Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a play that finds itself trapped between fitting into the tragedy category and the history category. Either way you slice it, if you are currently a high school student, you will probably be reading it.
Julius Caesar begins with two Caesar’s triumphant defeat of Pompey, a rival for leadership of Rome whom Caesar has overthrown. And killed. Caesar is soon to arrive for the festival of Lupercal and a crowd has gathered. Two bureaucratic supporters of Pompey dress down members of the crowd for their flightiness in forgetting their support of Pompey so quickly and throwing it to Caesar. This sets up one of the main themes of the play, persuasion and manipulation. Throughout, the public seems willing to support whomever has the last word.
Caesar and his wife--Calpurrrrrnia!--show up for the Lupercal fertility games because Calpurnia hasn’t gotten pregnant and this clearly must be her fault and not Caesar’s, which you can tell because Caesar asks his bud Mark Antony to touch Calpurnia not just for kicks because the superstition at the time says it would cure her infertility. Superstition is also a major theme of the play.
There is growing concern among the Roman senators that Caesar wants to become a dictator, an emperor. Nowadays, when we think of ancient Rome, we usually think in terms of Roman Empire, but before Caesar’s time, Rome was a republic ruled by white men. Much like America in the early 21st century. But in Rome during Caesar’s ascension to power, this actions seemed to point to a man making a grab to become emperor of the world. Much like America in the early 21st century. Fortunately for Rome, the senators agree that this is a bad thing and, once they get Caesar’s main man Brutus to agree to go along, plans are made to kill Caesar.
Even though Caesar was warned earlier by a soothsayer to beware March 15th, the ides, he decides that he can’t afford to look like a frightened wimp and goes to town. To the Senate House, particularly. Really, really bad decision.
All of the senators stab him, Brutus last, causing Caesar no end of insult to his already fairly extreme misery. Mark Antony arrives on the scene soon after and though he’s appalled, he knows he could very easily be next so he wisely says he will support the conspirators.
Brutus gives a speech logically explaining why Caesar had to be killed. Antony gives a speech appealing to emotion and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he has the last word so by the end, the mob turns its sympathy to Caesar. More importantly, Antony wins their allegiance and soon that crazy crowd is running amok in Rome, burning down the homes of the senator/killers. They even kill Cinna who, unfortunately, was just a poet who happened to have the same name as one of the killer senators. Well, these things happen during mob justice.
Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius--Julius Caesar’s nephew--form a triumvirate who will work together to rule Rome. Their first decision is who to kill for revenge, then they make plans for battle. The conspirators plan for battle as well, argue over strategy, and get a visit from great Caesar’s ghost. The battle takes place at Phillippi, is very chaotic, and ends with the suicide of Brutus and Antony’s recognition, now that he’s safely dead, that Brutus was more noble than other man in all of Rome.
The play takes place in 44 B.C. and condenses three years of actual historical events into five days of dramatic time. Though called the tragedy of Julius Caesar, most critics concede that the truly tragic character in the play is Brutus, a good man manipulated into doing questionable things by politically ambitious men.