Detailed Synopsis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Act One: The citizens of Rome are celebrating Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, having Caesar’s statues “deck’d with ceremonies”.  Flavius and Marullus, tribunes sympathetic to Pompey and annoyed with Caesar’s growing power, rebuke the people and tell them to disperse and end the celebrations.  After the people leave, the two tribunes start taking the “trophies” off the statues.

Caesar, his wife Calpurnia, his friends Brutus and Mark Antony, Cassius, and Casca enter, triumphant after Pompey’s defeat.  Mark Antony is to run a race in the celebratory games of the Lupercalia.  A soothsayer warns Caesar of the upcoming March 15th (see quote 1 of my ‘Analysis of Julius Caesar‘), the day Caesar was murdered in 44 BC.  The soothsayer is ignored, and Mark Antony goes to run the race, being followed by all except Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius asks Brutus why he seems not to show him friendship as he had before.  Brutus insists he’s never grown cold to Cassius, but rather is preoccupied with his own personal issues.  They hear, from over where the race is being run, cheers for Caesar.  Brutus says he fears the people will make Caesar their king.  Emboldened, Cassius begins discussing Caesar’s alarming rise to power (see quote 2 of my ‘Analysis’).  He tries to convince Brutus of Caesar’s unworthiness of such ascendancy, citing two examples of weakness in a younger Caesar: once, Caesar in a swimming race with Cassius, gasped for help when almost drowning; another time, Caesar complained of sickness.  “And this man/Is now become a god,” gripes Cassius.

Brutus, a good friend of Caesar’s, says he will consider what Cassius has said.  Caesar and all the others return.  Caesar looks with suspicion on Cassius, and tells Mark Antony of his misgivings.  Mark Antony tells him not to fear Cassius.

Casca meets with Brutus and Cassius. He tells them of what happened during the race.  When Brutus and Cassius ask Casca what the cheering was about, Casca explains that Mark Antony three times offered Caesar a small but kingly coronet; Caesar refused it each time, though each refusal was weaker and weaker.  Casca, as much as Cassius, fears Caesar’s rise to power.  He says that Cicero gave a speech in Greek, something some of the others understood, but not Casca (see quote 3).  Then Casca mentions the arresting of Flavius and Marullus for having removed garlands from Caesar’s statues.

Casca, leaving, accepts an offer to dine with Cassius and further discuss these matters, if the meal is good.  Brutus also leaves.  Cassius, alone, tells of his plan to forge letters complaining of Caesar’s disturbing rise to power, and to have them delivered in the windows of Brutus’ home; this deceit, Cassius hopes, will convince Brutus to join the conspirators.

On the night before the ides of March, there is a terrible, frightening storm, full of omens portending the assassination of Caesar.  Casca fearfully discusses these portents with Cicero and Cassius.  Cassius has fellow conspirator Cinna cause a few more forged letters to be in Brutus’ possession.

Act Two: Brutus, troubled and unable to sleep, walks about his home, thinking about his friend Caesar and his problematic ascent to dictator.  While Brutus sees no actual evidence of ambition in Caesar, he recognizes the reality of ambition in most politicians, and their contempt for those below them.  Lucius, Brutus’ young servant, gives him one of Cassius’ letters; the boy then confirms that the next day will be the ides of March, and he goes to the door to let in the just-arrived conspirators.

Cassius introduces them to Brutus: they include Casca, Cinna, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, and Ligarius.  Cassius suggests killing Mark Antony along with Caesar: Brutus rejects this idea, preferring to minimize violence and seeing no need to fear Mark Antony.  They agree to this and leave.

Brutus isn’t alone again for long; Portia, his wife, comes to ask him what’s troubling him.  He denies feelings of inquietude.  She insists that if he truly honoured her as his wife, he would tell her: though regarded as women are in this patriarchal society, she is of noble birth.  She proves her constancy to him by showing him a wound she’s given herself in the leg.  He wonders how he can be worthy of such an honourable wife.

The next morning, in Caesar’s home, Calpurnia complains to her husband of a terrible nightmare she’s had.  Reminding him of the recent ill omens, she begs him not to go to the Capitol that day.  Caesar insists he has nothing to fear; she insists he’s over-confident (see quote 4).  The entrails of a slain animal are examined for omens: the beast has no heart.  Finally, to allay her fears, he says he won’t go.

Decius Brutus arrives in Caesar’s home to take him to the Capitol, but Caesar refuses to go.  Decius Brutus asks for a reason: not wishing to seem weak, Caesar says, “The cause is in my will: I will not come.”  Then Caesar tells him of his wife’s dream–a statue of Caesar spouting not water but blood, in which many Romans wash their hands.

Decius Brutus reinterprets the dream, saying it symbolizes how Caesar will suck reviving blood of Rome; he need fear no danger at the Capitol, where the Senate will offer him a crown.  They may change their minds, however, if he doesn’t go: this piques Caesar’s ambition, and now he is embarrassed at having listened to his fearful wife.  He is resolved to go to the Capitol.

The other conspirators arrive, as does Mark Antony.  They go with Caesar to the Capitol.

Artemidorus, a Sophist, has written a letter for Caesar to read, warning him of the conspirators.

Portia has her servant, Lucius, go to the Capitol to see if Brutus is well.  She speaks with the soothsayer about whether Caesar is at the Capitol or not.  The soothsayer wishes to warn Caesar again.  She continues to fear for her husband and his plot against Caesar.

Act Three: Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Cinna, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Artemidorus, and the soothsayer are before the Capitol.  Caesar says to the soothsayer, “The ides of March are come.”  The soothsayer says, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

Artemidorus tries to give Caesar his letter, but Decius Brutus stops him by having Caesar read a letter of Trebonius instead.  Cassius then tells Brutus his fears that the conspiracy is publicly known; Brutus reassures him that all is well, for Popilius Lena is taking Caesar aside.  Trebonius similarly takes Mark Antony aside, distracting him.  All preparations are being made to ensure that the assassination runs as smoothly as possible.  Caesar and the conspirators enter the Capitol.

Metellus Cimber begs Caesar to repatriate his banished brother Publius; Caesar refuses to.  The other conspirators kneel before Caesar one by one, asking of him the same repatriation; of course, they’re really distracting him.

Finally, Casca says, “Speak, hands, for me!” and gives Caesar the first stab.  The other conspirators brandish their blades and stab him; Brutus, the last one, stabs Caesar, who gasps his feelings of betrayal before dying (see quote 5).  The conspirators triumphantly proclaim liberty for Rome, promising no harm to any of the stunned senators still in the Capitol.

Brutus tells the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood.  Cassius imagines actors in the future performing plays of this great moment in history.  The conspirators plan to go outside to appease the terrified citizens and explain why they killed Caesar.

Mark Antony enters the room and coolly shakes the hands of the conspirators; though outraged, he must hide his fury for the sake of his safety.  He claims to be their friend, asking only for a just reason for Caesar’s murder.  Brutus promises to be generous with such reasons, and allows Mark Antony to honour Caesar’s memory in his funeral, so long as the conspirators aren’t vilified.

Cassius takes Brutus aside, saying it will be dangerous to allow Mark Antony to address the crowd.  Brutus reassures him that allowing Caesar’s friend to speak for him in his funeral will make the conspirators look generous.

The conspirators go outside to speak to the people and to calm them.  Alone, Mark Antony finally expresses his rage, begging Caesar’s pardon for being “gentle with these butchers.”  Over Caesar’s wounds, he prophesies all of Rome rising in civil war to avenge Caesar’s murder, killing scores of men to appease Caesar’s ghost (see quote 6).

Outside, Brutus addresses the people, explaining that while he was friend to Caesar, he was more friend to Rome in killing him, out of a fear that he would turn tyrant.  Only those un-Roman enough to want to be slaves to Caesar would be offended at Brutus’ slaying of him.  The easily manipulated crowd now sympathizes with Brutus.

Mark Antony comes out with Caesar’s bloody body.  Brutus asks everyone to stay and listen to Mark Antony; Brutus leaves.

The angry crowd, now hating Caesar, at first refuse to listen to his friend’s cries for their attention (see quote 7).  In a masterstroke of political rhetoric, Mark Antony turns the crowd’s sympathies back to Caesar and away from the conspirators by only sarcastically calling them “honourable men/Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar” (see also quote 8), and reminding the people of Caesar’s generosity to them.  By the end of Antony’s speech, when he’s disclosed Caesar’s will–giving all Romans the freedom to enjoy walking about his private parks and orchards, and giving each Roman 75 drachmas–after teasingly delaying the will’s revelation, the people riot in the streets.  Mark Antony is content to have this disorderly rage, for he can use it to his political advantage.

The rioters find a poet who, after revealing his name to be Cinna (unluckily also a name of one of the conspirators), is killed by them.

Act Four: Mark Antony, Octavius (the future emperor Augustus) and Lepidus form the Second Triumvirate, and check off a list of those to be executed for their involvement in the conspiracy against Caesar.  After Lepidus is sent off to Caesar’s home to fetch the will, Antony disparages him as the weakest of the three triumvirs.  Octavius defends Lepidus, calling him “a tried and valiant soldier,” though Antony won’t acknowledge this.  (In the interactions between Antony and Octavius, there is a hint of the antagonism that would be fully developed in another Shakespearean Roman tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra.)  They will prepare their armies to fight those of Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius comes to where Brutus’ army is, and angrily enters Brutus’ tent.  He says Brutus has done him wrong in accusing soldiers in his army of taking bribes.  Brutus is not at all moved by Cassius’ sword and threats, for Brutus is “arm’d so strong in honesty”, and despises all corruption, be it that of Caesar or of Cassius.

Cassius is thus put in his place, and shocked when Brutus speaks of Portia’s suicide by swallowing fire, after worrying so much of her husband’s fortunes.  Titinius and Messala enter the tent, and the four men discuss the coming battle: Cassius believes they should wait for the enemy to come, tired from marching, while their own armies are well-rested; Brutus, not wanting the enemy to gain the aid of the men “in a forc’d affection” between the armies of the enemy and those of Brutus and Cassius, would have their armies march ahead to meet the enemy (see quote 9).  Messala tells Brutus of Portia’s suicide: Brutus responds stoically.

Brutus is left alone in his tent at night; his weary servant, Lucius, plays a tune on his harp, but falls asleep in the middle of playing.  Brutus, wishing to be kind to the boy, lets him sleep, then begins reading a book.

Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus, saying they’ll meet again in Philippi.  Frightened Brutus wakes the boy and two other servants of his, asking if they’ve seen or heard anyone: they haven’t.

Act Five: Antony and Octavius meet with Brutus and Octavius, exchanging harsh words before preparing for battle.  Brutus and Cassius say farewell, knowing this may be the last time they see each other.

The battles begin, and though Brutus’ army is fairly successful at first, Cassius’ is clearly losing.  When he mistakenly thinks his best friend Titinius has been captured by the enemy, he feels ashamed to be still living, and has Pindarus stab him with the sword he used on Caesar.  Titinius returns with good news of the battle, but seeing his good friend Cassius dead, kills himself.  Brutus comes by and sees the two dead men; he notes the power of Caesar after death, causing his enemies to kill themselves.

In the final battle, Brutus’ army is losing, and he asks soldier after soldier to hold his sword while he runs on it; all of them refuse except Strato.  As Brutus is dying, he hopes Caesar’s spirit will rest in peace (see quote 10).

Mark Antony and Octavius arrive and look down on Brutus’ body.  Antony praises Brutus, the only conspirator to act not out of envy of Caesar, but for the good of Rome.  Octavius calls for rejoicing over their victory.

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Analysis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Julius Caesar is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in 1599; the play is based on the assassination in 44 BC of the ancient Roman dictator and its aftermath in the Battle of Philippi.  While Dante, in his Inferno, portrayed both leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, as traitors whose treachery is comparable to that of Judas Iscariot, Shakespeare portrays Brutus as being the only conspirator who acted selflessly, for the good of Rome.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Beware the ides of March.” –Soothsayer, Act I, Scene ii, line 18

2. “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 dishonourable graves./Men at some time are masters of their fates:/The fault, dear Brutus, is  not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”    –Cassius, Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-141

3. “…but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” –Casca, Act I, Scene ii, around line 282

4. “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once./Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come.” –Caesar, Act II, Scene ii, lines 32-37

5. “Et tu, Brute?  –Then fall, Caesar!” –Caesar, Act III, Scene i, line 77

6. “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” –Mark Antony, Act III, scene i, line 274

7. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones;/So let it be with Caesar.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii. lines 73-77

8. “But Brutus says he was ambitious,/And Brutus is an honourable man.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii, lines 86-87

9. “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./On such a full sea are we now afloat;/And we must take the current when it serves,/Or lose our ventures.” –Brutus, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 216-222

10. “Caesar, now be still:/I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” –Brutus, Act V, Scene v, lines 50-51

The main theme of this play is constancy versus inconstancy, everyone in the play manifesting varying combinations of these two opposites.

First, we’ll look at examples of constancy.  At the end of the play, Mark Antony honours Brutus for being the one conspirator who acted not out of envy, but for the good of Rome.  Indeed, his constant loyalty to Rome even outweighs his loyalty to his friend, Caesar.  In all of Brutus’ speeches, be they public or private, he always puts Rome first.  In his home at night, before the other conspirators arrive, he speaks of how those who gain power often ignore the base degrees from which they’ve climbed.

“Th’abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar,/I have not known when his affections sway’d/More than his reason.  But ’tis a common proof/That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,/Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;/But when he once attains the upmost round,/He then unto the ladder turns his back,/Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees/By which he did ascend.  So Caesar may.” (Brutus, Act II, Scene i, lines 18-27)

During the plotting with the conspirators that night, Brutus rejects Cassius’ recommendation to kill Mark Antony, too, feeling their “course will seem too bloody”.  Only Caesar has to die.  After killing Caesar, Brutus tells the other conspirators to dip their hands in Caesar’s blood, and to plead their cause to the people: killing Caesar was for the good of Rome, not for the conspirators’ private profit, and they are to reveal themselves proudly as liberators from Caesar’s growing tyranny (Act III, Scene i).

Later in that scene, Brutus’ constancy is so full that he would allow Mark Antony to honour Caesar in his funeral for the good he did in his life; this generosity, of course, is a risk Brutus is taking, and one that ultimately leads to his death, but it also shows how constant he is.

When Brutus learns of officers in Cassius’ army taking bribes, he shows his opposition so openly that he wounds Cassius’ pride, resulting in a quarrel (Act IV, Scene iii). Brutus’ duty to Rome outweighs his kindness to his friends; such noble constancy is rare.

Finally, when all is lost in the wars between Brutus’ army and those of Mark Antony and Octavius (later Augustus), Brutus runs into his sword, accepting the continuing power of Caesar even after his death (see quote 10).

Portia, Brutus’ wife, is offended that he won’t tell her what’s troubling him and keeping him awake at night (Act II, scene i); she feels he doubts her constancy, which she proves by cutting a wound in her leg.  Later, when she fears for him and his shaky fortunes in the wars after killing Caesar, we learn she’s killed herself by swallowing burning coals, or fire, as it says in the text (Act IV, scene iii).

Julius Caesar’s constancy seems the greatest of all.  Though fearing suspicious types like Cassius, he insists “always I am Caesar” (Act I, scene ii).  He says “I am constant as the northern star” when he is asked for pardon for the banished brother of Metellus Cimber, one of the conspirators (Act III, scene i).  The conspirators, of course, almost immediately after, in the same scene, show their inconstancy to Caesar by stabbing him to death.

His power lives on after his death, though, for Mark Antony and Octavius act as his avenging agents.  His ghost appears to Brutus (Act IV, scene iii), showing us how Caesar still exists, even if no longer in physical form.  Brutus acknowledges the constancy of Caesar’s power when his avengers defeat Brutus and Cassius in the battles toward the end of the play, causing Cassius and his loyal friend, Titinius, to kill themselves.  “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails.” (Brutus, Act V, scene iii, lines 93-95)

Now we’ll examine inconstancy, of which there’s plenty in this play.  Cassius’ inconstancy is particularly blatant.  He fears the growing power of Caesar, but is inconstant with the truth when he forges letters of complaint about Caesar’s tyranny, and has them tossed in the windows of Brutus’ home to trick him into joining the conspirators.  “I will this night,/In several hands, in at his windows throw,/As if they came from several citizens,/Writings, all tending to the great opinion/That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely/Caesar’s ambition shall be glanced at.” (Cassius, Act I, scene ii)

Cassius is opposed to Caesar’s corruption, but is lenient over the bribery his soldiers are guilty of; hence Brutus’ accusation that Cassius has an “itching palm” (Act IV, scene iii, line 10).

Cassius is constant, though, towards his friend, Titinius, when he, believing his friend has been taken by the enemy, kills himself.  “O, coward that I am to live so long/To see my best friend ta’en before my face!” (Cassius, Act V, scene iii, lines 34-35)  When Titinius, having not been taken, returns and sees Cassius lying dead on the ground, he kills himself, too.  “Brutus, come apace,/And see how I regarded Caius Cassius./By your leave, gods.  This is a roman’s part./Come, Cassius’ sword, and find Titinius’ heart.” (Titinius, Act V, scene iii, lines 87-90)

Conflicted Brutus is constant in his loyalty to Rome, but inconstant is his loyalty to his friend Caesar; hence, after his reluctant stab at Caesar, the betrayed, dying dictator gasps out his last words, “Et tu, Brute?” (Act III, scene i, line 76)

When Brutus, Cassius, Titinius, and Messala discuss the battle plans against the army of Mark Antony and Octavius, there is disagreement over where to meet the enemy: should they wait for them to arrive, tired from long marching, while their own armies are well-rested and ready, or should they march on and face the enemy farther ahead?  Cassius argues for the former, while Brutus argues the latter, based on the principle of inconstancy.

“The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground/Do stand but in a forc’d affection;/For they have grudg’d us contribution./The enemy, marching along by them,/By them shall make a fuller number up,/Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encourag’d;/From which advantage shall we cut him off,/If at Philippi we do face him there,/These people at our back/…You must note beside/That we have tried the utmost of our friends,/Our legions are brim full, our cause is ripe./The enemy increaseth every day:/We, at the height, are ready to decline” (Brutus, Act IV, scene iii, lines 202-210, 210-215; then see Quote 9 above)

Brutus wants to fight Mark Antony and Octavius while his and Cassius’ armies still have the men “‘twixt Philippi and this ground” on their side, for, being “but in a forc’d affection”, those men may switch to the enemy’s side if Mark Antony and Octavius meet them before the battle.  If Brutus’ and Cassius’ armies cut the enemy off before they can meet those men in between, inconstancy won’t have an opportunity to give those men over to the enemy.

Elsewhere, Mark Antony seems constant in his loyalty to Caesar and to Rome in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, in which he passionately demonstrates Caesar’s love of the Roman people while sarcastically parroting Brutus’ “honourable” intentions.  Once he has the ever-malleable crowd following him, however, he seems happier to use this support for his own political ascendancy than for Caesar’s revenge.

“Now let it work.  Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt,” Antony says as he watches the people of Rome riot, loot, and search for revenge for Caesar’s death (Act III, scene ii, lines 261-262).

Caesar himself is mostly constant, though he fears “lean and hungry” Cassius, and wants fat men about him; almost in the same breath, however, he says, “always I am Caesar”.  Also, he thrice refuses a kingly crown, though, as Casca reports, he refuses it less and less.  (Act I, scene ii, lines 220-240, etc.)

On the day of his murder, he allows the entreaties of his wife, Calpurnia, to make him stay at home (Act II, scene ii) when she tells him of a dream she’s had, seeming to portend his bloody death; yet when Decius Brutus gives a misleadingly positive interpretation of the dream, Caesar quickly changes his mind and leaves home with the conspirators.

The most blatant example of inconstancy, however, is that of the crowd of common Romans outside the Capitol after Caesar’s murder.  At first, they’re shocked and horrified that their beloved leader has been assassinated in a conspiracy (Act III, scene ii); Brutus quickly sways their opinion in his favour in a brief speech:

“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his.  If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?”

Then Mark Antony sways the people’s opinion back against the conspirators in his repeated ironic reference to Brutus, Cassius, et al as “honourable”, during his “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” speech.  All of this swaying of public opinion happens in the same scene, within a period of about a half hour.  How quickly a mob can be manipulated.  As passionate as they may be, they are rarely constant.