Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Julius Caesar raises many questions about the force of fate in life versus the capacity for free will. Cassius refuses to accept Caesar’s rising power and deems a belief in fate to be nothing more than a form of passivity or cowardice. He says to Brutus: “Men at sometime were masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (I.ii.140–142). Cassius urges a return to a more noble, self-possessed attitude toward life, blaming his and Brutus’s submissive stance not on a predestined plan but on their failure to assert themselves.
Ultimately, the play seems to support a philosophy in which fate and freedom maintain a delicate coexistence. Thus Caesar declares: “It seems to me most strange that men should fear, / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come” (II.ii.35–37). In other words, Caesar recognizes that certain events lie beyond human control; to crouch in fear of them is to enter a paralysis equal to, if not worse than, death. It is to surrender any capacity for freedom and agency that one might actually possess. Indeed, perhaps to face death head-on, to die bravely and honorably, is Caesar’s best course: in the end, Brutus interprets his and Cassius’s defeat as the work of Caesar’s ghost—not just his apparition, but also the force of the people’s devotion to him, the strong legacy of a man who refused any fear of fate and, in his disregard of fate, seems to have transcended it.
Much of the play’s tragedy stems from the characters’ neglect of private feelings and loyalties in favor of what they believe to be the public good. Similarly, characters confuse their private selves with their public selves, hardening and dehumanizing themselves or transforming themselves into ruthless political machines. Brutus rebuffs his wife, Portia, when she pleads with him to confide in her; believing himself to be acting on the people’s will, he forges ahead with the murder of Caesar, despite their close friendship. Brutus puts aside his personal loyalties and shuns thoughts of Caesar the man, his friend; instead, he acts on what he believes to be the public’s wishes and kills Caesar the leader, the imminent dictator. Cassius can be seen as a man who has gone to the extreme in cultivating his public persona. Caesar, describing his distrust of Cassius, tells Antony that the problem with Cassius is his lack of a private life—his seeming refusal to acknowledge his own sensibilities or to nurture his own spirit. Such a man, Caesar fears, will let nothing interfere with his ambition. Indeed, Cassius lacks all sense of personal honor and shows himself to be a ruthless schemer.
Ultimately, neglecting private sentiments to follow public concerns brings Caesar to his death. Although Caesar does briefly agree to stay home from the Senate in order to please Calpurnia, who has dreamed of his murder, he gives way to ambition when Decius tells him that the senators plan to offer him the crown. -Caesar’s public self again takes precedence. Tragically, he no longer sees the difference between his omnipotent, immortal public image and his vulnerable human body. Just preceding his death, Caesar refuses Artemidorus’s pleas to speak with him, saying that he gives last priority to his most personal concerns. He thus endangers himself by believing that the strength of his public self will protect his private self.
Much of the play deals with the characters’ failures to interpret correctly the omens that they encounter. As Cicero says, “Men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (I.iii.34–35). Thus, the night preceding Caesar’s appearance at the Senate is full of portents, but no one reads them accurately: Cassius takes them to signify the danger that Caesar’s impending coronation would bring to the state, when, if anything, they warn of the destruction that Cassius himself threatens. There are calculated misreadings as well: Cassius manipulates Brutus into joining the conspiracy by means of forged letters, knowing that Brutus’s trusting nature will cause him to accept the letters as authentic pleas from the Roman people.
The circumstances of Cassius’s death represent another instance of misinterpretation. Pindarus’s erroneous conclusion that Titinius has been captured by the enemy, when in fact Titinius has reunited with friendly forces, is the piece of misinformation that prompts Cassius to seek death. Thus, in the world of politics portrayed in Julius Caesar, the inability to read people and events leads to downfall; conversely, the ability to do so is the key to survival. With so much ambition and rivalry, the ability to gauge the public’s opinion as well as the resentment or loyalty of one’s fellow politicians can guide one to success. Antony proves masterful at recognizing his situation, and his accurate reading of the crowd’s emotions during his funeral oration for Caesar allows him to win the masses over to his side.
Both Brutus and Caesar are stubborn, rather inflexible people who ultimately suffer fatally for it. In the play’s aggressive political landscape, individuals succeed through adaptability, bargaining, and compromise. Brutus’s rigid though honorable ideals leave him open for manipulation by Cassius. He believes so thoroughly in the purpose of the assassination that he does not perceive the need for excessive political maneuvering to justify the murder. Equally resolute, Caesar prides himself on his steadfastness; yet this constancy helps bring about his death, as he refuses to heed ill omens and goes willingly to the Senate, into the hands of his murderers.
Antony proves perhaps the most adaptable of all of the politicians: while his speech to the Roman citizens centers on Caesar’s generosity toward each citizen, he later searches for ways to turn these funds into cash in order to raise an army against Brutus and Cassius. Although he gains power by offering to honor Caesar’s will and provide the citizens their rightful money, it becomes clear that ethical concerns will not prevent him from using the funds in a more politically expedient manner. Antony is a successful politician—yet the question of morality remains. There seems to be no way to reconcile firm moral principles with success in politics in Shakespeare’s rendition of ancient Rome; thus each character struggles toward a different solution.
Julius Caesar gives detailed consideration to the relationship between rhetoric and power. The ability to make things happen by words alone is the most powerful type of authority. Early in the play, it is established that Caesar has this type of absolute authority: “When Caesar says ‘Do this,’ it is performed,” says Antony, who attaches a similar weight to Octavius’s words toward the end of the play (I.ii.12). Words also serve to move hearts and minds, as Act III evidences. Antony cleverly convinces the conspirators of his desire to side with them: “Let each man render me with his bloody hand” (III.i.185). Under the guise of a gesture of friendship, Antony actually marks the conspirators for vengeance. In the Forum, Brutus speaks to the crowd and appeals to its love of liberty in order to justify the killing of Caesar. He also makes ample reference to the honor in which he is generally esteemed so as to validate further his explanation of the deed. Antony likewise wins the crowd’s favor, using persuasive rhetoric to whip the masses into a frenzy so great that they don’t even realize the fickleness of their favor.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout the play, omens and portents manifest themselves, each serving to crystallize the larger themes of fate and misinterpretation of signs. Until Caesar’s death, each time an omen or nightmare is reported, the audience is reminded of Caesar’s impending demise. The audience wonders whether these portents simply announce what is fated to occur or whether they serve as warnings for what might occur if the characters do not take active steps to change their behavior. Whether or not individuals can affect their destinies, characters repeatedly fail to interpret the omens correctly. In a larger sense, the omens in Julius Caesar thus imply the dangers of failing to perceive and analyze the details of one’s world.
The motif of letters represents an interesting counterpart to the force of oral rhetoric in the play. Oral rhetoric depends upon a direct, dialogic interaction between speaker and audience: depending on how the listeners respond to a certain statement, the orator can alter his or her speech and intonations accordingly. In contrast, the power of a written letter depends more fully on the addressee; whereas an orator must read the emotions of the crowd, the act of reading is undertaken solely by the recipient of the letter. Thus, when Brutus receives the forged letter from Cassius in Act II, scene i, the letter has an effect because Brutus allows it to do so; it is he who grants it its full power. In contrast, Caesar refuses to read the letter that Artemidorus tries to hand him in Act III, scene i, as he is heading to the Senate. Predisposed to ignore personal affairs, Caesar denies the letter any reading at all and thus negates the potential power of the words written inside.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
While one could try to analyze Calpurnia and Portia as full characters in their own right, they function primarily not as sympathetic personalities or sources of insight or poetry but rather as symbols for the private, domestic realm. Both women plead with their husbands to be more aware of their private needs and feelings (Portia in Act II, scene i; Calpurnia in Act III, scene ii). Caesar and Brutus rebuff the pleas of their respective wives, however; they not only prioritize public matters but also actively disregard their private emotions and intuitions. As such, Calpurnia and Portia are powerless figures, willing though unable to help and comfort Caesar and Brutus.