Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Julius Caesar | Context


The Power of Words

Much of the appeal of Julius Caesar lies in the author's use of language. Development of the English language, in fact, owes a great deal to Shakespeare's coining of words and phrases and the standardization of vocabulary, spelling, and grammar that occurred through the printing and distribution of his plays. Shakespeare expanded English vocabulary largely by borrowing from other languages and forming new words by changing parts of speech, such as changing a verb to a noun or a noun to an adjective—a process known as a functional shift. An example appears in Antony's funeral speech, where he uses two adjectives as nouns: "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." Phrases from Julius Caesar that have entered common usage include "a dish fit for the gods," "[it's all] Greek to me," "an itching palm," "give up the ghost," "the dogs of war," and "Et tu, Brute?"


Throughout the play Shakespeare makes use of rhetorical devices, and the manipulative use of words is central to the drama. Antony's funeral speech provides a powerful example. His repetition of statements, such as "Brutus is an honorable man," sticks in his listeners' minds.

Brutus's rhetoric relies on rational arguments. During his funeral speech, he asks listeners questions with obvious answers: Would they rather be enslaved or free? He appeals to common desires, such as liberty and a unified Rome. Antony remembers what Brutus forgot—people listen to arguments with their hearts as well as with their heads.

Manipulation also appears in the form of flattery. Decius convinces Caesar to go to the Senate by praising his authority. Brutus is manipulated by Cassius and Antony, who both openly admire him.

Rome's Influential History

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE in a democratic Rome. An admired soldier, he rose to the rank of military tribune. In 60 BCE, with Pompey (106–48 BCE) and Crassus (115–53 BCE), he formed Rome's first triumvirate of leaders. A triumvirate is a group of three individuals who share public authority. Roman politics was divided between the Populares (the common people, or plebeians) and their supporters, and the Optimates (the wealthy people, or patricians). Caesar sided with the Populares.

After Crassus died in battle, Pompey and Caesar feuded over the right to rule supreme. Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon River to defeat Pompey in 49 BCE. He then declared himself Roman dictator for life.

Under Caesar, Rome prospered. Caesar redistributed land to veterans and to the poor. He eliminated the tax system and relieved debt. One of his best-known changes was the reformation of the Roman calendar; the new Julian calendar had 365 days divided into 12 months.

Caesar was notoriously stubborn. Though he appointed more Roman senators, ostensibly to include the people's voices in government, he constantly passed laws without their input. Senators feared he would eliminate their jobs entirely.

As many as 60 senators conspired to assassinate Caesar. Among them were Cassius (d. 42 BCE) and Brutus (85–42 BCE). They killed Caesar on the Senate floor on March 15, 44 BCE. But the assassins made a crucial mistake: they didn't plan what to do after Caesar's death.

Antony (83–30 BCE)—Caesar's right-hand man—united with Caesar's great-nephew and heir, Octavius, and Caesar's friend Lepidus (d. 13 BCE) as the second triumvirate and defeated Brutus and Cassius in the 42 BCE Battle of Philippi. Later, the second triumvirate divided. Lepidus lost power. Antony—who was involved with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (69–30 BCE)—took his own life. Left as sole ruler, Octavius became Rome's first emperor in 27 BCE. He ruled as Augustus Caesar and enjoyed the absolute power that Rome's Senate feared Julius Caesar would achieve.

Elizabeth I and England's "Golden Age"

Queen Elizabeth I ascended the English throne in 1558 and made it her first priority to establish religious order. Although the Protestant faith was restored as the official religion, the country's Catholics were allowed to worship in private.

Elizabeth sought to improve social and financial conditions. Laws enacted during her reign alleviated poverty through taxes levied on each parish and regulated apprenticeships in various occupations. Additional laws were passed to improve agricultural production. Elizabeth reformed the nation's currency to bolster its worth and increased England's overseas trade by giving charters to organizations such as the East India Company, which colonized India. With Elizabeth's encouragement, English explorers claimed land in North America.

England became a powerful force in world affairs. Culture flourished, and Shakespeare, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (1564–1593, an English playwright who was one of Shakespeare's contemporaries), and other authors, musicians, and artists reaped the benefits.

However, after England's 1588 defeat of the invading Spanish Armada, which cemented England's role as a world power and naval force, Britain's economy plummeted. Unemployment, inflation, and a series of poor harvests caused havoc. As poverty increased, people grew resentful. Leaders like the Earl of Essex fostered rebellions. Elizabeth I never married and had no heirs. She would not name a successor, leaving the situation unsure regarding the next monarch. With military might came foreign enemies, and the English worried for their safety.

Leadership Changes

Conflicts between Catholic and Protestant rulers in Elizabethan England mirrored conflicts between Populares and Optimates in ancient Rome. Tension affected every citizen.

England's sense of identity was wrapped up in the Church of England and in Queen Elizabeth. Her reign is known as the Elizabethan Age. Similarly, for many historians, Julius Caesar's social and political reforms made him one of the most influential leaders in history.

Shakespeare interested his audience in politics by making Julius Caesar an intensely personal drama, revealing the characters behind the icons.

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