Julius Caesar is a powerful Roman political and military leader who gets stabbed in the back (and the arms, legs, and guts!) by a group of conspirators who are supposed to be his friends.
Will the Real Julius Caesar Please Stand Up?
Even though the play is named after Caesar, we don't really see much of him. He appears on stage only a few times before he's assassinated in the middle of Act 3, Scene 1. What's more, Caesar is the kind of politician who really likes to put on a show, so it's hard to tease out the difference between the "real" Caesar (if there is one) and the public persona he's created. (Sometimes it seems like even Caesar himself is not sure where the line is, which may be why he refers to himself in the third person.) It's also important to remember that much of what we hear about Caesar is filtered through the points of view of various characters – particularly his enemies. (Not to mention, this is only Shakespeare's fictional interpretation of the historical Julius Caesar.)
Some study guides will tell you that Shakespeare's Caesar is a flat-out tyrant or that he has ambitions to rule Rome with absolute authority. This isn't necessarily accurate. Regardless of what we think about the historical Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's portrayal of him as a character in his play is ambiguous.
Caesar the Drama Queen
The one thing we do know for sure about Caesar is that he is a total drama queen who likes to put on a big show. When he returns to Rome at the beginning of the play, he parades through the streets like he's a rock star (1.1). (Does this remind you of any modern-day politicians?) The clearest example of Caesar's theatricality is when he appears before the crowd during the Feast of the Lupercal. After refusing the crown Antony offers him, he faints dramatically and then apologizes for his behavior (1.2). The crowd eats it up, of course. As Casca points out, when Caesar acts this way the crowd "clap[s]" and "hiss[es]" for him like he's an actor "in the theater" (1.2.11).
Caesar the Ambitious Tyrant?
We hear a lot about Caesar from the conspirators, who want to take him down before he becomes even more powerful than he already is. Because Caesar is so popular with the commoners, the conspirators worry he'll be crowned king, turning the republican (in the sense of democratic) government into a monarchy.
He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell. (2.1.3)
Here Brutus compares Caesar to a "serpent's egg" that should be eliminated before it hatches and becomes dangerous. This suggests that the conspirators see in Caesar a future threat to Rome. They're afraid of Caesar not because he is a tyrant, but because he might become a tyrant if he gains more power by being crowned king.
On the other hand, there may be some evidence that Caesar is already beginning to show signs of tyranny. When Casca says that Murellus and Flavius have been "put to silence" for covering up pictures of Caesar during the Feast of Lupercal, we're left to wonder if Caesar has them put to death:
[...] I could tell you more
news too: Murellus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs
off Caesar's images, are put to silence. Fare you
well. There was more foolery yet, if I could
remember it. (1.2.14)
Caesar the Non-Threat?
Still, for a guy who is supposed to be a major threat to Rome, Caesar sure does have a lot of physical ailments and handicaps, don't you think? Early on in the play we learn that his hearing is impaired (in 1.2.13 he makes Antony stand on his right side because his left ear is "deaf"). We're also told by Cassius that Caesar is a lousy swimmer (he almost drowned once) and that he became very sick as a young man (1.2.9). Later, in Act 1, Scene 3, we hear that he suffers from something resembling epileptic fits. Shakespeare also raises the possibility that Caesar may have been impotent or sterile: when Caesar announces that Calphurnia is "barren," it's clear the couple is childless, but we wonder if Caesar is the one with the problem.
So why does Shakespeare go to so much trouble to show us how imperfect Caesar is when he's supposed to be such a major threat to the Roman Republic? Shakespeare may just be showing us that Caesar is as human as the rest of us. But might he also be suggesting that Caesar isn't as big a threat as the conspirators make him out to be? Or do Caesar's multiple physical problems suggest that he's not fit to rule Rome? What do you think?
Julius Caesar Superstar?
We've just seen how the play goes out of its way to show us that Julius Caesar is no superhero, but that doesn't prevent Caesar from seeing himself as the biggest "star" in the galaxy. Check out this famous speech, in which arrogant Caesar compares himself to the Northern Star:
I am Constant as the Northern Star
I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world, 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so. (3.1.7)
During this famous "I'm the brightest star in the sky" speech, Caesar claims to be the most "constant" (steady) guy in the universe because he can't be swayed by the personal appeals of other men. This says a lot about Caesar's character, don't you think? When Caesar aligns himself with the "northern star," he attempts to elevate himself above all other men. According to Caesar, even though there are other stars (men) in the sky (Rome), "there's but one in all doth hold his place." In other words, Caesar claims that he's the only guy solid enough to rule Rome (as evidenced by his refusal to relent after having banished Cimber).
The irony here is that Caesar delivers this big, fancy speech mere seconds before he's assassinated. Just as our superstar declares how "unshak[able]" and immovable he is, the conspirators surround him and stab him to death (33 times!), unseating him from power. But before we conclude that Julius Caesar isn't as "constant" as he claims to be, let's not forget that centuries after the historical (and still famous) Caesar was assassinated, Shakespeare wrote a play about him...and we're still reading it.Timeline