O, Pretty Woman…

So, I’ve been thinking (as is my wont as I near the end of the discussion of a play) about Antony and Cleopatra, and the pervading view of women (or woman) in the play.

This is by no means as misogynistic a play as Troilus and Cressida (as we’ve noted before and before and before and before yet again). But it’s not exactly one that reveres (or even respects) woman. And please, don’t give me the “but Cleopatra is one of the greatest female roles in Shakespeare blah blah blah” argument. I’ll grant you she has a huge role in the play. She’s part of our dual (and dueling) tragic heroes. But women as a whole?

This is a play where even our title female character is denigrated (from the very first speech, mind you): “a tawny front (with)…a gypsy’s lust” (I.i.6, 10); lascivious or “salt Cleopatra” (II.i.21); Antony’s “Egyptian dish” (II.vi.125); obscene or “ribaudred nag of Egypt” (III.x.10); “a morsel cold” (III.xiii.116); “foul Egyptian…like a right gypsy…most monsterlike” (IV.xii.10, 28, 36). I find it interesting that the last three–all from the second half of the play–are all spoken by Antony, her lover.

Of course, it’s easy for him to say this, given this is a world in which even the women see themselves as somehow lesser:

  • Charmian’s hope for a future fortune is to be “married to three kings in a forenoon and widow them all” (I.ii.28), not to be a queen, but to be the wife of a king; even worse, this is how she sees her queen:
    • “Find me to marry me with Octavius Caesar, and companion me with my mistress” (I.ii.30-1); only with a royal partner is she like (“companion”) her queen
  • Charmian and Cleopatra fret over “the method to enforce” (I.iii.7) Antony’s love
  • Cleopatra judges Octavia as a “creature” (III.iii.41)
  • Cleopatra equates “boys [and] women” (V.ii.75)
  • Cleopatra describes her valued possessions as “lady trifles” (V.ii.166)

This is a world where “never a fair woman has a true face” (II.vi.99), as “they steal hearts” (II.vi.100).

Even when Cleopatra is “majesty” (III.iii.42), she is but a “morsel for a monarch” (I.v.31); by play’s end, she’s reduced to “no more but e’en a woman, and commanded // By such poor passion as the maid that milks // And does the meanest chares” (IV.xv.77-79).

This is a world where even the sisters to triumvirs are mere pawns, where Octavian’s “power of Caesar” (II.ii.152) is as complete as “his power unto Octavia” (II.ii.153). Or maybe, it’s not the power of men, but the weakness of women at play here. Enobarbus fears that the mere mention of his and Antony’s leaving will “kill all our women” (I.ii.133). Octavian says, “Women are not, // In their best fortunes strong” (III.xii.29-30).

It’s only when she has resolved to kill herself that she can say, “I have nothing // Of woman in me” (V.ii.239-40). In a perverse way, I’d love to make the argument that it is the violence that removes her womanhood (a la Lady Macbeth), but it’s the resolution–she says in the following line that she is “marble-constant” (V.ii.241).

Strength maketh the man, weakness the woman, so sayeth the play.

So I sayeth Antony and Cleopatra is more misogynistic than not.


for some reason, I’ve been on a YouTube-embedding kick these last few days…

One Reply to “O, Pretty Woman…”

  1. Thank you! I have yet to figure out a way to feel much connection with A&C, and I think it’s because I feel so little sympathy for either of the titular characters. The play’s misogynistic, but so is Cleopatra–by the time the play begins (and probably for decades previous to that beginning), she’s bought into her role to the hilt (as it were), so much so that I never really get a glimpse of the vulnerable, real human being who’s being suffocated or distorted by having to play such a manipulative, self-centered charmer. It’s interesting because I feel a great deal of sympathy for Cressida, probably because the play shows me how little agency she has. I’d say that Cleopatra’s no hero, because she’s never self-aware enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *