The 'Dark Lady' in 1 Henry VI and Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare's plays 1 Henry VI and Antony and Cleopatra are comparable in that both plays alternate primarily between two worlds; in 1 Henry VI, the play takes place in England and France, while it moves between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra. Significantly, both France and Egypt play a similar role as 'underworld' to either France or Rome, and both countries have a similar female character taking the lead. 1 Henry VI's Joan de Pucelle and Antony and Cleopatra's Cleopatra are shown as having the ability to sway men, and both are vilified by the men in the other camp for their alleged lechery and debased morals. However, while Joan fits this description to the letter in her inglorious final scene, Cleopatra's final scenes demonstrate that her enemies' judgements were false; rather than submitting desperately to Caesar, as she was expected to do, Cleopatra takes her life nobly, demonstrating her true dedication and undermining the Romans' slanders. Shakespeare's reworking of the figure of the 'dark lady' in Antony and Cleopatra allows for a more ambiguous figure who may not be the figure that those who are opposed to her consider her to be.

Both 1 Henry VI and Antony and Cleopatra take place in two strongly differentiated 'worlds', and much of the plot in both plays concerns the struggles between them. Both France and Egypt take the role of an 'underworld'. In 1 Henry VI, France becomes a place of dark magic and death. At the opening of the play, Exeter speculates that Henry V's death might have been caused by "the subtile-witted French/ Conjurers and sorcerers, that, afraid of him/ By magic verses have contriv'd his end" (1 Henry VI I.i.25-27), linking the French with the powers of the underworld from the beginning. Later, France's victories are proven to be caused by demonic power, as the demons desert Joan. France is also associated with death, as Talbot and his son come to their deaths on French soil. The General, in meeting with Talbot, invokes "Thou ominous and fearful owl of death,/ Our nation's terror and their bloody scourge!" (1 Henry VI IV.ii.15-16), and forecasts death for Talbot. When speaking to his dying son, Talbot pictures the figure of Death as French: "Brave Death by speaking, whether he will or no;/ Imagine him a Frenchman, and thy foe./ Poor boy, he smiles, methinks, as who should say,/ Had Death been French, then Death had died to-day" (1 Henry VI IV.vii.25-28). Thus Shakespeare links France with the underworld, attributing to it dark powers as well as the domain of death.

Likewise, Antony and Cleopatra presents Egypt as an underworld, but an underworld of lust rather than one of death. Like France in 1 Henry VI, Egypt is given an air of mysticism through the introduction of the soothsayer, who tells the fortunes of Cleopatra's servants. Egypt is also made into a 'feminine' entity to contrast with Rome. Whereas Rome is almost bereft of female characters, Cleopatra's court consists largely of women and eunichs. This is emphasized in Cleopatra's entrance, in which the ladies and eunichs are singled out from among the train. Thus Egypt is established as a 'feminine' realm and the seat of lust. Anthony views Egypt in this fashion; declaring that "I will to Egypt... I' th' East my pleasure lies" (Antony and Cleopatra II.iii 39-41), he contrasts Rome with the pleasurable 'other realm' of Egypt. As France provides the role of an 'underworld' relative to England, Egypt becomes an underworld of desire for Antony and Rome.

In both plays, the 'underworlds' are commanded by women: Joan de Pucelle in France and Cleopatra in Egypt. Both figures play a central role and share several similarities. Both Joan and Cleopatra are portrayed as powerful women who are able to lure men from the other side. They are also mocked by their enemies for their lasciviousness, and both appear in comic scenes that make fun of these qualities. Both exemplify the figure of the 'dark lady'; Joan and Cleopatra are both a far cry from the submissive feminine ideal of Shakespeare's time. The portrayal of this type in the two plays can thus reveal Shakespeare's evolving understanding of this figure. While Joan fits the negative stereotyping completely, Cleopatra is able to subvert and transcend them. The final scenes of Joan and Cleopatra deeply contrast each other; while Joan is desperately and even comically trying to avoid death, Cleopatra dies nobly, in a tribute to her real love for Antony. In these final scenes, Shakespeare provides a vastly different conception of the 'dark lady' in which the familiar stereotypes can be contradicted.

In 1 Henry VI, Joan de Pucelle is a central figure throughout the play. In her first scene, she is immediately contrasted with the feminine ideal, as she demonstrates both power and lasciviousness. Challenging the Dolphin to a swordfight, Joan vows that "while I live, I'll never fly from a man" (1 Henry VI I.i.103) and proceeds to prove her ability, causing the Dolphin to declare, thou art an Amazon/ and fightest with the sword of Deborah" (1 Henry VI I.i.104-105). Joan's unladylike fighting ability and her sexual forwardness are thereby linked and brought forward. Joan is also shown as having the power to tempt men, as she demonstrates by convincing the duke of Burgundy to defect and join the French camp. Burgundy's reflections on Joan's speeches give testament to her powers of enticement. "Either she hath bewitch'd me with her words,/ Or nature makes me suddenly relent... I am vanquished. These haughty words of hers/ Have batt'red me like roaring cannon-shot,/ And made me almost yield upon my knees" (1 Henry VI III.iii.58-80). Joan's strength and ability to entice men are key facets of her character. These qualities are lambasted by the English; Talbot refers to her as "Pucelle, that witch, that damned sorceress" (1 Henry VI III.ii.38), and she is referred to as a whore over the course of the play. Thus, the English stereotype Joan as a witch and libertine, a stereotype that would prove true in her case.

Cleopatra's power and passion are also important elements of her character. Like Joan, Cleopatra is able to exert control over men, and her hold on Antony is a powerful and enduring force throughout the play. Her almost supernatural draw is described by Enobarbus: "Other women cloy/ The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/ Where most she satisfies; for vildest things/ Become themselves in her, that the holy priests/ Bless her when she is riggish" (Antony and Cleopatra II.ii.235-239). As was the case in Joan, Cleopatra's power seems to emanate from her lustfulness. Also, she is widely criticized by the Romans for her purported lust. The play opens with a criticism of Cleopatra and a lament for Antony's 'fall', describing Antony as "The triple pillar of the world transform'd/ Into a strumpet's fool" (Antony and Cleopatra I.i.12-13). These attitudes are expressed throughout the play, and even Antony becomes critical of her for a time, questioning her faithfulness: "Triple-turned whore!... O this false soul of Egypt! This grave charm,/ Whose eye beck'd forth my wars and call'd them home,/ Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,/ Like a right gipsy, fast and loose/ Beguil'd me" (Antony and Cleopatra IV.xii.13-29). Like the English, the Romans slander Cleopatra and stereotype her as immoral, licentious, and willing to submit to Caesar.

Joan de Pucelle's inglorious end serves to strengthen the archetype of the 'dark lady' that has been developed throughout the play. Joan's desperate attempt to evade her enemies "argues what her kind of life has been,/ Wicked and vile, and so her death concludes" (1 Henry VI V.iv. 15-16). The stereotypes are only reinforced as she frantically attempts to avoid death. After Joan's arguments of her purity have failed to win favor, she attempts to plead that she is pregnant earn the derision of the English and cause her to reveal her true nature when she attempts to preserve her life. In trying to name the 'right' father and avert the threat of death, she only proves her licentious nature and opens herself to the mockery of the English. "Why, here's a girl! I think she knows not well/ (There were so many) whom she may accuse./ It's a sign she hath been liberal and free./ And yet forsooth she is a virgin pure./ Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee" (1 Henry VI V.iv.80-84). Thus, Joan only serves to prove the veracity of the stereotypes held against her.

However, unlike Joan, Cleopatra subverts the stereotype, demonstrating the veracity of her love for Antony and undermining the biases held by Caesar and the other Romans. Caesar is assured that Cleopatra will cling desperately to her life as Joan did, and is all to willing to believe that she will not "lay on [him] a cruelty, by taking/ Antony's course" (Antony and Cleopatra V.ii.129-130). However, Cleopatra shows herself in a different light once Caesar has left, and is loath to debase herself simply to secure her life. Rather than allowing herself to "see/ Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I th' posture of a whore" (Antony and Cleopatra V.ii.219-221), Cleopatra chooses to put on her queenly garb and join Antony in death. Cleopatra's ultimate nobility is contrasted with the desperateness of Joan as well as the expectations of the Romans.

While Joan and Cleopatra both occupy the position of 'dark lady', Joan fulfills the stereotype while Cleopatra overturns it. Antony and Cleopatra can thus be viewed as a reworking of the 'dark lady' by Shakespeare. In Cleopatra, Shakespeare creates a character who, despite the fact that she does not conform to traditional feminine virtues, is capable of true dignity. Her position as 'dark lady' does not necessarily require that she is debased and incapable of acting with virtue, as was the case with Joan. In this way, Shakespeare has reworked the once unambiguous category of the 'dark lady' in Antony and Cleopatra.

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