I just finished uploading my trailer for my new course on Shakespeare’s tragedies for your viewing pleasure:
The first session is on November 5th (Remember the day)! Hope to see you then.
I just finished uploading my trailer for my new course on Shakespeare’s tragedies for your viewing pleasure:
The first session is on November 5th (Remember the day)! Hope to see you then.
In most movies, and pictures set in Rome, we see rooms full of men wearing white togas, especially in the Senate. However, togas gradually evolved into a variety of styles and colors and helped indicate a Roman man’s status and maturity.
Shakespeare makes reference to a specific type of toga called a Toga candida: "Bright toga"; a toga rubbed with white chalk to make it appear bright white. In Titus Andronicus, the title character is offered a toga candida by his brother Marcus, when the Senate nominates him for emperor: Marcus: Titus Andronicus, the people of Rome, Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been, Send thee by me, their tribune and their trust, This palliament of white and spotless hue; And name thee in election for the empire, With these our late-deceased emperor's sons: Be candidatus then, and put it on- Titus Andronicus, Act I, Scene i. There were many other types of togas for different occasions: - Dark colors were for funerals - Red and purple sleeves were for magistrates and senators - Purple togas with gold embroidery were for victorious generals, and later emperors
A Toga virilis ("toga of manhood") also known as toga alba or toga pura was A plain white toga, worn on formal occasions by adult male commoners, and by senators not having a curule magistracy. It was a right of passage for young men to put on their toga virilis and assume adult male citizenship and its attendant rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
Like men, women most commonly wore tunics, especially when they were unmarried. When women married, they would don a long, elaborate garment called a Stola . The stola was a long dress held on by belts. Sometimes women decorated their Stolas with ribbons and they came in many colors. In the statue below, note how the belts below the breast drape the fabric into elaborate folds, and how the sleeves are slightly slashed on this sumptuous 1st century stola.
Read more at: https://www.ducksters.com/history/ancient_rome/clothing.php
Since Roman women were not legally citizens and couldn’t hold employment, their hair, dress, and makeup were in a way, a celebration of idleness, especially in the case of upper-class women. Aristocratic Roman women had their hair done in elaborate shapes like the Flavian hairstyle and wore elaborate Stoas to indicate how they didn’t have to work or labor in the fields.
In a production of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, the director could exploit this concept of idleness by giving the more passive characters like Calpurnia or Fulvia more elaborate hairdos and elaborate brightly colored Stolas, while the more active characters like Portia or Valumnia could have a more austere or less fussy hairstyle and dress to show that they are more interested in engaging in politics or the military than sitting around and looking pretty.
“The Romans – Clothing” History on the Net
© 2000-2022, Salem Media.
March 11, 2022 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-romans-clothing>
Ducksters. “Ancient Rome for Kids: Clothing and Fashion.” Ducksters, Technological Solutions, Inc. (TSI), http://www.ducksters.com/history/ancient_rome/clothing.php. Accessed 11 March 2022.
One way to learn about Julius Caesar is to learn about the weapons he used as general of on of the most fearsome legions in Rome. In this blade-forging competition from the History Channel, 2 master blacksmiths forge their own versions of a Roman Gladius, and put them to the test!
You probably know that I love to speculate and do a little historical detective work and find out whether Elizabethans like Shakespeare celebrated our modern holidays and then compare and contrast how they celebrated them back then versus how we do today. Valentines Day is a day we associate with love and poetry, so of course, I wondered if the most celebrated poet of the Renaissance celebrated it himself!
Based on my findings, if Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day, he probably did mainly what we did- writing letters and poems to his beloved and maybe sending a trinket of love. It’s unlikely he celebrated it like modern Catholics do to honor the martyrdom of a Catholic saint. In my research, I was surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day has been celebrated for hundreds of years and has its roots in a holiday that Shakespeare describes in one of his most famous plays.
According to NPR’s podcast: “The Dark Origins of Valentines Day”, like Christmas, Halloween, and many other holidays, the Christian holiday of St. Valentines’ day was designed to replace the pagan holiday of Lupercal, which was a Roman fertility festival where men engaged in basically what we’d now call- swingers’ parties or key parties where they’d draw a woman’s name from a lottery and… couple for the night.
The Lupercal was also synonymous with the founding of Rome. Lupa is the name of the wolf that saved the infants Romulus and Remus, who would become the first kings of Rome. If you click here, you can read an article about a recent archeological discovery; a cave found under Rome that was once revered as the place where Romulus and Remus lived with Lupa:
Shakespeare actually starts his play of Julius Caesar on the Lupercal, and makes reference to its status as a fertility festival. In Act I, Caesar is watching Antony run a race and tells him to be sure to touch Calpurnia, owing to the superstition that if a man touches a barren woman on Lupercal, it will make her capable of bearing children:
Calpurnia. Here, my lord. 85
Caesar. Stand you directly in Antonius' way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
Antony. Caesar, my lord?
Caesar. Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say, 90
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony. I shall remember:
When Caesar says 'do this,' it is perform'd.
Caesar. Set on; and leave no ceremony out. Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii, Lines 84-95
Shakespeare leaves out that, according to tradition, Antony should be naked and anointed with goat’s blood and slap Calpurnia with a goatskin thong, but that was part of the Roman Lupercal festival.
St. Valentine was either a Catholic priest or bishop who was martyred in the 3rd century AD (Source History.com). According to tradition, he conducted Christian marriages in defiance of Roman law, and rejected the concept of Lupercalian coupling, which is why Emperor Claudius murdered him. Thus, the holiday is intentionally meant to replace Lupercalia, and celebrate monogamous relationships under the Christian God. The popular story is that before his death, he sent a letter to the young daughter of a family he converted to Christianity and signed it: “Your Valentine,” thus starting the tradition of signing cards in this manner. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius made Valentine’s day an official Catholic feast day to replace Lupercal once and for all.
Evidence is sketchy how the traditions of Valentines day evolved, in the Middle Ages, but in Catholic Europe the concept of celebrating married love on Valentine’s Day spread, and poets like Chaucer and Shakespeare helped popularize it.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of how birds would choose their mates on Valentine’s Day:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
According to History.com, there’s a possibility that Chaucer invented the idea of a St. Valentines feast, and forever linked it with the celebration of love:
The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer often took liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate.Hanes, Elizabeth. “Six Surprising Facts about Valentines Day.” https://www.history.com/news/6-surprising-facts-about-st-valentine
This theme has been repeated in other pieces of literature. In John Lydgate’s 15th century poem, “A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”, he writes of how it was the custom on Valentine’s Day for people to choose their love:
To look and search Cupid’s Calendar and choose their choose by great affection.John Ludgate: “”A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”
In the 1470s in a series of correspondence, from Margery Brews to her husband John Paston refers to the latter as “My right well-beloved Valentine, John Paston, Esquire.”
Margery also wrote adoring letters to John, who was probably away frequently, fighting in the Hundred Years War, and advising Margary’s kinsman, John Fastolfe, (whom Shakespeare mentions in Henry VI, Part I. Her poetry is very tender and must have comforted her husband much:
And if ye command me to keep me true wherever I go,
I wis I will de all my might you to love, and never no mo(re).
And if my friends say, that I do amiss,
They shall not me let so for to do,
Mine heart me bids ever more to love you
Truly over all earthly thing,
And if they be never so wrath
I trust it shall be better in time coming.
Margery’s letters are some of the earliest surviving Valentine’s poetry that proves that the tradition of giving poetry to one’s beloved during the month of February was around in the 15th century, and probably while Shakespeare was a child in the 16th.
Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine’s Day twince within his works. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (a play that is set in Ancient Greece and has connections to Lupercal), he builds on Chaucer’s claim that Valentine’s Day is the day that birds couple for the night. Duke Theseus and Aegeus discover the fours lovers asleep. They are surprised that they are sharing the same ground, since Lysander and Demetrius (as far as the old men know), are rivals for Hermia’s affection.
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past: Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?
— A Midsummer Night Dream, Act IV, Scene ii.
Egeus. My lord, this is my daughter here asleep;
And this, Lysander; this Demetrius is;
This Helena, old Nedar's Helena:1685
I wonder of their being here together.
Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace our solemnity.
But speak, Egeus; is not this the day1690
That Hermia should give answer of her choice?
Egeus. It is, my lord.
Theseus. Go, bid the huntsmen wake them with their horns.
[Horns and shout within. LYSANDER, DEMETRIUS,]
HELENA, and HERMIA wake and start up]1695
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?
Shakespeare has a much darker reference to Valentine's Day in Hamlet.
Ophelia, has gone mad with the loss of her brother, her father, and Hamlet breaking her heart. She starts wandering the castle and can only communicate through songs. She sings a very melancholy song that alludes to the superstition that if two single people meet on the morning of Saint Valentine's Day they will likely get married:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose
And donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door
Let in a maid then out a maid
Never departed more.
Ophelia seems to be darkly admitting that she and Hamlet have had pre-marital intimate relations and she is no longer a virgin, The song implies that Ophelia entered Hamlet’s chamber a maid (that is, an unmarried virgin), but is let out a maid (unmarried), while the Hamlet very clearly has taken her virginity. Hamlet re-enforces this suspicion by commanding her to go to a nunnery, one of the only recourses for single mothers. It is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare is implying that Ophelia is in fact pregnant, and is driven mad with sorrow that she now has to deliver her baby without any form of support from her father (who is dead), from her brother (who is in France), or her baby’s father, who wants her to leave and never return. Ophelia’s song is a lament that she wishes the superstition were true, and Hamlet had indeed married her.
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day as a religious holiday, after all, Queen Elizabeth had made England a Protestant country. Celebrating a saint day could have been seen as idolatrous in Protestant England. Nevertheless, Shakespeare and other romantic writers helped transform Valentines’ Day into less of a religious holiday, and more as a secular celebration of love and monogamy, very different from its bloody, promiscuous roots.
I’m working this summer with the good people at Outschool, an online learning platform for kids ages 3-18. I’m designing a series of Shakespeare classes that you can sign up for. We’ll be doing acting exercises, reading Shakespeare’s text, and making Shakespeare props Cost is $3 per child.
The course is ala carte, that is, you can sign up for as many courses as you like. Each course builds on the last one, but you don’t have to have taken the previous ones to enjoy any one particular course Let me know in the comments which class(es) you are interested in, and/or what suggestions you might have. I can’t wait to hear what you think about these summer Shakespeare courses, and I hope to see you online soon!
1. Introduction to Shakespeare- (enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/introduction-to-shakespeare-or-how-i-learned-to-love-the-bard-UoHH5fes?sectionUid=973060db-f857-461a-a23a-f1476203a544&showDetails=true) We’ll talk about why Shakespeare is so famous and learn about his life and career. Then we’ll do some fun quizzes that you can earn prizes based on how well you pay attention!
2. How to write ✍ like Shakespeare (Enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/how-to-write-like-shakespeare-0HuPq1Cg?sectionUid=4243af25-ba41-4724-82a2-61bd7c7d862e&showDetails=true) – Have you ever wanted to woo your sweetheart or write the next bestselling play? Well, this course will cover the secrets of Shakespeare’s writing. We’ll cover how to write romantic poems, the structure of Shakespeare’s plays, and you’ll get to write your own Shakespearean speeches!
3. Intro to Shakespearean acting Practical tips and tricks for your next Shakespeare audition.
4. Shakespeare’s villains We’ll look at the darkest and creepiest Shakespearean characters and see why they still fascinate us today!
5. The Violent Rhetoric Of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Registration Here: https://outschool.com/classes/the-violent-rhetoric-of-julius-caesar-fkMLbAtA?sectionUid=1f9220cd-8c28-438d-9799-8479494353a4&showDetails=true#usMaRDyJ13) In this one-time course, students will analyze the rhetoric and persuasive power in two speeches from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
6. Intro to Romeo and Juliet – Get a leg up on your next English class with this fun, frenetic look through the characters, themes, and story of Shakespeare’s most popular, and most-taught play.
7. Basics Of Stage Combat (Registration here: https://outschool.com/classes/1120ada2-047d-4b0f-84f6-5eb4b0f7dc66/schedule#usMaRDyJ13– I’ll teach the kids about Elizabethan street fighting, and the basics of stage combat.
8. The Balcony Scene of Romeo and Juliet– It’s been called the greatest love scene of all time, but why? I’ll explain the imagery, the poetic language, and give you a chance to make your own love poetry!
9. Insults and Shakespeare You’ll craft your own Shakespeare insults and engage in a (respectful), beat down with your classmates! Along the way, we’ll talk about how insults escalate to violence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
10. The Iconic imagery of Romeo and Juliet We’ll look at some beautiful paintings, songs, and other works of art that build on Shakespeare’s poetic imagery.
11. Romeo and Juliet and pedagogy Shakespeare is uniquely challenging to get kids to engage with. I’ll give you some of my resources, games, and activities to help you delve into the play in your next class.
If you like these courses, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’re interested in signing up, visit my teacher profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student. New classes will be added every week, and I’ll work around your schedule when planning the dates and times. Hopefully this will be a great chance for me to share my expertise with a young group of future Shakespearean students!
PBS is going to show (and hopefully stream), the National Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet Friday, to help celebrate William Shakespeare’s birthday.
The production stars Jessie Buckley as Juliet, and Josh O’Connor as Romeo, who recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the young Prince Charles
After playing another doomed lover whose family won’t allow him to be with the woman he wants, I look forward to seeing him bring his passion and skill to Shakespeare.
Jessie Buckley as Juliet, and Josh O’Connor as Romeo. National Theater, 2021
Since it’s Women’s History Month, and we just had the Ides of March last week, I thought it might be a good idea to analyze some of Shakespeare’s female characters in his Roman plays. I’ve talked a lot about the men in Julius Caesar, Titus, Andronicus, and Coriolanus, but haven’t examined the female characters much, so that’s what I’m going do discuss today.
Examining these characters is important because many are based on real Roman women, and Shakespeare’s sources reveal what Roman culture thought about women’s roles. This is particularly relevant to those of you reading this in the west because Roman culture influenced the Elizabethans and they set the foundation for our culture today. Feminist criticism has been much maligned, (and I’m certainly not an expert on feminism), but I do know this: it exists to question the values and conventions of our culture, so we can identify what works and what needs to change to build a more egalitarian society.
When it comes to Shakespeare female characters in general, he challenges the status quo, but also reinforces it: There’s always a character who challenges traditional gender roles like Katherine and Beatrice, but, (with the exception of Twelfth Night), for every one of these there’s also a Bianca or a Hero; characters who embody traditional famine roles and virtues of chastity, meekness, and yes, marriage and childbirth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shakespeare’s Roman plays where there are always two female characters and they usually embody opposite views of women’s roles and a woman’s duty to her country and the men in their lives
1. Tamara from Titus Andronicus
Titus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his first Roman play. As we shall see, as Shakespeare went through his career we see a more nuanced view of women’s roles and a greater appreciation for women who disdain or challenge patriarchal society. The characters Lavinia and Tamara are perfect examples and counterexamples respectively of traditional feminine roles.
When we first meet her, Tamara is the queen of the Goths- an enemy tribe that Rome has just conquered. Everything about Tamara from her foreign upbringing, to her personality, is a counter-example of what Romans prize in women. She is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty, motivated by revenge against Titus, (who in the first scene of the play, kills her eldest son. Tamara responds by masterminding the murder of all of Titus’ children. She is also sexually liberated and uses her sexuality to further her revenge. Tamara seduces the Emperor to get him on her side, and gets the Emperor to condemn Titus’ sons to death. Her adultery with Aaron is another way she uses her sexuality to get revenge; she brings ruin the monarchy by cuckolding the Emperor. Thus Tamara’s sexuality and bold personality is framed in the play as an existential threat to Rome itself.
Tamara’s chief and only virtue is her love for her children, as you can plainly see in this scene from the play. Her love for her son Alarbus is why she begs Titus for his life, and afterwards, when he sacrifices Alarbus, Tamara’s love for her son turns into deadly hate to Titus. It is her motherly devotion that makes Tamara simultaneously human, and inhuman. As the play progresses however, Tamara is referred to in increasingly inhuman and savage terms. She dresses up as the goddess Revenge to torment Titus, and after she dies, Lucius, the new Emperor (and Titus’ only surviving son), calls her a “ravenous tiger,” and calls for her body to be thrown to beasts, since “Her life was beast-like.” Tamara is unquestionably the villain- a femme-fatale and a threat to all the Roman characters, but especially Titus’ daughter Lavinia.
2. Lavinia from Titus Andronicus
For the entire play, Lavinia embodies traditional Roman female virtues, in that she is defined by the men in her life, and her chastity. The Romans actually invented the term castitas to refer to the female virtues of modesty and chastity, that is, only having sex with the man you are married to. Lavinia fits this mold perfectly. She’s a devoted daughter, wife, and sister. When we first meet her, she is a model of duty- greeting her father and asking for his blessing when he returns to Rome, and shedding tears for her brothers that were slain in the war:
In the cruelest and most barbaric scene in all of Shakespeare, Lavinia is raped by Tamara’s sons. Then, to keep her from identifying her attackers, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. The mutilation is grotesque, but for Titus, the Romans, and for the Elizabethans Shakespeare was writing for, the cruelest loss for Lavinia was the loss of her chastity. Now that she isn’t a virgin, Lavinia is marked with the opposite of chastity, incestum, or infamy. Even though the rape was not her fault, Lavinia is marked with shame. The Romans took unchastity extremely seriously; they used to punish it by throwing the adulteress to her death off the Tarpeian Rock. As you can see in this video, when a woman who was supposed to live chaste is even suspected of adultery, her very life is now in jeopardy:
When she loses her virginity, Lavinia becomes a silent creature of sadness. She is no longer a person, but a motivation for Titus’ revenge. Even if she hadn’t lost her tongue, she would still have little agency in the plot. This is why Titus kills her; to remove her incestum, and end her suffering. Lavinia embodies the the cruel truth that women had to face in ancient Rome- once they lose their virginity, they are already dead in the eyes of most of Roman society.
3. Portia (Julius Caesar)
If Shakespeare only wrote these two female characters, you might rightly assume that he was a vile sexist, who defines a women’s usefulness simply by her chastity or lack thereof, and who thinks the proper function of a woman is to be quiet, demure, chaste, and obedient. Thankfully Shakespeare created Portia in Julius Caesar, and she defies many of the stereotypes associated with women in Ancient Rome.
Portia marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s Roman female characters as we we go from more ‘traditional’ female characters, to ones who exemplify masculine virtues. Instead of women being subordinates to men’s affairs and keeping out of religion, politics, and the affairs of Roman society, Portia is a character who demands respect, and to share her husband’s dangers. Some ancient sources suggested possibly Portia might have been the one who inspired Brutus to kill Caesar, (more on that later), but in any case Portia is not a character who is subordinate to men, but who demands to be treated as a Roman citizen.
In one of the strangest passages of the play, Portia reveals that she has willingly injured herself by stabbing herself in the thigh. She does this as a way of establishing her tolerance for pain and her desire to be taken seriously by her husband:
Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart
Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal920
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?925
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband's secrets?930
Brutus. O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
Romans have always had a connection with blood. Blood is a connection to duty; we owe our lives and our blood to Rome; the Gladiator whose blood honours the dead, the sacrifice of the enemy soldiers in Titus Andronicus, and the blood of the Roman soldier shed in service of the country. Rome is almost a culture that is built on blood. Portia in this gesture makes it clear that she is willing to shed blood just as much as her husband, who of course, will shed blood, (just not his own). In a way, Portia’s wound makes her more heroic than Brutus, because she is willing to suffer for the good of Rome, while Brutus kills for the good of Rome.
Shakespeare’s Roman characters, (male and female), extol the questionable virtue of the noble death. Historically when a Roman conspiracy failed, the conspirators had a choice; they could be paraded back to Rome humiliated and disgraced, or they could kill themselves and show defiance in the face of their conquerors. In some cases suicide was actually encouraged by the conquerors, as it meant that the threat was neutralized. In response, the conquerors would go easy on the wife and children.
Portia kills herself after Brutus is on the run. There could be two equally important reasons why she does this. First, she might be attempting to gain favor with the triumvirate by killing herself, (since she is complicit in the assassination), in the hopes that Anthony and a and Octavian will take pity on a Brutus’ children. It’s also possible that Portia kills herself because with the tide of battle turning, she might be next. Portia might be showing the same sort of resolve their husband later shows when he commits suicide to appease Caesar’s ghost and to defy his enemies the honor of capturing him.
Since Portia has a lot of her husband’s same virtues, the inevitable question I come to is to wonder what if; what if Shakespeare’s Brutus had a listened to Portia more,what might he have done?
This painting by Jacques Louis David depicts Brutus’ ancestor Junius Brutus. We see that he is utterly removed and stoic him in the face of death. He has ordered the execution of his own sons for trying to bring back the monarchy. In the background, Brutus’s wife and daughters are mourning the death of their son and brothers. Men like Brutus, with their Republican ideals, take little stock in the consequence of their actions.
One can only wonder if Brutus had had confided in Portia, would she have condemned his actions, or could she have led him to a more constructive path, that might have a prevented Brutus’ death, and maybe even stopped the coming days of the Empire?
In Shakespeare’s later Roman tragedy Coriolanus, we again see a young, chaste woman and an older mother figure, but unlike in Titus, the older Volumnia is much more heroic than the young maid Virgilia. Both show loyalty to Rome and devotion to Coriolanus, but Volumnia is not only a hero, she is in many ways a complete inversion of the Roman mother trope.
Volumnia is fanatically devoted to Rome and its army and like her son. She finds war more beautiful than symbols of peace, especially those associated with motherhood. In Act I, Scene iii, she says that the breasts of the Trojan Queen Hecuba were not as lovely as her son’s forehead when it spit blood in battle. She is an inversion of the traditional motherly character; because of her devotion to Rome and her son,
she is more outspoken than other women and not afraid to talk back to anyone who questions Rome. In a way she is more of Coriolanus’ general or his father than a traditional mother. Her love of Rome is inextricably tied to her love of her son. She raises her son to be a warrior for the Senate and the people of Rome, exhorting him to either return in glory, or die. Observe this passage where she tells Coriolanus’ wife that she was never proudest than when she sent her son off to war:
Volumnia: I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a
more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I
should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he
won honour than in the embracements of his bed where
he would show most love. When yet he was but
tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when
youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when
for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not
sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering
how honour would become such a person. that it was
no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if
renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel
war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows
bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not
more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child
than now in first seeing he had proved himself a
Although Virgilia fits the bill of the modest, chaste, and loyal Roman housewife, Volumnia is framed as much more heroic. She even uses her mighty stoicism to save Rome! After Coriolanus rebels against Rome and joins the Volscis, Volumnia gets him to agree to make peace with Rome. She does this by kneeling before her own son; humiliating herself for the good of Rome. This act of self-humiliation changes Coriolanus’ mind. Observe how shocked Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) kneels in this scene from the movie Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011).
4. Julia (Antony and Cleopatra) and with Cleopatra
With these final two examples, I’ve chosen two character who, (at face value), resemble Lavinia and Tamara. One is a dutiful, chaste Roman wife, related by blood to the Imperial family. Octavia was beloved throughout Rome for her chastity and kindness, and the citizens were outraged when her husband Marc Antony, abandoned her for Cleopatra, who was seen by many as a murderous, barbarous, lustful and an evil sorceress. However, Shakespeare paints a much more complex picture of Cleopatra, and though Octavia retains her chastity and is praised for her virtue, Cleopatra is unquestionably the star of the show, and ultimately commands more respect, awe, and even sympathy from the audience.
In Shakespeare’s play (and in real life), Cleopatra used her beauty as a propaganda tool. As I mentioned the Game of Thrones post, she deified herself in order to be taken seriously. In the 1st century AD, the system was very much rigged against female authority and so women had to resort to terrible measures in order to secure power for themselves.
If you look at the play again especially near the end, Cleopatra doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, she comes across as a woman who is trying to keep her Kingdom and her son Cesarian safe, and she will do anything to protect him. As the name suggests, Cesarean was Cleopatra’s love child of Julius Caesar, so the entire Roman world wanted him dead, because he was a threat to Octavian’s claim to the throne. To keep her son safe, Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony, hoping a powerful Roman alliance will keep her crown safe, and her son alive. Sadly for her, Octavian would stop at nothing to bring down all threats to his power, including Cesarian and Marc Antony. Arguably, the only reason he married Marc Antony to Octavia in the first place, was that he knew if Antony committed adultery, it would give Octavian the perfect excuse to raise an army and destroy Antony. Cleopatra got caught up in the political machinations of the most powerful and cunning man in the ancient world, and held him off as best she could.
Cleopatra struggles through the whole play to keep Antony, her people, and the situation in Rome under control. Antony never respects her as a queen and treats her like a jealous boyfriend, which is why they frequently get into fights.
However, after Antony’s suicide, the audience sees that Cleopatra also genuinely loved him back, and weeps for him as a wife, not an ally. Yet, quickly she regains her royal composure once Octavian threatens to take her back to Rome in chains. She decides to simultaneously deny Octavian the satisfaction, protect her son, and join her husband in the afterlife with her regal suicide:
Cleopatra: Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies]
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.
In conclusion, Shakespeare couldn’t go too far against the grain with challenging traditional patriarchal views of women, but in his Roman plays, we see characters who are simultaneously mothers and murderers, chaste and intelligent, citizens and devoted wives. I’m not trying to say that Shakespeare invented feminism, but I do believe his characters remind us that it is folly to try to box either gender into such stale old Roman categories as masculine or feminine. Perhaps we should all aspire to be like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety allowed her to succeed in a man’s world, while still being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a queen.