ENGL1020 The Western Literary Tradition
In The Poetics, Aristotle introduces several key concepts that still have currency in
literary studies, including mimesis, catharsis, peripeteia, anagnorisis and hamartia.
Critically evaluate Julius Caesar in relation to Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy.
In your response you must refer to Julius Caesar as well as The Poetics.
Critically analysing Julius Caesar, the universal success and effectiveness of the play as a tragedy lies in the use of hamartia and peripeteia through an Aristotelian lens, two fundamental devices explored in Aristotle’s Poetics that are demonstrates through the actions and character of Brutus. The play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare represents the key concepts of Aristotle’s Poetics via his characterisation of Brutus, the playwrights continual tension through the embedded language in the tragic plot which continue to have currency in literary studies. Julius Caesar is revelled as one of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedies, an expertly manipulated and fabricated plot that is centred around the tragic death of Rome’s dictator, of whom the play is named after. The true disastrous facet of this Shakespearean masterpiece can be interpreted as the unfortunate downfall of the ‘honourable’ Brutus, rather than defining this tragedy as a play that revolves around the mournful death of Caesar. It is at last the absolute disagreement between Brutus’ noble intentions and his rash actions that is an utter catastrophe in itself; the conclusion of chaos thereafter.
Aristotle offers a plethora of major ideas in the Poetics, as he decomposes the essentials of a tragedy and sets forward a criterion that establishes an effective tragic plot. Amongst these rudiments, Malcolm Heath explores the notion that the essential component of tragedy, by Aristotle’s values, is ‘the primacy of plot which is driven by action’. In his Introduction to The Poetics, Heath postulates that ‘action is at the crux of tragedy’, and its purpose is to ‘stimulate pity in its audience’. The most effective way to provoke an emotional response of disappointment is to centralise the plot around an sufficiently virtuous but undesirably flawed and imperfect character, in the logic that “because their virtue is not outstanding we do not find their downfall morally repellent; (but) because their downfall is undeserved, we can pity them”, which ultimately associates with the nature of Brutus’ character. Heath then infers that “Aristotle’s point, then, is that a tragic plot is more likely to evoke fear and pity if a person inflicts harm on a philos, someone close to them,” as the murdering of Caesar is the most important event that takes place within the plot, which is a key feature of Brutus’ action. This furthers our understanding to adopt a pitiful stance towards Brutus, for his hearty intentions were masked by his absurd actions. Brutus is therefore a construct that satisfies these key Aristotelian criteria that compose an effective tragedy – although his notorious actions were undoubtedly a malevolent endeavour, one cannot help but condone his fall from grace.
Brutus’ key feature is the honourable and respectable nature of his intentions. Shakespeare uses Brutus’ decision to act ‘for Rome’, presenting a Cathartic ‘a’ poetic element to represent an indication of virtue within his character. However, the flaw in Brutus lies in the anomaly between his good intention and his sinful action. We pity his tragic downfall because he fails to discern the correct action that will cater to his pure intentions. Regarding this, Heath implies that to contrive a successful tragedy that conjures pity from its audience, “it is better to have a flawed but virtuous character who acts out of ignorance instead of wickedness,” and Brutus ultimately possesses these components of the exemplary tragic character – where he is rich in virtue, he lacks in reason, logic and wisdom. As a consequence of this, Brutus carries out a grotesque version of the Christological concept of sacrificing one for the good of many. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines this fault as hamartia, a human flaw that is made as a result of intellectual misjudgement. In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus’ perception of the action he will carry out paints himself and the other conspirators as liberators:
“Let’s be sacrificers, not butchers, Caius.
…Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.”
The use of metaphor to glorify Caesar’s body as a divine sacrifice for the redemption of all gives an insight into Brutus’ psyche – although he is incredibly deluded, his love for Caesar is authentic, so much to the point that his guilty moral conscience is attempting to justify his actions by ornamenting the situation with noble words of martyrdom in Caesar’s honour. During his forum speech in Act 3, Scene 2, Brutus openly declares and affirms the benevolent motives behind his actions:
“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. /If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”
By speaking in prose, Brutus is portrayed in a more personal and intimate manner, which is exemplified by the lack of formal metrical structure. This perhaps could be an indication of Brutus’ authenticity in relaying his intentions to the crowd – not as a deceptive means of misleading the mob to save himself from persecution, but as a means of persuading them to believe that the cause behind his actions were genuinely benign. David Lucking highlights this idea, stating that Brutus’ motives for Caesar’s murder can be interpreted as “acting out of fidelity to the republican traditions of Rome, for the sake of the general welfare of his country, and not with a view to personal interests.” Brutus’ hamartia of illogicality is therefore fuelled by his obsessive love for both Caesar and the people of Rome, for there is a fine line between willing the good for the congregation and pursuing blind patriotism.
The dire relationship between the two characters which reveals the initial stages of Brutus’ misfortune, in which Cassius harnesses Brutus’ virtue and fashions it into a weapon to execute his own vindictive agenda against Caesar. This tainting of Brutus’ integrity by the control of another underpins his identity as an Aristotelian tragic character – our pity for Brutus is elevated for he has succumbed to Cassius’ clutches, who, according to David Willbern, is “an agent that bends and manipulates: he is a seducer.” In Act 1, Scene 2, Cassius begins by coaxing Brutus, “I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus” as if he is examining the state of his target before he craftily uses language to convince him to join the conspiracy:
“Like a Colossus and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”
The metaphorical assertion of Caesar being depicted as a giant amplifies the implication of him becoming dangerously God-like, and Cassius emphasises this to Brutus by juxtaposing themselves as significantly smaller in stature to make Caesar appear increasingly monstrous, thus necessitating a need for his eradication.
The effectiveness of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a tragedy can be accredited to the construction of Brutus, a noble yet imperfect character that possesses key conventions of characterisation, the playwrights continual tension through the embedded language in the tragic plot that are explored in Aristotle’s Poetics. These fundamental concepts include hamartia and peripeteia, in which Brutus’ significant action of murdering Caesar induces a sense of pity in the audience, for the nature of his character is one of great virtue, yet his good intentions are unfortunately intercepted by his crucial flaw of irrationality and misjudgement, leading to his devastating demise.
- Heath, Malcolm. “Introduction to The Poetics.” London: Penguin, 1991.
- Lucking, David. “Brutus’s Reasons: Julius Caesar and the Mystery of Motive,” English Studies 91, no. 2, (2010): 119-132. https://doi.org/10.1080/00138380903355148
- Schanzer, Ernest. “The Tragedy of Shakespeare’s Brutus.” ELH 22, no. 1 (1955): 1-15. doi:10.2307/2872001.
- Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar, 3rd United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Willbern, David. “Constructing Caesar: A Psychoanalytic Reading,” in Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays, edited by Horst Zander, 213-226. New York: Routledge, 2005. Proquest Ebook Central.
 Malcolm Heath, Introduction to The Poetics (London: Penguin, 1991), xviii.
 Heath, Poetics, xxi.
 Heath, Poetics, xxxi.
 Heath, Poetics, xxxiii.
 Heath, Poetics, xxxiv.
 Heath, Poetics, xxxiii.
 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 51.
 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 93.
 David Lucking, “Brutus’s Reasons: Julius Caesar and the Mystery of Motive,” English Studies 91, no. 2, (2010): 130. https://doi.org/10.1080/00138380903355148
 David Willbern, “Constructing Caesar: A Psychoanalytic Reading,” in Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays, ed. Horst Zander (New York: Routledge, 2005), 216.
 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3rd ed. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 41.
 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 19.