‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’ is a line from one of Brutus’ most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This speech is worthy of closer analysis for a number of reasons; it actually relates to the locality around the Globe Theatre, where Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599, so although the play takes us back to ancient Rome, there is a curious geographical origin to Brutus’ talk of a ‘tide in the affairs of men’ which is ‘taken at the flood’. But we’ll come to that later …
Just as Shylock is often mistaken for the titular character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, so Julius Caesar has become as much Brutus’ play as it belongs to its doomed central figure. For the play is about Brutus’ arc from conspirator acting with others to lone figure, his fate sealed, his downfall rapidly approaching. And Brutus’ psychology is at the heart of Julius Caesar. Let’s take a closer look at the ‘tide in the affairs of men’ speech, summarising its meaning as we go and offering an analysis of its language and imagery.
Just to place this speech in context in the play: it is Act 4 Scene 3, and Brutus is conversing with his fellow conspirator, Cassius. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony turned Rome against the conspirators, and Brutus and Cassius had subsequently fallen out. They are now reconciled, planning to fight Antony and Octavius at the Battle of Philippi.
Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
Begging Cassius’ pardon, Brutus continues to outline their position in the coming battle. They have both got all of the support from their friends that their friends can possibly muster, and their legions of soldiers are full to the brim. They are ‘at the height’: the strongest they can possibly be. They are ready for action.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
The essential gist of Brutus’ words here is ‘seize the day’: taking the tide ‘at the flood’ (i.e., at high tide) means taking advantage of forces which are beneficial, much like rowing a boat with rather than against a strong current is much more advantageous. Indeed, it ‘leads on to fortune’. However, if such a natural advantage is ‘omitted’, i.e., neglected, the rest of your voyage – the rest of your life, in fact – will be low and miserable.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
To conclude his maritime image, Brutus tells Cassius that it’s as if they are in a boat on a full sea at high tide right now; and they should use this strong current to their advantage, or fail in their venture. (‘Ventures’ is a curious word here, because it has a specific resonance in light of Brutus’ naval imagery: ‘ventures’ were, specifically, cargoes or merchant enterprises.
The idea of the ‘tide’ as a metaphor for man’s life was well-established by Shakespeare’s day, and our language has a number of expressions which play on this idea (‘time and tide wait for no man’, ‘no use swimming against the tide’); there is also Canute’s famous demonstration of the limits of his kingly powers, which involved showing his courtiers that, powerful though he was, even he was unable to hold back the tide.
We began by noting that ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’ has been interpreted as a clever allusion to Shakespeare’s London, and indeed this reference takes us back to 1599 and the original staging of Julius Caesar in the Globe Theatre. How?
As David Daniell observes in his notes to the Arden edition, Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare), London’s theatres on the south bank of the Thames were on a tidal river. If a player (or, indeed, a player who was also the troupe’s principal playwright, like Shakespeare?) wished to cross the Thames to reach the new Globe theatre, erected in 1599, and not get covered in mud, he would have to take the tide ‘at the flood’. It’s a journey that Shakespeare and his fellow actors may well have made countless times, once they moved to their new premises in 1599.
Indeed, Julius Caesar was the first play Shakespeare’s company performed in their new Globe theatre. Daniell cites Steve Sohmer’s book, Opening Shakespeare’s Globe, in which Sohmer suggests that the staging of Julius Caesar may even have been timed to coincide with ‘an exceptional spring tide’. So, those original playgoers who heard Brutus declare that ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men’ may well have been struck by their contemporary and local significance.
The land on which the Globe was built was poorly drained and, as a result, was particularly liable to flooding when the Thames was at high tide. Could there even have been a jokey reference to the theatre’s susceptibility to flooding in Brutus’ lines? We don’t know for sure when in 1599 the Globe opened, but the first known performance of Julius Caesar which we have recorded is in the Globe in September 1599. And ‘spring tide’, of course, has nothing to do with the time of year, but is a reference to ‘springing’ rather than the season of spring.