Friday, August 21, 2009

RE2: Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place

Randall writes:

I think Cindy's right on about Portia and Calpurnia (I've been spelling the latter with an 'h' because my Folger does). And I had not noticed the degree to which Shakespeare compels us to compare the two women (they both kneel in back-to-back scenes) or their two situations.

I have two thoughts I'd like to add to Cindy's response. First, in my Folger there is a stage direction after Caesar responds to Calpurnia with "Mark Antony shall say I am not well,/ And for thy humor I will stay at home": He lifts her up. Around this stage direction are the little superior half-brackets indicating that the editors have intervened, adding something not found in the first folio. The Bevington edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare does the same: He raises her, in brackets. Neither my Signet (Rosen) nor the Penguin (Sanders) do this. What gives?

One might argue that Caesar's response, an acquiescence to her concern, does spiritually or emotionally lift Calpurnia up, and therefore the emendation is metaphorically appropriate. But I really like Cindy's suggestion that Caesar leaves her on the ground as Decius enters, marking a clear distinction between him and Brutus. My guess is that the interventionist editors look at the next 40 lines of text, at which point Caesar asks Calpurnia to get his robe, and wonder if it's practical to leave her on her knees for that long. And directors, wary of angry actors with bruised knees, are probably glad to have the added cue.

Second, Cindy reminds me that I am sad that Portia disappears after only two scenes. Unlike Calpurnia's, Portia's presentation to her husband strikes me as laying the foundation for a rich, interesting character. She defines the bounds and expectations of marriage skillfully, personally, and she extends the possibilities of a woman's domestic role by defining "wife" as more than furniture (meal-time companion, bed-mate, occasional conversationalist). She argues that she is his unlimited self, what we might call today his better half. She perceptive and persuasive. And in her language there is an efficient lawyerliness that makes me feel she has some connection to that other Portia.

Given this as a set-up, it's disappointing when Shakespeare dismisses Portia two scenes later with "Ay me, how weak a thing/ The heart of woman is!" After her earlier discussion with Caesar, I think she's really made of sterner stuff, but because the play moves on to the Capitol (men only) and then the battlefield (men only), she's left like Hotspur's Kate forgotten on the sidelines.


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