Gender Roles’ Dynamics in Julius Caesar
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens with the concurrent celebrations of Caesar’s defeat of Pompey and the annual fertility festival of Lupercal. The coupling of the two historically separate events each celebrating distinct gender roles dramatically highlights the importance of gender characterization. Rome’s patriarchal society demands a leader who embodies the virile spirit of the state with leadership marked by strength, courage, and constancy. Caesar quite fittingly assumes this role as he returns valiant and victorious from the battlefields; thus, in order to remove him the strong ruler of Rome, Caesar’s enemies must retrench his masculinity. Roman society considers women as the embodiment of weaknesses, thinking that their physical, mental, and political inferiority make them of little use beyond reproductive purposes, explaining why aspirants to the throne feminize the identity of the masculine warrior figure to position him as unfit for the crown.
The portrayal of the two female characters of the novel, Portia and Calphurnia, captures the prevailing stereotypical perceptions of women. Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, demonstrates women’s predisposition towards fearfulness and superstition when she pleads with Caesar to remain at home after dreaming that a statue made in the likeness was Cesar pouring forth blood. Calphurnia establishes the sentiment that fear is a feminine trait with her entreaty to Caesar asking him to use her anxiety as an alibi, saying, “Do not go forth today. Call it my fear.” (2.2.50). Caesar agrees to this arrangement temporarily with a veiled acknowledgment of the reality- a rhetorical question relating to the fact that he is “afeard to tell the graybeards the truth” (2.2.67). Caesar then immediately displays his weak resolution when Decius easily persuades him to reverse his earlier decision, and he proceeds to greet the senators, demonstrating another hazardous trait associated with women, inconstancy. Portia similarly behaves in accession with the low expectation of women and demonstrates “how weak a thing/ The heart of woman is!” (2.4.40). She proves herself untrustworthy and reveals to Lucius Brutus’ involvement in the conspiracy because is overcome with fear. Caesar suffers a great insult through his association with the weak will of woman because in Roman society masculinity is the gauge of Roman worthiness.
Cassius undertakes a dual strategy in rendering Caesar unfit for the position. By listing moments of weakness in Caesar’s past which illustrate his feminine tendencies, Cassius systematically dismantles the virility of a figure who should be the embodiment of the Roman ideals of masculinity, but he simultaneously seeks to tag Caesar as an immovable, tyrannical leader to provide a solid moral rationale behind the conspiracy. Cassius’ revelations underscore the question of how “[a] man of such feeble temper should/ So get the start of the majestic world” (1.2.129-130). Cassius rescues him from drowning when Caesar cries “‘Help me, Cassius or I sink!’” (1.2.111). Similarly, Cassius reveals how Caesar cries for water “as a sick girl” (1.2.128). Continuing this attack, Cassius tells of how Caesar, like a woman, “is superstitious grown of late” (2.1.195). Ultimately, Caesar’s vulnerability becomes fully realized through Cassius’ projections because they provide the impetus for Brutus to join the cause.
Providing further contrast to the complaint of Caesar’s strong, inflexible leadership are the physical imperfections which the conspirators exploit as signifiers of feminine weakness. Caesar’s physical imperfections include the possibility that he is deaf in one ear (1.2.213) because he must turn his head to hear someone speak (1.2.17). Compounding this defect, Caesar is also subject to epileptic fits. Caesar adds credibility to claims questioning his fitness for leadership by faltering at the very moment that he is to receive the crown (1.2.247-254). Brutus’ comment “‘Tis like he hath the falling-sickness” both literally and figuratively foreshadows the progressive devolution of Caesar’s masculinity which ultimately culminates in his bloody death.
Caesar’s death is wrought with imagery of blood and tears that parallels a birthing process in which the mother’s life becomes a sacrifice for the survival of the child. Perhaps in death Caesar is able to create a new Rome, lending an interesting twist to the competition over leadership of this new state between “his sons” Brutus and Anthony. Antony’s prediction that “‘Domestic fury and fierce civil strive/ Shall cumber all part of Italy’” announces that Caesar’s murder threatens disruption of the motherland of Rome (3.1.263-264). Because the woman is the ruler of the domestic realm the use of the word “domestic” inadvertently places the Caesar in a feminine role. Caesar is symbolically the highest authority of a feminine entity, considering that Rome is classified as a feminine noun. Conjuring up further domestic imagery is Antony’s comment that “mothers shall but smile when they behold/ Their infants quartered with the hands of war” (3.1. 267-68). Perhaps by placing Caesar in an unconventional mother-like role, Shakespeare allows for him to conceive the children that his infertile wife, Calphurnia, is never able to, thus, allowing for the full realization of Lupercal, the event that symbolically opens the play. In Calphurnia’s foreboding dream of Caesar’s statue, “Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans/ Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it” (2.2.76-79), Caesar becomes a nursing mother as his, suggesting that Caesar provides mother-like lifeblood to his country in his death, reaffirming Decius’ earlier interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream that “from you [Caesar] Rome shall suck/ Reviving blood” (2.2.87). A variation of the notion of Caesar as a reproductive figure is the notable parallel between the bloody images used to discuss Caesar’s body and the menstrual of women. The phrases “all the while ran blood” (3.2.191) and “bleeding business” (3.1.168) accompanying this discussion create a distorted image of the reproductive cycle. Assuming that Caesar does achieve a mutated form of reproduction, Shakespeare fittingly develops a bizarre and twisted characterization of sexuality.
Caesar becomes further feminized when his figure no longer is that of an ideal valiant warrior which inspires men; rather the feminine vulnerability of his wounded stirs feeling of pity. Brutus’ comment “Had I as many eyes as thou hast wounds/ Weeping as fast as they stream forth thy blood” (3.1.200-01) relates the transformation of a world recently clad with armory and weapons to state reduced tears. Caesar becomes like a woman who has been completely violated by ruthless hunters who requires a strong male-like figure to vindicate the injustice which has been done to her [him]. Calphurnia’s earlier use of the phrase “lusty Romans” adds a sexualized dimension to the regicide, allowing for the possibility that the hunters metaphorically rape Caesar. As the men ritualistically cover themselves with Caesar’s blood it as if they are celebrating the success of the hunt. Antony condemns the conspirators as predatory and bestial hunters and creates the image of a victimized Caesar, saying
Villians! You did not so, when your vile daggers
Hacked one another in the sides of Caesar
You showed your teeth like apes, and fawned like hounds (5.1.39-43).
Caesar’s corpse stirs pity in the hearts of his oppressors, a far cry from the tyrannical leader framed by his accusers. In Antony’s glorification of the corpse of Caesar, Caesar has been truly reduced to a feminine state. He requires a man to plead his case with society, and the strong figure is accessible and needs the support of the fickle masses.
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me. But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The Stones of Rome to rise in mutiny. (3.2.227-232)
Calphurnia whose warning goes unheeded by Caesar demonstrates the impotency of a woman’s voice. In death Caesar’s voice, like that of a woman, is no longer heard, and his violated body projects the image mouths which are objects serving as symbols of female sexuality to which Antony’s reference to tongues gives additional sexual implications. It is the tongue and mouth that serve as the initial sight of contact when kissing occurs. The sexuality of this image brings further strength to the previous parallel made between the reproductive process and Caesar’s death.
The transformation of Caesar from a figure of male potency to one of feminine weakness creates a complicated and distorted message of sexuality. Traits become no longer inherently masculine or feminine because the ultimate fate of Caesar merges weakness and strength. The strange paradox of the play is how wounds, a traditionally feminine sign of vulnerability, ultimately become equated with masculinity. Portia’s decision to voluntarily wound herself demonstrates the awe and admiration which wounds can inspire in the masculine sphere; it is after seeing her self inflicted wounds that Brutus discloses to her the secret plans of the conspiracy. Similarly, it is through his wounds that Caesar is able to eventually to win vindication for his death because they move the crowd to action against the conspirators, allowing for leadership through injury. The sword symbolically represents a phallic-like sign of vitality which leads to the retransformation of Caesar into a figure of masculinity. Brutus acknowledges, “O Julius Caesar, though art mightly yet/ Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails (5.3.94-96). The sword that causes Caesar’s fatal wounds serves as the instrument that brings an end to Cassius and Brutus. Cassius proclaims in his death “Guide thou the sword- Caesar, thou art revenged, /Eve with the sword that killed thee” (5.3.45-46). This conclusion of ultimate victory of the masculine spirit seems the only fitting outcome for Shakespeare to engineer if his play is to be a true reflection of Roman culture. Women hold value only in terms of the services that the provide which advance the interests of the masculine community, and in this case, the conspirators needed grounds to render Caesar inadequate for his position and feminizing him provides a useful mechanism in doing so. The retransformation of Caesar solidifies itself in Octavious’ declaration to the world that “This was a man!,” (5.5.75) reinforcing the notion that the masculine spirit will prevail in Roman society.
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