Brutus emerges as the most complex character in Julius Caesar and is also the play’s tragic hero. In his soliloquies, the audience gains insight into the complexities of his motives. He is a powerful public figure, but he appears also as a husband, a master to his servants, a dignified military leader, and a loving friend. The conflicting value systems that battle with each other in the play as a whole are enacted on a microcosmic level in Brutus’s mind. Even after Brutus has committed the assassination with the other members of the conspiracy, questions remain as to whether, in light of his friendship with Caesar, the murder was a noble, decidedly selfless act or proof of a truly evil callousness, a gross indifference to the ties of friendship and a failure to be moved by the power of a truly great man.
Brutus’s rigid idealism is both his greatest virtue and his most deadly flaw. In the world of the play, where self-serving ambition seems to dominate all other motivations, Brutus lives up to Antony’s elegiac description of him as “the noblest of Romans.” However, his commitment to principle repeatedly leads him to make miscalculations: wanting to curtail violence, he ignores Cassius’s suggestion that the conspirators kill Antony as well as Caesar. In another moment of naïve idealism, he again ignores Cassius’s advice and allows Antony to speak a funeral oration over Caesar’s body. As a result, Brutus forfeits the authority of having the last word on the murder and thus allows Antony to incite the plebeians to riot against him and the other conspirators. Brutus later endangers his good relationship with Cassius by self-righteously condemning what he sees as dishonorable fund-raising tactics on Cassius’s part. In all of these episodes, Brutus acts out of a desire to limit the self-serving aspects of his actions; ironically, however, in each incident he dooms the very cause that he seeks to promote, thus serving no one at all.