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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”


I would be remiss if I failed to mention the suicide of Brutus’ wife, Portia, which may or may not qualify as a suicide of honor.  Women have a relatively small role in this play about politics and war—the only other female character is Calpurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife—but they remind us that even public figures like Caesar and Brutus have private lives and wives who worry about their husbands.


In Act Two Portia gently chides her husband for not sharing with her the cause of his sleeplessness, which readers and spectators know is his conflicted feelings about Cassius’ invitation to join the conspiracy against Caesar.  She reminds her husband that she is not a mere woman, but “a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife,” and besides, “a woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter” (yet another reminder of Cato’s influence on this play.  To prove her constancy, she shows him that she has given herself a “voluntary wound / Here in the thigh.  Can I bear that with patience / And not my husband’s secrets?”  Brutus asks the gods to make him “worthy of this noble wife” and promises to reveal to her shortly what is troubling him.


Several scenes later, after Brutus has made good on his promise to impart his secret to her, she nervously awaits news from the capitol, where the assassination is to take place.  Portia appears in no further scenes, and no mention is made of her until the Fourth Act, where her death is mentioned twice: once in the reconciliation scene between Brutus and Cassius after their bitter argument, and again, somewhat later in the same scene when Messala brings Brutus word of Portia’s death.  We need not get involved in the scholarly arguments about whether both scenes are necessary and intended by the playwright or whether in his haste Shakespeare forgot to delete one of the scenes.  Suffice it to say that in the earlier scene, just after Brutus and Cassius have passed angry words, Brutus finally tells Cassius, “Portia is dead,” and Cassius, deeply affected by the news, responds, “How scaped I killing [i.e., being killed] when I crossed you so?”


With her characteristic concern for her husband’s welfare, “And grief that young Octavius with Marc Antony / Have made themselves so strong,” as Brutus tells Cassius, “she fell distract / And, her attendants absent swallowed fire.”  Plutarch, in one of Shakespeare’s major sources, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which Shakespeare read in Thomas North’s Elizabethan translation, explains that she choked to death on hot coals.  It is not clear whether she feared for her own safety as well as her husband’s and so took her own life to avoid capture and possible execution, and whether, being “distract” she was fully aware of the nature and consequences of her act, so it is hard to discern whether Portia’s death is technically a suicide of honor (it’s suicide out of love).  However, her determination to di.e., even in such a gruesome manner, reinforces her earlier assertion that she is worthy to be the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus, not to mention the sister of the young man, also named Cato, soon to die on the battlefield.


Bravest at the Last


Antony and Cleopatra, one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and one of his last tragedies (c. 1606) is considered by some readers, including this one, among his greatest achievements.  Following the later careers of Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar (hereafter identified as Caesar) after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Cleopatry in a limited sense is a sequel to Julius Caesar.  It is a play in which love and honor are interwoven; in fact, the fusion of these motifs provides at least two over-arching structural devices that hold the play together.  One is frequently commented on:  the constant movement between Rome and Egypt, representing Antony’s conflicted loyalties—the political and military ambitions associated with Rome and embodied in the prissy but efficient Caesar, versus the excessive revelry and exoticism of Egypt symbolized by Cleopatra, the voluptuous serpent of the Nile.  Thus he is torn between his honor, which emanates from Rome, and his love, who resides in Egypt.


Increasingly Antony is drawn to Egypt, a situation which pushes to the breaking point the growing tension between Antony and his Roman partner.  The original triumvirate of Antony, Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, formed after Julius Caesar’s assassination is eventually reduced to two, and inevitably as Roman history and Shakespeare’s play dramatize, in a full-scale war the two vie for supremacy.  Octavius Caesar is the victor.


Another important structural device, on which less attention has been focused, is a series of parallels between the two lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, by which Shakespeare shows us how very human they are, flawed in their greatness, and how very much alike in spite of basic differences, and how suited to each other.


A few examples will suffice.  Superficially both Antony and Cleopatra call attention to the fact that they are no longer young (Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s primary source here as in Julius Caesar, says Cleopatra was thirty-nine at her death, and that sources place Antony at fifty-three or fifty-six.)  Cleopatra, who is past her “salad days” is “wrinkled deep in time”;  and Antony notes several times that his brown hairs are mingled with gray.  Their greatness is emphasized by parallel titles and descriptions.  To Charmian, for example, Cleopatra is an “Empress”; to Enobarbus, Antony is an “Emperor.”  Cleopatra, in Enobarbus’ famous description of her on her barge, is Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and on a number of occasions Antony is described as the war god, Mars, traditionally the lover of Venus.



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