The Ambiguity Surrounding Gertrude’s Death

Death in Denmark seems to follow a consistent pattern—it is often rooted in obscurity. Hamlet himself is plagued with this fascination/fear of death throughout the story and perhaps even stays his suicidal hand because of “The dread of something after death.” He thrives in melancholy and fears an afterlife that he knows nothing about. Even the inciting incident of the play—the ghost of King Hamlet instructing the prince to murder Claudius—is riddled with uncertainty: is the apparition really the dead king or is he an evil spirit? if he is the king, is he fully aware of the facts surrounding his death (he was sleeping after all)? does he even care about his son or does he just seek revenge? Out of the ten deaths mentioned in the play (not including Yorick’s), many of them can be questioned in terms of morality, necessity, and what exactly occurred. Yet despite there being greater and more obvious ambiguities tied to certain deaths, the one I am most interested in is that of Gertrude’s.

Was Gertrude’s death an accident or a suicide? In other words: when she drank the goblet intended for Hamlet, did she know that there was poison inside or not? When I first read through the scene, I thought Gertrude to be another female character to fall victim to the folly of men—just as Ophelia does. Gertrude’s exact words are, “The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” and then after Claudius commands her not to drink, she says, “I will, my lord. I pray you pardon me” (5.2.265-268). If she were a mirror (or foil) of Ophelia, and was unaware of the poison, then Gertrude dies because the men surrounding her are too caught up in their own concerns to think on the consequences of their actions.

But I prefer another reading. This particular theme for my blog assignment came to me after reading some of my other classmate’s work regarding foils in Hamlet. Ophelia and Gertrude fit the enduring architype of the virgin-whore dichotomy. So, if they are so connected—especially as they are the only women in the play—could it be possible that they both turn to suicide in the end (assuming here that Ophelia’s death was indeed a suicide)? Gertrude, an act earlier, says:

To my sick soul as sin’s true nature is,

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt. (4.2.17-20)

First, she declares her soul to be sick with sin, and then, her guilt (which has been plaguing her for quite some time, despite her attempts to disguise it) is finally poring over. Thus, we know that Gertrude has reached a breaking point.

Furthermore, Gertrude has (up until now) not refused Claudius anything; she even tells him of Hamlet’s deeds and her conversation with him after their scene in her chambers. Notably, however, she does not disclose the fact that Hamlet’s insanity has been a ruse—this proves that she does not have unwavering faith to Claudius but is still subject to his orders. So when the king demands that she not drink from the goblet, and she blatantly refuses, I would read this as a guilt-ridden women finally acting in defiance towards the one who has perpetuated her guilt. She knowingly drinks from the poisoned cup and then offers it to Hamlet so that Claudius’s plan could not come to fruition—he, who has killed her husband, would not also be responsible for the death of her son. She realizes the moment that Claudius says “Gertrude, do not drink” and then proceeds to do something we have not seen thus far. It is the only scene where we see Gertrude acting motherly—wiping Hamlet’s brow and bidding him luck in the duel—and I assert that this is her attempt at redemption—playing the part of the mother-figure that she has been ignoring.

If Gertrude did kill herself, it would establish a connection between a desire for suicide and each of the characters that Hamlet truly loves—Ophelia, Gertrude, and Horatio; Ophelia would drown herself, Gertrude would poison herself, and Horatio would search out the goblet so that he could follow Hamlet into death. While nothing seems to ever be certain with Shakespeare (least of all his character deaths) I do believe that this uncertainty calls for many different readings, and if Gertrude does in fact commit suicide, then this may completely change a reader’s thoughts of her character as it did mine.

Female “Insanity”

As past readings have revealed, Hamlet has once again proven to be another Shakespearian tragedy significantly lacking in female characters. Of the two women playing active roles, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, both are the object of sexual desire and appear rather intermittently as fuel to the male dominated drama. However, because I am such an astute feminist, I always try to look at Shakespearian tragedies through a supportive female perspective. Though it is frustrating to see Shakespeare treat his female characters as quasi-pawns, I have found a means of departing from this view through finding symbolism and deeper meaning in the deplorable treatment of women in Hamlet. After reflecting upon the death of Ophelia, I could not help but notice the glaring symbolism and almost sacrificial nature of her death especially when considering the tumultuous emotional status of Hamlet at the time of her passing. Pressing onward in my exploration of the logic behind Ophelia’s death, I came to a significant conclusion – Ophelia’s death was not a result of unrequited love, it was a result of her standing as a pure individual in an immoral and pestilent environment. To elaborate, I personally believe Ophelia acts as an emotional sponge in Hamlet, unable to live her own life honestly which results in her falling victim to insanity because of the male burden she must bear.

Hamlet may proffer himself as the insane and raving lunatic of Denmark, but it is actually Ophelia who exhibits an authentic descent into madness, and with good reason. Ophelia is consistently confronted with male authority, and considering her standing of subordination due to gender status, she must be moderately to severely compliant to the male figures in her life. Of the two dominant men in her life, her father, Polonius, and her love interest, Hamlet, Ophelia is trapped in a proverbial tug-of-war between chastity, or family honor, and romantic love. Polonius, wary of the potential damage Hamlet could cause his innocent daughter with his romantic overtures, advises his daughter:

Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence,

Set your entreatments at a higher rate

Than a command to parley. For Lord Hamlet,

Believe so much in him, that he is young,

And with a larger tether may walk,

Than may be given to you… (1.4.121-26)

Despite Polonius’ negative qualities, he does speak wisely and out of genuine concern for his daughter. Polonius knows that Ophelia is a tender and empathetic soul likely to fall for the whims of Hamlet out of pity from her caring nature, especially those that could be considered antics. Ophelia does end up following her father’s guidance, even when verbally slapped with seductive and sexual words from Hamlet, whom she loves, but this is not enough to save her. After Polonius is murdered by Hamlet, Ophelia experiences a swift descent into madness. The death of her father marks the disappearance of her only honest guardian, which leaves her naked and unfortunately vulnerable to the actions and many speeches of Hamlet. In Act IV, Ophelia falls prey to the madness Hamlet has released upon her, but this madness almost permits her to verbally cleanse herself of the burden Hamlet has deposited upon her. Although she masks her speech through song, a feminine tactic, Ophelia finally unleashes her inner toils although it echoes as nonsense of her audience:

By Gis, and by Saint Charity,

Alack, and fie for shame!

Young men will do’t if they come to’t,

By Cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.’

So would I ‘a’ done, by yonder sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed. (4.5.57-64)

This song iterates the emotional torment Ophelia has experienced at the hands of Hamlet. She is an honest woman who was most wickedly chosen to be preyed upon a young man unable to take action, confront himself, or deal with conflict. Hamlet lured her with suggestions and overtures, and then spurned her with grotesque sexual speeches and confusing changes of heart. The song does not glean Ophelia’s sad experience word for word – it is not believed that Ophelia and Hamlet ever were physically intimate – but the overarching message parallels her emotional burden. In her symbolic death, Ophelia’s drowned body, covered in billowing robes, is garnished with flowers representative of lost love and fertility. The verbal report of Ophelia’s death by Queen Gertrude yields an extraordinarily vivid illustration of the young woman’s death. Ophelia’s scene of death is entirely perfect in its depiction of the loss of love, purity, and the potential for human life.

Ultimately, Ophelia is a means of absorption for Hamlet’s most negative actions and words. Her death is a complex metaphor for the loss of human potential and goodness in a world currently struck with loss, madness, war, and incest. The drowning of the woman that could have saved Hamlet from himself signifies the imminent doom of the young prince, and also exemplifies the insanity women are forced to bear as puppets in a man’s world.

 

Laertes Vs. Hamlet

One of the aspects of the fourth act that I really enjoyed reading was the contrast between Laertes and Prince Hamlet. They both have dead fathers that they wish to avenge yet they are so different in their demeanor, and how they want to go about their business. Hamlet is more introspective and thoughtful about his revenge, maybe to a fault because he can’t seem to actually get it done, but nonetheless is constantly thinking about the details of the revenge, and is willing to take his time to make sure it goes off perfectly. His thought process reveals a more human aspect of revenge, calling into question whether or not it is useful to act upon these acts of revenge.  Laertes, on the other hand,  is different because he is not as introspective and willing to reflect, he just wants to get it done. For example, there is a moment in Act IV where Claudius asks Laertes what he would do to show that he was really his father’s son and said “To cut his throat i’th’ church” (IV.vii. 98). This is a very revealing quote about Laertes’s character, willing to kill someone in what is considered a safe haven of God. Compare this to Hamlet, who is unwilling to kill Claudius when he sees him praying earlier on in the play. I feel like that’s what makes Hamlet’s revenge so appealing to readers, being able to delay and contemplate his actions make it different than any other revenge tragedy we’ve read so far.

Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy is an important change in thought process that shows how the army of Fortinbras is so willing to walk into their graves over something as insignificant as a small plot of land while he’s not able to carry out his revenge, which is something that he believes is justified.

 

When honor’s at the stake. How stand I, then,

That have a father killed, a mother stained,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, while, to my shame, I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men

That, for a fantasy and trick of fame

Go to their graves like beds

                (IV.iv. 9.46-9.52)

 

I think it’s pretty interesting to see how Hamlet’s and Laertes’s way of reasoning their acts of revenge are based on two different ideas entirely. Laertes instantly goes in full attack mode and immediately comes up with a plan to take down Hamlet in a duel. Hamlet, on the other hand, takes a lot longer to come around, only after he realizes that there are people out there that are willing to die for a lot less, he’s willing to finally go and act on what his father wanted him to do. After reading this play, I feel as if Hamlet is one of the most humane characters to come out of the plays we’ve read so far. I think most people would feel very similarly in Hamlet’s situation and his delay and contemplation shows that there is some source humanity applied to this messed up situation.

A Lost Generation: The Patriarchy Kills

A Lost Generation: The Patriarchy Kills

When reading Hamlet, it is impossible to ignore the obvious parallels between Ophelia, Laertes, and Hamlet. Each of these characters are roughly the same age, therefore are of the same generation, and they each lost their father. Even their reactions are quite similar. Ophelia is blatantly driven to madness and Laertes and Hamlet are driven to revenge, which can be argued as another kind of madness. Lastly, and this is a spoiler, but each of these characters die from their madness. They are the high-ranking youth of Denmark and by the end of the play this youth has been stomped out. They were the future of Denmark, full of potential, but that potential will never be fulfilled. However, the true culprit of that seems to cause this is the crushing nature of the Patriarchy.

The first to be lost is Ophelia. Throughout the play it is clear that Ophelia is merely the pawn of the men around her. Her well-being and, even more so, her sexuality is constantly being policed by Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet. Polonius and Hamlet shamelessly use her in their own political games. Although Polonius believed Hamlet posed a threat to his daughter’s virtue, he had no issues throwing her right back to the wolf in order to help the King: “At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him” (2.2.163). Ophelia has no free will of her own and simply does as her father tells her in order to maintain the role of an obedient daughter. Her forced interactions with Hamlet are not pleasant, ranging from rude: “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.122) to crude: “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge” (3.2.228), but she goes through with them anyway because she was told to. When Polonius is murdered by Hamlet, Ophelia is a pawn without a master. It is no shock that her form of madness seems to be a reverting back to childhood with silly songs (albeit, with sinister undertones) and flowers. She does not know what else to do with herself. She was never built to be a woman who stands on her own. Her whole identity was dictated by her father. Her madness leads her to the brook where she drowns. As we discussed in class, she is found with flowers of fertility: “Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples” (4.7.140) and in mixing her death with fertile symbols, Shakespeare is making the loss of potential clear. From this girl, life could have sprung forth, the future of Denmark. Instead, that future is sterile, lost within a young girl who was ruined by political corruption and the games of men.

Laertes and Hamlet follow a far more similar path due to their gender. Ophelia is a victim of the Patriarchy, of a world where women are meant to follow their fathers blindly and are not taught how to stand on their own two feet. Laertes and Hamlet are victims of the Patriarchy in a different way: the expectation of men to be bloody and willing to kill. When both Laertes and Hamlet fathers are murdered, they both come to conclusion that they must seek revenge (Hamlet is, of course, prompted to this conclusion by his ghostly father). They both feel that the desire to revenge one’s father is the natural reaction of a son and if they do not hold this desire than they must be a bastard. Hamlet claims so earlier on in the play: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2.2.527) and Laertes does so in 4.5: “That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,/Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot/ Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow/Of my true mother” (4.5.114-117). This is inherently damaging because it becomes clear that these men do not seek revenge because they truly want to, but instead because they feel like they have to. Their obsessions with revenge leads to both of their eventual downfalls and deaths, at the hands of one another. Laertes will never finish his education, father children, or contribute to Denmark’s future. Hamlet, who was meant to rule Denmark one day, will never reach his greatness. Like Ophelia, they are potential that was lost by the social constructs of the patriarchy and political mechanisms.

Gertrude’s Rationale

Most of us likely perceive Gertrude as an immoral character who is illegitimately married to her dead husband’s brother, Claudius. Throughout the play we are given a negative perspective of her, mostly through Hamlet, when he expresses his concern about her sexuality. Gertrude does not seem to hold any moral standards for herself and somehow expects her son to overlook her hasty marriage to his uncle, just after his father (and her husband) has died. Gertrude’s potential for a change of course peaks when Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom. Yet, she runs to Claudius claiming that Hamlet is mad as soon as he leaves her presence. I would like to discuss Gertrude’s intentions, authenticity and actions throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

First, I will begin by saying that Gertrude’s character has always puzzled me. We are never given any insight as to what Gertrude is thinking or any reasoning as to why she makes the choices that she does. Therefore, any argument on the reasoning behind her actions is pure speculation. Regardless, I will argue that Gertrude turns her back on her (dead) husband and her still-very-alive son for self-security. By marrying Claudius, she is able to maintain the position of Queen, she is not considered a widow, and she still holds some form of power. Furthermore, if she is in on Claudius’ murder of her husband, she holds power over him as well. This has been another pondering of mine since first reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet: whether Gertrude knows that her first husband was poisoned by her second. Regardless of the ponderings, I find Gertrude to be a significant character in this play because she affects Hamlet in many ways. As discussed in class, Hamlet’s mother’s illegitimacy causes him to question his own legitimacy, as his fathers’ son. Gertrude is an interesting because she is a character whom I considered to be on the fence (between Hamlet and Claudius) until she is finally forced to choose between her new husband and her son.

When Hamlet goes to talk to his mother in her room, he sets out accusations and makes known her wrongs. His angry speech to Gertrude causes her to look inward on herself and as a result, she begs him to stop because she does not like what she sees.

“O Hamlet, speak no more!

Thou turn’st mine eyes onto my very soul,

And there I see such black and grained spots

As will not leave their tint.” (3.4.78-81)

I read this as Gertrude admitting to Hamlet that she understands or realizes that she has done terrible deeds and that she no longer wants to be forced to look upon her recent actions. I had thought that this would be Gertrude’s turning point within the play, when Gertrude would finally understand her son, Hamlet, and what his “madness” derived from. Yet, she does not. Once Hamlet drags the dead body of Polonius out of her chamber, Gertrude frantically reports to King Claudius immediately that Hamlet is “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend…(4.1.6).” Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius, which worsens Hamlet’s situation by far.

Initially, I had hope for the above moment to serve as a turning point in which Gertrude turns to her sons aid instead of remaining loyal to Claudius. Cleary, this is not the case. It is difficult for me to comprehend Gertrude’s loyalties and decisions as a mother to Hamlet. One might think that the mother-son bond is stronger than that of what? Power? Self-security? Social stability? I cannot be sure why Gertrude chooses Hamlet I’s brother Claudius over her loyalties as a wife, to Hamlet I and as a mother to Hamlet II.

Overall, I find that Gertrude is a slippery character. She is difficult to decipher, as we are unable to understand her actions and are never given access to her inner thoughts.

A Bit of Moral Ambiguity in the Morning

Perhaps I am mistaken, but in most writer/ reader relationships of pre-modern literature, an unwritten contract seems to exist promising a villain of the story. Granted, this does not hold true for all writers, but surely in a Shakespeare tragedy a villain always exists. But what makes a villain in the first place? In the past few plays, they have been marked by deception and connivance—or to be more specific: disloyalty. However in this play (yes, even in the case of Brutus) all actions take place in the name of loyalty. So another question must be asked: which loyalty can be deemed most moral.

“In the name of Rome” vs “In the name of a friend.” This dichotomy lies at the very center of Julius Caesar and (in my opinion) puts forth the two candidates for villainy: Brutus and Antony. In Brutus’s first scene, he is characterized by Cassius as a gentle spirit (quite the opposite of the malice we find in other villains): “I have not from your eyes that gentleness / And show of love as I wont to have” (33-34). Not Richard, Malvolio, or even Iago—who is so beloved by Othello—is ever said to have gentle eyes and be full of love. His concern lies with his countrymen, for his loyalty to them is absolute; Brutus “[loves] the name of honor more than he fears death” (89). He even argues to spare Antony as too avoid more bloodshed than necessary. So perhaps he is an “honorable man.” Yet, I despise him for some reason. In Antony’s speech, he says

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.

Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!

This was the most unkindest cut of all;

For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,

Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms,

Quite vanquished him. Then burst his mighty heart.

Call me as erratic as the plebeians, but to say that Caesar only truly died because of a burst heart—because  he saw his “angel” stab him—makes me wish revenge on Brutus as well. The fact that it took two conversations and a couple of letters for Brutus to make up his mind makes me question whether or not he was ever loyal to his friend.

So what makes Antony just as villainous as the man who was loyal to Rome? It is his apathy to his fellow man. In concluding his oratory (and his condemnation of the assassins), he says: “Now let it work. Mischief, thou are afoot: / Take thou what course thou wilt.”  Even more than the clear bating tactics he uses in his speech, this shows how conscious Antony was of the fire he was starting. In enacting his—and Caesar’s—retribution (out of loyalty), Antony almost singlehandedly sparked a war. The juxtaposition of the following scene illustrates this perfectly. Cinna (the poet, not the conspirator) meets the rioting plebeians and is promptly tortured and killed. When he tells them he is the poet, the rioters cry out “Tear him for his bad verses” (29) and when he asserts that he is not the conspirator, the cry:

It is no matter, his name’s Cinna. Pluck

But his name out of his heart, and turn him going.

Tear him! Tear him! Come brands, ho, fire-

Brands. To Brutus’, to Cassius’, burn all!”

In enacting justice, the plebeians are killing innocents—and Antony knew this would happen. Rioting only brings destruction (of property and people) but Antony, who mourns his friend, cares not for the people harmed but for revenge.

The man loyal to Rome proves less bloodshed yet a murder of a friend in cold-blood. The man loyal to his friend has no blood on his hands yet far more blood on his conscience. While they may not be typical Shakespearean villains (or villains at all depending on your take), their deeds are far too morally ambiguous to be considered heroes by any definition.

Emotional Backdrops

Within Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, there are only two women who hold underlying yet highly significant roles. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, serves as a form of foreshadowing to her husband’s death. Meanwhile, Portia, Brutus’ wife, has an interesting role within the play overall. Both women are unable to impact the events occurring outside of themselves and their marriage. Regardless of their efforts, neither woman is able to even get through to their husband. This is especially important in Calpurnia’s case because had Caesar heeded her warnings based on her dreams he would have lived to see another day. Somewhat similarly, Portia attempts to reach out to Brutus about his “cause of grief” before the murder of Caesar, but he pushes her worries aside, as does Caesar with Calpurnia. It is apparent that the two women in this play serve as a contrast to the strong male figures. They play the role of concerned and gentle housewives.

Portia is an interesting character because we are only given what she feels and thinks once, and this pertains to the well-being of her husband, Brutus. Clearly, the women during this time were to tend to their husbands and the household and to leave outside business to the men. In this case, Portia pleads to Brutus, even going down onto her knees, to find out what has had him so moody as of late. She states:
“And too impatiently stamped with your foot.
Yet I insisted; yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. So I did,
Fearing to strengthen the impatience
Which seemed too much enkindled, and withal
Hoping it was but an effect of humour,
Which sometime hath his hour with every man.” (2.1.243-250)
[…]
“I should not know you Brutus. Dear my lord,
Make me acquainted with your cause of grief” (2.1.254-5)

This speech from Portia is particularly endearing to me because it is such an honest and heartful scene of a woman expressing her frustration in attempting to understand her husband and his recent behavior. I find this to be a significant scene because Portia is reaching out to Brutus to find the root of the problem. I cannot help but wonder, had Brutus shared his plans and ideas for murdering Caesar, if Portia would have talked some sense into him.

Calpurnia, quite similarly to Portia, is just attempting to keep her husband safe. We are told that Calpurnia is having nightmares of Caesar’s murder. In fact, these nightmares are enough to keep Caesar from being able to fall asleep. If this isn’t a large enough sign to not leave your house the next day, then I don’t know what is. Regardless, it takes a great amount of pleading on Calpurnia’s part to finally persuade her husband not to go to the Senate that day. Shortly afterwards, Decius comes to convince Caesar to come to the Senate that day to be crowned. Ambition and pride seem to overshadow his wife’s worries and warnings and he agrees again to go to the Senate.

In this scene with his wife, Caesar continues to refer to himself in the third person. In response to Calpurnia’s concerned argument Caesar states:

“What can be avoided
Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?
Yet Caesar shall go forth; forth these predictions
Are to the world in general as to Caesar” (2.2.27-30).

Caesar attempts to liken himself to the rest of the world, assuming that it could not be him that these messages of doom are being sent for. This is interesting because it is almost as if he no longer sees himself through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the public.

Calpurnia and Portia play importance roles within this play particularly because they present us with a back drop of “real life.” By this, I mean that the presence of the wife to these high status men shows us that these men are still human. The wives provide some emotion to the events that occur within the play. Without them, I feel that Julius Caesar would be quite a blunt, straightforward and emotionless play. To further bring this point home, I noticed the role that women played in the movie clip of Mark Antony’s speech in this past Tuesday’s class. The camera focused on the women in the crowd when Antony revealed Caesar’s wounded body, and of course it was only the women to whimper or cry, which (for me at least) was effective in making the scene more meaningful and sad.

“I (don’t) see you villain”

Note: my title comes from a popular quote from the show Sense8 in which one of the characters yells “I see you villain!” So, if you haven’t seen that show, I’m sorry for the confusion.

I have found Julius Caesar to be one of Shakespeare’s more fascinating plays due to its morally grey ensemble of characters. When reading Richard III it is clear that we as the audience are meant to abhor the villain, Richard, and root for Richmond, who’s holy nobility is emphasized to the point where it could be considered heavy handed. In Othello, Iago is the obvious evil mastermind. But who is the villain in Julius Caesar? Is it truly the “tyrant” Caesar, as Cassius would argue? Or is it Brutus, the man who betrayed his close friend and fearless leader? Is there a villain at all?

I have a hard time imagining Caesar as the villain of the play. The man has his faults, of course, but it is difficult to make a concise judgment on his character based on the information that is given within the play. The main issue one may take with Caesar was that he fought with the man he was meant to share power with, Pompey, and effectively ended the Republic and move into a monarchy. Though Caesar “denies” the crown three times in the beginning of the play, this could be seen as a ploy in order to not appear too ambitious. Later, in Act 2.3, when Caesar is contemplating going to the Senate on the Ides of March due to Calpurnia’s dream, Decius informs Caesar that the Senate is planning on crowning him,

And know it now: the Senate have concluded

To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.

If you shall send them word you will not come,

Their minds may change. (2.3.93-96)

While Decius’s reinterpretation of Calpurnia’s dream also played a part in Caesar’s choice to attend the Senate, it is clear that the crowning also influenced him to join the meeting. This renders his earlier refusal of power obsolete. Still, it is hard to judge Caesar for this because the audience is not aware of the state of Rome before Caesar and Pompey’s struggle. Perhaps Caesar knew Rome needed a firm and singular ruler and decided that he was the man for the job. That does not necessarily make him a villain. The only thing Caesar is really guilty of is being an arrogant fool. He ignores the warnings of the soothsayer and his wife. He seems to think himself invincible and great: “But I am constant as the Northern Star,/Of whose true fixed and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament” (3.1.60-62). Here Caesar is making the rest of the Senate aware that he is special and unlike the rest of them. His god-like image of himself may have inspired the masses but it certainly also led to the aggravation of the conspirators and in turn, his downfall. However, although one might be able to understand the conspirators’ reasoning behind killing Caesar, it still does not make him the enemy of this play.

Brutus holds far more weight as the villain of the play, which is interesting because he is perceived to be an honorable man and does not find joy in the murdering of Caesar: “O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,/And not dismember Caesar!” (2.1.169-170). But, regardless of his feelings on the subject, he still does it and to be honest, he does not require much convincing. With one single (fake) letter, Brutus relents to the killing of Caesar without much argument: “O Rome, I make thee promise,/If the redress will follow, thou recievest/Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus” (2.1.56-58). It is obvious by how easily he is swayed that he wanted to go through with the assassination beforehand, he simply needed that little bit of validation that he was doing it for his people. If one observes the play from Shakespeare’s time period, I think Brutus would be seen as the villain without question. The English people were meant to be loyal to their head of state and I imagine the idea of betraying that loyalty would be considered utterly despicable in their eyes. Still, as a modern reader, I have trouble casting Brutus as the villain. I do believe that Brutus’s motives are more rooted in the maintaining of the Republic. He is not a needlessly cruel man but instead honorable to a fault. I would argue that Julius Caesar has no villain, except, perhaps, the fallibility of government and the twisted nature of power. Even so, that makes it all the more interesting.

Let the Women Swallow Your Fires

As is to be expected, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is overwhelmingly a male dominated play considering the focus on power structure, murder, and political strife. Despite the intense focus upon the world of men, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the few appearances of women in this great tragedy. The sparse female presence actually seems to hold a special quality especially if one considers the wise, concerned, and even clairvoyant speeches of these women. The wives, Portia being Brutus’ wife and Calpurnia being Caesar’s wife, are the only two characters to demonstrate legitimate concern for the emotional well-being and the consciences of their significant others. Just as the royal women of Richard III provided omens, premonitions, and genuine emotion, Shakespeare once again gifts us these humanistic qualities through the words of Portia and Calpurnia. Although it is most unfortunate that women suffer and are victims of their own and their husband’s passions and pains, Shakespeare breathes beauty and admiration into the tragic female presence in his works. In Julius Caesar, Portia and Calpurnia are the only characters to honor their intuition and speak out of concern for their loved ones. But alas, the women are tormented and left to swallow the mistakes and the fires their beloved men have created.

Especially gentle and teeming with concern is Portia, the wife to backstabbing Brutus. Portia, an emotionally intelligent and insightful woman, detects that her husband is suffering under the weight of some monstrous burden and is so overwhelmed with worry that she comes to him in the middle of the night to soothe and counsel him. Citing his withdrawn behavior and noticeably clouded mind, Portia confronts her husband with urgency:

And when I asked you what the matter was,

I urged you further; then you scratched your head,

And too impatiently stamped with your foot.

Yet I insisted; yet you answered not,

But with an angry wafture of your hand

Gave sign for me to leave you. So I did,

……………………………………………

It will not let you eat, nor talk, nor sleep;

And could is work so much upon your shape

As it hath much prevailed on your condition.

I should not know you, Brutus. Dear my lord,

Make me well-acquainted with your cause of grief. (2.1. 240-46, 251-55)

Thankfully, Brutus is touched by her earnest words of affectionate concern and does demonstrate that he esteems her as an important figure in his life, something more than just a wife to serve and honor a husband. Unfortunately, the opportunity for Brutus to reveal his troubles and shady activities to his loving wife and perhaps cease his path of self-destruction are interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of Cassius’ lackeys, which is somehow enough reason for him to discard his wife’s pleas for deep conversation and counsel. In this moment, Brutus truly damns himself by neglecting his wife’s well wishes in favop of pursuing the dark motives of men. His dark motives prove to be even more sinful when he learns that his dearest Portia has swallowed hot embers to commit suicide, a perhaps not so subtle metaphor for the issues of men women must bear.

Even more plaguing than Brutus’ choice is Caesar’s disregard of Calpurnia’s vehement wishes for him to fake sick and refrain from attending the questionable motives of the day’s senate meeting. Calpurnia, perhaps even more insightful than Portia, also bursts into Caesar’s bedchambers in the dark morning hours to reveal the doom and symbols of foreboding she feels are threats to Caesar’s life, “Besides the things that we have heard and seen, / Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch” (2.2.15-16). With this ominous introduction, Calpurnia provides a laundry list of supernatural activities and odd happenings occurring in Rome that imply the coming of some greatly tragic event, of which Caesar is most likely the target. Caesar, too wrapped up in ego and newly bestowed power, brushes his wife’s concerns aside like a buzzing mosquito and instead proclaims himself to be a godly figure too fantastical to be consumed by fear and threat. Calpurnia is well attuned to his stubborn and egotistical ways, candidly retorting “Your wisdom is consumed in confidence,” in the hopes of persuading him to save himself, a mortal man, from the supernatural, human, and wholly sinister threats swirling in the Roman air (2.2.49). Of course, Caesar foolishly ignores his wife’s wisdom and insight in favor of displaying a fearless masculine persona which, as well all know, results in him being murdered.

Ultimately, I believe Shakespeare has given a special appreciation to women in Julius Caesar. It’s not surprising that Portia and Calpurnia are doomed to suffer – the typical woman’s condition in this era – but Shakespeare provides them with keen words and an insight of which men are totally devoid. Truly, women bear the brunt of the men’s mistakes and impulsivity in Shakespeare’s works, but their suffering, in a way, speaks to their inherent honesty and beautiful humanistic qualities.

Can the masses really be trusted?

In my last blog post, I made an argument that the masses in Richard III, where intelligent and able to see Richard’s plan to take control of the crown. I said that the general population should be given more credit because they were smart enough to see through Richard’s deceptive nature. However, after reading the third act of Julius Caesar, I’m ready to throw that argument out and say that the masses in this specific play. deserves absolutely no credit for their intelligence to assess the situation in front of them.  They are swayed by the rhetoric of Brutus and Antony, in only a couple lines. Brutus shares that he has killed Caesar because he cares for the well being of Rome and believed that if Caesar stayed in power, he would have become too powerful and made the people suffer at his will. Something I noticed is that he speaks in a much simpler way that is very non-Shakespearean, I think to show that his point is coming from a Roman citizen, and not a higher authoritarian figure. Once he’s done the people want to crown him king, which just blows my mind. The people don’t really care about his message against having one man hold all the power, and because Brutus seems like a benevolent leader with the people’s best interests in mind, they’re ready to just accept with open arms as their leader.  

This just doesn’t make any sense, I thought before that the general population would have a better understanding of how leadership and politics work. However, after Antony’s delivers his speech, I just can’t believe that the people could be swayed so easily. Antony goes up in front of the masses and starts to plant seeds of doubt in the crowd. He says that  “Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man” (III.ii.83–84). He starts to repeat this sentiment that Brutus “probably” had the right intentions in killing Caesar. He shows Caesar’s will that showed that he would give his gardens up to the public, as well as gave out a certain amount of money to each man of Rome, showing that Caesar had the best intentions for the people. He keeps repeating that they should not go against Brutus because he was an “honorable man”. However, the people don’t care, they’re willing to change their opinion on a whim after listening to Antony. Another point worth mentioning is that after they start to tear apart the city, the people beat Cinna the poet to death, an innocent man that shares that name with a criminal. This very short scene highlights the extremist, mob-like mentality the people of Rome have. While reading this portion of the play I kept thinking back to the people in Richard III, how they were able to see right through the plan that Richard (someone everyone can agree upon is one of the more clever, deceptive characters in Shakespeare’s plays) tried to pull off. A question I have for the group, which I’m curious to see what people have to say,  do you think the masses (in general terms) can be trusted in seeing the faults in their leaders? I’m not ready to give up on the idea that the general population is smart enough to realize when they’re being fooled, even though this play makes that idea difficult to hold.