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Antifeminism in William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra has been studied from various perspectives, including a feminist one. The feminist approach has not revealed any antifeminist acts present in the play. The current paper is an attempt to present the play as intrinsically anti-feminist. The analysis of the play is divided in three sections. In the first section, various definitions of antifeminism are presented so that the concept of antifeminist writings may be better understood. The second section details antifeminist acts in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The third is the conclusion of the entire discussion about the play.

1. Definitions of antifeminism

The Feminist Dictionary defines antifeminism as "[t]he conviction that women are not entitled to the same moral and legal rights as men, or to the same social status and opportunities. 'All antifeminist thinkers hold in common the thesis that there are innate and unalterable psychological differences between women and men, differences which make it in the interests of both sexes for women to play a subordinate, private role, destined for wife-and-motherhood.' ... [it] involves 'the idea that women ought to sacrifice the development of their own personalities for the sake of men and children'." (Kramarae et al. 1985: 54). An antifeminist is, therefore, a person who "[is] opposed to women or to feminism; a person (usu. a man) who is hostile to sexual equality or to the advocacy of women's rights" (Oxford English Dictionary 1989: 524).

According to Hope Phyllis Weissman (1975: 94) an "antifeminist writing is not simply a satirical caricature of women but any presentation of a woman's nature intended to conform her to male expectations of what she is or ought to be, not her own ... Indeed the most insidious of antifeminist images are those which celebrate with a precision often subtle rather than apparent, the forms women's goodness is to take". Audrey Bilger (2009) thinks that antifeminist persons oppose feminism; therefore, their opinions are projected against equality of women at work, home, society and culture. In her words (2009: 27) "Antifeminism may be simply defined as the opposite of feminism. Like feminism, anti-feminism focuses on the role of woman at work, at home, in society, and in the culture. And, like feminism, antifeminism promotes a complex political, social, and cultural agenda. Antifeminists often take their cues from feminists, speaking out against current feminist platforms and against feminists themselves". Valerie Sanders (1996) vividly describes antifeminist acts. She thinks that the term 'anti-feminist' itself is problematic as is the original designation of 'feminist', which was not officially used until 1894. In her opinion, the term 'antifeminist' emerged thirty years after 1894, in the preface to Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1924). She thinks that it is difficult enough to define antifeminism in the twentieth century, but in the nineteenth, the definition suffered from additional complications. In her view (1996: 5), antifeminism is "a conviction that women were designed (whether by 'God' or 'Nature') to be first and foremost wives and mothers, and that their social and political subordination is the proper corollary of that position". Describing the different traits of antifeminism, she writes:

The definition of anti-feminism naturally hinges on how we perceive feminism, and a specific anti-feminist upsurge generally arises in response to a specific feminist campaign, such as for the suffrage or legalization of abortion.... [a]nti-feminism, as implied by its name, is usually a resistance movement against the advancement of women's rights. It tries to halt the development of new liberal attitudes towards the boundaries between the sexes, insisting that there are fundamental differences in sexual characteristics and roles which women should accept. Like feminism, it tries to envisage a better society, but one based on tradition or status; it tries to put the brake on change, unless it is a return to family values. (Sanders 1996: 3)

The above definitions of the feminist scholars make it clear that antifeminists oppose the idea of equal rights for women. They discriminate between the sexes on the basis of gender, which makes them see women as subservient to men. They think that women are emotional, graceful, meek, submissive, and passive. They use derogatory terms against women to maintain their dominant status. They consider women competitive to men; hence, they oppose their equality in every walk of life. The purpose of their protest against women is to maintain their subordinate status within and outside home.

2. Antifeminist acts in Shakespeare's play

Shakespeare's belief that women were tricksters is one of the antifeminist acts which occur in Antony and Cleopatra. He depicts Cleopatra as a woman who plays tricks on Antony and betrays him. For instance, when she asks Alexas to convey her message to Antony, she says: "See where he is, who's with him, what he does. / I did not send you. If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick. Quick and return" (I.3.2-5). Cleopatra wants Antony to live with her forever. But Cleopatra's male counterparts view her as a fraud and even Antony treats her with contempt. He has doubts about her and thinks that she is playing tricks on him by siding with Caesar. He considers her a flatterer: "To flatter Caesar would you mingle eyes / With one that ties his points?" (III.13.160-161). In Mark Antony's opinion, it is Cleopatra who has robbed him of his nobility and ruined his fortune:

ANTONY. O thy vile lady! She has robbed me of my sword.

MARDIAN. No, Antony, My mistress loved thee, and her fortunes mingled With thine entirely.

ANTONY. Hence, saucy eunuch, peace! She hath betrayed me and shall die the death. (IV.14.22-26)

L. T. Fitz (1977: 298) makes an appropriate remark when he writes that "Cleopatra is seen as the archetypal woman: practicer of feminine wiles, mysterious, childlike, long on passion and short on intelligence--except for a sort of animal cunning". Fitz's argument exposes Shakespeare's projection of various antifeminist acts against Cleopatra.

Cleopatra believes in male supremacy, consequently, she sacrifices everything for the sake of her desire to live with Mark Antony. Throughout the play, her desire maintains her subservient to him. She likes Antony to be known as 'The demi-Atlas of this earth' (I.5.24), and '[her] brave Mark Antony' (I.5.40), 'the brave Antony' (I.5.71) and '[her] man of men' (I.5.74). In the words of Cleopatra, Antony is: "Lord of Lords, / O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from / The great world's great snare uncaught?" (IV.8.16-18). She treats him as her 'lord' (IV.12.31) and likens him to Mars, who loved Venus. Even after Mark Antony's death, Cleopatra wants spiritual union with him: "Husband I come" (V.2.281).

Antony blames Cleopatra for his defeat on the battlefield. In his opinion, Cleopatra is a 'foul' woman who is responsible for his downfall: "All is lost! / This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me. / My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder / They cast their caps up and carouse together / Like friends long lost" (IV.12.10-13). Antony's downfall evokes the story of the Fall in the Bible, where Eve is responsible for Adam's downfall. By conflating Cleopatra's role with Eve's, the playwright depicts Cleopatra as a sinner. Harold Fisch (1980: 64) also admits Shakespeare's analogy: "The man who believed what the woman said of the serpent (worm) but could not be saved by what she had done is of course Adam; just as Cleopatra is Eve, no longer the eternal feminine principle of fertility, goddess of love and nature, but the erring female who leads man into sin and consequently forfeits the gift of immorality". Besides this, Antony's contempt for Cleopatra as a false and faithless woman echoes throughout the play. For example, he blames her for his noble ruin:
   ANTONY. Betrayed I am.
   O, this false soul of Egypt! This grave charm,
   Whose eyes becked forth my wars and called them home,
   Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,
   Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose
   Beguiled me to the very heart of loss.
   What, Eros, Eros!. (IV.12.24-30)

Furthermore, Antony treats Cleopatra as a whore. In his opinion, she is "Triple-turned whore! 'Tis thou / Hast sold me to this novice, and my heart / Makes only wars on thee" (IV.12.13-15). He repeatedly accuses Cleopatra of being a 'false soul of Egypt' and 'grave charm' (IV.12.25), 'a right gypsy' (IV.12.28), 'spell!' and 'Avaunt!' (IV.12.30) and 'The witch' (IV.12.47). These terms are imbued with misogyny and are derogatory towards Cleopatra's personality, therefore, they are simply antifeminist traits projected against her. Besides this, these terms are binary oppositions used by the playwright. On the one hand, Cleopatra is depicted as an extremely beautiful woman; on the other hand, she is treated as a gypsy and false creature. The love-hate binary encourages readers to recognize the Madonna / Whore image of Cleopatra in the play. Janet Adelman vividly comments on Cleopatra's role in Antony and Cleopatra. In her view Egypt is a place where there is no respect for women. Egypt is described as a place of sexual concourse and Cleopatra is treated as a "whore" and "mother" in Egypt:

For a generation of Romans that has successfully excised the female--in which there are no wives, in which mothers are apparently necessary only for the production of illegitimate children in Egypt--Egypt is the only place of sexual concourse, Cleopatra the only mother there is. For these unwomaned sons, she carries the taint of the whore-mother, site of the father's contamination, and through his liaison with her, Antony restages that contamination, becoming the focus both of longing for the father who might be exempted from woman and of disgust at the father who is not. (Adelman 1992:179)

Like Mark Antony, Caesar also declares Cleopatra to be a whore who has spoiled Antony's social position: "No my most wrong sister, Cleopatra / Hath nobbed him to her. He hath given his empire/ up to a whore ... " (III.6.67-69). Ania Loomba (1989: 75) associates Cleopatra's role with that of the goddesses and whores described in mythical stories. She writes: "The figure of Cleopatra is the most celebrated stereotype of the goddess and whore and has accommodated and been shaped by centuries of myth-making and fantasy surrounding the historical figure. In Shakespeare's representation of her, we can identify several different strands of contemporary meaning which intertwine with connotations attaching to her from earlier stories". It is obvious from the above description that Cleopatra's various images are created and celebrated by her male counterparts in the play.

Shakespeare describes Cleopatra as a woman of artifice. In his views, she uses her feminine wiles against Antony when she hears he has married Octavia. For instance, pretending to faint is merely an artifice: "I am paid for't now. Lead me from hence; / I faint. O Iras, Charmian!--'Tis no matter.... / Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars" (II.5.111-118). In the beginning of the play, Philo introduces her as 'a strumpet' (I.1.13). Similarly, Enobarbus describes Cleopatra's artifice when he talks of her as of a woman who uses her 'sighs and tears' (I.2.144) in order to dupe Antony. Enobarbus adroitly admires Cleopatra's seductiveness: "she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies" (II.3.47-48). His remarks are also projected against Cleopatra's sexuality. In Jyotsna Singh's view (1990: 422), Enobarbus displays a good understanding of the psychology of the main protagonists: "In revealing these entanglements of sexuality and power in a complex interplay of appetites embodied by the rulers, Enobarbus' vision reveals the causal networks underlying the larger tragedy of the war between Rome and Egypt". On the other hand, Fitz (1977: 306) describes Enobarbus as "a boringly conventional antifeminist who voices such a view in the play, [and] is almost always taken to be a mouthpiece for Shakespeare". Further, Pompey treats Cleopatra as a woman who uses her physical charms to attract men. He abuses her for her lustful nature: "But all the charms of love, / Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned lip! / Let witchcraft joined with beauty, lust with both ..." (II.1.20-22). All the above terms are imbued with contempt for Cleopatra's personality. The male characters treat her as an inferior creature.

In the play, the beauty contest between the female characters is another antifeminist means which the playwright uses to present them as the intellectually weaker sex. For example, Cleopatra views Octavia as one of her rivals in matters of physical and sexual charms. She tries to learn every detail about Octavia's physical beauty, sweetness of voice, height from the Messenger:

CLEOPATRA. Didst thou behold Octavia?

MESSENGER. Ay, dread queen. [...]

CLEOPATRA. Is she as tall as me?

MESSENGER. She is not, madam.

CLEOPATRA. Didst hear her speak? Is she shrill tongue or low?

MESSENGER. Madam, I heard her speak. She is low-voiced.

CLEOPATRA. That's not so good. He cannot like her long. (III.3.6-13)

Shakespeare's antifeminist discourse finds reflection in the subservient roles of female characters. In the play, Octavia is very faithful, meek, graceful, devoted, submissive and subservient to Antony. She treats him as her good lord and husband: "O my good lord, / Believe not all, or, if you must believe, / Stomach not all.... / When I shall pray, 'O, bless my lord and husband!'" (III.4.10-16). Similarly, Cleopatra remains meek, graceful and subservient to Antony. She views him as her lord and master: "O my lord, my lord, / Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought / You would have followed" (III.11.53-54). For Cleopatra, Antony is everything. She finds infinite virtues in Antony when she says, "Lord of lords, / O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from / The world's great snare uncaught?" (IV.8.16-18). She is ready to 'Dissolve [her] life!' for the sake of Antony.

Shakespeare disregards women's intellectual capacity. He discriminates between home and the outside world. He depicts man as mature both within and outside his home, while woman appears so only within the four walls of her house. This is another example of antifeminist ideology which finds reflection through the mouthpiece of Mark Antony. In the play, Antony laughs at Cleopatra's intellectual capacity when he tries to put on his armour and leave for the battlefield. He emphasizes that Cleopatra does not know about worldly affairs, therefore, she does not know how to put on the armour of a soldier. When Cleopatra tries to fit his armour, he says: "Ah, let it be! Thou art / The armourer of my heart. False, false; this, this" (IV.4.6-7). Besides this, he tries to show off his intellectual superiority and his masculine power over Cleopatra: "O love, / That thou couldst see my wars today, and knew'st / The royal occupation, thou shouldst see / A workman in't" (IV.4.15-17).

Antony's relationship with Cleopatra discloses the fact that he uses her merely for the purpose of his sexual desires: "Come, my queen, / Last night you did desire it" (I.1.55-56). He treats her as an object of his sexual gratification, therefore, he observes Cleopatra's physical and sexual charms. He admires the sweetness of her voice and he compares her voice to that of a nightingale: "My nightingale, / We have beat them to their beds" (IV.8.18-19). At the beginning of the play, Antony's attitude towards Cleopatra is obvious when he wants nothing but some pleasure: "... There's not a minute of our lives should stretch/Without some pleasure now. What sport to night" (I.1.45-46). Philo describes in clear terms Antony's falling in love with Cleopatra: "And is become the bellows and the fans/To cool a gypsy's lust" (I.1.8-9). Cleopatra is simply treated as a lustful woman by her lover. Similarly, Enobarbus sees Cleopatra as a woman of boundless sexuality: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety. Other women cloy/The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/where most she satisfies. For vilest things/Becomes themselves in her, that the holy priests/Bless her when she is riggish" (II.2.245-250). Furthermore, Enobarbus uses plenty of sexual innuendoes and puns. For instance, he uses a pun on dying (death and orgasm) when he says: "Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying" (I.2.136-140). Agrippa sides with Enobarbus and he also views Cleopatra as a passionate and lustful woman who aroused Caesar to have sexual intercourse with her: "Royal wench!/She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He ploughed her, and she cropped" (II.2.225-227). In Agrippa's speech, the words like 'ploughed' and 'cropped' are sexual innuendoes, which are projected against Cleopatra to describe her sexuality. Agrippa's criticism of Cleopatra is another example of antifeminism in the play.

For centuries, women have been considered a lottery prize for men, taken as a gift by them. The study of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra reveals the same attitude of the male characters: they want to possess women either as a prize or as a gift. For example, Maecenas views Octavia as a gift to Antony: "If beauty, wisdom, modesty can settle / The heart of Antony, Octavia is / A blessed lottery to him" (II.3.251-253). Maecenas' attitude towards Octavia shows that he treats woman merely as a thing. Discussing men's attitude towards women in Antony and Cleopatra, Cristina Leon Alfar (2003:143) opines, "Julius Caesar (...) Marc Antony conquer Cleopatra simultaneously as monarch and as a sexual body. When Cleopatra refuses to be conquered by Octavius Caesar, she both resists and succumbs to the violence of conquest". Thus, the female characters are forced to be subservient to male characters.

Cleopatra gives up Egypt and follows Mark Antony. Consequently, her social status is no longer equal to that of men. Describing her social status, Ania Loomba (1989: 75) writes, "... Cleopatra's social status places her in a contradictory position. Status, wealth, class are refracted in their operation through the prism of gender, and do not work in the same way as for men".

Philip J. Traci (1970) opines that the whole play is structured in imitation of the sex-act, starting with foreplay in the first several scenes, proceeding to pre-sex drinking and feasting, and finally culminating, after the significant entrance of the character Eros. According to Traci, twenty one uses of the word 'Eros', twenty-three uses of the word 'come' and sixteen puns on 'dying' (1970: 81), make it clear that the playwright depicts sex-acts:

CLEOPATRA. Give me some music; music, moody food Of us that trade in love.

ALL. The music, ho!

CLEOPATRA. Let it alone. Let's to billiards. Come, Charmian.

CHARMIAN. My arm is sore. Best play with Mardian.

CLEOPATRA. As well a woman with an eunuch played As with a woman. Come, you'll play with me, sir?

MARDIAN. As well as I can, madam.

CLEOPATRA. And when good will is showed, though't come too short, The actor may plead pardon. I'll none now. (II.5.1-9)

The cross-dressing scene of the play is simply a joke on Cleopatra. By dressing herself like Antony, Cleopatra cannot be a man or she cannot achieve masculinity. It is therefore, a satirical caricature of Cleopatra and Elizabethan women in general. In her book Women and the English Renaissance, Linda Woodbridge (1984: 291) rightly argues: "On the personal level, the misogyny that must be overcome in the plays may represent adolescent fears--fears of sex, fears of women and their mysterious ways, fear of the murky unknown that is the adult world ... while dwelling upon women's sexual appetites, a man turns against his mother and against women in general". The dramatist is trying to extinguish the existence of the entire womankind. By giving preference to male dressing, the playwright values maleness and promotes the idea that women are inferior to men.

The discrimination between male/female and Rome/Egypt is maintained in the play, which marginalizes Cleopatra. When Antony is seen with Cleopatra, he is "not Antony" (I.1.57). Antony's "sport" in Egypt makes him "not more manlike/Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy/ More womanly than he" (I.4.5-7). Therefore, " ... if Antony is to remain the Roman hero, Cleopatra must be marginalized as the temptress, witch, adulteress" (Singh 1990: 100). Furthermore, Harris (1994: 405) points out that "What is perhaps most notable about many past accounts of the Rome / Egypt opposition, however, is the extent to which these accounts have also elaborated an absolute gender polarity or, more accurately, a gender hierarchy. Rome has been characterized as a male world, presided over by the austere Caesar, and Egypt as a female domain, embodied by a Cleopatra who is seen to be as abundant, leaky, and changeable as the Nile".

In the play, the dramatist presents his gender discrimination between the two rulers by associating them with the two different territories. He describes Rome in association with masculinity and Egypt with femininity. Rome is perceived as a heroic and masculine empire and Egypt as a kingdom of women and eunuchs. Rome is described as the locus of politics and power, reason, restraint, and tragedy, while Egypt is equated with love and desire, art and imagination, and comedy. Antony represents Rome, while Cleopatra represents Egypt. The playwright equates Antony with Mars and Cleopatra with Venus. He is depicted as masculine and aggressive, on the contrary, while Cleopatra is depicted as obeying, submissive, irrational and fickle minded. Linda Charnes (1996 273) identifies this gender gap between the two rulers, and counts their characteristics when she writes, '"Naturally' Antony loves Cleopatra--she is exotic, mysterious, capricious, charismatic, charming, earthly--the characterological equivalent of the imagined terrain of Egypt, with which she is always synecdochized. 'Naturally' Cleopatra loves Antony--he is magnanimous (in the Aristotelian sense), expansive, aggressive, powerful, manly, famous 'in the word's report', like the imperial Roman terrain he both extends and is extension of". Similarly, this discrimination can also be understood in the words of Michael Payne (1973: 265-66): "Throughout Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare develops a series of interrelated polarities--Rome-Egypt, masculinity-femininity, space/time boundary-space/time transcendence, death-love--which at first appear to be mutually exclusive or dualistic concepts but which are finally shown to be polar concepts instead". Payne's statement is obviously helpful in order to understand the discrimination between man and woman on the basis of these binary oppositions.

3. Conclusion

The entire discussion about Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra reveals that Cleopatra is presented as secondary to Antony. In the play, antifeminism manifests itself in various ways. Cleopatra is described as a woman who chases Antony to satisfy her sexual desires; she is presented as frail, faithless and false; she uses her feminine wiles to regain her kingdom by any means. She is associated with Egypt, seen as a female domain. Male characters consider her a prostitute, a 'strumpet' and a 'witch' who has ruined Antony's fortune, his social position, prestige and dignity. All these terms are derogatory to her personality. She is a slave to Mark Antony, emotionally and physically. Both Cleopatra and Octavia are described in the play as the intellectually weaker sex. The discrimination between sexes is also obvious in the Rome/Egypt opposition: Rome is associated with masculinity, valour, virility and manhood and the Romans are considered brave and superior to the Egyptians; Antony is the embodiment of this superiority. On the contrary, Egypt is seen in relation to femininity, weakness, and romance. Cleopatra is the embodiment of femininity, associated with romance and beauty, and is described as belonging to the weaker sex. The discrimination between the sexes is present throughout the play, where male characters are superior to female characters.


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Rabindra Kumar Verma

Manipal University, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
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Title Annotation:WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616)
Author:Verma, Rabindra Kumar
Publication:European English Messenger
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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