Female Power, Maternity and Genderbending in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The 19th century essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt wrote of Cleopatra, "She is voluptuous, ostentatious, conscious, boastful of her charms, haughty, tyrannical, [and] fickle," which are "great and unpardonable faults" (Hazlitt 2-3). Much of the criticism of Antony and Cleopatra has recycled this judgement, depicting Cleopatra as a villainess uses her eroticism and sexuality to motivate Antony to seek power. Cleopatra is memorable for her propensity for violence as well. While Antony and Cleopatra was written after the death of a violent English queen, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare may have been faced with a dramatic dilemma: how to make a woman seem believably violent and intimidating on the stage. Coppélia Kahn notes that Cleopatra was "Rome's most dangerous enemy" (111),i but how does one make the Queen of the Nile seem like such a threat during a time when women had little social and political power. Shakespeare does several things to accomplish this task: 1) he locates Cleopatra's power in a foreign or supernatural realm; 2) he inverts her gender role with that of Antony; 3) he suppresses her maternal qualities; and 4) he allows her to be redeemed only in death. Indeed, it is the only way to handle a difficult woman on the Jacobean stage.
Locating Codes of Female Power
In Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman values of honor and bravery embody masculinity, while Egypt and the Orient symbolize feminine weakness and fragility. Caesar and Agrippa are depicted as reasonable, logical, and practical, especially in matters of strategy and war. Cleopatra and her servants and eunuchs are consistently referred to in terms of laziness, lethargy, and a focus on bodily pleasure. Antony's emasculation is a result of his eventual submission to the latter. The binary oppositions of masculine and feminine are thus personified by Caesar and Cleopatra, not by Antony, whose men often regard him as the "pawn" of the deceptive queen and thus not a real man. On the contrary, Robert Miola says, "Caesar's sense of purpose and public responsibility directly opposes Cleopatra's love of idleness and luxury" (129), a conclusion supported by the fact that it is Caesar who, after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, provides some closure to the political chaos that has dominated the play.
Such an assertion--that the danger of Cleopatra's sexuality lies in her Egyptian surroundings--requires further detail here. The Orient represented a strange, but terrifyingly fascinating world to the Elizabethans. While it was decidedly inferior and politically weak, the Orient also held a dangerous mystique. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett attests, poets, playwrights, historians and artists have found the idea of Cleopatra's foreignness, or otherness, a suitable method by which to explain away her dangerous sexuality. In other words, the fact that Cleopatra effectively seduced and...