The opening scene is in Rome: A Street. A Street is presumably just north of B Street. It is a holiday, the feast of the Lupercalia. This, according to a footnote, was an ancient festival of purification and fertility (an unbeatable combination), when men clad only in goatskins raced around slapping women with goat-hide thongs until they were purified and fertile, or at least black-and-blue. Anyhow, the common people, including a few old goats, are out celebrating the return to Rome of Julius Caesar, who has conquered Pompey.(Who was soon after assassinated. See The Last Days of Pompey.)
Flavius and Marullus, two tribunes who are not so enthusiastic about Caesar, tell the crowds to stop milling around and blocking traffic. Can’t they find some better way of spending their day off, such as watching the lions crunch Christians at the Colosseum, or shouting ribald remarks at the Vestal Virgins?
- “What trade art thou?” Marullus asks a cobbler.
“A mender of bad soles,” the fellow quips, and Marullus and Flavius are infuriated. Not only is it a bad joke, but they have heard it before.
“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Marullus says to the crowd of commoners, and, considering the passive way they take such epithets, he may be right.
What annoys Flavius is the fact that somebody has draped scarves over a whole row of statues, in honor of Caesar. “Disrobe the images!” he shouts, being a lover of nudes and fearing a wave of puritanism.
Caesar enters, and a soothsayer tries to warn him of something. “Beware the ides of March,” the fellow says, but Caesar is unperturbed. The reference is obviously to March 15, which back then was Income Tax Day. Why should he worry? He doesn’t pay taxes, he collects them.
Caesar then leaves briefly, so that he will not hear two of his followers, Cassius and Brutus, while they talk about him. Cassius tells Brutus that Caesar is getting too big for his toga.
“We petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about,” says Cassius, crouching low in an amusing bit of pantomime. Then he adds, “Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he is grown so great?” It is probably something that affects the pituitary gland. Cassius, with his “lean and hungry look,” is jealous.
Caesar now pops in again, staying only long enough to express his distrust of Cassius. “He thinks too much,” he confides to his friend Mark Antony who, not guilty of excessive cerebration, is safe to have around.
Caesar has also picked up the odd idea, perhaps from some ill-informed oracle, that skinny men are dangerous, and this is another reason why he distrusts Cassius. “Let me have men about me that are fat,” he says. He has in mind roly-poly, good-natured fellows like Falstaff and Hermann Goering.
Caesar, who at this point seems to have little more than a walk-on part, exits again.
That night, as Cassius and the other conspirators plot against Caesar, there is thunder and lightning, lions walk around in the streets, and men go about on fire. These are portents of something, such as unseasonable weather, carelessness on the part of the zoo keeper, or a dangerous increase in incendiarism.
Cassius has no difficulty winning most persons over to his plan to do away with Caesar, but he has to work subtly with Brutus, who is not the sort to murder a close friend without an excuse. The technique Cassius uses is to throw messages through Brutus’s window all night. One of these reads: “Brutus, thou sleep’st: awake and see thyself. Shall Rome, &c. Speak, strike, redress.”
The message puzzles Brutus. In the first place, how could he possibly sleep, with those cylinders of parchment whizzing in through the window every few minutes? Also the “&c.” is ominous, suggesting more than it says. The one thing clear to him is “redress,” so he gets up and dons his business toga.
Cassius and the others, disguised to look like Roman conspirators, drop in at dawn. After a night of being peppered with incomprehensible messages, and now receiving guests at dawn, Brutus is in a mood for murder.
“Caesar must bleed for it!” he declares. But Brutus is one who thinks that if a job is worth doing at all it is worth doing well. So he cautions the rest of the gang, who are toying with their daggers, “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.” Warming to the task, he thinks of picking up some paper frills at the butcher shop.
Meanwhile Caesar has had almost as hard a night as Brutus. His wife Calpurnia, who talks in her sleep, has been yelling “Help! ho! they murder Caesar!” until his nerves are shot. He arises and paces around, thinking of taking drastic action, such as making his wife sleep in another bedroom.
Calpurnia, seeing him standing by the door in his nightgown, which looks for all the world like a toga, thinks he is about to leave for the Capitol, where he must deal with matters of import.(And export as well. The Roman Empire was big business.) She is unstrung. What a ghastly night, she thinks, even for Rome. The lion that was wandering around downtown had whelped right in the middle of the street, graves had yawned (it was late), and there had been a light drizzle of blood, something not forecast by the weatherman. Calpurnia is not exactly superstitious, but she thinks Caesar should take off his laurel wreath and sandals, relax on the marble sofa, and spend the day looking at his bust collection.(The busts are all of himself, but he rather enjoys the monotony.)
“You shall not stir out of your house today,” says Calpurnia firmly.
“Caesar shall forth,” says Caesar, speaking of himself in the third person. It is a habit which he has never been able to break, and his tolerant friends merely wink at each other.
Despite Calpurnia’s fears, Caesar insists on getting down to the Capitol. He doesn’t want to spoil a perfect attendance record. Besides, his friends will miss him. (Little does he realize how accurate they are with a dagger at close range.) “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once,” he philosophizes. About then that dark-brown taste in his mouth begins to worry him. He decides to stay home, after all, and blame it on his wife.
But when Decius, Ligarius, Metellus, Casca, Trebonius, Cinna, Publius, and Brutus come by and urge him to get to the Capitol without fail, he gives in. Oddly, he does not wonder why eight prominent Romans should come to his house so early in the morning and be so insistent that he get to the office. Perhaps they are planning a surprise party for him, and he doesn’t want to spoil their fun.
” What is’t o’clock?” he asks.
“Caesar, ‘t is strucken eight,” says Brutus, who, since his native tongue is Latin, may be excused an occasional monstrosity in English. What is less excusable is his saying the clock has struck, when they were using sundials in those days. He may have heard a shadow tapping lightly on the VIII.
As Caesar strides down the street toward the Capitol, a teacher of rhetoric named Artemidorus tries to slip him an essay. It says, in the straightforward if monotonous style which must have been taught in Rhetoric 1: “Caesar, beware of Brutus; take heed of Cassius; come not near Casca; have an eye to Cinna; trust not Trebonius; mark well Metellus Cimber; Decius Brutus loves thee not; thou hast wronged Caius Ligarius.” If Caesar had paused to read this little composition, he would have sensed his unpopularity. But, unimpressed by the teacher’s “humble suit” amidst all those well-tailored togas, he brushes him aside.
While Caesar stands in front of the Capitol, the conspirators begin to carve him, politely taking turns. Caesar isn’t unduly upset, thinking this only about what an officeholder can expect, until he discovers that the last man in the line is his good friend Brutus.
“Et tu, Brute!” he exclaims, so astonished that he lapses into Latin. (Though his words must have baffled the uneducated Elizabethans standing in the pit, Brutus caught on at once. It took some of the zing out of his dagger thrust.) Where upon, wishing to have the last word, he commands, “Then fall, Caesar!” A disciplined soldier to the end, he salutes himself and drops dead.
The conspirators congratulate themselves, believing they have saved Rome from tyranny. Perhaps they have, perhaps not. But they have set a precedent for palace revolutions for the next two thousand years.
Before leaving the scene of the murder, Brutus has a gruesome idea. “Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood up to the elbows,” he suggests, “and besmear our swords.” For mystery story readers this is a welcome change from the way murderers usually try to remove all traces of blood and obliterate fingerprints. Brutus likes to be different.
While they are rinsing off with Caesar’s blood, Antony happens by.
“O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?” he asks the body, without any real expectation of an answer. Then, never having been carved before, except in marble, he begs the murderers to do the same to him. But they decline, so weary from stabbing that they can hardly lift their daggers. Some other day, perhaps. Each of them, however, will give him a bloody handshake; if he gets any pleasure out of this ‘he’s welcome to it.
After the others leave, Antony stays to prepare the body. Unlike the modern mortician, he does this by talking to it. But his monologue is by popular request, for Caesar’s wounds, as Antony says, “like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips to beg the voice and utterance of my tongue.”
Shortly afterward, at the Forum, Brutus addresses the plebeians, neatly explaining why he killed Caesar. “Not that I loved Caesar less,” he says, “but that I loved Rome more.” His audience, impressed by such a beautifully constructed sentence in an extemporaneous speech, bursts into applause. After working in a few congratulatory references to Romulus and Remus, he concludes with a mention of Jove. Then he leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to Senatus Populusque Romanus. It is the ideal political speech.
With the applause ringing in his ears, Brutus heads for the men’s room to get that blood off his hands.
And now Antony has the floor. Glad at last to be playing to a live audience, he plunges into what is known as Mark Antony’s Famous Speech.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” he begins, getting a laugh at the very start. “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” he promises, and then forgets his promise completely. It is a superlative speech. Indeed, in referring to Brutus’s stabbing of Caesar as “the most unkindest cut of all,” it is doubly superlative. The effect of the speech is to cause the fickle rabble, who a few minutes before had thought Brutus was simply great, to chase him out of town. Seldom has a rabble rouser roused a rabble so effectively. Antony has a bright career ahead of him in the Roman Senate.
He now joins with two other leaders, Octavius and Lepidus, to wage war against the murderers of Caesar. If they win, they will rule Rome as a triumvirate, a system of government which assumes that three heads are better than one. (So long as they are not all on one body.) It is also a system whereby if any one of the three steps out of the room, the other two say uncomplimentary things about him, which is what happens almost immediately to Lepidus.
In the enemy camp, Brutus and Cassius meet in Brutus’s tent to plan the crucial battle, which is to be fought at Philippi in 42 B.C. for historical reasons. The two leaders have a falling out over military matters, as is characteristic of any Allied High Command, and Cassius spiritedly asserts that he is a better soldier than Brutus.
- “You are not,” says Brutus.
“I am,” says Cassius.
“I say you are not,” says Brutus.
While this exciting interchange continues, full of the stuff of poetry, high drama, and field marshals’ memoirs, the Battle of Philippi must wait. Finally Cassius hands Brutus a dagger, bares his breast, and in a moment of extreme generosity invites him to take out his heart. It is a gift with no strings, though perhaps a few arteries, attached. But Brutus declines.
“Sheathe your dagger,” he says. Some sources claim that he added, “and button up your tunic. You’re out of uniform.”
Now there seems to be nothing left to attack but the enemy. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” says Brutus, “which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” This has proved splendid counsel, down the centuries, for those who can swim.
That night Brutus goes to bed early, wanting to get his eight hours before the big battle on the morrow. While he k reading, the ghost of Caesar seeps in. At first Brutus fails to recognize his old friend, who has changed considerably. Gone is the puffiness under the eyes, the Caesar-size paunch.
“Ha!” he laughs, “who comes here . . . that mak’st my blood cold and my hairs to stare?” Peeking out through his follicles, he naturally has difficulty being sure who it is. The ghost of Caesar, not nearly so talkative as the ghost of Hamlet’s dad, exits after three brief sentences, and it seems hardly worth his while to have come.
The next day, on the plains of Philippi, the opposing armies are met. (By whom, it is never divulged.) The leaders of the two forces have a parley, which means that they assemble in No Man’s Land and trade insults. “Words before blows,” says Brutus, knowing that some of the participants won’t be around to talk after the battle.
Just before the parley breaks up, Octavius remarks wryly to Brutus and Cassius, “If you dare fight today, come to the field; if not, when you have stomachs.” They need stomachs to buckle their armor onto.
The battle lasts only a couple of hundred lines. Cassius, receiving a false report that his friend Titinius has been surrounded by the enemy, is ready to call it quits. He is as lean and hungry as ever, but not so dangerous. It being too awkward to stab himself with his sword, he orders his servant, Pindarus, to do it. Pindarus obediently follows through (slicing a little), not realizing until later that he has done himself out of a job.
Titinius, returning to find Cassius dead, is overcome by empathy and kills himself with Cassius’ sword. This is the very weapon that Cassius poked through Caesar, a few acts ago, and one shudders at how unsanitary it is for everybody to be using it.
Moments later, finding Cassius dead and realizing that the battle is lost, Brutus, too, has the self-destructive urge. Unlike Cassius, he insists on at least partly doing it himself. So he asks his friends if one of them won’t please be a good fellow and hold his sword out for him to run at. But each in turn excuses himself, saying his hand is a little unsteady. It would be embarrassing if Brutus were to run at a wobbly sword and miss it completely.
Finally Brutus persuades his servant, Strato, to hold the sword for him. “And turn away thy face,” he says thoughtfully, thinking it better to turn the fellow’s face than his stomach. Then he backs off a few paces and comes running. You have to admire the man’s nerve, though there must have been some easier way.
Antony is really sorry that Brutus ever got mixed up with the conspirators and came to such a regrettable end. “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” he asserts, forgetting what he said about Caesar in his funeral oration. Then he adds what would seem to be obvious, to wit, “This was a man.”
Octavius tells them where to stow the body of Brutus. “Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie,” he says hospitably. Then, in a festive mood, he suggests a little celebration, putting his invitation into rhyme:
- “So call the field to rest, and let’s away
To part the glories of this happy day.”
It has been a happy day, for those who are still alive. For the others, who knows? A clue may be found in the final words, “Exeunt omnes” which may be freely translated, “Everybody has to go sometime.”
Questions on Julius Caesar
- 1. In Shakespeare’s plays have you noticed how soothsayers always say the sooth, the whole sooth, and nothing but the sooth?
2. Have you a lean and hungry friend who thinks too much? If so, he is probably thinking about food.
3. If a lion in the street seems ominous, think of one on the sidewalk.
4. When the conspirators stop at Caesar’s house at 8 A.M. and invite him to go to the Capitol with them, could it be because he belongs to their chariot pool?
5. Isn’t it a pity that Calpurnia, having warned Caesar not to go out on the ides of March, never has a chance to say to him, “I told you so”?
6. When Brutus washed his hands in the blood of the murdered Caesar, wasn’t he making a bloody fool of himself?
7. “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,” says Mark Antony during his famous funeral oration, “and I must pause till it come back to me.” Couldn’t he just have been out of breath?
8. When you read that Antony’s army was quartered at Sardis, don’t let it worry you. Wasn’t Brutus’s army decimated at Philippi?
9. Would Brutus have been quite so casual about seeing the ghost of Caesar if he had read Hamlet and Macbeth?
And if you didn’t find this retelling side-splittingly funny, you have no humor.