The Role of Women in the Tragedy of Julius Caesar
Women play a minor role in the overall plot of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare but without them, two of the main characters: Brutus and Caesar would be incomplete and certain language could not be used. Shakespeare uses the two women: Portia and Calphurnia to show the audience the other side(s) of Brutus and Caesars characters and as R. Moore says in his article Women in Julius Caesar “They also provide elements of love and loyalty in a play that is largely concerned with death and intrigue. (1) Portia is Brutus’s wife and a very strong character, she shows us firstly that not all women follow the stereotype and are “womanly” as most men seem to assume. We know men of that time assumed this because it is considered a great insult to be called “womanly” and the insult is supposed to be directed at your strength of character. This is shown through out the play and Cassius uses it more than necessary an example of this is when he states, “Our father’s minds are dead/ And we are governed by our mother’s spirits. ” (I. ii. 82-83. Shakespeare).
Portia, as the wife of Brutus and the daughter of Cato, is different and she sees herself as such. She is a stoic and a very strong woman both physically and mentally and she proves this many times in the play. The first time is when she stabs herself to show Brutus that she is capable of bearing his secret. She does this as she equates strength of body with strength of mind which would mean since she could stab herself she could bear Brutus’s secret. Although Portia is in that way more “manly” she still retains the qualities woman possess, “I have a man’s mind but a woman’s might. (II. iv. 8. Shakespeare) illustrates that point exactly. By using her “womanly qualities” she implores Brutus to tell her his secret after failing to do so with her more “manly virtues”. It is not clear in the play whether or not Brutus tells her but by showing us these scenes with Portia we have more of an idea of what type of person Brutus is and how hard it is for him to decide to kill his best friend Caesar. Portia continues to show her strength all the way through the play till she dies and this fact is well expressed by R.
Moore: Her anxiety over Brutus’s mission, she also considers a weakness, as though love were a weakness. Her final proof of strength comes when she horribly kills herself [by swallowing hot coals] because of Anthony’s growing power which is a threat to her husband. (1) Calphurnia on the other hand is more stereotypical but she serves to show us the more private side of Caesar. Caesar has apparently become somewhat superstitious of late so when Calphurnia dreams of his death and places great importance on it and how soon it is to pass. He tends to believe her and to make sure he asks for a sacrifice to be made.
Caesar still trying to suppress his more ‘womanly’ side tells Calphurnia that her dreams might just be for the common people but Calphurnia stands her ground and replies: “When beggars die there are no comets seen;/ The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. “(Shakespeare. II. ii. 30-31) Meaning that all the signs and omens like the thunder and lightening storm that night were for no common people but for the “prince” which is Caesar. Then Caesar changes tactics and says “Cowards die many times before their deaths, /The valiant never taste of death but once. “(Shakespeare. II. ii. 2-33) By this he is accepting the fact he might die but he isn’t going to waste time fearing death now as who can avoid what the Gods want. But Caesar for his part doesn’t want to appear cowardly by not going to the capitol and carries on defending his point and ends by saying in so many words that it should be death that is afraid of him and not the other way round. Calphurnia has by now almost given up and she tells him that his confidence is overshadowing his wisdom. Then Decius Brutus arrives and proceeds to flatter Caesar while turning Calphurnia’s dreams around and telling them as if they meant good for Caesar.
By doing this he makes Caesar ashamed of heading Calphurnia and therefore also ashamed of yielding to his own weaker side. Calphurnia making a last effort to keep him safe tells him to use her fears as an excuse because for her love is better than courage which is what leads Caesar to die. She fails because unlike Decius Brutus she can offer no ‘manly’ quality of reason so she as Portia did uses her ‘womanly’ qualities to beg Caesar to stay home but Caesar doesn’t give in to his more ‘womanly’ side. By this we see that “His [Caesar’s] ‘womanliness’ is externalized in Calphurnia. (R. Moore. 2) The roles of Portia and Calphurnia in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar are important but still minor as they each show us something important about their husbands. Portia demonstrates to us how much stress and anguish Brutus is dealing with by having to decide between supposedly Rome and killing Caesar. While Calphurnia shows us Caesar as a husband and a man who rejects the side of him that he needs to listen to and then dies because of the side of him that is the soldier and politician.