"Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius?" Brutus, to Cassius
"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves." Cassius, to Brutus, of Caesar
How do you preserve your beloved republic from becoming a dictatorship? What if the dictator is also your friend? What are the ethics of assassination as pre-emptive strike? What if you rely on the ends to justify the means, but what you end up with is not what you'd hoped to achieve? Is there any room for honorable behavior in politics?
Location and logistics: We'll meet at the Montlake Branch of Seattle Public Library at[masked]th Ave E., in the meeting room. (This event is not sponsored by the Seattle Public Library.) See here for directions: http://www.spl.org/locations/montlake-branch/mon-getting-to-the-branch . Metro buses 25, 43 and 48 serve this branch, and there are parking spaces at the library and on the streets nearby.
We can bring food into the meeting room as long as we clean up afterwards.
Bring a copy of the text if you have one, if not we usually have an extra and can share. Though it's not necessary to read the play before hand, it will help you follow (and understand your character) to at least be familiar with the plot. This is a relatively short play, but with intros, dividing out the (many!) parts, reading, break, and optional discussion afterwards, expect this to take much of the afternoon.
Synopsis and quotations (spoilers ahead):
It's 44 B.C. and Rome has been a republic for over 450 years. But when general Julius Caesar returns victorious from a civil war against Pompey, the honors that are heaped upon him and the extensive powers he accrues (such as "dictator for life") make some senators uneasy. Among them are Brutus, a friend of Caesar, and Caius Cassius, who Caesar distrusts:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Cassius tries to recruit Brutus to join a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, since Brutus has an honorable reputation which will reflect well on the plotters. Brutus agrees, believing it a necessary act of patriotism - although he has not yet seen Caesar abuse power, he reasons that it is too likely to be risked.
He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking.
Still, Brutus is sleepless over his decision:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream....
Cassius urges that Caesar's friend Mark Antony be assassinated too, to prevent future trouble from him, but Brutus sees nothing to fear from Antony and rejects that plan:
Our course will seem too bloody...
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
After the conspirators leave, Brutus' wife Portia begs to know what has been troubling her husband.
Meanwhile Caesar's wife Calphurnia is begging him to stay home, because she has had dreams of his murder, and the night has been full of strange portents (lionesses giving birth in the streets, ghosts, rains of blood, and meteors).
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
Besides, a soothsayer has told him to beware the ides of March. But Caesar is stubborn because he has a reputation for courage to maintain:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
He goes to the Capitol, and the conspirators gather round him under pretext of requesting a suit. When they strike, and Caesar sees his dear friend Brutus among them, he gives up:
Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!
Brutus and the other conspirators go out to explain their actions to the frightened citizens. Antony comes, pretends to accept the conspirators as friends, and asks that he may speak at the funeral of Caesar. Despite Cassius' misgivings, Brutus agrees to let him. Once alone with Caesar's corpse, Antony vows vengeance:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!...
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy....
Cry, 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war.
At the Forum, Brutus gives a brief and reasonable-sounding speech that has the Roman crowd agreeing with him. But he leaves before Antony begins his masterly oration over Caesar's body:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Yet praise him Antony does, and each time that he repeats
"Brutus is an honourable man,"
Antony sounds more sarcastic. Finally Antony pulls out Caesar's will and tells the crowd that Caesar has left his lands and fortune to them, and the citizens are turned so utterly against the conspirators that Cassius, Brutus and the others must flee Rome for their lives.
Octavius Caesar, who is Julius Caesar's nephew and heir, enters Rome and joins forces with Antony. Along with another named Lepidus they declare themselves a triumvirate of rulers. They agree on who to put to death, divide up territories between themselves, and march out to confront the forces loyal to the conspirators.
Stressed, exhausted and grieving for his wife, Brutus has a falling out with Cassius, but then they reconcile. The opposing armies meet in battle. In the confusion Cassius fears that all is lost and kills himself rather than be taken prisoner. Although the battle had been more even than he knew, Cassius' death tips the scale and Brutus, too, resigns himself to die.
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.
With the help of a faithful servant, Brutus runs upon his sword. When Antony and Octavius come upon his body, Antony is moved to remark:
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.
Octavius agrees to honor Brutus' body, but doesn't sound much grieved, and ends the play saying:
To part the glories of this happy day.
And so continues Rome's slide from republic toward empire. Octavius will become the Emperor Octavian, also known as Augustus Caesar, for whom our month of August is named, as July is named for his uncle Julius. (Notice that they both got the maximum number of days, 31.) You can read more of Octavius and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, another tragedy but of quite a different tone.