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Master Manipulator or Emotionally Rash: Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

Updated on May 5, 2017

Introduction and Context

Cleopatra from Shakespeare’s 1606 play Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting female characters, and certainly one of the most politically powerful. The real Cleopatra was no doubt just as formidable as Shakespeare’s imagining of her. She was the notoriously cunning Queen of the Nile that used her political smarts and reportedly irresistible charm to conquer the hearts and minds of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The Cleopatra Shakespeare has constructed retains this cunning, but she is not without flaws. One of the largest questions throughout the play, one which Cleopatra’s character refuses to definitively answer, is whether Cleopatra is governed by her raw emotions so wholly as to act in ways that at times appear foolish, or whether these tantrums are simply part of her overall plan to entangle everyone she can in her powerful web. In scene 2.5, in which Cleopatra castigates and threatens the life of her Messenger for returning with bad news, Shakespeare offers us some insight into the answer to this question, as he does in scene 3.3 in which the Messenger returns to report on the appearance of Octavia.


Scene 2.5: Don't Shoot the Messenger

Rather than beginning Scene 2.5 with the entrance of the Messenger, Shakespeare astutely choses to include a few lines between Cleopatra and her servants in order to contextualize her violent outburst with her Messenger within her generally manipulative and variant personality. The scene begins with the entrance of Cleopatra followed by Charmain, Iras and Alexas. Cleopatra first calls, “give me some music” which is answered by the entrance of Mardian the Eunuch (2.5.1-3). Yet as soon as the eunuch enters to satisfy his mistress’s demands, she decides that music was not what she wanted at all. It is as if she just called him in the room to prove that her servants are at her beck and call to satisfying her desire to control others and her surroundings. In the following lines, she says, “let it alone, let’s to billiards. Come Charmain” (2.5.3). Although Charmain declines to play, she does suggest that Cleopatra play with Mardian. Charmain is one of the only servants who is not completely under Cleopatra’s will. She is allowed to deny her mistress, or to offer advice within reason. In this moment, Charmain may realize that Cleopatra does not really intend to play billiards, but she does help Cleopatra in her subjugation of Mardian. Cleopatra agrees to play with Mardian; “as well a woman with an eunuch played,” but as soon as the eunuch agrees to play, she is bored of that and decides that she would rather fish by the river (2.5.5-12). Of course, she does not end up doing this either. This short interaction provides us with evidence of two things. The first is that Cleopatra’s desires shift often and unpredictably; the second is that Cleopatra’s search for amusement includes the search for ways to manipulate others, even in small ways in order to assure herself of her own power and influence. The act of manipulation and having someone at her beck and call is the greatest form of amusement

For Cleopatra, manipulation as a pastime doesn’t end with her servants. In fact, her greatest source of amusement comes from her manipulation of Antony, perhaps because he has as much power as she does in the world. In order to remind us of this fact, in the lines shortly before the entrance of the Messenger, Shakespeare has Cleopatra speak about her manipulation of him openly. With great pleasure, Cleopatra characterizes Antony as a caught fish. “My bended hook shall pierce/ Their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up,/ I’ll think them every one and Antony,/ And say, ‘Ah, ha! You’re caught!’” (2.5.12-15). Charmain knows the joy this gives her mistress, so she prompts Cleopatra to remember the time they, “wagered on your angling” (2.5.16). This prompts Cleopatra to remember fondly, “I laughed him out of patience; and that night/ I laughed him into patience; and next morn/ Ere the ninth hour I drunk him to bed/ Then put my tires and mantels on him, whilst/ I wore his sword Philippan” (2.5.19-23). Notice that in this retelling of the night, Cleopatra has described the action entirely in the first person. She describes herself as the force behind all of Antony’s actions. In this description, Antony is only an object to be manipulated. Furthermore, Cleopatra is always the subject who acts upon Antony in various ways. Beyond this, she takes great joy in dressing him up in her clothes and dressing herself in his. In Trevor Nunn’s production of the play which was adapted for television in 1974 by Jon Scoffield, the image of Antony dressed in Cleopatra’s clothes was important enough to include in the opening scenes along with the lines of the first act describing Antony’s fall from a Roman hero to a “strumpet’s fool,” caught in the revelry of Egyptian lust and excess (1.1.13). Cleopatra can be scene laughing as she rides Antony’s back brandishing his sword and wearing his crested helmet. This image is cut between the disapproving stares of his soldiers in gray scale. In terms of Shakespeare’s original work, he provides these lines to remind us of the joy Cleopatra gets from her manipulation and control of others, especially Antony.

Once the Messenger enters the scene, the real action begins. We have already seen how much Cleopatra enjoys assuring her power through the manipulation of others, here we see that when her power is threatened, she responds with disproportional and illogical anger. As the Messenger enters Cleopatra greets him with enthusiasm, but after only two words “Madam, madam—” she jumps to the absolute worst conclusions with the most theatricality possible (2.5.25). She cries “Antonio’s dead! If thou say so villain,/ Thou kill’st thy mistress; but well and free,/ If thou so yield him, there is gold” (2.5.26-28). Although the Messenger assures Cleopatra that Antony is alive and well, Cleopatra senses that he brings bad news. Interestingly, rather than hearing out her loyal Messenger and rewarding him for his honest answers, she threatens to harm him. “I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st:/ Yet, if thou say Antony lives, is well,/ Or friends with Caesar, or not captive to him,/ I’ll set thee in a shower of gold and hail/ rich pearls upon thee” (2.5.42-46). Here Cleopatra is, through bribery and threats of violence, encouraging her Messenger to lie to her. Although he expresses some apprehension, the Messenger continues with the truth of his tale. He informs Cleopatra that Antony is “bound unto Octavia,” Caesar’s sister (2.5.58). Cleopatra then, rather than becoming enraged with Antony wishes curses upon, and threatens her loyal servant. She cries “The most infectious pestilence upon thee!” and strikes him twice (2.5.61-62). She continues “Hence,/ Horrible villain, or I’ll spurn thine eyes/ Like balls before me! I’ll unhair thy head,/ she hails him up and down./ Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,/ Smarting in ling’ring pickle” (2.5.62-66). She asks him to lie to her, and when he repeats that Antony is married, she cries “Rogue, thou hast lived too long!” and she “Draws a knife,” as if she is about to kill him. Only then does Charmain step in to attempt to calm her mistress’s rage. While reading this passage it is easy to overlook it as another of Cleopatra’s theatrical extravagances, but it is deeply unsettling on many levels. The Messenger’s punishment is wholly undeserved.

Although Cleopatra eventually admits, “these hands do lack nobility, that they strike/ A meaner than myself, since I myself/ Have given myself the cause” (2.5.81-84). She characterizes her hands as separate from herself. This is in line with her earlier justification for her unwarranted cruelty toward the Messenger. After Charmain protests, “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself,/ the man is innocent,” recognizing that Cleopatra’s rage sometimes carries her outside herself, and that it is not right for her to do so (2.5. 74-75). Cleopatra replies, “some innocents scape not the thunderbolt” (2.5.77). By likening herself to a natural disaster, Cleopatra both justifies her mistreatment of her innocent servant and asserts her power to do so. Cleopatra recognizes her own potential for explosive and baseless cruelty, but she defends it as a part of her right as powerful ruler. The innocents do not get to decide their fate; she does. In this way, Cleopatra is placing herself above the heavenly morality that many Christians in Shakespeare’s time believed governed the world. This makes her both distinctly powerful and distinctly non-western. When her control over Antony is loosened, she responds both out of rage and out of a need to reassert her dominance.


Scene 3.3: Unforeseen Consequences

We can see by the number of times the Messenger and others protest to his unfair treatment, that the other servants recognize that it is unjust. The Messenger has a commitment to telling his mistress the truth although she bribes him to lie with gold and threatens his life when bribery does not work. Yet, by the end of this scene the Messenger has learned a lesson when dealing with Cleopatra—tell her what she wants to hear. In scene 3.3 when the Messenger returns to report on Octavia’s appearance, we know that he is nervous through Alexas’s comment, “Herod of Jewry dare not look upon you / But when you are pleased,” after the Messenger does not answer Cleopatra’s calls immediately (3.3.3-4). It could be that the Messenger is simply frightened by his last encounter with the queen, but it could also mean that the Messenger is wrestling with whether he should report information that may displease his mistress. If so, then his nerves are the result of a moral conflict over honest reportage to his queen and saving himself from her wrath. In the following lines, he tells the “dread queen” exactly what she wants to hear (3.3.8). To his mistress’s delight, he states that Octavia is not as tall as Cleopatra, “low-voiced,” “creeps” as she walks as a “body rather than a life,/ A statue than a breather,” is a widow of thirty, has a face that is “round even to faultiness” and a “forehead/ As low as she would wish it” (3.3.11-34). All of this, except for the fact that Octavia is thirty and therefore younger than Cleopatra, pleases her to no end. She repeats with relish that Octavia is “dull of tongue and dwarfish,” to comfort her injured pride by Antony’s betrayal. It is clear from the Messenger’s answers that even things which may seem to be good, such as a round face, are made to seem ugly in order to please Cleopatra’s jealous heart. She rewards him for his questionably accurate account of Octavia saying, “there’s gold for thee./ Thou must not take my former sharpness ill.’ I will employ thee back again; I find thee/ Most fit for business” (3.3.34-37). Clearly there is no place for hard truths in Cleopatra’s world. She, as a great manipulator, bends the world around her by encouraging lies when the truth will not please her.

In the world of Antony and Cleopatra the legendary queen of the Nile is a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, she is divine and heralded by those around her, yet she is also unpredictable and theatrically violent. She seems to be governed by nothing but her own emotional tide, morals and reason have little room in her outward displays of power, although history proved her to be a rather shrewd ruler. In one respect, a force such as she gains its power simply through its unpredictability. Her wrath’s inability to be governed by reason makes it impenetrable to the persuasions of men, but it also makes her vulnerable in surprising ways. By encouraging her servant to lie in order to avoid unpleasant truths she puts herself at a disadvantage. She cannot manipulate others well or even rule effectively if she does not have the right information. It cannot be wise for Cleopatra to encourage lies from her servants, even if those lies are of as little consequence as the beauty of her lover’s new wife. So, while Cleopatra in many situations manipulates others to ends that benefit her, in other instances she allows her need for power and her raw emotions to control her actions in a foolish way. Therefore, although she is an effective manipulator and fearsome in her displays of dominance and power, she does not always use these powers to her benefit. She allows herself to be blindsided by her need for power and her emotions. The entire purpose of this scene is to show that Cleopatra does in fact allow her emotions to control her actions, and therefore she is not the cold, rational master manipulator that some make her out to be.

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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 8 weeks ago from UK

      An interesting analysis of the character of Cleopatra. Shakespeare's plays often contained disguised messages about contemporary politics in England, where monarchs viewed themselves as God's earthly representative and therefore above reproach and censure. They were all-powerful beings with control over the lives, and often the deaths, of their subjects. We see similar situations nowadays in countries that have absolute rulers, demonstrating the truth of the accolade that Shakespeare was, and is, a man for all times.