Julius Caesar

by: William Shakespeare

Themes

Main ideas Themes

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.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.

Ethics vs 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.

Tyranny

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).