Julius Caesar, Act Two: Tense and Nervous

Act Two of Julius Caesar begins with the first scene of the play that isn’t set on a Roman street. We’re taken to home of Brutus. It’s the middle of the night, and Brutus cannot sleep. He calls for his servant boy Lucius to bring him a candle, then muses to himself,

It must be by his death. And for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general.
  • II.i.10-2

The general good is the reason Caesar must die. He goes on to compare Caesar to a snake, then contemplates his perceived ambition, and finally concludes that Caesar is a snake still in its egg and the smartest course of action would be to “kill him in the shell” (II.i.34).

When Lucius returns, he brings with him a letter he has found at Brutus’ window and confirms his master’s questions that the following day is the Ides of March. So, a month has passed since the actions of the first two scenes of the play, and tomorrow is the day the Soothsayer warned Caesar to beware.

Brutus tries to interpret the ambiguous letter left for him. If this was a comedy, it would be like Malvolio and “Olivia’s” letter. But it’s not, and this is deadly serious. Lucius then brings in men who have shown up to Brutus’ house in the middle of the night: Cassius and the other conspirators. He welcomes each and shakes their hands. When Cassius calls for them to swear their resolution, Brutus disagrees. He says that “priests and cowards and men cautelous, // Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls” (II.i.128-9) may need oaths, but he will not “stain // The even virtue of (their) enterprise” (II.i.131-2) with mere words.

It’s a great speech, very idealistic… and of course, mere words.

Cassius mentions Cicero, asking if he should be included with them. Casca, Cinna, and Metellus all concur. But it takes only a quick naysaying word from Brutus to change their minds:

Then leave him out.
Indeed, he is not fit.
  • II.i.152-3

Decius asks if Caesar should be the only man to die, and Cassius says that “Antony and Caesar (should) fall together” (II.i.161). Even on the page, you can almost see all the other conspirators turn to look at Brutus. It takes more than a quick word this time, but Brutus argues that Antony shall live. First, the conspirators’ “course will seem too bloody” (II.i.162). Second, Antony is nothing but limb of Caesar and thus “he can do no more than Caesar’s arm // When Caesar’s head is off” (II.i.182-3). Finally, Brutus predicts that without Caesar, Antony will probably get depressed (“take thought” [II.i.187]) and “die for Caesar” (II.i.187); after all, Brutus says that Antony is too used to partying (“wildness, and much company” [II.i.189]), so the loss of his friend would be too much to bear. While Cassius still has his doubts, Trebonius says, “Let him not die; // For he will live, and laugh at this hereafter” (II.i.190-1). Before that response can spur an argument of its own, there is an anachronistic striking of the clock. And with that and before departing, the conspirators work out one last piece of logistics: how to ensure Caesar’s attendance at the Capitol (given his recent “superstitious” [II.i.195] nature and the “unaccustomed terror of this night” [II.i.199]); Decius will go and flatter Caesar and convince him.

With the conspirators gone, Brutus’ wife Portia enters to ask what is bothering him. She goes on to list a number of instances where he hasn’t been himself. Between Portia here and Cassius in Act One, Scene Two, one gets the feeling that Brutus is an open book, easily read. Brutus tries to play it off by saying he’s not feeling well, but Portia counters, saying,

                   No, my Brutus,
You have some sick offense within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of.
  • II.i.266-9

She then falls to her knees and calls upon his “vows of love” (II.i.271), to tell her what is bothering him and who were those men who were just here. When he refuses again (or at least delays), she says that she has given herself a “voluntary wound…in the thigh” (II.i.299-300); she could keep that secret from him, so she can keep his secrets, too.

Brutus relents, but hears another knocking that cuts off his speech; instead, he tells Portia to go back inside and promises that he will reveal all soon. She leaves, and the knocking turns out to be a sick man, Ligarius, who wants in on the conspiracy. Even the sick are willing to follow Brutus.

The second scene of the act takes us from the home of Brutus to the home of Caesar. It seems he can’t sleep either, with the wildness of the night, and his wife crying out in her sleep, “Help, ho! They murder Caesar!” (II.ii.3). He calls for his servant to “bid the priests do present sacrifice, // And bring (him) their opinions of success” (II.ii.5-6). And like just a scene before, the male character’s wife enters. Calpurnia tells him in no uncertain terms, “You shall not stir out of your house today” (II.ii.9). Caesar argues (again in the third person), but Calpurnia is unrelenting: weird things are happening in the streets (lions, graves expelling their dead, shrieking ghosts), and “these things are beyond all use, // And (she does) fear them” (II.ii.25-6).

They argue this back and forth. The servant comes back with the news from the fortune-telling priests:

They would not have you to stir forth today.
Plucking the entrails of an offering forth,
They could not find a heart within the beast.
  • II.ii.38-40

Caesar tries to twist the findings into a message of his own courage, but Calpurnia won’t hear it. She is concerned that Caesar’s “wisdom is consumed in confidence” (II.ii.49). She demands that Caesar says it is her own fear that keeps Caesar at home, and Caesar relents, saying that Antony will tell the senators that Caesar is not feeling well.

Decius arrives and hears the news of Caesar’s decision. He pleads for an explanation so that he can tell the senators. Caesar says that he doesn’t care what the senators think, but he tells Decius of Calpurnia’s dream. Decius reinterprets the dream, and Caesar likes what he hears. And he likes what he hears next even more:

                   the Senate have concluded
To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.
  • II.ii.93-4

That is all Caesar needed to hear. He calls for his robe. The conspirators arrive to bring Caesar to the Capitol; so does Antony. Caesar is flattered, and says that “like friends” (II.ii.127) they will head to the Senate together. In a final aside to the scene, Brutus laments, “That every like is not the same, O Caesar, // The heart of Brutus earns to think upon” (II.ii.128-9); Brutus grieves that Caesar’s concept of “like friends” are not the “like friends” he has today.

The very short third scene of Act Two shows Artemidorus, who has obviously learned of the conspiracy, writing a letter to Caesar, warning him of the plot. He plans to get the letter to Caesar before he enters the Senate.

The final scene of the act finds Portia urging the servant Lucius to go to the Senate, but the boy doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do when he gets there. In a comic series of interplays with the boy (and not-so-comic asides to herself), Portia orders him to go to the Senate and bring her word:

                   if thy lord look well,
For he went sickly forth. And take good note
What Caesar doth, what suitors press to him.
  • II.iv.13-15

She now knows the plot, and struggles to “keep counsel” (II.iv.9). Before the house, the Soothsayer heads to talk to Caesar. He knows of no plot, but “fear(s what) may chance” (II.iv.34). To quote Talking Heads’ song “Psycho Killer,” Portia is “tense and nervous … can’t relax” … and by the end of the scene and act, it’s taking a toll: she “grow(s) faint” (II.iv.45).