William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatracontains one of the most compelling character studies in all of literature. Amazingly, this can be said of several of the Bard’s plays. What sets Antony and Cleopatra apart is that this work contains not one, but two of these fantastically crafted personas, Antony and Cleopatra.
A little clarification to start; my commentary here is restricted to Shakespeare’s play. Strangely, some sources seem to blur this fictional work with the real people and historical events that the play is based upon. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, may not be coincidental, but are essentially inaccurate! Some commentators seem also to confuse Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with other very different versions of the pair that have been portrayed in movies and television programs that have been produced in the past hundred years or so. This version is a fiction, and it is Shakespeare’s fiction.
The story is relatively simple. Antony, one of Rome’s rulers, and Cleopatra the monarch of Egypt are lovers. They ultimately lead the losing side of a Roman Civil War. After several battles and personal tribulations, the armies of Octavius Caesar defeat their forces. In the end, both commit very nobly portrayed suicides.
Both Antony and Cleopatra are represented as multi-faceted, complex people. Shakespeare had a knack, when he concentrated on a character, of seeming to create real people. He also endows these creations with plentiful doses of enigma and ambiguity. That is why these are so many alternate interpretations of his works.
Since volumes can be written about this play and its protagonists, I will confine most of my musings here to Shakespeare’s sublime portrayal of Cleopatra, who to me, is just a little bit more interesting then Antony.
An initial reading of Antony and Cleopatra reveals some obvious points about the Queen of Egypt. She is promiscuous, manipulative, self centered, hysterical, theatrical and dishonest. These are all accurate descriptors of her personality. When it comes to Shakespeare however, things are rarely simple. These personality flaws only tell part of the story.
Cleopatra is an expert seducer and manipulator of powerful men. To some extent she has wrapped Julius Cesar, Pompey and finally, Mark Antony around her finger. At one point she brags about her capture of Antony. In several other sequences she plays emotional games with him. Cleopatra ‘s conquests are not innocent and love smitten school - boys, instead they are the most powerful, experienced and confident men in the world. When her side is totally defeated by Octavius, she even manages to enthrall one of Octavius’s lieutenants into aiding her! The impression is that this woman exudes an unmatched erotic and sensual influence over men. She is the epitome of erogenous power. Many of the males soldiers and politicians on the outside of her affections looking in, describe her, using words such as “strumpet” and “whore.”
Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of another angle however. Many scenes involving Cleopatra’s intrigues are interposed with other scenes exemplifying the actions of the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Roman leadership consisting of Octavius, Mark Antony and other general/politicians are constantly using their expertise and skill in making political mischief and war. These conflicts are fueled by an insatiable petty lust for power. At one point Shakespeare seems to compare the Roman leaders to pirates. These men exert enormous and malevolent power.
With this contrast, Shakespeare seems to be putting Cleopatra's seductions and machinations in a little different light. While in no way a virtuous person, Cleopatra is using her erotic influences, in competition with men who wield vast military and political power. The Roman leadership and military’s way is to kill, rob and enslaving people over vast segments of the world. This is a world of not just hardball maneuvers; it is a world of blood –sport. The Queen of Egypt is using her talents to cope and compete, in a less brutal way as compared to the Roman powers, in a very tough and nasty world. She is startlingly effective in doing so.
The question that inevitably arises is, does Cleopatra love Antony? This is difficult to say since every word uttered by the queen is of questionable verity. She certainly does not experience a love of the healthy and balanced type. At one point she even seems to take several steps in the direction of betraying Antony to Octavius. Of course this is after Antony has taken more then a few steps toward betraying Cleopatra, by marrying and settling down of with Octavia, who is Octavius’s sister, for political reasons. I do surmise however, that Cleopatra’s consistent protestations of love and adoration for Antony, even at the moment of her own death, do point to a dysfunctional, unstable, and odd kind of love. In Cleopatra’s world, love, even if in some ways genuine, is close enough to being a tool, that it does not completely preclude the possibility of betrayal.
Finally, Cleopatra’s death is grand and dignified. Prior to her suicide, after Antony’s death, she seems certainly willing to continue to “play the game” to her advantage. When it becomes clear that Octavius will not succumb to her charms, and that enormous degradation lies ahead for her, killing oneself, is the clearly only alternative for a person such as she is. Throughout the play, her lines are a wonder to read, as they express the full range of her often theatrically expressed emotions. The language spoken by her at the end is some of the most eloquent and moving in all of Shakespeare’s works. It illustrates her majesty as well as her ultimate spiritual connection with Antony.
Does all this mean that Shakespeare was a Feminist? The portrayal of a woman who uses seduction to advance in the world, is in some ways the antitheses of Feminine ideology. In addition the concept of Feminism did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. However, at the very least, in my opinion, there is sympathy expressed here for the position and predicaments that women have found themselves in throughout history. I would describe these ideas as being “proto –feminist”.
The somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Cleopatra aside, the template of the emotionally manipulative and erotically irresistible woman, shaped in this play, has influenced writers down through the centuries. Many have imitated, but have never matched this magnificent portrayal of such a person. William Shakespeare, created in Cleopatra is an enormous persona of unmatched gravitas and complexity.