Sexualized Queens in Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra
Cleopatra and Gertrude’s sexuality is displayed throughout Shakespeare’s plays, involving nearly every character and therefore is central to the plot. Gertrude’s sexuality is the first reason that is driving Hamlet crazy and therefore distracting him from his plot for revenge. She is looked down upon for being a sexual being, which distracts the audience from her role as a Queen. On the other hand, Cleopatra acknowledges that she is subjected to objectification and uses it as a tool to help her reign. Through this she is still described to be more sensual than she is. This leads the female rulers to be presented as objects of their sexuality rather than powerful Queens. Queen Gertrude is dismissed as an oversexualized figurehead for her husband, while Cleopatra recognizes she is objectified because of her sexuality and uses it as a tool to maintain power in Egypt.
After the death of Old King Hamlet, it was not only Hamlet’s life that dramatically changed but also Gertrude’s. Not much is told about her relationship with the old King, but either way, she lost her husband and was thrusted into a new marriage. It is not told to the audience how quickly Gertrude and Claudius got married. Furthermore, it was most likely that their marriage was quick to help secure Claudius as King of Denmark. This is because Denmark is an electoral Monarch and by having the Queen of the late King of Denmark by Claudius’ side helps secure him on the throne (Rochester, 2019). The Old King Hamlet describes the marriage as being “lustful” and not as pure as the marriage he had with her (1.5.45). When he is talking to Hamlet about Gertrude, he is seen to be extremely overprotective over her (Levin, 3). This creates the image that Gertrude is not powerful enough to make her choices but is swayed by her sexual desires because even her late husband does not trust her to make logical decisions for herself.
For most of the play, Gertrude and Claudius remain side by side, but little is shown about their intimate relationship. The two of them are rarely alone together and if so, it is for political reasons. Hamlet consistently belittles his mother by discussing her sexuality but her marriage to Claudius is shown to be very politically orientated. An example of this is in Act 2 Scene 2, where Polonius comes to Gertrude and Claudius with what he believes is the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Gertrude and Claudius do not have an intimate moment in the play, alluding to that their relationship is purely political. The suspicion of if Gertrude and Claudius were having an affair while the Old King Hamlet was alive is because of what is described as a hasty marriage, but throughout the play, there is no evidence of that being the truth.
Cleopatra and Antony’s political and intimate relationship is based on manipulation of each other. The manipulation first occurs as soon as the audience is introduced to Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra stimulates desire within Antony that he does not know fully how to control or notice is even happening. Furthermore, she should not be fully discredited as just a symbol for her sexuality as she wielded power to control Antony for political reasons as well. For the audience this gives the perception that Cleopatra is “the crazy girlfriend” however, this is only one layer of Cleopatra’s character (Rochester, 2019). When Antony tries to go back to Roman, he returns to Cleopatra because of her power of seduction. While Antony is away Cleopatra does reveal to the audience, she cares about Antony by saying “That I might sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away” (1.5.5). Here she refers to Antony as hers and says how she notices his presence is missing. So even though their relationship is built off of manipulation Cleopatra does care about Antony.
Cleopatra and Gertrude have completely different roles in their intimate relationships. Not much is described to the audience about Gertrude’s intimate relationships with Claudius or Old King Hamlet, while Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony is the focal point of the play. Cleopatra controls her relationship with Antony through manipulation. Antony constantly makes choices based off of Cleopatra’s wants, an example is the first naval battle where Antony chooses to fight on sea mostly because Cleopatra wants to although he does not say that to Enobarbus or Canidius (3.7). Cleopatra uses manipulation as a tool to gain political information but also to feel in control of her romantic relationship with Antony. Gertrude does the opposite; she remains silent during her husband’s choices and never actively disagrees with Claudius’ actions. Gertrude could have gained a more active role in the play if she took ownership over her decision to marry Claudius, then as a character could focus on the political and social problems in the play.
Gertrude’s sexuality is consistently put on display by Hamlet bombarding her about her incestuous marriage with Claudius. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy the root cause of his depression is his mother’s marriage. Hamlet is revealing his personal turmoil “She married: — O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good; / But break my heart, — for I must hold my tongue! (1.2.156-159). Hamlet attacks Gertrude because of his inner turmoil of whether he should kill Claudius. From this point, fewer Gertrude’s sexuality and choices become a central distraction from Hamlet’s revenge. In the beginning, this is the driving reason for his melancholy. He feels betrayed by his mother for choosing Claudius over grieving for his father so he attacks his mother’s morality and appearance (Levin, 7). Hamlet idealized their relationship similar to how he idealizes his father. Therefore, Hamlet projects these feelings of betrayal and attacks Gertrude’s morality throughout the play. He insists that Gertrude is too old to have an active sexual life, but that cannot be the reason since only a few months have passed since Old Hamlet’s death (5). He is contradicting himself in his grievances and therefore emplacing his anger onto Gertrude. Ultimately, she is demoted as an influential character to an object of the male gaze because of Hamlet’s obsession.
The male characters in Antony and Cleopatra sexualize Cleopatra by creating the image that she is an object whose purpose is for male use. Enobarbus describes Cleopatra by saying “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold, / Purple the sails, and so perfumèd”, he is describing Cleopatra to be a luxurious Queen without having met her personally, but the prestige that follows Cleopatra creates this sensual image (2.2.193-195). However, Enobarbus never met Cleopatra personally there, it was the idea of her that was sexualized into this goddess image. The luxurious atmosphere that surrounds Cleopatra adds to the sensuality that differs greatly from Roman life. Cleopatra is an exotic figure who is being described to be more sexualized than she is trying to be. Furthermore, Cleopatra is described to be this “tawny or “black” character but there is no history of this to be true (Macdonald, 2). Partly of this is from the fetishization of exotic people which is closely related to imperialism. This furthers the idea that Cleopatra is not like Romans and therefore not as powerful.
Cleopatra is described to be this goddess-like woman who lives very luxuriously, but Gertrude is only represented as a lustful older woman who should no longer care about sex. The only similarity the Queens have in common is that in the plays they are presented to be more sexualized than they actually are. Hamlet consistently describes Gertrude’s sexuality explicitly to the audience and other characters. Moreover, Cleopatra is described to be more sexual because of the atmosphere that surrounds her, rather than focusing on her actions. While they are both described to be oversexualized for Cleopatra it is mostly a positive characteristic, rather than for Gertrude who is belittled for her sexual actions. Neither of the women are offered a chance to describe their thoughts on the sexualization they face. Furthermore, Cleopatra accepts the situation and uses it to her advantage by manipulating the sexualization to benefit her social and political needs. Gertrude almost completely remains silent on the subject, except for when she meets with Hamlet and he attacks her for marrying Claudius, but even then she does not specifically say her thoughts. Ultimately, Gertrude is silenced because of the characters in Hamlet discussing her sexuality while it gives Cleopatra a louder voice.
The idea of the Queen’s ages and looks appear to be a focal point of how they are perceived in the play. The two Queens are described to be very differently because of the environment that surrounds them. Little is described about Gertrude’s physical appearance besides Hamlet’s disgust with her acting in a sexual manner at her age. This is partly due to the submissive role that Gertrude plays in Hamlet. The details about Gertrude’s appearance are delivered by Hamlet who is currently upset with his mother’s actions; therefore, his opinion is contorted. Similarly, all we know about Cleopatra is described by other characters. As described earlier Enobarbus described Cleopatra to be this sexual woman who enjoys luxury. As a result of having other characters describe the Queen’s appearance, it allows them to be objectified by them. Furthermore, it is another way for Gertrude and Cleopatra to have control taken away from them because they are unable to even describe themselves.
It is important to note that Gertrude is the only character in Hamlet who remains focused on the problems within the play. She remains active in both motherly and political obligations while the male figures in the play try to dismiss her as an object for the male gaze. However, while Gertrude does remain focused and ignores the sexualization she is often ignored because of this. Queen Gertrude leads one of the most important scenes in Hamlet, which is Ophelia’s death. Gertrude brings news of her death to Claudius and Laertes, offering the first interpretation of her death which is that it is an accident (Montgomery, 10). It is not until later when the clowns discuss that it is suspected to be a suicide but with Gertrude’s speech, she is given a somewhat Christian burial (11-12). This is the point of the play that leads up to the chain of deaths that occur in the last Act. Gertrude’s influence often goes unnoticed in Hamlet but she is still a Queen who has the capability to be influential if it was not for her over-sexualization. The submissiveness creates the image that Gertrude is solely a figurehead for her husband Claudius.
Gertrude’s main function in the play is to act under men. In Hamlet, Gertrude is constantly around male figures and remains mostly silent while they exasperate themselves. An example of this is the closet scene in Act 3 (Montgomery, 5). Both Polonius and Claudius think she should talk to Hamlet to understand the root of his madness. This is because Gertrude genuinely cares for Hamlet’s wellbeing, which Claudius and Polonius believe will allow her to get to the root of his madness. Claudius and Polonius use Gertrude as a figure to spy on Hamlet and do not consider her opinion on the matter. She takes directions from Polonius who decides to hide behind a curtain to spy on their conversation. This highlights that Polonius does not trust Gertrude’s judgement so he feels the need to force himself into the scene, which ultimately leads to his death. Furthermore, Hamlet comes into her office and accuses her of acting morally unjust. In this Act, Gertrude is being overrun by her male counterparts until the Ghost returns and tells Hamlet to remain focused and to not hassle his mother. Furthermore, one again Gertrude is not shown to handle the situation herself but needs to be saved by another male figure.
Cleopatra’s sexuality is central to her reign, creating her to be seen as an object of the male gaze. As MacDonald says, she links her exoticism to male surrender and desire (11). Therefore, she controls men through her desire to ensure her position as a ruler. Cleopatra uses her sexuality as a tool to manipulate Antony to help her reign by saying “Nay, hear them, Antony. / Fulvia perchance is angry. Or who knows / If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent / His powerful mandate to you, “Do this, or this. / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that. / Perform ’t, or else we damn thee.” (1.1.20-25). Here Cleopatra is partly teasing Antony about his masculinity by saying he is being controlled by his wife and the young Caesar but as a ruler, she wants to hear the news from Rome in case it pertains to Egypt. Here while she is acting romantic, she is also contemplating the political perspective of the situation. This adds a layer to Cleopatra as a character because she is only described in a sexualized nature rather than a powerful ruler. While she is manipulating Antony, she is looking out for herself and her nation.
In Antony and Cleopatra Egypt represents femininity and desire which is directly connected to the ideas of Cleopatra. Leonard Tennenhouse (qtd in Harris) that “Cleopatra is Egypt” and “she embodies everything that is not English according to the nationalism which developed under Elizabeth”, which highlights how Shakespeare created Egypt in this way to further the audience’s understanding of a sexualized Nation (Harris, 3). By doing this it adds characteristics to not only the ruler, Cleopatra, but also labels the Nation itself. Cleopatra is seen as a laid-back ruler who likes to party but is also overran by emotion. On the other hand, Rome is described to be starkly different as it represents stoicism and coldness (7). Having this stark difference between the two settings creates more division between Cleopatra and Romans. Furthermore, since Rome is looked to be the stronger nation and represents maleness, Egypt and therefore, Cleopatra is seen as weaker and more fragile. This idea of the settings perpetuates patriarchal thinking as stereotypical ideas of femininity are represented by not only Cleopatra but the nation of Egypt.
Gertrude’s sexuality distracts the audience of her role as a Queen, while, Cleopatra uses it as a tool to help secure her reign. Cleopatra is more aware of her position as a sexualized woman and uses it to her advantage, rather than ignoring it as Gertrude does. This allows her to use it to her advantage, rather than being submissive to it. Furthermore, Gertrude’s sexuality is one of the main topics of conversation in Hamlet but she rarely comments on it or voices her reasoning for marrying Claudius. By not addressing her sexuality Gertrude is unable to yield it to benefit her leadership as the Queen of Denmark. Similarly, both of the Queens are not fully taken seriously because their sexuality is exploited. An example of this is when Cleopatra said she would be heading into war against Caesar with her fleet and Enobarbus replied with “Well, I could reply, / If we should serve with horse and mares together, / The horse were merely lost. The mares would bear / A soldier and his horse.” (3.7.7-11). Here he is saying her sexuality and beauty will distract Antony from the battle, then belittles her saying that the purpose of women is purely for sex. Moreover, Cleopatra does ignore him and goes into battle. While both Queens are subjected to objectification during their reign Cleopatra ignores it and acts how she wants to, while Gertrude does not act.
Similarly, both Queens have divided on who or what they should devote all of their loyalty to. As Michael Davies describes the conflicts that create a division in Gertrude’s loyalties; “her public and political function as such is complicated by her domestic and familial role” (77). It is obvious to the reader that Gertrude does care about Hamlet early in the play where she confronts him about his sorrows. Gertrude does remain loyal to Claudius despite Hamlet’s attempt to tell her what he believes to be the truth, however, this is partly due to him pretending to be crazy. Similarly, Cleopatra is divided between her intense love for Antony but also the political disruption that is caused as a result. As discussed earlier, Cleopatra does pay attention to herself as a ruler and does not fully participate in the idea of a crazy, lustful woman, but she does this while still furthering her relationship with Antony. Her relationship with Antony puts her in a vulnerable position politically when by going to battle but continues this relationship. Furthermore, because of these divides the Queen’s loyalties they die as a result. Since these Queens are unable to fully commit to a side to be loyal to they are going between both sides leading to conflict and their personal deaths. In the example of Gertrude if she was solely with Claudius he may have told her his plan to kill Hamlet or Hamlet would have tried to protect her further if he was not upset about her sexuality. This ultimately causes Gertrude to drink the poisoned wine excluded from both plots. Cleopatra is more aware of her decisions and the consequence’s, even though she is impulsively she does think more like a politician.
Both Queen Gertrude and Queen Cleopatra are objects of their sexuality, however, Cleopatra uses it as a tool to further her political relationships, while Gertrude is silenced by it. They are objectified because of their active sex lives and the luxury that follows them as rulers. As a result, the male characters attempt to minimize Gertrude and Cleopatra’s contributions. There is some distinct difference between the Queens, for example, Gertrude remains quiet during personal and political affairs, while Cleopatra is hot-headed and speaks her mind. This creates the image that Gertrude is more of a submissive character. Cleopatra does yield more power and is able to control the objectification more than Gertrude, making her the more politically successful Queen.
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