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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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This brief scene indicates the passage of time, and lets us know that the battle has begun. Brutus seems confident and in control-a man of action as well as words. A moment ago his cause seemed lost; now fate is on his side as he takes the offense and orders Cassius to attack.


LINES 1-50

The outcome of the battle remains uncertain: Brutus has beaten Octavius, but Cassius' troops are surrounded by Antony's. Cassius learns that Antony has set fire to his tents and sends his trusted friend Titinius to find out whether the approaching troops are friends or enemies. Cassius-the man who faulted Caesar for his physical imperfections-admits a handicap of his own: nearsightedness. He is shortsighted mentally as well as physically for he cannot see beyond the moment and assumes his death is near. "My life is run his compass," he says. His pessimism has no basis in fact, but he seems to want to believe the worst.

Pindarus reports that Titinius has been surrounded by the enemy and taken prisoner. Cassius calls himself a coward "to live so long, / To see my best friend ta'en before my face!" (lines 34-35). Shouting, "Caesar, thou art revenged," he stabs himself with the same sword that killed Caesar, and dies.

Cassius gains, at the moment of his death, a certain dignity. Today we consider suicide a form of murder, but the Romans saw it as a noble act, particularly when it was done to avoid dishonor. Cassius' final thoughts are not for himself-for power or for glory-but for a friend whom he believes he has sent to his death. Caesar, too, in his final moments, revealed himself as a person who valued friendship above all. Both Cassius and Caesar, facing death, focus upon the importance of personal, private relationships, rather than public reputation. This wins our affection; it also wins our pity-for it comes too late to matter.

Some readers complain that Julius Caesar is a poorly constructed play because one of the two main characters (Caesar) dies before the end of the third act. Yet though Caesar the man dies, his spirit continues to live in the hearts of the people, and to dominate the action of the play. His spirit revenges itself on Cassius-Brutus will be next. What neither Cassius nor Brutus realizes is that Caesarism cannot be destroyed so long as the people need a powerful leader to give order and splendor to their lives.

LINES 51-110

Titinius returns too late for Cassius to learn that Brutus defeated Octavius, and that Titinius was not taken prisoner but greeted by Brutus' triumphant troops. How shortsighted of Cassius not to have confirmed his intelligence reports before taking his life! On one hand, forces beyond his control-whether coincidence or fate-have determined his destiny and, therefore, the final outcome of the battle. On the other hand, Cassius seems to have lost the will to fight and thus brings about his own, and Brutus', destruction. Titinius compares Cassius' death to the setting sun, which brings darkness to Rome:

O setting sun, As in thy red rays thou dost sink to night, So in his red blood Cassius' day is set. The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone:

Act V, Scene iii, lines 60-63

The tribute is sincere, we know, because Titinius now takes his life to prove "how (he) regarded Caius Cassius." But how do we reconcile this picture of Cassius with Caesar's portrait of him as a dangerous man with a "lean and hungry look"? Perhaps the most we can say is that Cassius-like the rest of us-was a different man to different people-as much a friend to Titinius as an enemy to Caesar. It was Shakespeare's genius that he could portray two sides (or more) of a single person, without passing final judgment on him. Can any of us claim such tolerance, understanding, or dramatic skill?

Brutus discovers the body of his fallen friend and exclaims, "O Julius Caesar, thou are mighty yet!" Caesar the man has been slain, but his spirit continues to rule.

Brutus calls Cassius "The last of all the Romans," adding,

It is impossible that ever Rome Should breed thy fellow [equal].

Act V, scene iii, lines 100-101

Does his sorrow blind him to Cassius' faults? Is he simply saying what is expected at the death of a friend? Or does the finality of death restore his perspective on Cassius' good qualities? In any case, his words imply that he believes as firmly as ever in the rightness of his cause.

Note how Brutus feels he ought to cry, but, true to his nature, is either so disciplined or so unfeeling that he saves his tears for a more convenient moment. He repeats himself-"I shall find time, Cassius; I shall find time" (line 103)- either because he is overcome with emotion, or because he doesn't mean what he's saying. Brutus wants the funeral to be held away from camp, "Lest it discomfort us" (line 106). Either he really wants to protect the morale of his troops, or he is using them to hide his own discomfort. True to his nature he puts aside whatever sorrow he feels and acts for the general welfare. "Let us to the field," he says, where "We shall try fortune in a second fight" (line 110).

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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