The Triumphs and Tragedies of Female Agency in Shakespeare:
The Covert Helena and the Overt Cleopatra
by Michele Habel-Coffey
In order to fully comprehend the triumphs and tragedies behind the agency exercised by Shakespeare’s Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well and by Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, one must first understand the parameter’s within which these females operated as well as how those parameters were related to the conventions of the particular time period in which Shakespeare was writing. This was a time that found Shakespeare’s England, particularly its patriarchal structure, insecure about changing social conventions in a post Reformation environment. Several writers during the period – all male and mostly Protestant – authored works specifically designed to frame and instruct upon the rules of marriage as they applied to the male and the female as well as to inform on how those rules were inextricably bound to biblical cannon. Moreover, the writers sought to demonstrate how the application of this instruction ensured that the well-being of community and country was cemented via the success of the responsible governance of individual households. Dod and Cleaver’s A Godly Form of Household Government defined the household as “a little commonwealth, by the good government whereof God’s glory may be advanced and the commonwealth which standeth of several families benefitted” (204). Further noting that while the husband and wife were both “Lords of the house” (205) that it was God himself, as Creator, that said, “the woman should be a helper unto the man” (205) ergo be willing to defer and submit to his will. Marriage was not regarded as a private matter during the 16th and 17th centuries but a contract that should be “motivated by social responsibility rather than self-interest” (Snawsel 161). Snawsel’s Looking Glass for Married Folks asserts that community is as culpable in marital success as the couple themselves stating that even “neighbors can intervene in positive ways” (161) to ensure such success for the greater good. In A Homily of the State of Matrimony marriage “provides friendship between the spouses and enables them to reproduce; but is also helps them to control their sexual appetites, to ‘bridle the corrupt inclinations of the flesh within the limits of honesty’ ” (171). The ideal beheld within these conduct texts was that marriage was not a union that should be motivated by the desires for pleasure or happiness but instead as “an opportunity to bear Christ’s cross” or “to achieve salvation through suffering” (171). The only suggestion provided that a female might acceptably exercise power within these constructs was by Snawsel who hinted that “wifely obedience is a performance, and that submission is an effective, if somewhat duplicitous, means of gaining control” (187). The only female that had full sovereignty of self was the unmarried woman, referred to by author T.E. in The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights” as the “feme sole” who “had approximately the same legal rights and responsibilities as a man; she could own and sell property, bequeath her property by will, make contracts, sue and be sued” (194). Unfortunately, this premise can clearly only be made a success for a female who is already economically independent and in possession of assets – an unlikely occurrence at the time. And so it was probable that Shakespeare’s writing was influenced by the above material when he created the feminist characters of Helena and Cleopatra, as well as the paths these women took to exercise agency, in the respective plays. What will be demonstrated herein is how Helena and Cleopatra operated both within and without of the above parameters in Shakespeare’s works to achieve sexual, romantic, and social power; Helena covertly and Cleopatra overtly doing so, both operating as alternatives to the standard archetype and managing to do so in an arguably triumphant manner.
First, there are the women’s approaches to sexual and romantic agency. Helena is the embodiment of Snawsel’s duplicitous submissive who veils her sexual prowess beneath the cloak of maiden virtue. David McCandless, of Shakespeare Quarterly, expounds on this duplicity thusly, “she occupies the masculine position of desiring subject, even as she apologizes fulsomely for her unfeminine forwardness and works desperately to situate herself within the feminine position of desired object” (450). He notes that it is her opening soliloquy that captures her dual consciousness operating between the masculine active and the feminine passive. McCandless gestures to the fact that “she clearly expresses her desire to consummate a sexual love, calling herself a “hind” who wishes to be “mated by the lion” (450); the masculine aspect being her outward revelation of sexual desire while using the feminine posture of being the one who is mated. Further, by aligning the hind to the lion, Helena designs a scenario whereby she cannot truly consummate the union given it would mean death for the hind. By styling herself as the lesser hind in an impossible scenario, she subverts her sexual desire within the boundaries of gender and class appropriate to social convention. By acting out her agency under the guise of submission a la Snawsel, Helena secures for herself the support of those in power around her who clearly are willing to overlook the her masculine assertions in lieu of her superior feminine virtue. Perhaps the most compelling example of this duplicity occurs at the climax of the play during the infamous bed trick. McCandless frames the duality accordingly, “Helena’s feminine hope that Bertram might find her desirable after having her sexually eventually impels her masculine orchestration of the bed-trick” (453). Additionally, she positions herself as submissive by using Diana as the vehicle for her masculine expression; Bertram is seduced by Diana but his honor “saved” by the virtuous Helena, who displaces Diana in the act itself. In doing so, Helena achieves both the goal of satisfying her sexual desire within the acceptable arena of holy matrimony (masculine drive) while simultaneously removing herself as the direct agent of the action through Diana (feminine submission). Clearly, she is the successful realization of Snawsel’s “power via submission”; in this regard, she is a woman triumphant. The tragedy lies in the glaring lack of romance in this endeavor; Helena may have her man but there was never a moment when he was invested in having her.
Where Helena sacrifices romance for power and status, Cleopatra feasts upon it. Cleopatra is author T.E.’s “feme sole”; an unmarried woman retaining the same rights and responsibilities as a man (194). She is in possession of a nation wielding the masculine power of a ruler in her own right. In this vein, it is not necessary for her to jockey between the feminine and the masculine to exercise sexual agency; she needs nor wants a veil to subvert her sexual inclinations given she answers to no-one but herself. Moreover, she presides upon a nation (Egypt) that openly embraces these qualities and is thereby undeterred by Romanesque social pressures to appear virtuous. Helena needed her virtue to secure power; Cleopatra is already in possession of that power. So it is that for Cleopatra romantic agency is the primary motivational force in her actions in the absence of any other necessitating circumstance. As author Sally Riad of The Leadership Quarterly puts it, “Cleopatra is not restrained by feminine or civil propriety: she drinks, dresses Antony in her clothes and wears his sword” (Riad 836). This gender-bending renders Antony and Cleopatra as equals and therein leaves nothing save romantic maneuvering for Cleopatra to dominate him. Said maneuvering is elevated to the histrionic in Cleopatra who uses her servants as one would chess pawns to position Antony where she desires him to be, rather than where his duties call him to be. We are introduced to Cleopatra’s emotional chess in Act 1.3, where she is discussing her next move with her attendants. The queen is inquiring about Antony’s whereabouts and instructs one to go and “see where he is, who’s with him and what he does” (916). The game is in the method; she advises the attendant to be dishonest in order to influence Antony in her favor. She says, “I did not send you. If you find him sad, say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am sudden sick. Quick and return” (916). She seems to understand well this is her power over him, dismissing the attendant who admonishes the dishonestly, saying to her, “Thou teachest like a fool, the way to lose him” (916). She continues this behavior to the very end even faking her own death in Act 4.15 in order to provoke Antony’s emotion in her favor. But arguably the most compelling example of this romantic manipulation and subsequent power over Antony is embodied within Act 3.10 which recounts the first sea battle between him and Caesar. At one point in the battle, it is unclear who will take the overall advantage. The mighty general forgoes this opportunity for military triumph to in order to follow Cleopatra’s ship in its retreat thereby sacrificing battle glory for romantic love. Time and time again her romantic chess play secures for her the love-sick attentions of Antony. This is Cleopatra’s triumph and power. The tragedy lies in the cost and yet they die as they have lived, for one another.
Finally, there is the subject of social agency. For Helena who is a ward, an orphan, and a female, social standing is precarious. She has no options afforded her because though she has been raised in the inner sanctum of the court as a ward, she is no more a member of aristocracy than the servants. Her advantage is a direct product of her celebrated virtue; something the elder statesmen of the courts hold in unparalleled estimation. In Act 1.1, the Countess ruminates over the unmatched reputation of Helena’s father and celebrates Helena’s saying, “She derives her honesty and achieves her goodness” (468). The Countess and Lafeu are likewise enamored by the memory of Bertram’s late father advising Bertram to “succeed thy father in manners as in shape” (468) which serves to inform the understanding that virtue is tantamount. The Countess goes so far as to provoke Helena to confess her love for her noble son and rather than deter it encourages it, telling Helena, “You know Helen, I am a mother to you” (476). When Helena cures the King of his ills, she is granted the right to choose a mate amongst the nobleman; an unprecedented action and a testament to Helena’s reputation. For Helena, it is virtue that sets in motion her social stratification in a situation that would otherwise forbid it. And in spite of Bertram’s objections to the arrangement as well as the masculine elements of Helena’s aspirations, she succeeds purely by way of the power virtue holds.
Cleopatra, as mentioned previously, has need of no such esteem. She was a queen and already the embodiment of the ultimate power seated at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. For her, social agency becomes a battle to remain true to herself in spite of circumstances that work against her in doing so. For Helena the goal was the acquisition of power via social advancement and for Cleopatra it is the retention of power in spite of it. The Queen refuses to be dominated by anyone and even resorts to beating a servant who would dare to deliver bad news to her regarding Antony, throwing money at him in a symbolic act of power suggesting nothing is outside of her control, even truth. Her final act of suicide is the ultimate social agency; she would rather die than submit to Caesar and be paraded as his trophy. Antony, in Act 4.15, explains it best saying, “The courage of a women; less noble mind than she which by her death our Caesar tells ‘I am conqueror of myself’” (971). Cleopatra herself says, in Act 5.2, “This mortal house I’ll ruin, do Caesar what he can. Know sir that I will not be pinioned at your master’s court, nor once be chastised with the sober eye of dull Octavia” (979). Cleopatra’s triumph is that she remains the ultimate agent of self, even when that agency requires tragically that she take her own life rather than submit it to Caesar.
So while there is no question that both Helena and Cleopatra were required to make certain tragic sacrifices to exercise sexual, romantic, and social agency, there can be no question that they operated triumphantly within the parameters afforded them in order that they might secure their standing with the men they desired. For Helena, the strategy was covert, hidden behind an impenetrable wall of virtue and clever intellect. For Cleopatra, the methods were overt; they were celebrated by the queen brazenly and ostentatiously. In the end, each woman demonstrated that power is as much in the means as the ends. Both possessed a clever understanding that the means successfully brokers the acquisition of power, however it is ultimately framed.
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