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Julius Caesar Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act 1

Act One, Scene One

Two Roman tribunes, Flavius and Murellus, see the common people parading in the streets instead of working in their shops. They demand to know why the men are not working. A cobbler informs them that the people are celebrating Caesar's victory. Murellus is infuriated by this information, and calls the workers, "you blocks, you stones" (1.1.34). He then tells them that Caesar has not defeated an enemy, but rather that Ceasar has killed the sons of Pompey the Great. Pompey previously ruled Rome along with Caesar until their alliance fell apart, at which point they went to battle over the right to rule.

Flavius's speech then causes the commoners to be ashamed of celebrating Caesar's victory. They depart in a more sober mood. Flavius and Murellus then prepare to remove the imperial crowns placed on all the statues of Caesar and next decide to drive the commoners back into their houses in an effort to prevent Rome from celebrating Caesar's victory.

Act One, Scene Two

Julius Caesar triumphantly returns to Rome on the festival of Lupercalia, celebrated on February 15. He is followed by Antony and Brutus, their wives, and many followers. Caesar tells Antony to strike his wife Calpurnia during the festival (during which two men, including Antony, run through the street of Rome and hit those they meet with goatskin thongs) to rid her of her sterility. Antony responds with, "When Caesar says 'Do this', it is performed" (1.2.12).

A soothsayer approaches Caesar and calls out for attention. Caesar allows him to speak, and the man tells Caesar, "Beware the ides of March" (1.2.25). Caesar ignores this warning and calls the man a dreamer. Caesar then leaves with his assembled men.

Brutus and Cassius remain on the stage. Cassius tells Brutus that he has noticed Brutus acting more serious lately. Brutus tells him that he is "with himself at war" (1.2.48) and that Cassius should not worry about it. After a shout and cheering from offstage, Brutus remarks he is afraid the people will crown Caesar king. Cassius is thrilled to hear this, and tells Brutus that they were both born as free men the same way Caesar was. He tells Brutus a story in which he and Caesar were holding a swimming contest across the Tiber river, and Caesar started to drown. Cassius claims that he rescued Caesar and carried him to the shore. He then complains that Caesar has become so powerful that even though he once saved Caesar's life, he must now bow before him.

Cassius then tells Brutus that "Brutus" is just as good a name as "Caesar", and that both names could just as easily rule Rome. He invokes the image of Brutus' ancestor who founded the Roman Republic and expelled the former kings. Brutus, afraid that Caesar will become a king, struggles to decide whether to join Cassius in taking action against Caesar, but ultimately decides against it.

Caesar returns, accompanied by his followers. He turns to Antony and remarks, "Let me have men about me that are fat, / Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights. / Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous" (1.2.193-196). Antony dismisses Caesar's concern, but Caesar is not convinced that Cassius is completely trustworthy. He tells Antony to come with him and let him know if there is anything to be worried about.

Casca remains onstage with Brutus and Cassius and tells them that the three shouts they heard were because Antony offered Caesar the crown three times, but he turned it down each time. Casca then says that Caesar swooned and fell down with his mouth foaming at the lips. (Caesar was considered to be epileptic, called the "falling sickness".) When Caesar awoke, he begged to be forgiven for his infirmary. Casca adds that the people forgave Caesar and worshipped him even more for turning away the crown. He also explains that Murellus and Flavius, the public tribunes, were removed from office for pulling the decorations off of Caesar's statues. Cassius, hoping to lure him into the conspiracy against Caesar, invites Casca to dinner the next night. Brutus also takes his leave, but agrees to meet with Cassius the next night as well. In a soliloquy, Cassius informs the audience that he will fake several handwritten notes and throw them into Brutus' room in an attempt to make Brutus think the common people want him to take action against Caesar.

Act One, Scene Three

Casca meets with Cicero, one of the great Roman orators, and tells him he has seen many strange things on the streets of Rome that night including a slave with a burning yet uninjured left hand, a lion loose in the streets, and an owl hooting in the daytime. Cicero tells him men interpret things in their own way, and takes his leave.

Cassius then arrives and tells Casca that there is a reason behind all of the strange events taking place in Rome. Casca asks him, "'Tis Caesar that you mean, is it not, Cassius?" (1.3.78). Casca tells him that the senators are planning to make Caesar a king the next morning. At this news, Cassius draws his dagger and threatens to die before ever allowing Caesar to achieve so much power. Casca shakes hands with Cassius and they agree to work together to prevent Caesar from seizing power.

Cinna, a co-conspirator, arrives and takes a piece of paper from Cassius. Together they then leave to go throw Cassius' handwritten notes through Brutus' window. Cassius indicates that he is quite sure Brutus will join them within the next day.

Analysis

Julius Caesar opens with the tribunes of the people chastising the plebeians for being fickle. They refer to the masses as "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!"(1.1.34). This imagery of the masses as stones will continue throughout the play. They are in fact a fickle group of people, easily swayed by whoever is speaking to them, as evidenced later in the play when Antony turns a hostile crowd into a mob against Brutus and Cassius.

The play also holds much contemporary appeal. Calpurnia's means Caesar does not have an heir, something many English worried about as Queen Elizabeth also had no heir. However, in the play, Caesar's desire for an heir has a darker meaning. He tells Antony, "Forget not your speed, Antonio, / To touch Calpurnia, for our elders say / The barren, touched in this holy chase, / Shake off their sterile curse" (1.2.8-11). Brutus interprets the importance Caesar places on this issue as evidence Caesar hopes to create a dynasty, thus fueling Brutus' reasons for destroy Caesar.

In these opening scenes, a great deal of interpretation and misinterpretation occurs. Cicero refers to this concept, telling Cassius, "Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time; / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves" (1.3.33-35). With this statement, he implies that each man will interpret signs according to what he believes, and will thus ignore the signs' true menaings. Caesar proves Cicero correct by dismissing the soothsayer's warning and later ignoring Calpurnia's dream of his death. Omens abound during these scenes, with the tempestuous weather, an owl screeching during the day, and a lion is loose in the streets.

The mirror, so often invoked in other Shakespearean plays, is also a significant image in Julius Caesar. For example, Cassius asks Brutus, "Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?" (1.2.53). He continues, "That you have no such mirrors as will turn / Your hidden worthiness into your eye / That you might see your shadow...I, your glass" (1.2.58-60, 70). Essentially Cassius tells Brutus that he will be the mirror who reflects back to Brutus his true feelings and nature. At this moment, the reader recognizes Cassius has a private agenda and is providing Brutus with a fals mirror.

Cassius continues to manipulate Brutus by comparing him to Caesar, asking "Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'? / Why should that name be sounded more than yours? / Write them together: yours is as fair a name...Conjure with 'em: / 'Brutus' will start a spirit as soon as 'Caesar'" (1.2.143-148). Cassius hopes to incite jealousy and a desire for power in Brutus, and also reveals that he believes Caesar is their equal. Furthermore, Cassius invokes Brutus' ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, a man famous for expelling the former kings of Rome, in his attempt to sway Brutus. Brutus accepts this flattery and in fact refers to it later on when deciding whether or not to join the conspirators.

Caesar's description of Cassius is clearly disapproving, and at once shows the reader that he will be a source of conflict: "Let me have men about me that are fat, / Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights. / Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous" (1.2.193-196). Caesar continues, "He [Cassius] 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. (1.2.202-205). Generally, Shakespearean characters that do not enjoy music or plays are inherently evil. Caesar fears Cassius because he does not enjoy life, whereas he trusts Antony who is almost famous for his ability to have a good time.

Two sides of Caesar exist in the play: Caesar as a concept and as a human being. The human in Caesar is weak, needs Cassius to save him from drowning and has epileptic fits. However, the concept of Caesar, the great general and leader is all powerful and noble. His every word is a command, and the people follow him.

Throughout the play, Caesar demonstrates an inability to effectively communicate, a theme reflected in much of the plays action. For example, in the first act the tribunes and plebeians talk across each other rather than to one another. Later on, Brutus and Cassius are constantly interrupted by shouts offstage, breaking their conversion and distracting Brutus. Caesar's particular weakness in communication stems from his being deaf in his left ear. At one point he requests, "Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf, / And tell me truly what thou think'st of him" (1.2.214-215). Caesar's deafness is in fact symbolic of his unwillingness to see danger in the world around him. As such, he dismisses the soothsayer and his wife Calpurnia's dream rather than accepting their morbid predictions.

In Richard II, the fall of Richard is represented by his constant descent from the throne. Similarly, Shakespeare foreshadows Caesar's fall in Julius Caesar when Caesar has an epileptic fit in the public square. This imagery of falling also coincides with the decline of language comprehension immediately thereafter. For example, Casca describes Cicero's speech saying, "It was Greek to me" (1.2.178), an expression that has since become cliche.

The action of the play is mostly focused on Brutus, a man who dominates the plot and speaks the most lines. Thus, some might wonder why the play is titled after Julius Caesar. Traditionally, Shakespeare named his plays after rulers (Henry VIII, Richard III, etc.). However, upon a close read, Julius Caesar does truly revolve around Caesar. Brutus' internal conflict is a struggle between his friendship for Caesar and his loyalty to the Roman Republic. Indeed, Caesar's influence on the plot continues even after his death, specifically when his ghost appears to Brutus, indicating the memory and myth of Caesar will never die.

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