But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
Summary: Act III, scene i
Just preceding his death, Caesar refuses Artemidorus’s pleas to speak with him, saying that he gives last priority to his nearest, most personal concerns. He thus again demonstrates a split between his public and private selves, endangering himself by believing that his public self is so strong that his private self cannot be harmed. This sense of invulnerability manifests itself clearly when Caesar compares himself to the North Star, which never moves from its position at the center of the sky: “constant as the Northern Star, / Of whose true fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament. / [the] one in all [that] doth hold his place” (III.i.
Cassius suggests that future generations will remember, repeat, and retell the conspirators’ actions in the years to come. The statement constitutes a self-referential moment in the play, since Shakespeare’s play itself is a retelling of a retelling: the historical murder of Caesar had been treated earlier by Plutarch (
It is Shakespeare’s deft hand of creation, however, that brings Antony to the scene. Despairing over Caesar’s death, Antony knows that he poses a danger to the conspirators and that he must pretend to support them if he wants to survive. He assures them that they have his allegiance and shakes their hands, thus smearing himself with Caesar’s blood and marking Trebonius with blood as well. By marking Trebonius, Antony may be silently insisting on Trebonius’s guilt in the murder, even if his part was less direct than that of the other conspirators. Yet he does so in a handshake, an apparent gesture of allegiance. While the blood on Trebonius’s hands marks him as a conspirator, the blood on Antony’s hands, like war paint, marks him as the self-appointed instrument for vengeance against Caesar’s killers.
Cassius’s worries about Antony’s rhetorical skill prove justified. The first scene of the play clearly illustrates the fickleness of the multitude, which hastens to cheer Caesar’s triumph over a man whom it once adored. Surely the conspirators run a great risk by letting such a fickle audience listen to the mournful Antony. Yet, blinded by his conception of the assassination as a noble deed done for the people and one that the people must thus necessarily appreciate, Brutus believes that the masses will respond most strongly not to Antony’s words but to the fact that the conspirators have allowed him to speak at all. Because he feels that he himself, by helping to murder a dear friend, has sacrificed the most, Brutus believes that he will be respected for giving priority to public matters over private ones. We will see, however, that Brutus’s misjudgment will lead to his own downfall: he grossly underestimates Antony’s oratorical skill and overestimates the people’s conception of virtue.