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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: June ::
Re: Cleopatra
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 380.  Wednesday, 23 June 1993.
 
From:           Milla Riggio <
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Date:           Tuesday, 22 Jun 1993 09:49 EST
Subject: 4.0379  Antony and Cleopatra Query
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0379  Antony and Cleopatra Query
 
Dear Susan:
 
Your query sounds as good as anything to start up a summertime discussion
on SHAKESPER so I'll reply through the network, rather than privately,
partly because I have a theory about Cleopatra that I haven't tested
anywhere, and if anyone wants to respond to this, or tell me where it's
all been carefully proved or disproved already, that would be great.  I
would answer that you're being misled by the Renaissance tracts to dismiss
Shakespeare's Cleopatra.  She is, in my quirky interpretation, the
imaginative center of the play.  In fact, I could argue that her re-
creation of Antony in Act V in "His legs bestrid the ocean" is the
poet's achievement, the making of the myth out of the man that Anthony
was not (could not have)  been ("Think you there was or might have been
such a man...."?).  In this sense, Cleopatra, the woman of the night,
associated with the moon, with fertility, with imaginative creation
speaks as a poet herself, and she creates with poetic virility.  She
has ALL the children in the play, so it matters little in a sense how
practically she protects them.  She is the antidote to the "holy, cold,
and still disposition" of the virtuous Octavia, surely the "best" of the
Romans, but still no match for Anthony's blood.  Cleopatra is a "wonderful
piece of work," a "queen," a "lass  unparallel'd," (and you may resist the
objectification and potential diminution these terms suggest, but the
play incorporates them in to a portrait of a fascinating, irresistible
woman).  She is, and this is my argument, also the poet, and HER myth
of Anthony (as ultimately Shakespeare's myth of both Anthony and her)
transcends the tawdry reality of their lives.  When teaching this play,
I liken Cleopatra to Hedda Gabler; In Ibsen's play, Thea is the moral
person, but this is not a play about moral goodness.  And Shakespeare's
play is not about duty, good husbandry or good huswifery.  It celebrates
the dungy earth of Egypt where Anthony is most himself, and where poetic
creation can afford to create myth at the expense of the ordinary round
of life.  Cleopatra is a MISERABLE warrior, but then Shakespeare never
much idealizes war, and he certainly would not welcome the addition of
female troops (the latest form of liberation for women would definitely
not please him). So she is VERY destructive in the battle.  But otherwise,
she represents the energy that not only fascinates but that also creates:
living children and poetic myths.  An alternate social and ethical order,
and not by any means an inferior one, as presented in the play.
 
By the way, Ralph Cohen in this year's Shenandoah Shakespeare Express
production of the play is trying to give Cleopatra a kind of Eastern
cult anti-Christianity energy that would support some kind of inter-
pretation like this.  It's fairly commonplace to argue for the fecundity
and fertility of Egypt against the sterile heroism of Rome.  My wrinkle
on that argument is to link Cleopatra with the poet, with imagination
itself.
 
Okay.  Shoot away.
 
Best,
Milla Riggio
 

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