To what extent is the sentiment attributed to Machiavelli that 'the ends justify the means' regarding the nature of power reflected through Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra?
A consensus with regard to the appropriate applications of Machiavelli’s The Prince to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is likely to remain elusive. As with much of Shakespeare’s work, there will always be many interpretations of meaning, as there will forever be regarding Machiavelli. In discussing the concept of “virtu,” with respect to Antony and Cleopatra, there needs to be some understanding of what precisely Machiavelli meant in his use of the term. A common, and accurate, interpretation of “virtu” as applied in The Prince is that it refers to a characteristic of effective leadership defined as the ‘will to act.’ What Machiavelli most prized in a leader was the willingness to take those actions necessary to retain power. To a certain extent, then, the notion that his writing was more about the scheming or conspiring than about the methods required of a powerful leader is a bit misleading. For this reason, applying Machiavelli to Shakespeare is a bit misleading.
To the extent that Shakespeare’s play is Machiavellian in the conventional if misunderstood sense of conspiracy run amock, than the characters of Octavius Caesar and Cleopatra certainly qualify as Machiavellian, with Marc Antony more the embodiment of “virtu” as defined by Machiavelli. If Octavius views Antony as a ruthless conspirator, it is a manifestation of a common phenomenon of “mirror-imaging” in which the former views the latter through his own unique prism. Antony’s chief problem, and source of his greatest vulnerability, is his love for Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose own sense of vulnerability in the face of the Roman Empire leads her to what some would label “Machiavellian machinations.” From what we know of Antony, his is the sincerest form of political ineptitude, and he may be out of his league. In Act III, Scene II, Agrippa offers the following thoughts to Domitius Enobarbus:
When Antony found Julius Caesar dead,
He cried almost to roaring; and he wept
When at Philippi he found Brutus slain.”
And, soon after that exchange, Antony, in lamenting the difficult position in which he has found himself, confides to Octavia:
Let your best love draw to that point, which seeks
Best to preserve it: if I lose mine honour,
I lose myself . . . But, as you requested,
Yourself shall go between 's: the mean time, lady,
I'll raise the preparation of a war
Shall stain your brother. . .”
Contrast this with Octavius’s perception of Antony in Act IV, Scene I, as the confrontation between the two Roman leaders approaches its climax:
“He calls me boy; and chides, as he had power
To beat me out of Egypt; my messenger
He hath whipp'd with rods; dares me to personal combat,
Caesar to Antony: let the old ruffian know
I have many other ways to die; meantime
Laugh at his challenge.”
“Machiavelli” as a stereotype can certainly be applied to the main characters in Antony and Cleopatra. The political intrigue prevalent throughout the play and the life-and-death stakes involved lend themselves to such an interpretation. It is uncertain, however, to what degree Machiavelli viewed what he observed as ultimately self-destructive vice essential to the maintenance of one’s position in power. Antony is less concerned with power per se than in ensuring the continued glory of Rome; his relationship to Cleopatra, however, undermines his position to such an extent that he can hardly be considered “Machiavellian” in any sense of the word.