Literary Devices In Julius Caesar

Introduction to “Julius Caesar”

“Julius Caesar’ is a historical tragedy, written by William Shakespeare. The play examines the conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his death at the hands of his enemies and subsequent downfall of the conspirators.

The play was written in the year 1599. It remains one of Shakespeare’s most studied works. It deals with human artifices, power struggles and the moral mystery immanent in leadership and loyalty.

Summary of “Julius Caesar”

The play starts with the return of Caesar exhibiting his triumph to Rome after a successful military achievement.

The uprising power of Caesar agonizes some senators. They fear that Caesar might become a dictator. Cassius and Brutus lead the group of senators to kill Caesar.

The Caesar despite receiving warnings about his safety ignores them and goes to the Senate on March 15th (the Ides of March). The conspirators stab Caesar to death at the Senate.

After the demise of Caesar, Brutus tries to justify the murder to the public by claiming that he and his co-conspirators acted in the best interest of the people by removing a tyrant from power.

However, the speech given by Mark Antony on the dead body of Julius Caesar leads the Roman citizens against the killers and a civil war is ignited.

After fighting, Cassius and Brutus lose the decisive battle to Antony and Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son.

With the passing of Brutus and Cassius in the end of the play the audience sees the end of the tragedy of the noble but evil disobedience to the tyrannical Julius Caesar.

Literary Devices in Julius Caesar

1. Foreshadowing

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.

In this particular scene, Calpurnia narrates several menacing signs and warnings seen in Rome that has been interpreted by her as a danger to Caesar.

She dreams about Caesar’s statue bleeding, coupled with the reports of unusual events happening in Rome, such as Lions giving birth in the streets and graves opening up serves as a powerful foreshadowing of Caesar’s assassination.

Caesar rebukes Calpurnia’s fears and the omens. He declares that death is inescapable and should not be feared of.

However, these supernatural signs and intense intuition of Calpurnia create a strong sense of apprehension.

This indicates that something unfortunate is about to happen. This usage of foreshadowing is effective in raising the dramatic plot, making the audience see the inevitable tragedy in the life of Caesar and the foolishness of ignoring possible warnings.

2. Irony

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.

Mark Antony shows skills and applied verbal irony to words appropriately. He uses the term ‘honourable men’ for Brutus and other conspirators several times in the play.

Here, Antony pretends to agree with the conspirators. Furthermore, he elegantly criticizes their actions. The goal of Antony is to weaken the moral character of the conspirators and portray their look bad in the eyes of the Roman people.

The speech of Antony is ironic. He claims that he is there to bury Caesar and not to praise him. However, he concludes his speech by praising Caesar.

He highlights the good qualities of Caesar and questions the reasons of his death. When Antony says, “Brutus says he was ambitious”, he resists it by providing examples of the generosity of the Caesar.

He makes Caesar kind and caring rather than ambitious. These examples weaken the accusation of Brutus against Caesar.

Antony employs irony to influence the public opinion against the conspirators. He continuously says, “Brutus is an honourable man”.

It seems ironic and reveals the deceit of the conspirators. Here, The use of irony indicates the power to turn the public opinion.

3. Symbolism

Are you not moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.
Why, saw you anything more wonderful?
A common slave—you know him well by sight—
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
Like twenty torches join’d, and yet his hand,
Not sensible of fire, remain’d unscorch’d.
Besides—I ha’ not since put up my sword—
Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glazed upon me and went surly by
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.

Casca, narrates a sequence of events that are unnatural in the society especially during a storm in the city of Rome respectively.

The storm itself and unusual events surrounding it are considered as an obvious reflection of the instable political situation and process of revolution.

The violent storm stands for the emerging war and revolution in Rome that points at a massive struggle.

Caesar’s conspiracy and his subsequent assassination bring a new form of havoc in the Roman political order. The imagery of ‘dropping fire’ in the tempest shows that the conspirators have a plan of causing massive destruction just as fire destroys everything in its path.

In the black comedy tradition, supernatural elements as they are manifested in the omen that Casca describes – a slave with a burning hand, a lion on the streets, women seeing men on fire, owl hooting at noon, etc., – indicate the interference with the natural order of the world and the reflection of people’s moral and political degradation in the general decline of the Roman state.

The ‘lion’ that Casca comes across near the Capitol signifies Caesar. It is a symbol that Caesar is powerful and dangerous but not attacking.

Lion wanders in the streets away from the jungle showing the readers that Caesar, the character who was long for power, is posing threat to the Republican system of Rome.

The use of fire in the description of Casca is a triumph again and represents destruction in addition to purification. It makes the reader aware of the tragic end they are going to face as well as the passionate feeling that leads the conspirators. Fire is associated with the divine, which represents the displeasure that the gods have with the current situation in Rome.

4. Metaphor

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

In the soliloquy, Brutus employs numerous metaphors to convey his worries about Caesar regarding becoming a dictator and to justify his murder.

Here, Brutus contrasts the crowning of Caesar to a “bright day”. It brings forward an “adder” (a poisonous snake).

The metaphor indicates that although Caesar is harmless now, however giving him the crown could launch his dangerous and repressive nature. It is like a bright day reflecting a hidden snake. The “adder” symbolizes the dormant threat that Caesar constitutes if granted more power.

In the metaphor, Brutus considers the Caesar as the serpent egg, if allowed to hatch, it would become a dangerous snake.

By comparing the serpent egg with dangerous snake, he states that it is safe to kill Caesar until he becomes a threat.

The use of aforementioned metaphors show the inner conflict of the Brutus and justification for joining the conspiracy against Caesar.

5. Personification

‘Tis Caesar that you mean; is it not, Cassius?
Put on a troubled look, he should be satisfied;
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
Come Caesar to the Capitol tomorrow?
He doth; for he did bid Antonius
Send word to you he would be there tomorrow.
Good night then, Casca: this disturbed sky
Is not to walk in.

In the passage, the night encapsulates the human characteristics. He describes the sky as “disturbed” by attributing the human emotions to the weather.

The use of personification of the sky as “disturbed” indicates the confusion and disruption that are present in the political environment of the Rome.

The stormy weather shows a mirror to the tension and imminent havoc caused by the conspiracy against the Caesar.

The use of personification provides help to create a threatening and fearful atmosphere. It emphasizes the importance of the events that are about to evolve.

Further, it fortifies the idea that the natural world is reacting to the human actions and the confusion in Rome. It also indicates that the murder of Caesar is not a political act but one that disrupts the order of the universe.

6. Rhetorical Devices

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Repetition: Antony continuously declares Brutus and the conspirators as “honourable men”. This repetition firstly appears to support Brutus. However, as the speech of Antony goes on, the phrase becomes ironic.

He reduces the credibility of Brutus and creates doubt on the honorability of the conspirators. The repeated phrase “Brutus says he was ambitious” along with the counter examples of the actions of Caesar raises question and pull down the accusation of ambition.

Rhetorical Questions: Antony employs rhetorical questions to evoke the emotions of the audience and to encourage them to think particularly about the events. For example, the phrase “You all did love him once, not without cause: / What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?”

These questions are categorized to enable the crowd show on their former love for Caesar and to question why they are not mourning his death now. It reflects that their current stance is affected by maneuvering rather than reason.

Appeal to Emotion (Pathos): Antony evokes the emotions of the crowd and expresses his own grief and love for Caesar. He states, “Bear with me; / My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.”

This pathetic moment civilizes Antony. It unfolds his genuine regret, and connects with the audience on an emotional level.

Antithesis: Antony also utilizes the literary technique antithesis to make distinction between the actions and the character of Caesar with the accusations levelled by Brutus. For example, he says, “I thrice presented him a kingly crown, / Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?” He juxtaposes the refusal of Caesar of the crown with the claim of his ambition. Antony indicates the instability in the argument of Brutus and expresses the lack of desire of Caesar about the absolute power.

Themes in “Julius Caesar”

“Julius Caesar” unfolds numerous undergoing themes that echoes with readers and audiences. Theses themes are as under:

  1. Power and Ambition: The play studies the dangerous nature of the political ambition and the falsify impact of the power.
  2. Fate and Free Will: The traction between destiny and personal agency is a repeating motif. It is highlighted by the prophecies and premonition that indicates the death of the Caesar.
  3. Loyalty and Betrayal: The conflict between the loyalty and public duty is important to the characters’ motivations and the actions, especially in internal struggle of the Brutus.
  4. Public vs. Private Selves: The play reveals how the characters stabilize their public personas with their private intentions.
  5. Rhetoric and Persuasion: The power of language and rhetoric is a critical theme. The characters employ convincing speech to influence the public opinion and control others.

To conclude, Shakespeare has depicted the political drama, human thirst of power and the ever anticipating nature of the man in the play. The use of literary devices not only contribute to the narration by bringing scores of tension and qualities of emotion into the story felt by readers and spectators but also leave them thinking about the applicability of the story for their own personal and social experiences. By virtue of complex interrelation of the words meaning “Julius Caesar” remains one of the most engaging and motivating plays to this day being a solid reference in the literature and theatre.

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