Julius Caesar

Angry crowds cheering for a popular leader. Political elites plotting the downfall of a colleague. Passionate discussions about how to best protect the nation’s core values. These are all scenes which appear again and again in the newspapers of the 21st century — but they are also key themes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, an intense political drama about the meaning of true leadership. When Brutus, Cassius and other conspirators agree to murder the infamous Roman dictator, they believe they are acting for the greater good. But Rome quickly falls into chaos and civil war when its powerful leader is gone. Are there any lessons to be learned about today’s political turmoil?

Betrayal

Brutus is one of Caesar’s closest friends, but he is torn between his personal loyalty and his dedication to Rome. He decides to help murder the dictator. When Caesar sees Brutus among the group of assassins stabbing him to death, Caesar utters three words that are still used to indicate betrayal today: ‘Et tu, Brute?’

Leadership

‘When Caesar says “Do this,” it is performed,’ observes Antony. The dictator’s power is absolute, and it is implicitly tied to his speeches. With a few well chosen words, powerful characters in the play can whip crowds of ordinary people into adoration or fury. Sound familiar?

Power

The conspirators fear that Caesar is becoming too powerful — he has defeated his enemies, and the people do anything he says. Surely this is the end of the freedom of the Roman Republic, they conclude. But his assassination plunges the empire into chaos.

Fate

‘Men at sometime were masters of their fates,’ says Cassius. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.’ He mocks the idea that some things are left to fate. Yet Caesar’s death is predicted by his wife and a soothsayer; and when it comes, he faces it head on. Can we control our own destiny?

Masculinity

The wives in this play are barely more than ciphers for the neglected private lives of their husbands. It is men’s friendships, male leadership and the pitfalls of masculinity that interest Shakespeare in this play. Any sign of femininity is immediately seen as a weakness. Have things improved?