Julius Caesar: Shakespeare's Play vs. History

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  • 0:10 Introduction and Characters
  • 3:03 Act I: Caesar's Victory
  • 5:17 Act II: Conspiracy
  • 7:04 Act III: Caesar's…
  • 13:05 Act IV & V: Power Struggles
  • 16:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Sjol
In this lesson, we'll examine Shakespeare's take on the life of Julius Caesar, which spawned such famous quotes as 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!' and 'Et tu, Brute!' We'll also take a look at Brutus and Cassius, the conspirators who plotted Caesar's demise, as well as Mark Antony and Octavius, who remained loyal.


We're talking about Julius Caesar, the play by Shakespeare, but also about Julius Caesar the man, because that's kind of inescapable. He's one of the most famous ancient-day people, but maybe we don't know that much about him besides that he's a Roman and vaguely associated with the phrase 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,' so we're going to delve a little more into that. That phrase is from this play; it's Shakespeare. Caesar didn't say it; Caesar doesn't say it in the play. It's one of those endlessly parodied Shakespearean lines:

Lend me your beers!

Lend me your rears!

Lend me your ... years!

It's one of those lines that's endlessly 'punable.'

It's good to keep in mind that Shakespeare's take on Roman history is not necessarily Roman history, but it can be easy to confuse the two. Like the 'Friends, Romans' statement - I definitely thought that was a real, historical thing when I first read it. It's not! It's fiction! Shakespeare does this all over history. He writes a bunch of things about Romans and Greeks - Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra (you know, Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen), Troilus and Cressida (they're not as famous, but they were in the Trojan War), Titus Andronicus (wasn't real at all) - and he writes about English kings. These are called 'history plays,' (or sometimes tragedies; it depends on how they classify them), which doesn't really make them true, necessarily, but they're based on historical figures. Usually, Shakespeare is reading ancient sources and figuring out what he wants to include in his play. So keep in mind that we're telling Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and not necessarily the real Julius Caesar. They can be easily conflated, because they're both super old. They both seem like history, but they're not.


Characters in Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar cast of characters

So who's in this show? We've got Julius Caesar, obviously. He is a Roman leader and general, and he's steadily gaining power. People are kind of worried, because Rome is supposed to be a republic. They're worried that maybe he's got too much power. We've got Brutus, who is a friend of Caesar's and ultimately ends up being a conspirator against Caesar. Octavius is Caesar's nephew, who's also been named his heir to the throne. Mark Antony is the husband of Jennifer Lopez - ha, ha, no he's not. He's a general and politician. Cassius is a bad dude who's also a conspiracy guy. And there are all sorts of other assorted senators and councilmen and their wives (there aren't really a lot of ladies in this play except the wives of the senators).

Act I: Caesar's Victory

So what happens? In Act I, Caesar has won this big victory against his enemy, Pompey, so he's riding high on the horse. He's got this big parade; he's going through Rome, but some people are worried that he might be getting too powerful. While he's parading around, bathing in the admiration of the people, a soothsayer (who's really just a fortuneteller) pops out of the crowd and says, 'Beware the Ides of March!' ('Ides of March' is just a fancy way of saying March 15th).

Meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius are chatting about what it might mean if Caesar became king. They're kind of worried; they don't think it's totally fair that he would get to be king and they wouldn't, because they're kind of all the same. Then they hear a play-by-play of what went down at the square after the soothsayer showed up. What they hear is that Mark Antony offered Caesar the crown three times, and three times Caesar said no. So Caesar's saying that he doesn't want to be king, but clearly there's some popular sentiment toward his being king, and they think this would be a really bad idea.

Cassius - he's the sneakier of the two - decides he's going to forge some letters, claiming they are from people who are worried about Caesar, and leave them by Brutus' house in an effort to convince Brutus this is really a problem and they need to take care of it. It's an effort to turn Brutus against Caesar, basically.

Later that night, in keeping with the whole fortune theme of 'beware of stuff,' the weather is really strange, there are lions wandering around in the streets, and there's blood - lots of weird stuff going on in Rome that night. Cassius learns that the senators are planning on making Caesar king the next day, so all that refusing of the crown doesn't really stop them, I guess. Cassius is not happy about this, obviously, because he doesn't want Caesar to be king.

Act II: Conspiracy

Then we're in Act II. Brutus has read these fake letters and reluctantly decided that Caesar does indeed need to die. So all the conspirators turn up at his house and they start making this plan. Cassius wants to kill Mark Antony, too, because he's an ally of Caesar's. Brutus doesn't want them to look any more like murdering barbarians than they need to, so he calls for a 'staying of their bloody hands.'

The next morning at Caesar's Palace (did Caesar really live there?!), Caesar's wife is super worried about all the weird weather; she thinks it's a really bad sign. She also had a dream in which there's a statue of Caesar with blood all over it, so she's very worried and doesn't think Caesar should go into work that day. Also remember there's that guy who said, 'Beware the ides of March', which is today. And, even further evidence that Caesar should not go into work, his personal fortunetellers are trying to tell the future by looking at animal guts, which is something people did back then. They can't find a heart inside the animal they slaughtered to tell the future, which is a really, really bad sign, apparently.

Eventually, he does actually relent and says, 'Okay, I'll stay home today.' His wife's freaking out, so he'll just placate her and it'll be fine. Then one of the conspirators shows up and says, 'Time to go to the Senate!' and manages to convince him to come. They convince Caesar that he's going to look too whipped if he listens to his wife and stays home and doesn't go to work. So they play the manly card and get him to come in.

Act III: Caesar's Death and Funeral

Then we've got Act III, the big murder scene. Caesar is all on his high horse and making a speech about how no one's going to shake his will. Then, right on cue, all the conspirators go in, and they each stab him. Brutus stabs him last, but he does do it. That's when Caesar says the most famous thing ever: 'Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!' So it's sort of like he's saying: 'You, too, Brutus? All right then, I'll just die.' So he's dead now. We're about halfway through the play and the title character is dead, which is fairly unusual, even in Shakespearean plays.

Mark Antony runs away - from Jennifer Lopez, ha, no - from Caesar's body. Then he says he'll be loyal to Brutus as long as no one takes it out on him that he used to support Caesar. Brutus says okay, but Cassius, predictably, is a little more worried. He's particularly worried about Antony speaking at Caesar's funeral, which is what he wants to do. He doesn't want Antony stirring up any kind of popular resentment toward the conspirators who just killed their beloved leader.

Brutus thinks it will show a human side to the conspiracy if they let him talk, and they won't look so awful. You can see this is always the difference between Brutus and Cassius. Brutus really likes to think that he's doing the right thing, and he tries to be a decent guy. Cassius is much more transparent about just wanting power, so there's always a divide between those two.

They all leave, and Mark Antony is feeling conflicted and guilty there with Caesar's dead body full of stab wounds. He's feeling guilty about making peace with these guys, and he says:

'O, pardon me, thou bleeding peace of earth,

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man

That ever lived in the tide of times.

Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!'

Then Octavius' servant turns up - remember Octavius, Caesar's nephew and heir to the throne - and Mark Antony warns him: 'Keep Octavius well away from this place. It's not a friendly place for him right now.' Because even Brutus might not be able to stop Cassius from murdering the guy Caesar appointed as his heir.

So now it's time for Caesar's funeral and a bunch of funeral speeches. This play is full of big speeches - they're fun for Shakespeare to write, and they're also characteristically Roman. This idea of addressing the crowd, oration, is a Roman tradition in a way. There's a big focus in the play in general on this idea of 'rhetoric,' which is just techniques for skillful speaking. Brutus' big funeral speech is justifying why he killed Caesar; that's his goal in speaking to the people. He says:

'If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of

Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar

was no less than his. If then that friend demand

why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:

- Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved

Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and

die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live

all free men?'

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