How are women portrayed in Julius Caesar?
Julius Caesar is a play about men: their relationships, their culture, and their actions. In the male-dominated world of ancient Rome, characters have a distinct understanding of what it means to be or act like a man. Women in Julius Caesar represent everything that Roman men are not supposed to be—however, the utter disdain men show for feminine traits eventually proves shortsighted, as the play argues that women and their special gifts are not to be taken lightly.
In Julius Caesar, masculinity implies not only bravery, but also steadfastness. The opposite traits—weakness, fearfulness, and inconstancy—are mainly associated with women. Male characters continuously use terms such as “womanish” to taunt other men perceived as timid or tractable. Brutus refers to the “melting spirits of women” (2.1.121), and Caesar’s call for water following his epileptic seizure is derided as the actions of “ a sick girl” (1.2.130). When men do exhibit signs of wavering, they often blame their temporary weakness on their mothers, whose “spirits” counteract the decisive, stalwart natures they have inherited from their fathers. At one point, Casca describes “three or four wenches” enthusiastically forgiving Caesar for his fit and claims that they would have done the same if Caesar had stabbed their own mothers, furthering the portrait of women as fickle, foolish, and gullible (1.2.267–269).
The female characters of Julius Caesar seem to internalize these distinctions as well. Portia makes several blanket statements about the female character, exclaiming, “How hard it (2.4.8; 2.4.41–42). Fearing for her husband’s safety, she contrasts her firm, resolute “man’s heart,” which can withstand the strain, with her timorous “woman’s might” (2.4.7). Just as the men perceive the influence of their mothers and fathers as being at odds within their own selves, Portia sees a masculine side of herself competing with her feminine nature.
Similarly, when Portia wishes to claim power for herself, she does so by invoking her male ancestors, inverting the male tendency to blame their undesirable qualities on their female ancestors. After Brutus refuses to acknowledge that her status as wife earns her the right to share his secrets, she takes a contrary tack and tries to appeal to him as a kind of fellow male. She claims that being descended from the great Cato, not to mention having been chosen by Brutus himself, makes her “stronger than [her] sex, / Being so fathered and so husbanded” (2.1.295–296). Then, to further prove her emotional and physical strength, she stabs herself in the thigh. Throughout the play, men swear that they are not afraid to face death or injury; Portia proves her manliness by making good on those boasts.
However, the play does present women as sharing a powerful, characteristically feminine trait: They each exhibit an instinctive type of foresight. The men of Julius Caesar, though powerful, are often caught unawares by their fate. Caesar refuses to heed the warnings of his own death, just as Brutus misguidedly believes the people will applaud Caesar’s assassination. The play seems to suggest that the same resoluteness the Romans revere as a supreme masculine virtue can become a liability when it turns into inflexibility and imperceptiveness. Calphurnia and Portia both anticipate the dangers ahead. Like animals that sense the arrival of an earthquake, the women seem tuned to a different frequency. Calphurnia dreams of Caesar’s statue pouring forth blood, with smiling Romans washing their hands in the flow. Decius scoffs at her fear, but Calphurnia knows that her dream portends ill luck for Caesar. Like an oracle, the unconscious Calphurnia predicts the future, and her three cries of “Help, ho! They murder Caesar!” has the force of prophecy (2.2.3). Similarly, long before Brutus’s downfall, Portia claims to have heard a tumultuous clamor on “the wind . . . from the Capitol,” which she interprets as trouble for her husband (2.4.20). Later, when she senses the sea change about to take place, she kills herself preemptively. Her suicide, described in mythical, grotesque terms, serves as yet another portent Brutus ignores.
It would be too much to say that Julius Caesar valorizes women, but it does associate them with supernatural prescience. Certainly the play suggests that, if their advice had been followed, their husbands might have avoided some of the calamities that befall them. But in the end, the female characters in Julius Caesar become collateral damage in the tragedy, unable to escape what they foresee.