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Although Julius Caesar is a well-known public figure of ancient Rome, Shakespeare has molded the legendary figure to suit his own dramatic purposes, sometimes ignoring historic facts. Through the ages, Shakespeare's interpretation of the character of Caesar has provoked considerable critical controversy. Some critics feel that Caesar is portrayed as a typical braggart, characterized by pride, arrogance, foolish oblivion to any of his own weaknesses or to any impending danger. Others argue that despite some very human failings, including partial deafness in his left ear and some form of epilepsy, Caesar is a great man, proven in the play by the loyalty of Antony and the respect given him by most Roman citizens.
Shakespeare does not exalt Caesar to the status of a perfect, or even outstanding, ruler-a characterization that would have reduced the tragedy to a simplistic melodrama of blood and revenge, where evil self-seeking politicians plot the murder of a mighty leader for purely personal gain. Neither does he portray Caesar as an absolute tyrant-a characterization that would have provided unquestionable justification for Brutus' participation. Instead, Shakespeare's Caesar is a multidimensional tragic character who has fascinated audiences for centuries. He is a complicated mixture of strength and weakness, coupled with virtue and vice. He hints that he can be dictatorial, without ever proving himself to be a tyrant; he has proven that he was a good military leader without ever proving he would have been a good Emperor. Shakespeare intentionally portrays Caesar in shades of gray rather than in clearly black or white.
Caesar often allows his pride to get in his way, sometimes making him appear foolish. After his military victory over Pompey, he proudly rides into the city and enjoys the show of pomp given to him. It is obvious that he definitely wants to become Emperor of Rome and believes he can rise to the challenge. But Caesar can also be very wise. In order to win the populace to his side, he refuses the crown of the Roman State three times, but each time he reveals that he is less reluctant. Even in his refusal, Caesar seems pompous and false, relishing the attention he is given and glorying in his own false humility.
Caesar's pride also makes him ignore warnings that are given to him. His wife Calphurnia tells him about her bad dreams and begs her husband not to go to the Senate. The soothsayer calls out to him to "beware the Ides of March." Artemidorus tries to show him a list of the conspirators. He brushes off all the warnings. He does not ignore these things because he feels they are mere superstition, for Caesar himself proves he is superstitious when he encourages his wife to take part in a superstitious cure for infertility. It is Caesar's own arrogant sense of infallibility that makes him ignore these signs and warning. He does not believe he could possibly have an enemy in the world. He is too full of himself to see his own weaknesses.
Shakespeare's Caesar does not undergo any real change during the play. He is introduced as a great, but arrogant man, and he dies a great, but arrogant man; even the conspirators, who know his weaknesses, acknowledge his greatness. When Caesar is seen for the first time returning from his war victory, he is praised by the multitude. In return, he shows that he is proud, pompous, and self-confident. When he assumes a leadership role, he quickly shows that he has tyrannical tendencies. From the first warning given to him by the soothsayer, he proves he is too arrogant to listen to the advice of others. He is too sure of himself to believe that there are those who dislike or resent him. When he is stabbed, he is surprised that he has enemies who would want to kill him; when he sees that Brutus is among the conspirator, he can barely believe his eyes. Caesar dies in total disbelief.
It seems clear that Shakespeare intended Caesar to be the protagonist of the play, entitling the drama after him. More importantly, the entire play revolves around Caesar. The first three acts focus on the conspirators desire to get rid of him; the last two acts are a reaction to his death. Even after life is over for Caesar, he haunts the spirits of the assassins. Additionally, he physically appears to Brutus as a ghost. As a result, his early and untimely death in the play does not diminish his presence. Caesar is center stage from the very beginning to the very end of this tragedy. Both Brutus and Cassius address his being as they commit suicide.