A tide in the affairs of men

The Ides of March had me looking up Julius Caesar, recalling my favourite lines from Shakespeare’s play.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Sir John Gielgud delivers those lines with such feeling in this video. Those are stirring words, reminding us of the rise and fall in fortune, that unless we make best use of our opportunities, we will live to regret their loss.

These are memorable lines. But reading them in isolation it is impossible to gauge the mood and circumstances in which they are spoken,

Brutus speaks those words in Act 4, Scene 3 in the play. In his war tent on the eve of battle, he is urging his fellow conspirators that now is the time to strike, before it is too late. For, as he says:

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

The mood is fraught when Brutus says those words to his fellow conspirators gathered in his tent on the eve of battle in Act 4, Scene 4. He had been complaining to Cassius for not sending him money to pay his troops and mourning for his wife, Portia, who killed herself, unable to bear her separation from him and the growing strength of his enemies, Octavius and Mark Antony. When Messala comes and confirms she is dead, Brutus reacts stoically:

Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala:
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.

It is almost like Macbeth’s reaction after his wife’s death.

Then, as Messala and Cassius commiserate with him, Brutus urges them to action. Cassius does not want to face the enemies in battle. He says:

Tis better that the enemy seek us;:
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers…

But Brutus wants to fight. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” he says. Unless they fight now, at the peak of their power, their enemies, who are growing in strength, will prevail, he says.

Brutus is wrong in pressing for action. He will lose the battle.

He has a premonition later at night in the same scene when he is visited in his tent by the ghost of Caesar.

How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me.–Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

Why comest thou?

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

Omens and apparitions are part of Shakespeare’s plays. “Beware the Ideas of March,” a soothsayer tells Julius Caesar as he walks through a crowded public place in Act 1, Scene 2. On the day he is murdered, his wife, Calpurnia, asks him not to step outside the house for she has had a terrible nightmare. In Act 2, Scene 2, she tells him:

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Caesar responds:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.–

However, when a servant comes and tells him priests have also advised him not to leave his palace, Caesar tells his wife:

Mark Antony shall say I am not well,
And, for thy humour, I will stay at home.

But then Brutus and the others come to see him and he cannot ignore their entreaties to go with them to the senate.

On the way, in Act 3, Scene 1, he sees the soothsayer and tells him: “The Ides of March are come.”

The soothsayer responds: “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.”

Later, in the same scene, Caesar s stabbed to death by the conspirators. He gasps in disbelief when stabbed by Brutus: “Et tu, Brute? – Then fall Caesar,”

Fate, betrayal, patriotism, ambition are all part of this play where Cassius poisons Brutus’ mind against Caesar by portraying him as a would-be dictator, a threat to the Roman republic. In Act I, Scene 2, Cassius inveighs against Caesar and tells Brutus:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves,that we are underlings.

Brutus genuinely believed he was acting for the common good when he turned against Caesar. This is acknowledged even by Mark Antony. When he sees the body of Brutus, who commits suicide after losing the battle of Philippi, Antony says:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general-honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”

That is the nature of the Shakespearean tragic hero, flawed but heroic and noble,

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