In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the curious meanings of Julius Caesar’s ‘dying words’
Let’s kick off this week’s Secret Library column with a short quiz about those three famous words: ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Okay, if you’re ready …
Question 1): Which famous Roman emperor uttered these words when he was stabbed by conspirators? Question 2): In which 1590s play does the utterance ‘Et tu, Brute?’ make its debut in drama? And Question 3): What was the definite meaning of Julius Caesar’s utterance, ‘Et tu, Brute?’
If you answered ‘Julius Caesar’ to either 1) or 2), sorry: you’re wrong. Nil points. And if, for 3), you answered something along the lines of ‘Caesar was expressing shock and sorrow that even his trusted friend, Brutus, had conspired in his murder’, then … well, it gets murkier here, but that’s why I sneaked in the word ‘definite’ before ‘meaning’. So, again, nil points, I’m afraid.
Julius Caesar wasn’t an emperor. A dictator, yes, and a military general, but although the title ‘Caesar’ (whence we get the Russian ‘Tsar’ and German ‘Kaiser’) came to mean ‘emperor’ when it was used after his death, the man himself was just a plain old dictator. Julius Caesar was called Caesar but not ‘a’ Caesar (as in ‘Emperor’).
Nor did he utter the words which Shakespeare puts in his mouth, as his dying utterance, after the conspirators Cassius, Casca, and Brutus have stabbed him. In Shakespeare’s play, it is Brutus who delivers the final blow, making what Mark Antony later calls ‘the most unkindest cut of all.’ Caesar, who had looked on Brutus as his loyal friend, is heartbroken. Hence ‘Et tu, Brute?’: that is, ‘And you too, Brutus? Even you, my devoted friend, have turned against me? Then I may as well die.’ Or, as Caesar himself puts it: ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.’ So in fact, if we’re being pedantic, the three dying words Julius Caesar utters in the play aren’t the Latin ‘Et tu, Brute’ but the English ‘Then fall, Caesar.’
The line has a neat symmetry to it: six words, three directed at Brutus, and three at himself, with the title of the respective addressee coming third in each case. The effect of this symmetry is to underscore the fact that Brutus and Caesar are, as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet, ‘mighty opposites’. As David Daniell glosses that simple word ‘Then’ (‘Then fall, Caesar’) in Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare): it could mean either ‘I may as well die because I have been betrayed by my dearest friend’ or ‘I deserve to die if my dearest friend thinks I should.’ Even here, there is ambiguity.
But there is no evidence of the historical Julius Caesar saying anything of the sort when he was assassinated. But nor was the line Shakespeare’s invention. It had already been used in an earlier history play which was performed in London in the 1590s, just a few years before Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was first staged in 1599. In the anonymous play The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, which was printed in 1600, Prince Edward utters the line: ‘Et tu, Brute? Wilt thou stab Caesar too?’
This play was the source material for Shakespeare’s own 3 Henry VI, although ‘Et tu, Brute’ doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s rewrite. Nevertheless, he probably encountered the line in the earlier play and stored it away for future use. (The author of this play, in turn, may have encountered the phrase in an earlier play, Caesar Interfectus, by Richard Edes.) Even in 1599, the year Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was staged, the phrase ‘Et tu Brute’ appeared in Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of his Humour, so it was almost certainly a thoroughly established phrase in theatre, even a cliché, when Shakespeare used it.
But what precisely does ‘Et tu, Brute?’ mean? Now we come to question 3) posed at the beginning of this article. And it isn’t entirely clear what we should take from this phrase.
Although it’s commonly glossed as meaning ‘you too, Brutus?’ or ‘even you, Brutus?’, even this issue isn’t as cut and dried as it might appear. It’s been suggested that his last words were a curse, with the meaning ‘you too, Brutus, will have a taste of power’ – and, one assumes, what happens to people who are in positions of power, like Caesar.
Certainly, Julius Caesar’s actual last words may have been a curse – if he said them. Suetonius records them as Greek not Latin: ‘kai su, teknon’, meaning ‘and thou, child’ or ‘and thou, son’. And ‘son’ here may well have been literal: Brutus was fifteen years younger than Julius Caesar, and the rumour that Brutus was Caesar’s son was mentioned by numerous classical writers, including Suetonius, Appian, and one of Shakespeare’s sources for his play, Plutarch. If Shakespeare knew of this tradition, though, it is notable that he didn’t choose to make Caesar’s last words more revealing of the fact (or the rumour). But ‘Et tu, Brute?’ leaves open the possibility.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.
Image: by kladcat via Wikimedia Commons.