In the image above, Constance Collier, magnificent as the dying Cleopatra, sits on her throne in a dimly-lit room, light sparkling off her crown, belt and spangled train. This 1906-07 London production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is considered a high point in the stage history of that play, with director/actor Herbert Beerbohm-Tree sparing no expense in creating spectacular sets and costumes.
Collier later wrote in her memoir, “There is only a mention in the play of Cleopatra appearing as the goddess Isis. Tree elaborated this into a great tableau . . . Cleopatra, robed in silver, crowned in silver, carrying a golden scepter and the symbol of the sacred golden calf in her hand, went in procession through the streets of Alexandria, the . . . screaming populace acclaiming the Queen, half in hate, half in superstitious fear and joy.”
Shakespeare scholar René Weis calls her “a queen-of-the-night Constance Collier,” and describes this production as “deeply operatic . . . as much Magic Flute as Antony and Cleopatra.” Weis refers here to the majestic, mysterious character of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s beloved opera The Magic Flute, which takes place in ancient Egypt. (The opera premiered in Vienna in 1791, shortly before Mozart’s death.)
To reduce Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to the divine resplendence of Collier’s portrayal though would be to miss out on her many complexities as a character. At times seductive, childlike, fierce, fearful, and brave, she fascinates not only her lover Antony but the audience as well.
Nineteenth-century writers and artists had to deal with her sensuality in an age that valued women’s modesty. Anna Jameson, writing on Shakespeare’s heroines in 1832, praised her “mental accomplishments, . . . her woman’s wit and woman’s wiles . . . her magnificent spirit . . . the gorgeous eastern coloring of the character.” “What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra, is its antithetical construction–its consistent inconsistency . . . ,” she wrote. Jameson both admired but distanced herself and her audience from this woman, reminding them that Cleopatra is a historical figure, and that the morality she represents is not that of the modern [i.e. Victorian] age.
Not surprisingly, the French novelist George Sand, who lived an unconventional life herself as the mistress of pianist Frederic Chopin, appreciated the character of Cleopatra. A woman given to her own freedom of expression, both sexually and socially, Sand wrote of Cleopatra in 1840, “in the moral order, she represents pure passion; in the historic order, pure tyranny,” and she admired the mixture.
Kenny Meadows, whose versions of Cleopatra appeared as illustrations to both Jameson’s and Sand’s essays, compromised in his representations of the Egyptian queen in two “Galleries” of Shakespeare heroines. While the facial types depicted are drawn from Victorian ideas of beauty and could pass for any number of women, Meadows makes various attempts to suggest exoticism in the dress. He moves from a well-corseted if sensuous beauty in his first attempt (c. 1836) to a seductive closeup with a snake bracelet entwining her bare arm, in his second (c.1848).
William Waterhouse’s Cleopatra painted around 1887 is an entirely different creature from her predecessors. She is the “new woman” of the period, gazing out under dark sultry brows – the sophisticated seductress, “serpent of Old Nile.” On the stage, her “sisters” were the Cleopatras of Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, and Constance Collier. Bernhardt’s style in Sardou’s popular French play Cléopâtre (1890) no doubt influenced that of the Shakespearean stage productions.
Shakespeare’s text was giving way under the spectacle of scenery, costume, music, and even ballet, but after the First World War in the 1920’s there was a new focus on Shakespeare’s words in productions staged by William Bridges-Adams at Stratford and Harcourt Williams at the Old Vic. Extravagant staging and costumes now reappeared in film, notably Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Meanwhile on stage, Judi Dench performed one of the great Cleopatras of the twentieth century in the 1987 National Theatre production directed by Peter Hall. The Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington wrote: “Dench gave us a Cleopatra whose sexuality stemmed from her volatility, intelligence and wit: a woman of infinite variety who was enthralling company.”
Shirine Babb was a Cleopatra for our own time in the Folger’s 2017 production directed by Robert Richmond. Babb said of Cleopatra that she was first a political figure who would put herself on the line for her people, and only after that a lover. She saw Cleopatra’s complexity coming from the fact that she enters a relationship with Antony with a political agenda which eventually leads to love. Her costumes seen here suggest both the lover and the ruler – a true twenty-first century woman.
William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Folger Digital Texts.
William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, “Shakespeare in Production,” ed. Richard Madelaine (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Constance Collier, Harlequinade: The Story of My Life (London: Bodley Head, 1929).
René Weis, “The Play in Performance,” in Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Emrys Jones, “Penguin Shakespeare” (London: Penguin Books, 2005.
Georgianna Ziegler, Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1997).