32 pages 1 hour read

Albert Camus


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1944

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Summary and Study Guide


Caligula is a play by Albert Camus, a 20th-century French author and philosopher. Camus is known for his novels The Stranger and The Plague, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957. He is considered part of the existentialist school of philosophy, although he resisted the label during his lifetime. His literary work was a major contribution to philosophical reflections on the absurd, which Caligula fits into. Caligula is sometimes classified as an early representation of the “Theater of the Absurd,” a movement of European playwrights in the mid-20th century. These playwrights explored the idea that life is essentially meaningless, which renders all human valuations—such as good and evil—inherently ridiculous.

Camus wrote an early version of Caligula as a three-act play in the late 1930s. This early version was designed for Camus and his friends to put on at their theater in Algeria, but circumstances prevented its release. As World War II encompassed Europe, Camus returned to his manuscript, editing and expanding it. The standard version of the play was published in 1944 and performed in Paris the following year. Caligula has been republished many times and performed both on stage and in film, along with an operatic adaptation.

The play deals with the story of Caligula, the infamous Roman emperor from the first century CE, whose cruelty and depravity define his rule. Camus tells the historical tale of Caligula faithfully, including his assassination. However, he interprets the emperor’s actions not as psychosis, but as a logical experiment in absurdist philosophy, taken to the extreme. Caligula, possessed of all the immense power of the Roman state, decides to use the power and freedom of his office to pursue what he perceives as the ultimate truth: that nothing lasts, and so nothing matters—an idea sometimes referred to as nihilism. The result is a record of capricious brutality. The play exposes the devastation inherent in nihilistic absurdism, despite the inherent logic of its perspective.

Although Camus resisted the categorization of Caligula as a “philosophical play,” it deals with Camus’s philosophical explorations, touching on absurdism, nihilism, and existentialism. As such, this study guide will make use of philosophical references as appropriate. The version of Caligula used for this guide is the Stuart Gilbert translation, originally released in 1958 by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf as Caligula & Three Other Plays and reprinted in a 1962 edition by Vintage Books. All page numbers and quotations in the guide refer to the Vintage edition. Please note that this guide addresses potentially triggering scenarios including rape, other acts of violence, incest, and mental health (psychosis) related to Caligula’s reign.

Plot Summary

Caligula follows the story of Emperor Caligula from shortly after the death of his sister and lover Drusilla to his own assassination several years later. The first act opens with some patricians, the Roman noble class, commenting on the emperor’s absence after Drusilla’s death. Caligula gave many of them reason to hope that he would be a wise and good ruler during the early period of his reign, but there is growing concern about his mental health. Eventually Caligula reappears, tattered and dirty from roaming about. He tells one of his friends that he has been trying to catch the moon, having set his heart on realizing the impossible.

While at times Caligula’s behavior appears erratic, he is convinced he isn’t experiencing psychotic episodes. He views his ambition to seize the impossible as the only solution to the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Since everyone dies and happiness proves elusive, nothing matters. The only escape from life’s meaninglessness would be if the limitations of reality could be broken. Caligula expresses this yearning for the impossible by speaking of his quest for the moon and his aspirations to godhood. He resolves to use his position as emperor to expose the illogical values of human customs and culture. If life is meaningless, then those values are nothing more than arbitrary limitations; Caligula believes that true freedom can be found only in doing away with them. As such, he sets about to shatter the customary values of the Roman patrician class. For example, he sets up an arbitrary system of executing noblemen and appropriating their property for the state treasury.

By the time Act II begins, the patricians have suffered through three years of Caligula’s random brutality. Some are beginning to plot an assassination attempt, but others counsel caution. The common people of Rome still support the emperor. One character—Cherea—advises the others to wait until Caligula’s brutality has had a broader impact, when even more people would turn against him. This provides the emperor a continued window in which to press his philosophy to its extreme. At a gathering of patricians in Act II, Caligula forces one man to laugh at the story of his own son’s execution, seizes another’s wife for rape, and forces a third to drink poison, all while issuing decrees to produce a national famine.

In Act III, Caligula leads the patricians through a blasphemous religious performance, assaulting the common pieties that form the basis of Roman society. Several characters try to warn him about the threat of an assassination plot. One even produces a tablet of evidence against Cherea, who has emerged as the ringleader. Caligula is convinced, however, that his destiny is already set; he rebuffs each warning by derailing the conversations into absurd, unrelated topics. He eventually calls for Cherea and discusses his philosophical principles before revealing that he knows of Cherea’s plot. To Cherea’s astonishment, Caligula destroys the evidence and makes no attempt to stop the plot.

In the final act, Caligula invites the patricians to a series of performances. These are meant to reveal the absurd, meaningless nature of reality. Along the way, he continues to brutalize them with unrelenting applications of his logic, forcing them to forfeit their fortunes and lives. He eventually sends everyone away except his mistress, Caesonia, who tries to comfort him. By this time, however, Caligula’s power and nihilism have become so all-consuming, culminating in his murder of Caesonia.

Caligula has one final soliloquy: He reflects on his failure to seize the impossible and realizes that his pursuit of freedom has been wrong all along. It has led him to a final fate from which there is no escape, no freedom for any other choice. The conspirators rush in and stab Caligula in the face, led by two of his closest circle. The emperor is dying as the curtain falls, but he calls out in the final moment that he remains alive.