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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: July ::
Thanks: Cleopatra Query
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 462.  Wednesday, 28 July 1993.
 
From:           Susan Welch <
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Date:           Tuesday, 27 Jul 1993 17:07:59 -0500 (CDT)
Subject:        Yo, Cleo -- thanks, Shakespeareans
 
To the Shakespeareans who took the time to share with me their
insights about the character of Cleopatra, I want to express my deep
gratitude.  Because of your questions, references and opinions, my
classes, as well as my reflections about those classes, were full of
richness and excitement: The students, exposed to many different
considerations and perspectives, were experimental and bold in their
own interpretations. Although Cleopatra had her usual detractors, it
was wonderful to hear many of students, in response to Phyllis
Rackin's essay, respond exuberantly to Cleopatra's recklessness and
boldness in action and language. We had in class our share of women
who side with the critics cited by L.T. Fitz who "have been readier to
sympathize with the murderer (Macbeth) than with a wanton
woman," applying a pernicious double standard: "Cleopatra is
repeatedly criticized for thinking of anything but Antony: this would
seem to follow from the sexist precept that nothing but love is
appropriate to a woman's thoughts." "...when Antony follows his
fervent protestations of love for Cleopatra by leaving Egypt to patch
up his political situation in Rome through marriage to Octavia, he
receives nothing but critical praise -- for putting first things first
and attempting to break off a destructive relationship with
Cleopatra." Many thanks to Michael Best for referring me to L.T.
Fitz's essay, "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes
in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism," SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY, 1977.
 
My colleague Sister Margery Smith pointed out to me that since
we never hear Cleopatra in soliloquy, we never know the truth of her
heart. I suppose this will always add an obliqueness to any
interpretation of her character.
 
I used Jonathan Miller's BBC film of the play which drew some
negative reviews. Students were appalled that while Iras and
Mardian, her servants, were people of color, Cleopatra herself was
white. Since she refers to herself as black, and is referred to
throughout as tawny, dark, etc., students perceived an insulting
racist implication in the casting of a white woman in the hero role,
causing them to dismiss the entire production. Someone has
suggested Tina Turner for the Cleopatra role, a casting idea with
which my students strongly concurred.
 
Although I could go on and on, I will show my real gratitude to
you by not doing so. I close by thanking the Shakespeareans who have
added greatly to my appreciation and understanding of this
magnificent play and its central character: Michael Best, Mary Ellen
Zurko (I have ordered "Shakespeare's Women" but haven't gotten it
yet), Bob White at The Citadel, Jamey Saeger, University of
Pennsylvania, (thanks for referring me to Phyllis Rackin's
"Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of  Nature, and the Golden
World of Poetry, " PMLA 87 (1972), John Massa, University of Iowa
(thanks for the Maggie Thatcher comparison -- i.e., Maggie Thatcher
didn't discourage all that 'Iron Lady' talk -- every little
psychological advantage helps a leader and, then as now, "nice guys"
didn't always last long in power), Nina Walker, Northeastern
University (thanks for opening other doors of thought about Cleo's
character -- you showed me how, in their exchanges, Cleopatra wins
out over Antony time and time again), Milla Riggio, (thanks for your
marvelous discussion of Cleopatra as a poet and the imaginative
center of the play), Herbert Donow, Southern Illinois University, Kay
Stockholder ("if we were called upon to give our imaginative
understanding only to perfect people we would not have much need of
it"), Al Cacicedo, Albright College ("Anyway, if you're looking for
misogyny in the play, of course, it's there in the language of Rome.
But the play presents an alternative language that I find to be
remarkably unmisogynistic. Ultimately that language may simply
mystify the real outcome of the play -- after all, Cleopatra and
Antony do end up dead while Octavius lives on as the "sole sir o' the
world").
 
And thanks again to Dr. Margery Smith, CSJ, The College of St.
Catherine, St. Paul, MN, and to all of you for an exhilarating
exchange.
 
Susan Welch
The College of St. Catherine

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