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In the first scene of the last act of Julius Caesar the opposing generals meet for a brief parley before the battle of Philippi. Brutus speaks first:
Words before blows, is it so, countrymen?
Not that we love words better, as you do.
Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius.
In your bad strokes, Brutus, you give good words.
Witness the hole you made in Caesar’s heart,
Crying “Long live, hail Caesar.”
The posture of your blows are yet unknown;
But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees,
And leave them honeyless.
Not stingless too?
The Hybla bees were noted for the sweetness of their honey. Cassius is flattering Antony outrageously, with reference to his funeral oration which turned the mob against him and Brutus. Cassius is still smarting from the tongue-lashing he received from Brutus (IV,2) and is deliberately echoing Brutus’s “Words before blows.” He is speaking to Antony but wants to remind Brutus of how much more effectively Antony spoke at Caesar’s funeral although Brutus prides himself on his oratorical skill.
A lot is going on in this parley. Brutus is trying to be friendly, reminding Antony and Octavius that they are fellow countrymen and evidently hoping they might be able to arrange some sort of truce without fighting. In flattering Antony, the selfish and unreliable Cassius is also hinting that he might be induced to betray Brutus and bring his forces over to Antony’s and Octavius’s side if they could work out a deal. But Octavius is too hotheaded and Antony too angry. Brutus is becoming angry too when Antony reminds him of how his words “stung” him.
O yes, and soundless too,
For you have stolen their buzzing, Antony,
And very wisely threat before you sting.
Villains, you did not so when your vile daggers
Hacked one another in the sides of Caesar.
You showed your teeth like apes, and fawned like hounds,
And bowed like bondmen, kissing Caesar’s feet,
Whilst damned Casca, like a cur, behind,
Struck Caesar on the neck. O you flatterers!
After this there is no possibility of a peaceful settlement.
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