Name-calling the Egyptian Queen in Antony and Cleopatra : a case in point of the distortion of Africa through the racial slur “gypsy”

Par Nora Galland
Publication en ligne le 27 décembre 2019


In the early modern period, Africa was represented as a territory made up of fantasies, stereotypes, and prejudice. Studying Africa in Shakespeare’s plays boils down to analysing the distorted representation that the early modern English depicted at the time. This paper relies on the use of the racial slur “gypsy” in Antony and Cleopatra (1606) by William Shakespeare. With this term, Cleopatra is insulted, in abstentia, twice. It may seem odd to focus on a term that is used sporadically in the play but it is a key element to understand Cleopatra’s ambivalent characterization as well as the plot itself. This insult is given a dramatic function and acts as a tragic trigger marking Cleopatra as the natural enemy of Rome. With this racial slur, Shakespeare committed an anachronism for it could not have been used by the Romans. The word “gypsy” only appeared during the Renaissance and we may wonder why Shakespeare used a typically early modern cultural reference in a Roman play. The issue at stake is to remember that Shakespeare was influenced by classical culture – Roman texts, Greek texts – when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra. Indeed, it is by going back to Greek literature that we might understand why the term “gypsy” had been used for the first time by Shakespeare to refer to Cleopatra through the prism of Greek literature.

À l’époque de la première modernité, l’Afrique est un territoire fait de fantasmes, de stéréotypes et de préjugés. Étudier l’Afrique dans les pièces de Shakespeare revient à analyser la représentation déformée que les Anglais ont produite à l’époque. Cet article repose sur l’analyse de l’injure raciale « gypsy » dans Antoine et Cléopâtre (1606) de William Shakespeare. Ciblée par ce terme, Cléopâtre est insultée in absentia, à deux reprises, dans la pièce. Cela peut sembler étrange de se concentrer sur un terme qui n’apparaît pas de façon récurrente dans la pièce, mais je souhaite monter dans quelle mesure celui-ci constitue un terme clé pour comprendre le personnage ambivalent de Cléopâtre ainsi que l’intrigue elle-même. Shakespeare donne à cette injure une fonction dramatique et contribue à faire basculer la pièce dans le tragique en faisant de Cléopâtre l’ennemi naturel de Rome. À travers cette injure raciste, le dramaturge commet un anachronisme car celle-ci n’aurait pas pu être utilisée par les Romains. Le mot « gypsy » n’apparaît que pendant la Renaissance, et on peut se demander pour quelle raison Shakespeare a recours à un mot qui caractérise l’Angleterre de la première modernité dans une pièce romaine. Il est fondamental de se souvenir de l’influence considérable que la culture classique a eu sur Shakespeare alors qu’il composait Antoine et Cléopâtre – celle des textes latins et grecs. En effet, c’est en remontant à la littérature de la Grèce ancienne que l’on peut, dans une certaine mesure, comprendre la raison pour laquelle le terme « gypsy » a été utilisé, pour la première fois, par Shakespeare pour faire référence à Cléopâtre à travers le prisme de la littérature grecque.


Texte intégral

Speak to me home ; mince not the general tongue ;
Name Cleopatra as she is called in Rome.
Antony and Cleopatra (I.2.11-12)1

1Here, Antony talks with a messenger who came from Rome to break the latest news to him. He asks him to be blunt and direct when referring to Cleopatra, thus allowing him implicitly to use the abusive language uttered in Rome to describe her. With this demand, Antony suggests that name-calling is a systematic way of representing verbally Cleopatra in Rome. Moreover, this messenger is a reminder that the scene takes place in Egypt and that this character had to cross the Mediterranean Sea to travel from Rome to Alexandria. This passage is significant in the play for it suggests a close link between place and identity–Cleopatra may be called queen in Egypt, but she is called names in Rome. Antony and Cleopatra is made up of forty different scenes, twenty-eight of which are set within the African continent and twelve take place outside Africa.2 The constant shifts of location compel the audience to go back and forth from Africa to Europe, which creates an effect of dizziness. Not always knowing if the scene takes place in Africa or Europe reveals a significant ambiguity that characterizes the way Africa in which was conceived in early modern Europe – it was represented as a European colony and not as a specifically independent territory. We must bear in mind that Egypt had been colonized for centuries, first by the Persians, then the Greeks and eventually the Romans at the time of Cleopatra’s reign. It had been influenced, shaped, mapped and ruled by a foreign authority granting a measure of autonomy to the official sovereign of the country. Egypt is and is not Africa – it is a Roman region of Africa, i.e. a region that had been dominated by the Roman cultural and political elite. The continent itself is not mentioned explicitly in the play but it is referred to indirectly only through references to Libya and Egypt. The latter is rather associated with the transcontinental region of the Middle East, as Caesar suggests it when he talks about the Roman Empire’s expansion :

[…] Cleopatra hath nodded him to her.
He hath given his empire
Up to a whore, who now are levying
The kings o’th’earth for war. He hath assembled
Bocchus the King of Libya, Archelaus
Of Cappadocia, Philadelphos King
Of Paphlagonia, the Thracian King of Adallas,
King Manchus of Arabia, King of Pont,
Herod of Jewry, Mithridates King
Of Comagne, Polemon and Amyntas,
The Kings of Mede and Lycaonia,
With a more larger list of sceptres. (III.6.66-78)

2Furthermore, Caesar mentions other territories linking Egypt to the Middle East rather than to the rest of the African continent when he evokes the lands Antony promised to the sons he had engendered with Cleopatra :

His sons he there proclaimed the king of kings :
Great Media, Parthia and Armenia
He gave to Alexander ; to Ptolemy he assigned
Syria, Cicilia and Phoenicia. […] (III.6.13-16)

3This way of including Egypt in the transcontinental region of the Middle East is significant because it shows that at the time, Africa was not seen as a whole. In Antony and Cleopatra, Africa is loosely constructed as a territory colonized by the Romans and included within the Roman Empire – the play does not rely on an “African” Africa but rather on a “Roman” Africa. As part of the continent of Africa, Egypt was not perceived but conceived which means that it was constructed and shaped through language. Critics have already pointed out the extent to which many words of abuse in the play targeting Cleopatra were explicit references to Roman texts in which she was humiliated and insulted, mainly in Plutarch’s words. However, the term “gypsy” seems to have been quite left out by critics who did not really know what to make of it.3 The OED defines the word “gypsy” as : “[a] member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany), of Hindu origin, which first appeared in England about the beginning of the 16th c. and was then believed to have come from Egypt” (1.a). It is an exonym imposed on a community that is known as “Romany” if we use the demonym they chose to refer to themselves. By being identified as “gypsies”, the Romany community was given a name, a history and a geographical origin that were not theirs – through the insult “gypsy”, they were framed in the time and space continuum that the Europeans constructed and regarded as “History.”4 The term “gypsy” is not denotative but intrinsically connotative for it is marked by a racial bias.

4This word is only used twice in the play by Roman characters referring to Cleopatra. It is among the very first words uttered by Philo in the opening scene, as he explains how much he disapproves of Antony’s relationship to Cleopatra :

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure : […] his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool
a gipsy's lust. (I.1. 1-9)5

5Antony resorts to the very same term towards the end of the play to refer to Cleopatra while he believes that the latter betrayed him : “Like a right gypsy, hath, at fast and loose,/ Beguiled me to the very heart of loss” (IV.12.28-29). Because of the context in which these occurrences appear, the term becomes a racial slur – Philo and Antony chose this word to humiliate her associating her with racist stereotypes according to which gypsy women are hypersexualized prostitutes highly skilled in deception and manipulation.6 Interestingly, the word “gypsy” was not used by Roman historians and writers to refer to Cleopatra. The very first time this term was used to describe the Egyptian queen was in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (1597), in which Mercutio casually mentions Cleopatra by calling her “a gypsy” (II.4.41).7 In Antony and Cleopatra, the word only appears twice but I intend to show that it is a key element to understand the characterization of Cleopatra and the plot itself. Shakespeare was therefore the first writer to collocate the racial slur “gypsy” and the figure of Cleopatra.8 Even though two Roman characters utter this insult, it has no equivalent in Latin because it only emerged in early modern England. By including this very term in his play, Shakespeare committed an anachronism thus implying that the play provides the audience with an early modern English Roman concept of Africa9 and not only a Roman concept of Africa.

6In Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism,10 Ania Loomba analyses the term “gypsy” using Leo Africanus’ History and Description of Africa in which Egypt is described as a Turkish dominion. Africanus insists on the fact that Muslim Moors from the Ottoman Empire invaded Egypt deploring the miscegenation that led to a mixed population, no longer “truly” Egyptian. Eventually, Loomba contends that “gypsy” is a way to identify an outsider or an invader – referring to the Moors invading Egypt as well as the Romany community arriving in England in the early modern period. According to this theory, the term “gypsy” should be understood as a way to identify Turkish Moors colonizing Egypt.

7I would like to adopt another approach to interpret what the expression “gypsy” meant at the time and the extent to which it can be interpreted as a racial slur in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I am interested in finding out why Shakespeare decided to use this word to characterize Cleopatra when no other writers – Roman or European – had done before. Contrary to Ania Loomba who turned to early modern history to claim that “gypsy” implicitly referred to Moor invaders, I would like to explore the antiquity and emphasize the influence of Greek literature in the play to offer a new interpretation of the racial slur “gypsy”. Indeed, it seems necessary to go back to the Greek etymon of the word “gypsy” to understand the scope, meaning and dramatic purpose it has in Shakespeare’s play. This paper aims at showing the extent to which the racial slur “gypsy” in Antony and Cleopatra epitomizes the way Africa was distorted through the figure of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra ? First, I will focus on the dramatic function of the term “gypsy” interpreted as a racial slur uttered by Roman characters located in Africa. Then, I will move on to the fact that the presence of this word in a Roman play is an anachronism reflecting the early modern English Roman conception of the world divided into East and West. Eventually, I will lay stress on the persistence of classical racism in early modern England and explain that the racial slur “gypsy” is evidence of the influence of Greek literature in the play.

I. The Egyptian queen as the Enemy

8The insult “gypsy” appears twice in the play, at the beginning and at the end, to allude to the “antagonist” of the play. It is a term used to refer to Cleopatra by two Roman characters, Philo and Antony. It is worth noticing that Cleopatra herself does not use such a term to identify herself. It is an insult used to humiliate her in absentia in both cases. The earliest occurrence of this locution appears in the first scene that begins in medias res. A crisis is under way already – Antony has lost his Roman identity because of “a gipsy’s lust” (I.1.8-9). Philo is describing Antony’s predicament making him the victim of Cleopatra’s scheme. The very first word of the scene is “Nay” and it encapsulates the Roman viewpoint regarding Antony’s relationship to Cleopatra – it is disapproved of from the beginning of the play. According to Philo who is the first speaker in the play, Antony’s downfall has already begun : “[…] this dotage of our general’s/ O’erflows the measure” (I.1.1-2). Then Philo gives the cause of such a tragic fate referring to Cleopatra’s hold over Antony with the insult “a gipsy’s lust” (I.1.8-9). In doing so, Philo is stating Antony’s harmatia or tragic flaw – his inability to resist to Cleopatra’s charms. Because of this error in judgement, Antony is already doomed to failure from the opening scene. The insult targeting Cleopatra is given the dramatic function of a significant trigger turning – according to the Roman point of view – Antony into the tragic protagonist and Cleopatra into the antagonist.

9In act IV, Antony resorts to the same term to describe Cleopatra, thus making it an anaphoric reference. He thinks that Cleopatra has abandoned him and out of rage and disappointment, he confesses to Eros that she is indeed what she was said to be in Rome : “Like a right gipsy hath at fast and loose/ Beguiled me to the very heart of loss” (IV.12.28-29). The adjective “right” is an emphasis on the fact that Antony now believes in something he already knew or heard of. It means he was already aware of such racist stigmatization but chose not to believe in it. Feeling vulnerable, Antony finds an explanation to what is unintelligible to him by resorting to insults. These are shaped by the doxa, maintained by resentment, hailed as a battle cry and legitimized through art and culture. At this stage of the plot, Antony experiences an epiphany and again, the insult works as a tragic trigger marking Antony’s anagnorisis. He understands the error of judgement that Philo pointed out at the very beginning of the play. In doing so, he presents himself as the tragic hero who becomes aware of his flaw too late to escape his fate and makes Cleopatra the antagonist that sets in motion his tragic downfall. His violence towards her afterwards shows that by uttering the racist insult that echoes Philo’s, he adopted the Roman conception of the plot with him as the protagonist and her as the antagonist, as he puts it himself : “Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving/ And blemish Caesar’s triumph” (IV.12.32-33). Interestingly, from the Egyptian point of view, Antony and Cleopatra are the protagonists fighting against Caesar, the antagonist. Significantly, Antony goes back and forth the conflicting ways of understanding the play, adopting with the utterance of the racist insult the Roman viewpoint but changing his mind quickly after. In IV.12.32-49, Antony longs for Cleopatra’s death – which implies that he became an ally of Caesar – and fantasises about having Octavia torture Cleopatra : “[…] and let/ Patient Octavia plough thy visage up/ With her prepared nails !” (IV.12.37-39). However, a few minutes later, he claims to be the victim of a conspiracy carried out by Caesar and Cleopatra against him – making him the protagonist and them the antagonists : “[…] she, Eros, has/ Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory/ Unto an enemy’s triumph” (IV.14.18-20). Eventually, Antony recants himself and adopts the point of view he had before the utterance of the racist insult that made him lose his bearings : “I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and/ Weep for my pardon” (IV.14.45-46). In the end, the racist insult works as a tragic trigger for Antony but instead of saying something about Cleopatra, it says something about Antony. His hamartia is his inability to distinguish the true from the false–his obsession with betrayal throughout the play is a case in point.

10In the Renaissance, the main historical source about Cleopatra was the Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans by Plutarch (100 BC).11 In the biography devoted to Antony, Plutarch mentioned Cleopatra because of the relationship she had with the Roman soldier. He had a moralist approach and condemned the vices of Antony but emphasized Cleopatra’s responsibility for his demise.12 This stereotype of Cleopatra as a loose woman was recurrent in Roman literature and appears, for instance, in Propertius and Horace. In his Elegies, Propertius insults Cleopatra by calling her “meretrix regina” or “the whore queen” (III.1.1.39).13 Likewise, Horace refers to her disparagingly by calling her “fatale monstrum” or “deadly monster” in his Odes (1.37).14 We may infer that Shakespeare considered Plutarch’s negative characterization of Cleopatra when writing his play. He probably wanted to introduce the Roman viewpoint on the Antony and Cleopatra’s episode according to which Cleopatra was clearly identified as the enemy.

11In his study of Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Derek Traversi regarded the three plays as part of a cluster he decided to refer to as the “Roman plays” mainly because of “the historical matter”15 at the core of each of these plays. They were based on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. This Roman play deals with Roman politics and is set at the time of the Roman Empire in the antiquity. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare set the scene mainly between Alexandria and Rome during the last years of Cleopatra’s reign. This chronological context characterizing the plot clashes with the two occurrences of the insult “gypsy” whose presence in a Roman play does not make any sense at first sight. The insult “gypsy” was a cultural phenomenon that emerged in early modern England and so its very existence in a Roman play set in the antiquity produces an anachronism. It creates a dramatic disorder that marks a time disruption breaking the dramatic illusion for the early modern English theatre-goers. We may wonder why Shakespeare resorted to such a device to alert his spectators and prevent them from suspending their disbelief as Brecht did it with his alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) in the twentieth century. We could argue that Shakespeare resorted to the racist insult “gypsy” knowing that it would have a cultural resonance among his audience. We may suggest that he intended to commit an anachronism to engage even more his spectators by giving them a familiar cultural reference that they could easily pick up. To have a better understanding of this anachronism, we shall now analyse the polysemy that this insult had in early modern England. Indeed, the racist insult must be deciphered within the cultural context in which it was produced.

12Besides resorting to historical records, Shakespeare also used dramatic sources such as The Tragedie of Antony (1592) by the Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney Herbert, which was an adaptation of the French play Marc Antoine (1578) by Robert Garnier. In the English play, Cleopatra is introduced as a sympathetic character and Antony is made responsible for his own downfall. Robert Garnier had the same approach in his play describing Cleopatra in very positive terms. The discrepancy between the historical sources and the dramatic sources used by Shakespeare is obvious in Antony and Cleopatra. We may infer that he probably did not want to choose an overly negative view like Plutarch’s or an overly positive view like Sidney Herbert’s or Garnier’s. Instead, Shakespeare added an original element to the legend of Cleopatra. The racist insult “gypsy” is the innovation that sets his play apart. The term cannot be found in Plutarch’s Lives or the dramatic sources used by Shakespeare – it does not appear anywhere to identify Cleopatra except in Shakespeare’s play. I would argue that the insult “gypsy” was given the specific role of a generic trigger making the play shift from the history play to the tragedy.

II. The Gypsy as the “Eastern” Other

13Thus, we could argue that the term “gypsy”, uttered by Philo and Antony, would have spoken home to early modern English theatre-goers. It was commonly used at the time to refer vaguely to the “Eastern” Other. In early modern Europe, the gypsy emerged as a dramatic type in the second half of the sixteenth century, first in Italy and Spain and then in England. In Italy, the gypsy appeared among the characters of the Commedia dell’ Arte : “Individually, or within the same image, gypsy women and commedia dell’arte menservants commonly illustrated as examples of deceitful or cheating types, as in some emblem book pictures, festival paintings or popular prints.”16 Likewise, Antony highlights Cleopatra’s ability to “beguile” (IV.12.29) him, i.e. to divert his attention by charming him away. We can therefore draw a parallel between Antony’s portrayal of Cleopatra through the racial slur used in the play and the racist representation of the gypsies in the Commedia dell’ Arte.

14Moreover, gypsy characters played a prominent role in Bastiani di Francesco Lanaiuolo’s Contentione di un villano e d’una zingana (1520), Gigio Arthemio Giancarli’s La Cingana (c.1545), Francesco d’Ambra’s Il Furto (1544) and Giordano Bruno’s Candelaio (1582) to name but a few. We could argue that these works of fiction had an influence on building up of the racist stereotype of the gypsy figure regarded as a deceptive character abusing gullible people. They were published before Antony and Cleopatra (1606) and so we may infer that early modern English theatre-goers would have been aware of the scope of the slur “gypsy”. In Cesare Ripa’s book of emblems Iconologia (1593), female gypsies are associated with two emblems – Poverty and Comedy. Ripa explains his choice of a gypsy woman to embody poverty in racist terms : “[It should be] a zingara because it is impossible to find a more miserable breed than that.”17 She is also the incarnation of Comedy because gypsy women were thought to be experts in manipulating men using their sex appeal. Indeed, Caravaggio paints a lustful gypsy girl pretending to perform a fortune telling act for a young man as she is stealthily taking the ring off his finger. In the painting known today as The Fortune Teller which was initially entitled The Gypsy Fortune Teller in 1599. The original title of Caravaggio’s painting shows the extent to which gypsy women were known for being loose beings. In Shakespeare’s play, Philo implies that Cleopatra acts like a strumpet by emphasizing her “gypsy’s lust” (I.1.9) and Antony points out that she changed him into someone else thus triggering the feeling of alienation that he feels in act IV. Through the locution “gypsy”, Cleopatra is made a loose woman responsible for Antony’s loss of his true self. Indeed, Antony claims that she “[b]eguiled [him] […] to the very heart of loss” (IV.12.28-29).

15If the Romany community was given the name of “gypsies” in England because of the belief that they came from Egypt, they were given other alleged geographical origins throughout Europe.18 The exonyms coined by Europeans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were all negatively connoted. However, all of them identify the gypsy as an outsider coming from an eastern faraway land, whether Bohemia, Russia, Egypt or India.

16The duality of the world conceived as bipolar and divided between the East and the West was a generally-accepted prejudice at the time. It was therefore a cultural reference that relied on an implicit consensus that made it well-known at the time, in England. The issue at stake is to know how Shakespeare’s audience would have understood this insult in the context of the play. Before Shakespeare, no one had made a link between Cleopatra and the figure of the gypsy.19 However, early modern English people thought that the Romany community migrating to England at the time came from Egypt – so there was already a link made between Egyptians and Gypsies. We may infer that it is because of this early modern belief about gypsies in England that Shakespeare decided to identify Cleopatra as a “gypsy”.

17The racial slur “gypsy” targeting Cleopatra implied that she was a rogue character – toxic, dangerous, and dishonest. In early modern England, gypsies were identified as Egyptians and this semantic confusion was characteristic of the period. Africa was therefore seen as the point of geographical origin of a diasporic community identified as misleading tricksters, vagabonds, and criminals in early modern rogue literature. Rogue pamphlets and cony-catching manuals are all the rage between 1550 and 1620, a testimony that people were deeply interested in the criminal underworld which developed in expanding cities, and particularly London. These works of fiction pretended to be based on true facts about the realities of vagabond life. Some authors, such as Thomas Harman, even claimed their information came directly from beggars and vagrants. They were influenced by the publication of the anonymous German work Liber Vagatorum (c.1512) which initiated the myth according to which beggars formed networks of organized crime with an established hierarchy. These pamphlets and manuals claimed they revealed the secrets of a parallel criminal social structure co-existing with the world the common people. The term “rogue” referred to many different individuals (gypsies, beggars, vagrants, thieves, charlatans…) but all of them were put into the same social group implying that vagrancy necessarily led to roguery.20 What mattered was not the subtlety of characterization, as the characters of those works had hardly any psychological depth ; the attention was drawn on the tricks and artful deception performed by the rogue figure. The latter was thus described as the master of deception displaying different skills in the field of confidence tricks involving games of chance such as dicing or cards. The gypsy was therefore one category in the typology of the rogue defined at the time. This racist representation was shaped by works of fiction Through the racial slur “gypsy”, Antony conjures up the racist stereotypes of rogue literature to insult Cleopatra claiming that she played him and cheated as a professional trickster. Antony’s mentioning the game “fast and loose” (IV.12.29) is in keeping with the racist stigmatization of gypsies as performers with great skills of deception. Thus, the use of the adjective “right” is significant because on the one hand, it refers anaphorically to Philo’s use of the word in the opening sequence and on the other, it implicitly refers to the early modern racist representation of the gypsy as a deceptive trickster essentially untrustworthy.

III. Early modern ethnocentrism shaped by ancient Greek colonialism

18Now that we have analysed the dramatic function of the racial slur within the plot and suggested how the early modern English theatre-goers could have understood the term “gypsy” as an eastern other, I would like to move on to the reason why Shakespeare used this term twice to allude to Cleopatra through the viewpoint of two Roman characters. I would argue that the presence of this racial slur in Antony and Cleopatra could be regarded as evidence of the influence of Greek literature in the play. Going back to the classical period seems not only relevant but necessary to analyse the genesis of this racial slur and the effect that this insult has in Shakespeare’s play.

19The first allusions in print to Romany people’s presence in England date back to the sixteenth century. The words used to refer to this community are “Egyptian”, “Gypcian”, “Gypsen” or “Gypson” or “Gipsy/Gypsy” – the morphology of the term was therefore very malleable. The first step of the development of “Egyptian” into “Gypsy” was the apheresis of the vowel -a ; then, the suffix -an meaning “of, belonging to” gave way to the suffix -y meaning “having the qualities of, full of”, according to the OED. Thus, the term “Egyptian” was gradually used only to refer to people living in or coming from Egypt while its derivative “gypsy” was increasingly used to point to cunning thieves and liars. The connotative meaning of the term “Egyptian” was given an even more legitimate status with the new term “gypsy” derived from the word “Egyptian”. This development was the result of a diachronic evolution that occurred in the Renaissance. However, it took decades before the use of “gypsy” to refer to Romany people in a derogatory way becomes steady ; throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the terms “Egyptian” and “gypsy” were regarded as synonyms :

For the Elizabethans, the inhabitants of Egypt were not only ancient Egyptians but also gypsies – deceitful, shiftless vagabonds and wanderers. […] Such an alternate identity arose from the confusion between Egyptians and gypsies in the early sixteenth century English imagination for whom these two unrelated ethnic groups became one. […] Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the words ‘gypsy’ and ‘Egyptian’ were interchangeable.21

20Throughout the end of the sixteenth century, both terms “gypsy” and “Egyptian” were still used interchangeably22 to refer to Romany people through the prism of a derogatory exonym. Those are among the first occurrences of the terms “Egyptian/Gypsy” in English print culture and the contexts in which these terms are considered are significant – either a royal edict forbidding them to enter the Kingdom and thus stigmatizing them as outlaws or in a situation of a social interaction with no fair play.

21Early modern English drama was highly influenced by the classical texts that scholars grew fascinated about at the time : “The Renaissance owes its name to the so-called ‘revival of letters’, the new valuation of classical culture […] that developed into the programme of recovery and rediscovery of the textual sources of Latin and Greek culture […].”23 In ancient Greek, the word “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos) and its derivatives are marked by a complex polysemy. It may denote the inhabitants of Egypt or people coming from that territory. However, it may also be connotative and imply that all Egyptians are thieves and liars. The context of utterance makes all the difference since the speaker chooses to activate either the denotative or the connotative meaning.

22In Ptolemaic Egypt, the Greeks and the Egyptians were not living in harmony. The Greeks colonized this territory with the conquest of Alexander the Great (322 BC) and despise the Egyptians for being inferior to them. As a result, the Egyptians resented the Greeks’ domination and contempt. This tension appeared linguistically through the polysemy of the word “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos). The stereotypes triggered by the colonization had the effect of affecting the language of colonizers. The very word “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos) gradually became a racial slur because of the context in which it was used – a context in which it always implied a negative connotation, thus turning the locution into a derogatory and offensive one to Egyptians.24 The racist stigmatization of Egyptians became the norm in the context of colonization defining the Greeks as the dominant oppressors and the Egyptians as the submissive downtrodden.25 The Greeks’ racial bias against the Egyptians contributed to the emergence of a new meaning for the word “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos) which would figuratively refer to a thief or a liar. This polysemic lexeme was the starting point of the development of a whole lexicon of racial bias discriminating against Egyptians. The Greeks coined the verb “αιγυπτιαζειν” (aiguptiazein) which means “to speak like an Egyptian, i.e. cunningly or deceptively ; to be deceitful like an Egyptian” according to the Magnien-Lacroix ancient Greek-French Dictionary (1985). Moreover, the adverb “αιγυπτιστι” (aiguptisti) was also used to mean “in the Egyptian tongue, i.e. cunningly or deceptively” according to the Bailly ancient Greek-French Dictionary (1895). The negative connotation included in the Greek term “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos) could explain why the early modern English used it to refer to the Romany community that arrived in England at the time – as if they were trying to use a familiar concept in order to identity this unfamiliar diaspora moving into their territory. We may infer that Shakespeare decided to resort to the term “gypsy” to identity Cleopatra as a result of the influence of Greek literature. This would mean that Antony and Cleopatra had not been only influenced by Roman texts but also by Greek literature. Indeed, through the racial slur “gypsy”, Philo and Antony identify themselves as colonizers and reduced Cleopatra to the status of a colonized subject. Consequently, the insult “gypsy” gives a particular resonance to the play by introducing implicitly the issue of colonialism.

23I will mention two Greek writers to point out the fact that “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos) and its derivatives were also used as a racial slur in Greek literature according to the context. The poet Theocritus (315-260 BCE) and the playwright Aristophanes (445-385 BCE) provided information about the hostility characterizing the relationship of Greeks and Egyptians in Ptolemaic Egypt (305-30 BCE). In the Idylls, Theocritus briefly alluded to the status of Egyptians by turning them into outcasts unable to reach the sophistication of Greeks. In the 15th Idyll entitled “The Women at the Adonis Festival”, two Greek women, Praxinoa and Gorgo, talk while heading into town to attend the festival of Adonis held in Alexandria. They walk in the streets and Praxinoa comments on the fact that the streets seem safe because there is no Egyptian likely to rob them or pick their pockets stealthily. We may infer that they implicitly praise Ptolemy for getting rid of the criminals :

I must say, you’ve done us many a good turn, my Good Ptolemy, since your father went to Heaven. We have no villains sneaking up to murder us in the streets nowadays in the good old Egyptian style. They don’t play those awful games now – the thorough-paced rogues, every one of them the same – all queer.26

Any indeed are the good turns you’ve done us, Ptolemy, since you sire the immortals. No villain comes creeping up behind in the Egyptian style to rob one in the street – the sort of games those rascals stuffed with villainy used to play.27

You’ve done much good, Ptolemy, since your father went immortal. Villains don’t creep up on you now in the street and mug you Egyptian fashion – that was a dirty game they used to play. Ruffians to a man, born criminals. To hell with the lot of them.28

24No matter which translation we take into account – from 1912, 1947 or 2002 – the racist insult was obvious in the way the Egyptian was stigmatized and turned into an “unethical standard”. The Egyptian was regarded as a villain attacking people cowardly from behind to steal their valuables. They were considered as a social nuisance and potential members of an organized crime community performing tricks on the common people. The racial bias against Egyptians was lexicalised into the idiomatic phrase “αιγυπτιστι” (in the Egyptian way) meaning “deceptively, as a thief, cunningly”. In Theocritus’s passage, the Egyptian was therefore collocated with the figure of criminals and they only appeared as such in all the Idylls – otherwise being completely absent even if the scene takes place in Alexandria. In Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes attacked two poets in particular – Euripides and Agathon. In lines 920-926, the third woman in conversation with Euripides humiliated him by resorting to a racist insult using the verb “αιγυπτιαζειν” (aiguptiazein). Interestingly, this Greek word was not given the same meaning in all translations of the Greek play into English :

You seem to be a cunning rascal too ; you are in collusion with this man, and it wasn’t for nothing that you kept babbling about Egypt.29

Oh my, you strike me as being a villain yourself, and some kind of ally of this other one. No wonder you kept acting like Egyptians.30

25In the oldest translation, the Greek verb was given the meaning of “talking, chatting about Egypt” following the definition given by Bailly in his dictionary. However, in the latest translation, the Greek verb was translated into “acting like Egyptians” thus corresponding to the definition given by Magnien-Lacroix in their dictionary. This is a case in point to emphasize how important it is to mention the connotation of a term in its dictionary entry ; otherwise, it leads to misunderstanding, misreading and nonsense as in the 1907 translation. The Greek’s racial bias against Egyptians appears here in the verb “αιγυπτιαζειν(aiguptiazein) that means acting like an Egyptian, i.e. cunningly and so by using wicked devices.

26The term “gypsy” is therefore a derivation from the term “Egyptian” whose morphological change might be explained by transtextuality. This racial slur may be regarded as the early modern hypertext of a classical hypotext – this use of hypertextuality31 will be limited to a word-focus and does not involve larger parts of works. The racist insult “gypsy” could be regarded as a link between early modern England and classical antiquity, between Shakespearean drama and Greek literature. We could argue that the influence of the racist stigmatization of ancient Egyptians in Greek literature was significant enough to inspire early modern English scholars to develop the racist stigmatization of those they came to refer to as “Gypsies”, i.e. the Romany community.

27In Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen is called names by Philo in the opening scene ; he refers to her through the phrase “a gipsy’s lust” (I.1.9). She is marked by a racial slur as soon as the play begins. In act IV, Antony resorts to the same term to mention Cleopatra as he thinks she betrayed him. Although the term “gypsy” only appears twice throughout the play, it is a key-element to understand the scope of Cleopatra’s characterization and the subtleties of the plot. Focusing on racial slur to study the extent to which Africa is distorted in the words of two Roman characters, Philo and Antony, proved to be relevant. This insult aims at turning her into the antagonist – the “natural” enemy of Rome – and it stigmatizes her as the “Eastern” Other. At the time, people thought they came from the “East” – a faraway land of Africa. The racial slur “gypsy” is first and foremost a misnomer, i.e. it is a fallacious term based on a prejudice about the geographical origin of the Romany community that turned out to be false. However, Shakespeare made the most of this complex term in Antony and Cleopatra to show how much Africa was distorted – fabricated from prejudice, fantasy, and stereotype. Many critics highlighted the influence of Roman texts in the play but few of them mentioned the possibility of a connection with Greek literature. Analysing the insult “gypsy” is a case in point to show that Antony and Cleopatra is closely linked to Greek texts putting forward a racist representation of ancient Egyptians in the context of colonization. The Greek etymon of the English term “gypsy” indicates that there could have been a transfer of racist stereotypes from ancient Egyptians to the early modern Romany community arriving in England. Shakespeare was the first writer to associate the racial slur “gypsy” to Cleopatra. He contributed in adding a new connotation to the term “gypsy” by emphasizing the process of feminization of the insult.32 We may infer that this term is a key element to throw a new light on the play. Through the prism of the racial slur “gypsy”, the Roman characters virtually become literary avatars of the Greeks. Because Philo and Antony utter an insult that was well-known by early modern theatre-goers, we could think that Shakespeare expected his audience to feel close or even to identify with the Roman characters. This would make the early modern English literary avatars of the Greeks as well thus maintaining the racist bipolar conception of the world divided into a “civilized” West and a “barbarous” East.

28We have to bear in mind that Antony and Cleopatra is a play that relies on a variety of prisms and perspectives providing the audience with opposite viewpoints and biased comments. The analysis of the racial slur “gypsy” shows that the structure of the plot is based on the principle of anamorphosis defined in the OED as : “[a] distorted projection or drawing of anything, so made that when viewed from a particular point, or by reflection from a suitable mirror, it appears regular and properly proportioned ; a deformation” (1). Indeed, the term “gypsy” used as an insult to target Cleopatra with a view to humiliating her, ruining her good name, and stigmatizing her as the natural enemy of Rome. From the beginning of the play, Cleopatra is turned into Rome’s “Egyptian puppet” (V.2.207) as she is marked by the racial slur “gypsy” – before dying, Cleopatra tells Iras that she is well-aware of how she is known in Rome and how her defeat will be narrated :

[…] Saucy lictors
Will catch us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels ; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth ; and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th’posture of a whore. (V.2.213-220)

29Here, Cleopatra seems to explain the insulting effect of the racial slur “gypsy” that turned her into a strumpet, distorted her into a racist stereotype itself taken from Greek literature. It is worth noticing the extent to which the use of the insult “gypsy” in Antony and Cleopatra shows the influence of classical racism on early modern English culture.


ABDELMADJID, Selim, “Pour un concept d’Afrique”, Thèse de Doctorat en Philosophie, sous la direction de Marc Crépon, soutenue le 30/11/2015, Université Paris 4, URL : < >

BAILLY, Anatole, Dictionnaire Grec-Français : le Grand Bailly, Paris, Hachette, 2000.

BHABBA, Homi K, The Location of Culture, NY & London, Routledge, 1994.

DE SOUSA, Geraldo, Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

DROUET, Pascale, De la filouterie dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance : Études sur Shakespeare et ses contemporains, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2013.

HALL, Edith, Inventing the Barbarian, Oxford, OUP, 1989.

HORACE, Odes, Translated by Ronnie Ancona, Mundelein, Illinois, Bolehazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2014.

HUGHES, Geoffrey, An Encyclopaedia of Swearing : The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World, NY & London, Routledge, 2006.

HUTTON, Sarah, “Chapter Platonism, Stoicism, Scepticism, and Classical Imitation”, in Michael Hattaway (ed.), A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, vol. 1, London, Blackwell, 2010, p. 106-119.

IVIC, Christopher, Shakespeare and National Identity : A Dictionary, London, Bloomsbury, 2017.

KATRITZKY, M.A., The Art of Commedia : A Study in the Commedia dell’Arte 1520-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records, Amsterdam & NY, Rodopi, 2006.

LA PERLE, Carol Mejia, “An unlawful race : Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and the Crimes of Early Modern Gypsies”, Shakespeare, 13, 3, 2017, p. 226-238.

LOOMBA, Ania, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, Oxford, OUP, 2002.

MAGNIEN, Victor & LACROIX, Maurice, Dictionnaire Grec-Français, Paris, Belin, 1985.

PLUTARCH, Plutarch’s Lives, Translated by John & William Langhorne, London, Samuel Campbell, 1822.

PROPERTIUS, Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, Translated by Vincent Katz, Princeton, PUP, 2004.

RIPA, Cesare, Iconologia (1593), Translated by Jean Baudoin, Paris, Faubourg Saint Germain, 1636.

SAID, Edward, Orientalism (1978), London, Penguin, 2012.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. by John Wilders, London, Bloomsbury, 2006.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by Brian Gibbons, London, Bloomsbury, 2012.

THEOCRITUS, Idylls, Translated by Anthony Verity, Oxford, OUP, 2002.

THEOCRITUS, Idylls, Translated by J.M. Edmonds, Cambridge (MA), Harvard UP, 1912.

THEOCRITUS, Idylls, Translated by R.C. Trevelyan, Cambridge, CUP, 1947.

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1 William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. by John Wilders, London, Bloomsbury, 2006.

2 On the one hand, sixteen scenes are set in Alexandria, in the city itself (I.1, I.2, I.3, II.5, III.3, III.5, III.13, IV.2, IV.3, IV.4, IV.5, IV.8, IV.13, IV.14) or in Cleopatra’s monument (IV.15, V.2) ; eleven scenes near Alexandria, in the battlefield or at a Roman camp (II.6, II.7, III.12, IV.1, IV.6, IV.7, IV.9, IV.10, IV.11, IV.12, V.1), and one scene in Syria (III.1). On the other, five scenes take place in Rome (II.2, II.3, II.4, III.2, III.6), six in Greece, in Actium or in southern Peloponnesus (III.4, III.7, III.8, III.9, III.10, III.11), and one scene in Sicily (II.1).

3 In “An unlawful race: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and the Crimes of Early Modern Gypsies”, Carol Mejia La Perle discusses the social and cultural status of those labelled “gypsy” in early modern English society to interpret the use of this word in Antony and Cleopatra. She chose to focus on the connection between the historical context and the play. This paper is not meant to have the same approach; on the contrary, the emphasis will be laid on the linguistic dimension of the term regarded as a racial slur. For an examination of the Romany community linguistically marked as “gypsies” in early modern England, see Carol Mejia La Perle, “An unlawful race: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and the Crimes of Early Modern Gypsies”, Shakespeare, 13, 3, 2017, p. 226-238.

4 The past as they wrote it from their point of view to meet their own political agenda, according to the Hegelian theory of History, see G.W.F Hegel, ,The Philosophy of History, Dover, Dover Publications, 1956.

5 Emphasis mine.

6 See the definition of “gypsy” given in Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, Shakespeare’s Insults : A Pragmatic Dictionary, London, Bloomsbury, 2016, p. 208-209: “The word refers to dark-skinned people and is associated with counterfeiting and cunning. It is also a contemptuous term for a loose woman”; likewise, Christopher Ivic characterises gypsies “[…] associated with charms and sorcery, especially fortune”, in Christopher Ivic, Shakespeare and National Identity A Dictionary, London, Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162.

7 See William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by Brian Gibbons, London, Bloomsbury, 2012.

8 Other plays from the early modern period, whether in French or in English, don’t have any occurrence this term either.

9 Here, I am using the terminology developed by the philosopher Selim Abdelmadjid who worked on the issue of subjectivity in the construction of collective identity. He focused his research on the “European” concept of Africa and the “African” concept of Europe; to put it differently, the way Europe or Africa defines, with a certain amount of bias, Africa or Europe; see Selim Abdelmadjid, “Pour un concept d’Afrique”, Thèse de Doctorat en Philosophie, sous la direction de Marc Crépon soutenue le 30/11/2015, Université Paris 4, URL : < >

10 See Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, Oxford, OUP, 2002.

11 Shakespeare did not read Plutarch’s work in its original language, but he had access to Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives into English published in 1579, itself being a translation from the French version of the Lives by Jacques Amyot from 1559.

12 Plutarch describes Cleopatra as a prostitute giving details of how she seduced Antony into doing her bidding: “Cleopatra […] pretended to be dying for the love of [Antony], and to give a colour to this, emaciated herself. At his approach she taught her eye to express an agreeable surprise, and when he left her, she put on the look of languishment and dejection. Frequently she would endeavour to be caught weeping; and then, as if she wished to hide the tear, she affected to wipe it off unseen […] These insinuations so totally unmanned him that through fear of Cleopatra’s pinning to death, he returned to Egypt” (Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, Translated by John & William Langhorne, London, Samuel Campbell, 1822, p. 105).

13 See Propertius, Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, Translated by Vincent Katz, Princeton, PUP, 2004.

14 See Horace, Odes, Translated by Ronnie Ancona, Mundelein, Illinois, Bolehazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2014.

15 Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1963, p. 9.

16 M.A. Katritzky, The Art of Commedia: A Study in the Commedia dell’Arte 1520-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records, Amsterdam & NY, Rodopi, 2006, p. 211 (emphasis mine).

17 Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (1593), Translated by Jean Baudoin, Paris, Faubourg Saint Germain, 1636, p. 408.

18 We could divide these exonyms into three main semantic groups – those etymologically related first to the Greek “Αἰγύπτιος” (Egyptos), then to the Russian “цыган” (Tsigane) and to the French “Bohémien” (Bohemian). These terms were coined as a reference to a territory that was thought to be the native land of the Romany people. The Greek term alludes to Egypt, the Russian term to the region of Sinte in India and the French term to the German region of Bohemia. They were not only used as mere demonyms but as a tool of marginalization and racialization as soon as the Middle Ages. The use of an exonym instead of an endonym was highly significant insofar it revealed the Europeans’ ethnocentrism and will to dominate this people linguistically.

19 However, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Gypsy was gradually made more visible on stage with a series of plays including a Gypsy character in their dramatis personae. The main early modern English plays dealing with gypsies are Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Gypsy (1621-1622), Ben Jonson’s The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621), A Jovial Crew or the Merry Beggars (1641-1642) by Richard Brome and The Beggars’s Bush (1647) by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. In all those plays, the Gypsy is described as a romantic wanderer figure displaying musical and theatrical skills – following the literary tradition of Italian and Spanish early modern drama.

20 See Pascale Drouet, De la filouterie dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance : Études sur Shakespeare et ses contemporains, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2013.

21 Geraldo de Sousa, Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, p. 142.

22 For instance, when Othello tells the story of his handkerchief, he mentions an “Egyptian” (III.4.58) and Honigmann points out in a footnote that it is “probably not a true Egyptian but a Gypsy”, in William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E.A.J. Honigmann, London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

23 Sarah Hutton, “Chapter Platonism, Stoicism, Scepticism, and Classical Imitation”, in Michael Hattaway (ed.), A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, vol. 1, London, Blackwell, 2010, p. 106-119, p. 106.

24 See Homi K. Bhabba & Edward Said’s analysis of the role of assumptions and prejudice in the construction of the other and the self in a context of proximity. Homi K. Bhabba, “Chap. 2: Interrogating Identity : Frantz Fanon and the postcolonial prerogative”, in The Location of Culture, NY & London, Routledge, 1994, p. 40-65; Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Vintage Books Edition, 1979.

25 See Edith Hall’s study of Greek identity and alterity in the 5th century in Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Oxford, OUP, 1989.

26 Theocritus, Idylls, Translated by J.M. Edmonds, Cambridge (MA), Harvard UP, 1912 (emphasis mine).

27 Theocritus, Idylls, Translated by R.C. Trevelyan, Cambridge, CUP, 1947 (emphasis mine)

28 Theocritus, Idylls, Translated by Anthony Verity, Oxford, OUP, 2002 (emphasis mine).

29 Theocritus, Idylls, Translated by F.W. Hall & W.M. Geldart, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1907 (emphasis mine).

30 Theocritus, Idylls, Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Cambridge (MA), Harvard UP, 2000 (emphasis mine).

31 According to the terminology developed by Gérard Genette and the definitions of “hypertext” and “hypotext”: “J’entends par là [hypertextualité] toute relation unissant un texte B (que j’appellerai hypertexte) à un texte antérieur A (que j’appellerai hypotexte) sur lequel il se greffe d’une manière qui n’est pas celle du commentaire”, in Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré, Paris, Seuil, 1975, p. 13.

32 See Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing. The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World, Armonk, NY & London, M.E. Sharpe, 2006, p. 500-501.

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Par Nora Galland, «Name-calling the Egyptian Queen in Antony and Cleopatra : a case in point of the distortion of Africa through the racial slur “gypsy”», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°12 - 2017, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Nora Galland

Nora Galland est doctorante contractuelle rattachée à l’IRCL (UMR 5186) de l’université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3. Elle prépare une thèse de doctorat sur l’injure raciste dans le théâtre de Shakespeare et ses contemporains sous la codirection de Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (PR) et Jean-Christophe Mayer (DR). Elle travaille sur la théorie de l’injure en privilégiant une approche pragmatique et en se concentrant sur son utilisation dans le contexte littéraire. En 2016, elle a publié l’article « The Ab ...