Female sexuality in Jacobean times was considered, as written by Penny Gay, to be voraciously overwhelming, and since Cleopatra embodies that idea to the core, she would have seemed a dangerous character indeed to her first audiences. Then, she was a strange, exotic creature and an unknown quantity, but her character inspires altogether more empathy in more modern performances. In her portrayal by Judi Dench at the National Theatre in 1987, her suicide represented a grand resignation as opposed to a dark, frenzied retreat; her attachment to Anthony was pathetically touching. It is this, empathy and understanding, which the modern response adds to Shakespeares most passionate female character.
Cleopatra is not done justice to by the flat, stylised Egyptian of Glenda Jackson, but flourishes as no more but een a woman. She is the poor maid of Janet Suzman, who beneath her regality is still an emotionally vulnerable character and all the more becoming because of it. But what of Anthony? As a 21st century observer, I view it as chronically unjust that Anthony is continually referred to as the protagonist; Lord David Cecil described the play as simply the decline and fall of Anthony.
Cleopatra is too often seen as the supporting act, when her character is no less rich than Anthonys and her journey no less significant. Antony is generally praised when he abandons her for politics, yet when she does what seems to her the same in the chaos of Actium, we are meant to condemn her. As L.T. Fitz writes, what is praiseworthy in Antony is damnable in Cleopatra; he can pursue power, whilst she must simply dote. It cannot be forgotten that Cleopatra too has a throne to sit upon. She does not bring about Antonys fall; in my view his political demise began before he ever met her.
It is no secret that historically, his relationship with Octavius was strained regardless of Cleopatras role. Given Shakespeares reliance on historical sources such as Plutarch, this cannot be disregarded when judging his representation of her character. Furthermore, it is Anthonys choice to follow Cleopatra at Actium, as it was to become her guest when they first meet. Anthony always has the option to leave Cleopatra, for despite her charisma he always holds the greater political power.
Thus, if he must be seen to have fallen, it is because he opts to do so. In fact, I see his decision to value Cleopatras love over Roman politics as an ascent rather than a fall, and it is an ascent they make together. There is no one protagonist in the play, unless the couple are viewed in a singular sense. Antony and Cleopatra combine themselves and the best values of their respective worlds. Antony retains his military valour, his ability to bear pain so like a soldier, but abandons the cold political scheming of Octavius and the new Rome.
Cleopatra, on the other hand, keeps all her passion and her charisma but loses the worst of her childish wilfulness. Their love is beyond mortality, death is proud to take them, and in their mutual suicide they take on a god-like quality, articulated in Antony by Cleopatras eulogy of his legs bestrid the ocean¦he was as rattling thunder. I believe that it is unfair to call this hyperbolic, which removes from its sincerity, when there can be no doubt that in her state of love and grief Cleopatra intends no exaggeration in her description of the emperor Antony. Together, Antony and Cleopatra rise above pragmatism and politics, and it is small wonder that they stun even Octavius, or that he should be moved by a pair so famous.
I think it would be a dire injustice to call Cleopatra designing and blame her for Antonys political downfall; it reduces her feverish passion, her wild hedonism and the staggering extent of her love to plotting, cunning and cruelty. To me, she represents a woman of enormous courage, in her leadership but also in her refusal to compromise on emotions, however unreasonable or dramatic they might be.
She is foolish, yes, but never a coward; her flight from Actium is not desertion but evidence of military inexperience and genuine fear. Her love for Antony is beyond the ordinary, it is beyond Caesar and Octavia, and how could the play be so poignant a tragedy were that not so? The very sadness of Antony & Cleopatra is in the fact that the two lovers can only triumph beyond the grave, in the death of love for the pursuit of politics; an unworthy substitution if ever there was one. Cleopatra is no Iago, she has none of his manipulative malice; she is nothing more or less than a woman passionately and shamelessly in love.
Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers L.T. Fitz A Poem and Two Plays Robin Hamilton The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton (specifically Women and Shakespearean Performance Penny Gay)