The tragic hero is a great or virtuous character in a tragic play, one destined for suffering, downfall, or defeat. The individual is often of “noble birth with heroic or potentially heroic qualities” (Santorar, 2013). It is important to note that the suffering of said individual is “not gratuitous because through great suffering the hero is enlightened” (Santorar, 2013). The Shakespearean tragedy, primarily, centers around one individual which “leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero” (Bradley, p. 25). In order for the death to be understood, the “story depicts…the troubled part of the hero’s life, which precedes and leads up to his death…It is…a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death” (Bradley, p. 25). While these descriptors clearly apply to the title characters in the plays “Julius Caesar” and “Henry IV,” it is possible to make comparisons between these descriptors and Brutus and Hotspur alike.
Hotspur, otherwise known as Harry Percy, is the Earl of Northumberland’s son. Hotspur is known for leading the rebellion against King Henry IV. Though the King gives Hotspur compliments regarding his actions, they are not meant as compliments for Hotspur, but rather as a means of working to shame Hal into behaving in a manner more befitting a prince (I,i). Unfortunately, it is as a result of the praises that he has received that Hotspur sees within himself the ability to lead, and many parallels may be made between the characters of Hotspur and Henry IV. As the play progresses, it is possible to see more and more of Hotspur’s shortcomings, causing the audience to question his ability to lead. Hotspur’s shortcomings and temper ultimately lead to his demise (V, iv).
Brutus, on the other hand, is Caesar’s right hand man. He is considered to be a confidant and a friend. Yet Brutus takes part in the plan to murder Caesar as a result of his belief that what he is doing for the common good; it is the best for the people. To this end, he first debates over whether or not he should participate in the plot, and after agreeing, so does, though he still has misgivings. This causes counsel to turn against counsel, pitting Brutus and Cassius against Octavius and Antony (IV, ii) and Brutus to make a heartfelt plea explaining why his side is in the right, and why it is necessary to defend their choice, by any means necessary. As his forces are defeated by Octavius and Anthony, however, he opts to fall upon his own sword, rather than face judgment for that which he has done.
It is possible to see that Brutus and Hotspur are much alike, each fighting for a cause they believe in, though the logic may be flawed, and each following their path to completion, regardless of the outcome. The difference comes in the fact that Hal kills Hotspur, while Brutus takes his own life rather than letting Octavius or Antony do so for him. “Shakespeare’s idea of the tragic fact is larger than this idea (of a total reversal of fortune) and goes beyond it; but it includes it, and it is worthwhile to observe the identity of the two in a certain point which is often ignored” (Bradley, p. 26). In order for Hotspur and Brutus to be the true tragic figures that they are, it was necessary for them to gain a certain amount of fortune before they hit their downward spiral. In Hotspur it was at the point when he was praised by the King himself, while with Brutus, it was following Caesar’s demise, prior to Antony swearing out revenge for Caesar’s death. Brutus was able to taste the good life, allowing him to see what he had worked to obtain, before it was all taken from him as a result of the incorrect manner he used to attain it.
The tragic hero must experience a certain level of conflict, and it must be said that Brutus and Hotspur experience more than most; in fact, the action that is experienced by the tragic hero may also often be viewed as conflict in equal measure (Bradley, p. 32). As the action known by Brutus consisted of scheming, murder and fighting it is easy to see that the action and the conflict experienced by his character were one and the same. In the case of Hotspur, all action around him was associated with the battle first, and the scheming second, going so far as to even cast his wife out of his bed as he had no time for such carnal distractions. Here too it is possible to see that all of Hotspur’s action within the play was conflict as well.
“Such exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and – we must now add- generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe, are an essential ingredient in tragedy” (Bradley, p. 25). It is the fact that no matter what action is taken by Hotspur or by Brutus, each is working toward their own untimely end, and each is bringing with them as much destruction and chaos as possible before they go, though they realize it not, that serves to make these two characters the pinnacle of that which must be contained within the tragic hero. By working to compare Brutus and Hotspur against the concept of the tragic hero and the substance present within tragedy, it is possible to see that they were not the only tragic characters within these plays, nor were they truly supporting characters, each telling their own tale in their own right. It must be said that Brutus and Hotspur were truly tragic heroes.
- Bradley, Andrew Cecil. Shakesperean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London [etc.: Penguin, 1991. Print.
- Santorar. “Tragic Hero Classical Definition.” Tragic Hero. CSUS, 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
- Shakespeare, William, and Alan Durband. Julius Caesar. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s, 1985. Print.
- Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. Henry IV,. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Clarendon, 1987. Print.