Julius Caesar | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 4, Scene 3

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 4, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Brutus and Cassius talk in Brutus's tent. Cassius is upset with Brutus for condemning a soldier (Lucius Pella) who took bribes from the Sardinians. He feels that in such turbulent times, a bribe is a minor offense and should be overlooked. Brutus insists he did the right thing. Why did they assassinate Caesar, he asks, if they're only going to condone bribes and endorse corruption? The two argue spiritedly over who is the superior soldier and leader. Cassius says Caesar would never insult him the way Brutus does; Brutus replies that Cassius was too afraid to provoke Caesar. Cassius claims that a friend would never see the faults that Brutus sees in him, and asks Brutus to kill him. Brutus, calming down, asks Cassius to sheathe his dagger. They apologize and reconcile.

A poet tries to enter the tent, saying the quarreling generals shouldn't be alone. Brutus and Cassius laugh him off.

Cassius points out that Brutus's worry is out of character, since he is a stoic, a member of a school of philosophy that discourages emotion and promotes acceptance of life's ills. Brutus confesses to Cassius the reason he's so upset: Portia is dead. Distressed over the encroaching power of Octavius and Antony, and over her husband's absence, Portia choked herself on hot coals like a true Roman stoic.

Titinius and Messala enter the tent with news. Antony and Octavius have killed a hundred senators in Rome and are marching toward Philippi. Brutus thinks they should go to Philippi and meet them. Cassius disagrees, saying the enemy will expend more resources seeking them instead. Brutus counters that if they wait, the enemy forces will only grow stronger. By fighting them at Philippi, Brutus and Cassius will have the advantage. Cassius consents.

Brutus settles in his tent for the night. He doesn't get much rest, because the ghost of Caesar appears to him. Brutus demands the spirit say what it is (god, angel, or devil), and Caesar's ghost replies, "Thy evil spirit, Brutus." The ghost says Brutus will see him at Philippi.

Alarmed, Brutus asks if anyone else has seen the ghost, but no one has. He tells Cassius's forces to march ahead of him to Philippi. He will meet them there.

Analysis

Brutus and Cassius grapple with their guilt at killing Caesar, the meaning of their friendship, and their own mortality. Each man's insecurities are thrown into sharp relief, giving the audience greater insight into their private selves.

Cassius is temperamental, theatrical, and accusatory—"choleric," one of the four humors, or fluids in the body, believed in ancient times to determine the personality. Choleric people were thought to be prone to rage and mood swings. Cassius is a practical leader, as demonstrated by his willingness to look the other way at the bribes.

In this he and Brutus are opposed. As a stoic Brutus insists on purity in all things. Brutus worries that the assassination has been in vain; what was the point, if Rome is just going back to the status quo? Cassius is resentful, not wanting to follow Brutus's lead any longer, and aware that if not for Brutus, Antony would be dead. The men's long-standing friendship wins out, but Cassius's feelings haven't gone away.

Shakespeare reduces the simmering tension on the stage by letting the poet enter. This gives the audience a much-needed break. Its members have just learned that Portia, a blameless character who has earned their sympathy, died in one of the most painful ways imaginable. Portia, like her husband, is devoted to principle. Earlier she cut herself to prove her loyalty to Brutus; now she commits suicide rather than live under the new regime.

Caesar's ghost is both omen and warning. The ghost tells Brutus, obliquely, that he will die at Philippi. Will Brutus accept this fate? The depth of what Brutus has done sinks in—maybe he deserves to die. He sacrificed his morals for a deed he's realizing was not a crime for the good of Rome but just a crime. As Brutus explains in his speech to the generals, though, he must "take the current when it serves"; he can't turn back.

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