Antony And Cleopatra (Vol. 27)
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
See also Antony And Cleopatra Criticism (Volume 58) and Antony And Cleopatra Criticism (Volume 81).
Although considered by many critics to be one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra holds an ambiguous position in Shakespeare's oeuvre and has been characterized as a "problem play." In her 1977 essay "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers," L.T. Fitz commented, "Most critics are united in proclaiming that Antony and Cleopatra is a magnificent achievement; unfortunately, they are not united on the question of exactly what the play achieves. It is difficult to think of another Shakespearean play which has divided critics into such furiously warring camps." Reviewers have traditionally attempted to discern the moral significance of the drama, interpreting the work as either the tragedy of Antony's fall, or an affirmation of the transcendent power of love. Increasingly, however, commentary has acknowledged the uncertain morality of the work, and has focused instead on its complex language and structure. Feminist reinterpretations of Cleopatra's role have also been among the most notable developments in criticism of the work since 1960.
The structure of Antony and Cleopatra has occasionally been faulted for a lack of unity and cohesion, with some critics complaining that characters and settings are presented and dismissed too quickly. In Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), for example, A. C. Bradley commented that the play exemplifies a "defective method" of linking a "number of scenes, some very short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently changed; as though a novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in which he flitted from one group of his characters to another." Later critics, however, have tended to view the fast-paced, nonlinear structure of the play as a unique solution to the problem of handling unwieldy historical information that involves a multitude of characters and incidents. Ernest Schanzer defended the structure of Antony and Cleopatra in The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (1963), explaining that the work is organized by a series of parallels and contrasts between events, settings, characters, and values. This pattern of duality is also maintained through the drama's language, as the protagonists' speeches are echoed and inverted throughout the play. Schanzer also suggested that Shakespeare purposefully employed quickly changing scenes in order to manipulate the audience's shifting attitudes toward events onstage: "Of all Shakespeare's plays this is probably the one in which the structural pattern is most perfectly adjusted to the theme and has, in fact, become one of the chief vehicles for its expression."
While Antony and Cleopatra continues to be regarded as the source of some of the most glorious speeches in Shakespeare's oeuvre, recent commentary has focused in particular on Shakespeare's use of hyperbolic language to evoke a sense of the ideal, to convey the unusual vitality of the protagonists, and to express the rarity and historical significance of the experience described. Overreaching language abounds throughout the work in vast images of the natural world, descriptions of political greatness and power, and extreme declarations of passion. In his introduction to the Oxford edition of Antony and Cleopatra (1994), Michael Neill emphasized the hyperbolic nature of "the gulf between the high rhetoric in which the lovers clothe themselves and the harsh reality of their decline," observing that Shakespeare's constant "hazarding of bathos" accounts for much of the tragedy's "unstable brilliance," and also for its mixed reception. One of the most frequently cited examples of hyperbole in the work is Cleopatra's elevated speech following Antony's death [V.ii.81-92]: "His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm / Crested the world.…" Madeleine Doran (1964) commented: "There is left only the idea of Antony the absolute soldier, whose arm 'crested the world,' and whose death leaves the world a meaner, poorer place. All the widening meaning of such a death, of the fall of such a prince, is borne in the imagery. It is a great event in history." The effect of vastness and transcendence is also enhanced by mythological allusions to Mars, Venus, and Hercules, by which the playwright endows the protagonists with attributes of the gods. Janet Adelman (1973) observed that Antony and Cleopatra is distinguished from Shakespeare's other tragedies by this sense of connection between the mythological and human realms: "This insistence on the analogy between the human and the mythological, so foreign to the tragedies, is in fact an anticipation of the romances; for, in the last plays, precisely this sense of the participation of the mythic in human life becomes essential."
Cleopatra's vain, contradictory, and unpredictable qualities have typically been viewed by critics as either dramatic flaws in Shakespeare's characterization or morally reprehensible traits that contribute to Antony's demise. Viewing the play as essentially the story of Antony's fall from power, Maynard Mack (1973) suggested that a supernatural and fatalistic quality pervades Cleopatra's role: "Though Antony chooses her and we are shown the familiar feminine skills with which she draws him, the play keeps alive a complementary assurance that a power works through her which is also, in some sense, a fate. She is for everyone an 'enchantress,' a 'fairy,' a 'witch,' a 'charm,' a 'spell,' and she moves, even for the Romans, in an ambience of suggestion that seems to give these terms a reach beyond their conventional horizons of gallantry and erotic praise." Cleopatra has also been perceived as an embodiment of the private world of human emotions that Shakespeare contrasts with the dispassionate public realm of Roman values. Recent critics have emphasized the speculative aspect of these opposite domains, often concluding that both sets of values are equally flawed. Traditional assumptions concerning Cleopatra's character have also been reevaluated as a result of the growth of feminist criticism of the play. For example, L.T. Fitz faulted the continuing tendency of commentators to view Antony and Cleopatra as essentially a play about Antony, without recognizing Cleopatra as a tragic hero in her own right. Fitz pointed to the overwhelming tendency to emphasize Cleopatra's "feminine wiles" and "childlike" qualities, while completely ignoring her motivations as the ruler of a nation. She commented: "[In] assessing the respective actions of Antony and Cleopatra, critics apply a clear double standard: what is praiseworthy in Antony is damnable in Cleopatra. The sexist assumption here is that for a woman, love should be everything; her showing an interest in anything but her man is reprehensible. For a man, on the other hand, love should be secondary to public duty or even self-interest." Supporting the view of Cleopatra as a dual protagonist, Michael Neill observed that in contrast with the gradual dissolution of Anthony's identity, Cleopatra acquires a sense of wholeness by the end of the play. "[What Cleopatra] claims is the androgynous wholeness at which Anthony's end gestures only falteringly. It is not for nothing that, in handing over to Cleopatra almost the whole last act, Shakespeare accords her the structural privilege conventionally granted to the male protagonist."
Ernest Schanzer (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra," in The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 132-83.
[In the following excerpt, Schanzer responds to critics who have considered Antony and Cleopatra to be "faultily constructed," arguing that the structural pattern of the work consists "(a) of a series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of parallels between Antony and Cleopatra."]
'The events of which the principal are described according to history, are produced without any art of connection or care of disposition', wrote Dr. Johnson of [Antony and Cleopatra, in Johnson on Shakespeare]. Nearly a century and a half later A. C. Bradley expressed a very similar view when he called it 'the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies', and pointed to it as exemplifying Shakespeare's 'defective method' of stringing together a 'number of scenes, some very short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently changed; as though a novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in which he flitted from one group of his characters to another' [Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)]. What can explain such extraordinary blindness in these two great critics, and in the others who have echoed them? It seems partly to stem from a false expectation, the expectation of a 'linear'...
(The entire section is 12418 words.)
Madeleine Doran (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "'High Events as These': The Language of Hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra, " in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 26-51.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at Queen's University in 1964, Doran discusses Shakespeare's use of hyperbolic language to characterize Antony, Cleopatra, and Roman politics in Antony and Cleopatra.]
When Shakespeare opens the play of Antony and Cleopatra with an adverse judgment spoken by one of his officers, he sets the former Antony, the famous soldier, beside the present Antony, the lover of Cleopatra; and he puts the infatuation in the most demeaning terms:
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 gypsy's lust.
"The triple pillar of the world," he says, is "transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool." If that were all the play was about—an aged dotard's ruinous infatuation for a scheming strumpet, we should scarcely be moved by it, or return to it again and again as a...
(The entire section is 12405 words.)
Janet Adelman (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "The Common Liar: Tradition as Source in Antony and Cleopatra," in The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 53-101.
[In the following excerpt, Adelman examines parallels to the myth of Venus and Mars in Antony and Cleopatra, commenting that "[the] significance of the mythological allusions in [the play] is not in their number but in their use: the gods are generally adduced as analogues for the protagonists."]
Yet have I fierce affections and think
What Venus did with Mars.
It is at first hardly startling to find a great many allusions to mythological personages and events in Antony and Cleopatra: the play deals, after all, with classical matter in a high style to which Thetis, Bacchus, Hercules, Venus, Mars, Juno, Jove, and the rest are most appropriate. But if we look at Julius Caesar, a play dealing with essentially the same historical matter, we find almost no mythological allusion. Moreover, there are very few allusions in the major tragedies. R. K. Root comments [in Classical Mythology in Shakespeare],
In the series of great tragedies, classical...
(The entire section is 10947 words.)
Rome Vs. Egypt
Julian Markels (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "The Public and Private Worlds of Antony and Cleopatra," in The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Development, Ohio State University Press, 1968, pp. 17-49.
[In the following excerpt, Markels examines the opposition between private and public values symbolized by the conflict between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra.]
Up through the end of Act III, scene v [in Antony and Cleopatra], (Eros' choric scene), Shakespeare has located in Rome and its various adjuncts a total of eleven scenes comprising 863 lines, and in Egypt a total of six scenes comprising 606 lines. After Antony's departure from Egypt in I.iii, Shakespeare locates his remaining Egyptian scenes (I.v, II.vi, and III.iii) in places along the sequence that dramatize the contrast in tone, texture, and values between a Roman world whose ideal of rational, disinterested politics is uniquely capable of degenerating into the cynical bargaining of ward bosses, and an Egypt whose highest values of emotional fulfilment are equally capable of collapsing into mere willfulness and sybaritic vanity. This first half of the play, while presenting Antony's character and conflict, provides us also with a comparative anthropology of these two worlds, a running critique of the criteria of civilization as they are hammered out in the confrontation of the...
(The entire section is 11026 words.)
Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 2, March, 1972, pp. 201-12.
[In the following essay, Rackin examines the significance of a widely discussed speech by Cleopatra (V.ii. 215-20).]
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' the posture of a whore.
In these lines, Shakespeare's Cleopatra describes for her women the treatment they will receive in the theater if they allow themselves to be taken to Rome. The speech was troublesome to Shakespeare's nineteenth-century editors, who were reluctant to read boy as a verb. Schmidt suggested that "Cleopatra-Boy" be read as a compound. Sprenger advised that boy be emended to bow. Most modern editors accept the passage without comment, and those critics who do discuss it vary widely in their assessments of its impact.
Shakespeare's strategy in this speech is worth exploring, for it is daring to the point of recklessness, and it provides a major clue to his strategy in the play as a whole. The treatment...
(The entire section is 16864 words.)
Brown, John Russell, ed. Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra: A Casebook. 1968. Revised Edition. Houndmills: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1991, 214 p.
Presents selected essays divided into three categories: critical reactions to the play before 1900, the play in performance, and twentieth-century criticism of the work.
Burke, Kenneth. "Shakespearean Persuasion." The Antioch Review XXIV, No. 1 (Spring 1964): 19-36.
Discusses plot and use of language in Antony and Cleopatra.
Charney, Maurice. "Antony and Cleopatra." In All of Shakespeare, pp. 289-98. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Focuses on the characterization of Cleopatra in relation to Shakespeare's use of language in Antony and Cleopatra.
Davies, H. Neville. "Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra." In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, 17, (1985): 123-58.
Discusses Antony and Cleopatra from a historical perspective, evaluating the possible influence of the court of King James I on Shakespeare's composition of the work.
Goldbert, S. L. "The Tragedy of the Imagination: A Reading of Antony and Cleopatra." The Melbourne Critical Review 4 (1961): 41-64.
Offers an analysis of Antony and Cleopatra, with an emphasis on elements of...
(The entire section is 652 words.)