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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: June ::
Re: Cleopatra
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 384.  Wednesday, 23 June 1993.
 
(1)     From:   Kay Stockholder <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Jun 93 10:06:44 PDT
        Subj:   SHK 4.0379  Antony and Cleopatra Query
 
(2)     From:   Al Cacicedo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Jun 1993 13:46:34 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: 4.0379, Ant and Cleo query
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kay Stockholder <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Jun 93 10:06:44 PDT
Subject: Antony and Cleopatra Query
Comment:        SHK 4.0379  Antony and Cleopatra Query
 
For me the strength of the play lies in the imperfection of its lovers along
with the power of their love. Cleopatra is divided between her love and her
desire to survive, while Antony is divided between his fear of and desire for
the feminine in his world. Out of their self-division they each betray the
other, and themselves in the process. I don't see why one can't have sympathy
for imperfect figures; if we were called upon to give our imaginative
understanding only to perfect people we would not have much need of it. After
all, Antony and Cleopatra, apart from the placement in the world and perhaps
their love of self-dramatizing, are considerably more like most people than
Romeo and Juliet.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Al Cacicedo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Jun 1993 13:46:34 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Re: 4.0379, Ant and Cleo query
 
     I think that *Antony and Cleopatra* is a difficult play in large
part because it presents so strong a female character in Cleopatra
that those virile Roman *viri* react with all too characteristic male
fear and loathing.  That perspective is the first thing we hear in
the play, and it's tempting to agree with what's said.  But to say
that Cleopatra is proof of Shakespeare's misogyny seems to me
wrongly to agree with the masculinist perspective of Philo and
Demetrius at the outset of the play.  She is a strumpet only if
one agrees that female sexuality ought to be licenced as Rome
licences it -- and, I think, the play does not look too kindly on the
Roman way of marriage.  Nor am I sure that Cleopatra is so careless
of her children as you suggest.  Octavius's almost voyeuristic
description of Antony and Cleopatra's public enthronement after
Antony abandons Octavia makes Antony the giver of kingdoms and
empery:  but the recipients are Cleopatra and her children.  Again,
to agree that those children are disgusting because they are
"unlawful issue" (3.6.7) is to think of Octavius as the defining voice
of the play.
 
     I'd pursue the idea of your astute student, and consider the way
in which Cleopatra uses her sexuality to counter the abysmally bad
political position of Egypt in a Roman world.  And I would also pursue
the idea that there's much of Venus in the presentation of Cleopatra.
Bevington is right that one can see Cleopatra's haling about of the
messenger as an example of eastern despotism; but compare the
meeting of Venus with Adonis in "Venus and Adonis" (especially
25-42) and you will see that love is not the "soft and delicate desires"
of male fantasy such as Claudio feels for Hero in *Much Ado* (1.1.303).
One can make the identification with Venus problematic, of course.
After all, Venus participates in characteristics of female power that
Janet Adelman, in *Suffocating Mothers*, identifies with male paranoia.
But, I think, the paranoia depends on the fact of female power.  In
other words, Octavius and the Roman world demonize Cleopatra because
she is so self-determining a woman.
 
     I agree with those writers who are unsure of Cleopatra's motivation:
does she only seek to manipulate Antony or does she love him?  But I
also wonder whether the two things are incompatible.  I do think,
however, that the end of the play presents a transcendental Cleopatra,
whose "immortal longings" (5.2.281) are real and, perhaps, definitive
of her relationship with Antony, the "Husband" (287) to whom she now
goes.  By the way, according to civil, or "Roman" law, the illegitimate
children of parents who end up marrying become legitimate:  so if we
take Cleopatra at her word, those bastasrd kids that Octavius abominates
become legitimate.  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' th' world" (5.2.120).  Octavius is pitiably
prune-like -- nowhere more so than when he first sees Cleopatra and
must ask "Which is the Queen of Egypt" (5.2.112) -- but maybe world
empire requires a prune instead of a plum.  In any case, I think that
even Octavius' success is undermined in the course of the play.  So, as
Octavius foresees the "time of universal peace" (4.6.4) that his victory
will inaugurate, the play reminds us, as it has done several times
before, that "Great Herod" reigns in Palestine.  I imagine that any
Christian audience must hear in the name of Herod a reference to the
birth of that "one greater man," to borrow Milton's phrase, who will undo
Octavius much as Octavius has undone Cleopatra and Antony.
 
Just a reading from Reading, PA
 
Al Cacicedo (
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Albright College
 

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