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.