Although Shakespeare named his play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Caesar is neither the protagonist nor the hero of the drama. Those distinctions belong to Brutus, the central character whose conflicts elevate the brutal assassination of a ruler into an examination of ambition, power, personal responsibility, and political corruption. It is the destruction of Brutus—not Caesar—that is tragic, and it is Brutus whom Shakespeare casts as a tragic hero brought down by a fatal flaw in his own character: his idealism.
Like Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear), Brutus occupies a high position in society and thus has far to fall, emphasizing the tragedy of his ultimate destruction. As a Roman senator whose ancestor once defeated tyranny in Rome, Brutus is highly regarded by the citizenry, and his reputation for integrity is well deserved. He harbors no personal ambition, embraces the ideals of freedom and democracy, and feels a personal responsibility to preserve them for the Roman people. His idealism extends beyond political philosophy, however. It also informs his judgment, rendering him helpless in recognizing deceit and manipulation and in anticipating other dark manifestations of human nature. Brutus assumes, naively, that other men are as honorable as he is.
Living in an abstract world where honor dictates behavior, Brutus is unable to survive in the real world of Rome at the time of Julius Caesar’s ascendancy to power. Caesar’s arrogant, dictatorial behavior alarms Brutus, instilling fears that Caesar has been corrupted by power and intends to rule as a tyrant. Deceived and manipulated by Cassius, who cleverly preys on the idealism and naïveté in Brutus’s character, Brutus joins the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Brutus believes that his responsibility to the freedom of the Roman people justifies deceiving and then murdering Caesar, his friend; he also believes that those who would assassinate Caesar are driven by principles as honorable as his own, evidence of his impaired judgment in recognizing the realities of human nature.
Before joining the conspiracy, Brutus is fraught with internal conflict. He is “with himself at war” as he struggles to align his idealism with conflicting principles of honorable behavior, for as he tells Cassius, “I love the name of honor more than I fear death.” Once committed to assassinating Caesar, Brutus strives to idealize what he and the other conspirators are about to do. When Cassius proposes swearing their resolution to murder Caesar, Brutus refuses. He associates taking such an oath with those who “welcome wrongs” and swear “unto bad causes.” The “even virtue of our enterprise” and the “insuppressive mettle of our spirits,” he contends, make an oath unnecessary; moreover, he reminds the others that noble Romans do not betray “the smallest particle / Of any promise….” Thus Brutus casts their plot to commit a brutal murder as a virtuous undertaking and the conspirators as courageous and honorable men.
After Caesar has been stabbed to death on the floor of the Senate, Brutus continues to idealize the murder as a blow for freedom. He believes the Roman people will understand and accept the conspirators’ actions once they are explained; he also trusts that Antony’s motives in requesting to speak at Caesar’s funeral are innocent. In both respects, Brutus is idealistic and naive, unable to recognize Antony’s deceit and unaware of the power of raw emotion over intellect. After Antony’s funeral oration, the conspirators are driven from Rome by an enraged mob, civil war erupts, and Brutus’s fate is sealed.
Brutus clings to his idealism even as he and Cassius wage a losing war against Antony and Octavius on the plains of Greece. He publicly condemns the corrupt Lucius Pella for taking bribes, and he is further enraged when he learns that Cassius, too, has chosen “[t]o sell and mart [his] offices for gold.” Attacking Cassius for having “an itching palm,” Brutus cries out, in anguish, “Remember March, the ides of March remember. / Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?” He is repelled by the very idea of profiting from Caesar’s assassination through “base bribes” and “so much trash as may be graspèd” through the abuse of power. Haunted by the ghost of Caesar, Brutus bravely battles Antony and Octavius until he believes he is defeated and then chooses to commit suicide rather than endure the dishonor of being captured.
In the final scene of the play, Shakespeare reminds the audience that Brutus is indeed a tragic hero. Of all the conspirators, Antony intones over Brutus’s body, and only he acts from honest, honorable motives for the “common good to all.” Underscoring the excellence of Brutus’s character, which emphasizes the tragedy of his destruction, Shakespeare has more for Antony to say about him. “His life was gentle,” Antony continues, “and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’” In another time and place, the idealism that informed Brutus’s view of himself and the world at large and that dictated his decisions might not have worked against him; in the political atmosphere of Rome during the reign of Julius Caesar, however, it is a fatal flaw that destroys him.