Shakespeare... no, really, Shakespeare. (sexist?)

I’m curious about a section from Julius Caesar. It’s in act two, scene 1.

Spoken by: PORTIA, wife to Brutus

Bolding Mine. ( Did Shakespeare use bolding?)

I interpret this as: “Don’t judge me as a woman, but as a competent human being. See how competent I am, I gave myself this gash on my leg! If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.”

I have found one interpretation that basically goes like this: Shakespeare was gay and this is one example of how he portrays women as nearly psychotic while simultaneously demonstrating his revulsion with the female body ( Portia lifts her ‘skirt’ to reveal a bleeding gash).

Neither interpretation makes much sense to me. Maybe borderline personality disorder was seen as a sign of maturity back in the day…?

I think surmising that Shakespeare was gay from a scene like this is overanalysis. He’s not the only writer of that time to use womanhood as a synonym for weakness (Thomas Middleton uses the line “Did we make our tears women for thee?” ) and Portia’s not the only Shakespearean woman to make this protest (Lady Macbeth describes how macho she is, too, when she’s trying to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan.)

It’s not “politically correct” in this day and age to compare womanhood to weakness, but way back in the 16th century, it was simply an accepted thing.

Semi-professional hat on:

My take on the scene is that Portia is demonstrating that she’s as good a Stoic as her husband, possessed of enough inner strength to withstand both physical pain and the reversals of fortune without flinching. This is a huge deal for Brutus – compare this scene with the one where he hears of her death, calls for a bowl of wine, and says “Speak no more of her.” It sounds cold to modern ears, but in his world, detachment is a virtue.

By the way, I’d be really surprised if the episode is Shakespeare’s invention – it sounds like a quintessentially Roman gesture, the sort of thing he probably found in Plutarch, but I don’t have a copy of his sources in front of me, so I can’t swear to it.

The “revulsion with the female body” interpretation is just plain loopy.

I won’t make Shakespeare out to be a feminist, but… this scene DOESN’T make Portia out to be weak or frail. Just the opposite. She’s telling Brutus, “Don’t treat me like a weak, frail, feminine flower who can’t handle the truth, who can’t face reality. I’m tougher than you think.”

Shakespeare doesn’t indicate that Poirtia is weak, merely that she believe Brutus THINKS she is.

And the idea of Shakespeare being sexist (or feminist) is plain loopy too.

The concept of sexism (or feminism) didn’t exist until mid-way through the c20th.

You might as well say that Elizabeth I was sexist (or possible feminist) for:

“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too”

Throw in the fact that women’s roles in plays were played by men, and it gets even more confusing. :confused:

I should clarify… I have looked for interpretations of this section and been thwarted at every turn, alas! I don’t give any credence to the idea that this scene is evidence of Shakespeare being homosexual. In fact, I used that as evidence of my inability to find a reasonable interpretation of Portia’s line.

I can accept the idea of Portia portraying a Stoic ideal in her behavior, but isn’t slicing her leg open a little… dramatic? Seriously though…

Isn’t there also the possibility that “thigh”, as used here, is a euphemism? I would interpret the “wound” as her broken maidenhead. The implication being, first, “You sleep with me and you still can’t trust me?”, and second, “I was a virgin when you married me and you know it, so you know I can be faithful”.

Except for the fact that she says the wound is self-inflicted.

I don’t think you’ve been thwarted here I think the interpretation you came up with, and that has been reinforced here, is sound: that Portia has demonstrated courage and capacity, and she is trying to convince Brutus of this. As for self-wounding being a rather dramatic way of proving this, once again I refer you to Lady Macbeth who said:

“I have given suck and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me, but I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out had I so sworn as you have done to this.”

Ew. But right in keeping with the drama of the time.

Well, it WAS dramatic, but “Julius Caeser” is, you know … a drama.

The fact that this wound on his wife’s thigh is news to Brutus may also be a comment on their sex life (or lack of it). It was a political marriage, not a love match.

Actually the story of Portia’s self-inflicted wound is mentioned by a couple of Roman historians - I don’t have a cite here and now, but I remember it - and their interpretation was slightly different: Portia drives a knife in her leg to prove her determination and that she is willing to risk physical pain (ie, torture) for what she judges to be a good cause. The problem was not being a woman (after all, even men sometimes cannot take torture), but that, as a person she was determined enough to take part in the conspiracy.

IMHO, Shakespeare gave the story with a different slant, possibly because of the times he lived in, and mostly because he thought it would be better in the theatre.

I’ll dig around a little and try to come back with an actual quote.

Before this thread drops off the map I want to say that this is something I’m interested in and would appreciate any cites anyone has to offer. I have a yahoo e-mail address you can send info to when this thread has fallen into obscurity.

Now I’m a bit busy, but if you’re interested you can find practically all texts ever written by Roman and Greek historians for free just by googling. There is a Roman History Sourcebook around (again, no link handy now, but try google). I’d think it is either Tacitus or Suetonius, but I’m not sure. Another thing I remember from the same author is a description of Catilina’s attempted coup d’etat that ends with the final battle, the defeat of Catilina’s men and Catilina being found surrounded by his most loyal men all with wounds in the breast, and himself dying, heavily panting, but “with pride and fierceness on his face” because he lost fighting for his ideals.

This is Plutarch’s version (in Dryden’s translation).

Regarding Shakespeare being gay - we all remember that Shakespeare got married because he got Anne in a family way, right?

And the sonnets about the dark lady seem pretty sexually charged. I think you’d have a hard time convincing people he was revulsed by female bodies.

Well, the whole medieval/early Renaissance world viewed women as weak, shrewish, inconstant, and dangerously psychotic. (cite: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.) So there’s no reason that Shakespeare would be any more enlightened than his peers.

I just recently saw “Taming of the Shrew” and * there’s * a play that doesn’t pass muster with modern eyes. Funny play, but the modern eye sees Petruccio’s treatement of Katherine as brainwashing and spousal abuse. Kate’s last speech describing the duties of a wife to her spouse was probably wildly applauded as late as the 1950’s, but merits a “who are you kidding” nowadays.

That’s what I felt when I first read it, but I’m not sure anymore. The modern interpretation is that Kate is only pretending to give in: she’s letting Petruchio think he’s won, and she’ll go on doing what she wants and conving him it’s what he wanted her to do. She advises other wives to do the same. So if anything, the play has become more pro-female. Which interpretation is better supported by the text? I really don’t know. I’d have to read or see it again.

Since Portia is one of the strongest women in Shakespeare I can’t see that scene as sexist (and the explanation is psychobabble). She’s trying to prove her toughness and her resolve by stabbing herself, not her intelligence- Brutus already respects that. Like in the other famous speeches already mentioned, she’s trying to prove she’s not weak just because she’s a woman.

I see this scene as a counter point to the quickly following scene between Caesar and Calpernia. Portia is strong and demands to be accepted as an equal by her husband. In my mind she is the stronger of the two characters (Brutus and Portia). Brutus is being manipulated by Cassius and I have always felt that no one could have manipulated Portia.

Then we meet Calpernia who is docile and whose only strength is her dreams and the respect Caesar holds for them and even that is not enough. The first we hear of Calpernia is when she screams to open the scene.

Compare the two, Portia, an early day G. Gorden Liddy who stabs herself to prove her toughness and Calpernia who starts a scene by screaming in her sleep and then whining though the scene.

The way Portia dies is also pretty impressive. When informed she was on the arrest list, she swollowed hot coals. It sure beats Cassius having his slave stab him or Brutus running onto his sword as his slave held it.