Republican virtues versus the value of stability

Julius Caesar: Disruption and Justice

The central dilemma of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the question of the value of republican virtues versus the value of stability. At the beginning of the play, Brutus and Cassius debate the risks of assassinating Caesar, versus Caesar being allowed to become a tyrant. Although Shakespeare’s literary version of Caesar clearly is not a bad man, the crowds who would allow Caesar to become king are all too willing to sacrifice democratic ideals for despotism, and Caesar seems unwilling to stop them. But after Caesar is killed, the government which emerges in his wake is even more tyrannical. The play is ambiguous. Caesar’s not-so-hidden desire to become a king results in the destruction of the republic, but the unlawful means used to stop it do not achieve their desired results. In fact, the unlawful attempt to stop Caesar’s illegitimate attempt at seizing power simply creates more lawlessness. On the other hand, particularly given the base nature of the crowds and the baseness of Caesar’s closest associate Mark Antony, the supposed goodness of Caesar’s eventual tyranny would not necessarily be assured.

The only clear virtue which emerges in the play is the desire to actually do good by the republic, versus serve one’s personal ends. Shakespeare is again ambiguous in his suggestion about the real motivation of the conspirators by creating a contrast between the apparent motivations of the jealous and ambitious Cassius with the noble Brutus. Cassius is primarily envious of Caesar. Brutus has no desire for personal power for himself but is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy against Caesar because Brutus is worried about the future of the republic. The many conspirators clearly show many different types of motivations. All have their own distinct personalities and reasons for participating.

The contrast between the motivations of the two very different men leading the conspiracy is clearly seen in the ways in which Cassius first speaks of Caesar. He mocks Caesar’s physical infirmities, such as when Caesar nearly drowned and he had to save him. Cassius’ implication is that Caesar is no greater than any other man, so why should be king? “I was born free as Caesar; so were you: / We both have fed as well, and we can both/Endure the winter’s cold as well as he” (I.2). Unlike Brutus, Cassius uses dismissive and mocking language to demean Caesar. This, of course, really has very little to do with Caesar’s fitness to rule or not rule but does show his jealousy of the man.

Shakespeare thus implies, by this contrast, that one way to understand and evaluate the goodness of an action is the motivation of the actors, and Cassius’ motivation is not pure, in contrast to Brutus. “Brutus had rather be a villager/ Than to repute himself a son of Rome,” says Brutus of himself (I.2). In contrast to the passionate, fiery Cassius, Brutus is so distanced that he often refers to himself in the third person. Brutus stresses that it is not personal glory but the good of Rome that is at the forefront of his mind when he expresses his fear of Caesar taking more power for himself.

Caesar’s actions are disruptive, because they undo centuries of republican government and values. But assassination unleashes the violence of the mob, who loved Caesar because he gave them money and festivals. Mark Antony easily uses his demagogic capabilities to turn the people of Rome against the conspirators and drive them out. The violence of the mob can be seen in their actions to Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses” (III.3). While Brutus demands that Caesar be slaughtered in what he hopes will be a decorous fashion, Shakespeare makes it clear that political disruption always results in ugliness and brings out the ugliness of other human beings. When someone is assassinated, people’s passions become so whipped up in anger and violence, they do not care if justice is done. Significantly, this results in the death of an innocent artist (a poet) who even calls himself a friend of Caesar. The people just want blood. The type of republican governance Brutus desired, in which reasoned people temper the demagogic values of democracy celebrated by Caesar, has already been destroyed and can never be brought back. Sadly, the assassination attempt does nothing to revive the Roman Republic. It is, in fact, the final nail in the coffin of the republic.

The desire for blood is also characteristic of Mark Antony, whose baser nature is revealed over the course of the play. At the beginning, Antony positions himself as a friend of Caesar who merely wishes to avenge his friend and patron. But while he says this is the case in his famous rhetorical display in the Roman Forum, ultimately when he gains power, he uses it to act in a murderous fashion, not to uphold the values he says Julius Caesar believed in. “He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him,” says Antony in conversation with Octavius, as they casually decide who to murder as they plan their domination over Rome (IV.1). Once lawlessness becomes a way of life, lawlessness cannot be restrained. The new, emerging leadership of the Triumvirate has no rules and while there is no guarantee that Caesar as a despotic ruler would have not fallen into tyranny, the alternative created by the assassination was no better.

In fact, even the members of the Triumvirate fight among themselves and have no real loyalty to one another. Of Lepidus, Antony says, “…is it fit, / The three-fold world divided, he should stand/One of the three to share it?” (IV.1). Absolute power corrupts absolutely; or, at least it corrupts Antony. Power by its very nature breeds evil in the hearts of even ordinary men. The only individual whom everyone praises is Brutus. Even Antony calls the noblest Roman of them all, because Brutus was at least attempting to put the good of the Republic first. Brutus is so good, even his enemies praise him.

But while Brutus is a good man, that goodness is also a source of vulnerability. It is because he is so good that Cassius is able to sway him into joining the conspiracy in the first place, against Brutus’ natural philosophical inclinations and good judgement. His goodness also makes him unwilling to kill Mark Antony. It is likely that if Antony had been killed, the results of the assassination would have been less likely to have led to tyranny, given that Antony was so persuasive in swaying the masses to follow him. Brutus even fights with Cassius about allegations of Cassius’ bribery at a time when he can least afford to do so, as the armies of the conspirators are threatened from all sides.

Shakespeare thus squarely sides on the side of moral values by making Brutus such an attractive character, but also admits that these values do not necessarily lead people to become effective rulers. Although the play is set in pagan times, Shakespeare wrote from a Christian perspective, suggesting that there are aspects to worldly power that corrupt even good men. There is a need for a separation between the sacred and the profane, or rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, because it is impossible for idealistic individuals not to fall prey to either corruption or be destroyed by the power-hungry elements of a base and fallen world.

Julius Caesar is a play which ultimately shows the bankruptcy of values of the pre-Christian world. Even as a republic, Rome could not survive, due to the corruption of those who led it, and the easily-swayed nature of the Roman masses. Brutus’ moral values could not be translated into political capital in such an environment. A deeper and more sustaining moral bedrock was needed for the world for humanity to flourish, despite the impressive political, technical and artistic accomplishments of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire.



Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Shakespeare Homepage. 1599. Web. 23 Jun 2018.

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