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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015

Table of Contents

Type of Work
Date Written
First Performance
First Printing
Sources
Settings
Tone
Characters
Plot Summary
Complete Text With Definitions and Explanations of Difficult Words and Passages
Themes
Climax and Conclusion
Foreshadowings
Plutarch's Description of the Assassination
Pivotal Role of Decius
Figures of Speech
Humorous Opening
Ominous Number Three
Study Questions and Essay Topics
Related Shakespeare Topics
How to Cite This Study Guide

Type of Work

Julius Caesar 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.

Date Written

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.

First Performance

The play probably debuted at London's newly constructed Globe Theatre in 1599. Thomas Platter, a Swiss physician and traveler, wrote in his diary that he saw the play at the Globe on the afternoon of September 21 of that year, according to the Department of Theatre Arts at Baylor University. Platter (1574-1628) saw the play with his half-brother, Felix.

First Printing

The play was published in London in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.

Sources

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.

Settings

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).

Tone

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.

Characters

Protagonist: Brutus
Antagonists: Antony, Caesar

Julius 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.
Brutus (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.
Mark Antony (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.
Cassius (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.
Calpurnia: Julius Caesar's wife.
Portia: Brutus's wife.
Octavius Caesar (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 Caesar.
Lepidus (Marcus Aemilius Lepidus): Member of the ruling triumvirate after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Because he is weak, he is easily pushed aside.
Cicero, Publius, 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 the assassination.
Casca (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.
Trebonius, Ligarius, 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.)
Publius Cimber: Exiled brother of the conspirator Metullus Cimber. Publius is spoken of, but does not appear in, the play.
Flavius, Marullus: Tribunes 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 ordinary citizens.
Artemidorus: Teacher of rhetoric who attempts to warn Caesar that Brutus, Cassius, and others have turned against him.
Soothsayer: 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.
Cinna (Gaius Helvius Cinna): A poet unrelated to Cinna the conspirator. However, because Roman citizens mistake him for Cinna the conspirator, they kill him.
Unnamed poet
Lucilius, Titinius, Messala, Young Cato, Volumnius: Friends of Brutus and Cassius.
Lucius Pella: 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: Pindarus.
Minor Characters: Senators, citizens, commoners, soldiers, guards, attendants, messenger.

Plot Summary

Introduction

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.

The Story

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 himself.

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. (1.2.143-146)

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 Caesar.

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 misinterpreted.

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 liberated Rome.

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 conspirators, saying,

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. (3.2.67-71)

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 bad verses.”

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 northern Greece.

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

                    Ravens, 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. (5.1.97-101)

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:

ANTONY:  This 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 use him,
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)

Themes

The High Price of Idealism

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 Shakespeare's King 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.

Pride: a Harbinger of Destruction

Julius Caesar well knows that Cassius poses a threat to him. In Act I, Caesar, upon noticing Cassius in a crowd, 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 him 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. And so, in the plumage of his pride, Caesar makes himself an easy target for Cassius and his other enemies. A Bible verse encapsulates Caesar’s haughtiness: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18.).

Greed for Power Breeds Upheaval

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.

Connivance

While pretending to be loyal to Caesar, Cassius and Brutus—along with their followers—connive behind his back.

Prophecy and Omens

“Beware the ides of March,” a soothsayer tells Caesar (1.2.23). But Caesar ignores the warning. He also brushes off the threat he perceives from Cassius.  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. In the first scene of Act 5, Cassius speaks of omens that he believes signal doom for the conspirators. He says,

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign [flag]
Two mighty eagles fell [sat], and there they perch’d,  
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;  
Who to Philippi here consorted us:          
This morning are they fled away and gone,  
And in their stead do ravens, 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 of Caesar. (92-101)

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 rebel threatening 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).

Climax and Conclusion

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.

Foreshadowings

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. (1.2.204-205)

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:

                        I 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 mov’d  
By that which he will utter? (3.1.255-258)

Plutarch's 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 and Plutarch's 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. (Chapter 66)

Pivotal Role of Decius

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 home, saying,

[Calpurnia] dreamt 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. (2.2.86-92)

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 amiss interpreted;
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. (2.2.93-100)

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

Julius Caesar 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 following.

Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of words or syllables, as in the following examples.

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! (1.2.159)

Her wide walls encompass’d but one man? (1.2.162-163)
(Note that wide, walls, and one begin with the same sound.)

Being cross’d in conference by some senators. (1.2.198)
(Cross'd alliterates with conference; some, with senators.

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber. (2.1.248)

Anaphora

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? (1.1.40-43)

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. (1.3.68-72)

Apostrophe

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.

                                                 O conspiracy,
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

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 senseless things.)

O murderous slumber!  
Lay’st thou thy leaden mace upon my boy. (4.3.311-312)
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 mark  
How he did shake; ’tis true, this god did shake;  
His coward lips did from their colour fly.  (1.2.127-130)

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.

Irony, Dramatic

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 doomed.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a comparison between one thing and unlike thing without the use of like, as, 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 as a volcano about to erupt is not metaphor. Both of these comparisons are examples of similes. Here are examples of metaphors in Julius Caesar.

                            I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of. (1.2.75-77)
Cassius compares himself to a mirror ("glass") that will reflect the good qualities of Brutus.
     
I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds. (1.3.111-113)
(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. (2.1.187-189)
(Comparison of Caesar to a dish fit for the gods and to a carcass fit for hounds)

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates a sound. Examples are buzz, bang, pop, and sizzle. Here is an example from the play.

The exhalations whizzing in the air
Give so much light that I may read by them. (2.1.48-49)

Paradox

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 benefit.

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 benefit. (3.1.115-117)

Simile

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. (1.2.143-146)
(Cassius likens Caesar to a giant.)

      That which would appear offence in us,  
His countenance, like richest alchemy,            170
Will change to virtue and to worthiness. (1.3.169-171)
(Cassius compares Brutus's countenance, including his face and character, to alchemy.)

You are my true and honourable wife,  
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops           
That visit my sad heart.   (2.1.309-311)
(Brutus compares his wife, Portia, to life-giving blood coursing through his heart.)

Humorous Opening

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 Flavius.

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 you.  
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 handiwork. (1.1.13-20)

Ominous Number Three

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 already."
The conspirators break up their secret meeting at 3 a.m.
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.

Speech Patterns

Literary critic Mark Van Doren wrote the following about the speech patterns in Julius Caesar:

      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.

Historical Irony

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 life.

Study 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 the 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 Brutus.
    * 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.

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