Why, in this line, is it will instead of shall? “The will, the will! We shall hear Caesar’s will.” Read the line naturally and this second version sounds better – the auxiliary verb shall gives way for the main verb hear to be emphasized:
“The will, the will! We shall hear Caesar’s will.”
However, read it in strict iambic pentameter and it is the four wills in this line that receive the strong beat:
“The will, the will! We will hear Cae-sar’s will.”
This over emphasis of will becomes further justified a few lines later.
Despite their chanting, the people are so incensed (or so devoid of independent thought) that they have so quickly forgotten about the will in favour of revenge. As soon as Antony reminds them, they return to their refrain:
At this point, Antony tells them of the will: granting every man 75 drachmas as well as public access to all of Caesar’s private land. And the people are in love with Caesar. It is important to note that Antony tells the Plebians about the will: there are no stage directions indicating that he breaks open the seal of the will, a direct contradiction from the source of the play – Plutarch’s Lives – in which it is indicated that the will is opened. I saw a production recently in which Antony ripped up the will after the Plebians left. Again, there is nothing in the text to support this move but it is a good interpretation. It is possible that in this version of the story Antony invented the will (for Plutarch does not go into the same detail as Shakespeare when it comes to the contents), which further adds to the levels of manipulation throughout this play. What it shows us, this dissected microcosm, is that Caesar’s Will (as either read or interpreted by Antony) is all powerful, whereas the Plebians, the powerless, can shout and chant will as much as they want, but clearly they have none.
If I am focusing too much on a potentially insignificant word choice on Shakespeare’s part, it is because he primed me to do so an act earlier, with this exchange, the Roman equivalent of Marty McFly’s weakness.
The reason Caesar does not will to go to the Senate is because of a dream Calpurnia had that night, which he does eventually tell Decius Brutus. But, for the public (here the Senate) he stresses that his will is enough, that will is final, and openly rejects the word cannot in favour of will not. Cannot implies a lack of power: will not the opposite. Caesar is not bound by Calpurnia’s supernatural dreams, nor is he bound by a Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March. (I.ii)
Caesar is bound only by Caesar’s will – his free will.
And so we come to the gates of this play, that grand idea that power (which our key players are vying for) is intrinsically connected to free will, a concept that we may not make much of in the 21st century, but in Early Modern Europe power and governance was understood as a divine right.
Still, even in the world of Republican Rome, the notion of free will in this play is ironic, given that this play is rooted in history, and Caesar, Brutus, Cassius &c. are all bound by events long past.
When dealing with history, Shakespeare often delivers a nod and a wink (say no more, say no more!) to the audience. We see in Richard III with allusions to the prosperous Tudor dynasty: in Macbeth with the appearance of King James I in the witches’ prophecy; and in Julius Caesar when, after the conspirators kill Caesar, Cassius, in an out of character moment, muses:
How many ages hence
The final resignation that all decisions made led to this inevitable conclusion. The Soothsayer prophesized it, Brutus was resigned to it, Cassius and Caesar both fought against fate – the first half of Julius Caesar is a contest of free will against inevitability.
The opening of the play establishes our theme. Flavius and Martius, Tribunes of the Plebs, encounter a group of commoners:
In three ways does Flavius reduce the humanity of these men. First, by restricting their movement. Second, by calling them mechanicals (which even then had a robotic ring to it.) Third, by insisting that they be branded with their profession. Still, even in this situation where the rules of Rome keep them bound (which is why they are going to see Caesar, whom they believe will break these binds) the exchange is overtaken by the Second Commoner, who plays the small part of the Fool, otherwise absent from this play.
After the Tribunes wrestle back control of the scene, and send the people off, they reveal their cause for hating Caesar:
Unlike the Commoners who believe that Caesar brings liberty, Flavius expresses that, unchecked, Caesar will enslave them all. A sentiment echoed in the next scene by Cassius and Brutus.
Cassius is a self-proclaimed Epicurean, at least until he changes his views in Act V:
Here Cassius establishes Epicureanism as a sort of empiricism: believing in what you can perceive, but also relying on your own abilities. This is certainly his philosophy at the start of the play.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
There is no divine right that made Caesar who he is. There is nothing in birth that separates the petty Brutus and Cassius from the colossal Caesar. Cassius illustrates this through a story about he and Caesar jumping into the river and Caesar nearly drowning had not Cassius, the better swimmer, saved him. In his Epicurean world, Cassius is just as good – probably better – than Caesar. As is Brutus. And being an Epicurean, Cassius does not blame his stars but himself that he is in this present position. He had the freedom to make himself as great as Caesar, but he did not. So now, he has the freedom to rid himself of Caesar in order to claim his perceived rightful place. Which he does. But what happens when Cassius topples Caesar? In short, despite his thoughts on freedom, Cassius is fated to the role of underling.
Two years after Caesar’s death, as Cassius and Brutus prepare their armies to face off against the forces of Octavian and Antony, Cassius storms into Brutus’ tent. In private, he vaunts:
Cassius here returns to his swimming story from Act I, stating that he is older and more able than Brutus, and therefore a better man and should be treated better than he is. But Brutus dismisses him. On paper, Brutus’ meaning is clear:
“You are not, Cassius” – meaning Cassius is not abler than Brutus.
But spoken, if the comma is not treated properly, the line reads: “Go to, you are not Cassius.” You are not yourself. You (in this state) are not the valiant Cassius who ought to be better than Caesar.
Here he brings back Cassius’ image of the Colossal Caesar, under whose huge legs Brutus and Cassius peep about. But here Brutus knocks Cassius down: he is not the able soldier, but the large, vaunting madman.
Failing to gain the high ground in his battle of words against the Stoic Brutus, Cassius is determined to exert his authority. He does so by drawing his dagger, handing it to Brutus, and urging Brutus to kill him as he slew Caesar. But still, Brutus disarms him:
There is the will again. Brutus informs Cassius that he has the power to be angry, the power to do what he wants – but in the end his angry efforts are a quick spark that amounts to nothing. Cassius does not have the will to live and he does not have the power to die. Yet.
I have to pause here to mention the act of presenting someone with a dagger and urging that person to stab him. In reading Caesar, particularly if spaced out, it is hard to notice how often Shakespeare uses this trick. I counted six separate times that this happens.
First, in Act I, scene ii, Casca relates the events that happened during the race. Caesar, after refusing the crown, offered the people the chance to cut his throat in order to earn the people’s pity.
Following Caesar’s death, as Antony confronts the conspirators, he urges them to kill him (in order to gain their trust and “show” his meekness.)
During Caesar’s funeral, Brutus urges the people to kill him for killing Caesar, to which their response is “live Brutus!”
Here, Cassius in a desperate claim to power asks Brutus to kill him.
And finally, in defeat, Cassius and Brutus separately asks the other person on stage to kill them (which they do.) It is noteworthy, that while the first four acts were done with no expectation of follow through, during the last two, Cassius and Brutus did not have the will to kill themselves, but had to have someone else do it for them. This reminds me of Juliet who, in Romeo and Juliet, proclaims:
If all else fail, myself have power to die (III.v)
And indeed follows through with this shortly after, not asking the Friar to kill her, not waiting for the guards to arrive, but taking the dagger and plunging it into herself – according to her will.
One final note on this tangent. Shakespeare returns to this trick one more time in the sort-of-sequel to this play, Antony and Cleopatra, in which Antony, believing his love to be dead, asks his servant Eros (personification of Love) to kill him, resulting in one of my favourite Shakespeare deaths (but that’s for another time.)
Let us close off the will of this play by turning to the tragic hero, deprived of a title. For if custom wasn’t what it was, this play would be called The Tragedy of Brutus. Brutus, the one with the tragic flaw. Brutus is granted the all-important final death.
In my sometimes misguided efforts to over analyze a character’s first line, I turn to Brutus’ first:
Two interesting ideas come to mind when I consider this line. Brutus is here reporting a fact – we all saw or read it – a soothsayer did bid Caesar to beware the Ides of March. There is no judgement or editorializing – just a repeat of what we already know. Still, the contents of this line – given to Brutus instead of the louder Casca or Cassius - is prophecy. Brutus is repeating the words that prophesize the date when Brutus will kill Caesar – dramatic irony! An act later, Brutus asks his servant what day it is and when he learns that this day is the Ides of March, his only response is
Tis good. (II.i)
Brutus cares enough to know whether it is the Ides of March – thus he has not forgotten the soothsayer – but he does not act on the information once he receives it. The true Stoic, which here I define as taking the moment in and responding to it through logic and not being ruled by emotions. Yes, Brutus is Spock.
Back in Brutus’ first scene, Shakespeare establishes him as the just man.
What is it that you would impart to me?
A few lines later, Cassius presents Brutus as the fated hero:
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
A sentiment which Brutus internalizes in Act II, scene i.
Shall Rome stand under one man's awe? What, Rome?
The event that both Cassius and Brutus are here referring to is the deeds of Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Brutus, who “drove” the last king of Rome from the streets – although when Shakespeare says “drive” he means execute. The historian Livy refers to an oath that Brutus made the people swear after the king was executed:
Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.
First of all, given their new liberties, they would not allow entreaties or bribes from a king. Romans would not suffer a king.
Even if Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with Livy, he was familiar with Plutarch (as evidenced by this play) and Plutarch references this same oath. Thus, when Cassius and Brutus summon the spirit of the elder Brutus, they are conjuring the memory of the oath. By referring to the oath in the midst of his ramblings on why Caesar must die, Brutus removes free will from the act. Logically, Brutus is bound by an oath that says there cannot be a king in Rome. Caesar unchecked will be a king in Rome. Therefore, Caesar must die.
There is no desire on Brutus’ part to kill Caesar, in contrast to Cassius who is ruled by nothing but desire. Brutus laments:
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
Alas, poor Brutus, believes that he is killing Caesar simply to fulfill that oath, to protect the Republic. This is not the case.
In Act I, scene ii, Cassius says:
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Cassius does not wish Brutus to help topple Caesar, but replace him – a tyrannous king for a philosopher king because, despite his want for freedom, Cassius can imagine no world but one in which there is a one ruler. The Plebians echo this sentiment after Brutus’ eulogy.
Like Cassius, the citizens cannot live in a world in which they are not governed. But Brutus, we learn, is not a great ruler.
One of his first acts after he is released from his oath – after the potential king is dead – is to allow Marc Antony to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He allows this because the people will be so in love with Brutus and his rationality for killing Caesar, and his honourability, that Antony cannot sway them elsewise. Furthermore, he insists that Antony ties his speech to the conspirators – stresses that Antony is making this speech by leave of Brutus and the rest – and therefore, any accolades heaped on Antony will go to the conspirators as well. Cassius warns Brutus about this choice, saying that it is a bad idea to let Antony speak, but Brutus dismisses him. And, because Brutus was set up as the de facto king, his will is done and Antony can speak and, through masterful rhetoric, tears Brutus’ logic to shreds.
I think it is worthwhile to compare Brutus and Antony’s eulogies as Cassius compared Brutus and Caesar’s names – side by side.
Look at them and Antony’s looks cleaner. Speak them, and Antony’s flows with poetic rhythm while Brutus’ trips over itself. Sure, Brutus has some command of rhetoric – the ending is pretty good – but it is logic. It is philosophical and theoretical. Antony’s speech is human – it references his feelings and it references specific events which the general population were either aware of or witness to. There is a reason why Antony’s eulogy is often used in auditions (it was my go to piece for a long time) and Brutus’ – not so much.
In short, Brutus’ ordered world may work for him, but falls short when he seeks to impose his will, his philosophy, his optimism for a better world, on people who are fated to be underlings, fated to be ruled, fated to be swayed by emotion and passion.
After the people turn against them, we learn that Brutus and Cassius have fled from Rome. They have an army and are preparing to meet Antony and Octavian’s forces, but we get no sense of the purpose for this part of the play. What is Brutus fighting for? Whatever it is, it is not as clear as his motives in the first half. Even the death of his wife, Portia, rings hollow, His alliance with Cassius is threatened, his wife is dead, and we can only imagine the distant voice of Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Brutus needs the ghost of Caesar – the deus ex machina – to push him to his next destination, Phillippi, Brutus’ Trenzalore – the place where he is fated to die. And how does he die? As mentioned, by having his servant help kill him. And what are the Stoic's grand last words?
Caesar, now be still:
Hey, look! Brutus found his will!
Take a pivotal moment in history, one that nearly every person watching Julius Caesar in 1599 would be familiar with, and throw it on stage. What is the end? They did not, and we do not, watch or read this play for the great plot twists. We look at for its rhetoric and its humanity. Whether Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, or Cinna the Poet – all are trying to exist in this pre-Christian, Roman world. One not ruled by divine order but by the chaos of man – where ambition (as Brutus and Antony allude to in their eulogies) is the greatest enemy. Where men try to rise to the top and in doing so, inherently enslave others. Where a man is defined by his will. Caesar flaunted it, Cassius strove to possess it, and Brutus fled from it as best as he could – and in the end, as history shows us, only Octavian, possessing the best parts of all three, was able to rise to the top.
And in the end, what became of Shakespeare's version of Julius Caesar? He transformed from the colossus to the senile Polonius, musing on better days.