In what ways is Marcus Brutus a villain in Julius Caesar?

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While Shakespeare casts Brutus in a relatively favorable light as an honorable, selfless man, one could argue that Brutus possesses several villainous attributes. Even though Brutus cares deeply about the Roman populace and is manipulated by Cassius, he proves that he is a villain by betraying his close friend and...

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While Shakespeare casts Brutus in a relatively favorable light as an honorable, selfless man, one could argue that Brutus possesses several villainous attributes. Even though Brutus cares deeply about the Roman populace and is manipulated by Cassius, he proves that he is a villain by betraying his close friend and assassinating a well-liked, benevolent leader.

Before murdering Julius Caesar, Brutus struggles to come to terms with the fact that he is about to kill his friend. Caesar views Brutus as a close ally and is astonished that Brutus would betray him. By betraying Caesar, Brutus is portrayed as a deceitful, heartless villain.

In addition to betraying his close friend, Brutus proceeds to bathe his hands in Caesar's blood, which is a disturbing, unsettling image. Brutus's decision to bathe his hands in Caesar's blood depicts him as a violent, intimidating villain. Shortly after assassinating Julius Caesar, Brutus tells the senators,

Stoop, Romans, stoop, / And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood / Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords. / Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace, / And waving our red weapons o'er our heads / Let’s all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty! (3.1.116-120)

After successfully murdering Julius Caesar, Brutus spares Antony's life and allows him to speak at Caesar's public funeral, which is a terrible decision. During Antony's speech, he paints Caesar in a positive light and portrays him as a selfless, generous politician. Mark Antony tells the masses,

You all did see that on the / Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, / Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition? / Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, / And, sure, he is an honorable man. / I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, / But here I am to speak what I do know. / You all did love him once, not without cause. (3.2.95-101)

Antony's convincing speech and moving evidence suggest that Brutus murdered a benevolent, kind leader, which is a villainous action. Brutus did not kill a tyrant but assassinated a respected, beloved public figure. If one were to consider Brutus's betrayal, his bloody actions, and the fact that he assassinated a revered, altruistic leader, one could certainly argue that he is a villain.

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The cup on interpreting Brutus is either half full or half empty: in other words, a reader/viewer can focus on his good points or his bad.

On the good side, he is not ruthless. His motives might be a little mixed, but there is no question that he does care deeply about Rome and genuinely wants to save it from a possible tyranny. He is sincere when he tells the crowds that he loved Caesar but loved Rome more.

We can see Brutus wanting to do the right thing: for example, he allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd despite being warned against it, only asking that Antony not criticize the assassins. He falls into the more ruthless man's trap, for Mark Antony uses sarcasm to turn the crowd against him. Antony also reveals Brutus's villainy in ways it is hard to deny when he carries out Caesar's corpse for the crowd to see and speaks of how Caesar cared the Roman people's welfare and left them funds in his will, saying

"You will compel me then to read the will?
Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar
And let me show you him that made the will."

The quote above brings us directly to the minus side, which is that there is no getting around Brutus' betrayal of his close friend. Good people just don't murder their best friends in cold blood. As Caesar says as Brutus is stabbing him, "Et tu, Brutus," meaning "and [even] you, Brutus?" This implies that Brutus's betrayal is the harshest blow of all: Caesar is saying, "my good friend: you of all people betrayed me? The others—yes, OK—but you?" This is a heartbreaking moment that shows Brutus's villainy.

Further, good people don't murder someone who is a competent, caring, and strong leader of a realm—in Shakespeare's world, that never works out well. Brutus can be seen as a villain both for betraying his close friend and for participating in a murder that leads to a destructive civil war in Rome. All of this mayhem too, was unleashed based only on surmises of what Caesar might have done. Brutus being part of a group driving Rome into a civil war that causes great suffering was a villainous act, and one he pays for with his life.

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Julius Caesar is a unique play because the line between good and evil is jagged and unclear.  When I teach this play to my class, it is usually about a 50-50 split between those who think Antony is the good guy and those who think Brutus is the honorable one.

Those who see Brutus as the villain tend to fault Brutus for being gullible and so easily manipulated.  He falls for Cassius' ploy to kill Caesar unable to see the personal vendetta attached to Cassius' efforts.

Others fault Brutus for his lack of loyalty.  Caesar had been one of his closest friends for a long time.  Some people can't jusify stabbing one's friend in the back, no matter what the reason.  They are further repulsed by the way Brutus bathes his hands in Caesar's blood almost immediately after the slaying.  They find it a gory act, void of any loyalty or honor.

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