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Julius Caesar /

A Modern Perspective: Julius Caesar

By Coppélia Kahn

When Cassius tries to persuade his friend Brutus that they must halt Julius Caesar’s rise to power, Cassius speaks of an idealized “Rome” of the past in which kingship was unthinkable:

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! . . .

O, you and I have heard our fathers say

There was a Brutus once that would have brooked

Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome

As easily as a king.

(1.2.160, 167–70)

A few scenes later (2.1), Brutus wrestles with the question of whether Caesar intends to become king, and recalls his own namesake:

My ancestors did from the streets of Rome

The Tarquin drive when he was called a king.


As many in Shakespeare’s audience might have known, Rome began as a kingship that lasted some 150 years until Lucius Junius Brutus, ancestor of this play’s Brutus, led an uprising in 510 B.C.E. that drove the reigning dynasty from Rome, abolished kingship itself, and established the Roman Republic. Both Cassius and Brutus equate Rome with the Republic and the values it purports to embody. They see themselves as Romans because they believe in the Republic and because they repudiate kingship so that power can be shared among the elected rulers, the aristocratic patricians who make up the Senate, and the people. Then, supposedly, no one man can dominate Rome; all male citizens will be free, and equal. (The government of the United States, in which power is shared among the president, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, is modeled on the Roman Republic, and the pledge of allegiance to the flag mentions “the republic . . . with liberty and justice for all.”) Brutus, once he is convinced that Caesar “would be crowned,” sees himself as destined to repeat his ancestor’s heroic mission: by killing Caesar, he will, he thinks, restore the true “Rome”—the Republic.

The Roman Republic, however, never existed in the pure form in which the conspirators imagine it, and the reign of terror unleashed by their assassination of Caesar gave rise precisely to the rule of “one man” that they hoped to prevent. Octavius Caesar became sole emperor of Rome by defeating the conspirators in the final battle at Philippi in 42 B.C.E. and then by conquering his former ally Antony at Actium in 31 B.C.E. This is the play’s tragic irony, and some knowledge of Roman history can help us to appreciate it.

In the century or so preceding the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E., the Roman Republic endured almost constant upheavals. The reforms in land ownership introduced between 134 and 122 B.C.E. provoked fierce resistance from the patrician class, and those who introduced the reforms were killed after armed battles between their followers and those defending the Senate. The senators regained power for a time, but then two rival generals, Marius, in 107 B.C.E., and Sulla, in 88 B.C.E., took control. Each with his massive armies occupied Rome; each carried out a reign of terror—largely under republican law—in which his political opponents were openly slaughtered.

Next came Pompey, who acquired the surname Magnus, meaning “the great,” by helping Sulla destroy Marius. (In the play’s first scene, the tribunes recall Pompey as Julius Caesar’s predecessor.) Granted extraordinary powers by the Senate, Pompey swept the Mediterranean clean of pirates and defeated Mithradates VI, king of Pontus, making himself in effect the uncrowned emperor of Rome’s eastern provinces. Locked in rivalry with Julius Caesar, who defeated him at Pharsalus in 48 B.C.E., Pompey held more power and authority than any one man in Rome had ever had. The Republic never, for more than brief periods, functioned as it was supposed to—as a combination of monarchy (in the consuls), oligarchy (in the Senate), and democracy that, by keeping all three forms of power in balance, would prevent the worst tendencies of each. Instead, the Republic fostered the division of the aristocracy into factions and the rise of military superheroes whose armies were loyal to them rather than to the Republic.

The republican ideal that Cassius evokes to seduce Brutus into opposing Caesar, and that Brutus uses to justify murder, is closer to myth than to history (though it was also dearly cherished as an ideal even during the worst conflicts of the republican era). Or we might call it an ideology, which, according to Louis Althusser, is a set of imagined relations as opposed to the actual political conditions of Rome. Cassius correctly assumes that Brutus shares this ideology. As “noble bloods” of the ruling elite, both Cassius and Brutus believe themselves to have earned their reputations as “honorable men” by serving the state. That Caesar, one of their own class, has outstripped them in the ordinary course of advancement through state offices (the cursus honorum, or “racetrack” of honors) is an affront to their honor as Romans. Of course, Brutus and Cassius differ in character: Brutus wouldn’t stoop to the deception Cassius practices by planting in Brutus’s study faked petitions from citizens supposedly clamoring for Brutus to topple Caesar. And it wouldn’t occur to Cassius to justify Caesar’s murder by calling it “a sacrifice.” Yet they are equally blinded to the complex politics of Rome by their shared republican mentality. Julius Caesar has often been treated almost as a set of individual character studies. And it is true that Shakespeare’s “noble Romans” are vividly differentiated. However, they are all conceived within and motivated by a common sense of class identity as patricians and of national identity as Romans defending the Republic.

While Brutus and Cassius ponder their loss of status as Caesar’s “underlings” (1.2.148), within earshot a crowd roars for him. Though in person Caesar may fall short of the mystique he generates, he knows how to inspire massive public approval. In contrast, for Brutus and Cassius the people hardly exist. Casca’s account of how Caesar refused the crown drips with aristocratic disdain for the “tag-rag people.” Yet why, according to him, did the people cheer for Caesar?

 . . . still as he refused [the crown] the rabble-

ment hooted and clapped their chopped hands and

threw up their sweaty nightcaps and uttered such a

deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the

crown. . . .


Seemingly, the people too are captive to the republican ideal. Then Brutus’s fear that “the people / Choose Caesar for their king” must be mistaken. Or is it? For when Caesar “perceived the common herd was glad he refused the crown, he plucked . . . ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut” (1.2.274–77). He is obviously playing to the grandstands, in what amounts to a parody of serving “the general good,” in order to milk the crowd’s adoration. But does it lie within the people’s power to confer the crown? Evidently not, for it is Antony who offers it, and in the next scene Casca says “the Senators tomorrow / Mean to establish Caesar as a king” (1.3.88–89). The patricians, then, are divided into factions for and against Caesar. But is any faction strong enough to override the people’s will? As Antony’s funeral oration demonstrates, the man who can convince the masses that Caesar—in high republican fashion—was devoted to them can rule Rome. Thus it would appear that republican ideology can be successfully co-opted by ambitious men like Caesar and Antony. While grasping power for their own interests, they convince those who give it to them that they use it only for “the general good”—thus establishing a set of imagined social relations that masks the real ones.

Brutus sets out to kill Caesar in the conviction that Caesar “would be crowned.” The glimpses of Caesar that Shakespeare allows us neither confirm nor refute this belief. Grandiose but physically infirm, imperious but easily manipulated by flattery, in his last moments he resembles the Caesar of Casca’s account who loves to delude himself and others into thinking that he embodies the selfless, constant servant of the state. “What touches us ourself shall be last served,” he declares (3.1.8), and, refusing entreaties, continues:

But I am constant as the Northern Star,

Of whose true fixed and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament. . . .

Let me a little show it, even in this:

That I was constant Cimber should be banished

And constant do remain to keep him so.

(3.1.66–68, 77–79)

Disturbingly, it is Brutus who most resembles Caesar in playing the republican role. Both Caesar and Brutus are self-conscious about their particular virtues and concerned to display them publicly, no matter what their actual feelings. Caesar wants to be known for his courage. Warning Antony that Cassius’s envy is dangerous, he says, “I rather tell thee what is to be feared / Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar” (1.2.221–22). Alone with his wife, who urges him to heed the portents of disaster and stay home from the Capitol, he speaks of himself in the same ringing tones that mark his public utterance: “Caesar shall forth. The things that threatened me / Ne’er looked but on my back” (2.2.10–11). Brutus, quite similarly, takes pains to make public the moral principles behind his actions. When he is alone, he calls the prospect of murdering Caesar “a dreadful thing” and refers to the “monstrous visage” of conspiracy (2.1.66, 88). But once the conspiracy gathers, he refers only to the “virtue of our enterprise” (2.1.144).

As if to underline similarities between these two adversaries, Shakespeare parallels them in two successive scenes, 2.1. and 2.2. Both characters are shown as uneasy and unable to sleep; both greet the same group of men, shaking hands and naming them: to Brutus, they are fellow conspirators; to Caesar, “good friends.” Each, making a fatally wrong decision, reveals his vanity. Brutus refuses to allow Mark Antony to be killed as well as Caesar because it would make the deed “too bloody,” then rationalizes the inherent, unavoidable bloodiness of murder into a pious, ceremonial sacrifice, “necessary and not envious [i.e., malicious]” (2.1.175–96). Caesar decides to go to the Capitol despite Calphurnia’s warning and allows Decius to flatter him that her dream of his statue running blood symbolizes his miraculous ability to revive Rome (2.2.88–95).

Finally, as Norman Rabkin has noted, Shakespeare presents each character alone with his wife, responding to her suspicion that he is facing some danger. (See Further Reading.) In his other plays based on Roman history, Shakespeare gives women much more prominence than in Julius Caesar, where Portia and Calphurnia each speak in only two scenes. In this play Rome is more intensely a man’s world than in Shakespeare’s main sources, Plutarch’s biographies of Caesar, Brutus, and Mark Antony. While Plutarch notes the intermarriages among patricians that held their political alliances together and recounts with relish anecdotes in which women figure prominently, Shakespeare focuses dramatic interest on relations among men. Indeed, in terms of the Republic, to be a Roman means to be gendered male. Our word “virtue” comes from the Latin word virtus, meaning both manliness and valor, which is derived from Latin vir, man. The virtues promoted by the social and political life of the Republic are also gendered masculine and considered proper to men alone, as is made clear in the two scenes in which Portia is onstage.

In the first, when Portia begs Brutus to “tell me your counsels,” she asks not for specific information about the conspiracy so much as for intimacy, a sharing of thoughts and feelings based on mutual trust. What keeps Brutus from trusting her is that she is a woman and, according to gender conventions that survive even today, considered incapable of self-restraint and prone to telling secrets. (Brutus refers to the conspirators as “secret Romans that will not palter”—will not shift position and thus divulge the conspiracy.) But Brutus’s Romanness, which is virtually the same as his masculinity, also inhibits him from revealing inner conflict, self-doubt, or vulnerability to anyone, male or female. Portia is as convinced as Brutus that only those who show masculine valor deserve trust, and so she tries to cross the gender barrier by giving herself “a voluntary wound” in the thigh, a simulation of the battle wounds men customarily incurred in defending the Republic, wounds that earned them honor and political office. Though we can infer from her anxiety in 2.4 that Brutus has told her of the conspiracy, that scene indicates her doubts about sustaining the masculine virtue toward which she has aspired, and it shows her reversion to an image of herself as necessarily fearful and untrustworthy because she is a woman: “How hard it is for women to keep counsel! . . . / Ay me, how weak a thing / The heart of woman is!” (2.4.10, 45–46).

The politics of gender in Julius Caesar is governed by relations among men, however, rather than between men and women. Male friendships are indistinguishable from politics itself, from which women are formally excluded, and such friendships are strongly marked by rivalry. Pompey and Caesar were political allies before they became enemies; Brutus, though favored by Caesar, plots to kill him; Brutus and Cassius, bound by shared ideals, quarrel bitterly. Cassius’s story of his swimming match with Caesar captures the routine intensity of competition that is central to the formation of men as Romans:

For once, upon a raw and gusty day,

The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,

Caesar said to me “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now

Leap in with me into this angry flood

And swim to yonder point?” Upon the word,

Accoutered as I was, I plungèd in

And bade him follow; so indeed he did.

The torrent roared, and we did buffet it

With lusty sinews, throwing it aside

And stemming it with hearts of controversy.


At a key moment in the play, when Brutus tries to justify murdering Caesar, he too evokes the rivalrous world of Roman politics:

 . . . 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.


Because Caesar has gained this “upmost round” and towers “like a Colossus” (1.2.143) above his former peers, they feel their manliness diminished. Cassius laments that “we are governed with our mothers’ spirits. / Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish” (1.3.86–87). In raising their daggers against Caesar, then, they assert their manliness as Romans, and by bringing Caesar down and making him bleed, reduce him, as Gail Paster has shown, to the inferior status of a woman. (See Further Reading.)

Brutus persuades himself and the other conspirators that they can dissociate Caesar’s spirit from his body, and wishes that it were possible to cut off Caesar’s ambition without making him bleed for it. From the assassination scene to the end, however, Caesar’s blood and corpse become key images in the contest for power between the conspirators and their opponents. Brutus urges his friends to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood as a sign of “Peace, freedom, and liberty” (3.1.118–22)—the death of a tyrant, the restoration of the Republic. But their opponent Mark Antony cleverly turns their gesture to his own advantage when he plucks the bloody mantle from Caesar’s corpse to show the crowd his wounds and “let slip the dogs of war” (299)—Mark Antony’s war against Brutus and Cassius. It is he who defeats them, through superior military tactics, in the final battle of Philippi, at which both conspirators take their own lives.

Earlier, Brutus had confessed to Cassius that he would commit suicide rather than “be led in triumph / Thorough [i.e., through] the streets of Rome” (5.1.119–20). And Cassius considers it dishonorable to live after he thinks he sees Titinius taken captive. Yet both imply in their last words that Caesar’s spirit has taken revenge on them, and many critics have adopted this interpretation, which provides a certain kind of moral closure typical of Elizabethan revenge plays. But we need not seek explanations only in the supernatural realm. Brutus and Cassius, in effect, help to bring about their own downfall through their moral blindnesses and tactical errors, and Mark Antony foments civil war to serve his own interests. Curiously, the “monstrous apparition” that appears to Brutus in his tent on the eve of battle calls itself not Caesar but “Thy evil spirit” and says only “thou shalt see me at Philippi” (4.3.320, 325, 327). Perhaps Shakespeare is implying that Brutus’s own fatal error of judgment in thinking that republican liberty could be achieved only by killing Caesar has resulted, quite contrary to his intentions, in evil. Brutus himself is not evil, though his uncompromising idealism carries with it a subtle vanity. We might say that he only carries to a misguided extreme the values and expectations implied in the republican ideals he inherited. As Cicero states, “ . . . men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1.3.34–35).