Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

"Thou Art My Warrior / I Holp to Frame Thee": The Construction of Masculine Identity in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

"Thou Art My Warrior / I Holp to Frame Thee": The Construction of Masculine Identity in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus

Article excerpt

In Shakespeare's Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra (1608) and Coriolanus (1609), the hero is constructed as a kind of superhuman, supervirile warrior, sometimes verging on caricature. Yet, in both plays, Rome is criticized, and the constructed manliness of the Roman hero is exposed in all its fragility. The warrior's identity undergoes dissolution and symbolical emasculation. Antony and Coriolanus share the stage with two very powerful female figures, Cleopatra and Volumnia, and their contact proves fatal to them: Cleopatra holds a type of power traditionally seen as male, and Coriolanus is but the extension of his mother Volumnia, who is even more masculine than him.

Keywords: masculine identity, Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, warrior

Shakespeare's Roman plays show Rome as an intensely patriarchal world governed by the notion of virtus, a strict, military code of personal honour and duty to the state. It is a world of military prowess and pompous rhetoric in which politics is a matter of performance. The Encyclopaedia Universalis defines virtus in its first sense as what characterizes the vir, i.e. man, that is to say the physical bravery and strength a soldier must show on the battlefield. The first meaning of the word never disappeared from Latin and kept on applying to the figure of the great warrior. But the term gradually became more complex and acquired a broader sense under the influence of Greek philosophy: it referred to the moral courage man needs to reach wisdom. The word finally evolved to mean what we call "virtue" today, i.e. moral rectitude and the conformity with moral laws. In his last two Roman plays Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607) and Coriolanus (1607-1608), Shakespeare explores Roman values and the notion of masculinity by, among other things, exposing the figure of the Roman warrior-hero as an artefact.

Of course, the Roman vision of masculinity as conveyed in Shakespeare's sources such as Plutarch greatly differs from the approach the Bard's contemporaries had of this matter, all the more so when taking into account the heated context of the resurgence of old, chivalric martial values in early modern England, a vision which in turn differs from our own. Because no one can step beyond time and since we can only see the past through the eyes of the present, I will adopt a dominantly presentist approach and focus on the way we perceive the problem of the construction of masculinity in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra with a hindsight of four hundred years of historical events and critical theory, for, as Bruce R. Smith argues, presentism makes it possible to address not just one past moment but multiple pasts, all at the same time. This type of approach makes all the more sense when gender issues are concerned: presentism can take the long view and entertain models of gender and sexuality that existed before Shakespeare's time as well as after, and not be especially worried about the currency of those models in Shakespeare's time.1 As Evelyn Gajowski argues, adopting a presentist approach means that responding to a Shakespeare text means entering a dialogue not only with Shakespeare and his contemporaries but also with a whole tradition of theatrical critical responses to Shakespeare's text that has accumulated over the course of four centuries, these responses themselves constituting not merely passive responses but also active constructions of meaning in their own right.2

This type of presentist approach is also all the more relevant when dealing with drama, for gender is, both in society and on stage, profoundly a matter of performance. Indeed, if "sex" refers to biological differences between man and woman, "gender" denotes the attitudes and behaviour thought (stereo)typically masculine or feminine. And when it comes to representing on stage what was thought typically feminine or masculine, the performant aspect of gender is all the more blatant, especially on Renaissance England's all-male stage, where all parts were played by men. …

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