Shakespeare’s Shavian Cleopatra

            The vast difference between Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cleopatra and Shaw’s portrayal of Cleopatra could easily be dismissed by the difference in their ages: Shaw writes of a sixteen-year-old Cleopatra while Shakespeare picks up her story much later.  Yet Shaw himself makes it perfectly clear in his notes to the play that the contrasting characterizations are much more than simply a function of age:

                        The childishness I have ascribed to [Cleopatra], as far as

                        it is childishness of character and not lack of experience, is

                        not a matter of years.  It may be observed in our own

                        climate at the present day in many women of fifty.  It is a

                        mistake to suppose that the difference between wisdom and

                        folly has anything to do with the difference between

                        physical age and physical youth.[1]


Shaw’s Cleopatra is not simply a younger, more immature version of Shakespeare’s, for the playwright himself suggests that he could have given his Queen a wisdom that surpasses her sixteen years.  Instead, Shaw creates his Cleopatra as a sort of precursor to Shakespeare’s.[2]  While at times Shaw attempts to excise Shakespearean elements from his characterizations of Julius Caesar and Saint Joan, the two Cleopatras fall into a much different pattern.  In this paper, I argue that while Shaw’s Cleopatra definitely stands in contrast to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is far more Shavian than her truly Shavian counterpart: the Elizabethan Cleopatra stands out as a sexualized version of the Shavian heroine, a Saint Joan or an Ann Whitefield without the austerity of those two characters.


[1] Shaw, “Caesar and Cleopatra” Seven Plays by Bernard Shaw (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1951) 476.


[2] An idea first suggested by Stanley Weintraub, The Unexpected Shaw: Biographical Approaches to George Bernard Shaw and His Work (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982) 7.