Julius Caesar Characters Analysis features noted
Shakespeare scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical
essay about the characters of Julius Caesar.
JULIUS CÆSAR was one of three principal plays
by different authors, pitched upon by the celebrated
Earl of Hallifax to be brought out in a splendid manner
by subscription, in the year 1707. The other two were
the King and No King of Fletcher, and Dryden's Maiden
Queen. There perhaps might be political reasons for
this selection, as far as regards our author. Otherwise,
Shakespear's JULIUS CÆSAR is not equal as a whole,
to either of his other plays taken from the Roman history.
It is inferior in interest to Coriolanus, and both in
interest and power to Antony and Cleopatra. It however
abounds in admirable and affecting passages, and is
remarkable for the profound knowledge of character,
in which Shakespear could scarcely fail. If there is
any exception to this remark, it is in the hero of the
piece himself. We do not much admire the representation
here given of Julius Cæsar, nor do we think it
answers to the portrait given of him in his Commentaries.
He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches,
and does nothing. Indeed, he has nothing to do. So far,
the fault of the character is the fault of the plot.
The spirit with which the poet has entered at once
into the manners of the common people, and the jealousies
and heart-burnings of the different factions, is shown
in the first scene, where Flavius and Marullus, tribunes
of the people, and some citizens of Rome, appear upon
"Flavius. Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
Cobbler. Truly, Sir, all that I live by, is the awl:
with no tradesman's matters, nor woman's matters, but
withal, I am indeed, Sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when
they are in great danger, I recover them.
Flavius. But wherefore art not in thy shop today? Why
dost thou lead these men about the streets?
Cobbler. Truly, Sir, to wear out their shoes, to get
into more work. But, indeed, Sir, we make holiday to
Cæsar, and rejoice in his triumph."
To this specimen of quaint low humour immediately follows
that unexpected and animated burst of indignant eloquence,
put into the mouth of one of the angry tribunes.
"Marullus. Wherefore rejoice!-What conquest brings
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive-bonds his chariot-wheels?
Oh you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome!
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The live-long day with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome;
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tyber trembled underneath his banks
To hear the replication of your sounds,
Made in his concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out an holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the Gods to intermit the plague,
That needs must light on this ingratitude."
The well-known dialogue between Brutus and Cassius,
in which the latter breaks the design of the conspiracy
to the former, and partly gains him over to it, is a
noble piece of high-minded declamation. Cassius's insisting
on the pretended effeminacy of Cæsar's character,
and his description of their swimming across the Tiber
together, "once upon a raw and gusty day,"
are among the finest strokes in it. But perhaps the
whole is not equal to the short scene which follows,
when Cæsar enters with his train:—
"Brutus. The games are done, and Cæsar is
Cassius. As they pass by, pluck Casca by the sleeve,
And he will, after his sour fashion, tell you
What has proceeded worthy note to day.
Brutus. I will do so; but look you, Cassius—
The angry spot doth glow on Cæsar's brow,
And all the rest look like a chidden train.
Calphurnia's cheek is pale; and Cicero
Looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes,
As we have seen him in the Capitol,
Being crost in conference by some senators.
Cassius. Casca will tell us what the matter is.
Cæsar. Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights:
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
Antony. Fear him not, Cæsar, he's not dangerous:
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
Cæsar. Would he were fatter; but I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer; and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music:
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort,
As if he mock'd himself, and scorn'd his spirit,
That could be mov'd to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease,
Whilst they behold a greater than themselves;
And therefore are they very dangerous.
I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Cæsar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,
And tell me truly what thou think'st of him."
We know hardly any passage more expressive of the genius
of Shakespear than this. It is as if he had been actually
present, had known the different characters and what
they thought of one another, and had taken down what
he heard and saw, their looks, words, and gestures,
just as they happened.
The character of Mark Antony is farther speculated
upon where the conspirators deliberate whether he shall
fall with Cæsar. Brutus is against it—
"And for Mark Antony, think not of him:
For he can do no more than Cæsar's arm,
When Cæsar's head is off.
Cassius. Yet I do fear him:
For in th' ingrafted love he bears to Cæsar—
Brutus, Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him:
If he love Cæsar, all that he can do
Is to himself, take thought, and die for Cæsar:
And that were much, he should; for he is giv'n
To sports, to wildness, and much company.
Trebonius. There is no fear in him; let him not die;
For he will live, and laugh at this hereafter."
They were in the wrong; and Cassius was right.
The honest manliness of Brutus is however sufficient
to find out the unfitness of Cicero to be included in
their enterprise, from his affected egotism and literary
"O, name him not: let us not break with him;
For he will never follow anything,
That other men begin."
His scepticism as to prodigies and his moralising on
the weather—"This disturbed sky is not to walk
in"—are in the same spirit of refined imbecility.
Shakespear has in this play and elsewhere shown the
same penetration into political character and the springs
of public events as into those of everyday life. For
instance, the whole design of the conspirators to liberate
their country fails from the generous temper and over-weening
confidence of Brutus in the goodness of their cause
and the assistance of others. Thus it has always been.
Those who mean well themselves think well of others,
and fall a prey to their security. That humanity and
honesty which dispose men to resist injustice and tyranny
render them unfit to cope with the cunning and power
of those who are opposed to them. The friends of liberty
trust to the professions of others, because they are
themselves sincere, and endeavour to reconcile the public
good with the least possible hurt to its enemies, who
have no regard to anything but their own unprincipled
ends, and stick at nothing to accomplish them. Cassius
was better cut out for a conspirator. His heart prompted
his head. His watchful jealousy made him fear the worst
that might happen, and his irritability of temper added
to his inveteracy of purpose, and sharpened his patriotism.
The mixed nature of his motives made him fitter to contend
with bad men. The vices are never so well employed as
in combating one another. Tyranny and servility are
to be dealt with after their own fashion: otherwise,
they will triumph over those who spare them, and finally
pronounce their funeral panegyric, as Antony did that
"All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Cæsar:
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them."
The quarrel between Brutus and Cassius is managed in
a masterly way. The dramatic fluctuation of passion,
the calmness of Brutus, the heat of Cassius, are admirably
described; and the exclamation of Cassius on hearing
of the death of Portia, which he does not learn till
after their reconciliation, "How 'scaped I killing
when I crost you so?" gives double force to all
that has gone before. The scene between Brutus and Portia,
where she endeavours to extort the secret of the conspiracy
from him, is conceived in the most heroical spirit,
and the burst of tenderness in Brutus-
"You are my true and honourable wife;
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart"—
is justified by her whole behaviour. Portia's breathless
impatience to learn the event of the conspiracy, in
the dialogue with Lucius, is full of passion. The interest
which Portia takes in Brutus and that which Calphurnia
takes in the fate of Cæsar are discriminated with
the nicest precision. Mark Antony's speech over the
dead body of Cæsar has been justly admired for
the mixture of pathos and artifice in it: that of Brutus
certainly is not so good.
The entrance of the conspirators to the house of Brutus
at midnight is rendered very impressive. In the midst
of this scene, we meet with one of those careless and
natural digressions which occur so frequently and beautifully
in Shakespear. After Cassius has introduced his friends
one by one, Brutus says—
"They are all welcome.
What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Betwixt your eyes and night?
Cassius. Shall I entreat a word (They whisper.)
Decius. Here lies the east: doth not the day break here?
Cinna. O pardon. Sir, it doth; and yon grey lines,
That fret the clouds, are messengers of day.
Casca. You shall confess, that you are both deceiv'd:
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises,
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence, up higher toward the north
He first presents his fire, and the high east
Stands as the Capitol, directly here."
We cannot help thinking this graceful familiarity better
than all the fustian in the world. The truth of history
in JULIUS CÆSAR is very ably worked up with dramatic
effect. The councils of generals, the doubtful turns
of battles, are represented to the life. The death of
Brutus is worthy of him-it has the dignity of the Roman
senator with the firmness of the Stoic philosopher.
But what is perhaps better than either, is the little
incident of his boy, Lucius, falling asleep over his
instrument, as he is playing to his master in his tent,
the night before the battle. Nature had played him the
same forgetful trick once before on the night of the
conspiracy. The humanity of Brutus is the same on both
—"It is no matter:
Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.
Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies,
Which busy care draws in the brains of men.
Therefore thou sleep'st so sound."