Marcus Junius Brutus, Roman senator and mastermind of the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, is the central character of the play. Brutus is first seen in 1.2., discussing with Cassius why the republic would be best served with Caesar's removal. After the conspirators carry out the crime, Brutus gives a moving speech to convince the Plebeians that it was necessary to kill Caesar, but Antony arrives and turns the crowd against him. Brutus flees Rome and tries to regain the capitol by forming an army, but Antony's forces are too skilled and strong to combat. When he realizes the cause is lost, Brutus convinces his servant, Strato, to hold his sword while he falls upon it, and he dies. Antony and Octavius find his body and Antony, knowing Brutus was pure in his motive to help the republic, declares Brutus "was the noblest Roman of them all."
Shakespeare's Brutus is very similar to the historical Brutus, as described in Plutarch's Lives. His qualities in both are best summarized by Victorian critic M. Guizot:
That dreamy spirit ever busied in self-examination, that disturbance of a stern conscience at the first indications of a duty that is still doubtful, that calm and resolute firmness as soon as the duty becomes certain, that profound and almost painful sensibility, ever restrained by the rigor of the most austere principles, that gentleness of soul which never disappears for a single moment amid the most cruel offices of virtue in fine, the character of Brutus, as its idea is present to us all, proceeds animate and in changing through the different scenes of life in which we meet it and in which we can not doubt that it appeared under the very aspect with which the poet has clothed it. (Shakespeare and his Times, p. 211)
Cassius is the practical and rash brother-in-law of Brutus. He relishes the removal of Caesar, whom he believes is incompetent and weak to the point of embarrassment. The character of Cassius is contrasted dramatically with Brutus:
Brutus acts wholly upon principle; Cassius partly upon impulse. Brutus acts only when he has reconciled the contemplation of action with his speculative opinions; Cassius allows the necessity of some action to run before and govern his opinions. Brutus is a philosopher; Cassius is a partisan. Brutus, therefore, deliberates and spares; Cassius participates and denounces. Brutus is the nobler instructor; Cassius the better politician. Shakespeare, in the first great scene between them, brings out these distinctions of character upon which future events so mainly depend. (Charles Symmons, The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, p. 413)
For a list of adjectives to describe Cassius with textual support, please click here.
Antony, the heroic leader of the forces that defeat Brutus and the other conspirators, is also the title character in another Shakespearean tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. In Julius Caesar, Antony is introduced in 1.2 and his importance is indicated by Cassius's proposal that he be assassinated along with Caesar (2.1). Antony delivers his most significant speech (in either tragedy) in 3.2: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears " (79). After Brutus commits suicide, Antony eulogizes Brutus in a speech that begins with one of Shakespeare's best known lines: "This was the noblest Roman of them all"(5.5.68).
Shakespeare's Caesar is not an attractive ruler. He is self-aggrandizing and has a feeble constitution, which Cassius points out with several examples in 1.2. He makes those around him wonder how such a buffoon could "bestride the narrow world like a Colossus" (1.2.135) while they are left to "walk under his huge legs" (136). Yet Caesar's assassination is so great a crime, and the words of Antony so moving in his favor, that he becomes more commanding in death than in life; his mighty spirit fighting along side Antony and Octavius, forcing Brutus to exclaim:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.95)
Stony hearted and cautious Octavius Augustus Caesar joins with Antony to defeat Brutus on the Plains of Philippi. Octavius is but a minor character in Julius Caesar, but he plays a central role in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, where we see his character developed and contrasted with that of Antony.
Please click here for a full analysis of Octavius.
Portia is the strong and devoted wife of Brutus. Her most notable moment in the play is when she reveals to her husband that she has wounded herself to demonstrate her strength and courage (2.1.300). Her act proves to Brutus that she is worthy to hear his troubles, and he is about to tell her his plan when they are interrupted by Ligarius. Knowing Brutus's cause is lost to Antony and Octavius, Portia commits suicide in 4.3. Brutus describes her strange death to Cassius, telling him she "swallowd fire" (155). According to the author of Shakespeare's source, Plutarch, Portia held hot coals in her mouth until she choked.
Calpurnia, like Portia, is a noble Roman woman who has an affectionate relationship with her husband and a deep concern for his safety. There is little doubt that the devotion is mutual: Calpurnia cannot give Caesar children, and although he is troubled by the thought of having no heir (1.2.6-9), he bears her no hostility; she has an ominous dream, and Caesar agrees to stay home to ease her mind (2.2.59). Although Decius ultimately convinces Caesar to go to the Capitol, Caesar and Calpurnia have discussed her concerns as equals.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Julius Caesar Character Introduction. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/juliuscaesar/juliuscaesarcharacters.html >.
Guizot, M. Shakespeare and his Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1855.
Symmons, Charles. The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare. Boston: Phillips Sampson and Company, 1851.
This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators, save only he
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them. (5.5.68-72)
"These lines are often quoted as Shakespeare's actual opinion of Brutus; but they are spoken by Antony, to whom they appropriately belong, and to nobody else. It is by no means certain that Shakespeare's own views are to be found always in the utterances of his characters. The dramatic poet expresses his convictions in the action, in the collision, and, above all, in the catastrophe. Judging by this standard, we should most decidedly aver that the above lines did not express Shakespeare's personal opinion. Both Antony and Brutus, therefore, have quite the same intellectual standpoint, though differing much in their outward lives; but the one was true to it, the other was not. Brutus ought to have acted as Antony, to be faithful to his deepest convictions, and to have remained friendly or at least indifferent to Caesar. Cassius alone can intellectually slay Caesar." (J. D. Snider. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare) Read on...
Did You Know? ... Unlike many of Shakespeare's other plays, which were printed in quarto form during his lifetime, Julius Caesar seems to have been first published in 1623, in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's works. More on the First Folio...