Perhaps the most celebrated expression of betrayal in Western culture is Julius Caesar’s “et tu Brute?” Stabbed by each of the assassins, bleeding profusely, he stumbles towards his closest friend, only to be stabbed by him too. “And you, Brutus” sums up Caesar’s surprise, disappointment and sadness at being betrayed by this particular friend.
Betrayal is something that comes from deep inside human nature – a phenomenon that underlies all the unpleasant things that human beings do to each other. As such, it is inevitable that it should feature in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, the very nature of betrayal is dramatic, both in the act, and in its consequences. So dramatic that many plays by Shakespeare, and also his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries, have an act of betrayal as the main dramatic device – an act around which the play turns, and which drives the action of the drama. (See our post on Shakespeare’s top 5 betrayals)
All through the plays there are minor acts of betrayal as well. It is often said of Shakespeare that he knows the human heart, and that no human motives can be hidden from him. It is interesting that so many of his characters commit acts of betrayal: it’s something that demonstrates how deeply embedded the impulse to betrayal is in the nature of human beings
Julius Caesar is one of those plays that are driven by betrayal. The first part of the play is taken up with that – Caesar’s apparent arrogance and Cassius’ jealousy of Caesar’s rise in the political world and his popularity; Cassius’ gathering of conspirators around him and his great effort in persuading the faithful Brutus to join him in assassinating Caesar, and then that most dramatic of dramatic scenes, the murder of Caesar in the Capitol. The rest of the play is the working through of that, culminating in the death of the conspirators and the great irony – the establishment of a monarchy in Rome, the very thing, in assassinating Caesar, the conspirators were trying to avoid.
In Othello we see a different treatment of the betrayal theme. As in Julius Caesar, betrayal is central to the drama, and it drives the action, but it isn’t one single act of betrayal: it’s a prolonged narrative of betrayal with several other betrayals throughout the play, encompassing all of the main characters, right up until the very end. As the play progresses through its final scenes it’s almost unbearable for the audience, who are watching the betrayals, witnessing the pain it produces, everyone’s emotions mercilessly manipulated by a psychopathic character’s heartless actions.
In this remarkable play the effects of betrayal are laid bare. We see a man of the noblest character fall to the level of an animal. Such extreme jealousy as that induced in Othello by Iago’s machinations converts human nature into chaos and releases the bestial nature of man. Othello’s love for Desdemona is presented as the most ideal and perfect, but as Iago’s spell slowly entrances him we are given the painful spectacle of that feeling turned into a tortured loathing. Othello, the master of eloquent, poetic language is reduced to gasping inarticulate images of pollution, and finding relief only in a bestial thirst for blood.
A spectacle as unbearable is the suffering of Desdemona. It is not the kind of suffering that leads to action: it is the helplessly passive suffering of a woman who is completely at the mercy of the men she has trusted. This is made intolerable because of the way Shakespeare has presented her nature as infinitely sweet and her love absolute. Watching her abuse by Othello is like watching the most loving pet dog being tortured by the master he adores.
Macbeth betrays his king, and also his country. As in Julius Caesar, the action in Macbeth works up to a great act of betrayal whose consequences are worked through to an act of retribution.
Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters committing acts of betrayal, including the comedies. In the history plays, where politics and the ambition that goes with those involved in it, betrayal is commonplace. The history plays are about kings and the powerful people around them – most often people with their own ambitions prepared to support someone in a major act of betrayal, including regicide, in order to further their own careers. Many of the plays are a working through of attempts to dethrone monarchs, a lead up to an attempt and then a working through of the consequences. The history of Britain is full of betrayals at that level and Shakespeare reveled in reproducing that history in the theatres, to the delight of theatre-goers.
As surely as human beings love and hate and aspire, they also betray each other. The depth of pain and suffering caused by betrayal makes for powerful drama.