“Julius Caesar” is probably considered the least of Shakespeare’s great plays. Critics rarely give it the praise that “Macbeth” or “Hamlet” receive, and students find it lacks the pathos to make it compelling. But I would argue that in terms of depicting human complexity and a larger message, no play rivals “Julius Caesar.” Perhaps the most telling character of the play is its protagonist Brutus. The entire work centers on his ethical conundrum of killing Caesar for the greater good, and he is depicted as the only sympathetic and moral character. Yet in true Shakespearean fashion, his naivety is exploited by the infinitely more cunning Cassius and the manipulative Antony, making it his defining weakness and the cause of his undoing.
Cassius himself is a fascinating study. When drawing Casca into his scheme, he uses the portentous tidings of the time to his advantage, convincing Casca that the Romans are inciting the displeasure of the gods with the current rule. He blames fame, in a way, for his subservience to Caesar. Cassius exploits these superstitious tendencies of men, yet Shakespeare, the genius wordsmith, puts the very words that define the play in the chief killer’s mouth; Cassius tells Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Shakespeare also uses the play to convey his belief in human culpability for actions. He seeks to emphasize the characters’ tendencies to lay their responsibility on the divine, but Antony conveys his true beliefs when he describes “the evil that men do.” And therein lies the brilliance of “Julius Caesar”: Shakespeare is able to draw his own attention away from needless character-building and develop a story about morality and humans’ accountability.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare captures the complexity of the human condition. There are stock protagonists and antagonists in the play, with each character showing both positive and negative qualities. Ultimately, he creates a well-written play with no true moral ending.
Whether or not “Julius Caesar” is unrivaled among the Bard’s canon is a tricky question — one stemming from a particular fascination among Shakespeare enthusiasts: Which is the paramount Shakespeare play? We can each think of someone who emphatically declares “King Lear” unparalleled or picture the reactionary who declares Shakespeare a worse playwright than Marlowe. About all we agree on is that Iago is evil, there are too many characters named Antonio and “Measure for Measure” is mislabeled as a comedy. How, then, do we arrive at those subjective answers, especially when we are debating such a vast number of characters and plays?
We might think of there being two distinct threads in a play’s content: characterization and plot. Though it would be foolish to separate the two completely, we need, for such a subjective notion as “greatest,” to delimit our measure. Following Dhruv’s argument, I will also make the supposition that characterization is our focus — however, I hesitate to describe any characters as either a protagonist or antagonist. Rather, in close examination of the style of language used by Julius Caesar, Octavius Caesar, Marcus Brutus and Cassius — with the notable exception of Mark Antony — there are many syntactic and semantic similarities. What emerges are similar characters — which is not to say they’re the same or of stock creation — who react to the play’s political power plot from their loci.
Interestingly, these shared similarities actually create more pathos in the play. Whereas in “Othello” we have evil seemingly corrupting virtue for an illusive, highly debated motive, in this play we have honorable men with the intentions of the greater good in contention. With clear motivation comes an even crisper message: the evil of good versus good.
With that message, we might consider the larger Elizabethan context and the issue of the succession. I won’t digress long, but it is important to juxtapose this play against the waning reign of Good Queen Bess, considering the problem of Elizabeth’s lack of heir and Caesar’s baroness are more than coincidental.
“Julius Caesar” is a great play, but perhaps not for its “complexity of the human condition.” Instead, it is the similarities, the shades of grey and the honor of the Romans that make the play so powerfully tragic. Out of that similar humanity, Shakespeare retells a perennial allegory of power and politics, describing corruption and virtue with complex realism.