Et tu Brute? is among the most well-known quotations in English literature. It could even be argued that these three words are some of the, if not the, most famous ever written! After all, they’ve been quoted over and over, countless times and in countless different contexts, since they were popularized by William Shakespeare back at the very end of the 16th century. But what do they mean—and are they historically accurate? And how can you correctly use this age-old saying today when you’re writing or speaking? Read on to find out.
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A Latin phrase, Et tu Brute? translates into English as “And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?” You may also see the sentence translated as “Also you, Brutus?” or “You too, Brutus?” It most notably comes from the play Julius Caesar, which William Shakespeare wrote around 1599. It’s Caesar himself who speaks this famous line during his assasination after recognizing his close friend and confidant, Marcus Brutus, as one of his assassins. That’s why today, the phrase is used to convey surprise over an ultimate betrayal, a breach of trust by someone unexpected and close to you (much more on this colloquial use in a minute).
Caesar speaks the phrase in Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play, a tragedy:
Caesar: Doth not Brutus bootless kneel? Casca: Speak, hands for me! [They stab Caesar.] Caesar: Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar! [Dies.] Cinna: Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Although commonly thought to be the last words Caesar speaks in Julius Caesar (as well as historically; keep reading to learn if that’s true), you can see from above that isn’t the case. Caesar’s last words are actually: “Then fall, Caesar!” He says this to himself immediately after the famous saying to his friend Brutus.
The phrase Et tu Brute? is said to have been used earlier than 1599-1600 by another playwright, Richard Eedes, who wrote Caesar Interfectus around 1582. In fact, Shakespeare himself also used the line in an earlier work of his own, Henry VI, Part 3. However, it became immortalized in the annals of literary works through its use in Julius Caesar.
William Shakespeare wrote about historical figures, taking factual information from scholarly writings available to him at the time and dramatizing it for the stage. Indeed, Julius Caesar was a real man. He was the leader of ancient Rome, and a popular one at that—at least among his people. A successful military hero, he helped expand the Roman Republic to parts of what are now France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. He was also an author who wrote about his travels as well as his thoughts on politics, along with general theories.
However, a group of senators feared Caesar’s power. Having risen to dictator of the Roman Republic, these senators—who helped shaped Roman policy and governance—believed Caesar would soon become emperor or king, thus dismantling the Republic of Rome. As many as 60 nobleman (although most accounts suggest that number was closer to 40), calling themselves the “Liberators,” conspired to assassinate Caesar. This group included his long-time protege and friend, Marcus Junius Brutus. Marcus Brutus and his co-conspirators attacked Caesar on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE. (This is also where the famous expression Beware the Ides of March comes from.) It is said that Caesar initially resisted his attackers but accepted his fate when he saw Brutus in the crowd. Reportedly, Brutus did not want to kill his mentor but believed he had to in order to save the Republic.
Reports are conflicting as to Caesar’s true words in this, his final, moment. Some historians believe he actually spoke in Greek and not Latin (he was bilingual) asking the equivalent of, “You too, child?” or “You too, young man?”—or, more likely, “You too, my son?” Shakespeare and his playwright predecessor derived the Latin Et tu Brute? from this Greek phrase, finding it more appropriate for dramatic effect. Some scholars also feel he spoke a longer version of a Greek or Latin phrase, to serve more as a warning than a question. They suggest Caesar said something to the effect of, “You, too, Brute will face your end!” Yet many historians believe he said nothing at all, and simply pulled his toga over his head as he met his end. Having been stabbed multiple times by the Liberators, it may have been impossible for Caesar to even mumble a sound. Although based on factual historical accounts and written histories, we can’t be certain if Caesar did, in fact, utter the quote that is now almost always attributed to him.
Ultimately, things didn’t go as planned for the Liberators. They were hated for the assassination, and a long period of civil wars followed. Caesar’s nephew eventually emerged as Rome’s new leader; he called himself Caesar Augustus, ushering in the start of the Roman Empire.
An Expression of Ultimate Betrayal
Unless a speaker or writer is quoting from the play, if you see or hear the phrase Et tu Brute? today, it is being used to express shock and awe over the treachery of a supposed friend or confidant. It is used when someone you did not expect to betray you has broken your trust. Although just three words, they hold immense power in the play. The idea of asking your dearest friend, who has not only turned against you but has set out to murder you, “And you, too?” is a moving utterance. When used today, the expression has that same powerful effect: You have been forsaken by the last person you expected to be disloyal to you. If someone asks you, “Et tu Brute?” you know you have hurt them deeply. Often, the name of the deceiver will be substituted for Brutus. For example, “Et tu Adam?”
A Literary Trope
Et tu Brute? is an expression known as a literary trope. A trope is a figure of speech that expresses a different and non-literal meaning than the words themselves. For example, to say that someone has a broken heart is to use a trope; we know that the phrase means something figurative and not literal. In the case of Et tu Brute?, you now know it is used to express surprise over the betrayal of a once-previous ally, not to literally ask someone, “And you, Brutus?”
The word trope can also be used as an umbrella, or catch-all, term to describe something familiar (be it an expression or image) that is used often, particularly in art and literature, as well as politics—even if it isn’t metaphorical. For instance, an evil villain trope or the hero trope. These tropes are also called archetypal characters.
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