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Guest Writer

A woman with balls
Cleopatra vs. Dido
by Steven Benjamin

t’s interesting the things a reader can miss when squeezing together so much, even selectively, from the depths of literature.

I read "Antony and Cleopatra" immediately after cramming down Virgil’s "Aeneid," and did my best to maintain a critically thoughtful perspective on both. Yet, still I have to be told the obvious, to have it explained to me like a child.

Antony, by every measure, amounted to a mighty ruler of Rome (one-third of Rome in the first or second century B.C. counted as quite an empire by itself). Antony held in his command a full 500 armed vessels, 100,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 horse. Speaking in Roman terms, this meant a great deal of power.

There are those who thought him just as capable of taking over the world as Octavius, even if less eager to do so. Standing in the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) place in time, one might see this course as inevitable. Few Roman leaders have kept themselves in check while holding on to so much power.

But Antony finds himself distracted by Cleopatra. Oh, woe is me! The Egyptian Goddess! Aye, the very same woman who captured the heart of tragic Caesar. Surely this must be the fallout from yet another confrontation between the very mightiest of gods.

That the Herculean Antony was held in sway by the most powerful woman of her time can mean nothing more than that sweet Venus has once again let her Latin feast be conquered by his appetite – for a while, at least. Only this time the love has grown too thick to escape.

Cleopatra is no weak and weeping willow to fall upon grassy blades at her lover’s departure. No indeed! The bitch has the gall to stay alive, to wait out her Latin boy’s flaky whims, to let him sate his inconstancy in the hope – nay, the expectation – that he will return.

And whence finally she does suicide, it is not only for loss of Antony. It requires the demolition of an entire world – her home, her power and her self-respect in addition to Antony’s death – to conquer this very singular woman.

I’m not digging very deep here, and yet even just this much had to be given to me with a leading line: "Explore the parallels between Aeneas and Dido and Antony and Cleopatra. Does the latter speculate on the potential latent in the former?"

It was a topic given for a graduate seminar and I found it online. The rest strikes me as inevitably obvious.

Dido, ever the impetuous and melodramatic reactionary, insists that death is the only answer to a broken heart, and so races off to join her first beloved in the underworld. How absolutely unimaginative. Why not, instead, sneak onto the boat and force Aeneas to take her along? Why not build those promised ships and sail after him? Instead of magical ships, it might have been valiant Dido, queen and founder of Carthage, to give Aeneas his holy victory.

But, alas, instead it’s the gas, and Dido becomes one of history’s more nefarious inspirations for our age’s dear Sylvia. Dido could have been the Helen of the Aeneid, but instead she attempts to play Media and falls far short of the role. Perhaps if she'd given the man some sons she might have had something to sacrifice, something with which to leave a scar. As it turns out, Aeneas does not appear too put-out after his apologetic quip in the underworld.

But none of this for mighty Cleopatra. When Jove on high commands his man home (again, with a messenger), Antony jumps – failing even to ask how high. Antony puts his running shoes on and sprints off to fated Rome, a marriage of state, and solidifies his claim on one-third of that world's greatest empire.

Cleopatra weeps. Sure. But she does not despair. Given enough time, even Enobarbus trusts that Antony can’t help but return. Besides, Cleopatra has a kingdom to rule, and no pretty boy is going to turn her from that great responsibility.

Of course, one could ask what is gained, ultimately, with this divergence from one fate to another. Is it satiated lust? Or some few bittersweet moments of happiness before both take Friar Lawrence’s mistaken jest, his tomfoolery meant to mock death and failing utterly? Is it worth it?

The question holds more substance than one at first glance might guess.

To answer, first I need to ask what Antony thought of love. Is it the lustful drive for bodily pleasure, like that which drives pubescent Romeo to an early grave? Or can it include something of that ultimate friendship of which I am told in classic times only men with men could have?

Here Cleopatra, a woman of strength, of wit, of cunning and skill and a lifetime of power, a woman every bit playing the part of a man – a woman with balls – serves as a possible exception, though it may be heresy to speak it, to the classical rule.

Could it be possible that they had, with their love, just that sort of bond with which none other compares? A true friendship, like that among the very closest of men? A love managing to be simultaneously both heterosexual and homosocial?

If this is the case, then the latter, I think, is a preferable fate.

Let Aeneas have his lineage of kings. Instead, I want Antony’s feet, and even just 10 more minutes with glorious Cleopatra.

E-mail Steven at nyn@prodigy.net, and find more of his work in our archives.

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