Betrayal and the Death of Caesar I
Shakespeare does not portray Caesar as an attractive figure. Even though the rabble wants a holiday to celebrate the triumph of the great Caesar (1.1.30-31), and even though Caesar's authority is unquestioned by small and great alike, Caesar never becomes a lovable or endearing character.
At times he speaks with such arrogance that he almost invites retaliation. For example, just before the conspirators descended upon him, he is besieged by them to remit a punishment meted out to Publius Cimber (3.1.32-34). Fawning words and prostrations at his feet only call forth scornful words from him: "Hence! wilt thou lift up Olympus? (1.3.74)" A greater arrogation of divine prerogatives can scarcely be imagined.
Thus, when the conspirators stab Caesar we are not prepared to have a great deal of sympathy for him. Maybe, we think, the act is in fact a tyrannicide. Maybe Brutus' interpretation of the act as a sacrifice, where Caesar becomes a "dish fit for the gods," might have something to commend it. (2.1.173). But then we hear the six last words of Caesar, and we think differently. Those familiar words are addressed to Caesar's intimate friend Brutus as Brutus stabs him:
"Et tu, Brute?--Then fall Caesar (3.1.77)."
And Caesar then dies.
The Psychology of Betrayal
To comprehend those words one must understand something about the psychology of human betrayal. When a person is betrayed by someone s/he loves, something profound happens in the heart of the betrayed person. It is not simply that someone has "let you down," or "double-crossed you." Rather, the betrayer has done an action or taken special information and used it to harm you. The betrayer has held a position of confidence and been privy to your most sacred secrets, and then s/he treats those secrets as if they are playthings to be exploited. A betrayer is a person who knows your heart and has ripped into that heart and ripped out that heart by exposing and exploiting your vulnerabilities. Betrayal is the stealing and attempted destruction of the human heart.
When a human being is betrayed there are at least two reactions that might have. The first is to seek vengeance--immediate and powerful vengeance. This is how one should understand certain Psalms, among them Ps. 41 and Ps. 55, which are confusing to many people who revere the Scriptures but are utterly explicable from the perspective of the psychology of betrayal. For example, in Ps. 55, the Psalmist (the Psalm is attributed to King David) is taunted and opposed by a former intimate friend. He complains,
"It is not enemies who taunt me--I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me--I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company (Ps. 55:12-14)."
The Psalmist's pain is unendurable because the one who betrayed him was an intimate companion. What does the Psalmist wish would happen? Note the immediately following verse:
"Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts (Ps. 55:15)."
The Psalmist is reacting in a way completely consistent with the psychology of betrayal. The betrayer has not just opposed us but has taken our life away from us. Thus, let his life be taken away also! Immediately!
But there is a second reaction that is no less understandable but all the more piercing: the betrayed person can give up the will to live. When the heart has been stolen, there may be no way to get it back. The only response then is to die, to fall, to suffer a collapse of the self. It is this reaction which will characterize Caesar's words quoted above. The next mini-essay probes those words.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long