Theme is a pervasive idea presented in a literary piece. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar presents the dilemma of loyalty and also demonstrates the dark sides of human nature such as betrayal and barbarism. Some of the major themes in Julius Caesar are discussed below.
Themes in Julius Caesar
Heroes vs. Villains
One of the major themes of Julius Caesar’s concerns on how to distinguish between heroes and villains. Caesar and Brutus inadvertently compete for it where one seems other and vice versa. Caesar becomes a hero for his performance in battle and in his humble way of refusing the crown. On the other hand, Brutus terms him as an ambitious person who is not fit to be a hero. Brutus’ speech after they have killed him paints Caesar as a villain rather than a hero.
On the other hand, Brutus terms himself as a very patriotic person who loves Rome more than he loves Caesar. His turn comes when Mark Antony veiledly showers ironic praises on Caesar and berates Brutus, ironically presenting him a villain. By the end of the play, when Mark Antony defeats and kills Brutus, still, Mark Antony terms him the noblest of Romans, which is also ironic, for he has been already termed a villain involved in the murder of Caesar. Therefore, this game of competing perceptions about the hero and the villain of the play continues until the end, and herein lies the mystery of the popularity of the play.
The significance of omens in Roman society at the time portrayed in the play is another major theme. Shakespeare has shown Romans believing strongly in omens and interpreting their fates through those signs and symbols. However, the elite class often ignores such signs and berates the plebeians for this ignorance. When the soothsayer tells Caesar that he should beware the Ides of March, Caesar not only ignores him but also forgets it until Calpurnia, his wife, reminds him that she has had a very bad dream about him. However, Caesar defers his visit to the Senate, choosing not to completely ignore his wife. Even Casca sees various omens and believes that these are the warning signs about the likely dictatorship of Caesar.
Tyranny and Power
Power and the use of power for establishing tyranny over the people is another significant theme of the play, Julius Caesar. Two characters try to prove that Caesar has set up a tyrannical dictatorship; first Cassius, who uses flowery language to prove it and convinces his audience, and then Brutus, who sees that by getting absolute power, Caesar has become a despot. However, Cassius goes further, calling Caesar a wolf and vowing that had he known it before, he would have committed suicide instead of becoming a slave. On the other hand, it seems that Caesar is hungry for power though Mark Antony exonerates him saying that everybody is ambitious in one sense or another; therefore, it does not make sense that a person should be assassinated merely for being ambitious. Cassius and Brutus themselves are ambitious and pursue power. Had they had the same opportunity as Caesar, they might have proved even worse tyrants worse than he.
Role of Fate
The role of fate is another major theme of the play. Fate enters the play when Caesar is warned of a likely mishap concerning him. In fact, the play revolves around Caesar’s fate, though Caesar does little to avert this fate. Cassius, on the other hand, believes that he has the power to change his fate. However, the chain of events that he unleashes does not stop until he has to accept his fate. The conspirators, too, face their fates either on the battlefield or by committing suicide like Portia. Therefore, it seems that the play is more about the tension between fate and individuals’ free will, portraying most of the characters as playthings in the hands of fate.
Honor and integrity of an individual character is another major theme of the play. Shakespeare has shown it through the character of Brutus that though some people consider it an honor to help and save a friend, the only sentence that Caesar speaks about Brutus’ loyalty and honor becomes a catchphrase so much so that it is often cited as an example for a disloyal friend. Brutus considers himself an honorable person who is saving the Romans from a tyrant. Yet he becomes a disloyal friend. Cassius, too, manipulates this concept and coaxes other conspirators to join him in his fight against Caesar. However, Mark Antony has to come forward by the end when he sees that all conspirators have killed Caesar in the name of honor. He exonerates Caesar in an ironic speech delivered to the plebeians.
Power of Speech
One of the secondary themes of the play is the power of speech, showing how public perceptions are subject to change by those who speak eloquently. Once Brutus is swayed, conspirators feel their ranks swelled on account of the power of speech of Cassius who convinces all of them that they are right in killing Caesar to eliminate the tyrant and that plebeians would be happy to get rid of him. However, once they are done, Mark Antony proves that he can change public opinion merely by his power of speech or eloquence through his speech at Caesar’s funeral.
Identity is another secondary theme of the play. A person has a public identity as well as a private identity, while another identity is formed by the people through manipulation of public and private perceptions. Cassius shapes Caesar into a tyrant on account of his swift rise to power. This helps other conspirators to include Brutus and make their work easy. Similarly, Brutus, too, shapes Caesar’s identity as a tyrant, while Mark Antony presents him as a common human being, replacing his tyrannical image with the identity of a good ruler.
War and Ambition
War fuels ambitions and ambitions bring wars. This thematic strand also runs parallel to peace and honor. Caesar has fueled war hysteria in the nation through his battle strategies. He has won so many battles and has shown heroism on so many fronts that every other Roman soldier is as ambitious as Caesar. That is why more wars are becoming necessary to win more honor. This is the same ambition that leads the conspirators to weave a plan against Caesar.
Limits of Human Understanding
Despite honor, courage, boldness, and knowledge of things, the limits of human knowledge become an evident theme when a person like Caesar ignores omens and warnings about threats to his life. First, he ignores the soothsayer’s warning to beware, the Ides of March. Then he largely ignores the pleas of his wife. Even Brutus misunderstands the future as well as Mark Antony; a mistake that costs him heavily.
Ethics and Politics
The whole play revolves around political ethics and ethical politics. Brutus’ involvement in political intrigues and murder of Caesar is devoid of ethics, while Mark Antony’s ironic speech shows ethical standards that must be upheld.