“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

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.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

9 responses to ““Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

  1. Great point Jeff about just being a leader period. I kind of get queasy when I see Shakespeare on my reader! lol
    It was a tough read for me in high school which I probably have already mentioned but thanks to you for always breaking it down and explaining it is awesome.
    I could have used you in highschool come to think of it.
    Great stuff

  2. Some thoughts on ‘Antony and Cleopatra” I wasn’t sure how to respond to this post. I agree that things have changed vis a vis women in the role of leadership or even rulers. I was glad to see your optimism. Then I found myself wondering just how much has changed. Antony may have been seen by his contemporaries as weak because he let himself be ‘ruled’ by a woman in his case Cleopatra. However, she still had to ‘pretend’ that she cannot ‘project mine cause so well’ etc., in order to counter the fears of other men for the most part, that she was not attempting to metaphorically castrate the men around her. Of course this view of women in Shakespeare’s time was probably the norm. Sadly, I’m not sure how much we have moved on. I am thinking about the comments made about present day female leaders, Angela Merkle is Mutti, does that mean that men can only obey her when they see her as their mother?Hilary Clinton had to soften her image when Bill Clinton went into politics, e.g. not be seen as a ball-breaking feminist. I believe Hilary Clinton was still suffering from the seximsm of men and women towards her when she ran for the presidency. Can you imagine what Michelle Obama, a Black,female, highly educated woman would have to endure if she took up the baton in terms of running for POTUS?
    Anyway, having raised a few points. I must say that I have enjoyed reading and watching Antony & Cleopatra on stage. It’s a good play. I’ve also enjoyed the issues raised by your blog in terms of the discussion both in my head and with real people.

    • Hi DQ. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and powerful comment. I an in complete agreement: while we have made progress, there is still a long way to go. I would add to your list of current examples the Democratic primaries, where there were strong women candidates but people went for an old white man. There is some slight consolation that he is committed to selecting a woman running mate. At least this moves the ball a little closet to the goal.

      I hope you and your loved ones are all well. Stay safe, and as always, thank you for sharing your insights.

      – Jeff

  3. Pingback: The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare | Stuff Jeff Reads

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