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Themes in Julius Caesar
Fate and Omen: One of the central questions Julius Caesar poses is whether fate is predetermined. Throughout the play, omens and prophecies are discovered and told. Fountains fill with blood; lions tread through the Roman streets. Yet these omens are interpreted in different ways by different characters, creating a universe in which free will and destiny are offered as equally plausible philosophies. Caesar entertains the omens of his death, then ignores the omens, then dies. Cassius staunchly subscribes to his own sense of will and agency, but his plans unravel and he falls prey to the civil unrest he brought about. The question of whether humans truly possess free will is never answered; rather, we see each character struggling with the mysterious threads of fate.
The Power of Rhetoric: Throughout Julius Caesar, the political events that unfold are picked apart, analyzed, and interpreted by the play’s characters in various ways. Caesar’s rise to power is either just or unjust, depending on the character who describes it. Caesar’s assassination is good or bad, depending on whether Brutus or Mark Antony is holding court. Those interpretations take on their own power within the play. The crowd—the roiling Roman populace—are ever-present, ready to be swayed this way or that. In a sense, Julius Caesar is theater within theater. Just as the Roman crowd reacts to the oratory of each scene, so does the audience of the play.
Loyalty: In Julius Caesar, loyalties are often in flux. Brutus, the play’s moral center, constantly questions his loyalties to Caesar and to Rome. Upon Caesar’s death, Mark Antony’s loyalties subtly shift before the eyes of the Roman public. The relationship between Cassius and Brutus is defined by a strong mutual loyalty, disrupted by frequent disputes.
Themes Examples in Julius Caesar:
Act I - Scene I
"Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome,(35) To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Marullus’s opinions about Caesar clue us into the play’s intense interest in political rhetoric. Indeed, Julius Caesar is more a character spoken about than a character who speaks. Caesar’s standing as a ruler, first introduced in this moment, remains a central topic of debate throughout the play. Class distinction is a key element here. In this scene, we see Marullus the tribune swaying the common cobbler. The play contains many more instances of politicians convincing the public of their views.
Act I - Scene II
"Ye gods! It doth amaze me A man of such a feeble temper should(135) So get the start of the majestic world And bear the palm alone...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Part of the case Cassius lays before Brutus in convincing him of Caesar’s unworthiness is a devaluation of Caesar’s status from God to man. Cassius is unconvinced that Caesar’s leadership is “in the stars,” or destined. Cassius spins an account of Caesar as a flesh-and-blood man, rendering him no more worthy to rule than any other mortal. This moment ties into the play’s ongoing debate over whether Rome’s political fate is in the hands of gods or men.
Act I - Scene III
"And that which would appear offense in us, His countenance, like richest alchemy, Will change to virtue and to worthiness...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Casca uses alchemy–the antiquated practice of turning lead to gold–as a metaphor for the power of political rhetoric. Throughout Julius Caesar, nothing is truly lead or gold, but the right words can make it seem so.
"And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?(110) Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf But that he sees the Romans are but sheep...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Cassius’s understanding of the world centers around a belief in free will and agency. He seeks to assign responsibility to himself and his fellow Romans for the current state of political affairs. Not content to buy into a narrative that renders Caesar’s rise inevitable, he blames the citizens of Rome for allowing it to happen. Cassius in turn takes on the responsibility to shape events to come.
Act II - Scene III
"If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Like many of the characters in Julius Caesar, Artemidorus has a precarious notion of fate. On the one hand, he chooses to take matters into his own hands by warning Caesar of the conspiracy. On the other, he acknowledges that fate alone will decide whether Caesar gets the message.
Act III - Scene I
"Fates, we will know your pleasures. That we shall die, we know; 'tis but the time(110) And drawing days out that men stand upon...." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In a fascinating address to the Fates themselves, Brutus speaks of the inevitability of death. On one level, he is justifying the murder of Caesar by pointing out how death comes to everyone. To kill a man is to free him of the dread of death. On another level, Brutus is foreshadowing his own death, as well as the deaths of his fellow conspirators. After all, he says, “That we shall die, we know.”
Act III - Scene II
"There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor for his valor, and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman?..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Brutus’s case for his murder of Caesar hinges on two arguments. First, Caesar was ambitious, and ambition is punishable by death. Second, that Caesar was tyrannical, putting the Roman people in the position of bondmen (slaves). Note that Brutus offers no evidence to support these claims. Mark Antony’s ensuing speech is remarkable in the way that he uses evidence to dismantle Brutus’s position here.
Act V - Scene I
"O, that a man might know The end of this day's business ere it come! But it sufficeth that the day will end, And then the end is known...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
So ends the philosophical discussion between Cassius and Brutus on the topics of foresight and determinism. Brutus arrives at the position that the future is ultimately unknowable until you have reached it. To Brutus, this state of affairs is not ideal but will have to do.
Act V - Scene V
"Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie, Most like a soldier, order'd honorably...." See in text (Act V - Scene V)
By ending the play with the discussion of Brutus’s character and legacy, Shakespeare asks us once again: Who is the play’s protagonist? Despite the play’s title, Julius Caesar is not as prominent or vocal a presence as Brutus or Cassius. These final moments, in which Antony, working himself into a rapture, proclaims that “Nature might stand up/And say to all the world, ‘’This was a man!” indicates that Brutus stands at the play’s heart. Brutus’s honor is important, and so is the honor bestowed upon him in his elegy.