Character Analyses
Caesar

 

In using Julius Caesar as a central figure, Shakespeare is less interested in portraying a figure of legendary greatness than he is in creating a character who is consistent with the other aspects of his drama. If Brutus and Cassius were eminently evil men insidiously planning the cold-blooded murder of an eminently admirable ruler, Julius Caesar would be little more than a melodrama of suspense and revenge. On the other hand, if Caesar were wholly the bloody tyrant, there would be little cause for Brutus’ hesitation and no justification for Antony’s thirst for revenge. In fact, Shakespeare creates in Caesar a character who is sometimes reasonable, sometimes superstitious, sometimes compassionate, and sometimes arrogantly aloof. In so doing, he has projected Caesar as a man whom the nobility have just reasons to fear, yet who is not a villain.

Flavius concludes his criticism of Caesar in Act I, Scene 1, by expressing his fear that Caesar desires to “soar above the view of men / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.” His opinion is given credence when, moments later, Casca and Antony’s attitude toward Caesar demonstrates that they consider him a man whose every wish should be considered a command by the citizens of Rome. Caesar’s opinion of himself throughout shows that he complies with that attitude. He does not fear Cassius because he believes himself to be beyond the reach of mere humans, and he caps his explanation of his incapability of experiencing fear by observing, “. . . for always I am Caesar.” However, his reference to his partial deafness provides an obvious contrast between the conceptions of the vain man who perceives himself in godlike terms and the actual, aging man who stands in imminent danger of assassination. His potential for evil is further emphasized by the swiftness with which he summarily has Flavius and Marullus “put to silence.” Finally, at the very moment preceding his death, Caesar compares himself to the gods of Olympus in his determination to continue his arbitrary administration of Roman justice.

Caesar’s teeming arrogance and pride more than offset his proven ability to reason. He expresses a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of death when he tells Calphurnia how strange it is to him “that men should fear; / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.” But it is not his belief that the hour of his death has been predetermined and thus cannot be avoided that causes him to ignore the portents, his priests, and Calphurnia. Instead, he ignores them because of Decius’ challenge to his sense of pride and to his ambition. Caesar, who is so perceptive in his analysis of Cassius, cannot always look “quite through the deeds” of a calculating deceiver.

From his first appearance, Caesar openly displays a superstitious nature, but also from the beginning he displays a propensity to ignore warnings and signs that should alert a man of his beliefs. He enters the action of the play by advising Calphurnia to seek a cure for her sterility by ritual, and he exits fifteen lines later, dismissing the soothsayer as “a dreamer.” He ignores the soothsayer, Calphurnia, the many portents, his priests, and finally Artemidorus because he has ceased to think of himself as a fallible human being, and because he passionately wants to be crowned king. He does not fear Cassius, although he knows him to be a danger to political leaders, because he believes that he and Cassius occupy two separate levels of existence. Cassius is a man; Caesar, a demigod. He even comes to think of himself in terms of abstract qualities, considering himself older and more terrible even than “danger.” His sense of superiority to his fellow humans, as well as his overriding ambition to be king, ultimately prevent him from observing and reasoning clearly.

Caesar as a viable character in the play endures beyond his assassination. Brutus wants to “come by Caesar’s spirit / And not dismember Caesar.” In fact, Brutus and the conspirators succeed in dismembering the corporeal Caesar, but they fail to destroy his spirit. Antony invokes the spirit of Caesar first in his soliloquy in Act III, Scene 1, and he uses it to bring the citizens of Rome to rebellion in Act III, Scene 2. The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus at Sardis and again at Philippi, signifying that Brutus has failed to reconcile mentally and morally his participation in the murder, as well as signifying that his and Cassius’ fortunes are fading. Caesar’s spirit ceases to be a force in the play only when Cassius and Brutus commit suicide, each acknowledging that he does so to still the spirit of Caesar.

 

Antony

 

Prior to Caesar’s assassination, Antony makes four brief appearances in which he speaks a total of five lines. Twice during Lupercal and again at Caesar’s house, he makes short statements indicating that he is loyal to Caesar as dictator and as a friend. Caesar’s confiding to Antony at Lupercal indicates that he trusts Antony and looks upon him as a friend in return, perhaps even as a protégé. Antony appears at the Capitol at the beginning of Act III, Scene 1, but he does not speak before Trebonius leads him out.

When, during Lupercal, Caesar describes Cassius as a dangerous man, Antony defends him as “a noble Roman and well given.” While Antony does not perceive at that time that Cassius is dangerous, and later underestimates the determination of Octavius, as a ruler, he is a perceptive observer who verifies Cassius’ assessment of him as being a “shrewd contriver.” Following the assassination, Antony quickly grasps that he must deal with Brutus, and he has the shrewdness to take advantage of Brutus’ naïveté. When he has his servant say that “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest,” it is clear that Antony intends to flatter Brutus and to work upon those personal qualities of Brutus that represent moral strengths, but that are also fundamental weaknesses when dealing with a more sophisticated man.

Antony’s requests for safety and for an explanation for the murder are reasonable in the context of the situation, but Brutus’ consent to provide both ensures that, upon returning to the Capitol, Antony can concentrate on his ultimate objective of gaining a forum. At the Capitol, by having Brutus repeat his promises, Antony succeeds in placing him on the defensive and in establishing a means to evade the more difficult questions being raised by Cassius. He is not in the slightest degree deterred by considerations of honesty when dealing with those whom he wishes to deceive or manipulate. He knows that Brutus wants to believe that he (Antony) will join the conspirators’ cause, and he takes advantage of Brutus’ hope when he falsely tells the conspirators, “Friends am I with you all, and love you all.” He will also freely use half-truths and outright falsehoods to sway the mob at the Forum to do what he wants.

Antony faces danger in this meeting from Cassius, who knows him to be a “shrewd contriver,” and from the other conspirators, who know him to be a friend of Caesar. He disposes of the threat of Cassius by directing his attention to the more powerful and gullible Brutus, whom he keeps on the defensive by repeating that he will be friends if he receives a satisfactory explanation. He disposes of the remaining conspirators by boldly raising the subject of his apparent hypocrisy in making friends with his friend’s murderers and by then shrewdly diverting his comments to the nobility of Caesar. This is much in the manner that he will turn the citizens to rebellion by professing that he does not want to stir them up. Antony, in reality, wants two things: to avenge Caesar’s murder and to rule Rome. In order to do both, he must first undermine public confidence in the republicans, and second, he must drive them from power by creating a chaotic situation that will allow him to seize power in their place. The method he chooses is to gain permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and that is the sole reason he plays the role he does in the Capitol.

In his soliloquy in the Capitol, Antony reveals that he intends to create civil strife throughout Italy, and in his oration he sets it off to a promising start. He is thoroughly the politically expedient man in his speech. He wants to create rebellion and overthrow the republicans so that he and Octavius can fill the vacuum, and he succeeds to the fullest measure. From his soliloquy in the Capitol until the end of the play, he is constantly ambitious, confident, successful, and exceptionally ruthless. He has no concern for the welfare of the citizens of Rome who will suffer in the civil strife he has instigated, he is willing to have a nephew put to death rather than argue for his life, he seeks to keep as much as he can of Caesar’s legacy to the poor of Rome, and he openly acknowledges that he will remove Lepidus from power as soon as Lepidus is no longer of use to him.

He has some personality conflict with Octavius, but he is able to relegate it to the background so that their differences are always secondary to their struggle to defeat Brutus and Cassius. Antony is also particularly adept at locating the most advantageous point of attack in all of his confrontations. In the Capitol, rather than confront all of the conspirators, he concentrates on Brutus’ naive sense of honor and nobility. In the Forum, rather than construct a reasoned argument against the assassins, he appeals to the emotion with which he saw the crowd respond to Brutus’ speech. At Philippi, when Brutus leaves Cassius’ army exposed, Antony attacks immediately. At the conclusion of the play, when Brutus and Cassius are dead and the republicans thoroughly defeated, he publicly praises Brutus in order to set about healing the political wounds of Rome. Ironically, Brutus hoped to remove arbitrary government from Rome by the assassination, but by murdering Caesar, he established the conditions for an even more ruthless tyranny to seize power in the persons of Antony and Octavius.

 

Octavius

 

Julius Caesar is its own frame of reference, and a knowledge of Roman history is not essential to an understanding of the play. However, Shakespeare does construct the character of Octavius by highlighting those aspects of his personality that will predominate later in his political and military conflicts with Antony and in his role as the Emperor Augustus. In order to stabilize the political situation in Rome following the assassination and to solidify the triumvirs’ control of government, Octavius is willing to conduct a ruthless reign of terror during which the opponents to the triumvirs are methodically slaughtered, but not all of those on the proscription list are actual enemies. Some are simply wealthy Romans who are condemned as “traitors” and executed in order that the triumvirs may confiscate their estates as a means of raising money to finance their armies. It is, nevertheless, noteworthy that the future Augustus does not volunteer members of his own immediate family to the list, although he does insist on the death of Lepidus’ brother and does not object to the inclusion of Antony’s nephew.

Octavius exhibits creditable insight in his observation that all who currently act friendly to the triumvirs are not indeed friends and in his attitude toward Antony throughout the play. He knows that he is in a power struggle with Antony that will intensify after they have defeated their enemies, and he knows enough about Antony’s thirst for power to protect himself from domination by Antony. Consequently, he is not reluctant to disagree with Antony, as he demonstrates in his defense of Lepidus (“he’s a tried and valiant soldier”), in his pointing to Antony’s error in predicting that Brutus and Cassius would not come to Philippi, and in his insistence that he will fight on the right-hand side of the battlefield at Philippi and not the left-hand side as Antony orders. However, Octavius does not let his determination to remain independent interfere with following Antony’s advice when he realizes that Antony speaks from experience, as he demonstrates in agreeing to allow Antony to make Lepidus a junior partner in the Triumvirate, in agreeing with Antony that the most important matter at hand following the assassination is to prepare to meet the republican armies, and in accepting Antony’s decision that they should fight from defensive positions at Philippi and allow the enemy to initiate the battle.

Octavius is shrewd in his political assessments and in his relationship with Antony. He is decisive in executing the proscription and in preparing to meet Brutus and Cassius. He is also supremely confident that he will succeed in defeating his enemies at Philippi and in organizing a successful new government of Rome.

 

Brutus

 

Brutus is the most complex of the characters in this play. He is proud of his reputation for honor and nobleness, but he is not always practical, and is often naive. He is the only major character in the play intensely committed to fashioning his behavior to fit a strict moral and ethical code, but he take actions that are unconsciously hypocritical. One of the significant themes that Shakespeare uses to enrich the complexity of Brutus involves his attempt to ritualize the assassination of Caesar. He cannot justify, to his own satisfaction, the murder of a man who is a friend and who has not excessively misused the powers of his office. Consequently, thinking of the assassination in terms of a quasi-religious ritual instead of cold-blooded murder makes it more acceptable to him. Unfortunately for him, he consistently misjudges the people and the citizens of Rome; he believes that they will be willing to consider the assassination in abstract terms.

Brutus is guided in all things by his concepts of honor. He speaks of them often to Cassius, and he is greatly disturbed when events force him to act in a manner inconsistent with them. Consider his anguish when he drinks a toast with Caesar while wearing a false face to hide his complicity in the conspiracy. Ironically, his widely reputed honor is what causes Cassius to make an all-out effort to bring him into an enterprise of debatable moral respectability. Brutus’ reputation is so great that it will act to convince others who are as yet undecided to join.

Brutus’ concentration on honorable and noble behavior also leads him into assuming a naive view of the world. He is unable to see through the roles being played by Cassius, Casca, and Antony. He does not recognize the bogus letters as having been sent by Cassius, although they contain sentiments and diction that would warn a more perceptive man. He underestimates Antony as an opponent, and he loses control over the discussion at the Capitol following the assassination by meeting Antony’s requests too readily. Brutus as a naive thinker is most clearly revealed in the scene in the Forum. He presents his reasons for the assassination, and he leaves believing that he has satisfied the Roman citizens with his reasoned oration. He does not realize that his speech has only moved the mob emotionally; it has not prodded them to make reasoned assessments of what the conspirators have done.

Brutus is endowed with qualities that could make him a successful private man but that limit him severely, even fatally, when he endeavors to compete in public life with those who do not choose to act with the same ethical and moral considerations. In his scene with Portia, Brutus shows that he has already become alienated with his once happy home life because of his concentration on his “enterprise,” which will eventually cause him to lose everything except the belief that he has acted honorably and nobly. In the tent at Sardis, after learning of Portia’s death and believing that Cassius is bringing discredit on the republican cause, Brutus becomes most isolated. His private life is destroyed, and he also has difficulty avoiding the taint of dishonor in his public life.

Brutus makes moral decisions slowly, and he is continually at war with himself even after he has decided on a course of action. He has been thinking about the problem that Caesar represents to Roman liberty for an unspecified time when the play opens. After Cassius raises the subject and asks for Brutus’ commitment, he requests time to think the matter over, and a month later, speaking alone in his orchard, he reveals that he has since thought of little else. He has trouble arriving at a decision whether to participate in the assassination, he expresses contradictory attitudes towards the conspiracy, he attempts to “purify” the murder through ritual, and he condemns Cassius’ money-raising practices while asking for a share. His final words, “Caesar, now be still: / I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” are almost a supplication for an end to his mental torture.

On the other hand, Brutus characteristically makes decisions that are essential to his and Cassius’ success with much less forethought, and after he’s committed to a plan, he does not waiver. He quickly takes command of the conspiracy and makes crucial decisions regarding Cicero and Antony. He does not, however, make adequate plans to solidify republican control of government following the assassination, and he too readily agrees to allow Antony to speak.

Brutus’ character is made even more complex by his unconscious hypocrisy. He has conflicting attitudes toward the conspiracy, but he becomes more favorable following his becoming a member of the plot against Caesar. He attacks Cassius for raising money dishonestly, yet he demands a portion. Nevertheless, at the end, Brutus is a man who nobly accepts his fate. He dismisses the ghost of Caesar at Sardis. He chooses personal honor over a strict adherence to an abstract philosophy. He reacts calmly and reasonably to Cassius’ death, as he had earlier in a moment of crisis when Popilius revealed that the conspiracy was no longer secret. In his last moments, he has the satisfaction of being certain in his own mind that he has been faithful to the principles embodying the honor and nobility on which he has placed so much value throughout his life.

 

Cassius

 

The most significant characteristic of Cassius is his ability to perceive the true motives of men. Caesar says of him, “He reads much; / He is a great observer and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men.” The great irony surrounding Cassius throughout the play is that he nullifies his greatest asset when he allows Brutus to take effective control of the republican faction.

Cassius believes that the nobility of Rome are responsible for the government of Rome. They have allowed a man to gain excessive power; therefore, they have the responsibility to stop him, and with a man of Caesar’s well-known ambition, that can only mean assassination.

Cassius intensely dislikes Caesar personally, but he also deeply resents being subservient to a tyrant, and there are indications that he would fight for his personal freedom under any tyrant. He does not resent following the almost dictatorial pronouncements of his equal, Brutus, although he does disagree heatedly with most of Brutus’ tactical decisions. To accomplish his goal of removing Caesar from power, he resorts to using his keen insight into human nature to deceive Brutus by means of a long and passionate argument, coupled with bogus notes. In the conversation, he appeals to Brutus’ sense of honor, nobility, and pride more than he presents concrete examples of Caesar’s tyrannical actions. Later, he is more outrightly devious in the use of forged notes, the last of which prompts Brutus to leave off contemplation and to join the conspiracy. Cassius later uses similar means to bring Casca into the plot.

Throughout the action, Cassius remains relatively unconcerned with the unscrupulous means he is willing to use to further the republican cause, and at Sardis, he and Brutus come almost to breaking up their alliance because Brutus objects to his ways of collecting revenue to support the armies. Cassius sees Brutus as the catalyst that will unite the leading nobles in a conspiracy, and he makes the recruitment of Brutus his first priority. Ironically, his success leads directly to a continuous decline of his own influence within the republican camp.

Clearly, Cassius has his negative aspects. He envies Caesar; he becomes an assassin; and he will consent to bribery, sell commissions, and impose ruinous taxation to raise money. But he also has a certain nobility of mind that is generally recognized. When Caesar tells Antony that Cassius is dangerous, Antony answers, “Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous. / He’s a noble Roman and well given.” He was no doubt expressing sentiments popular at the time. Cassius is also highly emotional. He displays extreme hatred in his verbal attack on Caesar during Lupercal; he almost loses control because of fear when Popilius reveals that the conspirators’ plans have been leaked; he gives vent to anger in his argument with Brutus in the tent at Sardis; he expresses an understanding tolerance of the poet who pleads for him and Brutus to stop their quarrel; and he threatens suicide repeatedly and finally chooses self-inflicted death to humiliating capture by Antony and Octavius. When he becomes a genuine friend of Brutus following the reconciliation in the tent, he remains faithful and refuses to blame Brutus for the dilemma that he encounters at Philippi, even though he has reason to do so.

Of all the leading characters in Julius Caesar, Cassius develops most as the action progresses. At the end of Act I, Scene 2, he is a passionate and devious manipulator striving to use Brutus to gain his ends. By the end of Act IV, Scene 3, he is a calm friend of Brutus who will remain faithful to their friendship until death.