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Mrs Jameson

“ Of all Shakespeare's female characters, Miranda and Cleopatra appear to me the most wonderful. The first, unequalled as a poetical conception; the latter, miraculous as a work of art. If we could make a regular classification of his characters, these would form the two extremes of simplicity and complexity; and all his other characters would be found to fill up some shade or gradation between these two. Great crimes, springing from high passions, grafted on high qualities, are the legitimate source of tragic poetry. But to make the extreme of littleness produce an effect like grandeur—to make the excess of frailty produce an effect like power—to heap up together all that is most unsubstantial, frivolous, vain, contemptible, and variable, till the worthlessness be lost in the magnitude, and a sense of the sublime spring from the very elements of littleness,—to do this, belonged only to Shakespeare, that worker of miracles. Cleopatra is a brilliant antithesis, a compound of contradictions, of all that we most hate, with what we most admire. The whole character is the triumph of the external over the innate; and yet like one of her country's hieroglyphics, though she present at first view a splendid and perplexing anomaly, there is deep meaning and wondrous skill in the apparent enigma, when we come to analyze and decipher it. But how are we to arrive at the solution of this glorious riddle, whose dazzling complexity continually mocks and eludes us? What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction —its consistent inconsistency, if I may use such an expression—which renders it quite impossible to reduce it to any elementary principles. It will, perhaps, be found on the whole, that vanity and the love of power predominate; but I do not say it is so, for these qualities and a hundred others mingle into each other, and shift, and change, and glance away, like the colours in a peacock's train. In some others of Shakespeare's female characters, also remarkable for their complexity (Portia and Juliet, for instance), we are struck with the delightful sense of harmony in the midst of contrast, so that the idea of unity and simplicity of effect is produced in the midst of variety; but in Cleopatra, it is the absence of unity and simplicity which strikes us; the impression is that of perpetual and irreconcileable contrast. The continual approximation of whatever is most opposite in character, in situation, in sentiment, would be fatiguing, were it not so perfectly natural: the woman herself would be distracting, if she were not so enchanting. I have not the slightest doubt that Shakespeare's Cleopatra is the real historical Cleopatra—the ‘Rare Egyptian’—indivdualised and placed before us. Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman's wit and woman's wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous eastern colouring of the character; all these contradictory elements has Shakespeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gipsy sorcery. What better proof can we have of the individual truth of the character than the admission that Shakespeare's Cleopatra produces exactly the same effect on us that is recorded of the real Cleopatra? She dazzles our faculties, perplexes our judgement, bewilders and bewitches our fancy from the beginning to the end of the drama, we are conscious of a kind of fascination against which our moral sense rebels, but from which there is no escape. The epithets applied to her perpetually by Antony and others confirm this impression: ‘enchanting queen!’—‘witch’—‘spell’—‘great fairy’—‘cockatrice’—‘serpent of ‘old Nile’—‘thou grave charm’—are only a few of them. . . . In representing the mutual passion of Antony and Cleopatra as real and fervent, Shakespeare has adhered to the truth of history as well as to general nature. On Antony's side it is a species of infatuation, a single and engrossing feeling: it is, in short, the love of a man declined in years for a woman very much younger than himself, and who has subjected him by every species of female enchantment. In Cleopatra the passion is of a mixt nature, made up of real attachment, combined with the love of pleasure, the love of power, and the love of self. Not only is the character most complicated, but no one sentiment could have existed pure and unvarying in such a mind as hers; her passion in itself is true, fixed to one centre; but like the pennon streaming from the mast, it flutters and veers with every breath of her variable temper: yet in the midst of all her caprices, follies, and even vices, womanly feeling is still predominant in Cleopatra; and the change which takes place in her deportment towards Antony, when their evil fortune darkens round them, is as beautiful and interesting in itself as it is striking and natural. Instead of the airy caprice and provoking petulance she displays in the first scenes, we have a mixture of tenderness, and artifice, and fear, and submissive blandishment. Her behaviour, for instance, after the battle of Actium, when she quails before the noble and tender rebuke of her lover, is partly female subtlety and partly natural feeling.

The Cleopatra of Fletcher reminds us of the antique colossal statue of her in the Vatican, all grandeur and grace. Cleopatra in Dryden's tragedy is like Guido's dying Cleopatra in the Pitti Palace, tenderly beautiful. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is like one of those graceful and fantastic pieces of antique Arabesque, in which all anomalous shapes and impossible and wild combinations of form are woven together in regular confusion and most harmonious discord: and such, we have reason to believe, was the living woman herself, when she existed upon this earth.

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