Brutus’ Role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

"The Noblest Roman of Them All?"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. “Good Brutus, Can You See Your Face?” – Brutus’ Role Within the Conspiracy
2.1. The Question of Honour
2.2. From Being Pulled to Pulling the Strings

3. “Fashion it Thus” – Brutus’ Reasoning and Justification
3.1. Constructing a Moral Purpose
3.2. Intention vs. Consequences

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Upon reading Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” one would agree that Marcus Brutus is the character which, at first glance, appears to be most likeable. Honour as value is something that turns up frequently throughout the play, especially with regard to Brutus. Being the one that murders a friend in order to free the people from tyranny, he acts according to his personal conception of honour. It is not without facing an inner conflict that he decides to put aside his personal feelings of friendship in order to serve the common good. This is what one could say about Brutus if matters were as clear as that. On closer inspection, however, one quickly takes notice of discrepancies as to Brutus’ character and actions.

Carrie Pestritto states that “Brutus’s honour […] gives him an almost Christ-like aura“[1] whereas others see him as ambiguous and his character as not to be defined unequivocally.[2] The idea of honour can be interpreted in many different ways and the characters’ understanding of honour differ immensely. “’Caesar was ambitious […] and Brutus is an honourable man’ (3.2.79-88). Are things really as simple as that?”[3] Kullmann, referring to Pestritto here, poses a question that will be discussed in this paper. The focus is to be on Brutus and his view of the events, evaluating his actions and the reasoning they are based on. It will be possible to see that his only way of coming to a decision and carrying out the assassination is by means of self-delusion. To open himself up to and reconcile with the idea of committing a murder, he has to construct his own fiction, ending up living in a fool’s paradise. For him the way things appear to be weighs down what they are in reality.

Important in the above mentioned context is Brutus’ part in the conspiracy, which is going to be worked out in detail. Since the question of honour is such an essential factor, it is necessary to clarify the fact that there are various ways of defining honour and accordingly each character has their own sense of honour. Gradually, Brutus is dragged into the conspiracy, a process on the basis of which we are able to learn a lot about his character and his moral concepts.

2. “Good Brutus, Can You See Your Face?” – Brutus’ Role Within the Conspiracy

This chapter deals with the conspiracy’s members and the contrast between them and Brutus. What are the conspirators’ reasons for recruiting him? What is his part in the plot and how does he get from being involved in the tyrannicide to taking over control? The focus is put on the discrepancy between the characters of Cassius and Brutus and their reasons for starting and joining the conspiracy respectively. A certain importance is to be attached to their differing conceptions of honour and the question of honour as presented in the play. Cassius’ manipulation of Brutus will be analysed and emphasis will be put on the strategies he uses in order to persuade Brutus.

2.1. The Question of Honour

As presented in the play, a certain introspection is characteristic of the Romans; they rely on how others see them. A person’s honour for example cannot be measured by oneself, but other people only. This fact can be found in 2.1, the moment Cassius starts flattering Brutus in order to win him over for his plan: “Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” (JC 1.2.51) Brutus’ answer clearly shows that he is not able to judge himself, whereas others can do so: “No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things” (JC 1.2.52f, my italics). Confirmation can be found with Sharon O’Dair: “A person learns to judge herself by virtue of the judgements others make of her and by virtue of the standards others use to judge her.”[4] As can be seen, great importance is attached to a person’s role as viewed by and therefore also shaped by others.

Regarding the play itself, different conceptions of honour, supported by different characters, can be found. In order to point them out, it is crucial to define honour first and then examine which depiction each of the different characters holds. The Oxford English Dictionary offers various definitions and it is noticeable in an instant that they differ vastly. “Personal title to high respect or esteem; honourableness; elevation of character; ‘nobleness of mind, scorn of meanness, magnanimity’ (Johnson); a fine sense of and strict allegiance to what is due or right”[5] is one definition in the OED. This one corresponds to Brutus’ conception of honour, as far as he himself is concerned, for instance.[6] However, he is aware of the fact that honour can have a different meaning[7], one that is described in the OED as well: “Something conferred or done as a token of respect or distinction; a mark or manifestation of high regard; esp. a position or title of rank, a degree of nobility, a dignity.”[8] This definition is one that Cassius, as can be seen in the play, would support. As will be shown later, Brutus’ and Cassius’ definitions of honour are the most contrasting ones. The conspirators need Brutus to add moral value to their venture[9], because “In playing […] social roles, in performing the duties and in exercising the rights associated with them, Brutus has achieved the ‘name’ of honor.”[10] Definition 1.c., “As received, gained, held or enjoyed: Glory, renown, fame; credit, reputation, good name. The opposite of dishonour, disgrace”[11], corresponds to the sense of honour they associate with Brutus. In short: the concepts of honour are divers and so are the qualities related to them.

As mentioned above we can see a clear gap between Cassius’- and Brutus’ view of honour. “’Honour’ is part of Brutus’s conception of himself”[12] and probably the one quality that has most significance to him. For him, honour means moral integrity and an inner sense of what is right or wrong, an honourableness of mind. Unlike Brutus, Cassius defines honour according to a person’s rank and their reputation. Taking a look at their dialogue in 1.2 it becomes obvious that he despises Caesar for his physical weaknesses and in addition ignores his achievements. In his eyes a man can’t be one of honour if he depends on help by others and behaves weakly like “a sick girl” (JC 1.2.128). Evidently, for Brutus honour has to do with a person’s inner qualities and is what one’s actions should be based on. In contrast, Cassius has no real feelings of honour himself, which is accompanied by his opinion of others and their respective concept of honour. He doesn’t base his behaviour on honour since for him honour is of no value if not non-existent.[13]

Corresponding to Brutus and Cassius’ sense of honour is their striving for it. In Brutus we discover a strong “desire for honor”[14] resulting in the ambition to act honourable and be seen by others as such (JC 1.2.86-89). Nothing seems more important to him than what the people might think about his deed and him personally. Proof for that assumption can be drawn from the situation in which he receives and reads the forged letters arranged by Cassius (JC 2.1.39-58). Although he has already made his decision of joining the conspiracy it seems that after having read the letters his “mind becomes firm” (JC p.200, footnote) just as if the letters were the last bit he needed to accept the thought of committing a murder. Cassius, on the other hand, appears to be without any real values, which becomes apparent in his soliloquy reflecting on his manipulation of Brutus (JC 1.2.306-321). In conclusion one could say that Brutus clearly shows the greatest striving for and belief in honour standing out against the other characters.


[1] Carrie Pestritto, “Outlooks on Honor in Henry V and Julius Caesar,” Connotations 17.1 (2007/2008): 64.

[2] Cp. David Lucking, “Brutus’s Reasons: Julius Caesar and the Mystery of Motive.” English Studies 91.2 (2010): 119-132.

[3] Thomas Kullmann, “Ambiguities of Honour: A Response to Carrie Pestritto's ‘Outlooks on Honor in Henry V and Julius Caesar,’” Connotations 17.2-3 (2007): 1.

[4] Sharon O’Dair, “Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33.2 (1993): 292.

[5] OED “honour“ 2.a.

[6] Cp. Kullmann 3.

[7] “’New honours’ are being ‘heaped on Caesar’ [JC 1.2.133]” Kullmann p.4

[8] OED “honour” 5.a.

[9] “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. / Him, and his worth, and our great need of him / You have right well conceited.” (JC 1.3.157-162)

[10] O’Dair 294.

[11] OED “honour” 1.c.

[12] Kullmann 3.

[13] This paper primarily focuses on Brutus. Cassius is a very complex character as well and therefore cannot be dealt with in detail.

[14] John Alvis, Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor, (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1990): 128.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Brutus’ Role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
"The Noblest Roman of Them All?"
University of Münster
Shakespeare - The Roman Plays
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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brutus’, role, shakespeare’s, julius, caesar, noblest, roman, them
Quote paper
Anne Decker (Author), 2012, Brutus’ Role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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