“I never gave you ought”: The Nunnery Scene Across Texts

There are three versions of Hamlet that have a rightful claim to be an “original” copy of the version written by William Shakespeare. All three legitimate claimants to an esteemed placement in literary canon have great similarity in plot and content, and all three were published during or immediately following the playwright’s lifetime. This multiplicity has been a major contributing factor to the presentation of the singular Hamlet most people imagine to exist. By looking at the 1603 Quarto (Q1), the 1604-5 Quarto (Q2), and finally the First Folio (FF) copies[1], there emerges a way of examining a text potentially in flux. This study examines a portion of one scene across the texts: Act III Scene i, specifically the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia[2]. This scene was chosen for specifically its nebulousness across the texts, and the potential interpretations for the critic, director, actor. By examining the changing and shifting nature of this scene across texts, there is the possibility to lift out a deeper understanding of the pathos and motivations behind the words. Also, the examination gives the slightest window into a potential working process for the playwright, as he negotiated his intentions and the demands of performance.

Structurally, the lines being focused on within this study follow the infamous “To be or not to be…” speech[3], but the placement of this scene in the plot of the play varies among the three versions. Q1 places the scene earlier in the play, before Hamlet begins working with the acting company on his trap for his uncle. Q2 and FF place the scene in the midst of the working action, possibly because the placement of the scene in the midst of the setting of the trap creates more tension. The audience has seen Hamlet for a longer length of time, and is more aware of his internal plotting with the setting of this scene at a chronologically later point. Q2 and FF have the best chances of showing an “edited” text[4], with the evidence of their later publication dates and substantial changes from Q1. The scene is also markedly shorter in Q1: 61 lines to Q2’s 73. The scene itself is structured differently among the texts, with lines being moved around more than being changed. Sections of dialogue are moved or lifted into different orders.

Hamlet notices Ophelia, and greets her in verse at the tail end of his soliloquy. “Soft you now, / The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons/ Be all my finnes remembred” is the FF version, while Q1 has the much simpler “Lady, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered”[5]. Q2 is virtually identical to FF’s version, and it seems the length is to make a greater emphasis when Hamlet shifts to prose in his exchange with Ophelia. In Q1, Ophelia immediately sets about trying to return Hamlet’s “Remembrances” or letters. However, in Q2 and FF she asks how he has been. In Q2 he responds with “I humbly thank you, well” while in FF he says “well” thrice. The repetition of the word gives it a mocking tone, signifying that in the FF version he has likely immediately re-affected his madness. Q2 gives a chance for Hamlet to be sincere in his response. This is an instance where the texts represent divergent attitudes and affects for an actor to undertake. The shift to prose that is present in all texts for Hamlet’s dialogue suggests several things. First, prose allows for a quicker pace. It also is juxtaposed with Ophelia’s constant use of verse. Hamlet’s use of prose brings him down a level, and changes him textually. In a way, Ophelia is more consistent in this exchange, and is in the “higher” form as she sticks to verse. She is measured as Hamlet lacks meter. Hamlet’s responses and questions in prose bring him down as he brings Ophelia’s character down. However, she retains her lofty position, and remains in the position of offering up her “orisons”—throughout Hamlet’s ranting, she prays for heavenly intervention for his sanity. This masking of speech from Hamlet separates the two and enforces the possibility that performance is the true conflict between the pair.

In Q1, Hamlet immediately begins interrogating Ophelia with “Are you fair?” after the attempted return of his letters. In contrast, Q2 and FF have him deny giving her “ought”. This is the biggest variation in structure among the texts within this particular scene. Q1 seems to give Hamlet immediate suspicion upon the return of the letters; Q2 and FF seem to indicate a sort of shock with his quick denial. Hamlet, later in the play, will proclaim that he loved Ophelia more than anyone. The brevity of Q1 takes away from this proclamation of love. Q2 and FF, rather, give the sense that Hamlet is genuinely taken aback by the return of his letters. His denial could be a form of shock, and the fruit of true affection being spurned. Ophelia’s pressing of Hamlet and her insistence that “Rich gifts wax poore, when giuers proue vnkinde” provokes Hamlet greatly. Q2 and FF seem to have a natural crescendo, more harmonized than Q1’s version. It seems likely that the rearrangement of the scene shows Shakespeare at work in some way, that he recognized the pacing of the scene required shifting and additions to be believable. The edits, if they are thus, show a greater pathos than their earlier kin.

Hamlet’s rant about honesty and beauty might reveal a true interior of his character within the scene. Hamlet has projected his mother onto Ophelia, and is unable to distinguish them as separate women. The difference between Q1 and the other texts is that Hamlet never makes any claim to have once loved Ophelia to her face in Q1. He only insists “I never gave you nothing” (7.153-4) where he claims “I did loue you once” in FF. Within Q1, his proclamations are confined to his letters and her grave. In Q2 and FF it becomes possible Hamlet’s insistence that Ophelia get to a Nunnery may well be his harsh attempt to preserve her from the corruption he sees in marriage as a result of his parents’ failed marriage.

Affectation and acting have a great impact on this scene’s tension. To a degree, both Ophelia and Hamlet are acting parts in front of each other, and the affectation is the conflict. How much sincerity is each character utilizing within the scene? More validly, at which point for each of the pair do their masks go on and off? It is possible that the scene begins with Ophelia masked and Hamlet open, then ends with Hamlet masked and Ophelia forcibly unmasked by Hamlet’s performance. Ophelia is aware that her father and the king are listening to the pair. If Hamlet realizes he is being watched, when does he make the realization? Textually, the easiest answer in all three versions would have to be when Hamlet asks Ophelia “Where’s your Father?”, but various points indicate that he may be aware of the eavesdroppers. It’s possible he is aware from the very beginning, as an explanation for his treatment of Ophelia. When Hamlet discusses the dishonesty of men, and tells Ophelia “beleeue none of vs”, this indicates an accusation directed toward the men who are dishonestly listening. Hamlet is already suspicious of Polonius as a spy for his uncle; he would naturally now associate his daughter with this suspicion[6]. At the very least, the texts seem to indicate that he must know by the end of the encounter, because his lines “Thofe that are married already, all but one fhall liue, the reft fhall keep as they are” indicate the king as the “but one” doomed to death.

Ophelia’s epitaph to this encounter[7] is different among the three texts, giving various inlets to her reaction to Hamlet’s exterior appearance and behavior. The biggest difference is in Q1, where she gives a quick four-line prayer[8]:

Great God of heaven, what a quick change is this!

The courtier, scholar, soldier, all in him,

All dashed and splintered thence! O, woe is me

To ha’ seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Meanwhile, here are the Q2 and FF versions side by side:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,

Th’expectation and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

Th’observed of all observers, quite, quite down.

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his musicked vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled out of time and harsh—

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me

T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

O what a Noble minde is heere o’re-throwne?

The Courtiers, Soldiers, Schollers: Eye, tongue, fword,

Th’expectanfie and Rofe of the faire State,

The glaffe of Fashion and the mould of Forme,

Th’obferu’d of all Observers, quite, quite downe.

Haue I of Ladies most deiect and wretched,

That fuck’d the Honie of his Musicke Vowes:

Now fee that Noble, and most Soueraigne Reafon,

Like fweet Bels iangled out of tune, and harfh—

That vnmatch’d Forme and Feature of blowne youth,

Blafted with extafie. O woe is me,

T’haue feene what I haue feene: fee what I fee.

Q1 appears to be a gutted version of the Q2 and FF versions, but the better hypothesis is that the later versions were edited for more gravity. Q1’s simplicity takes away from the inner turmoil Ophelia faces following the conversation. There is more that Ophelia needs to say following Hamlet’s abuse of her person and the apparent resolution of their romance. It also serves to make Ophelia’s later madness more jarring. She approaches Hamlet’s madness with solemnity and reasoned observations about the impact this madness has not only on her, but also on the whole of Denmark. Ophelia is firmly sane in this scene, and that firm sanity makes her later losses more noticable[9].

The majority of differences between this speech Q2 and FF are spelling and grammar conventions, which were unreliable at best at this point in printing history. These variations, though, give a lot for an actress to consider in performance. After all, punctuation kept could give great insight. Could the capitalization of certain words give them a different emphasis in performance? For an immediate example, the speaking of the second line would alter considerably when using the FF version, because it has a colon that breaks things up[10]. The lines are slowed down by the addition of so much punctuation, which is conventionally seen as a pause. The first line has a question mark rather than an exclamation point in the FF version. In fact, there are no exclamation points in the FF version. The FF version is then slower, more considerate than Q2. Q2 seems to be said in breathless passion, while FF might be said in measured shock.

Then there is the issue of “time” and “tune” in the ninth line of the epitaph. Both work in the context of music and the metaphor, and both could easily be mistaken from a handwritten manuscript for each other. “Out of time” suggests the cacophony of music not ordered by time. Anyone with the experience of hearing a band or orchestra warm up would be familiar with the sensations associated with the lack of “time”. The snatches of melody and scales intermingling with general noise as musicians warm up and prepare for performance is loud and at times painful[11]. This suggests a familiarity of sound, but a lack of order. “Out of tune” suggests the order is present, but the sound is wrong. In some ways, the two lines are inversions of each other, and each has a significant impact on meaning. Both highlight the “wrongness” of what Ophelia has heard; although she can recognize aspects that are familiar to her within Hamlet, she can also detect disorder. The choice of “time” or “tune” might then be informed by what type of performance Hamlet gives, and what the director of a performance may wish to convey unto his audience. The contrast could be unintentional, but a decision on which to use could prove to have a larger impact on the play than thought possible in the hands of a skilled director.

What emerges for consideration from the bodies of Q1, Q2, and FF are several choices and possibilities. How much of the scene is performance on the part of the characters? Careful consideration of the text gives possibility to the pathos of conflicting performance, and even the possibility that Hamlet and Ophelia hurt each other deeply in the act of trying to spare each other from the dangers each perceives for the other. Ironically, Ophelia falls victim to precisely what she sees as a danger to Hamlet: madness will have her reason jangled out of tune, and she will drown singing her own music. This scene, then, has the capability to set the tone for the rest of the play. It can lend sincerity or falsehood to Hamlet’s proclamations of love at Ophelia’s grave; it can add poignancy to Ophelia’s madness. Thus, careful consideration of all available texts makes a single performance or reading more textured and rich. These convergences and divergences serve to make the play multi-faceted and empowered, and should be looked at with enthusiasm rather than trepidation. Variety and alternate viewpoints are what makes the multiplicity of this play so unique, even among other plays written by Shakespeare.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies. “The tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”. Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount [at the charges of W. Iaggard, Ed. Blount, I. Smithweeke, and W. Aspley], 1623. Web. 5 July 2014. <http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/download/pdfs/F-ham.pdf&gt;.

Shakespeare, William, and Ann Thompson. Hamlet. Reprint. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006. Print

Shakespeare, William, and Ann Thompson. Hamlet, the texts of 1603 and 1623. . Reprint. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2007. Print.

[1] Q1 and Q2 are being sourced from the Arden 3 series, while the FF is being sourced from the Bodleian’s First Folio facsimile. Spellings and punctuations are kept true from the facsimile, while Q1 and Q2 are copied as shown in the Arden 3 versions.

[2] Q1 7.137-98, Q2 3.1.87-160, FF pages 265-6.

[3] This speech alone would warrant its own study, which is why it has been omitted here.

[4] Presuming the validity of Q1.

[5] “Nymph” gives an otherworldly quality to Ophelia, and maybe even signifies that she is something of nature, foreshadowing her return to it via drowning. Also, it seems likely that Hamlet is acknowledging Ophelia as being lost to him as a result of his father’s vengeance.

[6] Yet another way the pair is separated by outside forces.

[7] And presumably an epitaph to Hamlet’s sanity.

[8] Another orison to remind us of Hamlet’s sins?

[9] This scene, in particular, seems a good argument against the idea Ophelia is prone to madness. Rather, it suggests that she is obviously driven to insanity.

[10] Presumably to show possession of the “Eye, tongue, fword”.

[11] Especially painful with a lack of expertise in the musicians’ ranks—out of time and out of tune is probably the most painful to witness.

Subversive Deaths: Shakespeare’s Women and Mortal Agency

[Shakespeare’s] characters combine history and real life; they are complete individuals, whose hearts and souls are laid open before us: all may behold, and all judge for themselves.

Anna Brownell Jameson

Whether I swim or sink
That’s no concern of yours now
How could you possibly think
You had the power to know how
To keep me breathing
As the water rises up again
Before I slip away…

Emilie Autumn, “Opheliac”

Can death be a subversive act? Suicide and murder are common among Shakespeare’s works, and this study endeavors to look at the death of women in the plays as acts of agency rather than submission. Rather than being defined by death, these women define their deaths for themselves and their audiences. According to early critic Anna Brownell Jameson, the heroines of Shakespeare’s work were “in truth, in variety, in power, equal to his men” (67), and this mode of relating to the female characters of Shakespeare’s work gives a more open gateway to a modern analysis. The power dynamics between the characters in this study are about death and how death is affected—when a female character dies, what happens to the power balance of the play? What effect does the death of the character have on her characterization and representation? This study is not meant to psychoanalyze or moralize the plays’ usage of these tropes, but to analyze in depth their affect on the stage space in the realm of character.

Motivation is necessary for the development of modern dramatic space, therefore the pathological turns female characters take toward suicide or acceptance of their death is then more defining than the physiological act of dying. Traditionally trained actresses[1] are encouraged to think in depth about the interior psychological turns their character takes over the course of a play. Therefore, the stage space also encompasses the space of characterization. Performance defines the stage space as more than physical location: it also functions as a psychological location or the interior/mind turned exterior. The passions affected served to make the audience present and somehow complicit, driving a strong case for audience (and reader) understanding of these actions. Dramatic space encompasses the real and the performed, and demonstrates that “inbetween” which is theatric.

Of Shakespeare’s fifteen textual suicides[2], many are linked to an honorable death to avoid shame or future abuses. Only Ophelia and Lady Macbeth can be considered insane by clinical terms at the time of their deaths[3], all other characters possess some sort of autonomy that might prevent suicide or at least see their suicide as more than just the extension of depression or mental illness by modern definition. They are bound by desperate circumstance or a form of ethics that enable their deaths to be considered outside the realm of mental illness and into the realm of staged power dynamics.

Character analysis has only recently re-entered the stage of Shakespearean studies, and in re-entering has shifted the field. Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slight’s 2009 collection Shakespeare and Character suggests “character is the organizing principle of Shakespeare’s plays… character is the principal bridge over which the emotional, cognitive, and political transactions of theater and literature pass between actors and playgoers or between written texts and readers” (6-7). If this is so, how can the interiority of character (so valued by the actor and director) expose tensions and spaces in the text for the literary critic?

Desdemona: Innocence in Execution

Desdemona is a difficult character to comprehend, especially on the modern stage. In the first half of the play, she falls in love with Othello for his skill and valor, and triumphantly earns her place as his wife—she seems to see past the cultural constructs of race to the good and honorable side of her husband. Othello tells that “She loved me for the dangers that I had passed,/ And I loved her that she did pity them” (I.iii.166-7). The play starts with a loving, balanced marriage, if done in secret and against the wishes of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Desdemona begs to go with her husband to the war, as she states “if I be left behind,/ A moth of peace, and he go to the war,/ The rites for why I love him are bereft me…” (I.iii.251-3). Desdemona loves Othello for his capabilities as a warrior and leader of men. Her description of herself left behind, “a moth of peace”, shows that she does not wish to blend in and hide in the safety of a home front, but wants to be visible and present at her husband’s side[4]. She loves her husband for his actions, and will be his partner in all possible ways.

Desdemona is not, then, pure submission. The pair is loving and affectionate, Othello calling Desdemona “my fair warrior” (II.i.173). This pet name may well reflect how highly Othello values his wife: he calls her what others value in him. He is valued, even as a person of less privilege, for his battle acumen. Thus, calling Desdemona warrior has a deeper meaning for Othello than it may have for others. It is a word with positive connotations and recognitions. Judith Cook quotes Suzanne Bertish (who, according to Cook, “played the part as a very strong girl”), who played Desdemona at Stratford in 1979:

… There were certain lines I picked out in the text. They refer to her as our captain’s captain, they say our general’s wife is now the general. Then twice in the play she speaks like a lawyer… It’s brilliant. Her father was a senator, there’s no talk of her mother, and she must have listened to this kind of jargon since she was a child, it’s part of her life.

Before Desdemona’s death, she seems to know death is upon her, and sings “a song of willow” which “will not go from [her] mind” (IV.iii.30). She misremembers a lyric “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve” (line 49), but then says that it’s the wrong lyric. However, the utterance of this phrase is not a mistake in the text. Desdemona seems to be aware of her demise’s approach, and is prepared to shelter her husband from the inevitable consequences. Emilia, in the same scene, delivers the line, “… Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them…” (lines 89-90). There is a code of knowing between the two women, but Desdemona knows her husband better, and can see the shifts and changes in his countenance. By the same light, Emilia knows her husband is not all good, but cannot fathom the depths of his deception[5]. The two women of the play are murdered by their husbands, but their deaths represent differences in the characters and their husbands. Desdemona dies protecting her husband, Emilia dies exposing her husband’s evil. This bookending of murder may serve to show how the audience might relate to the husbands’ deeds and characters. Perhaps through their wives’ deaths, we may be able to see the husbands.

Rather than point out her murderer, Desdemona takes the blame on herself:

Emilia: O, who hath done this deed?

Desdemona: Nobody, I myself. Farewell.

Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! She dies.


Desdemona owns her death, taking Othello’s agency of murder from the act of her death. She dies on her terms, resolutely seeing the good in him as we see her destroyed by him. Desdemona takes ownership of a part of Othello that neither the audience nor the society of Venice can see at that moment. Othello’s condemnation comes from executing the innocent, who even obediently goes to the gallows. Othello’s failures are in judgment and justice, and Desdemona’s acceptance of his execution only serve to highlight her innocence. Variations in staging can highlight this in various ways. Fanny Kemble, when playing the part, decided to struggle when most Desdemonas “acquiesce with wonderful equanimity in their assassination”. In her performance, she “got up on my knees on my bed and threw my arms around Othello’s neck… that being my notion of the poor creatures last appeal for mercy” (Hankey, 274). The same Othello, W.C Macready told Helena Faucit she “added intensity to the last act by ‘being very difficult to kill’… I would not die with my honour tarnished… I felt for him as well as myself—for I knew what remorse and misery would overwhelm him” (Hankey, 274). The motivation, even in struggling, for these nineteenth century Desdemonas was the preservation of honor for both the victim and the murderer.

Desdemona is loyal to a fault, and her death is her expression of her loyalty. To defy her husband and his wishes would go against Desdemona’s very being. The tragedies of the play, and the crimes of Iago, become even more terrible in the face of Desdemona’s unflinching honesty and devotion. In many ways, Desdemona’s inaction to save herself undoes all the accusations against her character and sets her morally above her accusers. As she states, “A guiltless death I die” (V.ii.123).

From early on, many women have struggled with Desdemona’s seeming submission. In her letters, Helena Faucit expressed some surprise at the stage convention of having Desdemona played as submissive:

A being so bright, so pure, so unselfish, generous, courageous- so devoted in her love, so unconquerable in her allegiance to her ‘kind lord,’ even when dying by his hand… Of course I did not know in those days that Desdemona is usually considered a merely amiable, simple, yielding creature, and is also generally represented so on the stage. This is the last idea that would have entered my head (191).

Somehow, Desdemona’s unshaken allegiance does not read as subservience or simplicity. It seems more the actions of a devoted warrior, protecting a sovereign.

The affect of Desdemona’s death, when her innocence is affirmed, serves to undo all of Iago’s machinations. Desdemona’s innocence lays bare his handiwork and exposes his villainy. Emilia, so devoted to her mistress, cannot hold silence for her husband in the same manner. Only when Desdemona is dead does anyone speak plainly about the situation, and speaking plainly is the surest way to unravel a tragedy’s framework.

Juliet: A Bounty Preserved

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s death is often read or acted for sheer romance and dramatics, but what of the nuances present in the character’s trajectory to demise? Why does Juliet kill herself, if not out of grief for the death of her beloved?

Pragmatism might well be the answer. Throughout the play, Juliet is the logical of the pair, the agent of her marriage[6]. Juliet organizes her marriage to Romeo, their rendezvous, and her escape from an unwanted marriage. The play gives Juliet more power than may seem present initially, especially when noting that it is Juliet who provides contact for the arrangement of their nuptials and conveyance for the consummation of their marriage. Juliet is concerned with time and place; she wants specific details over Romeo’s poetry (“By whose direction found’st thou out this place?” [II.ii.79]) or the convoluted mocking of the Nurse (“Here’s such a coil! Come, what says Romeo?” [II.v.64]). Action and reaction seems determined by her needs and desires. It is revealed, in her desperate exchanges following the climax that Juliet does not fear death; she fears loss of agency. Juliet presents herself as an excess of passion, “bounty as boundless as the sea” (II.ii.133). Once fixated upon her desire she gives unflinchingly and shows readiness to undertake any action. We know from her father that she has had agency in her romantic choices[7] (perhaps even all of her choices) until her cousin’s death gives her father a change of heart.

Forced to marry although already married, Juliet’s instant response is to threaten self-destruction:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower…

… Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble—

And I will do it without fear or doubt…


Turned into commerce, Juliet is willing to nullify her worth in order to avoid the use of that worth for the imperatives of others. She also knows that her worth will be reduced if she reduces herself to bigamy. Suicide becomes a reclaiming of oneself from outside forces and desires. Juliet uses her agency over her life as a bargaining chip for assistance from the Friar: “If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/ Do thou but call my resolution wise,/ And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52-4). Juliet recognizes the worth of her life and the power of her control over said vitality[8]. Her vehement denial of Paris speaks to her self-possession and personal honor.

When the sleeping potion plot goes awry, the Friar’s only suggestion (before running off in a terror) is that Juliet must run away to a nunnery. This is another unwanted marriage, which Juliet must use her nearest way of conveyance to escape. Juliet is in a constant battle to never give up her bodily space to any but that who she chooses. With both potential husbands dead beside her, Juliet is past marriageable at this point in the narrative.

Juliet kills herself because there is no other space that accommodates her in the text besides a nunnery, and Juliet is not made for a life of piety and submission. If Juliet were designed for religious orders, she would not have so directly defied her parents wishes or been so open in her teenage lust. So though she may display the red lips of the living, Juliet belongs to death and consummates the pairing in her last breath[9]. Therefore, Juliet’s death might be seen as the same vein of the great Roman warriors and heroes—suicide to avoid invasion or usurpation.

Notably, the play ends with a couplet that inverts its title: “For never was there a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (V.iii.309-10). Possession is given to Juliet in the inversion, interestingly giving her a further prominence in the relationship. This shift in balance shows that Juliet has been the agent of her marriage all along, and it is now recognized in the conclusion of the play.

Cleopatra: Immortality in Death

Cleopatra is a queen, a Pharaoh of Egypt. Shakespeare imbues within the character of Cleopatra deep richness and diversity. The emotional range and control necessary to embody Cleopatra is enormous, and her character is really the centerpiece and focus of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s suicide is the righteous suicide of the usurped, and is completely defined by her unwillingness to be subjugated. Antony and Cleopatra is the play with the most suicides (five, in all), and perhaps this is because the play is concerned with power exchanges in the realm of Roman tradition. Passion and excess are balanced with a fear of shame or lack of freedom.

Cleopatra is self-possessed from the first, though fickle and suspicious—but she has reason to fear Antony’s insincerity, for he is insincere to others over the course of the play (especially women). Cleopatra is no fool, and will not be used as such. Antony remarks “She is cunning past man’s thought” (I.ii.141), and this is true. Cleopatra’s strategems have the power to shake the world, and as noted by the nineteenth century critic Anna Brownell Jameson:

“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 of these contradictory elements has Shakespeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance…” (78-9).

Cleopatra’s theatricality most likely best defines her death, as she has had many dress rehearsals. In some ways, Cleopatra knows the power of her death too well: she’s always pretending to be dead in some way or form[10]. Enobarbus remarks that he has “seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying” (I.ii.137-40). This tendency to counterfeit death manages to undo Antony, and kill him with the tidings of action. Cleopatra’s death, and even the affectation of the state, has the power to slay Rome’s most powerful men. Bridget Escolme, in her book Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves, notes “Cleopatra’s love, the more notoriously excessive, ends in death and is matched in excess and in death by Antony’s” (112).

Cleopatra stands against Octavius alone once Antony falls, and therein lies danger to her agency. Being conquered, Cleopatra has lost control of Egypt, and therefore herself. Cleopatra has been addressed by Antony multiple times by the title “Egypt”. When one is conquered, so is the other. And Cleopatra knows what it means to be conquered, what indignities and losses will be hers and her kingdom’s. Cleopatra and Juliet are similar in that they are both know their worth as commodities, and Cleopatra’s worth is more than Juliet’s because she represents the entirety of a nation. Cleopatra knows from the moment of Antony’s death what she plans to do, and makes herself clear in this exchange:

Antony: One word, sweet queen.

Of Caesar, seek your honour, with your safety. O!

Cleopatra: They do not go together.

Antony: Gentle, hear me.

None about Caesar trust but Proculeius.

Cleopatra: My resolution and my hands I’ll trust,

None about Caesar.


To Cleopatra, there is no honor in surrender. She bears too much similarity to her Roman lovers, who would die rather than be overtaken by a foe. She plans to die “after the high Roman fashion,/ And make death proud to take [her]” (IV.xv.92-3). Cleopatra talks of death as an honorable partner, personifies it as one worthy of taking “a queen/ worth many babes and beggars” (V.ii.46-7).

Cleopatra also seems to know that her death shall make her immortal, set her above Octavius in some way. The theatrical undertaking of her death is all power and eternity, set on a higher stage of the ages:

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.

… 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…


For Cleopatra, her death is victory. She sees herself above Octavius in her moment of ascension. The afterlife is a promise of greatness, and by denying Octavius her power, she becomes greater, stronger and more than her usurper. Cleopatra writes her own history, rather than see it played out to Octavius’s personal tune. “Cleopatra fascinates… because she is an embodiment of passion’s excess, fainting and sighing for love of Antony, and the consummate performer of her love, absolutely in control, completely resourceful” (Escolme, 141).

On the stage space and in the realm of the page, these are moments to challenge and relish as a moment for power to move fluidly. When a woman dies in a tragedy, the presentation of her death is natural to the genre “tragedy”, but is not natural to the affects of living and vitality. Therefore, a character’s use of death may bring forth considerations about the state of the play.

A vocational death, chosen by the character for herself signifies an importance to the act. Thus, these women’s deaths are more than the affects of death; they are defining moments that utilize a feminine claim of autonomy and agency in the text and on the stage. Each woman claims her own “death right”: Juliet claims her passion and consent, Desdemona her innocence and loyalty, Cleopatra her immortality and liberty.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Antony & Cleopatra. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Othello. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Shakespeare in Production: Othello. Ed. Julie Hankey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Romeo & Juliet. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

Autumn, Emilie. “Opheliac.” Opheliac. Chicago: Trisol Music Group GmbH, 2006. Audio recording.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Virgin Books, 1980. Print.

Escolme, Bridget. Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014. Print.

Cavendish, Margaret. “Letter CXXIII.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 11-14. Print.

Faucit, Helena. “On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters: By One Who Has Personated Them.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 184-195. Print.

Jameson, Anna Brownell. “Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 66-80. Print.

[1] And actors.

[2] Romeo, Juliet, Cassius, Brutus, Portia, Othello, Gertrude, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Timon, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, Eros. Italicized suicides are in question.

[3] Notably, both take place off-stage, and others define these deaths for the audience.

[4] And, likely wishes to enjoy the more physical rites of marriage.

[5] To her credit, no one in the play is able to sniff out Iago’s deception until it mechanizes into murderous events.

[6] Laura Stubbs: “In Romeo and Juliet the wise and brave stratagem of the girl wife is brought to fatal issue by the reckless impatience of her husband” (247).

[7] “My will to her consent is but a part,/ And, she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair-according voice.” (I.ii.16-8)

[8] To illustrate Juliet’s understanding of the worth of her passion: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love/ But not yet possessed it, and though I am sold,/ Not yet enjoyed…” (III.ii.26-8).

[9] Figuratively and literally.

[10] It is particularly amazing that Antony believes any report of her death, if he knows the feigning of her demise is one of her favorite strategies.