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By: Louise Van Oel

Photo Credits: Unsplash

 
 

“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’s love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

– Brutus

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene ii, l. 14-28)

 

My name is Brutus and my name means heavy

So with a heavy heart

I'll guide this dagger into the heart of my enemy

My whole life, you were teacher and friend to me

Please know my actions are not motivated only by envy

I, too, have a destiny

The Buttress, Brutus

 

 

The almost uninterrupted monorhyme of these lines by The Buttress punctuate and accentuate Brutus’s increasingly desperate rationalising of her betrayal of Caesar. This Brutus, of the song/spoken-word poem by The Buttress that shares her name, is female, but in all other respects she is the same character as the man from history and from Shakespeare. Most importantly, she is the same in the all-important sense that betrayal is what defines and unravels her.

 

I have mixed feelings about the historical Julius Caesar, which is I think the only correct way to feel about him, but at present I am less interested in him than I am in Brutus. Who knew that Brutus and Cassius, lead conspirators of the Caesar assassination, were both philosophers? I certainly didn’t, not before I conducted some research for this article, and I didn’t see that one coming. In Classical Antiquity, philosophy was not just something to be debated for fun; men would “claim, with every appearance of seriousness, to base their entire lives on their chosen philosophies.”[1] Brutus and Cassius, villains of literal and literary history, were people who venerated and lived by considered, rational thought.

 

It makes sense, in a way, that wrapping yourself in the armour of pure reason is one way to make yourself capable of the madness of plunging a knife into a fellow person—let alone to end the life of a man you’ve known for many years. You almost have to rationalise away emotion entirely to get to a point like that. Traitors of the truly tragic kind, ones who betray those they love, have to logically convince themselves there is no other way.

 

I can’t think of situations more inherently up-to-the-neck in pathos than those. Tableaux where the one bleeding out rests their head on the lap of the loved one who ended them, and they look into each other’s eyes with a feeling that is love, fear, anger, and despair at once. No wonder authors and audiences go wild for emotionally-charged traitor dénouements. There is no more perfect tragedy.

 

At the same time, though, it’s interesting that we are so attracted to these scenes despite the fact that most of us have never been in a situation like Brutus and Caesar's. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t shed the lifeblood of a loved one at dagger-point and I hope never to do so in the future. Audience emotional investment in narratives is often thought to be tied to their relatability, so how come we invest our feelings in scenes of death-by-beloved’s-betrayal so easily and completely?

 

The truth is, the human brain is never rational when it comes to emotions, and so I think that we do relate to these scenes, just not in a way that is necessarily proportional. Though I hope I speak for all of Soliloquies’ lovely readers when I say we have never killed a loved one, I think we can all think of a time when we’ve let down or betrayed the trust of someone we cared about. We often feel so much worse about these moments than we deserve to, because to hurt someone you love is necessarily also to hurt yourself.

 

In every iteration of their story—real and imagined—when he destroys Caesar, Brutus destroys himself as well. Narratives adapting the infamous assassination of 44 B.C. are often imbued with a tragic, prescient sense that Brutus knows this, and picks up the knife anyway.

 

I was already interested in the ancient drama of Brutus’s betrayal long before I heard Brutus by The Buttress, but the song humanises the historical figure in a way I hadn’t encountered before. Shakespeare’s Brutus is a noble tragic hero, and as such necessarily elevated above the ordinary human experience to some degree. Brutus’s voice in the song, by contrast, expresses anguish and uncertainty of a much more unrefined kind. She constantly contradicts herself, and her faculties of reason have become completely untethered from her emotional turmoil, though she doesn’t admit as much. She alternately tries to convince herself that she loves and hates Caesar while never really becoming sure of either answer, and finally, glories in her responsibility for his death in a way that is not a little terrifyingly unhinged.

 

The narrative of the song ends before Brutus’s death, but Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, draws out the scene in extensive dramatic detail. In the play, Brutus' final line is "Caesar, now be still: I kill'd not thee with half so good a will,"[2] which he speaks before impaling himself on his own sword. The historical Brutus did kill himself, but it was because he had lost a decisive battle against Mark Antony, Caesar’s stalwart avenger. To take your own life after an insurmountable defeat like Brutus’s at Philippi was a Roman general’s way to avoid capture and subsequent public denigration. Though it can’t be ruled out, feelings of anguished guilt on Brutus’s part likely didn’t play much if any of a role in the real man’s final decision. However, that Shakespeare interpreted it that way, and has Brutus address his emotionally charged final words directly to the murdered friend who still haunts him, says much about how humans think of the all-consuming power of a traitor’s remorse.

 

Brutus’s motivation for conspiring to kill his friend and father-figure was, in history as in Shakespeare and the music of The Buttress, allegedly ‘the greater good’ of Rome. The greater good is usually as noble a motivation as they come. But who’s to know what this ruminant philosopher was truly thinking? How could we ever find out how he really rationalised that decision? And whether, eventually, his final thoughts might indeed have been of Caesar?

 

No matter how good some historians are, we’ll never be able to learn the truth about any of those uncertainties. And we know that, but it doesn’t stop us obsessing about them. Instead, we just continue making highly emotional art about betrayal, in endless efforts to understand the traitors—and ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Sedley, David. "The ethics of Brutus and Cassius." The Journal of Roman Studies 87 (1997): 41-53.

 

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Edited by Ben Florman, LitCharts, accessed April 2024.

 

The Buttress. “Brutus.” Brutus, The Buttress, 2016. Spotify, open.spotify.com/track/57gfWnvoMmnXBdghubxWrg?si=e0db0ba5f968491d

 


[1] Sedley, 43.

[2] Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene v, ll. 62-63

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