He Reads Much
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
You’ve probably heard of Mark Antony. He’s the one who said, “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ear” (this is fiction) and had a big love affair with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt (historical, but also in another play). You’ve probably heard of Brutus too, because he’s the one to whom “Et tu, Brute” was said (fiction, I believe but he was real). And everyone has heard of Julius Caesar. But have you heard of Caius Cassius? He’s not so famous but I like him best.
A quick recap: Julius Caesar is Top Dog in the Roman Republic. He’s on his way to making himself/allowing himself to be made emperor, even a god, thus destroying the republic. He’s popular with the people (he’s a big military hero, after all) but he’s petty, patronizing but disrespectful of his wife, unhealthy (not his fault but hardly godlike) and tyrannical. My view here of Caesar and the others is, you understand, based on Shakespeare, not historical fact.
Brutus is noble; he adheres to his principles, doing everything he does for the good of Rome and not for his own gain. He loves his wife (sort of), he’s kind to his servants; he agonizes over his part in the assassination of Caesar. He’s too good to be true, frankly, and he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t really want to hang out with because he doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Mark Antony is a self-absorbed sleaze. If he’s actually a hypocrite or not I haven’t figured out but he certainly can’t be trusted. A pet of Caesar, he naturally enough expresses horror and grief when he walks in to see the bloody body minutes after the assassination but then he walks around shaking everybody’s bloody hand (the stabbing of Caesar was a cooperative effort) promising to be loyal to the new regime. When he asks to be allowed to give a funeral oratory, however, Brutus stupidly says, “OK.” Whereby Antony proceeds to manipulate the crowd into seeking revenge for the murder so that he can take over. He immediately gangs up with Octavius (soon to be Emperor Augustus – Brian Blessed, for those of you who have seen I, Claudius) to start murdering senators and waging war against Brutus and company.
So is Cassius so much better than these three? Not really. He’s the one, after all, who gets the ball rolling on the assassination plot. We first see him in Act 1.2 when he approaches Brutus to sound him out on his views on Caesar. When Brutus admits that the cheering of the people causes him to fear they will “choose Caesar for their king” Cassius replies:
Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so. (Act 1.2)
Brutus agrees and Cassius begins his campaign:
I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life; but for my single self,
I had as lief not be, as live to be
In awe of such a thing as myself.
I was born free as Caesar, so were you. (Act 1.2)
He goes on to describe how he had once saved Caesar from drowning, how Caesar had been ill and whining. He is saying simply that Caesar is no better a man than they, in fact perhaps weaker, and should not be held in more awe of others than Cassius, Brutus or anyone else. But in spite of all this, Caesar
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature, and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him. (Act 1.2)
If this makes Cassius sound a bit petulant and resentful we can’t help but think that he has good reason. And he’s not just resentful for himself but also for Brutus:
Men at sometime were masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together: yours is as fair a name…
…Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great?...
…When could they say till now, that talked of Rome,
That her wide walls encompassed but one man? (Act 1.2)
Cassius is simply pointing out that Rome has long been a republic with equality among the senators. And now Caesar is getting/taking too much power.
Keeping in mind that most tyrants start out their takeovers with words like these, we still see that Cassius is defending democracy (the limited Roman kind but still) and that’s reason enough to like him.
But I really start liking him when a few minutes later Caesar walks onto the stage and says to Mark Antony:
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous…
…I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much.
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As though dost, Antony; he hears no music.
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous (Act 1.2)
OK, so he’s a sourpuss. And it’s too bad that he doesn’t like plays and music. It wouldn’t hurt him to lighten up and get a sense of humor.
But he reads! For that alone I like him. He thinks, he observes. And what he sees doesn’t give him a whole lot to smile about, right? The Republic is threatened.
In the scenes that follow, Cassius gathers forces, using one argument: we as individuals have the power to make ourselves free. Tyrants can be tyrants because they see people as sheep and we let them. Cassius says:
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius.
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
…That part of tyranny that I do bear
I can shake off at pleasure …
…And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans as sheep (Act 1.3)
And so the fateful Ides of March arrive. The gang gathers. Enter Caesar. He gets stabbed. Cassius is actually quite anonymous here. He says little before or during the deed but when it’s over it is Cassius who understands the historical importance of the moment:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!...
…So oft as that shall bee,
So oft shall the knot of us be called
The men that gave their country liberty…
…Brutus shall lead, and we will grace his heels
With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome (Act 3.1).
Momentous words. A sharp observer, our Cassius.
So far, so good for the freedom-fighting assassins. But now Mark Antony arrives on the scene. Brutus treats him with respect and trust and says sure he can speak at the funeral. Silly Brutus. He should have listened to Cassius who says:
…But yet have I a mind
That fears him much…
…You know not what you do. Do not consent
That Antony speak in his funeral.
And when Brutus says everything will be OK, Cassius mutters, “I know not what may fall. I like it not” (All from Act 3.1)
So Antony goes out to give his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, manipulates the masses into screaming for revenge, starts killing off senators and declares war against the Republic and its defenders.
The war does not go well for the republicans. Tensions run high and there is a violent confrontation between Brutus and Cassius. It deserves a proper analysis of its own but, alas, will only get a mention here. Cassius is angry because Brutus is rigid in his condemnation of his soldiers’ “every nice offense”, i.e. petty crimes, while Brutus is furious with Cassius who is rumored to be guilty of nepotism and perhaps embezzlement and bribe-taking. Serious accusations and Cassius doesn’t exactly deny them but in the bitter threats the two hurl at each other Brutus comes off as the cruelest, expressing utter contempt for his friend and comrade:
Away, slight man…
Fret till your proud heart break…
…from this day forth
I’ll use you for my mirth, yea for my laughter,
When you are waspish (Act 4.2)
I don’t think I could have forgiven Brutus such hurtful words. Anger I could handle. Contempt and belittlement I could not. Would not. But Cassius does. He admits he has done wrong but also wishes that Brutus would show a little tolerance: “A friendly eye could never see such faults.” Gradually they both cool down and vow to never fight like that again.
In this exchange Brutus is morally more in the right but Cassius evokes more sympathy. This is further enhanced when shortly thereafter Brutus tells of Portia’s suicide then he says brusquely, “Speak no more of her.” Of course we could interpret that as Brutus being too heartbroken to speak of such a tragedy when he has a war to win but it could also be seen as simply cold-hearted. Cassius on the other hand, a few minutes later after Titinius and Messala have joined them for a war council, cannot let it go: “Portia, art thou gone?” To which Brutus replies: “No more I pray you.”
I’m not going to make a big thing of this but it adds one more touch of humanity to Cassius.
And that leads us to the end. Both Brutus and Cassius kill themselves, Cassius first, on his birthday no less. Why? He believes that Titinius has been captured and the cause is lost. He bids the man whose life he had once saved and who was thereafter his slave to run him through with the same sword used to stab Julius Caesar. If he does, he will be a free man. He does. Cassius dies. His last words:
Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that killed thee (Act 5.3).
When Brutus sees his body:
The last of all the Romans, fare thee well.
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow. Friends, I owe more tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay. –
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall fine time (Act 5.3).
Brutus too asks a soldier to kill him by holding a sword so that he can fall on it. He does and his last words too are addressed to Caesar:
Caesar, now be still.
I killed not thee with half so good a will (Act 5.5)
Mark Antony’s speaks his famous “this was the noblest Roman of them all” eulogy over Brutus and thus of the four he gets the last word.
And so what goes around comes around. Julius Caesar is forever remembered as the ultimate emperor though he was never actually an emperor, just almost. Brutus is forever remembered as the tortured but noble betrayer. Antony is the winner.
And Cassius? Poor Cassius. He’s not remembered much at all. But he’s the one who read much, observed much and thought much. He’s the one who saw that what was happening was historical and, flawed though he was, he believed in and fought for one of the most important principles of grass root democracy. Alone we’re weak. Together we can be strong.
But he also showed that though we can overthrow tyranny it’s not so easy to create, achieve or maintain freedom. History is just too complicated.