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The play of "Julius Caesar" was written about 1600 or 1601. As "Twelfth Night" was the last of the golden comedies, so "Julius Caesar" is the first of the great tragedies, and bears melancholy witness to us that the poet's young-eyed confidence in life and joy in living are dying, if not dead. "Julius Caesar" is the first outcome of disillusion. Before it was written Shakespeare had been deceived by his mistress, betrayed by his friend; his eyes had been opened to the fraud and falsehood of life; but, like one who has just been operated on for cataract, he still sees realities as through a mist, dimly. He meets the shock of traitorous betrayal as we should have expected Valentine or Antonio or Orsino to meet it--with pitying forgiveness. Suffering, instead of steeling his heart and drying up his sympathies, as it does with most men, softened him, induced him to give himself wholly to that "angel, Pity." He will not believe that his bitter experience is universal; in spite of Herbert's betrayal, he still has the courage to declare his belief in the existence of the ideal. At the very last his defeated Brutus cries:

"My heart doth joy that yet in all my life I found no man but he was true to me."

The pathos of this attempt still to believe in man and man's truth is over the whole play. But the belief was fated to disappear. No man who lives in the world can boast of loyalty as Brutus did; even Jesus had a Judas among the Twelve. But when Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" he still tried to believe, and this gives the play an important place in his life's story.

Before I begin to consider the character of Brutus I should like to draw attention to three passages which place Brutus between the melancholy Jaques of "As You Like It," whose melancholy is merely temperamental, and the almost despairing Hamlet. Jaques says:

"Invest me in my motley; give me leave To speak my mind, and I will through and through Cleanse the foul body of the infected world, If they will patiently receive my medicine."

This is the view of early manhood which does not doubt its power to cure all the evils which afflict mortality. Then comes the later, more hopeless view, to which Brutus gives expression:

"Till then, my noble friend, chew upon this; Brutus had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome Under these hard conditions as this time Is like to lay upon us."

And later still, and still more bitter, Hamlet's:

"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!"

But Shakespeare is a meliorist even in Hamlet, and believes that the ailments of man can all be set right.

The likenesses between Brutus and Hamlet are so marked that even the commentators have noticed them. Professor Dowden exaggerates the similarities. "Both (dramas)," he writes, "are tragedies of thought rather than of passion; both present in their chief characters the spectacle of noble natures which fail through some weakness or deficiency rather than through crime; upon Brutus as upon Hamlet a burden is laid which he is not able to bear; neither Brutus nor Hamlet is fitted for action, yet both are called to act in dangerous and difficult affairs." Much of this is Professor Dowden's view and not Shakespeare's. When Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" he had not reached that stage in self-understanding when he became conscious that he was a man of thought rather than of action, and that the two ideals tend to exclude each other. In the contest at Philippi Brutus and his wing win the day; it is the defeat of Cassius which brings about the ruin; Shakespeare evidently intended to depict Brutus as well "fitted for action."

Some critics find it disconcerting that Shakespeare identified himself with Brutus, who failed, rather than with Caesar, who succeeded. But even before he himself came to grief in his love and trust, Shakespeare had always treated the failures with peculiar sympathy. He preferred Arthur to the Bastard, and King Henry VI. to Richard III., and Richard

  1. to proud Bolingbroke. And after his agony of disillusion, all his heroes are failures for years and years: Brutus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Troilus, Antony, and Timon--all fail as he himself had failed.

There is some matter for surprise in the fact that Brutus is an ideal portrait of Shakespeare. Disillusion usually brings a certain bitter sincerity, a measure of realism, into artistic work; but its first effect on Shakespeare was to draw out all the kindliness in him; Brutus is Shakespeare at his sweetest and best. Yet the soul-suffering of the man has assuredly improved his art: Brutus is a better portrait of him than Biron, Valentine, Romeo, or Antonio, a more serious and bolder piece of self-revealing even than Orsino. Shakespeare is not afraid now to depict the deep underlying kindness of his nature, his essential goodness of heart. A little earlier, and occupied chiefly with his own complex growth, he could only paint sides of himself; a little later, and the personal interest absorbed all others, so that his dramas became lyrics of anguish and despair. Brutus belongs to the best time, artistically speaking, to the time when passion and pain had tried the character without benumbing the will or distracting the mind: it is a masterpiece of portraiture, and stands in even closer relation to Hamlet than Romeo stands to Orsino. As Shakespeare appears to us in Brutus at thirty-seven, so he was when they bore him to his grave at fifty-two--the heart does not alter greatly.

Let no one say or think that in all this I am drawing on my imagination; what I have said is justified by all that Brutus says and does from one end of the play to the other. According to his custom, Shakespeare has said it all of himself very plainly, and has put his confession into the mouth of Brutus on his very first appearance (Act i. sc. 2):


Be not deceived: if I have veiled my look I turn the trouble of my countenance Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference, Conceptions only proper to myself, Which gives some soil, perhaps, to my behaviours, But let not therefore my good friends be grieved,-- Among which number, Cassius, be you one,-- Nor construe any further in neglect, Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war, Forgets the shows of love to other men."

What were these "different passions," complex personal passions, too, which had vexed Brutus and changed his manners even to his friends? There is no hint of them in Plutarch, no word about them in the play. It was not "poor Brutus," but poor Shakespeare, racked by love and jealousy, tortured by betrayal, who was now "at war with himself."

I assume the identity of Brutus with Shakespeare before I have absolutely proved it because it furnishes the solution to the difficulties of the play. As usual, Coleridge has given proof of his insight by seeing and stating the chief difficulty, without, however, being able to explain it, and as usual, also, the later critics have followed him as far as they can, and in this case have elected to pass over the difficulty in silence. Coleridge quotes some of the words of Brutus when he first thinks of killing Caesar, and calls the passage a speech of Brutus, but it is in reality a soliloquy of Brutus, and must be considered in its entirety. Brutus says:

"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? It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, And that craves wary walking. Crown him?--that; And then, I grant, we put a sting in him That at his will he may do danger with. The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins Remorse from power: and to speak truth of Caesar, I have known his affections swayed More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof, That lowliness is young ambition's ladder, Whereto the climber-upwards turns his face; But when he once attains the topmost round, He then unto the ladder turns his back, Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees By which he did ascend. So Caesar may: Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel Will bear no colour for the thing he is, Fashion it thus: that, what he is, augmented, Would run to these and these extremities: And therefore think him as a serpent's egg, Which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous; And kill him in the shell."

Coleridge's comment on this deserves notice. He wrote: "This speech is singular; at least, I do not at present see into Shakespeare's motive, his <i>rationale</i>, or in what point of view he meant Brutus' character to appear. For surely ... nothing can seem more discordant with our historical preconceptions of Brutus, or more lowering to the intellect of the Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide, than the tenets here attributed to him--to him, the stern Roman republican; namely, that he would have no objection to a king, or to Caesar, a monarch in Rome, would Caesar but be as good a monarch as he now seems disposed to be! How, too, could Brutus say that he found no personal cause--none in Caesar's past conduct as a man? Had he not passed the Rubicon? Had he not entered Rome as a conqueror? Had he not placed his Gauls in the Senate? Shakespeare, it may be said, has not brought these things forward. True;--and this is just the ground of my perplexity. What character did Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?"

All this is sound criticism, and can only be answered by the truth that Shakespeare from the beginning of the play identified himself with Brutus, and paid but little attention to the historic Brutus whom he had met in Plutarch. Let us push criticism a little further, and we shall see that this is the only possible way to read the riddle. We all know why Plutarch's Brutus killed Caesar; but why does Shakespeare's Brutus kill the man he so esteems? Because Caesar may change his nature when king; because like the serpent's egg he may "grow mischievous"? But when he speaks "truth" of Caesar he has to admit Caesar's goodness. The "serpent's egg" reason then is inapplicable. Besides, when speaking of himself on the plains of Philippi, Shakespeare's Brutus explicitly contradicts this false reasoning:

  "I know not how

But I do find it cowardly and vile, <i>For fear of what might fall</i>, so to prevent The term of life."

It would seem, therefore, that Brutus did not kill Caesar, as one crushes a serpent's egg, to prevent evil consequences. It is equally manifest that he did not do it for "the general," for if ever "the general" were shown to be despicable and worthless it is in this very play, where the citizens murder Cinna the poet because he has the same name as Cinna the conspirator, and the lower classes are despised as the "rabblement," "the common herd," with "chapped hands," "sweaty night-caps," and "stinking breath."

It is Dr. Brandes' idea and not Shakespeare's that Brutus is a "man of uncompromising character and principle." That is the Brutus of Plutarch, who finds in his stern republican love of the common good an ethical motive for killing the ambitious Caesar. But Shakespeare had no understanding of the republican ideal, and no sympathy with the public; accordingly, his Brutus has no adequate reason for contriving Caesar's death. Shakespeare followed Plutarch in freeing Brutus from the suspicion of personal or interested motive, but he didn't see that by doing this he made his Brutus a conspirator without a cause, a murderer without a motive. The truth is our gentle poet could never find a convincing ground for cold-blooded murder. It will be remembered that Macbeth only murders, as the deer murders, out of fear, and the fact that his Brutus can find no justification of any sort for killing Caesar, confirms our view of Shakespeare's gentle kindness. The "uncompromising character and principle" of the severe republican we find in Plutarch, sit uneasily on Shakespeare's Brutus; it is apparent that the poet had no conception of what we call a fanatic. His difficulties arise from this limitation of insight. He begins to write the play by making Brutus an idealized portrait of himself; he, therefore, dwells on Brutus' perfect nobility, sincerity, and unselfishness, but does not realize that the more perfect he makes Brutus, the more clear and cogent Brutus' motive must be for undertaking Caesar's assassination.

In this confusion Shakespeare's usually fine instinct is at fault, and he blunders from mistake to mistake. His idealizing tendency makes him present Brutus as perfect, and at the same time he uses the historical incident of the anonymous letters, which goes to show Brutus as conceited and vain. If these letters influenced Brutus--and they must be taken to have done so, or else why were they introduced?--we have a noble and unselfish man murdering out of paltry vanity. In Plutarch, where Brutus is depicted as an austere republican, the incident of the letters only throws a natural shade of doubt on the rigid principles by which alone he is supposed to be guided. We all feel that rigid principles rest on pride, and may best be led astray through pride. But Shakespeare's Brutus is pure human sweetness, and the letters are worse than out of place when addressed to him. Shakespeare should never have used this incident; it is a blot on his conception.

All through the first acts of the play Brutus is incredible, for he is in an impossible position. Shakespeare simply could not find any valid reason why his <i>alter ego</i>, Brutus, should kill Caesar. But from the moment the murder is committed to the end of the play Brutus- Shakespeare is at peace with himself. And as soon as the dramatist lets himself go and paints Brutus with entire freedom and frankness, he rises to the height of tragic pathos, and we can all recognize the original of the portrait. At first Brutus is merely ideal; his perfect unsuspiciousness--he trusts even Antony; his transparent honesty--he will have no other oath among the conspirators

"Than honesty to honesty engaged";

his hatred of bloodshed--he opposes Cassius, who proposes to murder Antony; all these noble qualities may be contrasted with the subtler shortcomings which make of Hamlet so vital a creation. Hamlet is suspicious even of Ophelia; Hamlet is only "indifferent honest"; Hamlet makes his friends swear to keep the ghost's appearance a profound secret; Hamlet lives from the beginning, while Brutus at first is a mere bundle of perfections individualized only by that personal intimate confession which I have already quoted, which, however, has nothing to do with the play. But later in the drama Shakespeare begins to lend Brutus his own weaknesses, and forthwith Brutus lives. His insomnia is pure Shakespeare:

"Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept."

The character of Brutus is superbly portrayed in that wonderful scene with Cassius in the fourth act. With all the superiority of conscious genius he treats his confederate as a child or madman, much as Hamlet treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

"Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?"

Cassius is mean, too, whereas Brutus is kindly and generous to a degree:

"For I can raise no money by vile means: By heaven, I had rather coin my heart, And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash

By any indirection....        
* * *   *   *
When Marcus Brutus grows so covetous,  
To lock such rascal counters from his friends,
Be ready, gods, with all your thunderbolts,
Dash him to pieces."        

And, above all, as soon as Cassius appeals to his affection, Brutus is disarmed:

"O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb That carries anger, as the flint bears fire; Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark, And straight is cold again."

This is the best expression of Shakespeare's temper; the "hasty spark" is Hamlet's temper, as we have seen, and Macbeth's, and Romeo's.

And now everything that Brutus does or says is Shakespeare's best. In a bowl of wine he buries "all unkindness." His affection for Cassius is not a virtue to one in especial. The scene in the fourth act, in which he begs the pardon of his boy Lucius, should be learned by heart by those who wish to understand our loving and lovable Shakespeare. This scene, be it remarked, is not in Plutarch, but is Shakespeare's own invention. His care for the lad's comfort, at a time when his own life is striking the supreme hour, is exquisitely pathetic. Then come his farewell to Cassius and his lament over Cassius' body; then the second fight and the nobly generous words that hold in them, as flowers their perfume, all Shakespeare's sweetness of nature:

"My heart doth joy, that yet in all my life I found no man, but he was true to me."

And then night hangs upon the weary, sleepless eyes, and we are all ready to echo Antony's marvellous valediction:

"This was the noblest Roman of them all;
* * * * * *
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"

But this Brutus was no murderer, no conspirator, no narrow republican fanatic, but simply gentle Shakespeare discovering to us his own sad heart and the sweetness which suffering had called forth in him.

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