Act I: Overview
Scenes and Themes
Act I of Julius Caesar consists of three scenes totalling about 460 lines. Though each scene describes a distinctly different occasion, they are skillfully linked through the closing words of one and the beginning words of the next.
Transitions between Scenes
1.1 narrates tension between the Tribunes of the People and the people themselves because the latter celebrate the victory of Caesar over Pompey's sons with as much eagerness as they celebrated Pompey's triumphs several years earlier. The fickleness of the crowd, also especially evident in the funeral speech of Antony (3.2), is thus stressed. Transition between the scenes is highlighted through the word "servile fearfulness" in 1.1.75--The Tribunes hope to curtail that kind of reaction to Caesar by scattering the people while, when Caesar appears at the beginning of 1.2, all greet him with the most servile fearfulness.
1.2 is a long scene, where Caesar appears in authority briefly and then Cassius tries to wear down the unsuspecting Brutus and get him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. The scene ends with Cassius exulting in the fact that he has won over Brutus, the necessary step to being able to "shake" Caesar. 1.2.322.
Then, 1.3. opens with the heavens shaking with thunder and lightning, portents and signs that are variously interpreted by Cicero, Casca and Cassius about what is in store for the Romans and Caesar. By presenting widely different actions linked by the concepts of fear and shaking, Shakespeare provides a vivid opening for the play.
Several ideas developed throughout the play leap out at the reader in these scenes.
First is the difficulty of proper perception of the underlying realities in the world. Brutus didn't know whether Caesar wanted to be king or the people wanted him as king. He didn't know how to balance his love toward his friend with his concern for the state. At least three people interpret the portents in the sky and on land differently. Maybe they point to Caesar as dangerous; maybe they point to the gods' anger with Rome; maybe they mean nothing at all. Caesar perceives Cassius as dangerous but then retreats into his own sense of inviolability and invulnerability. Who knows who perceives truly? It is a conundrum.
Second, is the emphasis on manipulation of people by people as the way of the world. Cassius is the quintessential manipulator in the play; he tries (successfully) to bring Brutus into the conspiracy; then he directs the gullible Casca in the "proper" interpretation of the portents. The Tribunes try to manipulate the loyalities of the people they represent. Caesar may be trying to manipulate the crowd as he feigns lack of interest in the crown. People will pursue their own ends and will alternately succeed and be frustrated in that pursuit throughout the play.
Third is the emphasis on character and the use of spare language to give an insight into the depths of the human heart. Cassius is a sleek man who "smiles in such a sort as if he mock'd himself and scorne'd his spirit that could be mov'd to smile at any thing (1.2.205-207)." Brutus is always deep in thought, vexed by contrary tugs on his loyalties. Caesar is both superstitious and fatalistic, incredibly arrogant yet deferred to by all. Casca is nonchalant in his description of the crowd's attempt to make Caesar king but naive in his terror at the heavenly and earthly portents that he canno understand. Resentment, jealousy, haughtiness, indecision, introspection, stupidity, and gullibility are some of the characteristics clearly shown in a first act that explodes with color.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long