Anne Hanrahan – The Signifier and Shakespeare

THE LETTER 04 (Summer 1995) pages 59-75

Two women have fascinated me for many years: I use the word women’ deliberately for, though both are in fact literary creations of Shakespeare, both, from my first ‘meetings’ with them, evoked in me a great sense of wonder at their power and frailty and a deep desire to unravel the enigmas that both presented.

Lady Macbeth was introduced to me in my last year at primary school! Modern educationalists would question the efficacy of such a practice but I can still taste the morbid appeal of Lady Macbeth to my eleven year old self. Unable to fully understand the words used or articulate a response I, nevertheless, chilled at the horror of Lady Macbeth’s depravity yet openly wept for her in her lunatic sleep-walking at the end. She was much more fearsome than any witch of fairy-tales!

As part of ‘A’ level studies, I met the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Despite the acquisition of some elementary tools of literary criticism, it was not Shakespeare’s skill as a dramatist that consciously thrilled me; it was Cleopatra herself who filled me with delight and frustration. The great puzzle was to discover who she really was. The Romans called her ‘gypsy’ and whore’; Antony referred to her as ‘wrangling queen’, Enobarbas saw within her a spark of the divine; yet, when she herself appeared on stage she could be as insecure, petulant, cruel and infatuated as a teenager but, in her laments upon Antony’s death, she would rise to heights of dizzying passion and lyrical beauty. ‘I am all fire and air’ she asserted as she approached death – and I, like many others, – was captivated.

Now, many years since these first highly personal responses, I return with great joy – and not a little trepidation – to stand once more before Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. However, I wish to don, as it were,…

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