What is a harlot, and why does Portia compare herself to one?

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"Harlot" is a derogatory term for a prostitute or, more generally, a promiscuous woman. Portia is as far as possible from being a harlot. She is a paragon of wifely virtue and is absolutely loyal and faithful to Brutus. Moreover, she is of patrician lineage, whereas prostitution was typically a...

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"Harlot" is a derogatory term for a prostitute or, more generally, a promiscuous woman. Portia is as far as possible from being a harlot. She is a paragon of wifely virtue and is absolutely loyal and faithful to Brutus. Moreover, she is of patrician lineage, whereas prostitution was typically a profession reserved for women of the lower classes.

Portia does not directly compare herself to a harlot, but the fact that she uses the word at all shows the strength of her feelings. She has discovered Brutus wandering about in the middle of the night, having been closeted in a suspicious meeting with Cassius and other conspirators against Caesar. When she asks Brutus what is wrong, he feebly replies that he is unwell. Portia points out that the remedy for physical sickness would scarcely involve leaving his bed and walking through the damp night air. She becomes increasingly distraught that Brutus will not trust her with whatever problem is troubling him, and exclaims:

Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.

The use of the word "harlot" is the strongest possible way of emphasizing that Brutus is not treating Portia as a man should treat his loyal and intelligent wife. A harlot would merely share his bed, whereas a wife should share his heart and mind. Since they have been joined in matrimony, they ought to be perfectly united, sharing one another's secrets. If Brutus continues to withhold his thoughts and feelings from Portia, she will know that he does not esteem her as she deserves.

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