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  • Honorable and Dishonorable Killing:The Gender of War in Caesar and Cleopatra
  • Joy A. Pasini (bio)

Kill, kill, kill him.

—Cleopatra, Act 4, Caesar and Cleopatra

That game is played and lost, Cleopatra. The woman always gets the worst of it.

—Rufio, Act 4, Caesar and Cleopatra

One interpretation of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra stresses Caesar's magnanimity and greatness and Cleopatra's inability to internalize his teachings.1 Gordon W. Couchman supports this interpretation when he states: "'The child whipped by her nurse' has grown up in a sense, though as a character she has not gained in depth to any appreciable degree. . . . At the opening of the play Cleopatra is afraid; at the end she has overcome fear sufficiently to talk up to Caesar. But all in all she is a poor second best to Caesar."2 Charles A. Berst also supports it: "As a kitten, or later as a cat in relation to Caesar's mystical sphinx, Cleopatra may seek to understand, but after she seems most to have attained perceptive queenship, she regresses, revealing how childish both her morality and her pragmatism are in comparison to Caesar's."3 And, although Bernard F. Dukore praises Caesar as a teacher, he admits, "For one respect . . . he fails." Even though Dukore shifts some of the responsibility to Caesar, his point about Cleopatra is similar: "'As much a child as ever,' says Caesar as he takes leave of Cleopatra, who is still 'pettish and childish.' Not that Cleopatra is the same in Act V as she was in Act I. Her growth, however, is in a direction other than ideal queenship. She becomes more deadly."4 But what accounts for Cleopatra's regression or, alternatively, her lack of progress? Few essays offer enough detail about Cleopatra herself to answer this [End Page 45] question.5 I would propose that the gendered nature of war accounts for Cleopatra's inability to follow Caesar's example.

War is considered masculine, meaning not only that men primarily fight its battles but also that it is associated with characteristics that men are presumed to have simply by virtue of their gender. In a strictly masculine formulation, women do not act in war but are acted upon, and often the reality matches the formulation, with women becoming civilian casualties, raped by forces from one side in order to dominate and demoralize the other. Joshua S. Goldstein explains that both gender roles and specific war practices exhibit wide cross-cultural diversity but that "this diversity disappears when it comes to the connection of war with gender." The reason "is that killing in war does not come naturally for either gender, yet the potential for war has been universal in human societies. To help overcome soldiers' reluctance to fight, cultures develop gender roles that equate 'manhood' with toughness under fire. Across cultures and through time, the selection of men as combatants (and of women for feminine war support roles) has helped shape the war system."6 Thus, with some notable exceptions, women do not fight, but they form the foundation of what men fight to preserve and protect—home and motherland: "Not just the soldier, but the whole society participates in constructing a feminine sphere to be preserved from war. . . . Women collectively, then, serve as a kind of metaphysical sanctuary for traumatized soldiers, a counterweight to hellish war."7 As such, women are for the most part left behind when men depart for the battlefield, although some women, particularly nurses, have historically been in close proximity to battle to provide support and to nurture wounded soldiers.8 Even in the twenty-first century, when U.S. military women are regularly killed serving in noncombat positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, war's gender remains unchanged because war continues to rely on and exalt qualities that men have typically been assumed to possess or that society has inculcated in them for the express purpose of war: honor, heroism, courage, physical strength, loyalty, and the ability to kill dispassionately as a duty to the state.9

Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra critiques the gendered institution of war by illustrating how war circumscribes Cleopatra's power as the...


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pp. 45-64
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