In part, she did it with charm. Through every gesture and vocalization, Cleopatra communicates that being a leader means having a freewheeling, iconoclastic, joyous role to play. That’s what makes her, as critic Harold Bloom put it, “the most vital woman in Shakespeare.” Though her country has been conquered by Rome, she does not countenance despair. She laughs at everything that her suitors and courtiers say; she represents a culture of pleasure that will endure even within the Roman ethic of policing and laws. No wonder Antony falls for her.
Cleopatra also has the perspective to understand the significance of what she has lost. She stands for Hellenic ideals of excellence for its own sake, against the legal strictures of Caesar’s Roman Empire. She wins over Antony because this fierce general has come to the point where wars no longer gratify him. He wants a Hellenic world, where beauty, education, sport, and family will prevail. In the face of the rule of law, it takes a lot of courage to stand up, even on a theater stage, and proclaim the value of the rule of beauty.
Increasingly over the next 10 years, institutions will have to make a place for women of maturity. As the baby-boom generation ages, its power will accrue increasingly to women. They age more slowly than men, and they remain stronger longer. They are often treated as outsiders, even when they are sovereign. And yet when placed in positions of power, they are often superb rulers. They learn how to manage the state, the world, the men, the monarchs, and, in the end, their own legacy — just as Cleopatra managed her own demise — without losing their appreciation for the unmanageable, pleasure-seeking life force of wholehearted men and women.
Henry V, Richard II, and Cleopatra are all powerful leaders precisely because they are complex. They are neither wholly good nor wholly bad; in responding to the call of duty, they transcend their own imperfections without losing their humanity. If Jim Collins identified good-to-great companies, these are good-to-great leaders.
Alison Bomber, the RSC voice coach, told me that actors learn to play different types of leaders with distinct styles of phrasing and presence. Shakespeare’s purely evil characters, like Henry IV (Hal’s father) and Richard III, are wolves and predators. “They deal in crunch phrases. Their language tastes bad.” And then there are some benevolent rulers, such as Henry VI, who is “often considered a Jesus figure,” says Bomber. “His language is soft and open. It’s made of vowel sounds and fewer explosive p, t, and b sounds. His comprehension of the world around him is beautiful, but he’s powerless to act.”
But to play a good-to-great character, a transformative leader who also transforms himself or herself, says Bomber, “you need the courage, space, and confidence to start slowly and speak slowly. You hardly need to hurry. Time belongs to you. Great leaders even move slowly. Richard II speaks out every word. He enters and looks around. He wants to be seen.”
The word time, says Bomber, is the most important of Shakespeare’s words. In verse, he gave it two syllables: time-uh. “Drop the breath deep in the body. People think you have to inhale in order to say something long and important. But really all you have to do to breathe in is to breathe out fully. This pushes the breath deep in the body.”
In their most significant scenes, Shakespeare’s greatest leaders are direct and vulnerable rather than grandiose. For example, to bare his soul in the RSC production, Richard II divests himself of wig, makeup, and brocaded robes; he stands, smaller and more numinous, radiant. He has given up the power of the throne to accept the fate of being human — and thus a majesty greater than kingship. Audiences, faced with this kind of surrender onstage, are attracted rather than repelled. They trust the leader who presents himself or herself so authentically; perhaps they know that even if the authenticity is artifice, it must tap into some real persona to register.