William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar places human struggles in a dramatic, historical setting that is relatable for both a live and reading audience. The play illustrates the internal and external conflict between personal values and social or political constructs. Throughout the play, individuals’ character is revealed in the decisions made between morality and personal benefit. The audience sees that politics are not divided between right and wrong, but by leaders who struggle to determine what is best. These two concepts lead to the idea that politics are defined by the character of the political leaders. Shakespeare uses Julius Caesar to show audiences the inevitability of a person’s character influencing their political beliefs and actions.
Shakespeare uses his characters to show the audience that character can be determined by the decisions people make. Many of the key struggles in the play involve characters choosing between what is best for others and what is best for themselves. Brutus and the conspirators have to make that choice when they finalize their plans to kill Caesar. Brutus says that he has “no personal cause to spurn at [Caesar], / but for the general,” choosing to participate in Caesar’s assassination because it will protect the Roman Republic and it’s representative government (Shakespeare, 2.1.11-12). Brutus makes a choice that benefits the Roman government and people, even though it risks his safety and reputation. He chooses the well-being of the people above his own, and he is completely understanding of the dangers he faces by agreeing to assist in Caesar’s assassination. Brutus also has a strong relationship with Caesar and he knows that choice to kill him betrays the trust he and Caesar have. Regardless, he knowingly prioritizes the success of Rome over his own success and security. Brutus also fiercely protects his wife, Portia, refusing to tell her about the plot to kill Caesar, even though she pleads with him to “make [her] acquainted with [his] cause of grief” (2.1.271). Brutus does not want to worry or endanger Portia on his behalf. Brutus accepts the possibility of his own suffering as a result of his choice to contribute to Caesar’s assassination, but he knows that he cannot expect his wife to do the same. He knows that his actions will put Portia in danger and while that does not deter him, he makes an effort to afford her whatever comfort she can take in being unaware of her husband’s actions. His relationship with Portia his similar to the relationship he has with Caesar because, although he values both, he is willing to risk both for the benefit of Rome. The difference, however, is that he attempts to protect Portia, whereas he accepts that he must betray Caesar in order to defend the Republic. These moments portray Brutus as selfless and loyal to loved ones and the Roman Republic, redefining his character. Antony also faces a choice between acting selflessly or selfishly when Octavius arrives in Rome. Antony tells Octavius that they should “let [their] alliances be combined” against Cassius and Brutus (4.1.47). Antony first works with Octavius when forming the triumvirate and leading Rome, but his movement to join Octavius in their conflict with Cassius and Brutus reveals other motivations for their partnership. When Antony proposes an alliance, he ensures himself a position of power after their battle. He makes this decision so he can either remain a part of the triumvirate after the war, or maintain a powerful position under Octavius if he chooses to become the sole leader of the Roman Empire. It is possible that Antony’s true intentions were to strengthen his army and ensure victory, which is less of a selfish act. His choice may be perceived as selfish or simply strategic, but it shifts the audience’s understanding of Antony and his character. Both Brutus and Antony make difficult choices in the play which show the audience their character and morals. Shakespeare shows the audience that one’s character dramatically impacts the decisions he or she makes, thus one’s character can be defined by his or her previous choices.
The political conflict in Julius Caesar portrays political decisions as being more complicated than a choice between a correct and incorrect option. Shakespeare uses this to help his audience understand that political leaders make choices that they believe are the best, because there is never a clear right or wrong choice. This idea is first presented subtly when Julius Caesar is urged to become the sole leader of Rome. Casca tells Cassius that the senators “mean to establish Caesar as a king” (1.3.90). Some characters, such as Antony and Caesar himself, believe Caesar should be king, whereas Brutus and the other conspirators believe that Caesar’s rule and the end of the Republic would be disastrous for Rome. There are two possibilities: Caesar becomes king or he does not. Neither possibility has definite, known outcomes. This makes it impossible to know which choice will ensure the best future for Rome. The people and leaders of Rome can only predict the results of Caesar’s rule, and each of their predictions are subjective and unique. Shakespeare uses this uncertainty to model the complexity of political decisions and demonstrate how politicians judge based on what they believe is best because they cannot know the results of their actions until after they have been made. This is further proven by the state of the Roman Empire at the end of Julius Caesar. In the end of the play, neither the conspirators nor Antony and Caesar witness the results they expected. Casca tells Brutus and Cassius that he “saw Mark Antony / offer [Caesar] a crown” during the Feast of Lupercal, indicating that Antony favors and expects Caesar’s rule (1.2.243-244). Antony supports the idea of Caesar becoming the king of Rome because he believes Caesar’s rule will be best for Rome and himself. The conspirators oppose Caesar’s rule because they fear that he will lead Rome to “stand under one man’s awe” (2.1.52). The conspirators believe that the end of the Roman Republic will hurt the Roman people and the Roman government. Caesar is assassinated before he can take the throne, but his nephew, Octavius, ultimately becomes Caesar’s successor after defeating Brutus and Cassius. None of the expectations put forth in the beginning of the play are truly fulfilled. The final outcome exemplifies how fragile and unpredictable politics are. Antony and the conspirators have an idea of what they objectively believe will lead to the most prosperous future for themselves and Rome, and they make their decisions with those ideas, however realistic or fantastic they may be. All of the decisions characters make regarding Caesar’s rule are based on their opinions and values because they have no way of being sure that one option would be more beneficial in the end. Shakespeare uses the controversy over Caesar’s impending rule and the difference between his characters’ expectations and reality to express the unpredictability in politics. His characters do not face issues with a simply right or wrong option, but complicated issues with several options with varied outcomes that are impossible to effectively anticipate.
Shakespeare uses the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination to illustrate the convoluted relationship between the character of political leaders and political decisions they make. He shows his audience that the choices a leader makes are strongly impacted by their character. Julius Caesar demonstrates that, even if it is not always obvious, political judgments are rarely made independently of the morals and personal beliefs of the person making the decision. Antony is selfish and has a desire for power. His character traits correlate with the political choices he makes. His desire for power explains his gravitation toward working alongside powerful leaders, such as Caesar and Octavius. Antony’s self-serving tendencies allow the audience to better interpret his political choices. It becomes apparent that he makes political choices that he expects will bring power to himself and his allies because, from his perspective, they are the best choices. Brutus’ character also closely influences his political actions. It is established that Brutus is loyal and selfless. His loyalty to the Roman Republic leads to Caesar’s assassination. This same loyalty lead to his opposition to Antony and Octavius in a battle after Caesar’s death. Brutus is steadfast in his commitment to creating political stability and efficiency in Rome. His political decisions reflect his tendency to stand by his earlier decisions and beliefs. He is also selfless in his willingness to put himself at risk for the sake of the Roman Republic. He chooses to kill Caesar even though he knows it could lead to his own death because he believes it is the best action to support the Rome and its people. His beliefs and ideas are influenced by his selfless and loyal character, causing him to make political decisions and carry out political actions that he believes are best for others, without concern for the way it may harm him. He risks his life to ensure the prosperity of the Republic, only stopping to regard how his actions could affect the people he cares about. In both Brutus and Antony’s case, it is clear that their character plays a large role in their political choices and contributions. None of their character traits lack influence on the decisions they make, leading the audience to understand that it is nearly impossible for a person to make political decisions without allowing their personal ideas to affect their judgment and understanding. Leaders make decisions based on what they know, expect, and want; these are heavily influenced by their character traits and tendencies. A leader’s character determines the decisions they make.