As is tradition, first we’ll give the FULL quote as it appears in the text before getting to its meaning and relevance within the play.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.Cassius
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a dramatic retelling of the assassination plot, and subsequent fallout, of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. Historically the events described did, more or less, take place in some form and occurred more than 1,600 years before the writing of the famous play you had to read in school.
It can be a little discombobulating that a play written 500 years ago describes an event that took place more than 2,000 years ago but that’s the reality of the situation. If it helps, think of the show Wonder Years. A show that came out in the late 1980s but describes the late 1960s, making it easy to confuse the two.
This is important in terms of the history of the English language because the language Shakespeare uses to describe the event and the language Julius Caesar used when he was actually assassinated in 44 B.C. are now essentially dead languages.
Who Was Cassius Talking To?
Cassius was speaking to Brutus in the moments following his dedication to the reigning emperor Julius Caesar. The speech that Cassius gives to Brutus is immediately preceded by Brutus mocking the crowd’s applause for Caesar with the line “some new honors that are heaped on Caesar.”
What Did Cassius Mean?
Though the quote is often misquoted, the interpretation seldom is. It is widely believed that Cassius was trying to make the point that men may take control of their own fate. Returning to John Green who made a mantra in Crash Course History that “you’re either made by history or you make history.”
Though he was using the line, at the time, to describe Adolf Hitler (whom it’d be very difficult to argue that the 20th century would have turned out the same without him) the quote could just as easily be applied to Julius Caesar as well. A man who, despite numerous reforms, oversaw the replacement of the Roman Republic and ushered it into an error of being the Roman Empire.
However, returning to the relevance of the play, keep in mind that the entire play is about the theme of fate and predestination. Whether it be the vision by the soothsayer (“Beware the ides of March”), or the subsequent fight between Caesar and his wife that resulted, Shakespeare, is constantly exploring this tension between whether, if something is destined to happen, we can actually be in control of our own actions.
Ultimately, Brutus is going to be swayed by members of the Senate to take destiny into their own hands and betray his good friend Julius Caesar. In response, the Roman people lead by a moving speech at Caesar’s funeral, are going to take matters into their own hands and revolt against the Senate and Brutus’ armies (which in reality ushered in a series of Civil Wars).