How literature has been committing mass femicide for centuries

From Juliet to Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary, why is Western literature a roll call of women who die, who MUST die, by their own hand? Is such brutal demise a final submission or a paradoxical reclamation of power, asks Andy Martin

Andy Martin
Friday 22 December 2017 17:36
Age cannot wither her: Pierre Mignard’s 1635 depiction of the death of Cleopatra, arguably Shakespeare’s most transformative female character, whom he gifted with ‘a grasp of her own fate and a new autonomy of spirit’
Age cannot wither her: Pierre Mignard’s 1635 depiction of the death of Cleopatra, arguably Shakespeare’s most transformative female character, whom he gifted with ‘a grasp of her own fate and a new autonomy of spirit’

It is obvious that William Shakespeare should be right up with Harvey Weinstein on the #MeToo list of offenders. He really only likes women when they dress up as men (easily done since women actors were prohibited back in the day). Hamlet’s denunciation, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” – specifically an attack on his own mother – resonates throughout the plays. Other than the flat-out monsters, of course. It’s not just Macbeth’s witches (nothing like the ones of JK Rowling’s fond imagining). Look at those hideous daughters of poor old King Lear. Personally I’ve always had a soft spot for Lady Macbeth. She should probably never have married that Macbeth guy in the first place. At least she has a coherent plan – kill off the old king and install a new one. But why does Shakespeare then have to send her mad? He really does spoil her fun, having her crack up neurotically over one little murder. And then she offs herself, off-stage, saving the executioner the trouble. Off seems to be the mot juste for Shakespeare’s women: there aren’t that many of them, and most of the ones that do appear on stage have to take their own life: Ophelia (betrayed by Hamlet), Gertrude (mother of Hamlet), Juliet (blame Romeo), and finally, Cleopatra.

Harold Bloom, one of the great literary critics of our time, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, and author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, has recently published a new work in his series on Shakespeare’s “personalities”, Cleopatra: I am Fire and Air, making a compelling case for the Egyptian Queen as a paragon of feminine sexuality and “the most seductive woman in all of Shakespeare”. He admits that he “fell in love” with Cleopatra as embodied by Janet Suzman in a Trevor Nunn production in London in 1974. Which, by a strange chance, I also happened to see. Suzman – now Dame Janet – is conscious that women make up “only 16 per cent of the characters” in Shakespeare, so the odds are stacked against them from the beginning. But she too feels that Cleopatra is the exceptional female protagonist: “the only woman in the canon, I believe, who begins to show glimpses of interiority akin to the male creations, as well as a grasp of her own fate that betokens a new autonomy of spirit”.

Bloom comes at Cleopatra from the point of view of a man and an analyst of the Western literary tradition. She is, he argues, Shakespeare’s most “metamorphic” woman. She radiates unpredictability. He notes that whereas the verb “become” appears only once in Hamlet, variations on the word come up no less than 17 times in Antony and Cleopatra. And the play is, at some level, a dramatisation of becoming, instability, transitioning.

Throughout most of the play the water metaphor is predominant – signifying fluidity and overflowing spontaneity and energy. Cleopatra is the goddess Isis, obscurely linked to the river Nile, which always seems to be in flood. She only becomes “fire and air” at the end of the play when – partly anticipating her imminent incineration – she kills herself, courtesy of an asp, and gives her “other elements to baser life”.

Death becomes her: John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52)

Cleopatra is an exponent of the quid pro quo, exchanging sex and marriage for power in her encounters with the Roman Empire. Bloom plots out her “erotic career” and compares her favourably with Antony, whom she eclipses, and who seems to fall apart on account of being dominated by a woman. “She beguiles and she devastates,” as Bloom puts it.

This may have something to do with the virtual transgendering that goes on in the play. At least metaphorically, the woman becomes a man and the man becomes a woman. Or potentially. “I would I had thy inches”, says Cleopatra. Enobarbus, one of Antony’s “sad captains”, protests, “Transform us not to women.” Enobarbus finally deserts Antony: all the jokes and jibes about Antony in the play have to do with how feminine he has become since he gave up war for love, swinging around from the orbit of Mars into that of Venus.

Suzman, having played the part, approaches Cleopatra from the perspective of a woman and “an actor who has to make her story live from moment to moment on the stage”. She sees her as in many ways the archetypal feminist, precursor of Queen Elizabeth I, Mrs Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, and Angela Merkel. She also discerns in her character “a whole heap of nuance, self-mockery, heartfelt humility, a politic mind, a teasing temperament inserted into a commanding demeanour; both high comedy and high tragedy in one soul”. Or as Shakespeare’s puts it, “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.

In Liz Taylor’s 1963 iteration, ‘a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one’ 

Harold Bloom, now too infirm to travel, 40-odd years after seeing her perform as Cleopatra, respectfully sent Suzman in London a copy of his book. She wrote back to thank him, but also added, “I will have to approach your Cleopatra with a slow and respectful caution because although I can see at a glance that you are deeply under her spell, as a man should be, I could not approach her being in the same way. She and I had to be comrades in arms and up to each other’s sisterly tricks; I was entirely intent on taking her side in all things, even when she perfectly well understood she was being impossible, but always true to herself in her honest assessment both of herself and Antony. She didn’t know however, just how frightening and bloody and wet and roaring a sea-battle was going to be. That was a big mistake; there were others…”

Suzman is charitably sceptical where the 1963 Hollywood film version of the story is concerned. “The whole thrust (excuse me) of the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor extravaganza has less to do with what our man in Southwark thought up one fine day in 1607 than a McDonald’s Big Mac has to do with a fighting bull. Though I can’t help feeling Shakespeare might have enjoyed watching it while eating popcorn and smiling to himself. He would have just lurved the film camera – those helicopter shots swooping from Alexandria to Rome and back in a blink... I guess he invented the film camera too.”

Stacy Schiff in her astute biography of the historical Cleopatra describes her as “a goddess as a child, a queen at 18, a celebrity soon thereafter”. She died at the age of 39, in BC30. At the height of her power, “she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler”. Schiff argues that, in the subsequent tradition, including Shakespeare and Liz Taylor, “a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.” Tabloid Orientalism has converted her into a temptress and a siren. She was charismatic and fluent in nine languages, but becomes known above all for embodying female sexuality – “the wickedest woman in history” according to Cecil B DeMille. Shakespeare is one of the great mythifiers, “as much to blame”, according to Schiff, “for our having lost sight of Cleopatra VII as Roman propaganda and Elizabeth Taylor’s limpid lilac eyes” And as for Liz Taylor’s portrayal, “I’d be hard pressed to name anything the two Cleopatras had in common aside from great jewellery.”

The inescapable semantic undertow in all of Shakespeare links sex with death. In the Elizabethan period, orgasm was known as “the little death” (in French, the closely related phrase “la petite mort” is still current and was seen by Roland Barthes as the fundamental objective of literature). So when Enobarbus says “I have seen her die twenty times” he is not suggesting she has been miraculously resurrected. Antony, on the other hand, is depicted as becoming weak and flaccid. “Now my spirit is going; I can no more” or “I will joy no more”. Shakespeare’s very name has a phallic connotation: when Antony begins to lose power in his sword, we know that the whole play is a take on the inevitable failure of desperate and doomed masculinity. “The soldier’s pole is fallen.” Antony and Cleopatra is perhaps the closest any play has come to being an allegory of a protracted single sex scene, with all the corresponding highs and lows, the ambivalence that Serge Gainsbourg summed up in his paradoxical phrase, “Je t’aime moi non plus” (I love you, me neither).

And the morbid toll never ends: the death of Emma Bovary

​Suzman argues that “the wondrous originality of Shakespeare is that he has resurrected a kind of genius in his version of her – a charismatic monarch in her prime of life, who breathes forth power and excites a sort of awe in the men who meet her, a reigning queen eager to preserve her succession and her country.” But Shakespeare is not a lone-wolf genius himself and would never have claimed to be: he draws on many previous sources (Plutarch, for example) and his writing, distinctive though it is, is also part of a system that we can call the “literotic”.

Virgil’s depiction of the fate of Dido (deserted by Aeneas she commits hara kiri with his sword) got there first. But Shakespeare’s play has a lot to answer for where subsequent writing is concerned. Apart from anything else, he gives permission to all subsequent authors to bump off their heroines, or rather have them bump themselves off. Flaubert does it agonisingly, with arsenic, to Emma Bovary at the end of Madame Bovary. Also in the second half of the 19th century, Tolstoy condemns the irresistible Anna Karenina to throw herself under the wheels of a train. Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s protagonist – also embodied by Janet Suzman in the past – blows her brains out. The last line of that play has Judge Black exclaiming, “But good God! people don’t do such things.” The fact is that they do, so so often in literature. Strindberg’s Miss Julie walks off stage at the end of the play with a shaving razor in her hand, but nobody thinks she is planning to have a shave.

Over the centuries, literature has been committing mass femicide. But why do all these female characters have to commit “self-slaughter”, as Hamlet would say? “Then is it sin/ To rush into the secret house of death/ ‘Ere death come to us?” There is a certain inevitability, a pattern, a rhythm in literature. Sex followed by death. It’s the Sadeian formula. Cleopatra – the archetype – takes her own life (with “high artistry”, says Bloom) because she is sick of having to incarnate sexuality in the gaze of men. “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch/ Which hurts and is desired.” In the mind/body duality that obsesses Western literature, she is required to be body, while he is allowed to transcend and float and think and do a few other things besides. “No more but e’en a woman, and commanded / By such poor passions as the maid that milks / And does the meanest chares.” In killing herself, she is saying, in effect, I’ve had enough of being a body. I don’t want to be construed as pure biology any more. So I’m going to shuffle off this mortal coil and become fire and air instead.

Harold Bloom’s ‘Cleopatra: I am Fire and Air’ is published by Scribner

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’. He teaches at the University of Cambridge. Follow @andymartinink

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