Study Guide

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Gender

By William Shakespeare

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Cleopatra: woman, queen, goddess. Isn't it strange that the Ancient Egyptians had a female head of state thousands of years ago, but we still have yet to see a female president lead the United States? Hmm…

Cleopatra is argued to be one of Shakespeare’s most fully developed female characters ever. As a woman in power, she's unique from the get-go, and the play constantly questions whether gender identity is a central part of how people act in powerful positions. Masculine identity is equally at stake, as we have to wonder whether Antony forsakes his masculinity by allowing Cleopatra to be the commander of his heart.

Gender identity is at the core of the play. Antony and Cleopatra are in love because they are the quintessential man and the quintessential woman, but it could be that the strength of their relationship erodes their respective sexual identities (Cleopatra becoming more masculine, and Antony more feminine). This change alone might be the one that presages their downfalls.

Questions About Gender

  1. Is there a reversal of gender roles in the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra? How does this inform the power politics in the military conflict of the play?
  2. Is Cleopatra a prototypical female character? How is she similar or different from Shakespeare’s other female characters in Antony and Cleopatra as well as his other plays?
  3. Is Cleopatra’s power over Antony rooted in her strong sexuality? Why is he so excited about Cleopatra when everything about her is so different from the Roman tradition of austerity?

Chew on This

Cleopatra is attractive to Antony because she is in a position of power. For all her feminine charm, the only reason she’s a really remarkable woman is that she has power as the Queen of Egypt. This political position informs Antony’s romantic interest in her.

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