Today we were reading the part of Julius Caesar (Act 2 Scene 1) when Portia has a conversation with Brutus. It was fine reading it with the previous class; they are very mature kids and they get it. They get the unfairness of a woman's life being completely turned upside down beyond their control, and that Portia's fate lies entirely in Brutus' hands. They understand the ideas behind Roman culture, wrong or right. They respected Shakespeare's portrayal of Portia--her demand that Brutus respect her as his "other half," and her insistence that she share with him.
I love Portia in this scene. She confronts him in his mood, and Brutus tries to give excuses for his inner turmoil. Portia doesn't buy it. She insists, and she's smart enough to know that hooded men coming to her house at night mean something, and maybe she even gets what it means but is waiting for him to say the words. "Dwell I but in the suburbs of thy good pleasure?" she asks. "If it be not more, Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife." (Forgive my lack of quote formatting to reflect the poetry.)
My second class was a bit more difficult. They tend to dislike reading and get a bit antsy. They play around with pens, tape, whatever they can get their hands on. They will look for excuses to get up out of their seats--use bathroom passes, walk to the trash can, look for hand sanitizer, get a tissue...
I walk around the room staring kids down, shoving aside the pens they're trying to play with, closing books or notebooks with math and history homework, stopping frivolous conversation at the grassroots. And midway through Portia's scene a kid gets up to throw something in the trash can. Except he doesn't. He begins to pace around on the way to the trash can. I steer him outside the door.
I tell my students:
"In Rome, Portia has no voice. Plutarch barely mentions her. She's not important. Shakespeare greatly expands her role as a woman, but even so she is only afforded this one scene. Are you seriously going to interrupt her one opportunity to be heard so that you can play with pens, do other homework, or involve yourself with all of these other distractions? Listen to what she's saying!"
They quieted down somewhat and focused. They began to get into the passage. They got a little more involved when I explain how Portia is proving her worth, her intelligence, and her right as a married woman to be heard by her husband. The girls start to pay attention when Brutus basically calls Portia his lifeblood and prays to the gods to be worthy of such a noble wife. How romantic, they think.
How tragic, I think. The entire carpet is ripped out from under Portia. Why doesn't anyone ever want to listen to her? Why can't we listen to her even now? There are so many women in this world who are powerless to change their situations, and we allow it to happen. We just don't listen. Culture just runs roughshod over us as our women eat coal.
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