The Imperial Romance of
Antony and Cleopatra
Written only a few years after Othello, Antony and Cleopatra (1606–7) looks at the intersection of racial difference, colonial expansion, and gender from a very different angle. In this play, Shakespeare reaches back to events which had occurred in the first century BC, and which had been repeatedly narrated by Roman and other storytellers from that time to his own. By taking as his central figure a foreign queen who was already a symbol of wanton sexuality and political seduction in European culture, Shakespeare comments on a long tradition of writing in which sexual passion expresses, but also ultimately sabotages, imperial ambition. Shakespeare harnesses a long history and wide geography to early modern English anxieties about women's power, foreigners, and empire. This chapter will highlight this layering of past and present, suggesting that racial ideologies fuse ideas received from different historical periods, and from both literate and popular cultures.
In an introduction to the play, Michael Neill contrasts 'Cleopatra's playful sense of herself as “with Phoebus's amorous pinches black” ' (1.5.28) with 'Othello's anguished “Haply for I am black”' (3.3.267) in order to argue that 'the issue of racial difference' in this play is 'relatively insignificant'.1 Cleopatra's attitude to her own skin colour might indicate that she does not think of it as a sign of inferiority, but it does not tell us that her colour is unimportant in Roman constructions of her as an Egyptian wanton, as the very antithesis of a chaste Roman wife. And Cleopatra is far from indifferent to what the