Which of the two women in Julius Caesar, Calpurnia or Portia, is the reader more likely to feel sympathy for, and why?
Calpurnia and Portia have similar roles in the play. They are both wives of powerful men but as women they appear to have little or no power themselves. They occupy a socially inferior position, excluded from the weighty matters of state that their husbands are so taken up with. We tend to feel sympathy for them, therefore, but their cases are slightly different which leads us to consider whether they are equally deserving of sympathy. Therefore we have to look more closely at how they are each portrayed.
Both Calpurnia and Portia are shown to have some influence with their husbands in the private sphere. Calpurnia nearly succeeds in persuading her husband Caesar not to go to the Capitol on the fateful day, the ides of March, while Brutus is moved by Portia’s eloquent plea that he confide his worries in her. Portia, it is true, has to literally beg Brutus to share his thoughts with her, but Brutus is shown to be very tender and caring towards her:
You are my true and honourable wife
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart. (II.i.288-290)
Brutus says that Portia is as close to him as his own life-blood – the ‘ruddy drops’ that comfort his ‘sad heart’. This shows how much he cherishes her. If she is concerned about him, then he also cares about her, even if he is not able to readily share his worries with her.
Portia and Brutus, then, share a close and loving relationship. However, we do not see this same closeness between Caesar and Calpurnia. Caesar does not really act like a husband to her. He continues to speak in a grand manner, referring to himself in the third person even when alone with her – although he does listen to her when she tells him her fears over her dream. But when Decius comes and persuades him by flattery to go along to the Capitol he is very quick to dismiss his wife and her fears, saying haughtily that:
How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!
I am ashamed that I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go. (II.ii.105-107)
He does not appear to have much concern for her personally; he is not really considerate towards her, far less tender. This is quite unlike Brutus and Portia’s relationship.
Portia, moreover, is shown to have a sense of her own worth, when she speaks proudly of her lineage – she is daughter of the famous statesman Cato as well as Brutus’s wife (II.i 294-295). We see nothing like this with Calpurnia; she appears less a character in her own right than does Portia.
Finally, although it is true that Portia becomes distracted after taking on the burden of Brutus’s worries – indeed she ends up committing suicide – we see Brutus honouring her and grieving for her deeply. It doesn’t seem as if there would be anyone to do the same for Calpurnia.
Both Calpurnia and Portia, as women, appear marginalised in the play. However, overall Portia has more of a presence than Calpurnia, and a greater sense of her self-worth; and she is valued by her husband whereas Calpurnia does not seem to be. Therefore, the reader inclines to feel more sympathy for Calpurnia.