Self-awareness and Control
Brutus's Experience in Acts 1 and 2
Several scholars have long puzzled over the character of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Some argue that the "key" to Brutus is his "will;" others see his moralism and personal rectitude as paramount. Professor Gordon Ross Smith maintains that Brutus is portrayed by Shakespeare as the one who takes control of the conspiracy, and that this act of will is fundamental to his character, more fundamental even than his "virtue."
I would like to develop this thesis by arguing that Brutus's desire to take charge, which is very clear in the play, stems from his prior unwillingness to enter into the self and to explore the inner tensions that wrack him before deciding to join the conspiracy. Seen in this light, Brutus's desire for control is a reflection of his dim awareness that there is an uncontrollable dimension within him that he does not want to or is unable to visit and that his taking charge is not simply a reflection of his "stature" as "great man," but also reflects his fear at the uncontrollable unknown within him. In addition, I argue that since Brutus does not have access to the self, the inner springs of identity, he both overvalues his mind and reasoning capabilities as well as easily falls prey to the machinations of Cassius. Finally, I think that Portia is portrayed in 2.1 as a wife who would willingly and capably have taken Brutus into the depths of the self had he shared his conflicting thoughts with her.
Linking Control and Lack of Self-Awareness
I keep coming back to Brutus's words to Cassius in 1.2, when Cassius offers to be a sort of mirror for Brutus's inner thoughts. Even though Cassius has an agenda at this point, this is precisely what Brutus needs: someone to act as a sounding board for his inner turmoil. And he does have considerable inner turmoil as he says so eloquently in 2.1:
"Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,/ I have not slept./ Between the acting of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasma or a hideous dream./ The Genius and the mortal instruments/ Are then in council; and the state of a man,/ Like to a little kingdom, suffers then/ The nature of an insurrection (2.1.61-69)."
But when a person faces monumental inner struggles or interior convulsions, the first reactions are fear and ignorance--fear of exploring the keys or sources of the inner turmoil and ignorance on how to do it. One thing that Freud has taught us about the unconscious is that it resists control and easy categorization. It wants to take us where it wants to go.
When Brutus cuts Cassius off and says, "Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,/ That you would have me seek into myself/ for that which is not in me (1.2.63-65)?" he is trying to deflect Cassius from exploring the inner springs of decision, the uncontrollable inner thoughts of his heart. He does so by denying that he has any inner life at all. It is far easier to deny the inner struggle than to admit that one is completely at sea, overwhelmed and confused by the alternatives, both of which seem absolutely unacceptable.
But closing the door to the dank and rank cellar of the interior mind does not eliminate that mind. The conflicting thoughts roil him "like an insurrection." They threaten to unhinge Brutus and leave him without an ability to control his life. Thus, he needs to assert control as a means of stilling the insistent inner insurrectionary voices. When he is in control of the situation with the conspirators, he deludes himself into thinking that he is in control of his life, his mind, and his choices. But because he never has dealt with the inner fears and weighed them in the balance, he becomes putty in the hands of the conspirators, especially Cassius, as he is brought on board.
The Role of Portia
In this connection, the role of Brutus's wife Portia becomes interesting. She is the only one who confronts him in the play, the only one who holds out for her right to have him tell her all the thoughts of his mind. In language of great intensity and precision, she states not simply her desire or wish that Brutus tell her what is on his mind, but her need and right for this information. One way to understand the strength of her language in 2.1.237ff. is to see it not so much as a wife's anger at being cut "out of the loop," as a visceral awareness that the cost of Brutus's not revealing himself to her may be personal or social disaster. She is the means by which he can get access to the heart; once he closes her out, he has not just cut her off but has cut himself off from the springs of his own identity. All he has left now is his mind, and he deceives himself into thinking that this mind is a good judge of things.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long