The word “honor” generally is used with one of two implications: as adherence to a private moral code, or as public acclaim. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are preoccupied with the latter denotation of this word, but rarely does their concern benefit anyone, most of all themselves. Instead, when they feel the overpowering need to achieve such esteem, they end up committing foolish or destructive acts. Indeed, so often does mention of “honor” lead to ruinous behavior that whenever we hear someone in Shakespeare’s plays use the word, we anticipate the worst.
Consider Brutus, the hero of Julius Caesar. In the play’s opening scene, Brutus reveals with virtually every line his overwhelming concern for how he is viewed by the Roman populace. Moreover, he ruminates over his status with a solemnity that suggests he has a huge ego waiting to be stroked. As he says to his best friend, Cassius:
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself.
(I, ii, 37–41)
Thus we are not surprised when Brutus adds:
The name of honor more than I fear death.
(I, ii, 88–89)
Cassius recognizes how such a preoccupation with honor makes Brutus vulnerable: