Julius Caesar: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      Julius Caesar, a tragedy by William Shakespeare first performed in 1599 and published in the First Folio of 1623. For the story and much of the language, Shakespeare relied on Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch.

      Having defeated Pompey, Julius Caesar represents, for the majority of the Roman people, the promise of a new prosperity. But he is mistrusted by Pompey’s former supporters and by a group of variously motivated patricians, who share a belief that he wishes to be crowned and a fear of the consequences if he is. The leader of the disaffected patricians is Cassius, a shrewd politician who knows how much would be gained if Brutus, the most respected of republicans, can be persuaded to join the conspiracy. There is enough evidence in Caesar’s behavior of an ambition to be crowned to tilt Brutus’s judgment in Cassius’s favor.

      Ignoring the warning of a soothsayer, Caesar decides to go to the Capitol, and is there assassinated by the conspirators. Mark Antony, as clever as Cassius, is allowed by Brutus to address the crowd in the Forum after Brutus has explained to them the reasons for Caesar’s murder. His skillful rhetoric turns the people against the conspirators, and civil war is again inevitable. Brutus and Cassius flee the city and gather their forces, while Antony, Lepidus and Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius form a triumvirate, organize a brutal prescription, and prepare for war.

      After quarreling with Brutus, Cassius learns that Brutus’s wife, Portia, has committed suicide. Partly out of remorse, he accepts Brutus’s decision to march on Philippi and confront Antony’s army, though he does not agree with it. The battle is lost, and Brutus and Cassius kill themselves. The play ends with Octavius’s ominously ambiguous proposal that he and Antony should ‘part the glories of this happy day’.

      The unusual structure of the play has been often observed. To some it has seemed like two tragedies in one, first Caesar’s and then Brutus’s; but it is equally possible to see it as a sophisticated revenge tragedy, in which Antony takes on the role of Caesar’s avenger, and the second half of the play completes the true tragedy of Julius Caesar. For Shakespeare, the shift from English history in the recently completed Henry V to Roman history released a new confidence.

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