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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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...

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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."

Structure

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12418

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' structure, like that preached by Aristotle and found in much Greek and classical French tragedy. But, as H. T. Price insists in his excellent essay on Construction in Shakespeare (1951), the structure of Shakespeare's plays, comedies and tragedies alike, is not linear but multilinear, not based on a unity of action but on a unity of design.

When Elizabethan playwrights began to take their subject-matter from narrative romance or chronicle history, with their multitude of characters and incidents, they were inevitably confronted with the vexed problem of imposing shape and coherence upon so heterogeneous a material. Shakespeare solved this problem more brilliantly than any of his fellow-playwrights. He does it mainly by establishing a series of parallels and contrasts. Character is compared and contrasted with character, incident with incident. Dramatic irony is called into play, so that action comments implicitly upon action, situation upon situation, speech upon speech. Sometimes, as in Lear and Timon, a whole subplot is invented to comment, both by its likenesses and its contrasts, upon the main plot. At other times, as in the Laertes and Fortinbras scenes in Hamlet, such parallels and contrasts are more closely integrated into the main action, but serve the same function of implicit commentary. The structural pattern thus helps not only to give the play shape and coherence but also, more importantly, it becomes a silent commentator, a means of expressing the playwright's attitudes and concerns.

Nowhere is this principle of construction better illustrated than in Antony and Cleopatra. 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. This pattern consists (a) of a series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of parallels between Antony and Cleopatra. Let us deal with the second class first.

This may be divided into three groups: (i) echoes of each other by the lovers, both in words and actions; (ii) similarities in descriptions of them; (iii) parallels in relations with them. But the function of all three is much the same: to bring out the extraordinary likeness, the near-identity of Antony and Cleopatra, in feeling, in imagination, in tastes, in their responses to people and events, and in their modes of expressing these responses. The total effect of all this is to make us see their relationship as something more than a sensual infatuation, more even than an exalted passion. Professor Peter Alexander has defined its precise quality better than any other critic known to me when he writes [in Shakespeare's Life and Art] of Antony: 'Having enjoyed all the world can give to unlimited power and the richest physical endowment, he finds in Cleopatra's company a joy beyond anything he has known. And the world, whatever it may say of those who sacrifice reputation and wealth for such a satisfaction, does not readily forget their story, guessing dimly no doubt at the truth with which Aristophanes entertained Socrates and his friends, when he told the fable of the creatures cut in half by Zeus and condemned to go as mere tallies till they find and unite with their counterpart … "for surely", he concludes, "it is not satisfaction of sensual appetite mat all this great endeavour is after: nay, plainly, it is something other that the soul of each wisheth—something which she cannot tell, but, darkly divining, maketh her end".'

The lovers' echoes of each other's words and sentiments, though found scattered throughout the play, increase greatly in the last two acts, at the very time that the other main element in the structural pattern, the contrast between Rome and Egypt, diminishes. For towards its end the play becomes much less concerned with the presentation of the choice between two opposed modes of life and increasingly with the glorification of the choice which Antony has made. The following is a brief list of some of the most notable of these echoes:

Antony: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide
    arch
  Of the rang'd empire fall!
                                    (1.1.33-4)

Cleopatra: Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly
    creatures
  Turn all to serpents!
                                                   (2.5.78-9)

Antony: Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth     alike
  Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
  Is to do thus when such a mutual pair
  And such a twain can do't …
                                       (1.1.35-8)

Cleopatra:                 'Tis paltry to
    be Caesar:
  Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
  A minister of her will; and it is great
  To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
  Which shackles accidents and bolts up change,
  Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
  The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.
                                         (5.2.2-8)

(The echo here is accompanied by a contrast. Suicide has taken the place of love-making as 'the nobleness of life'. The quite unjustified change of 'dung' to 'dug', initiated, on Warburton's suggestion, by Theobald and followed by the majority of subsequent editors, eliminates the echo and with it the contrast.)

Cleopatra's

                    Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my
 brow …
                                   (1.5.29-32)

is echoed in Antony's

I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher. Nay, you were a
 fragment
Of Cneius Pompey's …
                                        (3.13.116-18)

Both lovers, characteristically, look on death as an erotic experience.

Antony:           But I will be
  A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
  As to a lover's bed.
                                  (4.15.99-101)

Cleopatra: If thou and nature can so gently part,
  The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
  Which hurts and is desir'd.
                                               (5.2.292-4)

Each sees the death of the other as the extinction of the source of all light:

Antony:      Since the torch is out,
  Lie down, and stray no farther.
                                      (4.14.45-6)

Cleopatra:          Ah, women, women, look,
  Our lamp is spent, it's out!
                                   (4.15.84-5)

Antony's

Unarm, Eros; the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep
                                                  (4.14.35-6)

finds a close echo—though this time by the maid, not the mistress—in Iras's

Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,
And we are for the dark.
                                            (5.2.192-3)

Of echoes in the actions of the two lovers the most notable instance is Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger who brings her the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia (2.5) and Antony's treatment of Caesar's messenger, Thyreus (3.13). Both actions are prompted by jealousy and a sense of betrayal and desertion by the other, and both are marked by uncontrolled fury, coupled with a relished cruelty towards the innocent messenger, as shown in Cleopatra's

Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire and stew'd in
  brine,
Smarting in ling'ring pickle
                                                  (2.5.65-6)

and in Antony's

                          Whip him, fellows,
Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,

And whine aloud for mercy.
                                     (3.13.99-101)

Now for the chief parallels in the descriptions of the two lovers: Cleopatra's words about Antony,

                    Be'st thou sad or merry,
The violence of either thee becomes,
So does it no man else
                                             (1.5.59-61)

echo (and hence also belong to the previous group) Antony's words about her:

                  Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself in thee fair and admir'd.
                                              (1.2.48-51)

The great set-piece describing Cleopatra's transcendent perfections, Enobarbus's barge-speech, finds its counter-part in Cleopatra's equally hyperbolical description of Antony to Dolabella. In both speeches the same conceit is used: the person described is declared superior to anything the artist's imagination could create, Nature in this instance surpassing fancy. Cleopatra was

O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy out-work nature.
                                                (2.2.204-5)

Of Antony we are told,

                         Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.
                                                  (5.2.97-100)

Both lovers at their death are identified with the star most appropriate to them. At the death of Antony the guards exclaim:

2 Guard:         The star is fall'n.
1 Guard: And time is at his period.
                                             (4.14.106-7)

The reference here is presumably to the day-star, the sun, which measures time, and to which Antony has been repeatedly compared in the course of the play. When Cleopatra dies, Charmian exclaims:

O Eastern star! (5.2.306)

The appositeness of this identification of the Egyptian queen, mistress of the East, with Venus, the 'Eastern star', needs no emphasis.

Among the third group, the parallels in the relations of others with Antony and Cleopatra, the most notable instances are found in the deaths of their companions and servants. Eros and Charmian do not even consider the possibility of surviving them. This is the supreme tribute paid to the pair in the play. And, to complete the pattern, Iras, like Enobarbus, appears to die merely from grief, of a broken heart. Suicide, though contemplated, is not found necessary.

                         This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought: but thought will do't, I
  feel.
                                        (4.6.34-6)

And thought does it, we are led to believe. Enobarbus dies with Antony's name on his lips (4.9.23). The lack of a stage-direction in the Folio leaves the cause of Iras's death more obscure. But the absence of any aside like that given to Charmian ('O, come apace, dispatch. I partly feel thee') suggests that we are not meant to regard it as suicide. And the structural pattern, which plays such an important rôle in the play, corroborates this view.

Let us now turn to the other main element in the play's structural pattern, the series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt. These contrasts between Roman and Egyptian attitudes and values, Roman and Egyptian ways of feeling and thinking, find their simplest expression in the constant alternation of scenes located in Rome and Alexandria. But the Roman world sometimes invades Egypt, as at the play's opening, where the hostile comments of the Roman soldier, Philo, are delivered in the very stronghold of the enemy, the court at Alexandria; and occasionally Egypt invades Rome, as in the person of the soothsayer (2.3), or in Enobarbus's barge-speech, where the most glowing tribute to Cleopatra is delivered in Rome and by a Roman soldier, though one partly under the spell of the East. And the pattern of simple opposition between Rome and Egypt is further complicated by the fact that in her last hours of life Cleopatra, without surrendering any of her Eastern guile and sensuousness, acquires some Roman qualities, becoming 'marble-constant' (5.2.239) and doing 'what's brave, what's noble' 'after the high Roman fashion' (4.15.87), though with some concession to an Eastern concern for 'easy ways to die', preferring the indigenous and kindred serpent (' "Where's my serpent of Old Nile?" / For so he calls me', 1.5.25-6) to the Roman sword. And standing between the two opposed worlds, and combining them in his person, there is Antony. What in him they have in common is their extravagant, hyperbolic nature. 'The greatest soldier of the world' (I.3.38) is also its greatest lover. The same Antony who amazes his fellow-soldiers when, during a famine in his wars, he drinks 'the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at', and eats 'strange flesh, / Which some did die to look on' (1.4.62-9) amazes them equally by his feats of drinking and eating in his Alexandrian revels (2.2.183-6). Hyperbole is the mark of his own words and deeds, as well as of what is said by others about him, finding its climax in Cleopatra's great speech to Dolabella.

What above all unites the two worlds in Antony is the intense vitality which he brings to his rôle of voluptuary as well as to that of statesman and soldier. Professor L. C. Knights puts it admirably when he writes of it [in Some Shakespeare Themes]: 'What Shakespeare infused into the love story as he found it in Plutarch was an immense energy, a sense of life so heightened that it can claim to represent an absolute value.… This energy communicates itself to all that comes within the field of force that radiates from the lovers, and within which their relationship is defined.' The opposition is never one between sensual sloth and the life of action. That is why the stock-image presented by Spenser of the knight in the arms of Acrasia (F.Q., II, 12, lxxvi-lxxx) fits Antony's case so little, in spite of its surface similarities. Pompey thinks of the relationship in this conventional way when he calls upon Cleopatra to

Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,
Keep his brain fuming. Epicurean cooks
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite,
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour
Even till a Lethe'd dullness.
                                     (2.1.23-7)

Caesar in his account, for all his patrician contempt for the 'democratic' Antony, and in spite of much that he leaves out, conveys the energy and vitality of this life much more truly:

                       Let's grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat.
                                       (1.4.16-21)

A further complication of the simple pattern of contrasts results when Shakespeare, after showing Antony's Love and Honour (meaning chiefly military glory) in continuous conflict, with Honour disastrously routed by Love at the battle of Actium, proceeds to give us a series of scenes in which Love and Honour have for a time joined forces. In 4.4. Cleopatra, the armourer of his heart, has also become the armourer of his body, and his love for her the spur to his valour. The scene was, I believe, influenced by Plutarch's implied contrast of Antony's behaviour with that of Demetrius, in his 'Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius' [in his Lives]: 'They were both in their prosperitie very riotously and licentiously given: but yet no man can euer say, that Demetrius did at any time let sleep any opportunitie or occasion to follow great matters, but only gaue himselfe indeed to pleasure, when he had nothing else to do … but indeed when he was to make any preparation for war, he had not then Iuie at his darts end, nor had his helmet perfumed, nor came out of the Ladies closets pricked and princt to go to battell: but he let all dancing and sporting alone, and became as the Poet Euripides saith: The souldier of Mars, cruell and bloudie. ' Plutarch's unfavourable contrast is here turned by Shakespeare in Antony's favour. For he is shown capable of sporting and feasting all night and fighting a victorious battle the next day, of being in quick succession a devotee of Venus and Bacchus and a soldier of Mars.

The temporary fusion of Love and Honour in these scenes is epitomized by the astonishing image in Antony's speech of welcome to Cleopatra after his victorious return from battle:

                   Leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.
                                     (4.8.14-16)

The image also forms an ironic contrast to Antony's imprecations uttered the following morning (only about a hundred lines separate the two passages):

Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving
And blemish Caesar's triumph. Let him take thee
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians …
                                      (4.12.32-4)

Another element that complicates the pattern of contrasts between the two worlds is the fact that certain qualities, such as cruelty and deceit, are shown to belong to both. For instance, Caesar's cruel treatment of Alexas (4.6.12-16) has its counterpart in Antony's treatment of Thyreus and his offer concerning Hipparchus (3.13.147-51). The whole last act is given over to the contest between Caesar's guile and Cleopatra's, each determined to outwit the other. 'Policy' and duplicity is used just as much by Cleopatra in the service of Love as by Caesar in the service of the State. The truth is that Cleopatra is less Caesar's complete opposite than is Antony. It is Caesar's sister, Octavia, who is her opposite in every way.

This juxtaposition of opposed characters, Antony and Caesar, Cleopatra and Octavia, forms another essential part of the play's dualistic structure, another means by which Shakespeare brings out the all-pervasive contrast between East and West. He achieves the contrast between Antony and Caesar by burying the Antony of Julius Caesar and creating an entirely new and different dramatic character. In spite of the attempts of many critics to find links and similarities between them, I do not see how a belief in the unity of conception of the two Antonies can be maintained.… [The] Antony of Julius Caesar has scarcely a trait in common with the Antony depicted by Plutarch, except a fondness for revelry, and this is also his only link with the Antony of our play, who is largely based on Plutarch's depiction of him. He is basically what Plutarch calls him, and what the Antony of Julius Caesar only pretends to be (3.2.218), 'a plaine man without subtilty'. The Machiavellism of the Antony of Julius Caesar has in the later play been transferred to Caesar, who had shown no traces of it in the earlier drama. The ruthless treatment of Lepidus there advocated by Antony (J.C., 4.1.19-27) is in fact carried out by Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra (3.5.6-12). We need only to think of this cynical advice on the treatment of Lepidus in the mouth of the Antony of the later play, or to imagine that 'mine of bounty' planning to defraud Caesar's heirs of part of their legacies (J.C., 4.1.8-9), to realize how impossible it is to entertain the notion that the Antony of our play is a development and continuation of the Antony of Julius Caesar. Nor is it very difficult to see why Shakespeare should have made the change. Had Antony instead of Caesar been made the calculating politician, the deceitful Machiavel, it would have destroyed the presiding conception of the play. This demanded that the value of all that Antony loses through his love for Cleopatra, such as political power, wordly glory, should be called into question by a display of the ruthlessness, the deceit, the calculating inhumanity that goes with the acquisition and maintenance of such power and glory. Caesar, therefore, had to be the Machiavel, and Antony, by contrast, the simple, generous, impulsive, chivalrous soldier; one who is willing to stake his worldly fortunes upon a sea-fight where he is at a grave disadvantage, merely because Caesar 'dares us to't' (3.7.29) and his chivalric code obliges him to accept this challenge; one who seems genuinely surprised when 'the full Caesar' refuses to 'answer his emptiness' and meet him in personal combat (4.2.1-4).

Yet, as one would expect with Shakespeare, who, even at his most schematic, refuses to paint in black and white, Caesar is depicted not merely as the cold-blooded, calculating politician. He is also shown to be a tender and loving brother (for, unlike some commentators, I do not think Shakespeare means us to question the sincerity of this love) and at least the post mortem admirer of Antony and Cleopatra, capable of true and deep feeling.

Professor Danby has shown how what he calls 'the Shakespearean dialectic' is the informing structural principle of the entire play. 'It comes out in single images, it can permeate whole speeches, it governs the build-up inside each scene, it explains the way one scene is related to another.' It also extends to the emotional pattern exhibited by the two lovers (this is another way in which they resemble and echo each other). In no other play by Shakespeare do we meet characters given to such persistent oscillation of feelings, such violent veering between emotional extremes. In the case of Cleopatra it is at times deliberately practised, part of her technique of exhibiting her infinite variety in order to keep monotony at bay, her method of tantalizing Antony by providing moods that are emotional foils to his own.

                         If you find him sad
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick.
                                          (1.3.3-5)

But it also expresses her essential nature, dominated by her planet, the fleeting moon. With Antony the oscillation of feelings is even more pronounced and is linked to, and partly expressive of, his veering between East and West, which exert their rival pull upon him. The remarkable absence of any inner conflict in Antony when faced, at several points in the play, with the necessity to choose between Rome and Egypt is an expression of this emotional polarity, this pendulum swing of the feelings. As A. C. Bradley remarks [in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry], Shakespeare 'might have made the story of Antony's attempt to break his bondage, and the story of his relapse, extremely exciting, by portraying with all his force the severity of the struggle and the magnitude of the fatal step'. But he chose not to do so. Instead he shows us Antony's complete devotion to Cleopatra in the opening scene, followed by his sudden resolution to break free from her: 'These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage' (1.2.113-14). In the leave-taking that follows his fetters are shown to be as stoutly knit as ever:

                                        By the fire
That quickens Nilus' slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war
As thou affect'st.
                                      (1.3.68-71)

In the message he sends her by Alexas he promises to 'piece her opulent throne with kingdoms' (1.5.46). Then comes Agrippa's marriage-plan, Antony's immediate acceptance of it, and his protestation to Caesar:

Further this act of grace; and from this hour
The heart of brothers govern in our loves
And sway our great designs!
                                      (2.2.151-3)

When we meet him next he confesses to Octavia,

I have not kept my square; but that to come
Shall all be done by th' rule.
                                             (2.3.6-7)

Directly upon this follows the encounter with the sooth-sayer, and Antony's instant resolution:

                           I will to Egypt;
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I' th' Easy my pleasure lies.
                                     (2.3.39-41)

When we find him next in the company of Octavia, at their leave-taking from Caesar, the following exchange takes place between the two men:

Caesar:   Most noble Antony,
 Let not the piece of virtue which is set
 Betwixt us as the cement of our love
 To keep it builded be the ram to batter
 The fortress of it; for better might we
 Have lov'd without this mean, if on both parts
 This be not cherish'd. Antony:       Make me not offended
 In your distrust.
Caesar:   I have said.
Antony:         You shall not find,
 Though you be therein curious, the least cause
 For what you seem to fear.
                                      (3.2.27-36)

A few scenes later Octavia hears from her brother that Antony is back in Egypt, that 'Cleopatra / Hath nodded him to her' (3.6.65-6). I feel sure it would be a gross falsification of Shakespeare's conception to see Antony in these changes as a conscious deceiver, hiding his true feelings and intentions from Caesar, Octavia, or Cleopatra. Rather should we see him as sincere in all his protestations, believing each to be true at the moment it is uttered, until he is suddenly drawn into a contrary allegiance. Instead of being 'with himself at war', like Brutus, or Macbeth, or Othello, he is like a chronic deserter, forever changing sides in the struggle, and this emotional pattern mirrors and underlines the structural pattern of the entire play.

The dualistic structure of Antony and Cleopatra also helps to make it Shakespeare's problem play par excellence. Let us remind ourselves of L. C. Knights's dictum quoted in the Introduction: 'In Macbeth we are never in any doubt of our moral bearings. Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, embodies different and apparently irreconcilable evaluations of the central experience.' Throughout the play, and to an extent far exceeding anything found in Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure, we are confronted with these opposed evaluations, and in such a way as to exclude—at least in those open to the play's full imaginative impact—a simple or consistent response. Indeed, Antony's great speech to Eros ('Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish') not only expresses his sense of an utter loss of identity as a result of Cleopatra's supposed betrayal of him, but, as Professor Danby suggests, also describes our experience in watching the play. As applied to the ever-changing outlines of Cleopatra's character it is only another way of describing her infinite variety. But it extends to the play's whole moral landscape, our shifting attitudes towards its events, our ever-changing feelings towards its main characters, Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar. Here the technique of 'dramatic coquetry', consisting in an alternate enlisting and repelling of the audience's affections for a character, which we have studied in the two preceding chapters and which, when strongly in evidence, is one of the hall-marks of the Shakespearian Problem Play, reaches its climax. As regards the two lovers, it is employed from the very beginning until the fourth act. As for Caesar, it extends through the entire play up to its closing lines.

To Professor Knights's contrast between Macbeth and our play may be added a secondary contrast between them: In Macbeth Shakespeare depicts in his hero's mind a complex response to a simple, unproblematic, moral issue. In Antony and Cleopatra, as in Measure for Measure, the reverse is found: A complex, problematic, moral issue confronting Antony and Isabella evokes a simple response, one apparently arrived at without any inner conflict. But the simplicity of the response, the absence of inner conflict in the hero and heroine of these plays, in no way prevents a complex and divided response in the minds of the audience or the taking of opposite sides among its members. As with Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure, the opposition of attitudes in the play, the conflicting presentation of its moral issues, is reflected in the polarity of views among its commentators. A substantial body of critics, especially of the last century (with even Arthur Symons, oddly, among them) adhere, with varying degrees of emphasis, to the Roman view of Caesar, Pompey, and Philo, seeing Antony's love for Cleopatra very much as Plutarch saw it. This attitude may be prompted by a personal response to the play, or, in more recent times, by an attempt to see it 'historically', to respond to it as it is supposed an Elizabethan audience (always by such critics thought of as a monolith, incapable of divided feelings or varying reactions) would have responded. On the opposite side there is the at present more influential body of critics who see the love-affair as the glorious culmination of Antony's life. This group, whose doyen is Swinburne, includes such names as Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson, S. L. Bethell, and, across the Atlantic, Donald Stauffer and Harold S. Wilson.

But, once again, there is also a tertium quid, a group of critics who feel that the play conveys no clear-cut, unequivocal attitude to the love-story. A. C. Bradley may be allowed to speak for all these when he declares that 'Neither the phrase "a strumpet's fool", nor the assertion "the nobleness of life is to do thus", answers to the total effect of the play. But the truths they exaggerate are equally essential; and the commoner mistake in criticism is to understate the second.' Since these words were written (1905), the critical pendulum has swung the other way and today the commoner mistake is to understate the first. But Bradley's essay, despite a few lapses, remains one of the sanest and justest comments on the play.

Another set of oppositions in the play's effect upon its audience is brought out by Professor Knights when he writes [in his essay "On the Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra," Scrutiny, Vol. 16, 1949]: This, then, is what the play asks of us: to be true to both these impressions of the presented relationship. On the one hand, a closed circle of passion, of which the boasted "variety" is, in the end, entirely dependent on the application of fresh stimulants; on the other hand, natural force and fertility and spontaneous human feeling, all apparently inextricably tied ("this knot intrinsicate") with passions directed to death.… If we do not feel both the vitality and the sham vitality, both the variety and the monotony, both the impulse towards life and the impulse towards death, we are missing the full experience of the play.'

Professor Danby provides a tertium quid of a different sort. After pointing to 'the ambiguity which invests everything in Egypt equally with all things in Rome' and declaring that 'If it is wrong to see the "mutual pair" as a strumpet and her fool, it is also wrong to see them as a Phoenix and a Turtle', he goes on to argue that both the Roman and Egyptian attitudes are shown to be inadequate and mistaken. 'Egypt is the Egypt of the biblical glosses: exile from the spirit, thraldom to the flesh-pots, diminution of human kindness.… The fourth and fifth acts of Antony and Cleopatra are not epithanies. They are the ends moved to by that process whereby things rot themselves with motion—unhappy and bedizened and sordid, streaked with the mean, the ignoble, the contemptible. Shakespeare may have his plays in which "redemption" is a theme (and I think he has), but Antony and Cleopatra is not one of them.' I do not find it possible to follow him in this view. If the desolation that begins to make a better life for Cleopatra (5.2.1-2) does not take her away from the flesh-pots, if she does not undergo an ennoblement (if we prefer to confine the word 'redemption' to religious contexts) which carries with it an increase in human kindness and a diminution of selfishness and pride, and so is kindred to the change in Lear (a comparison which Professor Danby dismisses as blasphemous), it is difficult to see what Shakespeare was doing in the last act.

Bernard Shaw achieves a unique combination of the opposed critical views when he claims [in the preface to Three Plays for Puritans (1925), p. xxviii] that 'after giving a faithful picture of the soldier broken down by debauchery, and the typical wanton in whose arms such men perish, Shakespeare finally strains all his huge command of rhetoric and stage pathos to give a theatrical sublimity to the wretched end of the business, and to persuade foolish spectators that the world was well lost by the twain'. Shaw's account is based on a fundamental distortion of Shakespeare's procedure in this play. For from the opening scene until Antony's death the two views are presented side by side. The theatrical sublimity is as manifest in the lovers' first words (1.1.14-17) or in Enobarbus's 'barge-speech' as in what Shaw calls 'the wretched end of the business'. (His account applies far better to the Countess of Pembroke's Antonius, where for the play's first three quarters chiefly the hostile, Roman view of Antony's infatuation is presented, while in the last quarter we are given the 'romantic', sympathetic view.)

I do not share Professor Knights's feelings [in Some Shakespearean Themes] that in the last resort Shakespeare 'places' and condemns the love-affair. 'It is, of course', he comments, 'one of the signs of a great writer that he can afford to evoke sympathy for what, in his final judgment, is discarded or condemned. In Antony and Cleopatra the sense of potentiality in life's untutored energies is pushed to its limit, and Shakespeare gives the maximum weight to an experience that is finally "placed".' So definite, so unequivocal a response does not seem to me to emerge. Shakespeare does not prevent those who wish to do so from applying to his play the subtitle of Dryden's adaptation, 'The World Well Lost'.

The nature of Shakespeare's treatment can be perceived more clearly when it is contrasted with the handling of a very similar moral issue by two other great poets. In Paradise Lost the protagonist has also to choose between a woman whom he loves and who threatens his very existence and a contrasted set of values allegiance to which assures his self-preservation and prosperity. And there, too, he chooses immediately, unhesitatingly, to follow the woman. Paradise Lost could well have been called All for Love. But it could never have been called The World Well Lost. For though Milton enlists our utmost sympathy for Adam's decision to sacrifice all for his love of Eve, this decision is presented in a context of values which leaves no room for a problematic response by the reader. The whole ethical framework of the poem is too explicit in its condemnation of the action. And it is just because it is so explicit and we are never in doubt of our moral bearings that Milton can afford to evoke such a degree of sympathy for Adam's choice. And much the same may be said of Virgil's treatment of Dido and Aeneas. His deeply compassionate presentation of the plight of the abandoned Queen is not, so it seems to me, an indication that the poet was 'swept away irresistibly' beyond his intentions, that the moralist's overt purposes have been foiled by the artist's hidden sympathies, as some critics have asked us to believe; but on the contrary, and much as with Milton, it is an expression of Virgil's confidence in the clarity and force of the poem's ethical postulates and in the reader's ability to share them imaginatively, at least to suspend his disbelief in them. In the case of some readers this has proved an over-confidence. Just as a number of Romantic critics have applauded Adam's decision to die with Eve, there are some who have deplored Aeneas's decision to abandon Dido. But their response is not the result of any ambiguity or uncertainty in the moral frame-work of the two poems, but rather of the critics' lack of sympathy with it, which makes them anxious to enlist the poet as an ally in their revulsion against it, makes them eager to discover in him conflicts between the conscious moralist and the intuitive artist, between the planner and the maker.

Adam's and Aeneas's decisions are 'placed' by the moral framework of the poem in a way that Antony's never is. Antony and Cleopatra remains securely within the area of the problem play. It is interesting to compare it in this respect with two of its English predecessors, with both of which Shakespeare was acquainted, the Countess of Pembroke's Antonius (1590), and its companion-piece, Daniel's Cleopatra (1594).

In its general presentation of the love-story the Countess of Pembroke's Antonius, a translation of Garnier's Marc Antoine (1578), is, surprisingly, not at such a far remove from Shakespeare's as one would expect. It is certainly closer to it than it is to that of Plutarch, its principal source. It differs chiefly from Shakespeare's presentation in its omission of anything that derogates from its eulogistic portrayal of Cleopatra. Though, of course, more simple and less vital, she is basically Shakespeare's Cleopatra of Act V, with no hint of Shakespeare's Cleopatra of Acts I-IV. Her love for Antonius has been deep and true from the first, his suspicions of her betrayal are unfounded, and her motives for suicide simple and unalloyed: To have her body closed 'in one selfe tombe, and one selfe chest' (1. 1968) with that of Antonius, while her spirit is reunited with his in 'the hellish plaine' (1. 1951). In essence this Cleopatra, who invokes Antonius by 'our holy mariage' (1. 1948), is indistinguishable from Chaucer's, the martyr and one of the saints of Love. To this picture of her as a devoted and faithful wife Garnier has added that of the loving mother in a pathetic scene of leave-taking from her children (11. 1834 ff.).

Apart from the deluded Antonius when he thinks himself betrayed by her, nobody in the play except she herself utters a word of blame or criticism of Cleopatra; not even the chief victims of her actions, the chorus of Egyptians, who, in laments full of Sophoclean pessimism, repeatedly bewail their fate; not even Caesar and Agrippa, who have a great many harsh things to say about Antonius. And her self-blame is not for her past relations with Antonius but for her flight at Actium, which led to his overthrow. The equivalent to Enobarbus's tribute to Cleopatra in his 'barge-speech' is found in Diomede's extended praise of her perfections:

Nought liues so faire. Nature by such a worke
Her selfe, should seme, in workmanship hath
  past.
She is all heau'nlie: neuer any man
But seeing hir was rauished with her sight, etc.
                                     (11. 709-12)

While the picture of this paragon among women thus remains untarnished, Antonius's part in the love-affair is severely condemned by various speakers: by his friend, Lucilius; by Caesar and Agrippa; but chiefly and most vehemently by himself while in revulsion against his love for the woman whom he believes to have betrayed him. Nothing that Caesar or Philo say in Shakespeare's play is stronger in its condemnation than Antonius's

Nay, as the fatted swine in filthy mire
With glutted heart I wallow'd in delights,
All thoughts of honor troden under foote.
So I me lost.
                                     (11. 1155-8)

The tributes to Antonius come chiefly from Cleopatra, but are also to be found in Dircetus's account of the 'plaints and outcries horrible to heare' with which 'Men, women, children, hoary-headed age' received the news of his death (11. 1661-2).

In Antonius, then, as in Shakespeare's play, we find side by side both condemnation and glorification of the love of Antony and Cleopatra. What we do not find in Garnier's play, and what is all-important in Shakespeare's, is a weighing of what Antony loses against what he gains, an alternate calling into question of the values of wordly glory and of the glory of their love. There is scarcely anything in Antonius of the 'World Well Lost' attitude, which is epitomized by Antony's words to Cleopatra after Actium,

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates
All that is won and lost
                                            (3.11.69-70)

and which is caught well enough by Dryden in his Antony's exclamation,

                            Give, you Gods,
Give to your Boy, your Caesar,
This Rattle of a Globe to play withal,
This Gu-gau World, and put him cheaply off:
I'll not be pleas'd with less than Cleopatra.
                                        (All for Love, II, 443 ff.)

Much the same contrast is also found between Shakespeare's play and Daniel's Cleopatra which equally lacks a problematic attitude towards the love-story. Its chief difference from Antonius lies in its treatment of Cleopatra. She is seen as a much more complex creature, driven on to suicide by a mixture of motives, as she herself confesses.

So shall I shun disgrace, leaue to be sorry,
Flye to my loue, scape my foe, free my soule,
So shall I act the last of life with glory,
Die like a Queen, & rest without controule.
                                            (11. 1382-5)

Dying like a Queen seems to mean more to her than flying to her love. Unlike the Cleopatra of Antonius (and of Shakespeare's play), she has only come to love Antony after his death. She repents of her former way of life, speaks of its infamy (1. 461), and sees herself as an exemplum of princes 'As please themselues, and care not what become' (1. 465). Nor do others spare her in their comments. The Chorus of Egyptians, in marked contrast to that in Antonius, fiercely condemns her for her vices, which have led to the destruction of them all.

And Cleopatra now,
Well sees the dangerous way
She tooke, and car'd not how,
Which led her to decay:
 And likewise makes us pay
For her disordered lust,
The int'rest of our blood:
Or liue a seruile pray,
Vnder a hand vniust,
And others shall thinke good.
This hath her riot wonne,
And thus she hath her state, herselfe, and vs
  vndone.

                                       (11. 336-47)

'For now is nothing hid', they declare,

The scene is broken downe,
And all vncouered lies,
The purple Actors knowne
Scarce men, whom men despise.

                                   (11. 360-3)

Nothing said by their detractors in Shakespeare's play is as savage in its denunciation of the lovers as these lines by the Chorus of Egyptians.

The chief tribute to her perfections comes from Cleopatra's last conquest, Dolabella. She is, he declares,

The wonder of her kind, of powerfull spirit,
A glorious Lady, and a mighty queene.
                                   (11. 1620-1)

The divided response towards his Cleopatra which Daniel thus evokes in his reader is one of repugnance for what she has been and of admiration for what she has become, something quite different therefore from our divided response to Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

One's moral bearings are never in doubt. Her liaison with Antony is seen as infamous, though perhaps only the means used by the divine powers to punish the Egyptians for their sins by causing their country's enslavement (11. 450-57). For the repentant, regenerate Cleopatra our utmost sympathy and admiration is evoked. At the same time Daniel turns us against Caesar by giving us the soliloquy of his innocent victim, Caesario, who predicts that the heavens will revenge the crime of his execution.

And then Augustus what is it thou gainest
By poore Antillus blood, and this of mine?
Nothing but this, thy victory thou stainest,
And pulst the wrath of heauen on thee and thine.
                                    (11. 1444-7)

But the effect of this is merely to draw us closer to Cleopatra, not to make us question the comparative value of Love and Empire. It does not bring Daniel's Cleopatra any nearer to being a problem play.

In describing Antony and Cleopatra as such it must be insisted that the problem it raises is not general but unique. I cannot agree with S. L. Bethell's statement that in 'Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare returns to the old problem: What are the positive bases of the good life?' The problem, as presented by Shakespeare, seems to me a much more specific one, confined to the choice by a uniquely endowed individual, placed in a unique historical situation. The play is not a Morality, presenting the choice of Everyman, or Rex, between Love and Empire. By means examined at the beginning of the chapter, it conveys, on the contrary, a sense of an unexampled, near-miraculous fitness of the lovers for one another, and hence of the singularity of their case. 'The nobleness of life', exclaims Antony,

Is to do thus when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't …
                                        (1.1.37-8)

The force of the restrictive clause, obscured if not entirely obliterated by the habit of editors, misled by the punctuation of the Folio-text, of placing a heavy stop after 'thus', is all-important and too often ignored by commentators on the play.

Maynard Mack (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra: The Stillness and the Dance," in Shakespeare's Art: Seven Essays, edited by Milton Crane, The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 79-113.

[In the following excerpt, Mack argues that Antony and Cleopatra "owes much, at least in its general outline, to the medieval tragic formula of the fall-of-princes and mirror-for-magistrates tradition."]

Considered as pure story, the play that Shakespeare makes of Antony and Cleopatra would have delighted Chaucer's Monk. For it obviously owes much, at least in its general outline, to the medieval tragic formula of the fall-of-princes and mirror-for-magistrates tradition, which the Monk enunciates to the Canterbury pilgrims, and which was still, in 1607, owing to a good deal of Elizabethan dramatic practice including Shakespeare's own, far better known than Plutarch to playhouse audiences. Tragedy, according to this formula, is what happens when eminent historical personages lose their foothold on the pinnacle of wealth or power and plummet down to ruin with a gratifying homiletic crash. Implied in Plutarch's narrative inevitably, though only desultorily stressed there and sometimes lost in masses of detail better suited to biography than to homily, the theme of lost (or gained) imperium became for Shakespeare the central issue.

For this reason, his Antony is brought before us at the zenith of his eminence, when his soldiership ("twice the other twain," says Pompey, comparing him with Lepidus and Caesar) is critically in demand. He already holds the whole of the gorgeous East in fee and now is about to be freed from threats, on one side by his reconciliation with Caesar and marriage to Caesar's sister; on the other, by the victories of his lieutenant Ventidius in Parthia. He is also, we quickly learn, about to throw all this away for the fascinating creature shown us in four of the first five scenes and in Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra on the Cydnus. For conquest has several forms, it seems. There is more than one kind of stronghold to attract a soldier:

                              those his goodly eyes
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now
 turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front;
                                      (I, i, 2-6)

and there is more than one kind of attitude that may be taken toward the imperium of Rome:

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay.
                                     (I, i, 33-35)

In short, from the moment we are introduced to Antony, we are made aware of the undertow that will sweep him away, and this is kept so vividly before us in every scene thereafter—by Cleopatra, Enobarbus, Caesar, Pompey, the soothsayer, and Antony himself—that it is only a small exaggeration to say that Shakespeare's story of Antony's fall and of its consequences moves from the first scene of act I to the last scene of act V uninterruptedly, despite the presence of certain early scenes in which, ostensibly, his political fortunes are on the rise.

The play has other features, too, that if not derived from the medieval formula are at any rate in tune with it. Treatment of the protagonists from the outside and from a certain aesthetic distance, so as to enhance the element of spectacle and with it our impression that we behold a sort of paradigm or exemplum in the de casibus tradition, is one such feature that I have already underscored. So is the corollary reliance on choric commentary rather than interior meditation to point up the stages leading to the disaster, and particularly the emphasis laid by this means (and in every other imaginable way) on the grandeur of the world the protagonists inhabit and on their own special magnificence and magnanimity, in order to increase the pathos of their fall, however much that fall may be shown to be self-caused.

The play is further attuned to the formula in insisting simultaneously on what is not self-caused, on fortune, accident, destiny, doom—all that in the original medieval context might have been called the will of God and here is hinted at least to be the will of one god: "'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, Now leaves him" (IV, iii, 15-16). Shakespeare may have been moved to this equivocal management by a bemusing sentence in his source. For Plutarch says of Cleopatra's plea to be allowed to join the wars against Caesar (in Plutarch's narrative, delivered to Antony through a bribed Canidius): "These fan-persuasions won him; for it was predestined that the government of all the world should fall into Octavius Caesar's hands." Hence it was Antony's decision, except that it was also destiny's. Just so, in the play, though our attention is repeatedly called to Antony's misjudgments, a sense of impersonal fate runs deep. Caesar, as Bradley says [in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry] is "the Man of Destiny, the agent of forces against which the intentions of an individual could avail nothing," one from whom "the feeling of fate comes through to us." The language repeatedly proclaims this. Whereas "noble" is the play's characterizing term for Antony (despite his sometimes ignoble deeds like the whipping of Thidias), Caesar's characterizing term is "fortune." This word, with its cognates and synonyms, appears some forty times in Antony and Cleopatra, more than twice as often as in any other of the major tragedies, and repeatedly in connection with Caesar, whose invisible "genius" it appears to be. Antony's own genius, the soothsayer assures him immediately after his marriage to Octavia, "is Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable," but placed near Caesar's it is over-powered; "and of that natural luck, He beats thee 'gainst the odds" (II, iii, 19 ff.). From that point on, Caesar regularly beats Antony against the odds, and is spoken of increasingly as "fortunate Caesar" (IV, xiv, 76), "full-fortuned Caesar" (IV, xv, 24), the man whom Antony has to address after Actium as "Lord of his fortunes" (III, xii, 11), and the man whose "luck," we are told by Cleopatra, he learns eventually to mock: "I see him rouse himself," she says of Antony as she is dying, "To praise my noble act. I hear him mock The luck of Caesar" (V, ii, 283-85).

Something similar seems to hold true for Cleopatra. 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. The sun makes love to her; the air, "except for vacancy," would have gone to see her triumphant landing from the Cydnus; her sighs and tears are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report; she is cunning past man's thought; her variety is infinite; and the fetters in which she binds, like those of Merlin's Vivien, are "strong," as is also—to recall a phrase of Caesar's when he sees her in death—her "toil of grace":

                      she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.
                                (V, ii, 344-46)

The phrase captures her mystery superbly because its range of meaning is altogether indeterminable. Is the emphasis in "toil" on the cruel snare of the hunter or on the delighting web of the accomplished woman's charms? Do the boundaries of "grace" include simply the feline movements of the experienced beast of prey, or do they extend to the worldly accomplishments cited by Claudius in giving young Laertes permission to return to Paris: "Time be thine, And thy best graces spend it at thy will," or do they glance also toward the enigmatic territories touched on by Prospero when, in praising Ariel for his simulation of the harpy, he sums up in five words the meaning of the disasters in The Tempest and (some critics would have it) of those in Antony and Cleopatra as well?

Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou
Performed, my Ariel; a grace it had, devouring.
                        (III, iii, 83-84; italics mine)

My point, of course, is not that there is a right answer to these questions, but rather that the play teases us into asking them. Shakespeare's medieval inheritance remains strong enough to enable him to show us a catastrophe that Antony has quite literally made love to as if it were simultaneously a "doom."

The "fall" story chiseled out of Plutarch receives in the finished play many kinds of imaginative extension, as every spectator will remember. One of these is the intricately elaborated context of mobility and mutability within which the fall is shown to occur, so that here as elsewhere in Shakespeare a play's characteristic "world" and its major action tend to become expressions of each other.

Our sense of a world in flux in Antony and Cleopatra is created primarily through the imagery, as many have pointed out, but in the theater it reaches us yet more directly through continual shifts of place (to mention only those of the first three acts: from Egypt to Rome to Egypt to Messina to Rome to Egypt to Misenum to Syria to Rome to Egypt to Athens to Rome to Actium to Egypt), and in the number and brevity of the episodes and scenes. In its episodic character, in fact, the play again seems mindful of the medieval past, each scene acted, as it were, from an appropriate historical "maison" or pageant-wagon, as in the cyclical plays. Today, the text of Antony and Cleopatra is usually divided into forty-two scenes, and while these need not be taken seriously as divisions of the action, since the folio text has neither scenes nor acts, their number indicates to us how often we are asked to register that one time, place, mood, or person gives way before another.

To this we must add the equally striking circumstance that Antony and Cleopatra in performance contains just under two hundred distinct entrances and exits (rather more than one per minute of playing time) and that a great many of these acquire a special impact on our senses, either from being ceremonial and accompanied by much fanfare or from their effect in bringing about emotionally significant leave-takings and reunions. People flow to and away from each other in Antony and Cleopatra with relentless frequency and ease—Antony from Cleopatra and to her, to Caesar and from him; Octavia from Caesar and to him, to Antony and from him; Enobarbus from Antony, then (in heart) to him; and Cleopatra—who can say? This pattern is climaxed by the great reunions and leave-takings of the close. Antony, after being reunited with Cleopatra in her monument, takes his last farewell of her ("I am dying, Egypt, dying"); Cleopatra takes hers of Caesar and the world ("Give me my robe, put on my crown"); and both farewells are preludes, so the lovers insist, to a further reunion in the Elysian fields, or on the Cydnus, where the great passion will begin anew. Nothing seems to be granted finality in Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps not even death.

Mobility and mutability are not confined to spatial and geographical forms, but penetrate the play at every point. They are reiterated in the allusions to the ebbing and flowing of the tides; the rising and setting (or eclipse and extinction) of stars, moons, and suns; the immense reversals of feeling in the lovers and in Enobarbus; the career of Pompey, whose powers, "crescent" in II, i, are by III, v scattered and the man himself dead; and the steady erosion of persons whom for a moment we have known or heard of as presences: Fulvia, Lepidus, Pompey, Pacoras, Enobarbus, Alexas, and Eros all are dead before Antony dies; Menas and Menecrates, Philo and Demetrius, Ventidius and Scarus have disappeared without a trace, along with Mardian; Candidus and Decretas (besides Alexas and Enobarbus) have turned their coats, and Cleopatra may or may not have been several times on the verge of turning hers.

In addition, the style itself generates impressions of this kind. Johnson's account of the play rightly emphasizes the "hurry," the "quick succession" of events that calls the attention forward; and part of the effect he has in mind comes clearly from the style, which pours rather than broods (as in Macbeth), which is sensuous rather than intellectual (as in Hamlet), and which, as Pope said of Homer's, animates everything it touches: from Philo's view of Antony in I, i, where eyes glow, bend, turn, and the heart remembers buckles it has burst in the scuffles of great fights, to Cleopatra's view of him in V, ii, where he bestrides, rears, crests; quails and shakes the orb with rattling thunder; gives in a perpetual autumn; sports like a dolphin above the ocean of his pleasure; and scatters crowns and coronets from his pockets as if they were small change.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is Shakespeare's use of the grammatical mood that, of all moods, best expresses mobility and mutability: the optative. Most of the great speeches in the play are "options"—in the radical sense. At all levels, high and low, playful and serious, hearts continually press forward with their longings, so much so that by placing even a few of them in sequence one may easily recapitulate the action.

Let Rome in Tiber melt. (I, i, 33)

Let me be married to three kings in a fore-
noon and widow them all.… Find me to marry
me with Octavius Caesar, and companion me with
my mistress. (I, ii, 25-29)

   Upon your sword
Sit laurel victory, and smooth success
Be strewed before your feet! (I, iii, 99-101)

Let his shames quickly
Drive him to Rome. (I, iv, 72-73)

                  But all the charms of love,
Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned lip!
Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both!
                                      (II, i, 20-22)

                               Let her live
To join our kingdoms and our hearts and never
Fly off our loves again. (II, ii, 151-53)

Would I had never come from thence, nor you
 thither. (II, iii, 12)

Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents! (II, v, 78-79)

In thy fats our cares be drowned,
With thy grapes our hairs be crowned.
                                 (II, vii, 114-15)

           Sink Rome, and their tongues rot
That speak against us! (III, vii, 15-16)

                                    O that I were
Upon the hill of Basan, to outroar
The hornèd herd! (III, xiii, 126-28)

This is a selection simply, and from the first three acts. Thereafter, for obvious reasons, the optative mood quickens, to culminate at last in three of the best known utterances in the play:

We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's
 noble,
Let's do't after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us.
                                                (IV, xv, 89-91)

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man! (V, ii, 76-78)

                       Husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
                               (V, ii, 286-87)

To all these impressions of a world in motion, much is added in performance by the playwright's insistent stress on messages and messengers—though here, doubtless, other effects and purposes must also receive their due. To ignore a man's messenger who has a legitimate claim on you, as Antony does in I, i, or to have such a messenger whipped, as he does in III, xiii, or, like Cleopatra in II, v, to assault a messenger for the bad news he carries: these are Shakespeare's equivalents in this play of Hamlet's melancholy, Lear's quick wrath-marks of the tragic personage's incapacity or unwillingness to adjust to the world he lives in. Messengers also, of course, enhance our sense of power and of the rearrangements that take place in power as the play wears on. Cleopatra's inexhaustible supply of emissaries and her determination to "unpeople Egypt" (I, v, 78) rather than let Antony in Rome go a day without a letter bear testimony to her political stature at the outset of the play as well as to her passion. Later on, the fact that Antony, who has had "superfluous kings for messengers" (III, xii, 5), is reduced to using his children's schoolmaster to carry a message to Caesar serves as an index to the audience as well as to Caesar that his wing has indeed been "plucked." Such effects are of course highly visual in performance, and capable in some contexts of communicating exquisite ironies. In the last scene, for instance, Caesar's messengers come and go again and again in a fine show of strategy and efficiency, but then comes the messenger no one anticipated, a bumpkin and malapropist bearing figs, who is escorted in by Caesar's own guard; and he proves to be messenger that counts.

Beyond this, the play's emphasis on messengers reminds us that, in so volatile and mutable a world, opinion and report are matters of huge concern. All these people have an immense curiosity about each other, especially the Romans about Cleopatra, which they can only satisfy with fresh news. "From Alexandria," says Caesar to Lepidus the first time we see him, "This is the news" (I, iv, 3-4), and he goes on to detail Antony's ill courses there. After the triumvirs have made peace in Rome, Enobarbus is no sooner left alone with Maecenas and Agrippa than they throw out bait about life in Egypt that they hope he will rise to: "Eight wild-boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there. Is this true?" says Maecenas (II, ii, 180-81). Pompey plays a like game with Antony, hinting at the time when Cleopatra kept an assignation with Julius Caesar by having herself rolled up inside a mattress and carried to him (II, vi, 68); while Lepidus, in the brawl on Pompey's galley, speculates drunkenly—but inquiringly—about pyramises and crocodiles (II, vii, 24 ff.).

This is merely the surface of "report" in the play. It soon turns out that almost everyone we meet is passionately conscious of report in other senses: not simply the public report of Rome, which Caesar is concerned as far as possible to manipulate and even Antony and Cleopatra from time to time feel the need to placate or consciously defy, but the report of history. This too is an aspect of the play that insists on its aesthetic distance from us, on its character as spectacle and exemplum. Caesar is walking into history, and is keenly conscious of it; in fact, he hopes to guarantee a good "report" for himself by composing it: "Go with me to my tent," he says to Agrippa and Maecenas, after Antony's death has been announced to him:

                       where you shall see
How hardly I was drawn into this war,
How calm and gentle I proceeded still

In all my writings. Go with me, and see
What I can show in this.
                                          (V, i, 73-77)

Enobarbus, throughout his hesitations about leaving Antony, looks forward to what "story" will say of him if he stays—

The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly: yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord,
Does conquer him that did his master conquer
And earns a place i' th' story.
                               (III, xiii, 42-46)

though it must be admitted he reckoned without Plutarch, who gives his going over to Caesar and his repentance short shrift, and says nothing whatever about his hesitations. Again, in his death scene, all alone, he appeals to the "blessèd moon" to bear him witness, "When men revolted shall upon record Bear hateful memory," that he repents his betrayal of his master, and then, as if resigning himself to an eternity of bad notices in the theatrum mundi, concludes:

                      O, Antony,
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular,
But let the world rank me in register
A master leaver and a fugitive.
                                   (IV, ix, 7 ff.)

The lovers' own consciousness of being ever on parade before the reviewing stand of world opinion is particularly acute. Antony's anguished "I have offended reputation" after Actium means more than simply that he has stained his individual honor, or even his immediate public image; he has also deviated from the world's conception of what a Roman soldier is and does, guarded and passed on from generation to generation in world opinion. When he takes Cleopatra in his arms at the play's beginning, he is conscious of the world as audience; in fact, he invokes it:

                       The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.
                                    (I, i, 36-40)

When he anticipates their reunion in the Elysian fields, he thinks of the audience they will have there:

Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
 hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts
 gaze.
                                (IV, xiv, 51-52)

When Eros takes his own life rather than kill him, the thought that captivates his imagination is that Eros and Cleopatra will have won a nobler place in history than his: "My queen and Eros Have by their brave instruction got upon me A nobleness in record."

This, too, as everyone will remember, is the concern that occupies Cleopatra as she steels herself after Antony's death to do "what's brave, what's noble … after the high Roman fashion," and so win fame, not obloquy, in the chronicles of times to come (IV, xv, 85 ff.). Her wish that her women "show" her "like a queen" in her "best attires" (V, ii, 227-28)—though no doubt partly vanity and partly calculated staginess for Caesar's last view of her—is partly too, one feels, her sense of what is suitable, in the record that will be forthcoming, "for a princess Descended of so many royal kings." Caesar's parting words about her have the quality of an epitaph, and seal the immortality in "report" that now awaits all three:

She shall be buried by her Antony.
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented.
                                   (V, ii, 356-61)

The imaginative extension that Shakespeare gives to the story of Antony's fall by surrounding it with a world in which, as Mutability says in The Faerie Queene, "Nothing doth firme and permanent appeare, But all things tost and turnèd by transverse," has its counterpart in the extension he gives the love affair. Everyone who reads or sees the play is struck at once by the hyperbolic character of the value the lovers set on each other, or at any rate the hyperbolic character of their own conception of that value: "There's beggary," as Antony puts it, "in the love that can be reckoned" (I, i, 15).

The play as a whole, supporting but also qualifying this attitude, sets moving around it an enormous traffic of evocation, primarily of two sorts. One sort moves the love affair in the general direction of allegory and myth. In some sense, the play hints, there looms behind Antony's choice of "Pleasure" the great model of Hercules at the Crossroads—a popular motif of Renaissance painting and engraving about which much has been written by the iconographers—choosing between Virtue and Pleasure, who are represented in two females as opposite in their qualities as Octavia and Cleopatra, or Rome and Egypt. It has been pointed out, too, that behind the play's references to a great warrior feminized—Cleopatra putting her robes on Antony, for instance, and wearing his sword Philippan, or Canidius's remark after the decision to fight at Actium by sea: "so our leader's led, And we are women's men" (III, vii, 69-70)—may be discerned another favorite Renaissance exemplum: Hercules's servitude in woman's dress to Omphale, which Plutarch explicitly compares to Antony's in his Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius:

But to conclude, [Demetrius] neuer had ouerthrow or misfortune through negligence, nor by delaying time to follow his owne pleasure; as we see in painted tables, where Omphale secretly stealeth away Hercules clubbe, and took his Lyon skinne from him: euen so Cleopatra oftentimes vnarmed Antonius, and enticed him to her, making him lose matters of great importance, and very needfull iournies, to come and be dandled with her.

To these the play adds two further analogies, Aeneas and Dido, and Mars and Venus, whose implications are far less clear. Though at first Antony might be said to imitate Aeneas in abandoning his Dido for a Roman destiny and a Latin marriage, his later career substantively revises the Virgilian story in that he abandons Rome and empire for his African queen and, in the only overt allusion the play makes to Virgil's lovers, anticipates that he and Cleopatra in the afterworld will be admired more than they for their eminence in love: "Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours" (IV, xiv, 53-54). Does Shakespeare nod here, forgetting Virgil's own depiction in book VI of the estrangement of Dido from Aeneas on his visit to the underworld? Or is this simply Antony's exuberant imagination undertaking to bring reality closer to the heart's desire, as he does so often elsewhere? Or does Shakespeare, for whatever reasons, choose to see Aeneas in the Chaucerian and generally medieval perspectives that had already made of Dido, as of Cleopatra, an exemplar of faithful love?

Similar questions must be asked about the playwright's association of his lovers with Mars and Venus. Are we chiefly to remember Homer, in whose Odyssey the two Olympians, trapped in an adulterous affair and exposed in the absurdity of love's postures in a net they cannot break, move our superior laughter—as do, in one of their dimensions, Antony and Cleopatra? Are we to remember, too, the Renaissance taste for paintings and engravings that show a Mars vanquished by Venus, victim or trophy of love's power, her amorini sporting with his armor, and he himself languid or asleep, or, in some instances, chained and fettered to her throne? And is it pertinent to recall further that the intention of these images often turns out to be more complex than at first glance we might suppose? For the two deities are, in some instances, to be understood as emblems of contrary qualities, male force and female grace, now in a work of art ideally reconciled; and even, in others, as the contrary powers of Strife and Love, which tie the universe together and from whose union, according to Plutarch, the goddess Harmony is born.

Antony, like Mars in the paintings, grows conscious of love's "fetters"; loses or is threatened with the loss of manhood, as the fanning eunuchs in I, i warn us; and at long last acknowledges himself (as he was also obliged to do the day she came down the Cydnus) Cleopatra's captive in a "Triumph of Love." But the crucial question that remains—in the play as in the painted figures of Mars and Venus—is what the triumph means. I believe that Shakespeare throws some light on the perplexities of this question in the scene that reunites the lovers after the middle day of Actium, when for the time being Antony and his men have had the victory (IV, viii). As he enters, still clad in full armor, he thanks his soldiers with characteristic élan and generosity. Then he sees Cleopatra, stops (as I read the scene) in his tracks bedazzled (leaving us in the audience to imagine his emotions as he finds himself once more in his old role of redoubtable captain returning to a radiant queen), and then, with an intensity of adoration that ignores all onlookers, bursts forth in one of the most winning speeches of the play:

                    O thou day o' th' world,
Chain mine armed neck, leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.
                                (IV, viii, 13-16)

The image of Cleopatra riding the great beats of Antony's heart (a heart that, as we know from earlier comment, "in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast") as if it were a high-mettled steed on which she is carried in a triumph that he—her prisoner, "chained"—adorns, is breathtaking and becomes more so when we reflect on what we see: for though in the language she is conqueror and he her captive, in the scene he is conqueror too and has indeed freely bestowed this conquest on her, as his victorious presence, in full armor, attests. The episode forces upon our consciousness a recognition of the very different kind of triumph that they have within their power as lovers from the kind for which Caesar seeks him, and the two competing value systems, theirs and Caesar's, hang for a brief instant in the eye as well as in the ear, as she runs to be embraced. Then, leaning back and devouring him with her gaze, she kindles sublimely to the occasion, catching his image in an answering image of her own:

                                        Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?
                                      (IV, viii, 16-18)

Does she, by her "world's great snare," mean the wars? Does she, on the contrary, mean Caesar, who is soon to become "universal landlord" and "sole sir o' the world"? Or does she simply mean, as a recent editor phrases it, "all the snares the world can set," understanding by "world" everything, inner as well as outer, that the play accumulates to threaten love? No matter. As with Roman triumphs versus Antony's "triumphing," we are obviously to let this "snare" reverberate against another order of captivity altogether, an order implicit at this moment in Antony's "chain my armed neck," explicit earlier in his "These strong Egyptian fetters I must break," and evoked again, tellingly, at the play's end, when, as we saw, Caesar speaks of "her strong toil of grace." There, once again, the two attitudes will hang against each other in the mind and invite us to consider that there are more kinds of captivity and of triumph than any Caesar dreams of.

Language

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12405

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 special play, something with a poetic radiance that tells us Shakespeare wrote it con amore—with zest, with love, and a free spirit. It is not unlike him to show a character or a situation in the worst light at first, in order to make the truth which follows all the more impressive. (This he had done, for instance, with Othello.) Shakespeare is nothing, if not bold, and so sure is he of his power to win our sympathies for Antony and Cleopatra that he takes the risk of showing the worst of them straight off.

On the heels of Philo's comment, Antony himself enters with Cleopatra, and Antony seems to confirm the adverse judgment by his waving away the messengers with then-urgent business from Rome, and then by turning to embrace Cleopatra:

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus (embracing), when such a mutual
   pair
And such a twain can do't, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.

We are taken in a great leap, in Antony's large and generous imagination, to the issue of the play: the world for love. The terms on both sides are magnificent: "the wide arch of the rang'd empire" for the love of "such a twain," who "stand up peerless."

Although our judgment of Antony's heedlessness is in no way qualified, we are at once charmed by the vitality of the characters and by the experience that has begun to unfold before us; we would not have it otherwise.

Antony's "rang'd empire" speech immediately sets the tone of the play—the greatness of the issue, the sweep of the scene, the splendor of the imagery. The action moves freely back and forth between the two poles of Antony's conflicting lures—Rome, the world of Octavius Caesar, and Alexandria, the world of Cleopatra; the world of power and the world of love. The imagery enlarges "Rome" to mean the whole world. The kings of the earth assemble for war:

Bocchus, the king 'of Libya; Archelaus,
Of Cappadocia; Philadelphos, king
Of Paphlagonia; the Thracian king Adallas;
King Malchus of Arabia; King of Pont;
Herod of Jewry; Mithridates, king
Of Comagene; Polemon and Amyntas,
The kings of Mede and Lycaonia, with a
More larger list of sceptres.
                                (III. vi. 68-76)

The triumvirs are "the triple pillars" of the world, Antony, when Lepidus has fallen out, is "the demi-Atlas of the earth," Caesar at the end is "the universal landlord." He and Antony cannot "stall together / In the whole world." On the other side, Cleopatra is "Egypt." She "o'erpictures Venus," and her person beggars all description. Antony is "the sun," "the star" which falls; Cleopatra the "terrene moon." In setting and image alike, hyperbole may be said to be the dominant trope of the play.

In a sense, Shakespeare is simply using with special richness and intensity the trope for which the taste was so strong in the literature of his time. I believe we must look to more than school training in rhetoric to explain or understand the taste. The school training is a symptom as well as a cause. At the basis of the taste is probably something deeply grounded, something that I shall not try to explain but merely note the signs of. The pressure in much Elizabethan literature is towards the ideal, the excellent, the distinguished, the quintessential. Theories of society, of poetry, and of history alike put value on what might be called the ideal of excellence—not on the little known, the mean, the ordinary in event or character, but on the famous, the great, the distinguished.

I shall digress a little on this topic before returning to Antony and Cleopatra, for a right understanding of the characteristic attitude may help us to avoid critical pitfalls in the interpretation of the play. I need not develop the point as it applies to society, so familiar is the Renaissance doctrine of degree. Sidney, in The Defense of Poesy (1595), best states the ideal of excellence as it applies to poetry:

Only the poet … lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth or quite anew.… Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done—neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.… know whether [Nature] have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes, so constant a friend as Pylades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a prince as Xenophon's Cyrus, so excellent a man every way as Virgil's Aeneas.

There are, of course, at least two sorts of excellence implied here: one, the transcendence of the perfect idea over the imperfect fact, the other, moral excellence, always strongly emphasized by Sidney. But there may be absolutes as well in villainy as in goodness—witness More's and Shakespeare's Richard III, that "excellent grand tyrant of the earth." And the excellence need not be put in moral terms, but thought of simply as the perfection of a quality. The quality may be beauty. Is it, asks Sidney, "better to have it set down as it should be, or as it was?" Cicero's story of the painter Zeuxis (in De inveri-one II. i), who was said to have chosen the best features of the five most beautiful women in the city of Croton and combined them to form his portrait of Helen, becomes, with Renaissance literary critics, an axiomatic assumption about the way painters and poets alike go about their imitation. Or the quality might be ugliness. One thinks of Leonardo's sketches of the grotesque faces of old men, in which the features of age are intensified and concentrated. Leonardo himself justifies such intensifying in his account (in the Notebooks) of how an artist should depict an angry man:

How a figure is not worthy of praise unless such action appears in it as serves to express the passion of the soul: …

An angry figure should be represented seizing someone by the hair and twisting his head down to the ground, with one knee on his ribs, and with the right arm and fist raised high up; let him have his hair dishevelled, his eyebrows low and knit together, his teeth clenched, the two corners of his mouth arched, and the neck which is all swollen and extended as he bends over the foe, should be full of furrows.

This way of conceiving of character, event, place—whatever one's topic—and of marking it by superlatives—the "most," the "best," the "highest," the "greatest," the "noblest"; or their opposites, the "the least," the "worst," and so on—is everywhere met with in Elizabethan literature. The trees beside the purest crystal spring where amorous Corydon sits versing to Phyllida are the finest of each of the kinds—of elm, beech, and oak; of pine, palm and laurel. The ladies of the sonneteers reach in their beauty the type ancient poets only thought they saw in Helen:

Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express'd
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring.

In Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, the Poet remarks on the Painter's portrait of Timon that

It tutors nature; artificial strife
Lives in these touches, livelier than life.

We shall remember the phrase, "livelier than life."

Clearly this attitude does not preclude the most vivid realism of the observation of detail. And there is besides a strong current of objective realism in Elizabethan literature that appears to be outside the thing I am talking about. Even here, I think, the important thing is that mere ordinariness, mediocrity, or commonplaceness, is not glorified as such—or if so, only tentatively and sentimentally, and with an apology. The drab, the flat, the colourless, the futile are not thought interesting. Deloney's and Dekker's Simon Eyre was worthy of putting into a novel and a play not because he was ordinary, but because he was not: he became Lord Mayor of London.

The idea of excellence expressed in poetic theory was matched in the commonly held view of history that it was interesting and instructive for the examples it furnished of great men and great events. History was seen as highly personal and dramatic, composed not of "trends" and "movements," but of distinguishable events and distinguished people. Thomas North, Englishing (in 1579) Jacques Amyot's preface to his French translation of Plutarch, notes that "the proper ground" of history

is to treate of the greatest and highest things that are done in the world:… It is a picture, which (as it were in a table) setteth before our eyes the things worthy of remembrance that haue bene done in old time by mighty nations, noble Kings and Princes, wise gouernours, valiant Captaines, and persons renowned for some notable quality.… & their demeaning [i.e., behaviour] of them selues when they were come to the highest, or throwne down to the lowest degree of state.

It was among the great men of history that tragedy sought its subjects, its Falls of Princes. The post-classical grammarians had taught that tragedy was concerned with the falling of the great into adversity; its subjects were heroes, nobles, kings; its actions were conflicts, exiles, and violent deaths. "Let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings," Shakespeare makes his Richard II say. Sidney observed that tragedy should be "high and excellent." The rhetorical mode of de casibus tragedy, moving as it does from the extreme of power to the extreme of deprivation, from the throne to the grave, is naturally hyperbolic. Richard would give his "large kingdom for a little grave / A little, little grave …"

In the fifteenth century Lydgate contemplates, from the slippery top, the depth of the descent. In the late sixteenth, Marlowe looks up to the glorious height, when he makes Tamburlaine speak of the "thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown":

Nature …
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, …
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

No brief period in history furnished more examples of famous falls, or was better chronicled, than the period of the Roman Revolution, from Marius and Sulla to the establishment of the empire by Octavius Caesar, and the achievement of the Peace of Augustus. In this sequence of tragedies—of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Cato, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony—none save Caesar's tragedy was more fascinating than Antony's. For Antony, a generously gifted man, famous for his "absolute soldiership," threw all he had won away in a moment, when in the midst of the Battle of Actium, his chances as good as his enemy's, he sailed after Cleopatra's retreating galleys. Antony's "kissing away kingdoms and provinces" would have been known to Shakespeare not only through Plutarch, but in the Fall of Princes tradition, as a great and unique event in history.

Moreover, the two lovers had another kind of long association, with a different and more sympathetic tragic emphasis. In those gatherings-up of famous names, those Houses of Fame medieval writers were fond of making, Antony and Cleopatra were usually to be found beside Helen and Paris, Dido and Aeneas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Hero and Leander, Tristram and Iseult—those notable victims of the cruel and resistless God of Love. In The Assembly of Ladies, an anonymous poem that found its way into the sixteenth century editions of Chaucer, a lady is led in a dream into a great hall, on the walls of which were

                     grauen of storyes many one
First how Phyllis of womanly pyte
Dyed pyteously for loue of Demophone
Next after was the story of Tysbe
Howe she slew her selfe under a tree
yet saw I more / how in a right pytous caas
For Antony was slayne Cleopatras.

Shakespeare knew this tradition well enough, for he makes Antony say, thinking Cleopatra dead:

Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
 hand
And with our springhtly port make the ghosts
 gaze.
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.
                                (IV. xiv. 51-54)

This is not quite the Virgilian note. Medieval love poetry has contaminated it.

For such a high event as the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra high statement was appropriate. There is nothing surprising about Shakespeare's choosing to be hyperbolic in a treatment that should be worthy of the event and of the tradition. But of course he is not simply hyperbolic. His sensitive and sympathetic knowledge of men and women as they are, his sure sense of moral values, his profound sense of irony, make completely sustained or unqualified hyperbole impossible for him. He found in Plutarch's life of Marcus Antonius a full, thoughtful, quite unidealized, largely detached, but mainly sympathetic account of Antony—this man formed of very mingled stuff, of large virtues and large vices. Of Cleopatra in Plutarch Shakespeare found both explicit disapproval and implicit wonder, for Plutarch, blame her as he might for Antony's ruin, was yet fascinated by this great and extraordinary woman. Having caught from Plutarch a sense of vital, interesting people, living at a place and time in history, Shakespeare went far beyond his source in giving their personalities wholeness within his dramatic action. What we have in the play, therefore, is something of extraordinary subtlety. We have a story of a complex, unsentimental relationship between two richly endowed but very imperfect people, a story acted out in the thorough worldliness of Egyptian luxury and Roman power politics. At the same time characters and action are set in a poetic frame which creates an aura of uniqueness and greatness—of "infinite variety," "of nature's piece 'gainst fancy, beyond the size of dreaming," of high events that make the beholders feel that "time is at his period." The vision, however, is not therefore double; it is fused into one with wit, irony, sympathy, and delight.

Something needs to be said briefly about hyperbole as a trope before turning to Shakespeare's use of it in Antony and Cleopatra. This figure is defined by Puttenham (in The Arte of English Poesie, 1589) as "the overreacher": "When we speake in the superlatiue and beyond the limites of credit, that is by the figure which the Greeks called Hiperbole … I for his immoderate excesse cal him the ouer reacher … & me thinks not amisse: …" But the overreaching trope may be used in quite different ways—as Puttenham says, "when either we would greatly aduaunce or greatly abase the reputation of any thing or person." It may be used, as the modern temper prefers to read it, as overreaching actuality so as to diminish it and make it appear smaller or less worthy than we usually think it is. It may also be used—and this was the more frequent use in the Renaissance—to heighten or amplify actuality to some ideal perfection, to what it might be in idea, to something beyond the common reach. The distinction, may be readily seen in two notable plays on the theme of ambition, Tamburlaine and Sejanus. Marlowe used hyperbole absolutely in Tamburlaine, without ironic implication. Tamburlaine's "high aspiring mind" sweeps us (like Zenocrate) resistlessly with him across Persia, Turkey, and Syria, and, in his mind's eye, around the world—until his ships

Sailing along the oriental sea,
Have fetched about the Indian continent,
Even from Persepolis to Mexico,
And thence unto the Straits of Jubalter.

In Tamburlaine action and trope are one. Jonson, on the other hand, used hyperbole with precise satiric value as the "overreacher" in Sejanus. His hero is a prodigy, who feels his "advanced head/Knock out a star in heav'n"; his swelling joys prove hollow bubbles.

Shakespeare, however, is no Marlowe, in whose heroes there can be no accommodation between all or nothing, all the world or hell. And he is no Jonson, whose remorseless logic must cut human dreams down to size. The effect of Shakespeare's hyperbole is neither to overwhelm our judgment as in Tamburlaine, nor to sharpen our critical faculty to a satiric edge as in Sejanus, but to give us a sense of pleasurable participation in a credible, but rare experience, an experience that we know did indeed happen in some fashion to actual people at a time and place in history, yet one so special that it became a famous tragedy to all the world; and one now carried in Shakespeare's art to the utmost stretch of the possibilities of such an experience and such a choice.

It is easier to describe the effect of this complex vision than to say how it is achieved. But perhaps we can find some clues in the particular ways in which Shakespeare qualifies his hyperbole—qualifies to enrich and complicate but not to destroy.

A principal method, operative throughout the play, is in the strong yet supple web of the language itself. The golden threads running throughout it are crossed by the plain, tough fibres of direct and simple speech: "Well, is it, is it?" "My being in Egypt, Caesar, / What was't to you?" "Let the old ruffian know / I have many other ways to die." "He words me, girls, he words me." The heightened style and the plain are often set side by side. The combined richness and strength of such juxtaposing is well illustrated in the scene of Antony's death in Cleopatra's monument (IV. xv). Her defence against grief is made in several ways. One way is in employing a fanciful conceit to exclaim against fortune:

No, let me speak; and let me rail so high
That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel,
Provok'd by my offence.

Another is in her habitual coquetry, now in a new key:

                 Noblest of men, woo't die?
Hast thou no care of me? Shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty?

Still, another, most movingly, is in lyric cadences:

                                                 O sun,
Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in! Darkling
  stand
The varying shore o' th' world! O Antony,
Antony, Antony!

These variations are Shakespeare's new way with the old rhetorical "fullness in exclaims" recommended for the augmentation of passion. But the undertone in the scene is Antony's simple repetition, "I am dying, Egypt, dying." Farther along in the scene, when Antony is dead, Cleopatra in her grief sees herself as

No more but e'en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares.

Far from reducing the greatness of her sorrow, the comparison gives it rather the strength of common human experience.

Another such contrast of the hyperbolic and the literal statement, at a farther remove, but at paired dramatic points, comes in two of the crucial speeches marking Antony's choice. The first is the "rang'd empire" speech with its expansive splendour—"Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the rang'd empire fall. Here is my space." The choice here is imaginary, one that he hardly thinks of as a real choice. At the moment both the world and Cleopatra are his, and he can afford to scorn "the dungy earth." The action of the play shows him trying to hold both the world and Cleopatra, until his defeat at Actium seals his eventual fate. Then, with the world lost indeed, and more than the world, the world's esteem—

Hark! the land bids me no more tread
    upon't!.…
I am so lated in the world that I
Have lost my way forever—

he embraces Cleopatra with words that sadly echo that first confident embrace:

Fall not a tear, I say. One of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.
Even this repays me.
                                  (III. xi. 69-71)

The speech is all the more poignantly ironic for its sad simplicity.

I have been speaking of a general method in the management of the language. We shall note now, more particularly, how the alternatives of Antony's choice, the world of power and the world of love, are described and how hyperbole is used and qualified. In the discussion, I shall also consider the conceptions of the two central characters themselves.

First for Rome and power, and Antony's part in these. The reach and greatness of Rome and the urgency of its business are of course implicit in the action and suggested in the constant references to events and geography. One has the sense of something going on at every moment everywhere within the empire: "Italy shines o'er with civil swords," in the borders maritime "flush youth revolt" to Pompey, Fulvia's garboils are uncurbable, Labienus shakes his conquering banner from Lydia to Syria to Ionia, Ventidius jades "the ne'er-yet-beaten horse of Parthia" out of the field, in Alexandria Antony proclaims his sons the kings of kings. The magnificence of power wielded by the Roman rulers is suggested, as I have already noted, by the running images of them as owners or upholders of the whole world: world-sharers, triple pillars, demi-Atlases. Octavius finally becomes, in Cleopatra's ironic compliment, "Sole sir o'th'world." In proposing a stronger union between himself and Antony, after their first quarrel, Octavius says,

                              Yet if I knew
What hoop should hold us staunch, from edge to
  edge
O' th' world I would pursue it.
                                  (II. ii. 116-18)

When they fall out a second time, they are the world's jaws, a pair of chaps,

And throw between them all the food thou hast,
They'll grind the one the other.
                                      (III. v. 14-16)

Wars between them would be

As if the world should cleave, and that slain
 men
Should solder up the rift.
                                       (III. iv. 30-32)

But these images of greatness may be variously qualified, comically, sardonically, or playfully. The world-sharers' image is reduced to comic bathos when Lepidus, the weakest of the three, is carried drunk off Pompey's galley at the end of the peace-celebrating feast (II. vii). The servant who is carrying him is "a strong fellow," because, as Enobarbus says, "A bears the third part of the world, man; see'st not?" "The third part, then," replies Menas, "is drunk." The same world-sharers' image is varied rather sarcastically by Pompey, at the meeting to sign the terms of peace (II. vi), when he addresses the triumvirs as

The senators alone of this great world,
Chief factors for the gods.

The implication of overreaching becomes clear when he goes on to ask:

                                      What was't
That mov'd pale Cassius to conspire? and what
Made the all-honour'd honest Roman, Brutus,
With the arm'd courtiers of beauteous freedom,
To drench the Capitol, but that they would
Have one man but a man?

There is a whole set of images that magnifies the power by reducing the objects of its control, the subject kings and kingdoms. There was a time, before Actium, we hear, when Antony had "superfluous kings" for messengers; when, if he called for a servant, "kings would start forth / And cry, 'Your will?'" There is a fine carelessness about these phrases. Ceasar says, in disapproval, that Antony "gives a kingdom for a mirth" (that is, a show). And Cleopatra tells us, not in disapproval, that

                                           In his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets. Realms and islands
  were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

This double effect of hyperbole (heightening) and meiosis (diminishing) is most delightfully seen in a speech of Antony's to Alexas, who is to carry back to Cleopatra the gift of an orient pearl:

'Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms.… '
                                    (I. v. 43-46)

If these images magnify Antony's Gargantuan prodigality, together with the means Rome furnishes him to be prodigal, they also, in their light-hearted extravagance, prevent us from being altogether solemn about the power and the glory.

For the Roman world we see in operation is, after all, only the world, the very realistic world Shakespeare found in Plutarch. It is no better than the men in it, and no one of them is touched with any idealism about the business of war and politics they are engaged in. No one, that is, but Pompey, in the rather nostalgic speech about Cassius and Brutus as "courtiers of beauteous freedom." All the same, we are asked to judge the decline of Antony against a standard from which he has fallen. It is the standard of what one might call the Roman republican virtues of spare living, courage, fortitude in the face of hardship, devotion to duty, and responsibility and prudence in the performing of it. These are first of all a soldier's virtues, but also, in part, a ruler's. They are everywhere implied or expressed as something opposed to the effeminacy and voluptuousness of Egypt, to which Antony the soldier has surrendered. Our judgment assents to the truth of most that is said in reproof of Antony, such as that

                  His captain heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper…
                                         (I. i. 6-8)

We assent even to Caesar's diagnosis, which, in spite of his temperamental prejudice, is just:

                               'tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in
  knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgment.
                                    (I. iv. 30-33)

We assent, above all, to what is said by Enobarbus, whose clearly choric comments mark the stages of Antony's decline. In a scene (III. xiii) soon after Actium, he makes three speeches of acute analysis. First he tells Cleopatra that Antony was responsible for the defeat because he "would make his will / Lord of his reason." When Antony challenges Octavius to single combat, Enobarbus comments in soliloquy that Caesar has subdued his judgment, for "men's judgment and / A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward / Do draw the inward quality after them / To suffer all alike." And finally, when overconfident Antony boasts of the deeds he will perform in the battle before Alexandria, Enobarbus tells us that "A diminution in our captain's brain / Restores his heart," for "When valour preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with": Antony will "outstare the lightning." We assent. At the same time Antony's generosity, his liberality, his large imagination, even his impulsiveness and his enthusiasm for gaudy nights, win our liking and our sympathy in a way that Caesar's cold prudence never does. Caesar will win the world right enough, and deserves to; but there is more charm in Antony's splendid carelessness. As so often happens in Shakespeare, we find him taking our judgment one way, our sympathy another. After Antony is dead, his former friends resolve the dilemma:

 Maecenas.     His taints and honours
Wag'd equal with him.
 Agrippa.       A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you gods will give us
Some faults to make us men.
                                    (V. i. 30-33)

But we have also seen Antony through Cleopatra's eyes as her "man of men," her "lord of lords," "the arm and burgonet of men," and when he is dead, her words are all choric lament and praise. To these I shall return. After his death, we hear no more of Antony's weaknesses; he is "good, being gone." Not long before her own end, Cleopatra tells Dolabella her dream of Antony. In this bravura piece, we have what must surely be the boldest heaping up of superlatives in the play:

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony—

His face was as the heav'ns, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course and
  lighted
The little O, the earth.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they liv'd in. In his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets. Realms and islands
 were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.
                                          (V. ii. 75-92)

What we have is the "idea" of Antony, Cleopatra's vision of what was essential in him—the nobility, the bounty, the largeness of spirit, above all, the full participation in life raised to the highest power. Yet it is all done wittily, for the fun of saying it, as well as seriously. The sheer virtuosity of this astonishing "portrait" takes us. In this way it is true to the tremendous vitality of the character Shakespeare has created. Its "artificial strife / Tutors nature, livelier than life." Significantly, this splendid piece comes late in the play. "Strumpet's fool" was the epithet with which Antony was introduced to us; but it is not the word of dismissal.

In the same way, the worst that can be said of Cleopatra is said at the beginning, when she is called a "strumpet" and a "gypsy," connoting, as well as Egyptian, a trickster, a cheat, a worker of spells to no one's good. The terms are repeated during the play with variations—"witch," "spell," "charm," "trull," "whore"—as when Antony himself, thinking she has betrayed him, abuses her in the ugliest language (III. xiii and IV. xii). But the sordidness of the epithets simply cannot prevail against the vitality and invention in Shakespeare's conception of her. His method of handling the varying points of view towards her is, however, somewhat different from the way he managed those towards Antony. For as Antony declines in greatness, Cleopatra rises. Since she achieves her greatness, there is no need, as with Anthony, to use hyperbole to restore the "idea" of her. The great hyperbolic set-piece about her—Enobarbus' description of her in her barge at Cydnus—comes early; the mystery and the power therein suggested are something to be realized as the play progresses, and is fully reached only at the end.

We come, then, to the world of Egypt, of which Cleopatra, Antony's "serpent of old Nile," is the most essential part. If Rome is the epitome of power, Egypt is the epitome of pleasure. But it is to be observed that we hear far more of this riotous living than we see of it. As the splendour of Rome was largely in the poetry, so is the luxury of Egypt. This is important. Hollywood supposes that it is to be laid out grossly, in full colour, for reel after reel in a way which quite misses its point and its function. To translate poetic superlatives of opulence and of sensuality into fact can result only in vulgarity or ridiculousness. Display without reservation ends for us all the fascination that exotic Egypt—with its "pyramises," its over-flowing Nile, its foison and famine, not to mention its Cleopatra—have for us. Too much representation ends the fun, too. "Y'ave strange serpents there," says Lepidus; "Your serpent of Egypt is bred now out of your mud by the operation of your sun. So is your crocodile." The beast is even stranger by the time Antony has finished telling him that it is shaped like itself, is as broad as it hath breadth, is just so high as it is, moves with its own organs, lives by that which nourisheth it, and is "of it own colour too." True it is that in the language of Octavius Caesar, Antony's life in Egypt is described sarcastically and with disgust:

                       Let us grant that it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat.
                                     (I. iv. 16-21)

But the speech is supposed to tell us something about Caesar as well as about Antony. We also hear of Alexandrian high living in the gossip of Enobarbus and his Roman friends, whose half-joking, half-envious curiosity Enobarbus loves to satisfy in full measure:

 Maecenas.…  You stay'd well by't in
Egypt.  Enobarbus. Ay, sir; we did sleep day out of
countenance and made the night light with
drinking.
 Maecenas. Eight wild boars roasted whole at
a breakfast, and but twelve persons there. Is
this true?
 Enobarbus. This was but as a fly by an
eagle. We had much more monstrous matter of
feast, which worthily deserved noting.
Maecenas. She's a most triumphant lady, if
report be square to her.
                                           (II. ii. 180-90)

We catch in Maecenas the note of fascination with something exotic and perhaps wonderful. This dialogue is indeed the beginning of the conversation in which Enobarbus gives his Roman friends the account of how Cleopatra first pursed up the heart of Antony "upon the river of Cydnus." In that show-piece of description, he far transcends mere gossip. The discussion of it must wait still a moment longer.

When we move from comment to representation, what do we see? When Antony and Cleopatra are shown together in Egypt, where we know that the beds are soft, we hear more talk of gaudy nights, of wine peeping through the scars of Antony's officers, of Cleopatra drinking Antony to bed ere the ninth hour in the morning. But we see no lascivious wassails acted out. During the play we see even very few of the many thousand kisses Antony tells us of as he is dying.

What we do see, when Antony and Cleopatra are together, is not love-making of the ordinary sort, but Cleopatra teasing, quarreling, coquetting, having fits of the sullens, entangling him in her wit, being endlessly exasperating and changeable. Her deep and unaffected love of Antony appears most when her "man of men" is not present, or at nearly wordless moments of reconciliation. The point of all this is that the superlatives about Egyptian ease as about Roman splendour are chiefly in the mind.

Cleopatra is in the mind, too, as well as in the action. Nothing better illustrates than the Cydnus scene (II. ii) Shakespeare's management of the hyperbolic and the actual so that the value of neither is destroyed. I have spoken of the gossip between Enobarbus and his Roman friends with which the conversation opens. The subtle change of tone in Maecenas' comment, "She's a most triumphant lady, if report be square to her," prompts Enobarbus to begin:

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars
  were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and
 made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

Every detail taken from Plutarch is heightened in the direction of amorousness and artifice. Plutarch has only the physical objects and their materials, not the personifications and the gestures. Cleopatra is the very type of the earthly Venus (except that she even outdoes the type), the Venus who knows every art of seduction, and who does not, therefore, appear in the nakedness of simple truth, but most artfully clothed.

                     For her own person,
It beggar'd all description. She did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

"O, rare for Antony!" interposes the enthusiastic Agrippa. Enobarbus continues:

Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' th' eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers. The silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft
  hands
That yarely frame the office.

That this barge was never meant for locomotion in actual wind and waves is wittily pointed up in the delightful anomaly of the flower-soft hands and the nautical adverb "yarely" to characterize their work in the rigging. Here in this scene the whole description creates a moment of perfection caught in the mind's eye through the mediation of Enobarbus.

Notice that Antony does not come aboard and break the illusion. Instead we are eased back to actuality by a different route, the same route of comedy by which we moved out of it. We are told that in excited curiosity everybody in town rushed to the river to see the great sight:

                      The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony
Enthron'd i' th' market place, did sit alone,
Whistling to th' air, …

Invited to supper by Cleopatra,

                           Our courteous Antony,
Whom ne'er the word of 'no' woman heard
 speak,
Being barber'd ten times o'er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.

The tone has changed, and Agrippa, reminded of another of her conquests, puts it coarsely:

                              Royal wench!
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed.
He plough'd her, and she cropp'd.

Enobarbus continues the earthy vein, but only to catch up in his anecdote the paradox of her quality:

                             I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and
  panted,
That she did make defect perfection
And, breathless, pow'r breathe forth.

To Maecenas' comment, "Now Antony will leave her utterly," Enobarbus replies:

Never! He will not.
Age cannot wither her nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

He has composed the contraries of the scene and the character, of "the most triumphant lady" and the "royal wench." He has, besides, suggested someone both convincingly "real" and yet beyond description. The final contrast is full of anticipatory irony. Maecenas remarks on the comming wedding of Antony to Octavia:

If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle
The heart of Antony, Octavia is
A blessed lottery to him.

Enobarbus has already said all that is necessary and lets this speculation pass without comment.

As with Antony, but even more so than with him, what we feel about Cleopatra is the energy of the dramatist's conception. Both characters sound and act like living people, yet both have an "excellence"—in the artistic sense in which I have been using the word—beyond actuality.

The reach for this excellence, this quintessence, the very idea of their story, is made especially as the play draws towards its close. As we have seen, Antony declines with his fortunes. The "grand captain" falls farther and farther from the image of that heroic ancestor of his, the Hercules he would like to be. He has, in a way, disintegrated, lost what he feels to be his essential self. After Actium he was "unqualified with very shame." Now, just before his attempted suicide (in IV. xiv), he uses the analogy of the towering thunderheads one sees towards evening, the clouds that at one moment have a form—like "a tower'd citadel" or "a pendent rock"—and at the next lose it:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.

He tells Eros that he is

Even such a body. Here I am Antony;
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

Perhaps he means no more than that he must die, but the meaning, in the light of all that we have seen happen, is far wider for us, He does hold to the best of himself in the act of suicide. As Dercetas puts it later to Octavius:

                      He is dead, Caesar,
Not by a public minister of justice
Nor by a hired knife; but that self hand
Which writ his honour in the acts it did
Hath, with the courage which the heart did lend
 it,
Splitted the heart.
                                    (V. i. 19-24)

When Antony hears that Cleopatra is not after all dead, his tortured jealousy and rage at her simply fall away: "The long day's task is done, / And we must sleep"; "I will o'er-take thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon." His last words, in Cleopatra's arms, are all the more poignant for the overtone of Stoic acceptance of his fate in so un-Stoic a man, and for the holding to the one dignity left to him—the fact that he made his own choice of death.

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes,
Wherein I liv'd the greatest prince o' th' world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman—a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish'd.
                                 (IV. xv. 51-58)

But the meaning of the death has already become greater in our minds than Antony himself. The guards who found him, mortally wounded but not dead, after he had fallen on his sword, spoke lyrically and chorically:

2. Guard.                  The star is fall'n.
1. Guard. And time is at his period.
        All.                              Alas, and woe!
                                         (IV. xiv. 106-7)

The scene of the death itself (IV. xv) is enclosed in the choric laments of Cleopatra. Her words are, at the beginning:

                                            O sun,
Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in! Darkling
 stand
The varying shore o' th' world! O Antony,
Antony, Antony!

And when he is dead:

The crown o' th' earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fall'n! Young boys and
  girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.

All here is tragic elevation. The dross has fallen away. 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, after which nothing will be the same as if it had not happened. His death "is not a single doom." This is the very essence of historical tragedy, of the meaning the old medieval Fall of Princes theme might hold when brought to noble fruition in a great play.

It is to the "idea" of Antony that Cleopatra rises—an idea she helps create, both here in the death scene and in the dream speech to Dolabella ("I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony, / His face was as the heav'ns.…"). To her women she says:

Our lamp is spent, it's out! Good sirs, take
 heart.
We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's
 noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.

In her resolution and in the manner of her death, the conflict between the idea of Egypt and the idea of Rome is finally resolved. For she is ready to put off her femininity for masculine courage, and for the Stoic ideal of the free and constant mind, superior to accident and un-terrified by death.

My resolution's plac'd, and I have nothing
Of woman in me. Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant. Now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.
                                 (V. ii. 238-41)

She is ready to take herself beyond the world of time and circumstance:

To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change.
                                     (V. ii. 5-6)

But in the doing of it she triumphs over Caesar, and in a woman's way.

The end takes us back to the beginning. For the ranged empire Antony had used the metaphor of the Roman triumphal arch. In the image of the "triumph" or victory procession, the great formal "pomp" of the Roman conqueror, Shakespeare gathers up all the conflicts, the victories and defeats, the multiple ironies of the play. Caesar, "the sole sir o' th' world," the winner of the world that Antony had kissed away, is most concerned to keep Cleopatra alive and in health, "for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph." But Cleopatra designs her own triumph:

Show me, my women, like a queen. Go fetch
My best attires. I am again for Cydnus,
To meet Mark Antony.

There once before, we remember, she had been "a most triumphant lady." Little is left, in this triumph of Cleopatra's, of hyperbole. There is now no need for it, for the thing and the idea are one. She has assumed her greatness:

Give me my robe, put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Anthony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Ceasar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come!
Now to that name my courage prove my title!

There is room for coquetry. "If she first meet the curled Antony," she says of Iras, who has fallen first,

If she first meet the curled Antony,
He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
Which is my heaven to have.

And there is room for a triumphant joke. She addresses the asp she has applied to her breast:

                       O couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass
Unpolicied!

The brief dialogue at the end between Charmian and Cleopatra is lyric and in low key:

  Charmian       O Eastern star!
  Cleopatra.                Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?  Charmian      O break! O, break!
 Cleopatra. As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as
 gentle—
O Antony!

Only Shakespeare, bold in his assurance of what he had done, would dare Charmian's final epithet for Cleopatra:

Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel'd.

Is the world well lost for love, as Dryden phrased it? The question is not asked. It is impertinent. The loss, the love, simply are. To Antony, Cleopatra's bosom was his crownet, his chief end. For Cleopatra, her courage proved her title to call him husband. They reach the end they make. Finis coronat opus.

Caesar, after all, has the last word—rather, the last two words. The first is a tribute to the triumphant lady, spoken without rancour or personal grievance. He is captured, like all the rest, by the wonder of Cleopatra:

                She looks like sleep
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.

The second is the dismissal and final judgment, spoken as always in Shakespearian tragedy, directly, plainly, and formally:

                     Take up her bed,
And bear her women from the monument.
She shall be buried by her Antony.
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. One army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral,
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.

But I have an epilogue of my own. If this play strikes you as fancy's piece 'gainst nature, I recommend to you Cleopatra's words to the incredulous Dolabella, after her extravagant characterization of the Antony of her dream—the Antony whose legs bestrid the ocean, whose reared arm crested the world. She asked him, "Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?" And he replied, "Gentle madam, no." Then she said:

You lie, up to the hearing of the gods!
But, if there be or ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

This is Pelion on Ossa, hyperbole upon hyperbole—or so it seems. Is it not, rather, hyperbole confronted, outfaced in an assertion that the truth is beyond anything hyperbole can reach? It would not be uncharacteristic of Shakespeare to suggest that the true wonder, something always beyond statement, lay, after all, in human beings themselves—in these two and in their story.

G. R. Hibbard (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Feliciter audax: Antony and Cleopatra, I, i, I-24," in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G.K. Hunter, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 95-109.

[In the following excerpt, Hibbard discusses Shakespeare's use of language in Antony and Cleopatra, describing the play's style as "an astonishing union of the hyperbolical with the simple, the downright, and the direct."]

              [Enter Demetrius and Philo.]
Philo. Nay, but this dotage of our general's
     O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly
              eyes,
     That o'er the files and musters of the war
     Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend,
             now turn,

The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights haht
       burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all
        temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.
[Flourish Enter Antony. Cleopatra, her Ladies,
the Train, with Eunuchs fanning her.]
                         Look where they come!
     Take but good note, and you shall see in
              him
     The triple pillar of the world transformed
     Into a strumpet's fool. Behold and see.
Cleopatra.    If it be love indeed, tell me how
              much.
Antony. There's beggary in the love that can
              be reckoned.
Cleopatra.   I'll set a bourn how far to be
              beloved.
Antony.   Then must thou needs find out new
             heaven, new earth.
[Enter a Messenger]
Messenger.    News, my good lord, from Rome.
Antony.              Grates me! the sum.
Cleopatra.    Nay, hear them, Antony.
    Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows
    If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
    His powerful mandate to you: 'Do this or
            this;
    Take in that kingdom and enfranchise that;
    Perform't, or else we damn thee.'
Antony.                        How, my love?

No other of Shakespeare's plays begins on such a full-throated note as this. That 'happy valiancy of style', which Coleridge singled out [in Coleridge's Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare] as the tragedy's most striking and characteristic quality, makes itself felt from the very start. Philo's outburst sweeps forward in a flood-tide of verbal splendour. Only once within the entire speech does the end of a sentence coincide with the end of a line; and no fewer than seven lines out of the thirteen are run on. Moreover, as befits an impetuous outburst, the speech is both repetitive and expansive, returning time after time, but in different terms, to the same central issue. The essence of what the soldier has to say is already there in the first sentence: he finds Antony's behaviour incomprehensible, exasperating, and intolerable. But this initial statement, inadequate in its brevity to convey a depth and complexity of feeling which, like Antony's 'dotage', itself 'O'erflows the measure', is then exemplified and further defined through two magnificent images, each rising on a wave of hyperbolical inflation that eventually breaks in the same kind of devastatingly reductive scorn: 'a tawny front' and 'a gipsy's lust'. And then, after the colourful and spectacular entry of the hero and the heroine, in which the effeminacy that Philo has castigated is endorsed and given visual form in the eunuchs and the fanning, comes the summing-up in yet another image, which follows exactly the same pattern of development as the two previous images to reach its conclusion in the contemptuous finality of 'a strumpet's fool', the metrical as well as the sense counterpart to 'a tawny front' and 'a gipsy's lust'.

The most distinctive feature of Antony and Cleopatra as a whole is already apparent: Philo cannot understand why Antony should behave as he is doing, nor can he suppress or control the mixed emotions, including a profound sense of loss and regret as well as scorn, with which that behaviour fills him, but he can, through the words that Shakespeare finds for him, express both the incomprehension and the violent conflict of opposing impulses that he feels within himself. It is all completely and pellucidly there, subtly shaped in such a way as to make his speech a brief but powerful self-contained poem, deriving much of its unity from recurrent rhythms that act like echoes. The similarities of the three long sentences, each working out an image, of the three dismissive phrases, and of the three exhortations to Demetrius, 'Look where they come', 'Take but good note', and 'Behold and see', give the lines a formal quality not unlike that of a lyric or a sonnet, with the long sentences taking the place of stanzas, and the parallel phrases and commands, so reminiscent of each other, corresponding to rhymes.

The speech is intended to be memorable and to be remembered, because it puts a point of view which will be of the utmost importance for the tragedy it introduces, which will be reiterated time after time during its course, and which will not receive its final answer, and, I think, its ultimate refutation, until the close. That answer is, of course, Cleopatra's last speech and Chairman's coda to it (v,ii,278-326), a passage which, with a miraculous appropriateness, is, in its structure as distinct from its content, extraordinarily like Philo's prologue; for it, too, is a complete poem in itself that tends to fall into a series of irregular stanzas, punctuated and held together by commands, questions, and exclamations, nearly all of which are of the same two-foot length as his three expressions of scorn and his three exhortations: 'Give me my robe', 'put on my crown', 'Husband, I come', 'So, have you done?', 'Dost thou lie still?', 'This proves me base', 'O couldst thou speak', 'O Eastern star!', 'O break! O break!', 'What should I stay—', 'In this vile world?', 'So, fare thee well', 'Your crown's awry', recalling, with a difference, Cleopatra's 'put on my crown', and 'It is well done.'

Commenting on this speech of Cleopatra's, Middleton Murry says: 'A dying woman does not use such figures of speech; and at the pinnacle of her complex emotion, a Cleopatra would have no language to express it.' He then goes on to say: 'in the death scene of Cleopatra [Shakespeare] achieves the miracle: he makes the language completely adequate to the emotion and yet keeps it simple'. About the simplicity I have doubts; but the rest of that statement puts the matter extremely well and can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to Philo's opening lines. Soldiers, particularly when exasperated, do not speak as he does, but the language he is given is 'completely adequate to the emotion'. In this respect, above all others—and there are others—his lines are the perfect prologue to the play, for Antony and Cleopatra is, of all Shakespeare's mature tragedies, the most expressive and luminous. In part this luminosity comes from the manner in which images are handled. The play is charged with them, and, as Maurice Charney has shown in great detail [in Shakespeare's Roman Plays], they are most intricately linked together and carry much of the total significance; but, while they often tread hard on one another's heels, as they do, for example, in Cleopatra's ecstatic picture of the Antony she knew (v,ii,79-92), they are always kept separate from one another, as they are in Philo's speech. They do not grow into and become entangled with each other, as they do, for instance, in Lady Macbeth's taunt to her husband:

                      Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept
  since,
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love.
                             (Macbeth, I,vii,35-9)

The compressed involution of that, so wholly in keeping with an action that occurs for the most part in darkness and mist and in which 'the torture of the mind' (III,ii,21) is a central concern, would be entirely out of place in Antony and Cleopatra, where the action takes place in the clear light of the Mediterranean day and the darker recesses of the human heart are left unprobed.

It is not merely the clarity and distinctness of its images that makes Antony and Cleopatra so expressive, though they obviously contribute to its expressiveness; Shakespeare's whole attitude towards language seems to have changed from what it was when he wrote King Lear. Anne Barton, in her essay, 'Shakespeare and the Limits of Language' [Shakespeare Survey, vol. 24, 1971], remarks, with considerable justification, that 'It is in the tragedies … that words are exposed to a scrutiny not only intense but, in the case of King Lear, distinctly unfriendly', and then goes on to point out how often in that play characters in their moments of extreme suffering can do no more than repeat some single word, such as 'Howl' or 'Never', time and again; how often they lapse into sheer incoherence; and how often also they actually say that what they are experiencing is quite beyond the capacity of language to formulate. She does not refer to Antony and Cleopatra in her subsequent discussion of the scepticism about the adequacy of words to convey man's profoundest feelings which Shakespeare, she argues, shows in much of his tragic writing, but a brief mention of it in another context makes it evident that she regards it as the great exception to the general idea she advances.

It is, indeed; for if the other tragedies do evince a certain distrust of language—and, in so far as King Lear is concerned, this seems to me undeniable—on the part of their creator, this one does precisely the opposite: in it there is an unbounded confidence in the potentialities of language, which seems capable of encompassing anything and everything, except the monstrous and the unspeakable, which it is not called on to do. In Antony and Cleopatra even incoherence itself, on the one occasion when it occurs, is expressed in such a convincing fashion that it becomes a kind of eloquence. In Act I, scene iii, Cleopatra, having learnt from Antony of his intention to return to Rome, reproaches him for his lack of love and then taunts him by suggesting that his reluctance to leave her is merely a piece of play-acting. Eventually she goes too far, and brings down on herself the curt rejoinder, 'I'll leave you, lady.' Thereupon, she tries to hold him back, if only for a moment, by pretending that she has something of great importance to say to him but cannot remember what it is:

                  Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part—but that's not it.
Sir, you and I have loved—but there's not it.
That you know well. Something it is I would—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.
                                     (I,iii,86-91)

In that speech the je ne sais quoi has been defined with completeness and employed with assurance to 'snatch a grace beyond the reach of art'. In a similar way but on a much larger scale the verse conjures up the spaciousness of the Roman empire on the bare stage of the Globe theatre, and leads the audience into accepting the reality of a heroine of whom it is said, 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety' (II,ii,239-40). Moreover, it also works as a potent unifying factor to hold together an action that ranges over many countries and many years, takes in events as diverse as the coming of the Pax Romana and a drunken party, and is almost as much comic as it is tragic.

The verse has this unifying effect because the style of the play is remarkably homogeneous; the style not the styles, for Antony and Cleopatra, unlike the other tragedies, is written in one style not several. The tragedies which come closest to it in this respect are the other two (excluding the very early Titus Andronicus) which admit only a minimal amount of prose, less than ten per cent of the total number of lines: Julius Caesar and Macbeth. In the former, however, a clear distinction is made between the language of the crowd and that of the other figures, as well as between the Attic style of Brutus and the Asiatic style of Antony in the forum scene (III,ii). In the latter, the most obvious distinction is between the blank verse of most of the play and the rhyme of the witches, and the prose of the drunken Porter and, later, the prose of Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene, each providing a kind of ironic counterpoint to the dominant manner. But in Antony and Cleopatra even the one character who is wholly confined to prose, the Clown who brings the asp to Cleopatra in the final scene, is still, like the other characters in the play, very much an overstater, in his own malapropian fashion, describing the worm's biting as 'immortal' and his own account of its prowess as 'most falliable' (v,ii,246-56). At the same time, however, the Clown plainly has his feet on the ground, so to speak, carefully defining the meaning he gives to 'immortal' by adding 'those that do die of it do seldom or never recover', and applying 'most falliable' to his unimposing but indisputable statement, 'the worm's an odd worm'.

In fact, the Clown's speeches, in their mixture of the would-be impressive and the bathetic, are a brilliant parody of the manner of Philo's opening lines, which is also the manner of the play those lines introduce, an astonishing union of the hyperbolical with the simple, the down-right, and the direct. Fully conscious of the new style he has created for his play and utterly confident in its strength, Shakespeare repeatedly draws attention to the hyperbolical element in it by submitting it to parody. Charmian, consulting the Soothsayer, says:

Let me be married to three kings in a forenoon, and widow them all. Let me have a child at fifty, to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage. Find me to marry me with Octavius Caesar, and companion me with my mistress. (I,ii,26-9)

And he, not to be outdone, replies to her question, 'Prithee, how many boys and wenches must I have?', by retorting:

If every of your wishes had a womb,
And fertile every wish, a million.
                                          (11. 34-6)

This criticism of the tendency, so evident in the writing, towards a fine excess reaches its height in the opening lines of Act III, scene ii, where Agrippa and Enobarbus compete with each other in mockery of the sycophantic efforts, as they see them, of Lepidus to stand well with both Caesar and Antony, a competition which Enobarbus wins hands down when, in answer to Agrippa's judicious comment, 'Indeed, he plied them both with excellent praises', he remarks:

But he loves Caesar best. Yet he loves Antony.
Hoo! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards,
  poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number—hoo!—
His love to Antony. But as for Caesar,
Kneel down, kneel down, and wonder.
                                  (III,ii,14-19)

The odd thing about this speech and, indeed, about the mockery of which it is part, is that we have heard nothing from Lepidus to justify it. His manner of expressing himself is no more extreme and excessive than that of anyone else; for in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare, abandoning, for the time being, his talent for conferring life and individuality on a character by endowing him with a distinctive and often idiosyncratic idiom, a way of speaking which is peculiarly his own, relies for his characterisation on what the dramatis personae say, on what is said about them by others, and, of course, on what they do. It is, it must be added, quite enough. Octavia, for example, short though her part is, makes a very definite impression that sets her off from all the other characters; yet it is only the sense and the sentiment of the following lines addressed to Antony that mark them out as hers; in their movement, their appeal to Jove, their resort to the repeated superlative, and in the magnitude and vigour of their imagery they could equally well belong to almost anyone else in the play:

The Jove of power make me, most weak, most
  weak,
Your reconciler! Wars' twixt you twain would
  be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain
  men
Should solder up the rift.
                                    (III,iv,29-32)

A mere eighteen lines later, Enobarbus, also anticipating the likelihood of a war between Antony and Caesar, virtually makes my point for me when he says:

Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps—no
  more;
And throw between them all the food thou hast,
They'll grind the one the other.
                                (III,v,13-15)

In both speeches the images are epic in their scope, but far more compressed and forceful than the images of heroic poetry usually are. A much earlier use by Shakespeare of an image that is very close in essentials to that of Enobarbus will serve to illustrate the difference. In King John, when John and Philip of France, after the first indecisive engagement between their armies, seem on the point of renewing the battle, the Bastard cries:

O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with
  steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
                                     (II,i,352-5)

The image there is, because of its greater detail, more picturesque, more explicit, and much closer to the epic manner than Enobarbus's, but it does not have, if the pun may be allowed, the same crunch. In Octavia's lines, as in Enobarbus's, it is the reciprocal interplay of the grand and the familiar that creates the striking effect. A 'rift' is the chasm caused by an earthquake, not a common sight, but the verb 'solder', belonging to the language of tinkers and plumbers, bridges the gap, as it were, and brings the whole notion much nearer to everyday experience.

It is the 'heavenly mingle' of the elevated and grand with the simple and familiar which is the basic feature of the style of Antony and Cleopatra and the source of that 'angelic strength' which so impressed Coleridge. Nor is this mingle simply a matter of images. A pair of words are often brought into a vital and unexpected relationship with each other in such a way that they interinanimate, to use a word of Donne's, each other. 'A lass unparallel'd' (v,ii,314) is a rare creature indeed, especially when the lass in question is 'with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time' (I,v,28-9), simultaneously ordinary and quite extraordinary, common and yet unique, the offspring of a marriage between a native English word that first appears around the year 1300 and a neologism, deriving ultimately from the Greek, for which the OED gives no example prior to 1594. Furthermore, 'lasses' are usually found in the popular love poetry of Shakespeare's day, and they live in the country, witness his own song, 'It was a lover and his lass' (As You Like It, v,iii,14-31); whereas 'unparallel'd' comes from the world of science and of learning in general, smacks of the Inns of Court, and has more than a touch of metaphysical wit about it. 'A lass unparallel'd' is a poem in little, and its style a microcosm of the style that informs the play.

The consistency of that style in its sustained mixing of the sublime and the simple, the heroic and the amorous, suggests that Shakespeare, when writing this play, saw it as his own dramatic contribution to the Renaissance epic in which the main themes were love and war. Philo's initial speech lends strong support to this idea, for it looks like a highly original variation on the well-established epic topos so memorably employed by Virgil in Aeneas's description of the ghost of Hector as it appeared to him on the night of Troy's destruction. Torn, blood-stained, and covered in dust, just as Hector's body was after being dragged round the walls of Troy by Achilles, the ghost is a shocking contrast to the hero Aeneas knew:

              quantum mutatus ab illo
Hectore, qui redit exuvias indutus Achilli
vel Danaum Phrygios iaculatus puppibus ignis!

Shakespeare characteristically puts his own stamp, in the form of verbal energy and linguistic inventiveness, on the contrast he draws between Antony as he was and Antony as he is. Over against the mythological references to Mars and to Atlas, with, perhaps, a hint of Hercules as well in the latter, are set images from common life, 'the bellows and the fan'. His mastery of concentrated and significant word-play is evident in 'dotage', meaning primarily 'sexual infatuation' but also carrying overtones of 'the lack of judgement that comes with old age', and again in 'fool', denoting both 'amorous plaything' and 'dupe'. The word 'scuffles' appears nowhere else in the canon, and its occurrence here is the earliest recorded in the OED, though there is evidence that 'scuffling' was being used in East Anglia rather more than twenty years before; and 'triple', signifying 'third' or 'one of three', is a usage peculiar, it would seem, to Shakespeare. The most important instance of linguistic adventurousness in the entire speech is, however, the pregnant and teasing phrase 'reneges all temper', which most editors, forgetting or overlooking the fact that temperance is not a quality that Philo, or anyone else for that matter, associates with Antony, gloss as 'abandons or renounces all moderation'. On the only other occasion when Shakespeare employs 'renege' (King Lear, II,ii,73) it means 'deny'; but a better guide to its full significance here is Maria's laughing account of Malvolio's ridiculous behaviour, in which she says of him:

Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian that means to be saved by believing rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. (Twelfth Night, III,ii,64-8)

To 'renege' is 'deliberately to deny and renounce one's faith'; and the 'temper' Philo has in mind is the temper of good steel, standing metaphorically for the steely courage and springy resolution of Antony's heart in which his men have hitherto been able to put their trust, exactly as they have done in the temper of their swords. At the root of the soldier's bitter and regretful condemnation of his general lies his conviction that Antony is now a renegade, one who has betrayed and renounced that faith in the military virtues which he once embodied and which Philo holds still.

The stylistic daring of the speech is matched by the dramatic daring of its placing. No other of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is introduced after this fashion. It is true that we hear many harsh things about Othello before he actually appears, but, since they come from the lips of one who admits from the outset that he hates the Moor, we do not take them at their face value. We have no such reason for distrusting Philo; on the contrary, his obvious love and admiration for the Antony he once knew inspire confidence in the accuracy of what he says. His lines are a lament for fallen greatness as well as an attack on apostasy. Consequently, they also leave us asking what kind of tragedy this is to be. The other tragedies of Shakespeare's maturity all deal with a fall from greatness that happens during the course of the action, after the greatness of the hero has been made plain to us and impressed on us by what we see him do and hear him say; but after listening to Philo we can only conclude that Antony's greatness is already a thing of the past, and that greatness of any kind is the last thing Cleopatra can lay claim to. If the play is to be a tragedy, as both the head-title and the running-title in the First Folio assure us it is, it is bound to be radically different, as indeed it is, from the other tragedies.

Myth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10947

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.
                                            (1.5.17-18)

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 mythology plays a quite insignificant part, but in Ant. and Cor. it suddenly reasserts itself with surprising vigor; from the 7 allusions of Lr. and the 11 of Tim., we jump in Ant. to 39 allusions.

The romances, of course, continue to exhibit this vigor of allusion. But the number of mythological allusions is no index whatever to the sense of myth in a play. Despite the paucity of allusions in Julius Caesar, there is a very strong sense of Caesar as simultaneously man and myth and of the universal order which his death disturbs. Lear's seven mythological allusions cannot account for the storm scene on the heath or Gloucester's leap, among the most mythically powerful scenes in all Shakespeare. The number of mythological allusions in Troilus and Cressida is higher than in any other play, but the sense of myth is altogether absent: the mythological figures are subject almost uniformly to the scurrilous and denigrating vision which informs that play. The significance of the mythological allusions in Antony and Cleopatra is not in their number but in their use: the gods are generally adduced as analogues for the protagonists. Our lovers will not only replace Dido and Aeneas in Elysium, they will begin to encroach on the realm of the gods themselves.

In Julius Caesar and the major tragedies, mythic natural forces may be responsive to disturbances of human order, but the mythic personages are infinitely remote. The gods are usually evoked as a distant court of appeal, as participants in another realm, quite separate from that in which the protagonists act: in the tragedies, this sense of separation is part of the point. But in Antony and Cleopatra, the sense of the distance between realms is surprisingly absent. We hear the music of the god Hercules departing from Antony: and this invisible masque of withdrawal asserts the presence of the mythological realm in the human as powerfully as the masques and visions in the romances. The distinction between man and god is blurred. And if Hercules participates in the human realm, the lovers begin to participate in the divine: Cleopatra is like Venus or Isis and Antony like Mars. 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. Here, as in the romances, the characters themselves are on the way to becoming larger than life.

Not all the mythological allusions can be examined in detail, though nearly all are suggestive. Bacchus, for instance, presides over the scene on Pompey's galley as the very ambiguous god of wine: does wine reveal a suprarational truth, or does the subjugation of man's reason leave him in the dark night of passion? Cartari [Vincenzo Catari in his Le imagini colla spozione degli dei degli antichi (1556)] speaks of Bacchus both as a valiant conqueror and as the disreputable god of drunkenness. Is not this description suggestive of Antony's own rake's progress? These and other questions might be raised about the god whose song is sung on Pompey's galley, the god whom Plutarch had associated with Antony; but since Shakespeare minimizes this association, we had best follow suit. But what of Thetis, the sea nymph who arms her son Achilles? Antony calls Cleopatra Thetis before Actium (3.7.60); might not her presence be invoked when Cleopatra arms Antony? The presence of Isis in the play is not merely Shakespeare's way of adding local color; our sense of Cleopatra is partly shaped by Isis, goddess of the Nile, the earth, and the moon, nurse of all life and patroness of generation, who almost always appears accompanied by serpents.

Antony tells us that Hercules is his ancestor; the god is associated with Antony throughout the play. According to the mythographers, Hercules was confronted in his youth by the two lovely ladies, Pleasure and Virtue. Unlike Paris, he chose Virtue. In this respect, he is clearly Antony's antitype: he did not pass his taste in women on to his far-removed son. It is possible that this moral analogue functions in the play to comment on Antony's choice of Cleopatra ("I' the east my pleasure lies" [2.3.39]) over Octavia ("the piece of virtue" [3.2.28]). But the necessity of a choice between pleasure and virtue is scarcely a theme which needs bolstering from so eminent a figure as Hercules; though this analogue does function in a shadowy way, it by no means accounts for the significance of Hercules' presence in the play. The legends associated with Hercules by the Renaissance made him as gigantic in folly as he was in strength and virtue: his transformation into Omphale's servant, dressed in woman's clothes and performing domestic chores, was generally cited as evidence that even the strongest men are liable to be made effeminate by a failure to bridle their passions. As such, he serves Sidney as a type of the comic in The Defense of Poesy and Spenser as a model for Artegall's bondage to Radigund in The Faerie Queene, book 5. This association of Hercules with effeminacy is clearly analogous to that sinister change of clothing which Cleopatra reports; the association of Antony's captivity with Hercules' was commonplace. But the primary function of Hercules in the play is not as a moral analogue; in fact, he seems rather to suggest a heroic or divine perspective to which considerations of ordinary human morality are somewhat irrelevant.

Throughout the play, Antony and Cleopatra are presented as human extremes of martial and venereal virtue; it is inevitable that they be seen as analogous to Mars and Venus. Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra at Cydnus insists on the analogy:

… she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her,
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids.
                                    (2.2.198-202)

The analogy is made by the most skeptical voice in the play; we need no other image of Cleopatra as Venus. This passage serves as the still point which defines all Cleopatra's movement; immediately before her death, she shall herself remind us of Cydnus. Antony's association with Mars is more complex: it points toward what he should be as well as what he is. According to Cleopatra, Antony is "painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars" (2.5.116-17); Enobarbus wants him to "speak as loud as Mars" (2.2.6) in the conference with Caesar. The opening lines of the play associate Antony with Mars even as they insist that he is Mars no longer:

… those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now
 turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: 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.
                                         (1.1.2-10)

Antony has been Mars in battle; now he, like Mars, has turned from his proper business and become captive to love. But in this captivity, the god of war is metamorphosed into the blacksmith husband of Venus: the bellows and the fan are associated with Vulcan and suggest a humbler and more domestic fire than the glow of war. The alliance of Mars and Venus serves as a euphemism in Mardian's reply to Cleopatra's teasing: "Yet have I fierce affections, and think / What Venus did with Mars" (1.5.17-18). But even Mardian's reference suggests the analogy between the human and the celestial adulterers: when Mardian thinks "what Venus did with Mars," Cleopatra completes his half line with "O Charmian, / Where think'st thou he is now?" (1.5.18-19). In her words, Antony and Mars are syntactically united; and she is of course remembering what she has done with him.

The union of these divine adulterers was one of the ruling mythological commonplaces of the English Renaissance. Virtually any woman who managed to disarm any man could be seen as reenacting the victory of her divine prototype. Book 2 of The Faerie Queene gives us several versions of the myth, culminating in the image of Verdant and Acrasia trapped in the Palmer's net as Mars and Venus were in Vulcan's. Shakespeare's own Venus uses the analogy in her attempt to seduce Adonis (Venus and Adonis, lines 97-114). It is no wonder that allusions to the myth turn up nearly everywhere: the image of the god of war subjugated by the goddess of love is so inclusive that it could be used to express almost anything. This all-purpose image can serve to indicate the right (or the wrong) relation between male and female, or war and love, or public action and private passion, or destruction and creation, or strife and concord, or even heat and moisture; it can be a text on the power of love in the universe or on the certain doom of adulterers. It is a fable about adultery, but adultery committed with the principle of generation herself: consequently, it is particularly subject to a dizzying variety of interpretations, from the simplest moralizing to the most abstruse Neoplatonic explication of Harmonia as that discordia concors which proceeds from the union of a very Empedoclean Mars and Venus.

The divergence in interpretation has a venerable ancestry. Shakespeare and his audience almost certainly knew at least two classical versions which were contradictory in tone and import: the Ovidian and the Lucretian. Ovid's versions in both Metamorphoses, book 4, and Ars amatoria, book 2, are generally tolerant of the peccadilloes of the pair; the emphasis is not on the sexual union but on Vulcan's subtle net and the envious laughter of the gods. But Lucretius in De rerum natura treats the fable with philosophic high seriousness: he emphasizes the union itself, and the two gods are made to represent the primary forces of strife and concord. The Venus of his invocation is not merely an indiscreet wife; she is the great life principle of nature. Although the Ovidian version is good-humoredly tolerant of the gods and the Lucretian version treats them with high seriousness, it is the Ovidian version that later acquires the main burden of moral allegory: Ovid presents the gods as quasi-human and consequently as open to moral interpretation; but Lucretius presents them as cosmic principles to which human moralizing is ludicrously irrelevant.

The quasi-human and the cosmic interpretations are distinct in Ovid and Lucretius, but they are combined with disconcerting ease in Renaissance mythographers. There are those like Golding [in "The Epistler" introducing his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses] and Fraunce [in The Third Part of the countesse of Pembrokes Yvychurch] who read the fable simply as a warning that adultery will be discovered and who consequently disapprove entirely of the divine frolic, but these simple moralists are in the minority. More typical is Sandys who, [in Ovid's Metamorphoses Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures], compresses all the commonplaces into a paragraph with a blissful disregard for consistency: the fable

carries this Astrologicall sense: that those who are borne in the conjunction of Mars and Venus are prone to inordinate affections. Mars sometimes descendeth beneath the Sun, and Venus for a part of the yeare ascendeth above him, as it were to meete with each other: whose conjunction may then be said to be discovered by the Sun, when he ceaseth to obscure them by the proximitie of his greater splendor. Vulcan bindes them in a net: that is, with too much fervor subdues their operations. For the starre of Mars is hot; and that of Venus moderate moist; and whereof generation consists: and therefore mutuall lovers: by Neptune unbound; in that water extinguisheth fire, which is Vulcan. This fable therefore was invented to expresse the sympathy that is necessary in nature. Proceed we a little with the influence of these Planets: Mars is malignant; but approaching Venus subdues his malignitie.… Mars likewise signifies strife, and Venus friendship; which, as the ancients held, were the parents of all things. But morally adulteries are taxed by this fable: which how potent soever the offenders, though with never so much art contrived, and secrecy concealed, are at length discovered by the eye of the Sun, and exposed to shame and dishonour.

Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, indeed. The conjunction of Mars and Venus must be seen as good insofar as it represents the sympathy of hot and moist necessary for generation in nature, or the subduing of Mars's malignant influence, or the union of strife and friendship as the parents of all things; but it must be seen as evil insofar as it is interpreted morally as adultery. In natural, cosmic, or philosophic terms, it is good and indeed necessary; in moral terms, it is evil. Both values are posited; the perspective of interpretation determines which is relevant.

This alignment of perspective with value is common among the mythographers. Conti [Natale Conti in his Natalis Comitis Mythologiae (1581)] also sees the conjunction of Mars and Venus as a moral evil and a cosmic good. Indeed, he finds the fable a particularly satisfying example of his favorite principle: the diversity of interpretations. He says,

Sed quoniam pro variis eventis varie fabulas interpretati sunt antiqui, ita ut aliae ad res naturae, aliae ad astronomam, aliae ad mores spectarent, aliae ad haec simul omnia; quid Martis cum Venere adulterium significat, explorandum est. Quid est tam contrarium quam occidere & procreare, expolire & devastare, erigere & prosternere? At Mars tamen qui haec omnia facit… cum Venere, quae omnia animalia, plantasque in lucem producit, congreditur. Quid ex hac tam discordi coniunctione orietur? nihil omnino superveniente Vulcano praecipue. Nam litigium & amicitia sunt Mars & Venus intelligendi, quorum utrumque opprimit Vulcanus, sive calor immodicus, principiaque vincit, neque ita illa suis funguntur viribus. Ad exprimendum igitur quod symmetria necessaria est rebus naturalibus, ista fabulose confinxerunt.… Quod Mars omnium deorum fortissimus & velocissimus arte Vulcani fuerit retibus implicatus, & debilis & claudicantis & tardi Dei, quid aliud significat, quam sceleratos homines nullis viribus, nulla pedum celeritate fretos posse Dei vindicis omnium flagitiorum iram devitare?

[But since the ancients interpreted fables variously for various ends, insofar as some were considering nature, others astronomy, others morals, and others all these at once, we must explore what the adultery of Mars with Venus means. What is so contrary as killing and begetting, perfecting and laying waste, lifting up and casting down? But nonetheless Mars, who does all these things… comes together with Venus, who brings forth all animals and plants into the light. What springs from this union so discordant? Nothing at all, especially with Vulcan rising above them. For Mars and Venus are understood to be strife and friendship, both of which Vulcan, or immoderate heat, extinguishes and overcomes their elements, nor can they perform with their full strength. Therefore they invented this fable to show that symmetry is necessary in nature.… That Mars, the strongest and swiftest of all the gods, was caught in a net by the art of Vulcan, the feeble and limping and slow god, signifies what else but that no guilty man who trusts in strength or in swiftness of foot can avoid the anger of God, the avenger of all crimes?]

Sandys has excellent precedent for his curious juxtapositions: the similarities between the two are immediately apparent. The contrary interpretations and values are even clearer in Conti's tenth book, devoted to systematic explication of the fables according to his principle of diverse interpretation. He does not remain systematic for long in this book, but he does progress far enough to include Vulcan and Mars. Vulcan is interpreted physically and meteorologically (these are Conti's own terms) and then ethically:

at nunc Ethice, Vulcanus ligavit Martem ac Venerem in rete, nempe claudus celerem, & invalidus fortissimum bellorum Deum: quia nullae vires iniquum hominem possunt a lusta vindicta Dei protegere. Quare per haec etiam homines hortabantur ad integritatem & ad innocentiam, & ab omni turpitudine revocabant.

[And now ethically: Vulcan caught Mars and Venus in a net, that is, the lame and unsound one caught the swift and exceedingly strong god of war: so that no strength can protect wicked man from the just vengeance of God. Wherefore men are exhorted to integrity and innocence by this too, and called away from all baseness.]

It is the same old story. But immediately afterward, he passes on to Mars and accords the fable an entirely different value:

De Marte Physice, Martem nonnulli Solem esse voluerunt, qui cum Venere coniunctus, superveniente Vulcano praecipue nihil procreat. Per haec & vitam & ortum animalium in qualitatum elementorumque symmetria consistere demonstrarunt: quippe cum per Martem litigium, per Venerem amicitiam significarent. Per Vulcanum exuperantem aliquam qualitatem. Nihil enim ex una tantum qualitate elementorum nascitur, neque ex similibus, sed ex his temperatis & modice inter se permistis.

[About Mars physically, some want Mars to be the sun, who procreated nothing when joined with Venus, especially with Vulcan rising above them. By this they have demonstrated that both the life and the origin of animals consists in symmetry of qualities and elements: certainly, since they mean strife by Mars and friendship by Venus. Therefore, by Vulcan they mean some surpassing quality. For nothing arises from only one quality of elements, nor from similar qualities, but from these [different] qualities moderately mixed among themselves.]

How, then, are we to see Mars and Venus? As quasi-human lovers warning us that Adultery Will Out or as the foundations of the universe? The mythographers ask us to see the divine interlude simultaneously as a moral evil and a cosmic good, but even this division is slightly shaky: the subduing of Mars's malignity may be seen as good in moral as well as astrological terms. The value of the union depends significantly on the value of Mars's customary activity: is he a cruel butcher or an honorable soldier? Spenser plays on precisely this chaos of significations in The Faerie Queene. In the proem to book 1, he invokes Cupid, Venus, and Mars together as images of beneficence and peace:

 Come both, and with you bring triumphant
 Mart,
 In loues and gentle iollities arrayd,
After his murdrous spoiles and bloudy rage
 allayd.
                 (The Faerie Queene, 1.proem.3)

But when Phaedria allays the bloody rage of Cymochles and Guyon, her function is highly equivocal:

But if for me ye fight, or me will serue,
 Not this rude kind of battell, nor these armes
 Are meet, the which doe men in bale to sterue,
 And dolefull sorrow heape with deadly harmes:
 Such cruell game my scarmoges disarmes:
 Another warre, and other weapons I
 Doe loue, where loue does giue his sweet
 alarmes,
 Without bloodshed, and where the enemy
Does yeeld vnto his foe a pleasant victory.

Debatefull strife, and cruell enmitie
 The famous name of knighthood fowly shend;
 But louely peace, and gentle amitie,
 And in Amours the passing houres to spend,
 The mightie martiall hands doe most commend;
 Of loue they euer greater glory bore,
 Then of their armes: Mars is Cupidoes frend,
 And is for Venus loues renowmed more,
Then all his wars and spoiles, the which he did
 of yore.
                  (The Faerie Queene, 2.6.34-35)

We may be disconcerted to see the Knight of Temperance fighting Cymochles over Acrasia's handmaiden, but we are even more disconcerted when he obeys Phaedria's venereal appeal and stops fighting. Her plea to make love, not war, is disturbing precisely because she comes close to defining the Renaissance ideal of concord, even while she perverts the ideal to serve her own lust. We know that her appeal is fallacious, that there will be no true peace until our enemies—she among them—are defeated; but the appeal is irresistible nonetheless. The passage depends for its effect on all the ambiguity inherent in Venus's triumph over Mars: and just at the moment when we are most suspicious of Phaedria, Spenser congratulates his knights on succumbing to her charms.

Therewith she sweetly smyld. They though full
  bent
  To proue extremities of bloudie fight,
  Yet at her speach their rages gan relent,
  And calme the sea of their tempestuous spight,
  Such powre haue pleasing words: such is the
  might
  Of courteous clemencie in gentle hart.
                     (The Faerie Queen, 2.6.36)

At this very complex moment, it is apparently good to stop fighting, even for the wrong reasons. But in Busirane's tapestry, the interruption of Mars's bloody fight is regarded simply as effeminate weakness:

How oft for Venus, and how often eek
For many other Nymphes he sore did shreek,
With womanish teares, and with vnwarlike
  smarts,
Priuily moystening his horrid cheeke.
                     (The Faerie Queen, 3.11.44)

Mars and Venus can mean all things to all men; and when Spenser himself alludes to Antony, he associates him with the full complexity of their divine union.

The analogy of Mars and Venus in all its complexity helps to clarify one essential element in Antony and Cleopatra the lovers' exchange of clothing and to some degree of sexual characteristics. In the first words of the play, we see Antony associated with effeminacy. Cleopatra's description of an Alexandrian morning at home confirms this association:

Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
                                     (2.5.21-23)

It is inevitable that we see this exchange of clothing primarily as a psychological revelation; in it a state of affairs implicit throughout the play is made explicit. Octavius characteristically puts the matter in its least favorable light: Antony

… is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he.
                                       (1.4.5-7)

The Egyptian Antony is seen as effeminate by the Romans; and indeed Egypt seems to be a kingdom composed exclusively of women and eunuchs. We do not need the allegorical tradition to explain that lasciviousness robs a man of his virtus, his manly virtue: the transition from the Antony who drinks the gilded puddle to the Antony of the Alexandrian feasts makes the point abundantly clear. And the ruin at Actium is partly due to Cleopatra's determination to "appear there for a man" (3.7.18). Her description of the festive morning costume party becomes most sinister when Antony says to Mardian after Actium, "O, thy vile lady! / She has robb'd me of my sword" (4.14.22-23): the presence of the eunuch on stage makes it impossible to overlook Antony's phrase as a description of emasculation. The exchange of clothing, then, inevitably suggests a disastrous exchange of sexual authority and consequently a violation of the proper hierarchical relation between man and woman. This disturbance in sexual hierarchy can be seen morally as a violation of the proper hierarchical relation between reason and will. After Actium, Cleopatra asks if she or Antony is at fault, and Enobarbus replies, "Antony only, that would make his will / Lord of his reason" (3.13.3-4). The archetype for Antony's transformation is Hercules in woman's clothes, serving Omphale. Seen in these terms, the exchange of sexual roles is very sinister.

But these are not the only terms in which it can be seen, nor is Hercules the only available model. The image of Cleopatra wearing Antony's sword Philippan evokes one of the most complex of Renaissance iconographic topoi: the Venus armata. This elusive woman is all things to all mythographers. Armed with bow and arrows, as Venus Virgo, she is Venus borrowing the equipment and consequently the techniques and values of Diana; she has her prototype in the appearance of Venus so disguised in Aeneid 1. In this guise she suggests something about the relation of chastity to love: either that the appearance of chastity is often a stimulant to lust or that true love is always chaste—or virtually any attitude between the two. One of her most striking appearances is, of course, as Spenser's Belphoebe. In armor, Venus can readily be identified with Minerva and hence with militant wisdom, so readily in fact that the iconographers are undecided about the identity of some armed women. This version of Venus is one of the prototypes for Spenser's Britomart. But the most common type of the Venus armata is the Venus Victrix, the Venus who wears her arms as the emblem of her conquest over Mars and of all the consequences, moral and cosmic, of that conquest. She is a Renaissance commonplace; her presence would probably be recognized in the briefest of allusions. And if she is suggested by Cleopatra's description of herself with Antony's sword Philippan, she may later materialize on stage. Immediately before Actium, Antony announces his determination to fight by sea and says to Cleopatra, "We'll to our ship, / Away, my Thetis!" (3.7.59-60): the sea nymph Thetis is often portrayed carrying armor for her son Achilles. Cleopatra herself has already told Enobarbus that she "will appear there for a man"; she "will not stay behind" (3.7.19). Given the familiar iconographic associations, it seems to me likely that Cleopatra on her way to do battle would have been dressed literally as a man, in armor. At this moment, Cleopatra may enact the role of her divine prototype on stage.

Given the complex range of meanings associated with the Venus armata, what is her significance as analogue for Cleopatra? Since Fulvia presumably arms for war as well as Cleopatra, we cannot demand too much specificity of meaning for the figure of the armed woman. But the tradition insists that the allusions to the armed Cleopatra be seen as meaningful, even if the audience does not know precisely what they mean. In fact, the most fundamental implication is probably that the Venus armata does not work out very well in ordinary life, fighting everyday battles. As Enobarbus says, "If we should serve with horse and mares together, / The horse were merely lost" (3.7.7-8). But the life of the play is not, after all, very ordinary; and though Cleopatra armed may be responsible for the loss of this battle, the figure of the Venus armata suggests another sphere of action in which she and Antony are triumphant.

The figure of Venus armed as an emblem of her victory over Mars suggests that the exchange of arms and clothing need not be seen exclusively in moral terms; and in natural or cosmic terms, the exchange has an altogether different emphasis. If we recall the monstrous hermaphrodite in Volpone, we must also recall Spenser's hermaphroditic Venus in the Temple of Venus. Despite the Renaissance dread of effeminate men and mannish women, bisexuality could be seen in several ways. Cartari tells us that Bacchus, the god whom Plutarch had associated with Antony, is sometimes dressed as a woman. "On dit qu'il estoit de femme, pource que le trop boire debilite les forces, & rend l'homme effeminé"; or, as his English translator Lincke would have it [in his loose translation of Cartari's The Fountaire of Ancient Fiction],

The clothes and garments of women so said to be on Bacchus signife, that the inordinate taking of wine weakeneth and debilitateth the naturall forces and powers of a man, making him feeble, unconstant, and strengthlesse like a woman.

Fair enough. But fifteen pages later, Cartari turns to the naturalistic mode of interpretation: Bacchus was thought by the ancients to be that hidden power which enables plants to bear fruit. He is dressed like a woman

pour monstrer qu'aux plantes, sont les deux vertus de masle & de femelle.… Generalement toute plante produit de soymesme, fueilles & fruits: ce qui n'est pas ainsi des animaux, qui ne pouvent engendrer, si le masle ne se ioinct avec la femelle.

[to show that with plants there are two powers, male and female.… Generally each plant produces leaves and flowers from itself: which is not so among animals, who cannot reproduce if the male is not joined with the female.]

Cartari's hermaphrodite Venus has a similarly naturalistic explanation: the statue of Venus has the face of a man but the clothes of a woman because she is the generative principle. After his discussion of Venus as hermaphrodite, Cartari adds, doubtless to the despair of those who look for precision in iconography, that all gods are by their nature bisexual:

Les anciens ne disoient pas seulement cela de Venus, mais aussi de tous les autres Dieux, donnans à chacun le nom d'homme & de femme, comme ne se trouvant entre eux la difference du sexe, qui est entre les hommes.

[The ancients did not say this only about Venus, but also about all the other gods, giving to each the name of man and woman, as if not finding the sexual difference among them which there is among men.]

Antony and Cleopatra are not gods; and their transexuality must be seen in human terms. But the process of analogy with the gods suggests that they participate in the cosmic and natural harmonies signified by divine transexuality; and they must also be seen in that context. Even the Roman Agrippa associates Cleopatra's sexuality with the fecundity of nature itself: "She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He plough'd her, and she cropp'd" (2.2.227-28). The wordplay makes the point very tidily: the sword is unmistakably both a sexual and a military weapon; and the military must be put aside (or laid to bed) before the sexual can be literally laid to bed, or put to use. In the second line of the image, the sword has been beaten into a plowshare: there are suggestions of that great generative sympathy in nature which occurs only when Mars succumbs to Venus and lays his sword to bed. And the lovers' exchange of sexual characteristics is the emblem for this generative sympathy: the elements in the play that may be seen from the Roman point of view as evidence of Antony's loss of manhood may also be seen as the emblem of his procreative union with Cleopatra. For if the union of Mars and Venus signifies generative harmony in the universe, that union is frequently represented pictorically by a partial exchange of clothing. Edgar Wind describes the appearance of this theme in Renaissance art [in Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance];

The many and famous Renaissance idylls in which the victorious Venus, having subdued the fearful Mars by love, is seen playing with his armour, or allowing her cupids and infant satyrs to play with it, all celebrate this peaceable hope: that Love is more powerful than Strife; that the god of war is inferior in strength to the goddess of grace and amiability.… In the idylls of the same subject painted by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo no chain or ribbon is required to demonstrate the bondage of Mars. Venus has put his fierceness to sleep.

In several of the paintings, Mars is nude or slightly draped. The disarmed and sleeping god of war, the goddess of love toying with his armor: surely this image lurks behind Cleopatra's description of the exchange of clothing. For the scene which she describes is a vivid tableau of the union of the two gods. Antony and Cleopatra virtually reenact this union: their transexuality may be the ultimate emblem of their unity, that discordia concors necessary in human, natural, and cosmic love.

The dalliance of Venus and Mars serves as an exemplum antithetical to that of Dido and Aeneas: if Aeneas reminds us of the nearly superhuman effort by which love can be subjugated to empire, Mars reminds us that even the god of war is susceptible to the power of love. The relevance of Dido and Aeneas to Antony and Cleopatra is immediately apparent, for despite his divine guidance, Aeneas is a human being with human problems and choices; but what is the relevance of the gods Mars and Venus to our very human protagonists? How do these divine analogies function within the play? If we consider merely the moral interpretation of their fable, their relevance is clear enough; but what of the natural and cosmic interpretations? This question seems to me to be related to one of the most central issues in the play: its power to assert that the protagonists are at once entirely human and larger than life, that they are both lascivious adulterers and virtually mythic natural forces.

For many of us in the twentieth century, the sense of meaningful analogy between human and cosmic or divine events has been lost. But the central concept of the orthodox Elizabethan world picture was that of meaningful analogy between microcosm and macrocosm. Even when details of that world pictures were challenged or rejected, the sense of analogy remained. This sense of the relevance of the cosmic and divine to the human and everyday gives much of the greatest Renaissance literature its power: a hundred naked ladies dancing on a hill, an old man on a heath, the rediscovery of a lost child. But analogies between natural or cosmic order and man are less to the point here than that habit of mind which sees specific mythological or allegorical figures as the type for human figures, as Spenser's Belphoebe is a type for Queen Elizabeth. This habit of analogy was occasionally dramatized: part of the peculiar pleasure of a masque lay precisely in recognizing the noble actors simultaneously as themselves and as mythological or allegorical figures. Moreover, it was fashionable to paint portraits of nobility as mythological figures, much as Enobarbus verbally paints Cleopatra at Cyndus as Venus. Elizabeth was painted as Diana; and there are several wedding portraits of young couples as Venus and Mars. Presumably the delight was in the perception of the analogy and the implied compliment. Within Antony and Cleopatra itself, we hear of Cleopatra dressed in the "habiliments of the goddess Isis" (3.6.17). We who have lost the ability to see the everyday as analogous to the extraordinary must not deny the force of analogy in the play. There is a habit of mind more generous than ours, which sees things as larger than they "really" are, and to that habit of mind, the analogy of Antony and Cleopatra with Mars and Venus, even in their cosmic aspects, would not necessarily seem ludicrous.

The process of analogy which assimilates a human event to a cosmic is very much at issue in Cleopatra's description of Antony:

His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course, and
  lighted
The little O, the earth.…
His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends:
But when he meant to quail, and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.
                                    (5.2.79-86)

This passage has obvious affinities with Marlowe's hyperbolical description of Tamburlaine: Menaphon describes his eyes "Whose fiery circles bear encompasséd / A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres" (Tamburlaine the Great 2.1.15-16). Both insist on the cosmic aspects of the human figure. This technique of description is part of a venerable tradition: Homer's Hate, Virgil's Fame, Boethius's Philosophy, Chaucer's Fame, are all monumental figures whose heads touch the heavens though they have human shapes. The representation of a figure as simultaneously human and cosmic was common in the alchemical and astrological texts, and it was central to the descriptive technique of the Renaissance mythographers. A work such as Cartari's Imagines deorum was explicitly intended to provide the correct recognizable image for every god, an image which suggested both his human and his cosmic attributes. This process is at work in Cartari's description of Jupiter, in the 1599 translation by Lincke:

Orpheus … ascribed thus much unto Jove, that he was the first before any thing in the world received forme, and shall continue the last after the consumation and dissolution thereof, and that he sitteth on the highest part of it, whose feet reach down to the lowest and basest corner thereof, within whom is contained earth, water, aire, fire, day, and night: whose Image he thus setteth forth, his head (sayth hee) with those his goldenhued lockes, is the beauteous firmament gloriously adorned with such infinite armies of tralucent stars, and from ech side of his temples peepe forth two yong golden homes, signifying by the one the East, & by the other the West, his eies are the Sunne and the Moone, his shoulders and breast the spacious compasse of the aire, and the wings thereon infixed, intend the furious swiftnesse of the winds, his bellie down to the knee, is the wide earth circumcinct with the waters of the sea, & his feet discend down through the bowels of the lower center.

I do not mean to imply that either Marlowe or Shakespeare was directly influenced by Cartari or the alchemical works but rather that the same process of description is at work in this passage as in Cleopatra's description of Antony as a monumental figure: the creation of a fully human figure with cosmic attributes. And this kind of figure, embodying at once the human and the divine, would be much more familiar to the sixteenth century than to us; it would not so immediately be dismissed as irrelevant to the merely human. Dolabella does not confirm Cleopatra's description, but his is not the last word.

The mingling of the human and the cosmic is characteristic of the Renaissance mythographers; and through them it becomes the commonplace mode of interpreting fables about the gods. After all, the gods themselves may have once been men: one curious effect of euhemeristic interpretation is to break down the distinction between man and god, between history and allegorical fable. If the gods themselves were merely great men deified, then might not any historical event be subject to the same process of deification? Actium was precisely such an event; and both Virgil and Ovid had in effect deified Octavius. A human and historical event might thus be seen in cosmic or divine terms: and the very process of interpreting fable, and therefore history, encouraged precisely such juxtapositions. A given fable can be seen simultaneously as a historical, moral, astrological, philosophical, or cosmological event; and our value judgment of the story will depend entirely on which interpretation happens to be primary at the time. The conflicting interpretations, and consequently the conflicting value judgments, are never seen as mutually exclusive; and the mythographer is free to move among them without attempting to reconcile them. In fact, this mingling of modes produced a fruitful complexity of interpretations, to which any niggling demand for consistency is irrelevant. These methods of interpretation imply a fluidity of category and of perspective which we have since lost, a fluidity essential to the effect of much Renaissance literature, even though it sometimes thwarts our desire for moral tidiness. Spenser can interpret the fable of Venus and Adonis as evil in Malecasta's castle and as good in the Garden of Adonis precisely because in the first it is interpreted as a moral event in a human context conducive to sin and in the second as a natural event in a cosmic context which man cannot attain. Part of the wit of Shakespeare's own Venus and Adonis depends on our knowledge that both Venus and Adonis were often allegorized as natural forces. No such allegory works consistently in the poem, but nonetheless the cosmic analogy is felt to be occasionally relevant. The point is that Venus is simultaneously a person, the abstraction Love, and the generative force of all nature. And however morally correct Adonis's speech on lust is in a human context, it is at the same time rather like the sun accusing the earth of lasciviousness. This principle of interpretation is essential to Antony and Cleopatra no less than to Venus and Adonis: both insist on their status as interpreted myth.

We should not expect the fable of Mars and Venus to define the meaning of Antony and Cleopatra. Indeed, iconography and mythography can never serve as a definition of meaning, for only the play can define itself. But iconography and mythography can provide a context for the play; they can serve to identify those images which the original audience might have felt to be particularly significant and to suggest the range of signification. The analogy with Mars and Venus operates precisely to define the range of meaning in Antony and Cleopatra. For in the play it is suggested that the lovers are larger than human, that their union is somehow cosmic like that of their great prototypes, the union of male and female, war and love, strife and friendship. And at the same time, of course, they are the merely human adulterous lovers whom strict morality must condemn. The play takes on the quality of a myth that offers its contrary perspectives of interpretation and value within itself: and, like the mythographers, the play insists that we see all the perspectives at once. If it is the fault of the lovers that they do not see from the moral perspective, it is the fault of the Romans that they, rather like some critics, see only from that perspective.

John Coates (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "'The Choice of Hercules' in 'Antony and Cleopatra'," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 31, 1978, pp. 45-52.

[In the following essay, Coates considers parallels between the Renaissance story of "The Choice of Hercules" and Antony and Cleopatra.]

The importance of the 'Choice of Hercules' in the art of the Renaissance has been made clear by the work of Erwin Panofsky [Hercules am Scheidewege] and its role in the culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been illustrated by Edgar Wind [in Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance]. From a simple story in Xenophon's Memorabilia, which coalesced with Scipio's dream in the Punica of Silius Italicus, neo-Platonist philosophy fashioned a richly-textured, highly sophisticated allegory. This allegory touched on the most vital moral question of the time: the attainment of human wholeness, perhaps the central concern of the Renaissance. My object is to explore the connection of the 'Choice of Hercules' with Antony and Cleopatra and to define the effect which this well-known allegory may have on the meaning of the play.

Familiar as the 'Choice of Hercules' is, it is worth briefly recalling it for the sake of my argument. In Xenophon's Memorabilia, the sophist Prodicus is reported to have told a story of Hercules's meeting in youth with two women; the one sober, modest-eyed and dressed in white, the other with face made-up, 'dressed so as to disclose all her charms' and glancing about to see whether any noticed her. They are, of course, Virtue and Vice, and the scene which follows achieved a great familiarity in Renaissance iconography. The well-known Rubens painting is only one of scores of instances of Hercules hesitating between Vice and Virtue. Vice is made to offer every kind of sensual pleasure. Rather than wars and worries, Hercules shall consider his choice of food, drink, sound, touch or perfume; 'what tender love can give you most joy and how to come by all these pleasures with the least trouble'. Virtue reminds Hercules that if he desires success and glory he must work for them. The gods give nothing good or great without effort. She attacks Vice for continually seeking artificially to stimulate human appetites, 'eating before thou art hungry, drinking before thou art thirsty, getting thee cooks to give zest to eating', even searching for snow in summer to give zest to drinking.

The image of the 'Choice of Hercules' was reinforced by an imitation in Silius Italicus's boring but much read epic on the Second Punic War. The appearance of Virtue and Vice to Scipio the Elder in a dream provided a Latin source for the picture of the hero hesitating between Vice and Virtue, which undoubtedly secured its even wider dissemination. In Silius's account the enemy of Roman military virtue takes on a distinctly oriental colour: 'Pleasure's head breathed Persian odours, and her ambrosial tresses flowed free: in her shining robe Tyrian purple was embroidered with ruddy gold'. As in Xenophon she is a wanton and her beauty is studied and artificial.

In Xenophon's account earthly glory and fame are the reward of virtue. Silius's 'dream of Scipio' adds two other important elements; the raising of man to the divine and the rendering of him superior to Fortune. If the hero exerts himself and ignores what Fortune can give or take away he will gain the height and look down upon mankind. Persistence in such a course earns immortality. Heaven is open to those who have preserved the divine element born with them.

In the Renaissance the 'Choice of Hercules' was far from esoteric or eccentric; in fact it was a visual, moral and philosophical truism as Panofsky's many examples abundantly prove. This is certainly true of its simpler form, in which the hero, confronted by Vice and Virtue, chooses Virtue with its pains and rewards. (Thomas Bradshaw's The Shepherds Star, 1591, contains a popular version of this simpler form of the 'Choice of Hercules'.)

The image of Hercules is so emphatically linked with Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, that it is natural to suggest a connection between the choice of the play and the 'Choice of Hercules'. Frank Kermode has, in fact, touched on the connection in a footnote in Renaissance Essays but has not, I feel, pursued the subject:

Shakespeare stresses the Herculean side of Antony (1, iii, 84; 1, v, 23 where 'demi-Atlas' means 'the substitute of Atlas'; IV, xii, 43-7) to the degree that he converts the god who deserts Hercules (IV, iii, 12-17) from Plutarch's Bacchus into Hercules, and makes no mention of Bacchus, though to Plutarch's Antony he was at least as important as Hercules. Octavius makes it clear that Antony was familiar with the hard Prodician road to glory (1, iv, 55-64); but he prefers to Roman gravitas that Egypt which is represented throughout as gluttonous feasting and sensual indulgence.

Kermode here summarises much of the evidence linking the 'Choice of Hercules' with Antony and Cleopatra; some of the many explicit references to Hercules in the play, the clash between Vice and Virtue in eastern and western guise, above all the alteration from Bacchus, in a source which Shakespeare otherwise follows closely, to Hercules. However, the connection with the 'Choice of Hercules' only becomes really interesting when the simpler connotations of the myth are left behind. If Shakespeare did refer to it at all, he would be referring to a far richer complex of meanings than 'the temptation of the "new Hercules" of Renaissance epic … a conflict taken over from Plutarch between heroic virtue and sensuality'. Edgar Wind has described the humanists' interest in the esoteric meanings of the 'Choice of Hercules', above all in the ideal of the reconciliation of pleasure to virtue, in the highest type of man: 'Although the humanists used it profusely in their exoteric instruction, they left no doubt that for a Platonic initiate it was but the crust and not the marrow.' The theme appealed to many others besides Platonic initiates. Both Wind and Harry Levin draw attention to Ben Jonson's Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1619). Jonson's masque illustrates the popularity of the subject which is indeed central to the whole culture of the Renaissance. As Levin remarks [in The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance]: "The ethos of the Renaissance did not rest content with conjoining the vita contemplativa and the vita activa. Ficino also complimented Lorenzo de' Medici on his achievements within a third realm of being, the vita voluptuosa.' It is the esoteric 'Choice of Hercules' which is most interesting in Antony and Cleopatra. Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue is worth noting as a useful introduction to some of the refinements involved in this moral choice and is, I believe, illuminating when one comes to examine the Renaissance Hercules in Antony and Cleopatra.

In a setting which is, significantly, 'in the mountains of Atlas' near the garden of the Hesperides, Hercules is made to reject the crude animal pleasure of the god Comus. It drowns the human personality. However, what follows is not a simple moral choice between Pleasure and Virtue. The complete man can and should live in both elements. The clash between the two is over now. Virtue controls Pleasure, which adds a grace and charm to the moral character. She encourages her children to pass through the element of pleasure and trusts them, giving them entrance to the Hesperides. It is fitting that they should pass through a refined pleasure and return to the hill of virtue carrying traces of its moral effect, 'for what is noble should be sweet'. Having returned they are above fate and may look down 'Upon triumphed chance'. Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue supplies the sense of the complete man living both in Pleasure and in Virtue, the linking of this higher moral state with the garden of the Hesperides, the promise that such a state is above chance.

The work of such writers as Cartari and Conti supplies other elements of the Renaissance Hercules, interesting in connection with the Herculean Antony. They emphasise his role as, in some sense, the complete man. According to Cartari's Imagines Deorum (1581) Hercules's courage was moral rather than physical. Natale Conti in his Mythologiae remarks that Hercules's education by Chiron in both arms and law was a model for any prince. Cartari emphasises the somewhat unfamiliar role of Hercules as a god of eloquence: 'Itaque in Arcadia templum commune cum Mercurio eloquentiae Deo habuisse fertur. Athenienses etiam in Academia aras non solum musis, Minervae et Mercurio, verum etiam Herculi posuerunt.' One of the most interesting illustrations in the Imagines Deorum shows Hercules in his lion-skin, with lines, presumably representing his eloquence, drawn from his mouth to the ears of young and old people of both sexes. Antony's eloquence in Antony and Cleopatra may well have identified him especially, for Shakespeare's first audiences, with the Hercules of contemporary mythography.

The role of complete man assigned to Hercules is made to rest by the mythographers on a moral victory. Piero Valeriano's Hieroglyphics (1556) connects the three apples of the Hesperides, won by Hercules, with the three most important heroic virtues, the control of anger, the curbing of avarice and a noble indifference to pleasure. Panofsky suggests the strong connection of the 'Choice of Hercules' with the apples of the Hesperides and it seems clear from Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue that the Hesperides signify the highest ideal, the linking of the vita activa with the vita voluptuosa.

More important for Antony and Cleopatra is the moral interpretation of the descent of Hercules into Hades. Cartari links this descent and the carrying-off of the triple-headed dog Cerberus with man's descent into his own nature to bridle its impulses. It is perhaps needless to recall that Hercules's descent into Hades gained additional currency through the parallel drawn with Christ's Harrowing of Hell. Ralegh in his History of the World declares that 'the prophecies that Christ should break the serpent's head, and conquer the power of hell, occasioned the fable of Hercules killing the serpent of the Hesperides, and descending into Hell, and captivating Cerberus'. As well as probably making the myth better known such an analogy would reinforce its meaning, that of a moral victory.

It is entirely proper to ask what acquaintance Shakespeare could be presumed to have with the Hercules of the Renaissance mythographers. Douglas Bush has borne testimony to the general popularity of contemporary mythological compilations [in Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry]: 'The mythographers, as we have seen, were not merely convenient for reference. Their allegorical interpretations were highly attractive.' In Seznec's view [in The Survival of the Pagan Gods] 'there are certain indications pointing to Shakespeare having known the Imagini of Cartari'. While it is impossible to be dogmatic, Berowne's well-known lines in Love's Labour's Lost in praise of love strongly suggest Shakespeare's knowledge of the mythographer's allegorical Hercules. Love

           gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices
                                  (IV, iii, 327-8)

For valour, is not Love a Hercules
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
                                        (iii, 336-7)

The context suggests 'the Hesperides' possess a moral significance symbolising a type of excellence, and their mention evokes ideas of mental agility and eloquence.

If Antony is seen as tinged with a reminiscence of the Renaissance Hercules, certain difficulties in the play are partially solved. Critics have frequently disputed the moral meaning of Antony and Cleopatra and there is no consensus. The view of Bradley that the triumphant death of Antony means an endorsement of the ideal of 'the world well lost for love' seems simplistic and sentimental. The moralist's view of L. C. Knights [in The Pelican Guide to English Literature] that the play shows a self-indulgent man conducted to 'the very heart of loss' is simplistic in the opposite direction. Both views leave out too much. More sophisticated accounts see Antony and Cleopatra as a kind of golden chaos, or picture of the dissolving pagan world, 'moments, opinions, moods, speeches, characters, fragments of situation, forked mountains and blue promontories, imposed upon us with all the force of a "giant power'" [as stated by John Danby in Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets]. Quite possibly this last may seem an adequate view to many readers.

If, however, we wish to attach a more precise significance to the dramatic events leading up to Antony's death, then the figure of the Renaissance Hercules is essential. One might note the figure of Antony between Octavia and Cleopatra as closely parallel to the classical accounts of Hercules between Virtue and Pleasure. It is most interesting, however, to observe what Shakespeare has done with the fall of Antony. In Plutarch's account the god departs in the night before Antony's final defeat at Alexandria and the desertion of his remaining forces. In Shakespeare there is a vital interlude, which seems to me to be best explained by reference to a sophisticated variant of the 'Choice of Hercules'.

The god Hercules leaves Antony in IV, iii, by passing under the stage to the sound of hautboys. ('Musicke of the Hoboyes is under the Stage.')

Second Soldier. Hark!
First Soldier.        Music i th'air
Third Soldier.         Under the earth.
                                                (IV, iii, 13)

The text, at this point, seems to be emphasising just where the music is coming from and where Hercules is going. It may seem far-fetched to suggest that Hercules is going into Hades at this point, but such a suggestion receives support from the well-known stage convention associating the 'cellarage' with Hell. The figure of Hercules bearing the earth, which was the sign of the Globe Theatre, might imply a special familiarity with the myth on the part of Shakespeare and his audience, a familiarity which might allow him to use a stage shorthand at this point.

Antony's continued display of Herculean characteristics after the god departs fits within the mythographer's philosophical scheme. As Wind remarks, Neoplatonist ideas permitted the simultaneous presence of a spiritual force in Hades and in Heaven. In fact Plotinus illustrated this 'difficult doctrine which was essential to his concept of emanation' [according to Wind], by the descent of Hercules into Hades. Far more significant, however, is the dramatic value of the descent at this particular moment in the play. On Cartari's showing it implies a descent into one's own nature to control it, perhaps through increase of self-knowledge, perhaps through grasping and purifying one's instincts. It is an ordeal and a form of purificatory suffering, as the parallel with Christ's Harrowing of Hell implies. Its significance at this point in Antony and Cleopatra is that Antony is shown as beginning just such a self-purification, a progress in self-control. The progress involves a series of 'tests' of the virtues of the Renaissance Hercules. Antony must demonstrate courage, rejection of avarice, mastery of pleasure. Finally he must undergo a cleansing agony parallel to that endured by Hercules. The god leaves Antony after he has rallied from utter despair and humiliation but before he has again proved himself. Hercules departs as the prelude to a kind of spiritual ascent, a liberation of his nature from its baser elements.

The second soldier's certainty that the god is leaving Antony is perhaps not such a problem in this reading as it at first sight appears. There is a suggestion elsewhere in the play that the observers see events but miss their true significance. Enobarbus dismisses the return of Antony's courage as a loss of his reason. The practical Dolabella cannot share Cleopatra's sense of Antony's glory. Cleopatra's death scene is introduced by her dialogue with the clown, who jokes with her but cannot understand what she is about. The splendour of her dying utterance is followed by the somewhat matter-of-fact questions and comments of Caesar. Perhaps the guard's question to the dying Charmian and her reply presents in condensed form this sense of two levels of awareness. The second soldier's comment is not alien to this double level of apprehension, or indeed to the method of allegory. In one sense the god's departure has the simple meaning which he sees, the loss of Antony's protective spirit. The greater nobility, rather than straightforward defeat, which follows, suggests a meaning to which he is blind. Dramatically the soldier's comment raises a question. It should sharpen our attention, our sense of mystery, perhaps allegory, when what follows the god's departure is not what we perhaps expect.

The hypothesis that this is the 'descent of Hercules' seems to be confirmed by what follows. Cleopatra (IV, iv) arms Antony, recalling the many Renaissance paintings of Venus arming Mars, love aiding courage. He leaves her asserting the unity in himself of lover and soldier.

Fare thee well, dame, whate'er becomes of me;
This is a soldier's kiss.
                                             (IV, iv, 29-30)

On hearing of the desertion of Enobarbus, he sends his treasure after him, displaying one of Piero's heroic virtues, the curbing of avarice. The god's leaving Antony is not, as in Plutarch, the prelude to his disgrace but to the appearance of a nobler and more integrated figure:

               Your emperor
Continues still a Jove.
                                         (IV, vi, 28-9)

The nobility Antony shows is so striking that it overwhelms the hard-bitten Enobarbus and drives him to die of a broken heart. Antony's feasting no longer seems a continuous self-indulgence but the reward of valour (IV, viii, 32-5), and for the first time he shows a gratitude to those who serve him (IV,iii, 22-6) unlike his earlier jealousy (III, i, 17-27).

The interlude between the god's desertion and the final loss of his fleet and army, assert emphatically his possession of courage, generosity and of a noble capacity to enjoy pleasure without being possessed by it. There remains the ultimate agony of supposed betrayal by Cleopatra. At the moment of desertion by the Egyptian fleet an explicit parallel is drawn with the final agony of Hercules:

The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage;
Let me lodge Lichas in the horns o' the moon.
                                  (IV, xii, 43-5)

The agony of Hercules, falsely believing himself betrayed by Deianeira, runs exactly parallel to Antony's suffering believing himself betrayed by Cleopatra. ('Hercules's one thought had been to punish her before he died, but when Hyllus assured him she was innocent as her suicide proved, he signed forgivingly') [according to Robert Graves in The Greek Myths].

Antony.              O thy vile lady
       She has robbed me of my sword.
Mardian.                 No, Antony;
       My mistress lov'd thee, and her fortunes
       mingled
       With thine entirely.
                                  (IV, xiv, 21-4)

The final suffering of Hercules had for the Greeks a purificatory significance: 'It is a reasonable as well as a common conclusion that the mortal parts of Hercules were consumed by fire that the immortal part might be free to ascend to heaven,' [according to G. S. Kirk in The Nature of the Greek Myths]. Antony's terrible rage is followed by acceptance and a final touch of kindliness to Eros (IV, xiv, 21-2). The images of dissolving, of being unable to hold his visible shape, are reinforced by Antony's declaration that 'the torch is out' (IV, xiv, 46), a well-known Renaissance emblem of the soul being freed from the body, later repeated by Cleopatra (IV, xv, 85).

The immortality which Antony promises himself and Cleopatra is one in which

Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops
And all the haunt be ours.
                                       (IV, xiv, 53-4)

In its context there-uniting of Dido and Aeneas in Hades, against Virgil's authority, surely means more than the evocation of another pair of famous lovers. Dido and Aeneas are evoked and united because like Cleopatra and Antony they suggest east and west, an identification obvious enough to all familiar with Virgil's account. Jackson Knight commenting on the ingredients in the love story of Dido and Aeneas remarks, 'there was the lure and danger of eastern luxury which Vergil had contemplated in the Georgics and contrasted with the simple Italian life. The conflicts between love and duty, the moment and the future, are familiar; they have become familiar through Vergil'. Antony as Hercules is able to reconcile these contradictions. It is highly significant that as Antony is raised to her arms Cleopatra declares,

             Had I great Juno's power
The strong-winged Mercury should fetch thee up
And set thee by Jove's side.
                                 (IV, xv, 34-6)

When Hercules was received into Olympus it was by the agency of his old enemy Hera (Juno) who had forgiven him after his purificatory death. Antony-Hercules has undergone his final ordeal and the reconciliation of opposed elements is complete. When he dies in Cleopatra's arms it is as a lover laying the last of many thousand kisses on her lips and as

     a Roman, by a Roman
Valiantly vanquished
                                     (IV, xv, 57-8)

What seems to strengthen the connection of Antony with the Renaissance Hercules and his choice, is Cleopatra's description of him after his death. There are too many points of similarity to the Hercules who blends pleasure with virtue to be dismissed as coincidence. Antony is seen as possessing the eloquence of Cartari's Hercules. He was the perfection of generosity and ripeness. Above all, he was dolphin-like, greater than the element of pleasure through which he moved. This last perhaps evokes the well-known Renaissance image of wholeness, the Aldine dolphin; '[This] and innumerable other emblematic combinations were adopted to signify the rule of life that ripeness is achieved by a growth of strength in which quickness and steadiness are equally developed' [according to Wind].

Cleopatra's lines are packed with allegorical reference.

His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty
There was no winter in't, an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping; his delights
Were dolphin-like, they showed his back above
The element they liv'd in.
                                  (V, ii, 82-90)

This conception, Cleopatra states, is the ultimate reality, far beyond the scope of imagination or dream. Pleasure reconciled to Virtue makes Antony superior to fate:

            I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.
                                   (V, ii, 283-5)

It would be profitless to attempt to impose on Antony and Cleopatra a reading based on a little out of the way information, external to the text; a reading at variance with the sense of the play as derived from its entire effect. However, the Renaissance Hercules is not extraneous but very much present in the play. There is, too, much less agreement about what Antony and Cleopatra actually does mean, about its moral texture, than about most of Shakespeare's plays. There is, therefore, much less risk of affronting the commonly held 'sensible' view of the play; such a view does not exist. In the continuing controversy concerning the play (outlined by J. L. Simmons in Shakespeare's Pagan World) the 'Choice of Hercules' is a suggestive piece of evidence. It tends to make against the view that Shakespeare's intentions are mainly ironical, that he is debunking the lovers. The linking of the 'Choice of Hercules' with Antony and Cleopatra gives a fuller value to Enobarbus's death, strengthens the case for accepting Antony's courage at the end as genuine, and above all, allows us to accept the poetry of acts IV and V as what it surely is, the real expression of something real: nothing so callow as 'the world well lost' but a statement of Pleasure reconciled to Virtue.

Rome Vs. Egypt

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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 two cultures. Although this geographic polarization of values is rare in Shakespeare, there is nothing unfamiliar in the particular values represented by Rome and Egypt, nor in the fact of their opposition. They are, broadly speaking, the values of public and private life, of the state and the person, of honor and love; and the opposition of these values, along with the possibility of reconciling them, was one of Shakespeare's deepest concerns throughout his career, from the parallel battle scenes in Henry VI of a father killing his son and a son killing his father, to that moment in The Tempest when division is at last resolved and Gonzago announces that, despite all obstacles, Claribel has found a husband, Ferdinand a wife, Prospero a dukedom, "… and all of us ourselves / When no man was his own."

The public values of Rome arise from the same source as always in Shakespeare: the ideal of order, harmony, and mutuality in the state. At the beginning of the play Antony's lapsed honor is inseparable from the failure of the Roman peace, like two sides of a coin. To Antony's question on his return to Rome, "My being in Egypt, / Caesar, what was't to you?", in effect Caesar had already given an answer:

                       If he fill'd
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for't! But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport and speaks as
  loud
As his own state and ours—'tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in
 knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgement.
                                      (I.iv.25-33)

These remarks could have been made about Richard II or about Prince Hal by his father. They remind us that this Roman tragedy, like Julius Caesar before it, is wrought from the same thematic materials as the cycle of chronicle plays from Richard II to Henry V. For they imply that same intimate connection between disorders of character and of the state, between personal honor and the public peace, that is the grand subject of the history plays.

But the public world of Rome and the values that serve it are placed in a different perspective from that of the history plays; and this difference is an important measure of Shakespeare's development during the period of his greatest works.… It is enough to say here that England hereself, the health and destiny of the nation, is the subject of those plays; and that the personalities and activities of individuals—Richard, Bolingbroke, Hotspur, and Prince Hal—are judged according to their actual or potential relation to the condition of England. The careers of men are conceived as subordinate to the general welfare. From the dying Gaunt's great paean to "This blessed land, this earth, this realm, this England," in Richard II, to King Henry V's battle cry before Harfleur, "God for Harry! England and St. George!", the integrity and glory of the nation is everywhere the criterion of individual conduct.

But Octavius in his speech doesn't mention Rome, doesn't refer even to a single community of which he and Antony both are members. The threat of Pompey is not, like that of Bolingbroke, Hotspur, and Macbeth, to an organic political society whose wholeness must be sustained by love, justice, and truth. It is a threat merely to "his own state and ours," to an accidental sum of wealth and power that has passed from the hands of Julius Caesar through those of his assassins, and now has accrued, "Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream," to the present triumvirs. In the design of the play the condition of Rome is subordinated to, and frequently obscured by, the interests and intrigues of persons. Before we pursue the sordid political implications of this fact, we must recognize also that in the design of the play Rome's security is guaranteed, regardless of the conduct and character of her citizens. In Antony and Cleopatra as in Julius Caesar, no matter how much our attention is focused abstractly upon politics, we are not permitted to fear concretely for the survival of the state. The urgencies we feel are on behalf of particular characters, irrespective of what happens to Rome. For Shakespeare and his audience the story of Rome was comfortably finished history, not a piece of uncertain ongoing business; and its symbolic meaning as history had already begun to reside in the stability of Roman political institutions.

In a variety of ways the two plays present Rome herself as the donnée rather than the protagonist of the drama—for example, the comic reassurance of Casca's jokes about Caesar refusing the crown three times in Julius Caesar, as contrasted with Owen Glendower's ostensibly comic but ominously unsettling insistence upon his astrological potency in / Henry IV. But the chief evidence of Rome's security is in the language itself: in Julius Caesar the name "Rome" becomes a personification, a term of familiar address woven into her citizens' discourse, so that we cannot imagine any limit to her life. Instead of asking God's blessing for Rome, these characters keep referring to Rome as a familiar household god:

Rome, thou has lost the breed of noble bloods!
                                                     (I.ii.151)

                     What trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar!
                                     (I.ii.108-11)

By all the gods that Romans bow before,
I here discard my sickness! Soul of Rome!
Brave son, derived from honourable loins!
                                    (II.i.320-22)

Are yet two Romans living such as these?
The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow.
                                    (V.iii.98-101)

There is a certain easiness and relaxation of attitude toward a state that breeds and mourns, that alternately can be described as trash and given a soul. The multiplicity of forms and activities of which Rome is metaphorically capable makes it seem as continuous and indestructible as life itself. This personified conception of Rome is carried over into Antony and Cleopatra:

He was dispos'd to mirth; but on the sudden
A Roman thought hath struck him.
                                                   (I.ii.86-87)

                              … with which I meant
To scourge th' ingratitude that despiteful Rome
Cast on my noble father.
                                             (II.vi.21-23)

Contemning Rome, he has done all this and
  more
In Alexandria.
                                         (III.vi.1-2)

               Let Rome be thus
Inform'd.
                                             (III.vi. 19-20)

       Sink Rome, and their tongues rot
That speak against us!
                                       (III.vii. 16-17)

We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's
  noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.
                                          (IV.xv.86-88)

In the verbal texture of these plays Rome is truly an Eternal City. Its internal divisions and civil wars themselves are evidence of its durability. They even swell its fortunes. Though Shakespeare did not write the two plays consecutively, there are many internal signs that he meant the political history of Antony and Cleopatra to pick up where Julius Caesar left off; and a striking fact about this continuity is that conspiracy and civil war seem not to have weakened the state but to have strengthened and enlarged it, until the triumvirs of Rome have become the triple pillars of the world. The identification of Rome with the entire civilized world is pervasive in Antony and Cleopatra and it frequently becomes explicit, as in Pompey's address to the triumvirs during the negotiations:

                       To you all three,
The senators alone of this great world,
Chief factors for the gods …
                                           (II.vi.8-10)

Rome has achieved a cosmic identity. Her political foundations have become so secure that her imagined destiny transcends the timeserving deeds of men. For Shakespeare's dramatic purpose Rome now becomes an idea, an abstract value with an almost allegorical significance. Having certified imaginatively the permanence of Rome as a political institution, Shakespeare is free to scrutinize the idea of Rome and to treat it as only one item in a pluralistic world of values.

Once he can do that, he attributes to Rome—pre-eminently in the person of Octavius Caesar—a political opportunism and a human mediocrity that amply confirm Cleopatra's final judgment, "'Tis paltry to be Caesar." Octavius, a man essentially unmarked by malice or by love, is full of the cloistered virtue of the letter of the law. He is all but a cipher of the public world, a Roman Henry V, who, as the late Harold Goddard pointed out [in The Meaning of Shakespeare], is as quick to give up his sister for an empire as man ever was to give an empire for a whore. He violates the pact with Pompey, deposes and executes Lepidus, and seeks every means to ruin Antony and insure Cleopatra's public humiliation. After rejecting Antony's challenge to personal combat and defeating him at Actium, he sends Thyreus to prey upon Cleopatra,

From Antony win Cleopatra. Promise,
And in our name, what she requires; add more,
From thine invention, offers. Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will
  perjure
The ne'er-touch'd Vestal. Try thy cunning,
  Thyreus.
                                                 (III.xii.27-31)

and he repeatedly assures Cleopatra that he intends her no shame, only in order to preserve her from suicide so that he might lead her through Rome in triumph. "… feed, and sleep," he says to her at last, as if she were being fattened for lions. To be sure, Octavius is not so heartless as to remain untouched by the love and death of Antony and Cleopatra. When he hears of Antony's suicide, he says that "it is a tidings to wash the eyes of kings"; and when at last Cleopatra has frustrated his designs by her suicide, nevertheless he orders her to be buried with Antony in full solemnity. "… their story is / No less in pity than his glory which / Brought them to be lamented," he says at the end. But these generous sentiments are never permitted to qualify his political opportunism, as when, his eyes freshly washed by the tidings of Antony's death, he renews his effort to deceive Cleopatra so that she may be led through Rome in triumph. He said of the dead Antony, "I must perforce / Have shown thee such a declining day, / Or look on thine," voicing a political theory that is conspicuous in Plutarch, but which the play has shown is not in the least shared by Antony. The ideological rigidity of his commitment to this theory is the principal source of Caesar's mischievous politics.

Octavius is only the play's most conspicuous example of Roman opportunism and duplicity. In Menas, Pompey, and in Antony himself, we have further evidence of degradation in the political values of Rome. To Menas' grotesque plan for cutting loose the ship on which the triumvirs are feasting and then cutting their throats, Pompey makes a hypocritical reply that is equally characteristic of Shakespeare's English and his Roman plays:

               Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoken on't! In me 'tis villany;
In thee 't had been good service. Thou must
  know,
'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it. Repent that e'er thy tongue
Hath so betray'd thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found if afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now. Desist, and drink.
                                  (II.vii.79-86)

Antony's lieutenant Ventidius shows another facet of debased Roman honor when, after his victory in Parthia, he explains that although he can conquer still more territory for Antony, Antony would become jealous if he did. He makes in advance the necessary adjustment of Antony's profit to Antony's honor: "Better to leave undone, than by our deed / Acquire too high a fame, when him we serve's away." (III.i.14-15)

This public world is naturally impatient of private feelings. Its calculating politics drain off the passions; and Octavius exemplifies its norm of temperament as well as its public practice. In his political efficiency he rejects everything personal, whether it is Antony's challenge to individual combat, or the reeling camaraderie of Pompey's banquet. Coupled with his devastating exposure of Roman pretensions in the banquet scene on Pompey's galley—both in the drunkenness of the celebrants and in Menas' plan for killing them—Shakespeare gives us a portrait of Octavius as nevertheless the most repellent Roman of them all. His superior restraint only enhances his unloveliness. This impersonality permeates his conduct throughout the play, from his reference to his sister as a "piece of virtue" that will "cement" him to Antony, to his desire to show his love for her publicly, "Which, left unknown, / Is often left unlov'd," and finally to his effort to humiliate Cleopatra. Attempting to woo Cleopatra from Antony, Thyreus says of his master:

                  But it would warm his spirits
To hear from me you had left Antony

And put yourself under his shrowd,
The universal landlord.
                                      (III.xiii.69-72)

The juxtaposition of "warm … spirits," "shroud," and "universal landlord" implies a fundamental inhumanity that is Caesar's private counterpart to his political practice.

In this respect Octavia is unhappily her brother's sister. To all Romans but Enobarbus—to Octavius, Agrippa, Maecenas, Menas, and Antony himself—she is an ideal woman; and all share Maecenas' hope that her "beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle / The heart of Antony." We come to perceive and admire these virtues, and so does Antony. But they cannot settle his heart, because Octavia appeals only to that forensic fragment of himself that found its halting voice in the overblown rhetoric of his farewell to Cleopatra. Enobarbus explains with customary accuracy her incompatibility with Antony: "Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation"; and her attempt to reconcile Antony and Octavius, although it is nobly aimed at preserving peace in the family and the world, is inadequately grounded in loyalty to Antony and justifies the description.

Shakespeare's image of Rome, then, is variegated and complex, yet coherent. I have spoken of the degradation of Roman values; but behind that lies a high ideal of selfless devotion to the public good, a belief that honor, honesty, and order come before profit and pleasure, and that men must be loyal above all to those public duties that guarantee the human community. This ideal brings Antony back to Rome and prompts his marriage to Octavia. But behind the idealized public values is the suppression of private feeling and the cold impersonality of the political leader. This human inadequacy of the Roman ideal leaves Antony's marriage spiritually unconsummated and frees him for Egypt. At its worst the Roman ideal is perverted into Octavius' systematic spoliation of the world. At its best it produces the holy coldness of Octavia, in whom the breath of life has been diminished almost to nothing.

Cleopatra is set in deliberate contrast to Octavia, and Cleopatra is nothing less than Egypt and human feeling. She is all heat and motion and immoderate overflowing; she can barely be contained in loving, teasing, and then missing Antony, and is overwhelmed into a kind of madness by her jealousy of Octavia. She is truly the incarnation of private life, and she begins by regarding all public loyalties as forms of timeserving. She resists totally Antony's efforts to subject his personal life to public standards: she assumes that his Roman obligations are distracting and irrelevant to his life with her, and she is merely impatient to discover that "A Roman thought hath struck him." Later she will be schooled to the importance of public values, so that after Antony's death she chooses to kill herself "after the high Roman fashion." But at the beginning she balances Octavius and his sister by showing us both the perversion and the human inadequacy of merely private values.

In one sense Cleopatra is committed to the public world from the start, simply as Queen of the Nile. Like Richard II, Prince Hal, and Julius Caesar, she is a public figure whether she likes it or not; and like them, she takes a histrionic satisfaction in her role. But she refuses to honor by word or deed the expectations of the public world. She uses her public status simply as an instrument of her pleasure and an extension of her privacy. She is selfish and spoiled, and she overcomes all obstacles to her desire simply by making the world her oyster. For one thing, she needs the world as a large enough stage to support her Alexandrian revels. Nothing less than the public eye can do justice to the scope and vitality of her private life, and all her pleasures (or almost all) are had in the open. In the play's first scene Antony proposes their evening's sport, not by inviting her to bed, but by reminding her of her wish to "wander through the streets and note / The qualities of people." Later Enobarbus reports,

                     I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and
  panted,
That she did make defect perfection
And, breathless, pow'r breathe forth.
                                            (II.ii.233-37)

and we never think to ask what was the occasion for this performance, for in Enobarbus' description the action justifies itself. Cleopatra and "the public street" are ornaments to each other, and they measure each other's value. In the same way the grandeur of her appearance at Cydnus, in Enobarbus' famous description, constitutes an autonomous value, since her perfumes and her fans and her mermaids command the homage of the city and of nature.

But however much Cleopatra lives her intimate life in the open air, private and public values do not meet and merge in her. Her beauty and passion vanquish all other considerations, and the public world exists simply to show her off. Cleopatra recognizes as a condition of her grandeur that she must outwit the world and bend it to her purpose. She devotes her intelligence and energy to cultivating those wily arts by which she can impose her interests upon the world and twist its great men around her fingers. The world must either be her plaything, as when she is ready to "unpeople" Egypt and fill the sea with messengers to express her passion for Antony, or it must be her enemy until it can be made her plaything.

From the beginning Egypt is her plaything, Rome her enemy. Whether the values of Rome are represented by Antony or Octavius, Enobarbus or Thyreus or Octavia, she deploys her cunning to subdue them to her will. When Antony has been struck by his "Roman thought" at the beginning of the play, she sets out to trick him in order to recapture his attention. At Actium she flees apparently out of fear; but her flight is also consistent with the strategy of beguilement by which she has ever tried to keep Antony from taking his honor too seriously. After the defeat at Actium she flirts with Thyreus, reminding him that she has had other lovers before Antony, and subtly implying that Caesar might be next. And she continues bargaining with Caesar, first through his underlings and then directly, even as she is tricking Antony into killing himself because of the false report of her death.

This wiliness of Cleopatra's is surely aimed at saving her own skin; but it has also a broader and more profound purpose. She is no less deceitful toward her lover than toward their common enemies, because she supposes that all public commitments, Antony's no less than Caesar's, threaten the integrity of her existence. She recognizes no distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Roman world, and until Antony's death she is blind to his growing difference from Octavius. At the beginning of the play she mocks Antony's Roman business, urging him to hear the messengers:

Nay, hear them, Antony.
Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His pow'rful mandate to you: 'Do this, or this;
Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that.
Perform't, or else we damn thee.'
                                      (I.i.19-24)

And near the end of the play, on the day of Antony's short-lived victory by land, she voices precisely the same attitude:

                               Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?
                                            (IV.viii.16-18)

There is something oddly inappropriate in this response to Antony's victory. Almost all critics of the play, whatever their disagreements about other matters, regard the land battle as a moral triumph for Antony. Win or lose, do or die, Antony has momentarily overcome his weakness and stood up to the mark. But what we regard as a triumph Cleopatra considers a lucky escape; what we think is Antony's true and proper business she calls "the world's great snare." His "infinite virtue," for her, is something more than his having come off with his life: he has been "uncaught" spiritually as well as physically. He is smilingly aloof from his own victory.

There is evidence that Cleopatra has always expected Antony to take for granted her unremitting contempt for public values that threaten her comfort. She not only keeps betraying him but seems to assume that he should have expected her to do so, and not have taken offense. At Actium she insists upon participating in the battle, against the advice of Enobarbus and others, "as the president of my kingdom." But it is clear from everything we have learned about her, and from her conduct at Actium, that the entire function of the president of her kingdom is to become the object of universal gaze and wonder. Actium, like Cydnus, is for her a parade ground; and after the debacle she is surprised to discover that Antony supposed differently: "O my lord, my lord, / Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought / You would have followed." Her business at Actium was to cavort upon that stage where Antony made war. After the defeat she flirts with Thyreus not with the desire to betray Antony but only because she is Cleopatra; and again she is genuinely surprised that Antony should suspect her loyalty. To his charge that she has "mingled eyes" with Thyreus, she answers, "Not know me yet?"; and her magnificent speech that follows (III.xiii. 158-67) indicates that this remark is in no way disingenuous.

Cleopatra dazzles us by her wild effort to personalize all of life and to vivify the world by her beauty and her passions. To our own time, which repeatedly compares itself regretfully to Rome, her celebration of the self, with all its recklessness, seems vastly preferable to all calculated claims to selfless public virtue. But her recklessness is finally self-destructive. It is not simply that in her antipathy to Rome she resorts to deceits and violence that subvert legitimate public values like honesty, loyalty, marriage, and public order, no less than Octavius ignores private values. Just as the ideal of Roman public life, carried far enough, becomes in Octavius the impersonal Machiavellian cynicism that is its opposite, so Cleopatra's persistence merely in private pleasure brings her to an inchoate restlessness where the self has no contour and therefore no substance. At the beginning of the play her quick shifts from mirth to sadness are designed to beguile only Antony. But in the three marvelous scenes where she is busy missing Antony, when she shifts from dreams of mandragora to dreams of former lovers, and from music to billiards to fishing, she is trying to beguile herself; and without the discipline of any commitment to those public values that have separated Antony from her, she is as unsuccessful with herself as she was with him. Her spirit can find no rest, and finally loses all coherence in venting itself upon the messenger who brings the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. We find that outburst bewitching, perhaps, but only in the same uncomfortable way that we admire Octavius' sobriety at Pompey's banquet. For Cleopatra is doing violence not only to the messenger but to herself. In Cleopatra as in Octavius there is a surrender of human dignity, in him by an excessive self-control that stifles emotion, and in her by a failure of control that dissipates all emotion and causes Charmian to cry out, "Good madam, keep yourself within yourself, / The man is innocent." Rome and Egypt truly require the discipline of each other.

Charles Wells (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Love," in The Wide Arch: Roman Values in Shakespeare, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 150-72.

[In the following essay, Wells discusses the austerity that characterizes the Roman view of love and passion in Antony and Cleopatra. He comments: "Shakespeare suggests that the political world is irredeemably flawed and that it must yield before the higher claims of a personal commitment and devotion. "]

However widely Shakespeare ranged among his classical source material for Antony and Cleopatra he would have found little if any sympathy shown towards the famous lovers. Plutarch, upon whom he leaned most heavily, regarded them as degenerate in the extreme. North's translation describes Antony as a 'dissolute man' whose 'ill name to intice men's wives' made the nobility 'hate him for his naughty life'. Horace and Virgil endorse this view, regarding it as axiomatic that his love for Cleopatra undermined both his physical and his moral strength, though one should remember that they were avowed apologists for the Augustan regime. Most scathing of Antony's critics was Cicero whose Second Philippic confronts him with a virulent denunciation that springs from the bitterest personal antipathy:

You are a drink-sodden, sex-obsessed wreck.… In the Assembly, in full public view, we watched a man in high office of state spewing into his own lap and flooding the platform with vomit that stank of wine.… Day after day your revolting orgies carried on … until the house reverberated with the din of drunkards and the walls and pavements ran with drink.

Cleopatra fares little better. Plutarch considers her love for Antony to be no different from her previous amours with Caesar and Pompey, all of them merely tactical manoeuvrings inspired by her political ambition. It was, he writes, 'the last and extremest mischief of all other which lighted on Antony'. Horace goes further, describing her as a fatale monstrum or Fury.

Medieval writers, by and large, maintained this disapproving stance. Dante assigned Cleopatra to the second circle of Hell with Dido, Helen and Semiramis, all women whose lechery had overcome their reason, while Boccaccio described Antony as a man 'dragged into infamy by his unbridled lust.' Chaucer, in The Legend of Good Women, though more sympathetic towards the lovers' plight, regards Antony as a man so ensnared by his raging desire 'That al the world he sette at no value' (1.599). Cleopatra he calls a 'martyr' in recognition of her courageous end.

Anon the nadderes gonne hire for to stynge,
And she hire deth receyveth with good cheere.
                                         (1.698)

Only with the evolution of the Courtly Love ethic, together with those literary conventions that we now label 'Petrarchan', do we find any radical reassessment of the values involved in the relationship and, for the first time, a recognition that the celebrated affair might contain elements that were ennobling and even magnificent. Spenser, in the Faerie Queene, is torn between the two traditions. Like Chaucer he marvels at

… beauty's lovely bait, that doth procure
Great warriors oft their rigour to represse
And mighty hands forget their manlinesse,
                                      (V.viii.i)

but the tone of the next stanza conveys a thrilling awareness that perhaps the world may indeed be governed by the lover's heart.

And so did warlike Antony neglect
The world's whole rule for Cleopatra's sight.
Such wondrous power hath women's faire aspect
To captive men and make them all the world
  reject.

It is not that the ancients were unaware of beauty's charms, of course, far from it. Plutarch himself makes an observation that pre-empts Petrarch by well over a thousand years: 'The sould of a lover lives in another body and not in his own' he remarks, describing Antony's flight from Actium, though the romantic effect of his words is somewhat negated by the image that follows, at least in North's translation:

He was so carried away with the vaine love of this woman as if he had beene glued unto her and that she could not have removed without moving of him also.

It is, however, a momentary lapse on Plutarch's part. The tenor of his account conveys the idea of passion as a 'sweete poysoun'. Plato called lust 'a horse of the mind' because of its tendency to run out of control and North's rendering employs the resounding phrase: 'the unreyned lust of concupiscence', a sentiment that is typically Roman in its implications.

The Stoics and the Epicureans both regarded love as a form of madness, almost a mental disease. The standard Roman epithet was insanus. Love was supremely irrational and, taken to extremes, threatened order and stability. Let poets indulge in it if they would. In statesmen it was an affliction to be mocked or pitied. Cicero, a great believer in moral restraint as a virtue in itself, warned of the dire consequences that ensued when appetites ran riot. The controlling hand of reason must always be applied. Animals are motivated solely by physical pleasure, he argued, but man has the gift of reason. 'The man who is too prone to succumb to sensual delights should beware of becoming an animal himself, he opined darkly in the De Officiis.

In Shakespeare's play, Enobarbus is the principal spokesman for this Roman view of love. 'The tears live in an onion', he tells Antony, 'that should water [his] sorrow' at Fulvia's death. By the Roman code, to show emotion, even at the death of a wife, is to suggest weakness and deficiency. Later he says censoriously that Antony

             … would make his will
Lord of his reason.
                                         (Ant. III.xiii.4)

He contemptuously dismisses his love for Cleopatra as a minor ailment, calling it 'the itch of his affection', though it is, he concedes, powerful enough to 'have nick'd his captainship'.

The play's opening line establishes the Roman stance.

Nay but this dotage of our general's …

Three of the first four words carry negative connotations, Shakespeare telling the audience at the outset to expect Roman moderation and common sense to be weighed against the irrational force of love. Bottom, that most improbable of romantic lovers, pointed out that 'Reason and love keep little company together' (MND. III.i.138) and his observation might serve as a synopsis of the tragedy. The marriage to Octavia is founded upon reason rather than love and founders upon the same implacable rock. In the words of Ovid:

Conscience and common sense and all Love's
  enemies
Will be dragged along with hands tied behind
  their backs.

Rome's dignified orderliness seems incompatible with passionate love and yet the very precariousness of the protagonists' love, in fact, ensures its endurance, paradoxically.

The theme of amor does not bulk large in the totality of extant Roman literature but it enjoyed a spectacular, if shortlived, flowering in the latter days of the Republic and at the beginning of the Empire, precisely the period covered by Shakespeare's two 'Antony' plays.

Horace, like Cicero, felt that passion should be an indulgence left to the young. In the older man libido becomes an absurdity. It is a game of musical chairs, not something to be taken too seriously. He would no doubt have endorsed Rosalind's dry comment in As You Like It: 'Men have died … and worms have eaten them—but not for love!' Ovid echoes this irreverent attitude but extends it further. For him love is a fascination, even an artistic pursuit. His celebrations of promiscuity were felt by Augustus to undermine his new edicts against adultery and in consequence, it is said, his books were banned from libraries and the poet himself sent into exile on the shores of the Black Sea. Even Ovid, however, sometimes kept both feet on the ground, conceding cheerfully that 'love yields to business: be busy and you are safe.' Frivolity, in the end, must give way to the solemn concerns of politics once the young have had their fling. The lustful youth was urged to expend his energies upon tarts and prostitutes, a course of action advocated with particular vehemence by Cato and by Terence.

Marriage, in Roman thinking, was not a matter of passion but a means toward the formation of alliances advantageous in the world of public affairs. Certain of the love elegists themselves employed terms such as nugae and lusus—trifles or playthings—to describe their writings, their self-deprecation making it clear that they did not expect these outpourings to be considered alongside verse devoted to more serious themes. Again we may turn to Enobarbus to represent the characteristically Roman point of view:

Under a compelling cause let women die: it were pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause they should be esteemed nothing.

(Ant. I.ii.134)

One hears in his words another echo of Cicero.

We were not created by nature to spend our time in frivolous jesting.… Frivolity has its place … but as a means of recreation when serious and important matters have been attended to.

(De Officiis I.29.103)

The ridiculous contortions inflicted upon humankind by such unseemly indulgences provided entertainment for the gods, we are told. Ovid's comment to this effect in the Ars Amatoria is translated by Shakespeare, almost word for word, in Juliet's gentle teasing of Romeo on the balcony:

                At lovers' perjuries
They say Jove laughs.
                                              (Rom. II.ii.92)

'The sweete, wittie soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare', wrote the schoolmaster Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia. Later in the same passage he compares Shakespeare to Catullus as among 'the best lyrick poets … the most passionate among us to bemoane the perplexities of love'.

Catullus, together with Propertius and Tibullus, defied the traditional Roman attitude towards the passions. For them love was no game but life's most serious occupation. Catullus loved in the teeth of common sense, torn, in his feelings for Lesbia, between ecstasy and pain. 'Odi et amo', he wrote in one celebrated verse.

I hate, yet love: you ask how this may be.
Who knows? I feel its truth and agony.
                                (Carmina lxxxv)

Like Antony he struggles against his mistress' allure, breaking away from her only to be drawn back by her irresistible magnetism. 'A woman's words to her lover should be written in wind and running water', Catullus says, and we are reminded of Antony's baffled despair at Cleopatra's desertion of him at Actium.

                                    Betray'd I am.
O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm
Whose eye beck'd forth my wars and call'd
  them home;
Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,
Like a right gipsy, hath at fast and loose
Beguil'd me, to the very heart of loss.
                                         (Ant. IV.xii.24)

Catullus' work contains a fervour comparable to that of Robert Burns. He is the first writer to chronicle, in all its sharp intensity, through a whole series of poems, one particular love affair and his influence upon the Renaissance was profound. Petrarch is greatly indebted to him and both Shakespeare and Marlowe, among many others, fell beneath his spell.

Tibullus, like Antony, finds that the claims of love are as alluring as the prospect of military fame.

Here among the brawls of love, I am general
  and valiant soldier.

Militia amoris, the service of love, detains both from more literal battlefields.

Propertius, who has been likened to Byron and Rossetti, was a great romantic well over a millennium before such a concept came to be recognised. His tempestuous affair with 'Cynthia' prompted the most passionate amatory verse to be found—in European literature at least—before the late middle ages. All orthodox Roman values he throws to the wind in his blind obsession with his mistress. Like Shakespeare's lovers he asserts his passion's own rationale, its own validity. 'Conquered nations mean nothing to one in love', he declared, his feelings for Cynthia outweighing all considerations of wealth, power and nobility. He surrenders himself totally to amor and has no wish to be rescued from its grip. In his frenzied desire he comes close to madness, feeling the torments of a Tantalus. The frustrated lover finds that 'the water deceives his thirst, ever moving away from his parched lips'.

It is a situation that would have appalled the conventional Roman mind with its staid insistence upon order, balance and proportion—a mind, in fact, like Philo's who, in the play's opening speech, informs us that Antony's infatuation

                        … reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.
                                   (Ant. I.i.8)

The metaphor suggests that the sexual act simultaneously quenches and rekindles desire, as though the lover is a Sisyphus condemned to roll a rock up a hill whose summit is unattainable. Hamlet recalls his mother's passion for his dead father in similar terms:

               Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on.
                                  (Ham. I.ii.143)

Again it falls to Enobarbus to express Rome's bewilderment—not untinged with awe—at Cleopatra's limitless fascination.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
                                  (Ant. II.ii.235)

Whatever the source of her mysterious allure it is a matter of some convenience for Pompey, another of sound Roman temperament.

Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both,
Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,
Keep his brain fuming.
                                       (Ant. II.i.22)

This sexual paranoia will, he hopes, detain 'the ne'er-lust-wearied Antony' safely in Egypt, 'proroguing' his Roman honour and thus leaving the seas to him. From the traditional Roman standpoint it is the fulfilment of the prophecy Venus makes on the death of Adonis when, in Shakespeare's early poem, she says of love:

It shall be raging mad and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.
                                 (V & A 1151)

Antony experiences this madness more than once during the course of the play. 'The shirt of Nessus is upon me!' (Ant. IV.xii.43) he cries out, for example, when the 'triple-turn'd whore' deserts him at the height of battle.

Troilus, forced to confront a still more devastating betrayal of love, probes the nature of rationality's collapse:

                 O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bifold authority! Where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt. This is, and is not, Cressid.
                                   (Troil. V.ii.141)

Like Tibullus he is faced with a 'traitoress, but, though traitoress, still beloved'.

To Antony we may apply, in reverse, Brutus' celebrated comment about Caesar:

I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason.
                                       (Caes. II.i.20)

In the later play, received Roman wisdom is flouted at every turn. Antony's challenge to these conventional values reflects the sense that, in the process of establishing the Empire, the old Republican certainties are beginning to dissolve. Antony and Cleopatra contains much harking back to the Republic. Octavius, for example, recalls how Antony once, in time of famine, subsisted upon horse urine, hedge berries and the bark of trees, bearing the privation 'like a soldier'. Now, in his 'dotage', he feasts kings in Alexandria and lets a woman wear the sword with which he overcame Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. The virtus cult is undermined and Stoicism gives way to dissipation. Philo invites us to watch

The triple pillar of the world transform'd
Into a strumpet's fool.
                                            (Ant. I.i.12)

Antony has fallen short of the rigorous Roman ideal as he himself admits to Octavia: 'I have not kept my square' (Ant. II.iii.6).

As the play progresses, however, we see an alternative value system emerge. The 'squareness' of Octavian Rome comes to seem increasingly unappealing. Grey, efficient, solid, linear, its attractions pall beside the colourful, fluid world of warmth and feeling that Egypt represents and out of which the lovers create their own private raison d'être. High Octavian principle degenerates, by contrast, into shabby compromise and expediency. Roman firmness now comes to seem tedious and sterile against the lovers' quicksilver world of the imagination.

Octavius' own world can be measured, indeed it is circumscribed, predicated upon calculation, security and limit. Antony, on the other hand, finds beggary in that which can be reckoned.

The earlier works are not without their questioning of Roman values, but here Shakespeare subjects them to the intensest scrutiny and finds them deeply flawed. There is no doubting the relentless practicality of the Roman system. Organised, cautious and industrious, Octavius epitomises the virtues of his people. Will-power and obedience ally themselves to seriousness, discipline and moderation. Individuality is always subordinate to the larger interests of the state. He has a weightiness, dignity and self-control which is impressive, certainly, but highly unromantic. By comparison with Egyptian brio Rome seems staid and dull. Octavius is called, by Thidias, 'the universal land-lord' and the phrase suits him well. His personality, like his sister's, is 'cold and sickly', lending 'narrow measure' to his rare words of approbation. Antony's generous warmth had, we are told, 'no winter in't' but was autumnal, growing (like his lust) 'the more by reaping'. When, near the end, Cleopatra declares''tis paltry to be Caesar' and reduces Octavius to the status of 'ass unpolicied' we readily find in him and all he represents that very 'diminution' of which Enobarbus spoke in condemning Antony.

Unlike that of his more successful counterpart, however, Antony's stature grows, posthumously, in the final act, achieving through the lens of Cleopatra's soaring rhapso-dies, a god-like aura. By comparison Octavius seems strictly earthbound and unheroic. When he says to Maecenas:

                 Within our files there are,
Of those that serv'd Mark Antony but late
Enough to fetch him in. See it done.
                                   (Ant. IV.i.12)

he refers, of course, to units of his army and not to the systematised documentation of the modern administrator but, by an etymological quirk, the latter sense would not be inappropriate, for he is every inch the efficient bureaucrat.

There are, it should be said, two Antonies. 'A Roman thought hath struck him' (Ant. I.ii.80), observes Cleopatra with a certain irony. He switches easily from Egyptian back to Roman mode, even his syntax changing to the measured rhythms and careful articulation appropriate to this context, as Julian Markels points out in his perceptive study of the play [The Pillar of the World].

The marriage to Octavia is the essence of Roman statesmanship. Devotion to Cleopatra does not make him any the better able to endure the bitterness of military defeat, although it is his despair at her supposed death rather than his soldierly honour that propels him the final step towards his very Roman suicide.

In both the lovers, passion and politics are inextricably mingled—indeed each becomes, in some sense, an expression of the other. Cleopatra understands her partner's need to maintain his Roman honour, irksome to her though its consequences are. Antony's status as 'world sharer' earns her chronicle as well as his, and in it her love for him is spectacularly affirmed.

I made these wars for Egypt and the queen
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine.
                                 (Ant. IV.xiv.15)

It is ironic that Cleopatra should undermine those Roman virtues in her lover which she most admires, only to assume, at the end, that marble constancy which for so long eluded Antony. Her own stoic death emphasises the inseparability of love and power in the play. The poison takes her with Antony's name upon her lips and the crown of Egypt upon her head. How characteristically Shakespearean a touch that it should have slipped a little out of true.

The choice between love and worldly power is an impossible one for either of them to make which is why, ultimately, they refuse to choose at all. In seeking to inhabit both worlds they are crushed between the two. But then, as Ovid wrote in the Amores:

Love on a plate soon palls—
Like eating too much cake …
If you want what's easy to get,
Pick leaves off trees, drink Tiber water!

Roman tradition, as we have seen, insisted in excluding amor from the pursuit of statesmanship. The softer feelings had no place in public affairs of any kind. On a battlefield they are preposterous. To be defeated in the normal way is shame enough. Antony's humiliation, like his love, 'o'erflows the measure'.

                            Now I must
To the young man send humble treaties, dodge
And palter in the shifts of lowness, who
With half the bulk o'the world play'd as I
  pleas'd,
Making and marring fortunes. You did know
How much you were my conqueror, and that
My sword, made weak by my affection, would
Obey it on all cause.
                             (Ant. III.xi.62)

In Antony, manliness and love refuse to be made incompatible. Cleopatra's 'Pardon! Pardon!' is swiftly answered.

Fall not a tear, I say. One of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.
Even this repays me.
                                  (Ant. III.xi.69)

It is not a sentiment to be found in the earlier Roman plays, nor does Coriolanus arrive at the recognition until just before the end.

                               O, a kiss
Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!
                                  (Cor. V.iii.44)

One is reminded of Macduff's words on hearing that his wife and children have been slaughtered by Macbeth. 'Dispute it like a man!' Malcolm urges, to receive the striking answer:

    I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.
                                 (Mac. IV.iii.221)

The passage points towards Shakespeare's growing dis-satisfaction with that hard-edged austerity which previously engaged his admiration. Where was the room for human warmth in the Roman code? Even John Calvin, not most people's idea of a sentimentalist, had commented upon this deficiency:

We observe then how completely the Romans were without natural affection, loving neither their wives nor the female sex …

Confronted by his mother, wife and child, Coriolanus' stubborn virtus finally yields, and he is forced to the realisation that 'doves' eyes … can make gods forsworn'. To his discomfiture he feels his Roman hardness start to dissolve.

         I melt and am not
Of stronger earth than others.
                                   (Cor. V.iii.28)

This imagery of melting is the key motif in Antony and Cleopatra. Indeed it might well be argued that in no play of Shakespeare's is more meaning conveyed by one particular strand of metaphor.

Rome has a massive firmness and solidity, an austere grandeur which lacks the capacity to accommodate itself to the urgings of the heart as opposed to the head. Its values are frozen in the past, marmoreal, statuesque. They tower forbiddingly over each new generation which feels, in its turn, daunted by the legacy it has been bequeathed, as though a weight is bearing down upon its shoulders, pressurising it towards conformity. Octavia epitomises this intimidating petrifaction. 'Cold and still' as she is,

She shows a body, rather than a life,
A statue, than a breather.
                                        (Ant. III.ii.20)

She represents that 'squareness' which her husband, by his own admission, has failed to keep. Against this measured angularity we find juxtaposed images of fluidity and evanescence. The positive manner in which this 'Egyptian' imagery is presented leaves little doubt as to where Shakespeare's sympathies lie. Roman firmness and linearity have come to seem rigid, tedious and sterile.

At Egypt's heart is her mercurial Queen. 'Varium et mutabile semper femina,' wrote Virgil in the Aeneid. 'Woman was ever fickle and volatile.' Aeneas is referring to Dido, Queen of Carthage, Cleopatra's alter ego it might be said. Her love is uncontainable, spilling over far beyond the 'bourn' that, teasingly, she sets down for it in the opening scene. If Rome is the sea wall then Cleopatra is the turbulent sea. Water is her element. Her power depends upon a navy not an infantry. Our most vivid picture of her, painted again by Enobarbus, depicts her on the River Cydnus, her barge rowed by silver oars

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster
As amorous of their strokes.
                                 (Ant. II.ii.199)

There is, as Susan Snyder has demonstrated, [in Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra], a purposelessness and a frivolity in the movements we associate with Egypt—drifting, fanning, floating, hopping—which contrasts tellingly with Roman stolidity and stasis. Skittishness and caprice are in the very air which, but for the laws of physics, would have

      … gone to gaze on Cleopatra too
And made a gap in nature.
                                        (Ant. II.ii.218)

Antony's whimsical observation of the sky reflects his uneasiness at the shifting nature of the values in this Egyptian world from which hard-edged restraint is so markedly absent.

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapour sometime, like a bear or lion …
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
                              (Ant. IV.xiv.2-11)

Enobarbus' lame response—'It does, my lord'—conveys a characteristic Roman bewilderment in the face of what appears to him a moral free-for-all. Antony shares this perplexity, wrestling with its implications but never able to find the firm ground upon which Octavius stands.

What our contempts doth often hurl from us
We wish it ours again. The present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself.
                                  (Ant. I.ii.120)

Such insecurity is the inevitable concomitant, Shakespeare seems to imply, of that intense outpouring of passionate feeling which dominates the play and which is so alien to the Roman cast of mind as revealed in earlier texts such as Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar. A love like Antony's and Cleopatra's cannot be built upon secure foundations but bobs upon a swaying tide of precariousness and ambiguity. The play's central image is dissolution and mutability, as we have seen. The lovers, like the cloud, are unable to 'hold this visible shape', losing distinction in a way that recalls The Phoenix and the Turtle.

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one:
Two distincts, division none;
Number there in love was slain.

Love unlocks a power to pass beyond the physical limitations of the self, Shakespeare suggests.

Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new
  earth.
                                         (Ant. I.i.17)

It is an idea that would have been incomprehensible in Rome.

Like the moon and the Nile—both important emblems in the play—the lovers are in perpetual flux and yet, underlying this, is a deeper constancy than that embodied by Octavian rigorousness. By overflowing its bounds the Nile fertilises the surrounding land. New life emerges from the slime, putrescence being another mode of melting.

Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring,
                                               (Ant. V.ii.59)

proclaims Cleopatra in a vehement flight of rhetoric. She must, emblematically, decay into the fluidity of the river in order to be reborn as 'fire and air'.

Poets like Tibullus and Propertius, possessed as they were by love, regarded it as slavery and imprisonment. In Shakespeare's hands, however, it becomes release. Just as, in its setting, Antony and Cleopatra ranges far more widely than any of the other Roman plays,—spanning, in purely geographic terms, most of the known world,—so, equally, in the values it affirms, we recognise a much broader vision, a more comprehensive sensibility.

Here defeat can be liberating, victory a hollow mockery as it is for Octavius in Cleopatra's monument. Antony's suicide differs fundamentally from those of Brutus and Cassius. Theirs are relatively straightforward deeds, true to the spirit of the Roman honour code, but Antony's death serves many ends in one. Like them he dies, in part, to avoid the humiliation of defeat and with an eye to his posterity,

                            … a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish'd.
                                                (Ant. IV.xv.57)

Thus far, at least, he conforms to the tradition of Stoic fortitude and heroism. His suicide, additionally, like Cleopatra's, 'Shackles accidents and bolts up change' (Ant. V.ii.6). In a world of dynamism and fluctuation they are finally at rest. Not for them the Pax Augusta, stretching ahead, flat, methodical and colourless, but the more vibrant fixity of myth.

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous,
                                       (Ant. V.ii.357)

Octavius declares with unconscious ambiguity. Uniquely among Shakespeare's Romans they die for love in true romantic vein, like a Romeo and a Juliet, while, at the same time, affirming their virtus and their Stoic spirit. Suicide is the ultimate validation of their love.

Unlike their Roman predecessors they envisage a personal survival beyond the grave.

                                          Stay for me
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
  hand
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts
  gaze.
                               (Ant. IV .xiv.50)

They die to be mystically reunited, as in a marriage of fire and air, and to find a constancy denied to them in the turbulence of this life. Antony runs like a bridegroom to a lover's bed while Cleopatra completes the wedding ceremony:

                             Husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title.
                               (Ant. V.ii.286)

Love and death form a 'knot intrinsicate'. Earlier she has been all 'winds and waters', as Enobarbus reports. One is reminded of a line in Venus and Adonis:

For men have marble, women waxen minds.
                                     (V & A 1240)

Whatever her earlier vacilliation, however, she becomes 'marble constant' in making away with herself 'after the high Roman fashion'. Like Antony she combines cold fortitude with hot, erotic flame.

              We have no friend
But resolution and the briefest end.
                                     (Ant. IV.xv.90)

Shakespeare's choice of the word 'resolution' here ingeniously encapsulates the essence of the play. Through the firm 'resolve' of her suicide her problems will be 'resolved', or melted, in the 'resolution' of her life from Octavian substance to an insubstantiality that belongs to a dimension of the imagination of which such as he can have no inkling.

Only Propertius, of Roman poets, envisages love's power to transcend death in any personal sense.

Others may clasp thee now—soon I alone;
Thou shalt be mine and mingle bone with bone.

His elegies, with their mysterious loveliness, their eerie glamour, are quite alien to the Roman cast of mind as we traditionally understand it. Like Shakespeare's famous couple, he feels passion so intensely that he cannot believe even death will bring it to an end. There must be something beyond.

Not so lightly has Cupid clung to my eyes
That my dust could forget and be free of love.

'There is a world elsewhere', as Coriolanus discovers, both in the geographical sense and as an alternative to the harsh virtus code. Antony, too, makes choices between 'Octavian' values—by which criteria he is 'the abstract of all faults / That all men follow'—and the intuitions of the leaping heart. Though he clings to the remnants of his Romanitas, it is the romantic impulse which takes possession of him. Shakespeare suggests that the political world is irredeemably flawed and that it must yield before the higher claims of a personal commitment and devotion. We are confronted with the startling thought that the love of two individuals can outweigh piled centuries of disembodied state.

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus. [He embraces Cleopatra.]
                                        (Ant. I.i.33)

Rome 'melts' for him as it does for Coriolanus, when, finally, he too becomes sufficiently 'a gosling to obey instinct' and, implicitly, to reject those 'colder reasons' that governed his behaviour to that point.

                       I will appear in blood.
I, and my sword, will earn our chronicle.
                               (Ant. III.xiii.175)

The words are Antony's, yet might easily be mistaken for Coriolanus'. Antony, though, fights that he may 'return once more / To kiss these lips' and, on the eve of battle, calls for yet 'one other gaudy night'.

Both men agonise about their identity. Coriolanus is conscious of being forced into a charade in which his true self becomes a mockery while Antony feels the need for defiant assertion of his selfhood.

I am Antony yet!
                            (Ant. III.xiii.93)

Like other Roman leaders, he speaks of himself frequently in the third person as though somehow to mythologise his own image. Indeed he goes further, claiming Hercules as his ancestor and identifying himself with Aeneas, another heroic figure to break from the arms of a weeping African queen.

The lovers, in a sense, dissolve into the higher reality of each other as an escape from the painful isolation of their own separate subjectivity. The exchange of clothes during what Octavius calls their 'lascivious wassails' may be seen as an external symbol of this merging. Octavius accuses Antony of effeminacy, declaring that he

             … is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he.
                                    (Ant. I.iv.5)

It is a charge not levelled against any other of Shakespeare's Romans and, in itself, indicative of the very different view of virtus—manliness—that predominates in this play.

What the classical world saw as weakness and decadence in Antony, Shakespeare presents as a superior strength. It is his love for Cleopatra that earns his place in posterity rather than his triumphs on the battlefield. It is not, however, a question merely of joining the Roman pantheon of fame or becoming, like Julius Caesar, some 'glorious star'. Here love challenges time in a far more personal sense.

Antony and Cleopatra inhabit a realm of idealisation that has little in common with the other Roman plays, quarrelling with the mundance in their search for a superior reality. The Queen insists that

                           … to imagine
An Antony were nature's piece, 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.
                                                 (Ant. V.ii.98)

Even fantasy balks at the task entrusted to it in recreating her dead lover. We are now 'past the size of dreaming'.

In their search for absolute value in their love the pair run up against the cruel paradox so cogently expressed by Troilus whose aching idealism is strongly reminiscent of their own:

This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the act confin'd; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.

(Troil. III.ii.77)

In Antony and Cleopatra, however, the lovers deny measure and limitation, regarding them as Octavian territory. Caesar may have the world if they may have each other.

Ah but a man's reach should exceed his grasp
Or what's a heaven for?

wrote Robert Browning. In this play, though, reach seems endlessly extensible, the lovers bursting through conventional constraint and glimpsing a kind of heaven that lies beyond. 'Measure' itself overflows as early as the second line. 'Octavian' quantification is denied with a wild abandon that recalls Catullus' most famous poem to Lesbia.

Give me a thousand kisses—more!
A hundred yet: add to the score
A second thousand kisses: then
Another hundred, and again
A thousand more, a hundred still,
So many thousands we fulfil …

For Shakespeare's lovers even such extravagant reckoning is the merest beggary. It is, therefore, peculiarly apt that, in the play's final moments, the coldly prosaic Octavius, the very epitome of Roman-ness, should be touched to lyricism by this ardent flame as he stands, wondering, by Cleopatra's throne. It is as though he recognises in the dead Queen a nobility that overshadows his own.

             She looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.
                                 (Ant. V.ii.344)

The ambivalent image of the 'toil' or net suggests her power to catch and hold an Antony in life or to let him slip, fluid, through the mesh like wind and water, to follow after and be reunited with her wherever she has gone.

The haunting words of Brutus spring to mind: 'I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time' (Caes. V.iii.103). Northrop Frye defined the heroic as 'something infinite imprisoned in the finite' [in Fools of Time], and in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare is much concerned with the transcending of time's limitation. He takes issue with Plutarch, who declared that Antony

… yeelded him selfe to goe with Celopatra into Alexandria, where he spent and lost in childish sports and idle pastimes the most pretious thing a man can spende and that is, time.

In the other Roman plays the emphasis is heavily on the past. Here, by contrast, Shakespeare searches for an accommodation between austere, illustrious history and the urgent immediacy of love. Works such as Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar represent Rome as monolithic permanence, sheer durability, as well as encouraging us to look forward to its semi-mystical destiny, as Virgil does in the Aeneid. It has, therefore, a timelessness of its own.

In this later play, however, Shakespeare is concerned with what, in Sonnet 15, he calls 'crowning the present'.

Make war against proportion'd course of time.
                                                (RL. 774)

Lucrece's demand is answered in Antony and Cleopatra. Time, like other aspects of quantification, exists to be defied. Antony, in particular, seeks refuge from the mocking reminders of his former greatness, earning Octavius' contemptuous comparison with

        … boys, who being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgement.
                                     (Ant. I.iv.31)

He, for his part, urges Octavius to 'be a child o'the time'. 'Possess it', answers Caesar, and this is what Antony sets out to do.

There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.
                                                  (Ant. I.i.46)

he tells Cleopatra, as though he has in mind Horace's famous maxim:

Harvest the day and leave as little as you can
  for tomorrow.

Feste's poignant song strikes a similar note in Twelfth Night:

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present joy hath present laughter.
                                              (Tw.N. II.iii.46)

'All length is torture' to Antony who will foreshorten time into a permanent 'now', a word which occurs forty-five times in the play. His preoccupation is shared by Cleopatra who feels a desperate need to locate him in the present moment:

Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he or sits
 he?
Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?
                                   (Ant. I.v.19)

Her crowning ambition is to lose herself totally in the immediacy of him:

                 O my oblivion is a very Antony
And I am all forgotten.            (Ant. I.iii.90)

'I must stay his time', she resolves, and in Alexandria the pair live their lives up to the hilt. The lamps burn late, as they do in the Boar's Head tavern, another world of garish anarchy. 'What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?' (1H.IV I.ii.6) says Hal to Falstaff as though he existed in a different dimension from the one encompassing ordinary men. Time, in other words, may be experiential and not dependent upon some disembodied clock.

The lovers absorb each moment with a fullness, an intensity, that is totally subjective, dissolving, as it were, potentiality out from the frozen world the Octavias inhabit into the passionate heat of actualisation. What Ulysses calls 'envious and calumniating time' may be cheated not in prolongation but in its opposite, that is by speeding the fleet-foot moment on its way. It is the philosophy expounded in Andrew Marvell's famous lines:

Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power;
Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run!

Octavius imagines he can thwart time by exhibiting Cleopatra in his victory parade.

                               Her life in Rome
Would be eternal in our triumph.
                                          (Ant. V.i.66)

But he is wrong. Time belongs to the lovers.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes.
                                         (Ant. I.iii.35)

'Eternity was.' The temporal paradox cuts direct to the heart of the play. Rome's statuesque grandeur looms above the lovers, cold and inexorable as an iceberg. In its huge shadow they rush together, to disappear in a blaze of splendour that is inversely proportionate to its duration in 'measurable' time. As Friar Lawrence tells their younger selves:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumphs die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume.
                                   (Rom. II.vi.19)

At the last the assembled Romans stand blinking in the incandescent afterglow of a passion they can never begin to comprehend.

Cleopratra

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16864

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 Cleopatra anticipates at the hands of the Roman comedians is perilously close to the treatment she in fact received in Shakespeare's theater, where the word boy had an immediate and obvious application to the actor who spoke it. Insisting upon the disparity between dramatic spectacle and reality, implying the inadequacy of the very performance in which it appears, the speech threatens for the moment the audience's acceptance of the dramatic illusion. And the moment when the threat occurs is the beginning of Cleopatra's suicide scene—her and her creator's last chance to establish the tragic worth of the protagonists and their action.

Recklessness, perhaps most apparent here, is in fact the keynote of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: it is the characteristic not only of the love and the lovers the play depicts but also of its dramatic technique. The play seems perfectly calculated to offend the rising tide of neoclassical taste and to disappoint rational expectation. The episodic structure, with its multiplicity of tiny scenes ranging in setting from one end of the known world to the other, directly opposed the growing neoclassical demand for the Unities; and even in the twentieth century it has often seemed unsatisfactory. Most recent critics, of course, argue that the structure is necessary to do "justice to the dimensions of the heroic portrayal," to present the thematic conflict between Roman and Egyptian values, and to evoke a world where "time and place do not matter," since "the dimensions of the play are not temporal but eternal; not local but spatial" [Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden]. And these demonstrations are generally convincing. In the long run, the structural peculiarities reveal themselves as functional embodiments of the peculiar vision that informs the play. But in the short run they remain disturbing. The bewildering parade of tiny, scattered scenes requires explanation, as does the diffusion of the catastrophe through the last two acts. If the issue of the action is to unite the lovers in death, surely the wide separation between Antony's suicide and Cleopatra's is troublesome.

Recklessness is apparent also in the language of the play, with its curious mixture of the most elevated Latinisms and the coarsest contemporary slang, its mixed metaphors, its elliptical constructions, and its exuberant disregard for grammatical convention. That boy is a verb is no anomaly in a play where hearts can "spaniel" at Antony's heels and the moon can "disponge" the damp of night upon Enobarbus. Anthimeria, or "the substitution of one part of speech for another" [according to Sister Miriam Joseph in Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Time], was an accepted figure of Elizabethan rhetoric, but like all figures, it was held to be a vice if used excessively. Moreover, by the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, the neoclassical demand for a style "pure and neat," "plaine and customary" was beginning to discredit the older fashion for rhetorical exuberance ["Timber: or Discoveries," in Ben Johnson, edited by C.H. Herford]. The inconstancy of style may seem less problematical than the structural eccentricity, for it can be explained as characteristic of Shakespeare's practice in his later plays or justified as the natural embodiment of the inconstancy in the behavior of the protagonists. Recent critics have also seen in the style an embodiment of the "metaphysical" quality of the play, showing "the same strain and discord within harmony, the same sense of diversity embraced and fused that is so characteristic of metaphysical poetry." In this view, the style becomes the necessarily paradoxical and hyperbolic expression of a vision that defies the limitations of logical categories. Yet here, as in the case of the structure, if the style is finally necessary, it is also initially reckless; and our initial impression of indecorum and irrationality contributes as much to the total effect as does our final recognition of its propriety as the necessary embodiment of a meaning that transcends rationality.

What is perhaps most rackless of all, and most offensive to neoclassical taste, is Shakespeare's presentation of his heroine, for his Egyptian queen repeatedly violates the rules of decorum. If Sir Philip Sidney found the mingling of kings and clowns distasteful, one can imagine his reaction to a queen who not only consorted with clowns but behaved suspiciously like one herself. "A boggler ever," Cleopatra repeatedly betrays Antony's trust. Moreover, in many scenes, her behavior is not simply ignoble but comical as well. In the first act, she repeatedly interrupts Antony's farewell with a ludicrous harangue. In the second, she hales the messenger from Rome up and down the stage, threatening, "I'll spurn thine eyes like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head." In the third, she extracts from that same messenger a patently falsified description of Octavia and drinks it in with absurd gullibility. What makes all this reckless, of course, is that Cleopatra is not finally a comic character or an object of scorn. This same Cleopatra is also, we are told—and told in the longest and most memorable speech in the play—the apotheosis of magnificence that greeted Mark Antony on the Cydnus. In the face of the conflicting evidence, some critics have ignored the comedy, and others have denied the nobility, but most today would agree with T. J. B. Spencer [in "The Roman Plays," in Shakespeare: The Writer and His Work], that "the behaviour of Cleopatra in the play, at least in the first four acts, does not quite correspond with the way in which some of the others talk about her," although they differ widely in their explanations of the incongruity.

The question of Cleopatra's worth can hardly be answered by reference to Antony's enslavement, for if Cleopatra is an ambiguous character, so is Antony, and his ambiguity is inextricably bound up with hers. In Antony's case, just as in Cleopatra's, the hard facts tend to suggest—and a number of the critics tend to agree—that the unsympathetic view is justified. The mismanagement of his military and political affairs, the repeated vacillations of his allegiance, and the bungling of his suicide provide ample evidence that Antony has diminished from the triple pillar of the world into a strumpet's fool. To the rationally minded this evidence is conclusive. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, was thoroughly convinced: "I always think of what Dr. Johnson said: 'Sir, the long and short of it is, the woman's a whore!' You can't feel any sympathy with Antony after … Actium.… All Shakespeare's rhetoric and pathos cannot reinstate Antony after that, or leave us with a single good word for his woman."

It is significant that Shaw quotes the reasonable doctor, for, as Shaw recognized, Shakespeare's play calls the very basis of reason into question. In the tenth book of The Republic, Plato argues the inferiority of the imitative arts to those activities that spring from the "rational principle of the soul" by pointing out the unreliability of appearance and the consequent necessity of "the arts of measuring and numbering" to rescue the human understanding from the delusions imposed by the senses:

The same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colours to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.… And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding—there is the beauty of them—and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight.… And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rational principle in the soul.

Plato's view here is very much like Shaw's and Johnson's and very much like that of the Romans in the play. The play opens with Philo's contemptuous judgment that Cleopatra is a worthless strumpet and Antony her degraded fool. The Romans, like Shaw and Johnson, are contemptuous of Antony's devotion to Cleopatra: to them it represents the enslavement of his reason to his baser passions. They are almost puritanical in their scorn for the sensuous delights of Egypt, and in this too they resemble the great rationalists. But what is perhaps most important is their epistemology. Philo's opening statement—"this dotage of our general's o'erflows the measure"—demonstrates his rationalistic reliance upon measurement as an index of truth. In direct opposition, Antony's opening statement—"There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd"—asserts the inadequacy of a merely quantitative, reckoning standard and denies that the real is always measurable.

This opposition between the rationalistic view and its antithesis is thus represented within the play as well as among its critics. Philo's opening speech ends with the words "behold and see"—an invitation to the audience, but more obviously to Demetrius. Within the play as without, the rationalistic view insists upon the faults of the lovers, relies upon ocular proof, weighs what Antony sacrifices—a third of the Roman world—against what he gains—the illicit love of the notorious Egyptian—and finds his action foolish. The rationalists within the play, like those among its critics, are unmoved by Cleopatra's arts. They pity and scorn Antony's enthrallment because they discount the rhetoric by which the lovers claim for themselves a greatness surpassing the limitations of the Roman world. Antony's and Cleopatra's dialogue in the opening scene implies the inadequacy of a merely reckoning standard because it invokes a transcendent world in which the claims of time and space and measurement are irrelevant. To Demetrius, however, there is only one salient fact to be derived from their performance—Antony's failure to hear Caesar's messengers. When the lovers leave the stage, he speaks one line only—"Is Caesar with Antonius priz'd so slight?" The language here is significant: according to Demetrius, Antony has made an error in measurement. Antony has prized Caesar too "slight" to satisfy Demetrius' rational standard of reckoning. Thus, Antony's performance has corroborated Philo's opening statement—his dotage does "o'erflow the measure." Ignoring the rhetoric, Demetrius has assessed the actions, and although he is sympathetic to Antony and "will hope of better deeds tomorrow," what he has seen today is just what Philo said he would see.

This refusal of the rationalists, inside and outside the play, to be impressed by delusory shows and seductive rhetoric accounts for their low estimate of Cleopatra. For the critics, it also means that the play itself is deficient. When Shaw says, "after giving a faithful picture of the soldier broken down by debauchery, and the typical wanton in whose arms such men perish, Shakespear finally strains all his huge command of rhetoric and stage pathos to give a theatrical sublimity to the wretched end of the business, and to persuade foolish spectators that the world was well lost by the twain," he is demonstrating his rationalistic and neoclassical predilection for "true" imitations of the "typical" and his Platonic distrust for the delusory powers of the imitative arts. Shaw's objection to the play rests on the same premises as the Roman objection to its heroine: in each case what is finally at stake is the nature and value of art.

Cleopatra's incredible parade of shifting moods and strategems, together with Shakespeare's notorious reticence about her motives, has led even her admirers to conclude that her one salient quality is, paradoxically, her lack of one—the magnificent inconstancy that Enobarbus calls "infinite variety." To the unsympathetic, of course, it is inconstancy pure and simple—the moral weakness of her sex, the vice that directly opposes the Roman virtue of steadfastness. Behind all her turnings, however, one motive does remain constant: from beginning to end, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a dedicated showman. In the opening scene of the play, she tells the audience, "I'll seem the fool I am not; Antony will be himself," a remark that serves as a pithy keynote to her character. Cleopatra's action throughout, like that of the playwright or actor, is seeming: she is a contriver of shows, mostly for Antony's benefit, but he is by no means her only audience. Cleopatra's strategy in love is to present a series of shows, to keep Antony unsure of her feelings and motivations, but in most of the play, the audience is also unsure. As Granville-Barker points out [in Prefaces to Shakespeare], she is "never … left to a soliloquy. Parade fits her character." Some of Cleopatra's shows are obviously trivial—"play" in both senses of the word—as when she changes clothes with Antony or has a salt fish hung on his fishing line or acts as his armorer. Others are more calculated strategems, contrived to insure her hold over Antony:

See where he is, who's with him, what he does:
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.
                                        (I.iii.2-5)

But at the end of the play they prove the last best weapon in the lovers' arsenal, for it is by means of Cleopatra's trickery that Caesar suffers the only defeat inflicted upon him in the course of the play. For once, the luck of Caesar fails him, the great emperor is "beguiled," and the lovers have their triumph. The death of Cleopatra is in fact a double triumph of showmanship—hers and her creator's. But the two are so entirely related that neither can be seen unless the other is appreciated.

Thus, in a very important sense, the entire play turns on the question of the proper response to a show. To the Romans, and to the critics who follow them in discounting the seductions of rhetoric and the delusions of the senses, the shows are false and their sublimity merely "theatrical." To the sympathetic among her audience, Cleopatra's wiles identify her with her creator as a fellow artist—an identification that is especially easy today, when we have read Joyce and Mann and Gide. In contemporary literature this association between the artist and the confidence-man has become almost a cliché. But in Antony and Cleopatra, the ancient version of the same association—Plato's charge that the poet is a liar—is also relevant. The Romans in Shakespeare's play, like Socrates in Plato's Republic, are able to make a good case against the creator of illusions when they appeal to our rational faculty to discount the evidence of the senses in favor of calculation and measurement. And the too-easy dismissals of these charges by Romantic lovers of art and of Cleopatra have never really succeeded in answering them. Shakespeare's play dramatizes the oppositions and relationships between the two versions: only by appreciating both can we approach its dramatic and thematic center.

Enobarbus clearly illustrates this interplay. Ordinarily, his medium is prose and his perspective rational and ironic. He tends to reduce romantic love to physical appetite and to describe the business in bawdy jokes. Cleopatra is Antony's "Egyptian dish." To him Antony's devotion is inordinate and therefore irrational. But Enobarbus can also see Cleopatra very differently. Joking with Caesar's followers about Antony's Egyptian life, he suddenly abandons his characteristic ironic prose for the soaring poetry that creates for his listeners a Cleopatra who transcends anything they could see with the sensual eye or measure with the calculating and rational principle of the soul. In his famous set speech, Enobarbus evokes Cleopatra's arrival on the Cydnus to meet Mark Antony in terms that invite his audience—off the stage as well as on—to rise above these inferior modes of perception and to participate instead in the imaginative vision of the poet. "I will tell you," he says, introducing the speech that creates one of Cleopatra's greatest scenes. Only the telling will do it: the physical spectacle we have beheld is ambiguous at best. This scene, in contrast, is not physically present: it is evoked by and for the imagination, and it pays tribute not only to Cleopatra's beauty and her incredible powers to enchant but also to the beauty and powers of the medium in which she is created. It is a commonplace of the older criticism that Shakespeare had to rely upon his poetry and his audience's imagination to evoke Cleopatra's greatness because he knew the boy actor could not depict it convincingly. But he transformed this limitation into an asset, used the technique his stage demanded to demonstrate the unique powers of the very medium that seemed to limit him. Like Cleopatra's own art, the economy of the poet's art works paradoxically, to make defect perfection.

It is well known that Shakespeare took most of Enobarbus' speech from the narrative in North's Plutarch. The details he added, moreover, instead of making the speech more concrete or dramatic, emphasize that narrative is its necessary medium. They say, in effect, that the scene by its very nature is impossible to stage, and they also suggest that that impossibility is part of its meaning. The speech is full of hyperbole and paradox, rhetorical manifestations of the impossibility of its subject to be contained within the categories of logic and measurement. The subject cannot be represented but only created, embodied in the uncategorical and alogical shifts the poet works with words. Cleopatra's barge, for instance, can perform the miracle of burning on the water because it is "like a burnish'd throne," and "burn'd" is contained in "burnish'd," not logically, and not visually, but verbally. The effect of these words, like that of Sidney's "golden" world of the poet's making, is that Nature herself is out-done. To Sidney [in his Apologie],

There is no Arte delivered to mankinde that hath not the workes of Nature for his principall object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become Actors and Players, as it were, of what Nature will have set foorth. So doth the Astronomer looke upon the starres, and, by that he seeth, setteth downe what order Nature hath taken therein. So doe the Geometrician and Arithmetician in their diverse sorts of quantities. So doth the Musitian.… The naturall Philosopher … the Morali Philosopher … The Lawyer … The Historian.… The Grammarian … the Rethorician and Logitian.… The Phisition.… the Metaphisick.… Onely the Poet, disdayning to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his owne invention, dooth growe in effect another nature, in making things either better then Nature bringeth forth, or, quite a newe, formes such as never were in Nature … so as hee goeth hand in hand with Nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her guifts, but freely ranging onely within the Zodiack of his owne wit.

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry as divers Poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, nor whatsoever els may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden.

Clearly Enobarbus is speaking of this golden world when he says the winds which filled Cleopatra's sails "were love-sick with them" and the waters beat by her oars did "follow faster, as amorous of their strokes." Moreover, in the description of Cleopatra herself—

                                      She did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature
                                       (II.ii.198-201)

Enobarbus refers directly to the transcendent power of the artistic imagination in terms that closely echo Sidney's, as well as North's.

But my words here are ill-chosen, for Enobarbus does not really describe the queen—he evokes her. "Her own person," he tells us, "beggar'd all description." It transcended description or measurement, for these methods are not applicable to the golden world. To create the golden world, "the fancy outworks nature." The world of Nature is the world we can behold, the world the Romans can measure. The world Enobarbus sees here is created by art in the fancy of those who can respond to it. This opposition between the two worlds is implicit from the beginning of the play. Antony and Cleopatra's opening lines, immediately following Philo's "behold and see," declare it:

Cleopatra. If it be love indeed, tell me how
   much.
Antony. There's beggary in the love that can be
   reckon'd.
Cleopatra. I'll set a bourn how far to be
   belov'd.
Antony. Then must thou needs find out new heaven,
   new earth.

Antony's new heaven and earth, like Sidney's golden world and Enobarbus' vision, defies logical scrutiny, but its surpassing magnificence makes beggarly the reckonings of the Romans.

In this perfected world, where the ordinary forms of logic are inapplicable, paradox takes over:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry,
Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her, when she is riggish.
                                    (II.ii.235-40)

Enobarbus here leaps beyond measurement, ordinary morality, and logic itself, for these are the categories our minds design to enable us to cope with the world of time and change and limitation, and in the world produced by the fancy, outworking nature, they are no longer necessary or even relevant.

Enobarbus' vision of Cleopatra is not, of course, a creation ex nihilo. It represents his imaginative response to Cleopatra's creative arts. The entire scene here as in North's Plutarch is also her tour de force of artifice. The aging queen who describes herself earlier (I.V.28-29) as "black" "with Phoebus' amorous pinches … and wrinkled deep in time," has staged an elaborate spectacle complete with stage props, perfume, background music, supporting actors, and a carefully constructed setting. And, as Enobarbus five times reminds us, the entire creation belongs to the world of seeming: Cleopatra's barge is "like a burnish'd throne," the "pretty dimpled boys" who wield her fans are "like smiling Cupids," the wind they make "did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool," the gentlewomen tending her are "like the Nereides," and the helmsman is "a seeming mermaid." In creating the spectacle, Cleopatra deals in likenesses and seemings, not in the stuff that Plato would call reality. If she shares the power of the poet, she also shares his limitations.

Thus Cleopatra's ambivalence—the strange combination of degradation and sublimity that seems to lie at the center of her characterization—is best understood in connection with the ambivalence of the artist himself. The priests who bless her when she is riggish are not, of course, Christian priests; but the fact of their blessing attests to the lawless and mysterious powers that she, like the artist, possesses. Shakespeare insists upon this ambivalence, for it is not simply the characteristic of his heroine but also the informing principle of the entire dramatic structure. It represents the clash between two radically opposed views of poetry, both of them nicely illustrated in Sidney's Apologie, although Sidney seems unaware of the opposition.

Answering Plato's charge that the poet is a liar, Sidney points out that the golden world of poetry is not amenable to ordinary truth-criteria: the poet "nothing affirmes, and therefore never lyeth":

What childe is there that, comming to a Play, and seeing Thebes written in great Letters upon an olde doore, doth beleeve that it is Thebes? If then a man can arive, at that childs age, to know that the Poets persons and dooings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have beene, they will never give the lye to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figurativelie written. And therefore, as in Historie, looking for trueth, they goe away full fraught with falshood, so in Poesie, looking for fiction, they shal use the narration but as an imaginative groundplot of a profitable invention.

However, Sidney contradicts himself in a later portion of the essay and undercuts this defense when he attacks Gorboduc for being "faulty both in place and time, the two necessary companions of all corporall actions":

For where the stage should alwaies represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotles precept and common reason, but one day, there is both many dayes, and many places, inartificially imagined. But if it be so in Gorboduck, how much more in al the rest? where you shal have Asia of the one side, and Affrick of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the Player, when he commeth in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or els the tale wil not be conceived. Now ye shal have three Ladies walke to gather flowers, and then we must beleeve the stage to be a Garden. By and by, we heare newes of shipwracke in the same place, and then wee are to blame if we accept it not for a Rock.

Sidney here offers a standard argument for the Unities—the need to bring the stage as close as possible to the reality of this world. As acting time approaches the time represented in the action, the gap between the poet's imagined world and the world of the spectator's ordinary experience is narrowed—not by appealing to the spectator's imagination to carry him beyond the bounds of his ordinary experience, but by subjecting the poet to the rules of rational expectation in the world of Nature. The Unity of Place is also a means of fixing and limiting the action of the play: in the neoclassical theater it would collaborate with representational stage sets to localize the production in a finite world recognizably like the one outside the theater. Thus, when Sidney argued for the Unities as necessary for verisimilitude, he implicitly repudiated his own notion of the golden world of poetry. The golden world, he had said, is separate from the brazen world of Nature experienced by "our degenerate soules, made worse by theyr clayey lodgings" in "the dungeon of the body" since the Fall. The poet, in this view, redeems his audience for the moment, enabling them to recapture that prelapsarian vision of perfection. In contrast, the universals imitated by the neoclassicists are firmly rooted in Reason and Nature. What is to be imitated is the highest truth of this world, and the playwright is therefore answerable to all the rationalistic criteria designed to cope with this world.

Although Sidney's essay seems to imply that the golden world conforms to neoclassical rules of decorum, his claim that the poet of the golden world, "disdayning to be tied to any … subjection" to Nature, creates a world which is not amenable to ordinary truth-criteria actually denies the great sanction underlying those rules—the assumption that it is the poet's business to provide just imitations of general Nature. The contradiction in Sidney's essay, like the conflict in Shakespeare's play, is finally a conflict between two theories of poetry and two orders of reality; but while Sidney seems unaware of the contradiction, Shakespeare insists upon it.

Antony and Cleopatra depends for its workings upon a defiance of the rules of decorum, but the defiance is meaningless unless we know the rules and appreciate the arguments by which they were justified. When Shakespeare refuses to be bound by the Unities of Time and Place, he is able to evoke a vision of a transcendent world of the imagination only because we first see that his settings are in fact unreal by the standards of "common reason" that we bring to "all corporali actions." Similarly, his squeaking boy can evoke a greatness that defies the expectations of reason and the possibilities of realistic representation only because we share those expectations and understand the limits of those possibilities. Before the boy can evoke Cleopatra's greatness, he must remind us that he cannot truly represent it. In Egypt—and to the Egyptian imagination—he could become the queen he enacted on Shakespeare's stage, but only after he reminded us that he would appear in Rome—and that he was in fact in Shakespeare's London—a squeaking boy.

By admitting the reality of Rome, Shakespeare is able to celebrate the power of Egypt: by acknowledging the validity of the threat, he can demonstrate the special power that shows have to overcome the limitations of a reality that threatens to refute them. The Roman comedians Cleopatra describes, like the neoclassical writers in England, derived their authority from their submission to an authority they acknowledged to be higher than their own. They dedicated their art to imitations of the natural world and confined it within the bounds of rational expectation in that world. But since their authority was borrowed, it was also tenuous. Their very scrupulousness in imitating the world of Nature subjected them to its logic and rendered them vulnerable to the charges that banished poets from Plato's Republic. In claiming to satisfy that world's criteria for truth, they became guilty of deception. In contrast, Shakespeare violates those criteria, and admits that he violates them, in order to present a show that cannot lie because it does not affirm.

In this view, Shakespeare's reckless dramatic strategy is not simply justified but necessary. The structure, for instance, must employ frequent and abrupt shifts from Egypt to Rome, not only to convey the scope of the action, and not only to make us finally contemptuous of that scope, but also because the audience, like Antony, must vacillate between the two worlds. When Antony is in Egypt, as in the opening scene, he repudiates Time and Space and Roman thoughts in favor of sensual pleasure, of immersion in the timeless moment of immediate experience. But every time Antony steps outside that moment, into the world of Time and Roman thoughts, its charm evaporates. Like Antony, the audience is swept back and forth between the two worlds until the final scene when they are brought to rest in Egypt to behold Cleopatra's suicide, to see in it the nobility Antony saw in her, and thus, several scenes after Antony's death, to see the full significance of his action.

Similarly, the other structural peculiarity, the wide separation between the deaths of the lovers, can also be seen as a necessary part of Shakespeare's strategy. If the play ended with Antony's suicide, the Roman view would seem fairly well justified. He has given up virtue, honor, and one third of the Roman world and got in return the possession of an aging, treacherous courtesan, the weak and unreliable support of the Egyptian forces, and, in the end, an ambiguous death. These are the observable facts of his behavior and its measurable results. Moreover, his suicide, far from being an efficient Roman triumph over mortality, is a rather messy affair. Cleopatra shows her very worst when, her navy having betrayed Antony to his final defeat, she orders Mardian to take him a false report of her death. Her very language—"Say, that the last I spoke was 'Antony,' and word it, prithee, piteously. Hence, Mardian, and bring me how he takes my death to the monument"—condemns her. For although her concerns here resemble those of the poet, they are those of Plato's poet, who is indistinguishable from a simple liar. She even uses the same term—"word it"—with which she later discounts Caesar's attempt to deceive her about his intentions ("He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not be noble to myself" v.ii. 190-91). That Antony is taken in by her lie surely diminishes him in the eyes of the audience, and the awkwardness of his suicide does little to redeem him.

The monument scene, however, complicates the matter. At the beginning, Cleopatra's fearful refusal to descend to Antony reminds us again how little he has got in return for all his sacrifices; and the stage business that follows, in which she and her women laboriously draw him up, has a ludicrous effect which is only partly relieved by the characteristically Shakespearean puns with which she accompanies it:

Here's sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord!
Our strength is all gone into heaviness,
That makes the weight.
                                    (IV.xv.32-34)

But of course the spectacle is not simply ludicrous. North describes it as "lamentable," a "pitiefull… sight." Modern criticism has taught us to expect and appreciate mixed effects in Shakespeare's tragedies and to recognize that some of his most serious scenes are marked by this kind of bitter, grating humor. In this particular case, the effect is qualified by the fact that Antony's raising provides a visual "metaphor of elevation" for his death [according to Charney]. Being physically presented, the metaphor is especially impressive, and the impression created should remain throughout much of the next act until it is finally overlaid by the next great visual spectacle in the play—Cleopatra's own suicide.

The action of Antony's death thus ends on a much higher note than it began; for once he has ascended into the monument, the language undergoes "a corresponding heightening of style." Similarly, the play itself ends on its grandest note. Just as Cleopatra raises Antony into her monument in Act IV, in Act V she raises the entire action beyond the reach of Roman power. At the beginning of Act V, her character is still ambiguous. She sends a sub-missive messenger to Caeser:

A poor Egyptian yet; the queen my mistress,
Confin'd in all she has, her monument,
Of thy intents desires instruction,
That she preparedly may frame herself
To the way she's forc'd to.
                                     (V.i.52-56)

In the scene that follows, she seems to be taken in by Proculeius' deceit, and in this both lovers are diminished; for just before he died, Antony had warned her to trust none of Caesar's men but Proculeius. In the much-debated interview with Caesar, there is at least some warrant for believing she is still "boggling," looking for opportunities to preserve herself and her treasure by coming to ignominious terms with her conqueror. As is attested by the critical debates, the scene with Seleucus is sufficiently ambiguous that the audience, like Caesar, is very likely to take at face value the act she performs with her treasurer. It is not until Caesar leaves the stage that Cleopatra turns to her women and says, "He words me, girls, … that I should not be noble to myself," thus revealing that she has only pretended to trust him.

At this point, Cleopatra takes charge of the action. She says, "I have spoke already, and it is provided," "it" being the basket of figs which is the necessary prop for the show by which she will dramatize her nobility and Antony's. Up to this point, her manipulations have been covert and her motives ambiguous, but in her suicide she will stage directly before us the spectacular vision of herself that Antony had seen and Enobarbus recalled. But first she must describe the Roman comedies. Just as her knowledge of their sordidness and vulgarity helps to motivate her suicide, her allusion to them helps the audience to appreciate it. When Cleopatra contracts for a moment to the squeaking boy who acted her part, she reminds us that what we have been watching is a deceitful show. The reminder should make us doubt the validity of the conclusions we have reached on the basis of what we have beheld. In effect, she turns Plato's argument against poetry inside out and uses its major premise to refute its conclusion. For if the objects of our perception are delusive and inadequate misrepresentations, then how seriously can we take the calculations we have made on the basis of what we have seen? The audience is thus forced into a kind of "double take" which prepares them to reorganize their disparate and jarring impressions of Cleopatra into a new synthesis.

The squeaking boy speech brings to a head the two major issues of the play—the issue of Cleopatra's character and the issue of the nature of plays. Throughout, Cleopatra has been depicted as a showman: showing has been her great defect and also her consummate virtue. In this speech, and in the scene that follows, the question of her worth is directly associated with the question of the worth of shows. Here she seems to set the two at odds: only if we reject the shows we have seen can we accept the unseen greatness of Cleopatra. But in her suicide she will present a new show that validates both, and even in this speech the validation begins. The very fact that Cleopatra can talk about the show and claim that it is a poor parody implies that she has access to a level of reality beyond what has been presented. By implying the inadequacy of the representation, she implies also that she can transcend it.

That Cleopatra's suicide is a show would be apparent in the theater: she even changes constume for it onstage. "Show me, my women, like a queen," she says, "go fetch my best attires." Much is made of dressing, and Charmian's dying gesture is to straighten her dead queen's crown. Her words, "Your crown's awry, I'll mend it and then play," echo Cleopatra's order for the costume, "when thou hast done this chare, I'll give thee leave to play till doomsday." The word play emphasizes both the hedonistic and the theatrical aspects of the very Egyptian death these women are contriving, but the fact that the crown is their central concern unites these aspects with another—the wholly serious matter of royalty. For the crown is the emblem of Cleopatra's royalty, and when she puts it on here, it establishes in a fully theatrical manner the nature of this queen who is so thoroughly involved with the world of art and illusion that she is incomprehensible except within its terms.

Cleopatra commands her women to "show" her "like a queen," but for the characters onstage, as well as the audience, the likeness becomes reality. After Cleopatra dies, Charmian says, "golden Phoebus, never be beheld of eyes again so royal!" When Caesar's guard asks, "Is this well done?" she replies, "It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended of so many royal kings." Discovering Cleopatra's death, Caesar says, "Bravest at the last, she levell'd at our purposes, and being royal took her own way." Of these lines, only the interchange with the guard is taken from North, and North's adjective is "noble." All these tributes to Cleopatra's royalty act as refutations to the earlier charge that she violated the decorum of her station. Those charges remained valid only so long as she was content to "seem the fool" in a performance susceptible to neoclassical standards of propriety and realism. Once she repudiates that performance, she can invoke a fully theatrical world where she can put on her royalty with its emblems. In this world, the costume we see, the poetry we hear, and the act we see performed are sufficient, for they satisfy the only kind of truth-criteria available within the context of the theater. The strategy is very much like that of Enobarbus' great speech, as we are reminded when Cleopatra says, "I am again for Cydnus, to meet Mark Antony." But Enobarbus' vision is only now fully validated, for he evoked it by words alone and only to the inner eye. In this scene it will be evoked by all the resources of Shakespeare's theater, by spectacle as well as poetry, and the show will be theatrical reality. The stage itself, no less than the audience, is here freed from the demands of rationally plausible neoclassic veri-similitude, and for once in the play we can see before us the greatness that was only boyed in what we beheld earlier.

The interview with Dolabella, which has no real basis in North, indicates the difference. It contrasts not only with the interview with Proculeius, which immediately precedes it, but also with the scene where Enobarbus describes his vision at the Cydnus. When Cleopatra tells Dolabella her dream of Antony, he betrays Caesar's confidence to tell her the truth that Antony's experience of Rome made him expect Proculeius would tell. In effect, her conquest of Dolabella is a microcosm of her conquest of the whole texture of values and aspirations with which he, as a member of Caesar's party, is associated. Her dream of Antony, like Enobarbus' vision of her, evokes a greatness that is not physically present, and it uses the language of paradox and hyperbole: "For his bounty, there was no winter in 't: an autumn 'twas that grew the more by reaping.… In his livery walk'd crowns and crownets: realms and islands were as plates dropp'd from his pocket." There are some important differences, however. The cosmic imagery—"His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck a sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted the little O, the earth.… his voice was properties as all the tuned spheres"—directly establishes the translunary context of the vision. In Enobarbus' vision, Cleopatra was associated with "that Venus where we see the fancy out-work nature." In Cleopatra's, Antony is "past the size of dreaming: nature wants stuff to vie strange forms with fancy, yet to imagine an Antony were nature's piece, 'gainst fancy, condemning shadows quite." At this point the truth of the imagination has become reality for Cleopatra: her dream is a vision of the golden world from a vantage point within that world rather than outside of it.

Cleopatra's ascent to the golden world is also an ascent from comedy, which shows men worse than they are, to tragedy, which shows them better. When the clown arrives to bring her the means by which she will ascend, she says, "Let him come in. What poor an instrument may do a noble deed!"; and in the scene that follows he serves as her scapegoat, for he attracts the laughter which has become a fairly well-conditioned response to the figure of the queen while she preserves the decorum of her superior station. Similarly, the clown's speeches serve, as Donald C. Baker has remarked [in "The Purging of Cleopatra" in Shakespeare Notes], to purge "the baser elements of the language of the play as Cleopatra purges herself and leaves her other elements 'to baser life.'" The clown's basket helps to define the transition. Early in the play (I. ii. 32), Charmian says, "I love long life better than figs." Now she and her mistress will choose the deadly figs and by their choice transform themselves from comic characters devoted to the life and sensual pleasures of this world to tragic characters who have the nobility to choose a good higher than mere survival. The asps as well as the figs are the products of the Nile, and the deaths of the Egyptian women demonstrate that their "o'erflowing" river breeds material for high tragedy as well as low comedy. Like Cleopatra's description of the asp as a babe that sucks its nurse asleep, the clown's basket unites appetite and death to sublimate both. His jokes make the same point: if "a woman is a dish for the gods," appetite is godly.

Cleopatra's death sublimates appetite, but first she rejects it, in both its Roman and its Egyptian manifestations. She rejects the coarse diet available in Rome, where "mechanic slaves with greasy aprons … shall uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, and forc'd to drink their vapour"; and she also resolves, "Now no more the juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip." Similarly, she denies the woman's nature that made her a boggier in the sublunary world—"I have nothing of woman in me: now from head to foot I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon no planet is of mine"—before she assumes the name of Antony's wife in the world of immortal longings. In each case, and in the case of all the other qualities that have led us to doubt her nobility, the renunciation is only a prelude to redefinition and fulfillment.

During the suicide scene, Cleopatra systematically and explicitly renounces the weaknesses charged against her by the Romans and made credible to the audience by her earlier performance. If she drank Antony under the table, she will now renounce the grape. If she was his strumpet, she will now become his wife. If her vacillation lost him battles, she will now be marble-constant. If his devotion to her made him effeminate, she will now renounce her sex. But she does not renounce her sex in order to collapse into a squeaking boy, any more than her rejection of his shows meant that she was done with showing. Her character, like her showmanship, is not destroyed in the final scene but sublimated. Even her sensuality remains: "the stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, which hurts, and is desir'd"; and the new heaven and new earth she anticipates with Antony, where he is "curled" just as he was "barber'd ten times o'er" at the Cydnus, will abound in sensuous delights. One way to describe this process of sublimation is to say that we are now made to share the romantic lovers' own vision of their passion; another way is to say that the passion in the world of Nature is destroyed in order to be reborn in a new incarnation in the golden world, which is also the afterlife that Cleopatra envisions with Antony.

In the opening scene, Antony's rhetoric rejected the world for a kiss:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus: when such a mutual pair,
And such a twain can do't.

In the final scene, Cleopatra's act validates his choice. In the first scene, Antony suggested that to know the limits of their love, Cleopatra "find out new heaven, new earth." Here she prepares to find them out. In this final vision of Cleopatra's, Antony at last triumphs over Caesar. "Me-thinks," she says, "I hear Antony call.… I hear him mock the luck of Caesar, which the gods give men to excuse their after wrath." In the natural world, the soothsayer's warning to Antony holds true: Caesar will win at any game, for "of that natural luck, he beats thee 'gainst the odds. Thy lustre thickens, when he shines by … thy spirit is all afraid to govern thee near him; but he away, 'tis noble." Cleopatra can see Antony triumphing over Caesar because she looks beyond the world of time and change and luck where Caesar is always triumphant to a world where Antony's magnanimity can find its proper milieu. In the brazen world of Nature, where most of the play is set, Caesar is the master politician, but when Cleopatra chooses to leave that world, she can call him "ass, unpolicied" and his intents "most absurd."

After Cleopatra's death, when she has in act as well as in vision repudiated Caesar's world, her vision becomes reality in Caesar's world as well as her own. Caesar, says the guard who finds her dead, has been "beguil'd." And Caesar is beguiled in two, equally significant, senses. In the first place, he is tricked out of his triumph: Cleopatra outwits the master manipulator at the end. But just as important, he is beguiled in the sense that he responds to Cleopatra's charm. Seeing the dead queen, Caesar says, "she looks like sleep, as she would catch another Antony in her strong toil of grace." For the first and only time in the play, Caesar sees what Antony saw in Egypt. He now knows Cleopatra's charm, not as an abstract consideration to be reckoned in Rome, troublesome or useful to him in his political maneuverings, but as a response within himself. Caesar has come to Egypt for his final vision of Cleopatra, and his response, like Enobarbus' memory of the Cydnus, attests the validity of the vision that drew Antony from Rome. Caesar is moved by Cleopatra's act and her staging of it. The audience, having seen the entire spectacle, is even better prepared to appreciate her worth. And once they have done so, Antony is necessarily elevated. When he died in Act IV, there was still considerable reason to believe him a strumpet's fool. But when the strumpet turns out to be a queen, Antony's sacrifice is shown to be worthwhile.

The last speech in the play, like the first one, is spoken by one Roman to another. And, like the first, it ends with an injunction to "see":

                      Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral,
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order, in this great solemnity.

If we make the kind of association I have been suggesting and identify the Roman view of the lovers with the perceptions available to fallen man in the brazen world of mundane life, we might say that the audience, about to leave the theater, is about to return to the "Rome" from which they entered it. Like Caesar, however, they have been in the interval to Egypt where they have, at first, beheld Cleopatra's deceptive show and, at the end, seen her in another show, of "high order" and "great solemnity."

Before the final scene can be enacted and the sight of Cleopatra's greatness made available to the audience, Shakespeare must establish and then undermine the comic conception of her character that was based on the boy actor's imitation of her appearance in the natural world to which the Roman comedians are limited. Like the Romans, we must accept its verisimilitude before we can appreciate the force of Cleopatra's charge that it is a poor parody of the greatness she possesses in the golden world which is the high product of the tragic poet's making. Thus the ambivalence of our reactions to the first four acts is as important an element of our total experience of the play as is our response to the final scene, which resolves the ambivalence. The golden world of poetry became necessary only after the Fall of man, and the worth of the poet can only be seen when his handiwork is compared to the products of the arts that are bound by the limitations of Nature.

L. T. Fitz (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 297-316.

[In the following essay, Fitz argues that numerous critical discussions of Antony and Cleopatra have been informed by sexist biases, with one of the most blatant misunderstandings being the inability to perceive Cleopatra as a tragic hero in her own right.]

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. A. P. Riemer describes, fairly accurately [in A Reading of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"], the positions defended by the two main critical factions: "Antony and Cleopatra can be read as the fall of a great general, betrayed in his dotage by a treacherous strumpet, or else it can be viewed as a celebration of transcendental love." Derek Traversi also speaks of this interpretive impasse [in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays]: "The student of Antony and Cleopatra has, in offering an account of this great tragedy, to resolve a problem of approach, of the author's intention. Sooner or later, he finds himself faced by two possible readings of the play, whose only difficulty is that they seem to be mutually exclusive." A significant difficulty indeed; however, I would suggest, not the "only difficulty."

Both the reduction of the play's action to "the fall of a great general" and the definition of the play's major interest as "transcendental love" make impossible a reasonable assessment of the character of Cleopatra. There is a word for the kind of critical bias informing both approaches: it is "sexism." Almost all critical approaches to this play have been colored by the sexist assumptions the critics have brought with them to their reading. These approaches, I believe, have distorted the meaning of what Shakespeare wrote.

Before I take up the sexist criticism in its particulars, I have one general observation. I have noticed, in male critical commentary on the character of Cleopatra, an intemperance of language, an intensity of revulsion uncommon even among Shakespeare critics, who are well enough known as a group for their lack of critical moderation. I do not think it would be going too far to suggest that many male critics feel personally threatened by Cleopatra and what she represents to them. In Cleopatra's case, critical attitudes go beyond the usual condescension toward female characters or the usual willingness to give critical approval only to female characters who are chaste, fair, loyal, and modest: critical attitudes toward Cleopatra seem to reveal deep personal fears of aggressive or manipulative women. Alfred Harbage, in his Conceptions of Shakespeare, looked at the personal lives of some anti-Stratfordians and found evidence of persistent neurotic delusions of the sort Freud had labeled "family romance fantasies": perhaps it would be revealing to examine the lives of anti-Cleopatra critics for evidence of difficulties in relationships with women.

But to the particulars. Obviously, most of the sexist distortion has centered on Cleopatra, and it is most revealing to observe with whom Cleopatra has been compared. A favorite game among Shakespeare critics has always been to compare characters from one play with characters from another; so Hamlet is said to have more "inner life" than Othello, King Lear is said to die less self-centeredly than Hamlet, and so forth. With whom is Cleopatra compared? Lear? Macbeth? Othello? No, Cleopatra is compared only with female characters—Viola, Beatrice, Rosalind, Juliet. Juliet is most frequent, and it must be confessed that there are certain similarities. Both appear in tragedies (the rest of the women used for comparison are comic heroines); both are allegedly in love; and they share the distinction of being two of the three women to have made it into the titles of Shakespeare plays. Otherwise, the two are as apt for comparison as Mae West and St. Cecilia. Critics do not compare King Lear with Osric, Bottom the Weaver, or Sir Toby Belch because they are all men, but they persist in comparing Cleopatra (usually unfavourably) with female characters because they are all women. Clearly, Cleopatra is cut off at the outset from serious consideration as a tragic hero by being relegated to consideration alongside various heroines, most of whom inhabit the comedies.

Related to this habit of discussing female characters as a group is the critical tactic of describing Cleopatra as "Woman." Cleopatra is seen as the archetypal woman: practicer of feminine wiles, mysterious, childlike, long on passion and short on intelligence—except for a sort of animal cunning. Harold C. Goddard, [in The Meaning of Shakespeare], referring to the end of the play, states, "Now for the first time she is a woman—and not Woman." S. L. Bethell informs us [in Shakespeare and the Popalac Dramatic Tradition], "In Cleopatra [Shakespeare] presents the mystery of woman." Swinburne sees Cleopatra as Blake's "Eternal Female" [in A Study of Shakespeare]. Georg Brandes calls her "woman of women, quintessentiated Eve" [in William Shakespeare: A Critical Study]. E. E. Stoll says, "Caprice, conscious and unconscious is her nature.… She is quintessential woman" ["Cleopatra" in Poets and Playwrights (1930)]. Harley Granville-Barker enlightens us: "The passionate woman has a child's desires and a child's fears, an animal's wary distrust; balance of judgment none, one would say. But often … she shows the shrewd scepticism of a child" [Prefaces to Shakespeare (1930)]. And Daniel Stempel brings us up to date on the alleged Elizabethan attitude [in "The Trans-migration of the Crocodile" in Shakespeare Quarterly, 1956]:

Here our knowledge of Elizabethan mores can come to our aid … Woman was a creature of weak reason and strong passion, carnal in nature and governed by lust. She could be trusted only when guided by the wisdom of her natural superior, man.… The misogyny of Octavius Caesar is founded on right reason.

It is surely questionable whether there is such a thing as a "typical woman" or even a "typical Elizabethan woman." And if there is such a thing as a "typical Shakespearean woman," Cleopatra is not the woman. In particular, she is almost unique among Shakespeare's female characters in her use of feminine wiles—by which I mean her deliberate unpredictability and her manipulative use of mood changes for the purpose of remaining fascinating to Antony.

If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick
                                      (I. iii. 3-5)

It is ironic that her use of feminine wiles has been one of the only Cleopatran features to have proven appealing to critics. Dowden writes:

At every moment we are necessarily aware of the gross, the mean, the disorderly womanhood in Cleopatra, no less than of the witchery and wonder which excite, and charm, and subdue. We see her a dissembler, a termagant, a coward; and yet 'vilest things become her'. The presence of a spirit of life quick, shifting, multitudinous, incalculable, fascinates the eye, and would, if it could, lull the moral sense to sleep.

Schlegel writes [in Lectures on Dramatic Poetry]: "Cleopatra is as remarkable for her seductive charms as Antony for the splendor of his deeds." Philip J. Traci [in The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra, 1970] defends the feminine wiles on the grounds that such behavior is prescribed for courtly lovers by Andreas Capellanus and Ovid.

It is ironic, I say, because it seems probable that Shakespeare disapproves of such behavior. With the exception of Cressida, no other woman in Shakespeare's plays practices it. Indeed, Shakespeare's women for the most part actively resist it, preferring instead to woo their men, straightforwardly, themselves. It is Miranda's father, in The Tempest, who tries to put obstacles in love's way "lest too light winning / Make the prize light" (I. ii. 454-55), while Miranda forthrightly approaches the man she has known for about an hour with "Hence, bashful cunning … I am your wife, if you will marry me" (III. i. 81-83).

Of course, if I am to claim that Shakespeare treated his women as individuals, I can hardly postulate that he criticizes Cleopatra for behaving differently in this respect from other Shakespearean women. But there is evidence in the play that Shakespeare sees such behavior as humanly undesirable: he has Cleopatra herself try, in the latter part of the play, to overcome her deliberately inconstant behavior—behavior which she (not Shakespeare) sees as being quintessentially female:

My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.
                                  (V. ii. 238-41)

But while Shakespeare may disapprove of feminine wiles, he understands why Cleopatra feels (perhaps rightly) that she must practice them: she is getting old, and Shakespeare understood that women, unlike men, are valued only when they are young and beautiful. Cleopatra's famous self-portrait—

Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time
                                         (I. v. 27-29)

—comes at the point where she has just characterized her fantasy of Antony ("He's speaking now, / Or murmuring, 'Where's my serpent of old Nile?'" [I. v. 24-25]) as "delicious poison"—delicious in its confirmation of Antony's loyalty, poisonous in its contrast with the fact of Antony's absence and the fact of her decaying beauty. This passage is immediately followed by a reverie on sexual successes of her youth. The scene is, I think, too often read with attention only to Cleopatra's rejoicing in her own sexuality, to the neglect of its clear undercurrent of fear and insecurity.

The feminine fear of aging had been introduced early in the play, with Charmian's "Wrinkles forbid" (I. ii. 21). That Shakespeare well understood the danger of a woman's losing the affection of her lover as she loses her looks to age is clear from the discussion between Duke Orsino and Viola (masquerading as a boy) in Twelfth Night:

DUKE         Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart;
For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,

 Than women's are …
 Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
 Or thy affection cannot hold the bent;
 For women are as roses, whose fair flow'r,
 Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.
VIOLA   And so they are; alas, that they are
 so.
                                   (II. iv. 29-40)

There is no evidence in Shakespeare (or in Plutarch, his source) that Cleopatra employed feminine wiles when she was younger. It seems more reasonable to conjecture that in Shakespeare's interpretation, she has adopted desperate measures to compensate, by being fascinating, for the revages of age.

Although many critics see Cleopatra as the archetypal woman, others more magnanimously recognize that there are, in fact, two types of woman in the world, both of which appear in Antony and Cleopatra: the wicked and manipulative (Cleopatra), and the chaste and submissive (Octavia). This dipolar view usually results in an overemphasis on Octavia, who after all speaks only thirty-five lines in the play, as a viable alternative to Cleopatra. These critics seem to be united in their belief that the love of a good woman could have saved Antony and prevented the whole tragedy. A. C. Bradley complains bitterly of Antony's mistreatment of Octavia [in Oxford Lectures on Poetry]. Charles Bathurst feels that "The character of Antony [Shakespeare] meant to elevate as much as possible; notwithstanding his great weakness in all that concerns Cleopatra, and unmistakable misconduct with regard to his wife" [Remarks on the Differences in Shakespeare's Versification in Different Periods of His Life (1857)]. Laurens J. Mills regrets that "after the seeming cure during his marriage to Octavia, he falls more and more inextricably into the coils of the Egyptian." Harley Granville-Barker, who places Octavia third, after Antony and Cleopatra, in his group of character studies for the play says "How should we not, with the good Maecenas, trust to her beauty, wisdom, and modesty to settle his chastened heart?"

Leaving aside these touching encomia and turning to the play, one notes that Antony calls his marriage to Octavia "the business" (a term favored by the Macbeths in reference to the murder of Duncan). It is very likely that had Antony lived in connubial bliss with Octavia from the time he first remarked "Yet, ere we put ourselves in arms, dispatch we / The business we have talked of" [II. ii. 167-68], the remaining three-and-a-half acts would have been very different, less concerned with disaster and death, although perhaps somewhat lacking in those qualities we have come to associate with drama. Nevertheless, it is a fact that in Shakespeare Antony treats Octavia better than he does in Plutarch, where he turns her out of his house. And Shakespeare much reduced Octavia's importance: Plutarch's account ends with a vision of Octavia bringing up all of Antony's children, including one named Cleopatra.

Another sexist response to the play has resulted from a distaste for the play's overt sexuality. Traci claims that Shakespearean critics, even bawdry expert Eric Partridge, have been loath to acknowledge the extent of sexual double entendre in the play, and that when they have acknowledged it, they have been disgusted by it. Traci gallantly takes up the challenge by declaring that the whole play is structured in imitation of the sex-act, starting with fore-play in the first several scenes, proceeding to pre-sex drinking and feasting, and finally culminating, after the significant entrance of the character Eros, in intercourse itself—represented, according to Traci, by twenty-one uses of the word "Eros," twenty-three uses of the word "come," and sixteen puns on "dying." Traci's theory may be a little far-fetched, but it brings a whole new world of meaning to passages like "What poor an instrument may do a noble deed," "The soldier's pole is fallen," and "Husband, I come."

Traci feels that critical neglect of the naughty bits in the play has been prompted by prudery, from which he, fortunately, does not suffer. "Drink … like lechery," he declares, "is a universal manly, social sin.… Indeed, they are surely heroic sins, when compared to gluttony and sloth, for example." What Traci fails to account for is the oddity of encountering critical prudery in this day and age. After all, the days of Bowdlerizing are over; nobody blenches any more at "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." I submit that what bothers critics about the bawdy remarks in Antony and Cleopatra is that so many of them are made by Cleopatra—like "O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" (I. v. 21), or "Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, / That long time have been barren" (II. v. 23-24). The prudery is of a sexist variety: what appalls the male critic is that a woman would say such things. It is, to a certain extent, Cleopatra's frank sexuality that damns her. Robert E. Fitch, writing from his post at the Pacific School of Religion, observes, "It is altogether incredible that the Shakespeare who … early and late in his career rejoiced in innocence, loyalty, and love, before lust with all its cruel splendors, could have presented Cleopatra as a model of the mature woman in mature emotion" ["No Greater Crack?" SQ, 19 (1968), 12]. J. W. Lever tells us that "Her wooing of Antony is comic and sensual, immoral and thoroughly reprehensible." ["Venus and the Second Chance," Shakespeare Survey, 15 (1962), 87].

One might expect Cleopatra to appeal at least to the closet prurience of a few readers. And indeed there are a number of grudging and embarrassed tributes to the power of Cleopatra's sexuality. Schlegel writes: "Although the mutual passion of herself and Antony is without moral dignity, it still excites our sympathy as an insurmountable fascination." Coleridge writes, "But the art displayed in the character of Cleopatra is profound in this, especially, that the sense of criminality in her passion is lessened by our insight into its depth and energy, at the very moment that we cannot help but perceive that the passion itself springs out of the habitual craving of a licentious nature." Traci sums up the attitude of several modern Cleopatra apologists: "From beneath the exuberance of the adjectives … there emerges the critic's apology for having himself become a slave of Passion."

Antony and Cleopatra has never been admitted to the holy circle of the "big four" Shakespearean tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Many reasons for this have been adduced. Perhaps the most popular reason, as stated by A. P. Riemer, is that Antony and Cleopatra "deals with issues intrinsically much less important than those of the great tragedies." Nevertheless, Cleopatra's first line, "If it be love indeed, tell me how much" (I. i. 14), is strikingly similar to Lear's opening question to his daughters. Both Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear are, as far as I can see, concerned with love and its relationship to public issues like proper ruling, as well as love's place in the individual's hierarchy of values. If Antony and Cleopatra deals with "much less important issues," it would seem to follow that love between the sexes, as in Antony and Cleopatra, is "much less important" than familial love, as in King Lear. This is an argument one might expect of Victorian critics, perhaps, but why should we find it today? And if love between the sexes is an unworthy topic for tragedy, why is Othello permitted to stand as one of the "big four," while Antony and Cleopatra is not? The unavoidable answer, I believe, is that Othello focuses uncompromisingly on a male hero.

Another way in which sexism rears its head in Antony and Cleopatra criticism is that 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. Almost every scene in which either character appears has been subjected to this double-standard interpretation. I will focus on three examples.

First, in the Thidias scene, where Cleopatra apparently makes some political overtures to Caesar after Caesar has defeated Antony in the battle of Actium, Cleopatra has repeatedly been damned by critics for trying to save her political skin, and perhaps her actual skin, at the expense of her love for Antony. At the beginning of the play, when Antony follows his fervent protestations of love for Cleopatra by leaving Egypt to patch up his political situation in Rome through marriage to the sister of Octavius Caesar, he receives nothing but critical praise—for putting first things first and attempting to break off a destructive relationship with Cleopatra. According to the critics, men may put political considerations ahead of love; women may not.

Second, while Antony is roundly criticized when he neglects public affairs, critics never take seriously Cleopatra's desire to play an active part in great public enterprises. Cleopatra's participation in the battle of Actium, it must be confessed, is less than an unqualified success, but there is no warrant in the play for doubting her motives for being there in person:

A charge we bear i' th' war,
And as the president of my kingdom will
Appear there for a man. Speak not against it,
I will not stay behind.
                                  (III. vii. 16-19)

Nevertheless, Julian Markels infers [in The Pillas of the World], on no evidence, that "the entire function of the president of her kingdom is to become the object of universal gaze and wonder.… Her business at Actium was to cavort upon that stage where Antony made war."

Third, a double standard is almost always applied in discussions of Antony's and Cleopatra's respective motives for suicide. Cleopatra is repeatedly criticized for thinking of anything but Antony: this would seem to follow from the sexist precept that nothing but love is appropriate to a woman's thoughts. "Does she kill herself to be with Antony or to escape Caesar? It is the final question," Mills tells us, after explaining to us the difference between Cleopatra's unworthy death-bed thoughts and Antony's noble ones:

In her final moments, as she carries out her resolution, Cleopatra has "immortal longings," hears Antony call, gloats over outwitting Caesar, addresses Antony as "husband," shows jealousy in her fear that Iras may gain the first otherworld kiss from Antony, sneers at Caesar again, speaks lovingly to the asp at her breast, and dies, with "Antony" on her lips and a final fling of contempt for the world. But, it should be noted, she does not "do it after the high Roman fashion," nor with the singleness of motive that actuated Antony.

Stempel, coming upon the lines, "He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself" [V. ii. 191-92], is indescribably shocked that Cleopatra speaks two whole lines without reference to Antony: "No word of Antony here. Her deepest allegiance is to her own nature."

If, however, we look at the play, we see that Cleopatra adduces the following reasons for taking leave of the world: (1) she thinks life is not worth living without Antony; (2) she sees suicide as brave, great, noble, and Roman; (3) she wants to escape the humiliation Caesar has planned for her, and desires to have the fun of making an ass of Caesar; (4) she sees suicide as an act of constancy which will put an end to her previous inconstant behavior and to the world's inconstancy which has affected her; and (5) she wants to be with Antony in a life beyond the grave. Antony adduces the following reasons for his suicide: (1) he has lost his final battle, and he thinks Cleopatra has betrayed him; (2) he (later) thinks Cleopatra is dead, and feels that life is not worth living without her; (3) he wants to be with Cleopatra in a life beyond the grave; (4) he thinks Cleopatra has killed herself, and he cannot bear to be outdone in nobility by a mere woman; (5) he wants to escape the humiliation Caesar has planned for him; and (6) he sees suicide as valiant and Roman. It is thus apparent that the "singleness of motive" which Mills thinks "actuates Antony" is a myth: Antony has six motives to Cleopatra's five, and four of Cleopatra's five motives are identical with Antony's. Yet although Cleopatra is constantly taken to task for the multiplicity of her suicide motives (we all know that women cannot make up their minds), I have yet to see the critic who complained of the multiplicity of Antony's motives.

This double standard, arising from the critics' own sexist world view—that is, that love, lust, and personal relationships in general belong to a "feminine" world that must always be secondary to the "masculine" world of war, politics, and great public issues—can seriously distort the play. Some critics see the tragedy as growing out of the finally irreconcilable conflict between public values and private values, but many critics come down unequivocally on the side of public values—assuming, of course, that these public values belong to a world of men. Symptomatic of this tendency is the fact that Enobarbus, a boringly conventional antifeminist who voices just such a view in the play, is almost always taken to be a mouthpiece for Shakespeare. E. C. Wilson, for example, writes:

Antony, sobered by news of Fulvia's death, declares that he must from "this enchanting queen break off." Enobarbus banteringly cries, "Why, then we kill all our women. We see how mortal an unkindness is to them. If they suffer departure, death's the word." But in his next speech, a reply to Antony's "I must be gone," his clear sense of Antony's folly pierces through his banter. "Under a compelling occasion, let women die. It were pity to cast them away for nothing, though, between them and a great cause they should be esteemed nothing." Nowhere in the play is there a more incisive judgment on Antony's conduct.

Because these interpretations of the play are slanted in favor of the "rightness" of public, Roman values (in spite of the unsavory character of almost all the Roman activities which appear in the play, from the bride-bartering of Octavius and Antony, to the cut-throat scramble for political ascendancy, to the unctuous hypocrisy of Octavius in the closing scenes), Cleopatra, who after all shares top billing with Antony in the play's title, is demoted from the position of co-protagonist to the position of antagonist at best, nonentity at worst.

The most flagrant manifestation of sexism in criticism of the play is the almost universal assumption that Antony alone is its protagonist. The following are only a few critical pronouncements on the subject, which I have culled from a mass of interpretive writings that make the same point. Oliver Emerson: "the dramatic movement of the play is the ruin of Antony under the stress of sensual passion" ["Antony and Cleopatra," Poet Lore, 2 (1890), p. 126]. Georg Brandes: "Just as Antony's ruin results from his connection with Cleopatra, so does the fall of the Roman Republic result from the contact of the simple hardihood of the West with the luxury of the East. Antony is Rome. Cleopatra is the Orient. When he perishes, a prey to the voluptuousness of the East, it seems as though Roman greatness and the Roman Republic expires with him." Harley Granville-Barker: "Antony, the once-triumphant man of action, is hero.… [The play's theme] is not merely Antony's love for Cleopatra, but his ruin as general and statesman, the final ascension of Octavius, and the true end of 'that work the ides of March begun'.… If but in his folly, [Antony] has been great. He has held nothing back, has flung away for her sake honour and power, never weighing their worth against her worthlessness." Lord David Cecil: "the play would have been better entitled The Decline and Fall of Antony" ["Antony and Cleopatra" W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture (Glasgow: Jackson, 1944), p. 21]. S. L. Bethell: "Antony's position is central, for the choice between Egypt and Rome is for him to make." Willard Farnham [in Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier]: "Shakespeare does not organize his tragedy as a drama of the love of Antony and Cleopatra, but as a drama of the rise and fall of Antony in the struggle for world rulership that takes place after he has met Cleopatra." John F. Danby [in Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher]: "The tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is, above all, the tragedy of Antony." Austin Wright: "The main theme" of Antony and Cleopatra is "the clash between Antony and Octavius" ["Antony and Cleopatra," Shakespeare: Lectures on Five Plays by Members of the Department of English, Carnegie Institute of Technology (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press, 1958), p. 39]. Julian Markels: "Antony and Cleopatra focuses upon the conflict within Antony between public and private claims." A. P. Riemer: "On a strictly formal level, Antony and Cleopatra fulfils the requirements of orthodox tragedy in its depiction of Antony's fall (and, incidentally, Cleopatra's) in reasonably decorous terms." Janet Adelman [in The Common Liar]: "Antony is the presumptive hero of the play."

When, in 1964, Leurens J. Mills set out to find critics who agreed with him that Antony and Cleopatra were coprotagonists, he could find only two other critics who "agreed." One of these was Virgil Whitaker, who I find once remarked [in Shakespeare's Use of Learning], that "the tragic action of the play is centered upon Antony, who has so yielded himself to the passion of love that it has possessed his will and dethroned his reason." And Mills's own study does little to advance the cause. His summary of the two tragic falls is that the tragedy of Antony consists of the "pathetic picture" of a man who "by love for a thoroughly unworthy object comes to a miserable end," whereas the tragedy of Cleopatra "cannot be a 'tragic fall', for there is nothing for her to fall from." The critical camp that sees Antony and Cleopatra as coprotagonists does not muster impressive forces.

The critical consensus, then, is that Antony is the protagonist. There is a small catch, however. Antony dies in Act IV, and Cleopatra has the whole of Act V to herself, during the course of which she speaks some of Shakespeare's greatest poetry. How have the pro-Antony forces dealt with this embarrassment? A substantial number of them have chosen the stalwart expedient of ignoring it altogether. For the rest, the critical contortions to which they have been forced to resort are instructive and amusing.

Some feel that Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he gave Cleopatra the last act to herself. For example, Daniel Stempel says, "If… the major theme is the safety of the state, then the death of Antony does not remove the chief danger to political stability—Cleopatra: she has ensnared Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Antony—how will Octavius fare? This last act shows us that Octavius is proof against the temptress, and the play ends, as it should, with the defeat and death of the rebel against order. The theme is worked out to its logical completion, and the play is an integrated whole, not merely a tragedy with a postscript." Robert E. Fitch says, "Naturally Antony, the middle-man in the generic tension of values, must be disposed of by the end of Act IV, so that the last act may be given to the stark confrontation of pleasure and of power in the persons of Cleopatra and Octavius." Julian Markels says, "the grand climax of the whole action is reserved for Cleopatra, who now learns the lesson of Antony's life … and by her loyalty to him confirms Antony's achieved balance of public and private values." John Middleton Murry says [in Shakespeare], "Up to the death of Antony it is from him that the life of the play has been derived.… He is magnificent: therefore she must be. But when he dies, her poetic function is to maintain and prolong, to reflect and reverberate, that achieved royalty of Antony's.… We [watch] the mysterious transfusion of his royal spirit into the mind and heart of his fickle queen." Harley Granville-Barker says, "The love-tragedy … is not made the main question till no other question is left.… Antony dead, the domination of the play passes at once to Cleopatra.… But Antony's death leaves Shakespeare to face one obvious problem: how to prevent Cleopatra's coming as an anticlimax." Peter Alexander says [in Shakespeare's Life and Act], "Antony dies while the play still has an act to run, but without this act his story would be incomplete. For Cleopatra has to vindicate her right to his devotion." Other critics feel that in giving Cleopatra Act V to herself, Shakespeare simply made a dreadful mistake, one which destroyed the whole structure of the play. As Michael Lloyd quite rightly points out, "If we see Antony's tragedy as the centrepiece of the play, its structure is faulty" ["Cleopatra as Isis," Shakespeare Survey, 12 (1959), 94].

Cleopatra is present throughout the whole of the play, she has Act V to herself, and she dies at the end. Thus, she would seem to fulfill at least the formal requirements of the tragic hero. One might think that in the verbose history of Shakespearean criticism, at least one critic would have suggested that she is the protagonist—the sole protagonist—of the play. As a matter of fact, one did. A critic named Simpson—Lucie Simpson—wrote in a forgotten article in 1928 that "the play, in fact, might have been called Cleopatra as appropriately as Hamlet is called Hamlet or Othello Othello:" ["Shakespeare's 'Cleopatra,'" Fortnightly Review, NS 123 (March 1928), 332]. Although Antony and Cleopatra critics as a rule refer to each other's works more often than to the play, I have seen Lucie Simpson's work referred to only once, and then with a summary dismissal. (Such heretical works are hard to get hold of; for example, an intriguing book by a critic named Grindon—Rosa Grindon [A Woman's Study of "Antony and Cleopatra," 1909]—which advances the delightful and provocative thesis that "the men critics in their sympathy for Antony, have treated Cleopatra just as Antony's men friends did, and for the same cause" has been out of print for over fifty years.) In fact, it is for the most part only the occasional female critic who dares to suggest that a women might be the protagonist of any Shakespearean tragedy.

But changes Shakespeare made in using his source, Plutarch's Life of Marcus Antonius, indicate that he had a much greater interest than had Plutarch in Cleopatra as a human being. He elevated her position in the play by paying more attention to her motivation, allowing her to speak in her own defense, and making numerous small alterations in Plutarch's story, the effect of which is almost always to mitigate Cleopatra's culpability. That exonerating and elevating Cleopatra was a conscious intention is suggested by the fact that the changes are consistently in that direction. It is also notable that except for these changes, Shakespeare adheres quite closely to his source.

In Plutarch, Antony embarks on his Parthian campaign with 100,000 men. He loses 45,000 of them, we are told, mainly because "the great haste he made to return unto Cleopatra" caused him to abandon heavy artillery and put his men to forced marches: "the most part of them died of sickness." In Plutarch, then, 45,000 men lost their lives because Antony was in haste to meet Cleopatra by the sea-side—and then she was late! This distasteful episode, which provides Plutarch with ample occasion to revile Cleopatra, is omitted altogether by Shakespeare.

In Plutarch, Cleopatra is given a reason for wanting to appear in person at the battle of Actium: she fears "lest Antonius should again be made friends with Octavius Caesar by means of his wife Octavia," and the reasons she gives Antony for wanting to appear are spurious. In Shakespeare, there is no hint of this personal reason; Cleopatra simply declares "A charge we bear i' th' war, / And, as the president of my kingdom, will / Appear there for a man" (III. vii. 17).

Antony's reason for fighting the battle of Actium by sea is reported twice by Plutarch. "Now Antonius was made so subject to a woman's will that, though he was a great deal the stronger by land, yet for Cleopatra's sake he would needs have this battle tried by sea." "But … notwithstanding all these good persuasions, Cleopatra forced him to put all to the hazard of battle by sea." One very frequently finds critics adducing this as one of the charges against Shakespeare's Cleopatra. But in fact the sea battle is not Cleopatra's idea in Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare instead introduces a different motive, not mentioned in Plutarch: Caesar's dare.

ANTONY         Canidius, we
 Will fight with him by sea.
CLEOPATRA     By sea; what else?
CANIDIUS Why will my lord do so?
ANTONY       For that he dares us to't.

ENOBARBUS So hath my lord dared him to
  single fight.
CANIDIUS Ay, and to wage this battle at
  Pharsalia,
  Where Caesar fought with Pompey: but these
  offers,
  Which serve not for his vantage, he shakes off;
  And so should you.
ENOBARBUS      Your ships are not well
  manned;
  Your mariners are muleters, reapers, people
  Ingrossed by swift impress. In Caesar's fleet
  Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey
  fought;
  Their ships are yare, yours, heavy: no disgrace
  Shall fall you for refusing him at sea,
  Being prepared for land.
ANTONY         By sea, by sea.
                                (III. vii. 27-40)

In Shakespeare, the emphasis is entirely on Caesar's dare. Cleopatra finds the choice of sea-battle a natural one, since Egypt's military strength is in its navy, but she does not initiate the disastrous plan.

Cleopatra's departure from the battle of Actium, which prompts Antony to follow her and results in the loss of the battle, Shakespeare could hardly have omitted from the play, as it eventuates in the tragic deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. Nor would one wish this changed, since, despite Enobarbus' disclaimer (III. xiii. 3-4), it leaves Cleopatra with a large share of the blame for the ensuing tragedy—an important consideration, in view of the fact that in Shakespeare's mature plays the chain of events culminating in tragedy is initiated by the protagonist. In Plutarch, the focus in this scene is entirely on Antony—Cleopatra's leaving the battle is seen only in relation to its effect on Antony. In Shakespeare, Cleopatra considers whether she is to blame ("Is Antony, or we, in fault for this?" [III. xiii. 2]), indicates fear as her motivation ("Forgive my fearful sails" [III. xi. 55]), offers as her excuse that she acted in ignorance of the consequences ("I little thought / You would have followed" [III. xi. 55-56]), and apologizes profusely ("Pardon, pardon" [III. xi. 68]). Plutarch does not present Cleopatra's reactions to this crucial turn of events at all.

After the Thidias scene, Plutarch gives no hint of Cleopatra's impassioned declarations of innocence and love for Antony, declarations that do appear in Shakespeare's text. And although Shakespeare includes in the Thidias scene (as Plutarch does not) the imputation that Cleopatra has stayed with Antony out of fear, not love (III. xii. 56-57), this piece of dialogue is a transmutation of a much more damning passage in Plutarch—where after Antony's death, "Cleopatra began to clear and excuse herself for that she had done, laying all to the fear she had of Antony." Shakespeare has removed this imputation of disloyalty from the latter part of the action, putting it in the mouth of Caesar's messenger, not Cleopatra. And while Cleopatra acquiesces in the interpretation, she prefaces her acquiescence with the very-likely ironic "He is a god, and knows / What is most right" (III. xiii. 60-61).

As to Antony's suspicion, after the final aborted battle, that Cleopatra "has / Packed cards with Caesar" (IV. xiv. 18-19), neither Plutarch nor Shakespeare includes any evidence that she has. But Shakespeare has her messenger issue a denial (IV. xiv. 120-23), whereas Plutarch leaves the question entirely open.

In Plutarch, Cleopatra betakes herself to the monument "being afraid of [Antony's] fury." Shakespeare gives her much stronger reasons for her fear, since Antony declares four times, very convincingly, that he is going to kill her (IV. xii. 16; IV. xii. 39-42; IV. xii. 47, 49; IV. xiv. 26). This is not in Plutarch.

In both authors, Antony's suicide is a result of Cleopatra's sending word that she is dead. But again, Shakespeare takes pains to mitigate this action. First, he makes the death-message Charmian's idea (IV. xiii. 4), not Cleopatra's. Second, he has Cleopatra foresee the possible effect of her message and send an emissary to revoke it; unfortunately, the emissary arrives too late (IV. xiv. 119-26). This is a significant departure from Plutarch.

In Plutarch, Cleopatra will not open the gates of the monument to Antony, and no reason for this refusal is given. In Shakespeare, Cleopatra gives a reason and apologizes: "I dare not, dear; / Dear my lord, pardon: I dare not, / Lest I be taken" (IV. xv. 21-23).

Plutarch gives three reasons for Antony's suicide, but none at all for Cleopatra's, apart from the implication that her wits were distracted "with sorrow and passion of mind." She is reduced to a babbling, self-mutilating neurotic: "She had knocked her breast so pitifully, that she had … raised ulcers and inflammations, so that she fell into a fever.… her eyes sunk into her head with continual blubbering, and moreover they might see the most part of her stomach torn in sunder." Shakespeare gives Cleopatra's suicide full motivation, and allows her to die with dignity and even triumph.

Finally, Plutarch reports simply, "Her death was very sudden." The great dying speeches of Cleopatra are Shakespeare's addition.

Shakespeare's greater interest in Cleopatra first manifests itself in his changing Plutarch's title from The Life of Marcus Antonius to The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, and continues to manifest itself throughout the play.

Although Shakespeare's departures from Plutarch are consistently in the direction of mitigating the harshness of Plutarch's view of Cleopatra, they do not by any means amount to a whitewash. By granting Cleopatra motivation and the chance to speak in her own defense, Shakespeare lifts her from the level of caricature, which would be appropriate for satiric treatment, to the level of fully developed individuality, which qualifies her for treatment as a tragic figure. To be treated as a tragic protagonist, Cleopatra need not—indeed should not—be absolved of every failing; after all, no one tries to prove that Macbeth did not really commit murder before granting him the stature of tragic hero.

The most significant difference between Shakespeare's mature tragic practice and Aristotle's tragic theory is that while Aristotle at one point says that "pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune," Shakespeare insists on eliciting audience sympathy for characters who, to a greater or lesser degree, have brought their misfortunes on themselves. Shakespeare seems to ask his audience to understand, to empathize—even to forgive. In the later tragedies, Shakespeare seeks audience sympathy for inherently unsympathetic figures—a stubborn and mentally infirm octogenarian, a murderer, a misanthrope, a mama's boy, and (most difficult of all) a disreputable woman. As Willard Farnham points out in Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier, such an attempt involves great risks—what is gained in granting characters some say in their own destiny might easily be lost in diminution of audience sympathy. It seems to have been a risk that Shakespeare deliberately elected to take. In his last few tragedies, he made increasing demands on the humane tolerance (or perhaps on the Christian charity, in the most radical sense) of his audience. We are not expected to agree, in every case, that the protagonist is more sinned against than sinning; we are expected, on the basis of our common humanity with the offending protagonist, to offer sympathy unqualified by the necessity for exoneration. It is a demand too radical for Aristotle, for Farnham, for most audiences. Most are too ready to rue the absence of less deeply-flawed heroes, too ready to accuse Shakespeare of having sat down to eat with publicans and sinners. But although this is a tendency in the criticism of all the late tragedies, the fact remains that critics have been readier to sympathize with the murderer than with the wanton woman.

Any attempt to reach a canonical decision on the identity of a single hero in a play of such generic unorthodoxy as Antony and Cleopatra is probably foolhardy and possibly distorting in itself. Nevertheless, since so many critics before me have unblushingly insisted on establishing Antony as the play's sole protagonist, for the sake of argument I will suggest that there are good reasons for considering Cleopatra to be the play's protagonist—or, shall we say (ignoring the usual deprecatory sex-designation "heroine"), the hero. Not only does the play culminate in Cleopatra's death scene, but she has (according to the statistical evidence of the Spevack Concordance) more speeches than Antony; indeed, the most in the play (although, giving the lie to the received opinion that women talk too much, her speeches contain fewer total lines than Antony's). But most important, she learns and grows as Antony does not.

A. C. Bradley declares that the play is not a true tragedy because he cannot find the tragic hero's inner struggle in Antony. But Cleopatra has that inner struggle. She struggles against her own artificial theatricality (as Richard II never does): she who so often threatens to die that Enobarbus credits her with a "celerity in dying" (I. ii. 145) finally does truly kill herself. She who in a self-dramatizing gesture had sent word to Antony that she was dead and asked the messenger to "Say that the last I spoke was 'Antony' / And word it, prithee, piteously" (IV. xiii. 8-9), finally really dies with the words "O Antony" on her lips. She struggles against her own inconstancy—the inconstancy that had previously led her to change moods and to change lovers—and approaches death with the words

My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.
                                  (V. ii. 238-41)

As Lear learns that he is a man before he is a king, so Cleopatra learns that she is a woman before she is a queen:

No more but e'en a women, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares.
                                (IV. xv. 76-78)

The composition of Antony and Cleopatra followed close upon that of King Lear, that great play of self-knowledge. Surely, then, it is no coincidence that while Antony simply fears his own loss of self-knowledge, Cleopatra actually admits to her less-than-admirable actions ("I … do confess I have / Been laden with like frailties which before / Have often shamed our sex" [V. ii. 121-24]) and tries, however late, to change—to "be noble to myself." Surely after watching what Lear was and what Lear became, we should not be too ready to damn what Cleopatra has been while ignoring what she becomes.

Of the critics I have discussed, A. P. Riemer comes the closest to declaring that Cleopatra is the hero of Antony and Cleopatra. Rehearsing all the reasons for not considering Antony the hero, he trembles on the verge—and then withdraws, unwilling to take the final step. He tells us that "Her death (and this assumption must be faced squarely) is not offered in any sense as the play's structural culmination.… The play does not share [her] feelings and ideas, and the audience does not participate in [her] emotional state to the extent that it partakes of Hamlet's, Othello's or Lear's emotions at the climactic points of the tragedies in which these characters appear.… It is not possible for us to share her emotions."

I find this statement very odd. Is Cleopatra such an aberrant being that her emotions lie outside the pale of human comprehension? Is her practice of the tawdry old game known as feminine wiles really sufficient to render her forever as mysteriously and darkly inscrutable as male critics suggest? Is it really true that in contrast to the great universal audience which participates with no difficulty in the emotional state of a man who is troubled by incest, court drinking, the feasibility of revenge, and the authenticity of ghosts, there are no readers and no audiences who can participate in the emotions of a woman who dies thinking of politics, wine, her lover, and her baby?

The persistent idea that Cleopatra cannot be understood, underlying as it does so many of the sexist responses I have discussed, owes much to the notion that women in general are impossible for men to understand. But, pace Dowden and others, one might ask exactly what she does that is so dazzlingly mysterious. True, she engages in unqueenly activities such as hopping forty paces through the public street or wandering about incognito to observe the qualities of people. But then, Hal drinks in taverns and takes part in robberies as prince, and later wanders incognito among troops as king; there is disagreement over his motives, of course, but at least critics assume that he has understandable motives. I cannot recall anyone describing Hal as "quick, shifting, multitudinous, incalculable." And as for feminine wiles, Cleopatra's behavior here, far from being incomprehensible, is so obvious as to be almost crude: having bound herself to performing, not what is unexpected, but what is exactly the opposite of the expected, she has allowed herself no scope for creativity whatsoever. Milton's Satan, by vowing to oppose whatever God initiates, renders himself dependent on God's will; similarly, Shakespeare's Cleopatra, by obliging herself to determine what Antony expects and then to do the opposite, will very soon forfeit the element of surprise in all her actions. "If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick"—this is not the statement of a Woman of Mystery: it is a blueprint for action which, for the reader if not for Antony, renders the unpredictable predictable.

Shakespeare has taken pains to let Cleopatra explain her contrary behavior and give the reasons for it (I. iii). He has created a complex but far from inscrutable being. Cleopatra's variety is, at last, finite. In short, Cleopatra needs to be demythologized. What she stands to lose in fascination she stands to gain in humanity.

Cleopatra may or may not be the protagonist of Antony and Cleopatra. At the very least, however, it should now be clear that her part in the play needs to be reassessed with more fairness—without the sexist bias that has so far attended most efforts to come to terms with her, without the assumption that readers and theatregoers will never be able to treat her as anything more than an exotic and decadent puzzle, inaccessible to rational thought, remote from human feeling.

I find it hard to believe that there are no readers and audiences who find it possible to share Cleopatra's emotions, or even simply to concede to Cleopatra the attributes of a human being. It seems, after all, that Shakespeare did.

Further Reading

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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 ambiguity in the work.

Harris, Duncan S. "'Again for Cydnus': The Dramaturgical Resolution of Antony and Cleopatra." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XVII, No. 2 (Spring, 1977): 219-31.

Examines the conclusion of Antony and Cleopatra, maintaining that "[there] is no attempt, as there is in the earlier tragedies, to untangle the confusion of values."

Henn, T. R. "The Images of 'Antony and Cleopatra'." In The Living Image: Shakespearean Essays, pp. 117-36. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1972.

Examines the poetry of Antony and Cleopatra in relation to the play's ambiguous morality and the characters' changing emotions.

Hill, James L. "The Marriage of True Bodies: Myth and Metamorphosis in Antony and Cleopatra." In Real: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, Volume 2, edited by Herbert Grabes, Hans-Jügen Diller, and Hans Bungert, pp. 211-37. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1984.

Attempts to "trace the path of change in Antony and Cleopatra, giving particular attention to the mythological resonances with which Shakespeare surrounds his tragic figures."

Mason, H. A. "Antony and Cleopatra: Angelic Strength—Organic Weakness?" The Cambridge Quarterly I, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 209-36.

Mason attempts a departure from the standard methods of critical analysis to offers a reading of Antony and Cleopatra informed by his impressions as a viewer of the play.

—. "Antony and Cleopatra: Telling Versus Shewing." The Cambridge Quarterly I, No. 4 (Autumn 1966): 330-54.

Focuses on language and action in Antony and Cleopatra, particularly in relation to the characterization of Antony.

Neill, Michael, ed. Introduction to Anthony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-130. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Discusses the performance history of the play and presents an overview of recent critical interpretations.

Rose, Mark, ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Antony and Cleopatra: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977, 138 p.

Presents selected essays by critics including Maurice Charney, Julian Markels, Reuben A. Brower, John F. Danby, John Holloway, Robert Ornstein, Bernard Beckerman, Northrop Frye, George Bernard Shaw, Janet Adelman, and Maynard Mack.

Rosen, William. "Antony and Cleopatra." In Shakespeare: The Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Clifford Leech, pp. 201-14. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Focuses on the language of Antony and Cleopatra.

Smith, Gordon Ross, ed. Essays on Shakespeare. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965, 249 p.

Includes the following critical discussions of Antony and Cleopatra: J. Leeds Barroll on "The Chronology of Shakespeare's Jacobean Plays and the Dating of Antony and Cleopatra"; Paul A. Jorgensen on "Antony and the Protesting Soldiers: A Renaissance Tradition for the Structure of Antony and Cleopatra"; and Edith M. Roerecke on "Baroque Aspects of Antony and Cleopatra."

Snyder, Susan. "Patterns of Motion in 'Antony and Cleopatra'." Shakespeare Survey 33, (1980): 113-22.

Argues that "Shakespeare has set images of solid fixity or speedy directness against images of flux and of motion unpurposive but beautiful to express kinetically the opposition of Rome and Egypt and, through their incompatibility, the nature of Antony's tragic dilemma."

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