In Julius Caesar, why is Brutus a tragic hero?
Brutus can be accounted as a tragic hero because he is unfailingly presented as a noble, upright, virtuous man who is, however, led into the tragic act of betraying a friend; and he suffers both internal and external conflict as a result.
Shakespearean tragic heroes, following the model laid down by Aristotle, generally are characters who are upstanding figures, well-spoken of by everybody, but who are let down by one major flaw. Brutus fits into this template. His flaw is his idealism – although it might seem odd to label idealism as a flaw, especially when compared to the deadly ambition of a Macbeth or the all-consuming jealousy of an Othello. However, it is undeniable that Brutus’s idealism leads to a fatal naivety on his part. He first is naïve enough to think that his political idealism can offset all personal concerns in turning against Caesar, a close friend.
It must be by his death; and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. - He would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there’s the question. (II.i.10-13)
Brutus has to concede that Caesar is not actually an oppressive tyrant and thus tries to justify his assassination purely on hypothetical grounds: that he may yet become one. This causes him considerable mental and emotional turmoil; he likens his state to that of a 'kingdom' suffering a 'insurrection' (II.i.68-69). His actions engender civil war in Rome, but long before this he is already beset by inner conflict.
It is true that Cassius’s machinations also propel Brutus towards killing Caesar, but, tellingly, he remarks that he is ‘with himself at war’ (I.ii.46) before Cassius tries to convince him to join the conspiracy. As a long-standing friend, Cassius know him well and simply works on bringing to the surface the tensions that already exist within him.
After the assassination, Brutus’s naivete misleads him into believing that he can win everybody around to his cause. Instead, events spiral completely out of his control; Rome is engulfed in civil war, and he and Cassius are defeated and take their own lives. The idealistic vision which he had for the state of Rome, as an enduring republic, is completely destroyed. Ultimately, his action in killing Caesar in order to safeguard the republic has the wholly ironic result of helping to establish Octavius, Caesar’s grand-nephew, as the first emperor of Rome. The tragedy of Brutus is not just his act of betrayal, his defeat and death, but the death of his ideals.
A tragic hero is often defined as a fundamentally decent, noble character brought low by a fatal flaw. Brutus would seem to fit this description to a tee. First of all, no one seriously disputes that Brutus is indeed, as Mark Antony famously says, an honorable man. His nobility of character and his purity of motive in joining the assassination plot make him stand apart from self-serving characters like Cassius who only think of themselves. Brutus loves Caesar; he is a close friend. However, he loves Rome even more or, more specifically, the Roman Republic and its long-standing traditions. Brutus venerates the Roman Republic, which was established after the overthrow of an ambitious tyrant. Brutus is genuinely concerned that Caesar wants to turn himself into another Tarquin, destroying the Republic and the traditions that Brutus so deeply cherishes.
Brutus's tragic flaw is that he is too trusting. He allows himself to be talked round by the sly, scheming Cassius, who convinces him that the best people in Rome are clamoring for him to take over. Brutus, like many high-minded people, often finds it difficult to believe that other people's motives are not as pure as his. Brutus' naivety is accompanied by vanity; he soon comes to believe that he is essential to the stability of Rome after Caesar's assassination; he is utterly convinced that it is his destiny to lead the Republican forces to victory over Mark Antony. This leads him into making fatal tactical errors during the ensuing conflict. Brutus's high-minded principles, lack of practicality, and self-righteous vanity make for a toxic mixture, one that leads to his ultimate downfall.