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Shakespeare’s Caesar in “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” is often mistaken as being a tyrant. This view comes from the characterization of Caesar through Cassius and Brutus’ eyes. Caesar’s qualities that make him a martyr instead of a tyrant are often overshadowed by Cassius’ accusing finger and Brutus’ calculating eye. Within the play, Caesar is the kind of politician to put on a show hence the large celebration when he returns to Rome parading about like a celebrity. Throughout the play it is hard to discover who the real Caesar is. The parallelisms of Caesar’s character do not end at the interpretation of tyrant or martyr, however. His journey and betrayal parallel the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. Caesar’s death follows the three pillars of martyrdom as presented by Christ; put to death, death due to his teachings and for refusing to apostatize, and the commemoration of his death from his followers. Close analysis of the play will reveal that Caesar is not a bloodthirsty tyrant as portrayed by Cassius but is instead a martyr for his fellow Romans much like Christ is for the Christian faith.
It is easy to mistake Caesar for a tyrant due to his excessive ego and pride. When Caesar first enters the scene in Act 1 he is being worshipped by the Romans for his success in battle even though the populists argue against it. Caesar’s arrival in Rome is not the ideal image for a humble martyr such as Christ. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he rides alone on a donkey, not carried about by throngs of admirers or the head of an army. In the aspect of war Jesus seems to be the anti-Caesar. Jesus’ nation was weak and he spurned the violence, while Caesar’s own popularity and agency grew from the battles he fought within. While Caesar’s entrance may not match the entrance of the Almighty, this does not mean that he is the anti-Christ or that he is a tyrant demanding to be worshipped. To the Romans, Caesar was their salvation. Time and time again he had protected them from war. Without Caesar the Romans would have been under tyranny. Much like the Christians, the Romans offer themselves and ultimately their free lives to the deity they have created. At times within the play, it seems like Caesar, himself, is unsure about who he is within the Roman populace. Through his military status and populist position, he had become the most beloved and most powerful political leader of his time period. He has created this boisterous God-like public persona, but on the other he also has the waving fears of plotting Cassius.
In Act One Scene two lines 193 to 194, Caesar’s human fear of death and Cassisus’ “hungry look”. While the fear does creep into Caesar’s intuition, the urge to assert his own immortality force him to ignore the prophecy. In the same scene line 197 he insists, “But I fear him not… I rather tell thee what is to be feared / Than what I fear: for always I am Caesar” (1.2.210-11). But, who is this Caesar? Much of what the audience learns of Caesar in the following scenes is filtered through Cassius’ point of view. While Cassius and Brutus portray him as a great tyrant, it is evident through his fear that Caesar is still human and has not fully transformed into a deity. Never mind Caesar’s own uncertainties, when he is offered the crown Brutus’ fears of losing agency in the current republic are apparent. In Act Two Scene 1 Line 12-15 and 33-36, Brutus compares Caesar to a “serpent’s egg” that should be eliminated before it hatches. The symbol of the serpent refers back to the Garden of Eden and original sin. Instead of comparing Caesar to the Savior, Brutus instead compares Caesar to sin itself. The fear of Caesar’s tyranny is not because he is a tyrant but is instead the fear that he might become one. But is this fear ill placed? Caesar is supposed to be a threat to the greater good of Rome, but Shakespeare portrays him as weak and ailing. Early in the play it is evident that the great Caesar even has impaired hearing as he tells Antony to speak into his good ear, “Come on my right hand,” he asks Antony, “for this ear is deaf, / And tell me truly what thou think’st of him” (1.2.212-13). Shakespeare portrays Caesar in this way as a representation of his refusal to heed other’s counsel as well as his own intuitions. Unlike Caesar, history shows that Jesus Christ did indeed take counsel from his 12 disciples. While both men felt the imminent danger they were in among their followers, neither took heed about the intuitions and “soothsaying”. In Shakespeare’s play Act 1 Scene 3, it becomes evident that Caesar also suffers from epileptic fits. “He fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, and was speechless” (1.2.251-52). According to Casca’s bitter conceit, Caesar’s epileptic shock was brought on by the cheers of the crowd for him to become king. Cassius complains about Caesar’s epilepsy as well, and, like Casca, in notes of disdain. Shakespeare may choose to present Caesar in this way to humanize him or to present the argument that he was never actually a threat to the Republic.
It seems that both Cassius and Brutus are angry that Caesar seems so human, not at all like the deity that the populous has made him out to be. The doubt held by the two men is reflective of the doubt Jesus faced from his disciples. Each man was expecting the Savior to be a great being but instead was greeted by a mere man. When prophecy of the savior was told many expected a great hero to appear, however it was a tiny infant that was expected to take over all of the lands and lead a great army for the Christian people. Jesus, like Caesar, seemed to be weak and unthreatening, but yet King Herod, similar to Cassius, ordered for Christ’s death because he was a threat to the future of Herod’s own agency. What the conspirators fail to realize is that both Jesus and Caesar took agency among the populous not because they were tyrants but because they were of “flesh and blood. Although Caesar is not true divinity, he gives a speech similar to the “I am” speeches that Jesus Christ gives. In Act 3 scene 1 line 64-79, Caesar gives his famous “I’m thee brightest star in the sky” speech. Caesar claims to be the most “constant” man in the universe because he has risen above the flesh and blood, apprehensions, of man. He claims that the personal appeals and temptations of man no longer move his will. Caesar’s ability to resist the appeals of men is similar to Christ’s ability to resist the temptation of sins of the world. When Caesar aligns himself with the “northern star,” he attempts to elevate himself above all other men. This elevation is representative of Christ’s closeness to God. In John chapter 8 verse 12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” In a parallel to Caesar’s claims, Christ says that he is the guiding star.
The elevation of Christ to the Father gives Jesus the power of agency in a world grasping for some sort of guide and truth. Due to this elevation that Caesar has achieved he claims to be the only man in all of Rome that is able to rule Rome just like Christ became the only man free of sin thus resulting in the worship of him. This elevation of Caesar not only says a lot about the equality that Caesar treats the populous with but also his character. No matter their agency within the populous and elevation to righteousness, both men are betrayed by their followers which is arguably the biggest defense to support the martyrdom of Caesar and Christ. The betrayals of Christ and Caesar were failed in the fact that they were meant to stunt each man’s agency but instead granted true immortality through their deaths. Caesar is found to be the victim of manipulation rather than its master among his followers. He commits no sin of tyranny, just a strong sense of egotism. It is his popularity among the common wealth that gives him agency even throughout his death. When Caesar is betrayed by Brutus he is surprised, not because he thought Brutus should worship him but because they were true friends.
Brutus betrays Caesar in the same way that Judas betrays Christ; it’s all for greed. Brutus may claim that he wants Caesar gone because he fears the Republic will fall to tyranny, but really he is just entertaining the thoughts of his own agency that Cassius plants into his brain. Brutus is the most realist character within the play. When he doubts Caesar’s speech we are presented with the inner turmoil that Brutus faces when considering Caesar’s murder. If Caesar had truly been a dictator, Brutus would have no inner conflict with running him out or being involved in the assassination. While tyranny seems to be the main affliction it is the betrayer’s anarchist behavior that spurs the tyranny created by Caesar’s death. Much like Caesar’s betrayal Christ also loses his beloved friends to the web of greed. For only thirty silver coin Judas is willing to break his bond with Christ in order to better himself. Cassius and Brutus did the same thing for much less. In Christ’s betrayal, Cassius can be seen as representative of Judas while Brutus can be seen representative of Peter. Peter does not begin to question Christ’s agency until Judas’ calculating greed infiltrates the disciples. Upon this inkling of doubt, Peter denies Christ three times upon he night of the Last Supper. It is these betrayals by close friends that force the hand of martyrdom in regard to the death of Caesar and Jesus Christ.
The murder of Caesar occurs “about the ninth hour” (2.4.23) just as Christ finally dies on the Cross at “the ninth houre” (Luke 23:44-45; Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:34). Caesar’s death was meant to free the Roman’s from his “tyrannical” powers, but instead it created anarchy within the city. Caesar seems all but omnipotent at the beginning, but he is not in fact divine. The grandiosity of Caesar is punctured. He seems to be unbreakable but turns out to be merely “flesh and blood”. He transforms himself into the salvation of Rome, but when he is killed he becomes Rome’s assailant. Caesar, whom Cassius mocks enviously for setting himself up as “one man” (1.2.152, 154), “one only man” (1.2.56) ends up as a “bleeding piece of earth” (3.1.254). Caesar may be pierced by knives while Christ is pierced by nails and a spear however the outcome is still the same. As it is presented in the Gospels, Christ’s death on the Cross is the story of the voluntary suffering of the “one man,” “one only man,” who is in fact divine. This man, Jesus, seems weak at first, no matter his status as divine. He repeatedly calls himself “Son of Man,” rather than Son of God. He refuses to fight back and instead allows himself to be put to death in the humiliating act of crucifixion. As Christians take communion in remembrance of this act, the assassins of Caesar hope that men will forever bathe in Caesar’s blood. Brutus and the other conspirators have ultimately tried and failed to set up what amounts to a secular alternative to Christianity with Caesar at the helm. Similarly, to Christian joy upon death because of religious faithfulness, upon Caesar’s death Antony wish to die in honor of the deity he has made Caesar out to be. Both Christians and the followers of Caesar hold strong to the belief that death when married to faith in your leader, is the greatest way to die and the greatest form of Christian death. Without the portrayal of Caesar as Christ it would be easy to say that Caesar was indeed a tyrant to the Romans and got what he deserved. Brutus and Cassius not only kill Caesar but they are able to alter the view of Caesar, blurring the lies of Caesar the tyrant and Caesar the friend.
Shakespeare presents a new Passion of the Christ in order to beg Caesar’s agency in the Republic as a martyr. Unfortunately, no matter how hard Caesar fought as a martyr for the populous during his life, his assassination was the breaking point causing complete chaos that allowed tyranny to overpower. The assassination of Caesar did not create a blood ritual like the communion in the Christian faith as they had hoped, but Shakespeare takes liberty in creating a martyr that is talked about even today in every high school English class.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, edited by William Montgomery, Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 1256-1288. Teen Life Application Study Bible Nlt Black Celtic Cross. Tyndale House Pub, 2014.
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