Shakespeare’s Women – Cleopatra

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This post is part of our Shakespeare’s Women series in parternship with the collections team over at Finding Shakespeare. On flickr we have created a collection portraying these wonderful ladies.

For my money Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s most sensuous, seductive and sensational creation. As a character she defies lazy labeling, and delights in the fact that she can be viewed as – a “Triumphant lady” – a “Right gypsy” – a “Lass unparalleled” – and a “Wrangling queen” – sometimes within the space of a couple of lines. She is indeed a “spell”, and I first fell in love with this “lass unparalleled” when I was 17, while studying ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ for my A-levels. Since then I have tripped, stumbled and fell in love with her time and time again in the theatre.

Cleopatra turns heads and steals hearts, and even in death she looks “as she would catch another Antony”. She fires and frustrates passions in equal measure. In Enobarbus’s words “Other women cloy/ The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies”. As well as inspiring poetry in others, Cleopatra possesses a powerful poetic sensibility of her own. When her lover dies she feels there “is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon”, and thus “the stroke of death” becomes “as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desired”. If Shakespeare’s aim was to woo us with words – then I consider myself well and truly wooed.

It comes as little surprise to hear that some actresses in the past have approached this role with a little trepidation. How do you present ‘infinite variety’ afterall? The director Glen Byam Shaw gave Peggy Ashcroft the following advice as she set about creating her own portrayal of this enchanting queen. Glen wrote that:

“She has enormous vitality and is never happy unless something terrific is happening. She lashes herself into rages. She sulks, she teases, she mocks, she commends, and uses a thousand other devices for getting other people to do and say what she wants. She has absolutely no moral sense whatsoever, as it is ordinarily understood, and yet she would think that anything she did was right. The subtleties of the character are simply enormous and make it probably the greatest woman’s part ever written. The portrayal must be full of variations and have as many different aspects as a flickering fire! We must feel that Antony is right to do as he does.”

I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with a couple of Cleopatras this year, and to hear a little about the process behind moving Shakespeare’s characterization from page to stage. While I was in Boston I met with Paula Plum who will be playing Cleopatra in The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production from April 2011 http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/ As part of her research for the role Paula has been looking at ways in which Cleopatra has been presented in the past, and visited our library to look through the RSC’s archive of production images. More recently I met with Simone Spiteri from Malta who is the founding member of the Dutheatre company http://www.dutheatre.com/du/home.html A few years ago Simone devised and performed a piece which explored Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’, and here she is talking a little about that project.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Nick Walton

    Sure – you’re absolutely right Andrew. I quoted Glen’s comments out of context in my blog – his notes for Peggy Ashcroft where extensive and emphasised Cleopatra’s political savvy as well. Your comments complete the picture – and help give a sense of this character’s powerful presence.

  • Nick Walton

    Sure – you’re absolutely right Andrew. I quoted Glen’s comments out of context in my blog – his notes for Peggy Ashcroft where extensive and emphasised Cleopatra’s political savvy as well. Your comments complete the picture – and help give a sense of this character’s powerful presence.

  • Liz Woledge

    Its interesting that a lot of students watching the play comment that they wish Cleopatra seemed more of leader in the political world. Historically she must have been and they miss that in the play ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Its interesting that a lot of students watching the play comment that they wish Cleopatra seemed more of leader in the political world. Historically she must have been and they miss that in the play ^liz

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    I was lucky enough to play Antony a couple of years ago and in working out who Antony and Cleopatra were we found it helpful that Shakespeare's fiction was based on historical fact. Egypt was a rich, fertile but poorly armed country and within a year of hers and Antony's death Rome invaded so Cleopatra single-handedly kept the Roman legions at bay for something like twenty years, first by seducing Ceasar and then Antony. That view turned her relationship with Antony into not just a personal love story but a political alliance between a queen and an emperor. I therefore find Glen Byam Shaw's amoral flirt less satisfying than the shrewd politician who uses what she's got to get what she wants in what is, after all, a highly political play; she's not the light relief from the politics, she's right at the heart of it, deploying her fleet, advising Antony on military strategy and calculating her options if he loses to Octavius.

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