Julius Caesar: Brutus’ rationale soliloquy

A couple of weeks back, I used a couple of entries to take a good long look at and a deep dive into Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar, noting that most people would say that speech is the most famous from the play.

I also said at the time, however, that a few folks might pick Brutus’s Act Two, Scene One soliloquy as the most famous in the play instead. Now, I’m not going to say that speech is more famous than the funeral oration. And I’m certainly not going to spend three blog posts on it. But… Let’s take a look at this soliloquy because it is interesting.

It’s the night before the assassination, and for the previous month, Cassius has been working his scheme, attempting to sway Brutus to the side of the conspirators. And it’s working because as he ponders the assassination, he muses…

It must be by his death. And for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crowned:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But, when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
  • II.i.10-34

What is the “It” in that first line? The solution to the problem of Caesar? (Getting Cassius off his back? not likely)

Brutus admits that he has no personal reason to attack Caesar, except for the “general” or for the whole of the society (“general, n.; A.1.a” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 21 December 2014.).

Brutus states that Caesar would be crowned, then asks “how that might change his nature.” The rest is supposition which turns Caesar into a snake (“the adder”). That snake, in and of itself, isn’t dangerous, but when the “bright day” causes him to come out, others have to be “wary.” Brutus says that if Caesar is crowned, then Brutus “grants” that then Caesar will gain the “sting… that at his will he may do danger with.” May do danger, not will do. Brutus has to concede (“grant, v.; 4.a” OED.) that Caesar could become dangerous because Brutus  doesn’t necessarily believe Caesar is either dangerous or would definitely become dangerous with power. For his logical argument to work, he has to agree to this theoretical possibility.

A theoretical possibility with no evidence. Even Cassius had the swimming story to buttress his claim of Caesar’s weakness.

“Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins // Remorse from power,” Brutus states. This is a universal truth, but one separated (“disjoin, v.; 1.a” OED), as it were, from his argument. So separate, in fact, that he must then immediately admit that he has “not known when (Caesar’s) affections swayed // More than his reason.” Caesar is a reasonable man; his reason is stronger than his emotions (“affection, n.; 1.a” OED). Brutus then states, however, that humility (“lowliness, n.; 1.a” OED) is the method that ambition uses to move upward, but once the ambitious man reaches the top of the ladder, he then turns his back and scorns on what he was before. “So Caesar may,” Brutus says. Again, supposition.

To avoid this suppositional logic taken to its extreme, and becoming reality, Brutus says they must “prevent” it.

But he can’t debate the issue (not even with himself), as “the quarrel // Will bear no color for the thing (Caesar) is” in reality. Instead, Brutus must mold or shape (“fashion, v.; 1.a” OED) the argument in a different manner: if Caesar is crowned, and “these and these extremities” happen…he can’t even explain clearly what those events are. Brutus needs to believe Caesar to be like a snake in an egg, and–as to prevent what a snake might do–“kill him in the shell.” It is of note that “fashion” also meant in Shakespeare’s day both to “beautify” and to “counterfeit or pervert” (“fashion, v.; 1.c, and 4.b.” OED).

Brutus needs to pervert reality to devise a rationale to go along with Cassius. And he does.

So what does this say about his honorable nobility?

I’ve got a supposition to offer myself: Brutus is no nobler nor no less opportunistic than Antony, and no less ambitious than Cassius. I’m beginning to wonder if the “It” from the first line of the speech refers to something more akin to “how I become king” and that the speech as a whole is a kind of rough draft the the same sort of self-convincing we’ll see later in a certain Scottish thane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *