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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Sheridan Morley (review date 7 August 1999)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Spectator 283, no. 8922 (7 August 1999): 40-1.

[In the following review of the 1999 Globe Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Giles Block, Morley, although not impressed with the overall production, praises it as the best he has ever seen at the Globe.]

At Shakespeare's Globe, Giles Block's new Antony and Cleopatra is a weird affirmation of that amazing space's strengths and weaknesses, and far and away the best production I have ever seen there, which is admittedly not saying a lot. An all-male cast, as in Shakespeare's own tradition, is led by the theatre's artistic director Mark Rylance, who as Cleopatra appears on stage variously attired as Dame Edith Sitwell, Snow White, Liberace's mother and the Maid of the Mountains, all the while wearing the very best carpets and curtains that old Egypt can provide. He also achieves the remarkable feat of making Liz Taylor's epic performance in the role seem by comparison to have been in very quiet good taste, although I was rather hoping we would see him dressed as Bette Davis for Good Queen Bess and announcing that, though he was merely a woman, he had the heart of a man.

Paul Shelley, a natural Enobarbus, is somewhat undercast as Antony, but not half so undercast as the rest of a company of 30, most of whom appear to be encountering Shakespeare and possibly paying audiences for the very first time. But this is not the National, or indeed the RSC at Stratford; as at the Open Air Theatre of Regent's Park, the event is the experience of the arena on a fine night. Block is brilliantly adept at grabbing a passing crowd and commanding at least some of their attention.

As the natural evening starts to give way to the arc lights, the production does begin to focus in its wayward way, at least until Antony is winched up to Cleopatra's monument, at which point I began vaguely hoping for Douglas Fairbanks, sword in teeth, to rescue an always difficult last act.

Rylance plays the great death scene like Joan Crawford with toothache, but there is a mesmeric 60-second appearance by the American actor Michael Rudko, giving by far the best performance of a long evening as the old asp-salesman. Ben Walden plays Caesar as if leading a delegation of chartered surveyors through a difficult union negotiation, and the rest of the casting has to be seen not to be believed. And yet both Block and Rylance are closer to the truth of what the Globe is all about than any nitpicking critic; when in the second interval you come out of the pit and see St Paul's across the water in all its majesty, even the fact that they are charging you a fiver for a bottle of water and a lukewarm plastic cup of acidic white wine seems oddly appropriate. Doubtless the oranges in 1600 were a rip-off at 50 groats, and the Globe may well be at its best when filled not by theatregoers but by schoolchildren and scholars desperate to see Sam Wanamaker's impossible dream made timber. What his Globe now does best of all is give us the link, in its exotic and eccentric mix of performance and profiteering, from Will Shakespeare across 400 years to Walt Disney, the two greatest showbiz magicians of the fast-closing millennium.

L. J. Mills (essay date spring 1960)

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SOURCE: Mills, L. J. “Cleopatra's Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 2 (spring 1960): 147-62.

[In the following essay, Mills attributes Cleopatra's personal tragedy to her amoral, equivocal, and egoistic nature.]

Interpretations of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra have emphasized, with...

(This entire section contains 8125 words.)

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varying degrees of stress, one or another of the three principal themes in the play, which are, as summarized by John Munro:

… first, the East represented by Egypt and lands beyond versus the West represented by Rome; secondly, the strife in the Triumvirate who divided and governed the world, and the reduction of the three, Octavius, Lepidus and Antony, to one, Octavius; and thirdly, the love and tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Of all these the last is dramatically dominant.1

But among the commentators who regard the third theme as dominant there is much difference of opinion. Some write as if the play were entitled “The Tragedy of Antony”; for example, J. Middleton Murry:

… up to the death of Antony it is from him that the life of the play has been derived. She [Cleopatra] is what she is to the imagination, rather in virtue of the effects we see in Antony, than by virtue of herself. He is magnificent; therefore she must be. But when he dies, her poetic function is to maintain and prolong, to reflect and reverberate, that achieved royalty of Antony's.2

Others give Cleopatra more significance but yet make Antony central, as does Peter Alexander, who allots to Cleopatra a somewhat more distinct, more nearly self-contained personality than does Murry:

Antony dies while the play has still an act to run, but without this act his story would be incomplete. For Cleopatra has to vindicate her right to his devotion.3

Any interpreter, however, who concentrates on the tragedy of Antony is confronted with the difficulty pointed out by Robert Speaight:

… if you are thinking in terms of Antony's tragedy alone, and if you are trying to make his tragedy conform to a classical definition, then you may find it awkward to face a fifth act, in which only his heroic and fallen shadow is left to keep Cleopatra company.4

Moreover, such an interpreter overlooks the title of the play as it appears in the Folio: “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra”, with the significant comma after “Anthonie.” The nature of the play Antony and Cleopatra, really in itself more than from the comma signal but given added emphasis by it, should be self-evident: the play presents the tragedy of Antony and then the tragedy of Cleopatra. Such recognition, however, does not obscure the fact that each tragedy gives significance to the other and increases its effect.

Judicially objective critics have granted Cleopatra more stature as a tragic figure in her own right than those who think of the play as Antony's tragedy. J. W. Mackail, for instance, though he does not point out that Cleopatra's tragedy differs from Antony's, says:

It is the tragedy not of the Roman world, but of Antony and Cleopatra: and of both of them equally. … Here, neither single name gives the central tone to the drama; Antony does not exist for the sake of Cleopatra (as one might put it), nor does Cleopatra exist for the sake of Antony: they are two immense and in a sense equivalent forces which never coalesce, and the interaction between them is the drama.5

And Virgil K. Whitaker, though insisting that “the tragic action of the play is centered upon Antony, who has so yielded himself to the passion of love that it has possessed his will and dethroned his judgment”, gives Cleopatra stature as a tragic figure: “Cleopatra, although she is developed almost as fully as he is, remains the seductress, and only at the end does she become a participant in a tragedy of her own.”6 “A tragedy of her own”—just what is it? “A question to be asked”, and answered.7

It is trite to remark that an audience's first impression of a character is very important; it is not commonplace to call particular attention to Cleopatra's first word in the play: “If”. It is obvious—or should be—that in saying “If it be love indeed, tell me how much”, she is following up a previous declaration, on Antony's part, of great love for her by teasing and bantering him. She is playful, but within her brief demand may be discerned one of her chief devices, contradiction.8 Immediately, by the entrance of the messenger from Rome, her tone changes; the contradictions become blunt, the taunts amazingly bold and affrontive. Antony's submitting to them proves that Philo's term “dotage” is not an exaggeration. That Cleopatra's contradictory behavior (as in I.ii.89-91; iii. 1-5) is calculated is obvious from her rejoinder to Charmian's warning: “Thou teachest like a fool. The way to lose him!” (I.iii.10).9 Simultaneously Cleopatra's constant fear is revealed: that Antony will leave her.

When Antony, having determined to break off with Cleopatra and return to Rome, goes to her to announce his departure, she perceives that he is in a serious mood and, surmising his intention, gives him no chance to talk. Six times she interrupts him when he starts to speak. In her tirades she taunts him (1) by references to his wife Fulvia, charging him with falsity to her; (2) by the accusation that he has treacherously betrayed her (Cleopatra); and (3) by recounting his compliments to her when he was wooing, practically calling him a liar. And when eventually Antony commands her to listen to him and hear his reasons for leaving, ending with a reference to Fulvia's death, she then accuses him of lying, of expecting her, like a child, to believe fairy tales. When he offers proof, the letter he has received, she then charges him with insensibility for not weeping over his wife's death and predicts that he would be equally unmoved by her death. And as he protests his love for her she begins one of her fainting spells but changes her mind; she is, she says, “quickly ill, and well”, as changeable as Antony is in his love. She mockingly urges him to produce some tears for Fulvia and pretend they are for her, ridicules him for not making a better show at weeping, and calls on Charmian to join her in laughing at Antony's rising anger.

Antony turns to walk away. Then Cleopatra brings him back by the one appeal that just then could do it, a quavering “Courteous lord”. It is the first time in the play that she has spoken to him in anything like a complimentary fashion. Then she pretends to have something serious to say, or that she was going to say and has now forgot. Antony recognizes that she is playing for time, and she perceives his recognition.10 She has drawn on her coquette's kit for a variety of tools, and they have failed her, even her appeal to pity (her most effective, much used tool); Antony is going despite all she can do. But perhaps, if she says something kind, for once, it may eventually bring him back:

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


Or something that may seem kind! Her reference to his honor is much belated; she makes another appeal to pity; and the sequence of s sounds and the concatenation of b's and f's and e's and t's in the last line may suggest, by the conceivable hissing and sneering, an unconscious extrusion of her essentially serpentine nature.

During Antony's absence Cleopatra's behavior is self-characterizing. She evinces no interest in the business he is engaged in; she is concerned as to what he may be thinking of her, is enveloped in thoughts physical and sensual, and reviews the list of her great lovers, “Broad-fronted Caesar”, “great Pompey”, “brave Mark Antony”. She revels in memories of her behavior to Antony—trickery in fishing, laughing him out of and into patience, dressing him in tires and mantles while she “wore his sword Philippan”, contrarieties all. She is aghast when the news comes that Antony has married Octavia and beats the messenger, but regains hope from the description he gives of her.

We do not see Antony and Cleopatra together again until just before the battle of Actium. Were it not for Enobarbus' description of her on the river Cydnus and his analysis of her charms (II.ii.195-245), there would be little about her in the first half of the play that to an objective reader is alluring. But even Enobarbus' account hints at Cleopatra's oppositeness, for he pictures Antony, “Enthron'd i' th' market place”, waiting for Cleopatra to appear before him, which she does not do, and accepting her refusal to dine with him and her counter-invitation “to come and suppe with her”.11 The description follows closely the reconciliation scene between Antony and Octavius in which Antony, then at his best, is shown as firm master of himself and thus provides the background to contrast with his sorry self when manipulated by Cleopatra. But there is no such admirable background for Cleopatra; it is apparent that her tragedy will have to be of a distinctly different sort from Antony's. It cannot be a “tragic fall”, for there is nothing for her to fall from.

After Actium, where Antony at her urging has fought at sea, she offers as her reason for leaving the scene of the battle that she was afraid. But that reason does not satisfy everyone. E. E. Stoll, for instance, lists among various unanswered questions in Shakespeare's plays the query “Why does Cleopatra flee from the battle and Antony?”12 Later he wonders whether in examining such a question as that, and about her later dealings with Thyreus and her responsibility in the second sea-fight, we may not be “then considering too curiously”.13 Certainly the question about her behavior at Actium exists and must be considered; but just as certainly it cannot be answered.14 Cleopatra's “I little thought / You would have followed” (III.xi.55-56), besides putting the blame on him, may reveal a more nearly true reason than her “fearful sails”: Is her leaving the battle at the critical point a test of Antony, to see whether the political leader or the lover is stronger in him? Does she fear that military success and political mastery would be a dangerous rival to her charms? And when Antony reproaches her with

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


and she cries “Pardon, pardon!” is she really sorry? Her behavior to Thyreus soon after makes us wonder.

When Thyreus tells Cleopatra that

He [Caesar] knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love, but as you fear'd him


she exclaims “O!” What does she mean by that? There are those who seem to know; e. g., G. L. Kittredge (note on l. 57):

Cleopatra's exclamation is meant to convey to Thyreus not only eager acceptance of Caesar's theory of her union with Antony, but also gratified surprise that Caesar should have shown so sympathetic an understanding of the case. All this she expresses in plain terms in her next speech: ‘He is a god,’ etc.

That interpretation implies that Cleopatra, suddenly perceiving a way out of the impasse, is deserting Antony and preparing to entangle Caesar in her “toils of grace”, through the pity for her that she hopes to inspire. But conceivably the “O!” may merely imply painful shock at the idea that anyone could even think she feared Antony and did not love him.15 If so, the idea of appealing to Caesar's pity may not occur at the moment but be suggested by Thyreus'

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


It is doubtful whether one is justified in saying that “All this she expresses in plain terms in her next speech”, inasmuch as Thyreus' statement comes between her “O!” and “her next speech”. Or, perhaps, the previous lines should be taken into consideration; Thyreus says,

                                                                                                    Caesar entreats
Not to consider in what case thou stand'st
Further than he is Caesar,


which seems to promise noble treatment, with possible emphasis on the good will of Caesar the man. If the idea of attempting to entangle Caesar has already occurred to her, her enthusiastic “Go on. Right royal!” is flattery intended to be relayed to Caesar. But then Thyreus'

He knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love, but as you fear'd him

is definitely cooling, and her “O!” may involuntarily escape her, indicating sudden awareness of Caesar's realization that she “embraced” Antony because of his power more than for love of the man himself and thus is on guard against any designs she might have on him now that he has conquered Antony. If that is the situation, then Thyreus' speech suggesting Caesar's pity for the scars upon her honor “as constrained blemishes, / Not as deserv'd” arouses hope and prompts her flattering and pity-inviting

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

(ll. 60-62)

a bare-faced lie, as Enobarbus recognizes.

Whatever the significance of the “O!” it is soon obvious that Cleopatra proceeds to cajole Thyreus,16 hoping thereby to make him a friend in court. But whether she is actually deserting Antony and staking all on a hope of ensnaring Caesar or is planning a deep deception of Caesar it is impossible to tell. Nor is her behavior to Antony clear when he enters unexpectedly and in fury orders punishment to Thyreus and condemns her. She attempts to defend herself with four questions: “O, is't come to this?” “Wherefore is this?” “Have you done yet?” and, after a parenthetical “I must stay his time”, “Not know me yet?” What does she mean by the fourth question? She probably intends for Antony to understand that she was just temporizing, meeting Caesar's suspected treachery with pretended submission. When Antony, still pained by what he is sure is betrayal of him, asks, “Cold-hearted toward me?” she breaks out in impassioned speech:

                                                                                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!


Actually her plea that, if her heart is cold, from it hail, poisoned in its source (her heart), should be “engendered” only to fall in her neck, melt, and in melting dissolve her life, is basically nonsense. For if there were enough poison in the source, her heart, to kill her when, incorporated into hail, it was carried to her neck and then caused her life to dissolve, she would have been dead long ago. To say nothing of the amount of poison it would take to dispose of Caesarion and “my brave Egyptians all”! She has created a barrage of words that by the excess of emotion and the deficiency of sense seem to denote complete devotion to Antony but which by the very excesses reveal the opposite. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Her speech is not the bald lie that she tells Antony when later she sends him word that she has killed herself, but there is deception, masked by the barrage of words and the vehemence of her utterance.17

What a narrow escape that was for her! She has convinced Antony (“I am satisfied”) but not Enobarbus; for him it is the last straw. He knows that Antony is now lost, for “When valour preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with” (ll. 199-200). Though Enobarbus speaks only of Antony, he reveals his interpretation of Cleopatra's behavior in the crisis.

Antony declares that he will fight Caesar again, gains Cleopatra's “That's my brave lord”, and joins with her in anticipation of her birthday festivities. The next morning she playfully helps Antony don his armor and kisses him as he departs for battle. She comments to Charmian, “He goes forth gallantly”, and expresses a wish

                                                            That he and Caesar might
Determine this great war in single fight!
Then Antony—but now—


Since she apparently thinks Antony will be defeated, she is surprised at his victorious return:

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


Though she thus compliments Antony in exaggerated terms and rewards Scarus extravagantly (“An armour all of gold”, l. 27), she hardly discloses her real thoughts. Nor is it certain that she did not betray Antony in the second sea-fight. Antony is sure: “This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me!” (IV.xii.10) and he is exceedingly bitter about the “triple-turn'd whore” that

Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose
Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss!

He calls for Eros, but Cleopatra appears, having mistakenly thought, perhaps, that Antony was summoning her by calling on the deity of love (Eros), and is met by “Ah, thou spell! Avaunt!” In innocence or seeming innocence she asks, “Why is my lord enrag'd against his love?” Then at Antony's threats she leaves. Exclaiming that he is “more mad / Than Telamon for his shield” (xiii. 1-2), she sends Mardian to Antony:

Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself.
Say that the last I spoke was ‘Antony’
And word it, prithee, piteously. Hence, Mardian,
And bring me how he takes my death.


The lie, with the appeals for pity—“I have slain myself” (for love of Antony), “piteously”—is her final deception of Antony. Knowledge about how he takes her death may be intended to provide her with a clue as to possible appeasement of his wrath, but the lie is the climax of all her tricks, and ironically causes his death. Though it be argued that she did not betray Antony, his thinking she did is understandable, in the light of her behavior throughout the play up to the time of the second sea-fight.

What would be—to return to Cleopatra's entrance and exit for a moment—the impression on an audience of Cleopatra's behavior? Antony's brief but vivid description of the fleet's surrender and his repeated charge that Cleopatra has betrayed him, plus remembrance of what happened at Actium, may well make an audience suspicious of her when she appears. And her exit, following immediately upon Antony's detailed picture of her as the captive of Caesar and the victim of Octavia's wrath, may well give the definite impression that her self-interest has been and is the force that motivates her action. She does not even think of fainting or of attempting to kill herself in disproof of Antony's accusation. And her question “Why is my lord enrag'd against his love?” is colored by her accustomed plea for pity. Altogether, whether or not she betrayed Antony to Caesar is left an unanswered question, like the motives for her behavior at Actium.

There are some obvious facts. Cleopatra, to satisfy her ego, must have as her lovers the world's greatest. The outcome of the war between Antony and Octavius, since it is for world mastery, will determine which will emerge as the greater. Suppose Antony should win: he will certainly be immersed in state affairs and neglect her. Suppose Octavius should win: then there is the question as to whether she can ensnare him. Her equivocal behavior to Antony and her flirting with Caesar through Thyreus may reflect her uncertainty.

Yet there can be no doubt that Cleopatra has love, of a sort, for Antony, and when he, dying, is brought to her in the monument it is the realization of his personality as a man, her lover, and her belated recognition of the stalwart Roman qualities he represents (emphasized by the pride in them shown in his dying speech) that for the moment overshadow everything else. Even though self-pity is not completely absent—“Noblest of men, woo't die? / Hast thou no care of me?” (IV.xv.59-60)—she is genuine in lamenting that “The crown o' th' earth doth melt”, and she is quite humbled:

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

(ll. 73-75)

Some appreciation of Antony's worth, now that he is no more, comes to her:

                                                                                                              It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods,
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol'n our jewel.

(ll. 75-78)

But there is no admitting, apparently no perception, of the fact that she is responsible for his defeat and death. Her self-pity, her concentration on self, makes it impossible for her to see the situation objectively. If she could see it objectively, she would not be Cleopatra. It is her very Cleopatra-ness that is the basis for her ultimate tragedy. If she were a Juliet she would kill herself immediately for love of Antony, not merely talk about suicide. The fact that she does not act but talks precludes any interpretation of her tragedy as a love tragedy, even though there is pathos in her

                                                                      what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.

(ll. 86-88)

She has learned something; she has gained unconsciously some insight into what virtue, Roman virtue as embodied in Antony, is. There is no sneering now at “a Roman thought” (I.ii.87). But though she knows no “friend / But resolution and the briefest end”, she is yet a long way from declaring “Husband, I come”; her tragedy is by no means yet manifest.

When we next see her (V.ii) some time has elapsed; she still talks of suicide, but not of “the briefest end”: “My desolation does begin to make / A better life.” Better than what? Since she immediately speaks of Caesar and his subjection to Fortune, she will show a “life” superior to his by doing that which ends all the influence of Fortune. Is it unconscious irony that she uses the word “life” in speaking of the ending of her life? Her whole speech (ll. 1-8) is of herself in relation to Caesar, and she does not attempt suicide until the Roman guardsmen make a move to capture her. Meanwhile she has parleyed with Proculeius and through him made a bid for pity from Caesar—“a queen his beggar”—and professes “A doctrine of obedience”. But she adds, significantly, “and would gladly / Look him i' th' face” (ll. 31-32).

When she is prevented from killing herself (not for love of Antony but to forestall capture) she moans,

                                                            Where art thou, death?
Come hither, come! Come, come, and take a queen
Worth many babes and beggars.

(ll. 46-48)

The real reason for her attempted suicide is made plain by her outburst after Proculeius' “O, temperance, lady!”:

Sir, I will eat no meat; I'll not drink, sir;
If idle talk will once be necessary,
I'll not sleep neither. This mortal house I'll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I
Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court
Nor once be chastis'd with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varlotry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! Rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark-nak'd and let the waterflies
Blow me into abhorring! Rather make
My country's high pyramides my gibber
And hang me up in chains!


Proculeius had been commended to her by Antony (IV.xv.47-48), but he has proved untrustworthy. When Dolabella follows and attempts to gain her confidence by “Most noble Empress, you have heard of me?” (V.ii.71), she tests him: “You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams; / Is't not your trick?” He does not understand what she means, and is puzzled as she pours out an elaborate eulogy of Antony (ll. 79 ff.). She glorifies Antony's power and bounty and wins Dolabella's sympathy to the degree that he answers truthfully her question as to what Caesar intends to do with her: lead her in triumph in Rome.19 She has told Dolabella that she “dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” and asked whether “there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of”. It appears that she was giving him an opportunity to assure her that Caesar, now Emperor, is such a man;20 since he did not respond affirmatively, she puts her direct question. Immediately after his answer, Caesar enters.

It is through the glorified Antony of her dream that the audience is made aware of the fact that Cleopatra now has gained some conception of the worth of Antony. But that is in retrospect; she indicated no such recognition while Antony was alive. The idealization of Antony in the dream contrasts with the unideal realism of her treatment of him while he lived. (Dramatically, the idealized Antony comes between the deceitful Proculeius and the cold, unmalleable Caesar. Cleopatra's acquired recognition of Antony's excellence cannot be left to the very end of the play but must be made evident, for it is vital to the formation of her tragedy.) But she is in many ways still the former Cleopatra; she schemes, and uses a new device to arouse pity for herself. There is no admission of responsibility for what has happened, no hint of a sense of guilt. And she obviously has not given up hope of a future if one can be contrived that is not shameful to her. That future depends on what she can gain from Caesar.

Since she is still alive and has not become penitent nor admitted—even realized—any responsibility for the dire situation she is now in, it is inevitable that she should carry on. Indeed the force of momentum, not checked by a change in character, leads the audience to anticipate an attempt to captivate Caesar: Julius Caesar, Pompey, Antony; and now Octavius is Caesar, the world's greatest.21 And it is to be expected that she will use the old tools, or rather the most effective one, the appeal to pity.22 When Caesar enters, she kneels to him:

                                                                                Sir, the gods
Will have it thus. My master and my lord
I must obey;



                                                                                          Sole sir o' th' world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often sham'd our sex.

Caesar's response gives her little encouragement, ending as it does with a threat:

If you apply yourself to our intents,
Which towards you are most gentle, you shall find
A benefit in this change; but, if you seek
To lay on me a cruelty by taking
Antony's course, you shall bereave yourself
Of my good purposes, and put your children
To that destruction which I'll guard them from
If thereon you rely.

There follows the Seleucus incident. Whether she is providing for herself if she should have a future or, as some think, tries to convince Caesar by the planned exposure of her concealing half her wealth that she has no intention of following “Antony's course”, or has contrived the whole thing as a means of eliciting pity, she unquestionably utilizes it for the latter purpose:

O Caesar, what a wounding shame is this,
That thou vouchsafing here to visit me,
Doing the honour of thy lordliness
To one so meek, that mine own servant should
Parcel the sum of my disgraces by
Addition of his envy! Say, good Caesar,
That I some lady trifles have reserv'd,
Immoment toys, things of such dignity
As we greet modern friends withal; and say
Some nobler token I have kept apart
For Livia and Octavia—must I be unfolded
With one that I have bred? The gods! It smites me
Beneath the fall I have. …
Be it known that we, the greatest, are misthought
For things that others do; and, when we fall,
We answer others' merits in our name,
Are therefore to be pitied.

(V.ii.159-171; 176-179)

But her flattery, her profession of complete subjection to him, and her tearful appeals for pity have no effect on the astute Caesar, who answers her by the royal “we” and to her final, more quaveringly piteous “My master and my lord”, says bluntly, “Not so. Adieu.” She has done her best, but her practised methods, particularly the previously much-used pleas for pity, do not touch Caesar. And when he leaves she is vehement in her outburst—“He words me, girls, he words me”, and adds “that I should not / Be noble to myself!”23 There is nothing left for her but to fall back on her resolution. The confirmation by Dolabella of what he had already told her about Caesar's intentions and his specification of a time limit,

                                                                                          Caesar through Syria
Intends his journey, and within three days
You with your children will he send before,


incites her to immediate action. She describes vividly to Iras the exhibition Caesar would make in Rome of Iras and herself (she would no doubt include Charmian if she were then present) and applauds Iras' determination to pluck out her eyes rather than see it—

                                                                                                    Why, that's the way
To fool their preparation, and to conquer
Their most absurd intents.

Caesar having proved to be untouched, she reverts to the scene of her conquest of Antony:

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


With an implied confession of dillydallying, she declares:

My resolution's plac'd, and I have nothing
Of woman in me. Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant. Now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.(24)


In her final moments, as she carries out her resolution, Cleopatra has “immortal longings”, hears Antony call, gloats over outwitting Caesar, addresses Antony as “husband”, shows jealousy in her fear that Iras may gain the first otherworld kiss from Antony, sneers at Caesar again, speaks lovingly to the asp at her breast,25 and dies with “Antony” on her lips and with a final fling of contempt for the world. But, it should be noted, she does not “do it after the high Roman fashion”, nor with the singleness of motive that actuated Antony, whose tragedy gains ironical poignancy because he thought Cleopatra—really the lying Cleopatra—had anticipated him in nobility (IV.xiv.55-62).

Does she kill herself to be with Antony or to escape Caesar? It is the final question, to be placed along with others. Would she have killed herself if she could have added Caesar to her string of “greats”? Why did she leave the battle of Actium? Why did she urge Antony to fight at sea? Did she betray Antony in the second sea-fight? What was the meaning of her “O”? Why did she behave in such a way as to lose her country instead of preserve it? Did she ever really love Antony or did she love herself for having captivated him? Why did she tease, taunt, and cross Antony, very rarely saying anything kind to him? These questions, and others that could be asked, show that it was not accidental that the first word she speaks in the play is “If”. The appropriate symbol for her is a big interrogation point.

There is testimony, of course, by Antony and especially by Enobarbus, the clear-headed, cynical logician, as to her infinite variety. Somehow she has enchanted the world's greatest men, and she is beloved by her attendants, even to the death. But in her behavior throughout the play, from the effrontery of her appearing on the Cydnus to her wily proceedings with Octavius Caesar, there are repeated evidences that she is unaccountable. It is certain that Antony never penetrates her real character; he may call her gypsy and witch, but that is begging the question. How, in the face of and through his presentation of Cleopatra's behavior to Antony, does Shakespeare make of her a force powerful enough to bring about the downfall of the great Antony? Does he not supply the answer, paradoxically, by depicting her as the world's great question mark, alluring and magnetic because of all the unanswerable questions about her? Does he not imply that the secret of her charm lies in the fact that neither Antony nor we (including Shakespeare himself) can identify the secret of her charm? Such an interpretation was suggested by Gamaliel Bradford many years ago but apparently disregarded by most commentators on the play:

I have said that Cleopatra was mysterious. Perhaps it is an element of the art of Shakespeare to puzzle us a little, to make us feel that we cannot interpret him always conclusively. It detracts nothing from the truth of his characters that we cannot always determine what their motives are as we can with that poor little creature of Dryden. … I, at least, do not feel clear as to her good faith to Antony. That she loves him there is no doubt at all, loves him as she is capable of loving. But it is more than doubtful whether she kills herself for love of him or in sheer desperation to avoid the scorn and vengeance of Caesar. I greatly fear that if she had been confident of Caesar's favor, confident of reigning in Rome as she had reigned in Alexandria, Antony's poor dust might have tossed forgotten in the burning winds of Egypt. And yet, I do not know—who can know? That is precisely what gives the character its charm.26

But whatever interpretation of Cleopatra's character may be given—and to survey all that has been said would demand a volume devoted to her—the final question remains: What is her tragedy? One can agree with Willard Farnham's statement (p. 174) that “It is part of her tragedy that with her subtlety she wins control of his [Antony's] force and by winning this control ruins him and herself”, but that is hardly the whole story. Nor is it satisfactory to become rhapsodic, to glorify Cleopatra beyond warrant, as J. Middleton Murry does:

Now [after Antony's death] in very deed, Cleopatra loves Antony: now she discerns his royalty, and loyalty surges up in her to meet it. Now we feel that her wrangling with Caesar and her Treasurer which follows is all external to her—as it were a part which she is still condemned to play ‘in this vile world’: a mere interruption, an alien interlude, while the travail of fusion between the order of imagination and love, and the order of existence and act is being accomplished: till the flame of perfect purpose breaks forth [V.ii.226-229 quoted]. No, not again for Cydnus: but now for the first time, indeed. For that old Cydnus, where the wonder pageant was, was but a symbol and preparation of this. That was an event in time; this is an event in eternity. And those royal robes were then only lovely garments of the body, now they are the integument of a soul. They must show her like a queen, now, because she is a queen, as she never was before.

(Pp. 375-376)

Much nearer to the text of the play and to all the evidence is E. E. Stoll:

… in [an] … audacious, sensuous key, for all her exaltation, she expresses herself on her deathbed. She is tenderer with her women, and stronger and more constant, than she has ever been; but her thoughts of Antony, though now an inviolable shade, are not celestial or Platonic. They are steeped in amorousness, and she is waiting, coiled on her couch. She loves him more than at the beginning; but neither now nor at his death is she, as Professor Schücking declares, “all tenderness, all passionate devotion and unselfish love”; nor does she quit life because it is not worth the living. On life she really never loosens her greedy grip. Her beauty she clutches to her dying bosom as the miser does his gold. Her robe and jewels are, even in death, assumed to heighten the impression of it upon Caesar—though only to show him what he has missed. She hears Antony mock him now, from over the bitter wave; and at the beginning of the scene she cried,

                                                                                                                                  go fetch
My best attires; I am again for Cydnus—

as one who, to please both him and herself, and vex their rival, would fain die at her best, reviving all the glories of that triumph. To an ugly death she could scarcely have brought herself; … the death which … she is choosing and devising [is] … an event, a scene, well-nigh an amour … she thinks the stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, which hurts and is desired … she is wrapped and folded up in sensuous imaginations to the end.27

Indeed, to have Cleopatra glorified and transfigured is to forgive her treatment of Antony, to imply that it was well worth the destruction of the great Roman to bring about her regeneration. If the tragedy of Antony and the tragedy of Cleopatra are to interact to intensify each other, it is necessary not to have a transfiguration of Cleopatra; the poignancy of Antony's tragedy is intensified by Cleopatra's unregeneracy, and it increases the pathos and tragedy of Cleopatra that she is never penitent, not even conscious of the debacle she has wrought. That she does change somewhat, that she does attain some realization of what Antony was, is to be recognized. That she did not realize it earlier, and to a much greater degree, is her tragedy: the too little and the too late. Thus the tragedy of Cleopatra is different in kind from that of Antony; the play contains the tragedy of Antony and then the tragedy of Cleopatra.

The “too little” involves a considerable pathetic element. Cleopatra, though appearing on the Cydnus as Venus, is really Isis in environment, interests, and obsessions. Of that the fertility connotations made obvious in the conversation of her companions Iras and Charmian with the Soothsayer (I.ii), the Nile imagery frequent in the play, and the trend of Cleopatra's own thoughts as revealed in her speeches give plentiful proof. Her basic interests show themselves in her imagination as she visualizes Antony in Rome (I.v.19 ff.). They permeate the glowing dream of Antony she describes to Dolabella, as she concentrates on Antony's power and his bounty (not on aspects of character and personal qualities). They suffuse her final speeches; “but even then what emerges is a state of trance, a vision of the divine lover Antony, filling Heaven and Earth, the kiss of the bridegroom, Love lifted to a higher plane among the Homeric gods, all an aspiration and a wild desire, the eagle and the dove.”28 This last characterization of her vision is over-etherealized; a more moderate statement is Willard Farnham's:

If we are to understand that the love of Cleopatra for Antony, like her character, continues to be deeply flawed to the end of her life, we are nevertheless to understand that, like her character, it has its measure of nobility. If Cleopatra never comes to have a love for Antony to match his love for her, she at least comes to have magnificent visions of what it would be like to achieve such a love, and her climactic vision leads her to call him husband as she dies.

(P. 202)

To that extent we may credit Cleopatra with some ennobling; but it is just enough to intensify and illuminate her tragedy. “She's good, being gone; / The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on”, said Antony (I.ii.130-131), on hearing of Fulvia's death. Cleopatra only after Antony's death comes to some realization of what he was; he's good, being gone. Only after he is wounded or dead does she call him “noble”; only in a sort of funeral hymn does she recognize his power and bounty. But she never feels any sense of guilt such as Antony confesses; there is no peccavi; there is no repentance, no consciousness even, of the need for remorse. She is no Othello; her tragedy can be only partial, not complete. The picture she imagines of rejoining Antony in another world could never become actual; she still would have considerable explaining to do.

Cleopatra's tragedy is inherent in her equivocality, in her utter self-interest, and in her complete ignorance of the existence of an unselfish love apart from the physical. She has had no comprehension of Roman virtues, no recognition of Antony's fundamental character, no appreciation of his courtesy and devotion to her. She gloried in his greatness as a soldier and as the most powerful of the triumvirs, not for his sake but for her own—and undermined both his military prowess and his power. She evinces, throughout the play, little concern about the country of which she is queen; she is woman, not queen, in her interests and behavior. She is as innocent of morality as Falstaff of honor. But she does learn something, through frustration and suffering, of what virtue—Roman virtue—means. It is pathetic and tragic that a beginning of anything other than sensual self-interest comes when there is neither the opportunity nor the time for growth to ensue. In that irony—in the too little and the too late—lies her tragedy. That is all the tragedy there is for her, but it is none the less profound, and gains poignancy through contrast to Antony's as his gains pathos through contrast to hers.


  1. The London Shakespeare (N. Y., 1957), VI, 1213.

  2. Shakespeare (London, 1936), p. 372.

  3. Shakespeare's Life and Art (London, 1939), p. 178.

  4. Nature in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1955), p. 123.

  5. Approach to Shakespeare (Oxford, 1931), p. 90.

  6. Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of His Mind and Art (San Marino, 1953), p. 315.

  7. The answer is hardly to be found in the multitudinous pages that have been written about her. An excellent summary of the varying, antithetical interpretations of Cleopatra is given in Daniel Stempel's “The Transmigration of the Crocodile”, Shakespeare Quarterly, VII (1956), 59-62.

  8. Not all critics recognize the teasing; for instance, J. Dover Wilson:

    … when the lovers enter …, we learn from their lips that this same love is more spacious than ‘the wide arch of the ranged empire’, more precious than kingdoms or the whole ‘dungy earth’, and so boundless that it requires ‘new heaven, new earth’ to contain it.

    (Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Wilson, Cambridge, 1950, p. xviii);

    and Robert Speaight:

    But when Antony and Cleopatra enter upon the stage, lost to everything but each other, their rapture is almost liturgical, and we remember the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet.

    (Pp. 127-128)

    It is surely inaccurate to give the speeches of Antony and Cleopatra equal import, to fail to discriminate between the tone of her two lines and that of his two (I.i.14-17).

  9. Citations and quotations are based on the Kittredge edition of Antony and Cleopatra (Boston, 1941).

  10. Some critics have interpreted the “Courteous lord” speech differently; e.g., H. N. Hillebrand:

    Until now Cleopatra has been desperately trying, with all the battery of her wit and sarcasm, to stave off the moment of parting. When at last she sees that Antony is inflexible, that he is in fact on the point of strategic flight, she suddenly breaks, abandons her attack, and becomes wholly the unhappy, loving woman.

    (Antony and Cleopatra, “The Arden Shakespeare”, Boston, 1926, p. 145.)

    But she does not “abandon her attack”; she merely changes tactics.

  11. North's Plutarch. “Antonius … sent to command Cleopatra to appeare personally before him, when he came into CILICIA, to aunswere vnto such accusations as were laide against her, being this: that she had aided Cassius and Brutus in their warre against him. … Therefore when she was sent vnto by diuers letters, both from Antonius himselfe, and also from his friendes, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the riuer of Cydnus,” etc.

  12. Shakespeare Studies (N. Y., 1927), p. 29.

  13. Poets and Playwrights (Minneapolis, 1930), p. 2.

  14. Enobarbus, in saying to Cleopatra,

                                                                                    What though you fled
    From that great face of war whose several ranges
    Frighted each other?


    is not concerned with arguing about her reason for leaving; he is condemning Antony for having followed her (ll. 6-12).

  15. The Folio “Oh” followed by a period may suggest only a distressful moan; Thyreus goes on speaking as if he heard nothing. Maybe modern editors imply too much by inserting an exclamation point.

  16. “And she gives Thyreus her hand to kiss. Perhaps she finds him rather good-looking; certainly she is musing on former, or on future, conquests” (Speaight, p. 142).

  17. G. B. Harrison calls that speech “the first outburst of genuine emotion that she has yet shown”, and adds, “It is difficult to know at this point whether Cleopatra is loyal or false; probably she does not know herself” (Shakespeare's Tragedies, London, 1951, p. 218).

  18. War, “all the snares the world can set” (M. R. Ridley, rev. ed. in the “Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare,” p. 171), or Caesar?

  19. “Why, we may ask, should she be worried about what Caesar means to do with her if she has fully made up her mind to leave the dull world that no longer contains Antony?” (Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier: The World of His Final Tragedies, Berkeley, 1950, p. 198).

  20. This Dolabella incident has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, G. S. Griffiths (“Antony and Cleopatra”, Essays and Studies … English Ass'n, XXXI (1946), 64): “Cleopatra turns this great engine of poetry on Dolabella, but it remains primarily an apology for suicide and a declaration of faith in a love, a person that has been and is no more in time.” And, more realistically, A. H. Tolman (“Act V of Antony and Cleopatra”, Falstaff and Other Shakespearean Topics, N. Y., 1925, pp. 166-167):

    This high-sounding praise of her last lover is wholly genuine. … But Cleopatra is an infinite coquette … she has never been able to ‘see an ambassador, scarcely even a messenger, without desiring to bewitch him’; and only death can put an end to her instinctive longing to fascinate men … Cleopatra is eloquent both because she is praising her beloved Antony, and because she is captivating Dolabella. Her rapturous words are about Antony, but they are also directed at her new admirer. … Dolabella … returns to declare his love, to give the queen the fullest possible information, and to take a last farewell.

    Most students of Shakespeare do not seem to realize the full force of this embryonic love-affair, acting itself out before us on the very brink of the grave.

  21. “Each person [in a book or play] must behave in character; that means that he must do what from their [the readers'] knowledge of him they expect him to do” (Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, Chap. 72).

  22. The sequence of seeing, pitying, and loving is explicitly stated, though by a woman for a man in this instance, in The Two Noble Kinsmen II. iv. 7, 11, 14-15:

    First, I saw him;
    … next I pitied him;
    … then I loved him,
    Extremely lov'd him, infinitely lov'd him.

    Cleopatra's envisioning this possible sequence is suggested by her words to Proculeius, V. ii. 30-32; she wishes, of course, to be in Caesar's presence that he may see and pity her:

                                                                                                        I hourly learn
    A doctrine of obedience, and would gladly
    Look him i' th' face.
  23. Apparently “a desire to save herself from the ignoble fate that Caesar plans for her” (Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier, p. 199). But is that really all she means?

  24. Shakespeare here reflects the contemporary popularity of Virgil's “Varium et mutabile semper / Femina” (Aeneid, IV. 569-570).

  25. “The asp, wriggling its way from the basket to her breast, carries more than its mortal sting; it bears the salt and savour of all that natural life whose passionate child Cleopatra had been. The asp is very much more than a theatrical convenience; it is the symbol of nature reclaiming one part of its own” (Speaight, p. 139).

  26. “The Serpent of Old Nile”, Poet Lore, X (1898), 529-530.

  27. Poets and Playwrights, pp. 14-16.

  28. Griffiths, p. 42.


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Antony and Cleopatra

Likely written and first performed between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra is generally considered one of Shakespeare's finest tragic dramas. Focused on the passionate love of the Roman general Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the play spans an approximately ten-year period of historical conflict between the Mediterranean powers of Egypt and Rome in the first century b.c. and culminates in the deaths by suicide of its eponymous figures. John Wilders (1995) surveys the structure, characters, themes, and language of Antony and Cleopatra and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic juxtaposition of Egypt and Rome, which has long been considered the major structural element in the play. Critics, including Wilders, have remarked that Shakespeare's Rome is a masculine, pragmatic, martial, and public culture that eagerly strives to fulfill its virtues of military conquest and peaceful, ordered rule. His Alexandrian Egypt, in contrast, is feminine, domestic, decadent, and individualistic, linked with pleasure—specifically Antony's dalliance with the beautiful Cleopatra. Scholars are also interested in the drama's extraordinary characters, including the historical personages Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, whose stories Shakespeare culled from various sources in order to make them his own. Usually regarded as unstable, mutable, or inconsistent, these figures have proved notoriously resistant to categorization. Although it is one of Shakespeare's more difficult dramas to successfully stage, Antony and Cleopatra has been widely performed since the second half of the nineteenth century and remains popular with audiences, in large part due to the allure of Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

Contemporary critical interest in Cleopatra, especially among feminist scholars, attests to the continued status of this enigmatic historical queen as one of the most fascinating female characters in the Shakespearean canon. L. J. Mills (1960) regards Cleopatra as the central focus of the play. Analyzing Cleopatra's renowned contradictory manner and behavior, egocentrism, extravagance, and her essential mystery, Mills suggests that by winning control of Antony without care or recognition of his character, military virtue, or complete devotion to her, Cleopatra precipitates her own tragedy and prompts Antony's despair and self-destruction. Clare Kinney (1990) links Cleopatra's fundamental strength to her mutable identity. For Kinney, Cleopatra is a human embodiment of Egypt to such a degree that she subsumes its multiplicity and vast internal differences. Unlike the Roman figures with whom she is contrasted—individuals like Antony or Octavius Caesar, both associated with masculine virtues and a competitive drive to dominate—Cleopatra represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine and the masculine, refusing to be subsumed by one or the other. Feminist critic Mary Ann Bushman (1991) analyzes Cleopatra's status as the “tragic hero” of the play. Unlike Kinney and other critics who have viewed Cleopatra as a mingling of feminine and masculine principles, Bushman argues that Shakespeare's Cleopatra is neither masculine nor feminine, but instead defines herself through theatrical spectacle, and locates her shifting identity within the mutable realm of staged performance. Susan Muaddi Darraj (2001) concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable “violent and intimidating” character in an age when women had little political power. According to Darraj, Shakespeare made Cleopatra a convincing villain to Jacobean theatergoers by locating her in a foreign realm, inverting her gender role with that of her masculine lover Antony, obliterating her maternal nature, and allowing her to be redeemed only through death.

Antony and Cleopatra is considered to be one of the more difficult Shakespearean dramas to successfully stage. An extremely long piece with numerous abrupt changes in locale—from Egypt to Rome to Misenum to Athens—Antony and Cleopatra presents considerable challenges to directors, actors, and audiences. Reviewing a 1999 all-male production of the play directed by Giles Block and performed at the open-air Globe Theatre in London, Kristin E. Gandrow (2000) praises Mark Rylance's campy but nuanced portrayal of Cleopatra. Gandrow notes that Block's eccentric staging and Rylance's camp-inspired performance were a proper tribute to the spirit of William Shakespeare's original play. Reviewing the same 1999 production, critic Sheridan Morley finds its comic turn, including Rylance's near drag queen interpretation of Cleopatra, appropriate to the open-air environment and touristy nature of the Globe. Alvin Klein reviews the 2000 staging of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein notes the difficulties in staging this “most unplayable play,” which crosses the boundaries between tragedy, comedy, and history, but finds the essential failure of this production was the lack of passion between Robert Cuccioli's subdued Mark Antony and Tamara Tunie's modernized Cleopatra. Critics were not much more favorably disposed to director Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon. Juliet Fleming notes several flaws in this production, including bungled verse that often degenerated into shouting and the lackluster male cast; however, she lauds several performances by women, principally Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra. Rex Gibson (2002) remarks on Attenborough's extensive cuts to the text of Antony and Cleopatra, and finds that the cuts highlighted two of the play's themes: “the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.” Lisa Hopkins (2002) contends that Attenborough's production was both “unfocused” and “alarmingly short” and criticizes the textual cuts, simple set, and bad casting. While she praises several key members of its supporting cast—in the roles of Charmian, Enobarbus, and Octavius Caesar—Hopkins finds their work unable to redeem the unconvincing Egyptian queen and her theatrically constrained Roman lover.

Critics continue to examine the thematic oppositions in Antony and Cleopatra. Joan Lord Hall (see Further Reading) surveys a selection of dualistic conflicts and themes in Antony and Cleopatra, including the play's representation of love in opposition to military leadership, the antagonism between artistic imagination and nature (a favorite subject of Renaissance criticism), the futility of action in the face of capricious fortune, the essential mutability of the sublunar world, and the enormous power of theatricality and role-playing to destabilize perception and reality. William D. Wolf (1982) maintains that Antony and Cleopatra contrasts radically with Shakespeare's other tragic dramas, noting that the play's essential ambiguity is one of its defining characteristics. While acknowledging a pivotal dichotomy between the opposing cultural values associated with Egypt and Rome, Wolf claims its central symbolic conflict involves the tension between change and permanence—a tension that prompts Antony and Cleopatra to escape from this mutable world. J. Robert Baker studies the gender reversals in Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy.” Paul Yachnin (1993) views Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign. Yachnin also investigates the dynamic of master and servant relations and the tensions between “command and response” that pervade the drama, as well as their political implications in the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Arthur Lindley (1996) adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture. Lastly, Alf Sjöberg (2002) concentrates on the theme of transformation in Antony and Cleopatra as a force born from the drama's “world of ruinous oppositions.” In Sjöberg's broad-ranging study, the play privileges change as the only constant in a reality defined by struggle, and as an ameliorative to the human impulse toward degeneration, loss of identity, and self-annihilation.

William D. Wolf (essay date autumn 1982)

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SOURCE: Wolf, William D. “‘New Heaven, New Earth’: The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 328-35.

[In the following essay, Wolf claims that the central conflict of Antony and Cleopatra involves the tension between change and permanence and examines Antony and Cleopatra's efforts to escape from this mutable world.]

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra has long been a controversial play, mostly because it differs so radically from the other tragedies. Its sweep is vast, but not so vast as Lear; it deals with love and politics, but not so obsessively as Coriolanus; its characters are full, but they lack Macbeth's depth. Beginning with Dr. Johnson, critics have debated the play's structure, its theme,1 its characters, and its ending.2 Perhaps the play's very ambiguity encourages disagreement among its readers, preventing any critic's triumphant quod erat demonstrandum. However, almost all the play's commentators see Egypt and Rome as the magnetic poles around which irreconcilable opposites cluster. Egypt is the Life Force—regenerative, hot, emotional, the center of love and overripe sexuality. Rome is Power—duty, public service, military valor, reason, and policy.

It is true that Antony and Cleopatra sprawls over most of the known world, leaping from one locale to another with dizzying speed. The pace of the dialogue reinforces the opposing values of Rome and Egypt; compare, for example, the languor of Cleopatra's speech to Charmian, “Where think'st thou he is now,”3 with Caesar's curt welcome of Antony to Rome. But these differences obscure a subtle yet important similarity between Rome and Egypt which can give new insight into the play.


Egypt, where Cleopatra predominates, is the place of love. Its preoccupation is with the personal, as exemplified in Antony's

                    Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. …

(I. i. 34-36)

Here Antony reduces worldly considerations to the microcosm of himself, casting off the rest of the world as worthless. Other scenes reinforce Egypt's sexuality and female dominance, especially Charmian's double entendres with the soothsayer (I. ii) and Cleopatra's conversation with Mardian (I. v. 8-18). Such passages seem to confirm Caesar's remarks in I. iv, where he criticizes Antony for effeminacy and self-indulgence.

Cleopatra's hold on Antony goes deeper, however. The Egyptian scenes feature a violent emotional fluctuation more than they emphasize sexuality. Philo's famous observation that Antony's “captain's heart … is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's lust” is not entirely true; in her alogical nagging, Cleopatra chides Antony for obeying Caesar and Fulvia rather than herself (I. i. 20-43). In I. iii she adopts the role of emotional adversary (“If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick”), and having reaffirmed her control over Antony by outrageous histrionics, mock paranoia, lyricism, and accusations of duplicity, she sends him away on a high note.

Other scenes confirm this pattern of extreme fluctuation. Cleopatra's attack on the messenger illustrates it, as do Antony's scenes after the battles and his discovery of Thidias. In each instance, Cleopatra controls Antony by dominating his emotions; she can goad him to the point of rage (I. i), stand aside and let his anger cool (III. xiii), or simply depart (IV. xii). Antony sums up her methods when he impatiently interrupts her:

                    Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired.

(I. i. 48-51)

Other patterns reinforce the principle of fluctuation in Egypt, including image patterns such as fertility, cycle, and Cleopatra's identification with Isis and the moon.

Rome's preoccupations are political and military, with Caesar dominant. Presumably, reason controls Roman actions, with empire the prize: Enobarbus leaves Antony because he deserts these principles and makes “his will / Lord of his reason” (III. xiii. 3-4). Caesar's duplicity, cynicism, priggishness, and pragmatism make him irresistible in politics and war. In our smugness, we may even share his puritanical disapproval of Antony's behavior.4 But Rome is no more stable than the allegedly more emotional Egypt. The triple pillars of the world forge expedient alliances and dissolve them almost immediately, swallow up the weaker members, and marry off sisters in order to use them in picking quarrels. Soldiers change sides in a flash, hoping to buy favor with a sword stained in the former commander's blood. Reason is really only opportunism, and honor does not exist except as personal valor—and is absurd where armies, not individuals, decide the fate of kingdoms.

Caught between these irreconcilable poles is Antony, whose “legs bestrid the ocean” (V. ii. 82), figuratively with one foot in Alexandria and the other in Rome. He cannot contain both love and valor within himself, and he therefore fluctuates wildly between them. As he makes love to Cleopatra, messengers interrupt him with reminders of his Roman duties; as he negotiates a treaty, Caesar chides him for “rioting in Alexandria” (II. ii. 72). Striking visual images emphasize this dichotomy within Antony. His armor symbolizes martial valor and traditional manliness; the opening tableau of IV. iv suggests Mars reclining in Venus' lap, unmanned with his armor off. (We may also recall Red Crosse at the fountain in Faerie Queene, I. vii. 2.) After his arming, Antony compares himself to “a man of steel” (IV. iv. 33), ready to fight Caesar—the heightening of emotion which occurs at the end of many scenes.

The opposite symbol is Eros,5 whose prominence in the play is hardly due entirely to Plutarch. Cleopatra's sensual love conflicts constantly with Antony's martial fervor. She is closely identified with Eros: she enters at IV. xii. 30 in response to Antony's cry of “What, Eros, Eros!” Sensual love is as much a part of Antony as his highly-prized honor; Cleopatra is “The armorer of my heart” (IV. iv. 7), and Eros is his closest military aide, after Enobarbus. The opposing poles meet in Cleopatra's arming of Antony. His attempts to contain or reconcile the extremes of passion and honor may seem to succeed here, but they collapse in the subsequent disaster at Alexandria. Like so much else in the play, the visual imagery is mixed, shifting, and often ambiguous; the sword, however, bridges both worlds.6

The sword represents both sexuality and martial valor. Italy “shines o'er with civil swords” (I. iii. 45), and Antony swears by “my sword—” (I. iii. 82), to which Cleopatra adds “And target,” bringing double entendre to the image. Romans almost always speak of the sword literally, in war imagery, but Agrippa, referring figuratively to Cleopatra, says that “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He plowed her, and she cropped” (II. ii. 229-30). The phallic and military sword represents both worlds, emphasizing the material and temporal roots of sensuality and conquest, Egypt and Rome.


Thus the critical commonplace of Rome versus Egypt, politics versus love, the public versus the personal, would seem to hold true. Yet these two worlds are more alike than it would appear. The emotional fluctuation of Egypt, especially as evidenced in Antony, parallels the changeable fortunes of Roman politics, again with Antony as the victim. The two worlds may differ in particulars, but not in principles; the only permanent fixture of either is change, the necessary adjunct of time.7

Shakespeare's treatment of mutability and permanence in Antony and Cleopatra reflects his handling of the subject elsewhere.8 He frequently presents the issue as the material versus the non-material—Edmund's or Iago's earthly views of sex, money, and power as opposed to the immaterial love, trust, and respect they destroy. The Sonnets often view the problem in terms of physical aging, proposing various antidotes—children, selfless love, even art itself. In Troilus and Cressida, the same mutable, degenerating world appears, this time with no escape. Ulysses tries to analyze the situation, and even advises Achilles on how to deal with it. But love is mocked and degraded, and does not exist outside the world. The histories as a whole reveal a pattern of repetitive rising and falling; they explore the personal cost and the emptiness of temporal power. Nothing is surer in these plays than political change and a ubiquitous “tickling Commodity.”

Many of these characteristics appear in the Rome and Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra. Rome's power struggles recall the baronial civil wars, with Caesar a conscienceless Bolingbroke and Enobarbus misjudging Antony from a viewpoint similar to Hotspur's. The contrast in age between Caesar and Antony recalls the Sonnets, although the solution is surely different. Alexandria's sexual and emotional environment would be a powerful stimulant for Thersites or Iago in its erotic, physical presence. Even the play's imagery stresses change, with prominent patterns of aging and melting. As in Lear, material wealth, comfort, kingdoms, and alliances dissolve into nothing, as all things must in the temporal world of Antony and Cleopatra.9 Age inevitably wears away material existence; one reason why “'Tis paltry to be Caesar” is that Caesar will eventually be old. Octavius' mention of the coming “universal peace” in IV. vi and two references to Herod may remind the audience of the transcendent events to come, but these passing comments cannot counterbalance the combined structural and imagistic patterns the play establishes.10 The references to divine events in the reign of Caesar Augustus imply a final apotheosis that remains unavailable to Antony and Cleopatra. Their triumph over mutability—but not over Sin and Death—takes place, therefore, in the only terms the play's world can offer: their fidelity and love. Both Rome and Egypt are mutable because they are material, and perceived as such by their inhabitants.

Once we observe that Antony and Cleopatra presents one mutable world of changing alliances, relationships, emotional states, and attitudes, we may begin to ask new questions about the play. Rather than choosing between earthly love and duty (which, it turns out, is impossible, especially for Antony), the issue becomes one rather of escaping from both. The escape occurs in the death scenes, which drive home the irony of death as both an end of temporal, material life and a beginning of union outside the boundaries and necessities of time.11


Antony's suicide scene (IV. xiv) brings the issues of materiality and mutability to one climax. Sunk in melancholy, Antony opens the scene by considering the formlessness of objects in continual flux:

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapor 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.
                    … now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

(IV. xiv. 2-14)

By suggesting his own lack of “visible shape,” Antony moves away from perceiving himself as part of the material world. He seems bent on suicide, repeating the pattern of self-hate and blame of Cleopatra that began in III. xi. “She has robbed me of my sword” (IV. xiv. 23) recalls this attitude, again employing the ambiguous image; but upon learning of Cleopatra's “death,” he reverses the arming action of IV. iv with a resigned “Unarm, Eros. The long day's task is done, / And we must sleep” (IV. xiv. 35-36).

Then, after his preparation for suicide, two key events occur. When Eros kills himself, he not only teaches Antony “what / I should, and thou couldst not” (IV. xiv. 97), but also symbolizes the death of sensual, earthly, erotic love. Antony is now without either armor or Eros, retaining only his essential self.12 Shakespeare repeats this symbolic action by employing the sword and sexual imagery for Antony's bungled suicide. With his escape from the world through death, “The star is fall'n” and “time is at his period” (IV. xiv. 106-7). To prove that Antony has changed significantly, we have the second occurrence, Antony's learning of Cleopatra's lie from Diomedes. Instead of responding with rage at her betrayal, he asks to be brought to her: he has learned to punish earthly affliction by “Seeming to bear it lightly” (IV. xiv. 137). This new Antony, purged of sexual desire and stripped of temporal power, turns away from his old reactions of guilt and blame; he goes to Cleopatra as himself alone, stoically and ironically removed from earthly passion.13

The monument scene (IV. xv) continues this movement, but Cleopatra has not yet achieved the same removal from the world as Antony. Her reaction to his appearance is

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

(IV. xv. 9-11)

She asks for the world's end rather than trying to escape from it. Her sexually-tinged remarks, and his,14 in the light of the previous scene, begin to take on the quality of the heavenly rather than the earthly Venus.15 His “poor last” kiss hardly has all the old passion, and may instead be a farewell; but as in Cleopatra's death scene, Antony's perception of himself has changed (“I am dying”), even if his mode of expression has not. Also, Cleopatra's attitude changes at Antony's death. She first sees it as a personal insult (“Hast thou no care of me?”), but follows it with

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.

(IV. xv. 63-68)

She refers to melting, martial valor, the ambiguous sword, and aging; the changeable, feminine moon no longer governs Antony. Her thoughts turn immediately to suicide, which she calls “the high Roman fashion.” She means “death,” since she has no idea what the “Roman fashion” really is in anything, as the method of her death proves. She now sees him as he sees himself—as “that huge spirit” of which the body is only “This case.”16 He has escaped his body and therefore earth and time, and now she must join him.


Cleopatra's death scene (V. ii) is somewhat more troublesome than Antony's, probably because of her paradoxical character.17 As always, however, she controls the emotional climate—but this time with a definite purpose. She opens the scene in preoccupation:

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.

(V. ii. 1-8)

Her grief drives her to escape the earth; she senses the mutable Force behind earthly life, of which Caesar is only a tool. Suicide is an assertion of will, a master of deeds and accidents and change. Interestingly, though, her motives are personal jealousy and pride as well as love (V. ii. 52-60),18 even as her vision of Antony changes from material to imaginative:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tunèd spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't: an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above
The element they lived in. In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets: realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket.

(V. ii. 82-92)

This heroic image is hers alone, and does not approximate fact. Instead,

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.

(V. ii. 97-100)

Cleopatra creates an Antony out of her imagination, a lover and hero not bound by his physical limitations or by nature. But she expresses her vision paradoxically—in material, sensual terms. This repeats her previous habits of expression, but not of perception, recalling Antony's earlier change.19 Dolabella, seeing with Caesar's eye, cannot understand, but does betray Caesar's intentions, and Cleopatra seems to veer away temporarily from her purpose by boggling with her treasure.20 But failing that, and in revulsion from the most mutable political reality, the mob, she is “again for Cydnus, / To meet Mark Antony” (V. ii. 228-29), recalling Enobarbus' famous set-piece (II. ii. 193-220).

At this point, Cleopatra undergoes virtually the same transformation that Antony had earlier. She comments on the “rural fellow” with the asp:

                    He brings me liberty.
My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.

(V. ii. 237-41)

The worm replaces the sword as the symbol of sexual pleasure (“joy of the worm”) and the agent of death; and as Antony had stripped off his armor, Cleopatra inverts this action by putting on the symbols of political office, her robe and crown. The reversal still indicates her becoming the essential Cleopatra, however. She is a queen at this moment, as she has not been before. She senses “immortal longings” in herself and mocks “The luck of Caesar,” since it affects only worldly affairs. Then, “I am fire, and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (V. ii. 289-90). Immaterial fire and air contrast sharply with the water and earth of Egypt. Paralleling Antony's suicide, “The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, / Which hurts, and is desired” (V. ii. 295-96); Charmian's “Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, that I may say / The gods themselves do weep” (V. ii. 299-300) recalls the melting imagery in a pathetic fallacy. Charmian completes the theme of Cleopatra's escape from the world by finishing her “What should I stay” with

In this wild world? So, fare thee well.
Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparalleled.

(V. ii. 313-16)

However, an afterlife is not the whole issue. Cleopatra assumes that she will join Antony after death (“Husband, I come”), but this is hardly the only reason for her suicide. The rest of the scene indicates that this motive is mixed with jealousy, desire for personal dignity, revenge (she wishes to call “great Caesar ass / Unpolicied”), and incomparable showmanship. We know that Antony and Cleopatra both escape the world through suicide, that they “do the thing … Which shackles accidents and bolts up change.” But this “thing” is, ironically, death, the inevitable end of the same temporal matter they struggle against. However sure we are of what they escape from, we cannot know what they escape to; thus the play maintains its worldly, pagan tone, only hinting at transcendence in Cleopatra's visions. Perhaps we should settle for an ambivalent acceptance of Antony's injunction, “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth” (I. i. 17) without questioning where the “new heaven, new earth” is. After all, if “No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous” (V. ii. 358-59), why should we try?


  1. A. P. Riemer, A Reading of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (Sydney: Sydney Univ. Press, 1968), p. 82.

  2. Reimer, pp. 78 ff., has a useful summary of critical opinions on the play, particularly those of Bradley, Knight, Knights, Holloway, Traversi, Ribner, and others.

  3. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Barbara Everett, in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972) I. v. 19 ff. All subsequent quotations are from this edition, and will be cited in the text.

  4. Unsympathetic critics tend to agree with the moralism of M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (New York: Russell and Russell, 1910; repr. 1967), pp. 319 ff. Among these are William Rosen, Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 126, 139-40; and Judah Stampfer, The Tragic Engagement: A Study of Shakespeare's Classical Tragedies (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968), p. 238. Among the critics more sympathetic to Antony are J. A. Bryant, Jr., Hippolyta's View (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1961), p. 179; Julian Markets, The Pillar of the World (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 127 ff.; Laurens J. Mills, The Tragedies of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Indiana University Humanities Series, no. 55 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 22 ff.; and Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 181. A recent psychological approach is in J. Leeds Barroll, Artificial Persons: The Formation of Character in the Tragedies of Shakespeare (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1974).

  5. For differing views of Eros, see Philip J. Traci, The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), pp. 93, 155 ff., and Roy W. Battenhouse Shakespearean Tragedy (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), p. 176. A typical literal view is that of Virgil K. Whitaker, The Mirror Up to Nature (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965), p. 293.

  6. Traci, pp. 83-85, 90-91. For conflicting views, see Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 126-32, and Rosen, pp. 144-45.

  7. The only discussions I have seen of this concept, and brief ones at that, are in Barbara Everett, “The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra: Introduction,” in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Iovanovich, 1972), p. 1266, and John Danby, “Antony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearian Adjustment,” in Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd.), repr. in Alvin Kernan, ed., Modern Shakespearean Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1970), p. 418. See also Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay onAntony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), and Maynard Mack, “Antony and Cleopatra: The Stillness and the Dance,” in Shakespeare's Art, ed. Milton Crane (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973).

  8. Shakespeare shares the commonplaces of his age regarding mutability vs. permanence. Spenser's Two Cantoes of Mutabilitie summarize this attitude concisely, as the Titaness' demonstration of her power indicates. The Renaissance abounds with warnings about trusting in material goods, temporal power, or individual whim: witness Mirror for Magistrates, Doctor Faustus, or Bussy d'Ambois, for example. Later drama often focuses on individuals who owe loyalty only to themselves or to another powerful person, such as Bosola or Sejanus. The world of Antony and Cleopatra closely approximates the political environments of Chapman, Webster, and Jonson as well as the sublunar Earth of Spenser, despite the differing responses of individual writers to it.

  9. Charney, p. 140.

  10. For a fuller discussion of pagan influences, see J. L. Simmons, Shakespeare's Pagan World (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1973).

  11. Adelman, pp. 154 ff., sees a paradox in that Cleopatra can offer an escape from time through mutability.

  12. Again, a parallel to Lear may help, i.e. Lear's loss of his kingdom, followers, family, friends, clothes, and finally his sanity. He must then face nature as nothing but a “poor, bare, forked animal,” the “essential Lear” who greets Cordelia's return.

  13. Antony has been brought to this by Cleopatra's intrigue and her miscalculation, not by his own perception and insight.

  14. Traci, p. 83.

  15. The technique of moving toward and symbolizing the spiritual through the physical should be familiar to readers of Elizabethan and Jacobean love poetry. Cf. Spenser's Four Hymns, for example.

  16. Cf. Antony's “Now my spirit is going” (IV. xv. 58).

  17. Essentially hostile views are in Franklin Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1957), p. 187; MacCallum, p. 422; Rosen, pp. 149-54; and Battenhouse, pp. 163-68. More sympathetic are A. C. Bradley, “Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909), p. 303; Honor Matthews, Character and Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), p. 206; Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 234-35; and J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longmans, Green, 1949). Other views are in H. S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1957), pp. 175-76; Charney, pp. 123, 125; Mills, pp. 56-57; and Barroll.

  18. Antony's motive is also honor, a reaction to military defeat. This may suggest an interesting parallel in that Cleopatra's mixed motives are “Egyptian,” Antony's “Roman.”

  19. Adelman, p. 150, sees Antony as achieving the hyperbolical in her vision of him.

  20. Perhaps even the death scenes, representing escape from life, have the soil of mortality.

Kristin E. Gandrow (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Gandrow, Kristin E. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (2000): 123-25.

[In the following review of director Giles Block's 1999 all-male production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre, Gandrow admires the campy but nuanced performance of Mark Rylance as Cleopatra.]

The all-male casting of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London asked a contemporary audience to acknowledge and accept the Elizabethan stage convention of men playing women's roles. Could we forget that the Cleopatra we watched was a man? Not completely. Did that matter? Not really, although it overtly emphasized the humor in the play, which perhaps was Shakespeare's intent all along when he wrote this tragicomic role for a boy. Director Giles Block's 1999 production of Antony and Cleopatra cut only ten lines from this epic. It opened after Mark Rylance directed its companion piece, Julius Caesar, in the season's repertory with the first all-male cast at this Globe.

In this production Rylance, artistic director of the Globe and a well-seasoned Shakespearean actor, became the first man to play Cleopatra on London's professional stage in nearly 400 years. He follows a parade of famous females, some nearly as immortal as the role itself. At thirty-nine (his age and Cleopatra's in the play), Rylance's girlish cavorting revealed the grasping of a consummate actress who knows she's beyond her prime. It was a captivating performance. Rylance's Cleopatra was a skipping coquette who roved across her stage, tossing her head of black curls and jangling her gold bracelets. Eager to help her lover in battle, she earnestly strode about in a helmet and breastplate, inciting the audience to titter. The impression was of a child playing dress-up. Cleopatra's bravado was pure shtick in her hilarious abuse of her messenger, played as a trembling geezer by Roger Gartland. For one entrance, Cleopatra wobbled onstage wearing four-inch-platform chopines to ask of her rival Octavia, “Is she as tall as me?” (3.3.11). When Cleopatra received the news that Antony's new wife was low-voiced, it was the irony of Rylance's own tenor that sparked amusement.

Several lines in this production evoked a more gender-constructed meaning than usual, such as Cleopatra's, “and I have nothing / Of woman in me” (5.2.237-38). Yet the famous utterance about her impending fate, “and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I'th' posture of a whore” (5.2.218b-20a), was anticlimactic in Rylance's opening night delivery. He trilled “squeaking Cleopatra” in a falsetto, with “boy” almost under his breath as invective. In successive performances, he experimented with better renditions of the line.

Rylance's animated performance avoided going completely over the top, but it sometimes teetered when he worked for laughs. “O happy horse!” (1.5.22a), this Cleopatra sighed rapturously about the animal Antony rode when he was absent from her bed. A camp edge was inevitable, although Rylance's performance generally resisted it and the gender-bending never felt uncomfortable or offensive. He did not try to be a woman, but only to portray one with verve. This, I admit, sounds like a drag queen, but Rylance's Cleopatra was more than that. He played an emotional range striving for “infinite variety.” Still, I was reminded that a drag show occasionally hovered close to the surface, especially in scenes between Rylance and the burly Danny Sapani as Charmian. While James Gillan as Iras would have convinced me he was a woman had I not known otherwise, the tall, slim Toby Cockerell as Octavia towered over Ben Walden as her cocky “big” brother, Octavius Caesar.

The “ruffian” Roman lover seems a difficult mark to hit in the presence of a powerful Cleopatra. Paul Shelley's Antony was too genial, a washed-up warrior who ironically resembled Kris Kristofferson in the film remake of A Star is Born. After his loss in the ill-advised sea battle of farcical offstage shouting and sound effects, Shelley's Antony showed his anger tinged with a pathetic, desperate edge. And in a supposedly world-famous love affair for which kingdoms were lost, the couple's romantic exchanges were most often pallid kisses when compared to Cleopatra's own emotionally charged behaviors.

Perhaps more of the play's depth came out during the run as the actors settled into their roles and the novelty of the all-male casting wore off, but I suspect it did not. The overall experience at the Globe is partly to blame. Instead of regular theatregoers, the audience is frequently comprised of mostly tourists, including non-English-speaking ones, and there's the rub. A view of every actor onstage is rarely perfect in the reconstructed wooden O of Shakespeare's Globe, and it took unwavering concentration to remain focused against the diversion created by restless groundlings in the yard, air traffic overhead (worse during day performances), incessant flash photography, and disco music wafting clearly off the Thames party boats, especially during Cleopatra's monument scene. No wonder some of the actors occasionally resorted to shouting their lines.

After the finally dead Antony was clumsily hoisted to Cleopatra's balcony monument and disposed of, the fifth act offered Rylance opportunities to retrieve some of Cleopatra's dignity. When he appeared in a simple shift with a rattily shorn head, the audience gasped at his vulnerable appearance. Without the frippery, he seemed neither a man nor a woman but simply a human being ravaged by pain. In her death, utterly still and clothed in gold, as memorable a moment as her silly ones, Rylance's Cleopatra became for the first time in the production a truly regal queen. Cued by Rylance's performance, this all-male production winked at, and then embraced its audience, just as Shakespeare's original may have done. I had to smile.

Ray L. Heffner, Jr. (essay date summer 1976)

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SOURCE: Heffner, Ray L., Jr. “The Messengers in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.ELH 43, no. 2 (summer 1976): 154-62.

[In the following essay, Heffner examines Shakespeare's extensive use of messengers in Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “the messenger is a bit of necessary stage machinery which Shakespeare seems almost miraculously to transform…into something rich and strange.”]

In electing to present the story of Antony and Cleopatra not, as Dryden did, by compressing the action to a single climactic day in a single place but instead by shifting the scene rapidly over the known world and allowing ample time for almost innumerable turns, counterturns, and apparent vacillations by his protagonists, Shakespeare avoided some problems of dramatic construction and magnified others. In The Tempest, in which the unities are observed, a long and potentially tedious exposition by Prospero must be rather artificially introduced by assuming that, in all their years more or less alone together on the island, not until now has Prospero told Miranda one word about their past. But instead of suppressing this dramaturgic difficulty, Shakespeare boldly calls attention to it, as Prospero punctuates his narrative with commands to Miranda to pay attention. His concern lest she, along with the audience, fall asleep prematurely itself becomes a subject of dramatic interest and tension. And the playwright's artful effort to bring all parts of his plot to simultaneous climax at Prospero's cell is underlined and used in the play, as Prospero gets so engrossed in the love affair of Ferdinand and Miranda that he forgets about the homicidal plot of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, and as his necessary agent, Ariel, repeatedly threatens rebellion. In an amusing way, the playwright's difficulty in imposing a rigid form on recalcitrant material becomes a subject of the play, or one among several metaphors for its central action.

These same problems and opportunities do not exist in Antony and Cleopatra, but there also Shakespeare makes a virtue and a metaphor of a necessity of stagecraft. Scattering his characters around the Mediterranean but wishing to keep the dramatic conflicts among them before the audience, Shakespeare commits himself to a very heavy use of messengers. At the beginning of the play Antony, at his “lascivious wassails” in Egypt, cannot confront Caesar directly but must be informed of Fulvia's death and Pompey's threat to the triumvirate by messenger. The contrary pulls of Egyptian lust and luxury versus Roman politics and honor are for a time focused on the question, to hear or not to hear the messengers? And, when Antony and Caesar do meet, the question of how Antony treated Caesar's messengers is the first subject of their quarrel; Antony excuses himself gracefully if untruthfully by saying that the messengers came upon him at an inopportune time. Cleopatra, waiting impatiently in Egypt, must keep track of Antony's moods and learn of his politic marriage to Octavia through messengers. Even in the last act, though Antony is dead and Caesar is now in Egypt, the struggle between Caesar's power and Antony's spirit for the final allegiance of Cleopatra must be conducted largely through a series of intermediaries.

Shakespeare obviously takes great pains to diversify this host of necessary messengers and to build dramatic interest in the scenes in which they are interrogated or give their reports. Some are named (Thidias, Alexas, Mardian, Dolabella), though many are simply called “Messenger” or “Ambassador.” Some, even of the unnamed, have distinct or slightly sketched personalities. A detail from Plutarch, when Antony, who “had superfluous kings for messengers,”1 is reduced to sending his schoolmaster to Caesar in an ignominious plea that he be allowed to live a private life, takes on special significance as this incident is contrasted with the many other embassies of the play. So also does the irony of Antony's dying words—“None about Caesar trust but Proculeius” (IV.xv.48)—for it is Proculeius who tricks Cleopatra and captures her but Dolabella from whom she is able to charm the truth of Caesar's intentions. Proculeius is the “true” ambassador in his loyalty to his instructions from his master; but Dolabella, under the influence of emotional sympathy for Cleopatra and perhaps of her vision of the transcendent Antony, finds a higher truth to which to give his allegiance. Dolabella, though remaining nominally in the service of Caesar, becomes Cleopatra's messenger rather than his, as he spies on Caesar and brings Cleopatra final confirmation of her suspicions.

Among the scenes of greatest dramatic interest are those in which the principals are characterized by their use or abuse of messengers. When, in I.ii, Antony finally consents to hear the news from Rome, the messenger is understandably reluctant to give him all the bad news at once:

                                        Well, what worst?
The nature of bad news infects the teller.
When it concerns the fool or coward. On.
Things that are past are done with me. 'Tis thus:
Who tells me true, though in his tale lie death,
I hear him as he flattered.


In I.iv and I.ii, we also see Caesar and Pompey receiving unwelcome political or military news, and each maintains a properly dignified bearing. This “correct” or Roman attitude towards the bearer of bad tidings is of course contrasted with Cleopatra's outrageous behavior in II.v, when she learns of Antony's marriage to Octavia. “Strikes him down”; “Strikes him”; “She hales him up and down”; “Draw a knife”: these are the stage directions in the Folio, to accompany Cleopatra's magnificent verbal pyrotechnics. Small wonder that, as this interrupted dialogue is resumed in III.iii, the Messenger is eager to tell Cleopatra exactly what she wants to hear to the disadvantage of Octavia, while Cleopatra is eager to give to anything he says a construction most supportive of her pride. The truth-telling function of a messenger is in these scenes completely subverted by passion and self-interest. All these scenes, of course, prepare for III.xiii, in which Antony demonstrates the deterioration in his reason and self-control as he orders Caesar's messenger, Thidias, to be whipped and then relishes the poor man's pain and degradation.

Two other aspects of the scenes in which Cleopatra learns about Octavia deserve comment. First, there are the surprising words with which she first greets the messenger:

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


The violent sexuality of the image is a shock, even in this court where all activity (billiards, fishing, fortune-telling) is overlaid with pornographic innuendo. But the metaphor of the conveying of good news as vigorous sexual intercourse, and the actual beating of the messenger which follows, are but extreme or “primitive” versions of a necessary device of stagecraft, by which the messenger is treated as an extension of the personality of the sender of the message, and various dramatic tensions and conflicts are duplicated in the interaction of the messenger and the recipient of the message.

A second noteworthy feature of this portion of the play is the use of time. Though four scenes intervene, the action of II.v and III.iii is clearly continuous; Cleopatra resumes an interrupted conversation, and the Messenger is still smarting from her blows. But in those intervening scenes, the peace of the world has been settled (temporarily) at Misenum, and Pompey's big chance to be “lord of all the world” has been presented and rejected. Moreover, Ventidius, whose expedition to Parthia was not initiated by Antony until after the wedding, has had time to travel almost the length of the empire, wage a campaign, defeat Pacorus, and decide for politic reasons that he will not “acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away.” Dramatic action which must take place in a few hours in Egypt is simultaneous with actions in the rest of the world which must require months. One effect of this striking combination of collapsed and expanded dramatic time on the love story is to make it credible that, as Julian Markels maintains in a recent book,2 Antony fulfills his promise to Octavia to “keep his square,” and that only after extreme provocation by Caesar and after Octavia's voluntary departure on an ill-conceived mission of reconciliation does Antony turn finally towards Egypt. But Markels also points out, as one among many “discontinuities” in the play, Antony's statements in soliloquy back in II.iii, just after the marriage and in the same scene in which he promises Octavia, “to come / Shall all be done by th' rule”:

                                                                                                              I will to Egypt:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I' th' East my pleasure lies.


It seems that Antony must be convicted either of vacillation or duplicity. Markels argues, however, that he is trying to enjoy Roman honor and Eastern pleasure simultaneously, that no real blame should attach to this attempt, and that indeed Antony's ultimate triumph (as well as Cleopatra's) represents success in just such a reconciliation or engrossment of antitheticals. The ambiguous or paradoxical use of time in this section of the play seems to bear out the analysis of Markels. For Antony to fulfill the demands of his honorable commitment to Octavia requires that months elapse between Antony's promise in II.iii and their separation in III.iv. For Antony to fulfill the demands of his passionate, hyperbolic commitment to Cleopatra requires that no time elapse, that he be virtually on his way back to Egypt even as she interviews the messenger to learn of his marriage, and convinces herself by the second interview with the messenger that her attractive power remains unchallenged. Shakespeare seems to insist on having it both ways.

In terms of the “political” plot, interspersing the peace conference, the Ventidius episode, and the leave-taking of Antony and Octavia between Cleopatra's two scenes of continuous action with the messenger, has the effect of showing Antony almost simultaneously present, in person or by surrogate, in Athens, Rome, Parthia, and Egypt. And finally, the employment of Octavia as but one among so many messengers scurrying back and forth, even at her own urgent request, is for Octavius the ultimate insult to his narrow conception of family honor. The concept of carrying a message is, as Markels might say, being “platonized”: the idea of the messenger is abstracted for contemplation. Ventidius must be careful to remember that he is but an extension, an emissary of Antony and must not achieve too many victories lest he be thought a competitor. Menas transmits an urgent message to Pompey: if you would be “lord of all the world,” let me cut the cable and “fall to their throats.” He is berated by Pompey: “Ah, this thou shouldst have done, / And not have spoken on't. … Being done unknown, / I should have found it afterwards well done” (II.vii.72-78). It was a time for independent action, not for urgent messages, for doing what Ventidius, in the next scene, prudently refuses to do. It is no surprise that after this bit of casuistry by Pompey, Menas tells us he can no longer serve him.

In these last examples, we have perhaps moved beyond the role of the messenger strictly conceived to that of the loyal subordinate, though questions of loyalty are certainly intermixed with those of truthful communication in the cases of Proculeius and Dolabella. But let us return to a narrower consideration of messengers in two strikingly parallel scenes: I.iv and I.v. In this early part of the play, though not in the same way later, the dramatic action consists largely of a contest between Rome, epitomized in Caesar, and Egypt, epitomized in Cleopatra, for the allegiance of Antony. Every effort is made to contrast the two symbolic environments and their two main exemplars. And yet, as almost always in Shakespeare's dramatic economy, between two mighty opposites there are also important similarities. In this case, the similarities involve messengers. In I.iv a messenger reports to Caesar:

Thy biddings have been done, and every hour,
Most noble Caesar, shalt thou have report
How 'tis abroad.


In the next scene, Cleopatra interviews Alexas, who brings the first news from Antony in Rome:

                                                  Met'st thou my posts?
Ay, madam, twenty several messengers.
Why do you send so thick?
                                                  Who's born that day
When I forget to send to Antony
Shall die a beggar. Ink and paper, Charmian.


He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I'll unpeople Egypt.

(I.v.61-65; 77-78)

Cleopatra's boast is in tune with the hyperbole which sounds through so much of the language of the lovers and through so many descriptions of them by others: “Let Rome in Tiber melt!”; “Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents”; “We cannot call her winds and waters signs and tears: they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report”; “His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm / Crested the world.” But in this particular context, her excessive use of messengers is clearly being compared to Caesar's: his for efficient political and military intelligence, hers for her own strategic purpose of keeping her man, but still, as Enobarbus says, arising out of “the finest part of pure love.”3

Caesar too is occasionally described in hyperbole, sometimes by his enemies. But Caesar's amazing qualities are assumed to be less mythic and metaphoric, more literal and naturalistic, even when they compel fear and wonder. In III.vii, shortly before the battle of Actium, a messenger brings Antony confirmation of news he has already heard of the remarkable swiftness of Caesar's approach:

                                        Is it not strange, Canidius,
That from Tarentum and Brundusium
He could so quickly cut the Ionian sea
And take in Toryne?—You have heard on't, sweet?
Celerity is never more admired
Than by the negligent.
                                        A good rebuke,
Which might have well becomed the best of men
To taunt a slackness.


Enter a Messenger.
Thy business?
The news is true, my lord, he is descried;
Caesar has taken Toryne.
Can he be there in person? 'Tis impossible;
Strange that his power should be.


As Antony, Cleopatra, and Enobarbus leave, Canidius and a soldier remain on stage, reviewing the argument about fighting on land or sea. But Canidius returns once more to the subject of Caesar's remarkable celerity: “This speed of Caesar's / Carries beyond belief” (74-75).

Mainly, in this scene, Cleopatra is asserting her unseemly and masculine pretense to generalship, while Antony is abetting her act, and demonstrating his own stubbornness in refusing to heed the advice of experienced soldiers. But also, in the heavy emphasis on Caesar's “impossible” speed (again, the detail is from Plutarch), there is a suggestion of that mysterious and irreversible turning of the tide which occurs in so many Shakespearean plays, a tilting of the powers that make miracles possible, towards Caesar. A confirmation of this movement comes a good deal later in IV.iii, just before another battle (which Antony paradoxically wins), when the eerie “music of the hautboys” signifies that “the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, / Now leaves him.” But I think one of the most important functions of this passage is as further preparation for a remarkable touch in the great final scene of Cleopatra's death and transfiguration.

Cleopatra is already dead; the loyal Charmian, a part of whose riddling fortune in I.ii had been, “You shall outlive the lady whom you serve,” now hesitates only a moment to adjust her mistress's crown before applying the asp to her own bosom:

                                        Your crown's awry;
I'll mend it, and then play—
                    Enter the Guard, rustling in.
FIRST Guardsman:
Where's the Queen?
                                        Speak softly, wake her not.
FIRST Guardsman:
Caesar hath sent—
                                        Too slow a messenger.


Augustus Caesar, now “sole sir o' th' world”; that Caesar who displayed his military skill by receiving messengers “every hour”; who dared to vie with Cleopatra, his superfluous messengers against hers, for the soul of Antony; who, when the time was right for him to campaign in his own person, crossed seas with miraculous speed—now, in his final contest with Cleopatra's wiles and Antony's great heart, “hath sent too slow a messenger”!

In this case, there is no absolute necessity of stagecraft for the “rustling” guard, since Caesar himself and his train are hot on their heels and could have made the discovery. But delaying Caesar's entrance gives Charmian a well-earned chance to hold the center of the stage for her own last gibe against Caesar's power. In this scene, into which so much is packed of all that has gone before in this rich play, including the fulfillment of the soothsayer's prophecies from I.ii, and the actualization of the hyperboles and paradoxes which seem to roll so easily from the tongue in the early scenes, Cleopatra becomes in her final apotheosis just about All: her former self at Cydnus, Snake-Goddess, woman of the people, boy actor, Roman wife, nursing mother, even the cold statue (“Now from head to foot / I am marble constant”) as which the pliant messenger described her rival, Octavia—“She shows a body rather than a life, / A statue than a breather” (III.iii.23-24). To this great coda, Shakespeare could not resist adding a final ironic and triumphant reminiscence of all those sweating, scurrying messengers who have so filled the stage, now all too slow to catch Cleopatra's soaring spirit.

Indeed, there is also a final reminiscence of that odd but dramatic figure of speech or of thought which treats the messenger as a physical extension of the one sending the message, which we saw in Cleopatra's metaphor, “Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears.” Now she fears that Iras, who has died first (and that Cleopatra has “the aspic in her lips” even before she has herself been bitten shows that she has become the Snake-Goddess), will steal her kiss from Antony:

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


Iras is but her messenger, sent before with the glad tidings of the imminent arrival of the queen. But Antony is courteous; as she had rewarded messengers by giving them her hands to kiss, he will be so joyful at the news of Cleopatra's coming that he will reward Iras with a kiss. If Caesar has sent too slow a messenger, Cleopatra fears that her own messenger this time will be too swift, and she is determined to overtake her. In addition to all the other roles she encompasses in this scene, she will be her own messenger.

There are in the play many messengers which have not been mentioned, including the lying message of her own death sent by Cleopatra to Antony through the eunuch Mardian, which starts the chain of love-deaths (IV.xiii, xiv), and the message from Antony to Enobarbus, which breaks the apostate soldier's heart (IV.v, vi). But I hope enough has been said to demonstrate that, like disguisings, stage fools and madmen, listeners behind the bush or the arras, and all the rest, the messenger is a bit of necessary stage machinery which Shakespeare seems almost miraculously to transform. In the history plays, in the other tragedies, and even in the comedies, messengers are treated with great subtlety, but no play approaches the infinite variety of Antony and Cleopatra in the uses of this convention, because here the dispersed locations, sweeping scope, and rapid turns of the action required a heavy use of reporters and intermediaries. What convention or the exigencies of stagecraft required of Shakespeare, he almost always changed into something rich and strange. His was not the art which concealed art but that which flaunted it, and turned the dramatic process itself into an evocative metaphor.4


  1. III.xii.5. All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are from the edition by Maynard Mack for the Pelican Complete Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  2. Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World (The Ohio State University Press, 1968), pp. 31ff.

  3. Hyperbole and paradox in the play are well summarized in Maynard Mack's introduction to the Pelican edition, to which I am greatly indebted.

  4. After this piece was written, I read the discussion of messengers in Janet Adelman's excellent book The Common Liar: An Essay onAntony and Cleopatra” (Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 34-39. Her approach is different from mine; she stresses the purpose of the messengers as “not so much to convey information as to convey the sense that all information is unreliable” (p. 35) and thus to involve the reader actively in the play.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Wilders, John. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, edited by John Wilders, pp. 1-84. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wilders surveys the structure, characters, themes, and language of Antony and Cleopatra.]



The dramatic construction of Antony and Cleopatra, with its constant shifts of location, is one which Shakespeare had already used in the two parts of Henry IV with their oscillations between the court, the tavern and the battlefield and their excursions into Wales and Gloucestershire. This in turn grew out of the mode he had used in the comedies, where one location is set off against another: the house of Baptista against that of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, the city and the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice. It had, in fact, been Shakespeare's way of working from the very beginning. As Emrys Jones points out,

A striking feature of a play like 1 Henry IV is the constant comparativeness of its method: we are never allowed to become identified with the point of view of any one of its characters. Although Talbot is a famous soldier-hero, he is only one of several main figures. The play's vision of reality is never less than complex: all viewpoints are partial. Hence the endless oscillation from one group, one individual, to another.

(Jones, Origins, 13-14)

By the time he wrote the two Henry IV plays, this kind of construction was a means whereby he presented the audience with a number of different assumptions, attitudes and ways of life. The civil war, for example, which to King Henry is a source of continual anxiety, to Falstaff is an opportunity to line his own pockets, and the interview between the King and the Prince, which in the court takes place in earnest, is the subject of a charade in the tavern. The audience is offered several different and conflicting attitudes to the same experience, and is invited to weigh the public responsibilities of war and politics against the personal desire for pleasure, comradeship and self-satisfaction. During the greater part of the two plays the conflicting attitudes are kept equally in view, chiefly in the figure of the Prince, who manages to encompass both, but towards the end of each play he is compelled to make a choice, first when he pledges himself to defeat Hotspur in Part 1, and again when he casts off Falstaff in Part 2. On the second occasion, however, the impression is created that in dismissing Falstaff he repudiates a part of himself. There is no wholly ‘correct’ choice. England's gain is Falstaff's loss and, though we do not feel that his decision is wholly laudable, the alternative—to embrace Falstaff—would have been far worse.

In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare created a similar kind of structure but used it with greater complexity and carried its implications further. Throughout the play, Roman attitudes and principles, expressed mainly by Octavius Caesar, are placed in opposition to the Egyptian, represented chiefly by Cleopatra. Antony is in a similar position to Prince Hal, equally at home in either world but compelled eventually to choose between them, and the critics, as we shall see, have continued to argue whether or not he chose correctly. As Maurice Charney says, Rome and Egypt ‘represent crucial moral choices and they function as symbolic locales in a manner not unlike Henry James's Europe and America’ (Charney, 93).


Rome is represented by a predominantly male society in which the only woman, Octavia, is regarded as a ‘“cement” to promote and consolidate male relations’ (Erickson, 128). For the Romans the ideal is measured in masculine, political, pragmatic, military terms, the subservience of the individual to the common good of the state, of personal pleasure to public duty, of private, domestic loyalties to the demands of empire. Alexandria, on the other hand, is a predominantly female society for which the ideal is measured in terms of the intensity of emotion, of physical sensation, the subservience of social responsibility to the demands of feeling. Hence Cleopatra must send to Antony every day a several greeting or she'll unpeople Egypt, and, at Actium, Antony deserts his own men and takes flight with Cleopatra because his heart is tied to her rudder. Adelman points out the extreme contrast between the two eulogies of Antony, the first delivered by Caesar in praise of the hardened soldier he once was (1.4.56-72), the second by Cleopatra in celebration of the Antony who has died (5.2.78-91). Since both are retrospective and neither corresponds with the man we are actually shown, both are idealizations, but, in describing the ideal, both speakers reveal the values they espouse. Whereas Caesar, says Adelman, ‘locates Antony in the Timonesque landscape of absolute deprivation’, a winter landscape in which he survives by exercising the manly virtues of fortitude and endurance, Cleopatra places him in a setting of ‘immense abundance’ with ‘no winter in it’: ‘The contest between Caesar and Cleopatra, Rome and Egypt, is in part a contest between male scarcity and female bounty as the defining site of Antony's heroic masculinity’ (Adelman, Mothers, 176-7). For Caesar, as for Coriolanus, manliness entails the repression of all that is female, but for Cleopatra Antony is visualized as like herself, ‘feeding and renewing the appetite in an endless cycle of gratification and desire, making hungry where most she satisfies’ (ibid., 190). Caesar regards his ‘great competitor’ as a man who has betrayed his own ideals (as, indeed, does Antony from time to time) but Cleopatra sees him as a man who has become at one with herself. As Erickson puts it, ‘Octavius finds in Antony a heightened image of his own abstemiousness, Cleopatra's celebration of the bountiful Antony projects a model in which she discovers her own bounty’ (Erickson, 142). As so often in Shakespeare, every gain is a different kind of loss and every asset a different kind of liability. ‘We are left at the end with a painfully divided response, for which there is no resolution’ (ibid., 145).


These contrasts and contradictions form the basis on which the play is constructed and also determine the shape of individual scenes. In the opening scene the ‘flourish’ or fanfare of trumpets leads us to expect the formal entry of some distinguished leader but it is followed by the arrival of Antony and Cleopatra with her maids, ‘with eunuchs fanning her’. The ‘triple pillar of the world’ is exhibited to us as what the Roman Philo calls ‘a strumpet's fool’. Again, the formal reconciliation between Antony and Caesar (2.2.18-180) is immediately followed by a private conversation between Maecenas and Enobarbus about the excesses of Alexandrian social life (2.2.185-99), and the former's belief that Antony must now leave Cleopatra is followed by the latter's assurance that he will not. The official feast which is held to celebrate the success of the peace conference (2.7) is preceded by the chatter among the servants about the drunkenness of the guests. The poignancy of Caesar's farewell to his sister (3.2) is undermined by the cynical observations of Agrippa and Enobarbus which introduce it, and their sarcastic asides during the course of the scene prevent us from taking it wholly seriously. This counterpointing of the poignant, the solemn and the tragic against the ironical, the sceptical and the absurd is most apparent in Shakespeare's treatment of Antony's suicide. Believing that he has suffered his ultimate defeat and that Cleopatra has killed herself, he realizes that the two ideals to which he has devoted his life have been destroyed and he therefore resolves to die in the Roman, stoical manner by falling on his sword. His ineffectual attempt to do so, however, is both painful and ridiculous: his servant Eros, instead of assisting his master, falls on his own sword; when Antony tries to kill himself he fails; the guards, refusing to complete the job, walk away, and it is now when he is at his most abject that he learns that Cleopatra is still alive. Nevertheless he insists on giving her the heroic version of the story:

                                                  [I] do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman; a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquished.


This is—and is not—a faithful account of the scene we have witnessed. Even the most transcendentally moving moment in the play, the suicide of Cleopatra towards which the whole of the final scene has been moving, is interrupted by the entry of the Clown with his basket of figs. His garrulous chatter and his reluctance to leave (perhaps, as Bowers suggests, he's hoping for a tip) delay Cleopatra's death and thereby create suspense but they also modify our impression of her final speeches during which, as Mack remarks, ‘we also hear echoing between the lines the gritty accents of the opposing voice’ (Mack, 23).


Such radically differing attitudes are expressed not only by different individuals but by the same person, depending on the mood and circumstances in which characters find themselves. To Antony, Cleopatra is at one moment ‘this enchanting queen’ and at another a ‘triple-turned whore’, and to Cleopatra the messenger from Rome is at first a ‘horrible villain’ and later ‘a fellow of good judgement’, ‘a proper man’. These conflicting ways of interpreting experience had long preoccupied Shakespeare but in this play they are also a preoccupation of the characters. On hearing of Fulvia's death, Antony reflects, as though it were axiomatic.

                                                                                The present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself


and Caesar, contemplating the growing support for Pompey, states it as a law of nature that

                    he which is was wished until he were,
And the ebbed man, ne'er loved till ne'er worth love,
Comes deared by being lacked.


It is when he himself hears of Antony's death that his contempt for the ‘old ruffian’ turns into grief and he weeps for the loss of his ‘brother’, his ‘mate in empire’ and the heart which kindled his own thoughts (5.1.40-8). Nowhere else in Shakespeare do we meet

characters given to such persistent oscillation of feelings, such violent veering between emotional extremes. In the case of Cleopatra it is at times deliberately practised, part of her technique of exhibiting her infinite variety in order to keep monotony at bay, her method of tantalising Antony by providing moods that are emotional foils to his own.

(Schanzer, Problem Plays, 143)

The actress who by all accounts conveyed this quality most faithfully was Dorothy Green, who played the role in three major productions between 1912 and 1930. Of the second of these, the Times critic wrote (25 April 1921):

She realises, as few players of the part in recent years have done, the ‘infinite variety’ of the Queen's moods. Stately, sinuous, arrogant, seductive, pleading, passionate—Miss Green is everything in turn, but she rises to her greatest height in the scene of sheer fury when she learns from the Messenger of Antony's marriage to Octavia, and all but strangles him in her madness.

Judging from the photographs, she was also sinister, a femme fatale like Swinburne's Dolores or Wilde's Salomé, and the reviewers sensed this: ‘What evil there is in the woman, gathered scene by scene as one might gather flowers, and what superb and dreadful tenderness when the asp is at her breast’ (The Times, 25 November 1930). She was very much the actress, fascinating, temperamental, and dangerous, as was also the great nineteenth-century Cleopatra, Isabella Glyn, though she was a good deal more majestic:

Gorgeous in person, in costume, and in her style of action, she moved, the Egyptian Venus, Minerva, Juno—now pleased, now angry, now eloquent, now silent—capricious and resolved, according to the situation and sentiment to be rendered. Withal she was classical, and her poses severely statuesque. Her death was sublime. … Altogether Miss Glyn's performance of Cleopatra is the most superb thing ever witnessed on the modern stage.

(Illustrated London News, 27 October 1849)

A contemporary illustration shows her in one of her poses offering her hand to Thidias.


The sense of the inconstant, shifting nature of our impressions that is expressed by the structure of the play and the preoccupations of the characters extends also to its distinctive images, which, as Charney points out, are of ‘melting, fading, dissolving, discandying, disponging and losing of form’: ‘Shakespeare seems to be creating his own vocabulary to establish the feeling of disintegration in the Roman world’ (Charney, 140). Indeed the whole play portrays the gradual process of Antony's disintegration to the point when ‘The crown o'th' earth doth melt’ (4.15.65). Shakespeare's playhouse was probably better able than ours to convey this impression to an audience. What was in front of them was, of course, an empty platform with the tiring-house wall at the back, but Shakespeare could transform it into wherever he chose, as when in A Midsummer Night's Dream (another play much preoccupied with the fluid nature of reality) Theseus' court melts into a forest. Similarly in Antony and Cleopatra Alexandria melts into Rome and the battlefield becomes Cleopatra's monument. This effect is well described by Granville-Barker, who says that the Elizabethan dramatist, having made use of a location, ‘would neglect and obliterate it without further consideration. The consciousness of it in the audience's imagination might be compared to a mirage, suddenly appearing, imperceptibly fading’ (Granville-Barker, ‘Note’, 64). On a realistic, nineteenth-century stage with its solid sets and frequent scene changes this was no longer possible. The actor in Chatterton's production, James Anderson, describes the effect of such scene changes on an actor:

I must … acknowledge my own inability to make a serious impression on the audience; I could do nothing, being stunned and cowed by the furious noise of preparation for ‘heavy sets’ behind the scenes that destroyed all power of acting in front.

(J. Anderson, 316-17)

The fullest expression of the melting, dissolving nature of perception is given by Antony in one of those insights which Shakespeare's tragic heroes experience shortly before their deaths. As a great soldier who knows he has undergone his final defeat, he contemplates the shifting patterns of the clouds and feels that he, too, is no longer ‘himself’:

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.

(4.14.9-11, 12-14)


This idea was not unique to Shakespeare but also preoccupied some of his contemporaries. Bacon was certainly aware of each individual's tendency to interpret the world subjectively, ‘owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature’ or ‘to the differences of impression, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled’. ‘The spirit of man’, he concludes, ‘is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation’ (Bacon, 54). The writer who most immediately comes to mind is, however, Montaigne, with whose Essayes Shakespeare was certainly acquainted by the time he came to write The Tempest and who contemplated with a melancholy curiosity the transience both of the world and of mankind:

There is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And we and our judgement, and all mortall things else do uncessantly rowle, turne and passe away. Thus can be nothing certainely established, nor of the one, nor of the other; both the judgeing and the judged being in continuall alteration and motion. … Thus, seeing all things are subject to passe from one change to another; reason, which therein seeketh a reall subsistence, findes her selfe deceived as unable to apprehend any thing subsistent and permanent; forsomuch as each thing either commeth to a being, and is not yet altogether: or beginneth to dy before it be borne.

(Montaigne, 323)

Both Bacon and Montaigne express the renewed influence of philosophical scepticism which appeared in Europe towards the end of the seventeenth century, but transformation is also the central theme of Ovid's Metamorphoses, perhaps the most lasting influence on all Shakespeare's work and which he must have read as a schoolboy. The Roman poet's prolonged meditation in the last book of the Metamorphoses on the ceaseless flux of creation probably lies behind this distinctive element of the play.


Against such an irresistible force, Shakespeare's characters attempt to create some sort of defence which will keep them stable and upon which they can rely. Caesar, foreseeing that his own and Antony's temperaments are so incompatible that their friendship is unlikely to last, longs for a ‘hoop’ which will hold them ‘staunch’ or watertight (2.2.121-3); Antony, ashamed of his lost reputation and his pitifully botched suicide, hopes that his fame as ‘the greatest prince o'th' world’ will remain intact (4.15.53-7), and Enobarbus recognizes that a servant willing to remain loyal to a ‘fallen lord’ will ‘[earn] a place i'th' story’ (3.13.44-7) as, by his death, he does. Similarly the poet of the Sonnets hopes that the beauty of the fair youth will be eternalized in his verse when all other things have changed or been forgotten. Finally, Cleopatra becomes ‘marble-constant’ in her resolve to leave ‘the varying shore o'th' world’ and find eternal stability with Antony in an existence beyond change. Whether or not she does so we have no means of knowing. We know only that she is convinced that she will, and that by her suicide she has earned a place in the story which Plutarch and Shakespeare and others have repeatedly told.


In the principal source of Antony and Cleopatra, the ‘Life of Antony’, Plutarch displays a disinterested attitude towards the two major figures. He acknowledges their strengths and virtues—Antony's courage and magnanimity, Cleopatra's vitality, her magnetism—yet this responsive sympathy does not prevent him from judging them. Even in his youth, says Plutarch, Antony was lured into ‘great follies and vain expences upon women, in rioting and banketing’ (North, 255) and he lays the blame for Antony's decline squarely on Cleopatra (North, 273).

Shakespeare's judgement of his characters is less easy to discern. This is partly because, whereas Plutarch tells his story as a narrative on which he comments from time to time in his own person, Shakespeare transformed it into a play in which each character expresses him or her self and no character speaks with the voice of the dramatist. There are characters such as Philo, Pompey, Enobarbus and especially Caesar who unhesitatingly criticize Antony:

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


Against such passages, however, Shakespeare places Cleopatra's adoration of ‘my man of men’:

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


To complicate matters, these same characters change their opinions of one another. Although Enobarbus acts as a commentator on the characters and action of the play, his opinions are complex and he, too, changes his mind.

Clearly with a play as paradoxical and self-contradictory as this, any attempt to determine the opinion of the author is necessarily difficult if not impossible. The only account which does justice to its complexity is the play itself and, though criticism may (and often does) illuminate, in the face of this particular work it is almost bound to simplify. Nevertheless some critics, while admitting the play's intricacy, have attempted to locate and define Shakespeare's attitude towards his material. None has been more simple and reductive than Dryden, who approved ‘the excellency of the moral’ which he believed the story illustrated, ‘for the chief persons represented were famous patterns of unlawful love; and their end accordingly was unfortunate’ (Dryden, Love, 10). Dowden acknowledges that ‘the passion and the pleasure of the Egyptian queen, and of her paramour, toil after the infinite’, but concludes that, finally, what Shakespeare ‘would seem to say to us … is that this sensuous infinite is but a dream, a deceit, a snare. … The severity of Shakespeare, in his own dramatic fashion, is as absolute as that of Milton’ (Dowden, 311-13).

More recent critics have, after considerable hesitation, come to a similar conclusion. Franklin M. Dickey attempts to reach towards Shakespeare's judgement by examining Antony and Cleopatra in the context of earlier treatments of the same subject from Virgil's and Chaucer's onwards. He decides that, although, unlike his predecessors, the dramatist has little to say about the power of Fortune and the insecurity of princes, nevertheless, like them, he says a great deal about ‘the dire consequences of indecorum on the part of princes and the terrible end of excessive passion’ (Dickey, 76). For him, Antony and Cleopatra are examples of rulers who threw away a kingdom for lust, ‘and this is how, despite the pity and terror that Shakespeare makes us feel, they appear in the play’ (ibid., 179).

Such an interpretation was in part a protest against the opposite, romantic view, ‘the elevation claimed by those critics who insist[ed] on seeing Cleopatra as a seventeenth-century precursor of Wagner's Isolde’ (Riemer, 101). After all, Swinburne had called Cleopatra ‘the perfect and everlasting woman’ (Swinburne, Shakespeare, 76) and Antony and Cleopatra ‘the greatest love-poem of all time’ (Swinburne, Study, 191). Wilson Knight sometimes repeats what Swinburne has said, though at more length and with considerably more evidence. For him, Cleopatra is ‘love absolute and incarnate’ (Knight, 318), at once ‘Rosalind, Beatrice, Ophelia, Gertrude, Cressida, Desdemona, Cordelia and Lady Macbeth’ (ibid., 290). He arrives at his transcendental view of the tragedy by consciously discarding any attention to character and action, preferring to invoke ‘certain symbolic images’ which, for him, are ‘the only elements in Shakespeare which will lead us from multiplicity and chaos towards unity, simplicity and coherence’ (ibid., 19). He by no means overlooks the images of sensuality, eroticism and the physical but, largely by emphasizing Enobarbus' eulogy of Cleopatra on the Cydnus and Cleopatra's idealizing vision of Antony after his death, comes to the conclusion that, in Shakespeare's treatment of them, the lovers are finally transfigured and thereby vindicated:

We see the protagonists, in love and war and sport, in death or life or that mystery containing both, transfigured in a transfigured universe, themselves that universe and more, outpacing the wheeling orbs of earth and heaven. … So Cleopatra and Antony find not death but life.

(Knight, 262)

Knight was certainly justified in calling our attention to the language and images of the play which the moralizing critics had tended generally to overlook, but in so doing he took little or no account of the characters who express themselves in these images and the context in which they occur. Enobarbus' ‘barge’ speech is placed immediately after Antony's agreement to marry Octavia, and the effect of this placing is to make us realize that Antony will ultimately desert her for Cleopatra and thereby give Caesar a pretext to turn against him. The magnetism of Cleopatra is shown to be disastrous politically. Again, Cleopatra's final vision of Antony, magnificent in itself, is also subjective (as is everyone's opinion in this play). As Janet Adelman pertinently asks, ‘Is this the vision of the play or her own peculiar brand of delusion?’ (Adelman, Essay, 7). The Antony she celebrates does not correspond with the one we have seen, nor is her view of him shared by any other character. Her final insight may be her ultimate delusion. Shakespeare's critics, like his characters, tend to interpret this play in accordance with the predispositions they bring to it. They can find ample support for their arguments in whatever evidence they care to select from the text.

Are all attempts to reach some final understanding simply otiose, an inevitable simplification of a challengingly complex work? This may be so, but the desire to respond to the challenge is nevertheless irresistible. ‘The whole play’, as Adelman says, ‘can be seen as a series of attempts on the part of the characters to understand and judge each other and themselves’ (Adelman, Essay, 20). It is scarcely surprising, then, that we should be compelled to judge them ourselves—or, at any rate, to discover how Shakespeare judged them.

Ultimately the difficulty arises out of Shakespeare's uniquely copious powers of empathy, his capacity not simply to understand people unlike himself but in his imagination to become them, as Hazlitt observed:

He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune or conflict of passion, or turn of thought. … He had only to think of any thing in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.

(Hazlitt, 47-8)

Shakespeare could also identify himself with every kind of ideal, especially the Roman, with which he must have become familiar from his schooldays onwards. The two principles on which the play is built are irreconcilable, and to ask which of them Shakespeare favoured (which is what, essentially, some of the critics are doing) is not a question that should be asked.

A few critics, however, have done justice to the irreconcilable nature of the opposites with which Shakespeare presents us. Schanzer, for example, recognizes that, as a consequence of the structure of the play, ‘we are confronted with these opposed evaluations, and in such a way as to exclude … a simple or consistent response’ (Schanzer, Problem Plays, 146), and Bullough agrees that ‘the breadth and intensity of Shakespeare's vision are such as to make us accept both moral judgements against and passionate approval of Antony and Cleopatra' (Bullough, 252). Adelman, who has explored the play more fully and subtly than anyone, concludes that ‘this is the final contrariety that the play demands of us: that the extreme of skepticism must be balanced by an extreme of assent’ (Adelman, Essay, 110).


In certain obvious and general ways Antony and Cleopatra resembles Shakespeare's other tragedies. Like Richard II, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus it is both a tragedy and a history play, a work of the imagination based largely on historical accounts and portraying people who once lived in situations in which they actually found themselves. Together with Romeo and Juliet it is a double tragedy, but, whereas in the earlier work the two principal characters die swiftly one after the other and for much the same reasons (a combination of self-sacrificial love and bad luck), in the later tragedy each of them undergoes a prolonged final suffering on which Shakespeare lingers. Each of their suicides constitutes a separate episode; their motives for suicide differ and produce different effects on an audience.

In some ways Antony resembles Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, exceptional men in that their fate, as Bradley says, ‘affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire’ (Bradley, Tragedy, 10). Both he and Cleopatra are exceptional too in their capacity for extreme and spontaneous feeling which manifests itself most powerfully when they are responding, whether in fury or delight, to each other. For this reason Octavius, though he becomes the supreme ruler of the Roman empire, seems a lesser person. Antony, like Brutus, Macbeth and Coriolanus, finds himself in a position in which he must make a choice which has far-reaching consequences both for himself and his country. His choice occurs fairly early in the play at the point when (2.3.37) he resolves to return from Rome to Egypt. Although his decision seems sudden, it is not, to the audience, unexpected in view of the hold which we know Cleopatra has over him, and especially because it occurs less than a hundred lines after Enobarbus' testimony to her magnetism (2.2.201-28). Unlike the other tragic heroes, however, he undergoes no apparent struggle, never defines or articulates the nature of his choice (which is, again, perfectly clear to the audience) or seems to foresee its consequences. Like Coriolanus, Shakespeare's other great Roman soldier, he never intellectualizes, has practically no soliloquies and acts always upon impulse. His decline is prolonged but follows no steady, descending line—his catastrophic flight at Actium is followed by a spectacular victory—and his insights into his predicament come to him spasmodically, in flashes:

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.


Within moments he casts such painful thoughts out of his mind. He buries them and prefers to think of what he has gained:

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.


It is only after his final defeat and what he believes to be Cleopatra's betrayal that he is forced to confront the truth of his situation and then he acts on it by committing suicide.

In his inability (or refusal) to recognize the momentous nature of his choice or to face up to and learn from its consequences, Antony is unlike Shakespeare's other tragic heroes. Macbeth, by contrast, is entirely aware of the significance of Duncan's murder even before he commits it. Antony is shown to be limited intellectually and even imaginatively, and for this reason it was not difficult for the moralizing critics to see him as a great warrior who was blinded by the charms of a woman. These are, moreover, by no means his only limitations. He is often shown in situations in which he is overshadowed or worsted by sharper intellects such as Caesar's and especially by Cleopatra's. Whereas Plutarch depicted him as a sociable entertaining man, Shakespeare's Antony, as Honigmann points out, is in the early scenes not so self-assured:

It is Cleopatra who rails and mocks, and Antony is always at the receiving end, and not amused. She laughs, he glooms. … Long before Actium … Antony impresses us in scene after scene as a loser; Herculean, but still a loser; and his defeats in conversation, added by Shakespeare, distinguish him equally from Plutarch's Antonius and from the other tragic heroes.

(Honigmann, 150, 153)

He is most miserably degraded, of course, in his failure to perform the decorous suicide which he attempts and which, in retrospect, he likes to think he has accomplished. One has only to recall the death of Brutus to see the difference.

Superficially Cleopatra appears to be possessed of that ‘fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion or habit of mind’ which for Bradley distinguished Shakespeare's tragic figures (Bradley, Tragedy, 20-1). Certainly her attention in the first three scenes is fixed on Antony and on the means—any means—to discourage him from leaving her, and during his absence in Rome he is her exclusive preoccupation. His presence is necessary, however, in order to satisfy her political as well as her emotional needs. He is both her lover and the commander of her military forces, and when his fortunes decline she at least toys with the idea of settling on favourable terms with Caesar. Her possible shift of allegiance appears first in the interview with Thidias (3.13) and, although her subsequent protestations of loyalty to Antony seem to satisfy him (3.13.163-72), the audience may not be so easily assured. As Adelman says, ‘Is Cleopatra merely exercising her powers over Thidias for the sake of the game, or does she really hope to woo Octavius through him?’ (Adelman, Essay, 15). Her uppermost thought may well be of self-preservation. This is undoubtedly her impulse when, terrified of Antony's rage against her, she flees to the monument and sends him the false news of her suicide (4.13), but whether or not it is self-preservation she has in mind after Antony's death is more difficult to determine. Certainly she begins to contemplate suicide immediately after he is gone:

                                                                                                                        Then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death
Ere death dare come to us?


and at the beginning of the final scene she appears positively resolved to take this course (5.2.4-8). In the interview with Seleucus, however, her intentions are not so clear and Shakespeare here clouds the motives which in Plutarch's account were explicit. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra deliberately allowed Caesar to discover that she had kept half her treasure in order to create the false impression that she planned to survive. In Shakespeare's version, however, it is uncertain whether she wishes to give this impression or genuinely hopes to come to terms with Caesar. In other words, her intention may be to kill herself out of devotion to Antony or to ‘pack cards with Caesar’ and enjoy a comfortable life in retirement. It is only when she discovers from Dolabella that the latter option is not open that she resolves finally on suicide. Honigmann sums up the situation admirably:

Though Cleopatra's choice of death seems unconditional when Antony dies, she has time to think again, and her final decision affects us differently. She learns that Octavius will lead her in triumph, and that he can resist her charms, and again her vanity comes into play. Her actions, not necessarily all of a piece, suggest that she may still wish to live.

(Honigmann, 166)

A similar inconsistency surrounds the suicide itself. Both she and Antony like to imagine themselves dying ‘after the high Roman fashion’. Neither of them achieves this ideal and, moreover, the two suicides are utterly unlike, ‘his—unplanned, messy, a man alone; hers—a basket of figs prepared with an asp, supported by her women—thrillingly beautiful. The difference is brought home to us by Antony's unbearable physical pain, succeeded by her death “As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle”’ (Honigmann, 166-7). She had, we learn later, ‘pursued conclusions infinite / Of easy ways to die’ (5.2.354-5; my italics). Her final act may be seen, as she wants us to see it, as a supreme and glorious sacrifice or as an extreme self-indulgence. As in his portrayal of Antony, Shakespeare does not allow us to respond in any simple way. We are at the same time drawn to and distanced from them both. Such uncertainties have been perceived only in the twentieth century, when criticism has concentrated on tensions, ambiguities, counter-cultures and self-contradiction. It was these uncertainties, however, which made the play unsatisfactory to the great interpreter of tragedy of an earlier generation, A. C. Bradley.

Bradley excluded Antony and Cleopatra from his study of Shakespearean tragedy, and in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry he stated categorically that ‘to regard this tragedy as a rival of the famous four, is surely an error’ (Bradley, Lectures, 282). He accounts for this conviction by saying that it is ‘not painful’, ‘not as exciting dramatically’ as the other four tragedies and has ‘no scenes of action or passion which agitate the audience with alarm, horror, painful expectation, or absorbing sympathies and antipathies’. Eventually he identifies the quality in the play which causes his unease and, in so doing, glimpses the complex, paradoxical nature of its fabric:

The first half of the play, though it forebodes tragedy, is not decisively tragic in tone. Certainly the Cleopatra scenes are not so. We read them, and we should witness them, in delighted wonder and even with amusement. The only scene that can vie with them, that of the revel on Pompey's ship, though full of menace, is in great part humorous. Enobarbus, in this part of the play, is always humorous. Even later, when the tragic tone is deepening, the whipping of Thyreus, in spite of Antony's rage, moves mirth.

(Bradley, Lectures, 284-5)

He concedes that such a play may well be as ‘masterly’ as the four great tragedies and ‘more delightful’, but ‘it cannot possibly excite the same emotions’. There is, he says ‘something half-hearted in Shakespeare's appeal here, something even ironical in his presentation of this conflict’ (ibid., 290).

That Bradley identified the distinguishing element in Antony and Cleopatra there can be little doubt. He senses the lack of that consistently tragic high seriousness to which he responded in Lear and Macbeth, but accepts the fact that in this play Shakespeare attempted ‘something different’. One cannot help feeling, however, that by ‘something different’ Bradley really meant ‘something inferior’. As G. K. Hunter points out in an illuminating essay on Bradley (Hunter, 270-85), he thought of himself as a philosopher-critic. As the son of an evangelical clergyman, he reacted violently against the kind of faith in which he had been brought up and found that literature, and especially Shakespearean tragedy, could fill the void once occupied in his mind by religion. In so doing he fulfilled the prediction made almost thirty years earlier by Matthew Arnold that more and more ‘mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us’ (Arnold, 2). Bradley valued Shakespeare's tragedies for their capacity to interpret the world and man's place in it without recourse to Christian theology. ‘We remain confronted’, as he says at the end of his lecture on ‘The Substance of Tragedy’,

with the inexplicable fact, or the no less inexplicable appearance, of a world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth, together with glorious good, an evil which it is able to overcome only by self-torture and self-waste. And this fact or appearance is tragedy.

(Bradley, Tragedy, 39)

Such a description may well apply to Othello and Macbeth, where good and evil are precisely located, but to Antony and Cleopatra, where the perfection for which the two principal characters strive is also shown to be a waste and a delusion, it seems irrelevant. Nothing purely good or evil can be found in the play and what seems admirable in one context is shown as ridiculous in another—or, rather, appears as both admirable and ridiculous at one and the same time. A tragedy founded on such assumptions could not satisfy Victorian readers who looked to it to console and sustain them. In the sceptical twentieth century it has been better appreciated.



The distinctive language and style in which Antony and Cleopatra express themselves may have been created by Shakespeare in response to a remark made by Plutarch in his ‘Life of Marcus Antonius’. As a young man, says Plutarch, Antony left Italy and went to Greece where he spent much of his time in ‘the studie of eloquence’. As a result of this early training he ‘used a manner of phrase in his speeche, called Asiatik, which caried the best grace and estimation of that time, and was much like to his manners and life: for it was full of ostentation, foolish braverie, and vaine ambition’ (North, 225). Plutarch, although a Greek, here speaks in the austerely disapproving tone of the Romans (whom he much admired) and, consistently with the rhetorical principles established by Aristotle, regards Antony's eloquence not simply as a verbal style but as a moral quality, an expression of his personality and way of life. Perhaps picking up this hint from Plutarch, Shakespeare fashioned for Antony and Cleopatra a way of speaking which he used in no other play and which contributes more than anything to the extreme contrast between Egypt and Rome discussed earlier (p. 28). As Rosalie Colie explains,

The 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.

(Colie, 171)

In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare reversed the process and created an ‘Asiatic’ style to reflect the Alexandrian way of life.


The most distinctive feature of this style is its hyperbole, its exaggeration. Cleopatra expresses every possible emotion from rapturous joy and uncontrollable rage to suicidal despair, but seems incapable of moderation, the Roman ‘measure’ or golden mean, and she expresses this intensity of feeling, which she cultivates and pursues as though it were a moral absolute, in a correspondingly heightened language. Looking back on the love she has shared with Antony, she conceives of it in terms which are nothing less than transcendental:

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


On hearing of Antony's marriage, she calls for the collapse of her empire into chaos:

Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents!


After Antony's death, she does not say, simply, that she has lost all sense of purpose, but that creation itself has ceased to exist:

                                                                                                    All's but naught;
Patience is sottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that's mad.


It is, of course, her nature to change rapidly from one extreme of feeling to another but even when, in the final scene, she settles herself in her determination to die, she speaks of this newly-found stability in typically absolute terms:

My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me. Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant.


This heightened form of speech appears at its most extreme and prolonged in her eulogy of the dead Antony with its series of hyperbolic metaphors: Antony's legs ‘bestrid the ocean; his reared arm / Crested the world’ and his voice was ‘as rattling thunder’ (5.2.81-5).


This passage is also notable for what Charney calls its ‘words of cosmic reference’ (80), the ‘world imagery’ which ‘represents the most general pattern of imagery in the play’ (93). This occurs so frequently that it is impossible to illustrate it fully here (but see Charney, 80-93). In the opening speech of the play Antony is described as ‘The triple pillar of the world’; during the feast on Pompey's galley, Menas calls the triumvirs ‘these three world-sharers’ (2.7.71), and before his final victory, Caesar prophesies that a ‘time of universal peace’ is coming in which ‘the three nooked world / Shall bear the olive freely’ (4.6.5-7). In the mouths of the Romans such references are not simply metaphorical, for in their eyes the Roman empire, which the triumvirs governed, extended throughout the known world. For Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, their relationship itself constitutes the world, an all-encompassing universe of feeling which they see as an alternative to the lesser Roman world of conquest and empire. Hence, for Antony, Cleopatra is the ‘day o'th' world’ (4.8.13) and, for Cleopatra, Antony is ‘the crown o'th' earth’ without which it is ‘no better than a sty’ (4.15.64-5). The impression that the play encompasses vast expanses of territory and that the conflict is one in which the politics of the world are at stake was one which the nineteenth-century actor-managers hoped to create by dramatic spectacle, but in fact such extravagant and cumbersome means were unnecessary. The impression is created more than sufficiently by Shakespeare's language.

Antony's kind of rhetoric, his ‘Asiatic’ style, is often as heightened as Cleopatra's to the extent that Shakespeare seems to imply that he has acquired it from her as a mode of expressing feelings which she, and only she, has awakened in him. His way of speaking to Octavia is a great deal more sober and factual. His grandiose dismissal of Rome and its messengers (an example of what Plutarch calls his ‘foolish bravery’) prefigures Cleopatra's injunction that Egypt should melt into the Nile:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space!


The oneness which they occasionally achieve is suggested by their tendency to use similar words and figures of speech. Like her he expresses himself in extreme and heightened language (‘Kingdoms are clay’) and the fury with which he attacks Thidias, the messenger from Caesar, is as violent as hers towards the messenger from Rome (3.13.100-9; 2.5.62-72). Such extremes of emotion, diction and behaviour unite them to each other and distinguish them from the Romans. They are a quality which Cleopatra recognizes in Antony and admires in him:

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



The language of Cleopatra and her court is distinguished by a series of recurring images which make us constantly aware of the way they live. Egypt is associated with the Nile as Rome is with the Tiber, and the Nile is visualized as the source both of fruitfulness and of carrion-eating insects, harvest and deadly serpents. Cleopatra is herself the ‘serpent of old Nile’ (1.5.26) and the river reflects something of her paradoxical nature, both life-enhancing and fatally poisonous. Egypt is also a place of feeding and drinking to excess, where eight wild boars are roasted for a breakfast for twelve people (2.2.189-90) and Antony calls for wine both in defiance of his defeat (3.13.189-90) and in celebration of his victory (4.8.32-5). When Pompey thinks of Antony in Egypt, he imagines him sitting at a dinner prepared by ‘Epicurean cooks’ who sharpen his appetite with ‘cloyless sauce’ (2.1.24-5). Cleopatra is also repeatedly described in terms of food which, according to Enobarbus, is always enticing and never satisfying:

                                                                                                    Other people cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.


That there are relatively few distinctive images associated with Rome is itself significant, for the Romans are characterized by their moderation, their temperance and ability to control their feelings. Temperance is a virtue which Caesar admired in Antony before he encountered Cleopatra. In his campaigns in northern Italy the young Antony was able to endure famine ‘with patience more / Than savages could suffer’ and could survive on wild berries and ‘the barks of trees’ (1.4.59-69). Caesar's own intemperance at the feast on Pompey's galley disgusts him and he confesses that rather than drink so much in a day he would prefer to fast for four (2.7.102-3). Whereas Egypt is associated with feeling and sensuality, as in the playful chatter among Cleopatra's servants (1.2.1-80) which is openly sexual, Rome is associated with action, especially military and political action. It is, says Charney, ‘a place of conference tables, armor, political decisions and hard material objects’ (102), and Caesar's speeches are much concerned with conveying information, devising strategy and issuing commands. The only woman to appear in the Roman scenes is Octavia who is of ‘a holy, cold and still conversation’ (2.6.124-5) whereas Cleopatra sees herself as black from the ‘amorous pinches’ of the sun god (1.5.29).

Although the two worlds of the play are thus differentiated by the kind of style and diction associated with them, the characters who inhabit them are at the same time individuals with their own distinctive forms of speech. Whereas Charmian, always loyal to her mistress, is frankly outspoken, Mardian is hesitant and deferential. Lepidus, the dupe among the triumvirs, scarcely says anything in the company of the other two and when he does it is in those balanced, antithetical clauses favoured by Brutus in Julius Caesar, which express thoughtfulness, rationality and moderation:

That which combined us was most great, and let not
A leaner action rend us. What's amiss,
May it be gently heard. When we debate
Our trivial difference loud, we do commit
Murder in healing wounds. Then, noble partners,
The rather for I earnestly beseech,
Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms,
Nor curstness grow to th' matter.


The two men whose lives and loyalties are initially divided between Egypt and Rome, Antony and Enobarbus, instinctively shift from one mode to another depending on their circumstances and situation. Once Antony has heard the news from Rome, he reprimands Enobarbus for his sexual ‘Egyptian’ banter (‘No more light answers’) and embarks on a speech as factual and politically observant as any of Caesar's (1.2.183-203). Enobarbus, at any rate in the early scenes, tends to speak prose and as his first extensive interview with Antony begins, the dialogue changes abruptly from verse to prose, an appropriate medium for the knowing, pragmatic, experienced soldier (the kind of man which Iago, another tried campaigner, pretends to be), but once he recalls Cleopatra's spectacular arrival in her barge (2.2.201-28) he modulates into the heightened, figurative speech associated with Egypt. The divided personalities of the two men are reflected in the two distinct modes in which they speak. Shakespeare, like Aristotle and Plutarch, believed that style was an expression of character, conduct and morality. As Ben Jonson declared, ‘Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee.’

Works Cited

Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven and London, 1973)

Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays (New York and London, 1992)

James R. Anderson, An Actor's Life (1902)

Matthew Arnold, ‘The study of poetry’, in Essays in Criticism, 2nd series (1888) (1988)

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, in Works, ed. Spedding, vol. 4 (1870)

John M. Bowers, ‘“I am marble-constant”: Cleopatra's Monumental End’, HLQ [Huntington Library Quarterly] 46 (1983), 283-97

A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)

A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry ((1909)

Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols (1957-75), vol. 5 (1964)

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

Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, NJ, 1974)

Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely but Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino, CA, 1957)

Edward Dowden, Shakspere: A Critical Study of his Mind and Art (1875), (1967)

John Dryden, All for Love, in Works, vol. 13 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984)

Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985)

Harley Granville-Barker, ‘A note upon chapters XX and XXI of The Elizabethan Stage’, RES [Review of English Studies] 1 (1925), 63-4

William Hazlitt, ‘On Shakespeare and Milton’, Lectures on the English Poets (1818), in Complete Works, 21 vols, vol. 5 (1930-4)

E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare, Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (1976)

G. K. Hunter, ‘A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy’, in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (Liverpool, 1978)

Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977)

G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (1931), (1965)

Maynard Mack, ‘The Jacobean Shakespeare’, in Jacobean Theatre, eds John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1 (1960)

Michel de Montaigne, ‘An Apologie of Raymond Sebond’, Essayes, trans. John Florio (1603), 3 vols, vol. 2 (1965)

Plutarch, ‘The Life of Marcus Antonius’ and ‘The Life of Julius Caesar’ trans. Sir Thomas North, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, vol. 5 (1964)

A. P. Riemer, A Reading of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (Sydney, 1968)

Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure and Antony and Cleopatra (1963)

A. C. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (1880)

A. C. Swinburne, Shakespeare (Oxford, 1909)

H. W. Fawkner (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Fawkner, H. W. “Presence and Oblivion.” In Shakespeare's Hyperontology: Antony and Cleopatra, pp. 23-45. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Fawkner examines the oppositional pattern of “following and leaving” in Antony and Cleopatra, which he suggests defines the conceptual structure of the drama.]

At the most intense and fascinating level of dramatic suggestion, Shakespearean tragedy opens signification that is hyperontological. Shakespeare's language does not only dramatize certain human events, it also dramatizes the elusive play of certain logical fantasies, certain hyperlogical mystifications. These patternings, related as they are to what is philosophical in all human inquiry, are not external to the dramatic action—as “poetry” or “imagery” adorning it. Rather, these patternings are conceptual and hyperconceptual constructs that cause the organization of tragic discourse and the organization of tragic reality to become a unified sense of dramatic power.

While it is possible to argue that there is a general hyperontology for Shakespearean tragedy as a whole, it is first necessary to clarify the manner in which each individual tragedy tends to move toward its own special hyperontology: to face its own particular ontodramatic difficulty.1 Such a challenge causes the tragic vision to become more than a spectacle, more than a showing of certain intricate happenings and outcomes. Indeed, we see in a problem tragedy like Antony and Cleopatra that the hyperontological difficulty can usurp the mastering role of tragic action to the extent that the play at times seems to begin to suffer from the dominating urge of its own hyperlogical obsessions. What we risk ending up with is not an absolutely rounded tragedy, an entirely “satisfying” theatrical product, but instead the general feeling of the contradictory hyperlogical difficulty that sets it in motion. Antony and Cleopatra in a sense becomes a performance of the intellectual obstacle that should have been its metaphysical reserve; the play performs its own hidden condition of possibility, but without always transforming that possibility into theatrical persuasion.

This inability of the drama to live up to the preexisting demands of aesthetic resolution—which is its power to surpass a neat formula of constructional felicity—at once opens the view of what this enterprise identifies as the ontodrama of Antony and Cleopatra: the spectacle of leaving. I submit that Antony and Cleopatra consistently traces a crucial (non)structure, that this (non)structure is hyperontological, and that the hyperontological trace engages the polar opposites “following” and “leaving.” But precisely because these conceptual opposites are torn by drama, and not posited by neo-classical logic, precisely because Shakespeare puts them into radical play, they no longer operate as dialectical philosophemes. Hyperontology is a play rather than a conceptual order; we are not shown how concepts work but how they resist work—how they play. The play of following and leaving with one another “is” the drama known as Antony and Cleopatra. This sporting of leaving with following, and of following with leaving (and of each side with itself), is sometimes more important than the sporting of Cleopatra with Antony, or of Antony with Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra is an ontodramatically interesting play, for as Michael Goldman points out, it is likely that Shakespeare at this point in his career was becoming theatrically self-conscious in a new manner:

I find it helpful to think of Antony and Cleopatra as written at a moment when Shakespeare, for whatever reason, had become particularly self-conscious about his own career. At forty-three or forty-four, he would have had a reasonably clear sense of his own greatness. Even if he shared his culture's relatively low estimate of the importance of playwriting, he must have been conscious of the unusual power of his mind. The intellectual effort required to produce Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth in half-a-dozen years would have struck even the most modest of men as extraordinary. Like any great artist he might have wondered what his powers could have achieved in a more practical sphere.2

Goldman's essay uses this notion to deploy a vertical axis of tragic explication, one that will transcend the horizontal analysis opposing Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, and so forth.3 He argues that the hero and heroine above all exemplify a greatness4 that is ecstatic,5 and that can be perceived in the magnetism of great actors or in the charisma of great political leaders.6 Instead of a horizontal indeterminacy (between Rome and Egypt, and so forth), we get a vertical indeterminacy. Here greatness itself is at stake, always hovering near the brink of its own ruination:

The power of presence in an actor is perilously close to glamor, but it can be taken beyond the limits of glamor by art. … Antony and Cleopatra are most actor-like in that they exhibit a magnetism that is culturally suspect. Paramount among the vile things they make becoming to the audience are the particular vices of glamorous actors. Cheapness and self-indulgence, narcissism and whoredom, hover about all their gestures. … They must be, as the text demands, showy, self-regarding, manipulative, concerned with “image”—all the familiar trappings of the glamorous “star.” But while showing the seams of their talent, all the glitz of their art, they must show its irresistible power too.7

Like the great actor, the great playwright is structurally drawn into the risk of such greatness. The danger is not really a social one, that of fame; rather, it springs from the excessive power that the subject provisionally gains over the world. Shakespeare, absorbed for some reason in other issues during a nearby performance of one of his plays, must on numerous occasions have been startled by the recognition that the words coming from the center of the Globe (from the play in performance) were nothing but the linguistic fabrications of his own private mind. He must on such occasions have been struck by the power of language—and by the power also of the hypnotic excess that language can radiate when it pushes humans toward the limits of their creative and destructive potentials. Such a moment of sudden self-consciousness would no doubt shape itself as a moment of illumination, the dramatist suddenly acquiring a powerful intuition of the reach and force of his own spirit; yet such an intuition might also be accompanied by a sense of terror. Macbeth, already, would seem to be in the process of beginning to recognize the shape of such attraction and terror. The hero quickly grasps an expanded sense of greatness, when he has an intuition of the world's ongoing drama as a performance that he may master and appropriate.8 Macbeth is made to expand violently at exactly that point in time when the play's producers (the Weird Sisters) manage to suggest that he is the director of his own performance—its be-all and end-all. But with this fantastic inflation, and quite simultaneous with it, there follows an absolute loss: as soon as the hero (Macbeth, or Shakespeare happening to catch the sound of the performance of his own work) intuits the self as something enlarging itself infinitely, that self is also dispersed into the infinite otherness of the medium. By wiping out the distinction between (private) performance and (public) world, the world is privatized, while the self is abstractly publicized. Thus, in grasping himself suddenly as allness, Macbeth also claims himself as nothingness, a mere opium dream. Macbeth shows the moral unease and ontological flutter created by this ability of the imagination to infinitize its reach, and Goldman identifies a similar pattern in Antony and Cleopatra. From this viewpoint, Antony and Cleopatra pushes the problem of greatness in Macbeth one step further:

Whatever Shakespeare may have intended, however orthodox the political “philosophy” of his history plays, the power of his art made the possibility of rebellion vivid, interesting, moving. In this, it loosened the fibers of authority and moral restraint. … Macbeth deprecated regicide; Othello made it clear one wasn't supposed to kill one's wife. But each was a risky adventure in feeling and knowledge. Certainly it could not be denied that imagination at its most importunate swept dangerously beyond moral lines. The power of language could make everything it touched precious, could, while the play lasted, make its own preciousness the center of value. In the figures of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare may have recognized an appeal like that of supreme poetic fluency itself—the amoral splendor of the absolutely attractive.9

Goldman, then, opposes his vertical conception of the play to the horizontal one. He belongs to the large group of critics who privilege the scene where Antony is raised up from the ground and lifted into the elevated and transcendent presence of Cleopatra. The elevation, itself the symbol of “heightened perception” and “heightened sensation,”10 amounts to a typically idealist form of ascension, to a sublation through erection. Against such vertical sensations, we could then set the horizontal models that, far from stressing resolution, focus its absence. Janet Adelman's brilliant work The Common Liar may here represent that position. In the play, she argues, there is chaotic contradiction on countless levels, and our synthesizing faculties fail to bring these contradictions into a state of aesthetic or logical harmony.11 If our imagination habitually yearns for such synthesizing operation, it is not surprising that Antony and Cleopatra frustrates so many spectators and critics: the play, in important ways, does not make sense. I would like to argue, however, that the vertical and the horizontal lines of explication are not mutually exclusive; indeed, an ontodramatic reading will break down the artificial opposition between them. Therefore, what I am primarily interested in in Goldman's criticism is not the transcendent qualities of the drama, but what he calls “odd knots of meaning.”12 The emotion or general sense of a unit is clear, but then “an additional bend of suggestion is felt.”13 On my view, it is this “additional bend” that regularly makes Shakespearean discourse Shakespearean, and it is also my view that these “bends” nearly always create a hyperontological angle of suggestion. Moreover, these hyperontological “bends” tend, in each play, to mark the outline of a certain shared “trace.” This trace amounts to (1) a “logic” and (2) an organization of discourse. The ontodramatic trace or (non)structure, as I have pointed out, is shaped by the capacity of these two aspects to become the unified shadow of a fluttering gestalt. Most commentators, indeed even most of the great critics, miss the ontodramatic gestalt/flutter completely, the reason being that the hyperontological “bends” bend away from (rather than together with) the curves of meaning and general sense. Goldman by contrast effectuates several brilliant ontodramatic readings in the course of his essay, notably of the unit “becoming”; and he observes in this context that “the general sense” states one thing while “the words say the opposite.”14 In this situation where meanings actually get “reversed” through rhetoric,15 the clues provided by the logic of action and behavior often prove to be negative at first. This is why the critic severely conditioned by the “general sense” of a Shakespearean drama (and particularly by a moral sense) never gets anywhere near the ontodramatic flutter; he is looking for clues only in one direction, rarely suspecting that they might pop up behind his back.

This type of contradiction is operative on quite minute levels of discourse; often, as Goldman observes, “the feeling of [a] passage runs quite contrary to its argument.”16 But once this feeling is identified, it is not too difficult to see that it works, together with similarly oriented passages, to create a parallel argument, a counterargument with its own thinking and suasive direction. We see also from Goldman's discussion of the indeterminacy of the unit “becoming” that an investigation of the counterargument produced by rhetoric inevitably reaches down into ontology and hyperontology: the issue of “becoming” leads to a suggestion of “the problem of how something can become itself.17 Furthermore, such a hyperontological “bend” does not in the final analysis remove us from the direct level of moral action; we do not soar philosophically into some platonic overworld called “ontology.” On the contrary, the really gritty moral problems can only be thoroughly deciphered through the hyperontological flutter that the odd “bends” of Shakespearean discourse make available. I have claimed that the ontodramatic pulsation of “following” and “leaving” traces the discursive and tragic shadow-gestalt in Antony and Cleopatra, and we need only look at the conclusion of Goldman's essay to see how he, perhaps inadvertently, suggests the moral implications of that ontodramatic trace: “As moral observers, we too would defect from Antony—yet to give up on Antony is to desert the life of the play.”18 This is the stuff and fabric of the tragedy: the question of desertion; when to leave and when not to leave; when to be a follower and when to be a nonfollower. But the choices made explicit in such a problematic are pulled away from the neat “either-or” of dialectical logic by the moiré effect of Shakespeare's language. Shakespeare problematizes the clear-cut options of the choices by uncertainizing the individual sides of the balance. He does not simply ask: Will you follow? Or: Will you leave? He also asks: What is a follower? What is it to leave? And since this kind of questioning, quasi-ontological as it is, goes on from the beginning right up to the last dramatic happening, no rich understanding of the play can eschew the ontodramatic difficulties that its language deploys. To skirt the “odd knots of meaning” and the hyperontological conundrums created by their intricacy is, indeed, to be a deserter; to defect from Shakespeare, “to desert the life of the play.”19

As I now move into the linguistic events of the play, I do so in a lineal and straightforward fashion, since dramatic art, being more conditioned by the flow of performance than poetry or fiction, should preferably be discussed temporally—that is, in terms of a series of linguistic bursts encoded in an organized sequence. I begin, therefore, at the beginning.


The first scene of Antony and Cleopatra identifies the two economies of the play: the restricted economy of Rome, stressing restraint, and the general economy of Egypt, stressing excess. (I use Bataille's term “general economy” to indicate an economy of excess, a life-style based on luxury, in the hyperontological sense.) The play's ontodramatic pattern, based as it is on the (non)opposition following/leaving, immediately engages the drama of these two economies, since leaving, far from merely indicating a geographical shift from one place to another, suggests the leaving of one economy for the other. Because, in addition, each separate economy (that of Rome and that of Egypt) has its own quasiontological estimation of what leaving and following are, the Shakespearean act of opposing the two economies from the outset results in the instantaneous pressure on leaving as such. The fact that the classical story of Antony and Cleopatra was universally known to the common spectators as tragic, with the fact that Shakespeare has the transcendent death of the lovers in view from the outset, creates a dramatic atmosphere in which the most trivial parting is already full of the energies of ontodramatic thinking.

The two aspects—those of economy and of leaving—are immediately thrown into hyperontological interfunctioning. The question of leaving (“How can you go?”) is folded into the question of economy: “How far can you go?” The economic aspect is opened by the very first lines of the text: “Nay, but this dotage of our general's / O'erflows the measure.”20 The general economy entrapping the general is strengthened by numerous units: “a gipsy's lust” (1.1.10), “transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool” (1.1.12-13), “pleasure” (1.1.47), and “sport” (ibid.). We also see that Antony is so impatient with the exclusionary realities of Rome that he has to restrict this restriction:

News, my good lord, from Rome.
                                                                                                                        Grates me, the sum.


Antony cannot stand the thought of Rome, its restricted horizons; he wants to bracket the slightest reference to it. Yet even the minutest thought of Rome brings in the full power of its presence. This ability of Rome—throughout the play—to assert itself when being repressed, to make its mark in terms of the discourse that seeks to evade it, is made ironically evident by the fact that Antony, in the very act of wanting to crush the appeal of Rome, is actually slipping into the formula of its restricted economy. His clipped discourse (“Grates me, the sum”) suggests the Roman paradigm: restriction, tightness, compression, concentration, cognitivity, businesslike directness. Rome is like an infection or cold, something you can catch through oral contact, through discourse itself; the news brought by a messenger must be kept at a safe distance. As soon as Antony moves on to the general economy of his heroic idiom, however, we are made to feel the contrast between the curtailed variant of his language (“Grates me, the sum”) and its irruptive potential:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay …
.....We stand up peerless.


We notice in Cleopatra's immediate response to this gushing enthusiasm that the play of Rome with Egypt cannot be rendered simplistically as a play between a restricted and a general economy. As soon as Antony, in a state of complete Egyptization, affirms Egypt, Egypt retreats to a more restricted and subtle appraisal of what it—or she—means:

                                                                                Excellent falsehood!
Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?
I'll seem the fool I am not; Antony
Will be himself.


We observe a pattern of refiguration that is paradigmatic: Rome, in affirming Egypt, affirms an Egypt that Egypt itself does not quite recognize. Antony, in adoring “Cleopatra,” is not really adoring Cleopatra (or even the general economy that she represents), but an abstract idealization of her. This idealization, moreover, is not the economically radical as such, but merely the mechanical and abstract opposite of Rome. As Roman, Antony knows Rome as restriction and restricted economy; thus he idealizes the alternative to Rome as the opposite of Rome—as an excess that is merely an absolute onwardness, or upward release. But Cleopatra, far from recognizing this Roman description of Egypt as Egypt, conceives it as folly. Indeed, there is a faintly Roman quality in her responses to some of Antony's Egyptian raptures—and it is this Roman or vaguely restricted quality in her (and therefore also in Egypt) that sometimes brings her close to the Caesars. Clearly, this Roman quality in Cleopatra—or in woman, if you will—draws attention to a crucial vulnerability in Antony by intensifying it. Conceiving Egypt as a mechanical opposite and simple negation of Rome, he is poorly equipped for any encounter with Egypt that will take upon itself the shape of the performance of the restricted, of Rome. Antony cannot prepare himself to meet Rome in Egypt, in Cleopatra, since he often views Egypt as a mere antithesis.

Antony is thus shown to be ontodramatically inferior to Cleopatra (which is not necessarily to be heroically or tragically inferior to her) through his somewhat naive conception of what an emancipation from a restricted economy amounts to. The Rome he abandons, Cleopatra knows, is a world of virtuous constancy, a place where a virtue signifies a virtue, the constancy of a virtuous disposition. But in his abstract conception of his wife Fulvia, Cleopatra senses that Antony's new life-style is simply a mechanical inversion of constancy. The Roman formula calls for constancy, the capacity to constantly be constant; but Antony threatens to only negate this attitude by implementing its empty opposite: to be constantly inconstant. “Antony will be himself” (1.1.42-43). Antony will constantly be the negation of himself, the negation of his Roman identity, of the Roman man he ought to have been. Thus he will be a fool, unlike her, by promoting a recklessness that is not constant to any single entity but merely constant to its own inconstancy, its own empty and negative ideality. She will be made to seem a fool, but he will be one. Again:

                                                                      Excellent falsehood!
Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?
I'll seem the fool I am not; Antony
Will be himself.


M. R. Ridley claims that we should imagine a comma after “Why.” Cleopatra, we are told, is not asking herself why Antony actually married Fulvia but saying: “The fact that he married her proves that he loved her.”21 But neither of these readings is adequate. What Shakespeare is emphasizing is the issue of constancy: “Why did Antony love-and-marry Fulvia and then cease loving her?” Cleopatra senses that Antony, if he is not manipulated with the utmost cunning, will repeat the Roman marriage tragedy in Egypt, that he will repeat himself, return, quite constantly, to the formula of his own spirit, absolute inconstancy: “Antony / Will be himself.”

Shakespeare, in characteristic fashion, is working with original contradiction. “Antony / Will be himself” precisely because he will not be so. This is made clear by the unit in the text that soon follows, Philo's “when he is not Antony” (1.1.57). Philo rationalizes this contradiction according to a quite reassuring scheme:

He [sometimes] comes too short of that great property
Which still should go with Antony.


The idea here is that Antony occasionally falls short of his true identity, which is absolute greatness. But Cleopatra, who like Shakespeare has a shrewder appraisal of Antony's nature, feels that Antony's divergence from Antony is a paradigmatic and original trait rather than an occasional misfiring.

The tension now formed by the fact that Antony is too eagerly Egyptian while Cleopatra remains tantalizingly Roman can be felt at the very moment when Shakespeare first introduces his heroine. The second line of the play discussed Antony as one who “[o]'erflows the measure”; but when Cleopatra articulates her first response to this excess, we see that she introduces an element of caution and restraint into Antony's wildly general economy:

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


Partly, of course, such erotic dialogue is mere amorous skirmish of the most conventional type, the contestatory rhetoric of one lover negating the literal meaning of the other only to create sexual tension. In that context, too, the superiority of the male, his tendency to be erotically more audacious and impertinent, signifies no special movement of extraordinary importance. Yet the passage is nevertheless crucial, since it adumbrates a design that will be sustained throughout the drama: the war between a general economy (here Antony's) and a restricted one (here Cleopatra's). Although Cleopatra on an erotic level is really urging Antony on (“tell me how much”), and although the boundary she sets to love (“bourn”) might be conceived as Antony conceives it, as an infinitely self-extending horizon, the surface kinetics of the passage creates the feeling of feminine caution holding back masculine excess. We feel that Cleopatra, much in Roman fashion, has her feet planted firmly on the ground—and that, unlike Antony, she realizes that love, precisely in order to be general, must also be restricted.

This Roman quality of Cleopatra's is also emphasized in her openness toward the incoming Roman news. While Antony is only interested in the “pleasure” and “sport” of the night (1.1.47), she actually interrupts him in order to introduce some realism and perspective: “Hear the ambassadors” (1.1.48). It is here that we first confront the hyperontological shadow-gestalt of the play: the flutter of following/leaving. Cleopatra is quite aware of the element of irreducible absence and departure that is built into the erotic relationship, almost as its condition of possibility. She is not afraid of thinking about such absence, even if she may abhor its physical reality and materialization. She can envisage Antony leaving for Rome, and she can envisage herself not following him. Antony, by contrast, is in an exactly opposite mood; and the naïveté imbedded in this mood is brought out through the reference to his childish expectation that last night's romantic street-walking will be followed by an identical love-trip. Again, this attitude stresses the mechanical conception of inconstancy that we have already discussed; he idealizes a constant inconstancy, a negation of Rome that, every evening, will be constellated into the same ritual. And, what is worse, he expects Cleopatra to comply to the laws of this empty circus:

                                                                                          What sport to-night?
Hear the ambassadors.
                                                                                Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh,
To weep …


To-night we'll wander through the streets, and note
The qualities of people. Come, my queen,
Last night you did desire it.


Following is now for Antony simply a negation of leaving. To follow is not to leave, not to depart, not to sail for Rome. Following, in this scheme, stays close to following, to its own supposed essence, just as the lovers are to stick close to the figure of their ongoing proximity by not only following one another, in an evening stroll, but also by following the exact formula of such a pleasure. Love is to become an itinerary, a reassuring route that simply points the way to its own recurring possibility. The lovers are to love by “following love.” Indeed, in this Antonian conception, the following of love is the act of love itself.


In the second scene, Shakespeare expands the notion of leaving; but we observe to begin with how the introduction of the soothsayer identifies interpretation as an issue that is interior to the play itself:

You shall be yet far fairer than you are.
He means in flesh.
No, you shall paint when you are old.


The passage serves the main purpose of creating atmosphere; the tone of Egyptian playfulness is set, so that the horizon of expectation, thrill, and desire is defined in erotic rather than military or political terms. Yet the scene also calls attention to the intellectual indeterminacy of the entire drama. Everyone in the play is interpreting rather than acting, and this applies to the hero and the heroine too. They are constantly in the process of trying to make a correct interpretation of each other, with misinterpretation going on to the end. Moreover, misinterpretations are frequently spawned by the fear of misinterpretation rather than by the difficulty of interpretation. Also, false signals are sent out (especially by Cleopatra) to neutralize the bias of interpretation by appropriating its power and mastery. “She is cunning past man's thought,” as Antony puts it (1.2.142); but this cunning is not simply sexual deviousness or erotic gamesmanship. Cleopatra, unlike Antony, tends to call forth the element of irreducible negativity in life; she anticipates the lethal workings of this negativity, and when there is given evidence of its reality, she turns the pain of its thrust into an articulate cry. This tendency in Cleopatra to take negativity by its horns is also demonstrated by her apotropaic manner of attracting in terms of distance, to create presence in terms of absence: “We will not look upon him” (1.2.84). This attitude in a sense only rehearses the age-old trick of increasing one's powers of attraction by appearing to be remote and hard to get. Yet such a unit also points to other things. Whereas Antony is intent on merely following Cleopatra (on completing another evening round in the romantic streets), Cleopatra from the outset identifies following in terms of not following. Ontodramatically, such a unit begins to promote the idea of following in terms of leaving: following-by-leaving.

Once this ontodramatic notion is picked up, and once leaving is grasped as the gestalt of the hyperontological flutter in the play, we see that Antony's inability to leave is already opening the most signifying reserve in Antony and Cleopatra. The tendency of people to perform endless deferrals of their acts of departure does not only suggest an element of empirical indecision or interpersonal hesitancy: it suggests an entire conception of reality, according to which things are eternally in the process of leaving. They leave other things, but also, in an odd way, themselves. This self-leaving in things can be viewed as an inconstancy in them; yet the inconstancy is their essential life too. Things move and are because they carry in their cores this desire for self-loss and self-abandon. The hero and the heroine move fatefully toward death, toward the final moment of absolute self-leaving; yet because the self-leaving is felt to be the irruptive driving force of life itself, that downward slide into death is in a way quite untragic. The players do not arrive there—in death—through the misfortune of committing some particularly awful crime; rather, they slide into death by virtue of a law that is built into their very manner of being alive.

In the grand finale, the heroic couple will be discussing leaving (that is, death) without actually being able to directly leave: Antony bungling his suicide, Cleopatra advertising a termination that still has to properly begin. There is a tremendous amount of talk about leaving long before the actual act materializes or even promises the view of its materialization. To emphasize the importance of this general sense of deferral, Shakespeare introduces it right here at the beginning. Antony goes through an entire sequence of references to his leaving before finally managing to make a real exit:

(a) These strong Egyptian fetters I must break


(b) I must from this enchanting queen break off


(c) I must with haste from hence


(d) I must be gone


(e)                                                                                                                                            I shall break
                    The cause of our expedience to the queen,
                    And get her leave to part.


(f)                                                                                          Say …
                    Our quick remove from hence.


Shakespeare here piles up units suggesting leaving. The frequent use of “break” helps to create the impression of a parting that amounts to a violence, a violation of presence, a hurting rupture. Antony, detesting such rupture (he will even like to “follow” men that have deserted him), seems to discourse extensively on leaving in order to soften the reality of its harshness. Language is a palliative, helping him to endure the thought of absence. The cruelty of one absence (from Egypt) can now be rationalized in terms of the healing of another one: Rome “[c]annot endure my absence” (1.2.170). Yet Antony, possibly sensing the elusive insincerity of his comportment, is prepared to define his own people as being eternally ready to leave the source of their happiness:

                                                                                          Our slippery people,
Whose love is never link'd to the deserver
Till his deserts are past …


Leaving, I am arguing then, is turned into an ontodramatic notion through recurrence and deferment. There are many leavings, and single acts of leaving are endlessly deferred. Death, I have also argued, is central to this “leaving” nexus. It is not only that death is the tragic end toward which the lovers fatally move (through the destiny of their famous story and through the law of their spirits); also, as seen in the lecherous rhetoric of Enobarbus, “dying” is a quite physical process that identifies the actual loving of the lovers. The physical paradigm of this “dying” identifies the figures just considered: recurrence and deferment. Because the extravagant sexual desires of the lovers demand not only sexual orgasm but its infinite extension, the luxurious prolongation of pleasure provided by such a mechanism brings “death” into the movement of its own absolute dilation along the axis of time. “I have seen her die twenty times,” cries Enobarbus (1.2.138-39). Cleopatra has “such a celerity in dying” (1.2.141-42). Here, dying's rapidity is not only a physical and sexual event; and the “celerity”—as in the heroic death of the dramatic conclusion—suggests the pitch of a frequency, the quickness of an oscillation, rather than the desire to have quickly done with something. The “celerity,” precisely, serves to interrupt celerity: we do not want the orgasm to come and be over and gone; we want its quick coming itself to recur, to return as quickly and frequently as possible. This kind of erotic deferral—anatomically more feminine than masculine—amounts, as I have said, to more than the identification of “the sexual dimension” in Antony and Cleopatra. It is, instead, the very energetics of the drama. We can see how quickly Shakespeare brings the recurrence of erotic dying into alignment with the recurrence of death itself by observing the immediate sequel to Enobarbus's discussion of recurrent female dying:

Fulvia is dead.
Fulvia is dead.


The erotic type of recurrence seems only marginally disrupted, because instead of taking up the notion of death itself, Enobarbus simply moves on to discuss a cynical scheme, according to which one mistress replaces another, like girls at a brothel: to “make new” robes (1.2.163) is only the crude act in which the lecherous male “brings forth a new petticoat” (1.2.166-67). Yet this shallow treatment of the recurrence of death/“dying” slides over toward more complex and suggestive strata of implication. What is at stake is the war between fertility and sterility itself. Charmian, anticipating the erotic definition of “dying”/recurrence promoted by Enobarbus, speaks wishfully of being allowed to “be married to three kings in a forenoon, and widow them all” (1.2.25-27); yet since this wish is related to the fear of sterility (“let me have a child at fifty,” ibid.), and since the absolute fertilization of desire (“fertile every wish,” 1.2.38) would amount to the expense of spirit in a waste of shame, the playful thought of “dying's” lusty “celerity” is brought into the shadow of death as sterility: “the o'erflowing Nilus presageth famine” (1.2.47). It is this more serious level of implication that promotes the ontodramatic focus of the scene, Antony's reaction to the news of his wife's death:

There's a great spirit gone! Thus did I desire it:
What our contempts doth often hurl from us,
We wish it ours again. The present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself: she's good, being gone,
The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on.


Antony cannot extricate the desire to lose from the desire to retain. There is no way in which these opposite desires can be firmly held apart, no way in which they can be made to comply to Aristotelian logic. Antony cannot hold Fulvia's absence in one hand and her presence in the other hand, for the hand that has been holding her absence has secretly also been holding her presence.

This difficulty grows out of the fact that we tend to identify what is absent in terms of presence. We “own” and possess the absence of something; we clutch the disappearance of something, its distance from us, as a treasured object. It is this very tendency to possess in terms of repulsion and distancing that we have already observed as Cleopatra's characteristic mode of erotic conquest (1.2.84). For Antony, Fulvia's absence (from him) has itself been a presence. Fulvia has not been present to him, but her absence has. He has in a sense treasured her, because her presence has gone without the burden of presence: her reality, floating only on a half-seen horizon, has been as light as a feather. But when, through death, her absence no longer presents itself in terms of something he can retain (the thought of her, the feeling that she is still “there” somewhere), the shuttle motion between presence and absence is gone. The two sides, retention and rejection, become absolutely empty, purely abstract opposites. Therefore, at that moment, they can also become transforms of one another, become strangely synonymous, equivocate in terms of an emotional equivalence. She is “good, being gone”; yet this absolute vanishing of Fulvia's strikes home as the emotional content of her return and proximity. It is not only that we want to retain things as soon as our hostility has pushed them too far out of sight; it is that the absolute leaving caused by an act of pure loss creates for itself the sensation and impact of a presence, a nonleaving, a real “something” that almost can be touched. It is the power of such a mechanism, captured here by Shakespeare, that causes the reality of a person to be most vivacious in the illuminatory moment of its absolute vanishing. Death pilots the awareness of this illumination by being the radiant source of its possibility.


Leaving, the fluttering “conceptual” focus and shadow of our hyperontological gestalt, also dominates the three remaining scenes of act 1. The fourth scene, located in Caesar's house in Rome, provides the imperial perspective through which we are to perceive Antony as one who has left Rome and deserted its ideals (1.4.4-10). Because of this act of ideological desertion, Antony cannot really return to Rome; he cannot really negate the leaving he has already effectuated. For him, a return to Rome will not be the transition from an absence to a presence, but on the contrary the very encounter with the locus of absence and leaving itself. It is Rome that defines him as leaver, as one no longer following its rules; and therefore the return to the home and the center, far from providing the hero with a restoration of presence and self-presence, only heightens the play's most powerful hyperontological sensation: the feeling of original desertion. Since Rome (for Antony) stands for departure (desertion), the return to Rome cannot—ontodramatically—amount to a return. One now returns to departure, one returns to nonreturn. (Being structurally absent is to have failed to complete a return, and since Antony's Roman return returns him to a point signifying desertion and treachery, the completion of the return fails to complete it.)

The main ontodramatic figure in this Roman scene is Caesar's reference to Antony as

A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.


The unit is interesting not only because it activates the hyperontological gestalt whose oscillating shadow we are learning to recognize (leaving stitched into following), but also because the actual ontodramatic fold is made so conspicuous. Is it that “all men” follow “all faults,” and that Antony is simply the essence (“abstract”) of such vice? Or is it that men follow Antony, who, in his turn, follows the paradigm of absolute vice (“all faults”)? The difference between the two readings may look negligible at this point; the ideas seem only to suggest a slight shift of emphasis. Yet, as we shall soon see, the ontodramatic tension between the two readings is considerable—and once this difference is understood as being tied to future units of similar outline, we will be able to see that the tragic gestalt itself is at stake in such minute shifts of emphasis. For what the play depicts is man as a follower: a woman following a man, a man following a woman, the soldier following his leader, the statesman following his political partner, and so forth. But the play, far from taking this following for granted, places it under the strain of the severest of pressures—so that what we ask, as I have suggested, is not naive questions like “Did he follow?” or “Who follows?” but radical questions: “What is following?” “What is it to follow?” “Can one follow?” “How can one always follow?” “How can following be constant?” “Is absolute following strictly speaking possible?” Such questions, we shall see, involve certain delicate ethical difficulties, as when a soldier is in two minds about his duty to follow his misguided leader; yet the social, heroic, military, erotic, and cultural implications in this difficulty of following are far less intricate, suggestive, and dramatically crucial than the implications operating on the hyperontological level. Shakespeare is not only asking mundane and practical questions about loyalty; nor is he only asking questions about the social theory of loyalty. He is asking questions about loyalty itself. He is asking: “Is loyalty?” “Are things (what they are) by being loyal to themselves?” “Or is there an original unloyalty at work at the center of things, making them possible as that which they are?”

The purely social issue opened by Caesar's query comes across in terms of an indefinition perceived in the loyalty of Antony's men: Antony is not only a man who shows the world a paradigm of disgusting misconduct; he is also a man capable of assembling multitudes of followers, men who will be following his greatness of heroic stature rather than the vices he typifies. What moral and imperial status have such men? This secondary notion is quite faint in the current unit (1.4.9-10), yet the slight indefinition that is there is by no means contingent, as our future explorations will demonstrate.

Although the fifth scene dramatizes a status quo rather than an actual leaving, the concept of leaving is still in the foreground, since it is Antony's departure and absence that are constantly kept in view. The stitching of division (apartness, leaving) and nondivision (togetherness, nonleaving) into one another is first delineated in Cleopatra's discussion of Antony as simultaneously balanced and unbalanced. We know, straight from the opening lines of the play, that measure and excess counterdefine one another throughout—mostly through the opposition between the lust of Egypt and the temperance of Rome. Yet Alexas, curiously, in the very act of describing Antony's superhuman grandeur, emphasizes his balance: neither sad nor merry, he is “between the extremes” (1.5.51). “O well-divided disposition!” cries Cleopatra enthusiastically (1.5.53); yet seven lines later she has transformed this concept of balance and measure into a notion of excess:

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


A moment ago, what was “well-divided” (1.5.53) signified a middle and an intermediary; now, the well-divided denotes the opposite, an extreme (either sad or merry). Furthermore, this extreme, or polar opposite, is itself extreme, is a “violence” (1.5.60). The notion of the “well-divided” (1.5.53) has thus itself become well-divided: it divides itself into (1) a notion of nondivision (neither extreme is favored) as well as into (2) a notion of absolute division (violent one-sidedness of one sort or the other). On an empirical level of reference, the entire speech deconstitutes itself into the utterly nonsensical, for two mutually exlusive views of Antony are presented as simultaneously valid: on the one hand he is identified as a man of moderation, “between the extremes” (1.5.51); on the other hand he is viewed as a person achieving true identity in moments of extreme “violence” (1.5.60). Yet dramatic thought—or Shakespearean thought, if you will—is not restricted to the constituted normality of ordinary logic, and few spectators will experience the logical contradiction as a dramatic impoverishment. On the contrary, the transvaluation that brings Alexas's Roman scene into the Egyptian sphere of self-excess helps to forward general feelings of metamorphosis that Shakespeare is already manipulating for the purposes of dramatic texture. Moreover, the folding of opposed notions of the “well-divided” into one another (suggesting balance as well as its opposite) opens an indecision at the heart of the opposition together/apart that already is beginning to count as an important hyperontological device.

Cleopatra, it will be noticed, endures absence and distance by negotiating opposite conceptions of writing: the restricted conception and the radical one. On the one hand, writing is a mere system of notation, written communications passed between sender and receiver.

                                                  Met'st thou my posts?
Ay, madam, twenty several messengers:
Why do you send so thick?
                                                                                                    Who's born that day
When I forget to send to Antony,
Shall die a beggar. Ink and paper, Charmian.


On the other hand, writing is the violently differential system of active negativity itself, the markings marks mark and remark in (and as) time. She who is “black” from the amorous pinches of life and “wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.28-29) thus seems to be so much more mature than the woman who drugs herself (1.5.4) with difference-obliterating “poison” (1.5.27). Strangely, Cleopatra is both of these individuals: one who escapes from the marks of time and one who intuits the utter vanity of such escape. On the one hand, Cleopatra embodies a naive conception of love, according to which it would amount to a negation of violence/marking/difference/writing/pain/negativity. From this viewpoint, love would be narcotic in-difference, the uniformly “delicious” (1.5.27). On the other hand, and perhaps on a more alert level of living, Cleopatra senses that negativity is internal to love, as its condition of possibility. From this viewpoint, pain and violence, far from being external to the erotic experience, are its motor and driving force. We have already encountered this more complex intuition of Cleopatra's in her tendency to use erotic distancing as a means of erotic appropriation; and we see it again here in the references to “Phoebus' amorous pinches” (1.5.28). Her semi-African darkness is the impact of what is “black” (ibid.); yet the image of the amorous pinches creates the conception of the interlocking of love and pain: the pinches of love are bruises, marking actual violations performed by one person on another. Shakespeare is using this conception of minutely originary negativity in a quite conscious fashion, as we can see by turning to act 5. Notice how this later unit engages two crucial devices already emphasized: death (as source of erotic-creative negativity) and leaving (as ontodramatic gestalt):

The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desir'd. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.


The point, of course, is that the world in an important sense is worth leave-taking: that is why the play focuses leaving. Indeed, this very scene emphasizes leave-taking, emphasizes the movement it tells us not to emphasize. Thus the contradiction in Cleopatra between narcotic escape and its opposite is sustained from beginning to end. Also, as we shall see, additional interpretations are possible.

If now, to round off act 1, we turn to scene 3, we see that Cleopatra's conflicting attitudes shape the entire scene in terms of negation. To begin with, she makes Antony believe that she has not sent Charmian to him; but the opposite is true (1.3.2-3). She is supposed to be dancing; but she is doing no such thing (1.3.4). She tells Antony to stand away from her, desiring the opposite (1.3.18). She claims that she has no power over her lover (1.3.24), knowing that she has enormous power. She claims that she is being betrayed, yet realizes that Antony is no ordinary deceiver (1.3.24-25). She accuses Antony of dissembling (1.3.79) and cold-heartedness (1.3.65), realizing that these accusations only become effective because there is no true ground for them. The emphasis on leaving and distancing is considerable in the scene: “stand farther from me” (1.3.18), “I go from hence” (1.3.69), “Then bid adieu to me” (1.3.76), “I'll leave you, lady” (1.3.86). But these units stressing leaving do not hang in the air; they are strung together by systems of mutual reference and, above all, by the appearance of conspicuous clusters of “conceptual” distraction. These huge discursive knots provide a theory of leaving. Or, put differently, their “logic” manifests intellectual patterns that function as major clues to the subsidiary units that they organize. Look, for instance, at the concluding lines of the scene:

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


It would be easy to trivialize Shakespeare, here, by concocting some commonplace reading of a reductive kind: one might say, for instance, that he is merely calling attention to the common human feeling that a sense of togetherness prevails between lovers even at moments when separation is completed or about to be completed. But Shakespeare, through the precisions of his discursive procedure, is in fact doing something more radical. It is not primarily the lovers who dominate this unit but concepts; it is not, for the moment, Antony and Cleopatra who matter, but leaving and staying. And we are given the feeling of a movement that bends these opposites (leaving and nonleaving) into one another, absolutely. The one who stays leaves; and the one who leaves stays. Leaving is staying and staying is leaving.

The proof that this organization of discourse mainly involves “concepts” rather than individuals can be found in the most interesting hyperontological part of the scene. Here, we see that Cleopatra is so baffled by the conceptual difficulty she is trying to grasp that its intellectual complexity suddenly becomes too elusive for her thought. She gives up, leaving her unresolved difficulty floating in nothingness:

I'll leave you, lady.
                                                                                Courteous lord, one word:
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have lov'd, but there's not it;
That you know well, something it is I would,—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.


The lines are powerful because we are made to feel that the tragic protagonist is groping for the clue to her own tragedy; and this tantalizing clue, by being so far away and yet so teasingly near, prods at the inner life of the tragic victim with a particularly acute force. Cleopatra seems to have wanted to expand the intuition of hyperlogical contradiction sketched a moment earlier:

In each thing give him way, cross him in nothing.
Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him.


Charmian believes in an Aristotelian type of logic: closeness is closeness, apartness is apartness. Cleopatra finds this logic foolish, for her experience of love has taught her the opposite: that in order to retain a lover she must repel him. This logical reversal seems to be built into the passage that now interests us (1.3.86-91), and Cleopatra is on the verge of expanding it into a final formula: parting will, somehow, not be parting; the pastness of love will not be pastness. Yet the intellectual faculty swoons when it tries to press beyond this point in the hyperlogical design, and all that Cleopatra is left with is the feeling of wanting to overcome the obstructing intellectual threshold:

Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have lov'd, but there's not it;
That you know well, something it is I would,—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.


The last two lines are important, opening a complex ontodramatic horizon. The first feeling is that the initiative abruptly shifts over to Antony himself: he has, personally, to shoulder most of the tension that from the outset was buried inside the logical opacity of the intellectual difficulty. She, suddenly, goes completely empty inside; and because this emptying is associated with Antony, we are made to feel that he is somehow responsible for it. Antony himself makes Cleopatra's mind swoon, creates the dip in the logical horizon where the intellectual solution drops permanently out of view. Her oblivion is not called “Cleopatra,” but “Antony.” He, perhaps because of his enormity, the feeling of his erotic largeness, extinguishes the logic that would make him available to sense. The final line's “I am all forgotten” completes this gesture: “I am forgotten by Antony.” “I am now a forgotten woman; Antony turns away from me.” “Because Antony choses to forget me, I forget also myself: I become, also for myself, forgetfulness, the forgotten.”

But if this tricky knot of discourse is approached from a different angle, the impression, at least to begin with, is quite different. Shakespeare, rehearsing a typical lapse in the grammatical behavior of his time, is forgetting to count the negatives, overlooking the ability of negations to negate each other. (Shakespeare's oblivion is itself “a very Antony” here.) What Cleopatra should have said (according to this stern critical viewpoint) is not “my oblivion is a very Antony” but “my memory is a very Antony”: my memory, like Antony, is inconstant, just takes leave of itself. Leaving is operative once more: “As Antony leaves me, forgetting me, so my memory also leaves me, forgetting me.” The phrase “my oblivion is a very Antony” expresses this notion in its own awkward fashion. Memory, then, is caught in the hyperontological flutter that I am calling attention to as the shadow of the ontodramatic gestalt of the play: the oscillation of following and leaving. Is memory a follower or a deserter?

Yet since Shakespeare's language stitches opposed concepts into one another, creating an abyss in which their conceptuality is consumed and rearticulated, we cannot really be sure that “oblivion” is a logical error, a “slip” produced by the carelessness of writing. For if we remove “oblivion” (inserting “memory”), we quickly see that an entire dimension of dramatic power collapses. We lose the feeling that the overwhelming image of Antony empties the mind of everything else, including the thoughts and logical figures about him. In fact, the beautiful unit “my oblivion is a very Antony” preserves a signification that is quite important, and that actually amounts to a negation of the surface notion of Antony as fickle deserter. Antony, far from being Cleopatra's self-loss, the negation of her memory, is what holds her together. He is the trace of her memory and self-memory: what secretly binds Cleopatra to Cleopatra. Her airy self-recollection, or shimmering identity, is an insubstantial recollection of herself through and in him; hence the threat of his departure promises also the threat of the departure of her memory (in the sense of internally subsisting myth). From this viewpoint, which I think is the best one, Cleopatra, by the phrase “my oblivion is a very Antony,” is saying that the current feeling of Antony, which is his vanishing, is the feeling of her own vanishing: her self's vanishing as its essentially fantasmic “oblivion.”


  1. The term “ontodramatic” is used throughout as the rough equivalent of “hyperontological.” As with the latter term, there is no flirtation with what is properly speaking ontological: the “ontodramatic” is not the drama of (an) ontology but, on the contrary, the drama of various subversions of ontology. These subversions, while remaining ontologically suggestive, are not per se ontological.

  2. Michael Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 134.

  3. Ibid., p. 129.

  4. Ibid., p. 114.

  5. Ibid., p. 116.

  6. Ibid., p. 122.

  7. Ibid., pp. 122-23.

  8. See Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 190.

  9. Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 135-36.

  10. Ibid., p. 133.

  11. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 14-52.

  12. Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 124.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., p. 125.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid., p. 126.

  17. Ibid., p. 125.

  18. Ibid., pp. 138-39.

  19. Ibid.

  20. The Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, edited by M. R. Ridley (London and New York: Methuen, 1986). Abbreviated Arden.

  21. Arden, p. 6.

Clare Kinney (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Kinney, Clare. “The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor: Some Problems of Identity in Antony and Cleopatra.” In The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, pp. 177-86. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Kinney contends that Cleopatra is the human embodiment of Egypt and represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine and the masculine.]

Cleopatra, like Falstaff, is always being called names. Almost every scene in Antony and Cleopatra generates new identities for her; over the course of the play she acquires at least forty different cognomens. She is gypsy, whore, trull, vile lady, grave charm, morsel, boggler, salt Cleopatra; she is great fairy, nightingale, serpent of old Nile, Egyptian dish; she is, furthermore, most sovereign creature, great Egypt, day o' th' world, lass unparalleled. Constantly avoiding the numerous (and largely male) attempts to fix or subsume her being within a single convenient or conventional category (such as Witch or Strumpet), she transforms and re-verses whatever labels are attached to her. Consider, for example, what happens to Cleopatra the Comestible. The “Egyptian dish” (2.6.123)1 has been tasted by Julius Caesar, the elder Pompey, and Antony: all Rome, it seems, has had a piece of the pie, and at the nadir of his fortunes, Antony accuses her of being a rather nasty leftover:

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


But even as her last over, the “pretty worm of Nilus,” feeds upon her, the queen says to Charmian:

Dost thou not see my baby at my breast
That sucks the nurse asleep?


The tempting and dangerous “morsel for a monarch” (1.5.31) becomes at the last this gentle nurturer, figuratively giving life even as she is preyed upon.2

Yet Cleopatra's happy capacity for such transformations does not mean that the speeches of Antony and Enobarbus praising her infinitely becoming acts of “becoming,” her delicious variety (1.1.49-51; 2.2.235-40) constitute the last word on her. Inasmuch as her identity can be fixed it is located in the repeated metonymical epithet “Egypt.” Whenever the word occurs a kind of referential oscillation between the woman and the nation is triggered in the hearer's mind. The queen seems to be interchangeable with every aspect of her country and its denizens. She is its presiding goddess Isis (3.6.17), she is the “serpent of old Nile” (1.5.25), she is the Nile itself. Even as “Nilus' slime” (1.3.68-69) is quickened by the masculine sun (Phoebus, Horus), Cleopatra, “black” with “Phoebus' amorous pinches” (1.5.28), turns men's swords into ploughshares and brings forth a harvest: Caesar “ploughed her and she cropped” (2.2.228); she has borne children to Antony. Her Egyptian fecundity is indeed emphasized by Shakespeare's suppression of all mention of Antony's Roman offspring by Fulvia and Octavia. And when she calls for the general destruction of her land if she is cold and false to her lover, “Till by degrees the memory of my womb, / Together with my brave Egyptians all, … Lie graveless …” (3.13.163ff.), she instinctively couples her progeny and her people.

In fact, Cleopatra is coextensive with her subjects to such a degree that her last words can be completed quite naturally by her countrywoman Charmian.3 “What should I stay—” says the queen, and dies; her attendant immediately supplies, “In this wild world?” (5.2.312-13). This uninterrupted transference of discourse between one speaker and the other retrospectively undercuts Octavius's rather cheap shot as he faces the queen and her ladies for the first time and asks, “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” (5.2.111). Cleopatra is Egypt, but Egypt is also Cleopatra; her Egyptians can speak for their monarch. Charmian's response to the soldier's “Is this well done?”—“It is well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings” (5.2.324-26)—would have come equally fittingly from Cleopatra's own lips.

The equation of the woman so completely with her state conflates the monarch's “two bodies” and breaks down, or rather denies, the barrier between her public and private selves.4 Even after her suicide—and despite her claim that death “shackles accidents and bolts up change” (5.2.6)—Cleopatra's identity is still oscillating between woman and queen, between the “lass unparalleled” and the “princess / Descended of so many royal kings” of Charmian's last encomia.5 She asserts, after Antony's death, that she is “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), but a scene or two later she has not lost her “Immortal longings” as she dons her crown and royal robes to revisit Cydnus (5.2.279-80). Lear's belated discovery that he is “a very foolish, fond old man” is part of his tragic education; Cleopatra's beautiful insistence at the end of act 4 on her private, limited human identity does not constitute an admission of anything she did not already know.

Perhaps the fascination and the infuriation that Cleopatra ignites in Rome's autocrats derives in part from the fact that she can be Egypt in a way that neither Caesar nor Antony can ever embody Rome: they are merely Roman. For Rome demands of its rulers an obsessive privileging of the public over the private identity, and this is why it would be unthinkable for Caesar to accede to the defeated Antony's request that he might dwell “A private man in Athens” (3.12.15): as far as Octavius is concerned Antony doesn't have a private identity; indeed, on hearing of his enemy's death he declares Antony's “is not a single doom, in the name lay / A moiety of the world” (5.1.18-19). Roman manliness, the system of value that equates virtue with virtus, demands a kind of normative public behavior allowing infinitely less free play of identity than royal Egyptian femaleness. Philo's insistence, as the play opens, that “the triple pillar of the world” has become a “strumpet's fool” (1.1.12-13) emphatically asserts the noninclusive either/or nature of Roman values. One must enact a single, absolute condition or identity; one cannot supplement it or transform it into something else equally good or better, only relinquish it or perforce represent its (vilified) opposite.

Cleopatra's Egypt embraces multiplicity and difference, and for all its apparent “femininity” does not exclude maleness (the Greek suffix of the monarch's very name makes her father as well as mother to her country). Octavius snarls that “Antony is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen … / More womanly than he (1.4.5-7). But when she appropriates Antony's “sword Philippan” (2.5.23), Cleopatra is, as Janet Adelman suggests, not merely Omphale subduing Herculean Antony, or Venus disarming Mars, but also the vigorously androgynous figure of Venus armata (Adelman 92)—or at the very least an Omphale who doesn't just trap heroes in the female space of the bedroom but insists on invading the male space of the battleground. Of course, the fiasco of Actium is on one level attributable to Cleopatra's failure to “be a man”; certainly she does not meet the requirements of Roman virtus. But as even Enobarbus points out, Antony was not obliged to fly with her. Antony has defended Cleopatra's right, as “Egypt,” to “appear for a man” (3.7.18) and lead her troops to battle, but he never properly comes to terms with her augmented identity. He cannot think of her as a fellow soldier whose shortcomings should not affect his own performance, but only as a bewitching female to be pursued at all costs.

Antony's sense that he is obliged to choose between virtus and Cleopatra at Actium, that he cannot be both soldier and lover, and that, having chosen to be the latter, he has “lost [his] way for ever” (3.11.4) and is Antony no more, is a by-product of Rome's characteristic attitude in this play toward gender relations and individual identity. It is not so much a case of “male” values predictably being privileged over “female” ones, as of a complete suppression of the female term within a potentially complementary pairing while the male one is doubled. This obliteration followed by reduplication is most clearly illustrated when Antony marries Octavia. Octavius permits his exemplary female counterpart and beloved sister to be sacrificed to and subsumed by his problematic relationship with Antony. She becomes the (inadequate) glue holding together their unhappy marriage. In the summit meeting of act 2, scene 2—at the end of which, as Carol Neely points out (143), the two men enact a parodic betrothal ceremony in Octavia's absence—Caesar yearns for a “hoop” to bind together himself and Antony (2.2.115). But Octavia is never really permitted to embrace both men; tellingly, the stage directions for her very first appearance specify “Enter Antony, Caesar, Octavia between them” (3.3), and, in Caesar's words, she is to be “the cement of our love” (3.2.29). Octavia, however, recasts this image when, sensing the renewed antagonism between husband and brother, she laments,

                                        Wars 'twixt you twain would be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain men
Should solder up the rift.


The sealing agent, the “solder” between the “world shares,” is not one woman's body but many corpses. The image is further revised when Enobarbus, hearing of Lepidus's fall, foresees open conflict between Caesar and Antony and declares,

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.


Nothing can heal or seal the breach between the two, nothing can separate them, and Octavia (like everyone else) will presumably be one more victim consumed by their rivalry—and, ironically, just as much a “morsel” therefore as the “Egyptian dish.”

The mediating female is gradually obliterated: Rome's central relationship is between male rivals, each of whom wants to be Rome. It is significant that the first epithet Octavius applies to Antony in the play is “great competitor” (1.4.3). The term is being invoked in its root sense of “associate or partner in the same enterprise or quest,” but the inevitable double meaning underscores the generals' real relations. Even at the height of their apparent amity in act 3, Antony tells Octavius “I'll wrestle with you in my strength of love” (3.2.62); all loving-kindness is perforce expressed in terms of rivalry. In Egypt, the world that embraces male and female possibilities, Antony celebrates the “peerless” alliance that makes Cleopatra and himself a glorious “mutual pair” (1.1.33-40)—the semi-tautology of “mutual pair” emphasizes their bond.6 In Rome the significant pair-bonding is always male (wives are abandoned or absent) and perpetually competitive, because one will truly gain one's identity only by destroying a double or a parodic mirror image—not by representing one-half of a complementary pair.

Waiting to have her fortune told by the Soothsayer, Charmian comically sketches a career for herself that threatens to rival Cleopatra's: “Let me be married to three kings in a forenoon and widow them all; let me have a child at fifty to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage; find me to marry with Octavius Caesar …” (1.2.25-29). But she climaxes her wish “and companion me with my mistress.” Such a desire could not, would not be articulated in the language of Rome; even Antony's last loyal companion, Eros, turns into a competitor when, killing himself instead of his lord, he beats him to a noble death.7 Competition, in the shape of resented doubles, distorting mirrors, threats to individual male identity, is always present in this world. Antony is angrily aware that other “great competitors,” Cneius Pompeius and Julius Caesar, have “always already” enjoyed Cleopatra, and I think it not insignificant that the auditor or reader of this play is perpetually in danger of confusing references to the dead Pompey and Caesar with their living namesakes. Furthermore, the “sons”—Shakespeare, tellingly, blurs historical family relationships: Sextus Pompeius is actually Cneius Pompeius' younger brother; Octavius is Julius Caesar's nephew—can never quite detach themselves from the “fathers” (although, as the harshest critics in the play of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great's Egyptian mistress, Octavius and Sextus do their best.)

Doctor Johnson complained that in Antony and Cleopatra, the heroine apart, “no character is very strongly discriminated.”8 While one might not choose to agree with the suggestion that Antony and Octavius are not very clearly differentiated, it is true that both characters feel their discrete identities, their very selves, are put into question by the behavior of the other. Due to their unwillingness to embrace difference, the possibility of complementarity is sacrificed to the principle of mutual exclusivity (“I can't thrive while he's around”), but because they are partners as well as rivals, slightly skewed doubles as well as opposites, whenever one seeks to exclude or suppress the other he is always threatening to destroy himself.

After the battle of Actium, Canidius believes the fight would have gone well “Had our great general / Been what he knew himself …” (3.10.26-27). There is a lot of talk in this play about what it is to “be” Antony—talk that always seems to collapse into tautology, coming up with definitions that are at once circular and restrictive. At the end of act 1, scene 1, Philo complains that

                                        sometimes, when he is not Antony,
He comes too short of that great property
Which still should go with Antony.


The suggestion here is that Antony is to blame for lacking the greatness that should always accompany Antony even (paradoxically) when he “isn't himself.” His self is not his own; the “great property” that is supposed to define him is in a sense “common property”; his very existence is dependent upon his submission to Rome's code of values. An Antony who swerves from that value system is a “not-Antony” who is suppressed within three lines. Antony certainly can't reconcile the partial “versions of Antony” reflected back to him by Octavius or emanating from Rome with the competing sense of a transformed self generated by his love for Cleopatra. And yet, to the last, he is terribly dependent upon the mirror provided by Rome. “If I lose mine honour / I lose myself” he tells Octavia (3.4.22-23); “honour” is of course Roman virtus, and when Octavius defeats him and denies him his Roman identity by “harping on what I am / Not what he knew I was” (3.13.142-43)—refusing to reflect back to him that image by which Antony has constituted himself—the general's sense of self begins to dissolve. Antony can celebrate Cleopatra's multiplicity, her becoming “becomings,” but he cannot himself become anything other than the Antony approved by Rome without confronting the prospect of mere formlessness and nonexistence. As the play opens, his “Let Rome in Tiber melt” defies Rome's categories and definitions, but when he believes his Romanness is melting away he has nothing to put in its place.9 (Cleopatra's parallel “Melt Egypt into Nile” [2.5.78] is far less self-subverting because the Nile is also Egypt and she is both.)

Antony's presuicide meditation on the inchoate cloud forms that shift in seconds dramatizes his sense of self-loss. Like the disappearing cloud rack, “I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape …” (4.14.13-14). It is noticeable that in a few words he moves from subjectivity (“I am Antony”) to a sense of self constituted by others' regard (“this visible shape”). If he is invisible to Rome, he doesn't exist—and he can find nothing in the (as he thinks) treacherous flux of Egypt to give him new shape. Ironically, he can only regain his identity, put Antony back together again, through willed self-destruction. Dying, he tells Cleopatra:

Not Caesar's valor hath o'erthrown Antony,
But Antony's hath triumphed on itself.


He displaces his rival's victory with his own, splits himself so that an Antony will survive as victor of his self-dissolution. Despite the fact that, hauled up into Cleopatra's Alexandrian monument, he is finally embraced by the womb/tomb of Egypt, this Antony will be a “Roman” Antony. At the last (and with the familiar circularity that always seems to accompany Antonine self-definition) he is, in his own words, “A Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly vanquish'd” (4.15.57-58).

When Octavius appears shaken by the news of Antony's death, Maecenas remarks upon the inescapable interdependence of the two generals' identities: “When such a spacious mirror's set before him / He needs must see himself” (5.1.34-35). If Romans are always lamenting the deaths of those they most wanted out of the way (Antony himself has wept for Brutus at Philippi), it is perhaps because the departed foe inevitably turns out to be much more a part of one's self than one had ever admitted. So it is not surprising that Octavius eulogizes Antony as

… my brother, my competitor
… my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle; …


Caesar wins his empire, becomes “Rome,” through bereavement (the loss of a brother and friend), divorce (from a “mate in empire”), and self-mutilation (the cutting off of an arm, the tearing out of a heart). It has been suggested that in Antony and Cleopatra, although he does not lose himself, Octavius doesn't become anything (Adelman 92). I myself would propose that he does undergo a metamorphosis: his “becoming,” however, is predicated upon a subtraction, because his identity is so dependent upon Antony's.

Cleopatra's being encompassed Egypt, all possible versions of womankind, and the male principle too; the Roman rulers can only “become” Rome in their absence, self-suppression, or self-diminishment. Antony is named “Emperor” by his mistress for the first time in the play when she tells Dolabella “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” (5.2.76); he has to die first. And, as we have seen, there is not much left of Octavius to become Augustus Caesar.

But is it fair thus to privilege Egypt's multiplicity over the fragmented and limited selves of Rome when Cleopatra herself seems to submit to Rome's categories of value at the last? Even as she begins to play with the idea of thwarting Octavius's ambitions by killing herself, she says, “Let's do it after the high Roman fashion” (4.15.87). Is she reconstructing her identity according to the requirements of virtus? Awaiting the arrival of the asp, Cleopatra proclaims:

                                                                      I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble constant.


Her first words deny her femaleness and suggest a complete surrender to the Roman equation of virtue with virtus, manliness; her marble constancy, on the other hand, evokes a flickering reminder of the “holy, cold and still conversation” of that exemplary Roman matron Octavia (3.6.119-20). But to my mind, Cleopatra is not so much subordinating herself to Roman value systems as adding a couple of new “becomings” to her play of identity. In dying thus she not only escapes the actual bonds that Octavius would place upon her, but (in acting in a manner that assorts with his codes) prevents him from fixing her nature by reducing her to his “Egyptian puppet.” She does not, moreover, slavishly imitate the “high Roman fashion” of death but rather appropriates it and remakes it in her own image. In a distinctly Egyptian variation on the theme of opening one's own veins, Cleopatra, the “serpent of old Nile,” succumbs to another serpent of old Nile: Egypt is by Egypt valiantly vanquished. She lives on after death as Charmian's “lass unparalleled”; Octavius also lives on, but merely to be (in the queen's own words) an “ass / Unpolicied” (5.2.306-7). And Octavius, ordering her burial beside Antony in the Alexandrian monument, admits, perforce, that “No grave on earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous” (5.2.357-58): all-embracing Egypt finally wins out as the male/female union displaces the privileged pair-bond rivalry between the “great competitors.”


  1. All references to Antony and Cleopatra are taken from the edition of M. R. Ridley in the Arden Shakespeare series (London: Methuen, 1971).

  2. If Cleopatra becomes the nurturing mother at the last, she does so, it might be argued, at the expense of her real children, whom Octavius has threatened to slay if she escapes him. Cleopatra, however, is in a double bind here. She has already sworn to Antony that, should she break faith with him and ally herself with Octavius, her progeny and people will perish (3.13.158ff). Whichever way she acts now, they are doomed. Her final victory over Octavius in death, her confirmation of her union with Antony, can thus only reassert her maternity in these figurative terms.

  3. We do see a comparable phenomenon in Henry IV Part I when Hal concludes Hotspur's dying “Percy thou art dust / And food for—” with “For worms, brave Percy.” But Hal's finishing off this speech seems more like a final “finishing off” of his rival and double.

  4. The interplay between public and private identity achieved by Cleopatra throughout the play is particularly striking if we compare Shakespeare's Egyptian queen with John Webster's Duchess of Malfi, whose assertion of her private and sexual identity challenges the public self largely constructed for her by her brothers. For an interesting discussion of the implications of “embodiment” in Webster's play see Wells 65-66.

  5. For a related discussion of Shakespeare's multiple and ambiguous representation of Cleopatra at her death see Belsey 184.

  6. Richard P. Wheeler remarks, “Cleopatra has offered Antony a mode of relating in which his manhood is completed in his response to the feminine in Cleopatra, and which releases the mutual interchange of masculine and feminine in both lovers” (158).

  7. Of course competition is not entirely absent from the relations of the Egyptians; Cleopatra herself is anxious that Iras, having predeceased her, may steal a first postmortem embrace from Antony (5.2.300).

  8. Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 107.

  9. On the relation of Antony's identity to “political place” see also Belsey 39-40.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973. Adelman's account of Antony and Cleopatra focuses in particular on the subversive proliferation of commentators and interpretive perspectives within its action and examines in some detail the multiple iconographies and mythic identities of its hero and heroine.

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985. Explores the constitution of the liberal humanist subject—and more specifically, women's exclusion from the role of speaking subject—by way of readings of the tragic drama of the English Renaissance from the later Morality plays to the Restoration.

Neely, Carol. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. Examines the dramatic and psychological significance of courtship, marriage, and widowhood in Shakespeare's oeuvre. Neely is particularly interested in the shifting relationship between genre and gender in the plays and makes use of the repeated motif of the broken nuptial to discuss the different ways in which the female protagonist comes to an accommodation with, transcends, or is destroyed by her socially constructed role.

Wells, Susan. The Dialectics of Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Discusses the relationship in literary texts between the “typical register” (the set of verbal strategies whereby connections are established between the specific and the universal, the text and lived experience, the logic of the work and its rhetoric) and the “indeterminate register” (everything in the text that “rubs against the historical grain or runs on a bias to the main axes of social relations, everything that resists interpretation and refuses intersubjectivity”). Includes an extensive account of the tension between the private/subjective/“feminine” and the public/“masculine” systems of value in The Duchess of Malfi.

Wheeler, Richard P. “‘Since first we were dissever'd’: Trust and Autonomy in Shakespearean Tragedy and Romance.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, 150-69. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Traces the tensions in Shakespeare's tragedies and last plays between the male protagonist's need to create an autonomous and individuated self and his desire to embrace the mutuality on which he can ground that self; such a relationship of trust and partial self-surrender is perceived as at once attractive and threatening and in general involves a member of the opposite sex, whether lover, wife, daughter, or mother.

J. Robert Baker (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Baker, J. Robert. “Absence and Subversion: The ‘O'erflow’ of Gender in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 105-15.

[In the following essay, Baker examines the gender reversals of Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy.”]

The complexity of Antony and Cleopatra is daunting. Nothing in the play—genre, character, or gender—continues stable or unchallenged. Even the play's structure remains so multifarious that critics have found it difficult to describe the play as either tragedy or comedy: Carol Thomas Neely aptly suggests that the way in which Antony and Cleopatra inhabit gender roles stretches the play “to include motifs, roles, and themes found in Shakespeare's comedies, histories, problem plays, and romances; and Paula Berggren has noted Cleopatra's affinities with the comic heroines.”1

The characters, similarly, defy easy categorization and exclusive definition. This holds particularly true for Antony and Cleopatra, who contradict themselves in word and action, and about whom not only the other characters, but also the critics offer many different reports. Berggren, for example, finds Antony “sexually the most mature of Shakespeare's men,” primarily because he wears Cleopatra's clothing.2 Neely, on the other hand, discounts Antony's cross-dressing, pointing out that it is only reported, not seen, and suggesting that Antony's distinction lies in his ability to “accept more fully Cleopatra's sexuality, duplicity, and difference from him and find them compatible with his manhood.”3 Similarly, Cleopatra comes in for radically different explications, all these, at bottom, having to do with her sexuality. Madeline Gohlke finds that Cleopatra “in many ways is the epitome of what is hated, loved, and feared in a woman by Shakespeare's tragic heroes,” but, at the same time, “she is imaginative, fertile, identified with the procreative processes of the Nile.”4 Janet Adelman also observes this duality in Cleopatra, noting, “If Cleopatra is a witch, she is also the fairy queen, that vision for which men have constantly sought.”5

Perspective is needed to appreciate the complexity of the play and to explain why coherent statements about the characters are scarce and why some find it hard to see the play simply as tragedy. Such a perspective involves the use Shakespeare makes of gender in Antony and Cleopatra because much of the confusion generated by Antony and Cleopatra and certainly their evasion of monocular definition is bound up with their sexual role playing and gender shifting. Such a perspective also requires a steady refusal of a simple dialectic that issues into either-or formulations in favor of one that is additive and inclusive, one whereby opposites preserve and fulfill each other in an expansive arrangement. Antony is not merely feminized or tragic, Roman or transvestite, but all these things; Cleopatra is not merely witch or Queen, deadly or progenerative, but all of these; and the play is not just tragedy or comedy, but contains elements of both.

Adelman and James Robinson, in particular, offer helpful comments towards such a perspective. Adelman has noted that the shifts of perspective, the multiplicity of character, and the variations of metaphor in Antony and Cleopatra both complicate and characterize the play. The play's complexity, Adelman says, lies not simply in the opacity of character and identity nor in the unreliability of knowledge and judgment, but also in the subjection of the play's tragic vision to comic technique. The play works not towards an incontrovertible position, but towards multiplicity on every level. Her interpretation notes that “both the presentation of character and the dramatic structure work to frustrate our reasonable desire for certainty.”6 We are unable first and last to take from the play a definitive, indisputable reading.

James Robinson, citing Thomas Digges and Giordano Bruno, argues that Antony and Cleopatra might well be read with the understanding that both the cosmos which it suggests and the stage on which it is represented are infinitely expansive. What Robinson notes of Bruno's universe—“a multiplicity of changing phenomena in an infinite process of dissolution and regeneration”—applies equally to Shakespeare's play.7 Both universe and drama suggest a space where “multiples are substantially one, and contraries coincide: dissolution is generation; death is life.”8 Robinson details these multiples, contraries, and dissolutions in both the geography of the play and the hyperbolic language of the characters.

The extensiveness seen by Robinson and the multiplicity observed by Adelman apply also and particularly to the play's treatment of gender. While Adelman does treat the exchange of clothing and sexual roles by Antony and Cleopatra, she limits the significance of this “transexuality” to an emblem of what she terms “generative sympathy”: “the elements in the play that may be seen from the Roman point of view as evidence of Antony's loss of manhood may also be seen as the emblem of his procreative union with Cleopatra.”9 The continual shift of gender though is no mere emblem, nor quite so straightforward; rather it is central to the play's complexity. As such, it does not “only confirm the profound polarization of gender roles in the play,” as Neely observes.10 Instead, it forces a constant interpretation and reinterpretation of gender that refuses both the primacy of one sex and the sufficiency of two. As they assume the gender of the other, Antony and Cleopatra enlarge and expand the ordinary roles of their own and each other's sexes. Their gender shifting does result, at the death of each lover, in both a “generative harmony” and an “extending cosmos,” but its treatment in the play is not simple, nor is the lovers' experience of it unambiguous. Like the overflow of the Nile, the expansion and shifting of gender roles is at once productive and lethal, fertile and dangerous, prolific and chaotic.

With this overflow, Antony and Cleopatra flatly reverses the usual function of gender which, with its culturally defined and prescribed modes of behavior, produces a space in which individuals can live with a degree of psychological comfort and security. Antony and Cleopatra move out of roles traditionally assigned to the sexes: at times he leads; at others she dominates. They change clothes in bed, switch places in war and peace, and seem to evacuate the ordinary relationship between the sexes. All of this is not without cost: Antony experiences anxiety about his actions; Cleopatra behaves in a vertiginously confusing manner; and both of them are feared and hated because their behavior removes the ordinary harmony and safety provided by gender. But the play insists that the disruption created by Antony and Cleopatra's sexual role playing is essential: ultimately, movement into the experience and guise of the other sex becomes the condition of a fuller life for both Antony and Cleopatra.

In all this Shakespeare seems to be playing on his own era's anxieties about gender. The Elizabethans were particularly conscious of gender, for theirs was an age headed by a queen and, simultaneously, determinedly patriarchal. Despite Elizabeth's sovereignty, the age insisted on the subjugation of women to men. The Elizabethans feared a disruption of the hierarchy of genders by either sex, but particularly by women. A woman, crossing out of her assigned roles and entering the space of men, threatened the natural, political, and spiritual realms. Perhaps it is for this reason that Cleopatra comes in for more invective than Antony: she is perceived as an unruly woman, leaving the woman's position to manipulate the political sphere, and so is seen as more dangerous.11

Early in the play, however, it is Antony who disrupts the hierarchy, leaving the world of honor and the scenes of triumph represented by Rome and entering the smaller, political space of Egypt and the heightened, personal space of love embodied by Cleopatra. He jeopardizes his place as triumvir, forsakes his position as a husband, and risks erasure of his past accomplishments, all because he gives himself over to a woman who, although a queen, remains a threat to order and stability because she will not and cannot be contained within the usual place of a woman. Queen or not, she is a woman out of her place, submissive to no man and desirous of control. Antony moves toward Cleopatra with both pleasure and trepidation; he is attracted to her, but fears a loss as he moves out of an established security and into Cleopatra's bed.

Stronger than Antony's own misgivings are the alarms of his allies and enemies who see Cleopatra as a teeming foreigner and a dangerous threat. In their view, Cleopatra's alien vitality seems to outlast both individuals and generations—she was married to a Ptolemy and loved a Caesar; now she is Antony's lover and Octavius' enemy. In fact, she is a woman whose fecundity spreads to underwrite both character and play—she gives meaning to Antony and is the catalyst that precipitates the drama. Antony's friends and foes are outraged when he allows himself to be subject to her because he trades not only sword for tires, but also the values of the Roman world for the uncontrollable pleasures of the Egyptian queen. He seems to them to join Cleopatra in removing a buttress of the world; in actuality, Antony and Cleopatra, leaving the world stage, enter the fuller space of love, a space not confined to life.

Antony, the Romans complain, is absent, truant physically from Rome, morally from his duty, and, perhaps, psychologically from himself. Caesar quarrels with Antony over his absence from Rome because his removal into Egypt has exposed the state to war. Caesar charges, “Your wife and brother / Made wars upon me; and their contestation / Was theme for you, you were the word of war.”12 More serious than this accusation of conspiracy, which Antony refutes by reminding Caesar that Fulvia levied war in Rome only to goad Antony out of Egypt, is Caesar's indictment of Antony for dereliction of duty. It is not only that Antony, “when rioting in Alexandria” (II. ii. 72), put Caesar's letters unread aside and taunted his emissary unheard out of the room, but also that Antony broke his oath to Caesar, a pledge “To lend me arms and when I requir'd them; / The which you both denied” (II. ii. 88-89). Antony would soften this charge and insists he neglected Caesar's only claim because he was distracted by the presence of Cleopatra, “when poisoned hours had bound me up / From mine own knowledge” (II. ii. 90-91). In fact, back at Rome, Antony makes a graceful submission to ask for Caesar's pardon. It is a gesture that Lepidus applauds and that draws Caesar to remember how he would pursue a bond with Antony “from edge to edge / O'th' world” (II. ii. 117-18).

Although Antony can make a gracious, conciliatory gesture towards Caesar and even try to placate his rival by marrying his sister, Antony has already moved outside the perimeter of the Roman world. This is of issue even before Antony appears on stage, for Philo says:

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 buckle on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust.

(I. i. 1-10)

According to his friends, Antony has left off the manly role of the general and entered the train of Cleopatra's eunuchs; he has reneged on the obligations of his manhood and abandoned the duties of his estate. His condition is so changed that Philo, apparently thinking him now hardly recognizable, feels compelled to point him out when he enters with Cleopatra and her attendants:

                                                                      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.

(I. i. 10-13)

The Romans see Antony reduced from a principal support of the world to the domestic servant of a whore. He has collapsed, becoming a fool by foregoing his duty and submitting to a woman. According to Caesar, Antony clearly has abandoned duty for pleasure, the masculine for the feminine, virtue for vice:

                                                                                                                        … 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
Vouschaf'd to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(I. iv. 3-10)

Of course, a man who is the epitome of every fault of which a person may be capable is no man, but a shadow. Caesar recognizes this implicitly when he shortly after refers to Antony's vacancy filled with voluptuousness (I. iv. 26).

In neglecting his word and responsibilities, Antony does create a gap, an absence in the Roman world, a world that puts a premium on masculine honor, soldiering, and hardihood. The vacancy, which Antony creates in no longer filling the space he once did, is palpable and confusing. His friend Enobarbus mistakes the entrance of Cleopatra midway through the second scene of the play for the approach of Antony. Enobarbus' mistake registers the enormity of the change that attends Antony's abandonment of the ideals of Rome, the masculine world. The evacuation not only makes Antony almost unrecognizable to his closest associates, but also obscures recognizable differences between male and female. Antony and Cleopatra begin to be interchangeable because Antony has ceased to reside in Rome, to affirm its values, and to act in accord with its manly dictates. Negligent of state and obligation, he becomes identified with a woman and enters her estate.

Antony himself feels the change. After his appearance on stage, he sweeps aside all values in favor of Cleopatra: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space” (I. i. 33-34). This early declaration for Cleopatra is full of confidence, perhaps even bombast, but it also removes Antony from at least part of who he is, for he is, after all, a Roman. To proclaim a new space, a new person for himself distances and absents him from his old self. The new space cannot be inhabited with complete ease, for the city does not flow into the river, nor does the empire collapse; rather, it is Antony himself who is shaken by the change. He admits the tension he feels between the competing claims and, later, would withdraw from Cleopatra: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (I. ii. 120-21).

The announcement of Fulvia's death a few lines later reinforces his desire to break with Cleopatra and his sense of a void. Antony speaks of human existence as an attraction towards vacancy:

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

(I. ii. 127-30)

The picture of human life here is grim: a continual rotation between present pleasures that forever lose their appeal, a constant desire for the absent and an unstable alternation between presence and absence. This is the space Antony inhabits during most of the play. He desires Cleopatra, but regrets the absence his being with her creates.

Caesar, Mecaenas, Enobarbus, Candidius, Philo—indeed all the Romans—have reason to fear Antony's change. He is a radical, a charged particle, oscillating mercurially between Rome and Egypt, self and Cleopatra, always likely to set off a reaction of fission that would destroy the empire and its values. After the defeat of Antony's forces at sea, Antony, urging his friends to make peace with Caesar, tells them, “I have fled myself” (III. xi. 7). Here speech recapitulates character, for the ambiguity of the grammar reflects the unpredictability of Antony. The “myself” can function either as reflexive pronoun or as direct object, allowing Antony to admit either that he himself has fled the battle or that he has fled from his sense of self, from the person he imagined himself to be. In either case, the Roman world fears Antony precisely because he moves outside the ordinary understanding of the masculine. His absence from Rome, from office, and from self threatens order and stability.

When he leaves the sea battle to follow the fleeing Cleopatra, Antony not only exposes his forces to defeat, but endangers the whole complement of values on which Rome rests by abdicating his manly responsibilities. Scarus calls him a “doting mallard” and claims, “I never saw an action of such shame; / Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er before / Did violate so itself” (III. x. 20, 22-24). Cleopatra's flight draws Antony after her, and his circuit drastically shakes the foundations of the Roman world—experience, manhood, and honor. The trepidation throughout the play is that Antony's being unmanned will emasculate all men. Candidius worries that Antony's unruly behavior will make all his men subservient to women, that “so our leader's led, / And we are women's men” (III. vii. 70-71). In the previous scene Mecaenas fears that Antony's surrender of power and troops to Cleopatra will make all men liable to her noises. Late in the play Enobarbus gives direct and nervous voice to this anxiety when he entreats Antony, “Transform us not to women” (IV. ii. 36).

Antony himself has anxieties about all this, admitting that Cleopatra had the “supremacy” and commanded him, and claiming that she was his conqueror (III. xi. 59, 66). Shortly before he dies, he says that Cleopatra has been his crown and beguiled him to utter loss (IV. xii. 27, 29). But Antony's regrets and his enemies' fears of Cleopatra seem misplaced because, even though Antony may be drawn away from his space by the allures of Cleopatra, his radicality exists before his submission to her. Cleopatra herself suggests in the first act that Antony has already left the masculine domain by being subject to both Caesar and Fulvia:

                                                                      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-tongu'd Fulvia scolds.

(I. i. 29-32)

Although Cleopatra here intends in part to goad Antony into resisting the summons from Rome and declaring his love for her, she also recognizes an essential integer in Antony's nature—despite his military triumphs and manly honors, he also occupies the position of a subject; he contains both masculine and feminine attributes, almost as though he were, psychologically, a hermaphrodite.

This duality within Antony reaches its apex when he completely submits to Cleopatra and invites her to enter his very being as a conqueror. “Chain mine arm'd neck; leap thou attire and all, / Through proof of harness to my heart, and there / Ride on the pants triumphing!” (IV. viii. 14-16). Antony's invitation is to a smaller space but one which is simultaneously greater and in which Cleopatra will be exultant. The movement Antony summons her to will not only give her sovereignty over him, but make her over into part of himself; he calls her into himself and so would reshape her as the very triumph over self.

Cleopatra, despite her apparent unruliness, is less dangerous than Antony, whose vacancy is so profound that it extends even into his self. In fact, she is not so much threat as presence, the figure who informs and fills the absence figured by Antony. Gohlke says she “is the hero's point of orientation, his source of signification in the world.”13 She makes him her guest, laughs him in and out of patience, purses up his heart, and gives him, finally, a place in myth and history.

Cleopatra's powerful presence affects even nature. Before she and Antony meet at Cydnus, she has drawn all the citizens after her and nearly towed nature itself in her wake. Even the air, “but for vacancy, / Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too / And made a gap in nature” (II. ii. 221-23). If Cleopatra so affects even the elements, her effect on Antony is cause for little wonder.

Admittedly, Cleopatra is subversive, refusing containment in the Roman order. Her potency and her threat are expressed in terms of gender and perceived as a reversal of the ordinary configuration of the sexes. She strikes the male messenger who brings news of Antony's marriage to Octavia, threatening to unhair his head; and she calls her women “good sirs” and Iras “sirah,” confusing the differences between genders (II. v. 64; IV. xv. 85; and V. ii. 229). She has a manly desire to be at war despite Enobarbus' apprehensions that her presence will distract Antony, and she spurns Rome and its opinions, preferring her own sense:

                                                                      A charge we bear i'th'war,
And, as the president of my kingdom, will
Appear there for a man. Speak not against it;
I will not stay behind.

(III. vii. 17-20)

Cleopatra will act as a man because she occupies the position of one in heading the political hierarchy of Egypt.

Though Enobarbus' fears are realized when Cleopatra flees the battle, trawling Antony after her, she continues to play the part of a man without ceasing to be a queen. She arms Antony more efficiently than a squire; a feat Antony himself acknowledges: “Thou fumblest, Eros; and my queen's a squire / More tight at this than thou …” (IV. iv. 14-15). She outmaneuvers Caesar and cheats him of the chance to consolidate his triumph by exhibiting her in Rome. This adroit, protean woman has been mother, spawning sons and enriching Egypt like the flooding of the Nile; she also has been lover to Ptolemies, Augustus Caesar, and triumvirs; and, at the end of the play, she becomes Antony's mourner. As she approaches her death, Cleopatra fills all these roles abundantly and potently. Not even the domain of waking consciousness is adequate for Cleopatra's presence and power. During the last scene of the play, she tells Dolabella that she has dreamed of Antony and longs for another dream so she can see him again. The Antony she dreams of is godlike:

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. …
                                                                                                    … in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets, realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

(V. ii. 82-92)

Cleopatra is not merely offering a panegyric for her dead lover, she is also engendering and nurturing a new Antony. She remakes him, and in this way gives him life beyond death.

Her desire to be with Antony is more than an attempt to escape the shame Caesar and Octavia intend for her; it is the longing for a beloved, a craving so profound that it recreates the beloved in an expanse beyond mortal life. Her suicide allows her to exit the stage and to enter the sweep into which she projects Antony. Her presence is not evacuated when she takes the asp to her bosom, but magnified, amplified into an area so vast that neither stage nor mortal vision can comprehend it. Her suicide provides Antony with meaning and Shakespeare with plot. Her deportment as an unruly woman has threatened the Roman hierarchy, but here it extends the meaning and range of what it is to be human beyond the accepted distinctions between male and female. Her complications of politics and warfare, her refusal of distinctions between life and death, and her proficient occupation of every position finally extend the meaning of the tragedy towards comedy.

With Cleopatra, as with Antony, Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy. Throughout the play, the withdrawal or absence of either Antony or Cleopatra from the role and position of either gender generates a precariousness that the play, its characters, and critics work to steady. But their rotation into the space of the other sex and their absence from their own sex also gesture towards the possibilities of a more complete humanity. Antony and Cleopatra, in stepping outside the normal space assigned to their genders, threaten order and stability, particularly in the Roman world of the play. But at the end of the play what they enter into, despite Antony's fears and Cleopatra's ambitions, is not so much tragedy as a place where each assumes the very person of the other and fashions it anew, where each assumes the gender of the other and makes it more than it was alone, and where tragedy assumes the very resonance and expansiveness of comedy.


  1. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), p. 137, and Paula S. Berggren, “The Woman's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays,” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, Ill: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 25.

  2. Berggren, p. 21.

  3. Neely, p. 150.

  4. Madeline Gohlke, “‘I Wooed Thee with my Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, p. 160.

  5. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), p. 65.

  6. Adelman, p. 15.

  7. James E. Robinson, Digges, Bruno, Phenomenology: Re-Spacing Shakespeare (Univ. Press of Notre Dame, 1989), p. 3.

  8. Robinson, p. 5.

  9. Adelman, pp. 94 and 95.

  10. Neely, p. 139.

  11. See Natalie Z. Davis, “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe,” The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, ed. Barbara A. Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 147-90 for a discussion of the unruly woman as one threatening hierarchical subordination of women by assuming masculine manners and prerogatives. Davis argues that since the female sex was thought to be physiologically disorderly, women represented mutability and chaos, and so were thought dangerous, especially when they moved out of culturally defined gender roles.

  12. II. ii. 42-44. All quotations are from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington (Glenview Ill: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1973).

  13. Gohlke, p. 160.

Alvin Klein (review date 24 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.New York Times (24 September 2000): NJ21.

[In the following review, Klein asserts the essential failure of director Bonnie J. Monte's comic staging of Antony and Cleopatra at the 2000 New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, noting its lack of drive and passion.]

In April this year, when Shakespeare turned 436, words of reflection and awe poured forth.

In consideration of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's current staging of Antony and Cleopatra here, it is useful to mull the comment by Adrian Noble about “the challenge of bringing his words to life.”

After seeing Bonnie J. Monte's staging of what may be Shakespeare's most unplayable play, one cannot help wondering about the sheer monumentality of the task. In a program note, Ms. Monte explains her calling to have a go at this daunting work. But seeing is not believing. One comes away still wondering—not what was she thinking, but what was she doing?

Even though Antony and Cleopatra is categorized as a tragedy, it really isn't. It is neither a history nor a comedy, and that covers the three varieties of Shakespeare, though like his own Cleopatra, he had infinite ones. Of course, one could argue the historical possibility and when it doesn't work, the play, as in unforeseen moments here, teters precariously on the comical. Let us not mention an unmentionable slobbering slave.

A panoramic “leaping giant,” in the critic Kenneth Tynan's words, the play is unclassifiable, but astonishingly seamless. Ms. Monte's production slogs on, though her take on the middle-aged lovers of the title as the two greatest celebrities of their time is rife with resonance for our time.

Cleopatra is “a lass unparallel'd” who is “cunning past man's thought.” Tamara Tunie's thoroughly modern, trendy allure as a character who could rightfully be called Cleo is at odds with Ms. Monte's essentially classical interpretation, no matter the spare, steely production design, its slanted pillars and satiny, leathery costumes.

That the classically pure line of the shimmering gowns Ms. Tunie models so stunningly in the first act contrast startlingly with her second act dominatrix look may be telling us something. So may the light metal aura of a generic production and beat-beat-beat of the tom-toms in Richard Dionne's jungle-like sound design.

And Robert Cuccioli's Mark Antony appears to be just another one of Cleo's guys, this one as subject to a snit and a tantrum as she is. The sense of bravura that has informed Mr. Cuccioli's musical theater displays, Jekyll and Hyde mostly, is strangely subdued. Conceptually, that is as it should be. Antony gets top billing, but his purpose is to support the quintessential star. Still, Antony—all right, call him Tony—must impart the once-upon-a-time glory of a real has-been, “the noble ruin of her magic.” No way is that happening here.

Even if the performances fail—though these are more solo turns than dramatic interpretations—the sizzle of great lovers heats the play. Whatever they feel, be it real love, sheer lust, just plain narcissistic wallowing or last-ditch opportunism, is valid; there are no rules for what such titanically theatrical figures symbolize. But it is imperative to sense an established passion that precedes their entrances. From then, it's their last “gaudy night.” Even before Ms. Tunie and Mr. Cuccioli kiss, and well before each one of them dies, the omen is clear. This show is over before it's over.

Juliet Fleming (review date 3 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 19.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Antony and Cleopatra, Fleming finds fault with the production's slow start and muddled enunciation of verse, but contends that the strong female performances, particularly Sinead Cusack's fine Cleopatra, saved the production.]

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra feels a moment of panic as the curtain first rises and they remember the play's potential length, its episodic structure, its closely packed style, and the fact that its premiss is an orientalist fantasy that pits a luxurious, feminized East against an austere and triumphant Rome. (It is an odd fact that theatre companies now carefully anxious in their staging of Othello are still prepared to represent Shakespeare's Egypt as little more than a beauty parlour. Shakespeare's own description of Egypt is drawn from Plutarch, who, as a Roman historian, was interested in the creation of a barbaric and politically ephemeral Orient; but these are surely times to resist, rather than celebrate, such visions.) The opening of Michael Attenborough's new production—red lighting, psychedelic music, hookah pipe, Antony discovered on a couch receiving a massage—is scarcely reassuring. However, the production is well directed and intelligently cut, and picks up speed after the first act. The set—two leather couches beneath a vast, slowly disintegrating map—is elegant and efficacious, and makes clear, as nothing else in the play or this production of it does, that its action concerns the subjugation of the Near East. The movement of the actors is dynamic and well-choreographed (with the signal exception of a toe-curling “Alexandrian” reel, into which cast members fling themselves with only too much enthusiasm). Costumes (slinky and gorgeous for the Egyptians, with ill-hanging togarized surcoats for the Romans), lighting (red or cold white), and music (moody flutes and drums versus martial trumpeting) firmly underline the incommensurability of East and West—and Antony's fatal position between them—for those who may not be able to gather as much from the dialogue.

Which is just as well. For it is a striking fact about a theatre company whose stated mission is “to create outstanding theatre relevant to our times through the work of Shakespeare” that less than half the cast can speak his words so as to capture and communicate their meaning, let alone their beauty. Although the language of Antony and Cleopatra is difficult, accenting Shakespeare's line is presumably what RSC actors train to do. But audiences will be baffled, and should be shocked, by much of what they are expected to listen to in this production: for with the honourable exceptions of Simon Nagra (Alexas), Stephen Campbell-More (an excellent, ambitious, priggish Octavius Caesar) and Trevor Martin (the truly sinister soothsayer), the male members of the cast repeatedly misstress, shout, or otherwise bungle their lines. Clive Wood as Enobarbus manages a good rendition of the barge speech (with an odd stress on the word “divers”), but his obvious ability is elsewhere marred by his adoption of the de rigueur swagger that connotes the Renaissance soldier on the modern stage. Some of the shouting may be explained—as it usually is—by the difficulty of making oneself heard from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but it has to be said that the women in the cast rise far better to the challenge. Sarah Ball makes a surprising amount of her role as Octavia, here a woman both dignified and warm, whose uncomfortable position as counter between husband and brother is compellingly drawn; Noma Dumezweni is strong and extremely beautiful as Charmian, the woman who loves and stands up to Cleopatra; Kirsten Parker is a light and able Iras—and all three understand both what they are saying and how to say it.

Parker and Dumezweni are doubtless helped by, as they in turn help, Sinead Cusack's performance as Cleopatra, which is as good as they come. Cusack's Cleopatra is consistently changeable: self-mocking, forgiving of Antony, and knowing herself in need of forgiveness, she is lithe, regal and unhysterical. She, too, raises her voice, especially in the first act, but as she warms to the part, she has a range of registers—humorous, dignified, sexy, compassionate—at her command. And, under her influence, Stuart Wilson's Antony is rendered more compelling than is quite accountable. For, whether dismissing Roman messengers, feeling the prick of conscience, or romancing Cleopatra, Stuart shouts his lines. He pants, moves stiffly and looks faintly pathetic in his costume. And yet, in the later acts, his Antony still has the power to attach the audience, and make it understand what it means to love a woman—a fallible one at that—more than life itself. The success of Michael Attenborough's production is thus the triumph of Shakespeare's play, more or less ably realized.

Mary Ann Bushman (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Bushman, Mary Ann. “Representing Cleopatra.” In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 36-49. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.

[In the following essay, Bushman examines feminist readings of Cleopatra's character in Antony and Cleopatra and analyzes her status as the “tragic hero” of the play.]

To the discerning eye of feminist criticism, Shakespearean tragedy seems to treat women characters as reflections of the tragic hero. According to Linda Bamber, since the tragedies feature a masculine version of Self, female characters differ from the male only because they mirror the external world, the Other, all that lies “outside the Self.”1Antony and Cleopatra, however, gives us glimpses of a kind of “self” that is not merely reflection or symbol of the Other. Through dialogue and certain forms of silence, the play text fashions a speaking position for Cleopatra that seems to imitate neither the masculine model of tragic heroes nor her feminine counterparts in comedy.2 Although Shakespearean texts draw on the same rhetorical resources for representing male and female characters, the representation of Cleopatra's self-consciousness reassigns those resources, giving them different values and functions.

Watching or reading a play affords us no access to even a changing narrative stance as a location for a character's “self.”3 Yet as Karen Newman argues so persuasively, Shakespearean characters “are marked by what we might call a residue beyond their function … as agents, beyond their relations to specific actions.”4 What creates this sense of residue, of excess beyond function? Newman locates it in specific rhetorical features of the soliloquy, features which can emerge elsewhere in the text but which are manifest in the soliloquy: 1) shifts in pronouns from first to second person, 2) rhetorical questions posing speaker and hearer, 3) logical oppositions which suggest association rather than logic as the structure of the speech.5 Of course, soliloquy isn't the only means by which character is made available to us. Imagery, diction, meter, dialogue also contribute to our sense of a character, but soliloquy demands a special privilege because it marks itself as interruption, as mirrored self-dialogue.

The rhetorical features of the soliloquy outlined by Newman resemble human experiences of self-consciousness. In their classic study, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann point out that in shared reality, others with whom we share our massiveness of everyday reality are more real to us than ourselves.6 Subjectivity, our knowledge of ourselves, requires reflection, deliberation:

To make it available requires that I stop, arrest the continuous spontaneity of my experience, and deliberately turn my attention back upon my self. What is more, such reflection about myself is typically occasioned by the attitude toward me that the other exhibits. It is typically a “mirror” response to attitudes of the other.7

This description of subjectivity suggests an explanation of why the audience privileges soliloquy as a representation of consciousness; soliloquy, like reflection, we experience as an interruption, speech that stops the plot briefly. Similarly, the rhetorical features of soliloquy imitate the dialogue that occurs between self and other. Berger and Luckmann describe the process of self-consciousness as a series of positions. As the agent reflects about his action,

a part of the self is objectified as the performer of this action, with the whole self again becoming relatively disidentified from the performed action. It is not difficult to see that … an entire sector of self-consciousness is structured in terms of these objectifications.8

Consequently, the “whole self” is always receding, distancing itself from the announced first position. In reflection, when the self becomes segmented, “conversation” between segments can occur. The soliloquy, whether imitating self-consciousness (or perhaps providing the metaphoric model for self-consciousness), rehearses a conversation or a debate as the character moves from pronoun to pronoun, takes up positions and different speaker roles.

In Shakespeare's plays, the soliloquy (or its features) is common to both comedy and tragedy, since it originates in the generically unstable texts of deliberative rhetoric.9 However, it is not so common to female characters, particularly in the tragedies. Bamber summarizes their position: “No such umbrella speeches shelter the consciousness of the women characters in the tragedies. Nor do they soliloquize; and only rarely do we have glimpses of something behind-the-scenes in their personalities.”10 Even in comedy, female characters' speeches reveal little self-consciousness, having only a limited access to rhetorical representations of interiority. Recent critical discussions of Rosalind, for example, reveal the extent of the problem of trying to locate female consciousness. Newman suggests that transvestite disguise, irony, and role-playing give Rosalind “dimensions in excess of her function,” but she acknowledges that while the audience is “called upon to hold together, in the study or in performance, the multiple aspects of her character, … we never have the sense that she herself recognizes or struggles with that multiplicity.”11 While we may grant Rosalind's transvestite disguise a status similar to soliloquy, treating it as liberation or extension of self, it problemizes our reading the speech as a location for the speaker. In a recent article, Phyllis Rackin points out that the boy-heroine, as Rosalind, refuses to subordinate one role or identity to the other, declines to become “Rosalind-in-disguise” or “boy player playing Rosalind.”12 Disguise blurs the relation between speech and speaker. We are left asking, “Who is speaking?”

In the absence of female soliloquy, critics have proposed not only disguise but also the mere presence of family as “co-ordinates” for the female self. In psychoanalytic criticism, the family is not simply another set of circumstances, another group, albeit an important one, that defines selfhood; the family relationship anchors the self, providing stability. It is precisely for this reason that this critical discourse is so attractive to readers of all schools. Lawrence Danson, for example, distinguishes between two kinds of self in Shakespeare's plays, the “psychological,” which is “grounded between potentially stable co-ordinates, the nurturing prior family and the mature generative family,” and the “sociological” self, the one defining itself in social roles.13 Danson's understandable bias toward a coherent, stable, transcendent self leads him, of course, to see the former as preferable. While the mere allusion to family may “reassure” us, such a reading of selfhood reproduces a dichotomy between a “real” self (masculine, patriarchal, soliloquizing) and a “false” self, one produced by speaking in a role, hence speaking in another's voice.14

But to a character like Cleopatra, none of these markers pertain. She has no soliloquies. She adopts no transvestite disguise to liberate or defend a self (although she has worn Antony's sword once). She reveals only strategy, not conflict, when she engages in dialogue with intimates. And her “family co-ordinates,” to say the least, are limited. Above all, she is an actor, a role-player, one whose “self” emerges from the gap between actor and role, between the psychological self and the sociological one. Although the play limits her modes of self-defining, Cleopatra stands squarely at the center of the play.

In this position, however, her character refracts the continuing debate over the play's genre.15 Earlier feminist criticism, reacting to misogynistic readings of Cleopatra, attempts to retrieve her as a tragic heroine. L. T. Fitz argues that Cleopatra is just as much of a “tragic hero” as is Antony, while Barbara Estrin compares her to the Duchess of Malfi.16 Still other critics assign her to the genre of comedy, a strategy that brackets her off from the rest of the play, despite the fact that she does not seem to fit the image of comic heroines.17 Cleopatra, like the play, generates mixed genre readings and mixed impressions. Fitz sees Cleopatra as growing and changing, as a character who suffers and discovers a self; Bamber sees her as fixed, stable, unchanged. For the former she is a tragic heroine; for the latter, one-half of a dialogue. Perhaps this character is such a paradox because Shakespeare's tragedies are so dominated by masculine concerns, masculine issues. While women characters do indeed have crucial symbolic functions in the tragedies, only in Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet do they receive top billing—one reason, perhaps, why feminist criticism is so extensive on the comedies and romances. Shakespeare's tragedies could hardly be accused of dwelling on women's falls, but in Antony and Cleopatra, the heroine's death receives enormous dramatic attention; at the very least, her body is the one occupying center stage at the end. Because the play foregrounds her, critics work hard to define the ethical and generic shape of her character. What seems to generate this conflict is Cleopatra's overt sense of acting style.18 Continually dropping metadramatic references, Cleopatra not only plays roles but continually points out her style of playing them, the fact that she is playing them.

When critics read Cleopatra, however, they tend to split the character, separating the metadramatic voice from what they describe as a more authentic voice. Irene Dash, for example, develops different categories for interpreting Cleopatra's actions: they result either from “learned patterns of behavior” or from “native inner resources.”19 When Cleopatra and Charmian discuss the best ways to hold Antony (I.iii.), Cleopatra opting for the report about her condition that will have the most dramatic impact, Dash labels her coquetry “learned behavior.” Since Cleopatra is clearly not behaving like the ideal feminist here, Dash's argument forces her to subvert the authenticity of the action: it becomes learned, not natural. In such an interpretation, any self-consciousness about artifice is unauthentic, thus not part of the character's “real” sense of self. From Bamber's point of view, the metadramatic is important for understanding Cleopatra, but only because through it we see Cleopatra “use” her inner life (on which we have no window).20 Once again, the metadramatic is transparent, something to look through to another, more authentic self (“the heart”). In these two feminist approaches, it is obvious that the model for female identity is borrowed from discussions of the male tragic hero.

Cleopatra's characterization, however, differs from Antony's, and even from that of other female characters in Shakespearean tragedy.21 Cleopatra not only includes acting style as a part of her character but uses it to control her audience. When she does adopt a mode of speaking that might replace soliloquy, such as a dialogue with her intimates or an aside, her moments of revelation are marked by failed speech, by incompleteness. The text of Cleopatra, much like the text of Hamlet, creates in the audience a desire for soliloquy, for a moment of stasis that interrupts the continual role-playing and reflects on it. Yet this desire for soliloquy never gets fulfilled; instead her speeches invite the audience to complete her.

As Marjorie Morgan points out, self-consciousness about acting style is sewn into the play.22 From the very beginning, the actors direct us to look for a disparity between character and performance, leading us to split the performing self from the “real” self. Philo opens by distancing us as audience from the inner stage: “Take but good note, and you shall see in him / The triple pillar of the world tranform'd / Into a strumpet's fool: behold and see” (I.i.11-13).23 Indeed Enobarbus's main function, in the first three acts, is to critique the characters' performance. When Antony tries to mourn for Fulvia, Enobarbus undercuts the display by alluding to the prop he would need to shed real tears: “this grief is crown'd with consolation, your old smock brings forth a new petticoat, and indeed the tears live in an onion, that should water this sorrow” (I.ii.165-68). Structurally, both scenes are typical of the way the play makes us conscious of acting style. By drawing on two characters, one who performs and one who critiques, these scenes create a kind of double vision in the audience, and, perhaps in the character occupying the performer's position. Cleopatra, however, usurps both roles and undercuts her own performance. In the first scene, the queen responds to Antony's great declaration of faithfulness with “Excellent falsehood! / Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her? / I'll seem the fool I am not; Antony / Will be himself” (I.i.40-43). What is interesting here is not whether the passage “reveals” Cleopatra's doubts about Antony, but rather that it establishes her casual control over several roles. She critiques Antony's speech as “excellent falsehood” (what dramatic speeches are); she responds to the context of his speech, with an ironic awareness of his marriage; and finally she directs herself through the next piece of playing. Like many of her lines, these have the quality of an “aside”—and indeed usually appear as asides in a production. The offhand quality reveals more than just the energy behind her performances, however; it unveils as well her supreme consciousness of all the tasks an actor carries out as she rehearses.

Like Hamlet, Shakespeare's tragic hero obsessed with the nature of acting, Cleopatra also seems to have developed an aesthetics of performance. While Hamlet pedantically instructs the players, expatiating on his rules for the proper delivery of a speech, Cleopatra judges and reacts to its style of delivery. Drawing our attention to Antony's histrionics, she judges his performances as “excellent falsehood” or “excellent dissembling” (I.iii.80). Frequently, she responds not to the content of the speech but to its delivery. When she asks Charmian whether she ever loved Caesar as she does Antony, Charmian teases her with “O that brave Caesar!” and “The valiant Caesar!” Cleopatra answers, “Be chok'd with such another emphasis, / Say the brave Antony” (I.v.67-69). “Emphasis” is a rhetorical term, and although Cleopatra does not use it exactly as the Renaissance rhetoricians would, we can see her awareness of style of delivery.24 Like any good acting coach, Cleopatra has an eye for decorum too, for using a style of delivery appropriate to the message and effective with the audience, even if her control over her own style is not always as tight as we expect.

Although nearly all the characters seem aware of performance, particularly as they comment on Antony and Cleopatra, performance indexes two different notions of self. Antony is frequently described as if he were two characters, the Antony of Roman history and the Antony who appears on stage. Philo sets up this distinction early in the play: “Sir, sometimes, when he is not Antony, / He comes too short of that great property / Which still should go with Antony” (I.i.57-59). Antony's name itself denotes a fixed, known identity; it becomes an abstraction, something that has “properties,” in the logical sense, something that can subsume actions. Antony himself is aware of this split in his identity, as he tells his men, “I wish I could be made so many men, / And all of you clapp'd up together in / An Antony; that I might do you service” (Iv.ii.16-18). “An Antony” almost functions as a kind of measurement in the play. When Antony the character fails to live up to this abstract identity, he and the others see it as a failure in performance, rather than as a flaw in identity. This identity, furthermore, limits rather than expands his role-playing. He tells Caesar at their first conference, “as nearly as I may, / I'll play the penitent to you. But mine honesty / Shall not make poor my greatness” (II.ii.91-93). So although Antony is aware he plays other roles, his rhetoric insists on distinguishing his acting self from his “authentic” self, his other identity as an Antony, a tragic hero.

Cleopatra, however, is associated with a different concept of identity, and the characters who comment on her are sensitive to the difference. Although she is frequently called names, her name itself does not function as an abstraction. The other characters describe her much differently than they do Antony; they locate her identity in the way she performs her roles. Antony admires her for her expressions of passions: “Fie, wrangling queen! Whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh, / To weep: how every passion fully strives / To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!” (I.i.48-51). Passions themselves lose their qualities and become persuasive, “fair,” when Cleopatra acts them out. Enobarbus also points to her ways of acting as the source of her uniqueness. In the famous description of her arrival at Cydnus, Enobarbus really only describes how she stages herself through props—the “seeming” mermaids, the oars, her perfume. Unlike Antony, Cleopatra experiences no limits to her role-playing. She can hop forty paces through a public street, strike a messenger, cry, laugh, plead, betray, be faithful. Even her death scene, in which she plays Antony's widow, she sees as full of stylistic and dramatic possibilities: she could play it as the “maid that milks,” as the queen of Egypt, “throw[ing her] scepter at the injurious gods,” or finally as a Fulvia and mourn in “the high Roman fashion” (IV.xv.72-87). The only real limit to her role-playing is the audience; if her “becomings” do not “eye” well, then she is “killed” by them (I.iii.96-97).

Marianne Novy, in an intriguing discussion of the actor as a dimension of Shakespearean characters, notes that “audiences … see in [characters] the otherness of the professional actor. The character as actor is strange, exotic, and therefore an object of both repulsion and attraction.”25 Novy suggests that women and actors in Renaissance England were alike, and she traces a similarity in identity, in their use of their bodies, in the attitudes the community takes toward them.26 As Michael Goldman points out, while characters may “remind us” of actors, less frequently do characters disclose the actor as part of their being.27 Male tragic heroes usually discover themselves acting—and reject it as unauthentic. Hamlet, after watching the players, realizes that he too is acting and immediately associates himself with whores. Macbeth discovers that he's only a “poor player.” And Coriolanus begins to lose “himself” the minute he takes up a new role. While the actor's “I” is clearly part of these characters, the recognition of their acting evokes in them antitheatrical prejudice, a sense that they are not themselves. Acting—or acting the wrong role—threatens identity, for the tragic hero. This recognition itself is frequently the anagnorisis; they recognize the Other in themselves and feel conflict. Cleopatra's sense of acting as a style of being, however, is neither something she discovers nor comes to recognize in the play. Rather, it becomes a strategy, a way to evade the attempts in the play to reduce her to an appurtenance of tragedy.

It seems that, for Cleopatra, external circumstances determine the roles that must be played. The world becomes a series of traps, of “snares” waiting to catch her and Antony. In such a world, the only way to maintain an identity is to define it as a style of performing rather than as a self-limiting role. Cleopatra eludes Caesar because she can never be identified with any one role, only with the way she performs it. Moreover, this character's style is visible because she includes failure as part of it—that is, we can see the slips in her performances: the misuse of emphasis, her illogical advice to the messenger, the crown awry. Cleopatra's failures to perfect her role-playing are paralleled in the few speeches she has that intimate the presence of an internal mental process, the residue lying just beyond her speech. The rhetorical feature suggesting this interiority is frequently not speech, but failed or incomplete speech. In I.iii, Cleopatra continually critiques Antony's responses to Fulvia's death, foregrounding the dramatic nature of Antony's behavior. When she finally fully steps into Antony's role for her, no longer mediating Antony's actions, she begins formally,

Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have lov'd, but there's not it:
That you know well, something it is I would,—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.


The subjunctive and the failure to complete it seem to suggest dimensions other or outside of the speech itself. The same features mark her speculation about the second battle between Antony and Caesar: “that he and Caesar might / Determine this great war in single fight! / Then Antony—; but now—Well, on.” (IV.iv.36-38). The incomplete conditional again hints that there is a failure to articulate something imagined. Like the failures in gesture and decorum, this incompleteness hints at disclosure without really disclosing.

In the one speech of the Queen's that seems to resemble a soliloquy (I.v.21-34), despite the fact that it is spoken, as always, in front of her attendants, Cleopatra claims autonomy not by self-examination but by imagining herself being examined, surveying herself under surveillance. As she summons up Antony in his absence, she proceeds to imagine how others have viewed her and seems to shift stances, to segment herself, just as a tragic hero might: “He's speaking now, / Or murmuring, ‘Where's my serpent of old Nile?’ / For so he calls me.” We can trace here what Newman describes as a change in voices. The latter end of the line is addressed to Charmian, to an audience, but the next line comments on herself as performing the imagining—“Now I feed myself / With most delicious poison.” Then the speech moves to command, addressed to Antony, perhaps, and from him to Caesar, and finally to Pompey: “Think on me, / That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time.” Unlike the soliloquy, however, this speech never articulates that authoritative position that most tragic soliloquies move toward, the orator's position that splits the self into different roles, one voice examining another. This speech substitutes instead the eyes of the imagined other, as if the character is constituted fully only in the presence of the gazing audience.

Cleopatra's awareness of the power of theatrical spectacle, disclosed as part of her character, becomes her political strategy as well. At issue by the end of the play is the question of whose play she will act in—Antony's, Caesar's, or her own. In her stagings of herself, she directs the action, coerces the spectators to contribute their gaze; if external circumstances, usually as defined by male characters, dictate her roles, she escapes those roles by pointing at them, by slipping her self between them. But once Antony dies, the possibilities of self-authorship close off: Caesar has another agenda for her role-playing.

Attentive to both Antony's and Cleopatra's modes of establishing self, Caesar embraces both theater and written narrative to produce an identity. While Antony, as one character praises him, dies by “that self hand / Which writ his honour in the acts it did” (V.i.21-22), Caesar wants to write himself into being, not figuratively, but literally. Throughout the last scenes, Caesar seems to speak to a recorder, a historian through whom he is writing himself into chronicles. Referring to himself as “Caesar,” he constantly calls for corroborating witnesses to the history that he is producing and that produces him, he hopes. He calls Dolabella in the last scene, to testify “How hardly I was drawn into this war / How calm and gentle I proceeded still / In all my writings” (V.i.74-76). Although Caesar privileges the written document, he also takes a lesson from Cleopatra: he knows that spectacle can serve as an argument for his political power. And indeed that is his agenda for Cleopatra, whose “life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph” (V.i.65-66). Her life would be his theater, an adjunct to his larger self. She would be fragmented, made into his “scutcheons,” props serving his theater (V.ii.134). And she perceives this strategy the instant when he enters her stage, apparently not recognizing her, and asks, “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” (V.ii.111). That one simple question carries enormous political overtones.

For puzzling reasons, critics tend to read the end of this play, specifically Cleopatra's suicide, as an hermaphroditic transformation.28 For evidence, they point to her emptying herself of the feminine (“I have nothing / Of woman in me: now from head to foot / I am marble-constant”) (V.ii.237-39); to the dramatic roles she takes on (queen, mother, wife, nurse); and to Caesar's epitaph for her and Antony—“No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous” (V.ii.357-58). But in these very pieces of evidence a puzzling paradox emerges: Why does this character abjure the “qualities of woman” yet enact all the most characteristically feminine roles? What is the status of her gender identity at the end of this play?

Because the mixed genre of the play leads us to assign a positive value to these mixed signals, we tend to overlook their questionable argumentative status. This scene, like others in the play, once again directs us to look at the gap between the illusion and representation, rather than reading through the illusion. While we are asked to freeze Cleopatra into a gender position, the metatheatrical “slips” in performance compete with the rhetorical aim of the scene. Cleopatra's performance at the end is full of tentativeness—her crown is awry, and Charmian steps forth to perfect the defect; Cleopatra directs her attendants to “show me … like a queen” (V.ii.226), a verbal formula that resonates with the problems of analogy and comparison developed in Antony's description of a crocodile (II.vii.40-48). These slips, these suspensions of illusion, invite us to collaborate in creating Cleopatra as transcendent, even as they gesture toward the fictionality of the representation.

Rather than transforming the play into tragicomedy, as Barbara Bono so eloquently argues, Cleopatra's finale situates the play uneasily on the border between tragedy and tragicomedy. The comic resolution to the tragedy occurs not in the limits of this play, but in the imagination of another play, or at least another scene, but one which occurs only in the spectators' mimetic movement past the deaths of the two tragic figures. The play itself rehearses the role of the audience in responding to what it sees. When Caesar walks onto the death scene, he attends first to the illusion, to how Cleopatra managed to seem both alive and dead: “the manner of their deaths? / I do not see them bleed” (V.ii.335-36), he asks, neatly stepping around the argument of the illusion. He speculates further on her mechanics for dying,

If they had swallow'd poison, 'twould appear
By external swelling: but she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.


The sheer power of Cleopatra's staging emerges through Caesar's growing involvement with the illusion—the subjunctive “as if,” implied in the “as” here, in fact reveals his collusion in her effort to expand the border of the play. At first investigating the mechanics of what he deems stage business, then caught by it, Caesar finishes Cleopatra's pageant by providing his own narrative, imagining the two lovers meeting and embracing in another world.

Ian Maclean remarks that the Renaissance inherits a notion of female biology that parallels

Aristotle's general tendency to produce dualities in which one element is superior and the other inferior. The male principle in nature is associated with active, formative, and perfected characteristics, while the female is passive, material, and deprived, desiring the male in order to become complete.29

While other concepts about women's nature reformed at least the biology, most representations of the female retained the notion of their inferiority, expressed as incompleteness or imperfection. Deprived of a voice and objectified by the masculine gaze, the female character in tragedy recedes into the blanks of failed speech. Cleopatra seems one of the few characters in Shakespeare's plays to elude this silence. Using the actor as subject to authorize her control, she reveals a social model of selfhood that resists completion, that refuses to defer identity to a more “authentic” private self. Shakespeare's play text revises the rhetoric of representing self-consciousness and turns it to different functions for this female character.


  1. Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 24.

  2. For a remarkable discussion of the problematics of female subjectivity on and off stage in the Renaissance, see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985).

  3. Meredith Anne Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), remarks, “The self lies not in a locatable scene with characters, however wish-fulfillingly fictional, but in a nonspatial, temporal play between scenes, and even in a changing narrative stance” (p. 57).

  4. Newman, Shakespeare's Rhetoric of Comic Character: Dramatic Convention in Classical and Renaissance Comedy (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 2.

  5. Newman, pp. 8-11.

  6. Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), p. 29.

  7. Berger and Luckmann, pp. 28-29.

  8. Berger and Luckmann, p. 73.

  9. Newman, p. 120. Rosalie Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre Theory in the Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973), argues that generic instability is a common feature of Renaissance reading and writing. Rhetoric texts frequently draw on plots from Greek or Latin tragedy for examples. For a discussion of the relationship between deliberative rhetoric and Renaissance dramatic practices, see Joel Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978).

  10. Bamber, pp. 7-8.

  11. Newman, p. 96.

  12. Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA, 102 (1987), 29-41. See also Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester, 1983), pp. 9-36.

  13. Danson, “Jonsonian Comedy and the Discovery of the Social Self,” PMLA, 99 (1984), 185.

  14. See, for example, Thomas Hyde, “Identity and Acting in Elizabethan Tragedy,” Renaissance Drama, 15 (1984), 93-114. For the view that role-playing is an essential part of self-defining in Renaissance culture, see Robert R. Hellenga, “Elizabethan Dramatic Conventions and Elizabethan Reality,” Renaissance Drama, 12 (1981), 27-49; and Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978).

  15. To cite just a few examples of the generic indefinition surrounding the play, J. Leeds Barroll, Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Washington: Folger Books; London: Associated Univ. Presses, 1984); and Susan Snyder, “Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare Survey, 33 (1980), 113-22, treat the play as tragedy. Howard Felperin, in Shakespearean Representations: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 112-13, treats it as romance. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973); and Ruth Nevo, “The Masque of Greatness,” Shakespeare Studies, 3 (1967), 111-28, treat it as mixed genre. In Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), Barbara J. Bono argues that the play is a tragicomedy. My reading of the genre issues in this play is similar to (and indebted to) Carol Neely's reading in her Broken Nuptials (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 136-65. We differ, however, in our conclusions about gender roles in this play.

  16. Fitz, “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 306; Barbara Estrin, “‘Behind a Dream’: Cleopatra and Sonnet 129,” Women's Studies, 9 (1982), 179.

  17. See, for example, Bamber's discussion (p. 56).

  18. A wealth of criticism exists on this topic. See Bernard Beckerman, “Past the Size of Dreaming,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Mark Rose (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), pp. 99-112; Harold Farmer, “‘I'll Give Thee Leave to Play’: Theatre Symbolism in Antony and Cleopatra,” English Studies in Africa, 20 (1977), 107-19; Sidney R. Homan, “Divided Response and the Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra,” Philological Quarterly, 49 (1970), 460-68; Margery M. Morgan, “‘Your Crown's Awry’: Antony and Cleopatra in the Comic Tradition,” Komos, 1 (1968), 128-39; and Nevo, “The Masque of Greatness.”

  19. Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), p. 219.

  20. Bamber, pp. 67-68.

  21. Barroll discusses one aspect of this difference (p. 135), arguing that the “trivial” indicates Cleopatra's character.

  22. Morgan, p. 128, argues that all the characters in the play exhibit the same kind of self-consciousness about role-playing.

  23. William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (1954; rpt. London: Methuen, 1975). All quotations refer to this edition.

  24. According to Puttenham, Cleopatra is not using the term correctly. “Emphasis” usually involves an exclamation that substitutes an abstract quality for a specific person. Puttenham exemplifies this device thus: “O rare beautie, or grace, and curtesie.” See George Puttenham: The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Baxter Hathaway (1906; rpt. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1970), p. 194.

  25. Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 92.

  26. Novy, pp. 92-95.

  27. Goldman, The Actor's Freedom: Toward a Theory of Drama (New York: Viking, 1975), p. 17; quoted in Novy, p. 92. For an interesting philosophical discussion of the relations among actor, character, and audience, see Bruce Wilshire, Role-Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982).

  28. See Bono, pp. 189-90, and Adelman, pp. 152-60. Catherine Belsey argues that the figure of Cleopatra at the ending is “an emblem which can be read as justifying either partriarchy on the one hand or an emergent feminism on the other, or perhaps as an icon of the contest between the two” (p. 184).

  29. Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 8. See Luther's objections, pp. 9-10.

Paul Yachnin (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Yachnin, Paul. “Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, no. 2 (spring 1993): 343-63.

[In the following essay, Yachnin views Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign.]

What might Antony and Cleopatra tell us about English political culture of around 1606, and what might it tell us about Shakespeare's theater's relationship with that culture?1 In this essay, I want to suggest answers to these questions in terms of the new historicist focus on the “theatricality of power and the power of theatricality,” but I want to avoid and critique two related assumptions which, I will suggest, have undermined new historicism's attempts to historicize texts such as Shakespeare's plays. Overall, I want to be able to enlist in this analysis of Antony and Cleopatra the powerful new historicist practice of interpreting “literary” texts in terms of large-scale discursive formations which cut across kinds of discourse usually kept separate in conventional criticism, but I want also to make that practice more historical by insisting on both the historically specific differences among kinds of discourse and the importance of writerly intentionality and readerly understanding—by insisting, that is, that the operations of minds are as pertinent to our accounts of the past as are the operations of power.

The first new historicist assumption which I want to critique is that all texts in any given culture at a particular historical juncture tell fundamentally the same story (so that one need not take into account the differences among individual texts, kinds of texts, or the interpretative fields in which texts are inscribed).2 At stake here, of course, is the question of the agency of writers and readers, the degree to which the historically specific meaning of any text is constituted by the ways in which it is meant and received; and beyond that, at stake is the proper recognition of the relations between, on the one side, the minds of writers and readers and, on the other, the inscription of texts in particular interpretative fields, a process which is certainly not in anyone's control. Whereas new historicists typically read texts in terms of a transpersonal sociodiscursive system which is seen to do its work at a level below the horizon of consciousness of writers and readers, I am interested in the never fully autonomous ways in which writers intend and readers understand the meaning of texts at particular historical junctures and in terms of particular interpretative fields.

The second assumption to be examined is that subversion is always already contained, since, according to new historicists, subversion is to be seen, not as deployed by individuals in order to achieve certain political ends, but as the unseen harbinger of future social formations.3 This second assumption is already giving way to much more open-minded interpretative practices, but the first, grounded in the deconstructive rejection of agency and intentionality, continues to exercise a counter-productive hold on much new historicist criticism. Moreover, the increasingly outmoded idea that history operates “over the heads” of people is not really separable from the practice of reading all texts belonging to a particular historical juncture as if they told the same basic story—the first rejects intentionality with regard to the production of culture, broadly defined; the second rejects intentionality with regard to the production of writing, especially literary writing.

In the interests of contesting this model of a unified, transpersonal, and “mindless” discursive field, I will interpret the commercial-theater play Antony and Cleopatra as a text whose politics of loyalty had connections with but also differences from texts such as King James's 1603 speech to Parliament, Francis Bacon's courtly and progressivist The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), or Ben Jonson's “patronage” poem, “To Penshurst” (ca. 1612). In part, my argument is that the material conditions of the production and reception of texts condition how they mean, what kind of “weight” they are accorded. Words played by an actor at the Globe meant differently from words intoned by the king before Parliament; printed words meant differently from written words, and printed words in a play-quarto differed from words in a tract dedicated to the king and from words in a folio; and not all folios carried the same cultural weight.

Moreover, I want to suggest that, beyond the paratextual level, literary texts' representations of political issues differed from what I will call “polemical” representations of the same issues by virtue of literature's willingness to allow the emergence of ideological contradiction and its unwillingness to attempt to police the production of meaning. On this account, polemical writing (such as James's speech or Bacon's Advancement) can be seen as attempting to prescribe interpretation in order to be able to intervene in particular matters; in contrast, literary writing can be seen as noninterventionist since its unwillingness to police meaning opens it to widely differing interpretations even as it opens to examination the very political culture in which it is interpreted. But while literature might be noninterventionist by virtue of both its openness to differing interpretations and its usual inscription in a “playful” interpretative field, it does not necessarily follow that literature is without historical consequences. On the contrary, a “powerless” literary text such as Antony and Cleopatra could contribute to historical change both because its interpretative openness allowed it to be enlisted and deployed in particular controversies and because its interpretative openness itself—and Shakespeare's style of interiorized characterization which made that openness possible—provided a model of depth and surface as presence and representation which connected up with the early modern production of the private self as incommensurable with public identity.4

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's display of political and personal relations between subjects and masters places loyalty at the center of the system of relations whose elaboration seems, on the face of it, devoted to the goal of legitimating an absolutist politics of loyalty. On this account, the subject's “deep,” or noncontractual, loyalty to the sovereign authenticates both absolutist monarchy and absolutism's fantasy of the sovereign's metaphysical superiority over the subject that of itself calls forth the subject's loyalty. If, however, the subject's loyalty is construed as legitimating or authenticating the sovereign's absolute right to rule, then that loyalty itself must also in some way be absolute or “sovereign,” since loyalty is not loyalty if it is sustained by either expectation of reward or mere dumb abjection. My particular claim in this essay, then, is that Antony and Cleopatra displayed “absolutist loyalty” in such elaborate detail that absolutism's deeply conflicted dependence on “sovereign subjectivity” was able to emerge into the consciousnesses of the members of its 1606-1607 audiences. Two related claims are that Shakespearean “depth” characterization, especially with regard to Cleopatra, Antony, Enobarbus, and Dolabella, is on the same political ground as the play's “worrying at” absolutism, and that such a style of characterization contributed to a large-scale shift toward seeing the political order in terms of contractual relations among sovereign subjects rather than in terms of a metaphysics of dominance and subordination.

My desire to argue that a style of characterization contributed to what I am calling “sovereign subjectivity” (Foucauldian critics would call it “subjection”) suggests how much ground I share with new historicism. But whereas new historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt or Steven Mullaney might tend to see Antony and Cleopatra's disclosure of ideological contradiction and of the hollowness of imperial claims to divine right as part of a process of the subjection of the members of the audience—something that happens to them—I want to emphasize the audience's active seeing of contradiction and imperial hollowness.5 So where Greenblatt might claim that the audience's awareness of the deficiencies of the king only served to enhance monarchical rule,6 I would want to emphasize the fact that the audience chose to accept the play's invitation to see the monarchy subversively—that reading for subversive meaning is a matter of consent with regard to literary texts, since “literary” discourse is peculiarly open to interpretation.7 The fact of Shakespeare's audience's active participation in the production of meaning suggests that we should be wary of our own tendency to see meaning being produced “over the heads” of the audience; on the contrary, that participation suggests that audiences themselves produced meaning out of ongoing negotiations with playwrights, players, and a range of conditioning forces such as the discursive field in which the commercial drama was inscribed, the genre of the play in question, the material conditions of theatrical production, contemporary idiomatic and lexical peculiarities, and pertinent topical contexts.8


In Antony and Cleopatra, the relation of sovereign and subject sets the pace of the action: the decisive celerity of the play's scene-shifting is keyed to the rhythm of command and response. An early example is the first scene between Antony and Enobarbus, the last movement of I.ii, which turns emphatically toward action when Antony's no-nonsense verse supplants Enobarbus's prosey verbosity. Here the political relation of dominance and subordination underlies and is enacted in Enobarbus's submission to and adoption of Antony's poetic idiom:

The business she hath broachèd in the state Cannot endure my absence.
And the business you have broached here cannot be without you; especially that of Cleopatra's, which wholly depends on your abode.
No more light answers. Let our officers
Have notice what we purpose. …


                                                                                Say our pleasure,
To such whose place is under us, requires
Our quick remove from hence.
I shall do't.


In light of the fact that so much of the play's dialogue is between characters of differing rank, it is not surprising that the rhythm of command and response sets the dramatic pace. The language of command, however, colors also the scenes between social equals. The play's first scene, for example, derives its rhythm and psychological interest from Cleopatra's manipulation of the language of command. Her first lines are strongly rhythmic and regular (against Antony's hypermetrical responses):

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


Cleopatra's appropriation of a “Roman” language of command works to undermine Antony's authority. As a consequence of her provocative commands, both direct and indirect (“‘Do this, or this; / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that.’” “Therefore hear it, Antony.” “Call in the messengers” [lines 22-23, 27, 29]), Cleopatra succeeds in eliciting from Antony a hyperbolic language of command: “Let Rome in Tiber melt … The nobleness of life / Is to do thus … in which I bind, / On pain of punishment, the world to weet / We stand up peerless” (lines 33-40); and having called it forth, Cleopatra succeeds in characterizing it as play-acting. This theatricalizing of Antony's commanding language (“Excellent falsehood! / Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?” [lines 40-41]) prepares the way for Antony's increasing subordination to other, more authentically commanding speakers by suggesting Antony's actorly submission to language as script. However, as we will see, Cleopatra's theatricalization of Antony's language of command, her splitting of Antony away from the words he speaks, also prepares the ground for a theatricalizing view of the subject in a different key—the subject as sovereign, as radically private, inward and unconstrained by any signifying practice, including the language of command.

The only scenes unaffected by the language of command are those between members of the ruled class. A scene like I.ii.1-79, in which characters of equal rank converse good-humoredly, oblivious to the pressure of an ominous fate (“You have seen and proved a fairer former fortune / Than that which is to approach” [lines 34-35]), constitutes a hiatus in the plot, and its gaiety dissolves at the mere approach of a sovereign presence: “Hush! Here comes Antony. / Not he; the Queen” (line 80). In contrast, virtually all the scenes that contribute to the advancement of the plot are concerned with a struggle for hegemonic power that is expressed by and realized through a competition for the right to speak the language of command. Antony and Caesar's first meeting, for example, begins with a competitive exchange of imperatives:

Sit, sir.
Nay then.


In spite of their attempts afterwards to conclude a peace, these five bristling words reveal at the outset that there can be only one sovereign, that only one character in any given scene can claim the language of command. In part, then, the business of the monological nature of the production of the language of command (since in any group there can be only one competent speaker) is to demonstrate the inevitability and naturalness of absolutist one-person rule. Consequently, it surprises us less than it surprises Caesar that he and Antony “could not stall together / In the whole world” (V.i.39-40).

We realize early on that the play is moving inexorably toward the emergence of a world of auditors crystallized around one and only one speaker. Thus Antony's language of command grows weaker as Caesar's grows stronger. Antony comments on the diminishment of his authority when his servants balk at his command to whip Caesar's Thidias, the messenger who “performs / The bidding of the fullest man” (III.xiii.86-87). We can note also how Enobarbus's aside both draws out in length and comments on the moment of breakdown:

Approach there!—Ah, you kite! Now, gods and devils! Authority melts from me. Of late, when I cried “Ho!”, Like boys unto a muss, kings would start forth And cry “Your will?” Have you no ears? I am Antony yet.
                    Enter servants
                                                  Take hence this Jack and whip him.
(aside). 'Tis better playing with a lion's whelp
Than with an old one dying.
Moon and stars!
Whip him!


The dying Antony loses his competence as a speaker of the language of command: Eros disobeys Antony's order to kill him; and Eros's disobedience is emulated by four other soldiers, all of whom refuse to dispatch their Emperor, and a fifth (Diomedes) who does not even respond to Antony's desperate command (IV.xiv.50-118). Finally, Antony prevails upon his Guard to bear him where Cleopatra bides: once there, Cleopatra denies his request that she descend to exchange a last kiss, enjoins him not to speak, and flatly contradicts his last two hortatives:

I am dying, Egypt, dying.
Give me some wine, and let me speak a little.
No, let me speak …


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


Antony's loss of power tends to constrain his speaking within an elegiac range characterized by the subjunctive mood and the past tense. His telescoping of time within moments of Cleopatra's feigned death (“Since Cleopatra died, / I have lived in such dishonour that the gods / Detest my baseness” [IV.xiv.55-57]) demonstrates both the sense of belatedness that has burdened him increasingly in the play and also the way in which the sense of living on after the end of his own history deprives him and is reflected by the loss of the imperative mood and present tense, both of which are appropriated by Caesar.

In her turn, Cleopatra must also give up to Caesar her claim to the language of command. On the face of it, Cleopatra's submission is straightforward; she gives over command of her servant Seleucus to Caesar by shifting from the imperative to the subjunctive (“This is my treasurer. Let him speak, my lord” [V.ii.142]), and Caesar assumes command flawlessly (“Forbear, Seleucus” [line 175]). At the end Caesar is sovereign speaker; his very ease of command indicates the absoluteness of a discursive power inherent in a politico-linguistic system comprising a community of competent auditors, all attending to the one and only competent speaker.

Caesar's centrality as the only speaker in a world of auditors parallels King James's absolutist fantasy and several actual stagings of his own politico-linguistic relationship with the Parliament and people of England. He had convened Parliament, James told his auditors 19 March 1603, so that “you who are here presently assembled to represent the Body of this whole Kingdome … may with your owne eares heare, and that I out of mine owne mouth may deliver unto you the assurance of my due thankefulnes for your so joyfull and generall applause to the declaring and receiving of mee in this Seate.”10 Self-styled as lex loquens,11 James described the people to whom he was thankful as able to express emotion through gesture and sound, but as fundamentally inarticulate: “Or shall it ever bee blotted out of my minde, how at my first entrie into this Kingdome, the people of all sorts rid and ran, nay rather flew to meet mee? their eyes flaming nothing but sparkles of affection, their mouthes and tongues uttering nothing but sounds of joy, their hands, feete, and all the rest of their members in their gestures discovering a passionate longing, and earnestnesse to meete and embrace their new Soveraigne.”12 Several years later in 1615, in “A Remonstrance for the Right of Kings,” James followed a conventional divine right idea in order to explain the hegemony of his words as an effect of his transcendent relationship with the Word: “For touching my particular … that one of the maynes for which God hath advanced me upon the loftie stage of the supreme Throne, is, that my words uttered from so eminent a place for Gods honour … might with greater facilitie be conceived.”13

Caesar's position at the end of the play, like King James's wished-for ascendancy, is one of total politico-linguistic hegemony. His, and the play's, last lines are in the form of a command so confident of obedience that it can slide casually toward a tone of solicitation: “Come, Dolabella, see / High order in this great solemnity” (V.ii.363-64). However, Dolabella's silent exit in the wake of Caesar's command is problematic since, while it clearly denotes obedience, it might also suggest the persistence of Dolabella's secret loyalty to the dead Cleopatra, to whom he has betrayed Caesar's confidence.

The doubleness of Dolabella's silence, suggesting both loyalty and disloyalty, culminates a thematic bifurcation in the last movement of the play (IV.xiv-V.ii). Here one-half of the drama gathers into a counterplot against the main plot of Caesar's acquisition of the sole rights to speak the language of command. The counterplot points toward the disjunction between the language of command on the one hand and loyalty on the other. In terms of this counterplot, Eros's disobedience is an act of loyalty rather than betrayal, Cleopatra's contradiction of Antony's injunctions to seek her honor and safety of Caesar signals her allegiance to Antony rather than her disloyalty, Seleucus's apparent betrayal of Cleopatra possibly signifies his unshaken loyalty to her intention, itself only apparent, to “do't after the high Roman fashion” (IV.xv.86),14 and Dolabella's wordlessly attentive obedience to Caesar perhaps indicates the persistence of his secret disloyalty.

On this account, as Caesar becomes the “Sole sir o' th' world” (V.ii.120), the language of command becomes increasingly less able to define or reveal loyalty. The disjunction between the language of command and the phenomenon of loyalty has the effect of producing a mystified version of loyalty as radically inward and so unconstrained by and independent of its outward linguistic accidents. We might say, then, that Antony and Cleopatra mystifies loyalty by making it the effect of the equally mystified sovereign subjectivity of the “loyalist”; and that it problematizes loyalty so construed by making its existence in the loyalist the central marker of the metaphysical superiority of the master. In other words, Shakespearean loyalty produces or makes visible a deep contradiction within absolutism itself, in that Shakespearean loyalty seems more naturally an element in a consensual or contractual political model, and therefore seems irreconcilable with the divinely ordained absolutist order that it is seen to underwrite.


Each of the competitors for political sovereignty—Antony, Cleopatra, Caesar, and Pompey—is surrounded by a group of followers. Lepidus, as Paul Lawrence Rose has pointed out, can immediately be recognized as a nonstarter by virtue of his lack of lieutenants.15 Under the pressure of misfortune, many followers fall away, revealing by their betrayals of their masters the fact that men often only pretend to be loyal. In several instances, not surprisingly, we find the reality of self-interest behind the appearance of loyalty, so that events often exemplify Lear's Fool's insight about seeming loyalty:

That sir, which serves and seeks for gain,
                    And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
                    And leave thee in the storm.


On the face of it, Seleucus is one of those motivated by self-interest rather than loyalty (“of no more trust / Than love that's hired!” [V.ii.154-55]). Certainly, many of Antony's followers flee to Octavius Caesar because they serve and seek for gain; even the nominally “good” service performed by Ventidius is compromised by his scrupulous self-promotion and distrust of his master (III.i). However, and importantly, neither Menas nor Enobarbus abandons his respective master for gain or for any kind of self-aggrandizement. For this reason, their betrayals of their masters can be seen to reveal the foundational contradiction that, while guaranteeing the “deep” reality of loyalty, also puts loyalty deeply in question.

An examination of Enobarbus and Menas at the critical moment of betrayal suggests that men and women are loyal only to masters whose will is unconditionally free and sovereign in that it is undetermined by ideology, law, or morality. At the crucial moment in his career, Menas's master, Gnaeus Pompey, forgoes his freedom to act by submitting himself to the discursive formation of honor. Pompey abandons his sovereign will and becomes what he earlier had shown signs of becoming—the unknowing subject of ideological forces over against his own will and desire. Here, in response to Menas's offer to make him “the earthly Jove” (II.vii.67), Pompey allows his will to be determined, in a strangely fractured way, by the letter (as opposed to the spirit) of “honor” and by an aristocratic/mercantile dichotomizing of motivation, both of which show Pompey's abject relationship with community values and judgment. Pompey's subjection to “honor” invalidates Menas's loyalty by revealing Menas's politico-sacral “devotion” to be mere “dotage”:

Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on't. In me 'tis villainy;
In thee't had been good service. Thou must know
'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it. Repent that e'er thy tongue
Hath so betrayed thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now. Desist, and drink.
(aside). 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.


The process of Antony's subjection runs the course of the four acts in which he has a part. From Philo's point of view, Antony's “dotage” on Cleopatra is accomplished at the outset: “you shall see in him / The triple pillar of the world transformed / Into a strumpet's fool” (I.i.11-13); however, Enobarbus recognizes, as does Cleopatra, that Antony's subordination is in reality “sport,” a kind of willful self-indulgence, and that Antony “will be himself” (line 43). We have already seen how Cleopatra's theatricalizing of Antony undermines his sovereignty of will by suggesting his actorly submission to language as script. But in view of Antony's “self-sameness” through these early scenes, we can also see that Cleopatra's theatricalizing of Antony constitutes a kind of grudging praise, since an actor remains himself as actor regardless of the role he plays.

Antony begins not to be himself in earnest at the Battle of Actium, where he is surprised by the subjection of his will to his “dotage” on Cleopatra. That Antony can both be “transformed” (to use Philo's word) by his subjection to Cleopatra and be surprised at his own transformation (so that something of Antony himself is seen to remain intact—that something that is surprised) suggests the fundamental nature of the reconfiguring of personhood in which Shakespeare's play is participating. Antony's transformation entails a shift from equating the core of personhood with sovereign will to equating it with sovereign subjectivity. The politics of this shift will become clearer, but even here we can begin to see how Shakespeare's move toward equating personhood with sovereign subjectivity rather than with sovereign will might have contributed (at least at a notional level) to a far more egalitarian distribution of the sense of dignity and personal integrity, or wholeness, among all people, sovereigns and subjects alike.

Antony understands the consequences of the loss of his sovereign will: since loyalty is grounded in the absolute freedom of the master, a master whose actions are determined by forces over against his will has forgone his mastery, and cannot have loyal followers:

My very hairs do mutiny, for the white
Reprove the brown for rashness, and they them
For fear and doting …
.....Leave me, I pray, a little. Pray you now,
Nay, do so; for indeed I have lost command.
Therefore I pray you.


Enobarbus “endures to follow” Antony in spite of Antony's subjection. However, it becomes increasingly apparent to Enobarbus that his loyalty is not loyalty, but itself an unconstrained act of will, so that Enobarbus ceases to be Antony's follower in fact, even before he leaves him; that is, Antony's defection from his own sovereignty of will forces Enobarbus into the paradoxical position of having to recover his own freedom in order to persist as Antony's loyal follower. The urgency of Enobarbus's dilemma results from the fact that he sees his “loyalty” increasingly as “dotage” and so increasingly indicative of deficiencies which threaten his personhood as it is constructed by the absolutist politics of loyalty. We might even say that the inward configuration of personhood that makes possible Enobarbus's capacity for deep loyalty to a social superior itself precludes the possibility of his being loyal to any such person.

Here the foundational contradiction that drives Shakespeare's politics of loyalty fitfully toward sovereign subjectivity is fully displayed. The radical inwardness of loyalty is called forth (in the play and by absolutism itself) in order to relieve hierarchical political relations of the destabilizing flaw of “serving for gain” by inscribing such relations in the politico-sacral terms of the metaphysical superiority of the ruler over the subject, so that the subject is seen to be “devoted” to the master rather than merely “bound” as if by contract. However, in this case, since Antony proves far less than a sovereign master, Enobarbus must see, if only provisionally, that he is himself the author of his loyalty to Antony. This in turn suggests, again provisionally, that the central enabling condition of absolutist hierarchy, the noncontractual devotion of the subject to the ruler, is also absolutism's central weakness, especially in view of the way “sovereign subjectivity” has figured in the development of modern contractual and egalitarian political systems.17

Antony's unaccountable bounty consequent upon Enobarbus's defection serves to recuperate Enobarbus's loyalty by “revealing” the persistence of Antony's sovereign will. Antony's capacity to surprise his lieutenant ( restores his metaphysical mastery over Enobarbus so completely that Enobarbus literally dies of a broken heart. More precisely, Enobarbus's personhood is reinscribed in a simplified field of absolutist relations, the simplification consisting in a shift from a reliance on the “loyalist's” inwardness to the loyalist's body. In other words, Antony's sovereignty of will is now guaranteed by virtue of its uncanny hold over Enobarbus's body rather than by virtue of Enobarbus's psychological devotion. The body's loyalty is visible, public, and incontestable as against the occlusiveness and indeterminacy of the loyalty held by sovereign subjectivity. Enobarbus's “embodiment” of devotion, then, might seem to mark the stabilization of an absolutist politics of loyalty in terms of the ruler's command over the very bodies of his subjects; but such stabilization cannot be achieved in view of the play's willingness to display ideological contradiction rather than to propagandize in favor of state positions (such as we have in King James's characterization of his subjects' inarticulate but devoted bodies). Perhaps it is because of this openness to contradiction that the play declines to determine incontestably Enobarbus's corporeal fate.18


In the case of Enobarbus, Antony and Cleopatra maneuvers to guard an absolutist politics of loyalty against the threat of sovereign subjectivity by shifting the authenticating mark of loyalty onto the body of the subject. The success of this maneuver, however, is questionable given the inadequacy of the body as a substitute for the mind, an inadequacy seemingly borne out by Enobarbus's body's failure to die for Antony in a fully convincing way.

The best case the play makes for the sovereignty of will and its capacity to command “deep” loyalty has to do, of course, with Cleopatra, whose sovereign presence, we can note, has a hold over Iras's body far surer than the hold the restored Antony obtains over Enobarbus.19 With regard to Cleopatra's sovereign will, we can usefully historicize Janet Adelman's seminal analysis of Cleopatra's inscrutability in order to suggest the historically specific politics of Antony and Cleopatra's style of characterization, a style that constructs Cleopatra's core as both inaccessibly interiorized and uncannily powerful.

Adelman argues that Cleopatra's inscrutability serves a theatrical purpose in that it demands that the audience itself enact the romantic “faith” that she sees as central to the experience of the play: “This frustration [of not knowing positively either Cleopatra's motives or purposes] is not an end in itself: it forces us to participate in the experience of the play and ultimately to make the same leap of faith that the lovers make.”20 Of special importance in this regard, Adelman suggests, is the way the play exacts our faith in Cleopatra's love for Antony: “If we are finally convinced of Cleopatra's love—and I think we are—we have had to develop a faith nearly as difficult as Antony's, a faith in what we cannot know.”21

In this view, the audience is inclined to be loyal to Cleopatra (to believe in her love for Antony in the absence of positive knowledge) because the indeterminacy attendant upon her characterization as inscrutable, commands our belief in the unconstrained and undetermined freedom of her will. We become her followers, that is, because she is not following the script, or, more precisely, because her meaning is neither limited nor determined by the text that produces her.

We can perhaps understand the text's production of a sovereignty that transcends the very text that produces it by considering Cleopatra's speech, “I dreamt there was an emperor Antony” (V.ii.76-92). Were this speech a soliloquy, its semantic range would extend from the speaker's unquestioning confidence in her claims about Antony to extreme uncertainty about those claims. It would, in any case, have reference only to her own state of mind, and would not have reference to any other person in any effective way. It would, that is, be a speech indicative of Cleopatra's subjectivity rather than of any relationship between subjectivity and world through the mediation of will. However, since the speech is made to, or in the presence of, Dolabella, its range possibly extends beyond the self-referential so as to include the possibility of Cleopatra wanting to have a certain effect on Dolabella. The consequent interpretative dilemma (is the speech primarily the expression of a state of mind or is it primarily an act [in both senses of the word]?) produces our sense of Cleopatra's sovereign will, for the reason that her language eludes definition as either expressive or instrumental. Were it one or the other, it would determine Cleopatra as a character in one way or another; as it is, Cleopatra's language tracklessly traverses the ground between subjectivity and will in ways that suggest her radical inward freedom but also her political power over others.

It is important to note that Cleopatra comes to stand as the model of the sovereign will which commands loyalty by virtue of its freedom from all legal, moral, and ideological constraints at the very moment that she passes into history. While Dolabella's emotional defection from Caesar testifies to her charismatic power and while his avowal of loyalty even suggests the politico-sacral nature of that power—“Madam, as thereto sworn, by your command, / Which my love makes religion to obey” (V.ii.198-99)—her dominance over the servant of the “fullest man” seems not to diminish the actual fullness of Caesarean rule. What Cleopatra's posthumous hold over Dolabella's “deep” loyalty does do, however, is to strip Caesarean rule of its claim to be grounded in the metaphysical superiority of the ruler. Here we can compare Shakespeare's demystification of the relations of power with Jonson's aristocratic mystification of real economic relations in “To Penshurst.” In that poem, written for Sir Robert Sidney, Jonson represents the Penshurst tenants (and, of course, himself as poet in relation to his patron) as motivated by love and a sense of wonder rather than by any expectation of a quid pro quo:

But all come in, the farmer, and the clown:
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy [i.e., the Penshurst manor-house itself] lord, and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples …
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such?(22)

In the present-day of Antony and Cleopatra's conclusion, then, and by implication in the present-day of 1606-1607, Antony and Cleopatra seems to suggest that absolutist hierarchical relations are in fact grounded in and existing in tension with the fundamentally contractual and egalitarian nature of relations among sovereign subjects.

Cleopatra's sovereignty of will is therefore related in complex ironic ways to Elizabethan and Jacobean “divine right” arguments for the absolute power of the monarch over against both the polity and the law. According to contemporary thinking about “divine right” monarchy, the king is answerable only to God, and therefore his will can be neither coerced nor determined by either his subjects' will or the law. A good king will obey the Law, but he does not have to, and his law-breaking cannot be judged by his subjects.23 According to King James, in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, “the duetie, and alleageance of the people to their lawfull king, their obedience, I say, ought to be to him, as to Gods Lieutenant in earth, obeying his commands in all thing, except directly against God, as the commands of Gods Minister, acknowledging him a Judge set by God over them, having power to judge them, but to be judged onely by God.”24 Accordingly, absolute monarchs are “free” by virtue of the transcendent, inscrutable, and private drama that they play face-to-face with God. Cleopatra's inscrutable play with some higher and/or inward reality thus would have been seen to resemble and also perhaps to mark the passing into history or political mythology of the English monarch's invisible relations with the divine.25


In 1605, perhaps a year before the opening performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe, Francis Bacon, in The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, anticipated Dolabella's politico-sacral loyalty to Cleopatra when he wrote that he saw King James as inscrutable and radically inward or other, and therefore as admirable and inspiring of duty: “Wherefore representing your Majesty many times unto my mind, and beholding you not with the inquisitive eye of presumption to discover that which the Scripture telleth me is inscrutable, but with the observant eye of duty and admiration … I have been touched, yea and possessed with an extreme wonder.”26 The desire for career advancement that to a degree underlay Bacon's argument for the “advancement of learning” produces its own ironic countertext; but that desire, coupled with the fact that the tract was written for the king, produces also a historically specific context which must be seen to limit the interpretative operations of irony. In the context of the cliental flattery of the king, that is, Bacon's text can be seen to have worked to suppress the contradictions inherent in an absolutist politics of loyalty, contradictions whose disclosure was to be facilitated by Antony and Cleopatra's failed attempt to produce a version of absolutist relations untroubled by sovereign subjectivity.

The Advancement endorses a view of the mind as capable of comprehending both the natural and sociopolitical worlds,27 and as naturally inclined to act on the basis of that knowledge “to the benefit and use of men.”28 The appeal for the king's support of Bacon's scientific and philanthropic project, however, must guard against certain logical extensions of its own assumptions; most important, the inquiry into “the inwardness of all secrets”29 cannot be seen to be prying into the history or effectiveness of monarchical rule relative to other political systems. Hence Bacon's numerous disclaimers of any intent to “discover that which … is inscrutable,” his assertion that “learning doth make the minds of men gentle, generous, maniable, and pliant to government,”30 and also his division of knowledge into licit and illicit kinds—“the pure knowledge of nature and universality” on one side and “the proud knowledge of good and evil” on the other.31 On this account, the human ability to understand King James is just the same as our capacity to fathom God—productive of “no perfect knowledge, but wonder, which is broken knowledge.”32 Bacon, that is, could look but chooses not to look “with the inquisitive eye of presumption,” the eye that would see James's “absolute” monarchy itself as the product of discernible historical forces and particular political interests.

In spite of, from our point of view, and also because of Bacon's maneuvering, the special exclusion of James's “inscrutable” rule from the otherwise all-embracing universe of knowledge presses on our reading of the text the ironic impression that the “wonder” said to be produced by King James is the product of the author's own self-interest and rhetorical strategies rather than any quality inhering in the king himself. We work to equate the politics of The Advancement with those of Antony and Cleopatra by reading Bacon as actor, seeming to believe what we assume he does not believe. What this ironic reading suggests to us is that, while Bacon is playing Dolabella to James's Cleopatra, their “real” political relationship is far closer to that one obtaining between Dolabella and Octavius at the end of the play, where Dolabella's obedience covers his inward disloyalty, so as to reconfigure their relationship as fundamentally (but covertly) contractual. What we need to take into account, however, is that The Advancement had no reader more authoritative than the king, and no purpose more central to its author's interests than pleasing that reader.

The point here is twofold. First, in their respective contexts, but also in themselves, The Advancement and Antony and Cleopatra negotiated the contradictions inherent in an absolutist politics of loyalty in different ways—Bacon's courtly tract covering contradiction and suppressing the interpretative operations of irony, Shakespeare's play allowing contradiction to be grasped by refusing to police the production of meaning. Second, Bacon's meaning should not be seen as an effect of his failure to grasp the fact of ideological contradiction, of contradiction “writing itself” through Bacon's text; on the contrary, as I have noted, and as he himself recorded, Bacon chose to look at the king with the “eye of duty and admiration” rather than with “the inquisitive eye of presumption.”

These differences between Bacon and Shakespeare challenge the idea that the contradiction at the heart of absolutist loyalty was “writing itself” through both The Advancement and Antony and Cleopatra. While the absolutist politics of loyalty was indeed vexed by a foundational contradiction, it was only in certain texts, in certain kinds of discourse, in certain sociopolitical contexts, and at that only in the hands of certain writers, that this contradiction was allowed to emerge into consciousness, and so to perform or to contribute to political change. What is remarkable, then, about Bacon's and Shakespeare's treatments of the ideological “flaw” in absolutism are the ways in which the two texts—and the two writers—managed the production of meaning for different contexts, readerships/audiences, and purposes.

To be fair to Antony and Cleopatra as it was likely performed in 1606-1607, the failure of absolutist loyalty in the play did not stand or fall on Dolabella's silent obedience to the Emperor. Amid the hubbub of Caesar's train carrying offstage the three “dead” boy-actors, Cleopatra's bed, and the basket of figs, and in view of the centrality of the figures of Cleopatra and Caesar, the actor playing Dolabella would have had little opportunity to make a powerful impression on the audience.

That the question of Dolabella's political relationship with Caesar would have tended to become a secondary consideration in the actual staging of the play is hardly surprising given both the normal theatrical focus on major characters and the openendedness of the political meaning of Shakespearean drama. Such openness to interpretation enables, of course, several readings: one that puts aside Dolabella entirely; one that puts aside Dolabella's emotional defection from Caesar in order to see his, Dolabella's, silent obedience as an authentication of absolutist loyalty; or one that sees Dolabella's silence as continuous with his deep loyalty to Cleopatra and so indicative of his sovereign subjectivity. However, the fact that Dolabella is commanded/invited by Caesar to “see / High order in this great solemnity,” to “see to it” that due respect is paid to the lovers' corpses, or “to witness,” and by witnessing to approve or even to legitimate Caesar's treatment of those corpses, tends to train the audience's attention on Dolabella for a moment. Such attention enhances the interpretative prospect of reassigning the political victory from the “universal landlord” to the subject who, following the absolutist politics of loyalty to their logical conclusion, finds himself free to determine his own allegiance, and consequently finds that, in terms of what is most important, he stands and has always stood on even ground with his “sovereign.”33


  1. Essays that focus on political theory as an explict interest in Antony and Cleopatra include Paul Lawrence Rose, “The Politics of Antony and Cleopatra,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 20, 4 (Autumn 1969): 379-89; and Marilyn Williamson, “The Political Context in Antony and Cleopatra,SQ 21, 3 (Summer 1970): 241-51. H. Neville Davies, “Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra,SSt [Shakespeare Studies] 17 (1985): 123-58; and my “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” Renaissance and Reformation 15, 1 (Winter 1991): 1-20 usefully contextualize the play in terms of the particular historical moment of its production. Recent work on the play's politics of gender and/or representation builds on work by Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973); and Phyllis Rackin, “Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry,” PMLA 87, 2 (March 1972): 201-12. See Theodora A. Jankowski, “‘As I Am Egypt's Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic,” Assays 5 (1989): 91-110; Jyotsna Singh, “Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 99-121; and Madelon Sprengnether, “The Boy Actor and Femininity in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), pp. 191-205.

  2. For the unhistorical uniformity of Stephen Greenblatt's readings of various Renaissance texts, see Carolyn Porter, “Are We Being Historical Yet?” South Atlantic Quarterly 87, 4 (Fall 1988): 743-86.

  3. The classic new historicist formulation of the idea of subversion as harbinger of unforeseeable large-scale cultural change is Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” rprt. in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 21-65. Greenblatt's post-Marxist view of historical change as transpersonal and as driven by an internal logic has been vigorously contested by scholars such as Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 13-31; Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 40-85; and Frank Lentricchia, “Foucault's Legacy: A New Historicism?” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 231-42.

  4. This part of my essay takes up and extends interests which I have discussed in “The Powerless Theater,” ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 21, 1 (Winter 1991): 49-74 and “Shakespeare and the Idea of Obedience: Gonzalo in The Tempest,” Mosaic 24, 2 (Spring 1991): 1-18.

  5. I am extrapolating from new historicist work on other Shakespearean plays. See Greenblatt, Negotiations, pp. 17-18, 47-65; Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 88-115, esp. pp. 102-103; and Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 43-81.

  6. Greenblatt, Negotiations, p. 64: “Power belongs to whoever can command and profit from this exercise of the imagination, hence the celebration of the charismatic ruler whose imperfections we are invited at once to register and to ‘piece out.’”

  7. I differ here with Annabel Patterson's important argument for the coded subversiveness of much Renaissance literature since her model of “functional ambiguity” seems to me to lead to the conclusion that Renaissance literary texts were subversive only insofar as readers chose to see them in that way. See Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

  8. In “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom,’” I develop a reading of Antony and Cleopatra in terms of the local meanings of particular words and “languages.” For ground-breaking work on topicality, see Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 1-50.

  9. All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are from the New Penguin edition, ed. Emrys Jones (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

  10. James I, The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1918), p. 269.

  11. Quoted by Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), p. 21.

  12. James I, p. 269.

  13. James I, p. 169. See Goldberg (esp. pp. 17-27) for a brilliant analysis of James's politics of language.

  14. See Brents Stirling, “Cleopatra's Scene with Seleucus: Plutarch, Daniel, and Shakespeare,” SQ 15, 2 (Spring 1964): 299-311 for the competing ways of reading the Seleucus scene.

  15. Rose, p. 385.

  16. The Fool's lines are quoted by Williamson, pp. 246-50.

  17. On divine right as “a quintessentially modern doctrine,” see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 185-98; the basic study of the relationship between “possessive individualism” and the development of modern political systems is C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962).

  18. As he carries the dead (?) Enobarbus offstage, the “Second Watch” says “Come on then; he may recover yet” (IV.ix.33). Note also that the stage direction “He dies” (line 23) is not in F, and that the word “raught” (“The hand of death hath raught him” [line 29]) can mean “snatch at or after” in addition to “reach” (OED).

  19. At V.ii.291sd, Iras falls dead after kissing the lips of the dying Cleopatra.

  20. Adelman, p. 14.

  21. Adelman, p. 24.

  22. Ben Jonson, The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 96.

  23. For Elizabethan and Jacobean views on absolute monarchy, see James Daly, “The Idea of Absolute Monarchy in Seventeenth-Century England,” Historical Journal 21, 2 (June 1978): 227-50; Richard L. Greaves, “Concepts of Political Obedience in Late Tudor England: Conflicting Perspectives,” Journal of British Studies 22, 1 (Fall 1982): 23-34; J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London and New York: Longman, 1986), pp. 9-56. Daly is particularly enlightening concerning the positive connotations of “absolute” (as unconditional, independent, superior to all civil authority, free) during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

  24. James I, p. 61.

  25. See my “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’” for a discussion of the play in terms of Shakespeare's construction of the shift from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule as a “Fall” from millenarian aspiration into secular history.

  26. Francis Bacon: A Selection of His Works, ed. Sidney Warhaft (Toronto: Macmillan, 1965), p. 198. Also see Goldberg (pp. 55-112, 230-39) on “the absolutist trope of state secrets.”

  27. Bacon, pp. 202-203.

  28. Bacon, p. 235.

  29. Bacon, p. 203.

  30. Bacon, p. 211.

  31. Bacon, p. 202.

  32. Bacon, p. 204.

  33. An earlier version of this essay was prepared for a recent Shakespeare Association of America seminar chaired by Rebecca Bushnell and Constance Jordan. I wish to thank the cochairs, and also Richard McCoy for his very helpful written response. More recently, Anthony Dawson read and commented productively on an intermediate version. Penelope Rensely saved me from numerous errors.

Rex Gibson (review date 17 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Gibson, Rex. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.Times Educational Supplement, no. 4481 (17 May 2002): 13.

[In the following review of the 2002 production of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Michael Attenborough at Stratford-upon-Avon, Gibson contends that Attenborough's extensive textual cuts highlighted two of the drama's themes: “the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.”]

Michael Attenborough has radically cut Shakespeare's sprawling masterpiece to highlight just two of themes, the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.

So out go Sextus Pompeius and his bloodthirsty but shrewd pirates, alert to issues of state. Out goes the conquering but politically-aware Ventidius on the vast plains of Syria. Elsewhere, dialogue is trimmed to deliver a three-hour performance (including an interval) that concentrates on the vexed relationships of the three protagonists.

Sinead Cusack's excellent Cleopatra embodies the passionate, luxury-loving, frivolous and sexualised world of Egypt. That world's addiction to pleasure and excess is sensuously suggested in the opening scene. Astride the half-naked Antony, this Cleopatra massages his body.

In contrast Stephen Campbell-Moore's austere Octavius Caesar is a repressed public schoolboy, ramrod-backed and desperately afraid of any bodily contact. He looks and sounds like Hugh Laurie's empty-headed Blackadder characters, but without the redeeming humour.

Where Cleopatra's Egypt is created by a voluptuously curving set, vivid colours and soft music, Octavius' Rome is hard-edged, black and white. It resounds with blaring martial trumpets.

Caught between these two polar opposites of dissolution and duty, Stuart Wilson's shambling Antony only occasionally suggests the commanding a military figure he once was. But Attenborough's uncompromising cutting ensures that Antony's decline expresses the incompatibility of Rome's masculine restraint and Egypt's relaxed femininity. Love, not war, destroys him.

Although the action is played out before a huge silhouette of the Mediterranean world, the political implications of Shakespeare's play seem strangely subdued. But the gain for students is crystal clarity in showing how the different value systems of Rome and Egypt end in personal tragedy.

Susan Muaddi Darraj (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Darraj, Susan Muaddi. “‘The Sword Phillipan’: Female Power, Maternity, and Genderbending in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Schuylkill: A Creative and Critical Review from Temple University 4, no. 1 (spring 2001): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Darraj concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable, sympathetic character.]

The 19th century essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt wrote of Cleopatra, “She is voluptuous, ostentatious, conscious, boastful of her charms, haughty, tyrannical, [and] fickle,” which are “great and unpardonable faults” (Hazlitt 2-3). Much of the criticism of Antony and Cleopatra has recycled this judgement, depicting Cleopatra as a villainess uses her eroticism and sexuality to motivate Antony to seek power. Cleopatra is memorable for her propensity for violence as well. While Antony and Cleopatra was written after the death of a violent English queen, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare may have been faced with a dramatic dilemma: how to make a woman seem believably violent and intimidating on the stage. Coppélia Kahn notes that Cleopatra was “Rome's most dangerous enemy” (111),1 but how does one make the Queen of the Nile seem like such a threat during a time when women had little social and political power. Shakespeare does several things to accomplish this task: 1) he locates Cleopatra's power in a foreign or supernatural realm; 2) he inverts her gender role with that of Antony; 3) he suppresses her maternal qualities; and 4) he allows her to be redeemed only in death. Indeed, it is the only way to handle a difficult woman on the Jacobean stage.


In Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman values of honor and bravery embody masculinity, while Egypt and the Orient symbolize feminine weakness and fragility. Caesar and Agrippa are depicted as reasonable, logical, and practical, especially in matters of strategy and war. Cleopatra and her servants and eunuchs are consistently referred to in terms of laziness, lethargy, and a focus on bodily pleasure. Antony's emasculation is a result of his eventual submission to the latter. The binary oppositions of masculine and feminine are thus personified by Caesar and Cleopatra, not by Antony, whose men often regard him as the “pawn” of the deceptive queen and thus not a real man. On the contrary, Robert Miola says, “Caesar's sense of purpose and public responsibility directly opposes Cleopatra's love of idleness and luxury” (129), a conclusion supported by the fact that it is Caesar who, after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, provides some closure to the political chaos that has dominated the play.

Such an assertion—that the danger of Cleopatra's sexuality lies in her Egyptian surroundings—requires further detail here. The Orient represented a strange, but terrifyingly fascinating world to the Elizabethans. While it was decidedly inferior and politically weak, the Orient also held a dangerous mystique. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett attests, poets, playwrights, historians and artists have found the idea of Cleopatra's foreignness, or otherness, a suitable method by which to explain away her dangerous sexuality. In other words, the fact that Cleopatra effectively seduced and influenced two powerful Roman men baffled Western thinkers who could only explain it by attributing it to her foreignness or “otherness.” Not surprisingly, Shakespeare succumbs to a similar artistic temptation. In the first ten lines of the play, the surrender of Roman dignity to Egyptian passion is made clear. Philo regretfully tells Demetrius how

Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon tawny front. His captain's heart,
… is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

(I, i, 2-10)

Immediately, we understand that Cleopatra's sexuality is dangerous because it has the power to debilitate the “triple pillar of the world” and transform him into a “strumpet's fool” (I, i, 12-13). Her lust can destroy the empire of Rome (and the reason and logic that represents it) by handicapping one of its greatest leaders.

Shakespeare exploits this contrast between Rome and the Orient (Egypt) throughout the play. In Egypt, he creates, “a world which is the antithesis of all that Rome stands for” (Thomas 100). The presence of eunuchs on stage is significant because it emphasizes Cleopatra's increase in power and the parallel decrease in Antony's power. Antony says, “O thy vile lady, / She has robbed me of my sword!” (IV, xv, 22-23), a point emphasized by the fact that Mardian, the eunuch, has just entered on stage. To the Romans, Egypt was a woman's land; the Egyptian men we see on stage are mostly the Queen's eunuchs, as if to imply that no man can retain his masculinity in her presence. Elizabethans and Jacobeans were just as fascinated by eunuchs as they were by witches—both figures were freakish and strange, thus intriguing. Eunuchs emblematized just how dangerous female power could be—it could lead to emasculation, as it does for Antony, and to the downfall of nations, as it does for Egypt and Antony's half of the Roman Empire.


By locating Cleopatra's power in the foreign realm of the Orient, Shakespeare frees himself to illustrate the genderbending in which such female power can result. While Cleopatra is essentially “feminine” and embodies the “femininity” of the Orient, Shakespeare allows her to exhibit masculine—even Roman—qualities, such as intelligence and courage, throughout the play. It should be noted that Cleopatra is in a relationship that allows her to exercise her intelligence. There is no question that Antony admires his wife/lover and thrives in his egalitarian marriage. Antony, who is fierce and powerful on the battlefield, is unlike many “tragic heroes, not because he takes on a more feminine role than they do, but because he can accept more fully Cleopatra's sexuality, duplicity, and difference from him and find them compatible with his manhood” (Neely 11). At the beginning of the play, he defines their relationship as “a mutual pair” who “stand up peerless” (I, i, 39-42). He allows Cleopatra much freedom and admits shamelessly to her powers of persuasion. For example, she not only manages to elicit permission from Antony to command her own ship in the Battle at Actium, she has also convinced him that a battle at sea would fare better than one on land. Although Coppélia Kahn believes that Shakespeare mitigates Cleopatra's responsibility for Antony's tragic decision to fight a sea battle, that Antony “isn't influenced by Cleopatra at all, but rather, impelled on his own to pursue the rivalry with Caesar” (117), I would argue that Cleopatra's influence over Antony is much like Lady Macbeth's over her own husband: the husband considers a momentous decision and his wife urges him “to screw your courage to the sticking-place” (I, vii, 60). When Cleopatra says, “By sea—what else?” she confirms and validates Antony's preference. Later, after Antony deserts his men to follow Cleopatra's “fearful sails” back to Alexandria, he articulates the extent of her influence: “My sword, made weak by my affection, would / Obey it on all cause” (III, xi, 67-68).

Antony's comment, that Cleopatra's love weakens his sword, indicates how the increase in power of Shakespeare's female characters necessitates a parallel decrease in power, or emasculation, of male characters. Coppélia Kahn writes convincingly of “the idea that the woman who holds or tries to hold political power will end by robbing the male of both political and sexual power” (118). Indeed, as Cleopatra becomes more masculine, Antony becomes more feminine. Cleopatra tells her attendants about her intimacies with Antony, which included cross-dressing:

“That time—O times!—
I laughed him out of patience, and that night
I laughed him into patience, and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed,
Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst
I wore his sword Phillipan.”

(II, v, 18-23)

Conveniently enough, Shakespeare chooses, at that precise moment to script the entrance of the messenger who brings news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. Cleopatra projects her anger onto this unlucky servant, exercising her masculine traits: the stage directions call for the queen to strike the man twice, to drag him up and down the stage, and to finally draw a knife, recalling the “sword Phillipan.”2 A prime expression of Antony's emasculation occurs later, before the doomed battle at Actium when Antony's men groan that “Our leader's led, / And we are women's men” (III, vii, 69-70).


The genderbending that occurs in the plays obliterates the possibility of Cleopatra's believable portrayal as a mother. Because Cleopatra exhibits masculine qualities, Shakespeare decides not to stress the fact that she has children. His initiative is not surprising when one considers the image of the Virgin Mary that embodies the Euro-Christian hesitancy to link maternity and sexuality. Because power is a trope of Western literature, a mother cannot be believably violent. The Virgin Mary is primarily a mother; thus, she lacks an assertive spirit and a sexual nature. Without over-emphasizing the point, one could safely conclude that society allows mothers to have a pure and moral nature, believing that a childless woman is an unfulfilled one who will thus seek satisfaction in violent and illicit ways.

Shakespeare's suppression of Cleopatra's maternal qualities is complicated because she is marked by her foreign, pagan, and exotic otherness. Plutarch, Shakespeare's major source for the Roman plays, includes the fact that the Queen of the Nile, “being great with child by … [Julius Caesar], was shortly brought to bed of a son, whom the Alexandrians named Caesarion” (Plutarch 71). In addition, he informs us that she bore Marc Antony's children: “Cleopatra having brought him two twins, a son and a daughter, he named his son Alexander and his daughter Cleopatra, and gave them to their surnames, the Sun to the one and the Moon to the other” (222-223); history tells us that they also shared one other son. The sole recognition of Cleopatra's children comes from the lips of Caesar, who repeats a rumor of the existence of “Caesarion, whom they call my father's son, / And all the unlawful issue that their [Cleopatra and Antony's] lust / Since then hath made between them” (III, vi, 5-8).

Furthermore, the historical Cleopatra took great pains to depict herself as a mother. Plutarch tells us that, “for Cleopatra, she did not only wear at that time, but at all other times else when she came abroad, the apparel of the goddess Isis, and so gave audience unto all her subjects as a new Isis” (243). The goddess Isis was the Egyptian equivalent of the Roman goddess Venus and “counted among her devotees many Roman women of the highest class” (Hughes-Hallett 80). Isis herself is primarily a mother; legend has it that she loved her twin brother Osiris, who was killed and whose body was divided into fourteen pieces. Hughes-Hallett tells us:

Isis, consumed with sorrow, searches hither and thither until she has found all the parts but one, the phallus. She pieces them together and so bestows on Osiris eternal life. Magically making amends for the absence of Osiris' genitals, she contrives to conceive and gives birth to Horus, who is both Osiris's child and a reincarnation of Osiris himself.


It is easy to see how the historical Cleopatra used the Isis legend to the advantage of her son, Caesarion. Ancient coins depict her with Caesarion at her breast, just as Isis was often portrayed breastfeeding Horus. Thus, Cleopatra portrayed her son—the embodiment of Caesar's western world and her own eastern one—as a god and the heir to the Roman empire.

Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide is troublesome, especially when one reflects on her strong nature. There are some issues to consider in reaching a conclusion on this issue. Plutarch tells us that Cleopatra loved all her children so much that Octavian found himself able to use them as a weapon against her: he threatened to harm her children if she did not keep herself alive. Shakespeare includes Octavian's threat (V, ii, 124-129), but, in order to reduce its significance in terms of Cleopatra's motherhood, he sandwiches it between two important scenes: when Cleopatra learns of Caesar's intention to parade her and humiliate her in a Roman triumph and the betrayal of Seleucus. I would argue that Cleopatra resolves to commit suicide as soon as she realizes that humiliation awaits her in Rome. Thus, I would agree with critics Elizabeth Story Dunno and Horace Howard Furness that she designs the betrayal of Seleucus to convince Caesar that she wants to live, so that he will not suspect her plans to stage her magnificent suicide.3 Shakespeare's manipulation of the scenes renders Caesar's threat futile; the possibility of her children's murder cannot sway a queen who has already determined to follow her husband in “the high Roman fashion.” Furthermore, her last words before her death are “What [why] should I stay—” (V, ii, 303), implying that her children (again, she had at least four) are not sufficient reason to continue to live. The only things that matter are her personal honor and the loss of Antony.4


It is only in her death that Cleopatra regains her femininity and is thus redeemed. Although she and her women alone haul up the dying Antony's body (“How heavy weighs my lord! / Our strength is all gone into heaviness, / That makes the weight” [IV, xvi, 33-35]), her masculine-like strength fades with Antony's last breath. She collapses, in a genuine faint. Charmian and Iras call her such names as “Royal Egypt, Empress” in an attempt to revive her, but she corrects her servants by declaring that she is

No more but e'en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chores. It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods,
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stolen our jewel.

(IV, xvi, 75-80)

Much like King Lear's speech on the heath, Cleopatra equates herself with the poorest people in society; perhaps the actor playing Cleopatra would have been pointing to the women in the audience at this point for emphasis. At any rate, Cleopatra's minimalization of her role as sovereign and her equalization of the nobility and the lower classes (“This world did equal theirs”) would have earned her both sympathy from and favor with the audience. She resolves, on the spot, to end her own life: to do “what's brave, what's noble, / … after the high Roman fashion” (IV, xvi, 88-89). Cleopatra wants to imitate a Roman model of behavior, which represents her reacquisition of feminine characteristics, especially those of a Roman wife and a mother. She continues to reject the idea that “dull Octavia” could ever be her superior, but she falls into the same role as Octavia—that of the infinitely-devoted wife.

She resolves to die and her death assumes the form of a marriage (“Husband, I come” [V, ii, 278]). She declares that she is “fire and air,” and that “my other elements, / I give to baser life”; while this has been interpreted to mean that she becomes more manly, having rejected the feminine elements of earth and water, I would argue that this is more of a rejection of the Orient and Egypt, which are so inextricably linked with the female (the feminine elements of water and earth are equated with the mud of the Nile). Likewise, Cleopatra assumes the Roman qualities of fire and air, more than the masculine qualities of such [“I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (V, ii, 280-281)], and is transformed into a proper Roman wife. As she dies, she suffers from a hallucination in which she imagines “my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep” (V, ii, 300-301)—the only indication of her maternal instincts in the entire play. Her last words are like an exchange of wedding vows: “O Antony! I will take thee too” (V, ii, 302).5 Caesar's final decision to bury her “by her Antony”—his reluctance to separate “a pair so famous”—confers upon her the rightful place as the Roman wife of Marc Antony.


The portrayal of this domineering woman as a sympathetic or believable character may have been problematic for Shakespeare, who faced certain historical limitations and considerations: the recent death of a childless and often ruthless queen, the social permeation of the notion that women's prime function is to bear children, the domination of the image of the Virgin Mary as a symbol of ideal womanhood, and the newly-whetted curiosity of Europeans about the East. All these factors contributed to Shakespeare's systematic modification of Cleopatra, including her appropriation of masculine traits and the suppression of her motherhood in order to render her a believable character.


  1. Kahn's Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds and Women (1997) and Lucy Hughes-Hallett's Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions (1990) discuss the canon of propaganda aimed at Cleopatra by Octavius Caesar. Hughes-Hallet especially details the stereotypes attributed to the Queen of Egypt throughout the past 2,000 years.

  2. Her mean-spirited and violent behavior is recalled later Antony's orders to have Thidias thrashed and whipped.

  3. Though Caesar pretends to respect her, Cleopatra penetrates through his false exterior—another indication of her superior intelligence. She understands that, should she live, she will be taken to Rome and will suffer the humiliation of seeing “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore” (V, ii, 216-217).

  4. In addition, Cleopatra has demonstrated her readiness in the past to ruin Egypt for Antony's sake. Without blinking, she considers “unpeopling” her country in order to send a new messenger to Antony in Rome every day. To mirror Antony's “Let Rome in Tiber sink,” Cleopatra says, “Let Egypt in Nile melt.”

  5. Of course, her actions indicate that, as a Roman wife, her entire existence must center on Antony only, which means a rejection of anything else, including her earthly children (“What should I stay—”). The point is to emphasize her selfishness and her absolute focus on Antony, a constant of the queen's personality.

Works Cited

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

Dunno, Elizabeth Story. Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd Edition. D. L. Kirkpatrick, ed. New York: St. James P, 1991.

Furness, Horace Howard. The New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Tragedie of Antony and Cleopatra, Vol. 15. New York: Lippincott, 1907.

Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays and Lectures on the English Poets. New York: Macmillan, 1903.

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

Kahn, Coppélia. Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds and Women. Feminist Readings of Shakespeare Series. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Miola, Robert. Shakespeare's Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Gender and Genre in Antony and Cleopatra.” Reprinted from Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994, pp. 136-165.

Plutarch. Shakespeare's Plutarch: The Lives of Julius Caesar, Brutus, Marcus Antonius, and Coriolanus. Trans. Sir Thomas North. T. J. B. Spencer, ed. Baltimore: Penguin, 1964.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. pp. 2619-2706

Shakepeare, William. Macbeth The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. pp. 2555-2618.

Arthur Lindley (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Enthroned in the Marketplace: The Carnivalesque in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Carnivalesque Subversion, pp. 137-56. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Lindley adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture.]

Every act of history was accompanied by a laughing chorus

—Bakhtin, Rabelais, 474

Carnival is, of course, the festivity of the marketplace and transaction is central to its view of the world. Carnival parody depends on the assumption that rank, hierarchy, and identity are transposable, therefore negotiable. A bishop who can be replaced by a boy bishop can, by extension, be replaced by another bishop or no bishop. On top, as the Wife of Bath has discovered, is a position that can be purchased, even if that purchase turns out to be subject to the fluctuations of the market, as purchases are. The fluidity Bakhtin celebrates in carnival is necessarily that of commerce, in which the value of a thing is a matter of shifting agreements between buyers and sellers, not an intrinsic quality, just as the return to Lenten stability may reflect, not oppression, but recoil from a world of unlimited negotiability, whose immediately recognizable literary analogue is the potentially endless process of deconstruction.

Not surprisingly, given these facts, the language of commerce pervades the texts I have been discussing: from the Wife's chaffare and her interwoven careers as weaver and wife; to Gawain and the Green Knight's games of exchange and debates on the prys of heroes and costes of love; to Tamburlaine's buying, selling, renting, and stealing of kingship and love, or to Faustus's devilish contracts; and to Hamlet's revulsion at hire and purchase and the commercial ethics of a Polonius. Since transaction is the element of carnival most censored by Bakhtin and most central to its leveling, demystifying processes, I want to conclude this study by showing how that element functions in a play once known, among other things, for its characters' aristocratic superiority to considerations of trade: Antony and Cleopatra. That play, I contend, is a pervasively carnivalesque text … in opening up, for tragicomic inspection, a world of barter.


In act 4, scene 15 of Antony and Cleopatra, as most readers intuit and few critics admit, the Whore of Babylon tries her hand at the imitation of Christ. And a very good hand it turns out to be. The occasion for Cleopatra's short hint of what she can do in the sublime is a grotesque mock-apotheosis in which Antony, dying to this world, is hauled aloft on ropes by three grunting women, one of whom is comforting him with a volley of salacious humor that ends with a startling, if unsuccessful, attempt at agape: “Die where thou hast liv'd, / Quicken with kissing” (4.15.37-38)1 Coleridge's feliciter audax is one term for this; blasphemy is another. With invocations of Revelations and Isaiah at every turn, but without putting off the body of carnality, she puts on the mantles of the Faithful and confronts the Antichrist: the Gospels' Caesar, Augustine's Caesar, everybody's Caesar.2

This is not the first time a Christian audience of the play has been subjected to this kind of outrage. Antony has begun his career by asking for “new heaven, new earth,” like Isaiah (1.1.17; compare Is. 65:17 and 2 Peter 3:13), and envisioning the dissolution of the earthly city, like John in Revelations (1.1.33-35; cf. Rev. 21:1-4). Charmian has asked for a child “to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage” (1.2.28-29; compare Matt 2:7-8). John Middleton Murry noted many years ago that Antony stages a last supper and that Enobarbus serves as his Judas.3 No one will need reminding that Antony and especially Cleopatra come to see themselves as renouncing the world for love and losing life to gain it: out of “desolation … to make a better life” (5.1.1-2). After Antony's death, at least, Cleopatra “hourly learn[s] / A doctrine of obedience” (5.2.30-31). She spends the last act determinedly rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, including land, children, and the treasure she pretends to withhold. “I send him,” she tells Proculeius, “the greatness he has got” (5.2.28-29). Dying with the serpent—whose “biting is immortal”—at her bosom, she evokes both the first Eve and the second. It is impossible, I argue, to understand this extraordinary conjunction of the sacred and the obscene—Cleopatra's ability to combine Venus, Isis, the maid that milks, the progenitive slime of the Nile, and the Virgin Mary—without recourse to the carnivalesque. “Royal Egypt” is also a gypsy as the “Emperor Antony” is also a strumpet's fool.

To characterize Cleopatra, as much of the criticism does, in terms of her identification with Isis and Venus is to privilege the elevation at the expense of the degradation, the “Eastern star” at the expense of the “lass unparalleled.” Cleopatra is of the earth: identified with birth and decay, the cycles of the Nile, “she represents,” as Andrew Fichter puts it, “the unbroken circle of appetitive nature.”4 She is also what Philo sees as “a tawny front” (1.1.6), and what she herself describes: a woman “with Phoebus' amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.28)—in Elizabethan eyes at least, a grotesque. “A brow of Egypt” is Theseus's antithesis to “Helen's beauty” (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.11). A figure of such extreme and pervasive sexual voracity that Romans from Philo on habitually regard her as debilitating, she figures, like the Wife of Bath, sexual appetite abnormally prolonged as well as heightened. She is also, at various times, a shrew, a virago, an ostentatious and self-glorifying liar, a beater of servants and brow-beater of lovers: a crowned version of the husband-beating wife of the skimmingtons. As Leonard Tennenhouse is virtually alone in noting,

Shakespeare has represented her in much the same terms Bakhtin uses to identify the grotesque—or popular—body in Renaissance culture. Shakespeare clearly endows her with all the features of carnival.5

While she may be “stigmatized” by this identification, as Tennenhouse goes on to argue, she is also glorified by it. “In this tradition,” Bakhtin says, “woman is essentially related to the material bodily lower stratum; she … degrades and regenerates simultaneously.”6 Cleopatra, I need hardly add, gives birth to a new, sexualized Antony in the process of subverting the old one. “Egypt,” moreover, rules and is metonymically associated with a country defined by carnival festivity and carnivalesque inversion, a national expression of what Marilyn French calls the “outlaw feminine principle.”7 Egypt everywhere acts out that basic trope of carnivalesque subversion: women on top. Cleopatra “angles,” Antony is the fish (2.5.10-15); she drinks him to bed and wears his “sword Philippan” (lines 21-23). In the most fundamental dynamic of the play, carnivalesque femininity confronts masculine officialdom.

If Cleopatra is carnival, crabbed, parsimonious Caesar, who typically regards feasting his victorious army as “waste” (4.1.16), is Lent, a contrast Shakespeare has heightened by omitting Plutarch's testimony to the historical Octavius's affability and fondness for plays and women.8 She is, of course, everywhere identified with feasting, a trope Clare Kinney calls “Cleopatra the Comestible.”9 It is her “lascivious wassails” that Caesar pretends to call Antony back from (1.4.55-56). She is at various times “a morsel for a monarch” (1.5.31), an “Egyptian dish” (2.6.126), “a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar's trencher” (3.13.116-17), even—in her youth—a green salad. Breakfast in her house is “eight wild boars roasted whole” for twelve people (2.2.179). She herself, of course, “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (2.2.240-41). As the language of the play repeatedly insists, she is not only the purveyor of feasts, but also Feast itself, the literary descendent of Gargamelle as much as Venus.10 When Octavius wants to praise the former Antony, he seizes on the most antifestive kind of feasting: “thou didst drink / The stale of horses … eat strange flesh, / Which some did die to look on” (1.4.61-68). The tyrant, not surprisingly, regards the proper relation of will to body as tyrannical. For Caesar, privation is virtue; bodies, like kingdoms, exist to be conquered. Lenten in his youth, so far as we can trust Roman memories, Antony has become carnivalesque in middle age.11

In keeping with its pervasive category subversion, Antony and Cleopatra presents us with one of those polarities that look easy to read but are not. If, for example, you associate Rome with public life and Egypt with private, you run immediately into the problem that Egyptian private life is played out in public and has public consequences.12 Sleeping with Roman generals is, after all, Cleopatra's defense policy. Taunting Antony into a public profession of love is a political gesture, whatever its private function may be. Comparably, Roman public affairs are private wars disguised. Fulvia goes to war, so Antony claims, to get her husband's attention. Pompey makes speeches about “beauteous freedom” (2.6.17), but negotiates about the family house. Octavius claims to be conquering the world as a way of avenging a slight to his sister.

If, on the other hand, you follow Northrop Frye and try to define the polarity of the two cultures in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian, you create a rigid opposition between two forces that mingle with and mimic one another throughout the play: an Alexandrian feast in Rome, a Roman suicide in Egypt. You have to create a “Dionysian” Antony out of the unresolvable, shifting figure before you.13 The inability of Romans to be what they think they are is, of course, fundamental to the play, which is why Janet Adelman's attempt to contrast a world of fact with a world of dream also creates more problems than it solves.14 Virtually every fact about Rome—its history, its honor, its public spirit, its male bonding, its respect for women—turns out to be a fiction. Even Octavius's power is belied by his physique, his arguable dependency on fortune, his potential vulnerability to any stray assassin like Menas. Tennenhouse's myth of an aristocratic Roman body traduced by Egyptian fleshliness forces him to read the play as rejecting and punishing Cleopatra, despite her fifth-act victory over Caesar, and as endorsing Octavian patriarchy, despite the play's numerous anticipations of the next “Eastern star” to mock Roman authority.

A carnivalesque paradigm, on the other hand, inscribes a shifting, dialectical relationship between the two poles. The carnivalesque order mirrors the official one, is incorporated within it (as carnival is within the church year), and both subverts and reinforces it, as Egypt does with Rome. To see that relationship is to see why travesty—right down to Caesar's imitation of Hymen in marrying the dead lovers—should play such a large part in the play. It is also to see how great tragedy can be based on an oscillation between the literal, theatrical, and carnal senses of “to die,” an oscillation that helps account for the play's notorious generic instability. More important, perhaps, it will explain the remarkable prevalence of the carnivalesque blasphemy I noted earlier. Cleopatra, Agrippa famously says, “made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He ploughed her, and she cropp'd” (2.2.227-28). As Clare Kinney, at least, has noted, Cleopatra beats swords into ploughshares.15 The Augustinian carnivalesque offers at least one explanation of why Christ and Carnality should find themselves in such intimate alliance against Caesar, especially a Caesar so identified with chaste bodily denial. In so doing it will help to explain in more than the familiar Freudian terms the threat posed to Rome by Egypt. Throughout the play Rome is identified with a masculine, body-denying tyranny of the human (as opposed to divine) will; Egypt, the body, and the feminine are identified with carnival and thus with escape from that control. Egypt enslaves ego—Cleopatra is at various times, of course, fetters, serpents, enchantress (“the Great Fairy,” for example, at 4.8.12)—because it releases emotion, dream, libido. Egypt will free you from the confinement of playing “Antony” but will not allow you to assert that ego-based Antony. In Rome, conscious will tries to enslave instinct; in Egypt, instinct threatens to enslave conscious will. “Rome” is a structure of internal and external control, threatening tyranny; Egypt” is the carnivalesque principle of resistance, threatening entropy. Egypt will thus appear to Rome as both life and death, liberation and madness, expansion and dissolution.

That Egyptian principle emerges directly from the marketplace, the traditional site of carnival, where Antony sits “enthroned” (2.2.214) waiting for his first meeting with Cleopatra and where Antony and Cleopatra proclaim their (nominally, her) empire:

I' th' marketplace, on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned.


From their first pageantlike entrance on, Antony and Cleopatra's affair is played out as public spectacle, available for promiscuous observation and participation, presenting itself as both royal and common. Enobarbus “saw her once / Hop forty paces through the public street” (2.2.229). In act 1, scene 1 Antony completes the process of offending Caesar's ambassadors by leaving them in order to “wander through the streets, and note the qualities of people” (1.1.53-54), characteristically, at Cleopatra's request. As Julian Markels writes: “Cleopatra and ‘the public street’ are ornaments to each other, and they measure each other's value.”16 The leveling effect of doing it in the street is one of the first charges Octavius brings against Antony:

                                                                                          to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smells of sweat.


Antony, engaged in carnival games at carnival hours, is indistinguishable from the other players, from slaves and knaves, or from the Antony who “tumble[s],” clownishly prostrate, “on the bed of Ptolemy” (line 17). Carnival dissolves hierarchy and suspends official rank. Cleopatra, hopping those forty paces in the public street, may be Egypt's queen, but she is also Egypt's carnival, no more than the most interesting of street shows: They, like Enobarbus, can “note the qualities” of her. Significantly, at Cydnus, Antony, who is still the agent of Roman authority and trying to stage a Roman official visit, is left alone in the market by a crowd that flocks to see the real show, a barge that is somewhere between a Lord Mayor's Day pageant and a parody of one: a carnival float. He is drawn into carnival, she is carnival. She leads him through the streets, drinks him to bed, puts her mantles on him. Carnival fluidity is the medium of her character.


Commerce, as most readers will know by now, is the dirty secret of Bakhtin's carnival—the element he most consistently tries to suppress—and Cleopatra's fluidity is also that of the market. After “gypsy,” “strumpet” is the first and most frequent term of Roman abuse thrown at her (1.1.13), women who sell themselves being a threat to the men who wish to sell them. She, of course, “trade[s] in love” (2.5.2), not merely by getting armies in return for her favors. At their first meeting, as Enobarbus describes it, Antony “for his ordinary, pays his heart / For what his eyes eat only” (2.2.225-26). Their moment-to-moment relationship is a constant extortion of tribute, whether in the form of pearls, protestations, or empires. “If it be love, tell me how much” (1.1.14): from her first words Cleopatra makes it clear that love is a measurable commodity and subject to fluctuation. The commodity is obtained by what we might call the negotiability of Cleopatra's character. Her moods are determined by the market: “If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing” (1.3.2-3). The principle may be that the customer is always wrong, but the transaction nonetheless makes Cleopatra vulnerable as the purveyor of a product always subject to rejection. The “morsel for a monarch” can easily become the “morsel cold” on the dead monarch's trencher and despised by the next purchaser.

At the same time, however, Cleopatra is the restauranteur as well as the meal. Octavia is only a commodity (however mystified), traded by males; Cleopatra is an entrepreneur. This conjures the possibility of a world, outside Rome, where women are independent agents. It also makes Cleopatra and carnival the embodiments of a free market of private traders, as opposed to Octavius, whom Thidias celebrates as “the universal landlord” (3.13.72). As his rivals find, Octavius aims for monopoly. In his new world order values will be fixed because there will be only one purchaser. His empire is a vast enclosure movement, driven, like enclosure, to maximize profit and control by eliminating subdivision. By the end of the play, he can assert that “Caesar is no merchant, to make prize with [Cleopatra] / Of things that merchants sold” (5.2.183-84): an assertion of aristocratic superiority to the market that actually declares the market closed. The “sole sir of the world” (line 120), though still one of the “factors of the gods,” no longer needs to bargain. The plutocrat retires to his mansion and, like Ben Jonson's usurer, curses trade. Throughout the play, Caesar plays to end “play,” in both the carnival and market senses. Cleopatra bids; Octavius forecloses.

Cleopatra assumes that all relationships are functions of desire; Octavius assumes that they are functions of control. Cleopatra's appetitive world is comic because it asserts that all desires (hence, all relationships) are renewable. One of the play's most startling moves is to equate that comic renegotiability and deferral of closure with the market: “play” of body and feeling with “play” of commercial value. What else does it mean to “trade in love”? What is not sold today can be sold tomorrow. Even a “morsel cold” can be reheated. Any emotional deal can be restructured. He who is sunk today can be refloated tomorrow. By contrast, Caesar insists on finality not because he has a “tragic sense of life,” but because his drive for control can only be fulfilled in universal stasis, to which both Cleopatra and the market represent vitality and resistance. Cleopatra maintains a comic world in which consequences are perpetually suspended. She no more expects her flight from the battle to cause his than she expects her feigned death to cause his real one. Cleopatra's vision of a perpetually festive afterlife with Antony and the suicide it facilitates are the ultimate extensions of this comedic principle of escape, eternity being, of course, the ultimate deferral. She gives leave “to play till doomsday” (5.2.232), play that takes the final form (319-20) of Charmian's mocking farewell to Octavius's soldiers. The play's generic instability is a direct function of Cleopatra's insistence—beyond death—on the commercial, comic, and carnivalesque.

As Janet Adelman and others have well and truly established, Octavius epitomizes a Roman mentality that sees the world in terms of hierarchy and the rigid boundary definitions that usually go with it.17 Official Rome acts pervasively to restrict the play of values (what is “manly”?), of meanings (what is “a man”?), and of identities (what is “Antony”?). Rome aspires to a dictatorial control over terms as well as lands, a universal stabilization of categories. To Philo and to the Roman lobe of Antony's brain, Antony's “real” identity is fixed and unproblemmatical (albeit gone missing), something that can be represented by plated armor or heroic statuary. Romans (and Egyptians imitating them) imagine themselves as marble-constant; Egypt and Cleopatra are liquid, flowing, and unstable. Rome's mental world is vertical, like a command structure; Egypt's is horizontal, like a floodplain or a marketplace, both places of promiscuous mingling. The Nile's floods, as Antony reminds Lepidus in act 2, scene 7, produce crops and crocodiles with equal fluency. Egyptians overflow, like Antony in his dotage (1.1.2); Romans (think they) are contained. “According to Caesar's distinctly Roman economy of the self,” Adelman writes in her most recent book, “plenty constitutes self-waste, compromising the stringent self-withholding that is his ideal.”18 Octavius's praise for Antony's self-mortification after Modena has nothing to do with any transcendent, otherworldly value. He praises discipline for discipline's sake and for its immediate military utility, though his praise may imply the ontology—I am my containment—on which the Empire is built. To Philo and Demetrius, Enobarbus, Octavius, the Roman Antony, anything that dissolves barriers threatens not only the self, but also the construction of the world on which that self depends. You must, for ontological as well as personal reasons, keep “your square” (2.3.6), as Antony says a moment before deciding to desert his wife. If you drink with slaves, you may become a slave. If Antony consorts with women, then he “is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen … / More womanly than he” (1.4.5-7). When captains can become women, how shall the world be ordered?19

Of course, Egypt's relation to Rome is dialectical, as carnival's relation to officialdom always is. To the extent that Egyptian festivity depends on the protection of the elder Pompey, Julius Caesar, Antony, and their armies, it can be said to be sponsored by Rome. That is another aspect of Cleopatra's negotiability. Certainly, no one apotheosizes the warrior Antony more fervently than she—Eros does not arm him so well—and no one envies Octavia's official status as wife more intensely. Still, Cleopatra—She Who is Permitted to Laugh—comprises the psychological loyal opposition, seeing the fictionality of Rome and enjoying its heroics as sexual fantasy and sexual comedy, as game. Politically, that is, Egypt embodies the love of the ruled for the ruler as well as rebelliousness. Cleopatra's most rampant sexual images (“oh, happy horse to bear the weight of Antony”) picture a rapturous acceptance of phallic domination.

At the same time, Cleopatra, figuring the self not as fixed but as infinitely various, represents the most fundamentally carnivalesque threat to that control. She lives, as we all know, in a cloud of double entendres—from “ram thou thy fruitful tidings in my ears” (2.5.23) to “the soldier's pole is fallen” (4.15.65) and even to the elision of “asp” (for death, lover, Antony) and “ass” (for death, enemy, Caesar) in her dying words. Cleopatra's puns—and Enobarbus's puns about her—destabilize language by degrading. In the words of Michael Bristol, “the basic principle of grotesque or Carnival realism is to represent everything socially and spiritually exalted on the material bodily level.”20 “Here's sport indeed! How heavy lies my lord!” (4.15.32), says Cleopatra. As we have seen, the play is an elaboration of the triple entendre of Cleopatra's “celerity in dying” (1.2.144), which culminates in a suicide that is simultaneously an allusive, carefully staged, theatrical dying; an orgiastic sexual dying, “as sweet as air, as soft as balm” (5.2.311); and a literal dying. It is both the confirmation and the refutation of Enobarbus's first-act abuse.

Her puns, like her constant and ostentatious self-theatricalization, figure a self that is both multiple and indeterminate. Her death is, of course, both Roman suicide and Egyptian mockery of Roman solemnities. Even her royal title “Egypt” unfolds into “gypsy”: the high and the low conflated. The Queen herself enacts an Egyptian—and carnivalesque—sense of self as process, something reinvented from moment to moment in performance. In her dying moments, despite her claims to Roman constancy, she flickers through the roles of lover, wife, mother, lass, even while freezing into the (staged) image of Isis and Egypt. Kinney (177) notes that more than forty different titles are applied to Cleopatra during the play. She embodies that “antitaxonomic energy” Terry Castle sees in masquerade, subverting “the vision of a classifiable cosmos.”21 That subversion is the very fear Octavius expresses when, leaving the revelry on Pompey's yacht, he complains that “this wild disguise hath almost / Antick'd us all” (2.7.124-25), a phrase that links festivity to theatrical playing and to madness, and both to loss of self. Cleopatra's carnivalesque being-in-process figures an Egyptian world in which boundaries dissolve, like those of Antony's “cloud that's dragonish” (4.14.2). Thomas McAlindon writes that in the Egyptian world,

so close to “the primal state” (1.4.41), there is an inevitable blurring of the distinction between the human and the animal. When lost in folly or passion, the protagonists are likened to … horse, mare, nag, ox, lion and mallard. Shameful and grotesque though it may be, the implied transformation never seems horrifyingly unnatural. … [It is] as if the whole natural order were a single ontological category in which motion, mingling, and change are the norm.22

What McAlindon describes as a natural process, however, is primarily a linguistic and theatrical one. Nothing literally dissolves in the play. “Dissolution” is a way of imagining the world as fluid performance.


Naming is, of course, the most fundamental stage of ruling; to define is to control. To conceive of the world and the self as fluid is a way of evading domination, as Cleopatra habitually evades Antony's control—as Bertilak's Lady does with Gawain—by switching roles (for example, from theatrical dying to scolding to tongue-tied oblivion to noble resignation during their parting in act 1, scene 3). Rome, on the other hand, is built on dominion expressed characteristically through fealty and contractual alliance. It has seldom been noticed how closely the play's Rome is modeled on that described in The City of God, St. Augustine's great memorialization of the death of the world order founded by Augustus. At the very beginning of the book Augustine defines Rome as “a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.”23 Rome's historical pursuit of dominion is the subject of Augustine's book 3. In Augustine as in Shakespeare, Rome is a culture whose greatest achievement is the law; whose greatest passion is conquest; and whose greatest institution is the self. The civitas terrena, of which Rome is the prototype, “was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt for self. … [The earthly city] loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders” (14.28; p. 593). That city, he adds, in what amounts to a remarkably concise summary of Octavian policy:

desires an earthly peace for the sake of the lowest goods; and that is the peace it longs to attain by making war. For if it wins the war and no one survives to resist, then there will be peace, which the warring sections did not enjoy when they contended … for the things which they could not both possess at the same time.


Octavius, who famously desires to “possess” (2.7.101) the time rather than enjoy it, embodies precisely that cold ruling in apartness characteristic of Augustine's Rome and Bakhtin's official feast. (Time, like everything else to Octavius, is an object, a species of property, the “much dirt” he is lord of.) Significantly, Octavius never identifies himself with the physical Rome as Cleopatra does with Egyptian soil. It is the thing he rules, not himself: a chaos upon which he imposes order, “this common body” (1.4.44) on which he inflicts a repressive will, like his version of Antony in the wilderness. Octavius's new Rome—the political expression of its master's cold knowing in apartness—will also be a purely secular order. Antony's god leaves him, but Caesar has no god except his own personified destiny. Like Bakhtin's official feast, Rome creates “no second life” (Rabelais, 9) because it acknowledges no order of values beyond its own. As J. L. Simmons has written, “Shakespeare … represents Rome as a pagan world in which the characters must perforce operate with no reference beyond the Earthly City.”24 That better than average citizen of the earthly city, Dolabella, is not asked whether Antony was like Cleopatra's dream, but whether he thinks that “there … might be such a man” (5.1.93) as the one she dreamed. He can't.25 Thinking isn't dreaming. The Empire manages to be both spiritually and carnally impoverished—like Octavius's personal life or Antony's Roman marriage—while being materially powerful.26 Cleopatra's Egyptian carnival is opposed and absorbed by a “monolithically serious” (Leggatt, 176) order we might call, combining Augustinian and Bakhtinian terms, the civitas officialis. Antony's role in the play is to be the locus of that conflict.27

With Antony, as with Cleopatra and Octavius, the carnivalesque paradigm enables us to see familiar ground in an unfamiliar way. Like Sir Gawain, and for the same logocentric reasons, Antony needs to believe in a version of himself that is at once subjective and substantial, an unchangeable essence that is also visible to others, like a pentangle. Both men externalize that identity as glowing armor, the enclosed body signifiying an enclosed, and thus stabilized, essence. In both cases, the armor, while seeming to signify and be identical with the man wearing it, represents the collective and unstable judgment of his community. It signifies their willingness to mythologize the wearer as a representative of themselves. Rome, as Augustine says, loves the image of its own strength reflected in its leaders: an image physically assembled before us in act 4, scene 4 by Eros and Cleopatra. Both heroes discover that the armor is removable—“happed on” the man, not organically related to him—and that its taking off signals the dissolution of the self it seemed to contain. What seemed an emblem is (also) a disguise. Antony's Egyptian experience deconstructs that “visible shape.”

Even more ruthlessly than Gawain, Antony is shown that what he has regarded as his personal identity is a locus of fictions, his own as well as other people's.28 He is the object of a common need to believe in and exalt honor, courage, heroism, and the Roman virtues: another version of the hero as billboard. Antony is Rome's as well as Caesar's “spacious mirror” (5.1.34): not loved for what he is so much as invented so he can be loved. As with Kurtz and his admirers in Heart of Darkness, the need for a hero is universal, but the definition of one varies from one worshipper to the next: Philo remembers battlefield prowess, Caesar a surreal exaggeration of Lenten self-denial, Cleopatra a more affable version of heroic self-assertion. Even his bounty, the quality of Antony that everyone except Octavius agrees on, is undercut by his theft of Pompey's house (though Antony, Caesar's “mirror,” shows an Octavian gift for handsome apology where handsome behavior has been lacking). Few readers will need reminding that the generous and spontaneous Antony is also an actor who (in act 4, scene 2) manipulates his captains into weeping, then denies he meant it. Pompey's Menas and Antony's Enobarbus greet each other as fellow pirates (2.6.84-96).29 For that matter, Enobarbus remembers Antony weeping over those he has destroyed as Caesar now does. Antony's subsequent behavior mocks Octavia's willingness to identify him with his honor and Scarus's willingness to identify him with courage. To Octavius, in any case, physical courage only makes one an “old ruffian” (4.1.4). The point is precisely that none of these versions of Antony is more or less real than the others. Caesar's hero of abstention may even be truer, looking at the whole of Antony's life, than Cleopatra's happy horseman, or the jealous bureaucrat Ventidius serves and mocks. The past Antony, of course, exists only in stories. That one, as the saying goes, is history; and history, the play shows us, is a collocation of lies or, to put it more politely, of self-interested subjective versions, such as Caesar's manipulative contrast of Antony past and present or Pompey's memorialization of Cassius and Brutus as courtiers of freedom, like himself. If history is a field of unreality, identity is and must be both collective and dispersed, not a coherent unit but a sum of imaginings. Antony's experience teaches him a basic carnivalesque lesson he cannot accept without losing his fiction of self-containment and ceasing to exist as a Roman: our selves we do not own.

The heroically coherent Antony exists, and can only exist, in the mind of Cleopatra. The world of fact denies it; Cleopatra herself, as Charmian reminds her in act I, scene 5, has exalted other generals before. In a movement entirely characteristic of the Augustinian carnivalesque, the play dissolves Antony's ego-based social identity to relocate his being in the egoless, instinctual bodily sphere and in a transcendent sublimation of that: Cleopatra's dream-fiction of an Emperor Antony, her master builder. That dream, like Hilde Wangel's final version of Solness, is not in the man himself and is not communicated to him. The absence of the literal object is its necessary precondition. Notoriously, of course, Antony is Cleopatra's fool when he is there, her god when he is away. Only in his absence are they a genuinely “mutual pair”: He—or rather his after-image—provides the stimulus, she provides the informing myth, which, because history is a system of myths, may be the most real of the Antonys he leaves to posterity and is, in any case, the one Octavius decides to bury. The past can and will be turned into romance and epic because both the winners and losers want it that way: the “romance” of Antony and Cleopatra's defeat is a necessary part of the “epic” of Octavius's victory. In his curtain speech, Caesar is already stabilizing the genres: “Their story is / No less in pity than his glory [i.e., mine] which / Brought them to be lamented” (5.2.361-63). The instability of his grammar, however, suggests a different romance in which “his glory” is as much an object of pity as “their story.”

In Antony's present and presence, however, things are liable to take a different generic turn. Their myth was Roman gossip before it was mythologized and bedroom farce before it was gossip. (Enobarbus's barge speech is remarkable not least because it holds all three phases in suspension.) Cleopatra as the embodiment of carnival seems bent on deconstructing the Roman Antony even as she honors it. Psychologically, we might assume, she needs to destroy his previous, publicly determined self-image—precisely because it is not his but Rome's—to replace it with one dependent on her (his identity will still not be his). The idol of his troops will be reconstructed as the idol of Cleopatra: a process strikingly encoded in his invitation to her to “leap … / Through proof of harness to my heart, and there / Ride on the pants triumphing” (4.8.14-16). The hero imaginatively abandons himself to a ravishment in which his Roman armor is not only cast asunder, but also dissolved. She can “leap through” it “to his heart” because the image figures feeling as real and its containment as not. In this figure, which we might call disproof of harness, it is habitually his armored self she bursts through and his sword she appropriates, just as it is his official self she most consistently mocks and, as it were, privatizes, publicly turning the Empire's Viceroy in Egypt into a doting lover in the first scene and a henpecked husband in the third. Her original way of attracting his attention, of course, was to stage a show that left him, a mock-king, “enthroned” in the deserted marketplace, “whistling to the air” (2.2.219).30 In her games, he is alternately the fool who catches the salt-fish (2.5.15-18) and a caught fish himself (2.5.10-15). The woman who “rides on the pants triumphing” is, literally and figuratively, woman on top.

There, like Gawain, “he watz despoyled with spechez of myerthe.” To appropriate Antony's victorious sword, however, is to acknowledge its power even as one seems to neutralize it. A king would not be worth mocking if he were simply unreal. Cleopatra's mockery, instead, externalizes that power and thus creates a gap between it and the mutual imaginative construct they (sporadically) agree to call “Antony.” His authority is not him but something he wears: not the heart but the harness (O, unhappy horse). As in the case of Gawain, a rigid, masculine construction of the self is replaced by a liquid, feminine one. In the process, the ground of his being is transferred from dead metal to living soil (or living mind, depending on whether you see him living in her flesh or her imagination). Antony, in either case, relocates his manhood in Cleopatra, who is throughout identified with fluidity: the sea, the Nile, and its mud. If “his delights were dolphin-like” because they “show'd his back above the element they liv'd in” (5.2.88-90), that element is her. Cleopatra degrades to exalt, bringing Antony down to the bodily level where we all necessarily live to lift him above it, as the dolphin is supported by the element it partly rises above. The speech in which this image occurs is devoted to reconstructing a colossal Roman Antony who, nevertheless, exists at that point only within her dreaming. My master-building!


We are seeing, of course, the familiar double ludus of the tragicarnivalesque. Egyptian festivity mocks and subverts official Rome to construct a new Romanness, reconnected to the physical and the sexual, the popular and the feminine, an order inaugurated in the marketplace, though destroyed, literally at least, in the monument. Cleopatra's imaginatively (re)constructed Antony is Roman in stature but Egyptian in multiplicity and indefiniteness: posed statuary but also swimming dolphin, an unstable mixture of dream and (asserted) reality, attributable equally to nature and art. His bounty is an unending autumn, “no winter in it” (5.2.87-88): an image both of fertility and of endless deferral. Cleopatra's towering, bounty-dripping Antony is as unmistakably phallic as the asp that will take her to him. What goes down, as Cleopatra knows better than anyone, must come up. Degradation inverts hierarchy; it doesn't destroy it.

If Egypt, with its transvestite queen wearing Antony's sword or costuming herself as an admiral, parodies Rome, Rome's official feast travesties Egyptian festivity, enacting the usual relationship of carnival and official feasts. As the former debases to exalt, the latter exalts to debase, honoring Octavia's holy, cold femininity in order to prostitute it. As Carol Neely has pointed out, Antony and Octavius enact a parody of the marriage ceremony—giving hands, pledging fidelity, and embracing—every bit as sexually transversive as (and considerably more perverse than) anything Cleopatra performs. The marriage, Neely adds, “exaggerates the sociopolitical function of marriage to secure male alliances and eliminates its sexual and emotional purposes.”31 That marriage and the treaty arising from it are celebrated by the “Alexandrian feast” (2.7.96) staged on Pompey's barge: a travesty of reconciliation in a society at (temporarily cold) war; a travesty of bonding in a society where increasingly the only functioning bond is political self-interest; and a travesty of festive release in a society where loss of self is death. Here Pompey “laugh[s] away his fortune” (2.6.104-5). This bacchanal, of course, excludes women and thus leaves room only for bonding among male competitors. Carnival release here is figured not as fertile Egyptian “ooze,” but as the sterile “quicksands” of drunkenness where, Antony warns Lepidus, he will sink (2.7.22,59-60). Here carnival play is not release from self but nervous, self-protective game playing: Antony's teasing of Lepidus, Octavius's grudging, self-reserved participation. Like all Roman occasions, this one is a test of one's power of containment. In the midst of this “play,” of course, Menas offers to cut the throats of “these three world-sharers” (2.7.75), carnival uncrowning with a vengeance, and an offer that demonstrates how fictional the solidity of Octavius's official order (not to mention, the inevitability of his personal destiny) is. To let go of yourself even momentarily, as Lepidus and Pompey do, is to lose your place in that fiction, as they do.

As the play figures it, the absorption of carnival is the focal process of Caesar's leveraged buyout of the world because the carnivalesque embodies both the carnal and spiritual orders that refuse to acknowledge Caesar's power. For the people of the play, epitomized by Enobarbus, Egypt is the “second world.” In its fictions Octavius figures as an ass unpolicied (5.2.307-8), a lord of much dung (lines 7-8), or the paltry knave of Fortune (lines 2-3). Octavius, however, maintains his own coherence (and the power it conveys) by the ruthless, exclusionary proprietorship of his own legend (“Go with me to my tent, where you shall see / How hardly I was drawn … / How calm and gently I proceeded”: (5.1.73-75). There must be only one fiction of Octavius. The carnival feast must be turned into a parade, the “solemn show” of Antony and Cleopatra's funeral (5.2.364), in and after which they will serve, as Cleopatra has said, as his “scutcheons and … signs of conquest” (5.2.135): emblems not only of his power, but also of a world reduced to objects.

The solemn funeral is only plan B, however. Plan A was the staged triumph, co-opted carnival in which Cleopatra will be not a scutcheon, but a “puppet” (5.2.208). It is a measure of how important carnival is in the play that Antony and Cleopatra, but equally Eros, Iras, and Charmian, regard it as the ultimate weapon, more threatening than Caesar's army. Caesar's shows will, of course, be hostile, exclusionary, and in the service of the official order; derisive rather than celebratory: a display of his power from which, like the feast for his troops, he will be absent. He doesn't play, but he owns and uses those who do. Nonparticipation both signifies and facilitates absolute control. To be included in their shows as an exhibition is to be excluded as a participant, doubly or triply excluded in Cleopatra's case because her gender is excluded as well as herself. She will be “boy[ed]” as a “whore” (5.2.220-21): at once excluded and pinned down. The speech is one of the rare moments where a recognition of how alienating the Elizabethan theater must have been for female spectators appears in the texts. To “boy” Cleopatra is to complete, in a particularly humiliating way, the subordination and silencing of female Egypt by male Rome. At the same time, the image registers the persecutory power of popular mirth—its usefulness, as in the skimmington, as a mode of repression, especially of transgressive sexuality—and the ambivalence of Antony and Cleopatra toward it. Within the Egyptian carnival they are central, defining participants; in the Roman one they will be defined objects. The former condition gives them general love, registered most conclusively by the deaths of their attendants; the latter deprives them of it. To be registered in vulgar fame is both the greatest desire because it offers you the prospect of an unofficial countermyth, history written by the losers, and the greatest fear because it is the means by which history will be manipulated against you by an absent power shaping vulgar fame through intermediaries. If Octavius cannot make them a show, he will build them a monument, in both cases to his own glory.

To a Roman, Elizabethan, or modern audience, of course, the historical Cleopatra is an absence, who- or whatever is representing her. Within the play, the carnivalesque Cleopatra figures plenitude, whereas the Augustinian one figures privation. That doubling, seen also in Alisoun and Falstaff, is perhaps the most characteristic sign of the Augustinian carnivalesque. Cleopatra was a woman, as the grave digger says, but, poor thing, she's dead. Long before her death, however, she has embodied the privation of fleshly life at the same time as its satisfactions. She “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (2.2.236-37): She is the generator of emptiness, endlessly converting fulfillment into need. Cleopatra's failed attempt at agape, trying to “quicken” the dying Antony with kissing (4.15.39) must inevitably remind us of Faustus wanting Helen to make him “immortal with a kiss” (Dr. Faustus, 5.1.99).32 In the language of this play, Cleopatra is habitually associated with the Egyptian earth figured as an element both dead and alive, material but also generative. Even in Octavius's final speech, the earth “clips” the lovers as it entombs them. Spontaneous generation—the capacity of dead matter to produce life—is as central to the imagery of the text as spontaneous combustion is to Bleak House.

That death can perform “some loving act” (1.2.143-44) would have come as no surprise to Augustine. Cleopatra is the embodiment of the mind assimilated to what it loves, enslaved to consuetudo, but also of the mind that hungers for a reality beyond its objects. She figures that great Augustinian concept of the earthly self as both void and locus of desire. As her imagination sexualizes everything—turning ears into wombs and messages into sperm—it also vivifies everything. Antony is, in a sense, reborn from her kissing: recreated in dream and converted into a speech that is clearly shown to have further redemptive functions. It causes a grief that “smites” Dolabella's “very heart at root” (5.2.104-05) to release his (significantly sexualized) compassion. Both in absorbing Antony and in imposing her dream of him on Dolabella, Cleopatra breaks down separation. In the prison house of self she dreams her escapes. In the terms of Augustinian orthodoxy, eros and agape are at once opposed—love wrongly versus love rightly directed—and linked by degree. Both, of course, are expressions of incompleteness, responses to privation. The lesser still reflects the greater and, as we have seen in the ending of both the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, aspires to become the greater. As Andrew Fichter observes, “Antony and Cleopatra … assert for themselves a love transcending death and a triumph emerging from defeat that we are meant to recognize [as] an impulse that is completed in Christian miracle.”33 We should not, however, historicize that in a way that, as in Fichter's reading, merely ironizes and discounts their experience. The soul's entombment in the flesh is not a process that ended with the Nativity.

Similarly, Rome is both the deceased Empire and the perennial institution—Augustine's earthly city and Bakhtin's official feast—against which flesh and spirit make common cause, essentially that of vital energy against dead form. Each seeks escape from and overthrow of a world governed by the private human will. Cleopatra's imagination, however much it officially values Roman hierarchy, order, and stability, characteristically reaches beyond them, as it tries to reach beyond self to some larger ground of vitality that is simultaneously God and the physical nature celebrated in carnival, spiritual love as sexual. Rome, literal and figurative, is the very embodiment of the dead forms of the material world and the habits of mind Augustine calls consuetudo. The play's Octavius is, of course, busily assembling the Empire whose fall would occasion The City of God, the great hidden text of Antony and Cleopatra, the one that defines the play's Rome and completes the historical process begun in the play's action. That double image—Rome's fall figured in the moment of its consolidation, material victory as spiritual defeat—is the essential, chiasmic pattern we have seen in both the medieval and Renaissance versions of the carnivalesque. The conjunction of the earthly city's completion and the birth that enables both its fulfillment and its end is the great, paradigmatic double ludus of Augustinian historiography.

The beginning of that end is, also of course, the Nativity, the appearance of another star in the east. The startling rhetorical figures that make Cleopatra a type of Christ, a pattern of the faithful, and an image of the Virgin triumphing over the serpent (and vice versa, of course), are neither accidental nor incidental. Israel, we might say, is in Egypt. “Blasphemy” mirrors piety (even if the mirror's image is reversed). Antony and Cleopatra is a demonstration of the need to integrate the two paradigms and to see how the politics of Augustinian theology and popular carnival reinforce as well as criticize one another. Historically, as we know, the Augustinian church authorized carnival and carnival took its forms—boy bishops, mock communions, feasts of the innocent, paschal laughter—from the church, because, I would argue, both operate to subvert the forms of the earthly city and the private self, the forms that carnivalesque literature embodies in Claudius, Bajazeth, and Octavius.

That subversion coexists with an acknowledgment of the inevitability of Octavian victories and the succession of Fortinbras and Callapine. Antony and Cleopatra enacts with particular clarity a distinction I have stressed … between carnival and the carnivalesque. Antony and Cleopatra's Egyptian carnival, considered as an extratextual phenomenon that is only recreated in the text, accomplished nothing except its own defeat. Octavius's Empire, unsubverted, swallows their story, indeed converts it by a familiar gastric process into the stuff of Caesar's greatness. Carnival is conservative, as Marcus, Tennenhouse, Stallybrass and White, have argued: It is incorporated into and reinforces the official order.34 In the carnivalesque, however, in the textual struggle for control and definition of terms, Egypt is victorious and Rome subverted. So, for that matter, is Plutarch because Shakespeare has shown us the public relations process by which Roman “destiny” is and was constructed. Rome's measure is taken by both Augustinian and carnivalesque standards. Roman order is revealed as a fiction of, let us say, very qualified necessity. The Empire's historical epic is bracketed between this play and the Gospels at its beginning and The City of God at its ending. It is not Antony and Cleopatra who are maginalized, ironized, demythologized, so much as Caesar. Cleopatra's trick with the treasure depends, remember, on Caesar confusing desire for wealth with desire for life. Egypt's ontology—like Carnival's and Christianity's—is more complex than that. It asserts that there is or might be a life elsewhere. Thus, carnivalesque is subversive. “This wild disguise” does “antic us,” in text if not in fact, unpolicying the ass Caesar while leaving him Emperor. We need, of course, to remember that textual and empirical history are not (exactly) the same: what is subverted in one survives in the other. This text enacts simultaneously the defeat of carnival and the victory of the carnivalesque. Whose glory, as Octavius's grammar asks, is to be pitied?


  1. All references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Evans and others, which, along with most editions, reads “when” for “where.” Because Cleopatra is offering her lips at the time, “where” seems to me to make clearer sense. Antony's mock-apotheosis is noted by Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation, 107.

  2. For the identification of Cleopatra with the Faithful of Revelations, see Andrew Fichter, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The Time of Universal Peace,’” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 99-111. Roy Battenhouse, “Augustinian Roots in Shakespeare's Sense of Tragedy,” The Upstart Crow 6 (1986): 1-7, discusses Antony and Cleopatra's situation as “an ironic parallel to Christian paradigm” (2), especially the paradigms of Christ and Mary. The play's allusions to the Apocalypse were first identified by Ethel Seaton, “Antony and Cleopatra and The Book of Revelation,Review of English Studies 22, no. 87 (1946): 219-24. The Biblical allusions throughout the play are listed by Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1987), 175-86. For the relation of the allusions in this play to contemporary iconography of Elizabeth and James I, see Paul Yachnin, “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in its Time,” Renaissance & Reformation 15 (1991): 1-20.

  3. J. M. Murry, Shakespeare (New York, 1936), 303; cited by Fichter, 105.

  4. Fichter, “Universal Peace,” 103.

  5. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display, 143.

  6. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 274. The exploitation of this pattern for tragicomic purposes is hardly limited to Antony and Cleopatra. The aggressively sexual and copiously fertile Duchess of Malfi, otherwise so unlike Cleopatra in manner, dignity, and domesticity, exemplifies the same trope, not least in bringing the philosophically barren Antonio to physical life and fatherhood. She is also, of course, subjected to skimmington abuse by Bosola, Ferdinand, and her servants.

  7. See Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London: Cape, 1982), especially chapter 1, 21-31.

  8. The changes made to Caesar's character are summarized by Vivian Thomas, Shakespeare's Roman Worlds (London: Routledge, 1989), 102-3.

  9. Clare Kinney, “The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor,” in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 177.

  10. On Gargamelle, see Bakhtin, Rabelais, 459-60.

  11. Cleopatra, “cold in blood” (I.5.74) in her salad days, shows a similar reversal of conventional youth and age.

  12. For the equation of Rome with public and Egypt with private life, see, among others, Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 124-30.

  13. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time, 48.

  14. See Adelman's The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), passim.

  15. Kinney [see note 9], 178.

  16. Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World: “Antony and Cleopatra” in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968), 45.

  17. Adelman, Common Liar, elaborates the pattern I summarize in this paragraph; on measure and overflow, see 122-31. Susan Snyder, “Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 113-22, contrasts images of Roman fixity, a quality she unfortunately regards as genuine, with those of Egyptian flux. Fixity in this play is a fiction.

  18. Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 178.

  19. Tamburlaine, terrified that his sons may have been infected by the femininity of their mother (in Tamburlaine, Part 2, 1.4), represents the high hysterical form of this mentality. [See chapter 4 above.]

  20. Bristol, Carnival and Theater, 22.

  21. Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 102.

  22. T. McAlindon, Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 228.

  23. Augustine, The City of God, book 1, preface, p. 5.

  24. Joseph L. Simmons, Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies (Brighton: Harvester, 1974), 8.

  25. The subtle but important distinction in Cleopatra's speech is noted by Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Skepticism (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), 34.

  26. Alexander Leggatt, in Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988), 175-76, notes that the play gives Egypt “a more palpable texture than Rome”: “In Egypt … the routines of life go on: music, billiards, drinking, fishing, and making love. … Rome … is here as neutral and unatmospheric as a committee room. Its entire political structure seems to consist of Caesar and his entourage.”

  27. Thus Ania Loomba [see note 12] observes that “Antony perceives he is only nominally the site of the conflict which is actually between Cleopatra and Caesar” (127).

  28. I stress the parallels between the two figures because the disappearance from general knowledge of the Gawain MS makes direct influence impossible. The similarities in the pattern of the two works thus argue a common paradigm.

  29. A possible source for this is the famous passage in City of God (4.4), which I have discussed in chapter 1, where Augustine illustrates the principle that kingdoms without justice are only “gangs of criminals on a large scale,” with the story of the captured pirate who defined the difference between his predation and Alexander's by saying that “because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor” (139).

  30. Enobarbus's rapturous account is as self-mockingly over the top as the performance that occasions it. Cleopatra couldn't get away with any of this stuff if she didn't make it funny.

  31. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 143.

  32. In Marlowe, Complete Plays, ed. Steane, 330.

  33. Fichter, “Universal Peace,” 100.

  34. For discussions, cited in previous chapters, of the co-optation and conservative functions of carnival in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, see Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth; Tennenhouse, Power on Display; Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.


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 and London: Routledge, 1992.

Augustine, Saint. The City of God. Translated from the Latin by Henry Bettenson. Edited by John O'Meara. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1984.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated from the Russian by Helene Iswolsky. 1968. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Battenhouse, Roy B. “Augustinian Roots in Shakespeare's Sense of Tragedy.” The Upstart Crow 6 (1986): 1-7.

Bradshaw, Graham. Shakespeare's Skepticism. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

Bristol, Michael D. Carnival and Theater: Plebian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. London: Methuen, 1986.

Felperin, Howard. Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Fichter, Andrew. “Antony and Cleopatra: The Time of Universal Peace.” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 99-111.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearian Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Kinney, Clare. “The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor.” In The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon. Edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, 177-86. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. London: Routledge, 1988.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Marcus, Leah. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969.

McAlindon, T. Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Murry, John Middleton. Shakespeare. New York: Random House, 1936.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Seaton, Ethel. “Antony and Cleopatra and The Book of Revelation.Review of English Studies 22, no. 87 (1946): 219-24.

Shaheen, Naseeb. Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans, Harry Levin, and others. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974.

Simmons, Joseph L. Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies. Brighton: Harvester, 1974.

Snyder, Susan. “Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 113-22.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Methuen, 1986.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York and London: Methuen, 1986.

Thomas, Vivian. Shakespeare's Roman Worlds. London: Routledge, 1989.

Yachnin, Paul. “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time.” Renaissance and Reformation 15 (1981): 1-20.

Alf Sjöberg (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Sjöberg, Alf. “The Secondary Role: The Vision of Master and Servant in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare and Scandinavia: A Collection of Nordic Studies, edited by Gunnar Sorelius, pp. 31-43. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002.

[In the following essay, Sjöberg discusses Antony and Cleopatra as a drama of transformation derived from opposition and strife.]

But small to greater matters must give way.
Not if the small come first.


Few dramas have a more solid reputation for spectacularity than Antony and Cleopatra and few plays inspire the same expectations of extensive scenery, swarming crowds and magnificent battle scenes. And this is how the play has been staged, not least in Swedish theaters.

Yet there are, in fact, few dramas that resist this kind of treatment more radically than this. Right from the start it is understood that the drama moves in a world of ruinous oppositions. Antony is on the brink of destroying himself in Egypt, and he has hardly set foot on the stage before he wishes the whole of Rome to undergo the same fate. All external greatness and splendor is immediately broken down to a shadow of itself, and this ruinous and destructive picture running counter to something which at the same time is said to exist in splendor and honor, is upheld throughout the drama. It is as if the drama possessed two levels of articulation, one that seeks expression through rhetorical magnificence and verve and another that attempts the opposite. It is as if the action was driven by an inherent wish to cut down the dimensions of the enormous subject matter and to reduce it to its smallest possible substance, large enough or small enough to fit into the little wooden O as Shakespeare calls his minute stage. It is as if the realization of the relativity of all measurements has inspired him with an urge to destroy his enormous theme, which describes one of the largest invasions ever undertaken by the Roman Empire, in fragments and details and in violent meetings that he locates in the margin of the scenery in this theater without scenery.

He catches the whole action, broken into a thousand quick reflections as in a prism. He looks upon his vision as an astronomer looks upon the cosmos, where the huge earth has lost its place and become a grain of dust in infinity. There is a diminishing of all dimensions on all fronts, even down to the limit of the barely visible, which makes even invisibility a criterion of the uniquely real and true. (It is not by chance that the play contains the shortest line in all drama. “O” says Cleopatra on one occasion, and this “O” contains a world of irony, disappointment, sadness—a complete world view reduced to the same sign that is the sign of Shakespeare's stage. Can the meeting between image and sound that we all want be expressed more clearly? It is at such a moment that Shakespeare at once exceeds all limits and reduces all measures to the least possible, thus uniting oppositions between play and reality.)

Of course he fills the stage with visions, but these are visions in the characters' imaginations and it is this floating, uncertain fabric that makes up the only scenery in the play. Here battlefields, palaces and galleys whirl by, all of the immense empire from Rome to Alexandria, but in a stream of visions that the characters of the drama light up in the spectator's inner eye, while at the same time giving him the opportunity to observe critically with his outer eyes the simple elements that constitute this imaginary greatness.


The monumentality of a Shakespearean drama is founded on the paradoxical relationship between a poetical, radiant text and the poverty of the base, the nakedness of the stage and its smallness. There is not one scene that does not because of this relationship achieve a new perspective in relation to a preceding scene or a new dimension in relation to a following one. The empire grows up by means of constant displacements, just as in one of Piranesi's gigantic palaces; but as in an invisible construction, unreal and grandiose, and just as quickly lost in mist and fume, as in the scene in which Antony believes that he has been deserted and betrayed in his love.

… Thou hast seen these signs,
They are black vesper's pageants.
                                                                                                                        Ay, my lord.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
                                                                                It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony;
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …


The role, the identity, can shift and dissolve as quickly as the poetical vision. What is left is the nakedness of the stage as a thing in itself. The gigantic world-embracing battle can shrink to a circle around one single individual, torn between east and west in his inner life. All measurements are transformed as through a Copernican revolution. All distances in time and space are dissolved, just as the individual himself disappears with his visions and dreams.

Left on the empty stage is the actor, dressed in his gaudy rags and motley, which he now wants to divest himself of as a sign of his longing to find his way back to himself. What are roles and what are feelings in these constant unmaskings? It happens that the performers applaud each other's most fervent tirades, as if everything was a game of words and there was no difference between the genuine and the acted. It is as if the acting was directed by a secret agent, a spoilsport with a clear bent to expose the playacting and the vacuity of the gaudy words. The magnificent visions that want to rise so steeply are met with ever more violent opposition. One is reminded of Tolnay's statement in relation to Michelangelo's fresco The Last Judgment: “Before the spectator has yet understood the meaning of the work as a whole he experiences the voluptuousness of a destruction in a higher order.”

This higher order can be described briefly as the creative principle as such, not just of Michelangelo's fresco but of all great Renaissance works in all areas of art and culture. The foundation of this is Plato's doctrine of ideas involving the soul's yearning for eternity and a return to the world of ideas; a synthesis between oriental Christian mysticism and the doctrine of Eros in Antiquity. This doctrine received its first poetical form in Dante's Divine Comedy and the vision of Beatrice, the image of Divine Love manifested in the shape of the beloved, destined to lift the soul to that heaven which it could never reach of its own strength. Formulated by the Neoplatonic academy of Florence this philosophy rapidly gained ground and was transformed into a way of life embraced by the ruling classes all over civilized Europe. With Castiglione's Courtier it found its way into the palaces. But like all doctrines that have been enthusiastically embraced by a ruling class this also contained a strong element of repression. Behind the sublime concern for one's own exclusivity there lies a hidden urge to negate the existence of the exploited classes. “The slave” is repressed from consciousness and transformed into a symbol of the soul's battle against the material world, becomes a code, is deprived of his real, human content. In this way an outcast class is stripped of its political importance. This is how we see the slave in Michelangelo's grave sculptures, encased in a fixed structure that expresses the moral battle that the feudal class, and subsequently the bourgeois class, fights with itself, its dreams of transcendence, disturbed by mysterious forces and voices from the deepest layers of the mind.

This philosophy, which is built so strikingly on an elite's dreams of a superman, was to prove to have a tenacious vitality throughout the centuries. Not just Michelangelo, Leonardo and Shakespeare but also Goethe and Strindberg would in time find inspiration and material in this meeting between heaven and hell, chosenness and damnation.

It is no coincidence that in the violent oscillation between bliss and despair in the love scenes, between tenderness and hate, between tragedy and vulgar comedy, we recognize typically Strindbergian strains in Shakespeare's drama. During the most difficult crises in his life Strindberg found the way to this traditional philosophy of ideas which was to become a liberating force in all of his subsequent writing. His Inferno visions, his Road to Damascus, are derived from the same circle of ideas that form the basis of Antony and Cleopatra. And having understood this in relation to Strindberg it is possible for us to approach Shakespeare's drama with a renewed understanding, and to appreciate better not just its organization and dramatic methodology but also its ultimate structural transformation. Because just as Strindberg, with his ambivalent nature, never left an idea where he found it, so under similar circumstances a restructuring of the dramatic pattern takes place also in Shakespeare.

Castiglione's book describes the pilgrimage that the soul must undertake step by step through the inferno of this world in order to reach that height of perfection to which it is elevated through the agency of Divine Love. Also the outer architecture is informed by this vision, an architecture which by means of its different levels and elevations provides a background to the action and supports it—an architectural facade that contains the same visible elements in Michelangelo's grave sculptures and in Strindberg's house facades in the chamber dramas, as those on Shakespeare's own stage. They all emanate from the same iconography, that is they are governed by the same signifying elements on their different levels, in their relationship to high and low, to ground floor and upper floors. By placing these different versions of the same theme next to each other, despite the difference in time, we can better understand difficult passages in the dramas. We understand, for example, more clearly the meaning of the mysterious “monument” to which Cleopatra flees and the real meaning of the scene in which she draws Antony up to the elevated level of the stage balcony. By comparing the relations of the different versions to the iconographical pattern we can also see the transformations that take place, and identify with greater precision those moments of time when the original code, that is the underlying system of thought, is broken down and transformed.

An aesthetic-philosophical system is in no way different from other human creations: it lives and dies, is perhaps revived but is changed with the ideological march of history. It can from the start be charged with latent potentialities that suddenly reverse the situation. What is up can become down and be turned around, and this is exactly what happens with the Neoplatonic doctrine in Shakespeare's play, exactly as in Strindberg's dramas. For Strindberg the aristocratic doctrine ultimately became too narrow and he threw it away; the same disintegration, the same renewal, happens in Shakespeare's play. By juxtaposing these plays and seeing them as correspondences on a common theme, we can extract new values which have previously not been perceived. The dimensions of the Antony figure become clearer if we look upon him in relation to Strindberg's Inferno visions.

In the East Antony has been sucked into a world of shadows where he is at the point of losing himself. He appears to the world and to his own consciousness as a shadow of his former self. Like one of Strindberg's Strangers he experiences his alienation as an increasing feeling of degradation and divorce from reality. In a desperate attempt to break out of the petrified world that is Rome and above all the growing competition with Caesar he has lost all self-control. In Dionysian and sexual orgies he attempts to break out of his physical and mental limitations. He believes (as the Renaissance man he is) in a unity beyond all reason that with one stroke is going to burn away all sexual difference. He is under the illusion that in the sexual ecstasy he will be able to liberate himself, reconcile all the oppositions of existence and achieve that equilibrium, that coincidentia oppositorum in which humankind is transformed and loses its sexual nature. Here comes to light the dream of the androgyne, that sexless synthesis of man and woman that haunts so many romantic works of art, and that with us has found its most perfect Nordic vision in Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's Tintomara.

In Cleopatra's final scene we can see that she in turn believes that she has reached the same synthesis, the same negation of male-female. It is against all these sexual excesses and speculations that Rome, the headquarters of the manly lifestyle, turns in disgust and contempt.


A closed system like the Roman one can only uphold its stability and structure by means of ruthless steering and self-control and a minimum of permissible changes. Caesar stands out as the incarnation of this pitiless control, with the puritanism of a seventeen-year-old. He is one of Shakespeare's last variations on the theme of puritanical man that he, with his aristocratic-aesthetic view of life, had always seen as his natural enemy. In Malvolio in Twelfth Night he had in an earlier phase of his work with malicious delight ruthlessly exposed the type. But in Caesar the tone has deepened because the historical circumstances have changed.

He had always looked upon the Puritan as a threat, against the joy of living as well as against his art, which in the fantastic seeks to reveal the nature of existence and the sovereignty of humankind. This art he had pitted against a Puritan fanaticism that had disowned his aristocratic vision, opposing it with bigotry and baseness. But with the new century and the new monarch and far from the court and the king's control, the Puritan movement had grown in the life of the people into a political and religious movement of altogether new dimensions. Increasingly this had been colored by the growing longing for political freedom which characterized the new era and which competed on the fundamental level of reality with the aristocratic doctrine of the liberation of the spirit, which was cherished by the court and which not least had kept its grip on Shakespeare's poetry.

This gives Caesar, who is seen by Shakespeare as the self-appointed leader of this sober and realistic front, a better starting point in relation to Antony, who is now reduced to a secondary role, not because of Caesar's superior intelligence but because of his historical representation, a change in the political climate which Antony does not understand but which Caesar uses coldly and brutally. It is interesting to notice the ruthless scorn with which Caesar observes the ordinary man. Here we can see the rise of the superman, the new Machiavellian dictator, far away from the aesthetic-aristocratic schema. Shakespeare is beginning to get his eyes opened to the new variations of elitism and self-deification of the time. But Antony understands nothing of this new arrangement in the historical development. He sees only an inferior soldier who wants to take his place and relegate him to the backwater of his former fame. He begins to feel old and tired but cannot understand the cause of his depression. It is in this demotion through time that Shakespeare has found the invisible center, the black hole that will disclose the simultaneous maturation and growth of the change.


It may seem unexpected and paradoxical to find forgetfulness and aging as themes in a poet who has so definitely conquered time in the poetry of his youth. But even in the sonnets, where the Dark Lady makes her entry as his life's great disappointment in love, Shakespeare gives expression to his fear of growing old and passé. He envies his more modern colleagues who in every sense he finds more intelligent than himself, at the same time as he feels deep disgust at the state of society and everything to do with sexuality and love. Even here is fully formulated the dark and embittered view of life that with such renewed intensity will return in his last tragedy. The moral degradation is felt already in every line of these grim poems on how he had believed that he had found a new Beatrice in the Dark Lady. And he has been cruelly deceived not just by her but also by the young nobleman who had accepted him, not just as a poet and actor, but as his equal as an aristocrat and as a friend.

He is twice deceived when he realizes that a friend of the nobleman is the Lady's lover, and also an idolized poet, whose amateurish verses have superseded his own poetry. He is the servant who thought he was master, brutally put back in his place.

And with this experience Shakespeare's view of the entire Neoplatonic pattern is dislodged. Now the secondary role emerges as a theme in his poetry, at the same time as he stubbornly refuses to lose the original vision completely out of sight. All of his subsequent drama will deal with the theme of demotion. From Hamlet to Brutus and Othello he puts forth a privileged hero who—because of an attack on his identity—reacts destructively against the aristocratic model that has formed him. It is then, in the dizzy fall toward the bottom, in the luxurious urge for annihilation, that Antony suddenly discovers that the depth is populated.

He discovers the banished, the constricted, the slaves on society's lowest level. And then the nature of the death wish changes; it becomes an expression of the eternal battle between suffering and oppression. A change that will affect the structure of all of the gigantic system of ideas. A self that will break out of its limitations, not in sexual liberation, but through identification with the conditions of the banished, a self that will rediscover itself by accepting the conditions of the role of the slave.

Antony gathers his servants around him on the eve of the last, decisive battle:

Well, my good fellows, wait on me tonight:
… and make as much of me
As when mine empire was your fellow too,
And suffer'd my command, …


Like a gleam in a piece of broken glass flashes the picture of another night of sacrifice, when a group of servants take farewell of their master and are entrusted with the future fate of the world: the last supper in the New Testament. It is surprisingly rare that Shakespeare uses biblical motifs compared to his use of motifs from contemporary art. Shakespeare is the “poet of secularization,” he transposes the religious motifs to make them serve that creative process of mankind that is the grand theme of his poetry. Seen in this perspective the model of the Neoplatonic world order is suddenly exposed as a falsification. The banished slaves are transformed from empty forms and symbols in an aristocratic-aesthetical code into human beings of flesh and blood.

It is the same transformation as we experience today when in the confrontation with Michelangelo's grave sculptures we are captivated more by the anguish and existential conditions of the slaves than by the composition as a whole and the subtlety of its higher superstructure. This is of course primarily because the sculptor has given these contorted, fighting limbs such a strong concreteness, but above all because we, in our own historical situation, look upon them as an expression of our own fight for freedom. We see their painful wrestling with the stone as an image of the rebellion against oppression and tyranny of the awakening poor nations. And we identify this awakening with our own revived awareness of being bound to their fight.

It is in the same way as in Shakespeare's drama, where Antony is awakened to awareness of being bound to the fate of the slaves:

                                                                                                                        Every time
Serves for the matter that it is then born in't.


With this identification both the theme of the play and Antony's role are changed. And we read it now, because of our own historical situation, as a reflection of the liberation theme, precisely as this is reflected in the other roles of the play. They are all variations on the theme of the secondary role, the servant theme. Even Eros, the demigod of ancient abstraction, is given human form, steps down together with the whole of the Neoplatonic system from his lofty niche in the world of ideas, to the earth, to be changed there into a living being in the role of a simple servant. And in what seems an important scene he exchanges this role with his master in order to give him a lesson in dignity, in what it means to liberate oneself from degradation and disgrace.

With this descent to the earth all of the grandiose Neoplatonic construction changes form, just as all roles will change identity in relation to the vision of liberty. We get a range of all the different ways of relating to this vision: treason, contempt, ignorance, paralysis, indifference to the possibility of freedom, but also the complete transformation to loyalty, and solidarity, with its concomitant message.

It is in this way that Enobarbus goes through his transformation, his pilgrimage through the inferno of treason, in the same way as the irresponsible young girls around Cleopatra are to find in death their way to the freedom of unconditional faithfulness. But first and foremost the greatest transformation happens through Cleopatra herself; it is through her that the theme of liberation gets its most exalted purgation and grandeur.


With Cleopatra Shakespeare revenges himself for the greatest degradation of his life. He writes himself free from the traumatic memory that he has tried to liberate himself from through his infinite poetical transformations. What luxurious pain in tearing away the mask from the Dark Lady—but at the same time what a victory for his unshakeable belief in the possibilities of transformation. What a picture he makes of the black gypsy he puts on the stage, a caricature of the Cleopatra myth, past her prime, vulgar and crude, grotesque and wild, but also with a soft humanity behind her split nature, just as with Antony whose illness she sees through because she suffers from the same disease herself, of being neglected, having to play a second-rank role in his love, when she is accustomed to being the foremost and most adored one in these hunting grounds.

Aristotle's idea of man as never being able to become more than a being of the second rank, because he can never rise to the idea of man, seems to have an uncanny manifestation in her role as well as in Antony's; they never become more than shadows and reflections of the pictures they have painted of each other. Because of this they throw themselves at each other's throats like wolves, as if they wanted to tear out with their teeth those confessions of absolute love they have never had a chance to hear from the other's lips, but which they know are there, behind all the lies and all the dissimulation. In their grotesque meetings, in their sadomasochistic attacks they can never find the words, they can only throw themselves in each other's arms in silence, as if in the contact of their bodies there was a language more eloquent than words. What a break with the idealistic credo, when this vulgar cocotte finally takes over the role of Beatrice in lifting her Antony from the lowness of the earthly level up to final purification. Her fire burns away the last remains of his degradation, and in her arms he finally rediscovers his lost identity. He can greet Caesar in the way a Roman greets a victor. He achieves liberation by accepting his fall, in his elevation, and in this way his death becomes a reconciliation of the oppositions inside him, a coincidentia oppositorum.

But the greatest change (which is at the same time the greatest deepening of the original theme) happens through Cleopatra. The despised old whore, who conducts her lover to his liberation, grows to something more than a reflection of the angelic Beatrice. When she has lost Antony, the battle of the sexes finally seems to abate, and her grief transforms her into a human being in whom the male-female opposition has melted down and lost all importance:

O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fall'n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men: the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.


But what human resources she has and what powers they give her to break out of the marble picture when she is forced to leave her protected retreat of cool androgyny upstairs and once again step down to the downstairs of the slaves.

At first she does this in order to find a metaphor for her grief. High and low have lost every meaning; it is only in a comparison with her lowest servant that she can find words for her loss and for her own self:

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


She follows the same road as Antony: from the heights of cold abstraction she climbs down to the warm earth and exchanges there her role as ruler and master with an identification with the slave. She no longer glorifies the paradise of blessed Dantean visions—instead she wants to throw her royal scepter at the evil gods as a protest against their cruel games. Here there are no gestures of reconciliation toward the divine, no confessions of surrender and humility, neither to heaven nor to earth, the gypsy of the East captures without help from others the Roman citizenship that has been denied her, not just by Caesar but even by her beloved Antony. Against the divine demand for submission, she poses the picture of the beloved elevated to cosmic proportions, and conquers heaven and earth for a dream of his greatness. As Juliet makes of Romeo a being who exceeds all God-given measures for man, Cleopatra puts before us the picture of Antony, to the destruction of all gods. She is mortal humanity confronted with a cosmos devoid of all divine assistance. In her existential forsakenness she musters up strength to endow the theme of freedom with a final greatness.

She meets Caesar, and the prisoner, considered to be a slave, conquers her conqueror. With Caesar the puritan morality of cleanness has reached its final perfection and revealed its hidden fascism. The manipulator steps forward as the dictator of the new republic. He leaves after the meeting with Cleopatra in the false belief that his despotic civic rationality has conquered eastern unreason. But Cleopatra has long seen through the confusion of roles between master and slave. It is he who is Fortune's slave, a poor lackey of the morality of progress, and therefore doomed. In order to demonstrate the paradox she arrays herself a last time in her queenly rank as a sign of a majesty that has finally taken farewell of all visible, earthly power. The Black Vesper's Masquerades are drawing toward their close—also for her. (Perhaps this was the author's calculated effect taking advantage of the waning light in his theater in the afternoon. The plays were performed in daylight. The way home was beginning to darken for the audience also.)

Finish, good lady, the bright day is done,
And we are for the dark.


With dusk the last mask falls from the aging cocotte, and clean and clear as dawn rises the undamaged vision of human integrity—measured not by puritan ideals—as uncontaminated by the mud as the water lily in the water.

The greatest poet of the Renaissance created his work at a time when a dying aristocracy had lost its foothold. A world in the process of restructuring, with new, rising classes on the way to breaking out of political oppression in order to make new demands of their existence, it would only take twenty years before the first European revolution had been carried through, monarchy abolished and the Puritan republic become a fact.

The poet anticipated this impending transformation—but he also defended himself against the contempt of the imagination and the spiritual impoverishment he feared would follow in its wake. Divided in his attitude to the aristocratic philosophy he himself destroyed, he has not yet found the new form that the disrupted situation requires. Instead he builds on the broken fragments of the old already superseded system, his vision. He has it conveyed by already aging characters, who can see that what is new in the new age is already losing its bearings. Their message is tragic because of the falling darkness around the vision of man's capability for integrity. But despite darkness, old age and decay this vision rises up with redoubled strength against the blight of unimaginative ideas, against spiritual capitulation, against slavery and oppression with redoubled strength. Through the thickening darkness is heard Hamlet's meditation on the creative process: “What a piece of work is man” (italics mine).

It could be translated as: “What a result of human endeavor is man.” His striving becomes a paean to man's ability of self-creation, to the ability to form a vision of an unshackled human community, despite the tyranny and evil of the material world. For us who experience our own struggle in our own time, the liberation theme in Antony and Cleopatra stands out with a new and unexpected intensity as a counteraction against the annihilation of man, against his degradation, against his loss of identification. The confrontation, between east and west, between the new world and the old, is concentrated and takes shape in human and apprehensible form.1


  1. This essay was translated by the editor from the text in Sverker R. Ek, Ulla Åsberg, Elsa Sjöberg and Katarina Sjöberg, eds., Alf Sjöberg: Teater som besvärjelse, artiklar från fem decennier (Stockholm: Norstedt & Söners förlag, 1982), 124-39.

Further Reading

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Berek, Peter. “Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 3 (autumn 1981): 295-304.

Highlights similarities in the views of Shakespeare's Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius regarding the limits of worldly action in Antony and Cleopatra.

Charnes, Linda. “What's Love Got to Do with It? Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Textual Practice 6, no. 1 (spring 1992): 1-16.

Holds the near universal acceptance of passionate and real love between Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra up to critical scrutiny.

Curtis, Mary Ann. “The Joining of Male and Female: An Alchemical Theme of Transmutation in Antony and Cleopatra.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 116-26.

Probes the imagery of alchemy in Antony and Cleopatra, illuminating the drama's thematic concern with a transcendent union of opposites.

Fitch, Robert E. “No Greater Crack?” Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 1 (winter 1968): 3-17.

Critiques the ideal of love usually identified in Antony and Cleopatra, focusing instead on the play's representation of a conflict between pleasure and power.

Hall, Joan Lord. “Themes.” In Antony and Cleopatra: A Guide to the Play, pp. 129-50. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Surveys a selection of dualistic conflicts and themes in Antony and Cleopatra, including the play's representation of love in opposition to military leadership, the antagonism between artistic imagination and nature, the futility of action in the face of capricious fortune, the essential mutability of the sublunar world, and the enormous power of theatricality and role-playing to destabilize perception and reality.

Hamilton, Donna B. “Antony and Cleopatra and the Tradition of Noble Lovers.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 1973): 245-52.

Examines the significance of Shakespeare's allusion to Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women in his Antony and Cleopatra.

Harris, Jonathan Gil. “‘Narcissus in thy Face’: Roman Desire and the Difference It Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 4 (winter 1994): 408-25.

Questions Cleopatra's status as an object of heterosexual desire in Antony and Cleopatra by comparing the drama with Elizabethan versions of the Narcissus myth.

Hiscock, Andrew. “‘Here Is My Space’: The Politics of Appropriation in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.English 47, no. 189 (autumn 1998): 187-212.

Analyzes the interpersonal and intercultural relationships of Antony and Cleopatra in the contexts of early modern English perceptions of time and space.

Morley, Sheridan. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.New Statesman 131, no. 4606 (23 September 2002): 45.

Praises the strong individual performances and the traditional directorial approach to Antony and Cleopatra undertaken by Michael Attenborough and the Royal Shakespeare Company in their 2002 staging of the drama.

Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Antony's ‘Secret House of Death’: Suicide and Sovereignty in Antony and Cleopatra.Philological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (spring 2000): 153-75.

Centers on Antony's motivations for suicide as dramatized in Antony and Cleopatra by contrasting Roman and Elizabethan cultural appraisals of the subject and the thematic significance of Antony's act of “self-murder” in the play.

Weitz, Morris. “Literature without Philosophy: Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare, Philosophy, and Literature: Essays, edited by Margaret Collins Weitz, pp. 55-67. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Observes that Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra contains numerous philosophical themes—many of them associated with the cyclic process of generation and corruption—but no universal philosophical thesis or claim.

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

Discusses Antony and Cleopatra as it displays Shakespeare's tragicomic evocation of “festive ambivalence” in the figure of Cleopatra's faithful attendant Charmian, and in Cleopatra's own gypsy-like qualities.

Lisa Hopkins (review date September 2002)

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SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.Early Modern Literary Studies 8, no. 2 (September 2002): 19.1-2.

[In the following review of the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Antony and Cleopatra under the direction of Michael Attenborough, Hopkins contends that the production was “unfocused” and “alarmingly short.”]

Going to see Antony and Cleopatra can sometimes be a daunting experience because it is so long. With this production, however, the converse very nearly applies: it is alarmingly short, with events unfolding at such breakneck speed that if you so much as blink you will probably have missed a crucial plot development. The Battle of Actium was won and lost by the (admittedly late) interval, and the entire thing comes in at only just over three hours. One of the principal reasons for this remarkable despatch is that a lot of lines have been cut, and the other is the simplicity and flexibility of the set, a panelled back wall bathed in soft golden light to suggest Egypt and harsh silver light to suggest Rome (with the single exception that the Egyptian rather than the Roman palette prevails in the drinking scene, suggesting the extent to which the influence of Egypt is here leaching into Rome). For most of the time, the sole furniture is two couch-like beds, pushed together for the Egyptian scenes and pulled confrontationally apart for the Roman ones. There are only two real additions to this minimalism: for the battle scenes, a panel at the back gives glimpses of an eerily futuristic combat, and the set is transformed into Cleopatra's tomb by the addition of a structure at the back which unfortunately looks like nothing so much as a coal bunker, and has the odd effect that Antony has to be lowered into the tomb rather than raised up to it. Cleopatra's reluctance to ascend to kiss him is also rendered entirely redundant by the fact that the Romans just march straight out of the bunker, though how this has been accomplished remains impossible to imagine.

There are some other odd directorial choices. The sepulchral soothsayer reappears for no apparent reason as the world's most sinister clown, and the word ‘worm’ appears to have been taken entirely literally, since it was impossible to see, from halfway back in the stalls, whether Cleopatra had anything at all in her hand or was merely pretending to be holding something. Most puzzling of all is the casting, though. Stuart Wilson has neither the vocal range nor the stage presence for Antony, and though Sinead Cusack tried valiantly, she never succeeded in establishing any sense of a believable rapport with him. The real stars of the show were Noma Dumezweni's Charmian, a performance which promises much for the future, Clive Wood's Enobarbus, and Stephen Campbell-Moore's splendidly repressed and self-righteous Octavius Caesar, miserably uncomfortable when forced to drink and engage in swordplay in the drinking scene. This was a fine performance, and one which suggested that Campbell-Moore would be well equipped to deliver a truly magnificent Angelo. However, it was sadly one of the few really convincing parts of a generally rushed and unfocused production.


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 70)


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 91)