Portia’s Controversial and Powerful Character
After a close look at today’s society, an observer will find that within all healthy relationships, both people are equal partners. Today, this equality is something we believe to be a result of our basic human rights. However, in Shakespearean times, women were considered to be weak individuals whose purpose was to eventually get married and serve their husbands. Unlike today, mutual love and respect were not commonplace in marriages, and women were generally assumed to be inferior to the dominant man in the relationship. This gender stereotype was one that many people questioned and disagreed with, Shakespeare included. However, Shakespeare was one of the few to actually incorporate his ideas of femininity into his famous works. Through his beliefs and analyzation of society at the time, Shakespeare was able to write strong female characters in his works, including a young woman named Portia who plays wife to Brutus and, at the same time, proves herself as an individual throughout the duration of the play. Therefore, in his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare breaks this all-around idea of the pathetic housewife and creates a complex female character named Portia, who stands out for her capability, loyalty, and intelligence.
Despite the general stereotype of women belonging to their husbands and subject to orders from them, Portia proves her capabilities as a wife, friend, and person throughout the play. One of the first examples of her capability in the play is during Brutus and Portia’s argument when Portia confronts Brutus by saying, “Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus, Is it excepted I should know no secrets That appertain to you?” (Shakespeare 13). Essentially, Portia proves herself capable of being Brutus’ wife by not only forming and stating her own unpopular opinions about equality within marriage, but also by assertively and rhetorically questioning her husband as she anticipates his response. Portia establishes herself as a strong and capable woman by rationally discussing her feelings with Brutus as opposed to staying quiet and obeying her husband’s irrational requests and lies, as most women would have done during the time period. Secondly, also during their argument, Portia brings up the controversial topic of gender stereotypes when she questions, “Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Beig so fathered and so husbanded?” (Shakepeare 115). This quote not only proves that Portia understands the judgments made about women at the time, but also shows that she believes herself to be capable of more than other women, simply based on her background and personal character. It also proves her ability to defend herself, her name, and her honor even to someone like her husband, who she respects immensely. Lastly, in the midst of her disagreement with Brutus, she uncovers a wound she has been hiding and says, “I have made strong proof of my constancy, Giving myself a voluntary wound Here in the thigh” (Shakespeare 115). This quote shows Portia’s ability to hide a severe injury, and is therefore her way of proving she is capable of keeping something her husband tells her confidential. She proves by hiding the huge gash in her leg that she is not only strong willed but also able to keep a secret no matter the importance of it. Portia’s strategic arguments and maturity within the conversation with her husband prove her capability.
Throughout the play, Portia also proves her unwavering loyalty to her husband, despite the decisions he is making. For example, when Portia and Brutus are arguing she begs him to confide in her his problems by saying, “Dear my lord, Make me acquainted with your cause of grief” (Shakespeare 113). Despite her suspicions that Brutus is struggling with a major internal conflict regarding something drastic and possibly immoral, she proves her loyalty to her husband by pleading him to confide in her so she can understand what he is going through and help him through it. She sees the pain he is undergoing, yet she wants to subject herself to that pain in order to take some of the weight off of her husband’s shoulders. In addition, when she is speaking to Lucius and urging him to go to the Capitol to check on Brutus, she reminds herself to keep quiet about what her husband is about to partake in by saying, “I have a man’s mind but a woman’s might. How hard it is for women to keep counsel!” (Shakespeare 135). Although it is difficult for her to refrain from saying anything about Brutus’ plans to assassinate Caesar, she remains true to her husband and stops herself from saying anything that might incriminate him. Despite her knowing and understanding that what he is doing is not necessarily ethical, she supports him and keeps his secret regardless, which proves her faithfulness and willingness to support Brutus through whatever may come their way. Finally, when Portia is worried about Brutus, she speaks to him from afar by saying, “O Brutus, The heavens speed thee in thine enterprise!” (Shakespeare 137). Although she may have disagreed with Brutus’ decision (it is not specifically stated in the novel what her reaction was when she learned of the plan), she continues to support him and hope that everything goes the way he planned it, specifically out of love for him, not his intentions. This shows her genuine worry and care for Brutus, and also proves her loyalty despite the seriousness of the circumstances. In brief, Portia proves her loyalty to Brutus in the play through her actions of care, worry, and love.
Portia’s intelligence, which she proves through her careful observations and her drawing of rational conclusions, shone throughout the play. Firstly, when Portia and Brutus are arguing back and forth, Portia says, “You suddenly arose and walked about…And when I asked you what the matter was You stared upon me with ungentle looks” (Shakespeare 111). Portia’s persistence emphasizes her intelligence, as her perseverance shows she is assured that she is right about her husband’s unusual behavior. The fact that she is receiving subtle hints and clues shows her sharp wit and restless mind, especially when it comes to reading her loved ones. Secondly, when Brutus lies to Portia saying he is sick, Portia lists evidence to show she knows better, and concludes by telling him, “No, my Brutus. You have some sick offense within your mind” (Shakespeare 113). This quote shows that after a close examination of Brutus’ irregular actions, she is able to infer that Brutus is acting strangely and strategically confronts him. Portia knows nothing of the plan to assassinate Caesar, yet she picks up on clues that are not entirely obvious and manages to piece the parts together, which proves her intellect. Lastly, after Portia commits suicide, Brutus reflects on her cause of death when he says, “That tidings came—with this she fell distract And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire” (Shakespeare 223). Portia’s suicide was not impulsive or sudden, but instead cautiously planed out, which shows her ability to manipulate factors to meet her goals.
Portia’s actions and responses throughout the play prove her unmatchable intelligence, highlighted by her careful planning and observation skills. Portia is not only a capable, loyal, and intelligent young woman, but she is also one of the few influential female characters within any form of literature during the time period. Her capability is proven through her strong and unwavering opinions, in addition to through her defense of her personal character. Additionally, her loyalty is confirmed through her worry of Brutus, her willingness to share his burdens, and her eagerness to help him in whichever way possible. Finally, Portia’s intelligence is shown through her keen observation and planning skills, by which she could manipulate things to her satisfaction. Shakespeare’s purpose of including Portia was to create a controversial, yet strong willed character that stands up for herself and her beliefs. It is safe to say that Portia’s character was an inspiration to domesticated women throughout Rome, as she was a change of pace from the typical expectations of women in the Roman society. Today, many women are seen as hard- working, strong, trustworthy, smart, and etc., and have finally been granted the right to speak freely and expect equality. This dramatic change in society’s outlook was partly a result of opinionated literature and the influence of independent female characters, and Portia was undoubtedly one of the most striking female characters of the Shakespearean time.
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