All Rome is in holiday dress for the Feast of Lupercal. Excitement is heightened by the imminent prospect that the triumvir, Julius Caesar, is to be named king. But from the crowd a soothsayer calls: "Caesar, beware the ides of March." The ruler sees another evil portent as Cassius, a jealous noble, joins in sober conversation with the revered Marcus Brutus, Caesar's friend. To his loyal companion, Mark Antony, Caesar says: "Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look ... such men as he be never at heart's ease while they behold a greater than themselves."
The meeting of the nobles is indeed a dark omen. The thoughtful Brutus, ever mindful of "the general good and the name of honor," and fearful that Caesar may prove a tyrant, is skilfully played upon by Cassius. Cassius says to him: "Brutus, and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'? Why should that name be sounded more than yours?... Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar."
Brutus reluctantly tells Cassius: "What you would work me to, I have some aim." The crafty Cassius goes to prepare, in several different handwritings, petitions praising Brutus and disparaging Caesar, to be left in Brutus' home. He is quick, too, to enlist other nobles in the plot, including his friend Casca, who says of Brutus: "Oh, he sits high in all the people's hearts: and that which would appear offence in us his countenance ... will change to virtue and worthiness."
Just before dawn, the sleepless Brutus decides that, for the public welfare, Caesar must die. His resolve is buttressed both by reflection that it is now the fateful ides of March, and by reading the false petitions that Cassius has written. In a fearful storm, which seems to bring even further portents of death, Cassius and his conspirators come to Brutus' home. It is there decided that Caesar must be slain that very day at the Captitol where the Senators are expected to name him king. Cassius proposes that Antony, too, be killed, but this Brutus vetoes because "Antony can do more harm than Caesar's arm when Caesar's head's cut off," and because he fears "our course will seem too bloody" to the populace.
Forebodings are felt by Portia, the wife of Brutus, and by Calpurnia, wife of Caesar. Portia senses some desperate plan afoot, and finally Brutus tells her of it. Caesar has heard Calpurnia cry out thrice in her sleep: "Help, ho! they murder Caesar!" Filled with apprehension, she forbids Caesar to leave his home that day. His priests, too, advise him that their portents are dark; but the conspirator, Decius Brutus, flatters him into going forth to the Capitol.
Here the plotters cluster about Caesar, on the pretext of offering a petition which he refuses. They then stab him. At the thrust of his friend Brutus, Caesar cries: "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!" He dies.
Brutus directs the conspirators to bathe their hands and swords in Caesar's blood, and to walk among the populace proclaiming peace, freedom and liberty. Just then Antony's servant enters to offer his master's hand to Brutus. Brutus summons Antony, promising an explanation once the populace, now in a state of panic, is quieted. Antony feigns acceptance of this, asking only that he be allowed to conduct Caesar's funeral in the market place. Brutus agrees, despite warnings from Cassius, but stipulates that Antony shall not blame the slayers; he shall only, with the proclaimed permission of the conspirators, speak well of Caesar. Alone with Caesar's body, Antony pledges revenge. He awaits the mood of the populace before summoning the young Octavius Caesar, nephew of Julius.
At the market place, Brutus first wins the half-hostile crowd by an impassioned declaration that while he loved Caesar, he loved Rome more, and that the elevation of the ambitious ruler would have meant only slavery for its citizens. He offers to kill himself if his countrymen condemn him, and there are cries of "Live, Brutus!" "Let him be Caesar!" Brutus asks the crowd to listen to the eulogy of Caesar by Mark Antony who enters with Caesar's body. Brutus leaves, and Antony speaks:
- "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
- I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him....
- He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
- But Brutus says he was ambitious;
- And Brutus is an honorable man.
- He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
- Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill;
- Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
- When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
- Ambition should be made of sterner stuff;
- Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
- And Brutus is an honorable man.
- You all did see that on the Lupercal
- I thrice presented him a kingly crown
- Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?...
- I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
- But here I am to speak what I do know.
- You all did love him once, not without cause;
- What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
- O judgment! thou art fleet to brutish beasts,
- And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
- My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
- And I must pause till it come back to me."
Doubt, as well as awakened sympathy for Caesar and the shaken Antony, now stir the crowd. Antony's victory is complete when he recites the pity of the dead Caesar, with "none so poor to do him reverence." He summons the throng about the corpse, pointing out the rents left in the dead ruler's war mantle by the daggers of Cassius, "the envious Casca" and "the well-beloved Brutus," this last "the most unkindest cut of all." He reveals that Caesar's will has left his estates to the populace. He so inflames the people that they form a riotous mob bent only upon destruction of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius, forewarned, flee from the city.
Antony then meets with the perfumed dandy, Octavius, and with Lepidus, of the dead Caesar's court, who are now to be triumvars to rule Rome. They list the rebels who mist die, Antony agreeing to include his own sister's son. Antony then schemes with the easily led Octavius to "divide the three-fold world" among themselves, to prune the amounts paid out in Caesar's legacies, and to discard Lepidus when he shall have served his purpose in taking the blame for their actions. Then he warns Octavius that Brutus and Cassius have raised an army near Sardis, and that they must be defeated at once.
In the conspirators' camp, Brutus has learned that the grieving Portia has committed suicide. He is at bitter odds with Cassius who has been niggardly and suspicious in supplying funds for their troops. The two men are reconciled, but they disagree fatally over tactics for the coming battle at Philippi. The night before the battle the ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus, saying only: "Thou shalt see me at Philippi." Indeed, the battle brings death by suicide to Brutus and to Cassius when their army is defeated. Says Antony of Brutus:
- "This was the noblest Roman of them all.
- All the conspirators, save only he,
- Did that they did in envy of the great Caesar....
- His life was gentle, and the elements
- So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
- And say to all the world 'This was a man!'"
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