Shakespeare and Brutus: Gay?

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Brutus' fate is not his alone: in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object. This is most obviously true of Shakespearean villains—the megalomaniac Richard III, the bastard Edmond (along with the ghastly Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall), the Macbeths, and the like—but it is also true of such characters as Bolingbroke in the Henriad plays, Cassius in Julius Caesar, Fortinbras in Hamlet, and Malcolm in Macbeth. Even victorious Henry V—Shakespeare's most charismatic hero—does not substantially alter the plays' overarching skepticism about the ethics of wielding authority.

No one is more aware than the reformed wastrel Henry V that there is something deeply flawed in his whole possession of power and in the foreign war he has cynically launched on the flimsiest of pretexts. On the eve of the decisive Battle of Agincourt, he queasily negotiates a settlement with God—"Not today, O Lord,/O not today, think not upon the fault/My father made in compassing the crown" (4.1.274–276)—and evidently God is at least temporarily won over. At the end of the play Henry proclaims the death penalty for anyone who denies that the victory was God's alone. But as the epilogue makes clear, the king's son and successor soon lost everything that his father had won. And the irony is that this son, Henry VI, is virtually the only Shakespearean ruler with a high-minded, ethical goal: a deeply religious man, he is passionately committed to bringing peace among his fractious, violent, and blindly ambitious nobles. Unfortunately, this pious king has no skills at governance whatever. The nobles easily destroy him and plunge the realm into a bloody civil war.

If one wants to find genuine skills at governance in Shakespeare, they are most attractively displayed by Claudius, the usurper in Hamlet who kills his brother, Hamlet's father, to become king:

Thus much...
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