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The Rome of Shakespeare: Reading Femininity in Julius Caesar

The Rome of Shakespeare: Reading Femininity in Julius Caesar

Rome as a mirror of London

The impact of Rome in early modern England was huge not only for what concerned theories, literatures or the English people’s way of thinking but also as a physical manifestation. In this sense, tapestries and effigies had visual images on them, showing some of the most iconic events in Roman history, such as the killing of Julius Caesar. In fact, many famous men and women of ancient Rome were judged by the Elizabethans as bearers of the most important virtues and qualities in life. Caesar, above all, started to be identified with supreme power.[1] Even “English Renaissance drama from the 1580s to the 1630s appropriated the cultural centrality of Rome and her Emperors for its own, often political, purposes”.[2] 

In short, as it can be seen, culture, politics and sociality were all strictly related to the caput mundi. Of course, Shakespeare was no stranger to all this. In his Roman plays Rome is often compared to the situation of his contemporary London

Roman history, a precious mine of heroic examples

In this regard, Carlo Pagetti in his study “Shakespeare’s Tales of Two Cities: London and Rome” (2009),[3] makes a comparison between London as it is represented in Shakespeare’s early history plays, and Rome in the Roman plays.  Then, he states:

The relation between the two cities is validated by the fact that the history of Rome, with its proverbial characters and events, constitutes a rich palimpsest to be read and interpreted in the light of the English Chronicles and of the present times. […] The extensive use of Roman quotations in Shakespeare’s plays – sometimes in a comic or derisory context – is an ironical comment on the cultural fashions of the Elizabethan age, and stresses the fact that Roman history is a precious mine of heroic examples to be freely plundered […] both by naïve young princes and by unworthy impersonators.[4]

Photo by Peter Chiykowski on Unsplash

Rome: ”an ambiguous, ever-changing myth”

Thus, Rome becomes the mirror in which London is reflected. The ancient city is then recreated in the context of Elizabethan England, where it becomes “an ambiguous, ever-changing myth”. This relation between the two cities allows Shakespeare “to provide a much denser canvas of his own political times than the simpler portrait of the struggle for power implicating only the king, his family, his counsellor, and peers of the kingdom.”[5] 

In this perspective, Rome and London are not just cities made by buildings or market places, but they become entities strictly related to the crowd, to their people and citizens. In relation to this, what seems to be more interesting about modern criticism of Shakespeare’s Romanness is the possibility of analysing not only men but also women’s living conditions and the gender discrimination during the Elizabethan age. Regarding this perspective, Coppélia Kahn states:

Males controlled the meaning of humanity; if the term included qualities deemed “feminine,” if women could possess humanity, it was so by permission, as it were, from males. Kings, of course, were men, and if a queen happened to rule instead of a king, she did so because the laws of succession written by men allowed it. […] Shakespeare’s Roman works articulate a critique of the ideology of gender on which the Renaissance understanding of Rome was based.[6]     

Romanness as a symbol of masculinity

The starting point from which Kahn articulates a criticism of Romanness as a symbol of masculinity and gender discrimination, is that gender itself is an ideology. Of course, women’s discrimination was not based only on the idea of Romanness or totally derived from literature. For example, in her interesting study about women in early modern London, Laura Gowin investigates different types of discrimination and highlights the huge differences between men and women during that time:

The daily experience of women and men was shaped by sexual standards: not always by a rigorous, consistent morality like that aimed at by literature, law, and the church; but by a spectrum of flexible interpretations of moral rules and their meaning in relations between, and amongst, women and men.[7]  

The word ”nothing

The gender and sexual differences between men and women can be analysed in Shakespeare’s Roman works as well as in some other of his plays. For example, David Lucking in his “Bringing Deformed Forth: Engendering Meaning in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’” (2010), investigates this issue and analyses the different meanings the word nothing had during the Elizabethan age: 

In Shakespeare’s verbal universe the word nothing can refer among other things to the female genitalia, as opposed to the male thing that tangibly proclaims men’s active presence in the world. […] the female genitalia were to be envisaged as an interiorised inversion of those of the male, a kind of image in reverse, negative counterpart or – picturesquely if somewhat improbably – the same essential apparatus turned inside out. […] The failure on the part of women to extrude their organs as men did was explained in terms of a deficiency in vital heat, this being a symptom of the inferiority of the sex at large.[8]   

Photo by Ilona Frey on Unsplash

Portia and Calphurnia

That is also why, being Shakespeare always conscious of these huge differences in gender and in the social role, women’s presence in his plays should always be investigated carefully. Indeed, going back to Julius Caesar, it is widely stated that Portia and Calphurnia are not characters without any purpose at all. Actually, a feminine reading can demonstrate that they appear less than all the other characters (and men) in the play and have really few lines also because, in this sense, they can demonstrate how the society they are living in does not allow them to take important decisions or to have an active role in the Urbe.

Nonetheless, although these female characters may seem to have a minimal importance in the play, they manage to show their painful struggle for a place in a discriminating society and to demonstrate how they try to move and convince their men not to make silly mistakes. In the second scene of Act 2, for example, Portia is already well aware of his husband’s strange disposition. She kneels in front of him wishing to know Brutus’s secrets. Then, she somehow changes her tactic: 

     If this were true, then should I know this secret.

     I grant I am a woman: but withal

     A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.

     I grant I am a woman: but withal

     A woman well reputed, Cato’s daughter.

     Think you I am no stronger than my sex

     Being so fathered and so husbanded?

     Tell me your counsels. I will not disclose ‘em.

     I have made strong proof of my constancy,

     Giving myself a voluntary wound,

     Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience

     And not my husband’s secrets?

     (II.2, 290-301)

Constancy: a typical masculine virtue

This passage may well represent Portia’s real struggle and pain. In order to convince her husband of her “constancy”, a quality that was usually considered to be lacking in women, she has to provide evidence that she comes from an honourable family: she is the daughter of Cato,[9] the man who fought against Caesar and who committed suicide before he was caught in Utica. Suicide was actually considered to be the characteristic Roman way of passing away; then, it is no surprise that even in Julius Caesar suicide gains a prominent importance as a topic related to honour. But, in order to convince Brutus, Portia does not use only his lineage. She uses Brutus himself, his husband, and in doing so she builds up her masculinity and presence. Regarding this, Kahn says:

In the orchard scene, Portia concedes her inferiority as a woman, but nonetheless seeks entitlement to the constancy of a man, first through descent from her father, […] next, through affiliation with Brutus […] Portia shows, as it were, a fine discernment in this strategy of constructing herself as a man, for as I suggested earlier, men mutually confirm their identities as Roman through bonds with each other. Brutus can trust Portia only as a man.[10]    

Deleting the female identity and presence

Portia knows that she has to delete her own identity and to fashion another one if she wants her voice to get heard. Furthermore, she has wounded herself because she wants to emulate men’s constancy. Simultaneously, she can bear that wound with the patience of men. But at the same time, in doing so, she also admits that she is still a woman who has to bleed. In short, her voluntary wound is also a metaphor of the involuntary women’s bleeding. As a woman, then, Portia will never be able to control her wounds, to stop her bleeding and “natural sickness”.

Her inner battle could not be more evident. Perhaps, it is by recognizing Portia’s pain and inconstancy that Brutus finds the necessary strength to carry on his project. In other words, Portia is somehow needed to show Brutus’s feminized hesitations. The same metaphor can be found in the scene with Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia:

     Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,

     Yet now they fright me. 

     (II.2, 13-14)


     Alas, my lord,

     Your wisdom is consumed in confidence.

     Do not go forth today. Call it my fear

     That keeps you in the house and not your own.

     (II.2, 48-51)

Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash

Rome and women: ”How foolish do your fear seem now”

Here Calphurnia, as well as Portia before, seems to be completely aware of her husband’s character. She knows that only through her “fear” and weakness she can convince Caesar to stay at home. Only by downgrading her own dignity as a woman she can show her husband his overconfidence. But once again, the result will be the opposite. Calphurnia’s linguistic presence is completely deleted since her dream is entirely told and discussed only by Caesar and Decius, both giving different interpretations that show two opposite ideas of Caesar, seen both as the vulnerable man and the god[11] whose blood is “reviving” (II.2, 88).

Calphurnia is not allowed to interpret but just to fear those signs she has seen during her dream. Her vision has been definitely robbed by men. Furthermore, the only thing left is her weakness and her inability to take the floor. Once again, a woman is needed to show men that something bad is going to happen. But eventually, men will always take possession of women’ thoughts, expectations and fears and will transform them into manly virtues. Moreover, men will always make a fool of them:

     How foolish do your fears seem now,


     I am ashamed I did yeld to them.

     Give me my robe, for I will go.

     (II.2, 105-107)

Forced silence

Calphurnia will completely disappear after this scene. In this perspective, Domenico Lovascio says: 

Silenced, Calpurnia exits the play for good and is never mentioned again. Seemingly, her presence in the play and her words are as barren as her womb. Speaking vividly but ineffectively and without affecting the course of events, the role of this Roman woman may be described as a cameo appearance, albeit one really memorable and functional. […] Not only is she ridiculed for her fears, but the misleading interpretation of Decius Brutus is crucial and leads to Caesar’s death. […] Suddenly enclosing herself in perfect silence, her character becomes an instrument that demonstrates the importance of the feminine (and more broadly, marginal) voice in society and the terrible consequences of silencing it.[12]  

Ultimately, this demonstrates once again that Shakespeare was really aware of the women’s condition in the Elizabethan time and that he wished to criticize the abuse of their gender during his time. In this sense, he managed to describe and show how often violence is generated through language or the absence of it.

Article by

Domenico Merico


[1] “When Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra says ‘tis paltry to be Caesar’, she is not just dismissing one individual; she is effectively rejecting earthly power itself […] for Caesarian authority had become so closely identified with supreme power that its attributes were, as we shall see, appropriated by a wide variety of competing rulers in the Renaissance”. Lisa Hopkins (2008), The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage, Ashgate, Farnham, UK, p. 2. 

[2] Hopkins, ibidem, p. 2.

[3] Carlo Pagetti (2009), “Shakespeare’s Tales of Two Cities: London and Rome” in Identity, Otherness and Empire in Shakespeare’s Rome edited by Maria Del Sapio Garbero, Ashgate, Farnham, UK (2009).

[4] Pagetti, ibidem, p. 145-146.

[5] Pagetti, ibidem, p.151 and p. 154.

[6] Coppélia Kahn (1997), Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds and Women (Feminist Readings of Shakespeare), Routledge, London, p. 1.

[7] Laura Gowin (1998), Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 3.

[8] David Lucking (1997), “Bringing Deformed Forth: Engendering Meaning in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’”, Renaissance Forum, vol. 2, n° 1, pp. 1-14.

[9] Actually, by reading Plutarch’s Life of Brutus one can easily find out that Brutus’s mother, Servilia, was Cato’s sister. The same Cato was Portia’s father. In this sense, both Brutus and Portia have a much deeper connection.  

[10] Kahn, ibidem, p. 99.

[11] Shakespeare here is using the Christian image of blood being a source of life. In this sense, even the thirty-three wounds gain a religious meaning.

[12] Domenico Lovascio (2020), Roman Women in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, De Gruyter, Berlin, p. 69. 

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