A couple of days back, I discussed the uses of the words “noble” and “(dis)honor(able)” in Julius Caesar, buttressed by findings I made in the concordance over at OpenSource Shakespeare. What prompted me to look up those particular words was not, as you might think, purely because I noticed each appearing so often in the play. No, not each. Rather both. Even in my first reading of the play, I noticed that there were more than a handful of times where the two words were used within the same speech.
What to make of that? Or as Kenan Thompson might sing it on Saturday Night Live, “What up with that?”
In 9 cases–in other words, in nearly one-fourth of “noble”s and nearly one-third of “honor”s–the two words are used in the same speech:
- Cassius: “dishonorable graves…. noble bloods” (I.ii.139/52)
- Cassius: “Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see // Thy honorable mettle may be wrought” (I.ii.308/9)
- Cassius: “noblest-minded Romans…honorable-dangerous consequence” (I.iii.1121-123)
- Cassius: “no man here // But honors you…every noble Roman” (II.i.90-1/93)
- Antony’s Servant: “I love Brutus and honor him…noble Brutus” (III.i.129/136)
- Antony: “noble Brutus…Brutus is an honorable man” (III.ii.77/83)
- Pindarus: “my noble master…regard and honor” (IV.ii.11/12)
- Brutus: “O, if you were the noblest of thy strain // Young man, thou couldst not die more honorable” (V.i.59-60)
- Lucillius: “noble Cato…be honored” (V.iv.9/11)
What I find interesting about these speeches is that before Brutus comes to the conclusion that he will join the conspiracy (“It must be by his death…” [II.i.10]) the three uses–all by Cassius, if you were paying attention–show a dichotomy between nobility and honor (dishonor/noble, noble yet honorable, noblest/honorable-dangerous). After the decision, each speaker attempts to associate noble with honorable. Even Antony’s usage comes early in his funeral oration before he starts to add irony to the repeated “honorable men” motif.
Consider this supposition: Before the decision, it’s reality–there’’s no one-to-one correlation between nobility and honor. Between the decision and the assassination (or as Brutus describes it, “Between the acting of a dreadful thing // And the first motion” [II.i.63-4]), there is only one usage, by Cassius (I have no idea what it means, but before the assassination, only Cassius uses the construct; and after, he uses it no more). After the assassination, no one character uses the construct more than once. It’s almost as if each of these speakers is trying desperately to make the two concepts one, to equate noble and honorable. I’m willing to be each and every character wants to be noble, wants to be honorable, but in this play no one is purely both (and I might even argue that no one is either purely noble or honorable).
The assassination has proved that the nobility and honor are not the same… they may be aligned, complementary, even, but not equal.
Dissenting views are always welcome in the comment thread below…