literary criticism, "The Characterization of Cassius in "Julius Caesar", March 1980
|The Characterization of Cassius in "Julius Caesar"
In the play "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare characterizes Cassius as the only man in Rome who has fully developed both his intellect and his emotions. Because of this balance, Cassius values love, friendship, and freedom from bondage more strongly than the other men in the play, who are caught in Rome's superficial world of appearances and the empty values founded on appearances. The other characters in "Julius Caesar" are crippled by the self-mutilation necessary to maintain values based on their public images; but Cassius lives beyond his image; yet with an awareness of the functions of both his own and other men's appearances that is necessary for him to exist in Rome's world. Cassius dies a private man. His death is his ultimate freedom from bondage, and it is perhaps inevitable considering his lifelong propensity for self-destructiveness. Cassius' true victory is his ability to stand as a complete man in a society of poseurs and reach through the facades of others to touch their cores.
Cassius' intellectual perceptions are clearly shown as he goes about organizing the conspiracy. Before he tells someone his plans, Cassius must be sure that the person will join with him and not inform anyone who could interfere with the conspiracy. Cassius is, as Caesar notes, "a great observer" who "looks / Quite through the deeds of men."(I,ii,202-203) These observational skills are put to use as he tests his ground with those people whom he wants to be part of the conspiracy; for example, Brutus and Casca, who are both added during the course of the play.
When Cassius first aproached Brutus about the conspiracy, he must determine, without revealing anything, whether Brutus loves Caesar enough to want him in power, for Brutus is a favorite of Caesar. His opening comment, "Brutus, I do observe you now of late; / I have not from your eyes that gentleness / And show of love as I was wont to have"(I,ii,32-34) encourages Brutus to elaborate on the reasons for his altered behavior by concluding that the behavior denotes displeasure with Cassius. To deny this, Brutus must give an alternative reason for his behavior, and even in his guarded response lie clues to his feeling about Caesar: "Vexe'd I am / Of late with passions of some difference." (I,ii,39-40) This point is underlined later in the same passage when Brutus refers to himself as "poor Brutus, with himself at war."(I,ii,46) It is only after this passage, when Cassius is sure that Brutus is not thoroughly contented with Caesar's position, that Cassius begins to cautiously ease his way into his plan with a very formalized speech.
As the first general shout goes up from the crowd, Brutus reveals more about his feelings by saying, "I do fear the people / Choose Caesar for their king."(I,ii79-80) Cassius again prompts Brutus to disclose more of his thoughts by observing, "Ay, do you fear it? / Then I must I think you would not have it so."(I,ii,80-81)
Brutus' next passage reveals to Cassius everything he needs to know about swaying Brutus to join the conspiracy:
I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honor in one eye and death i' th' other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honor more that I fear death. (I,ii,82-89)
Brutus' inner battle is explicitly revealed to be a conflict between Brutus' love for Caesar and his distaste for the idea of Caesar as supreme power. He gives Cassius the means to convince him of the evil of Caesar's absolute power by mentioning his concern for "the general good." And Brutus also gives Cassius another tool to work with when mentions the importance of honor in his life. That Cassius fully understands the importance of what Brutus has disclosed is shown by the way he artfully contrives to selectively reflect those aspiects of Caesar that Brutus is most inclined to find fault with.
When Cassius decides to have notes thrown into Brutus' window, he incorporates all of the things that Brutus reveals about himself into them. His plan is:
I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely
Caesar's ambition shall be glance'd at. (I,ii,312-317)
By having the writings seem as though they come "from several citizens," Cassius has contrived to make Brutus believe that the public opinion is against Caesar and wants Brutus to do something about his excessive power; in other words, that opposing Caesar would be acting for "the general good." Brutus' honor will be flattered by "Writings, all tending to the great opinion / That Rome holds of his name," which will encourage him that his honor will be served by acting for "the general good." And Caesar's ambition, which Brutus has already stated that he fears, will be "obscurely" mentioned. Cassius' understanding of Brutus is most dramatically revealed in the actual note that is sent. The obscurity of the part glancing at Caesar's ambition forces Brutus to use his own fears to interpret it. The troublesome fragment is, "Shall Rome, &c."(II,i,47) Cassius' intelligence and observations of Brutus are painfully acute, since they lead him to realize how strongly a totally open-ended fragment would capture Brutus' imagination. Brutus' reaction to the fragment is, "Thus must I piece it out: / Shall Rome stand under one man's awe?"(II,i,51-52) Cassius' perceptions are shown to be even more powerful by this reiteration of the view of Caesar that was implanted in Brutus' mind by Cassius earlier in the play; that is, "When could they say (till now) that talked of Rome / That her wide walks encompassed but one man?"(I,ii,154-155)
Casca is an easier mark for Cassius' recruitment because he makes his dislike of Caesar plainly known. When Casca describes what the general shouts were for, he mentions that at one point in the "foolery" Caesar tore open his doublet and offered the crowd "his throat to cut."(I,ii,263) Casca's response to this gesture is, "An' I had been a man of any occupation, if I would not have taken him at a word I would I might go to hell among the rogues."(I,ii,264-266) Cassius does not need to be cautious when he approaches Casca about the conspiracy, so he concentrates his efforts on keeping Casca's emotions fanned against Caesar. Cassius may not need his probing intellect to realize that Casca will join the conspiracy, but he still uses it to stir Casca's disgust with Caesar and intensify his commitment to the conspiracy.
Another measure of Cassiu' intellect is the accuracy with which he predicts the outcomes of actions. Cassius' voice of reason foreshadows all of the major events in the play. His love for Brutus, however, prevents him from insisting on his own plan of action for the decisions of consequence in the play.
Each time Cassius and Brutus differ in their opinions about what course of action to take on an issue, Cassius' judgement is the sound one; yet he gives in to Brutus' faulty reasoning and allws fatal blunders to be made. When Cassius proposes that the conspirators swear an oath of secrecy, Brutus objects because he believes that it would "stain / The even virtue of our enterprise."(II,i,132-135) The oath is not taken, and somehow Popilius Lena finds out about the conspiracy, although, fortunately for the conspirators; he approves of their enterprise. Cassius also suggests that Cicero be added to the conspiracy, but Brutus rejects the idea. Cassius has shown that he's been observing Cicero by discreetly taking note of him on several occasions earlier in the play. Eventually, Cicero is one of the men whom Antony has executed in his purge of Rome, which shows that Cassius' opinion that he would "stand very strong with us"(II,i,142) was well-founded.
Brutus' major blunders of gravest consequence are his underestimation of Antony and his decision to fight at Philippi. Cassius does not think it meet that "Mark Antony, so well beloved of Casesar, Should outlive Caesar."(II,i,155-157) He realizes that the conspirators "shall find of him / A shrewd contriver," and that "his means../. may well stretch so far / as to annoy us all."(II,i,157-160) Brutus again has his way, and Antony is untouched. When Brutus takes this a step farther and permits Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral, Cassius again predicts the consequences with his impassioned warnings:
Brutus, a word with you.
[Aside to Brutus]
You know not what you do. Do not consent
That Antony speak in his funeral.
Know you how much the people may be moved
By that which he will utter? (III,i,231-235)
Even after all of the above-mentioned perceptions of Cassius prove to be true, Brutus insists upon fighting at Philippi instead of following Cassius' advice that:
'Tis better that the enemy seek us.
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offense, whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness. (IV,iii,199-202)
The response of the enemy to Brutus' decision emphasises the soundness of Cassius' plan; Octavius' response to his realization that the battle will be at Philippi is, "Now, Antony, our hopes are answered."(V,i,1) Cassius consistently proves to have unmatchable intellectual perception.
Although Cassius has the most acute mind in Julius Caesar, he is motivated by his emotions. By giving in to Brutus on every issue on which they disagree, Cassius shows that Brutus' love is more important to him than the consequences of faulty actions. Cassius' need for love is clearly shown during Act IV, Scene iii; when his argument with Brutus provokes an onslaught of abuse. Cassius' response is: "Brutus hath rived my heart. A friend should bear his friend's infirmities, / But Brutus makes mine greater than they are."(IV,iii,85-87) Cassius remains distraught even after Brutus begins to calm down, and he asks for constant reassurance of Brutus' love: "Have you not love enough to bear with me / When that rash humor which my mother gave me / Makes me forgetful?"(IV,iii,119-121) The intensity with which this argument affects Cassius is shown by his passionate parting remark to Brutus:
O my dear brother,
This was an ill beginning of the night!
Never come such division 'tween our souls!
Let it not, Brutus. (IV,iii,233-236)
Cassius also shows the enormous value of love to him in his reactions to Portia's death. He exclaims when Brutus tells him the news, "How 'scaped I killing when I crossed you so? / O insupportable and touching loss! / Upon what sickness?"(IV,iii,150-152) He reacts more strongly to the news than Brutus does, which shows the importance of love as a value to Cassius. He also does not recover quickly from the shock, for when Brutus tries to change the subject Cassius still broods, "Portia, art thou gone?"(IV,iii,166) Cassius' high esteem of friendship, aside from his friendship with Brutus, also appears when he believes that his friend Titinius has been taken by the enemy. He cries, "O coward that I am to live so long / To see my best friend ta'en before my face!"(V,iii,34-35) Love and friendship are powerful bonds for Cassius.
The emotional spectrum is thoroughtly covered, for hate and rage grip Cassius with the strength of love. Hatred and frustration lead Cassius to use his intellectual prowess in a conspiracy against Caesar. Cassius is infuriated that "this man / Is now become a god, and Cassius is / a wretched creature and must bend his body / If Caesar carelessly but nod on him."(I,ii,115-118) However, these emotions are rationalized into another strong value of Cassius: freedom from bondage. Cassius comes to believe that Caesar is the source of his bondage, and that Rome will never be more than a supply of serfs for Caesar as long as he lives in supreme power. Cassius is determined that, "Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius."(I,iii,90) Cassius believes that killing Caesar will free him from subservience.
However, after Caesar's death, Cassius discovers that his bondage remains, for Rome is a willing bondsman and breeds its own captors. Cassius has realized before Caesar's death that, "What trash is Rome, / What rubbish and what offal," but he believes this is because "it serves / For the base matter to illuminate / So vile a thing as Caesar!"(I,iii,108-111) When Caesar is dead, Cassius realizes that he could have left it at the first part of that exclamation, for the people merely replace Caesar with Antony and Octavius. There is no freedom in Rome.
The end of his deliverance from bondage comes for Cassius when he decides that "Cassius is aweary of the world."(IV,iii,95) Cassius' self-destructive nature has shown throughout the play through his quick-tempered personality ('rash humor"(IV,ii,120)), his willingness to allow Brutus to make life-endangering decisions, and his own flirtations with death. During the great storm, Cassius submits himself "unto the perilous night" to see if the gods favor his plan or not. (Since the gods didn't kill him, Cassius takes it as a sign that the gods favor the plot against Caesar, thus it is "A very pleasing night to honest men"(I,iii,43)). He tells Casca that "when the cross blue lightning seemed to open / The breast of heaven, I did present myself / Even in the aim and very flash of it."(I,iii,50-52) When Casca tells him "they say the senators to-morrow / Mean to establish Caesar as a king,."(I,iii,85-86) Cassius' response is: "I know where I will wear this dagger then../. life, being weary of these worldly bars, never lacks power to dismiss itself."(I,iii,89-97) His reaction to Popilius Lena's finding out about the conspiracy is: "If this be known, / Cassius or Caesar never shall turn back, / For I will slay myself."(III,i,20-22) And he tells Brutus to kill him when he feels hurt, abused, and alone during their argumnet. Cassius' thoughts are easily turned toward suicide, and it is therefore not surprising that on his birhday, before a battle he believes he'll lose, after he has seen the people of value in Rome begin to be killed off (both Portia's and Cicero's deaths deeply affect him) Cassius decides that he is weary enough of the world to welcome freedom from it.
The critical point about Cassius' death that proves it is a private decision and not one made by public concerns (as honor dictates Brutus' death), is that Cassius decides:
This day I breathed first. Time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end.
My life is run his compass (V,iii,23-25)
before he finds out what Pindarus sees and is led to believe that Titinius has been taken by the enemy. Cassius has already decided that he has reached a good point to die by the time he knows the external conditions.
The effect of Cassius' death on his intimates reinforces the personal value of Cassius in the play. Pindarus, who is forced to kill Cassius by his oath and has been freed by Cassius, says:
So, I am free; yet would not so have been,
Durst I have done my will. O Cassius!
Far from this country Pindarus shall run,
Where never Roman shall take note of him. (V,iii,47-50)
Pindarus grieves Cassius' death, and he has aquired from close association with Cassius the idea that there is no freedom in Rome, so now that he is a free man, he will never go back to Rome. This is quite a contrast with Strato's reaction to Brutus' death; for Strato, after seeing to it that Brutus' honor is preserved by his suicide, has no qualms about joining Octavius.
Titinius, who was not taken by the enemy after all, returns to find Cassius dead, and is completely overwhelmed by passionate grief. He crowns the dead body with the victory wreath Brutus sent for him, and shows how highly he regarded Cassius by killing himself with Cassius' sword--Cassius really has rived Titinius' heart with his death. No one believes at Cassius' death that "So [he] shall be found,"(V,v,58) which is what Brutus' friend Lucilius says of his death. Cassius' death is a personal loss to those who knew him, and no talk of honor will comfort them.
Cassius is the only character in "Julius Caesar" who transcends the superficiality of Roman life and is able to touch the lives of others. He is not an "honorable man;" yet he is a human being; and as such, he inspires real love and loyalty in his friends. Appropriately, Cassius' dead body was not returned to Rome's bondage but was buried on Thasos. His integrity makes him uniquely valuable in "Julius Caesar."
Shakespeare, William, "Julius Caesar," edited by S.F. Johnson (Pelican Shakespeare Series, New York) 1960. (paperback edition)