Since the Rome of Julius Caesar is portrayed as the pinnacle of civilization, arguments about Rome’s governance are also arguments about what constitutes an ideal government. The entire play centers around Brutus upholding the truth of two moral statements: First, that monarchy is intrinsically tyrannical; and secondly, that killing Caesar, an as-yet-innocent man, is morally acceptable if it prevents Rome from becoming a monarchy. Brutus's strict moral code makes no allowance for self-preservation, however, and so he rejects the killing of Antony, and even allows Antony to address the plebeians—a step that wins Antony mass support and proceeds to Brutus’s and the conspirators’ ultimate demise. Giving in to Cassius on either of his moral points, then, would have prevented Brutus's ruin, but violated his principles. Through Brutus’s moral plight, Shakespeare argues that it’s hardly possible for moral principle and political advancement to coexist; one will inevitably undermine the other.
Brutus’s principled opposition to monarchy is exploited by more politically ambitious characters like Cassius, who are simply hungry for power. One of the central arguments of the play is that, in the context of ancient Rome, kingship is equated with tyranny. When Cassius begins manipulating Brutus in the direction of the conspiracy, he appeals to the “shame” of Rome accepting a king: “Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! / When went there by an age, since the great flood, / But it was famed with more than with one man?” In this view, it’s not just immoral but “un-Roman” for Rome to be governed by a solitary figure; historically, Rome has been distinguished by its elevation of many worthy men. Cassius uses this argument to sway Brutus not only in the belief that Caesar is too ambitious, but that he, whose “hidden worthiness” rivals Caesar’s alleged godlike status, has a moral obligation to actively oppose it. This reasoning works on Brutus even more effectively than Cassius expects—or wants. Later, in private, Brutus recalls his forebears’ expulsion of the “Tarquin,” Rome’s last king: “Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe? […] O Rome, I make thee promise […] thou receivest / Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.” Brutus believes that opposing Caesar is not just a matter of current political expediency, but of maintaining an inherently Roman tradition of preserving greater liberty by resisting the pretensions of the ambitious.
This belief also shapes Brutus’s attitudes about the assassination and its aftermath, to Cassius’s frustration. Brutus opposes the idea of killing Caesar’s close confidant, Antony, on the grounds that this would make the conspirators mere butchers. He reasons that because Antony is simply a “limb” of Caesar, killing Caesar is sufficient to stifle any backlash; furthermore, “Our purpose [must be] necessary and not envious […] We shall be called purgers, not murderers.” In other words, in order to remain consistent with their own ethics, the conspirators must do only as much as is necessary to forestall tyranny; going beyond that risks making the conspirators tyrannical themselves. However, Brutus’s restraint ends up backfiring, as Antony quickly stirs up popular support and incites civil war in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder, leading to his eventual victory and Brutus’s own death. So Brutus’s moral principles end up undermining the purposes for which Cassius recruited him for the conspiracy. This suggests that it’s difficult for morality to withstand political ambitions of any kind.
Because historical plays would be understood to offer comment on contemporary matters, it’s reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare was offering a warning to the nobility of his day—not that Queen Elizabeth was a tyrant, but that in the absence of an heir, the aspirations of ambitious nobles were only likely to worsen ongoing trouble. His tragic treatment of Brutus also suggests that, in any political era, those who adhere strictly to principle are likely to be exploited by those who have no such scruples.
Politics and Morality ThemeTracker
Politics and Morality Quotes in Julius Caesar
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Et tu, Bruté? — Then fall, Caesar!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman.
This was the noblest Roman of all
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man."