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Shakespeare and the Cleopatra/Caesar Intertext

Sequel, Conflation, Remake


Sarah Hatchuel


Madison, WI: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011

Hardcover. xxvi + 227 p. ISBN: 978-1611474473. $75.00


Reviewed by Anthony R. Guneratne

Florida Atlantic University



Cleopatra’s Ascent



The most influential of Cold War Shakespeare critics, Jan Kott, described the protagonists of Antony and Cleopatra as noble, fleshy beasts subjected to public view in the ever-shrinking cage of history.(1) Peter Brook was not alone among well-known theatre directors to stage Kottian versions of the play in the anxiety-riddled 1970s and 1980s: his 1978 staging seems to place the actors within the confines of a modified plastic fishbowl, and Adrian Noble’s productions of 1982 turned its almost bare stages into enclosures. Yet neither Brook nor Noble are so much as mentioned in Shakespeare and the Cleopatra/Caesar Intertext. In part this results from the work’s unwavering focus on its subtitle, “Sequel, Conflation, Remake”; but it may also have something to do with Hatchuel’s resolutely post-Cold War approach to Shakespeare’s plays. History no longer condemns us to repetition. While Caesar and Antony continue to resemble trapped versions of the twin-eagles of the ancient Roman standard, Cleopatra proves to be a bird of a different feather. The most substantial portion of the book, the last three of its five chapters, celebrates Cleopatra’s ability to seize spectators’ imaginations, to squeeze through the bars of an ornate, gilded cage, take flight over a variety of textual terrains, and soar beyond even Shakespeare’s authorial embrace.

The opening chapter of Hatchuel’s book poses the unresolved question of whether Shakespeare intended Antony and Cleopatra to be read as a sequel to Julius Caesar, as those familiar with his English history cycles could reasonably expect. A venerable literary and theatrical tradition, stretching back to Dryden, indicates that Shakespeare’s literary successors have done so consistently, even if the on-stage results have been intermittent. In her second chapter Hatchuel implies that Trevor Nunn represents an extreme instance of this tendency, and that as late as 2005 critics like Barbara Parker endorsed his reading of Coriolanus as the first of a Roman tetralogy that must necessarily culminate with Shakespeare’s apprentice work, Titus Andronicus, the playwright having proleptically imagined a cycle in which barbarism quelled finally returns triumphant. The skeptical Hatchuel even ventures to suggest that Charlton Heston’s successive assumptions of Mark Antony in Stuart Burge’s 1970 Julius Caesar and his own 1972 Antony and Cleopatra represents a prototype of the conflationary “double drive” characteristic of the times (see, especially, 34-41). Even so, she reminds us here and elsewhere, the apparent foregrounding of history remains illusory because Cleopatra’s exoticisms were always coded by the predispositions of the times: the noted African Cleopatras of that moment (Janet Suzman and Hildegard Neil) were South African, but white. Indeed, so insistent is Hatchuel that the exoticists and “conflators” have traduced Shakespeare’s intent that she seems even to object to the apparent reiteration of the connectedness of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra implied by cross-casting from one performance to the other, a practice that Michael Kahn for instance initiated in 1972 and revived in 2008 (it is less to provoke the wrath of Khan/Kahn than to highlight the dangers of conflation, one suspects, that his name appears in two versions at different points of her text).  

Hatchuel’s most intriguing chapters are, perhaps, the last three in which Cleopatra displaces the male protagonists whose “action sequences” and political motivations diminish in importance in adaptations that focus on the Egyptian queen as an iconic signifier, increasingly Promethean and ever-less bound by the dictates of Shakespeare’s texts. Bernard Shaw assumes a paradoxical role in this narrative, being the “liberating,” undermining figure whose self-conscious prequelization adds dimension to Cleopatra’s trajectory: even as an untutored neophyte, observes Hatchuel, Shaw’s Cleopatra strategically punctures the urbane Caesar’s pretensions. Just as cannily, Hatchuel implies that the relationship between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh when in 1952 they alternated between the lead roles of Shakespeare’s and Shaw’s plays, so incorporated Shaw’s idea of physical love as a form of derangement (Leigh had just played Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s film of A Streetcar Named Desire).

Treating Streetcar as a vehicle to transport readers to Cleopatra’s screen appearances, Hatchuel makes the case that from cinema’s inception a multifarious collage of themes and plots led inevitably to her promotion to the apex of a love triangle, but also to a dichotomous characterization either as able female politician or as amoral femme fatale. Inevitably, as Hatchuel’s concluding chapter illustrates, Cleopatra’s “rise” produced a doubled identificatory impulse in spectators who consumed her as object of desire and bearer of subjective agency, an impulse that generated a concomitant need to “tame” her preeminence through satirizing her iconicity in thinly disguised remakes and overt parodies. Even these, she concludes, have not exhausted the spectatorial desire for what Giorgio Agamben, in sharp contrast to the likes of Kott, calls the joy of repetition (the anticipation of pleasure). Nor have they diminished the promise of the Caesar / Cleopatra / Antony intertext to summon and address “unfinished cultural matters.”

As the character who enjoys the greatest temporal power among Shakespeare’s women, it is understandable that Cleopatra fascinates Hatchuel, albeit for reasons quite different than those that have intrigued Charles Martindale (who sees in her the most acute of Shakespeare’s philosophers) and Garry Wills (who speculates on the actor, John Rice, for whom Shakespeare probably wrote his longest female part).(2) London audiences, even the courtly ones who first witnessed the play in performance, were surely less habituated to a Greek presence and the dynastic ambitions of the Ptolemies than Cleopatra’s own nominal subjects. So it may at first seem a nod to critical fashion for Hatchuel to express an occasionally overstated preference for women of color in the title role – but one will recognize it as a forthright objection to the propensity of directors for populating their stages and screens with multi-colored (although seldom multi-cultural) casts of supernumeraries. Readers who are insufficiently attuned to the book’s internal dynamics may also be puzzled by its extended castigation of “conflators”, that perhaps unduly displaces a discussion of the play’s more straightforward incarnations; and even some of the conflations with which she takes issue – such as Ivo Van Hove’s landmark of immersive theatre, Roman Tragedies, that was revived in 2013 to sensational acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – may have lasting merit and influence. But the author’s point is that Cleopatra inhabits an uneasy assortment of worlds both geographical and textual, and the task Hatchuel undertakes is to de-colonize her contested, metastatic iconicity. Shakespeare and the Cleopatra / Caesar Intertext makes no attempt to be a performance history. That, after all, is a task that has been ably accomplished elsewhere, not least in the author’s own distinguished and voluminous oeuvre.


(1) See Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979 [orig. 1974]) : 169-178.

(2) See Martindale’s “Shakespeare among the philosophers” in Guneratne, Anthony (ed.), Shakespeare and Genre (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011) and Wills’s Witches and Jesuits : Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) : 77-78.  


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