Shakespeare – Julius Caesar

Tragica Res Publica – Brutus as the Republic’s Hamartia

It would be wrong to consider Caesar as this play’s tragic hero, but his oft-cited replacement, Brutus, can be seen as Shakespeare’s personification of the true victim’s ‘fatal flaw’… this victim being the Roman Republic itself. Given the valiance of Brutus, his selfless sacrifice, his commitment to what he thinks is best, he is clearly bathed in Shakespeare’s admiration, and what does Brutus represent? He represents the preservation of the Republic, even at the cost of Caesar’s life, whom he held dear to the last. However, it is this internal conflict inherent in Brutus, concerning his torn devotion to the Republic and respect for Caesar, which leads him to the tragic series of events resulting in his death, and eventually, the formation of the second triumvirate and Octavian’s imperial triumph. As such, it is my opinion that the Republic represents the tragic hero of Julius Caesar, valiantly clinging to life, but eventually falling foul to its animated Achilles’ heel, Marcus Junius Brutus. It was he to whom the Republicans turned before Caesar’s assassination, he alone who acted for the good of Rome, and not ‘in envy of great Caesar’ (JC 5.5.67-70). Before Caesar’s death the Republic was stable, growing, mighty under his leadership. True, historically speaking, there was little alternative but for the status quo to change, but in this dramatic masterpiece, the fault is not Rome’s failing, but Caesar’s ambition and his rivals’ jealousy. Thus as Caesar emerges as imperator going on dictator for life at the head of the world’s greatest empire, the turmoil at Phillipi can quite easily be interpreted as a destructive civil strife resulting from his death. Instead of preserving its greatness, in employing the noble Brutus as the paradigm of Republicanism, the assassination of Caesar leads to a tearing of the Empire, the suicide of the Republic’s champion and the emergence of an Emperor of even greater power than Caesar… Augustus. The efforts of the Republicans fell flat and tore their ward apart. And so the great res publica is driven towards its destructive division by the misguided efforts of its hamartia, Brutus. 

At the outset of the play, we see the triumphant Julius Caesar enter Rome from his conquests. Thereunto this point, this Rome, for all intents and purposes, is still a Republic, albeit one dominated by powerful and wealthy demagogues. However it is precisely this conquest and the heralds proclaiming Caesar as conqueror supreme that begins to sow doubt in the minds of his fellows. Antony doubts, Cassius doubts, Cicero doubts, all doubt that such supremacy and honour given to a single man could ever be a good thing for the res publica. What is a public matter if bequeathed to the solitary Caesar? No public matter at all, but rather a tyrannical one. Already Caesar’s military and political victories are beginning to worry the Republicans. Within the very first colloquy, Murellus the tribune struggles to keep Pompey in the minds of the people (JC 1.1.42-55), who are beginning to be drawn in by the splendour of Caesar’s more recent victories and triumphs. What had been Rome’s great accomplishments at the hands of multiple generals, is now beginning to become a great Rome because of Julius Caesar, as seen by even the plebeians on the streets. 

To stem the tide of pro-autocratic sentiments, Cassius manages to persuade Brutus of the risks in having Caesar as king, who in the interests of Republicanism accedes, and partakes in the dictator’s murder. To his death cry the assassins ‘liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ (JC 3.1.80), and hopes turn to the re-empowerment of patrician, plebeian and senatorial classes in Cicero’s vaunted concordia ordinum. The heroic Republic, brought to its bootless knees by Caesar, has mustered its energy through a last strike at the hand of Brutus, felling tyrannical Caesar and ‘paying ambition’s debt’. 

And yet, Brutus stands not only as the champion of Rome’s Republic, but as a beacon of honour, a man who slew not just a threat to his people, but a man who slew a friend, that which he loved, for the good of his people. This is the true microcosm of the Republic; a political body who did not know what benefits Caesar may have conferred upon itself, who dared murder their greatest leader to preserve an older tradition, and in so doing, breaking itself into warring factions that tore into each other at Phillipi, leaving who to pick up the pieces? Octavian, Augustus, the very heir to Caesar, who would become himself a greater leader and instigate a posterior of imperialism that Brutus and the Republic tried so very hard to prevent. Brutus, the internally conflicted hero, was but an avatar for the greater tragic death… that of the Republic, the tragica res publica.

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