Discuss the attention paid (or not paid) to omens, nightmares, and other supernatural events. What do the various responses to these phenomena show about the struggle between fate and free will in Julius Caesar? Can the play’s tragedies be attributed to the characters’ failure to read the omens properly, or do the omens merely presage the inevitable?
The characters in Julius Caesar neglect nearly universally the play’s various omens (dead men walking, sacrificed animals who lack hearts), nightmares (Calpurnia’s vision of Caesar’s statue running with blood), warnings (the Soothsayer’s advice to Caesar to avoid the Ides of March, Artemidorus’s letter about the conspiracy), and supernatural events (Brutus’s visitation by the Ghost). Caesar believes that the omens in Rome could apply just as easily to Rome in general as to him personally, and he quickly comes to believe that Calpurnia has misinterpreted her dream. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that these omens warn of events that take place without exception. The hand of fate, or of the gods, appears to strike with undeniable omnipotence; and yet, it seems peculiar to provide omens without allowing individuals time to alter their behavior or choose among fates. In any case, the characters fail to heed the warnings in almost every instance. Tragically, the characters often believe that their refusal to heed these signs proves their strength, courage, and indomitable nature; thus, Caesar believes that he is displaying the force of his will by ignoring the warnings and attending the Senate, though, ironically, it is precisely this action that precipitates his fated death.
Think about Caesar the mortal man as opposed to Caesar the public figure. How does he continue to wield power over events even after he is dead? Do the conspirators succeed in their goals by killing him, or is Caesar’s influence too powerful to be contained even by his death?
The conspirators manage to kill Caesar, the physically infirm man, who is deaf in one ear, probably epileptic, and aging; indeed, it may be Caesar’s delusions about his own immortality as a man that allow the conspirators to catch him off guard and bring about his death. In many ways, however, Caesar’s faith in his permanence proves valid: the conspirators fail to destroy Caesar’s public image, and Antony’s words to the crowd serve to burnish Caesar’s image. Additionally, the conspirators fail to annihilate the idea that Caesar incarnated: that of a single supreme leader of Rome.
Death does not diminish Caesar’s influence on matters or his presence in the minds of those who loved him. Caesar seems to speak from the grave when Antony reads his will, stirring the people to rebellion. Cassius and Brutus attribute their deaths to Caesar when they fall in battle. Perhaps most important, Antony begins to call Octavius “Caesar” when Octavius starts to display an undeniable authority in military strategizing. This appellation has a double significance: it reveals both Octavius’s future as the bearer of Caesar’s personal legacy and the metamorphosis of Caesar the man into Caesar the institution. Even with his death, Caesar has initiated a line of Roman emperors, ending the era of Brutus’s beloved republic.
As Caesar’s appointed successor, how does Octavius carry on the great general’s legacy? Consider his use of language and commands as well as the ways in which the other characters regard him and refer to him.
Early in the play, Caesar gives an order to Antony, who declares that Caesar is so powerful that words equal action by the mere fact of his having pronounced them. After Caesar’s death, words cease to have this kind of absolute power until Octavius arrives on the battlefield. When Antony tells him to attack from one side of the field, Octavius announces his intention to do the opposite. Like Caesar, Octavius is able to effect his will merely by speaking. Antony’s earlier recognition of Caesar’s power epitomizes one of the driving forces behind this power—the self-fulfilling prophecy of believing in Caesar’s supremacy. As a public figure, Caesar depends on the acceptance and awe of those over whom he rules to sustain the legendary, godlike aura surrounding him. With little resistance, Antony submits to Octavius’s notion of how they should proceed in battle. This recognition of Octavius’s inherently supreme nature and the consequent deference it inspires cements Octavius’s status as the emerging successor to Caesar’s great legacy. It is at this moment, notably, that Antony begins to call Octavius “Caesar.”
1. Though Julius Caesar focuses on the struggles between powerful men, what role do the plebeians, or common people, play? Are they as fickle as Flavius and Murellus claim in the opening scene? How important is their support to the successes of the various military leaders and the outcome of the play? The play depicts Rome at a time of transition between republic and empire—a time in which, theoretically, the Roman people are losing their power. What role do the people themselves play in this transition?
2. Consider Brutus’s actions. Is he right to join the conspiracy against Caesar? What are his reasons? Does he choose to join the conspiracy, or is he tricked by Cassius? How do Cassius’s motivations compare to Brutus’s? Are they more noble or less noble?
3. Julius Caesar, a play about statehood and leadership, is one of the most quoted of Shakespeare’s plays in modern-day political speeches. Why do you think this play about conspiracy and assassination might appeal to politicians today? Also, discuss how this play might have been a reflection on Elizabethan politics, keeping in mind that Queen Elizabeth, like Caesar, was an aging, heirless leader.
4. Discuss friendship in the play. Consider Caesar and Brutus, Caesar and Antony, Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Octavius, or any other pairings. Are these true friendships or merely political alliances forged for the sake of convenience and self-preservation? How do they compare with the heterosexual relationships in the play—the relations between husbands and wives? Are they more profound or less profound, more revealing or less revealing of their participants’ characters?
5. Who is the protagonist in this play? Is it Caesar, who dies well before the end but whose power and name continue on? Or is it Brutus, the noble man who falls because of his tragic flaws?
6. Consider theatricality in this play. Think particularly of the scene of Caesar’s murder (and Cassius’s reference to future productions of the scene), the speeches in the Forum (particularly Antony’s), and the speeches given over the dead conspirators. How do acting and rhetoric affect the events of the play? How do they interact with politics? Does the play reference its own political power as a theatrical production?
7. Discuss inflexibility in this play, focusing on Caesar and Brutus. How is each man inflexible? Is this rigidity an admirable trait or a flaw? Do the rewards of this rigidity outweigh the consequences, or vice versa?
An idea about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar...
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