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Julius Caesar

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English Literature

Intrigue. Conspiracy. Betrayal. Revenge. You may have watched many high school teen movies that featured these elements, but did you know that the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar also highlights these themes? That's right, Caesar was betrayed and killed by his best friend Brutus, and later avenged by his loyal follower, Mark Antony. Read on to find out how the drama unfolded...

Julius Caesar: Facts

Like many other Shakespearean plays, Julius Caesar is not an original play. That is to say, William Shakespeare was inspired by other texts and borrowed material from them to write this play. One of the texts he heavily borrowed from is Plutarch's Life of Caesar, written around 75 AD, over 1,400 years before Shakespeare wrote his version. Plutarch was a biographer and historian who wrote the biographies of notable people, including the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.

William Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, was deeply interested in classical texts, especially those featuring Greek and Roman figures. Therefore, it comes across as no surprise that he felt compelled to write about the tragedy of Julius Caesar. Not restricting himself to Greek and Roman histories, Shakespeare even ventured into Egyptian lore and history, writing about Queen Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1608).

Interestingly, Mark Antony, one of the titular characters of Antony and Cleopatra, is also one of the main characters in Julius Caesar. You could think of Julius Caesar as his 'origin story.' But, why is all the focus on Mark Antony, you may wonder? Well, you will find out when you read the play and realise that the titular Caesar appears in fewer scenes than Mark Antony and Marcus Brutus.

Another important note concerning the context of the play is that, when Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599, Queen Elizabeth was elderly, unmarried, and had not named a successor, which made the people of England, particularly those working in the Government, rather nervous. Julius Caesar was meant to show the dangers of civil war, which loomed over England as a possibility if there no successor were to be named.

Julius Caesar: Summary

Usually, we would start at the very beginning of the play and explain what went down. However, in this case, let's take a quick look at something that happened before the events of the play. In Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus is rather proud of his heritage, as his ancestor was credited with having overthrown the monarchy in Rome by driving out the Dictator, Roman King Tarquinius Superbus. This backstory is important to keep in mind, as it provides context for Brutus' attitude towards Caesar.

Now, let's get on with the play. The current governing system in Rome features the triumvirate and the senate. Julius Caesar is one of the members of this triumvirate alongside Pompey and Crassus. After numerous political victories, Caesar enforces social and political reforms, and became a supreme authority in Rome, particularly after defeating Pompey.

A triumvirate refers to a governing body of a state that features three figures. The triumvirate are granted special administrative and judicial powers.

Having successfully defeated Pompey, Caesar returns victorious to Rome on the feast of Lupercal, a pastoral Roman festival. During the celebration, Caesar is accosted at the parade by a soothsayer (fortune-teller), who warns Caesar and tells him to 'beware the Ides of March' (Act 1, Scene 2), which is a fancy way of saying '15th March'.

Meanwhile, Cassius, an aristocrat and member of the senate, meets with Brutus to discuss the unrest that is growing due to Caesar's increasing authority. While the play indicates that Cassius is motivated by jealousy, Brutus, on the other hand, is genuinely concerned that Caesar is abusing his powers.

Remember, Rome, and particularly Brutus, do not like dictators given their history with Tarquinius Superbus.

While Cassius is convincing Brutus to conspire against Caesar, Casca (another conspirator) arrives and narrates what happened at the parade to Cassius and Brutus. He recounts that Mark Antony offered the crown to Caesar thrice, and Caesar rejected it all three times, each time more reluctantly. Convinced of Caesar's lust for power and ambition by this, and being tricked by the other conspirators into thinking he has the support of the people, Brutus decides that Caesar must be stopped.

Cut to the Ides of March, and Caesar is at the senate, getting on with the business of the day. While raising grievances, the conspirators, including Brutus, stab Caesar and assassinate him. The final blow that Caesar receives is that from Brutus, and he finally falls to his death, causing chaos in the Senate.

Brutus, knowing that public opinion is important, takes to the stage and announces to the people of Rome that Caesar was growing too ambitious and had to be killed for the sake of Rome. While, at first, the people seem to agree with Brutus, Mark Antony gives a funeral speech in Caesar's honour and quickly sways public opinion, forcing Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators to flee Rome.

Civil war ensues, and a new triumvirate emerges with Mark Antony, Caesar's nephew Octavius, and Marcus Lepidus at the helm. They meet Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators on the battlefield and overwhelm their forces. Brutus and Cassius commit suicide, and Caesar's death is avenged. The play closes with Mark Antony making a tribute to Brutus, stating that he remained noble till the very end and that it was him alone who truly killed Caesar over concern for Rome.

Julius Caesar: Quotes

Caesar: Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar!

(Act 3, Scene 1)

Among the most famous of Shakespeare's lines are these final utterances of Julius Caesar, right after he sees Brutus among the conspirators. Translating to, 'you also, Brutus? Then fall Caesar,' they demonstrate Caesar's shock and sense of betrayal upon seeing his close friend among the conspirators. Through the second half of the quote, Caesar conveys that he dies because of Brutus' betraying blow.

Anthony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears [...]

(Act 3, Scene 2)

This is another one of Shakespeare's most famous lines. Mark Antony opens his funeral speech with these words, counting the Roman people among his 'friends' and already swaying public opinion in his favour. Being a good orator (speaker) and having excellent rhetorical skills were important qualities for a Roman politician, and Antony demonstrates these skills in this speech. He uses satire and irony to mock Brutus' claim that Caesar was an ambitious man by giving examples of Caesar's humility. He finally declares that Caesar left a then significant sum of 75 Drachmas (the Roman currency at the time) to each citizen of Rome, eventually winning the support of the people and driving the conspirators out of Rome.

Brutus: [...] Caesar, now be still:I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.

(Act 5, Scene 5)

These are the final lines of Brutus. He claims that, although he willingly killed Caesar, his will has only doubled in his resolution to kill himself after accepting his wrongdoings and embracing his final fate.

Julius Caesar: Themes

Shakespearean plays continue to be widely read, analysed, and performed after 400 years because they touch upon universal themes that intrigue readers and audiences even today. Julius Caesar, in particular, touches upon the themes of ambition and power, friendship, and honour.

Ambition and power

Ambition and the lust for power motivate many characters in the play, including Cassius. Brutus, in his speech after Caesar's assassination, claims that he had to kill Caesar because of his growing ambition and thirst for more authority. Because of his ancestral past, Brutus is wary of dictators who reign with supreme authority. Towards the end, when Mark Antony makes a tribute to Brutus, he announces that Brutus was the only one to kill Caesar truly for the good of Rome. Brutus is the only character who is not driven by ambition.

Friendship

Friendship is an important theme in the play as Brutus, despite being Caesar's closest friend, must pit his friendship and loyalty towards him against his loyalty towards Rome, which brings about Caesar's (and consequently his own) downfall. Mark Antony, on the other hand, does not quite come across as Caesar's friend, but rather a loyal disciple, even avenging the death of Caesar.

Honour

To a Roman citizen, especially one working for the state, nothing is more important than their principles and code of honour. This is also perhaps why we associate honour with being 'romantic.' Brutus, an honourable Roman citizen, is forced to conspire against his friend for the good of Rome. Mark Antony raises the question of honour, especially Caesar's honour, when he sways public opinion in his favour. Towards the end, Brutus accepts his faults and his fate to die what would be considered an honourable Roman death, i.e., not by defeat but by his own hand. One could also argue that Cassius and the conspirators were without honour in their conspiracy against Caesar.

The play, Julius Caesar, continues to be analysed and studied across the globe today for its exploration of these themes which can be universally applied across nations and cultures. Furthermore, the play is known for contributing some of the most famous lines in English literary culture, such as 'Et tu, Brute?'. It is commonplace to utter this phrase when one feels betrayed by a friend.

Julius Caesar - Key takeaways

  • The play Julius Caesar is written by William Shakespeare and performed in 1599.
  • Julius Caesar was inspired by the biography of Julius Caesar written by Plutarch.
  • The play centres around the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar as he was growing in power and on his way to becoming a dictator of Rome.
  • Key Characters in the play include Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Mark Antony, and Cassius.
  • The main themes of the play are ambition and power, friendship, and honour.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by conspirators including Cassius and Brutus at the Senate on the Ides of March.

Julius Caesar is famous for numerous reasons, including his military prowess, his reign as the Emperor of Rome, and for his assassination at the Senate by conspirators.

5 facts about Julius Caesar include:
1. He was a member of the first triumvirate of Rome.

2. He was assassinated by conspirators at the Senate on the Ides of March.

3. He created the Julian calendar.
4. He adopted his nephew, Augustus, and named him his successor.

5. Caesar's death led to civil war in Rome.

While some events of the play Julius Caesar are true, such as his assassination, the conspiracy against him, and the civil war caused by his death, other aspects of the play are fictional and have been dramatized, such as Antony's funeral speech.

In the play, Julius Caesar is avenged by the second triumvirate consisting of Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus.

Final Julius Caesar Quiz

Question

What is the name of Julius Caesar's friend who betrays him by taking part in a conspiracy against him?

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Answer

Brutus

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Question

Name the members of the triumvirate that forms after the death of Caesar

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Answer

Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Marcus Lepidus

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Question

Who of the following is not a conspirator against Caesar?

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Answer

Pompey

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Question

Why was Caesar killed?

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Answer

Because of his ambition

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Question

What were Caesar's final words to Brutus?

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Answer

Et tu, Brute?

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a theme of the play Julius Caesar?

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Answer

Immortality

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Question

Who sways public opinion against the conspirators in Julius Caesar?

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Answer

Mark Antony

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Question

Name the figure whose biography of Julius Caesar inspired Shakespeare to write the play

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Answer

Plutarch

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Question

When did the soothsayer warn Caesar?

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Answer

At the feast of Lupercal

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Question

When was Caesar killed?

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Answer

Ides of March

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