Why, man, he doth brestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.
One of Shakespeare’s best, this play is also, I think, one of his most morally ambiguous. The central question of the play—was it right to have killed Caesar?—is left unresolved, principally because of the complexity of the protagonists.
The play opens with Cassius persuading Brutus to act against Caesar. This monologue, though eloquent, is also somewhat confusing, perhaps even incoherent. The reasons Cassius avers for wanting Caesar dead are all petty and somewhat beside the point. Cassius hates Caesar, but why? Because once Caesar faltered while swimming the Tiber? Or because Caesar once had a cold? Of course, these examples are only meant to show that Caesar is a mere man, and thus does not deserve to occupy such a high eminence. And yet, this same argument—namely, that human weakness makes everyone equal—can be used against any form of inequality, be it wealth, power, or prestige; and communism is certainly not what Cassius is preaching.
True enough, word later comes that Mark Antony offered Caesar a crown, which would threaten the very existence of the Republic. But there is nothing in Cassius’s words or deeds that reveal him as someone motivated by political philosophy. Rather, he is a sensitive man, easily insulted, with a delicate ego; and his emotional episode in Brutus’s tent also reveals him to be needy and high-strung. There is nothing evil in him, nor even overtly malicious; but he is not like Brutus, a man of principles, honor, nobility. Thus I cannot help concluding that his plot against Caesar was mainly motivated by petty emotions, even if Cassius told himself otherwise. He felt envious of Caesar’s power, slighted at having a superior, fearful of future humiliations.
All this is more or less apparent in Cassius’s speech to Brutus. From the start, therefore, it should have been apparent to Brutus that he was allying himself with men acting from a suspect motive. But perhaps Brutus is too good-hearted to question the motivations of his friends. Indeed, throughout the play, Brutus is shown to be ethically unimpeachable, a purely noble and righteous person. Even his enemies admit it. And given that he talks the most and dies last, many have argued that the play should be entitled Brutus and not Julius Caesar, since the latter has few lines and dies halfway through.
It is, indeed, tempting to see Brutus as the tragic hero, trying to do what is right, brought down by circumstances. But I have trouble taking his side completely.
For one, it seems foolish to have let himself be persuaded by Cassius. The assassination was rash, and they had no plan whatsoever for restoring order once the deed was done. It also struck me as hypocritical, to say the least, to march through the streets yelling “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” since, at best, the conspirators restored an oligarchy of hereditary privilege. I am not convinced that the life of the common people was any better under the Senators than under Caesar.
Brutus also has a tendency to act imprudently, which is arguably his fatal flaw. First, the assassination plot itself—specifically the plan for restoring order—should have been more carefully considered. Brutus’s oration to the Roman people after the assassination is evidence that his rationales were not given enough thought. He cites “ambition” as the reason Caesar had to be killed, but does not clearly show in which of Caesar’s actions this ambition was manifested. This makes it very easy for Mark Antony to refute the charges. Brutus should have foreseen this, which is why it was the height of folly to have let Mark Antony give that oration. Besides all this, he shows himself to be a poor general.
Brutus’s personal honor code, while earning him respect, also handicaps him. For one, as noted, his tendency to trust others make him a poor judge of character. More troublingly, in attempting to set himself up above petty emotions, he renders himself inhumanly cold. Cassius, though oversensitive, is right in rebuking Brutus for attempting to see the vices and virtues of a friend with an unprejudiced eye, rather than overlooking Cassius’s faults. More significantly, Brutus’s attempt to rise above the grief of his wife’s death lowers him instead, turning him into a mere empty shell motivated by an honor code that brings nobody happiness, not even himself. For these reasons, I feel sad at his loss, but I also feel that he had it coming.
Mark Antony has some of the marks of a villain, who vows revenge even if he drags down all of Rome in the process. He is also not terribly likeable, being arrogant to others and fawning to Caesar. But he has redeeming qualities. His love for Caesar, while at first apparently sycophantic, is later shown genuine. The praises of a living commander are always suspect, but the praises of a departed one are honorable. Mark Antony is also not insensitive to the virtues of Brutus, even praising his memory. He fights for vengeance, true, and vengeance is always ethically suspect; but Hamlet fought for vengeance, and that does not make us like him any less.
In sum, it is difficult to see either Cassius, Brutus, or Mark Antony (or Julius Caesar, for that matter) as unambiguously right or wrong. They are rather three imperfect individuals, with different faults and strengths, who all fight in good faith for what they believe is right.
To acknowledge the faults in these characters, and yet portray them as acting sincerely, is a demonstration of the genius and the nobility of Shakespeare. For the quality Brutus most lacked was the one Shakespeare had in superabundance: empathy. As this play demonstrates, he could acknowledge a person’s faults and limitations while also understanding that, from their point of view, what they were doing was perfectly right. And therein lies both the secret of his art and the moral value of his works.