juxtaposition of Feminine and Masculine in Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

From the earliest times authors used juxtaposition of male and female roles to create a conflict and to give their characters more flavor. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra the contrast between the roles of men and women is sharpened by portraying two great characters, the Queen of Egypt and a Roman triumvir. There is god-like grandeur to all their human passions and yearnings, and they have unlimited power over their respective kingdoms. The entire play is divided into two different worlds, that are separated by gender (Cleopatra with her female attendants and eunuchs versus triumvirs and soldiers), distance (Egypt and Rome), lifestyle (festivity and idleness versus discipline and frugality), ideas (peace and comfort versus war), and virtues (love, passion, and felicity as opposed to courage, ambition, and strength). Cleopatra embodies pleasure and Antony is a warrior. For Antony his career and honor are very important: “If I lose mine honour,/I lose myself” (III.4.22-3), as is “ambition, the soldier’s virtue” (III.1.22). Cleopatra, on the other hand, is concerned about the sensual aspects of life. The differences between women’s and men’s domains are portrayed through the use of imagery and mythology in the text, enhanced by costumes, decoration, and music in the production.

Even though Cleopatra is the Queen of Egypt and is expected to engage in political matters, we never see her conducting official business. Instead, she is always surrounded by music and entertainment, banqueting or masquerade. Egypt is portrayed as a place of idleness, sensuality, and overindulgence, and Cleopatra is a living embodiment of this lifestyle. In the text when Enobarbus describes Cleopatra he uses luxurious and exotic images that create an impression of a pleasurable pastime becoming of gods:


She did lie

In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,

O’erpicturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature. On each side of her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,

With diver-coloured fans, whose wind did seem

Ro glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,

And what they undid did (II.2.203-10).


The production intensifies this sense of extravagance and festivity by employing music (Mardian always carries his sitar), dancing and playing (Cleopatra riding on Mardian’s back), and bright clothes. Cleopatra’s will is unquestionable by her servants and attendants and she often abuses it due to her passionate nature. Kathryn Hunter very well portrays the power of the Queen: when she looks at servants, they tremble under the fierce glance of this tiny woman and follow every magnificent gesture of her fragile arms. 

Costumes play an important role in highlighting the differences between the male and female domains. In Cleopatra’s kingdom everything is festive and extravagant. In the production Cleopatra appears in different costumes in every new scene. All of them are colorful and open, complemented by hair that she wears down like a young girl. This supports the impression that  Cleopatra is very insecure about her age and appearance, which we get from the text. She is so eager to know that Octavia does not surpass her in height or beauty that she asks her servant to report Octavia’s appearance to her: “bid him/Report the feature of Octavia, her years,/Her inclination. Let him not leave out/The colour of her hair” (II.5.111-4).  Her attendants try to please Cleopatra by saying what she wants to hear (as Charmian herself admits to Cleopatra: “I sing but after you” (I.5.73)) and similarly they try to match their queen in costumes, whether in choosing closing of the same style and color scheme or, as Alexis does, by having a rose in his or a colorful scarf. They wear a lot of jewelry, accessories, feathers and makeup. The costume designer’s (Tom Piper) decision to emphasize women’s preoccupation with clothes agrees with Shakespeare’s metaphor of marriage voiced by Enobarbus: “when old robes are worn out there are members to make new” (I.2.165-6) and “your old smock brings forth a new petticoat” (I.2.169).


Women’s bright and elaborate costumes are contrasted by plain military uniforms or business suits of various shades of grey that triumvirs and their men wear. It goes well with the controlled, business-like representation of male characters in the text. When Antony is meeting with Caesar in Rome they address each other very formally and use careful, almost official language. For example, Caesar says: “You may be pleased to catch at mine intent/By what did here befall me” (II.2.45-6). Both are wearing formal suits. On other occasions Antony is dressed in full military uniform, but when he is in Egypt, we can see him without a jacket with suspenders showing and his stomach out, or even in a robe. The text emphasizes that being in company of Cleopatra made Antony weak and unprofessional. He admits it himself: “I must from this enchanting queen break off./Ten thousand harms, more that the ills I know,/My idleness doth hatch” (I.2.129-31). Caesar, as a very rational and trained man, also disapproves of this lifestyle that is becoming of women:

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know

It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate

Our great competitor. From Alexandria

This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes

The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like

Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy

More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or

Vouchsafed to think he had partners. You shall find there

A man who is the abstract of all faults

That all men follow. (I.4.1-10)

The use of props is quite scarce in this production, but one of the view instances when they are used helps to underline and similar point about women being needlessly extravagant compared to men’s prudency.  While Cleopatra sits on a golden throne, triumvirs, who occupy a higher position, nevertheless use plain spartan chairs that do not even have a back. 


In the text there are many references to Roman mythology. This imagery brings attention to the extraordinary personalities of the characters. Cleopatra is often compared with Venus, the goddess of Love and Antony with mighty Hercules or Mars, the God of war. But when Antony is near Cleopatra, the warrior in him surrenders to lover, and Antony drinks, dances, and loves instead of fulfilling his military duties. This becomes apparent to his soldiers who start loosing respect for him: “’Tis the God Hercules, whom Antony loved/Now leaves him” (IV.3.17-8).  Antony becomes restless after a while, he tries to fix this situation by going to a battle, but it is hard for him to break free from Cleopatra’s luring embrace because she employs all her charm and cunning to hold him by her:


ANTONY Eros! Mine armour, Eros!

CLEOPATRA                                     Sleep a little.

ANTONY No, my chuck. Eros! Come, mine armour, Eros! (IV.4.1-2)


Then Cleopatra tries to help Antony put on his armor, but she does not know how to. She does not know anything about warfare, and the fact that Antony let her command a ship in a battle demonstrates his almost unhealthy dotage


Another major difference is shown in the treatment of servants, messengers, and the Soothsayer. When the Soothsayer appears in Act I, Charmian asks him: “give me good fortune” and when he denies his power to do so, she says “Pray then, foresee me one” (I.2.15-17). Charmian refuses to hear anything but good fortune for herself. Her questions then are concerned with love and potential children. The actress that plays Charmian has a very playful attitude during the entire dialogue. On the other hand Antony is more serious about his fate. He asks the Soothsayer about his political career and when he is confronted with the fact that Caesar’s fortunes will rise higher than his, he is first upset and asks the Soothsayer to “Speak this no more” (II.3.24), but than admits that this is true: “Be it art or hap,/He hath spoken true” (II.3.33-34). Darrell D’Silva shows the reaction of a rational man who can face his own problems. At the same time in this scene the actor reveals Antony’s weak human side: when he is alone on stage, delivering his soliloquy, his gestures and voice are no longer commanding, but rather tired, showing him as an aged, and losing man in contrast to young and energetic Caesar.

A similar distinction in how Cleopatra and Antony face the truth is exemplified by the treatment of messengers who bring them bad news. When Antony is about to find out about Fulvia’s death in Act I, he reassures the messenger: “Who tells me true, though in his tale lie death,/I hear him as he flattered” (I.2.98-99).  Darrell D’Silva wonderfully portrays Antony’s personality in this scene: he looks upset, but at the same time calm, like a Roman stoic would be. Cleopatra, on the contrary, is enraged when the messenger tells her that Antony is married to Octavia, she curses (“The most infectious pestilence upon thee!” (II.5.61)) and even strikes hi. Kathryn Hunter is remarkably believable in her fury: when she is rushing towards the messenger with a knife, the audience gasps in anticipation of an irreversible deed.


She also captures the essence of Cleopatra’s impulsive nature by displaying quick changes of temper:  she almost kills the messenger, and then, as though awakened by Charmian’s line “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself’ (II.5.75), she calms down, both in gestures and in the tone of her voice and admits her rashness: “These hands do lack nobility, that they strike/ A meaner than myself” (II.5.82-3). Cleopatra invites the messenger back in, promising not to hurt him, but judging by Hunter’s tense body language and poorly-faked smile, we  are not convinces that she has taken control over her fury, and indeed she reviles and tries to strike him again, her attendants physically holding the mighty little woman. On the other hand, then the messenger, shaking from head to toe, taught by heavy blows of queens hand describes to her Octavia’s appearance in obviously exaggerated terms, Cleopatra seems to be blind to the fact that he is lying and even rewards him for this: “There’s gold for thee” (III.3.33). Kathryn Hunter literally takes bracelets off her wrists and hands them down to the messenger.   


Antony and Cleopatra are icons of male and female greatness. Through their behavior and actions they epitomize the differences between male and female view of the world. Even the way the two heroes choose to die exemplifies this difference. Antony dies like a soldier, from his own sword, and his last words show that he is proud of his triumphs and glory, “the greatest prince o’th’world” (IV.15.55). Cleopatra chooses a more subtle and lady-like way to kill herself, by applying a poisonous snake to he breast. In the text she is often compared with a snake (Antony himself calls her his “serpent of Egypt”; moreover, snake is sometimes used as a symbol of female craftiness, which Cleopatra possesses in great quantity), and from a snake she dies. Her final wish is to see Antony before Iras, and his is the last name upon her lips. This shows that men and women have fundamentally different values: men make was and women make love. After all, Cleopatra does not represent the traditional qualities of an ideal woman, like the ones with which Enobarbus praises in Octavia: “beauty, wisdom, modesty” (II.2.6).  Nevertheless, she possesses ultimately feminine traits, such as sensuality and irrationality that make her an incomparable counterpart for Antony’s warrior archetype.


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