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Explore Shakespeare's presentation of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra

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Introduction

Explore the ways in which Shakespeare presents Cleopatra in 'Antony and Cleopatra' Shakespeare cleverly dupes the audience into something of a pre-disposed opinion of Cleopatra before we have even met her, based on the conversation in the opening scene between Philo and Demetrius. Philo, addressing his fellow Roman soldier, denounces Antony's love for Cleopatra, regarding it as nothing more than a demeaning infatuation with a lustful harlot which is tarnishing their general's former greatness. Philo's opinion that Antony's 'dotage o'erflows the measure', i.e. that his infatuation is out of control in its abundance, causes the audience to make an early judgement of their relationship before the couple have even come on stage. It should be noted that Philo's opinion, as a Roman soldier, is likely to be rather biased, because to Romans duty to the Empire came way before duty to one's lover. The matter of Roman and, by contrast, Egyptian values and attitudes is an important theme of the play, especially in acts 1 and 2. Philo's use of the word 'gipsy' with reference to Cleopatra is perhaps the most revealing of all about the Roman view of Cleopatra in this short passage. Gipsies were widely thought to have come from Egypt and had a reputation for cunning, fortune-telling and loose behaviour, and certainly shows she was hardly held in wide regard by Philo, and by representation the Roman people. Cleopatra's manipulative streak becomes obvious as soon as we hear her speak- her first words are asking if their relationship 'be love indeed, tell me (Cleopatra) ...read more.

Middle

Again he tries to deliver his report, and again Cleopatra unleashes a torrent of threats and promises of reward, one moment seeming about to strike him, the next promising to set him in 'a shower of gold' and give him rich pearls. The messenger delivers his news in small snippets- that Antony is well, and friendlier with Caesar than before. Despite the happy reception of each of these pieces of news, the messenger is aware he must get to his main point that will undoubtedly provoke the Queen's ungovernable wrath once more. Two short lines create a fantastic moment of suspense- the messenger attempts to push on to the bad news that Antony has married Octavia with the words 'but yet, madam', to which Cleopatra replies 'I do not like but yet.' The audience savours the anticipation of the fury that is about to descend on this hapless messenger. The Queen embroiders on her distaste for 'But yet', gives a quick recap of what she has gathered so far and finally demands the messenger should make all clear. Shakespeare strings out the suspense a little longer, leading up to the messenger's admission that Antony is bound to Octavia 'for the best turn i'th'bed'. The long, drawn out delivery of this information has a cataclysmic effect on Cleopatra: 'The most infectious pestilence upon thee!' A hectic scene unfolds, with Cleopatra striking and throwing abuse at the messenger, threatening to tear out his eyes and 'unhair' his head. She seizes him and drags him around by the hair, still shrieking dire threats, such as 'thou shalt be whipped with wire, and stewed in brine.' ...read more.

Conclusion

Cleopatra is endlessly described or discussed by other characters. Enobarbus speaks of her 'infinite variety'. For Antony, she can be an 'enchanting queen' or 'foul Egyptian'; for Charmian, a 'lass unparalleled'; for Caesar, 'dear queen' to her face and 'whore' behind her back. Her actions and words display a similarly mercurial range: bravery and cowardice, cruelty and gentleness. Taunting mockery, deviousness, capriciousness, pride, self-indulgence and humility are only a fraction of her infinite variety. At the end of the play she achieves a kind of spendour in her suicide as she strives to fulfil her immortal longings: a reunion with Antony, transcending death itself. It may be an illusion, yet another of the grandiose fantasies she constructs of herself and Antony, but it is thrillingly theatrical, and a dramatically satisfying climax to the rollercoasting emotional ride on which she takes the audience. There are numerous ways of interpreting how Shakespeare wished to present Cleopatra: the archetypal femme fatale, a wily politician, or a cunning charmer. She uses all her considerable skills to retain control of her country, and when that endeavour fails, exercises her independence in choosing death rather than humilation. In her paradoxical behaviour, we see the complex strategies of a woman who has to prosper in a male, militaristic world. In creating Cleopatra, Shakespeare offers the audience many opportunities to reflect on such themes as the nature of love, the exercise of power in personal and political relationships, and the conflicts that ensue in such relationships. The play's constant movement, its recurring images of melting and dissolution, find their reflection in Cleopatra's mercurial nature, and in her final attempt to transcend earthly bonds and achieve immortal union with Antony. ...read more.

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