Review: Gnomio and Juliet

Gnomeo and Juliet

Like I said in the review for “Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss,” adapting Shakespeare’s play for children seemed to me like an impossible undertaking, until I saw this film. This interpretation had all the romance and danger of Romeo and Juliet, with all the wry humor of Shrek. Before I present my thesis, I want to post a refutation of a review from a man I actually hold in very high esteem:

“You Wanted Me To Review Gnomio and Juliet, So I Did.” Kyle Kalgreen YouTube Video Essay.

I’ve watched all of Mr. Kalgreen’s reviews of Shakespeare on film, from Hamlet, to Ran, to Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, and all but one of his reviews I genuinely loved. This is why I was so dissappointed when I saw this review. As his channel suggests, “Brows Held High” is mostly interested in high concept editions of Shakespeare and in a rare act of snobbery, Mr. Kalgren seems to turn his nose up at this movie, calling it essentially populist trash. He seems to say that the film misses the mark as a legitimate Shakespearean adaptation, and he’s not wrong. What he fails to notice though, is that is not the point of this movie. It’s purpose is not to be a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare, it’s a simplfied way of introducing children to Shakespeare.

This computer animated film is set in two adjoining houses in England, with two families of garden gnomes duking it out for supremacy. Though this seems like a ridiculous concept, it gives the film a great amount of charm, watching these two gnomes trot across the garden with their plaster feet, riding around on lawnmowers, and of course the fact that they are gnomes makes even Tybalt look cute.

Most importantly, unlike other ‘inanimate object comes to life’ movies, garden gnomes are able to be smashed. Unlike the nearly indestructable Woody or Lightning McQUeen- these characters can be smashed. It’s established in the first 10 minutes that both Gnomio and Juliet have parents that were smashed. This means that the audience is constantly worried for the safety of the characters, especially when they fight. This is a clever, kid-friendly shorthand that allows the audience to worry about the character’s mortality, without the gory realities of human death.

The characters are also handled with care and charm. Gnomeo is a cocky, self-assured gnome who first looks for adventure before finding love. Juliet is even more of a spitfire than her human counterpart, and is able to perform midnight catburgling into a nearby greenhouse. It’s their desire for fun and adventure that makes these two compatible, and makes their love easy for even a child to understand.

The film’s cleverness doesn’t stop there: the filmmakers inserted all kinds of Shakespearean jokes to make the play easier to understand and to entertain the audience. For example, the Capulet and Montegue households on “Verona Avenue” have the addresses 2B and another 2B crossed off, (punning on Hamlet’s most famous line). In addition, when we first meet Juliet, she argues with her father (voiced by Michael Caine) to let her off a small white platform that he forbids her from leaving. Because she’s a gnome, her father literally puts her on a pedestal, which beautifully illustrates the relationship between Juliet and Lord Capulet. In the play, this is hinted at, but not really explored, but in this version, it is front and center, and helps increase the drama.

Perhaps the most clever thing about Gnomeo and Juliet, is that the film makes you very aware that this is an homage, rather than a re-interpretation of the story. At the opening of the film, a tiny gnome with a ridiculously long hat says: “The story you’re about to see has been told before… A LOT.” This immediately reminds the audience that, although this film will give you the general idea of Shakespeare’s play, the real play is full of more violence and sex than a children’s movie will allow. At one point, Gnomeo even converses with an animated statue of Shakespeare himself, as a way of further conceding the homage, recognizing the difference between an adult-themed play, and a children’s movie, and hopefully, encouraging kids to see both versions.

Resources for Teachers and Students: A Visit To Elizabethan London

I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.

So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.

For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.

My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.

Activities For Kids for Shakespeare’s Birthday 🎂

I’m stuck at home with the kids for Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought I’d come up with some fun activities for my kids to do today:

I hid the quote from “Hamlet” in the bathtub 🛁 and had my kids find the bath letters “2” and “B.”

At home I have a card game called “The Bard Game, which has several famous Shakespeare quotes printed on little cards. I hid the cards around the house and when they found them, I had them recite a short quote. Sometimes I hid them in funny locations like the bath tub or the fridge.

2. Romeo and Juliet For Kids. There’s a bunch of animated Shakespeare videos on YouTube and my daughter really likes this one: https://youtu.be/mMFE0IIHR6I

3. William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki. A fantastic book that introduces Shakespeare’s life and plays.

Romeo and juliet cookies

What’s a birthday party without treats? I had my kids decorate these Romeo and Juliet cookies. My daughter is only 5, so it was good practice writing ✍ the letters R and J.

If you like my ideas or want to suggest something, please leave a comment below!

Close Reading: To Be Or Not To Be

For Shakespeare’s Birthday, I thought I would discuss his most famous speech what is arguably his greatest play. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was written in 1600, the pinnacle/ middle of Shakespeare’s career, after Julius Caesar but before Macbeth.

David Tennent as Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company, 2010.

To Be Or Not To Be has intrigued and mystified people for centuries. It is full of ambiguous imagery, haunting images, and solemn contemplative ideas. I’m going to try and break the speech down first like an intellectual argument, but I will also give you some of my interpretation of Hamlet’s thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare’s genius is creating a speech that gives plenty for the reader to interpret,, but it’s up to the reader to decide what’s happening in the speech.

Just a refresher of the plot:

1. The king has died and been seen as a ghost 

2. He tells his son Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who killed him to become king and marry Hamlets mother, Gertrude.

Hamlet is trying to determine if the ghost is telling the truth and if so, how can Hamlet revenge the death of his father?

The speech occurs right in the middle of the play. Hamlet has been acting strange and the king is worried. He hides behind a tapestry right before Hamlet enters. He then delivers this famous and highly cryptic speech:

Ham. To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe 
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? 'Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish'd. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there's the rub, 
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shufflel'd off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time, 
The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd Loue, the Lawes delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his Quietus make 
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life, 
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will, 
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is sicklied o're, with the pale cast of Thought, 
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turne away,
And loose the name of Action. Soft you now,

Now before I talk about the context of the speech, I want to deconstruct it as an intellectual argument. Hamlet is grappling with something huge, and he is weighing the consequences of his potential actions. Remember, Hamlet is a prince, but he is also a college student, so he turns his choice into an intellectual argument.

  • If you look at the speech as an argument, it hinges on two points- to be or not to be.
  • One is passive and one is active 
  • Both actions are potentially lethal, as evidenced by the two metaphors Hamlet describes later.

Contrary to popular belief, I believe that this speech is not just about suicide. It’s about the choice between suicide and murder, (in this case killing Claudius).

Three Speeches- Macbeth, and Hamlet 

Lets discuss the two central images at the start of this speech. One is active- fighting (“taking arms”), and one is passive (“to suffer…”). Both choices have a similar outcome- death. No one can fight the sea, and arrows are just as lethal.

Let’s look at the speech again, and turn it into a series of beats using the conjunctions “and, but, and or,” The speech has 6 beats. What he’s thinking about or feeling is open to interpretation, but the argument definitely changes at these points. First the thesis:

  • This beat sets up the two options (murder and suicide).  Why do I think this? Because it’s similar to two other speeches: https://youtu.be/nq3hcs1yFKw

https://youtu.be/NZSF5r9KEWE

It’s worth noting that about the same time, Shakespeare wrote three great soliloquis; Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be,” Macbeth’s “If It Were Done,” and Brutus’ “It must be by his death.” All three speeches have some notable commonalities:

  • All three speeches are in passive voice; the would be murderer wishes he didn’t have to kill someone, but wants the victim dead nonetheless.
  • Refuse to mention the name of the man who will die.
  • Refuse to say ‘murder’
  • Personify death in abstract terms.

When I noticed the commonalities between the speeches, I came to realize that all of them are about murder, not just suicide. I think Hamlet alone contemplates suicide as well as murder, possibly because unlike Brutus and Macbeth, Hamlet is not at all sure he’s doing the right thing.


Beat 1 The Nerve:  Hamlet is working himself up for something; either murder or suicide. It’s ambiguous which one he starts with, and largely depends upon the actor’s interpretation.


Beat 2 The Consequences
Whether Hamlet kills the king or himself, either way he could die and when he does, his soul will have to answer for his actions. This is similar to Macbeth, who worries that his foul murder will be exposed and judged by “Heaven’s cherubim, horses upon the sightless couriers of the air.”

“PITY,” by William Blake, alongside the text of Macbeth’s soliloquy from Act I, Scene 7.

“There’s the rub”- there’s the catch.

“Coil” refers to a snake skin. The line characterizes death as shedding an earthly body, something that seems all too easy to do. It’s an uncomfortable image because it makes death look all too easy. It also calls to mind the story of Gilgamesh, who had a flower that would grant him immortality, but a snake stole it, which is why snakes cam shed their skin, seemingly growing young again forever.

Beat 3: Smothering In Surmise: https://youtu.be/gFG91lXgNcs

This beat is where Hamlet seems smothered in his frustrations with life.. Rather than making a decision, he’s sidetracked with a laundry list of universal problems. His energy seems up, but it’s unclear why.

When I performed this portion of the speech, I realized that everything Hamlet refers to, Claudius has done: he has oppressed and wronged the kingdom, he has delayed the law, and he has hindered Hamlet’s love for Ophelia by letting Polonius deny Hamlet’s access to her. Perhaps the laundry list is designed to psych him up- listing all the reasons Claudius deserves to die, (without tipping him off).

Beat 4: The Downward Spiral

Once again Hamlet is thwarted by the concept of Death and divine judgment. He seems to imply that everyone is scared into compliance with the threat of death.

The Conclusion:

Hamlet’s conclusion is that he has no conclusion. He can’t kill himself because his conscience tells him that God is against it, and he cannot kill Claudius because of fear of death or damnation.

When he says “The native hue of resolution,” he means red, (as in blood), is curtailed, cut off by the very thought of Deaths pale scythe. 

Interpretations:

Mel Gibson plays Hamlet as a sort of man in mourning. He is as close to the action movie hero as Hamlet gets with his large, imposing physique and brutal looking medieval sword:

Speaking of action heroes, the whole movie Last Action Hero has a reoccurring motif of nodding to Hamlet. The avenging hero archetype is the prototype for every action movie, every superhero, (and most kung fu), and it began with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is  why it’s hilarious that Schwarzeneger portrays him in Last Action Hero- the movie is a loving parody of every single action star since the original- Hamlet.

Why Else might Hamlet be so cryptic?

Not all versions are about suicide or murder 

Lawrence Olivier believed that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex, and therefore has an unconscious desire to murder his father and sleep with this mother, which is why he considered himself unworthy to avenge his father’s death. In Olivier’s To Be, you can almost see his Hamlet aroused by his own Oedipal fantasies and then recoiling with disgust right before he says the line: “Perchance to dream.”

Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet centers  around court intrigue. In contrast with Oliver’s Gothic Elsinore, his is bright and baroque, but it’s full of two way mirrors. Half the film is either large shots with lots of people watching public performances  or POV shots of people being watched.

Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be,” focuses on the possibility that Hamlet knows that Claudius is watching him through the  two way mirror- he frightens him, puzzles, him, but in the end, never gives Claudius a clue as to his true intentions.

Murder or suicide? 

the speech is not only famous for its universality but its evocative imagery, clear (albeit cryptic) construction, and heightened circumstances.

Shakespeare is able to give us a complete character without giving everything away, which allows anyone to reinterpret the character their own way. That is why Shakespeare’s characters endure.

New TV Adaptation Of Romeo and Juliet

PBS is going to show (and hopefully stream), the National Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet Friday, to help celebrate William Shakespeare’s birthday.

The production stars Jessie Buckley as Juliet, and Josh O’Connor as Romeo, who recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the young Prince Charles

After playing another doomed lover whose family won’t allow him to be with the woman he wants, I look forward to seeing him bring his passion and skill to Shakespeare.

Jessie Buckley as Juliet, and Josh O’Connor as Romeo. National Theater, 2021

Shakespeare’s Roman Women

Since it’s Women’s History Month, and we just had the Ides of March last week, I thought it might be a good idea to analyze some of Shakespeare’s  female characters in his Roman plays. I’ve talked a lot about the men in Julius Caesar, Titus, Andronicus, and Coriolanus, but haven’t examined the female characters much, so that’s what I’m going do discuss today.

Examining these characters is important because many are based on real Roman women, and Shakespeare’s sources reveal what Roman culture thought about women’s roles. This is particularly relevant to those of you reading this in the west because Roman culture influenced the Elizabethans and they set the foundation for our culture today. Feminist criticism has been much maligned, (and I’m certainly not an expert on feminism), but I do know this: it exists to question the values and conventions of our culture, so we can identify what works and what needs to change to build a more egalitarian society.

When it comes to Shakespeare female characters in general, he challenges the status quo, but also reinforces it: There’s always a character who challenges traditional gender roles like Katherine and Beatrice, but, (with the exception of Twelfth Night), for every one of these there’s also a Bianca or a Hero; characters who embody traditional famine roles and virtues of chastity, meekness, and yes, marriage and childbirth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shakespeare’s Roman plays where there are always two female characters and they usually embody opposite views of women’s roles and a woman’s duty to her country and the men in their lives

1. Tamara from Titus Andronicus

Titus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his first Roman play. As we shall see, as Shakespeare went through his career we see a more nuanced view of women’s roles and a greater appreciation for women who disdain or challenge patriarchal society. The characters Lavinia and Tamara are perfect examples and counterexamples respectively of traditional feminine roles.

When we first meet her, Tamara is the queen of the Goths- an enemy tribe that Rome has just conquered. Everything about Tamara from her foreign upbringing, to her personality, is a counter-example of what Romans prize in women. She is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty, motivated by revenge against Titus, (who in the first scene of the play, kills her eldest son. Tamara responds by masterminding the murder of all of Titus’ children. She is also sexually liberated and uses her sexuality to further her revenge. Tamara seduces the Emperor to get him on her side, and gets the Emperor to condemn Titus’ sons to death. Her adultery with Aaron is another way she uses her sexuality to get revenge; she brings ruin the monarchy by cuckolding the Emperor. Thus Tamara’s sexuality and bold personality is framed in the play as an existential threat to Rome itself.

Tamara’s chief and only virtue is her love for her children, as you can plainly see in this scene from the play. Her love for her son Alarbus is why she begs Titus for his life, and afterwards, when he sacrifices Alarbus, Tamara’s love for her son turns into deadly hate to Titus. It is her motherly devotion that makes Tamara simultaneously human, and inhuman. As the play progresses however, Tamara is referred to in increasingly inhuman and savage terms. She dresses up as the goddess Revenge to torment Titus, and after she dies, Lucius, the new Emperor (and Titus’ only surviving son), calls her a “ravenous tiger,” and calls for her body to be thrown to beasts, since “Her life was beast-like.” Tamara is unquestionably the villain- a femme-fatale and a threat to all the Roman characters, but especially Titus’ daughter Lavinia.

2. Lavinia from Titus Andronicus

For the entire play, Lavinia embodies  traditional Roman female virtues, in that she is defined by the men in her life, and her chastity. The Romans actually invented the term castitas to refer to the female virtues of modesty and chastity, that is, only having sex with the man you are married to. Lavinia fits this mold perfectly. She’s a devoted daughter, wife, and sister. When we first meet her, she is a model of duty- greeting her father and asking for his blessing when he returns to Rome, and shedding tears for her brothers that were slain in the war:

In the cruelest and most barbaric scene in all of Shakespeare, Lavinia is raped by Tamara’s sons. Then, to keep her from identifying her attackers, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. The mutilation is grotesque, but for Titus, the Romans, and for the Elizabethans Shakespeare was writing for, the cruelest loss for Lavinia was the loss of her chastity. Now that she isn’t a virgin, Lavinia is marked with the opposite of chastity, incestum, or infamy. Even though the rape was not her fault, Lavinia is marked with shame. The Romans took unchastity extremely seriously; they used to punish it by throwing the adulteress to her death off the Tarpeian Rock. As you can see in this video, when a woman who was supposed to live chaste is even suspected of adultery, her very life is now in jeopardy:


When she loses her virginity, Lavinia becomes a silent creature of sadness. She is no longer a person, but a motivation for Titus’ revenge. Even if she hadn’t lost her tongue, she would still have little agency in the plot. This is why Titus kills her; to remove her incestum, and end her suffering.  Lavinia embodies the the cruel truth that women had to face in ancient Rome- once they lose their virginity, they are already dead in the eyes of most of Roman society.

Lavinia’s death scene from Titus, 1999, directed by Julie Taymor.

3. Portia (Julius Caesar)
If Shakespeare only wrote these two  female characters, you might rightly assume that he was a vile sexist, who defines a women’s usefulness simply by her chastity or lack thereof, and who thinks the proper function of a woman is to be quiet, demure, chaste, and obedient. Thankfully Shakespeare created Portia in Julius Caesar, and she defies many of the stereotypes associated with women in Ancient Rome.

Portia marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s Roman female characters as we we go from more ‘traditional’ female characters, to ones who exemplify masculine virtues. Instead of women being subordinates to men’s affairs and keeping out of religion, politics, and the affairs of Roman society, Portia is a character who demands respect, and to share her husband’s dangers. Some ancient sources suggested possibly Portia might have been the one who inspired Brutus to kill Caesar, (more on that later), but in any case Portia is not a character who is subordinate to men, but who demands to be treated as a Roman citizen.

In one of the strangest passages of the play, Portia reveals that she has willingly injured herself by stabbing herself in the thigh. She does this as a way of establishing her tolerance for pain and her desire to be taken seriously by her husband:

Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart
Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal920
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?925
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband's secrets?930
Brutus. O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!

Romans have always had a connection with blood. Blood is a connection to duty; we owe our lives and our blood to Rome; the Gladiator whose blood honours the dead, the sacrifice of the enemy soldiers in Titus Andronicus, and the blood of the Roman soldier shed in service of the country. Rome is almost a culture that is built on blood. Portia in this gesture makes it clear that she is willing to shed blood just as much as her husband, who of course, will shed blood, (just not his own). In a way, Portia’s wound makes her more heroic than Brutus, because she is willing to suffer for the good of Rome, while Brutus kills for the good of Rome.

Shakespeare’s Roman characters, (male and female), extol the questionable virtue of the noble death. Historically when a Roman conspiracy failed, the conspirators had a choice; they could be paraded back to Rome humiliated and disgraced, or they could kill themselves and show defiance in the face of their conquerors. In some cases suicide was actually encouraged by the conquerors, as it meant that the threat was neutralized. In response, the conquerors would go easy on the wife and children.

Portia kills herself after Brutus is on the run. There could be two equally important reasons why she does this. First, she might be attempting to gain favor with the triumvirate by killing herself, (since she is complicit in the assassination), in the hopes that Anthony and a and Octavian will take pity on a Brutus’ children. It’s also possible that Portia kills herself because with the tide of battle turning, she might be next. Portia might be showing the same sort of resolve their husband later shows when he commits suicide to appease Caesar’s ghost and to defy his enemies the honor of capturing him.

Since Portia has a lot of her husband’s same virtues, the inevitable question I come to is to wonder what if; what if  Shakespeare’s Brutus had a listened to Portia more,what might he have done?

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques Louis David, 1789.

This painting by Jacques Louis David depicts Brutus’ ancestor Junius Brutus. We see that he is utterly removed and stoic him in the face of death. He has ordered the execution of his own sons for trying to bring back the monarchy. In the background, Brutus’s wife and daughters are mourning the death of their son and brothers. Men like Brutus, with their Republican ideals, take little stock in the consequence of their actions.

One can only wonder if Brutus had had confided in Portia, would she have condemned his actions, or could she have led him to a more constructive path, that might have a prevented Brutus’ death, and maybe even stopped the coming days of the Empire?

Valumnia (Coriolanus)
In Shakespeare’s later Roman tragedy Coriolanus, we again see a young, chaste woman and an older mother figure, but unlike in Titus, the older Volumnia is much more heroic than the young maid Virgilia. Both show loyalty to Rome and devotion to Coriolanus, but Volumnia is not only a hero, she is in many ways a complete inversion of the Roman mother trope.


Volumnia is fanatically devoted to Rome and its army and like her son. She finds war more beautiful than symbols of peace, especially those associated with motherhood. In Act I, Scene iii, she says that the breasts of the Trojan Queen Hecuba were not as lovely as her son’s forehead when it spit blood in battle. She is an inversion of the traditional motherly character; because of her devotion to Rome and  her son,
she is more outspoken than other women and not afraid to talk back to anyone who questions Rome. In a way she is more of Coriolanus’ general or his father than a traditional mother. Her love of Rome is inextricably tied to her love of her son. She raises her son to be a warrior for the Senate and the people of Rome, exhorting him to either return in glory, or die. Observe this passage where she tells Coriolanus’ wife that she was never proudest than when she sent her son off to war:

Volumnia: I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a
more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I
should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he
won honour than in the embracements of his bed where
he would show most love. When yet he was but
tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when
youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when
for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not
sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering
how honour would become such a person. that it was
no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if
renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel
war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows
bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not
more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child
than now in first seeing he had proved himself a
man.

Although Virgilia fits the bill of the modest, chaste, and loyal Roman housewife, Volumnia is framed as much more heroic. She even uses her mighty stoicism to save Rome! After Coriolanus rebels against Rome and joins the Volscis, Volumnia gets him to agree to make peace with Rome. She does this by kneeling before her own son; humiliating herself for the good of Rome. This act of self-humiliation changes Coriolanus’ mind. Observe how shocked Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) kneels in this scene from the movie Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011).

4. Julia (Antony and Cleopatra) and with Cleopatra

With these final two examples, I’ve chosen two character who, (at face value), resemble Lavinia and Tamara. One is a dutiful, chaste Roman wife, related by blood to the Imperial family. Octavia was beloved throughout Rome for her chastity and kindness, and the citizens were outraged when her husband Marc Antony, abandoned her for Cleopatra, who was seen by many as a murderous, barbarous, lustful and an evil sorceress. However, Shakespeare paints a much more complex picture of Cleopatra, and though Octavia retains her chastity and is praised for her virtue, Cleopatra is unquestionably the star of the show, and ultimately commands more respect, awe, and even sympathy from the audience.

In Shakespeare’s play (and in real life), Cleopatra used her beauty as a propaganda tool. As I mentioned the Game of Thrones post, she deified herself in order to be taken seriously. In the 1st century AD, the system was very much rigged against female authority and so women had to resort to terrible measures in order to secure power for themselves.

If you look at the play again especially near the end, Cleopatra doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, she comes across as a woman who is trying to keep her Kingdom and her son Cesarian safe, and she will do anything to protect him. As the name suggests, Cesarean was Cleopatra’s love child of Julius Caesar, so the entire Roman world wanted him dead, because he was a threat to Octavian’s claim to the throne. To keep her son safe, Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony, hoping a powerful Roman alliance will keep her crown safe, and her son alive. Sadly for her, Octavian would stop at nothing to bring down all threats to his power, including Cesarian and Marc Antony. Arguably, the only reason he married Marc Antony to Octavia in the first place, was that he knew if Antony committed adultery, it would give Octavian the perfect excuse to raise an army and destroy Antony. Cleopatra got caught up in the political machinations of the most powerful and cunning man in the ancient world, and held him off as best she could.

Cleopatra struggles through the whole play to keep Antony, her people, and the situation in Rome under control. Antony never respects her as a queen and treats her like a jealous boyfriend, which is why they frequently get into fights.

However, after Antony’s suicide, the audience sees that Cleopatra also genuinely loved him back, and weeps for him as a wife, not an ally. Yet, quickly she regains her royal composure once Octavian threatens to take her back to Rome in chains. She decides to simultaneously deny Octavian the satisfaction, protect her son, and join her husband in the afterlife with her regal suicide:

Cleopatra: Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies]
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.

In conclusion, Shakespeare couldn’t go too far against the grain with challenging traditional patriarchal views of women, but in his Roman plays, we see characters who are simultaneously mothers and murderers, chaste and intelligent, citizens and devoted wives. I’m not trying to say that Shakespeare invented feminism, but I do believe his characters remind us that it is folly to try to box either gender into such stale old Roman categories as masculine or feminine. Perhaps we should all aspire to be like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety allowed her to succeed in a man’s world, while still being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a queen.