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  • Fission-Fusion Cognition in Shakespearean Drama:The Case for Julius Caesar1
  • Miranda Anderson (bio)

The article was originally printed with an error on page 165 in the following sentence: "The nostalgic mirroring creates an electrifying intensity and yet hypnotic lulling through the uncanny mimicry of the narrative’s reiteration." Click here for the corrected PDF.

This paper examines how Renaissance notions of the mind and the subject, as constrained and constituted by social means, are narrated and staged in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This analysis is supplemented by a few references to Montaigne’s Essays, whose influence on Shakespeare and concern with the nature of the mind and self are long established (Ellrodt). To further ground the case, it begins with two brief overviews: firstly, on narratological approaches to drama and their particular relevance to Renaissance drama, and secondly, on various current approaches to social cognition. I focus on the linked concepts that a multiplicity of agents can operate within a single human being, and conversely that multiple individuals can form a cognitive unit. These related notions of the mind as social, both in Renaissance fictional and factual narratives and in current cognitive science, are understood to be due to human psychophysiological capacities. These capacities both afford and require boundaries and flow between the constituent parts of the self, both as regards those within skull or skin, and as regards those in the world. As I want to highlight the issue of divisions, as well as sharing, between individuals and within an individual I have adopted the [End Page 154] physics term “fission-fusion,” which has been used by ethology to describe dynamic social networks that periodically merge and divide, and I have reapplied it specifically to cognition in order to capture the malleable and shifting nature of the cognitive units formed (Aureli et al.).

Dramatizing Narrative

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts . . . For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings . . .

(Henry V 1.1.23, 1.1.28)

This famous prologue might initially seem a more likely candidate than the prologueless Julius Caesar for a defense of a narratological reading of the social mind in Renaissance drama. Firstly, because the appeal to the audience implies their participation is necessary for an effective creation of the playworld. Secondly, because prologues have been interpreted as providing a structural equivalent to the narrator’s role in prose fiction, on which classical definitions of narrative have traditionally drawn. Yet research on Renaissance English playscripts from around 1600 suggests that such narratologically-attuned framing features as prologues, choruses, and epilogues, were not necessarily permanent, but were often created for first or for special performances only, with many lost and a few relocated from one play to another (Stern). They are temporary, absent, or unreliable features. This capacity of a play to dispense with a single explicit privileged narrator and to instead leave only a polyphonic array of characters is in itself suggestive of the relevance of drama to exploring notions of the social mind; this capacity also obliquely indicates the relevance of more recent notions of narratology that are not dependent on structures derived from a narrator’s roles.

Monika Fludernik bases drama’s inclusion in narratological studies on its ability to evoke experientiality and a fictional world, with the minimum requirement the presence of a character on stage (“Narrative and Drama”). Fludernik further describes the way the developing novel adopted the “deep-structural patterns of drama” (“Diachronization” 343). In turn, as Barbara Hardy relates, Shakespeare makes narrative theatrical, for as Hardy argues: “[n]arrative is a primary act of mind, a way of comprehending and constructing social and psychic life, as inevitable and central a subject of drama as of prose fiction” (24). Furthermore, there is an additional level of richness to theatrical performance’s treatment of narrative, as Nünning and Sommer have described:

plays do not just represent narratives (i.e. a series of events), they also stage narratives in that, more often than not, they make storytelling, i.e. the art of telling narratives, theatrical. In other words, plays not only represent series of events [mimetic narrativity] they also represent ‘acts of narration,’ with characters...