illustration of Antony and Cleopatra facing each other with a snake wrapped around their necks

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is often analyzed in dialectical terms, with critics positing Egypt in opposition to Rome. Within this framework, Egypt is equated with love and desire, art and imagination, and comedy, while Rome is the locus of politics and power, reason and restraint, and tragedy. These analyses further cite Cleopatra as Egypt's chief representative, and likewise Antony as Rome's, or, in another version, Caesar embodies Rome while Antony stands with a foot in each realm. What such examinations reveal, according to many critics, is that by the end of the play there is no discernible victor in the war between these worlds, and no consensus has been reached as to which philosophy, mindset, or lifestyle Shakespeare advocated. The dialectical approach remains a popular avenue for a number of critics who use it in order to study topics such as the play's treatment of theatricality, issues regarding characterization, the nature and role of love and desire in the play, as well as the play's comic elements.

In studying the way the play explores theatricality and role-playing, critics demonstrate that Egypt is the land of acting, theatrics, and playing. Sidney R. Homan (1970) and Jyotsna Singh (1989) have both commented on the way in which Antony and Cleopatra reflects the ambivalent attitude toward the theater prevalent in Shakespeare's England. Homan has detailed the way the theater is denigrated throughout the play, from the way Cleopatra draws an association between sex and art, and the way the imagination is viewed as fickle, to the Roman detachment of "passion" from "speech." Yet Homan also has argued that theatrical arts are shown, through Cleopatra, to have the power to transform reality. Similarly, Singh has observed how theatricality is celebrated through the figure of Cleopatra and condemned through the Roman resistance to it. Singh has tied this ambiguous portrayal directly to the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century polemical attacks on the theater and women both as duplicitous in nature. Like Singh, Robert Ornstein (1966) has located the play's praise of art and acting in Cleopatra. Ornstein has outlined the tension in the play between the imagery and plot and characterization. The play's imagery and plot, Ornstein has stated, both seem to emphasize the way Cleopatra, through her art and sensuality, manipulates Antony into forgetting his Roman duties. Yet, as Ornstein has observed, Cleopatra's own actions appear to valorize love, imagination, and art as the tools that reveal honesty of emotion and reality. Anthony S. Brennan (1978) has noted as well that to Cleopatra, role-playing is not an act of deception but a means of heightening one's self-knowledge.

Critics discussing the characterization in the play often examine Cleopatra as the embodiment of everything Egyptian, and Antony as a representative of Rome, but one who struggles with the conflict between Roman honor and duty and his attachment to Egypt and Cleopatra. Philip J. Traci (1970) has stated that many critics overemphasize the importance of characterization in Antony and Cleopatra. Commenting that too often the protagonists and minor characters alike are examined out of context, Traci has maintained that it is the interaction between Antony and Cleopatra that should be of primary interest. In an analysis of Antony's character, W. B. Worthen (1986) has studied the relationship between the actor, the role of Antony, and Antony's character. Worthen has emphasized that the way Antony is perceived by the audience is affected by a tension between the way Antony is described by other characters in the play, and the way Antony's own actions reveal his character.

In analyses of the play's treatment of love and desire,...

(This entire section contains 1009 words.)

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Egypt holds claim to these emotions and their power, in contrast to Rome's concern with imperial politics and war. Some critics, such as Linda Charnes (1992), have urged that the play's main concern isnot love. Charnes has stated that there is little evidence to suggest that the play was popular in Shakespeare's day, or that it was viewed as anything but a thoroughly political play. Charnes has maintained that the attention of nineteenth-century Romantics, followed by a pattern of "critical revisionism" has resulted in the play's being read as a "legendary love story." Explaining further, the critic has argued that the play does make use of rhetorical strategies designed to valorize the love shared by Antony and Cleopatra, but that this discourse is undercut by the play's more urgent emphasis on politics. Evelyn Gajowski (1992) has taken another approach to the focus of love in Antony and Cleopatra. Gajowski has observed that Cleopatra is often seen either as a manipulative courtesan who lures Antony from his Roman values and political and military duties, or as a superhuman figure, the "archetype" of eternal femininity who offers Antony what Rome can never hope to. These readings, the critic has maintained, fail in that they dehumanize Cleopatra. Gajowski has contended that Cleopatra should be seen as a woman whose love for Antony "ennobles" him in the same manner that Juliet's love elevates Romeo.

When critics review the comic elements in Antony and Cleopatra, they often note that Egypt is the realm of comedy, while tragedy reigns in Rome. Barbara C. Vincent (1982) is one such critic. Vincent has traced a movement from the dominance of tragedy to a dominance of comedy at the play's end, noting that despite this shift, Antony and Cleopatra's tragic vision has not been invalidated. Similarly, Martha Tuck Rozett (1985) has discussed the comic aspects at the end of Antony and Cleopatra and has compared them to similar features in Romeo and Juliet. Rozett has shown how both plays demonstrate elements of comic resolution, but has stressed that Shakespeare was more successful in portraying these elements in Antony and Cleopatra than he was in Romeo and Juliet. Rozett has observed that although the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra represent "an extraordinary fusion of comedy and tragedy" in that they occur as the inevitable end to the lovers' "folly and self-indulgence," the deaths also symbolize Antony's and Cleopatra's triumph over Caesar and the release from the pressure of obstacles to their love inherent in the world they inhabited.


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Harold Fisch (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra: The Limits of Mythology," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 23, 1970, pp. 59-61.

[In the following essay, Fisch argues that the mythic and ritualistic elements in Antony and Cleopatra are more than just components of the dramatic structure of the play, but rather that these elements comprise the play's very subject. Some of the ideas set out in this essay are further elaborated in Harold Fisch, The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton and Blake: a Comparative Study (Oxford University Press 1999), pp. 35-65.]


When critics speak of myth and ritual in Shakespeare they have in mind chiefly the symbolic structure of the plays. Thus The Winter's Tale which begins in winter ('a sad tale's best for winter', I, i, 25) and ends in high summer ('not yet on summer's death nor on the birth of trembling winter', IV, iv, 80) perfectly corresponds to the fertility rhythm. The accent on fertility in the sheep-shearing in Act IV gives to the structural form its emotional and spiritual content, whilst the symbolic revival of Hermione at the end rounds off the pattern of death and resurrection so basic to 'the myth of the eternal return'. Such an archetypal structure is older than Christianity (in spite of the Christian colouring) and perhaps older than the conscious memory of man.

In King Lear the symbolic structure of the play viewed as myth-ritual is defined by the image of the wheel. Lear speaks of himself as being bound on a wheel of fire (IV, vii, 47); Kent bids Fortune turn her wheel (II, ii, 173); the Fool speaking of the fate of his master bids himself 'let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill' (II, iv, 71); whilst Edmund acknowledges at his death that 'the wheel is come full circle' (V, iii, 174). The circular movement thus intimated has behind it a sense of a cyclical order, the rise and fall of kings ordained as a means of guaranteeing the fertility of the land and the orderly sequence of the seasons. Such imagery, more than it is a statement about Lear as a Nature-god (though he is that too), is a statement about his predetermined fate, and about the structure of the play in which that fate is projected.

In Antony and Cleopatra the myth-ritual pattern is undoubtedly central. But one should add that it is not so much a structural principle (as in King Lear) as the actual subject of the play. Shakespeare is dealing directly in this play with a pair of characters who lay claim to mythological status and who at every turn adopt the posture of figures in a fertility ritual. The first such myth pattern is that connected with the names of Mars and Venus.1 From the first scene the personalities of Antony and Cleopatra are mythologically inflated and presented in terms of the conjunction of the god of war and the goddess of love. Philo in the opening speech of the first scene declares that Antony's eyes 'have glow'd like plated Mars', and Antony's first speeches to Cleopatra introduce an allusion to the goddess Venus:

Now for the love of Love, and her soft hours


—the reference being of course to the 'hours' and 'graces' which wait on the queen of love. It is because they are enacting the archetypal union of the god of war and the goddess of love that they may properly claim:

Eternity was in our lips, and eyes, Bliss in our brows' bent; none our parts so poor, But was a race of heaven.

(I, iii, 35-7)

The full miming of this myth-pattern is achieved in Cleopatra's sailing on the Cydnus as described by Enobarbus: 'The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, / Burn'd on the water' (II, ii, 199-200). The text continues with an explicit reference to Venus:

For her own person It beggar'd all description: she did lie In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue— O'er picturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature.

(lines 205-9)

Plutarch, from whom this detail (like so much else in this speech) is derived, develops the link even further and remarks that Cleopatra's ladies were apparelled 'like the nymphes Nereides . . . and like the Graces'; and he continues that on her arrival 'there went a rumor in the peoples mouthes, that the goddesse Venus was come to play with the god Bacchus, for the generali good of all Asia'.2 Antony thus combines in himself aspects of both Mars and Bacchus, the god of war as well as the god of wine, Venus having been at various times the consort of both. The whole scene on the Cydnus naturally recalls the most famous scene associated in mythology with the goddess Venus, viz., her riding on a sea-shell wafted by Zephyrs to the foot of mount Cythera. On that occasion she was accompanied by Nereids, Cupids, and Graces. Since she is traditionally produced by the foam of the sea, it is natural that she should thus first appear before Antony. Enobarbus' conclusion confirms once again the supernal, absolute character of her charms. She is not a lovely woman, simply, but the principle of love itself, love, so to speak, carried to the infinite degree. Hence in sober truth it may be stated that

Age cannot wither her, nor custome stale Her infinite variety.

(lines 243-4)

Her changeless, timeless character is also clearly marked in her own speech where she asserts her antiquity, her immortal, fixed and absolute quality:

Think on me, That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, And wrinkled deep in time.

(I, v, 27-9)

Clearly she is not simply 'Miss Egypt', but the eternal feminine, Tiamat, Venus, Aphrodite. She is as old as the race of man, the source of passion, reproduction, and death.

Now whilst Shakespeare very clearly presents his two main characters in this inflated way, and has them claim all the divine honours, the transcendent status which belongs to them in their mythological capacities, he does so not without considerable irony. We may note here the same dialectical syntax as in Homer or as in Troilus and Cressida where the legendary theme of Helen and Paris becomes a subject for barrack-room jokes ('all the argument is a cuckold and a whore'). In the conversation of Agrippa and Enobarbus following the Cydnus passage we have the same deflating tendency. 'Royal wench' Agrippa calls her, whilst Enobarbus with as little sense of awe before the power of the queen of love describes how he once saw her 'hop forty paces through the public street'. Cleopatra's own servants also tend to burlesque the mythological theme:

Cleopatra. Hast thou affections?

Mardian. Yes, gracious madam.

Cleopatra. Indeed?

Mardian. Not in deed, madam, for I can do nothing But what indeed is honest to be done: Yet have I fierce affections, and think What Venus did with Mars.

(I, v, 12-18)

To think of the eunuch aping in his imagination the deeds of Mars and Venus produces the inevitable comic reaction at the expense of the whole mythological construction on which the personalities of the main characters are based.

The Mars-Venus theme is, however, not carried through to the end, and instead, the two main characters merge into another mythological grouping of much greater significance for Shakespeare's purpose, namely the Isis-Osiris-Set triangle with Cleopatra functioning as Isis, goddess of nature and fertility, and Antony as Osiris, the dying Sun-god who is resurrected in eternity.3 Octavius Caesar seems in some sense to function as Set (or Typhon) the brother of Osiris who seeks to replace him with Isis, only to be thwarted by Isis who gathers the mangled remains of Osiris together and thus guarantees that he becomes immortal and reigns as king of the underworld. The blending of the two groups together—Venus-Mars-Bacchus and Isis-Osiris-Set is no accident, since Osiris has a close connection with Dionysus (Bacchus) being also the god of wine, and Isis is the ultimate goddess from whom all the lesser deities including Aphrodite (Venus) are derived. Typhon again is a war-god like Ares (Mars). Shakespeare could have gathered his knowledge of the myth from a number of sources. It seems natural to suppose that he drew on Plutarch's Of Isis and Osiris (still to this day the chief source of our information on the subject) since he had made use of Plutarch's Lives as the chief source for the play as a whole, and Philemon Holland had translated a version of this in 1603. He could also have read an account of the appearance of Isis and Osiris in Spenser. But a particularly tempting possibility is that he had read all about the goddess Isis in Apuleius' The Golden Ass which had reached four editions in the English translation of Adlington by the end of the sixteenth century. It is perhaps worth quoting the epiphany of the goddess as experienced by Lucius in his dream at the end of the book. Since Isis is the moon- and sea-goddess—just as Osiris is the Sun4—it is natural that she should reveal herself to Lucius as he lies on the beach in the light of the full moon, and that her garment should be stuck with fiery stars, with—in the middle—a full moon. It should also be noted that on the boat-like vessel which she holds in her hand 'an asp lifted up his head with a wide-swelling throat'. The association with Cleopatra is arresting. But the account of the goddess's claims are more to our present purpose:

Behold, Lucius, I am come; thy weeping and prayer hath moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of the powers divine, queen of all that are in hell, the principal of them that dwell in heaven, manifested alone and under one form of all the gods and goddesses. At my will the planets of the sky, the wholesome winds of the seas, and the lamentable silences of hell be disposed . . . For the Phrygians that are the first of all men call me the Mother of the gods of Pessinus; the Athenians, which are sprung from their own soil, Cecropian Minerva; the Cyprians, which are girt about by the sea, Paphian Venus; the Cretans, which bear arrows, Dictynnian Diana; the Sicilians, which speak three tongues, infernal Proserpine . . . and the Egyptians . . . do call me by my true name, Queen Isis.5

Isis is no ordinary goddess. She is in fact the ultimate matrix of nature. She represents what Leslie Fiedler has called 'the huge, warm, enveloping darkness of unconscious life'.6 But as well as her universal aspect she also has a distinct local connection with the Nile waters, the slimy, fertile ooze which through the annual rise and fall of the Nile guarantees life and sustenance to man and beast.

Shakespeare shows himself profoundly conscious of the full implications of the Isis-Osiris myth, and modern students of mythology could, if they were wise, learn of it in both depth and detail from this play. In Act III, scene vi, we are told that in the division of the middle east between their progeny, Cleopatra and Antony had been enthroned in chairs of gold, she enacting the part of the goddess Isis:

she In the habiliments of the goddess Isis That day appeared.

(lines 16-18)

Cleopatra's monument in which the latter part of the play takes place was (according to Plutarch) 'set up by the temple of Isis', and Shakespeare shows himself aware of the ritual framework. Antony's ritual death has all the slow elaborate ceremonial we would expect. His connection with the Sun is made clear. As he arrives in the monument, Cleopatra declares

O sun, Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in, darkling stand The varying shore o' the world.

(IV, xiii, 9-11)

And again:

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

(V, ii, 79-81)

Mythological enlargement could not be more emphatic. She herself speaks of her own connection with the moon:

Now the fleeting moon No planet is of mine.

(V ii, 239-40)

And Antony had spoken earlier of her unflatteringly as Our terrene moon' (III, xi, 153).

But all this is of minor interest compared with the vividness of Shakespeare's evocation of the principles of death and fertility as personified by Cleopatra, a conjunction closely tied in with the image of the Nile waters. She is the 'serpent of old Nile' (I, V, 25), and she swears by 'the fire/That quickens Nilus' slime' (I, iii, 68-9), the verb suggesting fertile life but also a swarming and insalubrious abundance, breeding produced by putrefaction. A later speech imaginatively stresses the link between death, putrefaction and fertility:

Rather a ditch in Egypt Be gentle grave unto me, rather on Nilus' mud Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies Blow me into abhorring.

(V, ii, 57-60)

The vivid sexuality of the image ('lay me stark nak'd') binds together its various components. Cleopatra joins in mythic union the principle of love and death: she represents the Liebestod, the downward drag of nature into unconsciousness and death. And this is entirely in keeping with her archetypal character: Enobarbus humorously remarks at the beginning of the play:

I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying

(I, ii, 152-4)

—whilst she herself testifies at the end to the same phenomenon:

The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, Which hurts and is desir'd.

(V, ii, 297-8)

We recall that among the other personae of Isis (according to Apuleius) is the goddess Proserpine, and she is the bride of death ruling with him in the underworld. For Antony too death is 'a lover's bed' (IV, xii, 101). Modern psychologists would have no difficulty in identifying here the archetypal link between the libido and the death-wish which is so central for Shakespearian tragedy as a whole.

But death is only one side of the coin: the other and sunnier side is immortality. For it is the peculiar achievement of the ancient Egyptians that they managed to swallow death in immortality. Osiris is a dying god who dies into eternity. And here at the climax of the play Shakespeare celebrates not so much the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra as their translation into immortal life. Antony himself declares:

I come my queen . . . stay for me, Where souls do couch on flowers.

(IV, xii, 50-1)

At the very heart of the Osiris legend is this notion of immortality, the mummified remains of the dead man living on eternally in 'the field of peace'. Shakespeare had somehow penetrated into this region of ancient belief; creating for us in the last act of the play a dramatic realization of the active attainment of immortality. It is achieved especially in the speeches of Cleopatra as she mourns over the mutilated Antony-Osiris, in this re-enacting perfectly the classic pose of Isis whose long lament over the dead Osiris is recorded by Plutarch. Behind all this we hear the echo of the lament for all the dead and rising gods, Adonis, Tammuz, and the rest. But here the accent is more especially on the revival of the dead hero. Shakespeare presents in the fifth act a ritual of apotheosis in which Antony and Cleopatra in the most ceremonial fashion put off mortality and announce their union as god and goddess eternally united in the field of peace. She performs a ritual marriage between herself and the dead Antony which is going to be consummated in the afterworld:

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have Immortal longings in me . . . Husband I come: Now to that name, my courage prove my title! I am fire, and air; my other elements I give to baser life.

(V, ii, 281-3; 289-92)

It is an amazing piece of virtuosity, this latter-day dramatization of the most primitive and powerful of fertility myths; the one which holds within itself the key to the entire system of nature religion, linking the inner drives of flesh with the varying seasons of the world, and seeking by ritual and by magic ceremonies to overcome the most dreadful of all terrors—death itself, and convert it into love and sweetness, uniting the most disgusting of its aspects with the most alluring dream of which man is capable, viz., the dream of eternal life.

But Shakespeare is no innocent and ingenuous worshipper of nature and fertility. He holds the entire archetypal pattern in his hand; he displays it to us; he penetrates to its inner heart, but there is no final identification either between us and the displayed forms, or between the author and his characters in their mythic personalities. There is a tonal distance. It is enough to quote Frazer's account of the manner in which the ancient Egyptians received the death of Osiris to realize how far away from such simple beliefs the play of Shakespeare takes us:

In pity for her [Isis'] sorrow the sun-god Ra sent down from heaven the jackal-headed god Anubis, who, with the aid of Isis and Nephthys, of Thoth and Horus, pieced together the broken body of the murdered god, swathed it in linen bandages, and observed all the other rites which the Egyptians were wont to perform over the bodies of the departed. Then Isis fanned the cold clay with her wings: Osiris revived, and thenceforth reigned as king over the dead in the other world. There he bore the titles of Lord of the Underworld, Lord of Eternity, Ruler of the Dead.7

Shakespeare by contrast presents the whole apotheosis of Antony and Cleopatra within a framework of irony.


The entry of the Clown with his basket of figs in Act V, ii and the subsequent conversation in vulgar realistic prose between him and Cleopatra represents more than a comic deflation of the whole mythic hyperbole on which much of the play is based: it brings a Biblical realism vigorously to bear on the dream-world of Paganism. The Clown functions like Edgar the bedlam-beggar in King Lear, or like the Porter in Macbeth, or like the Gravediggers in Hamlet And like the Grave-diggers he makes death real, showing it to us in a handful of dust. His opening words parody the Egyptian myth of immortality in the fields of peace—that Shangri-la escape from the absoluteness of human responsibility—which forms the very essence of the Isis-Osiris legend:

Cleopatra. Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, That kills and pains not?

Clown. Truly I have him: but I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal: those that do die of it, do seldom or never recover.

The finality of death as in the Old Testament ('shall the dust praise thee?') is here given a comic form—'those that do die of it do seldom or never recover'; and in the phrase 'his biting is immortal' the whole notion of immortality is beheld in the perspective of irony. It is the death-bringing worm which becomes immortal. We are reminded of Isaiah 66:

And they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die.8

But this is not the only Biblical locus which the Clown's immortal worm recalls to us. It is also the serpent of Eve in the garden of Eden: he tells us that he knew of an honest woman 'but something given to lie . . . how' she died of the biting of it, what pain she felt'. And he goes on—

truly she makes a very good report o' the worm: but he that will believe all that they say, shall never be saved by half that they do: but this is most falliable, the worm's an odd worm.

The man who believed what the woman said of the serpent (worm) but could not be saved by what she had done is of course Adam; just as Cleopatra is Eve, no longer the eternal feminine principle of fertility, goddess of love and nature, but the erring female who leads man into sin and consequently forfeits the gift of immortality. Even the fig-leaves fit into place in the new pattern. There is a reversal of values, a sudden refocusing of the whole dream within an archetypal frame entirely different from that which the Isis-Osiris-Set legend had provided. Here man is tested and found wanting within the limits of his brief span of three-score years and ten. Those who die of the worm—that is to say, the whole race of man—do seldom or never recover. A cold, sharp, but morally bracing wind of realism blows through this dialogue. At the end we have Cleopatra reduced to size; she is indeed 'no more but e'en a woman' (IV, xiii, 73)—a woman who might have been 'a dish for the gods' but who has been unfortunately marred by the devil. Here the worm (the serpent of Eve) has been—as in the standard Christian exegesis—enlarged into the devil. He has become the undying worm who preys on mortal man and woman. The whole ritual of apotheosis on which the latter part of the play is based is hereby exploded, and the hero and heroine become, for the moment, actors in the Judeo-Christian drama of salvation and damnation.


But the dialectical syntax is not provided just by this intrusion of Christian terminology in the speech of the Clown: it is there throughout in the juxtaposition of the Roman and Egyptian worlds. Both sides of the plot are Pagan: both the Egyptians and the Romans pursue a mythical grandeur, a cosmic delusion. In the one it is the delusion of an immortal feast of love, in the other, of an immortal feast of power. But there is a sharp distinction in ethical and dramatic content. The one world is timeless, the other is governed by the inexorabilities of time—it is time-ridden. In Egypt, Antony's honour's 'prorogued . . . Even till a Lethe'd dulness' (II, i, 26-7). Cleopatra seeks escape from time; she proposes to 'sleep out this great gap of time/My Antony is away' (I, V, 5-6). Her time is biological; it is the time of Nature; birth, copulation, and death. There is no advance. Lepidus, by contrast, expresses the urgency which characterizes the Roman sense of existence in his words on the forthcoming confrontation with Pompey:

Time calls upon's. Of us must Pompey presently be sought, Or else he seeks out us.

(II, ii, 164-6)

And in the race for Mount Misenum between Lepidus and Maecenas there is the careful synchronization of watches that we associate with Roman life. (We recall that Shakespeare's feeling for the Roman obsession with time had led him to his famous anachronism in Julius Caesar II, ii.) After peace is made between Pompey and the triumvirate, Menas makes his infamous proposition: he offers to kill Pompey's enemies now that they are in his power. Pompey's reply is that he is already too late:

Ah this thou shouldst have done, And not have spoken on't.

(II, vii, 80-1)

Caesar has the same sense of opportunity; he too like Pompey has his finger on the trigger. At Actium he declares that 'our fortune lies/Upon this jump' (III, viii, 5-6). Against the indolence, the drunkenness, and the sleepiness of the Egyptian world (shared paradoxically by the Romans in their Bacchanalian revels on Pompey's barge) there is the pressure set up by the need to act in the heat, the sense of a world in constant motion. It was a Roman poet who wrote 'Carpe diem', a love ditty composed by a man with one eye on the clock.

And behind this sense of the passage of time, its inexorability and quality of challenge, there is an awareness of the vaster historical process by which human life is governed. Caesar urging his active star at Misenum, at Actium, and in Egypt, is obeying a force mightier than himself: thus he knows no rest:

Caesar through Syria Intends his journey, and within three days You with your children will he send before: Make your best use of this.

(V, ii, 199-202)

Against this plan of world-conquest, the life and death of Cleopatra becomes almost an incident, sad, diverting, and remarkable, but hardly more than an incident. The world moves on, as it must, towards the 'time of universal peace' of which Octavius speaks in Act IV, vi, recalling to us Vergil's vision of the ages of the world in the fourth Eclogue. The drama of universal history sets up its rhythm in the play, and the ritual enactments of Isis and Osiris in their temporary incarnations as Cleopatra and Antony are accordingly diminished in size and significance. Their own tragedy observes the mythic unity of place; it is confined to one corner of Egypt: but the play as a whole, as is notorious, bursts the last fetters of classical restraint. The structure of the play does not mirror the 'myth of the eternal return'. In fact it is its opposite. The play lacks the rounded form, the satisfying, self-completed, cyclical rhythm of ancient tragedy which we still respond to in King Lear with its controlling image of the wheel of Fortune. Here in Antony and Cleopatra time and place extend so as to enclose the theme of universal history as it unfolds itself in power upon the vast amphitheatre of the world. The closed myth-world of tragedy is exploded, for the theme of world history has taken its place. And in this new epic context the mimic apotheosis of the two lovers shrinks to a little measure.


This is the phenomenological paradox of the play, and on the whole Shakespeare is content to leave us (as he does in the other Roman plays) with the paradoxes unresolved, and with a sense of mutually contradictory value-systems.9 And yet there is in the final act of Antony and Cleopatra a hint of resolution. As Cleopatra takes the centre of the stage for her final exit she is not only herself rehabilitated in a characteristically Shakespearian fashion, but the world of mythology is rehabilitated too. And this is achieved paradoxically through an injection of Roman 'virtue'. She chooses to die 'after the high Roman fashion'; and she chooses to conceive of her relationship to Antony under the Roman figure of marriage. The marriage between Antony and Octavia in Act II had been a marriage of convenience, another example of the Romans knowing how to seize opportunities and bend them to their will. Yet it had been weighted with moral responsibility, with a sense of the need to further the ends of an historical programme. This had charged it with an almost religious character: it had become an 'act of grace'.

Let me have thy hand. Further this act of grace: and from this hour, The heart of brothers govern in our loves, And sway our great designs.

(II, ii, 152-5)

But the words sound hollowly. The great designs are convincing, impressive, and real, but the brotherly love is not. The Romans lacked the affective content. They had discovered history, but they had failed to discover the individual spiritual force, the quality of human participation, which should give it meaning. They had no notion of dialogue. Cleopatra on the other hand knows what it is to love and be loved: in her relationship with Antony, and especially towards the close of the play, she glimpses a reality which raises man beyond the 'dull world':

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?

(IV, xiii, 59-62)

These words would not have fallen from Roman lips, not even from Antony's. They point to love as a transcendent reality discovered within human relationships. Such love transcends the value-system of Romanism, but it equally transcends the Egyptian myth-world; for within the Isis-Osiris pattern proper there is no room for the marriage of true minds, but only for fertility and death. And yet it is in the notion of a marriage that this new-found transcendence finds its place in the last speech of Cleopatra:

Husband I come: Now to that name, my courage prove my title.

(V, ii, 289-90)

Mr John Holloway points out that the two lovers in this play always seem to require an audience: when declaring their love to one another they desire to be the cynosure of all eyes.10 This I would suggest is closely bound up with the ritual character of those appearances: they function in a fertility ceremony in which all are vitally concerned. But here at the end, it is surely the private character of the relationship which is uppermost. Cleopatra is withdrawing into that private mysterious world where only the still small voice of true love will be heard. She will deny Octavius his triumph: and she wishes for no more public appearances either of love or state in this 'vile world'.

Cleopatra's death is in one sense a ritual apotheosis: in another sense, it is a deserved punishment for a sinful life (this is the motif stressed in the conversation with the Clown): and in a third sense it is a marriage ceremony, in which Cleopatra rises above her conquerors showing them in the ceremony of love the true human dimension that they had missed. The final words of Caesar underline the religious solemnity of Cleopatra's death:

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

(V, ii, 347-9)

The word 'grace' has now a multiplicity of meaning: it suggests the irresistible beauty of Cleopatra, as goddess of love; but it also carries a suggestion of a heavenly and transcendent virtue.11

At this level we may look upon the deaths of the two chief characters not as an event which climaxes a fertility ritual, but as an event which brings the whole orgiastic world of Paganism to an end. It also brings to an end the sterile, world-conquering inhuman conception of time and history which the Romans had achieved, a history which had no room for salvation. If the Romans understood that history drives us on, if they felt its inexorable stress, its purposive direction, they had no means of discovering what that purpose was, to what end the labouring soul of man was striving. The final speeches of Cleopatra suggest not the meeting of Mars and Venus nor of Isis and Osiris, but rather of Cupid and Psyche—'latest born and loveliest vision far/Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy'. And at this point where the soul is born and its grace is discovered, Paganism transcends itself and glimpses those permanent and fundamental relations of love which give meaning not only to all human marriages but to the vast and seemingly impersonal march of history itself.


1 On this aspect, see Raymond B. Waddington, 'Antony and Cleopatra: What Venus did with Mars', Shakespeare Studies, II (1966), 210-27, who also points out the link between Antony and his ancestor, Hercules (p. 216).

2 G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V (London, 1964), p. 274.

3 The link with Isis as a more than casual feature of Cleopatra's personality was proposed by the eighteenth-century editors Capell and Warburton. (See M. R. Ridley (ed.), Antony and Cleopatra (London, 1954), notes to III, xiii, 153 and V, ii, 239.) It is surprising that present-day scholars have not shown more interest in this suggestion. But see M. Lloyd, 'Cleopatra as Isis', Shakespeare Survey 12 (Cambridge, 1959), pp. 88-94.

4 Cf. Spenser's description of the priests of Isis, Faerie Queene, V, vii:

They wore rich Mitres shaped like the Moone, To shew that Isis doth the Moone portend; Like as Osyris signifies the Sunne.

Antony is also connected in the play with the sun-god Phoebus-Apollo. Cf. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), p. 127: '"Deep in time" gives her an infinite age: it does not suggest an old woman, but an immortal . . . she is an immortal lover of the sun-god, of Phoebus-Apollo'.

5The Golden Ass, trans. W. Adlington, with an essay by Charles Whibley (1927), p. 251.

6Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1960), p. 13.

7 J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, ed. 1914), VI, 12-13.

8 And see also Mark ix. 44 f.

9 Cf. J. F. Danby, 'The Shakespearean Dialectic: an Aspect of Antony and Cleopatra', Scrutiny, XVI (1949), 196-213, and comments thereon by L. C. Knights, ibid., pp. 318-23.

10The Story of the Night (London, 1961), p. 102.

11 Cf. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, p. 131. On the multiple meanings of grace (though without reference to this particular passage), see also M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1965), pp. 150-3, 161.

Janet Adelman (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Infinite Variety: Uncertainty and Judgment in Antony and Cleopatra," in The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 14-52.

[In the essay below, Adelman maintains that the action of Antony and Cleopatra centers around the characters' attempts to understand themselves and each other, and that the basis for the play's dramatic structure rests more upon the characters' interpretations of actions and events than it does on the actions and events themselves.]

The critical history of Antony and Cleopatra can be seen largely as a series of attempts to assess the motives of the protagonists and to arbitrate between the claims of Egypt and Rome.1 But this search for certainty often encounters the stumbling block of the play itself: at almost every turn, there are significant lapses in our knowledge of the inner state of the principal characters; and we cannot judge what we do not know. The characters themselves continually tell us that they do not know one another, that their judgments are fallible. Nor can we attribute the critics' persistent search for answers merely to their stubbornness: for the play demands that we make judgments even as it frustrates our ability to judge rationally. This frustration is not an end in itself: it forces us to participate in the experience of the play and ultimately to make the same leap of faith that the lovers make. In this sense, our uncertainty is an essential feature of the play.

The moral of recent Shakespeare criticism may be that any tragedy studied long enough reveals that it deliberately provokes uncertainty; and in fact, there are some mysteries of plot, motivation, value, and judgment in all of them. But in other plays, we are usually certain of a few central facts; and we usually have our moral bearings. Despite our doubts about the ghost, we know that Claudius killed old Hamlet. We may question the value of vengeance or of any action in a corrupt state, but our questioning does not usually shake our conviction that the state must be set right. Despite the foolish irascibility of the old king or the foolish credulity of the Moor, we know who is right in King Lear or Othello; despite Macbeth's eloquent grandeur, we are morally satisfied when he is killed by Macduff. But no such satisfaction awaits us in Antony and Cleopatra, where both the presentation of character and the dramatic structure work to frustrate our reasonable desire for certainty. Certainty, even of a limited kind, seems essential to the tragic experience. But Antony and Cleopatra is only partly tragic;2 or at least the tragic vision is subject to the same questioning as everything else in the play.

Character and Knowledge

Not know me yet?


Although the play continually raises questions about motives, it simply does not give any clear answers to them.3 Almost every major action in the play is in some degree inexplicable. Why did Antony marry Octavia if he planned to return to Cleopatra?4 Was Octavius ruthless or merely blind in his plan to marry his sister to Antony?5 Does Antony return to the East for love of Cleopatra or because his spirit is overpowered when he is near Octavius?6 As the play progresses, the questions accumulate around Cleopatra; and they become more urgent. Is Cleopatra merely exercising her powers over Thidias for the sake of the game, or does she really hope to woo Octavius through him?7 Is her scene with Seleucus a cunningly staged device to convince Octavius that she has no desire to die, or does she in fact have hopes of a future life without Antony in which some lady trifles will be useful?8 Even the most critical action in the plot goes unexplained: Antony has won a victory against Octavius and regained the loyalty of his own men (a victory greatly magnified in importance from the account in Plutarch); but in the next encounter, his fleet yields to Octavius and his defeat is certain. Did the ships join with Octavius under Cleopatra's orders, as Antony assumes? If not, then who is responsible for this final betrayal of Antony?9 These questions are not all equally unanswerable; and our preferences and critical ingenuity will usually combine with the text of the play to produce satisfactory answers to most of them. But most of the time the answers will satisfy only ourselves. I for one am as unwilling to imagine a fundamentally disloyal Cleopatra as the most romantic critic and will argue for the best possible interpretation of her actions; but the fact is that the play will support the arguments of my opponents almost as readily as mine. We simply are not told the motives of the protagonists at the most critical points in the action.

Shakespeare was not accustomed to leaving his audience entirely in the dark on central issues in his tragedies. We may not know why Lear chooses to divide his kingdom so arbitrarily; but once we have accepted the initial situation, we are given frequent insights into his mind through his own soliloquies and asides and through a technique of projection called "umbrella speeches" by Maynard Mack, in which the fool, for instance, serves "as a screen on which Shakespeare flashes, as it were, readings from the psychic life of the protagonists."10 But in Antony and Cleopatra, the only major soliloquy is Enobarbus's; and the asides are almost exclusively the property of the minor characters.11 Antony does tell us in soliloquy of his determination to return to the East (2.3) and of his rage and love for Cleopatra (4.12; 4.14); but these speeches are by no means the meditations on his own inner state which we associate with soliloquy in the major tragedies.12 Moreover, the "umbrella speeches" and speeches by other characters which seem to reflect the state of the protagonists accurately often turn out upon examination to be wrong. No play in which the characters remain so essentially opaque to each other and to the audience can satisfy us in the way of Macbeth—in the way, that is, of character revelation and moral certainty.13

There are, of course, moments at which the characters are opaque in the other tragedies, but these mysteries are, I think, of a slightly different order. Generations of critics have argued, for instance, about why Hamlet does not kill the king while he is praying. Is it really because he does not want to send Claudius's soul to heaven, or must we look deeper into Hamlet's character toward those philosophic or psychoanalytic scruples which keep him from action altogether? We must note that Hamlet himself gives us a perfectly good reason for not killing Claudius praying: that heaven is no recompense for hell. Although we may choose (at our peril) to disbelieve his reason, it is at any rate evident that Hamlet believes it. Moreover, we are informed at this critical moment of the process of Hamlet's mind: although we may feel that we have not been told the whole truth, at least the illusion of insight into Hamlet's motivation has been given by the soliloquy. If an aura of mystery persists nonetheless, it is perhaps because the literary figure in this instance creates so absolute an illusion of reality that he breeds all the mysteries of character which we find in real life. The sense of opaqueness comes more from the success of the illusion than from any failure to explicate character: Shakespeare gives us insight into Hamlet's inner state at virtually every turn in the play.

A fully realized character like Hamlet will necessarily appear mysterious at some moments precisely insofar as he is fully realized; a relatively unrealized character like Iago will engender mysteries of another sort. Iago's frequent soliloquies reveal his motives and his machinations: Cassio has got the job he wanted; he suspects both Cassio and Othello of cuckolding him; and the daily beauty of Cassio's life makes his own ugly. But the more motives Iago gives us, the less likely they seem as explanations of his actions. His motives do not seem equal to the deed, nor can they account for that fundamental hatred of life and love of contrivance which rule him. "I hate the Moor," he says, and then explicitly denies that he hates him for any particular reason:

And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets He's done my office; I know not if t be true . . . Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind, Will do, as if for surety.


We are not here fundamentally concerned with Iago's character; mere ordinary human motivation is serving as the excuse for some more essential hatred which it surely could not have caused. Our impression, despite the soliloquies and their revelation of motivation, is not that the byways of Iago's character have been revealed to us but rather that essential evil of Iago's sort is a self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizing, and finally self-annihilating machine to which motivation is almost wholly irrelevant after the initial move is made. We become more interested in watching the diabolical principle at work in a human being than in the character of Iago per se and his inconsistent motivation. It is with a similar disinterest in the intricacies of character that we watch the redemptive principle working through Cordelia. Figures like Iago or Cordelia tend to function less as fully realized characters than as embodiments of moral principles. And in proportion as they are less fully human than Hamlet, as they are more purely symbolic, we are less interested in their inner states. They can afford to be opaque because we are not fundamentally interested in them as characters: mysteries of motivation simply evaporate insofar as they take their places as parts of a symbolic action.

But in Antony and Cleopatra, the protagonists neither reveal their motives to us nor are they content merely to take their places in a symbolic action. They create the same sort of illusion of reality that Hamlet creates but do not give us even the partial insights into their souls that Hamlet gives. We are forced to concern ourselves with their characters as we are not with Iago's or Cordelia's; and yet their characters remain opaque. True, a desire to understand character in the play may be dismissed by some modern critics as naïve; and there is little question that Antony and Cleopatra becomes a more unified and explicable whole if it is read as a lyric14 poem or an allegory15 to which questions of character are largely irrelevant. But we may not be able to believe entirely in the play-as-lyric-poem of Knight and Knights or in the character-as-a-bundle-of-stage-conventions of Schücking and Stoll or in the character-as-symbol of Bethell; or at least these theories may not be able to explain away character altogether.16 However convincing they are in part, they do not quite allay the nagging suspicion that the illusion of character is in some measure relevant to drama, and particularly to this one. Critics have persisted in trying to find answers to the questions of motivation and emotion in Antony and Cleopatra; and though questions of character may occasionally be irrelevant, this critical persistence suggests that they are not irrelevant here. If the same questions are continually asked, then I think we must conclude that the questions have been elicited by the play; the search is interminable not because the questions are wrong but because the answers are not given.

To explain character away, and with it the unanswerable questions, is in this instance to explain the play away: for the whole play can be seen as a series of attempts on the parts of the characters to understand and judge each other and themselves. We see Cleopatra dallying with Thidias in act 3, scene 13: Enobarbus thinks he sees Cleopatra betraying Antony and transferring her allegiance to Caesar; Antony thinks he sees the operations of lascivious habit. What have they seen? Do we watch a cunning queen outfox a wily politician in the scene with Seleucus, or a servant betray his mistress? This uncertainty is apparent not only in the critical moments of the play (did Cleopatra's ships join Caesar's on her orders?) but during numerous small scenes. And we are as baffled as the characters; like them, we see only the bare event and are left to speculate upon its meaning.

Throughout the play, the characters themselves question its meaning for us; the. questioning is so habitual that it occurs explicitly even in those relatively minor scenes where the meaning does not seem to be at issue. When the soothsayer tells Charmian that she shall be far fairer than she is, the two women debate his meaning:

Char. He means in flesh.

Iras. No, you shall paint when you are old.


Their debate is poignant because neither can guess the true meaning of his prophecies. The question of meaning is most explicitly raised in the small scene in which Antony bids his servants farewell; there it is raised four times in thirty-five lines. We would expect Cleopatra to know Antony as well as anyone; yet she asks Enobarbus, "What means this?" (4.2.13) and, ten lines later, "What does he mean?" Enobarbus then asks Antony directly: "What mean you, sir, / To give them this discomfort?" (lines 33-34). Antony immediately denies that he meant his words as Enobarbus and the servants have taken them:

Ho, ho, ho! Now the witch take me, if I meant it thus! Grace grow where those drops fall, my hearty friends; You take me in too dolorous a sense, For I spake to you for your comfort.


Antony's attempt to console his followers by rearranging his meaning explicitly raises the issue of interpretation; even here, we are faced with one of the central dilemmas of the play. Virtually the only way out of this dilemma is the way that Antony takes at the end of the scene, when he in effect plays Horatio to his own Hamlet: "Let's to supper, come, / And drown consideration" (lines 44-45). In the scene which follows immediately, we are shown another farewell embedded in controversy:

Sec. Sold. Heard you of nothing strange about the streets?

First Sold. Nothing: what news?

Sec. Sold. Belike 'tis but a rumour.


The rumor is of course instantly verified: the music of Hercules departing is heard and debated.

Fourth Sold. It signs well, does it not?

Third Sold. No.

First Sold. Peace, I say: What should this mean?

Sec. Sold. 'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, Now leaves him.


Nothing goes unquestioned in this play. In most literature there is a convention that character is knowable as it rarely is in life, that characters act in accordance with certain constant, recognizable, and explicable principles which we and they can know. This convention does not operate in Antony and Cleopatra. There the characters do not know each other, nor can we know them, any more clearly than we know ourselves. In the midst of Antony's rage against Cleopatra and Thidias, Cleopatra asks him, "Not know me yet?" (3.12.157). Antony can scarcely be blamed for not knowing Cleopatra; the question stands as central to the play. From Cleopatra's "If it be love indeed, tell me how much" (1.1.14) to the First Guardsman's "Is this well done?" (5.2.324), questions of motive, of value, and of the truth of the emotions are insistently raised.17 Emotions are unreliable and constantly changing; characters question their own emotions as well as those of others. From the beginning we see Cleopatra stage emotions for Antony's benefit ("If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing" 1.3.3-4; "I am sick, and sullen" 1.3.13). She accuses Antony of playacting his rage ("You can do better yet; but this is meetly" 1.3.81). We know that Antony "married but his occasion" (2.6.128) in marrying Octavia, for he himself tells us, "I make this marriage for my peace" (2.3.38). But what of Fulvia? "Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?" (1.1.41). Even Antony muses on his inconstant emotions: "she's good, being gone, / The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on" (1.2.123-24). Is Antony's emotion love indeed? Cleopatra asks, "Why should I think you can be mine and true . . . / Who have been false to Fulvia?" (1.3.27-29). Why indeed? Antony thinks Cleopatra's passions are feigned: "She is cunning past man's thought" (1.2.143). But Enobarbus answers that "her passions are made of nothing but the finest parts of pure love" (1.2.144-45); and whatever his tone of voice, his words at least contradict Antony's. Enobarbus and Agrippa mock Lepidus's protestations of love for both Antony and Caesar (3.2). Cleopatra idly asks, "Did I, Charmian, / Ever love Caesar so?" (1.5.66-67), and is most displeased with Charmian's teasing answer.

The tears wept by Antony's crocodile are characteristic of this persistent questioning of emotion. Cleopatra assumes that Antony will weep crocodile tears for her: "I prithee turn aside and weep for her, / Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears / Belong to Egypt" (1.3.76-78). "The tears live in an onion, that should water this sorrow" (1.2.167-68), Enobarbus says of Fulvia's death; yet even when Enobarbus is genuinely moved by Antony's farewell to his servants, he calls himself "onioney'd" (4.2.35). When Caesar weeps at parting from Octavia, Agrippa recalls Antony's tears:

When Antony found Julius Caesar dead, He cried almost to roaring; and he wept When at Philippi he found Brutus slain.


Characteristically, Enobarbus points the moral:

That year, indeed, he was troubled with a rheum; What willingly he did confound, he wail'd, Believe't, till I wept too.


Antony's weeping over Brutus recalls his sorrow over Fulvia; in both instances he grieves for what he himself has helped to destroy. The movement is characteristic of the play: we shall see Caesar too weep at what willingly he did confound when Decretas reports Antony's death ("The gods rebuke me, but it is a tidings / To wash the eyes of kings" 5.1.27-28); Agrippa comments upon the inconsistency of the emotion much as Enobarbus and Antony have already commented ("And strange it is, / That nature must compel us to lament / Our most persisted deeds" 5.1.28-30). During Cleopatra's suicide, Charmian asks in effect for cosmic crocodile tears, for the show of cosmic grief: "Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, that I may say, / The gods themselves do weep!" (5.2.298-99).

The full acknowledgement of all this uncertainty is in Antony's quiet lines, "I made these wars for Egypt, and the queen, / Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine" (4.14.15-16). Does Antony have her heart?18 Or does she too discover that Antony is good only when he is gone? In the end, the uncertainty implicates us as well as the characters: we must question Cleopatra's love for Antony as she plans her suicide; Shakespeare's insistence upon her dread of a Roman triumph forces us to question it. But in this play, not even skepticism is a secure position: Enobarbus shows us that. He persistently questions the sincerity of the passions, but when he follows his reason, he dies of a broken heart. At his death, we who have agreed with his rational skepticism are at a loss: skepticism itself is no more reliable than passion. If we are finally convinced of Cleopatra's love—and I think we are—we have had to develop a faith nearly as difficult as Antony's, a faith in what we cannot know.

The Dilemma of Judgment

Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, The other way's Mars.


If we are forced to participate in this questioning of emotion, with all its consequences, we are also forced to participate in the act of judgment. The desire to judge and be judged correctly is one of the dominant passions of the play; it is no wonder that the critics have spent so long trying to judge between Rome and Egypt when the characters themselves are so concerned with right judgment.19 "Is Antony, or we, in fault for this?" (3.13.2), Cleopatra asks after Actium: it is another of those questions which seem central to our experience of the play. Enobarbus answers "Antony only" without hesitation; but he can afford to give this partial judgment because he had already condemned Cleopatra before the fact ("Your presence needs must puzzle Antony" 3.7.10). Antony's desire to die nobly, Cleopatra's dread of a Roman triumph: both are part of this overriding concern with judgment. Throughout the play, we see people making images of themselves, rearranging their own story. Cleopatra virtually stage-manages her death; and Caesar tries to arrange for correct judgment of himself with nearly every word he speaks. When first we see him, he is busily justifying himself to Lepidus ("You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know, / It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate / Our great competitor" 1.4.1-3). His last words in the play are a judgment on the pity of the lovers' story and inevitably on his own glory ("their story is / No less in pity than his glory which / Brought them to be lamented" 5.2.359-61). Enobarbus, that inveterate judge of others, dies judging himself as well as Antony:

. . . 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.


In a sense, the play is a series of conflicting judgments passed on the protagonists, even by the protagonists themselves. In the first scene Antony attempts to "bind, / On pain of punishment, the world to weet / We stand up peerless" (1.1.38-40); but the world is watching, in the form of Demetrius and Philo, and its judgment is quite otherwise. For in this play, no judgment is absolute.20 If we see Caesar's "old ruffian" (4.1.4), we also see Cleopatra's "man of men" (1.5.72); if we see "salt Cleopatra" (2.1.21), we also see "a lass unparallel'd" (5.2.315). Cleopatra herself calls attention to this conflict in judgments: "Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars" (2.5.116-17).21

Argumentation is the central mode of the play; not even the Romans can agree with one another. The first words of the play are "Nay, but": enter Philo and Demetrius, arguing. We later see Enobarbus and Antony arguing about Cleopatra (1.2) and Caesar and Lepidus arguing about Antony (1.4). The habit of contrariness infects even the watchmen who oversee Enobarbus's death and quibble about whether he is asleep or has swooned. Throughout, one man's meat is another man's poison. There is no room here for a moral scheme which tidily apportions the world according to vices and virtues. In that sense, the basis for judgment is itself continually challenged. Enobarbus says that Cleopatra "did make defect perfection" (2.2.231): "vilest things / Become themselves in her" (2.2.238-39). Even the Romans describe the lovers as creatures beyond the reach of ordinary judgment. Lepidus defends Antony precisely by pointing out his faults:

I must not think there are Evils enow to darken all his goodness: His faults, in him, seem as the spots of heaven, More fiery by night's blackness.


A metaphor in which goodness is blackness and faults stars mitigates against the possibility of any simple moral judgment. Caesar himself is willing to grant for the sake of argument that vilest things may become Antony; he answers Lepidus,

. . . say this becomes him,— As his composure must be rare indeed Whom these things cannot blemish,—yet must Antony No way excuse his foils, when we do bear So great weight in his lightness.


And if the lovers' defects may be their perfections, Enobarbus knows that Octavia's perfections may be defects in Antony's judgment (2.6.117-23).

The very process of judging is unreliable: as Cleopatra's image of the perspective painting (2.5.116-17) suggests, judgment depends on where one stands. Pompey is quite certain that he knows the lovers and can judge them; and his judgment seems intended to persuade us that he is right. His great condemnation of the lovers is frequently cited as though it were Shakespeare's own judgment and one which we ought to share.

. . . Mark Antony In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make No wars without doors. . . .

. . . but all the charms of love, Salt Cleopatra, soften thy wan'd lip! Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both, 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 dulness—

[2.1.11-13, 20-27]

If other characters in disparate situations make the same observations, then we feel that the judgment is corroborated and hence trustworthy. Several elements in Pompey's judgment are in fact verified by the play. Antony himself suggests that Cleopatra is a witch: he has already called her "this enchanting queen" (1.2.125) and will later call her "this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm" (4.12.25). The fair field of feasts which Pompey evokes is described in some detail by Enobarbus in the next scene (2.2.127 ff); also in the next scene Antony admits to Caesar that his brain has occasionally been kept fuming by feasts ("Three kings had I newly feasted, and did want / Of what I was i' the morning" 2.2.76-77). Consequently we must trust Pompey's judgment. Or must we? Pompey might have continued his diatribe forever if he had not been interrupted by a messenger at the very height of it. Pompey's eloquence is so great that too few critics have noticed an important detail: the messenger contradicts absolutely the judgment which Pompey has just delivered.

Pom. Even till a Lethe'd dulness—Enter Varrius How now, Varrius?

Var. This is most certain, that I shall deliver: Mark Antony is every hour in Rome Expected.


This is most certain indeed. Pompey's reply is a little weak: "I did not think / This amorous surfeiter would have donn'd his helm" (lines 32-33). But this new piece of information does not cause Pompey to change his fundamental judgment of Antony: he is still "this amorous surfeiter" and "the ne'er-lust-wearied Antony" (line 38) even when the messenger has just belied this judgment. Pompey's judgment asks us simultaneously to believe and disbelieve it: for an audience accustomed to knowing where it stands, this uncertainty is intolerable. And Pompey's judgment is in this sense typical of all judgments in Antony and Cleopatra: each tells us as much about the judge and his perspective as it does about the accused.22

The degree to which we can rely on a character's judgment is often at issue in Shakespeare. Edgar's assessment of events in King Lear is generally undercut by the events themselves, perhaps most vehemently when his blinded father is led in immediately after he has pronounced that "the worst returns to laughter" (4.1.6). At the end of many of the tragedies we are given judgments which are significantly challenged by the play as a whole: we do not, for example, accept Malcolm's "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" (Macbeth 5.9.35) as the whole truth about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. But in the other tragedies, there are usually some reliable judgments interspersed among those which are clearly partial. When Regan tells us that Lear "hath ever but slenderly known himself (1.1.292), we accept her judgment, in spite of our distrust of the judge. And despite the occasional inaccuracies of judgment, the analogy of the perspective painting is wholly inappropriate to Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, or Macbeth; its inappropriateness is the measure of the distance between these plays and Antony and Cleopatra. In fact, part of the effect of the tragedies depends precisely on our ability to make moral judgments: that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, that Desdemona is chaste and Iago evil, that Lear is more sinned against than sinning. But in Antony and Cleopatra we frequently find that we can make no judgment at all, or that our judgments are no more reliable than Pompey's.23

Our involvement in the shaky business of judging is essential to the play; and it depends on precisely that uncertainty about the characters which so often frustrates us. We know of Hamlet's or Edgar's designs because they tell us about them. We know when Iago is feigning honesty or Macbeth loyal hospitality; we know precisely to what degree we can rely upon Claudius's or Gloucester's or Othello's or Duncan's judgment of the situation. But we do not always know when Antony and Cleopatra are feigning; and it is essential that we should not know. In order to be engaged in the movement of judgments, in order to see both the validity and the limitations of all perspectives, we must be able to accept each of the various judgments as true at least momentarily. To do so we cannot know substantially more about the protagonists than the characters who judge them know. And it is this movement of perspectives, rather than the revelations of a psychodrama or the certainties of a morality, which is most characteristic of Antony and Cleopatra.

The uncertainty of judgment characteristic of Antony and Cleopatra depends on our ignorance of the inner states of the characters and on their own insistent questioning; but it is also built into the dramatic structure of the play. In one sense, the experience of Antony and Cleopatra is curiously indirect: the play consists of a few actions and almost endless discussion of them.24 Antony is the presumptive hero of the play; when he appears in act 2, scene 2, he has been absent for three scenes during which Caesar, Cleopatra, and Pompey have in their speculations created three distinct Antonys, each to their heart's desire. Which Antony do we know? We never actually see Cleopatra in mythological garb, yet she is twice described in the habiliments of a goddess: Enobarbus reports her appearance as Venus, and Caesar her appearance as Isis. These two reports are strikingly different in attitude; the difference between them suggests two possible perspectives on Cleopatra, and on the quasidivinity sometimes associated with her, far more economically than any dramatic action could. We do not see Antony's return to Egypt: we learn of it only as Octavia does, from the not impartial report of her brother. This insistence upon report and discussion makes us suspect that the actions are unimportant except insofar as they are interpreted; in fact, the dramatic design of Antony and Cleopatra forces us to acknowledge the process of judgment at every turn. When the audience is persistently told one thing and shown another or told two conflicting things, when it sees minor characters speculating about the protagonists almost as often as it sees the protagonists themselves, then its own process of judgment becomes part of the experience of the play. It is the very indirectness of Antony and Cleopatra that insures the direct participation of the audience in it.

The most characteristic dramatic technique in Antony and Cleopatra is the discussion of one group of characters by another. In its purest form, it is strikingly simple: a group of minor characters who are alone on stage discuss an action that is about to take place among the protagonists; the protagonists then appear on stage, act, and disappear; and a group of minor characters, frequently the same as the initial group, are left to discuss the action.25 The scene is thus framed so that the major characters become in effect actors and the minor characters their interpretive audience. This pattern appears with astonishing consistency throughout the play. Occasionally one half of the frame is missing; but in these instances the framing effect is generally achieved by the presence of commentary on the part of the minor characters throughout whatever action is engaging the protagonists. Either partial or complete framing of this sort occurs in no less than twelve scenes; significant elements of this process occur in many more scenes. Act 1, scene 1, is the paradigm for this structural framing just as it is the paradigm for the varying perspectives of the play. Demetrius and Philo comment on the lovers; the lovers appear and simultaneously substantiate and reveal the limitations of their judges; and they are left to comment once again. Philo's language virtually forces us to see the lovers' appearance as a spectacle or a play within the play, a play with a very specific moral:

Look, where they come: Take but good note, and you shall see in him The triple pillar of the world transform'd Into a strumpet's fool: behold and see.


In act 2, scene 2, Enobarbus and Lepidus discuss the meeting of Antony and Caesar; the great triumvirs meet and the marriage with Octavia is arranged; and Enobarbus and Maecenas are left to discuss Cleopatra, Octavia, and the proposed union. The concord is a formal spectacle for which the prologue and epilogue provide the appropriate interpretation. The same pattern of formal concord and interpretive discussion is repeated in act 2, scene 6: Pompey, Antony, and Caesar meet and come to terms; Enobarbus and Menas are left to discuss the terms and to prophesy of the union between Antony and Caesar. Pompey's servants discuss the drunkenness of the world leaders before we see them in act 2, scene 7; Enobarbus and Menas stand aside and comment during part of the scene (lines 86-94). In act 3, scene 2, Enobarbus and Agrippa discuss the farewells of Octavia, Caesar, and Antony; we then see the brothers parting while Enobarbus and Agrippa comment on their tears. Act 3, scene 7, is a variation on the pattern: Cleopatra and Enobarbus discuss the effect of Cleopatra's presence on Antony; Antony enters and apparently under Cleopatra's influence informs Canidius that he will fight by sea; Canidius and a soldier are left commenting on Cleopatra's effect on Antony and on the forthcoming battle. The most complex of these scenes is act 3, scene 13, which consists of four separate actions and Enobarbus's commentary on each of them. When the scene opens, Enobarbus and Cleopatra as prologue are discussing Antony's flaw. Antony appears and sends Caesar a challenge to single combat; Antony leaves and Enobarbus comments extensively on his folly. Next, Thidias enters and Cleopatra flirts with him; Enobarbus comments on her disloyalty to Antony. In the third section of the scene, Antony returns, oversees their dalliance, and orders Thidias punished; Enobarbus comments on his rage. Finally, after his rage, Antony is reconciled to Cleopatra and vows to do wondrous deeds in the next battle; Enobarbus comments on that diminution in his captain's brain which has restored his heart. With this final commentary, Enobarbus is again alone on stage, summarizing and judging the entire scene. But in this scene Enobarbus's asides not only function as a commentary on the main action, but become an impetus to action in themselves. In the process of commenting on Antony's folly, Enobarbus begins to judge his own ("The loyalty well held to fools does make / Our faith mere folly" lines 42-43). His commentary and his consequent decision to leave Antony begin to take center stage. His death is the result of this decision; it is fitting that in his death scene the constant commentator has become the central actor upon whom others comment. In act 4, scene 9, the watchmen stand aside and comment throughout his soliloquy and after his death.

These scenes are not the critical dramatic moments in the play; they are interesting because they indicate the extent to which this pattern is habitual even in relatively peripheral scenes. And the most critical moments—Actium, Antony's suicide, and Cleopatra's suicide—all have essentially the same structure, the central action and the series of comments. In the Actium scene (3.10) the frame has in fact replaced the picture. In this scene and the one that follows, we are given a hierarchy of commentary upon a scene which takes place off-stage: Enobarbus and Scarus comment; then the general Canidius comments; then, finally, Antony comments upon himself. Once the pattern has been established, it can function even when the frame appears without the picture: all those scenes in which characters discuss one another's activities serve to some extent as prologues and epilogues to actions which occur offstage. Each time the pattern occurs, it is analogous to the structure of the play as a whole—to our opaque protagonists, surrounded by critics and commentators.

By the device of partial or total framing, the structure of these scenes emphasizes the process of discussion. The effect of all this framing is to insure that we as audience will get at least as much information from the minor characters as from the protagonists. In many of Shakespeare's plays, the sources of information and their reliability are of critical importance: Hamlet would be a totally different experience if our principal informants throughout were Claudius or Polonius rather than the ghost and Hamlet himself. But in Antony and Cleopatra, information of all kinds is unreliable. The number of messengers in the play is symptomatic of this breakdown in direct and reliable communication. There are eight characters designated simply as "messenger"; to their company we must add Alexas as messenger from Antony to Cleopatra in act 1, scene 5, Menas and Varrius as news bearers to Pompey in act 2, scene 1, Antony's ambassador to Caesar in act 3, scenes 12 and 13, Thidias as Caesar's messenger to Cleopatra in act 3, scene 13, Mardian as Cleopatra's messenger to Antony in act 4, scene 14, Proculeius and Dolabella as Caesar's messengers to Cleopatra in act 5, scene 2, and the protagonists themselves when they are news bearers. Even given the military and political information which must be reported to Antony, Caesar, Pompey, and Cleopatra, the number of messengers is extraordinary. If the main function of the messengers is expository, surely Shakespeare could have found some simpler device. As it is, the audience is continually bombarded with messengers of one kind or another, not so much to convey information as to convey the sense that all information is unreliable, that it is message or rumor, not fact. In this uncertain world, even the simplest of factual messages is subject to doubt; it is no wonder that Varrius insists on the certainty of his report when he tells Pompey of Antony's whereabouts ("This is most certain, that I shall deliver" 2.1.28). And since Shakespeare keeps us in the dark about the motivations and actions of his main characters, we as well as the characters must frequently rely upon these reports for information.

In the first scene, Antony refuses to listen to the messengers from Rome; he resolves to Cleopatra to hear "no messenger but thine" (1.1.52). When he finally listens to the two messengers from Rome and Sicyon in the next scene, their reports are unimpeachable; in the next scene, where Cleopatra tells Alexas to vary his report according to Antony's mood (1.3.2-4), we see the reliability of her messenger. But as the play progresses, reliability and unreliability are no longer so tidily apportioned between Rome and Egypt. Most of the messages in the play are in the pattern of Pompey's unsuccessful prayer: they come too late to be useful. Pompey prays that Cleopatra keep Antony in Egypt only after we know that he is on his way to Rome, thus illustrating his own maxim: "Whiles we are suitors to their throne, decays / The thing we sue for" (2.1.4-5). Immediately after we have seen Antony take his leave of Cleopatra (1.3), Caesar enters with news of Antony's revelry in Alexandria—news which is obsolete by the time we hear him speak it (1.4.3-5). Shakespeare could perfectly well have gained our full credence for Caesar's report merely by placing it one scene earlier, but instead he chooses to bewilder us: Caesar's news has been true, but we know that it is true no longer. This misalignment of report and deed is strikingly consistent in the messages which follow. Alexas presents the pearl from "the firm Roman to great Egypt" (1.5.43); when next we see the firm Roman, he is arranging his marriage with Octavia (2.2). Even the messenger who brings Cleopatra news of Antony's marriage is part of this sequence: he brings his news (2.5) only after we have heard Antony resolve to return to Egypt (2.3). Again and again, we are made aware that message and fact are askew. How does one act or judge on the basis of such information? At the end of the play, we will see the consequences of this unreliability: it is Mardian's false message from Cleopatra that causes Antony's suicide. But even Mardian's false message will be in some sense true three scenes later, when Cleopatra does indeed kill herself for Antony.

The messenger who tells Cleopatra of Antony's marriage is subject to harsh treatment. Cleopatra demands that he rearrange his report to escape punishment: "Say 'tis not so, a province I will give thee" (2.5.68). The messenger is justifiably baffled: "Should I lie, madam?" (line 93). When he next appears, his report is suitably rearranged with Cleopatra's help. The messenger says that Octavia is less tall than Cleopatra and low voiced; Cleopatra transmogrifies his report to "dull of tongue, and dwarfish!" (3.3.16). The messenger quickly learns the game of turning perfections into defects. When Cleopatra asks him to describe Octavia's gait, he is ready with a suitable answer: "She creeps" (line 18). Cleopatra wants to have the certainty of this newly appealing report confirmed:

Cleo. Is this certain? Mess. Or I have no observance.

Char. Three in Egypt Cannot make better note.

Cleo. He's very knowing, I do perceive't, there's nothing in her yet. The fellow has good judgment.


It is no wonder that the messenger is found "most fit for business" (line 36). Perhaps three in Egypt cannot make better note; but what of those in Rome? According to Maecenas, Octavia has "beauty, wisdom, modesty" (2.2.241); according to Enobarbus she is of a "holy, cold, and still conversation" (2.6.120); but according to Cleopatra's rearranged report she is "dull of tongue and dwarfish." Antony is evidently not the only person in the play who can be seen as either god or monster. Even this unwelcome messenger can: "Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me / Thou wouldst appear most ugly" (2.5.96-97). Cleopatra's report of Octavia is obviously false; or is it? We know that Antony would probably concur more in her version than in the others; and that is, after all, what matters to her. In the midst of the comedy, a central point is made: the truth of report is a more delicate matter than we may suspect; ultimately, Cleopatra's game questions the meaning of true report.

Truth itself may depend on one's perspective. Antony addresses the first Roman messenger in terms which suggest that Roman truth may not be Egyptian truth:

Speak to me home, mince not the general tongue: Name Cleopatra as she is call'd in Rome; Rail thou in Fulvia's phrase, and taunt my faults With such full license, as both truth and malice Have power to utter.


Both truth and malice: the truth is told, but presumably with a little warping by malice, when it is Roman truth. Octavia chides Caesar for precisely such warping:

Caes. That ever I should call thee castaway!

Oct. You have not call'd me so, nor have you cause.


"Read not my blemishes in the world's report" (2.3.5), Antony asks Octavia: though that report may be true, it is not the whole truth. Suggestions of this flexibility of truth permeate the play:

Who tells me true, though in his tale lie death, I hear him as he flatter'd.


. . . They are so still, Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world, Art turn'd the greatest liar.


. . . By this marriage,

. . . truths would be tales, Where now half tales be truths.


If Enobarbus's report of Cleopatra as Venus is a half tale, is not Caesar's report of Cleopatra as Isis the sort of truth that malice would utter? At the end of the play, the Clown brings us word of the joys of the worm from "a very honest woman, but something given to lie, as a woman should not do, but in the way of honesty" (5.2.251-53). Truth and lie are bound together, as they are at the end of Chaucer's House of Fame; their union has already been suggested by Demetrius in the first scene of the play. We have just seen Rome's valuation of the lovers and their own valuation of themselves. The lovers leave the stage, and Demetrius says,

I am full sorry That he approves the common liar, who Thus speaks of him at Rome.


If the liar's speech is verified by Antony's deeds, is he nonetheless a liar? Is truth itself the common liar?

Throughout the play, the audience hears characters ask apparently unanswerable questions and watches them discuss one another without reaching any accord. We listen to a series of reports and judgments which are neither true nor false, or are both together, until even the concepts of truth and falsity lose their meanings. Shakespeare is not dallying with us only to confuse us. He is instead deliberately playing with these dramatic techniques in order to draw us into the act of judging. In effect, we are forced to judge and shown the folly of judging at the same time: our double responses are an essential part of the play. Antony and Cleopatra constantly insists on its status as a play: characters stage emotions and accuse one another of bad acting; the pattern of framing suggests that we see the central figures as actors in a play within the play; and Cleopatra seems to allude to one very limited interpretation of the very play that we are seeing when she fears that she will see "Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore" (5.2.219-20). The function of all this insistence on the play as play is not merely to suggest the metaphysical proposition that all the world's a stage; it is specifically to involve us as audience in the action of the play. For we are, in a sense, the most minor of the characters who stand aside and comment; or at least we as audience are silent extensions of them.26

The Various World

. . . darking stand The warying shore o' the world,


Tragedies do not normally ask us to identify ourselves with the minor characters. But in Antony and Cleopatra we participate in the experience of the commentators more often than in the experience of the lovers: we are forced to notice the world's view of them more often than their view of the world. There are of course moments of framing commentary in the other tragedies, moments when we are more engaged with the commentator and his perceptions than with the protagonist. Horatio in Hamlet and the fool in Lear are temporarily allowed to assert their points of view. But such moments are indeed rare; we more readily accept the protagonist's definition of himself and the world than the world's definition of him. Even in Macbeth, Macbeth's own sense of himself as loathsome moves us far more than the world's condemnation of him. But in Antony and Cleopatra the device of framing forcibly dissociates us from the lovers; their vision of themselves becomes merely one in a series of competing visions. For much of the play, we live outside their immediate universe and see them with distressing clarity from perspectives which are alien to them.

This emphasis on alien perspectives accounts, I think, for one of the structural peculiarities of the play. In most of the tragedies, virtually every event in the play is related either directly or by analogy to the tragic plot. The most common charge against the structure of Antony and Cleopatra is that it violates this very simple structural principle: there are several distracting scenes that have nothing in particular to do with the tragic plot, that is, with the downfall of the lovers.27 Even the play's staunchest supporters often find themselves embarrassed by such apparent excrescenes as the Ventidius scene (3.1).28 We cannot blame this apparent structural laxity on the unwieldy nature of the source material; for in fact Shakespeare quite ruthlessly omits everything in Plutarch's account that does not serve his purpose. We must assume, then, that Shakespeare did not give his play that concentration of structure typical of most of the tragedies for reasons of his own.

The world of Antony and Cleopatra is defined by violent juxtapositions and contrasts.29 The most powerful of these contrasts are unavailable to the reader in his study; they are made in purely theatrical terms, through what Charney calls "presentational imagery."30 In act 1, scene 5, we see Cleopatra lounging among her attendants, imagining Antony's soldiership and recalling Caesar and great Pompey, who "would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow" (line 32). There is an absolute indolence about the scene, as though we have all drunk mandragora to sleep out the great gap of time. The next scene must follow immediately upon this one (it is only through the accidents of editorial scene division that it does not); it presents the sharpest possible dramatic contrast. "Enter Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas, in warlike manner" (2.1). Everything about this scene is as upright and energetic as the previous scene was indolent; here we see warfare in good earnest, not the version which Cleopatra chooses to imagine or recall. This scene is by no means necessary to the plot; we do not need to see Pompey in his camp. He serves merely to necessitate the temporary union of Antony and Octavius; a report of his sea power would accomplish the same end. In fact he is so superfluous a character that Shakespeare kills him off in a subordinate clause: Antony "threats the throat of that his officer / That murder'd Pompey" (3.5.18-19). Even the fate of poor Lepidus receives more extended treatment. But we do see Pompey in his own camp; we do see from his perspective, however momentarily. Precisely the same sort of theatrical contrast is made when Ventidius enters in triumph; again the scene has been separated from its complement by editorial whim. In act 2, scene 7, we see the world leaders drunk, reclining or dancing; they leave the stage and suddenly "Enter Ventidius as it were in triumph . . . the dead body of Pacorus borne before him" (3.1). As in the Pompey scene, the contrast is made explicit in the stage direction. Moreover, we have just heard the treacherous Menas address Enobarbus as "noble captain" in the last line of act 2, scene 7; five lines later, Ventidius is addressed as "noble": the echo should emphasize the theatrical point. Again the scene is unnecessary for the plot; again it provides us with a radically disjunctive perspective.

In the earlier tragedies, we are not given perspectives which are totally unrelated to those of the protagonists; in Antony and Cleopatra, we are. We expect to see Caesar at Actium as we expect Malcolm at Dunsinane, but we do not expect to see Pompey at the Mount; it is rather as though we were to pay a momentary visit to Fortinbras before he left Norway or to the captain of the Turkish fleet in Othello. To clarify this distinction, let us look for a moment at two scenes: the appearance of Fortinbras in Hamlet (4.4) and the appearance of Ventidius here.31 These scenes are superficially similar: both function fundamentally to contrast a strong and decisive man of action, an efficient soldier, with the protagonist; both are interpolated into the main action and apparently unrelated to it. But it is precisely the similarity in the two scenes of martial activity that allows us to see their fundamental difference. However surprised we are by Fortinbras's appearance in Hamlet, he does reappear at the end of the play as a figure of some consequence. Moreover, Hamlet himself speaks with one of Fortinbras's captains; we are essentially aware of Hamlet's responses in this scene. Fortinbras's appearance is the occasion for a soliloquy; the hero not only watches the action but explicitly comments on the contrast between Fortinbras and himself. But what of Ventidius? He appears on the outer edges of the empire; none of the protagonists witnesses his appearance. They never discuss him in the course of the play, though he discusses them. And while his bearing serves as a contrast to the bearing of the drunken world leaders on Pompey's galley and his fear of carrying the battle further serves to indicate the effects of triumviral degeneracy on subordinate officers, he is related to the protagonists only in the most tenuous way; he cannot in any sense be said to explicate Antony's condition as Fortinbras explicates Hamlet's. Both the Pompey and the Ventidius scenes present a radical contrast to the perspective of the protagonists; and it is precisely in forcing us to move from one perspective to the next abruptly and without mediation that Antony and Cleopatra achieves its most characteristic effects. Such unanticipated shifts in perspective force upon us an awareness of scope, of how various a place the world is.

In the other tragedies, even the most minor of the characters tend to take part in the one great tragic event. The musicians in Othello give us an image, however imperfect, of that harmony which Iago will successfully untune. Macbeth's devil-porter identifies his castle as a kind of hell, in case we were in danger of forgetting; and Macbeth is of course his masterdevil. The gravedigger in Hamlet represents a point of view strikingly different from that of the over-curious prince; but he introduces us to Ophelia's maimed rites and moreover serves as a significant teacher in Hamlet's education to accept mortality. But what of similar scenes in Antony and Cleopatra? The serving men on Pompey's galley do not reflect Antony's condition, nor are they involved in any way in his action. When Lepidus, Maecenas, and Agrippa arrange to meet at Mount Mesena (2.4), they scarcely mention the protagonists; nor is the farewell of these subordinates in any way significant to the protagonists. The varied personages in Antony and Cleopatra come forth, posit their own diverse points of view, and then disappear; they remain autonomous and insist that we notice the multiplicity of this world.

This insistence on the varying shores of the world is not common in Shakespearean tragedy. In the major tragedies, the presentation of character and the structure generally function to focus our attention on the protagonists, to force us to participate in their experience and to live for a time within the moral contours of their universe. To participate fully in the tragic experience, we must be willing, for the moment, to see the universe through the eyes of the protagonist and entirely in relation to him: we must experience Lear's storm as he himself experiences it. This concentration of vision allows us to perceive the sufferings of Edgar and the fool on the heath as fragmentary versions of Lear's suffering; it allows us to feel that Gloucester's blinding is part of Lear's experience even before Lear is aware of it. In order to achieve this concentration of vision, we must be given some knowledge of the inner state of the protagonist; we must be allowed to see how he perceives the world before we can participate in his perceptions. Lear on the heath conducts a virtually continuous soliloquy, whether other characters overhear him or not; Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth constantly tell us how the world seems to them. But this kind of knowledge is usually denied us in Antony and Cleopatra; and the dramatic structure functions to diffuse and dissipate our attention throughout a wider universe than that which the protagonists know. We expect to see the universe only insofar as it reflects the experience of the protagonists; but we see the universe as prior to and independent of them.

It is of course true of all the tragedies that the audience sees a more varied world than the protagonists; we never share their vision entirely. But in the other tragedies, the exclusiveness of the protagonist's vision and our partial absorption into it are essential to the tragic effect. Their vision becomes progressively narrowed until fewer and fewer possibilities are left open to them: Lear's world contracts until it does not include the possibility of kindly daughters, Othello's the possibility of Desdemona's innocence; Macbeth gradually loses sight of any world outside his own diseased fantasy. In these plays, the audience participates both in the narrowing of vision and in an awareness of what is excluded; we share in the constriction although we see the protagonist trapped by it. Othello is horrifying partly because we are made to experience Othello's abused perception even while we know it is wrong; for most of Macbeth, our experience is as claustrophobic as Macbeth's. When we are finally given sight of King Edward's or Cordelia's healing nature, our relief is enormous precisely because we too have been trapped by the protagonist's vision. Part of the effect of these plays depends on our ability to see through the protagonist's eyes, even when we see possibilities unacknowledged by him. But this progressive narrowing and widening of our vision is foreign to Antony and Cleopatra: there the exclusivity of the protagonists' vision never becomes part of our experience; we are given competing visions throughout.

Multiplicity of all kinds is essential to the structure of Antony and Cleopatra: throughout most of the play the world is an enormously crowded place. This multiplicity is achieved not only through the introduction of apparently unrelated characters and scenes but also through a structural principle of varied repetition, rather like a musical theme and variations. The audience continually sees the same actions, hears the same metaphors, but always with a slight variation; and this structural repetition suggests widely varying versions of experience just as the framing commentary suggests varieties of judgment.32 We are given, for instance, a series of servants who desert their masters and masters who desert their servants, each of whom comments by implication on the rest. Shortly after Enobarbus has announced that he will "seek / Some way to leave" Antony (3.13.200-201), Antony himself addresses his servants "as one that takes his leave" (4.2.29): Enobarbus weeps over Antony's leave-taking even as he plans his own. In the next scene, we hear that "the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, / Now leaves him" (4.3.15-16). This action reiterates the central action of Actium, in which Antony quite literally leaves his servants; and it complements the action of all those servants who leave their masters throughout the play. Menas deserts Pompey because Pompey is not sufficiently ruthless to deserve service; Alexas and Canidius and the rest desert Antony because Antony has deserted his followers and in some sense himself at Actium; Enobarbus deserts Antony because it appears to him that Cleopatra and his own discretion have deserted Antony. Seleucus deserts Cleopatra for reasons that remain obscure: if his betrayal is not staged (and there is no real reason to assume that it is), then his behavior is, at the least, ungenerous. Dolabella temporarily deserts Octavius for love of Cleopatra; his betrayal of his master's plans is one of the few moments of compassion at the end of the play. Decretas deserts Antony, presumably because dead masters are not profitable to work for; but his eulogy of Antony reminds us that he knows his master's worth and is willing to assert it even to Caesar. If Decretas complicates the pattern of betrayal, Scarus reverses it altogether. He too seems inclined to desert Antony after Actium (3.10.32-33), but in the proof, he is magnificently loyal.33 Enobarbus dies of a broken heart because he has deserted Antony. Eros kills himself to avoid obeying his master's command; his magnificent disobedience may be seen as a commentary on the disobedience of all the unreliable servants in the play. Antony has previously deserted Fulvia, Octavia, and Cleopatra; Cleopatra seems momentarily to regard his death as a desertion ("Noblest of men, woo't die? / Hast thou no care of me?" 4.15.59-60). Servants and masters desert, in short, with every reason and under every circumstance; the pattern is repeated with endless variation. Our impression is simultaneously that nothing changes and that nothing is the same.

The same sense of endless likeness and endless difference is achieved by this kind of repetition throughout the play: in the reception of bad news, for instance,34 or in the repeated episodes of handshaking or hand kissing.35 After Actium, Scarus tells us that Antony has "kiss'd away / Kingdoms, and provinces" (3.10.7-8); Antony himself kisses Cleopatra and says, "Even this repays me" (3.11.71). Cleopatra wishes that her kiss could quicken the dying Antony (4.15.39), but her kiss kills Iras (5.2.292). Has she the aspic in her lips? We are given both Charmian's figs (1.2.32) and the figs that bring death to Cleopatra and her maidens; the reverberations set up between the first fig and the last suggest a whole complex of attitudes toward life and its pleasures. Decretas's theft of Antony's sword would not be so shocking if we had not seen Eros practice a different swordplay only a few moments before. Eros draws his own sword to kill himself for love of Antony; Decretas steals Antony's sword to make matters right with Caesar. The contrast could scarcely be more sharply drawn than by the repeated use of the sword. The three images of entrapment in the play suggest the variety of perspectives with extraordinary economy. Cleopatra decides to go fishing and imagines each fish an Antony (2.5.11-14); she obviously thinks of herself as an amiable trap. But there is nothing amiable about the image of the trap when she greets Antony after his victory: "com'st thou smiling from / The world's great snare uncaught?" (4.8.17-18). Cleopatra as snare or the world as snare? Which finally captures Antony? Caesar complicates the image further: Cleopatra looks "as she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (5.2.345-46). For him, Cleopatra is clearly the snare; nonetheless, there are presumably worse fates than being caught in a toil of grace.

The achievement of simultaneous perspectives through varied repetition works throughout the play. When we hear the music of Hercules departing, we are reminded of a thematic pattern of enormous complexity. The music of the departing god is the first we know of his presence; we recognize the supernatural only as it withdraws. This pattern of the presence known too late is a variation of the "She's good, being gone" (1.2.123) theme initiated by Antony's reaction to Fulvia's death and repeated whenever we see someone weep what willingly he did confound; it anticipates such critical moments as Enobarbus's discovery of Antony's full generosity only after he has deserted him, Antony's reaction to the report of Cleopatra's death, and Cleopatra's deification of Antony after his death. Cleopatra's dream of her emperor and the political tears which Octavius sheds for Antony are variations on the same theme. The function of varied repetition is most striking in the association of love, war, and death, an association posited by widely differing characters with widely differing perspectives. For Philo and Pompey, the association represents the misapplication of a soldier's talents (1.1.6-10; 2.1.12-13). Agrippa is more amused than appalled by the association: "She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed" (2.2.227). The death of the character named Eros, with his sword drawn, is the objectification of the association on stage; in his death, the comic perspective is transformed utterly. Enobarbus's comment on Cleopatra's "celerity in dying" (1.2.142) will be similarly transformed when Caesar tells us of Cleopatra's pursuit of easy ways to die. At their suicides, each of the lovers reiterates the association of love and death (4.14.99-101; 5.2.294-95) as part of their transformation of death into reunion. But the sexual suggestiveness of the asp and the Clown's banter insure that we will not forget the other perspectives possible.

The insistence upon scope, upon the infinite variety of the world, militates against the tragic experience. We simply are not permitted the luxury of the tragic vision: our attempt to see the universe solely in terms of the protagonists is continually thwarted. For in Antony and Cleopatra the vision of tragedy is only part of the story. The protagonists find themselves to be of primal significance in the universe; but we must see them from other, less comfortable perspectives. We have heard of Antony's almost magical soldiership from Pompey and Caesar. In the Ventidius scene, we see it for a moment with the satiric impulse of a subordinate who works while his master plays: "I'll humbly signify what in his name, / That magical word of war, we have effected" (3.1.30-31). In Decretas, we see briefly from the point of view of a man who seems even more perfectly political than Caesar when he greets Antony's suicide with "This sword but shown to Caesar with this tidings, / Shall enter me with him" (4.14.112-13); but we also see him deliver a potentially dangerous eulogy of Antony to Caesar. The dramatic contrasts and the varied repetitions insist that we move among several versions of experience, among the comic and satiric as well as the tragic.

Comic Perspectives

. . . If you find him sad, Say I am dancing.


The uncertainty and variety characteristic of Antony and Cleopatra frequently militate against its tragic effect. But if the play is not simply a defective tragedy, then what is it? In most tragedies, the protagonists confide in the audience; we can usually take the tragic hero as seriously as he takes himself. But in Antony and Cleopatra we see through the eyes of the commentators more often than through the eyes of the protagonists; and the commentators seldom take the protagonists as seriously as they might wish. In fact, a dramatic structure in which the minor characters continually intervene between the protagonists and the audience is more characteristic of farce than it is of tragedy: at moments, Antony and Cleopatra is closer to Plautine comedy than to Hamlet, Take, for instance, the long scene in which Antony's challenges to Caesar, his rage against Thidias, and his renewed promises of derring-do are punctuated by Enobarbus's caustic asides. The relation of actor to commentator in this scene has a venerable ancestry in the tradition of the miles gloriosus: Antony boasts and rages like the braggart soldier; Enobarbus undercuts him like the tricksy slave. Maynard Mack has pointed out that these "paired voices" occur in all the tragedies.36 But in the other plays, the heroic voice is, I think, strengthened by the presence of the opposing voice; in Antony and Cleopatra, our allegiance is more often divided. There are surely moments of a tragic involvement with the protagonists; but there are also moments of a comic detachment.

The very process of varying perspectives is essentially a comic technique. In tragedy, everything usually tends to confirm the experience of the tragic hero; by process of analogy even the most diverse scenes will work to substantiate his version of the world. Comedy tends, on the other hand, to work toward variety of experience, a multiplicity of versions, as tragedy does not. In King Lear we have a hierarchy of meaningful figures and events which have their end in the experience of Lear; in As You Like It, we are more interested in the juxtaposition of several contrasting figures than in any single figure. To put it, perhaps, overtidily: all the figures on the heath comment on Lear's experience in a way that all the figures in the Forest of Arden simply do not comment on the duke's or Rosalind's or Orlando's. We think of all the versions of love which exist simultaneously in the Forest of Arden; and though we find Rosalind's the least constricting, our experience of the play depends not solely on her version but on the simultaneous perception of them all. Juxtaposition of this sort is of course essential to the structure of plays like Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and, to a lesser degree, The Tempest; and it is foreign to the structure of the tragedies. Simultaneous versions of experience which can compete on equal footing are generally not given us in the tragedies; in Antony and Cleopatra, we are given precisely this simultaneity of competing versions.

I am of course oversimplifying this distinction; Antony and Cleopatra has more in common with King Lear than with Midsummer Night's Dream. But there is a surprising prevalence of essentially comic technique in the structure of Antony and Cleopatra; and to regard these comic techniques as surface excrescences on a fundamentally tragic play is surely as serious an error as to overemphasize them.37 There are comic elements in other tragedies: Othello, like Antony, is a type of the miles gloriosus. But in Othello, this comic structure is transformed to serve a tragic purpose: the tragedy consists precisely in the relationship between him and his tricksy servant. Generally, comic elements in the other tragedies are subsumed into the tragic vision as they are not in Antony and Cleopatra. For the comic moments in this play—such moments as Charmian's baiting Cleopatra about her love for Caesar—are not isolated phenomena: the entire tragic vision of the play is subjected to the comic perspective. If this double perspective is perilous to the structure of the play as tragedy, it is nonetheless its peculiar triumph. It is the unique excellence of Antony and Cleopatra that it does not allow us to maintain the comfortable and certain attitudes of either comedy or tragedy for very long. We are not permitted the luxury of total engagement with the protagonists; nor are we permitted the emotional safety of total detachment from them. We think we know where we stand; and then we feel the ground shifting under our feet. To restrict the play solely to either the tragic or the comic perspective is to make it a much safer play than it actually is: there is always safety for an audience in certainty, even if the certainty is as painful as it usually is in Shakespearean tragedy. But we do not know how to regard Antony and Cleopatra: for the play is essentially a tragic experience embedded in a comic structure. In that sense it is as treacherous and painful as life itself: each of us has moments in which we experience our lives with a tragic concentration and intensity; but each of us must know that these moments can equally well be experienced as comic, if seen from the perspective of the varying shore. The bare experience is susceptible to either perspective; both inhere in it. If we can nonetheless experience the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra as they experience it, it will be more moving precisely because we have also seen it through foreign eyes, because it can take the criticism of the comic structure and nonetheless survive.


[All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are taken from the new Arden edition, edited by M.R. Ridley [Cambridge, 1954]. Quotations from other Shakespearean plays are taken from the new Arden editions when available or from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, edited by William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, 1942)].

1For the convenience of the reader, I have restricted all discussion of specific critical works to the notes. Read with the text, they should provide some sense of the critical approaches to the play, but my argument is not dependent on them.

2There is a venerable tradition of doubt about the place of the play as tragedy; unfortunately, many of the critics find fault with the play rather than with their expectations. Coleridge thought that the highest praise he could bestow on Antony and Cleopatra was "the doubt. . . whether it is not in all exhibitions of a giant power in its strength and vigor of maturity, a formidable rival of the Macbeth, Lear, Othello, and Hamlet," a doubt which assumes the play's place apart (Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor [London, 1960], 1: 76-77), A. C. Bradley answers Coleridge's doubt:" To regard this tragedy as a rival of the famous four, whether on the stage or in the study, is surely an error" ("Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," Oxford Lectures on Poetry [London, 1909], p. 282). He adds, rather cryptically, "Although Antony and Cleopatra may be for us as wonderful an achievement as the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, it has not an equal value" (p. 282). Other critics attempt to redefine the genre of the play. M. W. MacCallum, for instance, in Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London, 1910), distinguishes between the Roman plays and the tragedies throughout his discussion. G. S. Griffiths ("Antony and Cleopatra," Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. 31 [1945], collected by V. de S. Pinto [Oxford, 1946], pp. 34-67) discusses the play as a Dionysian praise of passion and attacks Bradley for crudely treating Antony as though it were one of the four tragedies; his attack is curious, particularly in view of the fact that Bradley is the earliest commentator to distinguish clearly between Antony and the other tragedies. G. B. Harrison, in "Antony and Cleopatra," Shakespeare's Tragedies (London, 1951), comments that "the story is not by any standard essentially tragic" (p. 226). Ernest Schanzer (The Problem Plays of Shakespeare [London, 1963]) defines Antony as a problem play. The most recent attempt to dissociate Antony and Cleopatra from the four major tragedies is A. P. Riemer's A Reading of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" (Sydney, 1968). His analysis of the faults that critics are heir to when they consider the play only as tragedy is excellent. Unfortunately, once he has disqualified it as a tragedy, he does not seem to know what to do with it. Curiously, he seems to find the main significance of the play in the relative insignificance of its concerns and in our indifference to them: "Since the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra deals with issues intrinsically much less important than those of the great tragedies, Shakespeare can afford to sustain in his audience an ambivalence of attitude which the universal, metaphysical and at times supernatural concerns of the other plays cannot allow. Precisely because we are able to remain indifferent to Antony's behavior in Egypt (as we cannot be indifferent to Hamlet's dilemma or Lear's blind folly), we can participate in Shakespeare's superbly detached, intellectual presentation of this world where the magnificence and daring of the poetry is contained by its surrounding ironies and by our rational awareness of the situation" (p. 105). To rescue the play so thoroughly from our interest seems unwise. Nonetheless, his argument is suggestive throughout.

3When I discuss these questions individually, there will be a roll-call vote of representative critics. Most of the interpretations are variations on the theme of Antony as noble fool and Cleopatra as lively and energetic harlot, but there is considerable disagreement possible within this range.

4A few critics believe Antony to be perfectly sincere in his protestations to Octavia: Laurens J. Mills (The Tragedies of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra [Bloomington, Ind., 1964], p. 18) and Schanzer (p. 145) are here in agreement. Others, such as Bradley (p. 296) and Griffiths (p. 46), believe that Antony has no intention of being faithful to her and has merely taken the easy and cowardly path of political appeasement. MacCallum rescues Antony from his embarrassment by suggesting that Antony has the born orator's ability to believe absolutely in what he is saying while he is saying it (p. 401).

5Nearly everyone agrees that Octavius married off his sister to further his own political purposes (Bradley, p. 289; Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare [Chicago, 1951], p. 572), but many critics nonetheless accuse Octavius of genuine family feeling. MacCallum's statement of faith in Octavius as a man of feeling is most touching: "It really means something when a man like Octavius, busy with the affairs of the whole world, spares time for frequent domestic correspondence" (p. 381).

6It is generally assumed that Antony returns to Egypt for love of Cleopatra; Antony himself seems less certain. He tells us that his pleasure lies in the East only after lengthy discussion of his ill luck near Octavius: the emphasis is by no means clear. Matthew N. Proser, in The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, 1965), p. 187, suggests that Antony leaves for political reasons and as a matter of honor.

7Responses range from clear-cut condemnations to clear-cut vindications on this issue. MacCallum believes she is betraying Antony and also enjoying this new test of her power (p. 423). Harrison suggests that she is a whore who would of course desert her lover for one more fortunate (p. 217). William Rosen (Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy [Cambridge, 1960], p. 153) accuses her of treachery; Willard Farnham (Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier: The World of His Final Tragedies [Berkeley, 1950], p. 192) doubts her faithfulness to Antony. Cleopatra's devotees either ignore this charge or see her dalliance with Thidias as an attempt to trick Octavius in the course of remaining faithful to Antony (cf., for instance, Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas [New York, 1949], p. 236).

8Edward Dowden (Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art [London, 1901], p. 315) and MacCallum (p. 426) accuse her of wanting to keep her jewels; Rosen (p. 154) takes this scene as evidence that she would be willing to live without Antony; E. E. Stoll ("Cleopatra," Modern Language Review 23 [1928]: 159) suggests that she is here playing the game for the game's own sake. MacCallum later speculates that she wants to keep the jewels to defray her funeral expenses (p. 435) and adds that the scene is impossible to explain (p. 426); Farnham (p. 199) agrees that Shakespeare simply does not let us know. Griffiths ignores Cleopatra's motivation altogether and instead praises the noble excess of her passion unleashed upon this unworthy object (p. 65). Goddard (p. 585) states that the entire scene with Seleucus has been staged to convince Caesar that she wants to live so that she will be more easily able to trick him by her suicide for Antony's sake.

9This issue causes critical embarrassment and is usually avoided altogether. Proser is almost alone in stating clearly that Cleopatra surely betrayed Antony in hopes of bargaining with Caesar (p. 204). Stoll (p. 162) suggests that she is possibly but not probably to blame for the conduct of the fleet. Harold S. Wilson (On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy [Toronto, 1957]) is typical in his desire not to have to make up his mind: "We need not raise the question whether Cleopatra has indeed betrayed Antony to Octavius. We assume from what follows that she has not; but we can understand Antony's suspicions: constancy is not her strong point. Shakespeare, with fine artistry, ignores the issue. It does not matter, since in the outcome Cleopatra is magnificently true to Antony" (p. 170). That we do not know the cause of one of the single most decisive events in the play seems to me to matter very much. Moreover, most critics take the fact that Shakespeare ignores the issue not as evidence of his fine artistry but rather as evidence of Cleopatra's innocence. MacCallum says, "For the final treason of the fleet at any rate . . . she seems in no way responsible. Plutarch mentions Antony's infuriated suspicion but adds no confirmation, and Shakespeare, who would surely not have left us without direction on so important a matter, is equally reticent. Such hints as he gives point the other way" (p. 424). Despite these speculations, Farnham (p. 193) says that we have no reason whatever to suspect Cleopatra of treason here. Bradley rescues the reputation of his beloved Cleopatra by somewhat dubious means, as he himself realizes: "Can we feel sure that she would not have sacrificed him if she could have saved herself by doing so? It is not even certain that she did not attempt it. Antony himself believes that she did—that the fleet went over to Octavius by her orders. That she and her people deny the charge proves nothing. The best we can say is that, if it were true, Shakespeare would have made that clear" (p. 301). As far as I know, no critic suggests any other possible betrayer; no one suggests that the fleet went over to Caesar spontaneously or of its own accord. Alternatives to Cleopatra as traitor simply are not given by the critics, although they are almost unanimous in exonerating her.

10Maynard Mack, "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies," Stratford-upon-Avon Studies: Jacobean Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York, 1961), pp. 26, 24.

11The absence of soliloquies by the major characters is especially striking if we consider the traditional dramatic representations of Antony and Cleopatra. Both Garnier's Antonie and Daniel's Cleopatra are virtually all soliloquy: although the lovers are talking to servants rather than to themselves, they explore their own inner states with an apparently endless fascination. Perhaps these earlier versions are indirectly responsible for the reticence of the Shakespearean lovers.

12Dr. Johnson initiates the complaints about the presentation of character: "except the feminine arts, some of which are too low, which distinguish Cleopatra, no character is very strongly discriminated" (Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. [New York, 1960], p. 107). Bradley objects to the play as tragedy partly because "not a line portrays any inward struggle" (p. 287). Virgil Whitaker is particularly disturbed by our ignorance of the characters' inner states: "Being provided no insight into the hero's own mind by which to test or interpret what others say and do, we are left confused as to what interpretation Shakespeare wished us to place upon Antony's death, and we are even more puzzled about Cleopatra's. We sorely miss the careful soliloquies and asides of earlier plays and the revelation of motives contained in them" (The Mirror up to Nature [San Marino, 1965], p. 281).

13When he rewrote Antony and Cleopatra as a regular tragedy, Dryden introduced the certainty that Shakespeare excluded. In All for Love, the motivation and emotion of the protagonists is always clear; this added clarity is an implicit criticism of Antony and Cleopatra.

14G. Wilson Knight, in The Imperial Theme (London, 1931), is the most brilliant and influential of those critics who read the play predominantly as a lyric poem.

15The first major allegorical reading of the play was that of S. L. Bethell in Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944). Bethell found that Egypt and Rome stand for Intuition and Reason; Intuition is extolled as the means to the good life. Bethell reaches this conclusion by insisting upon a separation of character from symbol; the implication is that, whatever we may think of Cleopatra's character, she is poetically the goddess who alone can save Antony from the clutches of Reason. Bethell meets his equal and opposite force in John F. Danby (Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont, and Fletcher [London, 1952]). Danby concludes that Egypt and Rome are the Flesh and the World; both are repulsive, but the Flesh is a little more repulsive. Both critics are brilliant, and they are perfect foils; the two readings taken together probably give the most comprehensive reading of the play. By ignoring the totality of the play (Bethell ignores character and Danby poetry), both are able to find consistent allegorical readings. Both readings are in their own terms convincing; but unfortunately they are absolutely irreconcilable. There are other, less striking allegorical readings of the play: Goddard, for instance, suggests that Egypt and Rome represent Love and Power and that Love wins in our judgment. The oddest interpretation is that of Beryl Pogson (In the East My Pleasure Lies: An Esoteric Interpretation of Some Plays of Shakespeare [London, 1950]), who sees the play as a representation of the mystical marriage of Man with his Soul, a marriage which necessitates giving up the World. Although it is put in disturbingly esoteric terms, this interpretation is only slightly more overstated than many others and contains some interesting insights.

16Stoll, for instance, raises the questions about Actium, Seleucus, and Thidias and then says, "Are we not considering too curiously? We treat Shakespeare as if he were Browning" (p. 146). He suggests that in Shakespeare we are fundamentally interested in character in action and hence not in motivation. But surely there is a difference between considering too closely and a reasonable desire to understand the action at a few crucial points: without expecting a full-drawn psychoanalyzable character, we may nonetheless want to be told some of the protagonist's motivation at some point. Bethell is generally brilliant in his analysis of character as it shifts from the realistic to the symbolic, but he is too inclined to use the symbolic to get the realistic character off the hook. "Regarding the play psychologically, one cannot reconcile the vicious, the vulgar, and the commonplace in Antony and Cleopatra, with the sublimity with which they are invested, especially as they face defeat and death" (p. 117); he suggests therefore that we turn to the poetry and read the characters symbolically. Unfortunately these characters impress us enormously with their life and refuse to dwindle into symbols; reconciling the naturalistic and the symbolic views of them becomes one of the major occupations of the play, and to discount the naturalistic deprives the play of its occupation. Moreover, to present people as both vulgar and sublime seems to me the height of naturalistic and consistent presentation, since it avoids altogether the convention that people can be expected to be always the same. Irving Ribner (Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy [New York, 1960]) also suggests that the symbolic design makes for psychological inconsistency in the character of Cleopatra (p. 3). It seems to me that, by relying on such arguments, these critics are explaining away one of the major elements in the play: people such as Antony or Cleopatra are mysterious, are even inconsistent; they must not be "rescued" from themselves by such arguments.

17Philip J. Traci (The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra [The Hague, 1970]) calls attention to this "question structure" (p. 144), but he discusses this structure only insofar as it questions the nature of love, his major theme.

18Coleridge seems to regard Cleopatra's passion as lust which partly redeems itself by its depth and energy (p. 77); Dowden is more firm in his condemnation ("We do not mistake this feeling of Cleopatra towards Antony for love; but he has been for her . . . the supreme sensation" p. 312). Daniel Stempel, in "The Transmigration of the Crocodile" (Shakespeare Quarterly 7 [1956]: 56-72), accuses Cleopatra's sympathetic critics of romantic sentimentality and proclaims her a fleshy witch, overthrown for the good of the empire. MacCallum is willing to admit that it is love (p. 444). Her apologists and devotees (Knight, Griffiths, and Stauffer, for example) are sure that it is love, not mere lust. Many critics find that she begins in lust but achieves love by the end of the play: Goddard (p. 584) notes this change in her; Ribner finds that Cleopatra casts off her sin in the last act; Dolora G. Cunningham ("The Characterization of Shakespeare's Cleopatra," Shakespeare Quarterly 6 [1955]) suggests that Cleopatra undergoes the conventional Christian pattern of repentance. Most critics find elements of both love and fear of triumph in her death: as usual, her devotees emphasize love; her censors emphasize fear; and those on the middle ground generally suggest that she needs the fear of triumph to perfect her love toward death (cf. Farnham, p. 196, for instance).

19Most critics see the contrast between Rome and Egypt as central to the play. Octavius and Octavia are usually seen as the representatives of Rome, but occasionally the Roman values are found in the old Antony. Those critics who find Octavius representative of Rome generally can give Rome only a limited approval, since Octavius is almost universally denounced as cold; critics such as Proser, who locate Roman virtue in the old Antony, can generally give the Roman values a fuller approval. Those critics who extol Egypt must sublimate the love. . . . Generally those who favor Egypt and love will find Cleopatra the dominant figure in the play; cf., for instance, Bethell, Knight, and Griffiths.

Those who favor Rome will see the play as the tragedy of a man ruined by lust and will consequently find Antony the key figure; cf. Dowden, Rosen, and Ribner. Derek Traversi (An Approach to Shakespeare [Garden City, 1969], vol. 2) is almost alone in stressing at once the contrast between Rome and Egypt and the continuity between them: "The decadence thus shown, and poetically integrated into the spirit of the play, in the public affairs of the Roman world is balanced, where more intimate relations are concerned, by a corresponding effect in the expression of the love of Antony and Cleopatra with its consistently Egyptian setting; indeed, the connection which underlies these contrasted realities, presented dramatically in terms of character and poetically by continuity in the use of imagery, is one of the principal keys to the total effect" (p. 223). Both worlds share the same essential corruption; love triumphs only insofar as its roots are in this corruption (pp. 227-39). Essentially the same view is expounded at much greater length and with somewhat less clarity in Traversi's Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford, 1963).

20Recently many critics have come to the conclusion that no judgment is absolute in the play. Bradley's statement is beautifully balanced: "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" (p. 293). David Cecil ("Antony and Cleopatra," Poets and Story-Tellers [London, 1959], p. 21) notes Shakespeare's rigorous impartiality. Farnham defines the protagonists of the final tragedies as men whose flaws are presented as inseparable from their greatness and describes the process by which we come to admire and criticize the flaws at the same time. Danby sees the play as Shakespeare's "critique of judgment" (p. 136), in which every judgment is revealed as partial. Marion Bodwell Smith (Dualities in Shakespeare [Toronto, 1966]) sees the two extremes of Rome and Egypt as absolute and irreconcilable alternatives, neither of which is possible for a full life. Traversi insists on the need for "a balance in judgment" (An Approach to Shakespeare, p. 215) but does not find the judgments irreconcilable: "The working out of the contrast so presented until, through a fusion of poetic and dramatic resources as comprehensive and complete as anywhere in Shakespeare, its diverse elements are shown to belong to a single range of emotion, is the true theme of Antony and Cleopatra" (p. 217). Norman Rabkin finds the "unresolvable dialectic between opposed values that claim us equally" characteristic not only of Antony and Cleopatra but of Shakespeare and all great art (Shakespeare and the Common Understanding [New York, 1967], p. 188). Riemer emphasizes the "dialectical manner" (p. 27) of Antony and Cleopatra as opposed to that of the other Shakespearean tragedies; his analysis of the function of the opening speech in this light is useful. In Lear, the opening scene "is truly expository in that it transmits necessary information without in any way preëmpting attention for itself (p. 26). He argues that Philo's speech, by its very vehemence, disqualifies itself as exposition: we are less concerned with the information that it gives than with its expression of a particular point of view. Thus the process of dialectic is established at the start. Unfortunately, he does not analyze other structural elements in the play in any detail. As far as I know, the precise structure by which judgments are shown to be partial and the function of this relativity has never been fully discussed. My own discussion is throughout heavily indebted to Maynard Mack's introduction to the Pelican Antony and Cleopatra (Baltimore, 1960).

21Shakespeare may intend to contrast the male god of war with the female monster in order to emphasize the sexual confusions of the play as well as the multiple perspectives. But it is also possible that he is simply using the abbreviated form of Demogorgon, lord of chaos; Spenser, for instance, uses this form in The Faerie Queene 1.1.37 ("Great Gorgon, Prince of darknesse and dead night").

22If the process of judgment is treacherous for the characters, it is equally treacherous for the critics: almost every critic who writes about the play reveals his own moral predispositions as surely as Pompey does here. Few critics are willing to posit their own moral convictions as a precondition for their interpretation of the play; they appear to rest their interpretation on the supposedly objective data of the poetic texture. But the moral bias nonetheless comes through, whether in Knight's praise of the love or Danby's condemnation of it. Of all major critics, only William K. Wimsatt is courageous enough to avow his own convictions; and because he does so, he is not forced to "prove" them in his interpretation of the play. In "Poetry and Morals: A Relation Reargued" (The Verbal Icon [New York, 1964], pp. 85-100), he argues that poetic and moral value can be distinguished; Antony and Cleopatra is his test case precisely because it celebrates an immoral passion and is nonetheless of great poetic value. (A lesser man would simply have made the play into a condemnation of the passion in order to save himself the pain of this perception; many other critics have done so.) In the end, Wimsatt acknowledges that moral and poetic values are interdependent: for the Christian reader, Antony and Cleopatra will not be as great as King Lear because it is less fully moral and hence does not share as fully in "the designed complexity of what is most truly one or most has being" (p. 100). I agree entirely with his judgment of the two plays, though we would probably disagree about the meaning of the "designed complexity"; but I cannot fully agree with his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra because I am not certain that the passion celebrated is immoral. In any event, Wimsatt's essay is the only serious attempt to deal with these issues; in that sense, it is one of the most truly humane works of criticism that I know.

23This unreliability of judgment is the basis for Virgil Whitaker's condemnation of the play. According to him, "The point . . . [of a tragedy] as moral exemplum must . . . be made perfectly clear" (p. 54). This clarity is absent in Antony and Cleopatra: "In dramatic clarity and in emotional impact it cannot stand beside Othello, which is also a tragedy of one that loved not wisely but too well—if such is the judgment, and this uncertainty is part of the trouble with the play, that Shakespeare intended us to form of Antony and Cleopatra" (p. 276). He describes the guide posts by which Shakespeare normally directs our responses in the tragedies and then notes, "The guideposts such as Shakespeare provided in all his tragedies are in this play as likely to mislead the audience as to aid it in understanding the play. Perhaps the metaphor would be improved by saying that he provided guideposts but did not line them up" (p. 287). His condemnation is interesting precisely because it rests on his fine description of the process by which certainty is normally achieved in the tragedies and the confusion of these processes in Antony and Cleopatra. Other critics will of course find the uncertainty of Antony and Cleopatra grounds for praise rather than condemnation. But Schanzer praises the uncertainty of the play only after he has declared it a problem play rather than a tragedy: the problem play is one in which "we find a concern with a moral problem which is central to it, presented in such a manner that we are unsure of our moral bearings, so that uncertain and divided responses to it in the minds of the audience are possible or even probable" (p. 6). His discussion of this element in Julius Caesar is illuminating; unfortunately, in his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra he is more concerned to vindicate the lovers than to illustrate his contention that the play satisfies his own criteria for a problem play.

24Bradley questions the status of the play as tragedy partly because of this comparative lack of action: in the first three acts, "People converse, discuss, accuse one another, excuse themselves, mock, describe, drink together, arrange a marriage, meet and part; but they do not kill, do not even tremble or weep. We see hardly one violent movement" (p. 284). Whitaker also notes this element in the play and dismisses it as a fault: Shakespeare's excessive reliance on expository devices in Antony and Cleopatra "can be ascribed only to his failure to work out a sound dramatic structure for his play—that is, to haste or to fatigue" (p. 286).

25Rosen notes this technique of framing but seems to think that we must always take what the framing characters say as gospel truth. He cites, for instance, Pompey's view of Antony and concludes, "Our view of Antony's life depends, for the most part, on the reflections of others" (p. 129). He finds that the lovers' behavior always substantiates the view of their critics, whereas I find that it is precisely the discrepancy between the two that is most interesting.

26And, as critics, we are noisy extensions of them.

27Bradley, for instance, finds the structure of the play "defective" (p. 283) and points to several scenes which are not necessary to the tragic plot. MacCallum suggests that the abundance of short scenes is a fault due to the recalcitrance of the historical materials (pp. 315-16). Harley Granville-Barker notes that the short scenes are problematical only insofar as producers and editors attempt to localize them (Prefaces to Shakespeare [Princeton, 1946], 1: 381-90); on the Shakespearean stage, they would serve to create the effect of "history directly dramatized" (p. 389). Unlike MacCallum, he suggests that this effect is one of the chief virtues of the play. Whitaker thinks that the short scenes are à flaw; he is, as usual, revealing in his condemnation. According to him, Antony and Cleopatra reverts to an episodic structure which Shakespeare had previously outgrown. "A sound dramatic structure in the fashion of the mature tragedies would have required that Shakespeare narrow the action to a single theme—say the destruction of a great soldier by sensual love—and then select episodes that would pose the issue, force Antony to a decisive choice and a decisive act, and illustrate the degeneracy of his character and his fortunes under Cleopatra's spell" (p. 286). But so eminent a critic as Dr. Johnson suggests that the delight of the play derives from its episodic structure, even while he condemns its diffuseness: "This play keeps curiosity always busy and the passions always interested. The continual hurry of the action, the variety of incidents, and the quick succession of one personage to another, call the mind forward without intermission from the first act to the last. But the power of delighting is derived principally from the frequent changes of the scene. . . . The events, of which the principal are described according to history, are produced without any art of connection or care of disposition" (p. 107). Cecil notes the presence of scenes in which both Antony and Octavius are absent but suggests that the characteristic uncertainty and complexity of the play depend partly on these scenes.

28Dryden eradicated this prime fault in Antony and Cleopatra by the expedient of eliminating Eros, Enobarbus, and a host of other minor characters and replacing them with the single figure of Ventidius. That he compressed all their functions into the one character who had been least related to the protagonists in Shakespeare is evidence of his desire to improve the structure of our play.

29Julian Markels, in The Pillar of the World: "Antony and Cleopatra" in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus, Ohio, 1968), frequently notes the discontinuities and violent juxtapositions in the play. He is chiefly concerned to explicate the theme of public and private in Shakespeare's development and to demonstrate that Antony subsumes both values into himself; consequently, he tends to relate the discontinuities to the portrayal of Antony's disjunctive character rather than to any widening of perspective.

30Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge, 1961), p. 7.

31Granville-Barker calls attention to the place of the Ventidius scene in the dramatic flow of the play (pp. 374-75); Riemer analyzes its function in terms similar to my own (p. 47).

32Repetition is one of the key elements in the structure of Antony and Cleopatra, as of most plays: in general, we tend to notice only the repetitive concerns of any work. But the pattern of varied repetition is especially characteristic of Antony and Cleopatra. . . .

33The reversal of the pattern of betrayal is striking because Shakespeare reverses Plutarch in order to achieve it: the nameless figure on whom Scarus is based deserts Antony immediately after Cleopatra gives him his golden armor ("The Life of Marcus Antonius," Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T. J.B. Spencer [Baltimore, 1964], p. 273).

34Throughout the play, bad news is received differ ently by different people: compare Antony's reception of the news of the wars and Fulvia's death (1.2), Cleopatra's reception of the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia (2.5), and Antony's reception of the news of Cleopatra's suicide (4.14).

35Handshaking: Antony and Caesar shake hands as a pledge when the marriage with Octavia is arranged ("Let me have thy hand. . . . There's my hand" 2.2.146, 149); Pompey shakes hands with Antony when they meet (2.6.48) and again on the galley (2.7.126). Menas and Enobarbus shake hands (2.6.95), although Menas presumably would have killed Enobarbus as readily as the triumvirs if Pompey had consented. The type of all these unsteady unions is the dance on Pompey's galley, where "Enobarbus places them hand in hand," according to the stage direction. Enobarbus's comment on his own handshake with Menas could serve as motto for all these: "if our eyes had authority, here they might take two thieves kissing" (2.6.95-96). Antony joins hands with his servants in an entirely different spirit (4.2.10). Hand kissing: We know that Antony (to say nothing of Julius Caesar and various unnamed kings) has kissed Cleopatra's hand, whether or not we see him; we do see her hand elaborately kissed by Caesar's servant Thidias and later by Scarus. The first is an amorous dalliance which enrages Antony; the second is a reward for courage in battle performed under Antony's instructions. All this hand play becomes significant as the lovers prepare for death: both the lovers trust to their own hands in their suicides (4.15.49; 5.1.21); and Antony's vision of them "hand in hand" in Elysium (4.14.51) subsumes both handshaking and hand kissing. Finally, they can trust only their own hands and each other's.

36Mack, "The Jacobean Shakespeare," pp. 15-24.

37Appreciation of the comic elements in the play is increasing. Cecil notes the variety of the play well, but he tends to relate this variety to the necessity of presenting a faithful image of the great world: "A convincing picture of the great world cannot be steeped in the consistently tragic atmosphere which envelops King Lear. To a detached observer, the life of the great world is never consistently tragic; it is an extraordinary compound of sad and comic, prosaic and poetic" (p. 19). Proser finds the comedy essential to the effect of the play: "Comedy in Antony and Cleopatra is a calculated device which questions the entire issue of heroic possibility only in turn to be questioned itself, and by Cleopatra. The result of this dialog between the heroic, grandiloquent, and super rational elements in the play and the comic, the satirical, and the realistic, is a widening of the drama" (p. 189). Daniel Stempel notes the comic and satiric elements in the play totally to the exclusion of any other: in his view, the play is exclusively a satire. Riemer notes comic elements frequently, but his insistence on the comic sometimes leads him astray. He finds Antony's death scene at least partly comic because the suicide is based on Cleopatra's ruse (pp. 57-58); this situation does not seem inherently comic to me. Traci finds the comedy of love's bawdry essential to the play as love dialogue (pp. 78 ff).

Drama As Deception

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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Antony and Cleopatra: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Rose, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977, pp. 82-98.

[In the essay that follows, originally written in 1966, Ornstein states that while Antony and Cleopatra is not an allegory of art, it nonetheless uses Cleopatra and Egypt to defend art as the means by which reality and truth are revealed.]

The last scene of Antony and Cleopatra would be less difficult if it were more obviously solemn and serious. There is no lack of grandeur in the dying Cleopatra, but the comic note struck in her conversation with the Clown persists and mingles with the ceremonial mystery of her death. She is amused as well as ecstatic; when she thinks of Octavius, her visionary glances turn into a comic wink. She jests with Iras and Charmian, and she plays a children's game with the asps at her breast. It is difficult, of course, to complain about a scene that comes so very near the sublime. But now and then we may wish that Cleopatra had a more sober view of her own catastrophe, which she treats as a marriage feast (not where she eats, but where she is eaten), a tender domestic scene, an apotheosis, and a practical joke on the universal landlord.

Those who see no majesty in the earlier Cleopatra argue that the glitter of the Monument scene is not gold or complain that the Cleopatra of the last act is a new and exalted creature fashioned for the sake of a resplendent artistic conclusion. But for most of us the problem of the last scene is not focused in Cleopatra's character as such. Here at least her emotions are translucent: she has no thought but of Antony and no desire except to join him in death. What vexes us is Cleopatra's immortal longings. For even as we cannot resist the spell of her rapturous lyricism, neither can we assent to her vision of eternal love, which is embarrassingly physical, and worse still, smacks of a literary conventionality—of the Petrarchan "forever." We expect Cleopatra to dream of a long love's day since she is a creature of illusion. But we are not ready to equate her dream with Shakespeare's vision of love, which, in the sonnets at least, belongs very much to this world. Unlike other Renaissance poets, Shakespeare does not deny the brief hours and weeks of human love; it is enough for him that love triumphs to the edge of doom.

There would be no problem in the final scene if there were an Enobarbus to comment on Cleopatra's immortal longings as he comments on Antony's attempts to outstare the lightning; or if there were a Charmian, immune to her mistress's self-intoxication, to mock Cleopatra's last imaginings. Octavius disappoints us by speaking ambiguously of Cleopatra's "strong toil of grace"; and before him there is only the Clown, who speaks paradoxically of "a very honest woman, but something given to the lie, as a woman should not do, but in the way of honesty." Are we to assume that Cleopatra is at her death a very honest woman but something given to the lie? The question of honesty is very important in the play: Enobarbus and his honesty begin to square; Antony's misfortunes corrupt honest men; and Octavius' words to Cleopatra bear little relation to his thoughts. We have heard Cleopatra lie many times before, even as we have seen Antony again and again turn his back on reality. An honest thought would almost seem out of place among the illusions, charms, and enchantments of Egypt. It is a land of dreaming, playing, and acting, where deaths are not quite deaths (or not quite believable); where illnesses, like tears, are profuse but only momentary; and where spectacles like that at Cydnus and the Monument are contrived to seduce the senses and the imagination. We have to admit that Cleopatra's barge, which Enobarbus describes as the purest mythic fancy, is a glorious and very honest illusion. But her death scene, which is a second Cydnus, is more difficult to judge because it envisions a reality that is past the size of dreaming and it seems to demand from us an impossible act of poetic faith. Shall we say than some jesting about the worm alters the fact of Cleopatra's death, or that her queenly robes make Octavius' victory illusory? She speaks of the babes milking her breast, but the drowsiness she feels is of death, not of maternal fulfilment.

We lose the profounder meanings of Antony and Cleopatra if we insist that questions of truth and honesty are irrelevant to Cleopatra or that her splendid poetic vision is beyond reason itself. For nothing less is at stake in the final scene than the honesty of the imagination and the superiority of its truths to the facts of imperial conquest. What we share with Cleopatra is not a visionary experience but the delight of her conspiracy with the Clown that unpolicies Octavius. She is used to playing jokes on these Romans, and her skill as a comedian shines brightly in the farce of the Seleucus episode, and in the irony of her grave submission to the sole sir of the world. Even as she earlier tormented Antony with references to the immortal Fulvia ("Can Fulvia die?"), in the last Act her thoughts dwell humorously on Octavia, the Roman matron, who is demurely sharpening her fingernails in anticipation of Cleopatra's arrival in Rome. There is so much laughter earlier in the play that the comedy of the last Act does not surprise us. It does bother us, however, because we think that the story of Antony and Cleopatra should have been as tragic to Shakespeare as it was to the illustrators of De Casibus tales and to Shakespeare's French and English contemporaries. Or if we do not insist that it is tragic despite its final mood of joyous triumph and release, then we would have it an ironic comedy like Troilus and Cressida. in which ageing sensual love is shadowed by deceptions, jealousies, and fears. Ignoring the contrary evidence of the poetry, we imagine a relatively detached Shakespeare, who could delight in the paradoxical qualities of his lovers, but who would not have us take their professions at face value.

Most of the ironies in. Antony and Cleopatra are not present in Plutarch's account, because they arise from the extravagant declarations and sublime aspirations which Shakespeare gives to his lovers. Antony would die a bridegroom, but his longing is prompted by the lie of Cleopatra's death, and he fails to imitate the noble Roman suicide of Eros. Cleopatra melts into lyric grief but she will not open the Monument, and so Antony must be hauled aloft to die in her arms. Then he speaks bravely of dying in the high Roman fashion but equivocates with life, charms Dolabella, and trifles with Seleucus before she shackles up all accidents. Even as we list these ironic episodes, however, we wonder if irony is the primary effect which these scenes have upon an audience. And when we take a larger view of plot we see that again and again irony is transformed into paradox by a felicitous turn of events that offers to the lovers something like the second chance given to the characters of the late romances. Though only for a dying moment, Antony and Cleopatra have the opportunity to call back yesterday, and to rediscover the love which they had thought was lost forever. Indeed, if Antony's death in Cleopatra's arms is a mocking irony, then it is an irony devoutly to be wished for.

Though some critics dwell on Antony's disillusionment, his rages more often approach the melodramatic hyperbole of Leontes' speeches than the torments of Troilus'; in fact Antony is most comic when he takes a high moral tone with his Egyptian dish and laments his Roman pillow left unpressed. We are urbane enough, of course, to admit some joking about adultery in The Winter's Tale. We smile at the thought of Sir Smiles fishing in his neighbour's pond because we know that Hermione is chaste. But we would have a more serious view of sexuality in Antony and Cleopatra because Cleopatra's innocence is only a pose and her fidelity is open to question. Why should her promiscuous past be cheerfully dismissed as "salad days"? And why should the lack of honesty in women, which is so bitter a theme in Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, be reduced at last to the Clown's silly joke? If we assume that a personal disillusion lies behind the view of sex in the great tragedies, then we can infer from Antony and Cleopatra (as from the late romances) that in time Shakespeare recovered from the sexual nausea and sickness of generation expressed in Hamlet and King Lear. But biographical interpretations are at best dubious; what we find in Antony and Cleopatra is not a changed attitude towards sexual love, but rather a new perspective on the relations between the sexes. In his great tragedies and in the problem comedies, Shakespeare is concerned with the masculine view of sex. Hamlet's lines, for example, express a typically masculine contempt for woman's frailty and a masculine horror at the sexuality that breeds generations of sinners. Similarly Troilus and Othello are haunted by the masculine desire for sexual possession, a desire that is accompanied by the fear of loss and of the general mock. The darker side of romantic (i.e. masculine) ideals of fidelity is revealed in the anguish of the corrupted Moor, who would not keep a corner in the thing he loved for others' uses.

Where the masculine hunger is for sexual possession and domination, Cleopatra's womanly desire is to be possessed, and to triumph in surrendering. She would be taken: she would yield and feel again the weight of Antony. In his moments of rage, Antony is tormented by the thought that other men have enjoyed Cleopatra. Her womanly jealousies are of another kind: she envies in Fulvia and Octavia the title and place of a "married woman." Only superficially does the imagery of feeding in Antony and Cleopatra recall that of Troilus and Cressida, for Cleopatra's lines do not express the pang of unsatisfied appetite or of frustrate longing: her thoughts linger over the delicious memory of a fulfilment that is maternal as well as sexual. She has borne the weight of Antony in her womb as on her body: she has fed the lover and the babes at her breast. It is striking, moreover, how often Cleopatra's sexuality is an emotion recollected, not an immediate desire. Her scenes with Antony are filled with talk of war, with wranglings, and reconciliations. Only when Antony is absent is Cleopatra's thought "erotic," and then her longing is not of the flesh but of the total being, one that is rapturously satisfied by news of Antony. In an ageing Falstaff passion is merely ludicrous; but the love which survives the wrinkles and grey hairs that Shakespeare adds to Plutarch's portrait of the lovers is not quite Time's fool. The injurious gods cannot cheat Cleopatra as the stars cheat Juliet, because she has known years of love and revelry with Antony. Even the sorrow she feels in bearing his dying weight is transmuted by the memory of their earlier dyings. And if her last dream of Antony is an illusion, it is an illusion born out of the deepest reality of her experience—she is again for Cydnus.

Vaster than orgiastic memory, the past touches every character and every scene of Antony and Cleopatra. We hear of Antony's former greatness as a soldier, of Caesar and Pompey, Brutus and Cassius. The historical events depicted in Julius Caesar are recalled, and the past seems to live again in the present as Antony takes Brutus' place as Octavius' antagonist, and as once again love is opposed to imperial ambition. The ruthless impersonalism of the Triumvirate depicted in Julius Caesar lives on in the cold efficiency of Octavius, and the fidelity which the defeated Brutus inspired is reflected again in the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra and of those who loved them. To look back at Julius Caesar is to realize that Shakespeare did not expediently darken his portrayal of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra in order to soften our judgement of Egypt. He saw Caesar's ambition as a symptom of the decay of the Roman state, and he saw the decline of Roman political idealism as a process which had begun even before the assassination of Caesar unloosed the spirit of empire in Antony and Octavius. The end of an era of nobility was marked in Julius Caesar by the execution of a hundred Senators and by the suicides of Portia. Cassius, Titinius, and Brutus. In Antony and Cleopatra the decay of Roman idealism is so advanced that it is difficult to say whether a Roman thought is of duty or of disloyalty. Yet the decay of the Roman state is paradoxical, because it is not a melting into Egyptian softness but a hardening into the marble-like ruthlessness of the universal landlord. No trace of Brutus' stoicism remains in Octavius' Rome; the prevailing philosophy is the cynical prudence of the Fool's songs in Lear. Weakness is merely despised, misfortune corrupts honest soldiers, and loyalty belongs only to the rising man. The pattern of Roman history unfolds for us on Pompey's galley. At present Rome is led by men who (with the exception of Octavius) would rather feast than rule and who make treaties of convenience they do not intend to keep. The Rome that was is recalled by Pompey, who is kept from treachery, not by a personal sense of honour, but by a memory of the honour once sacred to Rome—by a nostalgia for the ethic of his father. Unable to play falsely, Pompey loses the future, which belongs to a Menas who will desert the half-corrupted Pompey, and to an Octavius, whose honour demands only the justification of unscrupulousness. Far more than in the days of Brutus, Rome is bent on empire and rules by the sword; yet compared to the past, the present is not a time of great soldiery. The continual talk of war only emphasizes that the great military exploits live in memory. All the leaders, including Antony, deal in lieutenantry, and their lieutenants fear to win great victories. Except for the moment when Antony and Scarus beat back Octavius' legions, the battlefield is not a place where honour is won. It is a place where great men defeat themselves; it is the scene of shameful weakness or of the shameless policy that places revolted legions in the van.

The echoes of a nobler past are important because they remind us that the Rome which Octavius rules is not the eternal reality of political life. Only here and now must men like Enobarbus choose between the ways of soldiery and of personal loyalty, that were before a single path. But even as Shakespeare bounds his present scene by placing it in a larger historical framework, his use of archetypal imagery suggests that the worlds of Rome and Egypt are eternal aspects of human experience and form a dichotomy as elemental as that of male and female. The hard masculine world of Rome is imaged in sword, armour, and terms of war, in geometry and stone, and in the engineering that builds or destroys. The soft yielding feminine world of Egypt is poetically imaged as uniting the artifices of sexual temptation to the naturalness of fecundity and to the processes of growth and decay which depend on sun, wind, and water. But the absolute distinctions between Rome and Egypt which the imagery enforces are qualified by the dramatic action, that reveals the extent to which these worlds are mirror images of one another and divergent expressions of the same fundamental human impulses. Although by Roman standards, Antony is unmanned, the Roman standard of masculinity is itself examined by the dramatic action and found deficient. Moreover, although Antony's decline in Egypt is from the Roman measure, his decline also measures the decay of the Roman ideal of soldiery.

The tension between image and plot in Antony and Cleopatra leads again and again to paradox. The patterns of imagery insist that Egypt is a Circean land of mandragora and lotus-eaters, where sensuality breeds forgetfulness of Rome and duty. But the action shows us that it is Cleopatra, the Serpent of Old Nile, not Antony, who would hear the Roman messengers; and it is Cleopatra, not Octavia, who demands her place in the war by Antony's side. Thus it may not be completely ironic that the finest Roman words of the play are spoken by Cleopatra to Antony in Act I, Scene iii:

Your honour calls you hence, Therefore be deaf to my unpitied folly, And all the gods go with you! Upon your sword Sit laurel victory, and smooth success Be strew'd before your feet!

The imagery contrasts the enduring monumental quality of Rome to the melting evanescence of Egypt. But the Roman leaders know that the marble-constancy of Rome is founded precariously on the shifting loyalties of a disaffected populace and is forever subject to the battering ram of ambition. The violent spasms of destruction common to Rome are alien to Egypt, where there is permanence in the recurring cycle of growth and decay that dungs the earth, and where the bounty of the Nile requires that nothing be cultivated except the human sensibility. While the imagery insists upon the oversophisticated appetites of Egypt, the Roman leaders tell of wars that make men drink the stale of horses and eat flesh that men die to look upon. Recurrent allusions to snare, serpent, toil, and charm depict Cleopatra as archetypal temptress and seducer. And yet there is no Egyptian snare or temptation as degrading as that which Menas offers Pompey or that which Octavius twice offers Cleopatra. How, indeed, shall we compare Cleopatra's toils with the politic duplicities of Octavius, who tries to patch a quarrel with Antony, engineers the cynical proposal of the marriage to Octavia and breaks his treaty with Pompey and his bond with Lepidus? The lies of Egypt are amateurish compared with those of Octavius and of the trustworthy Proculeius; not one Roman speaks the truth to Cleopatra at the end except Dolabella, and he must be seduced into telling the truth.

I do not mean that we are supposed to shudder at Rome. Though its political principles have decayed, it is in other respects a healthy and capable world, led by an Octavius who is cold not inhuman, unprincipled yet eminently respectable. His ambition is not seen as an anarchic force in an ordered world; it is rather the normal bent of a society shaped by masculine ideals of politics and power. Morally there is not much to choose between Rome and Egypt; in matters of the heart and of the imagination, however, they are polar opposites. Where Antony and Cleopatra's thoughts have a cosmic poetic amplitude, the Roman measure of bigness is earthbound and philistine; its imagination stirs at thoughts of triumphal spectacle and arch. (Octavius would have the trees bear men and the dust ascend to heaven when his sister enters Rome.) Untouched by art, and unsoftened by feminine influence, the Romans pride themselves on their masculine hardness and reticence. Cold, and to temptation slow, they scorn tears and womanish emotion. Despite the protective attitude they adopt, they are crass and patronizing in their relations with women whom they value as sexual objects and political pawns. Cleopatra rightly fears Antony's callousness because she knows that by Roman standards she is a diversion that should not be missed or overprized. The coarseness of the Roman view of sex is apparent throughout the play—in the lines of Octavius as well as Enobarbus, in Pompey's smutty jests, and in the salacious eagerness of Caesar's lieutenants to hear tales of Cleopatra. Although Enobarbus describes her lightness, her artfulness, her wit, and her infinite variety, the other Romans (like so many modern critics) can picture her only in the conventional posture of a whore, drugging Antony with cloying lascivious wassails.

In most respects the priggish Octavius is the very opposite of Antony. In his treatment of women, however, he is Antony's Roman brother. Antony adopts the pose of Cleopatra's general when he flees his Egyptian "dotage." Octavius sends Thyreus to Cleopatra with solemn assurances that her honour is unsullied. Antony babbles to Octavia about his honour when he deserts her; Octavius marries his sister to a man he despises and then wars to erase her dishonour. Octavius, like Antony, hungers for Cleopatra but his desire to possess her is more shameless and more contemptible. Indifferent to Antony's fate (he would be content if Cleopatra murders her lover), he lies to Cleopatra, cajoles her, and threatens her children in order to keep her alive so that she may be displayed as his trophy in Rome. He has no doubt that a woman like Cleopatra will be seduced into ignobleness when

want will perjure The ne'er-touched vestal.

Warm and generous as well as callous, Antony is able to respond to the arts of Egypt, and he is so deeply altered by his response that it is difficult to say what is Antony or when he is less than Antony or when he is himself again. A legend in his lifetime, he is the hero of fantastic exploits and the stuff of soldierly brags and mythic imaginings. Contemning his Egyptian dotage, Philo, Demetrius, and Octavius recall a plated Mars and contrast Antony's earlier feats of battle to his present wassails. But Cleopatra and Enobarbus remember another, more sensual, Antony—Plutarch's game-ster and reveller, the lover of plays in Julius Caesar, who did not learn the arts of dissipation in Egypt or desert them when he returns to Rome. When plagued by his Roman conscience, Antony sees his salvation in a flight from Egypt; in Rome he momentarily recovers his ability to command, which allows him to look over Octavius' head. But Antony is not reinspired by Roman ideas; on the contrary, his superiority is a personal honesty that contrasts with Octavius' devious and politic attempts to provoke a quarrel. No salvation awaits Antony in Rome because there is no honourable purpose to engage him; the Triumvirate feasts and gambles and despises the populace. The only Roman dedication is Octavius' desire to be the sole sir of the world. Moreover, if Antony's faults are Egyptian, he does not lose them in Rome, where he displays the very weaknesses that are later to destroy him: a desire to put off issues and to escape unpleasantness. In Egypt he is led by Cleopatra; in Rome he is led by Octavius' lieutenants into the foolish expediency of the marriage to Octavia. There is no point in the play, therefore, at which we can say, here Antony falls. His decline is a process that began in years past and which seems the inevitable destiny of a sensualist and opportunist who never shared Octavius' ambition to possess the entire world, but who wanted empires to play with and superfluous kings to feast and do his bidding. If we must have a reason for Antony's decline, we can say that he lost the desire before he lost the ability to command. He is never defeated in battle during the play. After the disaster at Actium, his fleet is intact and his army powerful though kings and legions desert. A doting braggart might have brushed aside the reality of his cowardice at sea; but Antony is shattered by the very trait which ennobled him in his dealings with Octavius, by an honourable shame at his failings as a leader.

It is characteristic of the handling of events in Antony and Cleopatra that we do not see Antony's failure of nerve at Actium; we see Canidius', Searus', and Enobarbus' response to it, and, following that, we see Antony's reaction. Much use is made of messengers bearing tidings of conflict, disaster, and death, because this is a play of reaction rather than of action. We know Octavius, Cleopatra, Enobarbus. Pompey, and Lepidus by the way that they respond to news of Antony. And we know Antony by his response to Cleopatra and to his fading powers, by his alternating moods of depression and elation, by his moments of impotent rage or of bluster, when he will outstare the lightning, and by his reconciliations with Cleopatra. This vacillation of mood in Antony reminds us of Richard II, except that Richard's journey is towards the nihilism of endlessly circling thoughts, while Antony becomes a fuller man in his decline, more bounteous in his love and in his generosity. When he tries to express, after the second disaster at sea, his loss of soldierly identity, he convinces us that he has changed, not lost, his identity. The soldier has become a lover, the spendthrift a mine of bounty, and the callous opportunist a meditative poet.

The growth of poetic sensitivity in Antony was apparent to earlier generations of critics. It is less apparent to us, ironically, because our desire to read Shakespeare "poetically" blurs our awareness of the poetic attributes of the characters in the plays. And to avoid critical naïveté, we make artificial distinctions between the form and substance of Shakespeare's dramatic verse. When Antony compares his state to the evanescent shapelessness of clouds in a dying afternoon, we grant to him the sense of weariness and loss which the lines convey; but the heavenly imagery and the poetic sensibility revealed in this passage we reserve for Shakespeare, who, we say, merely lends Antony his poetic faculty for artistic purposes. But it is only a step from this "sophisticated" approach to Antony's speeches to the notion that the morbidity of Hamlet's soliloquies is "saved" by the nobility of Shakespeare's poetry. If we grant Hamlet the nobility of his utterances, how shall we deny Antony his poetry? Not all the characters who speak in verse are poetic. Although Octavius' lines are at times richly metaphorical, he seems to us thoroughly prosaic, because the impression of poetic sensibility in Shakespeare's characters depends upon the nature of their response to life, not on the mere presence of figurative language in their speeches. Who but a poet would see the clouds as Antony does, and who but a poet would remember this heavenly image at the point of death? Antony's leave-taking of the world is an imaginative reverie untouched by the grandiosity that marks so many of his early "poetic" declarations.

At the beginning of the play it is obvious that Antony does not know Cleopatra because he does not yet know what is evident to the audience, that his only desire is to be with this woman. We feel that the hyperbole of his early speeches is strained, because his extravagant professions of love are undercut by his harsh, grating response to news from Rome and by his sensitivity to the Roman view of Cleopatra. Though he says here is my space, he is unable to conceive of a world limited by love; and he is unaware that he uses Cleopatra to excuse his indifference to political issues. We smile at Cleopatra's role of betrayed innocence, but not at her keen perception of the emotional dishonesty of Antony's gestures of devotion and of the callousness that underlies them. She knows how easily an Antony who shrugs off Fulvia's death may desert her in turn. The first scenes show us an Antony who is caught between what he tells Cleopatra, and in part believes, and what he tells himself about her, and in part believes. In Rome he is irritated by every reference to her: he never speaks her name though his is always on her lips, and he never regards her as an equal or as having any claims upon him. When he decides to return to Egypt, he speaks of her as his pleasure.

As Antony's world shrinks, his hyperbole becomes, paradoxically, more convincing. When he is confronted by Octavius' legions, his chivalric pose becomes more than a pose, because at last he does fight for Cleopatra; and thus his arming before battle with Cleopatra's aid is more than one last parody of medieval romance. Now when Antony acts, he is aware of his pretendings; tutored by Cleopatra, he imitates after Actium her celerity in dying and, like her, he plays on the feelings of those who love him, making Enobarbus onion-eyed. His talk of death and his shaking of hands is an artful appeal to his followers' emotion and yet an honest piece of acting, because it expresses a true warmth and generosity of spirit. There are times, of course, when Antony's gestures are less honest, when he abuses Cleopatra for her treachery. But his Herculean rages are short-lived and his self-pity is untouched by genuine suffering. His despondency is always more painful to those who love him than it is to Antony, who is never deeply in conflict with himself, and who is more a spectator to, than a participant in, the final disaster at sea. His catastrophes are strangely beautiful: his gods desert to music, his loss of empire is signalled by shouts of joy in the fleets. Even at his nadir he shakes hands with Fortune as with an old familiar friend.

Whatever ironies attach to the manner of Antony's death, he is raised visually, and poetically, above the earth on which the melancholy Enobarbus sinks. The moralizing critic interprets Antony's fate as a warning to adhere to the path of reason; he forgets that Enobarbus follows reason to a fate more wretched than Antony's. Enobarbus chooses Rome lest he lose himself in Antony's dotage and like Antony be made a woman. In itself this choice is not shameful; Enobarbus' act has a hundred Roman precedents, and he has no reason—or, at least, no Roman reason—to follow a leader who can no longer command. What is shameful is Enobarbus' betrayal of himself, because he allows his reason and his honesty to square. Worse still, he goes over to Octavius knowing that to have stayed with Antony was to have "won a place in the story." Yet the place which Enobarbus wins is not as ignoble as he thinks, for we sense that his desertion of Antony is, like his death, an act of love. He leaves Antony when he can no longer bear to watch Antony's failure as a general, and he is redeemed by his response to Antony's generosity even though he has no chance to express to his master the full measure of his devotion. The lie of Cleopatra's death saves Antony from Enobarbus' fate because it ends the lie of his rage while Cleopatra is still alive. And Antony's failure to die in the high Roman fashion makes possible the final expression of his bounteous love, his dying wish that she save herself by making terms with Octavius.

Between the disaster at Actium and his final reunion with Cleopatra, Antony is the centre of the dramatic action. At the Monument, however, the dramatic focus shifts: the dying Antony plays the chorus to Cleopatra's impassioned grief, and she is from that moment on the supreme figure of the play. At Antony's death, we are told, a new Cleopatra is born—the wanton temptress rises to regal majesty. But what is really new in the Cleopatra who mourns over Antony? Her royalty, her poetic sensibility, and her capacity for profound emotion were evident before: her grief is hardly surprising when, from the beginning, her every thought is of Antony, and she is haunted by the fear of losing him. Is it the new Cleopatra who says, "Husband, I come?" Or is she the same Egyptian who in the first scene of the play reveals her envy of Fulvia, the married woman, and her longing to be more to Antony than his pleasure?

Only Shakespeare could have imagined that the greatest courtesan of all time hungered to be Antony's wife—to be made "an honest woman." Only he could have dreamed of a Cleopatra who is, despite her lies and pretendings, always emotionally honest. When the messenger brings news of Antony's remarriage, she is furious, but her fury is directed at the messenger, not at Antony. If she pretends to die when Antony leaves her, it is because their partings are a form of death which leaves only the desire to sleep and dream of Antony. Those who read her thoughts announce that she intends to betray him when she listens to Thyreus. The text indicates only the elaborate irony of her submission and her comic surprise at Octavius' concern for her honour. It is quite explicit, moreover, that. Enobarbus is able to uncover Cleopatra's intended treachery only because she insists that he be present at the interview with Thyreus. How foolish of this cunning woman to plan a betrayal of Antony in the presence of Enobarbus! What we witness is not Cleopatra's duplicity but Enobarbus' jealous revenge and the confusion of rage in Antony, who has Thyreus whipped for kissing the "kingly" hand of that "boggier" Cleopatra.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra demanded a role in the war against Octavius because she feared that in her absence Antony and Octavius might be reconciled. Shakespeare fails to give Cleopatra a similar explicit motive. Against Enobarbus' warning and against her own nature, she insists upon bearing a charge in the war; she will have Antony fight by sea so that she may command her fleet at Actium. If Cleopatra were nothing more than the seductress whom critics describe, her desire to fight by Antony's side would seem to us incredible. It does not astonish us, however, because we see from the beginning her desire to be worthy of this Herculean Roman, and to imitate the noble Roman fashion of words and deeds. She bids a Roman farewell to Antony in the first Act even as she seeks a Roman death in the last act. Her desire to be a Roman wife, which becomes explicit at her death, leads Cleopatra to attempt at Actium the role of Fulvia, the only part she plays falsely before Antony.

Like Antony, Cleopatra does not die in the high Roman fashion; and though she earns the title of Antony's wife she remains more Egyptian than Roman, more various than marble-constant. Timidity, vanity, and womanly fears plague her Roman resolution; she dies a sensual creature of the Nile, artful, theatrical, jealous to the end of Antony. Part of the mystery of her death is the fullness with which it expresses the multiplicity of her nature. She is Antony's mistress and his wife, the graceful courtesan and the tender mother, the great queen and the simple lass. Her drowsiness is at once sensual, maternal, and child-like, for though she nurses her imaginary babes, she is, as so many times before, very like a child, who plays now at being mother, and who is dressed in a royal costume to surprise Octavius. Her crown slips, but Charmian mends it before she too plays.

More than a triumph over Octavius, Cleopatra's death is a triumph over her own fears and over a deeply rooted instinct for life. She is not, however, in love with death though she allows it to commit a loving act upon her; she dreams of life and of Antony. And though she makes a fellow-conspirator of the worm which will eat her, she knows it is not worth the feeding; she knows too the horror of physical decay, which she has envisioned before in striking images of fly-blown bodies. Her death will not be a melting into eternal natural change; it will be a change into changelessness that robs Octavius of his victory and that mocks his immortal longings. He thinks that Cleopatra's "life in Rome/Would be eternal in our triumph" and he meditates in his last speech on the glory he has won by the deaths of the lovers. But it is paltry to be Caesar, whose quest of fame earns an ignominious place in the story.

Cleopatra's sense of the comedy of imperial ambition is not a new intuition that reaches "beyond the tragic." The paltriness of Caesar was evident to the youthful Shakespeare, whose sonnets contrast the vital power of art to the lifeless marble and gilded monuments of princes. There are echoes of the sonnets, I think, in the antithesis of Egypt and Rome, and in the depiction of a love which finally admits not even the impediment of death. The themes of the sonnets are also relevant to the echoes in the final scene of Capulet's Monument, where another pair of lovers found in death the marriage union which life denied. As Romeo and Juliet draws to a close, we sense that the true memorial to the lovers is not the gilded statues which Montague and Capulet promise to raise, but Shakespeare's play. And we know that Cleopatra will live in art because she fashions her own incomparable memorial, the scene in the Monument, which overshadows the mythic wonder of Cydnus. It is the artist in Cleopatra who stirs Shakespeare's deepest imaginative sympathies and who receives the immeasurable bounty of his artistic love, which is immortality itself.

We need not turn Antony and Cleopatra into an allegory of art to see that its final paradox is the final paradox of Donne's "Canonization": though deserted by those who observe Octavius' face, the lovers die and rise the same, and prove mysterious by their love. The defect of their passion becomes perfection because ultimately theirs is not a sublunary love: their "faults" shine like the unchanging stars. Donne's lover is a poet who builds in sonnets' pretty rooms, and who fashions the legend of his love in immortal verse. Cleopatra is an artist who fashions out of her life a legend that is unfit for hearse or for Octavius' half-acre tombs. Her "place in the story" is beside the legendary figures who live in ancient myth. She is another Thetis, an Isis, a Venus, a Dido; Cupids and Nereides attend her, the winds are enamoured of her, and she is wooed by Phoebus and, at last, by Death himself. She teaches a plated Mars an artful way of loving; and she turns this demi-Atlas after death into a very god who spreads the masculine seed of his inexhaustible bounty over the earth. In her mythopeic imagination Antony bestrides the ocean, making cities on the waves, and creating empires through a divinely prodigal carelessness—he drops realms and islands out of his pockets.

The foolish Clown is right after all. The biting of Cleopatra's worms is immortal, because it brings a death that lives in the artistic imagination. She dies in the last scene of Shakespeare's play as she has died so many times before in Plutarch, in medieval "tragedy," and in Renaissance plays and poems. And because Shakespeare has written, she will die many times again and be staged over and over to the show—so long as men can breathe or eyes can see, Cleopatra is again for Cydnus. The terms act, play, and show are not metaphorical when applied to her, because she is in her essential being an actress. Her poses are too extravagant to deceive; they are meant to bewitch and captivate by their infinite variety. She will not allow herself to be carted through the streets of Rome in the posture of a whore or to be staged to the show in vulgar Roman fashion. But as if she knows that her destiny is art, she dons her robes and prepares one last dazzling scene that draws a gasp of admiration from Octavius. We have seen her metamorphoses before—her sudden changes from tears to laughter, from pettiness to regality, and from sickness to health. None of them is comparable, however, to the metamorphosis of her death, which turns life into art.

As early as the sonnets, Shakespeare knew that the enemy of love is not time or death; these can only refine its worth. Love's adversary is the unfeeling heart—those who are "as stone/Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow." He can accept a world of mutability in Antony and Cleopatra, as in the tragedies and the late romances, because it offers the possibility of renewing change, in later generations, and in the heart of a Lear, and Antony, or a Leontes. Shakespeare does not retreat in his later plays from the exalted humanism of his tragedies, which stresses the irreplaceableness of a Cordelia; he does not find comfort in a naturalistic faith in the continuance of life. The security of Antony and Cleopatra and of the late romances is founded on the paradox of tragic art, which depicts immeasurable loss and yet preserves forever that which the artist supremely values. Although great creating Nature may reincarnate some of the rareness of Hermione in Perdita, the true miracle of The Winter's Tale is Paulina's art, which preserves and enriches the wonder of Hermione herself.

In Shakespeare's great tragedies illusion and seeming are opposed to moral reality. But in Cleopatra's artful spectacles as in the masques of Prospero and Paulina, illusion and reality intermingle. Sober realists may agree with Dolabella that the Antony whom Cleopatra ecstatically recalls is only a dream of her imagination; they forget, however, that Dolabella, like Cleopatra, is only a dream of Shakespeare's imagination. The triumph of love and art in Antony and Cleopatra will not allow us to believe that Shakespeare, who celebrated in the sonnets the miracle of poetry, expressed in Prospero's lines a disillusioned awareness of the vanity of his dramatic art. After a lifetime spent in creating the magic of the stage, Shakespeare must have known that the "idle" dreamlike play of an artist's imagination is the deepest reality of his experience, if not a clue to the fundamental reality of all experience:

We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

Sidney R. Homan (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Divided Response and the Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, October, 1970, pp. 460-8.

[In the following essay, Homan demonstrates the ways in which Antony and Cleopatra both praises and denigrates acting and the theater, and contends that the play's ambivalent aesthetic statement reflects the ambiguous Renaissance attitudes toward art and imagination.]

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra contains both praise and ridicule of acting, the theater, the use of illusions, and, in general, the artist and his profession.1 In considering these aesthetic issues I do not mean to reduce the play to an allegory of art but rather to quality and deepen the simpler dichotomy between Rome and Egypt that emerges from a good many thematic studies. More partisan views tend to take one of two extremes, reading Antony and Cleopatra either as a morality-like condemnation or an unqualified celebration of the lovers.2 There has also been a reaction to these extremes, for other critics have argued that Shakespeare establishes a dialectic between politics and love, that by skillfully balancing the claims of Rome and Egypt he allows for no clear choice between them.3

I think, however, that the play's complex and paradoxical aesthetic statement is also important in its own right. Moreover, it parallels an ambiguous attitude toward art and the imagination both in the literary criticism of the age and else where in Shakespeare's work. A review of Renaissance commentators reveals great divisions of opinion: the playwright as charlatan or creator, the artist as a man mocking reality with a counterfeit world or creating forms beyond the reach of nature, art itself as a baseless illusion or an intimation of some higher reality.4 If Anne Righter is correct in her interesting study of Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, Shakespeare himself, over a lifetime of work, expresses a similarly divided attitude, making shallow or pleasant allusions to actors and the stage in his early plays, championing the theater and art in later plays, and yet also revealing in the dark comedies and the tragedies the "tendency to insult the theater," to use "the play metaphor . . . to express emptiness and deceit."5 Interestingly enough, Miss Righter finds the theatrical metaphors in Antony and Cleopatra rather one-sided, and thereby classes the play with those mocking the theater. I believe the aesthetic statement is actually more catholic and complex. Again, it is this statement which is my concern, for it at once provides a deeper, more dramatic approach to the play than does the simpler politics-love dichotomy and illustrates a grand moment in Shakespeare when aesthetics and theme are ultimately one.

Very often in Antony and Cleopatra the theater is spoken of with contempt. Cleopatra abhors the possibility that the lovers' story will be brought to the stage:

. . . The quick comedians Extemporally will stage us, and present Our Alexandrian revels. Antony Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I'th' posture of a whore.


The audience, she fears, would consist of nothing but slaves wearing greasy aprons, smothering the actors with their thick breaths (209-13). Caesar's garish victory parade is branded as an "imperious show" (IV.xv.23), and Enobarbus similarly describes Antony's own desperate plan to duel with Octavius as a mere "show" (III.xiii.30). Ridiculing Antony's vows of fidelity, Cleopatra chides him to "play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honour" (I.iii.78-80). But the most thorough questioning of the power to give momentary credence to an illusion occurs when Cleopatra, though at first praising the fancy that creates "strange forms" beyond the power of nature, finds in the real Antony "nature's piece 'gainst fancy, / Condemning shadows quite" (V.ii.97-100). The real Antony, in Professor Kittredge's explication of these lines, is Nature's "masterpiece that would quite discredit even Imagination's shadowy figures." At first the queen wishes for "another sleep" so that she might have a second vision of the Antony whose "face was as the heavens" (76-79), but she soon confesses that the real Antony can only be approximated by a vision, albeit majestic, and that a man of flesh and blood is to be preferred to a lifeless illusion. And when Antony denounces himself in a conversation with Eros, he does so by equating "black Vesper's pageants"—the shifting forms of a cloud which one minute assumes the shape of a dragon and the next that of a towered citadel—with his own shameful wavering between the demands of empire and his personal indulgence in Egypt (IV.xiv.1-14). Pageant, that general word that can refer to everything from the floats of mystery plays to court masques, is used here to describe at once the clouds whose own shows "mock our eyes with air" and the once-famous soldier who now "cannot hold [his] visible shape," torn as he is between love and politics.

This censure of mere theatricality and of the imagination as fickle or uncontrollable is at one, it seems, with the denunciations we may bring against Cleopatra's own seductive arts. Indeed, in Antony's speech just quoted it is the woman's sexual power which has robbed a soldier of his "visible shape," thereby inciting him to draw a parallel between himself and those illusions which are the combined product of the imagination and formless clouds. The word "play," in the sense of sexual play, is frequently interchangeable with "play" as it refers to the illusion produced by an actor. Perhaps the most intricate use of this double meaning occurs when Cleopatra comments that in Antony's absence her eunuch Mardian is no worse than a woman as a sexual partner. She then distinguishes between the poor actor who can at least "plead pardon" from his audience for a bad performance and the sexually incapable man who has no such recourse when he is found "too short" (II.v.3-9).

This association of sex and art culminates in the queen's own character. It is a common observation that she is a skillful actress, conjuring up moods to lure or deceive Antony and the other men in the play, a creature, in Barbara Everett's words, who lives entirely in a "world of 'play'."6 The gay, world-weary aristocrat or the martyred lover "sudden sick" (I.iii.3-5)—her repertoire is no less varied than our responses to her. Able to switch roles at a moment's notice, to "be Cleopatra" (III.xiii.187) whenever the occasion demands, she is at once actress and playwright. Granville-Barker in listing her several charms stresses her extraordinary "imagination,"7 while Derek Traversi speaks of her ability to "impose upon her surroundings a vitality which is not the less astonishing for retaining to the last its connection with the environment it transcends."8 By her so-potent art she is able to imagine fish as "every one an Antony" (II.v.14) or the horse on which he rides as herself.

Her sexuality, which the Romans and many commentators find so degrading, is inseparable from this ability to transform, to put her unique stamp on anything falling within her sphere. Sex as creation and art as creation are correlatives here, and any encounter with Cleopatra's world involves a transformation. When he is with her the soldier must change to a lover; he cannot play two roles at once. This is as true for Antony as it was for Caesar: "She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed" (II.ii.227). The most complex statement regarding these powers of transformation that are at one with Cleopatra's sexuality is made by Enobarbus as he describes her first meeting with Antony, where the queen's very presence transmuted sails and winds, the water and the ship's oars, her cheeks and the divers-colored fans, and flower-soft hands and silken tackle into love symbols of the receiving female and the aggressive male (II.ii.190-218). The richness of her love is this power to change all objects and elements, even the wind itself, into something preeminently sexual.

Still, the description of the barge is a statement after the fact, a past event not witnessed by the audience. Cleopatra's "performance" at her death—and I mean this literally because she herself thinks of it as a scene, even wearing her "best attires" for the occasion (V.ii.228)—provides, instead, a direct and present example. In less than twenty lines (V.ii.294-312) she manages to translate even the horrors of death into the pleasures of love. The asp's bite becomes a "lover's pinch" and then the asp is metamorphosed into a baby suckled at his mother's breast. Applying a second asp, the queen imagines it to be an Antony, and thus we have the almost sentimental family tableau of the mother embracing her husband and their sleeping child. Even Charmian, upon her mistress' death, thinks of herself as part of a stage performance as she adjusts Cleopatra's crown and then readies herself to "play" a part, to die like her queen, before Octavius enters. The whore Cleopatra, by the sheer force of her imagination, has become a married woman; Antony will be her husband in death if she skillfully plays what remains of her earthly role, if "to that name [husband] my courage prove my title!" (V.ii.286-87). Her next stage will be one of otherworldly dimensions, that pagan paradise to which a lonely wife hastens now that there is no good cause to "stay" (312) longer on this world's stage.

Again, this Act V transformation is a mere illusion. Souls less given to the theater are perfectly right in calling an asp an asp. And the moment we rhapsodize over Cleopatra's last scene we must remember the pettiness, the selfishness which accompanies her even to the end. It remains a moot point for some scholars whether she dies for the love of Antony or to avoid being led through the streets of Rome. Perhaps no more certain are her motives for hiding half her wealth from Octavius.9 Moreover, the clown with his cheap puns mocks not only concepts of immortality but the "worm" itself, Cleopatra's liberating instrument of death. The illusion itself is a paradox since Cleopatra offers us not an empire, nothing as solid as Rome, but merely words, words, words. Antony speaks accurately, I believe, when he finds her "cunning past man's thought" (I.ii.138).

This power to control the audience's response as well as one's own view of an otherwise grim situation is often thought of as womanish and unbecoming. Enobarbus, finding in Antony a similar power as he threatens to draw tears from hardened soldiers, begs his leader that he "Transform us not to women" (IV.ii.36). One critic sees Antony developing a "poetic sensitivity"10 like that of his mistress when he too speaks of death in pleasurable, sexual terms, calling it a "lover's bed" to which he, the "bridgroom," hastens (IV.xiv.99-101). Yet we must also admit that this sensitivity demands an abdication of responsibility, a loss of empire. On the negative side, then, the artist and the imagination are linked with what is a delusion, unbecomingly womanish, something for the moment, antithetical to the real world, something potentially dangerous. This same paradox also marks the Sonnets, where Shakespeare is both lover and poet, stimulated and yet repulsed by his passion for a dark lady, alternately confident that his verse will immortalize his love for the young man and cynical that his tongue-tied Muse will produce only a counterfeit art falling far short of its subject. If Shakespeare views love impartially, both celebrating and condemning it, perhaps he may be equally impartial in viewing that imagination and the actor's skill which distinguish Cleopatra no less than her patent sexuality.

To some degree every aspect of her imagination, then, is ironic. Robert Ornstein, for example, points out how it functions best in the remembrance of past events and how dormant it tends to be in the present.11 Cleopatra's finest poetry, indeed, springs from memories of earlier affairs or from the sight of Antony dead before her; when the lovers are together and healthy they are more likely to quarrel and bicker. Even the most ardent admirers among the critics cannot overlook this fact. Furthermore, the fullest expression of their love in the play occurs as death approaches. Despite Cleopatra's wish to join Antony where souls couch on flowers, the basic stimulus and metaphor for love here is the very agent which separates and destroys the lovers—at least in the present world. Conversely, Cleopatra's visions into the future are no less qualified. Diomedes speaks of the "prophesying fear" which drives the queen to lock herself in a monument (IV.xiv.120), and Cleopatra shudders to see "In Fulvia's death" a grim portent of her own thankless end (I.iii.64-65).

Perhaps this paradoxical attitude toward the poetic power is epitomized in her own line immediately following Iras's death: "Have I the aspic in my lips?" (V.ii.292). There have been many references earlier in the play to the organ of speech: "mouth-made vows / Which break themselves in swearing!" (I.iii.30-31), "wan'd lips" (II.i.21), gold melted and poured down ill-uttering throats (II.v.34-35), women who are "shrilltongu'd" or "Dull of tongue" (III.iii.15, 19), kisses laid upon lips (IV.xv.21). Now the asp, like Yorick's skull the ultimate death symbol, merges with the voice, with Cleopatra's "lips." And while, as we have seen, she manages to metamorphose the asp into an Antony and their child, it also remains the agent which will literally stop her voice.

Yet once we have made such qualifications of Cleopatra's imagination, we must still admit that there is nothing comparable to her in Rome. By this statement, though, I do not mean to place Rome and what is said or thought there at completely opposite ends from the poetry of Egypt. There is, in fact, a speech describing Octavia's entrance, or the entrance that should have been hers in a world where Antonys were not lured away by Cleopatras, which may put in a proper perspective the aesthetic dimensions of the two worlds:

The wife of Antony Should have an army for an usher, and The neighs of horse to tell of her approach Long ere she did appear. The trees by th' way Should have borne men, and expectation fainted, Longing for what it had not. Nay, the dust Should have ascended to the roof of heaven, Rais'd by your populous troops.


This is not poetry for a Cleopatra, but it still has a special majesty, despite the irony of the occasion. While not brilliantly erotic like the description of Cleopatra's barge, Octavius' speech is somehow triumphant, respectful. Cleopatra's messenger may have dismissed Octavia as "a statue [rather] than a breather" (III.iii.24), but then a statue has a permanence and a loveliness to which the queen cannot lay claim.

However, it is fair to say that the Romans are somewhat deficient in the Egyptian gifts of imagination and acting. Octavia is reported to be of a "cold, and still conversation" (, and even at moments of great emotion, such as when she must part with a brother and a husband, there is a division between her "tongue" and her "heart" (III.ii.47-50). As opposed to Cleopatra, who is nothing if not passionate, the Romans cultivate the art of separating "speech" from "passion" (II.ii.12-13), and if wine is one stimulus for imaginative speech, as it is for the queen, Octavius himself wisely limits his drinking aboard Pompey's galley. The Roman way of talking is more given to "thought" (I.ii.76), "judgment" (II.ii.55), and "oath" (87)—words associated with reason and a sense of responsibility. In Egypt one takes pleasure in responding to what is immediate and sensuous, but in Rome Antony is given to "a studied, not a present thought" (II.ii.138). He later describes himself as "well studied" to express his debt to Pompey (

But if Rome is a world of solid achievement, something sure and masculine as opposed to something illusory and feminine, it is also an often graceless, unimaginative world. At the meeting between Antony and Octavius in Lepidus' house, the conversation in the first half of the scene is formal, tensely polite, and, in that discussion about an expedient marriage, repulsively businesslike. Mr.Traversi's word for this Roman conversation is "witless,"12 and in a very perceptive essay Michael Lloyd goes one step further, arguing that the Roman tongue is one "not merely of. . . self-seeking but of . . . insensitiveness and incomprehension."13 However, once the triumvirs depart Enobarbus, encouraged by his friends Agrippa and Maecenas, describes Cleopatra's barge and her first meeting with Antony in a speech that is surely the finest long piece of poetry in the play. The paradox of the situation mirrors that of the play's general aesthetic statement, for in Enobarbus' speech we have exquisite poetry spoken by a Roman, concerning a past rather than a present event (we may recall Mr. Ornstein's remarks about the ex-post-facto nature of the poetry), and delivered by a soldier who. has known but also condemns the splendors of Egypt.

If art is timeless, if Cleopatra's remembrances and visions of the future remove or transform her from a tragic, sordid present reality, Rome is itself caught in time and has become, like its leader, "Fortune's knave" (V.ii.3) and "vassal" (29). And yet we may also think of Cleopatra as the victim of her own escapism, her role itself as a mere delusion, while Rome, however degenerate and unimaginative, represents the one hope for the future, Octavius himself the master bringing in a "time of universal peace" (

Thus the complexities of the aesthetic issues, the praise and ridicule of art and the imagination, qualify a reading of the play which would establish a simple dichotomy between Rome and Egypt, with Shakespeare giving his preference to one or the other.


1The text I use is that of G. L. Kittredge (ed.), The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, 2nd ed., revised by Irving Ribner, (The Kittredge Shakespeares), Waltham, Mass., 1966.

2J. Leeds Barroll, for example, describes Antony as a man reduced to "nothing through his own vices," as one who dies "unreclaimed and deluded": "Antony and Pleasure," JEGP, LVII (1958), 708-20; for Thomas Stroup, Cleopatra is a sort of Vice figure seducing her lover from his proper role as world leader: Microcosmos: The Shape of the Elizabethan Play (University of Kentucky Press, 1965), pp. 194-95. Yet Jan Kott can argue that the political world is ultimately inferior to Egypt because it is "small, because one cannot escape it": Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Garden City, N. Y., 1966), p. 173; to S. L. Bethell, Cleopatra is Antony's "good, and not his evil genius, rescuing him from an undue preoccupation with the world, which is a snare and a delusion": Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), p. 131.

3John Danby was one of the first to argue this way in "The Shakespearean Dialectic: An Aspect of Antony and Cleopatra," Scrutiny, XVI (1949), 203. Norman Rabkin, for example, speaks of Rome both as a place where "honor is the watchword" and as a "vicious political arena": Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967), p. 186. Maynard Mack comments that the love-making elicits at once "laughter" and "admiration," while the play "like life itself, gives no clear-cut answers": Introduction to his edition for the Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1964), pp. 16, 23. Mr. Rabkin also provides a good bibliography of what he would call "complementarious" readings of the play, p. 191 (fn. 22).

4One might cite as champions (sometimes with qualifications) of the imagination: Mazzoni in his Defense of Comedy, Richard Willis in De re poetica disputatio, Sir Philip Sidney in An Apology for Poetrie, Sir John Davies in "Nosce Teipsum." As opponents or skeptics: Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy; Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola in what must be one of the age's most sustained attacks on the imagination, De Imaginatione; Bacon in The Advancement of Learning; and, most prominent among the Puritans, Gosson in his School of Abuse. But even defenders of art, such as Tasso in his Discourses, were quick to distinguish between true (icastic) and false (phantastic) images born of the same basic process. And for all his glorious descriptions of the poet's "bewitfull visions" and his ability to devise some "new or rare thing," Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie devotes most of the work to showing how and why the poet should be a methodical craftsman, one whose art finds its real strength in sound proportions and what Bacon would commend as a judicial balance between fancy and reason, with reason being the final arbiter. G. G. Smith in his Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1904) and J. E. Spingarn in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1908) provide most of the basic texts. I personally find one of the most thorough and sober modern commentaries on the age's literary criticism to be that of J. W. H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism: The Renascence (London, 1955). A good study of the Puritan attack is Elbert N. S. Thompson's The Controversy between the Puritans and the Stage (New York, 1903).

5Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Baltimore, 1967), pp. 164, 167.

6Introduction to her edition for The Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York, 1964), p. xxxvi.

7Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton University Press, 1947), 1, p. 437.

8An Approach to Shakespeare, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Garden City, N. Y., 1956), p. 251.

9Besides surveying Cleopatra's portrait in earlier works, Willard Farnham offers a detailed analysis of her motives in the last act: Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (University of California Press, 1963), pp. 196-205.

10Robert Ornstein, "The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra," Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, VIII (New York, 1967), p. 40.

11"Ethic of the Imagination," pp. 35-36.

12Approach to Shakespeare, p. 245.

13"The Roman Tongue," ShQ, x(1956), 461-68.

Anthony S. Brennan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Excellent Dissembling: Antony and Cleopatra Playing at Love," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer, 1978, pp. 313-29.

[In the essay below, Brennan studies the way in which Antony and Cleopatra struggle to juggle multiple roles or identities in order to manipulate circumstances for their own benefit. Brennan notes that for Cleopatra in particular, role-playing is not an act of deception, but rather that it heightens her sense of self]

It is a commonplace of criticism that Shakespeare untiringly explored the implications of the idea that all the world's a stage. In a number of his works he presents a formal play within a play. In virtually all of his dramas there are examples of what can be called 'undeclared plays' in which characters put on performances for each other. One of the most significant aspects of his tragic art is the development of the self-dramatizing propensities of his heroes. Nowhere, perhaps, does he go so far as in Antony and Cleopatra where richly explored concepts of identity are couched constantly in terms of the way man projects himself. Philo insists to Demetrius, at the opening of the play, that the role of general, which he takes to be Antony's essence, has been usurped by his degrading performance as a strumpet's fool. The paradox of essence and role is neatly encapsulated at the end of the first scene: "Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony,/ He comes too short of that great property/ Which still should go with Antony" (I, i, 57-59).

The first vision we have of Antony and Cleopatra finds them locked in a series of games. Briefly they are involved in a word-game about measuring love (I, i, 13-17). On the announcement of the news from Rome, Cleopatra falls into a scornful teasing of Antony concerning the apron-strings which tie him to his homeland. Antony counters this by what seems the equivalent of an aria in grand opera "Let Rome in Tiber melt"—a spacious declaration which Cleopatra undercuts with "Excellent falsehood!" Cleopatra's scornful "Antony will be himself adds to what will become a riddling cross-cutting series of versions of what Antony is. Is Cleopatra referring to the peerless Antony who loves her, Fulvia's Antony, Caesar's Antony, Antony as actor playing at being Antony the lover to hide his quintessential Roman soldier's heart? When Demetrius says: "I am full sorry/ That he approves the common liar, who thus speaks of him at Rome" (I, i, 59-61), we have a different formulation of the same problem. Demetrius indicates that the behaviour he has seen corroborates a lie—that the real Antony is living up to parodies of himself as doting lover. This idea of conflicting versious of a single identity is pursued throughout the play as Shakespeare presents characters who from the very outset are fully aware of the problems of juggling roles.

Cleopatra is a star and a scene-stealer, and she "sends-up" her co-star when she does not like the scene she is asked to play. It is interesting to speculate how much Shakespeare's understanding of the complex and mercurial character of Cleopatra was derived from his observation of the stars in the London theatre companies of his day. Cleopatra will never play second fiddle to anyone. If there is to be a farewell scene she is determined to dominate it. It will not be about Antony's political necessities but about her sense of betrayal, desolation, anger, scorn. She knows intuitively that where two self-willed people are concerned, the relationship thrives on conflict not on subjection:

Cleopatra If you find him sad, Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return. [Exit Alexas.]

Charmian Madam, methinks, if you did love him dearly, You do not hold the method to enforce The like from him.

Cleopatra What should I do I do not?

Charmian In each thing give him way; cross him in nothing.

Cleopatra Thou teach est like a fool—the way to lose him.

(1, iii, 3-10)

Cleopatra is involved here in a strategy of acting, but she must know that she cannot dissuade Antony from leaving. Antony knows that her tearing of a passion to tatters is acting. But, like Cleopatra, he knows that great figures have to live up to the roles demanded of them. Why else would he be going to Rome to make his presence felt? What holds him to Cleopatra is that she never ceases to play up to the role she owes her position. She is a woman and a queen. She is not pretending to be angry—she is angry. It is simply that she is 'milking the part.' Everyone in the audience knows that and everyone on stage knows that—so there is no split in levels of awareness here, no undeclared play within a play. For Cleopatra acting is not disguise but heightened self realization, and it must be so for Antony too. He knows that he has got the part of the heavy here, and he sticks to it doggedley. Cleopatra steals the scene with a virtuoso performance that reveals her essence: for her, acting is a way of life, a method of expressing her real self

Cleopatra sends Antony up; she throws him out of his part by an inventive exploitation of her griefs, attacking him as an actor. She claims to have penetrated his performance. His rejoicing now at Fulvia's death must be pretence. Either that or he was pretending when he declared his love to Fulvia. What is one to make of such a man?

I prithee turn aside and weep for her; Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene Of excellent dissembling, and let it look Like perfect honour.

Antony You'll heat my blood; no more.

Cleopatra You can do better yet; but this is meetly.

Antony Now by my sword—

Cleopatra And target. Still he mends; But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Charmain, How this Herculean Roman does become The carriage of his chafe.

(I, iii, 76-85)

A world without passion is intolerable to Cleopatra. Surely their parting deserves an immense scene. By mocking Antony as an actor, she seems to be trying to get him out of his stolid stance, which she regards as a disguising of the emotion he owes her. It is the cold, controlled Antony who is an actor, the Roman Antony. When he begins to drop that part under her goading, when he is, in fact, becoming her Antony, she accuses him of acting to egg him on so that he will be like herself—filling out her part as the occasion demands. Having aroused Antony, she has to handle a delicate transition. She has to turn the roused emotion towards love. She makes an initial attempt with a wonderful change of pace that is heart-stopping in the theatre. After all the tirades she achieves a sudden simplicity: "Courteous lord, one word./ Sir, you and I must part—but that's not it./ Sir, you and I have lov'd—but there's not it./ That you know well" (I, iii, 86-90). But Antony's response is a cold impatience at the idle, trifling games she has played. Her response indicates how clearly she is aware of the function of her acting technique:

'Tis sweating labour To bear such idleness so near the heart As Cleopatra this. But sir, forgive me; Since my becomings kill me when they do not Eye well to you.

(I, iii, 93-97)

What may seem trifling histrionics to Antony is clearly the hard work that she undertakes to project fully the feelings of her heart. If Cleopatra does not act, then she does not exist for Antony or for herself. At the end of the scene, by making a simple, generous submission, she wins from Antony a generous declaration of love (I, iii, 97-105). We can see that she has earned the harmony by consciously building a dramatic structure to achieve it.

That Cleopatra has been a scene-stealer from the outset of her relationship to Antony we learn later in the famous account in Act II, Scene ii of their meeting on the Cydnus. Everything about Enobarbus' description indicates her theatrical self-consciousness, her ability to use all the costumes and props to make a grand entrance. The crowds flocked to Cleopatra:

and Antony Enthron'd i' th' market-place, did sit alone, Whistling to th' air; which, but for vacancy, Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too, And made a gap in nature.

Agrippa Rare Egyptian!

Enobarbus Upon her landing Antony sent to her, Invited her to supper. She replied It should be better he became her guest Which she entreated

(II, ii, 218-226)

Her triumph was to offer an unmatchable spectacle.

From the beginning Cleopatra endeavours to make Antony play on her terms. The drama of her life, however, is radically affected by events in spheres beyond her control. Her fury at this vulnerability is graphically presented in Act II, Scene v, when she receives news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. The messenger bringing the news of Antony's betrayal is featured as someone who has come in with the wrong part, with a script that has no authority. He is interrupted, praised and castigated half a dozen times before he can get to the substance of his message. Cleopatra, with a script in her head of how the scene must go, acts as though she were an imperious director dealing with a recalcitrant actor. She issues a shower of gold at every hint that the scene fulfills her expectations. When the messenger reaches the dreadful words "But yet," the shower turns to lightning bolts. As a dramatist Shakespeare seems to have delighted in the irony of how the monarch, lost in the illusion of his own power, could be imagined as attempting to gain the total control of the artist in organizing the drama of his life. The characters who attempt to gain such control are the chief exhibits of Shakespeare's own power. Cleopatra, in her fury, is even willing to kill the messenger and has to be advised by Charmian, "Good madam, keep yourself within yourself (II, v, 75). The queen's nature is to do precisely the opposite. She can be herself only by displaying herself.

We can see just how potent absolutism is in creating its own ambiance of illusion in the subsequent scene with the messenger. By Act III, Scene ii, the messenger has obviously taken some coaching to accommodate himself to the role the queen demands of him. And the messenger comes in precisely on cue to create the brittle illusion Cleopatra cannot do without. The scene derives its pathos from the fact that she is reduced to such shifts.

Since Antony and Cleopatra are both bound up in projecting impressive images of themselves, Shakespeare, through Caesar, chooses to report how public and dramatic the reunion of the lovers is when Antony, abandoning Octavia, returns to his "Egyptian dish":

I' th' market-place, on a tribunal silver'd, Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold Were publicly enthron'd; at the feet sat

Caesarion, whom they call my father's son, And all the unlawful issue that their lust Since hath made between them. Unto her He gave the stablishment of Egypt; made her Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, Absolute queen.

Maecenas This in the public eye?

Caesar I' th' common show-place, where they exercise. His sons he there proclaim'd the king of kings: Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia, He gave to Alexander; to Ptolemy he assign'd Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. She In th' habiliments of the goddess Isis That day appear'd; and oft before gave audience, As 'tis reported, so.

(III, iv, 3-19)

This neatly indicates the distinction between a backroom politician and manipulator like Caesar and those public stagers—Antony and Cleopatra. Caesar, on the galley, was afraid of making a drunken, public exhibition of himself. Public exhibition is one of the principles of his opponents' existences.

Virtually all of the central section of the play dealing with the battles is concerned with the conflicting roles that tear Antony apart. The play is full of statements such as Canidius' comment on Antony's behavior at Actium, "Had our general/ Been what he knew himself, it had gone well" (III, ix, 26-27), or Cleopatra's, when Antony has recovered heart: "It is my birthday./ I had though t' have held it poor; but since my lord/ Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra" (III, xiii, 185-187). It is not merely that these characters have to act as leaders for their own self-satisfaction. They gain strength from the fact that their followers treat them like leaders. The cyclic movements from desperation to gaeity in Antony's camp are keyed to the general's alternating senses of internal division and of recovered wholeness.

Increasingly, as he loses power, Antony is forced into a role that combines player-king and stage-braggart. Enobarbus' function, like the Fool's in King Lear, is to alert the audience to this change. Antony sends a challenge to Caesar:

I dare him therefore To lay his gay comparisons apart, And answer me declin'd, sword against sword, Ourselves alone. I'll write it. Follow me. [Exeunt Antony and Euphronius.

Enobarbus [Aside] Yes, like enough high-battled Caesar will

Unstate his happiness, and be stag'd to th' show Against a sworder!

(III, xiii, 25-31)

A leader must maintain a perspective on his role so that he can manipulate it. In all of the histories and tragedies Shakespeare wrote, the only central character who achieves this difficult feat is Henry V. The rest are engulfed by the, conflicting demands that break down their ability to maintain their roles. The consequent loss of power means that they become mere players. Antony attempts to cling to power by an assertion of the identity which was once so potent:

Now gods and devils! Authority melts from me. Of late, when I cried 'Ho!' Like boys unto a muss, kings would start forth And cry 'Your will?' Have you no ears? I am Antony yet.

(III, xiii, 89-93)

When he thinks Cleopatra has betrayed him to Caesar, he indicates she has lost her identity by playing a part that is out of character: "Were't twenty of the greatest tributaries/ That do acknowledge Caesar, should I find them/ So saucy with the hand of she here—what's her name/ Since she was Cleopatra?" (III, xiii, 96-99). He attempts to reinforce his sense of power by imperiously ordering Thyreus to be whipped—a gratuitous and absurd gesture which indicates his desperate hope that if he continues to act like an emperor he will remain one.

It is interesting to speculate how much Shakespeare's daily experience in the theatre might have reinforced his understanding of human nature. A star whose day is passing may often resort to the tricks that once gave him power over an audience; he tends to imitate his former self in trying to maintain his claim to the limelight. Antony at the height of his frustration with Caesar's disdain for him says:

look thou say He makes me angry with him; for he seems Proud and disdainful, harping on what I am, Not what he knew I was. He makes me angry; And at this time most easy 'tis to do't, When my good stars, that were my former guides, Have empty left their orbs and shot their fires Into the abysm of hell.

(III, xiii, 140-147)

What both Antony and Cleopatra fear is that they will become mere actors in a puppet-show organized by Caesar to mock their former greatness. When Antony, finally defeated, believes Cleopatra has betrayed him he threatens her with this shame:

Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving And blemish Caesar's triumph. Let him take thee And hoist thee up to the shouting plebians; Follow his chariot like the greatest spot Of all thy sex; most monster like be shown For poor'st diminutives, for doits, and let Patient Octavia plough they visage up With her prepared nails.

(IV, xii, 32-39)

These aristocrats have no distaste for show itself, because it is an attribute of leadership. But when you are not in charge of the show you cannot choose your audience or calculate the effect of your performance. You are in the power of the public. Antony's fear is like that of an actor forced to play to a hostile public:

Eros, Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome and see Thy master thus with pleach'd arms, bending down His corrigible neck, his face subdu'd To penetrative shame, whilst the wheel'd seat Of fortunate Caesar, drawn before him, branded His baseness that ensued?

(IV, xiv, 71-77)

Antony is constantly aware of himself as a figure performing for a public. Hearing of Cleopatra's death he can think of only one audience worthy of them:

I come my queen.—Eros!—Stay for me; Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand, And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze. Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours.

(IV, xiv, 50-54)

It is perfectly in consonance with the self-dramatizing propensities of these stars that, being denied a stage on earth, they expect to become scene-stealers in heaven.

All of this helps to indicate that Antony is prepared for death. After the confusion of roles Antony has suffered, it takes only the news of Cleopatra's death to resolve all problems in a superb and simple understatement: "Unarm, Eros; the long day's task is done/ And we must sleep" (IV, xiv, 35-36). Antony triumphs over death by embracing it: "But I will be/ A bridegroom in my death, and run into 't/ As to a lover's bed" (IV, xiv, 99-101). All this preparation, however, does not diminish the fact that he dies as the result of a trick. Increasingly as the lovers lose a sense of their own identities, they lose a sense of security in each other.

They have been playing a game of love. By describing their relationship as a game I am not trying to diminish it, but rather to indicate that it is based on particular rules of which both contestants are aware. Cleopatra can dramatize her anger, pretend to swoon or be sick, or Antony can be sullen, cold or angry—always within prescribed limits that do not rupture the relationship but tend to cement it together. The elasticity in this highly dramatized game of give and take is a mark of maturity not of childishness. However, the gulf they are required to bridge in winning each other over grows wider all the time, and the ploys they are forced into become accordingly more daring and dangerous. Antony becomes convinced that Cleopatra has transgressed the rules and betrayed him to Caesar. He, who had never really been deceived by Cleopatra's wiles, begins to believe that she is ensnaring him in an 'undeclared' play by conspiring with Caesar. Since the essence of their relationship is that they should "stand up peerless," his faith in the transcendant quality of their love is corrupted. Cleopatra, finding it impossible to stem the tide of his anger, resorts to her most extreme trick. The declaration of her death effectively stops Antony. She cannot expect to win Antony back by a deception he can see through. She must now break the rules of the game in order to save it.

This is an intriguing development in Shakespeare's view of the world as theatre. Antony and Cleopatra have from the outset been trying to steal scenes from each other, but they have done it entirely to ensure that they remain together at stage-centre. Eventually it becomes difficult for them to distinguish the real anger, which breaks the bounds of their understanding, from the self-dramatization which once reinforced it. A pretence of death produces an actual death. Theatre begets reality. Antony's death is the polar opposite of that of most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. They live in a world of illusion that they must claw aside to get at the truth. Antony's real world is that role-playing game with Cleopatra. He is not blasted and killed by the sudden sweeping aside of illusions. His death is not a triumph over illusion, but a submission to an illusion that he had never been a victim of. The illusion that he has been a victim of is his desire to feature in the real world of power. As soon as he hears of Cleopatra's 'death' he relinquishes it. He dies, admittedly, by a ruse, but this illusion helps him to resolve his own conflicting roles, enables him to achieve his own sense of reality.

It is not, however, a fully tragic, unequivocal triumph. Nothing demonstrates more clearly Shakespeare's sense of what he has in reserve than his dramatization of the sense at the monument. The laborious heaving up of the dying Antony and Cleopatra's reluctance to expose herself to danger audaciously border on comedy' Everything about the death is messy and awkward. Shakespeare is setting us up for Cleopatra's death, which is deliberate and staged with dramatic precision. Cleopatra's performance has literally acted Antony off the stage. It leaves her to play a bit part on Caesar's stage of power. Even before Antony dies, she is aware that she wants no part in a new drama from which her lover is absent: "Not th' imperious show/ Of the full fortun'd Caesar ever shall/ Be brooch'd with me. If knife, drugs, serpents, have/ Edge, sting or operation, I am safe" (IV, xiv, 23-26). The play balances itself neatly around the idea that this actress, who destroyed her man of men by pretending to be dead, will destroy her oppressor by pretending to want life.

Shakespeare brings characters to the point where they submit to their fate in full knowledge. This fact is intricately bound up with Shakespeare's concept of the theatrical nature of existence. The heroes gradually perceive that their lives have the ordered structures of works of art. The exhilarating sense of release in tragedy seems to me to be exactly the breaking down of the barrier of theatrical illusion. We are given the privilege of foreknowledge in the audience. It is a heavy burden, but when the hero becomes aware that he is trapped in a tragedy, he frees us by insisting that he is no longer a victim but an agent. If the audience has the privilege of foreknowledge, if the whole drama must follow inescapable historical events, how can the hero have any freedom? By taking the entire play out of our hands and willing those actions in history of which the playwright and audience are already aware. When it appears to the heroes that there is nothing more to be gained from performance, they put on a farewell act. The whole English aristocratic concept of 'dying well' can still be heard in accounts of the way soldiers met their deaths in the World Wars of this century. It is no accident that the inevitable response to such accounts is, as it always has been, "Good show!" The only way to triumph over death is to take charge of the staging. Nowhere in Shakespeare is the farewell show more explicitly developed than in the ending of Antony and Cleopatra.

What Cleopatra is looking for when all the avenues of escape have closed down is the most theatrical tour de force to crown her theatrical life. She has to find a way of avoiding the use Caesar has for her as a cheap sideshow exhibit in order to be true to her concept of her own role. When she breaks out in tears after Antony's death, she finds herself betraying her majestic role: "No more but e'en a woman, and commanded/ By such poor passion as the maid that milks/And does the meanest chares" (IV, xiv, 73-75). She mocks her destiny:

It were for me To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods; To tell them that this world did equal theirs Till they had stol'n our jewel. All's but nought. Patience is sottish, and impatience does Become a dog that's mad. Then is it sin To rush into the secret house of death Ere death dare come to us?

(IV, xiv, 75-82)

She approaches this closing phase entirely in terms of show: "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, xiv, 86-88). The attraction of death for her, as for so many tragic heroes, is that it is a decisive, self-determined act which rings down the curtain on the stumbling drama of accommodating unwelcome roles, "it is great/ To do that thing that ends all other deeds,/ Which shackles accidents and bolts up change" (V, ii, 4-6). She challenges Proculeius by juggling concepts of her role alternatives: "If your master/ Would have a queen his beggar, you must tell him/ That majesty, to keep decorum, must/ No less beg than a kingdom" (V, ii, 15-18). Cleopatra will have to fight to achieve the tragic ending that we are already familiar with from history. That will involve outsmarting Caesar as theatrical producer and postponing for ever his attempt to feature her in a satirical comedy. Caesar wins the first round by breaking into the monument and capturing the queen. Proculeius, aware of the theatrical potentiality of Caesar's displaying and magnanimously forgiving the captured Cleopatra, tries to dissuade her from suicide, "Let the world see/ His nobleness well acted, which your death/ Will never let come forth" (V, ii, 44-06).

Following Cleopatra's eulogy to Dolabella of Antony as a titanic figure (V, ii, 79-92), we have a riddling speech, which, in suggesting that her dead lover is "past the size of dreaming," indicates the paradoxical nature of Shakespeare's technique. "Nature wants stuff/ To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine/ An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,/ Condemning shadows quite" (V, ii, 97-100). Fancy or imagination, the gift of dreamers, is the gift also of the poet, and 'shadows' is a common word for actors. Cleopatra is saying that no-one has sufficient imagination to create anything close to the reality of Antony and that no actor could ever imitate him. Shakespeare has the effrontery here to give one of his characters a speech that denies his own artistry even at the moment that she is demonstrating it.

Cleopatra features herself briefly in Caesar's satiric comedy in order to act him off the boards later. She seems to submit compliantly to her role as mere stage decoration in the triumphal procession in Rome. What could more feed Caesar's belief that she will fulfill the ignoble role he intends for her than to see her do this audition gratis? On Caesar's departure she makes her real intentions clear: "He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not/ Be noble to myself (V, ii, 190-191).

Cleopatra has an unequivocal view of her fate couched in theatrical terms. It is one of those Chinese-box moments in Shakespeare:

Now, Iras, what thinkst thou? Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves, With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, 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.

Iras The gods forbid!

Cleopatra Nay, 'tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers Ballad us out o'tune; the quick comedians Extemporal1y will stage us, and present Our Alexandrian revels; Antony Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I' th' posture of a whore.

(V, ii, 206-220)

The boy actor in Shakespeare's company in Jacobean England plays the real Cleopatra in ancient Egypt anticipating the time when some boy actor in Rome, in just such a theatre as the Globe with its mechanic slaves in their greasy aprons, will act out her part which, we may anticipate, will pass down in tradition to exactly this moment in Jacobean England when her story will be / is being / has been presented. It is characteristic of Shakespeare's art that he reminds us of Cleopatra's fears about her dramatic representation through someone who is doing what she fears—"boying her greatness."

Everything that Cleopatra does now is designed to leave an effective tableau of herself—a tragic queen who has lived up to the full expectations of her role and an image that will leave Caesar a "great ass unpolicied." Caesar would have her be a mere player-queen, but she will play the queen to the hilt to assert that she is inseparable from the role. To achieve that image she has to separate herself from life. She uses her death to assert her vitality. What we are to remember is not the fact of death, of destiny bringing the queen low, but the act of death—the mockery of destiny. "Now, Charmian!/ Show me, my woman, like a queen. Go fetch/ My best attires" (V, ii, 225-227). She is again for Cydnus. This is to be an encore of one of her greatest performances. Since power is only real if asserted before an audience, a leader cannot escape the pressure to make even his death meaningful. The recorded end of someone's life, the closing of the script, presupposes that history is the audience. Cleopatra is seen by Shakespeare here as living in ancient Egypt preparing a scene for the play of her life that he is to write. This is a game to be well played. "And when thou has done this chare, I'll give thee leave/ To play till doomsday. Bring our crown and all" (V, ii, 230-231).

This play does not require a critical theory to explain the transcendance achieved at the ending. Cleopatra herself provides the commentary for the audience. Of the Clown with the asp she says: "He brings me liberty/ My resolution's plac'd, and I have nothing/ Of woman in me. Now from head to foot/ I am marble-constant;" (V, ii, 236-238). She tells us she is becoming a monumental statue before our eyes. With her attendants as stage-dressers she translates herself into the empyrean. Charmian finds the performance so moving she declares "The gods themselves do weep!" The skill of this scene lies in the fact that this private death is so public. It would seem that this farewell show is put on only before her attendants. In effect, however, Charmian and Iras are shills—they pull out all stops and prompt us, the real audience. Cleopatra appears to have taken over Shakespeare's play. She is not the victim of the script but the creator of it. We are there with Cleopatra whose behaviour is providing the inspiration for people like Shakespeare.

Shakespeare gives one last cheeky touch before he leaves the tableau for Caesar to find. Charmian says "Your crown's awry, I'll mend it, and then play" (V, ii, 317-318). After all this tremendous preparation to achieve the exhilaration of tragedy he indicates that there is a flaw in the stage-setting which could precipitate us towards comedy. Cleopatra's crown has, perhaps, slipped down over one eye ruining the whole effect. Charmian ends her career as a stage-dresser by being fully professional even at the moment of death. She bilks Caesar and history of the laugh it might have had at Cleopatra's expense. This is Shakespeare, like a wild gambler, risking everything on one throw. What we achieve, of course, is not bathos but a cathartic surge of emotion of even greater intensity.

Jyotsna Singh (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XX, 1990, pp. 99-121.

[In the essay that follows, Singh examines the parallels between Antony and Cleopatra and the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century polemical attacks on women and the theater as deceitful and subversive entities. Singh notes that the play both celebrates theatricality, primarily through the figure of Cleopatra, and dramatizes, through the Romans, the objections to and fear of theatricality.]

Audiences and readers of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra generally remember Cleopatra in terms of her varied histrionic moments. In wooing Antony, she displays contrary and shifting moods: "If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick" (1.3.3-5).1 In ruling her subjects, she commands distant adulation by staging herself in pageants, displays a playful familiarity toward her serving-women, or cruelly strikes a slave; and in responding to Caesar's victory, she declares her obedience, but then undermines his authority by enacting a grand suicide and an imaginary union with Antony: "I am again for Cydnus, / To meet Mark Antony" (5.2.228-29). While the range and virtuosity of Cleopatra's performances is dazzling, one is particularly struck by a pervasive connection between her histrionics and the blurring of gender boundaries. A scene that immediately comes to mind is when Cleopatra finds delight in her memory of cross-dressing with Antony:

. . . and next morn, Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst I wore his sword Philippan.


Here, Cleopatra stirs the worst Roman fears of effeminacy by bringing to life the myth of Hercules in women's clothes serving Omphale, or of Venus armed in victory over Mars. Why this image of Antony in female attire makes the Romans anxious is understandable. Very quickly in the play one can note that their condemnation of Egypt, where Antony is "transformed / Into a strumpet's fool" (1.1.12-13), is in essence a fear of a mutable, and thereby "effeminized," identity. In fact, what they consistently uphold as the "true" Roman self—whether individual or collective—reveals itself as an ideal of masculinity premised on an exclusion of the feminine. From their perspective, when Antony is with Cleopatra, he is "not Antony" (1.1.57), as his "sport" in Egypt makes him "not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he" (1.4.5-7). Thus, if Antony is to remain the Roman hero, Cleopatra must be marginalized as the temptress, witch, adultress.2

This ideology of exclusion through which the Romans perceive the power relations—and gender relations—of their world is repeatedly dismantled by Cleopatra as she represents, and in the scene of crossdressing literally reconstitutes, the Roman divisions between the masculine and the feminine. Categories such as these, she demonstrates, are flexible and open to improvisation. In her dramatic plots Antony can play both warrior and lover as she shows him that these roles are not antithetical to one another, and that combining them does not imply effeminacy. Moreover, Antony's Roman "honour [that] calls [him] hence" to Rome, Cleopatra points out, can be played as a "scene / Of excellent dissembling" (1.3.78-80) so that Egypt and Rome can enact the same fiction of "perfect honour," which need not be a Roman or masculine prerogative. By thus drawing attention to the particular ways in which gender differences are constructed, the theatrical queen puts into question the very notion of a unified, stable identity.

To suggest that Cleopatra is a performer and playmaker has become a critical commonplace. While traditionally, critics considered the Egyptian queen's histrionics intrinsic to her nature as a femme fatale, recent feminist studies view her theatricality as a source of empowerment and as a positive value in the play.3 Most, however, essentialize Cleopatra into a special, charismatic individual given to self-dramatization. My interest lies in examining Cleopatra's theatrical function in the play, as outlined above, in relationship to specific, historically situated debates about the theater and women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially as they were articulated in the anti-theatrical and antifeminist writings of the period. I am not seeking to establish a direct influence between the documents and the play—which has its recognized sources in Plutarch's Lives of the Romans and Vergil's Aeneid; but rather, I wish to explore the ways in which the associations between women and the theater emerge as a significant concern in both dramatic representation and social commentary.4

It has already been suggested that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century detractors of the theater and of women represent theatricality in the rhetoric of feminine appeal and vice versa.5 In their response to Cleopatra, the Romans also perceive the feminine and the theatrical in similar interchangeable terms. For them, as for the tract writers, authentic human identity is clearly the prerogative of a universalized and coherent male subject, who must resist being seduced and "feminized" by the possibility of changeable, multiple selves. The fact that both the social and dramatic contexts focus on the notion of a histrionic personality suggests the lingering influence of the orthodox doctrine of a hierarchical universe. In the official homily of obedience of 1559, as read in Elizabethan services, all English subjects were exhorted to accept their God-given roles:

Everye degre of people in theyr vocation and callying, and office hath appointed to them [by God], theyr duety and ordre. Some are in hyghe degree, some in lowe, some kynges and prynces, some inferiors and subjects, . . . Fathers and chyldren, husbandes and wives, riche and poore. . . . For where there is no ryghte ordre, there reigneth all abuse, carnal libertie, synne and Babilonicall confusyon.6

While this picture of the world was undoubtedly appealing to those who benefited from it, it could not contain the sweeping social and economic transformations affecting English society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Social historians testify to unprecedented displacements in society caused by a complex interplay of factors such as population growth, inflation, changes in agrarian modes of production, and a widening gap between the privileged and growing numbers of poor, masterless, landless, and indigent.7 The effect of this social flux was a widespread perception of a "crisis of order," a major feature of which was a perceived threat to the patriarchal structures of the time—or specifically, to "natural" distinctions between gender roles (Underdown 37-40).

While the polemicists respond to these social changes by discursively constructing a static society in which identities are fixed, Shakespeare's text, which itself is a play, celebrates theatricality—with all its implications of social and ontological instability—even as it dramatizes a resistance to it. Thus, read in relationship to the antitheatrical and antifeminist tracts, Antony and Cleopatra seems both to reproduce and to contest their conception of a social order in which women and actors are seen as duplicitously subverting the "natural" boundaries of social and sexual difference. Through this formulation, I hope to open the play to the historical moment of its genesis, underscoring its particular response to the tension between "official" theories of order and the actual disruptions in traditional social hierarchies and gender roles in Renaissance England.


The proponents of antitheatricalism in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England launched their attacks on the stage from 1577 to the closing of the theaters in 1642. There are variations in the approaches taken by individual polemicists, suggesting in part an increasing unease about the popularity of drama, but there are also remarkable similarities that express consistently shared concerns.8 I will examine some tracts of writers such as Northbrooke, Gosson, and Rankins among others, covering the years till about 1600, in an attempt to show that while some of their objections are grounded in practical reasons such the fostering of idleness by the public theaters, in general, the polemicists' overwrought rhetoric is aimed sweepingly at anything associated with pleasure, sexuality, femininity, with succumbing to feeling, and consequently, with the dissolution of all familiar boundaries.9 In conceiving of theatrical performance in these erotic terms, the antitheatricalists, it seems, are revealing their fear of both effeminacy and femininity. As an overt expression of their concern, they condemn transvestism on the stage for effeminizing the young actors and their male audiences who, supposedly titillated by homoerotic fantasies, lose their manhood or manliness.10 But in a more insidious sense, their criticism of the stage, I believe, reflects a dread of an unrestrained femininity disrupting the conventional boundaries of sexual difference crucial to the preservation of the patriarchal culture of the time.11 Thus their attack on the "immoral" effects of stage plays reveals itself as an anxiety about fixing the meaning of masculinity and femininity.

The condemnation of plays and other pleasurable pastimes, found as early as 1577 in John Northbrooke's A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine playes, or Enterluds . . . are reproved, carries with it a prescriptive definition of manhood and womanhood. Northbrooke's criticism of all forms of idleness expresses the Protestant work ethic in a developing mercantile economy (Fraser 52-76). Within this context, however, he constructs an ideal of stoic manhood whereby in a dialogue between youth and age, the (male) youth is exhorted to distinguish between a "beastly and slothfull idlenesse . . . [and] an honest and necessarie idleness" (F.iij), and to remember that the Sabbath is not for "carnali pleasures, as the wicked and ungodlye are wonte, but for godlynesse and virtues sake" (F.iij). "Vaine playes and Enterludes," like Bathsheba's charms that snared David, are among the pastimes that Northbrooke considers a threat to men's virtue (J.iij). Furthermore, as plays and players represent "whoredome," "no wives or maydens, . . . that . . . content and please . . . honest men, [should] be found and seene at common Playes" (J.iij). Being seen at the theater where she may be "desired with so many eyes," and where her virtue may be compromised, a woman may lose her socially acceptable identity.

Northbrooke's anxiety about the theater as a site of idleness and immorality pales in contrast to the intensifying dread of the disruptive effects of theatricality found in later tracts. Stephen Gosson, in his last tract, Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), launches a broad attack on all plays as the creations of the devil (Kinney 59). In Gosson's idealist construction of the world, "there can bee no truce, no league, no manner of agreemente [between God and the Devil], because the one is holy, the other unpure; the one good, the other evill" (B4). Central to his moral scheme is the notion of a fixed God-given human identity; "God hath made us in his owne likenesse" (B4), Gosson reminds his readers, and goes on to attack plays as satanic inventions that draw actors and audiences to participate in lying fictions: "In Stage Playes for a boy to put on the attyre, the gesture, the passions of a woman, to take upon him the title of a Prince with counterfeit porte and traine, is by outward signes to shewe themselves, otherwise than they are, and so within the compasse of a lye" (E4). Like the other polemicists, Gosson is particularly disturbed by the blurring of gender boundaries on stage. Citing a number of biblical and medieval religious sources, the writer asserts, "The Law of God straightly forbides men to put on women's garments that are set downe for signes distinctive between sexe and sexe, to take unto us those garments that are manifest signs of another sexe is to falsifie, forge, and adulterate contrarie to the express rule of God" (E3).

In Gosson's eyes the stage is a site of contamination—a place where natural distinctions of identity are blurred, confused, and adulterated in a parody of God's act of forming human nature (Kinney 61). Audiences are simply seduced by the dramatic effect that "whets [them] to wantonness . . . and [through which] the mind like a stringe, being let downe, [is] pitcht . . . to this key of carnali delight" (F5). Repeatedly, in Gosson's attack, theatricality is represented in the rhetoric of feminine sexual appeal: theatrical spectacles evoke troubling desires that "breedeth a hunger, a thirst after pleasure" (F6), and make gazers "unfit for manly discipline" (C2), as they "effeminate and soften the hearts of men" (G4). What emerges from this line of argument is an assertion of masculinity predicated on a denial of pleasure, of desire—and of anything associated with female sexuality.

Not only Gosson, but other antitheatrical writers also emphasize the erotics of dramatic performance. William Rankins, in A Mirrour of Monsters (1587), views players as deceiving "monsters" who are sent by Satan "to lead the people with intising shewes to the divell, to seduce them to sinne" (B.ii), and envisions the stage as a site on which the marriage of pride and lechery takes place—a site which Rankins terms "for [its] abhomination, the chappell Adulterinum" (B.iiij). The union of the bride and bridegroom in this simple allegory signals the loss of a heroic manliness: the bridegroom is "Like as Mars when he hadde beene wearied with warlike exployts, used to entertaine his Lady Venus when . . . they were taken in a nette" (C.ii). Rankins goes on to attack players for a host of undesirable attributes such as idleness, flattery, ingratitude, and blasphemy, but, in general, seems obsessively focused on their threat to virtuous masculine identity: players present before the eyes of "young wits" such "inchaunting Charmes, and bewitched wyles, to alienate theyre mindes from vertue, that hard wyll it for a wit well stayde to abyde the same" (E.i). Weakening masculine discipline, plays "bewitcheth the myndes of menne" away from "the profitable fruits of virtuous labour" (C.iii). Frequently comparing the deceitful flattery of players to seductive female charms, Rankins exhorts his readers to beware of their dangerous allure: "Let us arme ourselves against the damnable enticings of these hellish feendes [the players] with the wise regard of prudent Ulises, who for feare lest he should be mooved with the pleasant harmonie of singing Syrens, bound himself and his Mates to the mast of his Shippe" (E.i). In another instance, he rallies theater audiences to resist temptation as the "young Egyptian did" when placed in a "sumptuous Chamber" with the "fayrest Concubine in all his Courte, with her embracings and sweete perswasions" (E.i).

Such cautionary anecdotes are typical of the views held by most polemicists. However, it is interesting to note that while they recognize that theaters may snare "faire women" into wantonness and adulterous trysts, they generally imagine the spectators as male. And nothing preoccupies them as much as the pernicious effects of plays on the "manhood" of their viewers. While there is a certain irony in their fear, considering that corporeal representations of female sexuality were excluded from the stage during the period, the source of it lies in the powerful cultural stereotype of women as duplicitous seducers—a stereotype that is easily transferred to actors.12 In order to understand fully the con nection between the theater and female sexuality forged by the antitheatricalists, let us now turn to its parallel in the antifeminist polemic of the period. Katharine Maus makes a strong case for this interrelationship when she suggests that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, women and the theater were subject to attack from the same rhetorical position—and that "suspicion of female sexuality and suspicion of the theater can be considered two manifestations of the same anxiety" (602-03). Just as the antitheatricalists perceive all play-acting as a form of satanic deceit, a cover-up for one's real identity, antifeminists deride women for hiding their sinful interior by their alluring appearance.

Most antifeminist tracts draw heavily on the stereotype of the duplicitous seductress. Edward Gosynhill, in The Schoolhouse of women (1541?), like other misogynist pamphleteers, warns men against women's "fair, glozing countenance" and "sugared utterance" and gives instances of how simple men are "Deceived . . . where they most trust" (154). Mentioning legendary women, like Herodias, Jezebel, Delilah, whose names are synonymous with sexual appeal and deceit, the critic suggests that all women delude men by their physical attraction, "Trim[ming] themself every day new, / And in their glasses pore and pry, /. . . to allure the masculine" (145). Female fashions are thus a frequent target of attack among antifeminists. For instance, Gosson, in his lighthearted pamphlet Pleasant quippes for upstart newfangled gentlewomen (1596), asks: "these painted faces which they [women] weare, / can any tell from whence they cam? / Don Satan, Lord of fayned lyes, / All these new fangles did devise" (5). And Joseph Swetnam accuses women of similar hypocrisies at greater length in The Arraignment of Lewd, froward, idle, and unconstant women (1615). Women, according to him, "'are in shape Angels but in qualities Devils'. . . . They have myriad devices to entice, bewitch, and deceive men" (205); "some they keep in hand with promises, and some they feed with flattery, and some they delay with dalliances, and some they please with kisses" (201).

What is under attack in both the antitheatrical and antifeminist tracts is the notion of a changeable, histrionic personality. Critics such as Katharine Maus and Jean Howard point out that in the eyes of the polemicists women and actors by their very changeability erase boundaries.13 In general, the tract writers fear that social hierarchies are no longer stable or clearly demarcated when we "disdaine the callinge he [God] hath placed us in" (Gosson, Playes Confuted G7.v). Quite understandably, then, their condemnation of plays and of women reveals itself as a desire to hold in place an essentialist ideology that views human identity as immutable and God-given rather than socially constructed. While actors in this ideal, stratified world are to be suppressed, women are exhorted to curb their fickle, changeable natures and conform to static stereotypes of feminine virtue, often taken from the Bible.14

From the polemicists' general concern for the breakdown of established categories by tampering with God's handiwork, there emerges, as we have seen, an obsessive concern for the erotic effects of histrionic displays on gazers. Of course, whether stirred by women or plays, lust characterizes disorder and corruption.15 But when the tract writers condemn all forms of enticing play-acting they are, I believe, expressing a specific masculine fear of a loss of identity through attraction to the female. Making little distinction between the self-adornment of women and dramatic spectacles that "ravish the sence," the polemicists warn against all displays that stir sensual desires in men and "effeminate the mind like pricks unto vice." Therefore, for a man to allow himself to be engulfed by sensual pleasures signals a loss of masculinity.

It is particularly telling to observe how this specter of the effeminized male haunts the antitheatricalists: while they attack theaters for specific social evils such as the breeding "of plague and vice, traffic congestion and mob violence, inefficient workers and dangerous ideas" (Montrose 57), their anxieties about this site of social disorder often coalesce on the image of threatened masculinity. Gosson, in The Schoole of Abuse (1579), explains the appeal of plays and other pleasurable activities by lamenting how the "olde discipline of Englande" has changed since "wee were schooled with these abuses" (B8). The prevailing interest in "banqueting, playing, pipying, and dauncing" (B8v), according to him, has blurred sexual differences by effeminizing men: "Our wreastling at armes, is turned to wallowying in Ladies laps, our courage, to cowardice, our running to ryot, our Bowes into Bolles, and our Dartes to Dishes" (C1). Thus it seems that their discussion of theatricality, so dependent on their fear of changing gender roles, inevitably returns to the issue of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Such polarizing tendencies clearly place these anti-theatrical and antifeminist narratives within a larger body of cultural texts—sermons, homilies, proclamations, and preambles to statutes—devoted to naturalizing a hierarchical scheme of social, political, and cosmological order. Common to all these texts are distinct standards of exclusion and inclusion by which the Elizabethans and Jacobeans imagined their lived relation to the world, but which were often not sustained by reality (Marienstras 9-25, Wrightson 18-23).


By 1608, when Antony and Cleopatra first appeared in the Stationers' Register, Shakespeare, among others, had already glorified on stage a number of histrionic figures—self-conscious actors and dramatists like Richard III, Falstaff, and Hamlet as well the playful heroines of comedy like Rosalind and Viola. An interest in the theatrical nature of human identity is evident in most of Shakespeare's works. In this play, however, associations between the feminine and the theatrical, as embodied in Cleopatra, function specifically both to reveal and to subvert the existing ideology of order by which traditional sexual and social hierarchies were held in place. Conventionally, the play has been read as a clash between abstract categories such as reason versus passion or politics versus love. Inherent to such readings is the tendency to naturalize patriarchal stereotypes that often equate Rome with reason and public duty and Egypt with sensuality and emotional excess.16 Recent critics have tried to break free from traditional gender prejudices, but they too, in most instances, tend to view the play as being non-ideological. However, when one contextualizes the play within the controversial public debates on the theater and on women, one realizes that the issues at stake in the Rome/Egypt opposition are far from being abstract or universal, and instead, are closely linked to the preservation of the patriarchal order in Renaissance England.

The terms of the conflict between the Romans and Cleopatra emerge early in the dialectical structure of the play.17 While Roman actions and speech promote a hierarchical view of political order and an essentialist conception of human identity, Cleopatra's histrionic mode of being disrupts such notions of fixity. In their formal rhetoric, at least, the Romans evoke the image of a stable empire; Caesar, who rules over the "third o'th'world" (2.2.67) imagines that a "hoop should hold [him and Antony] staunch, from edge to edge / O'th'world" (2.2.120-21). Quite arbitrarily, he draws boundaries: their empire is to be divided among all three "world Sharers" [Lepidus, Octavius, Antony] whom Pompey acknowledges as "The senators alone of this great world, / Chief factors for the gods" (2.6.9-10), and "Wars 'twixt [them] would be / As if the world should cleave" (3.4.30-31). The basis of such assertions of power is the exclusion or control of women. By the Roman creed, Antony must remain the "triple pillar of the world," and if he faces a choice "between [women] and a great cause [women] should be esteemed nothing" (1.2.140). Octavia, of course, is quite literally "esteemed nothing" and therefore acceptable as a woman—and as a convenient pawn in Octavius's and Antony's power struggle.

Implicit to the Roman ideology of exclusion is a fear of the loss of male identity through an attraction to the female. The picture of a threatened masculinity the Romans construct seems to give validity to the anti-theatrical and antifeminist polemic, especially in its negative associations between female charms and duplicitous shows. The Egyptian queen's "infinite variety," as they portray it, applies interchangeably to her sexual appeal and to her role-playing, and is clearly antithetical to the Roman myth of a stable and unified male subject. From the opening scene, it is apparent that in Roman eyes Antony's image as a warrior, and as a Roman, becomes diffuse in his moments as lover. Seeing him with the Egyptian queen, Antony's comrades regret that the "plated Mars" has become a "strumpet's fool" (1.1.13). Now, they believe, "he is not Antony, [as] / He comes too short of that great property / Which still should go with Antony" (1.1.57-59), and wish for "better deeds" which will make him reject his "dotage" to a woman and reclaim his honor. This scene prefigures the continuing Roman impulse to defend themselves against Cleopatra's repertoire of charms. Even as they devalue her "playfulness," they often recognize its appeal to their senses and feelings—a recognition expressed by Enobarbus ("We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; [yet] they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report" [1.2.148-50]) and more fully experienced by Antony as he seeks to break away from the "enchanting queen" (1.2.129) who alienates him from his Roman self.

Octavius Caesar marks the precise boundaries of the desired Roman identity on his first appearance on stage in 1.4, when he mocks at Antony's "revels" with Cleopatra in Alexandria:

he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike Than Cleopatra, nor the Queen of Ptolemy More womanly than he . . . . . . You shall find there A man who is the abstract of all faults.


As Caesar sees it, Antony's sport in Egypt has collapsed divisions that are crucial to the Romans. He has conflated his masculinity with femininity, being "not more manlike than Cleopatra"; he has equated the importance of his "kingdom" with a "mirth" and forgotten his noble identity in "tippling with a slave" (18-19).

Soon afterwards, in the same scene, Octavius wistfully recapitulates Antony's past heroism in battle, extolling masculinity as a form of stoicism:

. . . When thou once Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew'st Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against, Though daintily brought up, with patience more Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink The stale of horses and the gilded puddle Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.

On the Alps It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh, . . . And all this—

Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek So much as lanked not.


Speaking in the "official" Roman voice, Octavius clearly promotes a definition of masculinity that preserves the myth of Roman greatness. And while his distinction between Egypt, where Antony fills "His vacancy with his voluptuousness" (1.4.26), and Rome, which beckons him to "th'field," anticipates Roman fears about contaminating their manhood with female attributes, it also reveals their impossibly idealist view of the "true" warrior. There is enough evidence in the play to show that the deeds of Rome's heroes do not conform to their inflated reputations. Therefore, they must mark Cleopatra as an external threat in order to sustain their myth. Throughout the play, Antony's men blame Cleopatra for their general's decline: she is the "Egyptian dish" (2.6.124), and Antony has given his "potent regiment to a trull" (3.6.95). They regret that their "leader's led, / And [they] are women's men" (3.7.69-70) and, in the end, believe that the "god Hercules, whom Antony loved, / Now leaves him" (4.3.17-18). Thus, instead of allowing Antony his moments as a lover, they label him as effeminate and repudiate his authority.

A useful way of viewing this Roman discourse is to note its resemblance to what one critic describes as "the logocentric, masculine tradition of Renaissance historiography, written by men, devoted to the deeds of men, glorifying the masculine virtues of courage, honor, and patriotism, and dedicated to preserving the names of past heroes" (Rackin, "Anti-Historians" 329). Plutarch's moralizing history, on which the play is based, is also male-centered, and in its simplest form, tells the tale of a "Great Man and a Temptress" (Mack 1169). Detractors of plays and of women seem equally dependent on these cultural and historical paradigms. Freely, and quite eclectically, they draw on masculine traditions in history and literature to bolster their argument. Just as the Romans in Antony and Cleopatra evoke images of Aeneas, Mars, and Hercules as prototypes for Antony's struggle in the snare of female charms, tract writers allude to similar figures—"Ulises" and "Mars," for instance—as notable examples of men resisting feminine wiles. In both the Roman discourse and the social texts, the particular choice of literary/historical models is important only insofar as it perpetuates the threat of the alluring, duplicitous female. What we learn here is how particular cultural mythologies are circulated and affirmed in the service of specific interests—in this case those of the patriarchy.

To sum up, the Roman discourse in the play embodies the orthodox impulse to fix identity—or, specifically, to secure the myth of the male hero against threats of demystification. Thus, quite understandably, their vision in the play closely approximates Plutarch's version of history which privileges the male perspective, and in which the Herculean Antony suffers from the "sweet poison of Cleopatra's love" (Bullough 272). Critics who look for a moral center in the play often privilege the Roman perspective, reinforcing the intentionality of Plutarch's account, but overlooking Shakespeare's own ambivalent response to an "official" reading of history.18 A fact that escapes their notice is that the play does not ask to be seen as a univocal construct, shaped by a single, monolithic tradition. Instead, what is more obvious is that Cleopatra's histrionic revisions of the Roman myth repeatedly disrupt the continuity between Plutarch's account and Shakespeare's play—even though Caesar's final victory is assured by history.

Cleopatra's sense of self, as opposed to the Romans, is consistently "playful." When life is experienced as a performance, she demonstrates, then all assumptions of selfhood become tenuous. Cleopatra's subversion of the Roman claims to a stable identity gains particular significance when we note her identification with the figure of the alluring, changeable seductress who figures prominently in the antitheatrical and antifeminist narratives. There is enough evidence to suggest that the Romans perceive her as bewitching and duplicitous. Creating her own theatrical space in Egypt, where, as Pompey puts it, "witchcraft join[s] with beauty, lust with both!" the Egyptian queen transforms the noble Antony into a "libertine in a field of feasts" (2.1.22-23).

Cleopatra's changeableness obviously attracts the Romans, who often resemble fascinated but uneasy spectators of a play. In the opening scene, Philo urges his companion to "Behold and see" (1.1.13) as Cleopatra incites and stages their general's transformation:

. . . his goodly eyes, That o'er the files and musters of the war Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn

. . . [and] His captain's heart,

. . . is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gypsy's lust.


Later, Enobarbus's imaginative response to her grand self-presentation on the barge dramatizes her effect over her own people as well as the suppressed Roman attraction for her and for Egypt. On this occasion, when her femininity is synonymous with "seeming" as her person "beggared all description" (2.2.203), the Romans listening to Enobarbus seem enthralled by the "infinite variety" of Cleopatra's histrionic and sexual enticements. Like them, the play's audiences are forced to recognize that "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety"(2.2.240-41).

Clearly then, we can make a significant connection between Cleopatra's performances and stage plays in the light of the antitheatrical conception of theatrical experience as female and of the generic spectator as male. A stage play, the polemicists argue, is like a "painted woman," beckoning its viewers into a sexualized engagement that few can resist. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare does not refute this argument, but he clearly puts a more positive construction upon the conflation of the feminine and theatrical than was found in the cultural orthodoxies of the time. The very qualities that characterize the Renaissance stereotype of the duplicitous female—beauty, eroticism, changeability, ingenuity—are those that enrich and empower Cleopatra's artistry in shaping her own self-representations and in challenging those of the Romans.

Why does the playwright make the Egyptian queen's specifically "feminine" qualities the source of her theatrical power? To answer this question, I will first examine some aspects and effects of Cleopatra's distinctive mode of dramatic improvisation.19 Throughout the play one can observe how Cleopatra uses the Roman myth of honor as a manipulable fiction. Philo evokes one version of this myth in the opening scene when he idealizes Antony as Mars and implicitly designates Cleopatra as a Venus of sensual temptation, weakening the great general.20 Cleopatra does not accept this or any other fixed identity. Instead, she constantly revises and reworks their narrative of Venus and Mars to dramatize in positive terms her "playful" engagement with Antony and her queenly role before her subjects.

In the opening scene, she undermines Philo's judgment by enacting before Antony a vital and positive scenario of their love, leading him to exult in the dissolution of familiar Roman boundaries: "Let Rome in Tiber melt. . . . The nobleness of life / Is to do thus" (1.1.33, 37). Later, when Antony departs for Rome, with the firm resolve to break the "Egyptian fetters," Cleopatra challenges the reductive Roman view of herself and Antony with a transcendent vision of love: "Eternity was in our lips and eyes, / Bliss in our brows' bent" (1.3.35-36). Her model of eternal love, however, immediately reveals its tenuousness when faced with Antony's wavering affections: "I am quickly ill and well, / So Antony loves" (1.3.72-73).

These exchanges establish the pattern for Cleopatra's strategy of improvising on Roman fictions and revealing them as constructed and arbitrary. At one moment, she upholds the Roman view of Antony as the "greatest soldier of the world," and then calls him the "greatest liar" (1.3.38-39) in denying their love. Or, when she addresses Antony as a "Herculean Roman" (1.3.86), she suppresses the Roman view of him as an enfeebled Hercules held captive by feminine charms. By improvising on Antony's identification with Hercules, Cleopatra questions not only the Roman version of the myth, but also their assumptions about her marginality. After these opening scenes, we do not see Antony in Egypt again until 3.7, but through her many "becomings," Cleopatra reminds us of his role as a lover—which the Romans trivialize and Antony tries to suppress. She plays out his divided disposition in Rome: "He was not sad . . ./. . . he was not merry, /. . . his remembrance lay / In Egypt with his joy" (1.5.55-58). More subversively, she violates the Roman concept of manhood by evoking the famous cross-dressing scene, mentioned earlier in this essay. On this occasion, the exchange of clothes, and to some extent of sexual characteristics, disrupts the sexual hierarchy of the Romans whereby Rome is perceived as a heroic and masculine empire and Egypt a kingdom of women and eunuchs.

While Cleopatra evokes an association with the armed Venus in the cross-dressing scene, she enhances and complicates her role as Venus in the public pageant described by Enobarbus. Here, her feminine charms—her sensuality and eroticism—coalesce with her artifice to hold her audiences in rapture:

For her own person, It beggared all description. . . .

O'erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature. . . .

. . . From the barge A strange invisible perfume hits the sense. . . . The city cast Her people out upon her.


In Cleopatra's various roles, then, the legend of Venus emerges as many-sided and contingent: while seeming to threaten Antony's masculinity in the crossdressing scene, she also transforms the Venus/Mars myth into a context for a playful eroticism in which sexual identities are confused. But when she plays Venus on the "burnished throne," her erotic appeal merges into a larger picture of queenly grandeur and power. In thus shaping her self-representations, for public or private consumption, Cleopatra seems particularly responsive to assertions of power through improvisational role-playing.

These histrionic revisions of the Venus/Mars myth afford one instance of the diverse, manipulable elements making up Cleopatra's repertoire. They are clearly a part of her sustained strategy of collapsing the distinctions made by the Romans between Antony's role as effeminized lover and masculine warrior. Repeatedly in the play Antony tries to deny his attraction for Cleopatra and thereby, to deny his fickle and changeable nature. Near the end of the play, however, a new character, Eros, appears on stage, and his name signals Antony's fuller acceptance of his own role as lover, and more importantly, of a new playful sense of self. Only now is he able to experience an utter dissolution of personality:

Sometime 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. . . . My good knave Eros, now thy captain is Even such a body. Here I am Antony, Yet cannot hold this visible shape.


In response to Antony's feelings of annihilation, Cleopatra, the consummate actress, improvises a moment of high tragedy: "To th'monument! / Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself; / Say that the last I spoke was 'Antony'" (4.13.6-8). The purpose of Cleopatra's fiction is to help him recover a sense of selfhood that is heroic in a fuller sense of the word than the Romans allow. As a result, even while committing suicide in the high Roman way, Antony ascribes more meaning to his role as lover: "I will be / A bridegroom in my death, and run into't / As to a lover's bed" (4.14.99-101).

At the moment of his death, Antony transcends the rigid boundaries dividing Egypt and Rome—as well as the rigid conception of self. If the Roman value system defines him as a feminized male, a Hercules in bondage to Omphale, a Mars trapped by Venus, Cleopatra invests his effeminacy with a richness not in exclusion from, but within the context of, the Roman heroic model.21 We still see him in the image of Aeneas, but her vision reformulates the Roman ideal of public duty by emphasizing Aeneas's commitment to Dido over his duty to war. Therefore, beyond death, Antony can visualize his reunion with Cleopatra in a transmuted image of Aeneas and Dido in the Elysian Fields, rather than forever separated as in Vergil's version: "Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand. / . . . / Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, / and all the haunt be ours" (4.14.51-54).

If Antony dies by imaginatively evoking the values of love—what the Romans decry as the effeminate in him—Cleopatra resolves her suicide by infusing into her feminine being the masculine constancy claimed by the Romans: ". . . I have nothing / Of woman in me. Now from head to foot / I am marble-constant" (5.2.238-40). And subsequently, in her imaginative rendering of an afterlife, all human categories of sexual difference seem to dissolve in their union: "Husband, I come. / . . . / I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life" (5.2.286-89). Cleopatra daringly celebrates love's victory in a world of dramatic illusion in these final moments of the play, even while acknowledging that if removed from her milieu—and from the Renaissance stage—"Some squeaking Cleopatra [will] boy [her] greatness" (5.2.220). While the autonomy of her histrionic role is curtailed by the image of the boy actor emerging from his disguise, it also ironically serves as a reminder that no identity is fixed and immutable, and that agents of representation on the Renaissance public stage could freely take on identities that transgressed boundaries of gender and hierarchy. To shape life as a performance and to improvise a part of one's own, rather than accept a God-given role, emerged as an increasingly appealing concept in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even though the choices implied by such rhetoric were limited (Greenblatt 255-57). While Cleopatra embodies such assertions of power through role-playing, the dialectical structure of the play evokes the conditions of existence of the fiercely contested site of the Renaissance public theater. More significantly, the work reminds us that a fear of theatrical power—both in the play and in the culture—inevitably reveals itself as an anxiety about female dissembling.


In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, as in the antifeminist and antitheatrical narratives, the figures of the alluring, histrionic temptress and the effeminized male repeatedly emerge as the focus of concern about changing gender boundaries in Renaissance England. The tract writers' preoccupation with preserving "true" masculinity is, in effect, an attempt to naturalize the orthodox doctrine of a static social and sexual order. In Shakespeare's play, however, this ideology of order—with its clear standards of otherness and exclusion—is revealed as a contingent fiction open to revision. Human identity, as Cleopatra dramatizes it, is multiple, varied, and protean, and, as we have seen, the playwright affords her many occasions to exult in her playful disruptions of the Roman gender polarities. Thus both dramatic text and public debates, when read in relationship to each other, present a complex picture of Renaissance society caught between the pressures of mobility and a desire for stasis. Or more specifically, they bring to light the cultural dilemma of choosing between God-given identities and new, socially constructed ones.

Another, related concern that gains urgency in such a reading of the literary and social texts deals with the use and control of theatrical power. Considering that all spectacles were popularly conceptualized as female and viewers as male, it is not surprising that the Renaissance culture feared feminine displays even as it acknowledged their overwhelming appeal. Thus when the antitheatricalists attack actors for effeminizing themselves and their audiences, they seem to concede immense theatrical power to unrestrained femininity, and to counter that, exhort women to conform to static models of virtue. Shakespeare radically revises these negative associations between women and actors. By conflating femininity and theatricality in such positive and powerful terms in the figure of Cleopatra, the playwright is identifying femininity as one of power's crucial modes.

Like the Romans in Antony and Cleopatra, the orthodoxies of the Renaissance culture would have certainly been critical of Cleopatra's dramatic shows, considering that they are the creation of female dissembling. Yet, in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, large audiences flocked to the theaters every night. So the Egyptian queen has always had her audiences. Caesar's victory is inscribed in history, but by writing this play, Shakespeare has given Cleopatra endless performances.


1 All references are to the New Penguin edition, ed. Emrys Jones.

2 An analogy for this paradigm can be found in Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1-9).

3 Cleopatra has been variously identified as an actress, dramatist, performer, or in broad terms, as a character wholly defined by her histrionic temperament. Phyllis Rackin ("Cleopatra" 201-12) describes Cleopatra as a "dedicated showman" and a "contriver of shows" whose action throughout is "like that of a playwright or actor" (203). Her essay is important to my argument in that she views Cleopatra's showmanship as Shakespeare's calculated response to those who oppose all "shows" and "seeming"—i.e., the "golden world of poetry" (204-09). Sidney Homan (177-91) relates Cleopatra's artifice and theatricality to her sexuality: "the word 'play,' in the sense of sexual play is frequently interchangeable with 'play' as it refers to the illusion produced by an actor" (179). Linda Bamber (45-70) perceives Cleopatra as a self-conscious actress who, unlike Antony, "does not deny that she performs her love, plays roles, puts on shows" (67). Her drama, with all its energy and struggle, becomes her vehicle for asserting control over her life. While studies such as these see Cleopatra's theatricality in positive terms, earlier criticism often considered her histrionics as a part of her inscrutable, or even duplicitous, female charm. For an account of the latter, see Fitz 297-316.

4 Mary Beth Rose's observations (223-27, 246-47) on the interaction between social and dramatic texts have contributed to the way in which I have constructed my argument, both in the introduction and conclusion.

5 Katharine Maus (603-09) points to the similarities between the rhetoric of the antitheatrical and antifeminist tracts. Jean E. Howard (163-87) also reveals pointed connections between antitheatricalism and the misogyny found in other modes of polemical writing of the period.

6 Cited in Montrose (53-54).

7 For a full discussion of the social changes of the period, as well of the accompanying preoccupation with problems of order and degree, see Underdown 9-43 and Wrightson 17-38. See also Newman 91-93.

8 For a useful account of the antitheatrical discourse in Renaissance England, see Barish, Antitheatrical Prejudice 80-190.

9 See Jonas Barish's observations (Antitheatrical Prejudice 85-87) on the connection between the antitheatricalists' attack on the theater and their unease about female sexuality.

10 Lisa Jardine (8-33) discusses at length the homoeroticism associated with the "effeminate boy[s] . . . of stage cross-dressing" (17).

11 Both social and literary historians observe that the culture's preoccupation with the changing social arrangements in Renaissance England was frequently expressed as an anxiety about the patriarchal order. See Woodbridge's observations (152-83) on the controversial debates regarding the "nature" of women and the transformations taking place in the traditional sex roles in the early seventeenth century. Also see Underdown (36-43) for an account of the social fears of the breakdown of patriarchal family arrangements.

12 Critics such as Maus and Howard clearly show how the image of the duplicitous seductress occurs frequently in antitheatrical and antifeminist literature. For further discussion of this stereotype see Henderson and McManus 47-50.

13 Maus (607) and Howard (169) arrive at the same conclusion.

14 Gosynhill's references to biblical stereotypes of female virtue typify such an impulse (Mulierum 165-66, 168).

15 Maus (606-17) develops the implications of this observation.

16 Typical of such traditional approaches is that of Julian Markels (3-49), who reads the play as a clash between public and private value systems, and of John Danby, who designates Rome and Egypt as "the World and the Flesh" (148).

17 For a useful analysis of the play's dialectical structure, see Adelman 14-52.

18 Edward Dowden (245-309) exemplifies a long and influential tradition of such moral readings. He views the play as Antony's tragedy and considers Cleopatra as putting the "moral sense to sleep" (278).

19 Greenblatt (227-32) identifies improvisation as the talent for perceiving given structures as a manipulable fiction to be reinscribed into one's own scenario. This essay identifies Cleopatra as such an improviser.

20 In her detailed analysis of the play's treatment of the Venus/Mars myth (167-90), Barbara Bonogives a rich account of the various perspectives on this myth by showing how "Shakespeare reflects the many Renaissance interpretations of Venus in his characters' responses to Cleopatra and to what she does with the martial Antony" (167-68).

21 Bono's discussion (151-90) of Antony's identification with changing images of mythic heroes such as Mars and Hercules contributes to my argument.

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Markels, Julian. The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Development. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1968.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman. "'Playhouse Flesh and Blood': Sexual Ideology and the Restoration Actress." ELH 46 (1979): 595-617.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. "The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology." Helios ns 7 (1980): 51-74.

Newman, Karen. "Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew." English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 86-100.

Northbrooke, John. A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes, or Enterluds . . . are reproved. 1577 [?]. Ed. Arthur Freeman. New York: Garland, 1974.

Rackin, Phyllis. "Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories." Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 329-44.

——. "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry." PMLA 87 (1972): 201-12.

Rankins, William. A Mirrour of Monsters. 1587. Ed. Arthur Freeman. New York: Garland, 1973.

Rose, Mary Beth. "Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl" Renaissance Historicism: Selections from English Literary Renaissance. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney and Dan Collins. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987. 223-47.

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. 1583. STC 23376.

Swetnam, Joseph. The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women. 1615. Henderson and McManus 190-216.

Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984.

Wrightson, Keith. English Society, 1580-1680. London: Hutchinson, 1982.


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Philip J. Traci (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Dancer and the Dance: A Study of Characterization in the Play," in The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra: A Critical Study of Shakespeare's Play, Mouton, 1970, pp. 23-61.

[In the following essay, Traci argues against many critics' overemphasis on characterization in Antony and Cleopatra and contends that it is the interaction between Antony and Cleopatra that forms the basis of the plot and which should be the main focus of study.]

Attention to Antony and Cleopatra as characters has usually passed for attention to Antony and Cleopatra as play. Whether or not the two have been considered gypsy and doting general, Venus and Mars, or Passion and Man, they have been viewed as if somehow the essence of their characters contained the essence of the play. Shakespeare's understanding of human nature has often been lauded,1 but the resulting view of the tragedies as character studies of great men has seldom been challenged.

The chief objection to such a view of the plays is that it separates the character from the play of which he is but a part. Thus, in addition to such irrelevancies as "what confidence Shakespeare must have had in the boy actor for whom he wrote so subtle and rich a role" as Cleopatra's,2 we have those studies which link Cleopatra with Shakespeare's alleged personal fascination for the dark-lady-Cleopatra before whom "every man is an Antony, Shakespeare no less than another".3 One critic flatly admits, "I definitely violate one of the standards of dramatic criticism in which I believe; I separate a character from the play in which this character is but one segment of the plot."4 One example of this kind of separation, so characteristic of studies of the play, will suffice:

If we now regard the Cleopatra of Shakespeare's drama we are astonished to find how inferior she is to the original. It is true that Plutarch gives us no clearly outlined picture of her character, but she certainly is not the great courtesan whom Shakespeare shows us in the first actsof his play. We are told nothing about her ability to negotiate with foreign peoples in their own language. As a matter of fact, we never see her acting as queen at all. Nobody would suspect that this woman, as Plutarch informs us, has, for years, quite unaided, ruled a great kingdom. She never gives audience, never exercises the function of her great office. Love seems to be her only aim in life.5

If Shakespeare's Cleopatra is inferior to Plutarch's as a person, she is surely not so as an artistic creation. Plutarch's creation is admittedly an indistinct "picture of her character". Indeed, by the same criterion, we might observe that Falstaff is inferior to Oswald, or that Hamlet would make an unsuitable roommate. If Shakespeare's Cleopatra, unlike Plutarch's, "never gives audience, never exercises the function of her great office", but seems to have love as "her only aim in life", we might well ask why. Rather than the implied rewriting of Shakespeare's play, a more reasonable response would include the observation that the play is not concerned with Cleopatra as a political figure, but with her love for Antony.6 While Shakespeare's varying from his source may provide us with clues as to the emphases of the play, we should, nonetheless, keep in mind Furness' admonition that it is "necessary that we should accept Cleopatra, at SHAKESPEARE'S hands, with minds unbiased by history. We should know no more of her than what we hear on stage. Of her past, of her salad days, we should know nothing but what we are told."7 The Dark Lady, Plutarch's Queen, and Dante's damned "Cleopatras lussuriosa,"8 are as irrelevant to Shakespeare's Cleopatra as Plutarch's or Julius Caesar's Antony are to the Antony who loves Cleopatra.

Few even of the more recent studies of Shakespearean drama have been exempt from separating character from play. Hamlet is still equated with Hamlet. Despite his title of Form and Meaning in Drama, H. D. F. Kitto emphasizes characterization in Elizabethan Drama, chiefly, however, to distinguish it from Greek Tragedy (if indeed anything so broad as Elizabethan or Shakespearean Drama can be distinct). He carefully adds, "Not of course that the Greek was philosophical with no interest in individuals, and the Elizabethan interested only in individuals with no philosophical foundations: the difference lies in the balance which each strikes between the two."9 He draws the contrast yet more strikingly, if less truly, later in his discussion: "More important, from our present point of view, is the fact that the minor characters and subordinate incidents in the Elizabethan drama have their independent reality. Launcelot Gobbo is not as important in the play as are Antonio and Shylock, but he is just as 'real'; we appreciate him for his own sake."10 A negative approach here yields a more precise insight into the characterizations in the play. Launcelot Gobbo is no more real than Antonio,11 whose role in the play is more important than his, or Old Gobbo, whose role is considerably less important (but none the less vital to the artistic whole). He is obviously more caricature than characterization. Nor is Launcelot's lack of psychological reality intended as a pejorative comment, for "the truest poetry is the most feigning".12 We do not look to comedies, even problem comedies, for deep character studies. That we "appreciate him for his own sake", we can partially agree; but that "the minor characters and subordinate incidents in the Elizabethan drama have their independent reality", we cannot. Independent reality implies a separation from the rest of the unified work of art. In II, ii, for example, Launcelot is clearly not introduced "for his own sake". During the course of his first speech alone he mentions the word "conscience" ten times. The significance of the contrast between Shylock's servant's conscience and Shylock's own is no less subtle than effective. The dramatic sympathy that is directed away from Shylock as his servant leaves him has more relevance in the play than the credibility of a common servant using the word "conscience" ten times in a single speech. As a clown, his words and actions are willingly believed within the context of the scene. Although both he and the scene are comic in themselves, they have no "separate identity". Their only existence is that created by the artist within the artistic whole.

This lack of psychological probing, moreover, extends beyond the stock characters of comedy to the tragedies as well. While we can hardly question the sympathetic treatment of Ophelia and Cordelia, neither can we point to them as examples of full characterization. They are not called for in the emphases of the play. Whether or not Gertrude is guilty of the murder of Old Hamlet (or, if so, what her motives are) is a question which scholarly clubwomen have long debated, but with which Hamlet is relatively unconcerned. The repeated overemphasis of characterization in studies of tragedy leads us to ask whether the convention of shortening The Tragedy of King Lear to King Lear might not have more pejorative ramifications than its convenience warrants.

The "separate identity" of minor scenes and characters that Kitto speaks of has been applied to Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps most often in Cleopatra's messenger scenes (II, v; III, iii). The actions and reactions of the messenger, like those of Launcelot Gobbo, Charmian, Banquo, and Oswald exist as comparisons and contrasts to the actions and reactions of the protagonists. The interactions of these comparisons and contrasts compose the dramatic import of the play. To take these minor characters or scenes out of the context of the unified play distorts this meaning. By considering the separate identity of the messenger scenes, for example, some critics have been led to speak of Cleopatra's cruelty.13 But the so-called cruelty all but vanishes within the context of the unified play. The effect of the scenes upon the spectator is one of Cleopatra's complete concern with Antony. Like Beatrice in Much Ado (I, i, 30-31; II, i, 7-10; cf. Benedick, I, i, 192 ff; II, i, 209-210), she mentions her love at the least suggestion—even when it is a non sequitur. She begins her first scene with the messenger (II, v) by indirectly contrasting Antony's company with that of another woman or a eunuch. Fishing reminds her of catching Antonies. Charmian is reminded of a particular time that Antony and Cleopatra fished. Then Cleopatra remembers the many "times" (1. 18) she and Antony have had.

As if Shakespeare had not made the point of Cleopatra's love for Antony clear enough in the scene, Joseph Stull feels it necessary to read literal "Jewelry" into Cleopatra's figurative "merchandise" (1. 104), emphasizing her "magnanimity",14 rather than her concern for the news that her love has remarried. But Cleopatra's first thoughts when the Messenger enters (like her first thoughts in the scene itself) are those of Antony:

O, from Italy!

Enter a Messenger.

Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, That long time have been barren.

(11. 23-25)

The forcefulness of her concern is underlined by the physical urgency of her word choices. The Messenger attempts to begin, but is interrupted by the anxious Queen:

Antonius dead!—If thou say so, villain, Thou kill'st thy mistress: but well and free, If thou so yield him, there is gold, and here My bluest veins to kiss; a hand that kings Have lipp'd, and trembled kissing.

(11. 26-31)

Her impatience again dramatizes her love for Antony. The tone of her plea, moreover, recalls Rosalind's when Celia refuses to answer concerning Orlando (As You Like It, III, ii, 189 ff), or Juliet's when the Nurse refuses news of her love (II, v).

Neither are Cleopatra's threats that she will "melt and pour" gold "down thy ill-uttering throat" (11. . 34-35) evidence of her cruelty. They demonstrate instead the intensity of her fear that Antony is dead. She does, after all, offer the Messenger "more gold" (1. 31) once he has told her Antony is well. She has already told us that her whole well-being depends upon Antony: "I am quickly ill, and well,/ So Antony loves" (I, iii, 72-73).

Cleopatra's cruelty within context, then, is as illusionary as that which Holloway sees when she exclaims that Antony "shall have every day a several greeting,/ Or I'll unpeople Egypt" (I, v, 77-78).15 The speech emphatically dramatizes not her cruelty, but the firmness of her resolution, a firmness, moreover, which reflects the intensity of the love that motivates it. We need not follow Johnson's suggestion that Cleopatra means to unpeople Egypt "By sending out messengers"16 in order to disprove Holloway's read ing of cruelty. Neither need we accept Traversi's suggestion: "To 'unpeople Egypt,' should this be needed if she is to send daily messengers to Antony, is clearly as impossible as it would be irresponsible. . . ."17 Nor need we point to other Shakespearean lovers sending daily greetings (in Sonnet 117 or "The Rape of Lucrece", 1. 1289). The best commentary on the conscious exaggeration of her "I'll unpeople Egypt" is made clear by Cleopatra herself in III, xiii, when Cleopatra responds to Antony's question:

Ant. Cold-hearted toward me?

Cleo. Ah, dear, if I be so, From my cold heart leave heaven engender hail, And poison it in the source, and the first stone Drop in my neck: as it determines, so Dissolve my life; the next Caesarion18 smite Till by degrees the memory of my womb, Together with my brave Egyptians all, By the discandying of this pelleted storm, Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile Have buried them for prey!

(11. 158-167)

The coupling of "the memory of my womb" with both the maternally possessive "my" and the admiring "brave" illuminate the point in I, v, as well: not that she cruelly wishes to kill either her subjects or her children,19 but that she loves them as much as she loves herself ("my neck")—indeed almost as much as she loves Antony.

The constant concern for Antony in II, v, moreover, is foreshadowed in I, v, when Alexas enters with a message and is greeted by

How much unlike art thou Mark Antony! Yet coming from him, that great medicine hath With his tinct gilded thee.

(I, v, 35-37)

Not only are eunuchs and women unlike Antony (II, v, 4 ff.), so are all other men. She bluntly informs the Messenger that "Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me/ Thou wouldst appear most ugly" (II, v, 96-97), for he brings her news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. When he tells her of Octavia's faults (III, iii), however, she agrees with Charmian that he is "a proper man" (11. 37-38). Again, all Cleopatra's actions and reactions are motivated by her thoughts of Antony.

While the obvious mirth that results when Cleopatra ("No more but e'en a woman", IV, xv, 73) "hales him up and down" (SD ff. II, v, 64) also lessens her supposed cruelty, it hardly lessens the intensity of her loving concern for Antony. Cleopatra herself, in a more reasonable moment, realizes that "These hands do lack nobility, that they strike/ A meaner than myself (II, v, 82-83). The explanation for her actions is, of course, the donnée of drama, if not life, that "reason and love keep little company" (A Midsummer-Night's Dream, III, i, 147).20 This same emphasis may be seen in Antony's whipping of Thidias, the "most kind messenger" (III, xiii, 73) who kisses Cleopatra's hand, for here too the lover's jealous rage and the motivation for that rage overshadow the cruelty of the whipping. Although the whipping here is not applied by a woman, it is administered off-stage: "Take hence this Jack, and whip him" (III, xiii, 93). Cleopatra's gold (III, iii, 33), moreover, must mollify both messenger and spectator, by serving "to cure that blow of thine" (Cf. Richard III, IV, iv, 516). Antony's scene with Thidias hardly exists as "a separate incident", but derives and conveys part of its meaning from comparisons and contrasts with those of Cleopatra and her messengers. The chief similarity is the jealous and total love they feel for one another.21 A contrast is further seen between Antony's insistence upon truth (I, ii, 95; I, ii, 102 ff.) and Cleopatra's attempts to create her own truth by prodding the Messenger to tell her only what pleases her.22

Thidias himself has no more separate identity than Charmian, Octavia, Caesar, or the very scene in which he appears. Surely Charmian, Mardian, Alexas, and Iras are more comic types than believable people, and both Octavia and Octavius are as wooden in characterization as in character. Their roles in the artistic whole supersede any attempt at characterization. Although they have not been often noted, the most obvious and recurring contrasts are those made between Charmian and Cleopatra. Just as the coarse bawdry of the servants in Romeo and Juliet contrasts with both the sophisticated sexual wit of Mercutio and the intense, naive passion of the lovers,23 so do deliberate contrasts interact in Antony and Cleopatra. The urbane and bawdy wit of Enobarbus, the coarse and hilarious bawdry of Charmian and Iras, the sensual intensity of Antony and Cleopatra, and even the lack of all these in Octavia and Octavius comment dramatically upon one another. Charmian's own "worky-day fortune" (I, ii, 52), like that she asks for Iras (1. 51), parallels the "dull world" (IV, xv, 61) which Cleopatra abhors. The proximity of the parallel argues for artistry over accident. Charmian, like Caesar, would be Fortune's knave (V, ii, 2-3), while Cleopatra desires

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.

(V, ii, 5-8)

The "worky-day fortune" of Charmian and Iras reminds us also of the one Cleopatra later envisions in Rome, once Antony is dead, "And there is nothing left remarkable/ Beneath the visiting moon" (IV, xv, 67-68), and in which

. . . mechanic slaves With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers 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.

(V, ii, 208-212)

Charmian's asking to "be married to three kings in a forenoon, and widow them all" (I, ii, 25-27), along with her specific request "to marry me with Octavius Caesar" (11. 28-29) sharply contrasts the coarseness of both her prose and wishes with the poetry and actions of her mistress. Her exclaiming, "I love long life better than figs" (1. 32), moreover, differs from Cleopatra's wishes and actions concerning "long life" as well as "figs".24 Yet another contrast is dramatized between Charmian, who "shall be more beloving than belov'd" (1. 22) and the beloved Cleopatra.

Another important contrast offers itself when Charmian's feelings for Julius Caesar conflict with those of her Queen. When Cleopatra asks, "Did I, Charmian,/ Ever love Caesar so?" she receives a rhapsodic? "O that brave Caesar" and later "the valiant Caesar". Charmian persists, even after threats of receiving "bloody teeth" for daring to compare Caesar with her mistress's "man of men". It is Cleopatra, not Charmian, who speaks of her love for Caesar as a result of the "green" judgment and "cold" blood of her "salad days" (I, v. 66 ff.). Cleopatra, moreover, has already admonished Charmian by declaring it "treason" to say that she thinks of Antony "too much" (11. 6-7). The contrast between Charmian and Cleopatra here strongly resembles that between Juliet and the Nurse concerning Romeo and Paris:

Nurse. Faith, here it is. Romeo is banish'd; and all the world to nothing That he dares ne'er come back to challenge you; Or, if he do, it needs must be by stealth. Then, since the case so stands as now it doth, I think it best you married with the County. O, he's a lovely gentleman! Romeo's a dishclout to him. An eagle, madam, Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart, I think you are happy in this second match, For it excels your first; or if it did not Your first is dead; or 'twere as good he were As living here and you no use of him.

(III, v, 214-227)

Juliet cannot believe the all-too-reasonable "comfort" and "counsel" and asks, "Speak'st thou from thy heart?" Once the Nurse replies, "And from my soul too; else beshrew them both", Juliet's "Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much", assumes a meaning for the audience unlike that understood by the Nurse. The Nurse is no more heroic than Charmian (although no less reasonable than Octavius), and tragedies are not made of their stuff. But they do serve to direct the course of the audience's sympathy toward Juliet and Cleopatra. This surely is the kind of parallel that Coleridge had in mind when he proposed that Antony and Cleopatra "should be perused in mental contrast with Romeo and Juliet",25 with which it composed "Shake-speare's double portrait of Love".26

Charmian's very first giddy words with Alexas, moreover, immediately following the first scene with Antony and Cleopatra, distinctly differ from Cleopatra's toward Antony: "Lord Alexas, sweet Alexas, most any thing Alexas, almost most absolute Alexas" (I, ii, 1-2). Neither does Alexas' own comment that "if it lay in their hands to make me a cuckold, they would make themselves whores" (11. 73-74) provide mere filler for the scene. Again a contrast is asked for between Cleopatra and her servants. The Queen, once choosing Antony as her spiritual "Husband" (V, ii, 286), never considers cuckolding her dead husband by submitting to another man. Iras' choice of her "inch of fortune" somewhere other than her husband's nose (11. 55 ff.) lacks the poetry of Cleopatra's response to Antony:

I would I had thy inches, thou shouldst know There were a heart in Egypt.

(I, iii, 40-41)

The very tone of the verse glimpsed in the decorous "thou" and majestic "Egypt" stands in direct opposition to the coarse comedy of Iras. Cleopatra's reply, with the suggestiveness of poetic art, provokes at least several readings: "I would I were a man, for in a man's role, I could tell you of my love"; "I wish that I had thy inches in height, then I should be both taller and in command"; and "I desire thy inches in an erotic sense, for at that moment you'd know that the Queen of Egypt is a passionate woman who loves you."

But if the actions and reactions of the minor characters comment upon those of the protagonists, this does not suggest that Antony and Cleopatra have any more "separate identities" than their servants. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra have life only within the confines of the play itself (if so "spacious" a play may be termed "confined"). Whether or not they are either worthwhile or psychologically believable people outside the play is irrelevant. Indeed, even within the play itself we are asked to consider a number of views of the lovers.27

In addition to studies of Antony and Cleopatra as people, there are those in which the main characters are viewed as they adhere to Aristotelian concepts of "hero." That Renaissance commentaries on and translations of Aristotle abound is common knowledge to Renaissance scholars.28 That Shakespeare's protagonists are not bound by Aristotle's descriptive criticism of Greek Tragedy seems less well-known. Perhaps because "tragic heroes" are easier to discuss—Aristotle supplies us with such useful classroom-discussion words as anagnorisis, hamartia, and peripeteia—most approaches to The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra have been through its protagonists. Most of these pseudo-Aristotelian studies, however, assume that the play is "the story of Antony".29 Indeed, one critic suggests that "the play would have been better entitled The Decline and Fall of Antony".30 Although such a limited view of the play reveals little awareness of either theme or tone, let us not concern ourselves with titles, for they are, especially in Shakespearean drama, outside of the artistic whole.

As if to answer the male critic above, Lucie Simpson states that "the play, in fact, might have been called Cleopatra as appropriately as Hamlet is called Hamlet or Othello Othello".31 But Antony and Cleopatra, of course, is no more about Cleopatra than Hamlet is merely about Hamlet. While we are prone to deride earlier notions of the tragedies as character studies, we still hear Hamlet spoken of most often as the story of a man who procrastinates and Richard II as the story of a poet who could not be King. We still approach the plays in the classroom through such Aristotelian terms as hamartia. We know not what else to do with them.

Undoubtedly the strongest argument against such an emphasis on characterization, however, derives from Aristotle himself. While Aristotle does mention character as one of the six parts which compose every tragedy, he lists it second in importance. The parts he mentions, of course, are "plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and music".32 That character is not the exclusive concern of Tragedy, Aristotle makes clear:

The most important of these is the putting together of the separate actions, for tragedy is an imitation not of men but of actions and life. And happiness and unhappiness reside in action, and the end is some sort of action, not a quality, for according to their characters men are what they are, but according to their actions they are happy or the reverse. They do not, then, act in order to represent character, but in the course of their actions they show what their characters are; so in the actions and the plot is found the end of tragedy, and the end is more important than anything else. Besides, without action there can be no tragedy, but without characters there can be one. The tragedies of most recent writers are deficient in character, and in general the same thing is true of many poets.33

He quickly defines character as "that which reveals an agent's moral habit, showing of what sort it is",34 before proceeding to his discussion of "the arrangement of incidents", which, he reiterates, is "the first and most important matter in tragedy".35

This same emphasis on plot underlies Sidney's description of the poet, "with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you",36 and the ballad-making minstrel immediately comes to mind as predecessor and comrade of the poet. Indeed, the tale seems often to be the structural dulce by which the dramatist captures the spectator in order to show him the utile.

Unfortunately, however, Aristotle's descriptive comments on the nature of Greek tragic heroes have become more widely known than his comments on the relative importance of character:

With respect to the characters there are four things it is necessary to aim at. The first is that they be good. There will be character, as has been said, if speech or act clearly shows a moral choice indicating what sort of person an agent is; his character will be good if his choice is good. There is goodness in every type of person, for a woman is good and so is a slave, though one of these is perhaps inferior, the other paltry. The second necessity is that character be appropriate, for there is a manly character, but it is not fitting for a woman to have a masculine character or to be powerful.37 The third necessity is that character have resemblance.38 For this is something else than to make characters good and appropriate, as has been said above. The fourth necessity is that character be consistent. For if a character is not consistent because the man who is imitated was such a character, nevertheless it is necessary that he be consistently inconsistent.39

Even in introductory courses in Shakespeare, then, we are likely to hear such questions as: "Does Macbeth become so immersed in evil that he can no longer be a tragic hero?" "Does Othello satisfy Aristotle's demands for tragic stature?" "Does Hamlet achieve anagnorisis or does he remain an ignorant instrument of Providence?" "If he does not achieve this tragic recognition, is the tragedy deficient?" The questions are viewed as central to the play's meaning, and Aristotle's descriptions are seen as demands.

Aristotle himself would surely be aghast at the application of his criticism to Shakespeare's black-sheep tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. It is almost as if Shakespeare were maliciously attempting to foil those who would approach his play from a strictly Aristotelian point of view. The play is nominally and integrally about two people instead of one—and one of these is a woman. The two, moreover, indulge in what some Elizabethans and some twentieth-century scholars consider deadly sin, although "of the deadly seven it is the least" (Measure for Measure, III, i, 111). Perhaps because he was less aware of Medieval and Elizabethan background than some recent scholars, Shakespeare—or rather Antony and Cleopatra—does not categorically place his lovers (like Francesca and Paolo40) in the Inferno. The question of love's sinfulness is one of the questions of the play.41

While the Aristotelians have catalogued such references as "Egypt", "Venus", "Mars", and "Demi-Atlas of the world", too often to warrant another such list, we must not be led to believe that the play utilizes the terms only to demonstrate the tragic stature of its protagonists. The comparisons with Venus and Mars, for example, connote more about love than about "men of high reputation and good fortune, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and famous men of similar families".42 This is not to suggest that Antony and Cleopatra are common folk, but that their tragic stature depends less on earthly rank than on their symbolic43 implications. In Cleopatra's name as well as Antony's "lay/ A moiety of the world" (V, i, 18-19). The utilization of Aristotle's definition of hero to judge all Shakespearean protagonists, moreover, not only ignores the domestic dramatic tradition, Shakespeare's uniqueness as artist, and that of the play itself, but also mistakes descriptive criticism for prescriptive and goes on to place it above creative art.

One of the problems created by imposing Aristotelian criteria upon the play is the view that in spite of their earthly and metaphorical stature, Antony and Cleopatra are "conceived in essentially non-heroic terms", and "encased in a heroism of words which do not integrate with the action itself".44 This same critic even suggests that we inquire "whether the cosmic images in Antony and Cleopatra do not appear, at least to a certain extent, forced and imposed upon rather than integrated with the central theme".45 The critics who note the "inadequacy" of Antony and Cleopatra as Aristotelian tragic heroes also view them as having little rapport with the audience46—even that they are laughable.47 The problems are those of the critics, however. The audience is unaware of them. We have to remember only Macbeth, if not Antony and Cleopatra themselves, to realize that dramatic sympathy is something quite apart from life. Surely they, more than Macbeth, occupy "the mean between saintliness and depravity".48 In both Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, one point becomes clear: that with Shakespeare,49 as with Aristotle, plot came before character.

In Antony and Cleopatra this sympathy becomes not only more relevant than such concepts as tragic stature and hamartia, but more revealing. Whether the decisions of Antony and Cleopatra are complete "errors" is a question raised, but not decided, in the play. We as audience would hardly have them do otherwise. Indeed, the soothsayer (so consistently important in Elizabethan and Greek Tragedy) advises Antony to leave Octavius' side:

Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side: Thy demon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable, Where Caesar's is not. But near him, thy angel Becomes afeard; as being o'erpower'd, therefore Make space enough between you.

(II, iii, 17-22)

Almost without exception the play directs our sympathy toward Antony and Cleopatra and away from Octavius and his sister. Octavius himself, in a speech praising Antony after his death, is as aware as the Soothsayer and the audience that "we could not stall together,/ In the whole world" (V, i, 39-40).

Easily the most obvious way in which Shakespeare directs our sympathy in favor of the judgments of the lovers is through a dramatic50 contrast with Octavius Caesar. Caesar's judgments, nonetheless, are those some critics would have Antony and Cleopatra make in order to qualify them as suitable Aristotelian heroes. They are not those that we as audience and participants in the drama would have them make. If, for example, Octavius is unlike Antony in being immune to the charms of Cleopatra, so is Mardian (I, v, 9-12). And Mardian is a quite unheroic eunuch. Indeed, even in her carefully prepared scene with Seleucus, Cleopatra feels it necessary to suggest that her Treasurer is less than a man not to have remained adoringly loyal to her. "Wert thou a man", she chides him, "Thou wouldst have mercy on me" (V, ii, 173-174). When Caesar asks, "Which is the Queen of Egypt?" (V, ii, 111) we hardly think of his question as heroic. We must consider him either stupid and unfeeling not to recognize so rare a creature, or an insolent boy to be rude to Cleopatra so soon after Antony's death. When Cleopatra calls him "Sole sir o' the world" (1. 119), we can only chuckle at her conscious irony, for she has just told us she considers it "paltry to be Caesar" (1. 2). The contrast asked for in the text between this boyish "Sole sir" and her literally unique "Arabian bird" (III, ii, 12) needs no Richard Burbage51 to capture the sympathy of the audience. The contrast, moreover, becomes yet more ludicrous when we measure "the young Roman boy" (IV, xii, 48) with the dream proportions the Emperor Antony has now attained by which his legs bestride the ocean and his face is as the heavens (V, ii, 76-100).

Indeed, we sympathize more with the drunken Lepidus (II, vii, 4; II, vii, 90ff.) than we do with the abstemious Caesar. Lepidus' condition, by its extremity as it mirrors Antony's own, also serves to prevent our bringing "Antony . . . drunken forth" (V, ii, 217-218) with any humorously degrading connotations.52 Neither is Caesar's lack of participation in the festivities left to the staging. The text itself affirms it in Caesar's own words:

What would you more? Pompey, good-night. Good brother Let me request you off: our graver business Frowns on this levity. Gentle lords, let's part, You see we have burnt our cheeks. Strong Enobarb Is weaker than the wine, and mine own tongue Splits what it speaks: the wild disguise hath almost Antick'd us all. What needs more words?

(II, vii, 118-124)

In fact the wild disguise of wine has "antick'd" all but Caesar, and Antony, if foolish, is also sympathetically human. Caesar's refusal to continue drinking with the others demonstrates not the isolation of the tragic hero who needs must act his dismal scene alone (Cf. Romeo and Juliet, IV, iii, 19), but the unsympathetic non-participant who thinks that because he is "virtuous, there shall be no cakes and ale". Drink, moreover, like lechery, is a universally manly, social sin. Like love, it belongs to the particular realm of the soldier.53 Indeed, they are surely heroic sins, when compared to gluttony and sloth, for example. While Falstaff's lack of honor and love of anarchy, gluttony, and sloth may argue against him, the social nature of his drinking demands the sympathy of the audience. It is a tradition of both life and literature (which too seldom agree) that we sympathize not only with lovers,54 but also with "one that loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber in't" (Coriolanus, II, i, 52-53).

The contrast between the manner in which Antony and Caesar behave toward Lepidus also directs our sympathy toward Antony and away from Caesar. Because Antony

frets That Lepidus of the triumvirate Should be depos'd, and being, that we detain All his revenue,

(III, vi, 27-30)

he is dramatically contrasted not only with Caesar, who speaks these lines unapproving of his behavior, but also with his own actions after Enobarbus deserts him (IV, v). When Caesar invites only Antony "to my sister's view" (II, ii, 167), Antony generously remembers the third pillar of the world (weak though it be) and thoughtfully adds, "Let us, Lepidus,/ Not lack your company" (II, ii, 168-169). The effect of this generosity upon the audience is voiced by Lepidus himself, who replies to the "Noble Antony" (II, ii, 169). The deliberateness of the contrast is underscored by Antony's criticism of Lepidus in Julius Caesar:

This is a slight unmeritable man, Meet to be sent on errands; is it fit, The threefold world divided, he should stand One of the three to share it?

(IV, i, 12-15)

But these are the words of a young Antony—another play, "another Antony" (V, ii, 350).

At two specific points in the play, when we know for certain that what Caesar says is not true, our sympathy is directed toward Antony when it might well be elsewhere. Caesar says, for example,

Why have you stol'n upon us thus? You come not Like Caesar's sister: the wife of Antony Should have an army for an usher, and The neighs of horse to tell of her approach, Long ere she did appear. The trees by the way Should have borne men, and expectation fainted, Longing for what it had not. Nay, the dust Should have ascended to the roof of heaven, Rais'd by our populous troops: but you are come A market-maid to Rome, and have prevented The ostentation of our love; which, left un shown, Is often left unlov'd: we should have met you By sea, and land, supplying every stage With an augmented greeting.

(III, vi, 42-55)

Here we might easily sympathize with him in feeling that his sister is a "cast-away" (1. 40). But, we, like Octavia herself, know that he has no cause (1. 41) to do so. When she replies, "To come thus was I not constrain'd, but did it/ On my free will" (11. 56-57), our remembrance of Antony's parting words verifies her claim:

Provide your going, Choose your own company, and command what cost Your heart has mind to.

(III, iv, 36-38)

In addition to the contrast between Octavia's entrance and the Cleopatra-like one that Caesar dreams for his sister (in which expectation should have fainted "longing for what it had not"), the lengthy speech deliberately undercuts any wrong we might feel concerning Antony's unseen flight to Cleopatra. Another contrast between Octavia and Cleopatra presents itself in Octavia's arrival as a "market-maid to Rome," and Cleopatra's dying to avoid such an arrival there. The connotations of "market-maid" here are clearly pejorative, for Octavia lacks the self-awareness that accompanies Cleopatra's description of 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.

(IV, xv, 73-75)

We are also aware of the lack of truth in Caesar's statement to Lepidus:

You are too indulgent. 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: say this becomes him,— Whom these things cannot blemish. . . .

(I, iv, 16-23)

Although Caesar disbelieves it, we are to learn that Antony is "rare indeed". We note it in Agrippa's statement that "A rarer spirit never/ Did steer humanity" (V, i, 31-32). He is truly an "Arabian bird" (III, ii, 12). The audience, moreover, might easily respond, as Lepidus does that Antony's faults do indeed "become" more than they "blemish" him:

I must not think there are Evils enow to darken all his goodness:

His faults, in him, seem as the spots of heaven, More fiery by night's blackness.

(I, iv, 10-13)

More important, we realize that Caesar is wrong again. It is not in the sweaty streets at noon that Antony reels, but at night and alone with his love. There is no tippling slave. We have already heard Antony specifically say to Cleopatra, "And all alone/ Tonight we'll wander through the streets, and note/ The qualities of people" (I, i, 52-54). The differences noted here are hardly trivial. Antony speaks of wandering Arabian-night-fashion in the evening more like "A little touch of Harry in the night" (Henry V, prologue, IV, 47) than the indecorous mixing with Bardolph or a tippling slave. It is no accident that the persona in Vaughan's famous poem saw Eternity "the other night",55 rather than in the realistic, sweaty day. Night is the time for lovers as well as mystics. The fact that he and Cleopatra are going to "note/ The qualities of people" surely excludes any mingling with slaves. It is in North's Plutarch, not in Shakespeare's play, that Antony wanders "disguised like a slave" (accompanied by Cleopatra "in a chambermaid's array") peering into poor men's windows.56 Shakespeare's Cleopatra, moreover, far more than Caesar, makes clear her disgust with both sweat and slaves, when she says,

Mechanic slaves With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers 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.

(V, ii, 208-212)

Both Antony and Cleopatra are also compared and contrasted with the eunuch Mardian. With Antony and Cleopatra as well as with Mardian, these dramatic comparisons supersede any deep, psychological probing—indeed, they form the very characterizations in question.57 So exclusively concerned is the play with Mardian's lack of sex that at one point he is called "Photinus, an eunuch" (III, vii, 14).58 His role's the thing. The contrast of Antony (and indirectly of Cleopatra) with Mardian begins before their very first entrance on stage. The contrast is dramatic, as we hear Philo say that "Antony is become the bellows and the fan/ To cool a gypsy's lust" (I, i, 9-10), and then see what follows in the original stage direction that continues the scene:

Flourish. Enter ANTONY, CLEOPATRA, her Ladies, the Train,With Eunuchs fanning her.

Surely with so conscious a craftsman as Shakespeare, the textual and palpable fan offers no accidental comparison. While it may at first seem strange to compare the virile Antony with a eunuch, it is a paradox of life and literature that that which most easily proves a man "masculine" may most easily subdue and unsex him. It is a paradox that the play dramatically presents more than once in the play.59 More often, however, Mardian the eunuch (and the word is repeatedly used in the play, even as an epithet, e.g., I, v, 7) by contrast directs our attention to the physical attractiveness of Antony (I, v, 7-18; II, v, 3-9).

Enobarbus, as reasonable as Mardian and Caesar, but wittier and more feeling, also directs dramatic sympathy toward Antony. Although he has choric functions, Enobarbus is also a character. This is one of the differences in "balance" that Kitto speaks of between Elizabethan drama and Greek Tragedy. Aristotle himself advises the combination: "The chorus should be treated as one of the actors, should be an integral part of the whole, and should participate in the action. . . ."60 What Enobarbus says and when he says it are more dramatically significant than whether or not his speeches are either consistent or psychologically believable. He speaks almost omnisciently when he tells us that "men's judgements are/ A parcel of their fortunes" (III, xiii, 31-32). Neither is he "in character" in his ironic condemnation of his later actions when he describes his present ones:

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' the story.

(III, xiii, 43-46)

Yet he is also a character to be himself judged by the audience (with the assistance of his own choric tongue) as "alone the villain of the earth,/ And feel I am so most" (IV, vi, 30-31). That Enobarbus here serves as a contrast to direct the audience's sympathy toward Antony is made clear by his following line:

O Antony, Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid My better service, when my turpitude Thou dost so crown with gold?

(IV, vi, 31-34)

Enobarbus as character remains completely unaware, when he says, "No, I will go seek/ Some ditch wherein to die: the foul'st best fits/ My latter part of life" (IV, vi, 37-39), that he provides a dramatic contrast in this ditch with that which Cleopatra will, later propose:

Shall they hoist me up, And show me to the shouting varletry Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt Ben gentle grave unto me, rather on Nilus' mud

Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies Blow me into abhorring; rather make My country's high pyramides my gibbet, And hang me up in chains.

(V, ii, 55-62)

Cleopatra's choice is a ditch to an ignoble life, while Enobarbus' ditch is a punishment for an ignoble choice. This ignominy, then, contrasts with the nobility (V, ii, 284) and majesty (V, ii, 279) of Cleopatra's death, and the contrast dramatically and deliberately comments on the play's themes.

While Enobarbus' reasonable nature may at times cause him to be as sympathetic as Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophies. Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes some of these "things". It is this very lack of the foolhardy and foolish in both Enobarbus and Horatio that prevents them from attaining the stature of a Hamlet, a Prometheus, an Antony, or a Cleopatra. While the reasonable man becomes Fortune's knave (V, ii, 3), Prometheus steals from the very gods, and Antony and Cleopatra "do that thing that ends all other deeds,/ Which shackles accidents and bolts up change . . ." (V, ii, 5-6). Whether or not the tragic hero succeeds in defying order, or the gods, or Fortune, matters little. Perhaps it is "impossible". But tragic heroes are those who make the attempt, regardless. The reasonableness of the cynical Enobarbus, who must be reprimanded for his "light answers" (I, ii, 174), becomes relevant in the evaluation of his comments. It is his reason and cynicism that heightens the attraction of Cleopatra, for despite his joking of Cleopatra's "business" (I, ii, 171) and bawdy punning on women's dying, he delivers both the famous barge speech (II, ii, 191 ff.) and the equally famous one that soon follows:

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, 235-240)

Shakespeare, not Plutarch, assigns the speeches to Enobarbus. Neither would Enobarbus wish that Antony "had never seen her" (I, ii, 150), for he "had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blest withal, would have discredited [his] travel" (I, ii, 151-153). That Enobarbus here speaks in prose hardly undercuts the poetic force of the feeling with which the values of the play ultimately agree. The audience would no more have Antony banish this "wonderful piece"61 than it would have Hal "banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" (I Henry IV, II, iv, 526-527). Falstaff and what he represents are as important for Hal to experience in his growth to Henry V as Cleopatra and what she represents are to Antony's growth to dream proportions (V, ii, 74 ff). Cleopatra, moreover, unlike Falstaff, who is necessarily discarded, herself grows to dream proportions (V, ii, 288-289; V, ii, 344-346).

That even this utterly reasonable man feels Cleopatra's attractions not only emphasizes her fascination, but also serves to underscore the unsympathetic, almost unnatural restraint of Mardian and Octavius. They alone are immune to her. The point is not that Octavius is a eunuch, but that in terms of the values of the play he is unsympathetically, excessively reasonable. Thus while Lily B. Campbell's famous study admirably sets forth the thesis that Shakespeare's tragic heroes are slaves of passion,62 no study of either the comedies or the tragedies has delved deeply into the problem of excess of reason. Yet the excess of reason pervades both. We may note it, for example, in Lear's diabolical daughters, whom he must admonish to "reason not the need" (II, iv, 267), but rather to respond to natural, human feelings. Perhaps the most fully developed example of extreme reason without feeling is the unnatural Angelo, who, the Duke tells us, "scarce confesses/ That his blood flows, or that his appetite/ Is more to bread than stone . . ." (Measure for Measure, I, iii, 51-53). So unnatural is the extremity of his reason that Lucio even suggests "this Angelo was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation (III, ii, 111-112), but "was begot between two stockfishes" (III, ii, 116). So inhuman is he that he is spoken of as "a man who blood/ Is very snow-broth" (I, iv, 57-58) and one, who "when he makes water his urine is congealed ice" (III, ii, 117-118). Extreme reasonableness in a lover, of course, belongs only to the comedies—and even there only to the rejected one.63 Shakespeare's satire of those who recognize only man's angelic reason without acknowledging his animal appetites is also seen in such characters as Malvolio and Jacques. The attitude of the audience toward the unsociable pair is well reflected in their devastatingly comic names.64 If Jacques is last seen going to the "abandon'd cave" (As You Like It, V, iv, 202) and Malvolio is "notoriously abused (Twelfth Night, V, i, 388) and promising revenge (V, i, 386), Angelo joins the final festivities of the comedy only because of Marianna's feelings for him, not because of his own reason. Only "by her election may be truly read/ What kind of man he is". While the line is from Cymbeline, the idea that "all he needs is a nice girl" is one central to the comic view. It is equally true in literary and theatrical tradition that sympathy resides with lovers65 (whether or not Cleopatra is a "nice girl" matters not). While physical love may be less reasonable than angelic reason, it is an heroic fault, and if the "gods will give us/ Some faults to make us men" (Antony and Cleopatra, V, i, 32-33), what more heroic and universally sympathetic fault could they select?

Indeed, we might argue that sympathy is least with Antony when his reason proves him unfeeling toward Cleopatra. We hardly sympathize with his speaking of his hours with her as "poisoned" (II, ii, 90) or of the Queen herself as "a boggier ever" (III, xiii, 110), a "foul Egyptian" (IV, xii, 10), or a "Triple-turned whore" (IV, xii, 13). Regardless of our willingly suspended personal judgments concerning Cleopatra, Antony's words here, like Cleopatra's actions earlier, "lack nobility" (II, v, 82). We surely admire the pair most when they are suffering at the bottom of Fortune's wheel. We are well aware that Jupiter's statement; "Whom best I love I cross" (Cymbeline, V, iv, 101), is as relevant to Antony and Cleopatra as it is to Prometheus and Oedipus. It is a concept central to Tragedy that "Nothing almost sees miracles/ But misery" (King Lear, II, iii, 172-173).

If Enobarbus, Mardian, and Caesar direct sympathy chiefly toward Antony, Octavia directs our sympathy chiefly toward Cleopatra. If Octavia is wronged, and surely she is, that is only half the story. That she is "of a holy, cold, and still conversation" (II, vi, 119-120), we have Enobarbus' word. The play makes clear from the beginning of her forced marriage that it is no love match; Antony married "but his occasion here" (II, vi, 128-129). While Cleopatra's "something it is I would" (I, iii, 89) implies the intensity of her emotion, Octavia sounds somewhat silly in her analogous inability to communicate:

Oct. Sir, look well to my husband's house; and—

Caes. What, Octavia?

Oct. I'll tell you in your ear.

Ant. Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can Her heart inform her tongue—the swan's down feather, That stands upon the swell at the full of tide, And neither way inclines.

(III, ii, 45-50)

By inclining neither way, like one of Dante's trimmers,66 this "swan's down feather" surrenders the dramatic sympathy that a Desdemona, for example, gains by replying to her father that while she recognizes "a divided duty" (Othello, I, iii, 180), yet

here's my husband; And so much duty as my mother show'd To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor, my lord.

(11. 185-189)

Even the comic Hermia defies the command of both her father and Theseus in order to wed Demetrius (A Midsummer-Night's Dream, I, i). She gives her father the same forceful reason in the precedent set by her mother and wins the approval of the audience. Ultimately, the play shows her choice to be "the right one" (Elizabethan attitudes toward arranged marriages notwithstanding).

We should, nonetheless, agree with John Holloway's assertion that

A marriage to cement an alliance need have nothing cynical, shameful, or dishonourable about it;67 and the play gives no reason whatever to suppose that the "helpless sister Octavia" either was helpless in respect of her devoted brother (Shakespeare seems to follow Plutarch here), or would have wished to help herself in any way other than by furthering his wishes. Attitudes like this may have become obsolete, but they are neither incomprehensible nor unattractive.68

Later, however, when speaking of Plutarch's account of Octavia as "the most fortunate woman on earth . . . wife and sister of the two great commanders", Holloway adds, "These attitudes are nearer to Shakespeare's by far than those of today."69 This is the danger of background studies. Shakespeare's personal attitude is both unknown and irrelevant. Regardless of The Elizabethan Attitude toward arranged marriages, we have already noted the sympathetic treatment of Hermia's and Desdemona's refusal to adhere to them. The audience's sympathy is as clearly with Cleopatra as it is with Juliet. Octavia and Paris have little of this sympathy. We rarely even see Octavia and she has no spokesman, as Cordelia does, in Kent or the Fool. When we do see Octavia, we hear little that proves any profound love for Antony (see, for example, II, iii, 1-9). In Dryden's play, she meets Cleopatra. In Shakespeare's she is not even comparable. When Cleopatra's messenger leads her to believe what she wants to believe of Octavia (that she is "dull of tongue, and dwarfish", III, iii, 16), we laugh with Cleopatra and at Octavia. When Cleopatra in the final scene of the play speaks of "dull Octavia", we must agree with her. In spite of her infrequent presence on stage, Octavia is surely one of those women who "cloy/ The appetites they feed . . ." (II, ii, 236-237). And a lack of sympathy for her causes us to muse that despite the brevity of her role in the play, "None ever wished it longer than it is."70

Cleopatra's ability to "make hungry,/ Where most she feeds" (II, iii, 237-238), on the other hand, represents the audience's attitude as well as Antony's. This is still true at the play's end. Even on Antony's deathbed, she pleases both him and the audience by her playfulness. Some seem to prefer the whining of an Octavia, and complain of Cleopatra's selfish cruelty71 when she asks,

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?

(IV, xv, 59-62)

Yet within the context of the scene, her speech is as playful as that in which she says, "Here's sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord!" (IV, xv, 32). The loving (rather than cruel) nature of her playfulness becomes apparent when we note that her purpose is to save Antony his breath (11. 42-43), and when we contrast it with the intense sorrow with which she breaks forth once he is dead (11. 64 ff). We care not for the "dull Octavia", who is undoubtedly a part of the "dull world" of which Cleopatra speaks. The playfulness adds pathos rather than cruelty to the scene, just as the punning of Mercurio (III, i, 100-102) and Gaunt (Richard II, II, i, 82) increases the pathos of their death scenes. Would we instead, with the cruelty of Richard II, ask, "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?" (II, i, 84).

Cleopatra, moreover, pictures Antony as the "noblest" of men, just as she does in her discussion of Julius Caesar with Charmian (I, v, 66 ff). Octavia, on the other hand, divides her love between Antony and Octavius:

A more unhappy lady, If this division chance, ne'er stood between, Praying for both parts: The good gods will mock me presently, When I shall pray, "O, bless my lord, and husband!" Undo that prayer, by crying out as loud, "O, bless my brother!" Husband win, win brother, Prays, and destroys the prayer, no midway 'Twixt these extremes at all.

(III, iv, 12-20)

To be certain that this "love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds" (Sonnet 116), we have only to remember Juliet's contrasting words after Romeo has killed Tybalt (III, ii). Juliet can divide her love no more than Cleopatra. While, out of the context of the play, one could easily argue for the selfish and cruel Cleopatra as opposed to the loyal Octavia of the golden mean, the tone and context argue otherwise. The extent of the deliberate direction of our sympathy toward Cleopatra is reflected not only by such omissions as Octavia's pregnancy in Plutarch,72 but also such additions as Cleopatra's erroneous forecast that in Fulvia's death she sees how hers will be received (I, iii, 65-65). When Antony hears Mardian report Cleopatra's death, he does indeed echo the very words he speaks when he hears of Fulvia's death (Cf. I, ii, 154-157 and IV, xiv, 34).73 But the word's and actions that follow Antony's speech contrast his deeper love for Cleopatra with that he feels for either Octavia or Fulvia. We are shown little, if any, of these "loves".

In Shakespeare's play this dramatic sympathy and tone are of more relevance than character-probing or hamartia. Indeed, the comic tone created by the foolishness of the protagonists, by which some would deny them tragic stature,74 strongly contributes to their heroism. In addition to directing our sympathy toward them by making them more human, their foolishness is often foolhardy and daring. Like Coriolanus' entering the city "alone/ To answer all the city" (I, iv, 51-52), Antony dares Caesar to single combat "sword against sword,/ Ourselves alone" (III, xiii, 27-28). Caesar prudently and unheroically refuses (IV, i, 4-6). Again when Antony and Cleopatra foolishly agree to fight by sea (III, vii, 27-28), when even a common soldier realizes the necessity to fight by land (III, vii, 60 ff), we feel a sense of heroism in their foolish defiance. Even when Antony's daring extends to raging, "I would they'ld fight i' the fire, or i' the air,/ We'ld fight there too" (IV, x, 3-4), we feel we have witnessed the bravado of a Hotspur in his excess of passion. Neither raging madness, dotage, nor foolishness, moreover, can categorically deny Antony and Cleopatra their tragic stature. All three elements are present in another who is both a tragic hero and "every inch a king". Perhaps it is an awareness of this foolishness as an essential ingredient of tragic heroes from Prometheus to Antony that has led many to translate hamartia as "error in judgment" rather than "tragic flaw". Cleopatra foolishly jabbers with Mardian. She argues with Charmian. She talks of Antony and catching fish. She even beats a messenger. But her foolish lack of reason dramatizes her complete love of Antony, even after his death. Would we have her give way to Antony in all things, and reasonably cross him in nothing (I, iii, 9)? If so, she might well respond to us, as to her serving maid, "Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him" (1. 10). Charmian's advice is Octavia's way. Even on her own deathbed, Cleopatra foolishly becomes jealous that Antony will make demand of Charmian, "and spend that kiss/ Which is my heaven to have" (V, ii, 301-302). But her jealousy proves her love.75 Cleopatra's supposed selfishness here, like Antony's clumsy death earlier, have been pointed to as undercutting their stature. But in the context of the play, their foolishness gains our sympathy and reflects their love. Their most flagrant foolishness, moreover, their defiance of Fortune, demonstrates that the foolishness itself heightens their stature.

Rather than studies of tragic stature or hamartia or psychological reality, then, studies of the characterizations of Antony and Cleopatra should include a summation of what we see and hear them do and say in the light of comparable and contrasting actions. This interaction forms their dramatic characterizations.76 When Austin Wright, then, proposes that "the main theme" of Antony and Cleopatra is not probing into the character of either Antony or Cleopatra, but into "the clash between Antony and Octavius",77 he does note at least one of the interactions of the play. When Lord David Cecil, however, adds that "the love story is seen always in its relation to the rivalry between Octavius and Antony",78 we note (as in Wright's terming this relation "the main theme") that the emphasis of the play is shifted from the lovers to Antony and Octavius. No one in the audience ever shifts the focus of the play from Antony and Cleopatra. The shift comes only from "study". Both Octavius' and Octavia's love for Antony depend on Antony's love for Cleopatra. The very use of such love terms as Caesar's speaking of Antony as "my mate in empire" (V, i, 43), moreover, when multiplied in the play,79 demonstrates that the emphasis is not on Antony and Octavius, indeed not on Antony and Cleopatra as people, but on love. The danger of the view that "the central theme of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra"80 is the extension that the focus of the play is on "the purely personal relations of the lovers"81 and lacks "the public nature" of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus.82Antony and Cleopatra, like The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Timon of Athens (rather than the so-called Roman Plays with which it is consistently grouped), is more symbolic than either personal or public.

While Hazelton Spencer has argued that "Antony and Cleopatra are too well-known to be ideal tragic figures: they resist the symbolizing tendency of all serious and poetic drama",83 other critics have equated Cleopatra, for example, with Isis,84 Ceres,85 Lilith,86 "Eve and the serpent in one",87 Omphale,88 Venus,89 "everlasting woman",90 or Antony's "absolute", "his heart's desire made perfect".91 The difficulty comes in the equation. Antony is no more Mars, Adam, or Hercules, than Cleopatra is Venus, Eve, or Omphale. But the comparisons are made in the play. We can speak more precisely of the "allegorical bent"92 of Antony and Cleopatra than speak of it as an allegory.

The most common failing in the approach to the play, however, has not been the exclusion of the personal level of the lovers, but the exclusion of all else. Dr. Johnson, for example, viewing the play from the literal plot alone, objects to its lack of characterization:

Except the feminine arts, some of which are too low, which distinguish Cleopatra, no character is very strongly discriminated. Upton, who did not easily miss what he desired to find, has discovered that the language of Antony is, with great skill and learning, made pompous and superb, according to his real practice. But I think his diction not distinguishable from that of others: the most tumid speech of the play is that which Caesar makes to Octavia.93

Rather than a failing in characterization, the lack of distinguishable diction and any real soliloquies94 demonstrates instead Shakespeare's symbolic method in the play. This it not to say that the servants and protagonists speak the same language, which Kitto points to as a characteristic of Greek Tragedy.95 While we do not focus exclusively on the universal aspects of the characters of Antony, Cleopatra, or Antigone, for example, we do note a difference in the "balance" Kitto mentions. We are concerned as reader or spectator with Antony and Cleopatra both as lovers and as symbols. That Antony and Cleopatra are historical figures, gives dramatic substance to the symbolic story presented. The combination is significant:

It is not that the Greek tragic poets were too high-minded "corruptly to gratify the people"; the satyric play did nothing else than to serve this reprehensible purpose. But if we go back to the fundamental difference between the Greek and the Elizabethan drama we find a very natural explanation. We argued that a background of ordinary life is an essential part of Elizabethan drama; that it is one of the means by which the central action is given solidity and reality. . . . Since introduction of the comic and the low—Eastcheap, gravediggers, jesters—helps us to feel that the play is "true to life," for here is the tragic action, surrounded by life.96

The individual natures of Antony and Cleopatra, then, participate in and comment on the symbolic nature of the play of which they are a part. But the characters themselves are both individual and symbolic. The individuality is attested to by their historical basis and their unique excellence: Cleopatra as "A lass unparallel'd" (V, ii, 315) and Antony as the "Arabian bird" (III, ii, 12) or phoenix. Neither does this individuality exclude their symbolic or universal nature. Cleopatra is both that Queen of Egypt unlike all other women who cloy the appetites they feed, and "No more but e'en a woman, and commanded/ By such passion as the maid that milks,/ And does the meanest chares" (IV, xv, 73-75). Antony is both the greatest soldier in the world and "the abstract of all faults/ That all men follow" (I, iv, 9-10). And they are more. Only the play can contain their infinite variety. No study should even presume to do so.

The most common fault of character studies of Antony and Cleopatra, however, has not been to attempt too much, but to exclude either their individual or symbolic nature. Those who insist on interpreting all Shakespeare's tragic protagonists as psychologically believable characters might well object to the insincerity or hypocrisy of either Othello's oft-quoted blank verse assertion that "Rude am I in my speech,/ And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace . . ." (I, iii, 81-82) or Henry V's felicitously phrased prose apologies to Katharine for being similarly awkward (V, ii). The different dramatic effect of the speeches is attested to by the tone of the passages and the reaction of the audience. Few in the audience worry about either consistency or consistent inconsistency. When an idea is to be introduced into a play, one of the characters on stage does so. It may or may not be "in character". Antony as character, for example, may have no idea that "These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,/ Or lose myself in dotage" (I, ii, 113-114), but we as audience must be introduced to and prepared for this idea at this time. Antony, likewise no more knows at the time that "though I make this marriage for my peace,/ I' the east my pleasure lies" (II, iii, 38-39) than Hal at another moment knows

you all, and will a while uphold The unyok'd humour of your idleness. Yet herein will I imitate the sun, Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world, That when he please again to be himself Being wanted, he may be more wond'red at By breaking through the foul and ugly mists Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

(I Henry IV, I, ii, 218-226)

Indeed, in character, Hal might well be charged with a prideful, if not bombastic, self-comparison with the sun. While it is not contradictory to believe Cleopatra as character is aware both that she is "with Phoebus' amorous pinches black,/ And wrinkled deep in time" (I, v, 28-29) and that the Messenger who has seen her "hath seen some majesty" (III, iii, 41), it is more an awareness of the play than a self-awareness that she demonstrates when she says

Be it known, that we, the greatest, are misthought For things that others do; and when we fall, We answer others' merits in our name, And therefore to be pitied.

(V, ii, 175-178)

Antony's sudden reversals of love and hate of Cleopatra are no more to be questioned as to consistency of character than Aufidius' sudden "My rage is gone" (Coriolanus, V, vi, 148), which follows his equally sudden aside against Corialanus (V, ii, 200-202). We are not asked whether or not they are consistent: our judgments are willingly suspended and we are shown.

Commenting on those who would view Cleopatra purely as a believable character study, S. L. Bethell exclaims, "No wonder Cleopatra's character worries the psychologist; it is not so much a character as an extended metaphysical conceit."97 He says that for this reason in his "treatment of the 'character' of Cleopatra . . . I tried to show that we were not so much concerned with psychology, as with the concrete poetic description of a complex interpretation of experience". But in his treatment, unfortunately, Bethell seems to discard his "not so much" and the individuality of the lovers to proclaim that "Octavius Caesar stands for the Roman qualities as Cleopatra does for the Egyptian", and that "Octavia is the translation of Rome into woman".98 But Cleopatra also "stands for" the historical Queen of the Nile, just as Octavia also "is" the second wife of Antony and the sister to Octavius. Much like Isabella in Measure for Measure, they function as both character and symbol. An exclusion of either level renders any study deficient. Isabella is surely "out of character" when as a kind of allegorical mercy she can say (without fear of egotism), "You do blaspheme the good in mocking me" (I, iv, 38). But she is hardly inconsistent when as character (and but a human reflection of the qualities she symbolizes), she exclaims, "O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!" (IV, iii, 124) or unmercifully cries out for "justice, justice, justice, justice" (V, i, 25). In much the same way Falstaff is both "the reverend vice" (I Henry IV, II, iv, 499) and Hal's companion, and the Fool in Lear is both jester and "Lear's shadow" (I, iv, 251). So then Antony is Phoenix, Adam, and Cleopatra's "man of men", just as she is both the only woman who cloys not Antony and "no more but e'en a woman". The two, then, function as both character and symbol. Neither symbol nor character, however, exists except as a part of the unified play. The dancers are but a part of the dance.


1 See, for example, Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays and A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy and Oxford Lectures. . . . Also see Leo Kirschbaum, Character and Characterization in Shakespeare (Detroit, Michigan, Wayne State University Press, 1962), and Frank Harris, The Women of Shakespeare (London, Methuen and Co., 1911).

2 Theodore Spencer, "Preface" in William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948), p. vii.

Cf. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 125: Shakespeare "carefully . . . avoids writing any scene in which a boy could not act without unpleasantness or in fear of ridicule".

Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, "Egyptian Enchantress" in William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (New York, Washington Square Press, 1961), p. xiii: "Metaphor and suggestion take the place of visual love-making which would have been distasteful."

3 Arthur Symons, Studies in the Elizabethan Drama (New York, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1919), p. 1.

Cf. Austin Wright, p. 45: "But Shakespeare feels Cleopatra's fascination, and one guesses that he was drawn to her against his will just as Antony was—and just as the poet had been to the heartless heroine of the sonnets."

Ivor Brown, Shakespeare (Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1949), p. 185: "The Dark Lady may or may not have been dead. But something snapped. The ecstasy and the agony were over."

Georg Brandes, William Shakespeare. A Critical Study, trans. William Archer and Mary Morison (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1899), p. 462: "Who knows! If he himself, William Shakespeare had met her, who knows if he would have escaped with his life?"

Neilson and Hill, p. 1245: "It could hardly have been insight alone. . . . If the richer music of Antony and Cleopatra does not invite recollection of the Sonnets, the amorous theme does, and it is conceivable that through his enigmatic Dark Lady, Shakespeare was assisted in imagining what Antony's Cleopatra was like."

See also Frank Harris, pp. 196-216 in which the "original" of Cleopatra is seen as Mary Fitton!

4 Kirschbaum, p. 99.

5 Schücking, p. 121.

6 See discussion, Chapter IV.

7 H. H. Furness, "Preface" to William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Anthonie, and Cleopatra (Variorum Edition) (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, J. B. Lippincott, 1907), p. xi.

8 Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, 63 (Temple Classics Bilingual Edition) (London, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1962).

9 H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of "Hamlet" (New York, Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 209.

10Ibid., p. 223.

11 That Antonio is not a "psychologically real" character is clear from the first lines of the play, in which he obviously speaks "out of character";

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn: And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself.

(Merchant of Venice, I, i, 1-7)

12 See discussion, Chapter I, footnote 48, p. 19 above.

13 See, for example, John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (Lincoln, Nebraska, University Press, 1961), pp. 113-114: "Antony confirms his status as a gigantic outlaw among mankind by his treatment of Thyreus [or Thidias]. The ill-treatment of a messenger is as much a conventionalized act of decisive self-condemnation as Lear's division of the kingdom. . . . Cleopatra's ill-treatment of the messenger bringing news of Antony's marriage is plainly part of the same carefully-pointed sequence of events."

14 See Joseph Stull, "Cleopatra's Magnanimity: the Dismissal of the Messenger", Shakespeare Quarterly, VII (Winter, 1956), 73-78.

15 Holloway, p. 113.

16 Dr. Johnson, cited in the note to this line in The Variorium Edition of the play.

17 D. A. Traversi, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (London, Hollis and Carter, 1963), p. 106.

18 See discussion, Chapter V.

19 G. B. Harrison, for example, in Shakespeare's Tragedies speaks of Cleopatra's supposedly "weak maternal feelings" (p. 224).

20 See discussion of excess of reason below.

21 See discussion of love and jealousy, Chapter IV.

22 See Bryant for a discussion of the truth of nature versus the Truth of art as a theme in the play.

23 See, for example, Mercutio's wit in I, iv, and II, iv. Contrast this physical stress with the idealized and religious language of the young lovers (e.g., I, v) and the coarseness of the language of the servants in I, i, and that of Peter and the Nurse in II, iv.

24 See "fig" in Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and A Comprehensive Glossary (New York, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1960), p. 112. Even Partridge's "comprehensive glossary", however, fails to include the example here or in the basket in which Cleopatra finds her asps.

25 Coleridge, I, 86.

26Ibid., II, 319.

27 Cf. William Rosen, Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 105: "The most important reason why Antony and Cleopatra has been interpreted in so many ways is that we, as audience, are constantly forced to change our point of view."

See discussion "question structure", Chapter V.

28 See Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago, University Press, 1961). 2 Volumes. Four chapters (IX-XII) are devoted to the influence of Aristotle's Poetics alone.

29 Hardin Craig, An Interpretation of Shakespeare, p. 268.

Cf. Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier. The World of his Final Tragedies (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950), p. 175: "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, Poets on Fortune's Hill Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher (London, Faber and Faber, 1952), p. 146: "For the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is, above all, the tragedy of Antony."

See discussion of Structure, Chapter V.

30 Lord David Cecil, p. 21.

31 Lucie Simpson, "Shakespeare's 'Cleopatra'", Fortnightly Review, CXXIX (March, 1928), 332.

32 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism, p. 77.


34Ibid., p. 79.

35 Sir Philip Sidney, "The Defense of Poesie", in Literary Criticism, p. 427.

36 See discussion of Cleopatra's "masculinity" and Antony's supposed "effeminacy", Chapter IV.

37Ibid., p. 78.

38 Resemblance to what, Aristotle does not explain. Gilbert in his note to the line suggests "mythic prototypes" as one possibility. Indeed, the reading is lent authority by what Aristotle says later in the Poetics of metaphor: "this alone cannot be learned from others and its use is a sign of genius, for to use metaphors well is to see resemblance" (p. 103).

39 Aristotle, pp. 89-90.

40 Dante, Inferno, V, 73 ff.

41 See Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy. The Interplay of Theme and Character (New York, Columbia University Press, 1956), p. 159: "It is interesting that Shakespeare seems to have anticipated the problem of sexual infatuation as a tragic theme by actually posing the question as a theme in the play."

Cf. discussion of "question structure", Chapter V.

42 Aristotle, p. 86.

43 See discussion below.

44 Nicoli, p. 152.

45 Rosen, p. 133: "A. C. Bradley and Arthur Sewell are dissatisfied with him [Antony] because little rapport exists between protagonist and audience."

46 Maynard Mack's preface to his edition of Antony and Cleopatra (Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin Books, 1960), p. 15.


48 Aristotle, p. 86. See also p. 86n.

49 Cf. E. E. Stoll, "Cleopatra", Modern Language Review, XXIII (1928), 151: "Plot came first with the poet [Shakespeare], not, as the critics often say and continually imply, the central character. The action gave birth to the character, not the character to the action."

50 The word "dramatic" as used in this study means that which we see and hear on the stage as it interacts with the rest of the play.

51 Although there is no actor list or direct knowledge of the first performances recorded in any contemporary diary, it is more than probable that Richard Burbage played the role of Antony. The DNB gives Burbage's dates as 1567?-1619 so that he would have been alive and about the right age for the part. It is well-known that he "had all the best parts" (as the DNB states). Burbage is also assigned the role in Thomas Whitfield Baldwin, The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company (Princeton, University Press, 1927).

52 Lepidus, then, absorbs by his extremities the pejorative aspects of Antony's condition, much as Edgar's assumed and fantastical madness accomplishes the same dramatic purpose in Lear's mad scenes.

53 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Rev. A. R. Shilleto (London, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1903-1916), III, 40. While Burton in his anatomy of the lover's melancholy mentions the soldierly virtue of love, the association of the soldier with "love" is still a common one.

54 Francis Bacon, "Of Love" in Works, ed. James Spedding et al. (London, Longmans and Co., 1870-72), VI, 397, observes that "the stage is more beholding to Love, than the life of man". Plato in The Symposium, trans. B. Jowett (Boston, International Pocket Library, [n.d.]), however, mentions the "encouragement which all the world give to the lover" (p. 41). He even speaks of "the entire liberty which gods and men allow the lover . . ." (p. 42).

55 Henry Vaughan, "The World" in Works, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1914), 1. 1. Cf. Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet is both a "bright angel" (II, ii, 26) and "the sun" (II, ii, 4). But love is its own light and abhors the day (III, v, 1-41).

56 Plutarch, "The Life of Marcus Antonius", trans. Sir Thomas North from Amyot's French and ed. by C. F. Tucker Brooke in Shakespeare's Plutarch (New York, Duffield and Company, 1909), II, 44.

57 Cf. Aristotle, p. 77: "They do not, then, act in order to represent character, but in the course of their actions they show what their characters are . . .".

58 See also III, vii, 14n. Note in addition that Shakespeare often designates profession or role (e.g., clown, constable, mother), rather than name.

59 See for example, Antony's "She has robb'd me of my sword" (IV, xv, 23) immediately after Mardian enters.

60 Aristotle, p. 97.

61 See "piece" in Partridge's glossary. The word could mean more than simply "masterpiece". Cf., for example, Titus Andronicus, I, iii, 309.

62 See Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (New York, Barnes and Noble, 1960).

63 See, for example, "I am glad this parcel of wooers are so reasonable, for there is not one among them but that I dote on his very absence, and I pray God grant them a fair departure" (Portia in Merchant of Venice, I, ii, 118-121).

64 The many Elizabethan puns on "jakes" even in the heroic "Ajax" are common and are still, of course, made on the modern equivalent of "a john". See "jakes" in Partridge.

65 See discussion above.

66 Dante, Inferno, III.

67 Holloway here is "answering" Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, pp. 244-245.

68 Holloway, pp. 110-111.

69Ibid., p. 111.

70 Cf. Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost in "Life of Milton" in Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1905), pp. 183-184.

71 See discussion of Cleopatra's "cruelty" above.

72 Plutarch, II, 54.

73 Cf. I, ii, 115 for the first time Fulvia's death is reported.

74 See discussion below.

75 See discussion of love and jealousy, Chapter IV.

76 See footnote 57. . . .

77 Austin Wright, p. 39.

78 Lord David Cecil, p. 13

79 See discussion of love and empire, Chapter IV.

80 L. C. Knights, "On the Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra", Scrutiny, XVI (1949), 318.

81 M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London, Macmillan and Co., 1910), p. 339.

82 Lord David Cecil, p. 14.

83 Hazelton Spencer, p. 341.

84 See Michael Lloyd, "Cleopatra as Isis".


86 Edward Dowden, Shakspere. A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (New York, Harper and Brothers, 1900), p. 313.

87 Brandes, p. 462.

88 Maizitis, pp. 142 ff.

89Ibid., pp. 144 ff.

90 Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (New York, R. Worthington, 1880), p. 191.

91 Bradley, Oxford Lectures, p. 297.

92 Geoffrey Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 129.

93 Johnson, X, 212-213.

Cf. Bethell, pp. 117-118: "The employment of such imagery is not limited to one or two personages in the play, but is characteristic of them all. There is, in fact, no attempt to differentiate character by the verse they speak, except to some extent with Octavius Caesar, whose verse is normally dull and flat and impersonal, or else staccato as he issues orders. But when he speaks of Antony, or Cleopatra, of the Empire, his verse too takes on the grandeur and dignity met with in the others. . . . "

94 Enobarbus [pseudonym for Steele Commanger], "The Imagery of Antony and Cleopatra" (Harvard College, Winthrop Sargent Prize, 1954), p. 5.

95 Kitto, p. 229.


97 Bethell, p. 132.



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Lloyd, Michael, "Cleopatra as Isis", Shakespeare Survey, XII (1959), 88-95.

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W. B. Worthen (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Weight of Antony: Staging 'Character' in Antony and Cleopatra," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 295-308.

[Below, Worthen studies the factors that influence how the character of Antony is viewed by the audience, noting that the primary factor is the tension between the way Antony is described by other characters in the play and what Antony's own actions reveal about his character.]

Here's sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord! Our strength is all gone into heaviness, That makes the weight. Had I great Juno's power, The strong-wing'd Mercury should fetch thee up, And set thee by Jove's side. Yet come a little, Wishers were ever fools, O, come, come, come. [They heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra] And welcome, welcome! Die when thou hast liv'd,

Quicken with kissing: had my lips that power, Thus would I wear them out.All. A heavy sight!


"It was a hard thing for these women to do, to lift him up";2 like Plutarch, Shakespeare finds the "dramatic capital" of the monument scene in the challenge of its acting, the "apparent difficulty" of hoisting "a full-grown man ten or twelve feet in the air."3 Cleopatra must seem to lay "all the weight of her weake bodie" into the "swounding body there / Of pale Antonius," while the inert soldier "mooues againe, and then againe," held in her womanish, or boyish, grasp.4 "This was no easy task," Constance Benson recalled of her 1898 performance as Cleopatra, "and our strength was taxed to the uttermost."5 The actors' attention is taxed as well, fully tested by this theatrical sport. A high monument aloft, a missed handhold, a flimsy railing, frayed "rowles of taffatie": the exigencies of the theater threaten a slapstick catastrophe, as Antony plummets to the stage, leaving the actors to "strut / To our confusion" and their own (III.xiii.114-15). And yet, despite its possibly distracting humor, this subtle, stagey, even athletic sport seems to register the deep play of Antony and Cleopatra.6 As Antony's peerless "space" withers, his "visible shape" endures (IV.xiv.14). Antony is momentarily suspended between legendary greatness and its tragic acting, his body resisting the Roman gesture and its lofty rhetoric while it gains an affecting weight of its own.

Of course, it's not Antony's body that risks embarrassment here, but the actor's. Shakespeare brings the histrionic surface of the actors' performances sharply into view, dramatizing the double vision that the theater requires of its audience as part of our experience of the play. In the theater, we attend to the "paradox" of stage acting, to the dialectic between the actor's presentation on the stage (his characteristic style of engagement with the dramatic role, his precise attack on that series of actions), and the representation of "character" that his roleplaying seems to convey. In the monument scene, and elsewhere in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare forces our attention to the means of theater—the relationship between actor, role, and "character"—as part of our attention to the drama itself. Actors have long recognized that characterization poses one of the play's most troublesome problems:

For instance, Antony is described as "noble" on no less than eight occasions. But, excepting for his generosity towards Enobarbus, and possibly in his death-scene, Antony is never shown to do one noble thing. . . . Whoever plays the parts of Antony and Cleopatra should look to it that they have a first-rate Enobarbus, for Enobarbus creates Antony's nobility and Cleopatra's fascination as much as the protagonists can hope to do.7

Michael Redgrave rightly pinpoints one function of Enobarbus's rough poetry: to frame the principal actors' performances, and to suggest the kind of effect that Antony and Cleopatra can have on their on- and offstage public. In Antony and Cleopatra, though, such descriptions tend to establish a narrative "text" for certain characters, a markedly ideal or ironic "character" that often seems to ensure the relative inadequacy of performed characterization, engrained as it is in the materiality of the individual actor and his talents. Perhaps not surprisingly, few actors have succeeded unequivocally as Antony; like Garrick, most have seemed to want "one necessary accomplishment: his person was not sufficiently important and commanding to represent the part."8 Davies's account of Garrick highlights the problem of characterization, and of reading "character," that Antony and Cleopatra presents to its audience. Commanding enough for Richard III, Lear, and Macbeth, Garrick was defeated not by the role of Antony—the series of actions he was required to perform as an actor—but by the "character" so often described by others in the play. In performance, the actor's "Antony" may seem too "opaque"; the actor's sensuous surface—usually the charismatic center of our attention—may seem to pale beside the novelistic "character" others have framed with words alone.9Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, centrally concerned with how events are written into narrative, transformed into history, literature, and myth. The fascination of the play's address to an audience lies, in part at least, in the way this contest between narrative and drama, text and performance, animates the characterization of the play's major roles, and so sustains the "giant strength" of the play's theatrical design.10

In the opening scene, for instance, Philo invites us to "behold and see"; if we "Take but good note," the acting of Antony and Cleopatra ought to illustrate the text that Philo provides: "The triple pillar of the world transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool" (I.i.11-13). As spectators, how will we have to look in order to see what Philo sees? To Philo, Antony's acting both recalls and denies the heroic "character" of the Roman general, and to see Antony as Philo does we must read the actor's performance as the negative ("Nay, but") of that now-absent "character": his "goodly eyes" no longer glow like plated Mars, his manly passion "reneges all temper," his martial bounty has become the "bellows and the fan" of hollow lust.11 Philo instructs us to see, but from an "anamorphic" perspective, to bend and turn our attention from the performance of character in order to lend a more privileged view to Philo's moralized emblem of "dotage."12 Not that Philo's measure of Antony is wrong—Antony himself fears to be lost in dotage—or inconsistent with the events of the scene. Antony arrives, after all, accompanied by the epitome—to a certain cast of mind—of theatrical "effeminacy": the "'female wanton boy' of stage crossdressing."13 The action that follows quite systematically deflates Antony's grand ostentation: plated Mars enters on a surprisingly domestic note, wrangling rather than commanding; the "new heaven, new earth" of his love is instantly bounded by the reckoning of Rome and Fulvia; even his romantic "space" is pricked by Cleopatra's dry wit, as "Excellent falsehood!" (I.i.40). Philo's portrait is in sync with the characterization that the actor's performance will provide for the audience. But by allowing the text of "character" derived from Antony's history to determine his reading of the performance he observes, Philo sidesteps the challenge of "theatrical perception" that Antony and Cleopatra requires of its theater audience: to learn to see "character" as an effect of acting. Antony's performance is too "opaque" for Philo; Antony seems out of character, "comes too short" of Philo's privileged script, "that great property / Which still should go with Antony" (I.i.58-59).

In the theater, to see in this way is hardly to see at all. Performed "character" is inseparable from its enactment, created moment to moment by the actor's efforts. And yet, because those efforts are marked as "acting," the performance inscribes an undecidable, yet palpable, difference between the actor's persona and the fictive, dramatic "other" he engages and represents.14 The actor seems both to inform and to stand apart from his "character," and our task is to enable this double perspective to become part of our play, rather than a necessary failure of art, the falling short it may otherwise seem to be. Theatrical spectating requires us to see in much the way that Antony sees Cleopatra:

Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh, To weep: how every passion fully strives To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!


The passions gain reality and force, fully become themselves, only through Cleopatra's acting of them. As a result, Cleopatra is becomingly effected in performance, graced by her chiding, laughing, weeping. Antony alerts us to the more difficult kind of seeing that the theater entails, for he requires us to take good note of the relationship between theatrical "becoming" and the "great property" of character. To see this scene as theater means to allow the actor his means of characterization, means which will inevitably falsify, seem to fall "too short" of the verbal precision of a characterizing text, Philo's text in particular. For only through the actors' means will the characters "become themselves" onstage, earning a place in the dramatic "space" as well as in the narrative "story."15

Philo's challenge to "behold and see" is amplified through the "great gap of time" (I.v.5) during which Antony's vacancy from the stage is supplemented by narrative characterization. In the fourth scene, Caesar draws our attention to the discrepancy between narrative and performative characterization by reciting the events we have just seen, or something like them:

From Alexandria This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy More womanly than he.


Although the acting of the earlier scenes will partly determine the relative accuracy of Caesar's portrait of Antony (a "ne'er lust-wearied Antony" will confirm Caesar's view more fully than a martial one), this account necessarily simplifies and distorts the action we have seen, and will be further belied by Antony's sober manner on his next appearance. Though rash, Antony is hardly more effeminate than Cleopatra, who practices her womanly wiles with great art in the opening scenes, and he has sternly vowed to break his Egyptian fetters. Throughout the play, Caesar relies on narrative—the "news" of Alexandria, Antony's "reported" (I.iv.67) exploits in the Alps, perhaps even in the "writings" he offers in his defense after Antony's death (V.i.76)—to characterize his general, means which enable Caesar more easily to assimilate Antony's actions to an interpretive text: Antony becomes the "abstract of all faults / That all men follow" (I.iv.9-10). Caesar's characterization of Antony consistently privileges the absent "character" of history over the present "character" of performance. What impresses Caesar about Antony's retreat from Modena, after all, is that abstract "honour" once found a direct expression in the body, so that even famine could be borne "in character," "so like a soldier" that Antony's cheek "So much as lank'd not" (I.iv.69-71).

Caesar demands a thorough identification between the moral "abstract" of Antony's character and the aging soldier who must continue to play the part. Cleopatra, in her parallel evocation of an absent Antony, reverses Caesar's subordination of enacted to abstracted character, transforming a notoriously sensual portrait of Antony's bodily presence—

Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he? Or does he walk? or is he on his horse? O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony!


—into a "character" of divine dimensions, "The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men" (I.v.23-24). While Caesar represents Antony's extremes of passion as actions which make him fall short of his "great property," Cleopatra's Antony becomes himself, the "man of men," through the violence of his passions: "Be'st thou sad, or merry, / The violence of either thee becomes, / So does it no man else" (I.v.59-61). Caesar, rather like Thomas Davies, asks the actor to submit to an "abstract," to recreate in action a "character" that can only be constituted through narrative reconstruction and interpretation, only as history. But as Cleopatra suggests, the actor's substantial presence inevitably violates such a "character," and that to discover character in performance, we must be able to find this contradictory violence becoming.

The body that lanks and discandies and wrinkles deep in time tangibly qualifies the texts of "character" so often provided in the play. Furthermore, while the relationship between a given actor, role, and "character" will seem to fluctuate throughout the play, each role also tends to construe the relative "opacity" or "transparency" of that relationship somewhat differently.16 Observing Antony, for instance, we weigh the performed character against the readings supplied by Philo, Caesar, Cleopatra, Pompey, Enobarbus, and others. Not all of the roles invite this recalibration of the actor's performance, or lend it such resonance in the drama. The "conditions" of the two competitors are strikingly "differing in their acts" (II.ii.113-14); Caesar's role generally protects the actor from the more revealing demands imposed on his colleagues. I don't mean to imply that "Caesar" is not a demanding, elusive part, or that Caesar's backslidings and betrayals are not, in their own way, as contradictory as the lustier vicissitudes of Antony and Cleopatra. Nonetheless, the play never forces the actor's histrionic characterization into overt competition with a narrative "character." The role of Antony challenges the actor to fill that "captain's heart, / Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst / The buckles on his breast" (I.i.6-8); most trained, "scarce-bearded" (I.i.21) actors should be able to command the authority of the "universal landlord" (III.xiii.72). Indeed, both Caesar and Octavia are so "holy, cold, and still" ( that actors may well be challenged to characterize these roles in enough detail to be credible. Antony, like Cleopatra, may seem in performance too violent and varied for the "great property" of his character; Caesar, like Octavia, may too easily seem "a body, rather than a life, / A statue, than a breather" (III.iii.20-21).17

Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra at Cydnus (II.ii.190-240) typifies the different prism of characterization required of the play's title roles, and begins to clarify the function of narrative in the design of Antony and Cleopatra as a whole. In her fine article on the play, Phyllis Rackin argues that Enobarbus imagines a scene that "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." Poetry is certainly the "necessary medium" of this "impossible" portrait, but only one of the arts that creates Cleopatra for her theater audience. On her next appearance, the actress will have to "square" Cleopatra with this "report" in her own medium—acting—and in a scene where Cleopatra's behavior both violates the grandeur of Enobarbus's text and demonstrates the violence of "infinite variety" (II.ii.236). At the center of the play, Shakespeare juxtaposes the two forms of representation on which Antony and Cleopatra depends. The actress's—or boy actor's—performance inevitably seems to boy the greatness of the "character" that Enobarbus describes, but Enobarbus's text is itself only a verbal "abstract," "beggar'd" (II.ii.198) by the original performance at Cydnus. The point is not so much that Cleopatra "cannot be represented but only created" in poetry, but that she can now only be represented, and that each medium—narrative and drama—will be "beggar'd" in its own way, both by the majesty of the inaccessible original and by the limits of its art.18

Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes the duality inherent in the idea of "character," that while it seems to be revealed both through present action and through retrospective reconstruction, these two modes of characterization—and the "character(s)" they evoke—often seem incommensurable. David Kaula rightly suggests that the characterization of each of the major roles has a different temporal orientation: Cleopatra is committed to a flamboyant, actor-like present; Antony to recovering the epic greatness of his past; Caesar to the future, and to the historicizing of his career it will contain.19 The play in performance articulates this temporal aspect of characterization by defining the relationship between the actor's present effort on the stage and the "chronicle" (III.xiii.175) from which the title characters have emerged, and to which they will return once the play is finished. Antony, for instance, often seems out of his part; his attempts to recreate his epic "character" look like bad acting, strutting in confusion. Onstage, the role polarizes the outsized hero of the play's past against the tragic actor of its present, as Antony's actions progressively deface the commanding warrior: "Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er before / Did violate so itself (III.x.23-24). While the "authority" of that "character" melts from Antony, he becomes more fully bound by the flawed body, which even the land is "asham'd to bear" (III.xi.2). Relinquishing his "visible shape," then, becomes a critical process in Antony's characterization, dramatizing his attempt to transmigrate from the dramatic to the narrative mode, from the actor's lanking body to a changeless "place i' the story" (III.xiii.46).

For this reason, the role scrupulously draws our attention to the actor's body as a part of our attention to the drama: "I, that with my sword / Quarter'd the world, and o'er green Neptune's back / With ships made cities, condemn myself (IV.xiv.57-59). Antony summons the swordsman of the past to execute the "sworder" (III.xiii.31) he has become, but the botched suicide and subsequent lingering of his "miserable change" sharply qualify this final heroic gesture. Antony invites the audience, as he invites Cleopatra, to "please your thoughts / In feeding them with those my former fortunes / Wherein I liv'd" (IV.xv.51-54), to project onto the dying "case of that huge spirit" the "character" he would signify, "the greatest prince o' the world" (IV.xv.54). As Bergson might have observed, by dramatizing this "anxiety about the body"—both Antony's and the actor's body—the monument scene strikes a dissonant, comic note, one echoed in the weighty puns of Cleopatra and her attendants: "heavy sight," indeed.20 The scene threatens to disrupt the play, and our sympathetic playing, by attending to the disjunction between the mortal actors before us and the romantic "space" of their dramatic representation. And yet, what seems in part to prevent the final scene from becoming "ludicrous" is the "ludic" aspect of its theatrical playing, the precise physical and histrionic challenges that the performers engage to present the tragic scene on the stage.21 The monument scene foregrounds the theatrical sport of the actors' playing in order to train our attention precisely on the transformation that "Antony" is to undergo. "Antony" is suspended in the rich gap between the dramatic performance and the narrative "abstract" of character. Only when the actor's "long day's task is done" (IV.xiv.35), when he has no more acts to perform, can Antony's "character" be returned to the narrative forms of characterization—history, literature, myth—that stand as backdrop to the play. Shakespeare emphasizes this restoration of Antony's "character" to the narrative mode in the play's final scenes, as Decretas, Caesar, and Cleopatra all vie to characterize Antony descriptively. Free of the body, the "character" of Antony is free of the actor's lumbering weight. The colossus—face like the heavens, voice like thunder, arm cresting the world—once again can be "writ," not "in the acts it did" (V.i.22), but in the mythopoeic words of Cleopatra's dream. Cleopatra's final portrait fulfills Antony's restoration from stage to story by construing a "character" not merely "past the size of dreaming," but past the physical resources of acting as well, a "piece, 'gainst fancy, / Condemning shadows quite" (V.ii.97-100).

Antony's departure from the play dramatizes the affective polarity between acting and narrative that guides the play's rhetoric of "character." Cleopatra's resolutely theatrical play in the final scenes is more explicitly situated within a continuum of performance, located between the actions of the past—now the play's narrative history—and the appalling dramatizations to come.

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.


Like Caesar earlier, Cleopatra recalls scenes we have seen in the play, now threatened with trivializing representation not as narrative "abstract," but as vaudevillian caricature. It's a daring moment in Shakespeare's theater, one that invites us to attend to the means of theatrical "character"—the boy actor's performance—in order to deny it, to affirm that "Cleopatra" somehow transcends those means. Cleopatra's "grotesquely skeptical" self-portrait asks us to "behold and see" the boy actor only to insist that we overlook him, and enter Cleopatra's imaginative perspective, if we are to "see" the play through to its finale.22 At the same time, the speech also reminds us that Antony and Cleopatra is only the latest in the history of such stagings, most of them having more in common with the Roman play that Cleopatra fears than with the romantic play that Shakespeare has written. Conceived as an escape from Caesar's theater, Cleopatra's performance suggests that the theater, with all its defects, provides the only tangible means to restore "Cleopatra" to our view. While Antony urges us to recall the "character" he can no longer play, Cleopatra replays her splendid history—the meeting at Cydnus—as play, subtly transforming the scene from an image of legendary wantonness to one of unexpected fidelity. Antony unarms himself, but Cleopatra dons the trappings of her part—"Show me, my women, like a queen" (V.ii.226)—in order to insist that play can constitute "character," a name and title proven through a "noble deed":

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.


Cleopatra's reenactment of her performance at Cydnus epitomizes the relationship between text and performance explored throughout Antony and Cleopatra, a relationship captured in Richard Schechner's term "restored behavior." Schechner refers to the relation between performed events—plays and rituals, for instance—and the "virtual," sometimes even "original" events they represent. Although such performances are often developed from a basic score, outline, or script, rehearsals and performances test different ways of enacting those texts, and obviously change the precise texture of the behavior they restore to action. As a result, what is "restored" is patently a performative reinterpretation, rather than a precise repetition, a played enactment that nonetheless retains the authority of the "original" it recalls, replaces, and inevitably alters. In many cases,

the event to be restored is either forgotten, never was, or is overlaid with other material, so much so that its historicity is irrelevant. What is recalled are earlier performances: history not being what happened but what is encoded and transmitted. Performance is not merely a selection from data arranged and interpreted; it is behavior itself and carries with it a kernel of originality, making it the subject for further interpretation, the source of further history.23

Cleopatra's final scene attempts to strike an accommodation between the restorative mode of performance and the abstracting mode of history, the two modes of characterization syncopated throughout the play. Reenacting the Cydnus scene, Cleopatra both restores herself to that legendary moment and at the same time restores that scene to the audience as her final, definitive, performed portrait. Yet while Cleopatra understands herself to be playing her meeting at Cydnus, we know of that meeting only through Enobarbus's admittedly inadequate, nonetheless magnificent "abstract." Enobarbus's speech stands in the same relation to Cleopatra's final scene that North's Plutarch and the various literary and legendary accounts of "Antony and Cleopatra" do to Antony and Cleopatra in performance. Far from being "illustrated" or "realized," the absent narrative text is staged, traced into a performance which finally must rely on its own means of representation. For this reason, among others, the Victorian practice of actually staging Cleopatra's barge at some point in the play seems an exuberant banality: the play forces us to negotiate the difficulties of its own representation, the "restoration" of an inaccessible, nearly unimaginable greatness—one known to us only through words, as a text—to the stage.24 To accept Cleopatra's play we must accept it as play, be willing to accept the efficacy of acting to restore such a scene even while being "beggar'd" by it: there will be no barge burnishing, no music, no Cupids and Nereides, only a barren platform and two weeping servants. Shakespeare certainly strains "all his huge command of rhetoric and stage pathos to give a theatrical sublimity to the wretched end of the business," but in so doing he provides a paradigm of theater.25 For better and worse (as puritans ancient and modern have recognized), theatrical sublimity is all that Cleopatra, or Shakespeare, can have to offer.

Antony and Cleopatra opens by showing legendary characters claiming a resonantly theatrical "space," one in which their actions seem both to confirm and to belie the texts of "character" provided by others in the play, and by the familiar traditions of judgment that the play recalls. Antony and Cleopatra closes in a similarly evocative space, in which the performed characters relinquish the discandying flesh of the stage—"I am fire, and air; my other elements / I give to baser life" (V.ii.288-89)—to take their place among the less ephemeral monuments of art, in "story," "chronicle," tomb, perhaps even in dreams. Like Caesar, we see "perform'd the dreaded act" (V.ii.330), an act which transforms Cleopatra finally from player to "character," the "lass unparallel'd" of Cydnus, looking "As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (V.ii.345-46). By involving our assessment of the knot intrinsicate binding actor and character, Shakespeare invites us to weigh both the story and its acting, and to find in the case of these huge spirits the specific gravity of the stage.


1 References are to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1954; rpt. 1956).

2 From North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, in Ridley, p. 281.

3 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978), 1:404, my emphasis. I am, of course, assuming that the scene was, or could have been, staged in this manner; on problems of staging, see Ridley, pp. 247-57.

4 I refer to the additions to Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra, in the 1607 version; see Works, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 5 vols. (1885; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), 3:8. In "An Elizabethan Eyewitness of Antony and Cleopatra?" ShS 6 (1953): 91-93, Joan Rees argues that this speech may have reflected Daniel's attendance at a performance of Shakespeare's play, a view she presents in more qualified form in Samuel Daniel: A Critical and Biographical Study (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 109, 110 n. 20.

5 Constance Benson, Mainly Players: Bensonian Memories (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1926), pp. 158-59.

6 Bernard Jenkin finds Cleopatra's humor "distracting" in "Antony and Cleopatra: Some Suggestions on the Monument Scenes," RES, o.s. 21 (1945): 4. On comic effects generally, see Phyllis Rackin, "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry," PMLA 87 (1972): 202, 207; I am much indebted to this study, and to Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on "Antony and Cleopatra" (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973). Though Adelman (p. 155) remarks on a gaiety "deep in the texture of the play," I also have in mind the sense of risk underlying Clifford Geertz's provocative essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

7 Michael Redgrave, Mask or Face: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 79.

8 Thomas Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies, 3 vols. (London, 1785), 2:369. On the history of the play in production, see Margaret Lamb, Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1980).

9 See Bernard Beckerman's discussion of "Theatrical Perception," ThR 4 (1979): 157-71. On the function of the actor's charismatic presence in the process of characterization, see Michael Goldman's absorbing discussion of Antony and Cleopatra in Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), ch. 6.

10 The phrase is Coleridge's; see Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1930), 1:86.

11 Adelman discusses patterns of negation and affirmation, p. 110; see also her fine discussion of "framing" in the play, pp. 31-37.

12 "Anamorphic" is Thomas Clayton's apt term, in "'Is this the promis'd end?' Revision in the Role of the King," in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 131. Most versions of the Antony and Cleopatra story available to Shakespeare saw the legend as an opportunity for moral instruction on a variety of issues: lust, political change, noble love, for example. See J. Leeds Barrali, "Antony and Pleasure," JEGP 57 (1958): 708-20; Donna B. Hamilton, "Antony and Cleopatra and the Tradition of Noble Lovers," SQ 24 (1973): 245-51; and Maynard Mack, "Antony and Cleopatra: The Stillness and the Dance," in Shakespeare's Art: Seven Essays, ed. Milton Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 79-113, for a representative discussion. See also Geoffrey Bullough's fine introduction to Antony and Cleopatra in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957-1975), 5:215-53.

13 Lisa Jardine outlines the homoerotic appeal of the "erotically irresistible effeminate boy," and sets it in the context of Puritan antitheatrical literature; see Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983), p. 17, and ch. 1, passim. Elsewhere, I have discussed the charge of "effeminacy" directed toward theatrical performance; see The Idea of the Actor: Drama and the Ethics of Performance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 24-25.

14 See Raymond J. Pentzell's discussion of this problem in "Actor, Maschera, and Role: An Approach to Irony in Performance," CompD 16 (1982): 201-26. Recently, William E. Gruber has argued that modern audiences, perhaps because they approach Shakespearean performance principally as readers of the plays, "have extreme difficulty seeing how an actor can simultaneously be 'in' and 'out' of character," while "Tudor and Stuart theatergoers—unlike modern audiences—not only tolerate visible contradictions between actor and role, but apparently they consider them to be the affective basis of spectating." While the precise terms of this double vision may well be specific to a given theater and its culture, I would argue that such perceptual "dissonances between actor and character" are essential to the act of theatrical seeing. Gruber nonetheless develops several suggestive lines of inquiry regarding the play's performative characterization; see "The Actor in the Script: Affective Strategies in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," CompD 19 (1985): 30-48; I quote here from pp. 33-34.

15 See Goldman's discussion of "becoming" in the play, pp. 123-26.

16 See Beckerman, p. 163.

17 The actor who characterizes Caesar memorably has usually turned in either an eccentric or a brilliant performance, as Keith Baxter did in 1969; see Lamb, p. 164.

18 Rackin, pp. 204-205.

19 David Kaula, "The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra," SQ 15 (1964): 211-23.

20 See Henri Bergson, Laughter, in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 94. As Gruber suggests (p. 34), the play generally "requires the actor's body to bear ironically—but not satirically—on the role."

21 "Ludicrous" is Rackin's term, p. 207.

22 The phrase is Janet Adelman's, p. 110; see also Rackin, pp. 208-209. Cleopatra's histrionic dimension has been treated by most of the critics cited here; see also Robert Ornstein, "The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra" in Later Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977), pp. 31-46; and Robert Kimbrough, "Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise," SQ 33 (1982): 32. It should be noted that the act of negation that Shakespeare requires of his audience here is consistent with the ideology of gender generally in his theater; the audience sees "Cleopatra"—female character—only as an absence, a negation of the male actor's stage presence.

23 Richard Schechner, "Collective Reflexivity: Restoration of Behavior," in A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology, ed. Jay Ruby. (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), p. 43.

24 Several turn-of-the-century productions staged Cleopatra's barge at some point in the play; see Lamb, pp. 79-91, passim.

25 Bernard Shaw, "Preface," to Three Plays for Puritans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946; rpt. 1975), p. 29.

Comic Aspects

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Barbara C. Vincent (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and the Rise of Comedy," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 53-86.

[In the essay that follows, Vincent analyzes Antony and Cleopatra as a play first dominated by tragedy and later by comedy, maintaining that the movement of the play from tragedy to comedy parallels the movement within the play from Rome to Egypt.]

. . . yet the Alexandrians were commonly glad of this jolity, and liked it well saying verie gallantly, and wisely: that Antonius shewed them a comicall face, to wit, a merie countenaunce: and the Romanes a tragi call face, to say, a grimme looke.

The Life of Marcus Antonius

That The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra contains many elements of comedy is increasingly noticed in criticism.1 Cleopatra has been called "the queen of comedy,"2 and the play has been regarded as a transition between the tragedies and the romances.3 Yet the study of the opposing dramatic genres and their interrelations can be pursued more specifically than one might at first imagine. Borrowing the play's geographical imagery, we can say that Shakespeare provides a map of his literary universe, with its worlds of tragedy and comedy, in the play's opposing realms of Rome and Egypt. Only the map is not static; like an evolving political map, it chronicles the relations between the two generic worlds. These relations undergo a total revolution in the course of the play: from the dominance of tragedy and the separate, subordinate existence of comedy of the Roman literary world (as Shakespeare portrays it), to the inclusion of tragedy in comedy and consequent elevation of the latter in Renaissance and Shakespearean literature.

But before tracing the vision of literary history in the play, it must be shown why we can properly identify Rome as the world of tragedy, and Egypt, comedy. Ironically, the concept of the "Roman play," which is traditionally used to define the genre of Antony and Cleopatra, has sometimes been used to set the play off from Shakespeare's preceding tragedies, as if it were some new form Shakespeare slid into as he grew tired of writing tragedies. Instead, I think, the Roman play, and particularly the Roman world of Antony and Cleopatra, should be regarded as Shakespeare's attempt to portray the archetype of tragedy. As Reuben Brower has shown, the world of Shakespearean tragedy is influenced by the Graeco-Roman heroic tradition.4 Hence, what more fit setting for tragedy than the source of this tradition, the world in which it was not mere literature, but the dominant ethos, as yet unchallenged by the later comic ethos of romantic literature or Christianity? The figure of the great warrior, who embodies a potent ideal of manhood in three of the four "great" tragedies, is naturally a central figure in the imaginative life of Rome. As Hamlet's father's ghost and the manly ideal he embodied haunts Hamlet, so the Homeric ideal warrior haunts the more modern, limited, civilized society of Rome on the verge of the Augustan era.

That Rome is a pre-Christian world is also convenient for tragedy. Roman culture sanctions the pursuit of power and individual greatness more uninhibitedly than the post-Roman, Christian world, and tragedy, like Rome, is the world of the supreme individual. The ironic religious vision which counterpoises the heroic individualism in tragedy is also best associated with the classical world. The classical gods are jealous of human greatness, and seek to destroy great men lest they rival the gods, as Cleopatra says she and Antony threatened to: "It were for me / To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods,/ To tell them that this world did equal theirs,/ Till they had stol'n our jewel" (IV.xv.75-78). The feeling in tragedy that human greatness is likely to provoke a fatally jealous reaction from the gods is, on the other hand, not well suited to the personality of the Christian God, who, far from seeking to prevent man from becoming god, himself became man.

Rome fulfills the special blend of the heroic and the ironic which is tragedy in many other ways. It is an elevated world by virtue of its antiquity and its enduring literary models. Roman civilization can be imagined as a great creator of forms, not the least reason being that it developed the rules of decorum, both ethical and dramatic, which are central in Shakespeare's characterization of it. Cleopatra's ideal of "the high Roman fashion" acknowledges Rome as the standard-maker for what is noble and lofty in conduct. The elevated verbal style which tragic decorum demands sounds unusually appropriate on the lips of Romans, who can employ Latinate diction more naturally than most characters. Rome is also an ironic world, because it is dead. Not only has its empire vanished, but its values and vision have been supplanted.

According to the principles of dramatic decorum, tragedy is generally based on an historical subject, while the subject of comedy, in contrast, is the poet's invention.5 Shakespeare both sharpens and expands this point of distinction between the kinds. Rome on the verge of fulfilling her imperial destiny is not just any tale out of a chronicle. The establishment of Augustan Rome could be seen from Shakespeare's viewpoint as the historical subject: the vision of the world of the past, the old order of our civilization. The historicity of Rome also contributes to our sense of it as an ironic world: it is a realistic, unpredictable, nightmarish world from which we would like to awake. It has been called "the sublunar world,"6 or simply "the World."7 Perhaps because Caesar's Rome does not have its energies deflected by the contemplation of unearthly kingdoms, it seems a concentratedly temporal world, hyperactive in the world of time: "With news the time's in labour, and throws forth, / Each minute, some" (III. vii. 80-81).

The comic world of Egypt, in contrast, is serenely unburdened by any historical mission, and love, playing, and eating are the central activities. More than just an invented world, Egypt is an archetypally poetic realm. Cleopatra is a particularly compelling embodiment of the conventions of romance. Like the maiden in the Song of Songs, Cleopatra is a woman who is also a nation, calling herself Egypt. She is a cynosure of magnetic attractive powers at her appearance on Cydnus. She is a serpent-woman. She is a dying and reviving heroine, usually with the aid of the conventional amatory trope identifying death with sexual consummation. As Antony is identified with the sun, "the fire / That quickens Nilus' slime," so is Cleopatra with the Nile Valley. Like Spensers' Garden of Adonis, the Nile Valley is a kind of golden world or earthly paradise, a place of seed where things grow to their fullest effortlessly and without cultivation: "The higher Nilus swells, / The more it promises: as it ebbs, the seedsman / Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain, / And shortly comes to harvest" (II. vii. 20-23). As well as imaging a beneficent and intriguingly polymorphous sexuality in Egypt, overflowing Nilus also offers an analogue for the vitalizing effect of experiencing the swollen torrents of magnified human passions projected by the histrionically gifted queen. In contrast to the busily temporal world of Rome, Egypt is an eternal realm, which transfixes Romans in the endlessly recurrent and fertilizing experience of love.8

Rome is also a fitting setting for tragedy because it is an unabashedly masculine world, in contrast to female-dominated Egypt. The anti-romantic attitudes which seem such a sinister aspect of Iago's tragic villainy in Othello are practiced freely in the open daylight in Rome, not simply by Caesar, who is as quick as Iago to equate love with lust, but also by such a genial spirit as Enobarbus. While Egypt has as its symbol of female ascendancy Mardian, the eunuch, Rome has a female eunuch—Octavia. In Egypt Antony is a lover and a lady's man, in danger of losing his manly self-sufficiency; in Rome Antony is a man's man, a soldier-general, and a competitor with Caesar, and he is subject to some embarrassment for having been a lady's man. This simple and profound distinction is not generally cited in discussions of the principles of decorum, yet it accurately dramatizes more explicit points of decorum, such as that comedy conventionally treats of love, while tragedy of violence and war, or that tragedy deals with illustrious actions of great public significance, while comedy treats of private and domestic actions. The sexual dimension of generic distinction also generally accords with previous Shakespearean practice in the genres. The male hero does tend to be the imaginative center in Shakespearean tragedy, while the heroine tends to overshadow the hero in comedy, much as Cleopatra generally upstages Antony in Act I.9

Women are not heroic individuals in comedy, as men are in tragedy; rather, they act as conduits of natural feeling which seeks to form marriages and knits societies together. Another generic commonplace is that while tragedy is concerned with man as an individual, comedy sees man as a member of a social group. Shakespeare signals this distinction even in his titles: in all his tragedies and in the generically akin histories, the name of the play is the name of an individual, while none of his comedies (except two of the romances) have an individual's name in their titles. And Rome is like tragedy in being most interested in man as an individual. The stoic ideals of constancy and imperturbability, of remaining "like oneself," fortify the individual man and help him resist the pull of common, natural appetites and passions—comic impulses, which appear vulgar, promiscuous, or somehow perverse in the value system of tragedy.

While Rome exalts aloof individuality, Egypt brings about the loss of individual identity, the dissolving of discrete forms, or the overflowing, like Nilus, of the boundaries of form. In Egypt, Antony loses himself and becomes like Cleopatra. This confusion of identities which is typical of romantic lovers is grossly indecorous in the Roman world; Caesar complains that Antony "is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he" (I. iv. 5-7). Cleopatra generally disregards advice to "keep yourself within yourself (II. v. 75), she threatens to burst "the sides of nature" (I. iii. 16), and Antony "o'erflows the measure" especially under her influence. Always the actress, she nonetheless has an emotional integrity behind her "becomings" which gives her acting great power. When Antony senses an histrionic storm approaching as he prepares to leave Egypt and accuses her of cunning, Enobarbus, astute detector of frauds, ascribes the sensational power of her passions to their authenticity: "Alack, sir, no, her passions are made of nothing but the finest parts of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report" (I. ii. 144-48).

Cleopatra fittingly has immense and vital passions, for she is Eros, that comic deity. She takes Eros' place at the arming scene (IV. iv. 14-15), she enters to his name (IV. 12. 19-20), and Antony mingles her with Eros when apostrophizing the presumably dead Cleopatra: "Eros!—I come, my queen:—Eros!—Stay for me" (IV. xiv. 50). Cleopatra is less troubled than ordinary mortals by the loss of self, since Eros thrives as discrete individual identities are dissolving. Thus, in contrast to the form-making and individuating energies of the tragic Roman world, the comic Egyptian world is governed by form-dissolving Eros.

Rome and Egypt are also like tragedy and comedy in their relationship of opposition, which structures more detail than can ever be mentioned in a list of the elements of tragic or comic decorum. Although one point of the idea of decorum is that each world has its appropriate place, neither world is content with a discrete half of the universe. Rome and Egypt go beyond the sets of values, attitudes or styles appropriate to central areas of human experience like war or love. They are also mental worlds, which become modes of interpreting all experience—the tragic and the comic vision. Each world o'erflows the measure of decorum and seeks to appropriate the entire universe of human experience, ratifying its own vision by showing the values and pursuits of its rival world to be illusory, ephemeral, or childish. The claims of Rome, which seem to Antony like urgent matters of great public concern, or tragic material, after a Roman thought has struck him in I. ii., are reduced by Cleopatra to the petulant demands of shrewish women and youths:

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."

(I. i. 20-24)

Like all Shakespeare's comic and tragic worlds, Egypt and Rome are neither static nor unmixed models; in fact, each at times resembles its opposite because of its imperialistic ambitions. Octavius wants to extend Rome's dominion to the realm of Antony's love life: he arranges a marriage. At Actium, Cleopatra wants to perform in the Roman theater of war. Shakespeare characteristically mingles the genres for good dramatic reason: each kind is most lively as it is invading and conquering the provinces of its rival, though this attempt also brings on its dissolution.

One might object to the attribution of personality to the genres implied in seeing them as rivalrous and imperialistic. But the worlds of Rome and Egypt each do have a human personality attached to them: the characters of Caesar and Cleopatra. These characters owe their mighty assurance to their roles as spokesmen for a tragic or a comic vision. The more unstable Antony at times seems weak beside the forceful authority of both Caesar and Cleopatra. Yet Antony, unstable because he participates in both worlds, exercises the imaginations of Cleopatra and Caesar profoundly, because he also belongs in ways neither Caesar nor Cleopatra can to their rival world, which both stimulates and threatens them.

If seen as part of the action of the play, the contest of genres explains the conflict of interpretations which the play has generated. Does Cleopatra unman and destroy Antony, ironically weakening and dividing him until he suffers the torment of defeat by a lesser man? Or does she help him achieve his quest for identity, completing the Roman warrior in a greater, more magnanimous hero, and raising him out of the dying world of history—the fortunate Caesar's dominion—into the sublime comic realm of legends, demi-gods, and ever-reviving theatrical heroes? Since each genre is all-encompassing, each can supply a credible interpretation of almost any aspect of Antony's story. One man's "dotage" is another man's (or woman's) "nobleness of life." Each vision elicits the beholder's profound imaginative participation and inspires him with a strong conviction of its truth. Yet so does its opposite. There is no ultimate value structure outside the genres to judge them by; the genres, in their largest conceptions, are the source of all value judgments, as they are of all interpretation. This is why their contest matters, as well as why it is not easily resolved. Yet, although the tragic and ironic vision is never invalidated, the play does move, I think, from a world in which the tragic vision predominates to one in which the comic vision does.

Seeing Rome and Egypt as generic worlds also helps us account for their curiously changing relationships better than other dichotomies—such as power and love, reason and intuition, public life and private life, or the World and the Flesh10—into which Rome and Egypt have been allegorized. (The content of these dichotomies is encompassed by the generic one). The opposition between the worlds is insisted upon for the first three acts, reflecting the fact that in the first half of the play we are in the Roman literary universe, where the classical ideal of decorum, or the separation of the kinds, reigns. Rome and Egypt here have a relationship which is typical of tragic dichotomies: they are mutually exclusive. At the end of this tragic Roman phase of the action, Antony, who belongs to both worlds and to "be himself must bestride the ocean which separates them, sinks symbolically beneath the ocean in his failure at Actium. Yet in the latter half of the play, the opposition disappears. All the Romans come to Egypt, and Egypt and Rome become less important as geographical places than as qualities; hence they can enter into a comic, mutually enhancing integration, and take on individual human form in Antony.


The contest of genres begins in the opening scene, as spokesmen of each claim their values encompass those of their rival world. The Roman commentary of Philo and Demetrius surrounds the appearance of the lovers, and it also morally claims to comprehend entirely the value of the world which Antony is deluding himself about. This Roman bid for dominance is quite self-assured, because tragedy is unquestionably the dominant kind in the contemporary literary world. When Antony in Egypt steps aside from the epic, public, heroic, martial world of Philo's Roman ideal (the world of tragedy), he enters that society of buffoons and courtesans which populates Roman comedy: "The triple pillar of the world transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool" (I. i. 12-13). Romantically attuned audiences, of Shakespeare's age and later, may be surprised to hear love and the stuff of comedy treated with such contempt, and many feel that the Romans' commentary does not comprehend the experience of seeing the famous pair.

This feeling is created in part by the prophetic glimpses we are given of the coming comic dispensation, when the world of comedy will no longer be a low one. The lover's appearance, ushered in with the biblical echo "behold and see," has the quality of a revelation, and Antony's reference to "new heaven, new earth" also hints of a great mythic change to come. Antony's bold conceit, "Let Rome in Tiber melt," may remind us that Rome's worldly power has indeed melted by the time of this enactment. He declares that love is "the nobleness of life," which love indeed becomes in future literary worlds, such as the world of heroic romance. Antony uses a word which points us toward this literary world in his challenge to "the world to weet / We stand up peerless" (I. i. 39-40). "Weet" is a literary archaism in the 17th century; this is its only use in Shakespeare, and it is associated with Spenserian romance.

Yet Antony's commitment to an exalted romantic conception of the comic world is as yet only "mouth-made," as Cleopatra says. We see two conceptions of the comic world subtly conflicting in the lovers' interchange. Cleopatra wants Antony to hear the news from Rome; she argues from a romantic conception of the comic world, in which it can contain seriousness and the matter of tragedy. In contrast, Antony resists her by arguing for the observance of decorum, from a classical conception of the comic world, in which serious business is out of place: "Let's not confound the time with conference harsh: / There's not a minute of our lives should stretch / Without some pleasure now. What sport to-night?" (I. i. 45-47). Although he appears to be flattering Cleopatra and her world by sweeping Rome aside entirely, Antony's Roman conception of decorum leads to the eventual triumph of Rome and tragedy, because it trivializes the comic world. Cleopatra's attempt to make Antony "be himself," including his Roman self, is an effort to involve the whole Antony in her comic world, and hence make his valuing of it more permanent—an attempt which is thwarted by the argument for keeping decorum. The classical ideal of decorum as Shakespeare dramatizes it elevates tragedy at the expense of comedy not just by trivializing the comic world, but by disallowing its basic impulses. Like Caesar in his disapproval of mingling business and pleasure ("our graver business / Frowns at this levity," II. vii. 119-20), classical decorum frowns not only on the mingling of dramatic genres, but on all the minglings and marriages of opposites which comedy delights in. Comedy must break decorum and o'erflow its restraining, separating measures if it is not to remain subordinate.

After the prophetic glimpses of scene one, things begin falling apart, and the Roman literary schema of separation reasserts itself in scene two. The scene is in two halves, visiting each of the separate camps into which the women and men have drifted. In the first half of the scene, we are given a tranche de vie portrayal of the female-dominated comic realm in one of its typical serene, unthreatened, and thoughtless moods. Charmian and Iras aggressively tease Alexas and try to cajole the soothsayer into "giving" them good fortunes. A banquet is being brought out; the conventional feasting of comedy goes on constantly in Egypt. The soothsayer tells Charmian and Iras of their inevitable tragic fortunes and they make fun of him. Fortune is one of the many things taken seriously in Roman moods and mocked in Egyptian ones.

In the second part of the scene, "a Roman thought" has invaded the thoughtless, playful, passionate feminine world and reversed its value for Antony: "He was dispos'd to mirth; but on the sudden / A Roman thought hath struck him" (I. ii. 79-80). From the Roman, masculine perspective, Egypt now appears an irrational world of monstrous fertility, an ever-breeding female which has none of masculine regard for the active cultivation of individual worth, and hence produces a nightmarish growth of cripples, weeds, and serpents: "O then we bring forth weeds, / When our quick minds lie still, and our ills told us / Is as our earing" (I. ii. 106-08). Antony himself has become female in his inactivity, helping to breed this loathesome excess of dangerous vitality: "Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, / My idleness doth hatch" (I. ii. 126-27). Roman thoughts bring a dark vision of Antony's identification with Cleopatra—of that exchange of identities which is so natural and typical of lovers in the comic world of romance. At the same time, Roman thoughts elevate, rather flatteringly, the importance of Antony's manly, individual Roman self. The ever-breeding female who brings forth life without male assistance (as weeds grow up without an "earing" cultivator, or as serpents grow asexually from horsehairs) is not confined to Egypt, but has spread to the world of Roman politics in Antony's absence. Antony says of Pompey's rising, "Much is breeding, / Which like the courser's hair, hath yet but life, / And not a serpent's poison" (I. ii. 190-92). Antony himself represents that masculine discipline and control that the world lacks—an implication flattering to the Roman Antony, though Pompey and Caesar soon confirm Antony's impression of his own consequence. Since no one fears Caesar's soldiership, Antony's absence from Rome leaves a power vacuum and is responsible for the dangerous political fecundity there.

"A Roman thought" is thought conditioned by the awareness of intractable external realities, such as Roman public opinion: "Name Cleopatra as she is called in Rome" (I. ii. 103). Like the tragic vision, Antony's Roman thoughts originate in messages from the outside world—outside, that is, the world of one's desires, that personal comic realm which often seems subjective and illusory, but which is given a wonderful substantiality by the experience of love. Messages from the outside have been actively trying to reach Antony, in the persons of the messengers, since early in scene one. Though Antony's Roman thoughts, like the tragic vision, begin in an awareness of external realities, they go beyond them, accumulating the power to effect a complete reinterpretation of all Antony's Egyptian experience, and extending, with the wholeness of a generic structure, to the interpretation of things that cannot be known from experience: "Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, / My idleness doth hatch."

The messengers import more of the matter of tragedy. There is a grim reminder of the fact of death—a messenger brings word of Fulvia's—and some guilt-generating news of the great deeds of younger men such as Pompey. This news of martial adventure injects the presence of heroic epic, recalling the glorious and spacious realm of Homer, or the theatrical recreation of the heroic universe in Tamburlaine:

Mess. Labienus— This is stiff news—hath with his Parthian force Extended Asia: from Euphrates His conquering banner shook, from Syria, To Lydia, and to Ionia; Whilst—

Ant. Antony, thou wouldst say.

(I. ii. 96-101)

The geographical world, the wide-arched empire which Antony cheerfully dismissed in scene one ("Here is my space"), now seems wider and more impressive. The ideal of martial heroism, and the sovereign sway and masterdom over the earth to which it entitles one, is a compelling one in most of Shakespeare's tragedies, and is fittingly one of the strongest attractions of the tragic world of Rome.

Roman thoughts gain further ascendancy over Antony when, in his discussion with Enobarbus at the end of scene two, a Roman, masculine kind of comedy supplants the feminine, romantic kind. Enobarbus presents a vision of love found in the Ovid of the Amores or the Ars Amatoria. English readers are most familiar with the features of this classical comic kind in the amatory verse of Donne—the frankly sexual interest in women, the playful and ironic enacting of romantic extravagances, the celebration of masculine wit. In spite of the amatory subject, the dramatic situation closest to the experience of Ovidian lyric would not consist of a man talking to a woman, but instead, one man talking to another about a woman. This is the situation we have in Antony's discussion of Cleopatra with Enobarbus, a man-to-man talk which helps Antony, in the throes of romantic involvement, acquire some comic detachment on the lover in himself.

In his Ovidian mode, Enobarbus demonstrates an ability to appreciate the comic Egyptian world which can yet be encompassed within a Roman, masculine hierarchy of values. After Antony's comic viewpoint is put to rout by Roman thoughts, he wants to excise the stuff of comedy from his life completely: "Would I had never seen her!" (I. ii. 150). But for Enobarbus, masculine ascendancy need not be maintained by a rigid exclusion of women:

Under a compelling occasion let women die: it were a pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause, they should be esteemed nothing. Cleopatra catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly. I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment: I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying.

(I. ii. 134-42)

As in the Ovidian amatory tradition, Enobarbus allows the experience of love to be included, with some ironic detachment, in a world which believes in the supremacy of masculine pursuits.

The Ovidian mode is not simply ironic; it also genuinely celebrates love, as in Hero and Leander, or Enobarbus' account of Cleopatra's appearance on Cydnus. Because Enobarbus can appreciate Cleopatra and her world (unlike Octavius, who, as J. L. Simmons says, can make every moment of life a "compelling occasion," leaving no room for comedy)11 and yet maintain his masculine, Roman priorities (which Antony tends to forget in Egypt), his Roman self seems admirably comprehensive. He is the only major character besides Antony whom we see in both Egypt and Rome in the first half of the play, and he is notably better than Antony at recalling the claims of the absent world and balancing them against those of the present world. He does not "go to, and back, lackeying the varying tide"; he has sufficient individuality to stand against the tide in each world, speaking in favor of Egypt in Rome, and vice-versa. Because of his ironic detachment, in the unintegrated Roman system with its separated genre worlds, Enobarbus appears to have more integrity than Antony, whose heroic desire for a total engagement of himself leads him to over-commit himself in each world.

Since he is a Roman comic character, Enobarbus naturally exemplifies classical comic decorum better than Cleopatra. He speaks in the plain, humble, colloquial diction of comedy (his plainness is pointed out by Pompey in II. vi. 78), while she of course lays claim to the styles of greatness and invades the verbal provinces of tragedy. As we move toward the tragic world of Rome, we hear at the end of II. ii. a distinct transition from the playful, bawdy, low diction of comedy to the elevated, Latinate, authoritative, impersonal voice of tragedy, which is also punctuated by a shift from prose to blank verse:

Ant. The business she [Fulvia] hath broached in the state Cannot endure my absence.

Eno. And the business you have broach'd here cannot be without you, especially that of Cleopatra's, which wholly depends on your abode.

Ant. No more light answers. Let our officers Have notice what we purpose. I shall break The cause of our expedience to the queen, And get her leave to part. For not alone The death of Fulvia, with more urgent touches, Do strongly speak to us; but the letters too Of many our contriving friends in Rome Petition us at home.

(I. ii. 169-81)

Enobarbus, the comic Roman, is a helpful intermediary for Antony between Egypt and Rome. Encountering the comic in this more detached, masculine form makes it easier to control than in the person of Cleopatra.

The Roman counterpart to I. ii. in its juxtaposition of the opposing genres is II. ii., the reconciliation scene between Antony and Caesar. The first part of this scene is conducted in tragic decorum; in fact, there is a heavy emphasis on decorum. Self-consciousness about the need for rhetorical dignity is betrayed by repeated congratulations of the speakers on their fine styles: "'Tis spoken well," "'Tis noble spoken," "Worthily spoken, Maecenas." Caesar and Antony jealously insist upon the dignity and decorousness of their treatment of one another, concealing their personal rancor by defensively observing the punctilios of an increasingly evanescent honor:

Caes. 1 must be laugh'd at, If for nothing, or a little, I Should say myself offended, and with you Chiefly i' the world: more laugh'd at, that I should Once name you derogately, when to sound Your name it not concern'd me.

(II. ii. 30-35)

Ant. . . . as nearly as I may, I'll play the penitent to you. But mine honesty Shall not make poor my greatness, nor my power Work without it. Truth is, that Fulvia, To have me out of Egypt, made wars here, For which myself, the ignorant motive, do So far ask pardon, as befits mine honour To stoop in such a case.

(II. ii. 91-98)

To gain acceptance in the exclusivist tragic world, Antony must disavow allegiance to the comic one. A recurrent theme of the reconciliation scene is Antony's lack of control over his women, a source of grievance between Antony and Caesar, and of increasing embarrassment to Antony. Antony coolly betrays Cleopatra, calling his hours with her "poisoned," to excuse his betrayal of an oath to aid Caesar. Octavia is brought forward to fill the need for a submissive woman, who will make love serve the designs of masculine policy rather than disrupting them.

The hierarchies of tragedy suppress the concerns of comedy by making them appear insignificant: "Small to greater matters must give way" (II. ii. 11). Personal and private feeling, of central importance in comedy, is here out of place. "'Tis not a time / For private stomaching" (II. ii. 8-9), Lepidus, the fatuous keeper of decorum, tells the aggressively personal and passionate comic Roman, Enobarbus. Caesar and Antony come to realize that their differences are based not so much on material injuries, but on differences of personality and style:

Caes. I do not much mislike the matter, but The manner of his speech; for't cannot be We shall remain in friendship, our conditions So differing in their acts.

(II. ii. 111-14)

Yet both men are willing to suppress this vital truth, because of the decorum of their situation. Mere personal differences are trivial and embarrassing, and ought to be suppressed in the grave public arena of world politics. The hierarchies of tragedy smother the viewpoints of comedy most dramatically when Antony silences Enobarbus, who keeps violating tragic decorum. As a spokesman for comic values, for personal and private feelings, Enobarbus refuses to behave as if he were Antony's subordinate. Unlike Caesar's officer Agrippa, he doesn't politely ask leave before he speaks. He resists the decorous tragic fiction that the leaders' expedient alliance out of fear of Pompey is "noble," and should be grounds for a permanent accord. And he registers his dissent by divagating into the comic low style: "Or if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again: you shall have time to wrangle in, when you have nothing else to do" (II. ii. 103-06).

At the end of the reconciliation, the scene becomes comic without having to return to Egypt. The recently suppressed Enobarbus now asserts himself; he speaks with intimacy and licence about the great, enacting the saturnalian side of comedy. His description of Cleopatra on Cydnus is of course a powerful celebration for its own sake of those comic and romantic elements which the Roman leaders seek to subordinate to their political ends. We also hear of a genuinely courteous Antony, unlike the pretender to courtesy we see in Rome. And we hear of a Cleopatra who is all the more majestic while flouting the decorum which weighs so heavily upon the would-be magisterial Romans. So II. ii. dramatizes the human consequences of classical decorum. The comic world is a distinctly subordinated one in Rome; Enobarbus is not allowed a jest in the presence of the great, let alone his account of Cleopatra's marvelousness as she appeared on Cydnus. However, the potency of his description is part of that groundswell of forces we sense building towards the release of the suppressed energies of comedy.


As we have seen, the classical principle of the separation of the genres tends to favor the dominion of tragedy. Antony generally obeys this Roman schema in the first half of the play: he resists Cleopatra's desire to include Roman business in Egypt, leaves Egypt for Rome, and tries to get along in the Roman world by subordinating Egyptian values. Yet each genre is undermined by decorous separation from its opposite. When Antony attempts to make Egypt into a realm which contains only pleasure, Egypt instead becomes the reverse of pleasurable: "The present pleasure, / By revolution lowering, does become / The opposite of itself (I. ii. 121-23). When Antony returns to Rome and works at eliminating all things Egyptian from his life, we see the genre world he is trying to build again dissolve in the feast on Pompey's galley. The plan for fighting with Pompey, for an heroic, tragic action, degenerates instead into a comic feasting and drinking bout with him, and the Roman world becomes, rather queasily, the opposite of itself:

Pom. This is not yet an Alexandrian feast.

Ant. It ripens toward it.

(II.vii. 95-96)

Shakespeare's critique of classical decorum emerges in the paradox that one cannot fulfill the distinctive natures of either genre without mingling them.

The Roman world ends as a parody of the Egyptian one. Language used about Octavia presents her as a simulacrum of Cleopatra, a love goddess who can make opposites mingle and become one: "her love to both / Would each to other and all loves to both / Draw after her" (II. ii. 135-37). But Octavia can't encompass and harmonize opposition; instead she becomes a part of it, a further source of hostility between Antony and Caesar. Rome is like Egypt, but it is also Egypt's opposite—the world of ironic comedy. It co-opts and preys upon the matter of comedy, while depriving comic actions of their meaning and value, like the ironic action of Caesar and Antony's imperial rivalry, which, as Enobarbus remarks, devours and makes empty the world: "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). These haunting lines are a comment upon the liquidation of Lepidus, who is another would-be comic mediator, like Octavia, between Antony and Caesar. At the feast on Pompey's galley, Lepidus tries to contain the hostilities between the leaders in himself and convert them to comedy. He tries to divert the other men "as they pinch one another by the disposition" by making himself more and more drunk. But he "raises the greater war between him and his discretion"; the attempt to internalize the conflict seems to explode the mediator's ability to maintain a discrete identity, and Lepidus is blown up into a titanic nonentity: "To be called into a huge sphere, and not to be seen to move in't, are the hole where eyes should be, which pitifully disaster the cheeks" (II. vii. 14-16). This eyeless Lepidus is a parody of the titanic being which Antony eventually does become in Cleopatra's dream, after he has brought together opposing worlds in himself and "bestrid the ocean":

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

(V. ii. 79-81)

Caesar, the personality of Rome, expands and fleshes out the ironic vision. In responding to a rumor that Pompey "is belov'd of those / That only have fear'd Caesar," he dissociates himself from the Roman people, popular leaders, and the processes of history since "the primal state":

I should have known no less; It hath been taught us from the primal state That he which is was wish'd, until he were; And the ebb'd man, ne'er lov'd till ne'er worth love, Comes dear'd, by being lack'd. This common body, Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, Goes to, and back, lackeying the varying tide, To rot itself with motion.

(I. iv. 40-47)

The great classical metaphor of the body politic, which typically endows collective humanity with the virtues of an individual man, is subverted here by Caesar to deny the individuality and humanity of the populace. He emphasizes inert, bodily qualities in the body politic: it is mindless, whorish, passive, determined by processes outside itself, and rotten. Like the Parthian darters, those ironic warriors who shoot backwards while retiring from the zone of combat, Caesar withdraws from the world of temporal processes as he attacks it. Past participles—"wish'd," "lov'd," "dear'd," "lack'd"—turn processes into fixed states, making them more purely ironic. Pompey is loved because he is lacked; he is lacked because his fortunes have ebbed; his fortunes have ebbed because he is worthless. Caesar's is an objective vision: he refuses to identify with the world outside his mind and animate it with any humanizing qualities. Instead his vision transforms people into inert objects, in a kind of inversion of the poetic act of personification.

Caesar's objective vision of Pompey's rise to power may be contrasted with Antony's view of it. Antony also remarks upon the ironic tardiness of the people's love:

Our slippery people, Whose love is never link'd to the deserver Till his deserts are past, begin to throw Pompey the Great, and all his dignities Upon his son, who high in name and power, Higher than both in blood and life, stands up For the main soldier: whose quality, going on, The sides o'the world may danger.

(I. ii. 183-90)

Antony increasingly respects Pompey; the son begins to grow into the borrowed robes of his father's fame, perhaps because the memory of the heroes of the past has, for Antony, a genuine power to raise the men of the present. Pompey's ambition to be "the main soldier" is identifiable with Antony's own conception of himself. Pompey becomes, to Antony, a considerable and threatening figure, while Caesar sees Pompey's power as a mindless, effeminate creation. A masculine principle—the principle represented in Antony's reflections by Pompey's father, who, together with the "slippery people" helps generate Pompey's greatness—does not seem to exist for Caesar in the world outside his mind. A dramatic irony lies behind Caesar's emasculating criticisms of both Pompey and Antony (whom he chides "as we rate boys") in I. iv. Caesar feels himself inadequate to deal with the masculine aggressions, the "hot inroads" (I. iv. 50) that Pompey and his pirates are making in Italy, without the assistance of Antony's soldiership.

Caesar both speaks from an ironic vision and dwells in an ironic world, the polar opposite of Cleopatra's vision and world. Northrop Frye elucidates some aspects of this polarity: "All myths have two poles, one personal, whether divine or human, and one natural: Neptune and the sea, Apollo and the sun. When the world of sea and sun is thought of as an order of nature, this polarization becomes a god or magician who controls the natural machine at one end, and the natural machine itself at the other. Tragedy, irony, and realism see the human condition from inside the machine of nature; comedy and romance tend to look for a person concealed in the mechanical chess player."12 Caesar gives us an inhuman, mechanical, threatening vision of what we see in human form in Cleopatra. In Cleopatra, who identifies with the moon goddess Isis, we glimpse a personality in the tides and the ebb and flow of human desire, those fluctuating processes which Caesar sees as devoid of and destructive to human personality. Combining the human and natural worlds, she makes the winds lovesick and the waters amorous at her manifestation on Cydnus. Her passions are like the elements—"greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report." Caesar doesn't see the same Cleopatra that the other characters and the audience do. His famously imperceptive entering line, "Which is the Queen of Egypt?" (V. ii. 112) indicates more than a social maladroitness. The majesty which is Cleopatra's identifying attribute is understandably invisible to Caesar, since it is made up of qualities which erode or threaten his notion of human greatness. Caesar of course only sees others, not himself, as "inside the machine of nature." His aloof perspective seems an appropriate way to dramatize a purely ironic vision—a vision of the world entirely devoid of human sympathy, with which its creator refuses to identify himself.

Antony returns to Rome hoping to find a freer, more spacious and heroic realm than Egypt. He finds instead an anti-Egypt, which is engaged in co-opting and destroying the stuff of comedy. The central actions of Antony's Roman sojourn are his empty political marriage and the treacherous feast on Pompey's galley. That the world of Rome devolves from an high heroic world into a world of ironic comedy is significant in the characterization of Shakespeare's literary universe. Shakespearean tragedy has many affinities with what was a comic world in Rome, and what we would call the world of ironic comedy. Many critics have noticed that Othello makes tragic use of characters and situations associated with the Roman comic tradition.13 Frye remarks that "Hamlet and King Lear contain subplots which are ironic versions of stock comic themes, Gloucester's story being the regular comedy theme of the gullible senex swindled by a clever and unprincipled son."14 The affinity of Shakespeare's tragic worlds with the world of Roman or ironic comedy is understandable when we realize the extent to which the world of tragedy is the world of comedy reversed, frustrated, turned inside out—in short, the world of ironic comedy. The realization of the opposition of the genres is also prelude to their union: the conception of tragedy as an anti-comic world allows it to be subsumed into a comic structure, as the anti-comic movement typical of comedy.

A central difference between Shakespearean tragedy and Roman comedy is the heartlessness of the latter. Situations that were evidently mirth-provoking in a Roman comedy can be heart-breaking in a Shakespearean tragedy, where we become more engaged with the inner lives of the characters. "Heart" is an important word in Antony and Cleopatra. The heart often stands out as the central subject of the action, and the word (or its relatives, like hearts, hearty, or hearted) occurs forty-nine times, making its most memorable appearances especially resonant:

Phi. . . . his captain's heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast. . . .

(I. i. 6-8)

Cleo. I would I had thy inches, thou shouldst know There were a heart in Egypt.

(I. iii. 40-41)

Cleo. 'Tis sweating labour', To bear such idleness so near the heart As Cleopatra this.

(I. iii. 93-95)

Ant. Egypt, thou knew'st too well, My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings, And thou shouldst tow me after.

(III. xi. 56-58)

Ant. Cold-hearted toward me?

Cleo. Ah, dear, if I be so, From my cold heart let heaven engender hail. . . .

(III. xiii. 158-59)

Eno. A diminution in our captain's brain Restores his heart.

(III. xiii. 198-99)

Ant. Ah, let be, let be! thou art The armourer of my heart.

(IV. iv. 6-7)

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

(IV. vi.34-36)

Ant. O thou day o' the world, Chain mine arm'd neck, leap thou, attire and all, Through proof of harness to my heart, and there Ride on the pants triumphing!

(IV. viii. 13-16)

Eno. Throw my heart Against the flint and hardness of my fault, Which being dried with grief will break to powder, And finish all foul thoughts.

(IV. ix. 15-18)

Ant. O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm, . . . Like a right gipsy, hath at fast and loose Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss.

(IV. xii. 25-29)

Ant. I made these wars for Egypt, and the queen, Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine: Which whilst it was mine, had annex'd unto't A million moe, now lost.

(IV. xiv. 15-18)

Ant. Off, pluck off, The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep The battery from my heart. O, cleave, my sides! Heart, once be stronger than thy continent, Crack thy frail case!

(IV. xiv. 37-41)

"Heart" is a frequently-used word in many Shakespearean plays, and it is fittingly prominent in a work which characterizes Shakespeare's own literary world in relation to that of his predecessors. The importance of hearts is linked to the elevation and expansion of the domain of comedy in Shakespearean and Renaissance literature. The world of human desire, the life of the heart, becomes noble and heroic, rather than clownish and low, in the course of literary history from Rome to the Renaissance. As Frye has said, "Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal function of literature in visualizing the world of desire."15 The importance of hearts also provides a link between the genres. It also manifests a deepening tragic world, a greater vulnerability to emotional hurt—to what Antony feels about Cleopatra's presumed betrayal, or what Enobarbus feels upon discovering that his desertion was a mistake. In the Shakespearean universe we grow into in the course of the play, characters can be both more high-hearted and joyous, and also more broken-hearted, than in the Roman world of the first half of the play, in which the genres and the emotional life they embody are kept separate.

The play achieves a unity of the kinds which also preserves and indeed heightens their opposition. Such a unity is difficult for the logical mind to accept, which is another reason the play has provoked such controversy about whether it is finally comic and romantic, or tragic and ironic. The kind of unity most congenial to the rational mind is a golden mean which balances extremes and cancels out the excesses of each. But the unity of the play is more like that "heavenly mingle" which Cleopatra admires in Antony as he leaves Egypt:

O heavenly mingle! Be'st thou sad, or merry, The violence of either thee becomes; So does it no man else.

(I. v. 59-61)16

The achievement of unity in opposition depends upon the power of language to be at once single and double; the simplest form of this power is seen in the pun, which is at once one word and two discrete words. Antony's lament at hearing that Cleopatra is dead, "now / All length is torture: since the torch is out" (IV. xiv. 45-46), links with wordplay the opposites (in terms of desire) of his torch and his torture. The sound suggests that Cleopatra is both, even while the sense seems to make an ultimate distinction between them. The crucial pun of the play is of course the one on "dying," which identifies the culminating act of a tragic action with that of a comic, romantic one.17

The dramatic image of Antony falling on his own sword is also a kind of gestural pun: it gives profound and powerful expression to opposite meanings. It is the ultimate ironic action, since Antony is turned against Antony. This is what Caesar, the complete ironist, has been trying more and more explicitly to accomplish: "Plant those that have revolted in the vant, / That Antony may seem to spend his fury / Upon himself (IV. vi. 9-11). Yet this ultimate ironic act also puts an end to irony; it prevents Caesar from taking Antony alive and continuing to humiliate him. This image shows the ironic merging into the heroic, as befits tragedy.

Falling on the sword is also a romantic and erotic gesture. In heroic romance, one of the signs of love is the stab wound, usually self-inflicted. Swords are inevitably phallic symbols, and Antony talks himself into suicide by imagining it as an erotic act. To achieve heroic stature, Antony must manage to effect a noble death (at least on some level), so falling on his sword, like an erotic act, is also a regenerative one: it entitles Antony to his rebirth in poetry and the theater.


The play, then, moves beyond the Roman world of Antony and Cleopatra's historical origin. The hero and heroine earn their transcendence of time, for they take the stuff of comedy more seriously than men do in the Roman world, a world in which Antony is accused of "lightness" and "traduc'd for levity" (III. vii. 13). Charles Hallett has argued recently that Antony and Cleopatra would have been recognized by a Jacobean audience as a portrayal of the "sublunar" world, an ironic world in which permanent value cannot exist, for everything is subject to change, time, and fortune.18 Hence we must beware of exalting the characters of such a world, who are distanced from their intended audience by an inevitable, historically-determined inferiority of metaphysical knowledge. But we do not stay in the dead Roman past, nor in the sublunar world, which becomes the fortunate Caesar's dominion. And while Hallett accurately compiles all the evidence presenting the play world as the ironic, lost, sublunar realm, he has neglected to notice the presence of the moon's personification in Cleopatra, who practices changeableness deliberately, as a stimulus to passion. Cleopatra becomes identified with the moon in her manifestations as Isis, the moon goddess, and in Antony's beautiful epithet for her, "our terrene moon" (III. xiii. 153). Her hoisting of Antony aloft in his death scene symbolizes his rising out of the mutable sublunar realm, where Caesar and fortune are all-powerful. "Our terrene moon" laments that, upon the death of Antony, "there is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon" (IV. xv. 67-68). The visiting moon prepares to depart for a sphere of greater fixity. Striving to be "marble-constant" in her resolution to die, Cleopatra bids farewell to the moon: "now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine" (V. ii. 239-40). As Cleopatra claims to become "fire and air" and consigns her lower elements to baser life, Charmian's choric comment, "O eastern star!" (V. ii. 307), suggests a transformation beyond the lunar sphere. Though higher than the moon, the eastern star, Venus, enskies another goddess with whom Cleopatra has been associated, and who, rising from the foam, contains the remembrance of Cleopatra's lower elements and fluid, changeable nature. To see the world of temporal flux and passionate change as a self-destructive, ironic one is true enough to the play, but it is only one of the play's visions—the Roman view, where things rot themselves with motion. We can also glimpse in the mutable world the emergent personality of a majestic queen, whose powers to destroy stability and masculine self-sufficiency are consummating, providential. Antony escapes the world of time and tide by passing through its vortex. For any coherent perception about life one finds in the play, the opposite genre always has an eloquent contrary vision.

After Antony departs from Rome, we have suggestions that we are moving beyond the Roman literary world. In the middle of Act III, allegorical characters, Eros and Scarus, appear on the scene and indicate that we are nearing the precincts of romance. In IV. iv, Antony crosses the threshold into the serious comic realm of Christianity. This scene is repeatedly concerned with meaning: "What means this?"; "What does he mean?"; "What mean you, sir, . . . ?" Antony is holding a last supper, at which one of the men present, "perchance tomorrow," will betray him. He talks of a resurrection of his honor, redeemed with his blood, of the identification of one man with many men, of masters and servants changing places, and of being married to his loyal followers.19 His meaning is lost on his immediate, pre-Christian audience; only his off-stage audience can find meaning in these biblical topoi. Enobarbus is somewhat sympathetic at first, but he becomes too moved himself, and accuses Antony of an unmanly indulgence in feeling. But Antony's critic here has a particular reason to desire the concealment of feeling. He has recently disclosed that "I will seek / Some way to leave him" (III. xiii. 200-01). So Antony's meditative reflection, "Perchance to-morrow / You'll serve another master," applies only too accurately to the naturally anguished Enobarbus. Antony's response to his followers' tears, "Grace grow where those drops fall, my hearty friends," calls for a larger-hearted kind of comic response, for hearts that are capable both of sympathy and joyousness. Antony heartily invites them "to burn this night with torches," and to "drown consideration" in a communal feast. He is o'erflowing the measure of his Roman context.

The following scene (IV. iii), of Hercules' departure, also deals with the subject of the changing of the gods. After the brilliance of the preceding scene, we are back out in the uncertain dark, and in the classical religious world of darkness and mystery, omens and portents. The form of this scene is that of mystery play. The stage space is used emblematically to represent the world, with soldiers placed in every corner of it. The characters are simple watchmen, and they witness a miracle, represented by hautboys under the stage. Instead of shepherds watching the appearance of a new star in the sky which portends the birth of a divinity, we have soldier-watchmen hearing music under the earth which signifies the disappearance of a god. The scene is a classical version of a mystery play, a kind of inverse nativity play. It reveals a mythic dimension to Antony's story: the change in Antony from the warrior-general to the lover is involved with the great transformation of our civilization from Roman antiquity (and the Greek antiquity which informs Rome) to the Renaissance. The change in the hero's identity is one that seems to impinge on an encyclopedic variety of literary styles, while his quest for identity is a human form of the literary quest to find an order behind and coherent relationships among divergent ancient and modern styles.

The scenes of Antony's successful land battle (IV. iv-viii) move us into the heroic comic world of romantic epic. Antony is at last, for the first time in the play, an inspiring warrior-general as he fights for his love. He calls Cleopatra his "squire." In his triumphal return to Alexandria, he speaks of his "gests," and addresses Cleopatra as "this great fairy," recalling the greatest literary fairy, the faerie queene. Out of the ashes of the Homeric warrior hero, who is withering away, made obsolete by policy in the ironic world of Rome, is born the hero of romance, who reanimates the warrior ideal—"O Antony, O thou Arabian bird!" (III. ii. 12). Antony recalls an Homeric hero in praising his men: "you have shown all Hectors." In defending Egypt, he has achieved the heroic soldierly ideal of Rome; he has bestrid the ocean. His comic integration of the opposing worlds seems threatened not so much from without, by Caesar, but from within, by its own expansive dynamic; Antony's forces threaten to grow too large and o'erflow the measure of all worldly containers: "Had our great palace the capacity / To camp this host, we all would sup together, / And drink carouses to the next day's fate, / Which promises royal peril" (IV. viii. 32-35). The comic union of former opposites is inauspicious for wars. Battle is not joined between Antony's navy and Caesar's; instead, the navies themselves join, and Antony is festively defeated: "My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder / They cast their caps up, and carouse together / Like friends long lost" (IV. xii. 11-13).

As in Antony's naval defeat, comic and tragic actions are also deeply intermingled in Enobarbus' death scene. The coup de grace for Enobarbus is not a tragic gesture of exclusion or rejection, but a comic one of love. Enobarbus too at last o'erflows the measure of the Roman world at his death; the Roman watchmen who witness his last scene without his knowledge, and without themselves comprehending that what he utters does not concern Caesar, dramatically give the measure of the distance Enobarbus has come from the Roman world. Formerly a detached mocker of other men's displays of passion, now he pours out his heart to the "blessed moon." He has previously spoken in the light, witty, detached mode of Ovidian lyric, in which love has the same effects on men as it has on horses. As Antony enters a new Renaissance heroic mode, Enobarbus at his death scene broaches the new mode of Petrarchan lyric:

O sovereign mistress of true melancholy, The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me, That life, a very rebel to my will, May hang no longer on me. Throw my heart Against the flint and hardness of my fault, While being dried with grief, will break to powder, And finish all foul thoughts.

(IV. ix. 12-18)

Enobarbus uses familiar Petrarchan tropes: sovereign mistresses, inward rebellions, naked thinking hearts. As the possibilities for jubilation go beyond anything in Roman comedy in the scenes of Antony's triumph, so new possibilities for serious feeling are opened up in these signs of a lyric style which aims at absolute sincerity, sanctions introspection, elevates women and the life of the feelings, and makes love an entirely serious, even tragic poetic theme. As in Shakespeare's own sonnets, the theme is a universal one, not confined to sexual love. Another echo of the sonnets can be felt in IV. v. Antony perfectly embodies that high constancy of love in Sonnet 116; his response to Enobarbus' desertion is a firm refusal "to bend with the remover to remove." The high seriousness about love and the life of the feelings embodied in the Renaissance lyric has of course been suppressed in the worldly, classical, masculine vision which Enobarbus has embodied so admirably.

The bursting of Enobarbus' heart, as he gasps out Antony's too great, too noble name with his dying breaths, seems a physical enactment of the expansion of the world of comedy. In his Ovidian mode, Enobarbus has represented a comic vision which is contained within a Roman set of values. Hence, as comedy o'erflows the measure of its place in the Roman world, Enobarbus fittingly bursts. Enobarbus also seems to cross quietly into the Christian world in the manner of his death; he repents, and prays for forgiveness.


John Danby, who has given one of the most interesting accounts of the play as a tragedy, sees Antony and Cleopatra as a vision of the world in terms of two great contraries, with no "third term" which reconciles them.20 But for those who see in the play a comic pattern which includes and completes tragedy, Antony is clearly cast in the role of a reconciling third term, who bestrides the ocean and unites the realms of Egypt and Rome. Qualities which can enter into a destructive conflict in Antony, such as youth and age, brown hairs and grey ones, at the Battle of Actium (III. xi. 13-15), can also form a mutually enhancing mixture in him, as when the brain power of the older man seems to nourish the "nerves"—the toughness, strength, and valor characteristic of a youth (VI. viii. 19-22). Each failure and disintegration of Antony's identity is prelude to his grander and more powerful integration of himself, a pattern that is reinforced by his association with the sun. Antony's sinking and rising again prepares for his glorious re-creation after death in Cleopatra's dream, as well as his many revivals as a theatrical hero.

The image of an Antony who gives human personality and form to the cosmos in Cleopatra's dream is more than an idle fantasy or airy nothing. This god-like, triumphant Antony is a metaphor for the paradoxically comic, integrating and renewing powers of tragic art. The paradox of tragedy is closely analogous to that at work in religious communion, which, as Frye describes it, involves "the dividing of a divine or heroic body among a group which brings them into unity with, and as, that body." One way of interpreting the Antony of Cleopatra's dream is as an image of the new larger identity created in the society of play-goers and readers out of the division and fall of Antony.

The possibility of an integrative, comic outcome arising out of a tragic action depends for its credibility not, primarily, on Christian analogies, but on an awareness of the literary and theatrical realm which enables such paradoxes to occur—which is one reason why this play is self-conscious about its identity as a work of art. In literature and the theater, of course, one does not participate in the hero's identity by eating a piece of his body, but rather through the imaginative process of identification with him. The identity of the hero, and the role in it of other people's identification with him, is a recurrent subject of the play's internal action; attending to it enables us to see the most powerful connection between the genres, as well as some mature Shakespearean reflections on the theory of art.

It is a convention of Shakespearean tragedy that the identity of the hero is a central concern and a unifying principle, and concern with the hero's identity is especially emphatic in Antony and Cleopatra. Most of the major characters—Caesar, Cleopatra, Enobarbus—as well as a number of minor choric figures, and of course Antony himself, participate with passionate intensity in the motive of wanting Antony to be a good Antony, as well as in the dramatic debate about what that is. Their concern is related to the degree to which the audience identifies with him, or, conversely, feels detachment and criticism. Though the preoccupation of so many characters with Antony augments our interest in him, the audience is at first inhibited in its identification with him by the presence of critical audience-surrogate commentators on stage. The ironic remarks of Philo and Demetrius, or Enobarbus with Maecenas and Agrippa or with Menas, can foster critical detachment in the off-stage audience. However, the on-stage critical attitudes toward Antony are disarmed in the course of the play. At the last supper scene, for example, the on-stage critic, Enobarbus, is himself inadequate to understand the meditations of this Antony who is fast outgrowing Roman horizons. Antony's off-stage audience here is in a better position to sympathize with his desire for a last communion with his loyal followers. This outer audience seems alluded to in the identification of one man and many men Antony desires, because of his use of an odd term—"clapp'd"—for uniting people: "I wish I could be made so many men, / And all of you clapp'd up together in / An Antony." The failure of Antony's attempt at a communion with his Roman audience is painful to his modern one, and tends to deepen his communion with them.

Detachment and dissociation from Antony is made to seem a most untenable position in the desertion of Enobarbus, an action which ironically recoils on Enobarbus. After Enobarbus leaves, there are no more detached observers in Antony's camp; Antony's attendant is the devoted Eros. At Antony's death scene, all the on-stage observers participate profoundly in, echo, and amplify his agony. In a discussion of the generic associations of engagement and detachment, Maynard Mack observes that "the total moral weight of comedy inclines generally toward the detached man as that of tragedy inclines toward the man engaged."21 Detachment is of course fundamental to an ironic vision, so it naturally is characteristic of ironic Roman comedy. Yet the engaging powers of tragedy can serve comic ends: because it can move the audience to identify with the hero, tragedy can work to create a new comic society which is unusually unified—which is one man and many men. In the desertion of the witty and ironic comic Roman, Enobarbus, the detachment of comedy is being repudiated in the service of a greater comic end.

Even Caesar, in spite of being Antony's enemy and embodying the desire for detachment from the rest of humanity in its purest form, cannot help identifying with Antony at the last. After the Battle of Actium, the conflict between Antony and Caesar becomes a contest between the actions of engagement and detachment on many levels, from the inner psychic lives of the two men, to the quality of their forces which are embarking upon a world war. Caesar's camp, the camp of detachment, is associated with the deserters who detach themselves from Antony; they take the vanguard of Caesar's army. Caesar remains aloof even from his own soldiers, and his cause is associated with the triumph of impersonal bureaucratic methods—"coin, ships, legions," and "lieutenantry"—over heroic personal power. Caesar employs indirect, personally evasive tactics, such as trying to madden Antony by detaching Cleopatra's affections through the detached "eloquence" of a hireling, Thidias. Antony, in contrast, seeks a direct personal confrontation, "sword to sword," and a last passionate engagement of his previously divided self for its own sake. He engages the hearts of his men and makes them identify passionately with his cause, and he refuses to dissociate himself from Enobarbus in spite of the latter's desertion. At the land battle where these forces of engagement and detachment finally encounter, the dramatic engagement culminates as Caesar's lieutenant gives the order "Retire, we have engag'd ourselves too far" (IV. vii. 1).

Antony and the powers of engagement ultimately win the dramatic contest, if they lose the military one. Though he has seemed to operate with cool detachment to defeat and destroy Antony as efficiently as possible, Caesar rather surprisingly weeps upon hearing that Antony is dead. Maecenas and Agrippa, who know Caesar best, are genuinely struck by the degree to which "Caesar is touch'd." They offer some conventional eulogies of Antony, and then, among themselves, a more sincere explanation for their leader's unusual emotion: "When such a spacious mirror's set before him, / He needs must see himself (V. i. 34-35). Though containing the ironic hint that Caesar is capable of tears only for himself, these lines also point out Antony's remarkable capacities as a tragic hero, who can all but compel men to identify with him. Even Caesar, with his stringently objective vision, his utter lack of sympathy for the universe outside his mind, can't help but see himself in Antony.

This notion of a "spacious mirror" signals a shift in the theory of art from that embodied in conventional mirrors for magistrates, such as Hamlet's mirror held up to nature. The spacious mirror metaphor for drama implies less interest in moral realism than Hamlet's theory of drama evinces; it gives a more flattering reflection to its beholders, magnifying them and giving greater scope to their desires for images of human greatness. Though the concept of a spacious mirror perhaps strains the analogy of art with actual mirrors, it emphasizes the emotional mirroring process of identification. Since it is flattering, the spacious mirror works better to make us see ourselves than mirrors which give less scope to our desires.


The theory of art embodied in Antony and Cleopatra could be characterized as comic because desire plays a greater role in creating the reality of the play than allegiance to an objectively realistic vision. The attempt to achieve an objective vision is of course discredited in the characterization of Caesar; it is presented as a negative enterprise, a vision of the world unendowed with any of the imaginative life of the perceiver, and hence a reductive, ironic vision. If as Frye says, Shakespearean comedy is engaged in "visualizing the world of desire," it is not surprising that desirers play an active and creative role in shaping the reality of the play's final comic triumph.

Cleopatra is the prime desirer in the play, and she also plays a prominent role in creating Antony's ultimate identity. In contrast to Caesar, who can always easily believe the worst, Cleopatra's desires so govern her perception of reality that she has great difficulty crediting news, such as Antony's marriage to Octavia, which contradicts them. The opposite ontological positions of Caesar and Cleopatra are dramatized in the two characters' treatment of messengers, who bring news from and symbolize the presence of an unmanipulable external reality. While Caesar listens with diligent attention and respect to messengers, Cleopatra tries to bribe, seduce, or threaten them into telling her what she wants to hear.22 Cleopatra's relationship to external realities may not always be admirable, but it is consistent with her role in helping to create a more elevated and heroic Antony. Both the hero and the heroine are ennobled by their attempts to live up to the spacious images of themselves in the desiring imaginations of their lover. Antony's belief in Cleopatra's noble death (which the audience knows to be a lie) helps inspire him to attempt the same, which in turn elevates Cleopatra, moving her to realize the spacious image of herself which Antony's suicide has reflected. The soothsayer in I. ii. jokingly suggests that wishes might have wombs, and Caesar also (contemptuously, of course) attests to the creative role of desirers: "It hath been taught us from the primal state / That he which is was wish'd, until he were" (I. iv. 41-42). Cleopatra's desiring imagination is the womb of the heroic Antony. Not only does she inspire him, but she speaks, in her dream of Antony, for the most glorious and transcendent image of him; she is the guardian, through her loyalty, of his image as a hero, rather than a dupe; and she is the agent of his final triumph over Caesar.

Critics with a preference for realism might disapprove of the degree to which Antony is a creation of the desires of those who identify with him. Yet it is the case with many fictive heroes that their identities are dependent on the process of identification: their final consequence to the world depends on how successfully they engage the desires of beholders. Antony and Cleopatra is simply more explicit than preceding tragedies about the role played by audience responses in creating its reality, and it contains built-in versions of them. Its realism includes the realities of art. Cleopatra's vision of Antony parallels and eloquently articulates the response of auditors who identify with him. As Antony meditates on the evanescence of earthly pageants and even of his own visible shape, and movingly laments his loss of a million hearts, he is annexing millions more in the theater and is on his way to acquiring the visionary shape of Cleopatra's dream.

In Cleopatra's final scene we are perhaps in the most sublime comic world in our language, a world which encompasses tragedy and is only made the loftier for it, which grows the more by reaping. We are witness to a comic victory over death, as Cleopatra the actress prepares for suicide as her last "noble act." The queen is at her most becoming—both beautiful, and full of transformation. She uses all the resources of the tiring house to dramatize her discovery of her immortal theatrical identity. In dressing up to die, she plays against the conventional association in Renaissance drama of death with undressing. The end of an actor's role, the dissolution of his identity, is often symbolized by the removal of costume. Antony removes his armor and is "no more a soldier" as he prepares to die. The most perfect dramatic contrary to Cleopatra's regal dressing for death is perhaps Lear's simple "Pray you, undo this button." Cleopatra's deliberate dressing "like a queen" for her death tells us visually that death is not here, as it usually is, the end of role-playing; it is the beginning of theatrical life.

Cleopatra reminds us of the theatrical world she is entering by repudiating a version of it:

Cleo. 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.

Iras O the good gods!

(V. ii. 215-20)

This theater is not, of course, the same as the one Cleopatra enters in Shakespeare's play; it is a return to the Roman comic world of strumpets and fools in which Philo sees Antony and Cleopatra performing in scene one. Caesar's triumph over Antony and Cleopatra would result in their enforced relocation back into the debased, captive comic world of Roman comedy. But the boy actor stikes closer home. This allusion to the theater serves primarily as a reminder of the theatrical being that Cleopatra is becoming.

The references to the theater and to Cleopatra's immortality as an actress have a paradoxical effect on our sense of closure, especially, in a live performance, where we have a stronger sense of the temporal sequence of the drama, since we must surrender to it—we cannot stop and go back as in reading. In a performance, as Cleopatra prepares to die, we feel the unmistakable approach of the ending of this long and powerfully engaging drama. Yet the reminders we are given that Cleopatra is an actress, and this is a play, a recurrent event, make this ending filled with an unusually lively sense of beginning anew: "I am again for Cydnus, / To meet Mark Antony" (V. ii. 227-28). As we feel the time frame of her death closing in on her, she o'erflows the measure yet once more.


Though Shakespearean comedy typically contains and completes a tragic movement, the union of the genres in Antony and Cleopatra is on an epic scale, and informs a coherent vision of literary history. Tragedy here includes its literary matrix in the Graeco-Roman tradition, and comedy, the Renaissance, romantic tradition. One achievement of this coherent vision of literary history is the resolution of one of the central artistic problems of Renaissance heroic tragedy, the problem of reconciling the ancient warrior ideal of heroic manliness with modern, Christianized conceptions of greatness, which is at the heart of Hamlet and Macbeth. Antony successfully bestrides the ancient and modern heroic traditions. He is a gentle, Renaissance hero, capable of reflection and selfless feeling at his last supper scene, in his forgiveness of Enobarbus and Cleopatra, or in his meditations on evanescent pageants with Eros; he is also capable of the glorious and exuberant martial prowess and the passionate egotism of ancient heroes. He can out-rage Hercules, or be "more mad / Than Telamon for his shield." No other hero, I think, acts out these opposing versions of greatness so fully and eloquently.

The central action in the play's vision of literary history is a movement from a world in which the mythos of tragedy dominates to one in which that of comedy does. The perspectives of tragedy are not, however, disallowed, as many readings of the play attest. It is the nature of the comic vision to include, not to reject, and Shakespeare revitalizes the values and vision of his literary forebears at the same time that he encompasses them in his own more capacious structure.


1 Quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are taken from the New Arden edition, ed. M. R. Ridley (Cambridge, Mass., 1954).

Among the best discussions of comic elements in the play are J. L. Simmons, "The Comic Pattern and Vision in Antony and Cleopatra" English Literary History, 36 (1969), 493-510, and Janet Adelman, The Common Liar (New Haven and London, 1973). Adelman has an excellent discussion of how "the entire tragic vision of the play is subjected to the comic perspective" in her first chapters (pp. 1-52), but she seems uninterested in the converse—the critique of the comic vision by the tragic perspective—or in the part generic worlds play in governing our interpretations. She eschews pursuing literary and critical issues in the play in favor of its "human fact" (pp. 12-13), while I will argue that the human situations of the play dramatize its literary concerns and are not separable from them.

2 Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, 1965), p.234.

3 Robert Ornstein, "The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra" in Later Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1966), pp. 31-46, and Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus, Ohio, 1968).

4Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (New York and Oxford, 1971).

5 Something should be said about the conceptions of tragedy and comedy used here. I think the most significant elements of generic identification—that comedy deals with love and festivity and is generally characterized by mirth, and that tragedy deals with wars and great political events, contains deaths, and is characterized by a generally grimmer view of things—is still a part of the common understanding of the genres and needs no explanation. Other conventional points of classical decorum—that the characters of tragedy are great persons, that its actions are often historical, and that it employs an elevated verbal style, while comedy deals with private and domestic actions of ordinary citizens or even slaves in a plain, humble style—are familiar enough to students of the period. (Though Cleopatra is in fact a queen, this doesn't prevent her from being classed by various Romans as a strumpet, trull, or whore, a low and conventionally comic character.)

The main sources for the conceptions of tragedy and comedy informing the characterizations of Rome and Egypt are previous Shakespearean practice in the genres and classical theory, which is used to sharpen and amplify points of generic distinction. The chief difference between these components—that Shakespearean practice in comedy typically manifests a more elevated, romantic conception of the comic world than that found in classical theory—is at the center of my argument about the rise of comedy embodied in the play. A good contemporary discussion of classical decorum can be found in Sidney's Defense of Poetry. Discussion of the elements of classical decorum, its relationship to Aristotle's theory of tragedy and to Roman and Elizabethan dramatic practice can be found in Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison, 1964), pp. 101-11 and passim, and also J. E. Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (New York, 1920), pp. 60-106 and pp. 282-90.

Reuben Brower has enlarged my conception of Shakespearean tragedy in his demonstration of its affinity with the Graeco-Roman heroic tradition in Hero and Saint. Northrop Frye has revealed a similar generic affinity between Shakespearean comedy and romance in its characters, situations, and ethos. My generic analysis is indebted also to Frye's perceptions of how the genres can mingle (in opposition to classical decorum) and comedy can contain and complete tragedy, in "The Argument of Comedy," English Institute Essay, 1948 (New York, 1949). Frye's defense throughout Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957) of comedy and romance from criticism which judges them by the standards of tragedy, irony, and realism is a most interesting exposition of the intellectual and philosophical content of the contest of genres. (Frey's conceptions of tragedy and comedy are based on or else consistent with classical formulations.)

Warning should be given that Shakespeare's generic thinking in this play, although it has elements of a grand, overarching simplicity, is also highly complex, and would require much longer exposition to be handled with adequate subtlety. For example, the generic worlds are not static entities, although the geo-political metaphor might at first lead one to expect them to be. The generic worlds are mental realms as well as external realities, and they shift with the rhythms of Antony's psychic life. The festive spirit disappears and Egypt becomes a mere colony of Rome when Roman thoughts strike Antony and make him reevaluate Egypt in I. ii. Rome becomes Alexandrian in II. vii. The forms of tragedy and comedy, which we usually think of as so distinct, tend here to dissolve and flow back and forth into one another. Of course, external geographical entities are themselves surprisingly fluid as conceived in this play, which asks us to entertain thoughts of Rome in Tiber and Egypt into Nile melting, and lets us travel in the theater from one world to another with the speed of thought.

Another complexity arises from the fact that, as I will discuss, both Rome and Egypt seek to expropriate elements of their adversary worlds. Like any Shakespearean tragic or comic world, neither Rome nor Egypt is unmixedly tragic or comic.

6 Charles Hallett, "Change, Fortune, and Time: Aspects of the Sublunar World in Antony and Cleopatra," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 75, 1 & 2 (1976), 75-89.

7 John Danby, 'Àntony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearean Adjustment," Poets on Fortune's Hill (London, 1952), pp. 128-51.

8 Many excellent discussions of the play turn upon this point of decorum, e.g., Herbert Rothschild Jr., "The Oblique Encounter: Shakespeare's Confrontation of Plutarch with Special Reference to Antony and Cleopatra," English Literary Renaissance, 6 (1976), 404-29.

9 This aspect of generic decorum, mentioned cursorily by many, is concentrated upon by Linda Bamber, "Comic Women, Tragic Men: Genre and Sexuality in Shakespeare's Plays," Diss. Tufts 1975. Bamber uses Antony and Cleopatra, among other plays, to demonstrate the thesis that "the central comic woman is whole, whereas the central comic man becomes whole." This applies well to Antony's quest for identity, I think; as he integrates the conflicting aspects of himself, Antony becomes in the course of the play more like Cleopatra, who has embodied from the first a more seamless union of paradoxical contraries.

10 These interpretations are set forth in the following studies: Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Durham, N.C., 1944), Markels, The Pillar of the World, and Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill.

11 "The Comic Pattern and Vision," p. 502. It should also be noted how beautifully the historical Octavius' banishment of Ovid fits in with Shakespeare's characterization of him.

12 Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York, 1965), p. 70.

13 Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, 1974), pp. 135 and 147. See Colie's notes, p. 147, for other treatments of this subject.

14Anatomy of Criticism, p. 175. Frye's word "ironic" here seems to me redundant, since these comic themes are from a tradition which is itself already ironic to begin with.

15Anatomy, p. 184.

16 The play is clearly distinguishable from the genre of tragicomedy in that rather than seeking a middle ground between the genres, it mingles extremes without modifying them. It proceeds straight into a full-blown tragedy, and its final comic elements arise out of the development of the tragic action rather than being any kind of check on it. The play's treatment of the genres can be contrasted with the spirit of compromise in conventional tragicomedy, which can be seen in Guarini's definition of the genre. He says that the writer of tragicomedy takes from tragedy "great persons but not great action; a plot which is verisimilar but not true; passions, moved but tempered; the delight, not the sadness; the danger, not the death; from the other [comedy], laughter which is not dissolute, modest amusement, feigned complication, a happy reversal, and above all, the comic order." Taken from Eugene Waith's translation in The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (New Haven, 1952), p. 48.

17 The luxuriance of puns in the play is more than a means of forging links between opposing genres and interpretations. See Sigurd Burckhardt's richly suggestive discussion of the role of punning in creating an artistic medium out of language, which builds on Empson's demonstrations that one word in great poetry can have many meanings, but changes the emphasis to the ability of many meanings to have one word. In "The Poet as Fool and Priest," Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 22 ff.

18 Hallett, pp. 77 ff.

19 John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London, 1936, rpt. 1954), also calls this scene "Antony's Last Supper" (p. 362). And he says that the story of Enobarbus is Shakespeare's version of the story of Judas (p. 367).

20 Danby, p. 149.

21 "Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays," Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), p. 287.

22 Antony, when "stirr'd by Cleopatra" in scene one, refuses to listen to messengers too.

Martha Tuck Rozett (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 152-64.

[In the following essay, Rozett compares the comic elements in the endings of Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, arguing that in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare more successfully dramatized the comic factors of a tragic situation.]

In tragedies of love, as distinct from tragedies in which love is made subordinate to revenge, ambition, or some other emotion, the two lovers theoretically have equal claims on the role normally reserved for a single protagonist. In the Shakespeare canon this equal claim is signaled by the title: Romeo and Juliet, Antony andCleopatra, and, if one wishes to include a play that is not generically a tragedy, Troilus and Cressida. Although love tragedy, broadly defined, was eventually to become a popular form on the Jacobean stage, the genre was a new one when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1594 or 1595. As Clifford Leech observes, until Romeo and Juliet appeared, love on the public stage seems to have been solely an element in comedy or in those romantic plays which Sidney mocked in his Apology for Poetry.1 In choosing the well-known Romeo and Juliet legend for his first tragedy of love, Shakespeare either stumbled upon or deliberately sought out a solution to the major problem inherent in the two-protagonist tragedy: that of orchestrating an ending in which two characters separately yet jointly undergo tragic downfalls and deaths. What particularly interests me about the pattern of events with which Romeo and Juliet ends is that Shakespeare used it again, several years later, in Antony and Cleopatra. Both love tragedies conclude with a tragic sequence consisting of the feigned death of the heroine, followed by the suicide of the lover, then the heroine's "resurrection," and finally, a second suicide. This pattern confers upon each of the four title characters a role characteristic of the tragic protagonist—that of causing the death of another. Each lover indirectly and inadvertently brings about the death of the beloved, and each dies nobly by his or her own hand, believing that death is preferable to life without the beloved.

Tragic as such endings are, they also function as resolutions to dramatic structures exhibiting a number of comic traits. As critics have frequently observed, Shakespeare mingles comedy and tragedy in many of his plays. But what makes Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra unusual among Shakespearean tragedies is the way the principal characters' identities as lovers shape the action and determine the denouement. As love stories in which women share the protagonist's role with men, moreover, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra give to their heroines a prominence that links them more closely with the women of the comedies than with the women of the tragedies. Shakespeare places Romeo and Juliet, and to a lesser extent Antony and Cleopatra, in typically comic situations: both sets of lovers must overcome social and political obstacles to be united; both are surrounded by variations on comic character types who contribute to the complications in the love plot; and both entangle themselves in tragic renditions of the pattern of misunderstanding and confusion leading to clarification and reunion so prevalent in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. While some of these comic elements are present in Shakespeare's other tragedies, most notably Hamlet and Othello, the love tragedies conclude very differently from the tragedies that center upon isolated single protagonists. Both Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra end with a resounding affirmation of the power of love to resolve differences and elevate the human spirit, leaving the audience feeling that what they have just experienced is not altogether tragedy.2

Notwithstanding these similarities, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra are very different plays in respect to plot, tone, and characterization. What the differences—and the similarities—reveal about Shakespeare's use of comic strategies in tragic contexts will be the main focus of this essay. In particular, I wish to examine the comic structures implicit in the double suicides, which in both plays turn upon essentially comic acts of trickery. In comparing the two endings, I hope to show that Shakespeare had become more comfortable with the comic aspects of a tragic situation by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra, and that he more successfully exploited the comic possibilities he found in his source.


By the time Shakespeare discovered it in the 1590s, the Romeo and Juliet story already had a long history. Arthur Brooke's long poem "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet," first published in 1562, was sufficiently popular that Tottell reprinted it in 1582 and it was reissued again in 1587. Brooke based his poem on Boiastuau's French adaptation of an Italian novella by Bandello, which in turn was an adaptation of da Porto's version of the story, published in 1530. The device of the sleeping potion goes back much further, however, to the Ephesiaca of Xenephon of Ephesus (fifth century A.D.), in which the heroine's feigned death is one of a string of escapades, rather than the culminating event leading to tragedy.3

As the history of drama reveals, the dangerous adventure of feigned death and promised resurrection was one of the oldest and most popular comic traditions on the English stage. The resurrection of a seemingly dead character was the central event in the mummers plays, for example, which celebrated the miracle of seasonal renewal by dramatizing the death of the old year and the birth of the new. And once the drama ceased to be so closely linked to religious ritual, the resurrection motif continued to appear in comic plots. As an ironic reversal of expectations, it constituted a moment of festive triumph over the inevitable exigencies of time and death, for characters and audience alike.4

Shakespeare used the device of the heroine's feigned or reported death and subsequent reappearance in five of his comedies and romances: Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. Each time, the play concludes with a reunion of the married or betrothed couple.5 In every case the heroine's feigned death is part of a sequence of events that tests her virtue and endurance. Even when much of the action occurs off-stage, she generally emerges as a strong (or at least stronger) character who overcomes adversity and upholds the play's comic values—perseverance, loyalty, and the ability to forgive. Frequently assisted by friends who help devise the deception, she engages in an act of trickery that is intrinsically comic. Her false death is a form of disguise, misleading the lover or husband about her identity and serving as a trap (All's Well) or a penance (Much Ado, The Winter's Tale) that is curative or corrective in typically comic fashion. Her discovery of her true identity may take the form of an unmasking (Much Ado), a return from afar (Pericles), or a more elaborate enactment of resurrection (The Winter's Tale). In the romances, in particular, it is one of the many revelations and discoveries with which the play ends.

In nearly all of Shakespeare's comic renditions of the false death and resurrection motif, timing is an essential element. The comic characters suffer temporary setbacks and mishaps due to accidents of timing, but ultimately good fortune, assisted by the manipulative skills of the stage manager character, brings events to a satisfying conclusion. In his discussion of "chance" or "accident" in Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley observes that while such occurrences have a role in most of the tragedies, Shakespeare "really uses it [chance or accident] very sparingly," since "any large admission of chance into the tragic sequence would certainly weaken, and might destroy, the sense of the causal connection of character, deed, and catastrophe." Bradley adds in a footnote that comedy is quite different, for there "the tricks played by chance often form a principal part of the comic action."6 The final scenes of Romeo and Juliet, although tragic in outcome, are comic by nature inasmuch as everything hinges on accidents of timing. Capulet's unreasonable insistence on an early marriage date, the wholly unprepared-for plague which prevents Romeo from receiving Friar Laurence's letter, and the Friar's tardy arrival at the tomb are all examples of timing gone awry, as is the way Juliet awakens a mere twenty-five lines after Romeo dies, an interval so ironically brief as to be reminiscent of the comic near misses in A Comedy of Errors.7 Not all of these accidents are part of the Romeo and Juliet story in its original form. The da Porto and Bandello versions had kept Romeo alive until Juliet awoke, but Shakespeare followed the sequence introduced by Boiastuau and retained by Brooke, whose narrative draws attention to timing with the line "an houre too late fayre Juliet awaked out of siepe."8 Shakespeare's awareness of the comic aspect of this kind of accidental event becomes all too evident when one compares Romeo and Juliet with its slapstick parody, the Pyramus and Thisby play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. There the arbitrary and unlikely presence of the lion, the misleading evidence provided by the bloodied scarf (a case of inadvertent trickery), and the speed with which Pyramus dispatches himself all contribute to the comic effect of the tedious and mirthful tragedy.

The basic situation Shakespeare found in Brooke's poem contained traditionally comic character types whose relationships to one another were at least potentially comic: the young lovers, the obdurate father, the loquacious and devoted Nurse, and the wise and manipulative Friar. In writing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare successfully grafted onto Brooke's narrative some of the most effective comic strategies of the early comedies: practical joking, bawdy wordplay, flights of poetic fancy, teasing, and comic testing. Most of these elements stand apart from the forward progress of the plot, however, consisting as they do of humorous interludes focused on secondary characters. Generally these comic moments are designed to elicit laughter rather than delight, to use Sidney's distinction in An Apology for Poetry.9 Brooke's poem does, interestingly enough, introduce and then reject one comic idea that Shakespeare would develop elsewhere. Brooke's Juliet responds to the prospect of Romeus' exile by offering to disguise herself as a servant and accompany him. Romeus dismisses this suggestion as the counsel of "rashe hastiness and wrath" and advises her to obey "the lore of reasons skill" and await the change of inconstant Fortune in Verona (Bullough, I, 327-28). In omitting this exchange, Shakespeare quite wisely chooses not to mention a comic possibility that, if entertained, might weaken whatever tragic inevitability the ending possesses. He also emphasizes Romeo's passivity and immaturity; rather than giving advice, Romeo succumbs to despair and must be counseled by Friar Laurence and the Nurse. Juliet is similarly dependent on the Friar and the Nurse, although unlike Romeo she has some of the comic heroine's strength of character and ability to take charge of the situation in which she finds herself. This is evident early in the play, when she forthrightly cuts off Romeo's elaborate vows ("O, swear not by the moon . . .") and expeditiously directs the discourse to the matter of marriage, the traditionally comic outcome of honorable love affairs. This potential strength of character is overshadowed, however, by her growing dependency on the Friar.

The lovers' frequent consultations with the Friar have very few counterparts in Shakespearean comedy; in the comic world the heroes and heroines are capable, by and large, of bringing about a festive ending with little or no assistance (Measure for Measure is a striking exception). The Friar is nevertheless an intrinsically comic character type, with analogues in those comedies and romances which employ the false death and resurrection motif. Like his counterparts in Much Ado or The Winter's Tale, the Friar has a plan to extricate the heroine from the disastrous events which have suddenly disrupted her life; unlike his counterparts, however, he proves to be an ineffectual manipulator, and certainly no match for Fortune, which works against the star-crossed lovers at every turn. In a variety of ways, Shakespeare makes us realize that, notwithstanding our desire to believe in Friar Laurence's ability to set everything right, the play has fixed its course toward a tragic outcome.

One way in which Shakespeare does this is through comedy; unlike Brooke, whose Friar is an unambiguous repository of wisdom, Shakespeare makes his Friar ever so slightly pompous in his first scene (II.iii), displaying some of the characteristics of comic old men with his penchant for aphoristic pronouncements. The Friar's final line in the scene, "Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast," reveals him to be utterly out of step with the rest of the characters in this fast-moving play, and he is sometimes played as a doddering old man trying unsuccessfully to impose his ways on others. Although we do not develop the kind of contempt toward the Friar that we feel toward a character like Polonius, we remain aware that he never succeeds in transcending his comic origins, even in his most sensible and prudent moments. Indeed, part of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet stems from the fact that the sensible and prudent have no place in a world of impetuous and passionate creatures.

Shakespeare continues to use comic strategies in Romeo and Juliet until the very end of the play, even though, according to the laws of tragedy, a comic resolution becomes impossible once Tybalt and Mercutio are dead, just as, once Hamlet kills Polonius, he is doomed to die.10 The play's depiction of the other members of the older generation—the Capulets and the Nurse—offers particularly good examples of the way Shakespeare transformed a tragically ironic error in perception into a series of incidents that reveal the comic blindness and folly of characters in positions of authority. In Brooke's poem, there is no mention of a match between Juliet and Paris until after Tybalt's death, when Lady Capulet, who is profoundly distressed by her daughter's inexplicably prolonged grief, stumbles upon the notion that Juliet envies her married friends and would be revived in spirit by the prospect of a husband. Juliet fiercely resists her mother's solution, whereupon Lady Capulet involves her husband, a "testy old man," as Brooke calls him, who announces that he has promised Juliet to County Paris and that he will marry Juliet to the County on "Wensday next" (Bullough, I, 335-36). Shakespeare's Capulet is testy like his predecessor, but he is also comically foolish in speech and manner, so much so that the Nurse scolds him to his face and Lady Capulet tells him he is "too hot." Betrayed by her parents, Juliet turns to the Nurse for "comfort" and "counsel." In one of the most interesting additions he makes to his source, Shakespeare has the Nurse abandon Juliet as well. In the spirit of practical accommodation to the inevitable, the Nurse advises Juliet to marry the County. Her homely comparison of the two men ("Romeo's a dishclout to him") is a daring use of comic language in a situation that is inherently tragic (III.v.175-219).11 Juliet's expectations of loyalty and support—and the audience's similar expectations—are cruelly overturned and Juliet is truly alone.

In a comedy this challenge posed by Juliet's dilemma would rouse the heroine to new heights of ingenuity. In the Romeo and Juliet story, however, it reduces Juliet to suicidal desperation, and she places herself in the hands of the Friar. Surrounded by preparations for the marriage festivities with which comedies so often end, Juliet has a tragic scene that, perhaps more than any other part of the play, anticipates moments of decision in the later tragedies. Although he follows Brooke quite closely in staging Juliet's "dismal scene," Shakespeare introduces an element of doubt that brings his heroine closer to tragedy than her predecessor. Whereas Brooke's Juliet worries about becoming "the peoples tale and laughing stocke" (p. 346) if the potion fails to work, Shakespeare's Juliet experiences deeper fears: she wonders if the Friar is trying to kill her to save himself from disgrace. This suspicion parallels Juliet's disillusionment with the Nurse, further unsettling the certainties she has relied on up to this point. For a moment, she experiences a fear of betrayal, followed by a horrifying vision of madness and loss of control brought on by the sights and sounds of the corpse-ridden tomb. Through an extreme act of will, she rouses herself from these nightmare imaginings and ends her speech with a desperate and courageous version of a festive toast: "Romeo! Here's drink—I drink to thee" (IV.iii.58).

The aftermath of Juliet's apparent "death" returns us to the comic world. The preparations for the feast, the arrival of the bridegroom, and the comic business between Peter and the musicians are briefly interrupted by fifty lines of stiff and formal lamentation, concluding in the Friar's moralizing speech offering the traditional consolation that Juliet is better off in heaven. Very few of the 400 lines that intervene between Juliet's soliloquy and Romeo's death focus on Romeo's feelings about her; instead the stage is given over to other kinds of business—the purchase of the poison, the return of Friar John, the fight between Romeo and Paris. Romeo's "mistake" thus becomes part of a series of comic errors: he is misled by his well-meaning servant, betrayed by his own impatience and self-pity, and like the other, less perceptive characters, unable to see through Juliet's disguise.

As events rush toward their inevitable conclusion, the audience acquires the kind of discrepant awareness—focused on facts the characters do not know—which makes the endings of Hamlet and Othello ironic. Also similar to the later tragedies is the accumulation of deaths. In adding the death of Paris to the story he received from his source, Shakespeare makes Romeo's subsequent suicide even more tragically inevitable. Although Paris has not engaged our sympathy to any great degree, we feel a pang of regret that he must die needlessly, caught up in a tragedy of nature of which he is entirely ignorant. Shakespeare explicitly contrasts Paris, for whom there will be no lovers' union, however tragic, with Romeo, who finally approaches the wife he parted from in Act III, scene v. His last speech is a celebration of Juliet's beauty, transforming death into an amorous lover who sucks the honey of Juliet's breath and keeps her as his paramour. Romeo's directions to himself ("Eyes, look your last! / Arms take your last embrace . . .") make it seem as if he is playing a role, like the actors in the Pyramus and Thisby play whose valedictories his speech curiously resembles.12 Like Juliet, Romeo consumes his potion with a toast, and dies immediately. When Juliet awakens, she bravely dismisses the Friar, whose fearfulness is a comic characteristic inasmuch as it causes the audience to feel scornful toward him. She then turns to her husband and chides him: "O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop / To help me after?" (V.iii.163-64). Then she unhesitantly embraces death with "a cheerful alacrity" (to use Leonora Brodwin's words)13 that looks forward to Cleopatra's final moments.

Unlike Cleopatra's last scene, however, Juliet's dying speech is so brief that it is nearly lost in the confusion of the watchmen's arrival. As the stage fills up, the lovers are quickly relegated to the background, for Shakespeare has left himself a lot of explaining to do. This kind of fifth act, filled with the unraveling of evidence, lengthy revelations, and acts of forgiveness, is more common to comedy and romance than to tragedy.14 The audience's attention is focused on the two families, whose recognition of the costly lessons their children's deaths have taught them overshadows the lovers' union in death.15 In this respect the ending anticipates the mature tragedies, where the survivors prepare to carry on the business of living and preside over a restored body politic. Any resemblance to comedy the ending retains is due largely to the long-awaited reconciliation which culminates in celebratory tokens of concord, the golden statues of Romeo and Juliet.


The deaths of the lovers in Antony and Cleopatra seem to occupy a much larger part of the play than do those in Romeo and Juliet; indeed, critics have frequently commented upon the drawn-out sequence of events that begins with Antony's resolution to die in IV.xiv and ends some 565 lines later with Cleopatra's death and Octavius' final speech.16 Antony and Cleopatra are simultaneously legendary characters of heroic proportions and aging lovers whose flaws and follies invite a critical appraisal more proper to satiric comedy than to romantic tragedy. The play's prolonged ending has the extraordinary effect of focusing our attention on the lovers' grandeur while reminding us repeatedly of their comic fallibility. At the end, when their greatness transcends their failings, the final effect is exhilarating; we share in their triumph over Caesar and join Cleopatra in celebrating a love that defies time and circumstance. And yet we cannot altogether forget the betrayals, the self-deluding posturing, and the violent outbursts that have preceded the lovers' union in death.

Shakespeare's use of the device of the reported death in Antony and Cleopatra is strongly reminiscent of the comedies. Whereas in Romeo and Juliet the heroine's false death is a test of her own courage and devotion, the reported deaths in Much Ado, All's Well and Measure for Measure each represent a deliberate act of trickery contrived against a character who has wronged the heroine. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's adaptation of North's Plutarch emphasizes the comic aspects of the situation, although like North, Shakespeare is ambiguous about the issue of betrayal. Plutarch's description of the decisive battle comes immediately after the mysterious account of the music signaling Hercules' departure. Plutarch observes that "it seemed that this dance went through the city unto the gate that opened to the enemies, and that all the troop that made this noise they heard went out of the city at that gate." This apparent act of abandonment is then repeated in the battle scene: when Antony's galleys approached the Roman ones, according to Plutarch, "they first saluted Caesar's men, and then Caesar's men re-saluted them also, and of two armies made but one, and then did all together row toward the city." Seeing this, Antonius "fled into the city, crying out that Cleopatra had betrayed him unto them with whom he had made war for her sake." Neither in Plutarch nor in Shakespeare is there any indication that Cleopatra actually did so, however. Indeed, the succession of defections that precedes this scene in the play could lead the audience to conclude that she had nothing to do with this final betrayal. Our uncertainty about Cleopatra's behavior qualifies our sympathy for Antony, and leads us to wonder whether he is, indeed, "more mad / Than Telamon for his shield" (IV.xiii.1-2). North reports that Cleopatra fled into her tomb and "sent unto Antonius to tell him that she was dead."17 Shakespeare's adaptation gives Charmian credit for the idea: in her role as loyal confidante and clever servant, she suggests the deception, taking charge of events in typical comic fashion. Despite her fright, Cleopatra rather enjoys the prospect of hearing how Antony will respond to the news. "And word it, prithee, piteously," she instructs Mardian, "And bring me how he takes my death." Whether or not Cleopatra has been unjustly accused, her false death seems more a self-protective ruse than a device designed to achieve reconciliation. In this respect it is a little like Falstaff's comically anti-heroic feigned death at the end of 1 Henry IV.

Antony's violence is short-lived, and gives way to thoughts of suicide even before Mardian arrives with his news. The hero's suicide is frequently described as "bungled," and critics are divided about whether or not it debases Antony in the audience's eyes.18 In contrast with the noble Eros, Antony seems oddly lacking in courage, as he himself observes:

I, that with my sword Quartered the world and o'er green Neptune's back With ships made cities, condemn myself to lack The courage of a woman—less noble mind Than she which by her death our Caesar tells 'I am conqueror of myself


That he is honest enough to acknowledge this falling off elevates him in stature, as does the audience's knowledge that Cleopatra is even less courageous than Antony at this moment. However hesitant and clumsy, his deed is nevertheless nobler than hers, although he doesn't realize it. Part of the comic effect here is owing to Shakespeare's reiteration of the trickery motif: having just been tricked by Cleopatra, Antony allows himself to be tricked again by Eros, who deliberately arouses Antony's—and the audience's—expectations, and then shocks both his master and us by stabbing himself. When Antony rushes toward death like a bridegroom to a bride, only to be deceived a third time ("How? not dead? not dead?") the effect is ironic, to say the least. Antony continues to behave like a gulled, ineffectual comic figure for most of the scene, as he pleads unsuccessfully with his followers to kill him, and as he listens to Diomedes' revelation that Cleopatra is alive. Not until he is borne aloft by the guardsmen and carried off the stage does he begin to regain his heroic stature.

Shakespeare's deftly comic handling of a tragic situation becomes even more apparent when Antony is brought to Cleopatra's monument in Act IV, scene xv. "A heavy sight" becomes "sport indeed" as Cleopatra and the others make puns on the word "heavy" while Antony's body is hauled awkwardly aloft. The poignancy of the leave-taking is further tempered by the fact that the lovers are comically at odds: "let me speak a little," begs the dying Antony, only to be cut off by Cleopatra, who says "No, let me speak, and let me rail so high. . . ." Antony's parting words of advice are dismissed and ignored by Cleopatra, and when he breathes his last the final words he hears are her querulous complaint: "Has thou no care of me? Shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No better than a sty?"

Interspersed with these comic touches are the parting embraces and marvelous speeches of two lovers, who appeal to us precisely because their dramatic posturing, as they themselves sometimes seem to realize, is both rhetorically splendid and slightly absurd. Again and again, they regard and admire themselves, commenting, as if from a distance, on the spectacle they are presenting to their onstage audience, but with a maturity of historical perspective, tempered with ironic self-awareness, that Romeo and Juliet, in their impetuous passion, lack. Here, for example, is Antony, describing his own death: "Not Caesar's valor hath o'erthrown Antony / But Antony's hath triumph'd on itself; he is, as he grandly proclaims, "a Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly vanquish'd." Cleopatra's roles are more varied; she sees herself at once as the woman "commanded / By such poor passion as the maid that milks / And does the meanest chores" and as a defiant queen throwing her sceptre "at the injurious gods, / To tell them that this world did equal theirs / Till they had stol'n our jewel" (IV.xv.14-78). This role-playing motif becomes much more explicit in the highly theatrical final scene.

The trickery motif returns in Act V, scene ii, as both Cleopatra and the audience are surprised by the seemingly kindly Proculeius. Relieving Proculeius of his charge, Dolabella listens respectfully as Cleopatra delivers her magnificent celebration of Antony's greatness, while time seems to stand still and the horrors of captivity magically recede. When Caesar enters, Cleopatra is prepared for him, since Dolabella, won over by her poetry, has betrayed his master by revealing Caesar's intentions to lead her in triumph. There follows a scene of elaborate play-acting in which Cleopatra enacts the humble and self-belittling captive and Caesar the gracious captor.

The ambiguous scene with Seleucus can be viewed as a carefully staged trick designed, in Willard Farnham's words, "to mask a full-formed intention to die by giving the appearance of wanting to live."19 That Cleopatra is fully aware of Caesar's efforts to deceive her is evident in her mocking comment upon his performance: "He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself (V.ii.191-92). The differences between North's Plutarch and Shakespeare's play are particularly significant in this scene. North notes that Cleopatra successfully deceived Caesar; but rather than emphasizing the comic aspects of her sense of triumph, he dwells at length upon her grief over Antony's death. He recounts an incident that Shakespeare deliberately omits, in which Cleopatra is carried to Antony's tomb; there in Plutarch she delivers a long, tearful lament to her beloved, dwelling upon her fear of being carried away to Italy, and begging him to intercede with the gods "to let me be buried in one self tomb with thee." This is the last speech by Cleopatra recounted by North; the remainder of his narrative passes quickly over the manner of her death. Shakespeare chooses instead to dramatize the scene with the clown and its aftermath, inventing his own dialogue for this purpose.

Her spirits restored by her success in tricking Caesar, Shakespeare's Cleopatra embarks upon preparations for her final act with a contagious liveliness that makes the characters seem as if they are participating in a comic resolution—which, in a sense, they are. Like Rosalind orchestrating the multiple marriages at the end of As You Like It, Cleopatra does not reveal her plan to the audience; instead she whispers something to Charmian, then asks for her "best attires," complete with "crown and all," all the while gloating that "that's the way / To fool their preparation, and to conquer / Their most absurd intents" (V.ii.224-26).

The comic interlude with the clown is reminiscent of Hamlet's conversation with the gravediggers. In much the same way, Shakespeare introduces a common workingman whose relationship with death (or, in this case, the agent of death) is so matter-of-fact and casual that we are compelled to see death from a radically different perspective. The clown's cheerful farewell, "I wish you joy of the worm," ironically reminds us that this is a joyful occasion, and that Cleopatra's impatience with him is caused by her eagerness to embrace death. As soon as the clown departs, the festive preparations resume, with the ritual of attiring performed onstage. Characteristically conscious that she is about to perform an "act," Cleopatra transforms the moments preceding her death into the procession that leads to the wedding celebration: "Husband, I come: / Now to that name my courage proves my title!"

Dying is a sensual experience ("The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch"), as the Elizabethans' punning use of the word "die" affirms. There is even a joke concerning sexual jealousy; when Cleopatra realizes that Charmian is dying, she hastens to kill herself lest Charmian "first meet the curled Antony" and he "make demand of her, and spend that kiss / Which is my heaven to have." Cleopatra's language in these final speeches brings together the marriage ceremony, its consummation, and the bride's subsequent anticipation of motherhood, all important aspects of the traditional comic resolution's celebration of fertility and the perpetuation of the social order. The asp, now become "the baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep," is metamorphosed from an instrument of death to a symbol of new life (V.ii.260-310).20

Cleopatra's joyous pleasure in taking her own life owes as much to her triumphant sense of having tricked Caesar as it does to her "immortal longings" for reunion with Antony. She thinks she hears Antony mock Caesar's "luck," a deceptive gift "which the gods give men / To excuse their after wrath," and she revels in the imaginary prospect of the asp calling "great Caesar ass / Unpolicied" (V.ii.286-87, 307-8). As the culminating event in a carefully planned trick (one is again reminded of As You Like It, or The Winter's Tale) and as a marriage ceremony, the final masque-like tableau has far more in common with comedy than tragedy.21 Janet Adelman remarks that "the play is essentially a tragic experience embedded in a comic structure."22 As in comedy, the lovers have triumphed over the obstacles that repeatedly threatened and delayed their union, and have achieved a form of release from the realities of daily life that would forever impede such a union. That this release and triumph take the form of death may seem tragic. But as Anne Barton notes, "In a way for which there is no parallel in any other Shakespearean tragedy, we want Cleopatra to die."23 What makes the ending an extraordinary fusion of comedy and tragedy, however, is the audience's realization that the lovers' deaths remain, in Derek Traversi's words, "the inevitable end of a line of conduct in which folly and self-indulgence have consistently played their part," even as they also recognize that these deaths constitute a triumphant achievement and an instrument of release.24

In contrast to the ending of Romeo and Juliet, timing in Antony and Cleopatra works to the protagonists' advantage; Cleopatra succeeds in dying just before the Romans return. Furthermore, Shakespeare has stripped away nearly all of the comic character types who are so central to the traditional comic sequence in which confusion is ultimately resolved by a series of unmaskings. The stage manager figure (Friar Laurence), the parents, the authority figure who presides over the resolution (Prince Escalus)—these have no counterparts in Antony and Cleopatra. There remains only Octavius Caesar, who bears a curious resemblance to Paris in the triangular structure of the two plays—except, of course, that Paris is among the dead in Romeo and Juliet. Inasmuch as he is both "beguiled" and left to assume controls, Caesar displays some aspects of the overruled parents and the presiding authority figure who participate in comic resolutions. He has lost the battle but won the war, and in keeping with the comic tone of the ending, he joins the audience in celebrating Cleopatra, who, he says, looks "As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (V.ii.347-48). The spirit of successful trickery persists to the very end, as Caesar and his retinue puzzle over the manner of Cleopatra's death. They nevertheless join in the conciliatory spirit of the comic ending. Although he has been thwarted in his effort to reap political profit by belittling a captive Cleopatra, Caesar announces that he will give the lovers the solemn show their greatness deserves. He thus contributes his share to the satisfying resolution, and emerges as a more sympathetic character than he has been at any other point in the play.


With Caesar's announcement that the lovers shall be buried together, "no pair so famous," Antony and Cleopatra arrives at an ending seemingly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The atmosphere, however, is utterly different: while in Romeo and Juliet the speeches are filled with the language of sorrow and punishment, sacrifice and woe, and an emphasis on the survivors' ability to learn from their mistakes, in Antony and Cleopatra the scene is best summed up by the dying Charmian, who triumphantly responds to the Guardsman's reproach with "It is well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings." The triumph Charmian feels suffuses the ending; for all three women, "this vild world" is a place no longer "worth leave-taking" (V.ii.326-27, 314, 298). The stage littered with bodies is thus not the tragic spectacle one would expect it to be, for it serves as a reminder that all the deaths in the play are voluntary and self-imposed acts which assert the individual's power over his or her own fate. How different, then, is Antony and Cleopatra from Romeo and Juliet and the later tragedies, where death is violent, arbitrary, and caused by treachery and misunderstandings, abruptly cutting off the lives of characters who unwittingly find themselves caught up in the tragic momentum of the play. For the characters in Antony and Cleopatra suicide is a noble gesture, an assertion of love toward a friend or lover, a positive and purposeful act, triumphant in the way that the deaths of saints and heroes are. This sense of triumph has no place at the ending of Romeo and Juliet, where the intrinsically comic structure of false death and resurrection is rendered tragic by the irrevocable losses and the burden of guilt that confront the survivors. As Romeo and Juliet draws to an end, the audience has nothing corresponding to Cleopatra's magnificent vision of Antony dolphin-like in his delights, bestriding the ocean and dropping realms and islands from his pockets. Instead, we are left with the Prince's moralizing scolding and a keen sense of regret at the waste of five young lives resulting from the follies of the older generation.

It would be interesting to know whether Shakespeare was thinking of Romeo and Juliet when he decided to dramatize North's translation of Plutarch's "Life of Marcus Antonius." We can speculate that the untapped dramatic potential in the pattern of double suicides was one of the things that attracted him to the story of Antony and Cleopatra, and that he was conscious of the structural echoes as he wrote the play. He was clearly at a turning point in his work; by 1606 or 1607 the four big tragedies were completed, and a year or so later he would begin writing the romances. Although Antony shares certain characteristics of the complex and self-destructive protagonists of the tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra looks ahead to the romances in a number of ways. Like Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, it ranges freely through space and time, encompassing a large cast of characters and a dazzling succession of events. But while the romances move successively from tragic complication to comic resolution, Antony and Cleopatra combines comedy and tragedy into an integrated whole. There are very few self-contained humorous interludes like the ones in Romeo and Juliet (for example, Romeo and Mercutio baiting the Nurse or the Nurse teasing Juliet by withholding her news). Instead, there is an overarching comic vision that is elastic enough to contain deaths and defeats, because it is founded upon the powerful attraction that binds the audience to the protagonists.

Shakespeare sifted through the wealth of detail in North's Plutarch, culling incidents and descriptions from which he created two unconventional lovers whose comic potential stems from their own mixture of flaws and greatness, rather than simply inhering in the structure of events in which they find themselves. Antony and Cleopatra delight us with their poetry, with their unpredictable—and sometimes predictable—responses (an example of the latter is Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger who brings news of Antony's marriage to Octavia), and with their ability to command the love and admiration of the people around them. In a way that Romeo and Juliet never do, they repeatedly delight us with comic insights into the mysteries of human nature. Foremost among these mysteries is the paradoxical way in which lovers alternately torment and celebrate one another, which is one of the most timeless subjects of comedy.


1 Clifford Leech, "The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeleine Doran and Mark Eccles, eds. Standish Henning, Robert Kimbrough, Richard Knowles (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 59-60.

2 Cf. Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979). In her study of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Snyder shows how "traditional comic structures and assumptions operate in several ways to shape tragedy." Her approach has been helpful to me, particularly in its premise that "literary convention can operate to shape and enrich a work that is moving in a direction opposite to that convention" (pp. 4, 16).

3 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; and New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), I, 169-73.

4 C. L. Barber remarks that in the folk plays the miraculous cure of St. George or the Fool "is the ultimate turning of the tables on whatever is the enemy to life," and notes that the most popular of Elizabethan jigs, "The jig of Rowland," involved "a device of playing dead and pretending to come back to life which may well be a rationalized development of this primitive resurrection motif." See Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), p. 154 n.

5 For a discussion of the false report of a lady's death as a recurrent situation in Shakespeare's plays, see the Appendix to Paul V. Kreider, Repetition in Shakespeare's Plays (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1941), p. 286.

6 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rpt. New York: Fawcett World Library, 1965), p. 23.

7 About this kind of accident of timing, Susan Snyder observes that "Too late is not in the comic vocabulary. There is always time to keep the appointment, to undo the mistake, or even to neglect the action altogether for a display of wit or clowning. In tragedy, our sense that time is limited and precious grows with our perception of an inevitable outcome, time cut off (p. 28).

8 Bullough, I, 355.

9 Sir Philip Sidney, "An Apology for Poetry," Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), I, 199. Sidney distinguishes laughter from delight as follows: "laughter almost euer commeth of things most disproportioned to our selues and nature. Delight hath a ioy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath onely a scornful tickling. For example, we are rauished with delight to see a faire woman and yet are far from being moued to laughter."

10 Leech, p. 74; Snyder, p. 109.

11 This and all other quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

12 Shakespeare belabors this device to comic effect in Pyramus and Thisby's sing-song rhymes in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Pyramus: Come tears, confound Out, sword, and wound The pap of Pyramus

Thisby: Tongue, not a word! Come, trusty sword! Come, blade, my breast imbrue!

(V.i.295-97, 342-44)

The similarity is even more striking when Romeo addresses the poison: "Come, bitter conduct, come unsavory guide!" (V.iii.116).

13 Leonora L. Brodwin, Elizabethan Love Tragedy: 1587-1625 (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1971), p. 61.

14 It is perhaps worth noting that there are comparable moments in Othello and King Lear that have similar comic overtones, and that slow down the final tragic conclusion in a slightly awkward way—one thinks, for example, of the letters found in Roderigo's pocket and Edgar's and Kent's unmaskings.

15 In his discussion of Romeo and Juliet, Leech wonders if the play is really tragic. He feels that the Prince's long speech undermines any "sense of mystery" with its emphasis on reconciliation and the "lesson" the survivors have learned. Friar Laurence's speech, he adds, is "too much like a preacher's résumé of the events on which a moral lesson will be based" (pp. 68-70).

16 See, for example, Anne Barton's discussion of the "divided catastrophe" in "'Nature's piece 'gainst fancy': The divided catastrophe in Antony and Cleopatra," an inaugural lecture delivered at Bedford College, University of London, in 1973. Barton notes that the divided catastrophe is rare in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, and that most dramatized versions of the Antony and Cleopatra story avoided it (p. 11).

17 T.J.B. Spencer, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch: The Lives of Julius Caesar, Brutus, Marcus Antonius, and Coriolanus, in the translation of Sir Thomas North (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), pp. 275-77.

18 For the view that the suicide is bungled, see, for example, Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960), p. 182; Barton, "'Nature's piece 'gainst fancy,'" p. 8; Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p. 189 ff. For a contrary view, see T. McAlindon, Shakespeare and Decorum (New York and London: Macmillan, 1973) and Reuben Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971).

19 Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier: The World of His Final Tragedies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1963), p. 199.

20 Sidney R. Homan, "Divided Response and the Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra," Philological Quarterly, 49 (1970), 460-68. Homan notes that in fewer than twenty lines (V.ii.294-312) Cleopatra manages to translate even the horrors of death into the pleasures of love: ". . . we have the almost sentimental family tableau of the mother embracing her husband and their sleeping child . . ." (p. 464). See also J. L. Simmons, "The Comic Pattern and Vision in Antony and Cleopatra," ELH, 36 (1969), 493-501. As Simmons describes her, Cleopatra "steps forward like the queen of comedy, arranging the happy ending of marriage and thereby winning the admiration and approval of the Roman world's highest moral sense. The comic purging and reconciliation take place to our delight while we are moved by the tragedy of its requiring the lovers' death" (p. 503).

21 Mark Rose, "Introduction," Twentieth Century Interpretations of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Mark Rose (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977), p. 13; Ruth Nevo, "The Masque of Greatness," Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967), 111-28; and Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972). Nevo notes how different Shakespeare's ending is from North's, which describes Cleopatra in her "smocke," in "a little low bed of poor estate" (p. 353).

22 Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), p. 52. Cf. Simmons, who sees a "merging of the tragic with what is essentially the comic vision," and adds that death is a victory, with Cleopatra triumphant and Caesar "defeated" (p. 493). The comic tone in the play was noted first by A. C. Bradley.

23 Barton, p. 16.

24 Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1963), p. 203.

Love And Desire

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Evelyn Gajowski (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra: Female Subjectivity and Orientalism," in The Art of Loving: Female Subjectivity and Male Discursive Traditions in Shakespeare's Tragedies, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 86-119.

[In the following essay, Gajowski argues that from a critical standpoint, Cleopatra is alternatively viewed as the Romans see herthe whore responsible for Antony's fall from Roman honor and dutyor as the "archetype of the eternal feminine principle" who presents Antony with a life that surpasses anything Rome can offer. Gajowski rejects both of these views and presents a reading of Cleopatra as a woman who "ennobles" Antony through her love.]

She's beautiful and she's laughing.

—Hélène Cíxous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

Whereas military action is relegated to the background in Othello, it is interwoven into the love story in Antony and Cleopatra. The intricate alternation of scenes of war and scenes of love, in fact, makes the obtrusion of the feud upon the love story in Romeo and Juliet (3.1) appear somewhat mechanical by contrast. Indeed, the loose structure of the play, especially the quick, frequent shift of scene throughout acts 3 and 4, has drawn criticism. Nor does Antony and Cleopatra share the atmosphere of domesticity of Othello. The larger political context is not confined to the Venetian Senate and reports of battles off stage—it determines the action. Like Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, as Roger Stilling points out, Shakespeare's play represents "a clash between the values of empire and the values of love" (1976, 278). Whereas Aeneas chooses empire, however, Antony chooses love.

The impulses of possession and power—held to the level of petty social rivalry in Romeo and Juliet, turned inward and concentrated in Iago's nihilism in Othello—are set loose in Antony and Cleopatra to rule the entire known western world. There is no Iago-like exploitation, manipulation, or teasing out of masculine attitudes as in Othello. Instead, they are embedded in the very foundation of empire and are freely expressed by every male character in the play. Because of their preoccupation with imperial ideals, Roman men—Philo, Antony, Enobarbus, Octavius, Agrippa, Pompey, Menas, Canidius, Scarus—disparage love, sex, and women, although Antony and Enobarbus stand apart from the others in their capacity to idealize as well.

Beginning with Philo's opening slurs on the protagonists, much of the play offers an exposition of the dominant ideology of male Roman superiority and female Egyptian inferiority:

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 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 gypsy's lust. Look, where they come! Take but good note, and you shall see in him The triple pillar of the world transform'd Into a strumpet's fool. Behold and see.


Yet here we have something new, not just a patriarchal construction of gender difference as in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, but an imperialistic construction of cultural difference. Cleopatra, therefore—before we have met her—undergoes a series of double reductions. Her status is diminished not merely to that of a whore, or "strumpet," but to that of an alien, or "gypsy." Her body is reduced by synecdoche not merely to her woman's part, or "front," but to that of a particular racial hue, "tawny." As imperialists, Romans are, of course, required to revile Cleopatra as the colonized other.1 And, good representative of the empire that he is, Philo perfectly articulates the ideology of his dominant culture. He is no more capable of seeing the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony as the love of a woman and a man for one another than he is capable of mythologizing Cleopatra as a Venus, although he is capable of valorizing Antony as a "plated Mars." Because Philo views the world in strictly political and military terms, he sees his "general," his "captain," his "triple pillar of the world" reduced to the status of a "fool" by the "lust" of a "gypsy." Cleopatra, as the mysterious cultural other, is endowed with a sexuality so powerful it has the effect of emasculating Antony. As Queen of Egypt, she represents what Freud calls "the dark continent" of female sexuality—Africa—and, as such, is the source of profound anxiety to the Romans.

Because the Roman ideology angrily expressed by Philo in the opening lines of the play is insisted on throughout the dramatic action, it is not difficult to understand why so much critical response to Antony and Cleopatra strikes so moralistic a note. Schücking, Stoll, and their followers represent an approach to the play that is more responsive to the political plot and the outer military experience it conveys—ideals of honor and duty, empire and war—than it is to the play's poetry.2 In this view, the protagonists are seen largely through Philo's eyes: the whore Cleopatra is responsible for Antony's fall from indisputably honorable Roman ideals.

This view is problematic, however, because it more accurately describes the moralism of Shakespeare's source, Plutarch's The Life of Marcus Antonius, than his dramatization of that source. And, as we know, whenever Shakespeare draws on a single source for his story—in Antony and Cleopatra as in Othello and Romeo and Juliet—he transforms conventional morality. Time and again he takes what strikes the author of his source "as being the whole moral bearing of the story," as Kermode puts it, and delimits its place in his play, placing it in conflict with other issues or subordinating it to them (1974, 1056). Michael Goldman, for one, takes issue with the critical view that "th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame" is the emblem of the lovers' relationship. This sentiment describes "not what happens between Antony and Cleopatra," he insists, but rather "the typical Roman view of sex in the play" (1985, 121-22, my italics). In allowing the skeptics in the play the full expression of their views, Shakespeare quite disarms criticism, as Janet Adelman points out. The entire drama is, in effect, "a test of the lovers' visions of themselves," she observes; "if the imaginative affirmations were not so persistently questioned, they could not emerge triumphant" (1973, 110).

Immediately following the sentiments of Philo, Shakespeare allows the sentiments of the lovers:

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.


A. C. Bradley, G. Wilson Knight, and their followers represent an approach that is more responsive to the play's poetry and the inner psychological experience it conveys—imagination and creativity, pleasure and love—than to the military plot.3 Critics such as Mack, therefore, emphasize phases of the male protagonist's psychic change—delineation, conflict, and recovery—rather than the phases of external action—exposition, conflict, crisis, catastrophe, and so on ([1960] 1970, 342 and 335). In this view Cleopatra, rather than being seen in Roman terms as a whore, is often glorified as an archetype of the eternal feminine principle. She offers Antony an alternative vision of life that rivals, even surpasses, that of Rome. Rarely is she humanized, though, or seen as a woman whose love ennobles Antony in the way Juliet's love ennobles Romeo and Desdemona's love has the potential to ennoble Othello, or seen as a subject in her own right.


Shakespeare consistently associates the idea of nobility not with military deeds but with personal bonds, from Antony's declaration in the opening scene that "the nobleness of life / Is to do thus" (1.1.36-37) as he embraces Cleopatra, to her vision of Antony at her death: "I see him rouse himself / To praise my noble act" (5.2.284-85). While Cleopatra's final statement is consistent with the depth and totality of her emotional commitment to him throughout the play, however, Antony's emotions are at first ambivalent. While he speaks extravagantly of Cleopatra and himself as "a mutual pair" (1.1.37), mutuality between the two lovers is in fact impossible. Until he extricates himself from the complex web of Roman ideology—interwoven with its beliefs in male Roman superiority and female Egyptian inferiority—any equality between partners, upon which mutuality, depends, is impossible.

Antony, a middle-aged libertine who has enjoyed years of revelry with Cleopatra and, no doubt, other women before her, is no novice in love. But like Romeo, he, at first, is unable to make an authentic emotional commitment; like Othello, he attempts to apply the values of military experience to the realm of intimate relationships. He participates in both idealizing Petrarchan discourse, as does Romeo, and denigrating Ovidian discourse, as does Othello. Desire for Cleopatra and revulsion for her conflict with one another, therefore, making Antony's response to her more ambivalent than that of either Romeo to Juliet or Othello to Desdemona. Roman constructions of gender difference—Petrarchism and Ovidianism—are complicated by Roman constructions of cultural difference—or, what Edward Said calls Orientalism. Orientalism is to culture as Petrarchism and Ovidianism are to gender. All three are constructions of colonized or sexual others by imperialistic or patriarchal dominant ideologies.4 All three Roman constructions of other operate powerfully, from Philo's opening lines, throughout the play.

A grandiose tone marks Antony's earliest declaration on the worlds of Rome and Egypt that tug at his conscience and vie for his allegiance: "Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space" (1.1.33-34). His sentiments seem utterly honest, true to himself and true to Cleopatra. Yet we feel that Antony does not understand the love of which he speaks with such hyperbole. It is obvious at the beginning of the play that he does not know Cleopatra, as Robert Ornstein notes, that he "does not yet know what is evident to the audience, that his only desire is to be with this woman" ([1966] 1967, 398).5 The action of the love story charts his discovery of the "new heaven, new earth" of which he speaks so uncomprehendingly in his first utterance in the play. His (re)orientation from an autonomous to a relational perspective allows him in the end to apprehend a humanized Cleopatra.

Antony's romantic hyperboles barely conceal his deeper need for escape from Roman duty in epicurean enjoyment of sensual pleasures:

Now for the love of Love, and her soft hours, Let's not confound the time with conference harsh; There's not a minute of our lives should stretch Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?


He holds a Roman view of sex early in the play; his appetite for Cleopatra, therefore, is not unlike his appetite for food, drink, and revelry. The emphasis on Antony's appetitive nature continues these traits from Julius Caesar, of course.6 Yet it suggests as well a level of development—that of self-interest—from which he evolves.7 The emphasis on his enjoyment of sensual pleasures suggests not only his utter incompatibility with the "holy, cold, and still" Octavia but his potential for a fuller emotional life as well. His capacity for giving is as great as his capacity for consuming, and it is this generosity that the power of Cleopatra's imaginative command immortalizes after his death. In the early Antony are revealed attitudes and responses to love that are not simplified, but complicated with maturity; they do not constrict but dilate with age.

The most evocative description of Cleopatra in the play, of course, is that of Enobarbus, not Antony. His set piece on the lovers' meeting at Cydnus reveals and elicits—rather than Philo's political and sexual revulsion—fascination. It is an invitation to rise above the delimiting Roman constructions of cultural and gendered other—what Phyllis Racklin calls "these inferior modes of perception"—and, instead, to participate in "the imaginative vision of the poet" (1972, 204).8 His description of Cleopatra on her barge is appreciative of her uniqueness:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, Burnt 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. For her own person, It beggar'd all description: she did lie In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue— O'er-picturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature.


He most closely approaches the truth when he describes Cleopatra in paradoxical terms: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety" (2.2.234-35). Yet even this poetic tribute gives way to a more ordinary Roman view of her sexuality. Her complexity—her totality of being—is imagined merely as her capacity to defy masculine appetite: "Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies" (2.2.235-37). His extravagant homage to Cleopatra contains distant echoes of the courtly love tradition, indeed, echoes of Romeo's compliments to Rosaline's beauty and sexual frustration at her chastity.

That Enobarbus does not have a higher view of Cleopatra or of women than do other Romans is evident in his earliest advice to Antony: "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 esteem'd nothing" (1.2.137-40). No matter how significantly Cleopatra figures in Antony's life while he indulges in the pleasures of Egypt, her value is minuscule compared to imperial issues. Antony's vows of devotion in her presence yield in her absence to expressions of guilt about his dereliction of Roman duty:

These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, Or lose myself in dotage. . . . The present pleasure, By revolution low'ring, does become The opposite of itself. . . .

I must from this enchanting queen break off; Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, My idleness of doth hatch. . . . She is cunning past man's thought. . . . Would I had never seen her!


He appeals to the idea of duty to justify leaving her, using a Roman language and tone similar to that of Philo.

Roman constructions of woman are several, but all are objectifications of male desire. Women are objects that satisfy men's sexual appetites; they are prizes of war; they are political pawns to be used as the means of cementing opportunistic alliances. Conflicting with the political rejection and wish to eliminate Cleopatra—the view most forcefully articulated by Philo—is a fascination with and even desire for her. Although despised by the Romans, Cleopatra obviously operates powerfully upon their imaginations. Politically she may be peripheral to the business in Rome, but symbolically she is central:

Enobarbus. . . . you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.


Caesar. Let's grant it is not Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolomy. . . .


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


Antony. I' th' East my pleasure lies. (2.3.41)

Pompey. . . . your fine Egyptian cookery Shall have the fame. I have heard that Julius Caesar Grew fat with feasting there.


Enobarbus. He will to his Egyptian dish again.


As these passages reveal, the Roman opinion of her is unanimous. Viewed from an androcentric perspective, Cleopatra is but the supreme erotic delight among the vast array of exotic experiences that the conquest of diverse cultures offers up to the policemen of the empire. Viewed from a gynocentric perspective, however, it is obvious that she exists for Rome as a projection of its own sexuality—as, to quote Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in another context, the "primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life" (1986, 5).9 Politically reviled and sexually desired, then, Cleopatra is the source of profound ambivalence for all the Romans, although Antony dimly apprehends a Cleopatra that is object of neither repugnance nor fascination.

Like his fellow Romans, Octavius, too, wishes to possess Cleopatra, but his desire is not for a sexual possession. Military defeat reduces all—cultures and cities, peoples and individual human beings—to spoils of war.10 What Octavius pants for is to keep Cleopatra alive as a war trophy, even as she is determined to deny him this aim in their final battle of wills and wits. He has no doubt of her corruptibility because he believes it to be a characterizing trait of her sex: "Women are not / In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure / The n'er-touch'd vestal" (3.12.29-31).11 Despite his flattery about her honor and his lies about her future, however, his behavior is governed by the imagined spectacle of Cleopatra as the chief prize of his victory over Antony and the guarantor of his Roman immortality. Seduced by the spectacle of his own glory rather than by her, he is capable only of envisioning that "her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph" (5.1.65-66). The threats of Proculeius and the warnings of Dolabella reveal this intention to Cleopatra:

Proculeius. Cleopatra, Do not abuse my master's bounty by Th' undoing of yourself. Let the world see His nobleness well acted, which your death Will never let come forth.


Dolabella. Though he be honorable,—

Cleopatra. He'll lead me then in triumph?

Dolabella. Madam, he will, I know 't.


Dolabella. Caesar through Syria Intends his journey, and within three days You and your children will he send before.


Octavius's use of flattery, lies, and threats to dissuade Cleopatra from killing herself obviously conflicts with the references to his "nobleness" and "honor." The Roman discourse of honor, here, as elsewhere in the play, clashes with the dishonorable acts that it would mask.

The women of Rome are as subject to degradation as are women of the colonies as the handling of Octavia's marriage to Antony discloses. In Plutarch, she is an active, persuasive figure whose diplomacy affects the behavior of Octavius and Antony (1964, 278, 282-83, 288-93). In Shakespeare, however, she is a sacrificial victim upon the altar of political ambition; her conciliatory words have no power over either Roman. Why does Shakespeare make this alteration in his source? It is a puzzling one for a writer who characteristically ameliorates or enhances the female characters in his source material. It is plausible that here, as in the history plays, Shakespeare uses women "who seem the most at the mercy of the male world," as Dusinberre puts it, "to assert values which measure its worth and find it wanting" (1975, 293).

Agrippa's words make clear that the marriage is but an opportunistic device:

To hold you in perpetual amity, To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts With an unslipping knot, take Antony Octavia to his wife. . . . By this marriage, All little jealousies, which now seem great, And all great fears, which now import their dangers, Would then be nothing.


The marriage he proposes is, in effect, "not between Antony and Octavia," as Stilling points out, "but between Antony and Octavius" (1976, 282).12 Perhaps Antony is led on by Octavius's lieutenants because he seeks to pay homage in his return to Rome to the ideals of nobility and honor of a bygone republic. He is as capable as his fellow triumvir, however, of traducing the ideal of honor by using it to justify dishonorable action.

Octavius, in the calculating manner that marks his every move, is capable of cynically marrying his sister to his enemy and then using the occasion of her abandonment as an excuse to wage war against that enemy.13 His first words to Antony use the fact of Antony's marriage to Fulvia to "patch a quarrel": "Your wife and brother / Made wars upon me, and their contestation / Was theme for you; you were the word of war" (2.2.42-44). It comes as no surprise, then, that Octavius exploits the occasion of Octavia's abandonment to make his move against Antony: "You are abus'd / Beyond the mark of thought; and the high gods, / To do you justice, makes his ministers / Of us and those that love you" (3.6.86-89). Antony, for his part, is capable of speaking of his honor as he packs Octavia off to Rome, "If I lose mine honor / I lose myself (3.4.22-23), even as he is later capable of berating Cleopatra for having seduced him from a marriage that he never honored:

Have I my pillow left unpress'd in Rome, Forborne the getting of a lawful race, And by a gem of women, to be abus'd By one that looks on feeders?


As these passages make clear, it is not Antony's liaison with the Queen of Egypt but his marriage to the sister of Caesar that causes the rift between the two triumvirs. It is not his relationship to Cleopatra but his political marriage—"his flirtation with Caesar's rather than with Cleopatra's values," as Marsh maintains—that brings about his political overthrow (1976, 167).

Throughout the tragedy Octavius is the epitome of the politician, "always a bad word in Shakespeare," as Kermode wryly notes (1974, 1345). The most accurate description of the atmosphere of political instability and treachery that prevails in his empire, significantly, is his own: "he which is was wish'd, until he were; / And the ebb'd man, ne'er lov'd till ne'er worth love, / Comes dear'd by being lack'd" (1.4.42-44). Shakespeare's plays often emphasize the instability of male ideals, such as those of Octavius's empire, by juxtaposing them to the stability of female values. Viewed from an androcentric perspective, women in the plays are "the grievous survivors of wars men make and die in," as Dusinberre puts it. Viewed from a gynocentric perspective, however, women stand for "permanence and fidelity against shifting political sands" (1975, 294).14 When the primary motivation of marriage is political, in Rome as in the history plays, it is degrading. When its vows of commitment between two individuals are used to cement political alliances, it does not promote stability. Against the crudeness of the Roman view of women and the humiliating treatment of Octavia as a pawn in a chess game between two men, Shakespeare represents the possibility of a intimate relationship that is honorable, heroic, and noble.


In the comedies, Shakespeare focuses on the female view of heterosexual relations; in the tragedies, he focuses on the male view. In Antony and Cleopatra, however, even more so than in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, he focuses equally on the female view. Lear's nausea at his daughters' sexuality and Hamlet's contempt for his mother's frailty are absent even though Antony's repeated alienations from Cleopatra recall the sexual possessiveness and jealousy of Othello. One reason the love relationship in Antony and Cleopatra is more complex than that in either Othello or Romeo and Juliet is that Cleopatra is even more fully realized as a sexually active woman than are either Desdemona or Juliet. Yet that is not to say that it is the representation of Cleopatra as an object of Roman sexual fantasies that is relevant. It is, rather, Shakespeare's representation of her sexual subjectivity that is significant.

Shakespeare's comic and tragic explorations of ideals of love intermingle in Antony and Cleopatra. Although the first half of the play forebodes tragedy, as Bradley notes, it is not decisively tragic in tone. "Certainly the Cleopatra scenes are not so," he says. We read them and we witness them in delighted wonder and even with amusement" ([1909] 1964, 222-23). This comic atmosphere prevails in the Egyptian scenes in acts 1 and 2 that portray Cleopatra trying to convince Antony to stay; Cleopatra left with her women and longing for him; Cleopatra receiving news of his marriage; Cleopatra questioning the messenger about Octavia. To give up the battle with time and live intensely in the present is, Barbara Everett remarks, "to create a small and circumscribed area in which to exist, in an exhilarated moment of freedom and vitality" (1964, xxxvi). It is a way or vision of life that is more native to comedy, of course, than to tragedy. It is the way of jouissance, or pleasure, that Cleopatra lives and breathes in every fiber of her being.15

Rosalind's stinging advice to Phebe, "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets" (As You Like It, 3.5.60), urges females, because aging devalues the "product," not to be too coy lest they alienate their potential "customers." But Cleopatra has no regard (no more than Desdemona or Juliet) for Rosalind's strategy. Where Juliet should play hard to get, she is instead forthright in declaring her love: "I'll prove more true / Than those that have more coying to be strange" (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.100-1). Conversely, Cleopatra knows that to hold Antony's interest she must intrigue him and keep him off balance. Those critics who dislike her build their case for her scheming, deceptive nature by fastening on her exchange with Charmian. To the advice, "In each thing give him way, cross him in nothing," Cleopatra responds, "Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him" (1.3.9-10). Indeed, it is possible to see her at the outset of the drama as implementing this principle, as attempting to get Antony to stay in Egypt by encouraging him to leave for Rome. Five times she urges Antony to listen to the messages from Rome. To his, "Grates me, the sum," she answers, "Nay, hear them, Antony" (1.1.18-19); to his, "Let's not confound the time with conference harsh," she responds, "Hear the ambassadors" (1.1.45-48). The effect of her words, however, is to undercut his escapist attitude. Cleopatra is down-to-earth. Her accessions of realism, as Rosalie Colie points out, "puncture Antony's simplistic view of love and Cleopatra as satisfaction to his appetite" (1974, 188).

Always underlying Cleopatra's humor is an awareness of the disparity between broad declarations of love and authentic emotional commitment. Her rejoinder, "Excellent falsehood! / Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?" (1.1.40-41), pierces Antony's inflated talk of "a mutual pair." She is mindful as well of his view of marriage and pleasure as antipodal experiences. Married to Fulvia, he enjoys his "pleasure" in Egypt; declaring "here is my space" to Cleopatra, he deserts her for Rome; married to Octavia, he leaves her for Egypt. Beneath Cleopatra's mocking tone is cognizance that Antony's unfeeling response to Fulvia's death is an indication of his possible treatment of her:

O most false love! Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see, In Fulvia's death, how mine receiv'd shall be.


Despite his romantic hyperboles she is fully aware of the political expediency of his actions: "Good now, play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honor" (1.3.78-80). Her ironical common sense "pierces her own theatricals," as Colie notes; she knows herself, she knows Antony, and she knows the precarious, politicking world she lives in (1974, 189).

Shakespeare emphasizes the ease of Antony's betrayal of Cleopatra by enclosing it between scenes that accentuate her loyalty to him: her response to Antony's absence (1.5), to the news of his remarriage (2.5), and to reports of his new wife (3.3). Perhaps it is the alternating lyrical and farcical humor of these scenes that causes critics to overlook the fact of her devotion to him. The void of his absence adumbrates the void of his death. Both drain life of meaning. Her reluctance to remain conscious after his departure for Rome—"Give me to drink mandragora. . . . / That I might sleep out this great gap of time / My Antony is away" (1.5.4-6)—anticipates her reluctance to remain alive after his death: "Shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No more than a sty?" (4.15.60-62). Her imaginings of his every move fill the void: "Where think'st thou he is now? Stand she, or sits he? / Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse? / O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" (1.5.19-21). She speaks knowingly, of course, as someone who has borne the weight of Antony. We do not miss the irony of her imagining her name on Antony's lips—"He's speaking now, / Or murmuring, 'Where's my serpent of old Nile?'" (1.5.24-25)—because he never speaks her name in Rome. Nor do we miss the irony of her reference to herself as a trader in love—"Give me some music; music, moody food / Of us that trade in love" (2.5.1-2)—because it follows the political business of Octavius cynically trading Octavia to Antony.

Aside from the more obvious humor and ironies of the Alexandrian scenes in the first three acts, their lightness and comedy also derives from Cleopatra's complete lack of possessiveness. Despite the full expression of her insecurity in response to Antony's departure for Rome and the news of his remarriage, what is striking in her actions and speech is the absence of any sense of possession or ownership on her part or any complaint of failed obligation on his part. Similarly, while critics inevitably note Antony's magnanimity, generosity, and forgiveness, particularly that toward his soldiers in the last half of the play, they overlook Cleopatra's refusal to berate him for his repeated acts of disloyalty and mistrust.

Although the protagonists in Shakespeare's romantic comedies and love tragedies are flesh and blood, the stuff that attracts and binds men and women to one another in a relationship surpasses sexual desire. While sex obviously is an integral element of her relationship with Antony, Cleopatra is nothing like the cunning sensualist that the Romans (and some critics) imagine. Shakespeare does not represent a lusting Cleopatra. Rather, he represents a woman who has a range of interests and a man who, if we agree with Irene Dash, thinks only of lovemaking (1981, 214). Cleopatra's dialogues with Antony are devoted to talk of politics and battle, to alienations and reconciliations. Despite Pompey's lewd jokes, Maecenas's lusty appetite for stories of her, and Agrippa's lip-smacking interruptions of Enobarbus's poetic tribute to her, Shakespeare does not depict her as an object of Roman sexual fantasies. While the text of Antony and Cleopatra is laden with sensual and sexual innuendos, any genuinely erotic moments in the play are not Roman fantasies about Cleopatra, but Cleopatra's jouissance: her pleasurable recollection of her revelries with Antony, for example, during his absence in Rome and her orgasmic revery of joining him in death. As opposed to the delimiting Roman construction of Cleopatra, moreover, her longing for Antony is "not of the flesh," as Ornstein emphasizes, "but of the total being" ([1966] 1967, 391). If the Roman view insists on reducing her to a "strumpet" and "gypsy," her awareness of Antony's humanity enlarges him: he is "the demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men" (1.5.23-24). She is conscious of his potential for something more than a once noble Roman of a once honorable republic living out the sentence of Octavius's corrupt empire.16 Cleopatra alone is aware of this potential on his part. Included in her awareness of Antony's "well-divided disposition," his alternating "sadness" and "merriness," his oscillating alienation from her and connection to her is an awareness of his profoundly Roman ambivalence toward Egypt and toward her. Yet also included in her awareness of Antony's "heavenly mingle" is an awareness of his capacity for surpassing Roman ideals: "He was not sad, / . . . he was not merry, /. . . but between both. / O heavenly mingle!" (1.5.53-59).

Rigid constructions of masculinity and femininity are as crucial to empire as are constructions of dominant and colonial cultures; the two, as we have seen, are intricately bound up in one another in this play. Any blurring of the boundary between the sexes gives the Romans considerable anxiety because it undermines or even threatens to expose the myths of male Roman superiority and female Egyptian inferiority for what they are. The disparaging tone of Octavius at his initial entrance and his first mention of the lovers is unmistakable. The news from his spies in Alexandria reveals to him that Antony "fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel" (1.4.4-5). It is the fact that Antony and Cleopatra indulge in the pleasures of the orient together, though, that is most disturbing to Octavius. Curiously, the shared nature of the lovers' activities has the effect, for Octavius, of emasculating Antony, while at the same time, disconcertingly for Octavius, masculinizing Cleopatra. Antony "is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolomy / More womanly than he" (1.4.5-7). All of male Rome exhibits a similar regard for rigidly gendered experience. The rumors that Enobarbus relates to Cleopatra object to the intervention in war by those who clearly do not belong there: "'tis said in Rome / That Photinus an eunuch and your maids / Manage this war" (3.7.13-15). Later Enobarbus sees Antony's ability to move his troops to tears as neither the manipulative oratory of a practiced politician nor the genuine feeling of a man increasingly aware of the relational aspect of his nature. Instead, he sees it as the ability to induce female weakness: "Look, they weep, / And I, an ass, am onion-ey'd. For shame, / Transform us not to women" (4.2.34-36).

The lovers' references to a blurring of the boundary between the sexes, on the other hand, are playful in tone and reveal flexible notions of maleness and femaleness. Their exchange of clothes is cause for Cleopatra's delighted recollection: "I drunk him to his bed; / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Philippan" (2.5.21-23).17 Antony remarks in a similar vein as he embraces her after military victory: "leap thou, attire and all, / Through proof of harness to my heart, and there / Ride on the pants triumphing!" (4.8.14-16).18 The point is made even in the trivial detail of Cleopatra's preference in billiards partners. She would play Mardian as soon as Charmian: "As well a woman with an eunuch play'd / As with a woman" (2.5.5-6). More significant is her motive for fighting at Actium. Whereas in Plutarch her motive is suspicion of Antony's betrayal (1964, 291-92), in Shakespeare it is political responsibility: "A charge we bear i' th' war, / And as the president of my kingdom will / Appear there for a man" (3.7.16-18). Her insistence on fighting by Antony's side echoes Desdemona's insistence on accompanying her husband to Cyprus. Antony reiterates Othello's reference to Desdemona as his "fair warrior" when he refers to Cleopatra as his armorer: "Thou fumblest, Eros, and my queen's a squire / More tight at this than thou" (4.4.14-15). At rare moments of felicity such as these, both soldiers describe their relationshipwith their lovers in military terms.

Cleopatra's desire to participate in the male realm of battle is profoundly disturbing to the Romans. Enobarbus may joke that Fulvia's warlike spirit makes sex a desirable diversion from battle: "Would we had all such wives, that the men might go to wars with the women!" (2.2.65-66). But he would not have Cleopatra fight at Actium. He voices anxiety at the thought of female intervention, and more particularly, at the power of female sexuality to disrupt battle: "If we should serve with horse and mares together, / The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear / A soldier and his horse" (3.7.7-9). Echoing Philo in perpetuating the myth of the sexualized, colonized other, Enobarbus not only reduces Cleopatra to the sexual and the bestial. He further endows her with the power to reduce the Romans to the sexual and the bestial in a scenario in which she transforms the classic, organized field of battle into a grotesque, chaotic field of copulating bodies.19 Canidius and Scarus see Antony's flight from battle less metaphorically, as an emasculating experience: "our leader's led, / And we are women's men" (3.7.70-71); "Experience, manhood, honor, ne'er before / Did violate so itself (3.10.22-23). Yet Shakespeare contests the adequacy of Roman ideals of masculinity, as of femininity.


When Shakespeare devotes acts 3 and 4 of Antony and Cleopatra to three military battles between the two triumvirs and three quarrels between the two lovers, he forces upon the audience the question of the relationship between the diverse realms of human experience—love and war. It is nearly impossible to discern whether Antony's oscillation between insecurity and confidence in love causes his alternating military fortunes, or whether his alternating military defeat and victory cause his oscillation in love.

Time and again Antony expresses his conflict with Octavius as that between age and youth. He refers to this disparity in positive terms when he feels confident and in negative terms when he feels insecure. In moments of confidence Antony sees his conflict with Octavius as one between a man and a boy, between mature and immature masculinity, and between military experience and inexperience. The repeated references of both lovers to Octavius's immaturity, in fact, reveal their contempt for the emotional, relational sterility he represents:20

Cleopatra. . . . who knows If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent His pow'rful mandate to you. . . .


Antony. To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head, And he will fill thy wishes to the brim With principalities. . . . . . . tell him he wears the rose Of youth upon him; from which the world should note Something particular. His coin, ships, legions, May be a coward's, whose ministers would prevail Under the service of a child as soon As l' th' command of Caesar.


In moments of insecurity, however, Antony seems to fear the virility of a younger Octavius and to fear his own impotence as an older man. He insists on fighting Octavius by sea despite his soldiers' warnings that his ships are not well manned. When Canidius asks "Why will my lord do so?" he responds, significantly, "For that he [Octavius] dares us to 't" (3.7.29). Octavius's dare catches at Antony's vulnerable ego like a barb; caught, he must disprove the sense of inadequacy that is disclosed in his repeated references to immature and mature masculinity. Octavius, incapable of any similar feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, is caught by neither Antony's challenge to single combat nor his challenge to wage battle at Pharsalia (3.7.30-32). Antony's chivalric challenge—"I dare him . . . / To lay his gay comparisons apart, / And answer me declin'd, sword against sword, / Ourselves alone" (3.13.25-28)—and Octavius's response—"these offers, / Which serve not for his vantage, he shakes off (3.7.32-33)—signify the conflict between Roman values old and new, between honor and opportunism, between desperation and cold practicality.

The pattern of Octavius's and Antony's mutual challenges and responses reflects the issues of the political plot—the reduction of two triumvirs to one. One of them fixes his eyes on the end and uses everything and everyone as a means to that end; the other has no such singleness of aim (Bradley [1909] 1964, 225). Antony's sense of vulnerability lies in his shifting values, in his disorientation from Roman ideals, and his (re)orientation to Egyptian ideals. It also lies in his disentanglement from Roman constructions of Cleopatra and Egypt as sexual and cultural other and his discovery of a human connection with the woman, Cleopatra, beneath the myth that is Cleopatra. As his autonomous self erodes, there is nothing to replace it until he discovers his relational self.

The lovers' alienations from one another, or more accurately, Antony's repeated lapses of belief in Cleopatra, are characterized by self-loathing on his part combined with anger directed at her. But every alienation is followed by reconciliation. Disgust and anger repeatedly melt into forgiveness in a pattern, we feel, most closely approximating day-to-day relations between any two lovers. Unlike the linear pattern of Othello (or Troilus and Cressida) this cyclical pattern of repetition of Antony and Cleopatra grants the lovers the ability, as Marianne Novy puts it, to "recreate their relationship after its apparent destruction" (1984, 122). The repetition of the estrangements between the protagonists has the further effect of suggesting the gradual change in Antony. The position he comes to as a result of each of these episodes—after Actium, after the Thidias episode, after the final defeat—is always one we recognize as "more noble than the one he has taken in disgust," as Goldman notes, "more appealing, more in keeping with that great property which should be Antony's" (1985, 122).

Antony's first lapse of belief in Cleopatra after Actium focuses as sharply on the disparity between past and present, between remembered victory and fresh defeat, as it does on her. The memory of the battle at Philippi, where his experience dominated Octavius's inexperience, pricks at his ego, tormenting him:

. . . he at Philippi kept His sword e'en like a dancer, while I strook The lean and wrinkled Cassi us, and 'twas I That the mad Brutus ended. He alone Dealt on lieutenantry, and no practice had In the brave squares of war. . . .


Imaginative recollection operates powerfully throughout the play; the heroic values of a bygone Rome are lost except through Antony's vivid memory of them. Here as elsewhere recollection of past heroism only accentuates his present humiliation: "Now I must / To the young man send humble treaties, dodge / And palter in the shifts of lowness" (3.11.61-63).

Although Rome is now corrupt, Antony has difficulty disentangling himself from its values. The dishonor of defeat is so shattering that it brings not only his reputation but his whole identity into question: "I / Have lost my way for ever. . . . / I have fled myself. . . . / I have lost command" (3.11.3-23).21 As he earlier uses the temptation of Cleopatra to excuse his dereliction of Roman duty, he now finds emotional relief by placing blame upon her. He says to his men, "I follow'd that I blush to look upon" (3.11.12); he says to her:

O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See How I convey my shame out of thine eyes By looking back what I have left behind 'Stroy'd in dishonor. . . .


His insistence on Cleopatra's awareness of his emotional dependency on her—an act of projection—serves, of course, to emphasize his own dawning awareness of the same:

Egypt, thou knew'st too well My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings, And thou shouldst tow me after. O'er my spirit Thy full supremacy thou knew'st, and that Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods Command me. . . .

You did know How much you were my conqueror, and that My sword, made weak by my affection, would Obey it on all cause.


His incipient understanding of her significance in his life is an indication of the change in him. The lovers are reconciled when her forthright acknowledgment of fear—"Forgive my fearful sails! . . . / O my pardon! . . . / Pardon, pardon!" (3.11.55-68)—is matched by his generous response: "Fall not a tear, I say, one of them rates / All that is won and lost" (3.11.69-70).

The Thidias episode dramatizes Antony's second alienation from Cleopatra. It also emphasizes her continued loyalty to him and Enobarbus's betrayal of him. That she remains loyal is not surprising; it is inconceivable, given her complete devotion to him in every word and deed, that she behave in any other way. The rich sarcasm of her response to Octavius's messenger is unmistakable:

Thidias. He [Octavius] knows that you embrace not Antony As you did love, but as you fear'd him.

Cleopatra. O!

Thidias. The scars upon your honor, therefore, he Does pity, as constrained blemishes, Not as deserved.

Cleopatra. He is a god and knows What is most right. Mine honor was not yielded, But conquer'd merely.


Cleopatra is as acutely aware here as she is after Antony's death that Octavius's avowal of concern for her honor is a lie.22

What the episode does reveal is the inadequacy of Roman constructions of Egypt and Cleopatra. Enobarbus's suspicion of her political betrayal and Antony's suspicion of her sexual betrayal both contribute to the exposure. Shamed by military defeat into thoughts of desertion, Enobarbus readily misinterprets the exchange between Thidias and Cleopatra. He says to himself that he will desert Antony because she does: "Sir, sir, thou art so leaky / That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for / Thy dearest quit thee" (3.13.63-65). The fact of the lovers' second reconciliation does nothing to alter his course. Antony, for his part, again expresses his sense of disorientation as a threatened loss of identity: "I am / Antony yet" (3.13.92-93). He is again painfully aware of the disparity between past reputation and present humiliation: "he [Octavius] seems / Proud and disdainful, harping on what I am, / Not what he knew I was" (3.13.141-43). Yet his obsession fastens less on the fiction of her political conniving than on the fiction of her sexual betrayal. It is Thidias's kiss of her hand that prompts his rage of sexual jealousy: "To flatter Caesar, would you mingle eyes / With one that ties his points?" (3.13.156-57). He turns on her as Othello turns on Desdemona:

Ah, you kite! . . . You have been a boggier ever. . . . I found you as a morsel, cold upon Dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment Of Cneius Pompey's. . . .


Both men are keenly aware of the humiliation of being cuckolded. Othello seeks relief in the thought that cuckoldry is inescapable: "this forked plague is fated to us / When we do quicken" (Othello, 3.3.276-77). Antony raises his humiliation to mythological proportions: "O that I were / Upon the hill of Basan, to outroar / The horned herd!" (3.13.126-28).

Cleopatra's simple question—"Not know me yet?" (3.13.157)—deflates Antony's emotional turmoil. He cannot, however, understand her without understanding himself. After he vents his wrath on her, as Goldman points out, "she wins him back to her and to himself" (1985, 122). Antony is untrue to himself when untrue to Cleopatra, true to himself when true to her. His awakening and response to her love embodies the paradoxical truth that love offers the possibility of both the greatest absorption in the lover and the deepest awareness of the self. Cleopatra expresses an awareness of their interdependency directly and simply: "It is my birthday. / I had thought t' have held it poor; but, since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra" (3.13.184-86). Her remark on the change in him echoes Mercutio's remark on the change in Romeo: "now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art" (Romeo and Juliet, 2.4.89-90). Even as Cleopatra celebrates her birthday, Antony, like Romeo after meeting Juliet, is in the process of undergoing a transformation, of shifting from one phase of identity to another. And his recognition of her love has the immediate effect of buoying him up; renewed confidence in love contributes to renewed confidence of war—he is victorious in the next day's battle.

The defeat at Actium and the Thidias episode suggest that military defeat profoundly undermines Antony's confidence in love. Conversely, his only military victory is suffused in his confidence in love. He reveals this confidence in his departure from Cleopatra before battle: "O love, / That thou couldst see my wars today, and knew'st / The royal occupation, thou shouldst see / A workman in 't" (4.4.15-18). And he reiterates it in his joyous greeting of her afterward: "O thou day o' th' world, / Chain mine arm'd neck, leap thou, attire and all, / Through proof of harness to my heart, and there / Ride on the pants triumphing!" (4.8.13-16). His elated words are more intimate in tone than grandiose; his embrace, in contrast to that at the opening of the play, is an honest expression of his love, not an extravagant gesture.23 Cleopatra beings him back from a moment in which "he feels his greatness is gone," Goldman maintains, to one in which "we—and his audiences on stage—feel that he is exercising it again" (1985, 122).

Just before Antony's "triple turn" or third lapse of belief in Cleopatra, Scarus describes his wildly oscillating swings of emotion: "Antony / Is valiant, and dejected, and by starts / His fretted fortunes give him hope and fear / Of what he has, and has not" (4.12.6-9). Antony does not lead his navy, but overlooks the battle from a hillside; his interpretation of events turns, significantly, on a non sequitur. His description of his navy's betrayal sounds like an accurate enough depiction of the scene before him: "My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder / They cast their caps up and carouse together / Like friends long lost" (4.12.11-13). His projection of blame for their betrayal onto Cleopatra, however, marks a departure from experiential reality: "This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me" (4.12.10). The illogicality of the passage reveals more about his state of mind, of course, than the scene before him. He blames her for the defeat at Actium because she flees battle in fear; he blames her for the final defeat even though there is no indication that she is present in battle. The only indication in the text, in fact, is that she is not present: "Swallows have built / In Cleopatra's sails their nests" (4.12.3-4). Antony, therefore, occupies a position midway between Othello, who requires "ocular proof to sustain the fiction of Desdemona's betrayal, and Leontes, who needs none at all to sustain the fiction of Hermione's betrayal.

Antony's insistence upon viewing Cleopatra in these terms is a twisted distortion of the heartfelt desire to fight at his side that she voices earlier. Yet his third and final outburst of rage at her is not wholly surprising in a man whose shifting confidence and insecurity in love and war mirror and magnify one another. Military vulnerability collapses into sexual vulnerability; he imagines himself at the moment of military defeat as victim of the combined treachery of both lover and enemy:

Triple-turn'd whore! 'tis thou Hast sold me to this novice. . . . The witch shall die. To the young Roman boy she hath sold me. . . .


Antony's jealousy focuses not on Octavius's factotum as in the Thidias episode, but on Octavius himself. References to his enemy's youth again erupt in this context: "this novice," "blossoming Caesar," "the young Roman boy." Once more he imagines Cleopatra's political betrayal in sexual terms, finding Othello's emotional relief in calling his lover "whore." In the posture of impotent victim of their conspiracy, he pictures his connection to her not in human terms—his emotional dependency on her, as earlier—but instead, in mythological terms—her power over him. He, therefore, resorts to the Roman construction of the myth of Cleopatra, taking up Philo's imperialistic discourse of fear and revulsion for the cultural other. She is not like Desdemona merely "whore," but rather, a threat, a mystery, a supernatural entity: "this grave charm," "thou spell," "most monsterlike," a "witch."

Cleopatra's one utterance in the scene—"Why is my lord so enrag'd against his love?" (4.12.31)—pierces through Antony's irrational invective. Like her earlier question—"Not know me yet?"—it echoes Desdemona's bewildered response to the accusations of her husband. If Antony's repeated rages are insufficient to expose the tenuousness of his belief in her, then her bewilderment at his behavior makes the point. So out of character is he—so unlike his true self—that she thinks (and we think) that "he's more mad / Than Telamon for his shield, the boar of Thessaly / Was never so emboss'd" (4.13.1-3). Shakespeare presents male delusions about female betrayal in Antony and Cleopatra as in Othello only to accentuate the reality of female constancy and to expose male inconstancy.24


If any sense of greatness exists in Antony and Cleopatra, it is primarily as the command over the imaginations of other characters, as Goldman maintains; "it depends on what people think of you and what you think of yourself" (1985, 113). The long concluding movement of the play is dominated by a series of what he calls "imaginative transformations" which bring about a "corresponding emotional movement of enhancement—from meanness and agitation of spirit to generosity and peace."25 These range from Antony's final outburst of rage and Cleopatra's response, through the false report of her death and his attempted suicide, to his death in her arms and the final spectacle of her death (1985, 128).

The lie of Cleopatra's death is not one of her own making. Contrary to her earlier repudation of Charmian's advice, she now follows it. After the length and the intensity of Antony's final rage, her willingness, even innocence, in resorting to such a solution does not strike us as strange. In its impact upon the dramatic action—prompting the male protagonist's death by suicide—the device of her false death reiterates that of Juliet. In its regenerative effect upon the repentant male protagonist, it reiterates and anticipates the deaths and resurrections of such female protagonists as Hero, Helena, Thaisa, Imogen, and Hermione in the comedies and the romances. Antony approximates Othello in his wish for the death of his lover: "one death / Might have prevented many. . . . / The witch shall die. . . . / She dies for 't" (4.12.41-49). Because Shakespeare's interest in Antony and Cleopatra, as in King Lear and The Winter's Tale, is in the regeneration of the male protagonist, however, the emphasis is on the reconciliation between the lovers. Antony represents in this play, therefore, a line of male protagonists that extends from the romantic comedies through the love tragedies to the romances.

The change in Antony is apparent in his poetic meditation upon the clouds just moments before he receives the news of Cleopatra's death. It is one of the play's great "emblems of transformation" (Goldman 1985, 126). No longer acting out any soldierly role, he speaks more to himself than to Eros. His final expression of his sense of loss of military identity, therefore, reveals no regard for audience:

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish, A vapor sometime like a bear or lion, A tower'd citadel, a pendant rock, A forked mountain, or blue promontory With trees upon 't that nod unto the world, And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs, They are black vesper's pageants. . . . That which is now a horse, even with a thought The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct As water is in water. . . .


His reflection upon the clouds draws an equation between himself and their ephemeral nature: "My good knave Eros, now thy captain is / Even such a body. Here I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape" (4.14.12-14). Paradoxically, though, as Goldman points out, even while Antony claims that he has lost command, the passage reveals the power of his imaginative command. The feeling of the passage contradicts its logic, so that not a sense of weightlessness but instead a sense of solidity dominates our impressions. "We are not meant to feel an insubstantial Antony here, but a weighty one" (1985, 126-27).

There is something in the quality of Cleopatra's references to Antony that is lacking in the quality of his references to her until he thinks she is dead. His response to the false report of her death reveals a man who, in coming to terms with her death, finally comes to terms with his life:

Unarm, Eros, the long day's task is done, And we must sleep. . . . I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra, and Weep for my pardon. So it must be, for now

All length is torture; since the torch is out. Lie down and stray no farther. Now all labor Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles Itself with strength. Seal then, and all is done.


The simplicity of statement and intimacy of tone with which he expresses his singular desire to join his lover—"I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra"—echoes that of Romeo: "Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight" (Romeo and Juliet, 5.1.34). But Antony has cause, as Romeo does not, to weep for pardon. While Lear and Leontes undergo prolonged suffering or years of remorse, Antony's change of heart is immediate.

The paradox that Antony becomes "a fuller man in his decline," as Ornstein puts it ([1966] 1967, 397), is understandable when we consider the dual pattern of the dramatic action. Even as he loses all in the conquest of empire, he gains immeasurably in his quest into the realm of emotional intimacy. As he loses his autonomous self, he finds his relational self. He is a "mine of bounty" to his men; his familiarity and ease with his soldierly identity allow him the confidence necessary for the expression of his generosity in this arena. His magnanimity is revealed in the detail of his treatment of Eros—"I did make thee free" (4.14.81)—as well as in his self-incriminating response to the desertion of Enobarbus:

. . . send his treasure after; do it, Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him (I will subscribe) gentle adieus and greeting; Say that I wish he never find more cause To change a master. O, my fortunes have Corrupted honest men!


The coffers of his largesse are often empty when it comes to Cleopatra, however, as his repeated rages emphasize. His unfamiliarity and unease with his emerging identity of lover deny him the confidence necessary for the expression of his generosity. In the end, however, he treats Cleopatra as he treats Enobarbus; he is no less generous and forgiving of the woman he loves than he is of the man he loves. He treats her as neither detestable "whore" nor supernatural "witch" but as an equal, and it is this change in Antony that allows for the possibility of a mutual, reciprocal exchange between two partners in love that was impossible earlier. Antony and Cleopatra become at last "the mutual pair" of which he speaks so extravagantly—and uncomprehendingly—at the beginning of the play. Both lovers make explicit the nature of their relationship at their deaths, proclaiming their bonds to one another in marital terms: Antony declares, "I will be / A bridegroom in my death" (4.14.99-100), as he attempts to run himself through; Cleopatra declares, "Husband, I come!" (5.2.287), as she applies the asps to her breast.

The multiple references to the nobility and honor of love interpenetrating the play culminate in the final tributes to one another of Enobarbus, Antony, and Cleopatra. In the end, Enobarbus embodies the value of honor in love, not war. His potential for change is suggested throughout the drama. He epitomizes Roman cynicism about women, yet Cleopatra's "infinite variety" elicits from him the most poetic tribute to her in the play. He epitomizes Roman control of emotions, yet he dies out of love for Antony rather than fight "in the van" against him:

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.


His cynicism, so useful while he holds his career and everyone and everything around him in the comic focus of detachment, as Mack points out, "withers in the face of his engagement to ultimate issues" ([1960] 1970, 328). Enobarbus dies heartbroken, speaking with the same density of feeling as the lovers.

Antony says, "Since Cleopatra died / I have liv'd in such dishonor that the gods / Detest my baseness" (4.14.55-57), yet he is not a man who has lost all as he prepares to take his life. Deeply moved by Cleopatra's and Eros's deaths, he is inspired by their nobility. He knows Cleopatra well; he intimates her attitude toward Octavius and her own death precisely, as the final moments of the play bear out:

I, that with my sword Quarter'd the world, and o'er green Neptune's back With ships made cities, condemn myself to lack The courage of a woman—less noble mind Than she which by her death our Caesar tells, "I am conqueror of myself."


Eros appears in the tragedy just before Antony's suicide so that he may kill himself rather than kill Antony, eliciting this response:

Thrice-nobler than myself! Thou teaches me, O valiant Eros, what I should, and thou couldst not. My queen and Eros Have by their brave instruction got upon me A nobleness in record. . . .


His name and his deed echo in a minor key the other deaths for love (Mack [1960] 1970, 328).

The final reconciliation of the alienated lovers is one of those resonant scenes, like the reunion of Desdemona and Othello at Cyprus, that allows us to partake of several dimensions of emotional and artistic experience at once. The reunion at the monument reminds us of the male protagonist below and the female protagonist above in the orchard scene in Romeo and Juliet, Both of these scenes, in turn, reiterate the image of the woman at the window that permeates the courtly romance tradition. Indeed, the physical elevation of Antony on stage to the level of Cleopatra emblematizes his ennoblement. He sees himself at his death as "the greatest prince o' th' world, / The noblest" (4.15.54-55), and she echoes his description. His generosity is at last concentrated in a lack of possessiveness and a concern for her welfare. His dying words are devoted to her making peace with his enemy: "Of Caesar seek your honor, with your safety" (4.15.46). The selflessness of his devotion to Cleopatra, together with his solicitude for her welfare, echoes the altruism of the speaker in Sonnet 71: "No longer mourn for me when I am dead /. . . for I love you so, / That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot / If thinking on me then should make you woe."26 Antony experiences compassion; his participation in the suffering of another—Cleopatra as well as Enobarbus and Eros—is the mark of his humanity.

The reunion at the monument enables Antony to die in Cleopatra's arms. In Lear's entry with Cordelia's body critics see an inversion of the piètà; the emblem of Cleopatra embracing the dying Antony conflates the grief of the pietà and the nurturance of the Madonna. Yet Christian emblems such as these are but appropriations of older cultures, such as images of Isis, Osiris, and Horus in Egyptian iconography (Campbell 179). Cleopatra's extraordinary use of humor discloses the intimacy of the lovers: "Noblest of men, woo 't die? / Hast thou no care of me?" (4.15.59-60). She feigns selfishness, echoing Juliet's response to Romeo's death: "O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop / To help me after?" (Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.163-64). Cleopatra lives beyond Antony's death in one last enactment of loneliness, desolation, and mourning: "Shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No better than a sty?" (4.15.60-62). Her description of the utter void left by his death has the solidity and weight of Antony's sense of loss at his moment of greatest desolation in 4.14:

O, see, my women: 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.


Like Antony, she is describing loss. Even while she says that life is drained of meaning, however, the audience is again subject to the power of imaginative command. The feeling of the passage, as earlier, defies its logic. There is no greater representation of female theatrical subjectivity in Shakespeare's plays than Cleopatra, and nowhere is that subjectivity represented more powerfully than in Cleopatra's response to Antony's death.27

To the soldier Antony is the pole star by which a course can be charted, "an image that suggests both the brightness of his glory and the seeming impossibility of his fall," as Marsh maintains (1976, 191-92). But the image also suggests the dependency on him of those around him. In love as in war, for Cleopatra as for his men, Antony is the pole star. His emotional dependency on her is matched and balanced by her dependency on him in a continuous, reciprocal, attracting and counter attracting, responsive and counter-responsive interrelationship. This is not to ignore the sexual innuendo of the "soldier's pole." But Cleopatra's image reminds us of the absoluteness of the "ever-fixed mark" of Sonnet 116 "that looks on tempests and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wand'ring bark, / Whose worth's unknown, although his highth be taken." The artist possesses the ability to "make [love] a permancy," E. M. Forster maintains, despite the reality that "all history, all our experience, teaches us that no human relationship is constant." An intimate relationship is as unstable as "the living beings who compose it, and they must balance like jugglers if it is to remain" ([1927] 1985, 55). In Antony's oscillation and Cleopatra's depth and totality of emotional commitment, Shakespeare represents both the human capacity for instability and the capacity for constancy in intimate relations.28

Shakespeare's outrageous artistic choice—killing off the male protagonist in act 4 and devoting act 5 to the female protagonist—has drawn critical attention and provoked negative response, especially from those incapable of understanding or accepting the "unique compliment," as Bradley puts it, he pays Cleopatra ([1909] 1964, 235-236).29 In Shakespeare's greatest departure from Plutarch, he devotes act 5 to her poetic celebration of Antony and her determination to die. Her death is at once an act of defiance of Octavius and an enactment of marital union to Antony. Her dealings with Octavius dramatize the turn of her back on this world; her poetic tribute to Antony anticipates her eager embrace of him in the next. Remarkably, yet quite like all her earlier scenes, her last scenes are characterized by "an expression of ineffaceable lightheartedness," as Everett puts it—one that evokes a mood closer to the experience of the comedies than the tragedies (1964, xxiv). Cleopatra is given, as Cameo Moore claims, "the theatrical license to destabilize the tragic genre" (1989).

Even as Cleopatra's humor punctures Antony's easy romanticizing earlier in the play, the power of her imaginative command immortalizes him. She achieves the effect that the persona in Sonnet 55 so deliberately intends: "Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme." Her earlier references to Antony as "the demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet ofmen," "the crown o' th' earth," and a "huge spirit" culminate in her portrait of him as a colossus:

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


His capacity for giving is such that each act of magnanimity and forgiveness of both Cleopatra and Enobarbus makes him not a diminished but a greater figure:

For his bounty, There was no winter in 't; an autumn it was 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.


The paradox of his infinitely renewing generosity echoes that of the infinite bounty that Juliet so eloquently proclaims (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.133-35). Cleopatra envisions the infinitude of Antony's "bounty" in seasonal and cosmic imagery and the world he discards in imperial imagery; it is not insignificant that empire is dwarfed by the cosmos in the comparison.

The fate Octavius has in store for Cleopatra—being led caged through the streets of Rome—symbolizes the conquest of a nation in the conquest of a single female body. Imperialistic constructions of cultural other and patriarchal constructions of sexual other conflate: the conquest of Egypt is emblematized in sexual terms as an Ovidian fantasy—the complete domination of a woman:

Now, Iras, what think'st thou? Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, And forc'd to drink their vapor. . . . Saucy lictors Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers Ballad's out a' tune. The quick comedians Extemporally will stage us, and present Our Alexiandrian revels: Antony Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I'th' posture of a whore.


Those who believe that Cleopatra dallies with Octavius out of a desire to strike a bargain with him ignore in her speeches her repeated, explicit preference of death to anything he offers her:

Not th' imperious show Of the full-fortun'd Caesar ever shall Be brooch'd with me, if knife, drugs, serpents have Edge, sting, or operation.


'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.


Know, sir, that I Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court. . . . Rather a ditch in Egypt Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies Blow me into abhorring! rather make My country's high pyramides my gibbet, And hang me up in chains!


Here, as always, Cleopatra is fully aware of Octavius's imperialistic ideology, its implications for women and for Egypt, and more particularly, the imperatives by which he would reduce her to the most precious of prizes. Likewise, those who interpret her evasion of the fate Octavius has in store for her as motivated by female vanity ignore Antony's identical sentiments:

Eros, Wouldst thou be window'd in great Rome and see Thy master thus with pleach'd arms, bending down His corrigible neck, his face subdu'd

To penetrative shame, whilst the wheel'd seat Of fortunate Caesar, drawn before him, branded His baseness that ensued?


If the desire to avoid humiliation plays a part in motivating Cleopatra to take her life, then the same must be admitted of Antony.

Far from depicting Cleopatra as overcome by self-interest, vacillating in her determination to die as she seriously entertains Octavius's lies, Shakespeare emphasizes her resolution. Like Antony, she comes to terms with the fear of death to take her life. From the moment of his death to that of her own she invokes the courage needed to perform the final deed:

My resolution and my hands I'll trust, None about Caesar.


Come, we have no friend But resolution and the briefest end.


My resolution's plac'd, and I have nothing Of woman in me. . . .


Husband, I come! Now to that name my courage prove my title!


The richly comic exchange in which she exploits and manipulates Octavius's belief in female "frailty" further discloses her resolution. Her strategy of dissembling with the "sole sir o' th' world" guarantees the success of her practical joke: "I . . . do confess I have / Been laden with like frailties which before / Have often sham'd our sex" (5.2.121-24).

The pleasure Cleopatra takes in outfoxing Octavius at his own game dominates the final moments of the play: "Why, that's the way / To fool their preparation, and to conquer / Their most absurd intents" (5.2.224-26). Twice she underscores her success. Of Antony she exults, "I hear him mock / The luck of Caesar" (5.2.285-86). To the asp she laughs, "O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied!" (5.2.306-8). Four more times the text insists upon her success. Nearly every character on stage—Charmian, the First Guard, Dolabella, and Octavius himself—accentuates Cleopatra's victory and Octavius's defeat in this final battle of wills and wits:

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


1. Guard. . . . all's not well; Caesar's beguil'd.


Dolabella. Caesar, . . . thyself art coming To see perform'd the dreaded act which thou So sought'st to hinder. . . . That you did fear is done.


Caesar. She levell'd at our purposes, and being royal Took her own way.


Cleopatra transforms the humiliating procession Octavius intends for her in Rome into the final procession of her intent: the final theatrical emblem is that of Octavius bearing her dead body off stage.

As self-aggrandizing at the end of act 5 as at the beginning ("her life in Rome / would be eternal in our triumph"), Octavius proclaims the heroism of the lovers' story only to glorify his own role in it:

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.


A Roman is as great, in other words, as those he degrades. Octavius's "place i' th' story" of Antony and Cleopatra, as we well know, however, is but a footnote. Despite Antony's humiliation and defeat at Octavius's hands, Cleopatra subverts Octavius's attempt to reduce her "infinite variety" to the status of a war trophy. The final impression of affirmation and triumph, release and joy, lies in the one more opportunity granted Antony—one that reiterates the reconciliation of Lear to Cordelia and anticipates the second chance granted such protagonists as Leontes in the romances. And it lies in the success of Cleopatra's practical joke on "the universal landlord" as she enacts a marital union to Antony.

Time and again she emphasizes the nobility of joining him: "what's brave, what's noble, / Let's do 't after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us" (4.15.86-88). Throughout the final scene she insists on the nobility of her death:

He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not Be noble to myself.


What poor an instrument May do a noble deed!


Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself To praise my noble act.


She obviously does not yearn to emulate Octavius's Rome, as some critics believe. Instead; her death surpasses the phallic standard of Roman suicide, as Goldman insists. Her death is "no terse, stoic acceptance of a sword in the belly"; rather, it is "a conversion of death into something gentle, regenerative,30 sovereign" (1985, 132). Indeed, the final orchestrated spectacle of her death—the fullest manifestation in the play of the power of her imaginative command—is all of these things. Its theatrical power lies, to a large extent, in its expression of the multiplicity of her nature: she is at once wife, queen, mother, goddess. Her singular aim is to join Antony: "Husband, I come!" (5.2.287). The final tableau—regal queen seated on her throne—deliberately recalls the choreographed majesty of their meeting: "I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony" (5.2.228-29). Yet the peaceful, intimate atmosphere that pervades the scene as she nurses the asps at her breast suggests all domestic scenes of maternal bliss. Finally, Cleopatra is "serpent of old Nile," theatrically emblematizing the figure of a prepatriarchal goddess entwined with snakes.31

Shakespeare's representation of Cleopatra humanizes her, disrupting centuries of treatment of the legend of the two lovers. In Antony and Cleopatra women are most emphatically not as they are valued by men. More so than is true of any of Shakespeare's female protagonists, Cleopatra's estimation of herself is independent of male estimations of her. She forever eludes and defies delimiting Roman constructions of her and Egypt—Petrarchism, Ovidianism, and Orientalism. It is Cleopatra's theatrical subjectivity—the complete independence of her self-evaluation from their conflicting desire and repugnance for her—that accounts for her "infinite variety." Cleopatra is, literally, more than they can comprehend. She is an artist who "fashions out of her life a legend that is unfit for hearse or for Octavius' half-acre tombs." She dies instead seated on the throne of Egypt, and like the Isis of Egyptian iconography, she represents that throne. Her "place i' th' story" is beside the legendary figures who live in ancient myth. She is "another Thetis, an Isis, a Venus, a Dido," Ornstein concludes ([1966] 1967, 402-3). Indeed, Shakespeare's treatment of the legend of Cleopatra and Antony is richly reminiscent of the legend of Isis and Osiris, the prime myth of the goddess as redeemer from the prepatriarchal period. The goddess Isis—or Cleopatra—goes in quest of her lost lover Osiris—or Antony—and through her loyalty and descent into the realm of death—Octavius's Rome—recovers him. In Shakespeare's final representation in the love tragedies of the woman as regenerator, Cleopatra is a manifestation of a prepatriarchal goddess.


1 I find Edward Said's Orientalism useful in understanding Roman views of Egypt in the play. Orientalism is the word he uses to describe the construction of a colonized other, such as the Middle East, by an imperialistic culture, such as England, France, or the United States, to legitimate its own superiority. See, especially, his Introduction (1978, 1-28).

2 L. L. Schücking, in a "realistic" interpretation of Cleopatra's "double" character, reconciles the early wanton and the later tragic queen by posing the notion of her transformation (1922, 119-41); E. E. Stoll, reacting against "sentimental" views of Cleopatra, judges plot to be more important than character ([1930] 1958, 3-29); Stirling sees the play as a satire that denies the lovers' nobility (1956, 157-206); Dickey uses the same historical approach he uses with Romeo and Juliet to find a moral lesson in the excesses of passion (1957, 144-202); Whitaker follows Schücking in discovering a transformed Cleopatra at Antony's death (1965, 276-96); Mason denies any meaning to the love relationship, writing that "the interest aroused by Cleopatra at the end is too ideal" and that "she has ceased to be part and parcel of the real" (1970, 229-76).

3 Bradley believes in a "triumph which is more than reconciliation" ([1909] 1964); Knight sees in the play's "transcendental humanism" Shakespeare's subtlest and greatest play ([1931] 1951, 199-342); John Middleton Murry says we cannot judge the play "as a record of action merely; if we do, its essence escapes our judgement" (1936, 294-318); Harold Goddard makes the point that Cleopatra deceives some readers as well as the Romans in the play as to her determination to die with her "husband" (1950, 2:184-308); John Dover Wilson emphasizes Antony's magnanimity and Cleopatra's glory ([1950] 1973); D. A. Traversi echoes Knight's interpretation that the lovers find not death but life in his view that "death becomes release" ([1956] 1969, 2:212-39).

4 See n. 1. I am indebted to Peter Stallybrass's and Allon White's distinctions between self and other, top and bottom, high and low, especially their views on the conflicting attraction and repulsion of the first in each set for the second (1986, 1-26).

5 Anyone familiar with this essay will recognize its influence on this chapter.

6 It is useful to note, in this connection, the kundalini system of psychic centers, or chakras, running up the spine. Early on, Antony would seem to be mired in the lower two centers, seats of the animal instincts for eating and reproduction. Throughout the course of the play he can be seen to evolve to the fourth center, at the level of the heart—seat of compassion and concern for the other rather than the self.

7 See Goldman (1985, 123ff.) and Adelman (1973, 144ff.) on the significance of "imaginative transformation," in the first case, and "becoming," in the second case, in the play.

8 Goldman, Rackin, and Ornstein all emphasize the power of imaginative command in the play.

9 See n. 4.

10 Again, although I do not wish to press the point, the link between this characterizing trait of Octavius and the third psychic center in the kundalini system—the seat of aggressiveness and the desire for dominance and power over others—is striking. See n. 6 above.

11 The similarity of Octavius's generalized sentiments on female "corruptibility" and those of Iago on female "appetite" links these two inflections of the Ovidian discursive tradition to one another.

12 Cf. Shakespeare's emblematized marriage ceremony when Othello and Iago kneel side by side at the conclusion of 3.3.

13 For a theatrical interpretation that emphasizes Octavius's genuine feeling for his sister, however, see Alan Dessen's review (1988) of the Peter Hall production at the National Theatre.

14 According to recent findings by archaeologists of prepatriarchal cultures, such as Marija Gimbutas, "the female principle was conceived as creative and eternal, the male as spontaneous and ephemeral" (1982 Women 29). I find that this differentiation has striking resemblances to Shakespeare's representation of gender difference.

Among Shakespeareans, see Neely (1985, 138) and Bamber (1982, 59-60) as well as Dusinberre for discussions of this gender difference in Antony and Cleopatra. I read Neely's chapter while revising mine for publication; although we arrived at our conclusions independently, our interpretations intersect at points.

15 "Women's jouissance carries with it the notion of fluidity, diffusion, duration. It is a kind of potlatch in the world of orgasms, a giving, expending, dispensing of pleasure without concern about ends or closure" (Marks and de Courtivron 1980, 36-37, n. 8). See also Kristeva (1980).

16 I find that my view of Antony's potential is akin to the materialist conception of subjectivity as articulated by Jonathan Dollimore. Insofar as subjectivity "retains the concept of essence," he says, it "construes it not as that which is eternally fixed but as social potential materialising within limiting historical conditions" (1984, 251).

17 The most stunning opening of this play I have seen is that of the 1988 Shakespeare/Santa Cruz production on the University of California campus, in which Cleopatra and Antony enter 1.1 crossdressed in the way Cleopatra describes. Her recollection is thus given material, symbolic weight in being theatrically enacted on stage in this way.

18 I do not mean that Antony takes up Cleopatra's use of a garment metaphor here; my point is that the verb, ride, in the sense of "to mount sexually," is conventionally used with a male, not a female subject. See Eric Partridge ([1948] 1969, 175).

19 I am here, as elsewhere, drawing on the work of Stallybrass and White, who, in turn, draw on Mikhail Bakhtin's distinctions between the classic and the grotesque. See, especially, their Introduction (1986, 1-26); see also Bakhtin (1968).

20 The relational and emotional sterility of Shakespeare's representation of Octavius contrasts, of course, with his representation of the lovers, but it is all the more striking in light of Roman projections of sexuality onto Cleopatra.

21 Cf. Othello's identity crisis—"Othello's occupation's gone" (Othello, 3.3.357)—which is prompted by the delusion of Desdemona's adultery.

22 It is difficult to understand how critics find evidence of her betrayal of Antony in her obvious dissembling with Thidias.

23 Indeed, Neely labels this passage Antony's "boldest declaration of passion in the play" (1985, 146).

24 See n. 14.

25 See Goldman's fine discussion of "imaginative command," "vertical promotion," and "enhancement" during Antony's and Cleopatra's final moments (1985, 112-39).

26 I am not unaware of the sarcasm of this sonnet. Indeed, it can be argued that it makes sense only if the lover does not love the speaker, and that the speaker is aware of this fact.

27 Even those critics who revile Cleopatra have not been able to ignore this passage; instead, they are forced to erect notions of two Cleopatras—one, a whore; the other, a tragic female protagonist. See n. 2. To other critics, those who would deny Cleopatra her subjectivity because "she dies for love," only the obvious can be pointed out: so does Antony. Desdemona dies for love, but so does Othello; Juliet dies for love, but so does Romeo. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what is under attack here is any or all human affective affiliation, rather than strictly female affective affiliation.

28 See n. 14.

29 L. T. Fitz [Linda Woodbridge] usefully summarizes and analyzes the indifferent, unsympathetic—even hostile—critical responses to Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra (1977).

30 It may be true, as the Pelican edition notes, that when the Clown says, "his [the asp's] biting is immortal" (5.2.246), he means mortal, not immortal, and, further, that Cleopatra playfully takes up his malapropism: "I have / Immortal longings in me" (5.2.280). Consider, though, that the snake was the vehicle of immortality in prepatriarchal iconography, according to Gimbutas. "The involved ornamentation of Cucuteni and East Balkan ceramic painting is a symbolic glorification of nature's dynamism," she notes. "Its graphic expression is organized around the symbol of the snake, whose presence was a guarantee that nature's enigmatic cycle would be maintained and its life-giving powers not diminish" (1982 Goddesses 95).

31 The emblem of Cleopatra seated on her throne applying asps to her body bears striking resemblance to the artifacts of prepatriarchal Europe: "from the Early Neolithic to ancient Greece the snake appears in an anthropomorphic shape as a Snake Goddess," Gimbutas points out. "Her body is usually decorated with stripes or snake spirals, while her arms and legs are portrayed as snakes, or she is entwined by one or more snakes" (1982 Goddesses 101).

Works Cited

Adelman, J. 1973. The Common Liar. Yale Studies in English, no. 181. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans. H. Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bamber, L. 1982. Comic Women, Tragic Men. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bradley, A. C. [1909] 1964. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In Antony and Cleopatra, ed. B. Everett, 218-43. New York: NAL. (First published in Oxford lectures on poetry. London: Macmillan.)

Dessen, A. 1988. Exploring the Script. Shakespeare Quarterly 39:217-26.

Dickey, F. 1957. Not Wisely But Too Well. San Marino: Huntington Library.

Dollimore, J. 1984. Radical Tragedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dusinberre, J. 1975. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. New York: Harper.

Fitz, L. T. [L. Woodbridge]. 1977. Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers. Shakespeare Quarterly 28: 297-316.

Gimbutas, M. 1982. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goddard, H. 1950. The Meaning of Shakespeare. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goldman, M. 1985. Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Knight, G. W. [1931] 1951. The Imperial Theme. Repr. London: Methuen.

Kristeva, J. 1980. Desire in Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marks, E., and I. de Courtivron, eds. 1980. New Feminisms. New York: Schocken.

Mason, H. 1970. Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love. London: Chatto.

Murry, J. M. 1936. Shakespeare. New York: Harcourt.

Neely, C. T. 1985. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Partridge, E. [1948] 1969. Shakespeare's Bawdy. Rev. ed. New York: Dutton.

Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Schücking, L. L. 1922. Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays. London: Harrap.

Stallybrass, P., and A. White. 1986. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Methuen.

Stirling, B. 1956. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stoll, E. E. [1930] 1958. Poets and Playwrights. Repr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Traversi, D. [1956] 1969. An Approach to Shakespeare. 2 vols. 3rd rev. ed. New York: Doubleday.

Whitaker, V. 1965. The Mirror up To Nature. San Marino: Huntington Library.

Wilson, J. D. [1950] 1973. Introd. to Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Wilson, vii-xxxvi. Repr. London: Cambridge University Press.

Jonathan Gil Harris (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "'Narcissus in Thy Face': Roman Desire and the Difference it Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 408-25.

[In the essay below, Harris examines how contemporary versions of the myth of Narcissus inform one's reading of Antony and Cleopatra, arguing that such a reading calls into question the traditional conception of Cleopatra "as the quintessentially female object and origin of heterosexual desire. "]

But what if the Devil, on the contrary, the Other, were the Same? And what if the Temptation was not one of the episodes of the great antagonism, but the mere insinuation of the Double? What if this duel developed in the space of the mirror?

Michel Foucault1

This essay examines the relation between Elizabethan versions of Ovid's Narcissus myth and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In doing so, it may seem to tiptoe through that tired terrain which Stephen Greenblatt has termed "the elephants' graveyard of literary history"2 —source study. I do not intend to suggest that Shakespeare had read contemporary versions of the myth, although there are a number of telltale fingerprints in the play—borrowed phrases, motifs—suggesting this may have been the case. Rather I wish to use the tale of Narcissus to reread Antony and Cleopatra in a way that challenges orthodox understandings of gender difference in the play, in particular the status of Cleopatra as the quintessentially female object and origin of heterosexual desire—both the desire of her Roman suitors and, perhaps just as important, the desire of her heterosexual male spectators and readers, past and present. Hence this essay engages in "source" study of another kind: a critical reappraisal of the source of heterosexual eros in Elizabethan versions of the Narcissus myth as well as in Shakespeare's play.


Criticism of Antony and Cleopatra has repeatedly returned to Shakespeare's representations of Rome and Egypt, a topographical and cultural opposition that is undeniably central to the play. Much attention has been devoted to showing how, in contrast to Rome's "measure" and Lenten restraint, Egypt is represented as a land of excess in the thrall of an endless Bacchanal.3 What is perhaps most notable about many past accounts of the Rome/Egypt opposition, however, is the extent to which these accounts have also elaborated an absolute gender polarity or, more accurately, a gender hierarchy. Rome has been characterized as a male world, presided over by the austere Caesar, and Egypt as a female domain, embodied by a Cleopatra who is seen to be as abundant, leaky, and changeable as the Nile. Significantly, it is this changeability, manifest in her legendary "infinite variety" (2.2.236), that has prompted critics such as George Brandes to style Cleopatra somewhat negatively as "the woman of women, quintessentiated Eve."4 Within this disparaging assessment of Cleopatra as the archetype of a fallen femininity, there lurks a fascination with her as the irrepressible origin of male desire. For example, G. Wilson Knight's notorious observation that "Cleopatra and her girls at Alexandria are as the Eternal Femininity waiting for Man" is accompanied by the claim that she is "all romantic vision, the origin of love, the origin of life."5 Whether viewed as the wily perpetrator of original sin or the redemptive source of romantic love, Cleopatra has been cast within literary criticism as the Ur-Woman, the archetypally female origin of male heterosexual eros.

Not surprisingly, more recent criticism has taken issue with such sexist interpretations of Cleopatra and her "quintessentiated" femininity. In the wake of feminist,6 poststructuralist, and cultural-materialist critiques of gender essentialism, most modern Shakespeare scholars are inclined to be far more skeptical about claims that Shakespeare possessed a unique insight into a timeless "femininity." Nevertheless, despite the historicizing impulse that has rescued Cleopatra from the negative pole of an oppressively essentialist gender opposition, much criticism continues to abide by the gendered topographical binaries that dominate romantic and formalist interpretations of the play.7 In a powerful reading that undermines many of the conventional assumptions about Cleopatra's "femininity," Janet Adelman claims, for example, that "the contest between Caesar and Cleopatra, Rome and Egypt, is in part a contest between male scarcity and female bounty."8 Leonard Tennenhouse asserts that "Cleopatra is Egypt," and that by virtue of her difference from patriarchal Roman "measure," "she embodies everything that is not English according to the nationalism which developed under Elizabeth as well as to the British nationalism later fostered by James. . . . She contrasts Egyptian fecundity, luxury and hedonism to Rome's penury, harshness and self denial."9 I would argue that the play is far less secure in asserting the differences that Adelman's and Tennenhouse's assessments seem to uphold. While Cleopatra may appear to incarnate everything exotic and bountifully "feminine," the play suggests at crucial moments that the relationships between Egypt and Rome, Cleopatra and Antony, are less ones of opposition than of specularity—a specularity that, as we shall see, parallels and even critically interrogates the historically specific relation between the Cleopatra of the play's first performances and her Jacobean audience.10

Instances of specularity recur throughout the play. Gnaeus Pompey "would stand and make his eyes grow in . . . [Cleopatra's] brow" (1.5.2); Caesar fills the front line of his army with deserters from Antony's army, so that the latter would "seem to spend his fury / Upon himself (4.6.10-11); the defeated Antony sees himself reflected in the changing clouds of the Egyptian sky (4.14.1-14); the triumphant Caesar glimpses himself in the "spacious mirror" of Antony's demise (5.1.33). The self-scrutinizing gaze of Rome's triumvirs is thus obliquely but suggestively aligned with that of Narcissus, rapt in contemplation of his reflection on the surface of Ovid's spring. .11 Yet critics have more customarily, albeit indirectly, associated Narcissus with Cleopatra and her quintessential "femininity." If essentialist interpretations have regarded Cleopatra's lack of coherent selfhood, her inconstancy, as characteristic of her "sex," there has also been a paradoxical tendency to emphasize her excessive love of self as a uniquely "feminine" quality. For example, Anna Jameson in 1832 noted "her consistent inconsistency" yet lambasted her "love of self."12 Likewise, Schlegel noted Cleopatra's narcissistic "royal pride [and] female vanity."13 A. C. Bradley drew attention to Cleopatra's "comic vanity" in the tirade against the messenger,14 which contains the play's one explicit reference to Narcissus: "Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me / Thou wouldst appear most ugly" (2.5.96-97). Cleopatra invokes Narcissus here primarily to contrast his surpassing beauty with the ugliness of the messenger's shocking news about Antony's marriage to Octavia; but the allusion serves also as a sly reminder of Cleopatra's own narcissism, displayed in her insistence earlier in the scene that the messenger tell her only what she wants to hear, even if it deviates from the truth. She berates the messenger precisely because he does not have Narcissus in his face: he has failed to reflect her desire.15

Curiously, however, other moments in the play suggest that Cleopatra has less in common with Narcissus than with his reflection. When Enobarbus says of her "she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies" (2.2.237-38), he reprises an important motif in early modern English versions of the Narcissus myth. In Ovid's text Narcissus stares hungrily at his reflection in the spring and, trying in vain to kiss it, utters "inopem me copia fecit"—"My very plenty makes me poor" (Metamorphoses III, 1. 466).16 Tudor and Stuart writers reworked this line to emphasize the thirst or hunger-inducing insubstantiality of the narcissistic reflection. Edmund Spenser compared his own gaze to that of "Narcissus vaine / whose eyes him staru'd: so plenty makes me poore."17 In Henry Reynolds's 1630 Mythomystes, Narcissus is described as growing "thirsty as his thirst he slakes."18 And in Thomas Edwards's 1595 poem "Narcissus," to which I shall soon return in greater detail, Narcissus complains of his reflection that "Neuer the greedie Tantalus pursued, / To touch those seeming apples more than I."19 Cleopatra is thus accorded by Enobarbus the paradoxical power of the narcissistic reflection—like the reflection, she is depicted as possessing both an ineluctable power to "make hungry" and a frustrating insubstantiality. To this extent Cleopatra may appear to conform to the conventional misogynist archetype of the "hard-to-get" temptress, an assessment endorsed by critics like Knight with his reading of Cleopatra as the "Eternal Femininity waiting for Man." But I shall argue that the identification of Cleopatra with the hunger-inducing satisfaction of the narcissistic reflection generates resonances that seriously disrupt the essentialist perception of her as the "Eternal Femininity."


The motif of the hunger-inducing reflection was just one feature of the many appropriations of the Narcissus myth in early modern England.20 In addition to Arthur Golding's English translation of Ovid's entire Metamorphoses in 1567, there were a number of versions of the tale in wide circulation before 1630. Most united in condemning Narcissus for his pride; he was, according to both the 1560 anonymous translator and Richard Brathwayte in his poem "Narcissus Change" (1611), guilty of a hubris comparable to Lucifer's.21 Significantly, such conventional attacks on pride were often made to serve a Neoplatonic critique of appearances: Henry Reynolds inveighed against Narcissus's reflection as a "deceiptfull shadow"22 "the transitory thinges of this world are not to be trusted," argued the author of the 1560 translation.23 For these writers, therefore, Narcissus's crime was less self-love than the fatal overvaluation of a mere reflection; he misrecognized surface for depth, an image for the real thing, an effect for the source. As Reynolds remarked in his version of the tale, Narcissus mistook the "deceiptfull shadow" of his reflection for a "sun-beame,"24 an oxymoronic juxtaposition that highlights his debilitating confusion of origin and effect.

For writers like Reynolds, Echo—the disembodied nymph spurned by Narcissus—assumed allegorical importance not only as the authentic and legitimate object of a heterosexual desire opposed to Narcissus's self-rapture but also as the representative of a cosmic origin opposed to "deceiptfull shadow": "adore Ecco, " Reynolds commanded his readers, "This Winde is the Symbole of the Breath of God."25 As Barry Taylor remarks in his excellent study of Neoplatonism and the Narcissus myth in early modern England, "Echo represents the 'reflex' of the image produced in the mind by the breath of God, which conduces to intellectual unity and the direction of the soul's parts towards God. Narcissus, on the contrary, is the soul which denies this process and attends instead to the reflection supplied by the sense and 'corporeal shadows.'" In symbolizing the Neoplatonic origin, Echo offers the "possibility of a re-engagement with truth through the restoration of a heterosexual mutuality which stands for all forms of 'natural' relationship."26 Within the Neoplatonic interpretation of Ovid's tale, therefore, Echo functions powerfully as a twin figure of legitimacy: she is the cosmically sanctioned origin of both "true" understanding and "natural" male heterosexual eros.

The Neoplatonic understanding of Narcissus's crime is partially evident also in Thomas Edwards's 1595 "Narcissus," which is a somewhat elliptic rewriting of the story as it appears in Metamorphoses. Edwards's Narcissus is not the antisocial Sylvan solipsist of Ovid's poem; instead he is an urban sex-tease who plays it fast and loose and is proud of his substantial wardrobe. Narcissus, who narrates most of the poem, is accosted by a never ending stream of suitors, both male and female. He accepts jewels and garments as gifts from them and, in the process, undergoes a curious transformation: "like a lover glad of each new toy," he exclaims, "So I a woman turned from a boy."27 When Edwards's Narcissus stares into the spring, therefore, he falls prey to a double misrecognition. He follows Ovid's protagonist in believing his reflection to be substantial, but he parts company with the classical Narcissus in also believing it to be a woman: "my lips hers to have touched, / I forc'd them forward, and my head down crouched."28 Narcissus perceives his reflection to be not only female but also spellbindingly exotic. He compares his discovery to that of "the English globe-incompasser" Francis Drake, who "by same purueying found another land." In a fascinating variation on the paradoxical Ovidian motif of riches coupled with poverty, satiety with hunger, the intensity of Narcissus's gaze serves to deprive him of sight: in a further development of the trope of the European witness in the New World, he declares himself to have been struck blind by "gazing on this Orient sunne."29 The confusion of reflection and celestial source hinted at here is made explicit with Edwards's oxymoronic description of Narcissus's image (reminiscent of Reynolds's yoking of "deceiptfull shadow" and "sun-beame") as a "Sun-shine-shadow."30 This disjunction serves to underline Edwards's Neoplatonic interpretation of Narcissus's crime as a failure to recognize the "true" source of his desire: Narcissus himself is the "sun" that produces the image on the spring's surface.

In directing attention to Narcissus as the source, Edwards deviates from other Neoplatonic versions of the myth in that he notably fails to include Echo in his tale. Thus the customary Neoplatonic redress to Echo as the origin of legitimate heterosexual desire and allegorical incarnation of "the breath of God" is also omitted. In the process Edwards invites a subtly different understanding of the source of male heterosexual eros: in the world of his poem, the "real thing" is neither Echo nor any female object of desire but Narcissus himself, "a woman turned from a boy." His "heterosexual" desire, therefore, is in a crucial sense homoeroticized, its origin and object disclosed as male. Edwards's Narcissus eventually understands his predicament. But unlike Ovid's Narcissus, for whom the realization that he has fallen in love with his own reflection proves fatal, Edwards's protagonist remains very much alive, musing wistfully and not particularly repentantly on the nature of his self-love.

Edwards's poem contains three important motifs: the projection of Narcissus's own sunlike qualities onto the surface of the spring; the misrecognition of the reflection as female and exotic; and the abrupt realization that this seductive image is, in fact, a reflection of a male source. As I shall show, all these motifs may be discerned in Antony and Cleopatra. Like Edwards's poem, that play stages an orientalist discourse of the Other which blatantly problematizes itself in the process of elaboration, revealing its "exotic" object of "heterosexual" desire to be a chimera conjured up and misrecognized by the narcissistic male gaze. Just as Edwards's Narcissus discovers that "this Orient Sunne" has an occidental origin, so do the Romans who kiss "this orient pearl" (1.5.41)—one of the play's many metonymies for Cleopatra's erotic power—find themselves desiring something far closer to home.


Roman desire is characterized by contradiction in a number of ways. In terms of the opposition between Egypt and Rome, desire is more obviously an attribute of the former: it is to be expected of Egypt and its voluptuous citizens, who "trade in love" (2.5.2), but not of Lenten Rome and its "cold and still conversation" (2.6.120), exemplified by Octavia. Yet when it comes to Cleopatra, Roman desire is seemingly uncontainable. She is the object of a lingering fascination that has ensnared Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, and Mark Antony alike. What are we to make of this history of desire? Is it enough to assert, as numerous critics have done over the centuries, that Cleopatra's desirability is simply so transcendentally enormous that Rome's normally sober rulers cannot help but be bowled over by her "infinite variety"?31 Or does the play suggest that there is something in the very structure of Roman desire itself which produces Cleopatra as desirable?

Near the beginning of the play, Octavius Caesar accounts for the rebellious Sextus Pompey's immense popular support with the following speech:

It hath been taught us from the primal state, That he which is was wish'd until he were; And the ebb'd man, ne'er loved till ne'er worth love, Comes dear'd by being lack'd.


The sense of this rather difficult passage becomes clear in the last line. It is part of received Roman wisdom that desire is linked to the object's absence: Romans want only what they do not or cannot have.32 Sextus Pompey, precisely because he lacks power, has become desirable as an alternative to the present Roman leadership. The speech Antony makes after hearing of his hated wife Fulvia's death expresses precisely this law of Roman desire:

There's a great spirit gone! Thus did I desire it: 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: she's good, being gone: The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on.


As with the Roman plebeians' desire for Pompey, Antony's attraction to Fulvia is triggered by her absence—by the fact that he does not, cannot, have her: "she's good, being gone." He suffers the same mood swing upon receiving the (inaccurate) news that Cleopatra has died: a mere twenty lines after denouncing her as a "vile lady" who has "robb'd" him of his sword (4.14.22-23), he contemplates suicide in order to "o'ertake . . . Cleopatra, and / Weep for . . . pardon" (11. 44-45); he even fantasizes "couch[ing]" with her in the Elysian fields (1. 51). If Roman desire tmerges in response to an absence it attempts to fill or repudiate, it can be seen to parallel the Renaissance axiom" Nature abhors a Vacuum,"33 alluded to in Enobarbus's account of Antony's first meeting with Cleopatra, when Cleopatra was so desirable that even the air "but for vacancy, / Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too, / And madç a gap in nature" (2.2.216-18). This fantastic "gap in nature" provides an enabling figure for the intolerable vacuum into which Roman desire imperially projects itself. But what do Romans see when they project their desire into such gaps?

The answer to which the play repeatedly gestures is that the desiring Roman gaze fixes on a reflection, or projection, of itself. Like Narcissus, the spectator misrecognizes himself (or his image) as Other. Maecenas, noting the grief that Antony's death paradoxically prompts in Caesar, exclaims, "When such a spacious mirror's set before him, / He must needs see himself (5.1.34-35; emphasis added); within the space created by Antony's absence, in other words, Caesar supplies his own image and, seemingly mourning Antony, grieves for himself. Caesar here conforms to the law of Roman desire, wanting what he cannot have, in at least two ways. Like Antony grieving for the much-despised Fulvia upon her death, Caesar's hand would pluck him back that shoved him on. But Maecenas's observation about the "spacious mirror" into which Caesar gazes suggests that, like Narcissus, Caesar also wants the paradigmatic instance of what he cannot have—his reflection, mis-recognized as an ontologically discrete entity.

A comparable if comic misrecognition of the projected self as Other within the "spacious mirror" of absence is Lepidus's drunken perception of the Egyptian crocodile:

LEPIDUS What manner o' thing is your crocodile? ANTONY It is shap'd, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates. LEPIDUS What colour is it of? ANTONY Of its own colour too. LEPIDUS 'Tis a strange serpent. ANTONY 'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.


What does Lepidus see? Antony's litany of tautologies creates a "gap in nature" where the crocodile should be and Lepidus's "'Tis a strange serpent" suggests that he fills the space with his mind's eye. Lepidus's apprehension of the crocodile may serve as a comic diversion, but it is also far more than that: the manner in which he sees the "strange serpent" is how Rome "sees" Cleopatra. This is no mere analogy. Cleopatra is very much implicated in the exchange between Antony and Lepidus. Indeed, for all his tautologous nonsense, Antony could well be describing Cleopatra: not simply because Lepidus's remark recalls Antony's familiar name for "my serpent of the old Nile" (1.5.25); nor because the reference to the crocodile's tears may suggest Cleopatra's willingness to pretend a sadness she does not feel (see 1.3.3-5); but primarily because it is the crocodile's very vacancy that associates it with Cleopatra or, at least, with the way in which Roman desire takes her as its object.

This assertion may seem paradoxical given that Cleopatra is traditionally praised for being the most vivid, alive, and present of Shakespeare's female creations.34 The play indisputably invites us to regard Cleopatra as an authentic character, tragically misunderstood by her Roman suitors: "Not know me yet?" she asks Antony after he has subjected her to a torrent of perhaps undeserved recrimination (3.13.158). Her question provides a salutary reminder of the gulf that separates Roman (mis)characterizations of her and the "real" Cleopatra presented to us in, for example, her exchanges with Mardian, Charmian, and Iras. Moreover, this "real" Cleopatra possesses a vitality that is in large part the effect of the constant reminders the playtext gives us of that irreducible residue of presence, her body. Whether it is the carnal tang of her remarks ("Now I feed myself/ With most delicious poison" [1.5.26-27]; "Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears" [2.5.24]) or the abundance of stage directions the text gives her ("embracing" Antony [1.1.37]; "striking" or "haling up and down" the messenger [2.5.61, 62, 64]), her insistent, melodramatic physicality lends her a seemingly undeniable presence. More than any other of the play's characters, Cleopatra is "in thy face," possessed of a corporeality that seems to cry out for recognition.

But such reminders of her physicality are supplemented by a counter-narrative in which her very vividness is shown to be the effect of a Roman desire for her presence, prompted by the gaps and absences that repeatedly afflict the play's attempts to represent her. A. C. Bradley once expressed a wish to "hear her [Cleopatra's] own remarks" about his analysis.35 His wistful desire to obtain an "authentic" Cleopatra replicates a desire that the play itself repeatedly expresses and frustrates. For all of Cleopatra's undeniable corporeality, her body has an odd habit of disappearing altogether at precisely those moments when it seems most overwhelmingly present.

Think, for example, of Enobarbus's account of Cleopatra on the river Cydnus, which is often cited as proof of Cleopatra's intoxicating desirability.36 Enobarbus paints a portrait of a world in which subjection to imperial power is subjection to erotic desire: Cleopatra's pages are Cupids, and even the winds that follow her are lovesick. In a manner that recalls Elizabethan notions of the power exerted by the sovereign's displayed body, Cleopatra's power appears to be predicated on the visibility of her eroticized body to her subjects, who abandon all activity to gaze on her.37 But what do her subjects see? Because Enobarbus is known for the plainness of his speech (Pompey commends it at 2.6.78), it is easy to neglect the way in which his rhetoric actively and ingeniously produces Cleopatra as desirable only according to the Roman logic of desire: that is, she exerts a seductive power by virtue of her paradoxical absence within Enobarbus's depiction of her.

Enobarbus presents a wealth of detail in the opening lines of his account. He describes the deck, the sails, even the river water that, "amorous" of the oarsmen's strokes (2.2.197), caresses Cleopatra's barge. The detail is profoundly synaesthetic; the purple sails are "perfumed" (1. 193), and the procession is accompanied by the "tune of flutes" (1. 195). But when Enobarbus comes to describe Cleopatra herself, he is remarkably vague:

For her own person, It beggar'd all description: she did lie In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue— O'er-picturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature.

(11. 197-201)

Here is little or no detail of "her own person." Unlike the objects around her, Cleopatra "beggar[s] all description." Enobarbus's reference to the portrait of Venus only underlines Cleopatra's "O'er-picturing" unrepresentability: her "cloth of gold" thus encloses what is effectively a "gap in nature." The speech serves as a rhetorical counterpart of a rococo mirror, its extraordinarily ornate and copious frame enclosing a subtly camouflaged glass in which Enobarbus's Roman listeners glimpse whatever they want to see. Just as Antony's nondescription of the crocodile provides Lepidus with the "spacious mirror" in which he glimpses a "strange serpent," so does Enobarbus's nondescription of Cleopatra allow Agrippa to imagine a "rare Egyptian!" (1. 218). Agrippa thus conforms to the law of Roman desire, filling a "gap in nature" with a phantom that compensates for and repudiates Cleopatra's absence. Little wonder that "she makes hungry, / Where most she satisfies." If she is an "Egyptian dish," as Enobarbus calls her (2.7.122-29), she is a food that curiously vanishes at the moment she appears to be most vividly apprehended by her Roman gazers;38 in effect, she is the "vacancy" that Antony fills with "his voluptuousness" (1.4.26).


The Romans play Narcissus not only when looking on Cleopatra.39 The narcissistic component of their desire is also hinted at in Octavius's description of his namesake and sister as one "whom no brother / Did ever love so dearly" (2.2.150-51) and as "a great part of myself (3.2.24). He uses much the same language in eulogizing Antony: gazing into the "spacious mirror" of Antony's absence, Caesar grieves for "my brother, my competitor, / In top of all design; my mate in empire, / Friend and companion in the front of war, / The arm of mine own body" (5.1.42-45). Antony's revealing transformation by Caesar from "brother" to "mate" and, finally, "arm of mine own body" shows that the desire initiated in Antony and Cleopatra by the narcissistic reflection need not only be heterosexual.

Caesar's eulogy for Antony provides a point of departure for a consideration of both the play's depiction of male homosocial and homoerotic desire and also the extent to which the two may overlap. As Bruce Smith has remarked, Shakespeare portrays in Antony and Cleopatra "a dramatic universe in which the male protagonists find their identities, not in romantic love or in philosophical ideals, but in their relationships with each other."40 Such relationships in the play often conform straightforwardly to the triangular structure of homosociality described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: women mediate between (Roman) men as exchangeable commodities, and in a fashion that intensifies the bonds of friendship or rivalry between the men. As female commodities of exchange, Cleopatra and Octavia—for all their differences—find an unlikely common ground. Octavia's position in the homosocial triangle is transparent: for Octavius Caesar and Antony, she is a token of exchange whose primary purpose is to "knit [their] hearts / With an unslipping knot" (2.2.126-28). Cleopatra serves a comparable function as she is exchanged among Rome's rulers as a "morsel for a monarch" (1.5.31); despite the strength she appears to wield within such transactions, that strength is called into question by the play's final emphasis on Octavius Caesar, for whom she is primarily a spoil of war whose acquisition and public display would attest to his victory over Antony.

Sedgwick claims that in modern Western culture the continuum between male homosocial and homosexual desire is "criss-crossed with deep discontinuities."41 But it seems to me that relations between Roman men in Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly open up the possibility of slippage from the homosocial to the homosexual. This is especially true in the play's depiction of the Roman triumvirate, a version of the homosocial triangle in which Lepidus plays the part normally reserved for the mediating woman: "[H]earts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets cannot / Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number, hoo! / His [Lepidus's] love to Antony. But as for Caesar, / Kneel down, kneel down, and wonder." To Enobarbus's mocking words, Agrippa replies, "Both he loves." Enobarbus goes on to describe Lepidus's function in the triumvirate with a richly suggestive image: he claims that Antony and Caesar are Lepidus's "shards, and he their beetle" (3.2.16-20)—that is, they are the wings that carry the beetle aloft. Like Octavia, Lepidus holds together the feuding rivals. In the process, he is feminized: Enobarbus describes him as suffering from "green-sickness," or love-anemia (3.2.6)—the conventional ailment of virginal maidens—pining, as does Octavia, for both of the men. Act 3, scene 2, provides an illuminating instance of Antony and Cleopatra's treatment of homosocial rivalry and its homoerotic underbelly. While it may be countered that Enobarbus's mocking of Lepidus marks an attempt to assert a discontinuity between legitimately "masculine" homosocial bonding/rivalry and comically "feminine" homosexual love-anemia, it is important to note that the homoerotic impulses attributed derisively to Lepidus are not confined to him, as Caesar's remarkable eulogy for Antony, with its transition from "brother" to "mate," indicates. In erotic triangles where men mediate between men, homosocial and homosexual desires become endlessly substitutable; the difference asserted by Enobarbus between the "beetle" and the "shards," the lowly insect and the soaring wings that elevate it, surely points to a difference of power rather than desire. Both Caesar and Lepidus love Antony; in doing so, both are characterized as desiring a part of their own bodies (be it "shard" or "arm"); both thus participate within the same economy of narcissistic desire glimpsed in Caesar's loving tribute to his sister as "a great part of myself."

The homoerotic dynamic that informs the bonds between the members of the Roman triumvirate provides, I would argue, a template for all Roman desire in Antony and Cleopatra—even desire that is putatively "heterosexual." It is here that Thomas Edwards's "Narcissus" comes in handy as a device for decoding the origins of Roman desire. As I have suggested above, Edwards's poem offers three motifs through which the homoerotic origins of Narcissus's "heterosexual" desire are articulated: the projection and/or displacement of his attributes onto the reflective surface of the spring; the misrecognition of this reflection as female; and, finally, the recognition that his object of adoration is the reflection of a male source, is a "woman turned from a boy." All three motifs find suggestive counterparts in Shakespeare's representations of the ways in which Roman desire takes Cleopatra as its object.

The first motif—the projection and/or displacement of the desiring subject's attributes onto the object of desire—is evident in Cleopatra's accounts of her lovemaking with Antony and Gnaeus Pompey. If Cleopatra is associated by Enobarbus with the hunger-inducing insubstantiality of the narcissistic reflection, she herself confirms the suggestion that Romans play Narcissus when gazing at her. She recalls how, after a night of Bacchanalian revelry with Antony, she "drunk him to his bed; / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Phillipan" (2.5.21-23). This cheerfully kinky episode involves far more than an instance of the carnivalesque gender inversion customarily identified with Shakespeare's Egypt. The effeminated Antony, Cleopatra implies, is aroused by his own Phillipan-packing reflection—an autoerotic adventure that in its exquisite narcissism surely demands to be seen as less typically Egyptian than Roman.

An equally revealing insight into the origin and object of Roman desire is afforded by Cleopatra's description of Gnaeus Pompey. As I have already noted, she styles him as a Narcissus staring at and erotically aroused by his own misrecognized reflection:

. . great Pompey Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow, There would he anchor his aspect, and die With looking on his life.


What is remarkable about Cleopatra's description of Gnaeus Pompey is its deployment and transformation of standard Ovidian motifs. We find here not only an arresting image of narcissistic self-contemplation but also an eroticized version of the paradoxical "inopem me copia fecit" tag: Pompey's apprehension of his "life" is the occasion for his erotic "death." Most evident in her description, however, is the projection of Pompey's own attributes onto Cleopatra. The more he looks at her, the more he manifests himself in her face, as is implied by the perverse suggestion that his eyes grow in her forehead. As a result of this specular encounter, Cleopatra indeed has "Narcissus in [her] face."42

The transformation of Cleopatra wrought by Antony's and Pompey's narcissistic desire brings to mind Slavoj Žižek's gloss on Lacan's infamous claim that woman is a symptom of man: "so, if woman does not exist, man is perhaps simply a woman who thinks she does exist." 43 Žižek's proposal is perfectly illustrated by Edwards's Narcissus, who becomes "a woman turned from a boy," believing his object of desire to be female. The same is true, of course, for Antony, who simultaneously displaces his own attributes onto Cleopatra and is effeminated. It is here that the second motif from Edwards's "Narcissus"—the desiring subject's conviction that his (misrecognized) reflection is female—may be discerned. The Romans' narcissistic perceptions of Cleopatra prompt a critical reevaluation of those very qualities that audiences and readers have not only attributed to her but also believed to be representative of an "Eternal Femininity." Her allegedly "female" attributes demand in many instances to be understood as displaced or misrecognized Roman characteristics. A particularly good example is Cleopatra's much-noted "infinite variety." The impression of her "variety" is in part created by the panoply of subject-positions she is accorded by the alternately desiring and disgusted Antony: "enchanting queen" (1.2.125); "my chuck" (4.4.2); "my nightingale" (4.8.18); "Triple-turn'd whore," "grave charm," "right gipsy" (4.12.13, 25, 28). Cleopatra's "variety" provides the specular image—is, in many respects, the very effect—of Antony's own. His displacement onto her of his own vacillations exemplifies Catherine Belsey's observation that Tudor and Stuart patriarchal ideology denied women "any single place from which to speak for themselves"; in the process, women acquired "a discontinuity of being, an 'inconstancy' which [was] seen as characteristically feminine."44

The process of narcissistic displacement which informs the Roman construction of Cleopatra's contradictory "feminine" identity may be discerned in a number of other plays from the Jacobean stage. Perhaps the best example is provided by John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, a play whose deployment of motifs from the Narcissus myth is hinted at in the Cardinal's weary lament at the play's conclusion: "When I look in the fishponds, / Methinks I see a thing arm'd with a rake / That seems to strike at me" (5.3.3-5).45 This speech provides the paradigmatic instance of the way in which the play's powerful characters apprehend and/or misrecognize their own reflections as evil forces distinct from them. In particular, Ferdinand, the tyrannical duke of Calabria, attacks his own shadow at the climax of his lycanthropic madness (5.2.38), and he repeatedly displaces his own attributes onto the Duchess, his twin sister, misconstruing them as her distinctively "feminine" vices. She acquires for him the deceptive and salacious qualities that he is incapable of recognizing in himself: he warns her that "they whose faces do belie their hearts / Are witches . . . and give the devil suck," an inadvertent self-description that the Duchess acknowledges with her wry response, "This is terrible good counsel" (1.2.230-32). Ferdinand's projection of his vices onto his sister is most manifest, perhaps, when he accuses her of possessing a heart "Fill'd with unquenchable wild fire" (3.2.117) a mere two scenes after he has insanely fantasized raping her to "quench [his] wild-fire" (2.5.48). When read alongside the narcissistic projections of Antony and Cleopatra, these instances offer a remarkable disclosure of the unacknowledged masculine sources of "female" identity in Jacobean patriarchal ideology.

But where The Duchess of Malfi appears to offer its audiences and readers a genuine "flesh, and blood" protagonist (1.2.369) who counters her brother's narcissistic projections, Antony and Cleopatra in at least one way defers indefinitely any apprehension of an authentic Cleopatra. We are, to some extent, invited to distinguish between the Cleopatra that is a Roman projection and the "real" Cleopatra who stands in seeming contrast to male images of her. By encouraging this distinction, Shakespeare would appear to be reworking a theme found in his earlier comedies: the conflict between female characters as they are perceived by their male counterparts and as they present themselves to their audiences. Consider, for example, the much-scorned Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, transfigured by Demetrius's love-potioned gaze into "goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!" (3.2.137); or the homely Luciana in The Comedy of Errors, mistaken by her "brother-in-law" Antipholus of Syracuse as a "sweet mermaid" and "siren" (3.2.45, 47).46 What distinguishes Antony and Cleopatra from these earlier plays is the way in which it places a question mark next to the "reality" of the Cleopatra whom we are encouraged to dissociate from the projections of her Roman suitors.

Crucially, it is not only Mark Antony or Gnaeus Pompey who mistakenly believe themselves to see the "real" Cleopatra when "looking on" their own lives. In the last act the relationship between Cleopatra and her spectators is reworked in a way that, like the dénouement of Thomas Edwards's "Narcissus," serves to complicate the status of the seemingly exotic, apparently female object of desire on display to the audience. Cleopatra expresses revulsion at the prospect of being transformed in one of Caesar's Roman triumphs into a degraded object of spectacle. But she goes even further—she claims to abhor above all the notion of being represented on the stage: "The quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us . . . and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore" (5.2.215-20). On the Jacobean stage the boy-actor playing Cleopatra was here called upon to express disgust at the prospect of seeing a boy-actor playing Cleopatra. Such self-reflexivity cannot help but achieve an effect similar to that created by Enobarbus in his description of Cleopatra on the river Cydnus: in each instance "she" becomes curiously disembodied, an effect generated by her absence. Unlike Enobarbus's accomplished rhetorical sleight of hand, Cleopatra's reference to the "squeaking Cleopatra boy" blatantly discloses the artifice of the "authentic" queen.

Indeed, the above speech may at first glance strike the reader as one instance of an "alienation effect" all too common on the Shakespearean stage.47 Attempting to guess a Jacobean audience's response (if there ever is such a thing as a unified response) to the speech is, of course, a treacherous task. But I think it fair to assume that this moment of theatrical self-reflexivity—at least in its early performances—differs from others largely because of its capacity to interrogate an audience and its desires. If alienation effects frequently empower spectators by comforting them with the reminder that what they are watching is simply a play, Antony and Cleopatra's moment of self-reflection could have had an altogether more challenging effect on its Jacobean audience. With this episode the third motif from Thomas Edwards's poem—Narcissus's realization that the origin and object of his desire is a "woman turned from a boy"—finds a powerful parallel. Like Edwards's Narcissus, who abruptly realizes that the woman he sees in the spring is his own reflection, the play's earliest audiences were confronted with an unavoidable reminder of how the surpassingly seductive Egyptian Queen on whom they had been gazing was, like many of them, English and male.


Cleopatra, the "serpent of the Nile," is coded in terms that make her legible as a threatening Other to both Roman and Jacobean body politics. But the play also unleashes a series of potentially subversive images of Cleopatra as the same. "Hush, here comes Antony," Enobarbus announces early in the play—only to have his vocalized stage direction flatly contradicted by the apparition of Cleopatra: "Not he, the queen," Charmian retorts (1.2.76). Enobarbus's misrecognition is symptomatic. Here and at other crucial moments, Cleopatra not only lacks the absolute gender and racial alterity that her audiences and readers, as well as her Roman suitors, have ascribed to her; like the radiant reflection that Edwards's Narcissus beholds, she is shown to be no "Orient sunne" herself but literally an image of another male sun: "Think on me," Cleopatra declaims, "That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time" (1.5.27-29). Cleopatra here provides a telling figure for how she is fashioned by (and out of) the animating "sunshine" of her European male lovers, fashioned ultimately—as her speech about the boy Cleopatra reveals—from the same matter as her theatrical spectators. Poor old Lepidus may, after all, have hit the nail on the head when he drunkenly tells Antony: "your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun. So is your crocodile" (2.7.26-27; emphasis added). In his unwitting but suggestive adaptation of the Neoplatonic figure of the sun as origin, together with his use of the colloquial indefinite your, Lepidus inadvertently provides yet another reminder of the way in which Antony and Cleopatra offers a compelling and sustained critique of the origin of male heterosexual eros. Like Edwards's "Narcissus," Lepidus's speech deviates from conventional Neoplatonic accounts of desire in hinting that the play's primary "feminine" object and origin of desire, the "serpent of the Nile," is no Ur-Woman but the specular image of a sun that is yours—a term that, in its second-person inclusivity, may be taken as addressing not only the male "suns" of Gnaeus Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Antony but also the "infinite variety" of those Narcissuses—spectators, readers, and critics—who have found themselves in thrall to their own seductive images of "Cleopatra."


A version of this essay was prepared for the 1994 Northeast MLA conference panel "Shakespeare's Erotic Economies." I am grateful to the panel chair, Heather Findlay, and Alan Sinfield, Michael Neill, and Charles Mahoney for their comments and critiques over the course of this essay's long gestation.

1 Michel Foucault, "La Prose d'Actéon," Nouvelle Revue Française 12 (1964): 444: "Mais si le Diable, au contraire, si l'Autre était la Même? Et si la Tentation n'était pas un des episodes du grand antagonisme, mais la mince insinuation du Double? Si le duel se déroulait dans un espace de miroir?" (translation mine).

2 Stephen Greenblatt, "Shakespeare and the Exorcists" in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. (New York, 1985), 163. I do not propose to reopen the debate over the nature and extent of Ovid's influence on Antony and Cleopatra; a useful summary of the various critical positions and conjectures on this issue is offered in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Marvin Spevack (New York, 1990), 594-95.

3 Both old and new criticisms have abided by this basic opposition. For an instance of the former, see George Brandes, William Shakespeare: A Critical Study, trans. William Archer, Mary Morison, and Diana White (London, 1902): "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" (475). Modern feminist readings of the play informed by psychoanalytic perspectives have critically reevaluated the topographical opposition—and the gender opposition with which it has often been complicit—without necessarily disturbing it. Janet Adelman, for example, construes the opposition between Rome and Egypt as a struggle between "male scarcity and female bounty" in Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York, 1992), 177; see also her earlier study, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven, CT, 1973). Edward Said's critique of European orientalism has enabled powerful analyses of the opposition's complicity with early modern colonialist discourse; see, for example, Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, UK, 1989): "in colonialist discourse, the conquered land is often explicitly endowed with feminine characteristics in contrast to the masculine attributes of the coloniser. . . . All Egyptians, represented and symbolised by their queen, are associated with feminine and primitive attributes—they are irrational, sensuous, lazy and superstitious" (78-79).

4 Brandes, 462. The tendency of critics in the first half of the twentieth century to view Cleopatra and Antony's relationship as an agon that has mythic analogues in the tales of Venus and Mars or Omphale and Hercules has doubtless contributed to the critical willingness to view both characters as archetypes of their sexes. For a summary of such archetypal readings of Antony and Cleopatra, see Spevack, ed., 655-60. Feminist criticism of the play has questioned Cleopatra's archetypal "femininity": Janet Adelman, for instance, argues that Cleopatra is not simply Omphale subduing the Herculean Antony but also the androgynous figure of Venus armata (The Common Liar, 92). For other discussions of the way in which Cleopatra problematizes rather than embodies "femininity," see Clare Kinney, "The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor: Some Problems of Identity in Antony and Cleopatra" in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, eds. (Amherst, MA, 1990), 177-86; and Jyotsna Singh, "Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra" Renaissance Drama N.S. 20 (1990): 99-121. All quotations of Antony and Cleopatra follow the Arden Shakespeare, ed. M. R. Ridley (London, 1954). Quotations of all other Shakespeare plays follow the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

5 G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies (London, 1950), 297 and 304.

6 For a useful summary of the assumptions that have dominated discussions of Cleopatra, see L. T. Fitz, "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism," Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 297-316. See also Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing: Truth's True Contents in Shakespeare's Text (Brighton, UK, 1986), in which he attempts to retrieve Cleopatra's "infinite variety" from those who would morally reconstrue it as a representative "feminine" inconstancy. Assessing the conventional interpretations of Cleopatra's variety, Evans concludes that "the hint here of another discourse, one which may disturb the 'truth' of the patriarchal order, is, however, recuperated for that order by the firm attributions that trail behind this figure—the 'woman's wiles,' 'female enchantment,' etc." (165).

7 There have been a number of notable exceptions. Critics who have challenged the gender binaries of the play, albeit from very different standpoints, include Constance Brown Kuriyama, "The Mother of the World: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," English Literary Renaissance 7 (1977): 324-51; Murray M. Schwartz, "Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis" in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, eds. (Baltimore, MD, 1980), 21-32; Madelon Gohlke, "'I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms" in Schwartz and Kahn, eds., 170-87; Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley, CA, 1985), esp. 131-33; Jonathan Dollimore, "Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Marxist Humanism," New Literary History 21 (1990): 471-93; Singh, esp. 99-100, 114-16; Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana, IL, 1992), esp. 156-60; and Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, 1992), esp. 134, 142.

8 Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 177.

9 Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (London, 1986), 144.

10 In foregrounding the specularity of the play's female Egyptian and male Roman characters, my argument owes a substantial debt to Luce Irigaray's analysis of male constructions of the feminine Other as the selfsame; see her Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY, 1985), especially "Any Theory of the 'Subject' Has Always Been Appropriated by the 'Masculine,'" 133-46.

11 Shakespeare hints at Roman rulers' capacity for self-knowledge through specular encounter also in Julius Caesar, when Cassius tells Brutus that "since you know you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection, I, your glass, / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of (1.2.66-69).

12 Anna Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical, 2d ed. (London, 1833), 256 and 271.

13 August W. von Schlegel, A Course on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. John Black, rev. A. J. W. Morrison (London, 1846), 416.

14 A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London, 1909), 299.

15 Arguably, such a reading of Cleopatra's narcissistic pride acquires weight from the play's insistent identification of her with "crocodiles" and "serpents" of the Nile, creatures associated not only with deception and temptation but also with pride. One may recall the third verse of Spenser's "Visions of the Worlds Vanitie": "Beside the fruitfull shore of muddie Nile, / Vpon a sunnie banke outstretched lay / In monstrous length, a mightie Crocodile, / That . . . Thought all thinges lesse than his disdainful pride" (The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. E. Greenlaw et al., 9 vols. [Baltimore, MD, 1932-49], 8:175).

16The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans. Mary M. Innes (Harmondsworth, UK, 1955), 86. Interestingly, Frances Quarles appended Ovid's tag to a portrait depicting an infected breast, his emblem of postlapsarian corruption; see Emblems, Divine and Moral, ed. Augustus Toplady and John Ryland (London, 1839), 44. This demonstrates how the motif of plenty making poor, or of satiety prompting hunger, lent itself to numerous interpretations. Quarles's identification of Narcissus's complaint with a contaminating femininity responsible for the Fall potentially reinforces readings of Cleopatra as an Egyptian Eve; I would argue, instead, that Antony and Cleopatra's preoccupation with mirrors and reflections makes it difficult to avoid pursuing a reading of Enobarbus's remark based on the more literal narcissistic resonances of Ovid's tag. Janet Adelman discusses Quarles's emblem in Suffocating Mothers, 5-6.

17 Spenser, 8:209.

18 Henry Reynolds, Mythornystes: Wherein a Short Survay is Taken of the Nature and Value of True Poesy and Depth of the Ancients above our Moderne Poets (London, 1630[?]), sig. N4v.

19 Thomas Edwards, Cephalus and Procris. Narcissus. (London, 1882), 52.

20 For a thorough discussion of Neoplatonic readings of the Narcissus myth, see Louise Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early Nineteenth Century, trans. Robert Dewsnap et al. (Lund, Sweden, 1967), esp. 123-27, 148-51, and 185-86; see also Barry Taylor, Vagrant Writing: Social and Semiotic Disorder in the English Renaissance (Toronto, Canada, 1992),esp. 86-89 and 185-88.

21 Anonymous, The Fable of Ouid Treting of Narcissus in Edwards, 146; Richard Brathwayte, The Golden Fleece, Whereto Bee Annexed Two Elegies, Entitled Narcissus Change and Aesons Dotage (London, 1611), sig. D7.

22 Reynolds, sig. 01 .

23 Edwards, 148.

24 Reynolds, sig. N4 . v

25 Reynolds, sig. P3 . v

26 Taylor, 88 and 186.

27 Edwards, 48.

28 Edwards, 52.

29 Edwards, 51.

30 Edwards, 49.

31 Past generations of critics agree with the Romans about Cleopatra's "transcendental" desirability. See, for example, Arthur Symons: 'Antony and Cleopatra is the most wonderful, I think, of all Shakespeare's plays, and it is so mainly because the figure of Cleopatra is the most wonderful of Shakespeare's women. And not of Shakespeare's women only, but perhaps the most wonderful of women" (Studies in the Elizabethan Drama [New York, 1919], 1).

32 This notion was, of course, proverbial; see M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, MI, 1950), W924. The idea is expressed elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays; see, for example, All's Well That Ends Well, 5.3.61-63, or Much Ado About Nothing, 4.1.217-22. But the insistence with which the notion is articulated in Antony and Cleopatra to explain specifically Roman behavior serves to deprive it (at least in this play) of its conventionally universal application.

33 See R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (Berkeley, CA, 1981), N42.

34 Critics from Margaret Cavendish in the Restoration to Derek Traversi in the twentieth century have paid homage to Cleopatra's vividness and vitality. Traversi's assessment is in some ways typical: "Cleopatra, though the creature of the world which surrounds her, can at times emerge from it, impose upon her surroundings a vitality which is not the less astonishing for retaining to the last its connection with the environment it transcends" (An Approach to Shakespeare, 3rd ed., 2 vols. [Garden City, NY, 1969], 2:223-24).

35 Bradley, 298.

36 For example, Harley Granville-Barker asks: "What is the best evidence we have (so to speak) of Cleopatra's physical charms? A description of them by Enobarbus" (Prefaces to Shakespeare [Princeton, NJ, 1947], 435).

37 Discussions of the power exerted by the displayed monarch's body in early modern Europe include Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1979); and Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Theology (Princeton, NJ, 1955). Studies that specifically examine the iconography of Queen Elizabeth's displayed body include Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London, 1977); and Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display. Tennenhouse makes the intriguing observation that Antony and Cleopatra is "Shakespeare's elegy for the signs and symbols which legitimized Elizabethan power. Of these, the single most important figure was that of the desiring and desired woman, her body valued for its ornamental surface, her feet rooted deep in a kingdom" (146). In its depiction of an erotically ornamental, pageantlike display of royal female power, Enobarbus's account of Cleopatra's procession at Cydnus would in many ways appear to confirm Tennenhouse's assertion; however, as I go on to argue, the curious lack of physical detail offered by Enobarbus about Cleopatra's displayed body suggests that her power subsists in her very invisibility, her publicly paraded absence—the "inopem me copia fecit" of the narcissistic reflection.

38 Phyllis Rackin's response to Enobarbus's speech is notable for its conjunction of traditional homage to Shakespeare's imaginative poetic power with suggestive insight into the "defect" that paradoxically underwrites the panegyric's effect of "perfection": Enobarbus "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. . . . 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" ("Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry," PMLA 87 [1972]: 201-12, esp. 204).

39 Other early Stuart playwrights attribute narcissistic traits to Roman desire. In a tantalizingly suggestive passage, Elizabeth Cary invokes Narcissus's "inopem me copia fecit" to describe how Antony would have reacted to Maryam, Queen of the Jews, if he had only succeeded in disentangling himself from Cleopatra: "Too much delight did bare him from delight, / For either's love the other's did confound" (The Tragedy of Maryam, The Fair Queen of Jewry, ed. Barry Weiler and Margaret W. Ferguson [Berkeley, CA, 1994], 1.2.185-86).

40 Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago, 1991), 59. I would like to thank Charles Mahoney for his thoughtful comments on this issue.

41 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985), 2.

42 Cleopatra's speech offers an intriguing counterpart to Ovid's account of Narcissus: like Echo, Cleopatra is excluded from a circuit of desire whose origin and terminus is male. Perhaps this exclusion can help explain a puzzling reference that seems to lurk in Cleopatra's description. Pompey's eyes, she claims, "grow" in her "brow": the phrasing here invokes the inescapable image of the cuckold's budding horns. Is Cleopatra half-comically suggesting that she has been cuckolded by a Pompey who "betrays" her by making love, albeit unwittingly, to himself?

43 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, 1989), 75. I am grateful to Heather Findlay for drawing this passage to my attention.

44 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London, 1985), 149. For a reading similar to my own of the patriarchal construction of a contradictory "feminine" identity, see Loomba, 75-79 and 125-30.

45 All quotations from The Duchess of Malfi follow the New Mermaids text, 3rd ed., ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan (London, 1993).

46 To this short list there could be profitably added a number of Shakespeare's other plays. The examples most pertinent to an analysis of Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps, are Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter's Tale. All three plays subject to critical scrutiny the derogatory assumptions men make about women—Benedick's hyperbolic conviction that Beatrice is a "harpy" who "speaks poniards" (2.1.271, 247), Claudio's denigration of Hero as a "rotten orange" (4.1.32), Iago's unsubstantiated belief that Emilia has cuckolded him, Othello's mischaracterization of Desdemona as a "strumpet" and "cunning whore of Venice" (4.2.82, 89), or Leontes's jealous invectives against the irreproachable Hermione as an "adult'ress," "traitor," and "bed-swerver" (2.1.88, 89, and 93).

47 The term, of course, is Bertolt Brecht's. For critical analyses of this speech and the issue of the boy Cleopatra, see Michael Jamieson, "Shakespeare's Celibate Stage: The Problem of Accommodation to the Boy-Actress in As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale" in Papers Mainly Shakespearean, G. I. Duthie, ed. (Edinburgh, 1964), 21-39; Rackin, 201; Michael Shapiro, "Boying her Greatness: Shakespeare's Use of Coterie Drama in Antony and Cleopatra," Modern Language Review 77 (1982): 1-15; Kathleen McLuskie, "The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on the Elizabethan Stage," New Theatre Quarterly 10 (1987): 120-30; Terence Hawkes, That Shakespearian Rag: Essays on a Critical Process (London, 1986), 83; Dollimore, 490; Graham Holderness, "'Some Squeaking Cleopatra': Theatricality in Antony and Cleopatra" in Critical Essays on Antony and Cleopatra, Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, eds. (Harlow, Essex, UK, 1990), 42-52; and Lorraine Helms, "'The High Roman Fashion': Sacrifice, Suicide, and the Shakespearean Stage," PMLA 107 (1992): 554-65.

Further Reading

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Berek, Peter. "Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare Quarterly 32, No. 3 (Autumn 1981): 295-304.

Argues that Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, as well as minor characters in the play, have something in common despite their obvious differences—they all agree "that there are grim limits to the joys one can take in earthly achievements."

Bushman, Mary Ann. "Representing Cleopatra." In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 36-49. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.

Examines the rhetorical modes available to Cleopatra in the play, and contends that Cleopatra is one of the few characters in Shakespeare's plays to overcome the representation of the female as inferior and "[d]eprived of a voice."

Dusinberre, Juliet. "Squeaking Cleopatras: Gender and Performance in Antony and Cleopatra" In Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance, edited by James C. Bulman, pp. 46-67. London: Routledge, 1996.

Explores the relationship between the competing masculine and feminine constructions within the play, as well as the play's reception—among the audience and actors—as a text written for an exclusively male cast.

Hillman, Richard. "Antony, Hercules, and Cleopatra: 'the bidding of the gods' and 'the subtlest maze of all.'" Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 442-51.

Studies the implications of the remark made in IV.iii that the god Hercules "whom Antony lov'd , / Now leaves him" (11.15-16), suggesting that the comment is significant, but not in the sense that it refers to any supernatural event.

Lewis, Cynthia. "'The World's Great Snare': Antony, Cleopatra, and Game." In Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, pp. 116-53. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

Maintains that Antony's characterization relies to some degree on the traditions associated with Saint Antony of Egypt, and that by analyzing this relationship, the play's main issues—as well as Antony's apparently comic portrayal—are clarified.

Lindley, Arthur. "Enthroned in the Marketplace: The Camivalesque Antony and Cleopatra." In Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Camivalesque Subversion, pp. 137-56. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

States that the concept of transaction is a primary element of carnival and that it, along with other camivalesque elements, pervade Antony and Cleopatra.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. "'To the Very Heart of Loss': Renaissance Iconography in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare Studies XXII (1994): 220-76.

Pursues a Renaissance reading of the play through an "iconographic" approach, that is, by studying the contemporary, conventional meanings attached to the images and symbols Shakespeare refers to in the play.

Turner, John. Introduction to The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Turner, pp. 13-29. New York: Prentice Hall, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

Discusses Shakespeare's source material for the play as well as its language, characterization, and thematic issues.

Waddington, Raymond B. "Antony and Cleopatra: 'What Venus did with Mars." Shakespeare Studies II (1966): 210-27.

Argues that the play is a romance that primarily evokes the myths of Mars and Venus and their cosmological affair, rather than the myths of Hercules and Isis.

Williamson, Marilyn. "The Political Context in Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare Quarterly XXI, No. 3 (Summer 1970): 241-51.

Suggests that the love story in the play, whether viewed in redemptive or condemning terms, has been overemphasized, and that Antony and Cleopatra should be studied as political rulers, not just lovers.

Wolf, William D. "'New Heaven, New Earth': The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra" Shakespeare Quarterly 33, No. 3 (Autumn 1982): 328-35.

Contends that while the worlds of Rome and Egypt and the values they represent are often pitted against one another by critics, the two realms are alike in that "the only permanent fixture of either is change, the necessary adjunct of time."


Antony and Cleopatra


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 58)