Throughout history civilizations have had varied views on the topic of suicide. In most modernized countries, a person who kills themself is seen as a coward who is just trying to find the easy way out. This view however was not generally held in ancient Roman times. Though suicide was discouraged among soldiers and slaves, it was still considered an honorable death. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar provides several examples of honorable, yet tragic, suicides.
Portia, Brutus’ beloved wife, is the first character in the play that commits suicide. From the brief explanation Brutus gives little concerning Portia’s personal feelings or reasoning can be derived other than that she is scared and lonely. This however is not Portia’s motive for taking her own life. After Cassius and Brutus resolve their quarrel with one another, Brutus provides Cassius with a concise description of Portia’s suicide and his justification for it. He says, “Impatient of my absence, / And grief the young Octavius with Mark Antony / Have made themselves strong” (4.3.150-2). Brutus believes that Portia committed suicide not only because of her fear of Antony and Octavius, but because she missed him. It is clear that Portia loves Brutus from the devotion she shows just before Caesar is killed. It was not so much life without Brutus that drove her to kill herself, though it may have provided the final push. A bigger fear for Portia would be Antony and Octavius. Also from Portia’s conversation with Brutus the day before the Ides of March, the reader may observe that she is a very intuitive woman. She is good at solving the puzzles of human emotion and has long deciphered Antony’s character. To save herself from future grief or dishonor, and to dispose of any risk of dishonoring Brutus, she takes her own life. This preserves her dignity and Brutus’ as well.
Back at war, the tension is rising. Cassius is facing a new bout of depression because he does not want to fight. His suicide comes due to the guilt he experiences in believing that one of his dear friends, Titinius, has been killed while on a mission from Cassius himself. Angered, Cassius exclaims, “O, coward that I am, to live so long, / To see my best friend ta’en before my face!” (5.3.34-5). Cassius is mourning Titinius’ false death by taking the blame. He feels that because he is the one that sent Titinius out it is his fault he that he was killed. Cassius also calls himself a coward for not doing his own work. Had he gone and not feared for his own life, Titinius would not have died. He goes on to say, “Caesar, thou art revenged” (5.3.45). From this the reader learns that Cassius, no matter how motivated he was to kill Caesar, feels guilty about his death. His death is not an easy way out of stress, but rather an “eye for an eye” sacrifice that will make him equal with both Titinius and Caesar.
Cassius is not the only suicide with a friendly sacrifice involved. Not long after the death of Cassius, Titinius, who is not dead, returns to give word on what was happening at camp. Immediately after seeing the body Titinius understands that his suicide was caused by a misunderstanding. In his grief he declares, “The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone” (5.3.63). With this statement Titinius is showing his respect toward Cassius. He knows that without Cassius, an influential man in the war, the soldiers will not have a chance at winning. With their loss, Rome would fall into the hands of Antony and Octavius and the democracy would crumble. Titinius’ final words show deep respect for both the gods, and Cassius. He says, “By your leave, gods. This is a Roman’s part: / Come, Cassius’ sword, and find Titinius’ heart” (5.3.89-90). Before killing himself he asks the gods for permission to commit suicide to make amends for Cassius’ death. He then honors Cassius by using his sword to stab himself. His death is noble because he refused to allow Cassius to die in vain. Titinius believes that if he died, then Cassius’ original reason for killing himself would come through, thereby justifying Titinius’ death.
The final suicide and the most important of all is that of Brutus. His death is startling on account of the fact that the story has followed him closer than any other character in the play. After struggling with killing Caesar, the death of Portia and his friends, he is confronted with the decision to kill himself. When Brutus first asks Clitus to hold a sword and allow him to run into it he is turned down. When questioned by his men about his choice he tells them about his visions of Caesar’s ghost, concluding with, “I know my hour is come” (5.5.19). Brutus believes that it is the ghost of Caesar that is causing his soldiers to be so easily defeated. By killing himself, he hopes to purge his men of Caesar’s curse and save their lives. He is willing to give up his life to save his friends. Had Portia still been alive and dependant upon him, this would have been a selfish move; however since she is no longer living, Brutus is free to do what he must to end the battle, making him noble and thoughtful. From Brutus’ final words, the audience learns that he carries with him the regret for killing Caesar. Just before he dies he says, “Caesar, now be still; / I killed thee with half so good a will” (5.5.50-1). These lines show both despair from killing Caesar, and the surety Brutus has that his death will be good for Rome. By sacrificing himself to appease Caesar’s ghost and end the war, Brutus displays his love for his men and the whole Roman Empire. Brutus’ enemy, Antony, recognizes his sacrifice as well when he describes Brutus as the “noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68).
Though each character is in a different situation when they determine that they must commit suicide, their choices are not built upon greed, fear or selfishness. Whether it is Portia attempting to preserve her husband’s dignity, Cassius and Titinius who kill themselves to compensate the lives of one another or Brutus attempting to save the lives of his men, each death is worked with the determination to maintain honor. They complete this task when the opposing armies of Octavius and Antony recognize their sacrifice, and recognize them for being truly noble citizens.