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The main characters in Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar have distorted self-perception, showing throughout the play that they see themselves as actors in a great historical play rather than actual people (Van Laan 139). Brutus, Antony, Cassius, and Caesar all overact in a sense and attempt to appear mightier than they actually are. The only character who does not “role play” is Octavius, who “remains exempt from the ironic contrast between dream and reality because he has no imagined concept of himself which the reality of history can mock” (Van Laan 148). This paper reviews the ways the characters play their roles (or do not, in Octavius’s case) and how the audience views them.
Brutus plays the role of an honorable man, trying so hard to prove he is honorable that he even convinces himself. He says he loves the name of honor more than he loves death (1.2.88-89) and that as an honorable man, all his actions – even the murder of Julius Caesar – must be too: “With this is depart, that, as I / Slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the/ Same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country/ To need my death” (3.2.45-48). Brutus thereby justifies his reasoning and that of his co-conspirators.
Cassius has his own perspective on the reasons for Caesar’s death – he believes he is the true leader of the conspiracy, and over-credits himself with convincing Brutus to join the others in rising against Caesar: “Now know you, Casca, I have moved already/ Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans/ To undergo with me an enterprise/ Of honorable dangerous consequence” (1.3.121-124). Cassius, trying to play the role of the true Caesar by catalyzing the conspiracy, gives himself more credit than he deserves for Brutus’s participation (Van Laan 143).
Antony also has an inflated sense of self-worth. He believes he is Caesar’s heir and that Caesar’s legacy must live on through him (Van Lann 145). After Caesar’s death, Antony starts to take control and gain power over Rome and certain individuals. He sees himself as more worthy than Lepidus: “This is a slight unmeritable man,/ Meet to be sent on errands; is it fit,/ The threefold world divided, he should stand/ One of the three to share it?” (4.1.12-15). Antony tries to discredit Lepidus (and, in another passage, Octavius) when in reality Antony may be the only one who is truly incapable of leading Rome.
Finally, Julius Caesar believes himself to be an all-powerful, god-like person (Vaan Laan 139). He approaches his Romans and assistants with arrogance: “I rather tell thee what is to be feared/ Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar” (1.2.211-212). Caesar cannot be persuaded to change his mind or decisions because he is “as constant as the northern star,” as he tells the others (3.1.60), never fallible or incorrect.
The audience’s view of these characters differs substantially from the characters’ view of themselves. First, Brutus does not appear honorable; rather, he comes across as easily manipulated, naive and weak, someone who easily changes his mind when influenced by outsiders. For instance, simple flattery by Cassius makes Brutus change his mind about Caesar and want to kill his former friend. This makes the audience see Brutus as disloyal and fickle-minded at best, a “self-deluded fraud” at worst (Van Lann 141). While Brutus convinced himself that killing Caesar was for the good of Rome, it is clear to the audience that Brutus committed the murder because he was afraid of what Caesar could become.
Next, Cassius does not convince the audience that he is the true leader of the conspiracy. Even though Cassius organizes it, “it is Brutus, not Cassius, who ends up as the actual leader of the conspiracy” (Van Laan 143). Brutus commands Cassius throughout the play, as when Brutus refuses to take advice from Cassius during the battle and let the enemy approach the camp. In addition, Cassius gives the murder a more favorable interpretation than the audience accepts by glorifying the killing (Van Laan 141). While Brutus believes Cassius wants to kill Caesar for the good of Rome, Cassius only wants Caesar dead because he resents Caesar’s power. Again, the audience sees the truth that a character is unwilling to recognize.
As for Antony, the audience doesn’t see him as a true leader – they see him as a disingenuous follower who uses Caesar’s name to gain power, not to avenge the emperor’s death. Octavius is clearly the true leader, who frequently directs Antony or disregards his instructions. For example, Octavius demands that Antony follow him – “Come, Antony, away!” (5.1.63) – and refuses to follow Antony’s lead on the battle field. He is not the great leader he believes himself to be.
Lastly, the audience sees through Caesar’s all-powerful pose and realizes that he is far from perfect (Van Laan 139). His epilepsy and deafness, for example, are obvious weaknesses; overall, Caesar’s role was too powerful for even him to play – his role is but a “highly ironic attempt… for which he is utterly unfitted” (Van Laan 142).
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar exemplifies the disjunct between self-perception and one’s appearance to outsiders. Players in any worthy performance of Julius Caesar would do well to practice the art of playing a role of a man who himself is playing a role only believable to himself.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Elements of Literature, Forth Course.
Ed. Richard Simes. Austin: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1997. 775-877.
Van Laan, Thomas F. “Distorted Self-Views: Role-Playing in Julius Caesar.” Ed. Don Nardo.
San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999. 139-148.
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