Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 2
From Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
With the second scene all the great characters are introduced. First is Marcus Brutus, the hero of the tragedy. Although the play bears the name of Julius Caesar, Brutus is the veritable hero of it, for it is his fate that furnishes the motive for the entire piece, his is the only figure that moves to its tragic exit in
unbroken dignity and majesty. With not a single touch does the poet derogate from the impression of moral greatness which he means we shall form of his Brutus. In his conception of Brutus' character he follows Plutarch, but goes further than his authority, as was dramatically right, and as he has done with the other chief persons of the drama, notably wath Caesar.
The main motive of the tragedy, -- the essentially tragical point of it, -- is the mistake of Brutus in undertaking a task for which his moral nature renders him unfit. The assassination of Caesar is, in the play, incidental to the development of the career of Brutus. Brutus commands deference from all; and Cassius, who is Brutus's superior in practical sagacity, cheerfully yields to him in matters of crucial moment, being overawed by his commanding force of character. This force of personal character, joined with a reputation for absolute integrity of purpose, makes Brutus the natural leader of the men of his own rank with whom he is brought into contact. He stands well with the mob also, but does not make sufficient allowance for its fickleness, and foolishly imputes to it something of his own constancy and sense of honor.
As Shakespeare is not writing history or chronicle, but drama, -- though indeed he is dramatizing a chapter of history, -- he is no more bound to observe the exact proportions of character as these may be deduced from the records, than he is to respect the unities of time and place. For his present purpose he wished to
enlarge and idealize Brutus, and to obscure and vulgarize Caesar. For this procedure with regard to Caesar he found a shadow of warrant in his historian. Plutarch is a gossip, by no means always careful to tell of his heroes only the grand achievements by which they won renown. Caesar appears in his pages quite subject to the infirmities of human nature. The poet finds this aspect of the great dictator suitable to his purpose, exaggerates
it in accordance with dramatic custom, -- and so gives us his Julius Caesar.
Antony, for the course. That is, ready to run the course: undressed.
Soothsayer. One who claims to have supernatural foresight; a prophet or diviner. Literally, one who "says sooth," i.e. "tells the truth."
3. in Antonius' way. It was the custom at the Lupercalia for the priests to run through the streets of Rome, waving leather thongs and striking any whom they passed. Marcus Antonius at this time was at the head of one of the bands of Luperci.
8. The barren. Caesar at this time had no children. His only daughter, Julia, who was the wife of Pompey, had died a few years before.
9. sterile curse: the curse of childlessness.
11. Set on: move on, start.
18. ides of March: March 15th.
24. pass: let us pass on. Sennet. A peculiar set of notes on the trumpet which Shakespeare frequently uses as a signal for a march, or to accompany a royal procession.
25. the order of the course. That is, the running of the priests in the streets.
28. gamesome: fond of games.
29. quickspirit: lively, gay spirit (Compare "quick" here with quicksilver and with the word in the expression, "the quick and the dead.")
32. I do observe, etc. "I have been noticing you lately, Brutus, and," etc.
34. show: evidence. as: which, or "such as." wont: accustomed.
35. You bear too stubborn, etc. "You treat your friend too harshly and unfamiliarly." The picture is of a man driving a horse with too tight and too harsh a rein. "This man, Caius Cassius Longinus, had married Junia, a sister of Brutus. Both had lately stood for the chief Praetorship of the city, and Brutus, through Caesar's favor, had won it. . . . This is said to have produced a coldness between Brutus and Cassius, so that they did not speak to each other, till this extraordinary flight of patriotism brought them together." (Hudson.)
39. Merely: wholly, altogether.
40. passions of some difference: fluctuating, contradictory feelings; a "discord of emotions."
41. only proper to myself: belonging exclusively to me; peculiar to me alone.
42. give some soil . . . to: soil, tarnish, blemish. behaviors: manners, actions. Such plurals of abstract nouns are not uncommon in Shakespeare. Here it has the effect of repetition, or "behavior on several occasions." (Cf. line 133 below.)
45. construe: explain, interpret. This word is always accented on the first syllable in Shakespeare's plays. Notice also "misconstrued" in The Merchant of Venice II, ii, 178: "I be misconstrued in the place I go to."
48. mistook your passio: misunderstood your feelings.
Similarly Shakespeare has "spoke" for "spoken," "wrote" for "written," etc. (Cf. II, i, 125.)
49. By means whereof: because of which.
50. cogitations: thoughts.
53. But by reflection, etc. That is, the eye can see itself only by reflection in a mirror or some other polished surface.
54. 'Tis just: that is true; "that's so."
58. shadow: reflected image, reflection.
59. Where. Used loosely for "when" or "that," -- much as we sometimes say, "I read in the paper where the governor," etc. many of the best respect: many of the most highly respected
men in Rome.
66. Therefore. Ignoring Brutus's question, Cassius refers here to the wish which he has heard expressed, and which he is going to answer by what follows.
69. Will modestly discover: will disclose to you without exaggeration that side of yourself, etc.
71. jealous on me: doubtful, suspicious of me. In line 162 Brutus says: "That you do love me I am nothing jealous."
72. laugher: buffoon, jester. In the Folio editions of the
play the word here is "laughter," which would mean "object of
laughter or scorn." The change to "laugher," which was made
by Pope in the i8th century, has generally been accepted. Do
you feel, however, that perhaps the change was not necessary
72, 73. did use to stale, etc. "were I accustomed to cheapen
my love with too frequent oaths."
74. every new protester: every new claimant for my friendship.
75, 76. fawn on men, etc. "If you know that I am one who flatters men, holds them close to my heart, and afterwards defames them." Shakespeare often uses a noun as a verb in a strikingly forceful way, as "scandal" in this passage.
77. I profess myself, etc. "If I declare myself, when at banquets, a friend to all the company, then you should regard me as a dangerous flatterer." "Rout" of course is used contemptuously, as we might speak of "the mob," "the crowd," "the common herd." Flourish. This was probably a few notes on a
trumpet. (See opening stage directions of this scene, and compare "Sennet" in line 24.)
80. How should this line be read to show Cassius' meaning?
85. the general good: the good of the community, the common weal.
86. Set honor, etc. "I will look upon honor and death together without emotion."
88. speed: prosper, bless.
91. your outward favor: your face, personal appearance. In
this sense we still use "ill-favored," and in some parts of America we have now and then such an expression as "she favors her mother," meaning "she looks like her mother."
95. lief. To bring out clearly the play on "live," which Shakespeare undoubtedly intended, we should pronounce this word "lieve."
101. chafing with: rubbing against. (Any large dictionary will explain the interesting connection between this word and "chauffeur" and "chafing-dish.")
104. And swim to yonder point. This incident, apparently invented by Shakespeare, may have been suggested to him by Plutarch's statement that Caesar was a great swimmer.
105. Accoutred: dressed, clothed.
108. With lusty sinews: with vigorous muscles.
109. stemming it: making headway against it. hearts of
controversy: contending hearts, courage that contended against the torrent. Similar constructions are common in Shakespeare, as "passions of difference" in line 40 above, "thieves of mercy" for "merciful thieves," "mind of love" for "loving mind."
110. arrive the point. Point out other places where you have already noticed similar omissions of prepositions.
112. Aenas. According to the legend, the Trojan hero Aeneas was the son of Anchises and Venus. The story of his wanderings, after the Greeks had sacked Troy, and his founding of Rome, is told in Vergil's great epic poem, the "Aeneid."
119. He had a fever. This incident again was probably suggested by Plutarch's Life of Caesar: "... the falling sickness (the which took him the first time, as it is reported, in Cordoba, a city of Spain)."
122. His coward lips, etc. That is, "the color fled from his
lips." The picture is evidently of cowardly soldiers fleeing from
their colors, or their flag.
123. whose bend: whose inclination, frown.
124. his lustre: its brightness. (See note on "her shores," I, i, 50.)
126. Mark: notice.
129. temper: nature, constitution, temperament. In "The Merchant" Portia says that "a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree."
130, 131. So get the start, etc. The figure is from the running of a foot-race.
133. these applauses. Remember the plural "behaviors" in line 42 above.
136. Colossus. A gigantic bronze statue of Apollo erected in 280 B.C. on the shore of the harbor at Rhodes, and known as one of the "seven wonders of the world." Cassius here uses the word "bestride" because of the tradition that the statue stood astride the mouth of the harbor, so that ships sailed "under his huge legs." Why does he speak of the world as narrow?
140. our stars. That is, the planets that govern our lives. The plays of Shakespeare abound with references to the belief of his time that men's fortunes were controlled by the stars and planets. (Look up "astrology.")
141. underlings: inferiors, servile persons. Note the force of the ending -ling in these words: " hireling," "groundling," "changeling," "starling."
146. conjure with 'em, etc. That is, use them as means of summoning up, or "starting," spirits.
150. Age: the times, "the age in which we live."
152. the great flood. Not the flood of Noah and the Ark, but the great flood of Greek mythology from which Deucalion and Pyrrha were the sole survivors.
156. Rome indeed and room enough. We can understand Cassius' play upon words here when we remember that "Rome," in Shakespeare's time, was pronounced almost exactly like "room."
159. a Brutus. This was Lucius Junius Brutus who drove the tyrant Tarquin from Rome, and led in reestablishing the republic. Our Marcus Brutus of the play, according to Plutarch, was descended from him. would have brooked, etc.: would have tolerated the Devil to rule in Rome as soon as a king. Shakespeare uses "eternal" several times for "infernal." "Perhaps," says Hudson, "our Yankee phrases, 'tarnal shame, 'tarnal
scamp,' etc., are relics of this usage. It seems that the Puritans thought infernal too profane for godly mouths, and so translated its sense to eternal."
162. am nothing jealous: do not doubt. Remember Cassius' "be not jealous on me" in line 71 above.
163. aim: guess, conjecture.
166. so: if, provided that, -- as often in Shakespeare.
170. such high things: such important matters.
171. chew. This is a translation of the Latin "ruminate," which we still use in the sense of "reflect," "ponder."
172. a villager. To be a countryman, -- a rustic, --from the point of view of a Roman citizen, was to be an outcast and a
173. Than to repute: than consider myself. Today we do not use "to" after the idiom "had rather."
174. as: which, such as. (A similar use of "as" occurred in line 34 of this scene.)
177. but: even. The figure here is from the starting of fire by the use of steel and flint. Later in the play Brutus describes his own cold nature thus:
O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty sparky
And straight is cold again.
181. What hath proceeded, etc. "What has happened worthy of notice today." Noteworthy has become a common adjective today.
184. chidden: rebuked, censured, scolded.
186. ferret . . . eyes. The ferret has small reddish eyes.
187. seen him. That is, seen him look with.
188. crossed in conference: opposed in debate.
193. Sleek-headed men. According to Plutarch, Caesar once said to friends who "complained unto him of Antonius and Dolabella, that they pretended some mischief towards him, 'As for those fat men and smooth-combed heads, I never reckon of them; but these pale-visaged and carrion lean people, I fear them most,' meaning Brutus and Cassius."
193. o' nights: at night.
194. Yond. An old form of "yon." (Cf. "yonder.")
197. well given: well disposed. This expression, like many others in the play, occurs in North's "Plutarch," from which Shakespeare drew the material for his tragedy.
199. if my name were liable to fear: that is, "If it were possible for me to be afraid." Caesar uses "my name" for "myself."
204. he hears no music. Such a man Shakespeare evidently considered dangerous.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
("Merchant of Venice," V, i, 83-88.)
205. sort: way, manner.
209. Whiles. An old form of "while," closely related to our "whilst."
217. sad. Probably here in the earlier sense of "grave," "serious."
228. marry. An exclamation about equivalent to our "indeed." Originally, as the word shows, it was an oath, being a shortened form for "by the Virgin Mary."
229. gentler than other: more gently than the other.
237. coronets. These were inferior to crowns, and in various forms denoted different degrees of noble rank less than sovereign. Here again the poet transfers to Rome an English custom.
239. fain: gladly, willingly.
243. rabblement: rabble, noisy crowd, mob.
244. chopt: chapped, rough and cracked. Macbeth speaks
of the choppy finger of a witch.
247. swounded ... 250. swound. Shakespeare uses these forms as well as the modern swoon and swooned.
250. soft: hold! stop! not so fast!
253. 'Tis very like: quite likely, it's very probable. the
falling-sickness. That is, epilepsy, -- a nervous disease accompanied, in its violent forms, with loss of consciousness, foaming at the mouth, and convulsions. Suetonius, in his life of Caesar, says that the great Roman general was subject to fainting fits and that "he was twice seized with the falling-sickness while
engaged in active service."
257. tag-rag: ragged and idle. (Cf. the expression "the rag, tag, and bobtail.")
260. no true man: no honest man.
264. plucked me ope his doublet: he opened his coat. The "me" in this construction is called the ethical dative (for me). It has no particular meaning here, though it may possibly add a little force to Casca's words.
The doublet (which did not come into use until the close of the 15th century) was a close-fitting outer garment with
sleeves, and was belted at the waist. The expression "doublet and hose" occurs frequently in the plays.
265. An: if, -- as often in Shakespeare. a man of any occupation. That is, "had I been a mechanic like those to whom he offered his throat."
266. at a word. We should say "at his word."
270. wenches: girls, -- the sisters or daughters of the "commoners." As used here, and often in Shakespeare, the word corresponds almost exactly to the masculine "fellow."
274. sad. See note on "sad" in line 217 above.
277. he spoke Greek. How does Casca speak these words? What light do they throw on Cicero's character?
282. it was Greek to me: it was meaningless to me. The proverb here includes, of course, a play upon Casca's earlier remark, "Ay, he spoke Greek."
287. I am promised forth: I have promised already to dine out. In "The Merchant of Venice" Shylock says, "I am bid forth to supper" and " I have no mind of feasting forth."
293. blunt: dull, slow, -- just the opposite of "quick mettle" in the next line, which means "of high or lively spirit."
297. this tardy form: this sluggish, slothful manner, -- probably of talking, in reference to Casca's beating about the bush and hesitation in his story of Caesar and the crown.
305. think of the world. That is, "think of the affairs of Rome." What is the significance of this remark as a farewell to Brutus?
307. metal: spirit, character. Point out two similar uses of the word earlier in the play.
307, 308. may be wrought From, 'etc.: may be moved, or
changed, from that to which it is inclined. meet: fitting,
311. bear me hard. That is, "Caesar regards me with ill-will, or disfavor."
313. He should not humor me. "He (that is, Brutus) should not cajole me (play upon my humor) as I do him." (Warburton.) Cassius seems to think that he would not be as easy to work upon as he is finding Brutus.
314. hands: handwritings, -- as often in Shakespeare.
316. tending to: setting forth, indicating.
318. glanced at: hinted at, suggested.
319, 320. let Caesar seat him sure, etc. Let Caesar establish himself firmly in power, for we will either overthrow him, or suffer the consequences of the attempt to unseat him.
Notice the rhyme (sure . . . endure) in these two last lines, similar to the ending of II, 3, V, 3, and the close of the play. Such a rhyming couplet often marked the close of a scene, or even the exit of an actor, in old plays before the days of curtains and elaborate changes of scenery.
How to cite the explanatory notes and scene questions:
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/julius_1_2.html >.
Scene Questions for Review
1. Imagine and describe the setting of the scene. How does it make a splendid pageant on the stage today?
2. What is the first impression you get of Caesar? Favorable or unfavorable?
3. Why do you think Shakespeare introduced the soothsayer at this point? What effect do his words have on the audience?
4. Does the soothsayer seem to have any effect upon Caesar? Upon Cassius or Brutus?
5. How does Cassius skilfully lead up to his subject? What is his evident motive from the first?
6. How would you have Brutus appear and act during the long speeches of Cassius, 90-131 and 135-161?
7. Does Cassius seem to you to speak from personal enmity toward Caesar, or solely from interest in the public welfare? Support your reasons by quoting various lines.
8. What is the effect of the distant shout and Brutus' comment? (131-133)
9. What reasons does Cassius give for wanting Brutus to join the conspiracy?
10. Why do you think Cassius recalls to Brutus the deeds of his ancestors?
11. Compare the appearance of Caesar's train as it returns with the spectacle at the opening of the scene.
12. How does Shakespeare give us an impression of what has taken place while Cassius has been talking to Brutus?
13. Why have Caesar comment upon Antony, Brutus, and especially upon Cassius, as he does? Do his words here have
an important effect upon the audience?
14. Why does the poet have Casca speak entirely in prose?
15. What opinion do you form of Casca from his manner and his words?
16. Comment upon the words of Brutus in lines 293-294. How does Cassius turn these words to his own use?
17. What opinion do you form of Cassius from his last speech in this scene?
18. Can you explain why this last speech is often omitted on the stage today?
19. What contrast has Shakespeare already clearly made between Cassius and Brutus?
20. Quote any lines you particularly like and tell why you like them.
Points to Ponder ... "The lean and wrinkled Cassius" venting his spite at Caesar, by ridiculing his liability to sickness and death, is charmingly characteristic. The mighty Caesar, with all his electric energy of mind and will, was of a rather fragile and delicate make; and his countenance, as we have it in authentic busts, is of almost feminine beauty. Cicero, who did not love him at all, in one of his Letters applies to him the Greek word that is used for 'miracle' or 'wonder' in the New Testament; the English of the passage being, "This miracle (monster?) is a thing of terrible energy, swiftness, diligence." (Henry Norman Hudson)