Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Fate versus Free Will
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.
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.
Public Self versus Private Self
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.
Misinterpretations and Misreadings
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.
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.
Inflexibility versus Compromise
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.
Rhetoric and Power
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.
Ethics versus Politics
The tension in Julius Caesar comes from the question of whether Caesar’s position in power is ethically acceptable or not, and whether men of good conscience can allow a man like Caesar to hold such power over the Roman citizens. Caesar wins victories for Rome and becomes popular both with the common masses and the wealthy families. Politically, Caesar’s position appears beyond reproach, but the conspirators in the play—namely, Brutus—conclude that they are ethically impelled to stop Caesar before his ambition grows and he becomes unstoppable.
The play directly addresses the conflict between ethics and politics when Brutus and Antony deliver speeches after Caesar’s assassination. Brutus has one opportunity to explain to the Romans that the murder of Caesar was ethically necessary. Tellingly, while Brutus convinces the crowd that he was ethically correct in killing Caesar before he enslaved the people, Antony is able to instantaneously undo Brutus’s claims with his own speech. For Brutus, inviting Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral was the right and honorable gesture, but he grossly overestimates the public’s respect for these sorts of ethical decisions. In this instance, Antony proves to be the better politician, capable of swaying the crowd with his rhetoric and passion, while Brutus’s rigid morality limits his ability to be a powerful politician and understand the fickle nature of the Roman citizens.
Julius Caesar revolves around the question of what constitutes a tyrant. Before Brutus can convince himself to kill Caesar, he must believe that Caesar is either a tyrant, or that he will inevitably become one. For Brutus, this question depends on whether Caesar wants power for himself or whether the senators and citizens are thrusting that power upon him. In Act I, Casca tells Brutus and Cassius that Antony offered Caesar a crown three times and that three times Caesar refused to accept it. Caesar’s initial refusal of the crown suggests he doesn’t want total power for himself, but the people are trying to thrust power upon him. However, Cassius suggests Caesar will become a tyrant if he’s given absolute power, even if he doesn’t start out as a tyrant: “I know he would not be a wolf / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep” (I.iii).
The question of tyranny is also at the heart of the crucial scene in Act IV when Brutus and Antony speak over Caesar’s dead body. Brutus claims that he was justified in killing Caesar, and Antony claims that Brutus was not justified. The two men disagree about whether Caesar was a tyrant or not. Ultimately, Antony is able to demonstrate how Caesar rejected opportunities to seize personal power, shared his victories with the Roman people, and included all the citizens of Rome in his will. For the public, these assertions establish that Caesar was not a tyrant, and therefore Brutus and the other conspirators are not only murderers, but enemies of Rome. The success of Antony’s speech suggests that tyranny must, in some respect, be in the eye of the beholder. The Caesar that Brutus describes in his speech and the Caesar that Antony describes are the same man, but Antony is better able to make the audience see Caesar as someone who would never have resorted to tyranny.
In the Roman world of Julius Caesar, honor is a matter of selflessness, rationality, and pride. No character in the play more clearly embodies the virtue of honor than Brutus. Nearly every character recognizes Brutus’s reputation for honor. For instance, Cassius exploits this reputation when he recruits Brutus into the assassination conspiracy, hoping that Brutus’s renowned honor will legitimize the conspiracy. Even at the end of the play, after he has caused so much strife, Brutus retains his honorable reputation. As Antony explains, “All the conspirators save only he / Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.” Brutus acted honorably because he killed Caesar for the greater benefit of Rome, not because of his own jealousy. Brutus further demonstrates honor through his commitment to rationality. Although initially horrified by the idea of killing Caesar, Brutus weighs the matter and concludes that, despite his emotional revulsion at the idea, assassination is nevertheless justified. Finally, Brutus exhibits honor when he chooses to take his own life rather than let himself be captured. Capture would imply weakness, and Brutus’s desire to appear strong and preserve his pride leads him to die on his own terms.
Another key element of honor in Julius Caesar relates to loyalty, a matter that proves somewhat complicated in a play where excessive loyalty leads to much political strife. Shakespeare constructed his play around two central friendships: one between Brutus and Cassius, and another between Caesar and Antony. Although the profound loyalty that defines each of these friendships is touching, that same loyalty also proves dangerous. For example, Cassius leverages his devotion to Brutus to convince his friend to join the assassination plot. Brutus in turn allows his love for Cassius to lead him into errors of judgment that ultimately result in both of their deaths. Just as Cassius and Brutus act out of mutual loyalty, Antony also acts out of a deep devotion to Caesar and, later, to Octavius. Although Antony initially claims the justness of the conspirators’ cause, he demonstrates his ongoing loyalty to Caesar when he turns the Roman public against the conspirators at Caesar’s funeral—an act that instigates rioting and war. These characters demonstrate honor through friendship, and yet their loyalty also destroys the Republic.