Overview Act IV
Scope and Themes
Judging literary "tone" is a notoriously subjective venture. Thus, you may want to take with a grain of salt my conclusion that the quality and even gripping character of Julius Caesar drops off to an extent in Act IV. Older commentators would not have agreed with this assessment; some, like Johnson or Coleridge, considered the quarrel and reconciliation scene in 4.2-3 (some texts only have a 4.2, but the Riverside Shakespeare, following the tradition since Pope breaks 4.2 into 4.2 and 4.3) to be among the noblest literary expressions in Shakespeare. I don't share that assessment, perhaps because I don't share the same lofty evaluation of Brutus that was the hallmark of much earlier scholarship. This being said, Act IV has many memorable thoughts, and it moves the action toward the inevitable final conflict at Philippi.
4.1 Antony, Octavian and Lepidus. These three men constituted the Second Triumvirate, which was not actually formed until 43 B.C., more than a year after Caesar's assassination. By having them appear together immediately after Caesar's funeral with the assumption that they are already the triumvirs (Antony asks, of Lepidus, "is it fit,/ The threefold world divided, he should stand/ One of the three to share it?"--4.1.13-15), Shakespeare is compressing time and thus making the flow of action more vivid.
The reader gets three impressions after reading 4.1. First is the ruthlessness of Antony. We are prepared for this to an extent after his funeral speech of 3.2, but the shocking nature of his words in 4.1 tells us that crass political machinations have replaced nobility of expression as the order of the day. Second is the moderate tone of Octavian. He speaks fewer than 30 lines in the play, but we receive the impression that this young man--only 20 at the time--, who is the future Caesar Augustus, will be a formidable man in his maturity. Third is the real possibility of a future conflict between these two. We are prepared for this because of their different assessments of the value of Lepidus. Indeed, such a conflict eventually breaks out, and Shakespeare tells that fascinating story in Antony and Cleopatra.
4.2 This fifty-line scene prepares the way for the quarrel and reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius in 4.3. It hints that the relationship between the two has cooled (4.2.19), and then it sets the scene for conflict by having Cassius greet Brutus with the confrontational, "Most noble brother, you have done me wrong (4.2.37)." Brutus's immediate self-righteous reaction-- "Judge me, you gods! wrong I mine enemies?/ And if not so, how should I wrong a brother (4.2.38-39)?" -- assures that the quarrel will be intense.
4.3 Brutus and Cassius squabble and reconcile. Accusations fly fast and furious. Cassius is hurt because Brutus branded a favorite of Cassius, Lucius Pella, with disgrace because he gave money extorted from underlings to Cassius to maintain his control over Sardis. Cassius is a political realist; he recognizes that you take money from subjugated people to support yourself. Brutus will have none of it. Their action against Caesar was for "justice' sake" (4.3.19), and they must not cast justice aside so quickly. Brutus's own hypocrisy is exposed within fifty lines, however, when he complains that Cassius has not supplied him with money for troop supplies, money that would have been obtained through the aformentioned tribute payments of Pella. Brutus can raise no money "from vile means," but he is upset at Cassius because the latter did not send Brutus "certain sums of gold" which the latter requested (4.3.69-72).
After nearly coming to blows, Brutus mentions that he has learned of Portia's death by suicide (4.3.147-157). Cassius is mortified at his conduct towards Brutus and wonders how he "scap'd" being killed by Brutus "when I cross'd you so (4.3.150)." After an interlude, an apparently contradictory passage follows which seems to suggest that Brutus learns about Portia's death for the first time. Most scholars suggest that Shakespeare has imperfectly edited his text at this point; in any case, it makes difficult reading for those who want to maintain the "integrity" of the text at this point.
Reconciliation follows, but then by the end of the scene Brutus is up to his old tricks, asserting authority over Cassius and exercising what will ultimately be poor judgment regarding troop deployment at Philippi (4.3.195-230). The scene closes with a touchingly intimate conversation between Brutus and his servant, and a premonitory appearance of the ghost of Caesar (4.3.280ff.) saying that they shall meet at Philippi.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long