New Characters: Plebeians: Roman citizens at Caesar’s funeral
Servant: messenger from Octavius
Cinna the Poet: a poet with the same name as one of the conspirators
Summary The setting is in the marketplace at Caesar’s funeral shortly after his death. The agitated crowd demands an explanation for Caesar’s assassination. Cassius leaves with some of the crowd to give his version of why Caesar was killed, while Brutus remains behind with the others to give his own account of the events. Brutus explains that although he was Caesar’s friend, and loved him, Caesar was ambitious and had to be killed for the good of Rome. If allowed to live, Caesar would have made slaves of all the Romans. He tells the crowd that he is ready to kill himself with the same dagger he used to kill Caesar, if they think he did wrong. But they are so moved by his speech that the crowd wants to erect statues in Brutus’ honor and make him king. Brutus declines their offer, and after telling them to listen to what Antony has to say, Brutus leaves.
Antony faces a hostile audience when he ascends into the pulpit and begins his oration with the words, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Sc. 2, 82) Slowly he wins them over, proving that Caesar was not ambitious. He calls the conspirators “honorable men,” yet he shows them to be traitors. Antony cries for Caesar and produces his will. He tells the angry citizens that he dare not read the will because it might stir them to mutiny and rage against Cassius and Brutus. He shows them Caesar’s bloody cloak and his mutilated body, stirring them up with every word. And when he finally reads the will, revealing the generous legacy Caesar left the citizens of Rome, the crowd is transformed into an angry mob, out of control and intent on revenge against the conspirators. Antony is quite pleased with these results, and with the news brought by a messenger from Octavius, that Cassius and Brutus have fled Rome.
In the next scene, Cinna, the poet, on his way to Caesar’s funeral, is confronted by a mob carrying torches and clubs. They demand answers to their questions, and when Cinna tells them his name they threaten to kill him as a conspirator. He says he isn’t one of the conspirators, but a poet. The angry mob kills him anyway, “for his bad verses,” (Sc. 3, 31) and then runs off to burn the houses of the conspirators.
Analysis The scene provides another example of subjective interpretation, and shows how it affects the actions of others. The crowd of citizens is moved first by Brutus’ picture of Caesar, and then turned into an angry mob by a totally different Caesar painted by Antony. The fickleness of the Roman people, evident from the first scene of the play, becomes more apparent now. After Caesar’s assassination, the angry crowd, commoners who were the foundation of Caesar’s power, demand an explanation from the bloody men who just murdered their hero. Brutus is so sure killing Caesar was the right thing to do that he is ready to die for his convictions. He is so convincing in arguing that Caesar’s ambition would have destroyed the Roman Republic that the crowd is eager to “Bring him with triumph home unto his house. / Give him a statue with his ancestors. / Let him be Caesar.” (Sc. 2, 51–53) In their response lies the irony. Brutus killed Caesar, who would be king, to deliver Rome from tyranny, and these same people would make their liberator king. They have missed the point behind Brutus’ actions and oration.
Antony’s funeral speech is the dramatic high point of the play. Not only is he able to stir up the Romans into a frenzied mob, as he predicted he would in his soliloquy in Act III, but he does so while fulfilling the restrictions imposed on him by Brutus. Antony cautiously ascends to the same pulpit as Brutus, after Brutus speaks, and he says he speaks by permission. He doesn’t blame the conspirators, but uses the phrase “honorable men” with such unmistakable irony that the crowd calls them villains and murderers. His pun, “O judgment thou has fled to brutish beasts,” (Sc. 2, 106) followed by his tears, has an electrifying effect on his audience. Antony manipulates the crowd by showing them Caesar’s will, and then telling them he cannot read it. He holds off their demands to read it, allowing their emotions to build. Next, Antony, who was not present when Caesar was killed, shows them Caesar’s cloak, and dramatically points out where each of the conspirators stabbed. “Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through. / See what a rent the envious Casca made. / Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed.” (Sc. 2, 186–8) It is a theatrical ploy, but most effective. The crowd even forgets about the will, until Antony reminds them. He reads the will: “To every Roman citizen he gives, / To every several man, seventy-five dracmas (silver coins).” (Sc. 2, 255–6) And, “Moreover, he hath left you all his walks, / His private arbors, and new-planted orchards, / On this side Tiber.” (Sc. 2, 261–3) This pushes the crowd into a frenzy that Antony sets loose on Rome.
In a move of tactical brilliance, Antony announces himself as a lamb so he can later pounce like a lion:
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man
That loves my friend, and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him.
For I have neither writ, nor words, nor worth
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men’s blood; I only speak right on. (Sc. 2, 228–235)
By creating the illusion that he will not attempt to stir the crowd, he lowers its resistance, opens its heart, and firmly sinks in his teeth. In such a way, Antony easily manipulates the crowd, by claiming he is not the manipulative type. Furthermore, Antony cleverly attributes his own powers of manipulation to the unwitting Brutus by suggesting that he is not an orator like Brutus. Antony’s political cunning is obvious, especially in contrast to Brutus’ sincerity (albeit misguided).
Cinna, the poet, becomes the first victim of the mob. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, drawn there by some unknown, supernatural forces. “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, / And things unluckily charge my fantasy. / I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth.” (Sc. 3, 1–4) He is surrounded by people out for revenge, who ask him many questions but are not interested in his answers. He responds to one of these questions about being married or single, “Wisely I say, I am a bachelor.” (Sc. 3, 17) They then threaten to beat him for implying “they are fools that marry.” (Sc. 3, 18–19) Clearly the mob is out for blood. Ultimately they kill him just for being there, using his “bad verses” as their justification.
Act III ends with Rome in complete chaos and on the brink of civil war.