‘Julius Caesar’: A Great Political Tragedy

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The masterful speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar make us question who is honorable, and who is ambitious. Whose ambition led to Caesar’s murder? Was it Caesar’s or was it the combined ambition of Brutus and other senators? Let us answer these questions by applying the tools that we can use to understand Shakespeare’s plays.

The painting shows the murder of Julius Caesar by his senators.
In Julius Caesar, Caesar ignores the prophecy of the soothsayer and is killed by his senators including his most trusted friend, Brutus. (Image: GhostKnife/Shutterstock)

The events in the first act of Julius Caesar are reminiscent of Macbeth, we see the layout for a great political tragedy. We see a great conqueror and ruler, Julius Caesar, who is nearly worshiped by the multitudes of Rome; but his senators fear that he is becoming too great and will propel him to become a king and a tyrant.

A Conspiracy Arises in Julius Caesar

A conspiracy arises, even drawing in those Caesar most trusts, such as the honorable Brutus—we are reminded of the fair is foul and foul is fair tool from Macbeth. In the second act, the conspirators gather more into their fold, and Brutus is forced to choose which side he will favor in the conflict.

Soon, we clearly see how the crucial tragedy tool of fate and free will is central to this play. The soothsayer famously warns Caesar, “Beware the ides of March,” but Caesar ignores this prophecy, as if fate has conspired to doom him.

The arc of a character’s development tool helps us see what is happening in this play so far: Caesar’s arc has completed itself, and he is now in decline; Brutus’s arc is on the rise, as he becomes for a time the central figure in the play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Act Three in Julius Caesar

The first scene in this act is spectacular as Caesar is set upon by all the conspirators, who plunge their daggers into him. When he sees the trusted Brutus among the assassins, Caesar knows his star has indeed fallen: “Et tu, Brute?” he famously asks. “Then fall, Caesar.”

How can we use our tools to help us understand what’s really happening here? First, we must always be ready to employ the appearance versus reality tool. Brutus, of course, appears to be loyal, but in fact his true reality is that he betrays Caesar. Does he do that because Caesar is a tyrant? Caesar has not actually become tyrannical—in fact, earlier in the play, when Antony presents Caesar with a crown thrice, Caesar dramatically refuses that crown.

Caesar is killed because the conspirators are convinced that he is a tyrant. But the problem is, we as viewers or readers are left unsure. We aren’t given enough evidence to decide if Caesar would prove a tyrant or not.

Shakespeare masterfully leaves this crucial detail ambiguous. This is one of the play’s great themes: that our political lives, like our personal lives, are always uncertain, elusive, finally unknown.

Learn more about Macbeth, “foul and fair“.

Brutus’s Speech in Julius Caesar

Brutus explains to the people why the conspirators felt it necessary to kill Caesar. His speech is rational, matter of fact, and straightforward. He says he killed Caesar, “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

Caesar would have made them all slaves, Brutus claims, and Brutus slew him for his ambition. He then allows Antony to speak, to show that the assassins are not unfair, and thinking this will make them appear even better to the masses.

But Brutus does not understand something that we, as careful readers of Shakespeare, understand quite well: the power and importance of stagecraft, of the role of theater in politics and politics in theater.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Mark Antony: The Master Manipulator in Julius Caesar

Antony understands that the great politician is also a great actor, one who can manipulate a crowd the same way a great actor can command an audience. He begins by assuring the crowd, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”— this will be no speech of praise, but just an epitaph to a man’s life.

Antony then repeats the principal accusation against Caesar—that “Caesar was ambitious”—and attributes it to Brutus, with the reminder, “Brutus is an honorable man.” This is the premise and conclusion: Brutus is honorable; Brutus says Caesar was ambitious; therefore Caesar must die.

Statue of the roman emperor, Julius Caesar.
In his speech, Mark Antony reminds the crowd that Caesar was not a tyrant, but a king whom they loved. (Image: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

Antony uses a strategy in which the crowd will ultimately defame Brutus and not his own counter-accusation. Thus he keeps repeating that Brutus, and indeed all the conspirators, are honorable men, but at the same time he amasses the counterevidence to Caesar’s apparent ambition.

In his speech, he gives the facts: Caesar brought wealth to the city, he cried over the fate of the poor, he refused the crown three times—is this ambition? And as the crowd thinks to itself that’s not ambition, he then reminds them that Brutus says it is ambition, leaving them to reject the major premise: that Brutus is an honorable man.

Antony reminds the crowd that they once loved Caesar, and asks them to mourn for him, thereby opening their emotional responses to this grim deed.

Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it…
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all.

Learn more about politics as theater in Henry IV, Part I

Brutus Is Doomed

Antony makes Brutus the villain, the crowd is now thirsty for his blood. He was a traitor, and not just a traitor to Rome, but a traitor to his dearest friend. We see the play-within-the-play, with Antony posing as actor, director, and playwright, and the crowd his unwitting audience.

The crowd proclaim that Antony is now their guiding spirit. The scene ends with Brutus and the others fleeing the city and the mob absolutely at the command of Antony.

At the heart of this remarkable transformation, the pivot of the whole play, is Shakespeare’s understanding of the importance of theater to politics.

By applying this tool, we are able to comprehend exactly what Shakespeare does in this very famous scene. The rest of the tragedy follows from here: Antony’s side wins more and more followers; Brutus is pressed until his doom is set, and Brutus takes his own life, restoring his sense of honor so that even Antony says at the end, “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”

Common Questions about Julius Caesar: A Great Political Tragedy

Q: Who murders Caesar in Julius Caesar?

In Act Three of Julius Caesar, Caesar is killed by Brutus and other senators.

Q: What does Mark Antony tell the crowd in Julius Caesar?

In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony makes the crowd question Caesar’s ambition. He makes the crowd reject that Brutus is an honorable man. Eventually, he manipulates the crowd to call Brutus a traitor.

Q: What happens to Brutus at the end in Julius Caesar?

In Julius Caesar, Brutus flees the city. Eventually, he commits suicide to restore his honor.

Keep Reading
Hamlet’s Fate Explained by Religious Arguments
Reading Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Lady Macbeth
Shakespeare’s Recipe of Powerful Key Tools