The Utopia of the Creative Mind: A Comparative Character Study of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Bottom, the Weaver

Both Cleopatra and Bottom, the Weaver have an innate ability to create for themselves their own ideal world, their own Utopia, if you will. Even (especially?) when their reality by all rights should be crumbling around them, they are able to rapidly flip the switch. They keep up to life’s changes (in their own way), they don’t let things get them down, even terrible things that would put many people into a prolonged state of shock, Bottom and Cleopatra just take it in stride.

Utopia is by definition a perfect place that does not exist. Shakespeare, with these two characters, comments on the renaissance era mentality and ability to imagine a fantasy society even when deeply entrenched in a world where abject poverty and misery was the status of the day (McEvoy, 41). Shakespeare was saying to his audience, “Hey, look, Bottom got turned into a donkey, and Cleopatra lost her entire kingdom and inadvertently caused the love of her life to commit suicide. Yet both of them are going on in life. Are you really going to feel sorry for yourself because you ran out of black bread?”

When Sir Thomas Moore wrote Utopia he was doing so from the vantage point of struggle (Norton Anthology, 520). It seems that hard times are actually the precursor for anyone’s ability to even imagine a Utopia. Shakespeare’s work is full of characters who fight back against restrictions with great effort, but it is Cleopatra and Bottom who internalize this attitude of the creative utopian mind-set so naturally and instinctively it becomes a point of great inspiration for anyone wishing to overcome the hardships in his or her own life.

When Antony first goes to Rome and leaves Cleopatra, we see the queen as being playful. She intellectualizes and tries to imagine Antony, “He’s speaking now, or murmuring, ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ For so he calls me” (1, 5, 29-31). She is without her love, yet able to conjure him in her mind. Her faculties allow her to richly imagine her lover in another realm, visualize what he is doing, and the fact that she consoles herself that he is thinking of her, is the true mark of her genius. She is lonely for him, but she does not let that get her down.

Bottom, the Weaver has a similar knack for make believe. After Puck has turned him into a donkey, instead of completely freaking out (like all of his friends do) Bottom simply says, “I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here and sing” (3, 1, 99-100). While Bottom’s character is endlessly amusing, his actions are also very touching and almost child-like. Anyone with children in their lives know of the child’s aptitude for invention and how quickly a game or a song can intersect some tragedy and subvert his or her attention to a more enjoyable activity. Bottom seems to epitomize this characteristic, and it is apparent that Shakespeare was also commenting on the gift of the child to be a seeker of delight. Through Bottom he seems to be inviting the audience to engage their inner-child’s faculty for envisioning joy, and thus creating it.

In their minds, both Cleopatra and Bottom are able to transcend the reality of circumstance. They create a perfect place, that does not exist, a Utopia. However, in this imaginary world, they are both able to experience a true version of happiness.

Michelle Pfeifer as Titania and Kevin Kline as Bottom, the Weaver, in Michael Hoffman's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Michelle Pfeifer as Titania, the Faerie Queen and Kevin Kline as Bottom, the Weaver, in Michael Hoffman's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Consequently, both Cleopatra and Bottom have the immense capability to swallow difficult information rather quickly. When Titania first sees Bottom she expresses to him, “On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee,” (3, 1, 116), Bottom replies simply, “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that” (3, 1, 118). Bottom, with his words, seems like such a simplistic character, but at this point in the play he has just been turned magically into a donkey, his friends have abandoned him in the woods out of fear of him, and he’s just been singing to make himself less lonely, when out of the woods pops a bunch of faeries, the one, the faerie queen, who pronounces that she loves him. And he just says, “No you don’t.”

When at the end of Act 4, scene 15, Antony has died of his self-inflicted injury, Cleopatra wastes no time in deciding what her next move shall be. As Antony dies in her arms she laments his death and then tells her women that after they have buried him, they will do as he did, “after the high Roman fashion” (4, 15, 101). She so skillfully handles devastation with the powerful elixir of choice. She is never not in control of her own fate. The strength that both Cleopatra and Bottom exude is part and parcel of their enormous talent at overcoming adversity and consistently triumphing over any obstacles put in their way. At first glance, Cleopatra and Bottom do not have a whole lot in common and I think that was on purpose as much as it was on accident. Shakespeare seemed to be trying to suggest somehow that all of humanity has a choice as to what they allow to influence them. With these characters he seems to be suggesting the possibility that fate was not necessarily that big of a player and that people from all walks of life had the capacity for self-fashioning and to live cloaked in a Utopia.

Cleopatra with the Asp Reni Guido, circa 1630 Italian Baroque

Cleopatra with the Asp, Reni Guido, circa 1630 Italian Baroque

Both Cleopatra and Bottom are experts when it comes to shaping even the physical world around them to suit their fancy. When Cleopatra first gets word that Antony has married Octavia she flies completely off the handle (2, 5). With a fiery spirit she deals with Antony’s messenger who brings her the unwelcome news of his marriage with Octavia. She uses her high rank with promised reward to him, “There is gold, and here my bluest veins to kiss!” (2, 5, 34-35). But by Act 3 she’s come to her senses almost completely. As she gathers information about her boyfriend’s new wife she decides that Octavia is round and dumpy and slow with a high voice. “He cannot like her long” says Cleopatra (3, 3, 19). When confronted with unwelcome news she crafts an alternate version of reality that more suits her own fancy.

In Act 4, scene 1, Bottom, upon discovering that he is “marvelous hairy about the face” (21-22) decides that he “must to the barber” (20). Does it even occur to Bottom to get upset that things are so completely out of balance? Not only is he not concerned, he is downright aloof about it. He chatters happily with Titania about what type of music they should listen to next and then goes on to express “a great desire for a bottle of hay” (28), as if it is the most natural thing in the world. The ability of Cleopatra and Bottom to twist around or just ignore reality completely goes a long way in making them charming characters.

At the very end of Act 4, Scene 1 is Bottom waking up from his “fantasy” and saying, “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was” (4, 1, 198-199). Bottom feels strongly that something extraordinary has happened but he decides not to even try to explain it to himself or anyone. In other words, it did happen, but to answer how or why would be impossible. This is another characteristic of that creative utopian mind; to simply accept some things as being unexplainable. The final persuasion that Shakespeare intended for these two very different characters to have similar characteristics is that Cleopatra has a similar line in Act 5, scene 2 when she is talking to Dolabella about the wondrous nature of her Antony when she says, “if there be nor ever were one such, it’s past the size of dreaming” (199-120).

As much as these two are archetypes of the utopia of the creative mind, they are also architects of Utopia itself. They come from such different stations in life and yet they are both able to create their own reality. They are, in effect, reality engineers. They command and sway their mind to rule their own vision. Reality is a playground for these people, not a prison, and it all comes from inside of them, not some impersonal universal force, not from the church, not from circumstance, not from other people and not from the government. They rule their own lives, they are the dominant and supreme beings; overlords of their own happiness. Shakespeare seems to have been trying to get at that message by instilling both of these two very different characters with such similar characteristics and he seems to be inviting his audience to create their own reality, or to at least consider the potential.

Works Cited

McEvoy, Sean. The Basics: Shakespeare. Milton Park, Oxon: Routeledge, 2006.

The Norton Anthology of Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume B, The Sixteenth Century/
 
 

 

The Early Seventeenth Century. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.

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