Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988
At the battlefield at Philippi, Antony and Octavius ready themselves for battle against the forces of Brutus and Cassius. Antony tells Octavius that his spies have informed him that the enemy forces are far weaker than they appear. Before the battle, Antony and Octavius meet Brutus and Cassius in the field, where they all accuse each other of treachery to Rome. Cassius tells Brutus that had the conspirators followed Cassius’s suggestion and killed Antony with Caesar, they would not have had to face this day of battle. Octavius proclaims that his sword will not rest until it has avenged “Caesar’s three and thirty wounds.” As Antony and Octavius stride away, Cassius tells Messala that he is reluctant to go to war on his birthday, having witnessed ominous signs that augur their defeat. Yet Cassius is resolute to fight, “fresh of spirit and resolved / To meet all perils very constantly.”
Cassius asks Brutus about their strategy in case of defeat. Brutus says though he is against suicide—“that philosophy / By which I did blame Cato for the death / Which he did give himself”—he would rather die than be taken captive. Agreeing that they will not be taken captive if defeated, the men say their final goodbyes and head to battle.
Amid the sounds of battle offstage, Brutus urges Messala to send fresh legions to their forces on the other side. Perceiving weakness in Octavius’s army, Brutus tells Messala this is the opportune time to double their attack.
Meanwhile, the flank manned by Cassius is overpowered by Antony’s forces. Cassius laments that Brutus and Messala have directed all their forces toward chasing Octavius, leaving Cassius to Antony’s mercy. As Cassius’s camp burns, his servant Pindarus urges him to fall back even farther, but Cassius refuses. Pindarus reports to Cassius that Titinius has been surrounded by the enemy and killed. Cassius fears the end is near, that his “life is run his compass.” Ashamed to have survived the death of Titinius, whom he sent out to scout the enemy, Cassius asks Pindarus to stab him, in exchange for Pindarus’s freedom. Pindarus runs his sword through Cassius, who falls, saying, “Caesar, thou art revenged, / Even with the sword that kill'd thee.” A free man now, Pindarus leaves the battlefield, swearing never to return to Rome.
Titinius, alive, enters the scene with Messala, hoping to cheer Cassius with the news that even though Antony has routed their forces, Brutus has overpowered Octavius. Titinius is devastated to discover Cassius’s corpse and sends Messala to tell Brutus the bad news. Alone with Cassius’s body, Titinius places the victory wreath he brought for Cassius on his own head and kills himself with Cassius’s sword.
Brutus and Messala find Cassius and Titinius dead, Cassius’s sword beside them. Overcome with grief and horror, Brutus notes that Caesar’s spirit is vengeful, as it “walks abroad and turns our swords / In our own proper entrails.”
Brutus orders Cassius’s body to be sent to Thasos for the funeral, as its presence in their camp may demoralize the soldiers. He prepares for a second fight.
Language, communication, and miscommunication are the prominent preoccupations of the first three scenes of act 5. Tellingly, the conspirators and loyalists first engage in a verbal battle on the field of Philippi, trading accusations. Not only is the language in which these insults are exchanged rich and figurative, drawing attention to itself, but the conversation also about the importance of words itself, as when Brutus states:
Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius.
Ironically, it is this...
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power of language that Brutus himself failed to capitalize on in his speech at Caesar’s funeral. The insistence on words in a battle scene is deliberate, conversely emphasizing that the time where words would have sufficed is long gone. Now battle is the only option left, and death is a real possibility. This is why Cassius and Brutus say their evocative, possibly final, farewells at the end of scene 1.
Linked with language is the motif of communication. Brutus misreads the strength of Antony’s army and his own, assuming the latter is at its peak, the high tide which must be “taken at the flood.” Brutus’s decision to first abandon his own strong defensive position and then split up to pursue Octavius proves a grave misconstruction of the entire situation, a fault of which Brutus is often guilty. Thus, Shakespeare seems to be saying, noble intent itself is not enough: communicating and assessing real-world situations, as well as deploying language efficiently, are all equally important survival skills.
Pindarus misreads the death of Cassius’s friend Titinius, which Cassius in turn misconstrues as a sign of his doom, tied up with the ill omens he witnessed earlier. With language and communication breaking down, there is no option but for Cassius to seek death at Pindarus’s hand. Ironically, the instrument of death is the same sword Cassius used on Caesar, bringing things full circle.
Yet the parallels between Cassius and Cesar stop here. Caesar did not choose to die, nor is Cassius’s death a means to avenge Caesar. The gap between reality and Cassius’s perception is another sort of miscommunication, a miscommunication to the self, of which most of the play’s chief characters have been guilty. Thus, Shakespeare clearly shows that the state at which communication breaks down, and words prove ineffectual, is the onset of death and dissolution.
Another interesting point to note in act 5 is the changing arc of Cassius’s character. Depicted as almost villainous at the beginning of the play, Cassius has shown himself to be a warm, loving friend to both Brutus and Titinius. In fact, it is his loyalty to Titinius that spurs him to kill himself out of guilt, as it was Cassius who sent Titinius to scout out the enemy.