The Complexity of Julius Caesar
The first impression most readers have of Julius Caesar is that it is one of the most simple and accessible of Shakespeare's plays. There is very little word-play, with the first and last examples of it appearing in the first scene. The language is mostly straightforward; standard student editions need only put a few helpful notes per page for the general reader. Shakespeare has seemingly taken the practical and nonphilosophically-oriented Romans and described their interactions with verisimilitude. And, to top it off, the action is easy to follow.
Who is the Main Character?
But one shouldn't let appearances mislead. Once one begins to delve beneath the surface, one discovers that the characters, as well as the leading ideas, are ambigious or laden with contradictions. Take the most obvious example. Who is the main character of the play? On the one hand, the answer is "obvious." It must be Julius Caesar, the one murdered on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. The play is named after him, he is the one who is on everyone's mind and lips even if he isn't present, and he dominates those scenes where he speaks.
The only problem with this answer is that he dies right in the middle of the play, in Act 3, Scene 1. The remainder of the play describes the civil distress unleashed through the murder. One might argue that Caesar continues to dominate, both in the funeral speech of Antony (3.2), the murder of Casca (3.3), the plans for Philippi (4.3) and the battle of Philippi itself (Act 5), but the action and focus of the play does shift considerably after Caesar's death--to the plans of the Triumvirs or the battle between them and the conspirators.
Brutus as Main Character
An argument could also be made that Brutus is the hinge character of the play. The action of the play is really only put into motion when we see Brutus disturbed about something that he cannot really articulate (1.2.37ff.) and Cassius comes alongside to "help" him out. Looked at from the perspective of Brutus' centrality to the play, Acts 1-2 show the weakening (or strengthening) of Brutus' resolve and the finalizing of conspirator plans.
Then, after the murder, the play continues to focus on Brutus, first with Antony, then Cassius and then fighting against Octavian and Antony. The death of Brutus occurs in the last scene of the play, and the play's penultimate words are Antony's tribute to Brutus, "This was a man! (5.5.75)." We don't have to resolve the issue of who is the play's central character to enjoy the play. It is emblematic, however, of other difficulties that the play presents, and it ought to put us on our guard against glib statements that Julius Caesar really is a quite simple play.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long