Cassius' End (5.3)
The Cassius we meet in Act V seems significantly changed from the Cassius of earlier Acts. At the beginning of the play he is portrayed as a resentful and cynical manipulator of people. He is resentful at his boyhood friend Caesar and his rise to preeminence in the world. When they were youths they engaged in a swimming competition across the Tiber, which Cassius won; now, because of Caesar's elevated status, "Cassius is/ a wretched creature, and must bend his body/ if Caesar carelessly but nod on him (1.2.116-118)."
As a result of this resentment, Cassius hatched the plot to assassinate Caesar, trapping Brutus and others in his net of deceit and pulling it off with them on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. His cynicism is seen not only in dealing with Brutus in 1.2 but also in 1.3, where he skillfully guides the worried Casca into an interpretation of the portents that will lead him also to join the conspiracy.
We get a slightly different picture of Cassius in Act IV, though it is generally consistent with the preceding. There we see a vulnerable and needy Cassius, vulnerable to the imperious and demanding personality of Brutus and in need of his affirmation and love.
Cassius the Stoic
In Act V Cassius experiences a sudden conversion of sorts, from Epicureanism to Stoicism. The Epicurean philosophy posited the existence of divinities but relegated them to a far-off never-never-land where they enjoyed themselves but had no influence on the affairs of this world. Imitation of the divinities' happiness, rather than limning and explaining divine intervention in human affairs, was the task of the Epicurean.
Thus when Cassius says in 5.1 that on the march to Philippi the eagles that accompanied the troops and ate from their hands departed and were replaced by a "canopy" of kites and other carrion-eating birds who looked down on them "as they were sickly prey (5.1.86)," he takes this as a portent of what will happen to his troops in battle. He thus is compelled to "change my mind" about his philosophy (5.1.77).
Cassius the Worried Man
But he is in no condition to adopt the Stoic imperturability that came with their belief in divine providence and in portents as a sign of things the gods would bring about. The Stoic takes comfort in divine providence; Cassius, however, was oppressed by the omens. When his troops (the "villains" of 5.3.1) flee from the engagement with Antony's troops, Cassius believes that his end is near. He retreats to the hill, has his servant Pindarus interpret the scene before him (because his vision is "thick"--5.3.21) and then concludes, without really conclusive evidence, that his lieutenant Titinius has been captured. He then asks Pindarus to stab him, and the servant wilingly complies (5.4.44-46).
Interpreting Cassius' Death
But Cassius was too hasty. Titinius returns from battle only to find Cassius dead. Titinius then becomes the first of three people to construe the meaning of the deaths of one of the conspirators (Brutus will do so later, as will Antony). Three statements sum up the tragedy of Cassius' death. First, as the sun sets on the battlefield, Titinius sees that in Cassius' death "The sun of Rome is set (5.3.63)." All that is left for them now is "clouds, dews, and dangers (5.3.64)." To call Cassius the "sun" of Rome is almost to divinize him. Surprisingly, then, while Caesar and Brutus both use Christological language to describe their near divine status, it is only Cassius who has someone else opine on his divinity.
Second, Titinius concludes that it is "mistrust of my success has done this deed (5.3.65)." Cassius has acted too hastily, has not waited until the facts were in, has acted rashly to his own detriment. This leads Titinius to reflect eloquently on how error, melancholy's child, shows to the "apt thoughts of men/ The things that are not (5.3.69)." The man who lived by deception and trickery is now killed by that same deception. Error's way is to consume and kill its mother, melancholy. Maybe if Cassius had not been inclined to this melancholic interpretation, brought upon him by his decision to believe the omens and depart from his comfortable Epicureanism, he would not have acted so rashly.
Third, Titinius interprets Cassius' action as not simply a mistrust of his own success but as a misconstrual of everything. "Alas, thou has misconstrued every thing (5.3.84)." How is that for a final eulogistic statement? 'Here lieth Cassius, who has misconstrued every thing.'
But isn't that last line a possible summary for the entire play? Caesar misconstrued the conspirators' friendly gestures, Brutus misconstrued the letters and his conflicting emotions, Cassius misconstrued the capture of Titinius, Antony will misconstrue the life of Brutus (later in 5.5). The only one who does not misconstrue anything in the play is Portia, who commits suicide. Deception and misconstrual seem to go hand in hand with ambition, ideology and attempts to control the outcome of events.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long