Thesis: In the tent of Brutus, on the hill above Philippi, as the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius is winding down, Brutus complains that he is "sick of many griefs." Cassius replies, "Of your philosophy you make no use / If you give place to accidental evils." That "philosophy" is Stoicism, which is supposed to fortify the soul against "accidental evils," the bad stuff that just happens. Brutus responds to Cassius by saying, "No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead." Brutus' point is that his true Stoicism is demonstrated by his ability to bear the grief of his wife's death without saying anything about it during his quarrel with Cassius.
Is Brutus' Stoicism something to be admired? Vawter says "NO!"
Vawter begins his essay by pointing out that in Shakespeare's time one of the sources of knowledge about Stoicism was De Finibus, in which Cicero, addressing Brutus, attacks the philosophy. Cicero's main point is that the Stoics were simply wrong about human nature. Vawter writes, "the Stoics conceive the 'nature' of man to be, in the state of perfected and self-sufficient virtue, a disembodied mind" (175), but, according to Cicero, such a creature without the emotions of the heart or the desires of the flesh does not exist. Furtheremore, Stoicism is dangerous; those who practise it become coldly inhumane.
Though Vawter cannot show that Shakespeare read Cicero, he believes that Shakespeare shared Cicero's views:
The real possibility exists . . . that Shakespeare would have identified Brutus not merely as a Stoic but as one of its chief authorities on the self-sufficiency of virtue-reason, in other words, as a Stoic Wise Man who, in his private and public roles, ironically demonstrates the insufficiency of virtue-reason; indeed, Brutus is a dramatic illustration of the hollowness, presumption, and moral sickness inherent in the secular concept of virtue-reason's sufficiency. (177)Vawter supports his view by portraying Shakespeare's Brutus as a "cultural elitist shutting out communication with the communal body of his loved ones and countrymen and subjecting his physical body to the totalitarian authority of his mind" (178).
Evaluation: Most of Vawter's essay is extremely persuasive. I was particulary struck by his analysis of Brutus' conversation with Portia. Vawter points out that Brutus remains aloof and secretive when Portia appeals to him in the name of love and of the "bond of marriage." Brutus is touched only when his wife reveals the wound on her thigh, which shows that she can as stoic as he is. On the other hand, Vawter doesn't mention certain passages, particularly those between Brutus and his young servant Lucius, which seem to show Brutus' truly tender side. Still, though Vawter is one-sided, his argument is passionately powerful.
Bottom Line: Good stuff.