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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”


Three aspects, however, seem to detract from her heroic act.  First, as her cousin, Junius Brutus, points out to Collatine, “Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so, / To slay herself that should have slain her foe.”  Second, right after her suicide there is the patriarchal squabbling between her father and her husband about who had the greater right to her; i.e., they fight over her as over a piece of property, which in both classical antiquity (in which the poem is set) and Early Modern Period (in which it was written) is a fairly accurate description of female status.  Thus her father says, “’She’s mine. O mine she is!’”  And Collatine replies, “She was my wife, / I owed [i.e., owned] her, and ‘tis mine that she hath killed.’”  In other words, the body that Lucrece was so concerned about keeping pure and unpolluted for her husband is, at some level, seen by Collatine, after news of the rape, as damaged goods, and after her suicide as totally demolished property, formerly his.  His response, in short, is that he, and not his wife, was the owner of her body, which she therefore had no right to destroy. Third, what diminishes Lucrece’s self-sacrifice is the nature of Tarquin’s punishment.  Though she wanted him killed, the publicity about his repulsive deed to Lucrece including the display of “her bleeding body thorough [i.e., through] Rome,” leads instead to “Tarquin’s everlasting banishment.”


St. Augustine notices the inequity here, as well as the tragic irony. “But how was it,” he asks, “that she who did not commit adultery received the heavier punishment?  For the adulterer was driven from his country, with his father; his victim suffered the supreme penalty.”


And With This Good Sword


In Julius Caesar (c. 1599), written about five years after The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare turns from what is essentially a private, domestic tragedy to a larger, public tragedy played out in the Roman Forum, in the Senate and on the battlefield.  Despite the title the play is not really about Julius Caesar, who is assassinated in the third act, but about the high-minded public-spirited idealist Marcus Brutus, invariably reflecting on what is best for Rome.  Brutus is drawn into a conspiracy by his friend and brother-in-law Gaius Cassius, to murder Julius Caesar, considered a threat to Rome’s liberty.  Cassius is a foil for Brutus: more personally motivated against Caesar, occasionally somewhat mean-spirited, and willing to compromise with morality (Brutus accuses him, during a famous confrontation of taking bribes, but they are eventually reconciled). Cassius is also much more practical and realistic than Brutus.  If Cassius had prevailed, instead of Brutus, in some of their important strategic decisions—for instance, the decision not to murder Mark Antony along with Caesar, or later, after Caesar has been struck down, the decision to allow Antony to deliver a funeral oration for Caesar in the public forum, where he inflames the citizens against the conspirators with brilliant rhetoric and equally brilliant psychology—the history of Rome, as well as the plot of Shakespeare’s play, would have been quite different.


Although both Cassius and Brutus end up as suicides of honor in the ensuing civil war, in which they face Antony and Octavius as their mighty opposites, their deaths take place in separate scenes, with each anticipating immanent defeat.  Their contrasting personalities not withstanding, the two generals are valiant soldiers, not afraid of death, and preferring death to dishonor.  But early in the fifth act, when Cassius questions Brutus, “If we do lose this battle... / What are you then determinèd to do?” Brutus’ response is rather curious, if not shocking.  This son-in-law of Marcus Cato the Younger, who has been rhapsodized by Seneca and so many others, admits that he “did blame Cato for the death / Which he did give himself—I know not how—But I do find it cowardly and vile, / For fear what might fall, so to prevent [i.e., cut short] the time of life...”  Brutus will instead arm himself “with patience.”  The unexpectedness of this response is in part due to Brutus’ well-known acceptance of Stoic teachings to which Cato also subscribed; the “patience” that Brutus insists he will demonstrate is a major Stoic virtue.


What he seems to be reacting to in this minority view of his father-in-law’s death is that there was no impending threat, but rather a nonspecific, indeterminate threat, of capture or disgrace for Cato.  He seems to come close to accusing his father-in-law of what Seneca terms “a lust for dying.”


When Cassius presses him further—“Then, if we lose this battle, / You are contented to be led in triumph / Thorough [i.e., through] the streets of Rome?”—Brutus’ response this time is less ambiguous:  “No, Cassius, no.  Think not, thou noble Roman / That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome; / He bears too great a mind. ...”  The implication here is that when the danger of defeat is immediate and specific, Brutus will take appropriate action.


Cassius’ suicide comes first, but it follows hard on the heels of a grievous error in judgment. When Pindarus, his bondsman, who has better eyesight than Cassius reports that Titinius, Cassius best friend, is being pursued by troops and is overtaken, Cassius assumes he has been taken captive by the enemy.  Since it is Cassius who has sent Titinius to report on the nature of those troops seen in the distance, he feels responsible, and so, consumed by guilt, judges himself a coward, “to live so long / To see my best friend ta’en [i.e., taken] before my face!” He immediately prepares to kill himself to atone for this supposed misdeed and to forestall what he believes to be inevitable capture by enemy soldiers.



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