Slut shaming, Shakespeare and ancient stereotypes
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Slut shaming, Shakespeare and ancient stereotypes

She's been called a whore, a slut, the prostitute queen, a woman painted as a strumpet who used her beauty to seduce men for both pleasure and political gain.

Yet Cleopatra ruled over Egypt for more than 20 years, a diplomat, linguist, mother, wife, lover and warrior queen, whose decisions were made in the best interest of her country and her children.

Catherine McClements stars in Bell Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Catherine McClements stars in Bell Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Photo: Pierre Toussaint

So why do we best remember her as a promiscuous wanton who seduced her way to fame and fortune?

Because that's where men have placed her in history.

As Bell Shakespeare's version of Antony and Cleopatra makes its way to Canberra, what better time to look at how the queen has been wrongly portrayed over the years.

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And yes, by Shakespeare himself.

In his 2016 discussion about Sexism and Shakespeare, John T. McHugh says Cleopatra is one of the most brash female characters in all of Shakespeare's works.

"In Antony and Cleopatra she is almost always viewed through the lens of the male characters of the play, who view her as a whore, apart from Antony, who views her as his greatest love," Mc Hugh writes.

"As one would expect, the men of the play are who develop the character of Cleopatra, viewing her as a sexual deviant and an over-dramatic actress.

"But, this has given Cleopatra a unique space to speak for herself, for the same feminine stereotypes that the men throw upon her is where Cleopatra's feminine power flourishes, controlling the entirety of Antony and Cleopatra."

In her 2015 book The Jezebel Effect: Why the slut-shaming of famous queens still matters, Kyra Cornelius Kramer says the fact Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft "isn't a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it's a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability".

She says slut shaming has its roots in our earliest history and has always been used to punish women for transgressions against gender norms, "threatening the security of their place in society and warning that they'd better be 'good girls' and not rock the patriarchal boat, or they, too could end up with people believing they've slept with everything from farm animals to relatives."

Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell himself, in his book On Shakespeare, describes Cleopatra as "undoubtedly one of Shakespeare's most magnificent creations and probably the greatest female role ever written. She is fantastically intelligent, sensual and self-regarding; comfortable with her body and her passions but painfully aware of encroaching age."

And you thought it was just a play.

Dr Kate Flaherty, senior lecturer in english and drama at the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University, says Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a vivid and complex moving part set in motion among other moving parts.

"Both in other characters' descriptions of her and in the speech he gives her, Shakespeare sets her up as exceedingly powerful," Flaherty says.

"If performed compellingly, Shakespeare's Cleopatra invites the audience to experience and reflect on their own responses to power, charisma, and topically for our times, infatuation with celebrity."

Flaherty says Cleopatra's power comes from her ambivalence.

"She does not fit neatly into a moral scheme or a 'how to' guide for female empowerment," she says.

"She's violent, selfish, capricious and even cowardly but so mesmerising. If we find her so, it puts the ball in our court and we find ourselves in the middle of moral confusion.

"This is not an experience that modern life cultivates or reflects on much. We are set up for very quick verdicts: for applauding or writing people off with a tweet, for deciding which team they are on and then moving on.

''Cleopatra has power to provoke and confuse because Shakespeare stretches out time – setting us up to linger in Egypt idly watching, enjoying, suspending our judgement."

She doesn't agree with the idea that Cleopatra is a feminist icon.

"Emphatically not! That also prompts me to wonder why we need icons in the first place. I think the play suggests that our need for icons is part of what puts us in danger."

Ray Chong Nee, Johnny Carr and Catherine McClements in

Ray Chong Nee, Johnny Carr and Catherine McClements in

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Over the years Cleopatra has been played, on stage and screen, by such great actors as Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Vivien Leigh, Theda Bara, Sophia Loren and, perhaps most famously, Elizabeth Taylor. Kim Kardashian even posed as Cleopatra for a cover of Harper's Bazaar magazine.

For this Bell Shakespeare season, Catherine McClements, of Wentworth, Water Rats and The Broken Shore, is queen. Or in this version, a suburban shire councillor having a tawdry bickering affair.

In Canberra now, after its Sydney run through March, it's been interesting to read reviews of her performance.

"McClements, who emphasises Cleopatra's commonness and shrewishness at the expense of other qualities, also has moments so sublime as to suggest what might have been," John Shand wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"When Antony announces his return to Rome, for example, and Cleopatra suddenly softens to deliver the heartbreaking speech that begins, 'Courteous lord, one word...' and concludes 'O, my oblivion is a very Antony / and I am all forgotten', McClements is riveting, exposing a vulnerability for which we are wholly unprepared."

In The Daily Telegraph, Jo Litson said "McClements gives a marvellous performance that introduces a shot of adrenaline to proceedings whenever she takes the spotlight. She doesn't convey any queenliness, and there is little sense of why the most powerful men in the world fall at her feet, but you can't take your eyes off her and she delivers the language superbly."

In The Australian John McCallum says "there is a superb performance by Catherine McClements as Cleopatra, although in this setting we never really see her as the Queen of Egypt, nor do we see Mark Antony, played with romantic appeal by Johnny Carr, as the greatest warrior of his age. We take on faith that they have a grand passion for each other. What we mainly see are the bickerings of a middle-aged couple who have found a love that is believable but somehow not magnificent."

It's interesting even here that Cleopatra is defined, somewhat, by her allure and her relationship with Antony.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from 1963's

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from 1963's

"Who would deny herself the opportunity to play Cleopatra, despite all the pitfalls" says McClements, speaking to The Canberra TImes in the middle of the Sydney season.

As for playing her as a feminist icon, "F*** that's no fun," McClements says.

"You're butting up against everyone's preconceptions of that character.

"It's like the classic Enobarbus speech ... you can't deny that speech but you don't want to fall victim to it either.

"You don't want to deny her humanness yet it's easy to fall into a trap."

McClements says she has no interest in playing strong characters, that all her roles have a weakness she likes to exploit.

"What does it matter if women are weak or strong?" she says.

"What I love about Cleopatra is at the end she ends up kneeling before the feet of Caesar and [saying], 'It's okay. In fact, I understand more about life.

"This is what she says at the end when she says, 'My desolation does begin to make a better life'.

"It's no good to be on the top of your fortune all the time, you learn more about life at the bottom of your fortune.

"That interests me more than people with power, I have no excitement about power."

Yet she said she wondered whether it was possible to create Cleopatra "without the male gaze - make her someone that women admire more than what men desire."

She found inspiration in an unlikely place, in musician Patti Smith.

"I went and saw Patti Smith not long after I got the role and I went oh my god, she is like a Cleopatra, a queen of her world, a queen of her time, a time that is now passing, like in Antony and Cleopatra.

"Men fell head over heels for Patti yet she didn't define herself by the male gaze. Her look, her poetry, completely came from her own psychology, her own thoughts of the world.

"She was capricious, she was childish, she was deep, when I saw her she was a modern Cleopatra."

And that's the thing about the play, what McClements loves about director Peter Evans' version of it.

"Peter never denies it's an old play, we know it was written in the 1600s, Peter never denies it's a story from 40BC, yet we are modern characters, placed in a modern setting, it's about redefining what is a queen."

And perhaps redefining how we view all powerful women.

Antony and Cleopatra opens at the Canberra Theatre on April 12 and runs until April 21.

Dr Flaherty is exploring Shakespeare's relationship with text throughout history in Is Shakespeare a Book? at the Sir Roland Wilson Building, ANU, on Friday April 6. She will discuss the first big Shakespeare book (The First Folio), pointing out that Shakespeare never lived to see it and ask who has stood to gain and who to lose throughout history from a strong imaginative association between Shakespeare and the book.