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
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.