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Works of tragedy have a long history, dating back to ancient Greece. Tragic plays often revolve around the downfall of a "tragic hero," the central character destined for a tragic fate. One of the most famous tragic plays, Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, explores the downfall of several characters. While the play bears Caesar's name, the true tragic hero is Marcus Brutus.
As the tragic hero, Brutus faces a profound moral dilemma, a situation where every available option leads to disaster.
Such dilemmas are a hallmark of tragic works and help identify the true tragic hero. In the events leading up to Julius Caesar's assassination, Marcus Brutus found himself torn between two difficult choices, both with potentially disastrous consequences. One option was to take no action against Caesar, allowing him to be crowned as a king, potentially leading to a tyrannical rule.
The alternative was to assassinate Caesar, who, at that moment, had not committed any wrongdoing.
Brutus reluctantly chose to participate in Caesar's murder, lamenting to the other conspirators, "Oh, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit and not dismember Caesar!" This statement reveals Brutus's inner conflict, indicating that he was trapped in a tragic dilemma, torn between his loyalty to Caesar and his fear of Caesar's ascent to absolute power.
Brutus embodies the classic elements of a tragic hero, including a hamartia, or a tragic flaw. The tragic flaw is typically a trait admired in a character but ultimately leads to their downfall.
In the story, Brutus joins Caius Cassius and other conspirators in a plot to assassinate his dear friend, Julius Caesar. Initially hesitant, Brutus eventually becomes one of Caesar's assassins. In his address to the Roman people, he declares, "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more," explaining that he participated in the conspiracy for the sake of Rome's welfare.
This demonstrates that Brutus's tragic flaw is his unwavering love and devotion to Rome, a noble trait that ultimately drives him to commit a heinous act—killing his friend. Hence, Marcus Brutus possesses a hamartia, a critical element of a tragic hero. Therefore, he is the true tragic hero of Julius Caesar.
The fate that Brutus faces in the play solidifies his position as the tragic hero of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Like all main characters in a tragedy, Brutus undergoes a peripeteia, a reversal of fortune. This peripeteia represents the turning point and marks the inevitable descent of the hero. Following Caesar's assassination, Rome becomes embroiled in a war between two factions: Brutus and Cassius against Octavius and Antony.
Although Cassius loses his battle against Antony, Brutus prevails against Octavius. However, it becomes clear that Brutus will not ultimately emerge victorious in the war. In a poignant conversation with his allies, Brutus concedes, "Our enemies have beaten us to the pit." This signifies the turning point of the story, where Brutus loses everything he holds dear. Throughout the narrative, Brutus loses power, friends, and even his wife. Now, he stands on the brink of losing the last thing he possesses—his life. This dramatic reversal of events, or peripeteia, solidifies Marcus Brutus's status as the tragic hero.
Like all tragic heroes, Brutus eventually experiences anagnorisis, the recognition of their situation and an understanding of how their actions have led them to their current plight. Brutus exhibits all the required elements of a tragic hero, including anagnorisis. In Julius Caesar, Brutus grapples with a tragic dilemma, torn between aiding a plot to kill Caesar and allowing Caesar to become king.
Ultimately, Brutus participates in Caesar's assassination, triggering a war that he ultimately loses. However, on the verge of defeat, a comrade assists Brutus in his suicide. In his final moments, Brutus addresses the deceased Caesar, saying, "Farewell, good Strato. Caesar, now be still. I killed not thee with half so good a will." This poignant moment reveals that Brutus has gained insight into his situation and acknowledges that his actions have led him astray. He understands that his decision to conspire against his friend for the sake of Rome's welfare brought chaos upon Rome itself. Brutus accepts the consequences of his actions by taking his own life.
This clear display of anagnorisis, along with the other essential elements of a tragic hero, establishes Marcus Brutus as the true tragic hero of Julius Caesar.
Despite misconceptions that Julius Caesar is the tragic hero, the play's title does not dictate the true hero's identity. It is not uncommon for audiences to perceive Caesar as the tragic hero, as he possesses some elements of a tragic hero. However, a close examination of the characters' qualities reveals the stark contrast between Caesar and Brutus.
Caesar's tragic dilemma, which revolves around ignoring his wife's fears or appearing cowardly, pales in comparison to Brutus's dilemma of killing his own friend or allowing him to become a tyrant. Caesar's tragic flaw, his hubris or pride, is relatively weak, as excessive pride is not an admirable trait. In contrast, Brutus's hamartia, his deep dedication to Rome, is a more compelling and tragic flaw.
Ultimately, the magnitude of Brutus's tragic elements surpasses those of Caesar, making Brutus the true tragic hero of Julius Caesar.
Some may argue that Caius Cassius could be the tragic hero, citing his possession of many essential elements. However, Cassius lacks a genuine hamartia. His tragic flaw is evident early in the story when he expresses his hatred for Caesar. During a conversation with a fellow conspirator, Casca, Cassius berates Rome and blames it for Caesar's rise to power.
While some argue that Cassius's hatred for Caesar serves as his tragic flaw, it falls short of being a true hamartia. Hamartias are traits that are typically admired but lead to a character's downfall. Cassius's flaw of jealousy and hatred is not an admirable trait, and it does not meet the criteria of a true tragic flaw. Therefore, Caius Cassius cannot be the tragic hero of Julius Caesar.
In conclusion, Marcus Brutus emerges as the true tragic hero of Julius Caesar due to his possession of the strongest elements of a tragic hero. His unwavering dedication to Rome serves as his hamartia, leading him to make a critical decision: to end Caesar's ambitions with death or allow him to ascend as king. This love for Rome becomes a central part of his tragic dilemma, as he grapples with the conflicting demands of friendship and the greater good.
Brutus's tragic journey includes a peripeteia, a dramatic reversal of fortune, where he faces the realization of his impending defeat. Ultimately, he experiences anagnorisis, recognizing the consequences of his actions and accepting them by taking his own life. While misconceptions may suggest that Caesar is the tragic hero, a closer examination of the characters' traits and dilemmas reveals that Marcus Brutus possesses the true essence of a tragic hero in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
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