Study Guide

Brutus in Julius Caesar

By William Shakespeare


(Click the character infographic to download.)

One of the conspirators, Brutus is supposed to be Julius Caesar's BFF but he ends up stabbing his so-called pal in the back, literally and figuratively. Does this make Brutus a villain worthy of a Lemony Snicket novel? Not necessarily, but we'll let you decide.

Biggest Backstabber Ever or Roman Hero?

Brutus' decision to stab Caesar in the back isn't an easy one. He has to choose between his loyalty to the Roman Republic and his loyalty to his friend, who seems like he could be heading toward tyrant status. When Brutus hears how the commoners are treating Caesar like a rock star, he's worried for Rome:

What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
                                                 Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well.

Even though Brutus "love[s]" Caesar "well," he also fears that his friend will be crowned king, which goes against the ideals of the Roman Republic.

After killing his pal and washing his hands in his blood, Brutus defends his actions:

If there be any in this assembly, any dear
friend of Caesar's, to him I say that Brutus' love
to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend
demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my
answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more.

OK, fine – we believe Brutus when he says it was hard for him to murder Caesar. But does his sense of patriotism really justify killing a friend and a major political leader? It turns out that this is one of the most important questions in the play, and there aren't any easy answers.

Great-Grandfather of Macbeth and Hamlet

When we first meet Brutus, it becomes clear that he's the play's most psychologically complex character. Check out his response when Cassius asks him what's bothering him:

Be not deceived. If I have veiled my look,
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexèd I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which give some soil, perhaps, to my behaviors.
But let not therefore my good friends be grieved
(Among which number, Cassius, be you one)
Nor construe any further my neglect,
Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war,
Forgets the shows of love to other men.

When Brutus says he's been at "war" with himself, we know he's pretty torn up about something. Is he worried about Caesar's growing power and what he'll probably have to do to stop him from becoming king? Probably. The rest of play traces Brutus' inner turmoil, which is why a lot of literary critics see Brutus as the great-grandfather of two of Shakespeare's later protagonists: Hamlet (the moodiest teenager in literature) and the introspective Macbeth. This speech also says a lot about Brutus' character. When Cassius asks him why he's been so upset lately, Brutus' first priority is to apologize to his pal for being so moody and neglectful of their relationship. Obviously friendship is very important to Brutus.

The Noblest Roman of Them All?

There's a reason Antony calls Brutus the "noblest Roman" (meaning most honorable): he stands up for what he believes in, risks his life for Rome, and doesn't seem to be concerned with personal gain. Yet for all of Brutus' good qualities, his troubles stem from his decision to murder a man and his misjudgment about the consequences. Brutus' defining traits are still up for discussion: is he more naïve than noble, more callous than considerate? Brutus' honor convinces him that they shouldn't dispose of Antony when the other men want to, and his trust in Antony's honor leads him to believe Antony's funeral speech will not be an invitation to riot. (Sadly mistaken.)

His final words are most telling – he doesn't die just to avenge Caesar, but instead leaves a complicated legacy: "Caesar, now be still: I kill'd not thee with half so good a will." This incantation acknowledges the debt Brutus owes to Caesar, and it admits that Brutus sees some of his own failings too – leading him to embrace his own death. It's not that Brutus didn't willingly kill Caesar. He's as committed to his own death now as he was to Caesar's then. Brutus commits an act of self-sacrifice with no pride or self-pity. He's humble about what he's done (both good and bad) and quietly accepting of his own fate.

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