The Role of Cleopatra's Children in Defining Her Character

The Role of Cleopatra's Children in Defining Her Character

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The Role of Cleopatra's Children in Defining Her Character


There are few roles that Cleopatra has not been made to fulfill. She is queen, goddess, lover, whore, wife, witch. Yet it is her role as mother that most defines how she is to be perceived, and which of these other roles she will take on in a given work of literature. Cleopatra's children, or the absence of them, play a definitive role in characterizing Cleopatra. When Cleopatra is childless, she acts like a child herself, either petty and selfish or so deeply in love that she ignores all else. When she has children, however, her role as mother extends far beyond her actual offspring and encompasses all of Egypt. Her protectiveness of her children is used to mirror her protectiveness of Egypt-if she is a good mother than she is also a good queen. Whether she is a good mother, a bad mother, or no mother at all is used by every author or director to characterize Cleopatra as a woman and as a symbol.

The Total Absence of Children

Cleopatra's childlessness in literature and film is meant to allow her to be viewed as childish herself. Egypt is of little importance to her. She cares deeply only for love and pleasure, or for nothing at all. Not only is she not yet a queen, but she may never be.

In Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Cleopatra is both chronologically and mentally a child. Not only do she and Caesar not have children together, they do not even have a sexual relationship. Shaw "makes Cleopatra, who was probably about nineteen or twenty when Caesar arrived in Egypt, into an emotionally and intellectually retarded sixteen year old who pouts and prattles...peeping out from behind her nurse like a bashful toddler" (Hughes-Hallet 252). In order change Caesar from a lover into a father-figure, Shaw turns Cleopatra into a helpless but petty infant; he glorifies Caesar's character at the detriment of Cleopatra's. After her altogether pointless and foolish carpet scene that actually costs the lives of Roman soldiers, Caesar says to a scared and clinging Cleopatra, "My poor child, your life matters little here to anyone but yourself" (Shaw 84). Not only is Shaw's Cleopatra childish and indifferent to the plight of Egypt, but she is completely useless. Even Caesar, with whom she has the closest relationship to in the play, who takes on the role of a father, does not really care whether she lives or dies.

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Even at the play's end, when Caesar has almost succeeded in making a woman out of her, she is still a far cry from a queen, and Caesar, wisely, leaves his soldier Rufio to govern Egypt. Cleopatra, without anyone who depends on her, is left as a dependent herself. Her lack of duty leads to a lack of power, and the reverse is then made true.

In DeMille's film version of Cleopatra, while the title character is by no means a child, she is both childless and childish. Just because she is sexual does not mean that she is maternal. In fact, this means of sexuality without the respectable end of motherhood is what leads the audience to frequently view Cleopatra as a "bad" woman. Her lack of virtue, and specifically of maternal instinct towards Egypt-as symbolized by the absence of her children-is what causes the downfall not only of her and her lovers, but also of her entire country, which she should have felt bound to protect. Her disembodied head presides over the bloody Battle of Actium, leaving the audience without any doubt that she is the cause of all of this bloodshed, because she chose personal fulfillment over the fulfillment of duty. DeMille's Cleopatra is portrayed as being so childish that when she is stranded in the middle of the desert after being kidnapped from the palace she replies to Apollodorus' suggestion that she regain Egypt with Roman help with, "Is this a time to talk of Romans? I've had no breakfast. I'm hungry." Instead of caring for Egypt, she bemoans the loss of people to take care of her. The only mothering role Cleopatra takes on in the film is toward Antony, but it is of a controlling rather than a caring nature. As Hamer explains, "Once Antony is fully in Cleopatra's power, the play on his status as both (feminized) child and adult continues" (127). Since her only turn at maternity is shown to be play-acting, as a means of teasing Antony while asserting control over him, the effect is worse then if she were only a child herself. The absence of real children combined with the treating of her lover, a grown man, as a child makes her seem not only childish, but manipulative as well.

The Absence of Cleopatra's Children with the Presence of Octavia's

When romance and love or avarice and lust take precedence over all other things including her duty as queen, Cleopatra's children are absent, but Octavia, who serves as Cleopatra's foil, is the very image of virtuous motherhood. Children within the Cleopatra tradition serve as symbols of duty; their absence marks a total disregard on the part of Cleopatra, and frequently Antony as well, for anything but her own selfish, or at very least self-centered, desires. Cleopatra, childless, is willing to sacrifice all else for what she wants, Octavia, the perfect mother, is willing to sacrifice all of her wants for duty.

In Dryden's All for Love, Cleopatra and Antony's passionate love has produced no children, while his marriage for duty to Octavia has produced two daughters. Cleopatra's focus is entirely on love, not on her duty as a mother, which she is not, or as a queen, which she is. When Alexas tells her, "You are no more a queen;/ Egypt is lost," her only reply is "What tellest thou me of Egypt?/ My life, my soul is lost! Octavia has him" (Dryden 3.396-8). Love is this Cleopatra's only reason for living, and in the absence of it she cares not at all not only for her position as queen, but for the duty it implies towards her country and her people. As Antony, the absentee father, explains to Octavia, "I can never be conquered but by love,/And you do all for duty" (Dryden 3.316-7). The absence of children by one another allows Antony and Cleopatra to be viewed as childishly shirking their duty, to their country and to their dependents-for Antony his daughters and Roman wife, for Cleopatra her people. As Dolabella states, referring to Antony, "Men are but children of a higher growth" (Dryden 4.43). And Cleopatra, unwomanly due to her lack of maternity, exhibits the same trait. Even Octavia's children are only present in the play to serve as a contrast to the childless/childlike Cleopatra and to guilt Antony into going back to his respectable wife, who has consequently provided him with something Cleopatra has not. The children actually have but one line between them, a presumably affecting "Father!" (Dryden 3.363), but it is this that changes Antony's mind into forsaking Cleopatra, whom he loves, in exchange for his family, to whom he owes his duty as father and husband. Though of course he returns to Cleopatra in the end, Antony's decision even briefly to reassume responsibility shows the importance and respectability conferred by parenthood, which Cleopatra cannot hope to gain. By simply owning his children, Antony becomes a dutiful adult, by ignoring them once again he returns to childish abandon with and for love. But Dryden's Cleopatra does not have the option; her childlessness prevents her from fulfilling any motherly duty toward her country and her people.

Far worse, however, than the simple omission of Cleopatra having any children at all is the presentation of Cleopatra as a "bad" mother compared to Octavia as perfect mother. In Fielding's The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, Cleopatra is portrayed to be everything bad in women, while Octavia represents everything good, as seen in miniature in the way that they feel about their children. Octavia states modestly that upon the death of Antony she "proposed to lead a recluse and private Life, employed in the protection of my own and Anthony's Children" (Fielding 142). She is a model of Roman and womanly virtue, caring not only for her own children but also those of the woman who stole her husband away from her. In the other extreme is Cleopatra, who explains, "I wanted Fulvia's Children only that mine might insult them, yet I had no fondness even for my own...but I imagined that the keeping up the Dignity of what was my own reflected back on myself; and I believe no other woman was ever more enamoured with her own Dignity and Power" (Fielding 106). The open admission of not liking her own children is what makes this Cleopatra truly unredeemable. They exist merely as pawns to her; they are not merely absent but negative entities. She will use them to help secure Egypt at the cost of all else. She cares nothing for her children or for Egypt, only for the advancement of her own personal power. Her characterization as a bad mother announces the fact that she is also a bad queen and a bad woman.

Presence of Children

When Cleopatra is to be characterized as a good woman, or even as merely a human one, her children appear in her story in either of two ways: as symbols again representing duty-this time the fulfillment of it-or as true characters with personalities. Within the literary works and films where she is a loving mother, she is also a caring and largely competent ruler, who looks out for the welfare of her people, just as she does with her own children. Her passionate love extends not only to her Roman lovers, but to all those dependent on her as well, thus giving her far greater dimension.

The children in Mary Sidney's The Tragedy of Antonie are more symbols than characters. They appear only once, just before Cleopatra dies of grief, and have only two lines between them all, but over half of the last act of the play is spent with Cleopatra addressing them, bewailing their fate, counseling them, and looking toward their safety. After they depart for a life of anonymity and orphanage, Cleopatra cries, "Thy children thou, mine I, poor soul, have lost-/ And lost their father; more than them I wail:/ Lost this fair realm" (Sidney 5.101-3). There is here an inherent linking of motherhood to maternal feelings towards Egypt and her people. It makes the utmost sense that Cleopatra would group Egypt in with her husband and children, for they are the things that she holds dearest in all the world. Like her children, upon her death Egypt too will be orphaned, a ward to people who love it far less than Cleopatra does. The meaning these sentiments are to convey is quite clear: a good mother equals a good woman equals a good queen.

George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra presents the title character and narrator simply as a woman, neither all good nor all bad. Not only are her children present, but they have a prominent role in the story, with individual names and personalities. Cleopatra, by loving her children and her people not just symbolically, but as individuals is shown again to complete the equation of good mother and good queen, possessing a humanity very different from her childishness or avarice in the stories where she is childless. In direct contrast to The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, Cleopatra invites Antony's son by Fulvia, Antyllus, to Alexandria, forgetting her petty rivalry, in order to make Antony happy. She cares for him as one of her own, just as Octavia is praised so highly for doing with the rest of Antony's children after his death. George's Cleopatra has very strong maternal instincts towards her own children as well. When pirates attack the ship carrying her and her son to Rome, she recalls, "I clutched Caesarion. They would never get to him, even if I had to kill every one of them myself" (George 214). This protectiveness of her child is similar to that which she feels for the people of Egypt.

The very voyage during which they were attacked by pirates had had to be delayed so that she could personally help her ministers prepare for an abnormal flooding of the Nile which threatened to bring disaster to Egypt. The recent ABC miniseries Cleopatra, based loosely on the George novel, shows a direct link between motherhood and Cleopatra's role as queen. As she gives out grain, which was originally destined to pay for taxes to Rome, to her starving subjects, she suddenly goes into labor with Caesarion. It is no coincidence that the birth of her first child coincides with her own birth as a true queen and protector of her people. As this queen, "Cleopatra was Isis incarnate" and Isis was the "example of a faithful wife and loving mother" (Pomeroy 224). This image of Cleopatra as Isis she has produced on coins, with the infant Caesarion as Isis' son Horus nursing at her breast. In this action, detailed at length in the George novel, she portrays herself as a nurturer but also, "when Cleopatra first identified Caesarion with Horus on her coinage, she was claiming divinity for him and presenting him as the boy who could bring new prosperity to Egypt" (Hughes-Hallet 84). Yet again, there is a direct link between her role as mother to her children and protector to Egypt. In a single action she attempts to ensure the futures of both her son and her nation, by making the destiny of the two inextricably linked. Even when she is defeated by Octavian and sees no hope for herself, she gives Octavian the "absolute condition...that he bestow the kingdom of Egypt on my children-Caesarion or Alexander as it pleases him-and spare the others as well. That being done, the treasure is his, yes, and my person too, to transport where he will" (George 918). In order to save Egypt and her children, she is willing to sacrifice herself and her honor. It is only when she is outright refused that she decides to kill herself. Similar to the film version of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, in which she determines to kill herself only when she discovers that Octavian has killed Caesarion, George's Cleopatra only resigns herself to death when she realizes there is no more she can do for her country or her children. She can afford to follow her lover to the grave only when her role as mother to her children and her country is complete.

Conclusion: Motherhood as the Source of Power and Goodness

At first glance, there is something inherently illogical in the idea that through the presence of Cleopatra's children, all by Roman men, her devotion to Egypt and its people is displayed. It would seem, if anything, to divide her loyalties between Rome and Egypt, and to distract from her duties as a queen. Yet, even in the literary works that emphasize Cleopatra's childishness or evil ambition, she never forsakes Egypt for either Rome or her children. Having a child with a foreign man actually serves to strengthen her claim to the position of Egyptian queen and goddess, as well as all of the duties encompassed by such offices. Egyptian religion "supported the notion of a mother/goddess who lived in separation from the god who was the father of her son, just as Cleopatra lived divided from Caesar, whom she claimed as the father of her son Caesarion" (Hamer 16). Thus, "the need for the validation of a male co-regent is confronted and set aside by appeal to divine precedent; the absence of Caesarion's father is transformed into a positive asset, since it confirms the parallel between the divine pair and the royal one" (Hamer 16). Cleopatra is actually empowered by having a son by a man whose loyalties lead him elsewhere, leaving Cleopatra as the sole nurturer and protector to both her son and her nation, and thus binding her more tightly to both. By simply identifying her and her situation with the goddess Isis, Cleopatra is able to be presented as a good mother to her son, a good queen to her nation, and a good goddess to her people.

Motherhood defines Cleopatra; it is the yardstick with which she is compared to all women. Having children, and, more importantly, loving them, humanizes Cleopatra without weakening her. Her strength derives from her maternal nature, and her power derives from her strength. Her representation in literature thus becomes a matter of simple mathematics. A Cleopatra who is bad mother equals a bad woman equals a bad queen. Conversely, Cleopatra as good mother equals good woman and good queen. Love of children equals love of country. It is these equations that provide the key for unlocking the mystery that is Cleopatra.

Works Cited

Cleopatra. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. With Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon. Paramount, 1934.

Cleopatra. Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 1963.

Cleopatra. Dir. Franc Roddam. With Leonor Varela and Billy Zane. 1999.

Dryden, John. All for Love. Ed. N.J. Andrew. New York: Norton, 1975.

Fielding, Sarah. The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia [1757]. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1994.

George, Elizabeth. The Memoirs of Cleopatra. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Hamer, Mary. Signs of Cleopatra. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Hughes-Hallet, Lucy. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, Distortions. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schoken, 1975.

Shaw, Bernard. Caesar and Cleopatra [1898]. New York: Penguin, 1957.

Sidney, Mary. The Tragedy of Antonie. 1595. Renaissance Drama by Women. Ed. S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies. New York: Routledge, 1996.
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