The word ‘tragedy’ has come to mean something different since the time of Aristotle. Everyone seems to grasp that the word is used to describe undesirable circumstances. Yet, if that were all there was to it, ‘tragedy’ would just be a synonym for ‘misadventure’.
Aristotle’s definition was more specific, insisting that the word only be employed when the protagonist is the architect of their own demise. In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote that a tragedy involves, “…a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.“
It is quite obvious in context that ‘frailty’ is to mean a cognitive weakness. Thus, newspaper headlines that declare the murder of a small child as a ‘tragedy’ must be using the modern, looser, definition.
Aside from this distinction, there are other differences to be considered. Ancient Greek tragedy was mostly concerned with an interplay between fate and free will; gods’ retributions for human hubris.
Shakespeare’s tragedies are less involved with these troubles. It seems to me that they examine what it is to be moral from the humanist perspective. Without God as the source to determine the right moral action, without a divine justice, without life after death, humanists are required to explain how one can know how to do the right thing, and why they should choose to do it.
In this three part series, I will explore how Shakespeare wrote about humanist morality and explain why I think Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are exemplars of various humanist moral views.
Firstly, I will consider Julius Caesar - a play I think Shakespeare wrote to explore what it means to be ‘honorable’.
As with ‘tragedy’, ‘honor’ has a multifarious definition. It has been used as a synonym for, among other things: power, fame, chastity, and faithfulness.
The humanist interest lies in the moral use of the word, which also has several strains.
In one sense, ‘honor’ was a way of describing the belief in an innate disposition to do the right thing. Those who were ‘honorable’ had an instinct that would lead them to act in a way that was deemed morally good by the community.
Yet it did not go unnoticed that those who claimed to be honourable often had very different moral opinions. In such disputes, the discordant parties would often engage in combat, believing that God would grant victory to the person with greater honour.
Shakespeare fully understood this conception of honour, as did his Elizabethan audience. While dueling had not been part of English law for several centuries, many Elizabethans still believed that trial-by-combat was a way (perhaps the only way) to determine justice.
A belief that one’s moral capacity is wholly determined by an unalterable instinct obviously leaves one open to devastating critique. Shakespeare’s history plays are full of arguments where one character questions another’s honour. For example, in Richard II, when Mowbray’s honour is queried, he immediately wishes to remedy this accusation:
“Mine honour is my life, both grow in one;
Take honour from me, and my life is done;
Then, dear liege, mine honour let me try;
In that I live, and for that I will die.”
Richard II (1.1.182-185)
If one is without honour, then one is morally deficient. As Mowbray says, ‘Take honour from me, and my life is done…’. And once this conception of honour is understood, it is understandable why those who believe it are so fervent to challenge those who bring their honour into question.
From the humanist point of view, this a belief in this type of honour is barely distinguishable from advocating social Darwinism. If we assume there is no God, then conflict is allowed to define what is morally right.
So the question then becomes: ‘Without God, how is it possible to know what is right and what is wrong?‘
One early humanist reply was to suppose that human nature is innately good (or to define it as such).
This conception of morality was described (in its naivest form) by one of Shakespeare predecessors, François Rabelais. In his 1534 satire ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel‘, Rabelais tells us of a utopian monastic community – The Abbey of Thélème:
“All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
- Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.”
It is uncertain whether Rabelais was advocating such a form of society or not. Either way, it represents a romanticization of human nature – or, at least, the right type of human nature.
Conflict is abound, and therefore it would be absurd to suggest that every human has the correct instincts. Instead, it was believed that as long as you are ‘well-born’ or ‘well-bred’, then your instincts align with what is right. And, in the Elizabethan society, this was how many people understood ethics.
Shakespeare’s Brutus is no such characterture of human nature; there is no supposition that Brutus is good merely because he is well-bred.
He is more like Don Quixote – a character who represents a different type of humanist morality. In Miguel de Cervantes early 17th century novels, the character of Don Quixote’s does not rely on human nature to define his honour. He has undergone some training to develop his instincts. Having reads too many chivalric novels in his retirement years, Quixote comes to believe he is a knight, and begins a perpetual quest to intervene in the wrongdoings of others.
Brutus too had undergone some training to attain his honour. In Plutarch’s biography of Brutus (Shakespeare’s source material for Julius Caesar), he begins by contrasting Marcus Brutus to an ancestor of a different temperement:
“Marcus Brutus was descended from that Junius Brutus to whom the ancient Romans erected a statue of brass in the capitol among the images of their kings with a drawn sword in his hand, in remembrance of his courage and resolution in expelling the Tarquins and destroying the monarchy.
But that ancient Brutus was of a severe and inflexible nature, like steel of too hard a temper, and having never had his character softened by study and thought, he let himself be so far transported with his rage and hatred against tyrants that, for conspiring with them, he proceeded to the execution even of his own sons.
But this Brutus, whose life we now write, having to the goodness of his disposition added the improvements of learning and the study of philosophy, and having stirred up his natural parts, of themselves grave and gentle, by applying himself to business and public affairs, seems to have been of a temper exactly framed for virtue”
To understand Shakespeare’s Brutus, it is important to grasp how Plutarch’s concept of ‘honour’ differs from the Elizabethan rendering. In Plutarch view, human nature, of any sort, is an insufficient guide to distinguish right from wrong. He assumed that to be honourable, we need our ‘character softened by study and thought’.
To persuade the reader that Brutus was indeed honourable, Plutarch provides a wealth of examples, some of which I will now describe.
In full knowledge that Pompey murdered his father, Brutus still decides to fight on the side of Pompey against Caesar:
“…he, thinking it his duty to prefer the interest of the public to his own private feelings, and judging Pompey’s to be the better cause, took part with him; though formerly he used not so much as to salute or take any notice of Pompey, if he happened to meet him, esteeming it a pollution to have the least conversation with the murderer of his father.”
Later, we are told of Brutus’ consistent values, and how he was never swayed by friendships and allies:
“For his natural firmness of mind, not easily yielding, or complying in favour of every one that entreated his kindness, once set into action upon motives of right reason and deliberate moral choice, whatever direction it thus took, it was pretty sure to take effectively, and to work in such a way as not to fail in its object.”
And it is explicitly said that Brutus’ approval is akin to ‘religious sanction':
“When Cassius went about soliciting friends to engage in this design against Caesar, all whom he tried readily consented, if Brutus would be head of it; for their opinion was that the enterprise wanted not hands or resolution, but the reputation and authority of a man such as he was, to give as it were the first religious sanction, and by his presence, if by nothing else, to justify the undertaking; that without him they should go about this action with less heart, and should lie under greater suspicions when they had done it; for if their cause had been just and honourable, people would be sure that Brutus would not have refused it.”
By admitting that human nature is not enough to guarantee right actions, Plutarch simultaneously offers a more hopeful view of morality, yet one that is incoherent.
In rejecting the view that one is fixed somewhere between the extremes of morally perfect or morally damaged beyond repair, Plutarch admits that an education is essential for honour. Honour can be moulded, opening a new possibility for somebody like Brutus to be more honourable than someone like Caesar.
The trouble with this view is that moral instincts are now contingent on the dominant moral philosophy of the age. And consequently, ‘honour’ is now an empty word.
How is one to take a the moral certainty of Don Quixote seriously when it is admitted that instincts can change and develop? How do Plutarch’s examples prove that Brutus is honourable? Is honour only achievable if we admit to moral relativism?
Shakespeare’s Transformation of Brutus
Shakespeare might originally have been drawn to the character of Brutus as a paragon of humanist ethics. The commentator Rolf Soellner has pointed out that:
“Plutarch characterized Brutus as the ideal personality, Roman style; but, since many features of this type were taken by the humanists, Plutarch’s Brutus resembled the humanist pattern of perfect.” (p 151)
However, Shakespeare’s Brutus is not a simple dramatization of Plutarch’s description. And rather than analyzing the play to determine Shakespeare’s motivations for writing it, we might make better progress by comparing the play to the source material.
I think that Shakespeare saw that the humanist conception of honour Brutus personifies was irremediably flawed, and he wrote Julius Caesar as drama to explicate this problem to his audience.
For someone who is continually deemed honourable and decisive, Shakespeare’s Brutus spends much of the play as an indecisive man. Soellener remarks:
“The dissonance in the soul of Brutus was altogether Shakespeare’s idea. Plutarch’s Brutus suffered no anxiety until he joined the conspiracy, and he was nervous then merely because of the danger of discovery.” (p 155)
Shakespeare’s Brutus is not beyond moral dilemma. And Shakespeare presents Brutus with a dilemma as difficult as they come: whether to murder for a belief in the greater good. If Brutus – the most honourable man in the world – fails to solve the dilemma, it will not only bring his honour into question, but also the whole humanist conception of honour.
His problem is as follows. Brutus suspects that Caesar needs to be stopped before he imposes a tyranny over Rome, and is unsure whether to join a conspiracy to kill him. Caesar has all the traits of a power-hungry politician, yet also displays frailties, such as epilepsy and deafness. Cassius manipulates Brutus, forging letters to make it appear that many people are petitioning him to kill Caesar.
The result is a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life is unsure what to do.
Eventually, his state of unrest becomes apparent to Portia, his wife. Brutus is unwilling to reveal the cause of his distress to her, and it is not made clear to the audience whether this it to protect her from implication in the conspiracy, or simply out of sheer embarrassment.
I think it is the latter – Brutus is not coping well with his newfound doubt. Portia suspects such, and when he pretends to be physically sick, she replies:
“No, my Brutus; You have some sick offence within your mind…”
(Act 2, Scene 1)
When Brutus decides to kill Caesar, it is supposed that he has higher motives than his selfish co-conspirators. He has virtue, and has made his choice for the greater good. Yet, since we know he was deceived by Cassius, Brutus’ decision is questionable. Nevertheless, once Brutus has made his decision, doubt abruptly ceases.
The traditional self examination advocated by the Renaissance moralists provided no help for a situation like his. We cannot say, as we can with Richard II, that disaster would have been avoided if he had considered himself in time. … The kind of questions that Brutus should ask himself are much more practical and particular than those asked in the conventional nosce teipsum ['know thyself'] tracts. He should concern himself with his role in politics, with the suitability of his character for political leadership, with the justification of using questionable means to achieve desirable ends, and with the chances of predicting the outcome of violent action. (pp 158-159)
Brutus did intellectually engage with his moral problem, but his understanding of ‘honour’ lead to a faulty approach. In his view of morality, the honourable only doubt when they have forgotten themselves. And this doubt was to be remedied with a deep introspection.
Again from Soellener:
If there is a shortcoming in Brutus’ philosophy, it is not his failure to feel deeply enough in general but his failure to react to the events in some way that makes one think he understands how insecure man is and how much he becomes the prisoner of events he cannot control. (pp 167-168)
The failure of Brutus, measured by Cicero’s skepticism, lies in his taking a positive, idealistic attitude toward human actions in preference to a pragmatic and skeptic one. Rather than to incline toward the Old Academy (as Plutarch said Brutus did), he should favor the more skeptical New Academy (to which Cicero’s Academica belonged and which, according to Plutarch, Brutus did not like). (p 169)
Brutus made mistakes. And he kept making them because he failed to see that the solution did not lie within himself. Constancy and self-consistency are inadequate virtues; one must adapt to the facts.
While the play may be didactic for us, it does not seem to be so for Brutus. Nor for his contemporaries.
Even Brutus’ death cannot damage his honour in the minds of his fellow Romans, as Mark Anthony’s famous final epitaph declares:
This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’
(Act 5 Scene 5)
And once more from Soellener:
Brutus fails to satisfy us not so much in what he says but what he omits to say. He should ask himself such questions as the following: Can I really cleanse the state by making a common cause with an envious and selfish man like Cassius? Will not the act that I wish to make one of liberation be soiled by the hands of Machiavellian conspirators? And, most of all, he should ask: Does my cause justify murdering a man? Brutus does not ask these questions, and thus, scrupulous as he tries to be, misses the mark. (pp 160-161)
Brutus’ failure to solve the moral problem or to learn from his mistakes stem from an idealist view of humanist morality. In this respect, he has the same flaw as Don Quixote.
As the sociologist John Carroll puts it, Quixote has a ridiculous ‘faith in honour’ (p 44). He acts without doubt, believing himself to be morally perfect. It is this certainty, in the face of contradiction, that is the essence of the character’s ridiculousness.
Brutus’ temporary doubt tests his faith in honour, but it persists after Casear’s death up until his own demise. The most honourable man in the world also seems somewhat ridiculous.
This, I think, is Shakespeare’s moral. The humanist conception of honour attempts to replace one type of certainty with another; substituting the authority of God with the authority of human nature. And whether those instincts be raw or refined, a belief in ‘honour’ is to ignore our fallibility.
It is the rejection of moral learning in favor of psychological nativism.
Even if Brutus had selfless intentions, this does not guarantee he knew how best to achieve this utilitarian goal. And it does not guarantee that he was sufficiently well-informed to be certain of the best action.
To be concerned with who is honourable is to ask the wrong question. We must challenge the moral claims themselves, and not the supposed authority of the claimant.
Aristotle (c.350BCE) ‘Poetics‘
Carroll, John (1993) ‘Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture‘ Fontana Press
Lowes, David (1995) ‘Honour, Duels, and Might Makes Right‘
Plutarch (75 ) ‘Marcus Brutus‘ [Translated by John Dryden]
Rabelais, François (1534) ‘La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua’
Shakespeare, William (1599) ‘Julius Caesar’
Shakespeare, William (1595) ‘Richard II’
Soellner, Rolf (1972) ‘Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-Knowledge‘ Ohio State Press