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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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Scholars, actors, students-all have disagreed about Brutus and will continue to disagree as long as Julius Caesar is being read and performed.

You can view Brutus as a man of high principles and integrity-a man who is defeated, not by any personal shortcomings, but by the underhandedness of Cassius, the fickleness of the mob, and the inevitable march of Roman history from a republic to a monarchy.

You can also see Brutus as a windbag-an unfeeling, self-righteous bore who cloaks his evil deeds in high principles and plunges his country into civil war.

Which is the "real" Brutus? It depends in part on whether you think the assassination was necessary. It also depends on whether you think Brutus uses language to convey the truth, or to hide from it. Take these lines of his:

For let the gods so speed me, as I love The name of honor more than I fear death.

Act I, Scene ii, lines 88-89

Brutus thinks he is telling the truth-but is he? Would a truly honorable man need to call attention to his honor?

One point is indisputable: Brutus believes in his principles, and his principles do, to some extent, control his behavior. He stands apart from all the other characters in the way he is influenced by ideas, rather than by feelings or the wish for personal gain. Cassius assassinates Caesar because he is jealous of him; Brutus acts only for what he considers the best interests of the state. Antony is a man of action who pauses only to consider the best way of getting from A to B; Brutus is a man of ideas who weighs his behavior in terms of Right and Wrong. Antony believes that brute strength and passion rule the world, and manipulates people accordingly; Brutus believes that reason rules the world, and that people can be swayed by the power of truth and logic. Cassius and Antony see life as a game or competition in which rewards go to the strongest or swiftest; Brutus sees life as a confrontation of ideas in which rewards go to the just. He is such a private and self-contained man that he won't even share the news of his wife's death with his good friend Cassius.

Brutus is high-minded, but his principles do not seem to prepare him very well for dealing with a corrupt world. He cannot recognize motives that are less noble than his own, and is therefore preyed upon by unscrupulous politicians. As Cassius himself says behind Brutus' back:

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see Thy honorable mettle may be wrought From that it is disposed; therefore it is meet That noble minds keep ever with their likes; For who so from that cannot be seduced?

Act I, Scene ii, lines 308-312

Brutus' principles force him to spare Antony's life and to let Antony speak at Caesar's funeral. His own speech lacks power (compared to Antony's) because he assumes that people can be led by reason. An honorable man, he uses language to communicate the truth rather than to stir up the emotions of the people; he doesn't understand that people want to be led-if not by Caesar, then by someone else.

Some readers see Brutus as a bookish man who can function only in a world of ideas. True, he is not much of a politician; but is it fair to describe him as a man whose head is in the clouds? Cassius, after all, is constantly asking and taking his advice. It is Brutus who calls for action and who takes the offensive at Philippi; and it is Brutus, not Antony, who wins the battle. Brutus does make some unwise decisions, but does that mean he is incapable of functioning in the world?

Almost all the characters in Julius Caesar struggle to be better than they are, and Brutus is no exception. He, too, falls short of his ideals. Although he insists on living by the loftiest principles, Cassius gets him to join the conspiracy by flattering him and appealing to his sense of family pride.

Brutus tries to live by reason alone, yet he cannot sleep at night, and is so plagued by a guilty conscience that Caesar's ghost appears to him in a dream. In his argument with Cassius, Brutus is reduced to a squabbling child-perhaps because he is mad with grief (though he tries not to show it) over the death of his wife. In the end Brutus takes his own life, in violation of his Stoic philosophy, which demands that he accept whatever fate holds in store for him. Is Brutus a hero, then-or is he a villain? Let's look at him in both lights.

1. Brutus is a man who cares more about principles than people-who uses principles to justify the murder of a friend. He is so blinded by ideals that he cannot see into his own heart, or recognize the needs of the world. He is a moral snob who dislikes debate or compromise and always insists on getting his own way.

This Brutus knows exactly what Cassius is up to, but lets himself be led in order to keep his own hands clean. He is a hypocrite who hides behind lofty principles and pretty phrases. Despite his reputation for honor, he is easily flattered and concerned about his reputation. His pride causes him to dismiss Cicero-a potential rival-even though Cicero is the greatest orator of the times.

In his refusal to accept his human limitations, Brutus is as vain and dangerous as Caesar.

2. Brutus is simply too noble for the world he lives in. He sacrifices his friend Caesar to do what is best for his country. He remains faithful to his principles to the end. Everyone, even Caesar, admires him and seeks his friendship. He is a tragic figure only because he tries to be better than he can, and falls.

Hero or villain-could Brutus possibly be both? Does the world need more men of principle, or less? Shakespeare forces us to ask these questions, but lets us find answers for ourselves.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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