“The strings, my lord, are false.”

Julius Caesar

Act Four

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus have assumed the leadership of Rome.  Meanwhile, Antony and Cassius combine their forces at Sardis, but the two men quarrel when Brutus accuses Cassius of accepting bribes.  Though momentarily reconciled just as news arrives that Portia has killed herself, they clash again over tactics.  Receiving information that Antony and Octavius’s army is heading towards Philippi, Cassius wants to remain where they are, while Brutus is for marching ahead to meet them.  Brutus’s decision prevails, but left alone he is disturbed by the ghost of Caesar, who tells him they will meet again at Philippi.


It’s interesting to note how Shakespeare focuses so tightly on the personal consequences of the play’s grand actions.  Brutus is at the center of it all – so much so that he, not Caesar, as has been mentioned before, has sometimes been seen as the play’s real tragic hero.  Persuaded (or manipulated?) into action by dire warnings of tyranny, he along among the conspirators seems to believe that he is fighting for “peace, freedom and liberty,” and his inability to keep the crowd on his side begins to seem symptomatic.  As he and Cassius takes sides against the combined forces of Antony, Lepidus and Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius, quarrels with Cassius over strategy take center stage.  As they all prepare for war, it is Brutus who is tormented by a vision of Caesar’s ghost arrived to remind him that “thou shalt see me at Philippi.”  [SPOILER ALERT COMING UP!] And after Cassius’s senseless death (in a tragic mistake he becomes convinced that Brutus’s camp has been overrun by the enemy), Brutus is left to fight a final, futile battle, one that ends in his suicide.  Coming across his corpse, Antony is generous but even-handed (or cold-hearted as always).  “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” he says:

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 in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man.’

But if this is so, Antony’s audiences might feel prompted to ask, what does this say about the state of the world?  If it is politicians like Antony who end up on top, the ethics of your cause doesn’t come into it; presentation as anything.  (And of course, as we shall see in Antony and Cleopatra, it’s not Antony who comes up on top – it’s the master cold-blooded politician Octavius who does.)  As Cassius said while standing over the bloody body of Caesar,

How many ages hence

Shall in this lofty scene be acted over

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

In this boldly metatheatrical (if not post-modern) gesture, the actor playing Cassius – and the audience watching in front of him – together know what Brutus and the others do not.  Yet though he is unquestionably right that the interest in Caesar’s death will touch “states unknown,” this scene will not always be “lofty,” any more than it’s agents (or actors) will be hailed as “the men that gave their country liberty.”


From Goddard:

“…the scene shifts to Sardis.  Assassination and revolution have eventuated in war, and already the two brother-generals are blaming each other for their predicament.

    Thou hast describ’d

A hot friend cooling.  Ever note, Lucillus,

says Brutus to his servant who has just come from Cassius,

When love begins to sicken and decay,

It useth an enforced ceremony.

There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.

If only Brutus had remembered that truth when, at its inception, he bade the conspiracy hide itself in smiles and affability!

Most noble brother, you have done me wrong.

and, the two beginning to wrangle, Brutus draws his friend into his own tent that their dissension may not be overheard.

A guilty conscience invariably finds in others the evil it will not admit to itself.  The quarrel scene is Brutus’ specific confession that the conspiracy and assassination were terrible errors.

As usual, he takes a high idealistic line.  He charges Cassius with protecting bribery.  ‘In such a time,’ Cassius answers, one cannot be meticulous.  Brutus implies that Cassius has ‘an itching palm’ and has sold offices for gold. Cassius declares that if he were not Brutus that speech would be his last.

Remember March, the ides of March, remember,

cries Brutus in a tone that reminds us of the very dog he mentions:

Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?

What villain touch’d his body, that did stab

And not for justice?  What, shall one of us,

That struck the foremost man of all this world

But for supporting robbers, shall we now

Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,

And sell the mighty space of our large honours

For so much trash as may be grasped thus?

I had rather be a dog, and by the moon,

Than such a Roman.

Shall we who made away with the great Injustice, the great Robber, stoop to little injustices and petty thefts?  But in that case, we feel like asking, how about imitating the great Apostle of Force by practicing a little assassination?  Brutus is not pushing analogy that far.

Brutus, bait not me;

I’ll not endure it,

Cassius explains, and the quarrel descends to common scolding with Brutus immeasurably the worse offender.

There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats,

he declares, when Cassius warns him not to go too far,

For I am arm’d so strong in honesty

That they pass by me on the idle wind,

Which I respect not.

It is the perfect echo of an earlier speech in the play.  The arrogation of moral infallibility is but a step below the affectation of divinity.  Brutus has become like Caesar!  His victim has infected him with his own disease.  It is the special nemesis of the revolutionist.  He comes to resemble what he once abhorred.

And the irony goes even further.  ‘I did send to you,’ Brutus goes on,

For certain sums of gold, which you denied me;

For I can raise no money by vile means.

By heaven, I had rather coin my heart

And drop my blood for drachmas than to wring

From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash

By any indirection.  I did send

To you for gold to pay my legions,

Which you denied me.  Was that done like Cassius?

He will not wring gold from the peasants by any indirection.  But he will take it, even demand it, of Cassius, who, of course, has no other ultimate source from which to obtain it than just those peasants.  Brutus is doing what in the same breath he declares he would rather die than do.  ‘I won’t rob myself, but I will rob by way of you, for I can do nothing indirectly.’  That is what his astounding argument reduces to.  ‘Indirection:’ Pandulph’s word, Polonius’ word.  Brutus thinks he is angry with Cassius for his countenance of petty thefts and bribes.  Actually he is angry with himself for robbing Rome, for robbing Portia, for robbing himself.

Cassius, stung to the quick, does just what Caesar once did to the mob:  presents his bosom to Brutus’ dagger – and instantly Brutus relents.  But when so huge a fire is suddenly quenched some sparks are bound to escape.  A Poet, overhearing and sensing something wrong between the generals, breaks boldly in an attempt to reconcile them.  In ejecting him, Brutus vents what is left of his anger.  But in doing so he speaks and behaves more like Hotspur than like Brutus.

Alone again with Cassius, Brutus chooses the moment to reveal the hidden tension he has been under during their quarrel.  Portia is dead – by her own hand.

In keeping this secret from his audience as well as from Cassius, Shakespeare violates a fundamental rule of stagecraft.  It is one of the clearest of many indications in his plays that he cared for something more than the first impressions of a theater audience.  Reread, or seen a second time on the stage, the quarrel scene sounds harmonics that the ear misses completely the first time the scene is encountered.

Brutus attributes Portia’s suicide to his absence and to the successes of Octavius and Antony.  We can guess, only too easily, the deeper reason why

she fell distract

And, her attendants absent, swallow’d fire.

As fact, Portia’s death by swallowing fire is perhaps incredible.  As truth, it rises to an order beyond the invention possibly even of a Plutarch or a Shakespeare, to the level of myth itself.  But the poet has at least made the most of what he inherited.  As he uses it, this incident becomes the second of his three main comments on his own play (the first being the passage on the location of the East).  He has made plain in the one scene where we see them together that Portia is Brutus’ other ‘half.’  As the mirror of his soul, she is bound to reflect so tremendous an event as his spiritual death in accepting the code of violence.  And that is exactly what her death does.

On entering the conspiracy Brutus metaphorically swallowed fire.  Portia swallows it literally as an allegory of his act.  It is both a picture of his dereliction and a measure of the agony she underwent because of it.  The whole meaning of the drama seems somehow concentrated in this symbol.

The boy brings wine and Brutus and Cassius pledge each other and ‘bury all unkindness’ in the cup.  But Brutus will never by swallowing the fire of wine bury the memory of how Portia died.  At the very moment indeed he is to be reminded of her end.  Messala enters bringing news from Rome.  Not knowing whether Brutus has heard of his wife’s suicide, he sounds him out, and, on Brutus’ insistence that he reveal what he is hinting at, tells the truth.  Brutus pretends he has not heard and receives the word with stoic calm.  The double report of Portia’s death has often been held an error in the text, a sign of unfinished revision.  But surely it is just one more bit of evidence that Brutus is acting a part.  The unnatural restraint he puts himself under in this personal matter may have more than a little to do too with the rash plan of battle we find him advocating a few minutes later.  He turns to it with an abruptness that would have been cruel, had the situation been what Messala supposed.

Shall Brutus and Cassius march down to the enemy and give battle at Philippi or await him where they are on the heights?  Brutus is for the former course, Cassius for the latter.  The decision is motivated by unseen forces.  The quarrel and reconciliation, with the news of Portia’s death, have left Cassius melancholy and in no mood to cross Brutus again.  The unnatural restraint that Brutus has imposed upon himself with regard to Portia’s death helps perhaps to make him impulsive.  At any rate he argues – in words the world knows by heart – that they are now at their high tide and should strike immediately.  But whatever may be true of the military situation, Brutus’ moral tide is at its ebb, and the strategy he favors is ultimately dictated by that fact.  Whatever the immediate reasons for it, it conforms finally to nothing less than the pattern of his whole life.  His is the story of a man who instead of keeping to ‘the hills and upper regions’ has by the assassination come down to ‘the enemy.’  Had he still had hope in his heart, his unconscious might have tried to compensate for his moral decline by insisting that his forces keep to the heights.  But with the death of Portia a dark fatalism begins to possess him.  He is the victim of a desperation he does not yet realize.  And so the plan of battle becomes a symbolic picture of his life.  He has gone down before and led other men down.  He will do it for the last time.  As when he entered the conspiracy, his willingness to descend to their level suits ‘the enemy’ exactly.  Reluctantly, Cassius consents.  He who had once led Brutus lower now follows him.  ‘Time is come round.’  The nemesis is inevitable.  Thus, Shakespeare seems to be saying, our particular decisions, which appear to be made freely and on the merits of the occasion, are overruled by the total pattern of our lives. Cause and effect may reign in the physical world, but likeness and unlikeness are sovereign in the realm of the imagination.  In our day the man who has plunged too heavily in the stock market leaps from the twentieth story of a skyscraper to his death.  The type of suicide he chooses is not chance.  It was not chance that Caesar had the ‘falling’ sickness.  Nor that the man who killed him becomes a victim of that sickness in another form.

Brutus is left alone with the boy Lucius, and, as usual in his presence, his true self comes to the surface.  He is all tenderness.  This man who could kill Caesar cannot ask a tired child to watch one hour more.  He calls in Claudius and Varro, but bids them to lie on cushions rather than stay awake, so sensitive is he to their feelings.  It is compensation, of course.  He finds the book for which he has searched – revealing touch – in the pocket of his gown, but before beginning to read – another revealing touch – he begs for a strain or two of music from Lucius.  The drowsy boy complies, but after a note or two falls asleep over his instrument, and we have Henry IV’s soliloquy on sleep dramatized before us.  The scholar-assassin finds the leaf turned down where he left reading and composes himself to go on.  But nothing something strange about the taper, he looks up, and beholds a ‘monstrous apparition’ coming toward him.  It is the Ghost of Julius Caesar!

Is the specter a creature of his own fantasy, nothing at all, or, if something, angel or devil?  ‘Speak to me what thou art.’

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

The Delphic answer leaves open the question whether it is from within or from without.  But it leaves no doubt, in either case, of its infernal origin.  With a promise to meet Brutus again at Philippi, it vanishes.

O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,

And not dismember Caesar!

Too late Brutus discovers that when his dagger entered Caesar’s body it released a power as towering and uncontrollable as the genie freed by the fisherman in the Arabian tale.  Julius Caesar is dead.  But his spirit has volatilized into something as invulnerable as the air.  ‘In the spirit of men there is no blood.’

‘Some angel, or some devil?’ Brutus had asked. And promptly on the disappearance of the devil, the angel appears – as if the one had exorcised the other.  Coming suddenly to himself on the exit of the Ghost, Brutus cries out:

Boy, Lucius!  Varro!  Claudius!  Sirs!  Awake!


The strings, my lord, are false,

murmurs Lucius.  The child is dreaming, and out of some divine confusion in his mind between his instrument and the trouble he has read on his master’s brow his unconsciousness frames this inspired answer.  (It is Shakespeare’s third supreme comment on his own play.)  If up to this point anyone has doubted what Lucius symbolizes, this should convince him.  Brutus’ slumbering innocence, awakening, give him a last warning.  On the lips of a child, from out of the borderland between sleeping and waking where it so often resides, the truth speaks.  ‘The strings, my lord, are false.’  Brutus is out of tune.  But a musical instrument that is out of tune is not a musical instrument.  Brutus is not Brutus.

And because he is not himself, he cannot read the oracle.  Victim of an auditory hallucination, he mistakes the cry of his own soul for the nightmare of one of his companions.  He projects his inner conflict into the outer world and sends to Cassius to ‘set on his powers.’”


And this, from Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language:

“So far as is known, the first tragedy played in the new Globe Theatre was Julius Caesar.  It is one of the few plays of which we have a contemporary report of a Globe performance.  Thomas Platter of Basle happened to record in his diary that on 21 September 1599 (probably by the Continental calendar; the date would have been nine days earlier by the English count), he crossed the Thames and saw at a theatre that was obviously the Globe the tragedy of ‘the first emperor Julius Caesar with nearly fifteen characters very well acted.’  The performance ended with the customary dance or jig.

Platter notes that he went to the theatre around two o’clock, the usual time.  Julius Caesar is one of the shorter tragedies, perhaps not much longer in performance than the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ mentioned in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  This relative terseness is echoed in the economical construction of the play and what might be called its dialect.  With the experience of nine English history plays behind him, Shakespeare deftly selects and incorporates the narratives of Plutarch in North’s translation, compressing, omitting, focusing, adjusting the relationships of the main characters, and occasionally adding material from other sources, or of his own invention.

For example, he seems to have invented the scene where Calpurnia is touched by the runners in the Lupercalian ritual, and the scene of the murder of the poet Cinna, mistaken for a politician, is taken from a hint in the historian Suetonius writing about a later epoch.  Perhaps this little insertion was meant as an ironic denial that poets, except by unhappy chance, have anything to do with politics; yet this is an intensely political play, a fact that has a controlling influence over its language.  The rule of Julius Caesar effectively marked the end of the Roman republic and the troubled beginning of the empire.  The Elizabethans were in general anti-republican, believing monarchy to be the best system of government, and propaganda claimed that Elizabeth’s right descended ultimately from the Emperor Constantine, who was the son of the Englishwoman Helen and the first Christian emperor.  So there was, it was believed, a direct line to Rome in the period of Caesar’s assassination and the accession of Octavius Caesar as Augustus.

Plutarch had republican sentiments but admitted that Rome, having at the time suffered a century of civil war, needed the firm single rule of Caesar.  In the sixteenth century some thought of Caesar as a tyrant, and some, arguing against the official view that obedience was required whatever the character of the monarch, thought tyrants out to be killed.  Others, perhaps, like Brutus, believed that Caesar was not a tyrant so long as he did not accept the crown, that despite his virtually absolute power he had shown no disposition to use it absolutely.  And Plutarch himself raises the issue of whether Caesar was a tyrant or ‘a merciful physician.’  What is certain is that to the first audience this was a play about a world-historical event, still politically relevant.  The conspirators, after the death of Caesar, make the point clear enough:

    How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Cassius goes on to predict that when Caesar will be seen to ‘bleed in sport,’ the conspirators will be revered for having given their country liberty.  There must be irony here; the audience, or most of them, knew better.

The main purpose of Shakespeare’s brilliant and daring opening scene, whose principle characters disappear from the play immediately, is to set up an opposition between fickle public sentiment, now favoring Julius Caesar, and the higher class represented by the tribunes, who support the defeated Pompey.  We are shown a vigorous reaction to Caesar’s ambition and his triumphal entry into Rome, the latter not being customary when the defeated enemy was another roman.  The opening scene, like others, and notably that of Hamlet, tells us much about the kind of dramatic poet Shakespeare was.  He may begin obliquely, as here, or enigmatically, as in Macbeth, but, as in his verse, he is always putting the simple sense into question.  His plays contain other scenes that sometimes puzzle the reader or (if they are not cut by some director) the audience.  Another example in Julius Caesar is the curious little conversation among Decius Brutus, Cinna, and Casca during the meeting of the conspirators.  These men, about to pledge themselves to murder, quietly disagree as to which way is east and where the sun rises in March; a small puzzle in the midst of greater ones.

Elizabethan interest in the fate of Julius would be intense and also divided.  Caesar was a monarch in all but name, and Shakespeare, who had written of many monarchs, stresses his human failings (deafness, pride, perhaps sterility).  On the other hand, he omits material that would darken the portrait of Brutus, who, in the thought of the period, could be either a heroic tyrannicide or a republican hero.  No simple political position could be detected in the play.  Whatever view one took, these Romans had immediate importance as ancient imperial ancestors, and whatever side they were on, they must be supposed to have spoken with a sort of constrained dignity.  The dialect of the tragedy is quite unlike that of its predecessor Romeo and Juliet or of its successor Hamlet.  The characters, apart from the crowd, speak like Romans, conscious of the honour of being Romans, contemporaries after all, of Cicero, a principal model of Renaissance style.

This is not to say that the work is absolutely free of the rhetorical obscurities we shall encounter in the later tragedies, but it is relatively so.  The play begins with the good-humoured prose of the populace, which gives way at once to the florid scolding of the tribunes; the people are to weep into the Tiber till it overflows.  The jokes of ‘naughty knaves’ and the rant of the anti-Caesarian tribunes are at the two remote ends of the rhetorical scale.  In the second scene we find the middle way, something close to the register of the remainder of the play:  economical dialogue followed by a more expansive discussion between Brutus and Cassius.  There is no attempt to generate high poetry; the tone is thoughtful, though never lacking in force.

Cassius:  Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

Brutus:  No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself

But by reflection, by some other things.

Cassius:  ‘Tis just,

And it is very much lamented, Brutus,

That you have no such mirrors as will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye,

That you might see your shadow.

Cassius is beginning his campaign to recruit Brutus for his conspiracy, but he starts from a long way off, introducing this notion of the eye’s inability to see itself, its dependence on reflections or shadows.  As we have already seen, the idea of the reflection as the shadow of a substance was precious to Shakespeare, and it always called forth fine contemplative verse.  ‘How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face,’ says Richard II after smashing the looking-glass.  ‘The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d/The shadow of your face,’ replies Bolingbroke.  And Richard develops the theme:

The shadow of my sorrow!  Ha, let’s see.

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within,

And these external manners of laments

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul.

There lies the substance…

As Peter Ure has remarked, Bolingbroke and Richard are giving different senses to the word ‘shadow’: to Bolingbroke the broken mirror bore only the shadow, not the substance; Richard speaks of the darkness cast by his sorrow, and Ure adds, ‘My sorrow – these external ways of lamenting – are simply shadow [= unreal images] of the grief within.  Richard thus uses Bolingbroke’s own quibble to prove, not as Bolingbroke had wished to, that the image in the glass is unreal, but that Richard’s lamentation reflects a real substance, just as the image in the glass, though itself unreal, as Bolingbroke claims, none the less reflects a real face.  A shadow is unreal compared with the substance that it is a shadow of; this fact can be used either, as by Bolingbroke, to insist on the unreality of the shadow, or as by Richard, to insist on the reality of the substance.’  It may be that since, as Brutus remarks, ‘the eye see not itself/But by reflection,’ all attempts to examine what Hamlet calls ‘that within that passes show,’ must be unreliable, for in the langue of the time reflections are shadows, and shadows are not only areas of darkness but unreal and possibly fake representations of substance.

Shakespeare again presents the insoluble difficulty of acting seeing what is ‘within’ in Troilus and Cressida, when Ulysses and Achilles have the following discussion:

Ulysses:     A strange fellow here

Writes me that man, however dearly ever parted

How much in having, or without or in,

Cannot make boast to have that which he hath,

Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection;

As when his virtues, aiming upon others,

Heat them, and they retort that heat again

To the first giver.

Achilles:         That is not strange, Ulysses.

The beauty that is born here in the fact

The bearer knows not, but commends itself

To others’ eyes; nor doth the eye itself,

That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,

Not going from itself; but eye to eye opposed,

Salutes each other with each other’s form;

For speculation turns not to itself,

Till it hath travell’d and is mirror’d there

Where it may see itself.  That is not strange at all.

Ulysses wants to make the point that honour and reputation lie not ‘within’ but in the applause of others, a kind of reflection, to be represented either as reflected heat or as noise.  The context, and the language or dialect, is very different from that of Julius Caesar or of Richard II, far more studied and laborious, but the figure is still virtually the same, and, as we shall see, it is recurrent and must have real, not shadow, importance to the poetry.  For actors are also shadows, as Macbeth remarked – ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.’  And the notion that the substance, the life ‘within,’ is inaccessible except by such treacherous mediation tells us something important about an author whose business it was to present character in all its inaccessibility, in language at least as opaque as necessary.

And instance of his doing that is the soliloquy of Brutus in II.i.  The first act has the long temptation of Brutus by Cassius, brilliantly set against the shouts of the crowd.  Cassius is mocking Caesar’s weakness, remembering him in fever whining for water:  ‘Give me some drink,’ Titinius.’ – a savage put-down itself, thin and querulous and the more so in that the report coincides with another shout from the mob that wants Caesar crowned.  Cassius has an embittered and calculating eloquence, and his long speeches are barely punctuated by the replies of Brutus.  Then we hear more of Caesar, with Casca’s account of the behaviour of the rabblement, and Caesar’s fit, all in blunt, rather Jonsonian prose.  Cassius ends the scene with a self-satisfied soliloquy.

At once there is a storm, and the same Casca is now terrified – in verse, for he is suffering and talking about divine portents.  Coleridge did not think this authentic, supposing that the part of the terrified and superstitious man was originally given to some person other than Casca.  But it is just here that verse-prose contrasts can be effective, if less obvious than the contrast between Brutus’s prose and Antony’s verse in the funeral orations.  (FOOTNOTE:  Brian Vickers demonstrates the rhetorical rigour and symmetry of Brutus’s speech, which was nevertheless so ineffective.  Brutus speaks verse immediately before and after the oration; it seems his more natural manner.  Vickers reminds us that Brutus had forgotten the prime rule of rhetoric, that ‘a speech must be adapted to the nature of the audience.’  It is a rule that Shakespeare never forgot, although as the audience grew more clever he allowed himself to grow more clever also.’)  Cassius turns them to his own advantage; indeed, the control of the play so far and the tone of its verse are largely in his hands.  But the second act opens with Brutus’s soliloquy…”

More from Kermode in my next post.


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