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Notes on William Shakespeare's
Julius Caesar: Why kill Caesar? 


The Historical Background

Gaius Julius Caesar, statesman, general and founder of the Roman Empire, is now thought to have been born in the year 100 BC (102 BC has previously been cited).

That he had a generous streak first came to light in 65 BC when he nearly ruined himself with lavish amusements for the Roman population after having been elected Aedile, a kind of magistrate who superintended public matters. In 63 BC, despite having established himself as a freethinker, he was elected chief pontiff. After a spell as governor of Further Hispania he returned to Rome in 60 BC to form the first triumvirate together with Pompey and Crassus, Caesar's share being the provinces of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul.

Gaius Julius CaesarOver the next 13 years his campaigning in Gaul led to some outstanding victories. He defeated the Germanic peoples under Ariovistus and sold many of the Belgic tribes into slavery. His two reconnaissance missions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC paved the way for the Roman conquest of that land, which was to begin in earnest almost a century later in 43 AD. In 51 BC, Caesar completely crushed a Gaulish uprising. By 49 BC, Crassus was dead and Pompey had become a serious rival. Because Caesar already had many enemies in Rome, Pompey was authorised to lead an army against him. Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy and was triumphant in the bloody Civil War which followed.

In 48 BC he chased Pompey all the way to Egypt, where he had him murdered. After having dallied with Cleopatra, with whom he had a son, Caesar returned to Rome with yet another military victory to his credit, this time in Asia Minor. Back home he moved from triumph to triumph over the Pompeian party, and in the year 46 BC he was firmly established as the most powerful man in Rome, still raring to go with ambitious new plans for the future.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

It is the very vigour with which Caesar is proceeding, together with speculation that he might well be aiming at personal dictatorship, which are making the republicans Brutus and Cassius feel disgruntled when Shakespeare's play takes up the story.

Caesar has increasingly allowed his unparalleled success to go to his head:

Act I, Scene II, lines 208–209
"I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar."

He has become overbearing, unbending and arrogant. Indeed, there are seemingly no holds barred for the high opinion he has of himself, often expressed in the 3rd person:

Act II, Scene II, lines 10–12
"Caesar shall forth; the things that threaten' d me
Ne'er looked but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished."
Act III, Scene I, lines 58–62
"I could be well mov'd, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."

Then, immediately before he is to be knocked off his pedestal and forever brought down to earth, Caesar goes so far as to put himself on par with the gods:

Act III, Scene I, line 74
"Hence: Wilt thou lift up Olympus?"

It is partly the obvious accentuation by Shakespeare of this worst side of Caesar's character which allows the audience to feel some degree of sympathy for the conspirators, at least up until the time of the assassination. Just as important, however, are the personal qualities and beliefs of the man whom this tragedy is really all about, the noble but blind Marcus Brutus, and the role played by his brother-in-law, the sincere but scheming Caius Cassius, who did all the prompting and goading and drove the action forward. Let us now consider the motives of these two main characters in desiring to eliminate the ruler whose great name and power have been monumentalised in the German word Kaiser and Russian word Tsar.

Brutus bears Caesar no grudge. On the contrary, the two have always had a very close and friendly relationship. That is why Brutus' involvement in the plot is the most incomprehensible and most painful last blow for Caesar. He despairingly utters the play's most memorable line:

Act III, Scene I, line 77
"Et tu, Brute? — Then fall Caesar!"

Cassius' participation, on the other hand, probably does not come as much of a surprise to Caesar if one considers the thorough distrust of Cassius he has previously expressed:

Act I, Scene II, lines 189–192:
"Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

I think we can safely assume that Brutus acts solely in the belief that what he is doing is in the national interest, which must be put before any private considerations such as any love he might have for Caesar as a person. His cause is not the removal of an existing threat but of a potential threat, that of tyrannical dictatorship in the future. His main motive is his supposed need to act preemptively, and his decision rests on reason and rational thinking, not on the feelings of his heart. He must be a stoic, one showing indifference to pleasure and pain.

Act II, Scene I, lines 10–15
"It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking."
Act II, Scene I, lines 18–27
"Th' abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend."
Act II, Scene I, lines 32–34
"And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell."
Act II, Scene I, lines 169–170
"O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!"

In contrast to the worldly arrogance of Caesar, Brutus displays a moral arrogance in assuming that he himself personifies absolute honour and goodness. The savage killing is glorified as an almost holy act of liberation.

Act I, Scene II, lines 85–88
"Set honour in one eye, and death i' th' other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death."

And when Octavius says that he was not born to die on Brutus' sword, Brutus replies:

Act V, Scene I, lines 59–60
"O, if thou wert the noblest of thy strain,
Young man, thou could'st not die more honourable."

Brutus is not really an evil man. His naivety and his lack of any ulterior motives are born out time and time again. He misguidedly refuses to accept the sound advice of those around him because he bears the constant conviction that he could always win any struggle through force of argument or sheer moral weight.

To his wife and servant he shows great compassion and warmth. I see him as an example of a born leader who has allowed certain fanatical ideas to run away with him and blind him to other basic human values, thereby making himself guilty of "disjoining remorse from power".

There are similar cases in the world of today.

Even Cassius may be acting from mistaken rather than evil motives, for there is little doubt he is sincere. He loves freedom and equality, and he laments the prospect of an all-powerful monarchy. However, he is unable to bear this burden with the careful and patient thoughtfulness of Brutus.

There is also no doubt in the audience's mind that Cassius loathes Caesar. At his first encounter with Brutus he makes no effort to conceal how scornful and resentful he is of the high and mighty ruler:

Act I, Scene II, lines 101–103
"Caesar said to me, 'Dar'st thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood,
And swim to yonder point?'"
Act I, Scene II, lines 109–117
"But ere we could arrive the point propos'd,
Caesar cried, 'Help me, Cassius, or I sink!'
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar. And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature, and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him."
Act I, Scene II, lines 133–139
"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.'"

Cassius was a smart schemer and knew exactly which strings to play on. He works on Brutus with straightforward flattery:

Act I, Scene II, lines 54–56
"And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye..."

Whereupon Cassius makes the removal of Caesar a question of family honour for Brutus:

Act I, Scene II, lines 156–159
"O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
Th' eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king."

After this comes an ironic, false show of modesty:

Act I, Scene II, lines 173–174
"I am glad that my weak words
Have struck but this much show of fire from Brutus."

And finally he sets about forging petitions to Brutus in order to conjure up the impression of widespread public dissatisfaction. He knows full well that Brutus will feel obliged to honour such confidences and take the appropriate action.

Act I, Scene II, lines 311–317
"If I were Brutus now and he were Cassius,
He should not humour me. I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely
Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at."

So, as we can see, many of Brutus' motives are provided by Cassius the manipulator. Nevertheless, Cassius feels the end justifies the means, and as proof of his sincerity he accepts death as a last escape from tyranny, should his mission fail:

Act I, Scene III, lines 96–99
"But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
If I know this, know all the world besides,
That part of tyranny that I do bear
I can shake off at pleasure."

This unscrupulous but practical and courageous man was the driving force behind the conspiracy. Brutus was merely a figurehead.


The lessons of this classic drama still have great relevance.

We are not absolutely sure Caesar would have turned out to be the total tyrant the conspirators expected.

There is no clean and easy way of removing tyranny or oppression.

Violence only leads to more violence.

Mobs can be manipulated at will, with frightening consequences.

We should never fail to take account of human nature, as Brutus did.

Future revolutions and coup d'états are seen as inevitable:

Act III, Scene I, line 110
"Let's all cry, "Peace, freedom, and liberty!"
Act III, Scene I, lines 111–113
"How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In [states] unborn and accents yet unknown!"