Weak Conditions and Voluntary Wounds

In Act Two, Scene One, of Julius Caesar, we see the only interaction between the husband and wife duo of Brutus and Portia.

Portia, concerned about her husband’s actions of late, asks him about it, first delineating all she has seen that has given her the impression that something is wrong: rising from and sneaking out of bed at night; leaving the dinner table only to walk, thinking and sighing; not sleeping, eating, or talking. He responds that he is sick, but she refutes this saying that it’s not his body that’s unwell:

                      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.
  • II.i.266-9

She kneels and attempts to “charm (him) by (her) once commended beauty” (II.i.270), so that he will reveal not only what is bothering him, but who has just visited him in the middle of the night. It’s an intelligent strategy: she raises the stakes with every statement.

And she doesn’t stop. When Brutus continues to stall, she then equates herself with a whore who “keep(s) with (him) at meals, comfort(s) (his) bed, // And talk(s) to (him) sometimes?” (II.i.283-4). She knows she is a woman, but she won’t disclose his secrets:

I have made 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?
  • II.i.298-301


Is this some kind of metaphor?


Remember how Shakespeare used as his source Plutarch’s Lives? Well, according to Plutarch,

She took a little knife, such as barbers use to cut the finger nails, and after banishing all her attendants from her chamber, made a deep gash in her thigh, so that there was a copious flow of blood, and after a little while violent pains and chills and fever followed from the wound.
  • Plutarch’s Lives
    translated by Bernadotte Perrin
    Delphi Classics 2013
    location 29073 of 162272

So, this is no metaphor, and she really did cut herself.

How desperately did she want to know these secrets or how desperately did she want her husband’s approval that she was willing to do this? Desperate enough apparently to take her own life later (as referenced in IV.ii.199).

There may be something else at work here: when she first questions Brutus, he tells her “It is not for your health thus to commit // Your weak condition to the raw cold morning” (II.i.234-5). While this “weak condition” may just be a sexist toss away line about the so-called “weaker sex,” I think there’s more going on here. I think Portia is pregnant. There are some historical accounts of a son of Brutus and Portia, that died in 43 BC. Since the two were married in 45 BC, it would make historical and biological sense that she be pregnant at this point.

The pregnancy could help explain both her desperate distractedness in Act Two, Scene Four, as well as Brutus’ motivation for finally joining the conspiracy. It’s not because of Brutus’ “own cause” (II.i.11) to kill Caesar, but rather for the “general” (II.i.12), the well-being of the state, one in which his unborn son would be a part, either to “live (as) free men” (III.ii.4) with Caesar dead, or with “Caesar … living, and die (as) slaves” (III.ii.23). It might also explain the pre-birth imagery Brutus uses to describe Caesar in his decisive soliloquy:

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
  • II.i.32-4

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