The Battle between Ethics and Politics in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is clearly a play concerning the tragedy of lost morality in the political sphere but contrary to the plays title the focus is not on Caesar himself but instead on the individuals left behind after his murder. The political tragedy primarily centers around the character Brutus and his inner turmoil as he tries to cope with the circumstances after overthrowing his leader to whom he was exceedingly loyal to. Shakespeare explores the blurred line between the political spheres morals and the character’s innate sense of right and wrong through the actions of Brutus especially and how the desire for political power can corrupt one’s virtue.

The constant battle between ethics and politics is primarily embodied in Brutus, for him morality is closely linked with laws and tradition and this association is the basis for his actions throughout the play and therefore abiding by traditional laws in his eyes is what informs morality. Brutus is easily manipulated and swayed by the other characters because of this.

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Cassius plays on Brutus’ ideals and his offer of power upon killing Caesar awakens a dark side in Brutus an otherwise noble man. Cassius learns that Caesar is thrice offered the crown yet he declines, this fills Cassius with jealousy against Caesar and he begins to wish for his downfall, this leads him to manipulate the Senate members into believing that monarchy will be the ultimate outcome if Caesar were to take the throne. (Mehta) “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves.

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” Brutus justifies Cassius’ plan to kill his friend in act 3 as the act would prevent Caesars probable corruption from the crown and making Rome pay for it if he were to accept offers to become emperor. Although Julius Caesar was not unduly power hungry, his inability to separate his public and private life and the fact that he was often seduced by the public's idolization of him gave reason for Brutus’ and Cassius’ suspicions.

The tragedy begins in act 2 when Brutus starts to consider the fact that Caesar must be killed in order to prevent him from being corrupted by his power, even though Brutus admits he has never seen his friend swayed by power in the past. He becomes a traitor to his friend claiming that it is for the good of Rome, when in fact it was actually self-serving. (Mehta) Brutus compares Caesar to the egg of a serpent “which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous”; thus, he determines to “kill him in the shell”. His sense of virtue begins to become blurred by the idea of power and his obsession with political righteousness. His final decision ultimately determines the fate of everyone in his world as well as affects the natural line to the throne. (Mehta) In making his decision he begins to explore his own desire for power which up to this point remained unseen, even to himself. Another important point to consider when Brutus is being persuaded at his meeting with the senators is that Brutus opposes the idea to assassinate Caesars close confiant Mark Anthony due to the fact that it would distort their own ethics and that doing more heinous acts than necessary would make the conspirators tyrannical themselves.(Mehta) This is ironic because the proposal to kill his friend Caesar who thus far into the play is an innocent man, based upon a conspiracy is already an act that goes against basic virtue. Once again this informs the plays tragedy of lost morality in the political sphere.

At Caesar’s funeral Brutus delivers a remarkable speech that allows the distressed crowd to forget their fury and listen with absolute attention to his reason for killing their respected ruler. He appeals to the crowd by comparing their love for Caesar to his own love for him and his appreciation for their friendship. He then gives his explanation for killing the beloved emperor to be, he stated to the crowd that Caesar although he was a valiant person, he was too much of a threat to roman society in the sense that he was too ambitious. He needed to kill Caesar in order to protect the people’s freedom and to protect Rome from tyranny; “If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less but I loved Rome more”. Thus justifying the assassination of Caesar and depicting himself as the humble servant of Rome using his excellent oratory skills to win over the people.

The speech that follows given by Mark Anthony to the crowd highlights the immoral deed committed by the republicans as he counter questions the allegations posed by Brutus in his speech about Caesar’s ambition. “The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was grievous fault, you all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?”. This speech proved to the crowd just how unjust the republican’s actions were when killing Caesar. It calls attention to Brutus’ and Cassius’ clouded judgement and their blurred moral values as they failed to see any benefits to Caesars potential kingship. Anthony calls Brutus an “honourable man” yet we know this is untrue as he willingly killed his close friend.

Brutus spends the rest of the play immersed in his own inner battle even to the point of his own suicide after going to battle with Mark Anthony and his men, for which Brutus takes the blame. Yet even in his death he is deemed an honourable man. When Mark Anthony finds Brutus’ body on the battlefield he tells Octavius that he was the only man who participated for the right reasons remarking that he was an honest man and that he meant well in what he did for Rome and to his close friend, he reflects on his legacy and titles him “the noblest Roman of them all”. Therefore we as the audience can view Brutus as the plays tragic hero, Brutus embodied the core Roman values through his honour, nobility and bravery in the final scenes. Brutus suicide proves that he may not have been lying about his true motive for killing Caesar as his self-inflicted wounds serve as a symbol for his statements made at Caesars funeral, it proves that Brutus did in fact care for the future of Rome, as he sacrificed himself for the good of the empire.

To conclude, I agree with the statement that the play ‘Julius Caesar’ is ultimately about the tragedy of lost morality in the political sphere. The play is considered a tragedy due to the many unfortunate deaths, many of which being carried out by individuals whose motives have been clouded by the idea of political power and their own intrinsic moral codes. The character Brutus proves the point throughout the play that no matter how an individual starts out, all of us are susceptible to our innermost desires and dark wishes. The two sides are demonstrated through the existence of the public sphere of morality in the play. This idea can also be seen in Cassius whose power hungry incentives drive him to persuade Brutus to do the foul deed of killing Caesar. The play lets us believe that Brutus is a true patriot, yet his traitorous behaviour says otherwise. Brutus always has the power to agree or disagree with the people around him but he lets his own morals and strict political code steer his actions and consequently lead him to his devastating fate. All in all, Brutus is not entirely an evil person, he is a good man who did a bad thing and in turn is severely troubled by his actions. The tragedy that is ‘Julius Caesar’ conveys the results of how greed and extreme politically driven actions can affect a society but also the toll it takes on an individual as well.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Battle between Ethics and Politics in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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