Julius Caesar provided a unique opportunity for Shakespeare to represent a well-known story of a public figure whose life and death enormously affected the future of his nation and it citizens. Caesars life could serve as a reflection on the prevailing worries about monarchal leadership, while dipping into questions of public and private life of leaders and studying the famously conflicted rationales of Caesars murderers.
From the moment the conspirators pulled their swords from Caesars body, their reasons for killing him were debated and documented with various spins, some accounts portraying Caesars killers as heroes and others, like Dante, damning them to the deepest pit of hell. Shakespeares account focuses largely on Brutus internal conflicts between his loyalty to Caesar and to Rome, between his belief about what Rome should be and what it had become. He struggles to decide whether the demands of civic responsibility prevail over the ties of personal loyalty.
Caesar focuses on the lives of the great men, circulating among several characters, with the title character playing a smaller role than might be imagined. Brutus is most fully drawn of them. Unlike other characters, he appears in several roles throughout he play: as public figure, as private man, as military leader, as husband. Brutus painful conflicts come from this overlap of roles — his role in the assassination of Caesar seems more wrenching because of his intimacy with the man.
His actions suggest either that he must not be acting out of self-interest if he loves Caesar, or contrarily that he is too insensitive to the claims of friendship. Thus his internal conflict becomes debate for the audience; is Brutus right or wrong? At no point is he confirmed to have acted correctly or incorrectly. Antony may praise him at the end as the noblest of Romans, but we cant help feeling that Cassiuss tricks may have made him the most misled of Romans. Inflexibility and an inability to recognize the changing nature of the world are traits often punished in Shakespeares characters.
Caesar suffers from unwavering belief in his public strength, which is betrayed by the frailty of his physical, private self, which he claims he would prefer to address last. Brutus idealism allows him to believe that killing his close friend is an acceptable choice for the nation, but he neglects to notice that Caesars death will not make the nation more like what he believes it should be — the people will want a king whether or not he does. Both Caesar and Brutus try to live up to unrealistic, superhuman ideals, though towards different ends.
Caesar seems to want to be “constant as the Northern Star” (III. 60) whereas Brutus seems to want consistent self-control. Both Brutus and Caesar pay for their inflexibility with their lives. However their cohorts show greater range of motion. Cassius is much more alert to the workings of the world; he knows he can fool Brutus with a faked letter, whereas Brutus would never imagine that a letter could not be real. Antony shows off a malleable improvisatory tone in his speech over Caesars body that allows him to win over the masses, because he is able to bend to suit public opinion rather than making the public match his beliefs.
The Roman worlds distinction between public and private worlds has important resonance for the play. The public world is an all-male milieu of competition, rivalry, and bonds. The argument between Brutus and Cassius in Act IV shows the competitive intensity of such bonds. Beside these exclusive ties, connections with women are barely noticed. Portia begs Brutus to speak to her, presumably because he had been known to converse sometimes, but he ignores her. Caesar decides to humor Calpurnia and stay home, but as soon as Decius Brutus mentions the crown, Caesar speeds off to the Senate.
Women are completely powerless, and even female intuition is ignored. Fate plays a curious role in the play. Cassius urges Brutus to consider fate doesnt control so much as does free will: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (I. ii. 141-2). Yet fate seems to play a stronger role than Cassius would like to admit. The great leader Caesar is easily murdered steps from his door after decades of successful and dangerous military campaigns, Cassius suicide is incomprehensible except as an accident or a twist of fate, and Brutus is defeated even though his armies were winning.
Fates role in the outcome of these characters is inscrutable but apparently present. In a play where characters try to see a better future, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are startlingly foregrounded. None are able to gain any perspective on events. Cassius thinks he has been defeated when actually he has won, and kills himself. Caesar declares his permanence mere moments before his death. The conspiracy fails to salvage the republic, but opens Rome to centuries of imperial rule. And omens and portents are never heeded or understood at the right time, only after the fact.
The omens are always correct, and always ignored. The continued accuracy of omens seems to indicate that individuals are trapped in a pattern of fate that they cannot control. Though they may try to resist and see their own path, they are always wrong. The play ends on two different notes, as Antony compliments a dead Brutus, foregrounding Brutus conflict and tragedy, while Octavius stands by to take command. Brutus the republican may be the last of his kind, the last to stand for the way Rome was, while Octavius the politician prepares to become Romes next emperor and lead Rome into a different future.