Great Caesar’s Ghost

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By Dr. John Langdon

Great Caesar's Ghost image

We have just reached that point where latest night bleeds into earliest morning.  A man paces restlessly in a tent in the middle of a military encampment, all his companions long since asleep.  The crucial battle looms ahead of him, and his mind won’t let him rest.  Doubts surround his noblest convictions, threatening to vanquish them.  Thoughts of long-lost friends and lovers are awash in waves of pain and deep regret.

Tortured by these reflections, the man hears a small sound. Turning, he sees someone standing before him.  One of his dearest friends.  A man whom he helped to assassinate, believing that his friend’s death would be better for the world.

In Act 4, scene 3 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s portentous ghost appears to Brutus.  The ghost foretells Brutus’ final defeat at the hands of Marc Antony’s triumvirate forces in the coming battle at Philippi, but Caesar’s appearance also marks a final solidification, an embodiment of Brutus’ own doubts and guilt.

We are used to seeing such ominous ghosts in the plays of Shakespeare and in those of his early modern colleagues.  These spectral devices have classical antecedents in Roman tragedy, and they have specific dramatic functions.  Apparitions most often mark pivotal moments in the plot, moments where a lead character’s fortune changes, or moments where the play’s tone or the plot direction is about to change in some significant way.  Yet, ghosts can also perform expository and narrative functions.  In Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the ghost of the Spanish officer, Andrea, consorts with the embodied persona of Revenge to serve as a kind of chorus, offering a simultaneous commentary and directional indication for the play.  In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was perhaps written 15 to almost 20 years after Kyd’s influential drama, the ghost of prince Hamlet’s father becomes, in a sense, a coalescence of memory and revenge in a single figure.  Old Hamlet’s ghost is a manifestation of a kingdom ill at ease, of the dis-ease within the state, a personification of the way in which the former kingdom’s leadership has been murdered, metaphorically to become a ghost of its former potent self.

Neither need spirits be singular or strictly linked to the past. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example, the titular character is visited in his sleep by a number of ghosts of various people whom he has murdered, and this dire omen, as Caesar’s ghost does to Brutus, presages his defeat and death in the upcoming battle of Bosworth Field.  However, in Macbeth, in addition to the prophesying spirits that appear to him in Act 4, scene 1, Macbeth is also shown a procession of future kings who will be descended from his former friend, Banquo.  These future ghosts have no dialogue, but they speak strangely to our sense of fate and predetermination, further accelerating Macbeth’s already rapid descent.    

Caesar’s ghost does this as well, not only indicating Brutus’ impending downfall, but also precipitating the denouement of the entire play.  Yet, in keeping with the nature of ghosts themselves, the appearance of Caesar’s ghost in Act 4 of Julius Caesar also encompasses a broader dimension than that of a simple perfunctory dramatic device.  On a character level, the ghost combines a quickening confluence of circumstances with a dramatic turning point, not just in the weary Brutus’ fortunes, but in the character’s mind and spirit as well.

Appearing in the liminal space at the very edge of dreams, the ghost confronts a Brutus who has already been navigating psychologically choppy seas.  Just before the ghost’s appearance in the play, Brutus has argued with his co-conspirator, Cassius, and he has also been contemplating the death of his beloved wife, Portia.  The row with Cassius has hinted to Brutus that he may have been relatively isolated in the nobility of his own motivations in participating in Caesar’s assassination.  He has been pointedly confronted with the idea that other conspirators may have participated in the assassination more from hope of personal gain than from a genuine effort to secure the greater good of Rome.

So, this phantom moment in the play characterizes profound emotional and intellectual isolation.  Even the musician has fallen asleep and the music has gone silent.  Alone with the deep ache of his wife’s recent death, with the chasm of potentially having committed to a questionably moral cause yawning abruptly at his feet, Brutus’ painful self-examination marks a true dark night of the soul.  It is into such moments of emptiness that ghosts most often appear to us.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR


How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.


Thy evil spirit, Brutus.


Why comest thou?


To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.


Well; then I shall see thee again?


Ay, at Philippi.


Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost 

The ghost’s response to Brutus’ opening question leaves open the kind of interpretive space that we often find elsewhere in Shakespeare, potentially allowing the line to be read in more than one way.  While the ghost seems to say that, as an “evil spirit”, it is a spirit of ill omen to Brutus, it also states that it is “thy” evil spirit, and perhaps signifying Brutus’ own evil, representing the ripening fruits of his character’s past associations and transgressions—his past participation in the confederacy to murder Caesar finally coming home to roost.   

If we consider “thy evil spirit, Brutus” as a kind of reflection of Brutus’ own evil, it harkens back to Cassius’ initial arguments to Brutus, when he first begins to beguile Brutus to join the conspiracy against Julius Caesar.  Cassius’ statement in Act 1 that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings” (JC, 1.2.148-9) is reflexive, turning responsibility back upon the self.  Cassius speaks of personal advancement here, saying, “Brutus and Caesar—what should be in that ‘Caesar’? /Why should that name be sounded more than yours?” (150-1).  In spite of Brutus’ later assertion, “Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?” (4.3.20), Caesar’s murder nonetheless retains the taint of having been motivated by personal gain, haunted by the ghost selfish glory possibly having supplanted the greater good.

Not surprisingly, Brutus seems somewhat resigned to the news that Caesar’s ghost will see him at Philippi.  His response, “Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then” indicates not so much surprise or indignation as recognition and a possible resignation.  For Brutus, from this point in the play, only the descent remains.

In terms of performance-based considerations, “enter the ghost of Caesar” tells us that the apparition should be recognizable—that the audience should be able to identify the ghost as Caesar’s as readily as Brutus does.  Caesar’s ghost speaks with Brutus directly, representative of an active past that remains with the audience in the ongoing world of the play.  Whether emblematic of the past mistakes, regret, or of the mounting force of impending failure the ghost’s presence remains a remarkably solid one, strongly indicating the approaching culmination of all of these forces.  It may even be seen as a materialisation of Brutus’ own collective sorrows, gathering upon the stage.

This idea is especially sobering, reminding us how much our own pasts remain always with us.  Our own sorrows and regrets wait just outside of our tents, ready to slip in and speak to us on late nights when we find ourselves so suddenly alone.  In these shadowed moments, faces of vanished friends return to us, as we face what we might have done differently in our own lives.

In Julius Caesar, Caesar represents a great potential change for Rome.  Caesar’s ghost, however, seems to represent something much more personal to Brutus and to us.  It represents the things that haunt our lives and our dreams and return to us in our most solitary moments of reflection.  Shakespeare reminds us that we all have our own inescapable ghosts following us, and that this is part of life.  Ghosts represent those alchemical flashes when the past surfaces once again at the very moment that it transforms into the future.

In this heartbreaking moment, Shakespeare condenses Brutus’ movement away from friendship, and from the best part of himself.  His loyalty has transformed into an empty scarecrow that overlooks mere rhetorical constructs of ‘honor’ and ‘nobility’.  Even before Marc Antony tears them down, those words ring hollow because they have somehow been brought to Brutus from outside himself.  In the moment that Caesar’s ghost confronts him, Brutus finally perceives his fatal mistakes as he faces a future that promises him the only kind of end to which such paths always seem to lead.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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