By Diana Major Spencer
In his Inferno, Dante condemns Brutus and Cassius to the very lowest circle of hell—gnashed and gnawed in two of the mouths of three-headed Lucifer. The third mouth, of course, masticated the Christian world’s greatest traitor: Judas Iscariot. By contrast, Julius Caesar floats in Limbo, in the Circle of Virtuous Pagans; and Mark Antony—no surprise—occupies the Circle of Lust with Cleopatra (Ciardi translation, Canto XXXIV).
First-century Roman Plutarch, on the other hand, the prolific biographer of Noble Greeks and Romans and (through Thomas North’s 1579 “englishing” of a French version) Shakespeare’s primary source for his Roman plays, fashioned “parallel lives” to illustrate both virtues and vices borne by his subjects. Thus, we know that Caesar “crossed the Rubicon” (led his army across the river into Roman territory from his home province in a treasonous act of insurrection); and that Brutus, “having to the goodness of his disposition added the improvements of learning and the study of philosophy, . . . seems to have been of a temper exactly framed for virtue” (“Marcus Brutus” in Plutarch’s Lives, ed. Clough, 5:186-87).
That Brutus descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, the traditional founder of the Roman Republic, lends familial gravitas to his abhorrence of empire. Cassius, with his “lean and hungry look” (1.2.194), crafts a comparison that elevates Brutus: “‘Brutus’ and ‘Caesar.’ What should be in that ‘Caesar’? / Why should that name be sounded more than yours?” (1.2.142-43; Julius Caesar, in The Necessary Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington [New York: Pearson Longman, 2005]). Shakespeare cleverly avoids portraying the Feast of the Lupercal in order to ambiguate the events through Cassius’s recital of Caesar’s weaknesses while the fickle crowds cheer off-stage, and then through the eye-witness account of conspirator Casca, sneering at Caesar’s infirmities. Potential compassion for Caesar’s “falling sickness” cannot take root.
The conspirators, gathering during the fiery storm foretelling the morrow’s bloody Ides of March, recognize that the virtue and reputation of Brutus are essential to their success. They find him in his orchard, weighing options: “For my part / I know no personal cause to spurn at him, / But for the general” (2.1.10–12). Nevertheless, “since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, / I have not slept” (2.1.61–62). To the conspirators he idealistically cautions, “No, not an oath”; “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers”; “Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully; / Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds”; “Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily; / Let not our looks put on our purposes, / But bear it as our Roman actors do, / With untired spirits and formal constancy” (2.1.114, 167, 172–75, 225–28): virtue, honor, and stoical calm—with a touch, perhaps, of melancholy.
Brutus’s honor extends as far as welcoming Antony and offering him a pulpit for a funerary oration. Brutus, the rational, thoughtful, modest man cannot be swayed by choleric Cassius, who understands “how much the people may be moved / By that which [Antony] will utter” (3.1.236–37). Brutus here displays his greatest weakness: believing that his virtuousness, his rationalism, and his evenness of temper are the normal state of the human spirit. He was not present in act 1, scene 1, where the populace ripped down the tributes to Pompey to supplant them with Caesar’s. Brutus doesn’t recognize them as “idle creatures,” “blocks . . . stones . . . worse than senseless things,/ O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome” (1.1.1, 35). He doesn’t see a fickle, inconstant mob mentality.
But Antony does. Brutus consigns the body of Caesar to the athlete/general who will use it as a visual aid to inflame the swayable mob and “let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.275). The two funeral speeches mark Shakespeare’s tour de force of rhetorical contrast. Brutus is rational, honorable, balanced, and brief, offering rhetorical questions and inviting those who are offended to speak up. “Then none have I offended,” he says to their silence; “I have the same dagger for myself when it shall please my country to need my death” (3.2.36, 45–47). “Live, Brutus, live, live!” they shout. “Let him be Caesar” (3.2.48, 51).
Aristotle’s Rhetoric defines the discipline as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, in The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Mortimer J. Adler, v. 9 [Chicago: Britannica, 1952], 595.) He identifies three essential components: logos (pertaining to logical reasoning); ethos (pertaining to personal character; i.e., credibility); and pathos (understanding emotions and how to excite them). Brutus’s laconic (brief, to the point) rhetoric evokes logos and ethos: He’s highly respected and exceedingly logical—except that rhetorical questions border on manipulation. The magnificent, stoical Brutus—thinking through everything to the point of agony—cannot find, guess, or provoke an emotional response in his audience.
Antony, on the other hand, knows the path to insurrection. The fickle masses, so present in act 1, scenes 1 and 2, and in act 3, scene 2, now erupt in the pathos evoked by Antony in his sarcasm toward the “honorable man, Brutus,” along with his own relentless visual menu of the will, the mantle, and the body of Caesar, interspersed with finger-in-the-eye tears over the pathetic corpse. “I will not do them wrong,” he says of the conspirators; “I rather choose / To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and YOU! (3.2.128–29, emphasis added). Then follows, “I do not mean to read [the will]”; “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”; “This was the most unkindest cut of all”; and “Here is himself, marred as you see with traitors” (3.2.133, 170, 184, 198).
In the meantime, with rhetorical virtuosity (reminiscent of other political rhetoric in this, a presidential election year!), Antony modestly—and ironically—declaims, “I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, / Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech to stir men’s blood” (3.2.222–24), before he reminds the mob of the unread will: Here come the freebies! He then snidely confides to the audience, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. / Take thou what course thou wilt” (3.2.60–61).
Antony reveals that he’s a callous manipulator, though a rhetorical genius. We next see him proclaiming against Lepidus, “This is a slight, unmeritable man” (4.1.12). He’s as willing to dispose of his own relatives as he is to cement his brotherhood with Octavius. The seemingly simultaneous quarrel between Brutus and Cassius reveals that “Cassius is aweary of the world” with “that rash humor which my mother gave me,” and that stoic Brutus is “sick of many griefs” and that “Portia is dead” (4.3.95, 120, 143, 146).
Act 5 concludes with Cassius’s ill-informed, near-sighted (5.3.21) suicide on mistaking Titanius’s success as capture, which catapults Titanius into his own suicide at the futility of his efforts. Brutus arrives to declare, “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! / Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords / In our own proper entrails” (5.3.94–95). Nothing is left but Brutus’s demise, finding Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius unwilling to help, then Strato, who finally agrees to hold the sword while Brutus runs onto his Roman finale. Caesar has not really died, as his ghost and spirit infect the surviving conspirators; yet Antony shows his nobler instinct when he eulogizes the fallen Brutus:
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.
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!