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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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CASSIUS

There are many sides to Cassius. This makes him difficult to pin down or sum up in a phrase-but it also makes him true to life.

Here are two opinions of Cassius. From Caesar:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Act I, Scene ii, lines 194-195

From Brutus:

The last of all the Romans, fare thee well! It is impossible that ever Rome Should breed thy fellow [equal].

Act V, Scene iii, lines 99-101

Both judgments are true-and false, for Cassius is different men to different people. Depending on how a person treats him, he can be loving or ruthless, gentle or hard, passionate or aloof. One moment he is deceiving his dear friend Brutus; the next, he is craving affection from him.

When we first meet Cassius, he is busy lying, flattering, forging letters, subverting the principles of his good friend Brutus. Caesar's opinion of him seems right on target. He's not motivated by the best interests of Rome, but by the desire for revenge on a man who doesn't like him, Jealousy moves him-jealousy of the fame and power of a man he considers no more worthy than himself.

Caesar calls Cassius a "lean and hungry" man, and you may want to take this as the final word on Cassius and interpret all his actions in this light. But Caesar's verdict is not the only one. Cassius' love for Brutus, for instance, seems quite genuine-particularly after the assassination. Cassius has many admirers and friends who are willing to fight and die for him. After the argument with Brutus, Cassius shows good-natured tolerance for the Poet. As death approaches, Cassius realizes that he is not the measure of all things, and that there are forces at work in the universe beyond his understanding and control. He takes his life, not because he has lost the battle, but because he believes (mistakenly) that he has caused the death of a friend.

Almost everything Cassius says and does, both before and after the assassination, can be interpreted as a direct, emotional reaction to people. He responds to people as Brutus responds to ideas. Whether he is conspiring to kill Caesar or asking for Brutus' love, Cassius is motivated by a boyish need for affection, and by a boyish hatred of those who refuse it. His reasons for killing Caesar seem to be strictly personal. Caesar, his close boyhood friend, has rejected him. "Caesar doth bear me hard," he says-Caesar bears a grudge against me and therefore must be destroyed.

When Cassius meets Brutus, he is disturbed by the absence of "that gentleness / And show of love as I was wont [accustomed] to have" (Act I, Scene ii, lines 33-34). In the quarrel scene, Cassius tells Brutus, like a pouting child, "You love me not" (Act IV, Scene iii, line 88). What upsets Cassius most are not Brutus' accusations but the fact that Brutus does not have "love enough" to bear with him.

Cassius' spitefulness and his craving for affection are childlike. He seems genuinely perplexed that Caesar, a man no stronger than himself, could become so powerful. He behaves like a boy who discovers that his idol has clay feet, and destroys it rather than live with its imperfections. "Such men as he be never at heart's ease" (Act I, Scene ii, line 208), says Caesar.

If you reread Cassius' speech against Caesar (Act I, Scene ii, lines 90-161), you'll see how Cassius equates worthiness with such traditionally masculine traits as physical strength and endurance. Perhaps because he has so little sense of himself, and of his own worth, he suffers from a sensitive ego, and measures himself not against some abstract standards of right and wrong (as Brutus does), but against others.

Cassius blames himself for giving Caesar so much power:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.



Act I, Scene ii, lines 140-141

These are the words of a spiritual outcast, who sees himself alone in the universe. Only as death nears does Cassius recognize himself as part of a divine plan, and achieve some measure of peace.

Cassius, we learn from Caesar, "hears no music." Here's what Lorenzo in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice says about his type:

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted

Act V, Scene i, lines 83-88

To Shakespeare, an inability to hear music was, quite literally, an inability to hear the harmonies of the universe. The fact that Cassius hears no music does not in itself make him evil, but it does reveal a lack of inner harmony, and a restlessness that can never be satisfied.

Cassius and Caesar are enemies in life, but the two are almost indistinguishable at the moment of death. Both let their masks slip, and reveal the gentleness that lies beneath. At this moment of truth, there is no masculine talk of revenge-no war cries or curses-but a simple lament for the betrayal of friends.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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