illustration of Antony and Cleopatra facing each other with a snake wrapped around their necks

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare
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What is A. C. Bradley's opinion of how Shakespeare portrays Cleopatra's character in Antony and Cleopatra?

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To distill the opinion of A.C. Bradley, one of the most influential Shakespearean scholars of the late Victorian era, on the character of Cleopatra (as revealed in his Oxford Lecture on Antony and Cleopatra), she ranks as one of the playwright's greatest creations, on par with Hamlet and Falstaff. Yet she languishes through the early acts of the play. Bradley apparently doubts that Antony and Cleopatra should even be termed a tragedy, for a couple of reasons: neither Antony nor Cleopatra exhibit the nobility of character nor the reflective, inwardly searching nature that normally defines the role of a tragic hero; and the diffuse, episodic structure of the work has more in common with the poet's history plays than with the forceful linear structure of the tragedies.

Rather than a tragedy, it might be more accurate to describe the form of this play as "Shakespeare noir," a familiar tale of a hot-blooded man led to his doom by a femme fatale of overpowering magnetism. As Bradley suggests, though, the early scenes of Cleopatra "coquetting, tormenting, beguiling her lover to stay; Cleopatra left with her women and longing for him," are hardly the stuff of tragedy and are highly dispensable. It is only in the final act, following the death of Antony, that she attains the full measure of her character, which, as he says, has a nearly infinite capacity to surprise, delight, perplex, and fascinate. As he describes it:

Only the spirit of fire and air within her refuses to be trammelled or extinguished; burns its way through the obstacles of fortune and even through the resistance of her love and grief; and would lead her undaunted to fresh life and the conquest of new worlds.

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A.C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean critic, describes Cleopatra in Oxford Lectures on Poetry as a non-dramatic and non-tragic character. This is a bit of an oxymoron as it is applied to one of the protagonists in a dramatic Shakespearean tragedy. Bradley states that in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare could have done much more to create dramatic tension and the revelation of turbulent inner emotion.

For instance, Bradley holds that in the first parts of the play, Cleopatra is shown in non-emotive ways, ways that we might term character background. He contrasts the first three acts of Antony and Cleopatra with Romeo and Juliet, the latter of which is loaded with violent emotion and violent action. But the former shows Cleopatra with her ladies in waiting; alternately beguiling and tormenting Antony; asking questions about Octavia's personal appearance.

Cleopatra's most active scene is when she threatens the messenger, which is a scene, Bradley contends, that is completely dispensable as it has nothing to do with the plot. Additionally, Bradley asserts that Cleopatra's scenes do not "bode" tragedy. She is shown as "irresistible" but she is not shown as having powerful inner emotions that enhance the tragic qualities and motivate the plot.

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