Of women and valor: Masqueraded Cleopatra and Rosalind

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 8 March 2016

Kanika Sahijwani

Joan Kelly in 1977 initiated a radical feminist rethinking on and revaluation of the Renaissance with her now classic essay, ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’ Kelly’s empathetic pronouncement, ‘there was no renaissance for women, at least not during renaissance’ directly challenged Burckhardt’s thesis that during renaissance in Italy, ‘women stood on a footing of perfect equality for men’ and that ‘the same intellectual and emotional development which perfected the same was demanded for the perfect of the women.’

Stephen Greenblatt in his book Renaissance Self Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare discussed in great detail the concept of identity in manners that met the socially acceptable standards. There are certain structures that validate the public persona in literature. The family, state and religious institutions impose rigid strictures and socially acceptable modes of conduct on classes below them. This heightened awareness of existence of alternative modes of society and hierarchy along with the dedication to negate the same, constituted some of the many changes Renaissance witnessed:

​“Social actions are themselves always embedded in systems of public signification, always grasped, even by their-makers, in acts of interpretation, while the words that constitute the works of literature that we discuss here are by their very nature the manifest assurance of a similar embeddedness… Language, like other sign systems, is a collective construction; our interpretive task must be to grasp more sensitively the consequences of this fact by investigating both the social presence to the world of the literary text and the social presence of the world in the literary text.”

My attempt here will be to bring out the stark contrast in the socially acceptable notions of Self Fashioning and rule-defiance, by two of Shakespeare’s very famous heroines – Cleopatra and Rosalind.

Antony and Cleopatra is played out against wider horizons of ideals that mark unusual departure from the normal patterns of Shakespearean tragedy. Cleopatra is so strong and bold a character that modern critics compare her with Marilyn Monroe and Mona Lisa. She delights in the fact that she caught Antony as a fish. She is not only the queen of Egypt, but also a great dramatist. Regardless of whether her audience is her handmaid or the Emperor of Rome, Cleopatra always offers the best quality performance. Her emotions are as volatile as a volcano and being the clever woman she is, she makes best use of her womanly vile to bewitch Antony or any ruler wanting to capture Egypt.

Much has been said about her being a “strumpet”, which is rather strange. Having zero roles to play in politics or being allowed in the public sphere, women were confined to the four walls construing home. Love and beauty for women, too have been glorified in Courtly Poetry and by the Poets in the Society, “limiting it to a mere outward ceremony” in the words of Greenblatt. To the readers dismay, the fact that putting women on a pedestal while what happens in the real life is in absolute contrast to their immortalized love brings out the latent hypocrisy and undulating paradox of what goes inside a man’s heart and mind. This patriarchal hypocrisy is so stark that a man was acknowledged and considered intelligent to marry a woman of a wealthy family. Throughout langsyne, Kings have married women for their parental acquisitions. However, when a queen does the same, scathing attacks are entailed from all nooks and corners of the world thereby deeming her characterless.

According to Enobarbus, Cleopatra’s talent for transforming the “vilest things” into things of beauty, and for overturning entire systems of morality so that the priests alter their understanding of what is holy and what is sinful, is Cleopatra’s greatest strength. She is both the regal, incomparable and beautiful seductress of Enobarbus’ speech and the spoiled, petty tyrant who beats her servant for delivering bad news. This flaw is soon corrected when she offers an apology to the lower class servant, also acknowledging her mistake and publically making up for it, only highlights the previously mentioned volatility of her character that cools down- just as fast as it heats up.

Cleopatra is thoroughly rebuked by Antony and some critics when she chooses to run away from the war. Pratima Agnihotri in her essay ‘A Lass Unparalleled: Understanding Cleopatra’ brings out the fact that Cleopatra cannot “unpeople” Egypt. :

As a queen of Egypt, she has to keep its interests at heart, too! Examples can be multiplied. Since it is to say that to win over the “doting mallard” and the “gentle madam, the “most dear queen” she has to plan out the ruses and subterfuges. And, moreover, get the blame for centuries for all her troubles, given the canonical status of the great Shakespeare!

Akin to all tragedies, there is a conflict between passion and reason. The pleasure principles- the oriental lavitas and the reality principles – Roman gravitas along with Cleopatra’s gender renders her politically unacceptable but sexually acceptable. She makes this weakness her biggest strength and uses her infinite variety and female charm to be the oriental goddess who ensnares her devotees to her cult:
“The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry,
where most she satisfies” (Enobarbus)

In the first four acts, she plays the lover and the queen. In the last act which is fully dedicated to her, do we see the layers of interpretation of her character that Shakespeare has so carefully weaved. She is now a mother who is threatened by Caesar’s ill-will. She rebukes herself for being responsible for the war ravaged Egypt but is “a lass unparalleled” for even in her death, she dies dressed in her beautiful clothes and crown on her head; with snakes caressing her and giving her a painless, serene death. She is no longer the strumpet when she exclaims, “Husband, here I come!” She is Antony’s better half, his equal. Despite gauging her traits and supremacy as a better Machiavellian ruler, Shakespeare couldn’t have made this clear in any way better when he ends the play that she loves the general, although her loyalties can sometimes be misplaced.

Greenblatt believed that “fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions, family, religion, state-were in-separately intertwined… whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and the ideological system of the force.”

Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a comic play which raises serious issues that mirror the Elizabethan court. Primogeniture, pastoralism, brotherhood, the evergreen theme of passion v/s reason and love is some of the many themes the play deals with. The arousal of intense, purposeless pleasure against any societal background is usually a confirmation of existing values and established selves. Rosalind, the heroine of the play seems to embody all the virtues of a Renaissance woman only to defy them all as her character switches into Ganymede.

Rosalind is calm, witty, warm and angelic. Being the daughter of a Duke, although banished, she acts the way she is born to- authoritatively. Hers is a bold character that gets things going without being deemed as condescending or over-bearing. “The people praise her for her virtues,” Le Beau informs us (I.ii.291); her goodness and especially her ability to calmly endure misfortune are confirmed by Duke Frederick (I.iii.79-84).
The playwright has so intricately sketched her character which is witty while in Celia’s company, judgmental and praiseworthy around Jacque and Touchstone, and charming around Orlando. She is calculative and intelligent to realize that circumstances are a result of one’s own thoughts and sadness shouldn’t prevail for long. She gives away her sorrow about banishment and exclaims, “From henceforth I will [be merry], coz, and devise sports”.

Rosalind has been regarded as the ideal romantic heroine but it is Ganymede, a man’s version of a woman that she defies all codes of conduct. Cross dressing undermined normative behavior for both the sexes and challenged male chauvinism. The dress code becomes a means of maintaining hierarchy of men over ‘the other sex’. With cross dressing, Rosalind breaks free the typical and ideal image of Renaissance woman. The ‘petticoat’ is now clothed with courage and she takes a step further when she woos lover Orlando, thereby subverting the social construction of women that confine them to passive social roles in a society. Payal Khanna says, “Rosalind uses her double-gender identity for taking greater freedom otherwise denied to her. She not only urges Orlando to woo her but also arranges a mock marriage with him in Celia’s presence.”

Remarkable is the playwright when he makes Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, playing Rosalind helps Orlando practice to please her, while she brings into limelight the petty affairs women are associated with- their whims and fancies, jealousy and frivolous rebukes over what when denied to them (IV.i.138-148):

“Men are April when they woo, December when
they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but
the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more
jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his
hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain,
more newfangled than an ape, more giddy in my
desires than a monkey. I will weep for nothing, like
Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you
are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen,
and that when thou art inclined to sleep.”

Rosalind, from the heroine of her play soon becomes the author of her own drama. Her destiny rests completely in her hands sorely owing to the fact that she has bravely escaped the clutches of societal strictures that value hegemony over freedom of expression. The courtly tradition of love, too is challenged as Phebe is unimpressed by Silvius’ declarations of love and falls for Ganymede instead.

Imperative to outline is Shakespeare’s thoughts behind writing a comedy and addressing grave issues of the Elizabethan England. His vigilant amalgamation is of this romantic comedy with trades of tragedy, a community within a community that is court life in the pastoral world that leaves traces of romance and exuberance in times of tumult where primogeniture is the backdrop and still sticking to one’s destiny which circumvents back to their real identity and picture perfect happy ending.

The question still remains – why did Shakespeare choose to differ? Was it because he had a sister and he saw the world through her lens, thereby giving her heroines the power they deserved but were denied? Is it path breaking feminism whose seeds he bore? Or is he doing this as using an oriental woman – Cleopatra, he is safeguarding himself from rebukes of the court and church while maintaining that Cleopatra is path breaking, but always ‘the other’? All this while also keeping in mind that women were debarred from acting in the theatres. So Rosalind and Cleopatra, however mighty and unconventional, were, in fact, played by men disguised as women.

Romance, pastoralism, orientalism and brotherhood are no longer trivialities as against a frivolous tragedy or comedy. These issues become so representative of the entire Elizabethan England while half the population is denied of equality and liberty. Cleopatra and Rosalind – masqueraded in crowns and manly courage become the inspiration for others to follow while it leaves readers a message that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Clothes may change and so many moods, but those who have the courage to strive through for a better future will steer clear the obstructions that plague the way be it against gender or war.

Kanika Sahijwani is a student of Literature at University of Delhi and is working on starting up an organisation to support women with disabilities.


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