Tragic Hero: Julius Caesar, or Brutus?
The title of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is often criticized, argued that it should be titled Brutus, as Marcus Brutus is the tragic hero. However, the title is appropriate, as Julius Caesar, though insignificant as an actor in the play since he dies in Act 3 having a minimal amount of lines, impacts the characters in the play is a very significant way. The entire play revolves around him, not because he is the tragic hero, but because he is the one who influences the way the story progresses and causes the characters to behave as they do. Caesar therefore plays an important role in why Brutus is the tragic hero of the play. Brutus’s decision to kill Caesar becomes the focus of the play. His decision to murder Caesar was wrong, but it seemed right to Brutus since he was convinced that if Caesar became king, Rome would fall; thus, killing Caesar was necessary to save Rome. To him, his intentions were noble and purposeful, but they ultimately brought his own destruction. Aristotle defines a tragic hero as “a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his own destruction”(1), further stating that a tragic hero must possess five specific characteristics. First, the character must have a flaw, hamartia. Second, there must be a reversal of fortune, peripeteia, brought about because of the hero’s error of judgment and/or flaw. Third, the tragic hero must recognize that the reversal was brought about by his own actions, anagnorisis. Fourth, the tragic hero must have excessive pride, hubris. Lastly, the character’s fate has to be greater than he deserved. Brutus indeed fits into these five characteristics, hamartia, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hubris, and a greater fate than deserved, thus making Marcus Brutus the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.(1)
Marcus Brutus has many flaws, but his honor, poor judgement and idealism, truly bring him to his own destruction. Throughout the play Brutus has inner conflicts regarding Caesar’s assassination. Brutus convinces himself that once Caesar “attains the upmost round, He then unto the ladder turns his back”(2.1.23-26) on the people, therefore, the only way to stop him is to kill him. Brutus is therefore easily manipulated by Cassius into believing that if Caesar becomes king, Rome will fall. Since Brutus already has a deep love for his country, he is easily convinced that the assassination of Caesar is justified. He misjudges the motives of Cassius and therefore falls to his manipulative methods. Had Brutus not been so easily convinced by Cassius to be a part of Caesar’s murder, he may have followed a different fate. Brutus’ idealism clouds his judgment when he convinces himself that an ideal Rome is one without Caesar, and eventually brings him to murder Caesar for “the general”, instead of a “personal cause”(2.1.10-12). Brutus has great honor and respect for Rome and believes that he needs to save Rome from Caesar and the “danger he may”(2.1.18)(2) bring. He makes it is his responsibility to prevent its downfall. His excessive idealism and poor judgement of people and situations, leads him to assume that killing Caesar will save Rome. However, his actions actually cause a war over Rome, but his good intentions lead him to be the hero.
Peripeteia is brought about by Brutus’s error of judgement; he trusts those he shouldn’t, miscalculates the actions of others and in the end makes some very bad decisions. In the beginning of the play, Brutus is easily manipulated by Cassius and others into believing that if Caesar becomes king, Rome will fall. He therefore takes part in the murder of Caesar. After Caesar is murdered, Caesar’s funeral is held by Brutus. Antony, one of Caesar’s most loyal men, asks Brutus if he can “speak in order of his[Caesar’s] funeral”(3.1.252). Brutus responds with yes, but that Antony “shall not” blame the conspirators, “but speak all good” he “can devise of Caesar” (3.1.270-271). This leads to peripeteia, because at the funeral the Romans first agree with Brutus and his doings, but once Antony speaks, they go against Brutus. The plebeians call the conspirators “villains, murderers” and “traitors”, and then go on to say Caesar “will be revenged”(3.2.165, 167, 215).(2) Brutus is naive and foolish to think the other men, like Antony, would step quietly aside as another king takes over. Brutus becomes the perfect scapegoat. Having allowed Antony to speak starts a downhill spiral for Brutus; one thing leads to another. Once the plebeians are incited to revolt, Antony builds an army to fight against Brutus, and a war starts which in the end leads Brutus to his demise. Brutus’s error of judgement created a situation that could have been prevented. His flaws stood in his way, thus leading to his tragic death.
After Antony incite the crowd to rise up against those who murdered Caesar, Brutus recognizes that he is to blame for the reversal of his fortunes. He should have listened to Cassius and not let Antony speak; now, Rome is against him. After Antony’s speech, the servant tells Antony that Brutus and Cassius “rid like madmen through the gates of Rome”(3.3.284-285). Fleeing from Rome makes Brutus realize the immensity of his error, and that he can no longer turn back. Brutus was so certain about his justness in killing Caesar that he never anticipated that Rome would follow Antony and go against him. War and chaos are inevitable. As the war ends and the conspirators are losing, Brutus makes the decision to take his life. Brutus believes that he will be captured and killed, so he has Strato help him commit suicide. Brutus’s last words, “Caesar, now be still. I killed not thee with half so good a will”(5.5.56-57), shows that Brutus regrets murdering Caesar.(2) Brutus assures himself that Caesar can now rest, as he is killing himself more willingly than when he stabbed Caesar. In the end, Brutus recognizes that his miscalculations and bad decisions cost him everything, but by then there was nothing he could do to change the course of events and so had to accept them.
Throughout the play, Brutus was overconfident in himself, whether it be his actions, thoughts, or words. After Caesar’s death Brutus, Cassius and Antony have a conversation where Brutus allows Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Cassius however, does not support Brutus’s decision, so he tries to dissuade Brutus. Cassius says, “do not consent that Antony speak in his funeral know you how much the people may be moved by that which he will utter?”(3.1.255-259), in which Brutus says he will speak first, and give Antony certain rules to abide by. Brutus believes that the Romans will understand the justification of his actions over anything Antony will say and so allows Antony speak. Brutus is so confident in himself, he does not think that the Romans will go against him. So, Brutus takes to the stand and tells the Romans that it is “not that [he] loved Caesar less, but that [he] loved Rome more”, and then goes on to say that if Caesar was not killed then they would have “die[d] all slaves”, instead of now “liv[ing] all freemen”(3.2.23-26).(2) However Antony speech is different than expected; Brutus miscalculates horribly and has to escape from the crowds. His overconfidence deludes him once again, but this time it will cost his life.
In the end, Brutus has both an heroic and tragic death. Brutus asks several of his friends to help him commit suicide, but they all refuse except for Strato. Clitus, one of Brutus’s friends, says about Brutus, “now is that noble vessel full of grief, that it runs over even at his eyes”(5.5.15-16). Clitus recognizes that Brutus feels guilty of his actions, and wants to end his life before someone else does. Before Brutus’s suicide, Brutus tells everyone “farewell”(5.5.35), accepting his fate courageously. The play ends with Antony and Octavius stating that even though Brutus murdered Caesar, he is still “the noblest Roman of them all”(5.5.74) because his actions were for the good of the country and its people, not for his own gain.(2) Brutus truly believes that killing Caesar is the right thing to do, and that it would bring a great future for all of Rome. Putting Rome first before himself by killing his best friend, portrays him as a hero and therefore makes his death heroic. However, having to die at his own hands also makes his death tragic. Such a man as Brutus, one of noble standing and good reputation in Rome, and one who loves Rome so much, should die a much more noble death. Therefore, in the end, his death is both heroic and tragic. A fate greater than he deserves.
Marcus Brutus encompasses the definition of a tragic hero. His flaws of idealism and bad judgement lead him to an event where there is a reversal of his fortunes. Brutus eventually recognizes and accepts his faults and peripeteia. He is very confident in his actions and words, believing that the murder of Caesar, his best friend, is the best for everyone. This overconfidence makes Brutus miscalculate the outcomes of his actions, that leads to his death. However, in spite of his death by suicide, his fate is greater than he deserves for his death is looked at as both heroic and tragic, and makes Antony and others feel sorry for him, marking him as noble. Being able to fall into all five of the characteristics of a tragic hero, makes Marcus Brutus the tragic hero of the play and not Julius Caesar as the title of the play implies.
Works CitedHenshaw, Kristin. “Tragic Hero as Defined by Aristotle.” Bainbridge High School. N.p., n.d. Web.Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.
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