The title The Tragedy of Julius Caesar really gave that one away. OK, fine, but what is it exactly that makes the play a "tragedy"? Well, there are some basic rules and conventions that govern the genre of Shakespearean tragedy, so take a look at our list below:
Shakespearean Tragedy Checklist
- Dramatic work: Check. Julius Caesar is most definitely a play.
- Serious or somber theme: Check. The play is all about Brutus's violent betrayal of his BFF and the aftermath of Caesar's assassination (that would be civil war).
- Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check, but here's where Shakespeare gets all fancy and complex. In this play, he presents us with two possible heroes (a.k.a. protagonists) – Brutus and Julius Caesar. If we think Caesar is the play's tragic hero/protagonist, then we could say the hero's "flaw" is arrogance and dynastic ambition. In other words, Julius Caesar thinks Julius Caesar is really awesome and he totally wants to be an all-powerful king, even though the Roman Republic is supposed to be anti-monarchy. If you think Brutus, not Caesar, is the play's protagonist then you might say that Brutus faces a major "conflict with some overpowering force" in the play. Brutus, who says he's "at war" with himself must choose between his loyalty to Rome and his loyalty to Caesar, who seems to be headed for absolute power. As we know, he chooses Rome.
- Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check (maybe). Anyone familiar with Roman history knows that things don't turn out well for either Caesar (who gets stabbed in the guts 33 times) or Brutus (who kills himself). But does that mean Shakespeare's characters are destined for destruction? We talk about this in detail in "Themes: Fate and Free Will," so be sure to check it out if you want to know more.
- Always ends in death but with the promise of continuity: Even though there's a bloody civil war and just about everyone who hasn't been stabbed by an enemy has fallen on his own sword by the end of the play, Rome is still standing. (Plus, Octavius and Antony promise to give Brutus a really nice funeral.) And it just so happens that Shakespeare continues the story in a little play called Antony and Cleopatra.
Not a History Play
We know what you're thinking – since Julius Caesar portrays major events from Roman history, why don't we categorize it in the genre of Shakespearean "history play"? Well, here's how most scholars define the Shakespearean history play: a drama portraying English historical events (history according to Shakespeare, we should point out) that resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion. So Julius Caesar meets the second criterion (it portrays historical events that resonate with 16th-century English political concerns, like the question of how a country should be governed), but it's still a play about Roman history.