The "Brute" Part in 'Hamlet' and 'Julius Caesar' Refigured-Regally

By Fleissner, Robert F. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The "Brute" Part in 'Hamlet' and 'Julius Caesar' Refigured-Regally


Fleissner, Robert F., Papers on Language & Literature


Was Shakespeare indebted at all to the likes of Malory if he meant by Antony's reference to "the most unkindest cut of all" (Julius Caesar 3.2.183) (1) to have had Brutus go so far as to sever his dictator's genitals vindictively for having brought him into the world out of wedlock? The main point here is that a king, Arthur, at least according to the standard medieval tradition, was likewise killed by his upstart, namely by his own illegitimate son; moreover, at one point in the tales, a removal of sexual organs also happened to occur, though in this case the father himself, Arthur, happened to be the one responsible, the removal of the testicles being adventitious. (2) Nonetheless, somewhat disparate though these two events were, a couple of such curiously similar severances, though originally not directly linked, might somehow have grouped themselves together half-consciously in the broad creative psyche of the leading Elizabethan dramatist. In point of collaborative fact, some modern scholarship declares that valid evidence exists to suggest that the playwright revealed some effective use of Malory elsewhere. (3)

In assessing this oblique relation, one is obliged also to recall the suggestion that Brutus was born out of wedlock, that historically it was no more than a rumor; still, even though such a matter is not specifically alluded to in Julius Caesar itself, Shakespeare at least does call attention to it elsewhere (2 Henry VI, 4.1.137-38). So it could also have thereby had a certain implicit effect on the Roman tragedy. Indeed, a king of "Brut[ish]" connection is already discernible in Arthurian legendry, onomastic though such an incidental linkage turns out to be. For, at least on the level of nomenclature, the story of a Brutus emerges first of all in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, designated generally the seed-bed of Arthurian romance, which deals with the historical transition from the great-grandson of Aeneas, who then also happened to have the unusual name of Brutus, to Cadwallader, eighth successor to King Arthur. Since this affiliation seems to have been widely known, Shakespeare too could well have become aware of it, whereupon one Brutus could then, in turn, have led to yet another, the more famous Roman one, at least through the back portal. The story of Aeneas, after all, was one with which Shakespeare was extremely well acquainted. (4)

In any event, the playwright's own plausible version, which has been said to suggest that Caesar's testes were severed (rather than that the father himself indulged in any testicle removal), represents an ironic reversal here--thereby yet another one of those manifold ironies permeating his dramas. The most intriguing point here is that this could easily have led, then, to the pun on Brutus as being a "brute," of having a "brute part," in Hamlet (3.2.101), where the context does clearly specify a university play as being involved. The allusion was probably to Caesar Interfectus as performed in Christ Church Hall, Oxford (1581/82), where, in fact, Shakespeare could have witnessed it, or he could have learned of it later from a player in London.

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