
many and varied figures of speech in the play are the
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at
the beginning of words or syllables, as in the
Rome, thou hast lost
of noble bloods!
Her wide walls
encompass’d but one
(Note that wide,
with the same sound.)
by some senators.
alliterates with conference;
Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of
Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, or
clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one
after the other. Here are examples.
And do you now put on
your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts, from quality and kind;
Why old men, fools, and children calculate;
Why all these things change from their ordinance.
Apostrophe is the addressing of an abstraction or a
thing, present or absent; of an absent entity or
person; or of a deceased person. Here is an example in
which Brutus addresses conspiracy, an abstraction.
Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability (2.1.86-91)
Hyperbole is an exaggeration, usually extreme.
Following are examples.
You blocks, you
stones, you worse than senseless things! (1.1.27)
(Marullus says the tradesmen are more senseless than
O murderous slumber!
Lay’st thou thy leaden mace upon my boy.
Brutus compares sleep to a murderer that strikes the
head of a conscious person. Note
Irony, Verbal and Situational
Verbal irony is saying one thing but meaning or
implying the opposite. Situational irony is a result
or ending that is the opposite of what is expected.
An example of verbal irony occurs in lines that
Cassius speaks when Caesar is passing by, godlike, is
his triumphal procession celebrating his victory over
Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War.
He had a fever when
he was in Spain,
And when the fit [epileptic fit] was on him, I did
How he did shake; ’tis true, this god did
His coward lips did from their colour fly.
Here, Cassius uses "god" ironically, saying that
divine Caesar is really a flawed human being who
suffers from epilepsy and cowardice.
Situational irony occurs throughout Mark Antony's
funeral oration, beginning at 3.2.52. For example,
Antony tells Roman citizens that he does not wish to
praise Caesar but only to preside at his funeral.
However, he goes on to do what he said he would not
do: praise Caesar. He praises him for adding to Rome's
wealth, for sympathizing with the common people, and
for refusing a kingly crown. Surprisingly, he also
praises Brutus as an honorable man. However, a moment
later he condemns Brutus when he says, "O judgment!
thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost
their reason" (3.2.83-84). The word brutish occurs
after Antony has mentioned Brutus by name nine times.
It seems brutish
is a not-so-oblique reference to Brutus.
Another example of situational irony occurs at the
Roman senate when Caesar says, "I am constant as the
northern star (3.1.68)," meaning he is as permanent,
fixed, and unchanging as the North Star (a bright star
at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper).
Moments later, however, the conspirators kill him,
ending his permanence and constancy.
Dramatic irony is a situation in which a character in
a play or another literary work is unaware of a
circumstance, event, development, condition, activity,
etc., that is known to the audience and often to other
characters. Perhaps the most striking example of
dramatic irony in Julius
Caesar is that Caesar is ignorant of the plan
of his friend Brutus, as well as other prominent
citizens supposedly loyal to Caesar, to assassinate
him. Consider, for example, the visit of Decius
Brutus, a conspirator, to Caesar's home on the Ides of
March. Decius lavishly flatters Caesar, pretending to
be a friend, in order to persuade him to go to the
senate and accept a king's crown rather than stay
home, as Caesar's wife urges (2.2.65-114). Caesar,
unaware that Decius and his cohorts plan to kill him,
agrees to go the the senate. Another example of
dramatic irony occurs in the first scene of Act 3,
beginning at line 39, when the conspirators surround
Caesar and speak to him respectfully. He has no idea
that they are about to bare their daggers and kill
him. All the while, the audience knows that Caesar is
A metaphor is a comparison between one thing and
unlike thing without the use of like
, or than
to make the
comparison. John is
a volcano about to erupt
is an example of a
metaphor. John is like a
volcano about to erupt
is not a metaphor.
Likewise, John is as angry
a volcano about to erupt
is not metaphor.
Both of these comparisons are examples of similes
. Here are examples of
metaphors in Julius Caesar.
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
Cassius compares himself to a mirror ("glass") that
will reflect the good qualities of Brutus.
I know he would not be
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
(Casca, addressing Cassius and Brutus, compares
Caesar to a wolf and a lion and the Roman citizens
to sheep and hinds.)
Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept. (2.1.66-67)
(Brutus compares himself to a knife that Cassius has
sharpened ("did whet").
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
(Comparison of Caesar to a dish fit for the gods and
to a carcass fit for hounds)
Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates a sound. Examples
are buzz, bang, pop,
Here is an example from the play.
The exhalations whizzing in the
Give so much light that I may read by them.
A paradox is a contradiction that expresses a truth.
Example: The salad dressing was sweet and sour. In the
following example, Brutus describes death as a
CASCA: Why, he that cuts off twenty
years of life
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.
BRUTUS: Grant that, and then is death a
A simile is a comparison between unlike things with
the use of like,
as, or than. Examples
are (1) Mary runs like a deer, (2) Mary runs as fast
as a deer, and (3) Mary runs faster than a deer. Here
are examples from the play.
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.
(Cassius likens Caesar to a giant.)
That which would
appear offence in us,
His countenance, like richest
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.
(Cassius compares Brutus's countenance, including
his face and character, to alchemy.)
You are my true and
As dear to me as are the ruddy
That visit my sad heart. (2.1.309-311)
(Brutus compares his wife, Portia, to life-giving
blood coursing through his heart.)
Although the play is a tragedy, Shakespeare begins it
with humor—in particular, the punning of the Second
Commoner, a cobbler, when questioned by Marullus and
MARULLUS: But what trade art thou?
Answer me directly.
SECOND COMMONER: A trade, sir, that, I hope, I
may use with a safe conscience; which is, indeed,
sir, a mender of bad soles.
MARULLUS: What trade, thou knave? thou naughty
knave, what trade?
SECOND COMMONER: Nay, I beseech you, sir, be
not out with me: yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend
MARULLUS: What meanest thou by that? Mend me,
thou saucy fellow!
SECOND COMMONER: Why, sir, cobble you.
FLAVIUS: Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
SECOND COMMONER: Truly, sir, all that I live
by is with the awl: I meddle with no tradesman’s
matters, nor women’s matters, but with awl. I am,
indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are
in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as
ever trod upon neat’s leather have gone upon my
The number three appears to symbolize ominous or
baleful occurrences. Consider the following:
The play is set in
three locales: Rome, Sardis, and Philippi.
Mark Antony offers Caesar the crown three times.
The soothsayer warns Caesar three times: twice in
Act 1 and once in Act 3.
Cassius tells Casca that Brutus is almost won to the
conspiracy, saying, "Three parts of him is ours
The conspirators break up their secret meeting at 3
Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, cries out three times in
her sleep, "Help, ho! they murder Caesar!"
Caesar dies in March, the third month of the year.
After Caesar dies, Cinna shouts three exclamations,
“Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” (3.1.88).
Three men succeed Caesar as rulers: Octavius,
Antony, and Lepidus. Collectively, they are
identified in history books as the triumvirate.
Antony, belittling Lepidus, says, "Is it fit, the
three-fold world divided, he should stand one of the
three to share it?"
Octavius observes late in the play that he will
never put up his sword until Caesar's
"three-and-thirty wounds" (5.1.60) are avenged.
In ancient times, the number three was sometimes
associated with Pluto (Greek: Hades), the god of
death. Whether Shakespeare deliberately inserted
references to the number three is arguable.
Literary critic Mark Van Doren wrote the following
about the speech patterns in Julius Caesar:
is least notable among Shakespeare's better plays
for the distinctions of its speech. All of its
persons tend to talk alike; their training has been
forensic and therefore uniform, so that they can say
anything with both efficiency and ease. With
Marullus's first speech in the opening scene the
play swings into its style: a style which will make
it appear that nobody experiences the least
difficulty in saying what he thinks. The phrasing is
invariably flawless from the oral point of view; the
breathing is right; no thought is too long for order
or too short for roundness. Everything is
brilliantly and surely said; the effects are
underlined, the i's are firmly dotted.
Speeches have tangible outlines, like plastic
objects, and the drift of one of them to another has
never to be guessed, for it is clearly stated."—Van
Doren, Mark. Quoted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of
Julius Caesar. Leonard F. Dean, Ed.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968.
It is believed that a surgical incision had to be made
through the abdominal wall and uterus of the mother of
Julius Caesar in order to extract him at birth. This
belief gave rise to the term "Cesarean birth" (or
"Caesarean birth"). Thus, a knife was used to give
Caesar life, and many knives were used to end his
Questions and Essay Topics
- A soothsayer tells Caesar to beware of the Ides
of March (March 15). What is a soothsayer? Does
the soothsayer really know the future? Or is he
merely a good political analyst (or psychologist)
who can see trouble coming?
- Is Antony motivated more by personal ambition or
love for Caesar?
- Who is the villain in the play? Is there a hero?
- If you had lived in 44 BC, Caesar's last year in
power, would you have sided with Caesar or Brutus?
- If Antony were to give his funeral oration in
this technological age, where would he deliver it?
- Do you believe assassination of a head of state
can ever be justified?
- Give examples of twentieth-century leaders
killed by assassins. Explain why these leaders
were targets of assassins.
- What was everyday life like for an ordinary
citizen of Rome?
- Oratory—especially Antony's funeral
oration—plays an important role in this play. How
important for a politician in ancient Rome was the
ability to speak skillfully in public? Did young
Roman nobles receive special training in oratory?
- Caesar and Brutus both respectfully ignore the
advice of their wives. Write an essay explaining
the role and status of women in Caesar's time.
- Was Brutus a villain or a hero? Even though he
led the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, Marcus
Junius Brutus (84-42 BC) enjoyed a reputation in
his day among Roman republicans as a noble and
fair-minded statesman. However, his
opponents—notably supporters of Caesar—regarded
him as a traitor. First, Brutus sided with Pompey
the Great against Caesar when the Roman Civil War
started in 49 BC. After Caesar defeated Pompey at
Pharsalus, Greece, in 48 BC, he pardoned Brutus
and appointed him governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 46
BC. and a praetor of Rome in 44 B.C. But Brutus
turned against Caesar a second time, helping to
organize and lead the conspiracy that led to
Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Brutus believed
the action was necessary to prevent Caesar from
becoming dictator-for-life, meaning that all power
would reside in Caesar and not in delegates
representing the people. Was Brutus a traitorous
villain or selfless hero? In an argumentative
essay, take a stand on this question. Use the
facts of history—as well as interpretations of
these facts, including Shakespeare’s depiction of
Brutus—to support the thesis.
- In an essay, compare and contrast the common
people of ancient Rome with the common people of
modern America, Britain, or another country.
- In an essay, compare and contrast Cassius and
- Omens and the whims of fate play a role in
Julius Caesar. Write an expository (informative)
essay that explains the attitude of the typical
ancient Roman toward charms, omens, gods, the
whims of fate, and the supernatural in general.