“As a great part, [Cleopatra] does not hang together.” The words of Ellen Terry, there – the great actress who, noticeably, never played the Egyptian Queen though played just about every other female Shakespearean part.
As it happens, this is also a view I share.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is not a great part but an embarrassing reductive sexist cliché that not only diminishes this great woman, but, by considering this role as ‘great’, we diminish all women.
Cleopatra has been a pet passion of mine for many years – the real woman, that is. Not this ‘sex kitten, hot-to-trot wanton vixen more interested in lounging with her many lovers than running her country’ misogynist depiction portrayed by Greek historian Plutarch and, subsequently, Shakespeare.
(That was a long sentence…)
But really, I’m so bored and fed up with this pathetic parody of a great and complex woman that I have been toying for a while with rewriting Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Why should we let this sexist slant go unchallenged? Because it’s Shakespeare? Nothing is sacrosanct. I want to give power and respect back to the woman who history has robbed of her achievements and her dignity.
So why now? Why am I writing this mini-polemic now?
Well, it’s the result of an article I read this week on The Independent website. The piece was about Shakespeare’s play and described Cleopatra in glowing terms as “a fully rounded femme fatale.”
Ok, hold up for a minute here. You said, what?
There is no such thing as “a fully rounded femme fatale”. That is an oxymoron.
A femme fatale is not a complete person; she is a caricature, a cartoonish reductive depiction of a woman. To portray a woman as a femme fatale is to diminish her, not to exalt her. Only a misogynist thinks a femme fatale is a well-rounded female character.
In Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra may be a central character but she is also the villain. All femme fatales are. They are there because they are malevolent, corrupting influences. They pervert the rational thought of good, honest men, turning them from heroes into zeroes.
And that is *exactly* how Shakespeare uses Cleopatra.
Mark Antony was a good man – at least, that’s what Shakespeare wants us to think. (In reality, he wasn’t. Far from it. But obvs the play is all about the downfall a good man so just go with me here.)
“…and you shall see in him, the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool.” Act 1 Scene 1. Straight out the gate. That’s how Shakespeare frames his play and that is how he frames the Atlas that is Antony with the slapper that is Cleopatra. The Kaa-like siren has bewitched the mighty Antony and turned him into a fool.
That, in reality, Antony had sex with just about every female that crossed his path, no, let’s marginalise that. Because that’s a fun double standard, isn’t it? Male shagging around – virility; female shagging around – slapper. *thumbs up emoji*
I don’t want to back away from protecting Cleopatra from any ‘slut-shaming’ here – if she slept with hundreds of men (and women), I don’t care. Makes no difference. But actually, she was remarkably chaste. It’s thought that she probably only had sex with two men her whole life – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. One hell of a ‘type’, I suppose. But I bring it up here because it’s important later. It reflects how even the most powerful of women learnt to keep men at an arm’s length.
So anyway, back to Shakespeare…
This mighty man, the legendary Roman general Mark Antony, has abandoned his responsibility of government in Rome. He has abandoned the Roman people! “’Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall: here is my space.” That is Antony’s declaration at the start of the play – to hell with glorious Rome! I’m here in Alexandria and I am STAYING!
It’s madness. MADNESS, I TELL YOU!
And what has caused this madness? Well, it’s that “serpent of the Nile”, Cleopatra. She has cast a spell over our hero! He has lost his mind, abandoning the important world of government, of calm, considered debate on principles and welfare in Rome for the hedonistic threesomes and endless wine in Egypt.
I mean, I’m mocking this, I know. But seriously, this pisses me off.
All of this frames men as the only ones capable of rational thought. In Shakespeare’s Rome the men are sacrificing pleasure for their role in responsible government; whereas in Alexandria, the great male warrior is drunk on wine and lust. Rome is a world ruled by men; Egypt is a world ruled by one woman.
Shakespeare is literally shouting at us, “LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LET WOMEN RULE!” Cleopatra’s court is corrupt and lascivious; only Rome is the light.
Of course, in actuality, this was absolute bullshit.
Rome was a man’s world, yes, but, my god, what a mess it was. Constant grandstanding and bravado, constant wars and conflict, *literally* stabbing each other in the back… Rome was completely defined by this dangerous notion of virile masculinity, where manhood had to be accompanied with might, strength and rampant promiscuity, rather than wise judgment and good government.
And that was nothing like Cleopatra’s Egypt.
When Cleopatra first took the throne of Egypt, she was eighteen (and ‘took’ is the right word) and her country was in a mess. Egypt was bankrupt and her father had been a shit Pharaoh. Absolutely useless. The Ptolemy dynasty, of which Cleopatra was part, had enemies both without and within its own borders. Her country and family were both in revolt.
That Cleopatra was smart would soon become evident, but she was also ruthless. She was supposed to rule with her brother (as, you know, women can’t really rule by themselves) but, as it turned out, he was suddenly poisoned.
And when one of her sisters made an escape and sought to raise up an army against Cleopatra, said sister was found stabbed to death on the steps of a temple.
So that left just one to rule…
Ruthless elimination of her rivals, sure, but this was a ‘kill or be killed’ world. And yet, in the twenty years she ruled Egypt, she transformed her country. (Yes, twenty years. Did you realise she ruled for that long?) She brought stability, both politically and economically. At times, the Nile didn’t flood, with terrible impacts for harvests and poverty levels, so Cleopatra brought in economic planning to balance out the unreliability of nature and to minimise its adverse economic impacts.
And don’t give me that crap about a court run by fortune-tellers. Cleopatra was an academician. Under her, the sciences flourished with breakthroughs in astronomy and mathematics.
When she came to the throne, Cleopatra knew her family was hated. They were seen as outsiders, more interested in power than responsibility. She worked hard to bridge the gap with her people. She was the first in the Ptolemy dynasty to learn the local languages (she could speak several languages fluently, apparently) and made great effort to travel across her country, using her famous barge to go out into Egypt, to be seen by her people and to respond to them, rather than remain behind her palace walls in Alexandria.
But her ruthlessness was not solely confined to dealing with threats to her throne. For the benefit of Egypt she cut an eye-watering deal with King Herod (him of, ‘kill all the young boys’ fame) using the threat of war to exploit the economic benefit of all the bitumen deposits within his borders. (Given Herod’s reputation, I’m very much #TeamCleopatra here.)
Tough woman, yes. I tip my hat. But she was also a devoted mother – one son from Julius Caesar, three children from Mark Antony.
Let me just say that again, slowly – one son from Julius Caesar.
The only male heir Julius Caesar had.
Yup, that’s going to be important later.
She loved her children; she was completely devoted to them. And this differs her, crucially, from Elizabeth I, with whom she is often compared. In truth, there isn’t much in common between them. Cleopatra was an autocrat – she ruled alone – over a country whose wealth and influence far exceeded Elizabethan England. And she was also a mother – a role Elizabeth studiously avoided.
This is complexity; these are the beginnings of a great multi-faceted character.
But no. Shakespeare wasn’t interested in that. Shakespeare needed Cleopatra to be a simple, two-dimensional idiot so all of this was marginalised.
So, when Antony eventually leaves Alexandria for Rome, what does Shakespeare have Cleopatra do? Perhaps he could show a glimpse of this great Queen bringing peace and prosperity to a country where there had been none before?
No. Instead, Shakespeare’s “greatest female character” spends her time wistfully gazing out over the Mediterranean Sea, pining for her lover, and muttering about how jealous she is of Antony’s horse because that horse has Antony sitting on it.
I mean, please…
That’s it, diminish women. No, please, go ahead.
Just because this character has a crown on her head, don’t tell me she’s great. She isn’t.
In fact, this isn’t a great play, full stop for, as much as Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra is sexist, so his depiction of Egypt is racist. It’s a terrible play that venerates the rule of the white man.
Anyway, there were so many opportunities missed to create a great female character in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. I appreciate Shakespeare was heavily reliant on Plutarch’s records here but still, Shakespeare clearly knew what made for a great character – and Cleopatra isn’t it.
And more than this, for me there is real sadness in the reductive depiction of Cleopatra as a wanton sex goddess because not only was that so far from the truth, but, as well as missing the opportunity to interrogate that tricky position of a woman in a man’s world, it overlooks what must have been a source of sadness for her.
Cleopatra’s affair with Julius Caesar was brief and the result of a profound power imbalance. When they first met, she was a seventeen/eighteen year old third daughter to the Pharaoh of a bankrupt country; he was fifty-one and the most powerful man in the world.
Don’t tell me that she seduced him, don’t you even try.
At best, Cleopatra was way, way, way out of her depth. I, at least, take some comfort that, it seems, some form of affection did eventually develop between them – he would invite her to Rome at a later date and Caesar was certainly impressed enough with her to back her installation as Queen of Egypt.
But do not for a second think the mighty Caesar would have done this if it didn’t suit him, if he didn’t think he could control Cleopatra and secure access to Egypt’s vast resources, such as grain for his army.
But all of this is one hell of a lesson for a Queen to learn – that somehow her power derives from men, and that she must be wary of men if she is to secure it. And that even sex with a man could cause her a whole lot of problems because, even though she loved Caesarion, her son with Caesar, he (to misquote SPECTRE) would be the source of all of her pain.
It wasn’t Mark Antony that sealed Cleopatra’s fate; it was that she bore Caesar’s sole male heir.
Both in the play and in reality, the battle to succeed the murdered Caesar was between Cleopatra and Antony on one side, and Octavius on the other.
Octavius’s claim was based, primarily, on his position as Caesar’s nephew – a claim that would be totally undermined by Caesar’s son coming to Rome. In a world that was obsessed with male heirs, Cleopatra had the prize. So, inevitably, for Octavius to win, he had to eliminate Cleopatra and her son.
Rome would have been coming for Cleopatra whether she had shackled up with Mark Antony or not. He served only as a complication. This was, in fact, a straight out fight for power between Cleopatra and Octavius.
But even beyond the politicking, I find still more sadness here.
If we assume that Cleopatra loved either, or both, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, neither of those men repaid that loyalty. They were never faithful – both had reputations as prolific philanderers. And both men were married to other women.
These were men Cleopatra could have, but could not hold.
Even when Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, died at the height of his affair with Cleopatra, he chose not marry his lover but, instead, plumped for a political marriage to Octavius’s sister. An attempt to keep the wolves from the door? Probably. But that’s still got to hurt. What kind of message do you think that reinforced to Cleopatra? This single mother left holding four children whilst the men she loved could take it or leave it?
That must have been a bitter pill to swallow – and a pain she would have had to bear silently if she was to keep the men on side.
But none of this is honoured in Shakespeare. None of these nuances or complications was explored or exploited, facets that could have given his Cleopatra depth. Theatre is always examining power imbalances between characters, yet, in Cleopatra, Shakespeare wasn’t interested in exploring so many of the various ways Cleopatra had power – and all the ways she did not.
No. It had to be kept simple – women – corrupt; men – brave and good.
It’s an interesting footnote to this portrayal of the inevitable decline of moral corruption that, actually, Cleopatra came very close to winning. Very, very close. Yes, the cards were stacked against her but there was an opening, just before the “Battle of Actium” (it was actually just a skirmish) where Cleopatra’s ships and size of her army had the tipping point over Octavius and Rome.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony did talk about invading Rome directly, at that point. To go straight for the jugular. Had they done so, they would have defeated Octavius and taken over Rome, but they decided not to.
Cleopatra was nervous about her position as an invading foreign Queen. She feared a backlash from the Roman people and, instead, preferred to wait for a time when they could face and defeat Octavius overseas – then enter Rome as liberators rather than invaders.
They thought they would get another, better, chance. They wouldn’t. And in that one small, understandable decision, everything turned. The future of the world turned on a dime.
Just think how different the world would be if Cleopatra and Antony had won. How different would our society be if the greatest empire the world had ever seen had been ruled by a woman? Everything would be different. Everything. From the treatment of woman in society to our response to women in positions of power.
Nothing would be as it is.
Instead, history is written by the victors. Octavius got his act together and, with the help of some smart strategizing from his naval commander Agrippa, he outmanoeuvred and defeated Egypt and Mark Antony.
Then, crucially, Octavius needed to somehow reconcile and legitimise his defeat of the great Roman general, Mark Antony. How did he do this? By creating a myth. By depicting Cleopatra as the siren who seduced the great Roman general and turned him into a shell of a man who could no longer think clearly.
And, under Octavius’s rule, that was the line promoted by Plutarch.
And that was the version picked up by Shakespeare.
So this is the lie that has become the truth.
The Madonna/whore complex gave Octavius an opportunity – and he grabbed it, firmly painting Cleopatra as a whore.
That is why Cleopatra is not a great character – Shakespeare, like Plutarch, robbed Cleopatra of all the complexities, of all that made her human. Her power is diminished and she has no intelligence to speak of. She is incapable of reason and the only way she can get men to listen to her is to bewitch them.
To Shakespeare and to the world, Cleopatra has been reduced to a witch. One that bathed in asses milk, spent all day wining and dining, or throwing temper tantrums at Antony when she didn’t get her way. A woman that could seduce any man with the flick of her wrist and who had no interesting features other than her famed beauty.
That is not the start of a great character.
So, instead of running the world, Cleopatra’s fate was to die in her mausoleum. Not even in death though could she be spared the wave of misogyny that would come to define her.
Legend has it she died from an asp bite to her breast – a rather sexually charged image. What a load of bollocks. To die from snake venom, Cleopatra would have to have been bitten straight into her veins by two six-foot cobras. Yeah, run that image through your mind. Not pretty, is it?
Cleopatra was smart. She needed a quick death and an efficient one. Snake bite was too unreliable. She poisoned herself, probably from a poisoned hairclip she kept on her. Defeat had been coming for a while and there was no way she was going to be paraded through the streets of Rome, a prisoner in chains. It is thought she kept the clip on her, should she be suddenly captured, which, in effect, was pretty much what happened.
(Can I just take this opportunity to point out that she lasted longer against Octavius than Mark Antony, and made a better job of her suicide? #JustSaying)
I know I’ve written a lot here but, conversely, I do find this all hard to write. It affects me because imagine how different this all could have been. Not just for Cleopatra, but for all women.
Instead we are left with this great woman’s legacy in tatters and a crude, false misogynistic representation of a woman in her place. Shakespeare didn’t give us a great female character in Cleopatra; he gave us a pathetic and offensive sexist trope.
So, back to my planned Cleopatra play, I go. I’m rewriting Shakespeare, correcting it, if you will. It’s called The Tragedy of Cleopatra because the tragedy is all hers – both in life and in death.
Mark Antony was the architect of his own downfall – I have no sympathy for him. But Cleopatra… Cleopatra got dealt a shitty hand but my, god, she played it well.
So, I hope you understand now why Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is not one of the great parts for women. His misconstrued representation doesn’t just diminish Cleopatra’s greatness, it diminishes all women. It diminishes all of us. Don’t refer to her as ‘great’ again and, sure as hell, don’t refer to her as ‘fully formed.’