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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Robert P. Kalmey (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Kalmey, Robert P. “Shakespeare's Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 18, no. 2 (spring 1978): 275-87.

[In the following essay, Kalmey examines the Elizabethan conception of Octavius Caesar, and finds that Elizabethans praised Caesar as an ideal prince only after he was crowned emperor. Prior to this event, Kalmey maintains, Caesar was condemned by Elizabethans who saw him as a tyrant who fueled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions.]

Few readers of Antony and Cleopatra have overlooked the contempt with which Cleopatra condemns as mere hollow words the paltry machinations of Octavius Caesar to take her captive. “He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself” (V.ii.190-191: Arden Shakespeare, ed. M. R. Ridley). Nor have readers neglected the irony Cleopatra articulates that Octavius, who has conquered Brutus, Sextus Pompey, Lepidus, Lucius Antonius, and Marc Antony, should so easily and deftly be humiliated by the personal will of a defeated queen. Speaking to the asp at her breast, Cleopatra defines her final contemptuous image of Octavius: “O, couldst thou speak, that I might hear thee call great Caesar ass, / Unpolicied!” (V.ii.305-307).

In spite of Cleopatra's final scathing assessment of the character of Octavius, it is a persistent commonplace in modern criticism to place Octavius in the role of an ideal prince who stands as the moral superior of the dissolute Antony, and who therefore deserves to accede to the governance of Rome because of his political rectitude and moral superiority. J. E. Phillips was the first of the modern critics to emphasize an honorific character for Octavius in his study of the state and the governor in the Roman plays.1 More recently, Maurice Charney and J. Leeds Barroll, apparently accepting and following Phillips' assertions, perpetuate the critical assessment of Octavius as the ideal prince. Charney claims “that in Elizabethan histories and comparable works, the reputation of Octavius was very high; he was seen as the ideal Roman emperor. …”2 The commonplace of the character of Octavius as ideal prince persists into contemporary criticism as Julian Markels in his study of the theme of order in Antony and Cleopatra, The Pillar of the World, observes that “Octavius is no villain but, like King Henry V, whom he so resembles in character, the agent of political order renewing itself.”3 It is easier for critics to think of Octavius, who plots bloody civil war in Julius Caesar and betrayal in Antony and Cleopatra, as “no villain” in politics if they may find resonance for this value judgment from other critics who value Octavius' moral rectitude highly. Roy Battenhouse, for instance, finds Octavius morally temperate and prudent—a man of Roman virtue whose “achievement” Shakespeare respects, however limited to pragmatic values Octavius may be.4 According to this view, Octavius governs himself with rectitude and asceticism in order to achieve his goal of Emperorship. Battenhouse then contrasts the temperate Octavius to the intemperate Antony and Cleopatra. According to Battenhouse, in a critical view highly popular with many readers of otherwise diverse critical persuasions, conscientious Octavius wins the world from dissolute Antony and distracted Cleopatra, who win a merely “ironic” bliss of eroticism.5 Although A. P. Riemer finds that Octavius “does not have the play's full endorsement” and that Octavius is “ambivalent,” he does affirm Octavius as “magnanimous … noble, well-intentioned, and generally just.”6 Riemer, like Battenhouse, finds any sense of transcendence of the world for Antony and Cleopatra ambiguous and contradicted by their sheer worldly lust.7 Even Honor Matthews, who does...

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not share Phillips', Battenhouse's, and Riemer's reservations about the absolute transcendent value of Antony and Cleopatra's love, asserts that Octavius' “place in history was … a peculiarly honourable one, to the Elizabethan imagination.”8

But if we accept the above assessments of Octavius' character in the play, we find ourselves holding up as an avowed Elizabethan ideal prince and moral man one whose final and definitive character is fixed in the play as “ass, / Unpolicied!” Furthermore, with whom do our sympathies reside in Antony and Cleopatra? Surely not with the cold and passive virtue of Octavia or with the equally cold, though active, calculations and betrayals of her aggressive brother, Octavius. For this reason, an alternative critical nexus has won more adherents than the co-existing one described above. Many modern critics have identified Octavius not as a temperate and moral apogee in Antony and Cleopatra, but as its moral perigee. He is seen in this view as the evil and impelling force of the material and base world against the increasingly transcendent love of Antony and Cleopatra. The clearest assessment of Octavius' character as it functions in opposition to the drama of transcendence in the play may be found in the criticism of Maynard Mack, Thomas McFarland, Sigurd Burckhardt, and Matthew Proser, where we find, amid some inevitable variation not important here, a valuational dialectic between, on the one hand, the world of plotting Octavius in which fortunes rise and fall in mutability and death, and on the other hand, the world of “immortal longings” (V.ii.280) from which Antony calls and to which Cleopatra, responding, aspires.9 The valuational dialectic leads to an ontological distinction that these critics recognize: the world of Octavius is the repository for Cleopatra's “baser” elements, water and earth (V.ii.288-289); her refined elements of “fire, and air” transcend Octavius' world, and have their being in immortality and eternity.10

My purpose now is not to explore in detail these two main strands of criticism on Antony and Cleopatra; rather, I hope to suggest that each of the two recurrent but different kinds of assessment of Antony and Cleopatra builds support upon mutually exclusive judgments of the character and function of Octavius. I seek instead to offer evidence of a pervasive Elizabethan concept of Octavius that has two distinct parts to it: the distinction made in the Elizabethan histories of Rome, to be analyzed below, holds that Octavius is to be honored as positive example of the ideal prince only after he is crowned Emperor in Rome after the defeat of Antony; before this precise occasion, the same Elizabethan histories of Rome characterize Octavius as a vicious tyrant who foments bloody civil war and a reign of terror solely for his personal gain. In their condemnation of rebellious, unbridled ambition which breeds civil war, the Elizabethan historians of Rome follow the main stream of Tudor historiography so thoroughly documented by E. M. W. Tillyard, Lily Campbell, and Irving Ribner.11

The distinction made by Elizabethan historians of Rome between the early ambitious tyrant Octavius and the later Emperor Augustus is entirely consistent with Shakespeare's dramatization of Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra, and in Julius Caesar as well, strictly and wholly within the time prior to his becoming Emperor of Rome. This precise limitation within the two plays, and within Antony and Cleopatra in particular, suggests a clear circumference of definition about the character of Octavius contained within the historical pattern when he functions as immoral tyrant—not in any sense an honorific character in contrast with which pejorative judgments may be delivered against the love of Antony and Cleopatra. If we can become aware of the common distinction between early tyrant and later Emperor in Octavius' life repeatedly made for literate Elizabethans by their contemporary historians of ancient Rome, we may find that the precise historical place Octavius held in “the Elizabethan imagination” serves to support those critics who assess Antony and Cleopatra as a drama of transcendent love and being over a world subjugated to the bloody lust of ambition and power.

As a triumvir, then, Octavius is revealed in Elizabethan histories of Rome as a pernicious demagogue; as a crowned emperor, he is presented as an ideal prince—like the reigning Tudor monarch. In both cases the Elizabethan historians emphasize moral lessons to be observed by their readers: early in his rise to power, Octavius exemplifies the horrors attendant on the demagogic subversion of the commonweal; later, as emperor, Octavius exemplifies the great Tudor image of the ideal prince, an analogue of Queen Elizabeth. In both Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Octavius appears only as a triumvir in the process of accumulating power; he has not yet become emperor even at the end of Antony and Cleopatra. It is an unnecessary hypothesis to posit that Shakespeare deliberately followed the distinction between the demagogue Octavius and the emperor Octavius Caesar Augustus. It is enough to observe that his plays dramatize only the demagogue Octavius, and to be familiar ourselves as critics with the distinction in the Elizabethan histories of Rome merely as a precedent, nothing more, for the distinction between immoral triumvir and ideal prince in the Elizabethan understanding of the character of Octavius.

When the Elizabethan historians of Rome judged an historical character, they examined him within a framework of moral instruction advocated for an individual who would conduct himself properly, as the historians so often exhort, within the commonweal. Octavius Caesar Augustus was one of the more significant figures upon whom the Elizabethan historians of Rome directed moral judgment.

Specifically, in his analysis of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, J. E. Phillips places great importance on a concept of Elizabethan political theorists and propagandists that establishes Octavius as “a great ruler.”12 Phillips places Shakespeare within the tradition of those influenced by the “great ruler” concept of Octavius. Phillips cites three prime authorities for his concept of Octavius as “great ruler”: George More, Chelidonius, and Thomas Elyot. He quotes from the latter, who cites Suetonius in support of the “great ruler” concept of Octavius. Although much in Suetonius' life of Octavius Caesar Augustus illustrates the rule of a great monarch whose dominions included most of the civilized world, much also in Suetonius characterizes Octavius as a vicious tyrant determined to satisfy his own lust for power regardless of the cost for others. Phillips neglects to mention that the tyrant Octavius appears not only in Suetonius, but in literally hundreds of pages of Elizabethan Roman history as well. We turn now to the Elizabethan histories of Rome to document the widespread characterization of Octavius Caesar as an ambitious and overreaching tyrant.

When we consider the great praise traditionally accorded to Octavius, as Augustus Caesar, for his fruitful rule as emperor, at first it appears strange that some final judgments of him should be so reserved. In Augustus, H. Seile completes his essay with an enigmatic opinion: “It had beene an ineffable benefit to the Commonwealth of Rome, if eyther he had never dyed, or never beene borne.”13 The empire of Augustus was established at great cost to the Roman commonweal. Writing of the murder of Julius Caesar, William Fulbecke judges that Rome could have returned to the most peaceful and fruitful years of the Republic except for the personal ambition of Caesar's heir, Octavius: “the common-weale did seeme to have rolled herselfe into the state of her pristinate libertie, and it had returned unto the same, if either Pompey had not left sonnes, or Caesar had not made an heire.”14 Seile also develops a similar conclusion: “the Commonwealth might have recovered Liberty, if … Caesar had left no heire.”15 Fulbecke questions the right of Octavius to “succeed” to the imperial position of Julius Caesar, because the privilege and honours were given to Caesar alone, not to his lineage. The hasty crime of Brutus and Cassius permitted Octavius to fashion a just cause for aspiring to Caesar's position of power: “But if Caesar's death had bene attended, till naturall dissolution, or just proceeding had caused it, his nephews entrie into the monarchie might well have bene barred and intercepted: because these honors were annexed and appropriated to Caesars person. And if patience might have managed their wisdomes, though there had bene a Caesar, yet should there never have bene an Augustus.”16

What were the sources of the reluctance and regret which permeate the adverse opinions of Octavius? It was popular among the Elizabethan historians of Rome (probably following Suetonius) to credit Octavius with creating most of the discords with Antony. Octavius sought only to satisfy his personal ambition. Rome had been the victim of several civil wars, and never could benefit from more. Sir Thomas North recounts Octavius' plottings: after Antony had repulsed his attempts to become consul, he began to work the Senate against Antony and to subvert the commonweal to his own gain.17 He delivered speeches against Antony;18 he spread throughout the city rumor and dissension.19 His most treacherous and irresponsible plot is revealed by Suetonius: “by the advice and persuasion of some he set certaine persons privily in hand to murder Antonius.”20 Although the murder plot was discovered before effected, Octavius was successful in his campaign to blacken the image of Antony. Cicero assisted Octavius by helping to turn the Senate against Antony,21 and, according to North, civil war followed as a direct result.22

Even after a peace had been devised between Antony and Octavius, the young Caesar used his rival's absence from Rome as an opportunity for sowing more civil dissension.23 In this situation, Octavius willfully destroyed a peace established specifically to avoid the upheavals caused by his earlier dissensions.24 Octavius' unscrupulous scheming aroused the disapproval of the Senate on one notable occasion. Suetonius writes that in assembly with the Senate Octavius read Antony's will, “the better to proove and make good that he had degenerated.”25 Appian, too, describes the incident and the Senate reaction: “So he [Octavius] went, and tooke it [the will] away, and first by himselfe redde it, and noted what might be sayde agaynst it. Then he called the Senate, and redde it openly, whereat many were grieved, thinking it not reasonable that a mans minde for his death, shoulde bee scanned whylest he was alive.”26

Octavius' willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to achieve his personal goals extended to his own sister, Octavia. In Mexia, Octavius advises her to join Antony so that she might have “occasion to fall out with him (as Plutarch recounteth in the life of Antony) if she were not well entertained.”27 In Seile's Augustus, Octavius is seen to be still more devious, for he outwardly affects concern for Octavia's welfare as he hopes her noble demeanor in the face of Antony's scorn will move the Romans to despise Antony.28 Appian, too, clearly indicates Octavius' sacrifice of his sister's welfare to his own political ambitions.29 Octavius thus used his sister as bait to lead Rome into civil war with Antony. After Octavia's rejection at the hands of Antony, Octavius takes advantage of the disrespect which his rival incurs: “Octavian began openly to complaine of Marcus Antonius, and to shew himselfe his enemie.”30 In these ways, Octavius deliberately drew Rome closer to civil war.

Fulbecke defines with characteristic Tudor dread the macrocosmic upheavals involved in the tempest of a state at civil war: “And, as in the yearely conversion of the heavens, it commeth to passe, that the starres jogged together do murmure and threaten tempest, so with the alteration of the Romane state, before Octavius founded his Monarchie, the whole globe of the earth with civill and forraine warre, with fight on sea and land was terribly shaken.”31 The young Caesar exploits the world in order to establish his power firmly and exclusively. Suetonius lists five major civil wars Octavius engaged in: Mutina, Philippi, Perusium, Sicily, and Actium.32 Appian's whole history is concerned with the Roman civil wars previous to Octavius' monarchy—An Auncient Historie and Exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres (1578). The wars of Octavius occupy over two hundred pages alone.33 He and Antony march on Rome to demand favors by the force of arms, creating a panic in the city.34 Octavius extorts the consulship from Rome, and proceeds to incite another civil war. Mexia, too, records the originator of the struggle with Pompey: “Octavian remaining in Rome, grew mightie, and in great estimation; so likewise he became covetous: and as the companie and neighborhood of Sextus Pompeius in Sicilia was displeasing unto him, so would he have been glad to have any occasion to warre against him: and so hee determined, and prepared a great fleete for the purpose.”35 The battles between Octavius and Pompey were many, but the final one “without doubt was one of the most cruell in the world.”36

In order to explain why Octavius brought such catastrophe to Rome, the Elizabethan historians of Rome often explored his motives for the several plots and civil wars. Fulbecke exposes the speciousness of Octavius' role as avenger for the murder of Julius Caesar: “no common-weale can be without men of aspiring humours, and when such a murder is wrought they find present occasion to tumultuate, knowing that Anarchie breedeth confusion, & that it is best fishing in a troubled streame: making a glorius pretece to revenge the death of a Prince, though in heart & in truth, they beare greater affection to the monarchie remaining, then to the Monarcke who is taken away.”37 Octavius seeks to stir Rome into a great civil tumult out of which he may emerge supreme in power.

The early dispute with Antony offers a significant example of Octavius' ability to create discord, and to use the subsequent upheaval to further his ambition to become sole ruler of Rome. Octavius maneuvers the Senate into opposition with Antony and his army. The Senate has no army to oppose him, but Octavius does. The Senate therefore must grant Octavius great military and civil powers in order to protect itself from Antony's army. Thus Octavius gains power by stabilizing the discord he created.38 In Seile's Augustus, Octavius schemes to have the army that will challenge Antony led by Hirtius and Pansa, the ruling consuls, so that he will stand to gain most with least risk to himself.39 Octavius, then, ensures his own succession to power by killing personally the two consuls.40

Later, when Octavius and Antony make war as allies, North testifies to their rapacity: “when they had driven all the natural Italians out of Italy, they gave their soldiers their lands and towns, to which they had no right: and moreover the only mark they shot at in all this war they made, was but to overcome and reign.”41 They did nothing to avoid the misery brought to all Italy by their wars.42 In a similar manner, Mexia accounts for their neglect of the commonweal: “But the truth is, they both desired to bee Lords of the whole, and in my opinion, vainglorie, ambition, covetousnes, and envie, moved them thereto, each of them putting his determination in effect, calling and levying forces and aides; so as the whole world in a manner, either of the one side or other, was moved and troubled therewith.”43 Mexia cites “principally Octavian,” whose greed and ambition overwhelms all other motives in the quest for world domination.44

The offences of Octavius against the commonweal were many, but none so corrupt, none so destructive, nor none so cruel as the proscription by the Triumvirate. Upon the announcement of proscription, Appian recounts, the city suffered violent and unnatural omens that reflect the cruelty of Octavius.45 The Triumvirate, supposedly conceived to preserve the peace, became an instrument by which to fulfill personal ambition. Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, according to North, “could hardly agree whom they would put to death: for every one of them would kill their enemies, and save their kinsmen and friends. Yet at length, giving place to their greedy desire to be revenged of their enemies, they spurned all reverence of blood and holiness of friendship at their feet.”46 Mexia, also, stresses the perverted standards of friendship displayed by the Triumvirs: “In this proscription and league which they made … they concluded also each of them to kill his enemies, and the one delivering them into the others hands, having more respect and care to be revenged of an enemie, then to the saving of a friend: and so was made the most cruell and most inhumane proscription and butcherie that ever was seene or heard of, giving and exchaunging friends and kinsmen, for enemies and adversaries.”47 Appian, too, notes that not only the commonweal was sacrificed in order to achieve personal power, but friends readily were murdered.48 Among the dead were 300 Senators and 2000 noble Romans, “so great power had ambition and hatred in the hearts of these three men.”49 The irony of the Triumvirate's action compared with the purpose of its existence is clear in Appian: “It seemed wonderful to them to consider, that other Cities being undone by sedition, have bin preserved againe by agreement. This Cittie, the devision of the rulers hadde consumed, and their agreement, broughte it to desolation.”50 Octavius' rule is compared to the sacking of a city, and his care of the commonweal likened to sedition. Octavius is clearly condemned as a tyrant in Seile's Augustus: “The poor Romans had not changed the Tyranny [of Julius Caesar], but the Tyrants. Yea they had three for one into the bargaine.”51

The time of the proscriptons was, Seile assures us, “a lamentable and ruthful time, good and bad, rich and poore, being alike subject to the slaughter.”52 Mexia dramatizes the discord and sorrow which seized Rome and Italy under the rule of the Triumvirs: “And presently those which by them were condemned and proscript, were by their commandement put to death, being sought out in al parts & places, ransacking their houses, and confisking their goods: In the execution whereof there was so great confusion, sorrow and heaviness in the citie of Rome, and almost in al Italie, as the like was never seene nor heard of therein by man.”53 So neglected was morality, Appian observes, that murder was rewarded by the Triumvirs: “there was greate suddayne slaughter, and diverse kyndes of murders, and cuttings off of heads to be shewed for rewardes sake. … The condemned persons heads were brought before the seats in the common place, that they that had brought them, might receive their goods.”54 Values were inverted by the proscriptions so that the trust people had for one another was destroyed. Because this trust formed the basis for social order, the loss of it meant social chaos. So extensive was the destruction of society that families were torn apart by murders and betrayals.55

Even Eutropius, who sees Octavius as the great monarch, admits that his paragon of princes did willfully “detayne the weale publique, by force of armes.”56 North allows that Octavius at first opposed the idea of proscription, but he admits that “when the sword was once drawn, he was no less cruel than the other two.”57 Suetonius attributes to him the same initial reluctance followed by an excess of vigorous cruelty,58 and affirms that his motive in carrying out the proscription was to gain personal power: Octavius “professed openly, That hee had determined no other end of the saide proscription, but that hee might have liberty still to proceede in all things as he would.”59 Octavius, according to Mexia's figurative emphasis, “plotting the Triumvirat … shed so much bloud and such execution, that there was not any streete in Rome, but was stained with civill bloud.”60

North's final word on the proscriptions presents a fit conclusion to the abundant catalogue of historical opinion damning Octavius: “In my opinion there was never a more horrible, unnatural, and crueller change than this was. For thus changing murther for murther, they did as well kill those whom they did forsake and leave unto others, as those also which others left unto them to kill: but so much more was their wickedness and cruelty great unto their friends, for that they put them to death being innocents, and having no cause to hate them.”61

In other events under his direction, Octavius appears barbarous and savage. Suetonius, for example, mentions his cruelty to the prisoners at Philippi,62 his mass execution at Perusia,63 and his plucking out of Gallius' eyes.64

The significance of the common indictment against Octavius' tyranny by the several historians is that nearly all the acts condemned were committed before Octavius became emperor. Most of the historians damn Octavius' neglect of the commonweal while he strove to attain absolute power; most praise him for his care after he had obtained it. He is both the ambitious and ruthless tyrant, and the benevolent monarch. Mexia comprehends the complexity of Octavius: “he happened wisely and uprightly to governe that, which by force and cunning he had gotten.”65 As the ambitious and cruel triumvir, Octavius violates constituted civil order (always an evil act in Tudor histories) in his desire to accumulate all power to himself.

Awareness of the sharp distinction maintained by so many Elizabethan historians between Octavius the ambitious tyrant and Octavius the great ruler may lead us, in turn by analogy, to be more sharply aware that Shakespeare has presented only a calculating and cruel tyrant Octavius in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleapatra. He has not yet become emperor at the end of Antony and Cleopatra, and Cleopatra, like the Elizabethan historians of Rome, holds his bloody civil war victories in abhorrent contempt.


  1. J. E. Phillips, The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays (New York, 1940), pp. 198-200.

  2. Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 91; J. Leeds Barroll, “Shakespeare and Roman History,” MLR, 53 (1958), 327-343; also cited by Charney, p. 229, n. 9. In a later article, Professor Barroll makes a broad claim about how in Elizabethan times Octavius Caesar “was considered an eminently impressive historical figure” (“The Characterization of Octavius,” Shakespeare Studies, 6 [1972], p. 252 and nn. 26, 44). Others share Professor Barroll's view: see Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 165, 179, where Octavius Caesar appears in “a choric function” against a diminished Antony and Cleopatra; and Daniel Stempel, “The Transmigration of the Crocodile,” SQ, 7 (1956), 63-66.

  3. Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World (Columbus, Ohio, 1968), p. 126.

  4. Roy W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy (Bloomington, Indiana, 1969), pp. 172-173.

  5. Battenhouse, pp. 174-183.

  6. A. P. Riemer, A Reading of Shakespeare's “Antony and Cleopatra” (Sydney, 1968), pp. 12, 38-39.

  7. Riemer, pp. 76, 81. Riemer offers a helpful survey of Antony and Cleopatra in his first and third chapters, and points out how Virgil K. Whitaker, The Mirror up to Nature (San Marino, 1965) and Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1956), especially, support his own assessment of the play's irresolute conclusion in the alleged contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies generated by the lovers' self-interest and lust.

  8. Honor Matthews, Character and Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1969; copyright 1962), p. 66. See pp. 206-207 for affirmation of Antony and Cleopatra's transcendent love.

  9. Maynard Mack, “Introduction” to his Pelican edition of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra (Baltimore, 1960), pp. 21-23; and in “Antony and Cleopatra: The Stillness and the Dance” in Shakespeare's Art: Seven Essays, ed. Milton Crane (Chicago, 1973), p. 91, Professor Mack observes that “Nothing seems to be granted finality in Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps not even death”; Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York, 1966), pp. 98-100, 120-26; Sigurd Burckhardt, “The King's Language: Shakespeare's Drama as Social Discovery,” Antioch Review, 21 (1961), 386, quoted in Matthew Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, 1965), p. 174; Proser's distinction between the world of Octavius and the world of Antony and Cleopatra comes to most succinct focus on p. 176. Drawing on Professor Mack's criticism, Janet Adelman affirms the transcendence of Antony and Cleopatra in The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven, 1973), pp. 156-157, 196 n. 20. Northrop Frye identifies “a superhuman vitality” that Cleopatra draws out of Antony leading them together into the discovery of a transcendence in “the appearance of another world that endures no master” (Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy [Toronto, 1967], pp. 73-74). Harold Fisch finds transcendence in the mythological archetypes of Mars and Venus, Osiris and Isis, Cupid and Psyche in “‘Antony and Cleopatra:’ The Limits of Mythology,” Shakespeare Survey, 23 (1970), 59-67. Professor Fisch cites work by Raymond B. Waddington, “Antony and Cleopatra: What Venus Did with Mars,” Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 210-227, and sees Cleopatra's death as “ritual apotheosis,” “deserved punishment” by providence for sins, and transcending marriage ceremony leading to “her strong toil of grace” as a “heavenly and transcendent virtue” (pp. 66-67). For a sampling of other critics who define transcendence in Antony and Cleopatra, see Joseph A. Bryant, Hippolyta's View (Lexington, Ky., 1961), pp. 179-180, 183-188, and pp. 177-179, 188, for a pejorative view of Octavius; S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), pp. 166, 168; David Kaula, “The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra,SQ, 15 (1964), 223; J. L. Simmons, Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies (Charlottesville, 1973), pp. 15, 163; Robert Ornstein, “The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra” in The Later Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1966), pp. 31-46, for transcendence by means of art; and Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 2nd ed. (New York, 1966), p. 174.

  10. Proser, p. 229. The drama of transcendence is not missed by all those critics who find high values in the character of Octavius: see Markels, p. 150, for “transformation” and “apotheosis” in death; and Matthews, pp. 206-207, for transcendence of the material world (cf. n. 8, above).

  11. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1946), passim, esp. pp. 64-70; Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1958; copyright 1947); see also her Tudor Conceptions of History and Tragedy in “A Mirror for Magistrates” (Berkeley, 1936), and “The Use of Historical Patterns in the Reign of Elizabeth,” HLQ 1 (1938); Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957). See also Leonard F. Dean, “Tudor Theories of History Writing,” University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, No. 1 (1941), 1-24; Herbert Weisinger, “Ideas of History during the Renaissance,” JHI, 6 (1945), 415-435; and W. R. Trimble, “Early Tudor Historiography, 1485-1548,” JHI, 11 (1950), 30-41.

  12. Phillips, p. 199.

  13. H. Seile, Augustus: or, an essay (London, 1632), p. 227.

  14. William Fulbecke, An Historicall Collection of the Continuall Factions of the Romans and Italians (London, 1601), p. 17.

  15. Augustus, p. 27.

  16. Fulbecke, p. 171.

  17. Shakespeare's Plutarch: Being a Selection From The Lives in North's Plutarch, ed. W. W. Skeat (London, 1904), p. 166. (Hereafter cited as North.)

  18. Augustus, pp. 31-32.

  19. Appian, An Auncient Historie and Exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres, trans. W. B. (London, 1578), p. 181.

  20. Suetonius, The History of the Twelve Caesars, trans. P. Holland (1606) in The Tudor Translations, XXI (London, 1899), p. 187.

  21. Pedro Mexia, The Historie of all the Romane Emperors, Englished by W. T. (London, 1604), p. 29.

  22. North, p. 167.

  23. Augustus, p. 52. See also Mexia, p. 42.

  24. North, p. 202.

  25. Suetonius, pp. 92-93.

  26. Appian, p. 383.

  27. Mexia, p. 41. See also North, p. 199.

  28. Augustus, pp. 55-56.

  29. Appian, pp. 380-381.

  30. Mexia, p. 41.

  31. Fulbecke, p. 18.

  32. Suetonius, pp. 86-87.

  33. See Books 3 and 4.

  34. Appian, p. 189. See also Mexia, p. 30.

  35. Mexia, p. 36.

  36. Mexia, p. 39.

  37. Fulbecke, p. 172.

  38. Appian, pp. 181-197.

  39. Augustus, pp. 33-35.

  40. Suetonius, p. 88.

  41. North, pp. 145-146.

  42. Appian, pp. 311-312.

  43. Mexia, p. 42.

  44. Mexia, p. 41.

  45. Appian, p. 230.

  46. North, p. 169.

  47. Mexia, p. 31. See also Augustus, pp. 41-42.

  48. See Appian, pp. 230-231.

  49. Mexia, p. 31.

  50. Appian, pp. 236-237. See also p. 231.

  51. Augustus, pp. 43-43.

  52. Augustus, p. 42.

  53. Mexia, p. 31.

  54. Appian, pp. 235-237.

  55. Appian, p. 236.

  56. Eutropius, A Briefe Chronicle, where in are described shortlye the Originall, and the successive estate of the Romaine weale publique, trans. N. Howard (London, 1564), fol. 69v. Richard Reynoldes, A Chronicle of all the noble Emperours of the Romaines (London, 1571), also praises the emperor Augustus, not the aspiring Octavius.

  57. North, p. 236.

  58. Suetonius, p. 101-102.

  59. Suetonius, p. 102.

  60. Mexia, p. 27.

  61. North, p. 169.

  62. Suetonius, p. 89.

  63. Suetonius, p. 90.

  64. Suetonius, pp. 102-103.

  65. Mexia, p. 51.


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Antony and Cleopatra

Regarded as one of Shakespeare's most compelling love stories, Antony and Cleopatra is often seen as an anomaly among critics because, despite its apparently tragic ending, the play ends on a triumphant note. Although Antony and Cleopatra both die at the play's end, they deny Octavius Caesar victory and achieve immortality as lovers. The tragedy of the play is also undercut by the comic elements that appear throughout the course of the drama. The play's genre, which encompasses the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic, comprises one area of intense critical analysis. Critics are also concerned with the language used in Antony and Cleopatra, and examine the rhetorical styles of the characters as well as Shakespeare's use of metaphor and imagery. Investigations of the characters in the play are concerned to some degree with the Elizabethan understanding of the characters as fictional entities and as historical personages. In modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra, the dynamic relationship between the two lovers is typically of most interest to spectators as well as reviewers.

Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar are the most heavily scrutinized characters in Antony and Cleopatra. Some critics focus their character analyses on the way in which these characters might have been received by Elizabethan audiences. Robert P. Kalmey (1978) argues that the Elizabethan conception of Octavius Caesar was two-pronged. According to Kalmey, Elizabethans praised Caesar as an ideal prince only after he was crowned emperor. Prior to this event, Kalmey maintains, Caesar was condemned by Elizabethans who saw him as a tyrant who fueled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions. Like Kalmey, Theodora A. Jankowski (1989) is interested in the Elizabethan take on Shakespeare's characters, specifically Cleopatra and her resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. Jankowski notes that although both women used their bodies for political purposes, Cleopatra should not be taken as an allegorical representation of Elizabeth. Jankowski states that the similarities between the women suggest Shakespeare's awareness of the fact that a successful female sovereign was an anomaly in a patriarchal society, and of the particular problems Elizabeth faced in ruling England. Taking a similar approach to the issue of Cleopatra's characterization, Imtiaz Habib (2000) also finds a connection between Cleopatra and Elizabeth. Habib, however, suggests that Cleopatra's blackness and seductive nature, in conjunction with the indolence of Egypt as a nation, is contrasted with the nobility of England, and the white and virginal Queen Elizabeth. Habib also comments on the black woman of Shakespeare's Sonnets and her relationship to Cleopatra. Additionally, Habib maintains that the critical connection between Cleopatra's political impotency and her sexual power is her race, which Habib demonstrates was understood to be black and ethnic in the eyes of historians and of Shakespeare. Coppélia Kahn (see Further Reading) centers her study on the rivalry between Octavius Caesar and Antony. Kahn contends that Caesar campaigns against Antony not only to demonize Cleopatra and paint her as Rome's archenemy, but to completely discredit Antony as a rival. Kahn goes on to examine the relationship between Caesar and Antony from Antony's point of view, commenting on what Antony hoped to accomplish through his suicide, and also discussing how his death would have been interpreted according to Renaissance ideas regarding suicide.

The sense of triumph at the play's end is an important element of modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra. In her review of the 1999 production of the play staged at the Southmark Globe Theatre in London and directed by Giles Block, Lois Potter (1999) comments that the director's vision of the play emphasized the victory of “a gloriously human couple.” Potter additionally singles out members of this all-male cast for praise; she finds that Mark Rylance's Cleopatra offered new insights into the character and the play as a whole, and that John McEnery's performance as Enobarbus was exceptional as well. Patrick Carnegy (1999) and Russell Jackson (2000) review another recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon and directed by Steven Pimlott. Although Carnegy criticizes Alan Bates, as Antony, for stumbling over many of his lines, he gives high praise to Frances de la Tour's performance as Cleopatra, and to the production as a whole. Likewise, Jackson is equally taken with de la Tour's Cleopatra and finds Bates's Antony to be likeable and energetic, but decidedly unheroic.

Many aspects of the language, style, and generic structure of Antony and Cleopatra fascinate modern critics. Robert D. Hume (1973) offers a detailed examination of the ways in which language, rhythm, and rhetorical habit are used for the purposes of character differentiation and development. For example, Hume observes that Antony's language reflects his vacillation between the worlds of Rome and Egypt, and that Cleopatra's imaginative language and varied rhythms are contrasted with Caesar's straightforward and regular verse. In another comparison between the language of Caesar and Cleopatra, Hume comments that the melodiousness arising from Cleopatra's use of assonance is set against the cacophony generated by Caesar's alliteration. Like Hume, Rosalie L. Colie (1974) explores the styles of speech used in Antony and Cleopatra. Colie focuses on the contrast between the Attic and Asiatic styles of speech and how these styles were understood in the Renaissance as encompassing not just rhetorical patterns, but moral and cultural differences as well. Colie explains that Atticism, the style preferred by Caesar, is characterized by plain, direct speech, while Asianism, which is more sensuous, self-indulgent, and imaginative, is the style used by both Cleopatra and Antony. Furthermore, Colie examines the language Antony and Cleopatra use with each other, commenting that their love transcends conventional hyperbole; in their creation of new forms of overstatement, the lovers employ a language reflective of the instability of their love. Donald C. Freeman (1999) uses the theory of cognitive metaphor to evaluate the figurative language found in Antony and Cleopatra. Freeman identifies the major image schemes used in the play and demonstrates the way these inform our understanding of the play's treatment of Antony, Cleopatra, and Rome. In terms of genre, Antony and Cleopatra encompasses elements of the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic. J. L. Simmons (1969) demonstrates the ways in which the structure of the play follows the pattern of other Shakespearean comedies. Simmons finds that the contrast between Rome and Egypt is mirrored by the contrasts between court and tavern in the Henry IV plays, between Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice, and between court and forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Taking another approach to the debate over the play's genre, R. J. Dorius (see Further Reading) discusses the interaction between the tragic, heroic, and romantic elements of the play, arguing that Shakespeare's treatment of love and of Cleopatra is at the center of the controversy regarding the relationship between tragedy and romance in Antony and Cleopatra.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Wanton Self-Destruction.” The Spectator 283, no. 8917 (3 July 1999): 41-2.

[In the following review, Carnegy offers a mostly favorable assessment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford-upon-Avon for the Summer-Winter 1999-2000 season, directed by Steven Pimlott. Although Carnegy criticizes Alan Bates, as Antony, for stumbling over many of his lines, he gives high praise to Frances de la Tour's performance as Cleopatra.]

‘Men's judgements,’ as Enobarbus, Antony's sometime friend and shrewdest observer, remarks, ‘are a parcel of their fortunes.’ For Enobarbus, and for Steven Pimlott's new production, Antony's tragedy is his loss of judgement. His ill-fortune is shown as lying more in his stars than in Cleopatra's arms. We see an Antony whose behaviour is driven by ennui, even by what Sartre called nausea. Behold the man of power, the ‘triple pillar of the world’, now grown bored with omnipotence.

Cleopatra is one reason for him to go on living, drink is another. The one sure thing about Alan Bates's Antony is that it's already all up with him, a man who knows he's marked for death and will revel while he may. This is a Dionysus matched against the Pentheus of Guy Henry's coldly calculating Caesar. It's not his dalliance with Cleopatra that antagonises friends but his wanton self-destruction.

What, then, of Antony's relationship with the serpent of old Nile? Shakespeare doesn't show its growth, catching it only at its maturity and tracing its downward curve and the pathos of its valedictory upsurge. Cleopatra has no need of alcohol. Her intoxication is Antony. From first to last in Frances de la Tour's magnificent performance, she doesn't really know him. At the end, she recognises that her vision of a hero whose ‘legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm crested the world … He was as rattling thunder’ may have been no more than a dream. If Alan Bates is substantial enough in his exuberant dissolution, de la Tour's infatuation is instability itself. The drama is of her transformation from ‘the whore of Egypt’, playing infantile games to hold her man, into regal queen who longs to call him ‘husband’.

It's only with the approach of death that, too late, they sober up into a semblance of what they must have been. When Antony rounds on Cleopatra for her navy's desertion, the embers rekindle. But his reproaches are really self-reproaches. Love flames again in his manic jealousy on discovering Cleopatra bent over the hand of Caesar's luckless emissary. As Caesar closes in on the triumvir who's so carelessy redistributing choice morsels of the Empire, Antony's death parodies that of the romantic hero. It's a botched, cowardly suicide, triggered by a blubbering eunuch's false news of Cleopatra's death. All judgment gone, he fails to see that this was the messenger he should have whipped, a jackanapes who gets off with no more than a bystander's boot to his ample gluteus maximus.

Antony, famously, strips off the disgraced ‘sevenfold shield of Ajax’ to meet his end: ‘Unarm, Eros. The long day's task is done …’ Alan Bates manages the ignominious death as best he may, but as elsewhere fumbles too many of his lines into inaudibility. De la Tour's Cleopatra paints her face and robes herself as Egypt's golden queen, rising to greatness through her pain and pride as she prepares to die. She does so a ritual victim, strewing the ground with sand and absolving her attendants by sponging their necks with water. In all this de la Tour gives the performance of a lifetime, with heartrending delivery of the poetry of her ‘immortal longings’.

The visual setting that Steven Pimlott and his designer Yolanda Sonnabend provide is of a rich but finely disciplined theatricality, drawing on Pimlott's experience in opera and Sonnabend's in ballet.

The bare boards of the theatre's new wooden oval, used so successfully in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello, are now closely carpeted in charcoal grey. Three towering glass surfaces, framed like dressing-mirrors, reflect the action back on itself. Behind them, the outlines of an emblematic pyramid and sinuous hieroglyphs eventually lift to herald the chill dawn of Caesar's victorious entry. The transitions between Rome and Egypt are swiftly accomplished by Hugh Vanstone's lighting which knows how to make this exposed stage seem a private prison or a public palace. Sonnabend's penchant for luxuriant invention is focused into costumes which hit off to perfection the contrast between the suave austerity of Caesar's milieu and the oriental pleasures of Cleopatra's court—Antony cockily celebrates his return from Rome by affecting a sumptuous kaffiyeh.

Pimlott's theatrical language borrows from oriental mime. Malcolm Storry's sonorous Enobarbus wills the life out of him by pounding his naked chest. Cleopatra and her maids haul on invisible ropes to bring up the dying Antony who's clearly visible slumped in a chair behind them. Corpses quit the stage on their feet. The one moment that didn't read was when Antony's friend and appointed executioner, the ironically named Eros, seemed not to have turned the sword on himself but to have thrust it into Antony and calmly walked off. Not the right message at that crucial juncture. It will doubtless be corrected. All in all, this is a compelling view of the work and not to be missed.

William Blissett (lecture date 1962)

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SOURCE: Blissett, William. “Dramatic Irony in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 2 (spring 1967): 151-66.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1962, Blissett explores Antony and Cleopatra's use of dramatic irony, focusing in particular on the dramatic irony generated from the nature of the theater and from the audiences' interpretations of the play's characters and events. ]

Ho now, Enobarbus!
What's your pleasure, sir?
I must with haste from hence.
Why, then we kill all our women. We see how mortal an unkindness is to them; if they suffer our departure, death's the word.(1)

Antony, one may imagine, looks a little distraught; and a slight operatic tremolo carries over from the well-turned bel canto tribute to his late wife Fulvia. Enobarbus knows his man even if he does not know the news: his remarks are dry and pointed—ironic, in a sense recognized in Shakespeare's time, that is, in the rhetorical mode described as the “dry mock”.2 The relationship of the two characters might also have been called eironeia by the Greeks: the element of boastfulness and pretence in Antony at this moment, and often in the play, brings him close to the comic type of the alazon; and the tendency of Enobarbus to belittle and deflate makes him an eiron. Eiron is to alazon as pin to balloon.3

But the situation itself is an instance of dramatic irony in the modern sense: that is, one of the persons on the stage knows more than the other, and the spectator knows more than either, indeed than both. Antony knows of Fulvia's death and of the strong exigencies that recall him to Rome, and so the foolery of Enobarbus rebounds upon himself—to be deftly caught by the quick-witten eiron and thrown again with better aim when he says, “The tears live in an onion that would water this sorrow.” But Enobarbus too has superior insight and sees, as the momentarily resolved Antony cannot, how painful the parting with Cleopatra will be—funny and painful, a combination beloved of the ironic character and the ironic writer.4 And the audience can see and appraise both the committed and the detached man—Antony, a “plain man without subtlety” though given to a somewhat Asiatic style of speech and life,5 and Enobarbus, a man of sharper perception and more pointed, less rotund, rhetoric. Thus the spectators experience here the proper pleasure of the theater, that sense of comprehending the motives of the actors and the inner form and flow of the action that we call dramatic irony.6

It may be useful to go over the same passage again. On hearing of Fulvia's death, Antony resolves to leave “the present pleasure” for what he believes to be duty or honor in Rome; he calls Enobarbus, and Enobarbus asks, “What is your pleasure, sir?” A perfectly normal question, yet ironic in the context. Antony replies, “I must with haste from hence.” The spectator may or may not recall that Julius Caesar's virtue and boast was celeritas: he will be noticing, from this point on, that resolute and prompt action is ever the mark of the Roman—of Antony when stirred by Roman thoughts, of Octavius Caesar; and to be taken by surprise always the mark of the loser in the power-struggle, first Pompey, then Antony, for

Celerity is never more admir'd
Than by the negligent.

“Why, then we kill all our women”, Enobarbus answers: “We see how mortal an unkindness is to them; if they suffer our departure, death's the word.” What exactly is the dramatic irony here? There is first the irony from outside the play. “Death's the word”, we might have told Enobarbus from the vantage point of our superior knowledge of history, death for Cleopatra and her women, for Antony and himself. But there is also an irony within the play that makes us note this speech and say, “Be careful, witty man, lest you prove a prophet.” A prophet he does prove: immediately, when we behold Cleopatra's winds and waters; ultimately, when Cleopatra lets it be thought that Antony's unkindness has indeed been mortal and so precipitates his death and hers.7 From the beginning, the audience appraises Enobarbus as ironically as he appraises the other characters.

What I have tried to gain by looking so intently at this rather unemphatic passage are the senses of irony and the terms of reference for the ensuing study. Irony the trope; the eiron as a comic mask confronting and deflating the alazon; the dramatic irony that springs from the very nature of the theater; that which comes from information outside the play; that which arises from the audience's cumulative act of interpretation whereby in its state of recollection and attention it performs prodigies of memory and anticipation, responding to the play phase by phase and as a totality. Such an approach will not, of course, arrive at a full reading of Antony and Cleopatra, though it will be possible to raise the time-honored questions of the structural strength or weakness of the play and whether or not the world is well lost when the phoenix and the turtle (or, alternatively, the sensualist and the woman in whose arms such men perish) are fled in a mutual flame from hence.8

The universally known story of Antony and Cleopatra creates in the mind of the spectator a sort of pre-existing play. He knows that the Roman Republic has departed forever and that the Roman Empire is about to be established—and that the Empire will go the way of the Republic. He knows that maverick Antony will be defeated by imperial Caesar—a great ruler, a great dissembler, a cold comedian, “one of the most odious of the world's successful men”.9 He knows—as who has ever forgotten?—Cleopatra, fatal, regal, meretricious, tragic. He knows further that this action, so apparently decisive in its time, the battle of East against West, of Oriental levitas against Roman gravitas, has proved not to be the central event of all time, even of its time: its opulence shadowed and its rhetoric quite hushed by the dayspring of the Christian era, to which Shakespeare as it were over the heads of all the characters of his play makes repeated allusion, no doubt thereby pleasing the wiser sort among his auditory.

Given this initial readiness to respond and interpret, dramatic irony is present from the beginning, even in expository passages and first lines. The opening speech—Nay, the opening word—does the Roman thing and sets going the opposition of pleasure and duty, the East and the West; it also, as if in spite of Philo's grave intention, expresses Antony's very defects in heroic, hyperbolical terms—his “dotage” being compared to a river bursting its banks, his very bondage being heroic, like a Mars not knowing he is netted. Thinking (and such a thought is ironic) that this cannot be all, we look and see visible in Antony all the Roman pillar-like stature, all the limiting folly or hamartia that Philo's words led us to expect, but those words pale beside the protagonist's opening lines. For a man in Egyptian bondage, Antony speaks like an emperor with a glimpse of the apocalypse. But involved in the glory of this apocalypse is the destruction of Rome and of that part of himself that may be likened to a Roman structure:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall!

The speech thus magnificently begun discandies into turgidity, and the whole is a verbal accompaniment to an embrace of the mutual pair which this early in the play will excite embarrassed laughter, and to a dismissal of the messenger from Rome, an action of which an audience, always eager for news, cannot approve. Any spectator will take an instant liking to Antony, glowingly alive and virile among the women and the eunuchs; nevertheless, we begin to form a desire for him to hearken to the voice of duty, and sure enough, before the scene changes from Egypt, he is exclaiming, “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, Or lost myself in dotage”—dotage, Philo's word. He breaks them, but only after a scene that we expect him to dominate but which Cleopatra steals easily, heckling to tatters his studied and correct speech of leave-taking and then giving him leave to go. If the play were to pause a moment here, all would agree that return he must: if Antony like Hercules must simply choose between Pleasure and Virtue, he must simply choose Virtue.10

The play cannot pause but goes on to unfold itself in a second phase. Instead of speculating further, one must see and appraise this other set of values, this other style of life, that Antony has chosen with our concurrence. Young Caesar enters and addresses old Lepidus like a schoolmaster dictating notes. Already the future Augustus has adopted his uncle's trick of referring to himself as if he were a historical personage. Impersonal he shows himself at once to be, and cold and impassive. Alexandria, that we have seen and he has not, is recognizable but only barely recognizable in the bleak light of his account; he reinforces the Hercules parallel by his allusion to the story of the hero made effeminate by Omphale;11 and he sums up his lesson for Lepidus with a comment on Antony's weakness, the pitiless truth of which prepares the audience for Caesar's final victory, Antony's final defeat.

Lepidus replies in images whose helpless inconsistency effectively cancels him out thus early in the play and renders ironic all arrangements based on his being counted as a figure of weight.12

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

Thus far the tentative thematic opposition of Pleasure and Duty holds, for Antony is not returning to enjoy the company of Caesar and Lepidus. But as this second phase of the play develops, we look in vain for some cause at stake in the struggle that Antony has joined. Antony before leaving Egypt, Caesar here, are both given speeches expressing contempt for the common people—they draw together on this unamiable ground; but neither yet is moved by anything but considerations of personal power, which Pompey threatens.13

Pompey duly appears. Will he perhaps embody some identifiable force for good or evil in the commonwealth? His first speech is as damaging to him as the first speech of Lepidus had been:

If the great gods be just, they shall assist
The deeds of justest men.

This piece of specious pagan pietism is spoken to his two lieutenants, pirates by trade, and Pompey's moral capital falls through a hole in his toga. And when news of Antony's return is brought, Pompey at first refuses to believe it, then comforts himself that it is he who

Can from the lap of Egypt's widow pluck
The ne'er-lust-wearied Antony.

We recognize him now for a certain loser. Before the alliance is even made, the audience knows as all the world does that only two of the triumvirate count; but we and only we know that the threat to them from outside has no strength of purpose. Thus there is not the slightest military or political suspense. The audience can therefore give its full attention to the figure Antony cuts in his new surroundings. As duty dissolves into power, and the claims of power lose their urgency, the other term, pleasure, must inevitably be reappraised, and the second phase of the play will melt into the third.

The reappraisal is accomplished in the long and complex scene that brings the triumvirs together. It opens with the feeble Lepidus begging Enobarbus to entreat his captain to soft and gentle speech, in reply to which Enobarbus momentarily steps out of his role of dry commentator to do some of Antony's boasting for him. The two great men at this point make their entrance, from opposite directions. Can a spectator without a smile watch the elaborate pretense of each to be deeply preoccupied with affairs of state and unaware of the other's approach? Can he without laughter watch their hackles rise as each tries to induce the other to sit down at his bidding? Neither has yielded yet. Antony, who is at a moral disadvantage, attacks; Caesar parries, counterattacks, scores. Antony retreats, admitting first that he could not rule his wife, then that he did not receive Caesar's messenger because

Three kings I had newly feasted, and did want
Of what I was i'th'morning.

With each such admission he shrinks nearer to Caesar's size. Only when they are evenly matched—itself a victory for Caesar—do Caesar's men recall the present danger and the need for reconciliation. Here Enobarbus protests against the imposture and falsity of the accord at the summit that seems imminent, and is silenced. He then stands, a “considerate stone”, while the shrivelled Antony struts in the speech that draws an incredulous snort of contempt and marks the nadir of our esteem for him—“I am not married, Caesar”.14 A marriage is promptly arranged to link the two greatest men in the world; they leave the stage; the scene is over? Not quite. Just at the point when the mean spirit of Caesar seems dominant, Cleopatra nods us to her and from Alexandria steals the greatest Roman scene of the play.

“She's a most triumphant lady, if report be square unto her.” No need to specify that Cleopatra and not Octavia is meant. Observe how regally she can appropriate to herself the Roman word “triumphant”—worthy of triumphing; worthy too, we shall come to realize, of being led in triumph. The great description that follows prepares for Antony's return to Egypt and for the failure of the alliance with Caesar. Ultimately, it prepares for Cleopatra's similar emergence, after the death of Antony, to dominate the last scenes of the play, which would else have been Caesar's; and here and now it decides the audience is irrevocably in favor of Egypt and makes ironic every speech and action before Antony's return. It is in the glow of this great passage that we appraise the false bonhomie on Pompey's galley and the footling point of honor that costs the wretched Pompey his world, that we see the encounter of the newly married couple and smile at the irony of Antony's first words to his bride—

The world, and my great office, will sometimes
Divide me from your bosom—

that we hear the warning, an echo of our own judgment, of the Soothsayer to Antony to separate himself from Caesar's withering genius. In this same glow we see Cleopatra herself in the scenes with the Messenger. Her outburst of anger is ironic in coming just at the time that we are sure that she is safe. We are impressed at how quickly she comes to share our insight. In contrast to the other major persons of the play (even the eiron, Enobarbus), Cleopatra is never long regarded ironically by the audience.

As Rome comes to represent something less than duty, Egypt becomes something more than pleasure, and now that Antony has finally chosen the East, his earlier promise to piece Cleopatra's opulent throne with kingdoms is vividly brought to mind by Caesar's report that he has done so, and in the process assumed an oriental divine kingship.15 Far more than any other Renaissance treatment of the story,16 Shakespeare's play gives an astonishingly accurate and concise impression of two incompatible worlds and ways of life—the cult of pleasure and fertility and the great goddess in the East, and in the West the Roman combination of stoic apathy and assent to the political juggernaut, as expressed with lapidary force in Caesar's words of cold comfort to his sister:

Let determin'd things to destiny
Hold unbewail'd their way.(17)

Shakespeare does, however, omit from Plutarch one comment made on the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra at Cydnus which might seem most apposite for these purposes: that “there went a rumour in the people's mouths, that the goddess Venus was come to play with the god Bacchus, for the general good of all Asia.”18 It is appropriate, I think, to pause for a moment and ask why, for the answer will bear directly on the play and especially on the phase we are now entering. First, the general good of Asia matters to Shakespeare and to us not at all: such political interest as there is in the action must be concentrated in Rome. Secondly, Shakespeare can make no use of Dionysus. Dionysus in the modern world (we need to be reminded) is largely the discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche and other demonic professors; for Shakespeare he bore the name and nature of Bacchus—the “plumpy Bacchus with pink eyen” of the song on Pompey's galley, a figure quite without dignity. The historic Antony began his political career by identifying his public image with his supposed ancestor, Hercules, and only later in his Greek and Egyptian phases graduated, so to speak, to the more sophisticated and Eastern, more universal and less cultishly military and masculine figure, Dionysus.19 But it appears from the text that Shakespeare could do so much with Hercules that a second mythical identification would merely have caused confusion. A mythical identification need not be complete, consistent, or always present: it is like a constellation—a few points are sufficient for the picture. But it should be a clear and single picture. Let us see how the playwright makes use of the Hercules theme to afford to the auditor who recognizes it an additional insight into the action and the characters and hence that superior knowledge of which dramatic irony is the product.

Though a favorite patron of soldiers, Hercules was not himself a soldierly figure, and so Antony's military stature is built up first by reference to Mars. Philo's “plated Mars”, Enobarbus' “let him speak as loud as Mars”, Cleopatra's “though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, The other way's a Mars”, all establish Antony's soldiership on a superhuman scale. But almost concurrent with the first of these and continuing longer and of much greater mythical moment, since they allude to actions charged with meaning and not just to a conventional metonymic figure, are the Hercules references, some overt, some covert.

Hercules is of sanguine temperament—warm, impulsive, unreflective, great in physique, terrible in wrath, outstanding in powers of endurance and enjoyment, and Marc Antony has the physique and temperament to profit by his claim to descent from the legendary hero.20 “This Herculean Roman” has performed prodigies of endurance in the Alpine campaign and enjoyed prodigious pleasure in Alexandria. In reference to his ancestor's holding the earth on his shoulder, Cleopatra speaks of Antony as the “demi-Atlas of the world”. But three parallels in the story of Hercules and Antony are played upon, at the beginning, the middle, and the end. One has already been observed: it is the hero's choice of Virtue over Pleasure, Hercules at the crossroads at the beginning of his career. The second identifies Cleopatra with the virago Omphale. Antony, Caesar complains,

                              Is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he. …

The indulgence of sensual passion (for so the Renaissance misread and moralized the legend) makes a man effeminate—a statement that everyone from Caesar's time to Shakespeare's would regard as a truism. The picture comes to focus here when Cleopatra recalls how

I laughed 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.

It recalls the story of the infatuated Hercules, “with his great beard and furious countenance, in womans attire, spinning at Omphales commaundement”, and prompts the comment that “the representing of so strange a power in love procureth delight: and the scornefulness of the action stirreth laughter”. For so Sir Philip Sidney speaks of this scene of what we should call irony.21

“By Hercules I think I am i'th'right”, says the common soldier who tries to plead the cause of military common-sense to Antony, and it is the historically and dramatically appropriate way to swear. In the strange quiet scene between the first battle and the second the reedy music under ground is taken as proof that “the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, now leaves him.”22 Placed as it is, not before the final defeat but before Antony's only victory, this effect is well timed. Somewhere Antony must win or we will doubt his soldiership, which cannot depend entirely upon report; he must win so that we will glory with him, and so the victory is placed just at the moment that we know that his doom is sealed. Because we must never consider the possibility of his final victory, this melancholy shadow (darkened by the desertion of Enobarbus) must frame his golden hour, and later, when he greets his victorious followers, he must, to point the irony further, hail them as “all Hectors”, thereby recalling the greatest, warmest, most sympathetic of doomed warriors.

Within a few minutes' playing time, Antony, betrayed as he believes by Cleopatra, makes for himself the identification with Hercules in his death agony that has long been anticipated:

The shirt of Nessus is upon me, teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'the moon,
And with those hands that grasped the heaviest club,
Subdue my worthiest self. The witch shall die.

Omphale earlier, here the witch. Parallel to the Hercules theme is the theme of a Circe-like enchantress binding the hero with erotic magic.23 The gipsy queen, like her servant the soothsayer, can read a little in “nature's infinite book of secrecy”, and knows the properties of things as well as the qualities of people: mandragora, for example. In Gerarde's Herball (1597) Shakespeare could have learned of the mandrake that “the wine wherein the roote hath been boiled or infused, provoketh sleep, and asswageth paine.” Most of its other associations and legends he would find scornfully dismissed by Gerarde, but perhaps useful for poetic purposes—the identification of the plant with Reuben's love-apples in the book of Genesis, the magical aphrodisiac that made Rachel fruitful; its human shape; the folk belief that it grows from the secretions of a hanged man. In keeping with the image of liquification in the play, when Antony is away Cleopatra drinks a soporific love-potion distilled of a homunculus. Further, the playwright may have known that the mandrake was sometimes called Circeium.24 Circe, and Venus, and Eve, with the love-apple and the serpent, the potion of sleep and love made from the man-like plant—all these associations have combined by the second half of the play and generate their full charge when Antony is called “the noble ruin of her magic”, when he hails her in victory as “this great Fairy”, in defeat as “thou spell”, and “the witch”, and exclaims

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

The moving weight of the Hercules and of the Circe patterns (both of which come into clearer view in the latter part of the play) no less than the outward action and its traditional interpretation, would seem inevitably to lead to the spectacle of the destruction of the hero by a harlot sorceress. And yet most readers and spectators will say that such is not the dominant but only a recessive impression of the play.

Part of the counter-effect that Shakespeare achieves in this penultimate phase of the action is established by the permanent destruction of our esteem for the Roman way of life, as embodied in Caesar, whom we reject as a human being, and in Octavia, whom we try to warm to and fail. Again, the identification of Cleopatra with Isis does more than add variety: it also serves to neutralize her identification with Circe, for in the moral allegory current in the Renaissance, Circe-figures are evil, Venus-figures are double, and Isis-figures are loving, maternal, and beneficent.25 And further, when Cleopatra robs her Hercules of his sword, she stands to him as a sinister Omphale; but when the shirt of Nessus is upon him, though he calls her witch, her role is that of Deianeira, the loving wife of Hercules and innocent cause of his death. But the chief countervailing agent to prevent the obvious interpretation of the play is Enobarbus.

Enobarbus wanted Antony to return to Egypt, as we did, and yet as Antony falls into dotage and dishonor he speaks our comment aloud, and this part of the play is given over to a most unusual and unexpected encounter of eiron and alazon in which it is the eiron who comes to be regarded the more ironically by the audience, as being ultimately the more ignorant of his true condition.

Herculean Antony is recognizable to any Elizabethan as a sanguine man. In the first scene Cleopatra taunts him—

Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine
Is Caesar's homager. …

Caesar, just as clearly, is, as the Romans would say, aridus in distinction to Antony's genialis.26 The buoyancy of the sanguine man, his ruddy complection and warm moist handshake, are in Antony's case combined with frequent reminders of his time of life, a golden autumn. In returning to golden Alexandria, the granary of the ancient world, he is returning to his natural habitat.

In his earlier scenes Enobarbus is presented as a somewhat prudent, somewhat cynical follower of Antony, temperamentally similar to his master. He has shown good judgment in mocking Antony's excesses, in gauging political realities in Rome, and in rising to a description of that wonderful piece of work, Cleopatra. Now he can move more fully into his role of choric commentator and eiron—an eiron who is a subtle and perceptive person feigning not stupidity but plainness and common-sense.

He it is who warns Antony not to fight by sea, who (with Scarus) describes the shameful defeat, who, when many are deserting, yet resolves to follow the wounded chance of Antony. When next we see him, Cleopatra is asking, “What shall we do, Enobarbus?” and he answers, “Think, and die.” This is exactly what he does, in his own person, and as the representative of that part of us that looks upon Antony from the outside in cold appraisal. Antony in defeat sends a resounding, ranting challenge to the victorious Caesar, and Enobarbus left alone hardens and sharpens to a needle-like wit. Irony the rhetorical figure we observe in his speech; the ironist at work on the boaster; but also, I suggest, dramatic irony.27 Does Enobarbus see everything that the spectator does in his world and his own role when he speaks thus?

Yes, like enough! High-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be stag'd to the show
Against a sworder! I see men's judgements 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 hast subdued
His judgement too.

The full Caesar, empty Antony? Whose judgement now is a parcel of his fortunes? The audience by this time sees and understands more than the most perceptive person on the stage.

Enobarbus continues, with the irony of detachment,28 looking upon his own moral conflict with the same dispassion as he has shown toward Antony, but not realizing that such abstraction ensures the victory of the baser motive. That his judgment is corrupted, that our observer cannot see what is before him, is proved immediately in the encounter of Caesar's man Thidias with Cleopatra, in which Enobarbus imputes to her on insufficient evidence the disloyalty he has allowed himself to contemplate. When Thidias suggests that the Queen has embraced Antony only out of fear, her reply is more noncommittal even than silence—a simple “O!” He goes on to speak of Caesar:

The scars upon your honour, therefore, he
Does pity, as constrained blemishes,
Not as deserv'd.

And she answers with a most politic, astute, and ironic ambiguity:

                                                                                                    He is a god, and knows
What is most right. Mine honour was not yielded,
But conquer'd merely.

The second statement depends entirely upon assent to the first, that Caesar is a god—a belief that neither she nor Thidias holds, or believes the other to hold. And yet Enobarbus so misses the point that he goes to get Antony and says, aside:

                              Sir, sir, thou art so leaky
That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for
Thy dearest quit thee.

Enobarbus is shortly to witness the rage of Antony at the sight of Thidias kissing Cleopatra's hand (a rage gloriously refreshing to us who do not wish a hero to be always patient) and the reconciliation of the lovers. Once again it is alazon and eiron when Antony calls for one more gaudy night, and Enobarbus comments that “a diminution in our captain's brain Restores his heart.”

Enobarbus' desertion is accomplished at the time the god Hercules also departs, to the sound of music under the earth.29 The element of earth is to be his from now on. Antony at the end wishes to fight Caesar in the fire and in the air, and Cleopatra still later is to exclaim, “I am air and fire, my other elements I give to baser life.” Their lower elements have already departed in Enobarbus. Regretting his perfidy almost immediately, the renegade is struck down by an acute melancholia, the humour of earth as Antony's sanguine is the humour of air. “I will joy no more”, he says, and when the soldier appears, bearing gold and exclaiming, “Your Emperor continues still a Jove”, Enobarbus realizes the full magnitude of his loss. Calling himself “the villain of the earth”, he resolves to seek

Some ditch wherein to die: the foul'st best fits
My latter part of life.

It is in a ditch, mixture of the two baser elements, that he addresses to the moon his last words:

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

Bradley says, “Enobarbus simply dies”,30 but this is wide of the mark. Enobarbus the eiron and the Enobarbus in the spectator perish for the defect of their eironeia and sink out of consideration. The play is purged of melancholy, self-regard, and self-pity. Shakespeare is thus able to omit Antony's retirement in defeat to a hermitage of misanthropy, his Timonaeum31 (perhaps saving the conception for another play). Black vesper's pageants, of which Antony sings in a beautiful aria, are pageants of air in a fading realm of light and have nothing in them of poisonous damp.

Treatments of Antony and Cleopatra usually make some attempt at an Aristotelian statement of the tragedy of Antony—his outstandingness and limitation of character issuing into a risky course of action that can have no other outcome but destruction, the final catastrophic reversal of situation however affording to hero and audience a recognition of reality not otherwise to be gained.32 And yet this is one play with one ending, not two plays with two. How does Shakespeare solve his structural problem and prevent half the interest of the play from dying with Antony?

The first thing he does is ruthlessly to disappoint normal tragic expectation. The death-speeches of a man who has been superbly eloquent in two plays, with their short phrases and sinking rhythms, do not rise to a full grandeur or memorability or finality, and Cleopatra steals the scene—as she had stolen their early scene of parting, as she had stolen the great scene of the triumvirs.

Then news of Antony's death is brought to Caesar, and the “universal landlord” is touched:

When such a spacious mirror's set before him
He needs must see himself.

The mirror for magistrates—fortune's vicissitudes as a warning to the victor: that is what Maecenas means, but why do we smile inwardly? Only the sight of Caesar can touch Caesar? That, certainly, and we may recall Caesar's words to Antony newly wedded to Octavia—“You take with you a great part of myself; use me well in't.” But we think also that if Caesar sees only himself—what might happen to his sort of man in his sort of life—in the death of Antony, how little he sees, how blind he is. Thus dramatic irony survives into act five, for the wise young Caesar of the first act is no wiser in the last.

The great passage descriptive of Cleopatra had blazed in the cold light of Rome; the comparable passage that completes the characterization of Antony is delayed until after his death. To the captured, distraught, dishevelled Queen, a young staff-officer, unknown to her and to us, one of Caesar's men with great things awaiting him on the new frontier, enters to take charge:

Most noble Empress, you have heard of me?

Cleopatra, without interest, without looking: “I cannot tell.”

Assuredly you know me.

Again, a most discouraging lack of interest:

No matter, sir, what I have heard or known.
You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams
Is't not your trick?

It is just his trick, and so he can but stammer, “I understand not, madam.”

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
O such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man.

Dolabella attempts to interrupt: “If it might please ye. …”

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.

Securely, Antony is of fire and air, enskied in Hercules' bosom.33 Dolabella begins to forget himself and attend to Cleopatra: “Most sovereign creature …”. But Cleopatra goes on with a colossal, more than Herculean image, combining it with the golden bounty of autumn and the image of the kingly dolphin that loves mankind and playfully leaps out of its own element into a higher one. Then she asks,

Think you there was, or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?

Dolabella's reply is the last whisper of the dead and discredited eiron, Enobarbus: “Gentle madam, no.” Cleopatra obliterates him, using the same image of nature overgoing art that had been applied to herself in the comparable great passage, and from this point Dolabella is a changed man. These few moments have for him rapidly recapitulated the movement of the play; his words confirm the spectator in his judgment of its meaning:

                                        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 pursued success, but I do feel,
By the rebound of yours, a grief that strikes
My very heart at root.

This briefest of encounters makes it religion for him to obey Cleopatra, and he discloses Caesar's plan to lead her in triumph. The stature of Antony, the fascination of Cleopatra, are still being freshly revealed in act five.

Dramatic expectation, even after the death of Antony, is likewise reaching new heights. The stage is now set for a scène à faire, the long-awaited confrontation of Caesar and Cleopatra. They meet on equal terms—he victorious through all the world, she in total defeat; he planning to trick her, she knowing the plan and resolved to thwart it. The victor enters, attended by his train, he looks around, and, blind fool, asks the ridiculous question, “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” The arid man cannot by taking thought become genial, and all his speeches of carefully prepared cordiality cannot conceal what he has revealed in that question.34 Not even when his ascendency in the world has added to it a moral ascendancy, when Cleopatra is laughably exposed by her treasurer, does he become any more than Fortune's knave, a minister of her will; and Cleopatra's words to the eunuch hit the frosty boy:

                                                  Prithee go hence,
Or I shall show the cinders of my spirits
Through th'ashes of my chance: wert thou a man,
Thou wouldst have mercy on me.

The lass unparalleled has quite put down the ass unpolicied.

Comment on the remainder of the play I pretermit, though in the encounter of Cleopatra with the old rustic there is irony in the words, an ironic mixture of the funny and the painful in the situation, and dramatic irony of the thematic sort in our Biblical recollections of a woman, a serpent, and death. As for the death scene itself: the whole play has been groping toward this moment, this kairos,35 in which Cleopatra finds her nick of time and Caesar for all his celerity sends too slow a messenger.

I have used the word kairos as being common to natural philosophy and theology. I must say something before concluding about the contribution to the experience of dramatic irony made by the scriptural references, the meaning of which, of course, is open to the audience and closed to every actor in the play. These have frequently been noticed, but not to my knowledge collected for comment.

Some serve to remind us that, great as the world of the play and its historical action are, they are not all. We are told that Antony feasted three kings, as if to prompt us to ask what three kings. Herod of Jewry is likewise mentioned several times, usually as part of the political action as derived from Plutarch;36 but when Cleopatra in comic fury vows “That Herod's head I'll have”, we laugh at the scrambled reminder of Herod and Salome and John the Baptist.37 And very early in the play Charmian asks the Soothsayer for an excellent fortune: “Let me be married to three kings in a forenoon, and widow them all: let me have a child at fifty, to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage.” Again the three kings, again Herod, now the Christ child, who will be born when Charmian would have been about fifty—or perhaps John the Baptist, whose mother was past childbearing.38 These passages are ironic in that we smile at the ignorance of the Egyptians.

So do we at the Romans'. Antony in his exuberance at agreeing to marry Octavia, says to Caesar: “Let me have thy hand: further this act of grace”; but Caesar returns Antony's “thou” with the formal “you”, and the graciousness, in any sense, of this act of grace is questioned. Caesar is later proclaimed by a messenger to be “full of grace”, and he himself states:

The time of universal peace is near:
Prove this a prosp'rous day, the three-nook'd world
Shall bear the olive freely.

But it is only a messenger, not an angel, and we know that it is not Caesar who is full of grace, not he the Prince of Peace.

A last cluster of scriptural references deserves separate treatment. Antony's grand reply to Cleopatra's demand to know how far she is beloved—“Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth”—sounded the hyperbolical note, the note of hubris and alazoneia, early in the play and was remote indeed from the Apocalypse to which it alludes.39 But when in the latter part of the play there are ten more recollections of the Book of Revelation, a point of view is surely established for ironical interpretation. Cleopatra seems identified with the harlot, with whom have committed fornication the kings of the earth, who has glorified herself and lived wantonly, who has said in her heart, I sit being a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no mourning. Such an identification fits in with the Circean figure of the gypsy queen. But the image of poisoned hail, the horror of being left unburied, the phrase “abysm of hell”, are drawn from the same source but are not similarly linked with an existing pattern of symbols: rather, they belong to a cluster of their own, whose moment of greatest concentration occurs when Antony's men find him still alive after falling on his sword. “The star is fallen”, says one: a star falls from heaven in Rev. viii:10; “And time is at his period”, says another, recalling the promise that time should be no more—Rev. x:6; “Alas and woe”, one cries, echoing Rev. viii:13; and Antony says, “Let him that loves me strike me dead.” “Not I”, say several, recalling that men shall desire to die, and death shall fly from them—Rev. ix:6. When Antony dies, it is to Cleopatra as if the sun were smitten and darkened; and again, her words to Dolabella recall the description of the angel—Rev. x:1-6. But in her death scene she is prepared as a bride trimmed for her husband. What infinite variety—so to transmigrate from the harlot of the Apocalypse to the New Jerusalem!

At this point an orderly retreat must be sounded or we shall be identifying, or contrasting, Antony with the suffering Servant on the basis of an allusion to a messianic psalm in “the hill of Basan”,40 an allusion too lonely and remote to have much force in the theater, however potent it may be in a “spatial” account of the play's imagery. I have argued that perceptions and judgments of great subtlety can be expected of an audience, but only as part of the unfolding dramatic experience, which in this perhaps more than any other play is shifting and fluid. At the beginning we share the simple nature, the singly divided nature, of an Antony, but by the end have arrived at a vision of Cleopatra's variety and the varying shore of the world. “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break”, Antony declares at the beginning; but when he returns victorious from the second battle, Cleopatra reverses, increases, complicates the force of the image when she greets him thus:

                                                                                                                        Lord of lords,
O infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?

And at the very end, Caesar himself returns for the last time to the image of the net, softened and (ironically) sanctified:

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


  1. All quotations are taken from the New Arden text, edited by M. R. Ridley (London, 1954).

  2. For the senses of “irony” in English, see Norman Knox, The Word Irony and its Context, 1500-1755 (Durham, N.C., 1961).

  3. F. M. Cornford, The Origins of Attic Comedy (London, 1914), pp. 136-137; G. G. Sedgewick, Of Irony Especially in Drama, second edition (Toronto, 1948), chapter one, and p. 50, where Antony is called a self-deceiver and Enobarbus an ironist.

  4. A. R. Thompson, The Dry Mock (Berkeley, Calif., 1948), pp. 11 and 247: here a mixture of the painful and the funny is held to be of the essence of dramatic irony. G. Wilson Knight in The Imperial Theme (London, 1958), p. 254, observes of Antony and Cleopatra that a “certain sportive spirit stirs the play's surface into ripples of shimmering laughter.” Certainly it differs in this regard from all previous treatments of the story, which are grave and moralistic.

  5. R. H. Carr, ed., Plutarch's Lives … in North's Translation (Oxford, 1938), p. 184, Antony's plainness; p. 164, his Asiatic style.

  6. I take my conception of dramatic irony largely from Sedgewick, Of Irony, pp. 48-49 and passim; see also my article on Macbeth, “The Secret'st Man of Blood”, SQ, X (1959), 397-408.

  7. In Poets on Fortune's Hill (London, 1952), p. 138, J. F. Danby observes: “Even if we read Enobarbus's words as irony, the double-irony that works by virtue of the constant ambivalence in the play still turns them back to something resembling the truth.”

  8. For an account of Cleopatra's conquests among the critics after Johnson, see Daniel Stempel, “The Transmigration of the Crocodile”, SQ, VII (1956), 59-61. Cf. Bernard Shaw's preface to Three Plays for Puritans.

  9. E. M. Forster, Alexandria (New York, 1961), p. 29; but see the reference by F. M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well (San Marino, Calif., 1957), to “the Augustus whom the Elizabethans regarded as the ideal prince”, p. 183, and his note to J. E. Phillips, The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays (New York, 1940), pp. 198-200.

  10. Erwin Panofsky, Hercules am Scheidewege (Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, XVIII, Leipzig & Berlin, 1930); Hallett Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), pp. 293-296.

  11. An explicit likening of Cleopatra to Omphale is to be found in the “Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius”, appended to Plutarch's Life of Antony: see E. A. J. Honigmann, “Shakespeare's Plutarch”, SQ, X (1959), 27. The identification was used from the first by Octavius for propaganda purposes: see Hans Volkmann, Cleopatra, T. J. Cadoux, tr. (London, 1953), p. 139.

  12. The absurdity of the passage was drawn to my attention by the poet George Johnston. B. T. Spencer makes the best case for it in “Antony and Cleopatra and the Paradoxical Metaphor”, SQ, IX (1958), 375. J. A. Bryant, quoting this speech in Hippolyta's View (Lexington, Ky., 1961), p. 177, finds Lepidus “equal to Antony only in charity”, which is charitable. J. F. Danby, in Poets on Fortune's Hill, p. 147, finds Lepidus “judicious”, which is injudicious.

  13. The absence of political issues in the play has often been maintained—by M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (London, 1910), pp. 306, 345; by Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley, Calif., 1950), p. 204; by William Rosen, Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), p. 123. Against these stand J. E. Phillips, The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays, who thinks that the problem of order is the theme of the play, and Dickey and Stempel, who follow him in this regard.

  14. I disagree with the usual interpretation here—with Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), p. 166, who says that Antony “gains his stature through contrast with Octavius”; with Willard Farnham, who sees him as taking “exactly the right course” with Octavius, p. 176; with Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), who praises his “admirable diplomacy” and “political ability”, pp. 83-84; and with J. A. Bryant, p. 177, who praises each specific act of Antony in Rome and says that his behavior “measurably increases our respect for him”.

  15. For the Roman fear of Eastern political and religious domination and the abandonment of Rome as center and capital, see Aeneid, VIII, 685-688, 705-706; Horace, Epode IX, 2; Ovid, Met. XV, 826; also Volkmann, Cleopatra, esp. p. 136.

  16. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well, chapters 10 and 11.

  17. Plutarch, p. 216: “It was predestined that the government of all the world should fall into Octavius Caesar's hands”.

  18. Plutarch, p. 186.

  19. H. Jeanmaire, Dionysos: Histoire du Culte de Bacchus (Paris, 1951), pp. 274, 428, 453, 465 ff. Plutarch, pp. 183, 220.

  20. Plutarch, pp. 166, 196. MacCallum, p. 336, and others have pointed out that Shakespeare's Antony is a more grandiose and opulent—i.e., Herculean—figure than Plutarch's, though it should be noted that Antony does not share the character of Hercules the builder and civilizer. For the saga and interpretation of Hercules in antiquity see Gilbert Murray, “Hercules, ‘The Best of Men’”, Greek Studies (Oxford, 1946), pp. 106-126; and Andrew Runni Anderson, “Hercules and his Successors”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, XXXIX (1928), 7-58.

  21. Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie, ed. J. C. Collins (Oxford, 1945), p. 55. See also Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, Sir John Harington, tr., Canto 7, stanzas 19 and 49; Tasso, Jerusalem Liberated, Edward Fairfax, tr., 16: 5-6; 20: 118; and Spenser, The Faerie Queene, the episode of Artegall's subjection to Radegund, Book V, canto 5.

  22. Plutarch, p. 235, recounts the desertion of Bacchus, not Hercules. It is perhaps significant that Antony's Parthian campaign, which bore something of the character of a Bacchic rout, is the only important episode in Antony's later career omitted by Shakespeare.

  23. The Homeric Circe reached the Renaissance interpreted and moralized, and emerges in its literature in such figures of Ariosto's Alcina, Tasso's Armida, and Spenser's Acrasia. See Merritt Y. Hughes, “Spenser's Acrasia and the Circe of the Renaissance”, JHI, IV (1943), 381-399.

  24. C. J. S. Thompson, The Mystic Mandrake (London, 1934), pp. 21, 188 ff.; J. G. Frazer, “Jacob and the Mandrakes”, PBA, VIII (1917-18), 59-79; G. Elliot Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon (Manchester, 1919), pp. 192-206; John Gerarde, The Herball (London, 1597), pp. 280-282.

  25. The main literary sources are the eleventh book of Apuleius, translated by Adlington (1566), and the essay on Isis and Osiris in Plutarch's Moralia, translated by Holland (1603). Sidney praises the Plutarchan essay in the Apologie, pp. 45-46. See also Michael Lloyd, “Cleopatra as Isis”, Shakespeare Survey 12 (1959), pp. 88-94.

  26. R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge, 1951), p. 225.

  27. Sedgewick, p. 50, speaks of Enobarbus (and the Duke in Measure for Measure and Prospero) as ironists, “shapes that are half-character, half-spectator, moving in the stage illusion with something of the sympathy and the detachment of the spectator himself.”

  28. Sedgewick, p. 13, defines this as “the attitude of mind held by a philosophic observer when he abstracts himself from the contradictions of life and views them all impartially, himself perhaps included in the ironic vision.”

  29. Maurice Charney, in “Shakespeare's Antony: A Study of Image Themes”, SP, LIV (1957), 158, discusses this scene as an example of the “theme of dispersal” that pervades the play.

  30. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (Oxford, 1955), p. 284. Cf. Plutarch, p. 223, where Domitius does simply die.

  31. Plutarch, p. 229.

  32. Sylvan Barnet, “Recognition and Reversal in Antony and Cleopatra”, SQ, VIII (1957), 331-334.

  33. Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, pp. 80-81, on the devaluation of the world theme.

  34. See Volkmann, p. 203, where he cites Dio's narrative of the meeting, in which Octavius is unmoved by the siren. Stempel, p. 63, praises him for resisting the temptress.

  35. Onians, p. 347; also Volkmann, pp. 218-219.

  36. Plutarch, pp. 221, 231, 232.

  37. Onians, p. 157, reminds us that the head was regarded in antiquity—and later—as the source of fertility and procreation. Caput Iohannis in disco replaced the pagan fertility god at midsummer. Shakespeare, who so often echoes archaic patterns of thought, may partake of this complex of associations when he has Antony say, “To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head.”

  38. See MacCallum, p. 347, note 1, quoting Zielinski.

  39. This paragraph follows closely an article by Ethel Seaton, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Book of Revelation”, RES, XXII (1946), 219-224.

  40. J. A. Bryant, p. 180, contrasts the Christlike submissiveness of the Psalmist with Antony's anger. This is well-argued, but I still think the allusion to be the only serious poetic fault of the play.

This paper was presented at the North-Central Regional Conference of the Renaissance Society of America in Cleveland, April, 1962.

J. L. Simmons (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: Simmons, J. L. “The Comic Pattern and Vision in Antony and Cleopatra.ELH 36, no. 3 (September 1969): 493-510.

[In the following essay, Simmons explores the ways in which the structure and thematic interests of Antony and Cleopatra are reflective of elements of Shakespearean comedy.]

Antony and Cleopatra is in the anomalous position of being Shakespeare's delightful tragedy. Death for Cleopatra has lost its terror if not its sting. The fear of something after or simply the horror of cessation is not a part of the effect, an effect all tragedy works with to some degree. Instead, the grave offers a victory:

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous.


Throughout the play the love-death imagery has pointed to this embracing grave, to some “mettle in death” that only a saint, certainly no tragic personage, can descry. By being absolute for death, Cleopatra and her Antony become absolute in death and achieve the eternal embrace and the acme of worldly fame, their two motivating ideals. The sense of triumph in the final scene, with the corollary of Caesar's “defeat,” is thus very strong, and some of the most enthusiastic pages of Shakespearean criticism have been written on its unique effect and its reflexiveness upon the entire play. But in this final scene, that conflict in the play between poetry and action continues, the conflict between love's idealistic aspiration for “new heaven, new earth” and the imperfect realities imposed by the “dungy earth.” L. C. Knights cautions us: “[Cleopatra] may speak of the baby at her breast that sucks the nurse asleep; but it is not, after all, a baby—new life; it is simply death.”2 The effect, however, is not simplistic. An ambivalence of response is caused by a merging of the tragic with what is essentially the comic vision:3 a clown appropriately brings on the means of death.

The full extent and function of comedy within the tragic movement of the play have not been explored. A. C. Bradley remarked on the comic tone, especially in the first half, as working against the tragic effect of the Great Four and as a symptom of Shakespeare's trying “something different”;4 but Bradley's Hegelian view of tragedy did not critically accommodate this difference. Single aspects of comedy in the play have been treated, particularly that of critical comedy. Harold Goddard emphasizes the comic exposure of worldly power, admitting that “satire” is not quite the word.5 Brents Stirling finds the entire play satirical in nature, and he treats it in a manner akin to O. J. Campbell's investigation of Shakespeare's “satirical tragedy.”6 But, since the play cannot substantiate for Stirling a moral norm, it easily becomes anyone's guess what is satirical and what is not. The world of the satirist, as Alvin Kernan defines it, is “a battlefield between a definite, clearly understood good … and an equally clear-cut evil.”7 Since the world of Antony and Cleopatra is marked by the absence of a “clearly understood good,” the simple norm for judgment must be extrapolated. Matthew N. Proser is much more persuasive in treating the critical comedy “as a qualifying point of view,” but this facet of comedy needs to be placed within a larger comic pattern and as a part of a comic vision, beyond laughter, which Proser felicitously captures when he dubs Cleopatra the “queen of comedy.”8

The structure of the play follows a familiar pattern of Shakespearean comedy. The worlds of Egypt and Rome are analogous to the tavern and court of Henry IV, Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice, and the forest and court of A Midsummer-Night's Dream and As You Like It—to what Northrop Frye calls the “green world of comedy” and the “red and white world of history.”9 In Egypt, as in Falstaff's tavern, the sanctions and restrictions of society have been overturned into one endless holiday spirit:

There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.


The “now” is the only reality, a constant present in which the considerations and responsibilities of past and future do not exist. Cleopatra is as little concerned with time as Falstaff, unless hours were to be measured by her means of pleasure. When her companion in the revels has departed, she might as well “sleep out this great gap of time.” She is more the queen of non-rule than of misrule:

                                                                                          But that your royalty
Holds idleness your subject, I should take you
For idleness itself.


As in the Saturnalia, this idleness is an open defiance of the workaday world with its business of unquestioned aims, its rigid conventions and values. By making no serious pretense of being other than it is, Egypt remains invulnerable to the normal world's moralistic attack, as after Antony's Roman rebuke, just cited, Cleopatra can parry the thrust with a profession of true feeling:

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

The public world of Rome, on the other hand, with its gap between moral appearance and moral reality, is wide open to comic exposure, especially since Rome makes no allowance for the private, natural man. Personal feelings and relations, along with all loyalties, are subsumed under public affairs and ambitions. Octavia is immaculate, but she is first and last a pawn of Roman policy. This world's comic flaw is in pretending to be perfect and in justifying its demand for complete commitment to it by professing the ideal of honor as a reality. But honor, as we see in Octavius, cannot survive untarnished by the realities of policy and imperfect man.

Egypt offers personal freedom for the life of the emotions, a life which is either denied by the rigidity of Rome or compartmented into degraded subordination. (For Octavius, a “tumble” with Cleopatra is “not amiss.”) In the true holiday spirit of Egypt, humanity in all its infinite variety becomes of interest in and for itself, not just as a social body to be controlled:

                                                                                          … and all alone
To-night we'll wander through the streets and note
The qualities of people.


The very activity, as Katherine Mansfield ecstatically observed, is “so true a pleasure of lovers.”10 And it is love, of course, that the green world fosters, “the triumph of life over the waste land,”11 itself a holiday which releases the absurd along with the best of the individual spirit. Love generates its own idealism, its own claim to perfection and demand for absolute commitment, which comedy questions without discarding in the dual spirit of Rosalind-Ganymede. In the usual progression of Shakespearean comedy, love leads to marriage, always “the plot of comedy,” according to Geoffrey Bush; and “it is the women of comedy who by their own natural philosophy arrange the happy ending.”12 Thus a reconciliation between the two worlds is effected by this public act which returns the lovers to the world, now a freer world which, after the comic purgation, acknowledges and grants a place for the individual spirit.

The pattern and thematic concerns of Antony and Cleopatra therefore support the many facets of Shakespearean comedy. The pure holiday spirit of Egypt encourages the radically comic, sometimes bordering on farce. The conflict of Egypt and Rome engenders critical comedy. In the Roman scenes Shakespeare even comes close to a comedy of manners, perhaps because for the only time in his career he is treating a historical subject in which the welfare of the state has little relevance. Above all, the comedy of love is the basis of the protagonists' tragedy.

Nowhere more than in the aspiration of love does the comic spirit emerge. The desire for perfect realization of the emotional life creates the attraction of the green world. This desire grows out of the human need to celebrate and even re-establish the Golden Age. It perforce must be an indictment of that real world which drives the comic lovers from its precincts. Frye summarizes the basis of the two worlds and their inevitable conflict:

We spend our lives partly in a waking world we call normal and partly in a dream world which we create out of our own desires. Shakespeare endows both worlds with equal imaginative power, brings them opposite one another, and makes each world seem unreal when seen by the light of the other. … His distinctive comic resolution … is a detachment of the spirit born of this reciprocal reflection of two illusory realities.13

This conflict is complicated further, as Hegel recognized, by the limitation not of the dream or of the real world but of the aspirer himself as the instrument for fulfilling the dream. “In such a case what substance there is only exists in the individual's imagination. …”14 Hegel, strangely enough, is more explicit about the nature of the comic resolution and comes close to defining Frye's “detachment of the spirit”:

But inasmuch as the comic element wholly and from the first depends upon contradictory contrasts, not only of ends themselves on their own account, but also of their content as opposed to the contingency of the personal life and external condition, the action of comedy requires a resolution with even more stringency than the tragic drama. In other words, in the action of comedy the contradiction between that which is essentially true and its specific realization is more fundamentally asserted.

That which, however, is abrogated in this resolution is not by any means either the substantive being or the personal life as such.

The aspiration, though incapable of fulfillment, is not denied its value. The aspirer is reconciled to the limitations of himself and the world but “remains at bottom unbroken and in good heart to the end,” by rising superior to contradictions involved in his aspiration even though suffering “the dissolution of its aims and realization.”

The comparison of Antony and Cleopatra and Henry IV has lain on the surface of criticism for many years. W. J. Courthope described Antony as “a Henry V without his power of self-control.”15 Others have compared Cleopatra and Falstaff.16 Ernest Schanzer was the first to see the earlier work as the closest analogue to the later “in its effect on the play's structure and on the whole organization of its material”;17 but he does not suggest what is the essence of their similarity, that the two worlds of comedy have been transplanted into genuine history. The workaday world becomes the history of England and of Rome instead of, say, Theseus' court; it now determines that the genre is history and tragedy, respectively, not comedy. But there is one essential difference between the comic patterns in the two plays. In Henry IV, there is no reconciliation on the comic level. As C. L. Barber points out regarding the famous rejection, “Hal's lines, redefining his holiday with Falstaff as a dream, and then despising the dream, seek to invalidate that holiday pole of life, instead of including it. …”18 The green world has served its function in reflecting two very limited moral environments and in allowing Hal to establish a third possibility. But that third possibility is not a reconciliation, because it has room for the advice of Bolingbroke and none for that of Falstaff. Whatever limitations this may mean for Hal (and Henry V strongly urges that there are many), the fault is primarily Falstaff's; for it is he who refuses reconciliation and insists on having both worlds on his own terms. Moreover, the fact that this historical world is English gives it an absolute sanction; therefore individual considerations, even for this world's ideal king, are finally beside the point. If our comic sense, then, is rather jarred by the rejection of Falstaff, it is because the two strains in the play and the expectations they arouse are at the last moment yoked by violence together, a violent yoking which enables Shakespeare to create powerful drama out of an event foreshadowed and ordained from the very first.

In Antony and Cleopatra our comic expectations are fulfilled in the tragedy, but not by Antony. He, like Hal, stands between two worlds. In Egypt, before the return to Rome, Antony could say with the Prince, “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work.” The holiday wears thin; the search for “some pleasure” masks and finally generates boredom. But because there is no place at all in Rome for a reconciliation with this spirit (the ludicrous scene on Pompey's ship might be considered a vain attempt), Antony's tragedy is assured. He insists upon a comic reconciliation which is shown to be impossible. No total rejection of Cleopatra is called for: the morality of Rome simply does not justify such a sacrifice, neither does its destiny nor the welfare of its people. If the perfect freedom of the holiday is rejected, so is the opposite pole of denying all outlet for the expressive heart.

The comic dilemma becomes the tragic dilemma, as is underlined by the fate of Enobarbus.19 He is a character from the comic world who would have found a place very near the center of a comic reconciliation. He is firmly grounded in reality and good sense but with ironic detachment. Therefore he can be a part of the Roman world but rise above its absurdity through his comic awareness. The pretentions of Octavius and Antony's reconciliation offer a good opportunity for his characteristic voice:

Or, if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again. You shall have time to wrangle in when you have nothing else to do.
Thou art a soldier only. Speak no more.
That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.

(II.ii.103 ff.)

With this awareness and detachment Enobarbus can also acknowledge the naturalness and the attractiveness of Egypt. While he sees the flaws of both worlds, he remains firmly committed to the life of martial Rome and pays tribute to Cleopatra's greatness.

Enobarbus holds a superior moral position in Antony and Cleopatra because he sees a proper place for Cleopatra and Egypt in the soldier's life. He becomes, in fact, the greatest support for Antony's desire to maintain both worlds. However, there is never for him any question of what choice should be made if a choice becomes necessary. As he tells Antony, when hearing of his determination to leave Egypt:

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

(I.ii.141 ff.)

Several readers have heard the sexual overtones, as sounded in Hamlet, in the last “nothing,”20 and it certainly clarifies Enobarbus' position. When a soldier's activity is required, women are reduced, if not quite literally to nothing, to their most naturalistic and unsentimental function. Since life is not made up of endless compelling occasions (unless, like Octavius, one is creating those occasions), Cleopatra has her place as more than “nothing.” And Enobarbus appreciates that place more than anyone except Antony:

Age cannot wither her nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.


The tribute is dazzling because, confining himself entirely to the level of lust, Enobarbus projects Antony's transcendentalism while reveling in the sensual. Even as only a courtesan she defies the reality of lust (“Past reason hunted, and no sooner had / Past reason hated”); as a whore she achieves a sainthood of sorts. Such a woman is not to be thrown over lightly. Enobarbus never evinces concern over his certain knowledge that Antony will return to Egypt. Knowing the simple political reality, that the “pair of chaps” are going to “grind the one the other” regardless of Cleopatra, Enobarbus can point out no moral significance in Antony's return. There is no reason why a soldier should not have his battle and his woman.

In the fatal and climactic decision before the disaster at Actium, however, Antony attempts to combine his absolute commitment both to honor and to love. Enobarbus comically exposes the tragic folly:

If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.
                                                                                          … 'tis said in Rome
That Photinus an eunuch and your maids
Manage this war.

(III.vii.8 ff.)

Antony and Cleopatra's view is different. With Antony once more the Egyptian, Cleopatra can sound like a Roman. Her own honor has been touched:

Is't not denounc'd against us? Why should not we
Be there in person?


All of her poison, it seems, has been purged. Whereas Antony condemned her “idleness” in the opening scene, she comically reverses the situation, rebuking him:

Celerity is never more admir'd
Than by the negligent.
                                                                                                    A good rebuke,
Which might have well becom'd the best of men
To taunt at slackness.


Shakespeare has drastically altered Plutarch's account of her motivations: in the source she followed Antony in order to assure his not returning to Octavia, insisting on a sea-battle purely for her own safety. Instead, Shakespeare allows a glimpse of Antony's ideal reconciliation, with the qualification of its comic absurdity: we have a king and a queen, two public figures, who are assuring their absolute position in the world for their private love. To this change of the source, Shakespeare joins the determining factor of Antony's honor: if they are to be absolute, he must fight Octavius at sea “For that he dares us to't.” Again it is Enobarbus who very simply underscores the imperfect reality which Antony's idealism must ignore:

So hath my lord dar'd him to single fight.

Antony's ideals of love and honor join in precipitating the fall. Honor is blind to the reason of strategy; but, in spite of that, Antony's side is slightly ahead (III.x.11-13) at the crucial moment in the battle. But Cleopatra is of course unable to sustain her role, one which would demand the exclusion of all sensual, feminine nature, of all that both generates poison and prevents her from being a Fulvia. She cannot be a man, and her flight prompts Antony's choice, in spite of both lovers, between lust and honor, between a suddenly jaded world and the world of history.

In a reconciliation and purging of Antony's two imperfect worlds, Enobarbus' voice would have been the happiest. When this reconciliation fails to take place and, instead, the mutual intrusion leads to disaster, he deserts. He is forced by reason into a choice which in the comic world would have been unreasonable: he is made to deny the spiritual reality of the heart's affections. With perfect poetic justice, his heart breaks. Shakespeare has subtly prepared us for Enobarbus' mistake: in his undercutting of Roman honor, in his inability to see more than the sensual possibilities of Egypt, he has shown his reason to be attuned primarily to the harshest reality. He has exposed the folly and absurdity, but he is clearly not prepared to give his life for the substance of aspiration behind that folly and absurdity. The comic “plain man” cannot survive in this tragic world. Instead of earning “a place i' th' story,” and conquering “him that did his master conquer,” he must be ranked “A master-leaver and a fugitive.” Shakespeare, by allowing Enobarbus a tragic recognition of his mistake, has given glory to a name which has little “place” in Plutarch's “story”; but the true greatness belongs to those who refuse to make this impossible choice.

Antony refuses, finally, to choose, even though he makes many choices:

What our contempts do often hurl from us,
We wish it ours again. The present pleasure,
By revolution low'ring, does become
The opposite of itself.


To get to the moral cause of his revolving attractions and revulsions is to recognize the particular moral environment of the play as well as the comic-tragic dilemma. Antony, in his quest for absolute value, is denied a focus for absolute commitment since all the means are partial. Ideally the perfection of the circle encompasses Rome and Egypt, but the realities of sensual love and of political power are mutually exclusive. To succeed, Antony must bestride the ocean, his reared arm cresting the world. On the imaginative and poetic level, the true circle exists; in the realm of action, the circle becomes Antony's wheel of fire.

Although he is defeated and even cheated by two worlds, in his death Antony embraces both what he was, the noblest Roman, and what he has, the Egyptian. The two cannot, however, be reconciled for him. But Schanzer is wrong in claiming that the play suggests “no third moral order,” as does Henry IV.21 A reconciliation exists in what Geoffrey Bush calls “the perfect image” of comedy:

The vision of both the comedies and the histories belongs to the effort of the mind toward certainty and conclusion. The great plans of Bacon and Spenser, in this widest sense, belong to the same argument of hope; their vision is the vision of comedy. The endeavor toward certainty is an attempt to reach a settlement with the world that is contained in a single and absolute commitment; it is an endeavor toward the perfect shape of truth, and toward the recovery of an original wholeness in which fact is gathered into an arrangement that transfigures it.22

In Antony and Cleopatra it is the heroine who does this manipulating of fact, thus finding the wholeness which has eluded Antony. She steps forward like the “queen of comedy,” arranging the happy ending of marriage and thereby winning the admiration and approval of the Roman world's highest moral sense. The comic purging and reconciliation take place to our delight while we are moved by the tragedy of its requiring the lovers' death. The only room allowed them in the world is a grave. But the world also grants to them (and here is the tragic reconciliation) the height of fame.

Cleopatra's delay in effecting the conclusion has prompted almost as much wrong-headed criticism as Hamlet's. Certain observations need to be made. When Samuel Daniel began his Tragedie of Cleopatra (1594) with a heroine determined to die, he was faced with the dramatic problem of justifying her delay.23 He solved the problem by stressing her lack of means, the necessity of putting Caesar off his guard, and her attempt to arrange for her children's safety. Drama was never Daniel's forte and his Senecan models offered no assistance; but he does have a card up his sleeve for the account of her death, reported by the Nuntius who brought Cleopatra the basket of figs. As she is about to apply the asp, suddenly she experiences a conflict “twixt Life and Honor”; “she must shew that life desir'd delay.” This conflict then occupies over thirty lines of allegorical description.

Shakespeare faced the same problem of delay, though only for the length of a crowded scene. It begins with Cleopatra's proud resolution; then Proculeius, Dolabella, and Caesar enter successively for an interview. When all are gone she immediately sends for the countryman, her means of death since Proculeius has seized and disarmed her. Stated this way, the events tell of no delay: she obviously cannot apply an asp to her breast until all Romans are off-stage. Fortunately, there is a question of delay, of what Richard Harrier has called her “double-mindedness.”24 For whatever reason, Cleopatra desires the confrontation with Caesar, holds back most of her fortune, seeks confirmation of what is to be her fate at Caesar's hands, and, finally, admits the “woman” in her which would fight “resolution.” To just what extent the “woman” has been struggling we have no way of knowing.25 But Shakespeare leaves that struggle and wavering as the dominant impression of her delay by making Daniel's other reasons either ambiguous (the tricking of Caesar in the Seleucus episode) or unemphatic (the fate of her children, her lack of means).

We ask many questions in this final scene, but one which should never have been asked is “Does she kill herself to be with Antony or to escape Caesar?”26 No one asks the question of Antony when he pictures to Eros the alternative of Caesar's triumph even after the decision to join Cleopatra in death. The question insists on a false separation of love and personal honor which Antony's experience should not allow us to make. If the play has demonstrated anything, it is that there can be no integrity in love without honor, no heroical love at all. Putting the question another way—“Would Cleopatra have lived if she could have made her own terms with Caesar?”—we are involved in the real dramatic suspense of the final act, the suspense on which hangs the tragic and comic reconciliation.

Cleopatra's inexhaustible desire for life, even at her moment of leaving it, distinguishes her tragedy from all other Shakespearean tragic deaths, certainly including Antony's. She may be weary of the world, but not of life. Shakespeare accepted this inescapable fact of her nature which Daniel could only treat allegorically in the Nuntius' description of her last fight between Life and Honor. But Shakespeare's triumph was in refusing to change her nature merely to let history have its way. His Cleopatra unites her “double-mindedness”—Life and Honor—by envisioning death as the absolute fulfillment of life, as a triumphant reconciliation of the contradictions which had denied its realization in the world. This affords the comic victory which ironically emerges while we fear that her desire for life will ruin everything. Instead, it glorifies everything.

It is not usually noted that Cleopatra's determination to rejoin Antony occurs only when the countryman is approaching with the basket of figs. Before this point, the possibility is not even suggested. At the end of Act Four, when she resolves to follow “the high Roman fashion,” Antony is “wither'd,” “fall'n,” “cold.” The world, which had equaled heaven while he lived, is now “No better than a sty.” She speaks of her “resolution,” but death is only death, “the secret house.” In spite of her profession, this end is not for Cleopatra; undermining her words, her messenger in the following scene reveals her desire to know Caesar's “intents.” Her ploy is too ambiguous for us totally to reject her determination. Her position will not change so much as add new dimensions. At this point, however, the vision of her tragedy is no higher than Antony's: it merely accepts the defeat, accepts the conflict which has caused it, and ushers the protagonists out with a modicum of face-saving honor and without a glimmer of understanding.

When next we see her, at the beginning of the final scene, her vision of death has enlarged:

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 accidents and bolts up change,
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.

Here she is the Senecan philosopher, but Cleopatra is not going to triumph through philosophy. However, she now speaks of “A better life,” already a thrust beyond “the secret house of death”; and the conditions of that life are those which from the first scene of the play Antony has shown to be the necessary conditions for their ideal love: deeds, accidents, change, and especially the dung have indeed caused their downfall. But her vision of death as sleep cannot appeal long to Cleopatra. She will never shed all of the dung in her nature; her love for Antony has its beginning in the flesh. Likewise, her attempt to echo Antony's “Kingdoms are clay” is no more genuine for her than it was for her momentarily blinded lover. Caesar himself may be paltry, but to be in his position is not. The glory of earthly power growing out of those kingdoms will be a part of her final vision as will the love growing out of the dung: Cleopatra will still be Queen, her lover “an Emperor Antony.” Her grandiose philosophy in this passage finally avoids all that is important in the play by rejecting both the good and the evil of life, by eliminating the significance of all human action in the name of Fortune. Both world and love are well lost. The final dimension will emerge when Cleopatra fills this sleep of death with the imaginative substance of a dream.

Cleopatra's great powers of imagination were established for us after Antony's departure for Rome. David Kaula sees her idleness as promoting “an incessant imaginative activity which carries her freely beyond the here and now. …”27 Cleopatra, however, in a comic exchange with the eunuch Mardian, places the generation of it firmly in the genitalia: “'Tis well for thee / That, being unseminar'd, thy freer thoughts / May not fly forth of Egypt” (I.v.10-12). Her physical longing then creates a preview of the masterpiece in the final act: Antony is “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men.”

In addition to physical longing, her capture by Proculeius has added a new urgency to her imaginative activity. In the desperation of the moment, she can evoke death in the most brutal of images, not “the secret house” or last sleep, but that death which takes babes, beggars, and dogs. With the receptive Dolabella, however, her freer thoughts begin to range once more, this time beyond the world of nature where there is nothing left remarkable. Physical longing extends into spiritual longing, as her vision is of an Antony standing like Colossus on the earth but rising into the spheres. Bestriding the ocean, Antony unites Egypt and Rome into one world. Soldier and lover are fused, as Proser points out;28 Antony is absolute Emperor. Moreover, as a purely natural force, he is perfected: like Spenser's Adonis in Venus' garden, Antony will be endangered no more by winter; in him the generation of spring and autumn merge.29 This is not the Antony of the play, as Knights astringently observes; nor is this the world of the play. But it is the Antony and the world of the lovers' aspiration.

If the drama invites us to evaluate her vision, the charge of “something self-deceiving and unreal” misses the mark.30 Cleopatra is not deluded; the vision, as she prefaces it, is from a dream of what Antony was:

I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony—
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!

Only after the poetic creation does she bring in the relevance and the criterion of actuality. She asks the conditionally realistic Dolabella:

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 or ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet, t' imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

Cleopatra is consciously fighting all the grim realism in the world. She must protect her vision from the two charges of the realists that would make life unbearable: the ideal is impossible; dreams are meaningless. Through paradox and even contradiction, she defends her vision with a defense of poetry, for poetry, finally, is what this brave new world would destroy. If she rejects Dolabella's simple negative, she insists on no simple positive (“But, if there be or ever were …”). She leaves open the possibility of realization and goes on to the more important matter of the substance of her vision; for Dolabella, the realist, would “laugh when boys or women tell their dreams.” In three lines, she gives the essence of Sidney's defense of poetry's truth and Aristotle's justification (by way of Sidney) for poetry's place in the world of men. Imperfect nature may not be able to compete in “strangeness” with the fanciful jumblings of dreams—those “strange forms” of the fancy's mere sensual construction. But the poet, because he knows what perfection is, can glimpse through fallen nature the marvelous forms of Ideal Nature. He is not bound like Dolabella or the historian to what has been but imagines what might have been and what should be.

Cleopatra reaches the universal (an Antony) through the aid, but not the limitation, of the specific (the Antony), as the highest art works with nature, not against it. She therefore is also drawing the important distinction between two Renaissance conceptions of art—one praised, one feared—which Spenser shows us respectively in the Garden of Adonis and the Garden of Acrasia. She is bringing about the return of nature to its original perfection, not concealing truth but revealing it. Her art here, as Goddard has suggested,31 is in marked contrast to that which Enobarbus describes in his famous passage; there fancy had striven with nature to deceive, to appeal only to the senses:

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


Now Cleopatra insists that her art is Nature's masterpiece, as Polixenes assures Perdita in The Winter's Tale:

Yet Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so, over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That Nature makes.


Cleopatra convinces Dolabella. He swears by his and his world's highest value, “pursu'd success,” that he is in perfect sympathy. He also observes what we now feel for the first time, that Cleopatra has risen to the moral stature of Antony and is capable of responding to his love and aspiration in kind:

Your loss is as yourself, great; and you bear it
As answering to the weight.

Her vision has condemned shadows quite, the shadows of fancy and the shadows of nature which obscure true form. It also entirely eliminates the shadows of death.

Since her dream is real, the sleep of death, where she might see “such another man,” is now filled with life. Because she is defeating Caesar in death as well as reconciling the tragically comic contradictions, there is neither jarring nor “relief” when a clown helps her bring about the happy ending.32 His comic confusions of sexuality with death, death with life, and life with immortality laugh the complexities of the play into affirmation. Will the worm eat her? Cleopatra wants to know:

You must not think I am so simple but I know the devil himself will not eat a woman. I know that a woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her not. But truly, these same whoreson devils do the gods great harm in their women; for in every ten that they make, the devils mar five.

David Stempel, who sees Cleopatra as the villain in a political play, hears “the misogynic bias” of the traditional satires on women,33 but that is only half of the clown's attitude, as it is only half of the play. Exactly half, the clown says. A woman may become so evil that even the devil fears her. But woman is created by the gods and is worthy of the gods if the devil has not corrupted her. The odds are fifty-fifty. If half of the picture is the medieval condemnation of women, the other half is the medieval glorification. Shakespeare's point of view is not unlike that of Robert Burton, who could likewise stress the very worst dangers in man's love for a woman and who also triumphed over the caveat that the topic “is too light for a divine, too comical a subject”:

So Siracides himself speaks as much as may be for and against women, so doth almost every philosopher plead pro and con, every poet thus argues the case (though what cares vulgus hominum what they say?); so can I conceive peradventure, and so canst thou: when all is said, yet since some be good, some bad, let's put it to the venture.34

Cleopatra's snare is finally a “toil of grace.” Her desire to call Antony “husband” is a reconciliation of flesh with spirit and, though belatedly, of the lovers with the world. In the moral environment of the play, however, their tragedy is inevitable because they demand the perfection of new heaven and new earth without revelation of what must burn away. The peace of Augustus, however ironic and limited, will offer the time for that birth which will clarify the significance of man's ability to love and his desire for honor. But for these pre-Christians, in a world where the lovers can have no other means to rise but the flesh and earthly glory, these means, with their possibilities of substance and worth, are not rejected, just as the Renaissance did not reject them. Man's ability to transcend the clay, however limited on his own, is still the distinction between man and beast. The grandest irony of Antony and Cleopatra is that even the member of the audience who approaches it with moral or Christian expectations is forced, finally, to approve the lovers. Even without grace, the humanistic possibilities of man and his poetic imagination can at least point him upward and suggest that time, space, and death are not the final realities.


  1. George Lyman Kittredge, ed., Antony and Cleopatra (Boston, 1941). All references are to this edition.

  2. Some Shakespearean Themes (London, 1959), p. 149.

  3. This suggestion was made, without elaboration, by Geoffrey Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), p. 130.

  4. “Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London, 1909), pp. 284-285.

  5. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), pp. 573 ff.

  6. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 157-192.

  7. The Cankered Muse (New Haven, Conn., 1959), pp. 21-22.

  8. The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, 1965), pp. 189 ff.

  9. “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York, 1949), p. 70. In the following paragraphs, I am also generally indebted to C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959); and Geoffrey Bush, op. cit.

  10. J. Middleton Murry, ed., Journal of Katherine Mansfield (New York, 1927), p. 207.

  11. Frye, p. 67.

  12. Bush, pp. 24, 27.

  13. Frye, pp. 72-73.

  14. The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Osmaston (London, 1920), IV, 303-305.

  15. In Antony and Cleopatra, ed. H. H. Furness, Jr., New Variorum Shakespeare (Philadelphia, 1907), p. 489.

  16. See, for example, Bradley, “Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” pp. 299-300; and Harold S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), pp. 172-173.

  17. The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1963), pp. 162-167.

  18. Barber, p. 219.

  19. For Enobarbus' comic role in the play, see Elkin C. Wilson, “Shakespeare's Enobarbus,” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway et al. (Washington, D. C., 1948), pp. 391-408.

  20. See, for example, Leo Kirschbaum, “Shakespeare's Cleopatra,” Shakespeare Assoc. Bulletin, XIX (1944), 170 n. 13.

  21. Schanzer, pp. 166-167.

  22. Bush, p. 36.

  23. I take the Senecan play only for a comparative instance. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that Shakespeare was influenced by Daniel's treatment. For a good summary of the evidence, see Arthur M. Z. Norman, “Daniel's The Tragedie of Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra,SQ, IX (1958), 11-18.

  24. “Cleopatra's End,” SQ, XIII (1962), 64.

  25. For some good words of caution regarding interpretation of “Shakespeare's Dramatic Vagueness,” see the article of that title by Fredson Bowers, Virginia Quarterly Review, XXXIX (1963), 475-484.

  26. L. J. Mills, “Cleopatra's Tragedy,” SQ, XI (1960), 159. The importance of this question for Willard Farnham (Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier [Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1950], pp. 194-203) vitiates his fine chapter on the play. See Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (London, 1962), p. 214 n. 6: “Although devotion to Antony is not the sole reason for her suicide, fear of disgrace in Rome is not so much an alternative reason as a supporting one.”

  27. “The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra,SQ, XV (1964), 221.

  28. Proser, p. 183.

  29. “For his bounty, / There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas / That grew the more by reaping.” The image describes the natural world in the Golden Age or in the prelapsarian garden. See Spenser's FQ, “There is continuall Spring, and harvest there / Continuall, both meeting at one tyme”; Milton's PL, V.394-5: “Spring and Autumn here / Danc'd hand in hand”; Shakespeare's Tempest, IV.i.114-5: “Spring come to you at the farthest / In the very end of harvest!”

  30. Knights, p. 149. For Knights, therefore, Shakespeare makes it clear that the love is finally “discarded or condemned.” Derek Traversi (in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays [London, 1963] pp. 186 ff.) also emphasizes the “self-deception” of Cleopatra's dream and “the origin in unreality” (p. 195).

  31. Goddard, pp. 589-590.

  32. For Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy [London, 1904], p. 62) Shakespeare's bringing on the countryman at this point was “the acme of audacity.”

  33. “The Transmigration of the Crocodile,” SQ, VII (1956), 70.

  34. The Anatomy of Melancholy III.2.v.5 (in Everyman's Library edition, III.253).

Theodora A. Jankowski (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Jankowski, Theodora A. “‘As I Am Egypt's Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic.” In Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts, Vol. V, edited by Peggy A. Knapp, pp. 91-110. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jankowski identifies the similarities and differences between Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and notes that although both women used their bodies for political purposes, Cleopatra should not be viewed as a direct allegorization of Elizabeth. Jankowski also claims that the parity between the two women reveals Shakespeare's interest in the difficulties Elizabeth faced as a woman attempting to be an effective ruler in patriarchal England.]

In his 1558 pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, John Knox argued that no woman could be a sovereign ruler because

the immutable decree of God … hath subiected her to one membre of the congregation, that is to her husband. … So that woman by the lawe of God … is vtterly forbidden to occupie the place of God in the offices aforesaid, which he hath assigned to man, whome he hath appointed and ordeined his lieutenant in earth.1

That dour Protestant directed these words primarily against the two reigning Catholic monarchs, Mary Tudor of England and Mary Stuart of Scotland. The pamphlet, however, appeared after the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor replaced her sister Mary on the throne of England. Yet despite the irony of Knox's “blasting” the monarch who would come to be known as a champion of the Protestant cause, his negative reactions to a female sovereign notably echoed those of many of his fellow subjects.

The extreme patriarchalism of Renaissance society made it virtually impossible for a woman to attain power in any sphere, especially politics.2 Renaissance works of political theory nearly always focused on how a male ruler could secure, enjoy, or extend his power within a society that was most definitely patriarchal and, therefore, used to being ruled by a man.3 Even if heredity decreed that a woman should rule, society provided her with no patterns of behavior to follow. Male monarchs, in contrast, were products of a society whose major components—civil, ecclesiastical, familial—consisted of a ruling father figure who groomed chosen “sons” to take over his role. Even the formula for proclaiming a new ruler—“the king is dead, long live the king”—reinforces, as Jean Wilson reminds us, the Renaissance assumption that all rulers were male.4

Elizabeth I was aware of her anomalousness from the beginning of her reign but, unlike her sister, Mary, used it to insure her position on the throne. One particular strategy she used was to play on the notion of the monarch's two bodies, a notion which for her had to have a somewhat different meaning than for male monarchs. This notion was devised to deal with the paradox that kings died but the crown endured. Marie Axton very clearly defines the concept in terms of Elizabeth:

For the purposes of law it was found necessary by 1561 to endow the Queen with two bodies: a body natural and a body politic. … The body politic was supposed to be contained within the natural body of the Queen. When lawyers spoke of this body politic they referred to a specific quality: the essence of corporate perpetuity. The Queen's natural body was subject to infancy, infirmity, error and old age; her body politic, created out of a combination of faith, ingenuity and practical expediency, was held to be immortal.5

Given this concept of dualities, Elizabeth's anomalousness could be glossed over. Her body natural may have been female, but her subjects could easily accept, as she did herself in her Tilbury speech (1588), her body politic as male.

But the mere existence of the queen's two bodies did not resolve the sometimes rival claims of these bodies. Elizabeth had to make some very definite choices regarding these two bodies to insure the success of her reign. What she did was to make her body natural serve her body politic. She opted to remain a virgin and to forgo the roles of wife and mother. She made this decision part of her political theory by claiming either that she was married to England or her subjects, or that the English people were her children. This decision had two very specific positive results: first, her position as virgin queen harked back to the Mariolatry of medieval England and implied that Elizabeth as virgin was essentially a deity; second, her decision to remain a virgin eliminated the possibility (and fear) that a consort could usurp her power over the throne of England.

Recently, critics have been exploring some of the various strategies the queen used for dealing with the complexity of her gender position within a patriarchal society. Leah Marcus has argued that Elizabeth developed a political rhetoric which successfully supported the legal fiction of herself as “king.” While she often used “queen,” Elizabeth habitually referred to herself as “prince,” a term which in the sixteenth century clearly referred to a male ruler. Gradually she adopted more sexually ambiguous formulas: “the Queen's majesty,” “the Queen's most excellent majesty in her princely nature considering,” or “Monarch and prince sovereign.” As Marcus rightly observes, “subtly, perhaps not always consciously, [the queen] constructed a vocabulary of rule which was predominantly male.”6

These legal and rhetorical ploys became the underpinnings of the political fictions Elizabeth used to contain her threatening anomaly. It is important to remember, as Louis Adrian Montrose cogently argues, that the reign of a woman sovereign was threatening to the strictly patriarchal society she ruled, for: “as the female ruler of what was, at least in theory, a patriarchal society, Elizabeth incarnated a contradiction at the very center of the Elizabethan sex gender system. … [She] was a cultural anomaly: and this anomalousness—at once divine and monstrous—made her powerful and dangerous.”7 Elizabeth's royal fictions, then, were of necessity paradoxical. They had to present her as a powerful sovereign who was capable of successfully ruling England, yet, at the same time, they had to assure her populace that her reign posed them no threat. She managed to accomplish this dual purpose, as Jonathan Goldberg indicates, by offering her subjects a “show of love.” So successful was she that her “loving behaviour preconceived in the People's heades upon these considerations was then thoroughly confirmed, and indeede emplanted a wonderfull hope in them touchyinge her woorthy Governement in the reste of her Reyne.”8 In offering these shows of love, the queen was essentially wooing her people to her. She was aware that a woman was not thought of as a ruler and so could not assume the loyalty of her subjects. She had to win it.

In contrast, the entrance of Elizabeth's successor, James I, into London reinforced the innate power any male monarch could draw upon in a patriarchal society. Goldberg maintains that “sexual domination is implied in James's ravishing entrance” (p. 30) to the city, for the king arrived “like a bridegroom entering the bride” (p. 31). Since James could rely upon the existing metaphors and formulas of a patriarchal society, his fictions were not essential for establishing his power. Elizabeth had no such social tropes to draw upon. She was forced to become a consummate fiction-maker creating an elaborate political icon partially out of whole cloth, partially out of a symbolic list of strong women who were not necessarily rulers.9

Louis Montrose's recent work examines the ways in which Elizabeth secures her position on the throne through the uses of consciously iconographic fictions.10 He quotes Elizabeth as telling Leicester: “I will have here but one Mistress and no Master” (“Shaping,” 78). Montrose's statement—“to be her own mistress, her own master, the Queen had to be everyone's mistress and no one's” (78)—ties in very closely with both the concept of the queen's two bodies and the most powerful of Elizabeth's fictions, the virgin queen. The queen who adopted a virgin existence for political reasons could be—and often was—the “mistress” of everyone. She was the “mistress” of all her people as well as those courtiers and foreign princes she favored. Yet, given the social attitudes of the time, the queen could only support her political status as “multimistress” by being, in effect, actually a virgin. Thus, Elizabeth, to be successful in the fictions she created, had to make her body natural subordinate to her body politic by agreeing to give up a life of female sexuality in her body natural. Only two sexual options were open to her as a Renaissance woman: actual mistress to all men, or whore; “mistress” to only one, or wife. The former option would have violated accepted patriarchal religious and social custom, thus causing the queen to lose credibility as a monarch. The latter, while allowing her to retain credibility, would have effectively reduced her power by making her a wife, by definition in the Renaissance, a creature subservient to a husband/consort.

Once Elizabeth had made the decision to fuse her political and natural bodies into the image of the perpetual virgin, a strategy for successful rule presented itself. By becoming an official virgin, Elizabeth effectively removed herself from being seen as a “normal” woman—a powerless creature in the Renaissance political scheme. By redefining herself as a virgin—a woman who is “different” in very fundamental ways from other women, namely in her non-dependence on men to define her existence—Elizabeth defined herself as a powerful creature in Renaissance terms and assumed the power usually reserved exclusively for Renaissance men.

As the virginal “mistress of all,” Elizabeth was able to use the Petrarchan conventions of courtship to suit her own purposes. Traditionally, the male lover courted the often distant beloved. Elizabeth turned the convention around so that she became the Petrarchan lover who courted not a mistress, but a consort. Her skill in such courtship is obvious in her negotiations for a French husband. Elizabeth initially entered into marriage negotiations with the French in 1570 for two reasons. First, an heir of her body would insure and solidify her dynasty—thus blunting Mary Stuart's claims to the throne of England—as well as rendering assassination of the English sovereign an ineffectual political ploy. Second, the end of the third civil war in France meant that country would be free once again to annoy England. Thus, a marriage between Elizabeth and a French prince could eliminate both the fear of Elizabeth dying childless and the fear of French intervention in English affairs. Various difficulties intervened to prevent the marriage, but in April of 1572 the queen signed the Treaty of Blois with France against Spain. As Elizabeth's biographer, J. E. Neale, indicates, the queen's alliance with France “against the ruler of the Netherlands … ended her dangerous isolation and paralysed French interference in her dealings with Mary and Scotland” without requiring her to marry.11 In fact, she managed to gain all of the political advantages a marriage with a French prince would have provided without having to sacrifice any of her sovereignty at home.

By 1578, a changed political situation made it again necessary to consider strengthening the English alliance with France. But popular opposition to a French Catholic husband caused Elizabeth to slow down negotiations until 1580 when a Spanish-papal alliance made it even more necessary for Elizabeth to ally with France. When the Duc d'Alençon finally arrived in England in October of 1581, he signed not a marriage contract, but an agreement for Elizabeth to finance his campaign in the Netherlands. But this agreement also bound Alençon to support the anti-Guise faction in France, a move which effectually prevented his brother, Henry III, from siding with Elizabeth's Guise enemies. With this agreement, Elizabeth achieved a mighty diplomatic victory: “She had outwitted Henry III and Catherine de'Medici, got the substance of an alliance with France—and was still unmarried.”12 Elizabeth continued to make promises to marry Alençon—promises that strengthened his credit on the money markets—but by February of 1582 he was out of England. The courtship, according to Neale, “had served her purpose, for she had succeeded in keeping out of the Netherlands, and had frightened Philip with the prospect of an Anglo-French alliance” (p. 259). These incidents show to what extent Elizabeth used courtship—and the consequent promise of marriage—as a political strategy. Her courtships were not designed to be physically consummated in marriage, for that would have violated her position as virgin queen, but to be politically consummated in treaty or formal agreement. By thus retaining control of her sexuality, Elizabeth retained her power on the throne and redefined the concept of the female body politic. It became—through her uniting of her natural and political bodies—a powerful political tool.

In his queen of Egypt, Shakespeare created a female character who also used her body as a political tool. However, in direct contrast to Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra is represented as uniting her body natural and her body politic by literally “using” her blatant sexuality to insure her power on the throne.13 Shakespeare is definitely aware of the anomalousness of the female sovereign's position and his creation of Cleopatra can be seen as a reflection upon the problems Elizabeth faced in trying to rule successfully in patriarchal Renaissance England.14 By displacing the situation of Antony and Cleopatra to Egypt, Shakespeare was able to explore these questions of the nature of female rule free from the possibility of court censure. For, although Shakespeare clearly does not use Cleopatra as an allegory for Queen Elizabeth, he does endow her with Elizabeth's talent for using fictions in order to reinforce her power on the throne. As we have seen, Elizabeth's major fiction of virgin queen united her body natural and body politic to serve her political ends, which were to insure her place on the throne and prevent her marriage to a consort who could potentially wrest power from her. Like Elizabeth, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is shown to have developed a successful strategy for rule that is based on uniting her body natural and her body politic. Unlike Elizabeth, she does this by making her political adversaries—the representatives of Rome—her lovers and binding them to her by bearing them children. In the Egypt Shakespeare has devised—an Egypt where “the holy priests / Bless [Cleopatra], when she is riggish”15—the granting of sexual favors becomes his character's main tool for obtaining and securing power. Shakespeare has demonstrated that Cleopatra has been using this technique long before she encountered Mark Antony. Pompey, in Act II, scene vi, calls to mind the story of Cleopatra's earlier connection with Julius Caesar. Caesar supported Cleopatra's claims to the throne of Egypt after she had appeared to him as a hoyden rolled up in a mattress (II, vi, 70). As Caesar's lover and the mother of his child, Cleopatra was able to secure her power on the throne. That she may have used the same technique to secure her power over Gnaeus Pompey may be deduced from Antony's calling attention to this previous liason (III, xiii, 117).

Cleopatra is similarly shown to use her sexuality to serve her political ends when she appears to Antony as Venus on the Cydnus (II, ii). In this scene, described by Enobarbus, we are presented with her most well-known fiction for securing power. This elaborate fiction of herself as a love/fertility goddess seems designed solely to seduce Antony to her table and her bed. But the seduction is not simply sexual. Before Cleopatra's arrival, Antony had been “Enthron'd i' the market-place” (II, ii, 215). But once she does arrive, he suddenly finds himself “alone, / Whistling to the air” (215-16) for all the inhabitants of the city find themselves drawn to Cleopatra. Would it not cause a defect in nature, we are told, the air itself would have left Antony to gaze upon the queen of Egypt. The authority of Antony's rulership—symbolized by his enthronement—seems quite dubious given Cleopatra's power to call the people to her even while Antony is holding court. Given this context, we can see Antony's submission to Cleopatra as political as well as sexual. This dual submission is reinforced by Agrippa's recalling her similar effect on Julius Caesar: “Royal wench! / She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He plough'd her, and she cropp'd” (226-28). The reference to both Antony and Caesar in such a few lines reinforces the similarity of the representation of Cleopatra's conquest of them. Her appealing to them both on a purely sexual level and bearing them children results in their “laying their swords to bed.” This image is, of course, sexual, but it is also symbolic of both men giving up their masculine power of rulership—symbolized by the sword—wholly to Cleopatra.16 That Mark Antony follows a pattern Caesar has established is further reinforced in act II, scene v, line 23, where Cleopatra reminds her waiting women that she has worn Antony's sword. Thus we can clearly see that Cleopatra is represented as using her sexual power to first conquer the sexual and then the political power of both Caesar and Antony. The swords can, of course, be seen as phallic images of male sexual and gender power, but they are also symbols of military and political power. Only defeated kings and generals take off or give up their swords to their conquerors.

Although Cleopatra has been ruling Egypt successfully, she is shown as finding herself in the odd position of having to validate—or to seem to have Rome validate—her position on the throne. As with all her major “policy statements,” Cleopatra is represented as making this one with a regal presentation of herself, her consort, and her heirs:

I' the market-place, on a tribunal silver'd,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthron'd: at the feet sat
Caesarion, whom they call my father's son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them. Unto her
He gave the stablishment of Egypt, made her
Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia,
Absolute queen.

(III, vi, 3-11)

Clearly this scene is problematical. It is described by Octavius “as 'tis reported” (19) and we have no evidence as to the trustworthiness or the point of view of the reporter.17 As a result, the character Octavius perceives Antony, his antagonist, to be the creator of it. He cannot conceive that a mere female ruler could mount such a celebration of power. Antony is the representative of the only real power Octavius acknowledges—Roman power—so he must be the instigator of the scene, the bestower of power.18 Yet Shakespeare has shown us that while Antony has no talent for regal spectacles, Cleopatra stages and uses them constantly—on the Cydnus (II, ii), for example, and in her Pyramid (V, ii). The queen of Egypt also appears here “In the habiliments of the goddess Isis” (17) with no indication that Antony appears in similar regal or divine garb. He is merely seated in a golden chair. Also, as I have indicated in my discussion of act II, scene ii, the fact that Antony may set himself up in a marketplace does not necessarily mean that the Egyptian people—or Cleopatra—accept him as a ruler. It is clear to me, therefore, that this enthronement is simply the visual representation of Cleopatra's conquering Antony and her setting him up as her consort. The fact that both Caesar's and Antony's children are part of this presentation indicates that the scene is, indeed, Cleopatra's. Further, Cleopatra's only reference to Antony as “Emperor” occurs in act V, scene ii, line 76 when he is dead and no longer a threat to her political sovereignty.

Unconsciously or not, Shakespeare has created a female figure within whose seemingly gratuitous voluptuousness lies a clever strategy for successful rule. Uniting her body natural and her body politic has allowed Cleopatra to use her body natural's sexuality as a means by which she can gain power in her body politic. She is represented as having ruled successfully in Egypt for many years by coopting the power of those sent to conquer her by “conquering” them sexually and making them her lovers. She has also secured the continuance of her dynasty through the production of various heirs who are destined to succeed her, and not their Roman fathers.

One way to understand the significance of Cleopatra's strategy of rule is to see that she makes of her body a different “text” than Renaissance patriarchal constructions of woman allowed.19 Typically, the male body was represented as an integrated, complete, male body in which the reason of the “head” controls the emotion/will of the “body” itself. Reason—that quality that separates man from the beasts—should control emotion to such a degree, in fact, that man should attain the Aristotelian “mean.” The hierarchical arrangement of head over body is reinforced by the hierarchical positioning of man as the rational “head” over woman as the emotion-bound “body.” This idea of the socially accepted complete and integrated male body in opposition to the socially unacceptable female body is present in Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius Caesar, the representative of Rome and, therefore, the character who determines Roman values in the play, is just such a complete and integrated male figure. In terms of the play, Octavius can only be defined by his position as Roman ruler. His complete devotion to the mean—as well as to an integrated, unitary selfhood—causes him to be seen as somewhat two-dimensional when compared to Antony. In fact, Octavius's refusal to take part in the celebrations on Pompey's galley reinforces his desire to retain a singular and immutable selfhood:

Be a child o' the time.
Possess it, I'll make answer:
But I had rather fast from all, four days,
Than drink so much in one.

(II, vii, 98-101)

This belief that the body should be one (male) thing representing that patriarchal society it belongs to is one of the major reasons why the character Octavius cannot accept the changes Antony has undergone in Egypt. For most readers of the play, Antony can be seen as general and soldier, lover and politician, triumvir and emperor. His fullness is both his nature and his strength. For Octavius, however, Antony's fullness is his weakness. For Octavius, Antony should be only the man whose retreat from Modena “Was borne so like a soldier, that [his] cheek / So much as lank'd not” (I, iv, 70-71). The soldier's body is a strong and important image in the Roman empire.20 As the man who gallantly survived the disastrous retreat from Modena with no ill effects, Antony becomes the image of an accepted male role in Roman society. Antony's soldier's reason managed to keep his body so under control that he maintained his “mean” and did not seem to suffer the excess that one would expect of someone on a starvation march. Thus, what Octavius, and Rome in the person of Enobarbus, admire about Antony is his ability to have a body which can be seen as a “text” for one specific ideal of Roman behavior. So strongly is Antony identified with his “soldier's body” that he is denigrated by Romans of all classes—from Octavius to Scarus—when he seems to act in any way that appears contrary to this sense of himself. Enobarbus, in fact, so completely accepts this singular view of Antony that he deserts him when he feels that his general has ceased to be a soldier.

Octavius is shown to turn against Antony once the soldier's body has changed, has become something else, has become something perhaps created by Cleopatra or tainted by her sexuality. Like Enobarbus and Scarus, Octavius can identify with the soldier who retreated from Modena. He fears the man who returns from Egypt to negotiate with him because that man has ceased to be the symbol of inflexible, immutable, male selfhood with whom Octavius can identify. No longer simply a Roman soldier, Antony has learned some of the values of the fluid and mutable Egyptian life. Later, once he finally returns to Egypt, he scorns the “boy Caesar” (III, xiii, 17), and is not completely unwilling to call attention to the “grizzled head” (17) he bears as both Cleopatra's lover and her general. Even though his Roman suicide shows how Antony is represented as retaining much of his Roman attitude toward his body, his speech to the clouds (IV, xiv, 2-14) shows how far he has moved from that rigid Roman selfhood to a willingness to accept the variability of life that Cleopatra and her realm promise him.

Octavius's fear of Cleopatra is based on the fact that he is the representative of a society that has very clearly defined gender roles which are based on how the body is perceived. This society, like that of Renaissance England, has created as its norm an image of an integrated male body ruled by the “head.” In contrast, it has created an image of a female body that is the opposite of the male body and is controlled by emotion rather than reason. In order to deal with the essential cultural fear of woman and woman's sexual power over man, this society has attempted to control female power by strategies that involve dismemberment and/or silence.

Francis Barker indicates that the effect of patriarchal power “in one of its more spectacular forms” can be seen in “the delight to be had in dismembering a woman's body” (p. 86). The ultimate aim of this symbolic dismemberment is to grant power to a man through destruction of an adversary/woman. Barker analyzes this theory in terms of Andrew Marvell's poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the poet never speaks to or of his mistress as a “complete” woman, but rather as a collection of discrete pieces: “Thine Eyes,” “thy Forehead,” “each Breast,” “every part,” “the rest.” The ultimate effect of this dismemberment of the female body—“uttered within a syntax more reminiscent of taxonomy than of the expectations of love poetry” (p. 89)—is its silence. As her body is torn apart, the mistress's ability to speak is also dismembered and in place of lover and mistress are two very different people: “the inexorable male voice which utters the poem” and “an empty place” (p. 91).

Nancy J. Vickers also speaks of the strategy of dismemberment as a way of silencing women. She examines the male fear of women in the context of the Diana-Actaeon myth as it appears in certain of Petrarch's poems. Petrarch's Actaeon-like speaker attempts to prevent his Diana from dismembering him by focusing only upon individual aspects of her body—her hair, hand, foot, and eyes—rather than upon the whole woman. Vickers thus shows a clear connection between the male fear of female power and the Renaissance insistence upon female silence. Speech becomes power; to deny a woman speech is to effectively deny her power.21

The effects of this “dismembered” view of women can be seen in Antony and Cleopatra in the characters of Octavia and Fulvia, two women who use more traditional means to try to gain power or exist within the patriarchal power structure of Rome. Octavia is shown as accepting the traditional woman's position as subservient to her brother Octavius for she is, as Caesar says, “a great part of myself” (III, ii, 24). She is virtually his object to use as he will and allows herself to become a political wife to Antony as a result of “The power of Caesar, and / His power unto Octavia” (II, ii, 143-44).22 Octavia has the potential to be an ideal wife since she “is of a holy, cold, and still conversation” (II, vi, 119-20). She is shown to deny herself so readily, in fact, that she effectively loses the power of public speech, communicating almost exclusively in whispers to Octavius (III, ii). In this she becomes as voiceless as Marvell's mistress or Petrarch's Diana, as described by Barker and Vickers. In direct contrast to the “statue” Octavia (III, iii, 21), Cleopatra never loses her power of speech. With her speech she controls Octavia, like Caesar, by devising an entirely new “creature” to suit her own view of what she feels Octavia should be (II, iii). As Catherine Belsey indicates, speech is symbolic of power in patriarchal society: “To speak is to possess meaning, to have access to the language which defines, delimits and locates power. To speak is to become a subject. But for women to speak is to threaten the system of differences which gives meaning to patriarchy.”23 This is so for Cleopatra. Like the women of the romances, she remains “in command,” as Inga-Stina Ewbank points out, because she maintains control of her rhetoric, of the resources of language.24 Abandoned by Antony, Octavia's only place is as a silent shadow behind her brother in Rome. “Chaste, silent, and obedient”—to use Suzanne Hull's phrase—Octavia represents the ideal Renaissance woman.25

If Octavia can be seen as accepting the ideal silent, dismembered female body of the patriarchy, Fulvia can be seen as refusing this identification. By contrast, she is shown as trying to assume the role—and by extension the “body”—of a man and gain power by leading her armies against Rome.26 This is a dangerous stance. Fulvia does not realize that her Amazonian role—essentially a direct usurpation of male military means to power—allows her to be viewed as a direct threat to male authority. Her death underlines her unsuccessful attempts to use specifically male means to power. Cleopatra is represented as adopting neither the “morally correct” behavior of Octavia, nor the military power of Fulvia.

In direct contrast to these women characters, Cleopatra is never shown as silenced or dismembered and is thus like a male body, though committed to mutability in a way very different from the marble-constant Romans. Cleopatra is shown neither as a part of anyone, like Octavia, nor as a part of herself—eyes, mouth, genitals, etc. She is always presented as a complete body, but not one that is rigid and immutable. Her body is highly eroticized and desirable, yet at the same time it is the body of a goddess (II, ii; III, vi; V, ii) or a mother (V, ii). It becomes “wrinkled deep in time” (I, v, 24) as she passes from her “salad days” (I, v, 73) to her current age and it can be burnt by the sun (I, v, 28) or blown to abhorring by water flies (V, ii, 59-60). In its ability to be complete and mutable, therefore, it is quite different both from the accepted female body that is silent, dismembered, or a male plaything, and from the accepted male body that is fixed and immutable. Thus, Shakespeare has represented Cleopatra's body as being something vitally different from existing Renaissance stereotypes of male and female bodies.

Given the change Shakespeare makes in the nature of Cleopatra's body, he still has to have her deal—as Queen Elizabeth dealt—with the male fear of female power as well as the seemingly paradoxical patriarchal belief that “female power” is a contradiction in terms. One strategy Elizabeth used to deal with the male fear of female power was to present herself as androgynous. She often used male rhetoric—as Leah Marcus has indicated—to refer to herself in official documents or pronouncements, such as her speech at Tilbury where she affirmed that the heart and stomach that resided in her weak and feeble female body was, indeed, kingly, that is, male. Elizabeth consciously tried to deal with the Renaissance perception of the inadequacy of female power by implying that her androgynous power was greater than the sum of its male and female parts. Although willing to appear in armor as defender of her realm, the queen deliberately shunned comparison with Amazons who were perceived as threats to male social systems.27 Elizabeth's androgyny allowed her to avoid the destructive extremes of both male and female power and locate a middle ground where she could positively unite the qualities of each sort of power.

Cleopatra's androgyny is implied in act II, scene v, lines 22-23, where she puts her “tires and mantles” upon Antony and wears “his sword Philippan.” However, unlike Elizabeth at Tilbury, this vision of the verbally adept Cleopatra complete with Antony's surrogate penis comes dangerously close to the type of destructive female as outlined by Vickers28 and dangerously close to the Renaissance image of the Amazon as female destructive power set up in opposition to patriarchal society. But by claiming power through a symbolic dismemberment and its accompanying marginalization, Cleopatra uses the very techniques Barker and Vickers describe male poets as using to marginalize women. The men Cleopatra is shown to marginalize are her political opponents. Though she does not dismember Octavius, she marginalizes him by referring to him as a child—“scarce-bearded Caesar” (I, i, 21). Antony is reduced to a surrogate penis. While he is alive, Cleopatra takes his sword to wear leaving him the symbolic trappings of a marginalized femininity, as Octavius indicates: [Antony] is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he” (I, iv, 5-7), Antony's death is lamented in the phallic line “The soldier's pole is fall'n” (IV, xv, 65). But, unlike Petrarch's Laura, Cleopatra is never punished for a behavior that is consciously threatening to male beliefs. While I agree that her wearing Antony's sword is an attempt to show her taking control of a power that can only be called male, Shakespeare rewards her for her audacity by allowing her to become a powerful and successful ruler. Shakespeare manages to accomplish this by showing that Cleopatra's power is different from that of the Amazon who simply mimics the destructive power of patriarchy. Shakespeare shows us that Cleopatra uses power in a more creative and generative way, as indicated by Peter Erickson:

The play invites us to reconsider the traditional definition of masculinity as an identity founded on military success. … Antony and Cleopatra engage in a gender-role exchange that enlarges but does not erase the original and primary sexual identity of each. … Instead, what is involved is a crossing back and forth over a boundary no longer seen as a rigid barrier dividing the two sexes into two absolutely separate groups.29

Erickson sees act II, scene v as an attempt by Antony and Cleopatra to share—rather than simply to exchange—power in a sort of “heterosexual androgyny” (p. 133). Yet Cleopatra is not depicted as making androgyny as important a part of her political strategy as Elizabeth did, and so uses it rarely. Nevertheless, Cleopatra can be seen as revolutionary not only because she is a woman who holds regal power, but because she creates a new and much broader kind of female power out of existing, if limiting, strategies of male power.

Although Shakespeare has shown Cleopatra throughout the play to be as successful a ruler in Egypt as Elizabeth is in England, at the end she seems to abandon her own theory of rule. While she bargains as well as she can with Proculeius (V, ii), there is a sense that her dealings with him are merely superficial. What is even more curious is that she does not attempt to use her sexuality to control Octavius. In her one brief encounter with him Cleopatra does not act the temptress, or indeed any of her other favored roles. Instead, she treats Octavius as her conqueror:

                                                                      Sir, the gods
Will have it thus, my master and my lord
I must obey. …
                              … … … … …
                                                                                Sole sir o'the world,
                              … … … … …
                                        I have
Been laden with like frailties, which before
Have often sham'd our sex.
                              … … … … …
My Master, and my lord!

(V, ii, 114-16; 119; 121-23; 189)

Although Cleopatra is fully aware of Caesar's plot against her—“He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself” (V, ii, 190-91)—she never tries to bring him under her sway. That she creates an elaborate final image of herself as dead queen of Egypt and eternal Isis to counter Octavius's plan to parade her in triumph through Rome does not eliminate the fact that this is not her traditional way of dealing with a political adversary. Octavius has not been turned into a lover, as Julius Caesar and Antony had been; Cleopatra has merely allowed him to witness her last role.

I see Cleopatra as being forced to abandon her previously successful strategies for rule because of her relationship to Antony. Cleopatra's political tactics are based on sexual use of her body natural to serve her political purposes. Her love for Antony and her devotion to him—“Husband, I come” (V, ii, 286)—cause her to refrain from using her body natural in a political manner. Since she has given her heart to Antony, she has, essentially, given away her body natural and removed it from service to her body politic. Thus, she is at a disadvantage when meeting Octavius, for she is without the major component of her political bargaining strategy. She has to rely on her wits alone, without her sexuality, to subdue Octavius. This partial power is not sufficient. Cleopatra is forced to destroy both her bodies in a final fiction that manages to satisfy them both. Her magnificent death scene convinces Octavius that Cleopatra died as a queen: “Bravest at the last, / She levell'd at our purposes, and being royal / Took her own way” (V, ii, 333-35), yet also as a lover: “but she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (V, ii, 344-46). Cleopatra may be defeated, but a paradoxical sense of triumph surrounds her at her end so that we wonder whether she has really won or lost.

Ultimately, it is difficult not to see Cleopatra's triumph as that of a woman ruler who manages to rule successfully despite overwhelming social pressures. Like Elizabeth I—whom Shakespeare seems to have had in mind when he created her—Cleopatra is shown to work against existing patriarchal stereotypes to create a strategy for rule that works within the conditions of her society. She is represented as actively using her body natural's sexuality to support her body politic's place on the throne. Also like Elizabeth, Cleopatra manages to counter the threats caused by the fear of female power by creating a more positive, more androgynous kind of power. Shakespeare even manages to go beyond this examination of women in positions of power to consider the dilemma of those women in patriarchal society—as represented by Octavia and Fulvia—who are not able to create successful strategies for dealing with the restrictive social conditions and social fears that control their existence.

By reading Cleopatra through the text of Queen Elizabeth I's strategies for rule, a figure somewhat different from the “traditional” one appears. This reading is a direct result of my persistent exasperation with what can be called the “traditional” reading of Cleopatra's character, namely that which sees her as the whore who ruined a great triumvir but, at the end, was conquered by love and took her life in remorse.30 What annoys me most about this reading is its proponents' willingness to be blinded by Dryden's “all for love” romanticism and their unwillingness to examine the political space in which Cleopatra's character is figured. My own reading of Antony and Cleopatra is informed by the new work in historicist criticism and the feminist readings it has produced.31 Historicist criticism, as Louis Montrose sees it, is a critical practice which strives

to resituate canonical literary texts among the multiple forms of writing, and in relation to the non-discursive practices and institutions, of the social formation in which those texts have been produced—while, at the same time, recognizing that this project of historical resituation is necessarily the textual construction of critics who are themselves historical subjects.

(p. 6)

Thus, in an attempt to examine just how Shakespeare explores questions of female rule in his creation of Cleopatra, I have examined the strategies Queen Elizabeth I used to both create and employ a specific kind of female power in a world which was hostile to the thought of female power in any form. My historicist method of analysis—a method that uses literary and nonliterary materials to examine how the question of female political power is represented and managed in the Renaissance—is somewhat at odds with feminist criticism which has not traditionally concerned itself with an examination of female political power. However, my reading is clearly feminist in intent. Therefore, I term my particular reading of Cleopatra “historicist-feminist.”

As a female ruler who took power and controlled the various aspects of her rule, Elizabeth challenged and subverted in an essential way the established Renaissance ideology of patriarchal rule. Yet to subvert this major ideology in such an essential way was highly dangerous. There was no telling how long Elizabeth could survive as queen—given her society's views of ruling women as expressed by John Knox—if she consistently subverted the major ideology to such a degree. So she contained her subversion within the accepted female paradigm of a contained female sexuality—virginity. Her genius lay in maintaining the tension between the power of her subversion and the fiction of her submission within her containment, thus enabling her to retain her power on the throne while reducing the threat of her female sexuality.

In Antony and Cleopatra, one can examine just this question of the subversion of ideology through the character Cleopatra. The difference between Cleopatra and Elizabeth is that Shakespeare has allowed Cleopatra to subvert the ruling Roman (English) ideology to an even greater degree than Elizabeth by living as a sexually fulfilled woman. Elizabeth sacrificed her sexuality to contain her subversion; Shakespeare allows Cleopatra literally to use her sexuality to gain her power and to create the subversive ideology of her reign. In this way, her power is enormous and shown to be a major threat to the established patriarchal ideology of Rome. Cleopatra is not shown to take steps, as Elizabeth had done, to contain her power. Shakespeare takes these steps. His depiction of Cleopatra's refusal to use her sexuality to dominate Octavius and his representation of her acceptance of death become the means by which her subversion is contained.

Instead of the simple tale of the great general ruined, Antony and Cleopatra becomes an important examination of the nature of power, the differences between various types of powers, and the means by which dominant ideologies are displayed and subverted. Further, Shakespeare's representation of Cleopatra becomes an examination of the means by which a female monarch can secure regal power even within a society whose basic tenets have denied her, as a woman, virtually all power. Antony and Cleopatra, then, becomes a text of female political theory which owes its creation, I maintain, to the earlier text written by Queen Elizabeth I herself.


  1. John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558; rpt. New York: Da Capo, 1972), pp. 16-17. Spelling modernized as regards tildas and long s.

  2. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 591, 623.

  3. Specifically, such works as: Niccolò Machiavelli, II Principe (1513), Thomas More, Utopia (1515-16), Desiderius Erasmus, Institutio princips christiani (1516), Baldesar Castiglione, II Cortegiano (1528), and Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouernour Devised by Sir Thomas Elyot, Knight (1531).

  4. Jean Wilson, Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer and Totowa, N.J.: Rowan and Littlefield, 1980), p. 3.

  5. Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), p. 12. Axton's work, as the title indicates, focuses on drama of the Elizabethan period that was concerned with urging the queen to marry and produce an heir, thus insuring the succession. Axton bases her generalizations on Edmund Plowden's reference to the monarch's two bodies in 1561, as reported by F. W. Maitland in “The Crown as Corporation,” in Collected Papers, ed. H. A. L. Fisher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), and on Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957). Axton feels that Kantorowicz “did not explore the Elizabethan setting in any depth” (p. 15). Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1 (1983), 61-94, esp. 77, also mentions the concept of the queen's two bodies.

  6. Leah S. Marcus, “Shakespeare's Comic Heroines, Elizabeth I, and the Political Uses of Androgyny,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 135-53.

  7. Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies,’” 77, 78.

  8. Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 30. Goldberg is quoting a contemporary reaction to Elizabeth's first procession through London in 1558/9.

  9. Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 153-82.

  10. Louis Montrose, “‘Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes,’ and the Pastoral of Power,” ELH 10 (1980), 153-82.

  11. J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (1934; rpt. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1960), p. 226.

  12. Ibid., p. 257.

  13. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Miola observes that, “threatened on all sides by hostile forces, both Dido and Cleopatra ensnare important Roman soldiers in nets of luxury and concupiscence” (p. 123).

  14. Helen Morris, “Queen Elizabeth I ‘Shadowed’ in Cleopatra,” Huntington Library Quarterly 32 (1969), 271-78, and Keith Rinehart, “Shakespeare's Cleopatra and England's Elizabeth,” Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972), 81-86. Morris maintains that the Cleopatra in North's Plutarch “must” have reminded Shakespeare of Queen Elizabeth and “this resemblance was at the back of his mind while he was writing the play.” Rinehart indicates that parallels exist between Elizabeth and Cleopatra because “both were queens regnant, both used courtship as a mainstay of their statecraft, and both attained apotheosis of a sort as female deities.” Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973), points out that Antony's reference to Cleopatra as “this great fairy” (IV, viii, 12) can be read as a reference to Elizabeth I as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene (p. 65).

  15. William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1982), II, ii, 239-40. All further references to the play will be to this edition.

  16. “Agrippa associates Cleopatra's sexuality with the fecundity of nature [in II, ii, 227-28]. … The wordplay makes the point very tidily: the sword is unmistakably both a sexual and a military weapon; and the military must be put aside (or laid to bed) before the sexual can be literally laid to bed, or put to use. In the image, the sword has been beaten into a plowshare: there are suggestions of that great generative sympathy in nature which occurs only when Mars succumbs to Venus and lays his sword to bed” (Adelman, The Common Liar, p. 95). Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), argues that Cleopatra uses Antony “to advance her political schemes for the resurgence of Alexander's empire” (p. 159).

  17. Janet Adelman, in The Common Liar, points out many times that “in Antony and Cleopatra, information of all kinds is unreliable” and “we frequently find that we can make no judgment at all” regarding the reliability of any evidence that is reported, Roman or Egyptian (pp. 34, 29).

  18. Richard S. Ide, Possessed with Greatness: The Heroic Tragedies of Chapman and Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1980) believes that, in this scene, “Cleopatra … herself has been bewitched by the new political stature Antony has given her” (p. 112). Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation, indicates that “Cleopatra is politically astute and wins from Antony a promise to ‘piece / Her opulent throne with kingdoms’ (I, v, 45-46). This local Egyptian naturalistic interpretation culminates in their ritual coronation at Alexandria, where Cleopatra ‘In the habiliments of the goddess Isis’ watches Antony proclaim her and their children rulers of the East (III, vi, 17). But this coronation of the earthly Isis and her Bacchic consort provokes full-scale Roman opposition” (p. 207). Bono forgets that Julius Caesar's child figures in this enthronement as well as Antony's children and that Shakespeare did not tell us that Antony appeared in the guise of Bacchus.

  19. Francis Barker, “Into the Vault,” in The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection, ed. Francis Barker (London: Methuen, 1984); Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981), 265-79; and Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985).

  20. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome, points out that Caesar and Antony share “a common heritage: the Roman tradition of military honor” (p. 129).

  21. Vickers, “Diana Described,” 273, 278-79.

  22. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), observes that men in patriarchal society often “consolidate partnership with authoritative males in and through the bodies of females” (p. 38).

  23. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 191.

  24. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “Shakespeare's Portrayal of Women: A 1970's View,” in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1978), pp. 222-29, esp. p. 224.

  25. Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books For Women 1475-1640 (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1982). Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985) sees Octavia as “victimized” by Antony and Octavius (p. 144).

  26. Phyllis Rackin, “Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories,” Theater Journal 37 (1985), 329-44, indicates that Margaret of Anjou is, in some ways, like Fulvia. Margaret is “a virago who defies her husband [and] leads armies into battle … [and] has a ‘tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide’” (p. 336).

  27. Celeste Turner Wright, “The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature,” SP 73 (1940), 433-56, esp. pp. 433, 449, 456, and Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth Century Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), p. 14.

  28. Indeed, Adelman, The Common Liar, observes that a clothing exchange “inevitably suggests a disastrous exchange of sexual authority and consequently a violation of the proper hierarchical relation between man and woman. This disturbance in sexual hierarchy can be seen morally as a violation of the proper hierarchical relation between reason and will” (p. 91).

  29. Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 131, 133. Miola speaks of the “vision of sexual passion as emasculating and antithetical to the male business of war” (p. 139). He also suggests that Egypt is “a reign of transshifting shapes and forms where men behave like women, women behave like men, and both act like gods” (p. 129).

  30. Michael Steppat, The Critical Reception of Shakespeare's “Antony and Cleopatra” From 1607 to 1905 (Amsterdam: Grüner, 1980), analyzes historical attitudes toward Cleopatra. Robert E. Fitch, “No Greater Crack?” Shakespeare Quarterly 19 (1968), 3-17, provides a limited, but helpful, survey. A more detailed compendium of critical attitudes toward the queen of Egypt can be found in L. T. Fitz, “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977), 297-316. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar, also examines much of the critical history of attitudes toward Cleopatra in her various notes.

  31. I refer specifically to the works by Barker, Belsey, Bristol, Erickson, Marcus, Montrose, Rackin, Sedgwick, and Vickers mentioned above, but additionally to those by Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982); Louis Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), 5-12; Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), 13-43; and Marilyn L. Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986), which deal with theoretical and practical aspects of historicist criticism.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Turner, John. Introduction to The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Turner, pp. 13-29. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

[In the following essay, Turner examines Shakespeare's treatment of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting that his view of the empire was fueled by an imaginative return to the “honour culture” of late medieval aristocrats. Turner also comments on the major relationships within the play, and on the love poetry of Antony and Cleopatra.]

The stage upon which The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra is enacted is a site upon which competitors meet. …

I am using the word ‘competitor’ in that precise but ambiguous sense which it enjoys throughout the play, and which, according to the OED, it enjoyed for the century between 1579 and 1681: a sense fluctuating between ‘rival’ and ‘associate’, and implying both the competition and collaboration that today—though we still speak of ‘fellow-competitors’ in a race—are usually thought to be mutually incompatible.

It is no accident that the period of the word's ambiguity coincides so closely with the period of the greatest efflorescence of court society in Britain, as succeeding monarchs sought to ‘gentle’ their aristocracy and disarm their code of honour by drawing them to court, where their behaviour might be overseen and their energies directed towards an honours system managed by the crown.1 Here was a society alive and anxious with ‘the ebb and flow of friendships and rivalries, alliances and ruptures, loyalties and betrayals’ as courtiers vied incessantly for prestige, now competing with and now competing against one another.2 The slipperiness of the word, that is, precisely mirrored the slipperiness of court society: what Wyatt at the start of our period called ‘the slipper top / Of court's estate’, and what Marvell at its end called ‘giddy favour's slippery hill’.3

Yet although the structural ambiguity of the term ‘competition’ belongs to the contemporary world of court society, aristocratic life had previously been characterised by an even greater sense of political instability. The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, in its attempt to imagine the Rome of the triumvirate, returns to the honour culture of the late mediaeval aristocracy, before it had yielded to the power and ideology of a centralised monarchy with a providentialist view of history. It returns to an honour culture haunted by the belief ‘that Fate, irrational, incomprehensible and uncontrollable, rules over human history’.4 To the man of honour, all the critical moments of his life had seemed ‘hag-ridden by Fate’; and it is no accident that the chief focus of Shakespeare's play, in describing the competitiveness of the life of honour, should fall upon the instability of its alliances, the unpredictability of its military encounters and, more generally, upon the mutability of all earthly fortunes. It is not that Shakespeare ‘was using the Roman Empire as a symbol for the sublunar world’ unsustained by divine order and love.5 His point, I think, was political rather than theological: he was depicting the endemic instability of a dying culture and the determined efforts of Caesar to bring about a new order, centralised and stabilised under his own imperial power.

There is something of the play's sense of mutability in North's Plutarch, where we find that Anthony had ‘oftentimes proved both the one and the other fortune’ and that he was ‘throughly acquainted with the divers chaunges and fortunes of battells’.6 But as the poems of Wyatt and Marvell intensify Seneca's sense of the slipperiness of court society, so too does Shakespeare's play intensify Plutarch's picture of the fickleness of Fortune. Its swirling sequences of short scenes, with their peripateias, their multiple perspectives, their giddy rangings across the globe and their collapsing of a decade's history into a three-hour entertainment, all enhance this effect—especially in the Folio text before us, where the absence of division into acts and scenes casts us adrift from our familiar bearings.7 Throughout the play we witness the human attempts to make meaning, and to win an honourable place in history, under the threat of constant erasure from the fluxes and refluxes of fortune. The power that makes is the power that mars: in Anthony's own words, ‘That which is now a Horse, even with a thoght / the Racke dislimes, and makes it indistinct / As water is in water’. It is this power of fortune that Caesar sets out to master.

When the claims of Rome and Egypt compete for Anthony's attention and loyalty at the start of the play, he replies as follows, in a passage justly famous for its poetic beauty:

Let Rome in Tyber melt, and the wide Arch
Of the raing'd Empire fall: Heere is my space,
Kingdomes are clay:

‘Heere is my space’: it is indeed a question of space. If these words are taken naturalistically, they refer to the space allotted by the drama to Egypt, and in particular to Cleopatra's court; and in their passionate rejection of Rome, they suggest that the most important competition in the play will prove to be that between Anthony and Caesar. If we consider the words metadramatically, however, as Raymond Williams has pointed out,8 we shall see that the space towards which Anthony gestures is also the theatrical space around him: the actor, in competition with the rest of the cast, is indicating the arena which he hopes to fill with his own particular speaking voice and, beyond that, the city with whose attractions the play is competing in its search for an audience. I want to explore each of these two points in turn, before returning to my opening claim that the First Folio text too is a space which we must understand as a site of competition. In each case, we shall find that what is at stake is the peculiar nature of the poetry that Shakespeare wrote for this play, and his growing awareness as a dramatist of the equivocal status of human beings as poets, story-tellers, spinners of narrative, in a world where—the conflictual and multivocal nature of the dramatic form itself drives home the point9—the competition for power, and thus for hegemonic control over the narratives of others, was felt to alienate and denature the individual self.

Anthony's claim that his space is here—in Egypt, in Cleopatra's court, even perhaps in Cleopatra's arms—is a characteristically indirect admission of his harassed sense of Caesar's inescapable presence, even in his absence. It is not paradoxical, I think, but true to say that the competition between Anthony and Caesar is the most important human relationship in the play; and the evidence of this is to be found in the scene with the Soothsayer.

His Cocks do winne the Battaile, still of mine,
When it is all to naught: and his Quailes ever
Beate mine (inhoopt) at odd's. I will to Egypte:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I'th'East my pleasure lies.

It is Caesar's cocks and quails that drive Anthony back to Egypt; his love for Cleopatra, his pleasure in the East, seem here no more than rationalisations of his primary superstitious dread of Caesar. It is a question, it seems, of ‘Naturall lucke’; and however much we seek to translate these words into a discourse more familiar to us today—discussing the sexual competition between the rising young man and the declining man in his mid-life crisis, for example, or contrasting the focused self-possession of the new man with the reckless magnanimity of the old—Anthony himself is bound by the language of the fortune-teller. ‘Whose Fortunes shall rise higher / Cæsars or mine?’: the man of honour, dependent upon his own resolve to win prestige, is haunted by the sense of his own impotence, fearful that the world lies fatefully beyond his control and that his will is doomed to be overthrown by the fellow-contrary power of Fortune.

The centrality of Caesar to the play means that the love between Anthony and Cleopatra—powerful and real though it is—must be understood in relation to the Rome that has produced it. ‘Let Rome in Tyber melt’: their love is a dissolution, a melting, an overflowing of all the measures of time and place upon which Rome depends, and its very existence depends upon having those measures to transgress. There is, in other words, no self-authenticating language of pleasure in the play. From the licentiousness of Charmian's talk at the start to the malapropisms of the Clown at the end, the discourses of pleasure subvert the moral and linguistic grammar whose purpose is to order them; but they cannot create a coherent world of their own. The opening tableau of the play makes the point perfectly for us. With eternity upon their lips but with Roman soldiers and messengers by their sides, the two lovers dream of a ‘new Heaven, new Earth’; and yet these new worlds of which they dream are no more than the resorts of fantasy to dissolve the intolerable tensions of the old. Love can only realise itself in opposition to duty, Egypt in opposition to Rome. But it is not enough to talk of antithesis here: whether we speak of Rome and Egypt, of duty and love, of Caesar and Cleopatra or of Apollo and Dionysus,10 we must remember Jonathan Dollimore's insistence, quoting Derrida, that ‘binary oppositions are “a violent hierarchy” where one of the two terms forcefully governs the other’.11 The hierarchy here serves Rome and is held in place by a culture of demonisation that sees Cleopatra as a ‘great Faiery’ or a ‘Witch’, dependent upon whether she is in or out of favour with Anthony; it is a world in which love is linguistically structured as a spell, a charm, a magical fascination.

Hence, of course, the danger in describing the play as a ‘love-tragedy’; for the label, through its very familiarity, may blind us to precisely those connections that we are being invited to make—the connections between love and history, both personal and political. Anthony and Cleopatra themselves, at certain moments of their lives—though, importantly, not at others—speak of their love as absolute, magical, transcendental; they identify one another with mythical figures, especially with Venus and Mars; and they strive to make their love the stuff of legend, so that they might become what Caesar finally calls them: ‘a payre so famous’ that no grave can hold their like. Moved we may be; but we should not be taken in. For there is no such thing as love; there are endless varieties of experience that are called love, and we need to understand them in their variety. The interesting questions are always the particular ones: what is understood by ‘love’ in each case? why do people fall in love with certain people and not with others? why, in so doing, do they sometimes speak of Love rather than of love? The purpose of these questions is to return the seemingly overwhelming experience of love back to the totality of its material history in order to understand it fully; and here the play can help us.

For it helps to deconstruct those aristocratic—and, later, bourgeois—reifications which have seen Love as a kind of Fate, a transcendental power which was impossible to resist. The Venus and the Cupid of the aristocratic culture of the late sixteenth century—like the Eros of the bourgeois culture of the late nineteenth century—ensnared their victims in a passionate game whose fascination obscured the political realities of the society in which it was played out. The young aristocrat who went to court to enjoy the pleasures of love unwittingly submitted to the royal power of surveillance as he did so; excelling in the field of love, he lay down his arms in the field of war, and thus confirmed the power of his sovereign. Here in The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, it is this same connection between love and politics that is laid bare. It is the distraction of love that we see, in both senses of the word: a passionate excitement that, in engulfing the reason, seduces the military man from the noble pursuit of honour amongst his fellow-competitors.

It is perhaps a question of punctuation in the narratives we tell, of whether ‘love’ should be the last word in the sentences we spin; and here too the Folio can help us. For how should we punctuate the title of the play? It is an important question, to which the Folio has two answers. In the heading of the play—the version that I have preferred here, for its capacity to surprise—there is a comma after Anthonie; but on the running title at the head of each page, the comma is gone. There is no single answer; the play has two titles, each with different implications—and each might be said to epitomise something really present within the text. If we omit the comma, we are encouraged to think of Anthony and Cleopatra as constituting in some sense a single unit of thought—as though their tragedy is the consequence of their love, enabling the two of them together to constitute a reality greater than they do apart. But if the comma is inserted, it divides their destinies, opens up their different experiences of love for separate scrutiny in their different political contexts, and draws our attention to those distinctions which their poetry labours to dissolve.

For the love-poetry of Anthony and Cleopatra is a poetry of dissolution. There are, of course, many other kinds of poetry in the play; but it is the love-poetry that has attracted most attention—and understandably so, because of its great beauty. Yet beauty, like love, is always of a particular kind, and must be not only admired but characterised. ‘Kingdomes are clay’: the plangency of such verse derives from its curious blend of transgressive defiance and regressive yearning, and exists from the start in a curiously paradoxical relationship with time and place. For its aristocratic recklessness, its fine prodigality of word and emotion, is also a wilful neglect of the real world where aristocratic honour must be won. This is Aristotelian liberality run to excess. Kingdoms are not clay; but the energy of the poetry springs from the insatiable need to say that they are. The lovers are driven to dematerialise the material; to transform the untransformable; to build out of words a home that can never be built out of bricks. The beauty of their verse, in other words, for all its defiant aspiration, is also a function of its commitment to illusion; it is plangent because it overlooks (in both senses of the word) the facts of daily life which usually provide imagination with its materials to work upon. But the imagination here is driven into counter-creation; it must evolve a counter-narrative to efface the history that Caesar is engaged in writing.

The crowning achievement of such counter-narrative, of course, occurs at the end of the play, when Cleopatra in defeat draws herself up in the full pomp of her regalia and rhetoric.

Give me my Robe, put on my Crowne, I have
Immortall longings in me. Now no more
The juyce of Egypts Grape shall moyst this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quicke: Me thinkes I heare
Anthony call: I see him rowse himselfe
To praise my Noble Act. I heare him mock
The lucke of Cæsar, which the Gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come …

The verse is beautiful, spell-binding; but its theological beliefs are illusion. Cleopatra's declaration of the supremacy of love in the next life only serves to disclose the supremacy of Caesar's power in this. The queen who will shortly see the asp that is killing her as a baby sucking her to sleep is compelled to transform the world in verse because she has failed to transform it in fact. This dissociation between imagination and reality is Caesar's real victory. Cleopatra dismisses his triumph as ‘lucke’, as she later dismisses Caesar himself as ‘Asse, unpolicied’. But she is wrong; it is not a question of luck but of successful policy. He could not stall with Anthony, he says, in the whole world, and so he prepared himself for the moment when their uneasy collaboration would break down into a deadly rivalry. Here is a man determined to owe nothing to luck and fortune. An old world at the last gives way to a new; and an older kind of competition gives way to a kind that we should recognise today.

‘Heere is my space’: the actor saying these words may also gesture towards the theatrical arena around him, and in so doing spark off a series of reflections about the relationship between theatre and ‘real life’ that might naturally culminate in contemplating the theatricality of Cleopatra's death.

In one sense, of course, in Jacobean London as today, theatre was very much a part of that ‘real life’. It was a flourishing commercial enterprise in competition with other businesses to attract audiences; and the actor who declared the theatre to be his space was also declaring the source of his income, in a world where everyone was busy making a living. But in another sense, theatre was—and still is—a place apart. In Jacobean London, the marginality of the theatre was inscribed in its geographical exclusion outside the city walls. It was a place dangerous to the physical and the moral health of its audience, a place where crowds could gather, where actors could impersonate their betters, and where the pretensions of power and the self-interest of ideology could be exposed simply by the productions and reproductions of the new dramatic form. Right from the start, that is, capitalism generated space for its own critique.

Yet neither money nor satire could wholly satisfy the new dramatists, who also needed to feel the social and political centrality of their own practice; and here, I think, they were often disappointed. There is an excess in their satirical railing that suggests a consciousness of their own marginality; and the sense of theatre as illusion, which is so pervasive in the later works of Shakespeare, suggests a similar awareness. No doubt this sense was also in part a reaction to the conditions of working in the theatre, with its devotion to make-believe and its rapid turnover of material. In the theatre it is art that is short-lived, life that is long; and the form that Sidney thought capable of embodying eternal verities appeared hauntingly ephemeral to Shakespeare. Cleopatra's death, in its theatricality, embodies perfectly his sense of the paradoxical status of dramatic art; for the beauty of her verse, even as she speaks it, discloses its most powerful effects as illusion. Art, it seems, is denatured by the same market-place that prompts it.

Yeats once speculated that ‘there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought’. Shakespeare's myth, he went on, referring to Hamlet and the second tetralogy of History Plays as his examples, ‘describes a wise man who was blind from very wisdom, and an empty man who thrust him from his place, and saw all that could be seen from very emptiness’.12 If there is perhaps one single myth informing Shakespeare's work, I should say that it depicts the displacement of the corrupt poetry of a vestigial aristocratic code of honour by the mean-spirited prose of an emergent machiavellianism; and that this myth—which with various modifications informs plays like Hamlet, the second tetralogy, the Tragedies and, of course, the play before us now, The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra—has its roots in Shakespeare's sense of the history of his own lifetime, as the flawed glamour of Essex and his friends, including Shakespeare's own patrons, had been thrust from places of influence at court by the pragmatism of Cecil and his supporters.13

The competition between Caesar and Anthony, in other words, is not simply the history of two incompatible personalities; it is also the history of the cultural clash between two incompatible ways of seeing the world, each of which is grounded in a different material reality. It was a history found in Plutarch but shaped in sixteenth-century London, with the events of the two historical periods assimilated into a single myth that offers to interpret them both. Caesar's triumph at the end of the play creates for its audience a picture of the prehistory of its own present; Augustan Rome becomes the cradle of the modern world—a world from which the poetry of honour and love has disappeared, along with their material base in aristocratic power and the early court societies of the Renaissance. All that remains is Caesar, whom Jonathan Dollimore has likened to Machiavelli's Prince: ‘inscrutable and possessed of an identity which becomes less fixed, less identifiable as his power increases’.14 Ben Jonson had already in The Poetaster (1601) introduced Augustus Caesar to the English stage,15 portraying him as an idealised ruler whose sense of the importance of moral temperance, social hierarchy and literary patronage was perhaps intended as coercive flattery of Elizabeth herself. But Shakespeare's Octavius—still to proclaim himself the Emperor Augustus—is no such ideal figure; he is a model of prudence and watchfulness, a puritan whose denatured realpolitik seems to epitomise Shakespeare's own sense of the political life that succeeded the disarming of the aristocracy.

What is missing from this picture of Caesar, however, is the poetry that honour, beauty and love evoke from him at two critical moments in the play: on his first appearance he celebrates the heroism of Anthony's soldiership in the Alps, and on his last he celebrates Cleopatra's ‘strong toyle of Grace’ and the fame that she and ‘her Anthony’ will enjoy as lovers. It is true that in each case his tribute is expedient; and yet it also seems true that each is profoundly felt. His poetry is moving. In other words, the dissociation between imagination and realpolitik that Caesar is irresistibly imposing upon the world is replicated within his own subjectivity. He is, of course, too canny to succumb to its tragic potential; it is Enobarbus' role in the play to do this, and the fact that Shakespeare has made the character who played so small a role in Plutarch so central to his own play is proof of his interest in the dissociation that Caesar has brought about.

For the true heir of Caesar is the dramatist himself, together with his play and the playhouse in which it is enacted. Here in the marginal place of the playhouse, in the marginal time of the play, the dramatist too recalls the flawed poetry of honour, beauty and love that have gone from the world. He recalls them critically, without nostalgia, in a critique of the meanness of the world that survives; and yet his play is implicated in that world by its existence as a commodity in the market-place. This paradoxical relationship of conformity and unconformity between the new work of dramatic art and the new world emerging around it constitutes the subtext to the closing words of the play:

                                                                                their Story is
No lesse in pitty, then his Glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our Army shall
In solemne shew, attend this Funerall,
And then to Rome. Come Dolabella, see
High Order, in this great Solemnity.

One story is brought to its ritual conclusion, but another goes on; once Anthony and Cleopatra are buried in Egypt, Caesar will return to Rome. Yet despite Caesar's wish to have the last word, to be master of the narrative he tells and the funeral he stages, the competition between himself and Anthony still continues. It continues, as we have seen, within his individual sensibility; and it continues too within the sensibility of the dramatist and his audience, as the ‘solemne shew’ of his tragedy is produced and reproduced again and again in performance. The competition between Caesar and Anthony is thus constantly regenerated as part of the paradox of an art which both collaborates with the economic activities of its society and criticises them in the name of a greater richness and vitality—a richness and vitality which, though flawed in all their manifestations hitherto, nevertheless persist in making their lack felt through an imaginative hunger which Caesar, for all his wealth, cannot feed.

The text of The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra too, as it is produced and reproduced in print and in performance, has become a site of competition, though in a different way, befitting the new ambiguities structured into bourgeois scholarship; it has become a site where generations of editors, from the First Folio on, have collaborated and vied with one another in the attempt to establish and to annotate a text which is both authentic and comprehensible.

What is striking about this long history of editorial work is that, until the last ten years or so, it has tended to produce texts that are more suitable for the armchair than the theatre: texts that have the completeness, self-consistency and grammatical correctness of a novel, together with long and learned notes to satisfy the scholar, the lexicographer and the cultural historian. What is missing—interesting and valuable though such editions are—is twofold: a recognition of the theatrical potential of Shakespeare's texts, and a recognition of their original (and continuing) status as what Jonathan Bate calls ‘vital, mutable theatrical scripts’,16 to be shaped differently according to the requirements of different theatrical performances. For there is, in other words, no authentic script of any Shakespearean play; nor could the sudden discovery of an original manuscript provide one. It is true that the First Folio texts which we are reproducing in this series have misprints, errors, mispunctuations and enigmas in them, and that it remains the duty of an editor to try to find sense in nonsense. Yet their incompletenesses, inconsistencies and incorrectnesses are useful in reminding us of the status in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre of the playscripts that we are dealing with; and, of course, they also enable us to inspect the processes of emendation that they no doubt began and that have been going on ever since.

It is once again a question of narrative and of how we punctuate that narrative. Each added stage-direction, each emendation and each gloss involves us in the construction of a narrative; and each narrative involves competition with our fellow-editors, as our narrative converges upon—or diverges from—theirs. The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra does not raise the same kind of fundamental editorial problems that bedevil plays like Hamlet and King Lear, where there are different texts in existence with rival claims to be authoritative; the First Folio of The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra is the only text that we have. The questions it raises are thus always local and particular; and yet they are interesting, as the following three examples may show.

First, at the end of the play, when Cleopatra has secured herself in her monument and is negotiating with Proculeius, the Folio suddenly assigns him two speeches together, the second one of which begins: ‘You see how easily she may be surpriz'd’. The intended stage-business is clear: troops have been smuggled into the monument, and Cleopatra finds herself under arrest. Precisely how the operation is carried out is not stated in the Folio; but some editions, including the Arden, on the authority of Plutarch, assign the operation—and the second of Proculeius' two speeches—to Gallus, whom Caesar was preparing to use in some unspecified task in the previous scene. The Arden editor, in developing this narrative, is able to praise Proculeius' honesty and corroborate Anthony's dying judgment of him: ‘None about Cæsar trust, but Proculeius’. He is also able to clear Shakespeare from the charge of ‘bad craftsmanship’17—that is, of introducing an expectation and not fulfilling it—by suggesting a compositorial error that transferred the name of Proculeius from the text to the speech-heading that should have read ‘Gallus’. Charlton Hinman too suspects that compositorial error made it necessary, for reasons of space, to drop material from the original manuscript here.18 Yet why should we assume that Shakespeare's manuscript was complete in this way? Such an idea of a finished work of Art is not necessarily appropriate to a play-script which, as Hinman himself goes on to say, can be ‘finished only in performance’,19 when the details of entrances, exits and other stage-business can finally be thrashed out. There is enough in the Folio text from which to fashion a production; and it may be a strength and not a weakness that the whole of this final scene should be so open. It leaves a great deal to the technical and imaginative resources of the playhouse; and in so doing, it underlines the inscrutability of Caesar's character and behaviour, and emphasises finally the disastrous unreliability of Anthony as a judge of character. It all depends what narrative we want to tell; but I can see no good reason to add new stage-directions to the printed text.

Second, a few lines later in the play, there is a famous moment when Cleopatra, in conversation with Dolabella, praises Anthony's unrivalled generosity of spirit:

                                                                                For his bounty,
There was no winter in't: an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping:

Or so she usually says. But in the Folio she says: ‘An Anthony it was, / That grew the more by reaping’. Although acknowledging its orthographical unlikelihood, the Arden editor calls the emendation from ‘autumn’ to ‘Anthony’ brilliant, and adds that it gives ‘admirable sense, and that the turn of imagination is thoroughly Shakespearean, whereas Antony gives no sense at all’.20 What is at issue here is an ideal of poetic decorum quite at odds with the spirit of hyperbole driving Cleopatra. Her metaphor overflows the measure because she can find no words other than the name of the man himself to express the qualities she thinks he had. As once she had said that ‘my Oblivion is a very Anthony’, so now her speechlessness is vindicated in the ineffableness of Anthony's virtue. Words and metaphors are at breaking-point, and to tidy them up is to go against the grain of the whole passage. Once again, of course, it depends upon what narrative we want to tell. But the key test of the lines should surely be whether or not they make sense in the theatre, not whether they reach the standard of some idealised Shakespeare with whose imaginative workings we feel ourselves to be intimate. This example may stand for a number of emendations in modern editions that aim to tidy up the syntax or the imagery of people who are in a state of excitement; and in these cases I think we should be especially reluctant to emend the Folio text.

Third, when Caesar is saying farewell to Octavia before she leaves with Anthony, he urges her:

                                                                                Sister, prove such a wife
As my thoughts make thee, and as my farthest Band
Shall passe on thy approofe:

The last clause here is condensed and its meaning difficult to tease out. The New Cambridge edition quotes approvingly the gloss of Dr Johnson: ‘as I will venture the greatest pledge of security on the trial of thy conduct’.21 According to this explanation, Caesar will only let his honour stand surety for his sister's virtue if her conduct merits it; he may refuse if he so pleases, and she of course may misbehave if she so pleases. Now it is true that Octavia may misbehave, and that he may refuse to stand surety for her; but the drive of the honour code is to occlude both the woman's freedom to act as she wishes and the man's freedom to dissociate himself from his family and friends. Caesar feels—or he talks as though he does—that his honour is already, of necessity, pledged on behalf of his sister's conduct, and that he will only be able to circulate freely amongst men of honour as long as his word passes for currency amongst them. ‘What is a man but his promise?’:22 therefore, in the chiastic structuring of his sentence, he works hard to bind Octavia's freedom so that she will prove herself only in such a way as to be approved within the circles of honourable men. Hence my own interpretation of his final clause: ‘so as even my uttermost pledge as to your merits shall be vindicated and found acceptable when other people come to inspect and approve them’. It is this emphasis upon the policing of the honour code that is lacking from Dr Johnson's explanation. Perhaps he thought more naturally in terms of the individual protestant ethic rather than in terms of the essentially social nature of the honour code. But for whatever reason, the difference at issue shows how even the smallest gloss involves editors in the construction of rival narratives in a competition to see which shall command the most assent.

These are indeed only small examples of the processes involved in every emendation and gloss; the endnotes are full of countless others, and every editor of course could tell a similar story. It is perhaps no coincidence, however, that each example discussed here should date back to the eighteenth century—to Theobald twice and once to Dr Johnson—when modern methods of editing Shakespeare were laid dowm, when drama was often excluded from the categories of respectable literature, and when art was something to be consumed in the pleasurable solitude of the drawing-room rather than created in the vulgar public arena of the theatre. It is against that tradition that this edition of the First Folio is launched. ‘Heere is my space’: it is perhaps a new space for most performers and readers alike, and one which may help them to remember the true status of Shakespearean texts as play-scripts; to keep alive a sense of their theatrical openness which is also a kind of danger; and to do so particularly here, in the case of a play written to commemorate the flawed but overflowing vitality of a disorderly world which had all but vanished before the new order of the heirs of Caesar—‘the little o'th'earth’, Cleopatra calls them (though only in the Folio text), whose only glory comes from the light cast by Anthony. For this is the abiding power of The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra: that it continues to articulate a dissociation characteristic of our culture. No matter whether we consider it in its history or in our own present, it still reproduces its fundamental antithesis, which still remains a ‘violent hierarchy’ and a potential source of tragedy: the tragedy of the dissociation between romantic images of beauty, vitality and freedom and our disillusioned experiences of competition in the everyday worlds of home, work and political power.


  1. See Rosalie Colie, ‘Reason and Need: King Lear and the “Crisis of the Aristocracy”’, in Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (eds), Some Facets of ‘King Lear’: Essays in Prismatic Criticism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), for an interesting account of the way that the Tudor state had set out ‘to gentle the armigerous aristocracy’ (p. 186).

  2. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter and John Turner, Shakespeare: Out of Court (London: Macmillan, 1990) p. 19. The allusion is to a study of competition in Love's Labour's Lost.

  3. Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem ‘Stand, whoso list, upon the slipper top’ is a translation of the same passage from Seneca as Andrew Marvell's ‘The Second Chorus from Seneca's Tragedy “Thyesetes”’.

  4. Mervyn James, ‘English Politics and the Concept of Honour 1485-1642’, Past and Present, Supplement 3 (The Past and Present Society, 1978), p. 7. The whole of this long essay has much to offer to a student of The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra.

  5. Charles A. Hallett, ‘Change, Fortune, and Time: Aspects of the Sublunar World in Antony and Cleopatra’, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. LXXV (1976) p. 87.

  6. Quoted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare vol. V (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 302.

  7. It is worth remembering Charlton Hinman's caution about the conventional act-scene divisions found in editions of Shakespeare: ‘they tend to foster mistaken notions both of the principles by which Shakespeare constructed his plays and of the manner in which they were meant to be staged’; in The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), p. xxiv.

  8. Raymond Williams, Drama in Performance (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 69. Chapter 4 of this book is a pioneering analysis of the First Folio as a text for performance.

  9. See Raymond Williams, in the Afterword to Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 238, for a discussion of the political implications of the ‘multivocal’ and ‘interactive’ form of the new drama.

  10. There is a good discussion of the play in Nietzschean terms during the last chapter of Michael Long's The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 220-59.

  11. Jonathan Dollimore, ‘The Dominant and the Deviant: A Violent Dialectic’, in Critical Quarterly vol. 28, nos. 1 and 2 (1986), p. 190.

  12. W. B. Yeats, ‘At Stratford-on-Avon’, in Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1969) p. 107.

  13. A connection between Essex and Mark Antony had already been drawn by friends of Fulke Greville, urging him to destroy his own tragedy about the story of Antony and Cleopatra. See Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, pp. 216-17.

  14. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984), p. 208.

  15. A comparison of Jonson's and Shakespeare's pictures of Augustus Caesar may be found in the last five pages of Howard Erskine-Hill's essay, ‘Antony and Octavius: The Theme of Temperance in Shakespeare's “Antony and Cleopatra”’, in Renaissance and Modern Studies. vol. XIV (1970), pp. 26-47.

  16. Jonathan Bate, ‘Shakespeare's Tragedies as Working Scripts’, in Critical Survey, vol. 3, no. ii (1991), p. 126.

  17. See the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra (London: Methuen, 1954), p. 254.

  18. See Hinman, The Norton Facsimile, p. xvii.

  19. Ibid., p. xiii.

  20. Arden edition, p. 214.

  21. New Cambridge edition of Antony and Cleopatra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 155.

  22. These words, epitomising the honour code of the aristocracy, were spoken by Lord Darcy in 1536 to justify military confederacy against the crown. They are quoted in Mervyn James, ‘English Politics and the Concept of Honour, 1485-1642’, p. 29.

Lois Potter (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “Shakespeare Performed: Roman Actors and Egyptian Transvestites.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 4 (winter 1999): 508-17.

[In the following excerpted review of the Southmark Globe Theatre's all-male production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Giles Block, Potter praises many of the performances of the major characters, finding in particular that Mark Rylance's Cleopatra uncovered new meaning in the play. Potter comments that the director's vision of the play emphasized the victory of “a gloriously human couple.”]

In its 1999 season the Southwark Globe took up several challenges from its critics: to prove that it could do Shakespearean tragedy as well as comedy, to adopt more Elizabethan conventions (in this case, all-male casts for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), and to perform a new play. To make room for the last of these, which opened after I left, there were no plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries this year; I suspect that they will mostly be relegated to the small indoor theater when it finally materializes, and that the same will be true of new plays. The Globe theater has also taken notice of last season's complaints about problems seeing and hearing the actors. The pillars have new, slimmer bases; though actors can no longer stand on them, a little more of the forestage can now be seen from the side. This year each production has had a “Master of Play” and “Master of Verse,” and the work of these coyly named individuals, especially the latter, has made a difference. While some of the actors occasionally sounded as if they were forcing their voices, most could make themselves heard even above the sound of a helicopter. The stage movement was also much more inventive, with most actors apparently comfortable about playing to the whole of their audience instead of just the quadrant directly in front of the stage. …

… [I]t was Giles Block's production of Antony and Cleopatra that everyone was waiting for. Mark Rylance may or may not have been the age of the now-unknown Jacobean actor who originally played one of the greatest female roles of all time. It didn't matter; his performance as Cleopatra was a genuine revelation of aspects of the play and the role that I have never seen exploited before. It gained, for instance, from the audience's double awareness of character and actor, particularly when he was physically threatening other characters or doing one of Cleopatra's quick transitions between sinking into a faint and deciding not to bother after all. This Cleopatra, as several reviewers said, really did look as if she might decide at any time to hop forty paces through the public street. Barefoot much of the time and dressed like a gypsy, she played the second scene with the messenger wearing chopines and a feathered headdress, thus carefully giving herself every advantage when she asked whether Octavia was “as tall as me.” Following Plutarch's account, Rylance also gave us a Cleopatra who had shaved her head and lacerated her face in mourning for Antony, thus making the final transformation with robe and crown even more stunning than usual.

In most productions it is Antony who is shown to be suffering from divided longings and Cleopatra who acts on blind impulse. Here, however, Paul Shelley's Antony became the object of love—both Cleopatra's and Enobarbus's—rather than an autonomous subject. He was a creature of instinct, never needing to brood over what he was going to do next. His generosity on hearing that Enobarbus had left him was so rapid and spontaneous that it went largely unnoticed, as did his instant forgiveness when he learned that Cleopatra was still alive after all; the death of Eros (who slit his own throat) shocked the audience more than it did him. In all three cases I would have liked him to take a few seconds longer to register, or let the audience register, the enormity of what he was not saying. Cleopatra was allowed far greater interiority; she actually heard Enobarbus's sarcastic comments on Antony's deteriorating judgment (usually treated as an aside) and her gradual realization that her lover was no longer a superman gave her a shared understanding, delicately indicated, of Enobarbus's state of mind. This sympathy between the two people who love Antony most is not in the text, but then this play, unlike Julius Caesar, has a subtext—at least, that's how I would describe such lines as Cleopatra's “Then Antony—but now—Well, on.”

There were other fine performances. John McEnery's Enobarbus was admirably clear, understatedly funny, and able to span the barge speech, the sarcastic one-liners, and the difficult death scene. Mark Lewis Jones, good in all his roles, stood out as the amiably second-rate Pompey. Danny Sapani as Charmian revealed a comic range that he had conscientiously repressed as Brutus, while James Gillan was a remarkably convincing Iras. As the messenger who gets mauled by Cleopatra, Roger Gartland had a wonderful moment in their second scene, when she offered him gold for the second time and he registered a horrified suspicion that the cycle of reward and attack was about to start again. On the other hand, I found most of the Romans, especially Octavius (Ben Walden), somewhat colorless, and I suspect that the director was simply not very interested in this half of the conflict. In some productions this would have been a disaster. For this one it didn't seem to matter. I have rarely seen an interpretation so little concerned with the difference between the Roman and Egyptian worldviews.

Was the final effect tragic? Is it ever? Block seems to me to see the play as the triumph of a gloriously human couple. The speed at which events moved, matched by that of the characters themselves as they danced and dashed across their world stage, made it easier to enjoy the comedy than to respond to the sense of “greatness going off” or the suggestiveness of the moment (surprisingly ineffective, at least in the previews) when music from under the earth hints at the end of an era. This may be why the most moving part of the play was the minitragedy of Enobarbus, who ironically dies in public yet so lost in his own grief as to be unaware that he has an audience. Perhaps we are overinclined to associate tragedy with interiority and silence and do not know how to respond to a play that takes place entirely in public. Yet the company tried to play as many lines as possible out front. They duly glared at us whenever they complained about the unreliability of the common people; the anonymous servant's lament that Lepidus should “be called into a huge sphere and not … be seen to move in't” was played as a joke about acting minor parts at the Globe; after his one military victory, Antony assured us (rather unconvincingly) that he owed it all to us. The fact that such moments could be achieved only by forcing the lines marks the difference between Antony and Cleopatra and the season's other plays. Both its historical setting and its Jacobean context imply an audience whose role is (as Philo says at the start) to “behold and see” rather than to affect events. …

Imtiaz Habib (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Habib, Imtiaz. “Cleopatra and the Sexualization of Race.” In Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period, pp. 157-205. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.

[In the following essay, Habib suggests that in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare contrasted noble England and the white, virginal Queen Elizabeth with the torpor of Egypt and its black and wanton ruler, Cleopatra.]

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

Antony and Cleopatra 1.5.27-29


If Titus Andronicus was a failure to construct empire, Antony and Cleopatra may be a renewed attempt using this time as the object of subjugation a black female monarch of an alternative empire. It is a renewed effort also to reify through the idea of a fabulously re-imagined Rome the idea of empire, to vindicate it by writing it on whatever lies beyond it—in this case the East and Egypt. What is revisited is the archetypal European colony in Africa on the eve of its colonization, Egypt at the moment of its becoming a Roman province. Concomitantly, it is also an attempt to vindicate noble Rome-England and the memory of a white virgin Elizabeth against an indolent Egypt and a black seductive Cleopatra. This is a national instinct whose strength is reflected for example in a work like Anne Bradstreet's poem, “In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory,” in which Elizabeth is as glorious as Cleopatra is ignoble and shameful (Works 11:86-89; cited in Nyquist 86).1 As Kim Hall puts it, “Rome is England's imagined forefather in Empire, and Antony and Cleopatra provides an object lesson in imperial history” (Things of Darkness 160).

Also, if Othello is a revision of the black male subject of Titus Andronicus as has been argued earlier,2Antony and Cleopatra is a revision of the black female subject of the Sonnets (Ericson, Patriarchal Structures 125-27; Estrin 178-79, Ronald Macdonald 87). If Othello was an emancipatory myth of the black man in power, Antony and Cleopatra is an emancipatory myth of the black woman in power, both being singular cases in early modern English drama and in Shakespeare respectively. At the same time, Cleopatra's apprehension of being written by Rome “I' th' posture of a whore” (5.2.221) recalls and parallels the dark prostitute of the Sonnets that the black female subaltern has already become.

The tropic proximity, for analytical purposes, between the resistant black woman of the Sonnets and the defiant non-European queen in Antony and Cleopatra has to be the starting point for a postcolonial inquiry into the discursive politics implicit in the representation of Cleopatra. This proximity is a part of what John Gillies has said is the compelling sense in which in Shakespeare “exoticism in general controls ethnicity in particular.” But this produces “a … relation” as well as instead of “rather than a kind of character” as Gillies has evasively put it (99 emphasis added), for it is the former that guides the textual design of the latter. As the relations that bind the Sonnets to Antony and Cleopatra are a product of early English colonialism's continual re-thematization of itself so the character that is revisited is the female ethnic alien. That such a dramatic personification is now conceived not as an invasive or intrusive presence in colonialism's own “geographic or moral center” as was the black woman in the Sonnets but as something encountered in “an outward … adventure beyond [those] geographical and moral” confines (Gillies 112), is indicative of the early colonial English imagination's developing struggle with its knowledge of its ethnic and sexual other. The female ethnic subject is by a symbolic act of distancing and expulsion now re-imagined in a legendary historical landscape in which the act of subjugation can be rehearsed afresh. The powerful female ethnic subject may have left its traces in other conflicted Shakespearean mimetic explorations of powerful “dangerous … fully sexual and threatening” women such as Gertrude, Goneril and Regan, Lady Macbeth and Volumina that are approximately coterminous with Cleopatra as some have argued (Ericson, Patriarchal Structures 124; Adelman, Suffocating Mothers 177), but to posit particularly its reappearance in Antony and Cleopatra is to recover the cogency of its inevitable intertextual effect in later Shakespeare.3

The revival of the black female subject in the play, which has been the object of some critical notice only in the last decade, is, however, a contestatory phenomena played out between the colonial poet, the male protagonist and Cleopatra herself.4 The similarities between Cleopatra and the Sonnets' black woman, and between the former's play and the latter's poems noted by Peter Ericson (Patriarchal Structures 125-28) are persuasive. But to suggest that Cleopatra is Shakespeare's reclamation of the “dark woman” of the Sonnets (125) is to assume a simplistic relationship between discourse, author and work. As Barbara Estrin has instead argued, in the language of sexual loss and the struggle for recompense that is common to both the play and poem (129) it is the “female character, who aware of the possibility of loss, embraces it as a means of expressing her nature” (178). But if the limitations of a certain kind of white feminist critical practice5 confine that “nature” in Estrin's analysis to be by silent assumption white and to deny all cognizance of Cleopatra's color, it does point to the recusant politics of desire and memory that are re-played through the colonial-patriarchal imagination. Janet Adelman's discussion of fantasies of maternal origin in Shakespeare (Suffocating Mothers 174-88) is useful for making it possible for Cleopatra to be seen as the resistant reconfigured focus of Shakespeare's recovery of the lost masculinity of the Sonnets. This struggle between a revisionist collective and personal memory working through the playwright and the unpredictable re-play of the discursive subject of the black woman that is Cleopatra constitutes the field of intervention for a postcolonial critical poetics in the play.


Shakespeare is forced to return to the repressed black female subject in Antony and Cleopatra in his thoughts of empire, since as Robert Young has said the subliminal heart of the colonial/imperial instinct may be the dream of sexual dominion over a resistant black woman (earlier cited Chapter 1). As Lucy Hughes-Hallett aptly puts it,

The image of an Eastern country as a woman and of a Western male—whether military aggressor, mystic, scholar or tourist—as her heterosexual lover is one so commonplace as to pervade all Western thinking about the East … In it an erotic code is used to represent a political reality: the pornographic image of a woman bound and helpless becomes the metaphor for a conquered country.

Whether for Asia or for Africa, the Western “rhetoric of imperialism and heterosexuality are inextricably intertwined” (207).6 This is an unconscious Anglo-European collective urge that is startlingly caught for instance in the graphic portrait of the rape of a black woman by three white men that was painted by the Dutch painter Christian van Couwenbergh in 1632 (Scobie, “African Women in Early Europe” 149-52).7 It is also implicit in exotic, supposedly eye witness Elizabethan descriptions of Egypt, such as the anonymous one recorded in Hakluyt, that Lucy Hughes-Hallett has cited:

There are innumerable barks rowing to and fro laden with gallant girls and beautiful dames, which with singing, eating, drinking and feasting take their solace. The women of this country are most beautiful and go in rich attire bedecked with gold, precious stones, and jewels of great value, but chiefly perfumed with odours, and are very libidinous, and the men likewise.


The same popular thinking fuels the more symptomatic scenarios of Robert Burton shortly afterwards describing the mentality of the Orient as “the savouring of animal existence; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquillity … which in Asia stand in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life of the West” (Hughes-Hallett 216). As Ania Loomba has pointed out, these are the stereotypical qualities that commonly attach to both Cleopatra and her people in the sixteenth century popular English imagination (Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama 79).

To cite Hughes-Hallett again, on the political thematics of such urges,

The other is not only the adversary. She/he/it is also the promised consummation of all unconsummatable desire.

The other might be a geographical space; it might equally well be a woman, for women like foreigners, were strange to Western men and the realms of the East, like women, invited penetration and possession (206)

And place and woman are not only metaphors for each other (sexual intercourse equals annexation, conquest equals rape), they are also symbolic of something else—of the “ill-defined rapture” of that which is otherwise denied


To this can be added the reminder of Loomba, who says “In colonialist discourse, the conquered land is often explicitly endowed with feminine characteristics in contrast to the masculine attributes of the colonizer” (Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama 78).

What triggers Shakespeare's return to the black woman is the relatively more formalized imperialism of James's court compared to Elizabeth's. The difference between Elizabeth's court and James's, as Kim Hall has demonstrated, is a difference between a cautious insularity and an eager internationalism (with unfortunately accelerated colonial consequences), and that is neatly caught in the thematic distance between Elizabeth's personal motto semper eadem (always one) and James's rex pacificus (royal peacemaker). If the colonial instinct in the Elizabethan reign was a surreptitious discovery, in the subsequent one it is a formal declaration, the chastity of the earlier monarch serving, as Kim Hall aptly puts it, as a figure for the “closing off of England from foreign powers,” as compared to the marriage of the latter one which could be seen as nationally embodying “the creation of bonds with outsiders” (126-27). The colonialist projects that are busily institutionalized from the beginning of the seventeenth century, in the formal incorporation of trading companies such as the Virginia, the Guinea, and the East India companies, are paralleled by James's well-known adoption of Great Britain as England's official title, and which is an extension of the solitary and unofficial invocation of England as “an empire” in the reign of his predecessor.9 The renewed metropolitanism of Jacobean cultural agenda is spelled out by James's encouragement of lavish civic spectacles, particularly the opulent pageants such as those for which Inigo Jones was commissioned to construct decorative public architecture, as well as the elaborate masques that were a staple of early seventeenth century London's courtly entertainment. These declare an internationalist ambition with its attendant nascent multiculturalism that is the quintessential underpinning of the imperial-colonial dream. Not inappropriately, James is routinely regarded by contemporary critical commentators of Antony and Cleopatra and its seventeenth century English political background as a re-born Augustus (Hunt 120, Nyquist 96, Whitney 85).

Domesticated black aliens, both live ones as in James's own marriage as well as impersonated representations as in Jonson's Masque of Blackness, embody a growing English need to display/demonstrate (particularly to already visibly internationalist-colonialist countries such as Spain and Portugal) a self image of political-cultural self mastery through dominion over others.10 One of the most palpable manifestations of this urge, and which has startling resonances with Antony and Cleopatra is a famous Jacobean incident that is not, however, usually associated with this play. The marriage in 1614 of one of the members of the first English colonial settlers in Virginia, John Rolfe, to the Indian princess Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhattan, is usually connected to The Tempest because of the supposed ethnological proximity of Pocahontas to Caliban and because of the way the incident's direct English colonial history suggests the background of that later play. But if the difference between the Western Indian and the African and the Asiatic is for the moment ignored as it in fact always was in the early colonial English racial imagination, the incident has compelling affiliations with the imperial colonial discourse that writes Antony and Cleopatra seven years earlier and that in fact predicts it. As Paul Brown, one of the most effective discussants of the incident in the light of The Tempest, has himself put it, Rolfe's letter to the Governor seeking permission for the match “confirms Rolfe in the position of colonizer and Pocahontas in the position of the savage other,” and Rolfe's encounter with Pocahontas “serves to confirm the civil subject in that self-knowledge which ensures self-mastery.” Literally echoing the situation of the Antony and Cleopatra, Rolfe is the European colonizer who like Antony in the process of subduing the margins joins it (in marriage) and threatens the integrity of the center which he is supposed to uphold. James's initial anger at Rolfe's “treachery” duplicates Caesar's ire at Antony's affiliation with Egypt. The eventual approval of Pocahontas, as “Lady Rebecca,” and her admission to English civil society is however the completion of her colonization, implicit in her death in England soon afterwards (Paul Brown 49-50). The greater and more useful political-cultural metonymies of this incident with Antony and Cleopatra as opposed to The Tempest lie in the gender parallelism of Pocahontas and Cleopatra and in the power struggle of which both are formally a focus. To cite Paul Brown's words again,

The discourse of sexuality in fact offers the critical nexus for the various domains of colonialist discourse …


What lurks in Rolfe's “secrete bosome” is a desire for a savage female (49), [and] Rolfe's letter reorients potentially truant sexual desire within the confines of a duly ordered and supervised civil relationship.


Played out in popular drama, such an instinct appears in the spate of seventeenth century plays that describe the successful physical subjugation of or moral victory over African or African-based kingdoms and potentates by European/Roman ruling orders such as in Thomas Dekker's Lust's Dominion (1600), John Marston's Sophonisba (1606), Philip Massinger's The Bondmen (1623) and Thomas Heywood's 2 The Fair Maid of the West (1630). Specifically, such an instinct is also evident in the numerous court representations of Cleopatra and other conquered foreign queens in the Stuart court, such as in The Masque of Queens in 1609 in which James's wife herself took part (Russ McDonald 305). If such dramatizations also include black females, that phenomenon can be contextualized by a possible Stuart courtly memory of the captive African women in the Scottish courts of James's ancestors cited earlier, and generally by the expedience of using the subjugation of dangerously empowered black women to write the text for a compliant white womanhood that is the collective cultural instinct of the early modern English nationalist project. The subduing of the powerful black woman that is Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 derives considerable charge from the energy of these overlapping cultural discourses.

The blackness/ethnic origin of the historical, and in consequence, of the fictional Shakespearean, Cleopatra, can be established along the lines of four kinds of inquiries/interrogations of conventional opinion. First, the common assertion that the Ptolemies were notoriously eugenic, being very careful of preserving their blood in marriage even to the extent of familial inter-breeding (Holland 56, Hughes-Hallett 14, 15), needs to be mediated by Alexander's and Caesar's documented prescriptive practices of inter-racial unions (the former pointed out by Gillies 113, and the latter by Hughes-Hallett herself 37). Although the strong possibility of Cleopatra's mixed blood and of her consequently being colored is still contested by most scholars who believe that even for their mistresses the Ptolemies, following the Pharaonic practice of preserving blood line by marrying their own kin, chose “upper-class Greeks” (Holland 57), it should be remembered that the Pharaohs themselves were not immune to conducting exogamic unions, as did Amenhotep III when he married the Nubian commoner Tiye in 1428 b.c. (Simon 57). If the Ptolemies could be said to follow the other Pharaonic practice, they could arguably be said to also draw precedence from this.

Second, Cleopatra's location in most modern scholarly sources exclusively within the Ptolemaic dynasty as Ptolemy XII's daughter ignores the double possibility of one of her grandparents as well as of her mother being Egyptian. As is the consensus of established scholarship, Cleopatra's father was the illegitimate offspring of Ptolemy IX (Soter II) (“Ptolemy XII Auletes,” Britannica; “The Ptolemies” Cambridge Ancient History 9:788 [genealogical map]).11 The illegitimacy of Ptolemy XII, which was the reason for his difficulty in getting Rome's support for his rulership (“Ptolemy XII Auletes,” Britannica), effectively precludes any Ptolemaic immaculateness in his daughter's blood. Royal illegitimacy for the Ptolemies, and apparently for the Romans too in their understanding of Ptolemaic succession practices, meant a birth that was not the product of Ptolemaic inbreeding. It did not mean more generally the product of an unlegalized sexual union as it means today, and even if it could be stretched to fit the modern meaning the chances are that such unions remained unauthorized because they did not fit the Ptolemaic eugenic prescription for royal marriages because one of the partners was not of Ptolemaic blood. Among the few modern scholars who point to the inevitable gradual mixing of Macedonian-Ptolemaic and native Egyptian blood from the time of Ptolemy IV Philopator is the British classicist Sir Paul Harvey, who believes that because of Philopator's recruitment of native troops in his victorious battle against Antiochus III in 217 b.c. Egyptian influence in and penetration of Ptolemaic political and civic life increased to the point that “A mixed Graeco-Egyptian race was gradually formed” (353).12

Who Cleopatra's mother was is also unknown, and hence the possibility of her ethnic matrilineal descent cannot be simply dismissed. That, like her father, Cleopatra's own maternal origins are obscured (whether or not she was the daughter of the woman that Ptolemy XII married, Cleopatra V Tryphaena, is unclear, being unspecified in most sources), suggests an interesting reason for her name, “Thea Philopater” which meant “Goddess Loving Her Father” (“Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator,” Britannica). Some scholars believe that Cleopatra's mother was “a Nubian woman,” an assertion supportable in terms of the evidence of Pharaonic unions with Nubians cited earlier.13 Although no portraits of her exist, the depiction of her in both of the two coins that were minted by her orders in her youth and later arguably exhibit mixed African-Egyptian and European features. … Her recognition of her mixed lineage may have been what prompted Cleopatra, an otherwise accomplished linguist by all accounts, to be the first of the Ptolemies to bother to learn Egyptian (“Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator,” Britannica). As one of her most respected modern biographers Hans Volkmann pointed out, like her father she had little popularity with the “upper stratum of the Alexandrian population” (62). Although most scholarly opinions steadfastly refuse to consider Cleopatra as anything but Macedonian Greek they consistently admit that she was, to a degree unprecedented in her ancestors, close to and deeply involved in native Pharaonic Egyptian cultural life, that her “thoughts and feelings … were certainly far closer to the Egyptian world than we have so far assumed” (Volkmann 207), and that she was “primarily an Egyptian Queen” (Cambridge Ancient History 9:321).14 If in all historical narratives—Greek and Roman—Cleopatra consciously identifies with, and fights (against Rome) for her Egyptian kingdom, and foregrounds her national/political and social/cultural difference in doing so, it is hard to understand how she can be considered exclusively European. A mixed color and lineage for Cleopatra is thus highly likely, exactly what would be signified by the word “tawny” that Cleopatra uses to refer to herself in Shakespeare's play.

Third, it is not what she was ethnically (whether or not that is knowable), but what she was in early modern English popular imagination that has more to say about her ethnicity in Shakespeare. In Elizabethan thinking she is both European, such as in Daniel (Nyquist), and non-European, in more than the three instances that Janet Adelman pointed out (Common Liar 185-86). These include Robert Greene in his Ciceronis amor 1589 who said that Cleopatra was “a black Egyptian” and that to Antony her “blackest ebon was brighter than whitest ivory” (quoted by Hughes-Hallett 201), George Gascoigne in his “In Praise of a gentlewoman who though she were not very faire, yet was she as hard fauoured as might be” who marginally notes that Cleopatra was “Egyptian,” (186) and Samuel Brandon in his The Virtuous Octavia who wondered how Cleopatra's “sun-burnt beauty” could please “[Antony's] sight” (186; also quoted by Hughes-Hallett 202). In addition to these, Kim Hall further cites Aemilia Lanyer as referring to Cleopatra in her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorun as “a blacke Egyptian” and Elizabeth Cary in her Tragedy of Mariam describing Cleopatra as “a brown Egyptian” (Things of Darkness 183-5). Even as late as the eighteenth century Colley Cibber has Cleopatra describe herself as an “Egyptian … born too near the glowing sun” (Hughes-Hallett 202).

Shakespeare twice explicitly paints her as colored—once in the “tawny front” reference in Act 1, and later in the “Phoebus” reference as black. Adelman's warnings about not taking literally every Elizabethan/Shakespearean use of the word black to mean skin color (Common Liar 184-85), which are fueled more by a contemporary postmodern nervousness in talking about race than any great danger of misunderstanding Shakespeare, need to be mediated by the reverse reminder very usefully articulated by Kim Hall that all uses of the word in Shakespeare should not automatically be construed to be metaphorical either (Things of Darkness 70).15 The character's contextual history (see note 11 above), which Adelman herself points out in the pages immediately following her warning, make the phenotypical denotations of the references unavoidable. As Linda Charnes has insisted, it is particularly crucial not to ignore Cleopatra's identity as a black woman in view of the fact that she is the only one in the play who describes herself and that self description is black (127). Conversely, there are no specific signals of her “whiteness” in the play. That is, as Kim Hall has put it, “Shakespeare is at pains to make us see a black Cleopatra” (Things of Darkness 154). It is difficult to fathom the ideological assumptions that would make it compelling to ignore these deliberate indications, as the play's conventional exegesis has done.16

Furthermore, the play, as Linda Charnes has acutely explained it, is not about transcendent love but about the politics of empire (137-41) that underwrites that thematic. This can be seen in the way that the eugenic forsaking of the colored woman as the necessity of Western empire construction functions as the European cultural paratext for the Antony Cleopatra story. As Hughes-Hallett citing classical Roman sources has brilliantly reminded us, conceived within a few years of Cleopatra's death Virgil's original Augustus-inspired plan for the ultimate epic that would demonstrate the triumph of Roman-European nobility and imperial fortitude over the temptations of the world was not Aeneas's affair with the Carthaginian African queen Dido but Antony's with Cleopatra (60-61).17 What necessitated the change from this plan to what became the substance of the Aeneid was a didactic improvement over history: the mythic demonstration of the ability of a European ruler (Aeneas) tempted by a seductive African female potentate (Dido) to uphold and return dutifully to his own world and lineage, over and against the historical record of precisely such an inability in a Roman conqueror (Antony) who charmed by his non-European/colored Egyptian queen (Cleopatra) actually could not and did not. To slightly paraphrase Maynard Mack, Antony's desertion of Rome for an African queen was to be reversed by Aeneas's disavowal of an African queen for Roman greatness (cited by Ronald Macdonald 97n9). With the political damage controlled, the event could begin its historical journey as the legend of a passionate though regrettable extra-marital affair, but not an extra-ethnic one. In the subsequent transmission of the Antony and Cleopatra story a century later the elements of a narrative of passion already coexist within the history of a political struggle, as for instance in Plutarch who in connecting Cleopatra to his own Greek background sees Antony's relationship with her more as adulterous than miscegenic (Gillies 115).18 If in Chaucer the pair are characters of love, in the works of Dante, Boccaccio and Spenser they are sensual profligates.

The containment and diffusion of the subversive political potential of the non-European queen who defied Rome is effected, in other words, through the simultaneous transformation of her as an avatar of love and the denigration of her in terms of her sensual excess and in terms of the erotic passion that she both comes to stands for and ignites in Antony. It is not therefore surprising that while for Shakespeare's contemporaries the narrative's political interest/content is sometimes more foregrounded and sometimes less, it is never absent. Thus, in Marlowe's Dido, Fulke Greville's self suppressed play (Bullough 5:216; Hughes-Hallett 139),19 Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam, Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deux Judaeorum (Kim Hall, Things of Darkness 183-85) as well as in Robert Anton's (Wilders 11) and Richard Reynolde's (Charnes 137) allusive comments about Cleopatra's “horrible crimes” and “murthers” respectively, the moral-aesthetic marking down of Cleopatra is the vehicle of a visible English national-political self pointing. In contrast, in the Countess of Pembroke's adaptation of Robert Garnier's Marc Antoine, Daniel's Senecan drama and Gascoigne's and Greene's poems cited earlier, the elementalism of the lovers' passions is more a human tragedy than a national-imperial danger to be guarded against. This variable but ubiquitous political interest/content is what shapes the supposed love thematics of the Antony Cleopatra legend in popular representations such as Shakespeare's play. As Charnes describes it, the “production of legendary love, can be one of the most effective ways to deflect, defuse and contain perceptions of irreconcilable political differences” (138).20

The play's politics can be seen also in the way that an implicitly Orientalist-racist cultural agenda masquerades as the thematics of love in its critical and theatrical history starting from Charles Sedley and John Dryden, albeit less overtly in the former than in the latter.21 In both not only are Antony and Cleopatra “kind, heroic and faithful lovers” (Ridley xxxviii), but as Charnes observes, Cleopatra is painted as “explicitly white” (203n48), which is a telling demonstration of the hidden political instincts of the love theme. In eighteenth century productions such as those of David Garrick in Drury Lane in 1759 “the emphasis of the play was significantly altered” and “[i]t became essentially a tragedy of love played out within a sketchy political context” (Wilders 15). If nineteenth century romantic critics such as Schlegel, Coleridge, Swinburne, and Victor Hugo collectively propagated “the intensity and imaginative force of love” in the play (Spevack, Variorum Antony and Cleopatra 641-47), Victorian productions so radically re-shaped the play that “mostly the political and military” scenes were cut out (Wilders 18).22 This tradition fed the mid twentieth century's more influential critical judgments of the play, as for instance those of Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson and Reuben Brower that saw the play as articulating the poetics of an impossible transcendent love (Spevack 642). As the calm pronouncement of the editor of one of the most recent scholarly editions of the play has it, “The play is a dramatization of a tragic and celebrated love affair” (Wilders 1). Wilders's opinion echoes that of his predecessor's, M. R. Ridley's magisterial declaration in his 9th Arden Shakespeare edition of the play in 1954 that “In the first place it is a love tragedy” (“Introduction” xliii).

In Ridley's view of the play, which is as implicitly racist as his now-infamous view of Othello's blackness (7th Arden Shakespeare Othello “Introduction”), we are offered “a thrill, a quickening of the pulses, a brief experience in a region where there is an unimagined vividness of life” (xlvii). What Ridley does not admit is the extent to which this view is predicated on the exotic black female subject, the way in which the “thrill,” “the quickening pulses,” are all fueled by white European colonial patriarchy's secret fascination of that which it has forbidden for itself because it is threateningly different but that which it also cannot forget and about which it can fantasize only in some imaginary place removed from the norm. This is the mythic East that is Ridley's unspecified but nonetheless revealing “region” of “unimagined vividness.” The comment exemplifies Hughes-Hallett's description of the European colonialist sexual fantasy of the black/colored woman as the Other as a subliminal drive for sexual fulfillment of that which is desired but unattainable and which because of that is all the more desired, and of how non-Europe (Asia or Africa) functions as the only symbolic space in which such fantasies can be materialized (206; 222-24). These interestedly orientalist scholarly re-castings of the play between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, in fabulist scenarios of erotic passion, thus implicitly trace an archetypally colonial European fantasy of sex and power in a symbolic political landscape. Such a fantasy is the discursive agenda of the play's thematics of love, and it is one which its critical and theatrical histories both reflect and transmit. From a postcolonial standpoint the “love” thematization of Antony and Cleopatra is also the subjugation, through the whitening, of the politically powerful black woman.


The spatial and ideological binaries that in traditional criticism hold Shakespeare's Rome and Egypt apart also enact a textual program of reclaiming the imperial (Roman) state through the exclusion of both gender and race. The construction of the white masculinity of the European state, signalled through the play's early dismissal of the ineffective and docile Fulvia and the relegation to the narrative background of a dutiful Octavia rendered irrelevant in the play of Caesarist global politics (both of whom while being positive comparative makers against Cleopatra are unsatisfactory surrogates of woman compared to her), is aimed not just at the female abundance that is Cleopatra that Janet Adelman has pointed to but also at the imagined place of the racial other that is Egypt. The alien-ness of the female-sexual wild which is also the foreign-ness of the racial-cultural wild is the expelled ground of difference on which the imperial national imaginary is to be nourished.

The colonial author-function's mimetic encasement of the black female subject, in simultaneously incorporating an indictment of race and a containment of gender, sexualizes race and racializes sexuality, because the colonial-patriarchal notion of imperial nationhood is predicated on a selective appropriation of bodies for the continuance of a male ethnically exclusionist political order.23 The double mimetic track of the mutually interactive racial-sexual marking of Cleopatra achieves the obliteration of the black female subject by blurring her reality and making her visibility fictional. Her fictionalized reality, together with the illusion of her power, serves only to validate the actuality of a white western world order, just as the myth of Othello's generalship had done earlier. She is the site of subjugation, in Kim Hall's terms “the imperial text” (Things of Darkness 159), on which the political life of colonial patriarchy is to be semiotically exercised. These suppressive instincts that rule the play's colonial-patriarchal representative agenda thus both confirm and extend the metropolitan construction that has been the Shakespearean colonial author function's ongoing discursive enterprise.

The mimetic incarceration of the reinvoked black female subject through the sexualization of race and the racialization of sexuality in Cleopatra is implicit in the play's selected moment of narrative entry. Not only are the play's famous opening lines an announcement of deliberate specular painting and pointing, the creation of a political frieze with a specific political lesson, the vehicular logic of its teaching turns on a discreet ascription of moral failure to an inferiority that is both racial and sexual. As Philo's multiple, expostulatory verbal emphases, “Those,” “Look where they come! / Take but good note, and you shall see …” “Behold and see,” sharply locate “the goodly eyes … [and] … the captain's heart” of the formerly global triumvirate “pillar of the world” that was Antony as the “strumpet's fool”, their urgently reductive rhetoric combines “tawny front” with “gipsy” to naturalize the “lust” that is Cleopatra (1.1.1-13). The moral defectiveness, and hence unnatural-ness, of Antony is based on the unspokenly axiomatic naturalness of the affinity of tawny-gipsy with lustful, in which lustful-female-strumpet means tawny-gipsy and vice-versa, a natural semantic association that Antony either has not remembered or is ignoring.24 The particular pressure of Philo's construction is to encourage a questioning of Antony's behavior but not of the debilitating sexuality of the black woman the synonymous negativity of whose skin color and sexuality is thus silently preserved. This prescriptive cultural campaign, which is all the more effective because of its demotic location in the sidelines of the high ground of Antony and Cleopatra's playing space, scripts Cleopatra's degeneracy as neither and both woman and black throughout the play.

The same esthetic stereophonically played from different speaking positions in the play constitutes Cleopatra as the site of a difference that is to be marked in a public space concertedly between her ethnicity and gender. “[C]ommodifiable material” for the social performance of male others, her simultaneous denigration and exoticization (Charnes 119) is a function of the variable, interdependent, use her race and her sex have for Roman self construction. Simultaneously “Royal wench” (to Agrippa 2.2.227) and “Egypt's widow” (to Pompey 2.1.37), her sexuality is non-specific, being both sweet and stale, and extends to a universal archetype of sexuality that is her “salt[y]” lustfulness (Pompey 2.1.21), even as what lends particular salaciousness to that sexuality is that it is Egyptian (as also in Agrippa's “Rare Egyptian” 2.2.218). This is the exotic item of public consumption that is Enobarbus's diagnostic identification of her as “Egyptian dish” (2.6.126), a left-over Caesarist “morsel” that can on occasion be cold even for Antony's eating (3.13.116). The generally voyeuristic political-civic space of these constructions, occasioned by the political consultancy of Roman triumvirs re-mapping their imperial domain or by the speculative gossip of subordinates interpreting the high events of their superiors or even by the displeasure of her Roman lover, objectify Cleopatra as the common property of popular Roman patriarchal social opinion feasting on the foreign in both the female and the alien. The relative ethnic spareness of these constructions do not constitute the play's marginal interest in race as Nyquist (96), as well as the editor of the most recent Oxford Shakespeare text of the play believe (Neill, Tempest 87), but a sign of racial marking's imbrication in the denigration of gender in the colonial agenda of the play's text.

The mutually supportive deployment of racial insculpture and sexual blackening in the negative construction of the black female subject in Cleopatra is also visible in the myth of her politically empowered status in the play. As has been noted (Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama 75-76, 127-29, Nyquist 94-95), Cleopatra's queenship/rulership is a trivial textual decoration devoid of any real political power. Instead of the subtle multi-lingual diplomat and nationalist politician that is the historical figure,25 the Shakespearean Cleopatra is an indolent despot with no visible political life whose sole activities are partying, amusing herself and waiting for Antony, as for instance in 1.5. when drunk with lethargy she wants to sleep time itself away, and in 2.5 when she wants to drown herself in music. Her queenliness is written as a nugatory womanliness merely, her rulership is visibly located more in the pursuit of personal desire rather than in the exercise of public responsibility and concern for community and kingdom. As Adelman has put it, “Her queenship is … implicit, her subjects invisible” (Suffocating Mothers 191). She is presented always in the object position never in the subject, so that in the play's beginning moment as well as later when Antony has come to her she is merely reactive, waiting for him to decide to stay or to go. When Octavius attacks Egypt with his forces she follows Antony's plans of battle despite being Queen of Egypt with considerable forces of her own. Her political actions to defend Egypt are presented not like those of a capable political leader in a mutually beneficial alliance with a foreign power but like those of a vulnerable wife who unable to cope with the world by herself can only help her husband. That she even manages to be present in a war that has officially been declared against her and not Antony (“Is't not denounced against us?” 3.7.5), is only due to the miraculous success of her insistence against all contrary opinion (“Why should we not be there in person?” 3.7.5-6, and “A charge we bear in'th war / And as the president of my kingdom, will / Appear there for a man. Speak not against it” 3.7.16-18). Her political power allows only the operation of her private desires, enabling her to “unpeople Egypt” in fury if she ever loses Antony (1.5.78). That power is the source only of the plenitude of her leisure, spent endlessly with her waiting women in personal fantasies of pleasure.

Accordingly, when Enobarbus has to explain to Maecenas and Agrippa her political impact he has to describe her sexually as both the personification and the cause of carnal appetite: “Other women cloy the appetites they feed, / She makes hungry where most she satisfies.” In this archetypal European patriarchal dream of women as the object of endless sexual feeding, as a passive timeless sex organ waiting to ceaselessly satisfy man, the “infinite variety” that “age cannot wither” (2.2.233-37), the wondrousness of the portrait depends discreetly on an essential coquettishness in Cleopatra that is its object to establish.26 A composite of many imaginable surfaces but not of any revealing depths, her textual space in short is that of the one dimensional immemoriality of stereotype, interdependently typifying despotic potentate and lascivious woman. The clear logic of this portraiture, as both Loomba, (Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama 127) and Nyquist (95) have pointed out, is the separation of womankind from any significant political power by trivializing the former's use of the latter. At the same time, Cleopatra has the potential to be a serious sexual-political danger for the estate of man. What makes her political position dangerous is her gender, which could make her personify the female's subjugation of colonial-patriarchal man. Conversely, what makes her sexuality dangerous is that it is given added potency by her political position as queen.

What needs to be stressed here, however, is that the connecting link in the inverse relationship between Cleopatra's political impotence and her sexual potency is her racialization. In the play's imperial-colonial European gaze, what codes the mimetic values of her inept politics and her powerful sexuality is her racial identity, which is thus the middle term as it were in the triadic paradigm of empire-race-sexuality. For the imperial-racial European male the tautological antithesis of Cleopatra's political status and her sexual identity acquires a particular necessity in terms of the unsuitability of an ethnic woman in power, since if white womankind in power is dangerous the empowered colored woman must be doubly so. Thus, while the danger of womankind in power is reflected in Tudor tracts such as John Knoxe's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1558, such discourses out of local as well ideological necessity make their point through the examples of foreign women, which can be Scottish women such as Mary Queen of Scots or European women such as Margaret of Parma of Mary of Lorraine (Shepherd 22), or the non-European woman as the mythic Amazon figure of Tudor-Stuart travel literature that by its difference is subliminally such a primordial threat to Anglo-European civic life (Shepherd 13-17; Laura Brown 130-32).27 An example of the latter is the poem by Anne Bradstreet cited at the beginning of this chapter, in which as Nyquist explains, even if “Eliza” is a white “Amazon” (referring to the “manly” Queen at Tilbury) her “amazonomachy” demonstrates patently the superiority of her rulership over that of Asiatic Amazon figures such as Tomris, Semiramis and Cleopatra (85-86).28 So, obscured by these overlapping interactions between the denigration of the alien female ruler's gender and the trivialization of her political ability, Cleopatra's racial marking remains for the most part blocked from direct analytical sight, alternately being stood in by femininity's lassitude and by the corruption of its rule, with, in the process, her blackness passing unspokenly for white in the play's critical afterlife.

A function of Cleopatra's textual colonization is to position her in an indeterminate space outside of kinship ties, in which her race and her gender help to cloak each other. Not only is she disconnected from a particular social imaginary, she is shorn of a visible family history, having neither parents nor children. If the former occurs in the guise of historical irrelevance, the latter happens as the result of a deliberate mimetic agenda that constructs her outside of the human continuity of generative time. The sterilization/isolation of the black female subject is necessarily the exposition of her uniqueness, the projection of the singleness of her being in distinction from the carefully nursed multiplicitousness of white European colonial patriarchy's family life. As the seductive other woman who steals Antony from the patient wifedom first of Fulvia and then of Octavia, Cleopatra is also the denatured entity whose sexuality overrides her maternal potential and whose blocked maternal urges impede the play of her sexual life. The former is implicit in the suppression of her children in the text's entire depiction of her liaison with Antony, and in the surfacing of her maternal concern only after she and Antony have been defeated by Caesar and she sues to have her children assigned “The circle of the Ptolemies for her heirs” (3.12.18).29 The confused maternal instinct is also resurgent in Cleopatra when, after Antony's death, in applying the asp to herself to commit suicide she refers to it as “my baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep” (5.2.309-10). Correspondingly, her blocked maternality's impediment of her sexual life is implicit in Charmian's comment to the soothsayer, in response to his prophecy of a future ill-fortune for her, about the possible bastardy of any children she might have, “Then belike my children shall have no names” (1.2.35-36). Since the scene as a whole is a key example of the festive home life of Cleopatra's female court as Charles Whitney has seminally shown (“Charmian's Laughter”), Charmian's words are a reference to Cleopatra's children as well. Overall, what the scene delineates is a vibrant sexuality that is interrupted by longings for a maternal domesticity that is also unavailable.30

What ultimately mandates the denial of either wifehood or motherhood to Cleopatra is the whoredom of her race, in the representative colonial gaze of her authoring the eugenic finality of her unsuitability to breed. She is situated in other words in a primal locale discovered by European man, a creature bereft of the dense network of genetic obligation/familial associations that comprise the history of personal life. Unsurprisingly, denied any soliloquies she has no interiority, no privateness, and is shown always in company even if in exclusive ones, in the idle inner circle of her waiting women.31 This is to say that as Cleopatra's maternality and sexuality are mutually blocked, the impact of her gender is diffused. As her gender is rendered intangible (which is its mythologization) so is her ethnicity (which is its erasure), ethnicity and gender being the twin foundational markers of identity in the colonial economy of cultural difference. The more Cleopatra's sexuality is played up the more mythic it becomes, and since in the colonial view her sexuality is a token of her race (the foreign/colored woman as always lascivious), the more mythic is her sexuality correspondingly the more fictional is her race.

Thus, if at one level both her political inefficiency and her puissant sexuality, as well as her racial sexuality and her sexual race, each have an inverse relationship within themselves in European construction, at another level her gender and her ethnicity have a direct relationship. What this means is that her race and her sexuality are played against each other as well as with each other. This is a symptom of what a contemporary postcolonial/black British feminist, has described as “the division between (as well as) within structures of identification,” and of the fact that “the nature of identification” is both “antagonistic” as well as “divisive” (Sara Ahmed 158). The inverse linkage between Cleopatra's ethnicity and her gender is a function of her being a negative marker simultaneously to Fulvia and Octavia and to a Romanized Stuart rulership in the play's first half, whereas the direct relationship is a necessity of the undermining of her individual emotional-psychic being in the play's second half. If the racial-sexual inversion is an instinct of early colonial English national self construction, the racial-sexual synchronicity is the reflex of an exclusionist social imaginary defining itself through prescriptive notions of compliant white womanhood. Together, the play's twin mimetic processes of invertedly and directly connecting Cleopatra's ethnicity and gender serve to complete the circuit of her discursive incarceration.

Enabling/Empowering the complex bind of these dual representative processes in the play is the colonial author-function's memory of the subject of the black woman in the Sonnets. If the specificity of that personal authorial narrative is what underwrites the intertextual thematics obtaining generally between the Sonnets and Antony and Cleopatra as noted by Ericson (Patriarchal Structures) and Estrin and others, it is also what tropically connects Africa to Egypt, with the former re-fashioning the latter in the colonial text's geographic-cultural imagination. If the black female subject of the Sonnets was the domesticated subaltern in the metropolis, she reappears in Antony and Cleopatra, by a symbolic act of expulsion and regression as it were, as the again-as-yet unsubjugated black female at the margins of European empire, in which Cleopatra's royal stature is a metaphoric reconstruction of the unconquered self agency of the black woman in the wild. The two paradigms, of the colonized black women in the metropolis and the yet-to be-vanquished African-Egyptian queen, connect to form a closed system of intertextual relations within which the sexualization of race and the racialization of sexuality can endlessly repeat and renew themselves.

As the text's external/surface mythos is a collective early colonial English revisionist history of a male political order resisted by a colored female ruling order, so its internal/subliminal thematics is the Shakespearean author function's corrective re-enactment of the memory of the renitent discursive subject of the black woman of the Sonnets, the former being the cultural cue for the resurgence of the latter's poetic existence. In both cases the enterprise of recovery is in the service of a lost white idealized masculinity (Adelman 177-78), an unfulfilled eugenic homosocial imaginary, that struggles to establish itself over an unsubdued black desire. A mnemonic battleground, between the colonial poet's reparative memory of desire and the suppressed black female subject's awakened desire of memory, the play is thus the site of contestation between on the one hand an imperialist-colonialist national-social as well as a personal memory that strives to re-make experience and on the other hand an elided black female subject that re-writes itself into that memory making. If this critical framework is the point of departure for a postcolonial inquiry into the racial politics of Shakespeare's black/African queen, the specific target of its intervention is the unpredictable re-play of the poetic subject of the black woman that is Cleopatra in the resistance of its colonial inscription, the reflux of its seizure of the drama's narrative discourse.


Located within overlapping mimetic regimes that deploy racial marking and sexual denigration concurrently against each other at multiple levels, the textual reflex of the incarcerated discursive subject of the black woman that is Cleopatra is the performative unpredictability of the racialized female in the compliance of its colonized cultural destiny. As both the substance and the play of her self life, unpredictability recusantly re-performs the elided memory of the black woman in her scripting as Cleopatra. In other words, unpredictability is the modality of the discursive subject of the colonized black woman's de-scribing/re-writing of her construction as a consumable commodity of the colonial-patriarchal social imagination, passed around in the Sonnets between the poet, his fair friend and the salaciousness of a boyish public opinion, and in Antony and Cleopatra between Antony, Octavius, Caesar and the ignominy of snickering male Roman report. In the face of a homosocial memory of desire, thus, unpredictability is the colonized black female's assertion of a racial-gendered desire of remembrance, her own invocation of the same two mimetic agendas that have historically incarcerated her being not a defeatist contradiction but the necessary ambivalence of the colonized gendered “subject's migratory and hybrid passage into being” (Sara Ahmed 165). The discursive effect of the black woman's tactical trope of unpredictability on the level of textual design, as will be evident later, is the generic confusion for which Antony and Cleopatra has been conventionally noted.

If in colonial time-space, culture, and history, memory is a structuration of experience, an imposition of form on formlessness, a shaping of meaning out of the pre-meaning of anterior forms of consciousness (Sara Ahmed 162), unpredictability is the alterity of this phenomenon. So, unpredictability is an anti-memory memory, a phenomenology that is the obverse of expectation and of the script of causality. Furthermore, unpredictability is the indeterminacy of language, the breakage of cultural writing through the disruption of anomalous local speech, an excess that makes talking a frenzy of self affirmation (what Michel de Certeau calls an “ecstasy”) and a contestation of the historical/political assumptions that write the psychology of both the individual and the social body. Concurrently, unpredictability is the recalcitrance of sight, the deliberate self-effacement with which the colonized black female subject invokes the claim of her visibility by denying the conditions of her historical presentation. Cumulatively therefore, if memory, language, sight aim at knowing, unpredictability aims at the unknowingness of knowing, at exposing the hegemonic agenda of the legibility that is knowledge.

Most central to an interventionist postcolonial critical practice, however, is the predictive foundation of the notion of unpredictability in Gayatri Spivak's formulation in her essay “The Rani of Sirmur,” in “the absence of a text that can ‘answer back’”, in the “dubious place of the free will of the sexed subject as female” (268). This is the formulation that Benita Parry has subsequently identified as Spivak's key locale of recuperating resistance in the colonial encounter (Parry 41).32 In the essay, in the process of her archival examination of the nineteenth century colonial British appropriation of the lands and administration of the terminally ill (and hence deposed) Raja of Sirmur in the Simla Hills of Northeastern India through their attempt to manipulate the Rani to rule by proxy in the name of her under-age son and the Rani's counter resolve to instead immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre in the Indian tradition of Sati, Spivak finds the Rani “caught … between imperialism and patriarchy” (268). On the one hand, if in traditional Brahminical patriarchy the practice of widow self-immolation was a “manipulation of female subject-formation” to accept suicide as the “good woman's desire,” for the widow within that patriarchal tradition to embrace Sati was to seize the “signifier of woman as exception.” On the other hand, to be dissuaded by the British “after a decision, was … a mark of real free choice, a choice of freedom.” It is between these “two contending versions of freedom,”—that of “[Indian/colonized] patriarchal subject-formation and imperialist [British/colonial] object-constitution”—that Spivak finds “the dubious place of the free will of the sexed subject as female,” even though in this instance Spivak suggests that it was “successfully effaced” and “thoroughly undermined” (268-69), since the British archival records, typically needing the figure of the Rani only for “the territorial/commercial interests of the East India Company” (263), are silent about the rest of the Rani's story. The Rani's ultimate decision, even if it was archivally recoverable, cannot be read simply as an acceptance of the one or the other of the two choices she faces but as a contravention of both.

Spivak's analysis of this material, which is more prognostic than enunciative, is useful nevertheless for the theoretical possibilities they open up for recomposing the will of the “gendered subaltern” in comparable historical situations and cultural texts. The parallels between the Rani's historical situation and Cleopatra's are striking. Both are inscribed by the exchange between local power and colonial disenfranchisement, and between female agency and patriarchal control. The unreadable track of the Rani's will that Spivak is pointing to, as it negotiates precariously between and against the two discourses that bear down on her and that together describe the double colonization of the female subaltern subject, cyphers the semantic codes of the history that will write that subject. This is the thematic indeterminacy that supplements the archival unavailability, both of the end of the Rani's story as well as of the alternative Egyptian substance of Cleopatra's life in Roman imperial record and in the early colonial popular English text. The “dubiety” of the free will of the female sexed subject is precisely its unpredictable potency, and in that comprises a pertinent interpretative analog to the unpredictability that is the modality of the black gendered colonized subject's reclamation of her self life as Cleopatra. To appropriate Spivak's paradigmatic formulation about a nineteenth century colonized Indian historical woman and apply it backwards to an analysis of a seventeenth century popular English dramatic representation of a historical figure from antiquity is not the stretched anachronism that it might seem but rather a radical reverse tracing of the critical process that the intellectual historian Dominick La Capra described as the “repetition-displacement of the past into the present as it necessarily bears on the future” (Spivak 250).33 Such reverse application of the “repetition-displacement” procedure is, in other words, symptomatically for postcolonial studies, the use of the pressures of the present to restore the elisions of the past. Specifically, to do so in Cleopatra's case is to reconstruct the elided subjectivity of the colonized black female within her objectification in the popular early modern English imagination.

The unpredictable self play of the textual subject of the black woman that is Shakespeare's Cleopatra is the dis-membering of the demotic mythic memoriality that is her discursive constitution in the play, and which in turn is her subversion of the colonial author-function's personal memory of her. As the subject of representation the black woman's memorialization has happened twice already, in the Anglo-European mythic paratext that has staged her as Cleopatra in the seventeenth century English cultural consciousness, and in the poet's private narrative of the black woman in the Sonnets. It is against the play of this compound, already-completed memorial construction that the unpredictability of the black woman's textual self presence writes itself in the play, destroying/confronting that which has already been culturally remembered with the disruptions of an exigent present that has not been memorially inscribed. Thus, in the play's opening act as Antony prepares officiously to leave her for Roman duty, rupturing the enactment of his departure is her reminder to him of how when he had first arrived in Egypt he had “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. They are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn'd the greatest liar.


The obtrusive reminder reclaims the sovereignty of action from an Antony who leaves and a Cleopatra who sues to hold him back, to a Cleopatra who had agreed to an Antony's original plea to stay, thereby reestablishing however momentarily a Cleopatra who can just as equivocally let him now be gone: “Nay, pray you seek no color for your going, / But bid farewell and go” (1.3.33-34). The slipped alternative memory evident here is also corroborated later by Enobarbus's account of their first meeting in which within the glamour of the description of Cleopatra's arrival at Cydnus the discreet detail of the Egyptian queen's will prevailing over the Roman conqueror's survives: “Upon her landing, Antony sent to her; / Invited her to supper. She replied / It should be better he became her guest” (2.2.219-21).

Thus also in the play's opening movement, fissuring the script of her constructed remembrance, “Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it; / Sir, you and I have loved, but that's not it; / That you know well,” is a “Something it is I would—,” that is the nominal catachresis that exceeds the articulation of memory. This is the naming of “my oblivion” that is the antithesis of remembering itself, the anti-memory over which memory presides: “And I am all forgotten” (1.3.87-91). Antony's departure, otherwise the imperial Roman's brusque leaving of his Eastern conquest, is achieved through the “kill[ing]” of Cleopatra's “becomings” and her “unpitied folly,” a clumsy leave-taking that his brave show of rapport, “Come / Our separation so abides and flies / That thou, residing here, goes yet with me” (1.3.102-4), cannot hide. This is to say that unpredictability interrupts the normalizing mandate of official memory—the Roman Antony must come, love the Egyptian Cleopatra, and leave for Rome—with the compulsions of an unremembered self that is beyond the reach of such a mandate and that while unable to reverse the teleology of such a narrative robs it of its ideological charge.

To put it in another way, unpredictability as anti-memory is the uncontained subjectivity of the individual colonized consciousness as opposed to the regulated objectivity of colonial public thought, and its object is the undermining of the efficacy of the latter's functioning. Quintessentially, unpredictability's anti-memory is also the gendered subaltern's counter-memory of race, as it were the thought without a name within the smooth nominal hierarchy of imperial account. So, after Antony has left for Rome and Cleopatra self-teasingly wonders why Antony should think of her, “Think on me / That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time?” (1.5.27-29), the interrogative enunciation masks the desire for its precise opposite: to be thought of. The contrariety of the sudden reflection of her skin color, the signal importance of which is indicated by its being otherwise the sole instance in the play, lies in its daring phenotypical self-problematization, in its positing of the seeming difficulty of a white Antony in a popular etiolatory imperial Roman consciousness remembering a black Cleopatra as the precise reason for the desirability of his doing so. The challenge of the reflection is also thus the reclamation of her self value beneath her performance of the very myth that obliterates it. As this is the unthinking that challenges the colonial thought that mythically constructs her, it is “the delicious poison” with which she “feeds” herself (1.5.26-29). As Joyce Green MacDonald has put it, “Her dark skin, in terms of the well-known proverb from the period, is a literal emblem of the impossibility—or at least extreme difficulty—of the task that the Romans have set themselves in conquering Egypt” (“Sex, Race, and Empire” 69). In sum, Cleopatra's textually unprepared and unique color conscious self recollection is what contemporary black British feminist theoretical analysis would describe as the refutation of “the racialist logic that demands the purification of colour” by the renegade “reminder of an-Other that refuses to inhabit these terms and returns … only as a threat” (Sara Ahmed 159).

Her anti-memory has the power to make and unmake the reality of her fiction, so that the memory of her love for Antony as well as the love she had for Caesar before him are both authenticated expediently by her, as Charmian reminds her in the same scene, “I sing [of Caesar] but after you” (1.5.73), and as she herself demonstrates when on hearing of Antony's marriage to Octavia she begins to think again of Caesar: “In praising Antony I have disprais'd Caesar” (2.5.108). The expedience of her momentarily resurgent alternative memory is the unavoidable imbrication of the colonized black woman's “love” of her colonial European lover in the politics of her historical survival. The unpredictability of her anti-memory is in other words the protection of the sovereignty of her self, her intervention in the retrospective colonial organization of experience in which she is included. Thus, within the colonially designed script of her dalliance with Antony, in her swearing loyalty to him as a way of seeking his forgiveness for having betrayed him in the first sea fight against Caesar, her unforewarned remembrance of her maternality is her anti-memory's furtive seizure of that part of her life which that script has disallowed even as she cooperates with that disallowance:

Cold-hearted toward me?
Ah, dear, if I be so, …
                                                                                The next Caesarion smite
Till by degrees the memory of my womb,
Together with my brave Egyptians all …
Lie graveless. …


Similarly, after Antony's death, the unsubdued residue of her female consciousness is what feeds Cleopatra's momentary contra-memory of herself as “No more but e'en a woman, and commanded / By such poor passion as the maid that milks and does the meanest chares” (4.15.73-75). The unexpected bucolic self-cameo, with its invocation of youthfulness and sexual innocence in deliberate contradiction of the earlier self pointing to age and sexual experience, is the gendered subaltern subject's discursive repossession of the freedom of her imaginary life beyond the ends of her colonial narrative, otherwise one clear example of the Spivakian “dubious place of the free will of the female sexed subject.”

If by play's end it is Cleopatra more than Caesar who writes the memory of Antony, she does so in a manner that contains its absurd alterity, coding the mythos of imperial recollection with the incongruity of its antitype:

I dreamt there was an emperor Antony …
His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world …
His delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element they lived in …


As Linda Charnes has shown, the illogicality of an Antony straddling the ocean and at the same time swimming in it like a dolphin, represents “a panegyric at once contradictory and true” (143), pointing to the perforation of a public mnemonic ritual by the anti-mnemonism of the very subjective consciousness that is made to validate it and that by that very act instead steals attention for itself. Furthermore, to the extent that Antony is the play's “primary absent object of desire,” the “idealized masculinity” which Adelman says is part of the play's project of recovery (Suffocating Mothers 177, 180-81), that is, the focus of the text's recuperative homosocial imaginary, the rhetorical uncertainty of Cleopatra's chosen remembrance of him destabilizes the possibility of that recuperation by inscribing in effect the inherent instability of the male posturing that is the patriarchal enterprise. Conversely, this implicit anti-memory of the male positions her on the ideological high ground of the play's politics of gender, re-establishing her in what was going to be the drama of her negation.34 Encompassing, then, the triple coordinates of race, sex and empire, that is to say the worlds of the social, the psychic and the imperial, unpredictability's anti-memory is the colonized black female subject's re-tabulation of the public memoir of herself, the mechanism of her spectral counter-life against the record of her colonial history.

Unpredictability as the discursive subject of the black woman's oppositional self performance within the mimetic codes of her colonial text is also the indeterminacy of her language, the verbal inexplicability through which Cleopatra preserves the mastery of her fictional life. With Antony, her unpredictability as linguistic indeterminacy takes the form of a talking performance that blocks the visibility of her speaking position, shields her rhetorical intention and hence guards the legibility of her sovereign self. In the play's opening scene, in the triple solipsistic contestation of Antony's gratuitous desires that she performs, Cleopatra's own verbal intentions are left unexposed, and with them is left intact the independence of her own options of action. Her challenge of his professions of love, “If it be love indeed, tell me how much,” not only debars his deferral of the semantic trap she leads him into, “There's beggary in love that can be reckoned,” but also effectively imposes her authority over their emotional transaction: “I'll set a bourne how far to be belov'd.” Turning to the matter of his supposed disinterest in his wife's feelings or his claimed indifference to Caesarist and Roman political directive the news of either or both of which may be in the messenger's brief that Antony does not want to hear, she dares him to prove himself:

Nay hear them …
Thou blushest Antony, and that blood of thine
Is Caesar's homager; else so thy cheek pays shame
When shrill-tongu'd Fulvia scolds.

But Antony's compliance, by affirmatively kissing her on the spot, “the nobleness of life / Is to do thus [embracing],” is merely grounds for her to return to her original inquiry about the sincerity of his feelings for her: “Excellent falsehood! Why did he marry Fulvia and not love her?” (1.1.14-41). The shifting track of this inquisition of Antony's ethical and political mettle, which is repeated in part in 1.3., not only puts Antony in the object position but also secures the unintelligibility of Cleopatra's choices for anyone but herself. Within her historical moment as the conquered Egyptian queen as well as in her discursive/fictional location as the colonized black woman, the inscrutability of Cleopatra's verbal practice transforms the colonial lover's attempted emotional-psychological bonding of the gendered subaltern into her reverse hold over him.

If language is a “tacit” agreement of social order and a guarantee of the continuance of its structural performance as Ronald Macdonald observed in his discussion of the play (87), between the two principal domains of its operation, writing and speech, is manifested two versions of its power: language as control which is the documentativeness, enforced uniformity and conformity of writing, and language as speech which is the immediacy, the contextual specificity and the radical independence of talking.35 If the former with its ability to seize and carry away meaning from phenomena and incarcerate it in the elsewhere of written script is the tool and space of colonial control, the latter with its grounding in its particular location and hence its ability to resist intellectual transportation (Certeau, Writing of History 215-16) is the medium and arena of anti-colonial resistance. Linguistic indeterminacy in speech is therefore also Cleopatra's unpredictable disruption of the colonial social order that surrounds her, another function of the colonized black female's tactical unpredictability as the means of her self survival. If Cleopatra's alien-ness in her early colonial English mimesis is her linguistic excess as Ania Loomba suggests, that excess is not merely because she talks more than any other woman in Shakespeare (“Shakespeare and Cultural Difference” 175), but because her use of language violates the political order that sanctions it, unmaking the social reality that it is entrusted to build. Expectedly more evident in her interaction with the innumerable messengers that are the ventriloquist voice of the Roman center's imperial authority, the tactical transgression that is her linguistic indeterminacy in speech underlies in particular the episode of her treatment of the messenger who brings her news of Antony's marriage to Octavia in 2.5.

The cruelty of Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger is the violence of the discursive subject of the colonized black woman's rejection of the colonial conventions of expressive signification and of her defense of her right in her colonized domain to the social politics of meaning construction in words. The suddenness of her response, which is the mark of the unpredictable self play of the gendered subaltern's protective self suzerainty, turns on the truth-effects of the messenger's news and on the resultant situation they try to impose on her: “He's bound unto Octavia … For the best turn i'th bed … Madam, he's married to Octavia” (2.5. 58-60). The “truth” of the messenger's news is the “lie” of Cleopatra's value and Egypt's in the esteem of Antony and Rome: Antony's marriage to the proper Octavia is the trivialization of Cleopatra's civic worth (as unfit for the social contract of marriage) and in consequence the dismissal of Egypt's social and sexual civility by the high culture of Europe, particularly since she herself as monarch is the symbol and determinant of the civilization of her kingdom. The seeming calmness of the messenger, “I that do bring that news made not the match” (68) and his insistence on the exclusive validity of his verbal representation, “I have made no fault” (74), is what fuels the particular ferocity of her retaliation, “The most infectious pestilence upon thee! Strikes him down … Hence, horrible villain, or I'll spurn thine eyes / Like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head. She hales him up and down … Rogue, thou hast lived too long. Draws a knife”” (61-64). If as Queen of her country, colonized or not, she cannot be only the hearer of news but also the maker of it (Ronald Macdonald 87), she cannot also be merely the recipient of “truth” but also the creator of it. This is to say that as language is the register of her political and social reality, it is that she will re-make to defend the historical existence of herself. This is her psychological parole to the imperial langue of Rome, her reclamation of the legality of her narrative currency as opposed to the authority of Roman meaning.

She tries therefore to roll back the linguistic reality of this development by forcing the messenger to unsay what he says, and belie the truth of his words, and in that expose the lie of the social order that he represents in validation of the truth of hers. Her specific instruction to him, “Say tis not so,” as well as her repeated questions “He is married? … He is married?” counteracts the messenger's iterative emphasis of the substance of his message, “He's married, madam” (92) “He's married to Octavia,” (101), which he thus performs four times in the scene, and it is thematically contextualized by her explanation that

Though it be honest it is never good
To bring bad news. Give to a gracious message
An host of tongues, but let ill tidings tell
Themselves when they be felt.


This is the thematic of her linguistic indeterminacy, of the sovereignty of her local speech over the language of global-colonial history, that is, of the right of the receiving situation in the periphery to determine the semantics of linguistic representation over the interested hermeneutics of the sending center. To “let ill tidings / Tell themselves when they be felt” is to oppose the predetermination of imperial account with the phenomenological exigencies of its local application, as it were to make history that has already happened re-perform itself if it can but on a more level terrain. It is these retrograde interpretative instincts that undergird her pointed reply to the messenger's exasperated question, “Should I lie, madam?”: “Oh, I would thou didst” (94-95).

As it so happens, the “lie” of the messenger's Roman “truth,” which is conversely the “truth” of Cleopatra's “lie” that the messenger is here balking from, is grounded in the fact of Octavia's marriage being meaningless and in name only, and has already been vindicated by Antony himself, when in confirmation of the soothsayer's prognosis that his prosperity does not lie in Rome he says: “And though I make this marriage for my peace / I'th East my pleasure lies” (2.3.38-39). That it is the mandate of her contestatory “truthful” lies that prevails over Rome's “lying” truths is implicit in the messenger's carefully negative description of Ocatavia later in deference to the “truth” of Cleopatra's beauty: “[S]he [Octavia] is low-voiced … She creeps … She shows a body rather than a life” (3.3.13-19). If in these scenes the operation of the linguistic indeterminacy of Cleopatra's speech through the mandate of her “truthful” lying, is humorous, that humor is the deliberate subversion of the solemnity of her imperial history and her mechanism for undermining the “lies” of her colonial record. This is the excess of her talking that makes it simultaneously a frenzied self location and a critique of the colonial historical/cultural imaginary that imprints the body and the socius. As she demonstrates that Roman “truths” do not apply in Egypt, so she establishes that the social conventions of “truth” and “meaning” that are used to bind that community cannot be used to bind this.

The linguistic indeterminacy of Cleopatra's speech as the play of expediently chosen meaning as her tactical prerogative in her colonized situation is also evident in the scenes of her negotiation with Thidias in 3.13 and subsequently with Caesar in 5.2. Her determination not to mean what she says is her franchise to protect the sancity of her social order and of her ethical standing as its guarantor against the incursions of the colonial one that seeks to replace it. The hidden semantics of her special speech is in fact her matching of Rome's articulation of its particular agenda in the guise of a seeming objectivity, of using, in other words, its duplicitous language to out-talk it. If Thidias's official Roman re-presentation of her story with Antony as one in which she “He [Caesar] knows that you embrac[ed] not Antony / As you did love, but as you feared him,” aims at displacing the grammar of her free will in her relationship with Antony with the bonded accents of a fearful and conquered potentate who will now be safe-housed in supposedly beneficial Caesarist custody, her agreement with him, “He [Caesar] … knows / What is most right. Mine honour was not yielded / But conquer'd merely” (3.13.56-62), is merely her paying back the coin of Rome's meaningless verbal currency in kind, of blocking dictional duplicity with itself. If Thidias and Caesar's language offer her false knowledge while “knowing” her, she replies in kind, offering them false knowledge of herself while instead “knowing” them. If knowledge given (Caesar means to be her benefactor) is an imposition (Cleopatra should accept his patronage), she resists that imposition by giving back to them a false knowledge of herself (she accepts his patronage), thereby checking that incursion and subverting that power exchange.

Her interview with Caesar in the fifth act is a compound rendition of the same linguistic politics, in which what she lies about is the truth that will redeem her from total Roman effacement. In it what she makes Seleucus do is to not just reveal the “lie” of her honest account of her assets but through it to do something else: make Caesar believe through the apparently accidental third-party exposure of the secret hoarding of her valuables that she intends to live. The complete obscurity of her use of words here, doubly insulated by the vehemence of her attacks on Seleucus, is precisely what guarantees the success of the suicide with which she will ultimately defeat the Roman seizure of herself and of her kingdom. This will be her out-wording of Caesar's “word[ing]” of her to prevent her from “be[ing] noble to [herself]” (5.2.190-91). So, she will live, but not in the manner the Romans understand it: she lives in the moral triumph of having killed herself rather than fall into their hands. In both instances, the function of her words is to invite their own deconstruction in their audience, within which the integrity of her codes of meaning and the freedom of her own intentionality remain undisturbed. All together, Cleopatra's linguistic indeterminacy, in its verbal inscrutability, its deliberate excess, and its seizure of the conventions of meaning construction to rupture the colonizer's political power and disrupt his social order, is the vocal register of her unpredictability, the tongue through which the resistant subalternity of the colonized black woman speaks herself.

Unpredictability is also the recusancy of sight, the contrary self-seeing that is also the secret self-knowing and which together are the beginnings of historical identity. Lost in the overlap between two counteractive avenues of self identification Cleopatra is made visible by neither. Connected to an European-Greek Ptolemaic line which because of its transplantational history is not fully available to her, and to an Egyptian-African one the full purity of which she will always lack, she has only the uncertain luminescence of a Bakhtinian exotopia by which to know and show herself, the liminal identarian consciousness of a simultaneous insider/outsider-ship through which to build an understanding and a projection of herself in time and history.36 Her self sight is therefore her rejection of the conditions of her historical visibility, which neither reveal nor conceal her psychic being. Her struggle for satisfactory ocular presence is consequently manifest not so much in any gestures of pronounced self painting as in her effacement of the elements of her mis-presentation. The moments in which she does try to visualize herself, as for instance in the “phoebus,” “womb,” or “maid” references cited earlier, have the panoptic clarity of hindsight and memory and are significant for the self pictures they etch. The continuum of an ontological self awareness that is necessarily indefinable and works through visual postponement is however another equally significant aspect of her struggle to be seen. Its contradictory insistence on see-able presence through its cancellation of that seeability constitutes the tactical reluctance of sight that is one more dimension of the unpredictability of the discursive subject of the black woman in Cleopatra.

At the beginning, if a happy Antony wants to see a happy Cleopatra she shows him a sad one, if a healthy Antony wants to see a healthy Cleopatra she shows him a sick one and vice-versa: “If you find him sad / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick” (1.3.3-5). This can work in literal or parodic excess with the same effect. In the fourth act if an angry Antony wants to see a repentant Cleopatra heartstruck with anguish for having betrayed him, she shows him a Cleopatra so tormented as to have killed herself: “to th' monument … go tell him I have slain myself. / Say the last I spoke was ‘Antony’” (4.13.7-10). At the play's end if a triumphant Caesar wishes to see a subdued Cleopatra she shows him an excessively subdued one that is a cover for the defiance underneath. Her posture of submission here, “My master and my lord / I must obey” (5.2.116-17), is as she explains later, “the way / To fool their preparation, and to conquer / Their most absurd intents” (5.2.225-26). In all of these instances, she retains control over her visual presence by negating the effect people want to see. When she dies, she shows herself not in the languishment Rome might expect (in Plutarch having at least once seen her thus) but in the robes of an unvanquished majesty: “Show me … like a queen” (5.2.227). It is this constantly removed sight of herself that is responsible for the curious, perpetual deferral of herself that Catherine Belsey has described as the secret of Cleopatra's textual-thematic seduction (“Cleopatra's Seduction” 42-46).

If the colonial portrait of Cleopatra as the possessed black female potentate is that of a spectacle, of the sort that Enobarbus says would have diminished Antony's reputation as a “traveller” had he not seen her (1.2.153-55), the visual strategy of the gendered-colored subaltern is, as Linda Charnes has observed, to return that spectacle to the spectator without showing anything of herself in it (128-29). She manipulates the staging of the appearance of herself to subvert the spectacular values of that staging. If the colonial imagination expects her to arrange her demise in the European accents of a royal death, she designs hers deliberately in the style of an Asiatic Egyptian one, in the death by snake bite that not only declines the preferred European self killing by sword or dagger that is Antony's method but that also clearly identifies her with the Egyptian mythology of the Isis goddess with whom she wishes to be seen in history. The contrary visual self representation is also the discursive response of the subject of the colonized black woman to the antitheatricality and antifeminism of popular early modern English drama that Jyotsna Singh, among others, has noted (“Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism”). Her negative visualism corresponds as well to the necessary theatricality of discursive subjectivity that Linda Charnes has insisted on (127, 158-59), but deployed here particularly in the instance of a gendered raciality that shows itself in a performance of seeing that destroys the false sight of itself. The discursive subject of the black woman's unpredictable anti-visualism is, in sum, the modality of race's self-viewing through the opposition of colonialism's viewership of it, that is through the invisibility that emerges through its dismissal of the visibility that colonialism gives it. This is the lacuna within which race can construct the expedient sameness of its difference in a postcolonial domain.

In the processive combination of its anti-memory, linguistic indeterminacy and anti-visualism, the unpredictability of the discursive subject of the black woman in Cleopatra aims inevitably at the unknowability that is at once its colonial destiny and its anti-colonial desire. This involves the same reversible play of power implicit in the politics of knowledge that was operative in Othello's subaltern life. To reinvoke that argument here, knowledge is not only the primary condition of the operation of power and the optimal requirement of its occurrence, but also within the colonial moment the tactical high ground in the struggle for control between colonizer and colonized. So, if in Edward Said's terms to know is to possess (Orientalism 32, 36-37), then that which is unknown is also that which is unpossessed. Thus, if what constitutes the alien-ness of the alien is its unknowability, then that which marks the alien's path of self enfranchisement is its refusal to be known. Within a political esthetic it is not that to be unknown is to be free but that to be known as unknowable is to enjoy a certain measure of existential self agency. This is the subjective reclusion of the colonized self that is resistant to the penetration and inscriptions of the colonizer's global imperatives. In this sense a persistent unknowability is the strategic disposition of the colonized subject, and with respect to the life of its race and gender the basic means of its destruction of the epistemology that has enabled its disenfranchisement. On the level of language, sight, and the collective memory that is resurrected as social convention, it becomes a counter to the naturalization of the colonizing process. Cleopatra's unknowability as the constant endpoint of the black gendered subaltern's multifarious unpredictability, otherwise the “infinite variety” that is her colonial cultural blazon, is her signal interactive objective throughout her mimetic performance in her colonial text.

The effect of Cleopatra's indefinability that Antony reflects in act one is in the very complaint with which he prefaces his words:

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


What unspokenly prompts this indulgent protest of Cleopatra's many-sided contrariness is her denial through it of the privilege of familiarity, which is the privilege that knowing brings and which will be the facilitator of Antony's way with her on the psychic as well as the political planes. That “way” is patriarchy's manipulative power in the heterosexual exchange and colonialism's surreptitious assumption of rulership in the locales of its emergence. As Antony's repeated exclamations of incomprehension later in the same act reveal, “What's the matter?” (1.3.18), “How now, lady?” (1.3.39), the subjugated black woman's refusal to yield to her colonial lover-conqueror a uniform legibility confuses his self mastery and thereby retains as merely contingent the political reality that has allowed him to approach her. Even in that initial approach, in Enobarbus's famous account of their first meeting, whereas Antony waits to meet her on land, she arrives by water, and as noted earlier as he invites her to supper she invites him instead to join her. The purpose of this constant “cross[ing]” of him as Charmian at one point fearfully puts it (1.3.9), is to keep elusive the idea of her political disenfranchisement and to create the illusion instead of her power over him. As Enobarbus describes it, she draws the crowds, not him, and he is left alone with neither public attendance nor political recognition, in a posture of near-vacuous imbecility: “And Antony / Enthron'd i'th' market place, did sit alone, / Whistling to th' air” (2.2.214-16). If her unknowability therefore suggests a possibility of role reversal in their colonial relationship, a substitution of her disempowerment and passivity by his empowered active self sovereignty and vice-versa, and that will be a defacement of the achievements of colonial-patriarchal power, that is reflected in the cross dressing with which she blurs the limits of her historical confinement: “Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore the sword Philippan” (2.5.21-23). This playful exchange of her “tires and mantles” for his “sword Philippan,” that is, of her Egyptian womanliness for his male Roman conquerorship, is nevertheless a semiotic of her dissolution of the fixity of her political and sexual location, and hence a destruction of the ability of either to essentially read her.

Two of the strongest instances of the unknowability that is the ultimate practice of the unpredictability of the discursive subject of the black woman are however Cleopatra's bizarre naval conduct and the difficult mimesis of her suicide. The inexplicability of her flight at both of the two sea battles that finally seal Antony's defeat by Octavius, which is unexplained as well in all of the ancient historical accounts of her, connects to the semiotic of changeability that she advertises in her deliberate association with water (as in her decision to appear initially before Antony on the river, and in her support of him later to fight Octavius by sea), in life and in her discursive after-life in the popular early colonial English cultural master text. As the nineteenth century Egyptian nationalist dramatist Ahmed Shawqui surmised, the political rationale of her sudden abandonment of the fight is the ensuring of her own survival by making the two competing colonial figures destroy themselves (Hughes-Hallett 297). This is not to entirely negate her relationship with Antony but to ground that relationship in the fundamental political choices within which she is bound, that is, to unavoidably balance the instincts of her psychic life with the particular pressures of her historical moment. If her ships at Actium carry her wealth (a detail that the colonial text leaves out [Volkmann 185], but the impress of which surfaces nonetheless in that text to underwrite her unexpected action in it), they are what will finance her fortunes, with Antony or without him. The advantage of the tactical flexibility that her unknowable action here affords is implicit as a matter of fact in Antony's ability later in Taenarum, to which he flees following Cleopatra, to use that same wealth to both equip his remaining commanders for their own flights to safety (3.11.9-24) and to facilitate his and Cleopatra's return to Egypt to reorganize themselves. If the unknowability of her behavior in this episode appears to invite its misinterpretation as her treachery, that is of little consequence as the brevity of Antony's accusations of her and his quick reconciliation with her within a mere twenty-four lines shows (3.11.51-75). More importantly, that misinterpretation allows her the opportunity to choose the time, the venue and the terms of her moral self vindication without in the meanwhile conceding the material position that will enable that recovery. Overall, what the deliberate obscurity of her naval action at Actium does is to preserve a separation of her own political fortunes from those of her embattled colonial lover, not necessarily in support of his vengeful imperial rival and political superior but in favor of herself. This is the black gendered subaltern's inevitable and instinctive choice of expedience as the political ethic of her self survival, the impalpable esthetics of contingency with which she must combat the oppressions of her colonial experience and the means by which she can temporize the material finality of her historical fate. This is also linked to the tactic of shifting-ness, to her ability to change the locale of her self performance at will, that Charnes has discussed (110-111, 135).

In the second and final sea-fight at Alexandria (4.12.), the unknowability of her behavior lies not in any of her own actions per se, but in her culpability in the actions of others that might be attributable to her: the defection of her entire fleet to Octavius in the very opening moments of the final engagement. In the physical separation of herself and her fleet (she is obviously not on her ships when they defect), is the equivocal distance between her motivation and its physical manifestation. Buried in the uncertainty of whether or not she authorizes that defection, is the rupture of the identity of action that can externally write her, and thereby the incidence of the ethical-psychological illegibility that protects the play of her self agency. The real ambiguity of her intention, caught in the convincing surprise with which she meets Antony's anger after the episode, “Why is my lord enraged against his love?” (31), consists in the episode's concurrent projection of her power and her powerlessness, of her ability to command her forces and her inability to control them. Paradoxically, she can be in the defection as well as in her resistant location with Antony, that is, on two psychological planes at once. This is nothing other than the simultaneity of the victimization and recusant self-will with which the colonized subject performs its colonial narrative. The complex unknowability of her intentional location in this episode makes possible the critical postulate that the black gendered subaltern's historical self being is more than the sum of her visible actions and that she cannot be known through any unitary hermeneutics of her mimetic behavior. If the fight for signs is the fight for life, and if one's actions are the exposed signatures of one's being, then the discursive subject of the colonized black woman in Cleopatra fights for her right not to be written/known only through the signs of her observable representative existence.37

As an elusive unknowability is the particular sign under which the discursive subject of the black woman in Cleopatra textually lives, so the ultimate demonstration of that unknowability is its rendering of Cleopatra's death in mimetic terms that radically contradict what they project. Her extinction may be her historical destiny but her staging of it refuses that extinction by making her suicide the vehicle of her triumphing over the inscriptive control of the colonial forces that vanquish her. The text of that future scripting, both in the early colonial English text's received cultural history of her as well as in its eager imagination of the actual physical conditions of its own re-play of that script, is stated four times in the last two acts: in Antony's angry rebuke of her in 4.12.33-34, in Cleopatra's own fearful evocation of it in 5.2.53-56, in Dolabella's confirmation of it in 5.2.199-201, and finally in Cleopatra's own famous iteration of it before she prepares to die: “I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I'th posture of a whore” (5.2.219-21). The particular valencies of this quadruple repetition, of this textual drumbeat as it were, is the advertisement of her material fate that is the colonizer's prerogative. This is the colonizer's ideological justification of his military-economic conquest, the reflexive benefit of his self glorification through his denigration of the colonized.38 In preferring to die rather than be the object of this Roman scurrility, Cleopatra, like Othello, terminates the cultural game of imperial patriarchy's writing of its other by writing out herself. The manner of that dying, however, both performs the exoticization of her that is the imperative of her colonial discourse and contests it, which is to say she Egyptianizes her Roman death. In doing so she prevents her death from essentializing her memory even while establishing it.

That suicide is the Roman way of dealing with dishonor and defeat Cleopatra knows from the examples of Brutus and Cassius in the Caesarist civil war. She also knows it from the precedent of her colonial-lover's death. But her particular execution of that ritual of dying is something that Rome cannot know, and because of that her suicide performs instead her own inimitability rather than any transparent Roman values. As Antony's was a male version of that ritual self killing, hers is going to be a female one, manifested as earlier noted in her pronounced association with the exotic Egyptian female mother-goddess Isis and with her symbol of the asp or uraeus, which in pharaonic “hieroglyphic writing was the determinative sign for the word ‘goddess’” (Volkmann 207). The obfuscatory semiotic of this association is also perfectly congruent with the “multiplicit[ousness]” and “portmanteau nature” of the Isis myth (Hughes-Hallett 80) itself. Furthermore, that Isis was to Romans the goddess of foreigners (Hughes-Hallett 80) translates the Roman familiarity of the ritual of her suicide into the unfamiliarity of an alien practice, thereby inserting the ethnic-gendered foreign-ness of her self into the transparency of the colonial-patriarchal knowing of her. Concurrently, as Antony's self killing was marked by a blundering ineptitude, this is going to be distinguished by an elegant efficiency that will reify the social standing of the subjugated black female over the imperial-colonial male even in death. In these backcrossed racial-sexual features her suicide thus uses the very racialization-sexualization of herself that is her colonial burden to confuse any homogenous clarity in the notion of herself that might be the gateway to her cultural incarceration in the future history of the colonizer's community.

Still further, if in substance the act of suicide is a gesture of self cancellation as in Brutus's, Cassius's and Antony's case, Cleopatra's deliberate staging of it is a statement of self assertion in the face of extinction. This is signalled in the elaborateness of her final dressing routine, which begins with the imperious order of “Go, fetch my best attires” in 5.2.227 and continues over fifty two lines to the conscious flourish of “Give me my robes. Put on my crown / I have immortal longings in me” in 5.2.279. The same opacity is achieved in the choice of her method of death by a snake's bite, which displays her dying but not immediately the cause of it, so that in Octavius's wondering, “The manner of their deaths? / I do not see them bleed” (5.2.337-38) her demise refuses to offer the thematic closure that it otherwise could have been colonially expected to yield. Her death therefore presents the memorial claim of her life not by its self explanatoriness but by its traces of lingering mystery. It is precisely her death's stylistic thwarting of a thematic finality that prompts her colonial conqueror's quick compensatory propagandist authorization of her story as one of love, “She shall be buried by her Antony / No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous” (5.2.358-60), that critical commentary has noted in her colonial text (Charnes 138), and that historical and investigative journalistic analyses has traditionally identified in the cultural paratext that produced that text (Hughes-Hallett 38-42).39 In doing all these things simultaneously Cleopatra's suicide retains the integrity of her being by projecting its indecipherability, and which is a quintessential manifestation of the necessary dubiety of the Spivak-ian “free will of the female sexed subject” in its colonial location.

In general, unpredictability's location in the “dubious place of the free will of the female-sexed subject” is helped considerably by, and profitably shades into, the potent notion of Irigaray-an jouissance and the vital post-feminist heuristic of Haraway-ian cyborgism, both in turn being derivatives of Lacanian revisionist post-Freudian psychoanalysis. If for Luce Irigaray “No singular form(s) … can complete the becomings of the desire of a woman,” so that “what comes to pass in the jouissance of woman is in excess of it[womanhood]” (Irigaray Reader 55), and “female jouissance is a dimension that is never complete and never reversible” (Irigaray Reader 190), for Donna Haraway “The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and reality,” an idea that “takes pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and … responsibility in their construction … an ultimate self united at last from all dependency” (598). To these can be added the relatedness of unpredictability to the “subversive repetition” that Judith Butler has said interrupts the processing of colonial identity and the spatial design of the social text (Gender Trouble 140-43; Ang-Lygate 182). This is not dissimilar to Gayatri Spivak's own notion of “interruption,” as “a place of the reinscription of the dialectic into deconstruction,” and as a necessity “which allows something to function” (Postcolonial Critic 110). These multiple paradigms all contribute pertinent interpretative methodologies for tracking the operation of anti-memory, linguistic indeterminacy, recusant self-sight, and unknowability in the play of Cleopatra's strategically unpredictable textual behavior. Within the “dubious place of the free will of the female sexed subject,” the additional critical imperatives of jouissance, cyborgism, and subversive repetition or necessary interruption, help to make Cleopatra's unpredictability a psychic natural condition of historical response that dissolves the binary prophylactics of racial and sexual othering upon which colonialism historically depends.

The discernible effect of the unpredictability of the discursive subject of the black woman in Cleopatra can be seen if the analytical Jamesonian symbolic design of her textual landscape is clearly understood. In that symbolic design, Antony is the Shakespearean colonial author function, Caesar and his Rome the homosocial imaginary that is writing him, and Cleopatra the discursive subject of the black woman the surviving authorial memory of whose desire is the occasion for the colonial text of Antony and Cleopatra. In this representative discursive scenario the success of Cleopatra's unpredictability in subverting Caesarist-Roman patriarchal social and psychic self constructions such as its national-imperial dutifulness and the resolute nobility of its manhood, is also the discursive subject of the black woman's obstruction of the recovery of the lost homosocial order of the Sonnets that is the Shakespearean author-function's subliminal cue for its memory of her in the play. The retained integrity of Cleopatra's fecund Egyptian-feminine principle against the sterile white masculinity of the Roman order is then the vindication of the black woman's ethnic and gendered being over the white patriarchal world of her early modern English authoring. Additionally, if the history of the Roman naming of August, to commemorate the final subjugation of the East by the West in Octavius's ultimate sacking of Egyptian power on the month of Cleopatra's death in August 10, 30 b.c., also contains within it the memory of the Eastern colored monarch's defiance of European hegemony and sustains through that her foundational impact on world history (Volkmann 213), that has an analogous resonance with the date of Antony and Cleopatra’s actual first performance. Since the scholarly consensus for that date, “late 1606” (Bevington A18, Riverside 1343, Wilders 1), locates the play in the second half of that year, the proximity of that calendric location to August temptingly marks the play's performance as a double survival, of the memory of the black woman in the Sonnets through the memory of the historical black figure of Cleopatra in the received Stuart history of the naming of the month of the latter's theatrical reappearance.

The specific achievements of the unpredictability of the subject of the black woman in Cleopatra, which is basically the failure of the popular colonial text's attempt to negatively manipulate the discourses of race and gender against each other, can also be seen ultimately in the resultant hybridity of its textual architecture. This is the conflation of the instincts of tragedy, history, comedy, and romance in the play text that has traditionally comprised the problem of its generic confusion in postmodern critical commentary (Spevack 621-34). If in Aristotelian patriarchal formalism tragedy is male, appropriating thematic markers such as morality, responsibility, duty, culture, and state, and comedy and romance are female, deploying tropes of love, marriage, festivity, nature, and social relations, the play's teleology is synchronously tragic and comic and not diachronously so. Because of Cleopatra's textual contrariety, the play succeeds in celebrating neither state nor marriage, neither Rome or Antony nor Cleopatra or Egypt. The generic hybridization that her unpredictability effects is also thereby her seizure of the discursive control of her colonial narration. The fact that most of the instances of the unpredictability of the black woman in Cleopatra discussed in this section appear in Shakespeare from her cultural history (in Plutarch for instance), is merely proof of the intrinsic recursivity of the subject of the black woman in all her discursive re-performances, and that is a part of the larger recalcitrance of the racial subaltern in all the renditions of its cultural history that has been the basic insistence of this book.


The abstract speculativeness of the tracing that this chapter has attempted of the black woman's resistant struggle, from her subliminal presence in the Sonnets to her surfacing in the black classical Egyptian queen's foundational discursive contestation of the re-play of her story in Antony and Cleopatra, merely describes the critical difficulties attendant upon such a project. The convolutions of such an interventionist exercise threaten the very clarity of its results. For instance, the foregoing explanation of Cleopatra's unpredictability must perforce itself be false, not only because of the expedient expository selectiveness of its apparata and evidentiality, nor only because of the inevitable gender appropriation that is the critical space of its male authoring (see note 33), but because unpredictability must logically be inexplicable. The failure of unpredictability's discursive transparency can therefore be the ultimate proof of its success in its colonial text, and in its imbrication in the black woman's recalcitrant shadow life in Cleopatra, but the guarantee of her discursive survival conversely lies only in the obscurity of such an interpretative space.

These difficulties define the deep structures of the black woman's incarceration in her colonial author's ongoing cultural imagination and warn against any simplistic notions of her recoverability. They suggest at best the ethical necessity of reading her colonial narrative against its cultural grain, of dismantling the semantic codes of its imperial syntax, in the hope not of resurrecting her but of making evident the programs of her elision. That Antony and Cleopatra marks the terminus quo of the black woman's contrary discursive after-life in Shakespeare, being replaced for the last time by early English colonialism's self educative master myth of the black man in the wild in The Tempest, means that the black woman can live only in the agendas of critical practices that continue to question her absence in Shakespeare's canonic formations.


  1. The strength of this urge can be seen in the fact that Bradstreet was an immigrant to the American colony in 1630, and the poem was written there.

  2. On this, also see Gillies who, notwithstanding his overall interest in seeing Othello's connections with The Merchant of Venice rather than with Titus, says nevertheless that “All Shakespearean moors inherit Aaron's paradox” (112).

  3. In Ericson's view Cleopatra also combines “aspects of the youthful, sacrificial, beneficent, redemptive type” of Shakespearean female characters such as Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia as well as Marina, Perdita and Miranda (Patriarchal Structures 124), but he does not explain, and it is difficult to see, the logic of this grouping.

  4. The relative paucity of re-assessments of Antony and Cleopatra along the lines of race discourse compared to the volume of such work on Shakespearean texts such as Othello or The Tempest that has emerged in the last decade, has been described by some as “a conspiracy of silence” (Nyquist 87). Following Adelman's work, the few race based revaluations of the play within the last decade include the studies of Adelman, Loomba (Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama), Kim Hall (Things of Darkness), Charnes, Ericson (Patriarchal Structures), Nyquist and Joyce MacDonald (“Sex, Race, and Empire in Antony and Cleopatra.”).

  5. The problematic phenomenon of woman being tacitly white, noted by Barbara Nyquist for instance with regard to Cleopatra (87), has been seen by both Anne McClintock (183-84) and Judith Butler (Bodies that Matter 181) as the result of postmodern European feminism's prioritization of sexual difference over racial difference (cited by Sara Ahmed 157-58).

  6. Despite its journalistic pedigree, Hughes-Hallett's deservedly much-cited book is so thoroughly researched as to be a minefield of information, and though not self consciously theoretical is rich in theoretical and critical insights. My reliance on this work here is for this reason.

  7. The comments of the Swiss historian Hans Werner DeBrunner on this painting that Scobie cites are telling:

    … in a dramatic way, the painter accuses Europeans of brutal abuse of Africans … The African woman belongs to the dream world of primal psychological conceptions … All these representations and descriptions of African women show a common tendency: to imagine in the African woman a being sometimes dangerous, sometimes amusing, always different and possibly even doomed to perdition.


    The painting may recall at least one real life incident, the rape of a black woman and her abandonment on a remote island by the crew of Francis Drake's crew on his third trip round the world (Kim Hall, Things of Darkness 152).

  8. Jack D'Amico's remark about Antony and Cleopatra itself is similar:

    … through Enobarbus, Shakespeare reveals the deeper appeal of a world that attracts the Western foreigner not only because it allows him a vacation from the rules of his homeland but also because it takes him into the more seductive realm of transformation where none of the old rules applies.


  9. Richard Helgerson, in his essay, “Language Lessons,” citing two recent studies, credits the Tudor Cambridge mathematician and astrologer, John Dee, for being the first early modern English source of this associative phrase (292).

  10. Even though James's marriage took place in Scotland when he was the Scottish James IV the details of the entertainment that he arranged for the ceremony—having four naked Africans run in the snow before the marriage party's carriage—are a part of what I am describing as the more deliberately imperialist ambitions of his government and politics. As is now well known that infamous episode involved the death of one of the Africans from exposure to the extreme cold (Kim Hall, Things of Darkness 128).

  11. This is not the only instance. As the same map shows, and as The Cambridge Ancient History points out, Ptolemy Apion was also the product of the union of Ptolemy VII Euergetes II with a concubine (316). Clearly, Ptolemaic blood was less “pure” than a certain kind of interested historical scholarship would fondly like to believe.

  12. Earlier in his otherwise helpful article, Harvey confuses Ptolemy IX with Ptolemy XI and Ptolemy XII himself with his son Ptolemy XIII (352). It is possibly this same error that is replicated by both Clarke and Rogers, cited below.

  13. John Henrik Clarke, citing Pierre Loupous (126). However, Clarke, as well as J. A. Rogers whom he cites, both confuse Ptolemy IX with Ptolemy XI (the former was Soter II, the latter was Alexander II).

  14. The gradual Egyptianization of the Ptolemies from the time of Philopator up to Cleopatra, would seem to corroborate Martin Bernal's otherwise contested thesis (in Black Athena) about the reverse cultural colonialism of the Greeks by the ancient Egyptians.

  15. It is revealing that after herself laying the grounds for a racial analysis of the play in her first book (Common Liar) Adelman proceeds to ignore the implications of Cleopatra's color in her second, otherwise acutely argued book, Suffocating Mothers. Another example of the recalcitrance to talk about race in current criticism is Charles Whitney's essay, “Charmian's Laughter,” which despite its very helpful analysis of the connections between Shakespeare's Egyptian Cleopatra and her court and early modern English gypsies, confines itself to a capable class analysis (that focuses attention on Charmian rather than Cleopatra) while remaining disinterested in any exploration of the racial construction of the play. He bypasses any racial question with merely a cursory acknowledgment of the subject with the word “oriental” at two points in his essay. This, presumably, is the phenomenon that Nyquist has aggressively described as “a conspiracy of silence” (earlier cited in note 3).

  16. Although Adelman's belief in the blackness of Shakespeare's Cleopatra is cautiously expressed, she herself cites no less than five cogent reasons for the probability of Shakespeare's audience to regard Cleopatra as an “African queen”, among which two of the more compelling ones are that Cleopatra, in the “to blanch an Ethiop” reference in lines 223-25, “uses current [Elizabethan] theory to explain her color suggests that Shakespeare imagined her as the proverbial Elizabethan Ethiopean,” and that given the Tudor assumptions about the sexual profligacy of Africans if Cleopatra was meant to be lascivious she had to be thought of as African (Common Liar 187-88). For the direct connection in Virgil between Cleopatra and Dido also see John Wilders's “Introduction” in his recent Arden Shakespeare edition of the play (66).

  17. See also Wilders 66, and Pelling 17, whom Wilders cites.

  18. This is probably the origin of the notion of both the historical and the fictional Cleopatra's “whiteness” in popular and scholarly thinking from medieval through modern times. Plutarch's Europeanizing of Cleopatra completes the classical rewriting of the political effects of the pair's relationship. If the strategy of the Virgilian move was not only to roll back the subversive power of the black queen by making the lover abandon her but also to remove her altogether from direct visibility by making Dido stand in for her, Plutarch's treatment extends this process of Cleopatra's effacement by making her unequivocally white.

  19. Hughes-Hallett, who citing Geoffrey Bullough points this out, infers the play's content was political on the grounds that Fulke Greville suppressed it for fear of offending the Queen at a time when she was sensitive to criticism:

    Sir Fulke Greville, Shakespeare's contemporary, wrote a tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, but burnt the manuscript in fear that its chief characters, ‘having some childish wantonness,’ might be identified with Elizabeth I and her rejected favorite, the Earl of Essex. Essex was in disgrace, and the Queen was sensitive to any criticism; it was no time, Greville judged, to publish a play censuring a ruler for ‘forsaking empire to follow sensuality.’


  20. This is to say that love and politics are not separate but inextricably connected, that desire and passion have origins and consequences in the political life of the world. It is this caveat that, in my discussions of the play later in this chapter, silently conflates Antony's and Caesar's positions. His situation apparently between the Western imperial-colonial patriarchy of Rome on the one hand and the counter-politics of Cleopatra's Eastern Egypt and of his lover-ship of Cleopatra on the other, that has been noted in most commentary (by Charnes, for instance, 112-15), does not in the long view of Cleopatra's racial-colonized politics of survival afford him a significantly different discursive location than Caesar's. He is for her merely the focus of a different kind of strategy than Caesar, and without suggesting that her involvement with him is simply duplicitous my assumption is that involvement is predicated on the tactical advantage he represents for her historically. For a similar explanation of the complexity of Cleopatra's “love” see Charnes's explanation of love “as poetic construct” and as “realpolitik” (Notorious Identity 144).

  21. Nyquist feels that the political agenda of Sedley's play is a kind of revivalist republicanism whereas Dryden's is a direct challenge to that (100).

  22. It is therefore not surprising that, as Martin Bernal has argued, the “whitening” of ancient Egypt occurred in the nineteenth century, until which time and going back to antiquity Eqypt was always regarded as African and black (iv, 2, 243). In early modern England, Bernal points out, “the fact that the name Gypsy (or Egyptian) was given to people from North-West India shows that in the 15th century the Egyptians were seen as archetypally dark people” (242).

  23. My focusing on the negative racial-sexual discursive intermixture in Shakespeare's Cleopatra is paralleled by Jenny Sharpe's formulation of “the sexed subject of Victorian England [as] also a racial identity”, and my critical intention behind this focusing, as will be evident shortly, is also echoed by her emphasis on the “need [for] a critical model that can accommodate, on the one hand, female power and desire, and, on the other hand, gender restrictions and sexual subordination” (11).

  24. As that formidable eighteenth century Shakespearean editor, Samuel Johnson, glibly put it, “Gypsy is used here, both in the original meaning for an Egyptian, and in its accidental sense, for a bad woman” (Spevack 7). Likewise, a recent editor of the play in glossing the “tawny front” and “gipsy” reference has explained, “Gipsies began to appear in England in the early sixteenth century and were thought to have come from Egypt. ‘Gipsy’ was a contemptuous term for a promiscuous woman. Hence Cleopatra is here described as a gipsy, an Egyptian and a whore” (Wilders 91). For an extended eye-opening discussion of what the “gypsy” reference could have meant to Jacobean audiences aware of English gypsies and of their illegitimate status, see Charles Whitney's essay, “Charmian's Laughter.”

  25. For Cleopatra's visibly active role in Antony's war preparation against Caesar, see Volkmann 154-55.

  26. Enobarbus may be responding to the awe-struck Agrippa's essentialist question about what Cleopatra is like, but the cue of the conversation is squarely political: the speakers are part of the administrative staff of competing Roman political and military personalities who have met to negotiate a difficult but necessary alliance between themselves. The specific context of Enobarbus's portrait of Cleopatra is also political: he is describing how Cleopatra first met Antony and overcame him with her dazzling physical presence. Noticeably, in Enobarbus's description, that conquest has no political qualities.

  27. What Knoxe said was that,

    To promote a woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion or empire above any realm, nation. or citie, is repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance, and finallie it is the subversion of good order, of all equitie and justice.

    (Shepherd 23)

    Coinciding with Elizabeth's accession to the throne, and with the fact of her necessary and generally admirable reign, however, Knoxe's statement was quickly qualified by John Calvin (“that there were occasionally women so endowed … that they were raised up by divine authority … to condemn the inactivity of men” Knoxe 17, Shepherd 24) and Edmund Spenser (“Unless the heavens them lift to lawful soveraintie,” Faerie Queene 5.5.25), not only to clearly position Elizabeth as the exception to this view, but also to make such exceptional women a vehicle of God's admonishment to a community of inactive or incapable men. The misogyny of such attacks, as Shepherd points out, is partly contextualized by the instances of Catholic female rulers (Shepherd 24), but their larger serviceability remains bound within the performance of a racialized gender discourse. For a discussion of the early modern Anglo-European provenance of “Amazonomachy” see, in addition to Shepherd and Brown, Stephen Orgel's essay “Jonson and the Amazons.”

  28. For effective recent studies of the connections between Cleopatra and Elizabeth in Elizabethan cultural practice see the essays by Rhinehart and Jankowski.

  29. The deliberateness of the suppression of Cleopatra's children in Shakespeare is evident in the fact that other Elizabethan texts do mention them. For instance, Charles Whitney has pointed out that in the Countess of Pembroke's translation of Garnier's Antonie, Charmian elaborately mentions Cleopatra's children as a strong reason for the latter not to commit suicide (72), a reference that in Shakespeare appears only obliquely in the soothsayer scene cited above.

  30. The other supposed maternal markings of Cleopatra that Adelman has discussed, such as the “womb” reference in 3.5.163 (Suffocating Mothers 186), do not so much show her located in and attached to maternality as detached and separated from it. Insofar as the “womb” reference is a “memory” it is a part not of her mimetic presentation but of her response to it, a function of her anti-memory as will be evident later in this chapter.

  31. The only visible moment of uninterrupted reflection she has is her quiet speech in 5.2.1-8 when after Antony's death she begins to think of suicide. But even then her maids are with her.

  32. This important essay written in her mid-to-late career is symptomatic of Spivak's increasing focus later on what she has subsequently termed as her central critical interest:

    the one most consistently exiled from episteme … the disenfranchised woman, the figure I have called ‘the gendered subaltern’ … [h]er continuing heterogeneity, her continuing subalternization and loneliness, have defined the subaltern subject for me.

    (Postcolonical Critic 102-3)

    I find now that my work is coalescing around strange single figures like the Rani of Sirmur.

    (Postcolonial Critic 116)

  33. Spivak goes on in the essay to correct La Capra's “psychoanalytical metaphor for transformative disciplinary practice” as an inevitable “catachresis,” in which the reconstruction of the past is also “a genealogy of the historian” (251), in direct candid proof of which she says “My Indian example could thus be seen as a nostalgic investigation of the lost roots of my own identity” (252). My own acquiescence to this confessional prerequisite is simply the admission of my interest in the racial and sexual minority histories not only over and through which popular canonical European cultural mastertexts such as Shakespeare's are constructed but against which they are transmitted in contemporary discourse. While not thereby indulging in the kind of “congratulatory self marginalization” that Spivak has warned against (quoted in Bahri 4), as a Bangladeshi male scholar teaching a canonical Anglo-European author and period in the U.S. my connection to “minority discourses” is, I would assume, obvious. The fact of my gender, and of my particular national origins on the periphery of the power hub of the Indian sub-continent, give me a compoundedly self counteractive critical identity (as a Bangladeshi I am as disempowered in the U.S. as I am in the Indian sub-continent, while as a male I am privileged in both locations) that is both my advantage and my difficulty.

  34. While Adelman also sees clearly the value of Cleopatra's speech about Antony in terms of its appropriative memorial reconstruction, she finds the speech restorative of Cleopatra's position (and of the bountiful maternality of the female against the sterility of the Octavian-Roman male regime) only through her recovery of an ideal memory of the male in Antony (Suffocating Mothers 183-84).

  35. The distinction I am suggesting here is obviously indebted to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's notion of the difference between langue and parole in which “Language is a social phenomenon, whereas speech is an individual one,” and particularly to the socio- and ethno- logic validation of that distinction in post-Saussurian linguistics (Ducrot and Todorov 118), and my appropriation of Certeau's ideas about the power of speech has resonances with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia (earlier cited Chapter 3 note 19).

  36. For an explanation of Mikhail Bakhtin's coinage of the term see Chapter 3.

  37. This is only to claim in a postcolonial pedagogy a particular significance for what might otherwise also be a generally valid idea.

  38. This is reflected neatly in the historical Octavius's insistence to the Roman senate at the outset of his campaign that his wars with Antony not be represented as a civil war but as a war against Egypt and its Queen as “a righteous and holy war, a ‘“bellum iustum pium’” (Volkmann 170), despite the lack of any direct or exclusive interaction between Egyptian and Roman forces.

  39. In proclaiming her “sad love story” Octavius is actually establishing his own “nobility” in the eyes of his own imperial constituency, thereby transforming his deliberate Roman colonial conquest of her and of Egypt into a “human tragedy.”

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

———. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Ahmed, Sara. “Its a Sun-tan, isn't it? Autobiography as an Identificatory Practice.” Black British Feminism. Ed. Heidi Safia Mirza. London: Routledge, 1997. 153-67.

Bahri, Deepika. “Disembodying the Corpus: Postcolonial Pathology in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions.Postmodern Culture 5.1 (1994): 1-15. An electronic journal at

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Bakhtin. Ed. M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. 2 vols. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Ed. Jeannine Hensley. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Brown, Laura. “Amazons and Africans: Gender, Race and Empire in Daniel Defoe.” Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker Ed. Women,Race,and Writing in the Early Modern Period. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Bullough, Geoffrey, Ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Charnes, Linda. Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Clarke, John Henrik. “African Warrior Queens.” Black Women in Antiquity. Ed. Ivan Van Sertima. London: Transaction Books, 1985. 123-34.

D'Amico, Jack. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1991.

Ducrot, Oswald, and Tzvetan Todorov. Ed. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language. 1979; rpt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994.

Ericson, P. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hall, Kim. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Harvey, Sir Paul. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 1937; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Helgerson, Richard. “Language Lessons: Linguistic Colonialism, Linguistic Postcolonialism, and the Early Modern English Nation.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 11.1 (1998): 289-99.

Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

La Capra, Dominick. Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester (U.K.): Manchester University Press, 1989.

MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Literature and History 5.1 (1996): 60-77.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. London: Routledge, 1995.

Nyquist, Mary. “‘Profuse, proud Cleopatra:’ ‘Barbarism,’ and Female Rule in Early Modern English Republicanism.” Women's Studies 24.1-2 (1994): 85-131.

Orgel, Stephen. “Jonson and the Amazons.” Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus ed. Soliciting Interpretations: Literary Theory and Seventeenth Century English Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 119-39.

Pelling, C. B. R. Ed. Life of Antony. Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993.

Shepherd, Simon. Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth Century Drama. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Spevack, Marvin. ed. Antony and Cleopatra. A New Variorum edition of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Spivak, Gayatri. The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Volkmann, Hans. Cleopatra: A Study in Politics and Propaganda. London: Elek Books, 1958.

Whitney, Charles. “Charmian's Laughter: Women, Gypsies and Festive Ambivalence in Antony and Cleopatra.The Upstart Crow 14 (1994): 67-88.

Wilders, John. Ed. Antony and Cleopatra. The Arden Shakespeare. Third Series. London: Methuen, 1995.

Russell Jackson (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 217-29.

[In the following excerpted review, Jackson comments on the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Steven Pimlott. In particular, Jackson finds Frances de la Tour's performance of Cleopatra outstanding, and notes that Alan Bates's Antony, while amiable, is somewhat unheroic.]

In my previous report on Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon I wondered more in sorrow than in anger what kind of artistic policy the RSC might lay claim to.1 Whether or not in the course of the “Summer Festival Season” the company found a policy, they certainly acquired a stage, which may amount to the same thing. The 1500-seat proscenium-arch main house, with whose architecture directors and designers have struggled since it opened in 1932, was remodeled under the direction of the company's resident designer, Anthony Rowe. For the summer season the company installed a deep, elliptical platform stage, on which the principal action of each play was performed. The space upstage of the proscenium arch was relegated to providing background images or (for long stretches of some of the season's plays) simply closed off from view. In order to make the actors visible to spectators at the back of the topmost level, the new platform was higher than in previous attempts to bring the stage forward (such as that of the 1976 season). Consequently, the front two rows of stalls on either side of it became “restricted-view” seats, and the performers' horizontal sight line was slightly above the heads of the audience in the middle and rear stall seats.

But two other elements of the past twelve months' work in Stratford were definitely signs of policy: an increased attention to clarity of speech (reinforced by company voice classes) and the designation of the main season, from March to September, as a “summer festival.” The voice work—together with the remodeled stage—addressed directly some criticisms made in recent years by giving speech and action priority over scenic display. …

For Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Steven Pimlott with designs by Yolanda Sonnabend, the forestage was backed by three tall mirrors that could be instantly rendered transparent to reveal a background of gold geometric shapes against a dark backdrop. By means of these mirrors a character in Alexandria could be “present” at a scene in Rome and vice-versa. On the right and left, stacked against the proscenium arch, were Egyptian and Roman accoutrements of the kind normally associated with the play: standards and weapons inscribed with the empire's “S.P.Q.R.”, feather fans, the odd ankh. In defiance of this reminder of performance traditions, there was no standard-wielding, Aïda-style marching or fanning in this production. The milieu at first suggested an Alexandrian nightclub in the middle of the twentieth century, with cocktail glasses and cigarettes. Philo delivered his opening speech directly to the audience from the front of the stage (Demetrius did not appear), while upstage to the audience's right a group of courtiers huddled round what seemed to be a chaise longue. On “Behold and see” the group parted to reveal Antony and Cleopatra. At some early performances they were unequivocally in the last stages of cunnilingus, and later in the run they were discovered in a more decorous postcoital position, he with his head in her lap. Either way, the director was announcing a no-holds-barred version of court life in Alexandria, which suited the fearlessness of Frances de la Tour's Cleopatra. De la Tour is not conventionally good-looking but has a commanding stature, a strong, melodious contralto voice, and a winning quality of emotional openness. Conventions of Egyptian glamour were not going to be served in this rawly passionate performance, which ignored no chance for comedy and made no bones about the queen's desire for physical and emotional satisfaction. In her treatment of both the departing Antony and of the hapless messenger who reports on Antony's marriage she was formidable and quick-witted, turning on a sixpence from nostalgia to anger or from humor to indignation. With Thidias (in 3.13) her condescension could not conceal her sense of the need to survive. Her raising of Antony to the monument (in fact he was pulled across the stage and placed in a chair) was allowed an element of the ridiculous, but the lament after his death was heartrending.

In the final scene, for which the geometric lumber-room upstage was cleared out to reveal the brick wall at the rear, Cleopatra was costumed in a simple shift. The betrayal of her by her steward was by now an irrelevance, rather than any kind of victory for the smoothly magnanimous Caesar. After Caesar's departure she prepared for death. In a long, silent ritual she made up her face before donning the robe that presented her in formal grandeur for the first time. According to a convention established earlier in the production, after her “death” she discarded a garment and walked off. De la Tour did this simply and without fussing over the arrangement of her shift so that often her breasts were exposed, and in some later performances she left the stage completely naked.

The principal male role in this play raises interesting questions about the relationship between theatrical and other kinds of heroism. An Antony needs to command whatever stage he has been put on. Alan Bates was amiable, energetic, but unheroic. It was difficult to perceive in this shaggy, kindly figure the warrior who has gone to seed but easy to understand that he was good company. Bates is a fine exponent of characters whose self-destructive or wayward behavior has obliged them to take refuge in a winning but desperate degree of charm. Here his strongest scene was the parley with his fellow triumvirs in Rome, in which Antony's ease of manner contrasted with the stiffness and vocal deliberation of Guy Henry's Octavius Caesar. Antony was master of the table as of the situation, handing out bread rolls and dispensing wine. That he should ever have bestrid the world like a colossus did seem fanciful. The genuine subtleties and strengths of the performance were best appreciated from the middle of the stalls: projection on the scale required by the Stratford main house seemed not to be at the actor's command. In purely physical terms Enobarbus (Malcolm Storry) was more convincing as a fighting man. His was also a performance of wit and feeling, in which the delicious absurdity of the barge speech was savored and the conflict between reason and affection was fully explored. In his death scene Enobarbus beat at his chest with one fist (“I am alone the villain of the earth”) in a gesture reminiscent of harrowing scenes of grief familiar from Balkan news reports and also suggestive of a literal breaking of the heart. According to the production's established custom, he then walked off, leaving his jacket behind him. …


  1. See my “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1996-98: or the Search for a Policy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 185-205.

Robert D. Hume (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Hume, Robert D. “Individuation and Development of Character through Language in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 1973): 280-300.

[In the following essay, Hume analyzes the way in which language functions in the play and demonstrates how Shakespeare used language in order to distinguish and develop the characters in Antony and Cleopatra.]

In some of Shakespeare's plays—Love's Labour's Lost, for example—a linguistic character-typology is quite plain. In others it is less evident. Few of us would say with Tolstoy that all of Shakespeare's characters sound alike, but neither would many say with Pope that we could properly assign all the speeches if the speakers were unidentified. Studies of Shakespeare's language have tended to be either technical and descriptive or devoted to the general poetic effect of the language, particularly the imagery.1 Here I wish to study not the general effect but the specific function of the language as it contributes to the dramatization of individual characters.2 I have selected Antony and Cleopatra as my example for a number of reasons. First, it exhibits Shakespeare's style in full maturity. Second, none of its characters (save the Clown) is sharply differentiated for satiric purposes or on social grounds. Third, the contribution of the characters' language to the impression they create seems to me striking, and it has been seriously underrated. S. L. Bethell has gone so far as to argue that “there is, in fact, no attempt to differentiate characters by the verse they speak, except to some extent with Octavius Caesar, whose verse is normally dull and flat and impersonal, or else staccato as he issues orders.”3 I wish to show, on the contrary, that the characters are sharply differentiated by their language.

Explanation of my method is clearly in order. Two general points should be made clear. First, I am interested only in what seems to contribute significantly to the aesthetic impact of the play; that is, I am not using the work as a linguistic sample or document. Second, I am unwilling to depend on “orthographic” data.4 So the evidence I wish to consider can be described in the following three categories: sound, rhetoric, and personal habit.5

  • I.Sound:
    1. Words: different characters may use words which emphasize different consonant or vowel sounds.
    2. Rhythm: regularity, irregularity, and length of sentence-span contribute to our reaction to a character.
  • II.Rhetoric:
    1. The patterns of a character's thought may be an index to his ways of thinking.
    2. The terms (including imagery) used by and about a person—his habitual language—help characterize him.
  • III.Deviations:
    • Certain personal habits or deviations from more normal usage—e.g., repetition, wordplay, ellipsis—contribute strikingly to the impression a character makes.

Having described such categories I wish to ignore them, as categories, as far as possible. To present evidence of this sort analytically by character or type of evidence is to oversimplify. Here I prefer to start by describing the basic structural contrasts in characteristic language, and then to proceed to show in further detail how they function within the pattern and context of the play. I offer this analysis not in the hope of finding evidence for a radical reinterpretation of Antony and Cleopatra, but simply to show in some detail how the distinctively personal speech of each individual contributes to our apprehension of his character.


In this section I wish to discuss the structural (as opposed to the atmospheric) significance of the language. Certainly recurrent images do help characterize a play, though as Wolfgang Clemen says, “we are generally quite unaware of the fact that they create atmosphere,” since “such expressions appear to us entirely natural in their place.”6 (Much the same thing, I believe, can be said of their contribution to character.) Various sorts of imagery have been noted in Antony and Cleopatra. Caroline Spurgeon calls attention to images of grandeur; Clemen offers an excellent discussion of the significance of sea, astronomical, light-dark, and fortune imagery, while pointing out the duality of the descriptions of Cleopatra; two recent studies show how Shakespeare used death imagery to create anticipation of his conclusion.7

But here I am concerned with the relation of language to character, or, more specifically, with demonstrating the contribution of language to contrasts between characters. There are six characters in Antony and Cleopatra who by virtue of prominence or function are of particular significance. To lend substance to what can seem like insubstantial assertions of differences, I have worked from lists (appended in the footnotes) of what seems to me “striking” language. This procedure is necessarily somewhat subjective: I have simply listed for each character words and phrases which are repeated or somehow distinctive. Some phrases are too standard to attract such attention8; others (Clemen's sea-images, for instance) are evidently meant to characterize the play, but do not divide among individual characters. But though in their very nature these lists cannot be definitive, they can serve as a rough index to characteristic language.

Consider the basic conflicts of the play. Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus, the “triple pillars of the world,” are being challenged by Pompey. Antony and Caesar (as their language indicates) are by far the most powerful of the four. When they come into conflict Antony is torn between the appeals of Rome and Egypt. Structurally, Caesar is set against Cleopatra with Antony vacillating between the positions they represent. The Roman world is coldly rational and proper; the Egyptian is emotional, at once exalted and degraded. In Enobarbus we are shown in microcosm the dilemma of Antony's followers, torn between personal loyalty and Roman rationality. These basic conflicts and contrasts are reinforced by parallel divisions in the characters' language; what I wish to demonstrate initially is just how sharply Shakespeare individuated his characters.

To start with the most obvious example, consider Lepidus, who is allegedly coequal with Antony and Caesar.9 He says almost nothing, usually contenting himself with such interjections as “here's more news” (I.iv.33).10 What is remarkable is the concentration in so few lines of so many phrases like “beseech,” “entreat,” “let me,” and “pray you”; he is always begging in a bleating voice to which the sound of “beseech” and “entreat” seems very appropriate. He is obsequious even to Enobarbus:

Good Enobarbus, 'tis a worthy deed,
And shall become you well, to entreat your captain
To soft and gentle speech.

(II. ii. 1-3)

The address “good Enobarbus” is characteristic of Lepidus almost to the point of caricature, though “noble” is his more usual form.11 The use of “your captain” makes it sound as though he thinks of Caesar as his own—which is substantially true. Quiet is another of his motifs (none of Antony's “thunder” for him); he dislikes “loud” dispute (l. 21) and is continually begging for “soft” and “gentle” speech, for he fears “passion” and wishes to “stir no embers up” (ll. 12-13). When, in a polite afterthought, Antony says “Let us, Lepidus, / Not lack your company” (II. ii. 169-70), Lepidus replies: “Noble Antony, / Not sickness should detain me” (ll. 170-71; my italics). Lepidus thinks in small, everyday terms; for him, sickness is as grand a thing as might oppose his going. Antony might have said: “the gods themselves shall not prevent me.” Only twice does Lepidus' speech rise above the timid and pedestrian, and both times it is concerning Antony (I. iv. 10-15; III. ii. 65-66).12 Clearly Lepidus is not the man to stand his ground against Antony and Caesar.

In a similar way Pompey's relative ineffectuality is underscored.13Honor and justice are his key concepts. For example, II. vi. 8-23 is on the theme of honor and justice to his father as a reason for his actions; ll. 26-29 are about Antony taking his father's house; in ll. 39-46 he objects to Antony's ingratitude; in ll. 53-56 he says that his heart will never be subject to fortune; that is, honor will direct him, not selfish motives. And indeed, on this ground, Pompey refuses Menas' offer to make him “the earthly Jove” by killing the others (II. vii. 72-79). Pompey claims equality with the “triple pillars,” but linguistically he does not place himself on their level. Caesar and Antony are called (in play) “Jupiter” and “the god of Jupiter” (III. ii. 9-10), and Antony is regularly described in terms of the gods, but Pompey appeals to the gods as superior powers (II. i. 1-5; 50-52).14 And when a compromise is reached Pompey sounds like Lepidus when he says, “I crave our composition may be written” (II. vi. 58).

In the principal conflict of the play Antony and Caesar are opposed, with the views and demands of Rome and Egypt as a background. The characteristic Egyptian language of Cleopatra is utterly different from the speech of Caesar; there is no significant overlap whatever. It has long been recognized that Antony and Cleopatra exhibit a striking duality in their imagery.15 The grand is set against the degraded. There is a soaring, often astronomical terminology which they use again and again: heaven, moon, sun, earth, stars, space, kingdom, wide arch of ranged empire, world, ocean, fire, air, tree imagery, great sphere, eternity, orb, thunder. Set against this imagery of transcendental grandeur are terms of degradation, poison, treachery, and decay: snakes, slime, poison, serpents, cistern, discandying, gnats, flies, sty, dung, mud, breeding serpent's poison, ooze, creeps, dungy earth. This combination of the high and low accurately mirrors the ambiguous nature of the protagonists, and it can be seen again in the terms used to describe them.16

Caesar's language is nothing like this.17 What is startling about it is its almost total lack of vivid terms or striking characteristics. When Caesar wishes to be vivid he speaks in terms of “hoop,” “fortress,” and “cement,” for he is an immensely practical man, but as a rule he is very sparing of images and descriptive terms. Even in his relatively higher flights Caesar remains pedestrian: he thinks of “an army for an usher,” or a “mate in empire.” And almost every instance of vivid speech or grand description from Caesar is occasioned by Antony. Caesar normally states matters of fact, occasionally marked by the intrusion of a moral stance: he disapproves of sex and revelry (e.g., I. iv. 16-33; 55-71; II. vii. 98-99; III. vi. 1-11). There is never any grandeur in Caesar's speech, and never anything degraded. He speaks with contempt and loathing of the common people, but usually in such rather abstract terms as a “common body … lackeying the varying tide”; his strongest description of them is as “knaves that smell of sweat,” which is far less vivid than Cleopatra's

                                                                                                                        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.

(V. ii. 209-13)

Cleopatra feels intensely all that she describes. Caesar does not. His abstract and dispassionate speech gives the impression that he is a man of little feeling or imagination. Only Octavia seems to rouse any personal feeling in him (III. ii.; vi.).

Antony's vacillation between the Roman and Egyptian worlds is clearly reflected in his language. The bulk of his characteristic terms he shares with Cleopatra: astronomy, mud, melting, death. But when his dormant ambition is stirred he can take the Roman view, as in “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage” (I. ii. 112-13; cf. Philo, I. i. 1-10). When Antony decides to return to Rome (I. ii.) and after he has suffered defeat (III. xii., xiii.; IV. xii.), he uses such terms as “Egyptian fetters,” “dotage,” “enchanting queen” (picking up the Roman view that Cleopatra was ensnaring him by witchcraft), “morsel cold … trencher,” “foul Egyptian,” “charm,” “gypsy,” “spell,” “witch.” As the scene by scene list shows, when in Rome Antony hardly ever uses “Egyptian” terms. In fact, he uses very little striking imagery at all; competing with Caesar, Antony adopts his language. Thus in II. ii. he uses horse-world imagery (cf. Caesar, V. i. 39-40), and in II. iii. building terms (1. 6; cf. Caesar, III. ii. 29-31).

Cleopatra's imagery is mostly of the dual Egyptian variety already mentioned. She also uses some of the widely prevalent sea-imagery (e.g., “anchor his aspect,” I. v. 33). Her wiles and cunning charm appear in such expressions as “trade in love” (II. v. 2) or “amorous pinches” (I. v. 28), and particularly in her fishing imagery, the ambivalence in which is expressed by Caesar as he surveys her dead body: she looks “as she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grave” (V. ii. 345-46). This peculiar ambivalence is found again and again. For instance, like Antony, Cleopatra uses “melting” to describe both death and the supremacy of love (a pointed coupling): compare “Let Rome in Tiber melt” (I. i. 33) with “the crown o' th' earth doth melt” (IV. xv. 63).18 And when Cleopatra threatens a messenger she proposes to melt gold and pour it down his throat (II. v. 34-35). But while there is a certain grandeur to these uses of “melt,” both protagonists can also use “melt” and “discandy” in an unpleasant way when they refer to dissolution into formless stickiness (e.g., III. xiii. 165; IV. xii. 22).

In the range of the imagery we can see latent the development of the whole play. Caesar's language does not possess the grandeur which makes the protagonists tragic, but neither does it reflect the degradation which is their undoing. The play balances precariously between extremes. We do not have here a glorification of “all for love”; rather, as in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, we are shown a tragic fall, though with a persuasive and sensitive presentation of the temptation. Caesar's condemnation of the lovers is far from being the whole story, but close study of characteristic language can serve to remind us not to overromanticize them. Antony and Cleopatra are grand, but they clearly suffer from folly and degradation, and this is unerringly reflected in the language used by and about them.

Perhaps our best perspective on Antony and Cleopatra is through Enobarbus.19 He alone of the other characters straddles the Roman and Egyptian worlds. He is equally at home among Roman soldiers (II. vi.) and in the seamy luxury of Cleopatra's court (I. ii.). He can call Cleopatra Antony's “Egyptian dish” (II. vi. 123), but understands very well her appeal. It is no accident that the “barge speech” is his, for though the hyperbolic language “belongs” to Cleopatra, the sensitivity and perceptiveness of the description are Enobarbus' own. Even when he is being sarcastic to Antony at her expense, his response to her charm is plain (e.g., I. ii. 143-48). Like Antony, Enobarbus would be quite incapable of walking into the presence of Cleopatra and her ladies, and enquiring, as Caesar does, “which is the Queen of Egypt?” (V. ii. 112).

Enobarbus' character is underscored by his language, which is plain, blunt, and down-to-earth. His imagery is concrete and earthy; he thinks naturally in everyday terms: food, drink, weather, and sex. For him gods are tailors, women clothes, fortune a sword cut, and onions the source of tears. Caesar too is a practical man, but his speech has nothing like the concreteness characteristic of Enobarbus, who draws easily on such common occupations as hunting and sailing for his metaphors (e.g., “the wounded chance of Antony,” and “my reason sits in the wind against me,” III. x. 36-37). In Enobarbus we can follow the reactions of a sturdy, sensible Roman who is bound by personal loyalty and some imaginative sympathy to Antony. Not surprisingly, since Enobarbus' ultimate commitment is to Antony, his characteristic imagery of food, drink, and water is given ambiguous connotations. What can seem merely blunt and convivial can become unpleasant, as in

Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps, no more;
And throw between them all the food thou hast,
They'll grind the one the other.

(III. v. 12-14)

and “Egyptian dish,” or “valor preys on reason.”20

What should be evident now—even from so cursory an inspection of “characteristic” language—is that there are strikingly personal linguistic characterizations and contrasts in Antony and Cleopatra. Two techniques are in evidence. When Shakespeare merely sketched in a character he strongly emphasized a few traits. Pompey's preoccupation with honor and justice (incongruous in these surroundings), and Lepidus' bleating “beseech” theme and soft-quiet-gentle motif are clear indications that they will not survive. Such a technique applied at greater length would quickly lead to gross caricature, but used in brief it is an economical way of indicating character. In the fuller presentation of the other four there is no need for such shorthand. Instead, each one is allowed to speak in appropriate, thoroughly individual terms.

“Horizontally,” the radical split in imagery between Rome and Egypt emphasizes the incommensurability of their standards. Antony wavers between them but must choose decisively, for they are mutually exclusive. Consequently Caesar, totally committed to Rome, can have no understanding of what motivates him. “Vertically,” the extreme duality of the Egyptian imagery contains the essential paradox of the tragedy. The Egyptian way is base; it leads to ruin and death. Not surprisingly, both lovers are selfish and treacherous. Yet somehow there is something in their lives exalted beyond the comprehension of Caesar. That we feel their grandeur is largely a function of their imagery, for there is little in their self-indulgent folly to rouse esteem in us. It is the highest part of their feeling as it comes through the language which affects us and commands our admiration.


My object in this section is to analyze the linguistic contrasts as Shakespeare sets them up at the outset of the play; in the next I will follow their development. I do not wish to seem to overstress the first appearances of the characters. I am concentrating on them because it seems to me that Shakespeare went to some trouble to indicate immediately through language the nature of each person. Characteristic language may later be subordinated to the exigencies of plot, but at the outset it is emphasized in order to establish it firmly. We might say that Shakespeare started by offering a set of contrasts, some of whose components he later altered as the progression of the play demanded.

Antony's relation to Cleopatra is shown immediately in the first scene. He speaks of love in terms of heaven and earth (ll. 15, 17); the grandiosity of his declaration of love exceeds by far in its sweep and force anything Caesar will say in the course of the play:

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.

(I. i. 33-40)

Here at once we have the “Egyptian” combination of grand and base, empire versus dungy earth and feeding. Though the phrases are short, they lend themselves to forceful declamation (note the alliterations of the final lines). Antony's response to the arrival of messengers with news is “Grates me! The sum” (l. 18)—irresponsible, but very much the reply of a man utterly used to command.

For all this, it is Cleopatra who holds the initiative. Her fanciful speculation about the news (ll. 19-24) leaves Antony gasping, “How, my love?” (l. 24). In I. iii. she again demonstrates her ability to keep him off balance, as his responses show: “Now, my dearest queen” (l. 17); “What's the matter?” (l. 18); “The gods best know” (l. 24); “Cleopatra” (l. 26); “Most sweet queen” (l. 31); “How now, lady?” (l. 39). Here it is only with the utmost trouble that Antony manages to assert his Roman ambition. Cleopatra is supposed to be a fascinating woman of infinite variety. Shakespeare could not describe her physical charms, and the first scene is as close as he dared come to a love scene with these slightly tawdry middle-aged lovers; so he had to find some other way of indicating Cleopatra's appeal. In large part he managed this by giving her varied rhythms and an unpredictable imagination which, as we have seen, leaves Antony's slower mind floundering far behind.

Nay, hear them, Antony.
Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His pow'rful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;
Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that.
Perform't, or else we damn thee.’
How, my love?
Perchance? Nay, and most like:
You must not stay here longer, your dismission
Is come from Caesar; therefore hear it, Antony.
Where's Fulvia's process? Caesar's I would say? both?
Call in the messengers. As I am Egypt's Queen,
Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine
Is Caesar's homager: else so thy cheek pays shame
When shrill-tongued Fulvia scolds. The messengers!

(ll. 19-32)

Here Cleopatra stops and goes; she can pause quickly three times in succession and then pour out an unbroken line. The freedom of her verse helps convey, as no mere description could do, her infinite variety. Particularly early in the play, when she is rather skittish, the rhythm of her speech is highly variable.

No variety at all is Caesar's characteristic. His verse is clear and regular; it must be delivered at an even rate, for the regular pauses and the sameness of words adapted to crisp pronunciation make much variation impractical. All this contributes to the “flat” quality noted by Bethell. Cleopatra's verse, in a dramatic contrast of “Egyptian” versus “Roman,” particularly lends itself to variation in speed and emphasis. The irregular pattern of her pauses practically demands a reading of irregular ebb and flow, so the reader can accelerate and slow down again without an awkward scramble. The result is a personal speaking voice quite distinct from Caesar's impersonal formality.

We meet Antony's fellow triumvirs as they are discussing his dereliction of duty. Caesar's first words are a self-justification, a particular habit of his (I. iv. 1-10). Lepidus' response is revealing:

I must not think there are
Evils enow to darken all his goodness:
His faults, in him, seem as the spots of heaven,
More fiery by night's blackness; hereditary
Rather than purchased, what he cannot change
Than what he chooses.

(ll. 10-15)

This reads quickly and lightly. It is the speech of a man habitually deferential; neither Antony nor Caesar would start a speech “I must not think. …” The grand images of this speech “belong” to Antony. Compare Caesar's reply:

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

(ll. 16-21)

Here alliteration and plosive consonants create the dominant sound. “T,” “d,” “k,” and “g” are prominent. Caesar's crisp consonants give a sense of hardness which Lepidus' milder speech does not convey—it is impossible to say “to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy” very mildly. Lepidus “must not think”; he is unwilling to render judgment. Caesar does so in four words: “You are too indulgent.” In the discussion which ensues Caesar has about fifty lines, a nameless messenger fifteen, and Lepidus two interjections: “Here's more news” (33) and “'Tis pity of him” (71). At the end of the scene Lepidus' final comment underlines his subservient place:

Farewell, my lord. What you shall know meantime
Of stirs abroad, I shall beseech you, sir,
To let me be partaker.

(ll. 81-83; my italics)

No doubt should remain about the probability of Lepidus' deposition.

Our introduction to Pompey (II.i.) undercuts him less drastically than this, but nonetheless its import is clear-cut. His first words establish his “justice” motif: “If the great gods be just, they shall assist / The deeds of justest men” (ll. 1-2). In his first extended speech Pompey muses on his position:

                                                                                I shall do well:
The people love me, and the sea is mine;
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to th' full. Mark Antony
In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make
No wars without doors. Caesar gets money where
He loses hearts. Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flattered; but he neither loves,
Nor either cares for him.


He starts here with a firm declarative statement and adduces evidence in support of it. His self-applied, possibly astronomical image marks him as a leader of magnitude, which he is. The language is firm enough, though a little “soft” by Caesar's consonantal standards. What is lacking are logical connectives: there is no proposition in this catalog of data and Pompey appears to be reassuring himself. This impression is strengthened by his reaction to the news that Caesar and Lepidus are in the field. First he denies it: “Where have you this? 'Tis false” (l. 18). Next he pooh-poohs the idea: “He dreams: I know they are in Rome together, / Looking for Antony” (ll. 19-20; my italics). Finally, he goes into an elaborate invocation, asking that Antony may not be roused:

                                                            But all the charms of love,
Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned 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 dulness—

(ll. 20-27; my italics)

The rhythm here is as dreamy as Pompey's hope that Cleopatra will lull Antony into inaction. Notice that the speech is a denigration of the senses. Pompey's overriding concerns are honor and justice, and in the design of the play these are set against the sensual life which Cleopatra represents. Though the contrast is less developed, Pompey is as far on one side of Caesar as Cleopatra is on the other. If Antony is torn between the sensual world of Cleopatra and the power politics of Caesar, so he has, as Caesar does not, some sense of the “honor” of which Pompey speaks (l. 26). Morally, Pompey takes much the view of Antony's revels that Caesar does: compare his attitude toward the “amorous surfeiter” (l. 33) with Caesar's condemnation of “lascivious wassails” (I.iv.56).

Faced with certain news of Antony's arrival, Pompey reacts revealingly:

                                                                      I could have given less matter
A better ear. Menas, I did not think
This amorous surfeiter would have donned his helm
For such a petty war. His soldiership
Is twice the other twain. But let us rear
The higher opinion that our stirring
Can from the lap of Egypt's widow pluck
The ne'er lust-wearied Antony.

(ll. 31-38)

The use of “petty war,” as has been noted, belies the grand imagery of his first speech. And as his first sentence indicates, Pompey rather flinches from the bad news. Compare Antony's firm “Well, what worst?” (I.ii.90). His first reaction is discouragement, but then he manages to interpret the news as testimony to his own importance. Again we may feel that Pompey is trying to reassure himself. He is honest enough to recognize that the triumvirs will probably settle their own differences long enough to face him (ll. 42-49), but after this chain of clear reasoning he throws it all up: “Be't as our gods will have't. It only stands / Our lives upon to use our strongest hands” (ll. 50-51). This is irrelevant to what has gone before. Pompey accepts the challenge and will fight as best he can, but with a feeling of fatalism which bodes his chances no good.

Pompey is noble, but less than logical (ellipsis is a characteristic of his—see ll. 16, 36, 49) as becomes strikingly apparent in his confrontation with the triumvirs (II. vi.). He opens with a disconcertingly disconnected sentence: “Your hostages I have, so have you mine; / And we shall talk before we fight” (ll. 1-2). The hostages are not, of course, the prime reason for the parley, as this implies. Caesar's characteristic reply is precise, logical, and utterly to the point:

                                                                                                                        Most meet
That first we come to words, and therefore have we
Our written purposes before us sent;
Which if thou hast considered, let us know
If 'twill tie up thy discontented sword. …

(ll. 2-6; my italics)

Pompey's reply (ll. 8-23) is an elliptical harangue which does not answer Caesar's question. He grandly pictures his fleet as angering the ocean (ll. 20-21), but for all his blustering the tense of “meant” (l. 21) indicates clearly that he has already been stopped. Here again (as in II.i.19-27) Pompey speaks with vigor and conviction about something which is wishful thinking; he is deriving satisfaction from thinking about his plans even after he knows he will not carry them through. Caesar's response to this diatribe is merely “Take your time” (l. 23), after which Pompey gets off onto the subject of his father's house (ll. 26-29).

Lepidus asks “from the present” (l. 30) how he takes their offer, and Caesar adds acidly “There's the point” (l. 31). But after repeating the terms (ll. 34-39) Pompey again digresses: “Know then / I came before you here a man prepared to take this offer; but Mark Antony / Put me to some impatience …” (l. 39ff.). Pompey never does state his acceptance (we may infer it from the handshake of l. 48) until he implies it by asking that the agreement be written (ll. 58-59). It comes as no surprise when we learn (III. v.) that Pompey has fared badly in this world of Realpolitik.


By III. vii. the final development of the play has begun. Briefly, we may consider what has changed. Pompey and Lepidus have been squeezed out and Antony has opted for Cleopatra and Egypt rather than Octavia and Rome. In Enobarbus' image the world has become a “pair of chaps” (Antony and Caesar) which can only “grind” each other. Here, all diversions past, we have the basic conflict of the play.

Caesar and Cleopatra remain essentially constant throughout; it is Antony who wobbles between the positions they represent. As we have seen, his “striking” imagery almost disappears while he is in Rome. We can follow the process of this change. In I. i. we have the Antony of “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall!” (ll. 33-34). In I. ii. Cleopatra notes that “A Roman thought hath struck him” (l. 79); conscience striken, Antony adopts the Roman terminology as he exclaims “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage” (ll. 112-13). By I. iii. his voice is firm and commanding (ll. 41-56); the images of breeding and creeping make Antony's speech here more vivid than Caesar's, but it is rhythmically steady and controlled in a way that his initial speeches are not (cf. I.i.48-55).

When we next see Antony (II. ii.) it is hard to distinguish his speech from Caesar's. Roused and Roman, Antony is definitely a man to reckon with. His verse becomes, like Caesar's, flat, his thought logical, precise, and reservedly argumentative.

You do mistake your business: my brother never
Did urge me in his act. I did inquire it
And have my learning from some true reports
That drew their swords with you. Did he not rather
Discredit my authority with yours,
And make the wars alike against my stomach,
Having alike your cause?

(ll. 45-51)

There is very little striking imagery in this scene, though note that Antony and Caesar do employ a similar image of control. “The third o' th' world is yours, which with a snaffle / You may pace easy, but not such a wife” (Ant. ll. 63-64); “Yet if I knew / What hoop should hold us staunch, from edge to edge / O' th' world I would pursue it” (Caes. ll. 114-16).

The Banquet Scene (II. vii.), seemingly so inorganic, is actually an excellent index to character. It permits us to observe all of the major male characters under “Egyptian” circumstances. The odd discussion of Nile, slime, ooze, serpents, and crocodiles both reminds us of Cleopatra, Antony's “serpent of old Nile,” and contributes to the atmosphere of Egyptian sensuality. Caesar does nothing but complain in terms of chilly disapproval, responding to a toast:

                                                                      I could well forbear't.
It's monstrous labor when I wash my brain
And it grows fouler.

(ll. 97-99)

Possess it, I'll make answer;
But I had rather fast from all four days
Than drink so much in one.

(ll. 100-102)

Antony's reply is “Be a child o' th' time” (l. 99). Antony, Enobarbus, and even Pompey are all able to relax and enjoy themselves (Lepidus has been carried out); Caesar cannot, for “graver business” (l. 119) is always on his mind. It is Caesar's impatient and disgusted speech starting “What would you more?” (l. 118; my italics) that breaks up the party.

The Banquet Scene marks the end of the initial development of the play; it is plain by then that Pompey and Lepidus will vanish, leaving Antony to contend with Caesar. The party is also the last of a series of scenes designed to keep in our minds a steady contrast of Rome and Egypt. (Cleopatra appears directly in I. v., II. v., and III. iii.; Enobarbus describes her at length in II. ii.)21 At this point Antony is like—in the image he applies to Octavia—“the swan's down feather / That stands upon the swell at full of tide, / And neither way inclines” (III. ii. 48-50). Unfortunately, we are not shown the actual process of Antony's decision to return to Egypt; it would be interesting to study his language. Of course we are never in much doubt about what he is going to do (see II. iii. 38-40, and Enobarbus, II. vi. 123). Presumably we are meant to realize that Cleopatra is steadily on his mind, just as she is kept in ours, and her hold on him is such that even Roman ambition cannot break it.

Definition of Cleopatra's hold is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can profitably enquire into the linguistic manifestations of her infinite variety and fascination, particularly as she is contrasted with Caesar. In general the euphony of Cleopatra's assonance is set against the cacophony of Caesar's alliteration. Compare the sound of Cleopatra's first speech (I. i. 19-24; quoted above) with Caesar's “to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy.” In the one there is a variety (subtly varied) of “a” sounds; in the other it is clicking consonants which set the tone. Cleopatra repeats two names over and over: “Antony,” and “Charmian,” which have in common her typical elongated “a” sound. The names which Caesar uses and re-uses all lend themselves well to his crisp pronunciation: Agrippa, Thidias, Octavia, Dolabella. Indeed, though Caesar uses more polysyllabic words than the others, he generally takes those which are easy to speak quickly: e.g., “lascivious,” “contestation,” “contemning,” “publicly,” “stablishment,” “ostentation,” “habiliments.” Caesar's characteristic speech is a combination of these crisp polysyllabic words and short ones, ordered to permit brisk, steady delivery.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know
It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate
Our great competitor. From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners. You shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(I. iv. 1-10)

Caesar uses words which can be got out quickly: he would not use a phrase like Cleopatra's “Tawny-finned fishes” (II. v. 12), for it would slow his delivery.

To discuss characteristic differences in the sound of the words is risky, for our impressions are unavoidably subjective, but it seems worth hazarding some cautious generalizations. In a sensitive, though very personal essay on Antony and Cleopatra, G. Wilson Knight remarks on the “pre-eminence of thin or feminine vowel sounds, ‘e’ and ‘i’,”22 and he quotes some twenty-five prominent examples, including “by the fire that quickens Nilus' slime,” “her infinite variety,” “intrinsicate,” “dislimns,” “that great medicine hath with his tinct gilded thee” (I. v. 36-37), “discandying,” “terrene.” What Knight failed to note is that about three-quarters of these phrases are used by Antony and Cleopatra and include some of their most characteristic terms, while most of the rest are used about them. Knight goes on to suggest that the thin vowels and a light “ing” ending are set against the “rich, yet elongated” vowel sound of “sun,” “moon,” “burn,” “world,” and the like.23 Quite right, I think. From this I would conclude—or suggest at least—that Antony and Cleopatra share a characteristic vowel sound (thin “i” and “e” balanced against richer “o” and “a”) in noticeable contrast to Caesar, whose characteristic sound is consonantal.

Consider also the difference between Caesar and Cleopatra in their patterns of thought. Caesar is relentlessly logical. His speeches move smoothly from premises or evidence to conclusion (e.g., V. ii. 179-88) without repetition, digression, or ellipsis. In a striking dramatic contrast, one of Cleopatra's prime characteristics is verbal repetition and parallelism.

O well-divided disposition! Note him,
Note him, good Charmian, 'tis the man; but note him.
He was not sad, for he would shine on those
That make their looks by his; he was not merry. …

(I. v. 53-56; my italics)

Such repetition occurs again and again throughout the play.24 Notice too Enobarbus' uncharacteristic repetitions as he argues with her: “But why, why, why?” (III. vii. 2); “is it, is it?” (l. 4). In the same scene we see Antony again firmly under Cleopatra's spell, and it is with a repetition that he reaffirms his disastrous decision: “By sea, by sea” (l. 40).25 It may be that the repetition is merely for emphasis, but is it just accident that the verbal habit is Cleopatra's and that the decision is essentially hers (l. 28)? And in IV. xv. Antony seems to reaffirm his commitment to Cleopatra as he repeats, “I am dying, Egypt, dying” (ll. 18, 41).

Thus Cleopatra's repetition and parallelism are set against the logical progression of Caesar's speech. Where Caesar works out an idea, Cleopatra usually just sets one up. Very seldom does she work steadily toward a conclusion as he does; she either jumps to it immediately or has no interest in one. Her refutation of coldheartedness, for instance (III. xiii. 158-67), is vivid but static. She builds on a single idea, but without extending it in a logical framework. She says merely: if I am so, then. … In Caesar's characteristic pattern this would go: I would rather … than be considered that, therefore I cannot be so. Cleopatra's speeches are displays of feeling or intuition which, unlike Caesar, she never troubles to justify. Thus she can reach a conclusion without preamble (V. ii. 191) or take four positions in as many speeches, jumping to the next as Antony opens his mouth to object to the last (I. iii. 19-39). Perhaps it is not merely fanciful to say that the static quality and emotional basis of her thought can be associated with the sloth and self-indulgence which the Romans find characteristic of “Egypt.” But no mere description does justice to Cleopatra's feminine flip-flops of logic, scrambles of idiom, and mincing, mousing tones, and it is these characteristics, not her queenliness, that make her so fascinating a woman.

In the third and fourth acts Antony shifts back and forth between Roman and Egyptian language, just as he wavers between caring about the war and caring about Cleopatra. Immediately after his first defeat (III. xi.) Antony is so disgusted with himself that he is little inclined to reproach Cleopatra, though he has good cause to do so. His state of mind may be reflected and signalled by the spectacular incidence of verbal repetition in his speech.26 After his final defeat (IV. xii.) Antony rails against Cleopatra in Roman terms, calling her “foul Egyptian,” “triple turned whore,” “charm,” “gypsy,” “spell,” and “witch.” At other times he alternates between manic exhilaration (IV. iv., viii.) and gloomy forebodings (IV. ii.). Only occasionally, as in his response to Enobarbus' defection (IV. v.), does his language seem to reflect genuine self-insight rather than a sophistic attempt to bolster his own morale.

III. xiii. displays the gamut of Antony's feelings. He can be both firm and noble (“Let her know't,” l. 16), and foolishly assertive (ll. 20-28). As he feels his authority “melt” from him (l. 90), he tries to reaffirm his identity: “I am Antony yet” (ll. 92-93). Shakespeare played with this notion. Who is Antony? The Roman who snaps at Cleopatra with a contempt worthy of Caesar: “I found you as a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar's trencher” (ll. 116-17)? Or is Antony “himself again” (as Cleopatra believes, ll. 186-87) when he says “come, / Let's have one other gaudy night” (ll. 182-83)? But for all his wobbling Antony is a ruined man and he has already declared for “Egypt.” When he is told that Cleopatra is dead (IV. xiv.) Antony considers his own life at an end: “Unarm, Eros. The long day's task is done, / And we must sleep” (ll. 35-36). With his death certain Antony's speech stabilizes as he regains his clear sense of purpose. Compare the hysterical imbalance of “Hence, saucy eunuch, peace! / She hath betrayed me and shall die the death” (ll. 25-26) with the firm assurance of:

                              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. But I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.

(IV. xiv. 95-101)

We can trace a similar progression in Enobarbus' speech, and it is worth doubling back to examine his development. Enobarbus is, as we have seen, a blunt and down-to-earth character; Kent-like, he enjoys a “plainness” which “nothing ill becomes” him (II. vi. 78-79). He serves as an observer in the play. His perspective is basically Roman but he has become involved in Egyptian corruption and seems perfectly at home amidst the lubricious voluptuousness of Cleopatra's Court (I. ii. 1-73).27 Enobarbus' speech varies from humorous and colloquial-sounding prose (e.g., I. ii. 130-41) to the extravagantly elaborate “barge speech.” His “Roman” speech is of two sorts. Talking in prose with Menas he coldly and accurately assesses the state of affairs, taking the “Roman” view of Cleopatra and all she represents: “He will to his Egyptian dish again” (II. vi. 123). In verse Enobarbus is less rough-sounding; nonetheless his speech remains vigorous and concrete. At his most formal Enobarbus can speak with the sturdy logic and steady rhythm of Caesar:

Most worthy sir, you therein throw away
The absolute soldiership you have by land,
Distract your army, which doth most consist
Of war-marked footmen, leave unexecuted
Your own renowned knowledge, quite forgo
The way which promises assurance, and
Give up yourself merely to chance and hazard
From firm security.

(III. vii. 41-48)

It is this Roman logic which makes Enobarbus question the wisdom of staying with Antony (III. x. 35-37). In III. xiii. he coldly analyzes Antony's downfall (ll. 3-12, 29-37) and his logical condemnation of Antony's making “his will / Lord of his reason” (ll. 3-4) leads him to an internal debate:

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.

(III. xiii. 41-46)

Always before Enobarbus has, like Caesar, moved sturdily from evidence to conclusion. Here, when he is perplexed, there is a rhetorical change: his thought breaks and he sets up a balanced contrast. Feeling and reason conflict and Enobarbus' puzzlement is reflected in his sentence structure. Throughout this key scene Enobarbus' debate serves as counterpoint to Antony's vacillations (note how skilfully Enobarbus' speeches are inserted along the way) and at the end of the scene Enobarbus' decision is a cutting commentary on Antony's apparent revival:

Now he'll outstare the lightning. To be furious
Is to be frightened out of fear, and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart. When valor preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with: I will seek
Some way to leave him.

(ll. 195-201)

As he chooses the rational, “Roman” solution Enobarbus' speech reverts to its usual firm, logical progression, and it is in the same characteristic language that he recognizes his mistake (IV. vi.). In view of his final choice of feeling over reason it is worth noting that Enobarbus, like Cleopatra, thinks of death in terms of a ditch in which to die (IV. vi. 38; cf. V. ii. 57), refers to the “blessed moon,” and calls death upon himself in the “Egyptian” image of “poisonous damp” (IV. ix. 7, 13). In Enobarbus' fate we can see that Antony and Cleopatra cannot be judged merely by the standards of common sense and Roman logic.

As the end of the play approaches, the language of the protagonists firms and broadens. Antony's speech, heretofore in alternating balance between the Roman and Egyptian, becomes rich and poetic, intensely imaginative:

                                                                                                                        Off, pluck off:
The sevenfold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart. O, cleave, my sides!
Heart, once be stronger than thy continent,
Crack thy frail case! Apace, Eros, apace. …
I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra, and
Weep for my pardon. So it must be, for now
All length is torture: since the torch is out,
Lie down, and stray no farther. Now all labor
Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles
Itself with strength: seal then, and all is done.
Eros!—I come, my queen.—Eros!—Stay for me.
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunts be ours.—Come Eros, Eros!

(IV. xiv. 37-54)

Note here the repetitions—particularly of Eros; thus as Antony approaches his love-death he is continually calling on love—the grand imagery of Ajax and continent, and the image of light extinguished (cf. Cleopatra, IV. xv. 85). The language reflects Antony's new firmness and clarity of purpose; no longer is he torn and uncertain. During the period of the battles Antony seems belittled or mocked by grand or astronomical references (e.g., III. xiii. 91-93), but now with his new resolution “sun,” “world,” “star,” and “Jove” again seem natural comparisons for him. Cleopatra too begins to show a new firmness and purpose in her language. As she is increasingly committed to her relationship with Antony her rhythm smooths out and her verse lengthens. She gives full rein to a surging vitality which sweeps away the rhythmic stops and starts of her early speeches; her skittishness vanishes as her sense of commitment grows.

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call: I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. …
                                                                                                                        Husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

(V. ii. 279-89)

How different this is from the early Cleopatra:

Give me mine angle, we'll to th' river: there,
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny-finned 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!’

(II. v. 10-15)

As their deaths approach, the language of the protagonists rises to the sublime. If it did not do so, the end of the tragedy would be flat indeed, for Shakespeare seems to have gone out of his way to surround the conclusion with unglamorous circumstances. Antony bungles even his own suicide (IV. xiv. 103), and we must not forget that despite her grand resolution (IV. xv. 86-88—in Roman terms) Cleopatra does explore the possibility of coming to terms with Caesar. Her deceit is ludicrously exposed by Seleucus (V. ii. 148), and her quibbling with the Clown (l. 249) makes us wonder whether she is really still much the same person who earlier trifled with Mardian (I. v.). Nonetheless, tragic grandeur remains. It is almost wholly a function of the language, for these aged and dissipated lovers are ambiguous figures at best.

The grandiosity of the death scenes is a result of intense concentration of the “high” Egyptian imagery and the exalted frame of mind which it reflects.

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


                                                                                                              O, see, my women,
The crown o' th' earth doth melt. My lord!
O, withered 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.

(ll. 62-68)

Granville-Barker correctly calls this “little better than ecstatic nonsense,”28 but somehow it successfully conveys the higher part of the lovers' feelings. For all that their love has a tawdry side, in its highest part it is sublime and it carries them to heights undreamt of by Caesar, who is quite incapable of such feeling—or speeches. The sublimity of the love-deaths is emphasized by the dull flatness of the speech with which Caesar concludes the play.

                                                                                                                        Most probable
That so she died: for her physician tells me
She hath pursued conclusions infinite
Of easy ways to die. Take up her bed,
And bear her women from the monument.
She shall be buried by her Antony.
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral,
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.


Caesar enters thirty-three lines from the end; it is his place to assert his authority and provide some sort of epitaph. It takes him twenty-three lines to satisfy his interest in “the manner” of Cleopatra's death. One can scarcely help feeling that his perfunctory compliment to the famous pair reveals his utter incomprehension of their complexity and sublimity.29

I do not want to draw conclusions from all this, since only in a general way is this essay designed to prove anything beyond its specific observations. It is, indeed, doubly hard to substantiate generalizations convincingly in material of this sort because they must rest on cumulative impressions. So there is nothing definitive here. I have merely tried to point out what seem to me striking contrasts in characteristic language, rhythm, and rhetorical habit, hoping to contribute to an understanding of how character is embedded in language. I do believe that in these terms we can better understand how Shakespeare obtains his effects—and what these effects are meant to be. For language is an index to character and it offers a valuable way of checking our general impressions and letting us anchor them in the text of the play.

It should be plain that in Antony and Cleopatra language is not merely the vehicle of the action; rather, it parallels and reinforces the conflicts of the play, indicates what is going to happen and helps tell us why. We can, laboriously, define analytically the various sorts of contrasts which are present—in rhetoric, the logic of Caesar versus the ellipticity of Pompey; in sound, the vowels of Cleopatra against the consonants of Caesar; in imagery, the rich imaginativeness of Antony and Cleopatra versus the barrenness of Caesar—but the significance of such linguistic typology lies in its cumulative impact, an impact so subtly contrived in this play that the spectator is seldom conscious of the artistry which moves him.


  1. For example, Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1953); Hilda Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language (New York, 1962); Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947). More general studies are F. E. Halliday, The Poetry of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1954); and Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (New York, n.d.; orig. ed. 1936).

  2. Caroline Spurgeon long ago suggested that imagery could be used to trace the changes in Falstaff's character (Shakespeare's Imagery [Cambridge, Eng., 1965; orig. 1935], Appendix VII, pp. 377-80), and M. M. Morozov has demonstrated the consistency with which Shakespeare associated images with characters and the way in which shifts in “characteristic” imagery can reflect the development of a play (“The Individualization of Shakespeare's Characters Through Imagery,” Shakespeare Survey 2 [1949], pp. 83-106).

    When characters are satirized they are often set apart by their speech. For discussion of this technique see Arthur H. King, The Language of Satirized Characters in Poëtaster (Lund Studies in English X; Lund, 1941), and, more specifically, Leonard Prager, “The Language of Shakespeare's Low Characters: An Introductory Study,” Unpubl. Diss. (Yale, 1957). Here, however, I am concerned with a less obvious kind of linguistic individualization. I am well aware that we tend to read speeches in accordance with our conception of the characters to whom they belong (see the caveat of James Sutherland, “How the Characters Talk,” in Shakespeare's World, Sutherland and Hurstfield edd., [New York, 1964], p. 119); such a warning may serve to make us more critical of our impressions, but it should not rule out all attempts at this kind of investigation.

  3. “Antony and Cleopatra,” repr. in Shakespeare: The Tragedies, ed. Alfred Harbage (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964), p. 153.

  4. On the questionable reliability of such evidence see A. C. Partridge, Orthography in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama (London, 1964).

  5. In connection with “sound” it should be recollected that Shakespeare probably wrote each part with a specific actor's voice in mind for it.

  6. Clemen, p. 160.

  7. Spurgeon, pp. 349-54; Clemen, chap. 16; Katherine Vance Macmullan, “Death Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra,SQ, XIV (1963), 399-410; Sheila M. Smith, “‘This Great Solemnity’: A Study of the Presentation of Death in Antony and Cleopatra,ES, XLV (1964), 163-76.

  8. E.g., “fortunes proud” (II. v. 69); “vulgar fame” (III. xiii. 119); death's “pestilent scythe” (III. xiii. 194); “like a man of steel” (IV. iv. 33); “hacked targets … brazen din” (IV. viii. 31, 36); “tearing groan” (IV. xiv. 31).

  9. References are to the Pelican edition, ed. Maynard Mack (Baltimore, 1960).

  10. Lepidus. For characteristic and striking words and phrases of Lepidus, see the following passages: I. iv. 12-13, 82, 83. II. ii. 1, 2, 3, 13, 14, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 83, 98, 102, 170. II. iv. 1. II. vi. 29. II. vii. 24, 26, 27, 40, 47. III. ii. 65-66.

  11. Hence the ironic point of Agrippa's “noble Lepidus” (III. ii. 6).

  12. The latter case (III. ii. 65-66) is debatable, for the whole passage is fraught with problems; but the remark is plainly addressed to Antony, Octavia, or both, and the astronomical reference does fit the pattern associated with Antony.

  13. Pompey (characteristic words and phrases): II. i. 1, 2, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 33. II. vi. 10, 58. II. vii. 75, 76.

  14. Pompey apparently once speaks of himself in the terms of astronomical self-reference we associate with Antony's grandeur (“My powers are crescent,” II. i. 10), though he promptly undermines the effect by calling the threat he poses “petty” (l. 34), but on the evidence of the OED the astronomical connotation for “crescent” seems dubious at this date.

  15. Antony (characteristic words and phrases): I. i. 17, 33, 33-34, 35, 36. I. ii. 105, 112, 113, 124, 126, 181, 188, 190. I. iii. 48, 50, 68-69. II. ii. 63-64, 97. II. iii. 1, 6. II. vii. 17, 20, 22, 58-59, 99, 106, 107. III. ii. 48-50. III. iv. 8, 22, 24. III. vii. 20, 57. III. xi. 1-2, 13, 54, 57, 60. III. xiii. 20, 90, 95, 109, 113, 116, 117, 145, 147, 153, 154, 193. IV. ii. 6, 37, 44. IV. viii. 3, 12, 18, 38. IV. x. 3. IV. xii. 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 22, 23, 25, 30, 38, 45, 47. IV. xiv. 10, 11, 14, 36, 40-41, 46, 51, 56, 57-59, 100. IV. xv. 18, 41.

    Cleopatra (characteristic words and phrases): I. ii. 79. I. iii. 35, 37, 63, I. v. 23, 25, 27, 28, 30-31, 33, 37, 59, 73, 78. II. v. 2, 12, 13, 25, 34-35, 64, 78, 79, 80, 94, 95. III. iii. 20, 21, 45. III. vii. 15. III. xi. 55. III. xiii. 39, 55, 61, 159, 160, 162, 163, 165, 166. IV. viii. 17-18. IV. xv. 9, 10, 11, 25-26, 36, 62, 63, 68, 76, 77, 78, 85, 87, 89. V. ii. 7, 17, 51, 57, 58, 59, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 88-89, 91, 209-212, 220-21, 240, 241, 243, 279, 280, 288-89, 294, 302, 303, 304, 308.

  16. Thus Antony is called “plated Mars” (I. i. 4), “Herculean Roman” (I. iii. 84), “demi-Atlas” (I. v. 23), “a Mars” (II. v. 117), “a Jove” (IV. vi. 29), a “star” (IV. xiv. 106), and “crown o' th' earth” (IV. xv. 63), but he can also be called “a strumpet's fool” (I. i. 13), “a doting mallard” (III. x. 20), and “old ruffian” (IV. i. 4). Similarly Cleopatra, a “royal wench” (II. ii. 227) and “lass unparalleled” (V. ii. 315), is called “gypsy” (I. i. 10; IV. xii. 28), “Egyptian dish” (II. vi. 123), “ribaudred nag of Egypt,” “cow in June” (III. x. 10, 14), and “triple-turned whore” (IV. xii. 13). She herself understands the Roman point of view (I. ii. 79), and can refer to herself in the Roman food imagery as “a morsel for a monarch” (I. v. 31).

  17. Caesar (characteristic words and phrases): I. iv. 17, 21, 43, 46. II. ii. 115-16. II. vii. 98-99. III. ii. 29-31. III. vi. 44. IV. i. 4. V. i. 15, 16, 19, 39-40, 43. V. ii. 183, 346.

  18. Compare also the various uses of “dislimns,” “cannot hold … shape,” “dissolve,” and “melt.”

  19. Enobarbus (characteristic words and phrases): I. ii.11-12, 44, 145, 146, 147, 158-60, 161, 163, 165, 166. II. ii. 5-8, 110, 179, 183, 191-206, 207-219, 221, 225, 227, 238. II. vi. 73, 84, 86, 92, 104, 117-119, 123, 124. II. vii. 93, 104, 112-17. III. ii. 5, 20, 51, 59. III. v. 12-14, 13. III. vii. 7. III. x. 36, 36-37. III. xiii. 35, 63, 64, 199, 200. IV. ii. 24, 34, 35. IV. vi. 38. IV. ix. 7, 13, 17.

  20. Compare the similar way in which breeding imagery (often used by Antony and Cleopatra) is made ambiguous throughout the play. Idleness hatches ills (I. ii. 125-26); “breeding” may yield “a serpent's poison” (ll. 188-90); “mud” breeds the “crocodile” (II. vii. 24-27); Enobarbus objects to serving “with horse and mares together” (III. vii. 7); Cleopatra is called “a cow in June” (III. x. 14); yet Antony and Cleopatra swear, rather grandly (irresponsibly?) by “the fire that quickens Nilus' slime” (e.g., I. iii. 68-69). In this play the usual connotations of birth and fertility are sharply modified: ought this to influence our reaction to Cleopatra's final “baby at my breast” (V. ii. 308), usually taken as a symbol of fertile married love? In view of the irony already inherent in the statement, I think so.

  21. That III. iii. follows II. v. without a break in time seems proof that Shakespeare was deliberately trying to keep Cleopatra in the forefront of the mind of his audience.

  22. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (London, 1963; orig. 1931), p. 201.

  23. Knight, pp. 202-203. I do not agree with Knight's general conclusion that this lack of “sonority” contributes to a “tragedy … taken lightly, almost playfully,” though I feel that he is quite right when he notes that Othello, Lear, and Timon all have a deeper, richer note in their speech.

  24. “Music, music” (II. v. 1); “But yet … but yet … but yet” (ll. 50-52); “thou say'st … thou say'st” (56); “majesty … majesty” (III. iii. 20-21); “my lord … my lord” (III. xi. 54); “pardon … pardon, pardon” (61, 68); “Antony, Antony, Antony”; “help … help … help, help” (IV. xv. 11-13); “I dare not, dear; dear … I dare not” (21-22); “come, come” (29); “come, come, come” (37); “welcome, welcome” (38); “what, what” (83); “women, women” (84; again 90); “he words me … he words me” (V. ii. 191); “yare, yare good Iras; quick” (282); “peace, peace” (307).

  25. Antony's repetition as he justifies himself to Caesar (“not so, not so,” II. ii. 56) I take as essentially just deprecatory.

  26. “Be gone … be gone … be gone” (III. xi. 8, 10, 15); “pray you” (four times: 17, 22, 24); the numerous “I have” constructions; “no, no, no, no, no” (29); “fie, fie, fie” (31); “yes … yes” (35).

  27. M. M. Mahood suggests in her Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), pp. 166-67, that it is the role of involved observer which accounts for Enobarbus' frequent puns, which are certainly a noticeable characteristic of his speech (see particularly IV. ii. 8).

  28. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (2 vols; London, 1961; orig. 1930), I, 422.

  29. Caesar shows more feeling at the news of Antony's death (V.i.), perhaps because, as Maecenas says, “when such a spacious mirror's set before him, / He needs must see himself” (ll. 34-35). Caesar does see Antony's demise in earth-shaking terms (ll. 14-19), but his image of their conflict is of a pair of horses who “could not stall together / In the whole world” (ll. 39-40), and he interrupts his disquisition upon Antony to speak to a messenger (ll. 49-51).

Rosalie L. Colie (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Colie, Rosalie L. “Antony and Cleopatra: The Significance of Style.” In Shakespeare's Living Art, pp. 168-207. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Colie examines the play's use of Attic and Asiatic styles of speech, explaining that Atticism, the style preferred by Caesar, is characterized by plain, direct speech, while Asianism, which is more sensuous, self-indulgent, and imaginative, is the style used by both Cleopatra and Antony. Colie contends that in the Renaissance, these styles were studied not just as rhetorical effects, but as indicators of morality and cultural differences.]


Like earlier chapters, this one is concerned with a particular manifestation of Shakespeare's control over style and styles. By definition, Shakespeare was a very stylish writer indeed, conscious of the range of stylistic alternatives available to him, concerned to honor the particular decorums of style and to extend (even to subverting those official decorums) the possibilities of expressive style. We have looked at his analytic prodigality in Love's Labour's Lost, as well as his counterpointing of epigrammatic and sonnet styles in his Sonnets: we have seen both how closely style is tied up with topic, subject, and moral tone, and how far away from these it can pull. In Othello, the charged passages in sonnet-language owe their impact to Shakespeare's significant control over the resources of that “language,” his ability to make topos, epithet, and cliché resound with the generic meanings of a whole tradition of sonneteering. Antony and Cleopatra relies on that language too—a whole piece could be written on its unmetaphoring of standard love-conventions—but it is with another stylistic paradigm that I am concerned here. As in the sonnets, where Shakespeare exploited the ping and pong1 of two different short-form genres, in Antony and Cleopatra he transposed the ping and pong of another literary paradigm rejuvenated in the Renaissance; and once again, his penetrating literary eye, fixed on the implications of a stylistic cliché, reopened the whole question of appropriate style in tragedy.

This time, the paradigm so examined was an ancient antithesis brought into contemporary prominence in the argument over expository prose styles, that is, the polemic over the “Attic” and “Asiatic” styles which, as an offshoot of the polemic over strict Ciceronianism, preoccupied such men as Lipsius, Muret, Montaigne, Bacon, Browne, and even Robert Burton. In Antony and Cleopatra, I think, Shakespeare subjected to scrutiny the personal, psychological, and cultural meanings implicit in that polemic, dealing with the very stereotypes of moral life that had, long before when Greeks confronted Persians, given rise to the terms in the first place—and, typically, examined those styles in the lives of his hero and his heroine.2

Obviously, Shakespeare was skilled in constructing dramatic characters who speak in what seems “personal” styles—one thinks at once of such confrontations as that of Hal with Falstaff, or of Hotspur with Glendower; of Hamlet with Polonius, Hamlet with the Gravedigger; of Iago with Othello—or even of Iago with Cassio; of Kent with Cornwall, of Cordelia with her sisters, of Lear with his Fool. The list of such episodes, in which with the greatest economy so much is revealed about character, class, and motivation, is very long.

In Love's Labour's Lost, as we have seen, the playwright translated something else, the degrees of social hierarchy and occupation, into linguistic styles, managing therewith to mock the pretensions both of hierarchy and of occupations.

Underneath the nonsense with words in Love's Labour's Lost, a point of considerable importance is being made: that words' artifice does not reflect the real behavior of men and women. Well within the comic mode, the gaps are opened between res and verbum, between pathos and its expression, even between personality and life-style, and shown to be traps where individual preferences, drives, and even personalities can be lost. Language is played with, criticized, and praised, but all in terms of comedy—although the comedy in which these questions are raised rejects the standard comic solution. The play moves within, at, and beyond the limits of conventional language, nonetheless always celebrating the resources of the language it sometimes chastises. We are shown the predestination in language, and its flexibility as well, but no one is by these means predestined to suffer forever, as at the play's end languages are readjusted lightheartedly to fit the characters' new understanding of society and of themselves.

In other plays quite unlike Love's Labour's Lost, we hear language used in contexts where language itself is crucial:3 even in what used to be called “interpolations,” such as the Porter's speech in Macbeth, or the Gravedigger's exchange with Hamlet, we now hear thematic supports for central events and tendencies in the plays. Kent's linguistic disguises, manifestly “garments” the man chose to put on, nonetheless display an honesty which Cornwall, Oswald, and the wicked sisters, all speaking in their own persons, cannot call up. Lear's great speeches demonstrate, as Edgar said, “reason in madness”;4 Coriolanus' inarticulate utterances portray with great purity the struggle of polity with pride. In Julius Caesar (as to some extent in Coriolanus as well) critics have seen in the spare language the playwright's effort to match his style to his austere subject, to achieve a peculiarly “Roman” style.5 And in both plays, la questione della lingua, or at least dello stile, is written deeply into the plot: action turns on how men speak as well as what they say, appropriately enough, in plays about Roman political life.

The high point of Julius Caesar and its greatest set-piece is a rhetorical contest, in which two considerable orators compete for public favor in the matter of Caesar's death. Brutus was a stoic—except for Monteverdi's Seneca, the most attractive stoic ever staged—whose mode of speech is properly “plain.” He tries, as the stoic rhetoric urged, to represent “himself” in his words and his syntax.6 In the case at hand, such self-representation is of prime importance, since on the authority of Brutus' integrity the conspirators' justification can be said to rest. Although in the source Shakespeare used, Plutarch tells us a great deal about Mark Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral, he attempts no version of that speech itself—its invention was Shakespeare's own, who did not flinch from the task; and Brutus' speech is entirely Shakespeare's interpolation into the story. Brutus' reputation as an Atticist—thus, as a plain speaker and proponent of a rhetorical style designed to match the directness of the person using it—was well-known; so was Antony's predilection for Asianism, recorded so fully by Plutarch.7 By picking up hints from Plutarch and the rhetoric-books, Shakespeare could treat Brutus and Antony as the living exemplars of what might otherwise have been mere topoi: he could make them live the styles in which they chose to speak.

At the same time, he glanced at aspects of the current controversy over prose-style which reanimated an ancient polarity. Greeks had, naturally enough, characterized Persians and others to the east of Athens as “Asiatic,” meaning sensuous, sybaritic, self-indulgent, rich, materialist, decorated, soft. According to the paradigm, Asiatics lived a life of ease, delicacy, even of sloth, surrounded by ornate works of art and elaborate amusements for body and spirit. Gradually, the moral disapproval leveled at their eastern neighbors came to be applied to a style of oratory conceived as “like” Persian life, a style formally complex, ornate, decorated, and elaborate. Naturally, a simple, direct, relatively plain style was “Attic.”8 Needless to say, what was Attic and what was Asiatic varied considerably according to context, period, and generation: a given style can always be seen as plainer or more ornate than some other, and what was Attic to one generation sometimes seemed Asiatic to the next. In Rome, the debate recurred, centered on Cicero's style or styles, which to one generation (Cicero's own) appeared clear, intelligible, and direct, matching style to matter—and thus Attic; but to the next generation, which sought to reform it, elaborate, overly-wrought, untruthfully formal—thus artificial and Asiatic.9 In late humanism, the terms of the debate were revived, this time appropriately over “Ciceronianism,” the formally correct style established by precedents in Cicero's works, that instrument by which humanists sought to purify their Latin of scholastic barbarisms. Morris Croll and others10 have presented valuable analyses and hypotheses of this prose-agon of the late Renaissance, and upon their writings I lean with gratitude. Not all Croll's normative statements are acceptable now without qualification. Even his hypothesis has borne considerable rethinking; but his paradigm of Attic and Asiatic is of immense use, and illuminates much not only about prose-styles but also about the range of poetic styles in that highly rhetorical period, when writers, trained from boyhood on rhetorical exercises, practised with immense control their vernacular skills. What the notions of “Attic” and “Asiatic” do for us, then, is to provide us with a ping and pong, a range of comparison, for Renaissance styles.11 By comparing one passage with another, one style with another, we can get some sense of what seemed “plain” and what “ornate” to contemporary readers interested in such matters.

The decisive oratorical contest in Julius Caesar is a case in point: we know that Shakespeare recognized in the two orators representatives of the two styles. In the competition between Brutus and Mark Antony for the people's approbation, the playwright used styles as marks of characterization for both personality and motive. The obvious difference between Brutus' style and Antony's points directly to the differences in their characters. In the play, Brutus speaks first, in prose, a device designed to show his relative directness and sincerity. If we examine that plain prose of his, though, we see it not simply as an expression of his naked personality (such as Attic theorists advocated for their style), for from his style we can read how sophisticated Brutus was, how studied in the rhetoric of the schools:

Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge.

It sounds straight: it is too often circular.

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears, for his love; joy, for his fortune; honour, for his valour; and death, for his ambition. Who is here so base, that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude, that would not be a Roman? Who is here so vile, that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended.

(III.ii.13-17, 25-34)

Syntactical regularity of this sort is not accidental; Brutus was an orator, who knew his craft: his particular job this time was to demonstrate in his speech, and thus in his person, that his motives in a complicated situation were above reproach. The speech certainly exploits directness—“I slew him” is an admirably uncompromising statement of responsibility assumed. All the same, that frankness is elaborated in beautiful polysyndeta, zeugma, and parison, all going to show that even the plain-speaking Brutus knew in his bones how to make speeches and had, long before Julius Caesar's death, submitted his natural, unretouched personality to the finish of the rhetorical schools.

Brutus was an honorable man: when Mark Antony enters the Forum with Caesar's body, Brutus leaves the platform to him, enjoining the crowd to listen to whatever Antony has to say. What that was, is too well-known to warrant quotation: Mark Antony wins over the people in a long oration several times broken by applause and by the speaker's own display of emotion. In Antony's words, “I am no orator, as Brutus is, / But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man” (III.ii.219-20), an Attic appeal apparently entirely untutored, we can read truth and trickery. Antony was, as he said, no orator—officially; but he had studied the rhetorical arts in Athens, where he had been drawn to Asianism, as Plutarch tells us. What he displays is a style more intimate, more moving—and far more demagogic than Brutus'. Of course, by his false modesty, Antony means to imply that he has no skill in rhetoric and that his speech, therefore, cannot be expected to move the crowd, which had no need to be on guard against his wiles. In that implication, of course, Antony lies.

Shakespeare's confronting of these two styles is highly complex: he does not rely on a simplistic or moralistic paradigm, that “simple” is honest (“kersey noes”) and “fancy” deceitful—but manages rather to show the limitations in the characters of both men, at once displayed and concealed by the styles they use. In the simplest ways, the two speeches are set in opposition: Brutus speaks prose, Antony verse. Since verse is by definition more decorated than prose, to that extent Antony's is the more decorated speech. Brutus' speech, though, is syntactically more formal by far—in other words, more structured, more Ciceronian—and has a firm structural consistency which Antony's by design lacks. Antony's flexible oration shifts from the formality of its beginning—“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”; “If it were so, it was a grievous fault, / And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it”—to an astonishing frankness and intimacy at its end:

Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable.
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it. …
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.

(III.ii.211-16; 223-25)

In this artful and insidious speech, the grammatical members are plain but varied, more “naturally” disposed than those in the oration of the stoical Brutus. In one sense, signalized by shifting syntax and broken tone, Antony's language is “plainer,” answers more honestly to his mood, and is thus more “Attic” than Brutus'. Brutus' syntax is elaborate, carefully-constructed, balanced, but his tone is consistent and direct and his whole oration markedly economical. Antony's tone fluctuates and shifts as the refrain “And Brutus is an honourable man” measures its altering direction. Again and again that refrain returns us to the tonic, showing Antony's remarkable way with words—and with his words, his way with his hearers' emotions. In sum, in their oratory we can hear the differences between the two men: Brutus' innocence shines out compared with Antony's guile; Brutus' self-deception is plain beside Antony's manifest scheming.

Mark Antony had indeed “studied eloquence”: his rhetoric is active, emotional, moving, and ultimately victorious over the relatively more neutral, more correct rhetoric of his opponent. The tricks of irony and sensationalism in Antony's repertory win over the fickle, casual populace, with important political results. But we must realize how political both men are, how they both use forensic oratory as a political weapon. Brutus seeking to damp down, Antony to stoke, the potential fires of popular wrath, both men address themselves in entirely different styles to their different tasks. Underneath Brutus' sincerity, we are aware of how consciously he plays upon that sincerity; in Antony's speech, we come to realize equally the man's love for Caesar and the artfulness of his own political intent.

Mark Antony's style, too, fits his character as given in the play. He makes no high pretensions to virtue; we see him temporizing with the conspirators after the murder, and we are early told that for all his talents Mark Antony is a dissolute young man. From his speech we sense his political acumen and, perhaps, his ambition—and the fluidity of his temperament as well: no one attending to his rhetoric alone would judge his personal rectitude to be higher than Brutus'. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare dealt in the problems of politics, as of character and motive; nothing is simple here—not even the rhetoric officially designated as “plain.” Caesar was and was not a tyrant; Brutus was a good man seduced with lamentable ease; Antony a clever and expedient man, at the same time more loyal than would conventionally be supposed from his casual behavior and his slippery rhetoric. In the play's stylistic paragone, all this is implicit: Brutus' honesty and self-deception, Antony's loyalty and his political skills, the cloudy ethics of the whole matter, the deep chasm separating the self-centered patricians from the unstable populace on whose favor their authority so peculiarly rested. Among so much that he has done, Shakespeare has here examined not only the motives of political men engaged by enormous power, but the problematics of public utterance as well, by means of which such motives were traditionally displayed—and concealed.


In Antony and Cleopatra, the problem of style, although equally telling, is set entirely differently. Oratory and public speaking are not at issue in this play, are not the plot-elements they are in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Nor is style displayed at the outer surface of the play, as in Love's Labour's Lost styles are animated into personality. Nonetheless, its peculiar language is a major force in the play, as critics from Dr. Johnson to Maurice Charney have pointed out; in comparison to the plainer speech of the other Roman plays, the verbal richness of Antony and Cleopatra demands attention not only for its spectacular imagery but also as a function of the play's subject. As in Julius Caesar, where the economical style seems properly mated to its severe subject, so in Antony and Cleopatra the abundance of the language seems to match the richness of its subject, the fertility of the Egyptian setting, the emotional largesse of hero and heroine. The play's language bursts with energy and vigor; figures abound; of figures, as Charney so cleverly shows,12 hyperbole is particularly common, that overreacher of the figures of speech. Indeed, the figures are so numerous and so rich that at times they seem almost to crowd out other meanings, to stop the action and the plot, to force attention to their resonances alone. Enobarbus' speech on Cleopatra is one example, the most famous of the play's set-pieces; Cleopatra's memories of the absent Antony, her paean to Dolabella, Antony's evaluations of his own emotional and worldly situations raise speech above the movement of plot.

Magniloquence fascinates both hearers and speakers. Antony's “normal” decisions to undertake his Roman responsibilities as triumvir and husband vanish in the hue and cry raised by his emotions and expressed immediately in the language he uses. More markedly, Enobarbus' famous detachment gives way before his recognition of Cleopatra's sources of power. In his great comment on her qualities his magniloquence rolls out to contrast with the plainness and irony of his previous speeches about her. In that speech, Enobarbus abandons himself to Cleopatra, and thereby gives himself away: from his response to her, apparently so out of character, we feel the force of her enchantment. Indeed, Enobarbus' giving way to grandiloquence seems an almost sexual abandon before her; the cynical and experienced Roman soldier, suspicious of Egypt and its ways, cannot and will not contain his climactic praise of the Queen.

Though the language seems at times to crowd out action and judgment, it does not crowd out meaning, for much of the meaning of this play, as one critic has argued, resides in the characters' attitudes to the language they use.13 The stated, plotted action of the play is in itself grand enough to require no rival in language: the range of the play is epic, over the whole Mediterranean world which was, in the Roman context, the whole world altogether. Action and scene oscillate14 between the poles of Rome and Egypt. From the beginning, in Philo's first speech, Rome and Egypt are set off against one another, in the shapes of Caesar and Octavia on the one side, Cleopatra on the other. The two locales, with their properly representative dramatis personae, seem to struggle for domination over Mark Antony's spirit and will. Like his great ancestor, the god Hercules, Antony stood at the crossroads of duty and sensuality, of self-denial and self-indulgence. Rome is duty, obligation, austerity, politics, warfare, and honor: Rome is public life. Egypt is comfort, pleasure, softness, seduction, sensuousness (if not sensuality also), variety, and sport: Egypt promises her children rich, languorous pleasures and satisfactions. Rome is business, Egypt is foison; Rome is warfare, Egypt is love. Egypt is “the East,” where the beds are soft—and what “beds” can mean is never scanted in this play. To keep us aware of Cleopatra's power, the Romans, in their own eyes contemptuous of her life, show themselves as fascinated by Cleopatra's reputation as a bedfellow as Antony is by the actuality. Egypt is florid, decorated, deceitful, artful, opulent, sensual, idle; is “inflatus,” “solutus,” “tumens,” “superfluens,” “redundans,” “enervis,” “inanus.”15 I took this list of Latin adjectives from various critiques, not of the fleshpots of Egypt, but of the Asiatic style; these epithets can, within the frame of this play, be transferred to the loose, ungrit life in Alexandria, the life to which, according to the source, Antony was inclined by temperament and which, in the end, he chooses as his own.

The question at issue is another dimension of style from those already discussed: not style as garment, or as chosen rhetoric or self-presentation, not style as manipulative instrument, but style as fundamental morality, style as life. Style of speech necessarily reveals personality, values, and ethics: one recognizes both the rectitude and the chilliness of Octavia, the silliness of Lepidus, the policy of Dolabella, from the way they speak as well as from what they say. In the speeches of Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius, Enobarbus, we recognize not just the varying moods of the speakers but their complex inner natures as well. How otherwise, indeed, could we ever assume anything about dramatic characters? Language must act to indicate quality and character, but here it does more: by reaching to the heart of the moral problems faced by Antony and Cleopatra, the language of their play makes us realize anew the ingrained connection between speech and style of life. The “square” of Roman speech and Roman life has its values, which we recognize the more easily as we see those values betrayed by Romans;16 the “foison” of Egypt, both its fertility and its corruption, find expression in the agon. If one felt that the play were only an essay in style as life-style, then one might draw back from it as superficial and trivial; but Antony and Cleopatra seems to be more than a presentation-play of theatrical and unpersoned types, more also than the psychomachia to which it is occasionally reduced.17 One thing that makes the play so compelling is that it is all these things—show, morality, exercise of power; it is a study in cheapness as well as in extravagance and costliness. Its chief characters are undisguisedly selfish and often trivial; in what lies its force? The language is one indicator, again, for the very style, with its grandioseness and hyperbolical explosions, finally points to the real problem: the efforts of two powerful, wilful, commanding personalities to bring their styles of living, their ingrained alien habits, into line with one another, for no reason other than love.

In a sense quite different from that of the morality-play, Antony and Cleopatra is about morality, about mores and ways of life—not by any means just about sexual morality, although problems of sexuality are not ignored—but about lives lived in moral terms. “Style” is—especially in the Attic-Asiatic polarity—a moral indicator, but here displayed as deeply thrust into the psychological and cultural roots of those ways of life. In this play, a given style is never merely an alternative way of expressing something: rather, styles arise from cultural sources beyond a character's choice or control.18

At the beginning of the play, this does not seem to be the case: Antony doffs and dons Egyptian and Roman styles, of speech and of life, apparently at will and at need. By the play's end, he has settled for a manner of speech and behavior proved by his decisive final actions to be the signature of his inmost nature. That is to say, his style can be seen not only to express his deepest sense of self, but also to relate to the consequences of his life-choices.19 It is possible—indeed, it was the classical view, which Plutarch tried hard to present—to see Mark Antony's life as ruined by Cleopatra, to see the play, then, as a struggle between virtus and voluptas20 in which Antony fails to live up to his ancestor Hercules' example in bivio. But as Plutarch takes pains to tell us, and as Shakespeare in Julius Caesar lets us know clearly enough, there was much in Antony's temperament, bred though it was in Rome, to explain why the pull of Egypt was so strong upon him, and from Enobarbus we know how strong that pull was on anyone. Though there is a structural and thematic contrast in the play between Rome and Egypt, the scenes alternating to give us that strong sense of oscillation between these poles, the play is not so simple as a straight contest between their different values.

Seen from one perspective, Rome dominates the play: Rome's wide arch covers the epic scene, Roman policy decides the order of events and the order therefore of these important private lives. The play begins and ends with expressions of the Roman point of view; by Roman standards, Antony perishes for his failure as a Roman. But seen from another angle, Egypt commands the play, where the action begins and ends and where all the major episodes take place. In this respect, the oscillation between the two localities makes it difficult to identify a single and certain source of power. Further, the two areas are not really kept polar: Rome and Egypt interpenetrate each other, just as past history continually penetrates the play's present. Rome's impact on Egypt has helped make Cleopatra what she is; and Antony's Roman-ness flaws his pleasure in Egypt, even as his Egyptian experience dulls his Roman arrangements. Together and apart, Antony and Cleopatra recall their own and each other's past; Octavius speaks of Antony's and his shared past; Pompey takes the action he does because of events long over before the play begins. We see Antony unwillingly come to accept the fact that his present has been shaped by his past behavior, or that his “Rome” can never be an unqualified value again. Cleopatra dies as a Roman, or so she thinks—but does so in a décor undeniably Egyptian, and by a means particularly local. Her attributes, the iconographical details she chooses for her last tableau, are entirely Egyptian, but her suicide is itself the final Roman gesture consciously chosen.

Nor is the mixture of Rome and Egypt in her accidental: deep in her experience lay the same Julius Caesar who had such a marked effect on both Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar. Before the play's beginning, Cleopatra and her Egypt had been Romanized; by its end, she is once more Romanized, and her Egypt has finally fallen to Roman rule. Indeed, throughout the play, Egypt is constantly open to Rome: Cleopatra's relation to Julius Caesar, to Pompey, to Antony, even her efforts to charm Octavius, are symbolic of her country's dependency upon Rome's dominion. The presence at her court (a court “hers” only by the conqueror's grace) of so many Romans, full of what she calls with distaste “Roman thoughts,” assures that the force of Rome upon Egypt is never unfelt, even at the height of Egyptian wassail.

However he may think of himself, Antony is a Roman soldier; Roman soldiers are always with him, even at the moment of his death. When he is away from Egypt, Roman messengers bring Cleopatra news of him and of affairs in Rome. He himself was sent to Egypt as a political administrator; he is succeeded at the play's end by Caesar himself, the last of a series of Romans proclaiming the dominion of the empire, Thidias, Dolabella, Proculeius. People die à la romaine: Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras. Antony is borne to die his long-drawn-out death after the high Roman fashion; Cleopatra promises a like death, in which she shall be “marble constant” at the end of a life lived, publicly and privately, in significantly “infinite variety.” There is no altering Roman historical destiny, however captivating Egypt and the Egyptian way of life may be.

As the play begins, we are instructed to take Roman virtues for granted as the measure from which Antony has fallen off, but as it develops, we are shown more and more to criticize in Rome.21 No one could be sillier than Lepidus, one of the triple pillars of the world, grosser and more clownish than any Egyptian; nor more opportunistic than Menas, whose master regrets only that Menas forced him to veto his schemes. Octavius calculates ever; Pompey seeks his own ambitious ends; Octavius' relation to Roman polity is hardly self-subordinating. Further and most important, when he is “Roman,” Antony is at his least attractive—in his relations to his Roman wives, Fulvia and Octavia, both dismissed in his mind's economy as terms of political function. As the play advances, the notion of Rome becomes more and more tarnished, particularly in the great orgy-scene in which even Octavius' tongue “splits what it speaks,” and Lepidus is carried drunk to bed (a scene unmatched in the play by the “sensual” Egyptians so constantly criticized by these same Roman tongues). In that scene, the grossness of Rome is unequivocally displayed in the unbending ambitions of Caesar, the jealousy of the triumvirs, the thinness of Pompey's honor, Menas' crude hankering after power, the heroes' dancing to their roundsong. Into such hands the world has been delivered. Of course “Egypt” offers no moral improvement over this—Cleopatra lies from first to last, to others and to herself. We are never in doubt of her duplicity, but its naturalness comes to seem worthy in comparison to the slyness of Octavius and of the “trustworthy” Proculeius. Cleopatra's is a consistent and therefore honest duplicity: her policy is innocence itself compared to the masterful and automatic deceptions of the politic Octavius. More: life in its natural spontaneity is set against machination, as Cleopatra faces Octavius symbolically and in fact. Against such an opposition, all the more obviously can Cleopatra be seen to satisfy a universal human need: though she makes hungry where most she satisfies, both hunger and satisfaction are natural enough. The Roman hunger for power can never be filled; in it there is always something barren, inhuman, and perverse—but Cleopatra can allay, even as she rekindles, one Roman's hunger for the satisfactions of love.


The question at issue is not so much the value of Rome set against the value of Egypt, clear as these are, as it is the private relation between Antony and Cleopatra, a relation always colored by their different backgrounds and local loyalties. Normally speaking, it is not considered admirable, nor even sensible, for a man of public position to jeopardize his career for a woman. When the man is Antony, well-married in Rome and well-supplied elsewhere, and the woman Cleopatra, full of experience and of years, it is easy enough to see the matter with Roman eyes as a dissolute business between middle-aged sensualists having a last fling while they can, sinking into sloth and indolence and letting the affairs of empire go hang. Further, there is opportunism even in this love affair—that Cleopatra's political position was immensely strengthened by Antony's presence in Egypt, Caesar's sharp observations make plain. The suspicion certainly exists that she loves Antony for what he can do for her as well as for what he is to her.

The play begins with a Roman inductor, who takes the worst for granted. Philo (what a name for him!) evaluates the major characters according to accepted Roman standards; his critical speech breaks off as Antony and Cleopatra enter to act out what he has just, so degradingly, described as their typical behavior:

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.
                                                                                          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.


The hero and heroine then enter, to act out their tableau of mutual absorption. They behave with freedom towards each other—perhaps with abandon, indeed—but not as strumpet and fool. Their language, that of lovers bent on ideal expression, is thus quite counter to Philo's assessment of them:

If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
There's beggary in 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.


The inflation of their language may strike us, but hardly as exceptional in any pair of lovers mutually absorbed. Rather, theirs is the common rhetoric of love, unspecified and generalized, seeking to express inexpressible heights and depths of feeling. Cosmic analogies are habitually called up by lovers less involved than these in the “real” world; the fact that Antony and Cleopatra are so deeply involved in the factual political world lends poignancy, irony, and a kind of accuracy to their occupational hyperbole. The “new heaven, new earth” of their love, created by them for themselves alone, must substitute for the real geography around them, the Mediterranean world over which their influence and the play's action range. Symbolic geography is invoked, with its real referents: Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Sicily, Sardinia, Parthia, Judea, Media, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, Cyprus, Lydia, Cilicia, Phoenicia, Libya, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Thrace, Arabia, Pontus all testify to the reach of Rome, whose “universal peace,” proclaimed by Caesar, was endangered by Antony's withdrawal from the world-scene in wilful, careless, selfish pursuit of private satisfactions.

All this real world, then, was insufficient for these two—but more important than that, it was also too much for them. To keep their love safe, they must shut out the actual world in hopes of finding a new space for themselves small enough22 to exclude occupations other than love, large enough to contain their exalted imaginations. In this play, the common literary metaphor of lovers' giving up the world for love is taken as the literal donnée: meaning pours back to give substance to the cliché, as the play teaches something of the human cost involved in neglecting the serious public world, the glories and woes of war and administration, for love of one woman.

Antony and Cleopatra speak “excessively” from the beginning, in an idiom familiar enough in love-poetry.23 But it is worth noting that they are not alone in this habit of overstatement: Philo's initial speech is wholly cast in terms of excess. He degrades the amorous exploits of his commander with Egypt's queen, certainly: his account of that commander's military accomplishments is as excessive as his contumelious commentary on Antony's amatory achievements. Antony's eyes in war “glow'd like plated Mars”; “his captain's heart … burst the buckles on his breast.” Caesar's speech too follows the pattern of overstatement: he makes the same kind of contrast of Antony's “lascivious wassails” and “tumblings on the bed of Ptolemy” to his astonishing endurance at Modena and on the Alps (I.iv.55-71). Whatever Antony does, it seems, “o'erflows the measure”—but the Romans can recognize excess only in Antony's un-Roman acts: the heroic rest is, to them, natural in a Roman. Excess, then, is culturally conditioned: men recognize as excessive only what they regard as “too much,” so that Romans who valued military extravagance as much as Cleopatra valued extravagant pleasures could find in her Antony much to praise. When Octavius denounces Antony's self-indulgence, he calls him “A man who is the abstract of all faults / That all men follow.” Who could be more than this, an epitome of ill? Taking exception to Octavius' statement, Lepidus casts his comments in terms equally hyperbolical:

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


What are we to make of Antony, then? What are we to make of his present love-experience, judged by Philo as tawdry and low, judged by the lovers as quite past the reach of expression? In fact, what do Antony and Cleopatra do? We are told (by Romans) how they pass their time, in behavior characterized as “Asiatic” in the extreme. Egypt is, certainly, “the East,” regularly so designated in the play. As queen, Cleopatra is often addressed by her country's name; when she dies, she is called “the eastern star,” that is, the planet Venus. What Antony and Cleopatra do, evidently, is live by the attributes of the Asiatic style; they act out, they and the Romans tell us, a life-style gaudy, loose, ungirt, decorated, artful, contrived, and deceitful. The Egyptian court is an idle, opulent, sensual, Asiatic place, where men are effeminate and women bold. Mardian the eunuch exists to remind us of what can happen to a man in such an environment, and we see Antony unmanned in various symbolic ways. Normal decorum is constantly breached by this general, this queen. Drunk, Antony will not hear his messages from Rome; playing with Cleopatra, he relinquishes his armor to her and dresses in her “tires and mantles.” She takes his sword away, and though she returns it before their battle, she disarms him entirely in the midst of a real battle, by more critical means. Publicly she ignores him, however preoccupied with him privately. Nor is she manly, for all the dressing in armor and proclaiming herself a man's equal before the last battle. At Actium she flees out of fear, and retires in the last pitch as well: when Antony is dying before her eyes, she will not emerge from her monument, nor even open its doors that he may easily be brought in to her—because, she says, she is afraid.

In Egypt men feast and sleep. “The beds in the East are soft” in many ways. Both defeat and victory are celebrated in Egypt by one other gaudy night, and Caesar seems to acknowledge this Egyptian need for self-indulgence when, to reassure the captive Cleopatra, he urges her to “Feed and sleep.” Though the meanings of “sleep” deepen radically by the end of the play, at the beginning and for the most part, “sleep” is a sign of Egyptian indolence and womanishness. Festivities are unmanly too; Caesar says of his great competitor:

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


His last comment may indicate Caesar's limitations as a judge of human character, but it also sums up the Roman attitude to Egypt, a place merely of “lascivious wassails.” The way most Romans think of Cleopatra, it is no wonder that she shrinks, at the end, from being carried through Rome to see “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore.” She knows how she is named in Rome, because in his rage Antony tells her:

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.


Again and again, “appetite” is a word used to cover all satisfactions. Feasting and love (or, better, sex) are equated, as in the passage just quoted. Cleopatra is often reduced to food—by Enobarbus, speaking of Antony, “He will to his Egyptian dish again”; by herself, in her youth “a morsel for a monarch,” although those were, as she says, her “salad days,” when she was both greener and colder than she later became.24 Pompey speaks man-to-man to Antony of “your fine Egyptian cookery” (II.vii.63-65) and, later, of the “cloyless sauce” that Egypt proves for Antony.

Unquestionably the preoccupation with sex and with the shared sexuality of Antony and Cleopatra runs as an undercurrent through the play. The difference between Egyptian and Roman talk of sex is instructive: Charmian and the Soothsayer, Cleopatra and the Eunuch, speak playfully and naturally; Enobarbus speaks cynically to and about Antony, on “death,” on horses and mares; and the other Romans show their prurience and crudity when they speak, as they compulsively do, about the subject. The imagery too carries its sexual meanings: Cleopatra's “sweating labour” joins with the imagery of bearing and of weight to remind us of the woman's part in the act of love. This language in turn conjoins with the marvelous and varied horse-imagery25 which reaches its peak as she imagines the absent Antony on horseback: “O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!” Such language assumes sexuality to be a normal part of life; the Nile-imagery, with its “quickenings” and “foison” references, suggests procreation and creation as part of a natural cycle. Nature provides reproductive images for sexuality, and war another sort. The constant reference to swords, in fact as in image, keeps manliness ever at the forefront of our awareness, as it is at the forefront of the dramatic characters' awareness, too.26

There is more than the suggestion, then, that love is no more than appetite or a drive; if that were all there was to love, the Roman view of this affair would be correct, Cleopatra simply a whore and Antony besotted, “ne'er lust-wearied.” But can a man remain “ne'er lust-wearied” by the same woman, however infinite her variety, if she is merely a whore, however aristocratic her birth?27 Enobarbus, in so many ways faithful to Antony and Cleopatra in spite of his disapproval of their behavior, sees something more in her and tries to say what that “more” is. Once again, significantly, he speaks in terms of food—“Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry, / Where most she satisfies.” 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.

This miracle of love (or whatever it is) we do not see acted out onstage. Indeed, we never see Antony and Cleopatra alone, as we do Romeo and Juliet, Desdemona and Othello. What we see is something quite different: a man and a woman playing, quarreling, making up; a woman sulking, pretending to anger, flying into real rages, running away from danger, flirting even in deep disgrace and danger. Except on Roman tongues, there is little that can be called shameless or lascivious in Cleopatra's or Antony's utterances about love: her language on this preoccupying subject is remarkably clean—which is not the case with Roman commentators on these spectacular lovers.

To make so commonplace, so vulgar a mixture into a woman worth losing the world for is a considerable task for any playwright. Our playwright accomplishes it by fairly simple, even domestic, means. His Cleopatra has, among other things, a girlish, hoydenish companionability. She is obviously amusing company; she will try anything once. She has a lovely imagination and considerable command of language. She tries to rise to occasions, and sometimes she does. We hear much of Cleopatra's whoredom, and we see Antony blundering after her, twice fatally; we hear him speak of the less pleasant side of his love, of the “Egyptian fetters” which tie him in Alexandria, of his “dotage,” and later, when he misses her in Rome, of his “pleasure” with Cleopatra. There is every reason to think very little of Cleopatra—although, to balance her crudities (as when she had a salt-fish attached to Antony's line), we are made to see that even in her breaches of decorum, her riggishness, her foolish middle age, she is delightful. She is earthy, and down-to-earth;28 her sudden accessions of realism puncture both the romanticizing of the lovers and Antony's simplistic view of love and Cleopatra as satisfaction to his appetite. This woman is something more:

Sir, you and I must part …
Sir, you and I have lov'd. …


In praising Antony, I have disprais'd Caesar …
I am paid for't now.


Think you there was, or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?


Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.


When her ironical common sense pierces her own theatricals, her charm is irresistible: though she rarely acts on that knowledge, we see that at moments she knows herself and the precarious, politicking world she lives in. It is this side of her, the practical, real woman, that is picked up in Charmian's farewell epithet: to “a lass unparallel'd.” Age, apparently, could not wither her, nor a rakish life, nor child-bearing.

But in her first parting from Antony, as in her exchange with Dolabella after Antony's death and just before her own, Cleopatra's common sense rises to something greater:

Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have lov'd, but there's not it. …

The facts are clear enough—but they do not provide Cleopatra with an explanation for the pressure of her feelings, that this love for Antony is unduly significant, that parting from him must radically diminish her. Her sentence loses its direction as she seeks to express the “more” of her feeling for him:

That you know well, something it is I would,—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten!


As she later says, she wants to sleep out “the great gap of time” that Antony is away from her; in his absence, even by herself, she is, imaginatively, “forgotten” and therefore does not exist. Both Antony and Cleopatra speak feelingly and movingly about their sense of identity lost. Part of their tragedy lies in Antony's feeling himself dissolve when he is with her, and Cleopatra's feeling her “nothingness” when he is not with her.

Cleopatra makes clear that her love for Antony is fully sexual; but, as has been noted,29 this emphasis comes in reverie, not in lascivious action or exchange. What is significant, surely, is that in a life given to sexual conquest and enjoyment, her relation to Antony means more to her than anything else. It is not that Cleopatra does not want to be reminded of her old connection with Caesar; it is that she knows its qualitative difference from the connection with Antony. Certainly Cleopatra does not shirk the facts of her sexual past; however giddy and irresponsible her behavior with Antony, though, she knows that for him, she has quit being a rake. For her, sexuality is never just the “pleasure” that Antony implies early in the play it is for him. It has (at last, one has the impression) risen above itself to become love of a sort that defies definition in psychological ways, not just in “literary” ways.30 Indeed, in literary ways, the lovers' extreme preoccupation with one another is almost too resonant to the conventional language of love: as in Othello, but in an entirely different context, the petrarchan mixture of love and war has here been actualized in the necessary conditions, unmetaphored into actuality, of everday life for this general and this queen. But the love-poet's transcendent aim is the same as theirs: how to express the indefinable love they share, a love that to unsympathetic onlookers seems ordinary enough, vulgar enough, but to the lover experiencing it inexpressibly glorious and valuable. Their language is pitched at the familiar literary goal, to make the “new heaven, new earth” of lovers' cliché into a universe for their exclusive dwelling. Their folie à deux is in part a matter of language, manipulated to record heightened experience and to displace both conventional and particular renditions of their experience by others.

Cleopatra's imagination particularly works at this task: if sex is the reality and imagination the fantasy of love, then the two fuse in Cleopatra's speech in Antony's absence from her, when she imagines him as he at that very moment actually is:

                                                  Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? or is he on his horse?


Her sexual memories crowd into the single line, “O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!” Her images of weight, realistic enough in any woman's experience of love, come to their culmination in the terrible scene of Antony's death, as she draws him into her monument:

                                                  How heavy weighs my lord!
Our strength is all gone into heaviness,
That makes the weight.


The reality is there, although not displayed to us, of the children she has borne him; “the lap of Egypt's widow,” as Pompey so rudely said, has actually held Antony and known what it was to do so. Finally, to her “demi-Atlas” she attributes more weight than any man can carry; she turns her love into an even more colossal personage than the world will recognize or can, in the person of Dolabella, accept.


In this habit of stretching expression, of trying to say more than words or figures habitually allow, lies some clue to the effect on each other of these lovers. They make each other feel that age is no bar to living fully; they make each other feel, not still alive, but more than usually alive, a feeling, however illusory, which can exercise curious power over a man and a woman more than commonly experienced. The connection between them, obviously, is quite different from other experiences they have had; Cleopatra knows this from the beginning of the play, and we witness Antony coming to know it too.31 It is precisely his marriage to Octavia, with all its chilly merits, that teaches him what Cleopatra is to him. In their view of each other, Antony and Cleopatra are more than lifesize. So Cleopatra speaks truth in her great speech of hyperbole about Antony:

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 liv'd in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets: realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.


Antony has then finally turned into that “new heaven, new earth” he had told Cleopatra in the first scene she must find as the appropriate bound of their love. Microcosm and macrocosm change places: the earth is smaller than this man, as the common cosmic metaphor expands into all space and more-than-time in the images of ever-ripe autumn and a creature, the dolphin, transcending his natural element.32 Correspondence imagery involving worlds in different scales—the cosmos, however thought of; macrocosm and microcosm; stars and eyes—is so common in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry as to be mere cliché, and certainly at one level, all Cleopatra is doing in this magnificent speech is making more extravagant a notion already hyperbolical at its base. But in this particular case of lovers, the standard hyperbole has its peculiar reality to “match” this particular psychological and political situation. In the imagery, the larger world has been contracted into the limits of Antony's body (normally a microcosm), and Antony's body in turn enlarged encompasses and surpasses the macrocosm to which originally it had been likened. In fact, this is what happened to these lovers: “the world,” in this case half or a third of the civilized world which was under their control, was rejected in favor of the “little world,” quite literally, of man. “Bodies” are very important in the play, and although Antony and Cleopatra speak with remarkable delicacy about each other's bodies and their own bodily sensations in love, this speech gives the literary justification for that physical love. Hyperbolic metaphor that it is, this speech at the same time unmetaphors its literary content by making plain the crucial importance to these lovers of their finite, particular, well-worn bodies.

Cleopatra does not linger on the fantasy, but asks Dolabella, with the realism characteristic of her:

Think you there was, or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?


To that, Roman Dolabella can only respond, “Gentle madam, no”—which serves to arouse Cleopatra to still more immense reaches of imagery, to language rejecting anything nature can offer as fit comparison to the wonder that Antony was. This time momentary realism touched off, as it habitually does not, the reassertion of hyperbole's value. Hyperbole becomes “true”—and yet even that hyperbolical language is not “enough” for the intense feelings between these two overreachers of life. In the references within the play, they are always more than merely human, more than triumvir and queen: Cleopatra was, we hear, more beautiful than the most beautiful picture of Venus. Art cannot render her, nor can nature's works render Antony. In her eulogy of him, Cleopatra never denies his manhood—“My man of men,” she says, and she should know—but the manhood she attributes to him no ordinary mortal can aspire to. His bounty was endless—and his treatment of Enobarbus suggests that this is so—his delights transcendent. His empire was to be prodigal of imperial power—“as plates dropp'd from his pocket.” Compare that magnificence with Caesar's careful accounting of Mark Antony's distribution of empire in for Caesar, these political entities which Mark Antony gave away were no mere “plates” but the extended possessions of Rome, to be protected, at cost, for Rome's sake.

Cleopatra's imagination is as bountiful as Antony's generosity. Her language is rich as her habitat, and she is, as both detractors and admirers point out, histrionic to a degree. She stages herself at Cydnus; she stages herself as dead for Antony; she stages herself for her death. She speaks and is spoken of in theatrical terms of scene, act, and stage; she is a creature of impulse and whim, which she tries out on her audiences, acting to Dolabella, to Caesar, to Antony, acting even with her familiar maids. That habit of acting stands her in good stead in her determination to outwit Caesar at the end. Reversing Marx's famous quip, this play first acts out in farce what becomes tragedy a second time through. Cleopatra pretends to be dead—trivially, but with horrible results for Antony—before she dies in earnest. The theme of death echoes throughout the play—the lovers know, long before the crisis, the cost of their choice. Enobarbus plays on the slang term, “death,” for sexual intercourse, when Antony first tells him he must be gone; his cynicism can seem justified to an audience which sees Cleopatra feign illness and death. Her coquetry, charming within the domestic protections of her court, is fatal on the battlefield. It is worth noting that for the deceit which cost him his life, Mark Antony never reproaches her; instead, he promises to be “A bridegroom in my death, and run into 't / As to a lover's bed.” She too equates love and death: “The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, / Which hurts, and is desir'd.” She dies to join Mark Antony—“Husband, I come”—as his wife, taking for granted the meaning of a simple social act which could never take place in the Roman world during their lives. Put in the simplest terms, the word “death” is gradually ennobled by what happens in the play—but not before its seamier implications have all been laid before us.

So the play begins to live up to itself. As Philo's crudity is submerged under the lovers' flood of words, again and again the nasty turns out to have its noble aspect too, the Gorgon indeed becomes Mars. Because the playwright never shirks the unpleasantness, the triviality, even the occasional brutality of the lovers, because he always allows them to recognize and to reveal the compulsiveness of their love, its literal extremity, that love's peculiar force begins to take its confirmation from the radical action and the extreme language. As we watch the hyperbole coming true, we recognize a maturing of emotions more than lifesize to begin with, commanding a space of their own making, relying on their mutual respect for their own worth. The simplicity, singleheartedness, and intensity of this faulty human love, magnificent in spite of the lovers' politics and duplicity, in spite of the inevitable deceits of their world, come to seem a far greater achievement, against greater odds, than the successful Roman quest for power.

And for this, as we shall see, there is theoretical precedent in Longinus' defense of the style Antony and his acquaintances used, a style designed to express generosity, magnitude, magnanimity; a style, as he put it, “with the true ring of a noble mind.”33 Though Shakespeare does not slight the cultural structure and construction of any style—Roman, Egyptian here, Navarrese elsewhere—he is concerned in this play with the significance of a personal style within the cultural matrix, with what Longinus called “μεγαλοφροσύνη.” Though we know, from Philo's initial speech, of Antony's capacity for greatness and perceive, in his dealings with Enobarbus and Cleopatra, his magnanimity in the face of terrible losses, he still has to live up to the nobility of his soul and to the elevation of his speech. Still more Cleopatra, unused to Roman gestures of magnanimity: from riggish, rakish queen who plays tricks with a man's honor and his life, she must grow into the moral capacities her hyperbole seems to make light of.

The risks are great—how does a man, how can a woman, leave off grandiose and bombastic play-acting, even to the roles of god and goddess, to die as heroes? The lovers set their sights high from the start: chose as their models superhuman figures from Roman mythology—Antony in the play's first speech is likened to Mars, Cleopatra unmistakably to Venus.34 They act out that archetypal coupling throughout their lives, even to receiving mockery like the gods of Venus and Mars. Cleopatra is a goddess of love in her disguises, both the Roman Venus and the Egyptian Isis: she celebrated her greatest political triumph, over Antony and by his means over Rome, dressed “in the habiliments of the goddess Isis,” as Caesar in outrage reports. Isis was also a moon-goddess, whose variability, reflected in the feminine psychology, is made much of in the play; her “habiliments,” as Plutarch tells us in another place, are varicolored, to show her involvement with all nature—with light as well as dark, fire as well as water, life as well as death, beginning as well as ending. These robes are singularly appropriate to Cleopatra: they symbolize all matter and “afford many disclosures of themselves, and opportunities to view them as they are changed about in various ways.”35 Cleopatra is too much a woman, variable and faulty, to “be” either Venus or Isis, but she takes the part of both of them; posing as these goddesses, she occasionally takes on some of their meanings, as Antony on occasion takes on some of the meanings attributed to Mars and Hercules.36 In addition, this pair is too intermingled in one another for such an interpretation: whatever their natural attributes making them godlike, Antony and Cleopatra are a man and a woman to each other and to the world.37

Although it is as a man that she most values him, Cleopatra symbolically and actually unmans Antony. We hear of her dressing him in her clothes, as Omphale did Hercules.38 His decline from perfect manhood to something less than that is part of Antony's tragedy. In this play, however, the facts of the Roman idea of manhood are examined again and again and found wanting, particularly in respect to the very quality Antony so lavishly displays, magnanimity. He was a generous, a prodigal man, but always a man large of spirit. Largesse is his attribute, in all senses. He gave away his goods to his soldiers in defeat; his graciousness drove the defected Enobarbus to his shamefast death. To Antony's naturally great character Octavius stands in cheerless contrast; and no one in Rome, ever, is shown as rising to Antony's heights of grace. Again and again we are brought up against the hard realization that if to be a Roman is to be so narrow and calculating as Octavius, so vulgar as Pompey, so divided as Enobarbus, then Antony has surely chosen the better part. Octavius speaks beautifully of Antony's death:

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.


Beautiful words indeed to eulogize a dead colleague and opponent—but Caesar cannot help calculating the man's worth: “A moiety of the world.”39 That coveted demi-monde is at last his; the reckoning is over, the world brought under Caesar's universal landlordism. The “boy” has become, as Cleopatra names him, “Sole sir of the world.” After the briefest respite in honor of his dead “mate in empire,” Caesar turns back to the business of the world and lays his plans for the future. To such a man, it is difficult not to prefer the prodigal old ruffian, who can assert, and mean it, “There's beggary in love that can be reckon'd,” who can risk and lose his moiety (or his third) of the world for something which, however flawed, he valued above himself.

For Antony is no standard Roman, as the Romans testify. Men speak of his greatness of character and action, his stature in virtue and in vice. Men act to honor those qualities: his soldiers love him; his servant kills himself rather than stab his master; Enobarbus dies of having betrayed him. Philo can speak of him only in hyperbolical terms; so, in spite of themselves, can Caesar and Lepidus. In everyone's mind, this man was aggrandized and enlarged above the commonalty of men. Like his ancestor Hercules, Antony does things no other man can do, on a scale on which no other man can do them. It is not Cleopatra alone who feels this, but everyone who knows him. When we compare this Antony with the man duped twice by Cleopatra, or with the man causing Caesar's messenger to be beaten, or the man feasting, joking, and making love with Cleopatra, we see the range of the problem Shakespeare set himself—and we must suspect that some of this hyperbole is merely bombast. But when his imagination is fired by Cleopatra, Antony can do great deeds at arms. He conquered the entire East and redistributed its countries (without consulting Rome) among Cleopatra and her children. When she arms him, he defeats the Romans at odds, and returns to tell her his “gests” that day. At his death, when an ordinary man might well have nagged, he looks to an Elysium in which he and she shall outdo Aeneas and Dido; he warns her to look after her safety and, like the great lover he is, dies on a kiss. No trace remains of his rage at her, no trace of reproach for her false message: with his own life he was prodigal; with hers, he was generous.

These are the gestures to match an hyperbolical style, the behavior so admired by Longinus: the gestures of the overreaching man whose imagination is larger than the stage it must act upon. For Antony, the two “stand up peerless”; Cleopatra remembers that

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


For her he was, finally, truly Herculean, a “demi-Atlas,” a colossus whose “legs bestrid the ocean”; he was greater than the arch of empire itself: he was her world. For him, she could make herself into Venus and Isis, could “be” ageless and infinitely desirable, immortal, more than human. They read their stature from their mutual view of one another. Their ideas of themselves and of each other may have been unrealistic, vain, self-flattering, and self-deceitful, but they reflected what can never be readily explained, the peculiar sense of well-being and power a man and woman in love can give each other. So their clumsy games, their open lovemaking and open quarreling, their flirtations, their drinking, their mockery, turn somehow from nonsense and bombast into legitimate hyperbole, into a language forever on the stretch to express what had not been expressed before. Far from ideal lovers, Antony and Cleopatra demand a language for their love which rejects conventional hyperbole and invents and creates new overstatements, new forms of overstatement. In the language itself, we can read the insatiability of their love, as the language seems to make hungry, too, where most it satisfies. Nothing is enough for these two, not even the most extravagant figures of speech.

The language Antony and Cleopatra use, the language others use about them, is stretched at its upper and lower limits, to express their high and low gestures as bigger than lifesize. It is interesting that Antony and Cleopatra do not bewitch others' imaginations only by their charismatic presence; their great qualities are praised, described, referred to, and criticized mostly in their absence. These two are watched by a world fascinated even when disapproving; they are staged in a play of their own making, with the world as their willing audience. But they do not really play for that audience: their imaginative acting is all for each other, and in their mutual absorption they do not care who happens to look on at the spectacle. Of course the Romans cannot keep their eyes off them; beneath the language of official disapproval, one can see Roman fascination with this un-Roman style of life, with this abundant, prodigal, excessive manner of doing things. Their bounty knows no winter but is, in Antony's word, always “foison.”


Ripeness, overripeness: certainly the images of fertility, in particular the Nile-imagery, stresses life-giving, fecundity, creation; and, with these good qualities, also corruption and rotting. Action can corrupt; so can inaction. In Caesar's image for the variable Roman people, the famous “vagabond flag” passage, we read of one kind of rotting; in Antony's inaction we see another. The flag is dissolved in the stream's current; “solutus,” dissolved, was one word of disapprobation applied to the Asiatic style, and (as Charney points out) images of dissolution and deliquescence abound in the play.40 We see things dissolve and resolve—the liaison with Cleopatra, the marriage with Octavia. Antony vacillates between his Roman alliances and his Egyptian delights, choosing now the one, now the other. The tide is against him, literally at Actium, figuratively on land as well. And yet one is not surprised at this particular literalization of water-images of dissolution, for the metaphor has gained power through the play until, in Antony's great speech about himself, we see that he thinks of himself as formless, his shape lost. The metaphor of dissolution is overtly made use of through the play—“Let Rome in Tiber melt,” Antony cries at the beginning; “Authority melts from me,” he says near the end of his life. Cleopatra too speaks in this image: “Melt Egypt into Nile.” If she should ever play him false, then “dissolve my life.” Both use the neologism “discandy,” Cleopatra in a hyperbolical assertion of love, Antony in connection with his melting authority:

                                                                                The hearts
That spaniel'd me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar.


The most important of the dissolution-passages is Antony's speech about himself as a cloud in which shapes continually shift, dissolve, and reform until “The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct, / As water is in water.” When he finds his Roman form again and dies “a Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly vanquish'd,” Cleopatra says of him, “The crown o' the earth doth melt,” into a nothingness she feels as palpable. To mark Cleopatra's death, Charmian calls for cosmic dissolution, “Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, that I may say / The gods themselves do weep” (V.ii.298-99).

Peculiarly enough, other words characteristically applied in denigration to the Asiatic style are picked up and openly developed in the powerful imagery of this play. “Enervis” is such a word—Antony and Cleopatra taunt each other with idleness (I.ii.113-14, 127; III.xiii.90-92), and Antony accuses himself of “slackness” (III.vii.27). The notion of effeminacy is related to the notion of idleness and, in Enobarbus' last speech to Antony, is explicitly connected with melting. Enobarbus weeps (“I, an ass, am onion-eyed”), and asks Antony to stop talking—“for shame / Transform us not to women” (IV.ii.35-36). “Inanis,” empty, is another word played in the imagery: “vacancy” occurs, in connection with voluptuousness (I.iv.26), and in Enobarbus' attempt to praise Cleopatra ( By all odds the most significant use in the play of such a term is the imagery and the practice of enlargement, of blowing up. The Asiatic style was “inflatus”: we have seen how Cleopatra continually enlarged her idea of Antony, until in her paean to Dolabella of Antony's greatness she outdid her hyperbolical habits of rhetoric. There is, too, much about inflation in the play's language. In the first speech of Philo, in which so much of the play's implications, sexual and other, lie coiled, Antony is said to have “become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust.” Primarily, the bellows blows up, the fan cools: but both can actually blow up and both can cool. On her barge, Cleopatra has magical fans, apparently, also both blowing and cooling: the “winds did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, / And what they undid did.” (II.ii.203-205). Breathless, Cleopatra breathes forth her power; in her, Enobarbus assures his hearers, defect becomes perfection. Antony and Cleopatra, then, “inflate” each other—or, to put the same thing more gracefully, they inspirit each other. For those Atticists who polemicized against the Asiatic style, such “inflation” was bad because it was untrue to nature and gave false impressions of fact. Now, Antony and Cleopatra may have had, and have fostered, false impressions about themselves and each other; but they were trying to do something else, something highly respectable and highly poetic: to give utterance to their own convictions and sensations of being larger than life, which in turn demanded a style of expression more spacious than that used by the ruck of mankind. By means of the style, ever on the reach for an undefined “more,” the infinite longings of these figures can be understood: but, furthermore, by means of this twice-heightened speech, the play examines not only the values of an enriched style, but the values of the life it seeks to match. The play is a study in richness and ripeness, necessarily also a study in overripeness as well, a study even of corruption. But never may we conclude, in morality vein, that these last qualities are valueless, that the people who speak so are simply megalomaniac and self-deluded. Indeed, what emerges from the play is something quite different, the affirmation of the values, qualified by an awareness of its dangers, of such a way of life.

As one works through the play, several things become clearer: at the beginning, Antony speaks hyperbolically, bombastically: his honest heartfelt emotions, mingled with an ironic self-criticism, are reserved for his realization of Fulvia's death. It is Cleopatra who checks his overstatement, questions the sincerity of his hyperbole (“Excellent falsehood”; “Hear the ambassadors”). Mocking him, she is still besotted with him; no less than Antony is she manipulable by her love. Both Antony and Cleopatra suffer from self-surpassing rages, she at the messenger, he at her apparent and real betrayals of him; hyperbole operates there in both language and gesture. By the third act, something has begun to happen which demonstrates the identity of the lovers: the hyperbolical style with which Antony began the play now issues from Cleopatra's mouth:

                                                                      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!


It is Antony now who says, “I am satisfied,” evidently needing that assurance to go on with the “chronicle” of which he feels himself to be a part. Early in the play, Antony and Cleopatra are separately hyperbolical; as their unity grows, they adapt to each other's modes of speech. These lovers are in many ways temperamentally alike, and they become more so as their meaning for each other becomes more conscious and more motivating in their lives. In the third act, as they pitch their lives together once more, their most hyperbolical speeches of love are signs of their deepening unity with one another, the more poignant for their violent and frequent misunderstandings.

To speak as they do, so grandly, so magnificently, so frankly in hyperbole, is in Antony's and Cleopatra's nature. They are true to one aspect of the Attic (or “Senecan”) prescription, after all, in that they express “themselves” truly in their language—this is to say, then, that their style must in honesty be bombastic, which according to Attic prescription should mean that their style matches the variability and shoddiness of their characters, discovers beneath their bluster and shouting mere fustian cheapness, secondhand emotions, and sleasy intentions. Longinus was fully aware of how close the elevated style was to bombast: it is almost as if Shakespeare set himself to examine Longinus' problem fully in this play, to test out against human actions and human speech the human aspiration for sublimity.

Antony's habits of speech reach toward and respond to the fundamental grandeur of his nature, as his actions increasingly confirm the propriety and integrity of his grand style. That Enobarbus adopts the hyperbolical mode—that Plutarch adopts it, indeed—to render Cleopatra's magnificence, tells us much about the “real” application of an inflated and hyperbolical style. In Enobarbus' mouth we are invited to recognize things as they are: Enobarbus knows ping from pong, Rome from Egypt. For better and for worse, Enobarbus is a Roman, speaks as a Roman, acts as a Roman. Yet to this man is given the great speech about Cleopatra, its figures stretching farther and farther as the speech goes on and as he realizes the difficulties involved in making anyone who has not experienced her charm understand what this woman is. Like his master, vacillating between Rome and Egypt in his own life, Enobarbus seems to opt for Rome against Egypt. At his end he chooses neither place, but rather chooses a man, a human being involved with both symbolic places and, for him, transcending both. From his relation to Mark Antony, Enobarbus took his final definition, to die with his betrayed master's name on his lips. By the pull of hyperbole, of overstatement, of inflation, and of magnanimity on such a man, we can measure the power of Antony for Cleopatra—and, just because of his greatness, can measure her power for him. The two lovers confirm each other and themselves—so much we might expect. Enobarbus, with his excursions beyond his habitual style and behavior, not wanting to do so, nonetheless confirms them from outside themselves.

In his set-speech on Cleopatra, Enobarbus had called upon a natural miracle to attest to her power:

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.


Even in figure, though, this miracle cannot take place: there is no gap in nature, nor in this play, however crowded things are by the space Antony and Cleopatra take up, by the bruit of their presence, the bustle of their companionship. To stretch the metaphor, the play's dominant style is not one of vanity, although there are vanities enough blatantly set forth in the protagonists' characters. They are self-centered and self-indulgent—but they are not self-satisfied. They look to each other forever for more; they criticize each other and themselves. In their lives, however lived out in the Asiatic style, in dissoluteness, inflation, swelling, enervation, slackness, effeminacy, and idleness, these two do not decay. Their satisfactions breed hunger; their desire neither stales nor cloys, not even at the moments in which they die. Finally, their desire can be seen to be a particular kind of love, a kind of love rarely made romantic, firmly based in shared sexual experience. Out of such love, each can think only of the other at the time of death.

Even when they are idle, Antony and Cleopatra make a stir in the world. This is perhaps part of the tragedy (though not in Renaissance terms): that public figures cannot afford private joys.41 In the modern jargon, there is no solution to their problems either of aspiring temperament or of historical situation. They could not do without each other and, their world being what it was, they could not live comfortably with each other. But imagine alternative solutions: suppose Antony had gone back to live in Rome with Octavia and their daughters (present in Plutarch but excised from the play); the political struggle with Caesar could hardly have failed to come to a head, for Caesar, if not Antony, had to find opportunity for quarrel. Suppose Cleopatra had gone back to her philanderings with eastern potentates and Roman ambassadors: could she have restrained herself from political troublemaking, out of boredom if nothing else? Or, turning the matter about still more, how could Antony have lived among Romans whose view of Cleopatra was as extreme as his own, though at quite the other end of the scale? Could he have endured the silliness of Lepidus, the calculations of Octavius, the prurience of Menas and the rest, their eagerness to vulgarize personal experiences beyond their capacities to imagine? Character has something to do with “fate”—the struggle with Caesar would have come in the end, without the satisfaction for Antony of having chosen for Cleopatra, without the heroics at his death which, self-deceiving or not, eased him into Elysium with the conviction that his life had been worth its trouble and pain, and that his final disgrace was canceled by his grandiose final gestures of love.

This is a curious play, resting on an ambivalent concept of love impossible to sum up, to categorize, or to define. We learn throughout that desire can remain insatiable, that vacillation breeds corruption, that rewards in one sphere exact penalties in another. Cleopatra's fans heated where they cooled, what they undid, did. So Cleopatra: she undid Antony, but also she made of him not so much what she wanted him to be—indeed, in that she failed—as what he wanted to be. Certainly one cannot draw as a general conclusion from this play that an intense connection between a man and a woman justifies all else, justifies all the neglect, the idleness, the betrayals, the prodigality of lives and honor. Shakespeare shows us, unmistakably, that it does not, by the play's eternal balancing of one thing against another, its long vacillation between the bombastic and the sublime, its constant qualification of virtue by fault, of vice by virtue. But on balance, it is obvious that those experiences, from whatever source, which can elevate human beings are judged more favorably than those which do not; that those human beings who can be elevated are nobler than those whose nature is too small to permit such enlargement. With all its qualifications and all its defects admitted, proclaimed, displayed, the love of Antony and Cleopatra is nonetheless affirmed, the strumpet and the strumpet's fool grow into the imaginative warrior and the theatrical queen. There is no denying their excesses, which are examined, studied, and reassessed both by the speakers within the play and by the audience watching the excesses demonstrated onstage. We learn that in such excess, life itself can reside. Though it threatens to rot, and seems at times to have corrupted the lovers, their style of living affirms their life—and that despite the deaths of the proceedings.

Indeed, in the deaths we see the value of the lives. Antony says that he dies as a Roman, but he bungled his death all the same, both by letting Eros die before him, and by not killing himself outright. However significant the “elevation” of Antony into Cleopatra's tomb, it is an awkward business;42 the queen's failure to open the tomb lays stress, just at the worst moment, on the weakest side of her nature. Antony's dying skirts bombast the while, and we may assume that his failure to die efficiently in the Roman style is one mark Egypt laid upon him.

His beauty of character, though, emerges clearly through this uncomfortable death-scene: in spite of the cluminess, what we remember is Antony's magnanimity and Cleopatra's high poetry. Antony affirms in his manner of dying both the Roman and the eastern sides of his nature; Cleopatra too comes to accept Roman ways, even to embrace them in her own death. Her contemptuous fear of “Roman thoughts” in the first act gives way before her desire to emulate Antony and to die, like him, “in the high Roman fashion.” Her suicide, though, cannot be said to be pure Roman: she had done research into painless ways to die; she chose the Nile worm as a suitable weapon; she arranged the spectacle of her death with a care and love inappropriate to Roman suicide. In both suicides, a Roman pattern has been expanded and enriched by Egyptian opulence and Egyptian decoration, not least in the ornate style in which both Antony and Cleopatra take leave of their world. The actual world has shrunk away from them; in expectation of Elysium in each other's company, they affirm the larger world of their fantastic and extravagant imagination, which their love had brought into being. The play's language affirms that determination to enlarge life: even at the end, Cleopatra speaks as woman, lover, and mother. After all, it is only by Roman tongues that the hero and heroine are spoken of as mere voluptuaries, softened and weakened by self-indulgence and excess. Antony's and Cleopatra's speech is consistently vigorous, various, copious, vivid, liveliest in those remarkable passages where excessive behavior, excessive sensation, excessive emotions are given their due.

Even though it threatens to do so, this hyperbolical play does not get out of hand: its images are as closely controlled as those of the other late tragedies. Further, the richness and decoration of the language, in passages of passionate disgust as in passages of grandiloquent elevation, match the richness of temperament which confers upon their characters the privilege of an equal elevation. What at first sounds like bombast in Antony's speech is naturalized in the course of the play, until his way of speaking becomes a standard against which other men are judged. Of effeminacy, slackness, or idleness, Antony's behavior may sometimes be accused—but never his language, nor Cleopatra's. From first to last what emerges is its affirmation of activity, of creativity, of unending and unendingly interesting emotional process. Till their very last breaths, these persons change and develop, to involve the audience in that development toward greatness. During the course of the play, then, Antony and Cleopatra grow into their rhetorical measure. At the play's start, Philo had called a spade a spade, or even a shovel; in contrast, Antony and Cleopatra spoke in love's arrogant, idealized overstatements. By the end of the play, Philo's linguistic practice is blocked out by Antony's hyperbole coming true, until we too believe that “the nobleness of life” is for such lovers to embrace. Until the very end, we are never quite sure of Cleopatra, such is the oscillation of the play and the woman between extremes, from rejection to reunion, from reviling to reaffirmation, from lie to truth, from denigration to encomium.

By their manner of dying, these figures are known: the Roman world, with all its real space, could not house the love of Antony for Cleopatra. That Antony lost his place in the real world, lost that world altogether, is made to seem unimportant beside the imaginative satisfactions of his emotional life. What Antony and Cleopatra do and say represents them: for all their own vacillation and oscillation, they turn out to be true in their ultimate commitment to each other. Antony dies with energy and (oddly enough) enthusiasm; Cleopatra looks to her last moment and beyond it, both on earth and in Elysium—she remains alive, feeling, imagining, to her last breath. Both catch and express their visions of the new heaven, new earth, seen always in terms of each other and of being with each other. They die as they had lived, beyond definition, in expectation of more. It is the strength, the vividness, the vigor of excess which this play presents, examines, criticizes, and ultimately, with full understanding, confirms, in a language of hyperbole built to match the size and scope of the subject. In the ping and pong of plain and grandiloquent styles, now one seeming to lead and now the other, Shakespeare manages to show us the problem and the problematics, in moral as in literary terms, at the heart of style. By sinking the notions associated with the Asiatic style back into life itself, in the play's dramatic action he can examine and assess both the style and the style of life in terms of each other, and to see them as one. He can demonstrate, then, by the peculiarly literary device of a stylistic agon, the moral problematics of dimension, can manage to make acceptable—more, to make admirable and comprehensible—the values of an honestly ostentatious style.


  1. See E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion [New York, 1960], pp. 370, 381.

  2. My chapter owes much to earlier studies of the play, especially to Maurice Charney's Shakespeare's Roman Plays [Cambridge, 1961], chapters 1 and 4. My hypothesis states, more overtly and probably more pedantically than Charney's, that Shakespeare deliberately animated a stylistic paradigm in this play, a paradigm polemically discussed in his lifetime and of which he was aware, in order to re-examine interchangeable relations of verbal style to style in living and (far more important) to cultural style. See also Benjamin T. Spencer, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Paradoxical Metaphor,” [Shakespeare Quarterly], IX (1958), 373-78; [Matthew N.] Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Plays [Princeton, 1965]; Madeleine Doran, The Endeavors of Art (Madison, 1954), pp. 245-50; and [Sigurd] Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings [Princeton, 1968].

  3. See chapter 1. …

  4. Sheldon P. Zitner, “King Lear and its Language” [in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie Colie and F. T. Flahiff. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.]; “Shakespeare's Secret Language” (unpublished paper).

  5. See, in particular, Charney, chapter 5; and James L. Calderwood, “Coriolanus: Wordless Meanings and Meaningless Words,” [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900,] VI (1966), 211-24.

  6. For the theory behind this concept of “matching,” see Gombrich, Art and Illusion, pp. 29, 73, 116-18, 188-89.

  7. Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, tr. Thomas North (London, 1595), p. 969.

  8. M. von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, “Asianismus und Atticismus,” Hermes, XXXV (1900), 1-52; Eduard Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa (Leipzig, 1915-1918); G. L. Hendrickson, “The Original Meaning of the Ancient Characters of Style,” American Journal of Philology, XXVI (1905), 248-90; C. N. Smiley, “Seneca and the Stoic Theory of Literary Style,” Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, III (1919), 50-61; A. D. Leeman, Orationis Ratio: the Stylistic Theories and Practice of the Orators, Historians, and Philosophers (Amsterdam, 1963); F. Quadlbauer, Die antike Theorie der genera dicendi (Vienna, 1958).

  9. Cicero himself exemplifies this process: see Tusc. Disp., II, i; Brutus, xiii, 51; lxxxii, 284-lxxiv, 291; Orator, viii, 27-31; xxiii, 76-xxvi, 90.

  10. Morris W. Croll, in essays now conveniently collected in Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm (Princeton, 1966); see also George Williamson, The Senecan Amble (Chicago, 1951); Brian Vickers, Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose (Cambridge, 1968); and E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [New York, 1953] pp. 67-68.

  11. Gombrich's ping-pong paradigm perforce alters the moral intention of Winters' division of poetic styles into plain and ornate.

  12. Charney, pp. 79ff.

  13. Charney, Roman Plays, pp. 93ff; and see John Danby, “The Shakespearean Dialectic: An aspect of Antony and Cleopatra,” in Poets on Fortune's Hill (London, 1952); William Rosen, Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1960); Robert Ornstein, “The Ethic [sic] of Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra,The Later Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, VIII (1966); Maynard Mack, Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra (Pelican Shakespeare, Baltimore, 1960), p. 19.

  14. “Oscillate” is Danby's word; see also Northrop Frye, Fools of Time (Toronto, 1967), pp. 70-71; Mack, Introduction, pp. 19-20; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1965), pp. 138-39; Charney, pp. 93ff.; Dipak Nandy, “The Realism of Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (London, 1964), pp. 172-94.

  15. Leeman, pp. 140-41.

  16. The point is made by many critics; see Julia Markels, The Pillar of the World (Columbus, 1968), pp. 35, 41-43.

  17. See, e.g., J. Leeds Barroll, “Enobarbus' Description of Cleopatra,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature (1958), pp. 61-68.

  18. I do not here speak of Antony's self-deception, of which Proser and Markels write so well, so much as of the cultural force of his language, with its sources in Roman ideas of magnanimity and greatness as well as in Roman ideas of duty and service. There is, also, a major literary source for Antony's speech and self-presentation, in the Aeneid—though Antony, as his references to Aeneas and Dido indicate, did not choose (like Aeneas) to subdue his passions to his mission: Antony is, in this sense, a reviser of the story. For this, as for much else, I am indebted to discussions with Roger Hornsby.

  19. See Arnold Stein, “The Image of Antony: Lyric and Tragic Imagination,” reprinted in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, ed. James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, 1970), pp. 560-75.

  20. Barroll, passim; Schanzer, p. 155. This notion is qualified in the work of Barbara Bono (still unpublished) and of Raymond Waddington: see below, footnote 34.

  21. Again, most critics comment on this: see Markels, pp. 35, 41-43; Ornstein, p. 393, for especially interesting comments.

  22. On world-imagery, see Charney, pp. 82-93, an extremely perceptive analysis.

  23. See Stein, passim; though their language relies on expression conventionally assigned to lovers, Antony's and Cleopatra's speech, with its curiously generalized, unspecified imagery, suggests an enlarged range of love. Theirs is, in language as in life, an extreme love, fully human but at the edge of human capacity.

  24. Charney, pp. 102-104.

  25. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (repr. London, 1965), pp. 212, 213, collects the imagery of horses in this play, and comments on the different associations it calls up.

  26. Charney, pp. 127-29.

  27. For this, see Markels, especially p. 150.

  28. This in spite of the fact that she is “all air and fire”: the elements, earth, water, air, and fire, are all used in connection with Cleopatra, a world in herself.

  29. Ornstein, p. 391.

  30. One way in which Caesar is made to seem young, inexperienced, and closed to human experience is that he is completely unaware of this aspect of either Antony or Cleopatra.

  31. Again, Mr. Markels seems to me the critic who preeminently expresses both the universally human and the particular, specific experience of love depicted in this play.

  32. Another “philosophical” suggestion of Antony's being more than a man lies in the implications of this simile, in which a creature “transcends” its element: so he, a man, becomes (at least in Cleopatra's imagination) a god. See also Ruth Nevo, “The Masque of Greatness,” [Shakespeare Studies], III (1967), 111-28, for the “gigantism” of the play, and the “cosmic contrived into a pageant.”

  33. Longinus, On the Sublime (LCL), pp. 144-45.

  34. I have been greatly helped in the matter of the mythographic element of this play by the published work of Raymond B. Waddington, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus Did with Mars,’” [Shakespeare Studies], II (1966); and of Harold Fisch, “Antony and Cleopatra: the Limits of Mythology,” [Shakespeare Survey], XXIII (1970), 59-68 (whose argument seems to me too fine-spun, particularly in his reliance on Christian myth); and by the unpublished work of Barbara Bono, which reaches very subtle and illuminating conclusions about the play. See also Adrien Bonjour, “From Shakespeare's Venus to Cleopatra's Cupids,” [Shakespeare Studies], XVI (1963), 73-80.

  35. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, Moralia, V; see Michael Lloyd, “Cleopatra as Isis,” [Shakespeare Studies], XII (1959).

  36. Eugene M. Waith, Jr., The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden (New York, 1962), discusses this aspect of Antony's character and behavior; see also Plutarch, Lives, p. 913, for Antony's self-comparison to Hercules, and p. 921 for Cleopatra as Venus. It is important to note that Shakespeare excises from his play Plutarch's many references to Antony as Bacchus; mention of Bacchus, in the Roman orgy, is made in specifically Roman associations. See J. Leeds Barroll, “Shakespeare and the Art of Character,” [Shakespeare Studies], III (1967), 159-235.

  37. Cf. Markels, and Barbara Bono's unpublished work.

  38. Waith, p. 113; Schanzer, p. 158.

  39. On this point, see Terence Eagleton, Shakespeare and Society (New York, 1967), p. 127.

  40. Charney, pp. 18-19; 137-40; Danby, p. 131.

  41. See Markels, chapter 2.

  42. Charney, pp. 134-36, is valuable on Antony's “elevation.”

Donald C. Freeman (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Freeman, Donald C. “‘The rack dislimns’: Schema and Metaphorical Pattern in Antony and Cleopatra.Poetics Today 20, no. 3 (fall 1999): 443-60.

[In the following essay, Freeman uses the theory of cognitive metaphor to evaluate the figurative language found in Antony and Cleopatra.]

Any approach to metaphor hoping to enhance centuries of scholarship on Shakespeare's dramatic language faces an onerous burden of proof, the more so when the play under discussion is Antony and Cleopatra. The play's lushness of figurative language has attracted hosts of both New Critics and traditional philologists. Many have commented on the play's vast compass—one made possible in large part by the cosmic imagery that Shakespeare so frequently employs.

The great German Shakespearean Wolfgang Clemen (1962 [1951]: 160), for example, remarked more than sixty years ago that Antony and Cleopatra summons “to our minds again and again the image of the wide ocean and of the immeasurably vast world.” At about the same time, Caroline Spurgeon (1935: 352) pointed out how the play “fills the imagination with the conception of beings so great that physical size is annihilated and the whole habitable globe shrinks in comparison with them.”

This commentary anticipated much of what has followed. Many of Clemen's and Spurgeon's successors have remarked on the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra's imagery to its grand physical, political, and spiritual landscapes, but only in the most general terms. Seeking to refocus our attention from the play's “verbal figure” to what he called “dramatic metaphor,” Maurice Charney (1961: 7) fails to specify what aspect of the play's figuration is thus constitutive of its form. T. A. McAlindon (1973: 187) describes the play's language as a “grandiose blend of mythology and hyperbole,” without explaining the components or consequences of that blend. G. Wilson Knight (1951: 289) notices Antony and Cleopatra's “massively spatialized technique” without the kind of detailed analysis that would show how the play's nonspatial entities come to be perceived in spatial terms.

Although readings of this sort can be incomplete or imprecise, I find them in many respects intuitively satisfying. In what follows, I start from these intuitions, seeking to articulate and ground them in a theory of metaphor that depends on a theory of mind. I shall argue that the cognitive approach to metaphor1 provides analyses of figurative language that are sufficiently detailed and coherent so that the interpretations they yield can be assessed against competing interpretations. Further, I claim, motivated cognitive analyses of one skein of a literary artwork's figurative language generalize perspicuously to analyses of other figurative patterns in the same artwork or in other works by the same poet. Finally, following the argument sketched out in D. Freeman 1995, I will seek to demonstrate that the notion of metaphorical projection as a property of mind logically prior to properties of language enables the critic of poetic language to characterize within the cognitive framework not only figurative patterns in literary language, but analogous figurative patterns in other elements of the artwork as well.

This interrelatedness of metaphorical patterning in Antony and Cleopatra emerges when we examine the processes of metaphorical projection that constitute the play's figurative language. We begin with an account of the cognitive templates, the image and conceptual schemas constituting the source domains from which we metaphorically project elements and structure into abstract target domains, the entities that are metaphorized.

For Antony and Cleopatra, the key image schemas are, I shall argue, those of container, links, and path, which fuse variously with one another (for discussion of these schemas, see Johnson 1987: 113-27). Thus Antony's courage and passion, and later his grief, as we shall see, are figured in terms of liquids swelling within the container of his body; the link schema appears as marriage bonds and ties of loyalty; the path schema emerges as Antony describes how at the Battle of Actium he turned his ship to follow the fleeing Cleopatra instead of pressing the attack. And in what I regard as the play's climactic speech, as Antony reads in the changing clouds his utter dissolution, the container schema fuses with the key metaphorical projection Knowing is Seeing (for a detailed discussion, see Sweetser 1990: 37-40) to inscribe that dissolution in a metaphorical density and richness adumbrated at the play's very start and sustained until its final lines. We understand Antony as a grand failure because the container of his Romanness “dislimns”: it can no longer outline and define him even to himself. Conversely, we understand Cleopatra at her death as the transcendent queen of “immortal longings” because the container of her mortality can no longer restrain her: unlike Antony, she never melts, but sublimates from her very earthly flesh to ethereal fire and air.

The audience first hears of Antony through an all-too-accurate report from his lieutenant Philo, in a speech dominated by metaphors projected from the container schema:2

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure …
                                                                                          His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust.

(1.1.1-2, 6-10)

The scant tolerance that the hard-edged Roman military code allots to a general's dalliance is metaphorized as a container, a measuring cup that cannot hold the liquid of Antony's grand passion;3 but before Cleopatra distracted him, as Philo recalls, Antony's heart had been a container with such enormous capacity for the liquid of courage that it burst the containing fetters of his armor.

Later we are to see Antony's heart-container swell again, but it does so because it “o'erflows the measure” of grief at Cleopatra's reported death. Antony would have his heart “crack” not the armor that contains his martial courage, but the very body that contains that heart:

                                        O, cleave, my sides!
Heart, once be stronger than thy continent;
Crack thy frail case!


At Antony's death, Cleopatra understands his body in identical terms: “This case of that huge spirit now is cold” (4.15.9).

This proliferation of metaphors projected from the container schema, and their function as containers of the liquids of passionate love, martial courage, and grief, are significant. For, as we will see, what critics have characterized as the play's shifting perspective on Antony and Cleopatra is accomplished by a similar three-stage progression in its central metaphors: from those in which the robust and solid outline of Rome, political authority, and all that they contain melt into the liquid of those passions; to those in which the liquid of those passions evaporates into ever changing cloud shapes; and finally to the death vision of Cleopatra's “marble-constant” body-container sublimating directly into her nobler elements of “fire and air.”

But even Cleopatra's ethereal final state fails to reduce the ambiguity of “their story,” as Octavius Caesar terms it in tidying up the play's last scene. Antony and Cleopatra is, from its first to its forty-second and final scene, a play that paradoxically is also dominated by the physical action of seeing and its subtextual metaphor Knowing is Seeing—and about the unreliability of both. These concerns are most closely brought together in Antony's speech to the bemused Eros near the end of act 4 about the evanescence of shapes we see in clouds, and hence of our perception and knowledge generally. Ironically, at the same time that Antony mediates upon the contingent nature of vision, he is under the impression that Cleopatra has betrayed him with Caesar, and shortly will fatally wound himself because of his “knowledge” that Cleopatra has committed suicide.

The container schema dominates the metaphors of Antony and Cleopatra from the very start. Cleopatra announces teasingly to Antony that she will “set a bourn how far to be beloved” (1.1.16); Antony, for his part, immediately seeks to transcend that boundary within which Cleopatra has contained their love, in explicitly biblical language (as Wilders [1995: 92n] observes): “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.” Given the many cases in which love is metaphorized as a liquid, it follows naturally that a play so concerned with passion should be dominated by containers. For Antony, the container of the Rome-world is confining, limiting, a “measure,” while the container of the Egypt-world is liberating, a capacious domain in which he can explore “new heaven, new earth.” The contrast between the two is epitomized in one of the play's most famous speeches:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space!
Kingdoms are clay!


The traditional view of this passage as dominated by an image of “melting”4 is only a beginning. In the play and to Antony, Rome represents the sharply defined “measure” that conspicuously fails to contain the liquid of what to Philo is Antony's “dotage,” and to Antony is his grand passion. For Rome to “melt” is for it to lose its defining shape, the boundary that contains the civic and military codes that it stands for, perhaps reified for Shakespeare's audience in the symmetrically arched aqueducts and ruler-straight roads that the Roman Empire extended even to the distant province of Britain. Once it melts into a liquid, Rome cannot be “marble-constant”; once it has become part of the Tiber, Rome and what it represents are consubstantial with the heated and fructifying liquid that produces “my serpent of old Nile,” as “indistinct [from Egypt] / As water is in water” (4.14.10-11).

Antony relies on the same projection from the container schema into his Roman and military characteristics when Cleopatra's servants are slow to respond to his summons:

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


Along with the sharply outlined periphery of his Roman authority has melted, for Antony, the crystal-clear hierarchy, social order, and values of Roman “measure.” These do not play well in “my space” of Alexandria, where he has just seen (or thinks he has seen) Cleopatra being courted by Thidias, the messenger of his enemy.

After his defeat at Actium, Antony realizes in the same projection his own military, political, and moral collapse. What has “melted from” him has melted upon Octavius:

                                                                                                                        The hearts
That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar, and this pine is barked
That overtopped them all.


The solid form of Antony's soldiers and their Roman courage and Roman loyalty are represented metonymically as “hearts,” as was Antony's courage at the beginning of the play. These hearts and the Roman qualities they represent now “discandy,” lose their outward shape and internal crystalline structure, the periphery that makes the many soldiers into one body, and the regular and articulated internal relations that give them structure as a disciplined military unit.5 The liquid thus created cascades upon and thickens the protecting military shell of the solid Roman Caesar. The immediately following metaphor invokes the generic schema Good is Up, as Antony describes himself as “this pine … that overtopped them all.” But instead of metaphorizing Antony's loss of that status in the traditional terms of the pine's being cut down or lopped off at the top, Shakespeare describes it as the loss of the tree's bark, its containing and protecting boundary.6

Antony's habit of understanding a containing shape as his status, his standing in the world, extends as well to his own life when, having been (falsely) informed by her eunuch Mardian that Cleopatra is dead, he intones to his loyal retainer:

Unarm, 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 …
                                                                      … 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.

(4.14.35-36, 38-40, 47-50)

In “unarming,” Antony removes his last containing shape, a once-defining suit of armor that becomes only a pile of “bruised pieces” (4.14.43), as have his Romanness, his identity as a military leader (“You [bruised pieces] have been nobly borne”), and now his very being as Cleopatra's lover. Immediately following this projection is, again, a crucial conceptual metaphor, Life is a Day, in which the events of his military loss at Actium and his amatory loss of Cleopatra are reified as the action of suicide, ending the day of his life;7 later in the speech, the reading of “unarming” as suicide is further reinforced by the generic metaphor Life is Light, as Antony's torch is out, and he is contained, “entangled,” fettered by the very martial force that is his way of life and that the “bruised pieces” of his now-discarded armor have represented.

Cleopatra uses metaphors of melting and discontainment altogether differently. Until the very end of the play, they are for her solely instruments of hyperbole (on this point see Doran 1976: 154-81)—indeed, one might argue that they ironically reduce Antony's cosmic metaphoric flights. Cleopatra flies into a rage when a messenger tells her of Antony's politically motivated marriage to Octavia: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (2.5.77-78). But, although she echoes Antony's use of the same metaphor, Cleopatra is not calling herself to another world. Nor, having given the messenger gold for what she thinks is good news about Antony, does Cleopatra propose to destroy the measure of value that gold represents when, after reinterpreting the message, she screeches, “The gold I give thee will I melt and pour / Down thy ill-uttering throat” (2.5.34-35). The Roman gossip about Antony's “levity” and her frivolous efforts (by Roman standards) at making war not love infuriate her (“Sink, Rome, and their tongues rot / That speak against us!” [3.7.15-16]), but she is merely expressing frustration and resentment, not calling for the dissolution of an entire culture.

Her response to Antony's death, however, is quite different:

The crown o'th' earth doth melt. My lord!
O, withered is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fallen …


Cleopatra understands her lover's death not just as the dissolution of a way of life, as Antony understands Rome, but as the entire world losing its containing periphery, represented in the crown that loses its defining shape. With that periphery is lost all human social organization, metonymized in the garland that becomes, in turn, a metonym for the military triumphs of Antony's “melt[ed]” career. Antony's toppled war standard, detumescent for all time,8 can no longer stand as a rallying point for Antony's troops.

In the play's many metaphors of melting, the foregrounded feature of the container schema is its role as a giver of shape, a definer of periphery, rather than the traditional distinction (see Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 380-82) between inside and outside that this schema's projections so frequently emphasize. This confining, structuring aspect also is foregrounded in the many instances of metaphors projected from the links schema in Antony and Cleopatra, where the links are, chiefly, not those of service or love, as they are, for example, in King Lear (see D. Freeman 1993). Instead, the dominant feature of the links projections in Antony and Cleopatra is that of imprisonment, constraint of movement—for example, where the linked elements are, as one might expect, Antony and Cleopatra, and the linking medium is enchantment: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / or lose myself in dotage” (1.2.121-22; notice that Antony describes himself as did Philo in the play's opening line); “I must from this enchanting queen break off” (1.2.135).

Marriages also are understood in Antony and Cleopatra as imprisoning, limiting bonds, not the enriching links of kinship, service, or reciprocal love. Cleopatra characterizes Antony's marriage to Fulvia as

                                                                                          Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows
Which break themselves in swearing!


The linking medium between Antony and Fulvia consists, in Cleopatra's view, of vows made only with the mouth, not the spirit, which entangle rather than fruitfully join their makers, and are fragile in the extreme—as opposed to the “fetters” that join her to Antony—and more like the self-defeating force that “entangles / Itself with strength.”

Antony's marriage to Octavia is described several times as a bond or a knot, but, except for a remark by Cleopatra's messenger (“He's bound unto Octavia,” 2.5.58), the linked entities in this marriage bond are not Antony and Octavia as husband and wife, as the conventional projection would have us understand them, but Antony and Caesar as shaky political allies. Agrippa suggests this mariage de convenance:

To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts
With an unslipping knot, take Antony
Octavia to his wife …


And as Caesar sees off Octavia for her marriage to Antony, he likewise understands the marriage not as a link between the couple, but between himself and Antony, with his sister as the bonding medium that sustains their relationship for now, but that in time can become the means of destroying it. The bonding medium, Octavia, can become an instrument that invades the container of the very relationship it is supposed to strengthen:

                                                                                Most noble Antony,
Let not the piece of virtue [Octavia] which is set
Betwixt us, as the cement of our love
To keep it builded, be the ram to batter
The fortress of it.


For Cleopatra, the foregrounded aspect of the links schema is less that of imprisonment than that of entrapment. She sees Antony as a fish that she will bond to herself with the trap of a hook and line:

                                                  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!”


The linked entities are Cleopatra as angler and Antony as fish; the linking medium is the fishing line with its barbed hook; Cleopatra is thus the enactor of a strategy, with Antony as the dumb object. She employs the same metaphor (if a different mechanism) in describing the relationship among Antony, Egypt, and the world (importantly, the outside world), when she greets him upon his temporarily successful return from the land phase of the battle of Actium:

                                                                                Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue! Com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?


Here the entrapment metaphor merges the links and container schemata. Antony and the world are the linked elements, and the putative linking element is the “world's great snare.” That link, which would have drawn Antony into the container of the world's trap, fails, however, because the link between him and Cleopatra is stronger, and its bonding medium is metaphorized in the path he must follow to return from the outside world to Egypt. Antony here is not a mindless fish, but a wily animal who escapes the world's trap; the ironic subtext is that he escapes that trap only because he is linked by the medium of his return journey to an ultimately much more confining one.

Cleopatra understands even life itself in terms of the link schema rather than the conventional Life is a Day or Life is Light metaphors that Antony employs:

                                        Come, thou mortal wretch,
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie.


The “knot intrinsicate” is in the linking medium—one might almost say that it creates that medium. The knot ties together two ropes or bands, creating a single bond linking the entities of Cleopatra and life. We might also see the knot as Cleopatra's body-container binding her life, or spirit, within itself (“As sweet as balm, as soft as air” [5.2.311]). That container's periphery will be penetrated from without by the asp's bite: “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?” (5.2.307-8). The power of this image derives from the fact that Shakespeare reverses every element of the folk conception of infant nursing.9 In that conception the nurse or mother inserts part of her body, the nipple of her breast, into the mouth of the baby. Here the asp puts part of its body, the fangs located in its mouth, into Cleopatra's breast. Mother's milk proceeds from mother to child, giving life; the asp's venom proceeds from it to Cleopatra, giving death. The impelling force of mother's milk is the baby's suction from within the mother to within itself; the impelling force of the asp's venom is its own injection from within itself to within its victim.

The association of Cleopatra with containing traps continues until the very end of the play, where Caesar, gazing upon her corpse, sees her “As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.346-47), the containing trap of her allure that already has proven superior to the “world's great snare” and at the same time is one of the linking elements constituting the “strong Egyptian fetters” with which she binds herself to Antony.

A third aspect of confinement or compulsion in a cognitive-metaphoric analysis of Antony and Cleopatra appears in the play's many metaphors of towing. This source domain involves chiefly the links schema, but also has elements of the path and container schemas, particularly with the strong overtones of binding and controlling that dominate its appearance in this play. To be towed or led is to proceed along the path of the towing force while being linked to the exerter of that force. That path is both determined and contained by that towing force's direction and speed.

These towing metaphors are densest after Antony's defeat at Actium, but they are well prepared for. As Lepidus, Caesar, and Antony celebrate their short-lived agreement aboard Pompey's galley, Pompey curiously picks up and metaphorically extends Menas's offer (“Let me cut the cable, / And when we are put off, fall to their throats” [2.7.72-73]) to sever the galley's link to the land so that the triumvirs can be murdered in a containing environment that Pompey controls. But he demurs:

                                                                                                    Thou must know
'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it.


Pompey would have Menas believe that his honor is a towing force, not a towed object, implying that to cut the galley's mooring cable would be to call in question that status of his honor (a concern for Pompey only because Menas wants him involved in and politically liable for the proposal before it is consummated). Menas immediately situates Pompey's honor in the world of realpolitik, using a metaphor likewise projected from the links schema, but with stronger overtones of the path schema:

For this,
I'll never follow thy palled fortunes more.
Who seeks, and will not take, when once 'tis offered,
Shall never find it more.


Menas reverses the force dynamic10 that structures Pompey's view of his own honor. Menas “follow[s],” is attracted along the path of, Pompey's fortunes. But these fortunes are for Menas only his own profit. When Pompey asserts that what is led by his honor is his own profit, Menas disengages himself from the path and force dynamic of Pompey (= “fortunes”), itself subject to a towing force that Menas cannot understand and over which he has no control.

Caesar, for his part, portrays himself to his followers as predominantly a man of peace reluctantly dragged by the force of simple justice into a war contrary to his nature:

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.


With Antony's death, Cleopatra's main fear is that she will be imprisoned, constrained, and towed along as a prisoner in the force dynamic of Caesar's triumphal spectacle (“Know, sir [Proculeius], that I will not wait pinioned at your master's court … Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome?” [5.2.51-52, 54-56]; “He'll [Caesar] lead me, then, in triumph” [5.2.108]). Antony clearly has the same metaphor in mind, if less explicitly, as he pleads with Eros to kill him:

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


Antony would, with his arms pinioned (an ironically appropriate consequence of those “strong Egyptian fetters”), be one of a long queue of prisoners attached to a linking rope, forced to march at the pace of Caesar's chariot in the procession of his triumph just as his passion for Cleopatra tied him by his heartstrings to her rudder at Actium.

In that climactic battle we see the densest occurrence of these metaphors. But Antony's troops see that he is being towed long before the battle itself, as Canidius remarks of his general's decision to give battle at sea, rather than on land where he has the advantage: “so our leader's led / And we are women's men” (3.7.69-70). Men, leaders, and Roman generals prototypically set direction along the path of events; they do not follow paths blazed by others, as Antony cries out in anguish to Cleopatra when they rejoin in Alexandria:

O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See
How I convey my shame out of thine eyes
By looking back what I have left behind
'Stroyed in dishonour …
                    Egypt, thou knewst too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after.

(3.11.51-54, 56-58)

As Canidius has predicted, Cleopatra is now the leader; Antony is the led. This metaphor of towing projected from the links schema continues as Antony in effect interprets, conveys, or convoys,11 his military shame from Cleopatra's very gaze itself. What he figuratively sees reflected in her eyes is himself, and to his rear, the procession of the fleet that he led, even as he in turn permitted himself to be led by Cleopatra's abrupt departure from the sea battle. Cleopatra as the tower leads Antony's heart (that in military combat was wont in better days to “burst / The buckles on his breast”) by the linking medium of its strings; her rudder sets the course for him and for his troops. Antony and Cleopatra are linked, but the force dynamics governing that link are precisely the reverse of what they should be in time of war. “These strong Egyptian fetters” have wreaked their final and most potent damage.

The last consequence of that damage is, of course, the death of both the title characters, in which we find the paradoxically most containing and most liberating of the entire path-links-container metaphorical nexus. Both principals perceive their deaths as headlong rushes along a path into a container; in this respect, the overarching metaphorical pattern of Macbeth (see D. Freeman 1995: 706-7) is epitomized in the last major segment of Antony and Cleopatra.

For Antony, that container is the wedding bed, and the force impelling him along the path into that bed is the bridgeroom's prototypically intense sexuality; yet, ironically, Shakespeare plays out the Liebestod theme so that Antony, the great military and sexual swordsman, winds up being penetrated by his own weapon:

                    But I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.


Like Antony, Cleopatra metaphorizes her death as a containing structure into which she hastens, impelled by the intense force of her passionate grief. Later, she depicts her death as a containing force that likewise maintains her ascendancy over the forces of time and circumstance by fettering them:

                    Then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death
Ere death dare come to us?


                    And it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds;
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change …


Even, or perhaps especially, in death, Cleopatra maintains her own autonomy: she is not led in Caesar's triumph, but, as Caesar himself points out, opposes his goals (and hence the path in terms of which we understand progress toward goals) and chooses her own path for the journey of her death:

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


And in what is perhaps the most startling of the metaphors in which we are asked to understand her death, Cleopatra obliterates the solid, containing periphery of her body not by melting, as Antony had sought for Rome and Romanness, but by sublimation, transmuting the “marble-constant” solidity of her physicality from a solid directly into a gas: “I am fire, and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (5.2.288-89). Having towed Antony by his heartstrings from the battle of Actium to final defeat and immurement in her tower at Alexandria, Cleopatra now follows his imaginary example in conceiving of her death.

For Cleopatra has been preceded in thus perceiving her end by Antony's anguished parable to the uncomprehending Eros about the death of his standing and reputation. Fresh from his defeat before Alexandria and the “discandying” of his troops' hearts, Antony ironically defines for Eros, in a brief lesson about Gestalt perception, the final consequence of letting Rome in Tiber melt. The speech depends upon the metaphorical projection Knowing is Seeing and is in the form of an exemplum about the contingent nature of human knowledge:

Eros, thou yet behold'st me? …
Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs?
They are black vesper's pageants. …
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water. …
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.


Near the end of a play in which, as the foregoing analysis suggests, the unambiguous, clearly outlined containing peripheries of Rome, empire, and military loyalty have, for an Antony rightly termed dissolute, melted into the liquids of passion and mercurial favor, he fully plays out his association of a containing and defining shape with his status, his standing in the world, and his very existence.

Antony implicates the hapless Eros in the act of seeing and cognizing, and invites him to imagine acts of seeing (and hence of knowing) shapes of cloud vapor to which our imagination imputes a defining periphery and structure. These acts become increasingly discrete and detailed, from a cloud that is only somewhat like a dragon, to a vapor that is somewhat like one or another animal (bears and lions are vaguely big four-legged animals), a fortress with towers, a rock hanging from a mountainside, a headland with trees blowing in the wind. These visions “mock our eyes with air”; when we see these vapors, our imagination causes us to inscribe perimeters around them and give them shape—for a moment, to indulge the illusion that these imaginary perimeters contain and delimit real objects.

But they do not, for the Gestalt perception created by the outline that our imagination momentarily imposes on these vaporous entities can be “dislimned,”12 have its defining boundary and inner coherence destroyed, by a moment's change in the general background, or “rack”13 of clouds that have provided the “data” for this evanescent “perception.” Our vision, and with it, our knowledge, even our confidence in what and how we know, can be obliterated, and obliterated far more thoroughly than the Tiber can melt Antony's Rome or the Nile Cleopatra's Egypt. What we once knew with confidence can become—with a change in the background of that cloud formation that is no more tangible or discernible than a thought—mere vapor once again, as impossible to distinguish from what surrounds it as one kind of water is from another—say, water of Tiber from water of Nile.

And now, for the uncomprehending Eros, as he watches his idol come unglued before his eyes, comes the moral. Antony the man, and all he once represented (significantly, “thy captain”)—Rome, the military ethos, leadership, stability, his own existence, perhaps existence itself—become as contingent against a background of the new dispensation's shifting values and alliances as are the shapes that our imagination limns against a background of vaporous shapes that appear and disappear at a moment's notice. He is “even such a body” as those clouds; like them, he “cannot hold this visible shape”: the outline that we and Eros (and everyone) see and therefore know to contain him (for Knowing is Seeing)—citizenship, military rank, family, reputation, standing, armor—can “un-appear” at the slightest shift in the political winds.

Those winds obliterate the “visible shape” that once contained Antony's heart (the same organ that Philo had seen “burst its buckles” in the military sphere): the heart that in turn contained a million more hearts in the bodies of the troops contained by the military ethos and the force of Antony's leadership; those same hearts that now “do discandy, melt their sweets / On blossoming Caesar.”14

If we sought for the sake of argument to interpret Antony and Cleopatra with Cleopatra as its dominating hero-figure, the major argument would rest, I suggest, on the fact that Antony's vision and knowledge of himself is defined, and in the end undefined, by his Romanness. Cleopatra, by contrast, sees him even in death as “past the size of dreaming … nature's piece 'gainst fancy, / Condemning shadows quite” (5.2.96, 98-99).

On this analysis, Cleopatra is the truly subversive force against Rome, for she threatens not merely Roman hegemony but Roman epistemology. The Rome personified in Octavius Caesar constructs itself as a sharply outlined, demarcated entity, and its might as concrete, structured, tangible, measurable, and, above all, visible; Cleopatra, for her part, exempts herself not only from conventional morality but the force of time and even the laws of physics. Small wonder, then, that when the grimly politic Octavius Caesar (maker of a marriage whose linking bonds, as we have seen, were not between his own sister and Antony but between himself and Antony) issues his first post-Cleopatran orders, they are detailed instructions in how to see, how to know, how to interpret: “Come, Dolabella, see / High order in this great solemnity” (5.2.364-65).

Dolabella is ordered to create a funeral ceremony that its viewers will see and know as the Octavian New World Order. The lovers' funeral must “keep the square”: fancy must not outwork nature; Antony's deliquescent Rome, Cleopatra's sublimated fire and air, must be—and be seen to be—buried by the book, linked forever—but also contained forever—in the basest of the four classical elements. Rome must never melt again.


  1. I assume general familiarity with this body of work, in which the most recent studies, in addition to those in this volume, include Gibbs 1994; Steen 1994; Morse 1994; D. Freeman 1993, 1995; Turner 1991, 1996; and M. Freeman 1997.

  2. Citations are from Wilders 1995.

  3. For the standard account of Love is a Fluid in a Container, see Kövesces 1988: 43-44.

  4. See, among many others, Knight 1951: 232-39.

  5. Wilders 1995: 223 gives a good historical account of “discandy”; the OED citation is “To melt or dissolve out of a candied or solid condition.”

  6. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses this same metaphor in a way that more clearly reveals its operation, as Isabella describes how Claudio will lose his honor if he does not sacrifice himself for her: “In such a [nature], as you consenting to't, / Would bark your honour from that trunk you bear, / And leave you naked” (3.1.71-73 [the text is Lever 1965]). An important interpretive point about Antony's use of this figure is enhanced by a cognitive analysis. We might be tempted to read Antony-as-tallest-tree phallically. But that reading does violence to the figure's immediate context, in which, I would argue, there is no phallic imagery but a great deal of container-as-periphery imagery. The bark as periphery that protects the tree's vital substance maps into the candied shell as periphery that protects the vital substance of Antony's military ethos. The container reading explains more of the figure's element than does the phallic reading. Although Antony and Cleopatra has great many phallic images, this is not one of them. For discussion of how cognitive analysis yields a metatheory of literary interpretation, see D. Freeman 1998.

  7. Unsurprisingly, Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths are metaphorized in identical terms: “[Antony.] The long day's task is done, / And we must sleep …” (4.14.35-36). “[Iras.] … the bright day is done, / And we are for the dark” (5.2.192-93).

  8. Perhaps this is what is meant by Cleopatra's “The odds is gone” (4.15.68).

  9. For a cognitive account of parental nurturance that sets out these elements in more detail, see Lakoff 1996: 108-29. This passage lends itself particularly well to a blended-space analysis of the sort articulated in other essays in this volume and elsewhere in current scholarship on metaphor. But the blending analysis does not, to my mind, account for the broad range of figurative language and other metaphorized elements (stage business, plot, character) characteristic of dramatic poetry. The theory of blended mental spaces provides rich new insights into the figurative language of short, self-contained poems (see, e.g., M. Freeman 1997) and of longer, narrative works like novels (see Vimala Herman's essay in this volume), where novelist, various narrators, and reader are situated differently. But this aproach seems rather confining, in its present form, for the rich heterogeneity of dramatic art.

  10. The following discussion draws much of its conceptual framework from Leonard Talmy's pioneering research in force dynamics. A good introduction to this work is to be found in Talmy 1983.

  11. The etymological relationship of convey in the sense of conveying meaning, significance (OED, v., 9.b.) was closer to convoy in Shakespeare's time. Like convoy, convey carried naval overtones.

  12. OED, v. “dislimn”: (1) “To obliterate the outlines of (anything limned); to efface, blot out.”

  13. OED, sb. “rack”: (3b) “driving mist or fog.” But in light of the other Shakespearean illustration offered for this sense (The Tempest, 4.1.156), “The great Globe it selfe … shall dissolue, And … Leaue not a racke behinde,” it would seem that the more nearly correct sense for “rack” here is (3a), “Clouds, or a mass of cloud, driven before the wind in the upper air.” Wilders 1995: 254n apparently shares this view.

  14. Rosalie Colie (1974: 199-200) has written about Antony's climactic speech in terms very similar to the foregoing—as Antony's “dissolution.” What her analysis fails to account for, in my view, is how this dissolution of Antony's selfhood works not only with other metaphors of melting in the play, but with Shakespeare's metaphorical account of what in Antony is dissolved: the sharply etched outline of his civic and military status.


Charney, Maurice: 1961 Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Clemen, Wolfgang: 1962 [1951] The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (New York: Hill and Wang).

Colie, Rosalie: 1974 Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Doran, Madeleine: 1976 Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Freeman, Donald C.: 1993 “‘According to my bond’: King Lear and Re-Cognition,” Language and Literature 2: 1-18; 1995 “‘Catch[ing] the nearest way’: Macbeth and Cognitive Metaphor,” Journal of Pragmatics 23: 689-708; 1998 “Making Literary Arguments,” paper delivered at the Universidad de Granada.

Freeman, Margaret H.: 1997 “Grounded Spaces: Deictic -self Anaphors in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” Language and Literature 7: 7-28.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr.: 1994 The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Johnson, Mark: 1987 The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Knight, G. Wilson: 1951 The Imperial Theme (London: Methuen).

Kövesces, Zoltán: 1988 The Language of Love: The Semantics of Passion in Conversational English (London: Associated University Presses).

Lakoff, George: 1996 Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson: 1999 Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books).

McAlindon, T. A.: 1973 Shakespeare and Decorum (London: Macmillan).

Morse, David Wayne: 1994 “Metaphor as a Framework for Formulaic Poetry,” Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California.

Shakespeare, William: 1965 The Arden Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, edited by J. W. Lever (London: Routledge); 1995 The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, edited by John Wilders (London: Routledge).

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E.: 1935 Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Steen, Gerard: 1994 Understanding Metaphor in Literature: An Empirical Approach (London: Longman).

Sweetser, Eve: 1990 From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Talmy, Leonard: 1983 “How Language Structures Space,” in Spatial Orientation: Theory, Research, and Application, edited by Herbert Pick and Linda Acreodolo, 225-82 (New York: Plenum).

Turner, Mark: 1991 Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press); 1996 The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press).

Further Reading

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Charney, Maurice. “The Imagery of Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama, pp. 79-141. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Studies Antony and Cleopatra's use of the imagery related to dimension and scope, demonstrating the way such imagery expresses the hyperbole characterizing the style of the play.

Dorius, R. J. “Love, Death, and the Heroic” and “The Triumph of Imagination: Act V.” In How to Read Shakespearean Tragedy, edited by Edward Quinn, pp. 295-310; 339-49. New York: Harper's College Press, 1978.

Discusses the interaction between tragic, heroic, and romantic elements in the play, and contends that much of the divergence of opinion regarding the play's genre is rooted in the way Shakespeare's treatment of love and of Cleopatra are interpreted.

Hamilton, Donna B. “Antony and Cleopatra and the Tradition of Noble Lovers.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 1973): 245-52.

Examines the literary tradition that views Antony and Cleopatra as truthful and faithful lovers, and suggests that Shakespeare drew on these accounts for inspiration.

Herbert, T. Walter “A Study of Meaning in Antony and Cleopatra.” In … All These to Teach: Essays in Honor of C. A. Robertson, edited by Robert A. Bryan, Alton C. Morris, A. A. Murphree, and Aubrey L. Williams, pp. 47-66. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.

Offers an overview of the play's setting, action, poetry, and characters informed by an understanding of Elizabethan culture and beliefs.

Kahn, Coppélia. “Antony's Wound.” In Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women, pp. 110-43. London: Routledge, 1997.

Focuses on the rivalry between Octavius Caesar and Antony, and claims that Caesar campaigns against Antony not only in order to portray Cleopatra as an enemy of Rome, but also to eliminate Antony as a serious rival.

MacMullan, Katherine Vance. “Death Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 4 (autumn 1963): 399-410.

Investigates the death imagery that Shakespeare employed in Antony and Cleopatra, focusing on the interconnectedness of the themes of love and death.

Miola, Robert S. “Antony and Cleopatra: Rome and the World.” In Shakespeare's Rome, pp. 116-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Explores Shakespeare's treatment of Rome and its relationship to Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, as well as on the relationship of Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra to his depiction of the empire in Julius Caesar.

Nandy, Dipak. “The Realism of Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare in a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, pp. 172-94. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

Interprets Antony's experience in the play as a discovery of his true relationship to Rome, personified by Octavius Caesar, and Egypt, represented by Cleopatra.

Rinehart, Keith. “Shakespeare's Cleopatra and England's Elizabeth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 1 (winter 1972): 81-6.

Demonstrates the likelihood that Shakespeare used Queen Elizabeth as a model for his portrayal of Cleopatra.

Thomas, Vivian. “Realities and Imaginings in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 93-153. London: Routledge, 1989.

Examines the ways in which Shakespeare adapted his source material in order to portray Antony and Cleopatra in a manner attractive enough to encourage the sympathy of audiences.

Williamson, Marilyn. “The Political Context in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 3 (summer 1970): 241-51.

Stresses the importance of the aspects of Antony and Cleopatra that relate directly to Plutarch's historical narrative, maintaining that Shakespeare's use of his source was intended to demonstrate relevant political lessons, lessons which are taught through studying Antony and Cleopatra not just as lovers, but as rulers.


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 58)


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 81)