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"ambition's ladder"
Act 2,
Scene 1
Lines 11-34

An explanation of the metaphor of the ladder of success in Act 2, Scene 1 of myShakespeare’s Julius Caesar.


I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crowned —
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power, and — to speak truth of Caesar —
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg —
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous —
And kill him in the shell.

We're familiar with the metaphor of the ladder of success. Caesar, like many politically ambitious youths, climbed the ladder of success by cultivating his popularity among the “lowliness,” the lower classes. Brutus thinks that Caesar, like the others, will turn his back on the plebeians once he’s achieved the heights of power.

But there’s a cleverness in Brutus’ choice of words. “Lowliness” can also mean humility, and it’s through his display of humility that Caesar developed his popularity among the plebeians. Finally, “base degrees” can also mean lower steps—the bottom rungs of the ladder in the metaphor.