William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
“Heaven help the American-born boy with a talent for ballet”
– Camille Paglia
The prim and proper women and the strong and strapping men are no match for Shakespeare’s haze of character’s muddled together in Antony and Cleopatra. As always Shakespeare delivers a luminary cast of individuals that deviate from the socially accepted gender roles. As the audience works its way through the fierce genesis to the catastrophic resolution, it is made more than apparent that lines are being crossed all over society’s conformist board of gender specific expectations.
The character that was most amplified in this context was the stunning Cleopatra. Less like a lady and more like a warrior, the audience was witness to this Egyptian queen beginning her cameo with a barrage of games she endlessly threw Antony’s way in a sly attempt to win his affections. “Nay, pray you seek no color for your going, but bid farewell and go” (1.3.33-34). Cleopatra occasionally showed signs of her female side through bouts of the play; however the majority of her presence was swarming with an aura of resiliency and strength. Other characters even mentioned her with such traits in mind; for example, Caesar proclaimed “[Lepidus] is not more manlike than Cleopatra” (1.3.5-6). Her strength was defined most in her beauty; “she makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vildest things become themselves in her” (2.2.236-237). However, it was also present in her behavior. Cleopatra was a meek woman by no means. She stood up for the things she believed in. When upset, she presented her shrewish side. “Hence, Horrible Villian, or I’ll spurn thine eyes like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head, thou shalt be whipt with wire, and stew’d in brine, smarting in ling’ring pickle.” (2.5.64-65). Cleopatra even fully objected to staying behind when the men were planning to pursue a war. “Sink Rome, and their tongues rot that speak against us! . . . I will not stay behind.” (3.7.15-18). A most predominate boundary stepper, Cleopatra shocked the audience with attributes not accustomed to a woman of such standing even up to the point when she bravely faced the absolution of her life after being bitten by the aspic, the small, venomous serpent (OED).
However, a nice contrast to the toxic Cleopatra is the docile Octavia. Willing to move from one man to the next as her brother so commanded of her, Octavia lacked much of a backbone and showed audiences the acceptable traits of a woman. Few were willing to speak wrong of the sister of the great Caesar. Qualities presented through the submissive Octavia were common for the women of the time. “If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle the heart of Antony, Octavia is a blessed lottery to him” (2.2.240-241). Octavia was the epitome of what the men were looking for in that era.
Another periphery side swiper was the second protagonist, one Mark...