The first Plutarchian play (see page I-213) written by Shakespeare (probably in 1599) concerned the time four and a half centuries after Coriolanus. Rome had survived the Gallic sack and the onslaught of Hannibal of Carthage. It had spread itself west and east over the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and now all those shores were either Roman territory or under the control of some Roman puppet king.
But Rome's troubles were coming from within. There was no longer any serious question of conquest from without. That was impossible and would remain impossible for several centuries. Now, however, there had come an inner struggle. For half a century there had been a sputtering string of conflicts, between generals, for control, and the play opens when the conflict seems to have been decided.
The victor is the greatest Roman of them all-Julius Caesar.
.. .get you home
The events of the first scene, in the streets of the city of Rome, are those of October 45 b.c. Caesar has just returned from Spain, where he defeated the last armies of those adversaries that had stood out against him.
He was now undisputed master of all the Roman realm, from end to end of the Mediterranean Sea. It seemed Rome was ready now to experience a rich and prosperous period of peace under the great Julius.
Not all of Rome is delighted by this turn of events, however. Those who had opposed Caesar and his policies might have been beaten into silence, but not into approval-and not even always into silence.
Caesar stood for an utter and thoroughgoing reform of the political system of the Roman Republic, which in the last century had fallen into decay and corruption. In this, he was supported chiefly by the commons and opposed chiefly by the senators and the aristocratic families.
In the first scene, though, Shakespeare pictures not the aristocratic opposition, but that of a pair of tribunes, Flavius and Marullus. This is odd, for the office of tribune was originally established to protect the commons against the aristocrats (an event which is at the core of the events in Cor-iolanus, see page I-222). One would have thought they would be more likely to support Caesar than oppose him.
Actually, however, the matter of the tribunes is borrowed by Shakespeare from Plutarch, but is moved earlier in time. If the incident had been left in its Plutarchian place, it would have seemed more apt.
At any rate, in Shakespeare's version the populace is swarming out to greet the homecoming Caesar, when they are met by the tribunes. One of them, Flavius, cries out:
Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home!
– Act I, scene i, line 1
… rejoice in his triumph
One of the populace, a cobbler, explains the activity:
… indeed, sir, we make holiday to see Caesar
and to re joice in his triumph.
– Act I, scene i, lines 33-34
The "triumph" was an old Roman custom borrowed from the ancient Etruscans centuries before Caesar's time. A victorious general entered the city in state, preceded by government officials and followed by his army and captured prisoners. The procession moved along decorated streets and between lines of cheering spectators to the Capitol, where religious services were held. (It was rather analogous to the modem ticker tape procession down Fifth Avenue.)
The day was a high festival, with plenty of food and drink for all at government expense, so that the populace was delighted partly with the aura of victory and partly with the fun. For the general himself, it represented the highest possible honor.
In My 46 b.c., more than a year before the play opens, Caesar had returned to Rome after nine years of conquest in Gaul and three years of civil war in Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Africa. He had then broken all public records for magnificence by holding four triumphs, one after another, over each of four sets of foreign enemies he had conquered. These were the Gauls, the Egyptians, the Pontines of Asia Minor, and the Numid-ians of Africa.
After that, he went to Spain for one last victorious battle and now he was returning for one last triumph.
What tributaries …
The cobbler's reply but further irritates the tribune Marullus, who cries out in anguish:
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
– Act I, scene i, lines 35-37
Marullus has a point here. The whole purpose of a triumph was to demonstrate the victories of Romans over their non-Roman enemies-over foreigners. Civil wars in themselves could bring no true conquests; Roman fought Roman so that a Roman victory necessarily implied a Roman defeat as well and a triumph was impossible.
Caesar, in the course of the civil war, had beaten armies under Roman generals, but he had been careful not to celebrate such victories in specific triumphs. He had brought as prisoners only foreigners who had fought against him, even when these (the Numidians, for instance) had been fighting as allies of Roman factions and even though the Roman soldiers who opposed him bore the brunt of the defeat.
In his last battle in Spam, however, there were no foreign enemies. He had fought only Romans and if he had a triumph it could be only over Romans. He did not bring home a true "conquest," no true "tributaries," and why, therefore, a triumph?
Knew you not Pompey.. .
The tribunes can be even more specific. Marullus says:
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To tow'rs and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
– Act I, scene i, lines 40-45
Gnaeus Pompeius (usually known as Pompey to English-speaking people) was born in 106 b.c. and made a great name for himself as a general at quite an early age, largely because of his talent for being on the right side in the right place at the right time. He won important victories in Spain, for instance, in 77 b.c. against a rebellious Roman general, largely because that general happened to be assassinated at the crucial moment.
He was given the right to append "Magnus" ("the Great") to his name as a result of early victories, which accounts for the tribune's reference to "great Pompey."
In 67 b.c. he accomplished something really surprising. Pirates had been infesting the Mediterranean Sea for a long time. They had evaded all Roman force and had all but made trade impossible, when Pompey was called to the task of suppressing them. He was put in charge of the entire Mediterranean coast to a distance of fifty miles inland for three years and was told to use that time for destroying the pirates. He managed to clear them all out in three months!
He was then put in charge of the Roman armies in Asia Minor. Again, this was a tremendous piece of luck for him. An earlier Roman general, competent but unpopular, had almost completed the job when his troops rebelled. Pompey took over, cleared up the last remaining forces of the enemy, and got all the credit.
In 61 b.c. he returned to Rome and at the age of forty-five received the most magnificent triumph Rome had seen up to that time. It is presumably partly with reference to this triumph that the tribunes spoke of the people waiting to see the great Pompey.
Pompey was not of a great aristocratic family himself and would have been proud to be accepted by the senators as one of their own. The senators, however, had learned from experience that successful generals of the non-aristocratic classes could be dangerous, and they watched Pompey carefully.
Yet Pompey had done his best to earn senatorial approval. On returning to Italy in 61 b.c. after his victories, he had disbanded his army and had taken his place in Rome as a private citizen. This had merely gained him a total loss of influence. He could not even persuade the Senate to approve the award of bonuses to his faithful soldiers.
Pompey was forced to turn elsewhere. He formed an alliance with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and with a skillful and charming orator and politician, Julius Caesar. Caesar was then an impoverished aristocrat (who nevertheless opposed the Senators) in the employ of Crassus.
The three together, in 60 b.c., formed the First Triumvirate (triumvir means "three men") and ruled Rome.
The three took advantage of their power to parcel out provinces for themselves. Caesar, born in 100 b.c., and by far the most capable of the three, obtained for himself the governorship of that portion of Gaul ruled by Rome (a portion that included what is now northern Italy and southern France). He used that as a base from which to conquer the rest of Gaul. Fighting his first battles at the age of forty-four, he surprised everyone by showing himself to be a military genius of the first rank.
Pompey, who was assigned the governorship of Spain, but who let deputies run it while he himself remained in Rome, was not entirely pleased by Caesar's sudden development of a military reputation. As for Crassus, he was jealous enough to take an army to the east to fight the Parthians, who ruled over what had once been the eastern part of the Persian Empire. In 53 b.c. he lost a catastrophic battle to them at Carrhae, and lost his life as well.
Pompey and Caesar now shared the power, with no third party to serve as intermediary.
By now the senatorial conservatives, frightened by Caesar's success and recognizing Pompey as far the less dangerous of the two, had lined up solidly behind the latter.
Pompey, flattered by aristocratic attentions, let himself be wooed into open opposition to his erstwhile ally. When Caesar's term as governor of Gaul came to an end, the Senate, buoyed up by Pompey's support, arrogantly ordered Caesar to return to Rome at once without his army. This was technically in order since it was treason for any Roman general to bring a provincial army into Italy.
Caesar, however, knew that if he arrived in Rome without his army, he would be arrested at once on some charge or other, and might well be executed.
So after hesitating at the Rubicon River (the little Italian creek which was the boundary of Italy proper, in the Roman view) he made his decision. On January 10, 49 b.c., he crossed the Rubicon with a legion of troops and a civil war began.
Pompey found, much to his own surprise, that Caesar was far more popular than he, and that soldiers flocked to Caesar and not to himself. He was forced to flee to Greece and the senatorial party fled with him. Caesar followed and at a battle in Pharsalia, Greece, on June 29, 48 b.c., Caesar's army smashed that of Pompey.
Pompey had to flee again, almost alone, to Egypt, which was then still independent of Rome. The Egyptian government, however, was afraid to do anything that might displease Caesar, who was clearly the coming man. They therefore assassinated Pompey the instant he landed on Egyptian soil.
Caesar followed, and remained in Egypt for a while. There he met Cleopatra, its fascinating young queen.
Caesar next traveled to Asia Minor, and then to Africa, to defeat die-hard armies allied to those who shared the views of the dead Pompey and the senatorial party. Only then did he return to Rome for his quadruple triumph.
… Pompey's blood
In no part of that quadruple triumph did Caesar commemorate his victory over Pompey himself. In fact, as a deliberate stroke of policy, Caesar forgave such of the Pompeian partisans as he could and did his best to erase hard feelings. His mission, as far as possible, was to unite Rome and put an end to the civil broils through conciliation.
And yet the Roman tribunes in their harangue to the populace bring up Pompey, reproachfully, in connection with this last triumph of Caesar, and Marullus says to the gathered people:
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
– Act I, scene i, lines 51-54
By "Pompey's blood" is not meant Pompey's death in defeat, as might seem, but Pompey's kinsmen.
Pompey had two sons, the elder of whom shared his father's name and was Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus also. We can call him Gnaeus Pompeius to differentiate him from his father, whom we can still call simply Pompey.
Gnaeus Pompeius remained with the senatorial party after his father's death. He had a fleet in his charge and he brought it to Africa (where the modern nation of Tunis exists), putting it at the service of the largest remaining senatorial army. When Caesar defeated it in April 47 b.c., Gnaeus Pompeius escaped to Spain.
After the quadruple triumph, only Spam was left in opposition. Caesar took his legions there and in March 45 b.c. a battle took place at Munda in southern Spain.
The senatorial army fought remarkably well and Caesar's forces were driven back. For a time, indeed, Caesar must have thought that years of invariable victory were going to be brought to ruin in one last battle (as had been the case of Hannibal of Carthage a century and a half earlier). So desperate was he that he seized a shield and sword himself, rushed into battle (he was fifty-five years old then), and shouted to his retreating men, "Are you going to let your general be delivered up to the enemy?"
Stung into action, the retiring legions lunged forward once more and carried the day. The last senatorial army was wiped out. Gnaeus Pompeius escaped from the field of battle, but was pursued, caught, and killed. (Pompey's younger son escaped and lived to play a part in the events that took place some six years later, and in another of Shakespeare's plays, Antony and Cleopatra.)
Now, returning from Spain, Caesar was celebrating Ms victory over Gnaeus Pompeius and it was in this sense that he came in "triumph over Pompey's blood."
… the feast of Lupercal
The populace disbands and leaves the stage, presumably returning to their houses in guilt. The tribune, Flavius, then suggests that they tear down the decorations intended for the triumph. Marullus hesitates, for it may be sacrilege. He says:
May we do so?
You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
– Act I, scene i, lines 69-70
The Lupercalian festival was an ancient fertility rite whose origins are lost in antiquity and probably predate civilization. It involved the ritual sacrifice of goats, which were noted for being ruttish animals.
Strips of the skin of the sacrificed goats were cut off by the priests in charge. They then ran about the Palatine Hill, striking out with those thongs. Anyone struck would be rendered fertile, supposedly, and sterile women therefore so placed themselves at the rites as to make sure they would be struck.
The "feast of Lupercal" was held each year on February 15 and this was not the day of Caesar's last triumph at all (as would appear from the play), but four months later. Shakespeare, however, commonly compresses time in his historical plays (a compression that is a dramatic necessity, and even a dramatic virtue), and here he lets the four months pass between the driving off of the populace and the next speech of the tribunes. There is no further talk of the triumph.
One would suppose from this first scene that the triumph was somehow aborted and never took place. It did take place, of course. The chief point of the scene is to show that there is opposition to Caesar.
… in servile fearfulness
Flavius shrugs off the possibility of sacrilege. It is more important to resist Caesar's pretensions. He says:
These growing feathers plucked from Caesar's wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.
– Act I, scene i, lines 75-78
The battle in Caesar's time did not really involve liberty in our modern sense. On the one hand was a time-honored but distorted and corrupt senatorial government, inefficient and dying. On the other was the one-man dictatorship of Julius Caesar, intent on fundamental reform and a centralized government.
There would have been no freedom for the common people anywhere, even in Rome, under either form of government. Under Caesar, however, the government would certainly have been more efficient and the realm more prosperous. That this is so is demonstrated by the fact that when Caesar's heir and successor founded a Caesar-type government (the Roman Empire), it led to two centuries of unbroken peace and prosperity.
During that peaceful tune, however, literary men had leisure to look back on the decades before the establishment of the Empire and to regret the hurly-burly of politics and the active drama of contending personalities. It seemed to them that they and their senatorial patrons lived in a gilded prison (and indeed the senators sometimes suffered, when suspicious emperors suspected treason among them). It became fashionable to look back with nostalgic sadness to the days of the Roman Republic.
The senatorial party of Caesar's time then came to be called "Republicans" and to be viewed as exponents of "liberty." They were entirely idealized and in this fashion were passed on to Shakespeare and to us. We need not be deluded, however. The senatorial notion of "liberty" was the liberty of a small group of venal aristocrats to plunder the state unchecked.
The scene shifts now to another part of Rome, where Caesar and many with him are on their way to attend the Lupercalian rites. Caesar's first word in the play is to call his wife:
– Act I, scene ii, line 1
Caesar had three wives altogether. He married his first wife in 83 b.c. when he was not yet seventeen. She was the daughter of a radical antisena-torial politician, and it was from this connection, probably, that Caesar began to get his own antisenatorial philosophy. When Caesar's father-in-law was killed and the conservatives gamed control and initiated a blood-bath (the radicals had had their turn previously), Caesar was ordered to divorce his wife. He refused! It might have then gone hard with him as a result, but the young man's aristocratic connections saved his life.
Caesar's first wife died in 67 b.c. and he made a politically convenient second marriage, taking as wife Pompeia, the daughter of Pompey, who was then at the height of his career.
In 62 b.c. a certain young scapegrace named Publius Clodius (called "Pulcher" or "good-looking") played a rather foolish practical joke. He dressed himself in women's clothing and got himself into Caesar's house at a time when a religious festival was in process which only women could attend.
He was caught and it was a great scandal. Many whispered that it could not have been done without the co-operation of Pompeia and even wondered if Clodius might not be Pompeia's lover. Pompeia was almost certainly innocent, but Caesar divorced her at once with the famous remark that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." Actually, he was probably tired of her and was glad of a face-saving excuse for the divorce.
After Caesar had formed the triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, he married again, for the third and last tune, to Calpurnia (or Calphurnia, as Shakespeare calls her). She was a daughter of one of Pompey's friends, and it was therefore, in a sense, another political marriage.
… in Antonius' way Caesar has a simple direction for Calphurnia:
Stand you directly in Antonius' way When he doth run his course.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 3-4
Antonius, it seems, will be one of those who will race along wielding the goat-hide thongs at the Lupercalian festival. Since Calphurnia has had no children, and Caesar would like a direct heir, it will be useful for her to be struck.
The Antonius referred to is Marcus Antonius, far better known, in English, as Mark Antony. He was born in 83 b.c. and was thirty-eight years old at the time of this Lupercalian festival. He was related to Julius Caesar on his mother's side and had joined the general while he was in Gaul. He had remained loyally pro-Caesar ever since.
Mark Antony had been tribune in 49 b.c. when Pompey and the Senate were trying to force Julius Caesar to come to Italy without his army. Mark Antony and his fellow tribune did what they could to block senatorial action, then fled to Caesar's army, claiming they were in danger of their lives. Since tribunes were inviolate and might not be harmed, Caesar had the excuse he needed to cross the Rubicon with his army.
While Caesar was in Greece and Egypt fighting the civil war, Mark Antony held the fort in Rome itself and didn't do a very good job of it.
Caesar continued to value him for his absolute loyalty, however, and they remained together to the end.
… the ides of March
And then a voice calls Caesar's name. It is a soothsayer, a man who foresees the future. This time his message is a simple one:
Beware the ides of March.
– Act I, scene ii, line 18
To understand the matter of "the ides" we must consider the Roman calendar, which must set some sort of record for inconvenience.
Each of the Roman months has three key dates and the other days are defined as "so many days before the such-and-such key date." Nor are the key dates regularly spaced or quite the same from month to month.
The first day of each month is the "calends" of that month.
Not long after the calends come the "nones." The nones fall on the fifth day of January, February, April, June, August, September, November, and December, and on the seventh day of March, May, July, and October.
The word "nones" means "nine" because it falls nine days before the third key date, the "ides," where the nine days count the day of the ides itself. The ides, therefore, fall on the fifteenth day of March, May, July, and October, and on the thirteenth day of the other months.
From all this we gather that the "ides of March" is what we could call March 15 today. The Lupercalian festival, which falls on February 15, is not, however, on the "ides of February," for that date would be what we now call February 13.
I am not gamesome…
Calmly, Caesar ignores the mystic warning and passes on to the festival. The incident of the soothsayer is not a Shakespearean invention, but is referred to in Plutarch.
That, of course, does not necessarily make it authentic. The event of the ides of March was so dramatic and so clearly a turning point of history that numerous fables arose afterward of all sorts of supernatural omens and forebodings preceding it. The incident of the soothsayer is only the most restrained and dramatically satisfying one of them.
After Caesar and his party pass on, two men remain behind: Brutus and Cassius. Cassius asks if Brutus intends to watch the festival and Brutus says he won't, for:
/ am not gamesome: I do lack some part
Of that quick spirit that is in Antony.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 28-29
No, he is not gamesome (that is, "merry" or "gay"). The Romans, somehow, usually aren't in literature. They are generally presented as grave, portentous, dignified men, given to declamations in high-sounding phrases, and that is exactly how Brutus is presented.
He is Marcus Junius Brutus, born in 85 b.c., and therefore just past forty at this time.
Brutus was the "Republican" most idealized by later historians, but he was by no means an admirable character in real life.
To begin with, he was a nephew of Cato, one of Caesar's most obdurate and steadfast enemies. It is not surprising, then, that Brutus was also an enemy of Caesar's to begin with. Indeed, he fought on Pompey's side in Greece and was taken prisoner when Pompey was defeated.
Caesar, however, followed a consistent policy of leniency toward his enemies, feeling, perhaps, that in this way he converted them to friends and healed the wounds inflicted by civil war. So Brutus was pardoned and set free.
The policy seemed to have worked in Brutus' case, for he behaved as though he were converted from a Pompeian into a sincere Caesarian. When Caesar went to Africa to take care of the senatorial armies there, those had, as one of their most important leaders, Cato, who was Brutus' uncle. And yet Brutus remained one of Caesar's lieutenants and served him loyally in the province of Cisalpine Gaul (in what is now northern Italy).
Later on, crucially and fatally, he abandoned Caesar once again. The later idealization of Brutus has him acting out of conviction and principle, but a glance at his career before the opening scenes of Julius Caesar would make it seem that he was, rather, a self-serving turncoat.
… Cassias.. .
Brutus is unwilling that his lack of gamesomeness should interfere with Cassius' pleasures. He says:
Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires;
I'll leave you.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 30-31
Cassius' full name is Gaius (or Caius) Cassius Longinus, and he is a capable soldier. He went with Crassus to the East as second-in-command. After the disastrous defeat which almost destroyed the Roman army, thanks in good part to Crassus' incapacity, Cassius took over and brought what was left of the army safely back to Roman territory.
He was also with Pompey at first, but after Pompey's defeat he reassessed the situation. He had not been captured, but it seemed to him that Caesar was sure to win, and Cassius intended to be on the winning side. He followed Caesar into Asia Minor and threw himself on the conqueror's mercy. Caesar pardoned him and let him serve under him.
Cassius married Junia, the sister of Brutus, and was, therefore, Brutus' brother-in-law.
Your hidden worthiness…
But now that Brutus makes ready to leave Cassius, Cassius gently restrains him. He has a use for Brutus and to serve that use he begins, carefully, to seduce him with praise. He tells Brutus that he is too modest and does not sufficiently value himself, saying:
… it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 35-38
Somehow the general idealization of Brutus is such that most of those who read or see this play imagine that Brutus is presented in heroic colors; and, indeed, the play is often produced with Brutus as the hero. Yet a close reading seems to show that Shakespeare is utterly out of sympathy with Brutus and makes him rather a despicable character.
Cassius bemoans Brutus' modesty, but there is no modesty in Brutus as portrayed by Shakespeare. Brutus always listens complacently to those who praise him, and praises himself often enough. Nor does Cassius for a moment really believe that Brutus is modest, for in the rest of the scene his attempt to win over Brutus to a desired line of action is pitched entirely to Brutus' overweening vanity.
… Caesar for their king
Cassius' smoothly scheming flattery is interrupted by the sound of shouting in the distance, and Brutus cries out:
What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 79-80
The word "king" had a dread sound to Romans throughout their great days, a dread that dated back to the hated Tarquin (see page I-211). The tale of Tarquin was a heritage of every Roman schoolboy, as the tale of George III is of every American schoolboy, and a stanch republicanism was inculcated in the former case as it is in the latter.
Then too, in the two centuries preceding Julius Caesar's period of power, Rome had been more or less continuously at war with the various Hellenistic nations of the eastern Mediterranean, all of which were ruled by kings. Kings were the enemy and were therefore hated; and the kings were always defeated by the Roman republicans, so that the institution of monarchy had the aura of defeat about it.
Consequently, Caesar was in a dilemma when he took power over Rome. He simply had to reform the government, which had come to be utterly stagnant and unworkable, but he could not do so by ordinary legal means. That would require working through the Senate, and the Senate was hostile and obstructionist. Hence, he had to rule dictatorially, by decree.
The Roman system of government allowed for rule by decree under certain conditions. A special official could be elected for six months who would have the power to rule by decree. He was a "dictator" (from a Latin word meaning "to say," because what he said became law without further ado). A famous early (and legendary) dictator was Cincinnatus, who in 458 b.c. held the dictatorship for only a few days to meet an emergency.
In later times the device was broadened. In 81 b.c. the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla made himself dictator and held the post for two years. This was with the connivance of the Senate, whose cause Sulla favored.
Caesar took advantage of the broadening and turned it against the Senate. He had taken the power of a dictator during the civil war and at the time of the quadruple triumph had had himself declared dictator for a term of ten years. After the Spanish triumph, which opens this play, he was made dictator for life.
He used the dictatorship to bring about his program of reform. He tried to reform the Senate by wrenching it out of the hands of the few oligarchs who monopolized it and allowing the entry of important families from the provinces. He broadened the base of citizenship, revised the taxation procedure, reconstructed cities, improved trade, passed laws designed to strengthen the moral structure of society, and reformed the calendar so that it was almost the one we use today. He even established the first public library.
Yet although he was dictator for life, Caesar felt it was not enough. As merely dictator, his death would be the sign for a new struggle for power, and all his reforms would be undone. That placed a premium on his death and made his opponents eager for an assassination. If he were king, however, Ms power would merely descend to his nearest heir upon his death, and there would be far less point to killing him.
It was this desire of Caesar to make himself king-a desire imputed to him by the senatorial conservatives, and probably justly so-that was the chief weapon against him. The conservatives, who hated him and his reforms, emphasized his ambition for the kingship, hoping that the hated word would turn the populace against Caesar.
On the other hand, the conservatives also feared that the popularity of his reforms might more than make up for the fearsomeness of the word, and that the infatuated populace, caught up on the occasion of some holiday such as the present Lupercalian festival, would be stampeded into declaring him king and that the Senate would then be forced, much against its will, to go along. Once that was done, it would be too late to expect to turn back the tide of reform.
It was exactly this that Brutus feared when he heard the shouting.
… the waves of Tiber
Brutus' outspoken fear of Caesar as king heartens Cassius. He plays on that fear by describing the indignity of having to bow down to one who after all is but a man and perhaps not even as good a man as oneself. To make his point, he tells a tale of a contest between himself and Caesar.
One cold day Caesar challenged Cassius to swim across the river. Caesar wearied first and cried out for help. Cassius says:
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 112-15
The Tiber River is 252 miles long and is the second longest river in Italy. It would bear little distinction as a river were it not that, like some other short rivers, such as the Thames, the Seine, and the Spree, a great capital was located on its banks. The city of Rome was founded twenty miles upstream from its mouth.
Here again there is a reference to Aeneas as the ancestor of the Romans (see page I-20).
Like a Colossus.. . In all Cassius' clever speaking, he doesn't once accuse Caesar of tyrannical behavior or of cruelty; he doesn't say his reforms are wicked or evil.
He concentrates entirely on Caesar's physical weakness and poor health, for he is endeavoring to show Brutus that Caesar is inferior, hoping that Brutus' inordinate vanity would then rebel at bowing down to such a ruler.
He labors to find a way to describe the greatness of Caesar and the comparative littleness of Brutus in such a way as to force Brutus to rebel. Cassius says:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 135-38
The Colossus is a statue of the sun god built in the island of Rhodes in 280 b.c. to commemorate the successful defense against a siege by a Macedonian general, Demetrius. Why the name "colossus" was applied to a huge statue is unknown, but this Rhodian statue, the largest in the Greco-Roman world, 105 feet tall, was the Colossus of Rhodes. It was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
It did not, however, remain long to gladden the eyes of those who value size in art. In 224 b.c., little more than half a century after it had been built, it was toppled by an earthquake.
Once it was gone, the description of what it had looked like while it was standing gradually grew more grandiose, until finally the tale arose that it had straddled Rhodes' harbor and that ships had sailed between its legs in and out of that harbor. This is, of course, quite impossible, for the ancient Greeks had lacked the materials and technique to build a statue so large in a position that would place so much strain on the legs.
The picture is nevertheless a dramatic one, and Cassius, by whose time the statue had been out of existence for nearly two centuries, uses it to fire up Brutus' vanity and envy.
… a Brutus once…
Cassius plays on Brutus' pride of ancestry too, saying:
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
Th'eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 159-61
Brutus considers himself to be descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, who, according to legend, helped overthrow King Tarquin and set up the Roman Republic (see page I-211).
… and Cicero
Brutus' vanity is not proof against Cassius' skilful seduction, and he admits that he resents Rome's present situation.
Before matters can go further, though, Caesar comes back onstage, returning from the festival with others crowding around him.
Caesar is clearly angry and those about him look perturbed. Brutus, surprised at this, says to Cassius:
Calphurnia's cheek is pale, and Cicero
Looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes
As we have seen him in the Capitol,
Being crossed in conference by some senators.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 185-88
Marcus Tullius Cicero, though he plays only a small part in this play, was actually the most important man in Rome in Caesar's time, next to Caesar himself.
He was born in 106 b.c. of middle-class family and received an excellent education in Greece. He returned to Rome in 77 b.c. and quickly became Rome's outstanding lawyer and orator (the two went together). He made himself famous by prosecuting one of the particularly crooked Roman provincial governors of the time, Gaius Verres, in 74 b.c.
In 63 b.c. he reached the pinnacle of his career when, as consul, he scotched a dangerous conspiracy against the Roman government by a debt-ridden nobleman, Lucius Sergius Catilina (known in English as Catiline), and had its leaders executed.
He never reached such heights again. He was not brave enough or skillful enough to be an effective opponent of Caesar. In fact, Caesar had his lackey, Publius Clodius (the same who invaded the women's religious festival and made it possible for Caesar to divorce his second wife), to so vilify and harass Cicero as to drive the latter out of Italy altogether in 59 b.c.
Mark Antony had an undying hatred for Cicero, since Antony's foster father had been an associate of Catiline and had been among those executed at the instigation of Cicero. Cicero returned the hatred.
Cicero was a friend of Pompey, who, he thought, would be able to dominate Rome and defeat Caesar. When Pompey found he could not retain Italy and fled to Greece, Cicero, greatly disconcerted, left Italy with him. Cicero grew more and more disturbed at developments among the Pompeian forces and after the Battle of Pharsalia returned to Italy, determined to take a chance on Caesar's mercy rather than fight on with the remnants of a doomed cause. Caesar did not disappoint him; he pardoned Cicero and treated him kindly. Thereafter, Cicero displayed a wary neutrality, neither opposing Caesar's reforms openly nor supporting them, either.
Cicero was a debater rather than a warrior, and he was at home in the battle of words in the Senate rather than in the battle of swords on the field. Hence his angry red eyes (a ferret's eyes are red) reminded Brutus of his appearance when he was opposed in senatorial debate.
… always I am Caesar
But even while Brutus and Cassius observe Caesar and his company in astonishment, Caesar is observing them as well. He remarks upon Cassius, particularly, to Antony, in a famous and much quoted passage:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 194-95
But after elaborating on Cassius' gravity and on his inability to have fun and thus allow his possible feelings of envy to evaporate in pleasure, Caesar adds hastily:
I rather tell thee what is to be feared
Than what I /ear; for always I am Caesar.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 211-12
Caesar, as portrayed by Shakespeare, strikes wooden poses constantly. He is like a speaking statue, rather than a human being.
This is not and cannot be historical. All our sources seem to unite in assuring us that Caesar had infinite charm and could win over almost anyone, given half a chance. He was second only to Cicero as an orator and his surviving Commentaries, in which he describes his wars in Gaul and the civil war, are ample evidence of his ability as a writer.
He was a remarkably witty and intelligent man; a most human man. He was miles removed from the cardboard strutter in Shakespeare and was in real life much more like George Bernard Shaw's portrayal of him in Caesar and Cleopatra.
Why does Shakespeare portray him so woodenly then? Unfortunately, it was the fashion to describe ancient Romans like that. This fashion stems from the plays of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who wrote about a century after Caesar's death. His are among the most fustian plays ever written, full of emotional sound and fury, blood and horror, and empty, high-sounding speeches.
The general public loved them so that they survived to be copied, alas, by playwrights in early modern times. Shakespeare himself wrote tragedies after the style of Seneca, notably Titus Andronicus (see page I-391).
A French poet, Marc Antoine Muret, wrote a tragedy entitled Julius Caesar in Latin in 1553. He followed the style of Seneca and made Caesar into a wooden poseur. This was popular too, and one theory is that when Shakespeare wrote his tragedy, he had to keep Caesar in this form because the audience expected it and would not accept any other version.
We might imagine that Shakespeare did so against his will, for he follows Caesar's pompous claim to fearlessness with an immediate confession of weakness on the part of the great man. Caesar goes on to say to Mark Antony:
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,
And tell me truly what thou think'st of him.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 213-14
… a crown offered him…
Caesar and his followers leave again, but one remains behind, held back by Brutus. The man stopped is Casca, who is pictured by Shakespeare as a rough, coarse individual, the kind who has no "book learning" and is proud of it. He is Publius Servilius Casca in full, and his only mark in history is his participation in the conspiracy which Cassius is now working up.
Casca is asked as to the events at the festival that caused Caesar to look so put out. Casca says:
Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered him,
he put it by with the back of his hand, thus;
and then the people fell a-shouting.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 220-22
Apparently Mark Antony took the occasion of the festival, when public spirits were high, and enthusiasm for Dictator Julius was loud, to offer him a linen headband wreathed in laurel. The laurel wreath was well within the Roman tradition. It was a symbol of victory, borrowed from the Greek custom of crowning the victors of the Olympian games in laurel wreaths.
The linen headband was, however, a "diadem," the symbol of monarchy among the kings of the East. For Caesar to put on this particular laurel wreath was tantamount to claiming the position of king. (In later times, gold replaced linen and it was a gold circlet, or crown, that became the symbol of royalty. Shakespeare transmutes the diadem into a crown so that the audience might understand.)
Caesar's stratagem seems obvious. The diadem is made to look as harmless and as Roman as possible by means of the laurel decoration. Ostentatiously, he refuses it, hoping that the crowd, in its enthusiasm, will demand that he accept it. Caesar would then graciously accede to their clamor and become king by the will of the people.
Unfortunately, the crowd did not react this way. Instead of demanding he accept the diadem, they cheered him for refusing it. Twice more Mark Antony tried, and twice more the crowd cheered the refusal. No wonder Caesar had looked angry. His stratagem had failed and he had come close to making a fool of himself.
To Cassius and others of his mind, the intention behind the stratagem is obvious. Caesar wanted to be king and if the trick today had failed, another tomorrow might not-and this must be stopped at all costs.
… foamed at mouth. ..
Caesar's anger and disappointment are described most graphically by Casca. He relates that after the third refusal, Caesar:
… fell down in the market place, and foamed at mouth,
and was speechless.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 252-53
In short, he had had an epileptic fit. The tale that Caesar was an epileptic may not be a reliable one, however. The Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus wrote a scandal-filled set of biographies of the early Roman emperors a century and a half after Caesar's time, and he said that Caesar had twice had "the falling sickness" in the time of battle. It is always doubtful how far one can believe Suetonius, however.
Shakespeare has Casca make another notable comment, meant literally, which has become a very byword in the language. Asked if Cicero said anything, he answered that Cicero had spoken in Greek:
… those that understood him smiled at one another
and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was
Greek to me.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 282-84
… put to silence Casca then says:
/ could tell you more news too :
Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off
Caesar's images, are put to silence.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 284-86
Marullus and Flavius are the tribunes of the first scene and this seems to hark back to their activities at the Spanish triumph months before. Actually, their activities then are purely Shakespearean and have no source in history.
Plutarch associates them, rather, with the incident at the Lupercalian festival. After the refusal of the diadem, someone apparently placed it on the head of a statue of Caesar, as though he were still trying to fire the Roman populace with enthusiasm for Caesar as king. One of the tribunes plucked it off and the people cheered him, and that is the germ for Shakespeare's first scene.
Shakespeare says the tribunes were "put to silence," which sounds almost as though they were executed. Plutarch, however, merely says they were turned out of their office.
… he loves Brutus
Casca leaves, and then Brutus. Cassius is left alone to smile grimly and remark in soliloquy at how easy Brutus is to handle:
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honorable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed…
– Act I, scene ii, lines 308-10
Brutus is constantly being called honorable and noble throughout the play, yet he never seems so in action. Not only is he vain and envious, but he is rather stupid too. Cassius plans to throw letters into Brutus' window, disguised in various hands, all praising him and calling him to save the state. He is certain that Brutus' colossal vanity and less than colossal intelligence will make this rather childish stratagem a success.
Why should Cassius want such a vain fool as Brutus on his side? Can Brutus be trusted not to ruin any conspiracy of which he forms a part? (Actually, no, for his vain folly ruins this one, as Shakespeare makes amply clear.) Cassius gives the answer in his soliloquy:
Caesar doth bear me hard, but he loves Brutus.
– Act I, scene ii, line 313
Later historians emphasized Caesar's partiality toward Brutus since it made succeeding events all the more dramatic. On the other hand, there is one instance which seems to show Caesar's feeling in terms of hard action.
When Caesar first returned in triumph to Rome, Cassius and Brutus both asked for the post of praetor of the city (an office rather like the modern mayor). Caesar granted the post to Brutus, though he is supposed to have admitted that Cassius was the more fit for it.
Caesar's surprising partiality for Brutus and the fact that he was supposed to have once been friendly with Brutus' mother gave rise to the scandalous tale that Brutus was an illegitimate son of Caesar's. However, scandalmongers, then as now, prefer a dramatic guess to a sober fact, and we need not take this very seriously.
However, one can see that Cassius values Brutus partly because through Brutus conspirators may probe Caesar's inner defenses more easily.
… to the Capitol tomorrow
Between the second and third scenes another month passes, unmarked by the onrushing action of the play. Casca meets with Cicero in the third scene. Casca looks wild and, on Cicero's question, Casca tells of numerous supernatural events he has just witnessed. Cicero seems unmoved. He dismisses the tale and asks, practically:
Comes Caesar to the Capitol tomorrow?
– Act I, scene iii, line 36
It is, in other words, the night before the ides of March. It is March 14 and Caesar has called the Senate into session for the next day for some matter of great moment.
Caesar was planning to head eastward with an army to make war on the Parthians, who had destroyed Crassus and most of his army nine years before-a Roman defeat that had as yet gone unavenged. Before Caesar could leave, certain matters had to be cleared up.
One possibility is that Caesar did not want to leave Rome without settling the question of kingship, and that he was calling the Senate into session in order to force them to offer him the crown.
Was this so? Would he really accept a grudged title, then depart from Rome for perhaps an extended period, leaving the city to almost certain war? Might it not be that he was merely calling the Senate into session for a formal declaration of war against the Parthians and for the establishmerit of a kind of "regency" to govern Rome while he was gone? Who can tell now.
The conspirators, however, thought they knew what Caesar planned. They were sure that Caesar was going to make the irrevocable grab for the crown and that there was only one last chance to stop him-before the Senate actually had a chance to meet.
Because they thought so, the next day, March 15, 44 b.c., was to be a key date in world history, and later legend got busy to fill the night before with supernatural portents. It is those legends which Shakespeare incorporates into his play.
Our own materialist age has no difficulty whatever in rejecting out of hand any tales of supernatural occurrences on the night of March 14-15. We can dismiss them even in terms of the Romans themselves. If the eve of the ides had really been so riddled with horror, the conspirators would probably have been cowed from their project by superstition.
… save here in Italy
Cicero leaves and Cassius enters. He too is full of the prodigies of the night and he begins to sound out Casca's feelings with regard to Caesar. Casca passes on one rumor as to Caesar's plans for the next day:
Indeed, they say the senators tomorrow
Mean to establish Caesar as a king;
And he shall wear his crown by sea and land,
In every place save here in Italy.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 85-88
Was this Caesar's intention? It seems, on the surface, a reasonable compromise. Italy at that time still ruled the Roman realm, and it was the Italians alone who were Roman citizens, and it was Roman citizens alone who had the traditional objection to monarchy. The provinces outside Italy lacked the Roman tradition and many of them were, in fact, accustomed to kings. They would accept a King Julius without objection and Italy would continue under Dictator Julius.
It would, however, be a useless compromise as it stood. The permanence of monarchy would exist only in the provinces, which were without military power, while in Italy itself, where lay the control of the armies, Caesar's death would still be the signal for civil war.
What is more likely, if such a compromise were pushed through, is that it would be intended to be temporary. How long after Caesar became king elsewhere would it be before he were king in Italy as well? The Roman populace, accustomed to hearing of Caesar as king, would come to accept him as such.
Unquestionably, those who opposed Caesar and his reforms would realize this, so that any offer to renounce kingship for Italy only would be completely unsatisfactory. The mere thought of it drives Casca to agree to join the conspiracy Cassius is forming.
Another enters. Casca is at once cautious (he is dealing in a dangerous plot which, if it fails, means death). Cassius reassures him:
Tis Cinna; I do know him by his gait;
He is a friend.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 132-33
It is Lucius Cornelius Cinna. His father, with the same name, had also been the father of Caesar's first wife. The elder Cinna had been one of Rome's most radical politicians, and had striven against the senatorial government even to the point of leading a revolution. His troops mutinied against him, however, and killed him in 84 b.c. The younger Cinna, however, had now joined the conspiracy against Caesar and in behalf of the senatorial party.
It is amazing how many of the conspirators were in one way or another beholden to Caesar-Brutus most of all. That is probably one reason why the conspiracy succeeded; Caesar considered them all friends.
… Decius Brutus and Trebonius…
Other conspirators are mentioned. Cinna doesn't recognize Casca at first. He says:
… Who's that? Metellus Cimber?
– Act I, scene iii, line 134
Then, a little later, when Cassius prepares to have the entire group meet at a particular site, he asks:
Is Decius Brutus and Trebonius there?
– Act I, scene iii, line 148
Gaius Trebonius was of the aristocracy, like Caesar, but, again like Caesar, he took an active part in the reform movement and worked hard in the Senate on behalf of measures favored by Caesar. He served as a general under Caesar in the wars in Gaul and in 45 b.c. (just the year before) Trebonius served as consul, the chief magistrate of Rome, thanks to Caesar's influence. To be sure, the consul had little real power while Caesar was dictator, but it was a most honorable position.
As for "Decius Brutus," the name is an error that Shakespeare made in following North's translation of Plutarch, where the same error is to be found. The correct name is Decimus Junius Brutus. He belonged to the same family as did Marcus Junius Brutus, who is the Brutus of this play. This second Brutus is referred to as "Decius" throughout the play and I will do so too, since that will conveniently prevent confusion between the two Brutuses.
Decius was another one of Caesar's generals during the Gallic conquest. In fact, he commanded the fleet at one point, and after Caesar's victory he served as governor of Gaul for a couple of years. His relationship to Caesar was so close that the Dictator even named Decius as one of his heirs, in case no member of his own family survived him.
… the noble Brutus. ..
Yet despite the importance of the individuals in the conspiracy, the need is felt for something more. Cinna says:
O Cassius, if you could
But win the noble Brutus to our party-
– Act I, scene iii, lines 140-41
Casca explains a little later:
O, he sits high in all the people's hearts;
And that which would appear offense in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 157-60
There is another reason why Brutus is desired: to cast a respectable cloak over what otherwise might seem a heinous deed.
But Cassius explains his scheme of deluding "noble" Brutus with fake messages and even has them help in distributing them.
… no personal cause.. .
The scene now shifts to Brutus' house. Brutus has been unable to sleep. He wishes to join the conspiracy, but what he needs is some high-sounding noble reason to do so. He can't admit to the world, or even to himself, that he is being driven to it by Cassius' skillful appeal to his own vanity. He says:
/ 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.
– Act II, scene i, lines 11-13
That seems to be the key to the noble cause he seeks-how power might change Caesar. He decides he will
… think him as a serpent's egg
Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
-Act II, scene i, lines 32-34
What Brutus is now thinking of is a kind of preventive assassination. Caesar must be killed not because he is tyrannical but because he may grow tyrannical.
There is appeal in this argument. Power does tend to corrupt, as history has amply proven, and it is tempting to reason that a tyrant is best removed before he has a chance to show that corruption. What if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1932?
And yet, it is a dangerous view. Once we accept the fact that assassination is justified to prevent tyranny rather than to punish it, who would be safe? What ruler could be sure of not being regarded by someone somewhere as being on the high road to tyranny, which he would reach someday?
… Erebus itself …
Brutus has been receiving the faked letters Cassius has prepared for him and he has managed to talk himself into believing in the nobility of the enterprise. It is clear he intends to join the conspiracy and yet he is still uneasy about it.
When the conspirators arrive at his house, cloaked in masks and darkness, he is aware of the intrinsic shame of conspiracy. He apostrophizes personified conspiracy and says it must assume a false front, for
… thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.
-Act II, scene i, lines 83-85
In some of the more poetic tellings of the Greek myths, Erebus is pictured as the son of Chaos, the brother of Night, and the father of the Fates. There are no tales told of him, however, and in poetry he is merely, as here, used as the personification of darkness. (The word is also used, sometimes, to describe an underground region en route to Hades.)
… what of Cicero.. .
The conspirators are now all together and Brutus is formally accepted among their ranks. Should still others be recruited? Cassius asks:
But what of Cicero? Shall we sound him?
I think he will stand very strong with us.
– Act II, scene i, lines 141-42
Cicero had a very high reputation in Rome in some ways. In an age of general corruption, Cicero was widely recognized as an honest man of high ideals. He was a true republican and favored republican institutions backed by an honest and upright Senate. He would certainly be opposed to Caesar as king. All agree at once, therefore, that Cicero would be an excellent addition.
All but Brutus, that is, for he says:
O name him not! Let us not break with [confide in] him;
– Act II, scene i, line 150
According to Plutarch's tale, Cicero was not approached because it was felt he lacked the necessary resolution and might, in a pinch, betray the conspiracy.
And, indeed, although he was personally upright, he was indeed a physical coward and could not, through most of his life, face actual danger without quailing.
When that aristocratic hoodlum Clodius (see page I-261) set about harassing Cicero and attacking his retinue with his gang of toughs, Cicero was not the man to face him out. Cicero fled the country and satisfied himself with writing rather whining letters of complaint. When Clodius was finally killed by a rival gang leader, Milo, in 52 b.c., Cicero undertook to defend Milo but was scared into voicelessness by hostile crowds.
Again, in the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Cicero made a rather miserable spectacle of himself as he tried to keep from being ground to death between the two, and feared to commit himself too far and too dangerously in either direction.
With this background, the conspirators would be justified in not wishing to risk their mutual safety to Cicero's courage.
This, however, is not the view Shakespeare presents Brutus as holding. He has Brutus give as his reason:
For he [Cicero] will never follow anything
That other men begin.
– Act II, scene i, lines 151-52
Brutus objects to Cicero's vanity and to his penchant for insisting on leading an operation or refusing to join. It is indeed true that Cicero was terribly vain, but not more so than Brutus is portrayed to be in this play.
Indeed, one can easily suspect that Brutus does not want Cicero because he does not want a rival; that it is Brutus himself whose vanity will never allow him to "follow anything that other men begin."
He has just joined the conspiracy which other men have begun, to be sure, but he is already calmly taking over the decision-making power and dictating the direction of the conspiracy. Cassius proposes Cicero and Brutus vetoes it. This, in fact, continues throughout the play. Cassius is constantly making solid, practical suggestions, which Brutus as constantly vetoes.
… sacrifices, but not butchers…
Almost at once Brutus forces a wrong decision on the conspirators, one that makes rum inevitable.
Cassius suggests that Mark Antony be killed along with Caesar. This is a sensible view if we accept the notion of the assassination in the first place. In planning any attack, it is only practical to take into account the inevitable counterattack and take measures to blunt it. Even if Caesar is killed, Mark Antony, an experienced general who is popular with his troops, would have the ability and the will to strike back, if he is allowed to live. Why not kill him then to begin with?
But Brutus says:
Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
– Act II, scene i, lines 162-66
Is this Brutus' nobility? If so, Shakespeare takes considerable pains to neutralize it in the assassination scene an act later, where the conspirators do act like butchers and Brutus urges them to it.
Is it Brutus' obtuse stupidity? Perhaps, but even more so it is an example of how he, not Cicero, "will never follow anything that other men begin."
Perhaps Brutus might himself have suggested taking care of Mark Antony along with Caesar, if only Cassius hadn't mentioned it first. Now, however, that Brutus is in the conspiracy he will lead it, and the one way to do that is to contradict any initiative on the part of the others.
Cassius, uneasily appalled by Brutus' blindness, tries to argue against it. Cassius says of Mark Antony:
Yet I fear him;
For in the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar…
– Act II, scene i, lines 183-84
But Brutus won't even let him finish. Brutus has spoken, and that's that
… Count the clock
At this point there is the sound of a clock striking, and Brutus says:
Peace! Count the clock.
– Act II, scene i, line 192
This is one of the more amusing anachronisms in Shakespeare, for there were no mechanical clocks in the modern sense in Caesar's time. The best that could be done was a water clock and they were not common, and did not strike. Striking clocks, run by falling weights, were inventions of medieval times.
Indeed, the very same scene, at the beginning, shows Brutus speaking of time telling in a way far more appropriate to his period. He says then, peevishly, as he sleeplessly paces his bedroom:
I cannot, by the progress of the stars,
Give guess how near to day.
– Act II, scene i, lines 2-3
… Cato's daughter
Some last arrangements are made. Decius volunteers to make certain that Caesar doesn't change his mind and that he does come to the Capitol.
There is talk of adding new conspirators and of the exact time of meeting. The conspirators then leave and Brutus is left alone.
But not for long. His wife enters, and demands to know what is going on. Who are these men who came? Why is Brutus acting so strangely? She feels she has a right to know, for
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well reputed, Cato's daughter.
– Act II, scene i, lines 292-95
Cato was the Pompeian leader referred to earlier, who led the anti-Caesar forces in Africa. His full name was Marcus Porcius Cato, and he is usually called "Cato the Younger," because his great-grandfather, another Marcus Porcius Cato (see page I-227), was also important in Roman history. Cato the Younger was a model of rigid virtue. He deliberately conducted his life along the lines of the stories that were told of the ancient Romans.
Since he was always very ostentatious about his virtue, he annoyed other people; since he never made allowances for the human weaknesses of others, he angered them; and since he never compromised, he always went down to defeat in the end.
Later generations, however, who didn't have to deal with him themselves, have greatly admired his stiff honesty and his unbending devotion to his principles.
Cato, after the defeat of the anti-Caesarian forces in Africa at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 b.c., was penned up with the remnants of the army in the city of Utica (near modern Tunis). Rather than surrender, he killed himself, so that he is sometimes known to later historians as "Cato of Utica." (Meanwhile the "noble" Brutus, far from emulating his uncle's steadfastness, had switched to Caesar's side and was serving under him.)
Cato had a daughter, Porcia, or "Portia" as the name appears in this play, who was thus Brutus' first cousin. The two had married in 46 b.c. and were thus married about two years at the time of the conspiracy. It was the second marriage for each.
… a voluntary wound
Portia is an example of the idealized view of the Roman matron-almost repulsive in their high-minded patriotism, as in the case of Volumnia (see page I-225). Thus, Shakespeare follows an unpleasant story told by Plutarch and has Portia say:
/ have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here in the thigh; can I bear that with patience,
And not my husband's secrets?
– Act II, scene i, lines 299-302
According to Plutarch, she slashed her thigh with a razor, and then suffered a fever, presumably because the wound grew infected. She recovered and, showing Brutus the scar, said this indicated how well she could endure pain and ensured that even torture would wring no secrets out of her.
Roman legend spoke frequently of the manner in which Romans could endure pain in a patriotic cause. There is the tale, for instance, of Gaius Mucius, who in the very early days of the Roman Republic was captured by the general of the army laying siege to Rome. Mucius had invaded the general's tent with the intention of assassinating him and now the general demanded, under threat of torture, information on Rome's internal condition.
Mucius then deliberately placed his right hand in a nearby lamp flame and held it there till it was consumed, to indicate how little effect torture would have on him. Perhaps Portia's self-inflicted wound was inspired by the Mucius legend. And perhaps the tale concerning Portia is no more true than that concerning Mucius.
If the matter of Portia's wound were true, then the fact that Brutus was unaware of a bad wound in his wife's thigh until she showed it to him gives us a surprising view of the nature of their marriage.
Caius Ligarius …
Before Brutus can explain the situation to Portia, however, a new conspirator enters and she must leave. Brutus greets him:
Caius Ligarius, that Metellus spake of.
– Act II, scene i, line 311
Plutarch calls him Caius Ligarius, but he is named Quintus Ligarius in other places. In either case, he is a senator who supported Pompey and held out for him with Cato the Younger. He was taken prisoner after the Battle of Thapsus, but was pardoned by Caesar after he had been brought to trial, with Cicero as his defender.
Ligarius would have joined the conspiracy sooner but he is sick. As soon as he hears of the details, however, he says:
By all the gods that Romans bow before,
1 here discard my sickness!
– Act II, scene i, lines 320-21
This story too is from Plutarch, and it is another example of the kind of heroism Romans loved to find in their historical accounts.
The heavens themselves…
That same night on which Casca has seen supernatural prodigies and Brutus has joined the conspiracy, Caesar himself has had a restless sleep. His wife, Calphurnia, has had nightmares. What's more, she has heard of the sights men have seen and she doesn't want Caesar to leave the house the next day, fearing that all these omens foretell evil to him.
Caesar refuses to believe it, maintaining the omens are to the world generally and not to himself in particular. To which Calphurnia replies:
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 30-31
The comets, appearing in the skies at irregular intervals, and, with then-tails, taking on a most unusual shape, were wildly held to presage unusual disasters. For anything else, their appearance is too infrequent. Similarly, the unusual portents of the night must apply to some unusual person.
This makes sense provided astrology in general does.
Caesar does not go so far as to scorn astrology, but he does scorn fear in a pair of famous lines:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 32-33
Their minds may change
Nevertheless, Calphurnia continues to beg and eventually Caesar is sufficiently swayed to grant her her wish and to agree to send Mark Antony in his place.
It is morning by now, however, and Decius comes to escort Caesar to the Capitol. The news that Caesar has changed his mind and will not come staggers him. Quickly, he reinterprets all the omens and hints the senators will laugh. Not only does he make use of the threat of ridicule, but he also says:
… the Senate have concluded
To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.
If you shall send them word you will not come,
Their minds may change.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 93-96
This seems true enough. Caesar is trying to pull off a coup that runs counter to the deepest Roman prejudices and it was bound to be a near thing. He had failed, at the Lupercalian festival, to gain a crown by popular acclamation. If he now missed a chance to force the Senate to give him one, he would be giving his opponents a chance to mobilize their forces and the whole project might be ruined. The historic Caesar won many successes by striking when the iron was hot and it isn't likely that he would let such a crucial moment pass.
Caesar changes his mind once again and makes the fateful decision to go.
… Read it, great Caesar
Caesar's progress toward the Capitol is attended by further warnings, according to Plutarch's story, which Shakespeare follows. The soothsayer is there and Caesar tells him ironically that the ides of March are come (presumably implying that all is well). To which the soothsayer answers, portentously:
Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
– Act III, scene i, line 2
Another man, Artemidorus, attempts to give Caesar a warning. According to Plutarch, he was a Greek professor of rhetoric from whom a number of the conspirators had been taking lessons. (In those days, rhetoric, the art of oratory, was indispensable to a public career.) He had picked up knowledge of their plans, presumably because they spoke carelessly before him, and he was anxious to reveal those plans to Caesar (perhaps out of pro-Caesarian conviction or perhaps out of the hope of profiting by Caesar's gratitude).
In any case, he passes a note of warning to Caesar, telling him of the plot. According to Plutarch, Caesar tried several times to read the note but was prevented from doing so by the press of people about him. Shakespeare makes it more dramatic, showing Caesar, by his arrogance, bringing his fate upon himself.
Artemidorus, in an agony of Impatience, cries out, as other petitions are handed Caesar:
O Caesar, read mine first; for mine's a suit
That touches Caesar nearer. Read it, great Caesar.
– Act III, scene i, lines 6-7
But Caesar answers grandly:
What touches us ourself should be last served.
– Act III, scene i, line 8
And thus he condemns himself.
Et tu, Brute…
In what follows, Shakespeare follows Plutarch very closely. The conspirators crowd around Caesar on the pretext that they are petitioning for the recall of the banished Publius Cimber, the brother of Metellus Cimber. Caesar refuses, in a fine oratorical display of unyieldingness, saying:
… I am constant as the Northern Star
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
– Act III, scene i, lines 60-62
The Northern Star (Polaris) does not itself move. Rather, all the other stars circle about it as a hub (in reflection, actually, of the earth's rotation about its axis, the northern end of which points nearly at Polaris). Caesar's picture of himself as the unchanging Northern Star about which all other men revolve is an example of what the Greeks called hubris ("overweening arrogance") and it is followed quickly by what the Greeks called ate ("retribution"). It is the biblical "Pride goeth before… a fall."
The conspirators have now surrounded him so that the onlookers cannot see what is happening, as each approaches on pretense of adding his own pleas to the petition. When Brutus makes his plea, Caesar is embarrassed. The Dictator has repulsed Metellus Cimber haughtily but he cannot use similar language to the beloved Brutus. All he can say is an uneasy:
– Act III, scene i, line 54
Then, later, when Decius begins his plea, Caesar points out that he cannot do it even for Brutus, saying:
Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
– Act III, scene i, line 75
At which point Casca strikes with his dagger, crying:
Speak hands for me!
– Act III, scene i, line 76
According to Plutarch, they each proceed to strike at Caesar, having made an agreement among themselves that each conspirator must be equally involved in the assassination. No one of them must be able to try to escape at the expense of the others by pleading he did not actually stab Caesar.
Caesar tried vainly to avoid the blows until it was Brutus' turn. Brutus, according to Plutarch, struck him "in the privities." That was the last straw for Caesar. When Brutus lifted his weapon to strike, Caesar cried out, "Thou also, Brutus!" and attempted no further to avoid the strokes. His outcry, in Latin, was so famous that Shakespeare made no attempt to translate it, but kept it as it was, a small patch of Latin in the midst of the play:
Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar.
– Act III, scene i, line 77
… in Caesar's blood
So died Julius Caesar, on March 15, 44 b.c., hacked to death by twenty-three stabs. Brutus had earlier made an apparently noble speech to the effect that they not "hack the limbs" and that they "be sacrificers, but not butchers" (see page I-279). He had meant it figuratively with reference to the possible death of Mark Antony, but now that speech takes on a grislier aspect, when it turns out that Caesar has, deliberately, been hacked and butchered to death.
Was Shakespeare sardonically contrasting Brutus' brutal acts with his "noble" words? What should we think? Perhaps Brutus merely went along with the general feeling of the conspirators that the assassination be carried out by universal hacking. This seems doubtful since in every other case in the play he insists on having his own way even though the consensus is against him. Then too, Shakespeare has Brutus go on to say:
Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the market place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry "Peace, freedom, and liberty!"
– Act III, scene i, lines 105-10
Plutarch merely says the swords were bloodied, but Shakespeare has Brutus suggest that they deliberately bloody their arms. Does this not give them all the precise appearance of butchers? Does this not deliberately belie Brutus' plea to "be sacrificers, but not butchers"?
It is precisely as butchers that Brutus would have them all go out to the market place; that is, the forum. The Latin word forum means "market place." It was located in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, the first two hills to be occupied by the city. The market place is a natural site for people to gather, trade news, and discuss business, so that the word "forum" has now come to mean any public place for the discussion of ideas.
… on Pompey's basis…
When Cassius foretells grimly that this scene will be re-enacted in tragedies through future centuries, the "noble" Brutus evinces no sorrow. Rather, he lends himself to this lugubrious fantasy and says:
How many times shall
Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!
– Act III, scene i, lines 114-16
The reference to "Pompey's basis" is to the pedestal of the statue of Pompey that stood at the Capitol. The statues and trophies of Pompey which had come to grace the Capitol in the time of Pompey's greatness had been taken away in the aftermath of Caesar's victory at Pharsalia by those in Rome who thought to ingratiate themselves with the victor in this way. Caesar, on his return, ordered them replaced, forgiving the memory of Pompey even as he had forgiven so many of Pompey's followers.
And yet not only was he assassinated by those he had forgiven, but in death he was dragged by them (probably deliberately) to the base of Pompey's statue in order that he might lie there a symbolic victim at the feet of the man he had defeated.
… no harm intended…
At the realization that Caesar was dead, the Capitol emptied itself of the panicked spectators. Who knew, after all, how broad and general the plot was and how many were marked for death?
It was necessary, therefore, for the conspirators to calm the city at once lest a panicked populace, once it regained its breath, break out in uncontrollable rioting of which no one could foresee the end. One senator, Publius, too old and infirm to fly with the rest, remains on the scene terrified. He is accosted gently and sent with a message. Brutus says:
Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to Roman else. So tell them, Publius.
– Act III, scene i, lines 89-91
… to lie in death
Mark Antony is a special case. He knew that if the plot extended to even one person beyond Caesar himself, he would be the one. So far he had been spared; he had even been taken aside at the time of the assassination. It was necessary now for him to play for time and gain, temporarily, the friendship of the conspirators, or at least allay their suspicions.
In Shakespeare's version, Mark Antony sends a messenger to Brutus with a most humble message:
// Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living; but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Through the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith.
– Act III, scene i, lines 130-37
It is a careful speech, appealing to Brutus' vanity and giving him the necessary adjective "noble." Mark Antony tempts Brutus with the picture of himself taking the place of Caesar, while Mark Antony continues as loyal assistant. It would seem that Antony judges Brutus to be not so much interested in stopping Caesar as in replacing him, and perhaps he is right.
Nor is Mark Antony a complete hypocrite. The message does not promise unqualified submission to Brutus. It sets a condition. Brutus must arrange to have Mark Antony "be resolved" as to the justice of the assassination; that is, to have it explained to his satisfaction.
Of course, Mark Antony has no intention of allowing the assassination to be explained to his satisfaction, but Brutus cannot see that. The unimaginably vain Brutus feels the assassination to be necessary; how then can anyone else doubt that necessity once Brutus explains it?
Your voice shall be as strong…
Brutus is won over at once, as he always is by praise, but Cassius is not. He says:
But yet have I a mind
That fears him much…
– Act III, scene i, lines 144-45
Brutus, with his usual misjudgment, brushes that aside and welcomes Mark Antony, who now comes onstage with a most magnificent piece of bluffing. He speaks in love and praise of Caesar, and grandly suggests that if they mean to kill him, now is the time to do it, in the same spot and with the same weapons that killed Caesar. Yet he is careful to join the offer with flattery:
No place will please me so, no mean of death,
As here by Caesar, and by you cut off,
The choice and master spirits of this age.
– Act III, scene i, lines 161-63
The flattery further melts the susceptible Brutus, of course, and he offers conciliatory words to Mark Antony. The practical Cassius realizes that Brutus is all wrong and feels the best move now is to inveigle Mark Antony into sharing the guilt by offering to cut him in on the loot. He says:
Your voice shall be as strong as any man's
In the disposing of new dignities.
– Act III, scene i, lines 177-78
… what compact…
Mark Antony makes no direct reply to the offer of loot, but proceeds to strike those attitudes of nobility he knows will impress Brutus. He ostentatiously shakes the bloody hands of the conspirators yet speaks eloquently of his love for Caesar, once Brutus professes that he himself had loved Caesar.
Cassius, rather desperately, breaks into the flow of rhetoric with a practical question to Mark Antony:
But what compact mean you to have with us?
Will you be pricked in number of our friends,
Or shall we on, and not depend on you?
– Act III, scene i, lines 215-17
Where we write names with chalk on slate, or with pen and pencil on paper, the Romans were apt to scratch them in the wax coated on a wooden tablet. Where we check off names with a /, they would prick a little hole next to the name. Hence the question "Will you be pricked in number of our friends…"
… do not consent …
Again, Mark Antony evades a direct commitment. He still wants an explanation of Caesar's crimes, which Brutus is still confident he can give. What's more, Antony adds a casual request:
… that / may
Produce his [Caesar's] body to the market place,
And in the pulpit, as becomes a friend,
Speak in the order of his funeral.
– Act III, scene i, lines 227-30
It seems a moderate request. After all, Caesar, though assassinated, deserves an honorable funeral and a eulogy by a good friend; especially a friend who seems to have joined the conspiracy. Brutus agrees at once.
The clear-seeing Cassius is horrified. He pulls Brutus aside and whispers urgently:
You know not what you do; do not consent
That Antony speak in his funeral.
– Act III, scene i, lines 232-33
Cassius knows, after all, that Mark Antony is a skillful orator and that if he catches the attention of the populace he can become dangerous.
Nothing, however, can win out over Brutus' vanity. It is the mainspring of all the action. Brutus points out that he will speak first and explain the assassination (he is always sure that he has but to explain the deed and everyone will understand and be satisfied) and that Mark Antony can, after that, do nothing. To make doubly sure, Brutus sets conditions, saying to Antony:
You shall not in your funeral speech blame us,
But speak all good you can devise of Caesar
And say you do't by our permission;
– Act III, scene i, lines 245-48
Brutus was worse than vain; he was a fool to think that such conditions could for one moment stop an accomplished orator and force him to make the conspirators seem noble and magnanimous. Later on, when Mark Antony does speak, he keeps to those conditions rigorously, and it does the conspirators no good at all.
… Caesar's spirit…
Mark Antony is left alone with Caesar's body and, in an emotional soliloquy, apologizes to the corpse for his show of affection with the conspirators. He predicts the coming of civil war and says:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry "Havoc," and let slip the dogs of war,
– Act III, scene i, lines 270-73
Ate is visualized here as the personified goddess of retribution, and "Havoc" is the fearful cry that sounds out at the final fall of a besieged city. It is the signal for unrestrained killing and looting when all real fighting is done. (The word "hawk" is from the same root and one can see in the swoop of the hawk the symbol of the surge of a conquering army on its helpless victims.)
The reference to "Caesar's spirit" may be taken literally in any society that believes in ghosts, and these include both Mark Antony's and Shakespeare's. Indeed, Caesar's spirit makes an actual appearance in Plutarch's tale and therefore in this play as well.
… Octavius Caesar…
It is but a small leap, however, to interpret "Caesar's spirit" in another way too. His spirit may be the spirit of his reforms and his attempt to reorganize the Roman government under a strong and centralized rule. This could live on and come "ranging for revenge." And that spirit might well be embodied in another man.
As though to indicate this, Antony's soliloquy is followed by the immediate entrance of a "Servant"; a messenger coming to announce his master is on his way. It follows only six lines after the reference to "Caesar's spirit" and Mark Antony recognizes the newcomer, saying:
You serve Octavius Caesar, do you not?
– Act III, scene i, line 276
Octavius Caesar, whose proper name is Caius Octavius, is the only living close relative of Julius Caesar. He is the grandson of Caesar's sister, Julia, and is therefore the grandnephew of Julius. He was born in 63 b.c. and was nineteen years old at the time of the assassination.
Octavius was a sickly youth. He had joined Caesar in Spain (just before the opening of the play) but he was obviously unsuited for war. Nor was his greatuncle anxious to push him into warfare. In default of living children of his own, the Dictator needed Octavius as an heir. Therefore, when Caesar was making ready to move east against Parthia, he ordered the boy to remain in Greece at his studies.
Octavius was still in Greece when news of the assassination reached him, and at once he decided to make for Rome, there to demand what he could of his great uncle's inheritance.
Antony does not welcome the news of the coming of Octavius. He may have loved Julius Caesar, but that does not require him to love Caesar's grandnephew. After all, Antony could reasonably argue that he, as Caesar's loyal lieutenant and a mature man of war, is more realistically Caesar's heir than some sickly child who happens to be related to Caesar by accident of birth. The presence of the boy would merely produce complications and Antony does his best to keep him away. He sends back a message:
Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome,
No Rome of safety for Octavius yet.
– Act III, scene i, lines 288-89
… I loved Rome more
The next scene moves directly to Caesar's funeral. Actually, it took place on March 20 and the five days between assassination and funeral were busy ones. The conspirators had hurriedly taken hold of the spoils. Many of them have had provinces assigned to them: Brutus will govern Macedonia; Cassius will take over Syria; Decius will have Cisalpine Gaul; Trebonius, part of Asia Minor; Metellus Cimber, another part of Asia Minor; and so on.
For men supposedly actuated only by a noble concern for the commonwealth, they were extraordinarily quick to place themselves in positions of power. Nor was Brutus behindhand in taking his share.
But Shakespeare ignores this and proceeds directly to the funeral.
Brutus begins by addressing a hostile crowd in the forum, offering to explain the circumstances of the assassination. He does so in prose; stilted prose, at that, with laboriously balanced sentences. He insists he loved Caesar and killed him only for the greater good of Rome:
Not that I loved Caesar less,
but that I loved Rome more.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 21-22
The essence of his defense is that Caesar had grown too ambitious for Rome's safety; that is, Caesar was ambitious to be king. Brutus says (and here he is almost convincing):
As Caesar loved me,
I weep for him; as he was fortunate,
I rejoice at it; as he was valiant,
1 honor him; but as he was ambitious,
I slew him.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 24-27
Brutus then prepares to keep his promise of letting Mark Antony speak on behalf of Caesar. With fatuous vanity, he urges the crowd to listen to Antony and himself hurries away as though he is convinced that he has so turned the crowd against Caesar and toward himself that nothing Mark Antony can say will undo matters.
… Brutus is an honorable man
Now Mark Antony is there with Caesar's corpse. Quietly, he begins one of the most famous passages Shakespeare has ever written. (Whatever Antony said in reality-and it must have been effective, for he gained Rome thereby-it is hard to believe that he could possibly have scaled the heights Shakespeare wrote for him.) He begins:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 75-76
He admits that if (if) Caesar were ambitious, that was a bad fault and he has certainly been punished for it. As he promised Brutus, he explains that he speaks by permission of the conspirators and he does nothing but praise them:
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest
(For Brutus is an honorable man,
So are they all, all honorable men),
Come 1 to speak in Caesar's funeral.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 83-86
The phrase "Brutus is an honorable man" is to be repeated and repeated by Mark Antony. He gives the praise to Brutus in precisely the fashion Brutus most enjoys, crying out how honorable and noble he is. Yet the skillful repetition, in rising tones of irony, builds the anger of the crowd to the point where the very epithet "honorable" becomes an insult.
Speaking in short and moving phrases, as though he were choked with emotion, Mark Antony disposes of the charge of ambition:
He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious.
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill;
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And sure he is an honorable man.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 87-101
Antony's arguments are, of course, irrelevant. By "ambition," Brutus meant Caesar's desire to be king, and nothing Antony says disproves that desire. Caesar might be a good personal friend, yet plan to be a king. He might donate ransom money to the public treasury and express pity for the poor, but intend these acts only to build up the good will with which to buy the crown. If he did refuse the crown, it was only to force the mob to insist he take it, and he regretted the failure of the scheme.
But all that, of course, doesn't matter. Antony's speech is almost hypnotic in its force, and, properly presented, it can win over a modern audience which had earlier been prepared to sympathize with Brutus.
… 'tis his will
The crowd is indeed moved and Mark Antony senses that without difficulty. It is time for the next step, to appeal directly and forcefully to the powerful emotion of greed. He says:
But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet; 'tis his will.
Let but the commons hear this testament,
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read,
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds,
– Act III, scene ii, lines 130-34
Yes indeed, Antony has not been idle in the interval between assassination and funeral either. The very night following the assassination, having made a temporary peace with the conspirators, he took a crucial action. He seized the funds which Caesar had gathered for his projected Parthian campaign and persuaded Calphurnia to let him have access to all of Caesar's papers, among which he found the will.
The funds would be important when it came to bribing senators and hiring soldiers. The will-well, that would be used now.
Naturally, once Antony mentions the will and declines to read it, the crowd howls for it to be read. Antony hangs back and the more he does so, the more violently insistent the crowd becomes. Choosing his moment with artistic care, Antony advances his reason for hesitating:
/ fear I wrong the honorable men
Whose daggers have stabbed Caesar; I do fear it.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 153-54
And one man in the crowd calls out with passion:
They were traitors. Honorable men!
– Act III, scene ii, line 155
There is hatred in the repetition of that phrase so often applied to Brutus, and which Brutus so loves. Another man in the crowd cries out.
They were villains, murderers!
The will! Read the will!
– Act III, scene ii, lines 157-58
… the Nervii
Mark Antony has them now, but it is still not enough. He intends to make them virtually insane with rage. He descends from the rostrum and has them gather round Caesar's corpse. Antony holds up the cloak Caesar was wearing when he was killed:
You all do know this mantle; I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on:
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 172-75
The Nervii were a fierce Gallic tribe living in what is now Belgium, and Caesar had beaten them in 57 b.c. This was a skillful allusion, too, for it reminded the crowd of Caesar's conquests, not over Romans, but over barbarian Gauls (whom Romans particularly hated because of the memory of the ancient Gallic sack of Rome in 390 b.c.).
To be sure, this passage doesn't square with actual history. Mark Antony couldn't possibly remember the evening of the day on which Caesar overcame the Nervii, since he didn't join Caesar in Gaul till three years later. Moreover, is it likely that Caesar on the supreme day on which he expects to be crowned king will put on a thirteen-year-old cloak? All our information concerning him agrees that he was a dandy, and meticulous with his grooming.
However, it is an effective passage and the real Mark Antony would have used it, regardless of accuracy, if he had thought of it
… the most unkindest cut of all
Now Mark Antony begins to point to the bloodied rents in the mantle where swords had sliced through (and this he actually did, according to Plutarch). What's more, he has progressed to the point where he can begin to stab the conspirators with pointed words.
Look, in this place ran Cassius" dagger through;
See what a rent the envious Casca made;
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed,
– Act III, scene ii, lines 176-78
Antony lingers on Brutus' stroke, for it was this man who had instructed him to praise the conspirators, and it is Brutus therefore whom he chiefly wants to destroy with praise. He says:
… Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel. Judge,
O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
– Act III, scene ii, lines 183-85
Now he whips away the cloak to reveal Caesar's own gashed body, and that is the equivalent of crying "Havoc," for the maddened crowd breaks out with:
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire!
Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!
– Act III, scene ii, lines 206-7
… When comes such another
But still Mark Antony is not through. He calms them yet again, still keeping to his promise to praise Brutus, by saying:
/ am no orator, as Brutus is;
But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man
– Act HI, scene ii, lines 219-20
It is a piece of praise that openly laughs at Brutus, and there is still, after all, the will to read. Antony begins the reading and says:
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 243-44
There is more:
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbors, and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs forever; common pleasures,
To walk abroad and recreate yourselves.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 249-53
That brings Antony to his climax. He has wrought on the crowd with pity, with greed, and with gratitude, and they are in the highest state combustible. He gives them one last shout:
Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?
– Act III, scene ii, line 254
With that, the crowd explodes. They are utterly mad and ready to destroy the conspirators and Rome with them if necessary. Mark Antony watches them rush off, raving, and says grimly:
Now let it work; Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take though what course thou wilt.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 263-64
… his name's Cinna
Shakespeare shows the mob at its frightening work in one incident taken from Plutarch, which involves a minor poet named Helvius Cinna. He was a friend of Caesar's and no relative of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, the conspirator.
Cinna the poet is stopped by elements of the mob who demand he identify himself. He says:
Truly, my name is Cinna.
– Act III, scene iii, line 27
The crowd at once sets up its howl and though the poor fellow shrieks that he is not Cinna the conspirator but merely China the poet, they will not listen, crying:
It is no matter, his name's Cinna;
– Act III, scene iii, line 33
… rid like madmen…
Soon enough, the conspirators realize the two deadly mistakes Brutus has made for them; letting Antony live, and letting him speak. The mere name of "conspirator" is now enough to kill.
The servant who had appeared in the earlier scene to talk of Octavius appears soon after the conclusion of Antony's great speech to announce:
… Brutus and Cassius
Are rid like madmen through the gates of Rome.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 271-72
They hoped at first merely to retire to some nearby town till Rome had cooled down, and then to return. This was not to happen, however. Rome did not cool down; Mark Antony remained in control. The conspirators scattered, some to the respective provinces they had been assigned, some elsewhere. Brutus and Cassius are the only conspirators with whom the play concerns itself in the last two acts. They retire to the eastern provinces.
… Octavius is already come …
But Mark Antony was not to have it all his own way. He had no way of knowing it, but the day of his funeral speech was the climax of his life, the apex of his power. He had ended it with the rhetorical cry: "Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?" and eleven lines later that question is answered.
The servant who brings the news of the flight of Brutus and Cassius also announces news concerning his master:
Sir, Octavius is already come to Rome.
– Act III, scene ii, line 265
Here was another Caesar. He was that literally, for he adopted the name; and he was that figuratively too, for he was even more capable than Julius, winning that for which the older man had died without getting.
There was no way of telling this when Octavius first came; young, sickly, and seeming to be of little account in comparison to the great, magnetic charisma that now clung to Mark Antony. Antony underestimated him (everyone did) and could not tell that, as he himself had been Brutus' nemesis, so Octavius was fated to be his-something that will be made clear enough in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
But even without foreseeing the future, Antony can see that Octavius' coming is a serious embarrassment. Caesar's will, which Antony had read with such consummate skill at the funeral, contained clauses he tried to suppress. Caesar, in his will, had named Octavius as his heir and, what's more, had adopted him as his son. This meant that Octavius owned all of Caesar's funds (which Mark Antony had appropriated) and would have become the next king if Caesar had lived long enough to gain the monarchy.
Mark Antony wanted the will ratified and had persuaded the Senate to do so by agreeing to allow them also to declare an amnesty for the conspirators. However, Antony fought against the ratification by the Senate of that part of the will that dealt with Octavius. Just the same, Gaius Octavius changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, to indicate his new status as Caesar's adopted son, and is thereafter known to English-speaking historians as Octavian. In this play, however, he remains "Octavius" throughout and I will call him so.
The change in name was a shrewd move. It enabled him to call himself "Caesar" and capitalize on the magic of that name. What's more, Cicero rallied to him, out of hatred for Mark Antony, and Cicero's oratory was a tower of strength.
He and Lepidus…
There was also the question of the army. In the play, when Mark Antony hears Octavius is in Rome, he asks his whereabouts and is told:
He and Lepidus are at Caesar's house.
– Act III, scene ii, line 267
The reference is to a Roman general, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. On the day of the assassination, he just happened to have a legion of troops on the outskirts of the city. He was preparing to move with them to his province in southern Gaul, but when the news of the assassination came, he occupied Rome instead. If he had been a strong character, this accident of being on the scene at the crucial moment might have made him master of the Roman realm.
Lepidus was, however, a weakling. He lacked Octavius' name, Antony's reputation, and the resolution of both. In later years he remained a pawn.
… to Octavius
Antony, hearing that Octavius is in Rome and with Lepidus, doesn't hesitate. He says to the Servant:
Bring me to Octavius.
– Act III, scene ii, line 274
The short mob scene involving China the poet intervenes and the fourth act then opens with Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in triple conference. As far as the play is concerned, little time has elapsed.
In actual history, however, more than a year and a half of intensive political and military jockeying has intervened between the funeral of Caesar and the three-way meeting of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus.
After the funeral, Antony found himself in annoying difficulties. He was not the politician Caesar had been and he found Octavius a curiously capable enemy for the sickly youngster he seemed to be. What's more, Cicero now rose to new prominence and his oratory flamed to new heights. Cicero's hatred for Mark Antony showed itself in a succession of unbelievably vituperative speeches that wrecked Antony's popularity almost as much as Antony's funeral speech had wrecked Brutus'.
Antony felt he could best regain lost ground by military victory. Decius (Decimus Brutus) was in control of Cisalpine Gaul and he was the closest of the conspirators. Antony turned against him, despite the senatorial amnesty of the conspirators, and thus began a new civil war.
As soon as Antony had marched out of Rome at the head of his troops, however, Octavius persuaded the Senate to declare him a public enemy. With senatorial backing gone, Mark Antony could not make head against Decius, but was forced, in April 43 b.c. (a full year after the assassination), to march his army into Gaul. He had failed militarily as well as politically.
Octavius, master of Rome, now forced the Senate to recognize him at last as heir to Caesar. In September 43 b.c. he himself led an army against Decius. Octavius was no fighter, but the name of Caesar succeeded where Antony had failed. Decius' soldiers deserted in droves, and Decius himself had to flee. He was captured and executed and Octavius' reputation skyrocketed.
By that time, though, Brutus and Cassius had consolidated their power over the eastern half of the Roman realm. It was clear that if Antony and Octavius continued to maneuver against each other, they would both lose and the conspirators would yet emerge in control.
Lepidus therefore labored to bring Antony and Octavius together in a compromise settlement, and succeeded. All three met in Bononia (the modern Bologna) on November 27, 43 b.c., twenty months after the assassination.
The three agreed to combine in a three-man government, an agreement resembling the one that had been made by Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus seventeen years before. In fact, the new agreement is called the Second Triumvirate. The fourth act opens after the Second Triumvirate has been formed.
… with a spot…
Shakespeare presents the Triumvirate at the moment they make a grisly bargain to seal their compact.
What they chiefly need, after all, is money. One way of obtaining it is to declare certain well-to-do Individuals guilty of treason, execute them, and confiscate their estates. This also gives each triumvir a chance to get rid of personal enemies as well. The enemy of one, however, might be the friend or relative of another member of the Triumvirate; and if one of them sacrifices a friend or relative he would naturally expect the other two to make a similar sacrifice.
The proscriptions (that is, arbitrary condemnations) include, for instance, Lepidus' brother. As quid pro quo, Antony must allow his nephew to be marked with a prick in the wax (see page I-290), indicating he is listed for execution. Antony says, with a kind of gruesome magnanimity:
He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him.
– Act IV, scene i, line 6
What Mark Antony demands (something that does not appear in the play at this point) and Octavius is forced to concede, is Cicero's life. Cicero had labored for Octavius and had made all the difference when the young man had first come to Rome as an almost ignored young man, and now Octavius, grown to power, delivers the great orator to his enemy. However much we might excuse it as practical politics, however much we might argue that Octavius had no choice, it remains the blackest single act of Octavius' long and illustrious career.
Are levying powers. ..
With the immediate financial problem ironed out by means of the proscriptions, the Triumvirate can turn to military matters. Antony says:
And now, Octavius,
Listen great things. Brutus and Cassius
Are levying powers; we must straight make head.
– Act IV, scene i, lines 40-42
The united Caesarians must face the united conspirators. Brutus had been in Macedonia for a year now and Cassius in Syria. In the face of the gathering of their enemies, they were getting armies ready for battle and planning to unite their forces.
… this night in Sardis…
At once the action moves to the conspirators, who are meeting each other in Asia Minor, and for the first tune the setting of the play is outside the city of Rome.
The scene is laid in the camp of Brutus' army outside Sardis, and one of Brutus' aides, Lucilius, tells him with reference to Cassius' approaching army:
They mean this night in Sardis to be quartered;
– Act IV, scene ii, line 28
Sardis is a city in western Asia Minor, forty-five miles east of the Aegean Sea. In ancient times it was the capital of the Lydian monarchy, which reached its height under Croesus, who reigned there from 560 to 546 b.c. The wealth of Sardis and the kingdom of Lydia at that time was such that the Greeks used to say "as rich as Croesus," a phrase that is still used today.
It was captured by the Persians in 546 b.c. Then when Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire two centuries later, Sardis fell under the rule of Macedonian generals and monarchs.
In 133 b.c. it became Roman and continued to remain a great city for over a thousand years more. It was finally destroyed in 1402 by the hosts of Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, and has lain in ruins ever since.
… an itching palm
Once Brutus and Cassius meet in the former's tent, they have at each other, for both have accumulated grievances. Brutus scorns Cassius for his avarice:
Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemned to have an itching palm,
To sell and mart your offices for gold
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 9-12
The difficulty with the conspirators, as much as with the Triumvirate, is money. Soldiers must be paid or they will desert, and the money must be obtained. Cassius therefore sold appointments to high positions for ready cash, and it is this Brutus scorns.
Another source of money was from the surrounding population. The helpless civilians had no way of resisting the armies, and during the early part of 42 b.c., for instance, Cassius stripped the island of Rhodes of all its precious metals. Asia Minor felt the squeeze too. Wherever Cassius' army passed, the natives were stripped bare and, in some cases, killed when they had given the last drachma. Brutus scorns this too, for he says:
… I can raise no money by vile means. By heaven,
I had rather coin my heart
And drop my blood for drachmas than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 71-75
This sounds good, but in the course of the Pompeian war, Brutus, as an actual historical character, had spent some time on the island of Cyprus. There he had oppressed the provincials heartlessly, squeezing money out of them without pity, and writing complaining letters that he was prevented from squeezing still more out of them by other officials.
Then too, while Cassius was draining Rhodes, Brutus demanded money of the city of Xanthus in Asia Minor, and when the city would not (or could not) pay, he destroyed it. He is supposed to have felt remorse after the destruction of Xanthus and to have ceased trying to collect money in this fashion.
And yet he lists one of his grievances against Cassius as:
I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me;
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 69-70
It is immediately after that that he says unctuously that he "can raise no money by vile means." In other words, he cannot steal but he is willing to have Cassius steal, share in the proceeds, and then scorn Cassius as a robber. Neither Brutus' intelligence nor his honesty ever seem to survive the words Shakespeare carefully put into his mouth.
… swallowed fire
In the quarrel, it is Cassius who backs away, and the scene ends in a reconciliation. Characteristically, Brutus praises himself unstintingly as one who is slow to anger and quick to forgive. He says:
O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire,
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 109-12
Brutus further explains his momentary anger by telling Cassius that his wife, Portia, is dead:
Impatient of my absence,
And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony
Have made themselves so strong-for with her death
That tidings came-with this she fell distract
And (her attendants absent) swallowed fire.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 151-55
According to Plutarch, she choked herself by putting hot embers into her mouth. This seems so strange a way of committing suicide as to be almost unbelievable. Is it possible that this is a distortion of a much more likely death-that she allowed a charcoal fire to burn in a poorly ventilated room and died of carbon monoxide poisoning?
… farewell, Portia …
And now an odd thing happens. An officer, Marcus Valerius Messala, comes in with news from Rome. Brutus maneuvers nun (with considerable effort) into revealing the fact that Portia is dead. Without saying he already knows the fact, Brutus says calmly:
Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 189-91
Brutus adhered to that school of philosophy called Stoicism. It had been founded, some three centuries earlier, by a Greek philosopher, Zeno of Citium (who possibly had Phoenician ancestry as well). He lectured at a Stoa Poikile (a "painted porch"; that is, a corridor lined with frescoes) in Athens. From this porch the philosophy took its name.
Stoicism saw the necessity of avoiding pain, but did not feel that choosing pleasure was the best way to do so. The only safe way of living the good life, Stoics felt, was to put oneself beyond both pleasure and pain: to train oneself not to be the slave of either passion or fear, to treat both happiness and woe with indifference. If you desire nothing, you need fear the loss of nothing.
Brutus, with his "Why, farewell, Portia," was greeting the death of a loved one with the proper Stoic response.
But why didn't he tell Messala that he already knew of the death in detail and had just been discussing it with Cassius? One theory is that, having written the proper Stoic scene with its "farewell, Portia," Shakespeare felt it presented Brutus in an unsympathetic light. He felt, perhaps, that an English audience could scarcely feel the proper sympathy for so extreme a Roman attitude; they would feel it repellently heartless. He therefore wrote the earlier scene in which Brutus is still Stoical but shows enough feeling to grow angry with Cassius. Then, the theory goes on, both versions appeared, through carelessness, in the final printed copy of the play.
Yet it seems to me that this cannot be so. Shortly after Messala enters, Cassius, still brooding over the news, says to himself:
Portia, art thou gone?
– Act IV, scene iii, line 165a
To this Brutus makes a hasty response:
No more, I pray you.
– Act IV, scene iii, line 165b
It is as though he does more than merely neglect to tell Messala of his knowledge. He takes special pains to keep Cassius from telling him.
Why? Perhaps precisely so he can strike the proper Stoic note. Since he already knows and the shock is over, he can greet the news with marvelous calm, and strike a noble pose.
We might find an excuse for him and say that he was seizing the opportunity to be ostentatiously strong and Stoical in order to hearten his officers and his army with a good example. On the other hand, he might have done it out of a vain desire for praise. After all, as soon as Brutus makes his Stoic response, Messala says, worshipingly:
Even so great men great losses should endure.
– Act IV, scene iii, line 192
If this is so, and certainly it is a reasonable supposition, what a monster of vanity Shakespeare makes out Brutus to be.
Cicero is dead
Before Messala has the news of Portia's death forced out of him, he delivers the news of the proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate. Dozens of men of senatorial rank have been executed. What's more, says Messala:
Cicero is dead, And by that order of proscription.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 178-79
As soon as the Second Triumvirate was formed, Cicero, knowing that any accommodation between Octavius and Antony would have to be at his own expense, tried to escape from Italy. Contrary winds drove his ship back to shore, however, and before he could try again, the soldiers sent to kill him had arrived.
Those with him, his servants and retainers, made as though to resist, but Cicero, sixty-three years old and tired of the wild vicissitudes of public life, found at the end the physical courage he had so conspicuously lacked throughout his life. Forbidding resistance, he waited calmly for the soldiers and was cut down on December 7, 43 b.c., twenty-one months after Julius Caesar's assassination.
… toward Philippi
Brutus, meanwhile, has told of the news he himself has received; news to the effect that the triumvirs are on the move eastward, taking the offensive. He says:
Messala, I have here received letters
That young Octavius and Mark Antony
Come down upon us with a mighty power,
Bending their expedition toward Philippi.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 166-69
Philippi was an important city in the province of Macedonia, and was located about ten miles north of the Aegean Sea. It had been built up on the site of an earlier village in 356 b.c. by Philip II, King of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great The city was named for Philip.
… taken at the flood…
The question now is how best to react to the Triumvirate offensive. Cassius takes the cautious view. He suggests their forces remain on the defensive.
'Tis better that the enemy seek us;
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offense, whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 198-201
Brutus, however, disagrees. He points out that the provinces between the enemy army and themselves are angered by the looting they have undergone and would join Antony and Octavius. Their own army, on the other hand, is as large as it is ever likely to be, and if they wait it will start declining. He says, sententiously, in a famous passage:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 217-20
Once again, Brutus contradicts Cassius and has his way and the result proves his judgment to be wrong. Throughout the play, Brutus consistently misjudges the moment when the tide is at the flood, and to place this passage in his mouth seems to intend irony.
… this monstrous apparition
Brutus makes ready for sleep, in an almost family atmosphere of concern for his servants (and he is portrayed most nearly noble, in good truth, here). He settles down to read a book when suddenly he cries out:
Ha! Who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 274-76
It is the ghost of Caesar, which Brutus boldly accosts. It tells him only that they will meet again at Philippi.
One might suppose that this was a Shakespearean invention, introduced for dramatic effect, for the chance of turning lights low, producing shadows, and chilling the audience, but, in actual fact, Shakespeare does not have to invent it. The report that Caesar's ghost appeared to Brutus is to be found in Plutarch.
It is with a forward look to this scene, perhaps, that Shakespeare had had Mark Antony speak earlier of "Caesar's spirit."
It proves not so. ..
The fifth act opens in the plains near Philippi, with the opposing armies facing each other and waiting for battle. Octavius, looking at the scene with grim satisfaction, says:
Now, Antony, our hopes are answered;
You said the enemy would not come down,
But keep the hills and upper regions.
It proves not so…
– Act V, scene i, lines 1-4
What had happened between the acts was this. Brutus and Cassius, crossing the straits into Macedonia from Asia Minor, encountered a portion of the triumvir army near Philippi. If the conspirators had attacked at once, they ought to have won, but before they could do so, the rest of the triumvir army arrived and it was a standoff.
The triumvir army now outnumbered the conspirators but was weaker in cavalry. What is more, it was Brutus and Cassius who had the strong position in the hills, while Antony and Octavius occupied a marshy and malarial plain.
Brutus and Cassius had only to stay where they were. It would have been suicidal for Antony and Octavius to try to charge into the hills. Yet to stay on the plains would expose them to hunger and disease.
Indeed, Octavius was already sick, although this doesn't appear in the play. Octavius seemed always to be sick before a battle. In this case, he fell sick at Dyrrhachium (on the coast of what is now Albania) and had to be carried by litter the 250 miles to Philippi.
Cassius opposed battle, maintaining that by waiting it out, the enemy would sooner or later have to retreat and that the effect would be one of victory for the conspirators. He was manifestly correct in this and Antony, putting himself grimly in the conspirators' place, was sure that was exactly what they would do.
Antony still did not count on the egregious stupidity of Brutus. Brutus again opposed Cassius and favored immediate battle. Once again Brutus insisted on having his way. Once again Cassius gave in.
… the Hybla bees
A parley between the opposing commanders was arranged before the battle. Perhaps an accommodation could be arranged. That could not be, however, for the conversation quickly degenerated into recriminations. At one point, Cassius refers bitterly to Antony's oratory (thinking perhaps of the funeral speech) and says:
But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees,
And leave them honeyless.
– Act V, scene i, lines 34-35
Hybla was a town in Sicily, on the southern slopes of Mount Etna, and some forty miles northwest of Syracuse. It was famous, almost proverbial, for its honey.
… Brutus, thank yourself
In the wordy quarrel, Antony does have the best of it and Cassius finally is forced to become aware of Brutus' misjudgments. He says to Brutus angrily:
… Now, Brutus, thank yourself;
This [Antony's] tongue had not offended so today,
If Cassius might have ruled.
– Act V, scene i, lines 45-47
Surely he must have thought how, in all likelihood, the conspirators would have been long in control of Rome if only Antony had been killed along with Caesar, as he had advised.
Was Cassius born
There is nothing, then, but to make ready for the actual battle. Cassius is seriously depressed, perhaps because it has been borne in upon him, forcefully, how wrong Brutus has been all through, and because he bitterly regrets all the times he gave in wrongly.
It is now October 42 b.c., more than two and a half years since the assassination of Caesar, and Cassius says to his aide:
This is my birthday; as this very day
Was Cassius born.
– Act V, scene i, lines 70-72
Since we don't know in what year Cassius was born, we can't say how old he was on the day of the Battle of Philippi. However, Plutarch refers to him as older than Brutus (a view Shakespeare adopts) and Brutus may have been born in 85 b.c. It would seem then that Cassius must be in his mid-forties at least and possibly pushing fifty.
Cassius does not find the fact that the battle will be fought on his birthday to be a good omen. He does not want to fight it. He says to Messala:
Be thou my witness that against my will
(As Pompey was) am I compelled to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.
– Act V, scene i, lines 73-75
This is a reference to the fact that it is Brutus, not Cassius, who is pushing for battle. Cassius, who let himself be overruled, reminds himself, sadly, that Pompey was similarly forced into battle at Pharsalia, six years before, by the hotheads among his councilors, when cautious delay might have served his cause better.
… I held Epicurus strong
To unavailing regret that he had allowed himself to be swayed by Brutus, Cassius finds trouble in supernatural omens. He says:
You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
– Act V, scene i, lines 76-78
Epicurus of Samos was a Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of the Zeno who had founded Stoicism. Epicurus' philosophy (Epicureanism) adopted the beliefs of certain earlier Greek philosophers who viewed the universe as made up of tiny particles called atoms. All change consisted of the random breakup and rearrangement of groups of these atoms and there was little room in the Epicurean thought for any purposeful direction of man and the universe by gods. Omens and divine portents were considered empty superstition.
Now, however, Cassius begins to waver. It seems two eagles, having accompanied the army from Sardis to Philippi, have now flown away, as though good luck were departing. On the other hand, all sorts of carrion birds are now gathering, as though bad luck were arriving.
Cassius' pessimism forces him to question Brutus as to his intentions in case the battle is lost. Brutus answers in high Stoic fashion. His actions will follow:
Even by the rule of that philosophy [Stoicism]
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself. ..
– Act V, scene i, lines 100-2
Stoicism held it wrong to seek refuge in suicide. The good man must meet his fate, whatever it is, unmoved. Cassius asks, sardonically, if Brutus is ready, then, in case of defeat, to be led in triumph behind the conqueror's chariot through the Roman streets (and, undoubtedly, with the jeers of the Roman populace ringing in his ears).
At once, Brutus' Stoicism fails him. As long as his Stoic demeanor brings him praise, it is well. If it is going to bring him disgrace he abandons it But he does so with characteristic self-praise:
No, Cassius, no; think not, thou noble Roman
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.
– Act V, scene i, lines 110-12
Since both plan to die in case of defeat, they may never meet again. Brutus says:
Forever, and forever, farewell, Cassius!
– Act V, scene i, line 116
Cassius answers in kind and both are now ready for the battle, which takes up the rest of the play.
… the word too early
On both sides there was double command. Cassius on the seaward side opposed Antony; Brutus on the inland side opposed Octavius. The fortunes differed on the two flanks. Brutus had the advantage over Octavius and advanced vigorously. He sends messages of victory to the other flank by Messala, saying:
… I perceive
But cold demeanour in Octavius' wing,
And sudden push gives them the overthrow.
Ride, ride, Messala!
– Act V, scene ii, lines 3-6
But even now, in the midst of victory, Brutus judges wrongly. Brutus should, at all cost, have kept his part of the army from advancing in such a way that they could not support the other part in case of need. Instead, his men are overvictorious and fall to looting, when they ought to have wheeled down upon Antony's men.
Antony's army manages instead to drive hard against Cassius' wing. That wing breaks and flies and can receive no help. Titinius, Cassius' aide, says bitterly:
O Cassius, Brutus gave the word too early,
Who, having some advantage on Octavius,
Took it too eagerly; his soldiers fell to spoil,
Whilst we by Antony are all enclosed.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 5-8
In Parthia …
Cassius' depression now costs him the final price. He does not realize the exact magnitude of Brutus' victory and therefore does not understand that even allowing for his own defeat, the battle is no worse than drawn.
A band of Brutus' horsemen making their way toward him is mistaken by him for the enemy. When his aide, Titinius, reconnoitering, embraces them gladly, the nearsighted Cassius thinks he is taken prisoner and that his own capture is imminent.
Cassius therefore calls his servant, Pindarus, saying:
In Parthia did I take thee prisoner;
And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,
That whatsoever I did bid thee do,
Thou shouldst attempt it.
– Act V, scene ii, lines 37-40
In Parthia, at the Battle of Carrhae, eleven years before, Cassius had carried through the greatest military achievement of his life. He had carefully husbanded the downhearted remnants of a defeated army and had safely brought them back to Syria.
He had not despaired then, but he did now. He orders his slave to kill him with the same sword that had once pierced Caesar. It is done and Cassius dies.
The last of all Romans …
When the news of Cassius' death is brought to Brutus, he comes to view the body and says:
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 94-96
His eulogy over Cassius is:
The last of all Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow…
– Act V, scene iii, lines 99-101
The statement is a gross exaggeration. Except for his conduct at the Battle of Carrhae, Cassius had shown little real ability. Even in organizing the successful conspiracy that killed Caesar, his weakness in allowing the stupid Brutus to guide affairs ruined all.
Caesar, now be still
Shakespeare has the battle continuing as though it were all one piece. That is not so in actual history.
After the drawn battle in which Cassius killed himself unnecessarily and Brutus was victorious on his wing, the two armies withdrew to lick their wounds.
Brutus' army still held the stronger position and, what's more, Brutus controlled the sea approaches so that supplies were denied Antony and Octavius. He had but to stay where he was and he would still win.
But he could not. The habit of wrong judgments could not be broken and this time there wasn't even Cassius present to argue vainly with him. After twenty days he marched to the attack again in a straightforward head-to-head battle.
He lost again, brought the remnants back to a strong position once again, and might have sold his last bit dear, but that his soldiers refused to fight any more.
There was nothing left to do but find somebody to kill him. This service was performed for him by his servant, Strato, who held the sword while Brutus ran upon it, saying:
Caesar, now be still:
I killed not thee with half so good a will.
– Act V, scene v, lines 50-51
To the end the talk is of Caesar…
the noblest Roman of them all
There remains only the eulogy to be delivered over Brutus. Antony, surveying the dead body, says:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
– Act V, scene v, lines 68-72
Plutarch reports that "it was said" that Antony had, on a number of occasions, said something like this. Was it to win over those who had been on Brutus' side for the war that was to follow between himself and Octavius? Was it out of gratitude, since Brutus had refused to allow Antony to be killed on the ides of March? Did Antony really believe what he said?
In terms of Shakespeare's play, this final eulogy is so devastatingly wrong, it can be accepted only as irony. How can we possibly follow Antony in saying that Brutus was the only one who didn't act out of envy, when Shakespeare shows us that he was the only one who surely acted out of envy.
In the great seduction scene in Act I, scene ii, Cassius turns all his arguments against Brutus' weak point, his monstrous vanity. He paints a world in which Caesar is all and Brutus nothing, knowing that Brutus cannot bear such a thought. Finally, he makes the comparison a brutally direct one:
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that "Caesar"?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
"Brutus" will start a spirit as soon as "Caesar."
– Act I, scene ii, lines 142-47
It might be argued that Cassius was speaking generally, comparing Caesar to any other Roman citizen, but the fact is that he made the comparison to Brutus specifically, and Brutus listened. Take this together with Brutus' character as painstakingly revealed in every other facet of the play and we can be certain that he was not the only conspirator not driven by envy. On the contrary, he was the one conspirator who was driven only by envy.