Julius Caesar is a play preoccupied with questions of masculinity, with characters constantly examining their actions in light of their relationship to accepted ideas of manly virtue and strength. Over the course of the play, those accepted ideas are presented in surprisingly ambiguous ways. For example, Julius Caesar himself suffers from weaknesses that earn onlookers’ scorn, yet he still inspires fear, and he doesn’t falter in the face of likely assassination. Some of the “manliest” actions are displayed by a female character—Brutus’s wife, Portia—who apparently longs for greater involvement in the world of men. And Brutus, though mocked by Antony for questionable honor in the aftermath of Caesar’s killing, is universally praised as a noble man after his own death. By portraying the varied motivations and perceptions of these characters, culminating in their respective deaths, Shakespeare argues that one’s manhood and honor are ultimately proven by the way a person perseveres to the end of life and faces his (or her) death.
Caesar’s manliness is questioned throughout the play. In Act 1, Caesar reportedly asks that his throat be cut rather than endure the shame of the crowds’ displeasure at his being offered kingship by Antony. And yet, the strain of the moment causes a spell of the “falling sickness” (an epileptic seizure). When Caesar recovers, he asks onlookers to attribute his untoward words to his illness, and while some “wenches” among the crowd forgive him, Casca, reporting this to Caesar’s detractors, dismisses the whole scene as mere “foolery.” This scene suggests that Caesar’s illness makes him inherently variable and unreliable, appealing to women but not taken seriously by most men. Ironically, his perceived ambition is still enough to cause those men to want to eliminate the threat that he poses. Later, however, Caesar goes resolutely to his death, spurning Calpurnia’s fearful attempts to detain him and stoically concluding that “Death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.” Caesar’s refusal to be deterred by “feminine” fears, instead accepting the likelihood of his death with equanimity, does lead to his death. This ultimately suggests that he’s resolute and honorable when it counts most—shrinking, perhaps, in the face of an unpredictable crowd, but prepared to face death even when he could make excuses and avoid it. This supports the argument that manhood isn’t reducible to isolated episodes, but is proven by the way a person endures to the end.
Something similar is demonstrated by the “masculine” character of Portia. In Act 2, Portia establishes the case for her trustworthiness on the claim that she’s an atypical woman: “I grant I am a woman, but withal / A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife. / I grant I am a woman, but withal / A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter. / Think you I am no stronger than my sex, / Being so fathered and so husbanded?” In other words, Portia’s high-regarded reputation among exceptional men separate her from the “weakness” that’s to be expected of other women, and thus she can be entrusted with the matters of state that trouble Brutus. Not only that, but Portia wounds herself in the thigh to demonstrate that, like a man, she’s strong enough to stoically endure suffering and is therefore worthy of Brutus’s confidence. Later, Brutus is grieved when he learns that Portia, ashamed of his possible failure at war, has swallowed hot coals to commit suicide. Portia leaves an impression of a woman struggling to garner respect in a world governed by inexorable masculine norms. In the end, there’s no enduring place for her in such a world, and she follows those norms to an exaggerated conclusion by choosing the most painful possible death. Ultimately, then, Portia proves her “manhood” through the only means available to her—pursuing suffering all the way to death.
Like Caesar, Brutus is doubted throughout the play, and is presented as an ambiguous character as far as manliness and honor go. During Antony’s funeral speech for Caesar, Antony deploys the refrain “Brutus is an honorable man” ironically in order to cast doubt on Brutus’s allegedly honorable intentions, which the masses had been praising moments before. Antony’s emotionally-laden speech ends up shifting the people’s allegiance from Brutus to himself, and sends Brutus and the conspirators into exile from Rome. And yet, at the end of the play, Antony celebrates Brutus’s masculinity even after the latter’s death, concluding that of all the conspirators, only Brutus’s intentions were noble. Because of his rejection of envy and consistent action according to honest principle, the world can look upon Brutus in death and say, “This was a man.” This suggests that, despite the shifting loyalties of the masses and changing political expediencies, Brutus is really proven to be “an honorable man” by the way he follows his principles in the long run, even unto death.
In some ways, Shakespeare avoids an overly rigid code of manliness in Julius Caesar. No single character exemplifies masculinity in an unvarying, wooden manner, and even women can embody it. On the other hand, manhood and honor can only finally be assessed upon one’s death, meaning that, to a certain extent, it’s an unattainable ideal in life—one that is constantly sought after and subject to the assessments of one’s peers.
Manhood and Honor ThemeTracker
Manhood and Honor Quotes in Julius Caesar
I grant I am a woman; but withal a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife; I grant I am a woman; but withal a women well reputed, Cato's daughter. Think you I am no stronger than my sex, being so father'd, and so husbanded? Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose'em. I have made a strong proof of my constancy, giving myself a voluntary wound here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience, and not my husband's secrets?
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Caesar: The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer: Aye, Caesar, but not gone.
Et tu, Bruté? — Then fall, Caesar!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
But this same day
Must end that work the ides of March begun;
And whether we shall meet again I know not.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell, Cassius!
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why, then, this parting was well made.
This was the noblest Roman of all
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man."