Julius Caesar: Plot Summary

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Act 1, Scene 1
The story opens on a street in Rome, where two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, disperse a crowd that is celebrating the return of the greatest ruler of the day, Julius Caesar. The tribunes, fearful of Caesar’s ever-increasing power, berate the assembled commoners for their shortsightedness and fickle loyalties. Marullus reminds the cobblers and carpenters that Caesar has conquered another Roman, the noble Pompey:

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone! (40-56)

The crowd scatters and Flavius and Marullus remove the decorations that cover the public statues.

 

Act 1, Scene 2
Caesar passes through a public square to celebrate the Roman festival of Lupercalia. With Caesar is his wife Calpurnia, Mark Antony, senator Cicero, republican sympathizers Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius, Flavius, Marullus, and Brutus’ wife Portia. Caesar asks Antony to touch Calpurnia in a fertility rite,

for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse. (7-9)

As the music and merriment begins, Caesar hears someone shout his name. Hushing the crowd, he asks the voice to speak again. A soothsayer comes into view and warns Caesar to “Beware the ides of March”, but Caesar ignores his premonition: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him; pass” (24). Caesar and the adoring multitudes move on to the festival, but Brutus and Cassius stay behind. They remain to discuss Caesar’s thirst for power and his desire to turn the republic into a dictatorship. Cassius is already prepared to assassinate Caesar to save Rome from tyranny, and he attempts to convince Brutus that the murder would be justified:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man? (141-50)


Although Brutus reveals he has contemplated conspiring against Caesar, he will not immediately involve himself in Cassius’s plot. Rather, Brutus agrees to ponder all that Cassius has said and meet with him again to “answer such high things” (169). Caesar and his entourage return, and Caesar confides to Antony that he mistrusts Cassius.

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Antony assures Caesar that Cassius is a noble and trustworthy Roman incapable of treachery, but Caesar remains unconvinced.

Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. (197-200)

Caesar and his train leave but Casca remains behind after Brutus pulls him by the cloak. Casca tells Brutus and Cassius about the festival, and how Antony offered Caesar a crown three times and three times he refused it. But, in Casca’s opinion, Caesar only refused the crown to please the crowd. In fact, the people so loved the gesture that they “uttered up such a deal of stinking breath … that it almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it” (246-9). Casca finishes recounting Caesar’s actions at the festival and, after declining a dinner invitation from Cassius, bids the men farewell. Cassius feels Casca’s report is more evidence to suspect Caesar has plans to become king. Brutus asks to see Cassius again the next day and leaves Cassius alone to ponder the chances that Brutus will not agree to join the plot. After all, Cassius knows his arguments have not been thoroughly convincing, and it is apparent that Caesar loves Brutus and would reward his loyalty with great wealth and power. Thus Cassius concludes that he must help his own cause with a little trickery. He will fabricate a petition, pretending it is from the angry citizens demanding Caesar’s deposition, and he will throw it in Brutus’ window.

Act 1, Scene 3
Scene three opens amidst a great storm. Thunder shakes the foundations of Rome and aberrant lighting slices through the night sky. Casca appears with his sword drawn and sees Cicero coming towards him. Casca speaks of the omens he has witnessed this stormy night, including wild beasts roaming the Capitol and men on fire. Cicero makes little of the portents and hurries home, anxious to be out of the wind and rain. Casca next encounters Cassius, who uses the storm as a means to recruit Casca for his plot:

Now could I, Casca, name to thee a man
Most like this dreadful night,
That thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol,
A man no mightier than thyself or me
In personal action, yet prodigious grown
And fearful, as these strange eruptions are.

Another conspirator named Cinna arrives and Cassius tells him that Casca is their newest confidant. Then Cassius instructs Cinna to throw the petition into Brutus’ window and meet him and the other conspirators at Pompey’s theatre.

Act 2, Scene 1
Brutus, unable to sleep, walks through his orchard awaiting dawn. He replays his conversations with Cassius in his mind, divided between his love for Caesar the man and his fear that Caesar’s unlimited power will destroy the Republic. Brutus orders his servant Lucius to light a taper in his office and, when Lucius returns he brings the false petition that Cinna has planted. Brutus reads the letter and, just as Cassius had hoped, it arouses Brutus’ passions. The conspirators arrive at Brutus’ house and Lucius leads them to the orchard. Not knowing if Brutus has decided to join them, the group exchanges pleasantries until Cassius takes Brutus aside. When the two rejoin the group, Brutus asks for the hands of the conspirators as he agrees to lead them in the assassination plot. As they begin to plan the murder, Brutus insists that they do not harm Antony:

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius. (162-6)

Dawn is breaking, and the conspirators must depart. Before they leave Decius offers to ensure that Caesar will be in the Capitol the next day, the fifteenth of March. They will commit the murder by the eighth hour. Just as the men leave, Brutus’ wife Portia comes to find her husband. She is perplexed by Brutus’ strange behavior of late and begs him “Make me acquainted with your grief” (256). Brutus hears a knock at the door and promises Portia he will reveal the cause of his grief later. He delicately orders her to hurry back to bed. Lucius enters with Ligarius, another conspirator. Ligarius tells Brutus that he will do anything Brutus asks, and they leave together to commit the act that “will make sick men whole” (327).

Act 2, Scene 2
Like Portia, Calpurnia has trouble sleeping. She has heard of the beasts roaming the Capitol and other strange occurrences, and begs him not to go to the Capitol. After much reluctance Caesar agrees to stay home, but just as he does so, Decius arrives to escort Caesar to the senate-house. When Caesar informs Decius that he will not go because of Calpurnia’s request, Decius chides him for yielding to his wife’s whims. Decius adds that the senate has concluded that they will today give Caesar a crown, and Caesar gives into vanity, agreeing to accompany Decius to the Capitol.

Act 2, Scene 3
Meanwhile, on a street near the Capitol, a scholar named Artemidorus has discovered the plot to murder Caesar and has written the names of the conspirators on a paper which he plans to hand to Caesar as he passes by.

Act 2, Scene 4
Portia is standing on the street outside her house, frantically worried about Brutus. She orders Lucius to the senate-house to report on Brutus. Portia sees the soothsayer. He tells her that he has come to once again warn Caesar. He leaves to take his position along the procession route and Portia, weak with worry and fear, goes back inside.

Note

Lupercalia: The festival was held on February 15th, in honour of Lupercus, the god of shepherds, who was supposed to keep away wolves.

Act 3, Scene 1

Caesar and his train approach the Senate. He sees the soothsayer in the crowd and confidently declares, “The ides of March are come” (1). “Ay, Caesar; but not gone” (2), replies the soothsayer. Artemidorus is also on the street and he pleads with Caesar to read his scroll. But Caesar ignores him and enters the Senate. Cassius approaches him with a request to overturn a previous ruling and let a banished countrymen return home. Caesar answers with a flavoured speech, informing Cassius that “I was constant Cimber should be banish’d/And constant do remain to keep him so” (72-3).

The conspirators gather around Caesar and he sees his trusted friend Brutus among them. They pull out their swords and stab Caesar. With his dying breath Caesar addresses Brutus, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!” (77). Caesar falls lifeless upon the pedestal of Pompey’s statue. Cinna rejoices, crying, “Liberty, Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” (78). Those who have witnessed the assassination flee the Senate and Trebonius reports to Brutus and Cassius that Antony has fled to his house in shock and people run through the streets, “As it were doomsday.” (98). Brutus tells the other assassins to bathe their hands and swords in Caesar’s blood and walk outside, proclaiming peace, freedom, and liberty. A servant brings a message from Antony: if he is allowed to come to see Caesar’s body and receives a satisfactory explanation of why they have committed the murder, he promises to give his loyalty to Brutus:

If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him, and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death, Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living; but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith. So says my master Antony. (130-7)

Brutus agrees and the servant leaves to fetch Antony. Brutus seems confident they will find an ally in Antony but Cassius deeply fears him. Antony arrives and volunteers to die with his noble ruler, but Brutus replies:

O Antony, beg not your death of us.
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,
As, by our hands and this our present act,
You see we do, yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful;
And pity to the general wrong of Rome. (164-70)

Brutus also tells Antony that he loves Caesar and assures Antony he will reveal the reason why he killed Caesar as soon as they have appeased the people of Rome. Antony asks to take Caesar’s body to the market-place and deliver a eulogy. Cassius objects, but Brutus assures him that he will speak before Antony and, “show the reason of our Caesar’s death” (237). Brutus agrees to Antony’s requests and the assassins depart, leaving Antony alone with the body of Caesar. Antony vows to seek revenge on Brutus and his cohorts by launching a civil war:

Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (273-5)

The servant of Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavius, enters the Senate and weeps over the body. Antony orders him to return to Octavius Caesar and tell him what has happened, and warn him that he must not yet return to Rome. But first, Antony needs the servant’s help to carry Caesar’s body into the market-place.

Act 3, Scene 2
Brutus takes his place at the pulpit and Cassius goes into the crowd to separate those who wish to hear Brutus speak from those who refuse to listen. Brutus addresses the Plebeians with a convincing speech, assuring them that Caesar’s murder was necessary to preserve their freedoms:

Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? (22-6)

The crowd rallies behind Brutus and when Antony arrives he has to yell to make himself heard. Brutus asks the people to listen to Antony and he begins, masterfully crafting a speech to his end: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” (79-80) He goes on to call Brutus and the other assassins “honourable men” (89), but gradually and subtly Antony turns the crowd against Brutus:

Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
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.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me. (96-113)

Antony has managed to change the minds of the Plebeians, and he produces Caesar’s will, which includes a generous gift to the people of Rome. But Antony tells them he cannot read the will because it will inflame them. The crowd insists he read the will and soon they are calling the assassins murders and traitors. The people run through the streets, screaming “Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!” (209-10). They rush to burn the homes of Brutus and his conspirators and Antony rejoices:

Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt! (265-6)

A servant arrives to tell Antony that Brutus and Cassius have fled the city and that Octavius is in Rome and waits at Caesar’s house. Antony hurries to meet Octavius.

Act 3, Scene 3
Out for blood, the angry mob swarm the streets of Rome. They come upon Cinna the poet, who happens to have the same name as one of the assassins. The frenzied mass does not care if they have the wrong Cinna: someone must pay for the crime. He begs for his life: “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet!” (33). But his cries are useless as the mob tears him to pieces.

Act 4, Scene 1
Antony meets with Octavius and their henchman Lepidus to decide who must be murdered to ensure they regain power. They have a steadily growing list, on which is Lepidus’ own brother, Antony’s nephew, and dozens of Rome’s senators. After Lepidus leaves on an errand, Antony and Octavius belittle him, comparing him to a horse that “must be taught and train’d and bid go forth” (35). They next make plans to organize their troops to combat the army being raised by Brutus and Cassius near Sardis in Asia Minor.

Act 4, Scene 2
At Brutus’ camp Lucilius returns with to report on the activities of Cassius, who is gathering forces a short distance away. Lucilius feels that Cassius has not been as warm as on previous visits, and Brutus takes this to be a sign that Cassius is “a hot friend cooling” (19). When Cassius arrives he accuses Brutus of wronging him, and Brutus leads him into his tent where they can speak in private.

Act 4, Scene 3
When they are alone in Brutus’ tent Cassius chides Brutus for punishing an officer for taking bribes after Cassius had written a letter in his defense. Brutus replies that Cassius himself is said to be withholding funds. Cassius is shocked and outraged and offers his sword to Brutus:

There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar; for, I know,
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better
Than ever thou lovedst Cassius.

Brutus apologizes and they reconcile, but Cassius is deeply troubled by Brutus’ accusations. A poet arrives and scolds the two generals for fighting. Cassius finds the poet amusing, but Brutus dismisses him. Brutus then tells Cassius that his strange behavior is the result of learning that Portia has committed suicide.

Titinius and Messala arrive with news that Octavius and Antony have put to death one hundred senators, including Cicero. Messala, unaware that Brutus already knows, also reports that Portia has died. Since Brutus has had time to come to terms with her death, he gives a calm response to the announcement, which greatly impresses Messala. Brutus turns his attention back to the war and suggests that they march to Philippi. Cassius disagrees, feeling it better that the enemy seek them out. But Brutus persists and Cassius gives in.

Cassius retires for the evening and Brutus calls two of his servants, Claudio and Varro, to stay with him through the night. The boys quickly fall asleep and Brutus starts to read. With the flicker of the candle Brutus’ eyes are distracted upward, to see the ghost of Caesar standing beside him. The ghost tells Brutus that they will meet again at Philippi and vanishes.

Julius Caesar: Plot Summary

Act 5, Scene 1
Act five opens on the plains of Philippi. Octavius and Antony celebrate their good fortune that Brutus and Cassius have foolishly come down from the hills. Octavius demands to lead the more important army division, despite his inexperience. Brutus and Cassius arrive with their men, and the opposing leaders hold a brief conference. The exchange, short and bitter, ends with Octavius and Antony storming away.

In a moving speech Cassius tells Messala that he fears the upcoming battle. Although Cassius is not a superstitious, he cannot help but notice that the two eagles who accompanied the army on their long trek from Sardis have now flown away and in their place hover ravens, crows, and kites, who make “a canopy most fatal, under which/Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.” (88-9).

Cassius asks Brutus what he plans to do if they should lose the battle. Brutus rejects suicide, calling it “cowardly and vile” (104), but he also insists that he will never return to Rome as a prisoner. Before they rally the troops, Cassius and Brutus bid a solemn farewell to one another:

If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed;
If not, ’tis true this parting was well made.

Act 5, Scene 2
The battle has begun. Brutus sees an opportunity to strike Octavius’ forces, which appear to be weakening, and he sends Cassius orders to attack immediately.

Act 5, Scene 3
On a hill in another part of the battlefield Titinius, a soldier and friend to Cassius, warns his commander that Brutus gave the word to attack prematurely, and Antony’s men have them surrounded. Pindarus, Cassius’s servant, rushes in with news that enemy troops are in the very tents of Cassius’s headquarters. He begs Cassius to flee for his life. Cassius refuses and sends Titinius to make certain that they are not Brutus’ men that have entered his camp. Pindarus ascends the hill to report on Titinius’ movement. What he sees is grim indeed:

Titinius is enclosed round about
With horsemen, that make to him on the spur;
Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.
Now, Titinius! Now some light.
O, he lights too. He’s ta’en. (28-32)

Cassius knows that he too will soon be captured by Antony and Octavius, and will certainly be dragged through the streets of Rome in chains. He orders Pindarus to help him commit suicide: Come hither, sirrah:

In Parthia did I take thee prisoner;
And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,
That whatsoever I did bid thee do,
Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath;
Now be a freeman: and with this good sword,
That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom. (36-42)

Pindarus holds the sword steady. Cassius impales his chest on the blade. “Caesar, thou art revenged/Even with the sword that kill’d thee.” (45-6). Pindarus flees as Titinius returns with Messala. Titinius was not captured by Antony — Pindarus has made a terrible mistake. They come to tell Cassius that Brutus has defeated Octavius’ troops, but, instead, they find Cassius’s body. Messala leaves to inform Brutus, and Titinius laments the loss of his dear friend:

Why didst thou send me forth, brave Cassius?
Did I not meet thy friends? and did not they
Put on my brows this wreath of victory,
And bid me give it thee?
Didst thou not hear their shouts?
Alas, thou hast misconstrued every thing! (80-85)

Titinius takes Cassius’ sword and kills himself. Brutus arrives and sees the bodies of Cassius and Titinius. He cries, “Are yet two Romans living such as these?/The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!” (98-9). For Cassius he has special words:

Friends, I owe more tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay.
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time. (102-3)

Brutus then announces that he plans another siege, this time against Antony.

Act 5, Scene 4
Antony proves too strong and Brutus is forced to retreat. He orders his men to remain fighting on the field. Lucilius pretends to be Brutus and is captured. When Antony arrives he sees that they have the wrong man, but he praises Lucilius’ bravery and spares his life.

Act 5, Scene 5
Brutus and his few remaining servants gather at a rock. He asks Clitus and then Dardanius to kill him to avoid capture, but they refuse. He then implores Volumnius as a friend to help him commit suicide. But Volumnius too refuses: “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord.” (29). As the enemy troops draw near, Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius flee and Brutus remains behind with another servant, Strato. He convinces Strato to hold the sword for him as he runs upon it. With his final words Brutus addresses Caesar:

Caesar, now be still:
I kill’d not thee with half so good a will. (50-1)

Antony and Octavius arrive and find Brutus’ body. Antony, knowing that Brutus was a valiant defender of Rome, delivers a tribute befitting so honest a man:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’ (68-75)

Octavius sends Brutus’ body to his own tent until they can arrange a proper burial and the play comes to close: “So call the field to rest; and let’s away/To part the glories of this happy day” (80-81).