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Représentations et identités sexuelles dans le théâtre de Shakespeare

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Delphine Lemonnier-Texier

“Become What You Are.” The Cultural and Gender Crisis in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Flore Chevaillier

Texte intégral

  • 1 Butler J., Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, Routledge, 1990, p. (...)

1Antony and Cleopatra opposes two worlds. Within these two worlds, Caesar represents Rome—its masculine drive for strength and coherence—and Cleopatra stands for Egypt, functioning as a synecdoche for her country. At first, it seems that the play focuses on two spokespersons for two antithetic countries and cultures. Shakespeare’s play revolves around the identity-based politics that “regulat[es] and reif[ies…] [binary] gender relations1”. However, the audience progressively realizes that the Roman vision of the world imposes these symmetrical oppositions. In Antony and Cleopatra, the power of Egypt and the deviant behavior of Antony threaten the stability of the Roman dichotomous perception. The play depicts what Pierre Bourdieu calls a “crisis” because Rome must constantly reaffirm its socially constructed realities to maintain its unity and equilibrium.

The Cultural Crisis

  • 2 Bourdieu P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 171.

2In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu uses ethnographic methods and sociological theory to create a general theory of social and cultural interaction and reproduction. Bourdieu focuses on Kabyle culture in Algeria to rethink the concept of exchange, power, and social practices and shows that societies create an “institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition” of the rules that determine their practices2. He studies the Kabyle’s gift exchange practices, matrimonial strategies, and agrarian systems to demonstrate how societies regard their customs as the only mode of action because they are not aware of the ways in which they create and regulate their system. Bourdieu shows that the habitus, the basis of a society’s practice, orders social behavior.

3He demonstrates that a social construct usually appears in society as a natural distinction. For example, people accept differences between activities culturally linked to women (child-raising, cooking, sewing, etc.) and activities linked to men (hunting, fishing, etc.). As men and women have physical differences, people embrace the cultural construction as natural because some natural distinctions do exist.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 64.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 64.

4For Bourdieu, cultural stability relies on the acceptance and misrecognition of social constructions, such as the opposition between gender roles. But when a crisis emerges, societies question their doxa or “the world of tradition experienced as a ‘natural world’ and taken for granted3”. Bourdieu uses the term “crisis” to refer to the “culture contact” or the “political and economic crises” that make cultures doubt the naturalness of their practices4.

5Through the clash of cultures and the destabilization of gender roles that it provokes, Antony and Cleopatra allows the audience to practice what Bourdieu theorizes in Outline of a Theory of Practice. The audience is shaped into a Roman citizen until the crisis erupts in the play, that is, when Cleopatra, the ever-shifting female figure, destabilizes the Roman world.

The Gender Crisis

  • 5 Kinney C., “The Queen’s Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor. Some Problems of Identity in Antony an (...)
  • 6 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.25, 1.3.69.

6The major opposition that frames the Roman perspective contrasts masculinity and femininity. As Clare Kinney exposes, Cleopatra “is a gypsy, whore, trull, vile lady, grave charm, morsel, boggler, salt Cleopatra; she is great fairy, nightingale, serpent of old Nile, Egyptian dish5”. She is consequently the negation of the Roman philosophy of life; her choices do not rely on honor and stability. Egypt, embodied by Cleopatra, is the feminine and fluid world: she is the “serpent of old Nile” and the “Nilus’slime6”. Fluidity implies openness and adaptation as opposed to the closed and unitary Roman attributes.

  • 7 Ibid., 3.3.18-21.

7Rome is a rigid framework where life relies on the obedience to rules, as Octavia proves: She “creeps./Her motion and her station are as one./She shows a body rather than a life,/A statue than a breather7”. Also, she is less present than Cleopatra and this absence is part of her Roman identity. She does not have a lot of significance in the masculine Roman world because she is subject to the imperatives of the empire. She is used as a means for a military alliance when married to Antony, for example.

  • 8 Ibid., 2.2.207-212.

In contrast, Cleopatra is an object of desire:
For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavillon – cloth of gold, of tissue –
O’er-picturing that Venus where see
The fancy outwork nature8.

8Enobarbus mentions Venus in his speech, thus associating Cleopatra with fertility. Cleopatra’s attractiveness and sensual clothes, symbols of her mysterious beauty, oppose Octavia’s lack of sexual appeal.

  • 9 Ibid., 1.2.121, 1.1.9-10.
  • 10 Ibid., 2.7.67.
  • 11 Cook C., “The fatal Cleopatra”, Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Ma (...)

9The female figures materialize the discrepancy between two cultures: Octavia’s coldness underlines the Roman sense of honor as opposed to the Egyptian quest for pleasure. Antony mentions the “present pleasure” and the play opens on his sexual appetite: Antony is “the bellows and the fan/To cool a gipsy’s lust9”. On the other hand, Roman life relies on honor, as Pompey’s speech underlines: “Thou must know/’Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour10”. Carole Cook points out that “Roman manhood is always threatened by the eruption of desire11”. By using the Romans’ sexual attraction for her, Cleopatra challenges the Roman order and questions the Roman dichotomy.

A Reconsideration of the Roman Paradigm

10At first, the play guides the audience to perceive the world through a dichotomous frame of mind. When Shakespeare presents one side of an opposition, the audience constructs the other side’s qualities. In other words, when we encounter a description of femininity, we also infer aspects about masculinity. If Caesar speaks about his honor, we can draw opposite conclusions about Cleopatra. So, for instance, when Antony chooses to fight at sea, the audience recalls that water is linked to femininity. The audience realizes that Antony has lost his Roman essence because, even in the battle, he uses the rival force’s tools although he is warned that it is dangerous. Hence, the construction of opposed realities, such as fluidity vs. stability or adaptability vs. closure, shape the audience’s understanding of the Roman logic.

  • 12 Op. cit., 1.1.12-13, 1.1.59-61.
  • 13 Ibid., 1.4.69-71.
  • 14 Kinney C., op. cit., p. 179.

11But this framework is challenged after Cleopatra changes Anthony, and especially after Rome invades Egypt, which causes feminine and masculine tensions to escalade in Antony. Antony becomes a figurative battlefield. Cleopatra affects his transformation into “a strumpet’s fool” and Philo underlines that “sometimes when he is not Antony/He comes too short of that great property/Which still should go with Antony12”. Antony loses his Roman identity, hence revealing truths about both Rome and Egypt. At that point, Caesar needs to remind us of Antony’s role: “and all this—It wounds thine honour that I speak it now—/Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek/So much as lank’d not13”. Here, Caesar is forced to express what is usually not questioned; that is to say, what a Roman should be. Romans must follow the code of honor. As Kinney puts it, “Roman manliness, the system of value that equates virtues with virtus, demands a kind of normative public behavior allowing infinitely less free play of identity than royal Egyptian femaleness14”.

  • 15 Op. cit., 3.11.
  • 16 Charnes L., Notorious Identity. Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Cambridge, Harvard Unive (...)
  • 17 Ibid., p. 111.
  • 18 Traversi D. A., An Approach to Shakespeare, New York, Doubleday, 1969, p. 533.

12In the Roman world, the man should colonize the woman Cleopatra. Yet, Cleopatra has actually colonized Antony and thus Rome. She has reversed the Roman symmetry. Rome’s colonization principle of Egypt perishes when Antony is acted by Cleopatra. Antony says, “I/Have lost my way for ever”, “I Have fled myself”, “I have lost command15”. According to Linda Charnes, “Antony […] is not in control of the narratives for which he provides material16”. She adds that Cleopatra “understands that the powerful attraction she holds for Antony depends on the extent to which their life together disrupts the role he is required to play in the imperious Roman master narrative17”. Consequently, Cleopatra has the power to change her environment. As D. A. Traversi points out, “Cleopatra is living in a world which is the projection of her own feelings18”.

  • 19 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 13.
  • 20 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.45-47.
  • 21 Ibid., 4.14.15-16.

13Consequently, Cleopatra’s power blurs the distinction between man and woman and private and public. She exposes and derationalizes the social power systems that marginalize her and that construct the norms regarding the “natural” gender identities of men and women19. Indeed, Antony promises Cleopatra that he “will piece/Her opulent throne with kingdoms. All the East/[…] shall call her mistress20”. Alexa’s report of Antony’s message shows a lack of boundary between Cleopatra as a queen and Cleopatra as a lover, leading to a progressive disintegration of the Roman symmetrical world. Similarly, love and war become associated, although normally opposed in Rome. Antony explains: “I made these wars for Egypt, and the queen,/Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine21”.

  • 22 Ibid., 3.2.11-12.
  • 23 Bourdieu P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 169.
  • 24 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.5-7.

14The conflation of oppositions extends to Antony’s gender: he himself underlines the feminine aspects of his character: “O,/I follow’d that I blush to look upon22”. The feminine reveals his hybrid Roman/Egyptian reaction. In the Roman perspective, a man is opposed to a woman. Therefore, afraid of Antony’s hybridity, characters recall his brilliant past career in the Roman army and his marriage to Caesar’s sister. Romans try to position him or institute him as a “Roman” when they point to his affair or his problematic choices as a Roman soldier. Hence, Antony’s behavior exposes Rome to a crisis, or questions “the doxa […] and its arbitrary principles”, to use Bourdieu’s terminology23. The Romans consequently have to reaffirm what a Roman really “is” to protect their logic and unity. That is why, when Antony chooses to have an affair with Cleopatra, he is not a man anymore in Caesar’s opinion. Antony “is not more manlike/Than Cleopatra; the queen of Ptolemy,” Caesar laments24.

  • 25 Ibid., p. 131.
  • 26 Bourdieu P., Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 168.

15Here, we realize that, because the Roman doxa is challenged, Caesar must, as Bourdieu puts it, “restore the silence that the doxa strives to produce, through a purely reactionary discourse, a substitute for everything that is threatened25”. “Culture contact” with Egypt challenges the doxa, and it is now imperative for Rome to reaffirm its social constructions26. More specifically, Cleopatra challenges the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality, revealing, as Judith Butler argues, that gender differences are performative. For Butler,

  • 27 Butler J., Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 95

Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that “performance” is not a singular “act” or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint27.

  • 28 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 171-190.
  • 29 Bourdieu P., Language and Symbolic Power, op. cit., p. 87.

16Through her defiance of “regulative discourses” Cleopatra reveals the existence and incoherence of such “performativity” within the Roman “disciplinary regim[e]28”. The Roman “ritualized production[s]” and “habitus makes coherence and necessity out of accident and contingency29”. Yet Cleopatra, who mocks the Roman conventions and plays with them, reveals that they are social constructs.

Cleopatra’s Non-Identity

  • 30 Cook C., “The fatal Cleopatra”, op. cit., p. 252.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 252.
  • 32 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 3.13.75.
  • 33 Op. cit., p. 252.

17Clearly, Cleopatra cannot be framed in a stable identity because of her “non-identical quest30”. Carole Cook explains that Cleopatra “is in a space in which transformation occurs perpetually31”. Cleopatra does not act following one principle (such as virtue in the Romans’world). Her principle is not to have any principles as she proves when she surrenders to Caesar and “kiss[es] [Caesar’s] conqu’ring hand32”. Here, Cleopatra’s usurps the power of the repetition of stylized acts that establish the differentiation of gender roles. She resists these performative acts, using them to her advantage to produce her own ever shifting identity. Cleopatra “is always and never identical with herself”; this is part of her strategy33. Hence, when she surrenders to Rome, Cleopatra thinks that this step will be part of a future plan she will figure out later.

  • 34 Kinney C., op. cit., p. 185.
  • 35 Charnes L., Notorious Identity. Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Cambridge, Harvard Unive (...)
  • 36 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 9.

18As Kinney argues, Cleopatra “does not […] imitate the ‘high Roman fashion’ of death but rather appropriates it and remakes it in her own image […] Egypt is by Egypt valiantly vanquished34”. Indeed, Cleopatra is conforming to her anti-identical identity. She uses the Roman suicide linked to honor in her own way. When committing suicide in the Egyptian way, she keeps transforming the world. Her phrase “what’s brave, what’s noble” reveals that Cleopatra now turns to the Roman view of the world but she uses this concept to her own ends. Charnes notes that “Cleopatra insists on establishing herself as both the Egyptian, the playwright, and actor of all performances of herself” throughout the play35. Cleopatra adopts an identity that “contradic[ts]” herself as a female, and produces a “variable construction of identity” beyond the traditional Roman binary constructions36. In the end, she is still in control: Her suicide allows her to be powerful even when she is forced to surrender. Such interpretation of the power of Cleopatra’s erotic staging of her own death is commonplace in the scholarship on Antony and Cleopatra. In overemphasizing the power of Cleopatra through her suicide, however, Linda Charnes and Clare Kinney—among others—fail in examining the consequences of her act.

19Although Cleopatra escapes Caesar in her own way, Caesar wins. He will now dominate a world where femininity is absent. Difference is eliminated; the Other is eradicated. The crisis comes to an end and the world can come back to stability. This reading of the play confirms Bourdieu’s claim that societies use their doxa to keep stable and thus to function correctly. In his analysis of social stability, the crisis is part of a new stabilizing process since in a class conflict, for example, a new dominant class will impose a new ideology that will in turn become natural. At the end of the crisis, Rome reaches a state of re-installation of stability. Cleopatra appears as a parenthesis in the Roman Empire’s evolution. It remains uncertain that she transcends the Roman paradigm at the end of the play since she opens the path for a world where Rome will rule, where Caesar will now control both Egypt and Rome and make them his.

20Thus, I am not convinced that Cleopatra’s death itself is a real challenge to gender representations. But I have been stressing the importance of the audience’s practice of the cultural and gender crisis because the challenge of the Roman paradigm lies in the audience’s realization that, because Rome considers the feminine as opposed to civilized order, it will suppress it. Through the realization of the repression of the feminine, the audience becomes aware of the crisis that the Romans are trying to contain. Thus, in the end, the audience is perhaps transcending the limited Roman view. In forcing the audience to go through a cultural crisis, which reveals the gender constructions societies are usually blind to, Shakespeare allows his readers and his audience to recognize that such constructions are not natural. While in the end, the play shows that the challenge of such construction may not be viable, the audience’s awareness that their society relies on such constructions is in itself an insurgent tool.

Notes

1 Butler J., Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, Routledge, 1990, p. 9.

2 Bourdieu P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 171.

3 Ibid., p. 64.

4 Ibid., p. 64.

5 Kinney C., “The Queen’s Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor. Some Problems of Identity in Antony and Cleopatra”, The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print. Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne Haselkorn and Betty Travitsky, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, p. 177.

6 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.25, 1.3.69.

7 Ibid., 3.3.18-21.

8 Ibid., 2.2.207-212.

9 Ibid., 1.2.121, 1.1.9-10.

10 Ibid., 2.7.67.

11 Cook C., “The fatal Cleopatra”, Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengrether, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 249.

12 Op. cit., 1.1.12-13, 1.1.59-61.

13 Ibid., 1.4.69-71.

14 Kinney C., op. cit., p. 179.

15 Op. cit., 3.11.

16 Charnes L., Notorious Identity. Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 117.

17 Ibid., p. 111.

18 Traversi D. A., An Approach to Shakespeare, New York, Doubleday, 1969, p. 533.

19 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 13.

20 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.45-47.

21 Ibid., 4.14.15-16.

22 Ibid., 3.2.11-12.

23 Bourdieu P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 169.

24 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.5-7.

25 Ibid., p. 131.

26 Bourdieu P., Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 168.

27 Butler J., Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 95.

28 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 171-190.

29 Bourdieu P., Language and Symbolic Power, op. cit., p. 87.

30 Cook C., “The fatal Cleopatra”, op. cit., p. 252.

31 Ibid., p. 252.

32 Shakespeare W., Antony and Cleopatra, 3.13.75.

33 Op. cit., p. 252.

34 Kinney C., op. cit., p. 185.

35 Charnes L., Notorious Identity. Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 126.

36 Butler J., Gender Trouble, op. cit., p. 9.

Auteur

Flore Chevaillier received her Ph.D. in English from Florida State University and the Université d’Orléans. She currently teaches composition and literature classes at Central State University. Her research projects have focused on contemporary American fiction and French Theory. Her essays have appeared in Journal of Modern Literature, Critique, Literature Compass, and European Journal of American Studies.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010

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