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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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THEMES

Here is a list of the major themes of Julius Caesar. They will be studied in depth in the scene-by-scene discussion of the play. Notice that some themes contradict each other-since critics disagree, it's up to you to decide which ones are true. This book will help you find evidence to support your position.

1. A PORTRAIT OF CAESAR OR OF BRUTUS

Caesar

The play is a portrait of Caesar-why else would Shakespeare name the play after him? Though Caesar is killed in the third act, his spirit-what he stands for-dominates the action of the play until Brutus' death, and then is reborn in the person of Octavius.

Brutus

The play is a portrait of Brutus-why else would Shakespeare end the play with Brutus' death, and with the opposition's tributes to him? Brutus is studied in greater depth than any other character, and the action of the play revolves around his role in the assassination. Shakespeare called his play Julius Caesar only because he was writing about the period in Roman history when Caesar reigned.

2. FRIENDSHIP

Friendship is at the center of Shakespeare's vision of an ordered, harmonious world. Disloyalty and distrust cause this world to crumble. Relationships suffer when people put their principles ahead of their affections, and when they let their roles as public officials interfere with their private lives. As death approaches, characters forget their worldly ambitions, and speak about the loyalty of friends.

3. LANGUAGE

We think of language as a way of sharing our thoughts and feelings, and of communicating the truth; but in Julius Caesar people use language to disguise their thoughts and feelings, and to distort the truth. Language is used to humiliate and flatter. Words are powerful weapons that turn evil into good and throw an entire country into civil war.



4. A STUDY OF HISTORY

Shakespeare is dramatizing an important period in Roman history, when Rome developed from a republic (with a representative form of government) to a monarchy (with a single ruler). He is not blaming or praising anyone, but objectively portraying the major factors that contributed to this development: Caesar's ambition; the frustrations of a weakened and divided Senate; and the needs and wishes of the Roman people.

5. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC FIGURES

We like to think that our political heroes are free from ordinary human weaknesses. Shakespeare reminds us that behind their masks of fame are mortals like the rest of us-with the same prejudices, physical handicaps, hopes, and fears. When these public figures try to live up to their own self-images, they bring destruction on themselves, and on the world.

6. FATE AND THE SUPERNATURAL

A sense of fate hangs over the events in Julius Caesar-a sense that the assassination is inevitable and that the fortunes of the characters have been determined in advance. The characters are foolish to ignore prophecies and omens, which invariably come true; yet they are free to act as though the future were unknown. They are the playthings of powers they can neither understand nor control, yet they are held accountable for everything they do.

7. PRAGMATISTS AND MEN OF PRINCIPLE

Shakespeare is comparing two types of people: the man of fixed moral standards, who expects others to be as honorable as himself; and the pragmatist, who accepts the world for what it is and does everything necessary to achieve his goals. The pragmatist is less admirable, but more effective. Shakespeare is either
(a) pointing out the uselessness of morals and principles in a corrupt world, or (b) dramatizing the tragedy of a noble man destroyed by a world less perfect than he is.

8. THE ASSASSINATION

The Murder Is Just

A ruler forfeits his right to rule when he oversteps the heaven-appointed limits to his power. Caesar deserves to die on two counts: first, he considers himself an equal to the gods; and second, he threatens to underline hundreds of years of republican (representative) rule. Brutus sacrifices his life to preserve the freedom of the people, and to save his country from the clutches of a tyrant.

The Murder Is Unjust

Shakespeare's contemporaries respected strong rulers, who could check the dangerous impulses of the masses and protect their country from civil war. They believed that order and stability were worth preserving at any price. Shakespeare's play may therefore be a warning against the use of violence to overthrow authority. The assassination destroys nothing but the conspirators themselves, since Caesar's spirit lives on in the hearts of the people.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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