The society Shakespeare lived in was; in the upper classes educated and cultured; but the lower classes were extremely poor and uneducated. They lived in overcrowded houses, they had no knowledge of hygiene and disease was rampant. To go and watch a Shakespeare play was a form of escapism for his audiences. They escaped into another world and would be fascinated by the plays Shakespeare produced. Cleopatra was an especially fascinating character for the Jacobean audience because she was controversial, shocking and challenging. The Jacobean people were predominantly devout Catholics and Protestants, they would have practiced monogamy. Adultery and more than one sexual partner would have been disgraceful.
Women were by far the lesser sex; however this status was acknowledged, they may have seen it as customary and it was generally accepted by most women. The audiences would have been very shocked by the behaviour of Cleopatra; she represented an opposite of how their women acted; she had a lot of control and her relationships with the several men she courted were all sexual. She had ultimate control over which men she chose to love and the fortunate gentleman she loved were under her command. A distressing part of Cleopatra’s character for them socially and morally; was that she was very erotically charged and had a lust for love.
“To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did.” This tells us that as her servants tried to cool her down only the opposite would happen, and her lust and passion kept heating her body more. This would have been fascinating and astonishing for them. Yet they saw it as a major flaw and disgraceful part of her character. There would have been a cultural shock to the audience, as their greatly worshipped Queen Elizabeth died as a virgin, and the Queen of Egypt died anything but a virgin. Cleopatra did not show any shame or guilt at the fact she had many sexual partners, such as Antony and Julius Caesar.
The almost relaxed attitude about this may have seemed quite immoral. Antony says “Come, my queen, last night you did desire it,” Agrippa also says “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed. He ploughed her,” The audiences would have been shocked at the power she held in her sex life and how she could desire and receive sex when she wanted it. They would have been intrigued and fascinated at Cleopatra’s approach to life, a woman with this character had not been seen before. This was a major difference to the lack of power and freedom women had in the Jacobean culture.
Cleopatra’s character is probably most relevant to a modern society. She was everything a modern woman is; Cleopatra is in control of the people around her, as a modern business woman might be; she dresses to entice men and to show men her status, she has a high status and is thought of more highly than the men around her and possibly most importantly she chooses the men that she wished to court and have sexual relations with, as many modern woman also do. Her dominance over characters in the play is fascinating to a modern audience; women have won equality and have equal control over men as well as women.
Her simple statements such as, “prithee peace” which was directed at the respectable Enobarbus shows her power and manner in the way that she treats other highly regarded characters. We still create women like Cleopatra, an example of this is the modern icon Elizabeth Hurley, as a public we took interest in her many relationships and her independence. Her lusty sexual character would probably not be the main fascination for a modern audience, in a world of easily accessible pornography and a fashion style of enticing sexy clothes, her seductive charms and sexual relationships may not be so shocking to the modern audience.
Yet also in our world we are over run by soap operas. In this we see conflict, sex, paradoxical characters and many other themes. In Cleopatra we see this paradoxical character, who is in control most of the time, yet we also see another controversial, false and weak character, showing us the paradoxical parts of her character. “If you find him sad, Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am sudden sick.”
This odd game she plays with Antony shows the insecurity in the relationship, she is trying to get his attention, so that whatever mood he is in he will have to come to her. For the modern audience, a culture fascinated by history, is it not what Cleopatra represents that fascinates us? Is she iconic rather than fascinating, as she comes from a place we are so interested in? Egypt was a great civilization that built great pyramids and amazing statues. Television, film and novels have all used Egypt to create a more interesting production. Is she maybe the link between ancient Egypt and modern society and it is not her but what she represents that we are fascinated in? Cleopatra is fascinating to a modern audience as she represents the modern woman; she is in control of her life and the men she interacts with, this was not a achievable status until the late twentieth century yet Cleopatra had this status and power thousands of years previously.
“O Sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work” Cleopatra was worshipped and loved by the characters of the play. She was a cultural shock and an alarming but fascinating character for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare, Cleopatra represents what a modern woman is; enticing, in command and confident. She fascinates all men, as one of the most beautiful woman in history. I personally agree that Cleopatra is a timeless fascination; she in herself has a widespread enthralment that can appeal to all audiences. She is controversial, paradoxical, beautiful, intelligent and lusty. These parts of her persona help Cleopatra to be the most discussed and debated character of Shakespeare’s plays.