“There is a tide”
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.
Can you think of the most significant decision of your life? That one moment that set the course of things to come—that split second that led on to failure or success?
Such pivotal moments are rare, but they are real—and they cannot be shirked. In this passage from Julius Caesar, Brutus is persuading Cassius to press on with their battle against the rival forces of Octavius and Marcus Antonius. This is war.
Brutus compares this critical juncture to the crest of a wave. If they take advantage of the “tide,” their armies will pass on to “fortune.” If not, there is nothing but the “loss” of their “ventures” and maybe their lives.
Reading these lines, we may be reminded of a number of familiar sayings. Take the expression, “time and tide wait for no man.” Indeed, we must seize the moment for ourselves. We may also think of the modern idea of “going with the flow.” However, for Brutus, this doesn’t mean being passive, but actively taking control.
To a modern ear, Brutus could almost be drawing his metaphor from surfing. Like a surfer, we must ride out the magnificent swelling of the wave, or else fall down on our face, pushed back towards chaos rather than racing toward the golden shore.
The image of the “full sea” recalls Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” speech. In his confusion, Hamlet wonders: “Whether ‘tis Nobler in the mind to suffer/ The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,/ Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them…” He longs to avoid the responsibility of making a judgement, but the possibility of suicide itself creates the fear of being judged in the afterlife.
Brutus, however, does ultimately kill himself. He conspires to murder his friend Julius Caesar to save Rome from tyranny, but is outwitted by the cunning Marcus Antonius, who is a far more persuasive politician for the people to believe in. Even today, critics cannot agree who is the real hero or villain of the play.
Should we trust what Brutus says? Is life really as black and white as he suggests? If things don’t turn out quite as we expected, why wouldn’t we simply dust ourselves off and start all over again?
Ironically, in our democratic age, we are perhaps more willing than the heroes of the ancient world to defy the fixed stars of fate—defy even the gods themselves. We may “lose our ventures,” but taking a deep breath, we grasp the wheel of fortune between our two bare hands and send it once more spinning into the future.
William Shakespeare (1564 –1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.