Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Act 2, Scene 2
Julius Caesar is the ruler of Rome, who is assassinated. At the beginning of the play Shakespeare presents Julius Caesar as a hugely popular figure who has just defeated Pompey’s sons in battle, ending Rome’s long-running civil war. Halfway through the action, however, he is assassinated by a group of conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. He returns later in Act 5 as a ghost to haunt Brutus before Brutus loses the Battle of Philippi and takes his own life. Despite dying at the halfway point of the play, Caesar’s presence is all-pervasive: he is the central topic of most of the action and his death is the fulcrum on which the play tilts.
Conflicting opinions of Caesar are presented throughout. The mob revere him from the beginning of the play, and Mark Antony plays on that love to sway them in his speech at the Forum. Cassius suspects that Caesar wants to be king, a title that has not been used in Rome for over four centuries. Cassius labels him a “vile thing” (Act 1, Scene 3), a “tyrant” and a “colossus” (Act 1, Scene 2) that towers above other men despite his physical weaknesses. Brutus first tells Cassius that he loves Caesar “well” but is quick to decide that he is a “serpent’s egg” (Act 2, Scene 1), full of ruthless ambition, and must be eradicated now so that he doesn’t destroy the republic.
Caesar is portrayed as physically weak, deaf in one ear and also as having the “falling sickness” (Act 1, Scene 2), otherwise known as epilepsy. Cassius chooses to highlight Caesar’s physically “feeble temper” (Act 1, Scene 2) as a way of discrediting the man, yet it is Caesar’s own pride and self-confidence that ultimately cause his downfall. He is well-loved and speaks with great strength in the senate, yet he arrogantly boasts of his own courage: “Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he” (Act 2, Scene 2), and blindly rejects the insights of the Soothsayer in the opening act. He can’t help but attend the senate, lured by the promise of power, and when his manhood is challenged by Decius for giving into the fears of his wife’s dreams he publicly dismisses her to maintain face, even though he will later declare that he is as “constant as the Northern Star” (Act 3, Scene 1). He is highly insecure around younger men, fearing Cassius because he “thinks too much” (Act 1, Scene 2) and as Decius states, he is swayed by flattery despite claiming he “hates flatterers”. (Act 2, Scene 1)
According to Caesar’s closest friend, Mark Antony, Caesar is a deeply humble man. Antony claims that Caesar wept for the poor, rejected the honour of the crown, and has left all his earthly belongings to the people of Rome. The power of this character is not necessarily in his actions but in his image. Citizens of all classes are consumed by his presence when he is alive and haunted by his legacy after his death.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Act 4, Scene 3
Marcus Brutus is an honourable and idealistic republican, who reluctantly joins the plot against Caesar. when he sees Rome possibly falling under his tyranny. When we first hear from Brutus in Act 1 he confesses to Cassius he is somewhat “vexed of late with passions of some difference” and that he is “with himself at war” (Act 1, Scene 2). Although Brutus does seem to present some resolve throughout the play in his decision to assassinate Caesar and in marching the army towards Philippi, this troubled state never truly leaves him until his death. He is unhappy with the current rule, tormented by the notion of disrupting it and, once he does, he struggles to justify his actions and is haunted by the ghost of the man he overthrew. It is only his wife, Portia, who manages to interrogate his woes with insight. She recognises that Brutus has some “sick offence within his mind” (Act 2, Scene 1), but just as he confesses he will tell her “the secrets” of his heart’, Shakespeare uses the urgency of a knock at the door to drive Portia and Brutus apart.
Brutus is often considered the protagonist of this story. He is logical, considered, reflective, loyal and a great believer in the Roman principles of democracy (of wealthy men) and liberty. After his death, Antony hails Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” and decrees that:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
Act 5, Scene 5
It is Brutus’ decisions we follow, and his inner turmoil over murdering Caesar mirrors that of Shakespeare’s later protagonists, Macbeth and Hamlet. Yet unlike Macbeth, who begins his doubtful soliloquy with ‘If it were done’, Brutus announces to the audience “It must be by his death” (Act 2, Scene 1).
Brutus’ idealism usually stops him from acting in a politically expedient way. Shakespeare scholar Robert Miola believes Brutus is a ‘tragic hero’ not only because he is struggling with his own morality, but rather because the ‘contradictions embedded in his culture’ are at war within him. He sees himself as a man of the people, yet feels he must stand above them to achieve this. He is more interested in emulating Roman ideology, masculine qualities of Virtus and dying nobly than understanding the needs of the people and interrogating the true nature of the men around him.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.
Act 1, Scene 2
Caius Cassius is the key mastermind behind the plot against Caesar’s life. He is a disgruntled intellectual consumed by envy for Caesar’s power, who manipulates Brutus into joining, and eventually leading the conspiracy to kill Caesar. Cassius presents qualities of the hungry revolutionary who refuses to rest and enjoy the luxuries of power. Caesar shows himself an astute judge of character when he states about Cassius:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Would he were fatter… He reads much.
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays
As thou dost Antony; he hears no music.
Seldom he smiles…
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves.
Act 1, Scene 2
As Caesar states, Cassius does observe others well, much more clearly than Brutus, and he constantly uses this to his advantage. In his two lengthy duologues with Brutus in Act 1 and Act 4 he sways him with rhetorical ease, appealing to his ego, love of the state, and dedication to loyalty and friendship. Anthony Miller says he is the play’s ‘busiest character’ as he manufactures the conspiracy, enlists the assassins, ensures the act takes place, and then defends his choices and position until he has his servant, Pindarus, kill him when he believes all is lost in the battle.
Unlike Brutus, Cassius does not underestimate Antony – he wishes to include him as a victim of the assassination and then rightfully advises Brutus not to allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral. He may achieve his goals though manipulation, but in the political food chain he ultimately lacks power. He requires Brutus’ authority to carry out his designs and is overruled on several crucial negotiations. Cassius is pragmatic and perceptive throughout the early action but when he believes he is losing ground at war and favour with Brutus he becomes petty and impulsive. At the end of the play Cassius abruptly takes his own life on the first news that Brutus and his war efforts are lost.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Act 3, Scene 2
Mark Antony is Caesar’s friend and most loyal follower. He first appears on stage in a running race at the feast of the Lupercal and is painted as a young, robust nobleman who loves music and theatre and likes to party (Caesar says “[he] revels long o’ nights” – Act 2, Scene 2). After the death of Caesar, Antony forms a triumvirate with Octavius and Lepidus, raises an army and defeats the conspirators. Despite finishing the action as the victor and new co-leader of Rome, his greatest triumph in the play is often considered his famed speech that turns the mob against Cassius and Brutus. Antony not only delivers his message to the people in beautiful verse but manages to appeal to the mob on their level, breaking the stoic, cold traditions of Roman rhetoric. Antony displays extraordinary oratorical skills, while claiming to be “no orator” (Act 3, Scene 2). He moves his audience deeply while claiming “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts”. At the beginning of the Forum scene, Antony appears to be supporting the conspirators (“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”) By the end, he is, in effect, openly calling for mutiny.
Antony plays the role of the revenger and he not only stirs the Roman rabble but shakes the audience in the theatre out of Brutus’ grasp with his impassioned cry over Caesar’s body: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” (Act 3, Scene 1).
Dear my lord,
Make me acquainted with your cause of grief.
Act 2, Scene 1
Portia is Brutus’ wife and the daughter of Cato, a highly respected senator. She pleads with Brutus to speak to her about what is troubling him, reminding him that she is his “half” (Act 2, Scene 1) and can help him with his mental burden. She correctly interprets Brutus’ behaviour as suspect, and shames him by claiming that Brutus is treating her like his “harlot, not his wife”. When Brutus refuses to speak openly, Portia discloses that she has started to injure herself:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience
And not my husband’s secrets?
Act 2, Scene 1
Brutus is called to the senate before he can share his plan to her. He is then dragged off to war and Portia takes her own life by “swallowing fire” (Act 4, Scene 3) after she grows saddened by his absence.
Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me.
Act 2, Scene 2
Calphurnia is Julius Caesar’s wife. In the opening act of the play Caesar calls her “barren” (Act 1, Scene 2) in public. In Act 2 Calpurnia desperately tries to stop her husband from going to the Senate, fearing some terrible fate awaits him. She has a dream that Caesar’s statue is spurting blood and that many Roman citizens are bathing their hands in it. Calphurnia initially succeeds in getting Caesar to remain at home, but he is ultimately convinced by one of the Senators that to stay away would be a sign of weakness.
I was not born to die on Brutus' sword.
Act 5, Scene 1
Octavius is Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir. He enters Rome after the assassination of Caesar in Act 3 and forms a triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus. He is young and ambitious, with a steely discipline and determination. He is cautious and understands that not everyone is as they seem:
And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.
Act 4, Scene 1
Octavius will later rise to become the Emperor Augustus, establishing the Roman empire and ruling single-handedly for over 40 years (see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra).
Upon condition Publius shall not live,
Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.
Act 4, Scene 1
Lepidus is the third and weakest member of the triumvirate. He agrees that his brother must be put to death under the new regime, as long as Antony’s nephew Publius is also killed. Antony is very dismissive of his abilities, calling him a “slight unmeritable man” (Act 4, Scene 1), however Octavius defends him as “a tried and valiant soldier” (Act 4, Scene 1).
For mine own part, it was Greek to me.
Act 1, Scene 2
Casca is one of the conspirators and often considered the humorous character of the group. He speaks mostly in prose. He shows much disdain towards Caesar and the crowd when he recounts to Cassius and Brutus the events of Caesar publicly refusing the crown. He is direct and blunt, a quality that Cassius enjoys. He famously strikes the first blow during the assassination, crying “Speak hands for me!” (Act 3, Scene 1)
Shall no man else be touch'd but only Caesar?
Act 2, Scene 1
A wily conspirator who understands Julius Caesar’s chief vulnerability – flattery. He is responsible for escorting Caesar to the senate, where he will be assassinated.
… so near will I be,
That your best friends shall wish I had been further.
Act 2, Scene 2
Another conspirator against Caesar. Trebonius is responsible for making sure Antony does not intercept the planned assassination of Caesar.
Cinna is a key conspirator in the plot against Caesar’s life. He suggests to Cassius that Brutus should join their cause, and is responsible for planting letters for Brutus to read to help sway him to their side.
CINNA THE POET
I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unlucky charge my fantasy...
Act 3, Scene 3
He is a common Roman and a poet, symbolising the art and power of language in the play. Cinna the Poet is mistaken by the mob for Cinna the conspirator and is killed. This scene is crucial to Shakespeare’s study of human nature. Although Cinna the Poet is able to point out to the mob that he is not a conspirator, they attack him anyway purely because he shares the same name, demonstrating the power of blind mob mentality.
Beware the Ides of March.
Act 1, Scene 2
A Roman fortune teller who foreshadows Caesar’s assassination in the opening act of the play by publicly warning him to “beware the Ides of March” (15th of March) (Act 1, Scene 2). On the morning of March15th he encounters Caesar again, and this time warns him that although the day has arrived, it is not over yet.
So, I am free; yet would not so have been,
Durst I have done my will.
Act 5, Scene 3
Cassius’ loyal servant, he helps his master die by suicide, then flees Rome.
Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time...
Act 1, Scene 3
A renowned orator and respected senator, executed by Mark Antony and Octavius. Casca reports that he spoke Greek at the Lupercal celebrations.