By Shannon Fitzgerald
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and it’s recounting of the historical downfall of Caesar places a great deal of focus on honor, particularly the honor, or lack thereof, of Brutus, ultimately making the play much more about Brutus’s arc than the death of Caesar. Throughout the play Brutus is referred to as being noble and from one of the oldest families in Rome. This sense of honor and nobility is integral to and inseparable from his identity as a person. It is his preoccupation with honor that enables Cassius to convince him that Caesar must be destroyed and after the conspiracy is carried out Brutus’s desperation to maintain his honor becomes increasingly evident in his speech, and finally it is honor that Brutus dies for, successfully returning to his lauded status of “the noblest Roman of them all” (V.v l.68) after his suicide.
Cassius’s hatred for Julius Caesar is by and large for personal and emotional reasons. He is jealous that Caesar has reached such great political heights in spite of his physical deficiencies and he enviously questions what makes Caesar any better than Brutus, himself or any other Roman when he says “Why should that name [Caesar] be sounded more than yours?”(I.ii. l.142) He knows that Brutus wouldn’t be moved to kill a man, a man who considered Brutus to be a close friend, by such petty reasons, but Cassius knew that Brutus, above all else, would act in the defense of Rome. Knowing how inexorably tied together Brutus’s identity and honor are, all Cassius needed to do to gain Brutus’s necessary support was to question the safety of Rome and it’s people under the potential rule of Caesar as a king. The theoretical picture Cassius paints, that Caesar would possibly become a tyrant if he was king, isn’t all that convincing, as such it’s doubtful that Brutus really believes this reasoning, and it would in turn seem that there are some personal reasons for his actions after all. The preemptive murder of a man who just might be negatively influenced and corrupted by power hardly seems like a logical course of action, yet Brutus thinks Caesar “a serpent’s egg / Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous” (II.i ll.32-33) and it would be be best to “kill him in the shell” (II.i l.34).
Ultimately, Cassius’s efforts at manipulating Brutus by his honor is successful, but it doesn’t change just how dedicated Brutus is to maintaining his noble and honorable image. As soon as the decision is made to kill Caesar, Brutus works towards doing so in such a way that the Roman people will see that the conspirators had all acted to save Rome from tyranny. He needs the assassination to be seen as a sacrifice and the conspirators to be “purgers, not murderers” (II.i l.179), if they are not, then the brutal stabbing of Caesar would be nothing more than a “savage spectacle” (III.i l. 223), in turn destroying his honor.
Brutus’s doubts that his actions were honorable become clearer in his speech to the people in the second scene of the third act. He repeats “mine honor” four times within the space of about twenty lines as he tries to drive home the message “not that I loved Caesar less, / but that I loved Rome more” (III.ii ll.21-22), but who is he trying to convince? The common people accept his story readily enough so it must be assumed that a good deal of Brutus’s speech is intended to convince himself that he’s done the right thing. Immediately after this speech the idea that honor can be a liability is returned to with Antony’s eulogy and his own repetition and questioning of the honor of Caesar’s murder. “But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man” (III.ii. ll.87-88) Antony says time and time again, until not only is Brutus’s honor thrown into question the very words being used have reached a point where they are meaningless.
It is telling that the play ends with the suicides of Cassius and Brutus and the subsequent switch in the way the survivng characters view them to be honorable once more. They chose to die for their principles rather than living without honor and so Julius Caesar closes with one of the few examples in the play of what true honor is.