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There has been much critical discussion about who is the real protagonist of the play. Most critics argue that Julius Caesar is the protagonist of the play, pointing out that he is the title character and the cause of all the action in the play. Even in scenes in which he is absent, he is the focus of the discussion and the reason for the revenge. After his death, his ghost roams the landscape of the play, further spurring the action. His character definitely holds the dramatic structure of the play together. Other critics argue that Caesar is a static character; undergoing no psychological change in the play; they also point out that he is murdered halfway through the drama. These critics believe that Marcus Brutus is the protagonist, claiming he is the complex character of the play whose psyche is explored in depth. They argue that his tragic flaw is very obvious; it is his immutable sense of principle and nobility. Because of his flaw, he makes many mistakes and suffers for them; as a result, he changes dramatically in the play. He first appears as Caesar's faithful friend; he then becomes a member of a conspiracy; he next serves as the misguided leader of a not-so-civil war; and finally he is seen as a man who has lost everything he once held dear, including his principles. In this analysis, Julius Caesar will be viewed as the protagonist of the main plot, and Marcus Brutus will be considered as the protagonist of the very important subplot.
Julius Caesar is an arrogant soldier and ambitious politician, who believes that he is infallible. After his great victory over the sons of Pompey, he believes that he is worthy of more power than just being the head of Rome; he wants to be crowned the leader of the entire Roman Empire.
Caesar's antagonists are Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators who do not want him to become the head of the Roman Empire. They plot to overthrow Caesar and assassinate him outside the Capitol; he is an easy target because of his fatal flaw - his extreme "hubris" or pride. Many times, Caesar is nearly saved by omens and warnings, but he disregards them, thinking himself infallible. He is so proud that he is easily flattered, leading him to think less strategically and placing himself in grave danger.
The tragic plot rises to its climax in the third act when Caesar is assassinated. It is an intensely dramatic scene in which Caesar's supposed friends converge on him and jointly stab him. This act of sacrilegious murder of the head of the state unleashes revolutionary forces headed by Brutus and Cassius against Antony and Octavius, giving rise to the subplot that centers on Brutus.
The play clearly ends in tragedy. Caesar is overcome and assassinated by a group of conspirators. His death, which was supposed to prevent tyranny and dictatorship, gives rise to a massive and brutal civil war. Cassius, the key conspirator, kills himself; and Brutus runs on his own sword to commit suicide. A truly dictatorial triumvirate, composed of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, becomes the new leadership for Rome; the new government probably inflicts more harm than Julius Caesar would have done.
Marcus Brutus is the protagonist of the subplot of the play. He is a noble man who believes in his principles above all else, even when they are misguided. Believing that Rome will be better without Julius Caesar, he joins in the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. After Caesar is killed, he is drawn into a bloody civil war in which he and Cassius must fight Antony and Octavius.
The key antagonist for Brutus is his own misguided sense of principle. He is certain that he is joining in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar for the good of Rome. His tragic flaw is his idealism. He makes the fatal mistake of acting on his perceived public duty, to save Rome from Caesar, in direct conflict with the direction of his heart. Brutus is easily goaded on by Cassius, a master manipulator who is filled with envy and hungry for power. Brutus is so caught up in fulfilling his public destiny that he does not realize he has been manipulated into sacrificing his honor for a less-than-honorable cause.
During the civil war that follows Caesar's death, Brutus fools himself into believing that that Rome will still be a better place without the leadership of Caesar. When he realizes that the new Roman Triumvirate, composed of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, will be more dictatorial and tyrannous than Caesar, he realizes his own folly. He decides to end his own life by running on to his own sword.
Brutus' climax occurs when he realizes the futility of his actions, caused by his misguided principles. Personally shamed and defeated and horrified at what has happened to Rome, he decides in the fifth act to commit suicide.
The subplot ends as a tragedy, like the main plot. Brutus is defeated by his own principles and takes his own life, ending the tragedy that began with the death of Caesar.
Note: There is one small ray of hope in the tragic play. Despite all the deaths and bloodshed, at least order has been restored to Rome by the end of the play.