Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario.
Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives. They are also close friends. Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two. Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part. That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.
But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers. They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head. They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo. They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down. They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause. He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest. They approach Bob. Seduction is their aim.
Bob is in two minds. He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill. But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend? In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill. Bob is finally won over.
Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces. Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill. Bob positively fawns on Bill. When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs. ‘You, too, Bob?’ Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators. His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.
Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately. It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.
So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus? The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell. Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell. What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?
Let us deal with Dante first. This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas. Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation. If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever. But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.
Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch). He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic. On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.
It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas. One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable. It would be very hard to argue against that position.
But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler. Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?
We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar. There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful. You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing. And Judas had no grand ideological plan. He just took the money. They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers. Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.
So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus? It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.
It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar. Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced? (1.2.308-312)
Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus? Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble? For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?
Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:
It must be by his death; and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there’s the question. (2.1.10-14)
So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?
… And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell. (2.1.28-34)
We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous. We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. (2.1.62-65)
Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man. He will offer a veneer of respectability. An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.
And they pay very dearly for handing over to him. He makes three mistakes that doom them all. He says an oath is beneath them. He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162). Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods. (2.1.171-2)
Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend. (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.) He does not want to get his hands dirty. (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)
The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage. Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump. Game over.
There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S. The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic. The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs. This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries. This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob. All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap. In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’. You can’t get much more up to date than that.
But our playwright had not done with Brutus. The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine. The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar. The Judas kiss. You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times. Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.
And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them. As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’
*This appears to be the verdict of history. In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:
The Liberators knew what they were about. Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome]. They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order. Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words. They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.
Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.