Tragedy and Heroism

Can Brutus be considered a tragic hero?

Because of Shakespeare’s popularity among scholars and literary critics, his plays have been studied time after time. In the four hundred or so years since they were written, Shakespeare’s plays and other literary masterpieces have been categorized. Many of them, including Shakespeare’s portrayal of Julius Caesar’s murder and the resulting events for Rome and for Caesar’s conspirators, have been put into the “tragedies” category. According to the specifications and qualifications for a Shakespearean tragedy, Brutus, one of the men who conspired against Julius Caesar, can be considered a tragic hero. Despite the fact that Brutus can be considered a tragic hero, I don’t feel that he has the qualities and traits of a true hero.

The first element of a Shakespearean tragedy is the requirement of a tragic hero. This tragic hero must be a person of nobility whose moral decisions will influence society in one way or another. He or she has some sort of tragic flaw and is forced to make a decision at some point that will lead to his or her suffering and death. In Julius Caesar, you can see that Brutus meets these requirements. For example, a Plebian (citizen of Rome) says, “The noble Brutus is ascended. Silence!” (3.2.11). When looking for a tragic flaw in Brutus, we find many – he is easily influenced, has difficulty in looking ahead, is too proud for capture, is naïve to the whole picture, and has split loyalties. I believe the flaw that has the greatest influence on Brutus and his decisions is that he is easily influenced. Because of the strong influences others have on Brutus, the conspirators easily persuade him to make decisions he probably wouldn’t have otherwise made. You see in 1.2.90-161 and 2.1.86-233 that Brutus is persuaded to kill Caesar, even though he isn’t quite sure he wants to do it. His final decision to kill Caesar eventually leads to a civil war and to Brutus’ suicide (the suffering and death requirement of a Shakespearean tragic hero).

The second element of a Shakespearean tragedy is the role of chance – chance plays a role in the final outcome of the tragedy, but the decisions characters make are more important and more influential to the outcome. In Julius Caesar, there are many examples of chance throughout the play. One such example is when Brutus lets his army fight too soon. Brutus was probably very anxious about the battle and wanted to get it over with, especially since he had seen Caesar’s ghost. Seeing a ghost is not an everyday incident, but a strange, chance occurrence. After the argument between Cassius and Brutus in 4.3, Caesar’s ghost visits Brutus and says, “To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.” (4.3.283). This uncommon supernatural event got Brutus worried and made him want to get the battle over with before something bad happened at Philippi.

The third element of a Shakespearean tragedy is that the tragic hero must take a moral stand. Once he or she has made that moral stand, the outcome of the tragedy is unchangeable. I think that the moral stand that Brutus makes is when he decides to kill Caesar. The people of Rome loved Caesar and, although Brutus is able to persuade them to see his side, Antony is able to change their minds and get the people against Brutus. Some people would argue that Brutus’ moral stand is when he lets Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. I can see where they’re coming from, but that doesn’t really seem like a moral stand; all it looks like to me is a very unwise decision on Brutus’ part. I think that even if Brutus hadn’t let Antony speak, the people would have eventually realized who was really to blame.

The last element of a Shakespearean tragedy is the ending, where the hero learns about his/her tragic flaw(s), he/she suffers, and he/she dies in a finer spirit than he/she began with at the beginning of the tragedy. Towards the end of Julius Caesar, Brutus can see that things are falling apart, especially after his argument with Cassius. Cassius points out that their argument isn’t a good sign and wills that it never happen again – “O my dear brother,/This was an ill beginning of the night./Never come such division ‘tween our souls!/Let it not, Brutus.” (4.3.233-235). Brutus responds saying, “Everything is well” (4.3.235). This is showing that he has realized that there is a problem, but he doesn’t want that problem to become worse. Later, Brutus realizes that he and Cassius may never see each other again when he says, “If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;/If not, why then this parting was well made.” (4.2.117-118). This must be very difficult for Brutus to say goodbye to a good friend of his, knowing they probably won’t see each other again. This isn’t the most extreme type of suffering for Brutus, but it still shows how Brutus suffered. Finally, Brutus dies, in a finer spirit than when the play began. He is no longer confused about the decision to kill Caesar, but in his mind thinks it is the right decision. Brutus says, “I shall have glory by this losing day/More than Octavius and Mark Antony/By this vile conquest shall attain unto.” (5.5.36-38). Notice how Brutus says, “I shall have glory.” This clearly shows how great a spirit Brutus is in when he dies.

As you can see, Brutus easily meets the requirements of a tragic hero, but does this actually mean he’s a true hero? I would normally think of a hero as someone who can be looked up to, someone that everyone would want to be like. I wouldn’t want to be like Brutus – he killed Caesar. I know Caesar wasn’t the best ruler of all times, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to kill him. In Romans 13, the Bible talks about how God has put the government in place and given rulers every last bit of the power that they possess and that disobeying the government is disobeying God. Romans 13:1-2 NIV says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” If God has given a ruler like Caesar power, He has a reason for it and we shouldn’t go and kill that ruler. Also, God says it’s wrong to kill in many different places in the Bible (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17, Matthew 5:2, etc.). By killing Caesar, Brutus and the other conspirators were setting a bad example for others to follow. The conspirators were teaching by their actions that it’s all right to kill an authoritative figure just because it is thought that they might become too powerful.

Brutus may be considered a tragic hero according to scholars and literary critics, but is he really someone that should be looked up to and given the title “Hero?” Do you want the children of this generation (the adults of the next generation) looking up to a murderer as their hero? It’s something that can’t be decided lightly. Look at all the recent school shootings. If the shooters in these various shootings hadn’t looked up to modern-day people like Brutus and the other conspirators, these events could have been prevented. Before going out and claiming someone is a hero, look into it more and see if you’d want people today looking up to that person.