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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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There are two ways to view Portia. Let's look at them.

1. Portia is often seen today as a champion of women's rights-a feminist living nearly four centuries ahead of her time.

According to this view, Portia is a woman who demands equality with her husband. She insists on being treated as an individual, not as an object or an idea. She speaks of herself and Brutus as "one" (Act II, Scene i, lines 261-278), and of Brutus himself as "your self, your half." She demands to know his secret, however painful it may be. She will not be condescended to; she will not be treated as a child.

This Portia is strong-willed but modest, dignified but tender. She is one of the few characters in the play who uses language to communicate the truth rather than to hide from it. She has an innate sense of wisdom that lets her see through words to the very heart of things. (When Brutus attributes his moodiness to bad health, for instance, Portia immediately knows he is lying to protect her.) Though Portia is high-minded and independent, she is also a loving and devoted wife, who kills herself rather than live alone.

2. That is one view of Portia-there is another.

According to this less flattering view, Portia makes the mistake of trying to be more than a woman, fails miserably, and brings about her own destruction.

Portia points proudly to her self-inflicted wound (Act II, Scene i, lines 299-302) to prove to Brutus just how capable she is of functioning in a world of men. She also prides herself on being the daughter of Cato, a man famous for his integrity, who took his own life rather than be taken prisoner (in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey). Says Portia:

Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Being so fathered and so husbanded?

Act II, Scene i, lines 296-297

Brutus takes her at her word, confides his secret to her, and what happens? Portia goes mad with grief, and eventually takes her own life.

Portia's mistake is to confuse her private self with her public image as Cato's daughter. Like Brutus and Caesar, she tries to live up to her name and be someone she is not-with disastrous results. In her death-as in Brutus' and Caesar's-we see the danger of wearing a public mask, and forgetting whom we are underneath.

Note that Portia wants to be Brutus' equal only so that she can be more a part of his life; nowhere does she suggest that she expects him to be part of hers. The very fact of losing him drives her mad. Portia thus sums herself up best:

Ay me, how weak a thing The heart of woman is!

Act II, Scene iv, lines 39-40

Is this Shakespeare's unhappy view of women, and the final word on Portia? Or are the other critics right-the ones who see her as the ideal, modern woman, who dies for love?

Either interpretation can be correct-depending on how you choose to view her.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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