Saturday, December 22, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra

Remediating Cleopatra

The character Cleopatra, in William Shakespeare's “Antony and Cleopatra,” possesses a multitude of contradictions. Through constant clashes in speech and action, Shakespeare constructs a complex female character. Critic Anna Jameson refers to Cleopatra as “a brilliant antithesis—a compound of contradictions” (Quint 244). Jameson recognizes Shakespeare's “deep meaning and wonderous [sic] skill in the apparent enigma” of Cleopatra (244). Shakespeare remediates the stories of Plutarch and Genesis to give agency to his character. Through appropriation Shakespeare shapes his “literary forbears to new uses, enhancing,extending, or critiquing the meaning of the primary text” (Savu 22). Through remediation, Shakespeare emphasizes Cleopatra's sexual power, and shifts the image of the snake from a male to a female symbol of power, in order to give agency to Cleopatra in her suicide.

Shakespeare portrays Cleopatra as a sexually secure woman who employs her confidence in order to receive power. Cleopatra embodies a juxtaposition of love and lust. Enobarbus paradoxically describes Cleopatra's sexuality by his statements that “Age cannot wither her, not custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (II. ii. 244-7). She is portrayed as an addictive lover that causes insatiable sexual desire from her partners. Shakespeare depicts Cleopatra's sexuality so assertively to show her agency. Her domination and aggression with her lovers allows her to display dominance both in and out of the bedroom. She reminisces a tale of cross- dressing with one lover, her diver. She tells how she “drunk him to his bed, / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” ( II. v. 21-3). Shakespeare's description of this sexual escapade proves his desire to give Cleopatra agency. Her ability to test gender roles sexually transcends to political power. This example of Cleopatra acting like a man sexually, is crucial to exemplify her agency in all aspects of her life. She obtains her title as Queen of Egypt through her sexual power and manipulation. Julius Caesar declares her ruler because of their love affair, essentially giving her Egypt as a token of his affection. This lavish gift results in her being regarded as a “whore” as well as a “wrangling queen” by many Romans (I. i.50). This foreshadowing of Cleopatra's full autonomy will later support his allowance of her full agency in her suicide.

Another sexual element to the play is the use of snake imagery. Shakespeare reworks the story of Genesis into Cleopatra's death scene, most notably through the symbolism of the asp. While snakes are often associated with the phallus and refer to a male power, the symbolism of snakes surrounding Cleopatra reinforces the depiction of her as having both male and female power. She exhibits male power in that she has political power and female power through her sexuality. A story with a woman and a snake causes most readers to subconsciously draw on the biblical story of The Fall. Remediating Genesis, Shakespeare fashions Cleopatra as both the temptress Eve and the serpent. Eve's partnership with a serpent caused The Fall, and enslaved herself and all of humanity to a patriarchal order. Cleopatra on the other hand, freed herself from humiliation and oppression at the hands of Octavius Caesar. She is referred to as “your serpent of Egypt” by Lepidus to Antony (II. Vii. 26). Antony calls her “my serpent of old Nile” (I. v. 26). These constant associations of Cleopatra and snakes allows the two to become interchangeable. Common images of snakes, such as: a snake swallowing its tail and a snake's shedding of its skin, symbolize infinity and rebirth. The asp therefore stands both as the symbol of Cleopatra and the agent of her rebirth. Shakespeare used this imagery to tie together Cleopatra's sexual power and her message of agency in her suicide.

Cleopatra's agency and sexual power threatens the Romans. Her refusal to be immortalized as a whore by Octavius Caesar rather the a queen and descendant of Isis forces her to take her own life. She herself is theatrical to the end, though disgusted at the thought of actors portraying her and Antony as she is paraded through the streets of Rome. She imagines that “quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us” (Quint V. ii. 216-7). She believes the actors will portray Antony as a drunk and that a “squeaking Cleopatra boy” will play her “in the position of a whore” (V. ii. 220-1). Cleopatra sees suicide as an honorable end. Rather than submitting herself to the degradation planned by Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra asserts her independence in her lethal actions.

Through her death, she is reborn. Only through her death can she control her futures: her afterlife and how she will be historically remembered. The maternal image of her breastfeeding exemplifies Cleopatra's belief of becoming Antony's wife in the afterlife. The asp becomes her child; Cleopatra asks Charmian if she sees her “baby at [her] breast / that sucks the nurse asleep?” (V. ii. 306).

Again implementing the interchangeable images of Cleopatra and snake, Shakespeare reshapes the symbol of the snake swallowing its tail to give an image of Cleopatra feeding herself. Only her dying words bring the realization that she does indeed love Antony and was not his lover solely for political power. While she is being prepared and dressed by her handmaidens, she states “Methinks I hear Antony call” (V. ii. 280-1). She is not purely concerned with her death as a means to prevent her humiliation but as an action that will reconnect her with her lover. She calls out “Husband, I come!” (V. ii. 284). She looks to this union in the afterlife as a marriage. Through her death, the two lovers can now live as they wish in the afterlife. The voice given to Cleopatra by Shakespeare in her final scene counterpoints the image of the lustful queen with that of the loving wife. Her agency allows her to control her own outcome and preserve her honor. Cleopatra controlled her future and preserved her queenly virtue through her death.

Anna Jameson recognizes that “what is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction—its consistent inconsistency” (Quint 244). While this is true in the minor details of Cleopatra's daily life, she is consistent in being a powerful and assertive woman. Shakespeare forces a reader to recognize the constant building of the contradictions in order to fully appreciate the final contradiction of Cleopatra's suicide as an act of immortality. This agency exemplified in life and the act of her death can label this work a feminist remediation. Shakespeare gave Cleopatra agency by “refashioning one's predecessors [as a] key to understanding representation in earlier media” (Bolter, Grusin 49). By reworking two previously patriarchal stories with an emphasis on Cleopatra's agency, Shakespeare is able to give a character that allies with feminist ideals. This remediation allows for Cleopatra's suicide to be viewed as the honorable end she decided for herself, rather than have decided for her.

I, Tituba

Religious Persecution in Salem

Puritans emigrated to escape religious persecution in England. Settlers in North America built communities based on their religious standards. This “New England” would be established with emphasis on humble living and studying the Bible. All members of the community were expected to conform to the Puritan’s religion ideals. This included Native Americans and slaves. These conversions happened in different ways and were taken up by many Puritans in good faith to teach their beliefs. However, in Maryse Conde’s novel, I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem, Tituba becomes an example of what happened if one did not shed their own beliefs in order to adapt to the Puritan way of life through Christianity. Many Christian women (and men) were accused of witchcraft in Salem, but Tituba was at an even greater disadvantage than the other accused. Her race, sexuality, and spirituality made her even more vulnerable to claims of witchcraft.

Tituba obtains her knowledge of the spiritual world through Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya taught her “the prayers, the rites, and the propitiatory gestures…and then she taught [her] the sacrifices” (10). Tituba’s education in herbs and nature were not accepted by Christians, beginning with Susanna Endicott. When Tituba joins John Indian at the Endicott plantation, she is first confronted with the fact that her spirituality was unacceptable. John Indian convinces her to pretend to be a Christian.

John Indian rationalizes the “conversion” and confides that although he conforms to Puritan expectations of Christianity, he does not believe them. He states the importance of Christianity in this society and that “what matters for the slave is to survive. Repeat, my angel. You don’t think that I believe in their story of the Holy Trinity? One God in three distinct persons? But it doesn’t matter. You just need to pretend. Repeat!” (25). After many refusals by Tituba, she gives in to repeat the prayers but feel that “these words meant nothing to me. They had nothing in common with what Mama Yaya had taught me (25-6). These statements by Tituba provide insight into the duality of religion in Tituba life. While keeping personal spiritual beliefs to herself, such as communicating with her mother and Mama Yaya, she must outwardly adhere to the Christian expectations of Salem.

The expectation of Tituba to conform to Christian ideals is expected also by Samuel Parris. But when he catches Tituba and John Indian having sex, his proclamation that “as long as you are under my roof you will behave as Christians. Come and say your prayers” is more of an expectation toward Puritanism than Christianity (41). This particular scene exemplifies the hypocrisy of Puritanism more fully. While the Puritan settlers follow so closely the words of the Bible, sex is frowned upon. However, Tituba and John Indian are married and yet Samuel Parris still does not approve of their lovemaking. Tituba engages freely with her sexuality, rather than suppress it, like Christians, especially Puritans were expected to do.

Her sexuality and spirituality are most intertwined when she decides to abort her pregnancy. Her knowledge of herbs makes possible the termination. She loves John Indian but rationalizes that this eventual child will be subject to oppression and slavery. Her outlook is logical rather than based on Christian ideals.

The accusations of witchcraft that sprang up and started hysteria were based on outlandish fabrications and gossip. The practices that many of the accused, including Tituba, partook in were merely their non-Christian beliefs. Whether pagan, voodoo, or relying on herbs rather than prayer, anyone not conforming to the Puritan ideals of Christianity were outcast. The spiritual zealousness of the settlers created a state of paranoia to rid their village of anyone not following their particular brand of Christianity. So in turn the exclusion and accusations that they so recently faced in their home country of England they were now inflicting on those around them. The hypocrisy of the situation makes the frenzy of witch hunting absurd. Puritans changed their roles from oppressed to oppressor and brought religious persecution to New England in the form of the witch hunt.

Wole Soyinka’s Feminist Awakening

Wole Soyinka’s Feminist Awakening

Wole Soyinka’s autobiography, Ake: the Years of Childhood, tells of a Nigerian boy’s daily life before and during World War II. His story originally focuses around his household and school, but becomes more emotionally intense as the story of his childhood progresses. This progression is not only because he is growing older, but because he has been given a political foundation from which to actively process and engage with his surroundings. He notices changes around him, specifically regarding women. Soyinka is fascinated by the unrest of the village women regarding taxes and integrates himself in the cause. Soyinka’s foundation for politics may have been laid by his father, but it is his mother’s feminist activities that seize him. The evolution presented is one of feminist awakening.

Soyinka’s assumption of privilege is not a learned trait but rather an inborn characteristic. When Tinu gets up for school, Wole “demand[s] [his] bath at the same time” and when his sister leaves with her escort he does not “watch” them go but rather “let[s] them leave” (24). The jarring vocabulary he chooses to express his superiority to his sister at the beginning of the novel gives insight to his personality. Also his defiance of submission regarding being bathed paints him as a stubborn child. This personal description of his assumptions and actions are tools used by Soyinka to establish a point of reference regarding his enlightenment.

Soyinka assumes male privilege regarding the bedroom he shares with his father. He questions what his “sister felt about it all, unable to enjoy the intimacy which I derived from my privileged position in father’s bedroom. Dipo was still a baby. Since he was a boy, I expected that he would later join me in our room; that seemed only right” (79). Soyinka believes that the division of bedrooms based on sex is logical and that the bedroom he shares with Essay is not to be accessed by women. He is offended when his sister interrupts him while he is performing his father’s morning calisthenics. Wole is appalled that “Lawanle had just come in” and feels that “the intrusion was unpardonable” (82). He goes on to describe that “I sensed, not battle, but demarcation lines being drawn, yet even these required a measure of defiance which escalated every day. I would deny it to myself, yet I knew that it was taking place” (81). Soyinka expresses the tension felt within his family by his assumption of himself as a man, when in fact he is only around (what he claims is) three years old at this time.

His sense of entitlement is challenged first by Lawanle and then by his mother. Soyinka felt that “Lawanle’s words had merely increased the unease which was lately surreptitiously transmitted to me-those sentences that began on mother’s tongue, but were never completed. The fleeting disapproval of some privilege extended to me by Essay” (83). Wole continues to test his parent’s limits and finds “Essay’s bedroom door somehow got mysteriously locked and the key was missing. I grew restless, and it seemed the normal order of things” (81). Wild Christian moves Wole to the communal sleeping mat in order for her son to understand his “place” in the hierarchical order of the family. This move is necessary because Wole needs to identify himself as a child in the family; not view himself as privileged.

Essay agrees with the Wild Christian’s change of sleeping arrangements, as Essay and Wild Christian have an egalitarian marriage. As the novel progresses much insight is given to their relationship. The support each other in their endeavors and Wild Christian often seeks Essay’s advice regarding her political activities. For example, “she and Essay would discuss her tactics on the immediate problem and a further strategy for resolving it definitively in favour of the victimized women” (186). Wild Christian’s independence and intolerance of injustice gives Wole a strong female role model. The relationship between his parents also institutes the importance of equality in him.

Wole begins to tag along to his mother’s meetings of The Group. Wild Christian’s interest in helping the women of her community becomes ingrained in her son. He helps by educating some of the pupils who come to attend these meetings. His statement that “I accidentally became a proud teacher at those pre-meeting sessions” expresses his intellectual and emotional growth (181). His integration with these women helps him form political opinions outside the ones Essay and his friends discuss. At The Group he hears about feminist concerns regarding “hygiene, community development, [and] self-help programmes,” but most specifically their problems with the Tax Officers (180-1). Soyinka built relationships with the women pupils and “saw them waylaid by the adana, forced to disgorge a portion of their merchandise at the gates of Abeokuta, after carrying them an inhuman distance” (184). By seeing firsthand the effects of the taxation on the women he sees the true burdens they face.

What begins for Wole as an “immediate outrage against my own prize pupils” changes when he learns they “could no longer come early to their lessons because of the taxman’s harassment” (184). He personally relates to the situation at hand rather than analyzing it from a distance as he does in discussions with his father. Wole makes “up [his] mind that when [he grows] up, no khakied official [is] going to extract one penny in tax from [his] hard-earned salary” (184). Based on the women’s problems with the taxman, he makes his own personal decision regarding taxes.

The consciousness-raising of The Group intensifies when Kemberi questions Mrs. Ransome-Kuti about the tax collections. Kemberi asks:

“What are we going to do about it? You said, teach them ABC; we have been doing that. And we also said to them, give your children a clean home, and strain every bone in your body to give them a good education. And they have been doing that. It is because of these children that they refuse to sit at home, waiting for some idle drunkard of a husband to learn the same lesson. After all, the women of Egbaland are not unaccustomed to hard work…Now these same women are telling us that they can no longer come here freely. The streets of Egba are blocked by the very people against whom we have tried to give them protection. Tax! Tax on what? What is left after the woman has fed children, put school uniform on his back and paid his school fees? Just what are they taxing?”(183). The passionate outrage of the women as a result of this speech is the point of Soyinka’s feminist awakening. His subsequent excitement results in his immersion in what becomes the Egba Women’s Union. He along with the women of The Group are moved by the speech. This political activism by Kemberi is internalized by Wole and he becomes more interested in their concerns regarding taxation.

Wole experiences the Women’s Movement closely because Wild Christian’s shop becomes The Group’s headquarters. He relishes his time spent at the shop and later is given the role of “Special Courier, moving swiftly between Igbein and Ake, the shop” (198). Soyinka embeds himself in the action. By being so closely exposed to the goings on of The Group he sees the continued need for their meetings. His exposure to the women’s needs raises his awareness of the particular problems that plague the women around him. Aside from the lessons at the meetings the problem of taxation is especially cumbersome. Wole internalizes the women’s struggle and fully includes himself in The Group.

The women eventually march to the palace to make their demands. As a bystander / member of The Group, Soyinka experiences the situation from the side of the women. The Balogun “decide[s] to assert his manhood authority” to the crowd of women (212). His sexist demands of “Go on, go home and mind your kitchens and feed your children. What do you know about the running of state affairs? Not pay tax indeed! What you need is a good kick on your idle rumps” is met with obvious disapproval by the women, but it is through Wole’s description of the events that his passion for the matter at hand is felt (212). The glee with which he describes Beere’s response and the Balogun’s fall shows his bias to the situation at hand. He does not side with the Balogun merely because they are of the same sex, but instead he supports the injustice of taxation on the women.

The baby’s birth at the palace is a metaphor for the ongoing struggle of women. Soyinka claims that “nothing could have happened of such a profound propitiousness as the birth of the child-and a female!” (217). The fact that the child is a girl makes the birth all the more triumphant to the women gathered. Soyinka can barely contain his excitement that “it was nearly my first chance to watch a live birth” (217). Although he was chased off from watching the birth and the excitement died down at the palace, Soyinka was still engaged in the Women’s Movement, albeit with a much calmer demeanor.

In conversations with Daodu, Soyinka is able to apply the oppression faced by the women to the oppression of Nigeria as a whole. The conversations he has with Essay and Daodu establish a discourse on the different types of oppression. Daodu emphasizes the importance of awareness to Wole. He tells him that “ you must take an interest? Don’t just stick your nose in that dead book you are reading” (228). Daodu doesn’t want Wole to sit back and watch events unfold, but to take actions himself.

The book’s ending emphasizes the intellectual growth of Wole. While learning to not accept any forms of oppression by the government, Wole adheres to the acceptable oppression of youth. He accepts his role in the hierarchy of his family, with his parents and elders being his superiors.

Soyinka’s involvement with his mother’s activities gives him knowledge of a world he would not have known had he stayed in his father’s metaphorical bedroom. His assumption of privilege may have led him to believe, as the Germans etc., that oppression was acceptable. The action of moving Wole to the communal mat was an action for a greater good. Because of her feminist consciousness, Wild Christian allows her son to see the world through a more compassionate and feminist lens. Soyinka’s feminist awakening is emphasized by how he chooses to describe himself at the beginning of his autobiography. Without the points of reference about his stubborn childhood, his intellectual growth has no comparison. His involvement in the social and political revolution in Ake gives him firsthand experience with oppressive forces. Soyinka is now equipped with the knowledge of sexist and economic forms of oppression. His immersion into the problems and the fights against them, gives him the background and experience to fight other forms of oppression.