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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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LINES 233-325

Portia enters and we hear from her what we already know about Brutus: that he is introspective and torn by doubts; that he is a man of conscience who is struggling to do what is right. How different he is from those about him, who spend their time manipulating each other for private ends.

Brutus does not want to discuss the conspiracy with Portia; in fact, he lies to her, blaming his moodiness on ill health. Does he want to protect her from the ugly truth? Or is he simply too ashamed to own up to what he has done? In either case, he is less than honest, and we may condemn him for falling short of his standards, or praise him for giving in to the promptings of his heart.

Portia, with an intuitive wisdom, sees right through Brutus, and insists on the truth so that she can share his burden with him. He agrees to trust her with his secret, and she departs.

Some people like to see Portia as a modern woman, hundreds of years ahead of her time. But is she really? She does refer to Brutus as her other half, and asks to be treated as his equal. Genuine respect and affection exist between them. She insists that she is stronger than other women-she is Cato's daughter, isn't she?- and should not be shielded from a world of men.

This image of herself, not as the woman "Portia," but as "Cato's daughter," is her public image of herself-the person she would like to become. (Brutus wears a mask, too, when he pictures himself as a descendant of a founder of the Roman Republic.)

Can Portia escape her private self and live up to her reputation as Cato's daughter? All we know to this point is that Brutus addresses her as "Portia," and that she greets him as "my lord." It is his world she seeks to enter-there is no question of Brutus entering hers. Equality seems to exist in terms of mutual respect within the framework of a traditional marriage, with pre-defined rights and obligations.

LINES 326-334

Brutus' dilemma-and one of the major issues of the play-is summed up in this brief dialogue:

Caius. What's to do?

Brutus. A piece of work that will make sick men whole.

Caius. But are not some whole that we must make sick?

Brutus. That must we also.

Act II, Scene i, lines 326-329

Brutus would rather focus on his noble end, and forget the means. Caius reminds him that people must suffer first. One can imagine the pain and resignation in Brutus' voice when he is forced to acknowledge that, yes, some must suffer before we can make the country healthy again.

Caius does not wish to debate the issue-it is enough that Brutus leads him. Like Cassius and others, he defers to Brutus' judgment. It speaks well of Brutus that so many friends and associates are willing to follow him; and yet, are they any better than the common people who blindly follow Caesar? It seems in Shakespeare's play that whenever people give up responsibility for their lives and let themselves be led by others, the sickness of the state spreads and the world sinks further into a state of disorder.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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