How do you, in the 21st century, respond to Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of Cleopatra? Cleopatra can only be described as ‘designing’ when her character is examined on an entirely superficial level. Beyond the obvious fluctuations in mood and volatile behaviour she exhibits throughout the play, there lies an intensely vulnerable and accessible woman, more so than ever to a modern audience. She is, in a sense, a woman well ahead of her times, both that of the Imperial Roman Empire and that of James I in which she was originally portrayed.
Her volatility, particularly in the early stages of the play, is easily misconstrued as a Machiavellian tendency to manipulate for the satisfaction of her own whims. On first experience of the play, her request of Antony to ‘tell me how much’ he loves her seems foolish, even embarrassing, a public taunting of an important man. However, on subsequent re-examination, when the depth of her feeling for Antony (particularly in her anguish at his death) has been demonstrated, her ‘taunting’ gains another dimension.
This question is more than trivial to her, however she might behave; she needs his reassurance. She is desperate to cling on to Antony’s love, incredibly sensitive when it is threatened. Her first reaction to his suggestion of returning to Rome is to cry ‘never was there queen so mightily betrayed!’ She assumes that he has chosen to abandon her for Fulvia. Even on learning that Fulvia is dead, she sees the worst in Anthony. He shows no visible grief, so she demands ‘Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill with sorrowful water?’ In his lack of tears she sees herself slighted, deducing that this is how her death ‘shall be received’.
This could quite easily be seen as melodrama, Cleopatra prompting Antony, as is her wont, to state his devotion again, but I believe that her shock and anger is genuine. Cleopatra has been previously scorned and overlooked, something credible in an age when almost all other leaders were men and she would be isolated. She is well aware of the political vulnerability her gender burdens her with, as shown by her calling Caesar ‘my master and my lord’ near the finale and her self-deprecating words,
‘I have been laden with like frailties which before have often shamed our sex.’ She knows that she is, regardless of her kingdom, Caesar’s inferior by default, so must at least humour him. This political conscience translates into her feelings towards a lover, the constant fear of betrayal and the need for reassurance. Just as she is aware of the threat to her throne and therefore protects it carefully, so she acts with regards to Antony.
She fears desperately that he will tire of her leave due to fault with their relationship. She therefore constantly presents him with another puzzle to solve, instructing her servants to ‘if you find him sad, say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am sudden sick’. It could easily be the case that in order to prevent male overrule, both emotional and political, her character has evolved to express its ‘infinite variety’. Without such a strong-willed and dramatic composition of character she would be overthrown by the conventional male leader, losing both her seat of power and her pride. Were Cleopatra as reserved and ‘dull of tongue’ as the good Roman woman Octavia, the idea of her maintaining her political seat and leading her country so passionately would be laughable.
Cleopatra, in the words of Robin Hamilton, ‘is what she is’. There is no ‘design’ to her and ironically, when she is so often condemned for cunningly seducing men, it is arguably due to their influence on her character that she has become so brash and dramatic. Her relationship with Julius Caesar in particular seems to have marked her emotionally. The fact that she remonstrates with Charmian for calling him ‘valiant Caesar’, and names their relationship ‘my salad days, when I was green in judgement’, shows regret at the pain of its demise. In condemning her own judgement and not Caesar, her criticism of Charmian is a protest against her own naive and doting youth, rather than a dismissal of previous conquests. There is a sense of the hindsight granted by age and the comparison between relationships current and former, the latter seeming now like a mistake.