Vivian Liao (487206017)

Shakespeare and Sexual Politics

June 25, 1999

Term Paper


Shakespeare¡¦s Antony and Cleopatra displays a patriarchal western colonial discourse in the embodiment of the Roman men and their political leader, Antony, who assumes themselves as the superior, the civilized, and the master.   In this discourse, the colonized Egypt, represented by the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra is identified with Other, an object, the inferior, the slave.  However, Cleopatra subverts stereotypes of gender and race by her desire for the power of language, which is regarded as men¡¦s and the colonizers¡¦ privilege in the phallocentric colonial discourse, and by the power from her voice of mother.


Discourse, Woman Desire for Voice, and Power in Antony and Cleopatra

          CAESAR.  . . . .  Give her what comforts

                  The quality of her passion shall require,

                  Lest in her greatness, by some mortal stroke

                  She do defeat us; for her life in Rome

                  Would be eternal in our triumph.  (5.1.62-66)

        Shakespeare¡¦s Antony and Cleopatra is a play dominated primarily by the essential discourse of Western male Europeans¡Xembodied by Roman men.   Apparently, the Roman emperor Caesar¡¦s speech reveals his identity as a conqueror and a colonizer; whereas the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra is a subjected colonizer, employed to construct white male supremacy.  Edward Said in Orientalism argues that Orientals are positioned as an ¡§ ¡¥object of study, stamped with an Otherness,¡¨  ¡§silent, available to Europe for the realization of projects¡¨ (Said 298, 296).  Therefore, as a woman and an oriental, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra is doubly identified as ¡§Otherness,¡¨ displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed.   In Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman empire, governed by Caesar, and the colonized Egyptians, represented by their Queen Cleopatra, are precipitated into phallocentric binary oppositions in gender and race: Rome/Egypt, West/East, Men/Women, Father/Mother, and Master/Slave.  Caesar¡¦s speech cited above connotes the patriarchal colonial discourse that the Roman empire is a world centered on men, conquering Egypt as a female domain.   Discourse, according to Michel Foucault, ¡§is not simply that which manifests (or hides) desire¡Xit is also the object of desire; and since, as history constantly teaches us, discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized¡¨ (Foucault 239).  In Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra is a subjected being to this patriarchal colonial discourse; nevertheless, she subverts this patriarchal colonial discourse by her desire for language and the voice of mother as a power.

                To deconstruct the phallocentric, colonial discourse, Cleopatra exhibits her desire for a dominating power in language.  In the pallocentric colonial ideology, the colonized, like women, are expected to be subjected, submissive, and silent Other.  Egypt, embodied by Cleopatra, is identified with ¡§otherness.¡¨  Antony usually calls Cleopatra ¡§my serpent of old Nile¡¨ (1.5.25), and Egytians are associated with crocodiles, ¡§strange serpents¡¨ by Roman Lepidus (2.7.24).  The core of Lacanian psychoanalyic theory is that to achieve the full formation of subject, the infant, who is still inarticulate and is identified with Imaginary M/other at the mirror stage, has to enter the Symbolic Order, the Name-of-the-Father, where identity depends on acquiring language as a difference (Lacan 129).  Under this discourse, language provides the very definition of man and of the Westerners.  In this play, Cleopatra is a woman and Other who yearns for obtaining language.  In the scene where Antony is on the verge of dying, Cleopatra demands the right of speaking:

          ANTONY.  I am dying, Egypt, dying.

              Give me some wine, and let me speak a little.

          CLEOPATRA.   No, let me speak, and let me rail so high,

              That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel,

              Provok¡¦d by my offense.  (4.15.41-44)

By depriving of his voices and reclaiming her language, Cleopatra asserts her position as a man and reverses the stereotype of the western and the orient.  In contrast, ¡§the dying Antony,¡¨ as critic Yachin comments, ¡§loses his competence as a speaker of the language of command¡¨ ( 349)

Furthermore, in this play, Cleopatra rejects to be an obedient Other and manifests herself as a master over men by her desire for and manipulation of language.   Antony becomes the first male object of the conqueror Queen¡¦s desire.  In the very beginning of the play, when Antony attempts to leaves Egypt, Cleopatra intends to retain and control him by verbal tricks:

          CLEOPATRA.  See where he is, who¡¦s with him, what he does.

              I did not send you.  If you find him sad,

              Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

              That I am sudden sick.  Quick, and return.   (1.23-5)

          CHARMIAN.  Madam, methinks if you did love him dearly,

              You do not hold the method to enforce the like from him.

          CLEOPATRA.  What should I do, I do not?

          CHARMIAN.  In each thigh give him way, cross him in nothing.

          CLEOPATRA.  Thou teaches like a fool: the way to lose him.

By employing the free-play of signifiers of language, Cleopatra makes the logocentric signified arbitrary and de-constructed.  We can the speech of Charmian represents the traditional logocentric signifier of women, which signifies submission as to obtain men¡¦s favor.  Nevertheless, contrary to Charmian¡¦s idea, Cleopatra views that disobedience is the best way to win men¡¦s love and control them.  Therefore, she deliberately acts in opposition to Antony¡¦s temper by displacing her merriment and sickness in the game of language.  Moreover, by distorting the real situation, Cleopatra achieves her end of controlling Antony¡¦s language¡Xto enslave him to  speak what she wants to hear.  Later on, as a man of words, she eloquently argues   that Antony is a traitor to their love and belongs to his wife Fulvia; in contrast, Antony, owing to Cleopatra¡¦s domination of discourse, is silenced and seems to be inarticulate as a woman, for example:

           CLEOPATRA.  I know by that same eye there¡¦s some good news.

               What, says the married woman you may go?

               Would she had never given you leave to come!

               Let her not say ¡¥tis I that keep you here,

               I have no power upon you; hers you are.

          ANTONY.  The gods best know¡X

          CLEOPATRA.               O, never was there queen

              So mightly betrayed! Yet at the first

              I saw the treasons planted.

          ANTONY.                 Cleopatra¡X   (1.3.19-27)

Here in this dialogue, Cleopatra, like a man, turns out a master of language over Antony; whereas Antony loses the capability in speech performance; consequently, in this sense, Antony and Cleopatra shifts their roles in gender and race.  Actually, by doing so, Cleopatra draws from him the speech to satisfy her desire:

          ANTONY.  Quarrel no more, but be prepar¡¦d to know

             The purposes I bear; which are, or cease,

             As you shall give th¡¦ advice.  By the fire

             That quickens Nilus¡¦ slime, I go from hence

             Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war

             As thou affects.  (1.3.66-71)

At this point, by her language design, Cleopatra succeeds in making Antony   become her ¡§soldier¡¨ and ¡§servant¡¨ and thus in dominating him.  Elsewhere in this play, Antony explicitly expresses that Cleopatra is his conqueror after he followed her ship and is thus defeated on the sea:

          ANTONY.  Egypt, thou knewst too well

              My heart was to thy rudder tied by th¡¦ strings,

              And thou shouldst [tow] me after. O¡¦er my spirit

              [Thy] full supremacy thou knew¡¦st, and that

              Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods

              Command me.

              . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

          ANTONY.  . . . .      You did know

              How much you were my conqueror, and that

              My sword, made weak by my affection, would

              Obey it on all cause.   (3.11.56-68)

¡§Tied by th¡¦[Cleopatra¡¦s] strings, Antony is identified with the image of M/other, for the hollowness of ship applied on Antony symbolizes the womb of M/other.  Moreover, Antony, like a captive to Cleopatra, is fettered and tracked by the Egyptian Queen.

        Another instance of Cleopatra¡¦s mastery over Roman men by language occurs in the scene where she manipulates a Roman messenger who firstly informs her of the news of Antony and secondly of the appearance of Octavia.   When the Roman messenger appears for the first time, Cleopatra attempts to lead what he is going to report:

          CLEOPATRA.  Antonio¡¦s dead!  If thou say so, villain,

              Thou kill¡¦st thy mistress; but well and free,

              If thou so yield him, there is gold, and here

              My bluest veins to kiss¡Xa hand that kings

              Have lipp¡¦d, and trembled kissing.

          MESSENGER.  First, madam, he is well.

          CLEOPATRA.                  Why, there¡¦s more gold.

              But, sirrah, mark, we use

              To say the dead are well.  Bring it to that,

              The gold I give thee will I melt and pour

              Down thy ill-uttering throat.  (2.5.26-35)

It is plain to see that Cleopatra forestalls the Roman messenger by displaying her strength in language; consequently, he begins his speech by flattering the Queen.  Furthermore, Cleopatra¡¦s insistence on performing the power of speech to direct the messenger makes him very much silenced; as a result, the messenger implores twice for ¡§hear¡¨ him (2.5.36, 41).   Cleopatra is sensitive and intelligent in language, so   when the messenger intends to utter the discomforting truth but at the same time to smooth his speech by using the transition ¡§but yet¡¨ (2.5.49), Cleopatra immediately responds to counteract his subsequent displeasing information: ¡§I do not like ¡¥but yet,¡¨ it does allay/ The good precedence; fie upon ¡¥but yet¡¦!/ ¡¥but yet¡¦ is as a jailer to bring forth/ Some monstrous malefactor¡¨ (2.5.50-53).  Moreover, the Roman messenger completely forfeits his power of language because Cleopatra¡¦s bloody man-like violence of demanding his life by the phallus sword enables him to understand the reward for breaking the truth against the Queen¡¦s will is receiving death. 

Eventually, the Roman messenger, when commanded to describe the appearance of Antony¡¦s legal wife, Octavia, yields to Cleopatra¡¦s power and reveals what she is pleased to hear.  He cunningly makes up all the inferior and unattractive attributes of  Octavia, including shortness in height, low voice, creeping manner, round face, brown hair, low forehead, everything contrary to the standard aesthetics of western women.  In the dialogue between the messenger and her in Act III, scene 3, Cleopatra raises quite amount of questions in a pattern like ¡§Is Octavia A or B?¡¨ Although these questions are regarded as the typical characteristics in feminine language, they actually lead to affirmative one signified answer, for instance:

          CLEOPATRA.  Didst her hear speak?  Is she shrill-tongu¡¦d or low?

          MESSENGER.  Madam, I heard her speak; she is low-voic¡¦d.

          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

          CLEOPATRA.  Bear¡¦st thou her face in mind?  Is¡¦t long or round?

          MESSENGER.  Round, even to faultiness.  (3.3.12-29)

These inquiries formed in ¡§Is X A or B¡¨ actually unveil Cleopatra¡¦s ingenuity in rhetoric¡Xshe limits the free space of answers by giving only two choices.  The two alternatives Cleopatra offers include binary opposite signified meanings¡Xsuperiority/  / inferiority, shrill/low, long/round, intelligent/foolish.  In addition, under Cleopatra¡¦s design, other questions are fallen into this binary oppositions¡Xhigh/short, and walking/creeping¡Xwhen the messenger illustrates the height, and gait of the Westerner Octavia.  Since Cleopatra maneuvers the Roman messenger to attribute inferior features to Octavia, she in the meanwhile rebels against the logocentric dual, hierarchized oppositions: Occidentals/Orientals, Superiority/Inferiority.

     Similarly, Caesar is entrapped by Cleopatra¡¦s language to reach her purpose.  In this play, Cleopatra, when necessary, always reveals submission in her speech to convince Caesar of her loyalty to him so as to benefit herself.  The first time when Antony is defeated by Caesar on sea, the Ambassador, as Cleopatra¡¦s spokesman, discloses to Caesar: ¡§Cleopatra does confess thy greatness,/ Submits her to thy might, and of thee craves/ The circle of the Ptolomies for her heirs,/ Now hazarded to thy grace¡¨ (3.12.16-19).  Moreover, Cleopatra also requests the messenger Thidias to convey her thoughts:

          CLEOPATRA.  Most kind messenger,

              Say to great Caesar this in [disputation]:

              I kiss his conqu¡¦ring hand.  Tell him, I am prompt

              To lay my crown at ¡¥s feet, and there to kneel.

              Tell him, from his all-obeying breath I hear

              The doom of Egypt.  (3.13.73-78)

These speeches all manifest the Egyptian Queen¡¦s fidelity to the Roman emperor.  Nonetheless, disguised in her surrender to Caesar, Cleopatra reveals her intention to ensure her descendents¡¦ heritage of Egypt, and in this way, her name can be retained from generation to generation.  By preserving her name, Cleopatra at the same time keeps her identity on which one¡¦s subject anchors.   Cleopatra¡¦s language ¡§tracklessly traverses the ground between subjectivity and will in ways that suggest her radical inward freedom but also her political power over others¡¨ (Yachnin 356).  In reality, substantiated by her curse on herself, Cleopatra¡¦s heart is still loyal rather than ¡§cold-hearted¡¨ (3.13.158) to her lover:

          CLEOPATRA.  Ah, dear, if I be so,

              From my cold heat let heaven engender hail,

              And poison it in the source, and the first stone

              Drop in my neck; as it determines, so

              Dissolve my life!  The next Caesarion [smite],

              Till by degrees the memory of my womb,

              Together with my brave Egyptians all,

              By the [discandying] of this pelleted storm,

              Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile

              Have buried them for prey!  (3.13.159-167)

Cleopatra uses the lives of her future descendents and her as a pledge to vindicate her allegiance to Antony.  Cleopatra is wise in her speech by coursing on the lives of her generation, whom she values most within Antony¡¦s knowledge.  Thus, Antony yields to Cleopatra¡¦s power of language and feels ¡§satisfied¡¨ (3.13.168).

        Moreover, after Antony¡¦s death, Cleopatra plays the power of words to preserve her property.  When Cleopatra contributes her lists of treasure to Caesar, Seleucus betrays her by uttering that what she keeps back is ¡§Enough to purchase what you have made known¡¨ (5.2.148).  To keep her royal dignity and property, Cleopatra argues that the treasure she has reserved are ¡§Immoment toys, things of such dignity/ As we greet modern friends withal,¡¨ and the valuables are ¡§token[s]¡¨ for Livia and Octavia ¡§to induce/ Their mediation¡¨ (5.2.166-170).  To have Caesar feel no ambition for her fortune, Cleopatra reduces the values of her possession in her verbal language and fabricates the pretext of catering on Caesar¡¦s most intimate relations, his wife and beloved sister, with more precious presents.   In addition, she evokes Caesar¡¦s compassion and masculinity so that he would not exploit her of wealth: ¡§Were thou a man./ Thou wouldst have mercy on me¡¨(5.2.174-75).  Cleopatra takes advantage of and emphasizes the stereotypes of her gender, being oppressed and weak, to satisfy Caesar¡¦s phallocentric desire for displaying and offering generosity and grace. 

    In addition to her desire for language, Cleopatra also yearns for speaking with the voice of m/other.   In Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi delineates Hélèn Cixous¡¦s idea of woman¡¦s voice: ¡§The voice is the mother and the mother¡¦s body: ¡¥Voice: inexhaustible milk. She has been found again.  The lost mother. Eternity: it is the voice mixed with milk¡¦.  The speaking/writing woman is a space outside time (eternity), a space that allows no naming and no syntax¡¨ (Moi 114).  Cleopatra¡¦s desire for death is a quest to return to Mother, from whom she finds the primordial power of Eternity, a power over others as well as over herself.  In the end of the play, Cleopatra commits suicide by applying an asp on her breast, uttering:

          CLEOPATRA. Peace, Peace!

                   Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,

                   That sucks the nurse asleep? (5.2.308-309)

By referring to the asp from Nile as her baby, Cleopatra immediately becomes the Voice of Mother nursing an infant.  Actually, Cleopatra, as a Queen of Egypt, has often been suggested a serpent Mother to her subjects who are people of baby snakes.  Antony usually calls Cleopatra ¡§my serpent of old Nile¡¨ (1.5.25).  Moreover, Cleopatra also evokes that ¡§Melt Egypt into Nile! And Kindly creatures/ Turn all to serpents¡¨ (2.5.78-79) and prefers that ¡§half my Egypt were submerg¡¦d and made/ A cestern for scal¡¦d snakes¡¨ (2.5.94-95) when she wishes the Roman messenger to lie for her.  The country of Egypt is thus a kingdom of snakes, governed by Cleopatra, since, in Lepidus¡¦ words, Nile is a place where snakes dwells:  ¡§Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your/ Mud by the operation of your sun¡¨ (2.7.26-27).    Consequently, Nile, the symbol of water, is the source of Egyptian lives and prosperity, just as Antony has mentioned:

          ANTONY.  . . . they take the flow o¡¦ th¡¦ Nile

              By certain scales i¡¦ th¡¦ pyramid; they know,

              By th¡¦ height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth

              Or foison follow.  The higher Nilus swells,

              The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman

              Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,

              And shortly comes to harvest.  (2.7.17-23)

The river Nile is identified with the source of fertility, the primeval Mother, for Moi unveils Cixous¡¦s concept of woman¡¦s: ¡§water is the feminine element par excellence: the closure of the mythical world contains and reflects the comforting security of the mother¡¦s womb¡¨ (117).  Moreover, in Enobarbus¡¦ account of Cleopatra on the river  Cydnus where she meets Antony for the first time, Cleopatra is implied to a mother ¡Xshe sits in a ¡§barge, like a ¡§a burnish¡¦d throne,/ Burnt on the water¡¨ (2.2.191-92).  The hollowness of ¡§barge¡¨ is associated with the image of womb which contains water.  With this sensuous woman body, Cleopatra subdues Antony.  Her power ¡§appears to be predicated on the visibility of her eroticized body to her subjects, who abandon all activity to gaze on her¡¨ (Harris 417). 

     Furthermore, in this scene, Cleopatra is identified with mythological mother, Venus, goddess of love (2.2.200) and elsewhere is paralleled to Egyptian goddess Isis (1.2.69).  According to critic Kuriyama, ¡§in Egyptian mythology, the inundation represented the fertilization of the earth (Isis) by the principle of moisture (Osiris)¡¨ (336).  Like goodness, Cleopatra seems to have a immortal body in Enobarbus¡¦ description: ¡§Age cannot with her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.¡¨ (2.2.234-35).            

    Furthermore, Cleopatra always believes that death can satisfy her thirst for  eternity: ¡§I have/ Immortal longings in me¡¨ (5.2.280-81).  In her death, her mother image whose breast the baby asp sucks fulfills her desire for being united with Mother, the primordial body of eternity.  In addition, the baby snake is a token of immortality.  The Egyptian crocodile, a kind of snake, according to Anotny, has immortal soul:

          ANTONY.  It is shap¡¦d, sir, like itself, and it as broad

              as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves

              with it own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth

              it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.  (1.7.42-45)

Therefore, Cleopatra, by identifying herself as a mother of baby asp, reaches immortality.

    The water of Nile, the source where Mother¡¦s power generates, is not only a power of procreation but also a power of destruction.  In the scene where Cleopatra¡¦s maids inquire a fortuneteller their fate, the water of Nile is identified with woman¡¦ erotic drive as a destructive force:

          IRAS.  There¡¦s palm presages chastity, if nothing else.

          CHARMIAN.  the o¡¦erflowing Nilus presageth famine¡¨ (1.2.50):    Cleopatra employs her erotic love as a power to destroy the masculine Antony: ¡§My sword, made weak by my affection, would obey it on all cause¡¨ (3.11.67-68).  Moreover, Cleopatra is a mother who evokes the power of water to overcome Caesar and herself.  When Caesar attempts to humiliate her by exposing her as a living captive on the Roman streets, Cleopatra wishes that ¡§rather on Nilus¡¦ mud Lay me stark-naked, and let the water-flies/ Blow me into abohorring!¡¨  Her final death frustrates Caesar¡¦s dark purpose and brings herself dignity and honor in ¡§high Roman fashion¡¨ (4.15.87).  Furthermore, woman¡¦s power,¡¨ Cixous argues, is ¡§the will to supremacy, the thirst for individual and narcissistic satisfaction¡¨ and is multiplied, . . . and ¡§a question of power over self¡¨  (qtd. in Moi 124-125).   Cleopatra fulfills her self-obsession with the Imaginary Mother by dying in the baby asp, the self-consummation of Mother image.  Her death, just as Antony describes, manifests that ¡§I am conqueror of myself¡¨ (4.14.62).

    In conclusion, Cleopatra deconstructs the phallocentric colonial ideology by establishing her voice as a revolutionary power.  Cleopatra is a woman and Mother ¡§as the source of life, power and energy and to hail the advent of a new, feminine language that ceaselessly subverts these patriarchal binary schemes where logocentrism colludes with phallocentrism in an effort to oppress and silence women¡¨ (Moi 105).    Furthermore, although the Oriental Queen Cleopatra, the ¡§serpent of Nile,¡¨ is regarded as the colonized Other, her insistence on articulating her voice not only generates her woman power over Roman men but also becomes a threatening Other to Roman politics by undoing the discourse that men or the colonizer have the rights of language.  I cannot agree critic Harris¡¦s viewepoint that Cleopatra ¡§lacks the absolute gender and racial alterity that her audiences and readers, as well as Roman suitors, have ascribed on her¡¨ (423) because Cleopatra, on the contrary, emphasizes and speaks as the voice of woman.  She is indeed an immortal soul.


Works Cited

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    Eds. Philop Rice and Patricia Waugh.  3rd ed. New York: Arnold, 1996.  239-


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