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Cleopatra and Her Problems: T.S. Eliot and the Fetishization of Shakespeare's Queen of the Nile

John P. McCombe
Journal of Modern Literature
Vol. 31, No. 2 (Winter, 2008), pp. 23-38
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30053266
Page Count: 16
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Cleopatra and Her Problems: T.S. Eliot and the Fetishization of Shakespeare's Queen of the Nile
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Abstract

This essay traces the evolution of T.S. Eliot's poetic allusions to Shakespeare's Cleopatra and the ways in which the Egyptian queen-as a racial and colonial Other-may be related to Eliot's own shifting sense of national identity. Rather than follow other scholars and read Eliot's use of the imperial splendor of Shakespeare's Cleopatra as an ironic counterpoint to the shabby and degraded life of modern London, my research suggests that, for Eliot, Cleopatra is no wielder of imperial power. Rather, Eliot casts Cleopatra in a subject position within an early-twentieth-century Orientalist discourse. In such a system, Cleopatra possesses a devouring sexuality that must be contained through a discourse that "knows" her and thus diminishes her power. Such a colonizing move links Eliot's Cleopatra references-in both his poems and essays-to contemporary English political discourses surrounding the "problem" of Egypt and allows the expatriate American to position himself more securely in the center of a literary and cultural tradition at a time when he often viewed himself as a foreigner or "mette."

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