Lecturer: Joan Schwartz
The Function of Female Characters in
William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1598)
The Portrayals of Portia and Calphurnia in their Marriage
2.1 The Marginal Role of Women in Julius Caesar...5
2.2 Portia Brutus...8
2.3 Calphurnia Caesar...12
In 1599, when William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
was first performed in
the New Globe Theatre, Elizabeth I was an elderly monarch with no
legitimate heir. She had neither a child of her own nor a named heir. Hence,
the people of England worried about succession. They were aware of the
power struggles that might take place when men vied for the throne of
England. What is more, people also feared the violence of civil strife.
Thus, it is not surprising that the theme of Julius Caesar was relevant to their
concerns, even as the content of this play drew on and adapted ancient
history. In 44 BC, Rome was at the very centre of an expanding empire. The
city was governed by senators; nevertheless, their politics were plagued by
in-fighting. The true glory and strength, however, belonged to famous
generals like Caesar and Antonius. What is more, a new group, the Tribunes,
had entered the political field. After a hard-won battle, the working class of
Rome, the plebeians, had elected these men as their representatives and
protectors. Hence, the return of triumphant Caesar and his aim to centralize
power went against the grain of the decentralizing that was taking place.
Such a setting was fraught with the makings of dramatic conflict in many
respects, as we will see.
Shakespeare used this potential for social and political upheaval, examining
the male leadership theme. Concentrating on the responsibilities of the ruling
class, he looked at what might happen if that class no longer had a unified
vision and had lost sight of what it meant to be Roman. As a matter of fact,
the characters in Julius Caesar lose touch with the tradition, glory, integrity,
and stoicism of their past. At times, male characters even take on so-called
feminine characteristics and hence lose their ability to rule well. However, at
other times, prominent male characters like Brutus gain a great deal from
For information on Shakespeare's Roman play Julius Caesar, its background and context
incorporating the feminine into their own personalities. This phenomenon
will be dealt with later in the analysis.
At the centre of the play is also the question of persuasion. Everybody
appears to be trying to convince someone else of something. For instance,
Caesar wants to create a particular image in the public's mind of his
crowning. Cassius finds the best way to manipulate each man he seeks to
bring to his side; and Brutus, whom the reader hopes will refuse to
participate in the conspiracy, is harder to convince than the others. However,
eventually he does respond to Cassius and even persuades himself. This
pivotal scene, when Brutus joins the conspirators, is also interesting because
Brutus' wife Portia serves as a voice of his conscience. As will be shown in
this essay, Portia is in some respects a stronger character than Brutus and yet,
because of her status as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated
world, her role, similar to that of Caesar's wife Calphurnia, is only marginal.
If gender is not a central issue to this play, questions of masculinity and
effeminacy are. Caesar's weakness, his effeminacy, makes him vulnerable.
Nonetheless, the incorporation of the so-called feminine traits of compassion
and love into the friendship between Brutus and Cassius paradoxically allows
the men to show greater strength. In fact, gender characterization is of central
importance in Julius Caesar. Hence, the play opens with the concurrent
celebrations of Caesar's defeat of Pompey and the annual fertility festival of
Lupercal. The coupling of the two historically separate events, each
celebrating distinct gender roles, dramatically highlights the importance of
Thus, in the following, it will be analyzed which function female characters
have in this play in relation to the males. Hence, it shall be focussed on the
marriage relationships of Portia and Calphurnia, the wives of Brutus and
Caesar respectively. One might be justified in saying that the women provide
foils for the men's behaviour and weaknesses. However, first of all, it will be
analyzed why women in general only have marginal roles in Julius Caesar.
2. The Portrayals of Portia and Calphurnia in their
2.1 The Marginal Role of Women in Julius Caesar
While one could try to analyze Portia and Calphurnia as full characters in
their own right, they function primarily not as sympathetic personalities but
rather as symbols for the private, domestic realm. Both women plead with
their husbands to be more aware of their private needs and feelings (Portia in
Act II, Scene I; Calphurnia in Act III, Scene II). Caesar and Brutus both
reject the pleas of their respective wives, however; they not only prioritize
public matters but also actively disregard their personal emotions and
intuitions. As such, Portia and Calphurnia are powerless figures, willing
though unable to help and comfort Caesar and Brutus.
In fact, Shakespeare presents in Julius Caesar a distinctly Roman concept of
which gives primacy to the institution's role in the formation of
political kinship alliances to the neglect of its private, personal dimension.
Yet the play's portrayal of marriage is part of a larger critique of a masculine
patrician culture which is rooted in emulation and shown to lead logically to
Caesarism and civil war. As will be shown, Shakespeare fully reveals the
disturbing cultural dominance of this heroic ethic in Portia's `voluntary
wound' in the thigh: she can legitimate her appeal to be Brutus's confidante
only by associating herself with ideals of manliness that is, by claiming to
exceed her sex.
In point of fact, in this play more than in any other, Shakespeare grounds
male virtue in a specific political ideology, one that both constitutes and
fractures its male subjects. This ideology is itself constituted by its
opposition to the feminine: like the republic as conceived by Aristotle, the
As Coppélia Kahn puts it: "Both characters [Portia and Calphurnia] are observers at best,
and surely not actors, in the self-evidently masculine world of Roman politics" (Coppélia
Kahn, "Mettle and Melting Spirits in Julius Caesar". In Roman Shakespeare. Warriors,
Wounds, and Women (London/New York, 1997), p. 77.
Cf. Lisa Hopkins, The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands
(Basingstoke, 1998), passim.