Breaking the Mould of Gender Identity in Antony and Cleopatra

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Johnson wrote in his preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare that Shakespeare creates “a faithful mirror of manners and of life”[1]. However, passive reflection is not necessarily the limit of the involvement of Shakespeare’s plays in social commentary. Antony and Cleopatra is a subtly political play, and as Johnson suggests it is evident that Shakespeare creates a reflection of the social issues of the Elizabethan era, such as discourse on gender and race, but even more so he subverts and challenges the social conventions of the time in his writing.

In order to determine how Antony and Cleopatra challenges the social and moral conventions of Jacobean England, it must first be established what the social and moral conventions were at the time. In terms of gender, which will form much of the content of this essay, the Jacobean era was a time of great social change, perhaps even, as Susan C. Shapiro argues, the Jacobean era housed the beginnings of modern feminism; midway through the reign of Elizabeth I through to the reign of James I women began to fight against their traditional subordinate status by way of the ‘adoption of men’s clothing’[2] and so on. This gave way to a collective consciousness in women that society was in many ways against them, and therefore was perhaps the beginning of feminism as it is known today. The concept of public and private spheres, brought into mainstream gender discourse by Alexis De Tocqueville in 1840, is an essential component of the exploration of gender norms in the Jacobean era. This refers to the idea that there is a public space which men dominate (e.g. teachers, doctors, lawyers, monarchs, etc.) and a private space which is the natural home of women (e.g. wife, mother, housekeeper, caregiver, etc.). If a woman did not sit comfortably in the private sphere in Shakespeare’s time she was considered abnormal and dangerous. This is a concept written on by Virginia Woolf in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, in which she imagines that Shakespeare had a sister who, despite having the same capability for genius, was held back by the restrictions put on women during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Woolf concludes that ‘it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the time of Shakespeare’[3] due to restrictions such as lack of access to education.

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Considering Woolf’s thought experiment, Cleopatra’s position decidedly contradicts the social position of Jacobean women. The standard for European women at the time Antony and Cleopatra was written was a particular model of femininity: white, house-bound, obedient and quiet. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra contradicts these qualities in every way: her race, her role, her licentious sexuality and her feistiness are all contrary to the traditional accepted standard for women at the time. According to Louis Adrian Montrose, “all forms of public and domestic authority in Elizabethan England were vested in men: in fathers, husbands, masters, teachers, magistrates, lords. It was inevitable that the rule of a woman would generate peculiar tensions within a patriarchal society”[4]. The rule of Queen Elizabeth I was a point of contention in Shakespeare’s England, and here it is possible to draw parallels with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. When Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1606, it had been three years since the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and it has even been speculated that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is to some extent a reflection of the Queen during this subversive period of history. This is not to suggest that Cleopatra is Elizabeth I, merely that they share certain qualities. Cleopatra’s race is also an essential point to consider as it is mentioned repeatedly in the play. For example, Antony is accused of “tippling with a slave”[5] and Cleopatra is more than once referred to as a “gipsy” (1.1.10, 4.13.28), a derogatory term for a person of Egyptian descent, often used against coloured women in the early 1600s, in order to brand them deceitful or cunning. Shakespeare’s primary resource for the history surrounding the real Antony and Cleopatra would have been Plutarch’s ‘Lives’, a series of biographies of noble Greek and Roman men, in which Cleopatra is briefly mentioned in relation to both Caesar and Antony. The description Plutarch gave, that Cleopatra was no great beauty but ‘had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it’[6], is almost certain to have influenced Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Egyptian queen, and perhaps reminded him of certain aspects of Elizabeth I, whom he could allude to without fear of punishment since her rule ended three years previously.

Gender and gender identity is an essential element of Antony and Cleopatra. Throughout the play, Cleopatra, the “serpent of the Nile” (1.5.25), is intrinsically associated with Egypt, in fact Antony addresses her as “Egypt” come his death (4.15.19), and Antony, the “Herculean Roman” (1.1.44-5) represents Rome and all that the Roman Empire prides itself on: strength, bravery, sacrifice and heroism. As such, Egypt represents the ‘feminine’ and Rome the ‘masculine’. This makes it particularly significant that in one passage Cleopatra “put [her] tires and mantles on [Antony] whilst [she] wore his sword”. This seemingly peripheral cross-dressing scene represents a power play, particularly the power that Cleopatra holds over Antony. This becomes more evident when she persuades him to fight Rome by sea rather than on land, making Antony’s men feel their “leader is lead and [they] are women’s men” (3.7.69). As we can see from this quotation, masculinity and femininity in this text are binary (as gender roles were in Shakespeare’s time), so to have masculine traits removed is to become feminine and vice versa. Women in power were perceived to be threatening during this period, and due to the reign of Elizabeth I – as has already been mentioned – a debate was occurring in England at the time related to gender equality and how well suited women were to powerful roles in society. Elizabeth I’s rule was not intended to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of Elizabethan culture but nevertheless it was perceived as a threat to the natural order. Despite female rule, women in Shakespeare’s time did not appear in theatre, and Antony and Cleopatra challenged norms in the way it was written as the play is self-aware. In a moment of meta-theatre, Cleopatra tells us that “the quick comedians extemporally will stage us, and… I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’th’posture of a whore”. A young boy would have been cast as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s time due to the prejudice against actresses and so there is an explicit self-allusion in having a boy playing the role of Cleopatra, speaking lines about a boy playing the role of Cleopatra on the stage. This is a good example of one of the ways in which Shakespeare highlights and challenges the social standards of Jacobean theatre.

It is also worth considering how the play challenges the conventions of contemporary playwriting in a more general sense. Johnson wrote in his preface to ‘The Plays of William Shakespeare’ that “Shakespeare has no heroes” (pp. 422), meaning that all his characters act, speak and feel like real people, or as Johnson puts it, “human nature shown as it acts in real experiences” (pp. 422). This is especially evident in Antony and Cleopatra as Antony is constantly referred to as a hero; for example, he is compared to Mars, the Roman god of war, and described by Cleopatra as a “Herculean Roman” (1.1.44-5). Philo speaks highly of Antony in the first scene, telling the audience of his “goodly eyes, / That o’er the files and musters of the war / Have glowed like plated Mars” (1.1.2-4); however, despite being told about Antony’s godliness and heroism we never actually witness him acting heroically at any point in the play. Similarly, Antony’s death is a unique combination of tragedy and comedy as he fails to end his own life in the heroic fashion his soliloquy suggests. This subverts the traditions of playwriting in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras as plays still tended to be structured like the plays of Ancient Greece (for example, comedy, tragedy, etc.) and fit quite strictly into these categories. Much of Shakespeare’s work, as Johnson also points out in his ‘Preface’, falls into many of these categories at once. Antony could be a tragic hero, but equally Antony and Cleopatra is a story of romance and history, so the play is not just tragic, nor is it solely comedic or historic. Due to Shakespeare’s desire to give his characters a nature as close to human as possible, his plays do not conform to Elizabethan or Jacobean convention.

It can be concluded that there is dissention in Antony and Cleopatra between Shakespeare and the social conventions of the Jacobean era. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cleopatra neglects to conform to contemporary gender roles, and his portrayal of Antony lacks the heroism that is expected from the name and from the nature of other popular Jacobean plays. In many ways, Cleopatra is a stronger leader than Antony is in the play, and this sexual inversion challenges the patriarchal social structure of Jacobean England in a way that could perhaps have been perceived as sinister given the pervasive discourse on gender and power at the time due to the reign of Elizabeth I. The play is relevant to the politics of its time, and this is evident in more than just “reflection”, as Johnson puts it, but artful dissent.

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Breaking the Mould of Gender Identity in Antony and Cleopatra. (2020, December 14). WritingBros. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from
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