Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Mid-March, 44 bce, and Caesar, Antony, and the conspirators arrive at the Capitol. The “Ides of March” soothsayer is there, and Caesar snarks about not being dead yet: “The ides of March are come”; “Ay, Caesar, but not gone” (III.i.1-2). Caesar himself “is more persuaded of the existence of the public Caesar than of the private man. One proof of this is that he so regularly refers to himself in the third person, as an institution rather than a man” (Garber 414). Artemidorus tries to pass Caesar his letter, but Caesar, insisting that matters pertaining to him personally come last in his priorities, refuses to read it and enters the Capitol. Popilius wishes Cassius good luck with his “enterprise to-day” (III.i.13), so Cassius has a moment of paranoia, but needlessly, as Brutus notes Popilius smiling with Caesar. One conspirator, Trebonius, strategically takes Mark Antony aside. Caesar begins proceedings: “Are we all ready? What is now amiss / That Caesar and his Senate must redress?” (III.i.31-32). His Senate? The other conspirators join Metellus Cimber in begging Caesar to reverse the decision on his brother’s exile. Caesar refuses:
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
“Some critics interpret this as absurd or arrogant, but it is true gold; Caesar may idealize himself, and yet he is accurate” (Bloom 110).
Casca is the first to stab Caesar, saying, “Speak hands for me” (III.i.76). Then the others attack, and Caesar delivers his famous last words: “Et tu, Brute? — Then fall Caesar” (III.i.77). Here, at last in this play, is some real action. (Perhaps one reason we were not shown the scene in which Caesar is offered a crown is that Shakespeare was saving up real drama for now.) The conspirators shout, “Liberty! Freedom!” (not unlike the reprehensible Caliban in The Tempest). Cassius amends the recommended cry to “Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” (III.i.81), a rather cumbersome slogan.
Mark Antony has run home, and the people are behaving “As it were doomsday” (III.i.98). Although Plutarch mentions only their bloodied swords, Shakespeare’s Brutus has the conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood: “Does this not give them all the precise appearance of butchers?” (Asimov 287). The ceremony planned has them holding aloft their swords and marching through the marketplace crying, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!” (III.i.110). And blood is a great visual symbol for that, eh? As they bathe in the blood, Cassius remarks, “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” (III.i.111-113). Brutus rejoins, “How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport, / That now on Pompey’s basis lies along / No worthier than the dust!” (III.i.114-115). Garber says that “what Cassius predicts is nothing less than Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julilus Caesar, the play we are now reading or watching” (Garber 419). But Brutus is the one misunderstanding Cassius’ actual political prophecy. They don’t recognize their disjuncture, for “while the first prophecy is political, the second is theatrical” (Goddard, I 321). Indeed, Brutus is working in spectacle at this point more than in savvy politics.
But first, Mark Antony requests a talk with the conspirators. He sends a servant to feel out the climate, then arrives. If they intend to kill him, do so “Now, whilst you purpled hands do reek and smoke” (III.i.158), as it would be an honor to die along with Caesar. Brutus assures Antony of their honorable intentions and offers peace. Mark Antony insists on shaking hands with all conspirators and pretends to support them, realizing he’s on “slippery ground” (III.i.191) — a grisly pun. In naming them all, he is certifying “a roll call of doom” (Garber 420). He shakes hands finally with Trebonius, who had served only as a decoy, luring Antony away; but now he will have blood on his hands too. “Antony thus marks Trebonius as one of the bloody-handed conspirators” (Garber 420).
Antony begins eulogizing over the body of Caesar until Cassius interrupts. Antony backpedals, claiming, “The enemies of Caesar shall say this: / Then, in a friend, it is cold modesty” (III.i.212-213). Antony wants assurance that this assassination was necessary. “Or else this were a savage spectacle” (III.i.223), acknowledges Brutus. He also asks to give a eulogy over Caesar at his funeral. Brutus, underestimating him, okays this, despite Cassius’ reservations. Brutus assures Cassius that he himself will speak first, so what could go wrong?
When the others leave, Antony speaks to Caesar’s corpse, asking for forgiveness for his interactions with the killers and predicting that Caesar’s spirit will revenge itself in Italy’s chaos and civil war:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
. . .
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
A servant announces the approach of Octavius Caesar to Rome. Antony will mill about the marketplace and the servant should help witness the general reaction of the mob to this assassination so that they can report to Octavius. They carry off the body of Caesar.
Brutus and Cassius divide the unsettled crowd at the Forum, each prepared to explain the assassination. Brutus, in “stilted prose … with laboriously balanced sentences” (Asimov 293), begins, “Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor, that you may believe” (III.ii.13-16). “The speech that Shakespeare puts into his mouth becomes almost a parody of ineffectual public speaking” (Farina 188). He announces that he loved Caesar but loved Rome more, and that given Caesar’s tyrannical ambition he had to kill him. This could offend only the stupid or the traitorous; is anyone offended? Nope, says the crowd. Well then. He has filed important papers about all this anyway (III.ii.38). Antony arrives and Brutus tells them to listen to him.
Opinion has been divided about Brutus’ speech, some saying it’s a good piece, just too good for the masses to appreciate; others say that it is too abstract, stylistically ornamental, overly symmetrical, and mechanically rhetorical. We should note, in any case, that it is a prose piece, whereas Antony’s coming speech is in verse. Wells notes that “this scene not merely uses rhetoric but it is about rhetoric — about the power of emotively structured speech to sway men, to turn a crowd into a mob, to overwhelm reason with passion” (III.ii.195).
By the end of his speech, Brutus has the crowd cheering him. One of the crowd calls out, “Let him be Caesar” (III.ii.51). Clearly the people don’t get it. The bitter irony is that the people neither want nor deserve liberty (Goddard, I 322).
Brutus announces his departure and introduces Mark Antony. He has been standing among the people hearing Brutus’ speech, “and he is thus identified with the commoners even before he mounts to the rostrum to address them” (Garber 421). Antony then displays “the artful pretense of artlessness” (Garber 433). “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! / I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (III.ii.73-74), begins Antony. “Antony’s speech is almost hypnotic in its force” (Asimov 295), “a masterpiece of inflaming passions. De Vere, after returning from Italy, was reported to have boasted that he was ‘reputed for his eloquence another Cicero and for his conduct a Caesar'” (Farina 188). Antony appeal to the “ears” reminds us of this theme throughout the play, including Caesar’s partial deafness (Garber 414).
Antony, “almost as if he has heard the tribunes’ dismissive taunt [‘You blocks, you stones’]” (Garber 420), tells the plebians, “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men” (III.ii.139). Through repetition unto irony, he raises questions about the supposed ambition of Caesar, especially given his generosity with the poor and his three-time refusal of the crown at the Feast of Lupercal. He flashes Caesar’s will and insists he will not read it to the people, Caesar’s “heirs” (III.ii.145). The crowd, of course, demands it. Antony repeatedly refers to Brutus as an “honorable man” (III.ii.82, 87, 94, 99). He reveals Caesar’s wounds — visually, vividly — and calls the stab given by Brutus, “Caesar’s angel” (III.ii.181), “the most unkindest cut of all” (III.ii.183). The crowd is moved, then angered. With the pose of humility, Antony nevertheless urges the crowd to “rise and mutiny” (III.ii.230). Caesar’s will (a document not filed away like Brutus’ but used to effect here in the moment) left money to every male Roman citizen, and Caesar donated a portion of his lands on the Forum side of the Tiber River. So, “as it turns out, they are Julius Caesar’s heirs” (Garber 422). The crowd is further moved against the conspirators and havoc is afoot. Caesar’s body will be cremated and they intend to burn the houses of the killers.
Antony gloats over his rabble-rousing: “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt” (III.ii.260-261). “He is the still centre of the storm he has himself created” (Wells 197). Antony’s rhetorical cry, “Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?” is answered eleven lines later (Asimov 299). A servant tells Antony that Octavius is with Lepidus at Caesar’s house. Brutus and Cassius have fled Rome. Octavius, Julius’ grandnephew, was born in 63 bce and therefore is 19 years old at this time (Asimov 292). He will prove to be “this play’s version of the new political man” (Garber 422).
The poet Cinna heads towards Caesar’s funeral but is confronted by the mob, who think he is the conspirator Cinna. When he protests his distinct identity, they announce they’ll kill him anyway “for his bad verses” (III.iii.31). Off they all go, pyromaniacally. “This scene is a vivid emblem of the confusion that has fallen upon Rome. When times are bad for anyone, the poet suggests, they are especially bad for poets” (Garber 428). So here’s a man, who “uses words in a search for truth rather than to cloak the truth” (Wells 195), and he’s killed: a bad sign.