One of the dominant motifs of Renaissance literature is the ideal of profound friendship between men. This theme pervades Shakespeare’s plays, but always with intriguing variations on the nobility of two men whose spiritual and emotional bond supersedes worldly concerns. In some works, Shakespeare presents this relationship as having no sexual overtones, but in others we cannot be certain whether homoerotic elements are present. In either case, Shakespeare dramatizes how even a deep attachment is vulnerable to the changeability of life.
In Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus have been friends since boyhood. Their mutual affection has been strained, however, by Cassius’s desire to wrest power from Caesar and Brutus’s reluctance to participate in a coup. As the pair discuss the matter, Cassius turns Brutus’s every comment into an opportunity to continue persuasion. For instance, when Brutus reacts to a roar from the unseen crowd: “I do fear the people/ Choose Caesar for their king” (I, ii, 79–80), Cassius pounces: “Ay, do you fear it?/ Then must I think you would not have it so” (I, ii, 80). When Brutus claims: “…I love/ The name of honor more than I fear death” (I, ii, 88–89), Cassius follows at once: “Well, honor is the subject of my story” (I, ii, 92).
Cassius then begins the temptation of Brutus, playing on the latter’s ego by harkening back through Roman history to a legendary grandeur that Cassius knows Brutus reveres:
There was a Brutus once that would have brook’d
Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
(I, ii, 158–161)