I could be well moved if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place. (III.i.58–65)
These lines come from Caesar’s speech in Act III, scene i, just before his assassination. The conspirators have come to Caesar in the Senate under the pretense of pleading for amnesty for Metellus’s banished brother, Publius Cimber. Caesar replies that he will adhere to his word and not change his earlier decision.
Comparing himself to the North Star, Caesar boasts of his constancy, his commitment to the law, and his refusal to waver under any persuasion. This comparison implies more than steadfastness, however: the North Star is the star by which sailors have navigated since ancient times, the star that guides them in their voyages, just as Caesar leads the Roman people. So, too, is the North Star unique in its fixedness; as the only star that never changes its position in the sky, it has “no fellow in the firmament.” Thus, Caesar also implies that he is peerless among Romans. Caesar declares that he alone remains “unassailable” among men, and his strictness in Publius Cimber’s case illustrates this virtue.
As it comes mere moments before the murder, the speech adds much irony to the scene: having just boasted that he is “unassailable,” Caesar is shortly assailed and killed. In announcing his “constancy,” Caesar claims permanency, immortality even. The assassins quickly prove Caesar mortal, however. But as the later events of the play reveal, Caesar’s influence and eternality are undeniable. His ghost seems to live on to avenge the murder: Brutus and Cassius directly attribute much of their misfortune to Caesar’s workings from beyond the grave; so, too, does the name “Caesar” undergo metamorphosis from an individual man’s name to the title of an institution—the empiric rule of Rome—by the end of the play. In these more important ways, Caesar’s lofty estimation of himself proves true.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
. . .
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.
. . .
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
. . .
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honourable man. (III.ii.82–96)
Antony speaks these lines in his funeral oration for Caesar in Act III, scene ii. He has asked Brutus’s permission to make the speech, and Brutus foolishly allows him the privilege, believing that the boost in image that he and the conspirators will receive for this act of apparent magnanimity will outweigh any damage that Antony’s words might do. Unfortunately for the conspirators, Antony’s speech is a rhetorical tour de force, undermining the conspirators even while it appears deferential to them. This clever strategy recalls the previous scene (III.i), in which Antony shook hands with each of the murderers in turn, thus smearing Caesar’s blood among all of them; while appearing to make a gesture of reconciliation, he silently marked them all as guilty. In both the handshake and the speech, Antony damns the murderers while appearing to pay respect, showing his consummate skill as a politician and rhetorician.
The speech draws much of its power from repetition. Each time Antony cites Brutus’s claim that Caesar was “ambitious,” the claim loses force and credibility. Similarly, each time Antony declares how “honourable” a man Brutus is, the phrase accrues an increasingly sarcastic tone until, by the end of the speech, its meaning has been completely inverted. The speech wins over the crowd and turns public opinion against the conspirators; when Antony reads Caesar’s will aloud a few moments later, the dead Caesar’s words join with Antony’s in rousing the masses against the injustice of the assassination.
[My horse] is a creature that I teach to fight,
To wind, to stop, to run directly on,
His corporal motion governed by my spirit;
And in some taste is Lepidus but so.
He must be taught, and trained, and bid go forth—
A barren-spirited fellow, one that feeds
On objects, arts, and imitations,
Which, out of use and staled by other men,
Begin his fashion. Do not talk of him
But as a property. (IV.i.31–40)
In this passage from Act IV, scene i, in which Antony and Octavius (with Lepidus, who has just left the room) are making plans to retake Rome, the audience gains insight into Antony’s cynicism regarding human nature: while he respects certain men, he considers Lepidus a mere tool, or “property,” whose value lies in what other men may do with him and not in his individual human dignity. Comparing Lepidus to his horse, Antony says that the general can be trained to fight, turn, stop, or run straight—he is a mere body subject to the will of another.
The quote raises questions about what qualities make for an effective or valuable military man, politician, and ally. Antony remarks that Lepidus “feeds / On objects, arts, and imitations, / Which, out of use and staled by other men, / Begin his fashion.” By this criticism he means that Lepidus centers his life on insubstantial things, prizing what other men have long since discarded as “stale” or devoid of flavor and interest; that is, Lepidus lacks his own will and convictions.
While Lepidus’s weak sense of selfhood means that he can easily be used as a tool by other men, it also means that he can be counted on to be obedient and loyal. Lepidus is thus absorbed into the threesome (with Antony and Octavius) that rules Rome after Caesar’s death, ultimately coming into power and political prestige with little effort or sacrifice. In Julius Caesar, men such as Brutus and Caesar are punished in the mortal realm for their inflexible commitment to specific ideals. Though Antony criticizes Lepidus, perhaps Shakespeare is subtly suggesting that a man such as Lepidus, “barren-spirited” and seemingly lacking in ambition, will be as satisfied in the political realm as his more directed counterparts.
We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (IV.ii.269–276)
Brutus speaks these words in Act IV, scene ii in order to convince Cassius that it is time to begin the battle against Octavius and Antony. He speaks figuratively of a “tide” in the lives of human beings: if one takes advantage of the high tide, one may float out to sea and travel far; if one misses this chance, the “voyage” that one’s life comprises will remain forever confined to the shallows, and one will never experience anything more glorious than the mundane events in this narrow little bay. Brutus reproaches Cassius that if they do not “take the current” now, when the time is right, they will lose their “ventures,” or opportunities.
The passage elegantly formulates a complex conception of the interplay between fate and free will in human life. Throughout the play, the reader must frequently contemplate the forces of fate versus free will and ponder whether characters might be able to prevent tragedy if they could only understand and heed the many omens that they encounter. This musing brings up further questions, such as whether one can achieve success through virtue, ambition, courage, and commitment or whether one is simply fated to succeed or fail, with no ability to affect this destiny. Here, Brutus conceives of life as influenced by both fate and free will: human beings must be shrewd enough to recognize when fate offers them an opportunity and bold enough to take advantage of it. Thus, Brutus believes, does man achieve a delicate and valuable balance between fate and free will.
This philosophy seems wise; it contains a certain beauty as well, suggesting that while we do not have total control over our lives, we do have a responsibility to take what few measures we can to live nobly and honorably. The only problem, as the play illustrates over and over again, is that it is not always so easy to recognize these nudges of fate, be they opportunities or warnings. The characters’ repeated failures to interpret signs correctly and to adapt themselves to events as they unfold form the basis for most of the tragedy that occurs in the play.