Happy Christmas Eve!
You all know I love me a good deep dive into the ol’ concordance, and for Christmas, Julius Caesar has given me some interesting findings.
[Note: for the following discussion, like all ours for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare]
With 41 uses, Julius Caesar has more uses of the word “noble” than any other play in the Canon, with the exceptions of Coriolanus (with a mind-blowing 68) and the Fletcher collaboration Henry VIII (with 47).
And this word “noble”… what does it mean? Well, our old friend the Oxford English Dictionary can help out there:
a. Of a person or people: illustrious or distinguished by virtue of position, character, or exploits.
a. Of a person or people: illustrious or distinguished by virtue of rank, title, or birth; belonging to a high social rank, esp. one recognized or conferred by a sovereign or head of state.
a. Characterized by moral superiority or dignity; elevated, lofty.
5. Of a person: having or displaying high moral qualities or ideals; of a great or lofty character; free from pettiness or meanness, magnanimous.
II. Intrinsically good.
a. Having qualities or properties of a very high or admirable kind.
Freq. in the comparative and superlative, denoting superiority to other things of the same name.
- “noble, adj. and n.”
Oxford University Press,
December 2014. Web.
23 December 2014.
Most of the uses in the play are in descriptors of characters (not descriptions like “he was noble,” mind you, but descriptors like “noble Brutus” [I.ii.64], with over a third  for Brutus, while Cassius and Caesar have six apiece, and Antony five), and many of those within dialogues with the characters themselves); thus, I’ve filtered the definitions that most closely hew to a personal perspective. Of the definitions above, all but #5 were in common usage at the time of Shakespeare. That outlying definition is of note as well: its first use, according to the OED is in the statement by Antony over the dead Brutus at the play’s end: “This was the noblest Roman of them all” (V.v.67). It’s interesting that the final use of the word in the play is the first recorded use the definition of “ideals”; that would, by logic, mean that this is the only “noble” in the play that pertains to ideals. The other definitions are all either about illustriousness by rank or birth, or a kind of dignity or loftiness. Ideals are nowhere to be found, morals only tangentially.
On the other hand, the root “honor” (the word itself/dishonor/honorable) is used a mere 30 times (it sounds like a lot, but I see nine plays with more uses, including a whopping 48 in Measure for Measure (and 51 in the aforementioned Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration Henry VIII). So, at least a third of the Canon use (dis)honor(able) more than Julius Caesar.
That’s what the concordance tells us… what does the OED say?
a. Worthy of being honored; deserving or entitled to honor, respect, esteem, or reverence; venerable.
b. Holding an exalted position; of distinguished rank or status; noble, illustrious.
- “honorable, adj.;” OED.
a. Great respect, esteem, or reverence received, gained or enjoyed by a person or thing; glory, renown, fame; reputation, good name.
a. Quality of character entitling a person to great respect; nobility of mind or spirit; honorableness, uprightness; a fine sense of, and strict adherence to, what is considered to be morally right or just.
- “honor, n.;” OED.
I think the key is that first definition for the noun version. All the others have a sense of position or worthiness. That first one, however, is all about fame and reputation, but not necessarily that which is earned (think Kardashian here). It’s a great reverence bestowed but the person (or persons) receiving it don’t deserve it.
That’s what makes Antony’s funeral speech so damning. “So are they all, all honorable men” (III.ii.85), Antony says. And looking back on it, that use of “honor(able)”– even in that first section of the oration–is a subtle puncturing of the facade of worthiness. The conspirators have received the glory of the crowd (remember that some call for Brutus to become the new Caesar); but as they are not worthy of it, the crowd can take away that renown just as easily.