Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
Ever since the publication in 1579 of Parallel Lives, Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115), Cleopatra has been one of the great romantic figures of English literature. To be sure, Dante had briefly glimpsed her, “tossed on the blast,” in Hell’s Circle of the Lustful in his Inferno (c. 1320), but he had hurried on to give the famous story of Paolo and Francesca. It remained for William Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), to make her immortal as “the serpent of old Nile,” the epitome of the eternal and irresistible female. Even the neoclassic John Dryden, in 1678, still found her the archetype of an all-consuming passion, for whose sake Antony held “the world well lost.”
As for Caesar, his imprint has been upon the European mind since 44 b.c.e. To Dante—who saw him in Limbo as “Caesar armed, with the falcon eyes”—he is the founder of the Roman empire, and his murder is so terrible an example of treachery to lords and benefactors that Cassius and Brutus, his assassins, are placed with Judas in the jaws of Satan in the lowest pit of Hell. To Shakespeare, he is a man who in spite of arrogance and a thinly disguised ambition for absolute power actually bestrode “the narrow world like a Colossus.” These are the figures of world history and world legend whom George Bernard Shaw chose to bring together in a comedy.
So strongly has Shakespeare stamped his interpretation of Cleopatra on Western literary consciousness that Shaw’s heroine inflicts a distinct shock when audiences meet a girl of sixteen, on a moonlit October night, crouched between the paws of the Sphinx in the desert where she has fled to escape the invading Romans. She is the typical schoolgirl: high-strung, giggly, impulsive, terrified of her nurse, ready to believe that Romans have trunks, tusks, tails, and seven arms, each carrying a hundred arrows. She has the instinctive cruelty of a child; after encountering Caesar—whom she does not recognize and who forces her nurse to cringe at her feet—she is eager to beat the nurse and can talk gleefully of poisoning slaves and cutting off her brother’s head. Shaw has set his plot at the moment in history when Egypt is divided. Ptolemy Dionysus has driven Cleopatra from Alexandria, and while the two foes—Ptolemy represented by Pothinus and Cleopatra by Ftatateeta—are at swords’ points, Egypt is ready to fall into the conqueror’s hand. It is the familiar situation of an immensely old and decadent civilization at the mercy of a rising world power, represented by Caesar.
Audiences with memories of Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War and Mark Antony’s funeral oration receive another shock when Caesar appears. The conqueror of the world is presented as a middle-aged man, painfully conscious of his years, somewhat prosaic, very far indeed from “Caesar armed, with the falcon eyes.” He is past fifty, and the fateful Ides of March is less than four years away. As most men of his age in any period of history would be, he is somewhat amused and yet wholly fascinated by the lovely child he has met under such strange circumstances. Since he is quite aware of his weakness for women, the audience begins to anticipate a romantic turn to the plot. Shaw was not, however, a romantic dramatist. When Caesar returns Cleopatra to her palace, reveals his identity, and forces her to abandon her childishness and to assume her position as queen, he is revealed as a man who is eminently practical, imperturbable in moments of danger, and endowed with the slightly cynical detachment of a superior mind surrounded by inferiors.
The outline that Shaw uses for his somewhat rambling plot is to be found in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and in Caesar’s Civil War. Shaw follows his sources quite faithfully, except in inventing a meeting between Caesar and Cleopatra in the desert and calling for Pothinus to be killed by Ftatateeta at Cleopatra’s instigation after Caesar has promised him safe conduct from the palace. There is also a possible debt to the almost forgotten drama The False One, written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger around 1620, which deals with the same story. Certainly Shaw’s blunt-spoken Rufio appears to be a reworking of that play’s Sceva.
Shaw also adds two characters of his own to the story: the savage Ftatateeta, who is eventually killed by Rufio, and Britannus, Caesar’s secretary. The latter is Shaw’s picture of the eternal Englishman—conventional, easily shocked, unable to understand any customs but those of his own island. It is in characterization, rather than in plot, that the play excels, and it also excels through the element of surprise, created by the device of presenting familiar literary figures from new angles, for it is obvious that Shaw intends to rub some of the romantic gilding from them. Cleopatra, although under Caesar’s influence she becomes a precocious adult, loses her girlish charm without becoming a particularly attractive woman. She never really loves Caesar, nor he her, for Shaw rearranges history in this aspect of their relationship, and her one thought is of the arrival of Antony, whom she has met before and never forgotten. She has a presentiment of her coming tragedy, yet, eternally childish, she is poised to run to meet it.
The critic James Hunker maintained that this drama “entitled [Shaw] to a free pass to that pantheon wherein our beloved Mark Twain sits enthroned.” Yet this play is no Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which was based on a conviction of the vast progress achieved since the Middle Ages. It was Shaw’s conviction that there had been no perceptible progress since Caesar’s day. Caesar himself knew that history would continue to unroll an endless series of murders and wars, always disguised under high-sounding and noble names. He was a great man, not because he was “ahead of his age” but because he stood outside it and could rule with mercy and without revenge. Such a leader would be great in any period of history.
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