Julius Caesar is a tragedy, as it tells the story of an honorable hero who makes several critical errors of judgment by misreading people and events, leading to his own death and a bloody civil war that consumes his nation. Brutus is by all accounts (including those of his enemies) a noble Roman, and serves as the primary tragic hero of this play. He is virtuous, scrupled, and cares most of all for the welfare of the Roman Republic, whose democratic ideals he earnestly values and strives to protect. In many ways, Brutus is the ultimate patriot; he places his country above all else, even his deep love of Caesar. But in failing to question the motives of others and assuming everyone is as virtuous and selfless as he is, Brutus makes fatal errors. He lets Cassius manipulate him into killing Caesar without determining if Caesar is actually as ambitious as Cassius claims. Brutus also fails to recognize Marc Antony’s insincerity when Marc Antony claims to support the conspirators. Because of Brutus’s errors of judgment Mark Antony triumphs, paving the way for the very outcome Brutus feared most: Rome governed by tyranny. After realizing his mistakes, Brutus commits suicide.

Julius Caesar is based on actual historical events that would have been very familiar to an educated member of Shakespeare’s audience. Writers over the centuries have been divided over whether the assassination of Caesar represented an idealistic assertion of Republican ideals or the blackest act of betrayal and treason. Shakespeare’s choice to tell this story in the form of a tragedy shapes his representation of what these events mean. For example, one of the conventions of tragedy is that the hero is tempted into committing a dark or forbidden act, a mistake with terrible and irrevocable consequences. While Shakespeare does not portray Caesar as an admirable character, the fact that the story is told in the form of the tragedy makes us see the killing as a nightmarish and terrible act. While on one level, Brutus’s motivations seem high-minded and reasonable, much of what happens in the first two acts seems designed to signal that Brutus is being tempted into a fatal mistake. Cassius pushes Brutus down this path, and Cassius is consistently portrayed as dishonest, vindictive, and manipulative—and he specifically misleads and manipulates Brutus. The fact that Brutus undertakes such a momentous action as killing Caesar while being so blinded to what’s going on around him suggests that it was a tragic mistake.

Like Brutus, Caesar also fits the mold of a tragic hero, though he has a considerably smaller presence in the story. He too is well respected and adored, not only by the populace but also by many of his peers. Although some in the Senate fear his tyrannical nature, these fears are mostly abstract; despite wielding enormous power, Caesar has not yet proven to be oppressive or despotic. Caesar’s tragic mistake is his high self-regard and assumption he is invincible. Caesar cannot allow himself to appear cowardly before either the Senate or his people. Therefore, he willfully misinterprets the warning to “beware the ides of March” (II.ii) as well as Calpurnia’s foreboding dream and the augur of the heartless beast. Despite these omens, Caesar goes to the Senate where he is murdered by the conspirators, setting in motion the civil conflict that will dominate the rest of the play. As in the case of Brutus, Caesar’s tragic mistake could have been avoided had he better known himself and those around him.

Read about another Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear.