…a voluntary wound/ Here, in the thigh – JULIUS CAESAR, II i

This is worth quoting in full, and trying to keep yourself from hearing with too modern an ear. Portia says, What’s up with you lately?; Brutus says, Go to bed, you’re sick; Portia says, Tell me – you think I can’t take it?

          Tell me your Counsels, I will not disclose ’em:

          I have made strong proofe of my Constancie,

          Giving my selfe a voluntary wound

          Heere, in the Thigh: Can I beare that with patience,

          And not my Husband’s Secrets?

Brutus says, Yikes…fair enough, I’ll tell you. (Then there’s a knock on the door, so whether he tells her is left uncertain; later she seems to know what’s going on, with all the political assassinating and stuff, but whether she figured it out or Brutus told her is lost to history, and Shakespeare, as he often does with such matters, leaves us dangling.)

So what exactly is your damage, Portia Catonis Filia? Is this cutting a child-of-divorce thing (she was), or are you cheesed because your husband is so well liked by that Caesar guy your father hated?

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This “voluntary wound” episode comes straight out of Plutarch, Shakespeare’s main source for Julius Caesar, and reading the direct source does add the helpful detail that she said she did so to prove that she couldn’t be forced to reveal anything he might tell her even under torture. But the fact remains that she seems to have done so before this whole conversation, so…whether that makes her one Supremely Hardcore OG Stoic or sufferer of a severe chemical imbalance – or both – is also lost to history. Also, though it’s known that this self-wounding with a barber’s knife made her sick and feverish, it’s up to the production whether this is the “condition” she’s in that Brutus mentions. Some productions also portray Portia as pregnant. (Say that sentence three times fast.) There’s leeway here, of course, what with drama being more important than accuracy to Shakespeare and to anyone trying to tell an engaging story. And since no one can be certain, what the hey? Go for it.

It’s hard to take her later (2,000-year-old spoiler alert) suicide by the distinctly in-character swallowing of hot coals as a sign of any propensity toward self-harm, either. Though again, history is muddy on this*, so a production has more of a responsibility to make things interesting than accurate. But suicide in this play (and in Ancient Roman and Japanese culture) wasn’t exclusively what it is today, especially in battle. Shakespeare makes quite clear that the running-on of swords in Julius Caesar is related to the question of honor (though Cassius does talk about it a lot throughout the play every time the slightest thing goes wrong; frankly they’re lucky they got as far with the plan as they did with him aboard…but he was his mother’s son. More than Macduff, and for that matter Caesar, can say, if you go by Shakespeare’s tenuous hold on what “born of woman” means); Portia, being Portia, sees herself as part of her husband’s army, I think, so her grief at their parting is a lot more potentially layered. Only now it hits me: this…this is the play they throw at fourteen-year-olds?

Portia is a fascinating character and was by all reports that survive of her a fascinating person. Of all the prequels Shakespeare dealt in, it makes you wish he had given her more stage time in a backstory of her own. Someone get on that, won’t you?

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* Some believe she really killed herself by staying in an unventilated room where charcoal burned and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning; some think she was sick anyway and died, possibly of plague, well before the battle of Philippi. But those are historians. We who do straight theater have to leave lingering deaths like that to our expert colleagues in the world of opera.

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