Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 257-321).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, a cobbler parries wits with the tribunes Murellus and Flavius. What is the subject of their conversation? What atmosphere surrounds them as they talk in the streets of Rome — what is the occasion for the large gathering of common people (i.e. plebeians) like the cobbler? What accusations does Murellus make against these commoners, and what is his own attitude towards Julius Caesar?
2. In Act 1, Scene 2, we are introduced to Caesar at a few points. What is the “great man” like — what attributes does Shakespeare apparently mean to foreground? For example, what do you infer from the way Caesar handles the soothsayer’s urgent cry about “the Ides of March,” and what impression does Caesar’s concern about Cassius make?
3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Cassius sounds out Brutus on the issue of Caesar’s increasing power. Consider his statements as persuasive acts, as “rhetoric”: what specific images, insinuations, and arguments does he set before Brutus to win him over? What seems to motivate Cassius to oppose Caesar? What assumptions does he make about his friend Brutus?
4. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Brutus receive and respond to Cassius’ attempt to enlist him in a conspiracy against Caesar? What qualities does he show that set him apart from Cassius? Is there anything disturbing or incongruous or revealing about his responses to Cassius? If so, what?
5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Cassius goes to work on Casca (with whom he had spoken earlier as well, in Scene 2). Taking into account Casca’s words in Scenes 2 and 3, characterize this conspirator: what seems to his particular attitude about current conditions in Rome, about the point of conspiring against Caesar, and drawing Brutus into the plan?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, what feelings and thoughts occur to the solitary Brutus as he considers what to do? What reasoning process does he employ to convince himself that Caesar, his friend and benefactor, must die? What reflections does he make regarding the more general subject of “conspiracy” — what seems to be his attitude towards conspiracy in general?
7. In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus is introduced by Cassius to the other conspirators: Casca, Decius, Cinna, Metellus Cimber, and Trebonius (Caius Ligarius enters later). What problem does Brutus identify with the oath they want to swear? How does he handle the call to do away with Mark Antony, and how does he describe the actual violence that must be done to Caesar? Is his description realistic, or naive? Explain.
8. In Act 2, Scene 1, after speaking with the conspirators and before convincing Caius Ligarius to join the cause, Brutus returns home and faces his wife Portia’s concern. What has she been observing of late about her husband? What appeal does she make to get him to confide in her? What image or impression of this famous Roman couple does this brief scene provide?
9. In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus speaks briefly to Caius Ligarius and has no trouble convincing him to participate in the conspiracy. The language they employ is drawn from medicine: they speak of sickness and health. At what other points do those terms appear in the play? What is their thematic significance?
10. In Act 2, Scene 2, what seems to be Caesar’s frame of mind when he hears of Calphurnia’s nightmare and gets bad news from his augurers? How genuine do you find his bravery in the face of these tidings? How does Decius change his mind and convince him to go to the Capitol? On the whole, what image of Caesar prevails in these brief moments before he goes to his death?
11. In Act 2, Scenes 3-4, Artemidorus (a rhetorician), alone, reads a letter of warning he intends to hand Caesar, and Portia briefly meets the Soothsayer Caesar had earlier called “a dreamer.” How does the dialog heighten the suspense in advance of the next scene? How do Portia’s words, in particular, affect your perspective on the murder to come?
12. In Act 3, Scene 1, Caesar is cut down by the daggers of Brutus and his fellow conspirators. What device do the killers employ to isolate and transfix their target? How well does Caesar live up to his star billing in this world-historical event — how well, that is, does he die? What do Brutus and Cassius respectively say and do right after the murder and before Antony’s servant enters at line 122?
13. In Act 3, Scene 1, Antony sends word by a servant that he wants to talk with Brutus and understand why he has killed their mutual friend, Caesar. What more does Antony ask of Brutus, and how does he take advantage of Brutus’ honorable character in the conversation that follows through line 253?
14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what does Antony reveal to be his true motive in the soliloquy (lines 254-75) that follows his conversation with the conspirators? Does this soliloquy make you think the worse of Antony, or does he have some measure of right on his side? When you hear the word “Roman,” what qualities come to mind first? What kind of “Roman” is this complex, cunning Antony?
15. In Act 3, Scene 2, what defense does Brutus make of what he and the other conspirators have done? Upon what principles does he say they have acted? How well does his rhetoric succeed with his audience of commoners or plebeians — what do they appear to want by the time he finishes speaking?
16. In Act 3, Scene 2, how does Antony, speaking in the wake of Brutus, persuade the commoners in favor of Caesar and against the conspirators? What specific appeals does he make to the people? What devices or tricks of rhetoric does he employ to hold their attention and win their hearts? By the end of his speech, what has he accomplished — what is the situation now?
17. In Act 4, Scene 1, Antony confers with Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) and the third member of the Second Triumvirate (43-33 BCE), Lepidus. What new facet of himself does Antony reveal in the course of his discussion with Octavius? How does the latter react to Antony’s characterization of Lepidus, and how does Antony respond? Finally, what is the plan against the conspirators at this point?
18. In Act 4, Scenes 2-3, what is the cause of the argument between Cassius and Brutus? What injustice has Cassius committed? How does Cassius manage to heal the rift between them — on what grounds does he appeal to Brutus, and why is his attempt so successful?
19. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Brutus take the news of his wife Portia’s suicide? What reasons does he give for his decision to reject Cassius’ battle tactics and instead to meet the enemy forthrightly at Philippi? Why does Caesar’s ghost appear to Brutus towards the end of the scene — what, if anything, may we infer from this unearthly visit about the rightness of Brutus’ cause so far and about the value of his plans for the future?
20. In Act 5, Scene 1, describe the brief parley or meeting between the forces of Antony and Octavius and Brutus and Cassius: what charges and counter-charges do they level against one another? What philosophical meditation does Brutus share afterwards when he is alone with Cassius? How do you interpret what Brutus says at this point — what does he plan to do if he is threatened with capture?
21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what military error has Brutus committed, according to Titinius? How is that error symptomatic of Brutus’ mistaken assumptions throughout the play? Cassius orders his slave Pindarus to run him through with the sword he used to kill Caesar. What are Brutus’ reflections when he learns that his friend is dead?
22. In Act 5, Scene 5, what parting thoughts does Brutus offer about his course of action as he prepares to run upon his sword? Why does he think that he, and not Antony and Octavius, will be best remembered? A short while later, how does Antony memorialize his now-departed enemy?
23. In Act 5, Scene 5 and in general, since it is really Brutus and not Caesar who is the play’s protagonist, how would you characterize Brutus’ tragedy? What accounts for his failure as a political actor? To what extent do his Roman virtues redeem him? To what extent does he attain to tragic insight into the causes of his failure to defeat “Caesarism” and re-establish Republican virtues?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake