Julius Caesar begins, fittingly enough, on a Roman street, with two tribunes, Flavius and Murellus, and some “certain Commoners (entering) over the stage” (I.i.1, stage direction). If that makes it sound somewhat chaotic–this idea of an “over” entrance–Flavius’ first words support this:
Is this a holiday?
The commoners have taken to the street, idle as if on holiday, and they’re in good spirits as their punning responses to Flavius and Murellus’ questions can attest. The commoners celebrate the return of Caesar and to “rejoice in his triumph” (I.ii.31). Here, “triumph” is less victory than a formal ceremony recognizing a military success.
This does not sit well with the tribunes, as they perceive the military victory being celebrated is not one against a foreign enemy but one against a Roman, the late Pompey. Pompey had ruled with Caesar and Crassus as part of the First Triumvirate, but Caesar had defeated Pompey in a civil war three years earlier, and Caesar has recently returned to Rome after finishing off the last of Pompey’s supporters. Flavius is so incensed by this celebration that when the commoners leave, he decides to go throughout Rome, and tear the ornaments from the statues of Caesar, a leader whom Flavius feels might end up enslaving them:
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.
The date is February 15, and it is the Feast of Lupercal, a fertility festival.
And with that as prelude, we see the entrance of the great man himself as Act One, Scene Two opens: most of the major characters enter to “loud music,” including Antony “stripped for the course” (both I.ii.1 s.d.), as he will be participating in the fertility rite by running naked through the city, striking people with a goatskin thong. In fact, Caesar instructs both his wife Calpurnia and Antony to make sure that she gets a little of Antony’s thong action (and my apologies for making this sound like “Magic Mike”), since “The barren, touchèd in this holy chase, // Shake off their sterile curse” (I.ii.10-1). But before this can turn into too much fun, a Soothsayer (or fortune-teller) warns Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March” (I.ii.20 and 25), or March 15. Caesar mocks him as a “dreamer” (I.ii.26), and all leave the stage, save for Brutus and Cassius.
Cassius asks Brutus if he is going to watch the festivities and Antony’s run. Brutus declines saying that he is “not gamesome… (and) lacks some part // Of that quick spirit that is in Antony” (I.ii.30-1). It sounds like the naked run, whacking folks with his thong is just a regular Saturday night for Antony. Cassius then notes that Brutus hasn’t been himself lately, and seems a bit estranged. Brutus responds that he’s been “vexed” (I.ii.41) and that since he has been “with himself at war” (I.ii.48), he hasn’t been as good a friend as he should.
Cassius tells Brutus that all in Rome “except the immortal Caesar” (I.ii.62) see Brutus as a great man, and that he wishes Brutus could see this himself. Brutus responds,
That you would have me seek into myself
For that which is not in me?
Brutus is no fool. He can see (seemingly) through Cassius’ compliments.
When there is an off-stage roar of the crowd, Brutus “fear(s) the people // Choose Caesar for their king” (I.ii.81-2). And we also begin to see his idealism, as he tells Cassius, “I love // The name of honor more than I fear death” (I.ii.90-1).
In an attempt to appeal to that idealism, Cassius tells Brutus of Caesar’s weaknesses (near drowning, epilepsy) and questions how “this man // Is now become a god” (I.ii.117-8). Another off-stage roar, and another unbelieving statement by Cassius:
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Cassius follows this by comparing Brutus to Caesar, saying that the name “‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’” (I.ii.148) then recalling that one of Brutus’ ancestors had once driven out the ruling family of Rome, the Tarquins. Brutus responds by telling Cassius he will “consider” (I.ii.169) what he has said.
Before any more can be said, Caesar and his train return, and Caesar is not a happy man: “The angry spot doth glow on Caesar’s brow” (I.ii.184). And if whatever happened off-stage has upset Caesar, what he has found back onstage isn’t much better, as he tells Antony: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. // He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous” (I.ii.195-6). Caesar obsesses over Cassius on the one hand (in the third person, no less), then repeatedly says that he doesn’t fear Cassius.
Once Caesar and his train leave, Brutus and Cassius ask Casca what happened off-stage, and he tells them in his own sarcastic, sardonic way, filling his reporting with such subjective interjections as “I can as well be hanged,” “I did not mark it,” “to my thinking” (twice), and “for mine own part” (I.ii.235, 236, 239, 241, and 248, respectively): Caesar was offered the crown three times by Antony. Caesar had refused it, and after the third refusal, he went so far as to offer to commit suicide (Casca believes to create sympathy from a crowd that Caesar perceived was “glad” [I.ii.264] he had refused the crown), and then Caesar fell into an epileptic fit.
Oh, and Casca had one more piece of news before he leaves: “Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarves off Caesar’s images, are put to silence” (I.ii.85-6), and exiled.
Before Brutus leaves, he tells Cassius that they will speak again on these matters. Alone, Cassius delivers the first soliloquy of the play, in which he reveals that he will convince Brutus to move against Caesar by sending him a number of messages (supposedly from different citizens), comparing Brutus’ “honorable mettle” (I.ii.309) to “Caesar’s ambition” (I.ii.320).
The third and final scene of the first act, too, takes place on a Roman street, but time has passed (how much, we don’t know at this time), it is night, and it is stormy. Cicero and Casca meet, and not only is the night filled with “thunder and lightning” (I.iii.1 s.d.), but the “earth // Shakes like a thing unfirm” (I.iii.3-4). Casca, the king of ironic detachment only a scene before is now a man unnerved, one who is afraid that “the world, too saucy with the gods, // Incenses them to send destruction” (I.iii.12-3).
From their conversation, we learn Caesar is to go to the Capitol in the morning. Exit Cicero, and enter Cassius, his jacket unbuttoned. While Casca is unnerved by the prospect that the gods are ready to punish evil-doers, Cassius is full of self-righteousness. It is a “very pleasing night to honest men” (I.iii.43), he says, and he has gone through the streets, “bar(ing his) bosom to the thunder” (I.iii.49), and he wasn’t struck down. In fact, he sees in the storm a metaphor for Caesar, who is as fear-inducing as “these strange eruptions are” (I.iii.77). And we learn a little more about Caesar’s trip to the Capitol: “the senators tomorrow // Mean to establish Caesar a king” (I.iii.84-5).
Cassius intimates that before that would happen, he has a dagger that he can use to deliver himself “from bondage” (I.iii.89). But will the deliverance be by suicide or homicide? It becomes apparent, as he discusses having
Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans
To undergo with me an enterprise
Of honorable-dangerous consequence
that this will be no large-scale suicide pact; this will be an assassination.
Cinna arrives with messages for Cassius and a plea to “win the noble Brutus to our party” (I.iii.141). Cassius gives Cinna letters to leave for Brutus’ finding (as in accordance with Cassius’ soliloquized scheme). “Three parts” (I.iii.154) of Brutus is already aligned with the conspiracy, and he will be “entire”-ly (I.iii.155) by morning, according to Cassius, and he and Casca leave the stage, the audience, and Act One, to make this happen.