Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gospel According to Shakespeare: Brutus and Portia

Never fear, gentle readers, I am back. Thanks for bearing with my monthlong blogging sabattical -- More to come on that. For now -- Here's what I'm working on for tonight's gospel according to Shakespeare class:

Shakespeare struggled with portraying marital intimacy – so goes the reasoning of Stephen Greenblatt in his bestselling Biography Will in the World. Greenblatt looks at Othello and the Winter’s Tale as pictures of marriages shattered by jealousy – Measure for Measure and Alls Well that Ends Well as pictures of doomed marriage. The romantic comedies parade before us a package of romance, desire, pursuit, flirtation and silliness – but the stories center on the quest to establish a relationship. Long term marriage, according to Greenblatt, is generally portrayed as sterile and bland. Consider Mark Antony’s marriage in Antony and Cleopatra compared to his white hot love affair with Cleopatra. Indeed, it seems that the only marriages with affection and spark are the villans: the MacBeths and Gertrude and Claudius from Hamlet.

But Greenblatt overlooks one of the more touching pictures of marriage – Brutus and Portia in Julius Ceasar. We don’t have the breathless giggly pursuit of the comedies, nor the soured jealousy of the tragedies. They don’t even get a lot of stage time – their marriage is not central to the play’s action. But we see in their relationship commitment that leads to frankness, affection, and ultimately grief in loss.

In Act 2, Scene 1 – Brutus plans the last touches on the conspiracy against Ceasar. He’s surprised by his wife, awake early. Portia gives a long speech detailing Brutus’ actions that are out of character, unaffectionate, and rude “Dear my lord, make me acquainted with your cause of grief.” “I am not well in health and that is all,” replies the brooding Brutus. Shakespeare has now accomplished the task of showing Brutus’ lack of peace with the conspiracy – he can now end the scene. But Shakespeare has more in mind -- he presses on, showing Portia to be bolder than any paperboard plot device.

“No, my Brutus, You have some sick offense within your mind, Which by the right and virtue of my place I ought to know of [she kneels] And 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 your self, your half, Why you are heavy, and what men tonight have had resort to you; for there have been some six or seven who did hide their faces even from darkness.”

Essentially Portia says “don’t give me any of your foolish man bravery nonsense – I am your wife and bonded to your heart.” She alludes to her former beauty – hinting that their love was once the stuff of Shakespeare’s comedies: hot flirtatious and fresh. She shows a remarkable freedom – boldly confronting her husband in his silence. She is not the weak character of Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra, but neither is she the overbearing Lady MacBeth. The hint to the subtle quality of this relationship hinges in her reference to Christian concept of marriage – the two becoming one. This is a direct allusion to Genesis 2 where the two become one flesh.

Now bear in mind, Greenblatt in his biography states "Shakespeare was not alone in his time in finding it difficult to portray or even imagine fully achieved marital intimacy. It took decades of Puritan insistence on the importance of companionship in marraige to change the social, cultural, and psychological landscape. By the time Milton published Paradise Lost, in 1667, the landscape was decisively different. Marraige was no longer the consoloation prize for those who did not have the higher vocation of celibacy; it was not the doctrinally approved way of avoiding the sin of fornication; it was not even principally the means of generating offspring and conveying property. It was about the dream of long-term love." And yet here is Shakespeare demonstrating the kind of determined commitment and affection that Greenblatt says is a product of Puritan thinking. Hmmmmm

The scene continues with Portia convincing Brutus to tell his secrets; Brutus finally says “O, you gods, render me worthy of this noble wife.” He promises to tell her all after he attends to a visitor at the door. Portia exits – and the conversation happens offstage. Shakespeare ends the act with Portia anxiously sending messengers to the Senate to look for her husband, but not telling them what’s up. She knows all, she’s fearful for her husband, but she keeps his confidence. This is great drama.

We never see Portia again – we hear of her demise in Act 4. Brutus and Cassius argue violently prior to the battle of Phillipi. Finally, Brutus exhausts and reconciles and calls for wine. As the two generals await the libation, Brutus reveals his heart in a conversation that belies years of friendship:

Cassius: “I did not think you could have been so angry.”
Brutus: “O, Cassius, I am sick of many griefs.”
Cassius: “Of your philosophy you make no use If you give place to accidental evils.”
Brutus: “No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead.”

Portia is dead. Cassius, stunned, asks him to repeat the news. There is the root of Brutus’ wrath – he’s lost of his love and his normally stoic exterior cannot hold any more. He burst forth in anger to his greatest ally, Cassius. He tells how in despondency Portia committed suicide by swallowing live coals. Cassius can offer no real comfort, for he understands Brutus’ affection, and his words demonstrate that Portia’s death is a blow to him as well. Meanwhile, all Brutus can do is turn to wine to numb his feeling “Speak no more of her – Give me a bowl of wine – in this I bury all unkindness, Cassius.”

What is interesting is that Messala comes in with the news that Portia is dead, not knowing that Brutus already knows. But to Messala, Brutus shows none of the emotion that he just showed Cassius. He simply says “Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala. With meditating that she must die once, I have the patience to endure it now.” A typical stoic attitude for a noble Roman. Brutus is putting back on the public face of the noble roman – he has revealed his grief to his friend, but he will wear the face of the stoic philospopher to the rest of the world.

In honesty, affection, anxiety and grief, Brutus and Portia show a married relationship that is certainly not stale nor a cause for jealousy. Indeed, such description adds to the tragedy of the play – Brutus has not only destroyed Ceasar and thrown the republic into chaos, but his good, stable, healthy marriage has been consumed in the vagaries of war and politics. The tragedy is great indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria