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Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Julius Caesar | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


The ancient writer Plutarch claimed Brutus hated the tyranny of Caesar while Cassius hated the tyrant himself. How does Shakespeare support this claim in Julius Caesar?

Cassius says in Act 1, Scene 2 that he doesn't want to be "in awe of such a thing as I myself," meaning in awe of another human being with flaws. Cassius gives multiple personal examples of Caesar's perceived weakness, including his near-drowning in the Tiber and his fever in Spain. Cassius resents the personal power Caesar has achieved as one man, asking when historically democratic Rome has had an age where a single man held all the authority. Brutus speaks abstractly of tyranny in Act 2, Scene 1, where he admits that great achievements can change a man's nature. Brutus also says of Caesar, "I have no personal cause to spurn at him." In Brutus's funeral speech, he admits that he honored and loved Caesar as a friend, but "as he was ambitious, I slew him."

How do the events in Julius Caesar show that the changes in Rome are superficial?

In the play's last three acts, Caesar's influence lingers after his death. The crowd calls for Brutus to become the new Caesar. Antony and Octavius both show tendencies toward ambition and tyranny, as shown in Act 4, Scene 1, where they make a list of individuals to execute. They are also, like Caesar, skilled war generals, as shown in the battle scenes in Act 5. Cassius, despite claiming to want change, goes right back to illegal operations in Act 4, allowing his men to be bribed. He also compares himself to Pompey on the battlefield, suggesting that history is repeating itself. The death of Caesar marked a great political transition for Rome, but the leaders at the end of Act 5 show the same traits that Caesar did. Shakespeare implies that their rule will keep the people in the "servile fearfulness" that Flavius feared in Act 1.

How do Caesar's physical infirmities—deafness and epilepsy—develop his character for the audience of Julius Caesar?

These traits give Caesar a weak, human side. The epilepsy reduces Cassius's respect for Caesar, because Cassius values masculinity and strength. Caesar has what appears to be a seizure in front of the crowd in Act 1, offstage, the third time he refuses the crown. Since the audience doesn't see the scene, they must interpret it through the eyes of its observers. Brutus is sympathetic toward Caesar. Casca thinks Caesar is using the disability for his own gain and faked the seizure to appear vulnerable and mask his real intentions. Caesar also uses his deaf ear to reinforce Antony's sympathy for him, confiding in Antony about Cassius and then reminding him to speak into his good ear.

In Julius Caesar why does Caesar believe it is a danger that Cassius "thinks too much"?

As an aspiring demagogue, Caesar needs unquestioning obedience from his public. Someone who thinks for himself, like Cassius or Cicero, is indeed dangerous to him. The audience knows that Caesar's suspicions are accurate, since Cassius is planning a coup. Caesar emphasizes to Antony that he himself, the fearless Caesar, is not afraid of Cassius but recognizes the danger to others. Caesar, however, doesn't see Cassius's "lean and hungry look" as evidence that something's wrong in Rome. Rather he sees it as pride, a weakness in Cassius's character. Caesar declares that men like Cassius are "never at heart's ease whiles [while] they behold a greater than themselves." This statement confirms Cassius's envy as part of his motivation.

When Cassius says to Brutus in Julius Caesar, "You and I, and honest Casca, we have the falling sickness," what does he mean?

Cassius means that the senators are unable to stand up to Caesar's tyranny and are losing power under his rule. He's using metaphorical language to remind Brutus and Casca what they have to lose under Caesar, and to get them to join him in the assassination plot. He even calls Casca "honest" in contrast to the dishonest Caesar. Cassius also refers repeatedly to the "falling" or decline of Rome. In Act 1 he says "Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods." In Act 2 he laments Rome's weakness—"Our fathers' minds are dead, and we are governed with our mothers' spirits."

In Julius Caesar how does Brutus advance the play by comparing Caesar to an adder, a type of snake, in Act 2?

In Brutus's hands, this scene becomes an allegory for power and the abuse of power. Brutus compares Caesar to a snake and to a person who climbs a ladder with his eyes fixed on the view above—scorning the place he left below. The snake is a metaphor for a dangerous, crafty leader. An adder stings [bites] if people don't walk carefully around it. Crown Caesar, Brutus says, and "we put a sting in him"—give him the potential to do harm. Brutus has no personal problems with Caesar, but he knows how leadership can go to someone's head. The "serpent's egg" that Brutus references symbolizes a creature with the potential to become deadly. Brutus admits of Caesar that "the quarrel will bear no color for the thing he is": the tyrant Brutus fears doesn't resemble the Caesar he knows, but the person Caesar may become if his powers are augmented [intensified]. An egg can do no damage, but the hatched serpent might. So Brutus decides to "kill him in the shell." Brutus's soliloquy [dramatic monologue] reveals that he has made the decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Caesar and will meet with the other conspirators to finalize their plan.

After Cassius first speaks with Brutus in Julius Caesar, what step does he take to persuade Brutus to join the group, and why does he expect it to be effective?

Cassius writes three letters (petitions) to Brutus, seemingly from the citizens of Rome. Each letter chides Brutus for sleeping when Rome is in danger. Cassius is confident the letters will convince Brutus to participate in the killing of Caesar. He knows that Brutus will act on behalf of the city and is sure that he will think the letters are exactly what they appear to be. Cinna delivers the letters, unseen—throwing one through a window of Brutus's house. After his earlier conversation with Cassius, Brutus believes the letter refers to Caesar and that "strike, redress" means that Caesar must be removed from office. Brutus takes for granted that the letter is genuine and resolves that he must act on its demands.

Why doesn't Brutus want the conspirators to swear an oath in Act 2 of Julius Caesar?

Brutus does not believe that honorable men require an oath. "Old feeble carrions and such suffering souls that welcome wrongs," or those who are not trustworthy, need to swear, he declares. The conspirators are doing what Brutus considers a noble deed, and he wants to keep everything aboveboard. He's already disturbed that the other men came to his house in cloaks after dark. He also doesn't see the need for a sworn oath, since the reasons the men already have to kill Caesar should be sufficient. The corruption, discord, and fear in Rome should motivate the conspirators. Otherwise, Brutus says, they might as well all go home. He'll reiterate this conviction in Act 4 after Caesar's death when he argues with Cassius. Brutus thinks Cassius, by taking bribes, is encouraging evil deeds that aren't necessary. Brutus's conviction in this scene that no oath is necessary because they are all virtuous men planning this deed solely for the good of Rome shows his naiveté. It is probable that he is the only individual participating without a degree of self-interest.

How does acting, or playing a role, affect the main characters' actions in Julius Caesar?

Brutus urges the conspirators to put on smiling faces "as the Roman actors do" so they won't be found out. If they play the role of Caesar's friends, ironically, they'll be much more effective enemies. Caesar too acts for an audience when he refuses the crown. Casca even compares him directly to an actor on a stage. When Antony speaks at Caesar's funeral, he plays the part of a grieving friend in front of the plebeians, who respond so well to Antony in part because they enjoy a show. Cassius claims that the death scene will be reenacted for years "in states unborn and accents yet unknown." In the version in his mind, the assassins are victorious heroes. Shakespeare paints them as much more confused and complicated.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, why does Antony send his servant to speak to the conspirators before going to the Senate himself?

Antony is guaranteeing his own safety. He thinks he is next on the kill list, and he's a smart politician—survival is his number one goal. Antony wants to tell the conspirators how much he respects them (although he doesn't) before he goes to meet them. He suspects they will know he is lying, so he sends a servant, whom they are more likely to believe. Servants convey many messages in Julius Caesar; a natural occurrence in hierarchical Rome. But adding a middleman to communications leaves a greater opportunity for misunderstanding, as Cassius will discover when he thinks Titinius is dead in Act 5.

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