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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Julius Caesar and Characters

A great writer can make a story so complex that the reader leaves the text with multiple understandings and mixed reactions. No writer has been as adept at creating rounded, thought-provoking characters as William Shakespeare. To fully understand the written genius of Shakespeare's characterization is no simple task. In this post, I would like to encourage you to read Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Even if you don't read or reread the work, let me point out some very interesting views on people -- what they think, and what they choose to do.

The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 't
is a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

 Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 19-34) William Shakespeare

"Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen! 
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us."
Julius Caesar, (Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 186-202)

William Shakespeare probably wrote Julius Caesar in 1599. One of three Roman history plays, it a dramatization of actual events as Shakespeare drew upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony as the primary source of the play's plot and characters. (R. Moore, Julius Caesar: Introduction, Ed. Penny Satoris, October 2002)


Killing Julius Caesar - Cassius' View

In the dramatic soliloquy above, Cassius tries to convince himself that Caesar has become too ambitious and that he must be assassinated for the welfare of Rome. He is confirming the need for his actions that will result in killing Julius Caesar, whom he believes is a tyrant, as good for the future of his government and country.

In truth, to encourage the noble and popular Brutus to join the conspiracy, Cassius forges letters from citizens and leaves them where the noble and popular Brutus will find them .The letters attack Caesar’s ambition and convince Brutus that killing Caesar is necessary for the good of the state. Actually, Brutus is needed for Cassius' advantage to justify the terrible act.

Cassius believes that Caesar has abused his power when he separated it from compassion for the republic of Rome. Although Cassius admits he has not yet known Caesar to let his emotions get the better of his reason, he makes the generalization that everyone knows that an ambitious young man such as Caesar uses humility to advance himself, but when he reaches the top, he turns his back on his supporters and reaches for the skies while scorning those who have helped him get where he is. Does Cassius, himself, feel at risk with Caesar at the helm?

Cassius believes, for obvious reasons, it is his duty to hold Caesar back. He frames his argument like this: "If Caesar's position is furthered, his character will fulfill these predictions. And therefore we should liken him to a serpent’s egg—once it has hatched, it becomes dangerous, like all serpents. So, we must kill Caesar while he’s still in the shell." Of course, the argument is based on assumptions: that Caesar was ambitious and that he would have made slaves of Roman citizens.


Killing Julius Caesar - Antony's View

This part of the play is taken from the funeral after the assassins have killed Julius Caesar.The public has gathered in the public square for tribute to Caesar and orations from those in power.

Antony enters the Forum carrying the body of Caesar, and he begins to deliver a reasoned oration. He tells the crowd he has come "to bury Caesar, not to praise him." He is actually announcing the opposite of his true intentions. Brutus has just given the populace a very convincing speech that supported the just actions of the conspirators in taking the life of Julius Caesar. In his speech, Brutus had reasoned: "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?" 

Antony then mentions that he has found Caesar’s will, which would make the people venerate Caesar if they knew its contents, but that he dare not read it. Naturally, the plebs clamor to hear it.

Antony chooses to use examples of Caesar's accomplishments to let the crowd decide if, indeed, Brutus and the other conspirators have committed the assassination as "honorable men" who have stopped an overly ambitious dictator. For example, (1) Caesar has brought captives and ransoms home for the wealth of Rome. (2) Caesar has felt much compassion for the poor. (3) Caesar refused "a kingly crown" three times on Lupercal. Each time Antony gives an example of Caesar's great compassion, he follows it with the sarcastic words, "Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honourable man."

Then, as you can see in the quotation above, Anthony stands over the dead body of Caesar, a gruesome spectacle lying at the base of the statue commemorating Caesar's respected opponent Pompey, he describes the traitorous murder in graphic, gory detail. Playing on two meanings of the word unkind -- "unkind" and "unnatural" -- he relates how "well-beloved" Brutus cut mighty Caesar in a bloody deed of ingratitude, implying Brutus's treachery, not his wound "burst his mighty heart" as his "mantle" covered his face so as not to witness the deed done by "his angel." The act was succinctly described as "the most unkindest cut of all." (By the way, this wasn't as ungrammatical in Shakespeare's day as it is in ours.)

After stirring the crowd to a near frenzy, Antony finally reads Caesar’s will, which promises a sum of money to every citizen, and announces the conversion of Caesar’s property into public parks. The crowd then bursts into uncontrollable rage against the conspirators.


A Brief Historical View of Julius Caesar, The Real Man

Speaking from the view of actual history, Julius Caesar was a brilliant military commander who conquered Gaul and invaded Britain. Caesar allied with Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus in an unstable political alliance known as the First Triumvirate which dominated military and political developments in the Late Roman Republic.

When political realignments in Rome finally led to a stand-off between Caesar and Pompey, the latter took up the cause of the Senate. After the deaths of Crassus and Julia (Pompey's wife and Caesar's daughter), Pompey and Caesar contended for leadership of the Roman state.

When Caesar sent his legions across the Rubicon in 49 BC, the civil war began. It ended when Caesar decisively defeated Pompey, despite Pompey's numerical advantage (nearly twice the number of infantry and considerably more cavalry) at the battle of Pharsalus in Central Greece on August 9, 48 BC. (from Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 1919)

Pompey fled to Egypt, and with Caesar already en route, the counselors of Egyptian leader Ptolemy XIII, persuaded him to try to win favor with Caesar by launching a murderous plot. What appeared to be a welcoming party on the Egyptian shore (including Pompey's companions Achillas, Septimius and Salvius) was a death squad that stabbed Pompey to death as he disembarked.

Pompey's head and seal were later presented to Caesar, who not only mourned this insult to the greatness of his former ally and son-in-law (he wept when he received Pompey's seal, on which there was an engraving of a lion holding a sword in his paw), but punished his assassins and their Egyptian co-conspirators, putting two of them to death.

Julius Caesar emerged as the unrivaled leader of the Roman world. The victory of Caesar weakened the Senatorial forces and solidified his control over the Republic. As a Roman leader, Caesar did not take revenge on his enemies, instead pardoning almost all, and there was no serious public opposition to his rule. From 47 BC to 44 BC, he made plans for the distribution of land to about 15,000 of his veterans. (J.B. Campbell, The Roman Army, 31 BC–AD 337,1994).

After assuming control of government, Caesar began extensive reforms of Roman society and government. He centralized the bureaucracy of the Republic and declared himself dictator "in perpetuity" (for life) in February 44 BC. This act, along with his continual effort to adorn himself with the trappings of power, turned many in the Senate against him. Sixty members of the Senate concluded that the only resolution to the problem was to assassinate Caesar. "The Assassination of Julius Caesar, 44 BC," EyeWitness to History,, 2004).

A group of senators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus, assassinated the dictator on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC, hoping to restore the normal running of the Republic.Yet, their wish did not come true.

The result unforeseen by the assassins was that Caesar's death precipitated the end of the Roman Republic. (Florus, The Epitome of Roman History, 1929) The Roman middle and lower classes, with whom Caesar was immensely popular and had been since before Gaul, became enraged that a small group of high-browed aristocrats had killed their champion. In the ensuing chaos Mark Anthony, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) and others fought a series of five civil wars, which would end in the formation of the Roman Empire.

During the funeral oration it was announced that Caesar in his will had left his private gardens on the Tiber to the Roman public as well as 300 sesterces to every enrolled Roman citizen. (While 300 sesterces was not a fortune, such was the equivalent of three month's wages for the average Roman worker, a very nice gift.)

"These bequests, combined with Mark Antony's funeral oration, only served to increase Caesar's posthumous stature among the populace, increasing the grief at his death as well as the rage against his assassins. The crowd at the funeral boiled over, throwing dry branches, furniture and even clothing on to Caesar's funeral pyre, causing the flames to spin out of control, seriously damaging the Forum. The mob then attacked the houses of Brutus and Cassius, where they were repelled only with considerable difficulty, ultimately providing the spark for the Liberators' civil war, fulfilling at least in part Antony's threat against the aristocrats." (Suetonius, Life of Caesar, Chapters LXXXIII, LXXXIV, LXXXV)

So What About Ambition and the Abuse of Power?

Author Michael Parenti, after much research, views the historical figure of Julius Caesar from both sides. Some historians characterize Julius Caesar as a dictator and a demagogue. They see Caesar's assassination as a defense of the Roman Republic and the Roman plebs (commoners) as a mob of parasites. Others see Caesar's assassination as "one incident in a line of political murders... (of) popularly supported reformers. They see the plebs as largely consisting of hard-working laborers with practical political and economic concerns. (Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, 2003)

In Shakespeare's Elizabethan age, ambition may have been frowned upon by many. People believed in God and in the queen. To be successful in worldly terms then, a person usually had to be born into a wealthy family. There wasn't an unlimited availability of making life better. Ambition is the desire for something, and Caesar certainly desired power. Depending on the goal of the person seeking power, ambition can be good or bad, and maybe one's perception of ambition does come, at least partly, from the culture in which they live. Shakespeare would have been keenly aware of these considerations when writing Julius Caesar -- the nobility views and the commoner views.

Shakespeare's View of Power, Influence, and Responsible Behavior


Cassius refuses to accept Caesar’s rising power and views 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” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2) In other words, people's  failure to assert themselves in times of perceived danger will result in total submission.

Yet Cassius goes to extremes to protect his public image. Caesar, at one point in the play, tells Antony that he distrusts Cassius because Cassius has no private life, lacks honor, and is a schemer.


Caesar, on the other hand, views fate and freedom in a delicate coexistence. He understand that certain events lie beyond human control; to crouch in fear of them is to enter a paralysis equal to, if not worse than, death. "It is to surrender any capacity for freedom and agency that one might actually possess. Indeed, perhaps to face death head-on, to die bravely and honorably, is Caesar’s best course." (

And, oddly, neglecting private sentiments to follow public concerns brings Caesar to his death. Caesar does briefly agree to stay home from the Senate in order to please Calpurnia, who has dreamed of his murder, but he gives way to ambition when Decius tells him that the senators plan to offer him the crown. Also, Caesar refuses to read the letter that Artemidorus tries to hand him to warn him of his eventual doom. Caesar ignores these omens in the face of the opportunity of publicity. He knowingly endangers himself. His ambition in the prospect of being crowned king proves too glorious to resist.

"Caesar's faith in his own permanence—in the sense of both his loyalty to principles and his fixture as a public institution—eventually proves to be his downfall." ( Still, as Octavius ultimately assumes the title Caesar, Caesar’s permanence is established in some respect.


Then, there's Brutus. Rigid idealism is his greatest virtue and his most deadly flaw. Brutus’s constant though honorable ideals leave him open for manipulation by Cassius. Brutus, himself, allows the forged letter from Cassius to influence him. Neither does he see any good in gathering political support for the murder of Caesar. Wanting to curtail violence, he "foolishly" ignores Cassius’suggestion that the conspirators kill Antony as well as Caesar.

After the assassination, Brutus appeals to the crowd's love of liberty in order to justify the killing of Caesar (Or, is it actually a manifestation of his mere illusion of personal liberty?) And, also, Brutus allows Antony to speak at the funeral -- not a wise move at all. Brutus acts out of a desire to limit the self-serving aspects of his actions, yet in each incident, he dooms the very cause that he seeks to promote, thus serving no one at all.


Is Antony even ethical? He knows exactly how he must conduct himself at each particular moment in order to gain the most advantage. First, he persuades the conspirators that he is on their side, thus gaining their leniency. Then, Antony wins the crowd’s favor at the funeral of Caesar by using persuasive rhetoric to whip the masses into a frenzy so great that they don’t even realize the fickleness of their support for two speakers.

Finally, although Antony's funeral oration centers on Caesar's generosity toward the citizens, in the end, he turns these funds into cash to raise an army against Brutus and Cassius. He seems to never separate his private affairs from his public actions. His impulsive nature and ability to improvise serve him well. He is quite a shifty politician.


Both history and literature teach us much about human nature and the pressures of living in a society where our perceptions of responsibility often conflict with those of our fellow man. How we choose to act upon our version of "correctness" is ultimately up to each of us, but, in truth, each person's definition of ultimate good differs. Shakespeare has successfully used history as a reference to portray the faults and good qualities of people in conflict. Apply the same beliefs, actions, and reactions to modern situations. You will find they are universal and timeless.

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