Themes in Julius Caesar

Themes in Julius Caesar
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  • 0:00 Background to Julius Caesar
  • 0:47 Theme: Public Image Vs Reality
  • 2:36 Theme: Power of Rhetoric
  • 3:40 Theme: Ambition Vs Honor
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Raudenbush
'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar' is one of William Shakespeare's historical dramas. In the play, he explored themes relevant throughout the history of politics.

Background to Julius Caesar

If political intrigue and murderous conspiracies provide the kind of entertainment that rivets you to a theater seat, William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is for you. If that kind of plot doesn't grab you, then maybe you would like to explore a host of themes relevant to Rome in 44 BCE, Shakespeare's 16th-century England, and the modern world.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar depicts Caesar's last bid for absolute power over Rome, his final days as a ruler, and the civil war that followed his death. As the drama unfolds, ambition clashes with honor, with deadly consequences. Shakespeare asks the audience to consider the reality behind public personas and the truth within political rhetoric, the themes we'll be looking at in this lesson.

Theme: Public Image vs. Reality

Picture Julius Caesar, the conquering hero, literally draped in laurels, bathing in the ecstatic cheers of the Roman populace. That's the audience's first image of the title character. Seems impressive, doesn't it? But Shakespeare wants the audience to see that public image isn't always reality, especially in politics.

When the play opens, Caesar has returned to Rome triumphantly, having just squashed Pompey, his rival for control over an ancient world power. Caesar nobly rejects a crown all three times it's offered by the plebeian masses, but not because he doesn't want to become a king or emperor. He simply plans to accept the crown later on. His public image is nothing short of a Roman god.

Shakespeare doesn't let us believe that image for too long. Soon the audience also learns that Caesar has a host of weaknesses. In Act I Scene 2, Caesar reveals to Mark Antony, his closest aide, that he is deaf in one ear. Of course, that's not the most grievous of weaknesses. But later we learn that Caesar is given to fainting spells. He even fell once when he was offered the crown.

Another contradiction occurs the morning of Caesar's assassination, the date a soothsayer had warned him about. He is expected to attend a senate meeting that day. However, Caesar fishes for a valid excuse not to go. He listens to his wife, Calpurnia as she interprets omens that foreshadow his eventual death. He nearly concedes to superstition over courage.

Then, Caesar gives a grand speech touting his bravery. 'Cowards die many deaths,' he declares. 'The valiant taste death but once.' Finally, Caesar decides to put his public image above private concerns and walks into the scene of his murder.

Publicly, Caesar wants the world to see him as a brave and noble warrior motivated by the good of Rome. Privately, he is all too possessed with mortal failings coupled with a desire for all the laurels he can obtain, including the title of emperor.

Theme: Power of Rhetoric

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…'

That's the opening to the play's best-known speech, and a good place to look at another theme in the play: the power of persuasive rhetoric. Shortly after the Roman senators assassinate Caesar, the conspirators and their main opposition, Mark Antony, stand before the Roman public in the form of an impromptu trial. The chief conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, want the public to see Caesar as a potential tyrant who would rip apart the republic. Mark Antony, on the other hand, tries to convince Rome that the conspirators acted out of jealousy.

Shakespeare shows the public swaying with each speech. First, Brutus pacifies an angry Roman mob with a rational explanation for the need to strike down Caesar, a once great man corrupted by a dangerous ambition to rule Rome despotically and take freedom from its citizens. Then, Mark Antony takes the floor and incites the crowd to violence against the conspiratorial senators.

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