Who's in charge, who ought to be in charge, and how well are those in charge doing? These are central questions in Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan expectation would be that the ruling class ought to rule and that they ought to rule in the best interests of the people. Such is not the case in the Rome of this play. Barely controlled chaos has come to Rome, and this unsettled state is personified in the first scene of Julius Caesar through the characters of the cobbler and the carpenter. These characters give readers a sense that the people themselves are a sort of amorphous mass, potentially dangerous and, at the same time, absolutely essential to the success of the ruling class. Throughout the play, they are addressed: Caesar must give them entertainment and seeks their approbation for his crowning, Brutus recognizes that he must explain his actions to them, and Antony uses them for his own purposes. Yet, despite the plebeians' surging power, real chaos actually lies in the failure of the ruling class to exercise their authority properly and to live by the accepted rules of hierarchy and order.
These same threats and concerns resonated to an Elizabethan audience. At the time this play was performed in 1599, civil strife was within living memory. Henry VIII's reformation of the Church of England had brought violence and unrest to the country. In addition, despite all of his efforts, Henry had not provided a living and legitimate male heir for England. At his death, his daughter Mary returned the church to the bosom of Rome, demanding that her subjects align themselves with Catholicism. When Mary, too, died without heir, her sister, Elizabeth, took the throne. What followed was a long period, from 1548 to her death in 1603, of relative peace and prosperity. However, Elizabeth's subjects experienced unease during her reign. She was, after all, a woman, and according to the Elizabethan understanding of order, men ruled women, not the other way around.
Her subjects wished for Elizabeth to marry for a number of reasons. They would have felt much more secure knowing that a man was in charge, but further, they were tired of worries over succession. A legitimate heir was necessary. The Queen, on the other hand, over the period of her fertility refused the suits of a number of appropriate men, knowing that once married, she would no longer rule the realm. By the time this play was performed Elizabeth was an old woman, well beyond the age of childbearing. Even then, she refused to name an heir and the country worried that they would face another period of unrest at her death.
But even without this historical context, Elizabethans would have been interested in questions of order and hierarchy — questions raised by the political upheaval of Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan worldview was one in which everyone had their place. In many ways, they understood the world in terms of the family unit. God was the head of the heavenly family, with Jesus as his son. The monarch was subservient only to God, receiving power to head the English family from Him. The monarch's subjects maintained their kingdoms through the various levels of society and finally into their own homes, with men ruling their wives and wives ruling their children. Elizabethan thinking went so far as to order all living things in a hierarchy known as the Great Chain of Being, from God and the various levels of angels right through to the lowliest animal. In such a rigidly structured society it is entirely understandable that its members would be interested in exploring and examining the potentials of and the excitement that would be provided by an inversion of that order.
On the other hand, while it would have been acceptable to examine this relatively objective philosophical issue in the public theater, it would have been much less acceptable (to say the least) to set it within the context of the history of their own period. No direct questioning of England's state or monarch would have been possible. Playwrights of the time were aware of the dilemma and crafted their plays so that they would not offend. The setting of this play, therefore, in ancient Rome was the perfect answer. The story, taken from the Roman historian, Plutarch's, work called Lives, was well known to Shakespeare's audience, full of drama and conflict, and was sufficiently distant in time to allow both Shakespeare and his audience to operate in safety.
Now, on to the play itself. At the point in ancient history in which Julius Caesar is set, Rome was becoming slightly more democratic — well, democratic in their terms, not in modern ones. Tribunes, meant as representatives of the people, were being elected in order to protect them from the rigors of tyranny. Thus, to have a man like Caesar, charismatic and fresh from military triumph, come into the city and begin to establish himself as a supreme ruler was a dangerous trend. It is not surprising, then, that Flavius and Marullus behave as they do at the beginning of the play. They are, in effect, doing their job properly and to an Elizabethan audience their behavior, despite its autocratic tone to a modern reader's ears, would have been perfectly acceptable and should have been met with obedience and respect. The carpenter and cobbler, however, are barely under control and show little respect, although they do ultimately obey.
But it is not the masses who are the problem in this play. The real failure is that the ruling class does not rule properly. Instead of uniting for the good of the people as they ought to, they imagine themselves as individuals forming small splinter groups that, in the end undermine genuine authority. By disabling themselves in this way, the aristocratic class can still manipulate unruly plebeians but cannot keep them in check.
As a member of that class, Brutus is as much at fault as anyone else. It is, in fact, tempting to think of Brutus as an entirely sympathetic character. At the end of the play, the audience hears extravagant words of praise: "This was the noblest Roman of them all" and "This was a man." By this point, however, readers ought to mistrust their reactions to such praise. Antony and Octavius have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of using and misusing language in order to establish their own positions, and the play has given ample evidence of a tendency to objectify the dead rather than to remember them as they actually were.
To be fair, there are gradations of character fault in this play and Brutus is more sympathetic than other characters. He does indeed believe that what he has done by murdering Caesar was necessary, and believes that anyone who hears his rationale will side with him. His very naïveté suggests innocence. On the other hand, upon examining his soliloquy in Act II, Scene 1, note that Brutus must do a fair amount to convince himself that Caesar must die: He has to admit that Caesar has not yet done anything wrong and so decides that his violent act will be preemptory, heading off the inevitable results of Caesar's ambition. Brutus' dilemma is that he has bought into the belief that if one lives life entirely by a philosophy — in his case one of logic and reason — everyone will be all right. He denies any other viewpoint and so is as blinded as Caesar is deaf. Before praising Brutus as Antony does after his death, remember that Brutus brought himself and the state of Rome to a point of such instability.
Antony, another member of that ruling class, is also one of the more sympathetic characters of the play. But is he a good ruler? The audience may like him for his emotion. His outrage at the murder of Caesar and his tears over Caesar's corpse are undoubtedly genuine. His revenge is partly fuelled by the horror and anger he feels at the outrage, and the reader is drawn to such loyalty. In addition, the skill that he exhibits in his manipulation of theatrical effects and language during his funeral oration is powerful and attractive. Yet, Antony is culpable too. While his emotional response is undoubtedly justified, it, too, contributes to unrest and political instability. While he, Octavius, and Lepidus ultimately form a triumvirate to return the state to stability, in fact, that it is a ruling structure fraught with problems. Lepidus is weak and a power struggle is on the horizon for Antony and Octavius. (In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius is the ultimate winner of that struggle.)