Julius Caesar, Act Four: Pricks, Bad News, and Ghosts

When Act Four of Julius Caesar opens, we find the new Triumvirate (Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus) making some executive decisions. Really executive, as in “who do we execute?” Or as Antony says in the scene’s first line: “These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked” (IV.i.1). And these names are not just random political enemies–these are family members of the triumvirs (Lepidus’ brother, Antony’s nephew). Not only are they discussing who to cut down, but who to cut out as well, as Antony sends Lepidus to Caesar’s house to get the late leader’s will so that they can “determine // How to cut off some charge in legacies” (IV.i.8-9).

If that wasn’t bad enough, once Lepidus is out of the room, Antony says that Lepidus is “a slight, unmeritable man, // Meet to be send on errands” (IV.i.12-3). Antony compares Lepidus to a beast of burden, and says that after Lepidus has “brought our treasure where we will, // Then take we down his load, and turn him off” (IV.i.24-5). In the meantime, however, “Brutus and Cassius // Are levying powers” (IV.i.41-2), and the triumvirate must take action, even if it must include Lepidus, because, as Octavius says, “And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, // Millions of mischiefs” (IV.i.50-1).

From Antony and Octavius, we move to the conspirators in Act Four, Scene Two. And if things were a bit awkward in the first scene, they’re downright uncomfortable here: Brutus describes Cassius as “a hot friend cooling … (whose) love begins to sicken and decay” (IV.ii.19-20). When Cassius arrives, his first words are not one of greeting but of recrimination, “Most noble brother, you have done me wrong” (IV.ii.37), and after a quick response, Brutus tries to control some of the damage, telling Cassius to not broadcast their fight to their troops, but to do it privately.

In private, it gets even worse. Cassius complains that Brutus has condemned one of Cassius’ men for taking bribes and not even Cassius’ pleas could get any leniency from Brutus, who accuses Cassius of being greedy as well (having “an itching palm” [IV.ii.62]). As they argue back and forth, Brutus mocks Cassius:

                           For, from this day forth,
I’ll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.
  • IV.ii.102-4

Brutus has gone too far, and Cassius bares his breast and takes out his dagger, and invites Brutus to kill him. Only does this seem to shake Brutus from his anger, and he tells Cassius that he himself

carries anger as the flint bears fire,
Who, much enforcèd, shows a hasty spark
And straight is cold again.
  • IV.ii.165-7

Brutus admits that his quick anger is because he is “sick of many griefs” (IV.ii.196), including his wife “Portia is dead” (IV.ii.199). Upset by Brutus leaving, as well as Octavius and Antony’s rise to power, she became depressed to the point of suicide by suffocation (“swallowing fire” [IV.ii.208]). But there are more pressing matters, like the rise of the new Triumvirate, who have put to death between 70 and 100 senators, depending on whose letters you believe. Octavius and Antony are heading to Philippi. Brutus wants to march to meet them there, but Cassius has other plans:

’Tis better that the enemy seek us;
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offense, whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.
  • IV.ii.251-4

Brutus, of course, feels his reasons for an assault are “better” (IV.ii.255): the people between where they are and Philippi are not true believers in their cause, and if the Triumvirate army marches through them, the opposing army will swell. He adds,

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.
  • IV.ii.270-3

Cassius relents, and with the decision made, he returns to his army.

The servant Lucius and some of Brutus’ lieutenants sleep in Brutus’ tent in case he needs to send them on a mission. When they sleep, Brutus finds that he is not alone, however. “Enter the Ghost of Caesar” (IV.ii.325 stage direction). When Brutus asks who the Ghost is, it’s response is simple: “Thy evil spirit, Brutus” (IV.ii.333), who has come “to tell (Brutus he) shall see (the Ghost) at Philippi ” (IV.ii.335). The Ghost leaves, Brutus wakes the others in the room to see if they saw anything (they didn’t), then sends his lieutenants off to Cassius to have his army move forward.

And so with a poltergeist and a preemptive strike, the fourth act ends.