Characterisation is perhaps one of the most important aspects of Julius Caesar, given the playwright's interest in the political machinations that revolve around individuals' struggle to gain or retain power.
Julius Caesar is unusual is Shakespeare's oeuvre in that it contains four leading characters of similar stature. Undoubtedly Brutus has the major part in the plot, but the relationships between Caesar, Brutus, Caius and Mark Antony, and its consequences for political power in Rome were one of Shakespeare's principal concerns in writing the play.
Julius Caesar was given a new interpretation by Shakespeare. In The Mirror for Magistrates Caesar's pretence was 'glorye vayne... Without remorce of many thousands slain'. In a play which oratory and persuasion are the pivotal functions, Caesar fails to do either. He speaks in aphorisms, and rhetorically Shakespeare's Caesar is contradictory; he is 'enigmatic and unrevealing', 'a public man caught in posturing and posing... confuses our judgement of the assassination and the assassins'. The line that Ben Jonson mocked, 'Caesar did never wrong but with just cause, / Nor without cause will he be satisfied', at some point removed from the play, seems to capture this trait best.
Perhaps Caesar's greatest failing is presumption of security of his power: 'Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he... ' (II.2.44-8) Caesar's will is immovable - he is resolute in his opinions, emotionless and is untouched by outside pressures. His 'northern star' speech (III.1.58-73) reads like Virgil, and Elizabethans would have identified royal symbolism in its imagery: 'constancy', 'firmament', 'fire', 'one in all', and 'one... Unshaked of motion'. Caesar has three major decisions to make during the course of the play:- To accept or reject the crown that is offered to him by Mark Antony;
- Whether or not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March;
- To pardon Publius Cimber, or uphold his exile.
Interestingly Shakespeare decided to concentrate on the second rather than the first - a straightforward political-constitutional matter for political-constitutional pivoted on superstition and prophesy. In going to the Senate on the Ides of March, Caesar ignores the numerous warnings and portents he is given throughout the build up: from the Soothsayer, Calphurnia, the augurers, and Artemidorus. Caesar goes, but it is in fear. Decius, holding to his promise to the conspirators (II.1.203-8), manages to persuade Caesar by reminding him of his priorities and duties: 'What touches us ourself shall be last served' (III.1.7); there is no place for the private Caesar on the public stage of political Rome.
The irony lies in the fact that it is the private Caesar that the conspirators managed to kill; the public icon, or spirit, of Caesar lives on to eventually overwhelm Cassius and Brutus. Some of the most impressive tributes to Caesar come from among the conspirators themselves. Cassius' loathing for Caesar was built on a personal animosity rooted in envy. Conversely, Brutus justified to himself assassinating Caesar on the grounds of what he would do and become as king. There has been much disagreement between critics with regard to who is the 'hero' of the play. The full title of the play (The Tragedie of Julius Caesar) points towards Caesar, but Shakespeare's focus is undeniably on Brutus and the conspiracy.
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