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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J. Leeds Barroll (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Mark Antony and the Tournament of Life,” in Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Folger Books, 1984, pp. 83-129.

[In the following essay, Barroll examines the way in which desire and its “strangeness” inform the characterization of Antony.]


Mark Antony is one of Shakespeare's most complexly imagined tragic heroes. For this we thank, of course, Shakespeare's human empathy and genius. But the compelling quality of Antony's humanity owes as much to strategy as to genius. And if, in the end, these are perhaps the same thing, then the strategy by which genius brings Antony to life, makes him a tragic “character,” is Shakespeare's emphasis on desire. For this in us is a complicated and deeply implicated phenomenon whose entangled state is much more specifically human than is grief, anger, or fear. These responses animals share with us. But our humanity is delineated by the kaleidescopic focusings and terrible steadiness of our wishing.

That the strangeness of desire is Shakespeare's basic framework for “talking about” the character of Mark Antony is apparent at the outset. We are immediately confronted with a life being torn between “Egypt” and “Rome.” But Rome and Egypt, in turn, are mere geographical or political expressions that, in the end, oversimplify everything. Indeed, if we allow the idea of Egypt and the concept of Rome to act as allegorical stations we lose the point. West tugging with East over Antony's fallible but attractive Renaissance soul; psychomachia pitting Duty vs. Lust, Love vs. Greed, or Imagination vs. Reason—these are all attractive dualities. But Shakespeare's drama is a tragedy about an imagined human being, not an Essay on the Good Life in which Antony is to be significantly manipulated from pillar of Roman virtue to post of Egyptian inebriation. Ancient Rome and ancient Egypt in Shakespeare's drama are suggestions about confusion, not the panels of a medieval painting. Desire is not a simple duality: that is why it is complex.

Enobarbus, that careful (but often careless) observer of Antony, says about him, “Antony will use his affection where it is.” And, in the long run, Enobarbus cannot help but mislead us too. For in Shakespeare's time, as today, “affection” was a multiplex word for a difficult envisioning, more complicated than what Enobarbus seems to intend by his words. After Antony follows Cleopatra's prematurely panicking battleship, thus fatally confusing his fleet and losing the empire of the world, the lamentations and shock are succeeded by a quiet scene in which Cleopatra reflects about what has happened.

Whose fault is all this? she asks Enobarbus and again he talks about “affection.” The battle, he says, was lost by

Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
From that great face of war, whose several ranges
Frighted each other? Why should he follow?
The itch of his affection should not then
Have nick'd his captainship, at such a point,
When half to half the world oppos'd, he being
The meered question.


“Affection,” we are to understand, then, is that thing in Antony which draws him from his true Roman interests to Cleopatra and the Egyptian life.

Symmetrical enough—at least for Enobarbus—but for Antony himself the choices do not seem quite so cut and dried. “I'th'East my pleasure lies” was indeed the frank statement of one kind of allegiance, but other statements, other allegiances render and blend “affection” into something complexly hued beyond dualities. What happened at Actium denied any neatly distributed, defined, and scaled hierarchies of value in Antony. For there, fighting not simply against something,...

(This entire section contains 17736 words.)

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but for something—for his relationship with Cleopatra—and with everything to gain from victory, he nevertheless allowed himself to lose.

And having lost, why could he not have been content with Cleopatra, the world well lost for love? Indeed, his passion, his anger, his regrets force us to seek Antony somewhere within the complex of these contradictions, beyond the pale of Enobarbus's adages. Our quest begins at Actium in these Antonian writhings.

Hark, the land bids me tread no more upon't,
It is asham'd to bear me.


And, to Cleopatra here.

O, whither has 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.


There is much in this play of Antony and shame. Very early on, Caesar talks about it. Antony's “shames” should from luxurious Egypt “quickly drive him to Rome.” But in this case Antony is not so affected. Free from a sense of guilt despite the spate of moralisms which have surrounded him (and us) since the play began, Antony in Rome responds to the Caesarean lecture as if he came from another planet. Antony, we gather, cannot be held responsible for the activities of relatives or of wives fomenting civil wars. Nor, for that matter, can he be expected to inconvenience himself for messengers who come too early in the morning from Caesar, especially when one might have a hangover. Caesar urges that Antony broke his oath—but Antony will not stand for this either.

                                                                                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.


And it is presumably with the same aplomb that Antony will later alternate infidelities. Barely speaking four lines, he will agree to marry Caesar's sister to establish stronger political ties with him. Barely speaking two lines, he will desert Octavia for Egypt, and for war with Caesar, whom he sought to reassure by marrying Octavia in the first place.

No, Antony is not ashamed to have been truant—in fact, so little is he affected on this Roman score that one wonders why he left Egypt at all. For indeed the play began with this awakening. But the drama began too by making it clear that Antony departs from the East for reasons which do not wholly embrace ideas of Roman imperium. Otherwise, why, on his way to Rome, did he send back a pearl to Cleopatra with the message that he would “piece her opulent throne with kingdoms?”

When it comes to shame, Antony will know his own personal cue.

                                                                                                                        Since Cleopatra died
I have liv'd in such dishonor that the gods
Detest my baseness. 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.”


Honor and nobility—to Antony these mean one thing: bravery, physical courage. As when Eros, having put a sword through himself before his master did, elicits this:

                                                            Thrice-nobler than myself!
Thou teachest 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.


In the wreckage of Actium, that central point in tragedy, this, for Antony is the only, the real, issue. For the very notion of seeming to flee, of seeming to act the coward by following Cleopatra's retiring ship arouses in Antony a sense of self-destroying more profound than he ever experienced leaving Rome for revels in Egypt. At Actium, one has “instructed cowards” and thus one has left oneself. He has lost his way forever and he is most profoundly ashamed. “I follow'd that I blush to look upon.” “For indeed,” as he dismisses his friends, “I have lost command.” Yet, in our sense, how could he have been a coward? He followed Cleopatra's ship when she herself fled. True. That following broke up the order of the fleet and of course brought disaster is true too. So Antony worried about the queen and became a tactical imbecile. Yet he thinks “coward,” not “imbecile.”

Contrast this with a future mood, the élan of the second, strategically futile battle before Alexandria. “You that will fight,” he calls to his soldiers, “follow me close. I'll bring you to't.” And from this fight—the only one we ever see him win—we watch him come and note his high celebration. But not as a general—he has won nothing. As a successful gladiator.

Through Alexandria make a jolly march,
Bear our hack'd targets like the men that owe them.(1)


Euphoria overwhelms as he paints his magnificent hyperbole.

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. Trumpeters,
With brazen din blast you the city's ear,
Make mingle with our rattling tamborines
That heaven and earth may strike their sounds together,
Applauding our approach.                              Exeunt.


This is a tragedy about love, as critics all must tell us, but love is not a single, simple thing. In the dawn before his battle, when Antony meets a soldier armed and ready, he says:

Thou look'st like him that knows a warlike charge.
To business that we love, we rise betime,
And go to't with delight.


Antony, as his queen noted, is up early himself. Strange then that Actium should be such a terrible failure.

But what is not so strange by these lights is how the play itself begins; this soldier sense in Antony makes his “awakening” clear. Our earliest cue for him in this play has always seemed to be Cleopatra's when she tells us that Antony was inclined to mirth, but now “a Roman thought hath struck him.” Yet the only “Roman” thoughts available up to now have been the opening remarks of those two shadowy figures, Demetrius and Philo. (But if these two had actually hailed each other by name, they would have struck their seventeenth-century auditors not as Roman, but as Greek.) It is they who tell us, anyhow, that Antony, the once-great leader, has now become “the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy's lust.” Sometimes, too, we gather, “when he is not Antony, he comes too short of that great property which still should go with Antony.”

Thus emerges the first Antonian “self” molded from the sensitivities of Roman (?) soldiers (?). But when Antony himself comes to prove Cleopatra's accuracy about Roman thoughts—to show some second “self”—he has not become a Roman. Hearing that Labienus and his Parthian forces are on the move against him, Antony urges his faltering messenger:

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. O then we bring forth weeds
When our quick winds lie still, and our ills told us
Is as our earing.(2)


“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,” he mutters, “or lose myself in dotage.” Perhaps there is here some Roman “shame,” but it is an oddly aphoristic and mannered guilt, contrasting with the passions to come at Actium. Here all this weed-growing seems small stimulus.

The news of his wife's death prompts proper regret and muted encomium—“there's a great spirit gone”—and even some properly moral words about Cleopatra:

I must from this enchanting queen break off;
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch.


But, as the messengers succeed one another to inundate him with news to which he now responds—if not attends—it becomes quite clear that government affairs are not the issue.3 The challenge is Pompey.

Antony speaks to Enobarbus about him at length, and then to Cleopatra too. Caesar also speaks of Pompey, far away in Rome, but when Caesar talks about him and the danger he poses, the Roman leader tends to comment in Tudor words appropriate to Shakespeare's Henry IV: giddy rebelling Roman multitudes surging behind some Roman Jack Cade. Antony dutifully moves in the fringes of these ideas too, but the thrust of his meaning is elsewhere.

                                                                                                              Sextus Pompeius
[Hath] given the dare to Caesar, and commands
The empire of the sea. 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.


This is the concept that engages Antony.4 Some one else is acting the “main soldier.” And Antony describes Sextus to Cleopatra—he speaks to her about him too—as “the condemn'd Pompey, rich in his father's honor.” The “main soldier” is merely riding on the military reputation of Pompeius Magnus whom the tribunes lamented at the beginning of Julius Caesar.

In Rome, Antony turns to the subject with Caesar. His words here are not the quintessence of realpolitik. They are almost chivalric, redolent of tournament.

I did not think to draw my sword 'gainst Pompey,
For he hath laid strange courtesies and great
Of late upon me. I must thank him only,
Lest my remembrance suffer ill report;
At heel of that, defy him.


The news, however, is bad.

What is his strength by land?
Great and increasing; but by sea
He is an absolute master.
So is the fame.
Would we had spoke together!


“Speaking together” means “joining battle.”5

The triumvirate meet with Pompey, who begins the proceedings with a passionate speech of defiance. Caesar responds in his usual matter-of-fact, take-it-or-leave-it tone. What we hear from Antony is something else.

Thou cans't not fear us, Pompey, with thy sails;
We'll speak with thee at sea. At land, thou know'st
How much we do o'er-count thee.


Caesar has already mentioned the hopelessness of trying to match the pirate-leader on the water, but Antony must, it seems, respond. And if there is more emotion than reason in Antony here, it produces that cautious compliment of a later exchange. Pompey (significantly) shakes hands with Antony before he does with the others, saying

                                                            Let me have your hand.
I did not think, sir, to have met you here.
The beds i'th'East are soft, and thanks to you,
That call'd me timelier than my purpose hither;
For I have gain'd by't.


We must attend this Antony, for although it is not all of him, it is part of his sense of himself, and that is all of him. “O love,” he says to Cleopatra before that victorious, futile battle toward the end of the tragedy.

That thou couldst see my wars to-day, and knew'st
The royal occupation, thou shouldst see
A workman in't.


“I'll leave thee now like a man of steel.” And even after the final disaster his language figures forth his vision of the warrior supreme. “Bruis'd pieces go, you have been nobly borne.” Later, in rage, this supremacy is of almost Herculean transcendence.

                                                            Teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'th'moon,
And with those hands, that grasp'd the heaviest club,
Subdue my worthiest self.


Antony's private feeling of self lives away from all those judging notions of his duties which others of the play are always so ready to envisage for him. From these judges we hear many versions of what Antony “is” and what he should be—from Pompey, Lepidus, Enobarbus, Caesar, and Cleopatra—but it is interesting that, in the end, not one of these judging or supposedly knowing characters can avoid being surprised, startled, or disappointed. For in Antony's world, honor, baseness, duty, nobility achieve their definition not in conventional terms, but, perhaps, in a context illuminated by Antony's own metaphor when he breaks in upon the tearful farewell between his bride, Octavia, and her brother to whom she clings for a moment. Antony takes Caesar's hand in farewell.

                                                                                                    Come, sir, come,
I'll wrastle with you in my strength of love.
Look, here I have you, thus I let you go,
And give you to the gods.


The wrestling is figurative, but Antony is the victor. The moment, light and fleeting enough to die under the hand of analysis, tells in the silent language of drama of one of Antony's worlds, more real than Egypt or Rome.


If Antony were wedded to physical courage—to some naïve concept of “manliness”—he would have anticipated the Hemingway ideal by three hundred or so years. But Shakespeare endowed his tragic hero more complexly, beyond the dimensions of Ajax, whose solution to most problems, in Troilus and Cressida, was “pashing” some one. Antony seems related to a general pattern of behavior in what Shakespeare's contemporaries would have termed “pleasure,” that conglomeration of yearnings for sensual stimuli of all kinds, as well as an attraction to physically induced and totally enjoyed euphoria to which the dramatist Thomas Lodge and his contemporaries interestingly gave the name of “sloth.”6 Such moral terms need not overconcern us—they concern Caesar and his fellow Romans too much already, ever anxious as they all are to wrap up the hero squirming into the amber of a morality drama in which he can forever play sinner to Caesar's redeemed man. But we must all the same—and without Caesar's eager help—take note of Antony's propensities.

There is, for example, love—not a simple thing in Mark Antony's universe.

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 to-night?


Here is Antony, the much-discussed voluptuary, fond of physical beauty. At Cleopatra's first banquet he “for his ordinary pays his heart for what his eyes eat only,” as Enobarbus put it. And even to Octavia, Antony is not totally indifferent. These are his words about his new wife as she talks weepingly to her brother, Caesar, the hero making his remarks beyond their hearing:

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.


Enobarbus speaks of “our courteous Antony whom ne'er the word of ‘No’ woman heard speak” and it is obvious that women indeed do something for Antony. It is as if they help his imagination. When he prepares for the Battle of Actium he takes Cleopatra with him, much to Enobarbus's consternation as he argues this out with the queen. But “we'll to our ship,” Antony announces in grand exit with the Egyptian queen:

Away, my Thetis!

This was the sea-nymph of the silver feet who danced on the dark waves with her sisters in the moonlight before the secret and astounded eyes of Peleus who bravely entwined with her Protean and savage forms to win her and engender in her Achilles.

But let us not rush to implicate Cleopatra as the only begetter of Antony's sensualities and thus to make his woes a tale of her fashioning. It is important that we allow the queen to stand apart. Voluptuousness is Antony's own leaning, as is emphasized by the Roman banquet which presents the only revels we observe in the drama. This celebration is a triumvirate affair and Caesar predictably complains of unseemly levity and of washing the brain with wine, which makes it dirtier. But it is our Antony who urges things on. “Be a child o'th'time,” he tells Caesar, and Antony and Pompey, their host, respond with alacrity as Enobarbus celebrates:

                                                                                          Ha, my brave emperor!
Shall we dance now the Egyptian bacchanals
And celebrate our drink?
Let's ha't, good soldier.
Come, let's all take hands,
Till that the conquering wine hath steep'd our sense
In soft and delicate Lethe.


So they dance, and shout the refrain: “Cup us till the world go round!” If we search for Cleopatra in this entertainment, we will find that she is far away, in Egypt. For we are now in Italy.

Where Shakespeare makes Antony especially interesting is in the fact that the hero is proud of this voluptuary mode in himself. In truth, the pleasures of the flesh and of combat and of the idea of women are his personal way to a sense of exaltation which he sees as the gates to a kind of transcendence. The ambition of his soul achieves its natural mode of expression in these domains. To be preeminent in existence is the core of ambition, and if “existence” resides especially in life's physical feelings and beauties, then preeminence must be there too—somehow.

Thus self-admiration is everywhere in his physical life. The queen quotes him.

                                                            When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words; no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows' bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven.


It is a state that can even extend beyond death.

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.


So Antony's opening statement is wholly appropriate to him.

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus … when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't, in which I bind,
[On] pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.(7)


So, what of it? To love these things and to think this way—to live with feasting, battle, women—is not necessarily to court disaster. Indeed, Philo speaks of a “great property” in Antony. Pompey says of the hero's soldiership that it is indeed “twice the other twain.” Antony is not deluding himself about his military reputation. For these opinions about him are reinforced further with the words of Eros. In Plutarch's Life of Antonius, Shakespeare's primary source for events in this play, Antonius lost badly to the Parthians, but in Shakespeare, when Eros refuses to help Antony kill himself, he mitigates this Parthian disaster:

Shall I do that which all the Parthian darts,
Though enemy, lost aim and could not?(8)


Antony's soldiership also receives the praise of the scarred soldier, Scarus, after the land-battle at Alexandria, when he corroborates Agrippa's surprise at the military reversal of Caesarian momentum.

Oh my brave Emperor, this is fought indeed!
Had we done so at first, we had droven them home
With clouts about their heads.


Yet there is an irony in Scarus's words, just as it lurks in Caesar's magnificent description of that Antony to whom even he must yield respect.

                                                                                                    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;
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brows'd. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on; and all this
.....Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lank'd not.


For despite all this, there are the facts. Antony lost at Modena, he lost in Parthia, he loses at Actium, and he will lose the last battle. When he triumphs in the fighting celebrated by Scarus, Antony gains little but the desertions which collapse the last battle around him. And when there is a victory in Parthia, it is won by Antony's general, Ventidius, who tells his lieutenant that

Caesar and Antony have ever won
More in their officer than person.


For Caesar this is not important—he has no personal military aspirations. For Antony, it is crucial. Is it true?

“Now Antonius was made so subject to a woman's will that though he was a great deal stronger by land, yet for Cleopatra's sake, he would needs have this battle tried by sea,” writes Plutarch. Cleopatra again emerges as the destructive femme fatale. But in one of the most significant deviations from this source in the whole play, the line Shakespeare adopts is not this at all. The hero speaks to his general Canidius.

Canidius, we
Will fight with him by sea.
By sea, what else?
Why will my lord do so?
For that he dares us to't.
So hath my lord dar'd him to single fight.
Ay, and to wage this battle at Pharsalia,
Where Caesar fought with Pompey. But these offers,
Which serve not for his vantage, he shakes off,
And so should you.


It is of the utmost importance to note that Shakespeare's version of why Antony chose a naval battle has little to do with what Cleopatra does or does not want, no matter how much her subsequent flight may obscure this. The point is even reemphasized by the scene before the final battle wherein Caesar, having lost the land-battle at Alexandria, apparently has less concern for his own “honor.”

Their preparation is to-day by sea,
We please them not by land.
For both, my lord.
I would they'ld fight i'th'fire or i'th'air;
We'ld fight there too. But this it is: our foot
Upon the hills adjoining to the city
Shall stay with us—order for sea is given,
They have put forth the haven.(9)


Again this is not Plutarch; this is Shakespeare's Antony and his response to what he sees as a “dare.”

It is not possible to restrain Antony in these things, any more than it is possible for the soothsayer to reveal the unpleasant fact of Caesar's dominance. “Speak this no more.” Antony always rejects the idea that his subjectivity may not be all-sufficient, and this adamantine streak in his geniality is always there. Ventidius was afraid to follow up his victory against the Parthians.

I could do more to do Antonius good,
But, 'twould offend him; and in his offense
Should my performance perish.


This is what must be done to avoid irritating Antony:

I'll humbly signify what in his name,
That magical word of war, we have effected;
How with his banners, and his well-paid ranks,
The ne'er-yet-beaten horse of Parthia
We have jaded out o'th' field.


Before Actium, in his effort to persuade Antony to avoid that seabattle, Enobarbus alters his own characteristically blunt way of speaking to adopt the same “magical-word-of-war” line. “By sea, by sea,” Antony persists, and Enobarbus:

Most worthy sir, you therein throw away
The absolute soldiership you have by land,
Distract your army, which doth most consist
Of war-mark'd footmen, leave unexecuted
Your own renowned knowledge.


The fact, however, is that Shakespeare's Mark Antony tends to view military problems with the moods of a swordsman rather than with the detachment of a general. And though his performance in the battle line itself is always formidable, in concepts of strategy his predispositions render him indifferent or inept. Before Actium, speaking of Caesar's deployment, he sounds naïve.

                    Is it not strange, Canidius,
That from Tarentum and Brundusium
He could so quickly cut the Ionian Sea,
And take in Toryne?


More news of Caesar. He has indeed taken Toryne.

Can he be there in person? 'Tis impossible
Strange that his power should be.


In all justice, Canidius, and the other soldiers too, share this wonder.

This speed of Caesar's
Carries beyond belief.
While he was yet in Rome,
His power went out in such distractions as
Beguil'd all spies.


This justifies Antony's own amazement, but it does impose certain important limitations on Pompey's dictum about Antony's soldiership as “twice the other twain.” Apparently, one of the “other twain” is an astounding master of the art of troop movement. Whether this counts for “soldiership” depends on the viewpoint, but it is clear that for Antony such matters do not induce the boredom of familiarity.10

There are debates on the strategic issues before the battle of Actium. Shakespeare allows Enobarbus to expand on details which have little actual relevance to the battle we experience—we will only need to be told that the hero followed Cleopatra's flight. But Enobarbus's “details” are important for us simply because Shakespeare shows Antony ignoring them. Why should Antony not fight at sea? Well, Enobarbus says,

                                                            Your ships are not well mann'd,
Your mariners are [muleters], reapers, people
Ingross'd by swift impress. In Caesar's fleet
Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey fought;
Their ships are yare, yours heavy. No disgrace
Shall fall you for refusing him at sea,
Being prepar'd for land.


It would, in one way, be a relief if Cleopatra were at the bottom of all this, for then we could simply say that Antony acts as a man infatuated. But she is only agreeing with Antony and he, reacting to Caesar's dare, ignores all else, even though the soldier Scarus, showing his wounds, hints at the mood of an infantry nervous at the prospect of fighting on unstable ships against a fleet of experienced pirates. But Antony only remarks “Well, well. Away,” and exits.11

Antony's attitudes and needs are continually at odds with the reality he must comprehend to survive a war, and the time after Actium emphasizes this. Muttering to himself in his shame, reminiscing about Philippi, he says of Caesar that

                                                                                                                        he alone
Dealt on lieutenantry, and no practice had
In the brave squares of war; yet now—No matter.


Sharing with Iago that contempt for the theoreticians, for those who delegate authority, who ignore prowess as the crucial stuff of war, Antony's remark is no casual one, penned by Shakespeare unthinkingly. The motif has been developed through the play until its eloquent articulation in Antony's response, after Actium, to the messenger from Caesar. Caesar sends a refusal to grant Antony's highly interesting request to be allowed to live “a private man in Athens.” “To him again!” says Antony.

                                                            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 i'th'command of 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.


“Coward,” “child,” “dare.” The whole complicated mechanism of war which under Caesar's guidance has swept over Antony at such a speed as even to astound the generals is, here, relegated to the realm of the superficial.12 Toy baubles fit for a child, these forces are unreal, cloudlike wisps which trivially obscure that ultimate and profound moment, the determination of manhood: “sword against sword, ourselves alone.”

It is not strange that Antony should look at war like this, for he cannot even look at life in any other way. This would be to deny himself. And often when he cannot deny himself, he harms himself the most. It is true that military daring can be decisive too, no matter the dictates of theory, and it is true that Antony was holding his own quite well at Actium before Cleopatra's flight—vantage like “a pair of twins” appeared. But Antony cannot put daring into a larger perspective. For in defeat, he responds with rage and rationalization. It is as if victory were not determined by victory, but by bravery. Perhaps Caesar “cheated” but he won and the answer he sends Antony's duel-challenge points the difference between them. For this answer precipitates a moment of stunning naïveté as Antony tries to comprehend a challenge that, unlike Sossius's generalship in Africa, the hero has no power to waive from existence.

He will not fight with me, Domitius?
Why should he not?


“Antonius being thus inclined,” runs Shakespeare's source, “the last and extremest mischief of all other (to wit, the love of Cleopatra) lighted on him.” Although Plutarch's slant is misleading for the play, his attribution of the love affair to other than strictly sexual penchants in Antony is suggestive. For in Shakespeare's play, Antony's relationship with Cleopatra simply reinforces and illustrates elements that we see in his personality when romance is not his immediate concern.

                                                                                                    As for my wife,
I would you had her spirit in such another;
The third o' th'world is yours, which with a snaffle
You may pace easy, but not such a wife.


“There's a great spirit gone,” he said at the beginning of the play when he heard of her death, and it is clear—especially by contrast with his attitude toward the meek Octavia—that Antony admires Fulvia for the kind of qualities he finds in himself. Cleopatra has caught this to use it for her own purpose. She not only flatters Antony's self-portrait but replicates it when accusing him of infidelity early in the play. She recalls to him his words in this manner:

                                                                                                                        none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven. They are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn'd the greatest liar.
How now, lady?
I would I had thy inches, thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.


She plays the “great spirit,” acts masculine. She gives the astonished Antony the lie and wishes she were big enough to back up her insult (or big enough to compete with him in other suggestive ways).

And Antony does admire Cleopatra as a mirror of himself. When she taunts his surprise before Actium at Caesar's speed of maneuver, he is happy to be impressed.

                                                                      A good rebuke,
Which might have well becom'd the best of men,
To taunt at slackness.


But she is something more than mirror. This is clear enough early in the play as he leaves Egypt. He says to her:

Quarrel no more, but be prepar'd to know
The purposes I bear; which are, or cease,
As you shall give th'advice. By the fire
That quickens Nilus' slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war
As thou affects.


This when leaving for Rome.

But perhaps what we see is merely his indifference to politics. War is what he treasures to himself. What then are we to make of an episode the queen relates to Charmian?

                                                                                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.


What principles in Antony's life are most important? He leaves her, and Egypt, marries Octavia, yet he follows her in flight at Actium. And though Antony forgives Cleopatra after Actium when he considers himself unmanned, he will be ready to kill her when he thinks she has betrayed him. How does she fit in?

There is Antony's answer to her after Actium when she says she hadn't thought he would follow after her fleeing ship.

                                                                                          You did know
How much you were my conqueror, and that
My sword, made weak by my affection, would
Obey it on all cause.


It is Enobarbus's use of “affection.” But if Antony here wishes to blame Cleopatra by constructing an allegory that reminds us of the revels described earlier by Cleopatra, what he said a moment before was naked of moral attitudinizing.

                                                                                                              O'er my spirit
[Thy] full supremacy thou knew'st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.


This is not totally true. There are other tugs at him, else Antony would not be so disconsolate now. But he seems to be saying that she is almost as important to him as his soldier “self.” As he leaves Egypt, the psychology of interchange, despite its manifest Platonism, is complex.

                                                                                                              Let us go. Come;
Our separation so abides and flies,
That thou residing here, goes yet with me;
And I hence fleeting, here remain with thee.


It is as if in some important way, Cleopatra actually expressed the soldier principle for Antony. For if he were merely “her soldier” as protector, he would not necessarily react as he does when he hears of her death. At that time we see an impressive piece of behavior, accompanied by appropriate imagery and activity emphatically visible to the audience. Brooding about the betrayal of his fleet, he speaks dispiritedly and despairingly. But when he hears the queen is dead, he immediately begins to take off his armor.

All length is torture; since the torch is out,
Lie down and stray no farther. Now all labour
Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles
Itself with strength.


Strength has lost its meaning, as if the queen had, in Antony's life, been the ideal in terms of which his existence was to be organized. A force usually exerted by a philosophy, a creed, or a god—this was the “grave charm”

Whose eye beck'd forth my wars and call'd them home,
Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end.


This is something more than drunken companionship with the flesh-pots of Egypt. At the same time, ideals are not essentially products of altruism. They tend to be defined in accordance with those traits loved in the self, and if Antony holds Cleopatra more important than politics, it is not only understandable but inevitable. “The nobleness of life is to do thus, when such a mutual pair and such a twain can do't,” and “nobleness” is defined as that which Antony thinks good. He sees himself preeminently suited to enact this end, and Cleopatra is part of the enactment.

What would happen then, if the queen flouted this great Idea (whatever it is)? We see when she lets Caesar's messenger, Thidias, kiss her hand. Antony, on fire, rages:

                                                                                                    what's her name,
Since she was Cleopatra?

Cleopatra is not “herself” anymore if she does not share Antony's opinion of the grandeur isolating him, with her, from the rest of the world. So instead of being grief-stricken and faithfully continuing to love Cleopatra as if he were her slave, Antony thrusts her from the crucial circle of his self-esteem into the “Roman” context, the Caesarean mode.

You were half blasted ere I knew you; Ha?(13)
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?
Good my Lord—
You have been a boggler ever,
But when we in our viciousness grow hard
(O misery on't!), the wise gods seel our eyes,
In our own filth drop our clear judgments, make us
Adore our errors, laugh at's while we strut
To our confusion.(14)
O, is't come to this?
I found you as a morsel, cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher, nay, you were a fragment
Of Cneius Pompey's—besides what hotter hours,
Unregist'red in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick'd out; for I am sure,
Though you can guess what temperance should be,
You know not what it is.


We need not see this speech as any kind of orthodox repentance of the error of his ways: Antony, by “temperance,” simply means that Cleopatra should only be intemperate with him. His true attitude emerges from another figure.

                                                            Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclips'd, and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!(15)


Cleopatra seems to be the “objective correlative” of his own being when she acts appropriately. But when she does not enhance his self-esteem she is no longer “himself.” And when this living symbol of his own identity, as he sees it, is gone, what is to become of him? She is his conception of himself made flesh.


For the most part the Antony of the first half of the tragedy has been mild-mannered, but then events come to change things. In the scenes following Antony's perplexing and paradoxical defeat at Actium, he begins to be oppressed by a sense of dualism, an inconsistency which he sees between those qualities which he thinks should gain triumph in war and those which have actually beaten him. After he has forgiven Cleopatra his thoughts deal only with Caesar.

Caesar is the “young man.” One must go to him now and “dodge and palter in shifts of lowness.” But the edge is physical.

Yes, my lord, yes; he at Philippi kept
His sword e'en like a dancer, while I strook
The lean and wrinkled Cassius, and 'twas I
That the mad Brutus ended.(16) He alone
Dealt on lieutenantry, and no practice had
In the brave squares of war; yet now—No matter.


The light and graceful slimness of the “dancer” and the wrinkled leanness of a Cassius. Between the two, better than both—a golden mean—stands Antony, the victor of Philippi. It is a way to think well of oneself. One is at neither extreme and also—neither extremely old nor laughably young.

My very hairs do mutiny; for the white
Reprove the brown for rashness, and they them
For fear and doting.


It is important for Antony to think this way. He must be the physical supreme. But whether this “golden mean” is really the blossoming point of the purely physical life, that “rose” which Antony says Caesar wears upon him—this is something the hero has not yet worked out.

He feels his loss repaid by Cleopatra's repentant tears: her strong reverence for his own concept of himself. But inevitably, once this sadness has somewhat fretfully been laid to rest, he turns to other comforts.

                                                            Love, I am full of lead.
Some wine, within there, and our viands! Fortune knows
We scorn her most when most she offers blows.


Despite the pseudo-Stoicism, however, this matter of military prowess is not fully settled. In fact, it has just begun to raise its ugly head.

We learn that the hero has sent his schoolmaster, the only available ambassador he has, to ask something of Caesar.

Lord of his fortunes he salutes thee, and
Requires to live in Egypt, which not granted,
He lessons his requests, and to thee sues
To let him breathe between the heavens and earth,
A private man in Athens.(17)


Since Shakespeare's Athens was not distinguished for sobriety or temperance of life, Antony's plea is hardly a wish to study philosophy. It is as if his sense of unworthiness has led him to try to settle for what remains. Lear would wish to be with his Cordelia like “birds in a cage”; Antony wishes to retire with Cleopatra among the sensual descendants of Troy's opponents. For that, presumably, is what remains when the military life is gone.

But Antony's request is evasion, and Antony, as tragic hero, will not be allowed to evade. Events will more closely probe him.

                                                            Enter the Ambassador with Antony
 Is that his answer?
 Ay, my Lord.
The Queen shall then have courtesy, so she
Will yield us up.
 He says so.


The hero's response is complex. He says to Cleopatra:

To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head,
And he will fill thy wishes to the brim
With principalities.


It is as if he challenges her to weigh things as he himself weighed them when he said kingdoms were clay. Are they “clay” to her too? And he adds pathos: the queen may either yield to a “boy” or stay faithful to the “grizzled” one. Youth and age still people his thoughts as he responds:

To him again, 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 i'th'command of Caesar. I dare him therefore
To lay his gay comparisons apart,
And answer me declin'd, sword against sword,
Ourselves alone.


Now this is a struggle for survival and Antony simply must lash out—but characteristically, always characteristically. For in addition to the “unfairness” that lies in the “mere” paraphernalia of power—coins, ships, legions—there is the subtler taunt of Caesar's very youth, which Antony so exaggerates. It is the “child” Caesar with the rose of youth upon him that he wants to get at. It is Antony alone who stands as the virile epitome. Actium was a “gay comparison.” The true test is elsewhere. Sword against sword, ourselves, alone. Of course. He will even do the writing of the message himself. This is too intimate an affair for go-betweens.

But when he leaves, Thidias comes. Caesar has spoken to him about the “eloquence,” “inventions,” and “promises” he is to produce to win the queen, and a description in Plutarch suggests what Shakespeare might have made visually available to his audience. Caesar, according to Plutarch, sent Thyreus (Thidias) “one of his men unto her, a very wise and discreet man, who bringing letters of credit from a young lord unto a noble lady, and that besides greatly liked her beauty, might easily by his eloquence have persuaded her.” Plutarch's sexual hint seems realized in Caesar's directions. He told Thidias to “win” Cleopatra from Antony. Caesar's messenger may therefore be quite the elegant young man.

Plutarch further narrates that Thyreus “was longer in talk with her than any man else was, insomuch as he made Antonius jealous of him. Whereupon Antonius caused him to be taken and well-favoredly whipped, and so sent him unto Caesar.” Shakespeare's changes are significant. His Thidias is not quite so “very wise and discreet” as is Plutarch's. Thidias patronizes Enobarbus and is suggestive to Cleopatra. This makes Enobarbus run to get Antony who, when he arrives, finds Thidias kissing the queen's hand.

                                        Favors? By Jove that thunders!
What art thou, fellow?
One that but performs
The bidding of the fullest man, and worthiest
To have command obey'd.


One fervently hopes that Thidias refers simply to his being there, not to his current performance with Cleopatra, but as Antony snaps, this ambiguity is lost in the threats of disintegration multiplying around him. He shouts for his attendants.

Approach there!—Ah, you kite!—

But nobody comes.

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?”

Under this triple assault—the sexual threat, the insolence, and the tardiness of mere servants who seem to bear Thidias out—the hero struggles for very existence. And moving from paralyzed despair to a frenetic activity, he attains a loud but shadowy rebirth.

                                                  Have you no ears?—I am
Antony yet!

When one servant finally answers, distressing in his singleness, Antony's order is simple.

Take hence this Jack and whip him.(18)

Jacks are young men (with overtones of social-climbing, overelegant worthlessness) trying to presume upon their betters.19 Such a one needs to be put in his place—and in a specific way.

                                                            Whip him, fellows,
Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,
And whine aloud for mercy.(20) Take him hence.
Mark Antony—
Tug him away. Being whipt,
Bring him again; the Jack of Caesar's shall
Bear us an arran't [errand], to him.

When Thidias is returned, we see what it was that Antony had in mind.

 Is he whipt?
Soundly, my lord.
Cried he? and begg'd'a pardon?
He did ask favor.
If that thy father live, let him repent
Thou wast not made his daughter, and be thou sorry
To follow Caesar in his triumph, since
Thou hast been whipt for following him. Henceforth
The white hand of a lady fever thee,
Shake thou to look on't.

Thidias has been forced to receive one of the worst punishments that Antony thinks he could possibly have inflicted: to turn a man girlish. The aggressive challenge to Antony's masculinity must be revealed for what it is: a merely contemptible presumption that masks unmanliness—the anti-Antonian principle. For it is Antony who drank the stale of horses: and when he did so, “his cheek lank'd not.”

                                                                                                    Get thee back to Caesar,
Tell him thy entertainment. 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 th'abysm of hell.


He is “Antony yet,” a presence unchanged by mere ill fortune. He can, after all, still make men cry like girls.

Despite Cleopatra's subsequent reassurances, however, this Thidias episode shakes something in Antony: he needs to nail things down again. He has shambled in shame through the last few scenes. And if to be ashamed is yet to feel basically worthy, Thidias challenged even this by seeking for himself a Cleopatra who was the reward and symbol of Antony's own essential manliness. So if Antony should now, under this pressure, begin moving, it is because he needs to make himself worthy again. But “worthy,” it seems, has something to do not with Caesarean behavior, but with the bravery of the twelfth-century chevalier. The queen vows love, he says “I am satisfied,” and then:

Caesar sets down in Alexandria, where
I will oppose his fate. Our force by land
Hath nobly held; our sever'd navy too
Have knit again, and fleet, threat'ning most sea-like.
Where hast thou been, my heart? Dost thou hear, lady?
If from the field I shall return once more
To kiss these lips, I will appear in blood;
I and my sword will earn our chronicle.
There's hope in't yet.
 That's my brave lord!


In this huge talk of navies and armies, in the midst of these “gay comparisons,” the queen herself fondles him almost maternally with her words while he pursues the delirium of his great need. There must be one final, vital gesture, a pulling out of all the physical stops to outface the real ghost, the specter of unmanliness which all Antony's frenetic rhetoric has not laid.

I will be treble-sinew'd, hearted, breath'd
And fight maliciously; for when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I'll set my teeth
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let's have one other gaudy night. Call to me
All my sad captains, fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell.


He is still worth love, even though the trials of physical strength belong to youth. Never mind. He will be that youth, no matter the impossibility.

                                                                                                    Come on, my queen,
There's sap in't yet. The next time I do fight,
I'll make death love me; for I will contend
Even with his pestilent scythe.


But reminders crowd. Shakespeare shows Caesar's cynical rejection of the duel challenge we had almost forgotten about, and then we observe Antony's own plaintive and naïve wonderment that Caesar will not take up the challenge. Why? he asks Enobarbus, who answers that Caesar doesn't need to bother. But Antony cannot stand the idea that because Caesar is “twenty times of better fortune, he is twenty men to one.” “Tomorrow, soldier,” he answers Enobarbus,

By sea and land I'll fight; or I will live,
Or bathe my dying honor in the blood
Shall make it live again.


Yet hard on this baptismal image do come thoughts of a new kind, ideas which events have now shot into his periphery.

“Woo't thou fight well?” he asks Enobarbus suddenly. This question reflects his sense that he has not yet redeemed himself on the battlefield. And so he feels he owes his men something, just as, after his flight at Actium, he was ashamed enough to tell all his followers to leave him. He has to make it up to them now.

Enter three or four Servitors.
                                                                                          Give me thy hand,
Thou hast been rightly honest—So hast thou—
Thou—and thou—and thou. You have serv'd me well,
And kings have been your fellows.

Enobarbus calls this one of those odd tricks which sorrow shoots out of the mind. It is more than this.

                                                            And thou art honest too.
I wish I could be made so many men,
And all of you clapp'd up together in
An Antony, that I might do you service
So good as you have done.

Make as much of me, he tells them, as when my empire was “your fellow”—at least for a little while, waiting on him at their meal. After that,

                                                                                          Mine honest friends,
I turn you not away, but like a master
Married to your good service, stay till death.
Tend me to-night two hours, I ask no more,
And the gods yield you for't!


This appeal is an extremely personal sort of encounter going beyond the mercenary relationships that have informed the desertions of this play. “There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd,” he said to Cleopatra, and it is clear that for such a one as he, service is much more than a contract. It is a mutual love. Pretend I am what I was on the battlefield, he seems to say here, and in exchange I promise to redeem myself tomorrow. Thus your service will not have been misdirected after all. Help me to become “me” again and I'll be someone worth your being a servant to—even if it kills me.

The weeping that this causes is good. It reassures Antony's men and allows him to console them with other visions of himself. When Enobarbus reproves Antony for making the men (and himself) tearful, Antony can almost luxuriate in the effort not to cheer himself but others in this hopeless cause. After all, it is he who has everything, because they love him, his “hearty” friends.

                                                                                                    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, did desire you
To burn this night with torches. Know, my hearts,
I hope well of to-morrow, and will lead you
Where rather I'll expect victorious life
Than death and honor.


But Shakespeare reminds us that the depression is hard to shake off. Back to more immediate and external comforts. “Let's to supper, come, and drown consideration.”

We next see Antony (4.4) in the morning. His gaiety and optimism, even his playfulness, show him in the happiest mood that Shakespeare ever allows him in the tragedy. He is up early and becomes involved in the comedy of Cleopatra's posture as squire and armorer. References to morning multiply as his men come to join him.

                                                                                'Tis well blown, lads.(21)
This morning, like the spirit of a youth
That means to be of note, begins betimes.


But as he gaily puts on his armor his boasting too reminds us of the continuing intensity of his personal crisis.

                                                                                          O love,
That thou couldst see my wars to-day, and knew'st
The royal occupation, thou shouldst see
A workman in't.

His parting from Cleopatra is of a piece with this.

Fare thee well, dame, what e'er becomes of me.
This is a soldier's kiss; rebukable
And worthy shameful check it were, to stand
On more mechanic compliment. I'll leave thee
Now like a man of steel. You that will fight,
Follow me close, I'll bring you to't. Adieu.


Remember me as a soldier. The nobleness of life is to do thus. Especially a soldier's kiss (rather than the mechanic compliments of such a one as Thidias who ties Caesar's “points”).

All this may be so, but reality returns with Scarus, whom he meets on the way.

The gods make this a happy day to Antony!
 Would thou and those thy scars had once prevail'd
To make me fight at land!
Hadst thou done so,
The kings that have revolted, and the soldier
That has this morning left thee, would have still
Followed thy heels.


Antony had rejected that advice indeed because he was lured by a dare. The soldier's dry rejoinder shows what “daring” does. For Antony was urged by all his professional soldiers to fight by land, not because it was the brave thing to do, but because it was the smart thing to do. But now, before his second battle, when Antony belatedly follows this advice for his own reasons, Scarus undercuts the bluff soldierly comradeliness to point the irony. Antony may think he is once more reconciled to his troops, but the news about Enobarbus shows the opposite. It is precisely because of the land-battle that that soldier deserted. Now, fighting by land is not the smart thing to do, even if it is “brave.” The hero's sense of union with the scarred soldier is illusory. Antonian principles of war are not those of a Scarus, a Ventidius, or an Enobarbus. He is, in the end, not their kind of “soldier.”

So too Antony's reaction to Enobarbus's departure is characteristically obtuse.

                                                                                          O, my fortunes have
Corrupted honest men!

But Antony's fortune was one element that Enobarbus specifically rejected as grounds for desertion. He lingered on because of something other than fortune; “I'll yet follow the wounded chance of Antony,” he said after Actium, “though my reason sits in the wind against me.” What ultimately alienates Enobarbus is the fatuity of Antony's emotional stance.

                                                                                                              I see still
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart. When valour [preys on] reason,
It eats the sword it fights with. I will seek
Some way to leave him.


Antony must have the land-battle, the minor victory, the profuse thanks to his men, and the sentimental picture of their friends and wives weeping for joy over the noble tokens of their valor. So Antony has proved himself (as when he left Egypt to refute Pompey)—something to be made clear to someone whose hand dawdled under the lips of a “jack” like Thidias,

                                                                                                    Run one before,
And let the Queen know of our [gests].


To this “great fairy,” Antony tells Scarus, the scarred soldier, “I'll commend thy acts, make her thanks bless thee.”22 For Cleopatra is the transcendent principle. And she may now, must now, accept his claim. That “self,” the self for which she has been symbol and avatar, he has reunited with. He has recaptured himself and her. This is the grand conceit he uses as he greets the one he calls his “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!


The heart she commands also rules his exertions as the saddle rules the horse. His heart is the saddle on the panting endurance of his physical virility—the “horse”—which carries Cleopatra in triumph. His very physical effort he sees as her real tribute. But if Cleopatra is glorified by riding this particular “horse,” it is nevertheless a horse of Antony's own making, at a time in English culture when reason was customarily compared to the rider, bestriding the beast of blind forces.23

Less abstractly, however, there is a vital point Antony must make.

                                                                                                    Mine nightingale,(24)
We have beat them to their beds. What, girl, though grey
Do something mingle with our younger brown, yet ha'we
A brain that nourishes our nerves, and can
Get goal for goal of youth.


No longer is his head grizzled, and no longer is his younger brown simply a token of rashness, as after Actium. He is young again, a mature, distinguished, aging … youth.

We end where we began. The poet departs from source especially here as scarred Scarus receives a blessing.

                                                                                                    Behold this man,
Commend unto his lips thy [favoring] hand.
Kiss it, my warrior; he hath fought to-day
As if a god, in hate of mankind, had
Destroyed in such a shape.

Antony's “playfellow” can be familiar with the lips of another, if need be, but not with those of the jack of some boy who kept his sword like a dancer at Philippi. Scarus is the kind of fellow you want for this sort of hand-kissing thing.

Antony leads the processional exit with Cleopatra in a march, her hand held by the conqueror. The queen is his again: his bravery has reclaimed his rights here. He is Antony again, as he was when he held the hands of Caesar and Pompey leaving Pompey's ship. And here he ends the victor scene.

With brazen din blast you the city's ear,
Make mingle with our rattling tambourines,
That heaven and earth may strike their sounds together,
Applauding our approach. Exeunt.



“Their preparation is today by sea,” observes Antony to Scarus in their next appearance. But the young man's army is also prepared for a land-battle. Even so, it would seem that Antony's euphoria and sense of the dare are at their height again.

I would they'ld fight i'th'fire or i'th'air;
We'ld fight there too.


Caesar has repeated the Actium ploy and because Antony has again accepted the gambit of the sea-battle, we know he has not changed. So do others. For when it comes, the reversal is quick. Antony himself announces it to us.

                                                                                                    All is lost!
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me.
My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder
They cast their caps up and carouse together
Like friends long lost. Triple-turn'd whore!
                              'tis thou
Hast sold me to this novice, and my heart
Makes only wars on thee. Bid them all fly;
For when I am reveng'd upon my charm,
I have done all. Bid them all fly, be gone


The strands wrapped up at the end of the second battle come loose once again, but it is vital for us to understand just what happened—Antony's reports of what he has seen versus his judgments about them. His fleet has yielded and there is much exuberant friendliness between the now-mingled armies. That is the report. But why is this? Did Cleopatra betray Antony, or was this the doings of the troops themselves? Plutarch's account is a checkpoint.

When by force of rowing they were come neere unto them, they [Antonius's men] first saluted Caesars men, and then Caesars men resaluted them also, and of two armies made but one, and then did all together row toward the citie. When Antonius saw that his men did forsake him, and yeelded unto Caesar, and that his footemen were broken and overthrowen: he then fled into the citie, crying out that Cleopatra had betrayed him unto them.


In Shakespeare's tragedy, what Antony sees is happy soldiers, and it is this joy which breaks things up for Antony. His judgment? Cleopatra, of course, has betrayed him.

He had no rage after Actium, or even after the desertion of Enobarbus, but here things are far different. How can he now merit desertion? Was he not preeminently brave and “military” again, worthy again of love and service? What is happening is therefore clearly impossible, and impossibly painful.

O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more,
Fortune and Antony part here, even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That [spannell'd] me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark'd,
That overtopp'd them all.


He is talking, we see, not about power but about alienation of affections, even though he is not now thinking of the queen. If his men desert him when he is worthy … this is to court annihilation. So then there is the lurch to the easier alternative. There has to be some other cause. He thinks of it.

                                                                                                    Betray'd I am.
O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,
Whose eye beck'd forth my wars and call'd them home,
Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,
Like a right gypsy, hath at fast and loose
Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss.
What, Eros, Eros!
                                                            Enter Cleopatra
                                                                                                    Ah, thou spell! Avaunt!(25)


Vanish, he tells her, “or I shall give thee thy deserving.” His fear drives him beyond all restraint of love as he envisions desertion and defeat almost as a loss in virility at the hands of the “young Roman boy.” And his groping for her as a reason for his failure is a blind gesture to “drown consideration” again, to thrust out violently and killingly at himself.

                                                                                                                        'Tis well th'art gone,
If it be well to live; but better 'twere
Thou fell'st into my fury, for one death
Might have prevented many. Eros, ho!
The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'th'moon,
And with those hands, that grasp'd the heaviest club,
Subdue my worthiest self. The witch shall die.
To the young Roman boy she hath sold me, and I fall
Under this plot. She dies for't. Eros, ho! Exit.


His speech of Nessus tells us much. It recalls Othello's final duality of “ideal” against “fallen” self. Here Hercules is Antony's idealization of the physical strength and power within himself. The club-wielding hands are the means of suicide and also of killing, but we do not know whether the hands themselves belong to Hercules or Antony. Indeed, what is it to speak of suicide and to go off seeking to kill Cleopatra? Her own ambiguous role in the Hercules metaphor emphasizes Antony's confusion. Is Cleopatra a Lichas, the innocent tool who brought Hercules the poisoned robe from his wife, or is she Antony's “worthiest self?” Is she the “witch” that anointed the poisoned robe, Deianeira, Hercules' wife? Whatever a literal dissection of the logic would allow, we are left with the feeling that Antony's aggressive thrust to the killing of Cleopatra is roughly compared to the suicide of Hercules—to avoid … pain.

There is irony too in his metaphor. Cleopatra is likened to the innocent Lichas, and indeed she is no more than Lichas where responsibility for Antony's situation is concerned: Lichas was merely the messenger. But messengers do not fare too well in this tragedy. So Cleopatra's own metaphor in response has a melancholy appropriateness too. She speaks of the mad Ajax. Unable to win the Achillean armor he so dearly wished, Ajax insanely took out his rage on the sheep which he fell to slaughtering. “He is more mad,” she says, “than Telamon for his shield.”

The calm beginning of scene 14 subtly recapitulates the Antonian motives for self-extinction. Images of himself and Cleopatra interweave their colors.

Eros, thou yet behold'st me?
Ay, noble lord.
Sometimes 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.
 Ay, my lord.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony;
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.
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)—she, Eros, has
Pack'd cards with Caesar's and false-play'd my glory
Unto an enemy's triumph.
Nay, weep not, gentle Eros, there is left us
Ourselves to end ourselves.


The paradox bemuses him. How can his “self” betray his self? The queen has been inconsistent with the ideology and, what is more, has even deprived him of the “million” other hearts which he thought he compositely was. “O thy vile lady,” he says to the entering Mardian, “she has robb'd me of my sword.” It is as if she had violated the trust of mutual identity, deprived Antony of the profound means of self-definition which the sword embodies but which she herself ultimately expresses. What then, indeed, the hero seems to ask, is a self?

Mardian comes and his story is well told. Cleopatra's last act and her very last words are the ultimate tribute and motion of recompense. She said: “Antony! Most noble Antony!”

Then in the midst a tearing groan did break
The name of Antony; it was divided
Between her heart and lips. She rend'red life,
Thy name so buried in her.


This action is more valuable than her tears at Actium. But it shatters him. So much so that, contrary to what he said at the beginning of the play about forebearance to messengers with bad news, he tells Mardian: “That thou depart'st hence safe does pay thy labor richly. Go.” For this is not mere bad news; it is annihilation.

There follows the visible stage business. “Unarm me, Eros. The long day's task is done and we must sleep.”

                                                                                                    Off, pluck off,
The sevenfold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart. O, cleave, my sides!
Heart, once be stronger than they continent,
Crack thy frail case! Apace, Eros, apace.
No more a soldier. Bruised pieces, go,
You have been nobly borne.

This sense of a real end, of the tangled pointlessness of living, this sure motion, like that of the repentant Ajax toward suicide, defines Antony's real allegiance and the focus of his identity. For if Cleopatra's “treachery” robbed him of his sword, her death robs him of his soldiership. In Antony's one specific sense, there is now no reason to “be” any more.

                                                                                                                        for now
All length is torture; since the torch is out,
Lie down and stray no farther. Now all labour
Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles
Itself with strength.


Strength and force were indeed in Antony's universe, but they are nothing if not illuminated by the “torch” which was the idealizing light. There can be no meaningful pilgrimage toward a meaningful heaven through meaningful striving. There is only the continuing complicated effort at self-coherence.

                                                                                                    Since Cleopatra died
I have liv'd in such dishonor that the gods
Detest my baseness. 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.

Now her death has restored his concept of their meaning together, and Antony is prepared to move his illusions to the Elysian Fields. But getting there is difficult, even now. To assault one's own flesh: this goes against everything Antony values in life. Eros can slay himself without much comment, but Antony must speak of bravery and he lingers in his beloved soldier's and lover's flesh. Emulating the dead Eros, his servant, he tries to be “a bridegroom” in his death, to “run into it as to a lover's bed.” Even so, he cannot but help go astray. This is an awful sort of combat for which his psyche is just not prepared.

                                                                                          How, not dead? not dead?
The guard, ho! O, dispatch me!
                                                                                          Enter [Decretas and] a Guard
1 Guard. 
What's the noise?
 I have done my work ill, friends. O, make an end
Of what I have begun.

The pattern seems complete. The pride in and love of flesh which were Antony's have made this task almost impossible, this cutting act which, in the end, must be a despising and repudiating of oneself as flesh. That Antony, with his visions of his “sprightly port” in the Elysian Fields, is not prepared to turn himself into that “mangled shadow” which he had previously described to his sad captains is the real issue here. Whether his plea now derives from physical weakness or from the end of courage is something that only the original production could clarify. The source suggests the physical weakness, but it does not offer what Shakespeare added to Antony's words:

I have done my work ill.(26)

He has run on the sword, all the same, and the action is a victory not so much over Caesar as for himself. Yet in the horrible twilight life which Antony has to endure for yet a little while, Shakespeare turns the screw once more, as if to show the torture that Antony's own beliefs and desires can inflict upon him.

 Let him that loves me strike me dead.
1 Guard.
 Not I.
2 Guard. 
Nor I.
3 Guard.
 Nor any one. Exeunt.

Antony's silence throughout the remainder of this scene is the apex of Shakespeare's work, the culmination and tour de force of the characterization which has been so well established that, coasting on its own momentum, it guides the empathic sensitivity of an audience to the concept of Antony's probable anguish, even though he, for a long time will not utter a single word. His guards have left him, despite the plea in the name of love, lying silent and alone with a sword protruding from him. Alone, except for the body of the bravely dead Eros, and except for Decretas, one of the guards, who now stands above him. Will he perform the act of love?

Thy death and fortunes bid thy followers fly.
This sword but shown to Caesar, with this tidings,
Shall enter me with him.

Thus is Antony robbed of his sword in a most profound sense. This instrument and metaphor of death and love is torn from his body to become the tool for one of his own private bodyguards to enter himself as a sycophant to the young boy who keeps his own sword like a dancer. What could Antony possibly say to this? The eloquence of silence follows Decretas hastening to his embarrassed exit past the arriving Diomedes.

Diomedes' news is one of those impossible moments in drama, and Antony's reticence crowns it.

Most absolute lord,
My mistress Cleopatra sent me to thee.
 When did she send thee?
 Now, my lord


And who knows how long Antony remains silent, as he lies there, before he says simply,

Where is she?

And, at this point, as if there could be no further depths, things begin to move upward for Antony. Never does he achieve self-knowledge, but Shakespeare gives him something. It may fog the intellectual issues, sparing Antony, but it reminds us of how he is, profoundly. Diomedes tells his story, concluding, “and I am come, I dread, too late.”

Too late, good Diomed. Call my guard, I prithee.
What ho! the Emperor's guard! The guard, what ho!
Come, your lord calls!

Then, significantly: Enter four or five of the Guard of Antony. Is there again the slowness shown by the servants during the Thidias episode? If so, it does not matter. They come. Antony asks them to carry him to Cleopatra. It is, he says, the last service he will command them. A guard responds:

Woe, woe are we, sir, you may not live to wear
All your true followers out.
Most heavy day!

This is the greatest comfort the deserted Antony could have been offered, and it makes him gracious and loving again: he has his soldiers back.

Delusion does not leave him in his final moments. He is carried to his queen and hauled up to her in the monument, where his visions lead him to die in a dream, comforting Cleopatra, whose sorrow lends him final identity. He reasserts it in terms of all the old dilemmas that his life was ever about. “Not Caesar's valor hath o'erthrown Antony, but Antony's hath triumph'd on itself.” The paradox enables him to lie there supreme, even though, a moment later:

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


It would be good to believe all this of Antony, but since we have lived with him over the expanse of the play and noted the sordid falsification which was the immediate cause of his death, must we not see this speech as describing what Antony would infinitely wish to have been? The “greatest” because the bravest, most “noble” because most virile, and forever aspiring to his queen who is to him his double, his self.


Just before his death, Antony gave Cleopatra some advice. It was puzzlingly wrong enough to make us wonder.

One word, sweet queen:
Of Caesar seek your honor, with your safety. O!
They do not go together.
Gentle, hear me.
None about Caesar trust but Proculeius.
My resolution and my hands I'll trust,
None about Caesar.


Because Antony's advice is also to be found in Plutarch, along with its inaccuracy, it has been dismissed by critics either as a slip of the Shakespearean pen or, strangely, as not significant to the play.27 But we cannot dismiss events in Shakespearean plays merely because they come to him from Plutarch, for Shakespeare never wrote merely to prove that he had followed his source. And if the dramatic tension of Antony's death and Cleopatra's moving lament follow so closely upon the hero's advice about Proculeius as to obscure it, a later sequence is suggestive. For after Antony's death, when Caesar has heard Cleopatra's message of submission (5.1), he singles some one out.

Come hither, Proculeius. Go and say
We purpose her no shame. Give her what comforts
The quality of her passion shall require,
Lest, in her greatness, by some mortal stroke
She do defeat us; for her life in Rome
Would be eternal in our triumph. Go,
And with your speediest bring us what she says,
And how you find of her.
Caesar, I shall. Exit Proculeius.
Gallus, go you along. [Exit Gallus]
Where's Dolabella,
To second Proculeius?


In the next scene, after Cleopatra has given her initial speech:

                                                                                                    Enter Proculeius
Caesar sends greetings to the Queen of Egypt,
And bids thee study on what fair demands
Thou mean'st to have him grant thee.
What's thy name?
My name is Proculeius.

And, in case we have forgotten:

Did tell me of you, bade me trust you, but
I do not greatly care to be deceiv'd
That have no use for trusting.


Proculeius engineers the queen's capture, proving the hero wrong. What are we to make of this? Was Antony revengeful, desiring to trick Cleopatra into the fate she was so manifestly anxious to avoid? If so, then when he prefaced his remark by saying “Of Caesar seek your honour, with your safety,” he meant that Caesar would offer the queen both honor and safety. But this meaning implies a use of “with” statistically unusual for the play, (“with” as “by means of” occurs in at least thirty of the thirty-three times the word appears).28 So Antony most probably was saying: “Of Caesar seek your honour by means of your safety.” He sincerely wanted to protect her.

Given Antony's good will, he therefore trusted Proculeius, and so we may want to think that Proculeius is not actually responsible for the queen's capture. “Gallus,” it is sometimes suggested, comes up the back of Cleopatra's monument without Proculeius's knowledge, captures Cleopatra, and thus leaves Antony's Proculeius with no choice but to play along. But Caesar himself assigned Proculeius the leading role in the projected deceit, and when he comes to Cleopatra in 5.2, he shows us that he is following instructions to the letter. Cleopatra should “fear nothing,” he tells her, and even after she has been captured, Proculeius counters Cleopatra's fear of being led in triumph with these reassurances:

                                                                                                    You do extend
These thoughts of horror further than you shall
Find cause in Caesar.


But we know this is a lie, for Caesar has already told Proculeius that he wants to have Cleopatra in his triumph. He sent Proculeius to keep Cleopatra alive for this purpose.

Then comes Dolabella to the captured Cleopatra and says:

What thou hast done thy master Caesar knows,
And he hath sent for thee. For the Queen,
I'll take her to my guard.

Doubting the sincerity of Proculeius's allegiance to Caesar, editors have often reassigned one of Proculeius's speeches. The text of the First Folio of 1623, the only authoritative edition of this play, is as follows:

This Ile report (deere Lady)
Haue comfort, for I know your plight is pittied
Of him that caus'd it.
You see how easily she may be surpriz'd:
Guard her till Caesar come.
Royall Queene.
Oh Cleopatra, thou art taken Queene.
Quicke, quicke, good hands.
 Hold worthy Lady, hold:
Doe not your selfe such wrong, who are in this
Releeu'd but not betraid.
What of death too that rids our dogs of languish.

The second “Pro.” speech above most editors give to “Gallus,” the effect of the “emendation” being to remove from Proculeius the relatively contemptuous comment upon Cleopatra. And thus a contrast: the sympathetic Proculeius vs. the unsympathetic Gallus.

What about Gallus? We first encounter him when Caesar has given Proculeius his directions. I quote from the First Folio again.

Caesar I shall. Exit Proculeius.
Gallus, go you along: where's Dolabella, to second Proculeius?

Editors generally assume that Gallus leaves with Proculeius—although the form “exit” (as opposed to “exeunt”) does not help this concept. Gallus is not in the First-Folio version of the capture scene at all: Proculeius enters alone. Gallus will enter only with Caesar, Maecenas, Proculeius “and others of his Train,” after the queen has been captured. Even then, he is mute, saying nothing while on stage.

How then do editors make “Gallus” relevant to Proculeius's activity? They arrange a series of suggested stage directions according to which either Proculeius or Gallus ascends the monument by a ladder while Proculeius (or Gallus) either is or is not talking to distract Cleopatra. But, most editors to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no “monument” to climb. It is true that Cleopatra enters “aloft” for the dying of Antony, so that she can have him raised to her, but for 5.2, the last scene of the play, the situation is different. “Enter Cleopatra, Charmain, Iras, and Mardian” reads the stage direction, and the actors enter (understandably) to use the whole stage through Cleopatra's death-scene, Cleopatra never leaving the stage until she is borne off dead at the end. To “surprise” Cleopatra, therefore, soldiers do not need to climb at all. They need only to enter.29

At the same time the repetition of Proculeius's name-tag during the previously quoted sequence does not require us to substitute some other character, Gallus, to make the contemptuous remark. For in Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic texts, it was common to repeat a speaker's name-tag if his speech had been interrupted by stage business.30

Finally, we cannot assume that “Gallus” would tell Proculeius to “guard her till Caesar come.” Gallus was supposed to “second” Proculeius. And since it is Proculeius who asks Cleopatra to give him some message for Caesar, it is clear that it is Proculeius who intends to leave, not to stay. And it is Proculeius who is designated to give the order in the Folio text.

You see how easily she may be surpriz'd:
Guard her till Caesar come.

The onus of deceit can only be laid on the shoulders of a “Gallus” with some straining. It lies more plausibly on the only figure to receive characterization at all in the pair that exited from Caesar—on Proculeius, whom Antony said that Cleopatra should trust.

But if Proculeius does not bear out Antony's prediction, should he not be more obviously “untrustworthy”? Here lies the point of the whole thing, I think. Trustworthiness is a relative concept, especially in this play. If Proculeius goes against Antony's particular expectations, this need not indicate that he is excessively guileful. For while it is true that Proculeius has the Thidias-like function of plying Cleopatra with flattery, Thidias himself forfeited audience sympathy through the patronizing tone he adopted toward both Enobarbus and Antony. But Proculeius is never portrayed as a “jack.” Even if he does come near losing the audience's favor as he continues to reassure the captured queen about his master Caesar's “bounty,” he does indicate other sensitivities. Here is his response to Dolabella.

What thou hast done thy master Caesar knows,
And he hath sent for thee. For the Queen,
I'll take her to my guard.
 So, Dolabella,
It shall content me best. Be gentle to her.
To Caesar I shall speak what you shall please,
If you'll employ me to him.


Proculeius does, it is true, have a certain amount of slickness, but apparently he is not quite slick enough to be given a delicate mission all by himself. Rather, it is Dolabella who seems generally in charge. And he, when talking to Proculeius, speaks of Caesar as Proculeius's “master”—“What thou hast done, thy master Caesar knows.” Body- and table-servants, guards, and soldiers of undetermined rank such as Enobarbus have “masters,” but Proculeius is obviously no table-servant. Putting Cleopatra in a situation in which she is, he says, easily “surpris'd” and then effortlessly prevented from killing herself, he then supervises the guard until relieved by Dolabella.31 Obviously he is some sort of professional soldier with the social status of an Enobarbus and with a talent for smooth talk. With an ability to improvise on orders which he has not the faintest idea of disobeying, but with limited authority. Capable not only of a professional contempt for Cleopatra's “fortified” position, but also of an impulse of sympathy for a beautiful and tragic queen, he is one with Scarus and Enobarbus.

Thus Proculeius has an important bearing on Antony's last advice to Cleopatra. Antony assumed that someone around Caesar would not act in Caesar's own best interests, but would help Cleopatra. For this task it is obvious that the elegant Dolabella, in the hero's books, would not do at all. Recalling why Antony allowed the soldier Scarus to kiss the queen's hand, we may assume that he would trust no one but a “true soldier,” like Proculeius. But it does not necessarily follow that, to Proculeius, “soldiership” will mean the same thing it does to Antony.

Indeed, his very violation of Antony's expectations is the final Shakespearean comment on Antony. For though Proculeius may indeed prove himself a “man” through his flash of pity for the queen, he is one with all the other soldiers of the play. They are all quite politically clear-eyed. For better or for worse, to be a soldier in this play is to respect not only force and bravery, but also “policie.” And it is in this context that Antony makes his last misjudgment, reemphasizing the ideological assumptions which define him and isolate him and his grand design from those around him. Because he admires Proculeius as a soldier he expects Proculeius, like him, to be Cleopatra's soldier.

It is Cleopatra who, in the end, shows the other side of this Antonian matter. She rejects the hero's advice, and it is she who turns out to be right. The way in which she is right, too, puts Antony's own viewpoint in another and final perspective. For another brush-stroke in Antony's characterization is the milky Dolabella.

Described in the source as “a young gentleman,” Dolabella is one who introduces himself to Cleopatra in this ludicrous fashion.

Most noble Empress, you have heard of me?
I cannot tell.
 Assuredly you know me.


It is he who later speaks of Cleopatra's “command, which my love makes religion to obey,” and informs the queen twice of Caesar's intentions. Putting Cleopatra before his political duty, he violates the high trust implicit in Caesar's commands to him at the very end of the play, performing a betrayal of which Enobarbus, Demetrius, Philo, and Scarrus would strongly disapprove. For women, we recall from Enobarbus, are to be esteemed as nothing in comparison with “a great cause.” And Proculeius is certainly true to this soldierly view.

But if the ideals of Dolabella are not close to those of a Proculeius, they are close to those of Antony. Indeed, is not Dolabella the one who acts in the spirit of the hero's wishes? The two of them united in their own way by this bond, Dolabella himself stands as an indirect clarification of that “soldiership” which Antony has pursued to his dying breath. As the group assembles there on the stage, with the rest of Caesar's train entering to them, the audience knows who, among all that stand there, is ironically, for the hero, Antony's true spiritual heir.

And if Proculeius is indeed the obvious, tough soldier, then the physical contrast between his and the delicate Dolabella's simultaneous presence on the stage cannot but suggest to the audience a wider vista of more profound contrasts, polarities which include the tragic shapelessness of Antony's identity. For he is neither Dolabella nor Proculeius, but perhaps, on a more expansive scale, a little, or too much, of both.


  1. The naïveté of worshipping masculine strength and physical bravery as “manliness” was a familiar subject. Jonson's Alchemist gives us Kastrill, while the “roaring boys” were ubiquitous. Castiglione tells us of “true manlinesse” in The Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1577), sig. T. The pieties of G.B. in The Narrow Way (London, 1607), sig. G, instruct us about what “manhood and fortitude” really are. Earlier in the sixteenth century Medwall's Nature (STC 17779) presents Sensuality who dismisses Innocency, calling him “boy” and urging every one to “play the man” by indulging in various vices.

  2. “Earing” is a pun. R. H. Case in his Arden edition of the play calls attention to the ploughing context and we may look forward to the remarks about Pompey and the pirates: “the sea … which they ear and wound.”

  3. Shakespeare's First Folio, the authoritative and only text for this play, should be followed more closely than it has been when this portion of the drama is reprinted. For the various editings of J. Dover Wilson, Kittredge, and Evans obscure the fact that the F stage directions put three messengers on stage at the same time. Editors change one or two of them to “attendants” presumably because Antony enters with one messenger, sends him off, receives a second messenger who enters, speaks with a third messenger who seems to be on stage, and receives still a fourth messenger. Editing to tidy up traffic is useful, but the purpose of all these messengers seems obvious.

  4. The motif is not in Plutarch. “But by good fortune, his wife Fulvia going to meete with Antonius, sickened by the way, and dyed in the city of Sicyone: and therefore Octavius Caesar, and he were the easelier made frendes together. For when Antonius landed in Italie,” etc. (6:30).

  5. Cf. Cor. 1.4.4. Antony will later threaten Pompey: “We'll speak with thee at sea.”

  6. In “Shakespeare and the Art of Character”, Shakespeare Studies 5 (1970): 222 n. 16, I was interested in the oddity of Antony's Elysian view as compared to the Aeneid. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 68-78, has presented an interesting survey of the Dido and Aeneas legend as it may relate to Shakespeare's play.

  7. This early and important statement needs clarification. The Variorum takes “mutual pair” as tautology, but contemporary usage does not bear this out. See Tit. 5.3.71: “Knit again / This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf” as opposed to Lr. 3.1.19ff.: “There is division, / Although as yet the face of it be cover'd / With mutual cunning.” Cf. also L. Vives, Introduction to Wisdom, ed. M. L. Tobriner (New York: Teachers College Press, 1905), p. 132. “the mutual bond of love between man and man.” Antony's “mutual” operates as a synonym for something like “tightly integrated” or even “made into one.” Antony's words thus suggest something like “the nobleness of life is to do thus when a pair such as we, in our unity and in our duality too, can do it. And in all this I command the world to note that this combining is peerless.”

  8. Cf. Plutarch (6:38-55) where, in Parthia, Antonius lost eight thousand men from exposure because he forced them through unseasonable marches in his haste to rejoin Cleopatra at the end of the campaign. This was one more sorry episode in what was a disastrous military campaign.

  9. The change from Plutarch emphasizes the intent here. Plutarch (6:78-79) sees the last battle as a combined operation exhibiting the weakness of Antonius's defensive position. He gathers his few footmen around him and waits to see what his soldiers in the galleys can do first. Caesar's troops overthrow these footmen. Shakespeare's Antony dismisses his land-troops in personal and desperate exasperation.

  10. Two other Antonies suggest by contrast what Shakespeare had in mind for the present characterization. In JC, when Octavius shows alarm at the advance of the republican forces down the hill at them, Antony there comments: “Tut, I am in their bosoms,” and then diagnoses with accuracy the basis of the strategy we watched Brutus and Cassius debating earlier. The second Antony is Plutarch's. His Antonius, prior to Actium, engages in a series of naval maneuvers that culminate in a series of subtle moves adroitly cutting Octavius off from his water supply (6:65). In AC, Shakespeare is depriving his Antony of those strategic abilities with which Plutarch endowed him and to which the dramatist himself earlier subscribed.

  11. “Well, well” was a kind of Elizabethan negation whose flavor can be partially reconstructed. In MM 1.2.59 ff., Mistress Overdone interrupts the bawdy conversation between Lucio and the First Gentleman: “Well, well! There's one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.” Compare King James's reluctant remark as Buckingham and Prince Charles took leave of him for their dubious Spanish adventure. To make the journey secret they all cooperated in the following reported conversation. “The King told them, ‘See that you be with me upon Friday night.’ Then Buckingham replied, Sir, if we should stay a day or two longer, I hope your majesty would pardon us!'—‘Well, well,’ quoth the King; and so they parted.” See G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 346.

  12. Regarding single combat as a determinant of war, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon—two sufficiently different persons—both had no great use for the idea. See The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Jean Robertson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 398. and Francis Bacon, Essays (London, 1606), sig. E7. For other background, see Paul A. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1956), pp. 112-15.

  13. In the study of the drama of a vanished age, retrieving the meanings of the interjections common to speech, but not necessarily to essay or poem, is important. Written forms of these interjections now tend to be conventional to modern times and thus misleading. In Antony's case here, his use of “ha!” (F:Ha? [where ? conventionally stands for !]) is not, for example, like Falstaff's, who, when he thinks both ladies have come to him in the woods, is pleased with the success of his plan and disguise. Thus, in the spelling of F: “Am I a Woodman, ha? Speake I like Herne / the Hunter?” (see The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1968), p. 77. Antony's exclamation is closer to what may be implied by the accusing speech of Leontes in WT who says that if the “guilty” Hermione is praised for virtue, then there will immediately be (F): “The Shrug, the Hum, or Ha, (these Petty-brands / That Calumnie doth use)” (p. 300). The virtuosity of “ha” can be noted merely within AC when Cleopatra, in her boredom, says (F): “Ha, ha, give me to drinke Mandragoru.

  14. The reading of these lines is greatly facilitated if we read “droop” for “drop.” For similarities and confusions, cf. the one auspicious and one “dropping” eye of Claudius in Hamlet and cf. OED: Drop, sb. for drop-droop affinities. “Droop” was also used transitively (OED, droop, v. 6.: “A withered Vine, That droupes his sappe-lesse Branches to the ground” and “He droopes his eye”). E. J. Dobson, English Pronunciation, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 2:687 can find no conclusive distinction in pronunciation between “drop” and “droop.” In H5, finally, the compositor (A?) of Folio Henry V sets “dropping” (V.ii.47) which, in F2-F4, is emended to “drooping.” See Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 2:515, for compositor identity here.

  15. Antony, however misguidedly, bases his remark on the equation of the moon with Cynthia and chastity. For background and for “eclipses,” see F. A. Yates, “Queen Elizabeth as Astraea,” Journal of the Warburg Institute 10 (1947): 72-73.

  16. Cf. Bertram complaining (AWW 2.1.30-33) that if he is detained in court and kept from the wars, he will be delayed “till honor be bought up, and no sword worn / But one to dance with.” Cf. Tit. 2.1.38-42.

  17. Although Plutarch details this Athenian request, with Antonius likening himself to Timon of Athens, our skepticism about Antony's inclinations in these philosophical respects may be justified by recalling the traditional view of Athens as a center for sensual self-indulgence. This is the Athens of Shakespeare's Timon where its savior, Alcibiades, has his courtesans. This is also an Athens suggested by the term “Merrygreek” so often punned upon in Shakespeare's Troilus. See also William Goddard, A Satyricall Dialogue (Dort? 1616?: STC 11930) where one of the operating assumptions is that Athenian women are whores (sig. A4, for example).

  18. Whipping was a standard and specific punishment for a “rogue” (i.e., a “valiant, strong, or sturdy beggar and vagabond”) a term embracing all tricksters, from one pretending to be an “Egyptian” or gipsy to any wandering unlicensed loiterer. See William Lambard, Eirenarcha or the Office of the Justices of the Peace (London, 1602), sigs. 2Cv-2C2v; MSS of the … Duke of Rutland (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1888), 1:402. For the motif in drama, see Robert Wilson, Three Ladies of London (London, 1592), sig. Fv ff.; Nobody and Somebody (London, n.d.), sig. C.

  19. As with all slang, it is difficult to reconstitute the nuances of “jack,” but I suggest (1) social climber, (2) a young and impertinent late adolescent and thus, (3) a term which might be used by an older man to describe a youthful competitor. For (1) there is the ubiquity of the phrase “Jack will be a Gentleman” to be found as a gloss on the social complaints of Palingenius, The Zodiake of Life, trans. B. Googe (London, 1576), sig. F5v. H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape-Lore (London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1952), traces the association of “jack” with “ape,” and hence “jack” as an imitation of a “real man.” (2) is illustrated by the comment of Simonides in Middleton's The Old Law (London, 1656), sig. F3v: “Ah sirrah my young boys, I shall be for you, / … You shall find / An alteration, Jack-boys, I have a spirit yet.” Cf. George Wilkins, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (London, 1607), sigs. B3-B3v; Beaumont and Fletcher, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Induction, 1:21; Thomas Dekker, The Shoemaker's Holiday, 3.3.29-32, where the father calls his “peevish girl” an “ape.” See also 2 Return from Parnassus in The Three Parnassus Plays, ed. J. B. Leishman (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1949), ll. 9 and esp. 923. Shakespeare's usage is various, but an important point is ignored in the Henry IV plays if we do not note the nuance of “Jack Falstaff.” Jack Cade is also suggestive. In MWW 3.1.85, Caius pulls motifs together as he threatens Evans to duel: “By gar, you are de coward, de Jack dog, John ape!” Sonnet 128 puns extensively on the meaning of “jack” as harpsichord key and this may parallel Antony's way. “I envy those jacks that nimble leap / To kiss the tender inward of thy hand” and “Since saucy jacks so happy are in this, / Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.”

  20. Cf. Aufidius's use of “boy” to precipitate Coriolanus's rage at the end of the play: “Name not the god [Mars], thou boy of tears.” Whipping may “boy” one in another sense. As Lawrence Stone observes: “Those of gentle birth were flogged like the rest so long as they were children, and between 1500 and 1660 they were also flogged as adolescents …. It was only when a young gentleman went down from the university that he left his adolescence behind him. As a man of birth and breeding he could be assured that from now on he was immune from corporal punishment, an indignity reserved for those of lower social status.” Crisis of the Aristocracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) p. 35.

  21. Case, Arden ed., (4.4.25n.) summarizes arguments about the meaning of “well blown.” There is the flourishing of trumpets, the “blossoming” of the morning, and also, we find in OED, blow v. 13, as “proclaim,” and blown, ppl. a. 11.a4 as “breathed out,” as in Othello's “exsufflicate and blown surmises.” Perhaps Antony's way of saying “That's the way to talk, lads!”

  22. Bernard Beckerman in his exciting discussion of the tragedy does not share my sense of Antony's mood after the second battle. He thinks that the hero “shows none of his former excess of emotion or changeability. It is his follower Scarus who boasts of their success.” See “Past the Size of Dreaming,” written for Antony and Cleopatra: Twentieth Century Views, ed. Marc Rose (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 111.

  23. For Scarus and the scarred soldier as textually the same character, see Barroll, “Scarrus and the Scarred Soldier,” Huntington Library Quarterly 22 (1958): 31-39.

  24. Antony's speech is based on the well-known concept of the kiss as uniting lovers' souls. Antony's version is not without its ironies since the result is that bodies, not souls, must meet. Volpone wanders in the same area when, trying to seduce Celia, he speaks of the amorous shapes in which they can disguise themselves (Europa and the bull, etc.). He concludes: “I will meet thee, in as many shapes: / Where we may so transfuse our wandering souls, / Out at our lips, and score up sums of pleasures” (3.7.233-35). The term “nightingale” is unfortunate, for despite OED's silence, one notes Francischina, the whore, who sings in Marston's Dutch Courtesan (London, 1605), sig. B2v: “The dark is my delight, / So tis the nightingale's. / My music's in the night, / So is the nightingale's. / My body is but little, / So is the nightingale's. / I love to sleep 'gainst prickle, / So doth the nightingale.”

  25. Case (Arden ed.) refers us to LLL 1.2.162 and 3.1.104, for “fast and loose,” where the context is suggested by the latter reference: “To sell a bargain well is as cunning as fast and loose.” Nevertheless all this talk of gypsies, charms, and spells need not be taken as seriously as it often is, for such remarks in the tragedy derive from admirers of Cleopatra, such as Antony and Pompey. And parlance in other Jacobean plays employs “witchcraft” as a slang term for the usual female wiles. “I could be coy, as many women be,” says Jane in Shoemaker's Holiday: “Feede you with sunne-shine smiles, and wanton looks / But I detest witchcraft.” See Thomas Dekker, Dramatic Works ed. F. T. Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 3.4.65 ff. Cf. Ben Jonson's Poetaster (4.9.97 ff.). What may have been intended as elements in some pattern of imagery is, of course, a different consideration, and for general witch terminology see David Kaula, “Othello Possessed,” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 112-32.

  26. In such matters, Plutarch's Cato served as the ideal. After stabbing himself, he is found, and a doctor puts his bowels back into him—“But Cato coming to himself, thrust back the physician and tare his bowels with his own hands and made his wound very great and immediately gave up the ghost” Plutarch (5:178). Justus Lipsius, speaking of Antony's suicide, talks of Antony's “womanish hand” in one contemporary translation: Two Books of Constancy, trans. Sir John Stardling and ed. R. Kirk and C. M. Hall (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1939), p. 168.

  27. For comments on the sequence itself, see David S. Berkeley, “Antony, Cleopatra, and Proculeius,” Notes and Queries 195 (1950): 534-35, whose brief note sees Antony's advice as indeed a crux, and Cynthia Grill, “Antony, Cleopatra, and Proculeius,” Notes and Queries 205 (1960): 191. Grill states that “Antony is utterly incapable of base treachery” and that “his erroneous advice” is “the price he has paid for making his will lord of his reason.” On the other hand, Bertrand Evans argues that Antony intentionally betrayed Cleopatra because “it is inconceivable” that he should not have known Proculeius was untrustworthy: see Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 265-68.

  28. Examples of additive “with”: 1.2.117; 2.10.3; 3.13.164 (“together with”). Causative “with” appears in 1.1.45; 1.2.5, 23, 105; 1.4.26, 47, 50; 1.5.46; 2.1.25; 2.2.24, 63, 127, 141, 178, 210; 2.5.65, 71; 2.6.21, 24; 2.7.43; 3.6.20; 3.10.7; 3.11.44, etc., etc.

  29. Richard Hosley, “The Staging of the Monument Scenes in Antony and Cleopatra,Library Chronicle 30 (1964): 62-71, alludes to the tradition of textual criticism on the matter of the monument, supporting Harrison, Ridley, and Phialas in the reasoning for abolishing an “aloft” scene in 5.2.

  30. See ibid., esp. p. 70. Regarding the lack of stage direction for an entrance of help for Proculeius, Hosley quotes Hinman (2:508) on the problem of the casting off of copy for this page producing the omission of an s.d., but the half-line “Of him that caus'd it” leaves room for a brief entrance-designation, as Hosley observes. There is room, but the s.d. is not there.

  31. See, for instance, Barnabe Barnes, Four Books of Offices (London, 1606), sig. 2A, on the subject of the Romans and “surprisal.” Cf. 1H4, 1.1.93; Mac., 4.2.204, and Tit., passim.


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Antony and Cleopatra

Most likely written between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra relates the struggles of love, passion, and power endured by the two titular characters and is considered by many to be among Shakespeare's finest achievements. Interpretation of the tragedy is often cast in terms of the polar oppositions dramatized in the play, perhaps most notably the conflict between Rome and Egypt, and war and love. What critics and audiences often find so engaging about Antony and Cleopatra is that these polarities remain in opposition throughout, without any one winning primacy by the play's end. Modern critics explore the way these polarities inform political, linguistic, and structural analyses of the play. Another critical approach focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's relation to traditional Renaissance emblems and iconography. The characterization of Antony and Cleopatra continues to be a source of scholarly discussion and debate as well.

While the play's unresolved oppositions contribute to its interest and appeal, such ambiguity makes Antony and Cleopatra difficult to interpret. Maynard Mack (1993) surveys these polarities, identifying some of the conflicts as: Rome versus Egypt; war versus love; nature versus art; austerity versus indulgence; loyalty versus self-interest; and sincerity versus affectation. Paul Yachnin (1991) focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's Rome/Egypt opposition, comparing the play's shift from Egyptian past to Roman future to the transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule that was taking place at the time the play was composed. Taking another approach, Michael Payne (1973) studies the way in which the play's theme of opposition informs the structure of the play. This theme is introduced in Act I by way of the comparison between the Roman desire to set boundaries and the Egyptian cultivation of freedom and ecstasy. Payne goes on to explore the way this opposition is examined in sexual terms and further developed through the remaining acts of the play. In summary, Payne states that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic. Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) finds a dramaturgical analogue to the play's theme of polarity in the relationship between diegesis (narration lacking explanation or judgment) and mimesis (direct imitation or representation). The critic concludes that Egyptian mimesis is victorious over Roman diegesis by the play's end.

Other critics are interested in the influence that Renaissance emblem tradition and iconography had on the play. Christopher Wortham (1995) studies this emblem tradition and its relation to Shakespeare's use of classical mythology, as well as biblical imagery, in order to suggest how Shakespeare's audiences may have responded to Antony and Cleopatra. For example, Antony is repeatedly associated with Mars, the god of war. Mars, Wortham explains, received a negative portrayal from emblem writers, whose values included peaceability, a trait in line with the thinking of the monarch, King James. Similarly, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1994) employs the iconographic approach in analyzing Shakespeare's language and stage imagery in order to offer a Renaissance reading of the play.

The characters of Antony and especially Cleopatra are the focus of many critical analyses of the play. J. Leeds Barroll (1984) argues that Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony is based on Shakespeare's examination of desire, a feature of the play that cannot be reduced to dualistic terms. Cynthia Lewis (1997) maintains that the Christian traditions surrounding Saint Antony of Egypt fueled Shakespeare's presentation of Antony. Understanding this analogue, stresses Lewis, helps to clarify the play's central issues and illuminates the perceptions of other characters in the play. Lewis concludes that like his namesake, Antony appears to trade earthly “glory” for the purity of love, and for his “pardon.” A Christian parallel has also been found to correspond with Cleopatra. Laura Severt King (1992) identifies the prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages as similar to Cleopatra's character, in that like the prostitute-saint, Cleopatra personifies the linking of sexual incontinence and supernatural power. Richard A. Levin (1997) is primarily concerned with discovering when Cleopatra resolves to commit suicide. Levin examines three unresolved problems of the text that highlight the struggle between Caesar and Cleopatra, which help to inform his understanding of Cleopatra's decision to kill herself. Mary Floyd-Wilson (1999) offers a different approach to analyzing Cleopatra. Floyd-Wilson begins by examining the direct correspondence between geography and gender (in which Egypt is associated with femininity and Rome with masculinity). The critic then introduces another layer to this type of examination by studying the way Renaissance climate theory—the notion that climate determines one's complexion, coloration, and temperament—informs the understanding of Cleopatra's character. Emphasizing that the play is largely concerned with regional differences as well as the shifting nature of gender roles, Floyd-Wilson illustrates that Cleopatra's “racial” status, determined by her climate, challenges the traditional, northern ideas about gender: as a woman, she should possess a “soft and impressionable” complexion, yet as an Egyptian, Cleopatra is mysterious and resists interpretation.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘To the Very Heart of Loss’: Renaissance Iconography in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXII, 1994, pp. 220-76.

[In the following essay, Simonds uses the study of Renaissance iconography as a tool to explore Antony and Cleopatra's characterization. Simonds emphasizes the ambivalence with which Antony and Cleopatra are drawn, in that they are portrayed as both extremely human and semi-divine.]

Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes a mortally dangerous “relationship” between two very glamorous international celebrities at a crucial period in the history of western civilization. As personalities, the two lovers both attract and repel not only each other but scholars as well. Thus literary critics have called Antony everything from a romantic “Herculean hero”1 and a noble lover2 to a gluttonous epicurean living only for the pleasures of the flesh.3 In her turn, Cleopatra, admired by most feminist critics,4 has been compared by male scholars to the cunning enchantress Circe, who transforms men into animals; to the Whore of Babylon (from the Book of Revelation) who offers a cup of pleasure to all the kings of the world5; and to the transcendent pagan goddesses Venus and Isis.6 Martin Spevack, in The New Variorum edition of the play,7 surveys all these varying attitudes toward Cleopatra among scholars; while the Egyptian queen's seemingly endless fascination for writers, artists, and movie makers has also resulted in a recent popular study entitled Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.8

The two characters undeniably embody all of the above elements and more, since Shakespeare—unlike Plutarch—has portrayed both Antony and Cleopatra as strangely ambivalent personalities. Janet Adelman points out that “Antony and Cleopatra insists that we take the lovers simultaneously as very mortal characters and as gigantic semidivine figures.”9 The same critic has also taught us to look for the perspectives that the various characters in a play reveal toward one another. In fact, the very concept of dramatic character, she argues, is rather disconcertingly slippery in this particular Shakespearean tragedy (3-7), since “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” (30). Thus, we may find it especially significant that within the text of this particular tragedy we almost immediately find the same ambivalent feelings toward Antony and Cleopatra among the other characters that we have seen among the scholars. Cleopatra, for example, is lavishly praised by Enobarbus but is often called unpleasant names by her lover and other Romans, which suggests that she embodies a certain strange doubleness in her very nature.

In a similar fashion, Antony, much disliked by Plutarch,10 is described in the play by his friends and enemies alike as both heroic and besotted. Octavius Caesar reports that his old friend and ally has fallen into the mold of a hopeless libertine:

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 Ptolomy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
[Vouchsaf'd] to think he had partners. You shall find there
A man who is th' [abstract] of all faults
That all men follow.(11)


But when Caesar wishes Antony back in Rome to fight against Pompey, he warmly commends Antony's bravery and manly endurance as a soldier (see 1.4.56-71). Although Pompey regards Antony as currently no more than an “amorous surfeiter,” he also admits that “His soldiership / is twice the other twain” (2.1.33, 34-35). Pompey further observes with relief that “Mark Antony / In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make / No wars without-doors” (2.1.11-13), a suggestion that prolonged idleness has made the hero too soft to fight again. However, the Roman triumvir then delivers a prophetic curse on Antony, a curse which sums up the story of the hero throughout the remainder of the tragedy:

                                        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 honor,
Even till a Lethe'd dullness—


Similar conflicting observations on Antony's character are made throughout the play by others of various social ranks.

Antony thus emerges as a man deemed previously great but now failing in warlike prowess and courage, though one still believed capable of reform and of a return to political preeminence,12 if he could just make up his mind what he wants. Cleopatra herself compares him to an anamorphic painting with a double image: “Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars” (2.5.116-17), while canny Maecenas observes after Antony's death that “His taints and honors / Wag'd equal with him” (5.1.30-31).

Through colorful visual pageantry13 and one spectacular banquet scene after another onstage, Shakespeare's tragedy dramatizes Antony's fall from heroic virtue to helpless sensuality in Egypt. Moreover, the hero's violent moments, during which he wildly displays uncontrolled jealousy and wrath, soon erode much of our sympathy for this man who can no longer control his passions. For the modern reader or spectator, such an insidious change in a once respected personality suggests the presence of some form of addiction, an illness that is always initially caused by the stimulation of the pleasure center in the brain. Indeed, J. Leeds Barroll has argued persuasively that the hero is seduced by all the forms of fleshly pleasures from Gluttony to Lust, and Frank Kermode has described Antony's obvious addiction to the “lavish banquet of the senses” that Cleopatra has so generously laid out for him in Egypt.14

More recently, Michael Lloyd hints that Antony is addicted rather specifically to games of chance, which are mentioned over and over again in the play, and which increasingly cause him to become a pawn of the fickle goddess Fortuna. She is here not the stable Roman Fortune of Plutarch but mere chance or hazard.15 Since worldly pleasure is actually one of the major gifts of Fortuna to her favorites, Barroll and Kermode's emphasis on the importance of Voluptas or sensory pleasure in the tragedy is surely correct, although it is equally clear through the language of the play that Antony is also fatally addicted to gambling itself, probably because of the initial pleasures associated with the arrival of good fortune. In this he is much like the unhappy nineteenth-century heroes of Dostoyevsky's short novel The Gambler and of Pushkin's story “The Queen of Spades.” Having once achieved good fortune through his own earlier efforts in politics and on the battlefield, Antony now wants to maintain his high position as a world leader through sheer luck rather than through reasonable action. In any case, according to Charles A. Hallett, there are some forty-five uses of the word “fortune” in Antony and Cleopatra.16

The purpose of the present essay is to build on the above mentioned studies, and others like them, in order to arrive at a Renaissance reading of the tragedy. Using the iconographic approach to Shakespeare's words and stage imagery, I shall demonstrate (1) that a fatally addicted Antony and other characters in the play describe Cleopatra herself in terms of the attributes widely associated with the pagan goddess Fortuna; (2) that Antony's foolish trust in Fortune's continuing love for him allows him to be caught like a fish on a hook baited with female sexuality and beauty and then to be sacrificed to her honor and glory; and (3) that although a bereft Cleopatra attempts in the end to immortalize her own brilliant performance of Fortuna in the great theater of the world as a transcendent artistic work of marble statuary, the play does end tragically—if somewhat ambiguously so—for both the lovers. Caesar removes their bodies from the monument built to honor the Egyptian queen for eternity and buries them together, we know not where. In addition, Shakespeare reminds us that once Antony falls from power the Augustan pax romana will be achieved in the Mediterranean world. At this time, the unstable rule of Fortune, a goddess who traditionally entices men and women to evil, will give way to a new temporal era after the Nativity of Christ and to the universal rule of Divine Providence over chance—or so it was believed by most commentators in Shakespeare's time.

To depict here in visual terms the goddess Fortuna and her attributes, I make use primarily of engravings disseminated throughout northern Europe during the Renaissance and of woodcuts from popular emblem books of the period. I see the emblem book as a verbal and visual art form parallel to the drama, although a genre often tending to state meanings directly rather than ambiguously.17 Emblems can, therefore, be very helpful to us in understanding many intellectual and moral traditions of Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, but, of course, emblems were seldom, if ever, used as direct sources by William Shakespeare. They are offered here only as analogues to ideas either dramatized by Shakespeare or expressed by his characters in Antony and Cleopatra. As Adelman argues, “iconography and mythography can provide a context for the play; they can serve to identify those images which the original audience might have felt to be particularly significant and to suggest the range of signification” (100).


To begin with, although Cleopatra as a historical personage and as a literary topos herself cannot literally be Fortuna in the play, the dramatic behavior of Shakespeare's seductive character and the fickle goddess of luck do indeed have much in common. Marilyn Williamson correctly observes that,

Both are wanton, alluring but wavering, changeable women of infinite variety. Both are associated with Isis, with Venus, with a serpent: “He's speaking now, / Or murmuring, ‘Where's my serpent of old Nile?’ / For so he calls me” (1.5.24-26). And Cleopatra treats Antony very much as Fortune does; he believes himself betrayed by her three times—at Actium, with Thidias, and in the final battle of the play.18

Even such invectives as “Triple-turn'd whore” and “false soul of Egypt” (4.12.13, 25) hurled against Cleopatra by her lover are typical of the traditional complaints against the goddess Fortuna voiced by her victims (Williamson, 427). Antony's infatuation with such a dangerous figure in vain hopes of forever retaining her love and her favor gives tragic significance to his subsequent loss of everything—reputation, power, even life itself—in her service.

Renaissance emblems warning against Fortuna as an alluring but exceedingly dangerous mistress were, of course, plentiful. To take just one example, Thomas Combe's The Theater of Fine Devices (1593 and 1614),19 an English adaptation of Guillaume de la Perrière's Théâtre de bons engins (1539), contains an emblem on the topos of Fortune's basic deceit that seems particularly relevant to Antony's personal tragedy. The inscriptio of Combe's emblem 20 states, “They that follow fortunes guiding, / Blindly fall with often sliding.” The pictura shows a winged and blindfolded nude female, who holds out her sail with her right hand to catch the winds and who leads with her left hand a blindfolded bearded man. Even though the man uses a cane, it does not keep him from stepping into a black hole in the ground—meant to represent a ditch—along with his equally blind guide. The emblem implies that Fortune, blind deity of all worldly success, pleasures, and goods, is ultimately a death goddess. Combe's subscriptio reads as follows:

You blinded folkes by Fortune set on hye,
Consider she is darke as well as ye,
And if your guide do want the light of eye,
You needs must fall, it can none other be.
When blind do leade the blind, they both do lye
In ditch, the Prouerbe saith, and we do see:
And those that trust to fortunes turning wheele,
When they feare least, their fall shall soonest feele.(20)

The sources of this emblem include not only Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (bk. 2.1) but also the New Testament, specifically Matthew 15:14: “And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” This double fall into a ditch by both the goddess and her victim sounds much like the stormy love relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's tragedy, as we shall see.

In addition to direct warnings like the above against Fortuna, the fine arts—and in particular, Renaissance emblem books—provide us with visual examples of at least nine very well-known attributes of the goddess Fortuna. These include (1) her two faces of good and bad fortune, (2) her associations with the sea, (3) a sail with a breeze to fill it, (4) a sphere, (5) a ship's rudder, (6) the dolphin, (7) the wheel, (8) wings, and (9) the inconstant moon. It is significant that Shakespeare's characters in Antony and Cleopatra endow the Egyptian queen with all nine of these attributes, suggesting thereby that as high priestess of the Hellenistic goddess Isis-Fortuna, she is in their eyes also the earthly bait of Fortune herself.

First, Cleopatra as a mistress is simultaneously fickle and two-faced, offering both good and bad luck to her followers whenever she pleases. As Lady Philosophy informs Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy,

If you were to wish for a law to control the comings and goings of one whom you have freely taken for your mistress, you would be unjust and your impatience would merely aggravate a condition which you cannot change. If you hoist your sails in the wind, you will go where the wind blows you, not where you choose to go; if you put seeds in the ground, you must be prepared for lean as well as abundant years.21

In Shakespeare's play, Antony is well aware of Cleopatra's deceitfulness, admitting ruefully to Enobarbus that “She is cunning past man's thought” (1.2.145), an observation which implies that she has superhuman powers. Moreover, Cleopatra—often referred to as a “gypsy” since the English word comes from “Egyptian”—tells her attendant Charmian to deceive Antony when she sees him: “If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick” (1.3.3-5). After Antony's final military defeat, she has Mardian falsely inform her lover that she is dead by her own hand, thereby inciting Antony to commit suicide as well. This dishonest or double-faced aspect of Fortuna, which may partially explain our ambivalent critical responses to Cleopatra, is colorfully depicted in an illumination of Fortuna Bifrons … from the French translation of Boccaccio's Fall of Princes, an important literary source of de casibus stories for the Renaissance in general. Anna B. Jameson was clearly pointing to this two-faced nature of the Egyptian queen when she suggested in 1832 that “What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction—its consistent inconsistency” (quoted in Spevack, 691).

Second, Fortuna is associated with the sea, and rightly so, since the ocean traditionally symbolizes mutability or change. In fact, the figure of Fortuna is frequently illustrated as skimming over the waves on a boat, a wheel, a sphere, or a dolphin, and we can usually see a ship or two in the background of typical woodcuts, such as that from Geffrey Whitney's emblem on Occasion in A Choice of Emblemes … As we know, Fortuna and Occasion were often conflated in art and poetry during the Renaissance.22 In Shakespeare's tragedy, Cleopatra first appears to Antony from the waters of the River Cydnus, reclining in state on her barge in a deliberate and alluring imitation of Apelles's famous painting of the Birth of Venus from the sea.23 Moreover, as Adelman states, “Enobarbus associates the sea with chance and hazard: it suggests fortune itself, that realm in which Caesar is necessarily supreme (147).

Shakespeare's dialogue tells us that Cleopatra also indulges in fishing competitions with her lover, once having had a diver place a salt fish (i.e., a dead one) on her lover's hook under water to make him believe he has caught something or has had good luck. But as we shall see, Antony, himself, is the unlucky fish to be caught.24 In addition, she twice tempts Antony, whose strongest forces are on land, to do battle against Octavius at sea where she can easily control the disastrous outcome. Finally, according to Frederick Kiefer, Horace, in his Odes (1.35.6) termed Fortuna “empress of the ocean” (204). We should note that Cleopatra is called “empress” three times in the tragedy, although her actual political rank is no higher than that of queen.

The third attribute of Fortuna is the combination of a sail and a breeze to fill it, as we can see in Gilles Corrozet's image of Occasion … Indeed, as Kiefer points out, “Cicero said of Fortune, ‘When we enjoy her favouring breeze, we are wafted over to the wished for haven; when she blows against us we are dashed to destruction.’ Both Ovid (Ex Ponto, 2.3.21ff) and Seneca (Hercules Oetaeus, ll. 692ff.) liken Fortune to a breeze filling the sails of a ship” (Kiefer, 196). In Antony and Cleopatra, the word “sails” is mentioned six times, four times at very crucial moments in the play. For example, Enobarbus describes Cleopatra's barge as having purple sails (2.2.193) when she goes down river to meet Antony. During the battle of Actium, Cleopatra deserts Antony's ships and, according to Scarus, “The breeze upon her, like a cow in [June]—/ Hoists sails and flies” (3.10.14-15). Scarus continues his account as follows:

                                        She once being loof'd [ready to sail away],
The noble ruin of her magic Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing [sets sail], and (like a doting mallard),
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.


The above report of Antony's foolishness at sea is a good example in the play of the tradition embodied in Combe's previously mentioned emblem on blind Fortune with her sail leading her blind worshipper to disaster. In Shakespeare's play, Canidius then enters to proclaim, “Our fortune on the sea is out of breath, / And sinks most lamentably” (3.10.24-25). Although Plutarch rationalizes Cleopatra's behavior at Actium as a ploy to facilitate her own escape from Octavius Caesar, Shakespeare offers no explanation for her erratic flight. In the very next scene, the queen, although fickle and irrational by nature, rather coyly asks forgiveness from an addicted Antony: “O my lord, my lord, / Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought / You would have followed” (3.11.54-56).

In Antony's second encounter with Caesar by sea, Scarus observes that “Swallows have built / In Cleopatra's sails their nests” (4.12.3-4), an omen hinting that the gods are with her and that this will be a lucky day.25 But, continues Scarus, “The auguries say / They know not, they cannot tell, look grimly, / And dare not speak their knowledge” (4.12.4-6). Since swallows can also symbolize “faire-weather friends,”26 the goddess Fortuna promises here more than she ever plans to deliver. For once again fickle Cleopatra sails away from battle and is then called a “Triple-turn'd whore” (4.12.13) by Antony, who may be referring here to the third or downward turn of Fortune's wheel, the fourth turn bringing defeat and death. This pattern is clearly depicted in an illustration of Fortune contrasted with the very Wisdom (Sapientia) that the hero lacks as a man of action rather than of contemplation. The woodcut … is the title page of Francis Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae (1527). At this point in the tragedy, Antony accepts his military defeat with the words, “Fortune and Antony part here, even here / Do we shake hands” (4.12.19-20), for Cleopatra “Like a right gypsy, hath at fast and loose / Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss” (4.12.28-29).

According to Boethius, such betrayal is precisely in the nature of Fortuna, who cannot act otherwise. Lady Philosophy reproves the grieving prisoner in the Consolatio as follows:

“What is it, my friend, that has thrown you into grief and sorrow? Do you think that you have encountered something new and different? You are wrong if you think that Fortune has changed toward you. This is her nature, the way she always behaves. She is changeable, and so in her relations with you she has merely done what she always does. This is the way she was when she flattered you and led you on with the pleasures of false happiness. You have merely discovered the two-faced nature of this blind goddess. Although she hides herself from others, she is now wholly known to you.”

(bk. 2, prose 1).

“Not know me yet?” (3.13.157) asks Shakespeare's Cleopatra of her doting lover. In Antony and Cleopatra the shifting breeze behind Fortune's billowing sail destroys Antony partly because, having deserted his long-suffering and prudent wife Octavia, he now has no Lady Philosophy nearby to offer him intellectual comfort.

Sometimes in iconography the figure of Fortuna stands on a sphere—her fourth attribute—indicating her habit of constantly turning about, as in the pictura of an emblem by Theodore de Bry. The same picture also depicts her association with Venus through the scallop shell on which her sphere balances and with the presence of a venomous serpent that usually signifies deceit or fraud. … De Bry's motto reads “His Fortvna parens; illis inivsta noverca est” (“To these [on the left side] fortune is a parent; to those [on the right side] a wicked stepmother”), while according to the verse:

Nunc toto saeuit, nunc ridet ab aethere Phoebus,
Hic vehitur vitreis, mergitur alter aquis.
Hinc ostendat opes, hinc fortiter efurit ille:
Quid nisi Rhamnuntis regna fidemque vides?
(Now Phoebus frowns on everything, now he smiles from the heavens;
This man is carried on the waves, another is plunged into the waters.
Here he offers wealth, there extreme hunger.
What see you in this but the rule and faith of Nemesis?)(27)

Fortune's association with a globe also suggests her dominance over worldly affairs of every sort. Since the conflict between Antony and Octavius is in fact concerned very precisely with the question of world dominance, there are some forty-three references to the “world” in Antony and Cleopatra.

As I have previously suggested, Antony loses the worldly card game against Caesar because he is a compulsive gambler in love with fickle Fortuna, who will not always let him win. In contrast, the cooler Octavius almost always intelligently seizes occasion by the forelock, as many scholars have noted, and thus controls his fortunes through the practice of Machiavellian virtú or manliness against the female wiles of the goddess.28 For example, we observe him showing some temperance during the wild bacchic orgy aboard Pompey's ship and later practicing rational generalship in his conduct of the war against Egypt. As John F. Danby observes, however, Octavius also “falls recognizably into Shakespeare's studies of the ‘politician’—the series that begins with Richard III and continues down through Edmund.”29 In any event, for an alert Caesar, Fortuna acts as a sturdy mast, allowing him to trim or hoist the sail at will. Exactly this image of Augustus Caesar together with Fortuna appears in an etching by Rembrandt that was used as an illustration in E. Herckmans' Praise of Sea-faring.30 I suspect that Shakespeare gave us a fairly positive—if Machiavellian—portrait of Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra because the propaganda machine of his king and patron, James I of England, was at that time identifying James with Augustus Caesar, Prince of Peace.31

Symbol 23 by Achille Bocchi represents bad Fortune with one hand holding her sail and with the other controlling her fifth attribute, the rudder …, while good Fortune holds up a cornucopia of flowers and vegetables. Although the motto is “Avrea sors regvm est, et velle, et posse beare” (“The king's fortune is golden, and it wishes to and is able to benefit us”), both the picture and verse of emblem 23—dedicated to Henry, King of France—actually emphasize the double nature of fortune. According to the verse,

Augustis olim in thalamis fortuna solebat
          Peni ab Romuleis aurea Principibus,
Nempe id magnanimos Reges insigne monebat,
          Omni vt deberent, at cuperent studio
Fortunare homines, nam ceca, volubilis ille est
          Vulgaris, passim que fauet immeritis.
Verum oculata ipsa, et stabilis, que sceptra gubernat
          Regia cui clauum copia diua tenet.
Ergo si regum fortuna est aurea multos
          Pro meritis posse, et velle beare homines,
Haec Henrice eadem digno tibi Lilia sert
          Aurea qui nostra haec florida secla beas.

(Once, golden fortune used to dwell in the majestic chambers of the Roman emperors. Surely this figure reminded the magnanimous kings that they were obliged and desired assiduously to benefit men. For she is blind and fickle, everywhere favoring the underserving. But the other is sighted and stable, she who governs royal powers, the goddess of plenty who holds the helm. Hence if the king's fortune is golden, it can and wishes to bless many men for their merits. These golden lilies [fleurs de lys] are rightfully yours, Henry, who bless these our prosperous times.)32

Of course the people of a nation do tend to share at least the bad fortunes of their kings, if not always the good, and we can see in Shakespeare's play how Antony's descending fortunes adversely affect his followers. After the desertion of Enobarbus, a much chastened Antony cries out in guilty despair, “O, my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men!” (4.5.16-17).

Shakespeare uses the word “rudder” twice in Antony and Cleopatra. During the battle at sea, Enobarbus reports that “Th' Antoniad [Cleopatra's flagship], the Egyptian admiral, / With their sixty, fly and turn the rudder. To see't mine eyes are blasted” (3.10.2-4; my emphasis). After losing the sea battle through this shift in his fortunes, Antony berates Cleopatra as follows: “Egypt, thou knew'st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings, / And thou shouldst [tow] me after” (3.11.56-58; my emphasis).

A sixth attribute of Fortuna is the dolphin, a sea mammal usually associated with the goddess Venus.33 Since Nonnus had claimed in his Dionysiaca that a dolphin carried Venus on its back to her new home in Cyprus (13.438-44), an unlaced Venus in a red gown sits on a marvelous dolphin throne in a Renaissance painting by Cosimo Tura now in the National Gallery, London. … She provocatively holds a branch of cherries in her right hand. Nevertheless, the casual iconographic conflation of Venus and Fortuna during the Renaissance is a well-known phenomenon and clearly occurs in Antony and Cleopatra (Kiefer, 158-92).

Although in Shakespeare's play the heroine is at first a representative of Venus, whom she “o'er-pictures” with visual hyperbole as extravagant as her language, she later behaves more and more obviously like the goddess Fortuna during the final acts of the tragedy. Yet Fortune must be as attractive as Venus is to men, or who would follow her? Since the fickle goddess is often depicted by artists in the company of Eros, the little love god himself, we should not be surprised by the presence of the squire named Eros in Antony and Cleopatra (4.4), especially during the charming scene concerned with arming Antony for battle. At this time Cleopatra and Eros work together as armorers, while Antony boasts fatuously, “If Fortune be not ours to-day, it is / Because we brave her” (4.4.4-5). The truth, of course, is just the opposite, since Antony entirely trusts Fortune and never braves her until after she has deserted him. We should also be aware that the image onstage of Cleopatra and Eros arming Antony is a direct inversion of the popular Renaissance topos of Venus and Cupid disarming Mars, thus providing us with a good reason not to accept the critical interpretation that argues for a transcendent love affair like that of Venus and Mars between Antony and Cleopatra.34 On the contrary, Shakespeare demonstrates in this play that universal peace cannot occur until both Antony and Cleopatra have met their tragic ends and Octavius Caesar is in full control of the Roman empire.

Emblem 41 in Gilles Corrozet's Hecatomgraphie (1543) illustrates Fortuna riding the waves with one foot on a sphere and the other on a dolphin. …. Henry Green translates Corrozet's epigrammatic dialogue, which discusses the nature of the goddess in general and sums up her many attributes, as follows:

Tell me, O fortune, for what end thou art holding the broken mast wherewith thou supportest thyself? And why also is it that thou art painted upon the sea, encircled with so long a veil? Tell me too why under thy feet are the ball and the dolphin?

It is to show my instability, and that in me there is no security. Thou seest the mast broken all across,—this veil also puffed out by various winds,—beneath one foot, the dolphin amid the waves; below the other foot, the round unstable ball—I am thus on the sea at a venture. He who has made my portraiture wishes no other thing to be understood than this, that distrust is enclosed beneath me and that I am uncertain of reaching a safe haven—near am I to danger, from safety ever distant; in perplexity whether to weep or to laugh,—doubtful of good or of evil, as the ship which is upon the seas tossed by the waves, is doubtful in itself where it will be borne. This then is what you see in my true image, hither and thither turned without security.34

In Shakespeare's tragedy, Cleopatra admiringly remarks of Antony that “his delights were dolphin-like” (5.2.88-89), thereby alluding to his uncontrollable lust36 and his own trait of inconstancy, which rivals that of Cleopatra herself. In any case, through the lovers' symbiotic relationship, the dolphin becomes an attribute in the play of both leading characters.

As I have pointed out earlier, Fortune and Amor (Eros) were often close companions in Renaissance literature and art. For example, an engraving by Johann Ladenspelder depicts Venus-Fortuna riding with her sphere on a triumphal car and directing a winged Cupid at whom to shoot his arrow … Indeed, according to Kiefer, Italian and French novellas of the period often linked Fortune with a personification of Love, and sometimes with Death as well. “As a result, the [English] dramatists usually treat Fortune not in isolation but in relation to Love and Death” (Kiefer, 158). The same is certainly true in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, where the two leading characters are almost drowning in their physical love for each other but embrace only death in the end.

A seventh major attribute of Fortuna is the familiar wheel, as depicted in Hans Sebald Beham's 1541 engraving of Fortuna, who holds the palm of victory in her right hand the wheel in her left hand. … Cleopatra herself mentions the wheel in Shakespeare's tragedy. When Antony is dying in her monument, she hyperbolically exclaims, instead of comforting him, “let me rail so high / That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel, / Provok'd by my offense” (4.15.43-45). It would seem that we are now hearing a hypocritical priestess of Fortuna rail against her own chosen deity at this moment, since she herself is directly responsible for Antony's pitiful condition.

Wings are an eighth attribute of the fickle goddess. We see her winged in Beham's engraving and also in Albrecht Dürer's more famous engraving of a winged Fortuna, who stands on a sphere hovering over the world she rules. … With her right hand she offers a goblet of wine like Circe's cup (a major temptation for Dionysian Antony), but in her left hand she holds the bridle of Nemesis to indicate that her worshippers must ultimately pay for whatever they receive from her in the world. This aspect of retribution on the part of Fortuna/Nemesis (see Kiefer, 31-41) is surely a major theme in Shakespeare's tragedy. In Antony and Cleopatra, the heroine thinks of herself as having wings when she tells Proculeius that she will not become a captive of Octavius: “Know, sir, that I / Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court” (5.2.52-53; my emphasis), obviously meaning that she will not submit to having her wings clipped by Octavius.

Gabriel Rollenhagen's Fortuna, reproduced by George Wither …, is also a moon goddess and as changeable as her ninth attribute, the moon, with which Cleopatra is so often compared in the play. The circular motto is “Fortuna ut Luna” (“Fortune is like the moon”). The goddess holds a waning moon in her left hand as a symbol of where her gifts will finally lead and to remind us that, since the moon goddess controls the ocean tides, she controls as well all the significant occasions in the life of man. Of course, Antony finally recognizes that the moon of Fortuna is in fact his most deadly enemy when he laments, “Alack, our terrene moon / Is now eclips'd, and it portends alone / The fall of Antony!” (3.13.153-54). It is also significant that Antony refers here to a “fall,” a word that often alludes to the fall from Fortune's downward turning wheel as well as to the fate of the hero in a tragedy after he has been guilty of hamartia (faulty judgment) through hubris (pride) in the eyes of the gods. Antony has clearly been both foolish and arrogant during most of the play.

Because Shakespeare's characters endow Cleopatra with these nine attributes of Fortuna in the play, the playwright seems to be manipulating our responses toward his heroine and making her not so ambiguous after all. We are to see her in this play as attractive but very untrustworthy. Furthermore, the association of Cleopatra with Fortuna by other characters encourages us to reject a romantic view of the lovers and to believe instead that Antony is really in love with the element of chance in the universe. In fact he does behave more in the manner of an irrational gambler—despite his often “wounded chance” (3.10.35)—than like a wise general and statesman or “the triple pillar of the world,” especially when he insists on engaging Octavius' forces at sea, against the advice of his officers.

In contrast, Octavius is proud of his Machiavellian ability to remain calm under stress and to seize Occasion's forelock at exactly the right moment. On the battlefield he orders his army to

Strike not by land, keep whole, provoke not battle
Till we have done at sea. Do not exceed
The prescript of this scroll. Our fortune lies
Upon this jump.


Enobarbus comments on the difference between the two men, when Antony rashly challenges his younger rival to settle their differences by a duel or a trial by combat:

                                                                      I see men's judgments are
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them,
To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness. Caesar, thou has subdu'd
His judgment too.


And, shortly before his death, a characteristically jealous and wrathful Antony informs Eros that Cleopatra “has pack'd cards with Caesar's, and false-play'd my glory / Unto an enemy's triumph” (4.14.18-20).


Yet Antony has willfully chosen his own bad fortune by allying himself with Cleopatra, who hooks him with love as though he were a game fish and even changes his personality from that of an honest soldier to that of someone much like herself. Once addicted to her, Antony becomes as false to others as Cleopatra is to him and a compulsive liar. When Caesar offers him the hand of his sister Octavia in marriage in order to forge a family bond between them, Antony quickly disclaims Cleopatra as an impediment: “May I never / (To this good purpose, that so fairly shows) / Dream of impediment!” (2.2.143-45). Next he promises Octavia to reform himself: “My Octavia, / Read not my blemishes in the world's report. / I have not kept my square, but that to come / Shall be done by the rule”(2.3.4-7).37 Then in 3.2 he once again swears to Caesar that he will cherish Octavia, but Enobarbus knows better:

He will to his Egyptian dish again: then shall the sighs of Octavia blow the fire up in Caesar, and (as I said before) that which is the strength of their amity shall prove the immediate author of their variance. Antony will use his affection where it is; he married but his occasion here.


A true addiction is, of course, a passionate affair of the heart that is almost impossible to resist, although Pompey wisely observes, just before he himself falls off Fortune's wheel, that “I know not / What counts harsh Fortune casts upon my face, / But in my bosom shall she never come, / To make my heart her vassal” (2.6.53-56).

Antony, in contrast, allows Cleopatra to take any liberties with him that she desires. She boasts that “Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed, / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (2.5.21-23). This allusion to the affair between Hercules and Omphale draws upon a popular Renaissance satirical topos to signify the emasculation of a military hero by love. When Lukas Cranach the Elder painted a version of the story in 1537, for example, he mischievously included two dead birds in the upper left corner of the panel to represent the sexual orgasms of the lovers. This oil painting … is actually an emblem, since Cranach included a Latin epigram over the head of the bearded Hercules, who is now dressed comically as a woman by Omphale and her ladies:

HERCULEIS manibus dant Lydae pensa puellae
Imperium dominae fert deus ille suae.
Sic capit ingentis animos damnosa voluptas
Fortiaque enervat pectora mollis amor.
(The Lydian girls give tasks to the hands of Hercules;
He submits to the rule of his mistresses.
Thus ruinous sensuality enslaves the will of the great one,
And passion weakens the strong heart by its effeminacy.)(38)

The same topos appears in Henry Peacham's English emblem book Minerva Britanna (1612) with a woodcut depicting Hercules dressed as a woman and spinning thread …. According to the epigram,

Alcides heere, hath throwne his Clubbe away,
And weares a Mantle, for his Lions skinne,
Thus better liking for to passe the day,
With Omphale, and with her maides to spinne,
          To card, to reele, and doe such daily taske,
          What ere it pleased, Omphale to aske.
That all his conquests wonne him not such Fame,
For which as god, the world did him adore,
As Loues affection, did disgrace and shame
His virtues partes. How many are there more,
          Who hauing Honor, and a worthy name,
          By actions base, and lewdnes loose the same.(39)

Yet at another time in his life, Hercules heroically chose virtue over pleasure and became a demigod.

In contrast to his ancestor and patron deity Hercules, Mark Antony, as a number of critics have remarked,40 chooses Voluptas over Virtue, and he is quite aware of the dangers implicit in his choice. As early as act 1, scene 2, he admits that “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (lines 116-17). When Antony is unable to free himself from the excitement of “chance and hazard” (3.7.47), however, the demigod Hercules ascends mysteriously to the sound of music and leaves him to his self-chosen catastrophe. Although in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, another more powerful god—Jupiter—descends to save a hero who has reformed, in Antony and Cleopatra Fortuna so completely overcomes the hero's reason that he willingly sacrifices himself upon her altar, running to his death like a bridegroom to his marriage bed, as he himself proclaims, and his patron god abandons him.

In any case, the wise and always diplomatic Octavia, an excellent lady (who is maligned in the play only by a messenger in mortal terror of Cleopatra), might well have saved Antony if he had remained with her. As Danby observes, “Octavia is the opposite of Cleopatra as Antony is the opposite of Caesar.”41 She seems to play the role of Wisdom or Sapientia in antithesis to Cleopatra's apparent miming of Fortuna, and Thidias comments in act 3 that, “Wisdom and fortune combating together, / If that the former dare but what it can, / No chance may shake it” (13.79-81). Moreover, as Boethius discovered in prison, Lady Philosophy alone prepares men and women to overcome Fortune by teaching them through wisdom to control their passions. But Antony tries only half-heartedly to love his wife. Octavia, in turn, is given no specific attributes of Sapientia by the playwright, except the evidence of her calm, thoughtful behavior and the ironic praise of Maecenas: “If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle / the heart of Antony, Octavia is / A blessed lottery to him”(2.2.240-43).

Nonetheless, when the Egyptian Soothsayer, a representative of Fortuna, informs Antony that in politics Caesar has more “natural luck” than he does and will beat him at every game in Rome, Antony agrees. He then decides to return immediately to his exotic banquet of the senses in Egypt:

                                                                                The very dice obey him,
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance. If we draw lots, he speeds;
His cocks do win the battle still of mine,
When it is all to nought; and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhoop'd at odds. I will to Egypt;
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I' th' East my pleasure lies.


And back he goes posthaste to Cleopatra-Fortuna, the source of all his physical and psychological pleasures.

The thematic significance for a Renaissance audience of Antony's decision to leave Octavia behind in Rome can perhaps best be understood by examining emblem 51 in the 1593 Emblematum Liber by Jacob Boissard. … Under the motto “Expers Fortvna est Sapientia” (Wisdom has no part in Fortune”), we see Sapientia reading a book on dry land, accompanied by all her traditional attributes (from the owl to an armillary sphere), while a nude Fortuna sails heedlessly on down the river with her wine jars and her treasure chest aboard. According to the epigram,

Fortuna dubia haud vehitur sapientia cymba;
          Nec vanis fulta est indiga divitiis.
Sed cura vigili et studio solerte parata,
          In varia rerum cognitione seder.
(Wisdom by no means sails in doubtful fortune's boat;
          Nor does it need the support of vain riches.
But prepared by watchful care and skillful devotion,
          It stands firm in the knowledge of the mutability of things.)(42)

Perhaps better known to students of English drama is the emblematic title page of Robert Record's The Castle of Knowledge also depicting the fundamental opposition between Sapientia and Fortuna. … On the left of a central castle, the figure of Urania (Heavenly Wisdom), holding “The Sphere of Destiny” (an armillary sphere symbolizing Divine Providence) and a pair of compasses (human rationality), stands under the sun of reason on a cube representing stability. On the right hand side of the picture, blind Fortune teeters on her unstable sphere, while holding the bridle of Nemesis in her left hand and the Wheel of Fortune—“whose ruler is ignorance”—in her right hand. The irrational moon shines down upon her. According to the verse,

Though spitefull Fortune turned her wheele
          To staye the Sphere of Vranye,
Yet doth this Sphere resist that wheele,
          And fleeyth all fortunes villanye.
Though earthe do honor Fortunes balle,
          And bytells blynde hyr wheele aduaunce,
The heauens to fortuen are not thralle,
          These Spheres surmount al fortunes chance.(43)

Part of Antony's bad fortune is that Gluttony and riotous sexuality have already so marred his reason that he is now fortune's fool, despite such native virtues as courage and magnaminity. We should remember, after all, that in early modern England, passionate love itself was considered to be a type of insanity by writers such as Robert Burton. Unwilling to bridle his passions, Antony is ready to be transformed into a beast by act 4 and to be sacrificed to the goddess he has chosen to serve.

In 2.5, Cleopatra compares Antony to a fish (an ancient symbol of the male sex organ), then admits that she is a whore by profession, or one of those women “that trade in love” (2.5.2) and are the bait of pleasure for unwary men (Adelman, 60). She thus requires mood music as food to accompany her sport while fishing for her lover.

Give me mine angle, we'll to th' river; there,
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny [-finn'd] fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say, “Ah, ha! y' are caught.


According to Paul F. Watson, fishing and hunting imagery of this sort derives from Ovid's The Art of Love 1:43-50, and when

Boccaccio concludes his influential epic the Teseida, he slyly sings of the amorous font where only rarely does one become a good fisherman with profit. Explaining that the vagina is the font, the gloss continues: “Because of too much fishing in the amorous font there are those who get skinned by it.”44

The sexual implications of fish continued to be playfully used by artists throughout the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century in Dutch genre painting, as we can see by the London National Gallery's “A Woman with a Fish Pedlar in a Kitchen” … painted in 1713 by Willem van Mieris. Here the rabbits are traditional fertility symbols; the fish are allusions to the phallus; the dead birds45 are as salacious in meaning as the hunting cat at the bottom of the painting; and the unlikely bas relief beneath the shop window depicting the sea nymph Galatea about to mount a lusty dolphin, which has been bridled by amorini for her Triumph, has nothing whatsoever to do with chastity. Even the wind instruments played by the tritons and a putto on the bas relief are symbolic of sensory pleasures.46

Clifford Davidson notes that a fish is also associated with idleness or the figure of Sloth in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia. He quotes from Ripa that “Fish, it was believed, when touched by a net or by hands become so stupified that they cannot escape. Idleness affects the idle in the same way; they cannot do anything.”47

When Cleopatra asks Enobarbus if she is to blame for losing the battle at sea, Enobarbus sensibly replies, “Antony only, that would make his will / Lord of his Reason” (3.13.2-4), for as Aristotle teaches, only our rationality makes us different from the animals. Even Antony himself finally becomes aware of his descent into bestiality by the third act when he rails at Cleopatra, condemns Thidias to be beaten, and wishes “that I were / Upon the hill of Basan, to outroar / The horned herd!” (3.13.126-28). The Riverside Shakespeare annotates this line (deriving from Psalm 22) as a reference to Antony's cuckolding by Cleopatra, but no mistress can cuckold her lover. Only a lawful wife like Octavia can give her husband horns in the eyes of society. On the other hand, Antony is decidedly bullish or beastly at this moment in the play, roaring with impotent fury and jealousy, which indicates that he is under the control of bestial passions. Later in Shakespeare's tragedy, Cleopatra sees Antony as a wild bird or game animal to be snared. As his true captor, she rather sarcastically greets him after battle: “Lord of lords! / O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from / The world's great snare uncaught?” (4.8.16-18). Antony is by now sufficiently dehumanized to become a sacrificial offering to the goddess Fortuna whom he worships so passionately.

As John Holloway has argued, all of Shakespeare's major tragedies include an artistically embedded human sacrifice to some deity or other:

the tragic protagonist in these plays is one who has moved from a position at the centre of well-ordered human life, to a position in which he is alien to that, in essence opposed to it, allied to what is enemy to it. Parallel with this, the protagonist passes through an ordeal of suffering which brings him from prosperity to death, but it is not death seen merely as one of the fortuitous hazards of life; it is seen from the start as the proper, and over the course of time as becoming almost the chosen, end of life lived as the protagonist has lived it.48

In comparison to Shakespeare's Antony, Sophocles' tragic hero Oedipus is described by the Chorus as a hunted animal hiding away in forests and caves from his pursuers but ultimately destined to become a human sacrifice to Dionysus or Bacchus, the Greek god of irrationality, whose ritual dance Antony leads aboard Pompey's ship in 2.7, and whose name he often assumed while drinking.

Renaissance art also takes note of man's descent to the bestial through the machinations of Fortuna. For example, Achille Bocchi has an interesting emblem on Fortuna's deliberate transformation into a beast or monster of another famous warrior, Alexander the Great. The motto of symbol 66 reads “Bellva fit caesae statvit qvi credere sorti” (“He becomes a beast who has decided to trust to blind fate”). The engraving depicts a winged Fortuna with her sail filled with wind. … As she steps out of her motorized scallop shell (associating her with Venus), Fortuna replaces the kneeling Alexander's helmeted but severed head with the tripartite head of a monster. Under a second motto stating “Qvam stvlta sit svperbia” (“How Foolish is Pride”), the epigram reads

Caeca vni Fortuna sibi quos credere adegit,
Magna ex parte auidos decorus magis atque capaces
Efficit, hinc olim iussit se, non modo passus
Dicier Aemathius ivvenis magno Ioue natum.
Dumque cupit tali gestorum extendere famam
Nomine: corrumpit potius, six protinus ipsi
Fortunae totum quise permiserit vltro,
Vero hominis regno spoliat se prorsus, et ingens
Bellua fit capitum multorum, luminis expers.

(Those whom she has impelled to trust to her alone, blind Fortune for the most part makes more greedy for honor than they have a right to: hence in olden times she ordered herself; not only the Macedonian youth born from great Jove suffered. When he desired to extend the fame of his deeds under her name she destroyed him instead: That is what happens to one who continually entrusts himself to Fortune of his own accord. Truthfully in the realm of man she ruins him utterly, and he becomes a many-headed monster, deprived of light.)49

The point here is the same as that in Francisco Goya's famous etching of a nightmare: “Los Caprichos” or “The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters.” Having failed to control his animal passions through his reason, Antony, like Alexander, finally descends to the level of a beast.

When Antony believes in act 4, scene 14, that he has lost the war and that Cleopatra has committed suicide in order to avoid capture by the Romans, he tries to kill himself by running on his sword, as Brutus had done successfully before him in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. We should note here that emblem 44 … in the 1534 edition of Andrea Alciati's Emblemata suggests that suicide is always in the cards for the worshippers of Fortune. Alciati's inscriptio introduces the topos as “Fortuna virtutem superans” (“Fortune overcoming virtue”). The pictura shows Brutus running on his sword, while the subscriptio reads as follows:

After he was overcome by Octavian's army, he saw
          Pharsalia flowing with the blood of citizens.
Just as he was about to unsheathe his sword
          against his dying heart,
Brutus with audacious mouth
          uttered these words:
Miserable Virtue, caring only for words,
why do you follow Fortune as the
          mistress in events?(50)

Geffrey Whitney's emblem 70 is an adaptation of the same notion. However, Brutus at least achieves his goal of being a Roman who vanquishes himself, while Antony—also overcome by Fortuna—botches even his own suicide. He is then carried mortally wounded to Cleopatra's mausoleum, a symbolic stronghold that she fears to leave since she is determined not to be taken prisoner by Octavius. “Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes / And still conclusion, shall acquire no honor / Demuring upon me” (4.15.27-29), she assures the dying Antony.

During the incredible stage emblem that follows, the Egyptian queen and her women draw Antony—like a huge fish—up to the second level of the monument. In fact, a fish net might be the most appropriate means for achieving this feat onstage,51 since Cleopatra speaks irreverently of her final taking of Antony as a sporting event: “Here's sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord!” (4.15.32). Another Alciati emblem (number 75 in the 1621 edition) describes something rather like this grotesque situation. Under the motto “In amatores meretricum” (“On lovers of harlots”), the woodcut depicts a fisherman wearing a female goatskin disguise and pulling ashore a large bream he has just netted. … We should remember, of course, that goatskins were associated both with sexuality and with Greek tragedy itself. According to Alciati's subscriptio in translation,

The fisherman, having donned the skin of a shaggy she-goat, has added a pair of horns to his own head;
and standing on the edge of the shore he deceives the amorous bream, whose passion for the snub-nosed flock [of goats] drives it into the nets.
The she-goat brings to mind the harlot; the bream resembles the lover, who, poor wretch, caught by an indecent love, perishes.(52)

Antony, caught helplessly in two-faced Fortune's net, also perishes like the amorous bream. But Cleopatra then reminds the audience that the winning general, Octavius Caesar, is no better than the man he has defeated in battle with the help of Fortuna: “'Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will” (5.2.2-4). However, a few minutes later, she ironically orders Proculeius to “tell him / I am his fortune's vassal, and I send him / The greatness he has got” (5.2.27-29).

In terms of sacred history, the Roman goddess Fortuna is about to give way to the rule of Divine Providence at this point in political history. Octavius Caesar announces that “The time of universal peace is near” (4.6.4.), an allusion to the Augustan peace or the pax romana necessary for Christ's Nativity to occur in Bethlehem. From then on the notion of Fortune tends to be transformed philosophically into the notion of Providence as the ruler of human lives. Referring to this important theological change, a few copies of Whitney's 1586 Choice of Emblemes contain the emblem “Fato, non fortuna” (“Fate, not fortune”), which has the following verse:

The varying dame, that turnes the tottering wheele,
To whome the worlde hathe longe ascribed power,
To lifte men vp, where they all pleasures feele,
To throwe them doune, where all their sweete is sower:
Whose worshippes longe in euerie coaste weare rife,
Euen as the guide, and goddesse of this life.
Yet here, behoulde her diêtie is dash'de,
And shee subdu'de, and captiue vnto man:
And nowe, all those that seru'd her bee abash'de;
And doe confesse that FORTVNE nothinge can:
But onelie GOD defendes the mighties seates:
And houldes them vp, in spite of Enuies threates.(53)

Whitney's woodcut … shows a courtier or lover with his left hand displaying the laurel branch of victory and his right hand grasping the hand of God, who stabilizes him at the top of the wheel. The courtier's feet rest on the back of a fallen blind Fortune, who is defeated at last by human faith in the superior power of the Judeo-Christian deity. Fortune's wheel can turn no more, or so certain Protestant theologians believed. As Kiefer explains, “Although most Christians tolerated Fortune as a somewhat ambiguous presence within the culture of the late Middle Ages, thinkers of the Protestant Reformation generally did not. In their attitude they resemble the Church Father who so often inspires their writings—Augustine. And, like him, they adopt an antagonistic attitude toward Fortune” (16-17). By having Octavius mention the approaching pax romana, Shakespeare seems to agree in this play that Divine Providence will soon become the new ruler of the world after the military defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by the Romans.


The entire last act of the tragedy is now given over to Cleopatra's attempts to deify her dead lover and herself, with rather ambiguous results. Her poetic eulogy of the dead Antony in the famous dream speech beginning “His face was as the heav'ns” (5.2.79) is, of course, typical of the hyperbole of tragic endings in the theater. There is also very probably a blasphemous allusion by the Egyptian queen here to the angel of the Book of Revelation as having been her lover.54 Yet the audience knows, after all, that Antony was no heavenly angel, and Dolabella quickly assures Cleopatra that no such wondrous human ever existed. Nevertheless, Helen Morris has shown real likenesses between the eulogy and Albrecht Dürer's illustration for Revelation 10:1-6,55 with interesting implications for the underlying Christian meaning of the tragedy. Most commentators believe, however, that Cleopatra is comparing her victim here (“His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm / Crested the world”) to the Colossus of Rhodes, which as a lost monument of antiquity had become a symbol for the Renaissance of Time's decay of monuments (we might call it today the “Ozymandias” topos) in contrast to the art of literature, which was supposed to live on in human memory. In fact, Shakespeare himself made use of this topos in Sonnet 55, where he claims that “Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powr'ful rhyme.” The poet's suggestion that, unlike poetry, marble itself is inconstant ought to be kept in mind when we later consider arguments that Cleopatra is the artistic creator of her own funeral monument through which she achieves immortality.

Peacham's emblem on the topos illustrates the Colossus bestriding the harbor but also holding what Antony clearly lacks: a book and the lamp of knowledge. … According to the verse,

The Monuments that mightie Monarches reare,
COLOSSO'S statues, and Pyramids high,
In tract of time, doe moulder downe and weare,
Ne leaue they any little memorie,
          The Passenger may warned be to say,
          They had their being here, another day.
But wise wordes taught, in numbers sweete to runne,
Preserued by the liuing Muse for aie,
Shall still abide, when date of these is done,
Nor ever shall by Time be worne away:
          Time, Tyrants, Envie, World assay thy worst,
          Ere HOMER die, thou shalt be fired first.(56)

Ironically, Cleopatra's horror of being played hereafter onstage by a squeaking boy actor is evidently mistaken. The many poetic dramatizations of Antony and Cleopatra will actually bring the couple far more fame in the future than either her exaggerated comparison of Antony to an angelic Colossus or her own now vanished funeral monument.

For her death scene, Cleopatra assumes the role and one of the costumes [Vincenzo Cartari depicts two] of the moon goddess Isis-Fortuna … whose earthly representative she most certainly is as queen of Egypt. According to Thomas Allan Brady, in antiquity Isisi was both a civic deity and the goddess worshipped by an important hellenistic mystery cult:

Not only are the statues and monuments of her worship found in all parts of the Roman Empire and her symbols quite commonly used on rings, gems, pins, and other jewelry, but many grave reliefs and tombs show representations of her symbols, particularly the sistrum and the situla. The deceased, if a woman, was frequently portrayed on the funeral monument in the costume characteristic of the deity.57

Thus John Bowers's argument that Cleopatra consciously attempts by her staged death to transform herself into a decorative funerary statue of marble within her own carefully designed memorial monument is historically very probable. On the Jacobean stage, the monument itself “would have been anachronistically transposed into the sort of native monument whose examples crowded the cathedrals and adorned almost every parish church in England. These were the ornate chantry-chapels which were erected around the actual tombs during the period following the first outbreak of the plague in the fourteenth century.”58 Such chantry-chapels were fortified and could provide sanctuary. Some even had two stories, such as the famous tomb-chapel of Henry V (ca. 1440) that “ushered in a new style by adding a second story as a gallery front.”59

It seems, moreover, that there were actually two versions of the goddess Isis during the Roman period—the terrestrial and the celestial—as was also true of Venus in Platonic philosophy. Indeed Celestial Isis was discovered by Lucius in The Golden Ass by Apuleius to be stronger than ordinary Fortune, “whose threads she unravels.”60 The priest who initiates Lucius, after he has been transformed from an ass back into a man, tells him

to consider himself as rescued from the sway of Fortuna, that supposedly all-powerful goddess; or, in an alternative formulation of the priest, as having passed from the blind Fortuna into the protection of a Fortuna who is not only herself seeing but the source of light and vision (= knowledge?) for the other divinities.

(Solmsen, 95)

As far as Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is concerned, however, the audience will have to decide for itself whether or not to believe in the validity of Cleopatra's ceremonial transformation from Terrestrial Isis (earth and water) into Celestial Isis (fire and air). Only the latter could provide a foolish and lascivious Antony with immortality.

It so happens that Bocchi published an interesting emblem flattering Alexander Farnese on just such an Isis. It is symbol 63 entitled “The Famous Fortune of Alexander Farnese the Lesser (but also the Greatest).” The picture actually illustrates two Fortunas dressed as Roman matrons and holding both the cornucopia and the rudder. … The verse reads in translation,

What goddess? Fortune the preserver she is, best born of the highest father, the world has nothing more certain. That structure [astrifer] set on top of her head is the sign of divine power. Why is her hair collected in a roll around her head? Obviously he who is discerning will capture this by his own judgment. As measure and modesty set bounds to idle luxury, so here is an image of a maiden with an ominous thread. With forceful aspect and sharp features, not submissive nor terrible, but rather reverend, propitious to the good, ferocious to the bad, upright, severe, chaste, grave, truthful, intense, great, potent. Surveying all mortal things with her eyes, she rules over land by foot and over sea by her rudder. For she directs generals in war and statesmen in peace. In her presence, no power can be lacking. She is the support of kingdoms, the knowledge of divine law; you call her august, Eunomia, Nemesis. She herself is the rich abundance of the wealthy: see how she displays the fruitful horn with her nearer hand. She gives peace and joy to the soul after the hard struggles of life, and she saves the faithful from eternal death. And finally in the magnanimous heroic Farnese springs up this thrice-great virtue, glory, and justice.61

Celestial Isis does insist, on the other hand, that “measure and modesty” should “set bounds to idle luxury,” and neither Antony nor the human Cleopatra has demonstrated either measure or modesty in Shakespeare's tragedy.

The Egyptian queen does actually claim to renounce the changing moon of Terrestrial Fortuna, when she states that “now from head to foot / I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine” (5.2.240-41). Is this merely wishful thinking on her part? In any case, Shakespeare seems to imply here for some scholars, including Adelman (155), that with her demise, Cleopatra is in fact metamorphosed into a marble statue of the goddess Isis. Marilyn Williamson states that in the final scene of the play “Cleopatra rises to the occasion: as a creature of the imagination, she sees Caesar's intention [to include her in his triumph] as a threat to the very center of her existence, and she creates in the ritual of her suicide her answering artistic triumph, one that will impress upon human memory her interpretation of the story.”62 Anne Barton believes that the transformation will be victorious since Cleopatra accomplishes it “by creating a tableau, still and contemplative in living art, which transfigures and quiets the events in which it was immanent.”63 But Shakespeare himself never tells us in the tragedies what happens to his characters after their deaths, since this is the realm of the deity. At the very least we can say that a work of art in marble (an inconstant material itself, as we have seen), Cleopatra will apparently forever symbolize her variable and contrary nature in human memory rather than continuing to act out inconstancy on the stage of the world. She becomes in the recollected image of her suicide, a death “Which shackles accidents and bolts up change” (5.2.6), an artistic icon of that which she has always merely imitated—the goddess Isis-Fortuna in one of her two forms.

Of considerable historical interest in the ongoing Cleopatra controversy is the fact that a gifted female poet of the English Renaissance, Aemilia Lanyer, stated what seems to be the typical seventeenth-century Christian woman's understanding of Cleopatra in her poem Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum (pub. 1611). Contrasting the Egyptian queen's sensual love with the love for Christ felt by her own patroness, the Countess of Cumberland, Lanyer wrote the following verses:

Great Cleopatra's loue to Anthony,
Can no way be compared vnto thine;
Shee left her Loue in his extremitie,
When greatest need should cause her to combine
Her force with his, to get the Victory:
Her Loue was earthly, and thy Loue Diuine;
          Her Loue was onely to support her pride,
          Humilitie thy Loue and Thee doth guide.
That glorious part of Death, which last shee plai'd,
T'appease the ghost of her deceased Loue,
Had neuer needed, if shee could haue stai'd
When his extreames made triall, and did proue
Her leaden loue vnconstant, and afraid:
Their wicked warres the wrath of God might moue
          To take reuenge for chast Octavia's wrongs,
          Because shee enjoyes what vnto her belongs.
No Cleopatra, though thou wert as faire
As any Creature in Antonius eyes;
Yea though thou wert as rich, as wise, as rare,
As any Pen could write, or Wit deuise:
Yet with this Lady canst thou not compare,
Whose inward virtues all thy worth denies;
          Yet thou a black Egyptian do'st appeare:
          Thou false, shee true; and to her Loue more deere.(64)

Lanyer states quite clearly that the betrayal of one's love was unacceptable behavior to women at this time in England, and I doubt that this attitude toward betrayal has changed since then.

In contrast to such a negative view toward the Egyptian queen, Chaucer describes Cleopatra as a good woman willing to sacrifice her body to the worms in order to redeem her Antony,65 while the Renaissance emblematist Theodore de Bry admiringly portrays her death as heroic in a verse interpreting his fine engraving of “Cleopatra the Egyptian” …

Actias Ausonias fugit Cleopatra Catenas,
          Aspide somnifera brachia moras gerens.
Nec tulit Oenotrii Victoris vincla superbi,
          Sic vmbram exhorret mens generosa suam.
[Cleopatra fled the chains of the Italian of Actium,
Bearing on her arms the asp's deadly bite.
Nor did she carry the bonds of the proud Roman victor,
So greatly did her noble spirit abhor his shadow.](66)

Nevertheless, I see neither of these elements in Shakespeare's version of the story. For him, Cleopatra's “courage” consists of finding an easy and painless way to die and by taking a macabre “joy o' th' worm” (5.2.289) before our eyes. Not only does her servant Iras die more bravely before her, but after the queen's death, Charmian must straighten Cleopatra's royal crown, which has ludicrously fallen awry. In addition, the bad fortune earlier predicted by the Soothsayer in 1.2 for Charmian comes true indeed, despite all her services to Cleopatra as Terrestrial Isis and her fervent prayers to Celestial Isis.

Although Cleopatra does indeed consciously attempt by her staged death to transform herself into a decorative funerary statue of marble within her own memorial, Bowers observes that Octavius frustrates the queen's artistic design for her mausoleum by ordering soldiers “to take up her bed, and bear her women from the monument” (5.2.354-55) to another place where Cleopatra will lie next to her Antony (Bowers, 291). Ironically, no one today knows where to find the tomb of Mark Antony and the seductive mistress of both his good and bad fortunes.

In conclusion, we must return once more to the Thomas Combe emblem of Fortuna at the beginning of this essay. In it, like Antony and Cleopatra, the blind goddess and her blind worshipper both fall into a ditch … Although we cannot be sure that Shakespeare knew this particular emblem, we may be confident that he was very familiar with Matthew 15:14 on the blind leading the blind into a ditch, a biblical passage to which he apparently alludes twice in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Apart from Antony, Cleopatra's most articulate admirer in the play is Enobarbus, who follows Antony's shifting fortunes almost to the end. When this soldier's final desertion is surprisingly rewarded by Antony's generosity, Enobarbus asks in contrition, “I fight against thee? No, I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die” (4.6.36-37; my emphasis). Later Cleopatra threatens to starve herself to death before she will allow Octavius to exhibit her in his Roman triumph: “Rather a ditch in Egypt / Be gentle grave unto me” (5.2.57-58; my emphasis). One thing is certain: Terrestrial Fortuna, when unopposed by Wisdom, traditionally leads all her adoring worshippers to tragic defeat and death in the end … that is, “to the very heart of loss.”67


  1. See Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 113-21.

  2. See Donna B. Hamilton, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Tradition of Noble Lovers,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 245-51.

  3. See J. Leeds Barroll, “Antony and Pleasure,” Journal of English and German Philology 57 (1958): 709-20.

  4. Feminists tend to see the Egyptian queen as a woman of power, who is courageous enough to choose her own lovers and to dominate them and destiny through her art. To cite just a few examples, see Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 209-47; Carol Thomas Neely, who sees Cleopatra as an artist in Broken Nuptials (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 136-65; Mihoko Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 258-63, where the author argues that by “Allowing heroic Cleopatra to take control of her own representation, Shakespeare allies himself with her energies of difference rather than with political hegemony and the literary tradition that justified that hegemony” (263); and more recently, Evelyn Gajowski, “Antony and Cleopatra: Female Subjectivity and Orientalism” in The Art of Loving (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 86-119. Gajowski sees Cleopatra as partly “a manifestation of a prepatriarchal goddess” associated with snakes (119), although I would add that the later male association of such a goddess with the vice Luxury during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance must also be taken into consideration.

  5. See J. Leeds Barroll, “Enobarbus' Description of Cleopatra,” Texas University Studies in English 37 (1958): 61-78, and Clifford Davidson, “Antony and Cleopatra: Circe, Venus, and the Whore of Babylon,” in Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 31-55.

  6. Plutarch as mythographer conflated the goddesses Venus and Isis in his famous study of Isis and Osiris.

  7. See “Cleopatra,” 687-99 and “Transcendent Love,” 641-47, in Antony and Cleopatra: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Marvin Spevack et al. (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1990).

  8. (New York: Harper & Row, 1990). See also Cleopatra, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1990); Ernle Bradford, Cleopatra (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972); Hans Volkmann, Cleopatra: A Study in Politics and Propaganda, trans. T. J. Cadoux (London: Elek Books, 1958); and Ivor Brown, Dark Ladies (London: Collins, 1957).

  9. See Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), 11; cited hereafter in parentheses in text.

  10. Plutarch claims that Antony was “to the most parte of men, cruell and extreame. For he robbed noble men and gentle men of their goods, to geve it unto vile flatterers.” See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 5:272.

  11. All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and are cited hereafter in parentheses in text.

  12. Barroll notes that Antony is the only Shakespearean tragic hero who inspires great love in others. See Shakespearean Tragedy (Washington, D.C.: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1984), 272. On the ambiguities of Antony, see also the same author's “Shakespeare and the art of character: a study of Anthony,” Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 159-235.

  13. See Minoru Fujita, Pageantry and Spectacle in Shakespeare (Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1982), 111-31.

  14. See Barroll, “Pleasure,” 712, and Frank Kermode, “The Banquet of Sense,” in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), 98-99 n.20.

  15. See Lloyd, “Antony and the Game of Chance,” Journal of English and German Philology 61 (1962): 548-54.

  16. See Hallett, “Change, Fortune, and Time: Aspects of the Sublunar World in Antony and Cleopatra,Journal of English and German Philology 75 (1976): 87. Hallett also observes that “Shakespeare has deliberately drawn for us a constantly shifting world, a world that contains no fixed star by which wandering barks can take their bearings. Impermanence, he stresses, is found on all levels—the natural, the social, the personal. It permeates existence. And for Antony and Cleopatra, there is nothing beyond” (78).

  17. On the other hand, I have argued elsewhere that Andrea Alciati, father of the emblem book, was particularly interested in calling our attention to the inner meaning of texts and that his emblems are, therefore, not always easy to interpret. See my “Alciati's Two Venuses as Letter and Spirit of the Law” in Andrea Alciato and the Emblem Tradition: Essays in Honor of Virginia Woods Callahan, ed. Peter M. Daly (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 95-125.

  18. See Williamson, “Fortune in Antony and Cleopatra,Journal of English and German Philology 67 (1968): 426-27; cited hereafter in parentheses in text. For other essays on Fortune in the play, see also Raymond Chapman, “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare's Historical Plays,” Review of English Studies n.s. 1 (1950): 2; Lily B. Campbell, “The Mirrours of Fortune,” Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (1930; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), 3-10; Matthew Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 203-4; and Charles A. Hallett, “Change, Fortune, and Time: Aspects of the Sublunar World in Antony and Cleopatra,Journal of English and German Philology 75 (1976): 75-89.

  19. See Peter M. Daly, “The Case for the 1593 Edition of Thomas Combe's Theater of Fine Devices,Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 49 (1986): 255-57.

  20. See Combe, The Theater of Fine Devices (London: Richard Field, 1593 and 1614), sig. B8.

  21. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1962), bk. 2, prose 1.

  22. See Frederick Kiefer, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1983), 206-9. I am much indebted to this fine study.

  23. See William S. Hecksher, “The Anadyomene in the Medieval Tradition (Pelagia—Cleopatra—Aphrodite): A Prelude to Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus’,” in Art and Literature: Studies in Relationship, ed. Egon Verheyen (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985), 138-45.

  24. See Davidson, “Antony and Cleopatra,” 35.

  25. On the iconography of swallows, see Peter M. Daly, “Of Macbeth, Martlets and other ‘Fowles of Heuen’,” Mosaic 12 (Fall 1978): 23-46.

  26. See Clifford Davidson, “Timon of Athens: The Iconography of False Friendship,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 43 (Summer 1980): 195. Davidson quotes the Renaissance proverb “Swallows, like false friends, fly away upon the approach of winter” (Tilley S1026).

  27. De Bry, Emblemata Nobilitatis (Frankfurt: Theodore deBry, 1592), 23.

  28. See Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 156. In contrast to Machiavelli, whom he influenced, Marsilio Ficino follows Plato in arguing that Fortune may be controlled through the pilot's human skill when his ship is caught in a tempestas, a word synonymous with fortuna during the Renaissance. See Edgar Wind, “Platonic Tyranny and the Renaissance Fortuna: On Ficino's Reading of Laws IV, 709A-712A,” in Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, 2 vol., ed. Millard Meiss (New York: New York University Press, 1961) 1:491. Wind adds that “Plato admits that ‘fortuna cannot be forced. Any attempt to do so would be a sign of hubris, an insult to the inscrutable wisdom of the God who in the end adjusts our chances to our skill. Hence the truly skilful pilot never relinquishes his sense of the ominous. His patience in waiting for the right kind of storm is as important as his ability to ride it” (496).

  29. See John F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), 143.

  30. For a commentary on the etching, see H. Diane Russell, Eva/Ave: Woman in Renaissance and Baroque Prints (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990), 220. I discovered many of my illustrations of Fortuna in this fine catalogue of a National Gallery exhibit.

  31. See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 43 and fig. 12. Donna Hamilton departs from orthodox new historicist readings of the later plays to make a convincing case that Shakespeare was criticizing the pretensions of King James, while pretending to flatter him, in her study Virgil and “The Tempest”: The Politics of Imitation (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990), ix-xii; as do I, using the iconographic approach, in Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline”: An Iconographic Reconstruction (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992). See especially “Political Iconography and Irony,” 21-25, and “The Iconography of Primitivism in Cymbeline,” 136-67.

  32. Bocchi, Symbolarum … Libri Quinque (Bologna, 1555), bk. 1, p. 21. English translation by Roger T. Simonds.

  33. See Michael A. Jacobsen and Vivian Jean Rogers-Price, “The Dolphin in Renaissance Art,” Studies in Iconography 9 (1983): 32-33, 37-39. See also Kiefer, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (The Huntington Library, 1983), 204.

  34. For an interesting discussion of the Venus and Mars theme, see Adelman, The Common Liar (New Haven: Yale, 1973), 78-101. However, Adelman does not notice Shakespeare's curious inversion of the theme.

  35. Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trübner, 1870), 262.

  36. See All's Well That Ends Well—“Why, your dolphin is not lustier” (2.3.26), a comment by Lafew. This is one in malo meaning of the dolphin; however, in bono the animal symbolizes salvation because of its association with Arion and haste or swiftness. In Rome, according to Ad de Vries, dolphins were connected with “the turning-points at each end of the low wall of the circus, around which the chariots had to turn in the races.” These turning points were marked by “metae” or “a group of conical pillars with dolphins on them,” where fortunes were told for ordinary women. See de Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (Amsterdam and London: North-Holland, 1974), 142-43. The word may also refer to “dauphin” in Shakespeare's works, but that meaning is not possible in Antony and Cleopatra.

  37. Barroll indicates that the same metaphor appears in George Wither's Collection of Emblemes (1635), where “we are informed that the square is law and that the bridle is discipline.” See “Antony and Pleasure,” 719.

  38. Translation by Roger T. Simonds. See my essay “The Herculean Lover in the Emblems of Cranach and Vaenius,” Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Torontonensis, ed. Alexander Dalzell et al. (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), 697-710.

  39. See Peacham, Minerva Britanna (London: 1612), 95.

  40. See especially John Coates, “‘The Choice of Hercules’ in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 45-52.

  41. See Danby, Poets, 142.

  42. Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblematum Liber (Frankfurt: 1593), 103.

  43. Robert Record, The Castle of Knowledge (London: 1556), title page.

  44. See Watson, The Garden of Love in Tuscan Art of the Early Renaissance (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1979), 95. I am indebted to Elizabeth Bassett Welles for calling this book to my attention.

  45. For a discussion of the sexual implications of birds in Dutch genre painting, see E. de Jongh, “Erotica in Vogelperspectief,” Simiolus 3 (1968-69): 22-74.

  46. See Emanuel Winternitz, Musical Instruments and their Symbolism in Western Art (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), 48-56.

  47. See Davidson, “Antony and Cleopatra: Circe, Venus, and the Whore of Babylon,” 34-35.

  48. See Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 143-44.

  49. Bocchi, bk. 3, symbol 66. Translation by Virginia W. Callahan, to whom I am also indebted for the reference to Goya.

  50. See Peter M. Daly, Virginia W. Callahan, and Simon Cuttler, ed., Andreas Alciatus: Index Emblematicus, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 1, emblem 44.

  51. For a discussion of the difficulties in staging this scene, see the New Cambridge edition of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. David Bevington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 43-44, and the New Variorum Edition, ed. Marvin Spevack, 785-87.

  52. Daly et al., ed. 1, emblem 75.

  53. Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden: Christopher Plantin, 1586), 109. The Folger Shakespeare Library copy (STC 25437.8) has this emblem.

  54. See Ethel Seaton, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Book of Revelation,Review of English Studies 22 (1946): 219-24.

  55. See Morris, “Shakespeare and Dürer's Apocalypse,” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968): 258-61.

  56. Peacham, Minerva Britanna, 161.

  57. See “Isis,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2d ed (1970).

  58. See Bowers, “‘I Am Marble-Constant’: Cleopatra's Monumental End,” Huntington Library Quarterly 46 (1983): 284.

  59. Ibid.

  60. See Friedrich Solmsen, Isis among the Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press for Oberlin College, 1979), 94-95; hereafter cited in parentheses in text.

  61. See Bocchi, cxxxvi-cxxxvii. English translation by Roger T. Simonds.

  62. See Williamson, Infinite Variety: Antony and Cleopatra in Renaissance Drama and Earlier Tradition (Mystic, Conn.: Lawrence Verry, 1974), 210.

  63. See Barton, “‘Nature's piece 'gainst fancy’: The Divided Catastrophe in Antony and Cleopatra.” London: Bedford College, 1973), 20.

  64. See Lanier 2, Women Writers' Project, Brown University (6-19-90), 170-71. I am indebted to Boyd Berry for this reference.

  65. Although most critics believe Chaucer's story of Cleopatra to be ironic, see also V. A. Kolve, “From Cleopatra to Alceste: An Iconographic Study of The Legend of Good Women,” in Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry, ed. John P. Hermann and John J. Burke, Jr. (University: University of Alabama Press, 1981), 130-78.

  66. De Bry, Emblemata Nobilitatis, 147. Translated by Roger T. Simonds.

  67. The first section of this paper was presented at the South Central Renaissance Conference, April 1991, in New Orleans, and a version of the completed essay was read and discussed by the Colloquium on Women in the Renaissance on 30 January 1992, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. I am especially grateful to Leeds Barroll and Mihoko Suzuki for their interest in this essay and for their very useful suggestions.

Michael Payne (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Erotic Irony and Polarity in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, 1973, pp. 265-79.

[In the following essay, Payne traces Shakespeare's use of opposition throughout Antony and Cleopatra and demonstrates the way in which these oppositions structure the play. Payne stresses that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic.]

One of the most impressive qualities of Shakespeare's art is his facility for creating dramatic situations, characters, and entire plays encompassing ideas, attitudes, and character traits which we ordinarily think of as mutually exclusive or contradictory. In the minds of his characters we discover reason and madness, faith and despair, innocence and experience; the societies he depicts are torn by love and lust, responsibility and irresponsibility, trust and mistrust, honesty and deceit, freedom and bondage. In his depiction of nature, which provides a physical and mythical context for social conflict, we find cyclical revolutions through life and death, youth and age, spring-summer and autumn-winter, calm and tempest, Eden and the fallen world; the cosmos itself, as he depicts it, is at one time balanced in order and harmony but can at any moment tip toward chaos and discord. And finally in the total structures of his dramas simplicity and complexity, comedy and tragedy interchange with one another in a continuously shifting pattern. Such is the scope of Shakespeare's artistic vision that the apparently exclusive or contradictory principles in these pairs of concepts are shown to be necessarily interdependent, each element coexistent with its dialectical counterpart. Shakespeare's chief means of revealing this interdependence is his use of irony and polarity.

In Antony and Cleopatra both irony and polarity function in combination with each other on every level of the play's structure, and the meaning of the play arises out of an interconnected pattern of polarities which combines the principle of an encompassing myth with that of ironic and seemingly antithetical values and attitudes. Alan Watts has written probably the clearest and most concise definition of polarity in this sense:

[Polarity] is something much more than simple duality or opposition. For to say that opposites are polar is to say much more than that they are far apart: it is to say that they are related and joined—that they are the terms, ends, or extremities of a single whole. Polar opposites are therefore inseparable opposites, like the poles of the earth or of a magnet, or the ends of a stick or the faces of a coin. Though what lies between the poles is more substantial than the poles themselves—since they are the abstract “terms” rather than the concrete body—nevertheless man thinks in terms and therefore divides in thought what is undivided in nature.1

Throughout Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare develops a series of inter-related polarities—Rome-Egypt, masculinity-femininity, space/time boundary-space/time transcendence, death-love—which at first appear to be mutually exclusive or dualistic concepts but which are finally shown to be polar concepts instead.2

The first scene of the play establishes the antithesis between dualistic and polar perception which will dominate the play. First we are introduced to the Roman point of view through Philo's estimate of Antony's fall from greatness resulting from his association with Cleopatra:

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 planted Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.


This is an example of dualistic perception par excellence: on the one hand we have Philo's past impression of Antony as Mars, who once dedicated his “office and devotion” entirely to “the scuffles of great fights,” but on the other hand we have Antony as Philo sees him now, a man who has sacrificed his former greatness to become in effect Cleopatra's slave who fans her to cool her lust. Like Pompey and Caesar, and to a lesser extent Enobarbus and Agrippa, Philo would have Antony carefully measure out his experience according to an absolute set of Roman standards based on the absolutes of time and space. Measure, authority, conquest, the setting boundaries, and uniformity are the absolutes of the Roman world, as well as being the means for Roman success. Establishing boundaries, whether geographical or moral, necessitates a dualistic ethic. Within the boundaries of the Roman empire is civilization, outside those boundaries is barbarism. But Egypt is a frontier, neither quite a part of the Roman empire, nor entirely immune from its influence. From the Roman point of view Egypt is a potential civilization, but it is as yet untamed.

The magnificent entrance of Antony and Cleopatra with their exotic retinue dramatizes the Roman fear of excess, but at the same time it demonstrates the inadequacy of Philo's perspective and of the Roman ethic. Like Pompey and Caesar later on, Philo has suggested that Antony has sacrificed his manhood in Egypt; he has become a eunuch, “the bellows and the fan / to cool a gipsy's lust” (I.i.9-10). No sooner has Philo spoken these words than we see Cleopatra enter “with Eunuchs fanning her.” Immediately, therefore, we see that whatever Antony has become in Egypt, he is certainly not a eunuch; for a eunuch, as Mardian is painfully aware, has no powers “to cool” anyone's lust. Furthermore, Cleopatra is far more magnificent than Philo's references to her as “a tawny front” and a gypsy would allow. It is with the consciousness of this disparity between Philo's description and what we see that we hear Philo's final estimate of Antony:

                                                            … you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform'd
Into a strumpet's fool.


Though he bids us to “take but good note,” what we do in fact see does not match Philo's description, for the dramatic presence of the lovers forces us to see them on their own terms as well as on Roman terms.

The first words we hear the lovers speak are an ironic rejection of the Roman preoccupation with measure and boundary.

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


Like Juliet, Cleopatra has been her lover's tutor, and now she playfully has him recite what he has learned4 by speaking the “Roman” lines herself, allowing him to provide the “Egyptian” answers. Cleopatra's feigned scepticism—(“If it be love indeed”)—recalls Philo's word “dotage”, while her insistence that Antony tell her how much he loves her and her threat to “set a bourn how far to be beloved” ape the Roman fixation on measure. To this Antony responds with an echo of The Book of Revelation,5 insisting—and again this is a parody of the Roman preoccupation with conquest—that before she sets boundaries on their love, Cleopatra must discover and subdue the “new heaven, new earth,” the mythical, transcendent domain of their love. Now for Antony this mythical domain epitomizes his Egyptian experience.

Having set out on a Roman mission of conquest, Antony has not only been sidetracked from his purpose by Cleopatra and the luxurious freedom of Egypt, but also his belief in the stoicism of the Roman ethic has been almost totally undermined. Thus, he momentarily shares Cleopatra's contempt for Caesar, his messenger, and his mandates to “Do this, or this; / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that” (I.i.22-23). Prompted by Cleopatra, Antony bursts out with his own condemnation of Rome:

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


But in one sense Antony is even less convincing than Philo. Whereas Philo believes in the Roman ethic, Antony ironically attempts even yet to use Roman measure—“Here is my space”—to justify his rejecting Roman values. We begin to see here what Antony is only half-consciously aware of himself at this point, that Egypt can be as confining in its own way as Rome. Furthermore, Antony is Roman; he sees the world with the only eyes he has, and they are trained to see what Rome has defined as real. Antony will soon realize that he cannot deny the part of himself that is Roman, but what he can do is precisely what Shakespeare has forced us to do by means of the structure of this first scene; he can come to see beyond the Roman perspective without rejecting it. To stay in Egypt is to reject the reality of Rome; to substitute private pleasure for public responsibility is to commit Lear's error all over again; to reject the world for love is simply not possible. What Antony must do is precisely what he does. He must endeavor to bring the Roman and the Egyptian experiences together.

Antony soon realizes this necessity, but Cleopatra at first misunderstands his Roman needs. She thinks that “a Roman thought hath struck him” (I.ii.88), which to her is a sign of Antony's regression. But from Antony's point of view his own motives are concrete: Fulvia, his wife, has committed some acts of political indiscretion during his absence; the Parthians have advanced against Caesar; and, finally, Antony learns that Fulvia has died. But his most important reason for returning to Rome is to assert his freedom. He sees now the danger of becoming the “strumpet's fool” Philo thinks he has already become: “These Strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (I.ii.120-21). Ironically, the very freedom, fluidity, and formlessness of Egypt can become the strongest fetters of all, which Antony later realizes “had bound me up / From mine own knowledge” (II.ii.90-91).

The Nile, which is the center of the play's mythical and physical geography, is the main image of this paradoxical character of Egypt.6 The Nile is simultaneously the source of both fertility and death. Its fertility, as Antony explains to Caesar, is the result of its annual overflow:

                                                            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.


But this process, which is antithetical to restraint and measure, is precisely what makes the Romans uncomfortable about Egypt; as Lepidus points out, this same fertilizing process produces the serpent: “Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun” (II.vii.30-31). But like the Nile itself, the serpent has both positive and negative associations. Its negative associations are the result of its poison and its connection with evil, as in the Eden myth.

The first serpent image in the play, however, is not applied to Egypt but instead to the threat Pompey poses to Rome:

                                                                                Much is breeding
Which, like the courser's hair, hath yet but life,
And not a serpent's poison.


This use of the image recalls Brutus' fear of Caesar, whom he thinks of as “a serpent's egg” (Julius Caesar, II.i.14-34).7 In both Antony's reference to Pompey and Brutus' to Caesar there is no ambiguity, and the image is allowed to carry its familiar connotations of overweening satanic pride leading to disastrous consequences. But when Cleopatra first uses the image, while thinking about Antony immediately after his departure for Rome, the image takes on a controlled ambiguity:

                              He's speaking now,
Or murmuring ‘Where's my serpent of old Nile?’
For so he calls me: now I feed myself
With most delicious poison.


Here we are called upon to see beyond the dualistic mythology of Christianity, to employ Cleopatra's Egyptian polarity, to see good and evil—the pleasant and the unpleasant—existing as a continuum of total experience. For Cleopatra herself is a serpent, Antony's “serpent of old Nile”; that is, she is simultaneously the embodiment of the fertility principle of the Nile, which Lepidus describes, and the embodiment of self-destructive, death-dealing, boundless sexuality, whose “delicious poison”—even as here when it is just remembered—will destroy and elevate both herself and Antony. Finally, in her suicide Cleopatra will bring about the transformation into a dramatic reality of the fertility-destructive polarity of the serpent. When she is brought the basket of figs and asps, the “fruitful and death-dealing powers of the Nile”8 are not yet one; but when she puts the asp to her breast and says quietly to Charmian, “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” (V.ii.311-13), the experience of death has become both maternal and sexual. But before we examine this relationship between sex and suicide in more detail, we must turn to the problems of sexuality, space, and time, as they appear in the central acts of the play.


Like their attitude toward almost everything else, the Romans' concept of sexuality is dualistic and exclusive. For Caesar and Pompey the proof of a man's virility is his ability to fight and his dedication to war. Thus, when Antony neglects these values to enjoy the pleasures Cleopatra offers him, Caesar judges Antony

                                                                                … 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
That all men follow.


The irony of this judgment is manifold. First, on the dramatic level, there is the discrepancy between Caesar's thinking Antony is still in Alexandria and our awareness that he is returning to Rome to assume his public responsibilities.9 Secondly, Shakespeare has made us aware in the play's first scene of the narrowness of the Roman ethic and of its inapplicability to Antony's relationship with Cleopatra. Thirdly, in the present scene we are being introduced to a man who has dedicated himself so exclusively to war and conquest that the only woman—indeed the only person—in his life for whom he has any genuine love or compassion is his sister Octavia; yet because of his dedication to those values, he will find it necessary to sacrifice her in an attempt to keep the triumvirate from crumbling. Lastly (and this is perhaps the greatest irony for a modern audience) is our awareness of the conflict demonstrated here between two basic human instincts, which Freud has called “the sexual instincts, understood in the widest sense—Eros, if you prefer that name—and the aggressive instincts, whose aim is destruction.”10 Whereas Caesar has dedicated himself exclusively to the latter, Antony is at least attempting to reconcile the two, as he explains to Cleopatra before his departure for Rome:

                                                            I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant; making peace or war
As thou affect'st.

(I. iii. 69-71)

Like Mars, Antony wants to be both a soldier and a lover.11

In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare treated these two instincts separately in the two plots of Troilus' love for Cressida and the Greeks' strategy for overcoming the wrath of Achilles. The former Dionysian plot was set within Troy and the latter Apollonian plot outside the walls of the city. Shakespeare linked the plots in two ways: through the characterization of Troilus, we see the effect of his love in his debilitation as a soldier, and through the rhetoric of the play's theme—notably in Ulysses' speech on degree—we are shown the disastrous consequences of unbridled passion in any form. But in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare has abandoned both the double plot and the simplistic, formal arguments against passion. Now the theme of destructive aggression is not separated from the love theme but instead is an integral part of it, despite Caesar's argument and Pompey's misguided opinion that Antony has become a “libertine in a field of feasts” (II.i.23).

These two instincts, Eros and destructive aggressiveness, are most clearly united in Cleopatra's characterization as Antony's “serpent of old Nile.” Enobarbus gives the finest account of Cleopatra's manifestation of the Eros instinct in his description of her first meeting with Mark Antony. Resplendent in her pavilion—accompanied by “pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids” (II.ii.206) and worshipped by “her gentlewomen, like the Nereides” (l. 211)—Cleopatra's variety is infinite. To Enobarbus she is more beautiful than the Venus Anadyomene of Apelles (ll. 205-206); to Agrippa she is an earth goddess—“She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed: / He plough'd her, and she cropp'd” (233-34)—; at times she is a girl who will run through the public street until she is breathless (ll. 235-37); and yet at other times to her lovers she is the perfection of woman, who “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (ll. 242-43). Yet since we are here seeing Cleopatra through the eyes of Enobarbus, a cynic and misogynist, we know that all of these superlatives are understatements—however much indebted they are to Plutarch, likewise a moralist—and that Cleopatra's magnificence “beggar'd all description” (l. 203).

Despite her glorious seductiveness, however, Cleopatra would seem to be a destroyer of men and their masculinity;12 and she tempts us to see her in this light less than a hundred lines following Enobarbus' wonderful description of her. In II. v. Cleopatra attempts to pass the time of Antony's absence by playing two of the many games she enjoys, billiards and fishing. Since Charmian is complaining of a sore arm, Cleopatra asks Mardian, the eunuch, to play with her. To her question, Mardian replies with his customary, self-directed irony:

Come, you'll play with me, sir?
As well as I can, madam.

(ll. 6-7)

To this, Cleopatra responds with a similar double entendre: “And when good will is show'd, though 't come too short, / The actor may plead pardon” (ll. 8-9). After thus joking with Mardian at the expense of his emasculated pride, Cleopatra calls for her rod and line, thinking she

                                                                                 … will betray
Tawny-finn'd fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony
And say ‘Ah, ha! you're caught.’


This passage suggests a strange reversal of sexual roles which builds upon the dramatic presence of the eunuch and Cleopatra's references above to the shortness of his will. Here Cleopatra clearly sees herself as an aggressor: it is she who will betray the fishes by presumably luring them with her bait (her “infinite variety”?) and then by piercing their jaws with her hook. We might avoid reading this penetration of the fish's “slimy jaws” by her hook as a phallic fantasy if it were not for the following description of Cleopatra's earlier fishing contest with Antony and the events following it.

Charmian refers (ll. 16-19) to the famous anecdote, which Plutarch related at length,13 of Antony and Cleopatra's fishing contest during which Antony, having caught no fish, commanded one of his servants to dive into the river and fasten one which Cleopatra had caught on his hook. Accidentally observing this operation, Cleopatra had one of her own servants “hang a saltfish on his hook, which he / With fervency drew up” (ll. 18-19). Unlike Plutarch, however, who followed this story with an account of how Antony delighted “in these fond and childish pastimes,”14 Shakespeare has Cleopatra recount her evening sport with Antony during the night of the fishing tournament:

That time,—O times!—
I laugh'd him out of patience, and that night
I laugh'd him into patience: 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.


Not only is Cleopatra still the aggressor, out-laughing and out-drinking Antony, but she actually initiates a reversal of sexual roles after Antony has passed out from exhaustion and intoxication. Dressing him—like his patron Hercules when the captive of Omphale—in her women's clothes, she put on his sword, which for Caesar and Pompey, as we have seen, is quite literally the symbol of Antony's manhood. Are we then to draw the Roman conclusion that Cleopatra has seduced Antony and then psychically emasculated him because she wishes, like Portia, that she were a man?

Both of these conclusions are, I think, only partially acceptable. Certainly in one sense Cleopatra does pose a threat to Antony's masculinity, but this threat is mainly to masculinity as the Romans define it. Nevertheless, Antony is a Roman and he senses that Cleopatra tempts him from his knowledge of his Roman self and his Roman obligations. Certainly, too, in one sense Cleopatra does want to be a man. As sovereign of Egypt she feels it her responsibility to participate, against the better judgment of Enobarbus, in the final sea battle near Actium. “A charge we bear i' the war,” she insists, “And, as the president of my kingdom, will / Appear there for a man” (III.vii.17-19). But in both of these cases, masculinity and femininity are matters of social function and not of explicit sexuality.15 The scene Cleopatra describes as having taken place in her bedchamber is quite a different matter, however, and Freud was the first to provide us with an adequate theory of sexuality to account for it.

In his chapter on femininity in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud writes,

When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty. Anatomical science shares your certainty at one point and not much further. The male sexual product, the spermatozoon, and its vehicle are male; the ovum and the organism that harbours it are female. In both sexes organs have been formed which serve exclusively for the sexual functions; they were probably developed from the same innate disposition into two different forms. … Science next tells you something that runs counter to your expectations. … It draws your attention to the fact that portions of the male sexual apparatus also appear in women's bodies, though in an atrophied state, and vice versa in the alternative case. It regards their occurrence as indications of bisexuality, as though an individual is not a man or a woman but always both—merely a certain amount more the one than the other.16

And as though to insist himself on our recognizing the sexual polarity in Cleopatra, Shakespeare has her greet the messenger, who enters immediately after her line “I wore his sword Philippan,” with the clearly feminine, though by no means passive outburst: “Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, / That long time have been barren” (II.v.25-26). Since his theories of sexuality were based upon his clinical experience with middle-class Viennese women, Freud is less helpful in enabling us to account specifically for Cleopatra's violence. In an often-criticized17 later paragraph in the same chapter, Freud writes,

One might consider characterizing femininity psychologically as giving preference to passive aims. This is not, of course, the same thing as passivity; to achieve a passive aim may call for a large amount of activity. It is perhaps the case that in a woman, on the basis of her share in the sexual function, a preference for passive behaviour and passive aims is carried over into her life to a greater or lesser extent, in proportion to the limits, restricted or far-reaching, within which her sexual life thus serves as a model. But we must beware in this of underestimating the influence of social customs, which similarly force women into passive situations. … The suppression of women's aggressiveness which is prescribed for them constitutionally and imposed on them socially favours the development of powerful masochistic impulses, which succeed, as we know, in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards. Thus masochism, as people say, is truly feminine.18

If, however, we take Freud's advice and do not underestimate “the influence of social customs,” which in Cleopatra's case do not force her into passive situations, but which, because she is “the president of [her] kingdom” force her into active, aggressive situations, we have little trouble seeing her often forbidding strength and will as necessary parts of her character. Certainly Queen Elizabeth herself would have afforded Shakespeare an example, had he needed one, of a female ruler who combined the qualities we ordinarily associate exclusively with men and with women.19


Act I introduced us to the theme of polar opposition in terms of the conflict between the Roman desire to measure, to judge, and to set boundaries, and the Egyptian cultivation of freedom, fluidity, and ecstasy. Act II specifically treated this opposition in sexual terms, first suggesting that masculinity and femininity are exclusive, opposite psychophysical designations—so they seem to Caesar and Pompey—but then showing them as complementary in the personalities of Antony and Cleopatra. Acts III and IV now carry this theme of polarity even further by introducing the problem of mythical apperception,20 first in terms of space (in Act III) and then in terms of time (in Act IV).

In ordinary rational thought, which in the play is seen most simply as the Roman cast of mind,

space, time, and number stand out as the logical media through which a mere aggregate of perceptions is gradually formed into a system of experience. The representations of order in coexistence, of order in succession, and of stable numerical, quantitative order of all empirical contents form the foundation for an ultimate synthesis of all these contents into a lawful or causal world order.21

This mode of thought is the ideal, the alternative to chaos, in Shakespeare's history plays and in his early tragedies,22 and clearly in Antony and Cleopatra it is the most efficacious mode for plotting military and political strategies, for winning wars, and for extending the boundaries of Roman civilization. Caesar has cultivated it almost to perfection. But set against this Roman rationalism is intuitive, mythical thought, which in the play is seen most simply as an Egyptian cast of mind. In this mode

space—and time as well—proves to be a … medium of spiritualization in the mythical sphere. The first clear articulations of the mythical world are linked with spatial and temporal distinctions. But the mythical consciousness is not, like the theoretical consciousness, concerned with gaining fundamental constants by which to explain variation and change. This differentiation is replaced by another, which is determined by the characteristic perspective of myth. The mythical consciousness arrives at an articulation of space and time not by stabilizing the fluctuation of sensuous phenomena but by introducing its specific opposition—the opposition of the sacred and profane—into spatial and temporal reality.23

From the first scene of the play this opposition has been present in the contrast between two worlds, the present world of the play's dramatic action and the “new heaven, new earth” of Antony and Cleopatra's ecstatic sexuality.

But besides sexual ecstasy, several other means of achieving mythical apperception (or time/space transcendence) are either mentioned or dramatized. In I. v. Cleopatra calls for the narcotic mandragora to enable her to “sleep out this great gap of time” (l. 5) while Antony is in Rome. In II. vii., the magnificent scene on Pompey's galley, wine, dancing, and loud music steep the senses of the participants “in soft and delicate Lethe,” (l. 115) enabling the Triumvirate to forget momentarily their differences with each other and with Pompey, making it possible for Caesar to neglect his “graver business” (l. 127) for the only time in the play and to thoroughly enjoy himself, and providing all with a brief detachment from their ambitions and cares, which allows them to parody in their circular dance their pursuit of world conquest:

Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
In thy fats our cares be drown'd,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown'd:
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round!


From their drunken perspective, accentuated by their dizziness from the dance, the world which they all seek appears to reel.24

In each of these cases, however, the audience has merely observed or been told about the effects of apperception. But in Acts III and IV we imaginatively experience time/space transcendence for ourselves. Nevertheless, what we experience obviously does not result from an alteration in our faculties as the result of some psychophysical stimulation; but it is instead an alteration of the object of perception itself, which provides the artistic illusion of the kind of altered perception the main characters experience directly. The device Shakespeare used to create this illusion is montage, which is very common in cinematography but fairly rare in the drama.25 These two acts are divided into twenty-eight short scenes which shift from one place or time to another and back again at almost mind-splitting speed. Through these abrupt scene changes we become aware of a great variety of events occurring at the same time in different places, or in the same place at different times. This technique produces in us a sense of mythical apperception: we are simultaneously conscious that what is before us is the fixed stage and what we witness taking place on it is acted in linear time but that the stage is also Syria, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Actium with events taking place almost at the same time in each of these places. Thus, what we have experienced through the illusion created by montage is a substitution of mythical thought for our normal logical awareness that whatever we see in the play is a fiction.26

Silius in III. i. introduces the sense of the global setting of these scenes by describing the magnitude of the Roman battles with the Parthians:

Whilst yet with Parthian blood thy sword is warm,
The fugitive Parthians follow; spur through Media,
Mesopotamia, and the shelters whither
The routed fly.


In the next scene space becomes an issue in the private world of friends and family, as Enobarbus and Agrippa comment with some anxiety on the political consequences of Antony's leaving Rome for Athens and as Caesar in a rare moment of self-revelation expresses his concern for Octavia's security once she has left Rome. By III. iv. Octavia, now in Athens, finds herself in just such an impossible position as Caesar feared for her. She is caught between her husband's rage and her brother's policy, finding “no midway / 'Twixt these extremes at all” (ll. 18-19). Immediately following her departure for Rome to serve, like Lepidus before her, in the impossible role as mediator between the two opposing pillars of the world, news is received in Athens of Caesar's turning against Lepidus, necessitating Antony's retaliation. Before Octavia arrives in Rome, Antony has sailed to Alexandria, “publicly enthroned” (III. vi.5) Cleopatra and himself, made her absolute queen of Egypt, lower Syria, Cyprus, and Lydia, and levied the kings of Libya, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Thracia, Arabia, Pont, Judea, Comagene, Mede, and Lycaonia for war. When she reaches Rome, Octavia is completely ignorant of everything that has happened since she left Athens. The irony of her situation is the result of simultaneously occurring events which we either witness directly or learn about indirectly but of which she is unaware. Finally, even the first stage of the Battle of Actium is presented from two different spatial points of view. Before the battle, Caesar's army occupies one part of a plain near Actium (scene viii) and Antony's occupies another part of the same plain (scene ix). Then, immediately following the battle, the outcome is reported from three different points of view in three different locations: by Scarus in Antony's camp on the plain (scene x), by Antony and Cleopatra themselves in Alexandria (scenes xi and xiii) and by Caesar in his camp, presumably on the Actium plain (scene xii). From this point on, the action of the play is confined entirely to Alexandria, where we witness Caesar's closing in on Antony. It appears now that only time remains.

In Act IV multiple points of view collapse into the single, dominant point of view of Antony, which is presented in all its variation—with his “spirits first up (scene iv), then down (scenes v/vi), then up again (scenes vii/viii), and then more prolonged, in sober suspense (scenes ix/xii)”27—as well as in its contrast with other points of view. But with each change in scene, the linear time of the audience's observation of the dramatic action, together with its detached perspective, is contrasted with the subjective point of view of the characters. Thus, the action is an almost inevitable progression toward Antony's defeat and suicide.


The death of Antony seems at first to overthrow the theme of polarity which has been developed so far in terms of geography, sexuality, and apperception. Not only does death seem to be the absolute boundary principle, but it is also preceded by Antony's belief that he has lost both the world and love:

                                                            All is lost
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me:
.....Triple-turn'd whore! 'tis thou
Hath sold me to this novice; and my heart
Makes only wars on thee.

(IV.xii.9-10, 13-15)

by the false report of Cleopatra's suicide, by the death of Eros—whose name symbolically suggests that love itself may be impossible in the world—and by the ludicrous suicide of Antony. Certainly these events emphasize the existential dimension in which all of the earlier conflicts have taken place; indeed they seem to point to the absurdity of the human situation and to the fact that beneath Cleopatra's luxurious robes and Antony's armor there is merely Lear's “unaccommodated man.” When Antony dies, Cleopatra can barely believe what she sees; she thought Antony's nobility immortal. When she is proven wrong, she witnesses her entire conception of reality melt before her eyes like some lovely wax image:

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? O, see, my women,
The crown O' the 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.


Finally, in her despair, Cleopatra echoes the cries of Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth: “All's but naught” (l. 78).

Unlike Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, however, Antony and Cleopatra ends neither with the complete purging of a decadent, fallen Eden, nor with absolute annihilation in the face of nothingness. Here the existential boundaries are transcended just as the geographical, sexual, and space-time boundaries were transcended in earlier scenes. In preparation for this transcendence, Cleopatra's sense of nihilism at the death of Antony is transferred to Caesar:

I say, O Caesar, Antony is dead.
The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack: the round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets,
And citizens to their dens: the death of Antony
Is not a single doom; in the name lay
A moiety of the world.


There is no sense of triumph in these words; instead Caesar “needs must see himself” (l. 35) when such a tragic mirror as Antony is set before him. Yet even now what Caesar sees is limited by his own built-in restrictions. Though he has elegaic words for Antony, the mercy he plans to offer Cleopatra is for her the ultimate punishment: not only shame, but worse, confinement.

When we next see Cleopatra, she is no longer in despair; she has been confirmed to herself by her loss; her “desolation does begin to make / A better life” (V.ii.1-2). As she realizes, the difference between her situation and Caesar's is that she, having a choice whether to live or die, is still free; whereas Caesar is “but Fortune's knave,” committed to a way of life which by its very nature allows him no freedom at all. Thus Cleopatra's suicide is the absolute assertion of the freedom and defiance of her way of life. But more than that, her becoming “fire and air” as she gives her “other elements … to baser life” (ll. 292-93) signifies her final transcendence of the limitations and boundaries of the existential sphere. While she goes to join Antony in their “new heaven, new earth,” Caesar is left behind, as he at last realizes, in final defeat:

                                                                                Bravest at the last,
She levell'd at our purposes, and, being royal,
Took her own way.


Here Caesar finds himself the victim of the play's erotic irony, its “loving affirmation of all that is not intellectuality.” Unlike Caesar, we have seen that “irony is always irony in both directions, something in the middle, a neither-nor and a both-and.”28 Furthermore,

It is the posture of an artist not afraid to see what is before him in its truth, its frailty, its inadequacy to the ideal, and whose heart then goes out to it in affirmation of this frailty, as of its life. For it is according to its imperfection that each existence moves, acts, and becomes, perfection being not of this earth.29

Thus, like its thematic polarities, the play's generic structure is neither tragic nor comic, but both.30 The lover's apotheosis is for them a comic resolution, since they are able to go beyond tragedy to a condition of being where a new happiness waits, “a happiness resembling the old, but no longer belonging to the form of the world, for this new happiness transforms the world.”31 But we are left with Caesar in a world of boundaries, a tragic world where ecstasy is temporary, occasional, and suspect.


  1. Alan Watts, The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity (Toronto, 1969), p. 45.

  2. Two main critical approaches to Antony and Cleopatra can be distinguished on the basis of advocacy of a dualistic or a polar interpretation of the play. The dualistic interpretations begin with Hazlitt's discussion of the conflict between “Roman pride and Eastern magnificence” in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1817), p. 95. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Durham, N. C., 1944), pp. 116-31, has written one of the most detailed discussions of this opposition; he equates Rome with morality and intellect and Egypt with pleasure and intuition. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1965), III, 5, sees this opposition as the key issue in the play's construction. Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York, 1966), p. 96, sees the duality in absolute terms. Perhaps the best of the dualistic interpretations is William Rosen's, in Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 104-60. Rosen sees in the play a clash between two worlds which “are so corrupt … that one is not morally superior to the other” (p. 106). On the other hand, the major arguments based on the principles of polarity, transcendence, paradox, and mysticism include: G. Wilson Knight's in The Imperial Theme (Oxford, 1931), pp. 199-262; John Danby's in Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets (London, 1952), pp. 128-52; Derek Traversi's in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford, 1963), pp. 79-206; and Julian Markels' The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus, 1968), pp. 17-49.

  3. Hardin Craig's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Chicago, 1961) is cited throughout.

  4. I am essentially in agreement here with G. Wilson Knight's interpretation of this scene in his The Imperial Theme, pp. 290-92. McFarland (p. 94), however, and many other critics have read this scene as entirely serious. McFarland sees in the word “beggary” the introduction of “the tone of bankruptcy that permeates the entire first act: the moral bankruptcy of Egypt as opposed to the virtue of Rome, the near-bankruptcy of the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra as opposed to the call of Antony's duties in the great world.” An extreme form of the moralistic interpretation of Antony is J. Leeds Barroll's “Antony and Pleasure,” JEGP, LVII (1958), 708-20. For a summary of nineteenth-century moralistic commentary on Cleopatra and a corrective to it, see J. I. M. Stewart's Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949), pp. 59-78.

  5. Rev. 21:1; cf. of E. Seaton's “Antony and Cleopatra and the Book of Revelations,” RES, XXII (1946), 219-24. Donne uses a similar figure derived from a concern with world conquest and exploration in “The Good-morrow,” ll. 12-14; but in this poem the “new worlds” are earthly, while Antony and Cleopatra's are not.

  6. My discussion of the Nile and the serpent as metaphors for one manifestation of the theme of polarity is based upon Maurice Charney's Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Cambridge, 1963), pp. 96-101. Charney's excellent analysis of imagery does not concern itself with the theme of polarity, however. Cf. B. T. Spencer, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Paradoxical Metaphor,” SQ, IX (1958), 373-78. Neither Charney nor B. T. Spencer, however, cites Spenser's similar treatment of the paradox of Egypt's excessive fertility in FQ, I. i. 20.

  7. Cf. Macbeth's fear of Fleance, III. iv. 29-31.

  8. This phrase is Charney's (p. 100).

  9. For a full analysis of dramatic irony in the play, see William Blissett, “Dramatic Irony in Antony and Cleopatra,” SQ, XVIII (1967), 151-66.

  10. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1965), p. 103.

  11. Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (London, 1962), pp. 113-21, discusses Antony as world-conqueror. His discussion of the parallels between Antony and the mythical warriors Mars and Hercules does not, however, distort Antony's role as lover.

  12. See E. Buck's “Cleopatra, eine Charakterdeutung,” ShJ, LXXIV (1938), 101-22, for an account of her threat to masculinity.

  13. Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Baltimore, 1964), pp. 206-7.

  14. Ibid., p. 207.

  15. Cf. Rosen's remark, p. 151, on the reversal of sexual roles.

  16. Freud, Pp. 113-14.

  17. By Erich Fromm, for instance, in The Art of Loving (New York, 1956), pp. 36-38.

  18. Freud, Pp. 115-16.

  19. See J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (New York, 1957), esp. pp. 218 (on her accomplishments and amusements), 67 and 83 (on her ambition), 255-56 (on her boldness), 308-309 (on her courage), 128-29 (on her feminism), 67, 219, 350, and 356 (on her imperiousness), 67, 245, and 356 (on her love tricks), and 293-94 and 316-17 (on her sexual interests).

  20. This term is Ernst Cassirer's, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven, 1955), II, 82.

  21. Ibid., p. 80.

  22. For a detailed analysis of the change in Shakespeare's treatment of the theme of order between the earlier plays and Antony and Cleopatra, see Markels, pp. 51-122.

  23. Cassirer, II, 81.

  24. For an entirely different interpretation of this scene, see Rosen, pp. 123-24.

  25. Shakespeare's use of “cinematic movement” in Antony and Cleopatra has been discussed by John Danby, pp. 128-32; and by J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 121-22. Cf. Granville-Barker, III, 24-36.

  26. I do not mean to imply that this effect of space/time transcendence can be dramatically created with ease. Often in performance these scenes become simply monotonous, and the audience is more conscious of the linear time it takes these scenes to be played than of the subjective time of the fiction. For an analysis of subjective time in literature, see Hans Meyerhoff, Time in Literature (Berkeley, 1955), esp. pp. 11-13 and 26-53.

  27. J. L. Styan, p. 121.

  28. Thomas Mann, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Berlin, 1922), pp. 61-62. Since this work has not appeared in an English edition, I have quoted from Joseph Campbell's partial translation in Creative Mythology (New York, 1968), p. 328.

  29. Joseph Campbell's comment on Mann, p. 329.

  30. Cf. Arnold Stein, “The Image of Antony: Lyric and Tragic Imagination,” KR, XXI (1959), 586-606.

  31. Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion (New York, 1966), p. 338.

Paul Yachnin (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Yachnin explores the parallels between Antony and Cleopatra's contrasting of Egyptian past with Roman future and the shift from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule.]

In terms of the political culture of the early Stuart period, Antony and Cleopatra's account of the shift from the magnificent but senescent Egyptian past to the pragmatic but successful Roman future can be seen as a critical register of the symbolic constructions and political ramifications of the shift from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean style of rule. In this paper, I want to suggest that the meanings of the play in 1606-1607 were on the whole more political and certainly more topical than they are now. To locate Antony and Cleopatra in the linguistic, symbolic, and literary fields which comprised the context for the play's first audiences will require a survey of a broad range of texts—some literary, some political, some constructed as triumphal arches in the streets of London. In such terms, Antony and Cleopatra emerges as both contribution to and critique of the emerging Jacobean political culture. I want to argue, then, that the Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra possessed a level of political meaning which the twentieth-century Antony and Cleopatra does not possess. This does not mean that the modern play is in any sense poorer than its seventeenth-century counterpart. Probably we appreciate the play's metatheatricality more than the first audience did;1 possibly we respond more seriously to the play's interest in gender and power.2 Accordingly, the Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra—the play I will try to recreate in some measure—cannot claim to be better than our Antony and Cleopatra; it can only claim to be different. Taking the measure of that difference is the principal purpose of this essay.

The contextualization of Antony and Cleopatra will reveal the politicized resonances of the play's language, characterization, and handling of sources. Contextualization suggests that Shakespeare's poetic styles are themselves politically meaningful. Pompey's gorgeous phrase, “courtiers of beauteous freedom,” so long as it is interpreted without reference to the political connotations of Jacobean language, can be little more than gorgeous (and a little puzzling: what have courtiers to do with freedom?); however the phrase can be recast in an historicized linguistic field in order to clarify both the connotative range of each word and the relationship between the words.

“Courtiers of beauteous freedom” is the crowning phrase in Pompey's verbal attack on the triumvirate. Pompey denigrates his enemies by opposing the mercantile and political present (Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus are “senators” and “factors”; Julius Caesar's ghost saw them “laboring” at Philippi) to the aristocratic and chivalric past (“all-honor'd, honest” Brutus, Cassius, and the “armed rest” were “courtiers” who, when moved “to conspire” by their dedication to freedom, “drenched” the Capitol with Caesar's blood—so that even the assassination was performed with characteristic aristocratic largess). Pompey conceives the moment of his opposition to the triumvirate as historically decisive: either he, as agent of the heroic past, will revive aristocratic values or the triumvirate, the “senators alone of this great world,” will succeed in consolidating the new political culture and so enforce the decline of true Roman values:

To you all three,
The senators alone of this great world,
Chief factors for the gods, I do not know
Wherefore my father should revengers want,
Having a son and friends, since Julius Caesar,
Who at Philippi the good Brutus ghosted,
There saw you laboring for him. What was't
The mov'd pale Cassius to conspire? And what
Made the all-honor'd, honest, Roman Brutus,
With the arm'd rest, courtiers of beauteous freedom,
To drench the Capitol, but that they would
Have one man but a man? And that is it
Hath made me rig my navy, at whose burden
The anger'd ocean foams, with which I meant
To scourge th'ingratitude that despiteful Rome
Cast on my noble father.


Pompey's rhetorical opposition of past to present and of an aristocratic, chivalric ethos to a mercantile, political ethos adumbrates the ideational framework of the play; in terms of the overall design, Antony and Cleopatra belong to the aristocratic, chivalric, magnificent past whereas Caesar represents the mercantile, political, pragmatic present. In the world of the play, the magnificent past persists only in Egypt, the exotic backwater of the empire. “Courtiers of beauteous freedom” helps to situate this opposition in its historical moment of the play itself since it intimates a parallel between the chivalric and heroic past on the one hand and the Court of the late Queen on the other. Just as Elizabeth presided over her splendid courtiers, so “freedom”—“libertas”—was the beauteous queen of the freedom-loving Roman courtiers. Pompey's evocation of the golden past summons the Elizabethan Court out of the shadows in order to lend weight to his argument; and in its turn, the political subtext of the play appropriates Pompey's opposition of Roman past and Roman present to its treatment of the relationship between the Elizabethan past and the Jacobean present. The play's evocation of lost magnificence suggests its nostalgic fealty to the past; however, the play also registers a pragmatic acceptance of the present. The same is true of Pompey's speech: pale Cassius and Roman Brutus are more attractive than the triumvirate, and “courtiers” are more appealing than “factors”—even “factors for the gods”—but Pompey's position is not persuasive since he is driven by futile self-promotion rather than by a desire for justice. Even with respect to individual words, the text imposes questions and qualifications concerning Pompey's rhetorical position. “Courtier,” for example, is a word usually tainted by courtiers' proverbial preciosity and sycophancy (this seems to have been so in spite of the popularity of Hoby's Castiglione). English writers tend to handle the word gingerly and for satiric effect: Spenser, for one, does not use it at all (in any form) in Faerie Queene (although it appears seven times in the satirical and topical “Mother Hubberds Tale”. For Donne, “courtier” is virtually synonymous with venality:

                    He which did lay
Rules to make Courtiers, (hee being understood
May make good Courtiers, but who Courtiers good?)(4)

Hotspur's “popinjay,” Osric (“Dost know this water-fly?”), and the disguised Autolycus represent Shakespeare's normal sense of the thing itself. Autolycus, furthermore, provides an example of Shakespeare's sense of the word's inescapable ironic tonality:

                              Whether it like me or no, I am a courtier.
Seest thou not the air of the court in these
enfoldings? Hath not my gait in it the measure
of the court? Receives not thy nose court-odor
from me? Reflect I not on thy baseness court-contempt?

(Winter's Tale, IV, iv 733-737)

The unironic sense of the word can be recovered only by insistence on the courtly ideal (Spenser achieves this at one point in “Mother Hubberds Tale”),5 but some irony tends to inhere nonetheless. Pompey attempts to purify “courtiers” by projecting the word back into the golden past when gallants worshipped Freedom rather than Vanity; however the text enforces an ironic undercurrent both by collocating “courtiers” with the “poetical” word “beauteous” (OED) and by virtue of Pompey's own folly and self-destructive submission to the antiquated discourse of “honour” (see II.vii.62-85)

The word “freedom” also is politicized within the context of the phrase “courtiers of beauteous freedom.” In the first place, “freedom” acquires the sense of “being free and noble; nobility, generosity, liberality” (OED,3) in addition to its primary meaning, “exemption or release from slavery” (OED,1). That is, “freedom” has in this phrase an aristocratic resonance in addition to its primary meaning. “Freedom's” multivalent significance mediates between the aristocratic past (in which noble rank is signalled by conspicuously unconstrained, or “free”, expenditure), and the mercantile present (in which the freedom of the individual is an attribute of contractual political relations).6 Specifically, as I have already suggested, “freedom” is feminized, invested with a courtly ethos, and even enthroned (by virtue of having courtiers); projected, that is, into the symbolic matrix of the Elizabethan court.

Pompey's ideas about past and present belong and have reference to the imaginative world within the play, but the words and images which he uses to express those ideas embody particular political biases and references which have immediate and unavoidable pertinence to England in 1606-1607. The ghost of the magnificent Queen Elizabeth shadows Pompey's speech, lending strength to his rhetorical attack on the triumvirate; however, as a consequence, Pompey's speech constitutes a reflection upon the perceived shift from Elizabethan magnificence to Jacobean “measure.”


Recent historical and literary research has made us increasingly aware of two movements in early seventeenth-century political culture which constitute important contexts for Antony and Cleopatra. One concerns the nostalgia for Elizabethan Protestant militancy which appeared early in James's reign, specifically in response to the peace James concluded with Spain in 1604.7 The other comprises James's own formulation of an innovative “Roman style” of rule.8 James's revival of the Augustan ideal constituted a “symbolics of power” which shaped the public displays of his peace-making and his plans to unify Scotland and England. A third element consists of two plays which connect Cleopatra with Queen Elizabeth—one by Fulke Greville and another by Samuel Daniel (the first we know only be Greville's own report; the second is extant and was probably known to Shakespeare).9

Emrys Jones has observed that Antony and Cleopatra's emphasis on Octavius—later Augustus—Caesar's role as peacemaker, and its cloaked, and apparently slighting, allusions to Queen Elizabeth, make the play a somewhat sycophantic tribute to King James:

… the play is an imperial work in a special sense; it was written by the leading dramatist of the King's Men, whose patron was James I, the “Emperor” of Great Britain. Although no records survive of the early performances of Antony and Cleopatra, it is hard to resist the notion that this most courtly of Shakespeare's tragedies must have been performed at James's court.

James was England's, or rather “Britain's”, own modern Augustus, for whom Caesar's lines in the play—

The time of universal peace is near.
Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nooked world
Shall bear the olive freely—


would have had a special significance: James was himself an imperial, quasi-Augustan, peacemaker. So the British also, one supposes, have relished the allusions to his predecessor Elizabeth in Cleopatra's scenes with the Messenger—for Elizabeth in Cleopatra's had questioned her ambassador about Mary Stuart in a remarkably similar way.)10

Jones would agree that the Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra possessed a political significance which was lost soon after its initial performances, but he would say that this meaning is an excrescence, an unfortunate product of the need to flatter the King, and hence an aspect of the play we are better off without, indeed an aspect the play is better off without. “Fortunately for us,” Jones comments, “the play transcends the circumstances of its composition.”11 While I agree with Jones about the presence of a political level of meaning in the Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra, I want to disagree with his devaluation of its importance to the design of the play. I want to suggest that it is not an excrescence, but an integral part of the play's meaning; and that it is not essentially court flattery directed at King James, but a representation of contemporary politics directed towards a diverse audience. This, I think, is the crucial point to be made about the play's topicality. After that point has been made, I would certainly agree with Jones that Shakespeare would not have been unhappy if, in addition to the theatre audience, King James also had found the play gratifying.

I want to adjust Jones's assessment of the Jacobean meanings of Antony and Cleopatra by pursuing two lines of argument, one pertaining to the “politics” of the Jacobean theatre and another concerning the relationship between Shakespeare's play and the broad range of texts representative of both Jacobean popular nostalgia for Elizabethan magnificence and Jacobean government attempts to develop an original and effective symbolics of power. In general, the politics of the stage were shaped by the conflicting demands of commercialism and censorship. The heterogeneous audience and the tradition of the drama's engagement with political and social issues help make sense of the topical meaning of a play like Antony and Cleopatra.12 Were Emrys Jones right about the bias of Shakespeare's topicality, that is, were it true that the play was intended primarily to flatter King James by paralleling him to Octavius Caesar, we might expect to find a more consistently attractive portrait of the future emperor. Instead we find a complex figure whom most critics find—to quote A. P. Riemer—“unattractive, perhaps sinister”;13 and yet a figure whom, as actors such as Keith Baxter and Jonathan Pryce have shown, can be played sympathetically, even as a hero.14 Such opposite reading of the character of Octavius show how effectively Shakespeare has contrived to leave unanswered the central questions about Octavius' motivations and morals. To a degree, Shakespeare has surrendered the production of meaning to his audiences: royalist members of the audience—perhaps even a royal audience—are empowered by the text to focus on Octavius' peace-making; members of the audience disenchanted with the King or nostalgic for an earlier reign can emphasize Octavius' machiavellian pursuit of power. Subtle shifts in the actor's presentation of the character will tend to foreground one or the other interpretation so that the play can be adapted for different audiences. The interpretive openness of the characterization of Octavius dovetails with the requirements of a play which was to be performable both at the Globe and at Whitehall. The conditions of production, in short, helped determine the characteristic “balance” (or, more accurately, two-facedness) of Shakespeare's handling of Octavius.

The necessity of writing for different audiences and the pressures of censorship constitute the extrinsic causes of the balance and complexity of Shakespeare's treatment of politics, both Roman and Jacobean. Of course, extrinsic factors are not sufficient in themselves to bring about a balanced view of politics (as the nostalgic works of Dekker, Heywood, and Chapman make clear); however, insofar as the pressures of commercialism and censorship provide the ground for Shakespeare's penetrating critique of the historical competition between opposing symbolics of power, they should be seen as liberating rather than as constraining.

That Antony and Cleopatra can bear comparison with plays explicitly concerned with the memory of Elizabeth has been established by Geoffrey Bullough, Helen Morris, Kenneth Muir, and Keith Rinehart.15 The proposed parallels between the Queen of Egypt and the Queen of England have become familiar to students of the play and have been widely accepted, if only because the claims made for their importance to the play have been so modest. The argument runs something like this: details in the characterization of Cleopatra such as her militancy, her likening herself to a milk-maid (Elizabeth had done likewise in a speech before Parliament), her fiery temper, her fondness for travel in a river-barge, her wit, her immense charm, (all prominent aspects in contemporary accounts of Elizabeth) reveal a characteristically Elizabethan handling of classical source-material. It is as if Shakespeare had used what he knew about Elizabeth in order to work towards an understanding of Cleopatra.

All this is true enough, but we must go further. At the moment of creation and reception, the meaning of the products of imagination is determined largely by political, literary, and linguistic context, and by audience and authorial expectations and modes of understanding attendant upon context. In other words, recollections of Elizabeth in Antony and Cleopatra must take on a particular coloration during the reign of her successor. Recollections of Elizabeth must mean something.

The meaning of these recollections of Elizabeth in Antony and Cleopatra can be elucidated by measuring them against Jacobean nostalgia for “Good Queen Bess's Golden Days.” According to Anne Barton, nostalgia for the late Queen appeared very soon after James came to the throne of England: there are indications of it in Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois (1604); as well as full-scale tributes to the Queen in Heywood's If You Know Not Me (1604), and Dekker's Whore of Babylon (1606).16 There is, of course, no surprise in the fact that, once a king is dead, his people often wish him back again, even though they hated him while he was living. It seems to be the very nature of the populace to lackey the varying tide of events, and the very nature of rulers to become deared only by being lacked. Shakespeare's contemporary, Bishop Godfrey Goodman, explained the Jacobean revival of Elizabeth's memory in similar terms:

… in effect the people were very generally weary of an old woman's government. … But after a few years, when we had experience of the Scottish government, then in disparagement of the Scots, and in hate and detestation of them, the Queen did seem to revive; then was her memory much magnified,—such ringing of bells, such public joy and sermons in commemoration of her, the picture of her tomb painted in many churches, and in effect more solemnity and joy in memory of her coronation than was for the coming in of King James.17

Late in James's reign and largely in response to the Kings' “appeasement” of Catholic Spain, recollections of Elizabeth became weapons in the hands of Protestant propagandists like Thomas Scot; and nostalgia even figured in the plays which both expressed and promoted popular dissatisfaction with English non-involvement in the Continental wars—plays such as Massinger's Maid of Honour (1621) and Drue's Duchess of Suffolk (1624). This propagandistic nostalgia belongs both to the last years of James's reign and to the early Caroline period; however, several early instances do seem politically purposeful, and one of these in particular (Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra) is relevant to the present discussion.

When Daniel revised his play early in James's reign, he added a new first scene patently intended to express his unhappiness with the 1604 cessation of hostilities against Spain. Daniel's Cleopatra becomes in this scene a despairing mater patriae, to whom her son, Caesario, holds out hope of their ultimate victory over Roman hegemony. Cleopatra irresistibly evokes the memory of the militantly anti-Catholic Queen of England. Caesario's speech is transparent political allegory in which ancient Rome stands for the Spanish-Catholic domination of Europe and the Roman Provinces stand for the besieged Protestant Provinces of the Netherlands:

Deare soveraigne mother, suffer not your care
To tumult thus with th'honor of your state:
These miseries of our no strangers are,
Nor is it new to be unfortunate.
And this good, let your many sorrows past
Worke on your heart t'inharden it at last.
Looke but on all the neighbour States beside,
Of Europe, Afrique, Asia and but note
What Kings? what States? hath not the Roman pride
Ransackt, confounded, or els servile brought?
And since we are so borne that by our fate,
Against these storms we cannot now bear saile,
And that the boisterous current of their state
Will beare down all our fortunes, and prevaile:
Let us yet temper with the time: and thinke
The windes may change, and all these States opprest,
Colleagu'd in one, may turne again to sincke
Their Greatnesse, who now holds them all distrest
And I may lead their troupes, and at the walles
Of greedie Rome, revenge the wronged blood
And doe th'inthralled Provinces this good.
And therefore my deare mother doe not leave
hope the best. I doubt not my returne.(18)

It might seem as if Daniel though any vehicle would serve to bear his anti-Catholic message, but in allegorizing Cleopatra he was in fact following the example of his friend Fulke Greville. According to his own account, Greville wrote and then destroyed an Antony-and-Cleopatra play because he feared it might be construed as a criticism of Elizabeth's destruction of her own great general—the Earl of Essex. Greville sacrificed his manuscript to the fire, he says, because he thought it might be “strained to a personating of vices in the present Governors, and government. … And again in the practice of the world, seeing the like instance not poetically, but really fashioned in the Earle of Essex then falling; and ever till then worthily beloved, both of the Queen, and people …”19 There is, of course, no reason to think that Shakespeare knew Greville's play. But Shakespeare certainly knew, and was influenced by, the 1594 version of Cleopatra. Some scholars think that Daniel's 1607 version was in turn influenced by a production of Antony and Cleopatra; others disagree.20 Such precise questions of literary indebtedness will probably remain unanswered. The crucial point to be made, however, is that London was a tightly-knit literary community, and that men like Shakespeare and Daniel were likely to be interested to see what each had done with the same material.

The literary connexion between Cleopatra and Elizabeth is complimented by James's self-representation as Caesar Augustus.21 James's coronation medal was inscribed: “IAC: I: BRIT: CAE: AVG: HAE CAESARUM CAE. D. D.” (“James I, Caesar Augustus of Britain, Caesar the heir of the Caesars”).22 Panegyric poems on the occasions of James's accession to the English throne introduced an imperial motif: and royal encomium became explicitly Augustan when Jonson undertook to lionize the King in the 1604 royal entry.23 Here, in the streets of London on March 15, 1604, and in the most elaborate and costly procession of the age, Jonson's Temple Bar Arch (the last of seven) and his panegyric of welcome in The Strand heralded the King as the new Augustus. A fourfaced head of Janus crowned the Arch; at James's approach, the gates closed on Janus, signifying the peculiarly Augustan peace-making attendant upon the onset of James's reign. On the gates was written: “IMP. IACOBVS MAX. CAESAR AVG. P.P.” (“Emperor James the Great, Caesar Augustus, Father of the Country”).24 In The Strand the figure of Electra reiterated the comparison:

Let ignorance know, great king, this day is thine,
And doth admit no night; but all doe shine
As well nocturnall, as diurnall fires,
To adde unto the flame of our desires.
Which are (now thou hast closd up Janus gates,
And giv'n so generall peace to all estates)
That no offensive mist, or cloudie staine
May mixe with splendor of thy golden raigne;
.....This from that loud, blest Oracle, I sing,
Who here, and first pronounc'd, thee Brit[t]aines king.
Long maist thou live, and see me thus appeare,
As omenous a comet, from my spheare,
Unto thy raigne; as that did auspicate
lasting glory to Augustus state.(25)

The Augustan image-making associated both with James's peace-making and with his plans to unite England and Scotland, the parallels between Elizabeth and Shakespeare's and Daniel's Cleopatra, and the increasing tendency to draw invidious comparisons between the late Queen and King James constitute the political-literary context of Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare organizes this complex material according to an idea of a Fall. The originary period is figured as golden, but only from the postlapsarian point of view; such a relationship suggests that the golden age is a product of the iron age's imaginative formulation of its own etiology. That is, Shakespeare understands that nostalgia for the golden past is normally a secret legitimation of the present. Understanding this allows Antony and Cleopatra to retain the late-Elizabethan critical view of the Queen within its own nostalgic evocation of the Elizabethan era.

The extraordinary style of Elizabeth's rule is appreciatively evoked in Antony and Cleopatra; moreover the regret which attends the play's rejection of Elizabethan style is not feigned but rather is assimilated in the play's qualified endorsation of the present. Cleopatra shares Elizabeth's magnificence, her showiness, her ability to “caress” the people and “make them good cheer”—to use the words of the Venetian ambassador.26 Shakespeare's Cleopatra, furthermore, evokes Elizabeth's militancy (and as Helen Morris has pointed out, this trait is without warrant in Plutarch):27

                              Sink Rome, and their tongues rot
That speak against us! A charge we bear i' th' war,
And, as the president of my kingdom, will
Appear there for a man.


However, whereas Cleopatra's “public body” is figured in terms of magnificence (an attribute which Spenser had identified as the perfection of all the virtues),28 her private body is lapped in luxuria and vanitas. Her queenly pleasure at her people's devotion (again the Venetian ambassador's words about Elizabeth)29 is an expression both of her vanity and of the public, “corporate,” joy a ruler properly feels at the happy order of her commonwealth. That is, the characterization of Cleopatra forces into the open the contradictions attendant upon female rule in a patriarchal society.30 Cleopatra upon the river of Cydnus, enthroned in the market-place (“in chairs of gold … In th' habiliments of the goddess Isis” [ 4,17]), “levying / The kings o' th' earth for war” ( is at once an evocation both of England's great and “popular” Queen and of the demonized archetype of female rule—the Whore of Babylon. Shakespeare has incorporated in one character the fiercely contradictory aspects of Elizabeth's rule, aspects which Spenser had been able to keep separate—had been compelled to keep separate—in pairs of opposing characters such as Lucifera and the Faerie Queene, Malecasta and Britomart, Radigund and Britomart. As an unfolding of the contradiction attendant upon the Elizabethan symbolics of power, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a repudiation of female rule, a demonstration of its volatility and inefficacy. While Cleopatra's splendid showy victory over Octavius encourages the audience's admiration, it nonetheless leaves the loser master of the world. In the wake of her suicidal leap towards the divine, the world, newly settled in the Pax Augusta, can graciously acknowledge—and dismiss—her now disarmed charisma: “she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (V.ii.345-7). Cleopatra has been transformed into a monument; the world can return to business.

Antony and Cleopatra's repudiation of Elizabethan style would seem to make the play—as Emrys Jones has suggested—a tribute to King James, Elizabeth's successor and himself the engineer of the Pax Britannica. However Octavius' pacification of the “three-nook'd world” precipitates a fall into the mercantile (as opposed to the aristocratic). Augustan rule will not be “royal”; on the contrary, it will be a factor's peace under the shroud of “the universal landlord.” Even on the eve of battle, Caesar parsimoniously adheres to the principle of “measure”—“And feast the army; we have store to do't, / And they have earn'd the waste” (IV.i.16-17). By yoking the Augustan ideal to mercantilism, Shakespeare is able to produce a subtle critique of Jonson's figuration of James as Caesar. Further, Shakespeare's refiguration of the Augustan symbolics of power includes James's well-known anti-popularism: both Octavius and James are contemptuous of their people (this trait in Octavius has little warrant in Plutarch; rather it seems to derive from James):

He does not caress the people nor make them that good cheer the late Queen did, whereby she won their loves: for the English adore their Sovereigns, and if the King passed through the same street a hundred times a day the people would still run to see him; they like their King to show pleasure at their devotion, as the late Queen knew well how to do; but his King manifests no taste for them but rather contempt and dislike.31

Octavius' conquest is necessary since it brings peace and since it is destined (in the real-life world, Elizabeth is dead, James is King)—

Be you not troubled with the time, which drives
O'er your content these strong necessities,
But let determin'd things to destiny
Hold unbewail'd their way.


However manifest Octavius' destiny might or might not be (note the Virgilian exigency is his words to his sister [see Aeneid, IV.331-61]), the play's emotional endorsation of its own movement towards Augustan rule remains burdened by Caesar's mercenary coldness. Both Octavius' and James's special failing as rulers lies in their perverse response to public celebration: they fail to give assent to the sense of joyful community which had flourished—or which was beginning to seem to have flourished—under Elizabeth.32 For this reason, Octavius' ideal version of a triumphal entry is not celebratory but rather perverted and even sadistic:

                                                            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.


Antony and Cleopatra then, considered in its context, may be seen to comprehend the full range of contemporary response to the shift from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule, from Daniel's disappointment and hostility to Jonson's reverential approval. The play's range of response represents the fullest possible treatment of the complex state of political culture in 1606-1607. The reiterated off-stage immanence of the nativity of Christ lends positive value to Octavius' peace-making, however suspect it might be on its own account,33 and Cleopatra's engaging magnificence is tempered by our knowledge of her vanity and her failure. Antony and Cleopatra's endorsation of Jacobean imperial rule is shadowed by the emerging myth of the militant Protestant Queen, a formulation of feminized and millenarian power which would harass James throughout his reign.34


The language of Antony and Cleopatra resonates most clearly in the linguistic milieu of the early seventeenth century. Thus the word “business” in Octavius' truncated eulogy for Antony (V.i.50) seals the demise of Roman—and Elizabethan—chivalry, signalling by its degraded status the ascendency of the new “political” style of rule.35 However, the play's language has special attachments with culturally privileged texts such as the Bible, Horace, Virgil, and Spenser. These connexions, especially those with the Book of Revelations and with the style of the Augustan poets, contribute importantly to Shakespeare's contrasting treatment of Elizabethan and Jacobean rule.

To put the matter in broad terms, the poetic framework of Antony and Cleopatra consists in an opposition between Augustan style and apocalyptic allusion.36 This stylistic opposition subsumes the ethical opposition (as adumbrated in Pompey's speech) between new, “political,” mercantile (associated with the Jacobean reign) and old, chivalric, aristocratic (that is, as it was in “good Queen Bess's golden days”). This opposition between Augustan and apocalyptic, moreover, crystallizes in a peculiarly literary way the competing claims of two distinct systems of propagandistic symbolism. Jacobean royal propaganda, as it emerged in 1604, was this-worldly and “civic,” coloured by the Jonson's recollections of the pacific achievements of Caesar Augustus. Elizabethan propaganda, in contrast, as developed by Bale, Foxe, Spenser, and others, was other-worldly and cosmic—indeed the apocalyptic myth of the Elect Nation and the myth of Elizabeth were of a piece.37 The propagandistic contexts of the two monarchs were opposed: James's was largely classical, Elizabeth's mostly biblical.38 In its own struggle between classical and biblical modes of expression, Antony and Cleopatra registers and critiques this competition between the politicized allusive fields associated with Elizabeth and James.

Augustan style is characterized by weight and authority; it is forthright, decorous, regular, and balanced; each phrase and each syllable is “wrought in season” (Jonson's phrase).39 Poetry of this kind is urbane rather than metaphysical; it deals with what can be known and expressed, and does not attempt to utter what Carew called (in praising Donne's poetry) “the deepe knowledge of darke truths.”40 Urbanity and balance distinguish much of the verse in Antony and Cleopatra. In the play's first speech, for example, words and phrases are doubled and even trebled in order to lend the verse sentence the weight and authority characteristic of Augustan poetry:

                    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.


At its best, the play's Augustan verse is expressive of the exigencies of power (as in Antony's “strong necessity of time” speech [I.iii.41-56]); at its worst, it remains business-like even if self-important (as in Octavius' first speech [I.iv.1-10]). In every instance, it is realistic and this-worldly; and in this respect it is differentiated from the series of allusions to Revelations.

The allusions to Revelations, first noted by Ethel Seaton, introduce the possibility of a transcendent level of being into the materialist world of the play.42 In general terms, the possibility of transcendence can be taken two ways—either as an indication of the fundamental and undermining limitations of Antony and Cleopatra or as a sign of their nascent spiritual superiority over a pagan world.43 In terms of the topicality of the play, however, the pertinence of Revelations becomes clear once we understand the millenarian cast of most Elizabethan propaganda (indeed Dekker's Whore of Babylon—which portrays the godly struggle of Elizabeth and her English against the Spanish Antichrist—was produced in 1606, that is within a year of Antony and Cleopatra).

The allusions to Revelations are excessive in form as well as in content. Antony's first two lines in the play contain the first such allusion; they are hypermetrical and breathless, and are set off against Cleopatra's curt pentameters:

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


Antony and Cleopatra on the one hand and Octavius Caesar on the other compete for advantage in the play's intertextual arena. Both the lovers and the emperor-to-be attempt to claim the protagonist's role in a struggle whose principal lineaments derive from Revelations. Most of the biblical references belong to one or the other lover: Antony wishes to find “new heaven, new earth” in order to define his and Cleopatra's extraordinary romance; when Antony is discovered on his sword, his soldiers echo an apocalyptic lament—

second guard
The star is fall'n.
first guard
And time is at his period.
Alas, and woe!


And when Cleopatra remembers Antony (“His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm / Crested the world” [V.ii.81-91]), he assumes the proportions of an Angel of the Apocalypse—

And I sawe another mightie Angel come downe from heaven, clothed with a cloude, and the rainebowe upon his head, & his face was as the sunne, and his feete as pillers of fyre. And he had in his hand a litle boke open, and he put his right fote upon the sea, and his left on the earth, And cryed with a lowde voyce, as when a lyon roareth: and when he had cryed, seven thondres uttered their voyces … And the Angel which I sawe stand upon the sea and upon the earth, lift up his ha[n]d to heaven, And sware by him that liveth for evermore … that time should be more.45

In Cleopatra's struggle for ascendency over Octavius, reminiscences of Revelations serve to enhance her self-portrayal by figuring her political position as the Faithful threatened by the Roman Antichrist. Once she has outwitted Caesar and has costumed herself for a grand suicide, Cleopatra goes to meet Mark Antony, whom, for the first time, she addresses as “husband”: “Husband, I come! / Now to that name my courage prove my title!” (V.ii.287-8). The “trimming” of her diadem (341), the conjoined elements of sacrifice, loyalty, “immortal longings,” and transcendent marriage after long trial all enforce the parallel with Revelations; and the imagined marriage in the afterlife crowns and completes the lovers' initial paradisal intuitions, so that (from Cleopatra's point of view) the span of her relationship with Antony can be summed in two crucial verses from Revelations:

And I sawe a new heaven, & a new earth: for the first heaven, and the first earth were passed away, & there was no more sea. And I John sawe the holie citie newe Jerusalem come down from God out of heaven, pared as a bride trimmed for her housband.46

From the Roman point of view, on the other hand, Cleopatra is the Whore of Babylon rather than the Bride of the Lamb (this is, of course, wildly out-of-place, but is nonetheless quite explicit in the text). Octavius echoes the Bible in decrying Cleopatra as “a whore” who is “levying / The kings o' th' earth for war” ( It follows that the destruction of Cleopatra is a necessary precondition of Augustan “universal peace” (note that this peculiarly apocalyptic view of the struggle between Caesar and Cleopatra dovetails with the Augustan view set forth in Horace's Ode on the fall of Cleopatra and in Virgil's ekphrastic rendering of the Battle of Actium in the Aeneid).48

The doubleness and struggle which attends Shakespeare's use of Revelations in the play, the opposite and conflicting ways in which apocalyptic allusion can colour that play's central conflict, contributes to the complexity of the play's evocation of Elizabethan rule, and matches—as I have already suggested—the bifurcated allegorial presentation of Elizabeth in Faerie Queene. Spenser's poem, written during Elizabeth's reign, plays out the cultural struggle to come to terms with a Queen who was both the leader of the Elect Nation and also a notoriously vain woman, enacting the wider controversy in its own divided allegorization of the Queen and in its wealth of incriminating detail (Lucifera is “A mayden Queene” [I.iv.8], Malecasta's robes are uncannily like those of “the virgin Eliza” [III.i.59]).49 Shakespeare's Jacobean play is able to force together these contrary qualities in the character of Cleopatra, and to invest that character with the Jacobean nostalgias for the millenarian aspirations of the Elizabethan era. The play suggests, then, that the death of the great Queen and the accession of the peacemaker has tamed the violent energies of female rule, but that it has also precipitated a fall into secular—as opposed to apocalyptic—history.


It is the distinguishing feature of great drama that it can make itself at home before different audiences, that it can adapt to radically differing modes of response. This, as I have argued, was true of Antony and Cleopatra in 1606-1607 when—possibly—it was performed both at the Globe and at Court; it is certainly true now since the play continues to flourish even though it has lost the topical level of meaning which I have argued it possessed at first. The first audiences of Antony and Cleopatra would not, I think, have felt any more intensely than we the fierce contraries embodied in Egypt's Queen, but they would have apprehended these contraries more complexly than we, as political as well as moral, responding to the play as they were out of a specific, immediate, and deeply-felt political frame of reference.


  1. See Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 102-68.

  2. For a recent discussion of the play's treatment of gender and power, see Theodora A. Jankowski, “‘As I Am Egypt' Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic,” in Assays. Critical approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts, 5 (1989), 91-110.

  3. All Shakespeare quotations are from Complete Works, ed. David Bevington, 3rd ed. (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1980).

  4. John Donne, Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Grierson (rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1966), Satyre V, II. 2-4.

  5. “Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubberds Tale,” in Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), II. 717ff. Note that even in this passage, Spenser reverts to the phrase “Courtly Gentleman” (1. 753).

  6. See also Troilus and Cressida, I.iii.235-6, where the collocation of “courtiers” and “free” also highlights the aristocratic sense of the word.

  7. See Anne Barton, “Harking Back to Elizabeth: Ben Jonson and Caroline Nostalgia,” ELH, 48 (1981), 706-31; for a dissenting view, see D. R. Woolf, “Two Elizabeths? James I and the Late Queen's Famous Memory,” Canadian Journal of History, 20:2 (Aug. 1985), 167-91.

  8. For a brilliant discussion of James's Roman style, see Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 27-54; see also Graham Parry, The Golden Age Restor'd: The Culture of the Stuart Court, 1603-42 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), pp. 15-20; Howard Erskine-Hill, The Augustan Idea in English Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1983), pp. 99-178; H. Neville Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), 123-58.

  9. The connexion between Greville's lost play and Antony and Cleopatra was noted by Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75), 5:216-17.

  10. Emrys Jones, “Introduction,” Antony and Cleopatra (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977). pp. 46-7. I should note that the dates are against the Melville/Messenger parallel. The incident itself happened in 1564 (the year of Shakespeare's birth), and Melville's Memoirs were not published until 1683; it is unlikely that the exchange between Elizabeth and Melville would have still been a matter of public knowledge in 1606-07.

  11. Jones, p. 47

  12. For an extensive discussion of the politics of the Jacobean Theatre, see the present author's “the Powerless Theater,” forthcoming, in ELR.

  13. A.P. Riemer, A Reading of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968), p. 39.

  14. See Margaret Lamb, Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980), p. 164; and Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,” p. 123-4.

  15. Bullough, Sources of Shakespeare, 5:216-17; Helen Morris, “Queen Elizabeth I ‘Shadowed’ in Cleopatra,” HLQ 32 (1968-69), 271-8, Kenneth Muir, “Elizabeth I, Jodelle, and Cleopatra,” Renaissance Drama, ns 2 (1969), 197-206; and Keith Rinehart, “Shakespeare's Cleopatra and England's Elizabeth,” SQ, 23 (1972), 81-6.

  16. Barton, “Caroline Nostalgia,” p. 712.

  17. Quoted in Robert Ashton, ed., James I by his Contemporaries: An Account of his Career and Character as Seen by Some of his Contemporaries (London: Hutchinson, 1969), p. 77.

  18. Samuel Daniel, Cleopatra, in The Complete Works in Verse and Prose, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 5 vols. (rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), 3:5.

  19. Quoted in Bullough, 5:217.

  20. Those who have argued that the 1607 Cleopatra was influenced by Antony and Cleopatra include J. Leeds Barroll, “The Chronology of Shakespeare's Jacobean Plays and the Dating of Antony and Cleopatra,” in Essays on Shakespeare ed. Gordon Ross Smith (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965), pp. 138-45; and Lamb, Antony on the Stage, pp. 180-5. Those who disagree include Ernest Schanzer, “Daniel's Revision of his Cleopatra,Res, ns 8 no 32 (1957), 375-81; and Bullough, 5:231-2.

  21. See note 7; the present author's argument was presented in a paper, “Egyptian Past, Roman Future: The Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,” at the meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, April 1986.

  22. See Davies, 125, 149n4.

  23. For a good account of this pageant, see Parry, Golden Age, pp. 1-21.

  24. Ben Jonson, ed. ClH. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, II vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), 7:105.

  25. Ben Jonson, 7:107-109.

  26. Quoted in Ashton, p. 10.

  27. Morris, 276-7.

  28. See Spenser, Works, p. 407.

  29. Quoted in Ashton, p. 10

  30. See Jankowski, “Female Body Politic”; see also Louis Adrian Montrose, “'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations, 1 (1983), 61-94. For a brilliant discussion of Shakespeare's figuration of the Queen in 1 Henry VI, see Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 51-92.

  31. Quoted in Ashton, p. 10. Note that Antony's fondest desire in his dotage upon Cleopatra is to “wander through the streets and note / The qualities of people” (I.i.54-5), and it is precisely this princely enthusiasm for the people that draws Octavius' most nauseated criticism: “Let's grant it is not / Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy, / And keep the turn of tippling with a slave, / To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet / With knaves that smell of sweat” (I.iv.17-21).

  32. See Goldberg, Politics of Literature, pp. 30-2.

  33. For a discussion of the implied Christian ethos in the play, see Andrew Fichter, “‘Antony and Cleopatra’: ‘The Time of Universal Peace,’” Shakespeare Survey, 33 (1980), 99-111.

  34. For a good discussion of the effects of the myth of Elizabeth upon James's relations with the English, see R. Malcolm Smuts, Court Culture and the Origins of a Royalist Tradition in Early Stuart England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), pp. 15-37.

  35. Caesar's bathetic shift from a noble eulogistic tone highlights the degraded sense of the word “business.” A few examples of the degradation of this word include the following: Winter's Tale, I.ii.227-8 (where the word has not uncommon sexual connotation); “On Don Surly” (Ben Jonson, 8:35,II.7-8); “The Praises of the Country Life” (Jonson, 8:289,II.1-2); and “Breake of Day” (Donne, Poetical Works, p. 22, II.13, 16-17). The choice of the word “business” constitutes a weak and self-betraying moment in Caesar's attempts to appropriate the heroic language which belongs to the past generation.

  36. See Jones, “Introduction,” Antony and Cleopatra, p. 46, for the suggestion that Shakespeare's style is reminiscent of Horace. For a discussion of Shakespeare's “transvaluation” of the Augustan ethos, see Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation: From Virgillian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), esp. pp. 140ff.

  37. See William Haller, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963); and Elkin Calhoun Wilson, England's Eliza (rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1966), esp. 3-95.

  38. See Goldberg, Politics of Literature, p. 33.

  39. Ben Jonson, 8:245, II. 60-61.

  40. The Poems of Thomas Carew, ed. Rhodes Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), p. 72, I. 19.

  41. Cf., for example, Horace, “Ode XXXVII,” in The Odes and Epodes, trans. C. E. Bennett (rev. London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 98, esp. II. 104; and Virgil, Aeneid, bk. I, II. 1-7, in Virgil, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, 2 vols. (rev. London: Heinemann, 1974), 1:240.

  42. Ethel Seaton, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Book of Revelation,RES, 22 (1946), 219-24.

  43. See Fichter, “Time of Universal Peace,” pp. 99-111; and Seaton, esp. p. 224.

  44. See Revelations, 8.10, in The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); cited by Seaton, pp. 219-20.

  45. Revelations, 10. 1-6; cited by Seaton, pp. 220-1.

  46. Revelations, 21. 1-2.

  47. See Revelations, 17. 1-2; cited by Seaton, p. 223.

  48. See Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino: Huntington Library Publications, 1966), pp. 146-8.

  49. See The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), gloss on III.i.59.

Laura Severt King (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Blessed When They Were Riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 429-49.

[In the following essay, King suggests that Shakespeare portrays competing images of the “penitent prostitute” in the characterization of Cleopatra, who resembles prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages. Like these women, Cleopatra is associated with both sexual incontinence and supernatural power.]

All eroticism has a sacramental character.

—Georges Bataille, Erotism1

Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.

—Luke 7:47

Among the extraordinary claims Enobarbus makes for Cleopatra in the second act of Antony and Cleopatra is that “the holy priests / Bless her, when she is riggish” (2.2.239-40).2 Concluding one of Shakespeare's most paradoxical passages, this final paradox alienates Cleopatra utterly from ecclesiastically sanctioned sexual values of early seventeenth-century England, at the same time linking her to the sacred eroticism of ancient Near Eastern cultures.3 But this seeming sexual exoticism participates in an indigenous devotional and theatrical tradition as well—one effaced, but not eradicated, by Continental and English reformers. As do the prostitute-saints of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cleopatra embodies a theologically problematic connection between sexual incontinence and supernatural power. In this essay, I will suggest that in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare dramatizes competing visions of the penitent prostitute: one that celebrates a sexual profligacy transformed by conversion and one that insists on a sexual profligacy eliminated by conversion. I will argue that Cleopatra's death is not triumphant but tragic, in part because she repudiates her supernaturally potent eroticism, trading the iconography of Isis for that of the Virgin Mary. To make this case, I will examine the theatrical and devotional tradition of the penitent prostitute at length, then turn to Shakespeare and his sources.

During the Middle Ages, the figure of the prostitute-saint attracted a disproportionate share of popular devotion, learned commentary, and theatrical attention. As early as the tenth century, the vexed relationship between unruly sexuality and supernatural power emerged in dramatic form in two plays by Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.4 In the first of these, The Fall and Repentance of Mary, the relationship is conventionally antagonistic. Mary, an anchoress and niece of the hermit Abraham, runs away from her cell and turns to prostitution when she loses her virginity to a lascivious monk. After a friend's two-year search locates her, Abraham seeks out his niece in the guise of a client. Inside the brothel where she works, he reveals his identity and persuades her to resume the ascetic life she has abandoned. Wearing a hair shirt and fasting, she proves a pious example to those she previously corrupted. Abraham tells his friend that it is a sign of God's redemptive power that a sinner can be so restored. Mary thus embodies the paradox of the great sinner become a great saint, but not the problematic erotic continuity found in other vitae.

It is Hrotsvit's second play about a prostitute-saint, The Conversion of the Harlot Thais, that hints at a meaningful connection between eroticism and spiritual force.5 While Mary is passively redeemed in spite of her wantonness and ends up equal to her deliverer in God's sight, Thais virtually reforms herself in a way consistent with her wantonness and ends up surpassing both her deliverer and his fellow desert fathers. The reputation of Thais, a beautiful and widely desired prostitute, comes to the attention of the learned hermit Pafnutius, who resolves to approach her as Abraham did Mary. When he gains access to her chambers, he threatens her with the wrath of God, thereby ostensibly persuading her to renounce her lucrative profession and retire to a sealed anchoress's cell. After leaving Thais in the cell for three years, Pafnutius seeks to know whether her penance has propitiated God, so he inquires of a fellow hermit, Antonius, who sets his disciples the task of praying for an answer. One disciple shortly has a dream of a celestial bed, which he assumes is meant for his master. A heavenly voice corrects him, however, saying that the bed is “Thaidi meretrici” (for Thais, the whore).6 Pafnutius returns to Thais and informs her that in fifteen days she will ascend to heaven. Finding her humble and godly, the hermit prays with her at her death.

The initial impression left by the play is that Pafnutius radically changes Thais, as Abraham has changed Mary. But throughout the work, Hrotsvit—often departing significantly from her source—questions Pafnutius's importance to Thais's conversion and even the conversion itself. The prologue begins this questioning. Without reinstating the critical contempt for the prologue that recent scholarship has sought to dispel,7 I suggest that the earlier critics were not entirely wrong: that a species of contempt is exactly what Hrotsvit is trying to elicit in this long and abstract discussion—not contempt for her dramaturgy, of course, but for Pafnutius's pedantry. As even the prologue's staunchest defenders have pointed out, it is structurally unrelated to the rest of the play. I suggest that if the prologue is detached, then it is deliberately so—that Pafnutius's lengthy philosophical speech is somehow extraneous to the real movement of the play.

The prologue also contains a Biblical quotation that generates skepticism of Pafnutius's role. After the hermit's dissertation on music, which has clearly wearied the disciples, they thank him and say: “Sed terremur sententia Apostoli dicentis, ‘Nam stulta mundi elegit Deus, ut confunderet sophistica.’” (“But we fear the words of the Apostle, who says, “God has chosen the foolish to confound the wise.”)8 The whole verse, 1 Corinthians 1:27, reads in the Vulgate: “Sed quae stulta sunt mundi elegit Deus / ut confundat sapientes / et infirma mundi elegit Deus / ut confundant fortia.” (“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak of the world to confound the strong.”) This quotation has too much resonance in Hrotsvit's dramatic cycle to be carelessly placed. It could, in fact, be the motto of most of her plays, those in which Hrotsvit's weak virgins overcome their strong oppressors and would-be seducers. But if we accept Pafnutius at face value as the wise deliverer of a wretched sinner, it cannot be the motto of this play. By reminding us here that God has chosen the foolish to confound the wise, Hrotsvit achieves several ends: she deflates Pafnutius's learning, she prepares us to view Thais as spiritually superior to Pafnutius, and she forges a subtle link between Thais and her other, ostensibly more virtuous, heroines.

The undercutting of Pafnutius continues throughout the play, and it is particularly evident against the background of The Fall and Repentance of Mary. When Pafnutius arrives at Thais's house, he finds therein a sanctuary and finds also that she already accepts the tenets of the Christian faith. Mary, who before her seduction had the benefit of twenty years' religious teaching, hasn't given her religion a thought during her tenure in the brothel. A little later, Thais instinctively does the right thing in publicly burning the spoils of her career and denouncing her past. Mary, on the other hand, has to be told what to do with her earnings. For the entirety of Thais's penance, Pafnutius is absent; he therefore has no influence on the quality of her atonement. Abraham remains with Mary to oversee her penance. Pafnutius's importance in Thais's conversion is diminished by the knowledge she already has when he enters her life and by the spiritual autonomy she immediately develops. The diminution of Pafnutius's role locates the paradox of the sinner-saint in Thais's character, rather than in her circumstances, as was the case with Mary. And her final achievement, the heavenly bed, asserts a meaningful erotic continuity between Thais's life before her conversion and afterward.

By the early seventeenth century, this paradoxical erotic continuity was overt, at least in Catholic writing. A long narrative poem on the life of Mary of Egypt illustrates some major themes in early modern vitae of prostitute-saints, as well as some developmental trends. Known in Europe throughout the Middle Ages by means of countless Latin and vernacular versions of her story (including one possibly by Aelfric), Mary became a saintly superstar in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Whereas earlier versions of her legend featured her interlocutor, Zozimus, as the central character,9 high medieval redactions deemphasized the desert father in favor of Mary.10 The saint not only gained literary and cultic importance but also furnished material to other, kindred figures, most prominently Mary Magdalene. Thus, interestingly, there is continuity both within and between the lives of late medieval prostitute-saints.

A paradoxical continuity within the early modern vita of Mary of Egypt is evident in the opening lines, as the poet pronounces the legendary figure “Great in hir loosenesse, greater in restraint, / A wondrous sinner, a more wondrous saint.”11 Linking her lascivious and her ascetic periods rhetorically as well as logically, the poet hints at the origin of Mary's sanctity in her unrestrained sexuality. She is both the most incontinent woman in the world and, ultimately, God's favorite creature: “Yet no one soule could fixe with more delight / Th'almighty eye, then that poore naked wight. / … / O powerful charme: the very name could mouse / Both the effects of pardon, and of loue.”12

Mary's story is relatively uncomplicated. Born in the Nile delta to old but loving parents, she inexplicably leaves home at puberty, headed for Alexandria and a life of pleasure. In the city, she attempts to gratify prodigious sexual appetites but remains “stil vnsatisfyed, and neuer tyrd.”13 Interestingly enough, lust is for Mary an avocation, rather than a vocation; she takes in sewing and begs in order to support her sexual activity. One day, she joins a group of pilgrims travelling to see the true cross in the Holy Land. Having seduced countless pilgrims converging on the site, she attempts to continue her solicitations inside the church housing the cross, but is magically prevented from entering the tabernacle. After several thwarted attempts, she flings herself beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary, comprehends the enormity of her sins, and prays for aid. Immediately, she is granted a beatitude and entry to the church. Having revered the cross, she heads for the desert (stopping at a nearby church for another beatitude) to live out her mortal existence as an ascetic.

Zozimus meets Mary as an old woman blackened by the sun and covered with hair. She has spent the first seventeen years of her desert existence alternately tormented by desire and uplifted by bliss, although, since the age of forty-seven, she has enjoyed undisturbed bliss. Zozimus's response to her is surprisingly passionate. He thinks about her continually in quite romantic terms. Shortly after he brings the host to her in the desert, she dies, to be buried by him (with a little help from a lion) nearly a year later.

Both the paradox and the continuity that inhere in Mary appear in the language of the conversion scene, as is evident in her description, to Zozimus, of her experience at the foot of the cross:

Here feare and horrour, springing from the tyde
Of ouer-flowing ioye, my soule deuide,
Guilty of its owne sins: a flood of teares,
Badges of inward sorrow, drowne my feares
In seas of true content: no ioye hath life
Compared to this sad ioye, this ioye-ful griefe:
Hence springs true hatred of my former sins,
Hence heauenly loue with better hopes begins
To spread pure flames, and my best part inspires,
O that a streame of tears should rayse such fyres!
The marbled flooer groueling I embrac't,
And cleans'd the checkerd flags with kisses chast.(14)

More than simply oxymoronic, Mary's response demonstrates a genuine simultaneity of two radically different emotional and ontological states. Furthermore, her devotional reflex—burning, kissing, and embracing—is utterly consistent with her ostensibly repudiated past; it is similarly sexual and similarly unrestrained.

Intemperance and pleasure are important themes elsewhere, both before and long after Mary's conversion. As she joins the pilgrim youths bound for the holy land, Mary reports that she was “Hoping, if euer, in such choice to find / Pleasure, as ample as my boundlesse mind.”15 Later, as Mary experiences a beatitude so profound as to still the motion of the spheres, she “feedes / On pleasure, which all words, al thought exceedes.”16 Caroline Bynum points out that medieval women's lives tend to be marked more by continuity than by radical change.17 Here we see that even lives that should admit of almost no continuity (that of the wealthy courtesan who moves to an excrement-filled anchorage or the urban sensualist who adopts a desert habitat) show quite astonishing continuities between the periods before and after conversion.

In Mary's case, these continuities are both internal and environmental; that is, the universe continues to respond to her erotically after her conversion. As Mary walks away from their first meeting, Zozimus reports:

The ayre receaues her on glad wings, the grasse
Prest lightly with her foot steps, as they passe
Forceth to rise again (you'd say) to meet
Its happinesse and kisse her sacred feet:
The woods haste to incounter their lou'd ghest,
The leafes to whispering windes their ioys exprest.(18)

Alone in the desert for several decades, Mary nonetheless generates identifiable sexual excitement in the natural world. This environmental response becomes most intense at a key point in the poem: the moment at which Mary performs her most resonant miracle. As Mary crosses the River Jordan without recourse to a bridge, Zozimus observes:

The waues the while more smooth and softly sleet
Playing soft musike to her naked feet,
Which (forc't by vpper streames to part) they kisse
And murmure, as rob'd of their greatest blisse.(19)

As Mary recapitulates Christ's action in walking upon water, as she explicitly appears “like to himself [God] in greatnesse,”20 the language of the poem becomes undeniably erotic. This not only recalls her earlier sexuality but also links it to something very like an apotheosis. In other words, the female saint's great power lies not so much in repudiating her sexuality as in transforming it and extending it into the natural and supernatural worlds.

In general, the Middle Ages greatly admired prostitute-saints, although it produced few.21 None was more admired—or finally more embattled—than Mary Magdalene, and the accretion and dismantling of her myth hints at a fascinating tension between Protestant and Catholic sexual politics, a tension played out, quite often, on the stage. At the core of the Magdalen myth is the biblical Mary Magdalene, mentioned by name only as one of the women who witnessed the crucifixion and as the woman to whom the risen Christ first appeared. The only biblical suggestion of her incontinences is in Luke's and Mark's observation that Christ had earlier exorcised her of seven devils. From this core, the Magdalene gathered to herself other biblical stories, a process aided by the fact that most of the women named in the canonical Gospels are called Mary.22 Late antique Christians began identifying the Magdalene with the anonymous sinner in Luke 7:37-50 who washes Christ's feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them and kisses them. This is the woman of whom Christ says, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), Christ's comment originating (and ultimately valorizing) her career as a prostitute. The Magdalene also assimilated other gospel figures: the woman who, prodigally in Judas's eyes, anoints Christ at the house of Simon the Leper; the sister of Martha, who sits at Christ's feet while Martha prepares dinner; and the sister of Lazarus, whose tears provoke the only tears of Christ and incite him to raise her brother from the dead. Thus, as Marjorie Malvern points out, “she absorbs the identity of almost every feminine figure pictured in any kind of intimacy with the Christ.”23

The Magdalene also encompassed important Old Testament identities. Early Christians saw her as a second Eve, whose encounter with the resurrected Christ (the tree of life) remedied the first Eve's separation from the tree.24 An identification also emerged between the Magdalene and the Shulamite of the Song of Songs. Just as the singer searches for and finds her lover, so does the Magdalene search for and find the risen Christ in the Gospel of John. The following lines (Song of Songs 3:1-4, here quoted from the Revised Standard Version) were among those devoted to her and sung on her feast day:

“I will rise now,” I said, “and go about the city; in the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love.” I sought him, but I did not find him.

The watchmen who go about the city found me, to whom I said, “Have you seen the one I love?”

Scarcely had I passed by them, when I found the one I love. I held him and would not let him go, until I had brought him to the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.

I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the does of the field, do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases.

In Mary Magdalene's mouth, Solomon's heavily allegorized (but never fully occluded) celebration of erotic love hints at a divine marriage between the Magdalene and Christ. Such a relationship is described in the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip, which figures the cosmic reunification of male and female in the liaison.25 The idea is also visible in less occult texts, for example in the e Museo play Christ's Burial and Resurrection, in which the Magdalene importunes Christ: “O myn harte! wher hast thou bee? / Com hom agayn, & leve with mee!”26 But more fundamentally, the attribution of the song to Mary Magdalene links powerful, female eroticism and direct access to the divine.

Not surprisingly, the Magdalene herself begins acting in a quasi-divine manner between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. In Jacobus de Varaigne's Legenda Aurea, she acquires a childhood (wealthy and privileged), a foreign ministry (the conversion of Marseilles), and a full roster of miracles (a restoration of sight, a raising from the dead, a thirty-year fast, and seven-times-daily ascensions to heaven, among others). As Malvern points out, a distinctly pagan aroma clings to some of Jacobus's additions, particularly the many miracles involving conception, childbirth, and agricultural fertility: “Jacobus, despite his didactic intent, … pictures the Magdalene both as a goddess of life and as Christ's feminine counterpart.”27

Late medieval drama picks up and elaborates most of the attributes assigned to the Magdalene over the preceding millennium. From the moment she steps away from the chorus of women at Christ's tomb, she proves an unequalled vehicle for paradox—not only the ontological paradox of the sinner-saint, but also a series of emotional paradoxes. A twelfth-century Latin play, for example, follows scripture in juxtaposing the scene of Mary's rejoicing at the angelic announcement of Christ's resurrection with her subsequent lament over his missing corpse. According to O. B. Hardison, this fidelity to the biblical source produces flawed theater: “Mary has to be at the same time joyful and sad, believing and skeptical.”28 Hardison goes on to qualify his harsh judgment, however, claiming that later dramatic treatments of the material derive “a certain richness” and “a suggestion of … mystery” from the Magdalene's emotional inconsistency.29 I would argue that such juxtapositions do not so much suggest as insist upon mystery, placing paradox at the heart of the Magdalene's character.

A corresponding—often more pronounced—continuity is visible in the dramatic figure. Occasionally reversing the conventional chronological sequence, the Magdalene's sexuality anticipates her spirituality. In the twelfth-century Passion Play from Benediktbeuren, she solicits clients with the following admonition: “Minnet tugentliche man, / minnekliche vrawen. / Minne tuot eu hoech gemut / unde lat euch in hochen eren schauven.” (Dashing young men ought / To love attractive women. / Love lifts up your spirits / And gives you a vision of sublime glory.)30 More commonly, she uses erotic language to express later spiritual themes, such as her grief over the disappearance of Christ's body in the e Museo Christ's Burial and Resurrection:

Filie Jerusalem, Wheros ye goo,
Nunciate dilecto meo,
Quia amore langueo!
Of Jerusalem, ye virgyns clere,
Schew my best loue that I was here,
Tell hym, os he may prove,
That I am dedly seke,
And all is for his loue.(31)

The erotic familiarity with Christ and the verbal resemblance to the Song of Songs mentioned before are both very pronounced in this text.

In the Digby manuscript is a play devoted exclusively to Mary Magdalene. As several critics have emphasized, the title character is nothing if not eclectic: “In the Digby play, Magdalene takes on the host of roles that tradition defined for her. The beautiful daughter of Cyrus and sister of Martha and Lazarus, she is both whore and saint, the lover of men and the lover of Christ, the penitent anointer and the preacher of the Christian faith, the model for all sinners and the counterpart of the virgin Mary.”32 Following the Legenda Aurea, the Digby playwright emphasizes the Magdalene as Christ's lover and as a near-goddess in her own right. In addition to the many miracles described by Jacobus, the Magdalene is credited with one power usually reserved for Christ (or, solely by virtue of her maternal agency, his mother): “Sertenly, serys I yow telle / Yf she in vertu stylle may dwelle / She xal byn abyll to destroye helle.”33 Even in the midst of her carnal pleasures, she is remarkably Christlike, telling one lover “I wol … dye for your sake.”34 Mary's power to grant miraculous fecundity and to raise the dead are prominent in this play, as are references to her as Christ's lover and “partenyr of [his] blysse.”35 These last two features and their pagan aroma prompt Malvern to assert that the Digby Magdalene is “an Isis.”36 Whether or not Malvern's claim is historically justified, the Magdalene is clearly appropriating divine power, both by assuming the functions of the Christian deity and by manifesting qualities of pagan goddesses such as Aphrodite, Demeter, and Isis. The Magdalene's encroachment upon this sacred and mythic territory would eventually embattle her in controversy.

The first attack on the mythic figure, however, originated in a humanist's impulse to read scripture critically. In 1518, Lefèvre d'Etaples published De Maria Magdalena, which argues that the prostitute who anoints Christ's feet, the Mary Magdalene who encounters the risen Christ, and the sister of Martha and Lazarus were historically three different women.37 It is difficult to exaggerate the passion with which Lefèvre's assertion was attacked and defended in the following decade. Among those responding were no less than Erasmus and John Fisher, chancellor of Cambridge University, the latter with three tracts in six months. In his book, Lefèvre attacks not only the lack of exegetical rigor evident in the conflation of the three Marys but also the force and consistency of the eroticism she manifested: “The legend was being preached to the people in such sentimental terms that the emotions of the woman who loved much could be interchanged with the transports of the contemplative.”38 By breaking the mythical Magdalene into three and shearing her of legendary accretions, Lefèvre hoped to lessen the affective excesses of her cult and encourage a more intellectual model for devotion.

His antagonists, most prominently Fisher, argued primarily about hermeneutic principles, but, according to Anselm Hufstader, their real objections were mystical: “Fisher's purpose in maintaining the identification of the three women was not simply to avoid multiplying incidents in the gospel or even to continue tradition. The very point, or mystery, of the Magdalene story depended on this identification.”39 The problem, for Fisher, was that Lefèvre's book eliminates the paradox, the erotic continuity verging on causality, and the quasi-divinity that the Magdalene had evolved. In short, it pulls the prostitute and the saint apart and eliminates the goddess altogether.

It was a very different Magdalene that mounted the English stage after the Reformation. Although the mythic prostitute-saint thrived in Catholic literature (as witnessed by the poem on Mary of Egypt), her Protestant counterpart was usually a truncated figure. Lewis Wager's 1566 morality play, The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, acknowledges both sides of Lefèvre's argument, but leans toward the radical position. Wager favors Lefèvre in treating only one biblical incident (the conversion of the prostitute), although he opposes Lefèvre in calling its subject Mary Magdalene. Wager also travesties the goddesslike qualities of the Digby Magdalene, making them part of her temptation and fall. The vice Infidelity tells Mary:

To be a goddesse your selfe truely you must beleue,
And that you may be so, your mind therto you must geue.
All other gods beside your selfe you must despise,
And set at nought their Scripture in any wise.(40)

Later in the play, Jesus Christ explicitly denounces the Magdalene's extrascriptural mythology:

Yea, truly, if this faith do from God's word decline,
It is no faith, but a certayn incredulitie,
Which causeth the mynd to wander in strange doctrine,
And so fall at length into impietie.(41)

Wager's most radical change, however, is his discrediting of Mary's love. Even among the humanist opponents of the Magdalene myth, there was no dispute that Christ favored the anonymous prostitute because she “loved much.” Wager, however, strips the Magdalene's love of its originating power. The loquacious Justification explains to Mary:

It were a great error for any man to beleue
That your loue dyd deserue that Christ shold forgeue
Your synnes or trespasses, or any synne at all:
For so to beleue is an errour fanaticall.
.....But loue folweth forgiuenesse of Synnes euermore,
As a fruict of faith, and goth not before.(42)

It is difficult to miss the voice of John Calvin in this passage, and in fact, as Paul White demonstrates, Wager's play borrows directly and heavily from the Institutes.43 Wager's Calvinist Magdalene is as far removed from the Digby character as she can be—passive, fragmented, unparadoxical, and bereft of erotic power.

This is not to say that the earlier Magdalene disappears in England. The figure is still partially visible, although embattled, in Shakespeare's time. An anonymous 1604 poem, Mary Magdalens Lamentations, describes the saint's grief over Christ's missing corpse in highly erotic language. Throughout the work, however, there are signs of doctrinal strife. A preface to the author claims that the poem is so excellent “that no precisian can diffame, / Or blot the honor of this blessed Saint.”44 A full assault on English Calvinists lies in the lengthy explanation of why Christ's body is missing. The Magdalene laments:

O had I watched, as I waile him now,
None would have taken him without mee too.
But beeing too precize to keepe the Law,
The lawes sweet Maker I haue thereby lost.
.....The Sabaoth day (so strict solemnized)
The standing by his Corse had not prophained.
.....But vvhen I should haue staid, I went away,
And when it was too late I came again.(45)

Mary's observation of the sabbath, “reinvented” by the followers of Calvin as “a specific mark of visible holiness,”46 is here depicted as negligence of a higher and more intimate responsibility to the corporeal Christ.

The poem insists on the conflation of the biblical accounts that Lefèvre and his followers would separate, and this insistence is located in Christ's saying “Mary” as his first utterance after rising from the dead.

Mary I was, when sinne possest me whole,
Mary I am being now in state of grace,
Mary did worke the ill that damn'd her soule,
Mary did good in giuing euill place,
And now I showe both what I was and am
This word alone displaies my ioy and shame.(47)

In this passage, the poet reclaims both the paradox and the continuity of the earlier, mythic figure, using a pseudoetymological strategy common to her medieval biographers. Jacobus, for example, also situates both paradox and continuity in Mary's name:

Magdalene is interpreted closed or shytte or not to be ouercomen or full of magnifycence by whiche is shewed what she was tofore her conuersyon and what in her conuersyon and what after her conuersyon.48

But the Lamentations poet claims more than descriptive power for Mary's name; he claims generative power. Mary tells Jesus:

For when I heard thee call in wonted sort,
And with thy vsuall voyce my only name,
Issuing from that, thy heauenly mouths report,
So strange an alteration did it frame,
As if I had beene wholly made anew,
Being only nam'd by thee, whose voyce I knew.(49)

That Mary's name is capable of generating a new identity—as well as of revitalizing identities that proliferated in the past—restores, transfigured, the fecundity embodied by the mythic Magdalene but limits its efficacy to her own person.

The struggle over the identity and features of the Magdalene reveals a recognition and fear of female erotic potency, as exemplified in (or magnified by) the vitae of late medieval prostitute-saints. If female sexual profligacy has the potential to compel divine favor—or to confer something resembling divinity—then it is potentially outside the control of any individual or institution. It is also potentially outside divine control. This potency is darkly acknowledged by misogynists such as Swetnam, who, after enumerating the sexual conquests of biblical, historical, and legendary harlots, asks “What is it that a woman cannot doe, which knowes her power?”50 Furthermore, if, as Michel Foucault points out, it is only in Catholic spirituality that western European culture has anything approaching an ars erotica, where “truth is drawn from pleasure itself,”51 then it is only in the lives of these saints that this ars is encountered other than figuratively. Where there is a physical correlative to a metaphysical process, there exists the potential for magical, or coercive, action. To prevent this, then, it is necessary to sever the physical and the metaphysical eroticism, the whore and the saint. In the wake of Lefèvre and Wager, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra investigates this severance and assesses its costs.

Between Shakespeare's play and the prostitute-saint literature, there are verbal, as well as thematic, resemblances.52 Whereas Wager's Mary Magdalene is “a morsell for princes and noble kynges,”53 Cleopatra is “a morsel for a monarch” (1.5.31). The Shulamite of the Song of Songs is “dark, because the sun has tanned me,”54 Mary of Egypt “black and old,”55 Cleopatra “with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.28). Three things are important about these brief allusions. First, they are part of Cleopatra's initial self-description; in other words, she places herself in the context of the literature, rather than being placed there by another character. Later, she will, tragically, extricate herself. Second, the allusions accompany her parasuicidal gesture in taking mandragora, a general anesthetic: “Now I feed myself / With most delicious poison” (1.5.227).56 From this link we may infer that the issues raised by the allusions will also inform her suicide. Third, as we have seen, there is great tension between a Magdalene who quotes the Song of Songs and Wager's saint. Alluding to both locates this tension in Cleopatra as well, though the allusions refer to different periods of her life. The description that recalls Wager's enervated Magdalene (“morsel”) refers to Cleopatra's youth; that shared with the fuller saints (“black,” “wrinkled”) refers to her maturity. The stripped-down Magdalene, the whore, informs Cleopatra's girlhood, while the erotic paradox, which includes and absorbs the whore, underlies her womanhood. The absorption is not complete, however; Cleopatra remains vulnerable to fragmentation. She can, and will, become a morsel again.

As is the case with the prostitute-saints, enormous supernatural power resides in Cleopatra's sexuality. Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra on the River Cydnus, in fact, is quite reminiscent of Mary of Egypt's stroll on the Jordan, at least in the response of nature to her presence:

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


Underlining the correspondence between the sexual and the spiritual, Cleopatra uses theological language to recall for Antony a period of erotic contentment:

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


It is little wonder that the priests “bless her, when she is riggish,” for her sexuality, like Mary Magdalene's, is capable of profound exaltation.

Cleopatra is also comparably paradoxical, able to “make defect perfection” (2.2.231). She embodies a mystery and multiplicity that are not self-cancelling but endlessly proliferating, as is evident in Antony's indulgent rebuke:

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


Shakespeare suggests a philosophical dimension to this mystery by linking Cleopatra closely with Isis, as portrayed in Apuleius's Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) and, more importantly, in Philemon Holland's 1603 translation of Plutarch's Moralia. Cleopatra, “whom every thing becomes,” assumes both the garb and the persona of Isis, who “becommeth all maner of things.”57 Plutarch's Isis, like Pico's and Milton's, is the gatherer of scattered truths, “capable of all.”58 As I have mentioned, Marjorie Malvern notices striking resemblances between Mary Magdalene and Isis; these are, if anything, accentuated when one considers Plutarch's portrait of Isis. Both are carnally and spiritually erotic; both have the power to confer fecundity and raise the dead. Each has a divine consort whose body she seeks after he is executed by enemies. Each exhibits conflicting but balanced emotional and ontological states. And both further complicate Cleopatra's essential paradox.

Encroaching upon Cleopatra's mystery is the Roman impulse to sever the sacred from the sexual. In Rome, women are whores or saints, not both. Octavia appears repeatedly as the latter; her first words in the play promise that, when Antony is parted from her, “before the gods my knee shall bow my prayers / To them for you” (2.3.3-4). According to Enobarbus she is “of a holy, cold, and still conversation” (2.7.119-20). Cleopatra, of course, belongs in the other category. When Antony challenges a messenger to “name Cleopatra as she is called in Rome” (1.2.103), he has one-word appellations in mind: strumpet, harlot, whore, trull. The result of this division is that both fragments are debased and enervated. Of Octavia, a messenger reports:

                                                                                                    She creeps:
Her motion and her station are as one;
She shows a body, rather than a life,
A statue, than a breather.


Antony vacillates between celebrating Cleopatra's paradox and severing it. According to Plutarch, these conflicting impulses are embodied by Bacchus and Hercules, both associated with Antony in the play. “Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne” (2.7.111) impresses Plutarch as “generative and nutritive.”59 In fact, Bacchus is another name for Osiris, the god-consort of Isis. Hercules, on the other hand, “striketh and divideth,”60 and, nearly every time his name comes up in the play, a parting or partition is imminent. In one case, the opposite is true, but only because Hercules is perceived to be departing, at least temporarily. The odd little scene in which this occurs is quite puzzling, unless one understands Hercules as Plutarch does. The night before Antony's only military victory in the play—a night of debauchery for most of the army—a group of soldiers hears disembodied music, about which they can agree only that it is strange. One soldier ventures an explanation: “'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd / Now leaves him” (4.4.15-16). Given a conventional understanding of Hercules, this departure should bode ill for Antony militarily, but, the next day, he beats “to their beds” (4.8.18) an opposing force swollen with defectors from his own. It is a day of triumphant reconciliations of impulses and personae that have clashed throughout the play, often playfully telegraphed in incidental phrases. Antony's first words in the morning, “Eros! mine armour, Eros!” (4.4.1), comfortably juxtapose sexual love and military prowess, as Antony will do for the first and only time that day. By the end of the day, Antony can command more music, “that heaven and earth may strike their sounds together, / Applauding our approach” (4.8.38-39). Hercules's departure has allowed a moment of nearly cosmic concord.

The demigod is back by the end of the act, however, and division returns as Antony implores, “Teach me, / Alcides [Hercules], thou mine ancestor, thy rage” (4.12.43-44). Throughout the scene, Antony names Cleopatra “as she is called in Rome” and sketches for her the ill-disguised “carting” she would endure at Caesar's hands:

                                                                                                    Let him take thee,
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians,
Follow his chariot, like the greatest spot
Of all thy sex.


As Hercules, Antony perceives only the whore in Cleopatra. That his is a dividing, rather than just a debasing, impulse is evident in Antony's language earlier in the play. The first time Cleopatra enrages Antony, he partitions her verbally:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher: nay you were a fragment
Of Gnaeus Pompey's.


Picking up Cleopatra's earlier “morsel” and adding the equally partial “fragment,” Antony attacks Cleopatra by violently isolating her sexual incontinence from the context that makes it powerful and paradoxical.

Opposed to Antony's Hercules is the figure of Isis, subtly but surprisingly powerful in the play. In the erotic banter that follows the play's opening scene, she emerges playfully as a deity governing sexuality and fecundity: “O let him marry a woman that cannot go, sweet Isis” (1.2.60-61). She also has a ferocious side, as is visible in Cleopatra's rebuke to Charmian, “By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth, / If thou with Caesar paragon again / My man of men” (1.5.70-72). These extremes accord not only with Plutarch's assertion of Isis's multiplicity but with Apuleius's designations of her many personae, including the amorous Venus, the fecund Ceres, and the warlike Bellona.61 When Cleopatra appears in the marketplace “in the habiliments of the goddess Isis” (3.6.17), she signals iconographically her kinship (considered quite literal by the Ptolemys)62 with the most polymorphous of deities, the “manifestation of all the gods and goddesses.”63

It is in Antony and Cleopatra's peculiar moon that Isis manifests her supernatural power. As Plutarch claims, “Isis is nothing else but the Moone,”64 and he valorizes the moon's conventional inconstancy as multiplicity. Enobarbus's address to the “blessed moon” (4.9.7) on the night following his defection is, as the second watch reports, “a prayer” (4.9.26) to Isis:

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.


Isis evidently grants his prayer. A sentry reveals that “the hand of death hath raught him” (4.9.29), but no agency is visible. Thus, Isis not only represents paradox; she also indicates the existential power of that paradox.

The association of Cleopatra with the powerful and paradoxical moon—and, through it, Isis, Mary Magdalene, and other sacred whores—is one of the things that makes the play's ending tragic, rather than transcendentally affirmative. Cleopatra, in a disturbing realization of Antony's earlier misapprehension, “Caesar tells, / ‘I am conqueror of myself’” (4.14.62-63). In other words, she internalizes the divisive impulse that she has heretofore resisted, fragmenting herself. This process begins with a repudiation of multiplicity and an embrace of partial values:

                                                                                          Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.


Being “marble-constant” means rejecting the infinite variety for which she was earlier celebrated and assuming the statue-like quality of Octavia. Repudiating the moon splits her from Isis—a split that prefigures and necessitates further fragmentation. Finally, she acknowledges and enacts the fundamental split between saint and harlot that the Romans have insisted upon since the first words of the play. To escape carting and to avoid seeing herself parodied “i'the posture of a whore” (5.2.219), Cleopatra strikes the pose of the quintessential woman saint untainted by sexuality: the Virgin Mary. To Plutarch, snakes are divine, and when Cleopatra had intimations of divinity herself, she was a “serpent of old Nile” (1.5.25). Now she makes herself a nursemaid to divinity, justifying the Clown's assertion that “a woman is a dish for the gods” (5.2.273). The tableau she presents is seductive and chilling:

                                                                                                              Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?


Suckling a creature that is divine but deadly, she simultaneously travesties the Madonna and child and acknowledges their ascendancy as models. Charmian's response, “O, break! O, break!” (5.2.309), seems an appropriate comment on the process involved in Cleopatra's enactment. The triumph of Cleopatra's escape from humiliation in Rome is undermined by her final collaboration with Rome's divisive program. And the loss to the world is enormous. Whereas, after Antony's death, there was “nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon” (4.15.67-68), now even the moon is gone.


  1. Georges Bataille, Erotism, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 15-16.

  2. All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are from The Arden Shakespeare, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen, 1981).

  3. See the ubiquitously quoted Herodotus on Chaldean temple prostitution, for example. Cited in William W. Sanger, The History of Prostitution (New York: Eugenics, 1937), 40.

  4. I am following Katharina Wilson, The Dramas of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (Saskatoon: Peregrina, 1985) in spelling the playwright's name without the final a and in giving the original titles of her plays, even though Paul Pascal's text, from which I quote, adds the a and uses the canonical titles (which, except for Sapientia, are all the names of the male protagonists).

  5. Although these plays were consecutively written, there was a long “Schaffenspause” between them, after which the playwright returned to her composition emboldened by praise from the Ottonian court and confident of her vision. See Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 55-83.

  6. Hrotsvit, “DulcitiusandPaphnutius,” ed. Paul Pascal (Bryn Mawr, PA: Byrn Mawr Latin Commentaries, 1985), 50.

  7. See, for example, David Chamberlain, “Musical Learning and Dramatic Action in Hrotsvit's Pafnutius,Studies in Philology 77 (1980): 319-43.

  8. Hrotsvit, “DulcitiusandPaphnutius,” 32.

  9. This shift of narrative attention is also visible in the case of Thais, whose vita in the Acta Sanctorum, for example, is to be found under Pafnutius's name.

  10. Schiavone de Cruz-Saenz, The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt: An Edition and Study of the Medieval French and Spanish Verse Redactions (Barcelona: Puvill, 1979), 15.

  11. A Sacred Poeme Describing the Miracvlovs Life and Death of the Gloriovs Convert S. Marie of Ægipt (n.p., n.d.), 1.

  12. Ibid., 3-4.

  13. Ibid., 21.

  14. Ibid., 30-31.

  15. Ibid., 23.

  16. Ibid., 53.

  17. Caroline Bynum, “Women's Stories, Women's Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner's Theory of Liminality,” in Robert L. Moore and Frank E. Reynolds, eds., Anthropology and the Study of Religion (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984), 108.

  18. S. Marie of Ægipt, 44.

  19. Ibid., 52.

  20. Ibid.

  21. For medieval admiration of prostitute-saints, see Rodney Delasanta, “Alisoun and the Saved Harlots: A Cozening of our Expectations,” The Chaucer Review 12 (1978): 219 and passim. This admiration did not seem to translate into saintly emulation, however; Margaret of Cortona is “almost unique as a second Magdalene.” See Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 105-8 (quotation from p. 108).

  22. Marjorie M. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth: The Magdalen's Origins and Metamorphoses (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 16.

  23. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth, 28.

  24. Ibid., 58.

  25. Michael A. Williams, “Uses of Gender Imagery in Ancient Gnostic Texts,” in Caroline Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman, eds., Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols (Boston: Beacon, 1986), 210.

  26. Christ's Burial and Resurrection, in Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy, and Louis B. Hall, Jr., eds., The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and e Museo 160 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 188.

  27. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth, 96.

  28. O. B. Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), 248.

  29. Ibid.

  30. David Bevington, Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 207.

  31. Christ's Burial, 187.

  32. Theresa Coletti, “The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene,Studies in Philology 76 (1979): 314.

  33. Mary Magdalene, in Baker et al., eds., Religious Plays, 37.

  34. Ibid., 42.

  35. Ibid., 47.

  36. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth, 125. This is a useful but potentially misleading statement. Throughout Venus in Sackcloth, Malvern mars a careful study of the Magdalene's pagan characteristics with excessive eagerness to establish her as an ancient goddess in Christian drag. That seventeenth-century poets saw the Magdalene as a “Venus in sackcloth” does not confirm pagan survival, only resemblance (which, it seems to me, is quite powerful enough).

  37. Anselm Hufstader, “Lefèvre d'Etaples and the Magdalene,” Studies in the Renaissance 16 (1969): 32.

  38. Ibid., 60.

  39. Ibid., 55.

  40. Lewis Wager, The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, ed. Frederick Ives Carpenter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1902), 25.

  41. Ibid., 60.

  42. Ibid., 82.

  43. Paul White, “Lewis Wager's Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene and John Calvin,” Notes and Queries 28 (1981): 508-12.

  44. Mary Magdalene's Lamentations for the losse of her Maister Jesus (London: Thomas Clark, 1604), ii.

  45. Ibid., fol. 4v.

  46. John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 130.

  47. Mary Magdalene's Lamentations, fol. 20r.

  48. Jacobus de Varaigne, Legenda Aurea (London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1512), fol. clxxviir. I have silently expanded the abbreviations in the text.

  49. Mary Magdalene's Lamentations, fol. 19v.

  50. Joseph Swetnam, The Araignment of Lewde, idle, froward, and vnconstant women (London: Thomas Archer, 1615), 22.

  51. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 1:57.

  52. For a discussion of comparable resonances between Mary Magdalene and Ophelia, see Cherrell Guilfoyle, “‘Ower Swete Sokor’: The Role of Ophelia in Hamlet,Comparative Drama 14 (1980): 3-17.

  53. Wager, The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, 36.

  54. Song of Songs 1:6.

  55. S. Marie of Ægypt, 13.

  56. The mandrake further underlines the allusion to the Song of Songs, as it is prominent in the garden where the Shulamite takes her lover. See Song of Songs 7:13.

  57. Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Philemon Holland (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1603), 1304. For a good summary (but superficial analysis) of Shakespeare's debt to this work see Michael Lloyd, “Cleopatra as Isis,” Shakespeare Survey 12 (1959): 88-94.

  58. Plutarch, Moralia, 1309.

  59. Ibid., 1304.

  60. Ibid.

  61. Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. Jack Lindsay (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), 237-38.

  62. See Sarah B. Pomeroy, Women in Hellenistic Egypt from Alexander to Cleopatra (New York: Schocken, 1984), 3-40.

  63. Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 237.

  64. Plutarch, Moralia, 1308.

Christopher Wortham (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Temperance and the End of Time: Emblematic Antony and Cleopatra,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, p. 1-37.

[In the following essay, Wortham investigates the Renaissance emblem tradition that informs Antony and Cleopatra, and attempts to discern how the emblematic imagery operating in the text would have been received by Jacobean audiences.]

Antony and Cleopatra both delights and bewilders with its extraordinary diversity. Classical mythology, biblical apocalypse and thematic insistence on the virtue of temperance meet in enlightening combinations and puzzling disjunctions. Critical analysis, precisely because it is analysis, tends to isolate one or two aspects of the play and to discuss them to the exclusion of others. Perhaps it is time to ask whether one should attempt a synthesis that makes some attempt to see the dominant motifs in the play in relation to each other: is there any way that we can begin to see this play whole? And, if we can, can we test our impressions against likely overall responses among members of Shakespeare's first audience? For if this play meant anything in particular when it was first performed, its mysteries will only be yielded up to those who are prepared to inquire what those particularities were. In short, what I am proposing here is the study of Antony and Cleopatra as a cultural artefact that can be reliably interpreted only in terms of the broad cultural context from which it emerged.

Literary attempts to consider texts contextually have flourished in the last twenty years, but the dominant modes of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism have tended to employ the relationship between text and context in order to demonstrate that each subversively deconstructs the other. In drama, subversions are frequently important because, as Mikhail Bakhtin and others have demonstrated, carnivalesque inversions of norms lie at the heart of the Western cultural experience in the theater.1 It is not always useful, however, to follow the pathways of subversive irony, anomaly, and cultural contradiction to the exclusion of what is cohesive. To be more specific, alternative readings of Shakespeare are valuable and to be welcomed as long as they admit that alternatives to the alternatives have at least equal validity.2

In the instance of Antony and Cleopatra, it is time, I think, to seek an understanding that makes sense of a culture's wholeness. England in the early Jacobean period was as deeply divided, as riven with intellectual factions, and as socially tense as in any other period. But these divisions existed within mental constructs powerful enough to contain them. At this time many of Shakespeare's plays found endorsement not only by being performed publicly under the aegis of the King's Men but also by being commanded for performance at court with a frequency that far exceeded that of Queen Elizabeth's reign.3

I shall not differentiate here between attitudes held in the community of ordinary people and those of the court culture surrounding James I. Shakespeare wrote to accommodate, or bridge, the two milieux since his plays of this time were for performance at the Globe and in the provinces as well as at court, though it is interesting, I believe, that Shakespeare was not always able to make the accommodation without textual alteration. There is reason to believe, for instance, that the discrepant Quarto and Folio versions of King Lear represent, respectively, performances at court and in the public theater.4 The dominance of the court at this time, especially for someone writing under its direct patronage, is reflected in Shakespeare's work, particularly between the years 1603 and 1607, when King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra were written—all plays reflecting Stuart ideology. However, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra there is no competing Quarto record of another performed text, as there is for King Lear, to indicate whether the First Folio text as we have received it is or is not substantially as it was given either at the Globe or at court; in this instance we can do no more than take the good intentions of the First Folio editors on trust.

The cast of mind, or set of mental attitudes, which I seek to identify in relation to Antony and Cleopatra is best approached through what recent French historians have termed L'Histoire des mentalités.5 The term mentalité is not particularly felicitous in French and it is still less so when rendered into English as “mentality,” but for the moment I do not know what other term to use. Mentality suggests an identifiable and prevalent view within a sector of society, but it does not exclude competing views. It “is not a history of ideas, but a history of mind.”6 Minds are not nice, tidy things, and the perception of mentality does not assume that a society is monolithic. Furthermore, the concept of mentality admits the irony of contradictions, for example, “the paradox that such mental structures are at once the essential mode of human creativity and the primary obstacle to it.”7 Since the foundation work of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, the methodology employed by Michel Foucault has developed the concept of discourses or “common codes of knowledge through which the world is perceived”8 in order to perceive mentality in its complexity. Discourse is not synonymous with meaning, but rather it reveals through its structure the process of finding those meanings which it seeks to validate.

Without making claims to theoretical rigor in what follows, I attempt to identify a Jacobean mentality that operates through a discourse of ideological expression. Within this ideology, such components as humanistic ideals, religious belief, and political issues make sense in a way in which they could not possibly today: often they seem improbable (until corroborated), and almost always they take us by surprise. Imposing on myself a set of limits in deference to the expedients of space and my readers' patience, I have attempted to reconstruct a code of knowledge rather than to deconstruct it.

Renaissance emblem books serve as the basis of my investigation of mentality in Antony and Cleopatra. However, since my concern is not with the emblem for its own sake but for what it reveals about something else, precise definitions and categorizations of the kind which would be made by a scholar primarily interested in emblems for their own sake are outside my frame of reference.9 In any case, there is not complete agreement among the major scholars of emblems as to how broadly or narrowly emblems should be defined.10 Some of the items I shall be examining are incontestably emblems—like those of Alciato, Whitney, and Peacham—but others are related to emblems in some way without being emblems in themselves. The latter include works of Stephen Batman, Abraham Fraunce, Cesare Ripa, and Alexander Ross.

For the student of mentality, emblems and emblematic works are most valuable. Emblems and their relatives tend to reflect received ideas and to express commonplaces rather than to break new intellectual ground. This does not mean that they all agree with each other—far from it—but that the range of ideas conveyed through emblem and emblematics is within an identifiable code or discourse. Within this discourse there is a need to expound and explain that is always didactic, often in the limits of personal ethics; and the tone is of one who knows speaking to those who do not, which at its most oppressive becomes reprovingly pedagogical. Consequently the emblem and the emblematic do not quietly suggest meaning or enter dialogue through subtle symbolism; rather, they proclaim what meaning shall be. Uncertainty and self-doubt are not common features of emblem writing. These attributes make the emblem and the emblematic uniquely accessible as cultural materials to a later age and uniquely valuable for literary scholarship. Conversely, works which have become canonized as high literature, and which have become the focus for intensive critical attention, are often very different: they tend to be highly original in thought, innovative in generic character, subtle, allusive, and not reducible to a single interpretation. Spenser, for instance, although didactic and programmatic in The Faerie Queene wherein many of his images are profoundly emblematic in mode of creation, has not written a work that would normally be placed alongside that of emblem writers. To put it bluntly, little of the verbal element in emblems is of literary merit in the terms by which merit is ordinarily judged; and the visual component, with a few exceptions, does not bring a flutter to the hearts of art historians. Almost by definition, writing that is primarily emblematic tends not to be of interest for its literary qualities. What brings the emblem book closest to certain poetic utterances is that both have some claim to offer “speaking pictures.”

In addition to works which are by common assent classified as emblem books, the emblematic mode adumbrates a variety of cultural manifestations. Peter Daly has pointed out that the emblematic extends to handbooks, such as Fraunce's Insignium, Armorum, Emblematum Hieroglyphicorum etc. (1588) and Henry Peacham's Gentleman's Exercise (1612); to Elizabethan painting and portraiture employing “stylized, heroic and allegorical representation of its subjects”; to the wall and ceiling paintings of grand Tudor and Jacobean houses; to carved chimney mantles and wall panels; to the tapestries which adorned wealthy houses; to the painted cloths of the less wealthy; to embroideries, such as those undertaken by Mary Queen of Scots in her captivity; to emblematic jewelry and silverware; to title-pages and frontispieces of fine books, such as James I's own collected Workes (1616); and to printers' devices.12 In short, the influence of emblems was far more pervasive than the very small number of English emblem books in existence during the time of Shakespeare would seem to suggest. That emblems directly and indirectly influence the drama itself is now well-established and needs no further elaboration here.13 Often the influence is felt in mode of representation rather than in specifics, but there are some notable instances of emblems as direct sources, as for example the use made of Ripa's Iconologia by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones in their masques.14 In addition to Ripa, we should acknowledge the emblematic in a variety of other Renaissance mythographers such as Stephen Batman, Abraham Fraunce, Alexander Ross, and George Sandys.15

One may well ask what sectors within Shakespeare's audience would have been aware of emblematic manner and matter. Emblem books tended to be expensive because of the cost involved in preparing the blocks used for illustrations and would have been beyond the reach of many. Nevertheless, Daly's survey of the evidence of emblems being used in household furnishings indicates that “the taste for emblem and impresa was not confined to the monarchy and aristocracy. Landed gentry and the rising middle class liked to decorate their homes with emblems.”16 We may safely assume that the middle class was well represented in the public theaters and that the particularities of emblematic significances being drawn upon by Shakespeare in a play such as Antony and Cleopatra would have been accessible to a very substantial portion of Shakespeare's audience there. It was not only at court that such significances would have been understood.

In this study I shall begin by examining the emblem tradition in relation to Shakespeare's use of classical mythology. The focus will be on emblematic representations of Mars and Hercules, to both of whom Antony is expressly likened. I would have liked to give more space to Cleopatra, for the play is equally hers, but that would have meant a much longer undertaking and must wait for another time and another place. Thereafter I apply inferences drawn from the mythological frame of reference in the play to the biblical dimension, with its emphasis on the apocalypse. And finally I suggest a relationship between mental constructs exemplified in emblematic imagery and a persistent theme in Antony and Cleopatra. This theme, which links the mythological with the biblical, is that of temperance.


In the first speech of the play, the two great lovers in Antony and Cleopatra are paired in terms of those primal opposites, Mars and Venus. Philo is full of indignation on behalf of his mastered master:

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles of his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust.


In subduing himself to Cleopatra, Philo laments, the Mars who was Antony has exceeded the limits of “measure” or moderation, which is a primary manifestation of “temper” or temperance. There is nothing unusual in this denunciation of the sort of woman who leads men away from their martial dispositions. In her shameless and lustful behavior (as Philo interprets it) Cleopatra is, in effect, an evocation of Venus. Venus is not much approved among the emblematic mythographers such as Batman and Fraunce. She is associated by Batman with “the superfluity which wantons require, and being naked, the shamelesse care of Virginitie”; and for him she is not so much a goddess as “the foremost Lady in the worlde, in Lust and Pleasure.”17 Fraunce, following Natale Conti, allows that Venus has meaning in terms of “the tilling and fertilitie of the earth,” but, having allowed her cosmological and climatological significances, he concludes with moral reprobation through an itemized analysis of the attributes of her son Cupid.18 It is Cupid “who, (to omit the philosophicall discourses of the Platonists concerning divers loves) was pictured, a boy; lovers are childish: blinde; they see no reason: naked; they cannot conceale their pasions: winged; love soone flieth into our eyes and soules, and lovers are light, as feathers.19 Philo has iconography on his side, but he is making a great mistake in another aspect of what he says; and of this a contemporary audience would have been well aware. Mars and Venus are a pair, and are to be “read” or interpreted together. They can be read either in bono or in malo, but they must be read together: it is a breach of hermeneutic tact to attempt to read one partner in bono and the other in malo simultaneously. Or, more simply, it is unfair. If there is that which is malign or reprehensible in Venus, so there is equivalent evil in the parallel aspects of Mars. Philo is seeking to glamorize war in a period that is destined to be “the time of universal peace,” both in the Roman world of the play's setting and in the Stuart world of the play's composition; and in doing so he ignores the malignancy of the Mars he would oppose to the lustful Cleopatra/Venus. For, as Fraunce comments, this Mars is of “hote and furious disposition, fit for wars … signifiyng fiercenes and cruelty: he is figured grim, fierce, and sterne, allarmed: his chariot is drawen by two horses. … Terror and Feare: his companions be, Feare, Fury, and Violence.20 This Mars is more of a menace than a paragon of manly virtue. Translated into human terms, the truth is that both Antony and Cleopatra have positive and negative attributes.

The relationship between Mars and Venus is susceptible to favorable interpretation. Otto van Veen in his Amorum Emblemata (1608) presents an emblem in which, under the motto of “Love pacifyeth the wrathfull,” a chubby little Cupid is seen overpowering Mars in an unlikely tussle. The explanatory epigram beneath the illustration reads:

Cupid the swoord of Mars out of his hand can wring,
And soone aswage his wrath how furious so he bee,
Love can do more than stryf, by this effect wee see,
The sturdie and the stout love doth to myldnes bring.(21)

Van Veen is close to classical forms of the myth of Mars and Venus, wherein the union of the two brings forth Harmonia. In Antony and Cleopatra there is no such progeny, no such conclusion, unless one wishes to interpret the play in predominantly Neoplatonic terms. It would seem to me that the promised Neoplatonic end of a concordia discors is remote from the reality to which the play brings its protagonists.22 Van Veen's emblem reminds us that love has the power to moderate between extremes, that the temperate balance of “myldnes” is a possibility. Whether this is intended to be what Mardian thinks about in his fierce imaginings of “what Venus did with Mars” (I.v.19) is another matter.

The subtle power of the myth of Mars and Venus as a point of reference in Antony and Cleopatra is to suggest a diversity of justifications for—as well as disapprobations of—the lovers. At the polarities, two outcomes are possible: one is the favorable conclusion of mystical union in synthesis; the other is sparagmos and bloody catastrophe. To some extent, Shakespeare admits the more optimistic view, as Antony's warlike nature is softened and Cleopatra's sensual abandonment resolves into the stately and disciplined self-mastery of one who resolves to die “after the high Roman fashion” (IV.xv.92). But their end, however ennobled and spiritually refined, remains one of mutual self-destruction.

Recensions of the story of Mars and Venus are transmitted largely through the tradition of the moralized Ovid. The commentary given by George Sandys, Shakespeare's contemporary, in his Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures (1621), is particularly instructive. Sandys understands the myth in various ways. Astrological, astronomical, climatic, biological, psychological, and moral meanings all crowd in on one another in his interpretation. The myth of Mars and Venus, says Sandys,

carries this astrologicall sence: that those who are borne in the Conjunction of Mars and Venus are prone to inordinate affections. Mars sometimes descendeth beneath the Sun, and Venus for a part of the yeare ascendeth above him, as it were to meete with each other: whose conjunction may then be said to be discovered by the Sunne, when he ceaseth to obscure them by the proximity of his greater splendor. Vulcan bindes them in a net: that is, with too much fervor subdues their operations. For the star of Mars is hot; and that of Venus moderate moist; whereof generation consists: and therfore mutuall lovers: by Neptune unbound; in that water extinguisheth fire, which is Vulcan. This fable therefore was invented to expresse the sympathy that is necessary in nature. Proceede we a little with the influencies of these Plannets: Mars is malignant, but aproaching Venus subdues his malignity: Mars exciteth greatnesse of spirit and wrath in those in whose nativity he prodominates; Venus impeacheth not that virtue of magnanimity, but the vice of anger: Venus ruling infuseth the effects of love; and Mars conjoyning, makes the force of that love more ardent: wherefore those that are borne under that conjunction are most fervently amorous. Mars followes Venus: because audacity is the page unto love; not love unto audacity: for none, in that valiant are taken with love; but wounded with love become so, and undauntedly undergoe all dangers for the beloved. Mars likewise signifies strife, and Venus friendship; which, as the ancient held, were the parents of all things. But morally adulteries are taxed by this fable: which how potent soever the offenders, though with never so much art contrived, and secrecy concealed, are at length discovered by the eye of the Sun, and exposed to shame and dishonour.23

I have quoted Sandys at some length because I think it is important to appreciate both the complex variety which Renaissance interpretation of classical myth is able to sustain and the ingenuous discontinuities one finds there. Astronomical and moral interpretation are particularly at odds in this instance: a single mythic narrative explains both what actually happens in a divinely-regulated cosmos and what ought not to happen in the moral dimension of human behavior. One gains from Sandys a wider perception of the multiple modes within which an early seventeenth-century audience would have received Shakespeare's allusions to the myth of Mars and Venus; one also gains a more informed regard for Shakespeare's capacity to transform the allusive power of myth.

Not unlike Sandys, Richard Linche in his rendering of Cartari's Imagini (1556) as The Fountaine of Ancient Fiction (1599) is self-contradictory about Venus without any sense of embarrassment:

According therefore to the opinion of the Poets, Venus was taken to be the goddesse of wantonnes & amorous delights, as that she inspired into the minds of men, libidinous desires, and lustfull appetites, & with whose power & assistance they attained the effect of their loose concupicence: whereupon also they entermed her the mother of love, because without a certaine love & simpathie of affections, those desires are sildome accomplished. And unto hir they ascribe the care and charge of marriages and holie wedlockes. …24

His “whereupon” conceals a change of direction that leads in the next sentence to a respectable and even holy Venus! And yet this is also she who inspires “libidinous desires and lustfull appetites.” The emblem writers are not more bound by consistency than their cousins, the mythographers. P.S., in his translation of Claude Paradin's influential emblem book, Devises Heroiques, in one place speaks admiringly of “Antonius and Cleopatra of famous memorie,” but in elsewhere reviles Cleopatra for having “the audacitie, and impudent boldnes of a shamelesse woman.”25 Shakespeare, then, is drawing simultaneously upon well-established parallel attributes of Venus and of Cleopatra in exploiting the duality of the goddess and the woman.

The Cleopatra who is described with such honest stupefaction in the account given of her by Enobarbus is drawn from many sources but chiefly from Shakespeare's transforming imagination:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick 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 beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids … 


What this description does reveal, however, is a question of technique. Cleopatra becomes Venus in her most sensual aspect, and her meaning is signified in the manner of the emblem writers and the Renaissance mythographers: where she is placed, how she is dressed, in what attitude her body is positioned, her attendants, and their accouterments—all contribute items towards defining what she represents. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is, of course, also closely akin to the iconographically related Venus paintings of Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Titian, and Veronese—to name but a few—but what I am concerned with here is how a code of visual and verbal representation would have been transmitted to an audience in a Renaissance theater to most of whom the works of the Italian masters would have been unknown. Specific constructions of mythological allusion in Renaissance drama should, then, be referred to the emblematic tradition both for substantive resonances and technique.

Returning now to the instance of Antony as Mars, we may note that one of the few emblematists actually to defend the role of Mars is Gabriel Rollenhagen, who, taking the neat “Ars/Mars” nexus as a point of departure, offers a view that has chilling resonances for twentieth-century readers—i.e., that without military supremacy the arts cannot flourish. His illustration for the emblem shows Mars and Minerva sharing a plinth, the cartouche surrounded by the motto “Arte et Marte.” Yet, although Rollenhagen gives equal space to Mars and Minerva, the latter is slightly forward in the engraving and is more dominant. She is, after all, the civic spirit which makes the arts possible.

Mars receives a bad press from most of the emblem writers. The writers are generally not from the aristocracy, and, even if they are writing for a primary readership among the more militaristic nobility, they remain necessarily bourgeois in their values. In James I's England in particular, the urban middle class had most to lose and least to gain from warfare. And these too would have been among the most regular attenders at the public theaters. For the first time in English history, quite probably, the middle-class value of peaceability was in keeping with the monarch's; for James' reign was conducted under the beatitude Beati Pacifici—blessed are the peacemakers. James took this motto for the frontispiece to his Workes which he devised for himself and which is in effect an emblem with motto, picture, and verses. In the previous reign, the more aristocratic ideal of military glory had prevailed at the court of Queen Elizabeth. Sir Philip Sidney, for example, had found himself an early grave in pursuit of a courtly ideal which sought ars within Mars. James had no inclination follow such an example.

Mars and Venus were at some distance from the king's watchwords of pax and religio. No mythographer or emblematist is more disparaging of Mars than is Alexander Ross, who grew to adulthood in the early years of James I. In the Mystagogus Poeticus (1648), Ross records that “because the Romans would intimate how much they detested civil wars in their City they would not suffer the picture of Mars to be painted on their gates and private doors.”26 Ross enlists St. Augustine in support of his view that, without the horrors of war to do him perverse honor, “Mars is no god.”27 Given the new orientation of the Stuart court, there is cause to think that Shakespeare's first audience would not have interpreted the imagery of Mars in relation to Antony with unqualified admiration or approval. At this time Hercules would have been a much more appealing model for human conduct. Ross, who gives much more extended coverage to Hercules than to Mars, also sees the former as worthily prefiguring the God, for “Our blessed Saviour is the true Hercules.”28

It has been incorrectly assumed, I think, that the Mars and Venus story is the dominant mythic correlative for the protagonists in Antony and Cleopatra.29 While it is true that Antony and Cleopatra are explicitly compared with these gods in the early part of the play, a change of direction takes place. The more Antony and Cleopatra are separated as the play proceeds, both physically and in attitudes of mind, the less important the Mars-Venus construction becomes. Antony becomes progressively more akin to Hercules, and Cleopatra to Isis. The change in the frame of emblematic resonances becomes highly significant when one takes into account the implications of differences in the emblematic tradition between the characteristics of Mars and Hercules.


Hercules is more heroic than Mars. Mars is an Olympian, an immortal god, a figure different in kind from human beings, but Hercules is human. He must labor and prove himself through his work. He is a man burdened with a sense of moral awareness and is faced, at least once, with a difficult choice. He is one of us. In that he eventually achieves apotheosis, he is more than we can ever be, but he is that to which we aspire. And Antony claims descent from him.30

The Herakles/Hercules of classical myth is something of a wild man—a heroic man of action, who on a visit to King Thespius hunted lions by day and slept with all of his host's fifty daughters by night; who treacherously maimed the sacrosanct heralds of the Minyan King Clymenus; and who slaughtered his wife and six of their children in a fit of madness. This man is only just discernible under the covering of virtue and moderation given to him in later centuries.31 The Renaissance Hercules keeps his lion-skin and club as insignia but has otherwise become thoroughly civilized. Unlike Mars, he was a great favorite among the emblem writers,32 who, following in the tradition of the Ovide Moralisé, gave to each of his twelve labors its own moral significance. Some of those significances will seem as strange and as forced to us as they would have seemed to Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Alciato declares that the labors have taught Hercules to give up luxury, spurn avarice, shun ill-gotten gains, and triumph over the ways of women. His commentator, Claude Minoes, observes that the meaning of the labors has been transmitted to the ordinary people through the medium of allegory and proceeds to give a few lines of explication.33 Batman describes Hercules as “a mainteiner of Vertue, and a punisher of Vice.”34 A particularly Renaissance twist to the character of Hercules is to represent him as the opponent of avarice, for example in Batman's allegorization of Hercules' theft of the golden apples of the Hesperides as a punishment for avarice “whereby is fignifyed, the great riches that proceaded of so fertill a soyle, and the covetus disorder of the inhabitantes, who by devouring of others, consumed themselves.”35 Like Batman, Fraunce presents Hercules as the enemy of covetousness, particularly in the incident of the capture of Cerberus; allowing that various interpretations are possible, he choses to cite the Mythologiae of Natale Conti that “Cerberus is Covetousnes” which he “bridled and kept under concupiscence, and therefore returned safe from Hell.36 He also presents the view that “Hercules is a learned and absolute Philosopher: hee draweth the three-throated Cerberus out of Hell, by bringing to light the tripertite mysteries of Philosophie, naturall, morall, and dialectical.37 We are clearly a great distance from the Hercules of the Troades or the Hercules Furens.

For an indication of what Hercules represented to Shakespeare's contemporary audience the best indication may be an emblem by Henry Peacham in Minerva Britanna. Under the motto Virtus Romana et antiqua, Peacham presents a dignified Hercules in a loose cloak, over which he wears the skin of the Nemean lion killed in his first labor, and in his right hand he holds three golden apples from the Hesperides won in his eleventh labor, while in his left he holds the club that has been his only instrument of attack and defence. The pictorial aspect of the emblem affirms the general Renaissance tradition of Hercules as representing “th'Heroique virtuous mind.” The lion's skin, Peacham tells us, “Notes fortitude” and the club “the crabbed paine” of endurance. In his interpretation the three golden apples signify “the three Heroique vertues old,” and in a marginal gloss he identifies these as “1. Moderation of anger. 2. Contempt of pleasure. 3. Abstinence from covetousnes.”38 These are, of course, Stoic values. Whether they are attributed to Hercules by way of Cesare Ripa, as has been suggested, or whether both Ripa and Peacham received the Stoicized Hercules from Valeriano Bolzani, as I think, the fact that all three characterize Hercules in this way suggests that the Stoic Hercules was something of a commonplace.39 Indeed, this interpretation may have prompted Fraunce to see in Hercules his “learned and absolute Philosopher.”

Of particular interest for our present purpose are two episodes in the life of Hercules which recur in emblems and which bear on the actions of Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It has often been remarked that Antony's choice between Octavia and Cleopatra has its origins in emblematic representation of the so-called “choice of Hercules” or “Hercules at the cross-roads.”40 The choice of Hercules motif seems to have had its origin in a story told by Xenophon in his Memorabilia about the young Hercules meeting with two women, one sober, the other tarty. As John Coates summarizes the tradition:

They are, of course, Virtue and Vice, and the scene which follows achieved a great familiarity in Renaissance iconography. The well-known Rubens painting is only one of scores of instances of Hercules standing between Vice and Virtue. Vice is made to offer every kind of sensual pleasure. Rather than wars and worries, Hercules shall consider his choice of food, drink, sound, touch or perfume; ‘what tender love can give you most joy and how to come by all these pleasures with the least trouble’. Virtue reminds Hercules that if he desires success and glory he must work for them.41

The Peacham emblem indicates that the battle has been won by Virtue, given the symbolism attached to the three apples which Hercules holds.

Emblems representing Hercules at the crossroads take us back to an earlier point in the myth where the outcome seems to be still in doubt, or at least open to choice. Of these, a notable English instance is Whitney's emblem No. 40, wherein Hercules is illustrated with his club in one hand and the other as yet empty of the Hesperidean apples, between two female figures who are clearly Minerva and Venus, under the motto Bivium Virtutis et vitii. The same moment of decision is depicted by Rollenhagen (No. 14), later to be reworked in English by George Wither (No. 22). The victory is not easily won; as Whitney says of Hercules' struggle with the rival attractions of virtue and vice in his explicatory verses: “They long did strive, before he coulde be wonne.”

Dramatically, Shakespeare's Antony is in the position of the undecided Hercules until well into the play. Quite early (II.iii.38-40), Antony gives notice in a brief soliloquy of his intention to return to Cleopatra: “I will to Egypt; / And though I make this marriage for my peace, / I'th'East my pleasure lies.” But then he hesitates, trying at times to be loyal to his marriage to Octavia, until the final rift when Octavius tells his sister, who thinks Antony is still in Athens on Roman business:

No, my most wronged sister, Cleopatra
Hath nodded him to her. He hath given his empire
Up to a whore, who now are levying
The Kings o'th'earth for war.


In this moment the Herculean Antony is seen to have fallen short of the ideal set by his ancestor. The great but greatly imperfect Antony has chosen the pleasures offered by Venus rather than the civic duties of Minerva. However, whether the play itself finally upholds the Stoic virtues represented by the Hercules of emblem tradition is another matter. There is a case for suggesting that Shakespeare summons up the Stoic values and expectations only to refute them. Some measure of dramatic irony arises out of his enraged cry to Cleopatra, shortly after his defection from Rome and his desertion of his wife: “Though you can guess what temperance should be, / You know not what it is” (III.xiii.124-25). This accusation were best levelled at Antony himself.

Another important moment in Antony and Cleopatra which touches upon the life of Hercules is that in which Cleopatra boasts of having drunk him into oblivion. His defeat by a woman in the supposedly manly rite of holding one's liquor had been followed by his unmanning in a more literal way:

                                                                      That time?—O times!—
I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience, 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.


In emblem No. 95 of Minerva Britanna Peacham recalls the episode in which Hercules, besotted with Omphale, putting off his lion's skin for a woman's mantle, and throwing away the club which signified his manhood and fortitude (see also Peacham, No. 36), took up instead the distaff of feminine subjection. Peacham's verses provide an analogue for the Antony who has been overcome by Cleopatra and is dressed up in her tires and mantles:

Alcides heere, hath throwne his Clubbe away,
And weares a Mantle, for his Lions skinne,
Thus better liking for to passe the day
With Omphale, and with her maides to spinne,
                    To card, to reele, and doe such daily taske,
                    What ere it pleased, Omphale to aske.

The second stanza thereafter laments that “Love's affection did disgrace and shame / His virtues partes.” Peacham represents that part of the tradition which finds Hercules diminished by love. His is akin to the Roman view, first expressed by Philo and Demetrius and later expanded tellingly by Octavius, that love diminishes true manhood.

It has been assumed that the story of Hercules' subjection to Omphale is fused in Antony and Cleopatra with another myth of female mastery and that the tires-and-mantles episode resonates equally with recollections of “what Venus did with Mars.”42 To some extent a Jacobean audience would probably have identified the episode with both Hercules-Omphale and Mars-Venus. It is unlikely, however, that an audience so steeped in mythology and its emblematic recreations would have fused (or even confused) the two in their minds. Both myths are present in the background of the tire-and-mantles episode, but they are distinct in what they bring to the play. There is little moral content in the story of Mars and Venus. They are gods, beyond human reach in their ways, and the allegorizations of the myth are principally ontological, as the extract from Sandys noted above has indicated. The affair ends in celestial laughter at the embarrassment of the two gods caught in a net by the cuckolded husband, Vulcan. To be sure, there is the Neoplatonic reading of the myth which is encoded within some Renaissance paintings, and this reading emphasizes the theme of concordia discors, or the union of the opposites which Mars and Venus represent. Similarly, there is in Antony and Cleopatra a need to find “the midway 'twixt these extremes” (III.iv.19-20) of sensual Egyptian nature that Antony has taken on and the cold Romanness of Octavius. But a Neoplatonic reading is not the only one.

If the tires-and-mantles episode alludes to what Venus and Mars got up to—and it may do so—the story of Hercules and Omphale adds another dimension. It is to this latter myth that Cleopatra's description alludes primarily since Mars and Venus are undressed, whereas Antony and Cleopatra, like Hercules and Omphale, are cross-dressed. There is a difference. Hercules is sold into slavery to provide money as compensation for the orphaned children of Iphitus, whom he had murdered before recovering entirely from the insane fit in which he had previously killed his own children.43 Omphale buys him as her slave. Hercules' subsequent self-diminution in the cross-dressing episode is not so much a new sin or disgrace but rather the working out of a previous one. Seen in this way, Antony's being drunk to bed by Cleopatra, dressed in her clothes and robbed of his sword, is the sign of habitual moral failure rather than of something detached from his previous life. In Peacham's emblem of the cross-dressed Hercules, with its marginal gloss Si temperata accesserit Venus nos alia Dea est adeo gratiosa taken from a Latin version of Euripides' Medea, the point is that a disorderly life manifested in a loss of moderation or temperateness is destructive of the self. It is the emblematic Hercules rather than the emblematic Mars to whom Antony is the more closely compared. Antony's passion for Cleopatra is his downfall. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily inglorious.

There is another side to the business of giving oneself up to love, however. Van Veen, in his Emblemata Amorum, makes Hercules in love noble in a way that is quite outside the Roman comprehension. Under the motto “Love is the cause of virtue,” he comments:

Moste great and woorthie deeds had never been atchyved,
If in respect of love they had not bin begunne,
Loves victorie hath made more victories bee wonne,
From love-bred virtue then thus were they first deryved.(44)

In this emblem and elsewhere van Veen represents Hercules smitten by an arrow from Cupid, but one recognizes here the Platonic precept that love in various forms leads towards enlightenment, as exemplified in the Symposium and some of the more mystically-tinged dialogues. Indeed, van Veen cites Plato here (in a passage whose original I have been unable to locate) as his source for this view of love as the path to virtue. Another van Veen emblem suggests that love not only leads to virtue but is also the force which sustains the cosmos. Hence love is a force more potent than the kind of virtuous strength which Hercules embodies:

Atlas the heavens bore as poets have us told,
Whome Hercules did help, for which both are admyred,
But more is Cupids power, where no ayd is requyred,
Which by mayn force of love doth heaven and earth uphold.(45)

Love as the transcendent reality which “doth heaven and earth uphold” would have been familiar to Renaissance readers of Boëthius' De Consolatio Philosophiae and other works in the Realist tradition.

It is surely this transcendence, monistically conceived and not dichotomized in the body-soul antipathy between the Eros and Anteros of Neoplatonism, that would have been what most of Shakespeare's first audience understood in the love between Antony and Cleopatra. Historians of ideas, such as Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind, have emphasized the Neoplatonic, and quite rightly too, in the context of aristocratic patronage and commissioning of specific Renaissance works, but neither the works nor the ideas necessarily had much currency in Shakespeare's wider play-going community.46 Very few modern interpreters of Antony and Cleopatra would deny that there is in the last two acts an ecstatic visionary quality to the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra that commands our attention and respect, but I think it is more informed by the demotically interpreted book of Revelation than by the arcane Plotinus.

Few could fail to be moved by Antony's death scene. And who could deny Cleopatra her right to remember Antony as she does, when she reminisces to Dolabella, who is her captor's subordinate:

His face was as the heav'ns, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted
The little O, the earth. … 
His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tunèd spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element they lived in. … 
Think you there was or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?

(V.ii.78-89, 91-92)

When Dolabella answers her with “Gentle madam, no,” we must agree with him, at the same time acknowledging our own poverty of spirit for having to accord with his truth rather than Cleopatra's.

This other view of love as a force intimating transcendence through the ways of the body chiefly demands our respect during the last two acts of Antony and Cleopatra. Although it would be a mistake to become euphoric in one's commitment to Cleopatra's vision of Antony or, for that matter, herself, the contrary vision of two intemperate lovers who deservedly came to a bad end must equally be resisted. Where members of Shakespeare's first audience would have positioned themselves is not more simple or more single than the response of modern readers, but perhaps we should consider the comparison of Antony with Hercules as one that is simultaneously valid and ironically deficient.

The apotheosis of Hercules remains a central part of the myth, howsoever his intervening exploits may be judged. His death, brought about by the poisoned shirt of Nessus bestowed upon him by his wife, the unsuspecting Deianira, is agonizing, but the agon is the necessary prelude to apotheosis. Fraunce puts together the actions of Omphale and Deianira to extract the same cautionary conclusion from the two episodes, but he sees the ending as being glorious in spite of the process by which it is attained:

Thus did Hercules his searching and heroicall heart leave nothing unattempted: but by his reaching capacitie, and inquisitive speculation, pierced through heaven and hel: yet alas he that overcame all, was at last overcome himselfe: He that mastred men, was whipped by a woman, and enforced by her to spinne and handle a distaffe in stead of an Iron clubbe: so doth wantonnes effeminate the most warlike hearts, and so much harder it is, to resist pleasure, then not to be overcome by payne. At length having passed through so many perils, and being infected with a shirt sent him from Deianira, and polluted with the venymous blood of the Centaure Nessus, he burnt himselfe on the mount Oeta: that is to say, his terrestriall body being purged and purified, himselfe was afterwards deified and crowned with immortality.47

Thus Hercules began as a hero and became a god.

Antony is heroic too, if in a more limited and less certain way. Although he is likened to Hercules by others throughout the play, it is only after his final defeat at sea, through the treachery of Cleopatra's navy, that he allows himself a direct comparison with his legendary ancestor:

                                                                                                              All is lost!
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me.
My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder
They cast their caps up and carouse together
Like friends long lost. Triple-turned whore! 'Tis thou
Has sold me to this novice. … 
.....The shirt of Nessus is upon me. Teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'th'moon,
And with those hands that grasped the heaviest club
Subdue my worthiest self.

(IV.xii.9-14, 43-47)

One may read this passage ironically, with Antony as alazon, or butt of its irony, not its eiron, or controller. After all, Antony may be Herculean, but he is not Hercules. His successes are familiar matters of history rather than the marvelous matters of myth. Shakespeare makes more active use of the distance between Antony and Hercules than does Plutarch or the dramatists who had drawn on Plutarch before Shakespeare. And, to Shakespeare's audience whose Christian envelope of thought is reinforced by a multitude of biblical echoes, there can be no transformation into the divine for the Herculean Antony, despite all Cleopatra's nostalgic imaginings. And in spite of Antony's vision that “Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, / And all the haunt be ours” (IV.xiv.53-54), he and Cleopatra can hardly be reunited in the Elysian fields where Dido and Aeneas were never reunited before them.48

It is at this point that the very limitations of the comparison with Hercules become important. One thing that the emblem tradition makes very plain is that there is a Renaissance typology within which Hercules has a very special place of honor. Typology operates within a dimension of limited likeness. Antony is an antitype of Hercules; but for the Renaissance, Hercules is a type of Christ. Then to remove the middle term and make Antony himself a Christ-figure is to attenuate an already limited likeness, to Antony's disadvantage. Certainly, Antony has moments in which he is movingly Christ-like, but ultimately his separateness from Christ is more significant.49 He is irremediably previous to Christ and outside the Christian redemption.

Herculean Antony, however Christ-like at his best, must give way to Christ, not by typology but by displacement. Antony's soldiers, who attend their master on his last gaudy night and hear the mysterious music that seems to come either from the air or under the earth, perceive that “'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, / Now leaves him” (IV.iii.21-22). Within only a few minutes of stage time they give place to Octavius, who proclaims that “The time of universal peace is near” (

Evidence for Hercules as a type of Christ is widely dispersed throughout Renaissance thought. Eugene Waith says of Renaissance attempts to free Hercules of his medieval accretions and to return him to his classical form:

When the Renaissance restored to Hercules his concrete particularity as hero, however, it did not take away from him the symbolic value so strongly fortified by medieval typology and allegory. His association with the Old Testament heroes and with Christ lasted throughout the period. Milton assigns to the chorus of Samson Agonistes a comparison of Samson with Hercules, and in Paradise Regained he compares Christ's struggle with Satan to that of Hercules with Antaeus.50

Waith also correctly notes that “the typologists made his benefactions into an analogue of the sacrifice of Christ.”51 The quaint and labored Mystagogus Poeticus of Alexander Ross makes much of the typology and indicates some of the ways of interpreting Hercules which this author inherited. Although the Mystagogus Poeticus was not published until 1648, its thinking is of a generation earlier and hence is contemporary with the period in which Ross grew up and during which Shakespeare was drawing on classical mythology for his plays.

Ross was undoubtedly familiar with emblem books as well as the tradition which Renaissance mythographers shared with the emblem writers. In describing the eloquence of Hercules, a late accretion to Hercules' attributes, Ross seems in fact to be drawing directly upon an emblem by Alciati: “By Hercules the Ancients did not only mean valor & strength of body, but the force of eloquence also; which they did express by that picture of Hercules, clothed in a horse skin, armed with a club, with bow and arrows, having small chains proceeding from his tongue, & tied to the ears of people whom he drew after him.”52 In an edition of Alciato published by Plantin in 1591, Hercules is depicted exactly thus in Emblem CLXXX, with the motto Eloquentia Fortitudine praestantior making the surprising assertion that eloquence is more important than fortitude, the virtue normally associated with Hercules' heroism. The clue that it is this particular emblem which Ross is recalling is contained in his curious assertion that Hercules is wearing “a horse skin.” In this illustration the head of the Nemean lion is so flattened as to be indistinguishable as that of a lion, and the tail which hangs between Hercules' legs could easily be taken to be that of a horse.

Ross, however, not only affirms that Hercules is a type of Christ—“Our blessed Saviour is the true Hercules, who was the true & only son of God, & of the Virgin Mary: who was persecuted out of malice, and exposed to all dangers, which he overcame: he subdued the roaring Lion, that red Dragon, that tyrant and devourer of mankinde, the devil; he subdued the Hydra of sin, the Antaeus of earthly affections”53—but also, conversely, writes that “by Hercules may be meant every good Christian.”54 In this scheme of things Shakespeare's Antony cannot be a complete Hercules because he lives in the generation preceding the fulfillment whereby the typology is made meaningful.

Shakespeare's audiences who saw Antony and Cleopatra for the first time early in the reign of James I were acutely conscious that the tragedy they were witnessing was being played out immediately before the time of Christ. They knew that in the time of Antony's vanquisher, Octavius, soon to be proclaimed Augustus Caesar, the Redeemer had been born and that all who preceded him, unless specially privileged, remained outside the dimension of grace through which salvation was possible. In short, to the Christian in Jacobean England, Antony and Cleopatra were of the pagan world, excluded from grace. The very strength of Antony and Cleopatra's associations with the figures of pagan mythology—with Mars and Venus, Hercules and Omphale, Isis and Osiris—not only ennobled them but also put them firmly beyond the restorative immortality of which they dreamed. To those audiences, Proculeius' advice to Cleopatra (V.ii.21-28) after Octavius's victory would have been replete with ironic resonances:

                                                                                                                        Be of good cheer;
You're fallen into a princely hand. Fear nothing.
Make your full reference freely to my lord,
Who is so full of grace that it flows over
On all that need. Let me report to him
Your sweet dependency, and you shall find
A conqueror that will pray in aid for kindness
Where he for grace is kneeled to.

We know that Proculeius is lying, that he wants to keep Cleopatra alive only so that Octavius can humiliate her utterly by leading her in triumph through the streets of Rome. Octavius is not a lord who gives meaning to the word grace or to whom one may validly pray. That lord is yet to come; Octavius is, at best, his unknowing harbinger.

Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra early in the reign of James I, his new patron. There is considerable evidence that the first plays he wrote for James were all imbued with political sentiments that supported James' view of his own place in human history and in salvation history.55 The question that remains to be asked is: Does Shakespeare's play present dramatically any of the ideas which James I was concerned to promote in the political life of the court?


When James I came to claim his English throne he disconcerted many of his English supporters by setting immediately about the task of making peace with Spain. They were probably not to know at that stage but would find out as the years unfolded that peace would be James' chief political ambition. James had his reasons. The personal experience of two attempts on his life in Scotland, reinforced by the outrageous Gunpowder Plot only two years after his arrival in England, confirmed his commitment to the Stuart dynasty's claim that they had put an end to internecine warfare within the Scottish nobility and had firmly established accession by primogeniture rather than by violence.56 It was partly to demonstrate the superior way of the Stuarts that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for his new patron, shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot. What English people seemed not to understand was that in furthering a policy of peace to all, or almost all, James was building on the ideological construct of Queen Elizabeth as the incarnation of Astraea. This construction of the Queen had received powerful support from the Virgil of her age, Edmund Spenser, and it is beyond contention that “the dominant themes in Spenser's glorification of Elizabeth correspond to the leading characteristics of Astraea.”57

If Elizabeth had been the virgin goddess who had brought back the Golden Age, then James was the Augustus who lived to make good its promise, and that would be through peace. In the introductory verses (Stanza 9) to Book V of The Faerie Queene, Spenser says of this return, marked by the celestial rule of Saturn in the Golden Age:

For during Saturnes ancient reigne it's sayd,
That all the world with goodnesse did abound:
All loved vertue, no man was affrayd
Of force, ne fraud in wight was to be found:
No warre was known, no dreadfull trumpets sound,
Peace universall rayn'd mongst men and beasts. …(58)

James identified himself with Augustus from the start of his reign in England, as his Royal Entry to London in 1604 shows.59 James' Augustan pretensions probably go back much further, however, and may be discerned in the Stuart dynasty's connections with France. James' own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been linked by Du Bellay with the return of Astraea, and Ronsard had had a hand in the Royal Entry of Charles IX in 1571. In that earlier entry it had already become evident that “the imperial theme could identify with the peace theme as representing the arrival of an Augustan golden age of universal peace.”60 When Ben Jonson wrote The Poetaster (1601) with its strong emphasis on Augustus in the last days of Elizabeth, it seems likely that he already had one eye cast in the direction of Edinburgh.61

In the Royal Entry of 1604, the first of its kind in England since Queen Elizabeth's coronation procession of 1559, the imperial theme was prominent.62 James was praised and celebrated in many guises in a sequence of triumphal arches which lined his way and through which his procession passed. Decked out with tableaux vivants and painted emblematic devices, the elaborate arches announced the iconography of the new reign to the public. Atop one of the arches, the figure of Astraea reminded Londoners that “it was now the golden world.” And the final arch bore the proclamation “Redeunt Saturnia Regna.63 As a coda to the ceremonial, Graham Parry records that “As the royal party … rode down the Strand, they encountered one final tailpiece thrown up by Jonson at the last moment. … A human comet, Electra, prophesies, like an ancient Sybil, that the new reign shall be free” from any envy, faction, and discord that might disturb its peace, and “at the climactic moment James is hailed as the new Augustus.”64 The comet concluded its prophecy with the prayerful prognostication:

Long maist thou live, and see me thus appeare
As omenous a comet, from my spheare,
Unto thy raigne; as that did auspicate
So lasting glory to AUGUSTUS state.(65)

And, thus edified and affirmed, James returned to Westminster.

That James' rule was already proving to be at odds with the idealized self he himself projected and encouraged in others made the propaganda value of the Royal Entry all the more important, for “[t]he distance between the King's real and imagined self was immense. His Court was destined to be renowned for its venality, for its intemperance, for favoritism so extreme that it subverted good government, for neglect of affairs of state, and for gross flattery.”66 However, in the early years of his reign, James was a popular figure whose short-comings gave rise to occasional disappointment rather than general disillusionment. The English people had too much invested in their expectations of him to throw them away on the first breath of scandal.

Perhaps this situation explains why Shakespeare seems to have been prepared to accept and even endorse Stuart ideology in the first few plays he wrote for the King's Men, notably King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. While Shakespeare would never have been fooled by empty or vainglorious display, there is no reason to believe that by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra, four or five years into the reign, he was participating cynically and hypocritically in a political charade. Why Shakespeare elected to work as fully as he did within Stuart ideology during those years is a very interesting question, but it is outside the present discussion.

Whatever the quality of James' private life or the conduct of his court, the king was concerned to the point of obsession with the idea of the Second Coming and made its imminence part of his political life. And the book of Revelation which predicted it “was an obsession of England during his reign—in large part because commentators were stressing so insistently the political dimension of the Apocalypse.”67 James had published his own commentary in 1588 under the title of A Paraphrase upon the Revelation of the Apostle S. John, which was reissued in the year of his accession to the English throne and given first place in his collected Workes of 1616. Chiliastic belief was divided into those who predicted the coming of Christ before the thousand years spoken of in Revelation 20 and those who expected it afterwards. James was clearly one of the latter and was of the opinion that that period had already expired, for Gog and Magog (Rev. 20.8) had already come and were, respectively, “the Turke the open enemy, and the Pope the covered enemie.”68 Clearly the end was imminent, but James, even in his youthful enthusiasm, was too canny to commit himself to a timetable for consummation of the last days: “but in how short space it shall follow, that is onely knowne unto God; Onely this farre are we certaine, that in the last estate, without any moe generall mutations, the world shall remaine till the consummation and end of the same.”69

Such views were not the property of a maggoty-headed, brain-wormed few, but were rather part of normal life. Richard Bauckham has indicated how pervasive apocalypticism had been during the previous reign.70 James was simply bringing aspects of it up to date. James' sense was that Britain was to play a special role in accomplishing the final term in the typology which began with the Fall, found its antitype in Christ, and looked to final resolution in the apocalypse promised by John the Divine. Medieval apocalypticism had often been imprecise in that it interpreted Revelation spiritually or allegorically rather than literally, as, for example, in the case of Joachim of Fiore's concept of three ages. In the Renaissance, and particularly after the Reformation, the apocalypse found a local habitation, whether in Calvin's Geneva or Oliver Cromwell's London.71 A number of Renaissance poets, from Spenser to Andrew Marvell, were prepared to make apocalyptic prediction part of their political stance. As Bernard Capp has noted, “Apocalyptic belief with a clear political dimension was to remain part of the mainstream of thought down to the very end of the Stuart age.”72

Shakespeare, whatever he himself may have or not have believed, became part of the processes which expressed a mentality that was most influential in early Jacobean England. It could scarcely have been otherwise. Joseph Wittreich offers a compelling summary of the situation: “Nor should it be forgotten that plays and politics had become inextricably intertwined, especially plays such as were performed before the courtly audiences of Whitehall, where, as Stephen Orgel remarks, ‘the primary audience was the monarch, and the performance was often directed explicitly at him’, even if such political content was conveyed cryptically, through implied analogy and arcane symbolism.”73Antony and Cleopatra is a case in point: present throughout the play is a cryptically conveyed political content, sustained through implied analogy and symbolism which, though arcane now, was not so then. Of Shakespeare it may accurately be said that “In the tragedies especially, the apocalyptic strain becomes increasingly more prominent, with King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra all harboring the apocalyptic myth.”74 This is especially true of Antony and Cleopatra. If Naseeb Shaheen is accurate in his detection of citations from and allusions to Revelation in Antony and Cleopatra, that one play contains almost as many references as the other ten tragedies put together.75

The arcane core of Antony and Cleopatra is an interlayering of James' Augustan pretensions and his apocalyptic fervor, bound together in typological signification. It was Augustus who established the Pax Romana, which he thought to be an end in itself, not knowing that sub specie aeternitatis he was merely providing occasion for the fulfillment of prophecy in the birth of Jesus, as recounted in Luke 2, which reports that “in those dayes, there came a commandement from Augustus Cesar, that all the worlde shuld be taxed” (Geneva). If Augustus had brought about the peace that prevailed throughout the known world as a result of his imperial control over it at the moment of the Incarnation, then James, as the new Augustus, had restored that peace. Had he not reunified the divided realms as “King of Great Britaine, France and Ireland”—thus he styled himself!—thereby rendering the time and place propitious for the Second Coming?76 One might represent the typology thus in mathematical terms:

Augustus: Christ's Incarnation: James: Christ's Second Coming

It might be objected that the narrative and imagery surrounding the Second Coming in Revelation is shot through with violence, rendering James' policy of peace inappropriate to the typological sequence. However, there was in the Middle Ages and afterwards a firm tradition for reading the biblical apocalypse irenically, or peacefully—a tradition in which Dante, Petrarch, and Rabelais had participated.77 And Shakespeare had already shown himself favorably disposed to the idea of irenic apocalypse in his history plays, written prior to the accession of James I.78

The theme of temperance in Antony and Cleopatra is also connected with James' Augustan pretensions and the persistent reference to Revelation. Temperance, or the lack of it, is related to the play's apocalypticism in ways that would have been readily divined by a courtly audience and probably by one in a public playhouse too. Emblematic representations of Mars-Venus and of Hercules invited ontological and moral readings in terms of temperance and at the same time reminded Renaissance audiences of the distinction between classical temperance as sophrosyne and Christian temperance as the reward of grace. In Shakespeare's play Antony does not compare favorably with the mythological figures as far as temperance is concerned, as if to demonstrate that is beyond hope in a world both fallen and unredeemed. For it is in his very intemperance that Antony loses his way in the world. Despite his other qualities of magnanimity, generosity, and largeness of spirit, which are unaffected and serve to enhance his tragic grandeur, the lack of temperance proves fatal. The persistent allusion in the text of the play to the book of Revelation serves to remind that the events being played out are within a scheme beyond the understanding of the pagan world and beyond its limited spiritual resources.

But Antony's enemy at the last, Octavius, displays a kind of temperance that wins him the field and prepares him for empire. Yet the temperance of Octavius paradoxically is much less attractive than the intemperance of Antony. It is no more or less than the sophrosyne of Aristotle, enjoining moderation in all things, transplanted to the cold climate of Stoicism in political Rome at the end of the Republic. In this foreign soil, temperance has become distorted into discipline, denial, and ruthless heartlessness; and it comes perilously close to the extreme of defect in Aristotle's terms of temperance as balance between excess and deficiency. In any event, Octavius lacks the warmth, the vision, and the expansiveness of the man he defeats and destroys. If his is classical temperance as shown from a Christian perspective, it is so partial and so limited that it will render no more than a convenient occasion in salvation history.

The Christian humanist of the English Renaissance had to be particularly discriminating in understanding temperance. Classical temperance was not enough. The distinction was especially significant to Protestants such as James I. Humanists in general approved the moral tradition received from the classics, and in particular they built upon the Stoicism which was already embedded within the cultural mentality of many early Roman converts to Christianity. The Protestants among them, however, dissociated themselves from the Pelagian and Neo-Pelagian tendency in late medieval Catholicism to see the educated person as being spiritually self-sufficient.79 To the Protestant sensibility, humanity was fallen irretrievably unless redeemed by Christ by his personal intervention in the life of each individual. One was naturally evil, born in original sin. One could do nothing to save oneself, and good works were of no account since they could be accomplished only through grace, which it was God's prerogative to bestow or withhold as he pleased. In a pitched battle against Satan and the supernatural forces of evil, only supernatural forces of good could triumph.

In Spenser's scheme of precedence among the virtues, Temperance comes immediately after Holiness in importance. Book II of The Faerie Queene demonstrates the distinction between classical temperance and Christian temperance, to the advantage of the latter, by comparing them in action. Guyon is a naturally temperate man, who succeeds up to a point, but he proves powerless against the malign strength of Mammon. Only Prince Arthur, representing Christ, can save him. Thus, as René Graziani notes, Book II explores “the relation between classical temperance, which is self-sufficient, and Christian temperance, whch depends on grace.”80

James I had a similar view. In his advice to his eldest son, Prince Henry, Basilikon Doron, which was published several times in the years following his accession and which proved to be very popular reading in the first days of the Stuart regime in England, James wrote:

I need not to trouble you with the particular discourse of the foure Cardinall vertues … but I will shortly say unto you; make one of them, which is Temperance, Queene of all the rest within you. I meane not by the vulgar interpretation of Temperance, which onely consists in gustu & tactu, by the moderating of these two senses: but, I meane of that wise moderation, that first commaunding your selfe, shall as a Queene, command all the affections and passions of your minde, and as a Phisician, wisely mixe all your actions according thereto. Therefore, not onely in all your affections and passions, but even in your most vertuous actions, make ever moderation to be the chiefe ruler: For although holinesse be the first and most requisite qualitie of a Christian, as proceeding from a feeling feare and trew knowledge of God: yet yee remember how in the conclusion of my first booke, I advised you to moderate al your outward actions flowing there-fra.81

Underlying this precept is James' Calvinist belief that the elect person, though not saved by holy living, will succeed in living holily as a sign of his election. For James, the difference between “a lawfull good king, and an usurping Tyran[t]” is that the true king “having received from God a burthen of government, whereof he must be countable: the other thinketh his people ordeined for him, a prey to his passions and inordinate appetites.” In short, an illegitimate monarch will show his distance from God through intemperance.

The virtue of temperance is given an emblem to itself by Henry Peacham in Minerva Britanna.82 It is the only virtue to be singled out in this way, though of course virtuous qualities—and among them temperance—are dispersed through a wide range of thematic emblems in Peacham's book. In the marginal gloss to this emblem Peacham acknowledges his debt to the king's Basilikon Doron. Even without the acknowledgment the indebtedness is plain enough, for Peacham's verses begin: “Heere Temperance I stand, of virtues, Queene, / Who moderate all humane vaine desires.” The following stanza, though baldly moralistic and without any literary merit in itself, could well stand as a synopsis of Antony's personality, his failings and his catastrophe in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:

For when to lustes, I loosely let the raine,
And yeeld to each suggesting appetite,
Man to his ruine, headlong runnes amaine,
To frendes great greife, and enimies delight:
                    No conquest doubtles, may with that compare,
                    Of our affectes, when we the victors are.

The shared characteristics of the otherwise diverse representations of Peacham and Shakespeare show very clearly that at the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra an audience would have been in no doubt that what they were witnessing on stage was, on one level, the manifestation of an intemperate man in the throes of self-destruction.

If H. Neville Davies is right in his argument that Antony and Cleopatra alludes to some of the events of the visit to England in mid-1606 by James I's brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark, then there is a case for finding in the play exhortations and warnings to James of the same kind that James had issued to his son.83 The royal Danish visit was replete with episodes of drunkenness and debauchery, scandalizing such venerable statesmen as Sir John Harington, who had been one of Queen Elizabeth's favorite courtiers. Harington's marvellously witty account of the disastrous masque of Solomon and Sheba which was played before their British and Danish majesties, or rather fell apart before them, has the sting of prejudice within it, but much of it must have been true.84 Whether there is a minatory undercurrent in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting, for example, that the scene on Pompey's barge bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to what has been happening just recently in England, it is hard to be certain.85 Some degree of guarded criticism is not unlikely, since Shakespeare had employed irony against the monarchy even in the history plays written at the height of Elizabethan patriotic fervor.

It must have been clear to anyone connected with the court that, whatever the king's positive qualities might be, he did not embody the queen of virtues in his own person. Harington went on to complain that riotous excess of the court had brought “devastation of time and temperance.”86 Perhaps it was for this very reason that Shakespeare found it appropriate to place some emphasis on time and temperance in his Antony and Cleopatra.

Nevertheless, it is both possible and probable, I think, that Antony and Cleopatra brings more praise than blame to Shakespeare's royal patron. Shakespeare seems to me to be acknowledging the hortatory style of the masque, which at court was becoming a genre that offered serious competition for royal entertainment, as a way of keeping his integrity intact: by way of subtle encouragement he attributes to the monarch those qualities James would like to find in himself—qualities which had become part of his official propaganda. Many of Ben Jonson's masques in fact do exactly that. Both King Lear and Macbeth, written only a very short time before Antony and Cleopatra, make much of the Stuart ideology of kingship, while hinting at shortcomings in its incumbent practitioner. If Antony and Cleopatra was given its first—or one of its first—performances before James I and King Christian, they would have interpreted the play's emphasis on temperance and the failure of it in the ancient world as a compliment to the new king; for James was encouraged by contemporary apocalypticism to see himself as chosen to lead the world with his example of Christian temperance and to make it more ready for the Second Coming than the pagan Augustus had been able to do for the Incarnation. London might prove to be the New Jerusalem. Antony and Cleopatra completes a sequence which King Lear and Macbeth had begun. Those two plays had celebrated the triumph of Scottish and English nobility acting in concert to restore lawful kings in the distant past. Antony and Cleopatra would look to the future.

Antony and Cleopatra points to the role of a lawful and virtuous king in bringing the glory of a promised future out of potentiality and into reality. True temperance will be the mark of the divinely-appointed ruler who is to hurry the world on to the apocalypse, bringing thereby an end to time. The compliment is King James' to wear—if he can make it fit.


  1. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (1968; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984); and Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structures of Authority in Renaissance England (London: Routledge, 1989).

  2. See, for example, Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985).

  3. See Leeds Barroll, Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare's Theater (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 23-49, 116-52, and also Peter Thomson, Shakespeare's Theatre, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 73-83, for a year-by-year account of the practical meaning of royal patronage between 1603 and 1607.

  4. See The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), especially the essays by Michael Warren, “The Diminution of Kent,” pp. 59-73, and Gary Taylor, “Monopolies, Show Trials, Disaster, and Invasion: King Lear and Censorship,” pp. 75-119. The contention that the Q1 Lear is specifically the record of a court performance is, I believe, my own in a paper entitled “Ghostly Presences,” read at the 4 Rs Conference on Editing, under the auspices of the Australian Scholarly Editions Centre, University of New South Wales, Canberra, in April 1994.

  5. I am much indebted to Patrick H. Hutton, “The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History,” History and Theory, 20 (1981), 237-59.

  6. Ibid., p. 238.

  7. Ibid., p. 239.

  8. Ibid., p. 252.

  9. See Peter Daly, “Shakespeare and the Emblem: The Use of Evidence and Analogy in Establishing Iconographic and Emblematic Effects,” in Shakespeare and the Emblem: Studies in Renaissance Iconography and Iconology, ed. Tibor Fabiny (Szeged: Attila József Univ., 1984), pp. 117-87. However, Daly allows a more inclusive approach towards related genres and cultural phenomena in his later essay “The Cultural Context of English Emblem Books,” in The English Emblem and the Continental Tradition, ed. Peter Daly (New York: AMS Press, 1988), pp. 1-60.

  10. Rosemary Freeman defined emblems strictly in terms of Alicato's illustrated emblems with mottos and epigrams in her English Emblem Books (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948). However, see Daly, “The Cultural Context,” and also Michael Bath, Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture (London: Longman, 1994), esp. pp. 1-27.

  11. The connection between emblematist and mythographer is particularly close. See George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, ed. Karl K. Hulley and Stanley T. Vandersall (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970): “I have contracted the substance of every Booke into as many Figures … since there is between Poetry and Picture so great a congruitie; the one called by Simonides a speaking Picture, and the other a silent Poesie” (p. 9).

  12. Daly, “The Cultural Context,” p. 6.

  13. See John Doebler, Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1974), pp 8-20 and passim; and Dieter Mehl, “Emblems in English Renaissance Drama,” Renaissance Drama, n.s. 2 (1969), 39-57.

  14. Daly, “The Cultural Context,” p. 32.

  15. Stephen Batman, The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (London, 1577); Abraham France, The Third Part of The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (London, 1592); George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis; Alexander Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus (London, 1648).

  16. Daly, “The Cultural Context,” p. 17.

  17. Batman, The Golden Booke, fol. 6v.

  18. Fraunce, The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch, fol. 46r.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., fol. 32r.

  21. Otto van Veen, Amorum Emblemata (1608), pp. 208-09.

  22. Cf. Raymond B. Waddington, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus Did with Mars’,” Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1965), 210-27. See also the iconographic study of Cleopatra in her infinite variety by Clifford Davidson, “Antony and Cleopatra: Circe, Venus, and the Whore of Babylon,” in Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 31-55. Davidson's work makes use of a number of the emblematic sources to which I have also had recourse as well as to a wider range of sources outside the scope of this paper. Davidson's points on the apocalyptic aspect of Cleopatra as Whore of Babylon lend support to some of my own ideas about Shakespeare's apocalypticism in the third section of this essay.

  23. Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis, pp. 202-03. See Jean Seznec, The Survival of The Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, Bollingen Ser., 38 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), for a comprehensive study of the modes in which the myths were reinterpreted: Sandys' commentary makes best sense when read in the light of Seznec's argument.

  24. Richard Linche, The Fountaine of Ancient Fiction (London, 1599), sig. Ccij.

  25. The Heroicall Devises of M. Claudius Paradin, trans. P. S. (London, 1591), pp. 82, 120.

  26. Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 259.

  27. Ibid., p. 260.

  28. Ibid., p. 171.

  29. Waddington, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus did with Mars’,” pp. 210-27.

  30. For Plutarch's statement (in North's translation) “that the familie of the Antonii were discended from one Anton, the sonne of Hercules, whereof the familie tooke name” see Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, V (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 257.

  31. See for convenience Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), II, 95-103.

  32. I have noticed some twenty-four emblems centered on Hercules by Alciato (4), Peacham (2), Perriere (2), Reusner (1), Ripa (2), Rollenhagen (1) van Veen (6 in Amorum Emblemata, 4 in Horatii Emblemata), and Whitney (2). He is also given extended treatment by the mythographers, e.g. Batman, Cartari (trans. Linche), Fraunce, Ross, and Valeriano.

  33. Alciato (Plantin edition of 1591 with commentary by Minoes), pp. 164, 339.

  34. Batman, The Golden Booke, fol. 16v (mispaginated).

  35. Ibid.

  36. Fraunce, The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch, fol. 27v.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna (London, 1612), p. 36.

  39. Authorial and editorial accretions from edition to edition of the most popular emblem books make it almost impossible to locate a single source for an image or idea. This is one reason why I think it best for scholars of Renaissance drama to regard emblem books as indications of mentality rather than as specific points of origin.

  40. The fullest treatment of this motif in Antony and Cleopatra has been by John Coates in “‘The Choice of Hercules’ in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Survey, 31 (1978), 45-52.

  41. Ibid., p. 45.

  42. Waddington, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus did with Mars’,” p. 215, settles for a resemblence “of role and situation” that blurs the distinction.

  43. Graves, Greek Myths, II, 162-63.

  44. Van Veen, Amorum Emblemata, pp. 32-33.

  45. Ibid., pp. 36-37.

  46. See Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 129-30; Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), passim.

  47. Fraunce, The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch, fol. 47r.

  48. See Bevington's note (p. 222): “In the Aeneid … Aeneas … is repulsed by a scornful Dido when he encounters her in Hades.”

  49. See, for example, Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London, 1936), p. 303.

  50. Eugene Waith, The Herculean Hero (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), p. 39.

  51. Ibid., p. 43.

  52. Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 170.

  53. Ibid., p. 171.

  54. Ibid., p. 168.

  55. I develop this argument elsewhere; see my “Shakespeare, James I and the Matter of Britain,” English, forthcoming.

  56. See Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950), esp. pp. 162-82.

  57. Frances H. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 70.

  58. Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, ed. J. C. Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), II, 161.

  59. See Graham Parry, The Golden Age Restor'd: The Culture of the Stuart Court, 1603-42 (New York: St Martin's Press, 1981), pp.1-40. See also Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 28-54. For the Augustan theme in relation to Antony and Cleopatra see especially H. Neville Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), 123-58.

  60. La ioyeuse entrée de Charkes IX roy de France en Paris, 1572, ed. Frances Yates (Amsterdam, 1973), p. 22, as quoted by Howard Erskine-Hill, The Augustan Idea in English Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1983), pp. 121-33.

  61. Erskine-Hill, The Augustan Idea, p. 121.

  62. Parry, The Golden Age Restor'd, p. 9.

  63. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

  64. Ibid., p. 19.

  65. Ben Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, VII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 109.

  66. Parry, The Golden Age Restor'd, p. 19.

  67. Joseph Wittreich, “‘Image of that horror’: The Apocalypse in King Lear,” in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, ed. C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984), p. 182.

  68. James I, Workes (London, 1616), p. 79.

  69. Ibid., p. 80.

  70. Richard Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse (Appleford: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1978), pp. 19-78. See also B. W. Ball, A Great Expectation: Eschatological Thought in English Protestantism to 1660 (Leiden: Brill, 1975).

  71. See Ronald F. Reid, “Apocalypticism and Typology: Rhetorical Dimensions of a Symbolic Reality,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 69 (1983), 229-48.

  72. Bernard Capp, “The Political Dimension of Apocalyptic Thought,” in The Apocalypse, ed. Patrides and Wittreich, p. 118.

  73. Wittreich, “Image of that horror,” p. 180; the quotation from Stephen Orgel is from his The Illusion of Power in Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1975), p. 9.

  74. Wittreich, “Image of that Horror,” pp. 176-77.

  75. Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies (Delaware: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1987), lists seventeen references to Revelation in Antony and Cleopatra out of a total of forty-two (pp. 221-22). This proportion is indicative only because references and allusions to specific passages from Revelation are not always easy to establish and because some of the attributions are debatable.

  76. See James I, Workes, title page.

  77. See Dennis Costa, Irenic Apocalypse: Some Uses of Apocalyptic in Dante, Petrarch, and Rabelais (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1981).

  78. Ibid., p. 29.

  79. See my “Everyman and the Reformation,” Parergon, 29 (1981), 23-31.

  80. René Graziani, “The Faerie Queene, Book II,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, gen. ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1990), p. 263.

  81. James I, Workes, p. 174.

  82. Peacham, Minerva Britanna, p. 93.

  83. Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,” pp. 133-49.

  84. For Harington's letter see Nugae Antiquae: Being a Miscellaneous Collection of Original Papers, ed. Thomas Park (1804; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1966), I, 349.

  85. Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,” p. 141.

  86. Nugae Antiquae, I, 352.

All references to Antony and Cleopatra are to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, edited by David Bevington (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Antony and Cleopatra: The Narrative Construction of the Other,” in ‘Th' Interpretation of the Time’: The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, University of Victoria, 1993, pp. 59-90.

[In the following essay, Kujawinska-Courtney analyzes the play's use of diegesis and mimesis and argues that the opposition between the two may be viewed as analogous to the play's theme of polarity. The critic concludes that by the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Egyptian mimesis wins out over Roman diegesis.]

In Julius Caesar the theatre audience tries to make sense of two equally powerful narrative evaluations of the past: one Caesarian, the other Republican; in Antony and Cleopatra the spectators are subjected to a single dominant narrative mode, the Roman imperial ideology. Soldiers and politicians are spokesmen for the Roman world, and they galvanize at least temporarily the offstage and onstage audiences' perceptions of the enacted present. The diegetic mode of discourse animates this play as it does few others in the Shakespeare canon. The putative submission of the represented present to the narrative past constitutes the main structural pattern of the play,1 since the diegetic evaluation of both Antony and Cleopatra weighs heavily on the lovers' mimetic present. It would impose on them the rigid Roman values of morality.

The dynamic of Antony and Cleopatra is, however, vastly more complex than this. Imposing as the diegetic dimension of the play may be, mimesis has its own impact in both Roman and Egyptian scenes. Sometimes unusually expansive and vividly concentrated mimesis subverts the Roman ideology couched in diegetic terms. This subversion occurs even though the avenues of intimacy between the protagonists and the theatre audience are less open in this play than can be expected in mature Shakespearian tragedy. Macbeth and his Lady both deliver soliloquies (largely absent from the dramaturgy of Antony and Cleopatra), and they are also shown, alone together, communing intimately about issues of great moral consequence. (We never see Antony alone with Cleopatra). As early as Julius Caesar, Shakespeare knew how to reveal character through mimesis by soliloquy and by intimate argument that, though domestic, bears life-and-death implications (II.i). It may be the absence of these elements from the mimetic strategy of Antony and Cleopatra that, in the opinion of some critics, makes the protagonists more impressive than familiar to us.

Nevertheless, other elements, especially language and symbolic character, contribute to the vivid evocation of the various worlds of the play. Of language, Terence Hawkes writes that in Egypt it is “not so much … a vehicle for rational discourse [as it is in the Roman scenes], but rather a physically luxurious thing, part of a totality of sensuous indulgence in which all events rank as potential sources of bodily pleasure” (1973, 182). In both Rome and Egypt, the essence of culture is evoked by minor characters: soldiers and armed officers in military and militant Rome and a eunuch, a soothsayer, and erotically inclined waiting women in exotic Egypt. Language, however, is deceptive, because it gives the illusion of mimesis where representation itself is lacking. There is a “gap between the enormous cravings of erotic fantasy and the banal pleasures [mimesis] of which human beings are actually capable” (Hughes-Hallett 1990, 155). Yet, the sensuality and languorous pleasures of Egypt, which Antony and Cleopatra epitomize, somehow do not permit the spectators' total condemnation. One may say that the lovers waste their time, acting irresponsibly and emotionally, but the way in which they do it is impressive, because they convey such a strong histrionic and linguistic sense of themselves.

In Rome there is a similar ambiguity. Although the Roman judgement of Antony and Cleopatra is embedded in high ethical standards—a sense of duty inseparable from austerity, honour, politics, and warfare—the enactment proves more vulnerable than the principle.2 Most of the time the Romans present themselves as shrewd and grasping politicians for whom the end justifies any means. Consequently, even if the theatre audience may tend to identify itself with the Roman moral stance, the mimetic representation of sordidness in the Roman world puts into doubt the lofty moral standards the Romans express narratively.

The language and symbolism also participate in the vivid evocation of various worlds in the play; the spectators come to feel the amplitude of the Empire that is at stake for the characters who are engaged in the grandiose action. Shakespeare creates the feeling of distance and of setting that comprises the whole Mediterranean basin—of empire rather than mere kingdoms. One technical device that evokes this sense of spaciousness is the episodic structure (Aldus 1955, 397-414; Stroup 1964, 289-298; Stirling 1956, 157-192; Beckerman 1977, 99-112). This roominess can also be attributed to imagery and to the careless way kingdoms are “kiss'd away” (III.x.7) in Egypt; yet much of the roominess is due to the introduction of brief scenes. Some alternate between Rome and Alexandria and others offer cinematic glimpses of Athens, Parthia, and numerous other places in the polymorphous world of the play. In such a context of potentially disjunctive scenes, the diegetic must be brought into play in the quest for coherence in the Mediterranean vastness. The audience is indirectly informed about what has already happened or is happening elsewhere. Narratives very often delivered by anonymous messengers and soldiers (I.ii, I.iv, II.v, III.iii, III.vii, III.xii, IV.iii, IV.iv, IV.v,, IV.ix, V.ii. See Perret 1966, 67-72; Scrimgeour 1968, 41-54; Heffner 1976, 154-162) help to create the impression of a purposeful passage through space and time. The effect is to carry geographical amplitude to the horizons of the world.

Beyond this function of support for mimesis in a quest for coherence, there is a larger purpose for diegesis in the play's dramaturgy. Diegesis stands constantly in antithetical opposition to mimesis and often subverts it. Exposed to a continual shifting from persuasive diegesis to appealing mimesis, the spectators' response wavers; it becomes split and lost between equally gratifying narrative and representation. Leading a dialogue with these two aspects of the play, they alternately question both and struggle to find a constant point of value-reference in their experience of the dramatic world. The apparent ambiguity of the play may then be seen to be not an ambiguity of the dramatic world itself, but rather the ambivalence of the audience's shifting responses. Indeed Antony and Cleopatra makes hungry where most it satisfies, since the reconciliation of diegesis and mimesis challenges the observers. One may say that the ongoing agon between the mimetic and the diegetic becomes a dramaturgical analogue to other polarities in the play.3

Shakespeare used the same dramaturgical strategy at the outset of Antony and Cleopatra that he had employed previously in Julius Caesar. The first scene offers in miniature a paradigm of the fundamental praxis of the entire play. Morally didactic narratives that dominate the Roman world compete with the lyric representation of the exotic and erotic environment of the lovers in Egypt. Philo, an archetypal soldier who will not be seen or mentioned again in the play, makes a strongly functional cameo appearance here; we know nothing of him but his once-voiced moral opinion. It is, as it were, a disembodied voice that expresses intense regret and uncomprehending anger over Antony's passion for Cleopatra:

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 gipsy's lust


As Philo imposes his narrative on his as yet innocent listeners, he firmly establishes Antony as an object of his condemnation. The apparent soundness of his argument and the masterly compactness of his imagery achieve Philo's ends. Judging Antony's present behaviour, he turns Antony's past into a morally desirable standard, anchored in the Roman military concept of virtue.

In his description of the decay of Antony's potentialities, Philo establishes the lovers' relationship in the tradition of the popular mode of the war of the sexes. He foregrounds Antony's “eyes” and “heart” and juxtaposes their useful military employment in the past with their present use in indolent pastimes.4 Consequently, the narrative opening of the play, preceding Antony's entrance, focuses the attention of the theatre audience and turns it into biased witnesses of Antony's behaviour in Egypt. Commenting on this scene, one critic says that “from the Roman point of view of Philo, we shall see the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool, and not merely in this scene but in the whole action” (Stroup 1964, 297). Indoctrinated by Philo's narrative, the spectators expect, then, to see Antony as an emasculated weakling who has lost his past military prowess in a present battle of the sexes, and has become a mere servant of a racially inferior woman.

Yet when the protagonists actually appear on the stage, as they do immediately afterwards (I.i.14-55), the attention is swayed away from the pejorative topos of Philo by the amatory imaginations of the lovers as revealed in their rich and expansive imagery and their enormous presence. Indeed, “four lines, shared equally by the two lovers, are sufficient to shake our confidence in the fairness and accuracy of his [Philo's] verdict on them” (Hibbard 1980, 104). Temporarily, at least, then, the diegetic influence of Philo's position fades, since to the partners in love and to the theatre audience the atmosphere of “love of Love” and “some pleasure now” (I.i.44.47) are of a more urgent importance than the news of the political world represented by the Roman messenger. Rome and its matters and morals are far away and, at least in this part of the scene, they become a phantasmagoric intrusion, deprived of any sobering influence.

And even if the representation of the lovers' amorous pursuits carries the audience away by the power of the emotions expressed in hyperbolic poetry, unlike the protagonists the spectators are sharply brought back to reality by the dialogue of the Roman soldiers at the end of the scene. By binding the past and present to the anticipated future, the soldiers imply very strongly that this oblivion cannot last forever (I.i.56-62). The ruthless political world is losing its patience, and it will eventually shake the Elysian tranquility of Egypt and its irresponsible morality.

The establishment of Antony's military skills is crucial to the initial impression of his character, since his heroic past is “the only unquestioned idea in the play” (Rosen 1960, 112). The beginning of the play therefore bombards the audience with narrative references to Antony's past valour and contrasts it with his present passion for Cleopatra: Philo's rhetoric is later taken over by both Pompey and Octavius.5

Pompey—the rebel against the powers of Rome—compares Antony to Octavius and Lepidus: “his soldiership is twice the other twain” (II.i.34-35). Like Philo in Act I, scene i, he comments diegetically upon Antony's valiant past by contrasting it with his present self-indulgence which the spectators have seen in the flesh. Secure in his military position, Pompey is sure for a moment of his victory, mainly because Antony is absent from Rome.

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


Pompey's voice here in the second act echoes and seconds Octavius's earlier and stronger pronouncement.

In Act I, scene iv, Octavius, who is the center of power in Rome, expresses the official Roman condemnation of Antony's hedonistic dissipation in Egypt by pointing out his indispensability in martial matters, especially when Rome is facing a time of grave political and military risk. He introduces his narrative evaluation of Antony with his condemnation of Antony's present behaviour; the list of his accusations opens with the enumeration of Antony's wasteful employment of time: “he fishes, drinks, and wastes the lamps of night in revel” (I.iv.4-5). He echoes Philo's denigration of Antony's manhood:

[Antony] is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he. … 


To prove that Antony has subverted the Roman concept of austerity and obligation anchored in manliness, Octavius enlightens both the onstage and offstage audiences about Antony's neglect of social and political codes (I.iv.16-25).

When later in the scene Octavius delivers his narrative praise of Antony's past, he presents him as having once been the best example of Roman virtus.6 Antony is praised not only for his bravery on the battlefield, where he personally killed Hirtius and Pansa (I.iv.56-58), but also for his endurance of hardship during the spell of famine he and his army were exposed to when they were beaten at Modena.

                                                                                          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;
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on: and all this—
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now—
Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lank'd not.


Antony becomes in this narrative passage a paragon of self-abnegation and courage. Reduced to foraging like an animal (“beasts,” “stag,” “browse”) he was yet able to preserve his manly dignity and greatness. That Octavius presents Antony's heroism in defeat strengthens the image of valiant perfection, indirectly implying that if he thus comported himself at the overthrow of his army, he must have been superb at the moment of his glory. The general impression of Octavius's narratives evokes, however, in the onstage and offstage audiences condemnation for Antony's having wasted in Egypt his worldly male potential and his honour.

As past critics' responses confirm, Octavius succeeds in his rhetorical ploy. They generally judge Antony's and Cleopatra's behaviour on the basis of Octavius's persuasive diegesis, at least at this moment of the play. George B. Shaw, for example, saw this play as merely “a faithful picture of the soldier broken down by debauchery and the typical wanton in whose arms such men perish” ([1900] 1931, xxxviii). Yet Shakespeare provides no mimetic support in the play for Shaw's negative judgement;7 the lovers' life in Alexandria has been portrayed, but nothing sexually extravagant involving them has taken place in early scenes other than Antony's protestations that he prefers Egypt and Cleopatra's love to Rome. The only revelry is that implied in Antony's anticipatory invitation to “wander through the streets” at night with observing eyes (I.i.53-55), but whether Cleopatra has really agreed to this proposal is never made known. In addition, the lovers are not present when languorous pleasures are wittily discussed in the scene with the soothsayer (I.ii). Therefore the opinion that “Rome is a place of words, Egypt a place of actions, Rome is where love is talked of, Egypt is where love is made” (Hawkes 1973, 179) is not provoked by the mimetic representation of Egypt but by the critic's biased synthesis of the mimetic and the diegetic. The overall sensuality of Egypt expressed in the language of Antony and Cleopatra is orchestrated to modify the effect of the Roman diegetic mode, but the representational side of the play is subject to continual conquest by the Roman narratives as Egypt itself is subject to conquest by Rome.8

Shakespeare has allowed the traditional Roman concept of heroism as earned on the battlefield to go unchallenged for two acts. The result is a clear-cut distinction early in the play between the Roman and the Egyptian moralities. When Shakespeare exposes the Roman duplicity in mid-play, the theatre audience experiences the shock of decentering. In Act III, scene i, he suddenly introduces cynical spokesmen for a political expediency that suffuses the world of Roman politics, indeed all of Roman culture. Returning from the Parthian campaign, the Roman officers reduce virtus to the level of Realpolitik: they undermine the acceptance of virtus as the autonomous and self-validating power of an individual. The ultimate moral ideal as represented exclusively by Rome is destabilized not only by narrative counter-discourse but also by mimetic representation.

The pragmatism of Ventidius's diegesis undercuts the staged splendour of military triumph opening the scene (“Enter Ventidius as in triumph, with Silius, and other Romans, Officers, and Soldiers; the dead body of Pacorus borne before him”; III.i.SD). Urged by Silius to pursue his advantage against the enemy, he refuses to continue his conquests, justifying the decision by his past military experience:

                                                             … For learn this, Silius,
Better to leave undone, than by our deed
Acquire too high a fame, when him we serve's away.

(III.i.13-15 ff.)

Ventidius's comment further illustrates the charismatic power-creation already discussed in Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra Antony's individual success depends not only on his military and political actions, but also on the creation of a value for these deeds by the center of power. Antony is to a certain extent aware of this fact. He seems to comprehend, however, only its basis: the rule that the glory of victory never really belongs to the common soldiers who actually suffer the wounds of battle—for instance the anonymous wounded soldier (III.vii.62-63) and Scarus (IV.vii.6-9).

What Antony realizes is that he, as the center of power, can demand a constant creation of his value even at the expense of men of real virtus. Conscious of that rule, Ventidius reveals his political shrewdness by ascribing to Antony the latest victory over the Parthians. The anticipatory narrative on the contents of his letter to Antony reverberates with Antony's imagined presence at the battlefields of this war. The magical power of Antony's name over the Parthian enemy armies is established, since the war has been won in Antony's “name,” with “his banners” and “his … ranks” (III.i.30.32). In addition, Ventidius flatters his general by stressing his generosity to the soldiers (III.i.32) and by elevating the achievements of the battle: Antony's soldiers have conquered “the ne'er-yet-beaten horse of Parthia” (III.i.33).

What Antony never properly realizes, however, is that his virtue is not only the construct of his military valour itself, but also the construct of the ideological evaluation of his virtue, which is independent of his personal power. Once he openly challenges the center of Roman power that has created his charisma, Antony sees that in the eyes of Rome his political, military and personal reputation is disintegrating. Consequently in the second part of the play, any Roman references to Antony's military skills are negative. Even before the battle of Actium the Romans diegetically denigrate his military tactics. Enobarbus tells Cleopatra that:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          'tis said in Rome
That Photinus, an eunuch, and your maids
Manage this war.


Octavius, who found Antony heroic in defeat earlier in the play (I.iv), now sees nothing but an “old ruffian” (IV.i.4) in the defeated champion who challenges him to single combat. He himself prefers to achieve through his army the charisma that will result from the conquest of Antony. Octavius is then ironically, like the Antony of old who built his image through the deeds of such men as Ventidius, a believer in the Realpolitik of power-creation. As a believer in vicarious victories, Octavius pragmatically uses Antony's deserters in the front ranks against him (

The irony of Antony's situation in the fourth act is that he still identifies himself with the diegetically created Antony of the past, though in the mimetic present the balance of power has shifted away from him toward Octavius. The Roman narrators have now stopped reinventing the personal magic of Antony's leadership, and he nostalgically complains that Octavius is “harping on what I am not what he knew I was” (III.xiii.142-143). Frustrated with the defeat after the battle of Actium, he feels compelled to become his own narrator. He himself, then, recalls his famous military past—and at Octavius's expense:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          he at Philippi kept
His sword e'en like a dancer, while I struck
The lean and wrinkled Cassius, and 'twas I
That the mad Brutus ended: he alone
Dealt on lieutenantry, and no practice had
In the brave squares of war. … 


Antony's vision of himself is of an achiever at Philippi in his own person, while Octavius achieved through his lieutenants only. (Actually, as the audience of Julius Caesar remembers, “the lean and wrinkled Cassius” was killed by his slave, Pindarus, and “the mad Brutus” was “ended” by Strato, not by Antony). Mythologizing his past, Antony disregards the factual data, and, moreover, he fails to see in his narrative that his fame came through men like Ventidius, not less than Octavius's did.

A further irony is that Antony recalls his past not in front of a politically important audience, but in front of distraught Cleopatra and her court. The theatrical audience will feel the pathos and irony of Antony's sudden breaking of his narrative with “No matter” (III.xi.40). The impact of his narrative is lost for his stage audience in Shakespeare's mimetic representation of a highly emotional response by women to Antony's present defeat.

The tension between Antony's sense of his own charisma and the challenge to this charisma represented by the Roman diegetic denigration of him is only resolved by an audience which responds intellectually to the collision of narrative and mimesis. In this case modern spectators may make a cinematic analogy, which (of course) was not available to the audiences Shakespeare wrote for—but which nevertheless is helpful in defining an aesthetic phenomenon that would have been a real influence on them. The critics agree that Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare's most “cinematic” play, mainly because of its “wide screen” possibilities in sea fights and land battles, exotic Egypt and sober Rome (Danby 1949, 196-197). The core of the cinematic analogy, however, lies not in these technical devices and effects but in the agon between the narrative and the representational dimensions of the play. In Antony and Cleopatra, more than in any other of Shakespeare's plays, the audience constantly feels the movement of an imaginary camera-eye shifting between two often contradictory points of view: the diegetic (subjective) and the mimetic (neutral). Only a shrewd synthesis of these two dramaturgical modes reconciles the problem of the play's hermeneutics. Indeed Alexander Leggatt overstates his case when he assumes that if “there is a gap in the action [of Antony and Cleopatra], … we are not encouraged to fill it in; for the purposes of the play, anything we do not see or hear about does not happen” (1988, 173-174). Only those members of the audience who recognize that in Antony and Cleopatra cinematic “cuts” heighten the feeling of camera-eye technique will see a glaring discrepancy between the Roman interpretation of Antony's political stratagems and his very performance of these stratagems.

The political manoeuvers between Antony and Octavius are often either ignored or misunderstood by the critics—and Antony's moral stature suffers as a result. The audience sees Antony as he tries, both physically and mentally, to behave as a Roman is expected to behave. He is not at all the now floundering sometime politician and general that many critics, following Octavius's diegetic hints, have seen him to be.

As the beginning of the play establishes, Antony knows, despite his passion for Cleopatra, that he is not merely a private man but also, as Philo puts it, “the triple pillar of the world” (I.i.12). Amidst the emotionally appealing hurly-burly of the mimetic representation of the lovers in Egypt, the spectators may disregard the fact that Antony decides to break “these strong Egyptian fetters” (I.ii.113). But his decision should not be overlooked, nor should his rationale be underestimated, since he returns to Rome because of his pragmatic evaluation of the Mediterranean Realpolitik. He feels responsible for the security of the Roman Empire threatened by Pompey's rebellion, by civil war incited by his own kindred, and by unrest in Asia (I.ii.85-111,181-183). In addition, his control over the confrontation with Octavius in Rome and his consent to marry Octavius's sister (II.ii.28-116,144-149) point out Antony's shrewdness and political insight. Shakespeare's Antony is not the political criminal that Plutarch presents (Henley 1896, 6:20,56-57,62-63), and he emerges for the audience from the dramaturgical synthesis between diegesis and mimesis not as an initiator of the military upheavals of the Roman world, but as a responder to them.

It is Octavius who (as in Plutarch) offends Antony “marvelously” (Henley 1896, 6:35) by his unexpected military initiatives and self-serving political decisions. Antony complains to his new wife that her brother:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              hath wag'd
New wars 'gainst Pompey; made his will, and read it
To public ear:
Spoke scantly of me: when perforce he could not
But pay me terms of honour, cold and sickly
He vented them.

(III.iv.3-8 ff.)

Since Antony receives this news while he is still in Athens leading a virtuous life as an exemplary husband to Octavia, he has every reason to feel personally offended and politically threatened. From his point of view Octavius's proclamation of war against Pompey looks like an arbitrary decision aimed at asserting his brother-in-law's unilateral dominion over the Roman Empire. It also seems to denigrate Antony within the political structure of Rome. The spectators who recall that Antony regards himself as personally obligated to Pompey for hospitality shown to his mother when Octavius and Antony's brother “were at blows” (, will understand that when Octavius takes up arms against Pompey he indirectly attacks Antony.

Antony's offense at Octavius's shrewd use of his will in an oration is meaningful to those members of the audience who remember Antony's similar use of a last will and testament in Act III of Julius Caesar. They can fully comprehend the extent of the contingent political repercussions which such an oration may bring, as well as Octavius's potential threat to Antony's situation in Rome. They may even perceive Shakespeare as entering into a dialogue with a play he had written eight years before.

Even if at this moment of the play the offstage audience (together with Antony) is inclined to accept Octavia's peacemaking advice “believe not all, or … stomach not all” (III.iv.11-12), the scene following will intensify Antony's fragility as an authoritative figure in the Roman world. Flat mimetically but alive diegetically, scene v of Act III makes clear that the wars against Pompey are a fact known to everyone (III.v.5). Immediately after comes the further news of Octavius's ignoble treatment of Lepidus—the third triumvir—which adds injury to injury and gives Antony ample reason to rebel against the growing menace of his brother-in-law. Eros relates that Antony is “walking in the garden … and spurns the rush that lies before him” (III.v.16-17) on learning that:

Caesar, having made use of him [Lepidus] in the wars ‘gainst Pompey, presently denied him rivality, would not let him partake in the glory of the action, and not resting here, accuses him of letters he had formerly wrote to Pompey; upon his own appeal, seizes him; so the poor third is up, till death enlarge his confine.


Holding the same political position with Lepidus, Antony feels he must respond to the open gambit of Octavius's play. If Michel Foucault is correct in saying that “power is what says no” (1980, 139), Antony has no choice: he must react unless he is willing to lose his power and experience the fate of “Fool Lepidus” (III.v.17).

Two very short scenes, iv and v of Act III, thus clarify Antony's motives for seeking the imposition of his will over the Roman world. Yet, since these scenes, entirely diegetic, have “classical structure” (two convenient actors engaged in a relatively stilted narrative exchange), they may be too easily dismissed by the critics. And the role of Octavius's sinister scheming in Antony's assertion of himself in the power structure of Rome may also be too casually disregarded.

The next scene, vi of Act III, further clouds the moral validity of Antony's political actions. Octavius's representationally appealing strategies and his convincingly arranged narrative ploys temporarily overwhelm the spectators' interpretation of the diegesis of scenes iv and v. The dramaturgy of scene vi places Octavius at the center of power, influencing his political audience with a convincing account of Antony's misbehaviour. His narrative of Antony's celebration in Alexandria concentrates on “the manner of 't” (, juxtaposing its wasteful opulence (“a tribunal silver'd … chairs of gold” with his own moral condemnation of the lovers' conduct:

                                                                                at their feet sat
Caesarion, whom they call my father's son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them.


His catalogue of the kingdoms Antony has distributed among Cleopatra and her family: Lower Syria, Lydia, Great Media, Parthia, Armenia, Cilicia and Phoenicia (,14,16) stresses Octavius's shrewdness in reading Antony's manoeuvers as political assertion. This Antony is bent on displaying his prerogatives of power, even at the expense of endangering the stability of Rome.

The official way in which Octavius handles Antony's charges in this scene illuminates the importance of power relations between these two triumvirs. Each tries to subvert the other's rights in the political structure of the Roman Empire. Antony's accusations center around two issues: Octavius's actions against Pompey and Lepidus and his subsequent expropriation of Pompey's “part o'the isle” and all of Lepidus's “revenue” (,30). In other words, Antony questions the legitimacy of Octavius's unilateral authority and points out his greed. However, narrating Antony's accusations directed personally against him (, Octavius gives them a public dimension by applying illeism and the regal first person plural: he refers to himself as “Caesar” and “we” (,29), creating a distance from his interlocutors.9 His rhetoric implies that the interlocutors should identify him with the Roman Empire itself. Octavius tries to become the symbol of Rome—what Cleopatra already is for Egypt—while Antony ironically is relegated to the position of a trespasser, not so much upon Octavius's private authority as upon the very status quo of the State. Since Octavius has already sent his answer to Antony (, he informs Maecenas and Agrippa rather than seeks their advice, and this establishes a line between himself and his inferiors—signalling further his political domination.

Yet, at crucial moments Octavius also foregrounds his own personal authority in the narrative version of his reply to Antony. His arbitrariness appears in his use of first-person pronouns: not only does he answer Antony's charges in an arbitrary way—he completely ignores the question of Pompey—but he also keeps to himself the detailed reasons for his judgment of Lepidus:

I have told him [Antony], Lepidus was grown too cruel,
That he his high authority abus'd,
And did deserve his change:

(; emphasis added)

The tone of the second part of his answer to Antony's complaints matches the tone of the first part: it perpetuates Octavius's political and personal supremacy. He promises to share with Antony his spoils of war, under the condition that Antony do the same with his ( Since Antony has already distributed a major part of his newly conquered kingdoms among Cleopatra and her family, Maecenas knows Antony will “never yield to that” ( His view is shared by Octavius, who purposely has sent Antony a reply which he knows that Antony will reject. Octavius thus shows—by his very grammar and by his status as “privileged narrator”—who really wields power in Rome.

The relatively static show of Octavius's power in the early part of this scene becomes dynamic with the entrance of Octavia. Her arrival in Rome scantily attended angers Octavius, since it does not give him an opportunity for ostentation; and the mimetic energy of the scene suddenly increases. The onstage audience multiplies, setting off Octavius's imperial ire and his biased judgement on Antony's behaviour in Alexandria. Antony becomes now in Octavius's speeches a lustful man who “hath given his empire up to a whore” (

Until his sister's appearance, Octavius has withheld the subject of Antony's offense to his family, for this offense will be the trump card in his plan to incite the anger of Rome against his political rival. Confronted with Octavia's humility and unquestioned virtue, the onstage and offstage audiences become an easier prey for Octavius's narrative manipulation. Eventually, Maecenas joins in Octavius's contempt for the lovers in Alexandria: Antony is “adulterous… most large in his abominations,” and Cleopatra, “a trull” (

The fact that Octavius keeps back Antony's plans for war until his sister has joined the group of subservient listeners reveals also his own strongly dramatic instinct for exploiting an unexpected situation ( This information, delivered among his sister's tears, is definitely more effective here than if he had imparted it earlier to his emotionally detached audience of male Romans. This time the Roman politicians respond not only to Octavius's diegesis but also to his cleverly orchestrated mimesis. Octavius emerges, then, from this scene as the controller of not only the political but also the mimetic and diegetic dimensions of the dramatic world. He is the ultimate possessor of the narrative “truth” which he imposes authoritatively on his unchallenging listeners, while the mimetic present underscores his successful attempts at power centralisation in state and family matters.

Yet the theatre audience may not be entirely subject to Octavius's explication. If the spectators make a synthesis of diegetic and mimetic information, Antony's desertion to Cleopatra does not look so much like a crime. He goes to Egypt where he is sure to be accepted and loved, and where he can freely exercise his prerogatives of power. The readers of Plutarch are given a single option to think that “[i]t was too arrogant and insolent a part” (Henley 1896, 6:57) for Antony to give away lands only because of his love for Cleopatra. The spectators, on the other hand, are left with doubts.

If they extrapolate from the dramaturgical intention, they will see Antony not just from Octavius's point of view, as a man whose actions are only amatory and decadent—but also from their own perspective. And from this more balanced point of view, Antony emerges as a politician who is fighting for the confirmation of himself as the heroic soldier (Proser 1965, 187-188) and the co-owner of the Empire.10 Unfortunately at this moment of the play Antony proves himself to be vulnerable, and his defeat has not only political, but also diegetic and mimetic dimensions. He is not a match for Octavius who is “fastidious, abstemious, observant, … devoid of personal warmth”—a Machiavellian politician (Thomas 1989, 105).

Those theatrical directors who insert an intermission between scenes vi and vii of Act III may seem to recognize the dramatic achievement of scene vi (Jones 1971, 228-230). The audience, overwhelmed by Octavius's powers, is invited to reflect during the interval on the complexity of motives for Antony's desertion to Cleopatra—a complexity that is created by cleverly intermingled diegesis and mimesis.

Despite the fact that military valour lies at the core of its value system, Antony and Cleopatra is the only one of Shakespeare's three principal Roman plays where the battles are narrated, not represented. Shakespeare confines battles to reports of action, and this intensifies the feeling that the Roman concept of Antony's virtus belongs to the past, while in the present he subverts the Roman concept of virtus by his behaviour.

The tactics of the battles incorporated within the dramatic present are viewed alternately from Roman and Egyptian perspectives which filter offstage military manoeuvers through their biases, grounded in the physical places from which they observe them, in their ideological slant, and in the pragmatism of their particular addresses. While in their representations of the political landscape after the battle, the Roman speakers anchor their evaluation in expediency, the Egyptian vista is redolent of hyperbolic emotions and language. At these points in the play, the intensified reactions of the lovers stir and reinforce the audience's response more than the biased narrative accounts of the Roman soldiers can do; mimesis triumphs for the moment over diegesis, leaving the spectators with an uneasy feeling as they side with the irrational but more humane party.

The orchestration of the battle of Actium is a good example of this technique. The development of the martial events is conveyed through the interaction among visual, audial and narrative effects. After the initial presentation of the marching armies—Octavius's and Antony's—the audience is exposed to an empty stage, straining its audial perception to make sense out of “the noise of a sea-fight” (III.x.SD). The spectators are re-living the uncertainties of the battle on their own. The appearance of Enobarbus does not relieve the suspense since his narrative full of anxiety does not explain the battle as a whole nor its outcome (III.x.1-4). His account implies disaster but at this moment of the play the audience has too little information to evoke a full picture of the offstage events.

The same can be said about Scarus's agitated exclamations. They add a sense of urgency to the offstage action, but they do not present the final outcome of the battle (III.x.4-5,6-8). His subsequent extrapolation of the events still keeps the onstage audience in the dark, since his narrative is a poetic rendering of this part of the battle which Enobarbus has already related in more prosaic terms. (Normally, of course, those members of the offstage audience who are historically unprepared will share the onstage audience's ignorance.) The novelty of Scarus's narrative lies in the fact that he is so morally biased—so “Roman”:

                                                            Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt,—
Whom leprosy o'ertake!—i'the midst o'the fight,
When vantage like a pair of twins appear'd
Both as the same, or rather ours the elder,—
The breeze upon her, like a cow in June,
Hoists sails, and flies.
… She once being loof'd,
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing, and (like a doting mallard)
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her:
I never saw an action of such shame;
Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er before
Did violate so itself.


Scarus reduces Antony and Cleopatra to an animalistic level. Antony, the Roman paragon of virtus, becomes a beast (stallion, bull, drake), which, overpowered by an impulsive sexual drive, abandons everything and follows his mate in heat—Cleopatra (mare, cow, duck). In Scarus's interpretation of Antony's behaviour, “the possession of the sexual object is the objective of an all controlling will” (Lyons 1968, 21).

The process of Antony's later self-denigration is partly explicated by Canidius, who accuses Antony of not being himself: “had our general been what he knew himself, it had gone well” (III.x.26-27). Filling the gaps in the narrative mosaic of the offstage battle, Canidius finally informs his listeners about the total defeat of Antony's army and about the gradual desertion of Antony's soldiers and political supporters to the opponents' camp (III.x.25-26,31,33-35).

Left with a feeling of loss and with condemnation for the lovers' irrational behaviour, the theatre audience witnesses immediately afterward a scene between the two members of the “guilty” party which ameliorates the harshness of the cumulative diegesis of their defeat. After the mimetically strong moment of distress, the narrative speeches of Antony and Cleopatra, in contrast to the Roman composite narrative, employ the language of love to elevate their disastrous flight from their honourable duty:

O my lord, my lord,
Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought
You would have follow'd.
Egypt, thou knew'st too well,
My heart was to thy rudder tied by the 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 gods
Command me.


The meiosis and the hyperbole of the narrative explanations of the lovers' behaviour during the battle catch the offstage audience in a paradox of mixed emotions. The spectators may question the rationale of the lovers' behaviour, but they are nevertheless sympathetic to their predicament. In other words, they may believe with Rosalie L. Colie that “the mere sexuality, strong sexual love, idealized love: however it is described, the emotions shared by Antony and Cleopatra challenge the heroic world of Roman military organization” (1974, 187). Yet, even Colie's point of view is open to challenge, since it may have been unduly influenced by the Roman soldiers' stance, which sees Antony only as a male pursuing a female in heat; he himself sees his attachment to Cleopatra otherwise, as a relation of the “spirit.”

The Roman/Egyptian relationship, then, follows in the play a pattern of alternating ascendancy of diegesis and mimesis in the response of the audience. In most cases the past-oriented, tradition-dominated Romans assert themselves narratively, while the present-fascinated, care-free Egyptians as it were try to resist this assertion by their powerful mimetic representation of their own culture. (To use modern parlance, the Roman narratives reveal a paradigm of colonial expansion at the expense of a people who must assert their cultural identity physically.) At this point in the play, the continuous decentering of the audience's response prevents any triumphant quod erat demonstrandum, either Roman or Egyptian.

The typology of Roman relations to Egypt/The Other is similar to the one which Tzvetan Todorov describes in the context of the conquest of America. At both axiological (value judgement) and praxeological (practical) levels, one asserts distance and a possible superiority to The Other; and at the epistemic (comprehending) level, one either understands or fails to understand the alien culture (1982, 185). At the axiological and praxeological levels the Roman narratives disregard the relativity of the positions from which human affairs can be judged, assuming the stand of superiority, and their superiority is anchored in the following premises:

foreigners are inferior … women resemble foreigners in many respects, not least in their common inferiority to the Roman male … a man who allows himself to be dominated by a woman is no longer a real man, and is most certainly not a real Roman … such a man cannot be considered accountable for his own actions—the guilt for his misdeeds is solely his female partner's.

(Hughes-Hallett 1990, 44)

For the representatives of the male-dominated Roman world, Octavia—a typical Roman matron—although of “a holy, cold and still conversation” ( is the only accepted female norm. She is chaste, passive, and obedient to a fault. On the other hand, Cleopatra, as a woman, perceived mimetically as articulate, intelligent, and eager to achieve in spheres outside the domestic, is consequently regarded as aberrant and suspect, all the more because of her racial and cultural otherness. Even before she appears for the first time in the play, Philo's narrative manipulates the audience's expectations by referring to her social inferiority (“a tawny front,” “gipsy”) and sexual activity (“lust,” I.i.6,10). Indeed, throughout the play the narratives on Cleopatra and Egypt reveal that the Roman males find a certain pleasure in their arrogant and oppressive behaviour stemming from racism and sexism.11

Sexuality for them is ratified only by marriage (and lineal procreation); Cleopatra as a sexually independent woman becomes a constant object of their prurient excitement and a threat to their masculinity. Unaware of the sensitivity of the subject of Cleopatra in the presence of Octavius and Antony, Sextus Pompey attempts to incite a discussion of her. Because his brother was Cleopatra's lover, Pompey possesses a detailed knowledge of her affair with Julius Caesar (,67-68). His insistence on talking about her past turns him into an audial analogue to a voyeur: he seems to derive sexual gratification from talking about the sexual lives of others. In this scene, however, Pompey is in the inferior position of a rebellious partisan against the Roman Empire; thus he is relatively easily silenced by Antony and Enobarbus, who wish to avoid a conversation difficult to cope with because of their own involvement in Egyptian lifestyle (,70-73).12

In their mimetic present the Romans constantly abuse Cleopatra by calling her “strumpet,” “whore,” “trull,” “Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt” (I.i.13;,95; III.x.10). Agrippa, as if aiming at impressing his interlocutors with his knowledge of Cleopatra's past, describes it in typical soldier-like and anti-feminist phrasing. Admitting Cleopatra's initial power over “great Caesar” (“she made … [him] lay his sword to bed”), the Roman ascribes to Caesar the aggressive ploughing of her, while her sexual activity is reduced to passive yielding of the resulting harvest (II.ii.227-228). The vulgarity of his comment is intensified by the fact that Agrippa pronounces it in response to Enobarbus's elevated description of Cleopatra on the river Cydnus (II.ii.190-226). Undercutting the romanticized vision of her past, Agrippa reveals—at least for sophisticated modern theatre audiences—his own male insecurity (for the principle, see Fry 1972, 133).

Later in the play, angry with Cleopatra's supposed political desertion to Octavius's camp, Antony himself also refers to her past:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher: nay, you were a fragment
Of Gnaeus Pompey's, besides what hotter hours,
Unregister'd in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick'd out. For I am sure,
Though you can guess what temperance should be,
You know not what it is.


The harsh rhetoric of Antony's invective is, however, toned down by the fact that his narrative is actually a dialogized image (in the Bakhtinian sense) of Cleopatra's own interpretation of her love affairs in scene v of Act I. She brings back amorous times:

                                                                                Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch: and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow,
There would he anchor in his aspect, and die
With looking on his life.


Dislocated by the collapse of his belief in Cleopatra's political and emotional fidelity, Antony uses a stylistic parody of her own ideological discourse. The self-interested meaning of the word “morsel” is determined in these narratives by the speakers' positions and their concrete mimetic situations. It juxtaposes the crudeness of Antony's fury at her betrayal and the romanticism of Cleopatra's boastfulness when she addresses her courtiers about her past.

In both of these versions Cleopatra is presented as a sexual object for satisfying male appetites. Following the Roman ideology, Antony reduces her to a fragmented and rejected ort after the males have satisfied their hunger. In Cleopatra's own version she compares herself to a special treat capable of constantly exciting the most discriminating palates.

Cleopatra's choice of the phrase “great Pompey” is a tactic to mislead both her onstage and her offstage audiences. Modern readers of the printed text will see through her ploy: she wants to give the impression that she was the mistress of Pompey the Great, not merely of his eldest son—Gnaeus. Eventually Antony puts straight the matter of her connections with the Pompey family, and in doing so he betrays his enormous anger evoked by her courteous treatment of Thidias—Octavius's messenger (III.xiii.46-85). Using irony he puts her past into historical perspective and deflates her attempt at presenting herself, as Laurens J. Mills puts it, the mistress of the most powerful and influential men of her times (1964, 154).

Boorish as Antony's invectives sound, they are, all the same, modified by his own objective treatment of Cleopatra's sexuality. Unlike his Roman friends, he admits her own active sexual participation in her past amatory adventures. Although the first part of his narrative reduces her to a passive object (II.xiii.116-120), the second part (III.xiii.121-122) contradicts his initially imposed point of view by recognizing Cleopatra as a subject with her own rights and with preferences in sexual matters. The irony is that as he denigrates Cleopatra, Antony portrays himself as an eater of other men's scraps. This “morsel” has, after all, excited his appetite.

In reducing Cleopatra and her sexuality to a mere serving of food, Antony falls into the anti-Egyptian, anti-Cleopatra stance of the Roman soldiers and politicians (e.g. “he will to his Egyptian dish again”; This anti-Egyptian, anti-Cleopatra stance pervades the Roman axiological and praxeological attitude toward Egypt, especially its sexuality. But there is more—to apply once again Todorov's terminology—the epistemic level of the Roman position, which again and again reveals an authoritarianism and condescension toward the Other. The Egyptian way of living attracts their attention, but the Romans treat Egypt with the attitude of curiosa-collectors, never attempting full comprehension.

Overwhelmed by the mimetic richness of Act II, scene vii, when drunken Romans discuss the tourist attractions of Egypt, the theatre audience may not notice that the Romans, even the sober and practical Octavius, do not find Egyptian material culture politically significant, as shrewd imperialists ought to. Relegated to the atmosphere of inebriated revelry on Pompey's galley (not to the abstemious halls of Roman palaces), Antony's engineering explanation of the pyramids and his economic account of the use of the River Nile are trivialized. His technical information does not excite anyone's interest (II.viii.17-23), because the Roman ethnological investigation pursues less essential truths than mere verisimilitude. The audience may perceive in bibulous Lepidus a satiric portrait of the chauvinistic Romans and their shallow a priori knowledge of Egypt: “I have heard the Ptolemies' pyramises are very goodly things; without contradiction I have heard that” (II.vii.33-35).

The Romans' epistemic ignorance extends to the subject of Egyptian sexuality, which they seemingly cannot escape. It is the only subject which actually stirs their speculative imagination. Fascinated by the “strange serpents,” Lepidus retails the unnatural natural history of their reproductive customs (II.vii.24,26-27). He explores the subject of crocodiles by asking Antony a question about their “manner” (II.viii.40). Realizing the shallowness of this Roman's interest in Egypt, Antony answers Lepidus's interrogation by tautology (II.viii.41-44). In his cruel mockery Antony correctly assumes that neither his descriptive nor his narrative explication of Egypt as he perceives it can change the calcified Roman sense of reality as personified in Lepidus. Octavius, it is true, registers amusement at Lepidus's “naivete” (“Will this description satisfy him?” II.vii.49), but on the whole, since the Romans are too narrow-minded in projecting their own system of values on the Other, it is beyond their comprehension to appreciate the irony of Antony's reply. They are unable to understand the complexities of the Egyptian world, and therefore they are unable to pronounce an objective judgement on Antony and Cleopatra, as the representatives of that Other world.

Whenever the Romans try to penetrate the Egyptian life style, their insubstantial episteme allows them to grasp only the form of customs, never the meaning. They narrate according to Roman paradigms. Constant references to Egyptian feasts show that the Romans are fascinated with the Egyptian way of excess and joy. Pompey, for example, brings up the Egyptian “Epicurean cooks” who “sharpen with cloyless sauce” Antony's appetite (II.i.24-25); Menas asks Enobarbus for confirmation of the anecdote of “eight wild-boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there” (II.ii.179-180). At first glance these narrative allusions seem only to intensify the condemnation of Egyptian opulence and waste, unusual to austere Roman standards. They point out the gravity of Antony's felony, since his participation in the banquets has subverted his ascetic, soldier-like reputation among the Romans.

The mimetically represented feast on Pompey's barge, however, undermines the Roman narrative point of view. Contrary to expectations, the Roman soldiers themselves try very hard to experience Egyptian pleasures, even to dancing “the Egyptian Bacchanals” (II.vii.102) during their banquet. Yet the audience has the feeling that the Romans are missing the point, despite the fact that when amidst singing and dancing, Pompey seeks Antony's opinion about whether it is “yet an Alexandrian feast,” Antony confirms that “it ripens towards it” (II.vii.94-95). Scarcely able to keep their minds off political and military matters, the feasters are too prosaically masculine, too blunt and too callous. Pompey, although intoxicated, still remembers that Antony has deprived him of his father's property, and Octavius, almost indecently sober, reminds his friends that their “graver business frowns at this levity” (II.vii.118-119,125-126). At the end of the party their heads have been excessively steeped in the “conquering wine” (II.vii.105): Lepidus has to be carried off the galley and the following morning he suffers from “the green sickness” (III.ii.6).

The audience emerges from this mimetic experience filled with amused contempt for the Roman male world. It is difficult to reconcile their imperialistic superiority as world-sharers with the bathos of Menas's comment on Lepidus:

A third part, then, is drunk: would it were all,
That it might go on wheels!


The scene of the banquet shows that the Roman concept of Egyptian sensual and erotic pleasures is far from the true spirit of Egypt.

Although no Egyptian banquet is staged,13 “at least at the level of the subconscious there is an awareness that Egyptian feasts abound in women and that the texture of such affairs is entirely different from that which takes place on Pompey's barge” (Thomas 1989, 133). The Roman version of an Egyptian feast wrongly turns it into a crude extravaganza, an unrestrained stag drinking bout, bringing into the open Roman soldiers' suppressed longings for affluence and carefree life, which they themselves vehemently have criticized in the Other's style of living.

Applied in a different context, Tzvetan Todorov's comment explains the inadequacy of the Roman comprehension of Egypt: “it is only by speaking to the other (not giving orders but engaging in dialogue) that I can acknowledge him as a subject, comparable to what I am myself” (1982, 132). In the play, Cleopatra and Antony are treated by the Romans as objects of the Roman narrative system of values. Unlike the theatre audience, the powerful and articulate Romans never enter into a dialogue with the multicoloured and fascinating mimesis of the lovers' life in distant Egypt.

Paraphrazing Todorov's statement on the relationship between Western civilization and the Third World, one can say that a true partnership requires equality without compelled identity. It also requires difference without degeneration into a superiority/inferiority struggle (1982, 249). The prudence, discipline and militarism of the Roman narratives about an exotic culture deny in it the existence of a human dimension; the Romans are oblivious to the Egyptian mimetic engagement with fertility, pleasure, and love. They blindly think of the Egyptian ethical world as a poor imitation of Roman ethics. The theatre audience is, however, encouraged by the decentered multiple vision derived from diegesis and mimesis to take a less censorious view of the Eastern world.

Rome and Egypt being what they are, any bridge between them is difficult to make. Enobarbus seems like the best hope beyond Antony for a Roman foothold in Egyptian culture, but even he fails to understand the culture in its own terms, assuming instead the part of a critic or an outsider. Following his inherent Roman way of reasoning, Enobarbus is not carried away by the emotions or the pleasures of the mimetic moment. For example, in Act I, scene ii, when Cleopatra's court engages itself in sensual indulgence, wine is the only thing on Enobarbus's mind (I.ii.11-12,44-45). It is, then, not surprising that when on Pompey's galley his Roman friends want to re-create the Egyptian ambiance, he, as an “expert” on Egyptian matters, encourages them to drink.

Like the rest of his Roman friends, Enobarbus treats women as sexual and economic property. Even if his misogynous consolation of Antony after Fulvia's death is lost for a modern audience in the highly emotional mimesis, the fact is that in his callous speech he sees women as easily replaced possessions (I.ii.163-168). Consequently, although Enobarbus recognizes Cleopatra's charms, he is always suspicious of her intentions, treating her femininity from the stance of a cool and detached Roman soldier. She is for him, first of all, “a wonderful piece of work” (I.ii.151-152); this phrase together with his facetious and bawdy comments on Cleopatra's “celerity in dying” (I.ii.141-142) endorses his belief in the control by the subject/male of the object/female.

Led by Roman political and military pragmatism, Enobarbus seriously dampens the audience's response to the inflamed passions of Antony and Cleopatra. His cynicism constantly withdraws attention from the heated sensuality of Egypt to the chilled and suspicious atmosphere of Rome. Enobarbus, like many male critics of Antony and Cleopatra in the present time,14 interprets the behaviour of the lovers dwelling in the feminine world of Egypt as irrational and incomprehensible by patriarchal standards.15 Therefore, as the action develops he gradually abandons his direct reasoning about Antony's and Cleopatra's decisions (III.vii.1-6,41-48), and begins to undermine their mimetic powers in asides. His asides on Antony's decision to challenge Octavius to single combat and on Antony's losing power even over his servants (III.xiii.94-95,195-201) are Shakespeare's way of bifurcating the audience response. What results is the audience's experience of psychic fragmentation, a living through mimetic intensity and sober narrative detachment at the same time. The same bifurcation of response occurs when in an intense mimetic moment during the agitated eve of battle, Enobarbus, after pleading futilely with Cleopatra to abstain from the Battle of Actium, in an aside cynically reduces her to a mare in heat (III.vii.6-9). Later in the play, in a similar aside, Enobarbus changes the tonal dynamics of the charm which Cleopatra is exercising over Thidias (and the offstage audience), when he comments on her dishonesty (III.xiii.62-65).

Only once in the play does Enobarbus's narrative dislocate the audience's perception of the Roman present. Breaking into the matter-of-fact Roman soldiers' crude gossip in prose, his verse narrative on the Cydnus episode (II.ii.190-226) stretches the boundaries of dramatic decorum by a poetic dream of mythic proportions. Critics usually find his speech inconsistent with his cynical nature (Wilson 1948, 394-395; Rosen 1960, 130). Viewing his passage in the context of a mimetic/diegetic opposition offers, however, a different perspective on Enobarbus. The inconsistency is not with Enobarbus's character as a diegetic cynical observer but with his role as a Roman conquering Egypt narratively. All unwitting, Enobarbus subdues Rome by his “Egyptian” tale, reversing the Romans' normal role in this play. In effect he evokes for the audience an enduring emblem of the East, which leaves Rome for this moment subdued.

Despite the fact that he becomes swayed emotionally by his own rhetoric—he slips unconsciously into the present tense midway in his vivid description, collapsing then into now—he does not appear to understand the essence of the “feminine” substance of Egypt. The superficiality of Enobarbus's impressions has been noticed by Derek A. Traversi, who writes that the barge Enobarbus describes presents “beauty indeed but of a kind strangely and firmly limited by its artifice, in which spontaneous life can have no assured place” (1963, 115). Enobarbus relives with his Roman friends the overwhelming splendour of the Cydnus epiphany in the manner of someone returning from a Jacobean masque and sharing his impressions of an unforgettable tableau vivant.

Revealing the Roman fascination with excessive opulence and waste, Enobarbus—a true product of austere Roman barracks-rooms—gives a meticulous account of the Egyptian material excess and bounty displayed by Cleopatra's barge: “burnish'd throne,” “beaten gold; purple the sails, … perfumed,” “the oars … silver,” “her pavilion-cloth of gold,” “divers-colour'd fans,” “silken tackle,” “a strange invisible perfume” (II.ii.191-194,199,203,209,212). Unaware of the implications of his rhetoric, he tacitly admits in his narrative that the Roman imperial luster, manifested in male military and political power, was not a match for the Egyptian magnificence, manifested in diaphanous femininity:

                                                                                          The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthron'd i'the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.


His narrative reveals that none of Cleopatra's barge crew possessed “Roman” masculinity: there were “pretty dimpled boys, smiling like Cupids,” “her gentlewomen, like the Nereides” (II.ii.202,206). Even the tiller was in the hands of a “seeming mermaid” (II.ii.209). (The audience may compare the dramatic presentation of Egypt where the male element is reduced to: a soothsayer, a treasurer, a eunuch and a country bumpkin.) The barge in Enobarbus's narrative becomes in this respect a symbol of Egypt itself, not manned but womanned. Therefore, although he never fully recognizes the power of the feminine principle, this bluff soldier's subconscious unintentionally betrays his fascination and seduction by the Other/the female: Egypt. This seduction is also reflected in his style, which, as many critics have noticed, is very different from his terse and robust “Roman” speeches. Lapsing into the poetically hyperbolic language of feminine Egypt, Enobarbus presents himself for modern playgoers as willy-nilly a feminist.

His story abounds with clusters of paradoxes about Cleopatra; he unwittingly praises the feminine nature of the Egyptian realm and above all its Queen. The pretty Cupidlike boys on the barge made Cleopatra's cheeks glow, and “what they undid did” in the very act of cooling her (II.ii.205). Enobarbus relates that he

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


She ages but she defies the withering that accompanies this process; she makes Antony hungrier even as she satisfies his sexual appetite; her wantonness is so becoming that it is blessed by the holy priests (II.ii.235-240). Cleopatra's ambiguous amorphism fascinates Enobarbus, although he never attempts to get to the essence of her perplexing feminine variety (Spencer 1958, 374).

Powerful as this famous diegesis about the Cydnus epiphany is, revealing both Cleopatra and Enobarbus, it cannot substitute for what the Egyptian audience and the theatre audience experience of Cleopatra as she enacts her paradoxes. This mimesis, full of erotic intensity and passion, makes the play one of Shakespeare's greatest love tragedies, although in Antony and Cleopatra there are practically no love scenes in the conventional sense, nothing like the bedroom scene in Romeo and Juliet or the parting at dawn in Troilus and Cressida. Unable to understand the paradox in Cleopatra's character that reconciles boundless vitality and energy with languorous eroticism, Enobarbus does not reveal in his Cydnus narrative her exuberant fervour which is a match only for Antony's own.

When Egyptian scenes unfold, Cleopatra, incomplete without Antony, seeks diversions for her humdrum hiatus. But her energy is as nothing without its partner in Antony. She is too much for Charmian, who refuses to play billiards because her “arm is sore” (II.v.4). And so Cleopatra, pining in Egypt for Antony, presents herself as almost motionless, like Duke Orsino, drowned in decadent languorousness. The diegetic reminiscence of her life with Antony is her only real pleasure. Joined by her maid, she re-lives the tricks which she once played on Antony when fishing (II.v.9-18), and the times when she spiced their sexual pleasures with unexpected changes of mood and mischievous pranks:

I laugh'd him out of patience; and that night
I laugh'd him into patience, 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.


Appealing to the audience's unlimited imagination, the mimetic stillness exposes and sets off the lovers' erotic compatibility conveyed by Cleopatra's archly orchestrated diegesis. Once more then the mimetic/diegetic opposition manipulates the spectators' response by teasing their minds' eyes.

In the scene with the messenger bringing news about Antony's marriage to Octavia (II,v), Cleopatra is “at her most petty and vindictive; and yet the sheer brazenness of it is irresistible” (Leggatt 1988, 166). The juxtaposition of her unrestrained outburst of feeling and unmitigated conviction that whatever Antony has done she must get him back (II.v.116-118) are appealingly human; she is an impressive heroine. She frightens and evokes both contempt and pity, preserving at the same time her royal nobility and the sincerity of her love for Antony. Her paradoxical nature is, in fact, a symbol of the Egyptian world itself. The shifting values of Eastern reality are revealed both mimetically and diegetically in references to the Nile, which is both a grave and a source of life and to the asp which both nurses and kills.

Becoming a part of this reality, Antony unwittingly assumes the paradoxical attributes of Egyptian nobility, and the Roman world admits this with reluctance. Philo concludes his narrative chastisement of Antony's behaviour in Egypt on a contradictory note. In his formulation, Antony's heart has become “the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust” (I.i.9-10). Discussing Antony's faults, Lepidus says that out of the vast darkness of his virtues, his faults shine like stars (I.iv.12-15)—i.e. his very defects involve a bright beauty. One will not find this sort of paradox in Octavius or other Romans, Enobarbus excepted. To the extent that this is true, it suggests that they, unlike Antony, are outsiders, strangers to the Egyptian mimesis.

The ultimate paradox of Antony's nature is androgyny;16 he never quite abandons Roman maleness but he never abandons Egyptian femaleness either. What is female/Egyptian about Antony is the intensity and depth of his overt passions and emotions. In a series of scenes the mimesis reveals that even his martial energy is fueled by his erotic fervour (III.xiii.192-194; IV.iv.19-21). In 1910 Mungo MacCallum agreed with Agrippa and Enobarbus that Antony's weeping over Julius Caesar's body (III.ii.54-59) is to be condemned as “easy emotionalism” (1910, 355). One sees MacCallum's point when Antony assumes too quickly that Cleopatra is guilty and threatens to give her to Octavius's triumph or to kill her at once (IV.xii.10-15,25-29,32-39,47-49).17 Even a feminist critic like Barbara J. Bono condemns Antony's emotions and sees them as precluding “his being a purely tragic figure” (1984, 161). He may, however, be seen otherwise; in his androgynous nature Antony becomes a paragon of male Roman valour with female reactions. One may say that the dynamic clash of his animus and anima does not disqualify him from tragic status, quite the contrary: it intensifies his tragedy.

The core of Antony's tragedy lies in the fact that, despite his immersion in and penetration of Egyptian mimesis he cannot totally alienate himself from the Roman diegesis. He cannot achieve a synthesis of these two equally powerful and attractive styles of life. Presented throughout the play as the mythical Hercules standing at the crossroads, he feels equally attracted to the Roman male virtus/narrative and to the Egyptian female voluptas/representation. While in Egypt he is often struck by Roman thoughts and while in Rome he cannot forget the Egyptian style of life.18 The audience, exposed to his incessant choices, experiences together with Antony his diegetic and mimetic dilemma, torn between duty and sensuality, self-denial and self-indulgence.

Antony's suicide, is as it were, his parting comment on the inadequacy of the Roman performance of ideals, “resembl[ing] only in externals previous Roman suicides” in Julius Caesar (Miola 1983, 150). One might say that the “high Roman fashion” of suicide is to Antony's clumsy and lingering death as diegetic virtus is to mimetic Realpolitik in the larger political world of Rome—an ideal unattained. Efficiency becomes flabby incompetence in several bungled actions (e.g. the Battle of Actium) in the Rome of this play, and the ideals of virtue and honour descend into expediency and Realpolitik (for instance, in Octavius's use of his sister as a political bargaining chip). By the same token, Antony's suicide, his last “Roman” act, is marred. Expecting a highly honourable spectacle, the audience is exposed to another example of the discrepancy between the ruthless efficiency of Roman narrative and its mimetic mismanagement of the ideal.

The immediate cause of Antony's death is the Egyptian narrative of the supposed suicide of Cleopatra (IV.xiv.27-34). Antony's response to this news is itself a narrative, which imparts his condemnation of himself and his elevation of Cleopatra's feminine strength:

                                                                                                    Since Cleopatra died,
I have liv'd in such dishonour that the gods
Detest my baseness. 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”


Cleopatra's diegesis—vicarious and untrue—brings Antony's death; but it also brings him immortality. His having himself carried to die in Cleopatra's arms in effect advertizes to the world that he seeks a place in her mimetic powers. The emotional truthfulness of the lovers' feelings in Act IV, scene xv—Antony's concern about Cleopatra's future, Cleopatra's fainting after he is gone (IV.xv.47-48,63-69)—intensify the dramatic impact of his death. The simplicity and directness of their emotions present them not as public figures, but as people who turn a tragic moment into an unforgettable spectacle of heroism wrapped up in tenderness and erotic ecstasy. Antony's death, although bungled, becomes in the Egyptian world a touching spectacle overpowering the senses of the witnesses in the theatre.

Comparing Octavius's elegy for the dead Antony in Act V, scene i, with the one delivered by Cleopatra in Act V, scene ii, the offstage audience may come to the conclusion that she has won the diegetic game by adapting the Egyptian hyperbolic rhetoric to a Roman mode. Roman narrative political machinations are conquered by Egyptian grasping for life through a diegesis that is more spontaneous than any Roman narrative.

Both Octavius and Cleopatra realize that Antony's death is not just the death of a man, or even of a leader, but the death of a part of the universe. Octavius speaks about him with the pragmatism typical of the Romans:

                                                                                                                                  O Antony,
I have follow'd thee to this … 
                                                                                                                                  I must perforce
Have shown to thee such a declining day,
Or look on thine … 

(V.i.35-39; emphasis added)

and he goes on to define Antony with reference to himself: “my brother, my competitor” and so on through line 48. Paying him a tribute, he also pays a tribute to himself, since the presence of his own person and his political agenda are strongly felt in his narrative account.

Cleopatra, on the other hand, dissociates her own person from the eulogy, implying for herself metaphorically the passive role of “the little O, the earth” lit by his magnificent light (V.ii.78-81).19 She expresses in her narrative emotions that are very subjective, very deep, and the sincerity of her feelings expands the mimetic moment.

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
O such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man! … 
His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted
The little O, the earth … 
His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends:
But when he meant to quail, and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't: an autumn ‘twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets: realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.


Her dream-like vision transcends dramatic boundaries, achieving a synthesis in the agon of the diegetic and representational dimensions of his character: the cosmic grandeur of Antony's spirit, his valour, his nobility, his bounty, his child-like passion for exceeding his grasp, and his nonchalant way of dealing with ranks and stations. Jacques Derrida, although without any reference to Antony and Cleopatra, conceives in the word Colossal/Kolossalisch the generic idea of Cleopatra's dialectical combination of the narrative and mimetic aspects of Antony. Indeed, Antony becomes in her speech colossal, which

qualifies the presentation, the putting on stage or into a presence, the catching-sight, rather, of some thing, but of something which is not a thing, since it is a concept. And the presentation of this concept inasmuch as it is not presentable. Nor simply unpresentable: almost unpresentable. And by reason of its size: it is “almost too large.” The concept is announced and then eludes presentation on the stage. One would say, by reason of its almost excessive size, that it was obscene

(1987, 70).

Cleopatra's narrative encourages the audience to make a synthesis of all that has been obscene20 in Antony's nature, forming a kind of culmination of the idea of his greatness, his uniqueness present throughout the play.21

In their condemnation of Cleopatra, critics often forget that she is a woman of principle. Her glory is achieved in the play not, as Enobarbus sees it, through her domination over age and custom, but through her strength. Unable to determine the course of events, she is unexcelled at imposing her will upon it. Fighting against Rome, she defies in her suicide the Roman ideology personified in Octavius's plan to dominate Egypt in a mimetic triumphant pageant. Her anticipatory narrative reveals the inadequacy and dishonesty of the Roman representation.

                                                            Now, Iras, what think'st thou?
Thou, an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I … 
                                                                                                                         … and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'the posture of a whore.


This fantasy of a Roman triumph causes Cleopatra to seek escape from it in the “high Roman fashion” (IV.xv.87) of dying; but she enriches the staging of her death with her own Egyptian dimension, and this Egyptian dimension impresses the audience more than the very fact of her suicide. Her choice of a means of death subverts the Roman ideal; the worm of Egypt replaces the male thrust of a sword as the symbol of sexual pleasure. And the bite of the asp is so gentle as to be almost feminine, here compared to a nursing child (V.ii.292-294). Repelled and attracted at once by this striking mimesis, the spectators become more and more involved in the Egyptian/feminine mode of paradox that in this play has so often been evoked through diegesis and mimesis.

The ultimate paradox of her death, perhaps, is the combination in her last moments of Roman and Egyptian values. Although her death is to be a noble act transcending Roman expediency, she also treats it as a personal revenge on Octavius, the “ass, unpolicied” (V.ii.306-307). In her suicide valour is the code she sees herself as living up to, but the mode is clearly Egyptian—voluptas. The erotic hyperboles of her last speeches and the sensuous details of the staging at the end display for one last time the full magnetism of Egyptian mimetic powers.

Assuming the full accoutrements of her political office—robe and crown—she presents herself as Queen for the first time (V.ii.279). At the moment of her death she is mimetically more regal and more noble than ever before in the play. Yet, she does not abdicate her “feminine” nature. She is jealous to the end; as before she has been jealous of Fulvia and Octavia, now she is jealous of Iras (V.ii.299-302). The risk of losing her man to another woman, even in death, appalls her. And then her concern for personal appearance in the death she stages is not only a queen's concern, but a woman's. It is fitting that after Cleopatra's death Charmian observes that her crown is awry and puts it straight (V.ii.311-318). The mimesis here at her end is eminently histrionic; as Ernst A.J. Honigmann has said: “She not only gives the performance, she writes the programme-notes” ([1976] 1987, 167).

So here in Act V, Egyptian mimesis triumphs over the constant Roman effort to conquer Egypt and the audience diegetically—an effort that has animated and dominated the play from the opening lines. The mimetic tableau of the Queen and her waiting women has a powerful and enduring effect on the spectators, supplanting the denigrations of the Egyptian Other that they have so often been subjected to in this play. Even Octavius is a temporary convert to the Egyptian mode in his poetic vision of Cleopatra, who

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


But prosaic Octavius, being the Roman he is, cannot remain long in admiration of a mere Other. His last speech in the play is filled with physicians, and details about serpents, and the practicalities of burial—and, of course, with a sense of his own political and military glory:

                                                                                          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.


As the audience expects, Octavius subordinates the lovers to his own, diegetic, version of “their story,” which is a reference point without being a real narrative. It is not in the interest of this pragmatic Roman to retell it. This Roman reticence about an erotic and exotic Egyptian story is in a sense in vain. The spectators have been captured by the Egyptian mimesis, and the moral center of the diegetic Roman view has for them been set aside.22

Normally it is narrative that makes things memorable, shaping a meaning for them. However, in Antony and Cleopatra, though the Roman narrative has threatened to shape the audience's response throughout, in the end the Egyptian mimesis triumphs over the Roman diegesis—even if it must die as it triumphs—and this Egyptian mimesis teaches what is truly memorable in the moral world of the play.


  1. John F. Danby has said it well: “in no other of his plays is Shakespeare at such pains to suggest the stream of time past and its steady course through the present” (1949, 197).

  2. Another significant characteristic of the play is that those who subvert Roman standards in their behaviour are opposed vigorously; but once their subversive power is eliminated they are well spoken of (Danby 1949, 203). For good examples of this Roman narrative trait cf. Antony's comment on his wife Fulvia (I.ii.119-121), Pompey's explanation of his intent to scourge the ingratitude “that despiteful Rome cast on my noble father” (, and Octavius's elegy on the news of Antony's death (V.i.14-19).

  3. To take one critic's enumeration of some of these polarities: “Rome-Egypt, masculinity-feminity, space/time boundary, space/time transcendence, love-death” (Payne 1973, 266). The most influential works exploring the principle of polarity, transcendence, paradox and mysticism include G. Wilson Knight ([1931] 1963, 199-262), Derek A. Traversi (1963, 79-203), Julian Markels (1968, 17-49). Janet Adelman's approach to the forces that undermine the Roman perspective on Egypt are different but complementary to my own. She sees the complexity of the oppositional values presented in the play as resulting from the play's generic impurity:

    Comedy, tragedy, and romance are here distinct versions of life: limited and human attempts to understand the nature of an action which remains essentially baffling. Each will inevitably find significance in different and partial aspects of experience: none in the whole. But the play will not allow us partial vision: as Antony and Cleopatra moves among several perspectives, it suggests the futility and validity of each; only in its generic impurity can it embrace the whole.

    (1973, 170)

  4. In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare reverses the then popular mode of the heroic pattern of the war of the sexes. Philo's narrative negates the male domination and female submission which are inherent in the topos, and indeed Antony is not at liberty to go freely without any scruples about his business in Rome and leave his supposed-to-be victim at home. He is more like a medieval warrior-lover, for instance Chaucer's Troilus, a man who does not dominate his lady, but is dominated by her. Later in the play Antony himself is conscious of this paradoxical reversal of the roles when he refers to it in his narrative condemnation of Cleopatra over her presumed betrayal during the last battle (IV.xii.25-29).

  5. George R. Hibbard's analysis of Act I, scene i, 1-24 is similar to the one presented here. Philo's “speech is intended to be memorable and to be remembered, because it puts a point of view which will be of most importance for the tragedy it introduces, which will be reiterated time after time during its course, and which will not receive its final answer, and, … its ultimate refutation, until the close” (1980, 96-97).

  6. It is likely that, aware of the Latin etymology of the word virtus (from vir, “man”), Shakespeare equated “virtue” with manliness and valour (the customary attribute of males), especially because North's translation of Plutarch presents a similar conception in the opening of the Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus:

    Now in those dayes, valliantnes was honoured in Rome above all other vertues: which they call Virtus, by the name of vertue selfe, as including in the generall name, all other speciall vertues besides. So that Virtus in the Latin, was asmuch as valliantnes.

    (Henley 1895, 2:144)

  7. The gender-based bias against Cleopatra in the writings of male critics of Antony and Cleopatra is pointed out with learning and acidulous wit by L. T. Fitz (1977). This article proved to be seminal: most criticism since has been less a distortion of Cleopatra and her role in the action.

  8. The dualistic interpretation of the conflict between Rome and Egypt has always been anchored in the critics' various attitudes to ethics. William Hazlitt specified an opposition between “the Roman pride and Egyptian magnificence” ([1817] 1959, 74). S. L. Bethell equated Rome with morality and intellect and Egypt with pleasure and intuition ([1944] 1948, 116-131). Harley Granville-Barker regarded this moral conflict as the main moral pivot of the structure of the play ([1946] 1959, 367-458). More recently Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott understand it in terms of the opposition between Apollonian and Dionysian principles (1975, 54-98).

  9. Octavius's vision of himself as reflected in illeism and the royal “we” appears as early as his first appearance in the play (I.iv.1-3). Cf. Robert S. Miola (1983, 128).

  10. Contrary to the source—where Octavius “proclaymed open warre against Cleopatra, and made the people to abolishe the power and Empire of Antonius, bicause he had before given it uppe unto a woman” (Henley 1896, 6:62)—the diegetic and mimetic synthesis of the play makes it clear that the war is mainly between Octavius and Antony over the control of the world. Antony says before his suicide that he “made these wars for Egypt, and the queen” (IV.xiv.15); as he distinguishes between Cleopatra and her kingdom he reveals his (partly) political motivations in the war. Throughout the play Cleopatra is often equated with Egypt (I.v.43; III.xi.56; IV.xv.18-41; V.ii.115); but here Antony chooses to separate the person from the role, and as he does he reveals something about himself.

  11. Naturally, of course, an Elizabethan audience will recognize social, cultural and sexual difference without responding to “racism and sexism.” Since the time of Eldred Jones (1965) and especially in very recent years there has been an outpouring of new-historicist criticism of “racism” in Shakespeare. In the same period feminists have raised questions about the treatment of women as “the Other” in Shakespeare's plays.

  12. By introducing and at the same time suppressing the narrative of Cleopatra's past, Shakespeare makes a significant change in his source material. The source, relating the banquet episode, except for the conversation between Pompeius and Menas on the possible treachery, states that the only discussion was that “they fell to be merie with Antonius love unto Cleopatra” (Henley 1896, 6:32). Shakespeare's characters, on the contrary, talk about virtually everything but Cleopatra. In fact, nobody mentions her name in Antony's presence from the time of his betrothal to Octavia until his return to Egypt. Moreover, Antony himself does not even speak her name. One possible explanation of this omission is that, after all, in Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra are tragic protagonists and having them joking with their friends at each other's expense would have undermined their tragic stature. Cf. David C. Green (1979, 52-53).

  13. The Roman narrative condemnation of the Egyptian banquets does not go hand in hand with the Egyptian mimesis, since even the festivity incorporated within the offstage dramatic world of the play is organized by Antony for military reasons—mainly for his soldiers' benefit—expressing his gratitude for their valour in battle (III.xiii.183-185,190-191) or for uplifting their spirits before “the next day's fate” (IV.vii.34).

  14. John F. Danby says that “Cleopatra is … Flesh, deciduous, opulent, and endlessly renewable … Eve, and Woman … also Circe” ([1952] 1977, 55); Daniel Stempel compares her to a witch (1956, 59-72); J. Leeds Barroll associates her with the allegorical figures of Gluttony, Lust and Sloth (1958a, 708-714); Robert Ornstein calls her innocence “a pose” and doubts her fidelity: “Cleopatra is an archetypal temptress and seducer” ([1966] 1977, 85, 89). Compare Fitz (1977).

  15. Describing the consequences of male gendering, Mary Ellmann draws attention to male insistence that the feminine is “the not fully conscious, not fully assembled, the intemperate, incoherent, hysterical, extravagant and capricious” (1968, 44).

  16. Some male critics see Antony's androgynous nature in terms of his emasculation by Cleopatra, binding this emasculation with the myth of Hercules unmanned by Omphale. Cf. Eugene M. Waith (1962, 113-121), Raymond B. Waddington (1966, 210-227), Harold Fisch (1970, 59-67), John Coates (1978, 45-52), and Richard Hillman (1987, 442-451). In contrast, female critics usually argue for a positive interpretation of Antony's androgynous nature. Cf. Janet Adelman (1973, 90-96), Lisa Jardine (1983, 69, 113-114), and Barbara J. Bono (1984, 163-167).

  17. Martha T. Rozett demonstrates in her analysis of Antony's last battle that neither in Plutarch nor in Shakespeare is there any clear indication that Cleopatra actually has betrayed Antony. Indeed, the succession of apparently spontaneous defections that precedes this scene leads the audience to conclude that she personally has given no orders that led to Antony's military defeat (1985, 159).

  18. His “Roman thoughts” are also revealed in the invectives which he throws at Cleopatra when he fears that she has betrayed him. He calls her: “kite,” “boggler,” “fragment,” “foul Egyptian,” “triple-turn'd whore,” “false soul of Egypt,” “right gypsy” and “spell” (III.xiii.89,110,117; IV.xii.10,13,25,28,30). On the other hand, Egypt intrudes mimetically in Rome. Antony, who has just made a very Roman marriage, is immediately confronted by the predictions of the Egyptian soothsayer. Personifying the Egyptian world, the soothsayer warns him against Octavius and therefore Rome (II.iii.16-29).

  19. It is somehow emblematic for this play that Cleopatra seldom pushes her story to the center of things by calculated diegesis. She is, the audience may say, content to be (mimetically) without attempting (diegetically) to seem.

  20. Jacques Derrida makes an etymological pun in his last word “obscene” from “ob scaena.” Cf. E. Partridge: “s.v. ‘per ob-, against+scaena, a stage [SCENA]’” (1958-1959). The Derridean interpretation of this passage was first advanced by the author (1992, 124-126).

  21. This uniqueness is evoked by the images which conceive Antony in relation to the cosmos and in terms of his equality with gods or ancient heroes (Clemen 1951, 159-167). Alexander Leggatt sees the lovers' magnitude also in the play's abstention from prodigies. Unlike the characters of Julius Caesar, they do not need them to magnify their greatness: If there is to be a supernatural dimension in life, men and women are responsible for creating it themselves, in their own minds and imaginations. And they must do it not by imagining gods but by seeing what is godlike in each other (1988, 163). Larger than life, Antony, and Cleopatra too, attain almost cosmic magnitude by their charismatic mimesis and their grandiose language.

  22. Michael Goldman notices this mimetic side of Antony and Cleopatra:

    if we may be said at all to identify with Antony and Cleopatra, it is their performances we identify with … [we identify ourselves] with their abnormal capacity to feel pleasure and desire and to transmit those feelings splendidly to the world. … There is nothing in Antony and Cleopatra that passes show. Indeed, the aim of their action is to find a show which passes everything—all obstacles and competitors—which shackles accidents and bolts up change.

    (1985, 138)

List of Works Cited

All citations from Shakespeare's three major Roman plays are taken from the New Arden Editions:

Antony and Cleopatra. 1954. Ed. M. R. Ridley, London: Methuen, 1978.

Coriolanus. 1976. Ed. Philip Brockbank. London: Methuen, 1980.

Julius Caesar. 1955. Ed. T. S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1986.

All citations from Shakespeare's other works are taken from:

The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 1951. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1980.

All citations from Plutarch are taken from W. E. Henley, ed. Plutarch's “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” Englished by Sir Thomas North, Anno 1579. Vol. 1-6. London: David Nutt in the Strand, 1895-1896. …

Adelman, J. The Common Liar: An Essay onAntony and Cleopatra.” New Haven: Yale UP, 1973.

Barroll, J. L. “Antony and Pleasure.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 57 (1958a): 708-20.

Bethell, S. L. Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. 1944. New York: Staples Press, 1948.

Bono, B. J. Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearian Tragicomedy. Berkeley: California UP, 1984.

Clemen, W. The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1951.

Coates, J. “‘The Choice of Hercules’ in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 45-52.

Danby, J. F. “The Shakespearean Dialectic: An Aspect of Antony and Cleopatra.Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, 16 (1949): 196-213.

———. “Antony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearian Adjustment.” 1952. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Rose. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977, 39-60.

Ellmann, M. Thinking About Women. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.

Fisch, H. “Antony and Cleopatra: The Limits of Mythology.” Shakespeare Survey 23 (1970): 59-67.

Fitz, L. T. “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 297-316.

[Goldman, M.] Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

Granville-Barker, H. Prefaces to Shakespeare. 1946. Vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

Green, D. C. Plutarch Revisited: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Roman Tragedies and Their Source. Salzburg: Universitat Salzburg, 1979.

Hazlitt, W. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. 1817. London: Oxford UP, 1959.

Hibbard, G. R. “Feliciter audax: Antony and Cleopatra, I.i.1-24.” Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir. Eds. Phillip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and G. K. Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980, 95-109.

Hillman, R. “Antony, Hercules and Cleopatra: ‘The Bidding of the Gods’ and ‘the Subtlest Maze of All.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 442-51.

Jardine, L. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983.

Jones, Eldred. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Knight, G. W. The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays. 1931. New York: Barnes, 1963.

Kujawinska-Courtney, K. “Jacques Derrida and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,The Explicator n.s. 2 (1992): 124-26.

Leggatt, A. Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. London: Routledge, 1988.

Lyman, S. M. and Marvin B. Scott. The Drama of Social Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

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

Miola, R. S. Shakespeare's Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Ornstein, R. “The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra.” 1966. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Rose. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977, 82-98.

Partridge, E. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Macmillan, 1958-1959.

Payne, M. “Erotic Irony and Polarity in Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 265-79.

Rozett, M. T. “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 152-64.

Stempel, D. “Transmigration of the Crocodile.” Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 59-72.

Traversi, D. A. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1963.

Waddington, R. B. “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus Did With Mars.’” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 210-27.

Waith, E. M. The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. New York: Columbia UP, 1962.

Richard A. Levin (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar ‘Ass Unpolicied,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 244-64.

[In the following essay, Levin studies three conundrums appearing in the negotiations of Cleopatra and Caesar, and examines how these episodes illuminate the battle of wits between the two characters. This examination helps to inform Levin’s understanding of Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide.]

Near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen apostrophizes the deadly asp which she takes to her bosom: “O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied!” (5.2.300-02).1 Were Cleopatra only claiming that her suicide affirms a love for Antony nobler than any value in Caesar's world of cold political calculation, we would endorse her assertion. But her claim is disingenuous to the extent that until this moment she spoke of suicide yet sought favorable terms of surrender. That Cleopatra suppresses her efforts to survive most critics would agree, while arguing among themselves about when she fully commits herself to death. Another claim implied in her boast, one she herself probably believes and which is endorsed by almost all critics, is that she makes her decision to die possessing correct information about Caesar's secret plans for her in captivity.2 To establish when Cleopatra irrevocably settles on suicide, and whether at this moment Caesar's “policy” prevails or fails, are our specific goals in this essay.

We set these goals because the attempt to reach them leads to the examination of an important issue affecting the shape of the closing action of the play. From the time that Cleopatra's (and Antony's) military situation begins to decline, Caesar and Cleopatra negotiate the terms of her possible surrender, yet at every stage of the negotiation their tactics and purposes are opaque. As a result we may fail to understand both the nature of his conquest and of her defeat, and also the momentous conclusion of the play, when Caesar stands peerless in the Roman world.

The negotiations of Caesar and Cleopatra include three well-recognized conundrums. In his dying words, Antony had besought Cleopatra to “seek [her] honour, with [her] safety” by putting her “trust” in Proculeius alone among Caesar's subordinates (4.15.48-50). If Proculeius nevertheless betrays her, as he appears to, offering false assurance about Caesar's intentions, then we must conclude either that Antony knowingly misled her or that he erred disastrously, two seemingly unacceptable alternatives. How, then, to interpret Proculeius's interview with Cleopatra is one conundrum. A second emerges from the interaction between another of Caesar's subordinates, Dolabella, and the Egyptian queen. As he has Caesar's complete trust it seems odd that he should, without advantage to himself, disclose his master's plan to humiliate her, and thereby enable Cleopatra (as it seems) to foil Caesar by taking her life. A third puzzle involves Cleopatra and still another subordinate, this one her own, Seleucus, a treasurer. When she presents an unsolicited inventory of her wealth to Caesar, her motive is unclear, as it remains when Seleucus, possibly speaking on her cue but possibly betraying her, exposes her inventory as fraudulently incomplete. She berates Seleucus's treachery when we are not sure he is treacherous. These conundrums, associated with the names of Proculeius, Dolabella, and Seleucus, are often pushed to the margins of critical discourse, as if they were either loose threads the dramatist failed to tidy up or inconsequential complications. It is much better to understand these conundrums as challenges to an audience, posed so that it will enter a political thicket and trace, as best it can, a duel of wits between Caesar and Cleopatra. As success depends on correct detection of a series of intricate moves, for heuristic purposes this essay will say little of Caesar and Cleopatra as complex characters with motives, some conscious, some unconscious, often at variance with the strategies they adopt in dealing with one another.

Antony and Cleopatra opens while Caesar shares power as part of a triumvirate, whose power is itself limited by the challenge of Sextus Pompey at sea. Once Pompey, made an ally, serves the triumvirate's purposes, Caesar moves against him, then against Lepidus, the weaker of Caesar's co-rulers, and finally against Antony. Were such a conqueror “unpolicied” by Cleopatra it would be the more remarkable in that he is a politician in the Renaissance sense of the word, a Machiavel, one who is both cunning and ruthless in the pursuit of ambition. Caesar's strength is not as a soldier but as a strategist; keenly observant and aided by spies, he knows and exploits the weaknesses of others. One example is worth considering, for it may anticipate Caesar's indirection with Cleopatra. When the triumvirs meet together, he has a hidden goal—to effect a marriage between his sister Octavia and Antony. Caesar keeps Antony on the defensive about his relationship with Cleopatra. Therefore, when Caesar's underling proposes the marriage, Antony quickly accepts it. Caesar's trap is sprung and Antony is caught.3

When Antony describes Cleopatra as “cunning past man's thought” (1.2.141), he does not mean she is a politician in the Renaissance mold, for she depends upon the power of the Romans whom she seduces—Pompey (either the brother or the father of the Pompey of the play, Shakespeare seems uncertain4) and Julius Caesar before the play opens, then Antony. She boasts to her gentlewomen, Charmian and Iras, of her capacity to “hook” Antony as a fisherman hooks a fish (2.5.11-15) and to control his moods by adopting contrasting moods; she remembers laughing him “out of patience,” then “into patience” and then into an exchange of attire that leaves her wearing his sword Philippan (2.5.19-23).

Early hints suggest that matched against Caesar, Cleopatra might not fare well. Caesar keeps well-informed about Cleopatra's wiles, and he impugns Antony's unmanly submission to her, presenting himself as “mature in knowledge” and unlike those “boys” who “pawn their experience to their present pleasure” (1.4.31-32). The abuse Caesar hurls on a sexuality that fascinates him suggests he guards against his own repressed desires; he is far likelier to revile a woman than to succumb to her. Finally, Caesar is aware that Cleopatra's influence over Antony diminishes Rome's sway. Caesar makes early note that Antony has given her a kingdom (1.4.18). Later, poised for battle in the east, Caesar scrutinizes the expansion of Cleopatra's dynasty. Antony has not only confirmed her rule of Egypt; he has “made her / Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, / Absolute queen” (3.6.9-11). Caesar further notes that Antony has made various sons of Cleopatra “kings of kings”; to one son, Alexander, he gave “Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia” (3.6.16). Caesar eyes territories under Cleopatra's control.

The initial diplomatic exchange between Caesar and Cleopatra takes place when Antony and Cleopatra, following their defeat at sea near Actium, send an emissary to Caesar, Antony petitioning to live the life of a private citizen, Cleopatra asking to keep “the circle of the Ptolemies for her heirs” (3.12.18). Caesar sends the emissary back to report that while Caesar has “no ears” (3.12.20) for Antony's request, Cleopatra will not “sue unheard” (3.12.24) if she either kills Antony or yields him up. Since to “sue unheard” is not necessarily to sue successfully, Caesar's promise is equivocal. More treachery lurks in Caesar's next move, which is to open a covert channel of communication between himself and Cleopatra. While authorizing Thidias to tempt her with the promise of gifts, Caesar insinuates that Thidias might best bait Cleopatra with hints of Caesar's sexual interest. “Try thy eloquence,” Caesar tells Thidias, suggesting he act the courtier. Then Caesar ruminates: “Women are not / In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure / The ne'ertouched vestal” (3.12.29-31). Thidias is to infer that if a vestal virgin will break her virgin vow, Cleopatra's vows will not withstand temptation. “Try thy cunning,” Caesar concludes, confident that Cleopatra can be trapped into hoping for influence with him.

Thidias insinuates Caesar's interest by telling Cleopatra that Caesar, recognizing that she “embrace[s]” Antony out of “fear” and not love, “pit[ies]” the “scars upon [her] honor” and regards them as “constrainèd blemishes” (3.13.57-60). Pity signals a courtly lover's readiness to grant favor to a beseecher; it would “warm [Caesar's] spirits” if Cleopatra would leave Antony and place herself in Caesar's protection (3.13.70-73).

Cleopatra knows as well as Thidias that his offer is not what it seems to be, for Caesar, through his other diplomatic channel, has asked her to yield nothing less than Antony's “head” (3.13.17). When she asks Thidias to tell Caesar, “I kiss his conqu'ring hand” (3.13.76), either she is merely acknowledging again that she must sue for terms, or she is giving tacit encouragement to Caesar's sexual overture. Thidias, choosing to assume the latter, implies his master's readiness by asking that he himself be allowed to kiss her hand. She proffers it, remarking: “Your Caesar's father oft, / When he hath mused of taking kingdoms in, / Bestowed his lips on that unworthy place, / As it rained kisses” (3.13.84-87). Julius Caesar (great uncle and adoptive father of Octavius Caesar) paid Cleopatra homage not by giving up his territorial ambitions but by deflecting them away from her. Cleopatra's motive must again be guessed. Either she is asking whether Caesar would make a like sacrifice for her, or she is sardonically noting a contrast between Julius Caesar and Octavius, the former choosing to love her and the latter choosing to intimidate her.

Where Thidias and Cleopatra are headed cannot be known, for Antony suddenly enters and jealously rages at Cleopatra, who, he assumes, is signaling Caesar her availability. Antony recalls her prior moves from Roman conqueror to Roman conqueror. He himself had “found [her] as a morsel could upon / Dead Caesar's trencher” (3.13.119-20). Before that time, this Caesar took her as a “fragment,” a leftover, at her lover Pompey's death. Though Antony's fit ends as abruptly as it began and is followed by renewed affection for Cleopatra and fresh alacrity for battle, he repeats his accusation when her ships surrender to Caesar's at the climactic battle near Alexandria; she is, he says, a “triple-turn'd whore” (4.12.13)—the third turn the anticipated one from Antony to Octavius Caesar. The difficulty we ourselves face trying to decide whether Cleopatra would make such a move in Antony's lifetime is beyond the scope of this essay; we do need to recognize that already, well before Antony's death, Cleopatra knows, or thinks she knows, of a possible way to recoup her worldly position. Also pertinent is evidence that Cleopatra makes moves to protect herself. In the face of Antony's anger over the surrender of her ships, she withdraws to a monument. From there she sends Antony first news of her death, then of her survival. When he mortally wounds himself believing her dead, she declines to leave the monument, expressing fear that Caesar might capture her, so that Antony must wait for her to raise him by a mechanical contrivance.

Told by her dying lover to “trust” Proculeius, Cleopatra says “My resolution and my hands I'll trust, / None about Caesar” (4.15.51-52). After Antony dies, she movingly eulogizes him and seems to ready herself and her ladies-in-waiting for death. Yet some in the audience, and not necessarily those unfavorably inclined towards her, may detect inner indecision and outward deception.5 Of most interest is the possibility that the death she speaks of is not death at all but a metaphor for sexual orgasm. Orgasm as death is a familiar Elizabethan figure and an iterative image in the play. Cleopatra has already used it repeatedly in this scene;6 Enobarbus employed it earlier in the play when he taunted Antony with the suggestion that Cleopatra would use her wiles to prevent his return to Rome: “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” (1.2.136-40).

That Cleopatra will try to survive in Caesar's world is made clear in the next scene. Her emissary arrives at Caesar's court and announces:

                                                            The queen my mistress,
Confined in all she has, her monument,
Of thy intents desires instruction,
That she preparedly may frame herself
To th'way she's forced to.


If Cleopatra's words are taken metaphorically, she is asking as a defeated leader for instructions from the victor; if literally, she is asking how she should physically position herself so as to be ready to accede to what “she's forced to.” The sexual subtext extends to her “monument,” which is bawdy term for the vagina, especially a widow's.7 Cleopatra, having retreated to the confines of her body, tests whether Caesar will let her negotiate what he might take by force.

Though Cleopatra has responsed to Caesar's enticement, he has become unsure how to proceed. Moments earlier, Dercetus had arrived with a bloody sword, which he identified as the sword with which Antony took his life (5.1.19-26).8 News of his death puts before Caesar, as in a “spacious mirror” (5.1.34), Antony's “rarer spirit.” Caesar is shaken enough to confess that he pursued Antony's death. Yet Caesar is also relieved by Antony's death, because it occasions no momentous upheaval in the order of things (5.1.14-19). Moreover, Caesar no longer has need of Cleopatra to eliminate Antony, and her death would complete Caesar's conquest of the east. He has only to muster the brutality and to mask his motives.

After sending Cleopatra's messenger back with the assurance that “Caesar cannot live / To be ungentle” (5.1.59-60), Caesar instructs Proculeius:

                                                                                                    Go and say
We purpose her no shame. Give her what comforts
The quality of her passion shall require,
Lest, in her greatness, by some mortal stroke
She do defeat us; for her life in Rome
Would be eternal in our triumph.


Caesar is generally understood as desiring Cleopatra's survival so he can march her in his triumph. Yet Caesar's phrasing—his fear of “some mortal stroke”—suggests that he realizes that death is only one of several ways by which Cleopatra could seek to mar his triumph. Caesar's failure to respond to Cleopatra's sexual enticement suggests that he wishes to appear implacable to her and thereby prompt her suicide.

By the time Caesar sends Proculeius off, he is no longer the man Caesar wants for the mission. Caesar calls for Dolabella who is absent, then mysteriously remarks of him that “he shall in time be ready” (5.1.72). Confident now of his plan, Caesar discloses it neither to his subordinates nor to us.

The next scene begins with Cleopatra again thinking about suicide:

My desolation does begin to make
A better life. '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 accident and bolts up change,
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.


Cleopatra does not go so far as to say that her “desolation” makes her ready for the “better life” of death; rather, she asserts only that her “desolation does begin” to make her ready. Since she is not yet fully resolved on death, it may be inferred that she is still trying to decide whether to be or not to be. When Cleopatra says it is “paltry to be Caesar,” she may mean that it is paltry to be alive even in the best of circumstances, or she may mean that it is paltry to be alive and at the top of fortune's wheel, for from the top one can only move downward.9 When Cleopatra goes on to describe death as that which “shackles accidents and bolts up change,” she identifies not only the glory but the tragedy of death, its finality.

Proculeius enters and addresses Cleopatra: “Caesar sends greeting to the Queen of Egypt, / And bids thee study on what fair demands / Thou mean'st to have him grant thee” (5.2.9-11). Proculeius superficially conforms to Caesar's instructions, yet he goes beyond them in inviting Cleopatra to draw up a wish list of “demands.” If Proculeius does intend to help her, he is likely to do so in just such a cautious manner, avoiding open defiance of Caesar. The interview between Proculeius and Cleopatra is further complicated by the possibility that Cleopatra also chooses to be indirect. That she may have a motive to be so emerges at once, for before conversing she asks for and learns Proculeius's name. Then she says that Antony “did tell me of you, bade me trust you, but / I do not greatly care to be deceived / That have no use for trusting” (5.2.13-15). Cleopatra may be indifferent to her fate (and therefore indifferent to deception) or she may affect indifference as a caution before soliciting Proculeius's help.

Cleopatra returns to the same objective she advanced earlier:

                                                                                                              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. If he please
To give me conquered Egypt for my son,
He gives me so much of mine own as I
Will kneel to him with thanks.


Cleopatra's sarcasm veils what she wants: retention of her kingdom. Cleopatra also hints a path to her goal by alluding to the now lost but once familiar ballad, “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” in which a beggar woman marries a king who falls in love with her.10 Cleopatra is hoping for the opportunity to work her charms on Caesar.

Proculeius's recommendation for Cleopatra carries hints that he is concerned for her and no naive believer in Caesar's good intentions. Proculeius starts by rallying Cleopatra's spirits (as a caution, in case they need rallying), and then hints Caesar's untrustworthiness by exaggerating his trustworthiness (excessive repetition of initial “f” reinforces the effect): “You're fall'n into a princely hand. Fear nothing. / Make your full reference freely to my lord, / Who is so full of grace that it flows over / On all that need” (5.22-25). Caesar must be manipulated, Proculeius implies, and suggests that she kneel in submission before making her requests of Caesar. When she accepts his suggestion and suddenly remarks of Caesar that she “would gladly / Look him i'th'face” (5.2.31-32), Proculeius quickly agrees to “report” this key request to his master.

Proculeius suddenly helps Roman soldiers covertly enter the monument and take Cleopatra captive.11 It might seem that he has betrayed Cleopatra, yet if she really inclines to suicide she is safer as his prisoner. When she responds to capture by taking out a concealed knife to attempt suicide, Proculeius wrests the weapon from her, saying that he has “relieved, but not betrayed” her (5.2.40). With Roman soldiers now present, he needs to be especially cautious in what he says.

In all likelihood, Cleopatra's effort at suicide is earnest, for she is shocked by her capture. With her path to death blocked, she sets about to determine whether her fears are justified; her strategy is to express these fears in a manner that will move Proculeius to sympathy. She speaks loathingly of captivity at Caesar's court—“Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome?” (5.2.54-56)—and describes three terrible hypothetical deaths, each of which, she says, she would prefer to captivity. These deaths she lists in three parallel clauses, each beginning with “rather” and one describing death in a manner that warrants our attention: “Rather on Nilus' mud / Lay me stark nak'd and let the water-flies / Blow me into abhorring!” (5.2.57-59). Cleopatra's imagery “takes on an erotic suggestion, one that couples sexuality and death” (5.2.59n).12 Cleopatra's overt claim is that she would prefer a tormented death to humiliation. Her implied claim is that she would prefer a pleasurable death to a tormented one. Before Dolabella's entry interrupts Proculeius, he tries to quiet her fear: “You do extend / These thoughts of horror further than you shall / Find cause in Caesar” (5.2.61-63). Since not a word in the play supports the notion that Caesar intends ignominy for Cleopatra on the scale she imagines, Proculeius speaks the truth.

Dolabella dismisses Proculeius: “What thou hast done thy master Caesar knows, / And he hath sent for thee” (5.2.64-65). “What” Proculeius has “done,” how Caesar has learned of it, and why it is cause of Proculeius's dismissal are deliberately left unclear, but surely Dolabella has Caesar's trust and Proculeius does not.13 Moreover, even as he departs, Proculeius is ready to help Cleopatra. He urges Dolabella, “Be gentle to her” (5.2.67) and asks her if she wishes him to carry a message to Caesar. The code Cleopatra employs, as well as the substance of her reply, is consistent with her earlier remarks to Proculeius: “Say I would die” (5.2.69). Cleopatra would die to avoid humiliation but given the choice of physical or sexual death, she would choose the latter.

Dolabella is Thidias's true successor; both men make “cunning” use of “eloquence” in efforts to betray Cleopatra.14 Dolabella, now Cleopatra's principal guard, ingratiates himself: “Most noble empress, you have heard of me?” (5.2.70). To Cleopatra's “I cannot tell,” he blandly insists, “Assuredly you know me.” Dolabella presents himself as if his way had already been paved by Antony's endorsement; Dolabella acts, indeed, as if Antony had mistaken Proculeius for himself. Dolabella's name means “fine trick” (Smith 208)—Cleopatra asks him whether it is his “trick” (5.2.74) to laugh at the dreams of boys and women. But he is her only remaining lifeline and so she tries to win his sympathy. That she chooses so unusual a way to appeal to him as to pay moving homage to Antony suggests Cleopatra draws on a depth of feeling; yet Thidias rightly sees where she is leading him when he replies: “Would I might never / O'ertake pursued success but I do feel, / By the rebound of yours, a grief that smites / My very heart at root” (5.2.101-04). Cleopatra takes the bait and inquires whether Caesar intends to “lead [her] in triumph” (5.2.108). “He will, I know't,” Dolabella confirms. Dolabella's forthrightness, so unlike Proculeius's caution, may express fearless devotion or it may be a trap, if (as we can't yet tell) Caesar wants Cleopatra to take her own life.

Caesar enters and with the antagonists face-to-face fires the opening salvo, appearing not to recognize Cleopatra: “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” (5.2.111). His intention is to show both his entourage and Cleopatra that he is immune to her charms. Cleopatra, unable to counter Caesar's move, adopts Proculeius's suggestion: she kneels to Caesar. Caesar graciously tells her to rise, then says he is prepared to ignore “the record of what injuries you did us, / Though written in our flesh” (5.2.117-18). Cleopatra interrupts him, for by establishing her record of bloodshed, Caesar leaves open the possibility that he will hold her accountable for it. Cleopatra sees, moreover, that Caesar has addressed her neither as a man nor a woman but as the leader of a defeated army. She therefore shifts attention from her military improprieties to her improprieties as a sexual being and a female, “confess[ing]” that she has been “laden with like frailties which before / Have often shamed our sex” (121-23).15

Caesar ignores Cleopatra's flirtation and adds a sudden twist to his statement. Not only would he revoke his offer of clemency if Cleopatra committed suicide; he would deal mercilessly with her children, putting them “to that destruction” which, he says, he will “guard them from” if she chooses life (5.2.127-32). It is possible that Caesar threatens Cleopatra to discourage her from committing suicide but more likely that he threatens in order to lay a moral foundation for the possible seizure of her dynasty. If, however, Cleopatra does not commit suicide, then, if he keeps his word, he will be seen as a kindly conqueror, and if breaks his word, he will have captive Cleopatra to grace his triumph. Whether Caesar hopes that Cleopatra will live or die cannot be known for sure, yet only her suicide will provide him territorial advantage, and Dolabella has prompted her to choose death over humiliation.

When Caesar tries to close the interview, Cleopatra desperately extends it; to his intended exit line, “I'll take my leave,” she adds: “And may through all the world! ‘Tis yours, and we, / Your scutcheons and your signs of conquest, shall / Hang in what place you please” (5.2.133-35). As David Bevington notes, “Cleopatra plays on Caesar's [phrase], conventionally said on the point of intended departure, in a punning sense: ‘You may take your leave, have your will, anywhere in the world’” (5.2.133n). Caesar, then, may do as he pleases, may place Cleopatra where he pleases. “Hang,” “place,” and “please” are suggestive terms which Cleopatra uses to renew her offer of sexual submission.16 She is ready to begin a seduction as imaginative as her seductions, recalled at earlier points in the play, of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. After her lover Pompey died, Cleopatra initiated her next affair by having an accomplice deliver her in a mattress to Julius Caesar. While alluding only briefly to this incident (2.6.70-72), the play elaborately recalls her conquest of Antony. After Caesar's death, Cleopatra, with the collaboration of her court ladies, presented herself on the river Cydnus to Antony's viewing. “For what his eyes ate,” we are told, he “pays his heart” (2.2.235-36).

Cleopatra suddenly hands Caesar an inventory of her wealth:

This is the brief of money, plate and jewels
I am possessed of. 'Tis exactly valued,
Not petty things admitted. Where's Seleucus?
Here, madam.
 This is my treasurer. Let him speak, my lord,
Upon his peril, that I have reserved
To myself nothing. Speak the truth, Seleucus.
Madam, I had rather seal my lips
Than to my peril speak that which is not.
What have I kept back?
 Enough to purchase what you have made known.


Why does Cleopatra submit this list to Caesar? Plutarch's “Life of Marcus Antonius,” Shakespeare's main source, explains that she wishes to lull Caesar into thinking that she desires to live (Bullough 5:314). In Samuel Daniel's The Tragedie of Cleopatra (Bullough 5:406-49), a probable minor source, the same motive is ascribed to her when her interview with Caesar is anticipated, but at the interview itself Cleopatra speaks seductively, then with the simplest of conjunctions, “and,” proceeds to hand Caesar her inventory.17 Shakespeare appears to have taken his cue from Daniel. Cleopatra says that her inventory is complete “not petty things admitted” (5.2.139). Had she said “not petty things omitted” emphasis would fall on the inclusiveness of the list rather than on what it has excluded, “petty things.” These are possibly sexual “things,” “jewels” with non-monetary value and recalling those “signs of conquest” Caesar may place where he pleases.18 Cleopatra asks Seleucus to testify to the “truth,” that she has reserved to herself “nothing,” a common vulgarism for the vagina. Seleucus, seeming to speak on cue, says that he fears to lie, to speak “that which is not” (5.2.145). Since “that which is not” is nothing, Seleucus hints at Cleopatra's concealed possession, which he then blazons by saying that she has retained “enough to purchase what [Cleopatra has] made known” (5.2.147). Cleopatra now confesses that she has withheld both “some lady trifles” (5.2.164)—ambiguously trifles meant for ladies and trifles unique to women—and also “some nobler token … kept apart.” Cleopatra claims to have withheld the latter so that she can give it as a gift to induce Caesar's wife and sister to intercede for her; yet a “token” was often a love token, love tokens were often rings, and rings, well, we know about rings.

A lady-trifle displayed well is no trifle in the eye of the beholder. Cleopatra, having drawn attention to her trifle, is ready to hint its attractiveness. She creates a drama casting Seleucus and Caesar in the role of her former and prospective lover respectively. She is her own chorus when she explains “I shall show the cinders of my spirits / Through th'ashes of my chance” (5.2.172-73). She is taking the “chance” of the moment to show her smoldering passion. Towards Seleucus, it takes the form of vengeful anger, for he, though a “servant” of love, has proven of “no more trust / Than love that's hired” (5.2.153-54). His “ingratitude” makes her “wild” (5.2.152, 153). Yet she describes herself as “meek” towards Caesar (161),19 and beckons him even while taunting Seleucus. “Wert thou a man,” she says to Seleucus, “Thou wouldst have mercy on me” (5.2.173-74). The implication is not, as some have thought, that Seleucus is a eunuch; Cleopatra unmans him as a way of inviting Caesar to be manly.

Caesar waits out Cleopatra's performance with a few kindly words; when it ends, he is at his most magnanimous, if appearances are to be believed:

Not what you have reserved nor what acknowledged
Put we i'th'roll of conquest. Still be't yours;
Bestow it at your pleasure, and believe
Caesar's no merchant, to make prize with you
Of things that merchants sold.


Below the surface Caesar delivers a calculated insult. He will not claim as his conquest what Cleopatra has “reserved,” her vagina. This courtesy of his he initially portrays as extended to a woman who “reserves” herself sexually; rather than forcing her, he will let her yield her favors when and to whom she will: “still be't yours, / Bestow it at your pleasure.” “It” in its full and contracted form refers to Cleopatra's vagina, and tacitly communicates Caesar's awareness of the offer she has made.20 Caesar then delivers a devastating blow. Under the guise of saying he is too much the gentleman to take merchant-like advantage of his opportunity, he rejects Cleopatra as damaged goods, already bought and “sold” (5.2.183) too many times. In his farewell he offers her his “pity” as a “friend,” but as he has already excluded the erotic associations of these terms, his real message is rejection.

When Caesar leaves, Cleopatra puts into motion her plan for suicide with only a brief and puzzling explanation: “He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself” (5.2.190-91). Critics understand Cleopatra to be reaffirming her commitment to suicide in the light of what she sees as Caesar's hypocrisy. I believe, on the other hand, that only now does Cleopatra make her decision to die, and that she makes it not because she sees Caesar as attempting to deceive her, but because she believes he has undeceived her. It is probable that she has fallen prey to his strategy, which was to create and then destroy the expectation that she could awaken his sexual interest. A remoter possibility is that she is aware of his trap but, in the face of his power and malice, sees no tolerable alternative to suicide.

Before Cleopatra can advance her plot further, Dolabella reenters, unctuously claims that his “religion” of more “love” (5.2.198) makes him Cleopatra's “servant,” and portentously delivers her news of Caesar's intentions: “Through Syria / [He] intends his journey, and within three days / You with your children will he send before” (5.2.199-201). Dolabella departs with “I must attend on Caesar” (5.2.205), a hint to us of where his real allegiance lies. Through Dolabella, Caesar tries to make doubly sure that Cleopatra will take the path of suicide. If we think she detects his ruse, then we have her thank Dolabella in an ironic voice, aware that Proculeius, not Dolabella, has been her true servant.21

In both Antony and Cleopatra and Plutarch's “Life of Antonius,” Caesar's guard blocks access to Cleopatra, so that poisonous asps must be smuggled to her in a basket of figs. In Plutarch, soldiers search the basket of a rustic but fail to detect the asps; in Shakespeare a guard conducts the rustic into Cleopatra's presence, and makes no search of the basket before leaving at her command. The “simple countryman” (5.2.333) is a wise and well-meaning fool, for he warns her that she has an enemy by pointing to an asp and saying: “I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him” (5.2.244-45).

When Dolabella returns to the monument to find Cleopatra and Iras dead and Charmian dying, he comments while awaiting his master: “Caesar, thy thoughts / Touch their effects in this” (5.2.323-24). His observation is as close as the play comes to acknowledging that Caesar sought Cleopatra's suicide, and it is therefore not surprising that Dolabella promptly partially unsays what he has said, describing Cleopatra's death as “the dreaded act which thou [Caesar] / So sought'st to hinder” (5.2.325-26). The infinitive construction—“to hinder”—cancels the admission that Caesar “sought” the death. Yet Dolabella shows not the least sign of apprehension that Caesar will be angered, and in the event, Caesar isn't. He instead takes clinical interest in determining how Cleopatra died, while noting that he knew from her physicians that she had been studying manifold ways to die (5.2.347-50). Caesar's reflections on Cleopatra's life are brief and purposeful: “She looks like sleep,” he says, “as she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.340-42). She might catch another Antony, but never Caesar. He ends the play distributing “pity” to Antony and Cleopatra and “glory” to himself, ordering Dolabella to make funeral arrangements, and announcing his plan to go to Rome (not to Syria, as Dolabella led Cleopatra to believe). Caesar never says whether he will fulfill his threat to destroy her children and seize her throne.22

Caesar moves into position for the final battle with “speed” that “carries beyond belief” (3.7.74-75). He prophesies that what lies ahead is “the last of many battles” he will fight. (4.1.12). His plan of action is successful: Antony is lured into sea battle, where he is weak. Though Caesar prosecutes this last phase of the action with special vigor, he has been characterized throughout the play as one who feels himself a man of “destiny” (3.6.83), and of course we watch the play knowing that he is more right than he can know, for the Roman Republic is in its death-throes and the world's most extensive empire is soon to be born. Caesar, who brings this empire into being, may be expected to employ machiavellian arts. Yet we have been willing to minimize his overt scheming and to ignore the possibility of his covert scheming. We must not let Caesar overmatch us as he overmatches Cleopatra and Antony.

Caesar's pursuit of political objectives shows up the limitations of politics. To politics he sacrifices friendship, love, the bonds of kinship. His repressions might be expected to cripple him, though within the space of the play, they don't. He is the diminished “mirror” that shows the amplitude of Antony and Cleopatra. Antony's greatness—a Shakespearean greatness, with virtues and flaws intermixed—is beyond our scope, but a word can be said of Cleopatra's. Her claim to have unpolicied Caesar is resonant because during her duel with him she pursues not only a political objective, her “safety,” but also (in sometimes uneasy balance) her “honor,” celebrating Antony and calling to him as her “husband” as she dies a magnificent death.

The play closes with Caesar's opportunistic eulogy. In giving him his lines, however, the dramatist plays a trick on Caesar, forcing him to pay tribute to Cleopatra and (more briefly) to Antony. The play has told their story, not Caesar's, and in their story Caesar has not “earn'd” a noble “place”—such a place as Enobarbus had hoped to attain in Antony's story (3.13.46). Caesar may imply that it is to his credit not to be caught in Cleopatra's “strong toil of grace,” but the audience may wonder whether to snare as Cleopatra has snared and to be snared as Antony has been are evidence of a greatness reclaimed by the play from the ashes of history.


  1. Antony and Cleopatra is cited from David Bevington's New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play. Quotation of other Shakespeare plays is from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d ed.

  2. Only William L. Godshalk's “Dolabella as Agent Provocateur” has proposed, rightly I will argue, that Dolabella serves Caesar by deceiving Cleopatra. I am also indebted to Godshalk's unpublished “Theobald's Emendations of Antony and Cleopatra,” and to his advice on a draft of the present essay.

  3. Maecenas proposes the marriage directly after Caesar expresses the wish that he could find a “hoop” (2.2.115) which would bind him and Antony together. A hoop is not merely a “circular band or ring of metal” that binds together a casket. A “hoop” is also a ring that symbolically binds a couple together; “a hoop of gold, a paltry ring,” becomes the subject of contention between Portia and Bassanio (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.147).

  4. Cleopatra's lover is “great Pompey”—presumably Pompey the Great—at 1.5.32 but “Cneius Pompey”—elder brother of the play's Sextus Pompey—at 3.13.121.

  5. If two questions asked by Cleopatra are not merely rhetorical, then they give evidence of her hesitation about suicide. As Antony lies dying, Cleopatra asks: “Shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No better than a sty?” (4.15.62-64). After his death and speaking to Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra says: “Is it sin / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?” (4.15.85-87).

  6. For Cleopatra's puns on death as she hoists Antony into the monument and as he dies, see Traci 302.

  7. Henke defines “monument” as a “tomb or crypt, with innuendo of an old, cold vagina.” In All's Well That Ends Well, Bertram tries to seduce Diana by saying: “In your fine frame hath love no quality? / If the quick fire of youth light not your mind, / You are no maiden, but a monument” (4.2.4-6). Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's “Life of Marcus Antonius,” Shakespeare's principal source for Antony and Cleopatra, identifies the structure to which Cleopatra withdraws as a “monument” (Bullough 5:309); possibly to create a bawdy subtext, Shakespeare repeats “To th'monument” three times in a ten-line scene (4.13.3,6,10).

  8. The Folio spells the name both Dercetus and Decretas. When Antony mortally wounds himself—but before he dies—Dercetus takes up Antony's sword, hoping to win preferment from Caesar (4.14.116-17). As the entry of Dercetus to Caesar is followed by the entry of Cleopatra's messenger, we wonder whether Cleopatra, like Dercetus, is ready to “pack cards with Caesar” (4.14.19).

  9. Edgar observes in King Lear that “the lamentable change is from the best, / The worst returns to laughter” (4.1.5-6).

  10. The play's editors note the allusion. That the ballad was once well-known is suggested by Shakespeare's several allusions to it, some, as this one, highly elliptical; see Richard II, 5.3.79-80, and All's Well That Ends Well, Epilogue 1.

  11. A number of textual and staging problems associated with the entrance of the guard are discussed by editors but are not relevant to the present argument. Note also that the assertion below that Cleopatra draws a knife is based on inference only. Cleopatra says “Quick, quick, good hands,” and Proculeius, intervening, says: “Hold, worthy lady, hold!” (5.2.38-39).

  12. For erotic punning on blow in relation to tumescence and impregnation see All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.118-26.

  13. Possibly the audience has watched Dolabella overhear parts of the prior conversation between Cleopatra and Proculeius. His spying could explain both his present remark and also his attempt, which I mention in my text below, to confuse Cleopatra about whom in Caesar's entourage she can trust. As the staging of the period has characters enter well before they begin speaking (and depart well after they stop), it is often difficult to decide whether they should be portrayed as overhearing or as possibly overhearing the conversation of others. Proculeius's fears that Cleopatra may commit suicide might well be activated, for example, if, when she mentions “beg[ging]” a kingdom (5.2.18), he has already heard her speak contemptuously of the earth as both “the beggar's nurse and Caesar's” (5.2.8). For the general problem of “early” entrances and overhearing, see Dessen 65-77.

  14. For an interesting effort to sort out class distinctions among Caesar's subordinates dealing with Cleopatra, see Barroll 120-24.

  15. For “frailty” as sexual weakness and as a weakness to which women are especially liable, see Isabella in Measure for Measure: “Call us ten times frail, / For we are soft as our complexions are, / And credulous to false prints” (2.2.128-30; cf. 121 & 124 and also the proverb “Women are frail” [Dent W700.1]).

  16. For “please,” see the entries “please oneself upon” and “pleasure” in Partridge. See also the entries for “hang” and “place” in Rubinstein.

  17. Daniel makes pretty clear that Cleopatra begins by hinting to Caesar that he can succeed Antony in her bed: “Looke what I have beene to Antony, / Think thou the same I might have beene to thee. / And here I do present thee with a note / Of all the treasure …” (1599 edition, lines 665-68, in Bullough 5:424. The fullest review of the Seleucus episode in the light of its sources is Stirling's.

  18. “Jewel,” according to Partridge, is used by Shakespeare allusively “for chastity incarnate in the maidenhead”; the word may also refer to the female sexual organ, whether a maid's or not (e.g. Shakespeare sonnet 131.4). With regard to “nothing,” discussed in the text below, a notoriously bawdy Shakespearean instance follows Ophelia's refusal to let Hamlet “lie in [her] lap.” He asks, “Do you think I meant country matters?”, and she replies, “I think nothing, my lord” (Hamlet 3.2.116-17). For further discussion of “nothing,” see Green 74-78.

  19. The same juxtaposition of “wild” and “tame” occurs in Wyatt's “They flee from me.” The speaker complains of lovers who have turned against him: “I have seen them gentle, tame and meek, / That now are wild.”

  20. See the entry under “it” in Partridge. For a bawdy use of “it” in a contraction, see Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.188. Shakespeare's most extensive punning on “it” in its full and contracted forms is in All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.130-64.

  21. Cleopatra's sharp disillusionment with Seleucus may possibly be understood as her anticipation that Caesar himself is about to fail her.

  22. Plutarch reports that Caesar murdered Caesarion, Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar; the other children “were verie honorablie kept” (Bullough 5:312). For another account of Caesar as politically purposeful at the close of the play, see Charmes 144-46.

Works Cited

Barroll, J. Leeds. Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition and Change in Antony and Cleopatra. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1984.

Charmes, Linda. Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Daniel, Samuel. The Tragedie of Cleopatra. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia UP, 1964. 8 vols. 1957-75.

Dessen, Alan C. Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Godshalk, William L. “Dolabella as Agent Provocateur.” Renaissance Papers, 1977. 69-74.

Green, Martin. The Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Skilton, 1978. 74-78.

Henke, James T. Courtesans and Cuckholds: A Glossary of Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy (Exclusive of Shakespeare). New York: Garland, 1979.

Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare's Bawdy. 1948. Rev. ed. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. Trans. Thomas North. 1579. In Bullough (see under Daniel above).

Rubinstein, Frankie. A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. David Bevington. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2d. ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1997.

Smith, Marion B. Dualities in Shakespeare. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966.

Sterlings, Brents. “Cleopatra's Scene with Seleucus: Petrarch, Daniel, and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 299-311.

Traci, Philip. The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra: A Critical Study of Shakespeare's Play. Studies in English Literature 64. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘The World's Great Snare’: Antony, Cleopatra, and Game,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 116-53.

[In the following essay, Lewis identifies a Christian analogue to Antony's character and argues that understanding this parallel puts into perspective the various attitudes professed in the play regarding Antony's self-sacrificial love.]

From the moment that Antony believes Cleopatra to have given him cause to kill himself—her suspected treachery in 4.12—Antony is repeatedly subjected to the ridicule normally reserved for the most foolish of Shakespeare's fools. For example, in 4.14 he is provoked to commit suicide by the mere show of Cleopatra's death, a manipulation so transparent through familiarity that Enobarbus punctures it long before this moment (1.3.133-44). Next, calling upon his trusted servant Eros to fulfill his duty, Antony is disgraced when Eros, “[t]hrice-nobler” than his master, kills himself instead (81-84, 95, 94). Then Antony, having failed to dispatch himself with a degree of his servant's elegance, pitifully calls out to his guards to finish the deed: “Let him that loves me strike me dead” (108). Three guards refuse to comply, hinting that they, like Eros, love him too much to end his pain (108-10), whereupon Decretas cruelly increases that pain by removing the sword for purposes of self-advancement (111-13). Diomedes then enters, not to put Antony out of his misery, as Antony again requests, but to inform him that Cleopatra has had second thoughts about her bungled ruse (113-27). Diomedes is, ironically, “too late” (127). The grim humor of 4.14, arising mostly from Antony's inability to complete his own demise, peaks when Antony's guards, again protesting love for him, inadvertently crack the first of several jokes to come about Antony's dead weight: asked to bear him “where Cleopatra bides” (131), they quibble on the notion that Antony “may not live to wear” his “true followers out” and exclaim together, “Most heavy day!” (133-34).

Cleopatra reprises that jest in the next scene, 4.15, when she unthinkingly refers to the burden of hoisting Antony to the monument—“How heavy weighs my lord!”—and then recovers her fumble with a pun converting his physical weight to her sorrow: “Our strength is all gone to heaviness, / That makes the weight” (32-34). But the company of onlookers reinforce the physical gag of lifting Antony aloft with another reference to his weight: “A heavy sight” (40). In this scene, as in the preceding one, the characters' concern for Antony contains a component of ridicule—sometimes verging on terror—apparently unintended by the speakers and yet unavoidable to their auditors. Hence, for instance, when Cleopatra refuses to come down to Antony from the monument (21-29), she escapes capture (which would further dishonor Antony) even as she snubs Antony and makes necessary the visually awkward and embarrassing “sport” of lifting him (32). Similarly, in her very attempt to comfort and ennoble him as he dies, Cleopatra comically subverts his efforts to muster dignity. She interrupts him when he asks “to speak a little” so that she can “rail,” and she conceives of his passing in terms of her own loss: “Hast thou no care of me?” (a line, by the way, that glances back to her tactic in 1.3.90-91 for making Antony feel guilty about returning to Rome—“O, my oblivion is a very Antony, / And I am all forgotten”) (42-43, 60). She twice refutes his advice to trust Caesar and Proculeius (45-50). Never mind that she is right. Her insistence to the suffering Antony that she is right robs his death scene of grandeur, replacing tragic respectability with what Jonathan Dollimore calls “bathos.”1 Until Antony finally expires and Cleopatra has full scope to exalt him in death (62), his suffering seems as much an occasion for mockery as a cause for compassion.2

I am not the first reader of Antony and Cleopatra to sense a troublesome mixture of tone in the play's conclusion. W. B. Worthen, for example, notices that the audacious hoisting of Antony in the monument scene “threaten[s] a slapstick catastrophe, as Antony plummets to the stage” and speaks of the scene's “possibly distracting humor.”3 Brian Cheadle believes the episode to be “ludicrous” as is because of Antony's “pitifully bungle[d] suicide attempt,” his “being winched laboriously aloft … by Cleopatra and her handmaidens,” and his “utter lack of judgment” in urging the queen to trust Proculeius. Robert Ornstein, remarking on the way that Cleopatra's interchange with the clown complicates the tone of the ending, is joined by Martha Tuck Rozett, who also sees touches of the “absurd” in the final treatment of the dual protagonists. Ornstein and Rozett look forward to the commentary of Barbara C. Vincent, who studies the relationship between tragic and comic forms throughout the work. Focusing solely on the monument scene, Leslie Thomson grounds an entire reading of the play on the stage picture of Antony's cumbersome ascent to Cleopatra: “In the political world Caesar rises as Antony falls. But countering this, and complicating our response, is that as Antony falls in that context, he is raised, both literally and figuratively in another: the world of love.”

Yet, with virtually no exceptions, critics seem largely uncomfortable with the dark humor in the play's closing scenes, particularly with Antony's buffoonery, which I have opened this discussion by cataloging in order to press home its abundance. Some readers altogether ignore the ridicule directed at Antony.4 Far more reduce it to inconsequentiality. Such readings minimize the amount of mockery in the last scenes, however, as well as the effect it has on both the tragic elevation of Antony and Cleopatra and the audience's sympathetic identification with them. Fairly representative of these critics is Rosalie Colie, who, while acknowledging the proclivity of Antony's suicide and death toward foolish “excesses,” argues that what we finally remember about the protagonists is their “beauty of character” and “that in such excess, life itself can reside.”5

Even critics who assert, as I would, that a production of the play should preserve the ridiculous next to the high-minded strive for interpretations that ultimately dilute the comedy. Inevitably, these readings insist in some form on the protagonists' triumph over impediments to their love: Caesar's imperialism, other values of this world, their own character flaws. In short, critics are loath to accept and deal with the full measure of irony aimed at the tragic conclusion—a conclusion that also, admittedly, invokes inspiring romanticism. But when that romanticism is permitted, in either production or reading, to suppress the irony, Antony's characterization becomes lopsided; his seemingly total surrender to his love for Cleopatra is being forced at the last to make him appear above derision.6

My purpose in returning to the problem of tone, especially as it involves Antony, is to place in perspective the play's competing views of his and other characters' self-sacrificial love. Recognizing the debt of Antony's characterization to the traditions linked with Saint Anthony of Egypt clarifies the work's central issues and sharpens perceptions of Antony, Cleopatra, Caesar, and others. What's more, it opens up further discussion of how Shakespeare used many other Christian analogues in Antony and Cleopatra, some of them veiled to modern audiences.7 Both the saint and the conqueror, for instance, are tempted by the flesh, and both face their trials in Egypt. Indeed, in Antony and Cleopatra, where a name like Eros or a gesture like crowning likely points beyond itself to added meaning, the conflicts in Antony's character, recalling those of Saint Anthony, launch anew the exploration of charity in this world. Surrounded by other characters who amplify and extend qualities of his own love—mainly Enobarbus, Cleopatra, and Octavia—Antony offers Shakespeare's most complex, if least accessible, study of folly.


The framing in 1.1 of Antony and Cleopatra's mutual devotion by Demetrius and Philo's negative judgment does more than establish an immediate opposition between Roman and Egyptian values. It also instantly identifies the audience with Demetrius, who remains silent until the scene's end, and it insists, through Philo's repeated imperatives, that audiences formulate their own opinions about what they, along with Demetrius, are witnessing:

                                                            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.


Although Philo can count on Demetrius's affirmation of what he beholds and sees, the nature of this dramatic situation encourages the audience to look beyond the viewpoints of either the critical Romans or the spotlighted lovers. While Philo and Demetrius deplore Antony's inattention to duty and devalue his passion for Cleopatra, the audience can appreciate the lovers' extravagance from the lovers' point of view while also detecting the limitations of the entire dichotomy at hand. In the context of Renaissance tradition, Mark Antony's very name outlines the twin poles of his character: war (Mars) and love (Saint Anthony). But the love for which he dismisses the concerns of war is as worldly in its own way as is Caesarian empire.8 In some real sense, Antony is a “strumpet's fool” (13), much as Cleopatra is also the true “fool” she fears becoming in this opening scene (42). They are prisoners of their lust and egotism. Yet, as Antony finds himself jostled between the equally worldly alternatives of Rome and Egypt, war and love, Caesar and Cleopatra, his ambivalence develops in the context of yet another dichotomy, that between the worldly and the spiritual. As his characterization unfolds, in fact, his choice becomes less and less a horizontal one between the exclusively worldly values of Rome and Egypt and more a vertical one between foolish folly—attachment to this world—and wise folly—renunciation of the world.9

The inadequacy of this world to provide spiritual fulfillment is continually recapitulated in paradigms that echo Antony's impossible choice between the options embodied in Caesar and in Cleopatra. For instance, Antony understands from his grief over Fulvia's passing that human desire feeds on what it lacks:

What our contempts doth often hurl from us,
We wish it ours again. The present pleasure,
By revolution low'ring, does become
The opposite of itself. She's good, being gone;
The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on.


The “revolution” that Antony describes here could as easily apply to the opposition he feels between his attraction to both Rome and Egypt, as could Caesar's description to Lepidus of how popular allegiance has shifted to Pompey:

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.


Pompey himself mentions the fleetingness of desire and its objects when he complains to Menas of his delayed gratification from the triumvirate: “Whiles we are suitors to their throne, decays / The thing we sue for” (2.1.4-5). The passions of this life fade.

So widespread is this pattern of one affection giving way to another that it is parodied when Agrippa and Enobarbus mock Lepidus's vacillation between extolling first Antony, then Caesar:

Caesar? Why he's the Jupiter of men.
 What's Antony? The god of Jupiter.
Spake you of Caesar? How, the nonpareil!
 O Antony! O thou Arabian bird!
 Would you praise Caesar, say “Caesar,” go no further.
 Indeed he plied them both with excellent praises.
But he loves Caesar best, yet he loves Antony.
Both he loves.
They are his shards, and he their beetle, so.


If at this point we remember Pompey's claim about Lepidus's loyalties—that he “flatters both, / Of both is flatter'd; but … neither loves” (2.1.14-15)—this rendition of Lepidus's hyperbole conjures more cynicism than humor. And the image of the encasing and potentially suffocating beetle's shards pointedly looks forward to the “pair of chaps” that devour Pompey, Lepidus, and the civilized world until they “grind th' one the other” (3.5.13-15). Such images, in other words, suggest the peril, well known to Antony by his life's end, of taking sides, although to be in the world makes doing so unavoidable. Nowhere is that peril more clearly represented than at the celebration on Pompey's galley, whose very rocking, together with the swaying brought on by drunkenness, imitates the instability of politics—portrayed, for instance, in the ease with which Menas proposes to turn on the triumvirate and the hair's breadth that prevents Pompey from capitulating, leading Menas to desert him (2.7.61-84). Enobarbus's warning to Antony as he descends into the boat is almost too blatant a reminder of his impending doom: “Take heed you fall not” (2.7.129).10

Octavia, too, first frozen between her “heart” and her “tongue” in parting with Octavius (3.2.47-50), eventually finds herself embattled by irreconcilable loyalties to both her husband and her brother:

                                                                      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.


In this world, even the augurs “[s]ay they know not, they cannot tell, look grimly, / And dare not speak their knowledge,” so befuddled are they as to who will prevail at Actium (4.12.5-6).11

Octavia's private lament also portrays the larger tragic vision of Antony and Cleopatra, whose characters, principally Antony, waver between choices because both guarantee tragedy. Although the Soothsayer can “read” but “a little” of the future's secrets (1.2.10-11), he can tell Antony that Caesar will always defeat him at worldly “game” (2.3.25-29), making a life with Cleopatra, even one of “dotage” (1.2.117), less repugnant than losing all to his adversary. Antony, like Octavia, has good reason for feeling paralyzed by indecision. Yet, as Antony reminds Octavia, she will have to choose between himself and Caesar: “Let your best love draw to that point which seeks / Best to preserve it” (3.4.21-22). So must Antony choose between Rome and Egypt. From an earthly perspective, his tragedy lies in the stifling absence of comic possibility. He can only fall, though he is free to choose his route.12

For Antony, then, the only way out is up. That is to say, the play's dichotomy between this world and the next emerges in response to the bankruptcy of material gain and physical pleasure, Antony's earthly options. Does Antony's death, then, represent a change in his love for Cleopatra and thus a severing of his foolish attachment to the world? Does he elect to join Cleopatra out of pure love? So Antony would make us believe when he reacts to the rumor of her suicide: “I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (4.14.44-45).13 That his death-wish stems from love of her rather than from self-love seems confirmed by myriad details from this point on—especially by his concern for her welfare once he is gone and she is in Caesar's custody (4.15.45-48). At the same time, Antony's final motives also smack of escapism. In this he recalls the behavior of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, who would bypass the hardships of this life. Antony's announcement to Eros, for instance, that “there is left us / Ourselves to end ourselves” arises not from disenchantment with worldly gain but from shame that a woman could cheat him of his “glory” (4.14.21-22, 19). Here, Antony is not resplendent in his defeat of mutability, as a romantic reading would stress. Nor does his sense of having failed to achieve glory for himself square completely with the Roman ideal of honor.14 Rather, Antony appears self-involved at best and vindictive at worst, as when he hopes that Caesar will “hoist” Cleopatra up “to the shouting plebeians” in Rome (4.12.33-34). Ironically, he wishes on her the very humiliation that he in fact receives when he is “hoist” two scenes later.

I am suggesting, first, that the ridicule to which Antony is subject, particularly at the play's end, has two possible sources. Either he becomes a wise fool who gives up even lust for love's sake, in which case his ineptitude at such political matters as guiding Cleopatra to a Roman she can trust signals his positive spiritual removal from the world. Or his foolishness derives from his ineptitude at leaving earthly matters far behind. Or both. In the pagan Mark Antony, who forfeited one third of the world all for Cleopatra, Shakespeare's original audience would also have recognized a typological association with Christ, whose spiritual kingdom and love were about to displace the triumvirate's empire and self-interest.15 Caesar's famed pronouncement in 4.6—“The time of universal peace is near” (4)—looks in two directions, one toward the Augustan peace and the other toward Christ's birth, so as to involve the play's action in both. I also want to suggest, then, that the intertwining of traditions in Antony's very history renders him an especially plastic version of the Antonio character-type. Shakespeare's two earlier Antonios operate exclusively within clear Christian tradition: the first, in The Merchant of Venice, falls short of the Christian charity he professes, and the second, in Twelfth Night, practices an authentic Christian charity that, as the play ends, seems indefinitely divided from the world that needs it. But Mark Antony is prevented from attaining literal Christian charity by his cultural heritage. He cannot enact what he historically predates. Still, Antony's link with Christ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries puts in perspective his frequent tendency toward saintly behavior. That behavior implies, at the least, a prefiguration or analogue of Christ's idea of love.16 But it also sketches, within a pagan context, the ultimately Christian problem of reconciling the flesh and the spirit. Antony's particular wavering between self-love and selfless love preserves the distinction between earthly and spiritual empire without discrediting the claims of the former on Christian grounds. In this Antonio, Shakespeare returns to the matter that pervades The Merchant of Venice and marks the conclusion of Twelfth Night: whether worldly and otherworldly values can be married. Through the twin protagonists of Antony and Cleopatra, he also extends the question to whether they should be.


The opposing impulses in Antony—to respond to either his own needs or to those of others—form a method of characterization. Examples of his self-centeredness pepper the play, mixed in with those of his generosity. His initial reason for returning to Egypt is not love of Cleopatra but knowledge that he cannot win against Caesar and so may as well indulge in “pleasure” (2.3.14-15, 41). Yet later, having succumbed to Caesar at Actium, he will generously insist that Cleopatra be informed of the chance to exchange Antony for Caesar's “courtesy” toward her (3.13.13-19). Ventidius expounds on Antony's pride for an entire scene (3.1), though he might have been spared the trouble, since Antony's ego speaks for itself. When he squanders victory at Actium to fight by sea, for instance, he does so, he says, because Caesar “dares” him to (3.7.29).17 The same Antony, however, will retreat at sea purely for love of Cleopatra (3.11.56-61), risking Caesar's and his soldiers' ridicule. Craving good opinion of himself, he is consumed by insecurity when Caesar has “[s]poke scantly” of him: “If I lose mine honor, / I lose myself” (3.4.6, 22-23). Even so, he has a penchant for learning the painful truth about himself, and to hear it he will urge on a messenger (1.2.97-111), tolerate Enobarbus's venting (for example, 1.2), and encourage Octavius to pinpoint his grievance when the two confer about Antony's “broken … oath” (2.2.81-98). Such frank confrontations contrast tellingly with those in which Cleopatra beats a messenger for honesty, bullying him into later flattering her (2.5, 3.3).

They also bear resemblance to the many instances in which other characters attempt to bait Antony but discover that he is too temperate to be ruffled. Caesar and Pompey both needle him about his weaknesses for things Egyptian (2.2.120-22, 2.6.62-70, 2.7.96); each time, Antony responds with equanimity. His similar forbearance with Cleopatra, whose efforts to control his emotions are at one point compared to the sport of fishing for and catching him (2.5.12-15), suggests the bounteous spirit for which Plutarch had once praised him.18 Not that Cleopatra cannot incite Antony—she does so whenever he suspects her loyalty (3.11, 4.12). But the point is that the same man who coolly endures repeated taunting from her and others is also, in other cases, nervously dependent upon external validation of his worthiness. When his fragile ego is crushed at the sight of Thidias's lips on Cleopatra's hand, he pathetically scrambles to reestablish his identity by having Thidias whipped (3.13.85-152); when he temporarily beats back Caesar, he relishes his prowess and, in symmetry with the earlier episode, offers Cleopatra's hand to Scarus (4.8.11-13). Taken together, all of these examples conflict, portraying, by turns, one Antony who is insecure, vindictive, and enmeshed in worldly affairs but another who is self-assured, forgiving, and free of the world's fetters.

A few of Antony's scenes so conflate these two perspectives on him as to render his actions and motives thoroughly ambiguous. Yet the ambiguity is so subtly crafted that the audience may be unaware of what it does not fully understand without the benefit of reflection, which a production, fleeting as it is, cannot afford. Read closely, however, the text can account for the confusion, however subliminal it may be. In one key scene, 3.11, Antony accepts military defeat and gives up his fortune with a grace reminiscent of Saint Anthony himself:

                                        Friends, come hither:
I am so lated in the world, that I
Have lost my way for ever. I have a ship
Laden with gold, take that, divide it; fly,
And make your peace with Caesar.


But the language of liberality, pure as it sounds, may issue less from Antony's humility than from his humiliation, the “shame” that, Iras says, has him so “unqualited” (44). His revulsion toward Cleopatra, whose flight at sea he holds responsible for his situation, would seem to confirm that his loss of dignity, not his magnanimity, causes him to surrender his earthly possessions (25-68). Still, his quickness to pardon Cleopatra at the scene's end reestablishes his largess.

Such comingling of perspectives on Antony's character is later recalled and yet further complicated when Antony again bids farewell, this time to “three or four Servitors” in Cleopatra's palace (4.2.10, s.d.). As Fichter has pointed out, 4.2 alludes to the Last Supper, Antony's triple plea that his followers attend him at one more “bounteous … meal” linking him to Christ (4.2.10).19 Shakespeare so qualifies the link, however, that the scene might be taken as a parodic inversion of its Christian counterpart. That Cleopatra twice asks Enobarbus the meaning of Antony's behavior underscores the obscurity of his intent. Enobarbus, by now jaded toward Antony's emotional displays, reads this one as a conscious manipulation of his servants' feelings (24), a charge that, once Enobarbus voices it, Antony strenuously denies: “Ho, ho, ho! / Now the witch take me, if I meant it thus!” (36-37). Antony's next lines emphasize the charity he is claiming for himself: “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” (38-40). The difficulty of reading Antony's nature here epitomizes the same difficulty until the play's end, the precise problem, for purposes of establishing tone, being that of how to take Antony's apparent self-denial.

Enobarbus, of course, offers his own final answer to the question, and it is a persuasive one. For all of his earlier skepticism toward Antony's judgment, his former master's decision to reward his betrayal with riches defines his dying admiration for Antony's willingness to turn the other cheek (4.6, 9). His route to that conclusion is nevertheless winding, and the variables in Enobarbus's character can elucidate those in Antony's.

As exemplified in Enobarbus's skirmish with Lepidus before Caesar and Antony begin to negotiate (2.2.1-14), his chief concern is a version of Antony's: he is continually torn between meeting his own needs and fulfilling his duty to others, between self and self-sacrifice. To Lepidus he defends the practice of “private stomaching” and proceeds in 2.2 to speak his mind, dispensing with the decorum reserved for the more “courteous Antony” (8-10, 222). Lepidus correctly identifies Enobarbus's “passion” as the “plainness” that Pompey later implies is famous (2.2.12, 2.6.78). Far from acting solely as the voice of reason in reaction to Antony's irrationality, Enobarbus has his own passion, a counterpart of sorts to Antony's Cleopatra: it is truth to himself at all costs. Without this indulgence of his own, he would be unprepared to sympathize with Antony's, as he does in the celebrated “barge” speech (2.2.190-239).20

That sympathy notwithstanding, he must inevitably choose between the “honesty” he reveres and a “loyalty” that may spell disaster for him personally:

Mine honesty and I begin to square.
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly; yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place i' th' story.


The distinctly pagan sentiments behind Enobarbus's dilemma here should not fully obscure the Pauline terms that associate it with Antony's struggle between earthly and spiritual values. His anxiety over becoming a “fool” for “faith” in Antony, together with his ambition for worldly fame, is of a piece with that one trait of Enobarbus that, more than any other, portrays him as a foolish fool—that is, his fear of love.

For all his bluster about speaking as he feels, Enobarbus repeatedly shrinks from feeling itself, using his supposed plainness—and often his sarcasm—as protection against a dreaded loss of self-control. Not surprisingly in a play brimming with misogyny, Enobarbus conceives of that loss in both himself and Antony as one of manliness. He pronounces his fear most openly late in the play, in reaction to Antony's emotional valediction to his servants: “Look, they weep, / And I, an ass, an onion-ey'd. For shame, / Transform us not to women” (4.2.34-36). Already aware of his intent to leave Antony, Enobarbus may be especially unresponsive here to his master's emotional claims on him. But such explicit resistance to acknowledging his own feeling prompts the audience to reconsider such earlier instances as his unwillingness to recognize Antony's grief for Fulvia or his derision of Cleopatra's grief over Antony's imminent departure (1.2). Not until he embraces and returns Antony's love for him is he truly honest with himself or anyone.

In fact, Enobarbus's great triumph is his foolish—indeed lethal—endorsement of Antony's unconditional love:

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


To accept that love is to expose his former preoccupation with truthfulness as a mere pretension and to discover real passion in rejecting self-interest.21 Among the many desertions in this play—including those of Menas, Hercules, Decretas, and Antony—Enobarbus's stands out for illustrating the final poverty of worldly gain. Beginning with his realization that, ironically, Caesar's idea of “universal peace” does not extend to trusting renegades from Antony's camp, Enobarbus's abandonment lends him an appreciation of Antony's steadfastness (4.6.4, 11-19). He even dies remarkably like Elizabethan accounts of the despairing Judas—repulsed by lucre (4.6.23), bursting from heartbreak, and falling down in a field (4.9.12-23)—thus furthering the association between Antony's loyalty to him and Christ-like love.22

To understand Enobarbus's reversal as the last comment upon Antony's character, however, would be simplistic. For one thing, Antony's altruism toward Enobarbus forms, as we have seen, only part of his characterization, and, for another, as we have also seen, selfless behavior in this play often comes under its own fire. True enough, the play's world proves hostile to self-interest like Enobarbus's, also consuming Pompey, whose preoccupation with his own private concerns remains unsurpassed by any other character's egotism. Pompey directs his political negotiations with the triumvirate away from empire and toward his anxiety over Antony's acquisition of his family's home and Antony's failure to thank him for giving his mother sanctuary (2.6.26-29, 39-46); these are personal grudges that, to Menas's dismay, mean more to him than obtaining lands: “Thy father, Pompey, would ne'er have made this treaty” (2.6.82-83). Yet, if the minute attention to trivialities of personal honor, virtually caricatured in Pompey, leads to personal loss, so does utter inattention to the world and one's own place in it.

Such terms describe Octavia, in whom Shakespeare exaggerates selfless loyalty much as he does its opposite in Pompey. She has every opportunity to break faith with either Caesar or Antony and yet, much like Enobarbus, instead suffers a broken heart, hers “parted betwixt two friends / That does afflict each other!” (3.6.77-78). Likewise, Shakespeare has every opportunity to reveal just one advantage to Octavia of her unwavering commitment. But our last impression of her lies far afield of spiritual fulfillment. As Caesar and Maecenas disabuse her of her blind trust in Antony, who has betrayed her, she passively responds, “Is it so, sir?” (3.6.96), the reaction perhaps not of a woman maintaining her belief in her husband at any cost but of one slightly shaken by suddenly confronting her ignorance and trying to maintain her poise. Caesar knows how to thrive in the world that has made Octavia its victim. Her folly, spawning no strength of conviction or transcendent vision, seems awkwardly out of touch, and her discomfort in Caesar's world, although not a source of ridicule, resembles Antony's awkwardness during his protracted death.

Ridicule toward Antony persists even after he has died. In 5.1, Caesar, Maecenas, and Agrippa join the ranks of other characters, like Enobarbus, Pompey, and Octavia, whose degree of charity or self-love implicitly comments upon Antony's characterization. Under the guise of mourning Antony and commending his virtues, the three Romans actually damn him with faint praise. On hearing Decretas's news of Antony's demise, Caesar sets the tone: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack” (14-15). Literally saying that Decretas has understated the significance of Antony's passing, he implies that Antony's influence on the world has so dwindled by the time of his death that it lacks power enough to “make / A greater crack.” Agrippa and Maecenas sustain the theme of Antony's ineffectuality:

strange it is
That nature must compel us to lament
Our most persisted deeds.
His traits and honors
Wag'd equal with him.
 A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you gods will give us
Some faults to make us men.


Caesar, ostensibly “touch'd” (33), concludes by belittling Antony into a “[d]isease” that he was compelled to “launch” (36-37).23 Granted, the Romans' backbiting says at least as much about them as about Antony, yet, significantly, it also threatens to lower our esteem for Antony as a hero, demeaning him for his worldly failures.

The last major insight into Antony's characterization may also be the most important. It looks back to and implicitly comments upon all preceding—and conflicting—references to Antony's folly. It is his revisitation of Cleopatra in act 5 in the form of the Clown.

A production of the play in 1993 by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express doubled the actor who played Antony in the role of the Clown, a choice that, I have come to believe, faithfully mirrors Jacobean practice.24 If so, the doubling enriched immeasurably the original audience's association of Antony with the tradition of wise folly. The role makes literal the identification of Antony as a fool, and Cleopatra's paradoxical statement about the Clown could be applied to any of Shakespeare's wise fools, particularly Lear's natural: “What poor an instrument / May do a noble deed!” (236-37). By “noble deed” Cleopatra refers to the delivery of the asp, her means to end her life. But what truly makes the Clown “noble” takes a kinder form, which she is too single-minded to appreciate fully. Despite Cleopatra's instructing him three times to leave her (259, 261, 264), he lingers until the fourth (278). The content of his speeches in response to her repeated farewells is, overwhelmingly, concern for her well-being. Simple as he is, he knows why she has ordered him to leave the snake, and, though he cannot help boasting about his expertise on the “worm,” his chief purpose is to warn her, as Antony has warned her about trusting “none … but Proculeius,” from tempting the asp further than she intends (4.15.48):

You must think this, look you, that the worm will do its kind. … Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people; for indeed, there is no goodness in the worm. … Give it nothing, I pray you, for it is not worth the feeding.


Cleopatra's rejoinder to this last direction—“Will it eat me?” (271)—combines an appreciation of the Clown's bawdry, a last pinch of the fear that the Clown hopes to elicit, and a plea for assurance that her plan will work. At this point, even he can see that she is not to be dissuaded: “I wish you joy o' th' worm” (279).

The Clown, then, reincarnates all the essential elements of Antony's character. To his lustiness he adds strict attention to Cleopatra's welfare, limited understanding of her own designs, and, above all, a gift for botching practical endeavors, shown particularly in his language: “I would not be the party that should desire you to touch [the worm], for his biting is immortal; those that do die of it do seldom or never recover” (245-48). But even such blunders signify a capacity for higher understanding, meaning, and gesture than has as yet been attained in this life: as so many critics have remarked, the Clown's “immortal” is a malapropism that speaks more wisely than he knows and that Cleopatra returns to in earnest when she cites her “immortal longings” (5.2.281). Like Antony's suicide, a misfired shot at what Seneca calls a “becoming exit” from the world,25 the Clown's verbal bungling briefly figures forth, in a complementary context, a fundamental discord between practical competence and charitable practice. Likewise, Antony, seeking to free himself from the constraints of this life, seems to become ever more mired in them.

As C. W. R. D. Moseley has demonstrated by studying the play's emblems of wisdom, Hercules traditionally proves wise at the crossroads when he chooses Virtue over Pleasure.26 Hercules' desertion of Antony (4.3), in this light, can perhaps be seen as Antony's loss of prudence, a certain kind of wisdom.27 But the Colossus to which Cleopatra compares Antony after death is, as Moseley has also shown, another Renaissance emblem for wisdom (5.2.82-92), demonstrated in examples from the work of George Wither. Sometimes it is a wisdom so potent that it can subdue the unruly world under its sway, sometimes a wisdom that actually transcends the earth, like Saint Paul's “wisdome of this world,” which is “foolishnesse with God.”28 This transition in emblems for Antony's wisdom tempts the audience to infer a progression in his history: the practical prudence of Hercules, witnessed in Antony's youthful worldly success, gives way to a higher, transcendent wisdom, found in his only apparently foolish surrender to love.

Though such an outline may bear some truth, it is an all too facile account of Antony's final inability to escape what Cleopatra playfully calls “the world's great snare” (4.8.18). Even if he dies for love, it may be love of himself. Even if he dies for love of another, his dignity as a martyr is significantly undermined. As we have observed, he is not alone. Even Eros, acting out his name in self-sacrifice for Antony, expresses mixed motives: “Thus I do escape the sorrow / Of Antony's death” (4.14.93-94). This is self-sacrifice of the most dubious order. Whether because Antony's martyrdom is diluted by escapism, or because his half-failed suicide represents an only half-hearted willingness to die for love, or because he is unlucky, life will not let him go without an awkward struggle. And death insists on humiliating him. Something there is in Antony and Cleopatra that doesn't love saintliness—or, at the least, Antony's approach to it as a fool for love. Cleopatra's enterprise is to find it out.


Over the course of the play's last scene, Cleopatra sees to it that Caesar is made every bit the foolish fool that Antony has just seemed in his final hour. Caesar covets the chance to humiliate her publicly.29 Instead, she humiliates him privately by controlling her own destiny. Her objective—to play fortune to Caesar's luck, thus making him her fool—is clear from her first lines in 5.2: “'Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will” (2-4).

Her success at her goal is stressed repeatedly at the point of her death, first by her lines to the asp: “O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied!” (306-8). After her passing, Shakespeare relies on the dramatic irony of Dolabella's lines to underline Caesar's defeat. Once the guard has announced that “Caesar's beguiled” (323), Dolabella, having secretly betrayed Caesar's trust, makes sure the audience appreciates how ridiculous the emperor appears:

                                                                                                    Caesar, thy thoughts
Touch their effects in this: thyself art coming
To see perform'd the dreaded act which thou
So sought'st to hinder.



O, sir, you are too sure an augurer;
That you did fear is done.


That Caesar remains ignorant of Dolabella's role in thwarting his plans intensifies our sense of his folly: at least Antony recognizes when he has been demeaned. And because the audience knows how Cleopatra accomplished her death, Caesar's deliberate investigation of the premises—the women's bodies and the aspic's “slime” (345-48, 351-53)—appears slow and dull-witted. His embarrassing ignorance of being duped lasts until the play's closing lines, where Caesar is still commanding Dolabella, this time to accord Antony and Cleopatra the “glory” for which, unbeknownst to Caesar, Dolabella has made way (362, 365-66). Charnes writes of this moment that Caesar “swiftly translates [the lovers] from rebellious figures who escaped his control and punishment into legendary lovers” so as to minimize their political power, yet his efforts are just as swiftly undermined and implicitly derided by the audience's awareness of Cleopatra's sway, which is greater than Caesar's, over Dolabella.30 Through Cleopatra's agency, then, Antony has accomplished vicariously what the Soothsayer declared he never would himself (2.3): he wins against Caesar in a contest for worldly control. The wheel has come full circle. Caesar is now the “strumpet's fool” (1.1.13).31

Nor is Cleopatra's project a simple one. Caesar plays to win. Laura Quinney has remarked on his politically deft use of messengers (who swarm around him) for purposes of both “self-dissemination” and gathering information.32 Indeed, in his first scene, his knowledge of state affairs, kept current by a stream of messengers, clearly surpasses Lepidus's (1.4.81-83). He later indicates that he has spies on Antony (3.6.1-31), and at Actium a soldier marvels at the “speed” of his approach, which “[c]arries beyond belief” (3.7.74-75). In the last scene, when Dolabella relieves Proculeius from attending Cleopatra, he attributes to Caesar an Orwellian omniscience: “Proculeius, / What thou hast done thy master Caesar knows” (5.2.64-65). The end of Caesar's game is nothing less than total control over himself and the world—control that Cleopatra “bolts up” despite Caesar's prowess (5.2.6).33

At the very least, then, Cleopatra's victory over Caesar discloses a political focus and cunning that may come as a surprise after her initial characterization. Until the middle of act 3, her very reason for being seems to be her gift for oblivion, for losing herself in pleasure and luring Antony along with her. She bids him ignore Caesar in the first scene, wallows in self-pity when he determines to rejoin Caesar (1.3), and longs to “sleep out this great gap of time / My Antony is away,” fantasizing that, while gone, he will “[t]hink on” her, as did Caesar and then Pompey, for whom she was “his life” (1.5.27-34). Outdoing the younger Pompey in self-indulgence, she draws the world in to her and refashions it in her own image.34 From this inwardness ensue inversions of the natural: her professed love for Antony (or Caesar or Pompey) seems narcissistic, and her “repent[ance]” for having terrorized the messenger, once he has spoken her wishes (3.3.39), appears an ironic foreshadowing of Enobarbus's authentic change of heart, brought about by his discovery of the truth.

Perhaps Shakespeare is counting on his audience to understand that Cleopatra's ostensible retreat from the practical demands of political life is a mere façade, that her frequent threats to dissolve Egypt and Egyptians rather than see her most trivial desire unmet cloak a keen awareness of her political ambitions and of her options for achieving them. After all, when Antony first arrived in Egypt, her experience at protecting her regime from the clutches of foreign empire was extensive. Her method was also based on sexual seduction, if not love, and could therefore belie her political acumen. Her impressive capacity for self-preservation to date suggests that, in the play's early scenes, she has yet to avail the audience of her full characterization. Nor would her skill at throwing off Caesar likely spring up out of nowhere.

In any case, an apparent transition in Cleopatra's character begins occurring in 3.7, where she is inclined less to abandon and more to focusing on such outward matters as military strategy and royal responsibility. Here, she struggles between supporting Antony's bad decision to fight Caesar at sea and expressing her dissatisfaction with other of Antony's poor judgments.35 Her line, “Celerity is never more admir'd / Than by the negligent,” not only “rebuke[s]” Antony (24-25) but also looks back to Enobarbus's rebuke of her own “celerity in dying” (1.2.144). This Cleopatra almost seems beyond such nonsense. While she quizzes Enobarbus honestly about the way he has “forspoke” her presence at Actium (3)—as she will later question him again when she seeks to understand Antony's behavior (4.2)—her demeanor is less that of vamp than of pupil. She appears both motivated and quick to learn more about military and political science, as though the necessity of guarding her own interests has snapped her to attention.

Indeed, this same juncture—where Caesar's bid for control becomes ever more blatant and unavoidable, and where Cleopatra becomes more attuned to political exigencies—is also where the difficulty of penetrating the reasons for Cleopatra's conduct becomes increasingly pronounced. For a time this difficulty parallels that of discerning what prompts Antony's behavior. The challenge of sifting through the action of 3.13 epitomizes the problem of reading Cleopatra's motives, which resurfaces in the closing scene.

Any production of Antony and Cleopatra will present a viewpoint on Cleopatra's intentions toward Thidias in 3.13, and any viewpoint will seem slanted. If, throughout this scene, Cleopatra clearly means to remain faithful to Antony and is only toying with Caesar by playing up to Thidias, then the audience faces the vexed question of why it can detect Cleopatra's irony toward Thidias and Enobarbus cannot.36 Maybe Enobarbus's powers of perception are imperfect—he of course fails to comprehend his own feelings toward his master—but the unwavering trait of his comments on and to Cleopatra is an incisiveness furnished by objectivity. Witness his earlier discrimination in interpreting Cleopatra's behavior, particularly in the “barge” speech, where he pinpoints her attractiveness to Antony and to all men (2.1.190-239). How, then, if Cleopatra is only having at Thidias, can we account for Enobarbus's impression that Cleopatra is betraying Antony?: “Sir, sir, thou art so leaky / That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for / Thy dearest quit thee” (63-65). To argue that Enobarbus is looking for a last reason to desert Antony or is so jealous of Cleopatra's hold over Antony that he hears what he wants to in Cleopatra's language is unconvincing. So is the explanation that Enobarbus is pulling strings in order to see Thidias punished, even though he taunts him in an aside: “You will be whipt” (88).37

Yet, if Cleopatra plays the scene without irony—so that she is aggressively campaigning for Caesar's good graces—it becomes equally skewed. Enobarbus's judgment may be vindicated; Cleopatra's is not. As Ornstein comments: “How foolish of this cunning woman to plan a betrayal of Antony in the presence of Enobarbus!”38 In this reading, the audience is left disenchanted, halfway through the play, with an overtly obtuse, treacherous Cleopatra and with an Antony too credulous to be believed himself when he forgives Cleopatra's duplicity. Surely the audience is not meant at this point to feel as sour toward these protagonists as does Enobarbus (3.13.194-200). Otherwise, Enobarbus's reversal in act 4 will not work theatrically.

The very purpose of a scene like this one is, seemingly, to raise questions about what is driving Cleopatra. How can an actor playing Cleopatra claim any assurance about the tone of her response to Thidias's first gamble for her allegiance?:

 He [Caesar] knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love, but as you fear'd him.


Evidence of her tone is no more lucid in her longer speeches to Caesar's man:

                                                            Most kind messenger,
Say to great Caesar this in deputation:
I kiss his conqu'ring hand. Tell him, I am prompt
To lay my crown at 's feet, and there to kneel.
Tell him, from his all-obeying breath I hear
The doom of Egypt.


What could only be construed as sarcasm in most other characters' mouths is here perfectly matched with Cleopatra's usual hyperbole. Once Antony has erupted over the sight of Thidias's lips on Cleopatra's hand, ambiguity continues to surround her intent toward Thidias. Although she insists that Antony has failed to apprehend her true meaning and even identity—“Not know me yet?” (157)—what incentive she could possibly have for teasing Thidias remains unstated. (Is she just having fun? Does she mean to buy time and flexibility with Caesar through persuading Thidias that she will switch loyalties? Is she hoping that Enobarbus will retrieve Antony so that the vision of her tête-à-tête will provoke him to positive action?) Furthermore, the pivot by which she turns Antony around from his anger is dubious at best: is Cleopatra's vow to sacrifice her children if she is guilty a mode of finessing him or a legitimate defense of her innocence (158-67)? How naive is Antony's response to her vow: “I am satisfied” (167)?

On paper such cruces would appear insoluble. And although in performance some stance on them would no doubt prove inescapable, something of their indeterminacy needs to be preserved in a production calculated to tap into the play's rounded portrayal of Egypt's queen. The shading of Cleopatra's plausible motives into each other—the one narrow and self-serving and the other serving Antony and Egypt's larger political cause—involves her in the play's wider inquiry into wise and foolish folly. The cryptic quality of her inner life—the mystery about what, exactly, she is up to—both resembles the uncertainty about Antony's motives and yet suggests greater self-control, more self-knowledge, and a facility exceeding Antony's at managing her worldly enterprises in tandem with her spiritual needs.

In the last analysis, Cleopatra may not fully reconcile earthly and transcendent values. But she succeeds at both toppling Caesar's designs on her and rejoining Antony in death. The intertwining of her self-preservation and her self-sacrifice continually results in further ambiguity about her objectives—when she takes on Caesar, for instance, is she satisfying herself or trying to champion Antony? Her indistinguishable motives also illuminate how she fulfills her apparently antithetical desires and energies relatively unscathed by the ridicule that dogs Antony and Caesar. Neither confining herself to Caesar's political game nor retreating from the “world's great snare,” she embraces this life without deceiving herself about the limits of its rewards. Unlike any other character in the play, Cleopatra, aided by the generosity of her two attendants, accepts her own humanity and thereby (paradoxically) moves toward surpassing it. Refusing to act as a saint—insisting in fact on experiencing her suicide as the consummation of her marriage (5.2.287-313)—she nearly approaches saintliness.


Cleopatra's penultimate act—her pretended suicide—matches in recklessness Antony's final deeds. Her last act, however, rejects such uncalculated behavior in favor of careful orchestration, made possible in part by what Harry Levin calls the “purest Stoicism” of her approach to real suicide.39 Cleopatra's highly controlled leaving of this world, while necessitating an emotional removal from it, also leads her to immerse herself, characteristically, in earthly affairs. In Cleopatra, then, merge motives self-interested and otherworldly, such that we are hard-pressed to know one from the other. In Cleopatra emerges a harmony between the claims of this world and the next that would seem opposed to the conflict between those values in Antony. In Cleopatra intermingle attachment to and detachment from Caesar's game, such that her most basically human gestures may connote divinity.

Her handling of Dolabella illuminates this paradox. Caesar's intent to use Dolabella as a player in a meticulously staged drama is made increasingly clear once Caesar whisks Decretas offstage at the close of 5.1 with blatant self-promotion:

Go with me to my tent, where you shall see
How hardly I was drawn into this war,
How calm and gentle I proceeded still
In all my writings. Go with me, and see
What I can show in this.


Decretas, twice prompted to “go with” Caesar and “see” as Caesar would have him see, is an audience to the emperor's “show”—propaganda that Caesar has painstakingly crafted by saving his “writings” to document his innocence and generosity toward Antony.40 That his staff has already been briefed on his program, which is also meant to subdue Cleopatra through a display of his apparent magnanimity, becomes evident moments later, when Proculeius reiterates Caesar's self-description to Decretas in his instructions to Dolabella: “Be gentle to her” (5.1.75, 5.2.68; emphasis added). Dolabella's role is that of prop, a surrogate for Caesar whose mission, as Caesar conceives of it, is to fulfill his master's will.

Cleopatra conquers Dolabella—and through him Caesar—by awakening his own will, which quickly supplants Caesar's in his sense of allegiance. He, of course, invites her manipulation of him with his overture to her—“Most noble Empress, you have heard of me?” (5.2.71)—by which he strays from Caesar's rigid agenda to fond thoughts of himself.41 Given the opportunity, Cleopatra sets immediately to degrading his lack of imagination and insisting that he indulge her in her vision of the colossal Antony (5.2.73-100). Within minutes, Dolabella is divulging Caesar's secret ambition to “lead” her back to Rome “in triumph” (5.2.109-10). For someone like Dolabella, Cleopatra's alchemy must partly consist in the flattery toward him that she implies in her praise of Antony: if she immortalizes Antony so extravagantly, Dolabella must be thinking, how might she remember the man who rescues her from Caesar?

But more significant is Cleopatra's appeal to Dolabella's feeling. Even if he never fully subscribes to her glorification of Antony (5.2.93-95), she has touched his capacity for sympathy:

                                                                                Hear me, good madam:
Your loss is as yourself, great: and you bear it
As answering to the weight. Would I might never
O'ertake pursu'd success, but I do feel,
By the rebound of yours, a grief that smites
My very heart at root.


Caesar's mere “show” of concern is supplanted by Cleopatra's genuine “grief,” and the old joke about Antony's heaviness (recalled all the more by the internal rhyme on great and weight) is transformed into an article of true sorrow. Again paradoxically, Cleopatra profits from the good deed of converting Dolabella, who, because she helps him “feel,” hastens to sacrifice his own aspirations in her service. When he reenters in 5.2, confirming Caesar's plans to abuse her, his reference to his “love” for Cleopatra as “religion” portrays him as more than a courtly lover (199): through pursuing her own ends, Cleopatra (whom even the priests bless when she is riggish) has transported Dolabella to an authentic self that he then becomes willing to abnegate in her behalf.

Such interwoven motives are for Cleopatra but a scion of those she seems to harbor for her suicide. By now, the futility of ascribing that act to either her devotion to Antony or her yen to undo Caesar is critical commonplace.42 Indeed, here again, through subverting Caesar and protecting her own interests she simultaneously demonstrates her love for Antony, who can defeat Caesar in no other way than by imping his wing on hers. And here again, the final difference between Antony's and Cleopatra's dying choices is that, for whatever reason, he at least seems to renounce the world on which she relies. Her success at realizing any and all of her hopes—to defeat Caesar, to save her earthly reputation, to join Antony in perfect love—depends entirely upon her openness to the potentially corrupting experiences of human life that Antony would apparently just as soon reject. In the case of her suicide, in order to bequeath her earthlier elements to “baser life” (5.2.289-90), she must come to terms with those elements, whether by testing Caesar's vulnerability to her flirtations (5.2.111-90), manipulating Charmian and Iras with threats of public degradation (5.2.207-26), or dressing herself in her finest clothes to end her life (5.2.280-81). She is determined not to be “hoist” as Antony has been (5.2.55-57). Never completely escaping the claims of “baser life” on her image, she nevertheless transfigures the baser images of that life into something more than earthly through a stunning imposition of will.

Such transfiguration occurs nowhere more stunningly than in the complex iconography of Cleopatra's death scene, the last eighty lines or so of the play. In particular, the images of the serpent and the crown—common emblems in early seventeenth-century England—cut at least two ways. The serpent, which for a Christian audience cannot possibly elude association with the Fall, is, in this play, largely representative of fecundity.43 But Moseley has pointed out the additional, well-substantiated connection between the serpent and wisdom:

Snakes, whatever their other less attractive characteristics, have always been associated with subtlety, wisdom, and knowledge—Hermes' caduceus and Our Lord's “Be ye wise as serpents” [Matthew 10:16] both draw on a common and very ancient association. (According to Alciati, the frequency of whose editions shows how much he was regarded in the XVIth Century and later, the serpent was an Egyptian symbol of royalty. Shakespeare could well have been alluding to this too.)44

Moseley goes on to catalog several Renaissance pictorial illustrations in which great rulers, including the allegorical queen Prudence and Elizabeth I of England, are shown with serpents, symbolizing “wisdom with self-rule and political rule” (127-28). He conjectures that, finally, Cleopatra's triumph over Caesar, an “ass Unpolicied” at her “metaphorical feet,” suggests the transformation of her “(apparent) conventional unwisdom” into true wisdom, facilitated by the serpent at her breast (128).

Moseley's reading of Cleopatra indicates a link between the last stage picture we have of her and the Pauline tradition of wise folly.45 In fact, although Moseley never mentions that tradition outright, he concludes that Antony and Cleopatra's love, seemingly immoral from a Roman perspective, may constitute “a paradoxical wisdom that is no plant which grows on mortal soil.”46 In other words, he sees Cleopatra's ostensibly unwise love as a higher, transcendent wisdom.

I believe, however, that we can pursue the iconography of Cleopatra's death scene more specifically. When Cleopatra, crowned, enthroned, and flanked by her two votaries, describes the asp, a familiar emblem of wisdom, as a baby who “sucks the nurse asleep” (5.2.309-10), she unavoidably alludes to scores of icons, from the mid-thirteenth to well into the early seventeenth century, of Maria lactans—the nursing mother of Christ.47 These images, ranging in provenance from Italy, to the Netherlands, to England, are known to date as far back as Early Christian times in Egypt, where, according to Gertrud Schiller, they “are connected with early Egyptian representations of Isis.”48 In the West, they began taking root in the late fourth century.49 By the time they enjoyed popularity during the fourteenth century and throughout the Renaissance, they had remained predominantly Northern in number and character.50

Gail McMurray Gibson, writing about the “complex and omnipresent … Marian devotion” in fifteenth-century East Anglia, discusses at length one approach to the meaning of Maria lactans.51 Gibson's example is Our Lady of Walsingham chapel, site of “miraculous healings, especially after returning crusaders presented to the shrine a phial said to contain drops of milk from the Virgin's breasts” (140). Pilgrims to the shrine—a favorite of Henry VIII, who ensured its prosperity until the Dissolution—could glimpse the phial “[i]n return for a suitable offering” (140-42). This relic is emblematic of Mary's maternity, the essence of which, says Gibson, is the “principle, both incarnational and linguistic, of saving fecundity” (139).

The relationship between the nursing mother Mary and her salvific nurturance is longstanding. According to Millard Meiss,

The representation of the Madonna suckling her Child had a special significance in late medieval art and thought. Since it showed that situation in which the Virgin was most concretely and intimately the mother of Christ, it set forth that character and power which arose from her motherhood, i.e. her role as Maria mediatrix, compassionate intercessor for humanity before the impartial justice of Christ or God the Father. … [T]he act of nursing signified moral qualities, such as benevolence and mercifulness. … In the Middle Ages the Virgin was believed to be the mother and nurse not only of Christ but of all mankind.52

Theresa Coletti concurs: “The Virgin's milk serves as an analogue to the salvific nourishment of Christ's blood, and consequently images of Maria lactans inevitably evoke association with the redemptive promise.”53 Nor must the nursing image involve Mary specifically to represent divine charity, though most do. For instance, the figure of Ecclesia, sculpted by Giovanni Pisano for the Duomo in Pisa (1302-10), envisions the Church as nursing her congregation and thus recalls Paul's metaphor for the Church's teachings: “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:2-3).

The implicit comparison between Cleopatra and the Virgin is far from thorough or allegorical. To assert otherwise would be patently absurd. Instead, I would argue that the comparison is selective and precise and that, furthermore, its incompleteness is essential to how it works. In Cleopatra, the worldliness of her roles as illicit lover and as ruler and as mother are never denied or forgotten.54 Still, by virtue of her final appearance, as well as her verbal self-characterization as a nursing mother, she connects herself with the wise folly of redemptive love, or charity. Her characterization, in the fullest sense of that word, interrelates, fuses even, the secular and the holy.55 Renaissance audiences were well-versed in how to tide the gap between such disparate traditions; as Gibson points out, Elizabethans had already long practiced the “transference of the cult of the Virgin to the political cult of the Virgin Queen.”56 One especially telling example involves the Puritan preacher Andrew Willett, who in the late sixteenth century published a book of double acrostic emblem poems whose shaped verses (what Moseley calls “figured forms”57) replace the visual images that normally accompany the poetry. His first poem, in praise of the dedication to Queen Elizabeth, Willett himself glosses thus:

The Queen our Prince is a great succour to all; … this famous maiden denies not milk to her peoples—to them, immediately [they need it], she their sweet nurse has already sent help by her own hand.58

Willett's choice of metaphors—a mother's milk—evinces the post-Reformation ease with reappropriated religious iconography, in this case applied to secular (though God-fearing) politics.59 In short, the nursing metaphor was portable, applicable in various contexts. The well-known association between Elizabeth I and the Virgin Mary no doubt also cooperated with that between Cleopatra and Elizabeth I to further the third one between Cleopatra and the Virgin.60

Shakespeare's Cleopatra, then, arrives at the emblem of nurse through several doors—by virtue of her association with divinity, with royalty, and with motherhood. But the particular transference of Mary's salvific love onto Cleopatra is advanced by other details—for example, her earlier appearance in the image of the pietà, the dying Antony draped across her lap (4.15.38-91).61 In this instance, too, she is gaudy Egyptian queen, grieving the loss of a foolish soldier, yet so visionary in her eulogizing this “crown o' the earth” as to redeem his image quite. The figure of the crown, moreover, recalls vividly Antony's untarnished love for Enobarbus, whose “turpitude” the betrayed master “crown[s] with gold” (4.6.32-33). It also looks forward to Cleopatra's appearance as she prepares “again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony” (5.2.228-29).62 That particular crown symbolizes her royalty but also the “bounty,” like Antony's toward Enobarbus (4.6.31), about her suicide for Antony's sake. What's more, it further relates our last impression of Cleopatra to popular representations of the Virgin.

As Meiss explains, the attribution of the heavenly crown to Mary, whose “nursing … signifies her mercy,” stems, paradoxically, from her reign as queen of humility.63 Through refusing grace to none, she descended to the level of meanest human sin, often demonstrating her lowliness by sitting on the earth, rather than in a throne, in fourteenth-century portrayals. Her humility, however, released her to become enskied and sainted, as her identity began to combine with, as Meiss puts it, “the awesome Woman described in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse: ‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’” (153). This amalgam is exemplified, down to the crown of exactly twelve stars, by Albrecht Dürer's woodcut entitled “The Virgin on the Crescent.” The poem that accompanies the figure preserves Mary's identity as intercessor in behalf of humanity, using her power to save her supplicants from the shifting fortunes of earthly life.

Not that Cleopatra's crown confines her to an association either with the virtue of humility or with the Apocalypse, nor that the crown itself is limited only to symbolism that is religious at base. In early seventeenth-century Europe, the crown emblem proliferated, ranging in meaning from worldly vanity, as in Wither's effigy of a naked soul rising above earth-bound fame, to political security, the theme of an emblem by Henry Peacham: two prudent serpents guard the realm (the “Soveraignes crowne”), while the poem warns would-be usurpers (like Caesar?) that their ill-considered “abuse” of “tha'nointed Diadem” will be “reuenged.” Still, the majority of crowns in Renaissance emblem books connote something akin to the heavenly crown—for example, the “Vertue” of lasting love over Wanton affection in Wither's emblem of the fickle woman. Thus, the image of Cleopatra's crown points in several directions, some of them opposed to features of the humble Madonna, and some not: in a final example of this blending, the queen's momentary lure of Caesar himself with her “strong toil of grace” speaks to the universal appeal of her physical loveliness, as well as her abundant love. Caesar, perhaps in spite of himself, commemorates both in burying her next to Antony (5.2.358).

But the most suggestive detail about Cleopatra's crown is that, in the course of the strong toil that is her death, it shifts “awry” (5.2.318), faintly burlesquing those hundreds of pictures in which the Virgin's perfection remains inviolate, eternal. Every inch an earthly queen, Cleopatra must contrive to idealize her outward looks through artificial means, as by avoiding the unsightly “swelling” induced by poisons (5.2.345-46). For this vanity, she is herself lightly mocked, her crown embarrassingly, if only briefly, askew. Charmian's last act of adoration, to “mend” the crown's angle (5.2.319), portends her self-sacrifice through suicide—both gestures in which exemplary devotion mixes with a lower form of folly, bred of fleeting efforts to control human destiny. Doomed as may finally be the attempts of these women to manipulate Caesar and their reputations after death, their pains meet with some success.

Cleopatra never transcends this world, whatever protests she may make about discarding her earthlier “elements” (5.2.289-90). Her frank engagement in Caesar's game leads her, in some true sense, to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.64 So doing, she embraces her humanity. Though her characterization is riddled with instances of her pride, her struggle to take down Caesar while also eluding him establishes, paradoxically, her humility: she is not above playing by Caesar's rules, turning his tactics against him, or risking loss at his hands. Also paradoxically, her openness to worldly folly seems inseparable from—the very grounds for—her apotheosis of Antony and Shakespeare's of her.65

Shakespeare's Mark Antony reflects the saint whose name he shares by at least appearing to exchange earthly “glory” for pure love and his “pardon” (4.14.19, 45). But Shakespeare's Cleopatra recalls, in her peculiar way, Caxton's story of Saint Anthony and the bowman, in which the monk makes no apology for worldly game, which has its holy purpose. … In the broadest sense, Saint Anthony's wise folly traditionally includes a worldly playfulness that he is also, finally, willing to put at risk and, if need be, sacrifice. For Cleopatra, the wisdom of this world is divine foolishness in something of this uncanny sense. It is foolishness with this world in all its splendor and inadequacy—what Caesar calls “noble weakness” (5.2.344). Because her defeat of Caesar and her ennobling of Antony are forever tainted by her commitment to the goals, standards, and passions of this life, audiences will be forever tempted to take the part for the whole and respond only negatively, only to her familiarity with the mutable, corrupt world. Or they will minimize her worldliness and protest that her love for Antony cancels it or rises above it. To do either, however, is to derange the careful balance of a play that, insofar as it concerns the problems of living in and leaving this world, remains deeply suspicious of endeavors to avoid it. As Antony grows increasingly uncomfortable on earth, so does Caesar, who, recoiling from bodily pleasures (for example, 2.7.98-125), takes refuge in conquest and pride in self-control. If Cleopatra evades a good share of the folly that visits these two soldiers, it is not for lack of loving this life.


  1. Jonathan Dollimore, “Virtus under Erasure,” in Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 211.

  2. I am indebted for some items on this list to the 1993 production of Antony and Cleopatra by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, which was especially sensitive to the humor implicit at the end of act 4. The director of that production, Ralph A. Cohen, later published an essay in which he lists his own set of jokes aimed at Antony (“Staging Comic Divinity: The Collision of High and Low in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Bulletin 13.3 [Summer 1995], 5-8). Not surprisingly, our lists overlap somewhat. Cohen's perceptions of the humor and the uses to which it is put, however, differ widely from mine. For instance, to his mind the tone of the joking is lighter than I am describing it. For elaboration on the contrast between his interpretation and mine, see n. 64, below.

  3. W. B. Worthen, “The Weight of Antony: Staging ‘Character’ in Antony and Cleopatra,Studies in English Literature 26 (1986): 295-96. Citations for the rest of the paragraph follow: Brian Cheadle, “‘His legs bestrid the ocean’ as a ‘form of life,’” in Drama and Philosophy, ed. James Redmond, Themes in Drama Series, 12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 88. Robert Ornstein, “The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. Mark Rose (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 82. Martha Tuck Rozett, “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 160. Barbara C. Vincent, “Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and the Rise of Comedy,” English Literary Renaissance 12 (1982): 53-86. Leslie Thomson, “Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4 scene 16: ‘A Heavy Sight,’” Shakespeare Survey 41 (1988): 83.

  4. Margaret Lamb's appendix on staging the monument scene in her history of Antony and Cleopatra on the English stage mentions no humor at all (“Antony and Cleopatra” on the English Stage [Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980]). In a different key, Lucy Hughes-Hallett sees the double suicide as utterly somber, lending “significance and purpose to [the characters'] lives” but also “condemn[ing]” them to death brought on by a “sterile” passion (Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions [New York: Harper & Row, 1990], 149). In her view, then, Antony is not so much derided as rejected for his immorality.

  5. Rosalie Colie, “The Significance of Style,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: “Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. Harold Bloom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 83.

    Most critics who sense the distancing humor at the play's end hasten to deny its persistence. Examples would include Ornstein, who believes that the play finally upholds the “honesty of the imagination” over the “facts of imperial conquest” working against Antony and Cleopatra (“Ethic of the Imagination,” 84), and Bernard Beckerman, who, entertaining the opportunities for awkwardness about Antony's being lifted to Cleopatra's monument, concludes: “Despite the obstacles, … Antony was raised in a manner which, we must suppose, was not ludicrous” (Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962], 231).

  6. Examples here would include Janet Adelman, for whom Antony becomes the embodiment of the play's most positive valuation of love (The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973], 139) and Evelyn Gajowski, who believes Antony gradually matures in his ability to love (The Art of Loving: Female Subjectivity and Male Discursive Traditions in Shakespeare's Tragedies [Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992], chap. 4). Anne Barton sees not Antony's suicide, but Cleopatra's, as the act that “redeems” Antony's “bungl[ing]” and that settles the conflict in the play's tone between “the sublime and the ridiculous, the tragic and comic” (“‘Nature's Piece 'Gainst Fancy’: The Divided Catastrophe in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: “Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Chelsea House, 1988], 53, 51). Significant exceptions to the critical trend of overapologizing for Antony present themselves in such authors as Thomson, for whom Antony's love, though great, remains ever flawed (“Act 4 scene 16,” 90); J. Leeds Barroll, who locates Antony's tragedy in the final failure of his love to endure the ravages of Caesar's world (Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in “Antony and Cleopatra” [Washington: Folger Books, 1984], 269, 272); and Jonathan Dollimore, who views the play without a shred of romanticism and Antony as a true fool, because his self-centered infatuation for Cleopatra leads him to “kiss away kingdoms” and thus “also the lives of thousands” (“Virtus under Erasure,” 215).

  7. Two critics in particular who have discussed the role of Christian references in Antony and Cleopatra are Andrew Fichter (“Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The Time of Universal Peace,’” Shakespeare Survey 33 [1980]: 99-111) and C. W. R. D. Moseley (“Cleopatra's Prudence: Three Notes on the Use of Emblems in Antony and Cleopatra,Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare Gesellschaft West 1986: 119-37), both of whose work I shall address in more detail below. See also the brief comments of Northrop Frye (Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, ed. Robert Sandler [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], 138-39).

  8. Several critics have lately challenged the apparent binaries in the play. Jonathan Gil Harris takes a political-sexual approach, arguing that the alleged differences between things Roman and Egyptian are really just a false front for Roman narcissism (“‘Narcissus in thy face’: Roman Desire and the Difference it Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 45 [1994]: 408-25, passim). Linda Charnes finds the superficial distinction between public politics and private love a mere mask for Antony's entrapment by both: “Although the play encourages us to misrecognize Antony's love for Cleopatra as an alternative to the identity and project he bears for Rome, we see that in his role as Cleopatra's Antony he is put to similar use” (Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993], 141-42, passim).

  9. Other critics who have, in different contexts, treated the dichotomy between the worldly and the spiritual include Adelman (Common Liar), Peter Berek (“Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 32 [1981]: 295-304), Fichter (“Time of Universal Peace”), William D. Wolf (“‘New Heaven, New Earth’: The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 33 [1982]: 328-35), and A. S. Weber (“New Physic for the Nonce: A Stoic and Hermetic Reading of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Renaissance Papers 1995: 93-107).

  10. Although M. R. Ridley, editor of the New Arden Antony and Cleopatra (New York: Methuen, 1981), believes that this line is meant for Menas, his reasoning seems stretched. The printing of the folio makes somewhat unclear Enobarbus's addressee, but the sequence and sense of the speeches makes Antony the logical choice.

  11. Several readers have examined the world of Antony and Cleopatra as one marked by “flux,” as Maynard Mack calls it (“Antony and Cleopatra: The Stillness and the Dance,” in Shakespeare's Art: Seven Essays, ed. Milton Crane [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973], 89), and thus as one that defies the characters' vision much as the play resists our neat explanations. See especially Mack, Adelman (Common Liar), Margot Heinemann (“‘Let Rome in Tiber Melt’: Order and Disorder in Antony and Cleopatra,” in “Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. John Drakakis, New Casebooks [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994], 167-73), and, on multiple perspectives in the play, Sidney R. Homan (“Divided Response and the Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra,Philological Quarterly 49 [1970]: 460-68). The paradigm of unyielding choice that I am discussing here is, I believe, a feature of this ever-changing world, which keeps propagating new and yet unsatisfying alternatives.

  12. In a psychoanalytic study of Antony's melancholy and audiences' responses to it, Cynthia Marshall writes of how Antony is affected by a virtual crisis of identity: “He feels himself to be coming apart” (“Man of Steel Done Got the Blues: Melancholic Subversion of Presence in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 44 [1993]: 392). In Marshall's analysis, as in Charnes's, Antony's identity is the “terrain” on which the “real battle” of the play—“that between Caesar and Cleopatra”—is waged (Charnes, Notorious Identity, 112).

  13. Susan Snyder expresses the same idea thus: “Antony can bring together incompatible modes of life only when he has no more life to live” (“Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Survey 33 [1980]: 120).

  14. This, of course, is a difficult statement to support in few words. Suffice it to say that English Renaissance society generally thought of Roman moral values in a way that reflects the ancient Romans' conceptions of themselves: that is, as founders of government whose individual talents and energies were to be directed toward that public good. Indeed, according to Charles Wells: “[In the Roman tradition], softer feelings had no place in public affairs of any kind” (The Wide Arch: Roman Values in Shakespeare [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992], 159). John Ferguson points out that, although these Roman “public” virtues “were not easily compatible with the gentler virtues of humility and compassion,” eventually peace within the empire “[saw] other qualities thrusting themselves to the fore, generosity, and forethought, and clemency” (Moral Values in the Ancient World [London: Methuen, 1958], 178). In addition, some writers whom Shakespeare knew, principally Virgil, sought to reconcile imperial “single-mindedness” with “compassionate feeling” (178). That the problem in the Aeneid of reconciling public duty with private desire is on Shakespeare's mind in Antony and Cleopatra appears clear from Antony's reference to Aeneas and Dido in 4.14.51-54. But the point about the issue at hand—Antony's motivation for suicide—is that, even judged against imperial Roman values, it may appear somehow craven. See also Beverly Taylor on the medieval view of Antony's suicide as motivated by selfish desires, not real martyrdom (“The Medieval Cleopatra: The Classical and Medieval Tradition of Chaucer's Legend of Cleopatra,Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 [1977]: 261, 263).

  15. For a fuller discussion of Erasmus's identification of Mark Antony with wise Christian folly, see chap. 1 [in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997]. Although Christopher Wortham argues that, since Antony is an antitype of Hercules and Hercules is a type for Christ, Antony is, by extension, a virtual antitype of Christ, Wortham has not considered Antony's associations with Christ through the figure of Saint Anthony (“Temperance and the End of Time: Emblematic Antony and Cleopatra,Comparative Drama 29 [1995]: 20).

  16. The notion is partly that, because Christian tenets are natural, they predated Christianity in pagan form. This belief was popular among Christian humanists like Thomas More and Erasmus. See, for example, Raphael Hythloday's description of “Religions” in book 2 of More's Utopia. The Utopians received Christianity so quickly because they had already arrived at its tenets independently (i.e., naturally) (124).

    While I agree with Fichter that Antony and Cleopatra are unaware of the religious significance of the many Christian references and allusions surrounding them, I think that the relationship between the two perspectives he identifies—that of pagan-secular/Christian-religious—implies more than that the pagan is about to give way to the Christian in thirty years or so; it also shows that the characters' worldliest acts can appear holier than their apparently saintlier behavior (“Time of Universal Peace,” 99-101, passim).

    See also Phyllis Rackin's superb discussion of two worlds and two perspectives in Antony and Cleopatra grown out of Cleopatra's skill as an artist (“Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry,” PMLA 87 [1972]: 201-11).

  17. As Heinemann points out, this view of Antony (as well as of Octavius and Lepidus) as “self-seeking heirs of Julius Caesar” with an “insatiable ambition for power” derives ultimately from the republican view of Roman history that characterized Plutarch (“Order and Disorder,” 175).

  18. Plutarch, The Life of Marcus Antonius, T. J. B. Spencer, Shakespeare's Plutarch (London: Penguin, 1968), 178, etc.

  19. Fichter, “Time of Universal Peace,” 105. Fichter actually cites J. Middleton Murry as the source of the observation (Shakespeare, 1965 ed. [London: John Cope, 1936], 303), but himself dilates upon it.

  20. Enobarbus is often viewed as the voice of temperance against Antony's intemperance. See, e.g., Adelman: “Enobarbus is a figure of moderation who attempts to live in a world of excess” (Common Liar, 131). I believe he has his own excesses, which reflect Antony's. Allyson Newton approaches such excesses in an intriguing way by observing that Enobarbus's “emphatic denials almost always wind up making powerful claims for belief … that strain against the resolve of his seemingly pragmatic skepticism” (“‘At the Very Heart of Loss’: Shakespeare's Enobarbus and the Rhetoric of Remembering,” Renaissance Papers 1995: 89).

  21. Gajowski shares this view, albeit in a different context, when, having remarked on Enobarbus's fear of losing his manhood (Art of Loving, 99), she comments on his change: “In the end, Enobarbus embodies the value of honor in love, not war. … He epitomizes Roman control of emotions, yet he dies out of love for Antony. … Enobarbus dies heartbroken, speaking with the same density of feeling as the lovers” (110). I cannot agree with Ornstein that Enobarbus's desertion is itself an “act of love” (because he cannot endure watching Antony's fall “[Ethic of the Imagination,” 93-94]); rather, it is a part of a process toward love.

  22. Fichter refers to Enobarbus's betrayal of Antony as “Judas-like” but does not elaborate (“Time of Universal Peace,” 105). See especially the Bishops' Bible, Acts 1:18 and the Bishops' and Geneva Bibles, Matthew 27:3-8.

  23. Caesar's “tears” here (41), suggesting genuine sympathy, are problematic in light of an earlier reference to his expression of sorrow in 3.2.50-59. Enobarbus and Agrippa imply between themselves that both Caesar's and Antony's public displays of grief are mere self-conscious extensions of their political personae. Enobarbus's word rheum to describe Antony's weeping over Julius Caesar and Brutus mockingly suggests crocodile tears (for similar uses of the word, see, e.g., Much Ado about Nothing 5.2.83, King John 4.3.108, Richard II 1.4.8, Coriolanus 5.6.45, and Othello 3.4.51).

  24. Doubling is necessitated in this company's productions by its historically accurate size of twelve players. This particular example contradicts Stephen Booth's alluring theory that, originally, Antony was doubled with Dolabella (“Speculations on Doubling in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, ed. Philip C. McGuire and David A. Samuelson [New York: AMS Press, 1979]). Even if Antony and Dolabella were doubled, that fact would not entirely eliminate the possibility that the same actor also played the Clown. I do think, however, that Dolabella's appearance at the opening of 5.1, a split second after Antony's corpse has been borne off stage, raises serious suspicion about the possible doubling of Antony and Dolabella.

  25. Seneca, as quoted in William D. Nietzmann, “Seneca on Death: The Courage to Be or Not to Be,” International Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1966): 89.

  26. Moseley, “Cleopatra's Prudence,” 124-25.

  27. Although Moseley uses the words prudence and wisdom interchangeably, I wonder if, even in his own examples, they are always the same. The one seems to connote practical ability (“careful management,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992]); the other, often, “understanding” (American Heritage). Obviously, I think Shakespeare sometimes distinguishes between the two ideas.

  28. Moseley (“Cleopatra's Prudence,” 122-23) discusses the two emblems of the Colossus that I am including here from George Wither's A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (London: Printed by A. M. for Robert Allot, 1635; rprt., Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Publishing, 1989). The poem for the one in book 1 (xxxi) reads noticeably like the Pauline theology at hand:

    The Soule of Man is nobler then the Spheres;
    And, if it gaine the Place which may be had,
    Not here alone on Earth, the Rule it beares,
    But, is the Lord, of all that God hath made.
              Be wise in him; and, if just cause there bee,
              The Sunne and Moone, shall stand and wayt on thee.

    See also Barbara J. Bono on the ambiguity of the Hercules/Antony analogy (Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984], 154).

  29. Historically, Caesar renamed himself Augustus because his triumph over Cleopatra occurred in August, so important to him was that conquest (Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra, 32). Furthermore, the historical Caesar may have deliberately manipulated Cleopatra into committing suicide through making her believe that he would treat her badly if she remained alive; he could thus easily eliminate the difficult problem of what to do with her (Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra, 31-32). Although I am not suggesting that Shakespeare knew or made use of this precise theory, its mere existence speaks to the intensity with which Caesar pursued Cleopatra, on which Shakespeare capitalizes.

  30. Charnes, Notorious Identity, 145.

  31. Of all the criticism I have perused, only Gajowski's seems to me to acknowledge the irony with which “[n]early every character on stage … accentuates Cleopatra's victory and Octavius's defeat in this final battle of wills and wits” (Art of Loving, 116-17). Barroll, however, does comment on the “absurd post-mortem” and the irony of Caesar's continued trust in Dolabella (Shakespearean Tragedy, 222). Also of interest here may be the information that, according to Taylor, in medieval lore Octavius was seen as both “perfect earthly ruler” and as “partial prefiguration of Christ,” not as foolish fool (“Medieval Cleopatra,” 267).

  32. Laura Quinney, “Enter a Messenger,” in Modern Critical Interpretations:Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. Harold Bloom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 158.

  33. Barroll offers a rich discussion of Caesar's obsession with control, down to his abstinence from drink (2.7) and his icy exploitation of Octavia's feelings to trap Antony (3.6) (Shakespearean Tragedy, chap. 5).

  34. Thomson sees Cleopatra's ability to draw Antony and others to her as a “key organizing principle” of the play (“Act 4 scene 16,” 78).

  35. Although Plutarch assigns purely selfish motives to Cleopatra for encouraging Antony to fight by sea (Marcus Antonius, 250-54), I can only agree with those critics who point out that Shakespeare handles the matter differently, neither giving Cleopatra any clear motivation to indulge Antony's choice, nor showing Cleopatra to push Antony in that direction. See, e.g., Ornstein (“Ethic of the Imagination,” 94-95) and Ronald Macdonald (“Playing Till Doomsday: Interpreting Antony and Cleopatra,English Literary Renaissance 15 [1985]: 89).

  36. Apologists for Cleopatra are prone to this ironic reading of Cleopatra's tone in 3.13. See, e.g., Gajowski's certainty that Cleopatra's lines to Thidias are “rich” in “sarcasm” and that Enobarbus “readily misinterprets the exchange” (Art of Loving, 104). But such is the rule, not the exception, among all critics who write about this scene; nearly all make assumptions about Cleopatra's tone that would be extremely difficult to prove.

  37. Ornstein argues that Enobarbus uses this occasion to exact his “jealous revenge” on Cleopatra, but does not explain how Enobarbus has suddenly become so gullible as to mistake Cleopatra's irony (“Ethic of the Imagination,” 94-95). She could, of course, be insincere without adopting a clearly ironic tone, but in that case the audience would be unable to follow what was happening.

  38. Ibid., 94.

  39. Harry Levin, “Two Monumental Death Scenes in Antony and Cleopatra, 4.15, 5.2,” in Shakespeare, Text, Language, and Criticism: Essays in Honor of Marvin Spevack, ed. Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador (New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1987), 157.

  40. See, e.g., 3.6.30-37.

  41. Levin aptly refers to Dolabella's “naive vanity” (“Monumental Death Scenes,” 158).

  42. The debate over Cleopatra's motives for suicide has been approached from many angles besides the obvious contrast between Shakespeare's ambiguity and Plutarch's relative clarity. For example, Mary Ann Bushman argues that Cleopatra's inscrutability, especially in her speeches, “invite[s] the audience to complete” her unfinished characterization (“Representing Cleopatra,” in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker [Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991], 40). Jyotsna Singh sees Cleopatra as a natural improviser, changing her mind as she progresses (and thus threatening male audience members) (“Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Renaissance Drama 20 [1989]: 99-121). Wolf, among others, simply acknowledges that her motives are mixed (“Escape from Mutability,” 334). I particularly favor Charnes's emphasis on the provisionality of Cleopatra's motives: “The play posits two versions of love: … love that is ‘to die for’ and love that is to die for if nothing else can be worked out” (Notorious Identity, 144).

  43. Adelman elaborates on negative correspondences between the serpent and women (see especially Common Liar, 64). Rozett notices that, as the asp “sucks the nurse asleep” in 5.2.310, it “is metamorphosed from an instrument of death to a symbol of new life” (“Comic Structures,” 162).

  44. Moseley, “Cleopatra's Prudence,” 127.

  45. Here again, that association may be somewhat obscured by Moseley's easy interchange of the terms wisdom and prudence, which, though synonymous in the early seventeenth century (as per the Oxford English Dictionary), no longer share quite the identical meaning.

  46. Moseley, “Cleopatra's Prudence,” 129.

  47. To show the striking resemblance between the last stage picture of Cleopatra and these icons, I have reproduced but a few of the many pertinent images. Not all of them picture Mary flanked, crowned, and enthroned; a subcategory of the nursing Mary image is, in fact, the so-called “Madonna of humility,” who is humble by virtue of sitting on the ground rather than on a throne. Yet not all the elements of flanking, crown, and throne need be present for Cleopatra, asp applied to her breast, to mirror Maria lactans.

    Also important to note is the post-Reformation plainness of Willem Basse's etching in particular (1628-48). Although the prevalence of the nursing Mary image declined in the North after the early sixteenth century, it continued to thrive on the Continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Northern examples include Peter Paul Rubens's Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist (c. 1615), and a later Italian instance is Francesco de Mura's Charity (1743-44) (both in the Art Institute of Chicago). Like so many icons in Protestants' hands, the nursing Mary was sometimes refashioned by Northern artists to appear nearly secular, thus furthering the viewer's identification with, not idolatry of, the portrait's subject. In fact, Basse's portraits of the nursing Virgin tend to be indistinguishable from his portraits where the subjects are common nursing mothers. See n. 59, below, for more discussion of the image's post-Reformation history, and see chap. 1 (sec. 2) [in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997] for an outline of the similar history that images of Saint Anthony underwent.

  48. Gertrud Schiller, The Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1966-), 1:122n. 186.

    Hughes-Hallett discusses the assimilation of Egyptian and early Christian theology into Roman culture as one in which the overlapping of deities, a common phenomenon, included the identification of Isis with the Virgin Mary. So, by extension, did Cleopatra, who often appeared publicly as Isis the mother, historically come to be associated with Mary (Cleopatra, 80-84). Hughes-Hallett elaborates:

    The idea that Cleopatra, known to us, as she was to her Roman contemporaries, as the profligate libertine, could have any link with the Virgin Mary seems almost laughable. … Yet to her subjects she must have embodied just those qualities of self-denying love, fidelity and compassion which the Virgin Mary shares with Isis. Isis the Great Mother was her favourite role model.


    Laura Severt King has also written about the correspondence between the Cleopatra of act 5 and the Virgin Mary, yet in a context and with a thrust very different from mine. King sees Cleopatra, in the end, “trading the iconography of Isis for that of the Virgin Mary” (“Blessed when they were riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 [1992]: 429). The exchange, she reasons, results from a split in Cleopatra's two natures—the profane and the holy—and results in Cleopatra's tragic fall, such that the last “tableau” of her with the asp “simultaneously travesties the Madonna and child and acknowledges their ascendancy as models” (449). I also perceive this ascendancy, but not at odds with or at the cost of Cleopatra's worldliness. In addition, the reference specifically to the nursing Mary, as will become clear in my text, is of most crucial importance to my reading.

  49. Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographic der Christlichen Kunst (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1980), 4:2:22.

  50. Ibid., 4.2:180.

  51. Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 137.

  52. Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century, Harper Torchbook ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 151.

  53. Theresa Coletti, “Devotional Iconography in the N-Town Marian Plays,” Comparative Drama 11 (1977): 37. The association between Mary's milk and saving grace, as Coletti states, seems to derive from another association between Christ's open wound, out of which pours redemptive blood, and Mary's freely offered breast. The two images are often paired in medieval and Renaissance art. For a fascinating discussion of the parallels between Christ's wound and Mary's breast, see Caroline Walker Bynum (Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion [New York: Zone Books, 1991], 93-211).

  54. Further evidence of the lack of contradiction between Cleopatra's worldly and spiritual aspects lies in an emblem by Cesare Ripa, from Iconologia (1611), that I discovered in Jeanne Addison Roberts's The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender ([Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991], 11). Entitled Natura, the emblem represents Nature herself as a lactating mother, thereby illustrating that the image applies to physical, as well as spiritual, nurturance. Indeed, Cleopatra's reference to nursing the snake does not ally her with virginity but with the Virgin's maternal sustenance.

  55. The doubleness I am describing here comes very close to Adelman's perception of Cleopatra as the “potential site of both generation and regeneration”—of the mortal and the redemptive (Suffocating Mothers, 183). Furthermore, Cleopatra's transformative power over Antony (and, as I have argued, over Dolabella) is, in Adelman's psychoanalytic analysis, related to the female act of “remembering” the “dismembered” male (as when Cleopatra reinfuses the figuratively emasculated Antony with new masculinity in the dream she recounts to Dolabella) (183-85). Through this power, Adelman contends, the capacity for spiritual/psychological healing is “transferred from the divine to the human plane in Cleopatra” (185).

  56. Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 138.

  57. C. W. R. D. Moseley, A Century of Emblems (Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Publishing, 1989), 111.

  58. Ibid., 111.

  59. The importation of religious images of lactation into secular and quasi-secular contexts was common in the English Renaissance. Willett's own case may have been influenced (at least subconsciously) by the image of his Cantabrigian Alma Mater lactating knowledge, as pictured in the device of the Cambridge University Press, which came into use at the turn of the seventeenth century. (Although the earliest known example of the device dates to 1600 and thus postdates Willett's emblem book in question, another of Willett's books, published in 1605, bears the lactating Alma Mater Cantabrigia. Moreover, the image may have existed at Cambridge long before it was adopted by the press. For the image itself, see Ronald McKerrow, Printers' and Publishers' Devices in England and Scotland, 1485-1640 [London: Cheswick (Bibliographical Society), 1913], nos. 325-27, 329.) Spenser and others (some, much earlier) also appropriated the icon to the figure of Charity (Faerie Queene, bk. 1), an association that comes, I think, especially close to Shakespeare's application of it to Cleopatra.

  60. For a recent discussion of the first association, see Hackett (Virgin Maiden), and for studies of the second parallel, see, e.g., Helen Morris (“Queen Elizabeth I ‘Shadowed’ in Cleopatra,” Huntington Library Quarterly 32 [1969]: 271-78), Keith Rinehart (“Shakespeare's Cleopatra and England's Elizabeth,” Shakespeare Quarterly 23 [1972]: 81-86), and, more recently, Theodora A. Jankowski, “‘As I am Egypt's Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic” (Assays V [1989]: 91-110).

  61. In criticism to date, I can find only one acknowledgment—Gajowski's—that the icon at play here is the pietà. She writes: “The emblem of Cleopatra embracing the dying Antony conflates the grief of the pietà and the nurturance of the Madonna” (Art of Loving, 112). As Fichter has shown, Charmian's reference to Cleopatra as “eastern star” also involves her in the notion of holy nativity (“Time of Universal Peace,” 109). From a psychoanalytic perspective, Cleopatra's identity easily “elides,” in Marshall's words, “with that of the mother” (“Man of Steel,” 395). See also Adelman, Suffocating Mothers (passim).

  62. These crowns appearing later in the play stand separate from ones mentioned earlier in 2.5.40 and 2.7.116.

  63. Meiss, Painting in Florence, 152-54.

  64. In discussion, Ralph A. Cohen has used this biblical verse to describe the action of Antony and Cleopatra, but differently from me (Discussion at Workshop, “From Critic to Director: Teachers Staging Shakespeare,” Folger Shakespeare Library, 19-20 March 1993). While he sees Antony and Cleopatra jointly surrendering the things of this world to achieve spiritual union together, I see just one of them, Cleopatra, as fulfilling herself spiritually through behaving most humanly. Commentators in Renaissance Bibles, especially the Geneva version, take pains not so much to oppose the political and the heavenly kingdoms that are mentioned in this verse as to stress their interdependency. And although those commentators' context is far afield of Shakespeare's (in that they envision the magistrate as God's appointed servant on earth who must, therefore, be obeyed), the spirit in which they interpret Christ's words to the Pharisees approaches the play's acknowledgement, as I see it, of the place of humanity on earth (see, e.g., gloss of Geneva Bible to 1 Peter 2:17-20).

  65. Several critics of late have stressed the inclusiveness of the play's values by the end, the openness of the work to multiple viewpoints, and the lack of friction among Cleopatra's many aspects. See, e.g., Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 191-92; Marshall, “Man of Steel,” 408 (“Cleopatra models an exuberant, indeed almost comic, delight in plural subjectivity.”); and, in another key, Heinemann, “Order and Disorder,” 177-79. Of an entirely different mind is Peggy Muñoz Simonds, whose rich study of emblems in the play is brought to the narrow conclusion that Antony and Cleopatra are exclusively of this world and, in failing to transcend it, must be purged from it before the Christian era (and any true spirituality) can begin (“‘To the Very Heart of Loss’: Renaissance Iconography in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Studies 22 [1994]: 220-76, passim).

Maynard Mack (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Stillness and the Dance,” in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 197-230.

[In the following essay, Mack surveys the many polarities explored in Antony and Cleopatra and suggests that Shakespeare, in order to question logical expectations, deliberately refused to allow ascendancy to any one perspective.]


The last of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, in my view, is Antony and Cleopatra: the delight of audiences, the despair of critics. Its delight for audiences springs, in part at least, from its being inexhaustible to contemplation, as Coleridge implies when he speaks of its “giant strength,” the “happy valiancy” of its style, and calls it of all Shakespeare's plays “the most wonderful.”1 No doubt its delight for today's audiences owes something also to its being the most accessible of the major Shakespearean tragedies to twentieth-century sensibilities, especially those not much experienced in drama apart from that of the realistic stage. There are no witches in Antony and Cleopatra to require a mild suspension of disbelief, no ghosts, no antic madmen, no personages who are paragons of good or evil, nor even any passions (such, for example, as Coriolanus's contempt for the Roman commoners) which require of today's spectator an act of imaginative adjustment.

True, the play's story of the ruin of a great man by an enchantress (if that is its story) must have carried more plausibility in 1607 than it does today, when our enchantresses, brash and busty, seem unlikely to endanger anyone who has got past his freshman year, and our great men are in depressingly short supply. Nonetheless, the enchantment formula has the virtue of being familiar to us, however shrunken the modern instances, and it has, besides, for those who insist on realism, the sanction of history, or at least such history as Plutarch, Appian, and Lucius Florus knew how to write.

I suppose it has, too, the sanction of what a present fashion likes to call our fantasy-life. There is no woman, one may be permitted to believe, who has not somewhere in her being a touch, or twitch, of Cleopatra; no man who has not entertained, at some time, the dream of exercising a magnanimity like Antony's, setting his beloved in a hail of barbaric pearl and gold, disposing of men and measures with an imperious nod, and falling, if fall he must, with a panache that makes women weep and strong men suck in their waistlines. Even the Victorian lady who is reported to have whispered to her husband at the close of a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, “How unlike the home-life of our own dear Queen!” may be presumed to have lingered a little longer than usual over her toilette the next day.


So much for audiences. For critics, the case is different. If the play is inexhaustible to contemplation, it is at the same time remarkably inaccessible to interpretation, or at any rate to a consensus of interpretation, as the critical record shows. There seems to be a delicacy combined with intricacy in the play's interior balance that no criticism can lay hold of for long without oversimplifying or oversetting, including the criticism speculatively offered here. Magnanimous emperor, calculating politician, charismatic leader, reckless lover and risk-taker, posturer, angry husband—all these figures are contained in Antony, yet he is not reducible to any of them or even to all together. Cleopatra is actress, trickster, trull, and loving wife; she is “wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.29) yet timeless, “Eastern star” (5.2.307) and “morsel, cold upon Dead Caesar's trencher,” (3.13.116) “Royal Egypt” (4.15.74) but “commanded By such poor passion as the maid that milks And does the meanest chares” (4.15.76). Yet relevant as these categories are in her case too, she manages to escape them, as the widely disparate estimates of her conduct made by spectators as well as readers show. Even at the play's end, there remains a sense in which, as the 116th sonnet says of another “star,” her “worth's unknown, although [her] height be taken.”

The play, moreover, like the lovers, makes no confidences. Soliloquies and asides, though engaged in by Enobarbus, are evidently foreign to Shakespeare's conception of heroic character in this play, or at least to his conception of the optimum relation between these protagonists and us. We are never brought close to them by a secret shared, a motive, conscious or unconscious, suddenly divulged. We watch them always from a distance, uncertain how far to accept their actions—and which actions—at face value, how far to believe the commentary of the observers in which Shakespeare again and again frames them, and even how to reconcile one action with the next. Antony is never allowed for an instant to reflect for our benefit on his betrayal of Cleopatra in marrying Octavia or on his betrayal of Octavia and Caesar in returning to Cleopatra or, as we might perhaps especially expect, on the meaning of his past experiences as he dies. We learn only that he lived “the greatest prince o' th' world, The noblest” (4.15.54) (a summary which considerably begs the question), and dies now, not basely or cowardly in surrender to Caesar, but by his own hand, “a Roman, by a Roman Valiantly vanquished” (4.15.54).

As for Cleopatra, Enobarbus tells us what he makes of her cajoleries with Thidias, and he is in some sense our guide:

                                                            Sir, sir, thou art so leaky
That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for
Thy dearest quit thee.


Yet this episode is followed by one of the most endearing reconciliation scenes ever written, one in which I see no shred of evidence to show that Cleopatra is lying and Antony her dupe:

Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed, and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!
 I must stay his time.
To flatter Caesar, would you mingle eyes
With one that ties his points?
Not know me yet?
Cold-hearted toward me?
 Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let 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 Caesarion 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!
I am satisfied.


Antony is satisfied, but critics understandably have not been. For if this expresses her real feelings, what was she up to with Thidias, and what did the playwright wish us to make of Enobarbus's remark about the leaky ship, from which, presumably, the rats are fleeing? On the other hand, if these lines must be dismissed as rhetoric, so must almost every other expression of emotion in the play, for they are all of a hyperbolic piece, including Cleopatra's grief at Antony's death and her dream of him recounted to Dolabella.

Similar questions, we realize, haunt our impressions of her interview with Caesar, when her treasurer either gives her game away or affects to, and also of the two failures of her ships at Actium. Why, at that first battle, does she fly? Is it simple fear (“Forgive my fearful sails” [3.11.55])? Or does her woman's intuition suspect that the ultimate contest against Caesar is already lost? Or that a victory for Antony would be a defeat for her, since in that event he might be struck again by that “Roman thought” (1.2.79) which earlier deprived her of him? Or is it perhaps her hope, by taking herself out of the battle, to strengthen her negotiating position, no matter to whom the victory falls?

The second occasion is yet more puzzling. This time the fleet not only yields to the foe, but “yonder They cast their caps up and carouse together Like friends long lost,” and Antony's inference from this that he has been “betrayed” by Cleopatra, “Beguiled … to the very heart of loss” (4.12.10), seems unexceptionable. How else to account for a surrender without (apparently) a single blow struck? Yet Cleopatra's emissary, Diomedes, later tells Antony and us that no such treason occurred, at least none in which she had a hand:

                                                                                for when she saw
(Which never shall be found) you did suspect
She had disposed with Caesar, and that your rage
Would not be purged, she sent you word she was dead.


I labor the obvious in these instances because I believe that Shakespeare means us to take note of what he is about. I cannot persuade myself, as some recent critics have done, that his failure to supply “the directives to the audience that are obviously needed” springs from inattention or fatigue, the play being so clearly in all other respects the product of a poetic consciousness supremely alert, and even, I would wish to add, rather plainly disposed to jolt us from our usual automatisms and stock responses. For what else can be the intent of that unusual structure, already mentioned, whereby every major action of the lovers is enveloped in a choral commentary that we are simultaneously aware does not quite adequately represent it? What else can be the intent of establishing so many wide polarities—Rome and Egypt, nature and art, war and love, indulgence and austerity, loyalty and self-interest, sincerity and affectation, and many others—and of so steadfastly refusing to resolve them or adjudicate between them?

Even a great deal of the play's language seems calculated to question or explode our habitual safe norms and logical expectations. It bristles with startling oxymorons, contradictions, and abrupt reversals that every playgoer will recall: the bellows that cools, not kindles (1.1.9); the fans that heat the cheek they cool “and what they did undid” (2.2.203); the woman “wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.29) whom age, however, cannot wither, who makes “defect perfection,” and, when breathless, “pow'r breathe[s] forth” (2.2.232); the man who can say “with a wound I must be cured” (4.14.78) and whose bounty “grew the more by reaping” (5.2.86); the prayer that prays and yet unprays itself—“Husband win, win brother, Prays, and destroys the prayer” (3.4.18); our “most persisted deeds” that yet “compel” us to lament them (5.1.29); the “lover's pinch, Which hurts, and is desired” (5.2.294); the asp that is both death and lover, or death and infant, or possibly all three (5.2.302ff).

Again, I stress the obvious. What these effects convey is the same intricate balance of opposing impulses and conflicting attitudes that characterize the play throughout. Somewhere dimly behind them we may sense not only the playwright's effort to achieve a style that will accommodate the story he has to tell in its extremes of grandeur and folly, dignity and humiliation, but, just possibly, the mood of serious play (I suspect this is among the meanings Coleridge meant to assign to his “happy valiancy”) that seems to shine out in all Renaissance works that draw heavily on the vein of paradox.

Not impossibly, Shakespeare was himself conscious of his propinquity in this instance to that honorable tradition. With a heroine who was historically guaranteed both whore and queen, yet who, in popular story, had additionally been looked on as an exemplar of fidelity, one of love's own martyrs; with a hero, too, who was credited with being one of the greatest soldiers in the world and at the same time one of the greatest lovers and carousers; and with a source, or a set of sources, certain to attract a poet's mind toward the ancient question whether the world can ever be well lost, and if so, for what return, he must have been considerably less clairvoyant about the implications of his materials than he usually shows himself to be if he did not see that in Antony and Cleopatra he was engaged in the central act of the paradoxist, which is to defend the indefensible, or at least to defend something which is widely held to be indefensible, like Erasmus's “Folly” or Donne's “Inconstancy in Women.”

Plato's Gorgias, we are told, set himself the paradoxical task of praising Helen, who had brought ruin by her adulterous beauty to all Greece, and succeeded so well at it that his successors supposed he had been serious and took her thereafter for a proper object of praise. It was not the last time that this would happen. Milton's effort to lift Satan, who had brought ruin to all mankind, out of the category of common bugaboo and fiend (a spectacular exercise in defending the indefensible), was to enjoy, after an interval, a similar success in certain quarters, as was Swift's praise of stoic apathy in the fourth book of Gulliver. We know far less of course of Shakespeare's intentions because we know far less of him. But whatever they were, it is safe to say that he has left us a pair of reckless and irresponsible lovers so well praised that audience and critic alike still find it impossible to sort out their sympathies. In other words, the paradox of his theme, whether he himself saw it or not, continues to “do his kind,” as the clown says of the worm (5.2.262): it continues to be faithful to the nature of paradox, which is “to be paradoxical, to do two things at once, two things which contradict … one another.”2


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

For this reason, his Antony is brought before us at the zenith of his eminence, when his soldiership (“twice the other twain” in the view of Pompey, comparing him with Lepidus and Caesar—2.1.34) is critically in demand. He already holds the whole of the gorgeous East in fee and now is about to be freed from threats, on one side by his reconciliation with Caesar and marriage to Caesar's sister; on the other, by the victories of his lieutenant Ventidius in Parthia. He is also, we quickly learn, about to throw all this away for the fascinating creature shown us in four of the first five scenes and in Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra on the Cydnus. For conquest has several forms, it seems. There is more than one kind of stronghold to attract a soldier:

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


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

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay.


In short, from the moment we are introduced to Antony, we are made aware of the undertow that will sweep him away, and this is kept so vividly before us in every scene thereafter—by Cleopatra, Enobarbus, Caesar, Pompey, the soothsayer, and Antony himself—that it is only a small exaggeration to say that Shakespeare's story of Antony's fall and of its consequences moves from the first scene of Act 1 to the last scene of Act 5 uninterruptedly, despite the presence of certain early scenes in which, ostensibly, his political fortunes are on the rise.

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

The play is further attuned to the formula in insisting simultaneously on what is not self-caused, on fortune, accident, destiny, doom—all that in the original medieval context might have been called the will of God and here is hinted at least to be the will of one god: “'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, Now leaves him” (4.3.15). Shakespeare may have been moved to this equivocal management by a bemusing sentence in his source. For Plutarch says of Cleopatra's plea to be allowed to join the wars against Caesar (in Plutarch's narrative, delivered to Antony through a bribed Canidius): “These fair persuasions won him; for it was predestined that the government of all the world should fall into Octavius Caesar's hands.” Hence it was Antony's decision, except that it was also destiny's.

Just so, in the play, though our attention is repeatedly called to Antony's misjudgments, a sense of impersonal fate runs deep. Caesar, as Bradley says, is “the Man of Destiny, the agent of forces against which the intentions of an individual could avail nothing,” one from whom “the feeling of fate comes through to us.”3 The language repeatedly proclaims this. Whereas “noble” is the play's characterizing term for Antony (despite his sometimes ignoble deeds like the whipping of Thidias), Caesar's characterizing term is “fortunate.” This word, with its cognates and synonyms, appears some forty times in Antony and Cleopatra, more than twice as often as in any other of the major tragedies, and repeatedly in connection with Caesar, whose invisible “genius” it appears to be. Antony's own genius, the soothsayer assures him immediately after his marriage to Octavia, “is Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable,” but placed near Caesar's it is overpowered; “and of that natural luck, He beats thee 'against the odds” (2.3.19). From that point on, Caesar regularly beats Antony against the odds, and is spoken of increasingly as “fortunate Caesar” (4.14.76), “full-fortuned Caesar” (4.15.24), the man whom Antony has to address after Actium as “Lord of his fortunes” (3.12.11), and the man whose “luck,” we are told by Cleopatra, he learns eventually to mock: “I see him rouse himself,” she says of Antony as she is dying, “To praise my noble act. I hear him mock The luck of Caesar” (5.2.283).

Something similar seems to hold true for Cleopatra. Though Antony chooses her and we are shown the familiar feminine skills with which she draws him, the play keeps alive a complementary assurance that a power works through her which is also, in some sense, a fate. She is for everyone an “enchantress,” a “fairy” (4.8.12), a “witch” (4.12.37), a “charm” (4.12.25), a “spell” (4.12.30), and she moves, even for the Romans, in an ambience of suggestion that seems to give these terms a reach beyond their conventional horizons of gallantry and erotic praise. The sun makes love to her; the air, “except for vacancy” (2.2.217), would have gone to see her triumphant landing from the Cydnus; her sighs and tears are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report; she is cunning past man's thought; her variety is infinite; and the fetters in which she binds, like those of Merlin's Vivien, are “strong,” as is also—to recall a phrase of Caesar's when he sees her in death—her “toil of grace”:

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


That phrase captures her mystery superbly because its range of meaning is indeterminable. Is the emphasis in “toil” on the cruel snare of the hunter or on the delighting web of the accomplished woman's charms? Do the boundaries of “grace” include simply the feline movements of the experienced beast of prey, or do they extend to the worldly accomplishments cited by Claudius in giving young Laertes permission to return to Paris: “Time be thine, And thy best graces spend it at thy will” (1.2.62) or do they glance also toward the enigmatic territories touched on by Prospero when, in praising Ariel for his simulation of the harpy, he sums up in five words the meaning of the disasters in The Tempest and (some critics would have it) of those in Antony and Cleopatra as well?

Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou
Performed, my Ariel; a grace it had, devouring.


My point, of course, is not that there is a right answer to these questions, but rather that the play teases us into asking them. Shakespeare's medieval inheritance remains strong enough to enable him to show us a catastrophe that Antony has quite literally made love to as if it were simultaneously a “doom” (3.13.78).


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

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

To this we must add the equally striking circumstance that Antony and Cleopatra in performance contains just under two hundred distinct entrances and exits (rather more than one per minute of playing time) and that a great many of these acquire a special impact on our senses, either from being ceremonial and accompanied by much fanfare or from their effect in bringing about emotionally significant leave-takings and reunions. People flow to and away from each other in Antony and Cleopatra with relentless frequency and ease—Antony from Cleopatra and to her, to Caesar and from him; Octavia from Caesar and to him, to Antony and from him; Enobarbus from Antony, then (in heart) to him; and Cleopatra—who can say? This pattern is climaxed by the great reunions and leave-takings of the close. Antony, after being reunited with Cleopatra in her monument, takes his last farewell of her (“I am dying, Egypt, dying” [4.15.18]); Cleopatra takes hers of Caesar and the world (“Give me my robe, put on my crown” [5.2.279]); and both farewells are preludes, so the lovers insist, to a further reunion in the Elysian fields, or on the Cydnus, where the great passion will begin anew. Nothing seems to be granted finality in Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps not even death.

Mobility and mutability are not confined to spatial and geographical forms, but penetrate the play at every point. They are reiterated in the allusions to the ebbing and flowing of the tides; the rising and setting (or eclipse and extinction) of stars, moons, and suns; the immense reversals of feeling in the lovers and in Enobarbus; the career of Pompey, whose powers, “crescent” in 2.1, are by 3.5 scattered and the man himself dead; and the steady erosion of persons whom for a moment we have known or heard of as presences: Fulvia, Lepidus, Pompey, Pacorus, Enobarbus, Alexas, and Eros all are dead before Antony dies; Menas and Menecrates, Philo and Demetrius, Ventidius and Scarus have disappeared without a trace, along with Mardian; Canidius and Decretas (besides Alexas and Enobarbus) have turned their coats, and Cleopatra may or may not have been several times on the verge of turning hers.

In addition, the style itself generates impressions of this kind. Johnson's account of the play rightly emphasizes the “hurry,” the “quick succession” of events that calls the attention forward; and part of the effect he has in mind comes clearly from the style, which pours rather than broods (as in Macbeth), which is sensuous rather than intellectual (as in Hamlet), and which, as Pope said of Homer's, animates everything it touches: from Philo's view of Antony in 1.1, where eyes glow, bend, turn, and the heart remembers buckles it has burst in the scuffles of great fights, to Cleopatra's view of him in 5.2, where he bestrides, rears, crests; quails and shakes the orb with rattling thunder; gives in a perpetual autumn; sports like a dolphin above the ocean of his pleasure; and scatters crowns and coronets from his pockets as if they were small change.

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

Let Rome in Tiber melt.


Let me be married to three kings in a forenoon and widow them all. … Find me to marry me with Octavius Caesar, and companion me with my mistress.


                                                            Upon your sword
Sit laurel victory, and smooth success
Be strewed before your feet!


Let his shames quickly
Drive him to Rome.


                                                            But all the charms of love,
Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned lip!
Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both!


                                                                                                    Let her live
To join our kingdoms and our hearts; and never
Fly off our loves again.


Would I had never come from thence, nor you thither.


Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents!


In thy fats our cares be drowned,
With thy grapes our hairs be crowned.


                                        Sink Rome, and their tongues rot
That speak against us!


                                                                                O that I were
Upon the hill of Basan, to outroar
The hornèd herd!


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

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


I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!


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


To all these impressions of a world in motion, much is added in performance by the playwright's insistent stress on messages and messengers—though here, doubtless, other effects and purposes must also receive their due. To ignore a man's messenger who has a legitimate claim on you, as Antony does in 1.1, or to have such a messenger whipped, as he does in 3.13, or, like Cleopatra in 2.5, to assault a messenger for the bad news he carries: these are Shakespeare's equivalents in this play of Hamlet's melancholy, Lear's quick wrath—marks of the tragic personage's incapacity or unwillingness to adjust to the world he lives in. Messengers also, of course, enhance our sense of power and of the rearrangements that take place in power as the play wears on. Cleopatra's inexhaustible supply of emissaries and her determination to “unpeople Egypt” (1.5.78) rather than let Antony in Rome go a day without a letter bear testimony to her political stature at the outset of the play as well as to her passion. Later on, the fact that Antony, who has had “superfluous kings for messengers” (3.12.5), is reduced to using his children's school-master to carry a message to Caesar serves as an index to the audience as well as to Caesar that his wing has indeed been “plucked” (3.12.3). Such effects are of course highly visual in performance, and capable in some contexts of communicating exquisite ironies. In the last scene, for instance, Caesar's messengers come and go again and again in a fine show of strategy and efficiency, but then comes the messenger no one anticipated, a bumpkin and malapropist bearing figs, who is escorted in by Caesar's own guard; and he proves to be the messenger that counts.

Beyond this, the play's emphasis on messengers reminds us that, in so volatile and mutable a world, opinion and report are matters of huge concern. All these people have an immense curiosity about each other, especially the Romans about Cleopatra, which they can only satisfy with fresh news. “From Alexandria,” says Caesar to Lepidus the first time we see him, “This is the news” (1.4.3), and he goes on to detail Antony's ill courses there. After the triumvirs have made peace in Rome, Enobarbus is no sooner left alone with Maecenas and Agrippa than they throw out bait about life in Egypt that they hope he will rise to: “Eight wild boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there. Is this true?” says Maecenas (2.2.180). Pompey plays a like game with Antony, hinting at the time when Cleopatra kept an assignation with Julius Caesar by having herself rolled up inside a mattress and carried to him (2.6.68); while Lepidus, in the brawl on Pompey's galley, speculates drunkenly—but inquiringly—about pyramises and crocodiles (2.7.24).

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

                                                                                where you shall see
How hardly I was drawn into this war,
How calm and gentle I proceeded still
In all my writings. Go with me, and see
What I can show in this.


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

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


—though it must be admitted he reckoned without Plutarch, who gives his going over to Caesar and his repentance short shrift, and says nothing whatever about his hesitations. Again, in his death scene, all alone, he appeals to the “blessèd moon” (4.9.7) to bear him witness, “When men revolted shall upon record Bear hateful memory,” that he repents his betrayal of his master, and then, as if resigning himself to an eternity of bad notices in the theatrum mundi, concludes:

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


The lovers' own consciousness of being ever on parade before the reviewing stand of world opinion is particularly acute. Antony's anguished “I have offended reputation” (3.11.49) after Actium means more than simply that he has stained his individual honor, or even his immediate public image; he has also deviated from the world's conception of what a Roman soldier is and does, guarded and passed on from generation to generation in world opinion. When he takes Cleopatra in his arms at the play's beginning, he is conscious of the world as audience; in fact, he invokes it:

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


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

Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.


And when Eros takes his own life rather than kill him, the thought that captivates his imagination is that Eros and Cleopatra will have won a nobler place in history than his: “My queen and Eros Have by their brave instruction got upon me A nobleness in record” (4.14.97).

This, too, as everyone will remember, is the concern that occupies Cleopatra as she steels herself after Antony's death to do “what's brave, what's noble … after the high Roman fashion,” and so win fame, not obloquy, in the chronicles of times to come (4.15.89). Her wish that her women “show” her “like a queen” in her “best attires” (5.2.227)—though no doubt partly vanity and partly calculated staginess for Caesar's last view of her—is partly too, one feels, her sense of what is suitable, in the record that will be forthcoming, “for a princess Descended of so many royal kings” (5.2.325). Caesar's parting words about her have the quality of an epitaph, and seal the immortality in “report” that now awaits all three:

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



The imaginative extension that Shakespeare gives to the story of Antony's fall by surrounding it with a world in which, as Mutability says in The Faerie Queene, “Nothing doth firme and permanent appeare, But all things tost and turnèd by transverse,” has its counterpart in the extension he gives the love affair. Everyone who reads or sees the play is struck at once by the hyperbolic character of the value the lovers set on each other, or at any rate the hyperbolic character of their own conception of that value: “There's beggary,” as Antony puts it, “in the love that can be reckoned” (1.1.15).

The play as a whole, supporting but also qualifying this attitude, sets moving around it an enormous traffic of evocation, primarily of two sorts. One sort moves the love affair in the general direction of allegory and myth. In some sense, the play hints, there looms behind Antony's choice of “Pleasure” the great model of Hercules at the Crossroads—a popular motif of Renaissance painting and engraving about which much has been written by iconographers—choosing between Virtue and Pleasure, who are represented in two females as opposite in their qualities as Octavia and Cleopatra, or Rome and Egypt. It has been pointed out, too, that behind the play's references to a great warrior feminized—Cleopatra putting her robes on Antony, for instance, and wearing his sword Philippan, or Canidius's remark after the decision to fight at Actium by sea: “so our leader's led, And we are women's men” (3.7.69)—may be discerned another favorite Renaissance exemplum: Hercules's servitude in woman's dress to Omphale. This Plutarch explicitly compares to Antony's in his Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius:

But to conclude, [Demetrius] neuer had ouerthrow or misfortune through negligence, nor by delaying time to follow his owne pleasure; as we see in painted tables, where Omphale secretly stealeth away Hercules clubbe, and took his Lyon skinne from him: euen so Cleopatra oftentimes vnarmed Antonius, and enticed him to her, making him lose matter of great importance, and very needful iournies, to come and be dandled with her.4

To these the play adds two further analogies, Aeneas and Dido, and Mars and Venus, whose implications are far less clear. Though at first Antony might be said to imitate Aeneas in abandoning his Dido for a Roman destiny and a Latin marriage, his later career substantively revises the Virgilian story in that he abandons Rome and empire for his African queen and, in the only overt allusion the play makes to Virgil's lovers, anticipates that he and Cleopatra in the afterworld will be admired more than they for their eminence in love: “Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours” (4.14.53). Does Shakespeare nod here, forgetting Virgil's own depiction in Book 6 of the estrangement of Dido from Aeneas on his visit to the underworld? Or is this simply Antony's exuberant imagination undertaking to bring reality closer to the heart's desire, as he does so often elsewhere? Or does Shakespeare, for whatever reasons, choose to see Aeneas in the Chaucerian and generally medieval perspectives that had already made of Dido, as of Cleopatra, an exemplar of faithful love?

Similar questions must be asked about the playwright's association of his lovers with Mars and Venus. Are we chiefly to remember Homer, in whose Odyssey the two Olympians, trapped in an adulterous affair and exposed in the absurdity of love's postures in a net they cannot break, move our superior laughter—as do, in one of their dimensions, Antony and Cleopatra? Are we to remember, too, the Renaissance taste for paintings and engravings that show a Mars vanquished by Venus, victim or trophy of love's power, her amorini sporting with his armor, and he himself languid or asleep, or in some instances, chained and fettered to her throne—the image Othello so roundly repudiates when he assures the Venetian senators that Desdemona's company will not feminize him? And is it pertinent to recall further that at least in Renaissance paintings the intention of these images often turns out to be more complex than at first glance we might suppose? For the two deities, in some instances, are to be understood as emblems of contrary qualities, male force and female grace, now in a work of art ideally reconciled; and even, in other instances, as the contrary powers of Strife and Love, which tie the universe together and from whose union, according to Plutarch, the goddess Harmony was born.5

Antony, like Mars in the paintings, grows conscious of love's “fetters”;6 loses or is threatened with loss of manhood, as the fanning eunuchs in 1.1 warn us; and at long last acknowledges himself (as he was also obliged to do the day she came down the Cydnus) Cleopatra's captive in a “Triumph of Love.” But the crucial question that remains—in the play as in the painted figures of Mars and Venus—is what the triumph means. I believe that Shakespeare throws some light on the perplexities of this question in the scene that reunites the lovers after the middle day of Actium, when for the time being Antony and his men have had the victory (4.8). As he enters, still clad in full armor, he thanks his soldiers with characteristic élan and generosity. Then he sees Cleopatra, stops (as I read the scene) in his tracks bedazzled (leaving us in the audience to imagine his emotions as he finds himself once more in his old role of redoubtable captain returning to a radiant queen), and then, with an intensity of adoration that ignores all onlookers, bursts forth in one of the most winning speeches of the play:

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


The image of Cleopatra riding the great beats of Antony's heart (a heart that, as we know from earlier comment, “in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast” [1.1.7]) as if it were a high-mettled steed on which she is carried in a Triumph that he—her prisoner, “chained”—adorns, is breathtaking and becomes more so when we reflect on what we see. For though in the language she is conqueror and he her captive, in the scene he is conqueror too and has indeed freely bestowed this conquest on her, as his victorious presence, in full armor, attests. The episode forces upon our consciousness a recognition of the very different kind of “triumph” that they have within their power as lovers from the kind for which Caesar seeks them, and the two competing value systems, theirs and Caesar's, hang for a brief instant in the eye as well as in the ear, as she runs to be embraced. Then, leaning back and devouring him with her gaze, she kindles sublimely to the occasion, catching his image in an answering image of her own:

                                                                                Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?


Does she, by her “world's great snare,” mean the wars? Does she, on the contrary, mean Caesar, who is soon to become “universal landlord” (3.13.72) and “Sole sir o' th' world” (5.2.120)? Or does she simply mean, as a recent editor phrases it, “all the snares the world can set,” understanding by “world” everything, inner as well as outer, that the play accumulates to threaten love? No matter. As with Roman triumphs versus Antony's “triumphing,” we are obviously to let this “snare” reverberate against another order of captivity altogether, an order implicit at this moment in Antony's “chain my armed neck” (4.8.14), explicit earlier in his “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break” (1.2.112), and evoked again, tellingly, at the play's end, when, as we saw, Caesar speaks of “her strong toil of grace” (5.2.346). There, once again, the two attitudes will hang against each other in the mind and invite us to consider that there are more kinds of captivity and of triumph than any Caesar dreams of.


The other sorts of evocation that Shakespeare sets in motion in Antony and Cleopatra derive from the themes and conventions of Renaissance love poetry, notably the sonnet. Individualizing and psychological, these strongly counter the play's tendencies toward moral exemplum and allegory, establishing it still more intransigently in the domain of paradox, where contradiction thrives. Though the ultimate effect of this body of evocation is to bring before the mind of the spectator a unified and highly plausible experience of passion, we may nevertheless separate out for our present purpose two divergent strains, answering to the amo and odi of the Latin love poets, the amare and amaro of the Italian.

The odi-amare strain in Antony and Cleopatra is best grasped by comparison and contrast with Shakespeare's treatment of it in his sonnets to and about the Dark Lady. In both cases, we have an affair between experienced lovers, “orbited nice” (to borrow a phrase of John Crowe Ransom's), in an intense relationship that contains comedy and tragedy, and, to the man at least, brings disgust and pain as often as love and pleasure. In both we find a mistress very like a parody of the delicate blonde belle dame sans merci of the sonneteering convention, who is always indescribably remote and chaste; a woman who in the sonnets is notably blackhaired as well as hearted, and in the play, whatever we may decide about her heart, has a tawny skin (“with Phoebus' amorous pinches black,” 1.5.28), and a voluptuous disposition. Both mistresses have a remarkable—in the sonnets it is also sinister—power to make ill things look attractive, “For vilest things,” says Enobarbus, at the end of his famous account of Cleopatra, so

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.


The poet of the sonnets confronts the same puzzle:

Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill
That in my mind thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?

(Sonnet 150)

These are lines that a lesser Antony, trimmed and barbered to the sonnet's narrow room, might have uttered after watching Cleopatra put out her hand for Thidias to kiss.

Such “treason” is precisely a further resemblance between the sonnet's story and the play's. Both mistresses, in one sense or other, are capable of playing their lovers false; have, or have had, other men; and though Cleopatra is not, so far as we are ever reliably told, unfaithful to Antony within the time of the play, she uses locutions in referring to her former affair with Pompey's father that may suggest a conscious or unconscious link tying her to the treacherous dark lady in the poet's mind. For as she waits for Antony to return from Rome—feeding herself “With most delicious poison,” (1.5.27) as she puts it—she muses how when Julius Caesar was alive, she was already “A morsel for a monarch,” and how “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.


The individual words in these lines are alive with erotic possibilities; just how alive one can best see by placing them beside the appropriate verses of Sonnet 137, where likewise a woman is the sea, and men are the ships that anchor there:

If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes' falsehood hast thou forgèd hooks
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world's common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?

Allowing again for the difference between dramatic speech and lyric, this could be Antony speaking after Thidias has been taken to be whipped, for it is certainly his theme:

You have been a boggle ever:
But when we in our viciousness grow hard
(O misery on't!) the wise gods seel our eyes,
In our own filth drop our clear judgments; make us
Adore our errors, laugh at's while we strut
To our confusion.


To conclude, both affairs “puddle”—this is Desdemona's word for the effect of Othello's jealousy—the clear spirit of the lover. Both describe what, at one level of the experience, or at least when viewed in one way (in Antony and Cleopatra, usually the Roman way), is unqualified lust: “Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame” (Sonnet 129). And both eventuate in a perpetual unrest which rises to peaks of anguish and self-loathing akin to madness. Antony feels that he has been poisoned with the shirt of Nessus, and in his last towering rage Cleopatra takes him to have run mad:

                                                                                                                                                                more mad
Than Telamon for his shield; the boar of Thessaly
Was never so embossed.


The speaker of the sonnets sees his condition in like terms. It is an incurable disease which brings on madness and must end in death because his reason, like Antony's reasoning Enobarbus in the play, has given him up for lost. When seen against Antony's continuous fluctuations from disgust to reconciliation, and against the movements of Enobarbus, who acts as reason's spokesman in the play, the whole of Sonnet 147 becomes luminous:

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except,
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Such likenesses are seductive; but they are also extremely unspecific, and it would be folly to argue from them that the love affair in the play in any precise way reflects that in the sonnet sequence. The tone of the sonnet love affair is, in any case, far more acrid, cynical, corrosive. The play's lovers are repeatedly caught up into regions of feeling, and touch on images and idioms of romantic amplification and adulation that the lover who speaks in the Dark Lady sonnets avoids, or uses only to belittle; and the literary territory on which Shakespeare levies for this affirmative side of his odi et amo polarity is visibly a system of Petrarchan attitudes and conventions whose general emphasis on immutability and steadfastness creates a significant antithesis to our sense of a world in flux.

To be remarked in this connection, first of all, is the exuberant vein of compliment that Antony so often has recourse to, tributes of the perfect lover to his dazzling lady. Cleopatra's eye, he tells us, “becked forth” his wars “and called them home” (4.12.26). Her bosom was his “crownet,” his “chief end.” “Eternity” was in her lips and eyes, “Bliss” in her brows' bent (1.3.35). Her hand, even in one of his great rages, remains for him “this kingly seal, And plighter of high hearts” (3.13.125). Her beauty and vitality, like those of every sonneteer's mistress, make her equal to the sun (“O thou day o' th' world” [4.8.13]) and to the moon (“our terrene moon Is now eclips'd” [3.13.153]). Her tears outvalue empires (“Fall not a tear, I say: one of them rates All that is won and lost” [3.11.69]), and when she dies, brightness falls from the air (“since the torch is out, Lie down, and stray no farther” [4.14.46]).

All these praises Cleopatra reciprocates with an abandon that is new to the tradition only because the speaker is a woman: Antony is her “man of men” (1.5.72), her “Lord of lords” (4.8.16), “infinite virtue” (4.8.17), “the crown o' th' earth” (4.15.63), “jewel” (1.81), and “nature's piece 'gainst fancy” (5.2.99), that is to say, nature's masterpiece surpassing anything the imagination can create. For her, too, attraction continues even when she is most repelled: “Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, The other way's a Mars” (2.5.116); and for her, too, light goes out of the world with his death: “Ah, women, women, look! Our lamp is spent, it's out!” (4.15.87):

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


—for there is nothing remarkable left to see on earth, even by “the visiting moon” (4.15.68).

There is no exuberance quite like this in the sonnets, nor is there room for such radical amplifications as the stage allows. One thinks particularly of the commonplace comparison of love's sighs and tears to winds and floods,7 comically transformed by Enobarbus's comment on Cleopatra's emotional resources—

We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears: they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.


Or one thinks of the handsome version of the absent-yet present formula contained in Antony's final words to her as he leaves for Rome—

Our separation so abides and flies
That thou residing here goes yet with me,
And I hence fleeting here remain with thee.


Particularly striking is the old image of the beloved's name entombed in the lover's breast, adapted by Mardian to give verisimilitude to his baroque tale of Cleopatra's death (and by Shakespeare, I suspect, to give a possibly sexual and certainly risible edge to the whole proceeding):

                                                            The last she spake
Was “Antony! most noble Antony!”
Then in the midst a tearing groan did break
The name of Antony; it was divided
Between her heart and lips: she rend'red life,
Thy name so buried in her.


Other formulas from the sonneteer's thesaurus have been so thoroughly renovated in the playwright's imagination that their identity is difficult to be sure of. The idea, for example, that love's bondage is the highest freedom (“To enter in these bonds, is to be free,” says Donne),8 which presumably survives among the meanings intended by Shakespeare, though not by Caesar, in the reference to Cleopatra's “strong toil of grace,” and which is almost certainly implicit in the great reunion of the lovers already noticed: “Chain mine armed neck,” “Com'st thou smiling from The world's great snare uncaught?” Or the idea of the lover's dream of his beloved, which brings her so vividly before his senses that he wakes longing for its return, and even questioning the reality of what he wakes to as compared with his dream-vision. This experience is given in the play to the beloved after her lover's death (“O, such another sleep, that I might see But such another man” [5.2.77]), and the weighing of the two realities of dream and wake, the latter intensified by Dolabella's skepticism, is handled with a teasing virtuosity.

Think you there was or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?
 Gentle madam, no.
You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming: nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t' imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.



Easily the two most important derivatives in Antony and Cleopatra from the formulas of love poetry are the conception of love-as-space, and the closely related conception of love-as-war. These, I believe, are the presiding structural ideas of the play, and the presence of the latter is felt at every point. All the conventions of the sonneteers and courtly love poets on this theme—Sidney's “dear captainness,” Petrarch's “O dolce mia guerriera,” the common notion of the beloved as “dearest enemy” (1 Henry IV, 3.2.123), the metaphors of love's encounters, duels, sieges, arrows, armor, the puns on killing, dying, and being slain, still vigorous as late as Pope's time—all these unverbalize themselves in Antony and Cleopatra to become explicitly or implicitly exemplified in the dramatic action. The lady's arming her knight for combat appears in the play in the form of an actual aubade scene (4.4), where Venus-Cleopatra fumbles tenderly with Mars-Antony's armor. The “warrior-lady” appears in the form of a warrior-lady who goes to the wars in fact: “And as the president of my kingdom will Appear there for a man” (3.7.17). The “death-wound” given the sonnet-lover by his mistress's eyes, as in Sidney's twentieth (“Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound; fly!”) substantiates in the play into a real death wound, for which the mistress is responsible even if she does not give it, and into a situation whose likeness to the one imagined in Sidney is signaled by Decretas's cry:

“Thy death and fortunes bid thy followers fly.”

Similarly, the lyric lover's ingenious play on “love” and “honor”—

I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honor more

—finds at Shakespeare's hands a massive development in terms of Antony's predicament throughout the play; and likewise the lyric lover's semantic game with supposedly alternative kinds of warfare—

Till I have peace with thee, warr other Men,
And when I have peace, can I leave thee then?
Here lett me warr; in these arms lett me lye;
Here lett me parlee, batter, bleede and dye

—enlarges into whole scenes of anguish when, in the play, the two wars prove to be inseparable and love's war the more ruinous of the two.

For in Antony, passion is not the isolable experience that it is in Donne and Lovelace.9 It is a part of all he is, and therefore part and parcel of his soldiership, in which it finds expression and which finds expression in it. Warring cannot be isolated from loving:

I made these wars for Egypt, and the Queen,
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine.
Nor can loving be isolated from warring, from the political and
military ascendancy that a million loyal supporters guarantee:
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine,
Which, whilst it was mine, had annexed unto 't
A million moe, now lost.

Decay of love is tied irrevocably to decay of imperial glory:

                                                                                                              she, Eros, has
Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory
Unto an enemy's triumph;

(4.114.15 ff)

and conversely, his Roman enemy's “triumph” (used here with a pun on “trump”), if it has been assisted by Cleopatra, precludes forever the kind of triumph in which his “dearest enemy” once rode “on the pants triumphing.” (4.8.16)

The other presiding idea, love-as-space (space that is to be discovered, explored, claimed, possessed), is of course intimately allied to love-as-war, but serves, I think, a subtler function, opening immediately into the play's geographical magnitudes. For the lover, throughout the tradition we are considering, love constitutes an “empire”; and the beloved (from love's infinitely expansionist and sometimes erotically exploratory point of view) is considered spatially in various ways: as countryside, garden, orchard, park, tillage (“I'll be thy park, and thou shalt be my deer”;10 “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; He ploughed her, and she cropped” [2.2.228]); or as a rich new land for voyages of discovery and commerce—spice island, continent, or hemisphere:

O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdome safeliest when with one man man'd,
My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!(11)

or best of all as a world:

For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.(12)

What Shakespeare does in the play is to give this literary formula—together with the psychological and emotional “truth” it incorporates, the heart's systolic and diastolic fervor now amplifying the person of the beloved to include in her person all being and all meaning, now contracting all being and meaning so that they may be contained in her person—a reinterpretation in dramatic terms. The play's political and geographical grandeurs, its struggles of great personages for “empire,” enable him to create, in a subtle psychological sense to which Kenneth Burke has shrewdly called attention,13 an objective correlative, or “ostentation,” of the expansionist phase of passion, with its rapturous self-assertions, shows of power, and displaced gestures of aggression. In this light may be seen Antony's greeting to Cleopatra through Alexas:

Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms. All the east
(Say thou) shall call her mistress.


Both lovers write large, in the marketplace of Alexandria and on the maps of Asia, the erotic energies of their union, as Caesar's description of the occasion seems to understand:

Contemning Rome, he has done all this and more
In Alexandria. Here's the manner of 't:
I' th' market-place on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned; at the feet sat
Caesarion, whom they call my father's son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them. Unto her
He gave the stablishment of Egypt; made her
Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia,
Absolute queen.
This in the public eye?
I' th' common show-place, where they exercise.
His sons he there proclaimed the kings of kings:
Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia
He gave to Alexander; to Ptolemy he assigned
Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. She
In the habiliments of the goddess Isis
That day appeared, and oft before gave audience,
As 'tis reported, so.


With the same tumescent overtones, at the close, Cleopatra cherishes her dream of an Antony who is emotionally and spatially realized simultaneously, a sort of psycho-cosmos whose arm crests the world and whose voice is propertied as all the tunèd spheres.

The contrary or contractive impulses of passion find their correlative, one supposes, in Cleopatra's monument and the long decrescendo that brings Antony to it. There, whatever it may signify, the lovers are reunited for the last time in the play; Antony dies in Cleopatra's arms (the only “space” now left him); and she also dies, robed and crowned, on a throne that is in fact a bed. “Every where”—to read the reverse face of Donne's coin—has now become “one little roome.” The paths of glory have led (like all paths) to a grave. And love has been dissolved in death, except that dying has proved to be a manifestation of love, in more senses than one. Though to go beyond this is to risk saying far too much, additional ghostly figures from Petrarchan and other repertories—of the beloved as a fortress under siege by death and time; of Desire as an infant at the breast of nurse Beauty; of the worm (serpent and what more?) as death's but also love's and immortality's agent, as the clown's malapropisms seem to hint; and of another kind of “monument,” more durable than brass and loftier than the pyramids—may well continue to float troublingly, for some, about the final scenes.


Antony's death is followed by a moment when Cleopatra faints and lies as still as he:

O quietness, lady!
She's dead too, our sovereign.


Then her women succeed in rousing her, she speaks her resolve to do as he has done, and they go out together, “bearing off Antony's body.” Cleopatra's death is followed by a similar moment, more prolonged. After she is dead, Charmain straightens her crown, speaks proudly to Caesar's guard (who has rushed in to check on his prisoners) of what has been done—what has been “well done, and fitting for a princess Descended of so many royal kings”—then falls herself. There is an entry by Dolabella, and a full ceremonial entry by “Caesar and all his Train, marching.” They theorize about the deaths, Caesar renders his epitaph, which receives the lovers into “story,” and announces a solemn funeral, after which, “to Rome.” They go out again marching, one presumes, carrying Cleopatra's bed, her motionless figure sitting or half-reclining on it, robed and crowned.

The sensory effect of both these moments is very powerful. Basically, in stage terms, it comes from the difference between absolute stillness and purposeful movement. In the movers, life goes on, as we know it must; their history will be fulfilled. In the immobile, history has already been fulfilled; it has departed from them, and something else has replaced it. But what? Is it a dignity, such as perhaps we always attribute to those who have drunk the whole of experience, the ultimate stillness as well as the movement that leads there? Is it an exultation that they are, as Shakespeare says elsewhere, “past the tyrant's stroke” (Cymbeline, 4.2.265), past the whips and scorns of time? Is it a serenity got from the same source as poets when they are laid asleep in body to become a living soul, seeing into the life of things? Or is it simply that absolute stillness has some sort of indefinable absolute claim on the human imagination, being the thing most opposite to what we know at first hand in the diurnal world, where, as in this play, everything slips and slides and rots itself with motion?

Whatever the explanation, I never read or see these two scenes acted without concluding that the unresolved polarities they contain—life against death, movement against stillness, change against something that has shackled accidents and bolted up change, history against something that is no longer temporal—has something to say to us about Shakespeare's procedure in the play as a whole with its long series of similarly unresolved oppositions: Egypt and Rome, politics and love, public life and private, loyalty and self-interest, grandeur and humility, mobility and constancy, and many more pairs that one may accumulate by reading the critics. For the play seems founded, in my own experience of it—not founded accidentally, but creatively, painstakingly—on the same sort of defiant pluralism that we find in other deeply paradoxical works, such as The Praise of Folly or Don Quixote. As in Erasmus, we have in the play one perspective which knows that Folly is always folly, a consuming and illicit passion always ruinous, and another perspective which sees that some follies may be less foolish than the world's cherished wisdom, an imperium in the embrace of Cleopatra more life-giving than an imperium in Rome. Neither perspective cancels the other out, both are “true.”

In Cervantes, the representative of an imagined literary world of perfect chivalry is set down in seventeenth-century Spain, suffers bravely and comically the incongruities that result, refuses to be discomfited, and at last persuades us that his vision of things has a valency of its own. Something of this sort happens also in our play. Antony, ever attracted by the sweeping magnanimity of his nature to an imagined literary world of perfect devotion between man and woman (as the first line he speaks to us shows: “There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned” [1.1.15]) is set down in the slippery Roman world he has himself helped create, suffers deeply—but always too, like Quixote, a little comically—from the incongruities between the code he is attracted to and that world's demands, yet refuses equally to be discomfited (either by Cleopatra's treasons or his own), and in the end wagers with his life that there is a valency in the code's perspective, though again it can never cancel out the world's perspective, since both are true.

Shakespeare's play is not a Praise of Folly, despite certain affinities that were mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Still less is it a Don Quixote de la Mancha. It has its own metabolism. Yet I think the thrust of history in it, the pressures of mobility and mutability which lead inexorably to Antony's ruin and Caesar's triumph, are countered, to a degree, by the traditions of ideal devotion, and of escape from mutability through love, that are implied in the Petrarchan and romance idiom in which both lovers have been immersed by their creator.

Plainly, the world of history is unfriendly to these principles, as it is unfriendly also to Quixote's chivalric fiction, and in the end they are likely to be compromised or betrayed, as happens repeatedly in the play. Yet they speak for something that is durable in the human heart, something no more but also no less true to our experience than the nightmare of history from which, like Stephen Dedalus, we all struggle in our several fashions to escape; and I believe that Shakespeare saw this, as he moved in the romances that follow Antony and Cleopatra toward defining an alternative. It is an alternative that has never failed in its power to move the imagination, whether we think, like Dante, of the love that moves the sun and other stars; or, like Spenser, of the time to come when “all shall changèd bee, And from thenceforth none no more change shall see”; or, like Keats, of the bright star whose steadfastness he longs to reconcile with his living breathing passion for Fanny Brawne; or, most recently, like T. S. Eliot, of the still center without which there would be no turning wheel:

                                                            Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.(14)

Is this the madness of poets? Or may there be, as even Polonius suspects, a method in it?


  1. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, 2 vols., (Harvard University Press, 1930), 1: 86.

  2. Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 8. This is a fascinating exploration of the uses of paradox in the Renaissance, to which I am indebted. See also Janet Adelman's superb study of Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

  3. Op. Cit., 290.

  4. Lives (London, 1612), 951. See also Ernest Schanzer's Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Schocken Books, 1963) which discusses, with an emphasis quite different from mine, the analogies to Hercules, Aeneas, and Mars.

  5. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 85-86.

  6. Love's fetters are vividly allegorized in the chains that bind Spenser's Amoret to the brazen pillar in the House of Busyrane (Faerie Queene, 3.12. 30, 37, 41).

  7. Spenser allegorizes these in the thunder, lightning, earthquake, and “hideous storme of winde” surrounding the House of Busyrane (Faerie Queene 3.12.2).

  8. Donne, Elegie 19: To His Mistris Going to Bed. In To Althea, from Prison, Lovelace has: “When I lie tangled in her hair, And fettered to her eye, The gods that wanton in the air Know no such liberty.”

  9. Donne, Elegie 20: Love's Warre, and Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.

  10. Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, 1.231.

  11. Donne, Elegie 19: To His Mistris Going to Bed.

  12. Donne, The Good-Morrow, 10-14.

  13. Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 101.

  14. Respectively, Paradiso, 33: 145, Faerie Queene, Canto 7: 59; Keats's so-called “last” sonnet: “Bright star”; Burnt Norton, 66-7.

Further Reading

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Archer, John Michael. “Antiquity and Degeneration in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 145-64. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Examines Antony and Cleopatra and its treatment of race and sexuality in order to identify Renaissance racial and sexual constructions. The text is examined in light of historical, geographical, and travel writings that became available within the century following the publication of the play.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Politics of Empire.” In Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire, pp. 127-54. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Studies the relationship between the themes of love and politics in the play, observing that Antony and Cleopatra discover an imperial form of love that corresponds to the imperial type of politics prevalent in the play.

Cook, Carol. “The Fatal Cleopatra.” In Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, pp. 241-67. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Studies the role Cleopatra plays as a figure threatening the Roman goal of unification and dominion. In particular, Cook demonstrates the way in which the language of the play underscores Cleopatra's subversive role.

Coppedge, Walter R. “The Joy of the Worm: Dying in Antony and Cleopatra.Renaissance Papers (1988): 41-50.

Analyzes whether there are spiritual dimensions to the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra.

Jorgensen, Paul A. “Antony and Cleopatra: This Dotage of Our General's.” In William Shakespeare: The Tragedies, pp. 110-25. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Offers an overview of the play's plot, themes, and characters, maintaining that the play is first and foremost a story of Antony's humiliation and downfall.

MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Literature and History 5, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 60-77.

Discusses the Renaissance view of an African Cleopatra, and attempts to separate race from gender in order to contrast readings of the play in which Cleopatra's orientalism is associated with femininity.

Rose, Mark, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Antony and Cleopatra: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977, 138 p.

Includes essays that focus on background analyses, including discussions of the style of the Roman plays, the place of the play in Shakespeare's development, and the play's heroic context. Also includes critical interpretations of the play and its themes, and various critical assessments.

Thomas, Vivian. “Realities and Imaginings in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 93-153. London: Routledge, 1989.

Compares Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar with the historical basis for the play and its characters as found in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

Yachnin, Paul. “Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 343-63.

Takes a new historicist approach in analyzing what the play reveals about Jacobean political culture.

Mary Floyd-Wilson (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Transmigrations: Crossing Regional and Gender Boundaries in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, edited by Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 73-96.

[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson observes the correspondence between geography and gender that is often examined in the play (for example, the association of Egypt with femininity and Rome with masculinity), and explores the way in which Renaissance climate theory adds another dimension to these relationships. Specifically, the critic demonstrates how Cleopatra's association with gypsies suggests that she possesses an “indecipherable” quality that may migrate over time and space.]

Much of the critical commentary on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra sees a parallel between the perceived “masculinity” and “femininity” of its title characters and the dialectical opposition of Rome and Egypt.1 While an earlier generation of criticism has suggested that Cleopatra and Antony embody universal gender roles, adumbrating a world-stage polarity of a feminine East versus a masculine West, feminist and postcolonial critics have argued that the play presents the instability of gender binaries and the West's construction of itself and the “Orient.”2 Regardless of the theoretical perspective, it is widely accepted that there are direct correspondences between geography and gender in Antony and Cleopatra; Cleopatra, in particular, is perceived to be “one with her feminized kingdom as though it were her body.”3 In a subtle reading of Antony's dissolution and Cleopatra's regenerative powers, Janet Adelman cites the play's “affiliation of ‘masculine’ Rome with the solid and bounded, ‘feminine’ Egypt with the fluid”; according to “the Roman point of view, the melting of the boundaries of the self is necessarily its effeminization, its pull back toward that matrix.”4 Gail Kern Paster has expanded our understanding of early modern gender distinctions by locating the “boundaries of the self” within the historicized specificities of humoral discourse and the hierarchy of Mikhail Bakhtin's bodily canons. For the most part, woman is conceived to be “naturally grotesque—which is to say, open, permeable, effluent, leaky. Man is naturally whole, closed, opaque, self-contained”; moreover, within this paradigm the “male body … can assume the shameful attributes of the incontinent female body.”5 In obvious ways, Paster's work provides further support for reading Cleopatra as quintessentially female and “as abundant, leaky, and changeable as the Nile.”6

However, early seventeenth-century natural philosophy also suggests that varying degrees of a body's internal liquidity and temperature determine what modern readers would classify as “racial” characteristics.7 Renaissance climate theory avers that a region's atmospheric temperature, moisture level, soil, and topography help fix an inhabitant's humoral complexion, coloration, and temperament.8 Consider, for example, Titus Andronicus, which associates Aaron the Moor's complexion and “fleece of woolly hair” with his native climate and “cloudy melancholy” (2.3.34, 33).9 Popular accounts of climate theory establish that parallel physiological processes take place in northern, southern, and temperate regions;10 the heat of the sun not only darkens the skin of the Egyptians but also dries the body's humors; conversely, cold northern air seals up the body's moisture, producing white skin and “gross,” thick humors. Further complicating these distinctions in early modern texts is an inherited contradiction within classical climatic discourse itself. The Aristotelian tradition holds that external temperature has a counteractive effect on the body. Hot climates draw out internal heat, producing cold complexions, while the inverse takes place in the north. The Hippocratic theory maintains a correspondent relation between external temperatures and the body; cold climates, for example, produce cold complexions.11 What remains stable throughout the discourse is the distribution of moisture: hot regions dry the body's humors, while cold climes preserve internal moisture. Since it is derived from Mediterranean sources, classical humoral discourse presupposes a temperate climate, and climate theory explicitly locates temperance in the middle regions. Yet even within temperate regions, certain “differences of style of life, climate and diet” produce puzzling questions about the body, such as whether the “hottest female is colder than the coldest male.”12 Once translated to less temperate regions, conflicts in the discourse are exacerbated. Just as distinctions in rank intersect with and confound the body's boundaries (the lower orders proving “leakier” than chaste ladies, for example), extreme climates further disrupt gender categories.

In fact, climate theory draws on and complicates the schematic opposition between the spirit and the flesh implicit in the antithesis of the classical male body and the grotesque female body.13 Since extreme cold and heat produce disparate effects, it is widely held in early modern climatic discourse that the “body and the mind are swayed in opposite directions,” so that “southerners excel in intellect, [and northerners] in body.”14 Northerners “have a greater abundance of blood and humor [and] with more difficulty separate themselves from these earthly dregs,” while the southerners' relatively dry complexion gives them an unearthly “power of contemplation, … meditation,” and wisdom.15 Moreover, the gendered connotations of these differences are commingled. The powerful spirit of the south proves masculine in its strength, yet feminine in its subtlety, while the northern flesh is feminine in its excess, yet masculine in its strength. In general terms, only the middle regions readily produce temperate men, balanced in mind and body, while the extreme northern and southern climates generate intemperance, which translates easily to effeminacy.

Not only does most early modern climate theory assume a tripartite structure, it also identifies England as a septentrional nation.16 And not surprisingly, there is some anxiety regarding climate theory in the discourse itself, stemming in part from an inability to reconcile regional determinations of a body's solidity and fluidity with accepted gender distinctions. On a local level, Englishmen are distinguished from Englishwomen as the dryer and more self-contained sex, with the supposition that “men have marble, [and] women waxen minds,”17 but on the world stage the English find themselves characterized as soft-fleshed, inconstant, and permeable as the result of a northern climate which produces excessively moist complexions. As northern and southern regions, marginalized from the temperate zone, England and Egypt actually share a certain peripheral status. While Antony and Cleopatra's construction of Egyptian and Roman identities and values depends explicitly on an East/West binary, it has been taken for granted that Jacobean England would “see Cleopatra [and Egypt] through Western eyes.”18 Certainly early modern Britain's perspective on Cleopatra entails a complex identification with western, masculine Rome.19 And Jacobean nationalism is informed by Britain's invocation of mythological Roman origins, which subsumed the paradigm of a westward movement of empire.20 Implicitly underscoring the East/West binary, Leonard Tennenhouse has argued that Cleopatra “embodies everything that is not English according to … British nationalism,”21 but I would contend that England's opposition to Egypt could disrupt as well as secure its western, masculine perspective. In fact, as a northern nation, England's latitudinal relationship to southern Egypt and temperate Rome upsets the purportedly archetypal binaries of East/West, Female/Male.

It is not coincidental that Antony and Cleopatra focuses consistently on regional differences and the instability of gender roles. Antony's melting effeminacy is attributable not only to his lovesick “dotage” but also to the influence of the Egyptian climate on his relatively “northern” body. Contrasted sharply with Antony's leaky vulnerability and unguarded passions is the opaque surface of Cleopatra's body. Although both characters possess passionate temperaments, we can easily discern Antony's vacillating allegiances; yet we are never certain of the sincerity or depth of Cleopatra's affections. In significant ways, Cleopatra's climatically determined “racial” status challenges the northern construction of gender differences;22 as a woman, her complexion should be soft and impressionable, but as an Egyptian she proves elusive and resistant to interpretation. The paradox of Cleopatra's ambiguous allure is not only that she represents the threatening excesses of Egyptian effeminacy, particularly exemplified by her seeming deceptions, but that those same qualities, if appropriated, would help remedy northern deficiencies.

Both Antony and Cleopatra derive their greatness (and their ruin) from their particular excesses; while the “vilest things / Become themselves” in Cleopatra (2.2.239-40), Antony's “faults, in him, seem as the spots of heaven” (1.4.12). However, their excesses move in opposing directions; to a certain extent Cleopatra's strengths are represented as transcending the body, while Antony's best qualities remain rooted in his corporeality. Explicitly identified as “hereditary / Rather than purchased,” Antony's natural complexion inclines him toward a kind of fleshly bounty or surfeit, a virtue or vice, depending on one's perspective (1.4.13-14).23 Arguably, Antony is more “northern” than Roman in his constitution; in fact, Jean Bodin cites Marc Antony's reputed fleshiness as analogous to the northerner's “heavy” body, and certainly his demise in Shakespeare's play recalls the commonplace notion that northern bodies are predisposed to melt in southern climates.24 Paradoxically, Antony's greatest weakness also marks him as exceptional; in Cleopatra's vision, his internal bounty raises him above the elements in which he lives. By rejecting Roman restraint in favor of Antony's liberal excesses, the play seems to rewrite “heroic masculinity” in northern terms.25

Rather than equating Cleopatra's body with the Nile, we need to consider how the invocation of climate theory establishes a more complex relationship between the queen's complexion and Egypt. In climatic-humoral terms, Cleopatra's blackness and elusiveness are the natural effects of her environment: “Think on me, / That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black” (1.5.27-28). And in various ways, these qualities make her motives inaccessible both to Shakespeare's Romans and Jacobean England. Yet the play's sly metadrama and anachronistic references to gypsies may have reminded Shakespeare's audience that Egypt is a world that is irrevocably lost. And while the mysteries of Egypt remain impenetrable, Cleopatra's characteristic subtlety, whether “infinite variety” or “cunning,” becomes a quality that can “transmigrate” over time and place. Cleopatra's mystery can never be unraveled, yet the play suggests that it can be appropriated and represented through artifice and performance.26 While northern virtues prove inherent and inimitable, the southerner's natural gifts metamorphose into qualities that can be acquired and enacted.


In ascribing particular characteristics to the peoples of various climates, Renaissance authors drew on a long history of classical geography which contrasted wise Egyptians with barbaric Scythians in the descriptions of remote borders beyond the ideal temperate zone.27 Furthermore, as Karl Dannenfeldt suggests, the “revival of Platonism and Neoplatonism in the Renaissance enhanced the role of Egypt as the original land of theologians and philosophers.”28 Egypt's warm climate plays a crucial, yet rarely acknowledged, role in its history as a land associated with the origins of wisdom. The Hermetic texts, which Marsilio Ficino translated and which helped form the basis of his Neoplatonist philosophy, explain that “Egyptians are particularly favored. … In Stobaeus XXIV, II, Horus asks his mother Isis, ‘By what cause, Mother, do men who live outside our most holy place lack our quickness of apprehension?’” Indeed, Stobaeus establishes that as a result of planetary aspects and a favorable climate, Egyptians are “exceptionally intelligent and wise.”29

While modern scholars readily concede that Renaissance authors traced the origins of sagacity to Egypt, few have explored the corresponding links they made between black bile, black skin, and wisdom.30 Yet the interrelatedness of climate theory and humoralism makes these links quite apparent. Bodin not only assigns the origins of “blackness” to the concoction of humors by environmental heat but also notes that “the southern people, through continued zeal for contemplation, befitting black bile, have been promoters and leaders of the highest learning.”31 Juan Huarte, in The Examination of Men's Wits (1594), sees direct correspondences between the Egyptian climate, coloration, and wit: the “Aegyptians … haue not forlorne that their delicacie of wit and promptnesse, nor yet that rosted colour which their auncestors brought with them from Aegypt.”32 In the early modern period, their characteristically dry complexion links the southerners' blackness to wisdom. According to Huarte, “in this region [Egypt], the sunne yeeldeth a feruent heat: and therefore the inhabitants haue their brain dried, and choler adust, … the much heat of the countrey rosteth the substance of these members and wrieth them, as it draweth togither a peece of leather set by the fire; and for the same cause, their haire curleth, and themselves also are wily.”33 Hence, the Egyptian climate not only darkens the skin but also produces a natural wisdom or cunning. Given the ambiguous status of Cleopatra's coloration in the classical sources, it seems likely that the conspicuous blackness of Shakespeare's queen is intended to invoke both the myth of Egypt and the climatic-humoral discourse that underscores that myth.

Traditionally set in opposition to the ancient Egyptians are the northern Scythians, whose hearty bodies, inactive minds, and pale skin are attributed to their cold environment. In “Air, Waters, and Places,” the earliest Greek tract to establish a connection between region and humoral physiology, Hippocrates sees a direct correspondence between the Scythians' fleshy bodies and sluggish temperaments, and their climatic conditions. This northern race has “ruddy complexions on account of the cold, for the sun does not burn fiercely there. But the cold causes their fair skins to be burnt and reddened.”34 In addition, “The body cannot become hardened where there are such small variations in climate; the mind, too, becomes sluggish … their bodies are heavy and fleshy, … they are watery and relaxed. The cavities of their bodies are extremely moist, … under such climatic conditions, the bowels cannot be dry.”35 Significantly, the softness of their flesh blurs physical distinctions between Scythian men and women: “All the men are fat and hairless and likewise all the women, and the two sexes resemble one another.”36 Hippocrates concludes that as a result of their excessively moist complexion, these northerners are the “most effeminate race of all mankind.”37 As “Scythian” becomes shorthand for “northern” in the early modern period, the English find themselves commonly bracketed with the Scythians in continental texts.38

As modern scholars have noted, Renaissance physiology readily links soft complexions, mental sluggishness, and effeminacy. Huarte, for example, draws on Aristotle, Hippocrates, and others to argue that while the supposedly tender flesh of women denotes excess moisture, those men whose predominant humors are phlegm and blood also possess tender flesh and prove “simple & dullards.”39 Huarte applies this same rubric of humoral differences geographically, associating closed, dry bodies with southern regions while characterizing northerners as fleshy, moist, and slow: “the Flemmish, Dutch, English, and French, … their wits are like those of drunkards: … & this is occasioned by the much moisture, wherewith their brain is replenished, and the other parts of the bodie: the which is knowen by the whitenesse of the face … and aboue this they are generally great, and of tall stature, through the much moisture, which breedeth encrease of flesh.”40

For a positive portrait of northern attributes, early modern writers turn to Tacitus, who describes the Saxons as morally superior to the degenerate Romans.41 Citing the influence of a cold climate, Tacitus observes the ancient Germans' penchant for drinking and carousing: “[n]o nation indulges more freely in feasting and entertaining than the German.”42 The Germans' excesses, however, serve to fortify their virtues—they are generous and bounteous to others, counting it “a sin to turn any man away from [their] door.”43 Moreover, their liberal-hearted natures make Germans incapable of cunning or political craft, for they are barely “sophisticated enough to refrain from blurting out their inmost thoughts … every man's soul is laid completely bare”; their hearts are “open to sincere feelings or … quick to warm to noble sentiments.”44 In the late sixteenth century, Fynes Moryson insists that “the Nature of the English is very singular aboue other Nations in liberality and bounty … if it be not rather prodegality or folly.”45 It is during the early seventeenth century that English writers begin to push the “question of a common ancestry” with the Germans, striving to see themselves in Tacitus's laudatory commentary.46

Despite the positive slant which Tacitus provides, the early modern English continue to struggle with the perceived disadvantages of their northern complexion. A treatise published in England in 1591 urges northerners to purge the “grosse humour ingendred in them, by reason of the grossnes, and coldnes of the aier wherin they live.”47 And as late as 1649 John Milton expresses anxiety concerning the “natural political deficiencies” that the English climate produces, and urges his countrymen to temper their northern excesses by “import[ing] civil virtues from the ‘best ages’ and those situated in more favorable climates.”48 Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Mind in General (1604) directly addresses the presumed correspondence between regional complexion and political acumen.49 Of particular interest to Wright is how a “certain natural complexion and constitution of the body, … inclineth and bendeth them of hotter Countries more unto craftiness and warinesse than them of colder Climates” (84). Conceding that “these Northerne Climates are accounted” to produce “simple and unwise” citizens, he notes that Englishmen in particular tend to “reveal and disclose themselves very familiarly and easily” (82, 84). To remedy this weakness, Wright encourages his English readers to learn how to discover other men's passions, as well as how to govern their own. For Wright, skin color in particular signifies and promotes a person's simplicity or subtlety: “The very blushing also of [English] people showeth a better ground whereupon Virtue may build than certain brazen faces, who never change themselves, although they commit, yea, and be deprehended in enormous crimes” (82). Despite this defense of his countrymen's northern complexion, Wright concludes that the English are exceedingly open and vulnerable to foreign interpretation. Urging his nation to “be directed” in presenting a “prudent carriage,” he suggests that they adopt a temperate measure of southern wariness (85). As Wright anxiously reveals, Englishmen in the early seventeenth century fear that their natural complexion may predispose them to a passive and effeminate role on the world stage, especially in the play of politics.50

Throughout the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth century, climate theory remains a popular and viable explanation for differences in coloration and national disposition. However, as England's involvement in the Atlantic slave trade escalates, natural philosophy begins to shift its focus away from diversity in complexions toward what is increasingly seen as the peculiarity of blackness. One example of this trend in the mid-seventeenth century is a posited link between the origins of blackness and artifice. In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Sir Thomas Browne describes certain “Artificial Negroes, or Gypsies [who] acquire their complexion by anointing their bodies with Bacon and fat substances, and so exposing them to the Sun”; moreover, he suggests that this counterfeit practice might plausibly be the source of all seemingly “natural” black complexions.51 In Anthropometamorphosis (1650) John Bulwer contends that man may have become “black by an advenient and artificial way of denigration, which at first was a meer affectation arising from some conceit they might have of the beauty of blacknesse, and an Apish desire which might move them to change the complexion of their bodies into a new and more fashionable hue. … And so from this artifice the Moores might possibly become Negroes, receiving atramentitious impression by the power and efficacy of imagination … which were continued by Climes, whose constitution advantaged the artificial into a natural impression.”52

It is significant that both Browne and Bulwer continue to invoke the efficacy of “climes” to maintain color, yet insist on the artificial origins of that color.53 This deviation in natural philosophy strives to collapse the tripartite framework, which embraces a spectrum of complexions, into a binary of normative white and aberrant black, effectively erasing the association between blackness and natural wisdom.

Well before these natural philosophers traced the origins of blackness to “Apish desire[s],” however, seventeenth-century Englishmen saw the natural vulnerabilities of their complexion inversely reflected in the southerner's darker countenance. In its consideration of geography and complexion, Antony and Cleopatra not only typifies the traditional associations of early modern climatic-humoral discourse but also anticipates England's impulse to link southern origins with artifice. Although Cleopatra's complexion is attributed to Egypt's clime, her mystery is recast as theatricality. The play sustains Cleopatra's “infinite variety” by obscuring her “true” motives with endless playing;54 however, the play's allusion to a non-Egyptian boy actor as the agent of Cleopatra's playing reworks the north's relationship to the south. In this metadramatic moment, the southerner's cunning becomes effeminate artifice, while the northern male is stabilized, slyly revealing his own subtlety.


Antony and Cleopatra's opening scene establishes that from a Roman perspective it is Antony who resembles the Nile, “[o]'erflow[ing] the measure” (1.1.2), a comparison which points up the effect of the Egyptian environment on his body. Traditionally, critics have argued that Cleopatra's presence, Egypt's luxury, and love-sick dotage effeminize the Roman, but it is also true that Antony's relatively northern constitution is especially vulnerable to the southern climate and its excesses. After losing battles and loyal followers, Antony's loss of control is further represented as watery dissolution. Eventually his thoughts grow “indistinct / As water is in water,” and the boundaries of his identity seem to melt until he “cannot hold this visible shape” (4.14.10-11, 14).55

We soon discover that while Caesar condemns Antony's indulgent ways in Egypt, he readily praises Antony's previous success as a soldier who endured severe environmental conditions. Although Egypt weakens Antony, a more northern climate seems to enhance his natural strengths. In his nostalgic recollection of Antony's mettle, Caesar describes Antony as a soldier, fighting famine

(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.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on. And all this
.....Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek
So much as lanked not.


It is no accident that Octavius's memory locates Antony-as-ideal-soldier in a northern environment—a cold region, barren of natural resources apart from the “roughest berry,” the “barks of trees,” and the presence of strange flesh. According to commonplace Renaissance notions of military science, northern climates produce the fiercest soldiers: they are men who bear cold patiently and wage war easily in the winter.56 In his commentary on the military prowess of northern nations, Bodin notes that “when hunger comes upon the Scythians, they cut the veins of horses under the ears, suck the blood, and feast on the flesh, as tradition reports about the army of Tamerlane.”57 While Octavius concedes that Antony's Roman background is contrastively “dainty,” Antony proves himself to be as hearty and robust as the “savages” apparently acclimated to such conditions. Octavius praises the command Antony wields over his body in the face of such a harsh environment, yet Antony behaves as if he were a native, his bodily strength and military powers seemingly enhanced by the brutal circumstances.58 Arguably, Antony's fleshiness helps him to survive this harsh environment so well that his “cheek … / lanked not.” However, when a northerner moves southward, his military strength is challenged: “bring a Scithian from his natiue habitation to the South,” writes Bodin, “and you shall find him presently to droop, and fall away with sweat and faintnesse,” for “the armies that come out of the North, grow weake and languish, the more they goe towards the South … [the more they become] molten with sweat, and languished with heat.”59 Moreover, hot climates will exacerbate the northerner's natural inclination to feasting and drinking.60

The abstemious Caesar censures Antony's present voluptuousness, characterizing him as the “abstract of all faults” (1.4.9). Despite Caesar's sweeping criticism, it is clear that Antony's faults are not the sum of all vices, but particularly carnal ones; he possesses an appetite for mirth, drinking, and sport (1.4.4-7, 16-21). As Lepidus notes, Antony's temperament predisposes him to these weaknesses, his faults being “what he cannot change,” rather “[t]han what he chooses” (1.4.14-15). While Caesar scoffs at Antony's “composure,” which “must be rare indeed / Whom these things cannot blemish,” it is the same “rare” composure that earned Caesar's respect in the Alps (22-23). Although the Romans mock Antony's intemperance in Egypt, there is some recognition that a heart that “burst[s] / The buckles on his breast” in the “scuffles of great fights” necessarily “reneges all temper” (1.1.6-8). Antony's excesses mark him as conspicuously un-Roman, yet they also “seem as the spots of heaven” (1.4.12).

Peter Erickson contends that Cleopatra's final dream “endows [Antony] with the quality of ‘bounty,’” and that the “image of … unending profusion replaces Octavius's preferred version of his [Antony's] heroic deprivation.”61 While it is true that Cleopatra and Caesar recollect Antony differently, Antony's natural characteristics remain constant in both visions; it is his body's interaction with the environment that varies. While Antony's internal plenitude easily counters Caesar's landscape of deprivation, it inevitably surfeits in Cleopatra's fertile Egypt. To attribute Antony's liberality solely to Cleopatra's imagination underestimates the import of Enobarbus's acknowledgment of his master's bounty. As a Roman, Enobarbus feels compelled to leave a master who proves “so leaky” (3.13.63). But when Antony answers this desertion with the return of Enobarbus's treasure, together with his own “bounty overplus” (4.6.22-23), Enobarbus's heart begins to break in the face of such splendid generosity:

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


Although Enobarbus recognizes that by overflowing the measure Antony displays a lack of policy, he concedes that this excess shows a nobility that outstrips more temperate actions.

Rather than simply endowing Antony with bounty, Cleopatra's vision celebrates the possibility of a world defined by Antony's generous rule:

                                                                                For his bounty,
There was no winter in't, an Anthony it was
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like, they showed his back above
The element they lived in.


In contrast to Caesar's place-specific recollection, Cleopatra's fancy first locates Antony everywhere and then in water, insisting that his best attributes rise above the “element they lived in.” While Caesar imagines that Antony fills a “vacancy with his voluptuousness” (1.4.26), Cleopatra suggests that Antony's bounty flows from his natural constitution and that his defining quality is infinite renewal. Cleopatra's vision of Antony prizes the same attributes that northerners claim as virtues.

While the south's exceptional climate and fertile luxury exaggerate Antony's innate qualities, Cleopatra's complexion is engendered by Egypt. And in contrast to the play's representation of Antony's melting boundaries, the Egyptians' associations with melting and overflow are much more equivocal. Cleopatra most often invokes melting imagery as a curse or threat of destruction, as if willing the Nile to rise at her command. In declaring her devotion to Antony, she swears that if she proves disloyal, her own body will overturn the drying effects of Egypt's climate. Her hypothetical scenario of disaster is predicated on her possessing a cold heart:

                                                            If I be [cold-hearted],
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source, and the first stone
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so
Dissolve my life!


As the storm “discandies,” all of Cleopatra's progeny and all Egyptians will lie dead and graveless from the melting ice. The discandying that Cleopatra envisions appears to mirror Antony's own dissolving state, with the exception that her melting is an imagined punishment for betrayal, couched in an invocation that preserves her authority. Antony, in contrast, when his followers desert him, associates “discandying” with the ultimate surrender of one's self to another, lamenting that

                                                                                                                        The hearts
That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar.


Cleopatra's repeated ties to the serpent of the Nile further define her relationship to the environment. As with the crocodile's impenetrability, Cleopatra's temperament, complexion, and, arguably, her “cunning” are created by the “operation of [the] sun” (2.7.27). In the early modern period, the crocodile is noted for its dry, impervious skin; if Egypt is submerged in water, the opaque boundaries of the scaled serpent's body would certainly remain intact.63 In response to Lepidus's questioning, Antony describes the crocodile as a creature that is bred by its environment; however, in a mysterious metamorphosis, it seems to transcend that which produces it: “It is shaped, 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” (2.7.41-44).64 The most specific detail Antony offers about the crocodile is that “the tears of it are wet” (2.7.48). Certainly, Antony plays on the proverbial sense that a crocodile's tears signify craft; however, it is not until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that this idea gains proverbial status.65 Antony's equivocal statement conveys a less definitive response, suggesting that Roman knowledge proves impotent in the face of natural Egyptian mysteries.

Antony's jesting tone with Lepidus recalls Enobarbus's teasing of him on the interpretation of Cleopatra's tears. As with the crocodile's ambiguous yet patently “wet” teardrops, the mystery of Cleopatra's passions captures a transition in early modern distinctions between the natural and the artificial. While Antony contends that Cleopatra is “cunning past man's thought” (1.2.142), Enobarbus counters him with a playful inversion of the correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm: “her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears: they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove” (1.2.143-48). On one hand, Enobarbus suggests that Antony should simply appreciate the “performance” of Cleopatra's passions. But despite Enobarbus's apparent cynicism, the slipperiness of his statement indicates that we cannot ultimately know whether Cleopatra's affections are dissimulation. Intriguingly enough, contemporary mutations of the word “cunning” duplicate the period's changing perception of southerners. In its original sense, “cunning” denotes a natural ability or capacity for learning and wisdom, as in a predisposition determined by one's natural complexion; according to the OED it is not until 1583 that the word comes to mean craft, deceit, or a disposition to artifice. Although Antony observes that “every passion fully strives / To make itself, in [Cleopatra], fair and admired” (1.1.50-51), we remain unsure as to whether Cleopatra filters her emotions through an awareness of audience, or whether her “passions” possess an agency that defies Roman notions of true and false expression.

Although Enobarbus conveys some ambivalence in his response to Cleopatra's sighs and tears, he customarily views weeping as policy or effeminacy. When Agrippa remarks that Antony purportedly wept at Julius Caesar's and Brutus's slayings, Enobarbus intervenes with his version of events: “That year indeed he was troubled with a rheum. / What willingly he did confound, he wailed. / Believe't, till I weep too” (3.2.57-59).66 Enobarbus does not simply cast doubt on the rumor that Antony wept; he undercuts any possible emotional tenor that those alleged tears may convey. For Enobarbus, weeping is a loss of manhood (“Transform us not into women” [4.2.36]), and artifice itself (“I am onion-eyed” [35]). In conspicuous contrast to Enobarbus's Roman thoughts, Antony sees a regenerative bounty in weeping: “Grace grow where those drops fall” (4.2.38). Antony's sentiments anticipate a Christian view of transformation, and, advantageously for the north, they imply that those who are prone to melt with heartfelt tears are especially open to grace. From a Roman perspective, Antony's bounty and overflow of tears mark him as effeminate, yet a revisionist, northern view would recast these qualities as masculine virtues.

As the boundaries of Antony's body melt, the play suggests that Cleopatra's complexion has changed over time. In her “salad days” she was both “green in judgment, [and] cold in blood” (1.5.73-74), but as she has aged, she seems to have grown dryer and hotter.67 As a description of the young Cleopatra's humoral complexion, this verdant imagery connotes a typically effeminate impressionability. While she was colder and moister, Cleopatra, it seems, played a more passive role in her liaisons: with Caesar, she was “a morsel for a monarch,” while Pompey could “make his eyes grow in [her] brow; / … anchor[ing] his aspect” there (1.5.31-33).68 If we believe her claim that she has changed, then it would appear that Cleopatra has grown less impressionable, in humoral terms, and, according to northern constructions, less “feminine.”

Jonathan Harris observes that “[f]or 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.”69 The incorporeal aspect of Cleopatra's allure is connected to her “racial alterity”70 and to the complex interaction between her body and the elements. When Cleopatra describes her body plainly in climatological terms—“Think on me, / That am with Phoebus's amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.27-29)—she alludes to the drying effect of the sun's heat on the body's humors.71 Commenting on the paradox of Cleopatra's age, Adelman notes that she is associated “with an antiquity outside the range of time altogether, certainly outside the range of Caesar's time.”72 Cleopatra's ageless antiquity has its basis in contemporary climatic discourse, which classifies southerners as descendants of the oldest civilizations and correlates their natural qualities with those of the elderly.73 Within the framework of climatic discourse, northerners resemble fleshy youths, and middle climates produce temperate men at their fittest, while southerners are analogous with the old—their bodies are weak and dry, but their minds possess sublime wisdom. At the same time, dry complexions prove less vulnerable to decay or physical change. In The Masque of Blackness, Ben Jonson contends that neither “cares, [nor] age can change” the Ethiopians' complexion—“Death her self … / Can never alter their most faithful hue.”74 In a similar vein, Enobarbus captures the timeless quality of Cleopatra's appearance: “Age cannot wither her” (2.2.236). Cleopatra's complexion represents the antiquity of Egypt and its impenetrable mysteries.

Not only is Cleopatra's “corporeality” quite ambiguous; she also seems to resist the customary correlations made between the female and flesh.75 Her curious appeal is often presented in vaporous terms; she does not “cloy” or surfeit the appetite like “other women” (2.2.237, 238). Indeed, the material connotation of “cloying” suggests a weighing-down of the flesh typically associated with the grotesque body; contemporary usage of the term indicates that a soul may be cloyed by the “heavy bondage of the flesh” (OED). Instead Cleopatra seems to lack a real substance, “mak[ing] hungry / Where most she satisfies” (2.2.238-39). Agrippa's exclamation of “Rare Egyptian!” (219) in response to Enobarbus's famed report of the queen whose “own person, / … beggared all description” (2.2.198-99) catches her exceptional status, while also implying that she may be as subtle as the air that “[h]ad gone to gaze” on her (218). (“Rare” can imply the subtlety of one's temperament or constitution, as in Caesar's ironic use of the word in reference to Antony's indulgent ways.)

In the play's closing scenes Cleopatra repeatedly rejects any ties to gross corporeality. To be commanded by “poor passion” is equivalent in her mind to being “the maid that milks / And does the meanest chares” (4.15.77-78); in its associations with a loss of control, maternity, fluidity, and the lower orders, this image of the milkmaid represents the grotesque body that Cleopatra renounces.76 Traditionally critics have stressed Cleopatra's identification with the milkmaid, a reading corroborated by the standard emendation to this line: it is established practice for editors of the play to substitute “No more but e'en a woman, and commanded / By such poor passion as the maid that milks” for the Folio's “No more but in a woman.”77 The change may appear inconsequential, yet if considered precisely, the Folio implies Cleopatra's critical detachment from the blubbering milkmaid. In the moment following Antony's death, Cleopatra acknowledges her grief only by critiquing it. She condemns “poor passion” and in the next breath seeks resolution. When expressing her dread of being staged in Rome, she seems most repulsed by the coarse physicality of the Roman people:

                                                                                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 forced to drink their vapor.


As she prepares for her suicide, she separates herself further from “earthly dregs” while relegating the Romans to the mundane. The circularity of physical life and the materiality of the feminine are equated in Cleopatra's picture of Caesar, who, like the lowest beggar, is nursed by “dung” (5.2.7-8). Whether one interprets the text as “dug” or “dung,” either sense preserves Cleopatra's renunciation of physicality, while likening Caesar to the body held captive by fleshly needs. Embracing death, she claims to “have nothing / Of woman in [her]”; she is “marble-constant” (5.2.238-40). As with the crocodile, Cleopatra's regional identity predisposes her to this transformation: she becomes “fire, and air,” giving her “other elements … / to baser life” (5.2.288-89).

Although often interpreted as evidence of her leaky body, Cleopatra's death is an ironic reversal of maternal imagery; she does place herself in the role of the nurse, and the asp becomes the “baby at [her] breast” (5.2.308), but rather than nourishing this baby, she is feeding herself “[w]ith most delicious poison” (1.5.27). Cleopatra's death is the direct antithesis of Antony's messy demise.78 Antony literally grows heavier while he is dying, and at the moment of his death Cleopatra laments, the “crown o' th' earth doth melt” (4.15.63). In contrast, Cleopatra's corpse shows neither “external swelling” nor blood; as Caesar observes, “she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.344-46). Even in death her body maintains its opacity.

Neither the Romans nor the play's audience ascertain the truth of Cleopatra's loyalties. Although we have certain evidence of her manipulations and endless playing, we never gain absolute proof of betrayal. When politic Caesar attempts to read the queen, it is Cleopatra who triumphs, leaving “great Caesar [an] ass / Unpolicied” (5.2.306-7). When Caesar and Cleopatra finally confront one another, their scene is notable for its insistent focus on the prospect of unfolding Cleopatra's motives, without ever making them clear. Caesar discovers that Cleopatra has reserved portions of her property, and praising her for the “wisdom in [her] deede” (5.2.150), he entreats her not to blush. Whether she is blushing or she soon will blush, her thoughts remain concealed. She explains away her withheld property as “some lady trifles” intended to induce the “mediation” of Livia and Octavia once she lives among the Romans (5.2.165-70); however, as Adelman notes, this explication may be a “cunningly staged device to convince Octavius that she has no desire to die.”79 Railing against her betrayer, Seleucus, Cleopatra suggests that her passions are nearly transparent, and that soon she may “show the cinders of [her] spirits / Through th' ashes of [her] chance” (5.2.173-74). In the early eighteenth-century editions of the play “chance” was glossed as “cheeks,” augmenting the physiological reference in these lines and indicating that Cleopatra threatens to display heated spirits through her burnt cheeks; yet, even without this emendation, the lines suggest that what is produced as a result of external heat is accidental, and naturally obscures whatever burns within.80

Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly teases its audience with the possibility that Cleopatra's “true” mind and affections will be revealed, while it fosters the Egyptian paradox that her unreadability is natural. Roman accusations of betrayal and cunning presume that a familiar fixed self lurks beneath Cleopatra's playing. Since Egypt's climate produces her ineffable subtlety, drawing out her baser elements, Cleopatra's mysterious essence defies Roman definitions of truth and artifice. However, while the play sustains Cleopatra's ancient mystery, it also forecasts the disintegration of Egyptian culture and the loss of southern greatness.

Egypt's ruin is neatly captured by the Romans' anachronistic references to Cleopatra as “gypsy.” The gypsy figure, as represented in a wide range of early modern texts, conflates England's rapidly shifting responses to blackness and natural Egyptian wisdom and anticipates the issues raised in the writings of Browne and Bulwer.81 In 1547, Andrew Borde described Egyptians as displaced nomads, identified by their “swarte” skin and an inherent falseness, for unlike other nations they “go disgisyd in theyr apparel. … [and] Ther be few or none of the Egipcions that doth dwel in Egipt.”82 Later texts not only associate gypsy figures with craftiness and lost origins, but also emphasize the artifice of their complexion. In Lanthorne and Candle-Light (1609), Thomas Dekker finds it particularly disturbing that one might perceive the gypsy's complexion to be “natural”: “A man that sees them would sweare they had all the yellow Iawndis, or that they were Tawny Moores bastardes, for no Red-oaker man caries a face of a more filthy complexion; yet are they not borne so, neither has the Sunne burnt them so, but they are painted so.”83 Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English law makes frequent mention of these troubling vagabonds; more significantly, it insists that “gypsies” are not southerners darkened by a foreign climate but Englishmen or “counterfeit” Egyptians wearing “black-face.”

When these vagabonds are portrayed in later works such as Jonson's masque Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621) and the plays The Spanish Gipsy (Middleton and Rowley, 1623), More Dissemblers Besides Women (Middleton, 1623), and The Lost Lady (William Berkeley, 1637), their presence seems to necessitate an unmasking scene.84 Quite simply, the gypsy's unmasking reworks the cultural associations of ancient Egyptian blackness derived from climatic-humoral theory. Rather than portraying blackness as powerfully unreadable, the dramatization of the gypsy-washed-white neatly equates blackness with artifice and establishes the revealed whiteness as the true and “natural” complexion. Unmasking the false gypsy both denies the mysterious agency attributed to blackness in climatic-humoral discourse and precipitates the erasure of a Renaissance reverence for southern civilizations.

Shakespeare's play anticipates these unmasking scenes most specifically in Cleopatra's metadramatic reference to the “quick comedians” who will stage her “Alexandrian revels”:

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' th' posture of a whore.


At first glance, Cleopatra's allusion to the boy actor simply validates the “reality” of a male English body beneath the costuming of the Egyptian queen. At the same time, the play's privileging of climatological associations has established Cleopatra's seemingly performative qualities as natural and resistant to imitation. Cleopatra insists that in representation, her greatness will be “boyed” or reduced to the mere “posture” of a woman defined by carnality; in other words, the spirit of Cleopatra's greatness, which encompasses her unreadability and “infinite variety,” will necessarily be lost in the translation of Egyptian culture.

Yet the reductive representation of Cleopatra's powers proves to be a cultural victory for the north, encapsulating the triumph of youthful barbarism over an ancient civilization.85 Since ancient Egypt is gone, representations of Cleopatra inevitably reinvent her power as performativity. Paralleling the movement in English natural philosophy, the scene's metadrama dissociates Cleopatra's southern characteristics from her natural body, diminishing the status of her Egyptian “greatness”; at the same time, by equating Egyptian “greatness” with artifice, the English gain access to its mysterious agency by mere imitation. While Antony and Cleopatra suggests that Cleopatra's agency originates with her southern complexion and challenges northern constructions of the gendered body, the play's metadramatic reference to the boy player stages Cleopatra's power as northern artifice—as a performance which succeeds in armoring and reifying the white male body.

As with her emblematic creature, the crocodile, the ancient Egyptian queen is naturally opaque and unreadable. However, by linking her mystery to the conscious and definitive artifice of gypsies and players, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra suggests that Cleopatra's indecipherable quality can transmigrate over time and place, to be appropriated by the impolitic northerner. While ancient Egypt threatens the fixity of western distinctions (masculine/feminine; truth/artifice) the wandering, painted gypsies of the early modern period effeminize blackness as ornament and stabilize the northern male complexion as naturally virtuous. From a seventeenth-century English perspective, Egypt has degenerated, Rome has fallen, and Cleopatra's vision of Antony's natural bounty looks toward the northern horizon.


  1. See A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Marvin Spevack (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), esp. 646-47, 652-53, and 63-84. For an essay that challenges binary views of the play see Jonathan Gil Harris, “‘Narcissus in Thy Face’: Roman Desire and the Difference It Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (Winter 1994): 408-25.

  2. See John Drakakis's introduction to New Casebooks: Antony and Cleopatra (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), 4-5. For a postcolonial perspective, see Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 78-79 and 124-30.

  3. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (London: Routledge, 1992), 191.

  4. Ibid., 187.

  5. Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 92.

  6. Harris, “‘Narcissus in Thy Face,’” 409.

  7. It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace the role of early modern natural philosophy in the eventual construction of “race.” As an explanation of blackness, climate theory comes under scrutiny in the seventeenth century; however, it remains the dominant explanation of color difference and continues, in various forms, well into the eighteenth century. For a history of environmental theory, see Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967). For a recent consideration of the role natural philosophy plays in English characterizations of American Indians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see Joyce Chaplin, “Natural Philosophy and an Early Racial Idiom in North America: Comparing English and Indian Bodies,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 229-52. As England's involvement in the Atlantic slave trade grows, English authors increasingly cite the Hametic curse to estrange and “explain” blackness, but in the early seventeenth century the curse of Ham is “denied more often than affirmed” (see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968], 19). We should recognize that the escalating prominence of the legend of Ham during the seventeenth century works in tandem with ideological erasures taking place in the discourse of natural philosophy. Changing socioeconomic factors shift the focus in early European “science” from theories of human diversity, drawn from ancient physiology, to the “mystery” of blackness—and religious discourse responds with a scriptural explanation of that mystery.

  8. “Complexion” can refer to “psychological and social as well as physiological characteristics” (see Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 103).

  9. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking Press, 1977). The nurse in Titus invokes climate theory when she contrasts Aaron's black child with “the fair-faced breeders of our clime” (4.2.68).

  10. Early modern references to climate theory appear in a variety of sources, cited throughout this essay, including historiography (Jean Bodin, William Harrison), medical texts (Thomas Walkington), and treatises on education (Juan Huarte) and psychology (Thomas Wright). Within this discourse, latitudinal divisions prove arbitrary, shifting with the author's regional perspective, but for the most part regions classified themselves and others according to a tripartite scheme of northern, middle, and southern regions well into the late seventeenth century.

  11. On the counteractive process, see Pseudo-Aristotle's Problemata, problem 14, “The Effect of Locality on Temperament,” The Works of Aristotle, trans. E. S. Forster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927). See also my discussion of Hippocrates below. Early modern writers appeal to both traditions; for example, Batman uppon Bartholome (London, 1582) draws on the theory of counteraction (19.391), whereas William Harrison's conclusions are derived from Hippocrates (“Description of Britain,” in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. [London, 1807-8], 1:193).

  12. Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 34.

  13. For an illuminating consideration of gender in relation to the spirit and the flesh, see Phyllis Rackin, “Historical Difference/Sexual Difference,” in Privileging Gender in Early Modern England, ed. Jean R. Brink, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 23 (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1993): 48-51.

  14. Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History (1583), trans. Beatrice Reynolds (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), 98.

  15. Ibid., 113-14. For similar statements see Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome, trans. Samson Lennard (London, n.d. [before 1612]; reprint, Amsterdam: Scholars Facsimiles, 1971), 168.

  16. See, for example, William Harrison, “Description of Britain” (193), and Thomas Walkington, The Optick Glasse of Humors, (1631; reprint, New York: Scholars Facsimiles, 1981), 31.

  17. Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, l. 1240.

  18. Jack D'Amico, The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1991), 153 (emphasis added). The tripartite division of the world eventually loses ground, helping to consolidate England's more secure position in the Occident-Orient binary.

  19. In her discussion of Cleopatra's racial identity, Joyce Green MacDonald writes: “To speak meaningfully about Cleopatra's race is to include in one's use of the term an account of the ideological work race did (and does), work which was often enabled by and proceeded in tandem with the writing of other kinds of difference from a subject who is conceived of in this case as not only white, but also Roman (or English), not only male but also a heterosexual dominant male” (“Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Literature and History 5, no. 1 [1996]: 60-77). As MacDonald indicates, the issue of Cleopatra's race may give rise to the conflation of Roman and English identities. Of course Shakespeare's depiction of Rome and its people is far from univocal and is, at times, disparaging. On Shakespeare's Rome, see Charles Martindale and Michelle Martindale, Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity: An Introductory Essay (London: Routledge, 1990); Vivian Thomas, Shakespeare's Roman Worlds (London: Routledge, 1989); Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976); and M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London: Macmillan, 1910).

  20. On British nationalism and the translatio imperii, see Patricia Parker, “Romance and Empire: Anachronistic Cymbeline,” in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 189-207. In “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,” H. Neville Davies discusses the play in relation to James I's association with Augustus (reprinted in New Casebooks: Antony and Cleopatra, 126-65).

  21. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), 144.

  22. For recent discussions of Cleopatra's racial status, see MacDonald, “Sex, Race, and Empire,” 60-62; Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 153-60; and Mary Nyquist, “‘Profuse, Proud Cleopatra’: ‘Barbarism’ and Female Rule in Early Modern English Republicanism,” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 24, nos. 1-2 (1994): 85-130. Nyquist points out that despite the ambiguity concerning Cleopatra's color outside of the play, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is clearly black (100).

  23. My understanding of Antony's “bounty” owes a general debt to discussions in Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, and Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 123-47.

  24. Bodin, Method, 99. Bodin also notes that Antony's fleshiness marks him as trustworthy, in contrast to lean Cassius, who resembles a southerner. In Julius Caesar, Caesar also notes the differences between them, swearing he would trust Cassius more if he were fatter (1.2.198).

  25. On the play's construction of “heroic masculinity” see Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 190.

  26. John Gillies considers this issue from a different perspective, asserting that in staging her death, “Cleopatra counters one form of theatre with another, and preserves her mystery from translation” (Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 122).

  27. On this tradition see Frank M. Snowden, Jr., Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 50-51.

  28. Karl Dannenfeldt, “Egypt and Egyptian Antiquities in the Renaissance,” Studies in the Renaissance 6 (1959): 10.

  29. Quoted in Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), 229. Although it is not the focus of this essay, Cleopatra's association with Isis further complicates her relationship to the myth of Egypt and its climate.

  30. Martin Bernal notes that there “appears to have been a relation between blackness and Egyptian wisdom. Many medieval and Renaissance paintings portray one of the magi—presumably an Egyptian—as a Black” (Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987], 242). For a general discussion of black bile and genial melancholy in the early modern period, see Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady: A Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642 (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951).

  31. Bodin, Method, 111.

  32. Juan Huarte, The Examination of Men's Wits, trans. Richard Carew (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959), 199.

  33. Ibid., 188. “Choler adust” is a form of melancholy (see Babb, Elizabethan Malady, 33-34).

  34. Hippocratic Writings, trans. J. Chadwick and W. N. Mann, ed. G. E. R. Lloyd (London: Penguin, 1978), 165.

  35. Ibid., 164.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Ibid., 166.

  38. See Bodin, Method; see also Jacques Ferrand, A Treatise on Lovesickness (1623), ed. Donald A. Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 246, who refers to the English, “the Scythians, the Muscovites, and the Poles” as similar types.

  39. Huarte, Examination of Men's Wits, 80.

  40. Ibid., 116.

  41. See Hugh A. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1982), 43.

  42. The Agricola and the Germania, trans. H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970), 104, 119.

  43. Ibid., 119.

  44. Ibid., 120. It is a commonplace in climatic discourse to identify northerners as heavy drinkers and great feasters, and the southerners' dry complexion as easily sated by a few delicacies. See Charron, Of Wisdome, 164; and Bodin, Method, 128.

  45. Quoted in Fynes Moryson, Shakespeare's Europe: Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, ed. Charles Hughes (London: Sherratt and Hughes, 1903), 478.

  46. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History, 44, 46-47.

  47. Quoted in Z. S. Fink, “Milton and the Theory of Climatic Influence,” Modern Language Quarterly 2 (1941): 69.

  48. Ibid., 76.

  49. Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind in General, ed. William Webster Newbold (New York: Garland, 1986); all subsequent references are to this edition.

  50. Although Wright insists that the “readability” of his countrymen's complexion actually affirms their virtue, he later identifies this quality as effeminate, attributing the “tenderness of [a woman's] complexion” to her “lack of heat, and … native shamefastness,” and citing her readability, slow wit, and inconstancy as typically feminine qualities (ibid., 119, 110).

  51. The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964): 467-68.

  52. John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform'd; Or, The Artificial Changeling (London, 1650), 254-55.

  53. For another perspective on the issue of race and cosmetics, see Hall, Things of Darkness, 86-92.

  54. I am not suggesting that Cleopatra has “true” motives to discover, but that her mystery depends on the promise and denial of revelation.

  55. For a recent discussion of Antony's dissolution see Cynthia Marshall, “Man of Steel Done Got the Blues: Melancholic Subversion of Presence in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (Winter 1993): 385-408.

  56. See Jean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale (1606), trans. Richard Knolles, ed. Kenneth Douglas McRae (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), 563. See also Bodin, Method, 97; and Charron, Of Wisdome, 165. My understanding of the relationship between military science and environmental theory in the early modern period is derived in part from Ian MacInnes, “Decocting Cold Blood: Climate Theory and Military Science in Henry V” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, Chicago, Mar. 1995).

  57. Bodin, Method, 128. See Gillies's discussion of this passage as an exemplification of Stoicism (Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, 118).

  58. See Adelman's reading of this landscape as constructing a defensive masculinity defined by “male scarcity” and a “denial of … the female” (Suffocating Mothers, 176).

  59. Bodin, Six Bookes of a Commonweale, 551, 549.

  60. Henry Peacham, in The Complete Gentleman (1622), for example, notes that “there is not any nation in the world more subject unto surfeits than our English” when they have traveled to “hotter climates” (ed. Virgil B. Heltzel [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962], 161-62).

  61. Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, 141-42.

  62. I have adopted the Folio reading of “Anthony it was” rather than “autumn 'twas,” which is an eighteenth-century emendation; the Folio text supports the impression that Antony's bounty is constant (not seasonal) and inherent. See Spevack on the editorial history of this line (New Variorum Edition, 315-16).

  63. For a survey of Renaissance notions about the crocodile, see Robert Ralston Cawley, The Voyagers and Elizabethan Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), 52-63; in particular, Cawley notes that writers marveled at the creature's “impervious” skin and apparent invulnerability (56-57).

  64. See Gillies's discussion of this description as “essentially untranslatable into the Roman code and hence unknowable” (Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, 121); Cleopatra, not unlike the crocodile, is “unsearchable in her difference. She is ancient, black, sun-burned, reptilian” (122).

  65. Cawley finds that “[c]ontrary to common belief, the Ancients knew nothing” of the notion of a weeping crocodile (Voyagers and Elizabethan Drama, 53); however, sixteenth-century texts abound with references to it. Although Cawley claims that the medieval treatise of Bartholomaeus Anglicus contains the earliest reference to a weeping crocodile, he refers us to the sixteenth-century English translation Batman uppon Bartholome; Batman's translation has incorporated Leo Africanus's A Geographical Historie of Africa, a text that was not available until the sixteenth century. The OED cites Mandeville as the earliest mention of the crocodile's deceitful tears; however, Mandeville merely notes that crocodiles “slay and eat men weeping” (Mandeville's Travels [London: Hakluyt Society, 1953], 1:202).

  66. I have incorporated the Folio text's “weep” instead of “wept.”

  67. Aging is expected to affect an individual's humoral complexion; however, English humoral discourse indicates that it causes one to grow colder and dryer (see Ruth Leila Anderson, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays [New York: Russell and Russell, 1966], 55).

  68. Cleopatra's younger impressionability accommodates Pompey, much in the way that Isabella in Measure for Measure implicates women: “For we are soft as our complexions are, / And credulous to false prints” (2.4.129-30). For the argument that Cleopatra reflects what the Romans project see Harris, “‘Narcissus in Thy Face.’”

  69. Ibid., 417.

  70. Ibid., 424.

  71. Of course this imagery also establishes a sexual relationship between the queen and Phoebus; Jonson uses similar language in The Masque of Blackness, wherein the sun “draws / Signs of his fervent'st love” in the Ethiopian dames' “firm hues” (Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969], 52).

  72. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 138.

  73. See Charron, Of Wisdome, 167.

  74. Jonson, Masque of Blackness, 52.

  75. In “Antony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearean Adjustment,” John Danby argues that “Caesar impersonates the World, [and Cleopatra] of course, incarnates the Flesh” (in New Casebooks: Antony and Cleopatra, 49).

  76. See Paster for a provocative reading of Cleopatra's “antinursing” (Body Embarrassed, 239-44).

  77. Danby cites this line as evidence of Cleopatra's association with the flesh and the “female principle” (“Antony and Cleopatra,” 49). For a summary discussion of the line's editorial history, see Spevack, New Variorum Edition, 305-6.

  78. Citing Paster's commentary on blood as a “trope of gender,” Marshall notes that “[w]ounded, bleeding, and lacking agency, Antony takes on a typically feminine position” in death (“Man of Steel Done Got the Blues,” 403).

  79. This is posed as a question in Adelman, Common Liar, 15; see also Adelman's discussion of the various interpretations of this scene (191-92, n. 8, and 202, n. 17).

  80. On the emendation, see Spevack, New Variorum Edition, 360.

  81. In act 1, scene 1 Philo claims that Antony's heart “is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's lust” (9-10); Antony refers to Cleopatra as a gypsy in act 4, scene 12: “Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose / Beguiled me to the very heart of loss” (28-29). For background on the English gypsy, see Dale B. J. Randall, Jonson's Gypsies Unmasked: Background and Theme of “The Gypsies Metamorphos'd” (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975).

  82. Andrew Borde, The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (1548; reprint, London: Early English Text Society, 1870), 217.

  83. The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1884-86; reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), 1:259.

  84. In The Lost Lady the character is actually a lady disguised as an “Egyptian” rather than a gypsy; John Webster's The Devil's Law-Case (1617-21) and Richard Brome's The English Moor (1637) also stage unmasking scenes, but the characters are identified as Moors rather than gypsies.

  85. Cleopatra's reference to a “boy” impersonating her greatness recalls the play's earlier references to Octavius as the “young Roman boy” (4.12.48) as well as the “greatness he has got” from Cleopatra (5.2.30).

I would like to thank Reid Barbour, Lanis Wilson, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful advice on revising this essay.


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 47)


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 70)