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Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry

Phyllis Rackin
PMLA
Vol. 87, No. 2 (Mar., 1972), pp. 201-212
DOI: 10.2307/460877
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/460877
Page Count: 12
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Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry
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Abstract

The sexual ambiguity of Shakespeare's boy Cleopatra embodies the clash between two poetic theories-the theory that poetry imitates Nature and is therefore subject to rules of decorum and verisimilitude and the theory that poetry creates a new, "golden" world to which the truth-criteria for extrapoetic experience do not apply. Both theories were prevalent in Shakespeare's time, as we see in Sidney's Apology for Poetry; and both persist today, as we see in modern controversies about the play. Shakespeare's dramatic strategy in Antony and Cleopatra involves the interplay between these two notions of poetry and poetic truth: the first is associated with the Roman viewpoint and the kinds of dramatic evidence that support it, the second with the Egyptian viewpoint and the kinds of poetic and dramatic evidence that support it. Only by studying the play with both theories in mind can we approach its structural and thematic center and see that its problematic features-Cleopatra's enigmatic character and motivation, Antony's ambiguous stature as a tragic hero, and the eccentric structure are-like the boy Cleopatra, necessary components of its dramatic strategy, functional embodiments of its themes.

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