Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra: Cleopatra’s Racial Ambiguity & Gender

by Samantha Sasenarine

William Shakespeare's play, Antony & Cleopatra, establishes a tragic love story that displays a "long-standing, adulterous relationship" (Greenblatt, 2775). While Shakespeare crafts two other popular love-stories during his career, Romeo & Juliet and Othello, they are not as sophisticated as Antony & Cleopatra, where the storyline mood shifts from "romantic comedy" to a complex "portrayal of mature love" (Greenblatt, 2775). Antony & Cleopatra do exhibit maturity, but also flaws and mystery between characters. Exploring the play, we see there is a lack of open soliloquies from both Anthony and Cleopatra, which results in the audiences creating assumptions as to why characters may feel or perform certain ways in the play. Specifically, Cleopatra becomes an extraordinary female protagonist because Shakespeare constructs her as the queen of Egypt and infatuated with romance and power. Also, she becomes eccentric compared to other powerful women in Shakespearean plays because her identity constantly evolves throughout history (McMillian, 131). There are no comprehensive and solid ideas as to where we stand with Cleopatra's racial identity, and often, we are focused on her passion for Antony, which may dismiss the substantial value and power she holds in the play. Understanding the ambiguity of Cleopatra's racial identity and gender enables us to engage in discourse about how she innately performs as a powerful queen in her relationship with Antony while being exoticized and marginalized by other Roman men.

Analyzing the way Cleopatra's individuality shifts through history allows us to believe that her identity is opaque. Through performance, she is represented by both White and Black female characters on stage. Preferably, audiences desire and expect white actresses to play the role of Cleopatra, although it is offered to many Black women. Antiguan-born actress, Claire Benedict, was offered the role of Cleopatra in the 1993 RSC Production of the play after her co- star, Claire Higgins took ill. Initially, she was to perform as Charmian, one of Cleopatra's many servants (McMillan, 130). However, Benedict immediately received backlash for her performance, claiming many felt that it is necessary to "tone down the cultural power" of blackness. The complexity of Cleopatra's identity raises questions about how her "ethnicity as an Egyptian has been contested historically." If the main role isn't being performed by a Black woman, often we see her servants, Charmian and Iras, being played by Black actresses, which display alternating ideas of Cleopatra's racial identity (McMillian, 131).

Presenting the ambiguity of blackness in Cleopatra's identity cannot be voiced without thinking about how the Black identity is exemplified and concealed within whiteness during early modernism. Race is not a grounded idea during early modernism, but we must wonder "to what extent this association influenced early race relations between white England and black Africa" (Deroux, 89). English people "formed notions of blackness" based on "color concept and physiology." Black bile and choler "represented melancholy and wrath" and linked blackness as vulnerable to evil. Black skin provoked ideas of negative qualities and racial stereotypes, such as having suspicious attitudes and unbridled emotions (Deroux, 91). Specifically, Black women tended to be labeled as designated "subjects" of European and masculine gazes, prized possessions, exotic & oriental. Black women were also considered an "ultimate accomplishment" because they are categorized as "otherness" and became fascinating to men (MacDonald, 91). Kim Hall explains that people used “blackness” as a means of referring to someone of African descent rather than insinuating that an individual is solely “black” (Stephens, 1).

Furthering how we think about blackness comparatively to Cleopatra, Shakespeare displays her as an exotic being in the play. Often, she and Egypt’s gifts are discussed as "prized possessions" by the Romans. He says, "The beds i'thi East are soft, and thanks to you/That called me timelier than my purpose hither/For I have gained by't/" (2.6.50-52). Antony acknowledges that the "beds'' are soft in the East, indicating the seductive nature of Egyptian people—demeaning their culture and way of life. Antony is grateful that Pompey gave him a reason to leave because he can now consolidate all that he has learned. He discusses the Nile, pyramids, and animals with the men as they ask him questions intriguingly:

ANTONY. Thus do they, sir: 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.

LEPIDUS. You’ve strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

LEPIDUS. Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun. So is your crocodile (2.7.17-27)

Even here, Antony is aware that he has "gained" from his relations with Cleopatra. He captivates the men by equating the pyramids and the Nile, explaining that marks on the pyramids "expands" the rise of the river. As the Nile water rises, farmers scatter their seeds on silt for the harvest. Lepidus proceeds to ask about "strange serpents" and crocodiles, protruding that he is enlightened by the conversation. During this discussion, men aren't directly conversing about Cleopatra as a woman with value, but rather as an exotic being reigning over Egypt. Cleopatra seems encompassed with Egypt's gifts, becoming a "possession" and forgotten as a powerful. The conversation progresses with Enobarbus mentioning that Antony will go back to his "Egyptian dish,” indicating her presence as a “seductive object” (2.7.122). This makes us question Antony's genuine intentions to be with Cleopatra, but also how other white men view her. Rather than being discussed as a requited lover, she becomes a "subject" of Antony's motives. He becomes almost as an "omniscient" character, reporting to Roman officials about his discoveries while being with Cleopatra, giving them access to the land and its people.

Consequently, this may result in how Cleopatra performs as "needful" or "dramatic" in their relationship. Often, she asks for reassurance of Antony's love and expects a genuine response from him. She becomes an affectionate and upfront woman about her feelings, which allows us to think about the "unbridled" emotionality of blackness. The very beginning of the play expresses her need for security:

CLEOPATRA. If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

ANTONY. There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

CLEOPATRA. I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.

ANTONY. Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth. (1.1.14-17)

Cleopatra goes beyond and claims that if he doesn't love her, he should go back to Rome and be with his ex-wife Fulvia. She says, "Let her not say 'tis I keep you here./I have no power upon you. Hers you are (1.3.22-23). Perhaps, Cleopatra is agitated from Anthony's "baggage" of having Fulvia and Octavia--who he secretly marries for political reasons--as wives. Also, the Romans deem her to be a "whore" constantly and undermine Cleopatra's abilities. Although Cleopatra is "dramatic," we witness her perform as a woman with power that needs to establish herself as serious, especially in her intimate relationship and political role.

The marginality of Cleopatra is unveiled throughout the play in several instances with Anthony. When he marries Octavia covertly, Cleopatra finds out and immediately starts comparing herself to her. Emotionally, she may feel embarrassed and shocked, especially when she references her insignificance to Octavia. She asks the messenger and Charmian about her bodily features:

CLEOPATRA. Is she as tall as me?

MESSENGER. She is not, madam.

CLEOPATRA. Didst hear her speak? Is she shrill-tongued or low?

MESSENGER. Madam, I heard her speak; she is low-voiced.

CLEOPATRA. That’s not so good. He cannot like her long.

CHARMIAN. Like her? O Isis, ’tis impossible.

CLEOPATRA. I think so, Charmian—dull of tongue, and dwarfish! What majesty is in her gait? Remember, If ere thou look'st on majesty.

MESSENGER. She creeps.

Her motion and her station are as one.

She shows a body rather than a life,

A statue than a breather. (3.3.11-21)

Instantly, we see similar patterns of Cleopatra trying to prove herself as a woman. She says that Octavia has a low pitched voice, "dwarfish" body, and dull. She is confident that Antony will not desire Octavia for too long because her bodily features won't pleasure him like hers. Anthony obscurely racializes Cleopatra in moments where he is angry with her. In Act 3, scene 13, he makes a clear distinction between Cleopatra and Octavia when he confronts her about turning away her battle ships. He says, "Have I my pillow left unpresses in Rome/Forborne the getting of a lawful race/And by a gem of a woman, to be abused/By one that looks on feeders?" (107-110). He not only insults Cleopatra by questioning himself for leaving Rome for her, but he refers to Octavia as someone "of a lawful race" and "gem of a woman." He professes that Octavia is more of an honorable woman from a legitimate race compared to Cleopatra, belittling and placing her in the category of "otherness.” As Cleopatra battles with her insecurities, Antony’s “male body remains pure, while the white female and black bodies compete for significance" (Stephens, 338). Here, Cleopatra is competing with whiteness, perhaps to ignore significant differences between herself and Octavia. However, it reveals how Cleopatra combats whiteness to feel like a beautiful woman with Antony. Antony stands in the outer circle where he is unaffected by his actions. He lavishes in the benefits of having a lover (Cleopatra) and forming political alliances with Octavia in Rome.

Now, let's examine the research about blackness in early modernism and how Black women are portrayed while focusing on the claims I make about Cleopatra in this play. Suppose we are to accept these claims about Cleopatra's racial identity and female role. If so, we can direct attention to the possibility that Cleopatra may be aware of her own racial difference between her and the Romans. She says, "That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black/And wrinkled deep in time…" (1.5.28-29). She makes a clear racial distinction about her skin, referring to it as "pinches black" (darkened) and "wrinkled deep in time" (perhaps aged by the sun). Also, she tends to be associated with Goddess Isis, who was interpreted to be a powerful woman with dark skin. Isis is "the Earth or land of Egypt" and "Egyptian queens who identify themselves with her are worshipped as the mother of the world, capable of bringing order and wholeness of chaos and pain" (Macdonald, 69). Cleopatra's loyal servants accredited her as Isis, which contributes to the renowned difference of race. Despite Cleopatra's praised as Goddess Isis for the Egyptian people, interestingly, Cleopatra's female role is often diminished by the Romans. Considering the claims raised about race, we can judge how sacred she becomes as an outspoken female character—although she tends to be thought of as an "accomplishment" or "object" of Antony’s. Her racial disparity and powerful female role expose us to how she clouds Antony's judgment & manipulates him to actively commit to their relationship while presenting how admirable and legendary she is to her Egyptian people (Zink, 21).

Antony and Cleopatra becomes interlaced in both love and political realms, which ultimately leads the characters to their tragic ending. This essay considered factors of "difference" being reasons behind the failure of their love story; however, culturally and politically, both characters embody two different parts of the world—East (Cleopatra) and West (Antony), which put them at odds from the very beginning. Although this representation of both characters work on a "micro and macro level and helps unite the play thematically," focusing attention on Cleopatra’s racial ambiguity and gender allows us to see how Shakespeare crafts characters outside of whiteness (Zink, 20). Ultimately, these parts of Cleopatra’s identity enable us to look to how she embodies a woman in an obscure relationship and powerful queen of Egypt while combating the ill-treatment of other characters.

Work Cited:

Deroux, Margaux. “The Blackness Within: Early Modern Color-Concept, Physiology and Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare's ‘Titus Andronicus.’” Mediterranean Studies, vol. 19, 2010, pp. 86–101. JSTOR,

MacDonald, Joyce Green. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts. Cambridge University Press, 2002. EBSCOhost,\

McMillian , Micheal. “The Black Body and Shakespeare: Conversations with Black Actors .” Shakespeare, Race and Performance: The Diverse Bard, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and Andrew Gurr. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Stephens, Dorothy. African American Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 1998, pp. 337–340. JSTOR,

Zink, Abbey. “The Lady Was A Dame: Gender Performance and the Role of Cleopatra in the 1999 RSC and Globe Productions of ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 18, no. 1, 2000, pp. 20–23. JSTOR,