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was in the latter years of Elizabeth's reign widely feared. But a true dramatist like Shakespeare will never place the point of unity, the centre of crystallisation, so to speak, with which every line in a good play, poem, picture, statue, song, or whatever else may claim to be a work of art, has its relation, in anything so abstract and impersonal as the mere conception of government. The central thought of a play of Shakespeare's is to be found always in some one human truth that strikes home to the soul of some one man, through whom it passes insensibly into the souls of all who have been interested in his story.
Which, then, of the persons in this play of Julius Cæsar is the one upon whom Shakespeare seeks especially to fix attention? Beyond question, it is Brutus. The centre of interest will lie in him. Shunning, as we must always, the paths of dry speculation which invariably lead those who follow them to deserts far away from Shakespeare's track, we ask, as we must always, what is the most direct and obvious source of our strong human interest in the person whose fortunes are most continuously and visibly affected by the action of the plot. Brutus is represented as a man gentle and noble in the best sense of each word, the most perfect
character in Shakespeare, but for one great error in his life. All Rome had so much faith in his unblemished honour, that the conspirators who had determined to strike down Cæsar by assassination in the hour when he was about to grasp the sole dominion of Rome, strongly desired companionship of Brutus to give to their deed colour of right, and win for it more readily the assent of the people. There is in the blood of Brutus a love of liberty so strong that it is a virtue tending to excess. Upon this and upon his unselfish concern for the common good, his brother-in-law Cassius works, and by his working sways the scales of judgment, and leads Brutus to do evil that good may come of it. Not for ill done, but for mistrust of what might come, with no motive but the highest desire for his country's good, with no personal grudge in his heart, but a friend's affection for the man he struck, Brutus took part in an assassination. Portents are so inwoven with the action of the play as to suggest the presence of the gods in the affairs of men. The stroke that was to free Rome from a possible tyranny gave three tyrants for one, civil war for peace, and sent to a cruel death, by self-murder, the faithful wife who was dear to Brutus as the ruddy drops that visited his sad heart. The spirit of Cæsar
haunted Brutus as his evil spirit, and the last cry at Philippi was, "O Julius Cæsar, thou art mighty yet! !" as Cæsar's chief assassins were dying by their own hands on the swords that stabbed him.
Suggestions of the nature of the error flash out again and again from passages in the Fifth Act. Here is one. At bay on the Plains of Philippi, Cassius says to Brutus :
"If we do lose this battle, then is this
The very last time we shall speak together:
Brutus replies, with his own natural mind, applying to the killing of himself a reasoning that precisely applies also to the killing of Cæsar :
"Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
But the next question of Cassius drives the thought of Brutus from its place of rest, and sends it down the incline of that passion for liberty which makes him now as ready to kill himself as he before was to kill Cæsar. Cassius says:
"Then, if we lose this battle,
You are contented to be led in triumph
Think not, thou noble
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind."
The passion for freedom begets action that contradicts his calm unbiassed sense of right. against right he had struck Cæsar-doing evil to find good and brought down upon himself and his country greater evils than he had intended to avert. For the common good he committed crime from which, if it had been for himself, his soul would have recoiled. For it is no more true in public than in private life that good can come of evil done; and let high politics stink as they may, there is no difference between public and private morality. The noblest motives in a man of purest character cannot turn moral wrong into political right, and the more completely Shakespeare impresses us with the ideal beauty of the character of Brutus, the more surely he brings home to us this truth.
Let us turn now to the conduct of the story which has this truth at its heart. The play opens at a time when there is general belief that Cæsar
desires an imperial crown, and on the fifteenth of February, "the Feast of Lupercal," celebrated annually in honour of a shepherd god, when Cæsar himself, having returned in triumph from the wars, hopes publicly to receive the crown from Antony, supported by the acclamations of the people. The fickle populace are in the streets. Their tribunes, who are expecting Cæsar's grasp at empire, meet them, chide them, drive them to their homes, pluck Cæsar's trophies from the images, and the last words of the scene clearly express their motive :
"These growing feathers plucked from Cæsar's wing Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
Here is the aim of Cæsar as seen from without by heads of the democracy.
The second scene shows Cæsar's aim in Cæsar himself, and as seen from without by the republicans. It tells the failure of that day's attempt upon the crown, and begins the tale of the conspiracy with the attempt of Cassius to bring Brutus into it. The scene opens with Cæsar passing to the games, and, as he hopes, to his crowning as King. But hope of empire brings