Overcoming binaries - Creative approaches to "Antony and Cleopatra" in feminist and post-structuralist theory

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Creative approaches to Antony and Cleopatra in feminist and post- structuralist theory
2.1. Plutarch’s original and stage performances
2.2. The Dialectic element
2.3. Transcending structuralism
2.3.1. Binary oppositions
2.3.2. Mirroring personae
2.4. Feminist deconstruction
2.4.1. Theory
2.4.2. Applied to Antony and Cleopatra Intertextuality Antony and Cleopatra: signified and signifier? Cleopatra as a female prototype Antony’s castration – Phallus as a marker of difference Overcoming opposites – Androgyny in Antony and Cleopatra

3. Conclusions: Antony and Cleopatra as a symbol of complexity

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Ja, diese Cleopatra ist ein Weib, in der holdseligsten und vermaledeitesten Bedeutung des Wortes.” (Heine 1978: 57)

This statement – having been published in 1838 – lacks both the scientific objectivity and the political correctness that we today consider crucial for any literary criticism. Yet while already containing the important aspects: the dichotomy “holdselig” vs. “vermaledeit”, it stresses the importance of the female protagonist and considers her a prototype of “the female”. Many critics followed the German poet and important critic of the time (who was far from limiting his criticism to literature) in all three points.

The aim of this paper is to discuss feminist approaches to the play – most prominently the one of Coppélia Kahn – and to point out ways in which post-structuralist theories could complement these approaches.

I will base my argumentation on the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, mostly because the annotations allow for a comparison of the text to Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch. The changes, the varying importance given to events, passages and dramatic intention – these all turn out to be extremely helpful.

2. Creative approaches to Antony and Cleopatra in feminist and post-structuralist theory

2.1. Plutarch’s original and stage performances

For his source for Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare fell back on Plutarch, as he did for Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Yet Plutarch took a much more critical stand towards Cleopatra, as the annotations in the Arden edition show and as Judith Cook confirms in her monograph on Women in Shakespeare (1980: 131). Plutarch’s account is written from a Roman perspective from which he seems to blame Cleopatra for the trouble in the triumvirate and its latter collapse. She and others (e.g. Kahn 1997: 112) point out how directly Shakespeare’s contemporaries must have identified with the Romans, as at the time many thought of Brutus as the founder of Britain.[1] Thus Roman history was not just a history but the history.

Cleopatra was Rome’s enemy, and we in the West are Rome’s heirs. The notion of Cleopatra that we have inherited identifies her as being the adversary, the Other (…) and Oriental, and a woman.

(Huges-Hallett 1990: 4)

Bearing in mind how important the Roman history was at the time, it might surprise us that there is no account of any performance of the play in Shakespeare’s times. Some consider it too much of a violation against the unity of place and therefore too difficult in terms of props. One might argue that Shakespeare’s plays seems to work just as well, if not better, without stage decoration but I have to agree that the Wortkulisse is used to a much smaller extent than in other plays. Another problem for staging Antony and Cleopatra is the fact that Cleopatra is such a complex and distinctly female character and thus a difficult role to fill for a boy actor. “The first person to draw anything in the nature of rave reviews in the role was Isabella Glyn in a version put on by Samuel Phelps at Sadler’s Wells in 1849.” (Cook 1980: 132) But once the role was filled out rightly the Morning Post found it worthy to be called “the most superb thing ever witnessed on the modern stage”. Ever since the success of performances seem to depend to a great extent on the skills of Cleopatra. The best- remembered actress to fill the role remains Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the Stratford production of 1953. She remarked: “There is no right way of playing Cleopatra – just an infinite number of ways. She is light, she is dark, she is everything.” (Cook 1980: 136).

2.2. Transcending structuralism

Light and dark – Cleopatra is again characterised in opposing terms, just like by Heine (see introduction). Now I would like to take a closer look at the nature and organization of these antithetical terms.

The structuralist approach considers literary texts to be synchronous systems of signs, consisting of a material carrier of the meaning (signifier) and the meaning itself (signified). Although they are arbitrarily attributed to each other, they form closed structures in which the relation of the parts is the signifying momentum. The “founding father” of Structuralism is the Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, among his successors Lévi-Strauss, Jakobson and Barthes in his earlier period. The structures addressed mostly are binary oppositions and hierarchies.

2.3. Binary oppositions or the dialectic element

This dialectic opposition is the most frequently occurring remark in secondary literature. It is clear that Antony and Cleopatra is far from harshly differentiating black and white, good and evil, even male and female (as seen in King Lear, to give one example). In Antony and Cleopatra things merge while constantly being shown in opposition.

(…) the legendary hero and heroine who are petty and grand by turns, who declaim and then squabble, whose conduct so often belies their rhetoric. (Thompson 1989: 77f)

The most prominent examples of binary oppositions are war vs. love, public vs. private, duty vs. pleasure, peace vs. pleasure, reason vs. sensuality, male vs. female. Coppélia Kahn argues that the former (war, public, duty, etc.) are always connected with Roman behaviour and virtues, while the latter (love, private, pleasure, etc.) are associated with Egyptian priorities and habits. This leads us to one super-binary opposition: Rome vs. Egypt, which is also reflected in the title: Antony and Cleopatra. The title does not bear the “vs.” and we can also question its license/appropriateness in the aforementioned pairs.

Kahn notes that they “aren’t opposites but rather mutually constituted and compromised.” (1997: 110)

Rome stands for “masculine” Roman values, for order and degree, power, structure and possession[2], but also for a pleasureless, stiff existence, and is contrasted by Egypt as the representation of the “female principle”, the richness of the emotional and erotic dimensions of life. (Cunningham 1997: 139) But if it were not for Egypt, the corruption of Rome would not have been revealed, neither to Antony nor to the reader. One requires the other. Opposites meet within the person of Cleopatra.

In the midst of truth, she lies in her teeth, in the midst of anger, she cries unashamedly, in the midst of high seriousness, she can crack a joke. And in the midst of dying she has time to stop and consider what dying is like.

(Actress Janet Suzman on Cleopatra. In: Cook 1980: 141.)

I do agree with Kahn that these binaries are transcended in the play. She furthermore identifies the Roman elements as per se patriarchal and closely linked to an ideology of masculinity (Kahn 1997: 2). This seems to be a legitimate conclusion. But I strongly disagree on Kahn’s notion “that Shakespeare’s Roman works articulate a critique of the ideology of gender on which the Renaissance understanding of Rome was based” (Kahn 1990: 1). I doubt that Shakespeare was actively conscious of the concept of gender. And even if he was, why then did he not voice his criticism more openly? To me this sounds like wishful feminist thinking.

2.3.1. Mirroring personae

Another system of binary oppositions that creates meaning is the fact that most of the dramatic personae are indirectly characterized, mostly in opposition to someone.

Every major protagonist in Antony and Cleopatra does have one or more mirroring figures. Antony’s openness to temptation becomes obvious through comparison with the virtuous Caesar (cf. Kahn 1997: 112). Compared to Antony’s submissive wife Octavia, Cleopatra

seems even more independent, but also more stubborn. While Octavia is depicted as beautiful, modest and virtuous, maybe even wise[3], yet also absolutely passive and submissive to male rule, Cleopatra seems egocentric and hedonistic.

Even Antony and Cleopatra mirror each other’s behaviour and attitudes. Especially when it comes to the relation between Antony and Cleopatra, opinions differ: Is it Cleopatra, steering Antony toward his downfall? Or is it Antony projecting his political achievements and misfortunes on Cleopatra? Who takes the active, who the passive part? Who is subject and who object?

Shakespeare clearly limits Cleopatra’s responsibility for Antony’s decision to fight at sea in comparison with Plutarch as can be seen in 3.7.27-30[4]. Yet one could either argue that she still bears a lot of this responsibility or, as Kahn does, that Shakespeare intentionally depicts the Roman perspective when Candidus states, “So our leader’s led, / And we are women’s men.” (3.7.60-66). He proves this statement to be accurate in 1.3.71-72 “Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war / As thou affects”.

Kahn and others advocate that Antony in the course of the play undergoes a process of demasculization. The coinciding appearances of Antony and the eunuch Merdian hints to it as well as the much feared and eventually realized robbery of his sword by Dercetus in 4.14.. “Oh thy vile lady!”, he complains to the eunuch, “She has robbed me of my sword.” (4.14.22-23). Ironically, this supposed emasculation by Cleopatra shows him the way to restore his honour. He commits suicide, which offers the only possible restoration of his male and Roman identity.

But just as Antony assesses his own behaviour in comparison with Caesar, so does Caesar confirm his own masculine virtue through a mirroring relationship with other men. Maecenas comments on Caesar’s tearful eulogy: “When such a spacious mirror’s set before him, / He needs must see himself.” (5.1.34-35)

The eulogy (5.1.35-48) elaborates on their brotherhood, their similar quotient of the qualities that make up a hero, their shared virtues and concludes in the paradox that their enmity coexisted with their intense identification with one another, perhaps even because of it.


[1] This belief is based on the account of Richard Crafton 1569.

[2] Kahn points out the major role that competition and violence plays in the male world. Antony’s remark toward the soothsayer („And in our sports my better cunning fails...“, 2.3.33-38) is a good example for this.

[3] cf. 2.2.135-138, 2.2.251, 2.6.126

[4] All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are based on the Arden Edition of 1995 (cf. Bibliography).

21 of 21 pages


Overcoming binaries - Creative approaches to "Antony and Cleopatra" in feminist and post-structuralist theory
LMU Munich  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Shakespeare’s Tragedies
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ISBN (Book)
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Overcoming, Creative, Antony, Cleopatra, Tragedies, Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Feminism, Post-strucutralism, Literary Theory
Quote paper
Eva Schlör (Author), 2008, Overcoming binaries - Creative approaches to "Antony and Cleopatra" in feminist and post-structuralist theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/114604


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