Early in the play, Brutus and Cassius and left alone by Caesar and his followers. Long time companions of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius discuss their fears around Julius Caesar becoming Emperor, which would overthrow the republic of Rome. Cassius seizes this opportunity to point out Brutus’ own legitimacy for the leadership of Rome.
Language & Thought Breakdown
The first thing I noticed from this speech is the imagery. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”. What an extraordinary image for the opening line!
As we move through the speech, Cassius employs the use of rhetorical questions and repetition. These are the techniques of a skilled orator with a point to make. Julius Caesar is packed full of wonderful orators and Cassius is not spared here. Perhaps this monologue isn’t as well known as “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” but his ability to use image filled language and rhetoric in his argument makes Cassius a very intelligent and worthy speaker.
In Shakespeare, when there is an extra beat in the iambic rhythm of a line, it is sometimes referred to as a ‘feminine ending’. It can indicate numerous things including that the thought or idea being expressed is distressful in some way. It could also be a direction by Shakespeare to linger on the thought slightly longer as there is a strong point in the argument being made. It may be of interest to note that the first time Cassius mentions the name ‘Caesar’ is the first example of a feminine ending in the monologue. Perhaps even saying the name ‘Caesar’ is distasteful for Cassius, forcing him to linger on the thought slightly longer?
Let’s take a closer look at the language and break it down into thought and beat changes. I’ve broken it down in this way to look for clues about how to perform the speech. I find it helpful in gaining clarity on the characters thoughts and in seeking out clues about the stakes of the scene and how the character is feeling emotionally.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, / and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves. /
Men at some time are masters of their fates: /
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. /
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’? / (F)
Why should that name be sounded more than yours? /
Write them together, yours is as fair a name; / (F)
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well; /
Weigh them, it is as heavy; / conjure with ‘em, / (F)
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar. / (F)
Now, in the names of all the gods at once, /
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, /
That he is grown so great? / Age, thou art shamed! /
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! /
When went there by an age, since the great flood, /
But it was famed with more than with one man? /
When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome, /
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man? /
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough, /
When there is in it but one only man. /
O, you and I have heard our fathers say, /
There was a Brutus once that would have brook’d /
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome /
As easily as a king. /
Why, man, straddles the entire earth,
Like a giant, and we insignificant men,
Walk beneath him, looking around
Only to find our cheap graves.
Sometimes men can change their fate:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our destiny
But in ourselves because we are weak.
Brutus and Caesar. What is it about ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be spoken more than yours?
Write them next to each other, yours is an equal name,
Speak them, it sounds as good coming out of the mouth,
Weigh them, it’s just as heavy; Invoke spirits with them,
Brutus will raise a ghost as well as Caesar.
By all the gods,
What meat does our Caesar eat,
That has made him become so great? Shame on our time!
Rome has lost the ability to produce noble people.
When was there a time, since the great flood,
When there was only one famous man?
When could they say, until now
That there was only one famous person in Rome?
Yet, now indeed, Rome has only enough room in it,
For only one man.
You and I have both heard our fathers say,
Your ancestor, Brutus endure
the devil to rule in Rome before allowing
A king to rule.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Colossus: A giant statue of the sun god Apollo in Rhodes, ancient Greece. One of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Said to have stood astride the entrance to the harbour.
Our stars: In other words, our fate.
Conjure: To invoke or call on spirits.
Start: Raise or wake.
Breed: The bloodline. In other words, the ability to produce noble bloodlines.
The great flood: Refers to the biblical flood in the old testament of the Bible or a flood of ancient Greek mythology where Zeus drowned mankind.
“There was a Brutus once”: Brutus’ ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus who founded the Roman Republic.
This speech, despite being lesser known than Cassius’ former that begins “I know that virtue to be in you Brutus” is one I believe to be equally important. It is the continuation of an argument that Cassius is making in support of Brutus’ legitimacy, both politically and personally, to overthrow Caesar and become leader in Rome.
In Shakespeare, tragedy often comes from personal relationships that play out in the public domain on a large scale. I feel that this is the case between Cassius and his relationship with Caesar. There is a bitterness to this speech evident in lines such as “Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed that he is become so great”?
I get the impression that Cassius feels denied in some way. A friend of Caesar, who was at his bedside while he was sick, who saved Caesar from drowning, feels left behind and forgotten while “this man (Caesar) is now become a god”. And perhaps Cassius’ fears about Caesar becoming Emperor are well founded. Dictatorships, historically, are an awful method of governance. So find the urgency and motivation for this speech in the truth of what Cassius is saying.
In action, when there are numerous rhetorical questions, my advice is always to play them for real. Really ask the question and expect a response. When the response doesn’t come, that’s when the character is forced to either answer the question themselves or change tact.
Cassius states that men are, at times, able to be masters of their own destiny. To me, this speech boils down to power and how Cassius can attain it. Cassius knows Brutus to be beloved by the people as he is honourable. Understanding this, Cassius knows his way into power may not be directly through himself but cunningly by convincing Brutus to seize upon power and take him along for the ride.
To finish the speech with the sentiment that “your ancestor, another great Brutus, would let the devil rule in Rome before he would allow a Caesar to rule” is a very strong argument. A master persuasion, Cassius makes an impassioned case, ultimately one to which Brutus ultimately succumbs.