Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Character Analysis & Traits
In Shakespeare's tragedy 'Julius Caesar' we see a glimpse into the downfall of noble characters set in historical fiction. In this lesson, we explore a few of the character traits that led to their demise.
The tragedy Julius Caesar, based on the life of said ancient Roman emperor, is considered written by Shakespeare in the late 1500s. The story culminates in a civil war and the deaths of his former senate members and enemies, Brutus and Cassius. This piece of historical fiction has brought the true-life story of Caesar to life for untold readers through the centuries.
The main character in this famous play is not Julius Caesar, although his death is the catalyst for the tragic events that unfold. Julius Caesar's superstitious nature, however, is worth mentioning. At the beginning of the play, Caesar asks his friend, Mark Antony, to touch his wife's garment during a race to release her from her infertility. Later, when he is approached by a soothsayer and warned to 'beware the Ides of March' (1.2.20), Caesar takes note, although he minimizes the event, calling the man a 'dreamer' (1.2.26). Also, when Calpurnia, his wife, warns him not to attend the senate meeting on March 15th because of a nightmare she has had and because of odd omens and storms, he concedes to her wishes until he is persuaded to attend the fateful meeting by his conspirators. Prophesies, dreams and storms give pause to his actions, although his pride overrules his caution.
Brutus, a close friend, and perhaps more like an adopted son, leads the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar, where several senate members, literally stab Caesar in the back. When Caesar sees Brutus, he speaks the famous lines, 'Et tu, Brutus?' (3.1.84) - asking, in essence, 'Even you, Brutus . . . even you would do this to me?' The close nature of their relationship makes Brutus' betrayal far more shocking and bitter. Also, Brutus is known for his honesty and moral character. How could one with so strong a reputation murder a friend?
In this play, Brutus, the protagonist, allows himself to be manipulated by the schemes of others, such as Cassius, his brother-in-law, who flatter him into believing that it is for the good of Rome that Caesar must die. There is some thought that Brutus is proud, indeed blinded by his pride in his own virtue and prominent place in the hearts and minds of the Roman people. This pride becomes his undoing. Not even the warnings of his wife, Portia, who ultimately commits suicide, hold him back from what seems to be his fate, assassinating the Roman emperor, and causing a civil war.
Cassius, brother-in-law to Brutus, holds no such place of honor and reputation with the Roman people. As Caesar observes, commenting to the athlete, Mark Antony, Cassius has a 'lean and hungry look' (1.2.195), and Caesar does not trust him, for good reason. Cassius criticizes Caesar, scoffing at the idea that this obviously flawed human could possibly be considered a god. Cassius tells Brutus that Caesar once challenged him to a swim, only to nearly drown. Another time, Cassius observed Caesar in a state of illness, and scoffs at his weakness. Cassius asks Brutus the question, 'Why should Caesar be king, any more than you or me?'
Cassius sets his ambitious will to dispose of one ruler, Caesar, and set Brutus in his place, only at what cost?
No character sees Mark Antony for who is really is, a shrewd enemy. Mark Antony is the athlete, the one who wins laurels, the one who parties and appears fickle, indeed, the playboy. But Mark Antony is not only Caesar's loyal friend, but also a dangerous enemy to all who oppose him. Mark Antony stands aghast over Caesar's wounded body, vowing to avenge his death.
In an unexpected display of crafty oration, Mark Antony speaks at Caesar's funeral, against Cassius wishes, and although Mark Antony continually repeats the phrase, 'and Brutus is an honorable man,' it is clear that he intends to convey just the opposite to the easily swayed audience. By the end of the funeral, the crowd, once supportive of Brutus, turns into a raging mob, bent on vengeance.
Afterward, Mark Antony enlists the help of Caesar Augustus, the nephew and rightful heir to the Roman throne, according to Julius Caesar's wishes, and both Brutus and Cassius are defeated in the end. Unable to endure the humiliation of defeat, Brutus falls on his own sword.
So, we see the pride of Caesar, the ambition of Cassius, the naïve nobility of Brutus, and the shrewd revenge of Mark Antony, woven together in the Shakespearean masterpiece Julius Caesar. It is such traits as these, so human in strength and weakness, that determine the course of great leaders, and indeed of all people.
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