Shakespeare reminds us time and time again of the importance of clear communication in a healthy marriage. Had Othello spoken calmly and candidly to Desdemona, perhaps the story would’ve ended up differently. Had Julius Caesar listened to the concerns of his wife Calpurnia, perhaps his life would’ve been prolonged. In this case, Portia, the wife of Brutus, desperately seeks to understand what is causing her husband so much trouble and grief. She wishes to know why her husband is up and pacing around in the cold dank morning air, and why strange groups of men are coming to visit him in the dead of night. Portia is right to be suspicious, and perhaps the tragedy of Brutus’ story could have been avoided had he been able to open himself up to his wife.
As with any monologue, it’s essential we understand the story and given circumstances surrounding it. I’d advise you read the play, but at the very least read the scenes leading up to this moment or watch a video summary on Youtube.
Once you have done this, head back here and we’ll dive into the text.
Nor for yours neither. Y’have ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed: and yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose, and walked about,
Musing, and sighing, with your arms across;
And when I asked you what the matter was
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further: then you scratched your head,
And too impatiently stamped with your foot.
Yet I insisted, yet you answered not
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. So I did,
Fearing to strengthen that impatience
Which seemed too much enkindled, and withal,
Hoping it was but an effect of humour,
Which sometime hath his hour with every man.
It will not let you eat, nor talk, nor sleep;
And could it work so much upon your shape
As it hath much prevailed on your condition,
I should not know you Brutus. Dear my lord,
Make me acquainted with your cause of grief.
Stole: in this context, Portia is saying Brutus has snuck out of bed. He has stolen himself from the bed.
Yesternight: Last night
Musing: a period of reflection or thought.
Wafture: : the act of waving or a wavelike motion. Brutus is ‘shooing’ portia away.
Enkindled: set on fire
withal: in addition
humour: (as opposed to laughter or comedy) a mood or state of mind
The cue line for portia’s speech from Brutus is as follows:
Portia, what mean you? Wherefore rise you now?
It is not for your health thus to commit
Your weak condition to the raw, cold morning.
(Brutus asks Portia why she is awake, the cold morning may be dangerous to her health.)
It isn’t good for your health, either. Brutus, you have rudely
snuck out of my bed. And yesterday night at dinner,
you got up all of a sudden and started pacing around,
thinking deeply and sighing with your arms crossed,
and when I asked you what was the matter,
you stared at me harshly.
I kept trying to figure out what was wrong,
but you had a tantrum.
Even still i persisted, but you still didn’t tell me,
but waved me off and told me to leave you alone.
So I did, because I was worried I would only enrage you further
and hoped it was just a mood you were in.
Whatever is troubling you is stopping you from eating and sleeping
has changed your personality so much that, if your posture were to be affected to the same extent I wouldn’t be able to recognise you.
My dear lord, tell me what’s the matter.
Without going into a detailed account of the history of the Roman Empire, it’s important to understand the junction Rome was at during the events of this play. In the time of Julius Caesar, Rome had been a republic. A republic is a government body formed by elected representatives from the people to serve the best interests of the people. A government of the people, for the people. However, there was debate and discussion about whether or not they would be better being a monarchy, with a single ruler wearing a crown at the head of the empire. Rome had experienced Monarchs before, and they feared them and believed that the words ‘monarch’ and ‘tyrant’ were synonymous.
This is Brutus’ primary concern, which he is hiding from his wife. He fears that even though Julius Caesar may seem benevolent now, he will soon become a dictator once he is given total rule over Rome. Cassius and the men coming to visit Brutus are fueling this fire and conflict in Brutus, and are planning to kill Caesar in the Capitol. Portia’s instincts are right – she knows that something deeply troubling is on Brutus’ mind. Little does she know, it is the question of whether or not he should go through with the murder of an Emperor.
Though much of Shakespeare can be difficult for us to access, with it’s archaic language and foreign customs and expressions, there are plenty of scenes and moments in his canon which are incredibly intimate and naturalistic. When Polonius delivers his precepts to his son, Laertes in Hamlet, for instance. Or when Henry the Fifth sits around a fire speaking to his soldiers about the doom they face in the next morning’s battle. All of these moments could be played in close up on camera for their rawness and powerful simplicity. This is one of those moments. Portia and Brutus are a powerful partnership, akin to that of the Macbeths. They know and understand each other deeply and intricately. The development of this relationship by the actors playing these characters must be prioritised and detailed, for in the sophistication of that relationship lies the quality of this scene.
Portia is aware of the limitations placed upon her gender by society, yet she does not back down. She cares too deeply for her husband. Later on in the same scene, she tells Brutus,
“I grant I am a woman, but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
I grant I am a woman, but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so fathered and so husbanded?”
She refuses to stand idly by whilst her husband decays in front of her eyes. She knows Brutus well and will do what she can to get to the heart of the matter. What’s more, it’s an important indicator of her character that she will not stand for Brutus’ rudeness or disregard. She will be treated with respect by him, she will stand for nothing less.
The challenge and joy of this scene is in finding truth in it’s intimacy whilst maintaining a certain performative energy. Careful endowment of the world and circumstances must be done by the actor: It is morning, it is cold, strange people have been through the house and her husband is clearly troubled by something significant. What’s troubling him is potentially dangerous and confidential, so it is important to Portia that Brutus feels they are speaking privately and in confidence. All of these factors lend themselves to a deeply intimate and quiet performance. If it were reality, perhaps this scene would happen all as a whisper or in close proximity. Even though this becomes a challenge for us to bring out and share with the audience, it’s a good starting place for us. When rehearsing this scene, build the energy of it from the ground up. Speak the speech as though there is no audience, and you are only speaking to your husband. It’s quiet, so you can’t speak too loudly. Your husband is clearly distressed by something significant, so too strong an approach to his worries may see him scampering away like an animal in flight. Once you’ve played with the scene intimately, begin to broaden it. Play the scene to an audience of one. Then five audience members, then 20, then 50, and so on. Gradually increasing the ‘reach’ of your performance can allow you to retain the detail and closeness of it whilst still hitting the back row of the audience.
As well as identifying what Portia’s objective and need is in this scene, it’s worth getting clear about what is at stake for Portia. What does she stand to gain and lose by not getting to the bottom of Brutus’ distemper? She understands the significance of Brutus’ position in Rome. She knows the position of the men who have come to visit him and the murmuring unrest of the politics of Rome. Does she suspect what Brutus might be plotting? Does she feel Brutus is capable of the cold blooded murder of an emperor? All of these questions must be answered by the actor to best figure out the way to navigate through this speech.
Like in every scene, we must be wary of ‘playing the obstacle’ as our character, rather than our objective. For Portia, there are many obstacles: her gender, her position in society and her blocked communication with her husband. This must not become the focus of the actor. Portia is trying to win, and so should you. She is trying many different tactics and approaches to get through to her husband, and ultimately she does convince him to open up to her. Unfortunately, the moment she manages to break through to Brutus he is visited once again by the conspirators of Caesar’s murder. Ah the cruel irony of Brutus breaking off this conversation to speak to them – had he only stayed with his wife a little while longer he might not have met his untimely end!