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Shakespeare's Characters: Brutus (Julius Caesar)

From Julius Caesar. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1908.

Coleridge has a shrewd doubt as to what sort of a character Shakespeare meant his Brutus to be. For, in his thinking aloud just after the breaking of the conspiracy to him, Brutus avowedly grounds his purpose, not on anything Cæsar has done, nor on what he is, but simply on what he may become when crowned. He "knows no personal cause to spurn at him"; nor has he "known when his affections sway'd more than his reason"; but "he would be crown'd: how that might change his nature, there's the question"; and,

     Since the quarrel
Will bear no colour 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. [II, i, 28-34.]
So then Brutus heads a plot to assassinate the man who, besides being clothed with the sanctions of law as the highest representative of the state, has been his personal friend and benefactor; all this, too, not on any ground of fact, but on an assumed probability that the crown will prove a sacrament of evil, and transform him into quite another man. A strange piece of casuistry indeed! but nowise unsuited to the spirit of a man who was to commit the gravest of crimes, purely from a misplaced virtue.

And yet the character of Brutus is full of beauty and sweetness. In all the relations of life he is upright, gentle, and pure; of a sensitiveness and delicacy of principle that cannot bosom the slightest stain; his mind enriched and fortified with the best extractions of philosophy; a man adorned with all the virtues which, in public and private, at home and in the circle of friends, win respect and charm the heart.

Being such a man, of course he could only do what he did under some sort of delusion. And so indeed it is. Yet this very delusion serves, apparently, to ennoble and beautify him, as it takes him and works upon him through his virtues. At heart he is a real patriot, every inch of him. But his patriotism, besides being somewhat hidebound with patrician pride, is of the speculative kind, and dwells, where his whole character has been chiefly formed, in a world of poetical and philosophic ideals. He is an enthusiastic student of books. Plato is his favorite teacher; and he has studiously framed his life and tuned his thoughts to the grand and pure conceptions won from that all but divine source: Plato's genius walks with him in the Senate, sits with him at the fireside, goes with him to the wars, and still hovers about his tent.

His great fault, then, lies in supposing it his duty to be meddling with things that he does not understand. Conscious of high thoughts and just desires, but with no gift of practical insight, he is ill fitted to "grind among the iron facts of life." In truth, he does not really see where he is; the actual circumstances and tendencies amidst which he lives are as a book written in a language he cannot read. The characters of those who act with him are too far below the region of his principles and habitual thinkings for him to take the true cast of them. Himself incapable of such motives as govern them, he just projects and suspends his ideals in them, and then misreckons upon them as realizing the men of his own brain. So also he clings to the idea of the great and free republic of his fathers, the old Rome that has ever stood to his feelings touched with the consecrations of time and glorified with the high virtues that have grown up under her cherishing. But, in the long reign of tearing faction and civil butchery, that which he worships has been substantially changed, the reality lost. Cæsar, already clothed with the title and the power of Imperator for life, would change the form so as to agree with the substance, the name so as to fit the thing. But Brutus is so filled with the idea of that which has thus passed away never to return that he thinks to save or recover the whole by preventing such formal and nominal change.

And so his whole course is that of one acting on his own ideas, not on the facts that are before and around him. Indeed, he does not see them; he merely dreams his own meaning into them. He is swift to do that by which he thinks his country ought to be benefited. As the killing of Cæsar stands in his purpose, he and his associates are to be "sacrificers, not butchers." But that the deed may have the effect he hopes for, his countrymen generally must regard it in the same light as he does. That they will do this is the very thing which he has in fact no reason to conclude; notwithstanding, because it is so in his idea, therefore he trusts that the conspirators will "be called purgers, not murderers." Meanwhile, the plain truth is, that if his countrymen had been capable of regarding the deed as a sacrifice, they would not have made nor permitted any occasion for it. It is certain that, unless so construed, the act must prove fruitful of evil; all Rome is full of things proving that it cannot be so construed; but this is what Brutus has no eye to see.

So too, in his oration "to show the reason of our Cæsar's death," he speaks, in calm and dispassionate manner, just those things which he thinks ought to set the people right and himself right in their eyes, forgetting all the while that the deed cannot fail to make the people mad, and that popular madness is not a thing to be reasoned with. And for the same cause he insists on sparing Antony, and on permitting him to speak in Cæsar's funeral. To do otherwise would be unjust, and so would overthrow the whole nature of the enterprise as it lives in his mind. And because in his idea it ought so to be, he trusts that Antony will make Cæsar's death the occasion of strengthening those who killed him, not perceiving the strong likelihood, which soon passes into a fact, that in cutting off Cæsar they have taken away the only check on Antony's ambition. He ought to have foreseen that Antony, instead of being drawn to their side, would rather make love to Cæsar's place at their expense.

Thus the course of Brutus serves no end but to set on foot another civil war, which naturally hastens and assures the very thing he sought to prevent. He confides in the goodness of his cause, not considering that the better the cause, the worse its chance with bad men. He thinks it safe to trust others because he knows they can safely trust him; the singleness of his own eye causing him to believe that others will see as he sees, the purity of his own heart, that others will feel as he feels.

Here then we have a strong instance of a very good man doing a very bad thing; and, withal, of a wise man acting most unwisely because his wisdom knew not its place; a right noble, just, heroic spirit bearing directly athwart the virtues he worships. On the whole, it is not wonderful that Brutus should have exclaimed, as he is said to have done, that he had worshiped virtue and found her at last but a shade. So worshiped, she may well prove a shade indeed! Admiration of the man's character, reprobation of his proceedings,--which of these is the stronger with us? And there is much the same irony in the representation of Brutus as in that of Cæsar; only the order of it is here reversed. As if one should say, "O yes, yes! in the practical affairs of mankind your charming wisdom of the closet will doubtless put to shame the workings of mere practical insight and sagacity."

Shakespeare's exactness in the minutest details of character is well shown in the speech already referred to; which is the utterance of a man philosophizing most unphilosophically; as if the Academy should betake itself to the stump, and this too without any sense of the incongruity. Plutarch has a short passage which served as a hint, not indeed for the matter, but for the style of that speech. "They do note," says he, "in some of his epistles that he counterfeited that brief compendious manner of speech of the Lacedæmonians. As, when the war was begun, he wrote unto the Pergamenians in this sort: 'I understand you have given Dolabella money: if you have done it willingly, you confess you have offended me; if against your wills, show it then by giving me willingly.'... These were Brutus' manner of letters, which were honoured for their briefness." The speech in question is far enough indeed from being a model of style either for oratory or anything else, but it is finely characteristic; while its studied primness and epigrammatic finish contrast most unfavorably with the frank-hearted yet artful eloquence of Antony.

And what a rare significance attaches to the brief scene of Brutus and his drowsy boy Lucius in camp a little before the catastrophe! There, in the deep of the night, long after all the rest have lost themselves in sleep, and when the anxieties of the issue are crowding upon him,--there we have the earnest, thoughtful Brutus hungering intensely for the repasts of treasured thought.

Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so;
I put it in the pocket of my gown. [IV, iii, 252, 253.]
What the man is, and where he ought to be, is all signified in these two lines. And do we not taste a dash of benignant irony in the implied repugnance between the spirit of the man and the stuff of his present undertaking? The idea of a bookworm riding the whirlwind of war! The thing is most like Brutus; but how out of his element, how unsphered from his right place, it shows him! There is a touch of drollery in the contrast, which the richest steeping of poetry does not disguise. And the irony is all the more delectable for being so remote and unpronounced; like one of those choice arrangements in the background of a painting, which, without attracting conscious notice, give a zest and relish to what stands in front. The scene, whether for charm of sentiment or felicity of conception, is one of the finest in Shakespeare.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1908. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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