Caesar, Thou Art Revenged

Julius Caesar, Act V: Scenes 1-5

The finale was not so much a question of what but how.  How would Brutus meet his end?  And would Cassius die along with him?  How might revenge be exacted?  Would Caesar’s ghost play a part?

As we left the story in Act IV, Cassius and Brutus were riding out to meet Antony and Octavius on the field of battle.  Caesar’s ghost had appeared before Brutus — surely not a good sign for him.

In the first scene of Act V, Antony seems surprised that his opponents are willing to face him out in the open.  He and Octavius have an odd quarrel about how to proceed in light of this news; a small detail, perhaps, but telling.

Once Caesar’s central authority is gone, neither side has the benefit of undivided leadership.  Octavius may be much younger than Antony, but he does not back down from stating his opinion or asserting what little authority he has.  This might be seen as foreshadowing the treacherous road ahead for Rome.

Brutus and Cassius meet up with Antony and Octavius at the 50-yard line for the opening coin toss.  It’s clear that whatever issues Antony and Octavius have pale in comparison to the dissension brewing between the conspirators.  When Antony calls them flatterers, Cassius mocks Brutus by saying they wouldn’t be thought of this way had he ruled instead.  It seems all but a foregone conclusion that the wheels are about to come off the cart.

Cassius then reveals to an aid that today is his birthday, and that he’s not enthusiastic about his side’s decision to put all their eggs into one basket.  He confirms his defeatism in a discussion with Brutus in which he says, “If we do lose this battle, then is this the very last time we shall speak together.”  Not exactly leading with confidence.

I ought to be prepared, then, when Cassius commits suicide — not by his own hand, mind, but by asking Pindarus to do the deed for him by stabbing him with a sword that was used to slay Caesar.  This indirect and ignoble death is fitting, as is the norm in most of Shakespeare.  Especially so, in light of how Cassius bases his decision on misinformation from Pindarus, a false report of Titinius’ capture.

It turns out that, in fact, while Cassius’s men had been surrounded and lost the first engagement with Antony, Brutus likewise triumphed over Octavius and the battle brought back to even.  Or it might have been, had Cassius not lost his nerve.

With Cassius gone, it isn’t long before Brutus fails in an attempt to rally the troops, likewise ending his own life by committing suicide by sword.  It’s all rather gruesome and much less than heroic, but just as you might expect based on the morality of the preceding actions.  For while the conspirators considered themselves heroes, they died as cowards… leaving Rome in shambles while doing so.

I find the final discourse between Antony and Octavius disturbing, however.  It could be because I’ve misread (and not deliberately) the whole play leading up to this.  But when Antony says, “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” I find myself utterly confused.  Brutus might have thought himself thus.  But where is the evidence that Antony held him in such high regard after the murder?

Antony follows: “All the conspirators save only he did that they did in envy of great Caesar.  He only in a general honest thought and common good to all made one of them.  His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed up in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man.'”

To which Octavius replies: “According to his virtue let us use him, with all respect and rites of burial.”

This being Shakespeare, I don’t know how literally to take these lines; do I have a perspective that Antony and Octavius lack?  Am I supposed to understand that they don’t see Brutus for what he was — or have I got it wrong, and Brutus really was just a dupe who got pulled into treachery that was way over his head?

I know that greater minds have answered these questions, and that answers are out there in secondary sources.  But I’d rather dive into the sequel based on my own limited understanding and see where it goes.  I suspect that Antony will turn out to be far less the leader that Antony was… and that the clues for this have been planted in the way he wanted to alter the will, how he could not command submission from Octavius, and how both of them failed to comprehend the extent of the frustrations among certain factions leading up to Caesar’s assassination.

I don’t think they really “got” Brutus.  And that this is a point that Shakespeare wants to underscore.  Based in no small part on this insinuation (and making it that much worse for me if I interpret it incorrectly), I suspect that things are about to get a lot worse for Rome before they get better — if indeed, it’s not already all downhill from here.

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