African Dreams, Egyptian Nightmares: Cleopatra and Becoming England

  • Francesca T. Royster


What happens when we follow Cleopatra’s direction in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to “Think on me, / That am with Phoebus’s amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.27–29)? In the play, the color or Antony’s “crocodile,” Cleopatra, is at the heart of the struggle for power and cultural identity staged by the play. According to theater historian Richard Madelaine, on the Jacobean stage at least, Cleopatra was most likely performed by a young man with a “tawny front”—that is, in brownface.1 Even if we initially read Cleopatra’s self-description of her own blackness as figurative, an expression of her exotic sexuality, by the end of the play this blackness is more clearly material, the mark of otherness that also will mark the children that Antony has with her, what Caesar calls their “unlawful issue” (3.6.7), produced by adulterous lust. Like Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra stages the social repercussions of miscegenation. Antony’s Roman identity is put to question because he is the lover of a “gypsy” and the begetter of Egyptian children. As we see in Titus Andronicus, blackness is dangerous because it has the power to convert “self” into “other,” especially through sexual contact.


Racial Identity Black People Literary Critic Oxford English Dictionary Racial Origin 
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© Francesca T. Royster 2003

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  • Francesca T. Royster

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