He must be taught, and trained, and bid go forth—
A barren-spirited fellow . . .
. . . a property.
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Summary: Act IV, scene i
Antony meets Octavius and Lepidus at his house. They review a list of names, deciding who must be killed. Lepidus agrees to the death of his brother if Antony will agree to allow his nephew to be killed. Antony suggests that, as a way of saving money, they examine Caesar’s will to see if they can redirect some of his funds. Lepidus departs, and Antony asks Octavius if Lepidus is a worthy enough man to rule Rome with him and Octavius. Octavius replies that he trusts him, but Antony harbors doubts. Octavius points out that Lepidus is a “tried and valiant soldier,” to which Antony responds, “So is my horse”: he goes on to compare Lepidus to a mere animal, calling him a “barren-spirited fellow” and a mere tool (IV.i.28–36). Antony now turns the conversation to Brutus and Cassius, who are reportedly gathering an army; it falls to Octavius and Antony to confront them and halt their bid for power.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
. . .
And we must take the current when it serves . . .
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Summary: Act IV, scene ii
Meanwhile, Brutus waits with his men in camp and meets with Lucillius, Titinius, and Pindarus. Lucillius bears a message from Cassius and steps aside to speak to Brutus. He says that Cassius is becoming more and more displeased with Brutus, and Brutus worries that their ties may be weakening. Cassius arrives with his army and accuses Brutus of having wronged him. Brutus replies that he would not wrong him, as he considers him his brother, and insists that they continue the discussion privately in Brutus’s tent.
Cassius charges Brutus with having condemned one of their men for taking bribes, even though Cassius sent letters asking him not to, since Cassius knew the man. Brutus responds by accusing Cassius of having taken bribes himself at times. Brutus tells him to recall the Ides of March, when they killed Caesar because they believed that he was corrupt. He asks Cassius if they should now allow themselves to descend into the very corruption that they tried to eliminate. Cassius tells Brutus not to bait him any more, for Cassius is a soldier and will fight.
The two men insult each other, and Brutus expresses the reasons for his disappointment in Cassius. Because he claims to be so honest himself that he cannot raise money by ignoble means, he was forced to ask Cassius for money, but Cassius ignored him. Cassius claims that he did not deny Brutus, but that the messenger misreported Brutus’s words. Cassius accuses Brutus of having ceased to love him. He hopes that Antony and Octavius will kill him soon, for, having lost his closest ally and friend, he no longer desires to live. He offers his dagger to Brutus to kill him, declaring, “Strike as thou didst at Caesar; for I know / When though didst hate him worst, thou loved’st him better / Than ever thou loved’st Cassius” (IV.ii.159–161).
Brutus tells Cassius to put his dagger away and says that they both are merely ill-tempered. The two men embrace and forgive each other. Outside, Lucillius is attempting to prevent a poet from entering the tent, but the poet squeezes past him and scolds Brutus and Cassius for arguing: “Love and be friends, as two such men should be, / For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye” (IV.ii.183–184). But, having already repledged their friendship, the two generals laugh together at the poet’s presumptuousness and send him away.
Cassius and Brutus drink wine together. Cassius expresses his surprise at Brutus’s earlier rage. Brutus explains that he has been under many emotional burdens lately, the foremost of which has been the death of his wife, Portia; he recently received news that she killed herself by swallowing fire. Titinius and Messala enter with news from Rome; Messala says that the triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus has put a hundred senators to death. Messala asks Brutus if he has had word from Portia, and when Brutus answers negatively, Messala comments that this seems strange. When Brutus inquires if Messala knows something, Messala replies that he does not. But Brutus insists that Messala tell him the truth, and Messala reports that Portia is dead.
Brutus suggests that they march to Philippi to meet the enemy. Cassius says that he would rather let the enemy come to them. Brutus protests that they are at the peak of their readiness and should seize the opportunity. Cassius relents and agrees to march. The others depart, leaving Brutus in his tent with his servant Lucius. Brutus summons Varro and Claudio to sleep in his tent until they are needed for early morning messages.
The others fall asleep while Brutus lies awake trying to read. A spectral image enters (identified in the text as “Ghost of Caesar”). Brutus wonders if he is dreaming; he asks the form to identify himself. The Ghost replies that he is “thy evil spirit” (IV.ii.333). After telling Brutus that they will see each other again at Philippi, the Ghost disappears, and Brutus wakes his attendants. He asks them if they saw anything strange, but they reply that they did not.
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Analysis: Act IV, scenes i–ii
These scenes deal with the events that take place in the vacuum of power left by Caesar’s death. Antony’s speech to the Roman citizens in Act III, scene ii centers on the fact that Caesar had set aside money for each citizen. Now, ironically, he searches for ways to turn these funds into cash in order to raise an army against Brutus and Cassius. Although he has gained his current power by offering to honor Caesar’s will and provide the citizens with their rightful money, we now see that he apparently has no intention of fulfilling this promise. In a strange dialogue with Octavius, he also badly insults Lepidus, explaining how, just as his horse has been taught to fight, turn, stop, and move his body according to Antony’s will, so, too, must Lepidus now be trained. Antony declares Lepidus “a barren-spirited fellow, one that feeds / On objects, arts, and imitations”; he reproaches Octavius, saying, “Do not talk of him / But as a property,” that is, as a mere instrument for the furtherance of their own goals (IV.i.36–40). Lepidus proves an effective tool for them in that he is malleable and apparently not intelligent enough to devise his own motives. While Shakespeare may have inserted this string of insults simply for comic relief, this abuse serves as another illustration of Antony’s sense of political expediency: while he does not respect Lepidus, he still uses him for his own purposes.
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Meanwhile, questions of honor plague the conspirators as well, as Cassius and Brutus exchange accusations. Their argument seems to arise partially from a misunderstanding but also partially from stubbornness. Though Brutus claims that his honor forbids him from raising money in unscrupulous ways, he would still use such money as long as it was not he himself, but rather Cassius, who raised it. We see that Brutus speaks against corruption, but when he has no other means of paying his army, he quickly consents to unscrupulousness, if only indirectly.
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Portia’s death is reported twice in scene ii (Plutarch’s telling, upon which Shakespeare based his play, describes Portia’s death more explicitly: she put hot coals in her mouth and choked herself to death). Some argue that the repetition of the announcement of Portia’s suicide reveals the effect of revision on Shakespeare’s part; perhaps, while adding in one section of the scene, he forgot to remove another. Other scholars suggest that Brutus’s two separate comments regarding Portia’s death show two separate sides of his personality—again, the private versus the public. That is, alone with Cassius, he admits that his distress at the loss of his wife, but before his men, he appears indifferent or dispassionate. Perhaps the latter reaction is merely a facade, and Brutus simply has too much pride to show his true feelings in public.
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Brutus’s words to Cassius proclaiming their readiness for battle are significant in that they emphasize Brutus’s belief in the power of the will over fate:
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 )
Throughout the play, the theme of fate versus free will proves important: here, Brutus suggests that both exist and that one should take advantage of fate by asserting one’s will. While subsequent events demonstrate that the force of fate (or perhaps just Antony and Octavius’s superior maneuvering) is stronger than Brutus’s individual actions, his speech still makes for a graceful, philosophic axiom, showing Brutus to be a man of deep reflection.
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Brutus cannot sleep—perhaps because he is brooding internally on his guilt; in any case, this guilt is soon manifested externally in the form of the Ghost of Caesar. This phantom’s identification of himself to Brutus as “thy evil spirit” could mean either that the Ghost is an evil spirit appearing to Brutus’s eyes only—a spirit that is “his” alone—or that the Ghost represents Brutus’s own spirit, which is secretly evil (IV.ii.333). However one interprets the arrival of the specter, the event can only bode ill for Brutus in the battle to come.