Summary and Analysis
Caesar, having entered Rome in triumph, calls to his wife, Calphurnia, and orders her to stand where Mark Antony, about to run in the traditional footrace of the Lupercal, can touch her as he passes. Caesar shares the belief that if a childless woman is touched by one of the holy runners, she will lose her sterility.
A soothsayer calls from the crowd warning Caesar to "beware the ides of March," but Caesar pays no attention and departs with his attendants, leaving Brutus and Cassius behind.
Cassius begins to probe Brutus about his feelings toward Caesar and the prospect of Caesar's becoming a dictator in Rome. Brutus has clearly been disturbed about this issue for some time. Cassius reminds Brutus that Caesar is merely a mortal like them, with ordinary human weaknesses, and he says that he would rather die than see such a man become his master. He reminds Brutus of Brutus' noble ancestry and of the expectations of his fellow Romans that he will serve his country as his ancestors did. Brutus is obviously moved, but he is unsure of what to do.
Several times during their conversation, Cassius and Brutus hear shouts and the sounds of trumpets. Caesar re-enters with his attendants and, in passing, he remarks to Mark Antony that he feels suspicious of Cassius, who "has a lean and hungry look; / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."
As Caesar exits, Brutus and Cassius stop Casca and converse with him. He tells them that Mark Antony offered the crown to Caesar three times, but that Caesar rejected it each time and then fell down in an epileptic seizure. The three men agree to think further about the matter, and when Casca and Brutus have gone, Cassius in a brief soliloquy indicates his plans to secure Brutus firmly for the conspiracy that he is planning against Caesar.
Unrest is possible in Rome because the new leader is weak. The audience is given evidence of this at the opening of Scene 2. Antony is about to run a race (an important and religious element of the Lupercalian festivities) and Caesar calls on him to touch Calphurnia, Caesar's wife, as he passes "for our elders say, / The barren, touched in this holy chase, / Shake off their sterile curse." Calphurnia has not borne Caesar any children, and while in the Elizabethan mind the problem would have resided with the woman, here, Caesar's virility is also in question. The fact that he calls upon another man, known for his athleticism, carousing, and womanizing, suggests that Caesar is impotent.
A lack of virility is not Caesar's only problem. He also is unable to recognize and take heed of good advice. A soothsayer enters the scene and "with a clear tongue shriller than all the music," warns Caesar of the ides of March. Caesar doesn't hear the man clearly, but others do, and it is Shakespeare's ironic hand that has Brutus, who will be Caesar's murderer, repeat the warning. Caesar has every opportunity to heed these words. He hears them again from the soothsayer and even takes the opportunity to look into the speaker's face and examine it for honesty, but he misreads what he sees. The soothsayer is termed a dreamer and is dismissed.
Some critics of this play call Caesar a superstitious man and weak for that reason, but that is not the real root of the problem. All of the characters in this play believe in the supernatural. It is one of the play's themes that they all misinterpret and attempt to turn signs and omens to their own advantage. What characterizes Caesar as weak is susceptibility to flattering interpretations of omens and his inability to distinguish between good advice and bad, good advisors and bad.
Those who surround Caesar are not all supporters. At Caesar's departure, Cassius and Brutus are left onstage. Cassius, whose political purpose is to gather people around him and overthrow Caesar, tests the waters with Brutus. He asks if he intends to watch the race and Brutus is less than enthusiastic. Brutus speaks disapprovingly of Antony's quickness. Cassius, who is a very good reader of other people, interprets this as Brutus' dislike of the new regime and goes on to probe a little further to find out if he will join his group of conspirators. Brutus resists the idea of speaking against Caesar, but Cassius flatters him, suggesting that no matter what Brutus says or does, he could never be anything but a good man.
Their speech is interrupted by a shout offstage and the abruptness of it causes Brutus to display more of his feeling than he may have otherwise. He says that he fears that the people have elected Caesar their king. Cassius has the green light now and presses his case. He speaks of how Caesar oversteps his bounds by calling himself a god when he is only a man and not a very strong one at that. He recounts saving Caesar from drowning. He describes the fever that left Caesar groaning and trembling. Another offstage shout adds urgency to what Cassius says. Brutus is swayed.
With Caesar's return to the stage — not crowned as Cassius and Brutus expect — he looking unhappy and is none too pleased that Cassius is lurking about with "a lean and hungry look." But Cassius is not truly tainted by this description because Caesar goes on to complain that he has not been able to corrupt Cassius and make him fat, luxurious, and distracted by orchestrated spectacles. So Caesar sees Cassius as a good Roman. On the other hand, Caesar worries that "Such men as he be never at heart's ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves," and he accuses Cassius of being too ambitious, which makes Cassius not a good Roman. Cassius thus cannot be categorized as good or bad — like all the other actors in this drama, he is complex and very human.
Caesar's insight into Cassius' character reveals Caesar to be an intelligent and effective man, but as Caesar leaves the stage he reveals a physical weakness that represents a moral and intellectual weakness: He is deaf in one ear and can hear only one side of the issue — Antony's. Caesar and Antony exit, with the latter calming Caesar's fears.
The others remain onstage. Casca describes to Cassius and Brutus what all the shouting had been about, how Caesar had to tried to build enthusiasm for his ascent to the throne by pretending disinterest. The plan backfired and the crowd shouted not because they wanted him to be crowned but because they were responding to the theater he had created, as they "did clap him and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them, as they use to do the players in the theatre." The biggest cheer arose when Caesar refused the crown and his fit of pique was represented bodily by a fit of epilepsy.
Casca reveals his own sympathies when he mentions that he had trouble keeping himself from laughing at the scene, and Cassius invites him to dinner in order to convert him to the conspirators' cause.
Brutus, not yet converted, is nonetheless sympathetic and suggests that he and Cassius get together the next day to discuss it further. The scene finishes with Cassius alone on stage. He mistrusts Brutus' nobility and his loyalty to the state, and decides on a ploy to convince him. Having determined the possibility of Brutus' open mind, he will write flattering letters that seem to come from the people and will throw them in Brutus' open window. He could not do this with any hope of success, however, were he not aware that Brutus' mind was open to the suggestion.
press to crowd or throng.
ides of March in the ancient Roman calendar, the 15th day of March.
order of the course how the race goes.
passions of some difference conflicting emotions.
conceptions original ideas, designs, plans.
soil to smirch or stain.
by means whereof as a result of
just correct or true.
shadow a mirrored image or reflection.
modestly quietly and humbly, not pretentiously.
jealous on resentfully suspicious of a rival or a rival's influence.
common laughter a frivolous man.
stale make common or meaningless.
protester one who professes friendship.
scandal to disgrace.
rout a disorderly crowd or noisy mob.
indifferently showing no partiality, bias, or preference.
speed me help me forward.
favor appearance or look.
I had as lief I would rather.
hearts of controversy excitement.
Colossus the gigantic statue of Apollo set at the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes and included among the Seven Wonders of the World.
start a spirit raise a spirit.
encompass'd allowed room for.
keep his state maintain a court.
nothing jealous not doubtful.
ferret eyes red, angry eyes.
marry indeed (an oath based on the name of the Virgin Mary)
gentle noble, chivalrous.
fain with eagerness, gladly.
chopp'd reddened and chapped.
swounded swooned or fainted.
falling sickness epilepsy.
scarfs sashes worn by soldiers or officials.
quick mettle lively and spirited.
tardy form slow manner.
wit intellectual and perceptive powers.
several hands different handwriting.