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Julius Caesar | Themes

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Shakespeare's Julius Caesar explores the characteristics of good leadership. Power, the ability to speak well, wisdom in lawmaking, strategy on the battlefield, bravery—these characteristics are all required. Characters in Julius Caesar show all of these traits. Yet none of them are perfect leaders; they're all flawed. The audience is left to decide for themselves who would have been the ideal leader for Rome.

Tyranny and Power

Shakespeare explores the theme of tyranny throughout the play and through the central question of the work: Is Caesar a tyrant, and is his murder justified? Although the audience is presented with no direct evidence of Caesar's tyranny, Cassius uses figurative language to convince first Casca and then Brutus that Caesar is indeed a tyrant who must be executed for his own good and for that of Rome. Cassius likens Caesar to a wolf that views the Romans as sheep. He states that were Caesar to become king and thus tyrant, Cassius would consider himself a slave, and he would rather take his own life than live enslaved.

The pursuit of power—fueled by ambition—is closely related to the theme of tyranny. Caesar's much-discussed ambition earns him the leadership spot. As Antony points out in his funeral speech, Caesar's rule kept Rome stable economically. Senators who envy Caesar or disagree with his methods all show some form of ambition themselves. Although he accuses Caesar of ambition, Cassius pursues power himself. He sends false evidence regarding Caesar to trick Brutus into believing ill of his friend. Using this falsehood and peer pressure, he persuades Brutus to accept the de facto role of conspiracy leader in Caesar's assassination. Ambition leads Caesar, and later Antony, to disregard the needs of others. Once his great-uncle is dead, Octavius begins his climb toward power, defying Antony regarding battle strategies at Philippi.

Communication and Persuasion

Communication in Julius Caesar is often a life-or-death affair. Shakespeare's characters communicate, or attempt to communicate, in several different ways: through private conversation, public speeches, and written messages. Even character interactions viewed from afar are interpreted as messages. In Act 5, for example, Pindarus mistakenly reports that Titinius has been killed, and this miscommunication results in Cassius's death.

Earlier, in Act 2, Scene 1, Cassius uses rhetoric in conversation and in his forged letters to persuade Brutus to join the conspirators. Throughout the play Shakespeare demonstrates the power of public speech and rhetoric to motivate groups of individuals to readily act as one. Marullus describes this phenomenon in Act 1 when he berates the Romans for celebrating Pompey's defeat.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Brutus and Antony demonstrate the ease with which public opinion can be manipulated. During the funeral, under Antony's influence, the people grow from an angry crowd into a pitchforks-and-torches mob willing to kill the innocent. The mob drives Brutus and Cassius from Rome, instigating a war and paving the way for Antony and Octavius to seize power.

Free Will versus Fate

Can humans employ free will to control the dates or manners of their deaths? The play revolves around a major death, that of Caesar, and questions whether it was inevitable or justified. Caesar himself believes firmly in fate. The strength of this belief may be what kills him—if he'd heeded the intervention of omens, he may not have gone to the Capitol.

Cassius, by contrast, believes he can change his destiny. And this belief starts a chain of events that leads to his death. Cassius, Brutus, Titinius, and Portia all commit suicide. They take death into their own hands, on their own terms—a demonstration of free will, but perhaps in the face of a death that fate has carved out for them.

Shakespeare's characters repeatedly try to seize control of events beyond their control, with mixed results. Flavius and Marullus try to curb Caesar's soaring self-image by desecrating his statues. Brutus attempts to manage public perceptions at Caesar's funeral. Cassius sets in motion the events leading to Caesar's downfall, in the name of achieving liberty for Rome.

Despite the frequent failures of their bold actions, the main characters often endorse free will as imperative, the only way out of a powerless, miserable life. Brutus, for instance, grows bolder throughout the play. In the first act, he's unhappy with Caesar's coronation but unconvinced that he can change anything. By the fourth act, he's confidently giving commands in war.

Honor

A person's honor—that is, integrity or high moral standards—is a concept that Shakespeare uses throughout the play. Brutus thinks of himself as an honorable man, one who serves the general good of the people. Cassius uses honor as a tool to manipulate Brutus into joining the assassination conspiracy. He flatters Brutus's sense of honor, saying he wishes Brutus could see himself in the same praiseworthy light as others see him. Once Cassius convinces Brutus that Caesar has become dishonorable, Brutus agrees to take part in the assassination. In his funeral speech, Antony uses honor as a means to discredit Brutus and the other conspirators and set the mob against them.

Force and Brutality

Shakespeare illustrates that Roman culture, especially for men, dictated that physical force was proof of worth just as much as intellectual acumen or political savvy. Arguments were solved through battle. Characters willing to show force end up on top, as in the case of Antony's and Octavius's killing 100 senators (or 70, depending on which report is accurate). Characters reluctant to show force get taken advantage of, as when Brutus resists killing Antony.

Shakespeare doesn't present it that simply, of course, and allows each major character to define in his own way what it means to be a leader. They each struggle to prove their worth: Caesar by overturning his wife's argument, for instance, and Brutus by holding back his emotions.

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