William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was a prominent English poet and playwright, commonly regarded as the greatest English language writer and the world's most preeminent dramatist (Bevington: 1–3). Shakespeare wrote ten tragic plays and four of them are set in ancient Rome: Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar is considered to be an example of “male-dominated” play as even superficial analysis of the play, reveals the fact that women appear very episodically, and all of the main characters and majority of the secondary characters are men. There are over 30 characters in the play, with only two women: Calpurnia, wife of Caesar, and Portia, wife of Brutus. While Antony and Cassius appear in the play each for 8 times and Brutus – 12 times, Calpurnia and Portia appear only 2 times. Moreover, from play’s 16 soliloquies, which is instrument to reveal inner thoughts of the character, only one belong to woman, Portia (Bag: 1).
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While role of the woman in history and in different literary works, including Shakespeare’s masterpieces, are common subject for gender research, this paper attempts to tie together these two subjects by comparing roles given to women in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in real-world ancient Roman society.
The primary source for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was Plutarch Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated into English in 1579 by Thomas North. The events presented in the play actually continued for several years, however Shakespeare condensed them into six days. Shakespeare, following Plutarch, dramatizes Caesar's physical weaknesses. However, unlike Plutarch, Shakespeare omits incidents characterizing Caesar as a dictatorial person, depicting him as arrogant, but clearly a great personality, a World’s conqueror, respected by virtually all.
Julius Caesar is male-dominated play, written by male dramatist, with vast majority of male characters and with male characters being principle to the play. Moreover, at the time of Shakespeare there were no female actors and therefore woman roles were played by boys or young men.
When looking at the sources of information regarding life of Roman women and their role in society, two things become quickly evident. First is that most of the sources deal with the aristocracy and do not reflect the life of all classes of society. However, for the purposes of this analysis, this fact may be neglected as both woman characters belong to the aristocracy. Second is that all these sources are secondary to women, as they were written by men about women, while no personal diaries or journals written by Roman women are available. This fact resembles what we can see in Shakespeare’s play – we see women, their role and their thoughts, only as they were seen from the perspective of an ancient Roman man and can not understand what were their hopes and dreams, or even if they had any.
Only the men from the upper classes in ancient Rome received descent education and being on the leading positions in society could in their leisure time to reflect on their world and write about it. Unsurprisingly, they wrote predominantly about their own thoughts and experiences, as well as addressing thoughts and actions of their opponents and allies in social and political life. As women in ancient Rome were not allowed to participate actively in politics, which was a major subject for writing by the man of that time, they have never been in focus. Only occasionally, women who have been writers’ relatives and wives were depicted on paper.
At the same time woman received only a basic education, if any at all. In most cases it was just informal education performed by the parents and was limited to basic reading and writing. It was considered to be inappropriate for women to become “too educated”, as can be seen in writings of Juvenal. Juvenal mocked at the women who expressed their opinions on grammar, ethics or literature, implying that, by trying to be knowledgeable, these women have forgotten their place in society (Juvenal: 434-456). Taking into account such level of education, no wonder that there are almost no writings of ancient Roman woman, which could give insight into ancient Rome society and women role from the perspective of a woman herself.
Unlike ancient Egypt, in ancient Rome (both in the Republic and in the Empire) women were not considered to be equal to men before the law. And although, they were considered citizens, they could not vote or participate in government procedures. Women in Rome were subject to the men authority: father’s authority before marriage and husband authority after marriage (Cross: 1).
Women, or more correctly, girls, in most cases, were married by the time they were 12 years old. Women did not have a choice between having children or not, moreover, women in aristocratic (i.e. wealthy) families were expected to give birth to as many babies as they could. Because of the high mortality levels among infants, families wanted to ensure that at least some of their children would reach maturity and husbands expected their wives to be perpetually pregnant. Families preferred male children, as they were to carry on the family name and lineage. At the same time, if a newborn was a girl or a weak boy, father could be decide to be expose such child and mother could not overrule such decision. Infertility was legitimate ground for the divorce at that time; moreover women would often offer a divorce to give their husbands an opportunity to have children with someone else.
Besides child-bearing role, women in ancient Rome played an important role in raising their children, unlike in the Athenian tradition were boys had to be raised exclusively by men. Especially, women in the ancient Roman were encouraged to teach Roman culture to their children, one of the few subjects they’ve learned themselves.
The Romans did not put very strong restrictions towards women, like in some Eastern cultures or Greek cultures, e.g. keeping them in designated places and prohibiting dining or attending thermas with men. Women did have some personal freedoms, but they had only small chance for personal choice and retaining their individuality. Roman women were under the constant supervision of their male relatives, predominantly fathers, and husbands. Although some of them were allowed by their fathers or husbands more freedom than others, there was always a limit to which woman could act independently. Rare cases of women independence were wealthy widows, who were not subject to man’s authority and wealthy women, who choose to become priestesses, of which the most important were the Vestal Virgins.
Nevertheless, no matter how wealthy a woman could be, she could not have an important formal role in public, as she could not vote or stand for office. However, it should be noted that, wives or close female relatives of powerful men could have indirect political influence and exert real, though informal, power. But in public women were expected to play traditional role in the household and to know their place. They were expected to remain modest, loyal and emotionally, physically, and financially obedient to their families. They had certain prescribed roles to play within Roman society like daughter, wife, child bearer, and mother.
In ancient Rome, woman had very limited role in public life, restrained by patriarchal tradition, despite their talents and virtues. Similarly in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there are only two woman characters, Portia and Calpurnia, which play episodic roles in this play and remain rather sketchy. Nevertheless, it is clear that these women had certain degree of influence on their powerful husbands and even could change denouement of the story if their husbands did not fail to listen to them.
Considering provided information of woman role in ancient Rome, it appears that Shakespeare did not intentionally devalued or enhanced the role of women in society. In public and political life Roman woman could not have active position, they could only perform function of “wife”, in traditional Roman understanding, and attempt to influence their husbands, which is exactly the case in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
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