Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
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 crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder
And that craves wary walking. Crown him? that;
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power, and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus, that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which hatch'd would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 10-34
Julius Caesar has returned from his victorious battle against Pompey in the Roman civil war. It is the feast of Lupercalia, a fertility rite, and Caesar has told his wife, Calpurnia, to stand in the path of Caesar’s loyal friend Mark Antony, who runs in the race, for people believed if a woman is touched by a runner during this rite she will become pregnant. The implication is that Caesar expects to be made a king, and he is eager for a son who might inherit his title. A soothsayer ominously tells Caesar, “Beware the ides of March” (which is the next day), and this second instance of superstition increases the suspense that something is going to happen to Caesar. In fact, some of Caesar’s generals and noblemen are worried that the mob will try to make Caesar king and that he will accept the honor. Cassius, a senator who distrusts Caesar’s ambitions and resents the adulation bestowed on him, hints to Brutus, another great friend of Caesar’s, that he should participate in a plot to assassinate Caesar, hoping that Brutus’s reputation for virtue and wisdom will lend moral weight to the cause. Cassius tells Brutus he has noticed he looks worried and then suggests he must be worried about Caesar, because he is too. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings,” he tells him (1.2.146-147), trying to convince Brutus to take responsibility for preserving a free Rome. After he hears that Caesar was offered the crown three times, including once by Antony, Brutus tells Cassius he will think about the idea. Late that night, Cassius meets with Casca and Cicero, two other conspirators. The night is stormy, and Casca says he has seen many unnatural sights on his way to their meeting, including a slave with a burning hand and a lion that glared at him. Meanwhile, unable to sleep during the storm, Brutus is in his orchard, meditating on whether to join in Cassius’s plot against Caesar. He has always admired Caesar and considered him a good leader, but he wonders whether Caesar would continue to be just and honorable if he is granted the tremendous authority of kingship. After concluding that Caesar will indeed be corrupted by power, as Cassius has suggested, he receives a letter from the conspirators that firms his decision to lead them in assassinating Caesar.
Some think the play should be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus because Brutus, not Caesar, is the tragic hero here. Brutus is a great man, which we see by the fact that Cassius and the other conspirators need him in their plot to kill Caesar. However, like all tragic heroes, Brutus has flaws: idealism and poor judgment. He allows Cassius to convince him that Caesar as king would corrupt Rome without considering the consequences of an assassination—chaos and war. Even worse, he assumes Cassius’s motives are noble because his own are. However, Cassius’s method of convincing him might be suspect, which we see in Act 1 when he tells Brutus, “Since you know you cannot see yourself / ...I... / Will modestly discover to yourself / That...which you yet know not of” (1.2.72-75). In other words, Cassius tells Brutus, “You don’t seem to know what you are thinking, so allow me to tell you.” And he tells him that Caesar should not be made king because he is only a man, not greater than they, and should therefore not rule over them.
With Cassius’s suggestions planted firmly in his mind, Brutus makes his decision about killing Caesar in terms of his feelings—what he thinks about “human nature”—rather than basing it on an astute political consideration of the consequences of such a deed and the baser motives, including envy, that Cassius might have in suggesting it. Nor does he have a strong logical argument; instead, he uses analogies from nature to arrive at his conclusion to kill Caesar. The monologue in the quoted passage above enacts Brutus’s internal conflict. He worries that Caesar will “disjoin remorse from power,” which means he would become cold and heartless in the process of exercising authority. That, for Brutus, would be dangerous, which he expresses in three similes. Just as an adder comes out in the daylight, Caesar, safe as a general, might become deadly with the power of kingship. Power corrupts, Brutus concludes. His second simile suggests another aspect of power: ambition. Just as a man climbing a ladder necessarily looks down on those people on rungs below him, so Caesar will look down on others, think they are of less importance than he, once he reaches the pinnacle of power that kingship would provide. Brutus now believes that Caesar has been climbing that ladder all along (although he does not provide reasons for this belief). Finally, Brutus compares Caesar to the egg of a serpent “which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous”; as a result, he determines to “kill him in the shell.”
The letter he reads from Cassius later in the scene tells Brutus to “awake” to see the problems in Rome, suggesting that if he is a man and a patriot, he will “take action” to save Rome and kill Caesar. That does it. Remembering the patriotism of his ancestors, he promises Rome that it will receive “full petition at the hand of Brutus!”
The storm and strange occurrences that are part of this scene symbolize that nature protests the assassination of a leader, for that is an unnatural act. Shakespeare was always cognizant of his audience, in this case Elizabeth I, who herself had problems claiming the throne over her rival Mary Queen of Scots. In this way, the play is deeply political as well as tragic, asserting the wrongness of murdering a leader, even an ambitious one. However, it is important to remember that Brutus is not an evil man but a good one, too easily convinced and too idealistic, not sufficiently a man of reason and therefore doomed. Even in the last act, Antony, by that time his enemy and allied with Octavius, Caesar’s nephew, calls Brutus “gentle” and says he “was the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.74). Quite a tribute from one’s enemy, this testament to Brutus confirms his tragic heroism.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1331
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
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;
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Act 3, Scene 2, 81-115
The crowd’s approval of Brutus’s speech earlier in Act 3 gives him the opportunity to succumb to his own ambitions if he has any, but he does not. He tells the crowd, “Good countrymen, let me depart alone, / And, for my sake, stay here with Antony.” What Brutus does not know, however, is that after Antony pledged to him his loyalty and shook his bloody hand, Antony said (in soliloquy), “Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood,” and asked his servant to bring Octavius, Caesar’s nephew, back to Rome to help him (and Ledipus, another senator) rule in a triumvirate. Thus, when Brutus tells the crowd that they should listen to what Antony has to say, we the audience know, but Brutus does not, that Antony intends to undermine Brutus’s credibility. This dramatic irony causes us to wonder whether Antony has Rome’s best interest at heart, for we know he wants to convince the crowd that Brutus should pay for his treachery. He must do this indirectly, however, through verbal irony and sarcasm, so that he does not directly contradict Brutus. Doing so might jeopardize his relationship with the crowd, whom he wants to win to his side. Just as after Caesar’s death, he proclaims, “Domestic fury and fierce civil strife / Shall cumber all the parts of Italy,” so when he concludes this funeral oration he says, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt!” He intends to cause trouble, partly to avenge the death of Caesar but mostly to ensure that the triumvirate, not Brutus and Cassius, become the new rulers of Rome. The dramatic irony also lends a greater understanding of the persuasive strategies of Antony’s speech, which prove considerably more effective than those used by Brutus, who again appears naive and idealistic by not understanding politics in a very political world. Antony, however, understands politics very well, as this speech demonstrates, even beginning with the fact that he enters the Forum with Caesar’s body in tow, which he will use as a prop throughout his oration.
Antony’s speech reveals all of the tension of this tragedy. The first line echoes Brutus’s opening words earlier in the scene while rearranging them. Where Brutus begins with “Romans” to reflect his appeal to their reason (however faulty at times) and fellowship as citizens, Antony begins with “friends,” which reflects the more emotional tactic he will take in his speech. When he then says he comes to bury Caesar not to praise him, he flatly lies, which becomes apparent when he in fact praises him by saying, for example, that Caesar was “faithful” and “just” as well as generous. Just as Brutus repeatedly used the word "honor" to convince the crowd (and perhaps himself) that he is a man of honor, so Antony also returns to the word again and again, but while Brutus uses it with a sincere tone, Antony uses it with sarcasm, changing its meaning altogether so that it communicates the exact opposite, providing a perfect example of irony as tone and how it can completely reverse the ostensible meaning of a statement.
By the time Antony finishes, his sarcasm twists “honor” until it becomes a curse, moving the fickle crowd to call for death for the conspirators. In addition, by using “ambitious” or “ambition” seven times and “honorable” five, Antony deflates ambition and transforms honorable from praise to condemnation. Nowhere does Antony say anything that literally denigrates Brutus, but his meaning is completely clear. As he nears the end of his speech, Antony again lies directly: “I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, / But...to speak what I do know.” Neither perceiving nor caring about this boldface untruth, the crowd by now is completely caught up in the emotional impact of Antony’s oratory. This pathos reaches its pinnacle when he finally says, “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.”
Through both lies and irony, therefore, Antony’s speech reveals Brutus for what he is, an assassin, and we, the audience, become keenly aware of his fall from the stature he had when the play opens; but because we still have Brutus’s eloquent and honest (if possibly defensive) speech echoing in our ears from earlier in the scene, we cannot forget that Brutus’s intentions were honorable and that he is in essence a good man. Simultaneously, this speech reveals that Antony cannot fully be trusted, might indeed be treacherous, but he understands politics and can manipulate people quite easily. He had, after all, already dissembled to Brutus when he pledged his loyalty to him when shaking the bloody hands of the conspirators. It is difficult to admire a manipulative person, and Antony is nothing if not that, but such might be the stuff of which politicians are made. On one hand, Antony is the antagonist because he acts in opposition to the protagonist, Brutus, an honest man who, flawed by misjudgment, errs severely and must therefore receive his due. This task, which the less noble Antony must carry out, is what makes this play so tragic: the flawed hero must be brought to justice by a man more deeply flawed than he. The difference between the two characters is that Antony never “falls” from a position of nobility and goodness—from the beginning we know that, though loyal, he is also politically savvy, which makes him manipulative and dangerous. Brutus, lacking these qualities, is doomed. Through this complex relationship between tragic hero and his antagonist, Shakespeare interrogates the equally complex relationship of honor to ambition, and the ways in which loyalty intersects with both. At the end of the play Shakespeare reconciles these tensions. Realizing his errors, Brutus nobly kills himself, with Antony and Octavius confirming the greatness of their enemy by affirming “there was a man.” Antony, however, never quite gains the respect we lose for him in tricking Brutus and in making this funereal speech with the intention of causing “mischief.” We thus leave the play feeling pity and fear that Brutus, a good man, fell from grace, but relieved that he understood his wrong and even his enemy appreciated his greatness, which is what makes this play such an effective tragedy.