Antony and Cleopatra (1608), one of Shakespeare’s most renowned tragedies, is both a fantasy of interracial love and passion, and a nightmare of racial prejudice and political decline. The female protagonist Cleopatra’s Egyptian ethnicity and exotic beauty provide a platform for probing ideas of racial discrimination, and despite her regal position, she is not exempted from the general gender bias that was attributed towards all women. The themes of racial difference and gender conflict are cohesively intertwined throughout the play due to the similar ties of stereotype. However, the central tragedy is not instigated by these prejudices. Rather, it is the male protagonist Antony’s being carried away by lust and temptation that sets the premise for his tragic downfall and political warfare between Rome and Egypt. Similar themes of sexism, racism, politics and tragedy are also seen in Shakespeare’s play Othello (1603) wherein the protagonist becomes a target of racial hatred that leads to his ruin. The presence of well-developed contrasting female characters in the play adds a dimension of gender conflict and feminist discourse. In this assignment, I shall attempt to compare and contrast Antony and Cleopatra and Othello with respect to the four abovementioned themes.
Critic A.P. Riemer in his essay ‘Wine Women and Song: Anthony and Cleopatra Revisited’ remarks that Antony and Cleopatra is a play with an entirely “phallocentric” view of women. It is apparently trapped within a paternalistic and authoritarian view of the world. Cleopatra is the primary victim of sexism. She is described as an enchantress, a receptacle of the devil who has Antony trapped in her clutches. Having previously “enchanted” Julius Caesar and the senior Pompey, she is consistently presented as either a sex-object, or to put it more tastefully, a lustful predator. While speaking to Menas, Pompey describes her as, “Salt Cleopatra, soften thy wanned lip! /Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both. /Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts, /Keep his brain fuming.“ (II.i.21-24)
Pompey is confident that Cleopatra’s beauty and “witchcraft” is enough to keep Antony’s “brain fuming” so that he’s distracted from his political duties as a member of the triumvirate. Throughout the play, Cleopatra is presented as typically feminine – lacking in moral responsibility, self-centred and self-indulgent, neglectful of her regal duties, treacherous and devious in her dealing with others. Her every image is highly sexualised, right from the description of her “infinite variety” in Act II till the final scene where she lies naked, dead from an asp-bite to her breast. This further highlights her commodification in a patriarchal society.
In Othello, Brabantio and Othello’s dialogues in Act I are proof of the treatment of women as men’s “property” and prized possessions. Brabantio claims to have had his daughter “stolen” from him and “corrupted”, while Othello claims to have “won” her over. This shows how deep the gender stereotypes are embedded in society. This “property” is simply passed on from one man’s possession to another. On a number of occasions, women’s sexuality becomes a reason for slanderous abuse in the play. Othello refers to Desdemona as a “subtle whore” and “cunning whore” in addition to multiple references to her as a “strumpet”. Bianca is described by Iago as a “housewife” and “strumpet” while Emilia is labelled as a “villainous whore”. What’s truly tragic about Bianca’s case is that even though Cassio is equally involved the adulterous affair, she is the one who is downplayed and accused of having loose morals. The social conditioning is such that men may do as they please without fear of retribution. Yet, women must not do anything to offend their husbands and must adhere to the guidelines of feminine behaviour laid down by the patriarchal society.
Desdemona in Othello plays up to the stereotype of the submissive and docile wife. Even after being accused wrongly of adultery and falling victim to misogyny, she continues to obey Othello’s orders. In her final breath she still remains true to her husband, saying ‘Commend me to my kind lord’. She doesn’t fight back or retaliate when Othello smothers her and instead, accepts her death as punishment rather than tragic injustice. Cleopatra on the other hand, is more potent and articulate. She is well aware of the power she has over Antony and although she loves him, she has an interest in flattering her Roman conquerors to empower herself against the threats of Roman patriarchy. As Vanashree Tripathy points out in the Introduction to the Worldview Critical Edition of the play, Cleopatra’s gender renders her “politically unacceptable but sexually acceptable.”
The racist discourses in Antony and Cleopatra are instigated from Cleopatra’s exotic “otherness”. Her African ethnicity allows the Romans to easily label her as a temptress. In an animalistic rage, she strikes the messenger who brings her the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia which reinforces her barbaric nature in strong contrast to the modern civil code of Romans. Othello’s somewhat animalistic passion also plays up to the stereotype of an untamed barbarian from a faraway and distant land. Firstly, his own stories of slaves, cannibals and Anthropophagi, narrated so passionately to his beloved Desdemona in an attempt to court her, ideologically produce his identity as a black man within a configuration of familiar signifiers. And secondly, his act of violence and aggression at the end of the play compulsively attributes itself to his Moorish heritage. Just as Cleopatra “enchants” Antony, Othello is claimed to have “lured” Desdemona using African spells and necromancy. Both these instances amount to pure racism since it was believed that no man or woman in their right frame of minds would ever associate with a racial inferior. A black has nothing to offer to a white other than fulfilment of twisted sexual fantasy – even a queen like Cleopatra or a noble soldier like Othello.
On some level, both Cleopatra and Othello contribute to their self-alienation. Cleopatra refers to herself as a “serpant of old Nile” and says “That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black” (I.v.28-29). She gives in to the false image of her being dark by nature (considered unhandsome according to European tastes) because she is from a tropical country. Othello too, assumes the role of an exotic, fearsome foreigner when he talks about the legend behind his mother’s handkerchief, given to her by an Egyptian charmer. In his last speech, he refers to himself as the “circumcised dog” revealing how tragically he has reduced himself in his own eyes.
In both plays, the community of whites – the Romans and the Venetians – find harbour for their frustrations and malice in racism. This is a more implanted form of racism. The Romans find it easy to blame the dark, foreign Cleopatra whose whims at the height of battle cause the downfall of the virile hero Antony. Iago holds a grudge against Othello for choosing Cassio over him for the position of lieutenant, while Roderigo harbours pure jealousy since Othello seems to have “stolen away” his primary love interest, Desdemona. They hence vent out their anger by blaming his uncivilised heritage and savage origins.
The political conflict in Antony and Cleopatra can basically be seen as warfare between Rome and Egypt. The play presents a chapter of Roman history in which the articulations for the construction of a world empire were being made. Shakespeare’s characters are textually and dramatically involved in a dispute for political survival – Cleopatra strives to preserve the state of Egypt against the expanding forces of Rome, Octavius Caesar covets the establishment of his rule in Rome against a weak and decayed Lepidus and a weakening and decaying Mark Antony, Antony finds himself at a crossroads, between his duty to Rome and his sexual drive towards Cleopatra.
As critic R.A. Levin points out, Cleopatra is a responsible stateswoman, sensible of her political status and duties throughout the play. Defining herself as a “queen”, she engages in diplomatic efforts with Rome, by advising Antony to meet the messenger from Rome, campaigning herself, negotiating with Octavius through the messenger, and trying to make Egypt survive the war defeat. Cleopatra exploits her feminine charm to political ends. Displaying her charm reinforced by capriciousness, Cleopatra often dangles kisses as rewards on the international front, and elicits information from Dolabella by overwhelming him with charm and eloquence. Antony on the other hand is presented to us as exactly the kind of politician the plebeians would despise. When he says “let Rome in Tiber melt” (I.i.34-5), he outrightly showcases his disregard for all matters concerning his state. The triumvirs are called the “pillars of the world”, the mainstay of the Roman hegemony in the historical pursuit for world domination, and Antony becomes the single chink in the armour that crumbles that pillar of strength and power, reducing it to dust. Antony’s challenge to Caesar for a single combat shows his inability or unwillingness to distinguish between individual heroism and the large-scale military organization. His generalship and military prowess proves increasingly dysfunctional thereafter. The play’s ultimate political victor, Caesar, is by contrast a masterful military organizer, who builds his power partly on the cooperation of trusted subordinates. Caesar gathers information methodically – his military movements are marked by a celerity that takes his opponents by surprise, and he takes pains over small but telling matters, such as misleading spies about his intentions or demoralizing Antony’s forces by deploying deserters from his army in the front line against it.
Politics in Othello occupies a private space in contrast to the public conflict in Antony and Cleopatra that spans two continents across the Mediterranean. Othello is a competent general, placed at a rank of honour above all white commanders and entrusted with the responsibility of leading the Venetian army and guarding the state. Othello demonstrates exceptional military prowess and hence is able to earn a name in the dominant white society. Even when his marriage to Desdemona becomes public, he is excused from banishment because the Venetians need him to protect the state from an imminent attack by a Turkish fleet. Politics of power come into play when the Machiavellian Iago’s jealousy sets into motion, the action of the play. He uses deception and guile to trick Othello and throw him off his seat of power. Othello has “honest” Iago spurring him on, making him believe that he’s a victim of cuckoldry until he is eventually overcome with “tyrannous hate” (III.iii.453) and murders his innocent wife.
The final theme underlying both plays is that of a tragic end. The element of Thanatos overcomes Antony who seems aware of the fact that his involvement with Cleopatra is fatal, but always says, “In the east my pleasure lies” (II.iii.39). This sense of escape from responsibility makes him weak in the face of Caesar and Lepidus. Once a great fighter with loyal troops, he lies fallen, his aggressive energy and violent destructive passion replaced with love. Antony’s self-confidence in military matters languishes. Almost everything in Antony’s defeat is attributed to his love for Cleopatra. He is unable to break himself from her and has to face the consequences of the defection of Cleopatra’s ships at sea. The tragedy in the play is not reserved only for Antony. Their cataclysmic love affair spans a vast geographical area – from Rome to Egypt. It results in a political turmoil across continents. Pompey’s attack on the triumvirate threatens the crux of Roman power. Cleopatra’s suicide renders the Egyptian seat of power vacant until her son Caesarion can effectively take over.
Othello’s case is the fall of a tragic hero. He is driven to do horrible things by a community of whites. His sexual and emotional self, expressed through his relationship with Desdemona, finally destroys him. In the final act he says to Lodovico, “Demand that demi-devil/ Why hath he ensnared my soul and body?” (V.ii.298-99). He himself can’t fathom the reason for his tragic predicament. Desdemona too, meets a tragic, untimely death at the hands of same lover for whom she flouted her father’s authority, and to whom she remained faithful throughout.
Othello is thus a domestic tragedy, but tackles highly important themes. Antony and Cleopatra’s fates are tied to key moments of world history.
To conclude, we can assert that both plays comprise the same potent themes of racist and sexist abuse, political turmoil and tragic downfall. The only difference lies in the private household affair of Othello and Desdemona versus the public love scandal of Antony and Cleopatra.