Julius Caesar

Tyranny, murder, and manipulation collide in an explosive mix of soaring rhetoric and bloody action, in Shakespeare’s political thriller.

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

Antony, Act 3, Scene 1

The great Julius Caesar has returned to Rome in triumph, but not everyone is thrilled.

Cassius and Brutus are worried that Caesar is amassing too much power and that their republican way of life is under threat. They form a conspiracy and assassinate Caesar in the Senate house, but they badly underestimate Caesar’s allies, particularly his close friend Mark Antony. A brutal war unfolds between the conspirators and the supporters of Caesar, with nothing less than the soul of Rome at stake.

Julius Caesar is a perennial favourite with audiences, owing in large part to its powerful use of language. Shakespeare wrote the play in the style of the great orators of ancient Rome, emulating their efficient and precise modes of communication.

As an exploration of power and politics, the play is arguably unparalleled. The literal backstabbing at the heart of the story serves as a compelling metaphor for the way modern politics works. Since Orson Welles’ ground-breaking modern-dress production in New York in 1937, theatre companies around the world have used Julius Caesar as a platform to explore power and tyranny in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Kenneth Ransom as Julius Caesar (2018)

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Sara Zwangobani as Mark Antony (2018)

SYNOPSIS

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Beware the Ides of March.

Soothsayer, Act 1, Scene 2

Caesar has returned to Rome in triumph, having defeated the sons of Pompey in the final battle of the Roman civil war. Roman citizens greet the news with jubilation, ecstatically pouring into the streets and flooding towards the stadium where the victory celebrations will be held. Two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, chastise the people for forgetting their previous support of Pompey. The tribunes disband the revellers, and Flavius voices his fear that the rise of Caesar will have an impact on their freedom.

Caesar arrives at the arena with his wife, Calphurnia, his right-hand man, Mark Antony, Senators Brutus, Cassius and Casca, and other supporters. A Soothsayer appears and warns Caesar to “beware the Ides of March” (Act 1, Scene 2) which is March 15th. Caesar dismisses the Soothsayer and enters the stadium.

Brutus and Cassius stay behind, and Cassius starts telling stories about Caesar’s physical weakness, lamenting that Rome is at risk of becoming an absolute monarchy under Caesar’s rule. Cassius cajoles Brutus, telling him there is no reason Caesar should have more power than Brutus. Brutus agrees that the current “hard conditions” (Act 1, Scene 2) are unacceptable. At that moment, Caesar and his entourage exit the arena. Casca tells Brutus and Cassius that during the ceremony, Mark Antony had offered Caesar the crown three times, and that Caesar had refused to take it.

Later, Casca and Cicero meet in the street. Casca is frightened by a strange storm that has raged across Rome and takes it as a portent of terrible things to come. Cassius arrives and convinces Casca to join a conspiracy against Caesar. Another conspirator, Cinna, agrees to deliver anonymous letters to Brutus, in order to sway him to the cause.

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Famous lines

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.

Cassius, Act 1, Scene 2

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Historical background

Julius Caesar is one of the plays Shakespeare wrote in an extraordinary burst of creativity in and around 1599.

Fast facts

In 44BCE Caesar was named Dictator for Life (dictator perpetuo) of Rome. This gave him sweeping, but not unlimited powers.

If he had been given unlimited powers he would have been the first Roman king in 465 years.

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Debatable points

Who is the main character of the play?

Although the play is called Julius Caesar, the title character dies halfway through the play. So, who then would we consider to be the main character? Caesar, Antony, Cassius and Brutus all have strong claims to centrality.

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Op-ed by James Evans in The Sydney Morning Herald, published 21 June 2017.

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