Research papers and essays on Antony & Cleopatra.
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How was Cleopatra imagined in early modern England? Partly as an embodiment of the East, suggests Dr Farah Karim-Cooper.
When we encounter Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, it is difficult not to notice the extreme contrast that the playwright highlights between Rome and Egypt, or between West and East. During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were significant developments in the relationship between the cultures of the East and West. The opening of trade routes to the East, for example, enabled the importation of ‘exotic’ goods, including spices, dyes, fabrics, carpets, perfumes, cosmetics, and an extraordinary range of different materials.
There were, of course, some anxieties about the perceived infiltration of foreign goods and foreign ideas into English culture. Concerns about the national as well as moral identities and behaviour of individuals who might be readily influenced by a set of foreign ideals characterised writing about English identity. But there was also a speculative engagement with the East, a natural curiosity about other worlds that seemed significantly distant, mysterious and exotic. In many ways, the figure of Cleopatra embodies such English imaginings. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had little knowledge of ancient Egypt, at least nothing like the knowledge we have now. It is only since the 19th century that we have learned much about the culture of ancient Egypt. In other words, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra would bear no relation to our modern conception of Cleopatra – as Elizabeth Taylor portrayed her, for instance, with a black shoulderlength wig and kohl-lined eyes.
How, then, did Shakespeare’s contemporaries imagine Cleopatra? How did artists, poets and playwrights portray her?
In Shakespeare’s time women were identified by their sexual status: a maid, a wife or a chaste widow. What complicated these identities were women who didn’t sit comfortably within any category. If you were a mature, sexually active unmarried woman, for example, then you posed a problem. A woman who seemed powerful, independent and passionate, like Cleopatra, simultaneously intrigued and terrified early modern men. For the most part, patriarchal authorities and the Church deemed that women had to be instructed; their conduct and bodies heavily policed. A woman in charge of her own body, and, more worryingly, of her own property would provoke anxieties about the very order and stability of society.
Cleopatra was repeatedly portrayed as the opposite of the chaste, silent, obedient ideal of Renaissance womanhood. In art, poetry, and in the countless re-tellings of Pliny’s account of Cleopatra, she is represented as cunning, selfish and extravagant. Shakespeare’s source for the play, Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antonius’, says Cleopatra did ‘waken and stir up many vices yet hidden in him [Antony]... if any spark of goodness or hope rising were left in him, Cleopatra quenched it straight and made it worse than before’. It then describes how Antony spent time in ‘idleness’ with his Egyptian lover, and concludes that although Cleopatra was utterly charming and a scintillating conversationalist, Antony ‘put all in hazard, being of her so ravished and enchanted with the sweet poison of her love, that he had no other thought than of her’. The rich visual tradition of depicting the Egyptian queen seems to empathise with these classical accounts. Paintings and emblems of the period eroticise her, often illustrating her at the moment of her death.
Notably, these images diminish her authority as a queen or a political leader. She is instead shown either forlorn, in despair or languishing almost orgasmically in her own death, with asps attached to her arm, in her hand or clinging to her breasts. Either way, what most painted depictions do is objectify Cleopatra, turning her into a site for sexual deliberation, signalling the parallels early moderns made between desire and pain. These representations are closely related to the figure of Voluptas or Luxuria. The theme of luxury was a popular trope in the literature and art of the time. The pursuit of luxury was gluttonous and appetitive, dangerously leading one down the path of debauchery to negligence, sin and eventual damnation. It’s not a coincidence that a visual personification of luxury was more often than not a woman. Moreover, in the art and poetry of the period, there are frequent elisions between Cleopatra, Luxury or Voluptas and the goddess Venus. Shakespeare draws upon myth throughout the play, and in particular, alludes to Venus through Cleopatra. Venus was powerful, beautiful and sensual, but simultaneously the goddess who represented lust and uncontrollable desire in the Renaissance imagination.
It is hard to deny Venus’s presence in this play when we hear of Cleopatra that she –
beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion – cloth of gold of tissue –
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
We are led to believe that Cleopatra, like Luxuria or Voluptas, lures Antony away from his Roman duty and even identity. Egypt as exotic or ‘other’ is positioned as the direct opposite to the more familiar Rome; it is typical for scholars to read such an opposition into the play: if Rome is civility, Egypt is barbarism. If Rome is rational, led by reason; Egypt is sensual, led by passion – it is a feminine world, placed in deliberate opposition to masculine Rome.
I think there’s some truth to that, but it’s where and when the worlds blur that is most interesting. Antony and Cleopatra both seem to embody the idea that the two worlds they represent can leak and bleed into one another. She demonstrates Roman stoicism and valour and had been an effective Ruler (albeit using her femininity to maintain her rule), while Antony, despite his heroic Roman qualities, is accused of vanity, lethargy and gluttonous sexuality. A flickering between the two can occur in an instant. Cleopatra observes in him a quality that Shakespeare identified in them both: ‘He was disposed to mirth but on the sudden/ A Roman thought hath struck him’.
I am not suggesting that Shakespeare is endorsing the view that powerful women like Cleopatra should be condemned or feared. Rather, the opposite might be true. His approach is more nuanced than the more misogynistic portrayals of her in the classical accounts. Over the centuries, audiences, like Antony, have been seduced by Cleopatra, but not just because of her sensual charm. What could be more appealing in a woman than her wit, her eloquence, her passion and her power?
By Dr Farah Karim-Cooper (2014)
This article originally appeared in the programme for the 2014 production of Antony & Cleopatra.
Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education & Research, Globe Education, Chair of the Globe Architecture Research Group.
Farah’s major publications include Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh University Press, 2006, paperback edn 2012) Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, (Cambridge University Press, 2008) co-edited with Christie Carson; Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance, co-edited with Tiffany Stern (Arden/Bloomsbury 2013); Moving Shakespeare Indoors, co-edited with Andrew J. Gurr (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment (Arden/Bloomsbury, 2016).
Antony & Cleopatra was performed in 1998, as part of the Roman Season. For this production, the Research Bulletin explores:
- how the play was prepared for the Globe stage;
- the rehearsal process, including moving it onto the stage;
- the play in performance;
- interviews with the company;
- and the discoveries that were made during this production about the play and the playhouse.
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