Brutus's Magical Thinking
Dealing with Antony (2.1)
I once had a friend who was an accomplished criminal defense lawyer. After representing all types of lawbreakers from petty criminals to aggravated murderers, her conclusion was that many of them exercised what she would call "magical thinking." That is, even though all the evidence pointed directly to their guilt, they maintained unrealistic or patently unconvincing explanations for their conduct. They seemingly couldn't come to grips with the realities of their actions.
Brutus and Antony
Brutus partakes of this brand of thinking when the conspirators discuss what to do with Antony after they have killed Caesar. Cassius' opinion is that Antony should not outlive Caesar because of his subsequent ability to "annoy" the conspirators (2.1.157-160). Brutus, as is now characteristic of him, will not yield to Cassius. Using another analogy, Brutus says that their course will seem "too bloody" if they were to "cut the head off and then hack the limbs (2.1.162-163)." [Note that Brutus also referred to blood in 2.1.136.]
Then comes the magical thinking. It consists of two things. First, Brutus redefines the murderers as religious "sacrificers" who are offering up, through Caesar's death, a "dish fit for the gods" rather than a "carcass fit for hounds." Second, Brutus attributes Caesar's problem to Caesar's "spirit," and Brutus really only desired to excise Caesar's spirit ["And in the spirit of men there is no blood"--there is the word 'blood' again--2.1.168] but since that is unfortunately not possible, "Caesar must bleed for it (2.1.171)." Too bad. Brutus's first choice was simply to carve out the spirit with surgical precision but, alas, that can't be done. So, he says, 'I guess we have to kill the guy but, in any case, our killing of him is a sacrifice not a murder. We are neatly carving up a sacrifice. We are the pure ones and the people shall call us "purgers, not murderers (2.1.180).'" Even though the conspirators will eventually imbrue themselves in Caesar's blood (3.1.105ff), they will be pure and without stain. It is not only the blood of Christ which cleanseth us from all sins....
Magical thinking cannot be far away when one begins to use purity language to define and defend one's action of murder. And once one begins down the road of magical thinking, it leads to the magical kingdom.
A Final Magical Thought
Later in the play, after Caesar has been murdered and the conspirators are talking about the meaning of the event, Casca remarks that they might have been doing Caesar a favor by killing him. "Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life/ Cuts of so many years of fearing death (3.1.101-102)." Brutus, who probably prepared the ground for this off-the-wall suggestion in the preceding lines, seconds the thought:
"Grant that, and then is death a benefit; /So we are Caesar's friends, that have abridg'd/ His time of fearing death (3.1.103-105)."
The killing not only becomes a sacrifice, pleasing to the gods, but a positive good to Caesar himself. Death is no longer feared by one who is dead. The logical conclusion of this manner of thinking is that it would be a signal benefit to anyone to murder them.
The real tragedy of Julius Caesar is Brutus's lack of self-knowledge. But, then again, scholars have pointed out that Brutus may be a "rough draft" for one of Shakespeare's most well-known characteres, Hamlet. Hamlet pursued self-knowledge. But, in the end, both Brutus and Hamlet died terrible deaths. Now isn't that the essence of tragedy?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long