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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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It's March 15th, the ides of March. Will the soothsayer's prophecy come true? The play has been building towards this dramatic moment when Caesar confronts his fate.

LINES 1-12

The scene begins before the Capitol, where Caesar refuses to accept a note warning him about the plot. "What touches us ourself shall be last served," he says.

What do you think: are these the words of a shrewd and deceitful politician who puts on airs of false humility to impress the crowds? Or does Caesar see himself as the servant of the people? The question is the same you already asked about Caesar's motives when he refused three times to accept the crown (Act I, Scene ii, lines 234-250). Whatever your interpretation, it's ironic that, had Caesar acted more selfishly, he might have saved his life.

LINES 13-75

The conspirators now have Caesar alone, and petition him to grant a reprieve to Metellus' banished brother, Publius Cimber. Why they choose this moment is open to interpretation. It may be merely an excuse to get Caesar alone. Perhaps they know that Caesar's almost certain refusal will harden their hearts, and sharpen their resolve to kill him. Perhaps, too, they are offering Caesar a final chance to redeem himself through an act of mercy. It's fun to speculate what the conspirators would have done if Caesar had relented.

Caesar now makes two speeches that give important clues to his character. Read these passages carefully, for they give you a rare opportunity to decide just how fit he is to rule.

In his first speech (lines 35-48), Caesar lashes out at Metellus for trying to sway him (Caesar) with flattery. Caesar has a point: it's not very flattering-it's downright insulting-to be told how great you are by someone who is obviously trying to manipulate your feelings. Perhaps it's the implication that Caesar can't see through someone as unsubtle as Metellus that annoys Caesar most.

Some readers argue that Caesar's refusal to submit to flattery or to the pleadings of friends shows that he is a strong ruler with the courage of his convictions. Without such a strong captain at the helm, these readers argue, the Roman ship would flounder.

Other readers disagree. Caesar's inflexibility shows that he is callous and arrogant, they argue-a tyrant afraid to change his mind for fear of appearing weak before his friends.

In his second speech, Caesar compares himself to the Northern Star,

Of whose true-fixed and resting quality There is no a fellow in the firmament.

Act III, Scene i, lines 61-62

To call himself the only Roman who remains constant in his beliefs seems outrageous enough-but Caesar goes beyond this. I make my own destiny, he seems to be saying; I am stronger than fate. Like a god, I am free from the ravages of old age, sickness, and death.

Some readers see this speech as the sad ravings of an aging man who has lost all grasp of reality. Others view it as a carefully developed political speech meant to reinforce his public image as a monarch. In either case, Caesar is guilty of arrogance and blasphemy against the gods.

However you interpret Caesar's words, they do give the conspirators the excuse they need to murder him; and so, in some sense, Caesar's pride is responsible for his own downfall. Whether this pride is in itself sufficient justification for murdering him is something you'll have to decide for yourself. Your verdict will depend in part on whether you judge Caesar (and people in general) by what he is or by what he does.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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