Study Guide

Julius Caesar Themes

  • Power

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    When it seems evident to the conspirators in Shakespeare's play that Julius Caesar is headed for absolute power, he becomes a threat to the ideals and values of the Roman Republic. In other words, he's voted off the island. They assassinate Caesar before he can be crowned king. The irony is that Caesar's death results in civil war. As two factions with questionable motives grab for power, chaos ensues and the Republic is never the same again. See what happens when you don't plan ahead?

    By dramatizing the historical circumstances surrounding Caesar's assassination, Shakespeare asks a series of questions relevant to his 16th-century audience and readers today: How should cities and countries be governed? What makes a good leader? What happens when a political leader's power is unchecked? What happens when the leader dies without a suitable replacement lined up? And who really did let the dogs out? 

    Questions About Power

    1. What kind of leader is Julius Caesar? The conspirators say he's a tyrant headed for absolute power. Is there evidence in the play to support this? Is Caesar really a threat to the Roman Republic? Why or why not?
    2. Are the conspirators justified in their assassination of a political leader?
    3. Why does Brutus join the conspirators? Is it simply a matter of saving Rome from Caesar's supposed tyranny, or does Brutus have something else to gain?
    4. Does the play ever portray an ideal leader?

    Chew on This

    Although Julius Caesar is certainly arrogant and power hungry, there's no clear evidence in Shakespeare's play that suggests he's a tyrant when he's assassinated. Rather, the conspirators see in Caesar a potential threat to Rome and eliminate him before his ambitions can be realized.

    Shakespeare's portrayal of the chaos that ensues after Caesar's assassination dramatizes a major late 16th century political concern – what would happen when England's aging monarch (Queen Elizabeth I) died without an heir to the throne?

  • Fate and Free Will

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    Men at some time are masters of their fates:
    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
    (1.2.138-140)

    That's what Cassius says to Brutus as the two contemplate removing Caesar from power. Although Cassius claims that men are "masters of their fates" as a way to motivate the conspirators to action against Caesar, there's a lot of evidence to suggest he's wrong. The play is full of omens and prophesies that come true, which undermines the sense that characters can exercise free will and shape the outcomes of their lives. We should also keep in mind that Julius Caesar dramatizes historical events that have, by definition, already happened. As characters struggle with questions of fate vs. free will, the audience already knows what their futures hold. This tends to create a lot of dramatic irony.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Explain the overall significance of the "Ides of March" in Shakespeare's play.
    2. Why does Caesar dismiss Calphurnia's interpretation of her ominous dream?
    3. Is Cassius right when he claims that men are "masters of their fate"? Is there evidence in the play to suggest that, for example, Caesar's fate could have been avoided?
    4. How does Shakespeare use omens and prophecies to create dramatic irony in the play?

    Chew on This

    Most of the omens in the play are subject to multiple interpretations (some accurate and some not).

    Even though Cassius says that men are in control of their own destinies, the fulfillment of prophesies in Julius Caesar suggests that the fates of men are predetermined.

  • Friendship

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    Like ostriches and Lake Titicaca, male bonds are funny things in Julius Caesar. Men in the play must to choose between loyalty to their friends and loyalty to the Roman Republic, which leads to some of the most famous examples of manipulation and violent betrayal in Western literature. This is especially true for Brutus, who chooses to join the conspirators' assassination plot when it seems clear to him that his BFF, Julius Caesar, is headed for absolute power. Wow Brutus, not cool.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Make a list with two columns. In the first column, list Caesar's friends. In the second column, list the conspirators against Caesar. Do any of the names appear in both columns? If so, explain why.
    2. Why does Brutus join the assassination plot against his friend Caesar? Is Brutus' betrayal of Caesar justified?
    3. Is Cassius a true friend to Brutus? Why or why not?
    4. Why does Antony call Brutus the "noblest Roman of them all" (5.5.68) even after the men have fought a civil war against each other? Is Antony being genuine?

    Chew on This

    Although male friendship is the most important human relationship in the play, it's less important than loyalty to the Roman Republic.

    It's nearly impossible to tell the difference between friends and enemies in Julius Caesar.

  • Art and Culture

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    Hold onto your brooches people—we're about to get meta in here. Just about all of Shakespeare's works contain self-referential, or "metatheatrical" moments, but in Julius Caesar Shakespeare takes it to the next level by forging a relationship between the theater and politics. In the play, politicians know they're like actors performing on a very public stage, and they measure their speeches and actions accordingly. At other times, characters even seem aware that their historical actions will be dramatized over a thousand years later on the Elizabethan stage. What are they, psychic or something? The play is also full of self-conscious references to the kinds of public and political roles that poets (like Shakespeare) can play in the world.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. At what points in the play does Shakespeare make references to the theater and acting? Why do you think he does this?
    2. Why does Caesar refuse the crown three times and faint when Antony offers it to him in Act 1? How does Caesar's "performance" shape the crowd's opinion of him?
    3. What is the overall effect when characters like Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius refer to themselves in the third person?
    4. Where and why are poets inserted into Julius Caesar? Are these appearances just random, or does their presence help create meaning in the play?

    Chew on This

    In Julius Caesar, the world of politics is likened to a theatrical stage, where politicians perform before public audiences.

    The complete and utter disregard for poets in Julius Caesar signals that the Roman characters cannot see what writers of poetry (like Shakespeare) can teach the world about politics, war, and friendship.

  • Gender

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    It's definitely a man's world in Julius Caesar. Characters who display any signs of weakness in the masculine realm of politics and warfare are considered sissies. Women are considered weak and irrelevant (as when Caesar totally disregards Calphurnia's ominous dream so he won't be thought of as a wimp). Portia, one of the play's two female characters, subscribes to the idea that women are feeble and erratic: her infamous declaration, "Ay me, how weak a thing / The heart of woman is!" hangs throughout the play like a cold, wet, misogynistic rag.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does the play portray Roman masculinity? Cite specific examples from the text.
    2. Why does Portia voluntarily stab herself in the thigh in Act 2, Scene 1?
    3. Why does Caesar ignore Calphurnia's advice to stay home? Would or could things have turned out differently if Caesar had taken advice from a woman?
    4. What kind of roles do Portia and Calphurnia play in Julius Caesar? Are they central to the action of the play? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Cassius attempts to undermine Julius Caesar's authority as a leader by attacking his manhood, which suggests that, in Rome at least, power and masculinity go hand in hand.

    In Julius Caesar, women, who are excluded from politics and public roles, are associated with weakness and inconstancy.

  • Manipulation

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    In Julius Caesar, manipulation is almost a professional sport. Politicians use their rhetorical skills to gain power and to influence large, fickle crowds, and seeming friends lie outright to each other. It's not all that different from middle school popularity contests, just in a more, uh, ancient setting. Persuasion and suggestion are rhetorical skills that play central roles in Julius Caesar, but they also highlight the willingness of individuals in hard times to hear what they want to hear (remind you at all of our own day and age?). It's often unclear whether characters are manipulated by others, or do they simply find in the speech of others an inspiration to do what they might otherwise have been too afraid to do.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Is Cassius responsible for manipulating Brutus to join the conspiracy? Why or why not?
    2. When Casca first tells us about the mob coming to watch Caesar at the festival of Lupercal, he characterizes it as a group of idiots that would cheer if Caesar had stabbed their mothers. What is it about Caesar that makes the crowds treat him like such a rock star?
    3. How do the conspirators lure Caesar to the Capitol in Act 2, Scene 2?
    4. Is it only the weak and stupid who can be persuaded, or do seemingly rational characters also get duped?

    Chew on This

    Brutus was not persuaded to join the plot by anything Cassius had to say. The idea was already stirring in his brain and he joined based on his own reasoning.

    Although Julius Caesar is a master manipulator and exercises impressive crowd control, he's not immune to being manipulated by his so-called friends and political allies.

  • Pride

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    When it comes to pride, Julius Caesar takes the gold. He's the most outwardly arrogant—and considering some of the other characters we're introduced to, that's saying a lot. Caesar's total lack of humility seems to be his tragic flaw. His prideful arrogance is a blinding force that prevents him from seeing the harm he's doing and the harm being planned against him. When Brutus is humble about what others call his greatness, he sets himself up in sympathetic contrast to Caesar. We like Brutus because he isn't all fatheaded. He also seems wiser than Caesar for being more aware of the world around him and genuinely more concerned for it.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What's the difference between arrogance and a healthy amount of confidence? Is arrogance something we look for in a leader because anything less would make him seem unsure and incapable?
    2. Is Caesar actually arrogant? Doesn't he have a right to be, given that he's still remembered as one of the most powerful leaders of all time? How much of his historical fame is the result of his assassination? (Ironic!)
    3. Does Antony really believe the things he says about himself being a less able orator than Brutus? Is his humility ever real, or is it just a veiled arrogance, made worse because it is influenced by the presence of a public audience?
    4. Is humility considered noble in the play? Does anyone get rewarded for it?

    Chew on This

    Arrogance has a protective quality in the play: it's only by his intense arrogance that Caesar stays ignorant of the plot against him. Shakespeare points to arrogance as one of man's most dangerous failings. Under the influence of arrogance, a man can neither judge himself, nor accept the judgment of others.

    Humility is a characteristic of the weak. Brutus lacks the strength and conviction to justify his murder of Caesar because he is too humble. If he had forcefully asserted that he had the right to judge Caesar, and the good sense to judge him correctly, he could have won the crowd over.

  • Principles

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    Honor is one of the central conundrums in Julius Caesar. Some actions are done in the name of honor, others in spite of it. National honor challenges personal honor, and obligations and desires put honor at stake. All these layers of honor, which often conflict with each other, ultimately lead back to the issue of perspective. Each character has to decide what's best for him and act on it accordingly. In the end, they can only do honor to their own judgment, as they have no clear standard for what is good in their world.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What is the relationship between honor and pride? Cassius thinks Rome's honor is hurt by Caesar's growing power, but does he really just resent being ruled by a man he sees as no better than himself?
    2. Brutus asks the people to believe him based on his honor – that he wouldn't ever willingly harm Rome. Does the people's esteem of Brutus count for anything, especially when we know they're so easily swayed?
    3. Why does Brutus initially hang back from joining the conspiracy? Is he afraid, or does he think this covert deed will somehow tarnish his honor, no matter how noble its purpose?
    4. Over Brutus' body, Antony claims Brutus was the only honorable member of the conspiracy because he had no envy towards Caesar. Is this true?

    Chew on This

    Antony is not dishonorable; all he does is avenge the death of Caesar. Just as the conspirators thought their murder was excused by their honorable intention, Antony uses dishonorable means to restore honor to Rome.

    Brutus is the play's most honorable character. He sacrifices himself for the state, accepts his punishment nobly, and chooses to take his own life rather than return to Rome in chains. He stays true to his own ideals and values from the beginning to the bitter end.