The Fictional Character Cleopatra
The fictional character of Cleopatra has captured the imaginations of people the world over. Helen of Troy was said to have had ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’ Cleopatra was not simply a beautiful and passive face, but indeed commanded navies as well as the heart of the powerful Mark Antony. Looking at these two facts from the play one may see the political brilliance in her affections, but also the dichotomy. Which one of her loves is true, and which is of an illusory nature? There is a constant battle between her passion towards the mighty Roman and her yearning for sovereignty and the glory of Egypt on her own terms. This question certainly embroils the mind of Mark Antony, at least. All of this however, only adds to her enigmatic depth of character and mystique.
Cleopatra, despite being cunning and even manipulative can be defined as one of literature’s great lovers. She was a lover of men and a lover of her country. A figure more driven in these categories would be hard to find. Yet parallels can be drawn with Queen Elizabeth I of England. Both were ardent, patriotic leaders descended from powerful rulers (in the case of Elizabeth, Henry VIII, and in Cleopatra’s instance the Ptolemeic dynasty). Wielding great authority themselves, Cleopatra also used her charms as a courtesan to bend the wills of her political peers. Elizabeth used her unmarried status to manage numerous suitors to her political advantage. Their intelligence is another common trait. “Elizabeth’s linguistic ability is well attested, not only by her tutor Ascham, but by visitors to the English court who speak of precisely this facility in replying to ambassadors either in Latin or in their own tongues” (Smith 214). Shakespeare’s beloved modern monarch would inevitably had some indirect influence on his writing, as her reign cast a massive shadow of governance and prosperity over England at that time. As the ‘virgin queen’ she bore no heirs, and curiously Shakespeare’s works have a distinct lack of mother characters. Cleopatra, historically the mother of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s children, is only referred to as a matriarch once and briefly in this particular play. Motherhood was not a new theme for women characters, but power, lust, learnedness, intelligence, and ambition were somewhat more novel.
Cleopatra is seen by people of the 21st century as the last symbolic link with the glorious and opulent empire of ancient Egypt. This view would have been largely shared by the audience of the 17th century as well. There has always been a human fascination with power and abundance. Antony and Cleopatra is richly endowed with imagery of this.
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were...