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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Truth, Lies, And Theatrical Women - Looking For Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was a strong woman given to theatrics.  It is doubtful that she ever loved Marc Antony, and just before committing suicide she was concerned more with what she was going to wear on the catafalque than the afterlife that awaited her.  If she was to meet Antony or any of her pre-deceased subjects and courtiers, she had to look her best.


Cleopatra was a powerful queen, a canny and manipulative lover, and a plotter and strategist par excellence. She was from a long line of Egyptian royalty, was one of the last members of the Ptolemy dynasty, and was said to be the incarnation of the goddess Isis  She bedded Julius Caesar and for years ruled an independent Egypt thanks to his patronage.  She was most certainly a lover of Pompey, another member of the first Roman Triumvirate, before she bedded Antony. The Romans were happy with these romantic-cum-political alliances because Egypt was Rome’s granary and provided the timber for its warships.  Cleopatra was delighted with the support of Roman leaders because she could live her life of luxury and unchallenged power.

Image result for images bust julius caesar

Shakespeare created many strong, dominant female characters – Tamora, Volumnia, Margaret, Dionyza, Rosalind, Beatrice, Portia, and many others – but Cleopatra was his finest.  While the other women were merely calculating and cunning, Cleopatra was pure theatre and melodrama.  There was no one like her.  She was the most desirable woman in the Roman Empire and was the embodiment of the sybaritic East to which the austere, disciplined, militaristic Romans were drawn. Enobarbus describes her in Act I:
I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed 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 beggar'd 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-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Image result for image cleopatra on barge
Image result for images cleopatra's barge from movie
 Antony, an older man nearing the end of his career falls completely under Cleopatra’s spell.  This is likely to be the last love of his life, and he is willing to sacrifice his military and political career for her and for the luxuriant life of Alexandria.  She, on the other hand, displays the diffidence of a woman totally in control.  She knows that Antony will never leave her, and she plays with and taunts him about his wife and his allegiance to ‘that boy’, the young Octavius. She makes fun of him with her servants, and the entire relationship is a game.  She is elegantly theatrical, and her love affair is little more than a romance staged to her liking.

Image result for images bust marc antony

So besotted is Antony that he takes her military advice against his own better judgment, and twice he is defeated by Octavius, the last at the decisive battle of Actium.

When Cleopatra is taken prisoner by Octavius and told that she will be paraded through the streets of Rome as his prisoner, she prefers suicide to being jeered at by the stinking, unwashed mob.  Hers will be a death to be remembered.  Life in the thrall of Octavius would be endless purgatory.

Other women in literature match Cleopatra’s strength and will, but are shadow figures compared to Queen of the Nile, seated on her throne, surrounded by hundreds of slaves, worshippers, and sycophants, ruler of Egypt and tamer of Rome.  Hedda Gabler is commanding, willful, and as Nietzschean a Superman as any fictional woman.  She believes that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is influencing others, and she has no equal.  Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel, Ibsen’s other strong women have less of Hedda’s will, but as much determination; and the men in their lives are quickly and easily brought to heel. Strindberg’s Laura in The Father has no equal when it comes to dismissive misandry. Miss Julie leads her fiancé around on a leash to show her dominatrix authority.

Image result for images diana rigg hedda gabler
Cleopatra, however, is a woman of complexity and intrigue.  No reader is completely sure about her and her feelings for Antony. There are those who believe that despite her histrionics and manipulation of Antony, she really did love him.  She, like many theatrical women, cannot simply form a traditional emotional and sexual bond with a man, but must test him to his limits and see who he really is.  Apparently, according to the few contemporary sources available, the true love of Cleopatra’s life was Julius Caesar who matched her intelligence, wit, and energy. He passed her test; but the Antony portrayed by Shakespeare was too much of a simpering puppy to be taken seriously by her.  In one of her final soliloquies she talks of greeting Antony happily in the afterlife; but she is more concerned about how he will view her ‘noble act’ than rejoining him in love.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
She will go to Antony on her terms.  Both will have died by their own hands, and thus sacrificed themselves for something greater than love.  In her death, her most primordial elements – fire and air – will rise, she says; but have his?  She still doubts the character and greatness of the man.
She hurries the asp because she does not want her minion Charmian to meet Antony before she does. All is done for Cleopatra, nothing for Antony or anyone else.

In all this theatricality, is there any substance? We are taken with Cleopatra because of her outsized and outrageous personality, but for little else.  Shakespeare tells us nothing about her reign as Queen of Egypt, only about her affair with Antony and her cajoling of Octavius to negotiate the best deal possible for herself and for her Egyptian kingdom.  She is a compelling but no tragic character.  She is no Hamlet. Lear, or Othello who are thinking, reflective, and intelligent men who are often morally and ethically unsteady, but who are heroic in their own ways, and are brought down by tragic flaws.

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There are many women like Cleopatra for whom substance was far less important than drama; and who, because of this melodramatic excess are more attractive and alluring than any women of character, principle, and moral rectitude.

Maria Lopez was an Ecuadorian woman who, despite a penurious childhood, had become an impresario, patron of the arts, and well-known entrepreneur.  Or so the story went. There were too many holes in her accounts, too many implausible facts, and too little corroboration for her claims for it all to be true.  The more one pressed, the more the story became embroidered; but never were the inconsistencies explained. It became clear that for her the facts – the truth – were less important than the backdrop, the scrim, the sets, her character, and her lines.

For anyone brought up in an intellectually disciplined, extremely practical and rational family in which there was no room for invention or even exaggeration, the facts – the truth – were all important if not sacred.  Without a confirmation of an objective reality, perception would be chaotic.  If facts were loosed from their moorings, then we all would be hot air balloons drifting with the wind.
Yet Maria was so alluring, and her fables so complex and engaging that many men gave up pursuing Maria’s truth, but began to enjoy the indeterminate world she created.

What did it matter if half the events she said she had orchestrated were only her ideas or productions engineered by others? Was it so important to reconstruct an accurate timeline of her life? Or was it enough to follow her imagined trajectory?

Why Maria was so intriguing was that at least some of the accounts of her achievements were true – or at least had some basis in fact.  Because of this network of random but verifiable facts, she was able to spin webs of connections and interconnections around them.

Men loved her not for who she was, but for whom she had invented.  They all ended up not caring at all about her real past, only the stories she told to give her character theatrical presence and allure.
Affairs with Maria Lopez were important not only because of the relationship – once she realized that men were willingly entering her world, everything became exciting scenes from her play – but because they were able to suspend their often oppressive insistence on logic.  After an affair with Maria, her lovers were far less concerned with the veracity of personal histories than their symbolism and what they said about the person telling them.  Stories became pastiches of truth and fiction, and not only could anyone ever tell which was which, it didn't matter.  It was the composite that was important, not the individual parts of the whole.

Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s most intriguing and important female character because she is a composite of fact and fiction; of canny political ruler and military strategist and theatrical character. We will never know whether or not she loved Antony; whether or not she duped him into following her to defeat in the Battle of Actium; or whether or not she empathized with him as an older man who sees the end of his life and wants to finally fulfill expectations he never wanted to admit.  Cleopatra was younger than Antony, but by Roman standards he was not young; and perhaps she, like him, realized that their affair would be their last.  Facts, truth, reality made little difference to her – or him for that matter – in the end stages of their lives.

Image result for images battle of actium
I have lost touch with Maria Lopez, and have little interest in reestablishing contact. What would be the point?  Too much time has passed, and too many stories invented for me to be able to understand who she had become.  Other more predictable women – those whose lives were more practical and grounded – have never changed.  Maria after twenty years would be so different a character, that I would have to start over again. And the price of admission would certainly have gone up.

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