Antony and Cleopatra

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Antony and Cleopatra

The legend of Cleopatra has percolated in the world consciousness for the past 2000 years. By the time Shakespeare wrote the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra the alluring reputation of the queen had existed primarily as a biased representation of a foreign female who insinuated herself into the Roman power structure. Shakespeare’s role in perpetuating the allure of the last of the Ptolemaic rulers was the result of synthesizing the existing biases and distilling the dichotomy between the woman and the queen. Consequently, Shakespeare portrayed her not only as an alluring woman who was thought of as a wanton corrupter of Roman ideals, but as a queen who tried to do what was best for her country, and a woman who tried to do what was best for herself. Shakespeare brought all of these aspects together and molded a character that Joseph Summers describes as the “transcendent image of beauty and nobility” (135), and firmly entrenched Cleopatra into the collective consciousness.

As suggested in the introduction to Norton’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play “presupposes familiarity not only with events dramatized in that play [Julius Caesar] but also with earlier Roman conflicts” (Cohen 847) and, I would add, the reputation of various characters. Interestingly, there is no mention of Cleopatra in Julius Caesar even though she is the mother of Caesar’s son.[1] This relationship obviously infuriated the Roman leaders and as a consequence her role with Caesar is effectively diminished and her reputation is vilified. Cicero, the great Roman orator, described Cleopatra as “unacceptably regal and arrogant” (Higgs 229), while Octavian refers to her as “the wanton daughter of the Ptolomies” (Hamer 311). Northrop Frye contends that propaganda was necessary because “she was one person the Romans were really afraid of” (Frye 123). The propaganda, as Christopher Pelling alludes, was a result of “Octavian work[ing] seduously on Italian misogyny and xenophobia” (Pelling 294). Octavian’s promulgations evoked suspicion and hostility towards Cleopatra, and their main intent was to mitigate the idea that “Cleopatra [was becoming] a legend for Romans too” (Pelling 294). There is no way they would have described her as a woman who grieved the loss of Antony so passionately that “she beat her
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