But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
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Summary: Act III, scene i
Artemidorus and the Soothsayer await Caesar in the street. Caesar enters with Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius, Metellus, Trebonius, Cinna, Ligarius, Antony, and other senators. Artemidorus approaches with his letter, saying that its contents are a matter of closest concern for Caesar. Caesar responds, “What touches us ourself shall be last served”—that is, his personal concerns are his last priority (III.i.8). Artemidorus tells him to read it instantly, but Caesar dismisses him as crazy.
The group enters the Senate, and Cassius worries that the assassination plot has been discovered. Trebonius draws Antony away from the Senate room. Metellus approaches Caesar to request that his brother, Publius Cimber, who has been banished from Rome, be granted permission to return. Caesar answers that since Publius was banished by lawful decree, there is not just cause for absolving his guilt. Brutus and Cassius kneel at Caesar’s feet and repeat Metellus’s plea; Caesar answers that he will not change his mind now, declaring himself as “constant as the Northern Star” (III.i.60). When Cinna comes forward and kneels to plead further, Caesar adds another comparison, suggesting that they might as well hope to “lift up Olympus,” the mountain where the gods were believed to dwell, as to sway Caesar in his convictions (III.i.74).
Decius and Ligarius, followed by Casca, come forward to kneel at Caesar’s feet. Casca stabs Caesar first, and the others quickly follow, ending with Brutus. Recognizing that Brutus, too, has joined with the conspirators, Caesar speaks his last words: “Et tu, Brute?—Then fall Caesar” (III.i.76). He then yields and dies. The conspirators proclaim the triumph of liberty, and many exit in a tumult, including Lepidus and Artemidorus. Trebonius enters to announce that Antony has fled.
Brutus tells the conspirators that they have acted as friends to Caesar by shortening the time that he would have spent fearing death. He urges them to bend down and bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, then walk to the marketplace (the Roman Forum) with their bloodied swords to proclaim peace, freedom, and liberty. Cassius agrees, declaring that the scene they now enact will be repeated time and again in the ages to come as a commemorative ritual.
Antony’s servant enters with a message: Antony, having learned of Caesar’s death, sends word that he loved Caesar but will now vow to serve Brutus if Brutus promises not to punish him for his past allegiance. Brutus says that he will not harm Antony and sends the servant to bid him come. Brutus remarks to Cassius that Antony will surely be an ally now, but Cassius replies that he still has misgivings.
Antony enters and sees Caesar’s corpse. He marvels how a man so great in deed and reputation could end as such a small and pathetic body. He tells the conspirators that if they mean to kill him as well, they should do it at once, for there would be no better place to die than beside Caesar. Brutus tells Antony not to beg for death, saying that although their hands appear bloody, their hearts have been, and continue to be, full of pity; although they must appear to him now as having acted in cruelty, their actual motives stemmed from sympathy and love for the Roman populace. Brutus tells Antony to wait until the conspirators have calmed the multitude; then they will explain fully why they have killed Caesar. Antony says he does not doubt their wisdom and shakes each of their bloody hands, staining the not-yet-bloodied hands of Trebonius, who has returned from leading Antony astray, in the process.
Antony now addresses Caesar’s departed spirit, asking to be pardoned for making peace with the conspirators over his dead body. After Antony praises Caesar’s bravery, Cassius questions his loyalty. Antony assures Cassius that he indeed desires to be numbered among their friends, explaining that he merely forgot himself for a moment upon seeing Caesar’s body. He emphasizes that he will gladly ally himself with all of the former conspirators, as long as they can explain to him why Caesar was dangerous.
Brutus assures Antony that he will find their explanation satisfactory. Antony asks if he might bring the body to the Forum and speak a funeral oration. Brutus consents, but Cassius urges him against granting permission. He tells Brutus that Antony will surely move the people against them if he is allowed to speak. Brutus replies that he will preface Antony’s words, explaining to the public the reason for the conspirators’ deed, and then explain that Antony has been allowed to speak only by Brutus’s consent. He believes that the people will admire his magnanimity for allowing Antony, a friend of Caesar’s, to take part in the funeral, and that the episode will benefit the conspiracy’s public image. Cassius remains displeased, but Brutus allows Antony to take Caesar’s body, instructing him to speak well of them since they are doing him a favor by permitting him to give the oration.
All depart; Antony remains alone onstage. He asks Caesar to pardon him for being gentle with his murderers. Antony prophesies that civil strife will follow Caesar’s death and lead to much destruction. As long as the foul deed of Caesar’s death remains unavenged, he predicts, Caesar’s spirit will continue to seek revenge, bringing chaos to Rome.
Octavius’s servant enters and sees the body on the ground. Antony tells him to return to Octavius, who had been traveling to Rome at Caesar’s behest, and keep his master out of the city; Rome is now dangerous for Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and appointed successor. But Antony urges the servant to come to the Forum and hear his funeral speech. Once they see how the public responds to the conspirators’ evil deed, they can decide how Octavius should proceed.
Read a translation of 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.60–65). He not only considers himself steadfast but also infallible, beyond the questioning of mortal men, as he compares the foolish idea of him being persuaded of something to the impossible act of hefting the weight of Mount Olympus. In positioning himself thus as a divine figure (the Romans deified certain beloved figures, such as popular leaders, and believed that, upon dying, these figures became ensconced in the firmament), Caesar reveals his belief that he is truly a god. His refusal to pardon Metellus’s banished brother serves to show that his belief in the sanctity of his own authority is unwavering up to the moment that he is killed.
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 (46–119? a.d.), whose Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans served as Shakespeare’s source. It was Plutarch who asserted that Caesar ceased to defend himself upon recognizing Brutus among the conspirators, and Plutarch who first gave Caesar his famous last words, which Shakespeare preserves in the original Latin, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” [III.i.76]). With these words, Caesar apprehends the immensity of the plot to kill him—a plot so total that it includes even his friends—and simultaneously levels a heartbroken reproach at his former friend. By Shakespeare’s time, Plutarch’s lines had already achieved fame, and an Elizabethan audience would likely have anticipated them in the murder scene.
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.