Like Timon of Athens, which we discussed in the previous post of this series, Julius Caesar sports a particularly low percentage of female lines, the second lowest of the tragedies at just 4.6%. However, Julius Caesar also stands out in its use (or lack of use) of feminine pronouns.
In both figures, Julius Caesar clearly falls behind the other tragedies with regards to the use of feminine pronouns. One potential argument is that this signifies a lack of regard or respect for women in the play, as they are rarely spoken about using these two pronouns (she and her). It’s also worth noting that four of the 11 instances of the word “her” in Julius Caesar aren’t even referring to one of the female characters, but instead to a river or the city of Rome. So the raw figures seem to suggest that women are inconsequential, or considered as such in this play, however, a closer look at the roles of Portia and Calpurnia shows a more complex, and perhaps even more favourable representation of women.
Julius Caesar presents a less black-and-white portrayal of women than Timon of Athens appears to. While it may appear that the opinions of women are disregarded and ignored, it can also be argued that there is an underlying message about the roles of women in society in this play.There are two examples from the play that back up the hypothesis that women are somewhat disregarded by the men. Firstly, in Act II Scene i, Portia notes that Brutus has stopped confiding in her:
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 fathered and so husbanded? Tell me your counsels. I will not disclose ‘em. I have made strong proof of my constancy (II.i.300-308)
Portia is clearly acknowledging the perceived societal disparity between men and women in the play with the repetition of “I grant I am a woman”. However, rather than argue for the strength and capability of her gender as a whole, Portia claims that she is exceptional1, which, according to Gail Paster, “affirms politically constraining gender norms for the rest of her sex.”2 Dusinberre elaborates on these gender constraints when she suggests that “women are not told events because they cannot alter them.”3 and that “women’s harmlessness in the political world […] was their worst enemy”4. This may go some way to explaining why Brutus does not confide in Portia about the plot against Caesar – he simply doesn’t believe she, as a woman, can have any impact on the world of politics.
In order to prove her worth and her competency, Portia purposefully wounds herself in the thigh, an action that supposedly displays her strength and capability. I have made strong proof of my constancy, Giving myself a voluntary wound Here in the thigh (II.i.298-300)
Paster calls this the “honorifically gendered, purgative, voluntary wound of the male”1, and goes on to argue that involuntary bleeding (i.e. menstruation) is, for obvious reasons, closely related to the female, while voluntary bleeding, through injury or battle, is considered to be masculine. By voluntarily wounding herself, Portia is “taking on maleness”2, moving away from femininity and towards masculinity in an attempt to be taken more seriously in the world of politics. Portia’s attempts at strength are short-lived however, as she kills herself shortly after by swallowing hot coals.
Portia is something of a paradox in that, while she displays strength and passion, she simultaneously acknowledges the weakness of her sex by suggesting that this strength is exclusive to her. Furthermore, despite Portia’s attempt to display more masculine traits, her suicide appears to suggest that she, as a female, cannot support this masculinity for any length of time (an idea that will be returned to when we discuss Lady Macbeth in the final post of the series). Brutus also never confides in her, which can be taken as an indication of the futility of women in Shakespeare’s Ancient Rome attempting to be taken seriously in politics.
The second example of the disregard for women’s opinions is when Calpurnia’s warnings about Caesar’s imminent murder go unheeded, once again supporting the idea of women being “harmless” in politics:
Alas, my lord, Your wisdom is consumed in confidence. Do not go forth to-day: call it my fear That keeps you in the house, and not your own. (II.ii.48-51)
Despite Calpurnia’s repeated warnings, Caesar insists that there is nothing to fear, and that to stay at home would be cowardice, which arguably suggests that women’s opinions are considered to be invalid or secondary to those of men.
An alternative analysis, however, is that while the raw figures (see Fig. 1 & Fig.2) appear to suggest that women are underrepresented in this play, this does not make them inconsequential to the plot. On the contrary, it is Caesar’s decision to ignore his wife that allows him to walk straight into the ambush that gets him killed, and thus the lack of references to the female characters in the play could actually be interpreted as a deliberate comment on the inequality of the sexes in Julius Caesar, and the negative consequences of treating women’s opinions as secondary.