Please excuse the less-than-once-a-week posts, but I swear I’ve got a Tempest post brewing and it’ll be worth the wait! If you’d like to do some homework, definitely rent Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. The excessively post-modern (read: highly unusual) adaptation of The Tempest is more likely to confuse than clarify the text upon first viewing, but if you happen to be in the mood for some wild (dare I say trippy?) visuals, you’re in for a real treat!
Until then, I thought I’d commemorate the Ides of March with something from Julius Caesar.What is the Ides of March, you ask? Has anyone ever told you to watch your back? Wellll… that’s what we commemorate today. The Ides of March is the 15th day of this month, the day we believe that Caesar was literally backstabbed at the Roman Forum. A ‘Soothsayer’ (fortune teller) told Caesar to beware the Ides of March and to avoid the Forum, but Caesar was headstrong and didn’t watch his back.
I won’t be focusing specifically on the Ides of March today, or Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, or Cassius. Instead, I’d like to take a moment to think about Brutus’s wife, Portia. I never thought of myself as a feminist, and I genuinely tried to stay away from gender courses in my undergrad, but I find myself to be drawn to women’s polygamy memoirs with a surprising ferocity. Blame it on HBO’s Big Love – there’s something about these women suffering for the sake of their husbands…maybe I’m trying to find a missing piece that will solve some sort of puzzle, maybe I was a polygamist in my last life, or maybe I’m just harbouring an inexplicable fascination with suffering women. Whatever it is, Shakespeare was there first. Surprised? Neither am I.
So here lies Portia, a loving wife and a smart woman: when she sees her husband Brutus under unexplainable emotional duress, she demands an explanation. Unlike the women still enslaved in Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist marriages, Portia refuses to ‘keep sweet’ and be swept aside by her husband’s wishes for her to mind her own business. She continues to probe him until he promises to share his burden with her:
… upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once-commended beauty,
By all your vows of love and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy…
In Shakespeare’s time, women were supposed to embody the trifecta of Renaissance femininity: chastity, silence, and obedience. But he was writing about Rome; Rome was a democratic republic, and women in Rome demanded more respect. Portia considered herself an equal to her husband, half of him. Without Portia, Brutus would be half a man, un-whole. I love that. No double standard.
Ah, but I spoke too soon. No matter how high Shakespeare elevates his women, he always maintains a hint of fickleness, a trickle of fragility. Merchant of Venice’s Portia was strong enough to disguise herself as a lawyer and win a criminal trial, yet she still wanted to marry a handsome, smart, young man. Lady Macbeth, the woman who declared:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this…
still couldn’t handle the torment of knowing that she influenced a man to murder a king, and eventually went mad. Accordingly, Brutus’s Portia could not withstand living while knowing that her husband was facing certain defeat. Brutus receives a message, which he relays to Cassius, his partner in crime:
Impatient of my absence,
And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony
Have made themselves so strong:–for with her death
That tidings came;–with this she fell distract,
And, her attendants absent, swallow’d fire.
She fell distract, and swallowed fire. As a woman who suffers chronic acid reflux, I can begin to feel her fiery pain. So the question is: Why? Did she go authentically mad like Lady Macbeth, or did she ‘put an antic disposition on,’ like Hamlet? Since we don’t hear from Portia after Act 2, it’s really anyone’s call. On a normal occasion, I’d say assume that, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s law of female fickleness, Portia went mad. But in the spirit of the Ides of March, I won’t follow the safe route. Instead, I’ll have some fun and play devil’s advocate.
Let’s consider, that the loving Portia had made a decision to sacrifice her life for her husband’s safety. This would have been considered heroic at the time. Just as the Soothsayer couldn’t divert Caesar from the Forum, neither could Portia divert her husband from walking in harm’s way. What she could do was create a diversion to prevent harm from pursuing him. By sacrificing her own voice, she could keep her husband’s whereabouts a secret and, even for a short while, continue trying to protect him.
I feel that the former polygamist women I’ve been reading about took a similar risk. They were raised all their lives to believe that practicing polygamy and ‘keeping sweet’ would earn them and their children a spot in heaven. By going against The Principle [of plural marriage], they would be declared heathens, disowned, and sentenced to spending the afterlife in hell. Despite this heavy load, women like Elissa Wall and Carolyn Jessop escaped their living hell in hopes of providing their children with a brighter future.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare reminds us that, suicide or heathenism, we cannot be certain of what to expect from the afterlife because it’s ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.’ Were these women right for doing what they did? Will they be punished in the afterlife the way they suffered in their living hells? Well, the beauty of being a blogger is that I don’t have to have all the answers – just the juicy questions!