Brutus Takes Charge (2.1.114)
In Act I, Cassius tried every rhetorical means at his disposal to get Brutus to join the conspiracy. He pointed out Caesar's physical weaknesses and Brutus' noble heritage; he tried to stoke the fires of resentment and jealousy (these are all in 1.2); he even forged letters suggesting that Brutus needed to act (1.3). Now, Cassius will get his wish but, as many people who have gotten their wish in life sadly discover, the granting of their wish becomes the prelude to their disaster.
Brutus on Board
Once Brutus has convinced himself to join the conspiracy, he is joined by the disguised co-conspirators on a dark and stormy night that mirrors the nefariousness of their designs. Later Brutus will upbraid them for masking the "monstrous visage" of the conspiracy in this way (2.1.81). Instead, he will encourage genial relations with other citizens, bearing the conspiracy "as our Roman actors do,/ With untir'd spirits and formal constancy (2.1.226-227)."
But for now there is work to be done. The first thing to do is for all to put a hand into the circle, joining it with the others. Cassius then suggests and oath: "And let us swear our resolution (2.1.113)." Brutus will have none of this. In a ponderous and highly moralistic speech of 26 lines, stressing the purity of their designs, Brutus says that oaths are meant for "priests and cowards, and men cautelous (2.1.129)." They are made by men only because they are planning to break them later. With words of impressive eloquence Brutus suggests that the conspirators not "stain the even virture of our enterprise,/ Nor th' insuppressive mettle of our spirits (2.1.133-134)" by so swearing.
Nixing other Ideas
Instead of responding to Brutus's patent power play, Cassius immediately yields and shifts the conversation to a possible role Cicero might play. Three other conspirators chime in that Cicero's presence would "purchase a good opinion" for the plotters (2.1.145). Brutus will have none of it. Cicero, he says, "will never follow any thing/ That other men begin (2.1.150-151)." Brutus may be correct, but he may also unwittingly be saying something about himself. Once he joins a movement, he cannot follow anyone else's lead.
Cicero is out. No grumbling by anyone. Then, the most controversial decision. How about Mark Antony? Should they kill him when they kill Caesar? Cassius takes seven lines to argue that it would be wise to kill Antony too. If he lives, he will have power "to annoy us all; which to prevent,/ Let Antony and Caesar fall together (2.1.160-161)."
Brutus again disagrees. Using an analogy from the human body (and we should be aware by this time that Brutus loves to speak analogically), Brutus says, "Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,/ To cut the head off and then hack the limbs (2.1.162-163)." Brutus then launches into 25 more lines in which he tries to redefine Caesar's murder as a sacrifice and not an unlawful killling, as a bold but not wrathful act, so that Caesar will be a "dish fit for the gods" and not a "carcass fit for hounds (2.1.173-174)." Brutus's brutal ability to redefine the nature of their action should send shivers of terror through all of us, who daily see governments and media trying to redefine killing and naked power grabs as something noble and "fit for the gods."
For the morally self-righteous, who believe they are doing the divine will, language of purity is never far distant. So, Brutus closes his speech by saying that when this act is completed, "We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers (2.1.180)." They will be wiping away the "stain" that defiles Rome; they do it through the religious act and language of sacrifice. People will interpret the act as one of purgation rather than murder. Self-deception here skillfully clothes itself in religious terminology.
Antony must live, and he will be of no danger to them, Brutus says. Cassius interposes an objection, but Brutus quickly cuts him off. He says that Antony either will become melancholy and die ("take thought and die for Caesar"--2.1.187) or return to his light-hearted and mindless sports (2.1.189). Brutus cannot be more wrong, but he will brook no debate or dissension, and so the others meekly go along with him. The manipulated now becomes the manipulator.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long