Julius Caesar

Public vs. Private Theme Analysis

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Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Logic and Language Theme Icon
Public vs. Private Theme Icon
Politics and Morality Theme Icon
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Public vs. Private Theme Icon

Julius Caesar isn’t only a play about political intrigue, but about the internal and domestic struggles that sometimes churn underneath such intrigue. Shakespeare takes care to portray the private struggles of major characters as they agonize over their future actions and are even advised by their wives. In particular, both Caesar and Brutus wrestle in different ways with the interplay between public and private. In both cases, private concerns must ultimately yield to what each man believes is the best for the public—in Caesar’s case, a display of inexorable strength, and in Brutus’s case, the murder of Caesar, a man he loves. By portraying the contrast between private and public, and especially by using domestic scenes to set up consequential public events, Shakespeare argues that public figures aren’t always what they appear, and that public acts often come at a cost to personal integrity or happiness.

Though Caesar projects a public persona of invulnerable strength—"I rather tell thee what is to be feared,” he tells Antony, “than what I fear; for always I am Caesar”—he is privately hampered by various weaknesses. For example, only those closest to Caesar seem to be aware of his deafness and his apparent susceptibility to frequent illness. And, more markedly, his devotion to his wife, Calpurnia, exerts a strong mitigating effect on his desire to project unvarying strength. When Calpurnia tells Caesar about the various dreams and omens she fears, his claims of fearlessness (“What can be avoided / Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?”) initially yield to Calpurnia’s emotional offer of a way out (“Call it my fear / that keeps you in the house, and not your own”). His earlier urging of Calpurnia to participate in a Lupercal superstition thought to cure infertility also shows how much private concerns compete with public demands in Caesar’s mind. Yet, though it looks at first as if the former will supersede the latter, conspirator Decius’s flattering reinterpretation of an omen changes Caesar’s mind just as quickly; he decides to go to the Capitol after all, even if his determination to uphold the appearance of strength costs him his life. It’s clear, then, that both private and public concerns weigh heavily on Caesar’s mind, and that he is easily swayed to favor one over the other. However, he ultimately yields to what’s necessary in order to preserve his public image as strong and fearless.

Brutus’s public acts are also heavily influenced by what takes place in private. Especially, Brutus is tormented by the contrast between his personal regard for Caesar and his need to act for the public good of Rome. His ruminations about this take place largely in private—the beginning of Act 2 finds him pacing in his garden, in the middle of reasoning that “I know no personal cause to spurn at [Caesar],” yet “it is the bright day that brings forth the adder” which must be crushed while still in the shell. In other words, the two men’s friendly private connection must yield to what might pose danger to the broader public—and the latter will only be revealed once Caesar gains too much power, meaning that it will then be too late for private scruples to outweigh the public good. His belief that he’s backed into a corner causes Brutus anguish, shown by his insomnia and the rebellion of the “little kingdom” of his body—that is, a private, small-scale parallel to the upheaval of the public world. And, like Caesar, Brutus is influenced by his wife; Shakespeare’s inclusion of the private scene with Portia—in which the conspirators’ nighttime visit is followed by Portia’s modeling of “masculine” fortitude—suggests that his wife’s strength steels Brutus for what he believes he must do (“Render me worthy of this noble wife!”). While Brutus isn’t concerned with upholding a public persona as Caesar is, he, too, ultimately yields his private concerns to what he perceives as the public good.

All the major characters of Julius Caesar are public figures—some are even like celebrities—and are conscious of the fact that they live their lives and make their decisions before the audience of the Roman people, who may or may not be receptive. Even Antony, who appears to be a "man of the people" and a loyal friend, plans to cheat the people out of Caesar's legacy, despite his public self-presentation as the people’s champion. Through self-contradictory portrayals like these, Shakespeare shows that the tensions inherent in a celebrity-driven culture are consistent across time.

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Public vs. Private ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Public vs. Private appears in each scene of Julius Caesar. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Public vs. Private Quotes in Julius Caesar

Below you will find the important quotes in Julius Caesar related to the theme of Public vs. Private.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Related Characters: Julius Caesar (speaker), Caius Cassius
Page Number: 1.2.202-205
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But those that understood him smil'd at one another, and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

Related Characters: Casca (speaker), Julius Caesar
Related Symbols: Rome
Page Number: 1.2.293-295
Explanation and Analysis:
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Act 2, scene 1 Quotes

I grant I am a woman; but withal a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife; I grant I am a woman; but withal a women well reputed, Cato's daughter. Think you I am no stronger than my sex, being so father'd, and so husbanded? Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose'em. I have made a strong proof of my constancy, giving myself a voluntary wound here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience, and not my husband's secrets?

Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Marcus Brutus
Related Symbols: Body, Blood, & Pain
Page Number: 2.1.315-325
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Act 2, scene 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Julius Caesar (speaker)
Related Symbols: Omens, Body, Blood, & Pain
Page Number: 2.2.34-39
Explanation and Analysis:
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Act 3, scene 2 Quotes

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 honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable 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 honorable man.

Related Characters: Mark Antony (speaker), Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus
Related Symbols: Body, Blood, & Pain, Rome
Page Number: 3.2.82-96
Explanation and Analysis:
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Act 4, scene 3 Quotes

Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman.

Related Characters: Marcus Brutus (speaker), Julius Caesar
Related Symbols: Omens, Body, Blood, & Pain, Rome
Page Number: 4.3.19-29
Explanation and Analysis:
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