Julius Caesar

Act 1

Michael:

Act 1 is mostly given over to the case against Caesar, in part emphasizing his human weaknesses but also the un-republican turning toward one-man rule. The first scene begins with the comic workingmen, in particular the cobbler, who teases the tribunes, about his profession. It’s not entirely clear why it’s improper to celebrate Caesar rather than, in the recent past, Pompey, but the tribunes emphasize the ingratitude of their turning from Pompey to Caesar, who has overcome Pompey.

Scene 2 is a big scene, with most of the cast spilling onto the stage. First is Caesar’s perhaps superstitious interest in having Antony touch Calphurnia as he runs the Lupercal race. Her barrenness may suggest something lacking in Caesar, though this is not mentioned. Antony seems to fawn over Caesar in his response. Immediately after, the soothsayer bids Caesar to beware the Ides of March, but his ignoring of this may go in the opposite direction. And then the stage is cleared except for Brutus and Cassius. Cassius is keen to get Brutus to admit some jealousy of Caesar, but Brutus is cautious and seemingly unwilling fully to admit his suspicion of Caesar. Cassius’ story of having to rescue Caesar in swimming the Tiber suggests more of Caesar’s weakness. Eventually Cassius does draw out some apprehension from Brutus. The larger crowd reappears and Caesar remarks his suspicion of Cassius to Antony, if he were inclined to fear. But of course he’s not so inclined because he’s Caesar. But immediately he notes his lack of hearing in his left ear, again less than godlike imperfection. In this exchange Caesar characterizes Cassius as a dangerous intellectual (“reads much,” a great observer), which may raise some suspicion.

More apprehension of Caesar’s desires comes as Brutus and Cassius take Casca apart and question him about the overheard cheering previous in the scene. Casca is a wonderfully cynical voice as he recounts the triple offer of a crown to Caesar, then Caesar falling down. Casca speaks in prose, which may suggest the satirist. He seems on Cassius’ side, but he may be too detached to commit himself. At the end of the scene, Cassius says he’ll have notes tossed into Brutus’ house tending to incite him to more negativity to Caesar. So now we suspect his encouragement of Brutus.

The third scene is both atmosphere, thunder and lightening, and the beginning of the coalescence of the plot against Caesar. Casca recounts the strange wonders he has encountered around Rome to Cicero, who seems rather cool about the possible portents. When Cicero leaves, Cassius is left to draw out Casca, who is inclined to enter fully into Cassius’s plot. So is Cinna, who joins them. They will go to Brutus, whose prestige will be significant to their purpose.

 

Dusty:

The “case against Caesar” does not seem to be made very strong. He has several physical weaknesses (tired while swimming, feverish in Spain, “failing sickness” which I guess is a form of epilepsy, as with Othello, and deafness in one ear), and Brutus worries that although he is not yet a tyrant, he may prove to be one.

In 1.1 the commoners are easily directed by the tribunes. As we will see, it will take more persuasion to enlist Brutus. In 1.2 Antony is presumably dressed in his track suit, ready to run the “course.” We hear later that he is “given to sports.”

If Caesar has “superstitious grown,” why does he spurn the soothsayer? Maybe because he is determined not to seem cowardly.

Cassius seems a crude tempter, ascribing to Brutus a jealousy of Caesar that Brutus does not feel — but Cassius himself does. By contrast, Brutus is concerned for “the general good.” Because he also loves Caesar, he is at war with himself.

Is Caesar also at war with himself, superstitious but contriving occasions to offer his throat to be cut so as to demonstrate his lack of fear? (He is compared to an actor, who knowingly plays a part.)

Brutus is also paired with Cassius. Both get soliloquies in 1.2.

In 1.3 Cassius is said to have a “good ear,” as opposed to Caesar, who has a bad one. Does this also suggest that Cassius is more aware of discontent than Caesar is? Maybe not, since Caesar knows he should worry about Cassius —though he has apparently been oblivious of the dangers presented by the other conspirators.

Act 2

Dusty:

Act 2 brings us up to the morning of the Ides of March. In 2.1 Brutus is sleepless, as opposed to the kind of men Caesar wants around him (who sleep soundly). Although he is said to be at war with himself, he is pretty quickly enlisted in the plot. It’s interesting that he rejects swearing an oath: it should be enough that the plotters have a noble cause, and  only bad men swear an oath. What about the famous oath of the Horatii? Brutus argues against killing Antony, which makes him look better than the other plotters, but he is willing to blame the killing on “servants,” which makes him look like the plotters who want to recruit Brutus and Cicero in order to conceal their evil. In a meta theatrical moment, Brutus urges his fellows to “Bear it as our Roman actors do,” I.e., to present a face that differs from what the actor actually feels. (Note contrast with Hamlet on players who,weep,for a fictitious cause.)

The night scene between Brutus and Portia (2.1) is paired with the following night scene (2.2) between Caesar and Calpurnia). In each case the wife ultimately fails to persuade the husband, although it took the re-interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream to convince Caesar to go to the Capitol. The scene suggests that Caesar is both conflicted (superstitious and scornful of portents) and willful: “I WILL not come.”

Why does Shakespeare give us 2.3, in which Artemidorus prepares to deliver a warning, and 2.4, in which the soothsayer plans to speak again to Caesar? (Does he want to give Caesar another warning?) Maybe the point is to increase the suspense. Portia is worried.

 

Michael:

Agreed the case against Caesar doesn’t seem overwhelming, based as it appears on physical characteristics. But the physical debilities seem contrasted with a streak of self aggrandizement on Caesar’s part, maybe a sort of narcissism that breeds suspicion. Everything appears to hinge on what Caesar might become, which may be a dubious argument for assassination. Everything in Brutus’ soliloquy at the beginning of 2.1 rests on possibilities, “So Caesar may,” rather than actual deeds and discernible motivation. On the other hand, everything Brutus does project seems possible, given what we’ve seen of Caesar.

In spite of his ambivalence, Brutus responds to the delegation that comes in the night. His high-mindedness dislikes the name of conspiracy, even though that’s exactly what is happening. And he rejects the need for an oath among the conspirators as somehow unworthy of their honor. He does not see the need to bring Cicero into the plot. And finally he rejects, fatally, the need for Antony’s death. All of this suggests Brutus’ desire for a “pure” assassination, but at the same time a lack of practical consideration of what may be needed, what will occur.

Both Portia and Calpurnia fail in their efforts with their husbands, so a nice symmetry there, but it differs in Caesar’s momentary yielding to Calpurnia, before Decius puts his flattery into effect.

I think Sh. includes the Artemidorus scene because it was part of the account in Plutarch, but he does omit the wound that Portia gives herself in the thigh to elicit Brutus’ plan.

Act 3

Michael:

In Act 3 the memo of Artemidorus is given to Caesar and the soothsayer warns again, but the following appeal of Metellus brings out more of Caesar narcissism and self-aggrandizement. His “Wilt thou lift up Olympus?” leads directly into the assassination and his “Et tu, Brute.”

I determined some time ago when I was writing on blood in Shakespeare that this is the bloodiest scene in the canon. Casca, Brutus, Cassius, and Cinna must be stained with Caesar’s blood, but shortly Brutus invites all the conspirators to bathe their hands and swords in Caesar’s blood, and Antony, when he returns, refers to their purpled hands. And Antony too must take the bloody hands of all the conspirators. When he is solus, he addresses Caesar’s body as “thou bleeding piece of earth” and sees the bleeding body as the stimulus for civil war.

More of Brutus’ naivete appears in his rejection of Cassius’ warning against letting Antony speak, and then again when he warns Antony not to blame the conspirators and merely to emphasize Caesar’s goodness.

I expect we both memorized Antony’s speech over Caesar in school, and his funeral oration as well. It’s interesting that Brutus’ funeral speech is in prose rather than in verse. Is this to drain it of all poetic and rhetorical zeal to contrast it with Antony’s emotional eloquence? Antony then uses Caesar’s dead body as a prop for his speech, following Plutarch. Of course the irony catches up with Brutus as various plebeians appreciatively extol him with “Let him be Caesar” and “Caesar’s better parts Shall be crowned in Brutus.”

Most all the speeches and details come from Plutarch, but they’re brilliantly rendered in the rest of the scene. The final scene of the attack on Cinna the poet is also out of Plutarch and is a dark coda to the assassination and its effect.

 

Dusty:

In 3.1 it sounds ominous that Caesar refers to “Caesar and his senate.” Why do you suppose Brutus called for the conspirators to “bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood”? Is this a sign that he fully acknowledged his role and fully acknowledged it to be an assassination? No weasling.

It’s another metatheatrical moment when Cassius says that “this scene” shall be “acted over” in times to come.

When Mark Antony asks for the “reasons” why the plotters killed Caesar, he seems to speak for the audience. In 3.2 Brutus blames Caesar for being “ambitious.” Is that term more loaded than it is for us? (We assume every leader is ambitious.) He identifies himself as a “lover” of Caesar and of Rome, and addresses his audience as “lovers” (as opposed to Antony’s famous “countrymen”). Cassius, more wary and more political than noble Brutus, warns him not to allow Antony to speak. But idealistic Brutus is not really fit for a political world.

Antony’s  funeral oration is designed to “try” how the people have responded to the killing. That suggests that he is improvising as he goes along, keeping an eye on audience reaction. A director should probably instruct the actor to speak deliberately and knowingly. It’s clear that Shakespeare wants Brutus off stage while Antony addresses the crowd, but there does not seem to be a good reason for Brutus (and especially the suspicious Cassius) to leave. Once Antony sees that the conspirators are absent, he can safely refer to them as “traitors.” I suspect that Elizabethan audiences, familiar with the rhetorical strategems of skilled speakers, would have delighted in the tricks and turns of Antony’s oration. It’s amusing when Antony, after dropping the reference to Caesar’s will, has to remind the audience about it later.

It’s not clear to me why we need 3.3, when Cinna the poet is seized — and presumably executed. A director who cut the scene wouldn’t lose anything.

Act 4

Dusty:

Act 4 introduces the triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus preparing the proscription of 70 (or maybe 100) senators. Antony, who is more politic than Brutus, is less politic than Octavius, who keeps his own counsel: there is no good reason for Antony to bad-mouth Lepidus, even privately. Antony and Octavius quickly agree to disagree about Lepidus, as opposed to Brutus and Cassius in the next scene, who quarrel bitterly. But they have cause. Cassius has pleaded that a briber be spared; he has also apparently sold honors himself; and most important has refused Brutus’s request for gold to pay his legions. What is Cassius’s quarrel with Brutus?

Again a poet enters, this time urging Brutus and Cassius not to quarrel. (Maybe this is meant as a reprise of the short scene with Cinna the poet.) Audiences familiar with the Iliad would be attuned to the dangers of quarreling generals. That Brutus sends away the poet suggests that he is not always a wise man. In general, however, Brutus is self-controlled, while Cassius has a “rash humour.”

Why does Brutus defer his report of Portia’s death? She has killed herself by “swallowing fire.” (I don’t know how you do that.) Maybe because she is an exemplar of “impatience” as opposed to Brutus’s “philosophical” (and presumably Stoic) “patience.”

Again Brutus and Cassius disagree, this time about whether it is better to fight where they are, or to march to Philippi. Both men seem to have good arguments, but Brutus fatally prevails.

The nocturnal visit of great Caesar’s ghost — did that phrase become popular before the mid-20th century? — recalls the warnings of the soothsayer. Caesar ignored the warnings, but Brutus seems to realize that he will die at Philippi.

Brutus suffers from “many griefs,” both public and private. (Some are griefs, and some are grievances.) He seems to have some misgivings about the murder, though he never spells them out. He reads from a book, presumably a book of Stoic philosophy, and is soothed by music. He attempts to practice “patience.”

Act 4 consolidates our sense that Brutus is the key figure in the play, though there are two other major figures, Mark Antony and Cassius, who serve as foils –a triumvirate. Although the play carries his name, Caesar himself is not central, and is dispatched in Act 2.

 

Michael:

I think Brutus’ call for the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood means both for them to acknowledge their part in the assassination and to take credit for it as defenders of republican liberty. But he may not understand how it will appear to the Roman public, more of his lack of political skill. But a striking visual scene.

The killing of Cinna the poet certainly indicates the way things are spinning out of control. It could be cut, but I expect it meant something to poets, who were also playwrights.

Antony’s request for Caesar’s will, to cut back on the public legacies shows him as thoroughly cynical, then especially in his treatment of Lepidus.

I think Cassius’ quarrel with Brutus is the obverse of Brutus’ quarrel with Cassius, that he is too concerned at this point with a purity of motivation and action. Cassius says it’s not the right time to sort our every “nice offense.” Brutus by contrast invokes the assassination as a pure action on all their parts for justice and calls it unworthy that one of them, i.e., Cassius, should be contaminated by bribery. So their quarrel lays out their opposed characters, as well as their temperaments.

My text (Arden) gives both reports of Portia’s death, the first that she “swallowed fire”. This came from Plutarch, that she put hot coals in her mouth and choked. The second (ll. 4.3.180ff) just that she died “by strange manner.” I think the second account may work better, and Cassius contrasts Brutus’ stoic acceptance with what his own would be. To a modern, and to an Elizabethan, audience, this may suggest an extremity of stoic acceptance, almost super human.

Googling “great Caesar’s ghost,” I find it was part of the Superman comics of the ’40s and ’50s, probably a scrap of high school memory put to new literary use. In the play the exchange is not meant to be amusing, but rather expressive, I think, of Brutus’ stoic spirit. But an actor would have to work to keep us from taking it as, “well, okay, I’ll see you at Philippi, ciao then, Caesar.” But I think the ghost would bear some of the signs of the assassination, rent cloak and blood.

Act 5

Michael:

Act 5 brings on the battle of Philippi. The parley before the battle leads no where, just to more recrimination and memory of Caesar’s assassination. When left to themselves, Brutus seems to reject suicide if they lose, but then says he will not be led in triumph in Rome. Brutus and Cassius part in high Roman fashion. Cassius dies first, at his urging to his bondsman to kill him. But it appears to be a mistake, or that Cassius was mistaken. Then Titinius dies with Cassius’ sword, and Brutus recognizes Caesar’s still active spirit.

Lucilius’ impersonating Brutus is reminiscent of the history plays and “fake” versions of the king. Brutus’ final end by Strabo’s holding his sword and looking away allows him an honorable suicide and saves his men from actively killing him. Octavius seems to honor Brutus in his entertaining of his followers.

I don’t know if we’re meant fully to believe Antony that only Brutus killed Caesar with a pure motive, but his lines on Brutus seem to convey the purity of his motive in the assassination as well as the nobility of his life. Does Octavius get the last word in anticipation of his ultimate fate?

In sum, a very political play, particularly in the relationship of Cassius and Brutus. We obviously admire Brutus, but we’re allowed to worry about his demand for purity of motive and action. And beyond that, we’re left to wonder about the assassination itself. Of course Sh. had to follow history and Plutarch, but enough questioning is cast on the killing of Caesar to make us wonder whether it was the best (or only) course. What currents late in Elizabeth’s reign are engaged by the play?

 

Dusty:

All of Act 5 takes place on the battlefield at Philippi. There is some tension between both pairs of generals: Octavius and Antony disagree, and so do Cassius and Brutus. Octavius seems almost petulant in resisting the older and more experienced Antony. Is the second half of “I do not cross you but I will do so” designed to be heard by Antony? (It looks forward to their later history.)

Lots of omens and superstition in this play, and it finally catches up with Cassius, who had dismissed it earlier. Both Cassius and Brutus foresee possible defeat, and as you say Brutus (Stoically) resolves on “patience,” a readiness to bear anything (rather than to kill himself).

In 5.2 Brutus gains an advantage, but presses too soon. In 5.3 Cassius is surrounded, and thinks that Brutus has also lost, and resolves to die rather than be defeated in battle. (It’s the high Roman fashion, as you say, and markedly different from the English fashion, which is to fight on until the end.) Cassius has in fact “misconstrued” the military situation — Brutus had actually overcome Octavius —  so one wonders what would have happened had he fought on. Brutus now prepares for a second fight.

In 5.4 I wonder why Shakespeare has Lucillus pretend to be Brutus.

In the final scene of this short act — the play ends abruptly — the Stoic Brutus now resolves to kill himself rather than to be killed or captured in battle. He has again seen Caesar’s ghost, and “I know my hour is come.” His death is contrasted with those of Cassius, Titinius, and Cato — lots of blood on the stage in this scene. Cassius has a friend stab him, but Brutus runs on his own sword, sparing his friend. He “only overcame himself.” Again, why does he not go down fighting?

I think you’re right to question the final words of both Antony and Octavius. They had both sneered at Brutus in the parley. Now they are full of praise. It’s a little chilling that Octavius is the one who in effect takes control of the body of Brutus and brings things to a close.

The play deals with an assassination that quickly leads to the deaths of the assassins. We get no chance to see anything positive that came of the killing of Julius Caesar. (And we did not really see anything good or bad about what Caesar had done with his power.) Brutus remains “noble” throughout, though I like you wonder why he changed his mind about suicide. Octavius is young, and cold, and a politician. Cassius is a tough old soldier — but we never really look deep into the charges against him of corruption. And Antony seems something of a mystery too. We hear that he is a playboy/pleasure seeker but never see him at play. Do we fully understand why he negotiated with the conspirators and then turned against them? After his funeral oration he seems a simpler figure — the ally of Octavius and the adversary of Brutus/Cassius.

 

Michael:

Yes, the act is rather short, and the two principals are rather quickly dispatched. The main direction seems to be to establish Brutus’ heroic, but somewhat rigid, identity.

Sh. seems concerned with assassination throughout the play, whether it’s ever a reasonable course of action, even in an obvious situation. The turn from republican rule to dictatorship at that point in Roman history would seem an obvious moment to explore this. But assassination doesn’t fare well in the rhetoric of the play. And of course it cannot in the historical outcome.

Julius Caesar

Michael:

Act 1 is mostly given over to the case against Caesar, in part emphasizing his human weaknesses but also the un-republican turning toward one-man rule. The first scene begins with the comic workingmen, in particular the cobbler, who teases the tribunes, about his profession. It’s not entirely clear why it’s improper to celebrate Caesar rather than, in the recent past, Pompey, but the tribunes emphasize the ingratitude of their turning from Pompey to Caesar, who has overcome Pompey.

Scene 2 is a big scene, with most of the cast spilling onto the stage. First is Caesar’s perhaps superstitious interest in having Antony touch Calphurnia as he runs the Lupercal race. Her barrenness may suggest something lacking in Caesar, though this is not mentioned. Antony seems to fawn over Caesar in his response. Immediately after, the soothsayer bids Caesar to beware the Ides of March, but his ignoring of this may go in the opposite direction. And then the stage is cleared except for Brutus and Cassius. Cassius is keen to get Brutus to admit some jealousy of Caesar, but Brutus is cautious and seemingly unwilling fully to admit his suspicion of Caesar. Cassius’ story of having to rescue Caesar in swimming the Tiber suggests more of Caesar’s weakness. Eventually Cassius does draw out some apprehension from Brutus. The larger crowd reappears and Caesar remarks his suspicion of Cassius to Antony, if he were inclined to fear. But of course he’s not so inclined because he’s Caesar. But immediately he notes his lack of hearing in his left ear, again less than godlike imperfection. In this exchange Caesar characterizes Cassius as a dangerous intellectual (“reads much,” a great observer), which may raise some suspicion.

More apprehension of Caesar’s desires comes as Brutus and Cassius take Casca apart and question him about the overheard cheering previous in the scene. Casca is a wonderfully cynical voice as he recounts the triple offer of a crown to Caesar, then Caesar falling down. Casca speaks in prose, which may suggest the satirist. He seems on Cassius’ side, but he may be too detached to commit himself. At the end of the scene, Cassius says he’ll have notes tossed into Brutus’ house tending to incite him to more negativity to Caesar. So now we suspect his encouragement of Brutus.

The third scene is both atmosphere, thunder and lightening, and the beginning of the coalescence of the plot against Caesar. Casca recounts the strange wonders he has encountered around Rome to Cicero, who seems rather cool about the possible portents. When Cicero leaves, Cassius is left to draw out Casca, who is inclined to enter fully into Cassius’s plot. So is Cinna, who joins them. They will go to Brutus, whose prestige will be significant to their purpose.

 

Dusty:

The “case against Caesar” does not seem to be made very strong. He has several physical weaknesses (tired while swimming, feverish in Spain, “failing sickness” which I guess is a form of epilepsy, as with Othello, and deafness in one ear), and Brutus worries that although he is not yet a tyrant, he may prove to be one.

In 1.1 the commoners are easily directed by the tribunes. As we will see, it will take more persuasion to enlist Brutus. In 1.2 Antony is presumably dressed in his track suit, ready to run the “course.” We hear later that he is “given to sports.”

If Caesar has “superstitious grown,” why does he spurn the soothsayer? Maybe because he is determined not to seem cowardly.

Cassius seems a crude tempter, ascribing to Brutus a jealousy of Caesar that Brutus does not feel — but Cassius himself does. By contrast, Brutus is concerned for “the general good.” Because he also loves Caesar, he is at war with himself.

Is Caesar also at war with himself, superstitious but contriving occasions to offer his throat to be cut so as to demonstrate his lack of fear? (He is compared to an actor, who knowingly plays a part.)

Brutus is also paired with Cassius. Both get soliloquies in 1.2.

In 1.3 Cassius is said to have a “good ear,” as opposed to Caesar, who has a bad one. Does this also suggest that Cassius is more aware of discontent than Caesar is? Maybe not, since Caesar knows he should worry about Cassius —though he has apparently been oblivious of the dangers presented by the other conspirators.

Dusty:

Act 2 brings us up to the morning of the Ides of March. In 2.1 Brutus is sleepless, as opposed to the kind of men Caesar wants around him (who sleep soundly). Although he is said to be at war with himself, he is pretty quickly enlisted in the plot. It’s interesting that he rejects swearing an oath: it should be enough that the plotters have a noble cause, and  only bad men swear an oath. What about the famous oath of the Horatii? Brutus argues against killing Antony, which makes him look better than the other plotters, but he is willing to blame the killing on “servants,” which makes him look like the plotters who want to recruit Brutus and Cicero in order to conceal their evil. In a meta theatrical moment, Brutus urges his fellows to “Bear it as our Roman actors do,” I.e., to present a face that differs from what the actor actually feels. (Note contrast with Hamlet on players who,weep,for a fictitious cause.)

The night scene between Brutus and Portia (2.1) is paired with the following night scene (2.2) between Caesar and Calpurnia). In each case the wife ultimately fails to persuade the husband, although it took the re-interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream to convince Caesar to go to the Capitol. The scene suggests that Caesar is both conflicted (superstitious and scornful of portents) and willful: “I WILL not come.”

Why does Shakespeare give us 2.3, in which Artemidorus prepares to deliver a warning, and 2.4, in which the soothsayer plans to speak again to Caesar? (Does he want to give Caesar another warning?) Maybe the point is to increase the suspense. Portia is worried.

 

Michael:

Agreed the case against Caesar doesn’t seem overwhelming, based as it appears on physical characteristics. But the physical debilities seem contrasted with a streak of self aggrandizement on Caesar’s part, maybe a sort of narcissism that breeds suspicion. Everything appears to hinge on what Caesar might become, which may be a dubious argument for assassination. Everything in Brutus’ soliloquy at the beginning of 2.1 rests on possibilities, “So Caesar may,” rather than actual deeds and discernible motivation. On the other hand, everything Brutus does project seems possible, given what we’ve seen of Caesar.

In spite of his ambivalence, Brutus responds to the delegation that comes in the night. His high-mindedness dislikes the name of conspiracy, even though that’s exactly what is happening. And he rejects the need for an oath among the conspirators as somehow unworthy of their honor. He does not see the need to bring Cicero into the plot. And finally he rejects, fatally, the need for Antony’s death. All of this suggests Brutus’ desire for a “pure” assassination, but at the same time a lack of practical consideration of what may be needed, what will occur.

Both Portia and Calpurnia fail in their efforts with their husbands, so a nice symmetry there, but it differs in Caesar’s momentary yielding to Calpurnia, before Decius puts his flattery into effect.

I think Sh. includes the Artemidorus scene because it was part of the account in Plutarch, but he does omit the wound that Portia gives herself in the thigh to elicit Brutus’ plan.

Michael:

In Act 3 the memo of Artemidorus is given to Caesar and the soothsayer warns again, but the following appeal of Metellus brings out more of Caesar narcissism and self-aggrandizement. His “Wilt thou lift up Olympus?” leads directly into the assassination and his “Et tu, Brute.”

I determined some time ago when I was writing on blood in Shakespeare that this is the bloodiest scene in the canon. Casca, Brutus, Cassius, and Cinna must be stained with Caesar’s blood, but shortly Brutus invites all the conspirators to bathe their hands and swords in Caesar’s blood, and Antony, when he returns, refers to their purpled hands. And Antony too must take the bloody hands of all the conspirators. When he is solus, he addresses Caesar’s body as “thou bleeding piece of earth” and sees the bleeding body as the stimulus for civil war.

More of Brutus’ naivete appears in his rejection of Cassius’ warning against letting Antony speak, and then again when he warns Antony not to blame the conspirators and merely to emphasize Caesar’s goodness.

I expect we both memorized Antony’s speech over Caesar in school, and his funeral oration as well. It’s interesting that Brutus’ funeral speech is in prose rather than in verse. Is this to drain it of all poetic and rhetorical zeal to contrast it with Antony’s emotional eloquence? Antony then uses Caesar’s dead body as a prop for his speech, following Plutarch. Of course the irony catches up with Brutus as various plebeians appreciatively extol him with “Let him be Caesar” and “Caesar’s better parts Shall be crowned in Brutus.”

Most all the speeches and details come from Plutarch, but they’re brilliantly rendered in the rest of the scene. The final scene of the attack on Cinna the poet is also out of Plutarch and is a dark coda to the assassination and its effect.

 

Dusty:

In 3.1 it sounds ominous that Caesar refers to “Caesar and his senate.” Why do you suppose Brutus called for the conspirators to “bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood”? Is this a sign that he fully acknowledged his role and fully acknowledged it to be an assassination? No weasling.

It’s another metatheatrical moment when Cassius says that “this scene” shall be “acted over” in times to come.

When Mark Antony asks for the “reasons” why the plotters killed Caesar, he seems to speak for the audience. In 3.2 Brutus blames Caesar for being “ambitious.” Is that term more loaded than it is for us? (We assume every leader is ambitious.) He identifies himself as a “lover” of Caesar and of Rome, and addresses his audience as “lovers” (as opposed to Antony’s famous “countrymen”). Cassius, more wary and more political than noble Brutus, warns him not to allow Antony to speak. But idealistic Brutus is not really fit for a political world.

Antony’s  funeral oration is designed to “try” how the people have responded to the killing. That suggests that he is improvising as he goes along, keeping an eye on audience reaction. A director should probably instruct the actor to speak deliberately and knowingly. It’s clear that Shakespeare wants Brutus off stage while Antony addresses the crowd, but there does not seem to be a good reason for Brutus (and especially the suspicious Cassius) to leave. Once Antony sees that the conspirators are absent, he can safely refer to them as “traitors.” I suspect that Elizabethan audiences, familiar with the rhetorical strategems of skilled speakers, would have delighted in the tricks and turns of Antony’s oration. It’s amusing when Antony, after dropping the reference to Caesar’s will, has to remind the audience about it later.

It’s not clear to me why we need 3.3, when Cinna the poet is seized — and presumably executed. A director who cut the scene wouldn’t lose anything.

Dusty:

Act 4 introduces the triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus preparing the proscription of 70 (or maybe 100) senators. Antony, who is more politic than Brutus, is less politic than Octavius, who keeps his own counsel: there is no good reason for Antony to bad-mouth Lepidus, even privately. Antony and Octavius quickly agree to disagree about Lepidus, as opposed to Brutus and Cassius in the next scene, who quarrel bitterly. But they have cause. Cassius has pleaded that a briber be spared; he has also apparently sold honors himself; and most important has refused Brutus’s request for gold to pay his legions. What is Cassius’s quarrel with Brutus?

Again a poet enters, this time urging Brutus and Cassius not to quarrel. (Maybe this is meant as a reprise of the short scene with Cinna the poet.) Audiences familiar with the Iliad would be attuned to the dangers of quarreling generals. That Brutus sends away the poet suggests that he is not always a wise man. In general, however, Brutus is self-controlled, while Cassius has a “rash humour.”

Why does Brutus defer his report of Portia’s death? She has killed herself by “swallowing fire.” (I don’t know how you do that.) Maybe because she is an exemplar of “impatience” as opposed to Brutus’s “philosophical” (and presumably Stoic) “patience.”

Again Brutus and Cassius disagree, this time about whether it is better to fight where they are, or to march to Philippi. Both men seem to have good arguments, but Brutus fatally prevails.

The nocturnal visit of great Caesar’s ghost — did that phrase become popular before the mid-20th century? — recalls the warnings of the soothsayer. Caesar ignored the warnings, but Brutus seems to realize that he will die at Philippi.

Brutus suffers from “many griefs,” both public and private. (Some are griefs, and some are grievances.) He seems to have some misgivings about the murder, though he never spells them out. He reads from a book, presumably a book of Stoic philosophy, and is soothed by music. He attempts to practice “patience.”

Act 4 consolidates our sense that Brutus is the key figure in the play, though there are two other major figures, Mark Antony and Cassius, who serve as foils –a triumvirate. Although the play carries his name, Caesar himself is not central, and is dispatched in Act 2.

 

Michael:

I think Brutus’ call for the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood means both for them to acknowledge their part in the assassination and to take credit for it as defenders of republican liberty. But he may not understand how it will appear to the Roman public, more of his lack of political skill. But a striking visual scene.

The killing of Cinna the poet certainly indicates the way things are spinning out of control. It could be cut, but I expect it meant something to poets, who were also playwrights.

Antony’s request for Caesar’s will, to cut back on the public legacies shows him as thoroughly cynical, then especially in his treatment of Lepidus.

I think Cassius’ quarrel with Brutus is the obverse of Brutus’ quarrel with Cassius, that he is too concerned at this point with a purity of motivation and action. Cassius says it’s not the right time to sort our every “nice offense.” Brutus by contrast invokes the assassination as a pure action on all their parts for justice and calls it unworthy that one of them, i.e., Cassius, should be contaminated by bribery. So their quarrel lays out their opposed characters, as well as their temperaments.

My text (Arden) gives both reports of Portia’s death, the first that she “swallowed fire”. This came from Plutarch, that she put hot coals in her mouth and choked. The second (ll. 4.3.180ff) just that she died “by strange manner.” I think the second account may work better, and Cassius contrasts Brutus’ stoic acceptance with what his own would be. To a modern, and to an Elizabethan, audience, this may suggest an extremity of stoic acceptance, almost super human.

Googling “great Caesar’s ghost,” I find it was part of the Superman comics of the ’40s and ’50s, probably a scrap of high school memory put to new literary use. In the play the exchange is not meant to be amusing, but rather expressive, I think, of Brutus’ stoic spirit. But an actor would have to work to keep us from taking it as, “well, okay, I’ll see you at Philippi, ciao then, Caesar.” But I think the ghost would bear some of the signs of the assassination, rent cloak and blood.

Michael:

Act 5 brings on the battle of Philippi. The parley before the battle leads no where, just to more recrimination and memory of Caesar’s assassination. When left to themselves, Brutus seems to reject suicide if they lose, but then says he will not be led in triumph in Rome. Brutus and Cassius part in high Roman fashion. Cassius dies first, at his urging to his bondsman to kill him. But it appears to be a mistake, or that Cassius was mistaken. Then Titinius dies with Cassius’ sword, and Brutus recognizes Caesar’s still active spirit.

Lucilius’ impersonating Brutus is reminiscent of the history plays and “fake” versions of the king. Brutus’ final end by Strabo’s holding his sword and looking away allows him an honorable suicide and saves his men from actively killing him. Octavius seems to honor Brutus in his entertaining of his followers.

I don’t know if we’re meant fully to believe Antony that only Brutus killed Caesar with a pure motive, but his lines on Brutus seem to convey the purity of his motive in the assassination as well as the nobility of his life. Does Octavius get the last word in anticipation of his ultimate fate?

In sum, a very political play, particularly in the relationship of Cassius and Brutus. We obviously admire Brutus, but we’re allowed to worry about his demand for purity of motive and action. And beyond that, we’re left to wonder about the assassination itself. Of course Sh. had to follow history and Plutarch, but enough questioning is cast on the killing of Caesar to make us wonder whether it was the best (or only) course. What currents late in Elizabeth’s reign are engaged by the play?

 

Dusty:

All of Act 5 takes place on the battlefield at Philippi. There is some tension between both pairs of generals: Octavius and Antony disagree, and so do Cassius and Brutus. Octavius seems almost petulant in resisting the older and more experienced Antony. Is the second half of “I do not cross you but I will do so” designed to be heard by Antony? (It looks forward to their later history.)

Lots of omens and superstition in this play, and it finally catches up with Cassius, who had dismissed it earlier. Both Cassius and Brutus foresee possible defeat, and as you say Brutus (Stoically) resolves on “patience,” a readiness to bear anything (rather than to kill himself).

In 5.2 Brutus gains an advantage, but presses too soon. In 5.3 Cassius is surrounded, and thinks that Brutus has also lost, and resolves to die rather than be defeated in battle. (It’s the high Roman fashion, as you say, and markedly different from the English fashion, which is to fight on until the end.) Cassius has in fact “misconstrued” the military situation — Brutus had actually overcome Octavius —  so one wonders what would have happened had he fought on. Brutus now prepares for a second fight.

In 5.4 I wonder why Shakespeare has Lucillus pretend to be Brutus.

In the final scene of this short act — the play ends abruptly — the Stoic Brutus now resolves to kill himself rather than to be killed or captured in battle. He has again seen Caesar’s ghost, and “I know my hour is come.” His death is contrasted with those of Cassius, Titinius, and Cato — lots of blood on the stage in this scene. Cassius has a friend stab him, but Brutus runs on his own sword, sparing his friend. He “only overcame himself.” Again, why does he not go down fighting?

I think you’re right to question the final words of both Antony and Octavius. They had both sneered at Brutus in the parley. Now they are full of praise. It’s a little chilling that Octavius is the one who in effect takes control of the body of Brutus and brings things to a close.

The play deals with an assassination that quickly leads to the deaths of the assassins. We get no chance to see anything positive that came of the killing of Julius Caesar. (And we did not really see anything good or bad about what Caesar had done with his power.) Brutus remains “noble” throughout, though I like you wonder why he changed his mind about suicide. Octavius is young, and cold, and a politician. Cassius is a tough old soldier — but we never really look deep into the charges against him of corruption. And Antony seems something of a mystery too. We hear that he is a playboy/pleasure seeker but never see him at play. Do we fully understand why he negotiated with the conspirators and then turned against them? After his funeral oration he seems a simpler figure — the ally of Octavius and the adversary of Brutus/Cassius.

 

Michael:

Yes, the act is rather short, and the two principals are rather quickly dispatched. The main direction seems to be to establish Brutus’ heroic, but somewhat rigid, identity.

Sh. seems concerned with assassination throughout the play, whether it’s ever a reasonable course of action, even in an obvious situation. The turn from republican rule to dictatorship at that point in Roman history would seem an obvious moment to explore this. But assassination doesn’t fare well in the rhetoric of the play. And of course it cannot in the historical outcome.