The first scene of the fifth and final act of Julius Caesar takes place where the remainder of the play does: the battlefields near Philippi. The leaders meet to parley before the battle, There are disagreements between Antony and Octavius regarding who will take which side of the battle, and their relationship seems to be more strained than it was in Act Four. Then once Brutus and Cassius enter, the trash-talk only increases. Octavius accuses Brutus of “lov(ing) words better” than actions (V.i.27) while Cassius accuses Antony of using sweet words, leaving bees “honeyless” (V.i.35).
After the parley ends and the triumvirs leave, Cassius says that today is his birthday, but he has seen a bad omen for the day: two eagles who had followed their army, “gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands” (V.i.81) have now flown away, and
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.
Brutus and Cassius then bid each other possibly “everlasting farewell(s)” (V.i.16) before exiting the stage and ending the first scene.
In the short second scene, Brutus tells Messala in the midst of battle that he sees a weakness (“cold demeanor” [V.ii.4]) in Octavius’ forces, and orders him to start their attack early.
In the third scene, Cassius laments that his own men have begun to flee the fields, Brutus’ forces have taken their advance on Octavius too early, and Antony has surrounded Cassius’ army. Pindarus enters to report that Antony has captured Cassius’ tents.
Cassius orders Titinius to ride to the camp and report back if the troops he finds there are “friend or enemy” (V.iii.18). Titinius rides off, and Pindarus describes to Cassius what he sees:
With horsemen that make to him on the spur,
Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.
Now Titinius! Now some light. O, he lights too.
And hark, they shout for joy.
Disheartened, Cassius tells Pindarus that when he took Pindarus prisoner in Parthia, in exchange for his life, Cassius made Pindarus swear to try to do whatever Cassius ordered him to do. Then Cassius tells Pindarus to “be a freeman” (V.iii.40), and kill him. Without a word, Pindarus makes good on his promise, then leaves Cassius, whose last words are “Caesar, thou art revenged // Even with the sword that killed thee” (V.iii.44-5).
Titinius returns (with Messala), wearing “a laurel-leaf wreath of victory” (V.iii.49 stage direction). It turns out that the crowd that had surrounded Titinius and taken him from his horse were Brutus’ soldiers celebrating their victory over Octavius’ army, even “as Cassius’ legions are (defeated) by Antony” (V.iii.52). They find the body of Cassius and realize how Cassius mistook what they saw. Messala goes to tell Brutus what has happened, and when Titinius is alone, he laments failing Cassius and kills himself with Cassius’ sword.
Brutus arrives with Messala, and asks,
Lo, yonder, and Titinius mourning it.
Titinius’ face is upward.
Whoops. It’s funny… if it wasn’t so tragic. Brutus mourns his fallen friend for a quick moment, saying he was the “last of all the Romans” (V.iii.98), then the time to mourn is over. But finding Cassius dead spurs Brutus on, and before nightfall, his army “shall try fortune in a second fight” (V.iii.109) against the armies of the triumvirate.
In Act Five, Scene Four, Lucillius pretends to be Brutus on the battlefield, is captured, then taken to Antony, who recognizes that this isn’t Brutus and tells his men to keep looking for the conspirator.
In the fifth and final scene of both the act and the play, Brutus is in retreat. And not just from the armies of Antony and Octavius, but seemingly from life itself. He pulls aside Clitus and Dardanius, separately, whispers some request to them, and ends up with each refusing him. It’s only when he asks Volumnius do we hear the question: Brutus wants someone to hold his sword while he runs on it… but Brutus is refused again.
Brutus then asks Strato, who accepts and holds the sword, “Brutus runs on it” (V.v.50 s.d.). And his final words are “Caesar, now be still. // I killed not thee with half so good a will” (V.v.50-1).
Octavius and Antony arrive to find the last dead conspirator. And over that body, Antony gives a eulogy that rivals the one he delivered for Caesar:
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.
His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man.”
Antony has no mob to inflame here; his words are complimentary, almost exalting. After all that has happened, Antony says this? Calls Brutus the “noblest Roman of them all”?
He may be telling the truth. Hell, he may actually believe it. Or maybe he’s a hypocrite. Or master politician, here not playing to a crowd but to Octavius who feels less like a partner than a foe to be manipulated.
But it all just feels like a lie.
So this is how the play ends… not with a bang but a lie.