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Portia and the imitation of men

I believe that Portia imitates men in order to break the social barriers that women encounter in a patriarchal society.  It's kind of like the expression "if you can't beat them, join them."  Some examples of this are the following:

  • Portia's method of suicide is an imitation of men.  Portia swallowed burning coals.  This is a rather aggressive method of suicide.  Women who kill themselves are usually less aggressive and men are aggressive.  For example, in Hamlet, Ophelia kills herself by drowning, while in Julius Caesar, Brutus kills himself by running into a sword.  You can see the difference in force between these two methods.  Portia's method is obviously aggressive and is indicatory of her imitation of men. 
  1. But why did Portia kill herself?  I believe that she did so because she couldn't handle being a woman in a man's world.  She couldn't handle the secrets that Brutus kept from her.  She is aware that men won't tell her secrets, because they believe that women won't keep the secret. In 2.4.9, she even says, "How hard it is for women to keep counsel."  She is admitting to herself that it is difficult to keep a secret, because she is a woman.  
  2. Ultimately, Portia couldn't handle being inferior to men.  She "had a man's mind, but a woman's might" (2.4.8), and that wasn't good enough for her.
  • Another example is in her speech.  In 2.4.41-2 Portia says, "How weak a thing / The heart of woman is."  Here Portia is essentially bashing her own gender.  Also, if women's hearts are weak does that mean that men's hearts are strong?  This alludes to how men and women are often viewed as opposites.  Men are strong both emotionally and physically, while women are weak.  This makes women appear inferior. 
  • Also, in line 45 when Portia becomes faint, "it is clear that this is quite a natural thing for a woman to do" (Shucking).  Again, this brings about the idea that women are inferior to men.  Their bodies cannot handle overwhelming situations.  No matter how hard Portia tries to imitate men, her body doesn't allow it.  Portia doesn't really accept her gender and the nature of it. This causes her regret of being a woman, and it ultimately leads to her death.

Jennifer Lombargo, lombarjm@wilkes.edu

 

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This Page was last update: Monday, March 31, 2003 at 12:13:02 PM
This page was originally posted: 3/27/03; 2:20:40 PM.
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