Julius Caesar

by: William Shakespeare

Themes

Main ideas Themes

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.

Honor

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.