Explanatory Notes for Act 5, Scene 1
From Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Historically, there were two battles at Philippi, separated by an interval of two weeks. It is the earlier of these battles that the
poet adopts as the ground-work of his representation, though the death of Brutus took place immediately after the second. Such
changes of time are common in Shakespeare, as in all historical drama and historical romance.
The brief but sharp disagreement between Octavius and Antony (17-20) is not in Plutarch, who, however, does speak of a disagreement between Brutus and Cassius on the same question as to which one should take command of the right wing, or the position of honor. Cassius, the older man, yields to Brutus in
this matter, as we have seen him do whenever difference of opinion arose between them. This grudging acquiescence of Antony in the leadership of young Octavius the poet invents as a foil to set off the ready and willing deference paid by Cassius to Brutus. We are not told in the play that Brutus went into the battle in
command of the right of his army; but as we learn from V, 3, 51-53, that Brutus' wing confronted that of Octavius, and have
seen that Octavius has insisted on having the command of his own right, we must infer that the poet, if he thought the matter
out, gave to Brutus the subordinate position on the left, choosing herein to differ from his authority.
Plutarch tells us: "Brutus prayed Cassius he might have the leading of the right wing, the
which men thought was farre meeter for Cassius: both because he was the elder man, and also for that he had the better experience. But yet Cassius gave it to him," etc. In his life of Antony, Plutarch says: "When they had passed over the seas, and that
they began to make warre, they being both camped by their
enemies, to wit, Antonius against Cassius, and Caesar against
Brutus: Caesar did no great matter, but Antonius had alway the
upper hand, and did all." It is interesting to consider why Shakespeare, who in so many things follows Plutarch exactly,
prefers not to follow him in this.
Several days have elapsed since the previous scene in Brutus' tent near Sardis. It is the autumn of B.C. 42, and the day has
come that "must end that work the ides of March begun." For Philippi, see note on IV, 3, 168.
1. our hopes are answered: our wishes are granted.
3. regions. Pronounced in three syllables, re-gi-ons like
"sol-di-er" in IV, i, 28.
4. battles: battle array, battalions.
5. warn: summon, challenge to fight.
7. I am in their bosoms: I know their real motives; I see into
their hearts. We speak of a bosom friend, and a bosom sin, with
much the same significance.
8. they could be content: they would be glad, or would prefer.
10. With fearful bravery: with bravado, or a show of bravery,
that is full of fear, and in reality, cowardly. "With timorous,
faint-hearted show of bravery." this face: this appearance,
this show, this outward effect, -- as we speak of "putting on a
bold face," and "facing it out."
14. Their bloody sign of battle. According to Plutarch, "the
Signall of Battell . . . was an arming Scarlet Coat."
15. something to be done: something should be done.
16. lead your battle softly on: lead your forces slowly on.
19. exigent: exigency, critical moment.
20. I will do so. That is, I will do as I have said, -- lead the
right wing. This gives us a glimpse of the true character of
Octavius, who, as history tells us, always stood firm against
Antony. Even here, when but a youth of twenty-one, he shows
the stuff that later made him the great Emperor Augustus.
24. answer on their charge: await their attack; let them begin the battle.
25. Make forth: "step forward" (Craik).
33. The posture of your blows: The place where your blows
are to fall; or possibly, "The nature of your blows."
34. the Hybla bees. Classical writers often speak of Hybla in
Sicily as a town famous for its honey. Cassius, of course, is
speaking tauntingly. Our expression "honeyed words" suggests
beguiling, flattering language, -- "smooth talk," -- and is not
41-44. Compare these lines with the scene in the Capitol
when Caesar was slain. Is it a faithful or an exaggerated
description of the assassination?
46. This tongue: that is, Antony's tongue. To what does
48. the cause: the real issue; "let's get down to business!"
49. The proof of it. That is, the proof of the matter about
which they are arguing, namely, the real fighting.
52. goes up again: is again put into its sheath.
53. three and thirty wounds. Plutarch gives the number of
wounds as twenty-three; but to change Shakespeare's statement
is to make arithmetic out of poetry. What is the difference, anyway?
54, 55. till another Caesar have added slaughter, etc. That
is, until my own death has added another Caesar to the list of
those murdered by the swords of traitors. "Either you or I
shall die," says Octavius.
59. thy strain: thy race, thy family.
60. honorable. We should say "honorably," but Shakespeare
frequently uses an adjective for an adverb.
61. peevish: foolish, silly. Remember that Octavius at this
time was only twenty-one, hence Cassius' taunting " schoolboy."
62. a masker and a reveller. Where did Brutus say of Antony,
"he is given to sports, to wildness and much company"?
66. stomachs: spirit, courage. "He which hath no stomach
to this fight, let him depart." ("Henry V," IV, 3, 35.)
68. all is on the hazard: all depends on the fortune of war.
71. as this very day. In this phrase "as" is redundant, or
unnecessary for the sense. So Shakespeare often has "when as"
where we should use merely "as."
74. As Pompey was. This is an allusion to the battle of
Pharsalia, B.C. 48, into which Pompey was forced, against his
own wishes, by younger and inexperienced officers. He was
easily defeated by Julius Caesar.
74, 75. to set upon one battle, etc.: to risk our independence
upon one battle; to stake everything on one fight.
77. I held Epicurus strong: I strongly believed in the teachings of Epicurus. The followers of this Greek philosopher believed that the gods were concerned but little with human affairs,
and that pleasure was the chief end of life. As an Epicurean,
Cassius would therefore not pay much attention to signs or omens.
79. presage: portend, foretell things to come.
80. our former ensign: our foremost banner.
83. consorted: accompanied.
85. kites. The kite is a small bird of prey of the falcon family.
Ravens and crows were generally regarded as birds of evil omen.
87. As we were sickly prey: as if we were weak and feeble
prey (for them to devour).
92. constantly: firmly. So in III, 1, 22, Brutus said, "Cassius, be constant."
93. Even so: just so, quite true. This refers, of course, to
something Lucilius has just said, which we have not heard.
95. The gods to-day stand friendly: May the gods be friendly to us today!
96. Lovers: friends, -- as in Brutus' address to the people,
"Romans, countrymen, and lovers!" and so often in Shakespeare.
97. Let's reason with the worst, etc. Let's confer together in
view of the possible ruin of our cause in the impending battle.
100. Even by the rule, etc. That is, I am determined to act
in accordance with that rule, or principle, by which I condemned
Cato for killing himself. Brutus then goes on to explain further
his feelings against suicide.
105, 106. so to prevent the time of life: to anticipate the
end of life by suicide.
107. stay: await.
111, 112. In these lines Brutus seems strangely inconsistent.
First he declares that he will not take his own life, -- that "he finds it cowardly and vile" to commit suicide, --and that he will await patiently the action of Providence. Then in the next breath, when Cassius asks him whether he will be "contented
to be led in triumph Thorough the streets of Rome," he very
decidedly implies that rather than be so degraded he will kill
himself. It has been suggested that the humiliation mentioned
by Cassius alters his purpose; but such a sudden and complete
change of mind, just after his strong words against suicide, seems
We must remember, however, that Shakespeare wrote his plays
to be acted on the stage, not studied intensively; and not one
person in a hundred at the theatre, then or today, would notice
this inconsistency. It is therefore a matter of little importance,
except as it shows us today the methods of composition which
the dramatist used.
How to cite the explanatory notes and scene questions:
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 26 Feb. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/julius_5_1.html >.
Scene Questions for Review
1. Comment upon the words of Octavius in line 20, in relation to his later control over Antony and the Roman Empire.
2. What is there in the wrangling parley of the four generals that pleased the audience in Shakespeare's time?
3. Contrast this verbal battle with the methods of modern warfare.
4. Can you explain why this wrangling scene is nearly always omitted on the stage today?
5. What do you think of the omens of which Cassius speaks? Compare these with other superstitions in the play.
6. How does Shakespeare suggest to us that Brutus and Cassius will be defeated in the approaching battle?
7. Which of the two generals seems to you the wiser military leader? Why?
8. What is there noble and moving in the parting scene between Brutus and Cassius? Quote any lines you particularly
Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below. (5.1.101-108)
Brutus' inconsistency seems to give us some insight regarding Shakespeare's train of thought. It is almost as if Shakespeare forsakes consistency to further the idea of Divine Providence, which he also does in Hamlet. Moral philosophy and the works of Montaigne were clearly on the dramatist's mind throughout this period. For much more on this topic, please see Shakespeare and Montaigne: Parallel Passages and An Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquy (3.1)