Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 1
Brutus is in his orchard. It is night and he calls impatiently for his servant, Lucius, and sends him to light a candle in his study. When Lucius has gone, Brutus speaks one of the most important and controversial soliloquies in the play. He says that he has "no personal cause to spurn at" Caesar, except "for the general," meaning that there are general reasons for the public good. Thus far, Caesar has seemingly been as virtuous as any other man, but Brutus fears that after he is "augmented" (crowned), his character will change, for it is in the nature of things that power produces tyranny. He therefore decides to agree to Caesar's assassination: to "think him as a serpent's egg, / Which, hatched, would as his kind, grow mischievous, / And kill him in the shell."
Lucius re-enters and gives Brutus a letter that has been thrown into his window. The various conspirators — Cassius, Casca, Decius, Cinna, Metellus Cimber, and Trebonius — now arrive. Cassius proposes that they all seal their compact with an oath, but Brutus objects on the ground that honorable men acting in a just cause need no such bond. When Cassius raises the question of inviting Cicero into the conspiracy, Brutus persuades the conspirators to exclude Cicero from the conspiracy. Cassius then argues that Mark Antony should be killed along with Caesar; Brutus opposes this too as being too bloody a course, and he urges that they be "sacrificers, but not butchers." It is the spirit of Caesar, he asserts, to which they stand opposed, and "in the spirit of men there is no blood."
When the conspirators have departed, Brutus notices that his servant, Lucius, has fallen asleep. At this moment, Portia, his wife, enters, disturbed and concerned by her husband's strange behavior. She demands to know what is troubling him. She asserts her strength and reminds Brutus that because she is Cato's daughter, her quality of mind raises her above ordinary women; she asks to share his burden with him. Deeply impressed by her speech, Brutus promises to tell her what has been troubling him.
Portia leaves, and Lucius is awakened and ushers in Caius Ligarius, who has been sick, but who now declares that to follow Brutus in his noble endeavor, "I here discard my sickness." They set forth together.
While the reader has been led to believe in Brutus' strength of nobility, there is a touch of weakness in the self-delusion he must create before he can join the conspirators: Brutus feels that murder is wrong and so must find a way to justify his actions. It's not for personal reasons that he will do it, but for the general; that is, for the good of the people of Rome. He generalizes about the effects of power and ambition and anticipates the damage that Caesar will do when he gains the crown. He has to admit, however, that Caesar has not yet committed any of these wrongs. Brutus has to convince himself to kill Caesar before he has the opportunity to achieve his ambition; that is, he will "kill him in the shell." The final element of his persuasion comes from an outside source. He responds to the call of the people without knowing that the call is false. The letters that Cassius has penned have been discovered in Brutus' closet; he reads them and is persuaded by them under the same harsh and distorting "exhalations of the air" that light the conspirators' way to Brutus' doorstep. By that light, one can see that Brutus is as tainted as any of the other conspirators.
Brutus, although he has decided to be one of the conspirators, knows that what they plan is wrong. "O Conspiracy, / Sham'st thou to show thy dang'rous brow by night, / When evils are most free?" (emphasis added). But being a man of his word, he is committed to the plan. After a brief, whispered discussion with Cassius, Brutus takes on the leadership of the group, and when Cassius calls on the group to swear to continue as they have planned, Brutus stops them, and begins by a sort of negative persuasion to fix their resolve and establish himself as leader. "No, not an oath!" he says. If their motives are not strong enough, an oath will not help them to accomplish the deed. Only cowards and deceivers would swear, and to swear would be to taint what they do. This is how Brutus convinces his men. He creates a void, takes away what Cassius says, and then fills it with his own voice. By stripping away the words of an oath and by replacing that oath with images of valiant Romans, their very blood carrying strength, nobility, and constancy, Brutus inspires his men and establishes himself as their leader. Caesar, therefore, is not alone in his ambition.
This image of nobility disappears rather abruptly as the conspirators return to the details of the plan. What about Cicero? Should they try to get him on their side? He carries a lot of weight. Perhaps he'd be useful. Maybe they could claim him as the author of what they do and spread some of the responsibility around. Brutus points out that Cicero is too much his own man and will not follow anyone, and so he is excluded. Next, they must decide what to do about Mark Antony. He is a powerful and dangerous foe, but Brutus is doubtful, not wanting to murder for the sake of killing and even regretting that Caesar's blood must be shed.
Blood imagery begins to replace the lightening and flame that dominated the earlier part of the scene. It is as though a bloody rain follows the rumbling warnings of thunder. By means of this fluid image, Shakespeare moves easily between all the connotations that blood offers. The conspirators are up to no good, yet they attempt to lend credibility to what they do by calling on their noble Roman ancestry — their blood — in order to spill Caesar's blood. By this bloodletting, they believe they will regain the masculinity and strength that the state has lost. By penetrating Caesar's body, by exposing his weakness and effeminacy, Romans will be men again.
Just as interesting is the image of blood that Brutus' wife, Portia, brings to the stage. As the conspirators leave their home, Portia sees "some six or seven, who did hide their faces / Even from the darkness." She knows something is very wrong. Brutus hasn't been sleeping well and is drawn from bed "to dare the vile contagion of the night." Her husband attempts to put off her questions but she, among all the characters of the play, seems most able to cut through the darkness and see the truth. "No, my Brutus, / You have some sick offense within your mind." Portia represents strong Roman womanhood, yet can still only be defined in terms of the men around her. She points out that she is the daughter of Cato, a man famed for his integrity, and the wife of Brutus, and for these reasons Brutus should confide in her. Portia's credibility is described in the images of blood. She is Brutus' "true and honorable wife / As dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / That visit [his] sad heart."
The meaning of this bloodletting is two-fold. First, the audience is meant to remember the Greek myth of the birth of Athena, the goddess associated with both war and wisdom, and who is sometimes described as having been born of the thigh of Zeus. Second, one sees that it is a woman who bears the marks of true Roman nobility. The self-wounding in her thigh is a sort of suicide, an act valued by the Romans as the ultimate sacrifice in the face of dishonor. Portia's honorable bloodletting, then, suggests that the male characters in the play, even though they call on their ancestry and on the ideas of strength and honour, do so in a dishonorable cause. Still, she is a woman, and even though she is "so father'd and so husbanded," she is unable to stem the flow of blood that the conspirators have begun.
general the public good.
craves to be in great need of.
crown him that crown him emperor.
disjoins remorse from power separates conscience from authority.
I have not known when his affections sway'd / More than his reason Brutus is suggesting that Caesar is not ruled by passion but is very calculating in his desire for power.
lowliness false humility.
base degrees the rungs upon the ladder he has just climbed. Caesar will turn on the people beneath him.
And since the quarrel / Will bear no color for the thing he is Brutus recognizes that his argument (quarrel) doesn't work (bears no color) because Caesar has not behaved as Brutus suggests he will.
augmented to become greater, increase. Here, when Caesar gets what he wants (is augmented), he will behave as Brutus has previously described.
as his kind according to his nature.
closet a small, private room for reading and meditation, often a study for men, a place of meditation and solitude for women.
whet to make keen, stimulate.
first motion the first proposal of the murder of Caesar by Cassius.
phantasma an hallucination.
The Genius and the mortal instruments / Are then in council; and the state of a man, / Like to a little kingdom, suffers then / The nature of an insurrection Because of Cassius' suggestions, Brutus' mind (Genius) and body (mortal instruments) are in conflict. Thus, he cannot sleep.
brother Cassius had married a sister of Brutus.
discover to reveal, disclose, or expose.
For if thou path, they native semblance on, / Not Erebus itself were dim enough / To hide thee from prevention If you show your true nature in your face, not even the darkness of the underworld will be able to hide you from being recognized and stopped.
watchful cares worries that keep them up at night.
Here, as I point my sword . . . Stands, as the Capitol, directly here Casca's point here is that the sword he points toward the Capitol will, by the violence it inflicts on Caesar, bring about a new day for Rome.
high-sighted haughty, arrogant.
by lottery as Caesar's eye falls on each man by chance.
palter to talk or act insincerely.
honesty personal honor.
carrions men near death.
or . . . or either . . . or.
break with tell our secret to him.
improve make the most of them.
annoy to harm by repeated attacks.
their servants our passions.
ingrafted established firmly.
Quite from the main opinion he held once in contrast to the way he once thought.
That unicorns may be betray'd with trees The story was that a hunter, standing in front of a tree, could lure a unicorn into running at him and then step aside at the last minute. The unicorn's horn would be stuck in the tree.
bears with glasses bears were thought to be vain and would stop to look at themselves in a mirror.
toils nets for trapping.
uttermost at the latest.
by him to his house.
put on our purposes reveal our purposes.
it is not thus for your health it's not good for you.
with your arms across arms folded, taken as a sign of melancholy.
suck up the humors breathe the air.
unpurged air that has not been cleansed by the sun.
sick offense an illness, but also a suggestion that Portia knows Brutus is planning to do something wrong.
incorporate and make us one the vows of marriage.
unfold to me reveal, disclose, display, or explain.
in sort or limitation in a limited way.
suburbs literally outside the walls of the city. The suburbs were often where brothels were situated. Note that Portia refers to herself as a harlot in the second line following.
Cato Cato of Utica, known for his integrity.
counsels secret intentions or resolutions.
constancy steadiness of affections or loyalties.
charactery of my sad brows the sadness that is written on his face.
vouchsafe to be gracious enough or condescend to give or grant.
wear a kerchief to be ill.
exorcist one who summons spirits.
mortified to destroy the vitality or vigor of.
set on your foot take the first step.