Notes on The Tragedy of Caesar

When looking at Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar it is important to consider first and foremost the situation of Rome at the time the play takes place. In his unofficial Tetralogy of Roman History, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is the third installment following the “Rape of Lucrece” and Coriolanus. To consider the situation of Rome one need only look at the beginning of the play. A group of commoners are confronted by Flavius, a Patrician. The commoners are not recognized as citizens by Flavius and they are not wearing badges indicating their position. The great Roman war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great has ended and the commoners are calling for a celebration, a holiday. Yet, this call for a celebration is an indication of the fracturing of Roman politics and the dissolution of the Republic. Only victories over foreigners were traditionally celebrated by Rome, and so celebrating Caesar’s victory over a great Roman general is an important element to observe in the play.

From this point the play takes two positions, one as the Tragedy of Julius Caesar and the second as the Tragedy of Brutus.

In regards to Caesar, the commoners view Caesar as a “Super” Tribune though he held no official office. Historically speaking Caesar was a dictator at the time but there is question over whether the Senate recognized this office. If they didn’t recognize it, then Caesar was left to strive for something even more: the crown of King. This is the situation of the play, as Caesar has returned home there is discussion of naming Caesar Dictator for Life and providing him with a crown (albeit the Senate will insist it only be worn outside the city.) In addition to seeing him as “Super” Tribune, the people generally regard Caesar as a living god which some suggest is what Caesar is truly after. However Caesar suffered from epilepsy, got sick, and lost a swimming race, all of which may call into question the divine nature of Caesar.   One thing is very certain though, Julius Caesar was a very accomplished conqueror.  Caesar is also a shrewd politician who is well aware of the nature of the Roman people and so despite any desire to hold the crown he will refuse it knowing the people’s hatred of monarchy.

Throughout the play Caesar speaks of himself in the third person and refers to himself as the “unmoved mover”, which those familiar with theology and Aristotelian metaphysics will note that the unmoved mover is God. And to drive this point home further, Caesar calls himself Jupiter who was the Chief god of the Romans.  As a result of this  Shakespeare departs from his source (Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans) who suggests that Caesar struggled with his assassins and yet Shakespeare’s Caesar does not. This may indicate that Shakespeare’s Caesar desired some more than the crown of King or Dictator.

Caesar’s assassination calls the audiences attention to problems within the Roman Republic. The people’s devotion to a man who may or may not have desired to become King or at worst a god suggests that the people cannot rule themselves and are in need of a Caesar. This may be a result of the nature of the Roman Republic, which is also an Empire. One of the faults of Empire is that Republic is not possible. This is in part because you will constantly be on extended military adventures and will need a General willing to lead these exhibitions. As a result the soldiers that make up that General’s army will become devoted to their General more than to the republican government. A Republic exists so that no one person can say that anything is done according to their will, yet in an Empire such proclamations is feasible.

Caesar’s death comes early in the play and Brutus’ struggle to understand himself dominates the rest of the play. At Caesar’s death  Shakespeare reports his last words as “Even you Brutus?” However, despite Shakespeare placing Latin words into Caesar’s mouth he is reported historically to have used Greek. The translation of Caesar’s historical Greek last words are, “Even you child?” Causing the question to arise, was Brutus Caesar’s bastard? Brutus’s view of the “self” is that it is only possible to see and know oneself through others. Brutus views himself as his ancestor who helped to overthrow the Tarquin Kings. Every action he takes are with this image in mind; Brutus portrays himself as a lover of “res publica” and opposed to the private goods. The Roman Republic is his chief concern, not his private fears. His devotion to the cause of the Republic links him to the persons of Lucretia and Junus Brutus (his ancestor.) He places a strict emphasis on honor, but unlike Coriolanus who places an emphasis on honor without regard to the ancestral, Brutus sees honor very much in the light of the ancestral. Brutus, therefore, regards Rome under Caesar as not different than Rome under the Tarquins. It is at this point that Brutus chooses to take part in the assassination of Caesar.

Two important questions are to be considered in Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy. First, what should a responsible Roman, committed to the common good, consider when deliberating joining a conspiracy against Caesar, which will end in his death? Secondly, the issue of Republic: how do you maintain Rome as a republic with Caesar’s death in particular when only a handful of people take part in the assassination?

As a result of taking part in the conspiracy Brutus objects to the attempt by the others to recruit Cicero to the cause; Shakespeare departs from Plutarch on this point. Brutus may fear that Cicero may take all the honor from the assassination, stealing Brutus’s role as savior of the Republic. In addition, Brutus is careful to make want Caesar’s death look as a sacrifice and not as a murder. Brutus is so high minded that he neglects seeing the assassination as others may see it: a crime.

In his speech following the death of Caesar, Brutus appeals to “Friends, Romans and lovers” in contrast to Antony’s “Friends, Romans and Countrymen.” For Antony the people are primarily fellow citizens and Romans but for Brutus they are less fellow citizens and more as lovers and friends. Brutus’ devotion to honor causes him to betray his Countrymen and his Friends causing him to have to exile from the city in the midst of a war. The speech is important to note as well because it is given in prose, typically Shakespeare used verse for the educated and noblemen and prose for the base.

Brutus’ suicide is a result of two factors: A. Brutus believes he can stand outside himself and view his actions and B. because he cannot be honest with himself as a result of the conflation of honor and justice. Ultimately, his suicide is a result of his persistence to see the assassination of Julius Caesar as an act of justice and because he still believes he is seen as Junus Brutus.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 221 other followers