55 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1599

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a history play and tragedy written by William Shakespeare and first performed in 1599. The play dramatizes the events surrounding the 44 BC assassination of Julius Caesar, a Roman general and statesman. Shakespeare’s main source material for the play was Plutarch’s Lives, a series of biographies of famous men, published in the second century, and translated into English by Thomas North in 1579. Shakespeare sometimes deviated from his source material, presumably to make it easier to stage the play without having to explain long intervals of time in between the story’s main events.

Julius Caesar is one of four Shakespearean tragedies set in Ancient Rome, alongside Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus. It is also one of the most famous and most often performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Its cultural impact is evidenced by its many oft-repeated lines including “Beware the ides of March”; “Friends, Romans, countrymen”; and “Et tu, Brute?”

This guide was written using The Norton Shakespeare, second edition.

Plot Summary

Caesar marches into Rome after defeating Pompey’s sons in battle. As he parades through the city, a soothsayer—a person who tells the future—tells Caesar to “beware the Ides of March,” meaning the 15th of March, a holiday which represented the paying off of debts. Caesar dismisses the warning. Meanwhile, Roman Senator Caius Cassius plots Caesar’s assassination. He and his fellow Roman senator conspirators are nervous over what Caesar would do with more power; they believe his ambition makes him dangerous to the future of Rome as a free republic. Although Caesar secretly wants to rule Rome as a monarch, he presents himself as uninterested in becoming king. Fearing the public’s reaction to his ascension to the throne, Caesar denies the crown three times when Mark Antony presents it to him. Cassius is the instigator behind the assassination plot. He manipulates the other senators who are unsure, like Brutus and Casca, to join the conspiracy.

Brutus is ambivalent about getting rid of Caesar. Although they are close friends and Brutus believes Caesar is a good man, he wonders if power will go to Caesar’s head. He ultimately decides that killing Caesar is the only way to save Rome from possible tyranny. As the conspirators decide how they will kill Caesar, Caesar himself feels a sense of foreboding. He almost decides to stay at home that day, the 15th of March, but ultimately decides it would be weak of him to stay at home due to bad omens alone. Caesar ignores warnings from soothsayers, priests, and even his wife Calpurnia, who dreamed of his death.

The conspirators distract Mark Antony, who would come to Caesar’s aid if he were present. Cimber, one of the conspirators, pleads to Caesar for his brother to be able to return to Rome from exile. Caesar tells him he will not allow his brother back without reason. Brutus, Cassius, and others prostrate themselves before Caesar, which confuses him. He tells them he believes in reason, not in begging. It is all a distraction, as Casca strikes the first blow and stabs Caesar, with Brutus striking last. Caesar utters the famous line “Et tu, Bruté?” and then dies.

Devastated by the death of Caesar, Mark Antony is careful how he acts around the conspirators, lest they decide to do away with him as well. He also burns for revenge but keeps those feelings a secret. Although the conspirators agree to let Mark Antony publicly eulogize Caesar, they insist Brutus explain their actions first. Brutus explains to the public that Caesar’s death was for the good of Rome—his ambition was dangerous. He proclaims that while Caesar was good and honorable, Brutus would do anything for Rome, even murder his best friend. The public then praises him and claims he should be the next Caesar. Brutus brushes this off and turns the crowd to Mark Antony.

Mark Antony then gives his famous eulogy. He is careful in the way he addresses the crowd, as he wants them to revolt but cannot reveal those desires. He appeals to their emotions, in contrast to Brutus’s appeal to their logic. He reminds the crowd of Caesar’s goodness and generosity toward the Roman citizens, and although Brutus claims Caesar was ambitious, Caesar behaved in a way that was not markedly ambitious. He reminds them not to blame Brutus, as he is honorable as well. The public begins to wonder if the conspirators betrayed Caesar. Antony takes advantage of their reaction and shows them the wounds on Caesar’s body. The crowd begins to feel mutinous against the conspirators. Antony holds them off to tell them that Caesar’s will dictates that upon his death every Roman citizen shall receive seventy-five drachmas. The crowd then descends into chaos.

The play moves to Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, the future leaders of Rome in the Second Triumvirate. There is some tension between Octavius and Mark Antony—a foreshadowing for the events in Antony and Cleopatra. Meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius meet again, somewhat at odds. Brutus accuses Cassius of taking bribes, soiling Brutus’s belief that their murder of Caesar was noble. They argue but ultimately reconcile, as Brutus declares he has no emotional strength left after his wife Portia’s suicide. They speak of the inevitable war coming with the conspirators pitted against Antony and Octavius. When Brutus goes to sleep that night, he is met by the ghost of Caesar, who tells Brutus he will see him at Philippi where the battle will take place.

The battle then begins. With defeat all but certain, Cassius and Brutus agree they will not be led through Rome in chains and depart from each other. Distraught after hearing that his best friend Titinius is captured, Cassius forces his servant to kill him, remarking how Caesar is avenged. Titinius, who had not really been captured, returns and kills himself at the sight of his best friend’s body. Brutus survives the battle, but he knows his side has lost. He ultimately kills himself with his own sword, held by a servant; his sense of honor will not allow him to be led away as a captive. Antony and Octavius discover Brutus’s body. Antony praises Brutus as a noble man and the only one of the conspirators who had a selfless reason for killing Caesar. The play ends with Octavius’s call to celebrate the outcome of the day. 

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