Identity and Performance

Suzzallo Library, shelves full of Shakespeare criticismI just finished reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, and few characters in all the literature I’ve read so fascinate me–and yet remain so remote.

Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” is difficult to imagine. I can think of no woman I have ever known who resembles her. One moment playful, the next violent and wrathful, queenly, whorish, brave, histrionic– There seems no shortage of adjectives that the characters and critics apply to her. “Wrangling queen, / Whom everything becomes,” Antony simultaneously chides and compliments in the first scene.

And Antony seems equally capricious, torn between his political and military rivalry with Caesar and his love for Cleopatra. He is defined by both, and yet, in the end, undone by both.

Clare Kinney argues that both characters show “cosmic narcissism” in their writing and re-writing of their identities. They constantly recast themselves–above all, through language and performance.

Throughout the play, Cleopatra is forever appealing to her maids with the cry, “O, see, my women!” And then she pours forth reflections on her position in the universe, her plots against Antony, Caesar, and anyone else she’s set on outwitting.

And just as she has her built-in audience, so Antony ruminates in front of his officers. In Act IV, scene 2, he bids farewell to his men before a battle, which he is expected to lose. He gives such a performance of gratitude and a determination to die honorably that he sets them weeping. And then, as if their tears are applause, he seems to step from the stage and throw off his costume. “Friends,” he says cheerfully, “You take me in too dolorous a sense, / For I spake to you for your comfort.”

As if.

Much of reading this play is all about determining when the characters are performing themselves. Even Caesar, in the last act, wants a chance to have “his nobleness well acted.”

But maybe this is the way into the play. Yes, I found the characters remote and difficult to identify with. But aren’t all of us, throughout our lives, acting out varied selves? Adopting certain roles in certain environments?

Isn’t the whole problem, for critics, the fluidity of these characters’ identities–and their need to publicly perform them? But isn’t that also part of the human dilemma?

Shakespeare’s title characters fail to clearly delineate between their public and private selves, their warrior and lover selves, their political and personal selves. This does not directly lead to the double suicide, but it does make them a problem for all the other characters in the play–most especially Caesar.

I’m not sure whether it is more honest to be one self at home and another self at work, to have a stage voice in front of the classes I teach and another voice entirely for the intimate teas I have with friends–or to blend all these selves, bringing my personal business to work and my confident, professorial tone to tea. I don’t know.

But maybe that’s exactly one of the many questions Shakespeare hoped his audience would ask themselves after this play.

Were these braggarts and performers? Or were these two human beings who understood that identity is forever under negotiation? Forever defined through our interactions with and impressions on others? And in their attempt to control these, weren’t they in fact striving for a consistent, “stable self?”


Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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