Calphurnia and Portia: Rome’s Unwanted Women

Okay, back to business.  No more paranormal for a while and back to research!

julius-caesar-portia-woundJulius Caesar is a play that is suspended between the realms of history and tragedy.  The play is maledominated, with only two women roles: Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, and Portia, Brutus’ wife.  The lack of female presence is noticed in comparison to other Shakespeare plays where female roles are favorable, such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  David Mann discusses in Shakespeare’s Women, “Why should one play, say As You Like It, seem so sensitive to the minutiae of a woman’s feelings, and yet another, say Julius Caesar, be so cursory in its treatment?  The answer surely is that it depends entirely on the focus of the play, which, with the exception of a small group of romantic comedies, is generally on the male characters, and always reflects the male point of view”  (Mann 23).  Shakespeare created the absence of a strong female role in order to prove the tragic flaw of an ambitious, male dominated world in terms of Julius Caesar.

It is important to analyze the actions and choices that are made by these men in their world. Gail Kern Paster elaborates in the essay, “In the Spirit of Men There Is No Blood: Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar,” “The conspirators can only remake themselves, it would seem, by regendering Caesar; they can throw off the appearance of womanishness by displacing their own sense of gender-indeterminacy onto the body of their adversary and renegotiating the differences between themselves and Caesar in diacritical terms of the bodily canons” (290).    This quote touches on a common insecurity among the men of the Senate. They are envious and fearful of Caesar’s growing power.  In relation to the weak female roles of the play, the men themselves do not want to appear weak and feminine because then they will be overpowered. There is also the fear of being overruled by emotions and not being able to think rationally because of these emotions.  As Cassius states:

Let it be who it is: for Romans now
Have thews and limbs like to their ancestors;
But, woe the while! our fathers’ minds are dead,
And we are govern’d with our mothers‘ spirits;
Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish.I, ii, 79-83. Emphasis Added.

This is also proven when Caesar is being attacked over his inability to impregnateScreen shot 2013-01-21 at 4.11.35 PM Calphurnia and even requests Antony to brush by her to make her more fertile, “Forget not, in your speed, Antonius, /To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say, /The barren, touched in this holy chase, /Shake off their sterile curse. (I, ii, 10-13).  Paster also explains an interesting point that the more Caesar grows, the conspirators (or the Senate) shrink.  They must assassinate Caesar in order to secure their own masculinity.

When analyzing Caesar and Brutus and their own personal downfalls, one must look at their wives and their relationships with them.  These two ladies serve as a point of reasons and foundations for their husbands even though their warnings are not heeded.  Also, this play conveys an interesting point of view into a world without a female presence.  Or to be put more plainly, a civilization without women.  In this play, it seems that the two marriages are related into more of a partnership, as shown in the strength of these two women.  Calphurnia is so alarmed by her dream that she strongly urges Caesar to stay at home.  She is outspoken and clearly has a personality and self-made identity.  She warns Caesar and tells him to not go to the Senate. Her statement, “You shall not stir out of your house today”  (II, ii, 13) is written as a direct order and not a request.  Instead, Caesar listens to Decius’ alternate interpretation of her dream, which leads to his downfall.  Juliet Dusinberre elaborates in her book, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, “Shakespeare’s women dream and see visions in vain, surviving to suffer the devastation they predict.  Decius interprets Calphurnia’s dream to flatter Caesar, and sketches the scorn which would attend his hearkening to his wife’s fears…” (Dusinberre 281).

To Caesar, he doesn’t heed Calphurnia’s warnings and nightmares because they are subjective.  Based on her womanly role and femininity, she is working primarily from emotions.  Instead, he believes in Decius’ interpretation and chooses to not lie to the Senate or the people regarding the condition of his health. He is murdered due to this choice.  But another reason why Caesar considers Decius’ interpretation of the dream is because it flatters his own personal confidence.  If he [Caesar] followed Calphurnia’s orders and lied to the Senate and stayed home, Caesar would have seen this as him not following through with his appointed role.  Decius’ interpretation was not only more persuasive, but also encouraged Caesar to continue to the Senate and walk into his own death sentence.

Similar to Calphurnia, Portia is determined to make sure her voice is heard and understood.  Portia goes a step further as she expects Brutus to be completely honest with her.  She desires a partnership with her husband and wants to be involved in his life.  Not only do these two share a partnership, but also Portia considers herself to be an extension of Brutus himself.  But he ignores her at first, thinking that she could not handle the real truth of his life and work. But Portia is extremely intelligent and has the ability to use language to aid her to get what she desires:

BRUTUS:  You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart

PORTIA:  If this were true, then should I know this secret.
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 father’d and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband’s secrets? II, i, 287-301

BrutusPortia challenges Brutus’ love for her.  If Brutus sees Portia as a comfort from his troubles, then he should be able to tell her of the conspiracy.  But he doesn’t and Portia uses logic and reason to explain her position as the wife of Brutus.  Portia’s voluntary wound is a representation of her strength and endurance as a woman in a man’s world.  Paster explains the voluntary wound as, “Portia calls attention to this bodily site not to remind Brutus of her femaleness, her lack of the phallus, but rather to offer the wound as substitute phallus” (294).  She purposely inflicted pain and injury onto herself in order to prove a physical strength that was masculine and the physical cut would serve as that proof, just as a male sexual part is proof of “manliness”.  She considers herself to be nearly like a man from her strong father who raised her, to Brutus, her husband.

Portia intentionally wounds herself to prove that she is just as strong as a man. Paster discusses that, “Later in the same scene, Portia’s self-wounding and voluntary self-display corroborate the same significance of bodily intactness as an ideological format of gender. Portia stakes her claim to knowledge of the conspiracy by seeking to efface the physical difference that separates her from her husband, difference that Brutus himself is intent upon marking”  (292).   This means that Portia’s desire to know about the conspiracy is so strong, that she intentionally wounded herself to rid herself of any signs of being a woman.  She is attempting to mutilate herself in order to be physically just like a man.

The actual action of this self-wound is significant because she is attempting to prove a point to her husband.  Paster goes on to explain that, “But Portia, unable by talking to prove her ability to keep still, turns to self-mutilation.  The gesture seems intended to imitate in little the suicides that Roman patriarchy valorized as the supreme expression of personal autonomy”  (293).  But Portia desires more than just to know about the conspiracy, she desires an equal partnership with her husband.  If she can prove that she can physically handle pain and to literally carve herself into a man, it will grant her that partnership.  Unfortunately, only so much can be done physically when her emotional state does not change genders.

Her emotional and mental state remains feminine.  Similarly, Brutus himself Portiademonstrates a flawed understanding of human emotion. Honor Matthews explains in Character and Symbol in Shakespeare’s Plays, “Both before and after the assassination he suffers sleeplessness typical of a troubled conscience […] Nevertheless, he strives to be honest with himself and others; he is idealistic, a loving husband an adored master.  Indeed Brutus’ true ‘sin’ is never wrongful self-assertion.” (Matthews 43).  This statement is interesting because it puts Brutus in more of a heroic position rather than a troubled conspirator who doesn’t know how to handle loss or failure.  This is supported by Antony’s speech in the end of the play where he regards Brutus as the only assassin who killed Caesar with Rome’s best interest at hear, “ This was the noblest Roman of them all;/ All the conspirators save only he/Did that they did in envy of great Caesar…” (V, v, 76-78).

There is an interesting point to consider in the scene where Brutus finds out about the suicide of his wife.  The news is delivered twice and both times Brutus is emotionally distant and unattached to the event. And Cassius is more affected by Portia’s death than Brutus himself.  Portia’s suicide, however, is not a sign of weakness.  David Mann explains that, “The values of the Roman matron are held up for admiration in many of the plays and are closely related to the willingness of such to commit suicide to maintain their reputations” (Mann 138).  This is supported by Brutus’s suicide after he has begun to lose the war.  Could this mean that Portia ultimately failed in attempting to be her husband’s partner and equal?  But the absence of Portia supplements a catalyst for his spiraling downfall into his own death.

Thomas Clayton explains in his text, Should Brutus Never Taste of Portia’s Death but Once, “The latter part of the play shows him characteristically and nobly enduring the consequences of his earlier folly even as he compounds it” (Clayton 244).  Brutus’ slow deterioration is due to his actions.  His initial motivation for taking part in the assassination of Caesar involved a patriotic act but soon realized the consequences both mentally and physically.  As seen in his unaffected reaction to Portia’s suicide, Brutus does not have a good handle on his own emotions.  Dunsinberre explains that, “Nevertheless, commanding his own emotions, Brutus underestimates the way in which other men are swayed by theirs.  Brutus may have more integrity than Antony but he is obtuse about passions which Antony understands”  (Dusinberre 290).

78941_juliuscaesar_mdBrutus’s disconnection from stable human emotions is his tragic flaw.  As those around him are reacting [healthily] to the events around them, Brutus does not comprehend which emotion to use.  Could it be that he emotionally shut down as soon as Caesar was killed?  Or did he disable his emotions to thwart the efforts of Portia’s insistence of knowing her husband’s secrets?  Clayton goes on to say, “There is no mistakening Brutus’s dissembling, and yet it does not register as discreditable, because of the mood and level of exchange, the residual effect of Brutus’s grief manifested to Cassius when Brutus told him of Portia’s death, and Brutus’s evident – it is more apparent – sincerity” (Clayton 251).

There are only two small roles for women in the play.  Calphurnia only makes a brief appearance and sternly tells her husband to stay home because of her vivid (and prophetic) dream.  Caesar simply puts Calphurnia’s concerns aside and instead listens to Decius’ alternate interpretation of the dream because it was more appealing and positive.  Listening to Calphurnia would have resulted in moral repercussions in his role as a leader and his reputation.  But not listening to Calphurnia resulted in his assassination by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Portia attempts to prove her role as an equal to Brutus.  Her desires to know the conspiracy of the Senate are much more than the pursuit of knowledge.  It is an attempt to become the extension of her husband and to have that partnership that her emotional state hungers for.  Even though she is attempting to prove her worthiness by physically mutilating herself into becoming a man, her emotional state remains as a woman.  Her suicide is resulted from Antony and Octavius’s rise to power and realizing that the Senate’s conspiracy plan has ultimately become a failure.  Even though she commits suicide first, Brutus is not too far behind her. Both husband and wife demonstrate an emotional disability and to preserve their honors, they commit suicide.

Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar as a way to convey the absence of a strong female role in a male dominated world and the consequences of ambition.  Calphurnia demonstrates strength in her when she demands that Caesar lie to the Senate and stay home with her to ensure his safety.  But the attempt is counter-argued by a stronger male presence in her life.  This ignorance on Caesar’s part leads to his death.  Portia desires an equal relationship with her husband, and while she can handle the physical pain and demands of a man, she cannot handle the emotional demands of being a man.  Even though she may self-mutilate a phallus onto herself, she cannot change on the inside.  Both women are neglected and ignored.  They are unwanted women.  No matter what actions they may have performed or words they may have spoken, they did not have the power to change the story or fate of their husbands.


Clayton, Thomas. “‘Should Brutus Never Taste of Portia’s Death but Once?’ Text and Performance in Julius Caesar.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 23.2 (1983): 237. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2010.

Dunsinberre, Juliet.  Shakespeare and the Nature of Women.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press. 1996. Print.

Mann, David.  Shakespeare’s Women.  New York: Cambridge University Press. 2008. Print.

Marshall, Cynthia. “Portia’s Wound, Calphurnia’s Dream: Reading Character in Julius Caesar.” English Literary Renaissance 24.2 (1994): 471-87. Print.

Matthews, Honor.  Character and Symbol in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1962.  Print.

Paster, Gail Kern. “”In the Spirit of Men There Is No Blood”: Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40.3 (1989): 284. Print.

Rebhorn, Wayne A. “The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar.” Renaissance Quarterly 43.1 (1990): 75-111. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2010. <;

Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Smith, Warren D. “The Duplicate Revelation of Portia’s Death.” Shakespeare Quarterly 4.2 (1953): 153-61. Print.

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