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Free Study Guide-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare-Free Booknotes
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ACT II, SCENE 1

Summary

The scene opens in Brutus' orchard. A troubled Brutus is having trouble sleeping. He is torn between his affection for Caesar and his fear of Caesar's tyranny. He admits that he has no personal grudge against Caesar, but fears that the crowning of his friend will change him, since it is a proven fact that power corrupts. Brutus meditates that greatness is usually abused when those in authority exercise their power without showing mercy. He acknowledges that until now Caesar's desires have never overpowered his reason, but he believes that all ambitious men assume a cloak of humility on their climb to power. Brutus' fear is that Caesar, on reaching the topmost rung of power, will scorn those very people who helped him to ascend to power.

Brutus' servant, Lucius, enters to bring a sealed letter he has found near the window. Brutus reads the letter, which has been placed there by the conspirators. The concerned author of the letter, supposedly a Roman citizen, urges Brutus to take immediate action against Caesar. At that precise moment, the conspirators arrive, including Cassius, Casca, Decius Brutus, Trebonius, Cinna, and Metellus Cimber. Brutus greets the conspirators and shakes each one by the hand as Cassius introduces them. Now that Brutus appears to be won over to their cause, Cassius suggests the men swear to their resolution. Brutus objects, stating that their noble motivation is a sufficient guarantee of their fidelity. Cassius suggests that they induce Cicero to join the conspiracy and Brutus dissents again, stating that Cicero will never follow anything that other men begin. Cassius meekly agrees to leave Cicero out. Brutus also refuses to agree with Cassius' proposal that Antony should be slain with Caesar, for he is convinced that the frivolous Antony will prove powerless once Caesar is dead. Moreover, he claims that killing Antony would be a brutal and bloody course of action and he reminds them that they are "sacrificers, but not butchers." The clock strikes, signaling the conspirators to depart. Before leaving, Cassius comments that Caesar might not come to the Capitol since he has grown superstitious of late. Decius Brutus allays his fears by saying that he will wheedle Caesar into coming to the Capitol by flattering him. The conspirators then leave, after agreeing that Caesar must be at the Capitol by eight o'clock.


Brutus is once again left alone since his servant has fallen into a deep slumber. Brutus' wife, Portia, enters. She is concerned about her husband and asks him to confide in her about what is going on. He promises to tell her later. Portia leaves when she hears a knock at the door. Lucius wakes and answers the door, ushering in Caius Ligarius. Ligarius proclaims that he was ill but that Brutus has cured him. In gratitude, he swears his loyalty to Brutus. Brutus tells Ligarius the details of the conspiracy, and the two men plan together.

Notes

The focus of this scene is on Brutus. He is at first caught in a state of agonized indecision. He does not know whether he should stand by his friend Caesar or join the conspiracy against him. He truly fears that Caesar, like all men in power, will become drunk on his power and rule with tyranny. Since Brutus prides himself on high political and moral rectitude, he feels he cannot endure a dictatorship imposed by Caesar; but the prospect of murdering a dear friend is equally unpalatable. He feels that if he refuses to join the conspiracy, he will betray his republican principles; if he joins with Cassius and the other, he will betray his friend.

Appropriately, the time of this scene is in the dark of night, and a storm rages outside, paralleling the battle raging within Brutus' soul. Anxiety prevents Brutus from getting any sleep and he envies the peace of mind that allows his young servant, Lucius, to sleep so soundly. In Elizabethan times, sound sleep was symbolic of a clear mind; but Brutus' head is far from clear. The night, normally symbolic of darkness and uncertainty, also reflect the indecisiveness of Brutus, as he wavers between his two unacceptable choices. The structure of Brutus' soliloquy is very interesting. He begins with the declaration, "It must be by his death," implying that he has definitely decided to join with the conspirators in murdering Caesar. This decision must seem logical to Brutus. Although he values his personal friendship with Caesar, he values the idealistic notion of honor and duty to Rome even more. In the second sentence, however, Brutus shows that his mind is not yet fully made up. He seeks to justify Caesar's assassination by attributing it to the general good of Rome, trying to clear himself of moral responsibility for the murder. He then tries to further justify his participation in the conspiracy by imagining what Caesar might become if crowned king of Rome. Even though he admits that Caesar has always been rational, he states that power always corrupts men. Brutus, therefore, makes his decision based on a possible danger rather than a certain one.

As Brutus wrestles with his decision, Lucius brings in one of the forged letters that urges him to act against Caesar. The letter plays to Brutus' weakness, appealing to the image that Brutus holds of himself as the protector of Roman democracy. The letter even alludes to his ancestors who had driven the Tarquins out of Rome, reminding Brutus of his family tradition. Brutus naively believes the letter has been written by a concerned Roman citizen rather than by one of the conspirators; he is definitely swayed by its contents and decides he will join the conspirators.

By the time the conspirators arrive, Brutus has made up his mind, but he is still not convinced about the moral appropriateness of the assassination. He unconsciously associates the conspiracy against Caesar with darkness and evil and senses the criminal nature of the act they are to commit. As a result, he repeatedly shows that he is not in full agreement with those he is joining. When they ask Brutus to swear his loyalty to the cause, he resists. When the conspirators talk of murdering Antony as well, Brutus speaks out, saying that they are not butchers and claiming Antony will be of no consequence after Caesar is dead. It proves to be a foolish claim later in the play. When the conspirators want to include Cicero in their plan, Brutus reminds them that Cicero would never join any cause that he did not initiate.

Brutus tries to reassure himself about the moral propriety of his decision by seeking refuge in high blown rhetoric. Unable to find a way to fully justify the murder of his friend, he attempts to legitimize the assassination by seeing it as a religious sacrifice. He calls upon the conspirators to kill Caesar "boldly, but not wrathfully," to "carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds." These words attempt to mask the inhumanity of the assassination and falsely lend some nobility to the cause. The argument reveals the impractical idealism in Brutus' character; changing the name from "butcher" to "sacrificer" does not justify the crime.

It is interesting to note how Brutus' character subtly changes once he has made the decision to join in the plot. He immediately becomes the leader, openly objecting to Cassius' plans. Cassius obviously respects Brutus, for he has been insistent on his joining the conspiracy, believing Brutus will give them credibility; now he defers to Brutus, treating him as the most respected member of the group. Such deference gives Brutus an added sense of superiority.

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