Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Oxymoronic Ethos: The Rhetoric of Honor and Its Performance in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Oxymoronic Ethos: The Rhetoric of Honor and Its Performance in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Article excerpt

IN ACT 1, SCENE 2 OF SHAKESPEARE'S JULIUS CAESAR, Cassiustries to recruit Brutus to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Having sensed Brutus's "passions of some difference" regarding Caesar as a potential tyrant, Cassius proposes, like an honest mirror, to reveal Brutus's "hidden worthiness" to him (1.2.57). Uncertain of Cassius's agenda, Brutus heroically declares:

What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honor in one eye and death i'th'other
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honor more than I fear death.
                        (1.2.84-89) (1)

He is willing to die to bring Rome any general good, Brutus claims, for the appeal of an honorable name outweighs his fear for death. Ambiguity lurks in this grandiose claim: does he crave public recognition ("name") or the general good per se? (2) Does yearning for public good necessarily motivate people to take moral action, or is honor easily adopted as a cover-up for one's selfish ambition? Brutus's possibly unwitting recognition of honor as a verbal construct ("name") contingent on circumstances and opinions, moreover, further disrupts the alignment of honor and public good, especially in times of political turmoil when both are variously contested by vying political factions.

As if to address this moral ambiguity embedded in Brutus's statement, Cassius in his response takes up the same diction, but scripts "honor" from a mere "name" into a preexisting "thing":

I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus,
As well as I do know your outward favor.
Well, honor is the subject of my story.

Cassius reassures Brutus that he recognizes his virtuous albeit invisible core shining through his "outward favor." In limning his subsequent story, Cassius rhetorically transforms the otherwise intangible and fluid "name" of honor into a palpable thing that Brutus possesses. He concretizes the names of Caesar and Brutus as capable of being weighed and compared (1.2.142-47); among other things, Brutus's honor encompasses his well-known familial lineage considered as a historical fact (1.2.159-61).

Cassius's story of honor constitutes a way of tackling the typical Renaissance anxiety over the epistemological gap between one's exterior and interior: one's observable public behavior was visible but usually performative and potentially fraudulent, whereas the "true" inner self remained invisible and often inexpressible. (3) This perceived incongruity generated concern over whether one's true inner self could ever be unambiguously expressed or communicated. In Cassius's appreciative gaze and articulation, however, Brutus's outward favor accurately mirrors his inner self, making it visible and self-evident. Honor then becomes simultaneously Brutus's observable, performative exterior, and his inexpressible, substantive core. Intriguingly, Cassius's story itself is laden with paradoxes: although portrayed as grounded in facts, i.e., someone's public service and familial glory, one's character nevertheless remains a "story," and as a story can be told differently, characters in the play are often rescripted discursively. To lure Brutus into the conspiracy, Cassius adeptly reduces great Caesar to a petty, weak, and ordinary mortal. Honor, as the noble Romans in the play grapple to define for themselves, remains a malleable verbal construct tied to the shifting variables of time and circumstances. This early interaction between Brutus and Cassius foreshadows the inherently oxymoronic nature of honor that the play explores.

Honor as an oxymoron is symptomatic of a more general anxiety about rhetoric, which Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as an experimental space rehearses and evaluates. The play dramatizes an arena where people use rhetorical performance to vie for dominance over their peers and the mob, which involves (dis)simulation, deception, and sometimes even self-deception. …

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