It is tempting to see something masculine in the powerful women of Renaissance tragedy, to hold apart those who break the norm of submissive femininity in their refusal to be passive victims. Yet this view is hindered by its assumptions of masculine and feminine behaviour, in which the men are the figures of authority and power and women the silent, disenfranchised sufferers, and femininity is defined primarily as being “Other”. Obvious problems arise with this categorisation when the source of power – the rulers and monarchs – are women, as with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Calantha of John Ford’s The Broken Heart. These women are neither masculine nor feminine in the stereotypical sense. In their consciousness of this system of labelling, they are able to manipulate and therefore resist containment within it; they place themselves outside of the dichotomy, identifying themselves with neither side, but rather sometimes as both and almost always as more.

There is no denying Cleopatra’s femininity; her character in Shakespeare’s play is shaped in part by “an ancient tradition that conceived the fabled Egyptian queen in distinctly female terms.”[1] The Romans depicted her as the “harlot queen”; to Boccaccio she was “an object of gossip for the whole world” in terms of her beauty, her free sexuality, and her desire for power and wealth. She is deceptive and immoral, seducing Antony as one would catch a fish (“Ah ha, you’re caught!” II.v.15), and her actions corrupt this once noble warrior into a life of debauchery, at least in the eyes of the Romans. The criticism levelled at Cleopatra is nothing the women of the Renaissance would not recognise: her dangerous female sexuality is available for all to see as she revels in masturbatory fantasies and sexual innuendo, she declares before everyone, “O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony” (I.v.21). Swayed often and suddenly by her emotions, Cleopatra appears to be the Renaissance stereotype of the dangerous female.

Yet Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is not merely an extension of this tradition: her femininity is inescapable because she is performing stereotypes – “the seductress, the shrew, the catty gossip” – with a degree of both exaggeration and self-consciousness, as though “presenting herself in quotation marks.”[2] Instead of rejecting outright society’s expectations of her function and character, she embraces the feminine role, affirming the inherent subordination, but then uses it to elude that subordination. Enobarbus relates the lovers’ first meeting as a marvellous feat of seeming (II.ii.200-42): the frequent use of simile reinforces the idea that she evades definition, even at the level of language.[3] Her frankness about performing roles reinforces the impossibility of capturing the “true” Cleopatra; she even goes so far as to coach Antony in acting: “I prithee, turn aside and weep or her, | Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears | Belong to Egypt” (I.iii.77-9). This performativity does not make her masculine, but her consciousness of the expectations of femininity and her ability to appropriate them when it suits means she exists outside of the system. Just as she fist “beggared all description” (II.ii.208), Cleopatra exists in the gap between speech and comprehension, able to escape the limitations of the controlled and subjugated position of “woman”.

Ford’s women are as aware of feminine stereotypes as Cleopatra, though his characters strenuously reject rather than embrace these expectations. Instead of adopting Cleopatra’s method, Penthea and Calantha choose to embody feminine virtue to elude subordination, making sure to place themselves above and apart from other women. Penthea decries any “thought | Of female change” (II.ii.55-6) and Calantha “draws an explicit boundary between herself and those ‘mere women’ whose Niobe-like tears conceal their ability to survive the death of loved ones (V.iii.72).”[4] Rather than rail against the male figures who have caused her suffering – Ithocles for dictating her marriage, and Bassanes for his cruelty – Penthea chooses the passivity of starvation. Furthermore, this can be read as a rejection of the stereotypical view of female sexuality: fasting is a rejection of the appetite and early modern conduct manuals promoted abstaining from food in order to tame “excessive feminine sexuality.”[5] It would be easy to see these women as the ultimate victims of misogyny, starving and subjugated by the opinions and attitudes of their controlling male counterparts.

This is not, however, the case: though she cannot influence her position as Cleopatra does, Penthea embraces her feminine role and uses it to undermine male efforts to control her. In her suffering, she embodies the stereotype of the virtuous woman, especially in regards to sexual license, but at the same time this waif-like woman is a visible reproach to the system of misogyny that constructed her. Not only does Bassanes falter before Penthea’s “determined purity”, but Orgilus, her erstwhile lover, calls to her, “I would possess my wife; the equity | Of very reason bids me” (II.ii.71-2), but Penthea answers his attempts at “reason” with a stricter and purer understanding of “the laws of ceremonious wedlock” (II.iii.54). In accordance with early modern understandings of marriage, she is formally connected to both Orgilus and Bassanes, and, though her heart belongs to Orgilus, her body belongs to Bassanes; she gives no hope to Orgilus of being together, but rather returns with her own reproach:

               Rash man. Thou layest

A blemish on mine honour, with the hazard

Of thy too desperate life. Yet I profess,

I have not given admittance to one thought

Of female change since cruelty enforced

Divorce betwixt my body and my heart


She criticises Orgilus here for failing to “respect their society’s misogynistic ideal of virtuous behaviour”[6] and instead continues in her culturally sanctioned model of virtue, starving herself. As a result of the double bind of belonging –on some level – to both Orgilus and Bassanes, Penthea chooses to identify herself as belonging to no-one, her self-abnegation demonstrating a belief that she doesn’t even belong to herself. In utterly denying herself, Penthea embodies the masculinist discourse that promotes her subjugation: her suffering is directly equated to her obedience to the system, forcing the men around her to watch as she slowly dies in the pursuit of their idea of feminine virtue.

It is equally important to acknowledge the times when, in both Antony and Cleopatra and The Broken Heart, the female characters identify themselves with stereotypically masculine traits. For Cleopatra, this serves to further the idea that she is indefinable, a character that resists identity of any form. Her costume exchange with Antony their first night together is often interpreted as an appropriation of masculine symbols, adopted in order to demonstrate Cleopatra’s dominant position in the relationship: “I drunk him to his bed, | Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst | I wore his sword Philippan” (II.v.21-3). Yet Cleopatra, the actress, does not assume the masculine stance uncritically: her behaviour is parodic, “her Omphalic transformation/castration” of Antony makes a mockery of the code of sexual difference and the “masculine prestige in which Rome has such a stake”.[7] Just as she plays at being a woman, Cleopatra plays at being a man, resulting once again in her existence outside the normal system of definition.

Princess Calantha set herself apart from other women as Penthea before her, but she consistently refuses to relinquish power over herself to men. She associates her fortitude in the face of threefold death with masculinity rather than feminine virtue:

               Be such mere women, who with shrieks and outcries

Can vow a present end to all their sorrows,

Yet live to vow new pleasures, and outlive them.


Throughout the play, she, unlike Penthea, has “consistently refused to relinquish power over herself”[8] either to men or women, chiding Penthea’s boldness at demanding she marry Ithocles or be the cause of his death (III.v.85-94). Calantha realises that Sparta, like Shakespeare’s Rome “cannot brooke | A feminate authority” (V.iii.11-12), and ostensibly asks her council to choose a husband for her to fulfil the national need for “princes | Of masculine and stirring composition” (V.iii.6-7). It is not just she who destroys her authority by parcelling out her kingdom to various men, but her nation’s insistence on masculine power also; male authority is privileged, and the gender norms of Spartan society cannot, as the fluid East of Shakespeare’s play can, imagine a woman as anything other than absolutely feminine, either in virtue or vice. She cannot continue as she is, masculine and feminine but neither, unmarried and married but neither, so she is destroyed. The final “Crack, crack” (V.iii.77) is therefore very fitting – a moment which destroys her, whilst simultaneously affirming her authority over herself and her life. Unlike Cleopatra, she does not thwart masculine attempts at control, but succumbs to it, unable to negotiate her identity within a misogynistic society.

Ultimately, Cleopatra escapes the destruction experienced by Calantha by sublimating her sex rather than erasing or embracing it. What is compelling in Cleopatra’s character is not her ability to offer Antony an Egyptian identity to replace his Roman one, but rather the offer an escape from identity altogether, as she herself has mastered.[9] Cleopatra stands not in diametrical opposition to Caesar, Rome, and masculinity, but rather refuses to work within the binary system altogether, existing instead in the linguistic and logical gaps of the play and, as Enobarbus puts it, “beggar[ing] all description” (II.ii.198). Cleopatra, argues Irene Dash, offers a model for women functioning with self-sovereignty as complete people in a world, not sexless, but operating outside the oppressive binary of gender, where “true mutuality might exist between men and women.”[10] She is able to do so because she is consistently located “at the juncture where categories collide and cannot comprehend one another”:[11]

               …she did make defect perfection,

And, breathless, pour breath forth.

…Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies; for vilest things

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests

Bless her when she is riggish.

(II.ii.241-2, 246-50)

Defect/perfection, satiety/hunger, vileness/holiness – her identity is a refusal of identity, signifying beyond itself into thousands of role she could play. The “squeaking boy” could never represent her, the unrepresentable woman, and yet it is through the squeaking boy that she refuses his representation of her.

Jospeh Mankiewicz’s 1963 film Cleopatra offers an astounding misreading of the Egyptian queen’s suicide. Rather than a demonstration of royalty, Mankiewicz’s  Cleopatra is domesticated, declaring “I will wear – I want to be as Antony first saw me. He must know at once, and from a great distance, that it is I.” This is a drastic departure from the self-empowering, regal speech of Shakespeare’s play:

               My resolution’s placed and I have nothing

Of woman in me. Now from head to foot

I am marble-constant. Now the fleeting moon

No planet is of mine.


She is not, as it may seem, admitting that her gender is the root of all her faults (something the Romans have charged her with all along) and rejecting femininity. Her sex is still prominent in this final scene, where the “stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch | Which hurts and is desired” (V.ii.294-5) and the asp at her breast is likened to a baby – Cleopatra is not dismissing her sex, but rather sublimating it to the idea of an identity beyond the reach of the constrictive binary. She is transforming herself into a being beyond change, beyond the misogynistic accusations inherent in accepting the label “woman”. Her death is the only defeat Caesar suffers in the play, tricking him at first into believing she wants to live, and then arranging her “spectacular death that changes what was to be his triumph into hers.”[12] This is her final paradox: Caesar is victorious and reigns supreme everywhere, but Cleopatra constructs herself outside of this world, beyond the “fleeting moon” of mankind. What Caesar has tried to “exploit and subdue escapes him utterly, and, at the last, mocks the limitations of his power.”[13]

Cleopatra’s ability to play with expectations and define herself outside of the standard cultural systems of representation is the ultimate triumph, the hopeful note in amongst the tragedy. Regarding her as an actress playing roles is not an attempt to reclaim the female identity from the misogyny of the Renaissance period or the tragic tradition, but rather an attempt to demonstrate that power may be found in the in-between spaces of society. The women of these plays are more than aware of gender as a performance, utilising stereotypes to different effect. But whilst Calantha dies to demonstrate the destructive power of rigid gender norms, of the role society has chosen for her, Cleopatra’s death is a triumph of self-definition which upholds her defiance of the binary, misogynistic system.

[1] Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women, (Oxford: 2005): 92

[2] Carol Cook, “The Fatal Cleopatra” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, (Bloomington: 1996): 252

[3] Rackin: 86

[4] Roberta Barker, “Death and the Married Maiden: Performing Gender in The Broken Heart”, in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2004):.70

[5] Barker: 81

[6] ibid: 77

[7] Cook: 253

[8] Barker: 83

[9] Cook: 246

[10] Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays, (New York: 1981}: 246

[11] Cook: 252

[12] Rackin: 83

[13] Cook: 264-5