heroes and explorers: the tragedy of julius caesar

I first read The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in my eighth grade English class. I remember enjoying it because it was finally a piece of Shakespeare that was easy to read and the drama of it was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages. One might assume from the title that it was a play about that great war captain, conqueror, and leader of Rome, Caesar. However, for some reason in the house I grew up in, this was a play about Antony. Someone so much as says Julius Caesar around me and like a kind of conditioned response, I hear Marlon Brando reciting the first line from Mark Antony’s speech: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” It’s not that we watched the film that many times; it’s more that this particular speech and line got referenced regularly for some reason, and Marlon Brando was the only body I had ever seen really deliver it in character. So, for me the play’s lessons were in Antony’s heroism and moral justice, not in Caesar’s.

When I returned to the play recently, I discovered that the real protagonist of the play is Brutus. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone else who has read it, so please forgive me if I am late to the party. I want to position Brutus as the main character of Julius Caesar not simply because Brutus is the character who carries us through the play from start to finish, but because Brutus’ dilemma is the most tragic one — a man who truly believes he is choosing the most honorable and just path, but it turns out a mess in the end with him perceived as a traitor to the people, the state and his friend, Caesar. The play would perhaps have been more strait-forwardly titled if it had been “The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus”, but then likely no one would have read it, Brutus not having had such a noble and heroic place in western history and myth as Caesar had.

This realization has been reverberating in my brain with a few disparate things, that have succeeded at creating a sense of meaning for me but are resisting coherent unified articulation. So, after a few days of struggling to suture them together, I have decided to stop fighting them and just give them to you in their parts. Perhaps as you digest them together, your own brain can make its own coherent sense of them.


First, a few terms I want to define to make sure you understand how I am using them, in part because sometimes I use the pairings below a bit interchangeably, and this is intentional. I think these pairings sit very, very close to each other and want you to see how they can be metaphorical replacements for each other, how the distinctions of personal or collective can be elided, how we in our everyday language also often do this interchange unconsciously.

These definitions are selections from the Oxford American English Dictionary:

Freedom: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants to without hindrance or restraint
Liberty: the state of being free within society from oppressive restriction imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior or political views

Safety: the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk of injury
Security: the state of being free from danger or threat

Slave: a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them
Subject: a citizen or member of a state other than its supreme ruler, with examples provided such as the possessive expression “Her Majesty’s subjects,” and a meaning synonymous with the term vassal, which is then defined as a serf, dependent, servant, slave, subject, bondsman… you get the gist of what meaning I am suggesting to hold in mind: a subject is a person who is legally bound to a state apparatus and obliged to obey its laws

Master: a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves
Monarch: a sovereign head of state, where sovereign is defined as possessing supreme or ultimate power

Elide: to omit
Elide: to join together, merge


Tyranny by any other name is still tyranny, isn’t it?

Cinna: Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry about it in the streets!

 Cassius: Some to the common pulpits and cry out
“Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!”


 Brutus: Let’s all cry, “Peace, freedom and liberty!”

Cassius: So often shall the knot of us be called
The men that gave their country liberty.

— Julius Caesar, III:i:85-130

Generally, today we understand “tyranny” to be primarily associated with the most extreme form of cruelty, oppression and seemingly arbitrary uses of power, but the line between king and tyrant could be perceived a bit more ambiguously. According to the Greek political theorist and philosopher Aristotle, the various forms of monarchy are:

a) generalship for life: they can lead the army in wars abroad, but otherwise live under the same laws as other citizens of the state/republic and have no power over life or death of those citizens

b) hereditary tyrannies of the willing: the citizens willingly subjugate themselves to their king, who is king by birthright. They protect their king with their bodies and live without complaint in a society based on law.

c) elected tyrannies of the willing: the citizens willingly subjugate themselves to their king, who is king by election. They protect their king with their bodies and live without complaint in a society based on law.

d) merit-based tyrannies of the willing: the citizens willingly subjugate themselves to their king, who has demonstrated excellence in the crafts of war, leads by charisma, or by providing land. They protect their king with their bodies and live without complaint in a society based on law, often times with the king serving as judge and/or priest for the citizens as well.

e) tyranny of the involuntary: the citizens are forced to subjugate themselves to their king. The king is protected by the bodies of mercenaries for hire (often foreign), and is not accountable to his citizens, serving neither them nor the law, but only himself.

— a-d are paraphrased from Politics, p91-92/1284b:35-1285b:28,
e is paraphrased from Politics, p118/1295a:1-24

Aristotle classifies the first four definitions as monarchy and the final one as true tyranny, but the only form that doesn’t seem to involve tyranny of some form is in fact the first form, generalship. And this is where the crux of Brutus’ dilemma can be found. While Caesar was simply a general leading Romans in foreign campaigns, Brutus loved him and believed him to be honorable, valiant and good. However, as Brutus says “I do fear the people choose Caesar as their king” (Julius Caesar, I:ii:84-85). And in Act 2, Brutus explains why:

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.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But ’tis common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color 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.

— Julius Caesar, II:i:10-34

Basically, this is that very familiar idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, right? If Caesar is made king, following Brutus’ logic, he, like any man, will abuse his powers once he has them. Any man who becomes king, will necessarily become a tyrant. But there is a deeper fear here as well that is revealed as the play continues. For those who believe in freedom and liberty, like Brutus, subjecting oneself to any monarch means giving up one’s freedom – and therefore no matter the benevolence, any king’s subject is necessarily his slave.


If slavery to a master is a dehumanizing act, isn’t subjection to a monarch also a dehumanizing act?

And this is where a statement from The Odyssey, although, like Aristotle, of a different time and different culture than Brutus’ or Shakespeare’s starts to whisper in my ear about the fear Brutus has of Caesar, or anyone for that matter becoming emperor, and what giving up their liberty to become subjects to a king will do to the people of Rome.

You know how servants are: without a master
they have no will to labor, or excel.
For Zeus who views the wide world takes away
half the manhood of a man, that day
he goes into captivity and slavery.

—The Odyssey, XVII: 413-417


So, to become slave to another person means not only giving up your freedom, but half of your manhood, or in today’s terms, half your humanity.

In his speech to the people following Caesar’s murder, Brutus asks the listeners three questions:

1) “Who is here so base that would be a bondsman?” (read: a slave, someone bonded to another person, to a master or monarch with ultimate power over you)

2) “Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?” (read: a free person, provided certain legal protections and privileges by the Roman state)

3) “Who is here so vile that will not love his country?” (perhaps implying: who does not love that in which we all share: the laws, governance systems, and natural resources which make our freedoms, protections, and privileges possible)

— Julius Caesar, III:ii:13-34

His argument to the people starts from the very premise of equating a monarch’s subject to a bondsman, reminding them that only the basest, rudest, and vilest of individuals could prefer to have a king, i.e. a master, rather than be a free citizen of Rome. Tragically, what Brutus failed to understand, and Antony demonstrates, is that the people had not feared Caesar’s tyranny as much as Brutus had. They had, in fact, been willing to become subjects of Caesar, willing to give up their claim on freedom in order to serve a king they believed to be benevolent, trustworthy and heroic.


Most of us don’t really want freedom, we want predictable and seemingly fair security.

And this is where Machiavelli’s insights might have proved useful to Brutus.

As to the second popular demand – the restoration of freedom, since the prince is unable to satisfy, he should inquire as to the grounds on which the demand for freedom is based. He will find that a small section of the populace desire to be free in order to obtain authority over others, but that the vast bulk of those who demand freedom, desire but to live in security. For in all states whatever be their form of government, the real rulers do not amount to more than forty or fifty citizens and, since this is a small number, it is an easy thing to make yourself secure in their regard either by doing away with them or by granting them such a share of honours, according to their standing, as will for the most part satisfy them. As for the rest, who demand but to live in security, they can easily be satisfied by introducing such institutions and laws as shall, in conjunction with the power of the prince, make security for the public as a whole. When a prince does this, and the people see that on no occasion does he break such laws, in a short time they will begin to live in security and contentment.

— The Discourses, p156
(Note the first popular demand is avenge themselves
against those leaders who came before the current prince
and were the perceived cause of their previous servitude.)

To some extent, Antony’s speech makes the case for Caesar as precisely the kind of man who, as prince, would have brought them all security and contentment and contrary to what Brutus argues, would have lived within the laws of Rome. According to Antony, Caesar was a leader who filled Rome’s coffers, wept for the poor, refused the crown three times, loved his fellow Romans, and made them his heirs. Because his ability to lead Rome in battle was not ever in question, Antony only has to hint at Caesar’s ability to secure and protect Rome by noting the cloak he wore in a battle he won and claiming that “yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world” (Julius Caesar, III:ii:129-130). All it takes is this singular speech to turn the Romans against Brutus, call him traitor and go to war with him and his collaborators. In some senses, perhaps one can understand this decision, to prefer a benevolent tyrant who will love and protect you over the unpredictability and responsibility of self-governance that freedom and liberty bring?


In his own mind, he’s not evil, he’s a hero.

And here’s where maybe I really fall off the rails, but hopefully you’ll stay with me, because the maneuver takes me somewhere strange. It was something Adam Driver said to Stephen Colbert in an interview ahead of the recent release of the movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi. His argument is what set me to thinking about the complexities of Brutus’ role in “Caesar’s story” as well as to questioning how easy it would be to persuade us to side with the First Order rather than the Resistance, if Adam Driver gave a speech like Mark Antony’s in the next Star Wars movie. In case you haven’t seen them, Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, heir to Darth Vader’s mantle, and ¿villain? in the recent sequels.

Stephen Colbert: Do you like playing evil?

Adam Driver: Well I mean like, yeah. But I don’t, I mean this is such an actor-y thing to say, I don’t think of him as evil. I think of him as someone who thinks he’s right, as opposed to someone who thinks he’s evil. 

Colbert: Don’t all evil people think they’re right?

Driver: Sure, but I don’t think that they think they’re evil. They think they are right. They think that what they are doing is morally justified, so there is no end to what they will do to make sure whatever agenda they have is being pushed. I think, in my experience, someone who is just evil, for the sake of it, that doesn’t seem to have a shelf-life to me. People who I find evil, or unpredictable, or scary, are always just, yeah, they think they’re right, they feel like they are morally justified to do what they are doing, and they are incapable of hearing the other side.

Colbert then tries to engage by suggesting that sometimes the good people are good, not because they are morally justified, but because they are willing to examine their conscience. To which Driver says “sure, if you make time for it,” and the conversation sort of breaks down there, but Colbert asks one more question in this vein: “Do you consider yourself the hero of your own story?” To which, Driver replies mistakenly thinking Colbert is asking him as his Kylo Ren self: “Sure, I think he does.”

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, December 15, 2017

Driver’s argument is intriguing: the real dangerous people aren’t “evil”, they aren’t immoral or amoral socio-paths. Rather, they are operating from different understandings of what is just or moral, understandings that may be at odds with prevailing beliefs and values, but which they believe to be good. And the thing about Shakespeare’s characters is that both Brutus and Antony are seemingly reasonable characters, noble enough to open the door to understanding this perspective, as well as ambiguous enough to be interchangeably the protagonist or antagonist depending on which value system you wish to preference.

We don’t often find such complexity in our protagonists or antagonists today. Brutus’ co-conspirator Cassius appears to be more of the evil for self-interested/envy/raw ambition’s sake — more like today’s movie villains, easy to dismiss as a “bad guy” doing bad things for bad reasons. Similarly, the form of kingship that Star Wars characters like Emperor Palpatine or Snope represent, is equally easy for us to dismiss as a tyranny we should resist and fight against, because, unlike Caesar, they are the kinds of ‘kings’ who seem to take joy in being wantonly cruel to others in order to demonstrate and grow their own power over others. Or think, for example, of how we tend to frame state leaders like Bashar Al-Assad, Nicolás Maduro, Paul Kagame, and Kim Jong-un, or even Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Vladimir Putin. Rather than asking, what is the moral value that drives their leadership, we tend towards framing them as simply self-serving, ambitious tyrants. And they may very well be just evil villains. However, and this is one thing that Brutus and Adam Driver seem to be debating in my head, might it not be more rigorous and perhaps useful, if one is trying to engage/combat them, to pause and ask what goal are they trying to achieve for their people? Why might they believe their actions are justified actions? I’m not trying to suggest we dress them up to look like something benign, as the media has been doing for example by calling the neo-nationalist white-supremacist parties gaining power across the western world “populists”. Nor am I suggesting that we should let ourselves be persuaded by their poetic rhetoric and support them in their causes. Rather, I’m suggesting that if we refuse to hear their reasoning and understand their perspective, how can we expect any outcome other than bloody conflict? And bloody conflict in the name of peace, security and safety. And likely persistent cycles of bloody conflict, because they will most likely be succeeded by others also trying to deliver a similar understanding of justice, offer similar solutions to perceived insecurity, and reproduce similar values and power flows.


In which pop-culture celebrity feeds into the silent majority’s “actual” desires.

What puzzles me some is that Antony could ever have been considered the hero of Shakespeare’s play here in the United States. I mean think about it, isn’t Brutus making a very similar argument to the leaders of the American Revolutionary War who we hold as heroes of this nation? Take a peak for example at this excerpt from Patrick Henry’s famous speech that catalyzed the Virginia Convention’s vote to join the revolutionary war:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.

— Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775,
Speech to the Second Virginia Convention

As beneficiaries of the American Revolution, shouldn’t we be running around quoting Brutus’ opening and exclaiming “Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause…” rather than Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” Even just the language reveals their true intents: the former simply asks us to listen, whereas the latter asks us to relinquish a part of ourselves into his possession. Even if Antony’s opening is more poetic, the fact that it is the opening to a subsequent, some might say subliminal, argument against freedom, liberty and enfranchisement, should in theory turn us, children of the revolution, against Antony outright.

Perhaps, I should lay the blame for ever thinking of Antony as the hero of the play at the feet of Joseph Mankiewicz who directed and wrote the 1953 Hollywood version of the play. Perhaps Mankiewicz had read Machiavelli and understood that the majority of his audience would more naturally feel sympathy for Antony and by proxy for Caesar, rather than for Brutus. And he knew this despite the fact that many of those audience members had just eight years prior finished fighting a world war in the name of ‘global’ freedom and human rights, against a coalition of nationalist leaders who had promised their citizens peace, security and rule of law, but turned out to be particularly cruel, abusive and ambitious tyrants. But then again, perhaps in the post-war fog, they felt more sympathy for a benevolent, protective and peaceful ruler, like Caesar, rather than the perils and uncertainties of freedom, liberty and the wars which are required for their defense. The gentle slide from liberal republic into benign tyranny, how easy it could be.


And so, I am left pondering, is there such a thing as a benign tyranny? Is freedom somehow more inherently valuable, than safety? Has the majority of us ever really agreed with Brutus? Or is it just a few rogue individuals? Would most of us truly prefer life, peace, and security to true liberty? I mean, if you were really honest with yourself, which would you truly prefer? Are the two mutually exclusive, or are they in fact interdependent? What is liberty without peace and security? What sacrifices of liberty and freedom are we willing to make in the name of safety and security? Where is our tipping point? Do we just have a sort of self-deluding fantasy that we too would be part of the resistance? So, we like to cheer on Leia, Luke, Han Solo, Rey, Poe or Fin, but, in reality, if Kylo Ren could offer us a benevolent rule that ensured galactic security, we’d follow him? Could we ever think of Kylo Ren as a hero, like Shakespeare’s Romans and Mankiewicz’s audiences thought of Antony?

Also, which have we been taught to prefer? Think of all the movies Hollywood has released about benevolent monarchs, sometimes even cleansing their truth in order to portray them somehow as more noble than they likely were. Think of all the history classes that tell us that kings and generals are the most important people in our societies. Think of how less than a decade after Mankiewicz’s movie was released, John F Kennedy’s presidency was being framed as Camelot, recalling the stories of the noble King Arthur whose mythological existence we also hold dear. Think of the strange fascination and admiration so many in this country had for Princess Diana and have still for Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the British royal family. Do we somehow long to fill a sovereign void? Or is it that somehow the modern state, the republic we live in, also requires us to willingly subject ourselves to it and to a small collection of individuals who lead it. And therefore, stories of ‘benevolent’ and heroic, monarchs reproduce in us a comfort level with becoming bondsmen to a state in which we defer much of our enfranchisement, our self-governing responsibilities and privileges, to other individuals chosen to hold power based on some sort of merit? If we all really felt as Patrick Henry claims to have felt, if we all really believed liberty was more valuable than peace, would any of the state apparatuses under which we live have survived this long?



And what to make of Benicio del Toro’s character in the Last Jedi, who said: “You want freedom. Don’t join.” Reminding us that subject to corrupt tyrant, subject to benevolent monarch, or subject to a republic, all are still subject, none are truly free.

How would Brutus process that logical next step to his own reasoning?