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Women in Shakespeare

‘In these plays the female characters function to oppose the values of a world that is constructed as masculine.’ Discuss with reference to two plays.

The female characters of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, in particular Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, exist in order to provide a contrast with his male characters, which represent Rome’s values. Rome is constructed within the plays as a masculine society, ruled by all the traditional male values. In contrast, the women must submit to the patriarchal rules that confine them to the private or domestic sphere, denying them access to the public or political domain. However, an alternative society is illustrated in Antony and Cleopatra: Egypt, a society that is ruled by Cleopatra, a woman who has commanded access to the political sphere, whilst remaining in touch with the domestic arena.

In Roman society, women ‘held no public offices’ (1) and were rarely permitted to speak in public, therefore they were only valued in the domestic sphere. Women’s main function was as ‘objects of exchange in marriage’, which was crucial to the forming of political alliances and the continuity of families that ‘formed the basis of the Roman power elite.’ (2) Joplin described Roman women as having ‘a double status as outsider within’ because they were necessary for the continuity of public life despite their exclusion. (3) In Julius Caesar, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, there is no reference to the exchange of women, rather it is the men who ‘engage each other’s passions – as friends, as rivals, as Romans on the stage of history.’ (4)

In Julius Caesar, the female characters of Calphurnia and Portia are vital to the play for their personal relationships with their husbands, Julius Caesar and Brutus. Despite their concern about their respective husbands’ political careers, their opinions are ignored or rebelled against because they represent feminine values and are grounded in the domestic sphere. However, as well as their role in emphasising the gender differences, the women are also needed in order to provide further insight into the characters of Caesar and Brutus. Their interactions serve to emphasise the “feminine” traits of the men, and the ability of women to display “masculine” traits.

Brutus’ interaction with Portia, in Act 2, Scene 1, illustrates that women are isolated from politics. Although Portia proves that she is perceptive and intelligent, Brutus is reluctant to confide in her about his deep-rooted fears. This is based on the widespread belief that women were ‘untrained in reason’ and had no control over their affections. (5) Portia is portrayed as the traditional nagging wife who worries about her husband, asking ‘Is Brutus sick?’ (6) Initially Brutus insists that he is ‘not well in health, and that is all.’ (7) However, Portia uses a convincing argument to persuade Brutus that she is worthy of his confidence. Portia uses emotional blackmail, begging Brutus to ‘unfold to [her]’ his secret because of his ‘vows of love’, (8) saying that if he refuses then ‘Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.’ (9) Once Portia begins to sway Brutus, she uses a rational argument, pointing to her father, Cato, and her husband as proof of her strength and reputation. Portia challenges Brutus, asking him ‘Think you I am no stronger than my sex, / Being so fathered, and so husbanded?’ (10) However, she is merely defined in each instance by her relationship to a man. Finally, Portia provides ‘strong proof’ of her ‘constancy’, a typical masculine trait, in the ‘voluntary wound’ (11) in her thigh. The self-inflicted wound ‘destabilizes the gendered concept of virtue’ (12) – that Portia can perform such an act proves that it is learned behaviour, not a particular masculine trait. In response, Brutus promises that ‘by and by thy bosom shall partake / The secrets of my heart.’ (13)

In comparison, Brutus’ meeting with Cassius, in Act 1, Scene 2, takes place in the public domain, ‘within earshot of a huge crowd, preceded and followed by a public procession.’ (14) Since it is a secretive conversation, this meeting lies on the ‘border between public and private.’ (15) Whereas Cassius encourages Brutus to act upon male values in order to achieve political action, or a ‘show / Of fire’ (16), Portia represents Brutus’ doubts or ‘the “feminine” Other within him.’ (17) In particular, it is Brutus’ reluctance to murder Caesar that is evidence of his feminine side. In these two separate scenes, Shakespeare overtly contrasts male and female values. He deems female values as unreliability, ‘associated with weakness, the non-rational and disorder.’ (18) From this one can deduce that male values are reliability, strength (of mind and body), rationality and order.

If Act two, Scene one, provides evidence of Portia’s constancy, this is reversed in Act two, Scene four:

O constancy, be strong upon my side, Set a huge mountain ‘tween my heart and tongue! I have a man’s mind, but a woman’s might. How hard it is for women to keep counsel! (Julius Caesar, II, iv, ll.6-9)

This scene proves that the women in Rome cannot cope with political concerns. Shakespeare portrays Portia as weak and vulnerable, reinstating her ‘into the category of woman.’ (19) Unlike Brutus’ heroic suicide, Shakespeare undermines Portia’s death by attributing it to female insanity. In Shakespeare’s account, Brutus states that ‘she fell distract / And her attendants absent, swallowed fire’, (20) thus depriving Portia of any dignity. In comparison, Plutarch’s account, in his Life of Marcus Brutus, describes Portia’s death as an honourable act. Although Portia attempts to enter the masculine, public world of Rome, her inability to cope leaves her firmly grounded within the feminine world.

The male world of Rome, defined by Brutus and Caesar, is not as clear-cut as it appears. Brutus is defined by ‘the contradictions embedded in his culture [which] are set at war.’ (21) Brutus is divided in terms of political alliances and gender definitions. Politically, he acts for the ‘common good’ as well as out of emulation or rivalry. Similarly, Brutus’ gender contradictions are highlighted - although his motives for murdering Caesar are ‘masculinized’, his doubts and fears are ‘feminized’. (22)

Julius Caesar’s interaction with Calphurnia follows Brutus’ scene of interaction with Portia. Again, a wife’s role is as worrier about the safety of her husband, as Calphurnia exclaims, ‘You shall not stir out of your house today.’ (23) Calphurnia’s belief in her dreams about Caesar’s death portrays women as being superstitious, despite her claim that she ‘never stood on ceremonies / Yet now they fright [her].’ (24) Her dream images recall the theme of wife as worrier or mourner, as she imagines herself to be ‘A lioness [that] hath whelped in the streets’. (25) In comparison, Caesar has boldly asserted that he does not fear ‘death, a necessary end.’ (26) However, Calphurnia’s fears about ‘blood upon the Capitol’ (27) exist to emphasise the doubts that men hide under their assertions about constancy. Although Caesar agrees to remain at home to please Calphurnia, as he states ‘for thy humour I will stay at home’, (28) he would not have agreed unless he shared Calphurnia’s fears. Caesar uses his wife as a convenient excuse when he tells Decius:

Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home. She dreamt tonight she saw my statue, Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts, Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it. (Julius Caesar, II, ii, ll.75-79)

When Decius mocks Caesar’s obedience to his wife’s whims, saying ‘Break up the Senate till another time, / When Caesar’s wife shall meet with better dreams’, (29) Caesar changes his mind. When his reputation is at stake Caesar exclaims ‘How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!’ (30) However, the fulfilment of Calphurnia’s prediction suggests that men should put more faith in the intuitive powers of women.

Throughout the play, Caesar’s power has been ambiguous. Cassius feminises Caesar in his description about the swimming contest, telling Brutus that Caesar cried ‘“Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”’ (31) Cassius also describes Caesar’s fever in Spain, calling him ‘a sick girl.’ (32) However, Cassius demonstrates that he fears the power Caesar would claim if crowned, comparing Caesar, a ‘Colossus’ with everyone else, ‘petty men’. (33) Likewise, Calphurnia’s dream of Caesar’s wounded statue emphasises the ‘contradictory images of Caesar as both Colossus and sick girl, mighty in his triumph over Pompey, yet childless and deaf.’ (34) Caesar is ultimately feminised in his assassination – he is rendered powerless and silent, just like the women in Roman society.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar wants to promote male-dominated Rome as the centre of civilisation. In particular, Shakespeare illustrates male values in the play by comparing Antony’s heroic past with his present shame. Caesar previously admired Antony for his ability to survive in a hostile environment, enforcing the Roman practice of self-deprivation: thy heel Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against, Thou daintily brought up, with patience more Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink The stale of horses and the gilded puddle Which beasts would cough at... (Antony and Cleopatra, I, iv, ll.58-63) (35)

Caesar praises Antony’s ‘heroic masculinity... his capacity to survive in this wintry landscape’. (36) Scarcity and hunger define masculinity, because ‘not-eating permits the fantasy of entire self-sufficiency, the escape from the body and its effeminizing need.’ (37) Caesar also praises self-deprivation because of his love of fasting, that is he would rather ‘fast from all, four days, / Than drink so much in one.’ (38) While Caesar thinks that this proves his masculinity, the others prefer to drink to enjoy themselves. In direct comparison with this is Antony’s lazy self-indulgence in Egypt, where ‘he fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel.’ (39) Caesar regards this self-indulgence as feminine behaviour. If Rome represents the male value of stringency, Egypt represents the female value of indulgence.

In Antony and Cleopatra, ‘there are virtually no women in Rome, there is no natural abundance.’ (40) The main female character in Rome is Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar. Like the majority of Roman women, she represents chastity and purity, as Enobarbus states ‘Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation.’ (41) These qualities are compared with Cleopatra’s sensuality, which is a complete opposite to Octavia’s nature. Although Octavia is the sister of Caesar, and highly ranked among Roman women, her attempts to intervene in the political sphere, ‘striving against the dominant institution of politics in Shakespeare’s Rome, she is bound to fail.’ (42) In Rome, women are primarily portrayed in terms of their personal relationships with the central male characters. Octavia is only important to the political sphere when she temporarily unites Caesar and Antony through her marriage to Antony.

Antony’s wife, Fulvia, also attempts to gain access to the public and political sphere. In revenge for Antony’s desertion of Fulvia for Cleopatra, Fulvia attempts to create a rift between Antony and Caesar. At the beginning of the play, Cleopatra’s mocking of Antony shows that Fulvia’s plans were successful. Cleopatra presents an image of Antony being ‘pulled back and forth’ between Fulvia, a woman, and Caesar, who is younger than Antony:

Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent His powerful mandate to you: ‘Do this, or this; Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that. Perform’t, or else we damn thee.’ (Antony and Cleopatra, I, i, ll.20-24)

However, the threat of Fulvia is cancelled with the news of her death.

In comparison with Roman women, Cleopatra has full access to public and private spheres as the ruler of Egypt. Egypt opposes Rome in every way – it is a female-dominated society which promotes freedom, indulgence and hedonism, whilst Rome forbids pleasure and promotes self-deprivation. Cleopatra’s court, which consists of women and a eunuch, is a symbol of female power in Egypt. However, unlike the uneven distribution of power in Rome, Cleopatra has a casual relationship with her servants, treating them more like companions than staff.

However, the main focus upon Cleopatra is for her relationship with Antony. Caesar and the Romans perceive Cleopatra to be a negative influence upon Antony, so they demonise Cleopatra ‘as Rome’s most dangerous enemy, a foreigner and woman ruler whose power was fatally inflected by her sexuality.’ (43) Although power in Rome is associated with men, Cleopatra uses her feminine power over men. In Act 2, Scene 2, Enobarbus gives a sensual description of how Cleopatra uses her sexuality and beauty to seduce Antony. He described Cleopatra as ‘O’erpicturing that Venus’ (44) in a barge that was ornately decorated and perfumed. When Antony invited her to supper, Cleopatra gains control of the situation by inviting Antony to be her guest instead.

Although the Romans perceive Cleopatra as dangerously powerful, she shows signs of weakness and natural benevolence. Cleopatra’s main redeeming factor is her fertility and role as mother. Whereas there are few Roman women and little fertility, Cleopatra is as fertile as the banks of the Nile. Her ability to bear children is symbolic of her regenerative powers. Cleopatra exposes her weakness when she flees the scene of battle without realising the consequences of her actions. Cleopatra apologises to Antony, saying ‘Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought / You would have followed.’ (45) Kahn argues that Cleopatra has ‘involuntarily testified to her essential femininity, demonstrating her unfitness for battle, rather than ‘the insidious intention to lead men into it’. (46) Enobarbus supports Cleopatra’s argument that she was unaware Antony would follow, declaring that ‘Antony only’ (47) is to blame for following her. When Antony tortures Thidias for kissing Cleopatra’s hand, Cleopatra realises that she is subordinated ‘queen though she may be, in this Roman world of ruthless domination.’ (48)

The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra is extremely complex. Although the Romans criticise Antony for allowing Cleopatra to dominate him, the balance of power within their relationship is subject to change. It can be argued that Cleopatra manipulates Antony when she repeatedly ‘draws Antony to her and divides him from Caesar and all that is Roman’, but Antony is a grown man and returns to Rome whenever he wants to. (49) The most arguable case of Cleopatra’s emasculation of Antony can be found in Act 2, Scene 5, when Cleopatra recalls the ‘night of revelry when she subjugated Antony and then engaged in cross-dressing with him’. (50) Cleopatra transforms Antony into the woman’s role by putting her ‘tires and mantles on him’, (51) and assumes the male role herself by wearing ‘his sword Philippan.’ (52)

Cleopatra’s role as a creative, regenerative woman is also demonstrated by her positive effect on Antony. Although Cleopatra manipulates him, she also encourages his masculinity, which is rejuvenated through his sexual relationship with Cleopatra. In Cleopatra’s vision of Antony’s ‘heroic manhood’, Shakespeare associates masculinity with ‘the maternal body’ as the source of ‘male bounty’. (53) Whereas Caesar seeks to destroy and belittle Antony, Cleopatra creates a vision of him connected to his sexual power.

The true measure of Cleopatra’s power is in her ability to look beautiful even in death. When Caesar sees her body, he comments that even in death ‘she would catch another Antony’. (54) Cleopatra’s willingness to die for Antony his masculinity further. Although Cleopatra’s suicide is an attempt to ‘defeat Caesar of the additional victory he yearns for’, her death also serves to unite her with Antony through an act of ‘marital consummation.’ (55) Shakespeare portrays Cleopatra like a Roman wife who commits suicide as a ‘testament of her love for her husband.’ (56) Although Cleopatra is allowed more dramatic force than other women are in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, she is still ‘presented almost entirely in relation to Antony.’ (57)

Antony is a complex character due to the two opposing worlds that he is drawn to. He is pulled to Rome ‘by his investment in the race for power’, just as he is drawn to Egypt in his lust for sexual power. If Rome represents politics and power for Antony, Egypt must represent pleasure and sexuality. When Antony crosses the boundary between Rome and Egypt, he risks losing a part of his heroic identity as well as gaining a more sensual and fun side to his personality. In his tug of love and war between Egypt and Rome, Antony loses his virtus, but he develops a new sense of masculinity ‘founded on incorporation of the female.’ (58) In an attempt to restore his masculinity, Antony performs the only honourable act left to him – suicide. Through an honourable death, Antony can not only defeat Caesar of the opportunity to murder him, but also gain Caesar’s admiration. After Antony’s death, Caesar recognises him as a hero, and ‘the person above all others to whom Caesar considers himself bound by intimate, affectionate ties.’ (59)

In Julius Caesar, the female characters exist to oppose the values of a male-dominated Rome. Although the women would like to gain access to this public sphere, they are denied it on the grounds of the values they represent. However, the masculinity of Rome is more starkly contrasted with the femininity of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra. While the women in Rome remain rooted in the domestic sphere, Cleopatra is associated with masculine power. The men in Rome fear Cleopatra because her power is doubly ‘Other’ – foreign and feminine. Although Cleopatra is ultimately rendered powerless through her suicide, which is a traditionally male form of death, she remains beautiful, which emphasises her femininity. Cleopatra exists not only to oppose the masculine values, but also to challenge the Roman ideals. In her refusal to be defeated, Cleopatra underlines both the weaknesses of men and Rome.

  1. Kahn, Coppelia, Roman Shakespeare (Routledge, London, 1997), p. 98
  2. Roman Shakespeare, p.98
  3. Joplin in Roman Shakespeare, ed. Kahn, p.98
  4. Roman Shakespeare, p.99
  5. Roman Shakespeare, p.97
  6. Shakespeare, William, Julius Caesar (Penguin, London, 1967) II, i, l.261
  7. Julius Caesar, II, i, l.257
  8. Julius Caesar, II, i, ll. 272-274
  9. Julius Caesar, II, i, l.287
  10. Julius Caesar, II, i, ll.296-297
  11. Julius Caesar, II, i, ll.299-300
  12. Roman Shakespeare, p.101
  13. Julius Caesar, II, i, ll.305-306
  14. Roman Shakespeare, p.80
  15. Roman Shakespeare, p.80
  16. Julius Caesar, I, ii, ll.175-176
  17. Roman Shakespeare, p.80
  18. Roman Shakespeare, p.81
  19. Roman Shakespeare, p.101
  20. Julius Caesar, IV, iii, ll.153-154
  21. Roman Shakespeare, p.105
  22. Roman Shakespeare, p.105
  23. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.9
  24. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.13-14
  25. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.17
  26. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.36
  27. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.21
  28. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.56
  29. Julius Caesar, II, ii, ll.98-99
  30. Julius Caesar, II, ii, l.105
  31. Julius Caesar, I, ii, l.111
  32. Julius Caesar, I, ii, l.128
  33. Julius Caesar, I, ii, l.136
  34. Roman Shakespeare, p.103
  35. Shakespeare, William, Antony and Cleopatra (Penguin, London, 1997)
  36. Adelman, Janet, "Making Defect Perfection" in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, eds. Holderness, Loughrey, and Murphy (Longman, London and New York, 1996), p.72
  37. "Making Perfect Defection",p.74
  38. Antony and Cleopatra, II, vii, ll.100-101
  39. Antony and Cleopatra, I, iv, ll.4-5
  40. "Making Perfect Defection", p.71
  41. Antony and Cleopatra, II, vi, ll.120-121
  42. Roman Shakespeare, p.115
  43. Roman Shakespeare, p.111
  44. Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, l.205
  45. Antony and Cleopatra, III, xi, l.55-56
  46. Roman Shakespeare, p.118
  47. Antony and Cleopatra, III, xiii, l.3
  48. Roman Shakespeare, p.120
  49. Roman Shakespeare, p.116
  50. Dollimore, Jonathan, "Antony and Cleopatra (c.1607); Virtus under Erasure" in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, p.105
  51. Antony and Cleopatra, II, v, l.22
  52. Antony and Cleopatra, II, v, l.23
  53. "Making Defect Perfection", p.73
  54. Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii, l.345
  55. Roman Shakespeare, p.138
  56. Roman Shakespeare, p.138
  57. "Making Defect Perfection", p.86
  58. "Making Defect Perfection", p.85
  59. Roman Shakespeare, p.137


    Primary sources:

    Shakespeare, William, Antony and Cleopatra (Penguin, London, 1997)

    Shakespeare, William, Julius Caesar (Penguin, London, first published, 1967)

    Secondary sources:

    Holderness, Loughrey and Murphy, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Longman, London and New York, 1996)

    Kahn, Coppelia, Roman Shakespeare (Routledge, London and New York, 1997)