Honor in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

“For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men”

Anthony from Julius Caesar act 3 scene 2

The theme of honor and what are honorable actions runs through Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  In Act One, Cassius discusses with Brutus the idea of honor and whether it would be honorable for Caesar to be made king.  Planting in Brutus’ mind doubts about Caesar and if it would be the honorable thing to support Caesar if he tries to make himself king.

For Cassius and later Brutus the honorable thing is to murder Caesar because Caesar plans the ultimate dishonor to the state; to destroy the Republic and make himself sole ruler.  To the conspirators, it is better that one man should die so that the Roman Republic might live, even though normally assassinating a fellow Senator would be a cowardly and very dishonorable act.   To prove that he himself is honorable and that killing Caesar is a honorable, even patriotic, act, Cassius relates to Brutus how he once saved Caesar’s life by rescuing him from drowning in the Tiber.  Therefore, if he merely wanted Caesar dead he would have let him drown, but instead Cassius courageously risked his own life to save Caesar’s.

However, Cassius soon proves himself the hypocrite when in Act Four, Scene Three he disputes with Brutus over the condemnation of a friend convicted of bribery. Now Cassius is placing his friendship with a person over the good of the state. The audience can see Cassius concept of honor is very flexible.

The flipside of this is of course Anthony’s famous speech in Act 3 Scene Two.  Where in praising the conspirators for their murder of Caesar, Anthony uses their hypocritical concept that private honor and public actions are not one and the same. In short, while the conspirators may be honorable men, with honorable and commendable motivations their public actions are the most dishonorable and cowardly.

Further, for Anthony’s part, he must avenge the death of his mentor and friend, Caesar, by seeking out and punishing the conspirators. If he does not act and punish Brutus and Cassius, or die trying, than he is just as dishonorable and more importantly, dishonored, as the murderers themselves.

Lastly, by having both Cassius and Anthony profess and act on what they think are honorable motivations, Shakespeare is telling the audience that honor is both universal and inflexible. Honorable motivation cannot lead to dishonorable acts, for if the acts are cowardly and dishonorable, then so are the motives behind them.

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