Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 379. Tuesday, 22 June 1993.
Date: Tuesday, 22 Jun 1993 6:03:56 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Ant. and Cleo query
As Antony is "the abstract of all faults/That all men follow," so
Shakespeare gives us a Cleopatra who is the abstract of all faults
that all women follow, at least in the stereotypical view of the
times. As Adelman has shown, although the poetry about Cleopatra
tells of her infinite variety, and the poetry that comes from her
own mouth shows us a person of subtlety and imagination, the action
of the play presents an ironic contrast to this sublimity. In the
action, we see "her teasing and lying, her erotic daydreaming, her
pleasure in reminding the eunuch Mardian of his physical disability,
her oriental despotism in dealing with messengers, and the like."
I'm about to teach this play to college undergraduates for the
second time in as many months (on June 22 and 24), and find myself
more and more dismayed by what I feel to be misogyny in this portrait.
Cleopatra's willfulness and disregard for others -- her insistence on
commanding at sea when she has no experience in captainship, her utter
disregard for her children's future and well-being, her lying to Antony
about her death to see what he will do, all conjure up a woman who is
never "free from childishness," a demonic and poisonous force who
finally is only able to give her love fully to Antony when it can no
longer do him any good.
Is there any possible sympathetic interpretation of Cleopatra?
My students see Antony as Dagwood Bumstead, Cleopatra as a
silly/and or demonically destructive person (I had a roommate who was
just like that, they say)...except for one extraordinary student who
said that Antony and Caesar are parvenus but Cleopatra comes from an
ancient line of royalty, is superior to Antony and Caesar in every
way, is practically a goddess, and can do whatever she wants...in sum,
these jerks were lucky that she gave them the time of day.
Or does Antony and Cleopatra have to be looked at as a period piece,
like The Merchant of Venice, so steeped in its own prejudices that the
characterization of Cleopatra must look to us now as stilted and
unsatisfactory -- relying on assumptions on the part of the audience
that no longer exist?
College of St. Catherine
St. Paul, Minnesota