The assortment of perspectives from which we see Cleopatra illustrates the varying understandings of her as a decadent foreign woman and a noble ruler. As Philo and Demetrius take the stage in Act I, scene i, their complaints about Antony’s neglected duties frame the audience’s understanding of Cleopatra, the queen for whom Antony risks his reputation. Within the first ten lines of the play, the men declare Cleopatra a lustful “gipsy,” a description that is repeated throughout the play as though by a chorus (I.i.10). Cleopatra is labeled a “wrangling queen” (I.i.50), a “slave” (I.iv.19), an “Egyptian dish” (II.vi.123), and a “whore” (III.vi.67); she is called “Salt Cleopatra” (II.i.21) and an enchantress who has made Antony “the noble ruin of her magic” (III.x.18).
But to view Cleopatra as such is to reduce her character to the rather narrow perspective of the Romans, who, standing to lose their honor or kingdoms through her agency, are most threatened by her. Certainly this threat has much to do with Cleopatra’s beauty and open sexuality, which, as Enobarbus points out in his famous description of her in Act II, scene ii, is awe-inspiring. But it is also a performance. Indeed, when Cleopatra takes the stage, she does so as an actress, elevating her passion, grief, and outrage to the most dramatic and captivating level. As Enobarbus says, the queen did not walk through the street, but rather
Hop[ped] forty paces . . .
And having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And breathless, pour breath forth.
Whether whispering sweet words of love to Antony or railing at a supposedly disloyal servant, Cleopatra leaves her onlookers breathless. As Antony notes, she is a woman “[w]hom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh / To weep” (I.i.51–52). It is this ability to be the perfect embodiment of all things—beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice—that Cleopatra stands to lose after her defeat by Caesar. By parading her through the streets of Rome as his trophy, he intends to reduce her character to a single, base element—to immortalize her as a whore. If Antony cannot allow his conception of self to expand to incorporate his defeats, then Cleopatra cannot allow hers to be stripped to the image of a boy actor “squeaking Cleopatra . . . / I’th’ posture of a whore” (V.ii.216–217). Cleopatra often behaves childishly and with relentless self-absorption; nevertheless, her charisma, strength, and indomitable will make her one of Shakespeare’s strongest, most awe-inspiring female characters.
In the Bard's hands and the amorous arms of Egypt, the courageous, gifted Antony of Julius Caesar becomes the doting fool of Antony and Cleopatra.
I just finished A&C in my attempt to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday next year. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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