The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1383 Monday, 7 July 2003
From: L. Swilley <
Date: Saturday, 5 Jul 2003 16:28:08 -0500
Subject: "Julius Caesar," Act II, scene ii, line 234ff
In Act II, scene ii, line 234 of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Portia
enters and, begging Brutus to tell her what all these mid-night
visitations in the orchard might mean, illustrates her worthiness as a
confidante by showing that she has stabbed herself in the leg but said
nothing about it!
As can be seen from Portia's later confused conduct with her manservant
and the Soothsayer (II, iv) and. even later, from Brutus' report to
Cassius of Portia's extraordinarily painful suicide (IV, iii),
Shakespeare means us to understand that Portia is demented.
My question is: does Brutus see this for what it so horribly is?
Would not any man, any concerned husband, be horrified that his wife had
stabbed herself for any reason whatever? (I imagine a Woody Allen, faced
with such a revelation, saying, "Couldn't you have just crossed your
heart and hoped to die?!")
But Brutus' reaction is: "O ye gods./ Render me worthy of this noble
wife!" He then promises to tell her of the business at hand. And
evidently he does so, and this has the deranging effect on Portia that
we see illustrated in her next scene with the Soothsayer.
Is Brutus so far gone with the "nobleness" of his ideas that he does not
see her as mad, that he really thinks Portia sanely noble in her
self-infliction? If so, is this to be taken as the measure of his own
disturbed mind at this point, and of his distortion of the problem of
A director might be tempted to instruct his actor to interpret the line,
"O ye gods!" as reflective of Brutus' horror at what Portia has done;
then his "Render me worthy of this noble wife!" as his comforting his
wife and attempting to deflect her madness. Yet, if the director does
this, how will he handle Brutus' expressed intention to tell Portia what
has been going on - especially since it appears that Brutus *has* told
her, as can be seen in Portia's later distracted conduct before the
Soothsayer and her manservant?
If Brutus' remarks to Portia are to be played straight, that is, if
Brutus really *approves* of her self-infliction and indeed considers it
"noble" of her, this is a serious indictment of the mentality of Brutus;
he is so carried away with the enthusiasm of his plans, he interprets
this mad act of his wife as thrillingly noble. It is especially a
serious indictment against his plans to assassinate Caesar. (But such a
conclusion radically unbalances a central argument of the play - if that
argument is whether or not to remove a menace to the state.* It also
makes out Brutus to be insane, and surely that point must not be made.)
I ask those who respond to this to deal only with the play, not the
history of the characters independent of it.
* I am aware that conventionally we do not emphasize such an argument,
yet there is so much in the play to bring it to the fore - spectacularly
Ceasar's pompous, marvelously irritating speech to the senators (he
speaks of himself in the third person, "Caesar doth no wrong..."; then:
"I could be well moved if I were like you...but I am as constant as the
northern star, etc".; he has all but called them "base spaniels", etc.)
- remarks that make the very audience itch to join the conspirators and
get in a few good whacks themselves. I am baffled by this conduct of
Caesar before the senators, men whose approval he seeks and needs for
the kingship; could anything - short of literally whipping them all
about the senate chamber - be less persuasive ? Plutarch ineed says
that Caesar "chides" the senators, but Shakespeare's interpretation of
this chiding seems beyond all probability; he seems hungry, even
desperate, to make the point I suggest above.
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