Critical Essays
Who’s In Charge Here?


Who’s in charge, who ought to be in charge, and how well are those in charge doing? These are central questions in Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan expectation would be that the ruling class ought to rule and that they ought to rule in the best interests of the people. Such is not the case in the Rome of this play. Barely controlled chaos has come to Rome, and this unsettled state is personified in the first scene of Julius Caesar through the characters of the cobbler and the carpenter. These characters give readers a sense that the people themselves are a sort of amorphous mass, potentially dangerous and, at the same time, absolutely essential to the success of the ruling class. Throughout the play, they are addressed: Caesar must give them entertainment and seeks their approbation for his crowning, Brutus recognizes that he must explain his actions to them, and Antony uses them for his own purposes. Yet, despite the plebeians’ surging power, real chaos actually lies in the failure of the ruling class to exercise their authority properly and to live by the accepted rules of hierarchy and order.

These same threats and concerns resonated to an Elizabethan audience. At the time this play was performed in 1599, civil strife was within living memory. Henry VIII’s reformation of the Church of England had brought violence and unrest to the country. In addition, despite all of his efforts, Henry had not provided a living and legitimate male heir for England. At his death, his daughter Mary returned the church to the bosom of Rome, demanding that her subjects align themselves with Catholicism. When Mary, too, died without heir, her sister, Elizabeth, took the throne. What followed was a long period, from 1548 to her death in 1603, of relative peace and prosperity. However, Elizabeth’s subjects experienced unease during her reign. She was, after all, a woman, and according to the Elizabethan understanding of order, men ruled women, not the other way around.

Her subjects wished for Elizabeth to marry for a number of reasons. They would have felt much more secure knowing that a man was in charge, but further, they were tired of worries over succession. A legitimate heir was necessary. The Queen, on the other hand, over the period of her fertility refused the suits of a number of appropriate men, knowing that once married, she would no longer rule the realm. By the time this play was performed Elizabeth was an old woman, well beyond the age of childbearing. Even then, she refused to name an heir and the country worried that they would face another period of unrest at her death.

But even without this historical context, Elizabethans would have been interested in questions of order and hierarchy—questions raised by the political upheaval of Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan worldview was one in which everyone had their place. In many ways, they understood the world in terms of the family unit. God was the head of the heavenly family, with Jesus as his son. The monarch was subservient only to God, receiving power to head the English family from Him. The monarch’s subjects maintained their kingdoms through the various levels of society and finally into their own homes, with men ruling their wives and wives ruling their children. Elizabethan thinking went so far as to order all living things in a hierarchy known as the Great Chain of Being, from God and the various levels of angels right through to the lowliest animal. In such a rigidly structured society it is entirely understandable that its members would be interested in exploring and examining the potentials of and the excitement that would be provided by an inversion of that order.

On the other hand, while it would have been acceptable to examine this relatively objective philosophical issue in the public theater, it would have been much less acceptable (to say the least) to set it within the context of the history of their own period. No direct questioning of England’s state or monarch would have been possible. Playwrights of the time were aware of the dilemma and crafted their plays so that they would not offend. The setting of this play, therefore, in ancient Rome was the perfect answer. The story, taken from the Roman historian, Plutarch’s, work called Lives, was well known to Shakespeare’s audience, full of drama and conflict, and was sufficiently distant in time to allow both Shakespeare and his audience to operate in safety.

Now, on to the play itself. At the point in ancient history in which Julius Caesar is set, Rome was becoming slightly more democratic—well, democratic in their terms, not in modern ones. Tribunes, meant as representatives of the people, were being elected in order to protect them from the rigors of tyranny. Thus, to have a man like Caesar, charismatic and fresh from military triumph, come into the city and begin to establish himself as a supreme ruler was a dangerous trend. It is not surprising, then, that Flavius and Marullus behave as they do at the beginning of the play. They are, in effect, doing their job properly and to an Elizabethan audience their behavior, despite its autocratic tone to a modern reader’s ears, would have been perfectly acceptable and should have been met with obedience and respect. The carpenter and cobbler, however, are barely under control and show little respect, although they do ultimately obey.

But it is not the masses who are the problem in this play. The real failure is that the ruling class does not rule properly. Instead of uniting for the good of the people as they ought to, they imagine themselves as individuals forming small splinter groups that, in the end undermine genuine authority. By disabling themselves in this way, the aristocratic class can still manipulate unruly plebeians but cannot keep them in check.

As a member of that class, Brutus is as much at fault as anyone else. It is, in fact, tempting to think of Brutus as an entirely sympathetic character. At the end of the play, the audience hears extravagant words of praise: “This was the noblest Roman of them all” and “This was a man.” By this point, however, readers ought to mistrust their reactions to such praise. Antony and Octavius have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of using and misusing language in order to establish their own positions, and the play has given ample evidence of a tendency to objectify the dead rather than to remember them as they actually were.

To be fair, there are gradations of character fault in this play and Brutus is more sympathetic than other characters. He does indeed believe that what he has done by murdering Caesar was necessary, and believes that anyone who hears his rationale will side with him. His very naïveté suggests innocence. On the other hand, upon examining his soliloquy in Act II, Scene 1, note that Brutus must do a fair amount to convince himself that Caesar must die: He has to admit that Caesar has not yet done anything wrong and so decides that his violent act will be preemptory, heading off the inevitable results of Caesar’s ambition. Brutus’ dilemma is that he has bought into the belief that if one lives life entirely by a philosophy—in his case one of logic and reason—everyone will be all right. He denies any other viewpoint and so is as blinded as Caesar is deaf. Before praising Brutus as Antony does after his death, remember that Brutus brought himself and the state of Rome to a point of such instability.

Antony, another member of that ruling class, is also one of the more sympathetic characters of the play. But is he a good ruler? The audience may like him for his emotion. His outrage at the murder of Caesar and his tears over Caesar’s corpse are undoubtedly genuine. His revenge is partly fuelled by the horror and anger he feels at the outrage, and the reader is drawn to such loyalty. In addition, the skill that he exhibits in his manipulation of theatrical effects and language during his funeral oration is powerful and attractive. Yet, Antony is culpable too. While his emotional response is undoubtedly justified, it, too, contributes to unrest and political instability. While he, Octavius, and Lepidus ultimately form a triumvirate to return the state to stability, in fact, that it is a ruling structure fraught with problems. Lepidus is weak and a power struggle is on the horizon for Antony and Octavius. (In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius is the ultimate winner of that struggle.)


A World without Women


“This was a man” is Antony’s final tribute to Brutus. Brutus’ reputation, damaged as it has been by his participation in the conspiracy, and by his rather self-deluding rationale for it, has been reclaimed. It has been reclaimed partially because his character, defined at the beginning of the play as entirely masculine, has taken on some feminine characteristics, such as grief over his wife’s death, love for his friend, and tender concern for his followers. By the end of the play, Brutus’ character is more fully-rounded but is the world he leaves us better off? Can it be when the world left behind is entirely without women? Shakespeare takes the opportunity in Julius Caesar to say both “yes” and “no.” At times, characters take on so-called feminine characteristics and lose their ability to rule well. At other times, characters like Brutus gain a great deal from incorporating the feminine into their own personalities. Shakespeare’s suggestion is that while a balance can be struck and an ideal attained, it is ultimately unworkable.

You find only two female characters in Julius Caesar. The first, Calphurnia, is Caesar’s wife, and is emblematic of one standard sexist Elizabethan understanding of woman. She is a shrew. She controls instead of being controlled. She exists as a foil for her husband’s character. By her strength, the audience sees what Caesar ought to be; by her conscience, what his ought to be; by her death, what he ought to be prepared to do. For this reason, her character is not developed on a psychological level in the way that Caesar’s is.

The reader’s first contact with her is during the feast of Lupercal. Caesar asks Antony to touch her as he passes her in the race that is a part of the celebrations. Caesar asks this because Calphurnia is childless, and superstition dictates that the touch of the athlete during this holy feast will make her fertile. The implication, then, is that she is at fault for not producing an heir. In fact, the implication is that Caesar is no longer potent enough to impregnate her. His request of the athletic womanizer, Antony, is an indication of Caesar’s own effeminacy.

Such is the root of Caesar’s downfall. He has taken on too many feminine characteristics. His prowess is in the past and is only momentarily evident in Act II, Scene 2 when he refuses to listen to Calphurnia’s worries about what will happen if he goes to the Capitol. “Caesar shall forth. The things that threatened me / Ne’er looked but on my back; when they shall see / The face of Caesar, they are vanished.” However, he is convinced, bowing to her hysteria and his mind is changed only after Decius embarrasses him. “[I]t were a mock / Apt to be rendered for someone to say / ‘Break up the Senate till another time, / When Caesar’s wife shall meet with better dreams.’” On to his own death.

Portia is a much more interesting character on her own and yet she, too, is really only portrayed through her relationship with men. Her relationship with her husband is clearly one of intimacy and respect. She speaks openly with him about the unrest he has recently exhibited and forces him to speak to her and tell her what is going on.

Note, however, how she does this. Brutus does not want her to know what is going on. She changes his mind by pressing him to define her in one of the two ways in which a woman can be defined in this society: She is either a good Roman woman worthy of his secrets, well-wived and well-fathered, or she is “Brutus’ harlot.” Faced with this distinction, Brutus can only choose to tell her what is happening. Unfortunately for Portia, the knowledge that he imparts is her downfall. In Act II, Scene 4 Portia complains that she has “a man’s mind, but a woman’s might.” She has been given access to a man’s knowledge but because of her position as a woman, she is unable to use it and must sit and wait for the outcome of men’s affairs. Such knowledge is too much for her and she commits suicide in the very garden in which she first heard Brutus’ secrets.

With this, Portia is gone from the play, and the reader never again sees a female character. What the audience does see, however, is a transference of Portia’s feminine qualities to her husband by means of his relationship with Cassius. At the beginning of the play, the relationship between these two men was less than profound. They are connected by a common desire to overturn Caesar’s tyranny but have entirely different motivations. In addition, Cassius’ approach toward convincing Brutus to join him has been cynical to say the least.

By Act IV, Scene 2, their relationship has become a friendship, and it has become a friendship that has the decided qualities of a love relationship. In Act IV, Scene 2, Brutus has taken offense at what he believes was Cassius’ refusal to send money when he needed it. Cassius is quite taken aback by this accusation and the conversation quickly descends into a “yes you did, no I didn’t” affair that almost results in a fight. Cassius is innocent of the offense and is hurt that he is “Hated by one he loves, braved by his brother.”

What motivates Brutus to this anger? It turns out that it is grief over Portia’s death. It is to Cassius that Brutus turns in his grief. The grief that he feels, the loss, the sense of betrayal are all translated into anger toward this friend, and after those emotions are spent, the two men are closer in some ways than Brutus ever was with Portia. The latter relationship shares the same respect for each other and the same sharing of intimacy, yet it is a relationship that can operate in the same spheres because it encompasses a level of equality not possible between a woman and a man.

From that moment, the audience has an increasing amount of sympathy for Brutus, who has been humanized by his wife’s death. While he clearly loved his wife, there was also some distance between them, partly because of her rather stoic nature (remember her self-wounding), partly because he is unwilling to confide in her. This combination of the masculine and the feminine in her character was not a completely appropriate one. It was unworkable given the way in which the Roman world worked. The flip side, of course, was Caesar’s behavior. His combination of femininity and masculinity was also unworkable. With their deaths, Brutus is able to incorporate both aspects of their personalities, most directly from his wife, given her more moral nature. With the banishment of women and inappropriate femininity from Rome, the state ought to be a better one. But there is an unattractive sterility to such a world. What has been created is an unworkable ideal. Brutus’ death is an indication of just how unworkable it is.


Theater within a Theater


How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Cassius speaks these words in Act 3, Scene 1 just as he convinces the exultant conspirators to smear their hands with Caesar’s blood. At this moment of highest drama, one of the chief actors of this piece draws attention to its theatricality. Why?

It is a common trope of Elizabethan thinking to draw attention to life’s fictions. Queen Elizabeth staged many public processions and scenes and created and lived the role of the Virgin Queen. Her subjects were both her fellow actors and her audience. Playwrights of the time, and Shakespeare in particular, made use of this metaphor in a number of ways (for an interesting example, take a look at Hamlet and the play within a play, The Mousetrap).

In Julius Caesar, theatricality is both an example of one of the major themes of the play, persuasion, and a comment on the deterioration of the state of Rome. A number of characters use theater in an attempt to persuade.

During the first meeting of Cassius and Brutus, (Act I, Scene 2), they hear a number of shouts. Later in the scene, Casca enters and reports on the offstage theater that has taken place. Caesar has staged a mock refusal of the crown, thinking that he will build a desire in his audience (the plebeians) that he eventually accept it. Think of this as someone refusing an award, saying, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly . . . oh no . . . well, if you insist.” (For another example of this dramatic effect, one which works more successfully for the protagonist, see Shakespeare’s Richard III.) Caesar’s stage managing backfires though, and instead of acclaiming him, the people behave like a real audience passing judgement on the quality of the spectacle. “If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him / according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to / do the players in the theatre.” Caesar’s performance isn’t good enough. It proves his superficiality. The people perceive this and refuse to accept him as their ruler.

Antony is much more successful with his theatrics. Unfortunately, Brutus does not recognize what Antony is up to when he asks to give Caesar’s funeral oration in Act III, Scene 2. The opportunity to stage a scene is evident to the reader and to at least one of the conspirators, Cassius, who tries to dissuade Brutus, but to no avail. Imagine the power of Antony’s entrance as he bears Caesar’s body in his arms. This is a exhibition meant to move an audience—and it works. Antony’s persuasive rhetoric that follows allows him to realize his objective: to incite the mob to revolt against the conspirators, with another showy scene. When Antony gradually uncovers Caesar’s body and exposes its wounds, the first Plebeian responds with “O piteous spectacle” and that is precisely what it is. By means of the theatrical, then, the people have been convinced to act, not in their own best interests but in the interests of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus. Theater’s power has been to continue the strife rather than to resolve it. To an Elizabethan audience, such dramatic tension would have been both threatening and seductive.