William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar Shakespeare Octavius Caesar

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In the play Julius Caesar, although Octavius Caesar does not play a large role, Shakespeare constructs his character by highlighting those aspects of his personality that reveal his later predominance in political and military conflicts and his impending role as Emperor.

Like Caesar, the audience hears about Octavius before he appears in the play. When Octavius is first mentioned during the conversation Antony has with Octavius’ servant, Antony calls him “young” and that “no Rome of safety for Octavius yet”, giving the audience an impression that Octavius is merely an inexperienced youth. But in the next scene that Octavius is mentioned, the audience is given a sense of a potential power in him as Antony tells Octavius’ servant to “bring me to Octavius”, rather than Octavius coming to see him, giving a servant-master impression as though Antony has finished the task his master had ordered and is now going to report back. This scene ends with Octavius’ name, giving a forceful impact to his name and character as the audience realizes that the action that follows will be decided with Octavius’ command.

The first time Octavius’ person appears in the play is in Act four scene one where he, Antony and Lepidus has formed a new political Triumvirate. He is presented as cold, ruthless and a formidable leader. In order to stabilize the political situation in Rome following the assassination and to solidify the Triumvirs’ control of the government, Octavius is willing to conduct a ruthless reign of terror during which the opponents to them are methodically slaughtered, but not all of those on the proscription list are actual enemies. Some are simply wealthy Romans who are condemned as “traitors” and executed in order that the triumvirs may confiscate their estates as a means of raising money to finance their armies. This cold, ruthless and emotionless image of Octavius is immediately established in his first line in the play “your brother too must die”, which is in many ways an echo of Caesar. The tone is unmistakably authoritative and unchallengeable, exactly the same way in which Caesar dismissed Metellus’ pled for his brother. What is interesting to notice is that Octavius does not volunteer members of his own immediate family to the list, nor does Antony or Lepidus insist that he should.

Though young and inexperienced, Octavius knows that he is in a power struggle with not only the conspirators but Antony also, which would intensify after they have defeated their enemies. Like Caesar who has great insight into people such as Cassius, Octavius too exhibits insight in his observation that all who currently act friendly to him are not indeed friends. This is strongly revealed in his attitude towards Antony throughout the play. He knows enough about Antony’s thirst for power to protect himself from domination by Antony. Consequently, he is not reluctant to disagree with Antony as he demonstrates in his defense of Lepidus, objecting to Antony’s view of Lepidus as a “slight, unmeritable man”, saying that “he’s a tried and valiant soldier”. His determination of not being dominated and that he is the formidable leader is revealed when he points out Antony’s error in predicting that their “enemy would not come down, but keep the hills and upper regions”. The power struggle is further emphasized when Antony instructs Octavius to “lead your battle softly on upon the left hand of the even field”, but Octavius insists that he will fight “upon the right hand” and commands Antony “keep thou the left”. The internal conflict within the triumvirs is brought fully to the light when Antony asks “why do you cross me in this exigent?” and Octavius, keeping his stance, replies “I do not cross you: but I will do so”.

However, Octavius does not let his determination totally interfere with following Antony’s advice when he realizes that Antony speaks from experience and that he needs Antony as an ally to defeat Brutus and Cassius. This is revealed when Antony tells Octavius to “let our alliance be combined, Our best friends made, our means stretched”, Octavius replies “let us do so”, not because he genuinely sees Antony as a friend, but because “we are at the stake, and bayed about with many enemies”, so he has no choice but accept Antony’s alliance to ensure the success of his cause as Antony is a experienced soldier. Octavius realization of needing Antony’s experienced advice is revealed when he asks Antony “shall we give sign of battle?” and heeds to his opinion that they should not start the battle yet, but “answer on their charge”. Octavius accepts Antony’s decision and commands his soldiers “stir not until the signal”.

Octavius’ power and status has been rising since his first appearance. It is especially interesting to note that Antony, on his first mention of Octavius, adds the adjective “young” in front of “Octavius”, and later drops the “young” and simple calls him “Octavius”. But upon the battle scene, Antony switches to addressing him in a much more formal way, calling him “Caesar”. This reveals the growing respect and status of Octavius, foretelling his impending gain of power like his uncle, Julius Caesar. Octavius has proven himself the leader of the future when he makes the epilogue of the play, honoring Brutus by giving him “all respect and rites of burial” and “within my tent his bones tonight shall lie”. We respect Brutus’ enemy for praising and giving him such honor as this, but we can also sense that Octavius does this to secure the conquest for himself, fully establishing himself as the leader.

In conclusion, Octavius is shrewd, ruthless, determined and decisive in his political assessments, his relationship with Antony and he the cause he wants to achieve. Knowing that Shakespeare likes to end his plays with the character who will establish order and become king speaking, we can securely assume that Octavius will become the ruler of Rome.

More about this author: Dr Ronnie Bai

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