Julius Caesar: Theme Analysis
Julius Caesar is a play about political power and how it may be legitimately and illegitimately wielded. It also shows the role of what we now call public opinion, which in this play is embodied in the gut responses of the common folk. The play also raises many questions. Who is the play's central character? Is it Caesar, the great leader; Brutus, the idealist and man of honor who faces an ethical dilemma; Cassius, the arch-conspirator; or Antony, the loyal henchman and brilliant manipulator of the mob? Were the conspirators justified in their assassination of Caesar? How, in the end, should Rome-or any other society-be governed?
There may be no simple answers to any of these questions. Shakespeare presents a many-sided picture in which all the characters' strengths and weaknesses are clearly shown. Caesar is the authoritarian, arrogant leader, who rules with a firm although not unjust hand; Brutus is the man of conscience, concerned about his public duty and willing to take action that he feels is for the common good. But he is not suited to running a government; he is too concerned with upholding his sense of his own nobility and honor, and he makes many tactical errors. Cassius is the intellectual who is aware of the dangers presented by an authoritarian leader who concentrates power in his own hands, yet Cassius is also tainted by the ignoble sentiment of envy. As for Antony, he is loyal to his friend Caesar, but he is also ruthless and cunning. Today we might call him a demagogue, willing and able to use his oratorical powers to fire up the mob and get them to do what he wants.
If the major characters are all flawed in one way or another, Shakespeare also shows the fickleness of public opinion. One moment the crowd is cheering Caesar, but it does not take long for Brutus to persuade them that Caesar was too hungry for power and deserved his fate. But then Antony soon manipulates the crowd into the opposite belief, and the mob goes on a rampage against the conspirators. This shows how politicians may shape and use the sentiments of ordinary people in service of their own goals. No one in the play shows any respect for the common people (see for example Casca's speech in Act 1 Scene 2, or the attitudes of Flavius and Murellus in Act 1 Scene 1).
So what are we to conclude? One way of judging an action is to look at the results it produces. Cassius and Brutus commit an act of violence to keep Rome free; they end up with chaos and civil war. In effect, they go to war (by killing Caesar) to keep the peace, which when used by politicians is usually a specious argument. Although Caesar is presented as arrogant, and he shows no mercy or flexibility when petitioned by responsible Romans to end a banishment, he is also a man who knows how to wield power. He is a formidable military commander, and most people, except for Cassius, respect him. Brutus himself can think of no accusation to charge Caesar with, except an imagined fear of what Caesar might do if his power continued to grow. This is surely a weak argument. And Brutus, for all his nobility, does not seem to realize that he continually allows himself to be manipulated by stronger or more ruthless personalities, first Cassius and then Antony.
As so often in such situations, the conspirators fall victim to what is called the law of unintended consequences. No one can predict with certainty the consequences of such a momentous act as the assassination of a powerful political and military leader. Certainly, history has judged Brutus and Cassius harshly as traitors. But then, as someone once remarked, history is written by the winners. No one knows, of course, how Caesar would have behaved had he lived. And Shakespeare leaves us with such a full sense of the humanity of all the characters that definitive judgments about who is right and who is wrong may not do justice to the complexities of life, politics, and human motivation.