Introduction to William Shakespeare
In all the literature that’s ever written in the English language, no name seems as prominent as William Shakespeare. His works, all of which were created before his death in 1616, continue to inspire art and cinema even today. His plays have been adapted in various movies across the globe, including India. And without a shadow of a doubt, he is the most popular playwright ever known to humankind. In more ways than one, he was the pioneer of the English Renaissance in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era of British history. Therefore, it is essential that before delving into our topic, we discuss the great man’s biography briefly.
Brief Biography of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He married Anne Hathaway, a 26-year-old woman when he was just eighteen. He had two daughters – Susanna Hall and Judith Quiney, and a son named Judith Quiney. Sadly, Shakespeare’s lineage couldn’t survive for more than a few years after his death.
Shakespeare is known majorly for his plays, which are regarded to be the greatest, not only in his English but also across global languages. Apart from writing plays, Shakespeare also acted in them, though his acting career was disrupted by the plague between 1603 and 1610. A few years before his death, the writer retired to his famous house, New Place, in Stratford.
Shakespeare passed away on April 23, 1616, aged 52, just a month after he signed his will. While the cause of death is not precisely known, it is said that he died due to a fever he caught after a session of overdrinking with his friends Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.
Following are some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays:
Hamlet (1600-1603); Macbeth (1603-1606); King Lear (1603-1606); Othello (1602-1604); Julius Caesar (1599) Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596); The Merchant of Venice (1596-1599); Antony and Cleopatra (1601-1608)
Shakespeare also wrote some famous and influential poems. Here are a few:
Venus and Adonis (1593); The Rape of Lucrece (1594); A Lover’s Complaint (1609); The Phoenix and the Turtle (1601); The Passionate Pilgrim (1599).
Introduction & Summary of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and is regarded as one of the greatest historical and political plays ever. As the name suggests the play is based on the life of Julius Caesar, a Roman military general, and depicts his assassination and its plot. Written in 1599, the play is based on a true incident from around 44 BC, when Julius Caesar was killed by his close associate, Brutus, in the Capitol after returning from a successful military campaign. Before discussing the political manoeuvrings in the play, let us first discuss a brief summary of it.
Brief Summary of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is set in ancient Rome, sometime around 44 BC. The play is divided into five acts and commences after Caesar’s triumphant return from an exhaustive military campaign. We shall discuss the summary act by act below:
The first act depicts a triumphant Julius Caesar’s return to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Caesar is back from a long and exhaustive military campaign, and the entire city is in a celebration mood. Public gatherings and celebratory festivities like games are organized, which depicts that Julius Caesar commanded a strong following among the Romans. The public games are orchestrated by Mark Antony, the trusted protégé of Caesar, who subsequently plays an important role in the story.
However, not everyone is happy, and unlike other great military generals in history, Julius Caesar, too, has rivals and competitors. One of them is Caius Cassius, a successful general who is jealous of Caesar’s triumphs. Marcus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s close associates is also present at the festivities and is suspicious of the general’s motives as he now holds substantial power in the Republic, and people have started treating him like a God. Cassius and Brutus, along with a few others fear that Caesar would become the Emperor.
Julius Caesar is offered to become the Emperor three times by the plebeians in a ceremony, where Brutus and Cassius are also present, along with Casca the main conspirator against Caesar. However, Caesar refuses the crown, which clearly indicates that he is not willing to ascend to the throne, at least not at that moment. In spite of this, those suspicious of his intentions are still doubtful.
The second act is probably the most important one for our project. It depicts how dirty politics is played out, resulting in a great historic tragedy. Brutus is still confused about Julius Caesar’s intentions, as he is not jealous, but only concerned for the Republic. He doesn’t want the monarchy to return, and that’s what bothers him about Caesar’s growing power. While he is in two minds, the conspirators – Casca, Cassius, and their allies, plat false documents to manipulate Brutus and rope him in on their ultimate plan – to assassinate Julius Caesar.
Brutus gets manipulated, and the planning to kill Julius Caesar takes place at his house. His wife, Portia insists on knowing what was the meeting about, but Brutus refuses to confide in her. Subsequently, the day of the assassination, March 15 arrives. Interestingly, a stranger had warned Caesar to ‘beware the Ides of March’, which means 15th of March. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, has a visionary dream on the previous night and fears something ill to occur. She urges him not to go to the Senate in the Capitol building, fearing for his life.
Caesar initially agrees to accept his wife’s request, however, he is persuaded by the conspirators to visit the senate. The conspirators have already taken their pre-deiced positions, and are waiting to go for the kill. Unaware, Caesar enters the Senate and takes his seat. Within a few minutes, the conspirators brutally attack him from all sides, while a few of them hold back Antony Mark, Caesar’s protégé, who is helpless and can do nothing about it.
Each conspirator takes turns to stab the unfortunate general, and the last of them is Brutus, Caesar’s trusted friend. When Caesar sees Brutus among the conspirators, he utters his last words, the famous words,
“Et tu, Brute?”
Julius Caesar, the mighty military commander, and the leader of the Romans, lies dead in a pool of his own blood, betrayed by the ones he trusts, for the crime he never committed.
There’s chaos across Rome following Julius Caesar’s death, and to control it is the primary motive of the conspirators. Therefore, they arrange for a funeral oration for Caesar, where Brutus delivers a speech informing the public about their concerns which led to the assassination of their beloved general. The public appears to be calming down, when Brutus allows Mark Antony, against the wish of his fellow conspirators, to deliver a speech.
Mark Antony delivers an electrifyingly mournful speech, that charges the public against the conspirators. He questions their motivations behind the assassination, while also reminding the crowd about Caesar’s deeds for the betterment of the Roman public and his rejection of the offer of the crown. The crowd turns murderous and rages for the lives of the conspirators, who have left with the only option to flee out of the city.
Casca, Cassius, Brutus, and other conspirators have fled Rome, and probably in Northern Greece, where they collect an army, preparing to fight a mighty campaign led by Mark Antony. On the other hand, Mark Antony is joined by Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavius, and another general named Lepidus. The trio forms an alliance historically called The Second Triumvirate and commissions an offensive on the conspirators.
Away from Rome and all their glory about crumble, the conspirators quarrel among themselves over petty matters like funds for paying their soldiers. Nonetheless, with all that they manage to bring together, they face the army of the Second Triumvirate at Philippi, despite Cassius’s reservations about the venue. This is when a piece of devasting news reaches Brutus that his wife, Portia, has committed suicide in Rome. On the night before the battle, Brutus sees the ghost of Julius Caesar and is unable to sleep.
The battle is now between the Republicans – Casca, Cassius, Brutus, and other conspirators, and the Second Triumvirate. Both sides inflict brutal blows, but the Republicans are set to lose. To avoid torture at the hands of Mark Antony and Octavius if they lose, Cassius asks his servant to help him die quickly. Subsequently, all the major conspirators, including Brutus, commit suicide. The Second Triumvirate is victorious, however, Antony praises Brutus for being ‘the noblest of them all’ and commissions an honourable funeral for him. Subsequently, Octavius returned to Rome triumphantly, and went on to become the first Roman Emperor, and was known as Caesar Augustus.
Prominent Characters in Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar is the most prominent character in the play, though it is hard to decide whether he is the protagonist or not. In fact, it is quite hard to decide who’s the protagonist in Julius Caesar. Caesar is a triumphant military general of the Roman Republic and is one of the most powerful ones in a very long time. While he enjoys the tremendous influence and power of the Romans, he refuses to become the emperor. This shows that he was wholly dedicated to the idea of the Republic.
Marcus Brutus is the most interesting character in the play and has a substantial arc. While his dedication to the Republic is undoubtedly high, one must question his faithfulness and friendship. Since he was Caesar’s trusted friend, Brutus could’ve had his reservations placed before the general. However, he, for some reason, chose not to. Were his intentions noble? Yes! But whether his actions were appropriate is a matter of debate. I personally feel that Brutus could have found ways better than assassinating the man, even though the conspirators produced some forged documents to manipulate him.
Caius Cassius is a military general like Caesar. Successful, but not as much as the triumphant Caesar. His jealousy corrupts his mind, and he harbours the idea of killing Julius Caesar, which he also spreads among other senators. Initially, he too questions the integrity of Caesar to the Republic, but when Caesar rejects the crown thrice, his jealousy and corruption take over.
Mark Antony is the protégé of Julius Caesar and the one who presents the crown to Caesar thrice. He is a man of fierce loyalty and is willing to go to war to avenge the one he bore allegiance to. He is very happy over the return of Julius Caesar after the long wars and is partaking in various public games. Antony is also quite courageous and intelligent, and his funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination portrays this.
Casca is the mastermind behind the assassination, as unlike Brutus, he did not do it for the sake of the Republic, and unlike Cassius, he did not have jealousy. He simply had a corrupt mind. He goes to the extent of plating false documents with the help of fellow conspirators in order to convince Brutus. However, in the end, like Cassius and Brutus, Casca also commits suicide.
Octavius is the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who would go on to become the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. He joins the Second Triumvirate to avenge his family’s blood and defeats the Republicans.
Political Maneuvering in Julius Caesar
One of Shakespeare’s great abilities is to pull the audience up from the prisms of black and white. He takes the viewers into a grey space, where there’s more than what meets the eye, compelling us to question the “realities” we are familiar with. Julius Caesar is no exception. To understand the politics in the play, first, let’s have a short discussion about politics in general.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word Politic comes from the Greek word politikos, which means, “sensible and wise in the circumstances.” In short, politics is the action of behaving sensibly and wisely in any given circumstance. For instance, electing a candidate with knowledge of students’ issues in the student body elections is a wise move. Now let’s briefly analyze politics from the perspective of different characters in the play:
The triumphant general, who is offered the crown to rule the Romans thrice rejects it. This was, in my humble sense, a bad political move. Even if had accepted the offer, Brutus and other conspirators would have attempted to assassinate him, though he then could have had better protection. However, his rejection of the throne cemented his legacy as being an integral supporter of the republic.
Brutus & Cassius
Brutus wanted to save the Republic, while Cassius was jealous. Both conspired and in the end, killed themselves. Now that we have a neutral perspective, it is quite obvious to see through the loopholes in the idea of assassinating a general as powerful and as revered as Julius Caesar. While we can still understand Cassius’s move, Brutus, with all his noble intentions, was unwise in making the move. Therefore, more than his struggle to keep the Republic intact, it is Brutus’s desire for self-righteousness that motivates him to assassinate Caesar.
As much as he seems to be simple and straightforward, Octavius, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar probably the most complex politically. He fights to avenge the assassination of Caesar, the one who declined the crown thrice. However, when Octavius returns victorious to Rome, he chooses to become the Emperor. Caesar Augustus, as he came to be known in history, was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire, after avenging the killing of Julius Caesar who refused to be the Emperor of Rome. Strange, isn’t it? Because if he were true allegiance to Caesar as Antony did, he would’ve taken his path to keep the Republic alive.
After having an overview of the characters’ political movements, let us discuss various aspects of politics portrayed by William Shakespeare in the play:
Dismantling the Walls of Right & Wrong
Did Brutus have the moral right to stop Caesar? Were the conspirators wrong in assassinating Caesar? Is the Republic better than an Empire?
These are a few questions that one is bound to ponder over after seeing Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Politics is to do the wise thing in a given situation, that’s it. Everything in politics is not necessarily right or wrong. If we leave the jealousy and the conspiracy aside and truthfully think for how long could Julius Caesar resist the temptation of ruling Rome, for he was a mortal being, who are corrupt inherently, we might agree that the move was ‘right’. Therefore, even after seeing the play numerous times, one cannot conclude the “right & wrong”.
Conspirations and Coups
Seeing the various coups happening in the Middle East, the most recent being the military coup attempt in Turkey, one might think that this is a modern concept. However, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is proof that it is an ancient concept. What basically the conspirators are trying to do is to stop Caesar from becoming the emperor of Rome, and assassinate him in the name of ‘protecting the Republic’. And like most coup attempts in modern times, in this play, too, a handful of corrupt politicians (Casca and Cassius) succeed in fooling the truly concerned (Brutus).
History is witness to the fact that while a certain situation looks bad for some, it always opens a window of opportunities for someone else. Someone’s loss is someone else’s gain, and one can find the same in Julius Caesar. The case in point is that of Octavius, the great-nephew of Caesar. The death of Julius Caesar was a cause of agony and mourning for the people of Rome, including Mark Antony. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a great opportunity for Octavius. It allowed him to stamp the mark of his legacy on the Romans. Upon returning triumphantly, avenging the assassination of Caesar, Octavius chooses to be what his great-uncle refused – the Emperor of Rome.
Secondly, we can find opportunism in the behaviour of Caius Cassius, the successful general jealous of Julius Caesar. Cassius sees Caesar as his rival and not as a comrade, which is further corroborated by the fact that he refuses to believe that Caesar has no intentions of being the Emperor even after he rejects the crown thrice. He turns the true concerns for the Republic inside Brutus into an opportunity to take down his “rival”.
Who Decides What’s Right?
Even if everyone decides to do the best for everyone, there still will be a lot of debates and conflicts about what’s right and what’s not. In the end, those who hold power are the ones who get to decide what’s right for everyone. But is it the best option? Is it really beneficial for society? These are some open-ended questions popping up in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
While Brutus and others decided that it was in the interest of the Republic to eliminate Julius Caesar, the majority of the Romans didn’t agree with this. It only took an emotional speech from Antony to turn the crowd into a murderous mob thirsty for the blood of those who killed Julius Caesar for the people themselves. In the end, people chose an Emperor over the Republic, making Octavius, Caesar Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.
This question of choosing what’s best for the people is universal in application. The recent farm laws enacted by the Indian government are a classic example of choosing the best for the people. The government has enacted certain laws which it deems essential for the betterment of the farmers. However, farmers don’t want them. This political conflict between the governed and the government is what we are witnessing today.
The question, therefore, remains – Who should decide what’s right for the people? A group of the political elite, who feel something’s good or bad for the people? The ministers who know exactly what “we” want? That might not be the right choice necessarily! This leads to another question – Why isn’t there sync between the chosen elite and the governed? Like in Julius Caesar, the Romans needed an Antony to make them realize the magnitude of the loss caused by the actions of the conspirators. Similarly, people at large need an Antony to realize the importance of choosing the right one. To conclude the argument, it all boils down to the awareness of the people. The political astuteness they possess, and the kind of leadership they desire. It is this that leads to the “collective good” or the “collective bad”. This is Democracy, this is Republic!
William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not only a literary masterpiece, but a timeless portrayal of contentious political scenarios. The legendary writer succeeds in providing a macroscopic view in this microscopic story of the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the face, it seems to be a tragic narration of a historic event, but under the surface, it packs several layers of human behaviour.
These underlying layers have been a subject of study for centuries and will continue to be so for ages to come. The ghost of Julius Caesar will continue to haunt the Brutus(s) of our era and the ones of the future, for as long as mankind shall survive, political debacles and betrayals will continue to occur. With this significant piece of English literature, Shakespeare has exposed the inherent flaws in human beings. Some of these are dark and evil, while some are simple acts of stupidity. From an academic perspective, though, Julius Caesar is a play that every student of literature, history, and politics must study to understand the complex sociopolitical circumstances of our times.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare – Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare – WilliamShakespeare.net
Biography of William Shakespeare – Britannica
Summary of Julius Caesar – Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Biography of Cassius – Wikipedia
Biography of Casca – Wikipedia
Biography of Octavius – Wikipedia
An Analysis of Politics in Julius Caesar, a Play by William Shakespeare – Grades Fixer
Julius Caesar (2014) by William Shakespeare – Theatre Classics
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.