William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a great play with profound language and memorable depictions.

Per Bevington: Draws heavily on Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's "The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans", specifically the lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius. Also influenced by Dante Inferno, Chaucer "The Monk's Tale", Montaigne, Muret "Julius Caesar", etc....  Deals with civil war and popular unrest. Roman culture had been elevated to importance in the Renaissance (Greek culture was less accessible). An ambivalent portrayal of civil conflict. Caesar and Brutus are men of extraordinary abilities and debilitating weaknesses (particularly Caesar). Resembles its contemporary, Henry V


Act I

Act I Scene 1

Rome, a street. The tribunes Flavius and Marullus chastise a Carpenter and Cobbler for not working but gathering instead to join in the triumph of Julius Caesar. Marullus berates them for forgetting Pompey. [Caesar defeated Pompey the Great in 48 at the B. of Pharsalus, after which Pompey was murdered. He defeated Pompey's sons in March 17, 45 BC at B. of Munda, the cause for the current celebration.] Flavius orders the statues of Caesar, which have been draped in celebration, to be disrobed. It is the feast of Lupercal, Feb. 15, 44 BC.

Act I Scene 2

Similar place. Caesar wants his wife Calpurnia to be symbolically struck by Antonio's (i.e., Antony's) thong, a Lupercal ritual he hopes will help overcome her barreness. Antony is subservient to Caesar. A soothsayer calls out to Caesar to beware the Ides of March (March 15). Caesar dismisses him as a dreamer. Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus are vexed at Caesar's ambition and success. Cassius hints at a solution. The crowd cheers Caesar. Brutus affirms his emphasis on honor. Cassius recounts tales of Caesar's physical limitations: his inablity to swim the Tiber in his armor, his epileptic fits in Spain. C. says of Caesar, "Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves." Brutus says he will hear more of Cassius' plan later.

Caesar enters with his train. Caesar is displeased with the look of Cassius: "Let me have men about me that are fat;/Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights/Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;/He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." But he claims nevertheless to not fear Cassius.

Left alone together, Casca tells Brutus and Cassius how the crowd had offered three times the crown to Caesar and had adulated him. Caesar had fallen down in a fit and was speechless. Cicero spoke in Greek, but to Casca "it was Greek to me." The tribunes (of 1.1) were dismissed from office for pulling the scarves off of the statues. Brutus agrees to meet the next day with Cassius. To himself, Cassius observes that Brutus can be manipulated to serve his ends.

Act I Scene 3

A street. Cicero and Casca converse about ominous portents and prodigies: a slaves had a flaming hand but was unscathed, a lion was roaming in the Capitol, an owl hooted in daylight at the market. 

Casca and Cassius converse. Cassius believes the heavens are impatient for action. Casca says the senate means to establish Caesar as king. They pledge to act and proceed to meet with the other conspirators. Cinna joins them. Cassius plans to win over Brutus with messages thrown into his house, etc. Brutus is descended from the founder of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus, who overthrew the Tarquin king.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Brutus' orchard or garden, early morning March 15. B's servant Lucius attends him, and then leaves. He is resolved that Caesar must die, since Caesar plans to be crowned. Lucius hands B. a note he found. B. comments on the meteors which provide light to read by. The note urges him to strike. The other conspirators arrive, their faces buried in their cloaks: Cassius, Casca, Decius Brutus, Cinna, Metellus Cimber, and Trebonius. Brutus does not want them to swear an oath--nothing more than their own resolve to do the deed should be needed. He does not want Cicero approached, since he will not follow anything that other men begin. Cassius urges them to kill Mark Antony also, since he is so devoted to Caesar, but Brutus (ill-advisedly) refuses to "cut the head off and then hack the limbs,/Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;/For Antony is but a limb of Caesar". Cassius expresses his concern but is persuaded to follow Brutus' noble approach. It is 3 AM. Cassius doubts Caesar will venture forth today because of the portents. But Decius is certain he can persuade him to come if he hesitates. Metellus plans to recruit Caius Ligarius, who had been rebuked by Caesar. Brutus reminds them to not look suspicious. The conspirators leave.

Brutus' wife Portia enters. She wants to know why he cannot sleep and what troubles him. She wants him to confide in her, which he says he cannot do then but will do so later. [She is the daughter of Cato the Younger of Utica, famed for his integrity, who sided with Pompey, killed himself rather than submit to Caesar's tyranny.] Caius Ligarius arrives with a kerchief about his head, which he casts off, informing B. that he will join the conspiracy.

Act II Scene 2

Caesar's house. He and his wife have also been disturbed by the chaos in the heavens. Calpurnia has dreamed he is murdered. Caesar calls for a sacrifice to read the entrails for omens. Calpurnia does not want him to leave the house today. She is frightened by the omens: a lioness has whelped in the streets, and graves have yawned and yielded up their dead, there are storms in the heavens, etc. But Caesar is resigned to go and face whatever fate has for him: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once." The servant arrives to say the entrails are unfavorable, but C. concludes "The gods do this in shame of cowardice:/Caesar should be a beast without a heart,/If he should stay at home to-day for fear." Calpurnia says "Alas, my lord,/Your wisdom is consumed in confidence." Caesar then decides to honor her request and stay home. But Decius Brutus arrives and convinces him that it would not look right for him to stay away just because Caesar says his wife "dreamt tonight she saw my statue,/Which like a fountain with an hundred spouts/Did run pure blood." Decius reinterprets the dream more favorably to say that all Rome will be revitalized by Caesar's blood. He tells C. the senate plans to give him a crown. C. resolves to go after all. The conspirators arrive and all drink ritual wine with Caesar.

Act II Scene 3

A street near the Capitol. Artemidorus awaits Caesar with a letter which tries to warn him of the conspiracy.

Act II Scene 4

Before Brutus' house. Portia sends Lucius to the Capitol to see how her husband looks, since he had looked ill earlier. She is hearing sounds. It is 3 PM. She speaks to a soothsayer, who fears what is to take place. Portia wants to help Brutus, but says "Ay me, how weak a thing/The heart of woman is!"

Act III

Act III Scene 1

Before the Capitol. Caesar comments to the soothsayer "The ides of March are come" and he says "Ay, Caesar; but not gone". Artemidorus tries to present his warning letter, but Caesar refuses to read it and dismisses the man. Popilius wishes Cassius success in his enterprise, which apparently is known--Popilius speaks to Caesar but does not divulge the plot. Trebonius draws Antony away.

Metellus kneels before Caesar, but Caesar dismisses his plea for the man's banished brother, saying "I spurn thee like a cur out of my way./Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause/Will he be satisfied." Brutus joins in the appeal, as do the others. But Caesar cannot be moved: "I could be well moved, if I were as you;/If I could pray to move, prayers would move me./But I am constant as the northern star,/Of whose true-fixed and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament." They stab him, even Brutus. Cinna proclaims "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead." Brutus tries to calm the people and senators. The old senator Publius is left unharmed. Antony has fled. They bathe their hands in Caesar's blood, Cassius declaring "How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown!" They disperse.

A servant of Antony's comes to Brutus asking for safe passage for Antony to hear from him why they killed Caesar, which B. grants. Cassius still has misgivings. Antony arrives and exclaims "O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?", offers his own life to the conspirators. But B. reassures him they do not plan to kill him. Antony shakes all their hands and ponders his predicament. Cassius wants to know his plans, and Antony wants to know why they considered Caesar dangerous. Brutus agrees to allow A. to speak at the funeral, though Cassius objects. B. requires only that A. not blame them. Left alone, A. predicts a devastating civil war to come: "A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;/Domestic fury and fierce civil strife/Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;/Blood and destruction shall be so in use/And dreadful objects so familiar/That mothers shall but smile when they behold/Their infants quartered with the hands of war..." 

Octavius Caesar's servant arrives, and Antony warns that Octavius should stay away for now. He plans his oratory.

Act III Scene 2

The Forum. The plebeians demand an explanation from the conspirators. Brutus gives a short "Lacedemonian" style speech, saying "As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him." The crowd is moved in his favor. One plebeian declares "Caesar's better parts/Shall be crowned in Brutus." Brutus urges the crowd to hear Antony praise Caesar, then departs. 

Antony arrives with Caesar's body. Antony gives a florid speech in the "Asiatic" style: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..." He holds up the will he found of Caesar's, saying they should not hear it, since it shows how much he loved them. He concludes: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now..." and he displays the mantle and body of Caesar to them. The crowd is inflamed to revenge the murder. Antony claims he is no orator. He reads the will, which leaves to every citizen 75 drachmas and also parks and orchards for the public good.

Octavius' servant informs Antony that he has arrived after all and will meet with him and the third triumvir, Lepidus. Brutus and Cassius have fled the city.

Act III Scene 3

Cinna the poet is wrongfully attacked and slain by the mob of plebeians merely because he has the same name as one of the conspirators.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Rome. Antony meets with Octavius and Lepidus. They ruthlessly pick out who is to die, including Publius (Antony's sister's son) [ apparently not the senator previously mentioned] and Lepidus' brother. Lepidus is sent on an errand, and Antony comments how slight is his merit to share as a triumvir in the power they possess. Antony plans to control Lepidus, but Octavius defends his capability. Brutus and Cassius are levying armies and the triumvirs need to raise armies of their own.

Act IV Scene 2

Camp near Sardis in Asia Minor. Pindarus, Cassius' servant, comes to Brutus telling him that Cassius with his army is near and will arrive tonight. Brutus' officer Lucilius says Cassius is not as friendly as he used to be and Brutus reflects that Cassius is a "hot friend cooling". Cassius arrives, saying Brutus has wronged him. Brutus does not want them to wrangle in front of the men, and they retire to his tent.

Act IV Scene 3

Brutus' tent. Cassius is angry because Brutus has accused the praetor in Sardis Lucius Pella of taking bribes, though Cassius has defended him. B. also says Cassius himself has itchy palms and is acting with corruption, and urges him not to cheapen their cause with corrupt acts. Cassius is angry and nearly provoked to fight. B. refuses to be cowed by his threats. He says C. has failed to provide gold to Brutus [where would he have gotten it except by the means he condemns?] Cassius is bitter and weary of the world, distraught by the low opinion B. has of him now. He offers to let B. slay him: "I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart". But the two men reconcile. A poet interrupts them to chide them to be friends. B. wants wine--he is sick with grief. They speak of Brutus' philosophy. B. informs C. that Portia has killed herself by "swallowing fire." They drink together. Cassius says "I cannot drink too much of Brutus' love." 

Officers Titinius and Messala inform them that Octavius and Antony are bearing down on Philippi with great expeditions. The triumvirs have had 100 senators executed including Cicero. Messala mentions he has heard of Portia's death, to which Brutus is stoically philosophical, and Messala responds "Even so great men great losses should endure." Brutus wants to march immediately to Philippi to fight, but Cassius counsels that the enemy should seek them out. Brutus overrules his caution, saying "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries..." and Cassius consents over his better judgement. He hopes there will never come between them such a division as the night had begun with.

B. calls for Varro and Claudius to lay in his tent as he sleeps. He has been forgetful of late. He asks Lucius to play on his instrument (perhaps a lute or cithern). Lucius falls asleep. The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus, saying "thou shalt see me at Philippi." Brutus answers fatalistically. He calls to the other men in his tent, but none have seen the apparition.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

The plains of Philippi, in Macedonia. Octavius and Antony enter with their army. They are pleased their enemy plans to come down from the hills and do battle with them rather than stay in defensive positions. A messenger says the enemy approaches. Antony gives Octavius orders but O. plans to do things his own way.

Antony and O. approach Brutus and Cassius for a parley. They exchange insults and Cassius regrets he did not have Antony killed. O. draws his sword. Cassius calls him a peevish schoolboy and Antony a masker and reveler. The parley accomplishes nothing, and A. and O. depart to prepare for battle.

Cassius tells Messala it is his birthday. He is an Epicurean. He wishes they were not battling in this manner. He tells of an omen: two eagles which accompanied them on their march from Sardis flew away to be replaced by ravens, crows, and kites. He thinks their army is "ready to give up the ghost." Cassius bids goodbye to Brutus in case they will fall in battle and asks what he will do if they lose. B. says he would find it cowardly to kill himself. He bids farewell to Cassius: "And whether we shall meet again I know not;/Therefore our everlasting farewell take./Forever and forever, farewell, Cassius!/If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;/If not, why then, this parting was well made." He speaks with resignation. 

Act V Scene 2

Plains of Philippi, the field of battle. Brutus sends Messala with instructions to Cassius' army to attack, since O. seems lukewarm to fight at the moment.

Act V Scene 3

Cassius sees his men seem to fly and misinterprets that they are fleeing. Titinius tells him that B. gave the word too early to start the fight. Pindarus arrives to say Antony is plundering Cassius' tent. Cassius asks Titinius to see if troops in the distance are enemy or allies and asks his bondsman Pindarus to watch Titinius from the hill. Pindarus calls down that Titinius is surrounded, which C. misinterprets to mean that his best friend has been taken by the enemy. He asks Pindarus to kill him with his sword, which he does. Pindarus then flees.

Titinius returns accompanied by Messala and wearing a laurel. O. has been temporarily overthrown by Brutus as Cassius' troops have been by Antony. Titinius discovers the dead Cassius, saying "The sun of Rome is set." Messala asks Titinius to find Pindarus. Titinius laments Cassius' misconstruing the circumstances, and stabs himself to death.

Brutus arrives and asks Messala where Cassius' body is. He declares "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails." Brutus sadly bids Cassius and Titinius farewell and orders Cassius' body to be sent to Thasos for burial. He orders his men to return to battle.

Act V Scene 4

Same. Cato confronts Lucilius, who pretends to be Brutus--L. is captured and brought before Antony. 

Act V Scene 5

Same. Brutus pauses in battle with the remains of his forces. He whispers to Clitus to kill him, but he refuses, as do Dardanius and Volumnius. Brutus knows "my hour is come". His men want him to flee, but instead he bids them all farewell. He is weary. He has Strato steady his sword while he runs on it, saying "Caesar, now be still./I killed not thee with half so good a will."

Octavius arrives and offers that men that served Brutus can now serve him. Antony praises Brutus: "This was the noblest Roman of them all./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!' Octavius orders he be properly buried.