This is a man’s world, James Brown once famously sang, and though this was back in 1966 the line remains uncannily current to this day, not only thanks to the magic of old-time radio stations. Shakespeare’s world was decidedly more male-driven than Brown’s, even if in both cases England’s monarch was female, the first Elizabeth single-handedly guiding the destiny of the country during much of the former’s life, and the second Elizabeth proudly evening the keel of the nation over the turbulent politics of postwar Europe for the duration of the latter’s career. For every semi-naked choir girl lighting up Brown’s thunderous stage presence, though, there was a boy playing Shakespeare’s female characters on stages that were off-limit for women, in turn setting the scene for convoluted plots in which cross-dressing became a recurrent device, used often and expertly by Shakespeare in many of his comedies. Given the Bard’s historical and cultural context, it can hardly come as a surprise that he depicts women in a turgid light, his female characters, whether docile or hysterical, inevitably embodying the stereotype that confined them to a homely existence as fickle, intemperate and mischievous beings at worst, or beautiful, wise and modest wives when fully expressing the virtues of womankind.
Few exceptions exist in Shakespeare’s universe to this rule—Queen Margaret in Henry VI, Lady Macbeth—but none is as drastically different, as rich, as Cleopatra’s character in Antony and Cleopatra. Sumptuous, powerful and utterly irresistible, Cleopatra occupies a place usually reserved exclusively to males as absolute ruler of Egypt and head of the Ptolemy dynasty, yet in the exercise of power she remains profoundly faithful to her female attributes, making her doubly enigmatic, mesmerizing and threatening to subjects and rivals alike. In Antony and Cleopatra the Egyptian queen’s reputation precedes her as an ensign, making her the ultimate exponent of exotic lavishness and excess in the rumor mill of Rome. Her image as such is supported by the first-hand account of Enobarbus, Mark Antony’s friend and liege, whose exaggerated lines embody the ostentation that surrounds Cleopatra’s presence and at the same time provide us with a perfect example of why Shakespeare is so hard to adapt to the big screen:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.
For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing 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.
Enobarbus’ lines prove that if a picture is worth a thousand words, some lines are too evocative to be contained even by a sequence of pictures. Be that as it may, his account would almost certainly be dismissed as nonsense if he were not referring to the monarch of some distant and exuberant land, a place prone to precisely this sort of magic by virtue of its very unfamiliarity. Beyond Shakespeare’s play, Romans would have been all too aware of the awe-inspiring opulence that surrounded Cleopatra, for Julius Caesar had brought her to the city only seven years earlier with the sort of pomp and fanfare that Romans would usually have associated with their own victories.
But awe is invariably belittling, a dangerous feeling that might equally inspire admiration or kindle the fire of envy in those who are subjected to it, and in Shakespeare’s depiction of Rome both take place. Hence, Cleopatra is alternately reviled as a lustful gypsy and an irresistible woman capable of joining witchcraft “with beauty, lust with both,” a formidable force with the power not only to affect the elements (the winds were lovesick with her perfume, the waters flowed faster at the touch of her oars) but even to resist the passage of time (“age cannot wither her”).
Yet, unlike Prospero in The Tempest, perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer, Cleopatra is articulated around a series of character traits traditionally associated with the female condition: passionate to a fault, she gets into a desperate fit of jealousy as soon as she hears Antony is about to leave her court, yet berates him for not mourning his dead wife Fulvia effusively enough, for she presumes he would display the same containment were he to learn of her own death—a containment that in her eyes can only be equated with scorn. She is inconstant in even the most momentous of decisions, as she puts her fleet of sixty boats at the unconditional service of Antony only to give the order to retreat just before engaging in battle. She is capricious to the point of disregard for other people’s lives, as evidenced in her very genuine threats to decapitate the messenger who brings her the unwelcome news of Antony’s wedding to Octavia, Octavius Caesar’s sister. And yet, precisely this brazenly unpredictable behavior is the cornerstone of her success, the quality that in her ascent to power has elevated her further to the status of demigod.
Cleopatra stands in direct contraposition to everything that is manly (and by extension commendable) in Rome’s and Shakespeare’s conception: reason, temperance, courage. Antony is perfectly aware of this circumstance and therefore recognizes the need to distance himself from her in order to retain his status as “man of men.” Indeed, sexual virility is a perfect example of the fine line separating true manliness from servile dependence in the eminently patriarchal hierarchy that governs Antony and Cleopatra. While unrestricted sexual potency could be construed as the epitome of manliness in Rome’s warring society, Antony’s excessive devotion for Cleopatra’s sex is seen, even by himself, as a sign of his declining powers: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” he confesses. Yet once distanced, he is unable to stay away from her charms. This sets in motion the downfall of Mark Antony, who under Cleopatra’s spell undergoes the ultimate transformation, progressively superseding his own supremely male essence with the sort of instinctive reactions that have served his beloved so well but that in his case are only good to hammer in one by one the nails that hold together his coffin.
Having forsaken Octavia, his new wife, and therefore all but declared war on her brother Octavius, ruler of Rome, Antony goes against the better judgment of his advisors, engaging in a sea battle against the Roman fleet when the strength of his army clearly lies in its land forces. As if this display of pride and ill judgment were not enough, he then proceeds to cowardly abandon his men in the thick of the battle, overcome by a hysterical fit comparable to Cleopatra’s earlier fit of jealousy when he spies her escaping the scene. Doubly disgraced by the weakness of his spirit, Antony comes to be “a man who is th’abstract of all faults,” and yet there are still plenty among his followers prepared to stay by his side no matter the consequences.
Afforded one last chance to redeem himself he convenes his army for a final offensive. Antony “becomes Antony again,” though his courage is only restored through “A diminution in [his] brain.” Even then, on the eve of the battle Antony delivers a sentimental and self-pitying speech which succeeds only in bringing tears to his followers’ eyes and making one in three desert him overnight. Adding injury to insult, Antony actually achieves an unlikely victory on the field, further emphasizing the extent of his earlier mistake engaging the Roman hordes on their own terms. The flow of the war, however, cannot be stemmed, not least because at the decisive moment Cleopatra betrays Antony and decides the conflict in favor of Octavius Caesar. It is a move that might have worked in her advantage one more time, for the Roman lord is prepared to allow her to keep ruling undisturbed in Egypt—but by now Cleopatra has been undone by her own game, for if Antony ceases to be true to himself once he understands his heart belongs to Cleopatra, Cleopatra also finds that life without Antony isn’t worth living.
Shakespeare’s reconstruction of classical history allows him to create a female character which, in all her womanly complexity, is able to achieve success and exercise power by radically different means to those contemplated by the male paradigm. The value of this proposition ought not to be understated, for even today, more than four centuries after Antony and Cleopatra was written and two millennia after the fateful battle of Actium, it is apparent that the greatest shortcoming of the feminist movement hasn’t been the seemingly unbridgeable gender gap, so easily quantifiable in men and women’s salaries across western societies, but rather the monolithic rigidity of certain roles ascribed to prominent members of those societies which remain the same no matter who performs them, man or woman.
In the age of Christine Lagarde and Theresa May the image of woman is still moored to lingering stereotypes that tie it, regardless of how much slack has been cut in recent decades, to the chores of domesticity. It is hard not to think of May as a reverse Antony, a woman playing out in full a role that has been designed and defined by male ordinance. This doesn’t mean there is no merit in women filling this role, nor am I suggesting that much of Shakespeare’s skewed conception of female power politics could be put to use in the twenty-first century. But there is a valuable lesson in his ability to recognize an alternative, an other, form of successful leadership. Many more, and more viable, models await voicing—and if this is ever to stop being just a man’s world we must find a way to bring them into the structures of power that govern our society.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday December 31, 2016