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Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Julius Caesar | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Although ancient Roman Emperor Caligula was a well-known tyrant, the history of tyranny is not isolated to Rome. Genghis Khan ruled in Asia, Henry VIII ruled in England, and Ivan the Terrible ruled in Russia. Modern tyrannies found leaders in Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Adolf Hitler (Germany), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), and Kim Jong Il (North Korea). The long-standing threat of tyranny throughout world history provides a context for the continuing popularity of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, written and then performed around 1599, which serves as a timeless cry against oppressive governments.

The play traces the assassination of Roman political and military leader Julius Caesar and the subsequent civil war. Caesar's assassination is motivated by the fear that Caesar's ambitions as a leader threaten the Roman Republic with tyranny. In England at the time, the approaching end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who had no heirs, was cause for worry that tyranny might once again take over England. However, in Shakespeare's play it is not as easy as one might think to label the tyrants!

1. Abraham Lincoln's assassin may have been inspired by Julius Caesar.

Actor John Wilkes Booth, assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, played the role of Marc Antony five months earlier in a production starring his older brother Edwin as Brutus. As a manuscript written by Booth makes clear, his stage roles affected him deeply. After shooting the president from the stage in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C, Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis"—"thus be it ever to tyrants"—a clear reference to Caesar's assassin Brutus.

2. Caesar's assassins weren't sure how to kill him.

Before killing Caesar, the 60 conspirators—including the senators—debated how they should kill the dictator. They considered murdering him on his favorite walk, killing him at a gladiatorial competition, and pushing him off a bridge. However, since the senators could hide their knives beneath their togas, the idea of killing Caesar in the Senate, as Shakespeare illustrates, won out.

3. Much like modern-day men, Julius Caesar was self-conscious about his baldness.

Caesar attempted to cure his baldness with massages and special tonics. The historian Seutonius, describing Caesar's appearance, wrote:

He was embarrassed by his baldness, which was a frequent subject of jokes on the part of his opponents; so much so that he used to comb his straggling locks forward from the back, and of all honours heaped upon him by senate and people, the one he most appreciated was to be able to wear a wreath at all times.

4. Caesar didn't really say, "Et tu, Brute?"

According to a historian of the time, Seutonius, Caesar's actual last words, in Greek, translate as "You too, my child?" rather than "You too, Brutus?" Some critics believe the statement is incomplete and Caesar actually meant that it would be Brutus's turn to die next. Others believe he was expressing his despair at his good friend's betrayal. Either way, the phrase "Et tu, Brute?" was familiar to Shakespeare's audience because it had been included in a play in 1582 on the same subject.

5. Julius Caesar has been called Shakespeare's least impressive play.

The 17th-18th century English critic William Hazlitt wrote that he believed Julius Caesar was the least impressive of Shakespeare's Roman history plays. He preferred both Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. He did feel that the play was full of "admirable and affecting passages" and showed a "profound knowledge of character." However, he also stated, "We do not much admire the representation here given of Julius Caesar," because the character did very little in the play.

6. For political reasons, writers added new lines to the play in the late 1680s.

During the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, James II was replaced by his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. Because Mary was Protestant, this royal change was viewed by the Whigs—who feared a Catholic dictatorship and favored rule by parliament over the monarchy—as a victory. As England's anti-absolute-monarchy Whigs gained power, they viewed Brutus as a hero for his defense of liberty. New lines appeared in his dying speech: "Thus Brutus always strikes for Liberty."

7. The earliest recorded performance of Julius Caesar took place on a nearly bare stage.

The first known performance of Julius Caesar took place in London's Globe Theatre, a thatched-roof theater open to the sky. There were no props except for a bust of Pompey, a Roman military and political leader, and a seat for Caesar. It was one of the first plays performed at the Globe Theatre. Swiss tourist Thomas Platter described the performance in his diary:

In the straw-thatched house the tragedy of the first emperor, Julius Caesar, [was] quite excellently acted by about fifteen persons.

8. Legendary actor Marlon Brando played Marc Antony in the 1953 film adaptation.

The play has been adapted for the screen many times, beginning with silent film versions in 1908 (United States), 1909 (Italy), and 1911 (United Kingdom). But, the 1953 film starring a young Marlon Brando as Marc Antony was the most successful large-screen adaptation. Critics doubted the American's ability to recreate the role of Shakespeare's Antony in a powerful way. However, Brando, adopting a perfect British accent, stunned doubters with a performance that was both physical and charming.

9. Actor Charlton Heston played Marc Antony twice in two film versions.

In 1950 the first version of Julius Caesar with sound was filmed. It was a low-budget movie starring Charlton Heston, unknown at the time, as Marc Antony. The New York Times said the direction of this black-and-white version created "cause for admiration" but called the acting "stiff" and "self-conscious." In 1970 Heston played Marc Antony again, this time in a big-budget color film. Though the 1970 version was panned, critic Roger Ebert admitted that Heston did "a fine job."

10. Some of the senators who stabbed Caesar had pretty bad aim.

Caesar's death was the result of 23 stab wounds, but some of his attackers were also hurt. Brutus, for example, was wounded in the thigh, possibly by his own blade. Another senator was accidentally stabbed by one of the attackers. These details don't make it into Shakespeare's play, though.

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