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.
I will be even with thee, doubt it not.
But why, why, why?
Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.
Well, is it, is it?
If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?
[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.
By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.
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.
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