Summary and Analysis
On the plain of Philippi, Octavius and Antony, along with their forces, await Brutus, Cassius, and their armies. A messenger arrives and warns Octavius and Antony that the enemy is approaching. Antony orders Octavius to take the left side of the field, but Octavius insists upon taking the right and Antony taking the left.
Brutus, Cassius, and their followers enter, and the opposing generals meet. The two sides immediately hurl insults at one another: Antony accuses Brutus of hypocrisy in the assassination and he derides the conspirators for the cowardly way that they killed Caesar. Cassius accuses Antony of using deceit in his meeting with the conspirators following the assassination and he reminds Brutus that they would not have to endure Antony's offensive language now had he died alongside Caesar. Octavius suggests that they cease talking and begin fighting and boasts that he will not sheath his sword until he has either revenged Caesar or has been killed by traitors. Brutus denies being a traitor. Cassius calls Octavius a "peevish schoolboy" and Antony a "masker and a reveller." Antony responds that Cassius is "old Cassius still," and Octavius challenges Brutus and Cassius to fight now or whenever they muster the courage. Octavius, Antony, and their armies exit.
Cassius has serious misgivings about the battle, and both he and Brutus worry that they will never see each other again. They part poignantly with Cassius saying, "For ever, and for ever, Brutus! / If we do meet again, we'll smile indeed; / If not, @'tis true this parting was well made."
It is fitting that a battle of words should open the final act of the play. The previous four acts have been largely about words, persuasion, the (mis)use and (mis)interpretation of words, and the power of language. It is no surprise, then, that a power struggle opens the scene as (the younger) Octavius refuses to follow (the older) Antony's orders. The real battle of words, however, occurs between the triumvirate and the conspirators. For example,
- "They . . . would have parley."
- "We must out and talk."
- "The generals would have some words."
- "Words before blows."
- "Not that we love words better."
- "Good words are better than bad strokes."
These passages are taken from just eight lines and are only a small sampling.
Why does Shakespeare so purposefully draw the reader's attention to language? He does so because the question of language and its power were important issues in Elizabethan times. During that period, the ultimate, the most authoritative Word was God's. Human use of language, according to the Elizabethan way of thinking, derived from that authority and thus had within it the potential for a tremendous power — one that human beings both desired and feared. The characters and the action of this play express this desire and fear.
In Act V, by having the two opposing groups speak, Shakespeare tells his audience that, in fact, it is too late for language. Language has already had its effect. It has precipitated violence and no amount of desire for reconciliation (on Brutus' part) or accusation and insult meant to intimidate will change anything. War must come.
Still, lest the readers be left with the impression that human use of language is inevitably all bad, the scene finishes with the poignant parting of two friends, Cassius and Brutus, who know that they risk never seeing each other again. Indeed, by the end of the scene, poignancy returns language to its divine source. Brutus' musing on the end of the battle metaphorically evokes, in this classical pre-Christian context, a desire to know the "end" of all things and the purpose of life, and hints at the possibility of a Christian understanding of an end beyond this life. Brutus' words return the audience to the Word, which in Elizabethan consciousness, informed any and all contexts.
battles battalions of soldiers.
answering acting in response or retaliation.
I am in their bosoms I know what they mean to do.
could be content to visit other places would rather be elsewhere.
fearful bravery a display of courage to hide their fear.
softly here, slowly.
exigent calling for immediate action or attention.
the posture of your blows what sort of blows you will deliver.
Hybla bees bees renowned for the sweetness of their honey. Hybla was in Sicily.
show'd your teeth smiled.
might have rul'd had prevailed.
three and thirty wounds a reference to Christ's age at his death. Antony is suggesting that Caesar has been sacrificed by the conspirators.
a masker and a reveller reference to Antony's fondness for revelry that will become an important element of Antony and Cleopatra.
stomachs desires or inclinations; here, their desire to fight.
on the hazard at stake.
Epicurus Greek philosopher and founder of the Epicurean school, which held that the goal of man should be a life characterized by serenity of mind and the enjoyment of moderate pleasure; Epicureans did not believe in omens and portents.
presage foreshadowing quality
former ensign foremost banner.
fell here, swooped down.
consorted accompanied or escorted.
ravens, crows, and kites eaters of carrion and thus inferior to the nobility of the eagle.
as as if.
The gods to-day stand friendly May the gods be friendly.
lead on our days to age live a long life.
reason with the worst imagine and consider the worst.
philosophy a particular system of principles for the conduct of life; in Brutus' case, stoicism
Cato Brutus' father-in-law who fought for Pompey and committed suicide at Utica. Brutus' stoic philosophy disapproved of suicide.
prevent the time of life cut life short.
stay to wait.
in triumph in ancient Rome, a procession celebrating the return of a victorious general and his army.