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Shakespeare's Characters: Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 7. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

I have not the slightest doubt that Shakspeare's Cleopatra is the real historical Cleopatra — the "Rare Egyptian" — individualized and placed before us. Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman's wit and woman's wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous Eastern colouring of the character; all these contradictory elements has Shakspeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classified elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gypsy sorcery.

What better proof can we have of the individual truth of the character than the admission that Shakspeare's Cleopatra produces exactly the same effect on us that is recorded of the real Cleopatra? She dazzles our faculties, perplexes our judgement, bewilders and bewitches our fancy; from the beginning to the end of the drama, we are conscious of a kind of fascination against which our moral sense rebels, but from which there is no escape. The epithets applied to her perpetually by Antony and others confirm this impression: "enchanting queen!" — "witch" — "spell" — "great fairy" — "cockatrice" — "serpent of old Nile" — "thou gjave charm!" are only a few of them; and who does not know by heart the famous quotations in which this Egyptian Circe is described with all her infinite seductions?

To these traits we must add, that with all her violence, perverseness, egotism, and caprice, Cleopatra mingled a capability for warm affections and kindly feeling, or rather what we should call, in these days, a constitutional good-nature; and was lavishly generous to her favourites and dependents. These characteristics we find scattered through the play; they are not only faithfully rendered by Shakspeare, but he has made the finest use of them in his delineation of manners. Hence the occasional freedom of her women and her attendants, in the midst of their fears and flatteries, becomes most natural and consistent: hence, too, their devoted attachment and fidelity, proved even in death. But as illustrative of Cleopatra's disposition, perhaps the finest and most characteristic scene in the whole play is that in which the messenger arrives from Rome with the tidings of Antony's marriage with Octavia. She perceives at once with quickness that all is not well, and she hastens to anticipate the worst, that she may have the pleasure of being disappointed. Her impatience to know what she fears to learn, the vivacity with which she gradually works herself up into a state of excitement, and at length into fury, is wrought out with a force of truth which makes us recoil. . . .

The pride and arrogance of the Egyptian queen, the blandishment of the woman, the unexpected but natural transitions of temper and feeling, the contest of various passions, and at length — when the wild hurricane has spent its fury — the melting into tears, faintness, and languishment, are portrayed with the most astonishing power, and truth, and skill in feminine nature. More wonderful still is the splendour and force of colouring which is shed over this extraordinary scene. The mere idea of an angry woman beating her menial, presents something ridiculous or disgusting to the mind; in a queen or a tragedy heroine it is still more indecorous; yet this scene is as far as possible from the vulgar or the comic.

Shakspeare has shown profound judgement and feeling in adhering closely to the classical authorities; and to say that the language and sentiments worthily fill up the outline is the most magnificent praise that can be given. The magical play of fancy and the overpowering fascination of the character are kept up to the last: and when Cleopatra, on applying the asp, silences the lamentations of her women -

Peace! peace I
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast.
That sucks the nurse to sleep?
These few words — the contrast between the tender beauty of the image and the horror of the situation — produce an effect more intensely mournful than all the ranting in the world. The generous devotion of her women adds the moral charm which alone was wanting: and when Octavius hurries in too late to save his victim, and exclaims, when gazing on her, —
She looks like sleep-
As she would catch another Antony
in her strong toil of grace, —
the image of her beauty and her irresistible arts, triumphant even in death, is at once brought before us, and one masterly and comprehensive stroke consummates this most wonderful, most dazzling delineation.

I am not here the apologist of Cleopatra's historical character, nor of such women as resemble her: I am considering her merely as a dramatic portrait of astonishing beauty, spirit, and originality. She has furnished the subject of two Latin, sixteen French, six English, and at least four Italian tragedies; yet Shakspeare alone has availed himself of all the interest of the story, without falsifying the character. He alone has dared to exhibit the Egyptian queen with all her greatness and all her littleness - all her frailties of temper — all her paltry arts and dissolute passions — yet preserved the dramatic propriety and poetical colouring of the character, and awakened our pity for fallen grandeur, without once beguiling us into sympathy with guilt and error.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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