Love's Labour's Lost: Cultural/Historical Influences

Antony and Cleopatra – A Woman in Control
Robin Cameron

Was William Shakespeare writing a historical play when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, or was he inspired by his own era and the similarities between female rulers, and the amount of change that took place as Elizabeth I was queen. Shakespeare's play is not about "what can be possessed and governed but what can be imagined and articulated. Cleopatra plays with gender, not in order to overcome social or familial obstacles but to transform conventional definitions, roles and boundaries" (Cook 261). He has emphasized the influence and possibilities that a woman in control can possess.

During patriarchal time periods men were rulers and they held a disproportional share of power. Shakespeare portrayed Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, as a commanding presence. She controlled Egypt, Antony and even Caesar. Her feminine capabilities affected love, relationships and the decisions that governed both Rome and Egypt. The theatrical part of Cleopatra challenges patriarchal conduct and questions the dynamics of gender equality as she steps beyond her female role.

From the opening of Shakespeare's play we are introduced to Cleopatra's domination over Antony. Her upstaging of Antony "in theatrical terms, in military terms, and ultimately in sexual terms" (Dusinberre 57) confirms the upset of equality in the play, and we consider Cleopatra the character with the most control.

In act 1 scene 1, Philo, one of Antony's followers, describes his concerns that Antony, once a great soldier, is now being led by his heart and jeopardizes his place as an officer. In act 2, scene 5, Cleopatra brags of her control over Antony. "Tawny-finned fishes. My bended hook shall pierce their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up I'll think them every one an Antony, and say, "Aha! You're caught." (Bevington 766). Cleopatra's power continues throughout the play as Antony continues to make political decisions based on his feelings for Cleopatra. He follows her into a battle by sea, after being warned by Enobarbus that their efforts would be stronger on land. He withdraws from the sea battle inappropriately and in doing so discards his responsibilities as commander and male. Rocking the balance of gender, Cleopatra fills the role of a dominant male by being assertive in her decision making while Antony follows her like a love-sick school boy.

Social dynamics between men and women were further influenced by Cleopatra. Her hold on Antony's heartstrings led to the disarray of his ability to uphold the position of husband and his affections for his wives suffered. Both Fulvia and Octavia fulfilled the role of stereotypical renaissance wives, who wait patiently for their husbands return. Antony spent most of his time in Alexandria with Cleopatra, so each wife was left alone and uncared for. His first wife Fulvia dies and Antony believes it is because he spent too much time away. Cleopatra's sexual control over Antony conflicts with what is considered the unimportant role of women during the time. Enobarbus supports the lesser role of a female by adding that there is no reason to be sad at his wife's death because there are more women to be found. Caesar notices Antony's desertion and complains that his sister Octavia is not getting the attention she deserves, that as "the wife of Antony [she] should have an army for an usher and the neighs of horse [should] tell of her approach" (Bevington 776). Social appearances were especially apparent during the time period considering the wife of a soldier would have been placed at a higher social level than wives belonging to commoners.

Cleopatra's disruption to relationships affected Antony and his followers. Many of his men joined forces with Caesar when they began realizing that Cleopatra's decision making caused Antony's concern for Rome to fade. His attentiveness to Caesar and the country became unreliable random acts. Antony's men claim that his "vacancy is so profound that it extends even into his self" (Baker 112). By act 3 scene 11, Antony realizes his ineffectiveness and is ashamed of his performance as a soldier, his reputation is gone. Along with the followers, the hierarchy's stability was challenged by Cleopatra's ascendancy. Historically we know that "Cleopatra was a strong-willed Macedonian queen who was brilliant and dreamed of a greater world empire. Whether her way of getting it done was for her own desires or for the pursuit of power will never be known for certain [but] many believe that she did what she felt was necessary to try to save Alexandria, whatever the price" (Dunn 1). Shakespeare conveys this not only from the character interaction but also by the directness of Caesar's words admitting to Cleopatra's political control in act 3, scene 6. She is an "absolute queen of Egypt, Lower Syria, Cyprus, and Lydia" (Bevington 775). Caesar's hatred was based on a personal vendetta against Cleopatra, mentioned in only one line of the play. Cleopatra initially gained control of the three countries because Caesar's father had given them to her after they had a son named Caesarion together. Caesar then watched as Antony, like his father fell under the entrancing spell of Cleopatra. In order to prevent further damage by her, Caesar suggests Antony marry his sister Octavia in order to join kingdoms, solidify armed forces, and draw his attention away from Cleopatra.

Cleopatra's distinctive qualities are emphasized by Shakespeare as he compares her to Venus, Goddess of Love, and details the aroma of her perfume reaching the people as she sits on the barge described in act 2 scene 2. Cleopatra's path "made a gap in nature" (Bevington 764) and if Shakespeare believed she had such an effect on nature, is it no wonder that he also depicted her as having the ability to affect everyone she came in contact with. Although she is portrayed as being a self-assured female, there are still times when Cleopatra needed to verify her level of control. Her frustration at the possibility of loosing control of Antony is displayed through her temper as she hits the messenger that brings news of his marriage to Octavia. Her violence is another predominately male trait, which exemplifies her role crossover and her authoritive nature. Her position prompted her to be kept abreast of everyone's location, including Antony's whereabouts, if he was not with her. When Antony remarries, Cleopatra also needs to confirm the looks and stature of his new wife Octavia. Cleopatra's concerns of female competition give us insight into her need to control both genders. She seems to have conquered the males with her sexuality and the females emotionally with their devotion. This was shown in her control over her servants who were willing to die for her; in fact they use an asp to kill themselves immediately after Cleopatra's death because of their loyalty and respect. Historically the control of Antony by a woman of power was not accidental. "She already knew enough about him to know how to get him. She knew about his limited strategic and tactical abilities" and she chose him to help her social position (Dunn 3). Knowing she had power over a triumvir not only raised her social status but her ability as a queen to make decisions beneficial to her Egypt. Cleopatra needed to control both males and females in her attempts at retaining her position as Queen of Egypt.

As the play comes to an end, Cleopatra's decision-making has led her to loss, but she remains in control of her situation. Unwilling to be made a spectacle of, she chooses to plan her own death rather than be placed on display in Rome. "Cleopatra could have endured the loss of freedom; but to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome is insufferable" (Jameson 11). With her suicide she places herself equal with men yet retains her feminine control. "The ultimate gesture by which a Roman proves his manhood, his commitment to the abstract over the bodily, becomes for her an affirmation of feminine pleasure" (Cook 264). Caesar's initial thoughts of bragging to Rome of the capture of Cleopatra are changed to admiration resulting from the manner in which she was willing to kill herself. Caesar's respect for her in the last scene of the play allows Cleopatra to "be buried by her Antony" (Bevington 800).

Usually literature written by men portrays women as an object of either servitude or distraction in reference to the goals of the male protagonist's character. In this case Cleopatra was neither; she was a self-defined woman who led Egypt and was an inspiration to her people. She caused instability and destruction of love, relationships and government, but her leadership and social level was of utmost importance to her. "Cleopatra is always in control of her own image. She lost the sea battle, but as she reveals in the last act she is in control" (Dusinberre 64).

Antony and Cleopatra is a culmination of romance, comedy and finally tragedy. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, manipulated relationships, governmental decisions and death through her captivating power. Shakespeare following history entangled the definition of Cleopatra's role between a self-defined leader and a stereotypical woman. "Cleopatra is not merely witch or Queen, deadly or progenerative, but all of these" (Baker 106), and her combination of feminine attributes complete the portrayal of a woman in control within the guidelines of a traditional renaissance female. Historically with the death of Cleopatra came the end of Egypt's rule but Shakespeare does not end his play with the take-over of Egypt by Romans but rather he focuses on the death and funeral of Cleopatra. She could no longer possess Antony or Egypt but her commanding presence made great strides in changing the way people imagined a female leader in control of a patriarchal society.

Works Cited
Baker, J Robert. “Absence and Subversion; The ‘O’erflow’ of Gender in Shakespeare’s Antony

and Cleopatra.” The Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 105-115

Bevington, David. Ed. The Necessary Shakespeare. “ Antony and Cleopatra.”

New York:Pearson, 2005. 748-800

Cook, Carol. “The Fatal Cleopatra.” Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender. Ed. Shirley Garner and

Madelon Sprengnether (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996) 241-265

Dunn, Jimmy. “Cleopatra VII, Ptolemaic Dynasty.” Egypt : Rulers, Kings and Pharaohs of

Ancient Egypt. 1996 <>

Dusinberre, Juliet. “Squeaking Cleopatra.” Shakespeare, Theory and Performance. Ed. James C.

Bulman (New York: Routledge, 1996) 46-64

Jameson, Anna Brownell. “Cleopatra and Octavia.” Shakespeare’s Heroines: Characteristics of

Women, Moral, Poetic, & Historical. 1887. 216-243.


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