Julius Caesar

Suicide in Julius Caesar

Content warning: Suicide

After seeing a production of Julius Caesar consider the following:

Brutus perfectly expresses one modern Western view toward suicide.

I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life, arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.

Brutus, Act 5, Scene 1

Yet, of course, Brutus will change his mind. The many suicides in the play are, as often is the case, motivated by desperation or hopelessness. The one exception is that of Titinius, whose motive is self-blame, or unswerving, perhaps myopic loyalty to Cassius. Portia takes her life, we are told, because of her own instability without Brutus, her fear of the advancing power of Antony and Octavius, and perhaps because she could see no hope in the political enterprise of which she was now a part. Cassius’s death seems a desperate mistake. Yet just prior to his death, despite his exchange with Octavius and Antony in Act 5, Scene 1, and a show of aggression and alacrity for the battle, he suddenly crumbles: “Our army lies ready to give up the ghost”. It seems he has already given up on himself. He bids the firmest farewell to Brutus, and too ready to die, kills himself upon mistaken information that Brutus is overcome by Octavius. Brutus, in the same broken spirit shortly after, falls upon his sword with Strato’s help, and both Cassius and Brutus call out to Caesar in their final moments.

The reigning, pugnacious spirit of Caesar is every bit their fiercest opponent, even after his death. They can never surmount him. It is Caesar who defeats them, but it is also their own regret and deep sense of failure in the whole campaign. Upon a certain plane of imagery, the deaths of Brutus and Cassius are not suicides but fair conquest by Caesar.

Discuss the following points in class:

  • What is the effect of the suicides on the republican cause? Does it make the whole venture a failure?
  • How were the suicides represented in a production you saw? What effect did these representations have on the audience?
  • Is there any nobility in the suicides in the play?
  • Is suicide the reason Julius Caesar is called a tragedy? Or are there other reasons?

Have students research suicide in Australian society.

  • Where is it most prevalent?
  • Which demographics are most at risk?
  • What can lead a person to such an act?
  • Is it ever an acceptable option?
  • What can be done to help people who are at risk of becoming suicidal?

Whenever discussing this topic, it is always encouraged you offer students some further resources relating to mental health support. A good place to start is mentioning Lifeline and Beyond Blue.