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"Antony and Cleopatra"

J. W. Waterhouse. Cleopatra from The Graphic gallery of Shakespeare's heroines. Color print, 1896.

Cleopatra was another problematic heroine for the Victorians who had to confront her blatant sensuality in an age that valued women's modesty. The image of Cleopatra changed drastically during the course of the nineteenth century. This early image by Kenny Meadows from 1839 shows her with arms seductively raised, but fully clothed and corseted like the proper Victorian woman.

By the end of the century, John W. Waterhouse creates this splendid Cleopatra, gazing out from under sultry eyebrows, as she lounges easily on a leopard skin. Uncorseted and bra-less, she is the dangerous, seductive, woman of the fin-de-sicle. Her figure looks forward to the New Woman, already agitating for university degrees, women's suffrage, and a place in the work force.


The French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed the role both in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and in an extravaganza of costume and scenery created for her by Sardou. Gold and Fizdale, in their recent biography of Bernhardt, recount an incident from the London production: "After watching Sarah as Cleopatra, lasciviously entwined in her lover's arms, an elderly dowager was heard to say:' How unlike, how very unlike the home life of our own dear queen'."



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Bernhardt as Cleopatra. Photograph, ca. 1899

Charles Heath. The Shakspeare Gallery; Containing the Principal Female Characters... London, ca. 1836-7

Additional Information

Joseph "Kenny" Meadows (1790-1874) was a portraitist, illustrator, and caricaturist. This son of a naval arist was self-taught but that did not keep him from becoming one of the most popular theatrical portraitist. 


Sarah Burnhardt (1844-1923),was the most famous actress of the nineteenth century. Her extraordinary theatrical realism made her a hot actraction when she went on one of her many international tours. Although her career was mainly on the stage, her roles in the early days of cinema helped bring credibility to the new medium.

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