Excursion Shakespeare's Stratford
30 June 2017
“Am I no stronger than my sex?”
A Closer Look at the Theme of Gender in Julius Caesar
With only two women in the whole play, the Rome depicted in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar can certainly be described as a very male dominated world. The female characters Calpurnia and Portia are absent for most of the play, and when they do appear, they do so in a domestic context. Despite their strong personalities and intelligence, they are disregarded and ignored by their husbands. Women are thought unfit to get involved in politics, as they are seen as weak and overly emotional creatures that cannot think as rationally as men, who are presented as their binary opposites. Furthermore, concepts and understandings of masculinity play a crucial role in Julius Caesar as they strongly influence how male characters behave and what decisions they make during the course of the play.
The fact that women in Julius Caesar are not taken seriously and are usually brushed off by men is reflected in the relationship between Portia and Brutus. From the moment Portia enters, we are aware that she is regarded as inferior to her husband. She addresses Brutus with “my lord” (II.1, 244), instantly establishing him in a higher position as herself and subordinating herself to him. “Submission, in Puritan eyes, was the handmaid of harmony in marriage” (Dusinberre 85), so Portia's behaviour in this part of the scene can be considered as conforming to Elizabethan ideals of a woman or wife. When Brutus becomes aware of her presence, he asks why she is awake and expresses concern about her health. “It is not for your health thus to commit/ Your weak condition to the raw cold morning” (II.1, 246f.). He describes his wife as weak even though there is no other indication that she suffers from an illness. Therefore, this might allude to a perception of women as feeble and fragile beings, who are expected to remain in the domestic sphere and not engage with politics or any other matters that require physical or emotional strength. As Larsen Klein points out, “women were said to be weaker than men in reason and physical strength, prone to fears and subject to the vagaries of their imaginations” (Larsen Klein 240). These prejudices led to females being excluded from public matters and prevented them from getting involved in any kinds of political decisions. That this assumption is unfounded and that Portia, despite being a woman, does not lack emotional strength becomes apparent when she dismisses Brutus' concern by saying “Nor for yours neither” (II.1, 248), referring to his own health. She then goes on to confront her husband about his recent behaviour. In doing so, she is rather assertive and determined to get the information she wants. “I urged you further, then you scratched your head, / And too impatiently stamped with your foot: / Yet I insisted, yet you answered not” (II.1, 254-257). She openly dares to criticise the behaviour of a patriarchal authority, which is remarkable because “In the sixteenth century, the idea that women had consciences which might operate independently from men's, might even judge and oppose the male conscience, was revolutionary” (Dusinberre 86). In Shakespeare's time, it was not customary for women to speak up when they felt mistreated, thus Portia's criticism of her husband's behaviour could possibly be interpreted as a rebellious act. Additionally, it should be noted that Portia has already asked Brutus to share his sorrows several times and is determined to keep insisting on it until he gives in. This underlines her strong willpower, constancy and grit - character traits that were usually only ascribed to men.
In contrast, Brutus speaks very little during this whole scene, which makes him appear inferior to his wife. He also “walks unbraced” (II.1, 273), his unbuttoned clothes reflecting his troubled emotional state. Despite seeming to be distraught by the situation and probably being in need of advice, Brutus already dismissed Portia with an “angry wafture” (II.1, 258) the first time she tried to speak to him and is still not willing to confide in her now. Portia begs him to “make [her] accounted with [his] cause of grief” (II.1, 267), but he tries to brush her off with a lie when he claims that he is merely behaving differently because he is feeling unwell (II.1, 268). Brutus seems to be very set on keeping his secret from his wife, possibly because he does not trust her. Women at the time were often accused of not being capable of keeping secrets or even having an evil nature. Thus, general suspicion towards female characters is quite common in Shakespeare plays: “Almost all Shakespearean heroes in the tragedies […] distrust both female characters and qualities within themselves that they consider female” (Novy 17). This distrust towards female traits within men themselves might also offer an explanation for why Brutus decided to kill Caesar – he did not listen his emotional, feminine side that told him it would be wrong to murder his friend, but to his reasonable, masculine side that convinced him that Caesar's death would be best for Rome from a rational point of view.
Portia seems to be aware of her husband's distrust, but she still does not give up and keeps on asking questions even after Brutus declines to respond once more and orders her to go to bed. “Is Brutus sick? And is it physical/ To walk unbraced, and suck up the humours/ Of the dank morning? What, is Brutus sick?” (I.2, 272). The repetition of the phrase “Is Brutus sick?” as well as the use of many questions reflect the emotional state Portia is in: She is getting more and more frustrated because, since she is an intelligent woman, she sees through her husband is well aware that he is lying to her. She appears to be tired of being brushed aside and not being taken seriously as an individual. As Dusinberre explains, “In late Elizabethan drama, the struggle for women is to be human in a world that declares them only female” (Dusinberre 93). Portia's identity and the way she is treated by other people is largely based on her gender: simply because she is female, her feelings, thoughts and ideas are regarded as less important or valid than those of a man. Nonetheless, Portia tries to make her voice heard. By mentioning the “dank morning” (II.1 274), she refers back to what Brutus says to her at the beginning of the scene when he claims that being outside in the “raw cold morning” might affect her health. She implies that is not “physical” (II.1, 272) for him to be outside either, insinuating that the two of them are of equal complexion and that Brutus is not physically stronger than herself.
Portia then goes on to reason why she has the right to know what bothers her husband in an attempt to gain his trust: “You have some sick offence within your mind/ Which by the right and virtue of my place/ I ought to know of: and upon my knees/ I charm you, by my once commended beauty/ By all your vows of love and that great vow/ Which did incorporate and make us one” (II.1, 279-284). It is quite interesting that Portia chooses to use her “once commended beauty” as an argument, implying that she has earned her husband's respect with her looks rather than her personality or intellect. This might be an allusion to the idea that the main purpose of a woman was to look pretty, and that intelligence was of secondary importance or even unwelcome. But this plea also reveals a great deal about her understanding of marriage, or the “great vow” as she calls it here. To Portia, mutual trust and understanding seem to be essential, thus she reasons that she is entitled to know about all of Brutus' worries and sorrows. She believes that a married couple are essentially one person, meaning that there are no secrets between them. By marrying her, Brutus promised to share absolutely everything with her – a promise that he does not keep anymore. Portia is evidently hurt by this and feels degraded by her husband. “Am I your self/ But as it were in sort or limitation?/ To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed/ And talk with you some times? Dwell I but in the suburbs/ Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,/ Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.” (II.1, 294-299). Again, the many questions Portia asks underline the strong emotions she is feeling. She is hurt because she feels like her husband treats her as a commodity instead of an equal partner with whom he can share his worries and anxieties. In this sense, it could be argued that Portia's perception of the role of women is quite forward because she insists on her husband confiding in her and treating her as an equal partner. She does not let Brutus put her off and dares to openly contradict and criticise him, which is certainly remarkable considering how male dominated the depicted society is. But despite her actions, Portia is still very much influenced by internalised misogyny, as she reveals when she tries to convince Brutus of her constancy. “I grant I am a woman; but withal/ A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:/ I grant I am a woman; but withal/ A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter./ Think you I am no stronger than my sex/ Being so fathered and so husbanded?” (II.1, 304-309). Portia defines her worth by the most important men in her life and “sees her family as a compensation for her sex” (Leggatt 140). Rather than pointing out her own strength, she refers to her father's and husband's good reputation, which emphasises the enormous power of the patriarchy in this Roman society. The line “Think you I am no stronger than my sex” suggests that being a woman and being strong are two separate things that do not go together and that Portia wants to detach herself from the female gender. This seems to be quite a popular notion, especially because Shakespeare comes back to it in Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “unsex” (Shakespeare I.5, 31) her. Generally, it can be concluded that women's opinions are not valued or even taken seriously as they are expected to remain in the domestic sphere and to keep away from politics. Rebhorn suggests that “for Portia to establish a significant relationship with Brutus, to gain his confidence and be treated as a real partner in their marriage […] she correctly concludes that she must abandon her female identity and establish herself as a male” (Rebhorn 94). For this reason, strong women in Shakespeare often aim to distance themselves from their sex because they know that, as a female, they will not get the regard they are due to. To demonstrate that she is just as strong as a man and to differentiate herself from other women, Portia even wounds herself in the thigh. Men in Shakespeare frequently “[assess] their own male identity through violence” (Novy 164), a strategy that Portia imitates to appear more masculine herself. By hurting herself, she aims to make “strong proof of (her) constancy” (II.1, 311) in order to convince Brutus that they are on the same level. Just like him, a man and soldier, who has presumably suffered from many wounds in battles, Portia “bear[s] [the pain] with patience” (II.1, 313). They are not only mentally, but also physically equal. Nonetheless, she can never rid herself of her female identity completely, and even though Brutus agrees to tell her about his worries another time, she is left with no answers once more.