Julius Caesar explores the dangers and attractions of both republicanism and monarchy, revealing many parallels between ancient Rome and Elizabethan England. In the play, Brutus considers a monarchy so dangerous he would rather kill one of his closest friends than risk allowing him to become a tyrannical ruler. Brutus frames Caesar’s murder as as a moral act, necessary for the preservation of the Roman Republic. In doing so, he is following the edict of his predecessor Lucius Brutus, who, after defeating the oppressive Tarquin kings in 509 BCE, made the public swear an oath never to allow any one man to become king of Rome again. From then on, the city was governed by two consuls who were democratically elected every year by citizens and advised by a Senate. The evolution of Roman government developed through the back and forth struggle between the land-owning patricians (prominent families who traced their origins back to Roman foundations) and the plebeians, or commoners, who consistently demanded more rights and representation.

While Brutus acts for what he believes is the good of Rome, his vision of a republican government is presented as a beautiful ideal that is impractical for the real world. Although Julius Caesar expresses notions of democratic freedom, it questions whether that freedom can be realistically implemented. At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus’s defense of the conspirators’ murder of Caesar gives Mark Antony fodder to portray him as a butchering usurper. The failure of Brutus to sell the public on the concepts of the republic serves as a critique of republicanism: like all ideals, it fails under real-world stress. In the play, Brutus repeatedly fails to reconcile his ethics with the strategic demands of politics. Opportunism and shrewdness (characterized most clearly by Mark Antony) always prevail over lofty ideals. At the play’s end, Rome is once again under a dictatorship, ruler by a triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius, and Marcus Lepidus.

Julius Caesar does not entirely side with the single-ruler approach to government, either for ancient Rome or Renaissance England. Caesar has obvious flaws; he is physically ill, conceited, and stubborn. Once he dies, Rome is paralyzed by bloody factionalism. The death of a monarch or ruler, even an imperfect one, leads only to greater instability and bloodshed. More than simple indictment or approval of any one form of government, Julius Caesar functions best as a cautionary tale, outlining the disastrous consequences of a high-profile assassination, however noble in intention. In many ways, Julius Caesar draws parallels between ancient Rome and the political discourse of Elizabethan England. Like Caesar, Queen Elizabeth had no direct heirs, and with her mental and physical health in decline, the question of succession was fraught. After four decades of Elizabeth’s rule, many in England had become disillusioned with her reign, and by the time Julius Caesar was performed in 1599, multiple attempts had been made on the queen’s life. The Roman civil wars in Julius Caesar would have served as a sober warning of the discord England would see should an assassination attempt succeed.

Read more about the political time period in which Shakespeare penned this play.