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Tragic Hero Brutus in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

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   According to Aristotle, the archetype tragic hero is a noble literary character who makes an error in judgment that inevitably leads to his or her own destruction (“Tragic Hero”). In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the characteristics of a tragic hero are depicted in Marcus Brutus as he joins a conspiracy led by Cassius to assassinate Julius Caesar. Shakespeare portrays Brutus as a well-regarded Roman nobleman who is motivated by his sense of honor and nobility, which requires him to place the good of Rome above his personal interests or feelings. Ironically, Brutus’s sense of nobility is also his flaw, as he incorrectly assumes that his fellow Romans are as noble as he is. This makes it easy for Cassius to manipulate him to satisfy his personal ambitions. Brutus’s political naivety causes him to make grave errors in judgment which ultimately thrust Rome into a bloody civil war. Brutus proves to be a tragic hero as he meets his inevitable demise by committing suicide because he is unable to reconcile with the consequences of his actions. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus embodies the traits of a tragic hero; as he is noble in nature, makes fatal errors in judgment, and endures an unfortunate demise by means of committing suicide.

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In Julius Caesar, Brutus is motivated by his nobility and honour in all aspects of life. He is a high-ranking and well-regarded Roman, respected by both the characters of the play and the audience, as he places the good of Rome above his own personal interests and feelings. Brutus will do anything for the good of Rome, this includes killing his beloved friend Julius Caesar to prevent him from becoming dictator of Rome. Cassius and the other conspirators devise to include Brutus in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar because they believe that Brutus being a member of the conspiracy will provide it with credibility. This is seen when Casca talks to Cassius about Brutus joining the conspiracy: “O, he sits high in all the people’s hearts,/And that which would appear offence in us,/His countenance, like richest alchemy,/Will change to virtue and to worthiness”. Casca ironically states that if Brutus does something he and Cassius would do, there would be no consequences for Brutus, because what Brutus does looks noble. Brutus is very well-regarded by the people of Rome and is considered an honorable man. He is vital to the plans of the conspirators because he is able to add legitimacy and nobility to their cause. In addition, Brutus is extremely important to the conspirators because he holds a lot of power and has the ability to handle the rampageous commoners after Caesar has been assassinated.This quote showcases how an honorable man can provide justification and nobility to even the most ignoble acts. Brutus’s noble nature can be seen once again when he decides killing Caesar is justified because it will save Rome from being ruled by an ambitious tyrant:

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 crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question. 

Brutus’s nobility requires him to place the good of Rome above his own feelings and thoughts. Thus, he plots against Caesar in order to preserve the republic even though he loves and admires Caesar personally. Brutus thinks murder is wrong, so he has to find a way to condone his actions. Brutus justifies his acts by thinking that he will assassinate Caesar, not because of personal reasons, but for the Roman people’s general benefit. He makes assumptions about the consequences of power and greed, and anticipates the harm Caesar will inflict once he assumes the role of king. He views the act of killing his best friend as a necessary sacrifice that is needed to save Rome. An Aristotelian tragic hero must be noble but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him. Brutus’s imperfection is his skewed vision of himself, his nobility allows him to believe that his actions are selfless and good for Rome, when in reality they will cause a bloody civil war. Brutus’s sense of nobility is his flaw, as he incorrectly assumes that his fellow countrymen are as honorable as he is, and thus makes errors in judgment that ultimately lead to his downfall.

As a tragic hero, Brutus makes detrimental errors in judgment throughout Julius Caesar that ultimately lead to his downfall and unfortunate death. Brutus’s sense of nobility is also his flaw, as he incorrectly assumes that his fellow Romans are as noble as he is. This makes it easy for Cassius to manipulate him into believing that killing Caesar is justified. Cassius manipulates Brutus for his own personal gain by writing letters that seem to be from Roman citizens expressing concern over the power of Caesar:

In several hands, in at his windows throw,

As if they came from several citizens,

Writings all tending to the great opinion

That Rome holds of his name, wherein obscurely

Caesar’s ambition shall be glancèd at. 

Cassius leaves the letters for Brutus to discover because he knows that Brutus ‘ care for Rome and its citizens will make him act against Caesar. Brutus makes a grave mistake by not checking the credibility of the letters, he falls into Cassius’ manipulation and eventually kills Caesar based on his interpretation of those letters. Killing Caesar leads to the Great Chain of Being breaking and consequently thrusts Rome into a brutal civil war. This quote exhibits Brutus’ political naivety, he makes decisions based on honor and not practicality. Just as tragic heroes make grave mistakes that lead to their downfall, Brutus’s error in judgment is believing that all Romans are as honorable as he is. Brutus naively believes that Cassius wants to kill Caesar for the good of Rome when in reality Cassius does it for personal gain and power. Brutus’s political nativity can once again be seen in Act II when he makes another fatal mistake and lets Mark Antony live in spite of Cassius’s warnings:

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,

Like wrath in death and envy afterwards,

For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.

Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius. 

Cassius wants Mark Antony to be killed along with Caesar, but Brutus overrules him stating that there would be no noble justification to kill Mark Antony. Brutus states that if the conspirators killed Mark Antony it would seem like they did it out of spite. Due to his political naivety and noble thinking, Brutus is unable to accurately assess the potential threat Mark Antony poses and therefore lets him live. However, not killing Mark Antony proves to be a fatal error that causes Rome to erupt into a bloody civil war. In act three Antony through a speech manipulates the fickle plebeians to turn against Brutus. This speech marks Brutus’s downfall and leads to a chain of events that result in Brutus’s death. Like the tragic heroes of Aristotle, Brutus is a misguided individual who makes tremendous errors in judgement that eventually lead to his inevitable death.

As appropriate for a tragic hero, Brutus meets his inevitable demise by committing suicide because he is unable to reconcile with the consequences of his actions. Brutus killed Caesar to save Rome from being ruled by a tyrant, but ironically through his actions, he thrust Rome into a ferocious civil war instead. Brutus upon seeing the consequences of his actions regrets killing Caesar and wishes he could go back in time and fix his actions, but he cannot. Because of this, Brutus accepts defeat and wishes for death by his own sword so that he will not endure the embarrassment of defeat. His dying words clearly show his guilt for his part in the assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus states: “Caesar, now be still./I killed not thee with half so good a will.”By committing suicide Brutus is announcing that Caesar should consider his death avenged. On the Ides of March when Caesar was assassinated the Great Chain of Being was destroyed causing a civil war to erupt. However, with Brutus’s tragic death the civil war has ended, and societal order has once again been restored. Brutus like a typical Aristotelian tragic hero was courageous and accepted his death with honor. In Roman society committing suicide was seen as a noble act as opposed to being captured by the enemy. Suicide was regarded as an abominable act in the Elizabethan era, but Brutus would have been viewed as a tragic hero to Shakespeare’s audience because he would rather commit suicide than be captured by the enemy. By being a tragic hero Brutus acknowledged his death, as well as the fact that his own actions caused his demise. When Octavius, Mark Antony, and their respective armies find Brutus’s corpse, Antony pays tribute to Brutus by saying:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.

All the conspirators, save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.

He, only in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them. 

From Antony’s speech, it is evident the Brutus is the true tragic hero of the play. Even though Brutus was their enemy, Antony and Octavius still praise him due to his noble motives. Antony recognizes that Brutus was the only conspirator that killed Caesar for the benefit of Rome and the preservation of the republic, while the others all acted out of envy and rivalry. Brutus’s tragic death restores the Great Chain of Being; since the assassination of Caesar thrust Rome into a civil war, only Brutus’s tragic death could restore societal order. Brutus is a classic tragic hero as he is a noble character, who makes errors in judgment that inevitably lead to his own death.

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus exhibits the traits of a tragic hero; as he is noble in nature, makes fatal errors in judgment, and endures an unfortunate demise by means of committing suicide. Brutus is a well-regarded Roman nobleman who is motivated by his sense of honor and nobility. Ironically, Brutus’s sense of nobility is also his flaw, as he incorrectly assumes that his fellow Romans are as noble as he is. This makes it easy for Cassius to manipulate him to satisfy his own personal ambitions. Brutus’s political naivety causes him to make grave errors in judgment which ultimately thrust Rome into a bloody civil war. Furthermore, Brutus proves to be a tragic hero as he meets his inevitable downfall by committing suicide because he is unable to reconcile with the consequences of his actions. The undoing of a tragic hero is one that engages the audience emotionally and invokes their compassion and apprehension. Hopefully, by recognising the tragic fall of Brutus, the audience will become more wise when making decisions in their very own lives and recognize that an apparently attractive trait can suddenly become the biggest weakness of a person, causing severe misfortune.      

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