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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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Shakespeare has structured his play around the assassination and the consequences of the assassination. By the final act the issues have all been spelled out; events now take their course, and fate has its way. As Brutus says, "This same day / Must end that work the ides of March begun" (lines 112-113).

Brutus joined the conspiracy because of his love for Rome, yet he never speaks of what the senators might do with their newly-restored powers, nor does he envision a better world without Caesar. The silence of both factions on all issues beyond the current battle suggests that they are engaged primarily in a power struggle over two forms of government-a monarchy and a republic. Both factions say they care about the people, but both manipulate the people for private ends.

Brutus and Cassius seem gripped by a sense of doom. They go through the motions of fighting, but seem to understand intuitively that fate has already decided against them. All that is left for them is to play their parts as nobly as they can.

LINES 1-20

Brutus' decision to abandon the heights was not wise; even Antony did not believe Brutus would be foolish enough to give up his strategic advantage. Antony orders Octavius to lead his troops along the left side of the battlefield. Octavius refuses, not for any military reasons, it seems, but because "I will do so." Octavius behaves as willfully as a young Caesar who needs to remind others of his power. Antony bows to Octavius, perhaps because he knows the issue is not important enough to fight about, or because he recognizes Octavius' right to rule.

LINES 21-68

The four generals meet on the plains of Philippi and battle each other with words. Antony, Cassius and Brutus take turns trying to deflate each other's egos. Brutus takes particular delight in this verbal swordplay. Only Octavius keeps his perspective, urging them to get to the business at hand.

LINES 69-125

Cassius, sensing that he is about to die, wants the world to know that he is following Brutus' battle plan against his will. Two sides of Cassius are apparent here. His need to prove himself a man shows in his concern for his reputation as a soldier; and his craving for affection shows in his willingness to die rather than oppose the wishes of his good friend Brutus.

Cassius now believes in omens-in forces beyond his rational understanding and control. He used to think the gods were indifferent to men, but now acknowledges the existence of supernatural forces that shape his destiny. What he has learned is that people can't control their fate, yet are held accountable for their actions, and are ultimately rewarded or punished for everything they do.

How different Brutus and Cassius behave when they are alone together, and can put aside their threats and boasts, and be themselves. Because danger and doom press down upon them, they are more honest than ever before. Cassius asks the gods for victory, not so that he can gain riches and power, but so that he and Brutus can grow old together-friends in times of peace as in times of war. Though the battle has not even begun, Cassius says farewell to Brutus as though defeat were inevitable. He speaks with gentle resignation-almost as if he welcomes death.

Brutus, also convinced the end is near, says that suicide is against his philosophy, but that he would never suffer the indignity of being led, a prisoner, through the streets of Rome. Thus Brutus consciously denies his philosophy, and listens to his heart.

The two men part with a touching show of gentleness. Names and labels, roles and reputations-all fade in the face of death. The masks slip, and what we see is the simple humanity of two good friends.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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