Both Cesar and Brutus are perceived to be heroes and villains in Julius Caesar. At the opening of the play, Caesar is hailed for his conquests and is admired for his apparent humility upon refusing the crown. However, once murdered, Caesar is painted (by Brutus et al) as a power hungry leader with the intentions of enslaving all of Rome. Brutus' speech, which follows Caesar's death, successfully manipulates the plebeian perspective. By the end of his speech, the crowd is hailing Brutus for killing Caesar, whom they now perceive as a great villain. But, the crowd is easily swayed once again when Antony speaks. Following Brutus' remarks, Antony gives Caesar's eulogy, manipulating the crowd with stories of Caesar's kindness, and sharing the details of Caesar's will, which leaves money to every Roman. At the end of Antony's speech, the crowd is once again supportive of Caesar, mourns his death, and seeks to kill Brutus, Cassius, and the other murderers. The swaying opinions of the plebeians, and the great differences in opinion that the play presents leave the audience to determine who, if anyone, is the hero of the play, and who, if anyone, is the villain.
The seriousness with which Romans looked to omens is evident throughout Julius Caesar; however ominous warnings and negative omens are often overlooked or misinterpreted. For example, Caesar ignores the soothsayer's warning to "beware the ides of March", ignores Calpurnia's detailed dream of his death, and ignores the negative omen of the sacrificial animal who has no heart. After ignoring these omens, Caesar dies.
In addition, after the festival of Lupercalia, Casca sees many strange omens, such as a man with a burning hand, a lion roaming the streets, and an owl screeching during the day time. Cicero, with whom Casca confers regarding these matters, explains that people with interpret omens as they see fit, inventing their own explanations. True to form, Casca interprets these strange omens as warnings of Caesar's wish to rule all of Rome with an iron hand, and to destroy the Republic.
Other omens that play important roles in the play include the appearance of Caesar's ghost and when eagles abandon Cassius' and Brutus' camp and are replaced by vultures.
Brutus wishes for an ideal world. He is happily married, lives in a beautiful home, and is successful according to all measures of Roman living. However, Brutus wishes for perfection in his life, and although he loves Caesar, Brutus fears Caesar is too power hungry, and might possibly destroy the Republic. Cassius understands Brutus' idealism and takes advantage of it in order to manipulate Brutus into joining the conspiracy against Caesar. At heart, it is Brutus' idealism that causes his ultimate downfall. Antony recognizes this fact when addressing Brutus' dead body at the conclusion of the play, saying "This was the noblest Roman of them all".
In Julius Caesar, the audience is able to see both the private and public sides of Caesar and Brutus. Caesar is a powerful confident man who leads great armies and effectively rules the Roman empire, yet he is not without weakness. He is highly superstitious, suffers from epilepsy, and ultimately proves to be human when murdered by his closest friends. Similarly, Brutus is strong and refuses to show weakness when in public, whether it be speaking to the plebeians or leading an army into battle. However, we see through his intimate conversations with his wife Portia and with Cassius, that Brutus is often unsure and greatly pained. Specifically, after fleeing Rome, Brutus learns that his wife has committed suicide, and is heartbroken when discussing it with Cassius. However, as soon as soldiers enter his tent, he pretends to not know of her death, and when told of it, does not react with great emotion.
Caesar is a great man, and an ambitious man. His ambition is what worries Brutus, and ultimately leads to Brutus joining the conspiracy to murder Caesar. Cassius is also a very ambitious man, and because he is so jealous of Caesar's power, wishes to kill him to gain more power for himself. Ultimately, the ambition of these two men leads to their downfalls and to virtual anarchy in the streets of Rome. Great ambition leads to great conflict.
Speech plays a very important role in the plot developments of Julius Caesar. The plebeians are easily swayed into greatly opposing viewpoints through Brutus' and Antony's speeches. Antony's great manipulation of the crowd causes anarchy in the streets of Rome and creates the support for a mission to avenge Caesar's death.
In addition, Brutus is hesitant at first to join the conspiracy against Caesar, but after speaking with the highly manipulative Cassius, Brutus is more convinced. Then, after receiving an anonymous letter (actually written by Cassius) that decries the rule of Caesar, Brutus is convinced he must take action and agrees to join Cassius' murderous plot.
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Julius Caesar is a play about political power and how it may be legitimately and illegitimately wielded. It also shows the role of what we now call public opinion, which in this play is embodied in the gut responses of the common folk. The play also raises many questions. Who is the play's central character? Is it Caesar, the great leader; Brutus, the idealist and man of honor who faces an ethical dilemma; Cassius, the arch-conspirator; or Antony, the loyal henchman and brilliant manipulator of the mob? Were the conspirators justified in their assassination of Caesar? How, in the end, should Rome-or any other society-be governed?
There may be no simple answers to any of these questions. Shakespeare presents a many-sided picture in which all the characters' strengths and weaknesses are clearly shown. Caesar is the authoritarian, arrogant leader, who rules with a firm although not unjust hand; Brutus is the man of conscience, concerned about his public duty and willing to take action that he feels is for the common good. But he is not suited to running a government; he is too concerned with upholding his sense of his own nobility and honor, and he makes many tactical errors. Cassius is the intellectual who is aware of the dangers presented by an authoritarian leader who concentrates power in his own hands, yet Cassius is also tainted by the ignoble sentiment of envy. As for Antony, he is loyal to his friend Caesar, but he is also ruthless and cunning. Today we might call him a demagogue, willing and able to use his oratorical powers to fire up the mob and get them to do what he wants.
If the major characters are all flawed in one way or another, Shakespeare also shows the fickleness of public opinion. One moment the crowd is cheering Caesar, but it does not take long for Brutus to persuade them that Caesar was too hungry for power and deserved his fate. But then Antony soon manipulates the crowd into the opposite belief, and the mob goes on a rampage against the conspirators. This shows how politicians may shape and use the sentiments of ordinary people in service of their own goals. No one in the play shows any respect for the common people (see for example Casca's speech in Act 1 Scene 2, or the attitudes of Flavius and Murellus in Act 1 Scene 1).
So what are we to conclude? One way of judging an action is to look at the results it produces. Cassius and Brutus commit an act of violence to keep Rome free; they end up with chaos and civil war. In effect, they go to war (by killing Caesar) to keep the peace, which when used by politicians is usually a specious argument. Although Caesar is presented as arrogant, and he shows no mercy or flexibility when petitioned by responsible Romans to end a banishment, he is also a man who knows how to wield power. He is a formidable military commander, and most people, except for Cassius, respect him. Brutus himself can think of no accusation to charge Caesar with, except an imagined fear of what Caesar might do if his power continued to grow. This is surely a weak argument. And Brutus, for all his nobility, does not seem to realize that he continually allows himself to be manipulated by stronger or more ruthless personalities, first Cassius and then Antony.
As so often in such situations, the conspirators fall victim to what is called the law of unintended consequences. No one can predict with certainty the consequences of such a momentous act as the assassination of a powerful political and military leader. Certainly, history has judged Brutus and Cassius harshly as traitors. But then, as someone once remarked, history is written by the winners. No one knows, of course, how Caesar would have behaved had he lived. And Shakespeare leaves us with such a full sense of the humanity of all the characters that definitive judgments about who is right and who is wrong may not do justice to the complexities of life, politics, and human motivation.