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Julius Caesar

Term Definition
Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Julius Caesar, was a Roman statesman, general, and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. He was also the subject of William Shakespeare's 1599 play about Roman history.

Background information on the play

Julius Caesar was written by William Shakespeare around the year 1599. It is one of only a few of Shakespeare’s plays that are based on true events from Roman history. Despite being named after him, Julius Caesar is not the most prevalent character in the story and he appears in a mere five scenes. Four times as many lines are spoken by Marcus Brutus and the center of the play is Marcus’ psychological struggle between the demands of his life. 

The play was originally published in the First Folio in 1623, though the performance of the play has been referenced as early as 1599. They play is nowhere to be found in a list of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1598 and is similar in metre to Hamlet, Henry V, and As You Like It, making scholars believe that it must have been written in 1599. The text is consistent and high-quality and was set into type from a theater prompt-book. 

Themes of Julius Caesar

One of the most prominent themes throughout the play is the idea of public self versus private self. The negative events that occur in the play are often the result of the characters ignoring their feelings and emotions in favor of what they think will benefit the public. Some characters compromise their private selves by becoming selfish political apparatuses (resulting in very Machiavellian behavior). Brutus is friends with Caesar, but refuses to think of him as a man and more of an evil dictator because he believes the public wants Caesar’s murder. When Caesar communicates his distrust of Cassius, he says he distrusts Cassius’ lack of a private self; he thinks Cassius ignores his sensibilities and feelings, failing to nurture his own spirit and uphold any personal honor.

Defining the protagonist

Historians often argue about who is the true protagonist of the play: Brutus or Julius Caesar? Brutus is the center of the play, but Caesar is compared to the Northern Star, with which the earth seems to rotate. Both characters are continuously praised and criticized. Brutus is praised by Casca before being insulted, while Caesar is described as both manly and powerful, but also as conceited and chaotic. Caesar is intuitive and philosophical and is often correct when he trusts his instincts. For example, when he expresses fear that Cassius cannot be trusted, he is later found to be correct. Brutus is portrayed as very similar to Caesar, but is led more by his passions and emotions, which sometimes get in the way of reason. Brutus tries to put the republic ahead of himself and his personal relationships, though he does not always make the right choice; his mistakes bring about the downfall of the republic created by his ancestors and he does not gather enough information before making decisions, in addition to continuously being manipulated by conspirators. While Cassius and the conspirators are motivated by their own envy, greed, and ambition, Brutus is motivated by friendship, patriotism, and honor. 

Some, however, say that one of the main strengths of the play is that there are not set heroes or villains. The play itself is about the difficulty in deciding which role to emphasize. Affecting one character spurs a series of character changes and challenges for the other characters. When one character emphasizes one role, another character balances out the change.

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