4. Historical Marcus Brutus


            Geometrically the play within the play in Hamlet occupies the center. About 3,745 lines precede the play; the play within the play and the accompanying comments occupy about 331 lines; about 4,040 lines follow — a fairly equal distribution. But the play also builds a dramatic turning point. After it the dramatic events follow in rapid succession: Polonius is killed, Ophelia runs mad and kills herself, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed by Hamlet, finally also Claudius and Gertrud, Hamlet and Laertes die. But the centrality of the play within the play does not end there. What the play exactly means in Hamlet can perhaps best be gauged by a comparison between Hamlet and Brutus, the protagonist of Julius Caesar.  Between Hamlet and Brutus exist certain analogies. The analogy begins with the respective sources.


            The myth of Lucius Junius Brutus, the ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus, is the foundation myth of the Roman republic. Brutus was the nephew of Tarquinius Superbus (“the proud”), seventh and last king of Rome. To avoid being killed by his uncle, Brutus feigned madness. “Brutus” means “dullard”, “simpleton”. The Danish prince Amlethus also feigned madness to avoid being killed by his uncle Feng, who had killed his brother Horwendil. The word “Amlethus” means the same as  “brutus”: “dullard”, “simpleton”.

            After the expulsion of Tarquinius, Brutus would have had the Roman people swear they would never suffer the rule of one man. Whether real or invented, this “oath of Brutus” was the republican article of faith by which the murderers of Julius Caesar legitimized their deed. The Roman sagas or myths can be partially understood as attempts to reinvigorate traditional social values in a time in which such values were being profoundly challenged by historical development, namely the period of decline of the Roman republic (133 B.C. to 42 B.C ). Or to use the terms introduced by Lévi-Strauss: to force back a developing, a “hot” society, into the timelessness of a “cold” society. Social change should be stymied through return to what was considered as the roots, even the sacred roots of societal life. The early Roman republic was based on the authority of the father; the senators were called “fathers”. The word “father” had a much broader meaning than “biological father”. For instance, as ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus was the “father” of Marcus Junius Brutus. Through a succession of fathers, including adoptive fathers, descendants felt connected with the preceding generations. Lucius Junius Brutus is reported to have executed his two sons for their involvement in a conspiracy to re-establish kingship. This narrrative element is perhaps due more to the desire to underpin the authority of the father than to a real occurrence. The Brutus myth is not the only Roman saga to highlight the sacrosanctity of the father. The trilogy of the Manlii is an even more positive example in this respect. Lucius Manlius, temporarily dictator of Rome, was accused of mischief toward his son Titus. The son, however, in a magnaminous act of filial piety forced the accuser to withdraw the charge. Later the son distinguished himself in the wars with the Gauls. In a duel he killed a gigantic champion of the Gauls and so assured the victory of the Romans. Taking from the Gaul a torc, he received the cognomen “torquatus”. He later received the additional surname of “Imperiosus” because he ordered the execution of his own son for a feat that had brought himself so much honor. His son had engaged in a duel with the Latin enemy. But individual duelling had been forbidden by Titus Manlius Torquatus as contrary to the military discipline. Only strongest collective discipline was held to warrant victory over the Latins. His son was executed for violating this order. Again, it is not possible to verify the authenticity of this story. But it had certainly an effect on the behaviour and the mentality of the Romans.

            The Danish saga of Amlethus, whose original source are the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus,  is the counterpiece to the Roman Brutus saga. In the re-narration of the story by François de Belleforest the connection is expressly underscored. “And all though he had been at the school of the Roman Prince, who, because he counterfeited himselfe to be a foole, was called Brutus, yet he imitated his fashions, and his wisedom.” The Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus al  follow more or less the same pattern: the father, rarely physically present in the  story, has been killed and the son is under the obligation to avenge him.  Whereas in the Roman tradition the ancestral obligation is stressed, it is the name of the father that obliges — it is the name of Brutus which incites Marcus Junius Brutus to kill Jullius Caesar.  Here Shakespeare operates a significant alteration. In the original source the name of Amlethus’ father is Horwendil; in Shakespeare’s play father and son bear the same name.  Through this renaming Roman and Danish saga are assimilated, a parallel is created beween Brutus and Hamlet . It is no exaggeration to say that while writing Hamlet, Shakespeare always had Brutus on his mind.         


Plutarch tells us about the historical Brutus: “Marcus Brutus was a descendant of that Junius Brutus whose bronze statue, with a drawn sword in its hand, was erected by the ancient Romans on the Capitol among those of the kings, in token that he was most resolute in dethroning the Tarquins. But that Brutus, like the tempered steel of swords, had a disposition which was hard by nature and not softened by letters, so that his wrath against the tyrants drove him upon the dreadful act of slaying his sons; whereas this Brutus, of whom I now write, modified his disposition by means of the training and culture which philosophy gives, and stimulated a nature which was sedate and mild by active enterprises, and thus seems to have been most harmoniously attempered for the practice of virtue.” This description is in line with the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s play.

Also in line with Plutarch is Shakespeare with respect to political freedom  as the prime motive of Brutus’ behaviour above private considerations. “Here, when the state was rent by factions, Pompey and Caesar appealing to arms and the supreme power being confounded, Brutus was expected to choose the side of Caesar, since his father had been put to death a while before at the instigation of Pompey;4 but thinking it his duty to put the public good above his own, and holding that Pompey's grounds for going to war were better than Caesar's, he attached himself to Pompey. And yet before this he would not even speak to Pompey when he met him, considering it a great abomination to converse with the murderer of his father; now, however, looking upon him as his country's ruler, he put himself under his orders...”

By contrast Shakespeare completely disregards the little Plutarch reports on Brutus’ maternal ancestors. Yet after the murder of his father Brutus was adopted by his maternal uncle Quintus Servilius Caepio Ahala (“ahala” means armpit) and subsequently took the name Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus, linking him ancestrally with an additional tradition of tyrannicide: “Servilia, the mother of Brutus, traced her lineage back to Servilius Ahala, who, when Spurius Maelius was seditiously plotting to usurp absolute power, took a dagger under his arm , went into the forum, drew nigh the man, as if intending to confer privately with him, and when he inclined his head to listen, stabbed him to death.” Yet, according to Cicero, this maternal descent, too, determined a legacy. When Brutus and Cassius had fled Rome after the murder of Caesar and were levying armies against Octavianus and Marcus Antonius outside Italy in Macedonia, Illyricum and Greece, Cicero in his Philippics, his diatribe against Marcus Antonius, hailed Brutus as Rome’s new natural republican leader: “The Roman people then is now in possession of Macedonia, and Illyricum, and Greece. The legions there are all devoted to us, the light-armed troops are ours, the cavalry is ours, and, above all, Brutus is ours, and always will be ours — a man born for the republic, both by his own most excellent virtues, and also by some especial destiny of name and family, both on his father's and on his mother's side” (tenth Philippic). The “special destiny of name and family” on his father’s side is that of Rome’s first consul Lucius Junius Brutus who expelled the last Roman king Tarquinius after the rape of Lucrece, that on his mother’s of Quintus Servilius Caepio Ahala who killed Spurius Maelius. Cicero’s evocation of this double ancestral heritage is by no means a mere rhetoric ornament. Ancestral heritage was a mighty symbol guiding the political action of the descendants.

How does Spurius Maelius relate to the epoch of Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus? The myth or story of Spurius Maelius is by any rational account at first glance a weird one. Spurius Maelius lived in the 5th century B.C., about four centuries before. The accusation of trying to seize king-like power in the republic solely rested on distributing corn to the population at low prices in times of dearth. Why should he have been put to death for such a generous deed? How could this be construed as token for his ambition to become king? It was the famous 19th -century historian Theodor Mommsen who supplied the answer to this riddle (Römische Forschungen, Berlin 1864, pp. 199-220), for strictly historically it may the more be said a “riddle” because the problem of corn shortage did not at all exist in the century in which Spurius Maelius lived, no more than many of the other problems projected back by Roman mythology into the early Roman history to confer upon it the power of tradition or ancestral custom, but actually arising not before the convulsionary period often termed “Decay of the Roman republic” between about 133 B.C., the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, and the murder of Julius Caesar 44 B.C.

The first historical reference to Servilius Ahala was — probably — in 133 BC, in the wake of the third and last Punic war, the war with Carthago, after the murder of the tribune of the people Tiberius Gracchus who by an agrarian reform sought to halt the pauperization of the Roman peasantry. Due to the great influx of slaves from Carthago and other mediterranean regions the Roman peasantry  was progressively made redundant and dumped into a residual class of proletarians.  "’The savage beasts,’ said he [Tiberius] , ‘in Italy, have their particular dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light; and having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children.’” (Plutarch) About a decade later his brother Gaius resumed and extended the measures proposed by his brother. One of those measures was precisely the one retrospectively ascribed to Spurius Maelius: the sale of corn at low prices. Both Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were accused by the senatorial oligarchy, called “opimates”, to use land distribution and distribution of corn, to gather a followership from the mass of landless people in the capital, the proletariat, enabling them to seize monarch-like power, which to prevent the legendary founder of the republic, Lucius Junius Brutus, had sworn the people to. The partisans of the Gracchi were called “populares”, their opponents “optimates”. Two generations later Julius Caesar was also accounted to belong to this party. Tiberius and Caius Gracchus were likened to Spurius Maelius for targeting monarchical power and their  assassination was justified by reference to this saga. The murder of Tiberius Gracchus marked the start of a long period of decay of the Roman republic and of civil strife lasting for over hundred years and ending with the murder of Caesar (44 BC), the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC) and the defeat of Marcus Antonius by Octavianus at Actium (31BC).

Mommsen notes about the myth of Ahala: “Finally, it ought to be stressed that among all the Roman legends none has had such a direct and fatal impact on the later course of history as the narrative of Ahala’s deed. It is an essential feature of the Roman development that the tradition of the deeds of the ancestors, regardless of whether true or invented, was an essential factor determining the actions of the descendants, and the precedents and traditions played a role here as nowhere else.” (p.217) More than any other Marcus Junius Brutus must have felt bound by this oath. The particular circumstances of the murder of the Gracchi do not mirror Ahala’s stabbing of Spurius Maelius; Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death in what looks more a riot than a carefully planned assassination; Caius Gracchus committed suicide to escape killing by his adversaries. But the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Capitol bears a resemblance to the manner of Ahala’s killing of Spurius Maelius; like him the conspirators approached Caesar under the pretext of communicating something to him, with their daggers hidden under their clothes. Almost certainly Mommsen has Caesar’s assassination in mind when he speaks of “such a direct and fatal impact on the later course of history”.

The historical Marcus Junius Brutus stayed loyal to the ancestral political legacy of the Bruti and Servilii. As seen, he allied with the conservative party of the optimates despite the fact that its leader Pompejus had ordered the killing of his father. But especially the successive choices of his name illustrate that his commitment to the cause of the conservative, hence anti-Caesarian, party was never seriously shaken. After adoption by his uncle he called himself Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus, as was the usual Roman practice in cases of adoption. But when he joined the conspiracy against Caesar he re-opted for his original name Marcus Junius Brutus, thereby emphasizing his opposition to Caesar’s one-man rule, according to the oath of his legendary ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus. Then, after Caesar’s assassination, he affirmed his deed by re-using his adoptive name expressing the link with the tyrannicide Servilius Ahala and in the area under his control after Caesar’s death he had coins issued with on the obverse the image of his (supposed)  natural ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus and on the reverse the image of his adoptive ancestor, the tyrannicide Gaius Servius Ahala.


            Shakespeare’s Brutus is different in that the main level of contention is moved from the outer sphere of political freedom to the inner sphre of individual conscience.  The ancestral obligation is not absent from Shakespeare’s play for eventually Brutus will assume it. But the obligation is only half present: there is no question of the tyrannicide Ahala, only of Lucius Junius Brutus, the fierce opposer of the one-man rule, and even this reference is relegated to a more or less remote background. In I.ii Cassius is trying to persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy against Caesar:

Cassius:         And it is very much lamented, Brutus,

That you have no such mirrors as will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye,

That you might see your shadow... (54-57)

Brutus, aware of what Cassius is trying to persuade him, replies:

Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,

That you would have me seek into myself

For that which is not in me? (62-4)

Later Cassius appeal to Brutus’ ancestral duty is expressed more directly:

There was a Brutus once that would have brook’d

Th’eternal devil to keep his state in Rome

As easily as a king. (157-9)

Brutus replies:

What you would work me to, I have some aim [ie conjecture]

How I have thought of this, and of these times,

I shall recount hereafter. For this present,

I would not (so with love I might entreat you)

Be any further moved. (161-5)

Whereas the conflict of the historical Brutus is situated on the level of political freedom and ancestral tradition, the conflict of Brutus in Shakespeare’s play is in essence a psychological conflict between on the one hand his appreciation of Caesar’s personality and, on the other, the ancestral duty of precluding Caesar’s establishing of a one-man rule. Which he tries to explain Antonius: “Why I, that did love  Caesar when I struck him,/Have thus proceeded” (III.i.182-3) and subsequently to the Roman people: “If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his... Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” (III.ii.18-20, 22.23) His words when the ghost of Caesar appears to him could be Hamlet’s words to the ghost of his father: “Art you anything?/Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/That makes my blood cold and my hair to stare?” (V.iii.275-7). Compare Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!/ Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,/Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,/Be thy intent wicked or charitable,/Thou com’st in such a questionable a shape/That I will speak to thee.” (I.iv.39-44) Brutus’ last words before killing himself are: “Caesar, now be still; I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” (V.v.50-1)

            The pressure to kill Caesar stems from outward obligation, not from inner motivation. But as with Hamlet outward obligation and inner motivation are conflicting.


In I.ii Brutus answers when Cassius is goading him into the conspiracy against Caesar: “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,/That you would have me seek into myself/ For that which is not in me? (62-4)” Why does Hamlet not answer the same to the ghost urging him to avenge his assassination: “Why would you have me seek into myself for that which is not in me?” For it is no real news to Hamlet when the ghost tells him how he was murdered by his brother Claudius. Hearing it from the ghost  Hamlet exclaims; “O my prophetic soul! My uncle!” (I.iv.41). Yet Hamlet has by then undertaken nothing to verify this suspicion, let alone to act upon it. He seems to have repressed or even deliberately forgotten it, “like a fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf.” “Wharf” is here to be understood in the original sense of “bank”, Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. The words of the ghost sound like a reproach for Hamlet’s inactivity and lack of inner disposition:

            I find thee apt

            And dullier shouldst thou bee than the fat weed

            That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,

            Wouldst thou not stir in this. (I.v.32-34)

The lack of action and inner disposition toward revenge in reality are those attitudes for which Hamlet chides himself after the declamation of the player (II.ii.501-514):

            O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

            Is it not monstrous that this player here,

            But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

            Could force his soul so to his own conceit

            That from her working all his visage wann’d,

            Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,

            A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

            With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!

            For Hecuba!

            What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her,

            That he should weep for her? What would he do

            Had he the motive and the cue for passion

            That I have? (544-556)

We then see Hamlet strive to bridge the gap between the outward obligation imposed by the ghost and his inner disposition. Properly considered, Hamlet does it the same way as the player with regard to Hecuba, “forcing his soul to his own conceit”, striving to overpower his inner inclination by autosuggestion, spurring himself through self-accusation:

            A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

            Like John-a dreams, unpregnant of my cause,

            And can say nothing — no, not or a king,

            Upon whose property and most dear life

            A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward? (II.ii.562-6)

When on the way to England he observes Fortinbras’ army marching to Poland, the same pattern is re-iterated:

                        Exposing what is mortal and unsure

                        To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

                        Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great

                        Is not to stir without great argument,

                        But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

                        When honour’s at stake. How stand I then,

                        That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d (IV.iv.51-57)

However, his inner disposition demurs:

                        And let all sleep, while to my shame I see

                        The imminent death of twenty thousand men

                        That for a fantasy and trick of fame,

                        Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot

                        Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,

                        Which is not tomb enough and continent

                        To hide the slain? (IV.iv.59-65)

These last words build up a dam against the the preceding words with which Hamlet tries to tune himself to resolute action. In an ultimate overcompensating attempt he dispels this inner dictate of reason to reinstate the dictate of unimpaired action.

                                                              O, from this time forth

                        My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth. (IV.iv.65-66) 

But in this scene no occasion exists for such action. In fact, Hamlet is not someone determined to act here: he is acting as an actor only , like the player in II.ii with regard to Hecuba.


            “Shakespeare was, after all, a man subdued to the aesthetic,” Helen Vendler remarks in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA, 1997, p.15). As an example she cites the phrase “lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows” in the couplet of sonnet 40. “’Graceful lasciviousness’ would show a speaker properly defining the relation between graceful show and lascivious substance; lascivious grace shows a speaker helplessly enthralled by beauty, for whom the aestethic is the central necessary essence and substance of anything, and for whom other qualities, even deadly sins, are only contingent and adjectival.” (p. 207)

            In The Seducer’s Diary (London, 1992) the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard analyzes a person for whom the aesthetic was the central necessary essence and substance of anything. Some of Kierkegaard’s reflections form an excellent comment on Hamlet’s mental disposition. “His life,” Kierkegaard writes, “has been an attempt to realize the task of living poetically. With a keenly developed sense for what is interesting in life, he had known how to find it, and having found it he had constantly reproduced it... The poetic was the extra he himself brought with him. This extra was the poetical element he enjoyed in the poetic situation provided by reality; this element he took back in again in the form of poetic reflection” (p. 248-9). For Hamlet the reality was the object, but this object was melted with the project of poetry. Both object and project were inseparably bound up in his experience — as in “lascivious grace”. “He did not belong to reality yet had much to do with. He was constantly running around in it, yet even when he devoted himself to it most, he was already beyond it. But it was not the good that beckoned him away, nor was it really evil...” (p. 250). To use the title of a work of Friedrich Nietzsche’s: he was “beyond good and evil”. “He has suffered from an exacerbatio cerebri [“excitement of the brain”] for which reality afforded insufficient excitement, at best temporarily. Reality was not too much for him, he was not too weak to bear the burden, no, he was too strong, but this strength was a sickness.” (p. 250)

            To Hamlet, as he explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, reality possesses insufficient incitement. “ I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” (II.ii.295-303). The reality of the court of Elsinore is a prison to him, but somehow beyond this reality, in his mind he dwells in a kingdom: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” (II.ii.254-5) This world is the world of the aethetic, more particularly of the theatre. For this reason the play “The Mousetrap” is much more than the “thing to catch the conscience of the king”, it is also the thing for Hamlet to catch his breath.


            None has sensed this more acutely than Harold C. Godard (The Meaning of Shakespeare, Chicago 1951). Below follow a few passages to which nothing need be added.

                  “There are a few questions about them [Rosencrantz und Guildenstern], followed by a brief interlude  which the Prince twits and insults Polonius — and then the players themselves enter. Instantly, we have another Hamlet — a man happy as a man can be only in the presence of the thing he was made for, as a woman is in the presence of the man she loves. The very tone of his voice alters. We hear the ‘sweet bells’ as they sounded before they grew ‘out of tune and harsh.’ Here, we instinctively feel, is an echo of the young Shakespeare when the wonder of his destined vocation first dawned over him. Like his creator’s, Hamlet’s heart of heart is in dramatic and poetic art. This is his “enthusiasm,” here is his ‘genius,’ in the original of those debased words. He is possessed. He cannot wait. Almost before the greetings are over he asks the First Player for a taste of his quality and hangs entranced on the recitation.” (p. 360-1).

“Hamlet’s advice to the players, though universally admired, has often been accounted an organic excrescence — a splendid digression wherein a great dramatist, who was also an actor, does not resist the temptation to stop the action of his play for a few minutes to talk about his art. Criticism could not conceivably go more astray. A passage better integrated with the rest, or more essential, the play does not contain. Granted that we undoubtedly have here Shakespeare’s ideas about the theater, about dramatic and histrionic art. That does not alter the fact that these ideas are also completely appropriate to the conscious Hamlet in the circumstances, and what is immeasurably more important, they are unconsciously the best imaginable advice to himself for the role he is about to enact.” (p. 362)

“No,  Hamlet’s discourse on histrionic art — it has to be repeated — is no purple patch. It is the heart of the whole matter.” (p. 369)


            On the way to his mother, who wants to call him to order for the disturbance he has caused by staging the play, Hamlet says:

                        O heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever

                        The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;

                        Let me be cruel, not unnatural.

                        I will speak daggers, but use none.

Why this reference to the Roman emperor Nero here? The answer seems obvious. Nero killed his mother Agrippina the Younger or rather ordered her assassination. Yet this does not entirely explain the “soul of Nero”. Why not the soul of another mother murderer, say Orestes? The case of Orestes has even some features more in common with Hamlet than that of Nero. It is precisely the histrionic context that calls for the reference to Nero.

            It should be noted that a reference to Nero is also implied in Hamlet’s reaction immediately after the play. What Hamlet exults over before anything else, especially before the confirmation of the truth of the Ghost’s message and Claudius’ culpability, is the success of his theatrical performance:

            Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk

            with me, with Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry

            of players? (III.ii.269-272)

Is it not so that Hamlet’s words can be epitomized as “what a great actor would the world win with me”? Which is the opposite of Nero’s famous last words before his suicide:“qualis artifex pereo” (“what a great artist perishes with me”).

            When asked about the emperor Nero the first things that come to mind might well be that he was a persecutor of Christians — which is true; that he set Rome afire and followed the burning singing it on the harp — which according to the historian Tacitus, his most implacable detractor, is not true; that he had an incestuous relationship with his mother — which is unproven; and, finally, that he ordered some thugs to kill his mother Agrippina — which he did. In The Boke named the Governour (1531) , a handbook for the new, culturally refined aristocracy, Sir Thomas Elyot holds Nero up as the negative incarnation of an aristocrat par excellence.  Yet Elyot so does for none of the above incriminations; that wherein, according to Elyot,  consisted Nero’s most horrible failure was to expose himself regularly as a singer and actor in the theatre before the “vulgar public”. “But in this commendation of music I would not be thought to allure noble men to haue so much delectation therein, that, in playing and singing only, they should put their whole study and felicity: as did the emperor Nero, which all a long summerday day would sit in the theatre, (an open place where al the people of Rome beheld solemn acts and plays), and, in the presence of all the noble men and senators, would play on his harp and sing without cessing.” From his infancy on Nero was haunted by the idea of becoming a great artist and wedded to the aesthetic.

            It is possible, even likely, that Agrippina delighted in the artistic inclinations of her young son in the same way as Claudius describes the queen’s delight in Hamlet when he explains to Laertes why he didn’t have Hamlet condemned for the killing of Polonius:

                                                           The Queen his mother

                        Lives almost by his looks, (IV.vii.11-12)

In condemning Nero for his public exposure as player, singer and charioteer Sir Thomas Elyot followed the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus, too, regarded this as Nero’s principal stigma. “He had long had a fancy for driving a four-horse chariot, and a no less degrading taste for singing to the harp, in a theatrical fashion, when he was at dinner. This he would remind people was a royal custom, and had been the practice of ancient chiefs; it was celebrated too in the praises of poets and was meant to show honour to the gods. Songs indeed, he said, were sacred to Apollo, and it was in the dress of a singer that that great and prophetic deity was seen in Roman temples as well as in Greek cities. He could no longer be restrained, when Seneca and Burrus thought it best to concede one point that he might not persist in both. A space was enclosed in the Vatican valley where he might manage his horses, without the spectacle being public.” (Annals, Book XIV) We should mark the phrase “without the spectacle being public” for it is in most cases overlooked by modern readers how desisting from artistic performances in public, though not in private, was thought essential for the worthiness of aristocrats and the preservation of their social and political leadership.

            For a while afterwards Nero still refrained from “disgracing himself on the public stage”. One must assume that Aggripina deprecated her son’s artistic and sportive exhibitions for it is after her death that Nero overstepped the barrier between private and public. Typically, the first attempt to kill his mother was planned as sort of circensial device. “An ingenious suggestion was offered by Anicetus, a freedman, commander of the fleet at Misenum, who had been tutor to Nero in boyhood and had a hatred of Agrippina which she reciprocated. He explained that a vessel could be constructed, from which a part might by a contrivance be detached, when out at sea, so as to plunge her unawares into the water. "Nothing," he said, "allowed of accidents so much as the sea, and should she be overtaken by shipwreck, who would be so unfair as to impute to crime an offence committed by the winds and waves? The emperor would add the honour of a temple and of shrines to the deceased lady, with every other display of filial affection... Nero liked the device”. (Annals, Book XIV) Compare with Hamlet. Hamlet stages a play to reveal a crime but appreciates the theatrical performance as much or more, at any rate sooner, than its evidentiary value; Nero recurs to a contrivance to conceal a crime but given the fact that there were simpler ways to kill his mother, as he chose later when she was slaughtered, but seems to have been attracted as much by the sophisticated scenario.

            The association with Nero transcends the murderous feelings toward the mother, it points to the primacy of the aesthetic Hamlet shared with Nero.


            As suggested by Harold C. Godard,  Hamlet’s instructions on the art of playing and the play itself represent an  autobiographical trait of the dramatist and poet Shakespeare. And then there is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom according to Harold Bloom is like Montaigne “almost of Shakespeare’s power” (Shakespeare: Invention of the Human,  New York, 1998, p.11) and a greater one than Sigmund Freud. Be that as it may, it seems at any rate worthwhile taking a look at what Nietzsche has to say about Brutus, Hamlet and Shakespeare. If any more recommendation should be necessary, we may point to the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who saw in Nietzsche alongside Marx and Freud one of the masters of the “school of suspicion”. It is, precisely, a suspicion about Brutus, Hamlet and Shakespeare himself Nietzsche puts forward in in a paragraph of book II of The Gay Science; the paragraph bears the title “In praise of Shakespeare”.

  “In praise of Shakespeare. — The most beautiful thing I can say in praise of Shakespeare as a human being is this: he believed in Brutus and didn’t cast a speck of suspicion on this type of virtue! To him he devoted his best tragedy — it is still called by the wrong name — to him and to the most dreadful epitome of lofty morality. Independence of soul! That’s what’s at stake here! No sacrifice can be too great for that...” That Shakespeare did not cast a speck of suspicion on Brutus’ virtue is highlighted by Antonius’ final tribute— which is not found in Plutarch; the words Antonius speaks are Shakespeare’s own import:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, “This was a man!” (V.v.68-75)

Nietzsche continues: “And was it really political freedom that drove this poet to sympathize with Brutus — and turned him into Brutus’ accomplice? Or was political freedom only a symbolism for something inexpressible?” The answer that we think must be given: No, it was not merely political freedom, Shakespeare’s Brutus acts out of his individual conscience; but none the less he lives up to his ancestral duty which was to prevent Rome from being ruled by one man. Hamlet was slow to live up to his ancestral duty. But what about Shakespeare, the poet and dramatist?  

And now the plot thickens.

“Could it be,” Nietzsche asks, “that we confront some unknown dark event and adventure from the poet’s own soul about which he wanted to speak only in signs? What is all of Hamlet’s melancholy compared to that of Brutus? And perhaps Shakespeare knew the latter as he knew the former — through first-hand experience. Maybe he also had his dark hour and his evil angel, like Brutus! But whatever such similarities and secret references there may have been: before the whole figure and virtue of Brutus, Shakespeare threw himself to the ground and felt unworthy and distant — he wrote the evidence for this into his tragedy.”

And the plot thickens further. “Twice in the tragedy he introduced a poet, and twice he poured such impatient and ultimate contempt upon him that it sounds like a cry — the cry of self-contempt. Brutus, even Brutus loses patience when the poet enters — conceited, pathetic, obtrusive, as poets usually are — as a being who appears to be bursting with possibilities of greatness, even moral greatness, although in the philosophy of deed and life he rarely attains even a passable integrity. When he knows his time, I’ll know his humour./ What should the wars do with these jigging fools?Companion, hence!’ shouts Brutus.”

Who are these two poets? The first is one Cinna who, because he bears the same name as one of Caesar’s murderers, is killed by the mob (III.iii) This episode Shakespeare takes wholly over from Plutarch. The other poet makes his appearance in IV.iii.123-135. He is not called by name and is simply designated as “a poet”.  Some scholars thinks to have identified the correspondent figure in Plutarch (Life of Brutus, Life of Cato the Younger, Life of Caesar). His name would be Favonius. But this is not quite exact. In Plutarch this Favonius, like Shakespeare’s poet, crops up  during a controversy between Brutus and Cassius. However, he is a cynic philosopher, not a poet: it is Shakespeare who has made him a poet. Shakespeare’s transformation seems deeply significant. Compare the passage in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus with the passage in Shakespeare’s play. Plutarch:

“Brutus now summoned Cassius to Sardis, and as he drew near, went to meet him with his friends; and the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators. But, as is wont to be the case in great undertakings where there are many friends and commanders, mutual charges and accusations had passed between them, and therefore, immediately after their march and before they did anything else, they met in a room by themselves. The doors were locked, and, with no one by, they indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations. After this, they were swept along into passionate speeches and tears, and their friends, amazed at the harshness and intensity of their anger, feared so untoward a result; they were, however, forbidden to approach. But Marcus Favonius, who had become a devotee of Cato, and was more impetuous and frenzied than reasonable in his pursuit of philosophy, tried to go in to them, and was prevented by their servants. It was no easy matter, however, to stop Favonius when he sprang to do anything, for he was always vehement and rash. The fact that he was a Roman senator was of no importance in his eyes, and by the ‘cynical’ boldness of his speech he often took away its offensiveness, and therefore men put up with his impertinence as a joke. And so at this time he forced his way through the bystanders and entered the room, reciting in an affected voice the verses wherein Homer represents Nestor as saying:— ‘But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am,’ and so forth. At this Cassius burst out laughing; but Brutus drove Favonius out of the room, calling him a mere dog, and a counterfeit Cynic. However, at the time, this incident put an end to their quarrel, and they separated at once. Furthermore, Cassius gave a supper, to which Brutus invited his friends. And as the guests were already taking their places at the feast, Favonius came, fresh from his bath. Brutus protested that he had come without an invitation, and ordered the servants to conduct him to the uppermost couch; but Favonius forced his way past them and reclined upon the central one. And over the wine mirth and jest abounded, seasoned with wit and philosophy.”

Shakespeare’s account greatly differs from his source:

“Enter a Poet [, followed by LUCILIUS, TITINIUS, and LUCIUS].

Poet.               Let me go in to see the generals,

                        There is some grudge between ‘em; ‘tis not meet

                        They be alone.

Lucil.              You shall not come to them.

Poet.              Nothing but death shall stay me.

Cassius.         How now? What’s the matter?

Poet.              For shame, you generals! What do you mean?

                        Love, and be friends, as two such men should be;

                        For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye.

Cassius.         Ha, ha! how vildly doth this cynic rhyme!

Brutus.          Get you hence, sirrah! Saucy fellow, hence!

Cassius.         Bear with him, Brutus; ‘tis his fashion.

Brutus.          I’ll now his humour, when he knows his time.

                        What should the wars do with this jigging fools?

                        Companion, hence!

Cassius.         Away, away, be gone!            [Exit Poet.   [IV.iii.123-138]

            It sounds, Nietzsche’s acutely observes, like Shakespeare’s “cry of self-contempt ”.  A cry of self-contempt from the poet who chose as motto for Venus and Adonis the Ovidian lines magnifying the art of poetry: “Let base-conceited wits admire vilde things,/Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs”? (Elegies, Book I, elegy xv, translation by Christopher Marlowe).  A cry of self-contempt from the poet who in his Sonnets promises the youth eternity, for “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme”? (Sonnet 55). Who repeats this claim in sonnet 107 : “And thou in this shalt find thy monument, /When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent”? Is this not fatally, yea absurdly  contradictory? Yet in sonnet 32 Shakespeare speaks of his “poor rude lines”; in sonnet 107 of his “poor rhyme”; and the last lines of sonnet 72 are even more explicit: “My name be buried where my body is, / And live no more to shame nor me, nor you./ For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,/ And so should you, to love things nothing worth.” So Shakespeare seems, on the one hand, to extol, his poetry, on the other hand he seems to depreciate it. Can Nietzsche’s comment supply the answer: because poets would usually be “conceited, pathetic, obtrusive, a poet would be a being “who appears to be bursting with possibilities of greatness, even moral greatness, although in the philosophy of deed and life he rarely attains even a passable integrity”?   Or otherwise put: because poets remain pent-up in a world of words and rarely excel through action?

            Whatever the answer, in the light of the Sonnets  sticking to the orthodox                ascription to William  Shakespeare of Stratford  must look like an attempt to transmogrify a nightmare into a daydream.  Not only is, except for the name, no literary profile known for him, but precisely the name is a strong argument against his authorship, especially of the Sonnets, given that the author of the Sonnets writes “My name be buried where my body is” (72) or in sonnet 81:

From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,

If the youth’s name will have “immortal life” from the sonnets, the author’s name must partake of this immortality provided Shakespeare is the poet’s real name. Moreover, the Sonnets were published in 1609; in 1598 Shakespeare is mentioned in print as writing “sugared sonnets” (Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia) circulating among his private friends; also in 1598 a contemporeanous poet, Richard Barnfield, writes:

                        And Shakespeare, thou, whose hony-flowing Vaine,


                        Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweete, and chaste)

                        Thy name in fame’s immortal book have plac’d.

                        Live ever you, at least in Fame live ever:

                        Well may the body die, but Fame dies never.

In sonnet 72 Shakespeare says the opposite: “My name be buried where my body  is”.  In sonnet 81 he states that while the youth will live eternally in the sonnets “each part” of himself “will be rotten”, vanished in oblivion.

            Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, did have a motive to prevent his name from appearing in print. He was known as an outstanding poet of his time, but few poems are preserved under his name. Even those printed under his name were probably not brought to the printer by himself but printed from manuscripts or manuscript collections attributing the poem to him, either rightly or wrongly. As late as the middle of the 17th century the eminent scholar John Selden (1584-1654) wrote: “Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print verses, ‘tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them publick is foolish. If a man in a private Chamber twirles his Band string, or plays with a Rush to please himselfe ‘tis well enough, but if hee should goe into Fleet streete & sett upon a stall & twirle his bandstring or play with a Rush, then all the boyes in the streete would laugh att him.” (John Selden, The Table-Talk of John Selden, London, 1896, p. 96). In short, Selden states that it is childish for a Lord to print his verses. The phenomenon is known as “the stigma of print”. Not every kind of text was subject to this “stigma”. In 1597 Francis Bacon publishes the first version of his Essays. In a letter to his brother Anthony prefixed to them he apologizes for putting his essays in print; the reason he gives is that a surreptitious copy was about to go into print. But Bacon adds: “And as I did ever hold, there mought [might]  be as great a vanitie in retiring and withdrawing mens conceites (except they bee of some nature) from the world, as in obtruding them.” In other words, Bacon thinks there is nothing wrong about having printed his essays, though others might take a different view. Yet he also holds that there is a category of literary production that should be withheld from the public. There can be little doubt which “conceits of a certain nature” Bacon meant: lyrics, plays, etc. Aristocrat rule was not least grounded on a behavioral code. One of these rules was that an aristocrat’s literary activity ought to remain his private affair. He that objects, as modern journalists without a sense for different historic conditions, that Oxford could have brushed aside that prohibitive rule should be invited to listen to an expert of early modern times. “Every superior class, even the most secure,” Victor Kiernan writes in his book The Duel in European History (Oxford 1988), “holds over its members the menace of forfeiture of status if they deviate from its prescriptions. Even a Brahmin can lose cast.” (p. 14) Given that, there is less mystery in the concealment of the true identity of William Shakespeare than modern ignorance about the mental fabric or, to use Norbert Elias’ term, the social figuration of courtly aristocratic societies.

            In 1578 Queen Elizabeth visits the university of Cambridge.  The Earl of Oxford belongs to her retinue. Like the queen and four others: the Earl of Leicester, Lord Burghley, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Philip Sidney, Oxford is addressed in speeches by the rhetorician Gabriel Harvey. Harvey lauds Oxford for his literary achievements but urges him to leave that and to take up arms instead. Harvey’s words are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s interpretation of Brutus’ contempt for the poet. “For a long time past Phoebus Apollo has cultivated thy mind in the arts. English poetical measures have been sung by thee long enough. Let that Courtly Epistle to the reader of The Courtier — more polished than the writings of Castiglione himself — witness how greatly thou dost excel in letters. .. O thou hero worthy of renown, throw away the insignificant pen, throw away bloodless books, and writings that serve no useful purpose; now must the sword be brought into play, now is the time to sharpen the spear... Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears, who would not swear that Achilles had come to life.” (Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, McLean, VA, 1984, p. 597). Today this warlike peroration may evince a smile, but it was in line with the 16th-century aristocratic legitimation ideology, in more general terms known as “arms and letters”. “Letters” had only recently, about from the beginning of the 16th century, become a significant element in the education of the aristocrat; the feudal aristocracy had only known “arms” and rejected “letters. Still Baldesar Castiglione, the author of The Courtier, for the Latin translation of which the Earl of Oxford had written an epistle to the reader to which Harvey refers, holds up the idea that the ideal courtier, though he should excel in letters, should always insist that his main occupation was the military profession “and that all his other fine accomplishments serve merely as adornments”. (Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, Book I, XLIV, translated by George Bull, London, 1967, p. 92).  The question whether priority was to be given to arms or letters is discussed at length by Castiglione and decided in favour of arms.

            Oxfordians understand Harvey’s phrase “thy  countenance shakes spears” as preluding the pseudonym Shake-speare. Others will dispute this, pointing to the Latin original of Harvey’s oration. “Vultus tela vibrat” is the Latin phrase. “Tela” is the plural of “telum”. “Telum” can mean several things, though it always designates a weapon that can be thrown: a spear, javelin, dart, etc. But there are very good reasons to translate Harvey’s “tela” as “spears”.  Without a shadow of doubt Harvey urges the Earl of Oxford to abandon his literary work, letters in favour of arms. The dichotomy “arms and letters” was recurrent in the 16th century. Sometimes it was expressed as “tam Marti quam Mercurio”, as much Mars, war, as Mercury, poetry. Often it was expressed as pars pro toto, “pen” for “letters and “sword”, “lance” or “spear” for arms. Surely, “Shake-speare” would have been an ironic pen name for one whose main occupation was held to be shaking a spear but who mainly handled the pen.

            The dichotomy “arms and letters” is a central theme in John Lyly’s play Campaspe (1584). Alexander the Great has fallen in love with the beautiful slave Campaspe and thereupon loses any interest in war. His general Hephaistos says: “that whilst arms cease, arts may flourish, and joining letters with lances”. (I.i). Enthralled by Campaspe’s beauty, Alexander completely devotes himself to arts, not letters but painting. Under the guidance of the painter Apelles he wants to paint Campaspe’s portrait and is reprimanded by the same general Hephiastos: “Will you handle the spindle with Hercules, when you should shake the speare with Achilles? Is the warlike sound of drumme and trumpe turned to the soft noyse of lire and lute?" (II.ii). To shake a spear or lance was a common pars pro toto for “arms” in English. Ben Jonson uses a similar metaphor for Shakespeare in his eulogy in the First Folio: “In his well torned, and true filed lines:/In each of which, he seems to shake a Lance, /As brandish’d at the eyes of Ignorance.” The conjunction of arts and lance/spear seems to have been a specific homage to a nobleman who was also skilled in “letters”. Thomas Nashe uses it in 1591 in his foreword to Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella addressed to Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke: “& the Laurel Garlande which thy Brother so bravely advaunst on his Launce is still kept greene in the Temple of Pallas.” (The Works of Thomas Nashe, edited from the original Texts by Ronald B. McKerrow, 5 volumes, Oxford, 1958, vol. III, p. 331)

            In 1580 the same rhetorician Gabriel Harvey publishes three letters under the long-drawn-out title Three proper and wittie, familiar Letters: lately passed betweene two Universitie men: touching the Earthquake in Aprill last, and our English refourmed Versifying. Two of the three letters are by Harvey to Edmund Spenser, one by Spenser to Harvey. The third letter contains a satire, a libel intituled “Speculum Tuscanismi” (“Mirror of Italianism”) on the Earl of Oxford. The satire exists in two versions. From the very beginning of one version (printed in Harvey’s Letter-Book, not in the letter published in 1580) it becomes clear that Harvey reiterates the leitmotiv of his oration to the Earl of Oxford in 1578: the times of English heroes, of Talbot, Brandon, etc. belong to the past. Italian (Tuscan) manners now prevail:

                        No man, but Minion, Stout, Lout, Plaine, swayne, quoth a Lording:

                        No wordes but valorous, no workes but woomanish onely,

                        For Life Magnificoes, not a beck but glorious in shew,

                        In deede most frivolous, not a look but Tuscanish alwayes.

Four years before Oxford had returned from a journey of about one year in Italy. Harvey leaves no doubt about the identity of his target:

                        This, nay more than this doth practice of Italy in one yeare.

                        None doe I name, but some doe I know, that a piece of twelvemonth

                        Hath so perfited outly, and inly, both body, both soule

                        That none for sense, and senses, halfe matchable with them.

            In 1593 Gabriel Harvey, in his pamphlet Pierce’s Supererogation against Thomas Nashe, is still harping on the theme “arms and letters”: “It is not the first time, that I have preferred a Gentleman of deedes, before a Lord of wordes, and what if I once by way of familiar discourse sayd?”  (The Works of Gabriel Harvey, 3 volumes, edited by Alexander B. Grosart, London, 1884-5, vol. 2, p. 200).  Of course, the “familiar discourse” is the third familiar letter of 1580 containing the libel with the words “no words but valourous”.


            “What is all of Hamlet’s melancholy compared to that of Brutus? And perhaps Shakespeare knew the latter as he knew the former — through first-hand experience. Maybe he also had his dark hour and his evil angel, like Brutus! But whatever such similarities and secret references there may have been: before the whole figure and virtue of Brutus, Shakespeare threw himself to the ground and felt unworthy and distant...”, Nietzsche writes. We can give a fairly satisfactory answer if the Earl of Oxford is Shakespeare. For him the “similarities and secret references” are relatively easy to find. Brutus had an ancestral duty, Hamlet had an ancestral duty, the Earl of Oxford as a scion of one of the oldest aristocrat houses had an ancestral duty. Some of his ancestors had played a very prominent role in English history, especially John, 13th Earl, the right hand of Richmond, afterwards king Henry VII. Military and political achievements would have fulfilled this ancestral duty. But neither in military nor in political affairs the 17th Earl of Oxford played a significant part. Through his playing company, through John Lyly and partly through the playwright Anthony Munday he was involved in the world of the theatre — like Hamlet. And perhaps is this the reason why Shakespeare “threw himself to the ground” before Brutus because Brutus finally straighforward assumed the ancestral burden.

            And possibly Oxford was ever fiercefully torn between the irresistible attraction of poetry and drama and the insuppressible pressure of his aristocratic mission. Should the somewhat pedantic rhetorician Gabriel Harvey, who knew Oxford well, have been aware of this inner struggle and voiced it?