By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
If Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as the old quip has it, has too many quotations in it, his Julius Caesar cannot be far behind. A whole host of now familiar quotations and expressions – many of which now have the ring of traditional proverbs, with others furnishing John Green with his book titles – can be traced back to Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman dictator Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Analysing some of the play’s most famous and illustrative quotations can also help us to understand the key themes and ideas within the play. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most important quotations in Julius Caesar, a play first performed in the late 1590s.
‘Beware the ides of March.’
Spoken by the Soothsayer in Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, this line has become proverbial, meaning ‘watch out for some ominous event in the near future’. The ‘ides’ of March were 15 March in the Roman calendar. The Soothsayer, who deals in fortune-telling or ‘saying’ what is ‘sooth’ (i.e., truth), is warning Caesar that something terrible will befall him on this date.
‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
Here we come to one of the most famous quotations from Julius Caesar: an expression which the contemporary US novelist John Green turned on its head for the title of his book The Fault in Our Stars.
The quotation appears in Act 1 Scene 2 and is spoken by Cassius, one of the conspirators. The line which precedes the quotation gives us an additional clue to its meaning: ‘Men at some time are masters of their fates’ means that human beings do actually have some control over their destiny, and it lets us off the hook, Cassius argues, to believe that we have no free will or agency to carve out our own fortune.
‘Et tu, Brute? – Then fall, Caesar!’
In Shakespeare’s play, it is Brutus who delivers the final blow during the assassination of Caesar. Caesar, who had looked on Brutus as his loyal friend, is heartbroken.
Hence ‘Et tu, Brute?’: that is, ‘And you too, Brutus? Even you, my devoted friend, have turned against me? Then I may as well die.’ Or, as Caesar himself puts it: ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.’
However, this quotation is more complex than it first appears, as we have discussed in a separate post.
‘On pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!’
Mark Antony’s speech from Act 3 Scene 1 immediately signals a new tone in the play, as he allows his emotions free rein as he stands over the body of Julius Caesar (or, some productions, crouches over it and cradles it). Grief opens up something new in Mark Antony’s language and imagery, and the anger he feels towards the ‘butchers’ who have murdered Caesar is barely contained.
‘Cry “Havoc”, and let slip the dogs of war’.
Here’s another very famous quotation from the play, which gave Frederick Forsyth the title for his novel The Dogs of War. Amazingly, it comes at the end of the same speech which begins ‘O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth’ (showing just how chock-full of classic quotations this play is).
The line in question is worth putting into the context of the longer sentence in which it appears:
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war;
Antony predicts that people’s sympathy will dry up as more time elapses after the death of Caesar. The ghost of Julius Caesar, wandering about seeking revenge, will cry ‘havoc’ and unleash the dogs of war.
‘Havoc’ here clearly denotes more than just a bit of general mayhem: Antony is using the word to mean merciless slaughter and butchery, as the image of ‘dogs of war’ suggests.
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.’
One of the best-known speeches in Julius Caesar, Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ address to the people of Rome, in Act 3 Scene 2, shows Mark Antony has ‘read the room’ and knows the mood among the crowd.
He realises that they still support the assassination of Julius Caesar and therefore ally themselves to Brutus and the other conspirators. Mark Antony treads carefully, brilliantly going against their expectations and reassuring him that he is simply there to deliver a funeral oration, not to take sides.
‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’
Throughout Act 3 Scene 2 in particular, Mark Antony shows himself to be a gifted orator who is able to use rhetoric to influence the crowd. Here, he appeals to his audience’s emotions, preparing them for the poignant story he will go on to relate concerning the cloak that belonged to Julius Caesar.
‘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.
Curiously, London’s theatres on the south bank of the Thames were on a tidal river. If a player 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, around the time that Julius Caesar was first performed!
‘This was the most unkindest cut of all’.
Mark Antony speaks this line in Act 3 Scene 2, in reference to Brutus’ stabbing of Julius Caesar. The double superlative ‘most unkindest’ (which would not have been considered bad grammar in Shakespeare’s time) reinforces the betrayal at the core of Brutus’ act, and this is why his was the ‘most unkindest cut’ carried out by all of the conspirators.