Swallowing Fire (4.3.156)
Scholars will often identify Caesar or, more likely, Brutus as the "tragic hero" of Julius Caesar. Brutus is a tragic figure for many because he miscalculated so significantly when he sided with the conspirators and stabbed Caesar. Rather than inaugurating an era of "Liberty, freedom and enfranchisement (3.1.81)," tragic civil war ensues.
My thesis in this mini-essay is that the best candidate for tragic hero of the play, if there needs to be one, is Portia. She is a woman who both exceeds society's bounds set for her sex but also must submit to those same limits and, in the ensuing tension, commits suicide. She is the only one who sees clearly in the play and is not either a deceiver or deceived, and yet she kills herself. Finally, her tragedy consists in the fact that so little of the play is about her. She only speaks in 2.1 and 2.4. Julius Caesar is the first of Shakespeare's Roman plays. Both of his two later ones, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, have very highly developed female characters. I think Shakespeare is still "learning his trade" in Julius Caesar and thus has not developed Portia to the extent he could.
Portia's Words and Silence (2.1; 2.4)
Portia is a tragic figure because she could have done something if Brutus had talked to her when she wanted him to communicate the "secrets that appertain to you (2.1.281-282)," but when he communicates them to her in an untimely fashion, she must keep quiet (2.4).
Portia protested in 2.1 that Brutus should unburden his heart to her; she does not "dwell" in the "suburbs" of his good pleasure (2.1.285-286), and thus is worthy of his words. In addition, she inflicted a thigh wound on herself (2.1.301), proof that she could hold any secret that Brutus told her. As the daughter of the great Stoic Cato and the wife of the Platonist/Stoic Brutus, she is "stronger than" her "sex" (2.1.296). She is a woman, to be sure, but a woman with a mind, a will and an ability to endure pain like a man. The first part of Portia's tragedy, then, is with all these attributes Brutus does not share himself with her. Instead he "stole" from her....the intimacy which she deserved (2.1.238).
Brutus doesn't disclose his secret to her (the conspiracy against Caesar) in a timely fashion, when she could hear him and discuss it with him. She could have been his "mirror" to him and possibly opened up the twisted paths of his faulty reasoning. But he tells her sometime later, and the play isn't clear as to when that is. But we know that she knows the secret when Brutus has left for the Forum for the day's work (2.4). But then it is too late.
As a Roman woman she was not permitted in the male governmental space; all she could do with her secret now is to send a messenger to "bring me word" if Brutus looks well (2.4.13). She cannot communicate it to anyone. Her mouth is, as it were, sealed. Thus, she is almost overcome by the tension between her desire to play the "male" role and communicate the secret, and the need to play the "female" role and suppress it. "O constancy, be strong upon my side,/ Set a huge muntain 'tween my heart and tongue!/ I have a man's mind, but a woman's might./ How hard it is for a woman to keep counsel! (2.4.6-9)."
Death by Swallowing Burning Coals
All we are told about her death in 4.3 is that "Impatient of my (Brutus's) absence,/ And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony/ Have made themselves so strong--for with her death/ That tidings came (4.3.152-155)," she then swallowed coals until she suffocated. The imagery of Portia dying in this way could have been further exploited by Shakespeare with what he has already said in 2.4. For there she had to remain silent with the news of the conspiracy. Her role as woman in Roman society did not permit her to speak. Now, having lived with that silence, the ultimate tragic consequence for being a woman that is "stronger than her sex," she now willingly silences herself once and for all. The first silencing took away her voice; the second took away her life.
In considering the mode of Portia's death, I found myself unable to get a biblical image out of my mind. The prophet Jeremiah was under compulsion to speak the word of God but, because of his anger with God's treatment of him, he resolved "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name (Jer. 20:9)." But then, when Jeremiah is forced to keep silence, "then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jer. 20:9)." Jeremiah had the socially acceptable means of discharging the burning message: as prophet of God, he spoke. Portia was not so fortunate. She had the burning message, but she could not speak at the appropriate time. She may have become weary with holding it in, but she decided to meet fire with fire, by swallowing more fire. Life burst forth from Jeremiah's burning lungs; death came forth from Portia's .
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long