Brutus's End (5.5)
Self-Deceived until the Very End
Try as I might, it is hard for me to conjure up much sympathy for Brutus. So far in these essays I have argued that his central character flaw was an unwillingness to pursue self-knowledge when he was offered an opportunity to do so, both by Cassius and Portia. He refused to "unfold" himself to Portia even when she insisted that he do so, and he did not want Cassius to shine his "mirror" on him because, as Brutus said, there really was nothing in him to see.
As a result, he had to rely on something else in making his decision to join the conspiracy. He thought he was relying on his reason, but in fact, he was relying on word pictures derived from nature (Caesar as snake) or human experience (people who climb ladders look down on those at the bottom of the ladder) when he knew there was no evidence to support them (2.1). He then combined this with a domineering personal style and a commitment to his own self-righteousness in relations with the conspirators. Though there appeared to be a breakthrough of sorts with Cassius in 4.3, by the end of that scene Brutus has reasserted his dominant personality to overcome Cassius' objections to his plans to march on Philippi.
Commenting on Cassius' Death
Brutus's insufferability continues in Act V. When Cassius dies, and is eloquently lamented by Titinius, Brutus enters to say that he really does not have time to mourn now because of the urgency of other tasks (5.3.101-103). To be sure, he recognizes Cassius and Titinius, who has just killed himself, as the "last of all the Romans" and men who are unmatched by any living Roman (5.3.98-99), but then uses the word "I" three times in as many lines to say that he will show his respects to Cassius in the future (5.3.101-103). Cassius' funeral will not be in the camp, "Lest it discomfort us (5.3.106)." When the alert reader gets to the end of the play without Brutus's ever having recognized Cassius as he promised he would, one gets the impression that, from Brutus's perspective, the death of Cassius might really be more about Brutus than about Cassius.
Facing his Own Death (5.5)
Maybe, we think, Brutus faces his own death more nobly. But, he really does not. The first 50 lines of the play's final scene are spent with Brutus trying, without success, to find a volunteer to kill him. Finally, he has to fall on his own sword and by so doing he violates the solemn philosophical statement he made to Cassius about rejecting the option of suicide. In fact he said he blamed Cato (his father in law) for committing suicide. He then added, "I do find it cowardly and vile,/ For fear of what might fall, so to prevent/ The time of life (5.1.103-105)." Indeed, that is exactly what Brutus does in 5.5. He "prevents" his "time of life" by committing suicide (5.5.49).
But how does he face his own death? With the Stoic calm and imperturbability with which he greeted the news of Portia's death? With which he maintained control on his emotions when he quarreled with Cassius in 4.3? No, he begins to cry. "Now is that noble vessel full of grief,/ That it runs over even at his eyes (5.5.13-14)." It is hard to conjure up images of sympathy for Brutus.
Then, in his final words, Brutus sums up his life as follows: "My heart doth joy that yet in all my life/ I found no man but he was true to me./ I shall have glory by this losing day/ More than Octavius and Mark Antony/ By this vile conquest shall attain unto (5.5.34-38)." But how is either of these statements correct? Though he may have been referring to the loyalty of the servants shown in this scene, the fundamental thing we learn about Brutus in Julius Caesar is that Cassius, his co-conspirator, was not true to him. Cassius manipulated him into joining the conspiracy. And, as for glory? How did he imagine that the loser would win? Not only had he murdered Caesar, whose reputation had and would eclipse his, but the account of the battle of Philippi would, as all battle accounts are, be written by the victors.
The ultimate "reward" for not knowing the self, in Brutus's case, is to go to the grave self-deceived. Shakespeare has thus placed the issue of self-knowledge directly before the reader. But, does knowledge of self really help one avoid pitfalls? Why not just live like Brutus in a world of make-believe? What really is the value of self-knowledge? We have to turn to other plays, like Hamlet, Othello and King Lear to probe some of these questions.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long