The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare probably written in 1599. It portrays the conspiracy against the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, his assassination and its aftermath. It is one of several Shakespeare plays that are based on true events from history.
Unlike the other titular characters in Shakespeare's plays (e.g. Hamlet, Henry V), Caesar is not the central character in the action of the play, appearing in only three scenes and dying at the beginning of the third Act. The central protagonist of the play is Brutus and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship.
The play is notable for being the first of Shakespeare's five great tragedies (the others being Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth).
Most Shakespeare critics and historians agree that the play reflected the general anxiety of England due to worries over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and first performance, Queen Elizabeth, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that of Rome's might break out after her death.
Marcus Brutus is Caesar's close friend whose ancestors were famed for driving the tyrannical Tarquin kings from Rome (described in Shakespeare's earlier The Rape of Lucrece). Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators because of a growing suspicion—implanted by Gaius Cassius—that Caesar intends to turn republican Rome into a monarchy under his own rule. Traditional readings of the play maintain that Cassius and the other conspirators are motivated largely by envy and ambition whereas Brutus is motived by the demands of honour and patriotism; other commentators, such as Isaac Asimov, suggest that the text shows Brutus is no less moved by envy and flattery. . One of the central strengths of the play is that it resists categorising its characters as either simple heroes or villains.
The early scenes deal mainly with Brutus's arguments with Cassius and his struggle with his own conscience. The growing tide of public support soon turns Brutus against Caesar. A soothsayer warns Caesar to "beware the Ides of March", which he ignores, culminating in his assassination at the Capitol by the conspirators on that very day.
Caesar's assassination is perhaps the most famous part of the play. After ignoring the soothsayer as well as his wife's own premonitions, Caesar is caught at the senate at the mercy of the conspirators. After a few words exchanged, Casca stabs Caesar in the back of his neck, and the others follow in stabbing him; Brutus last. Caesar famously says at this point, Et tu, Bruté?, which translates to "And you, Brutus?", i.e. "You too, Brutus?". Shakespeare has him add "Then fall, Caesar" to this, strongly suggesting that Caesar did not want to survive such treachery. The conspirators make clear that they did this act for Rome, not for their own purposes.
After Caesar's death, however, another character appears on the foreground, in the form of Caesar's devotee, Mark Antony, who, by a rousing speech over the corpse—the much-quoted Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...—deftly turns public opinion against the assassins by speaking to the more personal side of his position, rather than the public and rational tactic Brutus uses in his speeches. Antony rouses the mob to drive them from Rome.
The beginning of Act Four is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide by accepting bribes ("Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake? / What villain touch'd his body, that did stab, / And not for justice?", IV.iii). The two are reconciled, but as they prepare for war with Mark Antony and Caesar's great-nephew, Octavian (Shakespeare's spelling: Octavius), Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of defeat ("thou shalt see me at Philippi", IV.iii). Events go badly for the conspirators during the battle; both Brutus and Cassius choose to commit suicide rather than to be captured. The play ends with a tribute to Brutus, who has remained "the noblest Roman of them all" (V.v) and hints at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavian which will characterise another of Shakespeare's Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
Text of the play
Julius Caesar was first published in the First Folio in 1623. The Folio text is notable for its quality and consistency, generally leading scholars to believe that it was prepared from a theatrical promptbook. The play's source was Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Brutus and Life of Caesar.
Notable stage productions
The Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster parodied Julius Caesar in their 1958 sketch Rinse the Blood off My Toga. Flavius Maximus, Private Roman I, is hired by Brutus to investigate the death of Caesar. The police procedural combines Shakespeare, Dragnet, and vaudeville jokes and was first broadcast on the Ed Sullivan Show.