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“It beggared all description”: 
Authorship and Character in Antony and Cleopatra

by Dr. Charles Conaway, 
University of Southern Indiana

(December 2016 Issue / PDF)

In my undergraduate Shakespeare classes, especially at the beginning of a semester, I find that students frequently attempt to interpret Shakespeare by making connections between the plays and their own personal experiences. This is an understandable, even natural, first step when attempting to make sense of a new text. So, too, are the students’ attempts to explore the motivations and complexities of the plays’ characters, especially given their high school experiences with state and national academic standards that specifically require them to focus on character development. Occasionally, however, the analogies students make between Shakespeare’s characters and people they may have known tend to be simplistic and rather reductive: “Hamlet is whiny,” “Ophelia is a doormat,” “Juliet is a drama queen,” “Romeo is a stalker.” As the semester progresses, however, and students gain more familiarity with the language and concerns of the plays, such easy analogies give way to an increasing thirst for historical information that can help students gain a sense of how and why Shakespeare’s characters might differ from people they have known. On the one hand, such a shift demonstrates an effort to think critically. Students begin to consider the characters and the plays from perspectives other than that which is informed by their own personal experience: Ophelia begins to seem less like a “doormat,” for example, and more like a young woman whose options are limited by the early modern expectations and demands of her father, in particular, and her culture, in general. On the other hand, however, this pursuit of information about Shakespeare’s time and place sometimes indicates students’ desire to get to the supposedly true or authentic meaning of the texts, to discover the characters’ real motivations, and to figure out how Shakespeare’s original audience might have interpreted the plays. By the time we get to the end of the semester, then, I often find myself attempting to trouble student attempts to identify what they might think of as the quintessence of Shakespeare’s work. Antony and Cleopatra’s focus on the contested nature of identity offers an excellent opportunity to challenge my students’ thinking about characters and Shakespeare’s intentions. We read the play alongside excerpts from Stacy Schiff’s biography, Cleopatra, A Life, and Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. These texts not only complicate students’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters, but also forcefully remind them that Antony and Cleopatra are nowhere near as comparable to people as they might have thought but are instead the fictional products of a writer at work. That realization, in turn, leads to productive conversations about authorship, on the one hand, and the possibility of knowing the specific intentions of an author, on the other. Ultimately, students begin to consider the idea that an authentic Shakespeare might be no more readily discovered and fixed than the supposed motives and meanings of literary characters.

“Sometimes … he is not Antony”
The identities of the titular characters in Antony and Cleopatra are contested from the opening moments of the play. Philo and Demetrius complain that Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra effeminizes him. Philo argues that whereas Antony’s eyes used to gaze over “the files and musters of the war” and once “glowed like plated Mars,” they now turn their attention to a “tawny front” (1.1.2-6). He complains that Antony’s heart, which was so great that “in the scuffles of great fights [it] burst / The buckles of his breast,” now does little more than act as “the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust” (1.1.6-10), and he laments that Antony was once a part of “the triple pillar of the world” but is now “a strumpet’s fool” (1.1.12-13). In sum, Philo argues that Antony has been “transformed” (1.1.12) and that Cleopatra—or, rather, Antony’s “dotage” (1.1.1)—is the agent of that transformation. The problem, here, is that Antony is no longer Antony. Insofar as Rome is concerned, he is no longer a man. 

Conversely, when we then see Antony and Cleopatra interact with each other, Cleopatra complains that Antony’s relationship with Rome effeminizes him. Their scene begins in medias res: Antony, we assume, has told Cleopatra that he loves her, and she wants to know “If it be love indeed, tell me how much” (1.1.14). When she claims that she will “set a bourn how far to be beloved,” Antony tells her that she must “find out new heaven, new earth” (1.1.17). The extent of his love for her, it seems, is beyond our ability to imagine. When the messenger interrupts them, bringing news “from Rome” (1.1.18), Antony doesn’t want to be bothered with it, so he tells the messenger to just give him a quick summary (1.1.19). But Cleopatra sarcastically scolds him for not listening to the messages and accuses him of being ruled by his wife and submissive to a child. She says that he had best listen to them because “Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows / If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent / His powerful mandate to you: ‘Do this, or this, / Take in that kingdom and enfranchise that. / Perform’t, or else we damn thee’” (1.1.21-25). Cleopatra effeminizes and infantilizes Antony when she thinks of him in relation to his duties and responsibilities to Rome. As far as Cleopatra is concerned, Antony is not Antony when Rome comes calling.

A battle between Egypt and Rome is waged then, not only for Antony’s affections and loyalties, but also over his very meaning, and Antony knows this, noting at one moment that he must break free of “These strong Egyptian fetters . . . Or lose myself in dotage” (1.2.105-06), and lamenting at another time that he will never be able to best Caesar:

The very dice obey him,
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance. If we draw lots, he speeds.
His cocks do win the battle still of mine
When it is all to nought, and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhooped, at odds.
(2.3.31—36)
Antony knows his identity is at risk when he is bound to Cleopatra as well as when he is tied to Rome.

The meaning of Cleopatra is also up for grabs in this play. In the first scene she is othered by Philo who references her complexion when he speaks of her “tawny front” (1.1.6). She is again othered and whored by Philo’s claim that Antony’s heart, which used to be the heart of a great Roman captain, does little more now than serve as “the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust” (1.1.10). Students tend to note and critically comment upon the discriminatory nature of Philo’s description of Cleopatra in the play’s first scene, but they nevertheless reserve a different sort of criticism for Cleopatra when they see her interacting with Antony, claiming that she is “childish” and “dramatic,” or worse perhaps, “manipulative” and “bitchy.” They see her efforts to mock and scold Antony as calculated attempts to bind him further to her. They recognize her flair for drama, as indicated in Enobarbus’ claim that he has seen Cleopatra “die twenty times upon far poorer moment” than learning that Antony must return to Rome (1.2.129): “I do think there is mettle in death,” Enobarbus continues, “which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying” (1.2.129-31). Likewise, students clearly understand that her instructions to Alexas are designed to tug manipulatively at Antony’s heartstrings:

See where he is, who’s with him, and 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.
(1.3.2-5)

Such attempts at emotional blackmail, students astutely observe, are furthered when Cleopatra puts Antony in an untenable position by accusing him of “false love” because he doesn’t weep at the news of Fulvia’s death (1.3.62): “Now I see, I see, / In Fulvia’s death how mine received shall be” (1.3.64-65). Antony’s lack of remorse in the wake of his wife’s death is taken as proof of his lack of love for Cleopatra, and, of course, we can only too easily imagine that if Antony’s eyes had been full of tears when he told her the news of Fulvia’s death, Cleopatra would have taken those tears as proof of his love for his wife instead of herself. Antony cannot win. Almost every decision he makes, it seems, is contested and questioned by Cleopatra, who accuses him of being false and failing to love her. In such a light, students tend to judge Shakespeare’s Egyptian queen harshly. When Cleopatra instructs Mardian to tell Antony that she has slain herself and to let him know that “the last I spoke was ‘Antony’” (4.14.8), and when Antony then despairs and takes his own life, albeit in a rather inept as well as long and drawn out fashion, students blame Cleopatra for his death, as though Antony’s own decisions had no impact on the events leading to it.

An Unknowable Woman of Infinite Variety
In an effort to complicate this understanding of Cleopatra, I ask students to read excerpts from Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, A Life. They learn about the historical person who existed some sixteen-hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his play, and they begin to see Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, not so much as a manipulative woman they might criticize, but as the fictional construction of a playwright. Their attention turns, that is, from the thoughts and actions of Shakespeare’s character to Shakespeare’s interpretation and adaptation of history, to his seeming intentions when crafting his character. Schiff argues that Cleopatra, the actual person, was an intelligent ruler:

A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to a play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done). (2)

Schiff notes that “Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved” (2). In her detailed discussion of Cleopatra’s accomplishments, Schiff reminds us of the education that would have been available to her:

It was in Alexandria that the circumference of the earth was first measured, the sun fixed at the center of the solar system, the workings of the brain and the pulse illuminated, the foundations of anatomy and physiology established, the definitive editions of Homer produced. It was in Alexandria that Euclid had codified geometry. If all the wisdoms of the ancient world could be said to have been collected in one place, that place was Alexandria. (37)

“Cleopatra,” Schiff pointedly insists, “was [the] direct beneficiary” of the knowledge accumulated in Alexandria (41). Schiff also notes that, in all likelihood, Cleopatra was “the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled” (33). Such an achievement, she continues, “paid off handsomely” (33):

Where previous Ptolemies had commanded armies through interpreters, Cleopatra communicated directly. For someone recruiting mercenaries among the Syrians and Medians and Thracians that was a distinct advantage, as it was to anyone with imperial ambitions. It was an advantage as well closer to home, in a restive, ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan city, to which immigrants flocked from all over the Mediterranean. (33)

Furthermore, Schiff argues that while Julius Caesar “was of illustrious birth, a gifted orator, and a dashing officer,” those characteristics paled compared to Cleopatra, “who, however inventively, descended from Alexander, who was in Egypt not only royal but divine. Caesar was very nearly deified in the last years of his life. Cleopatra was born a goddess” (38). Finally, after citing Plutarch’s claim that it was not so much her beauty that drew men to her, but rather the “contact of her presence, if you lived with her, that was irresistible” (38), Schiff claims that Cleopatra was smart, articulate, and charming, as well as “one of the two richest people in the world” (40).

Most students are fascinated by this history of Cleopatra, and they assume that they are getting a much better sense of the actual person than they could ever get from Shakespeare’s play. But Schiff’s main objective is precisely to argue that it is practically impossible to discover the authentic Cleopatra. “Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra,” she notes (5). “Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. . . . Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two” (5). The historical record, she maintains, is very spotty, reminding us that “[n]o papyri from Alexandria survive” and “[a]lmost nothing of the ancient city [itself] survives aboveground” (6). Furthermore, she informs us that “[t]here is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired in the battle that sealed her fate, how she died” (7). In the opening pages of her biography, then, Schiff clearly indicates that Cleopatra remains unknowable.

Furthermore, Schiff argues that if the “holes in the record present one hazard, what we have constructed around them [offers] another. Affairs of the state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart” (6). Cleopatra’s history was written by her Roman enemies: “She survives literally in a language hostile to her” (Schiff, 7). Here, then, Schiff attempts to defend her subject from the meanings that have been imposed upon her. Specifically, Schiff argues that historians painted Cleopatra as a shamelessly seductive, wanton, manipulative woman, who should be shunned because she is a destructive temptress:

Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous. (Schiff, 4)

Clever women have been perceived as dangerous, Schiff notes, not simply because they might outsmart a man, but because if a woman does so—as Cleopatra, arguably, proves fatal to Antony—“it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent” (298). Men find it “preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains” because a man is doomed to fall when meeting with a powerful and seductive enchantress (Schiff, 298). In such circumstances, “there is no contest” (Schiff, 298). But if a woman relies solely on her intelligence to best a man, then the fallen man, whose divine-like reason should have been able to find “some kind of antidote,” suffers a greater humiliation (Schiff, 298). Furthermore, an intelligent woman upsets conventional notions of male superiority, whereas a wily seductress does not. Roman historians, then, preferred to portray Cleopatra as an enchanting seductress because such a depiction doesn’t threaten the supposedly natural order in which men occupy a superior position to women. If Cleopatra had instead been portrayed as a woman who dominated Julius Caesar and Marc Antony through the employment of her intellect, she would have upset those masculinist assumptions. 

Students are both appreciative and critical of Schiff’s claims. I don’t take the time to set up Schiff’s biography by lecturing on her background or her methodology, but students catch on to her aims without much prompting, noting, in this charge that misogynistic meanings have been imposed upon her subject, that Schiff offers and asserts her own reading of Cleopatra. Specifically, her depiction of Cleopatra as a clever woman relies on the idea that she had the knowledge of the library at Alexandria at her fingertips and knew how to use it—a claim that is, perhaps, as speculative as those of the Roman writers she attempts to refute.

Despite their criticism of Schiff’s arguable interpretation of Cleopatra, students readily embrace her claims about the ways in which Roman writers have depicted her, and they are eager to turn the discussion back to Shakespeare’s play. Schiff doesn’t necessarily smear Shakespeare when she talks about the fact that Cleopatra’s enemies have demonized her when writing her into the historical record. The vast majority of her invective is aimed at Cicero, Plutarch, and others. But she doesn’t defend him, either:

[Cleopatra] sent even Shakespeare over the top, eliciting from him his greatest female role, his richest poetry, a full, Antony-less act, and, in the estimation of one critic, a rollicking tribute to guilt-free middle-aged adultery. Shakespeare may be as much to blame for our having lost sight of Cleopatra VII as the Alexandrian humidity, Roman propaganda, and Elizabeth Taylor’s limpid lilac eyes. (300)

Although Schiff devotes only a few comments to Shakespeare’s participation in the reduction of Cleopatra to a wanton temptress, students seem willing to take up the argument on her behalf. In response to the excerpts from Schiff’s biography, many students shift their attention from their own initial impressions of Shakespeare’s character, where they regarded her as a stereotypically dramatic and manipulative woman, to Shakespeare’s supposedly reductive intentions when writing her. 

On such occasions, I ask students to take another look at Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were love-sick with them. The oars were silver, 
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description. She did lie 
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue— 
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem 
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
.............................................................................
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers. The silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her, and Antony,
Enthroned i’th’ market-place, did sit alone
Whistling to th’air; which but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
(2.2.197-224)
Students are quick to point out that Enobarbus mythologizes Cleopatra by lending her divine-like, or even sorceress-like powers over Antony and all who watch her pass. Her regal nature is emphasized by the fact that “the barge she sat in” is “like a burnished throne.” The “dimpled boys” who stand at her side “like smiling Cupids” gesture toward her divinity, as do the personified elements, which submit themselves so lovingly to her: the winds are “love-sick” with her perfumed and purple sails, and the water is “amorous” of the strokes of the oars that keep time with the flutes. Furthermore, Enobarbus claims that Cleopatra out-pictured the portrait of Venus. That is, he says she was more beautiful than the portrait of Venus, which was, supposedly, even more beautiful than Venus herself. Elsewhere, Enobarbus claims that “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41), adding to the mythology of Cleopatra’s seductive powers. Likewise, the bawdy jokes that she makes at her eunuch’s expense add to the idea that Shakespeare associates her with wanton sexuality. So, too, do her comments about “angl[ing]” for fish, “every one [of them] an Antony” (2.5.10 and 14) and her report about their night of bacchanalian cross-dressing (2.5.18-23). In such a light, as students are quick to point out, Shakespeare seems to have presented a Cleopatra very much in line with the Roman writers whom Schiff condemns.

Following Plutarch: Plagiarism and Other Notions of Authorship
In fact, Shakespeare takes Enobarbus’ report of Cleopatra’s trip upriver from one of those Roman writers through Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch.

[She took] her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, hautboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her self: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf's side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people . . . . So that in the end, there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her, that Antonius was left post alone in the marketplace, in his Imperial seat to give audience.

Asking students to compare Enobarbus’ lines from Shakespeare’s play to this passage from North’s translation of Plutarch brings up a number of interesting issues apart from the ways in which Shakespeare presents Cleopatra in line with the Roman historians. Obviously, students know that Shakespeare gets the general plot for his play from history, but many are surprised, even angered, to see how closely he follows Plutarch. In fact, some students are quick to charge him with plagiarism, and this can lead to productive conversations about different models of authorship, especially those with which students have little to no familiarity. 

Generally speaking, in the Medieval and Early Modern periods, literary authority was thought of as something that was external to the poet, and its origins were various. The Classical tradition spoke of Muses who inspired the great poets, but moving forward in time, any sort of figure with an authoritative status could work just as readily. A god or goddess, such as Jove, as well as personified notions of Fame, or Nature could be invoked as sources of inspiration. Eventually, as the idea of canonicity became secularized, literary conventions or traditions could serve as an acceptable source of authority. Adherence to a genre, for example, could demonstrate a poet’s knowledge about what had preceded him, thus lending authority to him. The Medieval theory of authorship focused on the concepts of “auctores”—writers who were “to be believed and imitated” (Minnis, 5)—as well as the “auctoritas” such auctores leant to those who believed and imitated them. Early Modern writers then developed a theory of Creative Imitation that likewise located literary authority externally to the poet or playwright. As Jacqueline T. Miller writes, external literary authority “includes various established principles, systems, or sources that the poet cannot claim to have produced himself and that may be called upon to sanction a text that has conformed to them” (5). In such a light, Shakespeare’s adaptation of North’s translation of Plutarch demonstrates, not the theft of intellectual property that defines the work of the plagiarist, but a process of writing that conforms to the dominant model of literary authority in his own time and place.

However, even during Shakespeare’s day, the model of creative imitation and its assumptions about external literary authority, sometimes seemed inadequate. In the first sonnet from Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, the poet/lover studies the “inventions” of other writers (A&S, 1.6), turning “others’ leaves” (A&S, 1.7) in order to find inspiration for his own poetry. But he finds that his own capacity to create, is “wanting” (A&S, 1.9): his “Invention” flees the “blows” of his efforts to study the “feet” of others (A&S, 1.10-11). Then his muse tells him to abandon the inventions of others and look in his own heart and write. Here, the idea of imitating others appears to invoke anxieties about originality. Through Astrophil, Sidney argues that creativity and literary authority come from within, through the influence of the muse, in this case, Stella, who is already in his heart, but also, perhaps, from the internal genius of the poet/lover. Eventually, this idea of looking inward to find literary authority and searching for an individual and original voice developed into the Romantic notions of the poet as a man for whom, as William Wordsworth argues, moments of “emotion recollected in tranquility” lead to “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (1554). This is the model of authorship with which most students are familiar, even though it was thrown into question by Modernists such as T. S. Eliot, who argues that “[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone” (2739), and by our own postmodern times, in which parody and Frederic Jameson’s notion of pastiche seem to be a part of every film, song, and literary text. Despite our postmodern awareness of our external influences, that is, the Romantic notion of authorship remains influential and accounts, in part, for student charges of plagiarism when comparing Shakespeare to Plutarch.

This productive conversation with students about historical models of authorship, and the exercise of comparing and contrasting Enobarbus’ report to the excerpt from North’s translation of Plutarch can help to explode any Romantic notions students might have about Shakespeare as a lone writer in the garret who “ascend[s] / The brightest heaven of invention” (HV. Pr.1-2) when he is overcome with a Wordsworth-like “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” In such a light, we can see, instead, Shakespeare writing with his source book open before him. Students might then be asked to recall Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” which encourages us to reconsider the Romantic notion of authorship wherein the author is conceived of as “the past of his own book” (222). In such a light, students might come to the conclusion that any attempt to locate the authentic or quintessential Shakespeare in this description of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus, or anywhere else in the play, is thoroughly vexed.

When Barthes makes his claims about the death of the author, he argues that “a text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of the author-god) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (223). The production of meaning, according to Barthes, lies not in writers, but in readers who bring the multiplicity of writings in a text to coherence: “a text's unity,” he writes, “lies not in its origin but in its destination” (224). Barthes wants to empower the reader, and he argues that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (224). He’s writing against the tyranny in the assumption that it is the author who determines meaning and the relatively disempowered reader who does little more than decipher it. 

But further discussion, including reminders about the fact that student, academic, professional and creative writers must take into account not only the wants and needs of their audience before they write, but also their own specific purpose, the medium in which they will be writing, the immediate context that led to the writing project, and so on, helps to reveal that Barthes over-corrects. Stuart Hall writes about the processes of mass communication, arguing that there are numerous “linked but distinctive moments” in the process, including “production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction” (508). Both production and consumption, among other moments, are relevant, here. If consumers, or readers play a role in the production of textual meaning, so do writers. Writing, or “encoding,” to use Hall’s term, sets “some of the limits and parameters within which decodings [or readings] will operate” (515). Writers “cannot determine or guarantee, in a simple sense, which decoding codes will be employed,” but the point is that writers encode texts, playing a key role in the production of meaning (515). When we again compare and contrast Shakespeare’s depiction of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus to North’s, we might note that it is practically impossible to fail to imagine a writer at work. In fact, we can very easily imagine a writer who matters because he is adapting North’s text, setting up new “limits and parameters within which decodings will operate” (Hall, 515). 

But what exactly does Shakespeare change when he adapts North’s translation of Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s trip upriver? What sort of work can we attribute to him? What part of Enobarbus’ lines are Shakespeare’s and what belongs to North, or Plutarch? The discussion returns us to the idea of searching for the authentic Shakespeare. Stephen Orgel reminds us, however, that “authenticity [is] a matter of authentication, something bestowed, not inherent” (5). In such a light, we can see that when we attempt to define the quintessential Shakespeare, we do little more than attempt to bestow certain characteristics to him, to participate in what Michel Foucault describes as that “classificatory function” where we “group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (147). For Foucault, this leads to a problematic privatization of narrative discourse: the author is “a certain functional principle,” he writes, “by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction” (159). Shakespeare converts prose into iambic pentameter, and employs personification, simile, and hyperbole when composing the passage describing Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus, but these are things that any writer might do. And numerous writers, well before Shakespeare, had attributed problematic seductive powers to Cleopatra. We cannot possibly identify and privatize these poetic conventions as Shakespearean. He no more owns or possesses them than he does the sonnet. The plot of Antony and Cleopatra is not his. The characterizations have been around for centuries. Even certain phrases from Enobarbus’ report of her trip upriver, such as the reference to the “cloth of gold of tissue,” are not his. If we attempt to reveal the quintessential Shakespeare by locating the characteristics that define it in his texts, students will soon realize, our efforts are doomed to fail, for none of those qualities can be attributed entirely and unequivocally to him and no one else.

Implausible Reports
Insofar as his depiction of Cleopatra is concerned, this is precisely Schiff’s point: numerous writers, well before Shakespeare, had depicted her as a wanton seductress. Shakespeare’s characterization of her is not his own invention. He follows and repeats what the Romans had done to her. And yet, if we return a final time to Enobarbus’ account of her arrival in Tarsus, there is a significant departure from North’s translation of Plutarch. Rather than report Cleopatra’s trip upriver from the perspective of an anonymous or omniscient narrator who is detached from the events described, Shakespeare gives the words to a specific character, a Roman, who delivers a report to other Romans. According to the Concordance at OpenSourceShakespeare, Shakespeare uses the word “report” 150 times. If we add related terms like “reported” and “reports,” we can see that he refers to the idea close to 200 times. If we glance at the number of uses of “report” as compared to other, nearby words beginning with the letter r, it becomes clear that the idea of a report or reporting must be important to Shakespeare. Why might he be so interested in the idea of reporting? He uses the term 11 times in Antony and Cleopatra, more than in any other play except Cymbeline and Coriolanus. In Cymbeline, students might recall, Shakespeare does not simply use the term, “report,” but invites his audience to question the validity of reports. When Giacomo creeps out of the trunk that Innogen has agreed to store in her bedchamber, he examines her body closely while she sleeps. He makes a note of her corporeal features, including a birthmark on her left breast, and creeps back into the chest. He then returns to Posthumous with a report about his supposed conquest of Innogen, relying on his surreptitious observation of her body to prove to the credulous Posthumous that he has “tasted her in bed” (Cym. 2.4.57). The foolish husband believes Giacomo’s report about Innogen’s infidelity, a fact which Shakespeare has taken pains to show us is patently false.

Students might recall other implausible reports in Shakespeare, such as Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death, before turning their attention back to Antony and Cleopatra. When Agrippa and Maecenas mention what they have heard about Cleopatra, they more or less rhetorically question the validity of reports. Maecenas says that Cleopatra is “a most triumphant lady, if report be square to her” (2.2.190, my emphasis), and Agrippa says that he had heard about Cleopatra’s trip up the Cydnus River to Tarsus, “or my reporter devised well for her” (2.2.194-95, my emphasis). In Antony and Cleopatra, then, Shakespeare appears to be calling attention to the validity of reports, especially, perhaps, reports about Cleopatra. One of the more notorious incidents in the play involving a report occurs when Cleopatra’s messenger reports that Antony is “bound unto Octavia” (2.5.58). The stage directions indicate that Cleopatra “strikes him down” (sd 2.5.61), and then “She strikes him” again (sd 2.5.62). “She hales him up and down” (sd .5.64), and then “draw[sa knife” (sd 2.5.73). The messenger defends himself, saying “I that do bring the news made not the match” (2.5.67) and “What mean you madam? I have made no fault” (2.5.74). Even Charmian tells Cleopatra that “the man is innocent” (2.5.76). On the one hand, this scene might further demonstrate Cleopatra’s supposedly wanton nature by depicting her as tyrannically jealous. On the other hand, however, whether it is her deliberate intention or not, Cleopatra’s efforts condition a certain kind of response from the messenger. When he later appears in her court to give his eyewitness report of Octavia’s beauty (or lack thereof) the messenger clearly tells Cleopatra what she wants to hear. She unjustly beat him the last time that he brought her news, and having learned his lesson, he tells her that Octavia is “round” of face, and “dull of tongue and dwarfish,” that she has a dark complexion and a low forehead, and that she “creeps” when she walks (3.3.30, 16, 32-22, and 18). The messenger thus delivers a suspect report to Cleopatra about the beauty of a woman from another land. This is an Egyptian report of a Roman woman, but it does not take much of a leap for students to recognize that the scene should encourage us to question the accuracy of the Roman reports of Cleopatra’s beauty and seductive powers—reports both within the play, such as Philo’s early reference to her “gipsy’s lust” (1.1.10), and, as Schiff has shown us, reports that are external to it

Furthermore, students might be asked to consider whether or not this play, which instructs us to distrust such reports, functions in a self-reflective fashion as well. That is, students might consider the possibility that Antony and Cleopatra urges us to question its own report, characterization, or presentation of the Egyptian queen. As we have seen, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra scripts false reports about herself, telling Alexas “if you find [Antony] sad, / Say I am dancing: if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick” (1.3.3-5), and urging Mardian, before heading to her monument, to “tell [Antony] I have slain myself. / Say that the last word I spoke was ‘Antony’, / And word it, prithee, piteously” (4.14.7-9). Furthermore, she calls Iras and Dollabella’s attention to the inevitable misrepresentation of herself in the theater, where “some squeaking Cleopatra [will] boy [her] greatness / I’th’ posture of a whore” (5.2.216-17). Shakespeare’s Cleopatra seems to know that future depictions of her, future reports of her nature, will be inaccurate. More importantly, this metatheatrical comment calls our attention to the fact that we are reading a play or observing a performance of it, reminding us that Shakespeare’s play employs such a squeaking Cleopatra who boys her greatness, arguably, in the posture of a wanton woman. Perhaps Shakespeare’s play both depicts Cleopatra as the wanton seductress of Roman history and invites us to question its own presentation of her. In such a light, students might conclude that if Cleopatra beggars all description, it is not because words cannot do justice to her beauty, but because the play demystifies the notion that reports of her character and beauty are accurate and reliable. We can no more readily discover a stable, easily defined and authentic Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra than we can recover a stable, quintessential, or authentic Cleopatra in the historical record. Nor, as our discussion of authorship and North’s translation of Plutarch demonstrates, can we read the plays and identify the quintessential Shakespeare. Reading Antony and Cleopatra alongside Schiff and Plutarch, then, helps students to think much more critically about how we might understand Shakespeare’s characters and the nature of his authorship.

Works Cited

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Orgel, Stephen. “The Authentic Shakespeare.” Representations 21 (1988): 1-25.

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Shakespeare, William. Antony and CleopatraThe Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. 2nd Ed. Gen. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008 (1997).

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