Martial Cleopatra and the remasculation of Antony

James W. Stone


Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra hold out the promise of androgyny, of two lovers who defy the straitjacketed gender expectations imposed by Roman masculinism. The lovers die for their temerity in preferring love to war, but their deaths resist all efforts of Roman triumphalism to co-opt them as trophies. Cleopatra’s defiance of Caesar’s masculinism finds its triumph in a phoenix-like self-immolation, by which desire renews itself and its object, impossibly, at the moment of death. Cleopatra is the outside-the-law that ruptures the Roman legal claim to sexual and juridical order, even as that claim seeks to secure its foundation in opposition to the likes of Cleopatra. Antony is caught in the middle between the laws of his Roman heritage and the Egyptian pleasure that offers to free him from historical embeddedness. The temptations of such pleasure, obsessively figured in this play in terms of dissolving the integral self in water (liquefaction), threaten the integrity of his proper name, ‘Antony’. Cleopatra makes of ‘Antony’ something other than what it is, rending the name and dissolving its bearer, as Antony intuits and his Roman peers constantly taunt him for. But extraordinarily in the Shakespearean canon, Cleopatra makes a strong claim to restore Antony to life and integrity in her suicide-finale. She remembers and re-integrates the shambles of her lover, fractured in name but resurrected in body. Rendered dead for offences against the law of the fatherland, Antony is restored to legitimacy as the ‘husband’ of the woman whose maternal nurturance supersedes the law of the father and its exigencies of death.

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