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


Roman military suicides of honor, as we shall see also with Brutus as well as in Antony and Cleopatra, often involve at least two people:  the person determined to die and a friend or trusted servant willing to help.  Here it is Pindarus who is called upon to be Cassius accomplice:  “In Parthia did I take thee prisoner / And then I swore thee, saving of thy life, / That whatsoever I did bid thee do / Thou shouldst attempt it.  Come now, keep thine oath; / Now be a freeman, and with this good sword, / That ran through Caesar’s bowels search this bosom.”  And so, with his face covered Cassius instructs Pindarus one final time: “Guide thou the sword.”


When Titinius, very much alive and uncaptured, soon reappears wearing a garland of laurel, he instinctively senses his friend’s error as soon as he spots Cassius lying on the ground, and he gently speaks to the bleeding corpse: “Why didst thou send me forth, brave Cassius? /  Did I not meet thy friends?  And did not they / Put on my brows this wreath of victory / And bid me give it thee?.../ Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything.”  Before adding to the suicides of honor on the battlefield, Titinius places the garland on Cassius’ brow, picks up Cassius’ sword—“By your leave, gods! This is a Roman’s heart”—stabs himself, and dies. Since Cassius is not only Titinius best friend but also his superior officer, it is a point of honor with him, as with Horatio in Hamlet to join his beloved lord in death (though Horatio, as I have noted, doesn’t get to complete his suicide).  The deaths of these two close friends, Cassius and Titinius, are good examples of the way in which love and honor can mingle inextricably as motives for suicide.


When Brutus discovers the bodies of the fallen warriors, his first response is to interpret their deaths as revenge on the part of Julius Caesar’s ghost, which has earlier appeared to Brutus and which here “turns our swords / In our own proper entrails.”  But then he delivers a tribute that is among the most moving passages in the play: “Are yet two Romans living such as these? /  The last of all the Romans, fare thee well! / It is impossible that ever Rome / Should breed thy fellow. / Friends, I owe more tears / To this dead man [i.e., Cassius] than you shall see me pay—”


The sands in the hourglass are running out for Brutus, too, but just before his death and just after the deaths of Cassius and Titinius, Shakespeare provides a crucial scene that emphasizes the two most honorable kinds of death for Roman soldiers:  dying heroically in battle or dying of self-inflicted wounds, or the equivalent, to prevent the ignominy of being captured and being put on display for the jeering crowds.  Young Marcus Cato represents the first kind.  Son of the famous Marcus Cato the Younger and thus brother-in-law to Brutus, he proudly proclaims on the battlefield: I am “a foe to tyrants and my country’s friend”; and when he is finally cut down by Antony’s men, Lucilius eulogizes him, saying he is as brave as Titinius and honored as Cato’s son.


Lucilius, the eulogizer, exemplifies the second kind of heroic death.  Pretending to be Brutus, he is captured by enemy soldiers and offers them money to “kill me straight; / Kill Brutus and be honored in his death.”  But this ploy, which does not work—one of the soldiers runs to tell Antony that Brutus has been taken—has another function:  it protects Brutus and gives him a bit more time.  When Antony confronts Lucillius and asks for Brutus’ whereabouts, Lucilius’ response acts as both dramatic prognostication and quintessential definition of the suicide of honor:  “Safe, Antony, Brutus is safe enough. / I dare assure thee that no enemy / Shall ever take alive the noble Brutus / The gods defend him from so great a shame!”


Shakespeare allows Brutus to be the focus of the last scene in the play (Act Five, Scene Five), in which Brutus’ side is clearly losing the battle.  As he and some of his soldiers sit down on a rock to rest, he whispers, first to Clitus and then to Dardanius to assist him in suicide, and each of them moves away in horror.  He then tries Volumnius, an old schoolmate:  “Our enemies have beat us to the pit. / It is more worthy to leap in ourselves / Than tarry till they push us.”  Then, more directly: “Even for that love of old, I prithee, / Hold thou my sword hilts whilst I run on it.”  But Volumnius rejects his plea, “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord.”


Finally, as enemy soldiers are within reach, and as Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius flee, Brutus gets Strato, a soldier whose “life hath had some smatch [i.e., hint] of honor in it,” to give him the required assistance. And after running on his sword, which Strato is holding for him, Brutus utters his well-known last lines, “Caesar, now be still. / I killed not thee with half so good a will.”


The responses of his friends and foes to his death are predictable; the former are relieved that he was able to die nobly; the latter venerate the memory of a great man.  Strato declares that Brutus is “free from ... bondage,” and that “no man else has honor by his death.”  Lucillius is grateful that the manner of Brutus’ death confirms what he himself told Antony, not long ago.


The conquerors, as befits them, are courteous and respectful.  Marc Antony, whose repeated irony in his earlier funeral oration for Caesar—“for Brutus is an honorable man”—is finally understood as irony even by the unsophisticated plebeians. Now, in what amounts to a funeral oration for Brutus, Marc Antony expresses sincere admiration:  “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”  And Octavius, the future Emperor, who has the last line in the play, is equally deferential:  “According to his virtue, let us use him,  /  With all respect and rites of burial.”



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