Cleopatra: (Drama) Queen
BBC reports that near a tomb west of Alexandria, a team of archeologists recently found 10 mummies, a bust of Cleopatra, coins bearing her image, and a mask thought to have been Antony’s. These discoveries have led experts to suspect that the lovers may be buried nearby; three hopeful sites are scheduled for excavation next week. Here is the link to the BBC article.
I recently read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for the first time, and I was surprised by the experience. My initial read left me frustrated and ambivalent about my feelings towards the title characters. For one, though the play is not Shakespeare’s longest, it feels like it because of the excessive number of scenes. Act 3 alone has 13 scenes! In addition to ongoing shifts in scene location between Egypt and Rome, the play also continually pits Egyptian and Roman values against one another, challenging readers/viewers to determine which one is ultimately privileged in the end, a matter upon which critics do not apparently agree. Finally, the drama contains substantial theatricality, role-play, and dissimulation, which makes it at once more complex and entertaining, but also potentially confusing to a first-time reader, who must discern what is performed with good and sincere intentions versus sarcastic, underhanded, or tactical ones.
I have yet to delve into historical research of the real Cleopatra to determine just how crafty, histrionic, theatrical the original was compared to her dramatic offspring. But Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is at heart an actress, a diva, and at moments, more drama queen than deference-deserving Queen.
From the very first scene of the play, she draws attention to her own acting and dissembling and makes clear one of the main reasons why she resorts to such behavior: she’s insecure in her relationship as mistress to the married Antony. Therefore, when he famously proclaims his love for her, she impugns and questions him and then strategizes in turn:
“Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space (meaning Cleopatra). Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life is to do thus (usually a kiss in performance); when such a mutual pair and such a twain can do’t, in which I bind, on pain of punishment, the world to weet we stand up peerless” (1.1.35-42).
“Excellent falsehood! Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her? I’ll seem the fool I am not. Antony will be himself” (43-44).
Even when Cleopatra learns that Fulvia has died, she does not stop her acting and directing. Accusing Antony of feigning the cause of his tears, she quips: “I prithee, turn aside and weep for her; then bid adieu to me, and say the tears belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene of excellent dissembling, and let it look like perfect honor” (1.3.76-79). Next, she coaches him along, “You can do better yet; but this is meetly” (81).
Cleopatra’s character points to the performative aspects of gender roles. In act two, for example, she also alludes to her sexual role-play with her lover; she “put [her] tires and mantles on him, whilst [she] wore his sword Philippan” (2.4.22-23). In 3.7, desirous of accompanying Antony to battle, she asserts, “as the president of my kingdom [I] will appear there for the man. Speak not against it. I will not stay behind” (17-19). In addition to consciously performing masculinity, Cleopatra also uses conventional feminine wiles to ensnare and interrogate her lover. She and Antony can play cat and mouse with the coyest and most cunning of literary lovers, though the lengths she goes to in order to test his love ultimately lead to both their deaths. She has her servants send word to Antony that she has killed herself and then decides too late to send word to him that she is really alive, but Antony, believing her truly dead, has already fatally stabbed himself.
Cleopatra’s death scene also unfolds like a theatrical performance. Her servants, Charmian and Iras, costume her in imperial attire. Then, Iras, so heartbroken by her master’s imminent death, simply falls and dies. (As a side note, several of Shakespeare’s characters die of broken hearts, Antony’s servant, Enobarbus; Brabantio in Othello; King Lear.) Cleopatra reaches for her murder weapon, a poisonous snake, which she nurses to her breast, just as the real queen was fabled to have done. This so moves Charmian she decides to be a more active participant in her master’s tragedy: “Your crown’s awry; I’ll mend it, and then play” (5.2.318-19).
Unlike in comedies, where theatricality leads to benign resolutions such as weddings and reconciliations, in tragedies, role-play and dissimulation are shown to be potentially fatal, even if, sadly, it is through such strategic performances that it becomes clear just how deeply Antony and Cleopatra truly love each other.
Since I first wrote this post, news of the possible discovery of Cleopatra’s tomb has continued to spark conversation. Here is a link to an interesting NYT Op-Ed entitled “Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb” from 4/21/09.
*Image cited from http://toxipedia.org/wiki/download/attachments/438/cleopatra.gif