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.
Julius Caesar, which is a known work of William Shakespeare, uses poetic language to reach different audiences. The effectiveness and success of the play are depicted by the use of hamartia and peripeteia through an Aristotelian lens. These two devices are important elements that re-explored in Aristotle poetics. In the play, they are demonstrated through different actions that Brutus carry out. The play by William Shakespeare is an interesting one as it depicts important concepts of Aristotle poetics through the character of Brutus. The play is still relevant in the current literary studies as it depicts a tension that is continual throughout its plot. The play is depicted as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies that are timeless that is centered on the death of the dictator of Rome. The play is mainly centered on Julius Caesar who is referred to as the dictator. The main disastrous act can be interpreted as the downfall of Brutus because of his irrational decision-making strategies which make people overthrow him. The play is centered on Brutus rather than the mourning of Julius Caesar. It is through the rash actions of Brutus that is a catastrophe which leads to chaos afterward.
Aristotle uses main ideas in the poetics as he breaks down important features of a tragedy setting a criterion that brings out an effective tragic plot. Malcolm Heath explains that action primacy which is driven by the actions of an individual is the essential component of a strategy. At the beginning of the play, Heath depicts that the action is what is most important in a tragedy and the purpose of such actions is to bring out pity to the audience. The best way to get an emotional response from the audience is to center the plot on a character that is imperfect. This means that the character might not have an outstanding virtue but their downfall may be repellent and because they do not deserve such a downfall, the audience tends to pity them. This explains the nature of Brutus. Heath then explains that a tragic plot will evoke pity and fear in the audience if a person causes to someone close to them. This is depicted by the murdering of Caesar, which is the most important action that takes place in the plot, which is the main feature of the action of Brutus. This action evokes a pitiful emotion from the audience towards Brutus as his judgment is clouded failure to listen to his conscious. He makes absurd decisions by not using the same language he uses to reason. Brutus satisfies the key Aristotelian criteria that involve a tragedy that is effective. Although his actions are termed as notorious, the audience cannot help but pity him.
According to Heath, Brutus has respectable and honorable intentions. Shakespeare makes use of the decision that Brutus makes to act for Rome which presents a Cathartic. A Cathartic is an element of the poem that is used to represent a virtue that is inside one’s character. Brutus is a respectable and honorable man but his flaws lie between his sinful action and his good intentions. Brutus fails to choose the best action that would match with his good intentions. This leads him to a tragic downfall. Heath explains that it is better to have a character that will act out of ignorance but they have virtuous and flawed character rather than one who acts out of wickedness. Brutus is one of those characters that have good virtue but they lack reasoning and wisdom. As a result, Brutus makes an irrational decision of sacrificing one person for the sake of the others. Brutus relies on his reasoning about the future that it will turn out as he expects and Caesar will turn out to be a bad individual. This makes him act irrationally to save the others from the character of Caesar which he thinks will change in the future. In the world of poetry, such an act is defined as hamartia that is intellectual misjudgment as a result of human flaw. In the second act in the first scene, the perception that Brutus has about his actions and those that take part in his sinful acts paint them as liberators:
” We are not butchers, but sacrifices,
…Lets give him as a dish that is perfect for the gods
And not as a carcass for hounds.”
The use of Metaphor in this play insinuates that Caesar’s body is used as a sacrifice so as to redeem others. Brutus is deluded but his love for Caesar is too much. The fact that he took the wrong course of action makes him feel very guilty to a point where he justifies his action by making the occasion look like a sacrifice to the gods. When he gives a forum speech, in Act three, Brutus gives the reason for his actions:
“My love for Caesar was no less than that of anyone in this assembly that held him so dearly. I did whatever I did, not because I loved Caesar less, but because my love for Rome was more.”
With the above-said words, Brutus is portrayed in an inmate and more personal manner. His speech lacks a metrical structure. The speech could be a way of Brutus relaying his intentions to the crowd, not as a means of escaping persecution from the mob, but as a way of showing the people that his intentions were genuine and it was for their best interest. According to David Lucking, Brutus act can be interpreted as an act of fidelity for the sake of the welfare of others and not as a means of gaining personal interests. His hamartia of illogically is driven by his love for both Rome and Caesar. There is a thin line between wanting the best for the people and pursuing patriotism that is blind.
The relationship between Caesar and Brutus brings the reader to the first stages of the misfortunes that Brutus went through. In that stage, Caesar controls Brutus’ virtue and turns it into a weapon to accomplish his own selfish interests. This action makes Brutus be an Aristotelian character. The pity of the reader is depicted when Brutus succumbs to the ideas of Caesar who according to David Willbern is an agent whose main purpose is to manipulate and bend. He is a seducer whose only interest is to benefit himself. In the first act, second scene, Caesar tells Brutus that he knows the virtue that he has. This is meant to evaluate the target carefully before he convinces him to take part in the conspiracy:
“We are petty men compare to Colossus,
We walk under his huge legs and peep
To find dishonorable graves for ourselves.”
The metaphor is used to depict Caesar as the Giant. This insinuates that he becomes God-like and therefore characters like Brutus will be under him and so is the people of Rome. This means that Caesar would be the one ruling and his selfish agendas are manifested by how he presents the idea. This clearly explains why it was necessary for Brutus to eliminate him. He would be a dictator and everyone would be forced to act as he wants. Caesar emphasizes this to Brutus and he is ready to take advantage of his virtue so as to fulfill his selfish agendas.
The effectiveness of the play can be attributed to the construction of Brutus. He is a noble and at the same time an imperfect character that depicts key conventions of characterization. The play uses Aristotle’s poetics. The main fundamental features used are hamartia and peripeteia where the act of murdering Caesar evokes a sense of pity in the audience. This is because his character is of a great virtue but his good intentions are crowded by irrationality and misjudgment which makes him make bad decisions leading to his demise that is devastating. He should have used wisdom in his judgment.
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.
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