In Act V Scene iii of Julius Caesar, when Cassius embraces death, indirectly committing suicide, does this show his bravery or his cowardice?
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Cassius, like Brutus, contrives his own death when facing defeat in battle. It is true that he appears to die in a rather despairing frame of mind, feeling that all is lost. This, however, does not make him a coward; the play would appear to suggest the opposite. Titinius first pays tribute to him; ‘The sun of Rome is set’ (V.iii.63) and in fact kills himself out of grief. Similarly Brutus, often taken as the hero of the piece, warmly acclaims him and Titinius, declaring that they have no equal, before following their example in putting an end to his own life. For both Brutus and Cassius, taking their own lives is the honourable thing to do, rather than surrendering to or being killed by the enemy.
Interestingly, Cassius alludes to suicide several times throughout the play. The first is in Act I, scene iii, before the conspiracy has even quite taken root, when, exhilarated by the great storm, and eager to talk Casca round to his side, he declares he would be more than willing to end his own life rather than be in servitude:
I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
If I know this, know all the world besides,
That part of tyranny that I do bear
I can shake off at pleasure. (I.iii.89-100)
His next reference to suicide is in the crucial few moments just before Caesar’s assassination, when he fears that Popilius Lena has discovered their plot. Finally, in the quarrel scene with Brutus, he seems so hurt by Brutus’s recriminations that he asks Brutus to kill him. In all these instances, he is in an excited state and we might suspect that his inclination to suicide is more spurious than real. However, when it comes to the crunch, he does actually see the proposition through, and furthermore, he appears to be in a calmer, if wholly pessimistic state of mind when he does so, not so much agitated by the battle as accepting of his fate.
Cassius’s more fatalistic side is evident only in the very final stages of the play, when he remarks that now, as never before, he does somewhat believe in supernatural signs and warnings. Also he is all too aware of the significance of the date of the final battle, which is his birthday; he views his life as coming full circle.
This day I breathed first. Time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end.
My life is run his compass. (V.iii.23-25)
Taken all round, Cassius’s resolution to die on his own terms comes across as a decision made not from weakness or fear, but a certain noble dignity.
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