In this great soliloquy, Brutus decides that Caesar must die not for what he is, but for what he may become when he is crowned. What is remarkable about the speech is that Brutus’ makes his conclusion to assassinate Caesar before he analyzes the question. Brutus, for all his honorability, is merely fashioning a rationalization for doing what he has already decided to do.
One of the most psychologically disturbing speeches in the canon is the one Othello gives moments before he strangles Desdemona:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
It’s revealing to contrast this speech with Brutus’ famous speech where he decides that Caesar must die. Brutus, unlike Othello, opens his speech by announcing his conclusion – “it must be by his death” – and then proceeds to lamely rationalize that conclusion. Othello seems to be tilting the other way, against killing Desdemona. At the end of the speech he acknowledges that once he plucks the rose he cannot give it life again. This statement provides a glimmer of hope that Othello might spare Desdemona after all. Instead, he simply says that he will smell the rose on the tree once more before he plucks it.
“I’ll smell it on the tree” is Othello’s bone-chilling affirmation that Desdemona, like Caesar, must die.
Brutus says it must be by Caesar’s death or else he will become a tyrant and Othello says it must be Desdemona’s death or else she’ll betray more men.
Peter , Thursday, December 29, 2011 / Julius Caesar
The Shakespeare Geek has written a blog post that is getting quite a bit of attention. In it he says that a Priest who recently eulogized his Aunt quoted this line of Mark Antony’s from Julius Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
Here’s what the Geek said:
[The Priest] then went on to focus his sermon on how Shakespeare was wrong, and how the good that you do in your life does live after you, and it’s the bad stuff that should be put to rest.
I get his point. He spotted a line that gave him a launching point for what he wanted to say, and he snipped it out of context. No matter how much the words “Shakespeare was wrong” grate on me, I’m not going to debate with the priest on what Antony’s true feelings were toward Caesar.
The Priest makes the serious, but common, mistake of assuming that what Shakespeare has his characters utter is what he himself believes. This, of course, is absurd because it would also mean that Shakespeare believes the following:
- All lawyers should be killed (Henry VI)
- All black men are lustful and not to be trusted around white women (Othello)
- All Jews are miserly and vindictive (Merchant of Venice)
- All boys should become addicted to alcohol (Henry IV, Part 2)
Antony says what Antony must say in order to turn the rabble against Brutus and the conspirators. He would have said Caesar was a jabberwocky if he thought it would work.