The Heroic Tragedy of Cleopatra, the “Prostitute Queen”

  • Kay Stanton


For centuries, Roman writings routinely and disparagingly called the historical Cleopatra regina meretrix, Latin for the “prostitute queen” (Anderson and Zinsser I: 56), so the Roman male characters in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra accurately anticipate their emerging cultural tradition in likewise regarding her. As inheritors of that tradition, male and female literary critics have resisted granting Shakespeare’s Cleopatra full status as tragic hero.1 That reluctance is epitomized in this seeming oxymoron of “prostitute queen,” by which “prostitute” easily trumps “queen”; the pun on “queen” as “quean” (“whore”) in early modern English concisely enables the same function.2 As Linda Fitz [Woodbridge] observes, it is Cleopatra’s “frank sexuality” that “damns her” in critics’ estimations, disallowing her serious consideration even as queen of Egypt, let alone as tragic hero (“Egyptian Queens” 303–9).


Premature Ejaculator Eternal Life Magical Power Sexual Union Female Protagonist 
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© Naomi Conn Liebler 2002

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  • Kay Stanton

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