What it Means to be a Tragic Hero: Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” | Teen Ink

What it Means to be a Tragic Hero: Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

January 24, 2020
By rosemarymelon SILVER, Garfield, New Jersey
rosemarymelon SILVER, Garfield, New Jersey
5 articles 2 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
Wouldn't the world be better off if we took nonsense more seriously? (Marvin Yagoda)

Characters are the essence of a fictional universe. Mood and tone--their words, inner thoughts, the events that unfold--their actions and reactions. Finally, a character evolves (or devolves) from their initial state of being. The end of their arc capsulizes the themes of the work and the author's intent behind its conception. "1984," for instance: recall the fate of the protagonist. Winston, the individual, dies, following tremendous torture and interrogation from his government. He loses his sense of rationality, his ability to tell that, objectively, two plus two makes four. Personal freedoms, too, his affair with Julia, his diary and room--"Big Brother" takes them all away. Orwell uses Winston's violation of self to warn against the dangers of totalitarianism. How complete subservience to those in power can lead to great devastation. In a letter to "Noel Willmett," Orwell asserts his views on the matter:

"He (Hitler) can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives...two and two could become five...That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible..." 

Generally, the fate of a "tragic hero" in Shakespearean tragedies serves the primary aim of engaging the audience. To arouse “pity and fear" in them (Aristotle). To do this, most (if not all) of Shakespeare's tragedies follow the same five-act structure. Act I--beginning, the introduction of characters, Act II--conflict, and so on. During Act III, a protagonist commits a grave error due to a hamartia (tragic flaw) unbeknownst to them. What follows is a change in fate (peripeteia); good fortune becomes terrible misfortune. In an awful case of dramatic irony, viewers then see how their heroes crumble under the weight of their sins (Act IV). Think "Romeo and Juliet," the death and disaster that ensues. Why did the two titular characters, like Winston, suffer such horrible fates? Blind, reckless infatuation, the audience pities and learns from their example (Act V). Some works contain several tragic figures, Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," in particular, has six. Caesar's pride, Brutus' naivety, and Antony's wrath; these flaws shape and destroy Rome. And themselves. Still, one character tends to embody the "tragic hero" trope more so than the rest: Caius Cassius. His arc in short: He strives for power, plotting to overthrow the current ruler of Rome to replace him. A conspiracy forms under him; he convinces Brutus to join. By Act III, his plan follows through, Cassius and his accomplices kill the "tyrannical" Caesar. Except, Cassius fails to take his place. This fact is what makes his story especially tragic: his inability to succeed. His fate teaches a greater lesson than that of Brutus'. One that better encapsulates the purpose of the play’s creation.

Destroying the conspiracy in its entirety, Antony accomplishes his goal: revenge. No consequences did he suffer, nor misery. That is, aside from the anger he feels in the immediate aftermath of Julius Caesar's death. (Act III, Scene 1) That affliction, even then, was not the result of anything he had done at a prior moment in the play. In other words, Marc Antony didn't murder Caesar. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero's fate must change from happiness to misery due to a "great error." "A good quality, like pride, that gets out of hand." Antony doesn't fit this description, nor do the women of the play (Portia and Calpurnia, to be more precise). Although they do suffer, Portia most of all, it's not due to a fault or misdeed of their own. Indeed, despite herself, Portia is a very passive character compared to the men of the play. Her troubles stem from Brutus; he joins the plot to kill Caesar, which makes her paranoid and neurotic. Portia, to Lucius: “...‘Yes, bring me word, boy, if thy lord (Brutus) look well, For he went sickly forth’...‘Hark, boy! What noise is that?’...Lucius: ‘I hear none, madam.’...” (Act II, Scene 4) Following his rise to power, Antony forces Brutus into exile. Sometime after, Portia commits suicide, unable to handle her beloved's absence. Her entire world revolves around him; again, all she endures is a result of Brutus' misdeeds. To an even greater extent, Calpurnia is subservient to Caesar. She does, once protest her husband, urging him to stay home the very day the Senate plans to murder him. Of course, greater than fear itself (self-proclaimed, that is), Caesar refuses. Following his assassination, Calpurnia is never heard from again. In fact, her grief, the strife she may have undergone, is unknown. Such misery, regardless, would not be the effect of her own actions; rather, Caesar’s ego.

Left now are: Marcus Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Caius Cassius. Unlike the previous, all three have tragic flaws that lead to their personal downfall. What separates Cassius from Brutus and Caesar is his ultimate success or lack of thereof. Despite his death, Brutus succeeded somewhat; he did what he thought was best for Rome and kept his honor. Instead of unifying the city, he partook in destroying it; truth be told, that part of his plan was a massive failure. Yet, he remained constant, noble, to the point of folly. Cassius' flaw has a similar admiralty. Ambition is what motivates people to act, to strive for more. Cassius' desire to be better than Caesar wasn't a bad thing; his means of achieving that goal were. But, while Brutus never stops being noble, Cassius becomes complacent, fearful. When Marc Antony rises to power, he never tries to take it from him, like he did with Caesar. Instead, he hides and awaits his death. Once, he believed in free will, his ability to provoke or influence change. By the end of the play, though, he ascribes to fate. He loses that part of himself in his misery, a personal conviction: his drive. It's this loss of self that makes Cassius more tragic than Brutus or Caesar. Like Brutus, he (Caesar) remained the same, confident until death. As "constant as the northern star."(Act III, Scene 1)

Cassius’ arc is that of a true tragic hero. He starts out strong, respected. Ambition, his hamartia, allowed him to rise near the top. Failure struck him down and he became uncertain, cowardly. Many of the major themes of “Julius Caesar” derive from concepts of power, how it can cloud one's judgment. Cassius is a noteworthy case. His pursuit of power blinded him to the error of his ways, to the suffering he would inflict upon himself and Rome. Too late, he realized this, "Go, Pindarus, get higher on that hill; my sight was ever thick..." (Act V, Scene 3) There, he admits, he is no longer able to face the consequences of his actions for himself.


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Aristotle’s Ideas About Tragedy.”

School-given resource 

Orwell, George. “George Orwell: A Life in Letters.” 1944, 


Shakespeare, William. “The Life and Death of Julius Caesar.” Julius Caesar: Entire Play, 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/full.html.

The author's comments:

Honors English II. My teacher thought this essay was unique; aside from selecting a less obvious character for the prompt (Cassius was my favorite!), it has a creative structure to it, according to him. For that reason, I decided to upload it here.

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