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  • Shakespeare's Shavian Cleopatra
  • Annie Papreck King (bio)

The differences between Shakespeare's portrayal of Cleopatra and Shaw's portrayal of Cleopatra could easily be dismissed by the disparity in their ages: Shaw writes of a sixteen-year-old Cleopatra, whereas Shakespeare picks up her story much later. Yet Shaw himself makes it perfectly clear in his notes to the play that the contrasting characterizations are much more than simply a function of age:

The childishness I have ascribed to [Cleopatra], as far as it is childishness of character and not lack of experience, is not a matter of years. It may be observed in our own climate at the present day in many women of fifty. It is a mistake to suppose that the difference between wisdom and folly has anything to do with the difference between physical age and physical youth.1

Shaw's Cleopatra is not simply a younger, more immature version of Shakespeare's, for the playwright himself suggests that he could have given his queen a wisdom that surpasses her sixteen years. Instead, Shaw creates his Cleopatra as a sort of precursor to Shakespeare's.2 Though at times, in his contempt for late-Victorian bardolatry, Shaw attempts to excise or improve on Shakespearean elements in his characterization of Julius Caesar, the two Cleopatras fall into a much different pattern. Perhaps knowing that he could never match the sexuality, leadership, rhetoric, or cunning of his rival playwright's creation, Shaw seems not even to try, instead reserving those elements for his later heroines. Shaw's Cleopatra definitely stands in contrast to Shakespeare's Cleopatra, but Shakespeare's Cleopatra is far more Shavian than her truly Shavian counterpart. [End Page 165]


If Caesar and Cleopatra is Shaw's attempt to elevate Julius Caesar to hero status and glorify him as Shakespeare never did, then it seems fitting that the play should have no female heroic counterpart to compete for Caesar's limelight.3 And indeed, as Shaw has created her, this Cleopatra would never overshadow his Caesarian Superman. Ra describes her in his prologue as simply "a child that is whipped by her nurse" (361). She pouts when Caesar orders her about and declares, "When I am old enough I shall do just what I like" (376). This is not a formidable opponent for Caesar in either love or war. Michael Mason argues that "to increase Caesar's stature, Shaw has weakened Cleopatra's, reserving such a contest between equals for Man and Superman. . . . [H]e has belittled Cleopatra almost to the level of a juvenile delinquent confronting an understanding but firm probation officer."4

Shaw attempts to take his Cleopatra through a maturing process over the course of the play, to move her character closer to the Shakespearean Cleopatra she will eventually become, but she never quite metamorphoses from a girl to a woman who could—anything but momentarily—tempt and distract Caesar. Even after Caesar begins to instruct Cleopatra in how to be an effective ruler, she never feels comfortable in a position of power as Shakespeare's Cleopatra does. Shaw's stage direction for Cleopatra as she argues with her brother indicates that she "is rent by a struggle between her newly-acquired dignity as a queen, and a strong impulse to put out her tongue at [Ptolemy]" (395). This inner struggle between childishness and dignity continues throughout the play. Time spent with Caesar as her mentor, Cleopatra complains, makes her "terribly prosy and serious and learned and philosophical" (436), and yet she still giggles whenever Caesar mispronounces the name of Ftatateeta, causing Caesar to exclaim, "What! As much a child as ever, Cleopatra! Have I not made a woman of you after all?" (469). Shaw tries to give her a "wildcat ferocity" akin to that of Shakespeare's Cleopatra, putting the murder of Pothinus in her hands, but even in this act of defiance she remains impulsive and petulant, first serving the immediacy of her own political needs and then seeking the approval of others for a questionable order.5

In spite of a few attempts to alter the course of Cleopatra's trajectory as a character rather than as a...


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