Brutus’ Inability to Assume Political Leadership of the Conspiracy Against Julius Caesar
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents a broad range of historical personalities as complicated human
beings in agonizing conflict with one another and with themselves. Literary authors A.L. Rowse once
wrote, “No issue hinders a man’s leadership capabilities more than his confusing perception of honor, noble
idealism, and inner self-conflict” (15). In his drama about power, nobility, assassination, and revenge,
Shakespeare examines this particular issue best in his simple yet complex characterization of Brutus. Guided
by conflicting emotions, Brutus, an idealistic man, is unable to assume political leadership of the conspiracy
against Julius Caesar. However, although he ultimately participates in Caesar’s murder, he is neither a
clear-cut hero or villain. On the contrary, it is the corruption and instability of human nature that eventually
leads to his downfall.
Brutus lacks several important ingredients in regard to assuming political leadership: confidence and
ambition. He is also indecisive. His inner conflict is first revealed in a conversation with Cassius in which he
responds to Cassius’ fear that his friend Brutus disapproves of him. Brutus assures Cassius that he is not
angry with him, but with himself:
Be not deceived. If I have veiled my look,
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which gives 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. (1.2. 37-46).
In Scene I, Cassius utters the first in a series of persuasive remarks designed to win Brutus on the part of
the conspiracy to destroy Caesar. But Brutus is incapable of assuming the leadership role as his self-conflict
reflects both his personal love of Caesar and his duty to the Republic. He admits, however, that he loves
honor more than he fears death, and that he will act in the public good at any cost. Later in the
conversation, Brutus reassures Cassius, revealing that he is somewhat inclined toward Cassius’ sentiments.
He then promises to consider the information that Cassius has already presented, to discuss it further, and to
give him an answer at a later date. For the present, Brutus tells Cassius:
Till then, my noble friend, chew upon this:
Brutus had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
Is like to lay upon us (1.2. 171-174).
Brutus’ noble character is established by both Cassius and Caesar. Brutus is a reflective man, dedicated
to the principles of the Republic, to love and friendship, to duty, and to honor. For the sake of honor, he
will even face death (as, in fact, he does at the end of the play). But as strongly as he holds to these ideals,
he is just as strongly torn by conflicting loyalties to these ideals. Brutus makes decisions deliberately, and
he is not quickly influenced by persuasive and passionate argument. He is torn between his love and
admiration for Caesar and the anti-Caesar sentiments he admittedly shares with Cassius. The emotions of
love and respect for Caesar that Brutus feels are authentic and deep. The effect is to make the political
leadership against Caesar impossible.
Again, Brutus’ conflict consists of his love for Caesar on one hand, and his concern for the social good
and welfare of the Republic on the other. According to historian Steven Ozment, Brutus “tends to
rationalize his actions by altering his view of its desirability” (qtd. in Roberts 152). He can find no
justification to gain the political leadership of the conspiracy against Caesar in Caesar’s past actions;
therefore, he finds justification for it in what Caesar might become. He assumes that Caesar will develop
into a somewhat bombastic and unbearable tyrant if he is crowned king. On the basis of this assumption, he
decides to murder him. The flaw of his reasoning is that Brutus does not raise the question of whether or
not a moral end justifies immoral means, nor does he consider that his actions may be met with public
Brutus overcomes his natural sense of shame over the idea of conspiracy and murder. As demonstrated
in his soliloquy, he convinces himself that Caesar will ultimately become a dictator:
And since my quarrel with Caesar cannot be justified by what he actually is,
I must work it out in this way: that what he is, developed and extended,
Is likely to reach such and such extremes… so that I must kill Caesar… (2.1. 29-34).
Brutus is convinced that the souls of free men suffer by the potentiality of Caesar’s coronation, and that the
conspirators are all honest Romans, concerned only with the good of the state. He believes in their cause,
but his nobility and self-conflict prevents him from leading the conspiracy.
Finally, Brutus conceives of Caesar’s death as a religious sacrifice rather than a human slaughter. He is
blind to the possibility that his sacrifice may, in fact, be sacrilege, because the gods have ordained Caesar’s
rule. Although Brutus is too weak and too conflicted to assume leadership of the conspiracy, Shakespeare
weaves the recurrent motif of honor and honesty around his gentle characterization of Brutus. In so doing,
he undoubtedly confirms that the corruption and instability of human nature does, in fact, have a negative
impact on the noblest plans.