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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Jacqueline Vanhoutte (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8446

SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Antony's ‘Secret House of Death’: Suicide and Sovereignty in Antony and Cleopatra.Philological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (spring 2000): 153-75.

[In the following essay, Vanhoutte argues that Shakespeare's depiction of Antony's suicide precludes judgments of it as either ignoble or praiseworthy. Drawing on the writings of Donne and Montaigne, she explicates early modern views of self-slaughter and concludes that although Antony initially contemplates death at his own hands in a despairing frame of mind, he ultimately regards his suicide as a self-assertive act that will thwart the attempts of others to define him.]

Just after Antony dies from a self-inflicted wound, Shakespeare's Cleopatra asks, “is it sin, / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?”1 The question appears to be rhetorical; Cleopatra soon announces her intention to prove her “resolution” by pursuing “the briefest end” (4.15.91).2 This decision earns her the homage of her most assiduous critic: Caesar, fond of describing the living Cleopatra as a “whore” (3.6.67), refers to the dead one as “bravest at the last” and “royal” (5.2.333-34). Readers of the play have followed suit. The queen of Egypt herself is the subject of conflicting commentary, but her “end” typically earns critical applause. Even those who denounce Cleopatra's conduct as sinful tend to find her suicide splendid.3 She is, to paraphrase Antony's comment about Fulvia, good choosing death.

As Cleopatra's question suggests, we judge suicide by precise ethical standards; as her answer about “the high Roman fashion” reveals, these standards are also culturally contingent. In Tudor England, those who had access to education, and therefore to classical literature, might indeed judge a suicide “brave” and “noble” if done “after the high Roman fashion” (4.15.86-87).4 The classical tradition concerning suicide provided the only widespread and coherent interpretative challenge to absolute condemnation of the act in early modern society.5 But for most people living in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, suicide was unquestionably a sin. Under the designation of “self-murder,” it was regarded as a transgression against the laws of God, of nature, and of the state.6

Far from being rhetorical, then, Cleopatra's question calls attention to the difficulty of judging a suicide that does not conform to “Roman fashion.” Prompted by the “poor passion” (4.15.74) that she suffers as a result of Antony's death, her question refers as much to his death as to her own. And Antony's final moments have earned less acclaim than hers, in part because Antony improvises a death that comprises elements of the “high Roman” and early modern models of suicide, but that cannot satisfactorily be explained by reference to either. In his treatment of Antony's suicide, Shakespeare inhibits both praise and condemnation, the two responses associated respectively with classical and early modern ideas about suicide. The ensuing ambiguity suits the story well: the pagan setting precludes strictly Christian readings of suicide, while Antony's status as history's most famous deserting soldier undermines Roman readings. Capitalizing on the potential of his source, Shakespeare overturns the categories by which suicide was understood in the early modern period; he evokes these categories only to demonstrate their inadequacy when it comes to describing Antony's tragic death.

Antony's refusal to follow a recognizable pattern in his suicide might account for the discomfort occasioned by his death among the play's critics. While from Cleopatra's perspective Antony has rushed into “the secret house,” his critics have more frequently chastised his slowness in dying. Even Phyllis Rackin, whose reading of the play is sympathetic to its protagonists, considers Antony's suicide “a...

(This entire section contains 8446 words.)

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messy affair”; other scholars more categorically describe it as “bungled” or “botched.”7 Antony's motivations appear conflicted and his means suspect: he “cannot properly manage” his own death, he is “diminishe[d] … in the eyes of the audience,” he behaves “like a gulled, ineffectual comic figure.”8 Again and again, Antony's dying body elicits such condescension and confusion. Like Antony's guards, who upon discovering their bleeding master flee the room, critics eager to salvage Antony's reputation rush over the embarrassing particulars of his suicide and focus instead on its aftermath. Cleopatra's eulogies enable readings that emphasize Antony's achievement of some kind of transcendent “new heaven” (1.1.17).9 Such readings, however, privilege another character's view of Antony's death over his own experience of it. Yet Shakespeare demonstrably calls our attention to the actual details of Antony's dying; for the better part of two scenes, Antony “importune[s] death” (4.15.19).

Significantly, none of the surviving characters comments negatively on Antony's failure to achieve a brief “end.” When modern critics denounce the “botched” nature of Antony's suicide, then, they seem to be applying to it an aesthetic standard more attuned to late Romantic sensibilities than to those of the early modern period. Like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, they want their hero's suicide to “shimmer with spontaneous beauty.”10 Antony fails to meet that standard and indeed fails to meet any other recognizable standard. His suicide is “shap'd” only “like itself” (2.7.41). This morphology manifests itself in the extraordinary stage business that attends Antony's dying. It is is also apparent in the fact that he finds a “secret house” in a world where there is “no time for private stomaching” (2.2.9) and in the way that he bears his dying body into the public sphere where he presents it as an emblem of his sovereignty: “not Caesar's valour hath o'erthrown Antony, / But Antony's hath triumph'd on itself” (4.15.14-15). To borrow a phrase from Elaine Scarry's work on torture, Antony's death is a “piece of compensatory drama,” a ritual purgation of the public world generally and, more specifically, of the excess signification that his body has been made to bear in it.11 It is comic only in that it celebrates the brief reunion of what Antony calls his “spirit” (4.15.58) and the body from which, over the course of the play, he becomes increasingly alienated. It is transcendent only in that Antony momentarily overcomes the dynamics by which his body has become a form of cultural property.

Cleopatra's domestic metaphor (the “house of death”) implies that suicide, like Antony's body, is private, even though it calls to itself public meaning. Instead of signaling a failure, then, the “great gap of time” (1.5.5) required for Antony's death provides Shakespeare with the opportunity to investigate this discrepancy more closely. As John Donne notes, any conclusions reached about a suicide's state of mind are “doubtfull” at best, since they reflect the “scandaliz'd” sensibilities of those who presume to judge rather than the actual experience of the suicide, who can no longer be interrogated.12 Donne calls attention to the distance between the suicide's private experience and the public judgment passed on that experience. Shakespeare exploits this gap in his representation of Antony's death. Antony's prolonged death emphasizes the disjunctions between his experience and the culturally validated models for understanding that experience. His case, in other words, points to the limitations in the deterministic paradigms governing early modern responses to suicide.

By the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, suicide had become a source of intense cultural concern. For various reasons, the Tudor institutions of church and state produced increasingly stringent definitions of and sanctions against self-murder. In their study of suicide in early modern England, Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy record a steady increase in convictions for felo de se: whereas from 1485 to 1499 only six persons were convicted, from 1540 to 1549, 499 were convicted, and from 1600 to 1609, 873. According to MacDonald and Murphy, this increase does not reflect an actual rise in the number of suicides; instead, it signals an increasing socio-cultural censoriousness about suicide. Because of “the early coincidence of governmental and religious reform,” early modern English society developed “a common stereotype of self-murder, shared by men and women of every rank, [which] determined the response to the deed.”13

The stereotype represented the suicide as alienated, deprived of divine grace, and dangerous to human communities; consequently, the response to suicide tended to be condemnatory. Both stereotype and response evolved from a combination of popular superstition, church doctrine, and legal persecution. Legal and popular attitudes towards suicides focused on the deed as it affected the larger community—self-murder was a political sin as well as a religious one. A commonplace analogy, here in Montaigne's version, expresses the period's dominant paradigm for understanding suicide:

without the expresse commandment of him, that hath placed us in this world, we may by no meanes forsake the garrison of it, and that it is the hands of God only, who therein hath placed us, not for our selves alone, but for his glory, and others service, when ever it shall please him to discharge us hence, and not for us to take leave: That we are not borne for our selves, but for our Countrie. … it is against nature, we should despise, and carelessly set our selves at naught.14

The analogy of the suicide to a deserting soldier emphasizes the religious and political dimension of the crime, because the soldier's post is assigned by God but involves responsibility to “others service” and to the state. Like witchcraft, suicide violated the order of “nature” and was frequently attributed to diabolic intervention.15

Classical culture—in particular Roman culture—did make more positive valuations of suicide available. Ever contradictory, Montaigne praises Cato's death, cites the Roman stoics in defense of suicide, and opines that “the voluntariest death is the fairest.”16 The classical paradigm tended to select for praise those, like Cato, who killed themselves to preserve honor or communally held values. Thus, whereas the common suicide retreated dangerously from public responsibility, the heroic suicide in effect affirmed his or her commitment to communal life. But such heroic figures had little enough to do with most suicidal individuals. The idealizing tendencies of the classical view of suicide could therefore coexist peacefully with the demonizing tendencies of the early modern view despite the apparent contradictions between the models.

Shakespeare's plays attest to his familiarity with the two dominant interpretations of suicide. In fact, his representations of suicidal characters typically rely on cultural commonplace. Macbeth's suicidal despair, for example, is the consequence of his disregard for the laws of nature, God, and state. To accentuate the extent to which his hero's transgressions are supernatural, Shakespeare has Macbeth call on the aptly named Seyton while he despairs of Divine grace.17 The same suspicion that suicide is not only sinful but diabolical informs Edgar's treatment of his father in King Lear; Edgar “cures” his father of suicidal despair by staging a mock-suicide complete with imaginary devil.18 Shakespeare treats Brutus, on the other hand, to the “high Roman fashion”: he dies nobly and efficiently, affirming to the last the values of honor and country, and earning the public praise of his enemies Antony and Octavius.19

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare uses these familiar strategies to present the deaths of Enobarbus and Cleopatra. He applies the early modern model of suicide to Enobarbus's miserable and lonely death: having lost faith in Antony, the deserting soldier succumbs first to Caesar's empty promises and then to suicidal despair.20 In Shakespeare's adaptation of Christian ideas about suicide, the triad of good general, soldier, and enemy general replaces the more traditional triad of God, soul, and devil. Although the religious implications of suicide disappear, the political ones are stressed. Enobarbus deserts Antony's “garrison,” enters instead in Caesar's service, and finds himself “the villain of the earth” (4.6.30). Evidence of Antony's continuing magnanimity serves only to deepen the old soldier's despair, for it underlines the extent to which he is unworthy of the one system—service to Antony—guaranteed to bring him “joy” (4.6.20). Ranking himself “a master-leaver, and a fugitive” (4.9.22), he finds a “ditch, wherein to die” (4.6.38). In his final moments, Enobarbus experiences the self-hatred, melancholia, alienation, and despair commonly attributed to suicides in the early modern period. His choice of a grave further condemns him, for suicides were buried in England face-down in a pit by the highway.21 Shakespeare leaves little doubt that, in Enobarbus's case, rushing into the “secret house” is “sin.”

Shakespeare's treatment of Enobarbus's death makes use of one aspect of his culture's dualistic thinking about suicide, and his treatment of Cleopatra's death reflects the other. Her death is untinged by desertion, despair, or self-hatred; like Brutus, she maintains her dignity. Although she manages to keep her intention a secret from Caesar, the suicide itself is not a private act. Instead, like Brutus's suicide, it derives its nobility from its public nature. Death, for Cleopatra, is an opportunity for one more controlled display of theatrical power, one more extravagant political self-assertion. It works: Caesar finally acknowledges “her strong toil of grace” (5.2.346). More importantly, Cleopatra forces Caesar to abandon his own habitual misogyny and come to terms with her as a political agent. The man who believes that “women are not / In their best fortunes strong; but want will perjure / The ne'er touched vestal” (3.12.29-31) recognizes in Cleopatra's death the defeat of his own stratagems. “She levell'd at our purposes,” he observes, “and being royal / Took her own way” (5.2.334-35). This is high praise, for the Romans generally refuse Cleopatra her position as “president of [her] kingdom” (3.7.17); and Caesar himself calls into question her royalty earlier in the scene when, ignoring the visible signs that distinguish Cleopatra from her serving maids, he asks, “which is the Queen of Egypt?” (5.2.111).22 Cleopatra's suicide answers him. Her resolution in death expresses her continued engagement in the politics of the play and her absolute commitment to the values she has espoused throughout. When the First Guard echoes Cleopatra's question about the ethical validity of suicide—“Is this well done?” (5.2.324)—Charmian responds without hesitation: “It is well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings” (5.2.325-26). Here, Charmian implies, lies the noblest Egyptian of them all.

Antony's death is flanked by the deaths of Enobarbus and Cleopatra. It occurs, literally, “midway /’Twixt these extremes” (3.4.19-20).23 Such placement invites comparison, and indeed, Antony's suicide comprises aspects of the other deaths. It originates, for example, in private despair but it ends in public display: Antony kills himself in a room and dies at a monument. In his desire to “unarm” and to be “no more a soldier” (4.14.35-42), Antony, like Enobarbus, calls to mind the analogy of the soldier. But, like Cleopatra, Antony takes his own death to be a triumph; as Robert Miola points out, some aspects of Antony's suicide are “recognizably Roman.”24 This interweaving of apparently incompatible positions on suicide is further complicated by the fact that although Shakespeare goes out of his way to invoke both familiar patterns, he also inhibits the standard response to either. Neither praise nor condemnation seems an appropriate reaction to Antony's experience.

By attributing Antony's initial suicidal impulse to despair, Shakespeare strays from his source and strips the suicide of some of its classical connotations. Plutarch's Antonius behaves as a Roman should. He hears that Cleopatra has died; and, refusing to be outdone by a woman, he dies by manfully “thrust[ing] his sword into his bellie.”25 In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony displays no such laudable resolution, no single-minded commitment to a motivation—and certainly not to the one cited by Plutarch, since Antony's first suicidal thoughts precede by two scenes the false report of Cleopatra's death. Instead, Antony contemplates suicide when he suspects that Cleopatra has betrayed him with Caesar. His loss of faith in Cleopatra is tainted by the Roman view of her; he calls her, famously, a “triple-turn'd whore” (4.12.13). But the self-destructive thoughts that this despair inspires owe nothing to the “Roman fashion” concerning suicide. Enraged, Antony invokes the memory of Hercules' death:

The shirt of Nessus is upon me, teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o' the moon,
And with these hands that grasp'd the heaviest club,
Subdue my worthiest self. …


The analogy that Antony makes between his putative ancestor's demise and his own desire for self-destruction is instructive in a number of ways. By using Hercules' Greek name (for the first time in the play), Antony underlines the extent to which his suicidal rage is not a manifestation of his Roman identity. Suicide, at this time, appears shameful to him. Far from safeguarding integrity and honor, it entails the destruction of his “worthiest self.” Moreover, implicit in Antony's analogy is the recognition that his rage is misdirected: whereas Alcides vents his anger against the innocent Lichas, Antony prepares to vent his against Cleopatra.

In its earliest appearance, Antony's suicidal impulse resembles the despair experienced by characters like Macbeth and Enobarbus. Antony's analogy implies, in any case, that his inherited suicidal rage is inescapable, like the fate that Macbeth routinely blames. Like Macbeth, Antony believes that he has been driven so far because a “witch” has “beguil'd” (4.12.28) him. Enobarbus succumbs to despair because he lacks faith in Antony; Antony follows suit when he loses faith in Cleopatra. Both servant and master have what they take to be sufficient evidence to justify their skepticism, and neither can tolerate living with that skepticism. But whereas new evidence of Antony's generosity plunges Enobarbus farther into despondency and self-hatred, Antony's despair is short-lived. He raises the idea that Cleopatra is a “witch” with supernatural power only to dismiss it, conclusively. When he does finally throw himself on his sword, he has overcome his despair. Further evidence of Cleopatra's trickery does not disturb the equanimity with which he faces his death, nor does he mention again the ways in which she has failed him. Antony's despair over Cleopatra brings the idea of suicide to his mind, but it is not what makes him kill himself.

Antony's bewildering improvisation of motives undermines Shakespeare's initial presentation of him as a soul in despair, and it equally undermines Decretas's later presentation of his master as a noble Roman. In considering suicide, Antony cites, in chaotic succession, his rage at Cleopatra, his fear that Cleopatra and Caesar are colluding, his love for Cleopatra, his desire to emulate her, his desire to emulate Eros, and his refusal to become a trophy in Caesar's triumph. Only the latter qualifies as a “Roman” justification for suicide, but its presence among so many others gives it the ring of rationalization rather than motive. Indeed, as circumstances force Antony to recognize that a motivation is not valid, he simply exchanges it for a new one. His commitment to suicide is constant; the reasons that he adduces for it are not.

Near death, Antony asserts that he was once “the greatest prince o' the world, / The noblest” (4.15.53-54). He cannot, however, affirm anything categorically about his own suicide. At first he does find that he has done his “work ill” (4.14.105) because he survives the actual deed. But the private work ill begun ends in a sense of public triumph at Cleopatra's monument. There, he expresses his achievement in a series of negatives, assuring Cleopatra that “not Caesar's valour hath o'erthrown Antony, / But Antony's hath triumph'd on itself,” and that

… [I] do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman: a Roman, by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish'd …


The Latinate words that he chooses—valour, vanquish, valiant—underscore his claim. They suggest not the private despair of the alienated individual, but the glorious victory of the classical hero. The way in which Antony puts these words together, however, cancels out Roman meaning even as it is invoked: “valour” destroys “valour” and “Roman” annihilates “Roman.” The suicide may or may not have subdued Antony's “worthiest self,” but it has certainly destroyed his Roman identity. The two, as we shall see, are not the same.

The instability of Antony's motivations restrains both “scandaliz'd” and laudatory responses, because both rely on a stable sense of motive. The amalgam of Christian and classical motifs that characterizes Antony's suicide further impedes pat ethical judgment. No easy label can adequately convey the complexities of Antony's experience as Shakespeare represents it. As a result, it becomes difficult to answer Cleopatra's question—“Is it sin?”—with any certainty.

By inhibiting both praise and condemnation, Shakespeare may be encouraging what Donne, in Biathanatos, calls a “charitable interpretacion” of Antony's suicide.26 The subtitle of Donne's treatise give a good indication of its content: A Declaration of that Paradoxe or Thesis, that Selfe-homicide is not so naturally Sinne, that it may neuer be otherwise. Wherein The Nature, and the extent of all those Lawes, which seeme to be violated by this Act, are diligently Surueyd. “Is it sin?” Not always, says Donne; and his treatise, by contesting the arguments that describe suicide as sin, cautions against totalizing judgments on the subject. Shakespeare's treatment of Antony's death stresses ambiguity and uncertainty and thus delivers a similar caution. Certainly, we are asked to withhold judgment for the considerable time that it takes Antony to make his decision, to implement it, and, finally, to die. Shakespeare does not idealize or ridicule Antony's suicide; instead, he depicts it in agonizing detail. The stunned reactions of the on-stage witnesses give some indication of the potentially intense effect of the dying scenes. Eros kills himself to “escape the sorrow / Of Antony's death” (4.14.94-95), and Antony's guards initially run from the room. But the rest of us must look on while Antony “cure[s]” himself “with a wound” (4.14.78).

Shakespeare leaves us no choice but to come to terms with the sorrow of Antony's death, and the business with Eros and the guards provides us with a means for doing so. Antony requests assistance from Eros and from the guards: he tells the guards “let him that loves me strike me dead” (4.14.108). Both refuse and thus prolong his agony—Eros because, as his name indicates, he loves Antony too much, and the guards because, as their response indicates, they do not love Antony enough. Antony's plea calls attention to the guards' cowardly failure in charity; despite their recognition of the momentousness of the occasion, they withdraw. In making the plea for cooperation, Antony assumes that his suffering will elicit a loving response. The success of the suicide, in other words, momentarily hinges on Antony's ability to provoke a “charitable interpretacion.”

Although the guards disappoint Antony, his assumption concerning the possibility of such an interpretation is not necessarily faulty. It involves steering a course “midway / 'Twixt these extremes” of idealization and denigration, loving too much and loving not enough. Antony himself paves the way for a “charitable” response when he refers to the suicide as a cure (4.14.78). The suggestion that suicide heals suffering tends to provoke sympathetic responses in early modern commentators. For example, Montaigne notes that “the common course of any infirmitie, is ever directed at the charge of life: we have incisions made into us, we are cauterized, we have limbes cut and mangled, we are let bloud, we are dieted. Goe we but one step further, we need no more physicke, we are perfectly whole.”27 Momentarily, Montaigne withholds judgment as he considers the possibility that suicide might be a radical act of self-healing, a making “whole” of that which has been rent. Suicide returns agency to the traumatized subject: after being prodded, mangled, cut, bled, and cauterized by some unknown agent, the “we” of the sentence triumphantly takes charge at the moment of suicide. By grounding suicide in the common somatic experience of pain, Montaigne briefly asks us to identify with, rather than disassociate ourselves from, the suicide.

The idea that suicide returns agency to the subject also sustains Donne's “charitable interpretacion,” which is based in part on an acknowledgement of his own suicidal tendencies.28 In Donne's self-analysis, the categories by which early modern society understood suicide are evident, despite his desire to resist them; he blames his suicidal tendencies on his exposure to the discredited Catholic religion and on “the common Enemy.” But as he progresses in his search for cause, other possibilities present themselves. The mention of “braue scorn” evokes a classical approach to suicide, and while Donne describes suicide first as an “affliction,” it quickly becomes a “remedy.” As in Antony's case, the idea of suicide sustains a number of contradictory and culturally specific meanings. But these meanings cancel each other out in order to leave only Donne's desire for sovereignty—“methinks I haue the keyes of my prison in myne owne hand.”29

The triumphant sense of recovered agency in Donne and Montaigne calls to mind Antony's sense of triumph in death, his insistence that his suicide be understood as a self-referential act (“Not Caesar's valour … but Antony's”). In fact, the desire for agency over his own body informs not only Antony's determination to cure himself with a wound but also his behavior throughout the play. Shakespeare, in other words, does not limit his representation of Antony as a suicidal figure to the scenes immediately preceding his death. From the beginning, Shakespeare presents Antony as a soldier eager to desert the competing cultures—Rome and Egypt—that claim agency over his body. Antony's assertions of sovereignty at Cleopatra's monument make sense within the context of his broader struggle to regain possession of his own body.

Antony and Cleopatra opens with an inventory of Antony's body parts: while condemning Antony's “dotage,” Philo describes his “goodly eyes,” “his captain's heart,” and “his breast” (1.1.2-8). Philo's attention to Antony's physical traits recalls the conventional blazons of Renaissance sonnets. As such, Philo's speech forms an appropriate introduction to a male hero whom the playwright consistently represents in terms of his superabundant carnality. Carnality is more habitually associated with women in the period; indeed, many readers of Antony and Cleopatra have associated it with Cleopatra.30 But Shakespeare never insists on Cleopatra's body in the way that he insists on Antony's. Antony's physicality overwhelms all the other characters' conversations about him. Cleopatra spends his absence wondering “Stands he, or sits he? / Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?” Her attempts to imagine Antony's body culminate, notoriously, with her envy of his horse: “O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” (1.5.19-21). Cleopatra's erotic yearning underlines Antony's status as an object of desire in this play. The form that desire takes is culturally contingent; Antony's “weight” signifies differently in Egypt than in Rome. But the validity of his body as cultural capital is never in question.

Both Rome and Egypt have a political stake in Antony; both Romans and Egyptians consequently show themselves determined to take advantage of Antony's expansive carnality. He is, as Cleopatra notes, “the greatest soldier in the world” (1.3.38), and he can be made to bear a number of ideologically inflected meanings. To Cleopatra, he is not just a lover, but a “soldier, servant” (1.3.70), the means by which she converts sexual into political power. Accordingly, Antony's departure from Egypt strikes Cleopatra as a political offense; she finds that he has committed “treasons” against her as a queen (1.3.26). Even so, he continues to be significant enough to her politics that she finds criticism of him to be equally treasonous (1.5.7). Cleopatra needs Antony's “inches” in order to show “there were a heart in Egypt” (1.3.40-41). Long after he leaves his post, she continues to use those “inches” as evidence of her own power.

The Romans have their own ideas about what Antony's “inches” mean; and in his predilection for Egyptian queens and Egyptian dishes, Antony challenges those ideas. He deviates from Roman standards of masculinity that emphasize masculine control over somatic impulses—standards that, paradoxically, he also embodies. By a perverse logic, Antony best represents ideal Roman masculinity because he has the most body to control. In fact, his name has become the Roman culture's byword for honor and valor, and the Romans find only his own past example to indict his current behavior. Even in the act of condemnation, for example, Philo attests to the way in which Antony's body sustained Roman readings: his “goodly eyes” once “glow'd like plated Mars,” his “captain's heart … in the scuffles of great fights hath burst / The buckles on his breast” (1.1.2-8). Caesar similarly relies on Antony's past to castigate Antony for his “lascivious wassails” in Egypt (1.4.56). He demonstrates the transgressive nature of Antony's current “voluptuousness” (1.4.26) by contrasting it to his previous willingness to drink the “stale of horses” and to “eat strange flesh, / Which some did die to look on” (1.4.62-68) in the line of duty. Even under such a regimen, Caesar notes approvingly, Antony's “cheek / so much as lank'd not” (1.4.70-71). Antony's unnatural feedings stand in Rome for masculine honor, for the extent, that is, to which the body can be subjected to spirit and material need can cede to the needs of the state. Despite its reductiveness—masculinity here becomes little more than a form of gastronomic self-flagellation—Caesar's description supplies the surest definition of Roman honor in Antony and Cleopatra.

The Romans resent Antony's desertion precisely because Antony occupies such a privileged position. While Philo means to pay homage to the way in which Antony's body signified Roman honor, the image that he invokes—of this body exploding the constraints of Roman armor—is ambiguous. Antony's body “overflows” (1.1.2); Roman armor or Roman interpretation cannot ultimately contain it. And Antony's resistance to Roman interpretation confuses Philo because it threatens his basic cognitive categories. To Philo, honor and Antony are so closely identified that a separation between them would dissolve both quantities: “when he is not Antony, / He comes too short of that great property / Which still should go with Antony” (1.1.57-59). The “great property” is by definition Antony's; if “he is not Antony,” then the property has nowhere to go. In abandoning his post as Roman soldier par excellence, Antony leaves a troubling vacuum in Roman discourse. Although all the feats of Roman honor discussed in the play occur in the past—occur in fact in Antony's past—the value remains central to Roman cultural identity.31 By staying alive without retaining the “great property” which he embodies, Antony threatens that identity. From the Roman perspective, he has deserted a long time before he orders Eros to “pluck off” (4.15.37) the armor that binds what Philo calls his “captain's heart.”

As his first great speech demonstrates, Antony himself views his stay in Egypt as an escape from the determining forces of Rome. In response to Cleopatra's teasing accusations that his blush “is Caesar's homager” and that his “cheek pays shame” to Fulvia (1.1.30-31), Antony asserts his sovereignty:

Let Rome into the Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus. …


As Cleopatra observes, the speech is “an excellent falsehood” (1.1.40), for Egypt is not in fact a depoliticized “space” Antony may define as his own but a “kingdom” in which he must act the part of a subject. Antony has exchanged Roman overdetermination for its Egyptian counterpart; and, afraid to “lose [him]self,” he eventually reverses the process to break his “Egyptian fetters” (1.2.113-14).32 Nevertheless, he briefly finds in Egypt a position from which to criticize the Roman association between nobility and somatic repression; as he kisses Cleopatra, he privileges his own pleasure momentarily over the competing claims that the Roman and Egyptian states have on his “inches.” “To do thus” for Antony is to create a gap in language and to reclaim his body as independent from the public representations of it that proliferate in the play. He deserts so as to assert his own power (however imperfectly, however fantastically) over his body and its significations. Antony's “excellent falsehood” allows him briefly to “be himself” (1.1.43).

It is within this context, provided by Antony's first speech, that I suggest we understand his decision “to do thus” (4.14.102) later in the play, when he kills himself. Antony's belief that doing “thus” once again guarantees “nobleness” (4.14.99) confirms the connectedness of these two moments in the play; the kiss and the sword stroke are parallels of a sort.33 Moments before he stabs himself, Antony fears that his body is disintegrating, like a cloud given brief shape by the imagination:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
                                                  It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.


As his analogy indicates, Antony perceives his body as shaped by others' thoughts: he is still Antony, but it no longer belongs to him. He proposes the suicide as a remedy to his sense that he “cannot hold” his own body together. His suicide is thus an attempt to reassert control over his “visible shape” by removing himself from the determining cultural pressures that he thinks are destroying him. With a “wound,” Antony creates a gap in culture where he can make his body his own again.

Like Donne and Montaigne, Antony discovers sovereignty in a suicidal thought. The representational practices of Rome and Egypt have alienated him from his body by making it bear an excess of signification. Antony experiences this alienation as a somatic disintegration. But he can make himself “whole,” to use Montaigne's term, by effecting his own death; in doing “thus,” he proves that his “inches” are indeed his and that his “cheek” pays homage to none. For Antony, suicide replicates, with a difference, the dynamic that Elaine Scarry has identified in torture. Scarry argues that torture

is a condensation of the act of “overcoming” the body present in benign forms of power. Although the torturer dominates the prisoner in both physical and verbal acts, ultimate domination requires that the prisoner's ground become increasingly physical and the torturer's increasingly verbal, that the prisoner become a colossal body and the torturer a colossal voice … with no body, that eventually the prisoner experience himself exclusively in terms of sentience and the torturer exclusively in terms of self-extension.34

Suicide collapses torturer and prisoner into one; by subjecting his body to “sentience,” the suicide may paradoxically experience a “self-extension.” Given the right conditions, the suicide may in fact experience himself or herself as both “colossal body” and “colossal voice,” so that he or she may overcome the other voices that seek domination over the body and thus establish “ultimate domination.”

Antony's suicide culminates in such a scene of domination. His final moments are marked both by sentience and by self-extension. “How heavy weighs my lord!” (4.15.31), exclaims Cleopatra as she hoists up the dying Antony to her monument. W. B. Worthen argues that the comment “draws our attention to [Antony's] body,”35 and so do the other carnal puns in which the scene abounds. The focus on Antony's body in his death-scene momentarily inactivates ideological readings—those within the play of that body and those within the audience of his suicide. Poised between heaven and earth, Antony's body offers itself as an object of contemplation throughout the scene, insistently drawing attention to its own heaviness, its carnality, and its pain. His range of physical activity, meanwhile, establishes that body's continued capacity for the more pleasurable forms of sentience. He kisses, he drinks, and, punningly, he comes. While his body hangs, his expansive carnality becomes his own. Antony's extraordinary death makes his body present as a “colossal body,” the huge “case of that huge spirit” (4.15.89) bestriding, if not the ocean, at least the extremes of carnal experience.

The audience's extended confrontation with this dying body serves several functions. First, the recognition of Antony's pain should encourage a sympathetic response: Shakespeare suspends his hero in order to encourage us to suspend our judgment. Plutarch's description of “poore Antonius” at the monument emphasizes the fact that those who “were present to behold it, said they never saw so pitiefull a sight.”36 Shakespeare follows his source by evoking pity; however, he carefully avoids the negative connotations of “pitiefull” by distancing his triumphant Antony from Plutarch's “crying” Antonius. As Leslie Thomson notes, Antony's death scene prompts us “to agree that he ‘do[es] … not basely die.’”37 Moreover, the extent to which Shakespeare represents Antony's pain in terms of his capacity for pleasure forces an acknowledgment of Antony's singular individuality, stripped now of political meanings. Whereas the rest of the play has trained us to think of Antony's body in terms of its ideological use, in the death scene, it becomes, as it were, pure body. The heavy eroticism of this scene at the same time transforms us into voyeurs. Our gaze in the death scene is invasive and therefore transgressive. Our voyeuristic shame (the embarrassment so common to critical discussions of the scene) paradoxically confirms Antony's ownership of his body because it transforms his politicized body into a private body. And if Antony owns his body—if that body does not, in fact, belong to Egypt or to Rome, to the “countrie” or to God—then his suicide cannot be a sin.

Wearied by the aftermath of Actium, Antony earlier expressed his desire to “breathe between the heavens and the earth, / A private man” (3.12.14-15). By entering the “secret house of death,” Antony briefly enacts that desire: he finds the “midway /’Twixt extremes.” In transition between heaven and earth, life and death, Roman guards and Egyptian queen, Antony's body emblematizes his search for a private “space” where “kingdoms are clay.” The suicide rejects politically constructed meanings and substitutes a jubilant sense of sovereignty.38 Twice, Antony claims that his voluntary death constitutes an act of overcoming. The inarticulateness of his claims reveals the extent to which he has removed himself from the play's public discourses. His assurances to Cleopatra—that his “valour,” not Caesar's, has overcome his “valour” and that though undefeated by a “countryman,” he is a “Roman, by a Roman” vanquished—also emphasize his erasure of his own submission to culture. Antony forces the cancellation of Rome within himself. His pain is “world-ridding”;39 it obliterates all evidence of Romanness and of Caesar.

Paradoxically, Antony's death also frees the Romans to rehabilitate his reputation and reappropriate his past.40 The suicide allows the Romans to restore the link between Antony's “great property” and Antony, and thus to restore Antony to his previous position as the paragonal Roman soldier. When Decretas notifies the Roman generals of Antony's death, he connects the suicide directly to Antony's glorious past, thereby imputing to Antony a consistency that he has lacked and erasing altogether the Antony whom we have seen in the play:

… that self hand
Which writ his honour in the acts it did,
Hath, with the courage which the heart did lend it,
Splitted the heart. This is his sword,
I robb'd his wound of it: behold it stain'd
With his most noble blood.


Decretas imagines Antony's suicide as Antony's final inscription of Roman honor on his body—he writes his honor on his splitted heart—and this pleases the assembled Roman potentates enormously. Where shortly before they had regarded Antony as an “old ruffian” (4.1.4), they now characterize him as the rarest “spirit” that “did steer humanity” (5.1.31-32); Caesar himself finds in the dead Antony a “friend,” a “mate,” a “companion” (5.1.43-44).

But Decretas's interpretation of Antony's suicide is perforce limited and limiting. Unlike us, he does not witness Antony's ultimate moments or attend to his final speeches; he barges into the room and remains only long enough to take the sword embedded in the still-living Antony. When he mentions having “robb'd his wound of it,” Decretas does not speak metaphorically, and his interpretation of the suicide is tainted by the cold-blooded opportunism of the gesture that enables it. Decretas has no idea why Antony committed suicide. His only concern is that “this sword but shown to Caesar with this tidings / Shall enter me with him” (4.14.112-13). As the unfortunate pun reveals, the sword, in facilitating Decretas's entry with Caesar, has taken on a quite different signification than it had had in Antony's body. It becomes the occasion for Caesar's cunning reappropriation of Antony and of his body: the rebellious voluptuary thus becomes “the arm of [Caesar's] own body” (5.1.45) and his story may usefully be rehabilitated to inflate “his glory which / Brought [Antony] to be lamented” (5.2.359-60). To drive an “old ruffian” to suicide is hardly creditable labor; however, to encourage a wayward hero to kill himself in an ultimate tribute to the value of “honour” is work fit for an emperor. To use Donne's term, the Romans' judgment concerning Antony's suicide is “doubtfull” at best. The “tidings” Decretas so carefully prepares for Roman consumption are nothing but the serviceable fictions of a grave-robber and the culture he wishes to re-“enter.”

The habit of imposing ideologically useful readings on still-warm corpses is not peculiar to Romans; indeed, Cleopatra manages successfully to use her dead lover to further her own ends. Once she overcomes the “poor passion” that turns her into “no more but e'en a woman” (4.15.73-75), she transforms the suicide into proof of her own transfigurative powers. Initially, she views Antony's suicide not just as an act that guarantees his status as the “noblest of men” (4.15.59) but also as an act of selfishness and desertion: she asks her dying lover, “Hast thou no care of me?” (4.15.60). Cleopatra experiences his death first as an abandonment, a fissure in their carefully sustained public identity as a “mutual pair” (1.1.36). In dying too soon, Antony has moved beyond her decidedly unsecret public representations of their relationship. Only by keeping him alive artificially in her visionary speeches does she manage to give credence to the assertion that she will join him. Her eulogies of Antony, delivered to Dolabella, are prologue to her own “immortal longings” (5.2.280). She “imagine[s] / An Antony” (5.2.98-99) so as to seduce a Dolabella, and through him, posterity. Cleopatra's handling of Antony's death is far more attractive than Decretas's but no less opportunistic.41

Shakespeare suggests that judgments such as Decretas's and Cleopatra's are more likely to reflect on the ethical nature of the judge than on that of the dead person. The misreadings of Antony's suicide that proliferate after his death underscore the difficulty of judging an act of such complexity. These misreadings point also to the ultimate failure of Antony's enterprise. Although his suicide allows him a moment of unfettered sovereignty, it finally feeds the ideological forces that he had attempted to defeat. And in that irony lies the “sorrow of Antony's death.”


  1. Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley, the Arden Shakespeare (1954; reprint, London: Routledge, 1988), 4.15.80-82; all subsequent citations are to this edition.

  2. Roland Wymer, in Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), considers the question “wholly rhetorical” (128).

  3. See, for example, H. C. Goddard, who is critical of Cleopatra but argues that, in her death, she shows “obedience to her own new self and to her emperor Antony,” The Meaning of Shakespeare (U. of Chicago Press, 1960), 200.

  4. For an overview of the impact made by the Roman tradition concerning suicide on the early modern intelligentsia, see Roland Wymer, Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 1-37, and Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 86-106.

  5. Even so, classical attitudes towards suicide made a limited impact. Wymer's assertion that “the Jacobean drama was written … at a time when suicide was reacquiring the dignity and honor of its Roman past” (4) seems optimistic; MacDonald and Murphy found no record of an actual suicide for honor earning approval. They argue that while “humanism was fostering awareness of more tolerant attitudes towards suicide, government reform and clerical evangelism were deepening popular hostility to it” (104).

  6. For suicide as a transgression against these laws, see Richard L. Greaves, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (U. of Minnesota Press, 1981), 531-37; MacDonald and Murphy, 15-41; Wymer, 10-25. Michael Dalton describes suicide as “an offence against God, against the king, against nature,” in The Countrey Iustice (1618; reprint Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1975), 234.

  7. Phyllis Rackin, “Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry,” PMLA 87 (1972): 201-11, p. 207. The use of the word “botch” to describe Antony's suicide has become a critical commonplace, see for example Walter R. Coppedge, “The Joy of the Worm: Dying in Antony and Cleopatra,Renaissance Papers (1988): 41-50, p. 41; Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (Yale U. Press, 1985), 157; and Peter Berek, “Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 32 (1981): 295-304, p. 303. Leslie Thomson describes the suicide as “bungled,” “Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4 Scene 16: ‘A Heavy Sight,’” Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989): 77-90, p. 81; as does Anne Barton, “‘Nature's Piece’Gainst Fancy’: the Divided Catastrophe in Antony and Cleopatra,” (London: Bedford College, 1973), 7.

  8. Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Harvard U. Press, 1993), 142; Rackin, 207; Martha Tuck Rozett, “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra,SQ 36 (1985): 152-64, p. 160.

  9. See for example Eugene Waith, “Manhood and Valor in Two Shakespearean Tragedies,” ELH 17 (1950): 262-73; Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (U. of California Press, 1985), 123-47; and Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 188-90. Readings that emphasize Antony's transcendence tend to credit Cleopatra's claims about the lovers' post-mortem reunion; however, as Rackin notes, “if the issue of the action is to unite the lovers in death, surely the wide separation between Antony's suicide and Cleopatra's is troublesome” (201).

  10. Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, trans. Rolf Fjelde, in The Bedford Introduction to World Drama, 3rd ed., ed. Lee A. Jacobus (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 707.

  11. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford U. Press, 1985), 28.

  12. John Donne, Biathanatos (1647), ed. Ernest W. Sullivan II (London and Toronto: Associated U. Presses, 1984), 33, 36. Donne argues against the idea that suicide is always a violation of the laws of God, of nature, and of the state by considering each seriatim.

  13. MacDonald and Murphy, 29, 76.

  14. Montaigne, “A Custome of the Isle of Cea,” in Montaigne's Essays, trans. John Florio (London: Everyman's Library, 1965), 2:27-41, p. 28-30. According to Wymer, this analogy derives from Plato but was widely adapted by early modern writers (11), see also MacDonald and Murphy, 17.

  15. The church considered suicide the product of sinful despair and attributed it to diabolical intervention. So the Protestant divine Richard Sibbes, in his discussion of suicidal despair, notes that “grief is like lead to the soul, heavy and cold; it sinks downwards, and carries the soul with it. … And it is Satan's practice to go over the hedge where it is lowest,” “The Soul's Conflict with Itself, And Victory Over Itself by Faith,” in The Collected Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander B. Grossart (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1862), 1:147. For the connection between suicide and witchcraft, see MacDonald and Murphy, 53.

  16. Montaigne, 27.

  17. Macbeth, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2 ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 5.3.19-29. For Macbeth's despair, see also Wymer, 54-57. Wymer does not note Shakespeare's pun on Satan in Seyton's name.

  18. King Lear, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 4.4.34-80. For this incident in Lear and its connection to popular beliefs about diabolic intervention, see also MacDonald and Murphy, 38.

  19. Julius Caesar, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 5.5.31-81.

  20. The manner of Enobarbus's death is ambiguous; I treat it as a suicide because Enobarbus claims that “if swift thought” does not break his heart, he will seek a “swifter means” (4.6.35-36). Whether or not he resorts to such “swifter means” is unclear; even if “thought” becomes his instrument of choice, his death is self-willed and self-inflicted.

  21. According to MacDonald and Murphy, this form of burial symbolizes the survivors' fear of the suicide as a transitional, liminal, and ambiguous being (47).

  22. This is the first meeting between Caesar and Cleopatra. Although Caesar does not know what Cleopatra looks like, I assume that in performance Cleopatra would be regally attired and easily distinguished from her maids. (Proculeius identifies the queen immediately and correctly.) Caesar's question is thus not only disingenuous but insulting. Cleopatra responds accordingly: although Caesar is officially announced, she waits for Dolabella's cue—“It is the emperor, madam” (5.2.112)—to acknowledge Caesar, and thus repays insult with insult.

  23. My argument about the layering of suicides suggests that these deaths constitute one more instance of the “multiplicity” that Janet Adelman has identified as “essential” to the play's structure and to its concern with judgment, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (Yale U. Press, 1973), 14-50, p. 45.

  24. Robert Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), 149. Miola argues that although Antony's suicide resembles in all particulars the deaths of other noble Romans, it constitutes a rejection of Roman values because Antony ultimately privileges love over duty.

  25. Plutarch, “The Life of Marcus Antonius,” Plutarch's Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Sir Thomas North (1579), in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (Columbia U. Press, 1964), 5:254-320, p. 309.

  26. Donne, 29.

  27. Montaigne, 27.

  28. Donne, 29.

  29. Donne, 29.

  30. See for example John Danby, who claims that Cleopatra “incarnates the Flesh,” Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), 145; and Derek Traversi, who finds that she embodies “sensual frivolity,” Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford U. Press, 1963), 101.

  31. Cf. Adelman, who argues that “Roman valor” is associated with Antony's past but that “Octavius's moderate world necessarily excludes heroic virtue,” The Common Liar, 132.

  32. For Antony's preoccupation with the loss of self, see also Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama (New York: Routledge, 1988), 179-80.

  33. Cf. Berek, who argues that this echo makes of the suicide “an ultimate gesture in which sexual climax and the end of life are joined” and that “euphemistic language and glamorous gesture join to create an imponderable moral dilemma” (303).

  34. Scarry, 57.

  35. W. B. Worthen, “The Weight of Antony: Staging ‘Character’ in Antony and Cleopatra,SEL [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] 26 (1986): 295-308, p. 302.

  36. Plutarch, 309.

  37. Thomson, 83. Thomson's close examination of the mechanisms of elevation deployed by Shakespeare in this scene is in service to the argument that “the fall of Antony the soldier is also the triumph, in its Medieval, visual sense as well as metaphorical, of Antony the lover” (89).

  38. See also Nicholas Jose, who finds that “Antony at the moment of dying is great in the ultimate, minimal sense. … [He] has affirmed simply the thing he is,” “Antony and Cleopatra: Face and Heart,” PQ [Philological Quarterly] 62 (1983): 487-506, p. 499.

  39. Scarry, 35.

  40. See also Worthen, who notes that after the suicide the other characters “all vie to characterize Antony descriptively,” but who views this development as a dramatization of “the affective polarity between acting and narrative” (303).

  41. Cf. Adelman, who claims that “Cleopatra's imagination of her Antony virtually redeems them both” (The Common Liar, 109), and Barton, who emphasizes that Cleopatra's death is a “remake” of Antony's because she “redeems the bungled and clumsy nature of Antony's death … by catching it up and transforming it within her own, flawless farewell” (18). I disagree with this reading of Antony's suicide but I have found Barton's insistence on separating the deaths very useful.

Frederick Turner (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16233

SOURCE: Turner, Frederick. “The Invention of Value: Shakespeare's Fatal Cleopatra.” In Fortier, Feliciter, Fideliter: Centennial Lectures of the Graduate School of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, edited by Lewis Pyenson, pp. 19-63. Lafayette: Graduate School, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1999.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the theme of creativity in Antony and Cleopatra. The critic devotes particular attention to the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra; their attempt to devise a new world that, in contrast to the Roman one, would be unpredictable and self-generating; and the rhetorical figures, especially of hyperbole and paradox, that underscore the motif of emerging life.]


At the core of Shakespeare's economic theory is a radical vision of the world as spontaneously generating order, structure, and value in a continual self-metamorphosis. Antony and Cleopatra is a sort of thought experiment, in which the object of study—how emergent structures and values are created—is isolated and disentangled from other possible factors, so as to be examined in itself. Shakespeare is constrained by the logic of his investigation to purify of any extraneous causes the natural creative process and the bonds and gifts that are its human extension, revealing their essential mechanisms. This purification or subtraction is not the same thing as the attempt by Immanuel Kant and many other moralists to purify human actions from self-interest and thus from the deterministic material motives that might in their view discredit the ethical status of such actions. Shakespeare recognizes that our participation in the universe's generative process is essentially impure, adulterated, and compromised. What he is trying to do is to see that impurity purely, so to speak, to seek its source. He is not trying to separate it from its natural expressions in the market, in marriage, in successful political policy, or in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman moral traditions, but rather to see what it was before those expressions of it gave it form.

Shakespeare chooses for his grand fable of value a social world largely outside the calculations of the marketplace. His imagined Mediterranean world is one in which possession is determined by contestation, gift, or negotiation, not by market pricing. Furthermore, his characters—the triumvirs of Rome, the Empress of Egypt, and their chief followers and rivals—are the richest people in the world, governed to the extent that they are governed at all by the code of royal honor rather than the ethics of business practice, and beyond any possible need of commerce or labor for material gain. If a market of a kind emerges from such a state of affairs, that shows how natural the market is; but Shakespeare's concern here is with what it emerges from.

Shakespeare must also ensure that the source of creative energy he is seeking is not something else in disguise. Freud was not the first observer of human nature to notice that if we suppress some natural appetite or drive, it will often reappear in some other form. The moral rules governing sexuality have often been regarded as ways to sublimate sexual energy to the service of artistic or social goals. Indeed, Shakespeare could be said to be partly in agreement with this view in his treatment of Ferdinand, Miranda, and many other courting couples in his plays. But here his question is not about how to redirect and use the creative impulse, but what it is in itself. Thus he gives us a story of two people who have thrown over the sexual traces and live in open violation of the codes of marriage and sexual self-restraint. “Nay, but this dotage of our general's / O'erflows the measure,” begins the play. Even if their uncontrol results in disaster—as it indeed does—we will see the unbanked furnace blazing and know its heat in its very waste.

To fulfill his purpose Shakespeare must also isolate his subject from any prudential considerations—that is, his hero and heroine must fail. The creative delight must be savored for itself, not for any success or gain that it might produce. The genre of tragedy is here put to a special use, to strip away the quiet satisfactions of victory and security from the central core of the creative drive. As events develop, it becomes clear to both Antony and Cleopatra that their interests are not being served by their association with each other. “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,” Antony vows unavailingly to himself (I.ii.117). Cleopatra is shrewd enough to consider doing a deal with Caesar to sell her lover out. But Shakespeare cannot give his lovers the conventional satisfactions of tragic self-destruction either. There is a sort of prudence in assuring oneself a niche in the tragic faithful lovers' hall of fame. This prudence, too, must not be allowed to muddy the waters. Cleopatra knows that she will be represented after her death as a strumpet, some “squeaking Cleopatra” will “boy” her greatness “i' th' posture of a whore” (V.ii.220). The “quick comedians,” including Shakespeare himself, will stage her, just as she fears. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra is motivated by saintly self-sacrifice or the grand romantic gesture, though they end up with death-scenes even more moving and effective in their own strange way. The one thing both are faithful to is the incandescent edge of creative activity, and this is what the play is about.

Shakespeare must also isolate the action of the play from any religious or ethical system that might legitimately claim its participants and thus serve as a basis of praise or blame. If there is a divine reward that the participants know will requite their actions, or a divine after-death punishment that will settle the score, the enterprise of discovery will be lost. In the old Taoist system of China, the Tao itself is prior to Yin and Yang, prior to good and evil. It is that Tao that Shakespeare is after, that fountain of being that Melville described as joyous, heartless immensities. We find it in the Old Testament in the Jehovah who tempts Job, who creates Leviathan, and who dances upon the mountaintops at the dawn of the world; but this God has been overlain with millennia of a deity who is much more responsible and ethically praiseworthy. In this play, we might say, he is unearthed, and his avatar is, blasphemously, Cleopatra. Thus Shakespeare sets his fable just before the dawn of the Christian era, before the Christian principles of his audience could fairly be expected to apply to his hero and heroine. “That Herod's head I'll have,” Cleopatra observes lazily one day (III.iii.4); her casualness with the name, and her complete unawareness of the gigantic resonances of her words with the fate of the Baptist, usher the audience into a pagan world where their religious preconceptions must be put aside. Shakespeare is doing something that Federico Fellini tried to do in his Satyricon: to imagine a pagan world, to remove a whole class of moral categories and poetic imagery that Christianity created.

But Shakespeare must engineer a further removal from the cultural and religious world of his audience. Elizabethans and Jacobeans, like ourselves, were the heirs of the pagan Greco-Roman system of virtue, restraint, and reason as well as of the Judeo-Christian system of redemption, humility, and love. Shakespeare includes the Greco-Roman framework of judgment in the play, but takes his lovers out of it and plunges them into another, stranger place where even these rules do not apply. He invents an Egypt of endless fertility, luxury, desire and unrestraint, that finds Roman orderliness faintly ridiculous. Cleopatra's historically Greek roots are erased, and she is given a more ancient, genial, cynical, sensual wisdom that is applauded by her own holy priests. Certainly the uptight upstart new civilizations of the West will, with their greater discipline and political enthusiam, overwhelm the old regime of the Nile; but they will have done so at the cost of truncating their own sources of pleasure, innocence, and joy. Or this is what Cleopatra would have us believe, and who could argue with such a lady? Antony is convinced, at least:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beasts as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus …


—whereupon he kisses her. The Rome of Antony and Cleopatra, moreover, is not the idealistic and high-minded Rome of the Republic, but the sophisticated, theologically skeptical, politics-ridden, world-weary imperial Rome that Shakespeare would have been familiar with from the works of Plutarch, Martial, Juvenal, and his favorite authors, Ovid and Lucretius. If something strange and new and beautiful is to come to birth in such a world, it cannot be by dint of religious self-sacrifice or moral aspiration or the redirection of repressed desires.

In turning toward the classical pagan past in search of a space for new invention, Shakespeare was very much a Renaissance writer. Renaissance thought tended to seek out the neutral spaces in between established pairs of opposites. Artists took the line between the great dualities—thought and deed, good and evil, true and false, abstract and concrete, sacred and secular—and used that line itself as a spacious theatre of invention. They sought a third reality, transcending the existing categories. Between Christian Europe and the pagan Indies they found America. Between good and evil they found play. Between work and prayer they found poetry. Between truth and falsehood they found fiction, magic, and science. Between the merely serious and the merely comic appeared the Renaissance pastoral. The world was repopulated with what C. S. Lewis calls theologically neutral spirits, and between angels and devils there appeared much that was not dreamed of in the old philosophy. This was also the birth-time of modern science. Bacon and Descartes outlined for us that whole area of objective, morally and epistemologically colorless “fact”—that fictive space which became, two hundred years later, the only apparent domain for a respectable thinker.

The “new heaven, new earth” (I.i.17) of Antony, like More's concept of Utopia or John Donne's “new-found land,” (Elegy XIX: “To His Mistress Going to Bed”) was not bound by the old laws or describable by the old categories: It was a neutral space, a noplace where experiment isn't harmful. One cannot afford experiment, or science itself, in a place where, if the experiment fails, the world of the experimenter is destroyed. Utopia is neither truth nor falsehood: It is fiction, the line or space which separates them. Morally, Utopia cannot be called a good book or a bad book. The author takes no stand on whether the lessons to be learned are edifying or heretical; there are not necessarily any lessons to be learned. The only sin one could be accused of in reading the book would be the neglect of duties more important. The book is playful, it exists in the world between work and prayer. The beauty of Donne's mistress is that her body is not bound by the old dualities of good and evil, profane eros and sacred caritas—it is the place where he can pursue amor, that intense, spiritual-erotic-romantic love celebrated by Michelangelo, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare. Perhaps the greatest discovery of the Renaissance was a new kind of fiction, like the fictional space discovered by Brunelleschi in 1420 when he invented perspective, the space that divides the subject of the painting from its surface and its literal existence from its figurative one. An analogous artistic space was the “metrical fiction” discovered by the English sonneteers—the ability to vary the rhythm of a poem while keeping the verse form intact—a technique which enabled them to operate in a rhythmic space between strict meter and the rhythm of speech, and therefore to adopt poetic voices that were not necessarily their own.

Politically and socially the same process was at work. Between the Holy Roman Emperor and the aristocracy appeared the national monarch; between the Universal Church and the powerful local religious magnates appeared the nationalist Protestant churches. The old duality of peasant and aristocrat was broken and rendered irrelevant by the rise of the middle class (though of course the dualistic class myth persisted). With the overthrow of the old laws against usury, business could be done with other people neither as brothers in the same communion, nor as aliens whose just punishment for their infidelity was to be economically exploited. Business was the economic version of the neutral space.

Language, the Word, is the neutral space that lies between thought and action. For the new religion of Protestantism this meant the primacy of the Word of God, and the abolition of all other mediators between the human and the divine. The Word, though, can separate Man from God at the same time as it enables them to speak to each other. For humanists the new emphasis on language was embodied in their fascinated attention to the golden ages of classical literature: It expressed itself philosophically in a new interest in rhetoric as opposed to logic on one hand and grammar on the other. In its most extreme form—for instance, in the thought of the linguistic philosopher Peter Ramus—humanism violently rejected Aristotelian logic and insisted that the value of an idea was primarily its accessibility, expressibility, and convincingness, not its adherence to certain abstract forms. Only after the hearers had comprehended an argument emotionally, and understood it clearly, could they decide on its truth or falsehood; and by that time it would be too late: They would already have been convinced.

The great language-building of the sixteenth century all over Europe, in which monarchs and poets cooperated in expanding and refining the national languages, is related to this change of emphasis. To expand the language is to expand the thinkable; it is a heady project. We can see this spirit in Sidney's Defense of Poetry, where he contrasts the work of the poet with that of any professional who is bound to nature as it is:

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another Nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimæras, Furies, and such like [how like Shakespeare's Antony this sounds!]; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit … Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

For the great Elizabethans, artistic invention took its place at the summit of human capacities. Invention for Sidney

is not merely imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air, but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.

Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature … But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted …

It is perhaps hard for us to recapture that huge artistic hubris. They believed that though incapable of miracle, we may be capable of magic. Magic could make a man author of himself.

But with this hubris went a profound sense of insecurity, alienation and crisis. If one explored beyond the known world, there was the danger of falling off the edge. In many respects the opening of the neutral space created the gigantic rift that separates modern persons from their psychic home. The genesis of the Renaissance adult ego cut child off from parents, the dependent from the comforter. Renaissance language separated thought from action, so we have Hamlet (“a neutral to his will and matter”—II.ii.488) trapped within his own marvellous discourse. Renaissance phenomenology separated perceiver from perceived: Perspective at once creates a separate observer and a vanishing-point. The great social bond between lord and peasant broke down with the collapse of feudalism and the enclosure of land for bourgeois commercial purposes. The cold Word of God took the place of the Eucharist: Instead of communion there was the loneliness of the individual conscience. The great mediators—the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin, the liturgy, the Latin that one did not need to understand, for it was an incantation—were swept away. The earth itself, no longer at the center of the universe, pursued its lonely way somewhere between center and periphery in neutral ground.

In the absence of a workable technology (which was developed in the next three hundred years), the gap was filled by art. Renaissance art was on one hand a splendidly, assertively healthy growth, and on the other a lovely iridescent scar-tissue that filled the wounds of Medieval culture. Just as scar-tissue is liable to cancerous growths, so Renaissance art always had a tendency to proliferate wildly into disorder, excess, and drunken forms—witness Elizabethan melodrama, Tudor architecture, Euphuism, Renaissance epic, and so on. This phenomenon is not as clear to us as it was to the eighteenth-century neoclassicists. Indeed, eighteenth-century decorum, the obsession with order, control, metrical smoothness, and good taste, was in some respects a panicky reaction against the unbridled creativity of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Sidney's “invention” would have looked very much like chaos to these neoclassical Augustans.

The limitlessness that the Renaissance discovered (and that Shakespeare described in Antony and Cleopatra) was chaos for the eighteenth century; but in another sense it became also the marvellous adequacy of the physical world to account for and generate itself that was investigated in the nineteenth century—and in another sense still, it is that moral freedom we have attained in the twentieth century largely by means of technology. In practical terms such freedom was impossible in the Renaissance, though it flourished in fiction. Magic does not actually work except in stories. Such freedom would be possible only to absolute rulers of the world, like Antony and Cleopatra, and its exercise would endanger that rule. As for us, however, in comparison to the Elizabethans, we can do what we want with our lives, morally, socially, and politically. Existentialism, together with its postmodern philosophical issue, is a proclamation of the terrible freedom and boredom that our technology has made possible for all, and all but enforced for the intellectual. We have no stakes in the game of life; we spend with cultural play-money. We imagine we need the threat of death, before we feel we are really living. But suppose we could live without stakes, relishing the game not for some extrinsic worth but purely for the intrinsic fascination of its structure … this is the way Cleopatra lives. Antony calls it “the nobleness of life” (I.i.36).

Much of what has been said here about the Renaissance is implicit and explicit in Antony and Cleopatra. The play is itself the creation of a neutral space, a new world, “new heaven, new earth.” It is primarily in the rhetoric of the play that this neutral space is generated; it is an area uncontrolled by the normal rules of linear logic, inference, morality, or political consequence; in it the central realities of love, self-awareness, creativity, and freedom are explored. This space is, however, doomed both by the outside world of history and by its own abandonment of form; and we can see the play as a convincing symbol of the close of the English Renaissance.

Shakespeare chose for his play a time in the history of the world that he sensed was comparable in importance to his own time: the change from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, the shifting of the centre of world culture from Greece to Rome (Plutarch was Greek, Octavius Roman), the decision of Europe to develop westwards rather than eastwards, the time of the birth of Christ (Jesus was born thirty years after the death of Antony), the waning years of the pre-Christian world. But Shakespeare sensed the forces that were gathering to suppress and control the chaotic liberties of his fictional universe. They are summed up in Octavius and his sister. Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, the Donne of the love poetry, would give way to Jonson, the Donne of the Holy Sonnets, Milton, and finally Dryden and Pope. Control and artistic austerity would triumph over abundance and deliquescence. And this process was taking place in Shakespeare's own art. In Antony and Cleopatra the poetry is so overwhelming that it almost overcomes itself. Shakespeare can do anything in verse now. If he can do anything, he can do everything, and to do everything is to do nothing. In the plays written after Antony and Cleopatra, poetry is never quite so wildly given its head. When it occurs, it is, so to speak, in quotation marks, and Shakespeare never lets us forget that it is all only art, a play, an entertainment. By poetry I mean that rapturous and limitless creativity, which flourishes so luxuriantly in Antony and Cleopatra—a creativity that expresses itself in nature, in the lovers' human imagination, and in the peculiar self-reflectiveness of the language of the play.


Antony and Cleopatra is packed with images of natural self-creation. Although Shakespeare's ultimate goal is the source of human imagination, he refuses, for reasons we are already familiar with, to divide humans from the rest of nature with respect to creativity and even freedom. As in the sonnets and The Winter's Tale, the artificial is but a continuation of the natural, and nature is made better by no mean, but nature makes that mean. In Lear the love-bond that we share with other animals can outdo the illusion of unconditional love, and in The Merchant of Venice the soul cannot be detached from the body. So the Egypt of Shakespeare's great experiment is not only a place of cultural creativity, but also a fecund womb of physical and biological diversity. The river Nile is the central symbol of this overflowing natural fusion.

The higher Nilus swells,
The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly comes to harvest.


But the Nile, according to some in the play, does not merely nurture existing life; it is capable of spontaneously generating new life. Lepidus, drunk, owlishly buttonholes Antony:

Y'have strange serpents there.
Ay, Lepidus.
Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun: so is your crocodile.
They are so.


It is clear that Shakespeare is skeptical of the popular Medieval and Renaissance belief in the spontaneous generation of life. Lepidus' drunken rambling sounds like the credulity of the uninformed, and Antony, who despises Lepidus and considers him a source of amusement, may very well be agreeing with him just to put him on. But Shakespeare is half-inclined to think as Lepidus does. Images of spontaneous generation, ferment, seeding and fertility recur often in the play, as in this delightfully dissipated exchange among Cleopatra's handmaidens, Iras and Charmian, and the palm-reader that their friend Alexas has brought in for their entertainment:

Prithee, how many boys and wenches must I have?
If every of your wishes had a womb, and fertile every wish, a million.
Out, fool! I forgive thee for a witch.
You think none but your sheets are privy to your wishes.
Nay, come, tell Iras hers …
There's a palm presages chastity, if nothing else.
E'en as the o'erflowing Nilus presageth famine.


If spontaneous generation is a popular superstition, it is one which raises a major philosophical question: How did life arise in the first place? Even the Biblical account gives to the prima materia of the world, to that chaos over which hovers the Holy Ghost, the essential capacity of fecundity; and the emergence of life is the result of cooperation between God and the elements. The prima materia of contemporary physics, the quantum vacuum, is capable of spawning whole new universes. Alchemy maintained that the correct combination of elements might trigger the emergence of life. Although the Dutch spectacle-maker, Zacharias Janssen, had developed the principles of the microscope by 1590, it was not until after Shakespeare's death that Antony van Leeuwenhoek first observed microscopic organisms and thus revealed that life need not be visible to the naked eye. Indeed, it was only in this century that the mystery of plant seeds, which appear to be dead in all respects, began to yield to DNA research.

Antony and Cleopatra, like A Midsummer Night's Dream with its similar obsession with the creative ferment of nature, is full of minute observations of iterative physical processes. It pays special attention to the turbulent flow of liquids that so fascinated Leonardo da Vinci. One example is the “vagabond flag upon the stream” which

Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.


What Shakespeare has noticed here is a classic physical feedback system. The rush or reed is caught in the current of the stream. It swings toward the bank, is then out of the current, and its natural resilience pulls it upright, where it is then able to reassert its lean into the current, and again it is pulled under and back, into calmer water; so again it rises out of the stream, and so on. Meanwhile variations in the current—its turbulent nonlinear dynamics, contemporary physicists would say—add a further element of unpredictability to the rhythm of the process. If a computerized camera were to record it, and the periodicity and amplitude of the reed's swings precisely measured and plotted on a graph, the Lorenz Attractor would emerge, a beautiful butterfly-shaped form whose shape is unmistakable yet never complete, for new fractal depth would be revealed at each iteration. Of course Shakespeare did not have cameras and computers. But the human eye and ear are deeply attuned to such processes and, as I have shown in my book Beauty: The Value of Values, the classical human arts are deeply based on the presence of these systems in nature and cultural practice. “Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish,” says Antony (IV.xiv.2), anticipating the language of Benoit Mandelbrot, the great mathematician who discovered fractal shapes and called them “dragons,” citing cloud structure as a prime example. The point is that “damped, driven, nonlinear dynamical systems,” as these phenomena are called, have a complex, self-organizing behavior much more elaborate than the simple inputs of energy they require. Something new, not given in the initial conditions, emerges out of the very process; their next behavior is the result of an impossibly complicated interaction of all their own previous behaviors, and thus they are in some very elementary fashion autonomous. They create the rules that govern them, and the creation process is too complex to be predicted by its inputs from the environment. This description would bear a striking resemblance to the psychological behavior of the two principal characters in Antony and Cleopatra, and it is this parallel that has caught Shakespeare's curiosity.

Did life itself, then, emerge as an inconceivably rich combination of such “dissipative systems,” as Ilya Prigogine calls them? Present day evolutionary biologists are almost unanimous in agreeing that it did, and if our analysis of Shakespeare's imagery is accurate, he must have intuited it, too. According to Prigogine, the order of dissipative systems is not thermodynamic order in itself, but rather a second-order kind of order, which feeds upon the flow of increasing thermodynamic disorder but is able to maintain itself at least temporarily against that flow, and even to elaborate itself in the meantime. Both Prigogine and Shakespeare know that such a system can “rot itself with motion;” but they also know that whenever a steep gradient exists between order and chaos, a current of flowing energy can be set up which can supply the nourishment for its renewal. And as both Shakespeare and Prigogine recognize, the “far-from-equilibrium” situations that encourage such gradients and flows will always arise out of any open system.

In Antony and Cleopatra the flow of energy is provided by the Nile. It is out of the mud of the Nile, where water, earth, the fire of the sun, and the fresh air intermingle, that new life is said to be engendered. That new life is in the terms of Shakespeare's time the basest and simplest kind: crawling creatures, worms, insects, and especially snakes. This vision of natural fertility can be definitely unpretty; Cleopatra in her wrath lays this curse on her country:

Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents! …
So half my Egypt were submerged and made
A cistern for scaled snakes!

(II.v.78, 94)

By “kindly creatures” she means creatures produced by normal reproduction, as opposed to spontaneous generation. But is Cleopatra herself a “kindly creature”? The poetry suggests not. Antony calls his lover his “serpent of old Nile” (I.v.25); plainly Shakespeare visualized her wearing the uræus, the snake-crown of the Pharaohs, and he may have known that its root, the Egyptian word “uro” (which is also the root of the Ouroboros, the world-encircling snake that eats its own tail) means “asp.” Of course Cleopatra commits suicide with an asp, so the instrument of her death is both the sign of her queenship and the major symbol for the Nile's powers of spontaneous generation.

The snake or serpent is also part of the caduceus, the snaky rod of the god Mercury, which is in turn symbolic of life itself. Thus Cleopatra concentrates in herself Shakespeare's deepest understanding of that protean, multitudinous, inventive, dying yet undying mantle of living tissue which envelops this planet.

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


The words “become” and “becoming” epitomize her:

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


… my becomings kill me when they do not
Eye well to you.


“Becoming” combines two contradictory senses: fitting, proper, dignified; and transformation, metamorphosis, evolution. She is a “breather,” not a statue like her rival Octavia, who “shows a body rather than a life,” and is of a “holy, cold, and still conversation” (III.iii.22, Like the “terrene moon,” Cleopatra is changeable, and waxes and wanes by the month (III.xiii.153); as the snake sheds its skin, so she, as a woman, changes her inner skin, and renews her fertility. She is associated with the most feminine words in the Indo-European linguistic heritage: woman, womb, whore, queen, wench, and witch, whose roots also give us gyn- and Guinevere. She epitomizes the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian snake-and-moon goddesses: Ashtoreth, Innanna, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus. The hubris of Cleopatra—at no point does she refer to any deity, including that of the Hebrews, with more than a sense of fellow-feeling or even mild contempt—her presumption in daring to create herself, her assumption of complete freedom, her refusal to let any other power on earth judge her actions—all these would be hallmarks of a spiritual rebellion against God if she were living in a Christian system. There is even something Satanic about Cleopatra. She has magical powers, she is a “charm,” a “witch,” a “spell;” Charmian at her suicide exclaims “O eastern star!” and the names of that star include not only Venus, but also Lucifer (IV.xii.16, IV.xii.47, IV.xii.30, V.ii.308).

But the moment we try to pin Cleopatra down, she escapes. The holy priests bless her when she is riggish. The snare in which she catches Antony is a “strong toil of grace” (V.ii.346); the imagery of the Madonna and of martyrdom surrounds her death as densely as that of rebellion and damnation. Antony calls her “this great Fairy” (IV.viii.12); like the queen of Færie in “The Ballad of True Thomas” she is a force neither of Heaven nor Hell, but of the energy field that precedes both. Cleopatra is a developed version of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the divine lady who wraps herself in the enameled skin of a snake. In Fairyland there are no moral judgments, and the laws are the laws of beauty and psychology. The rules of empirical logic, which assert that you can't get something for nothing, don't seem to apply to her: She “makes a show'r of rain as well as Jove” (I.i.151). Cleopatra enables Shakespeare to perform artistic impossibilities in his play. Without her the fragmented plot, sprawled over half the world and a period of years, the extravagant language, the cast of thousands, the inconsistency of many of the major characters, and the gross theatricality of many of the big scenes, would cause the play to collapse. But she carries it.

Perhaps the finest description of living matter as revealed by the science of biology can be found in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. It remains as true today in its broad outlines as when it was written a lifetime ago.

What then was life? It was warmth, the warmth generated by a form-preserving instability, a fever of matter, which accompanied the process of ceaseless decay and repair of albumen molecules that were too impossibly complicated, too impossibly ingenious in structure. It was the existence of the actually impossible-to-exist, of a half-sweet, half-painful balancing, or scarcely balancing, in this restricted and feverish process of decay and renewal, upon the point of existence. It was not matter and it was not spirit, but something between the two, a phenomenon conveyed by matter, like the rainbow on the waterfall, and like the flame. Yet why not material—it was sentient to the point of desire and disgust, the shamelessness of matter become sensible of itself, the incontinent form of being. It was a secret and ardent stirring in the frozen chastity of the universal; it was a stolen and voluptuous impurity of sucking and secreting; an exhalation of carbonic acid gas and material impurities of mysterious origin and composition. It was a pullulation, an unfolding, a form-building (made possible by the overbalancing of its instability, yet controlled by the laws of growth inherent within it), of something brewed out of water, albumen, salt and fats, which was called flesh, and which became form, beauty, a lofty image, and yet all the time the essence of sensuality and desire. For this form and beauty were not spirit-borne; nor, like the form and beauty of sculpture, conveyed by a neutral and spirit-consumed substance, which could in all purity make beauty perceptible to the senses. Rather was it conveyed and shaped by the somehow awakened voluptuousness of matter, of the organic, dying-living substance itself, the reeking flesh.1

Mann's images, of warmth, fever, decay, slime, the intricate (or “intrinsicate”) knot of life, of impossibility, sweetness, balance and continually corrected overbalance, fluidity, incontinence, sexual desire, sucking and secreting, breath, fermentation, form, beauty, life as opposed to sculpture, voluptuousness, the “reeking flesh” itself—all these Shakespeare uses in his description of Cleopatra. Cleopatra, then, is an independent source of new reality, like the Nile that engenders life; not exactly an Unmoved Mover, since she is moved by every little thing that happens to her, and is “sentient to the point of desire and disgust,” but a shaper of surprises, a transformer of chaotic raw material into beautiful and unexpected form.

This quality is also central to her lover Antony, in whom it is given a name: bounty. In Cleopatra's great elegy for Antony after his suicide, she compares him to the heavenly fires that give life to the world:

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

Antony, then, is not a net taker of the world's energies, but a net giver; and as in King Lear, he is what makes the “little O” of the zero a fertile source rather than an absence. Cleopatra continues her evocation of the endless circle of productiveness:

… His legs bestrid the ocean. His reared arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tune'd 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 for reaping …


What Cleopatra claims for Antony in her magnificent elegy is that his generosity is not achieved at the cost of a diminution of value elsewhere; Antony is not a zero-sum game, his creativity is not accompanied by the entropy of a winter, and does not wear out from being used. Antony's bounty is such that for the only time in all of literature, a man is killed by sheer generosity alone. Enobarbus, Antony's friend, has deserted him and gone over to Antony's enemy Octavius. Antony does not reproach Enobarbus, but sends after him all the treasure that he had abandoned in his desertion, together with a huge gift of his own. Enobarbus, to do him credit, cannot shake off the burden of this gigantic magnanimity; his heart stops, and he dies that night under the moon. Enobarbus is not a fool; he is quite as capable as we are of seeing through an empty gesture. But he has been struck by something superhuman—as one soldier puts it, “your emperor / Continues still a Jove” ( Even at his weakest and most self-indulgent point, Antony can still make his most cynical followers weep—and even we, “asses,” are “onion-eyed” (IV.ii.35). This is the quality we know as charisma. His vitality is such that he can keep going even after his defeats; he cannot commit a clean suicide, and lives two more scenes after inflicting his own death-wound. Cleopatra continues:

… His delights
Were dolphin-like, they showed his back above
The element they lived in.


This is the tender observation of the lover, who finds a sweet pathos in Antony's abandonment to his passionate pleasure. Cleopatra is associated with the sea-goddess Thetis; she is the element he lives in. “Die where thou hast lived,” she says to him in his last moments, his head cradled in her lap (IV.xv.38). The motion of the dolphin plunging in and out of the sea is thus intensely sexual, and Cleopatra is talking about that moment in sexual climax which leaps beyond, and is thrown beyond pleasure into another world. “Hyperbolein,” from which we get “hyperbole,” is Greek for “to throw beyond.” But the image is also a metaphysical statement. The dolphin was for Medieval and Renaissance natural philosophy the highest and noblest member of the class of fishes, and thus shared in the characteristics of the next higher category in the Great Chain of Being. This for them explained its warm-bloodedness and recognizable moral intelligence. Antony thus transcends the category of human as the dolphin transcends the category of fish. He shows what we would call emergent properties, the higher integration and warm-blooded self-feeling of a more evolved being. Octavius is a cold fish by comparison. In another passage Cleopatra imagines the “tawny-skinned fishes” she “betrays” when she goes angling to be “each one an Antony,” and when she draws them up she will cry in triumph “Aha, you're caught!” (II.v.11) So it is Cleopatra herself that has drawn Antony up into the higher world. She continues her praise of his bounty:

… In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets: realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket …


Again, the imagery of roundness, this time associated with “plates,” that is, silver coins signifying value. Finally she demands:

Think you there was or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?
Gentle madam, no.
You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming: nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t' imagine
An Antony were nature's piece’gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.


What she means is that Nature's creativity cannot match human fancy (because human fancy already has the raw material, the “stuff” of Nature to work with, while Nature must make her own stuff); but if Nature were to imagine an Antony, which indeed she must have done, that Antony would be Nature's masterpiece (“piece”), defeating utterly the mere shadows of human artistic fancy. It is a bewildering idea, this contest of imaginations, and its logical form, turning back reflexively upon itself, is one we must look at more closely later on.

The core problem of the play is the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra: for their bounty, their generativeness, takes place chiefly in the context of their love. Whatever mysterious process it is that they share with the creative forces of nature cannot be only internal to the person; it must also be something that happens between persons. But can it be love if it is virtually devoid of the moral characteristics we traditionally associate with love—constancy, faithfulness, dependability, trust, truthfulness, mutual support? After all, both history and Shakespeare's treatment of it agree that Antony and Cleopatra betrayed each other, lied to each other, and deserted each other in their hour of need. When we first see Antony in the arms of Cleopatra he is married to another woman and planning behind Cleopatra's back to return to Rome to look after his political interests. After Fulvia's death he doesn't marry Cleopatra but Octavia; and even when he returns to Cleopatra he does not level with her about his military fortunes, and becomes so angry with her that he is ready to kill her. Cleopatra for her part is utterly untrustworthy, manipulating Antony mercilessly, abandoning him in the middle of a battle, sending him false messages about her death that indeed lead him to suicide, plotting a deal with Octavius behind Antony's back, and even flirting with Octavius' messenger. Nor was she a spring chicken when Antony came upon her, having already efficiently used her sex to exploit no less a personage than Julius Caesar. If bonds are essential to love, as so many of the other plays and poems of Shakespeare imply, surely Antony and Cleopatra must have broken them all.

The first words between the lovers in the play meet this problem head on.

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.


Quite casually, almost by accident, Antony and Cleopatra are spinning out immortal poetry. We do not experience the actual human drama through the convention of verse, as for instance we perceive the psychological conflict in an opera through the utterly unrealistic medium of music; rather, we see two people talking to each other and, astonishingly, it is poetry. They are being spontaneous, but not in the sense given by the romantic poets—unselfconscious, sincere. They are surrounded by followers, attendants, ambassadors, are aware of their own magnificence, and are exploiting to the full their licence to be intimate in public. But their “play-acting” of the roles of the great lovers within the play abolishes for a moment the theatrical medium; their reality is theatrical, and therefore our theater seems real for a moment. The bonds of theater are thus being broken.

Antony and Cleopatra are answering each other, and each answer generates an answer from the other. They have created, so to speak, a dyadic nonlinear feedback system that is unpredictable and can thus emerge across the threshold, or “bourn,” of the existing order into another plane of being. To cross that frontier is, it seems, to break the bonds of all established rules—here, the Roman code of marital decorum and military self-discipline. They cease to be earthbound. The conversation between them has built up enough power by its gathering oscillation from one to the other that it finally takes off with the words “new heaven, new earth.” The phrase “heaven and earth” and its variants are Shakespeare's own code for the grand boundary of the world—the present moment that divides the known past from the unknown future, that demarcates the realm of life and the “undiscovered country” of death “from whose bourn,” as Hamlet puts it, “no traveller returns” (Hamlet, III.i.79). This strange boundary-land is the dwelling place not only of lunatics and lovers, as Theseus points out in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also of the poet, whose eye

Doth glance from earth to heaven, from heaven to earth,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and give to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.


In the conversation of Antony and Cleopatra what we see is a spontaneously self-generating system in action. It is unpredictable, self-organizing, and can surprise both participants. The threshold-crossing of “heaven and earth” is the result. We experience this state as a special intensity of time, a special attention to the present moment, in which we seem to have a greater subjective presence but also a greater sensitivity to the world:

Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours,
Let's not confound the time with conference harsh.
There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.


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


The world of Antony and Cleopatra creates a kind of present in the past, in contrast to the Roman history in which it is embedded. When we are switched rapidly from Rome to Alexandria and back, we feel a curious sense of anachronism. Though Egypt is the more ancient civilization, it feels more present to us. Antony and Cleopatra stand out of history, “stand up peerless,” full of surprises (I.i.40), almost able to make us disbelieve the historical account of Antony's defeat by Octavius (Shakespeare actually causes the result of the conflict to be much longer in doubt than it is in his source for the story, Plutarch's Lives). The relationship between the lovers and their historical world is the same as the relationship between Shakespeare's play (live, in the present, full of suspense) and the historical account (over and done with, a foregone conclusion). It is the difference between lived time and recorded time. The problem of any historical dramatist, which is to be true to the dead facts and to make a live play on stage at the same time, is thus brilliantly solved—by making the problem into the central theme.

This solution makes possible such total aesthetic triumphs as the passage describing Cleopatra in her barge, where Shakespeare transforms Plutarch's historical description into a thing of magic and wonder, changing only a few words from the original. Here is Plutarch, in the translation by Sir Thomas North that Shakespeare used:

Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, 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 river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, hautboys, cithers, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: She was laid under a pavilion of cloth-of-gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys, appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them, were appareled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the ropes and the tackle of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharf's side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all along the river's side, others also ran out of the city to see her coming in, so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market place in his imperial seat to give audience.2

And here is Shakespeare:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfume'd that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature; on each side her
stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did …
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' th' eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' th' marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to look on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.


If we look at the changes Shakespeare makes we can see, with uncanny intimacy, the mind of this great subtle gentle genius at work. There are five ways in which he has systematically transformed Plutarch so as to make this passage the shimmering glowing mystery that it is. The first, of course, is by putting it into the easy sinuous blank verse of his mature period, giving it a subtle insistent rhythm that links all the words together in a musical, rather than just a grammatical fashion; the words feed back upon each other in a way that is beyond prose or free verse. (Enobarbus, the character who speaks this passage in the play, usually speaks in prose, so Shakespeare's choice of verse here is quite marked.) The second transformation Shakespeare makes in Plutarch is the faceting and texturing and filtering of the simple matte colors of Plutarch, so that the gold becomes beaten gold, the fans become divers-colored, the boys are dimpled, the perfume becomes strange in its invisibility. The third change, and perhaps the most striking, is to make the movements and actions of the scene feed back upon themselves, so that they seem iterated, reverberant, strangely self-referential: The water that the oars beat follows faster, the wind of the fans glows the cheeks that they cool, the city casts its own people out upon itself, and so on. Most odd of all is the reflexivity of the passage describing Cleopatra like a Venus in a painting. Since Roman art—already an imitation of Greek art—there had been at least two more iterations of the classical tradition: the Italian Renaissance, imitating the ancient Romans, and the English, imitating the Italians; and now Shakespeare adds a bewildering contest between art and nature: Cleopatra makes a better picture than those works of fancy that surpass (“outwork”) nature. Is she art or nature?—we have seen the same reflexive emulation in the passage about Antony as “nature's piece 'gainst fancy.” The fourth change in Plutarch is the way Shakespeare has given to “inanimate” nature a consciousness and sensitivity reminiscent of an older imagined universe, where every natural object was inhabited by a spirit, a feeling, and a will of its own: The water is amorous of the strokes of the oars, the winds are lovesick with the odor of the sails, the ship's tackle becomes engorged and erectile with the touch of the mermaids' hands, the wharves sense the perfume, the air itself yearns to go look at Cleopatra.

The fifth—the deepest and strangest—change Shakespeare makes in Plutarch is one which is at the core of his theory of creation. At the end of each of the two main segments of the speech there is a phrase of reflexive negation: “what they undid, did” and “made a gap in nature.” The fans of the cupids do what they undo, they inflame what they cool, and what they cool is Cleopatra. The air is dragged toward Cleopatra as to a vacuum; it is only the possibility of a paradoxical “vacancy” (Nature, according to Renaissance science, abhors a vacuum) that prevents the air from being sucked in toward her. The implication is that Cleopatra represents—is—one of those spaces or opportunities for nature to do new things, that are described by today's chaos theory. She is, in mathematical terms, an endless unrepeating space-filling algorithm; in physical terms, she is a universe-spawning quantum vacuum. Her “infinite variety” is fractally deep. And in this odd description of her all the other changes Shakespeare makes in Plutarch make sense. His verse provides the language of the speech with the feedback connections needed to make it nonlinear. That nonlinearity gives what is associated with her the faceted, textured, filtered qualities Benoit Mandelbrot attributes to fractal phenomena: They are “grainy, hydralike, in between, pimply, pocky, ramified, sea-weedy, strange, tangled, tortuous, wiggly, wispy, wrinkled.” Objects with these qualities “take on a life of their own,” they are active and sensitive in surprising ways.

All these strange phenomena take place in the charged field between Antony, enthroned in the marketplace, and Cleopatra, sitting in her barge. Love can constitute a field that generates its partners rather than vice-versa. What Antony and Cleopatra have discovered between them is literally, in the cant phrase, bigger than both of them. Without it he is an aging failed general, and she is an aging spoiled courtesan. If Antony and Cleopatra were mimed throughout, or rewritten by Hollywood screenwriters, that is all we would see. For in Shakespeare's play the spontaneously self-generating system of love is immanent in—is—the language of the play.


The rhetorical style of Anthony and Cleopatra is what Jacobeans called “Asiatismus”—a kind of writing full of figures and metaphors, a style opposed to the more severe “Attic” rhetoric. Cicero distinguishes two types of Asianism: the “subtle-sententious” and the “grandiloquent-impetuous.” The Romans in the play tend towards the cooler Atticism; the Egyptians are unfailingly subtle, sententious, grandiloquent, and impetuous. As it happens, Asianism in rhetoric was at the time the play was written (1607) going out of fashion, and the austere Attic or Senecan style was in the ascendant. Octavius' characteristic style is the successful style of the new post-Renaissance world. Let us look at five rhetorical figures in the play, all characteristic of “Asiatismus” or Asian rhetoric: hyperbole, climax, self-reflective figures, tautology, and paradox. In the greatest speeches of the play many of these figures are combined together.

Hyperbole in this play hardly needs illustration. Almost every scene dealing with Cleopatra and Antony contains in it riotous abundance:

His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tune'd spheres …

A peculiarly strong form of hyperbole in the play occurs five times: “love of Love,” “man of men,” “captain's captain,” “king of kings,” “lord of lords.” This figure contains a variety of operations, all of which are central to the play's meaning: transcendence, superlativeness, the extraction of a quintessence, and the emergence of the absolutely concrete. It is also a reflexive figure, like so many in the play: the subject referring back to itself, requiring no comparison, complete in itself. Cleopatra threatens to give Charmian bloody teeth if she “with Caesar paragon again” her “man of men” (I.v.71). You cannot explain the less contingent by the more contingent. You cannot measure the superlative with the comparative. Infinite virtue cannot be counted.

Hyperbole is also used sarcastically and ironically, to describe falsity and weakness. There is a hint of this when Enobarbus describes Cleopatra as dying “twenty times upon far poorer moment” (I.ii.142)—but Cleopatra, even when she is acting a part, is always absolutely one hundred percent genuine as well: “she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.” The irony is heavier when Enobarbus hyperbolically parodies Lepidus—

Hoo! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number—hoo!—
His love for Antony.


—and hyperbolically deflates Antony's hyperbolical rhetoric: “Now he'll outstare the lightning” (III.xviii.195).

Another characteristic figure in Antony and Cleopatra is climax (gradatio, auxesis, ascendus, methalemsis), and a variant of it, a kind of “heaping up” figure (accumulatio, congeries). The evolutionary progression in the following example is typical:

Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beasts as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus …

Clay, dung, earth, feeds, beasts, man, nobleness of life: The series passes through all the levels of creation and explodes, like Cleopatra's dolphin, out of its element: Speech is replaced by Antony's great public kiss; the rhetoric has become concrete; and the world of comparison has given way to the unmeasurable, the least contingent, the “peerless.” Most of the great encomiums of the play (in other words, most of the great speeches, for this is a play of and about praise) are climactic or cumulative in form, and conclude with a hyperbolical leap at the end of the series.

But climax also has its opposite in the play: a sort of progressive reductio ad absurdum, reduction to absurdity:

O, let him marry a woman that cannot go, sweet Isis, I beseech thee! and let her die, too, and give him a worse! and let worse follow worse, till the worst of all follow him laughing to his grave, fifty-fold a cuckold!


Our Italy
Shines o'er with civil swords: Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome:
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction: the hated, grown to strength,
Are newly grown to love: the condemned Pompey,
Rich in his father's honour, creeps apace
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;
And quietness grown sick of rest would purge
By any desperate change.


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!


The curious imprecision of these images is powerfully evocative of a descent into chaos, a dissolving of structure and a clouding of lucidity. The reflexiveness of the last two examples should also be noted: Rest is sick of itself, the poison hail that kills Cleopatra is engendered in Cleopatra's own heart.

For indeed, the figure that is perhaps most characteristic of Antony and Cleopatra is the reflexive figure: “Antony / Will be himself;” “whose every passion strives / To make itself, in thee, fair and admired;” “when he is not Antony;” “vows, / Which break themselves in swearing;” “my oblivion is a very Antony;” “my becomings kill me;” “now I feed myself / With most delicious poison;” “what they undid did;” “I myself / Have given myself the cause.”

Such figures, when they are unpacked, reveal the heart of this play. They express the consequence of peerlessness—if something is great enough, or terrible enough, it can be compared only to itself. A comic example is the crocodile that Antony describes to Lepidus, which is shaped like itself, is as high as it is, lives by what nourishes it, and has wet tears. But as with most of Shakespeare's jokes, the profoundest meaning is right beneath the surface. Antony has just finished describing the serpent of the Nile (which, we know, is Antony's nickname for Cleopatra)—a creature which is spontaneously generated out of the ooze of the Nile. In Egypt the laws of causality do not apply: The serpent is an uncaused cause, the crocodile has no attributes, for attributes can only be described with reference to entities at a similar level of contingency. Like the attributes of God, the characteristics of the crocodile cannot be described or accounted for except in terms of themselves. Of course the most important entity in Egypt is Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is an attempt to portray her, to show her attributes, to do the impossible. The proper way to do the impossible in language is to use hyperbolical climaxes that carry the reader, by their momentum, out of the element of language; to make language attack or support itself in paradoxes and tautologies; to violate the linearity of ordinary logic in the densest possible way.

Reflexive figures, as suggested above, include paradoxes. There are two main types of paradox in the play: those that by their failure to describe a possible object, in fact describe an impossible one, and those that demonstrate how, in a world of logic, something that transcends logic will destroy and strangle itself. Most descriptions of Cleopatra contain the first type of paradox; here is a delicious example of what might be called “the paradox of decorum”:

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


It is not only the paradoxes of breathless breath and defective perfection that interest us here, but the vision of the queen hopping through the street. Cleopatra destroys the normal, most basic, rationale of poetry: decorum, or fitness. The material a poet works in is the currents of association in his language—the links and pathways that constitute linguistic competence. But Cleopatra is a “lass unparalleled” (V.ii.316), a “strumpet” (I.i.13, V.ii.215), “a maid that milks and does the meanest chores” (IV.xv.77), a “royal wench” (II.ii.228); the priests “bless her when she is riggish;” her tragic death is a “lover's pinch;” her “immortal longings” comically echo the malapropism of the rustic clown who warns her of the danger of the snake: “his biting is immortal” (V.ii.295, 281, 247).

The other kind of paradox—of self-destruction—is also widespread. Force entangles itself, vows break themselves, generosity kills, the great heart cracks itself, freedom is a snare. We who are in a sense the historical survivors of the battle of Actium, in which the fleet of Antony and Cleopatra was sunk by that of Octavius, have plenty wherewith to reproach its great casualties: They were authors of their own downfall, their way of life could not have been sustained, they chose a course that was not only self-indulgent but also self-destructive. Plutarch does not fail to make these points; but if Antony had won, Octavius' defeat would then appear quite as inevitable. The victors write history, or hire survivors among the vanquished, like Plutarch the Greek, to write it for them. At the heart of the great paradoxes of self-strangling there is a basic historical paradox. Once an event has happened, it was always inevitable; if it was inevitable there is nothing its victim can do to escape, and all his attempts merely bring him closer to his doom. History is the discipline by which we convince ourselves that what did happen had to happen.

The self-strangling metaphors also suggest a certain psychological condition, well-known to those who compete in games of skill: as when the natural golf-swing or tennis-stroke is ruined by excessive self-consciousness. It is a crippling syndrome; the consciousness of one's consciousness as the cause of failure becomes in turn the maiming consciousness of which we are maimingly conscious. It is an infinite regress that for once richly deserves the name “regress.” The psychological mechanism is the same in some forms of sexual impotence and insomnia. When this mechanism is at work in a game that combines luck and skill, its workings are almost indistinguishable from bad luck to the loser. A poker-player on a losing streak, conscious that he is on a losing streak and conscious of that consciousness as a bias to the game, always suffers from bad luck. This is exactly what happens to Antony in his games of dice and cock-fighting with Caesar. Antony's handicap is his limitless self-consciousness, taught to him by Cleopatra. Enormous sexual potency as well as sexual impotence can result from this feedback of awareness, and the line between them is very thin. Images of both are strongly associated with Antony: His reared arm crests the world, his virtue (manhood) is infinite; but he “cannot hold this visible shape,” and “the soldier's pole is fall'n” (IV.xiv.14, IV.xv.65).

All the great tropes that we have seen in the play suggest highly self-aware thought processes. Climax expresses the cumulativeness of mental feedback; hyperbole its curious power to be always one step further than one's assessment of it, since the assessing itself must then be assessed. Reflexive figures express the self-referential qualities of self-awareness; and paradoxical figures express the polarities which the mind oscillates between, and also its potential for self-paralysis. The reductio ad absurdum figure suggests the odd way in which the mind can run itself into an impossible situation that can only “purge itself” by some “desperate change.”


It must now be clear what the central mechanism of creation is in Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare has isolated it by means of the peculiar historical setting and story of his play, and has turned the magnifying glass of his poetry on the operations of the creative process in physical and biological systems, in the psychology of creative individuals, in the relationship of his larger-than-life lovers, and in the microstructure and microprocess of language itself. The key mechanism is essentially the same, though it has many names: nonlinearity, feedback, sensitivity, reflexivity, self-reference; nonlinearity at the logical and mathematical level, feedback at the level of simple physical systems, sensitivity at the level of complex ecological systems with many players, reflexivity at the level of human consciousness, self-reference at the level of language. It is only recently that the grand synthesis of chaos and complexity theory has made possible the gathering of all these phenomena under one conceptual umbrella, and thus we do not yet have a single uncontested term for the general principle. But we can state it roughly as follows: New things emerge in the universe through the iterative process of old things (including even the originary nothing itself) affecting and being affected by themselves and each other. This is as true for persons as for turbulent flow systems, for fractal geometry as for interpersonal dynamics, for the structures of language as for the operations of the marketplace.

Put boldly this way, the principle seems oversimple—too abstract to use and commonsense anyway. But when we follow up its implications, we get a useful set of distinguishing characteristics or landmarks that will tell us when we are on the right creative track. One is that the elements of our system are free to communicate with each other—that is, they possess a common language and expressive medium and are not isolated from one another, and at the same time the constraints of that language do not erect barriers between the elements. Another is that the process goes on by itself and does not always have to be jogged. Another is the emergence of strange attractors, beautiful global forms, out of the apparently random results of repetitive iteration. Yet another is that articulated order does not decrease in such a creative system, as it would if it were based on linear dynamics, but increases. One hard-to-define characteristic is the kind of shape it produces—branchy, self-similar (its details resemble its macrostructure, with continuous variations), rhythmic, deep, multidimensional, rich yet simple, and esthetically satisfying.

The great advantage of the feedback principle shows up when we think of the errors we make when we try alternative explanations for creativity. If we wait for the advent of a boundless outside source of creation, we may neglect the humble growth that goes on in and around us, out of the fertile nothing here and now, when we participate in it. If we mistrust self-awareness and insist that creativity must always be unconscious of itself, we will miss the point where the iterative reflections of mental feedback begin to sketch out the new shape of a strange attractor, where the feedback process becomes so complex as to forget its own origins, where thought turns into mystical contemplation, and the self-mirrorings extend out into an infinite new country. If we believe that new things only happen by means of the linear application of power, our efforts will founder in thermodynamic decay amid the wreckage of what we have destroyed to fuel and clear the way for our actions. If we believe that no new creation can happen, we become parasites upon those who continue to take the risk of inner self-transformation and outer interaction. If we get too quickly bored by the repetitiveness of the iterations by which the feedback proceeds, and reject a mimetic tradition because of its apparent stagnation and lack of novelty, we may cut off the creative process before it has had its chance to crystallize into an emergent new structure. And if in panic or disgust at the apparent lawlessness of the creative process, we try to apply inappropriate constraints and bonds to it, that interrupt its interactions and development rather than provide a more sensitive medium of communication, we may abort it altogether. It is this last point which bears most directly on our present theme.

In Antony and Cleopatra there is everywhere a sense of the agonizing constriction and chafing of simple-minded bonds, prohibitions, and restraints, especially when the expedient political morality of the Romans attempts to curb what it takes to be the wild voluptuousness of the Egyptians. The Romans counter the excesses of random fertility and productiveness with an ethic based on negativity, control, restraint, and the cutting-off of extraneous possibilities. The characteristic images are of coldness, hardness, and tight bindings, which evoke the feeling of wearing armor. One must “pull oneself together” rather than “let oneself go.” In the Alps, still a disciplined Roman, not yet corrupted by Cleopatra, Antony was like a stag in the snow, feeding on the bark of trees; his eyes glowed like “plated Mars,” his “great fights” “burst the buckles of his breast” (I.i.4). The league between Antony and Caesar is a “band,” a “knot,” a “hoop,” that “knits” or “cements” them together; Octavia is like a “statue,” “still,” “cold,” and “holy;” a man should control himself as he controls his horse, and the neigh of a curbed horse is used to symbolize restraint; the “squares” of war, and the “square” of moderation, the golden rule, imply a squareness and uptightness in the Roman worldview that are reminiscent of the hippie idiom. Above all, the Roman gods are invoked as principles of control (not forces of creativity)—a kind of moral body-armor that a man puts on to make his flesh insensitive. But these images of control become images of strangulation, freezing, tearing, and grinding, as the “band” between Antony and Octavius becomes a halter and a noose. The two surviving triumvirs are like teeth that fruitlessly grind each other. The tender flesh is torn by steel. The state crushes the creativity that it is meant to nurture.

It is not merely the restraints of the Romans, however unimaginative and “square,” but also the boundlessness—the bondlessness of the lovers—that brings about their downfall. They do, after all, commit suicide, and their deaths are full of the imagery of dissolution, of the loss of structure, of melting. Instead of fighting on land, where his strengths are, Antony insists on fighting at sea; indeed, he wishes he could fight in the fire and the air too. This attempt to transcend “the element he lives in” culminates in the scene of his suicide, whose poetry evokes a strange dissolving of the solid world into vapor:

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory …

All this is like the painted backdrop of a stage, tiny, gaudy, hypnotic—but here revealed for what it is—

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.

Indeed, Antony's pageantry is being dissolved, since it was, after all, no more than a cloud, an optical illusion, the castles in the air of his rhetoric, the miraculous meaningful air of language.

… now thy captain is
Even such a body: here am I Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

Antony prepares to take off his costume—the costume of the Roman general, the armor of self-control, the external shape of his character.

Unarm, Eros, the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep.


The noble Roman warrior would not ask his armorer to kill him, as Antony now does; Eros is more under control than Antony, and neatly dispatches himself rather than have to kill his master. Certainly a traditional hero would not botch his suicide; Antony, however, does not get his sword in right and survives another two scenes. The constraints and conventions of the theater have collapsed. There follows one of the most awkward and potentially ludicrous pieces of stage-business in Shakespeare—the hauling of Antony aloft into Cleopatra's monument. Antony even begins his last speech too early—“I am dying, Egypt, dying,”—and has to wait until they get him up before he can start again (IV.xv.18, 41). He asks for wine to clear his throat. Cleopatra's lament for him reinforces the theme of melting, dissolution, the collapse of restraints and boundaries:

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.


But in his last moments Antony's Roman rhetoric recovers its martial splendor. Perhaps Antony is only “acting out” a grand suicide scene for which he is unqualified by his newfound self-consciousness and reflexive sensibility—the old uncomplicated Antony would make a better heroic actor!—but nevertheless on his deathbed he rediscovers the need for bonds and the keeping of contracts. He becomes a dying husband, rather than a failed lover; he earns back the title of hero, but in a new way, not as the one who is unconscious of pain and death, but as the one who carries his consciousness through to the end.

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at, but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes,
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince of the world,
The noblest; and do not now basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman …


Unarmed, he somehow still wears the poetic helmet of his bond, but it is a reinvented one. He is, in his own epitaph, “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished.” The language is both reflexive and self-conscious, and at the same time simple and grand. Somehow between them Antony and Cleopatra have rescued this scene; and Cleopatra, having found her poetic voice, now takes complete control of the play, a grip that will not weaken until the last scene is over.

This strange recovery of bonds and legitimate titles is even clearer in the death of Cleopatra than in that of Antony. Although the images of melting and dissolution do not go away—“I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (V.ii.289)—they are joined with a new emergent structure of commitment:

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


She has recovered the notion of bond—literally, in the “band” of “husband”—and claims title, legal possession, through the sacrificial means with which we are familiar in the Henry plays. Blood is the sealing-wax that legitimates the contract. In her last words the imagery of melting combines strangely with the devotion of motherhood, as she takes the snake to her bosom:

Peace, peace! Dost thou not see my baby at my breast
That sucks the nurse asleep? …
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle …


She dies in her full queenly regalia, crown, robe, and all, asserting her sovereignty and the bonds that bind her to her people and to Antony.

In these last scenes there is an episode that has scandalized Shakespeare's critics: Cleopatra, part-prisoner of the victorious Romans, lies to Caesar's accountants about the extent of her wealth, holding secret the bulk of her treasure so as to keep at her disposal the power to give imperial gifts. How can she think of possessions at a time like this? But the attempt to stay ahead of the game is entirely in her indomitable spirit, it is delightfully comic, and more—it shows that she knows the worth of money, the concentrated and universalized fertility of human gratitude, obligation, incentive, bond. It is something, as Jane Austen says, to be “mistress of Pemberley,” and diamonds are a girl's best friend. Uptight Octavius, when her ruse is revealed, claims that he is above haggling: “Caesar's no merchant, to make prize with you / Of things that merchants sold” (V.ii.183). He is unaware of his own implied insult—that Cleopatra is a merchant, even a whore. This insult—or rather the priggishness that would make it one if Octavius had the sensitivity to see the implication—makes Cleopatra livid with fury and cements her resolution to frustrate his plans by suicide: “He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself!” (V.ii.191) Shakespeare allows the question to arise whether Cleopatra would have considered suicide if she had been able to avoid the indignity of being exhibited in Octavius' triumphal procession as a trophy, a belonging of his. The point here, though, is that Cleopatra does achieve a magnificent suicide. This is far more interesting than some abstract, disinterested Kantian decision to do the Right Thing. Who will blame Cleopatra if some of her motivations are not of the purest?—especially since her very principle is impurity, the inclusion and communication of all possible motions in a turbulence that issues in beautiful emergent form. She achieves, as a breather, the perfection of sculptural shape that Octavia her rival could only reach through bloodless stoicism and insensitivity:

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.


This emergent form can be found in the very vocabulary of her final scene. The sounds of the words, energized by such an immense linguistic force field, fall naturally into certain patterns; the language was just waiting for this inevitable form to crop up in it. The word “aspic,” with its vowels “a” and “i,” and the consonants “s,” “p,” and “c,” are the key: “juice,” “Egypt's,” “grape,” “moist,” “lip,” “Iras,” “last,” “lips,” “aspic,” “stroke,” “as a lover's pinch,” “proves me base,” “spend that kiss,” “intrinsicate,” “poor venomous fool, / Be angry, and dispatch,” “speak,” “ass unpolicied,” “peace,” “sucks the nurse asleep,” “as sweet as balm, as soft as air,” “A lass unparalleled” (V.ii.280-319).

Thus the result of Shakespeare's grand experiment, his search for the inner mechanism of creativity and economic production, yields a further fruit. Indeed, the feedback processes and reflexivity that creation requires must be liberated by the breaking of existing ossified structures, the bounteous abandonment of economic prudence, and the apparent drowning of being in process. But the outcome of the self-organizing processes that result is new coherent form, new titles of possession, new being. The martial heroism of Antony and the marble-constancy of Cleopatra in their deaths arise spontaneously out of the brew of their claimed freedom; they are not artificial rules imposed from outside. The bonds that they rediscover, of husband and hero, queen and wife, are now proven to be necessary consequences and appropriate expressions of the creative turbulence.


In Antony and Cleopatra rhetoric claims for itself, and indeed possesses, concrete force (the dramatist, of course, is at liberty to assign greater or lesser concreteness to whatever elements in his play he chooses: This is part of the amazing freedom of art). The rhetoric of Antony's reply to the desertion of Enobarbus has real killing force. The rhetoric of Cleopatra in her death-scene is able to fell Iras as if she were pole-axed.

In this play the distinction between how you find out and what you find out—between epistemology and ontology, between sensation and reality, between rhetoric and action—this great distinction breaks down. In the world outside the theater, it is our philosophical fashion to preserve the distinction; the distinction itself is a useful part of our rhetoric. Similarly, we are comfortable with a mimetic theory of meaning, since some idea of reference, mimesis or representation is useful to keep these two faces of reality apart. In some respects, Shakespeare makes that extra-theatrical world triumph in the play: Caesar remarks on the fact that the ground has not in fact convulsed with earthquakes at the death of Antony, which is the earthquake. The concreteness of rhetoric is apparent in another sense as well. The poetry that Antony and Cleopatra exchange is Shakespeare's theatrical convention to represent their sexual intercourse. The rhetorical medium of the play is the love between its protagonists.

It is therefore not surprising that of all Shakespeare's plays Antony and Cleopatra should have the largest number of messengers and scenes in which messengers are important. A messenger and his message are the natural symbols of knowing and what is known, of epistemology and ontology, rhetoric and reality. Cleopatra characteristically confuses them at all times. When Alexas arrives with the orient pearl Antony has kissed, she says to him:

… coming from him, that great med'cine hath
With his tinct gilded thee.


The passage where she physically attacks the bearer of the news of Antony's marriage is justly famous. We exclaim that Cleopatra is wrong, that she is totally unjust; but her performance in this scene is actually an uncanny piece of psychological self-preparation and auto-therapy. By the end of the scene we realize that she has received this crushing news without being crushed, that she has preserved all her weapons intact, that the encounter has actually toned up her emotional muscles for the battles to come. In the next scene in which we see her, she is both pumping the messenger for information on her rival and at the same time turning his replies into what she wants to hear. She is in splendid trim and there is no doubt she will get Antony back. In what sense, then, was she wrong in confusing the messenger with the message? By doing so she is able to alter the message so that she is capable of dealing with it, and deflecting its consequences. By her response she actually changes the nature of the event at a range of over a thousand miles, since an event is, after all, the sum of its consequences.

Antony, when under the influence of “Roman” thoughts, tends to separate messenger from message: “Speak to me home, mince not the general tongue” (I.ii.106); but under Cleopatra's influence he treats the bringers of unpleasant news much as she does. The classical example is the whipping of Thidias. One of the most poignant signs of Antony's decline is his use of the schoolmaster as an ambassador, where once he was able to send kings as errand-boys. The concrete force of Antony's rhetoric seems to be fading, though as the death of Enobarbus shows, it still has its impact. Ironically enough, it was the Thidias episode which persuaded Enobarbus to leave Antony. Antony's voice, which can be as “loud as Mars,” “like all the tuned spheres,” or like “rattling thunder,” is one of his most prominent characteristics. Again, it is described as having concrete force. Many of the descriptions of Antony and Cleopatra sound like directions to impossibly ideal actors. Clearly Shakespeare must have realized that these protagonists are unplayable, if one is to do them justice. This difficulty is itself put to emotional use by the dramatist. The actor is a sort of messenger, his part the message; the pathos of Antony and Cleopatra is partly that their roles must be performed by lesser human beings—by the stage actors, by themselves.

In deliberately confusing ontology and epistemology, Shakespeare is making a philosophical point of great importance: that physical objects have being only to the extent that they feel and and are felt by other physical objects; that to be sensitive and sensible to other objects is to have being. For centuries material determinists have insisted on the deadness, the essential lack of internal spontaneous process, of self-awareness and self-motivation, in the fundamental matter of the universe. We now know, from Westfall's fine biography of Newton, that the reason natural philosophers of the Enlightenment insisted on the deadness and inert passivity of material nature was in order to concede to God a necessary role in giving it all life and animation, so that the divine would not be a fifth wheel in the world. Not daring to see God as immanent in the universe, and preferring to keep Him outside it where He could, so to speak, be kept an eye on, they tried to make physicality as incomplete as possible in respect of all the properties attributed to soul, consciousness, reflectiveness, initiative, originality, so that He would still have something important to do.

Partly because of their purely arbitrary distinctions between substance and accidents, the natural philosophers never sufficiently recognized how great a problem it was for their view—of the physical universe as insensitive and devoid of internal process—that matter has properties. That is, particles, atoms, and molecules are not totally transparent; they interrupt the forces that encounter them in such a way as to make them perceptible to humans and other animals. The light must be broken, scattered, transformed, absorbed, refracted, for us to see things at all: And it is only what is seeable—perceptible, in more general terms—that can be of any concern to science. If matter had no internal process, light would come to us utterly unaltered by the matter it had encountered, and thus the matter would be invisible. Further, it is only where matter resists the complete logical explication of its internal process, where it interrupts the linear flow of rational consequence and we are forced to establish a constant, a given, that we have any fixed point that might justify a claim for its actual existence. It is the irreducibility of the fundamental constants—the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the electron-volt constant, Planck's constant, pi—their darkness and opacity to any further reductive explanation, their idiosyncratic characterization of the fundamental relations of physical objects—that gives them their foundational role in our understanding of reality.

As we now know, simply taking up space is a complex performance for matter, and its other qualities, of mass, charge, parity, and so on, are the maintained achievements of its internal process. Its external communicative process is more remarkable still, of course—crystals, plants, animals, we ourselves, are the emergent forms that such communication makes possible. Thus the universe postulated by the material determinists, lacking that mysterious inner negotiation and external sensitivity that makes matter observable, would be completely invisible—and of course untouchable, unsmellable, inaudible, and tasteless as well. Since science relies essentially on observation, science would be impossible in such a universe. It is only to the extent that the universe and the things in it have some analogue to inner metabolism and outer sociability—that is, the extent to which they are alive—that they can be said to be at all. Being is not given. It is the achievement of the universe's continuous originating inventiveness, its life and growth.

A large part of this liveness, this internal reflexivity, of ordinary matter is devoted necessarily to making more or less crude representations of the rest of the universe. Butterfly chrysalises often combine two or three levels of representation, aimed at various possible predators: the appearance of a dead leaf for the stupidest ones, a spot of color denoting poison for the cleverer ones that have spotted the disguise—and sometimes the false appearance of a chrysalis of a truly poisonous species, saving the metabolic expense of manufacturing real poison. Vines pestered with butterflies will grow leaves that look like butterflies, on the correct theory that butterflies will not lay eggs on what they think are fellow-butterflies. But these are simple forms of representation and imitation compared to what one finds among higher animals. The greylag goose expresses its love for its mate by pointedly making a mimed attack on an absent, counterfactual goose, in a “triumph ceremony” that is a fine analogy of human theater. Courting bowerbirds build elaborate useless bowers as representations of their excellent nestbuilding genes. But the need to represent and depict goes all the way down to the most primitive entities in the universe. An atom must find ways of translating the impact of incoming energy into terms that it can absorb without flying apart; indeed, all the atoms that exist are the ones that didn't fly apart. Atoms do this by adjusting the disposition of the electrons in the harmonic series of electron shells that makes up their outer skin; and they relieve the pressure of such impacts by giving off photons of their own, whose unique signature can be picked up by a spectrograph. Those spectral emanations are in fact representations of their environment, in terms that are unique to the element that produces them.

A former student of mine, the designer and architect Jack Rees, has suggested in unpublished work that it is no coincidence that the great physicists—Newton, Einstein, and so on—tended to make their discoveries in mechanics simultaneously with their discoveries in optics. Perhaps, he suggests, optics and mechanics are at base the same thing. That is, objects in the universe exist (have mechanical properties) only in and through the fact that they express themselves and experience the expressive activity of other objects (they see and are seen). All exchanges of information are conducted by the photons of light or by particles that can be translated into photons. And mechanical processes are fundamentally exchanges of information. Certainly the basic principle of all physical science is that it must be based on observation—that is, it assumes that an object has reality only to the extent that it is observable, even if indirectly. Scientific reality is observability. At the same time the only way that anything can be observed is by its effect on other things; thus for scientific reality we need not only a world of observable objects but also a world of observing objects, that is, objects that can register by their response the presence of other objects. The power of the observer in the constitution of fundamental reality has been confirmed again and again by quantum physics, and is already a feature of our electronic technology. We can generalize this idea to the proposition that every thing exists if and only if, and to the extent that, it represents other things and is represented by them—that is, it expresses itself in such a way as to to be intelligibly recognized as what it is, and it registers and records its fellow-beings in such a way as to make their existence concrete.

Thus, representation is a fundamental feature of reality, not just a superficial freak of civilized mimicry. The universe was only a “buzzing, booming confusion,” as William James put it, in its first moment. Since then it has been painting and sculpting itself with greater and greater precision, evolving complex chemistry, plants, and animals, and achieving thereby a denser and denser reality and concreteness, the more sensory modalities it has brought into play.

It is significant that at the very beginning of Western material science, in the age of Bacon and Descartes, Shakespeare should have given us a play that founds being upon creativity rather than the reverse. It has taken us four hundred years, through some of the most brilliant intellectual achievements of the human race, to reach a scientific view of the world that confirms his insight; in which we can now see the particles of matter, no less than living organisms or conscious-brained beings, as feedback processes with some measure of autonomy, self-determination, unpredictable historical identity, and reciprocal communication with the rest of the universe. One way of putting this is in the language of another former student of mine, the Belgian philosopher Koen dePryck. He says that the world we live in is an onto-epistemological universe—that is, it only exists to the extent that its participants know and experience themselves and each other, and it is only knowable to the extent that all its inhabitants have an individual inexplicable existence. Everything experiences itself and each other into being.

Putting this thought in economic terms, we may even say that the universe is a market, a system of communication and exchange, in which value—that is, being—is built through internal and external feedback processes. It is a network of bonds, a “fair chain of love” as Chaucer put it, and the warrant of being is what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” The currency of the market is a codified and abstracted obligation—debt—which is the economic version of gratitude and love in the moral sphere. Money is love incarnated as best it can in physical property relations. But art is also the incarnation in crude physical terms of values that are the result of far more subtle and complex (though no less physical) neural and social processes. A great painting or sculpture must endure its material enactment in paint or stone, as love and gratitude must endure theirs in bequests, wages, gifts, and payments. As modernist critics of the market have rightly pointed out, markets are based on reproducibility, representation, and image. Thus an artist of the twenty-first century, seeking to create truly authentic art—art that has the concrete reality and presence of other objects in the universe—should not avoid or seek to undermine the methods of the market, which are themselves a developed and concentrated version of the universal process of natural evolution. Rather, such an artist should, as his or her predecessors did in Florence, Amsterdam, and Paris, include the turbulence of market feedback in the work of art, especially the turbulence that results when an object both is and represents, and thus has both a face value and an intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of an object, say one made of gold or precious stone, is itself fossilized face value, for the properties of an object—its color, ductility, crystalline structure or refractive capacities—are already the way it represents the rest of the world and declares its own meaning; it has being to the extent that it has meaning.


  1. Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York, 1975), pp. 274-6.

  2. Quoted in Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1968), pp. 1219, 1220.

John Michael Archer (essay date spring-summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Archer, John Michael. “Antiquity and Degeneration: The Representation of Egypt and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Genre 27, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1994): 1-27.

[In the following essay, Archer addresses racial and gender issues in Antony and Cleopatra in the context of classical and early modern writers' representations of Egypt as both a principal origin of European civilization and a prototype of cultural degeneration. As he discusses these themes, the critic evaluates the significance of the play's associations of the protagonists with mythological figures and the question of Cleopatra's racial ambiguity; Archer also asserts that the play does not represent Rome and Egypt as antithetical.]

In the first volume of Black Athena, Martin Bernal persuasively demonstrates that before the eighteenth-century Egyptian learning and its antiquity were venerated by Europeans (1:151-64). What he calls the “Ancient Model” of Egyptian colonization in Greece remained untouched by the “Aryan Model” of subsequent centuries; the racism of academic discourse had yet to eclipse the Hermetic Renaissance. His brief chapters confirm that the period understood classical antiquity to be broader than the Graeco-Roman paradigm that the nineteenth-century disciplines of classics and national literary history have left us with. Yet in his brilliant presentation of the evidence for the sixteenth-century's veneration of Egyptian learning, Bernal overlooks a narrative of African degeneration that was also present in the European discourse on Egypt from early times, a counter-discourse of disrespect that would become the mainstream view as the modern racial system developed in the wake of the slave-trade during the seventeenth century. Bernal is aware of the sexual connotations in the later association of Egypt and the east with decadence and degeneration, but he does not devote particular attention to them, or to their roots in earlier formulations of Egyptian decadence such as we find, for instance, in parts of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Notions of racial difference may not have been fully developed in early seventeenth-century England, but Shakespeare's play is linked to their modern formation through its staging of what John F. Danby called “the vast containing opposites of Rome and Egypt, the World and the Flesh” (140). Although Danby's own reading of these categories is at times subtle and, as he claims, “dialectical,” their broad sweep has helped perpetuate a stereotypical association of European Rome with reason and African Egypt with passion, femininity, and transgressive sexuality in much subsequent criticism. The role played by the “Flesh” in Danby's influential schema is part of this tendency. As Ania Loomba has shown, sexuality and sexual difference are closely related to the formation of race and racial difference in Antony and Cleopatra (124-30). The figure of Cleopatra blends sexual and racial differences in a paradoxical way: “She is the supreme actress, artifice itself, and simultaneously primitive and uncultivated” (Loomba 78). Loomba's reading of Cleopatra is in line with Judith Butler's theory of performativity in Gender Trouble. Sexual difference is a kind of performance that dissimulates the natural, rather than a symmetrical structure based on the uncultivated or uncultured body; furthermore, the parodic repetition of gender categories can undermine rather than reconfirm them (Butler 1990, 25-30). Recently, Butler has clarified her notion of performance, casting the specifically theatrical as only one instance of a much wider complex of cultural and linguistic repetitions (Butler, Bodies that Matter 12).

Two questions come to mind. If racial categories, in Danby's words, function as “containing opposites,” are sexuality and race “contained” in parallel ways in a text like Antony and Cleopatra? And if the representation of sexuality and gender resists containment through repetition and performance to some degree, are racial representations performatively subversive in the same way? Shakespeare's play participated in the unstable early modern discourse about Egyptian antiquity, in part by opening up the sexuality of the tradition. This paper is a cultural study of the play in its shifting discursive setting, rather than a source study of its antecedents. Ultimately, I want to trace the relation between racial and sexual constructions during the period by reading Shakespeare's text through a number of historical, geographical, and travel writings that became available roughly within a century of its publication.

Herodotus's Histories (ca. 450 b.c.) are the starting point for any discussion of the discourse of Egypt in European culture. His second book, as Bernal shows, remained an authoritative source despite Plutarch's relatively late attack in the second century a.d. on Herodotus's “malice” in allowing Egypt precedence over Greece. And even Plutarch added to the veneration for Egypt in another essay in his Moralia: “Of Isis and Osiris” fueled an interest in hermetic texts and Egyptian ideas about the afterlife among Christians well into the eighteenth century. The first two books of Herodotus appeared in a vigorous translation in 1584, where English readers could rediscover how “the Aegyptians first invented and used the surnames of the twelve gods: which the Grecians borrowed and drew from them. The self same were the first founders of Aulters, Images, and Temples to the gods: by whom also chiefly were carved the pictures of beasts and other creatures in stone, which thing for the most part they prove and confirme by lawfull testimonies and good authority” (Herodotus 1584, 70v). Although he remarks upon the Egyptians' reversal of Greek ideas about gender roles (their women buy and sell while the men spin, “women make water standing, and men crouching downe and cowring to the ground,” 78v), Herodotus also insists that all forms of religious ceremony and communication with the gods by means of interpreters were invented in Egypt and subsequently adopted by Greece (85v).

Diodorus Siculus, who flourished around 49 b.c., corroborated and drew on many lost sources to augment the Herodotean account of the Egyptians' evidence for their cultural priority in the first book of his Library of History. Although an English translation of Diodorus did not appear in print until 1653, his first four books were translated into Latin by Poggio Bracciolini in 1472, and were published in a Greek and Latin edition again in 1604 by Stephanus. John Skelton's early Tudor rendering of Bracciolini's Latin version of Diodorus was one of the first translations of a classical text during the English Renaissance, although it remained in manuscript until modern times and may not have been widely available. Pliny's Natural History, translated by Philemon Holland in an edition of 1601, acknowledged Egypt's “boast and glorie antiquitie,” and recorded both its miraculous animal life and its unrivalled monuments (Pliny 98). Plutarch's “Life of Antonius,” which appeared in Thomas North's translation of 1579, and his essays on Herodotus and the cult of Isis and Osiris, published in translation in 1603, made him a major, if contradictory, influence on the tradition. Along with Herodotus, these texts constituted the principal classical sources for English knowledge about ancient Egypt in the early seventeenth century.

Early modern Europe rediscovered the ancient belief in Egypt's cultural priority along with the rest of classical learning. In the preface to “Of Isis and Osiris” in his translation of Plutarch's Moralia, Philemon Holland observes that “The wisdome and learning of the Aegyptians hath bene much recommended unto us by ancient writers, and not without good cause: considering that Aegypt hath bene the source and fountaine from whence have flowed into the world arts and liberall sciences, as a man may gather by the testimony of the first Poets and philosophers that ever were: But time, which consumeth all things, hath bereft us of the knowledge of such wisdome: or if there remaine still with us any thing at all, it is but in fragments and peeces scattered heere and there” (Plutarch, Morals 1286). The Renaissance was as dedicated to the Isis-like collection of these ruins and fragments as it was to the recuperation of Graeco-Roman culture.

Yet an ambivalence toward Egypt was already becoming evident, informed by the conflation of classical descriptions and reports of its current state in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century travel accounts in England. Johannes Boemus's compilation of foreign customs was a popular example. It was first translated in 1555 as The Fardle of Fashions; here I will refer to the 1611 translation, The Manners, Lawes, and Customs of All Nations, Collected out of the Best Writers. As the later title indicates, Boemus was an armchair anthropologist who mixed classical, travel, and geographical sources to amuse and instruct his readers with a compendium of exotic behavior, rather like Montaigne in his essay “Of Custom, and not easily changing an accepted law.” Boemus takes the link between Egypt and Greece for granted, duly noting that it “was so called of Aegiptus the brother of Danaus King of the Argyues” (Boemus 17). And he gives precedent to the Egyptians, while recording that many aspects of their culture were derived in turn from the Ethiopians, here as in so many early documents a people split between Africa and India. “The Egyptians were the first that fained the names of the twelve gods,” we read, in a tacit citation of Herodotus that later texts would often echo,

they erected Altars, Idols, and Temples, and figured liuing creatures in stones, all which things doe plainely argue that they had their originall from the Aethiopians, who were the first Authors of all these things (as Diodorus Siculus is of opinion). Their women were wonte in times past to doe businesse abroad, to keepe tauernes and victualling houses, and to take charge of buying and selling: and the men to knit within the walles of the citty, they bearing burthens vpon their heads, and the women vppon their shoulders: the women to pisse standing, and the men sitting; all of them for the most part ryoting and banquetting abroad, in open wayes, and exonerating and disburdening their bellyes at home.

(18; compare Herodotus 1584, 70v, 78v)

Through the blending of two passages from Herodotus, the mixed nature of the tradition resolves itself into a narrative of decline from the invention of the pantheon (“fained” in two senses, however), through the reversal of European expectations about gender roles in public, to the disburdening of bellies at home. This is contradicted somewhat by Boemus's subsequent translation of a passage from Diodorus Siculus (uncredited, again) praising the Egyptians' strict regulation of sexuality and his disparagement of the mythology of the Greeks, who “could not with all their writings draw men to vertue, but were rather derided and contemned themselues” (37). Nevertheless, the expansion of Herodotus's simple statement that the Egyptians liked to eat outdoors into rioting and banqueting in the streets stays with the reader (compare Herodotus 1972, 143).

A full account of contemporary Egypt was provided by Leo Africanus, a convert to Christianity from Islam whose History and Description of Africa of 1526, translated by John Pory in 1600, has long been recognized as a source for many of Shakespeare's references to the continent. But Leo also depicts Egypt as the scene of gender trouble. He provides an etymology of the name of Cairo, deriving it from “El Chahira, which signifieth an enforcing or imperious mistress” (Leo Africanus 870). Its women, he claims, “are so ambitious & proud, that all of them disdaine either to spin or to play the cookes: wherefore their husbands are constrained to buie victuals ready drest at the cookes shops” (883). There may be something of this lean-cuisine society in the Ptolemaic and urban Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra. According to Leo, men and women alike “in their common talke vse ribald and filthie speeches,” and wives often complain to the judge of their husbands' sexual inadequacy (884), yet he also notes the harsh physical punishments of Egypt's legal system in a way that parallels Boemus's depiction of ancient Egypt (887). On the whole Leo's sketch is fairly sympathetic: “The inhabitants of Cairo are people of a merrie, iocund, and cheerfull disposition, such as will promise much, but perform little. They exercise merchandize and mechanicall artes, and yet trauell they not out of their owne natiue soile. Many students there are of the lawes, but very few other liberall artes and sciences. And albeit their colleges are continually full of students, yet few of them attaine vnto perfection” (Leo Africanus 882). Leo's Cairo sounds a lot like early seventeenth-century London. He reverses the order of most European geographical descriptions by beginning with the urban flux of present-day Egypt and only then turning to its antiquities, affording them scant description at that. But unlike many later European travellers he does not make an implicit equation between the fallen monuments of the past and the declining fortunes of Egypt under the Ottomans during his own times (for instance, Sandys, A6 verso). Surveying what are for him merely ruins, the cultivated Islamic, and soon to be Christian, observer finally notes that at Aswan “are to be seene many buildings of the ancient Egyptians, and most high towers, which they call in the language of that country Barba” (904). The relation between civilization and barbarism is as unstable here as in Boemus, although in a different, perhaps unexpected, manner.

Yet Boemus's and Leo Africanus's early and influential accounts of Egypt were combined within the somewhat confused discourse of Egypt and the Egyptians in early seventeenth-century England. George Sandys acknowledges the many inventions of the ancient Egyptians in his “Relation of a Iourney”, yet he claims that “The Aegyptians of the middle times, were a people degenerating from the worth of their ancestors; prone to innouations, deuoted to luxury, cowardly cruell; naturally addicted to scoffe, and to couill, detracting from whatsoeuer was gracious and eminent” (Sandys 108-9). The geographer Peter Heylyn plagiarizes this passage in his Cosmographie in Four Bookes, with one significant alteration: “such as have observed the nature of the Modern Egyptians affirm them to have much degenerated from the worth of their Ancestors; prone to innovations, devoted to luxury, cowardly, cruel, addicted naturally to cavill, and to detract from whatsoever is good and eminent” (921). The middle times of the Ptolemies become modern times in Heylyn's later, second-hand description of Egypt.

Fittingly, this mixture of antiquity and modernity can likewise be seen in Shakespeare's Ptolemaic Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra, set in a period of transition in ancient history, was also bound up with the economic and cultural transitions of the world system of its own time. The symmetry between sixteenth-century London and Leo Africanus's Cairo, for instance, was not coincidental—in a sense, the two cities were meeting each other half way. London was increasing in economic power and metropolitan centrality while Cairo was becoming less and less important, hampered since the fifteenth century by European competition and a chronic shortage of bullion (Wallerstein 40, 168). Cairo had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asian regions for some forty years at the start of the fourteenth century. Under the Mamluk sultans, Egypt profited from a restructured world-system in the wake of the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. One feature of the Mediterranean wing of Egypt's influence was the establishment of a longstanding relationship with Italy, specifically with Genoa and, more crucially, Venice (Abu-Lughod 146, 212-15). Even after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1516-17, Venice maintained a foothold in its still-profitable economy, moving its factors from Alexandria to Cairo itself in 1552 and gaining trading concessions from the Turks in 1599 (Braudel 389, 548, 567). Venice and Egypt were paired in the sixteenth century just as Rome and Egypt are in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The English were well aware of the old association between Italy and Egypt—they were unsuccessful in a three-way competition with Italian and French traders for the Cairo textile markets at the end of the century. But the Egyptians, stuck with too much European cloth and not enough gold and silver, were perhaps the biggest losers.

The growth of the modern system of racial difference was a major part of these developments. Egypt's economic hardship contributed to the picture of decline painted by European travellers like Henry Blount: “whatsoever little memory of old Ceremonies, might have beene left in Egypt, hath utterly perished in their frequent oppressions … which beside the change of ceremony, have corrupted all the ingenious fancy of that Nation into ignorance, and malice” (Blount 49). The enslavement of subsaharan Africans in the colonies of the New World added dark skin to conquest and degeneration within Europe's growing racial lexicon. It was the monopoly of Venice and Egypt over the eastern routes that led the Iberian monarchies, and eventually England, to incorporate America into the European world-economy (Abu-Lughod 363). A metropolitan culture's slaves generally come from outside its world-economy; as the leading role shifted from the Mediterranean to the European system in early modern times, slaves were drawn from Africa, an external arena to Europe, rather than the Balkan periphery, for work in America (Wallerstein 89). It became necessary to “other” and demean all African civilizations, including Egypt—despite the veneration in which its antique and hermetic traditions were held, and despite the mixture of colors and cultures along the Nile that ancient and modern documents attested to.

This mixture was in fact enlisted in the process of othering. In 1605 the Puritan divine George Abbot, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, granted the original Egyptians their reputation for learning in an ambitious quarto entitled A Briefe Description of the whole WORLDE. But he merges past and present in emphasizing skin color, and the unstable figure of Cleopatra:

Although the Countrie of Egypt do stand in the selfe same Climate, that Mauritania doth, yet the inhabitants there, are not black, but rather dunne, or tawnie. Of which colour, Cleopatra was obserued to be: who by enticement, so wanne the loue of Iulius Cesar, and Anthonie: And of that colour do those runnagates (by deuices make themselues to be) who goe vp and downe the world vnder the name of Egyptians; being in deed, but counterfaites, and the refuse, or rascalitie of many nations.

(Abbot K2r-v)

The opening lines of Antony and Cleopatra are part of the same discourse:

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

(1. 1. 1-10)

Historically a Ptolemy, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is described as the queen of Ptolemy and Egypt's widow, ambiguous designations that leave her color open (1. 4. 6, 2. 1. 37). Philo calls her tawny; Cleopatra says “Think on me, / That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time” (1. 5. 27-29). These lines evoke her identification with Egypt's antiquity as well as her complexion, darkened by the sun. Yet the Abbot passage suggests that tawniness and antiquity can both be the deceptions of a runnagate; darkness is dissociated from ancient wisdom and made suspect, and Egyptians are replaced by gypsies. A lost originary knowledge is juxtaposed with diaspora and counterfeiting, a demonic version of Holland's fragments and pieces scattered here and there. Instead of a purely manichean division of black from white, Abbot pictures an intermediate zone in which light skinned people darken themselves by “devices” and circulate like vagabonds. And Shakespeare amplifies the sexuality of this hybrid mixture, dissolving strict battle-lines with the breeze from Antony's fan-like heart in lines that look forward to Enobarbus's “pretty dimpled boys … whose wind did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, / And what they undid did” in the barge set-piece (2. 2. 202-5). Cleopatra's color comes and goes in this trope in a manner that links race and sexuality without the stabilizing mediation of heterosexual lineage.

Walter Ralegh's History of the World, like Abbot's a global project with a Europeanizing and culturally conservative cast, pushes the association of Egyptian learning with degeneration and dissemination through the figure of the gypsy to its logical conclusion. Ralegh supports the traditional attribution of the pantheon to the Egyptians, but twists it by blaming them for falling away from monotheism under the influence of the devil (Ralegh 85). This tendency began with the Egyptian priests, and has continued to our own times: “the Trade of riddles in Oracles, with the Deuils telling mens fortunes therein, is taken vp by counterfeit Aegyptians, and cousening Astrologers” (Ralegh 96). Thomas Browne's speculations on past civilizations are gentler than Ralegh's, but they likewise associate the largely non-European world of antiquity with an inevitable cycle of growth and decay. In Religio Medici he notices a specific link between the wisdom of the Egyptians and the practices of their latter-day mimics in palmistry, a form of divination that also figures in Antony and Cleopatra:

I carry that in mine owne hand, which I could never read of, nor discover in another. Aristotle, I confesse, … hath made no mention of Chiromancy, yet I beleeve the Egyptians, who were nearer addicted to those abstruse and mysticall sciences, had a knowledge therein, to which those vagabond and counterfeit Egyptians did after pretend, and perhaps retained a few corrupted principles, which sometimes might verifie their prognostickes.

(Browne 69)

The Soothsayer, an Egyptian in Shakespeare as in Plutarch's life of Antonius, can read a little in nature's infinite book of secrecy (1. 1. 9-10), but he is principally a palm-reader, like Browne's counterfeit Egyptians. “There's a palm presages chastity, if nothing else,” Iras says in extending her hand to him. “E'en as the o'erflowing Nilus presages famine,” counters Charmian, “if an oily palm be not a fruitful prognostication, I cannot scratch mine ear” (1. 2. 46-47, 49-50). This exchange links the soothsayer's art with a dissolute yet vital female sexuality, but also with the pyramid, another symbol of ancient Egyptian knowledge, which is used to predict the level of the river (2. 7. 17-23). Later in the action, the soothsayer, poised uneasily between hieroglyphic chiromancy and the cozening of the market, abruptly alters the course of the plot, and world history, by frightening Antony back to Egypt. The deceptive world of the marketplace and its gypsies, where Antony and Cleopatra first met and continue to display themselves (2. 2. 215, 3. 6. 3), is recalled in Antony's violent condemnation of Cleopatra in Act III:

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

(4. 12. 24-29)

Antony himself assumes the Roman discourse that renders Cleopatra whore and trickster, a darkened remnant whose false soul turns antiquity into a conjurer's cheat, like the rigged game of fast and loose.

Antony and Cleopatra, then, clearly registers the tendency toward degeneration in the early seventeenth century discourse of Egypt. But it is important to recognize the signs of the other, still mainstream version of Egypt and its antiquity in the play.

John Gillies has called attention to the “Herodotean character of Shakespeare's Egypt” as the source of the play's concern with cultural translation; the tradition of Herodotus, indeed, also carried the veneration of Egyptian antiquity down to Shakespeare's time (119). The anxiety about decay is mostly ascribed to the Roman characters. And by the end of the drama, the laudatory view of Egyptian culture seems to win out, if we take Cleopatra as a representation of “Egypt” in her final nobility. When she says she is “wrinkled deep in time” in Act I, Cleopatra is identifying herself, however playfully, with a notion of antiquity which is also personified in the female figure of Isis, whose name, Diodorus Siculus says, means “ancient, deriving the name from her eternity and ancient beginnings” (Diodorus 4). Her greatest affront to the Romans is her appearance in the marketplace of Alexandria “In the habiliments of the goddess Isis” (3. 6. 17) with Antony by her side. The frequent and sometimes ribald invocations of Isis by Charmian and others throughout the text may rob this image of its dignity (1. 2. 61), yet after all, as Plutarch tells us, “Isis is the president over amatorious folk” and associated with the moon (Plutarch Morals 1308). By the end of the play, Cleopatra seems determined to out-Roman the Romans in doing a noble deed: “now from head to foot / I am marble constant; now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine” (5. 2. 238-240). Edward Capell, the play's eighteenth-century editor, saw these lines as a reference to her earlier imitation of Isis (Shakespeare 212). Yet Cleopatra's reduction of herself to a statue also has something Egyptian in it—she is preparing herself for entombment in terms that evoke the hermetic association of Egypt with the afterlife, as in her subsequent call for robe and crown, her “Immortal longings,” and her vision of her “husband” Antony beckoning her onward: “I am fire, and my other elements / I give to baser life” (5. 2. 279-90). She seems determined to mount a performance both of Egypt and its supposed antithesis in Roman culture; Cleopatra remains a composite construction to the end.

Rome itself, however, is also a composite construction in the play, as it was in contemporary historical, geographical, and travel accounts. This is best seen through an examination of Antony and the mythological references out of which his public persona is largely assembled. His climactic rejection of Cleopatra in Act IV brings to a head a chain of associations linking Antony to Hercules:

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

(4. 12. 43-47)

There was a broad context for Antony's evocation of Hercules in the Renaissance knowledge of Graeco-Roman and Egyptian antiquity, and more particularly in what was known of the historical Marcus Antonius. According to Plutarch's life of Antonius, the immediate source of Shakespeare's play in North's translation,

it had beene a speeche of old time, that the familie of the Antonii were descended from one Anton, the sonne of Hercules, whereof the familie tooke name. This opinion did Antonius seeke to confirme in all his doings: not onely resembling him in the likeness of his bodye, as we have sayd before, but also in the wearing of his garments. For when he would openly shewe him selfe abroad before many people, he would alwayes were his cassocke gyrt downe lowe upon his hippes, with a great sword hanging by his side, and upon that, some ill favored cloke.

(Plutarch, Lives 4)

The self-dramatization of Plutarch's Antonius here is of a piece with his notorious sponsorship of actors and mountebanks both at home and abroad (Lives 10, 22-23).

It is when Shakespeare's Antony spurns Cleopatra, seemingly once and for all, that he reclaims his identity by reminding himself of his familial and cultural lineage. But even at his most self-obsessed and self-mythologizing, Antony throws in a reference to the moon of Cleopatra and Isis by recalling the fate of Lichas, the servant who brought Hercules the fatal shirt and was tossed sky-high for his pains. And there is something of Plutarch's Antonius, the actors' friend, in this histrionic retreat to a mythological identity. Already in Act I, upon hearing of Fulvia's death, Cleopatra challenges him:

Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears
Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene
Of excellent dissembling, and let it look
Like perfect honour.
.....But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.

(1. 3. 77-80, 83-85)

Founded on the model of his putative ancestor, Antony's self-construction appears ultra-Roman in a masculinist mode, the authentic performance of a cultural past in which, for instance, Greek religion and society were totally subsumed by an empire that successfully asserted its historical priority. Cleopatra responds by exposing the self-stagings that constitute any claim of cultural integrity. She calls attention to the performative mechanism of Antony's mythology, sexualizing Antony's performance in a manner that breaks down the gender barriers upon which Roman ideas of honor and conquest were also founded. Cultural and sexual difference are differently “contained,” or rather produced and managed, when the characters Antony and Cleopatra encounter one another on stage. Ptolomy's widow has Hellenistic roots but is identified with Egypt, particularly through the figure of Isis; moreover, her role is embodied on stage by a boy player. Antony's character seems unitary by comparison, yet the scene in which Cleopatra recalls cross-dressing him both implicates the Roman in the artifice of the Jacobean theater and exposes an unacknowledged strand in his personal mythology, the submission of Hercules to Omphale through the hero's adoption of women's clothes. “I drunk him to his bed,” Cleopatra boasts, “Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (2. 5. 21-23). Gender difference is maintained here, it is true, however reversed the positions may be; the sword remains “his,” a relic of a past conquest at Philippi, she only wears it, its ambiguous status as the phallus strengthened, not challenged. The lines may also recall Hercules's love for the boy Hylas, thoroughly yet excessively masculine (Galinsky 118). Nevertheless, Antony's Roman masculinism is undercut somewhat through both the reversal and intensification of gender roles, and in a way that opens up his Herculean performances to reinterpretation from within. Although he takes the unified “Dorian” origin of the Hercules myth for granted, Eugene M. Waith shows how the very excessiveness associated with its powerful central figure poses a threat to the Graeco-Roman order he supposedly exemplifies in the play (Waith 1962, 113-21).

Omphale was the daughter of the queen of the Lydians in Asia Minor, as Diodorus Siculus, the earliest surviving source of the story of Hercules' subjection to her, records (see Diodorus 187, who does not include the cross-dressing episode). Cleopatra's various dressings, undressings, and manipulations of Antony reenact his ancestor's unmanning in Egypt rather than Asia; they extend an encounter with the racial and sexual other that was always paradoxically within as well as without the Graeco-Roman world, or rather the world of an antiquity that until the seventeenth century in Europe comprised a wider field of both cultures and sexualities than later scholarship allowed. Hercules or Herakles himself, as sources from Herodotus onward acknowledge, possessed a complicated lineage with roots in Africa as well as Asia and Europe; the tradition attempted to untangle it by claiming that there was more than one hero of the name. Herodotus commends those Greeks who worship him as both an Olympian god and as a hero, and records ancient versions of his cult in Phoenicia and Thrace (Herodotus 1584, 82 recto). But the historian's most notorious claim is that the original Hercules came from Egypt:

This name I suppose to have come first from Egypt into Graece, and to have been borrowed of them, howsoever the Graecians dissemble the matter, to make the invention seeme their owne: whereupon I grounde wyth greater confidence, for that the parents of Hercules, Amphitrio and Alcmaena are by countrey and lynage Aegyptians.

(Herodotus 1584, 81 recto-verso)

For Herodotus, the actual birthplace of any historical Hercules who may have existed is less important than the issue of cultural influence, of where the name and attributes of the seemingly most Greek, and later Roman, of heroes actually came from.

Herodotus's influence was as usual pervasive later in the tradition. Writing in the first century b.c., Diodorus Siculus agrees that the Greeks are wrong to claim Hercules as theirs. He recounts how Osiris left his kinsman Hercules in charge of Egypt's armies when he went on his expedition to bring culture to the world; when the river Nile, also called the “Eagle,” overflowed the province of a governor named Prometheus, Hercules restored it to its course, “whereupon some Greek Poets (turning true History into a fable) have written that Hercules killed the Eagle which fed upon the liver of Prometheus” (Diodorus 12, 7-10). Cicero urbanely lists six Herculeses in De natura deorum 3.42, including an Egyptian and Indian Hercules as well as three sons of three gods named Jupiter, “since, as I shall explain, we have traditions of several different Jupiters as well” (Cicero 209-10). Plutarch's much later essay “Of the Malice of Herodotus” in the Moralia, of course, rejects the Egyptian origin of Hercules altogether, extrapolating three heroes from Herodotus's account:

the captaines and leaders of the Dorians (saith he) seeme to be descended in right line from the Aegytpians, … striving to make, not onely the other two “Herculees” Aegyptians and Phoenicians, but also this whom himselfe nameth to be the third, a meere stranger from Greece, and to enroll him among Barbarians, notwithstanding that of all the ancient learned men, neither Homer, nor Hesiodus … do make mention of any Hercules an Aegytpian or Phoenician, but acknowledge one alone, to wit, our Boeotian and Argien.

(Plutarch 1603, 1230)

But Bernal is right in contrasting this piece with Plutarch's favorable account of Egyptian antiquity in “Of Isis and Osiris” (Bernal 1:113)—both essays were rhetorical exercises “moralizing” on competing interpretations of past Greek culture from a shifting late Hellenistic perspective in the second century a.d. Furthermore, Plutarch's rhetorical attack on Herodotus did not stop the spread of the tradition he transmitted during later centuries hungry for knowledge, any knowledge, about the sources of civilization in remote antiquity. Even Ralegh accepts the existence of the Libyan or Egyptian Hercules, although he identifies him with a biblical figure named Lehabim, a grandson of Ham (Ralegh 240-41; see Genesis 10: 6, 13). Annius of Viterbo, a fifteenth-century Dominican monk who professed to have transcribed the lost writings of the Babylonian chronicler Berosus, forged or naively transmitted a fabricated account of world history since the flood in which Hercules figured prominently. Annius' English popularizer Richard Lynche published a book in 1601 entitled “An Historical Treatise of the Travels of Noah into Europe.” Lynche follows Varro and Servius in maintaining that there were 43 men named Hercules in antiquity, only two of which were renowned: the Greek Hercules, whom he dismisses as a mere robber or pirate, and the Libyan or Egyptian Hercules, son of Isis and Osiris, the authentic Hercules who conquered Europe and ruled in France, Italy, and Spain (Lynche, D1 recto, D4 recto, K1 recto; Galinsky 1972, 131n).

Even more conservative versions of the tradition attest to a hero who travelled to numerous countries and fathered lots of children. With so many Herculeses and their offspring about in so many parts of the globe, Antony's claim of descent from Hercules seems a little less impressive.1 What does it mean, then, to act a Herculean part in Shakespeare's play—or a Roman one for that matter? Lynche, for instance, records that Rome itself was actually founded by one Rhomanessos. A grandson of Atlas whose name means “great height” in Aramaic, it was Rhomanessos who called the city after himself; contrary to popular legend, “Romulus (being himselfe found hard by that cittie by wondrous accident) tooke his name of Roma, and not Roma of Romulus” (L1 verso). Whether or not stories such as these were believed in the early seventeenth century, they were preserved and circulated as fragments of a diverse tradition about the African and Asian origins of Graeco-Roman, and hence European, civilization. Behind Antony's performance as Alcides and the English audience's enjoyment of it there lies a sort of racial panic, a repeated denial of Egyptian and other influences through the very mythological materials that could just as easily be cited to affirm these influences.

The cultural instability of the myths surrounding Hercules provides one context for Antony's seduction by and of a racially ambiguous woman, the Omphale-like Cleopatra. She is a Ptolemy, perhaps, but one who has adopted the Egyptianism that may always have lurked within Hellenistic, and before that classical, Greek culture. According to Diodorus, after all, the Ptolemies' homeland of Macedon received its name from Macedon the son of Osiris, who accompanied his father on his culture-bringing expedition and ended up ruling the northern region that took his name (7). It is tempting to explain Cleopatra's acculturation, or reculturation, and its effect on Antony as a lapse into the watery state of decay that Danby associates with Egypt and its Nile (see also Waith, 116). But the Roman people themselves harbor such labile decadence within them, as Octavius is the first to complain:

It hath been taught us from the primal state.
.....                    This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to, and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.

(1. 4. 41, 44-47)

“Rome” and “Egypt” in Antony and Cleopatra are simply not antithetical in the way much criticism persists in declaring them to be. As Jyotsna Singh remarks, “Inherent to such readings is the tendency to naturalize patriarchal stereotypes that often equate Rome with reason and public duty and Egypt with sensuality and emotional excess” (108). The naturalization of racial as well as gender stereotypes is also at stake here (Loomba 125).

It is not only commoners in Rome itself who threaten to revert to the primal depths that Octavian's paranoia often invokes. The triumvirs on Pompey's galley at Misenum drink deeply with differing effects—“These quick-sands, Lepidus,” Antony warns as Menas conspires with Sextus Pompeius, “Keep off them, for you sink” (2. 7. 58-59). “This is not yet an Alexandrian feast,” Pompey goads, while Enobarbus proposes that “we dance now the Egyptian Bacchanals, / And celebrate our drink” (2. 7. 102-2). It is significant that their celebration of Bacchus is specifically ascribed to Egypt, for Bacchus or Dionysus, more clearly than Hercules, was often identified as an Egyptian deity (Hughes-Hallett 90-91). Herodotus says that the Egyptians think Bacchus is the same as their chief god Osiris, the consort of Isis or Ceres, and goes on to parallel the Greek worship of Dionysus with Egyptian processions, meetings and sacrifices to Osiris (Herodotus 1584, 81 recto). Diodorus Siculus's influential account of Osiris's travels throughout the known world is presented as the true explanation behind the myth of Dionysus's conquest of the East; it was Orpheus who spread the story that Dionysus was born of Semele and Zeus in order to make his cult more palatable to the Greeks (Diodorus 7-11). In “Of Isis and Osiris” Plutarch himself describes how Osiris reduced the earth to civility by “sweet perswasions couched in songs, and with all manner of Musicke: whereupon the Greeks were of opinion, that he and Bacchus were both one” (Plutarch, Morals 1292). Lynche, following Annius of Viterbo, extends the conquest tradition backward to make Noah the first culture-hero and world traveller. Osiris is said to be the son of Cham (Ham) and his sister Rea and the father of the real Hercules. He left many traces while establishing Egypt's empire over Europe; the Hapsburg dynasty, Lynche claims, derived its name from Apis, another one of his titles (Lynche, B2 recto-E2 verso). This combination of biblical, Egyptian and classical antiquities seems far-fetched even by early modern standards, but it brings out and develops connections that were readily available within a complicated and rich tradition.

In their drunkenness, the Romans on Pompey's galley are honoring Dionysus, or Osiris, through their Egyptian Bacchanals in the half-decadent, half-ritual manner that Shakespeare associates with the mysteries of Cleopatra's court, a mixture emphasized when they grasp hands and perhaps dance during the boy's drinking-song to the god (2. 7. 106-116). Shakespeare subtly recalls this scene later in the play when music invades the stage once more and the soldiers conclude “'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, / Now leaves him” (4. 4. 15-16). In Plutarch's life of Antonius, however, it is Bacchus, not Hercules, who was supposed by the general's followers to have deserted him before the final battle:

it is said that sodainly they heard a marvelous sweete harmonie of sundrie sortes of instrumentes of musicke, with the crie of a multitude of people, as they had bene dauncing, and had song as they use in Bacchus feastes, with movinges and turninges after the maner of the Satyres.

(Plutarch, Lives 78)

Earlier we read that Antonius was descended from Hercules but followed Bacchus in his way of life, and so was called the new Bacchus (Plutarch 1967, 63).

But Shakespeare's linking of the two gods is part of a long tradition that antedates Plutarch. Herakles and Dionysus, as Bernal points out, are paralleled in Iliad 14. 321-5 where Zeus compares his affairs with their respective mortal mothers (Bernal 1991, 79). They were frequently paired, not always to Herakles's advantage, in Greek comic drama (Galinsky 81-94). Later on, the two figures were coupled as dual conquerors, as in Diodorus Siculus's material on India:

The learned of those dayes have written, That Dionysius came into India with his Army from the western parts. … The Indians doe hold moreover, with the Greekes, that Hercules passed also even unto them, armed with a club, and a Lyons-skinne, that he surpassed all other men in force of body and virtue; That he tamed the monsters both of Sea and Land.

(Diodorus 96)

This association was taken up closer to Shakespeare's time by Spenser in Book 5 of the Faerie Queene:

          first was Bacchus, that with furious might
All th'East before vntam'd did ouerronne,
And wrong repressed, and establisht right.
.....Next Hercules his like ensample shewed,
Who all the West with equall conquest wonne,
And monstrous tyrants with his club subdewed.

(5. 1. 2)

Book 5 also contains the mysterious episode in the temple of Isis, where the myth of Osiris and his queen serves as the prime allegorical representation of the book's theme, the virtue of justice. Shakespeare's echoes of the parallel between Bacchus and Hercules as imperial victors, and his references to the Isis cult, offset Spenser's moralizing use of the Graeco-Egyptian allegorical tradition and remind us of its messy origins.

Hercules is not exclusively a Roman, or even a Greek, hero; he is not a unitary figure, and one of his many incarnations, perhaps his oldest, is Egyptian; he was a conqueror, yes, but so was Bacchus, the Dionysus of the Greeks and the Osiris of the Egyptians, his double, in one source his father, and perhaps his fate. For if Cleopatra is Isis, then Antony, as Bacchus, is her Osiris, a dying god whose destruction and display will purify Octavian's Rome of Egyptian corruption and prepare it for empire.

The Bacchanals scene is underlain by racial panic, enunciated typically by Octavian, here a participant-observer, but comically objectified in the figure of Lepidus. “Lepidus is high-coloured,” we are told (2. 7. 4)—an appropriate condition for the nominal ruler of Africa, which along with Octavian's Europe and Antony's Egypt and Asia formed one-third of the traditional three-part division of the globe. “The third part, then, is drunk,” as Menas remarks (2. 7. 90). Skin color was a less stable marker of racial difference in early modern Europe than it is taken to be today: at a time when many people believed that the sun lent a dark tone to equatorial peoples and threatened northerners in those climes as well (recall 1. 5. 27-29), the flushed complexion of the drunkard functioned as a less serious, but feasible, emblem of racial and moral degeneration. “It's monstrous labour when I wash my brain / And it grow fouler,” Octavian worries (2. 7. 97-98), clearly playing upon the proverbial example of fruitless work, “to wash an Ethiope white.”2 And Octavian makes the comparison with the familiar explanation for dark skin color explicit when he takes his leave after the song to Bacchus:

                    Gentle lords, let's part,
You see we have burnt our cheeks. Strong Enobarb
Is weaker than the wine, and mine own tongue
Splits what it speaks: the wild disguise hath almost
Antick'd us all.

(2. 7. 119-23)

These Bacchanals are Egyptian indeed, and Octavian fears their effect upon his appearance, his speech, and his brain or core sense of identity. For it is not only the physical signs of drunkenness, but also the way they mark the foreign god's power over his subjects, that provoke Octavian's panic. He has almost been “antick'd,” both made into a figure of foolery and submerged in an antiquity whose kinship he refuses to acknowledge.

The combination of respect for antiquity and fear of contagious decadence in European writing about Egypt has prepared us for both Cleopatra's final performance and its partial appropriation in Shakespeare's play. In Act I Antony wishes he had never seen Cleopatra, and Enobarbus replies “O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blest withal, would have discredited your travel” (1. 2. 151-53). Antony, like Enobarbus himself in his orientalist fantasy of the “Rare Egyptian” in her barge, is a European sightseer in Egypt whose travel account would lack credibility without reference to its chief wonder. Cleopatra is this “piece of work,” like a building or statue, marble constant but also a little touristy. Antony, sounding like a travel writer, will later tell Lepidus:

                    they take the flow o' the Nile
By certain scales ‘i’ the pyramid; they know,
By the height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow.

(2. 7. 17-20)

Antony's traveller's tale may be a distorted version of Leo Africanus's description of the measurement of the Nile by means of a “piller” set in a cistern within a “house” on an island (880); Shakespeare could also be conflating pyramids and obelisks.3 In any case, the direct association of pyramids with the flow of the Nile ties them to Cleopatra, who is constantly identified with the river and its fertile properties.

It will be useful to juxtapose Enobarbus's comparison of Cleopatra with a monument, echoed several times later in the play, with the image of the pyramids in the traditional descriptions of Egypt. Although some early modern sources maintained that they were storehouses for grain, Leo Africanus and others held them to be pharaonic tombs (896). Their association with death goes back to Herodotus, who claims the priests told him that the great pyramid of Cheops and its smaller companion were built from the proceeds of royal prostitution. The 1584 translation embroiders the basic story of how Cheops

made sale of his daughters honestie, willing hir to entertayne tagge and ragge all that would come, in case they refused not to pay for their pleasure, sithence Venus accepteth not the devotion of such as pray with empty hands and threadbare pursses. The Lady willing to obey the hestes of the King her father, devised also the meane to prolong the memorie of herselfe, and to advaunce her fame to the notice of all ages that should ensue, wherefore she made request to suche as had accesse unto her, to give her a stone to the building and errection of a worke which she had determined, wherewith (as the brute goeth) she gave so many stones as served to the framing of a whole pyre, situate in the middest of the three former, in full view and prospect to the greatest pyrame, which is every way an acre and a hale square.

(Herodotus History verso; compare Herodotus Histories.)

The elaborate sexual etiology of the pyramids was frequently repeated by European authors well into the seventeenth century (Lloyd 159; Sandys 131; Heylyn 923).

To the Scottish traveller William Lithgow the great pyramid was built by “that effeminate Cheops, who … did prostitute his daughter to all comers” (159). The excessive and feminizing sexuality of pyramid building also found expression in another story discounted by Herodotus but taken up by Pliny and others, that a pyramid made partially of dark Ethiopian stone was built wholly at the charge of the courtesan Rhodopis, the lover of Sappho's brother who shared her bondage with Aesop (Herodotus History 105 recto; Pliny 578, Diodorus 44; for a variation, see Strabo 93). Sandys repeats the story, and immediately adds his own interpretation of the nearby Sphinx. It is “wrought altogether into the forme of an Aethiopian woman,” he reports, “and adored heretofore by the countrey people as a rurall Deity,” although it is also supposed to be the tomb of the Pharaoh Amasis. “By a Sphinx,” he continues, “the Aegyptians in their hieroglyphics presented an harlot: hauing an amiable, and alluring face; but withall the tyrannie, and rapacity of a Lion: exercised ouer the poore heart-broken, and voluntarily perishing louer. The images of these they also erected before the entrances of their Temples; declaring that secrets of Philosophy, and sacred mysteries, should be folded in enigmatical expressions, separated from the vnderstanding of the prophane multititude” (Sandys 131-32). This passage distills the complex relationship among sexuality, race and signification in the European tradition about the monuments of Egypt, and deserves a closer look.

Plutarch similarly describes the Egyptian priests' reliance on fables and mysteries: “this themselves seeme to signifie and give us to understand, by setting up ordinarily before the porches and gates of their temples, certaine Sphinges: meaning thereby, that all their Theologie containeth under aenigmaticall and covert words, the secrets of wisdome” (Plutarch Morals 1290-91). “Aenigmaticall,” Ralegh explains, “is a composition or mixture of Images or Similitudes: in which sense, the monstrous Image of a Lyons body hauing a Mans head, was grauen on their Temples and Altars, to signifie, that to all men all diuine things are Aenygmaticall and obscure” (Ralegh 324). Writing about the same time as Ralegh, Sandys also reads the sphinx as a hieroglyph. The Renaissance fascination with Egyptian hieroglyphs as the repositories of ancient wisdom began with the discovery and translation of Horapollo's fifth-century work Hieroglyphica in 1419 (Bernal 1:152; Panofsky 158-59). A flood of emblem books and manuals depicting the various pantheons of antiquity followed, with a special emphasis on the gods of Egypt, whose animal forms, long derided by the Romans, were now justified through moral allegory (Seznec 99-103). Sandys's sphinx is firstly a hieroglyph for the harlot, who presents an alluring face which hides the rapacity of a lion, located fittingly in her hind quarters. But images of the sphinx, he goes on to tell us, were also placed before the temples, as both signs and examples of how religious beliefs should remain enigmatic or double-meaning.

The sphinx, in other words, is not just a hieroglyph of the prostitute, but a hieroglyph of all hieroglyphs, of the hieroglyphic principle. Because prostitutes are different from what they appear to be, they lend themselves to hieroglyphic signification; conversely, all signification through images, whether performative or monumental, has something of the harlot about it. Prostitution is the model for writing, which distances and hides meaning from the vulgar onlookers while revealing it to the initiated. The cult of emblematic meaning and of Egypt in general seemingly revealed sexuality as the basis for cultural representation through the pyramids and other hieroglyphic monuments and images. Yet however liberating such transgressive monumentality may have been for early modern Europeans, it was licensed under a developing system of racial difference. The alluring face of Sandys's sphinx, worshipped as a rural god, bears the features of an Ethiopian woman, a black Athena, perhaps, but also a harlot, an example of the longstanding European association of dark-skinned Africans with ungovernable sexual desire (Newman 148). In Sandys's account, the pyramid-Sphinx complex is given an added accent of contemporary degeneration by his anecdote of a nearby holy woman whom the Christians claim prostituted herself in order to convert men to Islam (135-36).

The same play among sexuality, race and the monumental is evident in Antony and Cleopatra. It is hard not to notice the similarity between Sandys's “voluntarily perishing lover” and Shakespeare's Antony; the play may have affected the travel tradition as well as been affected by it. Cleopatra, a dark if not Ethiopian woman like the one supposedly represented in the sphinx, unites antique meaning and sexuality like Sandys's hieroglyphs. She refuses to leave her Monument, bizarrely drawing Antony up its “other side” to comfort him in his death (4. 15). Called a whore and gypsy by the Romans in the play, Cleopatra is also “Egypt”; when Sandys mentions her he says she was “a fatall monster unto Rome” (Sandys 106).

Antony is monumentalized by his death, literally hoisted upon a monument, and then compared by Cleopatra to a sort of colossus:

His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm
Crested the world …
                    to imagine
An Antony were nature's piece.

(5. 2. 82-83, 99)

Dying as “a Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly vanquish'd” (4. 15, 57-58), Antony finally becomes the performance of Rome he had tentatively resumed in Act IV. He is now the piece of work, surveyed by Cleopatra and held up to her Roman enemies. In the same scene, however, she envisions the degrading specularization of herself and Egypt's monuments:

                    Shall they hoist me up,
And show me to the shouting varletry
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 water-flies
Blow me into abhorring: rather make
My country's high pyramides my gibbet,
And hang me up in chains.

(5. 2. 55-62)

The final image combines obelisk as gallows with pyramid as tomb.

Cleopatra wants to avoid performing the role of Egypt for a Roman mob in a triumphal procession, and being performed as Egypt in its accompanying theater. She warns Iras that “Thou, an Egyptian puppet shall be shown / In Rome as well as I,” where

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

(5. 2. 207-8, 215-20)

The parody of Alexandria's transgressive sexuality in Rome's theaters does not so much “contain” as perform it, doing what it undoes, to borrow Enobarbus's formulation. If Cleopatra's vivid picture is at all accurate, the boying of her greatness also evokes the instability of Roman desire that Octavian reads as a sign of Rome's decay, but from which he profits (1. 4. 44-47). She might have attained a limited revenge, perhaps, in going to Rome after all and helping it enact its own monumental subversion.

Critical differences over the representation of sexuality and gender in Antony and Cleopatra have recently assumed monumental proportions themselves. Carol Thomas Neely sees Cleopatra's evocation of an Antony whose “legs bestrid the ocean” (5. 2. 82) as the completion of a symmetrical structure of gender in the play: Antony's masculine power complements its “reciprocal opposite” in Cleopatra's femininity, and the intensification of gender pushes the tragic genre, associated with a masculine and barren Octavian, to its limits (160, 165). Jonathan Dollimore, however, finds different sexualities where Neely locates sexual difference: “Antony becomes statuesque in a way which recalls that the statue is a literal, material embodiment of a respect for its subject which is inseparable from the obsolescence of that subject. And isn't this the apparent destiny of Antony in the play, one with which he colludes, self-sacrificially and pleasurably?” (487). Cleopatra's monumental fantasy of Antony commemorates the masochistic failure of his homosocial competition with Octavian: his world has been well lost, but not for a symmetrically heterosexual love. According to Dollimore, Antony's subversive pleasure in his own obsolescence escapes both Octavian's effort to manage his image after his death, and Neely's attempt to contain it in a repressive structure of gender opposition.

Monuments, statues, and tombs are related to the vicissitudes of gender performance described by Butler, in early modern times no less than our own. To monumentalize oneself or someone else is to strike or unveil a pose. Sexual difference is not a symmetrical structure but a complex of such performances. The repetition of gender categories, in fact, betokens the obsolescence of cultural, and primarily familial, positions: “gender identity would be established through a refusal of loss that encrypts itself in the body and that determines, in effect, the living versus the dead body” (Gender Trouble 68). Recalling Dollimore's definition of the statuesque in her discussion of another play, however, Valerie Traub reminds us that Shakespeare's construction of gender does not lend itself readily to subversion through monumental performance: “The logic crucial to The Winter's Tale, I submit, is respect because obsolete. … To the extent that a statue's function is commemorative, Hermione-as-statue safely re-members, but does not em-body, the threat of female erotic power” (Traub 45-46). The “encryption” of the dead body in the living is not essentially subversive. More often than not, it performs the reaffirmation of sexual difference and the containment of whatever subversive potential it possesses. This, after all, is what Butler herself calls “the situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs” (Gender Trouble 139).

In early modern travel and geographical accounts, as in Antony and Cleopatra, ancient Egypt was figured as a land of monuments as well as a place where gender relations were inverted. Two recent volumes, Lucy Hughes-Hallett's Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions and Mary Hamer's Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation, take up the figure of Cleopatra in Europe since antiquity and trace its career primarily as a monumental marker of sexual rather than cultural or racial difference. Hamer's study in particular casts Cleopatra as a “sign” that simultaneously affirms and resists male power: like Neely, Hamer often contends in effect that images of Cleopatra disrupt the generic codes of masculine representation; like Dollimore, she sometimes depicts this subversiveness as realized in performance and bodily display. Useful as all these approaches are, there is something missing in the history they reconstruct which the example of Shakespeare's play can help us to supply and understand. For if the narrative of degeneration does not entirely contain the sexual subversiveness of Antony and Cleopatra, it nevertheless left the text open to appropriation by the developing racial, and ultimately imperial, system of European modernity. Cleopatra's alternative to specularization in Octavian's triumph is to become a monument in another sense, hung on the pyramids or encased in her tomb. She will be museumized as either Rhodopis or Isis, even as Antony is scapegoated for Rome's own covert Egyptianism and current decadence.

Both the triumph and the double funeral that Octavian in fact plans for Cleopatra and Antony assimilate them to the model of a vanquished and obsolescent past, like the models of ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century French Egyptology that Edward Said relates to the staging of Verdi's Aida:

Egypt had to be reconstructed in models or drawings, whose scale, projective grandeur … and exotic distance were truly unprecedented. … The most striking pages of the [Napoleonic] Description [de l'Egypte] seem to beseech some very grand actions or personages to fill them, and their emptiness and scale look like opera sets waiting to be populated. Their implied European context is a theater of power and knowledge.

(118, 120)

Antony and Cleopatra mounts a similar puppet-show. It is uncertain in Plutarch's life of Antony how, or even whether, Cleopatra killed herself. Significantly, Shakespeare's version is close to the one “which it seemeth Caesar him selfe gave credit unto, because in his triumphe he caried Cleopatraes image, with an Aspicke byting of her arme” (Plutarch, Lives 87-88). A similar game with sources is played at the end of King Lear, only in this play the chronicle accounts of Cordelia's suicide that follow Edmund's secret message are implicitly refuted by her political murder in the drama (Archer 195-96).

Shakespeare allows history to be written by the victor in Antony and Cleopatra, for Octavius Caesar, unlike Edmund, was a survivor. Cleopatra's performance of her death enacts the very scene that Caesar's dreaded triumph will later depict in tableau: she has become a statue, a piece of work. It is difficult to follow Loomba's argument that “The narrative of masculinity and imperialism regains control but Cleopatra's final performance, which certainly exposes her own vulnerability, not only cheats Caesar but denies any final and authoritative textual closure” (130). What if masculinity and imperialism are two separate, if related, narratives? Hamer similarly collapses them, optimistically asserting that “the formal celebration of the Roman state in the triumph may be reread as momentarily subverted … into a procession of the Egyptian goddess Isis” (21-22). “It seems clear,” as Hamer concludes, “that fantasies of the body played their part” in the story of Cleopatra (23), but bodily fantasies of sexual and racial difference are produced and consumed in sharply dissimilar ways in both Shakespeare's play and the representation of Egypt that intersects it. Gender and sexuality challenge the idea of “containment” through its display, through the performance and monumentalizing of its workings, but in the end even the veneration of Egypt's ancient wisdom in performance looks forward to an imperial, if not quite an Aryan, model.


  1. On Hercules as a libertine, and the related tradition of the comic Hercules, see Galinsky 1972, 81-98, and Waith 1962, 19. Gillies (113) thinks that the “historical” Antony deliberately evoked the hero's promiscuity to justify his own cosmopolitanism.

  2. For the proverb, see Newman 1987, 142; she cites Geoffrey Whitney, “A Choice of Emblemes” (1586).

  3. Shakespeare either turns the house into a pyramid, or uses “pyramid” to signify an obelisk—Lepidus asks about “the Ptolemies' pyramises” (2. 7. 33), and Pliny describes the great obelisk Ptolemy I raised at Alexandria (Pliny 575). It is possible that Shakespeare's pyramids or pyramises represent a mixture, confused or deliberately multivalent, of obelisks and sepulchers. Herodotus describes how Cheops's pyramids are set on “a small Ilande, through the whyche by a trenche or small draught, he caused the river to have passage” (Herodotus History 104r), and this recalls Leo's measuring column in its cistern, which in turn suggests an obelisk.

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Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606) records some of the significant events that occurred from 40 to 30 b.c. as the Roman Republic came to an end and was replaced by an imperial monarchy. At the outset of the play, Rome is ruled by a triumvirate of leaders: Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Aemilius Lepidus. By its close, the struggle for control of half the world ends with Octavius as the sole victor. The dramatic action shifts back and forth between Rome and Alexandria as Antony alternately pursues his duties as a military leader and his desire for Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose erotic appeal has seemingly captivated him. After his defeat by Octavius at the battle of Actium, Antony hears a false report of Cleopatra's death and attempts to kill himself. The dying Antony is brought to Cleopatra's stronghold. After his death, she arranges and carries out her own suicide, predicting that the two of them are destined to become the most famous lovers in history. One of the academic challenges that Antony and Cleopatra presents is its mixture of history and tragedy, politics and passion. Recent commentary often emphasizes the play's political aspects, though some critics continue to highlight its love story. Other important critical questions addressed by scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries include race and gender issues, and to what extent characters and events dramatized in the play reflect social, cultural, and political realities in early modern England.

In a wide-ranging essay, Ania Loomba (2002) addresses some of these concerns, such as the play's dichotomies between East and West, Egypt and Rome, and Cleopatra and Octavius in terms of early modern English culture. The critic finds many reflections in Antony and Cleopatra of the English fear of foreigners and outsiders—particularly those whose skin color is darker than theirs—and anxieties about the power of alien women to emasculate men or divert them from their commitment to political domination. Similarly, Francesca T. Royster (see Further Reading) contends that Antony and Cleopatra's depiction of the Egyptian queen as black-skinned reflects late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English social and cultural anxieties about miscegenation. In particular, the critic calls attention to the discrepancy between early modern England's fear of miscegenation and its recognition that Egypt was a principal foundation of European culture. Other commentators have focused on the juxtaposition of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, including Arthur Little (see Further Reading), Arthur Lindley (2003), and Andrew Hiscock (see Further Reading). Remarking on what he sees as the disparities between Rome and Egypt, Little maintains that it is precisely because Egypt is so different that Rome feels threatened by it. Lindley and Hiscock treat Cleopatra and Octavius as epitomes of these disparate cultures. Lindley compares Cleopatra's association with festivity and her perception that values are mutable to Octavius's single-minded determination to monopolize the world and reconfigure it on his own terms. Hiscock, too, contrasts Cleopatra's volatile—sometimes chaotic—creativity with Octavius's insistence on permanence and definition.

Linda Charnes (see Further Reading) argues that the battle between Octavius and Cleopatra “is staked out across the terrain of Antony's ‘identity.’” She contends that Antony is driven by a desire to weave together the two parts of himself, but that he finds it impossible to carry out this project. Cynthia Marshall (see Further Reading) focuses on what she, too, sees as Antony's “imperiled identity”; like Charnes, she views Antony as a man who is unable to define himself and allows others to shape his image. Marshall also discusses Antony's repeated self-reproaches and the significance of his suicide. Jacqueline Vanhoutte (2000) devotes her essay on Antony to the complex issue of his attempt to kill himself. Vanhoutte views Antony as a man desperate to establish his own identity and his honor as a Roman hero, rather than permitting others to do this for him. The critic argues that the play neither praises nor condemns Antony's suicide but instead encourages audiences and readers to suspend judgment about whether it is a noble act or a despairing one. In his study of Cleopatra, Frederick Turner (1999) emphasizes the Egyptian queen's association with the Nile: a recurring source of energy and new life. Writing from the perspectives of psychoanalytic theory and classical mythology, Lisa Starks (see Further Reading) describes Cleopatra as both “the male masochist's ideal woman” and a “goddess-queen.” Cristina León Alfar (2003) views Shakespeare's portrait of Cleopatra as one of his several “experiments with alternate forms of feminine power.” In Alfar's judgment, the play explores how a woman faced with imperialist, masculinist aggression might use her femininity to contest that aggression. Little also remarks on Cleopatra as a sexually and racially polarizing figure. Little suggests that the ultimate goal of the queen's theatricality is to challenge Romans' attempts to define her in their own terms. Indeed, the critic maintains that the queen's suicide is an attempt to reframe herself, to present an image of “chastity in death.”

In his introduction to the Riverside edition (1974) of the play, the eminent British critic Frank Kermode (see Further Reading) remarks that Antony and Cleopatra is now generally regarded to be one of “Shakespeare's supreme achievements.” Yet the play continues to resist critically successful stagings. The play presents several challenges to directors and set designers, such as its thirty-two scene changes and the question of how to represent the play's middle-aged lovers. Indeed, many critics highlight the challenge of successfully representing the lovers when discussing the deficient sexual chemistry between Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren in Sean Mathias's 1998 production at the Royal National Theatre in London. Reviewers also contend that while Mirren gave a poignant and technically precise performance as the queen, Rickman's interpretation of Antony as a weary, listless general was a disaster. Commentators also disparage Steven Pimlott's 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) revival of the play, maintaining that the ensemble actors' solid performances were often overshadowed by Pimlott's contrived theatrical innovations. In particular, critics disdain the artificial symbolic device in which each character, upon dying, calmly stood up and walked off the stage while the dramatic action proceeded around them. By contrast, reviewers applaud Giles Block's production of Antony and Cleopatra that same year at London's Globe Theatre. Utilizing such Elizabethan theatrical conventions as period costumes, a simple platform stage, and an all-male cast, Block succeeded, according to many commentators, in emphasizing the imaginative and entertaining aspect of Shakespeare's study of politics and sexuality. Critics praise Mark Rylance's portrayal of Cleopatra, maintaining that not only did he transcend the gender barrier, but he also imbued the multi-faceted character with some freshly provocative insights. Michael Attenborough's 2002 RSC presentation of the play received generally mixed critical reviews. While some commentators assert that Attenborough admirably balanced the dozens of scenes and deftly presented the transitions between Rome and Egypt, others find many of the production's dramatic shifts confusing. In addition, most reviewers express dismay that so many classically trained actors had so much trouble speaking Shakespeare's verse.

David Murray (review date 22 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Murray, David. “Shakespeare's Unique Voice Disappears into Rickman's Beard.” Financial Times (22 October 1998): 16.

[In the following review, Murray censures Sean Mathias, the director of the 1998 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, for his lack of respect for the play's poetry. He describes Alan Rickman's delivery of Antony's speeches as “a disaster,” but he extends kudos to Helen Mirren for her evocation of a vital, energetic, and ambiguous Cleopatra.]

Many people have been saying for months that the National Theatre's new Antony and Cleopatra was bound to be worth seeing just for Helen Mirren. Sadly, that proves to be the literal truth.

Mirren is eminently worth hearing, too; and Samuel West's Octavius Caesar at least boasts faultlessly audible diction, like several actors in lesser roles. Most of them surmount the notorious acoustic hazards of the Olivier Theatre with credit.

As Antony, however, grizzled Alan Rickman's delivery is a disaster, almost devoid of recognisable landmarks. In whole speeches there might be not one intelligible line, and only a dozen or so words. Perhaps it was the droopy moustache—or perhaps the kazoo he seemed to have concealed in it: a strange, nasal drone on one note often protruded through his fudgy consonants and warped vowels. Yet his lofty frame, swaying, teetering, flapping and flopping, vividly suggested a hero in decay. Without the words, though, the former “hero” could never come into focus; and what we saw was only a grandiose drunk.

The director Sean Mathias seems not to be much interested in Shakespeare's words. Deliberately, he lets a plethora of regional and ethnic accents bloom. A casualty of that is Shakespeare's dramatic pentameter: in rapid dialogue especially, those very different voices never sustain a rhythm, even when we understand all they say.

It would be a nonsense to think that Shakespeare's scansion is only a surface device, freely ignorable nowadays. Words are, after all, the very material of his plays, and they were chosen as often for the rhythm as for their expressive potential. It's not enough to leave the principals to find their own rhythms for the big speeches, and surrender everything else to loose, prosy delivery. Some scenes were as dramatically inert as in your average school-staging. Mathias's best ideas are theatrical: the lad dish knees-up on the quayside by Pompey's galley, the eerie “God departs from Antony” scene.

Tim Hatley's design—a stage-wide sculpted frieze that goes up and down in panels—serves well enough, although Cleopatra expires amid hundreds of candles in a ballet set that suggests nothing more than The Sleeping Beauty. There is no sense of place (or history), apart from the quayside and Cleopatra's luxurious quarters.

Lesser roles that stand out are Danny Sapani's louche, piratical Pompey; his streetwise sidekick Menas (Brett Fancy); David Phelan's fastidious Agrippa and Peter Bygott's asp-bearing Clown. Katia Caballero's Octavia, Antony's “arranged” wife, is young, pretty and frail, nothing like the bleak Roman widow of the text. Finbar Lynch's Irish Enobarbus was always knowing and engaging, but the “Barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne” sounded like a set-speech.

Mirren's mature Cleopatra is quick and energetically vital, sophisticated, altogether modern, and richly spoken: conscious meaning informs every line. She disdains any old-fashioned glamour for her “serpent of old Nile”; she plays her as a canny player, which incurs a certain loss of vulnerability. At the end, we cannot be sure whether her heart-rending grief and despair aren't just artful ploys like her earlier ones; whether her situation has really tipped over into tragedy, or just a triumphally desperate act. Mirren worries us brilliantly.

Kate Kellaway (review date 30 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. Review of Antony and Cleopatra.New Statesman (30 October 1998).

[In the following excerpted review of Sean Mathias's 1998 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, Kellaway suggests that Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren are not credible as lovers. She characterizes Mirren's Cleopatra as both capricious and scheming, and disparages Rickman's Antony as understated and tight-lipped.]

At the beginning of Sean Mathias's production of Antony and Cleopatra it seems we are witnessing the morning after a golden night before. Antony (Alan Rickman) has an exhausted look and his voice hasn't woken up properly; it is as though his very character were crushed linen. Cleopatra (Helen Mirren) is also languid, displaying herself on a bank of carpet-covered bolsters amid resting soldiers and beautiful girls—accessories to her majesty.

Playing either Antony or Cleopatra must be like trying to fill larger-than-life gold goblets to the brim. It is essential that the actors cast in these roles are innately regal because they are going to need their personal charisma before they have even said a word. It may have seemed a safe bet casting Rickman and Mirren—but it turns out that the bet was much too safe. Rickman and Mirren at no point seem as dangerous as they should, nor do they ever convince me that they loved each other.

It is a plausible, though reductive, reading of the play to say that two such egos could never really love each other, that Antony and Cleopatra are too like each other for love and always meet as if there were a mirror between them. And in this production there is a sense that they can't ever touch each other truly; there is absence when they are together. It's an interpretation that disables tragedy.

Helen Mirren's Cleopatra is capricious, selfish, theatrical. She snaps in and out of moods like a spoilt child, and to comic effect. She is excellent when most waspish and satirical, asking Antony: “Can Fulvia die?” And there are moments when her voice sings to magical effect, when she seems like a sun worshipper, with Antony her sun. When their weather changes and she has to woo Antony back (he is sure she has betrayed him), she says, “From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,” and the effect is extraordinary. There is a sense that these are the only words that would have any chance of prevailing over Antony—and she, inspired, has found them.

But the vain, selfish woman with butterfly moods is only part of Cleopatra. Somehow her faults have to be contained within a perfect, shining carapace. She must be frighteningly seductive, her mood-swings unpredictable and in no way comic. Mirren's Cleopatra is at her best when relating to messengers—her mean games come into their own. It is impossible to imagine this Cleopatra sitting in her burnished throne of a barge without fidgeting; she would be up to some game or other, disturbing the water with her vanity. And, finally, this Cleopatra's attempt to win back Antony's love by pronouncing herself dead seems nothing more than a disgraceful lie, the act of an unintelligent flirt.

Alan Rickman's performance is a disappointment because it is so consistently understated. The indolent authority and the reclining voice are fine at first, but towards the end of the play, Antony speaks as though he has never properly recovered from his earlier chest wound: his voice has become a pained, breathy monotone. You know that there is something wrong when comely, restrained Octavia (Katia Caballero) seems to have more presence than her husband and when Caesar appears the possessor of a gravitas Antony can't equal. This Antony is more cad than hero, all too laconically willing to take Octavia on as his wife as a sexually politic gesture.

Casting Finbar Lynch as Enobarbus is more interesting. He looks like a gold lizard in his armour. His head is shaven and he wears a single chunky silver earring. He is not a straightforwardly noble soldier. He is hedonistic and slightly menacing. And while it seems unlikely that such a man could ever have dreamed up the poetry he produces, Lynch replaces lyricism with the danger and sexual tension that is missing elsewhere.

Tim Hatley's set is a world cut in two and cratered, a nifty semi-circle that can do all sorts of clever things, revolve and split and sprout windows and doors. But I did not find it aesthetically pleasing (though the carpets serve their turn nicely). And many of the costumes are a disaster. In particular, it is a mistake to put Helen Mirren in a blue breastplate which makes her look like a pantomime fish. The cage of candles at the end resembles a gone-wrong altar piece, and there is no one there to worship.

Cristina León Alfar (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12510

SOURCE: Alfar, Cristina León. “‘I kiss his conqu'ring hand’: Cleopatra and the ‘Erotics’ of Imperial Domination.” In Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 136-59. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Alfar reads Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of female modes of power, with particular emphasis on Rome's imperial, masculinist domination. Cleopatra exploits the erotic desire inspired by her body, the critic suggests, using it for political purposes as well as personal interests, even though she understands that regardless of her strategies, she is relatively powerless against Roman aggression. Alfar also compares Cleopatra with female characters in other Shakespearean tragedies: Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear.]

The dynamics of gender and power staged in King Lear and Macbeth are intricately linked to women's participation in competitions for power associated with masculinity. According to Goneril, Albany's distaste for what she sees to be the inherent ruthlessness of rule makes him “milk-liver'd” (4.2.50) and forces her to “change names at home, and give the distaff / Into [her] husband's hands” (17-18). As in Macbeth power is masculinized, weakness feminized, so that both plays seem to construct traditional gender roles and to condemn women's appropriations of power. Goneril's pursuit of power makes her a “fiend,” in Albany's estimation, who only bears the shape of a woman (4.2.66-67). And certainly Lady Macbeth's conjuration of the spirits to block the bodily functions making her female, and therefore nonviolent, followed by her scolding of Macbeth to be a man and murder Duncan appears to uphold a politics of gender based on an orderly separation of roles between men and women. Yet as I have shown, the plays call into question the very positions they seem to reinscribe by underscoring the masculinist and monarchical underpinnings of the power and violence these women perform. Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth enter an already constructed patrilineal discourse of power and domination, so that if they do become manly to be violent that is because they must conform to masculinist and routine operations of government.

I will turn in this chapter to a female character whose evil is identified more by the male characters who surround her than by Shakespearean scholars. I will argue that Cleopatra's performance of power is as calculated as that of Goneril and Regan. Her method is different, however, for Shakespeare's interest in the dynamics of gender and power in Antony and Cleopatra abandons staging women's adoptions of masculinist modes of rule, exploring instead the ways in which a woman might utilize her femininity as a mode of power. Cleopatra exploits her body to retain control of her throne, alternately offering and withdrawing herself as Roman property as a mode of national and self-preservation. Cleopatra's fulfillment of Roman expectations of Egyptian and feminine excess makes her, in Caesar's estimation, a “whore,” the “evil” woman who distracts Antony from his duties at home. But the play uncovers male anxieties about female power as a fantasy by staging the violent power of Roman might over the Egyptian queen, a power that subjects her to Rome's investments in blood and power. Thus the “evil” that Cleopatra represents for Caesar as a result of the sexual and political power she holds is revealed as a conjuration of ghosts. For Cleopatra's power as queen of Egypt depends on the benevolence of her Roman occupiers. While Cleopatra repeatedly resists the containment of her desire and power by masculinist interests, her self-determination can never survive patrilineal conflicts over land and power. Thus, Antony and Cleopatra points to a shift in Shakespeare's interest in the dynamics of gender and power that explores masculinist advantages in fantasies of female “evil.”

Cleopatra's awareness of herself as a player, of the ways in which her competition with Rome requires of her a display of femininity, Africanness, and kingship, alters the terms under which she is compelled to perform gender and power.1 Thus she often is seen as an agent of events, as a woman in control of her body and her own representation.2 Yet the play of gender and its performativity is set against a monolithic conception of female gender as stereotypically wily, manipulative, and politically illogical and deficient. Antony and Cleopatra both experiments with notions of female gender as unstable and, through its Roman male characters, recalls traditional early modern hysterias about female power. Cleopatra's role as queen of an African nation, as at once woman/African/monarch, poses for her Roman occupiers an excess of threatening images they must contain in order to protect their power. The images of sensual excess with which the queen is associated proliferate and then coalesce into the “evil” whore responsible for Antony's defeat at Actium. However, Shakespeare dramatizes a liberatory potential for gender performance when Cleopatra refuses that role and defies Octavius Caesar's expectations by ending her life rather than accepting his offer of “peace.” The spectacle of her suicide both demonstrates her agency as actor and the constraints of her role as African queen.

Cleopatra's performance of gender, in this regard, cannot be separated from her performance of power, nor can either be separated from her race. She performs a specifically sexualized and racialized power as a strategy of survival against the imperialist aggression of Rome. In contrast to Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth, however, the gender and power she performs draws on traditionally feminine qualities such as jealousy, petulance, sensuality, and fragility. Cleopatra exploits Roman conceptions of feminine and Egyptian excess, performing a version of feminine power Antony and Octavius Caesar understand and expect as a mode of political defense. Antony and Cleopatra, in this regard, while it shifts the ways in which female power is performed, continues Shakespeare's recognition of the complexities of women's actions and emotions, of the contradictory position they hold as the tie between men, and the ways in which their nature is haunted by fictions of good and evil. In this sense, Cleopatra's negotiations for power recall Queen Elizabeth's; as I argued in chapter 2, the queen successfully defused social anxieties about her right to rule, as a woman, by conjuring culturally familiar images of “appropriate” and unthreatening femininity. But she acted, as queen, as ruthlessly as necessary for self- and national preservation.3

In contrast to that of Queen Elizabeth, however, Cleopatra's rule is mediated by a potentially capricious Roman benevolence. Masculinist clawing for power and property, in Antony and Cleopatra, crosses borders and consists in both domestic rivalries and imperial domination. Cleopatra's role both as object of exchange and as female is exaggerated by her power as queen and by her equation with Egypt. The land is Cleopatra and Cleopatra is the land. Both Egypt and queen must be conquered simultaneously by Rome's expansionist politics. Shakespeare underscores the limits of her power, both as queen and as desiring subject, through Antony and Octavius Caesar's competition for power over Egypt—over Cleopatra as Egypt—and therefore over both a feminized land and the body of the woman whose power threatens their state-sponsored expansionism.4 When Shakespeare writes an (anti)imperialist play in which the non-Western female monarch is overtly equated with her nation, he punctures the patrilineal fictions woven through idealizations of romantic love and puts pressure on a system of relations in which women are either the link between men or the prize of conquest.5

Our view of the romance between Antony and Cleopatra, then, cannot be separated from each party's necessity for national and political survival.6 Whatever passion these characters may hold for each other, their actions and emotions must be viewed through the lens of imperial domination that informs their relations. As Coppélia Kahn asserts in regard to the critical practice of attributing to Egypt “its own autonomous cultural authorization” in equal measure to that of Rome, reading Antony and Cleopatra as a tale of transcendent love “ignores the historical specificity of the narrative Shakespeare dramatizes, and the political circumstances determining the creation of that narrative.”7 I place in question, therefore, Cleopatra's desire, the self-regulated sexuality for which she is admired, to suggest that it is, at least partially, circumscribed by the colonization of her country and deployed strategically as a mode of self and national preservation.8 In this respect, Shakespeare's tragedy simultaneously stages her desire as power, as that which conquers her conquerors, and as the fantasy of a feminized evil (projected by Rome onto Cleopatra and her nation) that haunts patrilineal systems of order and must be contained, in Rome's view, through its colonialist project.9

Cleopatra's critical history is more varied than that of Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth. She has been read not just as an evil manipulator of Antony, but also as his passionate and loyal (in her own view) wife.10 Cleopatra's “becomings,” her ability to shift approaches to Rome and to her own persona have been both applauded as strategy and derided as a deployment of feminine wiles.11 Specters of good and evil haunt Cleopatra's reception, then, if in a different way from the women I have examined thus far. The international politics of the play, however, necessarily complicates Cleopatra's love for Antony and their roles as colonized and colonizer. Thus I am interested in Cleopatra because her tragedy experiments with alternate forms of feminine power from those played out in King Lear and Macbeth, shifts the ways in which a woman performs kingship, but still confronts the process by which her role as queen threatens male competitions for power.12 Cleopatra is a woman who, despite the power she holds as queen of Egypt, is subject to masculinist investments in blood and power. Like King Lear and Macbeth, therefore, the play is interested in governmental power as a masculine provenance that privileges ruthless deployments of power. However, Cleopatra's response to Rome's colonization of her country rejects the practices of Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth, refusing to reproduce masculinist systems of power and employing a strategy of political survival that exploits her body as an object of desire, a strategy that cannot be separated from her position as racial “other.” To read Cleopatra either as the “evil” betrayer of Antony or as his loving and loyal mistress is to overlook the play's interest in both imperial fantasies of femininity and Africanness and monarchical strategies of survival. It also misses a growing interest in Shakespeare's work of the ways in which masculinist deployments of power affect women. Thus the tragedy, like Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Macbeth, stages masculinist and bloody competitions for preferment and power on the bodies of women. While Cleopatra continually defies the containment of her desire and power by masculinist interests, her self-determination can never survive patrilineal conflicts over money, land, and power. The imperialist stakes of Antony and Cleopatra—of Cleopatra's dependence on Rome for her nation's stability—dramatize the economic basis for the violence of absolute state systems. In this chapter, I will trace Cleopatra's tactics for sustaining her power while also taking into consideration the imperialist, racial, and sexual politics of the play noted by scholars such as Linda Charnes, Kim F. Hall, Ania Loomba, Joyce Green MacDonald, and Theodora A. Jankowski.13 I believe my contribution to the very active discussion on Cleopatra resides in the detailed analysis of her strategies for survival—both personal and political—that I offer. Thus I argue, in contrast to Mary Nyquist, that Cleopatra takes herself very seriously as a monarch, as can be seen particularly in her negotiations for sovereignty with Caesar's messengers. Throughout the last acts of the play beginning at act 3, scene 13, Cleopatra must face one messenger after another who brings the word of Caesar, as conqueror, to the queen whose country he has just defeated.14 Cleopatra's strategies in these scenes profoundly demonstrate her cogent understanding of her position as prize and her country's vulnerability to Caesar's might.

Cleopatra's equivalency with Egypt has been documented by many scholars, and it is useful here in its relevance to the ways in which both queen and country are demonized by Rome.15 Most read her as that half of the binary equation that opposes the orderly and coherent (masculine) identity defining Rome against the mutability, sensuality, and feminine generativity of Egypt. These scholars argue that the sexual excess of Egypt, its infinite abundance, becomes synonymous with femininity.16 The fundamental opposition between Rome and Egypt, therefore, is one of gender differentiation. While I grant that the play holds in tension the contradictory modes of rule between the two nations through a language of gender difference, I find more interesting the ways in which those contradictions are played out in the competition for Egypt, a contest in which Cleopatra also participates but, finally, can never win.17 Shakespeare's conflation of Cleopatra with Egypt interrogates both the tyranny of absolute, masculinist state power and the violent objectification of the female attendant on that system. As I have shown, such objectification includes the vilification of the woman. Cleopatra's hold over Antony makes her, for the Romans, a user of witchcraft,18 a “whore” (3.6.67), a “boggler” (3.13.110), and a sexual leftover (116). To Rome, Cleopatra and the entire nation of Egypt represent sloth, gluttony, and lecherousness, as that which is inimical to the rigor and discipline of Roman militancy. This excess makes of Cleopatra and Egypt a location of evil that threatens the stability of Roman identity. And when Antony appears to have succumbed to Egypt's gypsy lust, to have forgotten his Roman duty, Caesar must deploy his power in defense of that order, an order jeopardized by the evil of the Egyptian queen.

Thus while many critics see Cleopatra as an icon of “becomings,” as a source of infinite possibilities,19 it seems to me that such mutability is more her undoing than a successful strategy for power. First, those possibilities make her a sign of the potential bounty, a wealth at once racialized, sexualized, and feminized, for which her nation is desired—hence her conflation with Egypt. Second, as I will argue in regard to Hermione in chapter 6, indeterminacy, as it is associated with the female body, threatens the order and systematics of masculinist structures of power that typify Rome. Finally, as racial other, her inferiority according to Roman standards makes both her body and her land Rome's entitlement as the bigger, stronger, and therefore superior nation.20 The plurality of her identity, thus, simultaneously poses a threat and an enticement. Rather than being a woman “constantly in control of her world,”21 Cleopatra is sign and symbol of what is desired, fought over, and contained by patrilineal economies. She is not, like Juliet, a guarantee of pure lines of succession; she is what will be seized and inherited.

Imperialism has a long history of feminizing nations and lands in ways that open both territories and the female body to masculinist appropriation. As Anne McClintock cogently remarks, “[f]or women, the myth of the virgin land presents specific dilemmas. … Women are the earth that is to be discovered, entered, named, inseminated and, above all, owned. Symbolically reduced, in male eyes, to the space on which male contests are waged, women experience particular difficulties laying claim to alternative genealogies and alternative narratives of origin and naming. Linked symbolically to the land, women are relegated to a realm beyond history and thus bear a particularly vexed relation to narratives of historical change and political effect.”22 Both Cleopatra's body and nation are colonized first by Julius Caesar, then by Cneius Pompey, and finally by Marc Antony. Characterized by those in Rome as at once woman, queen, and nation, she experiences profoundly McClintock's symbolic reduction. She is objectified on three levels: as woman, as racial “other,” and as monarch of an African dominion, a role itself complicated by her race and gender. These subject positions figure in Rome's desire for control of Egypt, for all three positions intersect to form naturalized divisions between East and West based on the East's inferiority to masculinist European power. Egypt is conquerable, then, in particular because the feminized, racialized, and sexualized stereotypes of Oriental lands are realized at once in “her” monarch. Philo's, Caesar's, and Agrippa's contempt for everything that is Egypt, in this light, corresponds to Edward W. Said's conception of Orientalism, which, he makes clear, “depends for its strategy on [a] flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”23 Rome's attitude toward Egypt is one of superiority, of a Western nation's absolute knowledge of the African, of Egypt's “insinuating danger” (57), which is manifested through sexual excess, contagion, and disorder of mind and culture.

An association of conquered lands with the female body was familiar in Shakespeare's time. Louis Adrian Montrose has argued in regard to Sir Walter Ralegh's characterization of Guiana as virgin land, that

[Ralegh's] metaphor of Guiana's maidenhead activates the bawdy Elizabethan pun on countrey, thus inflaming the similitude of the land and a woman's body, of colonization and sexual mastery. By subsuming and effacing the admired societies of Amerindian men in the metaphorically feminine Other of the land, the English intent to subjugate the indigenous peoples of Guiana can be “naturalized” as the male's mastery of the female. The ideology of gender hierarchy sanctions the Englishmen's collective longing to prove and aggrandize themselves upon the feminine body of the New World, and, at the same time, the emergent hierarchical discourse of colonial exploitation and domination reciprocally confirms that ideology's hegemonic force.24

Montrose's analysis calls attention to the ideological and political rhetoric underwriting early modern voyages of discovery and demonstrates that the feminization of the land was a discourse already in play as early as the sixteenth century. Shakespeare utilizes this familiar trope in his equation of Cleopatra with the land. His equation of a female monarch with her country and his representation of Cleopatra as a monarch who used her body to defend that country reflects the pun Montrose invokes, so that Cleopatra's “erotics” of domination must be understood more as political strategy than as free desire. In Antony and Cleopatra, Rome's occupation of Egypt finds its “shaping figure and its political sanction in the prior subordination of women as a category of nature” and of racial others as inherently inferior.25 Julius Caesar, Cneius Pompey, and Marc Antony conquer Cleopatra simultaneously as monarch and as a sexual body. When Cleopatra refuses to be conquered by Octavius Caesar, she both resists and succumbs to the violence of conquest. Despite the power of her suicide, her ability to affect historical and political narratives through it is reduced, in her critical tradition, to phantasmatic projections of feminine sensuality and excess. Thus Cleopatra's agency as monarch and woman is eroded by the ruthlessness of her country's occupation by a foreign nation. Shakespeare unveils Cleopatra's vexed role in relation to Rome's colonization of her nation and the political maneuvers requisite to Egypt's defense that have been sexualized over time.

Male contests in Antony and Cleopatra demonstrate, as they do in Macbeth, the perpetual instability of structures of power. When Antony explains the urgency of his business in Rome in act 1, scene 1, calling him unwillingly away from Cleopatra, he unveils the vulnerability of state power to civil upheavals and to usurpation and invasion:

                              Our Italy
Shines o'er with civil swords; Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome;
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction; the hated, grown to strength,
Are newly grown to love; the condemn'd Pompey,
Rich in his father's honor, creeps apace
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten,
And unquietness, grown sick of rest, would purge
By any desperate change.


The instability Antony describes provides the backdrop to the play's depiction of Rome's relations with Egypt. It also recalls the bloodshed in Julius Caesar that, according to Brutus, gave Romans the opportunity to cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”26 Violence, as Macbeth taught us, breeds violence; it does not, as Antony and Octavius Caesar discover, guarantee uninterrupted peace or that their version of freedom and liberty will obtain for all. Rather, as Antony observes, the populace is fickle; usurpers will take advantage of weaknesses in government, and states must ever be on guard against rebellion and usurpation. Even those considered friends, allies, may not always remain so. Competitions central to structures of domination appertain to domestic as well as international relations. While Rome functions for Egypt, therefore, as the great imperial power to whom she must submit, Antony's speech discloses a crisis in Rome's sovereignty that dramatizes the fragility of its state power.

In Shakespearean tragedy, the unrest characterizing Roman politics is inherent to masculinist systems of power and domination. For such power proliferates in effect, holding in check not just a hierarchy of state control, but one differentiating and regulating gender, race, and class norms. Thus the power Antony returns to Rome to recoup, as a way to stabilize Roman politics, is the power he requires to retain Egypt for Rome. It is the power he wields over Egypt and the power to master Egypt. The domestic discord that characterizes Roman politics in this scene reanimates Rome's need to control Egypt. Rome's inability to control conflict at home drives its tightening grip on Egypt, escalating its sense of Egypt's worth and making her not just the prize of conquest but the symbol of Roman might and stability, domestically and internationally. Cleopatra and Egypt, in this regard, are never the central issue for their Roman colonizers. They are, instead, the site of contest between men, at once the space for their competition and the trophy seized by the victor.27 The relationship between Rome and Egypt corresponds crucially, in this regard, to the relations among men and women in the early modern period. As in Romeo and Juliet, where Capulet's desire for preferment with the prince, and thus for power to gain leverage in the feud, motivates his arrangement of Juliet's marriage to Paris, possession of Egypt by one competitor over another functions symbolically as the trump card in a deadly game of rivalry between national and international competitors. As in Romeo and Juliet, but more graphically in his representation of Egypt as a woman and in the spectacle of Cleopatra's, Iras's, and Charmian's lifeless bodies, Shakespeare stages the rivalry between men as played out on the bodies of women.

When Cleopatra anticipates the message from Rome that opens the play's action as an inevitable demand from Caesar that Antony “‘Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that; / Perform it or else we damn thee’” (1.1.23-24), she shrewdly perceives the workings of Roman politics. Yet she appears unaware of the political discord under which Rome suffers. Rather, Cleopatra equates Rome with imperialism and assumes that Caesar's orders include the continued state expansionism Egypt endures. She urges Antony to hear the messenger not so much out of argumentativeness or to manipulate Antony into revealing his loyalty to her over that to Caesar or even Fulvia, but because her own and her nation's well-being depend upon Rome's favor. While she pretends distress when he suddenly abandons their “mirth” (1.2.82), her machinations throughout act 1, her determination to remain aloof and unavailable to him, are calculations on her part not just to keep him guessing about her love, and therefore to keep his romantic interest for its own sake, but to keep his interest because it protects her from potential hostile relations with Rome. In this regard, Antony stands between Egypt and a more violent domination by Caesar.

Cleopatra is an actress, as scholars have noted;28 like Elizabeth I whose power flourished under contradictory images of Diana and Venus, Cleopatra masquerades her petulance and detachment, becoming the demanding lover to sustain her allure. Thus when Charmian counsels her queen never to cross Antony, and Cleopatra contradicts her, “Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him” (1.3.9-10), she reveals the systematics behind her “becomings,” which she makes clear are designed to please Antony, to attract him. She reveals, in this respect, her fear that she can only keep his political interest in her nation by maintaining his desire for her as a woman (95-97). But her masquerade exacts a price. Because it is a fantasy of power, dreamt both by Cleopatra and by Rome, it fails to hold any substance or force. And it is precisely her knowledge of the inevitable failure of her masquerade that presses Cleopatra into a variety of “becomings.” Luce Irigaray notes of masquerade that it “has to be understood as what women do in order to recuperate some element of desire, to participate in man's desire, but at the price of renouncing their own. In the masquerade, they submit to the dominant economy of desire in an attempt to remain ‘on the market’ in spite of everything. But they are there as objects for sexual enjoyment, not as those who enjoy.”29 Cleopatra's masquerade, in this light, simultaneously subjects her to Rome's fantasy of Egyptian female monarch and forestalls the annihilation of her nation and her role as queen. It is a performance having nothing to do with her own sexual desire for Antony, but with attracting and preserving the desire Antony feels for her, fulfilling his desire for power in order to protect Egypt, but at the price of renouncing her own wish. The “infinite variety” for which she is praised is deployed to postpone the failure she fears. Her anxiety over losing Antony's love, therefore, cannot be separated from her fear of losing his protection.

Her fears are not unfounded, for when Antony hears the news of his wife's and brother's wars upon Caesar, of Fulvia's death, of Labienus's military successes throughout the Roman provinces of Asia, and of Sextus Pompey's military threats to Caesar, he determines that “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage” (1.2.116-17) and tells Enobarbus he must “haste from hence” (132). However, Cleopatra's masquerade as a scornful lover elicits from Antony a pledge of undying love regardless of his absence and presses him to abandon his earlier wish that he “had never seen her” (152). “I go from hence” he assures her, “Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war / As thou affects” (1.3.69-71). She successfully forces this conqueror to identify himself as her inferior, as a retainer under her rule. The significance of these roles must not be read as dictated by the conventions of courtly love alone, but also by the political realities of Egypt's subordination to Roman occupation. Cleopatra's ability, therefore, to reduce Antony, as the representative of Roman domination, to her subordinate becomes part of her defensive strategy. While it fails to eradicate Egypt's subjection, it succeeds in mitigating the violent effects of foreign rule.

Similarly, the threat Cleopatra perceives from Fulvia and then from Octavia is a threat to the autonomy of her nation, mediated by Antony's dual role as colonizer and protector. Her scorn for Fulvia's presumed ability to call Antony away from her generates from the anxiety attendant on his absence as her defender. Cleopatra's perceived manipulations of Antony on the one hand, and her obvious stress in the face of the messenger's news of Antony's marriage to Octavia on the other, then, are symptoms of her powerlessness, of the control over her nation's sovereignty that she lacks. Notwithstanding her ability to gain Antony's putative surrender to her will, she remains a monarch who relies on Rome's benevolence. When Cleopatra calls the messenger back to hear the details of Octavia's appearance and personality, she betrays the political basis of her anxiety:

                                                                                Good Majesty!
Herod of Jewery dare not look upon you
But when you are well pleas'd.
                                                                                That Herod's head
I'll have; but how, when Antony is gone,
Through whom I might command it?


Antony's potential permanent absence from Egypt, as a result of his marriage to Octavia, presents a loss of power for Cleopatra. Her orders go through Antony, are authorized by his sovereignty in her nation as occupier. Her anger at the messenger who brings the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia, like her fear of Antony's departure, results from her comprehension of the ties between her lover and Octavius Caesar implied by the marriage. She has relied, until this union, on the uneasy alliance between the men, on the domestic rivalry between them, to motivate Antony's guardianship of her country. And it is that guardianship on which her own power as monarch rests. Antony's marriage to Octavia, however, suggests that rivalries have ended, that Octavius Caesar and Antony have arrived at some new and as yet uncertain understanding. On whom she must depend in future for her own authority is, then, equally unclear. Her relief at the messenger's description of Octavia as a widow, near thirty, and, in Cleopatra's overinterpretation, “dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (3.3.16) is not simply animated by jealous rage—so that she is “at her most petty and vindictive”30—but by the sudden precariousness of her nation's stability should Antony's interest in his new wife be more than that borne of political necessity.

When Antony returns to Egypt, however, “Unto her / He gave the stablishment of Egypt, made her / Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, / Absolute Queen” (3.6.8-11). It would seem that Cleopatra's fears of Antony's betrayal were unfounded. While Antony's triumphant return to Egypt may indeed symbolize his undying love for its queen, the domestic rivalry between Antony and Caesar continues. The spectacle he stages in Egypt to publicize his political alliance with Cleopatra cannot be separated from the complaint he makes to Octavia that “[Caesar] hath wag'd / New wars 'gainst Pompey; made his will, and read it / To public ear; / Spoke scantly of me; when perforce he could not / But pay me terms of honor” (3.4.3-7). Having broken the pact of peace both men made with Pompey, Caesar compounds his bad faith by publicly scorning his brother-in-law. The peace between Caesar and Antony that the marriage between Antony and Octavia ostensibly guarantees remains volatile, then, and animates Antony's subsequent return to Cleopatra and his enrichment of her dominions. In this respect, both Octavia and Cleopatra figure as pawns in the masculinist competition for power that defines Roman politics. Cleopatra serves as both an object of acquisition and as an instrument of revenge, while Octavia is left to twist in the wind caused by both men's rush for power. It is no coincidence, therefore, that when Antony makes Cleopatra the ruler of greater Asia, he also assembles as many nations as he can, including those she now governs, to join in war against Caesar. The power he hands over to Cleopatra is deployed as part of the masculinist contest for power implicated in Roman political identity, then, and not entirely as a lover's tribute or even as his defense of that lover's nation.

Their sea battle against Caesar fails, humiliatingly, because Antony flees the battle to follow Cleopatra's ships. Her retreat seems inexplicable.31 J. Leeds Barroll argues: “She has no deep, vile plots to betray Antony. Nor can she be blamed for any great tactical errors in the disposition of her forces. The whole play so far has emphasized the vagueness of the queen's concepts of political and military cause and effect and, indeed, her message to Caesar after the disaster emphasized her removal from the reality of the war. … It is as if the defeat had been purely theoretical—a game in which, no matter the outcome, she retains her world. … Cleopatra cannot see the catastrophe because she cannot imagine what there is to lose.”32 While Barroll assumes the queen's incompetence, I argue Cleopatra knows all too well the outcome of war; her experience under Roman domination gives her a unique, even profound understanding of what there is to lose in the catastrophe of Antony's defeat at Caesar's hands. When she pleads with Antony for his forgiveness because she “little thought / [He] would have followed” (3.11.55-56), she tells the truth.33 While Barroll quotes from the ambassador's version of Cleopatra's supplication to Caesar, her own tribute in act 3, scene 13, which I examine below, reveals the queen's full cognizance of Egypt's subjection to Caesar's conquering might. Her flight, therefore, is not the result of some irrational and inept misunderstanding on her part of this war's stakes, nor is it, as Nyquist would have it, due to Cleopatra “obliviousness to the responsibilities of her office.”34 She flees, rather, because she has complete faith in Antony's ability to defend her nation. She has, throughout the play, demonstrated her reliance on his protection. Antony's recent and triumphant return lays to rest any doubts about his loyalty, and because Cleopatra's own authority and stability as Egypt's ruler has always been mediated by the muscle of protectors such as Antony, she fails to recognize her physical presence at the battle as critical to the real outcome of the conflict. As she understands it, her presence is, instead, symbolic. Secure in Antony's capacity as protector of her realm, Cleopatra leaves him to his military task. That he turns and sets sail after her is as sincere and equally devastating a surprise to her, then, as it is to everyone else.

Because Antony views her retreat as a betrayal, however, it brings him into a crisis with Cleopatra that underscores the sexual grounds of Rome's anxieties about Egyptian power. While Cleopatra's sexuality haunts both Rome's expansionist project and defense against Pompey from the first lines of the play, until this time, Antony never exhibits the kind of anxiety about her body as that expressed by his Roman countrymen. Philo's scorn for Antony's distraction from political matters establishes the opposition between the militarism of Rome and the idle lust of Egypt. Because of his love for Cleopatra, Antony has betrayed his “captain's heart … / And is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust” (1.1.6, 9-10). Cleopatra's desire distracts Antony from himself, a prior, more authentic self that is indistinguishable from Roman ambition. Like Philo, Caesar takes issue with Antony's “tumble in the bed of Ptolomy” (1.3.17) because “we do bear / So great a weight in his lightness” (24-25). Not only has Caesar been left with all Roman state responsibilities, but Antony's absence has delayed Rome's war with Pompey, so that “Pompey / Thrives in our idleness” (75-76).35 Cleopatra's sexuality, therefore, is not just that which defines the masculinist aggression of Rome against a feminized corporeal excess in Egypt, but that which must be controlled in order for Rome to prevail in and sustain its imperialist project. In her threat, Cleopatra becomes, according to Caesar, a “whore” (3.6.67) and, according to Antony, a “triple-turn'd whore” (4.12.13); she becomes, therefore, the specter of female evil that threatens to subvert masculinist economic systems of power.

Nowhere in the play is her “power” to jeopardize masculinist systems of order more evident than in act 3, scene 13, when Antony confronts Cleopatra with what he believes is her betrayal of him in her pledge of loyalty to Caesar. His anger at the Egyptian queen for her failure to resist Caesar's conquest erupts in typical early modern denouncements of women:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment
Of Cneius Pompey's—besides what hotter hours,
Unregist'red in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick'd out; for I am sure,
Though you can guess what temperance should be,
You know not what it is.


Antony blames his military defeat at Caesar's hands and his new dependence on Caesar's mercy on Cleopatra, perhaps justly. But he expresses himself in a misogynist tirade against the woman who, “a boggler ever” (110), has betrayed him sexually, not militarily. The devastation he experiences in combat is displaced onto the capriciousness of Cleopatra's sexuality. Her sexual alliances with Julius Caesar and Cneius Pompey prior to her affair with Antony, compounded by her supplication to Octavius Caesar, make her both an “evil” woman and an unreliable ally. Thus she threatens the stability of masculinist conceptions of international partnership. Antony misunderstands Cleopatra's sea retreat as sexual disloyalty. In this light, the political backdrop of the play highlights the hauntology of female desire, the danger it poses to masculinist systems of power and domination both at home and abroad. Her desire, as the specter haunting Roman rule, must be exorcised by both Caesar and Antony for order to be restored. Compelled repeatedly to submit both her body and her nation to Roman domination, Cleopatra and Egypt become one as the object to be seized and conquered. Figuring Cleopatra's changing political bedfellows as evidence of her sexual caprice elides the issue of Roman domination and underscores the phantasmatic nature of her “power” to threaten Roman might. The overpowering violence of Rome's offensive answers any act of defense or rebellion on Egypt's part, so that Egypt's survival is predicated on compliance with and not on desire for Rome's sexual or colonial occupation.

The free sexuality for which she is almost universally hailed by critics is, then, not Cleopatra's free enjoyment of her own body, but a political strategy. That much is made clear by the description of Cleopatra's seduction of Julius Caesar. When “Apollodorus carried—/ … A certain queen to Caesar in a mattress” (2.6.68-70), he carried a victory gift from the queen of Egypt to her nation's conqueror. That the gift is herself, literally her body as sexual commodity, establishes Cleopatra's exploitation of her body to subdue the potential violence of imperial domination. She takes advantage of Roman conceptions of Egyptian excess, sexuality, and femininity to seduce the colonizer of her country. While this is one of the few descriptions, in the play, of her relations with Julius Caesar, it anticipates her seduction of Antony, described by Enobarbus as a conscious performance on Cleopatra's part, as an opulently staged and sensuously irresistible invitation to the conqueror to be, instead, “her guest” (2.2.221). I might argue that such a turning of the tables constitutes a clever manipulation of power on Cleopatra's part, but it is also a conciliatory move, even an act of surrender on the part of a conquered nation. The offer of her body to the victor, in this respect, signifies as well the yielding of her country. When Julius Caesar triumphed over Egypt, Agrippa tells us, “She made great Caesar lay his royal sword to bed; / He ploughed her, and she cropp'd” (2.2.227-28). The nonviolent colonization of queen and country occurs as one move, making Cleopatra's celebrated sexuality both an effect of imperial domination—rather than an erotically motivated act on her part—and a practical mode of national preservation. In this light, she positions her body strategically between Roman aggression and her own and Egypt's extinction, so that an “erotics” of imperial domination emerges as political strategy rather than as pure romantic and sexual expression.

Cleopatra is not, then, inept at matters political, but unlike her male colleagues in Rome, her strategies for state survival include the use of her body as a sexual instrument, as the prize of conquest. The systematics of Cleopatra's approach to imperial domination is made clear by Antony's tirade against her (above), in part because his fury comes upon Cleopatra's supplication to Caesar:

I kiss his conqu'ring hand. Tell him, I am prompt
To lay my crown at 's feet, and there to kneel.
Tell him from his all-obeying breath I hear
The doom of Egypt.


If Antony and Cleopatra is read as a transcendent love story, this message constitutes one of Cleopatra's most inexplicable acts in the play. While Caesar clearly has won the battle (making some kind of armistice necessary) Cleopatra makes no effort to defend her country against Caesar's conquest, despite the anguish Antony experienced at his defeat. All resistance collapses, in fact, as Cleopatra submits to Caesar's mercy and pledges allegiance to him explicitly as the conqueror of her nation. I want to suggest, however, that her act is calculated politically to preserve Egypt's peace and that it repeats the similar moments of conquest under Julius Caesar, Cneius Pompey, and Antony. It must be read, therefore, not through a lens of idealistic love but as the only response available to a non-Western female monarch facing potential violence from her most recent colonizer. Her exchange with Thidias just prior to her pledge demonstrates both Cleopatra's cunning and her powerlessness under Roman domination:

          He [Caesar] knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love, but as you fear'd him.
          The scars upon your honor, therefore, he
Does pity, as constrained blemishes,
Not as deserved.
                                                                                He is a god and knows
What is most right. Mine honor was not yielded,
But conquer'd merely.


                    it would warm his spirits
To hear from me you had left Antony,
And put yourself under his shroud,
The universal landlord.

(3.13.56-62, 69-72)

Like a dancer confronted with a new and as yet unfamiliar partner, Cleopatra gingerly follows Thidias's lead. Because she is familiar with the language of domination, she makes no mistakes and completes the fiction of an unwilling subjection to Antony's tyranny from which Caesar “frees” her. Their language, however, is dominated by verbs such as “fear'd,” “constrained,” “yielded,” and “conquer'd,” so that Shakespeare unmasks the coercion underlying Thidias's fantasy. While he poses as the messenger of Cleopatra's liberation from Antony's occupation, he really brings news of the latest, and certainly most ruthless, “landlord” in a long line of conquering Roman rulers. Cleopatra successfully defers Caesar's potential violence by sending her message of loyalty, and in this respect, she acts wisely and cleverly to ensure her nation's survival. On another level, however, her response to Caesar's message reveals an acute powerlessness on her part to resist colonization and to win independence for Egypt.

This moment must be seen in terms outlined by Montrose, who observes that Ralegh's description of the women of America incorporates a language of innocence. Ralegh, Montrose notes, insists that “the Amazons are both violent and lustful, the women whom he claims to have actually encountered in Guiana Ralegh represents as neither deceitful nor predatory. … [H]is contrary emphasis upon feminine innocence and vulnerability, upon the potential victimization of women, simultaneously disempowers them and legitimates their condition of dependency.”36 Thidias uses a similar language of innocence that disempowers Cleopatra and legitimizes Caesar's conquest as a rescue effort. His language, in this regard, masks the certain domination under which both Cleopatra and her country fall at Caesar's triumph. Her “power” to weaken Rome, in this light, is a fantasy with no substance. Both Cleopatra and Egypt are always and already commodified by a state-sponsored economy of domination—a conquest that continues to be sexualized. As Thidias suggests, Egypt's transfer from Antony's control to Caesar's should be taken, by its queen, as a signal of her body's transfer to Caesar as well.37 His recommendation that Cleopatra leave Antony's protection for Caesar's constitutes a none-too-veiled conflation of both country and queen as one victory prize.

In light of the events of act 3, scene 13, Shakespeare relentlessly underscores Cleopatra's dependence on her male colonizers throughout the play. Her actions must be understood, therefore, not as the histrionics of an irrational and love-mad female, but as a monarch's responses to the instability of her nation under foreign domination. Her love for Antony, therefore, cannot be separated from her role as queen of a land subjected to Rome's occupation. While L. J. Mills explains Cleopatra's behavior throughout acts 3 and 4 as motivated by her desire for only the most powerful of lovers, the full trajectory of Cleopatra's actions are informed more by political necessity than by either a narcissistic or megalomanic desire for Rome's leaders or her romantic attachment to Antony. Mills attributes to her not only a callous duplicity but more agency over her body and country than she possesses.38 But once the battle at Actium is lost, Cleopatra's subjection to the violence of Roman colonization is raised to new heights. Despite Antony's mistaken optimism in the face of new battles, Caesar prevails. His conditions are clear: “The Queen / Of audience nor desire shall fail, so she / From Egypt drive her all dis-graced friend, / Or take his life there. This if she perform, / She shall not sue unheard” (3.12.20-24). While Cleopatra rejects Caesar's command that she either kill or expel Antony, she listens to Thidias's message from Caesar and responds by surrendering herself and her country to him (3.13.38-85).

This act motivates Antony's suspicions of her loyalty, so that when he suffers his final defeat in act 4, he blames “This foul Egyptian” (4.12.10), “this false soul of Egypt” (25). When Cleopatra expresses amazement at his anger, he threatens her not just with his withdrawal of protection of her from Caesar, but with death: “The witch shall die” (47), he declares, forcing Cleopatra and her country to contend with new threats of violence from a former protector as well as the potential violence of a new one. Because Cleopatra is not, and never has been, responding to Antony as only her lover but also as her benevolent occupier, her decision to send him word of her death is not the inexplicable act of an irrational woman, but an act of defense against a conqueror who has threatened a monarch's life. Under siege not just from Octavius Caesar but from Antony as well, Cleopatra pretends to die and takes refuge in her monument—an act that is meant to protect not just her life but her nation, which depends upon her life for its preservation.

In this light, Antony's accusations of Cleopatra's betrayal are groundless. While she has appeared willing to surrender to Caesar's mastery, she never withdraws support from Antony's continued fight. The potential for her betrayal is not just unlikely because no textual evidence exists for it, then, but because a sudden preference for Caesar's uncertain and untried protection over that of Antony's familiar and well-tried guardianship makes no sense. While many critics have accused Cleopatra of behaving irrationally, in fact her actions—so long as they are viewed through the lens of imperial domination informing all her relations and not merely through an idealization of romantic love—have a systematic and coherent basis. Even her false report of her own death acts as defensive maneuver, not an act of desertion. Having already been betrayed and deserted by Antony, both as lover and protector, the queen of Egypt withdraws from the violence of his rage and power. Only when he returns to her as lover, then, and not as occupier can she take him into her monument and allow him to penetrate her last safe-space.

She must yet contend with Caesar, however, and, newly bereft of Antony's protection, negotiate a peace with him that, as before, poses the least possible devastation to Egypt. That negotiation, however, quickly becomes informed by a language of domination and submission:

                                                                                          Be of good cheer;
Y' are fall'n into a princely hand, fear nothing.
Make your full reference freely to my lord,
Who is so full of grace that it flows over
On all that need. Let me report to him
Your sweet dependency, and you shall find
A conqueror that will pray in aid for kindness
Where he for grace is kneel'd to.
                                                                                Pray you tell him
I am his fortune's vassal, and I send him
The greatness he has got. I hourly learn
A doctrine of obedience, and would gladly
Look him in the face.


The language of Proculeius's message, like that of Thidias's, implies a coercive relationship between Caesar and the Egyptian queen. Her nonviolent compliance ensures Caesar's benevolent conquest. Despite his assurances of Cleopatra's safety, Proculeius places guards over her, so that she becomes a prisoner rather than a protected monarch of a colonized land. And her interview with Caesar repeats the language of domination and submission rehearsed in her scenes with Thidias and Proculeius. Cleopatra's “He words me girls, he words me” (5.2.191) responds, then, to the lexical gymnastics of her encounters with Caesar, Proculeius, and Thidias. Dolabella's confirmation of her subjection to Caesar's pageant of triumph (5.2.107-10) crystalizes Cleopatra's spectrum of possible relations with Caesar into only one.39 Rather than become the specularized prize of conquest Caesar desires to make her, she ends her life.

Her suicide, in this light, resembles that of Juliet, as many critics have noted, but not because both women invoke the memories of their dead lovers and express the wish for reunion with them in death. Their suicides are similar because through death both women resist the ruthless commodification of their bodies by masculinist structures of power. Cleopatra's speeches before her death are at least equally focused on her presentation as a queen in death as they are on her reunion with Antony, and it cannot be denied that her suicide is motivated by her image of the humiliation attendant on Caesar's planned spectacle of triumph over his royal Egyptian captive (5.2.214-21). Octavius Caesar's occupation of Egypt promises to be quite different from that of Antony's, despite the deference he pays her as its queen. Benevolent colonial relations are at an end, so that even the mediated authority she held under Antony to rule her nation is sure to be reduced, if she is lucky, to a long imprisonment. She takes the asps from the Clown, then, because he “brings [her] liberty” (237) from being Caesar's “scutcheons and [his] signs of conquest” (135). Like Juliet, who rejects the friar's resolution to place her within the confines of a religious order, Cleopatra acts to resist the ruthless ownership of her body and country Dolabella assures her Caesar plans.

Cleopatra's identification of her liberty as expelling all evidence “Of woman in [her]” (5.2.239) underscores her experience of Rome's occupation as gendered. While King sees these lines as Cleopatra's last and most vexing “becoming,”40 I argue that her femininity and fluidity of identity have been a response to the fluctuating and potentially hostile relations Egypt has held with Rome. Thus her shift from Rome's fantasy of feminine mutability and position of submission on the one hand, to an unchangeable freedom from a forced erotics of domination on the other, allows us to read this last “becoming” as her best and least vexing.41 She rejects, in this light, the masquerade of femininity that, as Irigaray makes clear, “is a woman's entry into a system of values that is not hers, and in which she can ‘appear’ and circulate only when enveloped in the needs/desires/fantasies of others, namely, men.”42 In this regard, notions of fluidity must not be idealized merely because they oppose a “masculinist” rigidity; rather they must be examined within the contexts of cultural and political pressures and constraints that demand different ways of being. Cleopatra's metamorphosis into marble, rather than finally fixing her in a stable form, actually figures her liberation from the coercion of her relations with the occupiers of Egypt.43 In fact, mourning the loss of Cleopatra's mutability may reinscribe Rome's naturalized and exoticised definitions of Egyptian Woman. Liberty for Cleopatra represents not just freedom from Caesar's domination but from the gendered and sexualized identity Rome compelled her to perform. And that her becomings have figured a performance is made clear when she tells Antony in act 1, scene 3, that “[her] becomings kill [her] when they do not / Eye well to [him]” (96-97). Cleopatra's “becomings,” in this light, like those of Lady Macbeth, reflect the desire of another, of the conqueror-lover to whom she owes her life, her crown, and the peace of her nation. They reflect as well the difficulty of women's relationships to, in McClintock's words, “narratives of historical change and political effect” when women and land are symbolically linked under colonial occupation. Until this moment, Cleopatra has been compelled to support and ventriloquize Roman fictions about her desire, about the nature of her rule and her nation's security under foreign domination. But in her death, she is no longer required to adapt her behavior to her latest conqueror, no longer subject to Roman definitions of Egyptian Woman, so that Cleopatra becomes something else, and in this case she becomes what she has never before been allowed to be: constant to herself.

As in Macbeth, in Antony and Cleopatra military might is definitive of male honor, and Cleopatra's power as woman and monarch figures a threat to the coherence of Rome's masculinist project. Repeatedly Cleopatra is identified with the uncontrollable. Her indeterminacy, Rome's failure to regulate her bodily excesses, makes her that which must be conquered to be known, penetrated, and named. That no ordering project succeeds at such mastering exacerbates Roman fears and sends into motion the state-sponsored constraints implicated in imperial domination. The “evil” that Cleopatra comes to embody for Caesar results, then, from her successful manipulation of her own image as, simultaneously, woman and land. For so long as Rome was satisfied by its plundering of her body, she retained some control over Egypt. Her mutability, however, her apparent lack of preference for one conqueror over another, renders her, for Rome, the triple-turned whore it must annihilate. As I noted in my introduction, Elizabeth Grosz has argued that the masculinist structure's conception of masculinity as the norm animates its view of woman as both mystery and threat.44 Grosz's analysis attempts to find women a space for resistance and representation in a recuperation of women's bodies, in all their corporeality, despite (or perhaps because of) men's tendencies to fear the feminine and, in defense, to represent it as abundance, excess. That Cleopatra is fantasized by Rome as both corporeal excess and as laughably inept as a way to contain her, to reduce her to that which is controllable, is demonstrated by Enobarbus's view that women “should be esteem'd nothing” but ever replaceable “old robes,” (1.2.139-40, 164). His pun on “nothing,” the early modern term for the female genitals, discloses Rome's investment in representations of the feminine as, in Grosz's description, “various cycles of bodily flow: women's genitals and breasts are the loci of (potential) flows, red and white, blood and milk, flows that are difficult to appropriate while under constant threats of personal and legal appropriation, flows that signal both a self-contained autoerotic pleasure and a site of potential danger insofar as they are resistant to various cultural overlays (being unamenable to coercion and pressure, though in a sense absolutely open to cultural inscription).”45 Enobarbus's quips are repeated by the voyeuristic curiosity of Agrippa and Maecenus about Cleopatra's seductions of both Julius Caesar and Antony. Her erotics of imperial domination are conjured by these men as fantasies in order to contain her power. Cleopatra herself saw an opportunity for exploiting her body, for taking advantage of the excess it represented to Roman conquerors as a mode of resistance and self-representation. When Cleopatra rejects the role of infinite possibility she has performed up to Caesar's conquest, then, she refuses both further domination of her body by foreign invaders and masculinist, absolute, and naturalized conceptions of femininity as evil in its infinite variety.

Admittedly, Cleopatra's freedom is bought by her death, which mitigates the emancipatory note of my argument. The contradictions of her suicide, the fact that it is compelled by the ruthlessness of Caesar's masculinist aggression and leaves vulnerable to Caesar the lives of her subjects and the stability of her government, make her death problematic. Her resistance, therefore, clearly cannot thwart the violence of the masculinist structure of power that defines Roman militancy. And it is precisely the inevitability of that failure that I suggest the play critiques. When Shakespeare fuses his monarch heroine with her land and sexualizes both as at once exotic attraction and unknown danger in the conception of an imperialist nation such as Rome, he underscores the masculinist tendency to stage its bloody competition for preferment and power on the bodies of women. Both Cleopatra and Octavia, as I have noted, are exploited sexually to sustain Rome's expansionist project, the security of which remains in question throughout the play. Cleopatra's death becomes the unavoidable result of her body's occupation by a violent structure of power. That she has succeeded at deferring that end through three different conquerors testifies to the brilliance of her military and state stratagems. Having learned to place her body, as a substitute for her country, at the mercy and pleasure of Rome's leaders, Cleopatra guarantees her own and her nation's survival. She sustains a position of authority and protracts Egypt's peaceful subjection to foreign domination. But because, as a woman, she figures the incidental and ancillary nexus between Caesar and his goal—the conquest of land, of Egypt—Cleopatra's body finally fails to live up to and to perform its symbolic function as the masculinist order's indispensable guarantee of its desire. That such a failure is inevitable points to the impossible ideal implicated in that order's conception of female gender.

In this light, Antony and Cleopatra's place in the canon as a tragedy of transcendent love must be reviewed. Not only is the play a great deal more, but limiting ourselves to such an understanding entails a profound avoidance of its political context as a play about the violence of imperial domination and the vexed constructions of race and gender implicated in the relations between conqueror and conquered. To read Cleopatra as simply a woman in love with her occupier is to miss the coercion that underlies her relations with Antony and to underestimate the intricate political maneuvers informing virtually every one of its scenes. That is not to say that Cleopatra bears no love for Antony—her death speeches certainly reflect that love—but to suggest that the play also dramatizes the web of masculinist aggression and desire for power in which women are caught and annihilated. The danger of women's sexual indeterminacy to masculinist structures of power is uncovered as a fantasy, as that which is conjured and contained through coercive and violent systems of ownership and domination. The erotics for which Cleopatra is characterized by her Roman colonizers is, in this light, a phantasmatic projection from the Egypt of infinite resources which they desire onto its queen. It is also a fantasy Cleopatra exploits for the survival of her nation. The play extends and critiques, in this regard, the brutal modes of rule Shakespeare stages in King Lear and Macbeth, but which, I argued, he exaggerates by portraying female characters who do not resist but, instead, reproduce the ruthlessness attendant on such systems. The ruthlessness of masculinist structures of power that Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth are forced to reproduce is restaged in Antony and Cleopatra to highlight the violence against women implicated in such systems. It is only when, as I will argue in the following chapter, Shakespeare abandons tragedy in the middle of The Winter's Tale that the female body becomes separated from a threatening corporeal excess.


  1. See Jyotsna Singh, “Renaissance Anti-theatricality, Anti-feminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 99-121; and Mary Ann Bushman, “Representing Cleopatra,” in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (London: Scarecrow, 1991), 36-49.

  2. See in particular Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); and Mihoko Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).

  3. For readings that link Shakespeare's portrayal of Cleopatra with Queen Elizabeth I, see Theodora A. Jankowski, “‘As I am Egypt's Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic,” Assays 5 (1989): 91-110; and 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), 177-86. Paul Yachnin argues that Cleopatra is Shakespeare's rejection of female rule despite what he views as a cultural nostalgia for Queen Elizabeth taking place when Antony and Cleopatra would have been written in “‘Courtiers of beauteous freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” Renaissance and Reformation 26, no. 1 (1991): 1-20.

  4. On the precariousness of Cleopatra's command in the face of Rome's expansionism, see Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 124-30; and on Cleopatra's threat to Rome's expansionism, see Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995), 153-60.

  5. In regard to whether Shakespeare could have written a play that, even covertly, suggested criticism of absolute monarchical authority, Margot Heinemann sees a movement in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of plays staging “subversive ideas latent in the popularizing of classical history, questioning the authority of absolute monarchy and the legitimacy of dictatorial rule.” See “‘Let Rome in Tiber melt’: Order and Disorder in Antony and Cleopatra,” in New Casebooks “Antony and Cleopatra”: William Shakespeare, ed. John Drakakis (New York: MacMillan, 1994), 174. See also Paul Yachnin, “Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra.SEL [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] 33, no. 2 (1993): 343-63.

  6. Linda Charnes also suggests that “Antony's love for Cleopatra … can be understood as a part of the play's lexicon of imperialism” (275), but she is less focused on this argument than she is on demystifying liberal humanist mystifications of the play as staging the protagonists' transcendent love. See “What's Love Got to Do with It? Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 268-86. See also Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2d ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 204-17; Heinemann, “‘Let Rome in Tiber melt,’” 166-81; and Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genre (New York: Methuen, 1986), 142-43, who argues that traditional (mis)readings of the play as about love, rather than as about politics, constitute Shakespeare's seduction of his audience. While Harriet Hawkins finds that Antony and Cleopatra (along with Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, and [Desdemona and] Othello are not just dramatically but morally superior to other tragedies in order to counter the antiromantic degradations of scholars such as F. R. Leavis, Harold Bloom, and Gary Taylor, I want to suggest that Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet are at least as much (if not more so) about political tyrannies as they are about romantic love. See Hawkins's “Disrupting Tribal Difference: Critical and Artistic Responses to Shakespeare's Radical Romanticism,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 26, no. 1 (1993): 115-26.

  7. Coppélia Kahn, Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1997), 111. Kahn's analysis is instructive in its account of the play's indebtedness to Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, who wrote in the service of “Caesar's party. By fusing the xenophobia that fostered Roman national identity with patriarchal gender ideology, they demonized Cleopatra as Rome's most dangerous enemy, a foreigner and a woman whose power was fatally inflected by her sexuality. … Though Plutarch qualified this opposition to some extent, his life of Antony, on which Shakespeare based his play, still encodes it. To view this play, then, as organized by the contrast of independently constituted cultural value systems is to ignore the profound bias at work in the construction of that opposition per se” (111-12).

  8. Throughout my analysis, I have consciously used “country” to mean nation and to play on the early modern pun for the female genitalia (which I also cite in Montrose's invocation of that word later in my analysis). The word's resonance as a pun in the period is useful to emphasize the simultaneous conquest of land and of the female body implicated in imperialist expansionism.

  9. See Jankowski, Women in Power who even goes so far as to call Antony Cleopatra's “consort” (153).

  10. Rather than listing all those studies that have seen Cleopatra as an evil manipulator, I will cite here L. T. Fitz's “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1977): 297-316. Fitz's argument provides detailed information on the kind of reading to which I refer. It is important to note, however, that male critics are not the only ones who view Cleopatra as evil or as, at least, Shakespeare's portrayal of a spoiled, manipulative, and monstrous woman. See also Mary Nyquist, “‘Profuse, proud Cleopatra’: ‘Barbarism’ and Female Rule in Early Modern English Republicanism,” Women's Studies 24 (1994): 85-130.

  11. For admiring accounts of Cleopatra's agency, see in particular Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981); Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Jankowski, Women in Power; and Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen. Less-enthusiastic receptions include J. Leeds Barroll, “Cleopatra and the Size of Dreaming,” 179-227; and L. J. Mills, “Cleopatra's Tragedy,” 91-107. Both are contained in Cleopatra, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1990). Peggy Muñoz Simonds reads Cleopatra as associated with Fortuna, “attractive but very untrustworthy” (245), in “‘To the very heart of loss’: Renaissance Iconography in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Studies 22 (1990): 220-76.

  12. Interestingly, William H. Matchett traces a relationship between King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra in which the logic of the first play is reversed in the second: “Shakespeare, as an artist, was able to move away from King Lear, from a literary and philosophical dead end—an unequaled achievement, but one from which there is no further to go—by reversing the field, by questioning the very values at which, before they were destroyed, that play had arrived” (337). See “Reversing the Field: Antony and Cleopatra in the Wake of King Lear,Modern Language Quarterly 45, no. 4 (1984): 327-37.

  13. Charnes, “What's Love Got to Do with It?”; Hall, Things of Darkness; Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama; Joyce Green MacDonald, “Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Literature and History 5, no. 1 (1996): 60-77; and Jankowski, Women in Power. See also Mary Floyd-Wilson's “Transmigrations: Crossing Regional and Gender Boundaries in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 73-96.

  14. In “‘Profuse, proud Cleopatra,’” Mary Nyquist argues that “[Cleopatra] never appears on stage in the office of ruler of her people. Neither Romans nor Egyptians regard her as a political figure, and she doesn't take herself seriously either” (97). Nyquist's argument is that Miltonian Republicanism, which defined proper forms of power as masculine and tyranny as both barbaric and female, was already taking hold in Shakespeare's day and that his play reflects this cultural assumption. Regardless of the fact that Nyquist admits the Roman government is portrayed as at least equally corrupt as that of Cleopatra's, she assumes that the Roman view of Cleopatra coincides with that of the play.

  15. See in particular Kinney, “The Queen's Two Bodies,” 177-86; Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, 78-79; and Carol Cook, “The Fatal Cleopatra,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 241-67.

  16. For Janet Adelman, this emphasis figures a recuperation of the body of the mother. See Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (New York: Routledge, 1992), 177-78. See also Kinney, “The Queen's Two Bodies,” 177-86; Hall, Things of Darkness, 153-60; and Madelon Sprengnether's counterargument that “[p]oised between the worlds of tragedy and romance, suspended, as it were, between genres, Antony and Cleopatra itself strives to suspend the issue of gender, to refuse categories of masculine and feminine, as it strives to reject other categories of binary opposition,” in “The Boy Actor and Femininity in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 191-205. Jonathan Gil Harris offers an alternative to this reading when he argues that rather than being the all desiring “Ur-woman,” (409) the narcissistic “serpent of the Nile,” (425) Cleopatra is more a reflection of male desire, of the Romans narcissistic desire for “what they cannot have” (415). See “‘Narcissus in thy face’: Roman Desire and the Difference It Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 4 (1994): 408-25.

  17. While Jankowski (Women in Power) argues that Cleopatra's free use of her body is a strategy for conquering her conquerors, she also sees Cleopatra in the “odd position of having to validate—or seem to have Rome validate—her position on the throne” (153), and contends that “Cleopatra is never shown as silenced or dismembered and is thus like a male body, though committed to mutability in a way very different from the marble-constant Romans. … She is always presented as a complete body, but not one that is rigid and immutable. … It becomes ‘wrinkled deep in time’ (1.5.24) … and it can be burnt by the sun (1.5.28) or blown to abhorring by water flies (5.2.59-60)” (156). Like other critics, Jankowski celebrates Cleopatra's “becomings,” but in the process problematically erases references to Cleopatra's race which, as I will suggest, must be read along with her gender, so that it is anything but odd that Cleopatra should be in the position of needing Rome's validation of her throne.

  18. Antony and Cleopatra, (2.1.22). Evans, G. Blakemore (Editor), The Riverside Shakespeare, Copyright © 1974 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All quotes from and references to Antony and Cleopatra are used by permission and cited parenthetically in the text.

  19. See Cook, “The Fatal Cleopatra,” 241-67; Singh argues the play subverts early modern pejorative conflations of the feminine with the theatrical: “The very qualities that characterize the Renaissance stereotype of the duplicitous female—beauty, eroticism, changeability, ingenuity—are those that enrich and empower Cleopatra's artistry in shaping her own self-representations in challenging those of the Romans” (“Renaissance Anti-theatricality, Anti-feminism,”113).

  20. MacDonald (“Sex, Race, and Empire,” 60-77) has argued for readings of Cleopatra that do not erase her self-defined racial alterity. My reading assumes that Cleopatra is African, and that, therefore, when she identifies herself as “with Phoebus amorous pinches blacke” (1.5.28-29), she is not speaking metaphorically, and that the issue of racial difference in the play is of great significance to understanding her strategies for coexistence with Rome. See also John Michael Archer, “Antiquity and Degeneration in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, ed. Joyce Green MacDonald (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997), 145-64, who examines a discourse of gender and sexuality in early modern associations of Egypt with decadence and degeneration; and Hall, Things of Darkness, 153-60.

  21. Jankowski, Women in Power, 160.

  22. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 31.

  23. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 7.

  24. See Louis Adrian Montrose's reading of Ralegh's The Discovery of … Guiana (1596), in “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” Representations 33 (1991): 1-41. The passage to which Montrose refers is the following: “To conclude, Guiana is a countrey that hath yet her maydenhead, never sackt, turned, nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not bene torne, nor the vertue and salt of soyle spent by manurance, the graves have not bene opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their Images puld downe out of their temples. It hath never bene entred by any armie of strength, and never conquered or possessed by any christian Prince ([Guiana] 428)” (12). See also Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).

  25. McClintock, Imperial Leather, 24.

  26. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, 1972), 3.1.110.

  27. See Kahn's reading of the play as “doubly determined by homosocial rivalry” (Roman Shakespeare, 112).

  28. See Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1982); Mary Ann Bushman, “Representing Cleopatra,” in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (London: Scarecrow, 1991), 36-49; Sidney Homan, When the Theater Turns to Itself: The Aesthetic Metaphor in Shakespeare (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1981); Phyllis Rackin, “Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry,” PMLA 87 (1972): 201-12; and Singh, “Renaissance Anti-theatricality, Anti-feminism,” 99-121.

  29. Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell, 1985), 133-34. I also draw on Judith Butler's analysis of the unavoidable failure of gender performance, which I analyzed more closely in my reading of Lady Macbeth in chapter 4. See Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  30. Alexander Leggatt, “Antony and Cleopatra,” in Cleopatra, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), 233.

  31. Indeed, Adelman asserts that “we simply are not told the motives of the protagonists at the most critical points in the action” (16). In The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

  32. Barroll, “Cleopatra and the Size of Dreaming,” 201.

  33. Mills agrees, but does not pursue an argument on this issue (“Cleopatra's Tragedy,” 94).

  34. Nyquist reads Antony and Cleopatra in terms of the period's constructions of barbarism, which she claims inform Cleopatra's representation. Her reading, however, conflates Shakespeare's representation with Roman stereotyping, which are not necessarily one and the same. Nyquist's analysis does not account for the pressures on an African queen under foreign domination in spite of its focus on Republican conceptions of racial others. While I believe Nyquist would claim that Shakespeare's version of the play does not take the racial issue into account, the events of act 3, scene 13, suggest otherwise. See “‘Profuse, proud Cleopatra,’” 85-130.

  35. As Cook observes, “The Roman project of mapping out, penetrating and conquering the world depends upon a fixity of purpose, firmness, constancy, the consolidation of power. What is in flux threatens Roman control, particularly the varying tides of desire” (“The Fatal Cleopatra,” 254).

  36. Montrose, “The Work of Gender,” 21.

  37. See Kahn, Roman Shakespeare, 119-20.

  38. Mills, “Cleopatra's Tragedy,” 100.

  39. Dollabella's confirmation of Cleopatra's suspicions regarding Caesar provides Paul Yachnin with a fascinating argument on sovereign subjectivity in “Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra,SEL 33, no. 2 (1993): 343-63.

  40. See Laura Severt King, “Blessed When They Were Riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22, no. 3 (1992): 429-49. See also Neely, Broken Nuptials, 161; Lorraine Helms, “‘The High Roman Fashion’: Sacrifice, Suicide, and the Shakespearean Stage,” PMLA 107, no. 3 (1992): 554-65; and Kahn, Roman Shakespeare, 137-39.

  41. In fact, Archer (“Antiquity and Degeneration”) reads Cleopatra's “marble constant” as having “something of the Egyptian in it: she prepares herself for entombment in terms that evoke the hermetic association of Egypt with the afterlife, as in her subsequent call for robe and crown, her ‘Immortal longings,’ and her vision of her ‘husband’ Antony beckoning her onward. … She seems determined to mount a performance both of Egypt and its supposed antithesis in Roman culture, remaining a composite construction to the end” (160-61). Archer's analysis counters those who read it as her disavowal of Egyptian mutability. And Hall asserts that Cleopatra is “well aware of Roman efforts to fix her position in the imperial picture. … [Yet] Cleopatra poses an alternate reading of her part in the imperial text. Refusing to be seen as a fatal dalliance, subject to conflicting interpretations, she inscribes herself as wife. … Her insistence on being seen as legitimate wife threatens the closure of the imperial text” (Things of Darkness, 159, 160).

  42. Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One, 134.

  43. On Cleopatra's variation of Roman themes through her suicide, see Kinney, “The Queen's Two Bodies,” 183-85.

  44. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 192.

  45. Ibid., 207.

Ania Loomba (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Loomba, Ania. “The Imperial Romance of Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, pp. 112-34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Loomba evaluates the play's dichotomies between East and West, Egypt and Rome, and Cleopatra and Octavius in terms of early modern English culture. The critic finds many reflections in Antony and Cleopatra of the English fear of foreigners and outsiders—particularly those whose skin color is darker than theirs—and anxieties about the power of alien women to emasculate men or divert them from their commitment to political domination.]

Written only a few years after Othello, Antony and Cleopatra (1606-7) looks at the intersection of racial difference, colonial expansion, and gender from a very different angle. In this play, Shakespeare reaches back to events which had occurred in the first century bc, and which had been repeatedly narrated by Roman and other storytellers from that time to his own. By taking as his central figure a foreign queen who was already a symbol of wanton sexuality and political seduction in European culture, Shakespeare comments on a long tradition of writing in which sexual passion expresses, but also ultimately sabotages, imperial ambition. Shakespeare harnesses a long history and wide geography to early modern English anxieties about women's power, foreigners, and empire. This chapter will highlight this layering of past and present, suggesting that racial ideologies fuse ideas received from different historical periods, and from both literate and popular cultures.

In an introduction to the play, Michael Neill contrasts ‘Cleopatra's playful sense of herself as “with Phoebus's amorous pinches black”’ (1.5.28) with ‘Othello's anguished “Haply for I am black”’ (3.3.267) in order to argue that ‘the issue of racial difference’ in this play is ‘relatively insignificant’.1 Cleopatra's attitude to her own skin colour might indicate that she does not think of it as a sign of inferiority, but it does not tell us that her colour is unimportant in Roman constructions of her as an Egyptian wanton, as the very antithesis of a chaste Roman wife. And Cleopatra is far from indifferent to what the Romans think of her, although one of her strategies is to play up to, and exaggerate, their images of her. Even if she were indifferent, of course, that would not be evidence for a lack of racial tension in the play as a whole. Although skin colour is not the only marker of such tension, it is a good place to start examining different aspects of the history and myth of Cleopatra.

Although Cleopatra calls herself ‘black’, and Philo calls her ‘tawny’ (1.1.6), none of the repeated, hyperbolic, and contradictory descriptions of her in the play tells us much about her physically. She is the ‘wrangling queen, / Whom everything becomes’ (1.2.50-1); she is both ‘Rare Egyptian’ (2.2.224) and ‘foul Egyptian’ (4.13.10); she is a ‘triple-turned whore’ (4.13.13), ‘a right gipsy’ (4.13.28), and a ‘vile lady’ (4.15.22). Enobarbus' lyrical account of her on the barge describes the boat, the pavilion, the attendants, the perfume, the effect Cleopatra has on others—everything but her appearance: ‘For her own person, / It beggared all description’ (2.2.204-5). As with Othello, critics have sometimes suggested that Cleopatra is ‘tawny’ rather than black, and some Renaissance texts indeed registered the difference—Heylyn's Microcosmus says that Egyptians are ‘not black, but tawny and brown’.2 Shakespeare uses both terms in relation to Cleopatra, and many of his contemporaries used them interchangeably, referring to the ‘tawny colour’ of the ‘Blackamoor’. Moreover, ‘tawny’ skin was not necessarily viewed as less offensive than black—Portia's suitor Morocco is called ‘tawny’ and yet she says he has the ‘complexion of a devil’.3

We know that the historical Cleopatra, like the rest of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, was of Greek descent, although the ethnicity of her grandmother is not known, and has led to some speculation about whether or not Cleopatra was of mixed race, or of dark colour. To complicate matters, ancient Greece was culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse. Africa, especially Egypt, deeply influenced Greek society. This was acknowledged by the Roman writer Plutarch, whose Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, in Sir Thomas North's English translation, was a source for Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The Egyptians themselves were also a highly diverse people; Herodotus described them as having black skins and woolly hair, but both black and white persons are depicted on Egyptian vases and artifacts of the time. However, there was a distance between the Greek rulers of Egypt and its citizens—the rulers did not integrate with the common people or speak their language, although they identified strongly with the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis.

In spite of this gap between Egyptian rulers and the populace, Roman historians identified Cleopatra as Egyptian; Cleopatra herself laid the ground for this by being the only Ptolemy to learn Egyptian, and to control popular unrest. Roman accounts of her as a luxurious wanton, given only to pleasure, deliberately ignore the fact that she was an astute political leader (retrospectively some Egyptian histories even cast her as a nationalist).4 Like Ptolemaic queens before her, she encouraged identification of herself with Egyptian goddesses. Whereas they had used a single or a double ‘uraeus’ or cobra head as their symbol, Cleopatra used three cobras, perhaps in order to indicate her control over Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt as well as the additional territories which Antony gifted her. For the Romans, an identification between Cleopatra and Egypt was strategically necessary in order to highlight an absolute division between Rome and Egypt.

In Shakespeare's play too, Cleopatra is repeatedly identified with Egypt. She is called ‘Egypt’ by Antony (1.5.42; 3.11.51 and 56; 4.13.25; 4.16.19), by herself (1.3.41), and by her followers (4.16.74); she is ‘Egypt's widow’ (2.1.37), an ‘Egyptian dish’ (2.6.126), a ‘serpent of Egypt’ (2.7.26), a ‘serpent of Old Nile’ (1.5.25); her charms are, for Antony, ‘these strong Egyptian fetters’ (1.2.109) which he must break free from. In early modern Europe, Egyptians were widely grouped with other dark-skinned people of Africa and Asia as the descendants of Ham. Africanus repeats this belief that ‘the Egyptians … fetch their original from Mesraim the son of Chus, the son of Cham, the son of Noe [Noah]’ (857). Thus, despite only two explicit references to it, Cleopatra's darkness is reinforced by suggestions that Cleopatra embodies Egypt.

But which Egypt does she embody? In early modern England, Egypt was known as a land of ancient religion, philosophy, and learning. There was an interest in Egyptian antiquity, and a flourishing trade in mummies, which were sold in vast quantities because they were used in various medicines—an English merchant, John Sanderson, recorded that over 600 pounds of mummy were exported at the end of the sixteenth century.5 But Egypt was also increasingly identified as a Turkish dominion. It had been part of the Ottoman Empire since 1516; Leo Africanus, in his influential History of Africa, claimed that he had been in the city of Rasid when ‘Selim the great Turke returned this way from Alexandria’.6 According to Africanus, Egypt was now devoid of ‘any true Egyptians’ because the majority of the population, ‘embracing the Mahumetan religion, have mingled themselves among the Arabians and Moores’ (856). Henry Blount's A Voyage into the Levant confirmed that ‘the light’ of the ancient glory of Egypt was now ‘almost quite extinct’:

Now as for the Justice and Government, it is perfectly Turkish … only it exceeds all other parts of Turkey for rigor, and extortion; the reason is because the Turk well knows the Egyptian nature, above all other Nations, to be malicious, treacherous and effeminate, and therefore dangerous, not fit for Arms, or any other trust; nor capable of being ruled by a sweet hand.7

Blount sees Turkish cruelty as justified by the effeminate and malicious ‘nature’ of Egyptians, but Africanus suggests that they have become mixed with their Muslim masters. In similar vein, Cesare Vecellio's costume book depicted a lady of Cairo as heavily veiled in the Islamic fashion. …

The view that Egypt no longer contained pure Egyptians was reinforced by the confusion between Egyptians and the gypsies who had arrived in England from Scotland in 1500. Although historical research now traces their roots to Northern India, in early modern England gypsies were supposed to have originated in Egypt. Andrew Borde's First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (1542) connects their migration to England with the absence of ‘real Egyptians’ in Egypt itself: ‘The people of the country be swart and doth go disguised in their apparel, contrary to other nations they be light fingered and … have little manner. … There be few or none of the Egyptians that doth dwell in Egypt for Egypt is repleted now with the infidel aliens.’8 Thus, Egypt has been overtaken by ‘infidel aliens’ or Turks, just as England has been invaded with ‘swart’ Egyptians. In Shakespeare's time, then, ‘Egypt’ and ‘Egyptian’ did not indicate any one ‘race’ but conjured up images of various peoples, all of whom were regarded as dark-skinned and associated with ‘Moors’. The effect of this confusion was to resurrect a central division between ‘East’ and ‘West’ which had been a feature of classical Roman and Greek literatures. Shakespeare's play refers to Cleopatra as both Egyptian and a gypsy, but it also identifies Egypt as the ‘East’; more importantly, it plays upon a dichotomy between Rome and Egypt in which each is defined by its difference from the other.


Imperial conquest is routinely demonstrated through the sexual possession of conquered women. Julius Caesar had an affair not just with Cleopatra but with Eunoë, wife of King Bogudes the Moor. Alexander, whom Antony tried to emulate, married Roxana, daughter of a Persian king he conquered. But neither Alexander nor Caesar allowed their sexual liaisons to distract them from their imperial enterprise, and both returned home to conduct other missions of conquest. Antony's association with Cleopatra, by contrast, reversed the dynamics of sexual possession and signified not his victory but hers. Roman writers were alarmed that Antony ‘forgot his nation, his name, the toga, the axes of power and degenerated wholly into the style of that monster [Cleopatra], in mind, in dress, in all manner of life’.9 This is the fear we see animated in Antony and Cleopatra.

The historical Octavius (who went on to reign as the Emperor Augustus) represented his battle against Antony and Cleopatra as a patriotic war to save Rome. The opposition between a masculine Rome and a feminine ‘East’ animates Virgil's epic, The Aeneid, which was written to celebrate Augustus' reign. The epic narrates the story of another famous African queen, Dido, who was loved but abandoned by the Roman voyager Aeneas. Aeneas' shield is decorated with a depiction of the battle of Actium in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavius. On one side stands lofty Augustus; on the other

Egypt and all the East; Antony, victor
Over all the lands of dawn and the Red Sea,
Marshals the foes of Rome, himself a Roman,
With—horror!—an Egyptian wife.(10)

Aeneas' resolve to leave Dido and return to his Roman duty implicitly criticizes Antony's capitulation to Cleopatra and celebrates the victory of Octavius/Augustus over the pair. Shakespeare's play returns to this victory, but infuses the event with loss and tragedy.

Edward Said's Orientalism suggests that such an opposition between ‘the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)’ has animated ‘European imaginative geography’ from Greek times till the present.11 This suggestion has been criticized for being ahistorical—how could the same binary opposition be so important to different periods and cultures? Said, his critics say, is attributing a colonial vision of the East to pre-colonial times. As already discussed, the ‘East’ could hardly be regarded as Europe's ‘other’ during the Renaissance. Europeans desired to enter the powerful economic networks of the Mediterranean, Levant, North Africa, and Asia, feared the military might of the Turks, and were dazzled by the wealth and sophistication of many Eastern kingdoms. In fact recent scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Europe was really on the periphery of powerful economic networks whose centre was in the East, and that European global domination did not begin till the eighteenth century.12 Moreover, there were interactions, cross-overs, and mixing between East and West which are overlooked by the suggestion of a binary opposition.

However, while we need to ‘de-centre’ Europe by historicizing its global dominance rather than assuming it was always in place, there are two central questions that we still have to contend with. One: if early modern Europe was peripheral to other powerful global economies, what explains the tilting of balance in its favour in the eighteenth century? A partial answer is that, though in the seventeenth century neither colonialism nor capitalism were fully formed, their wheels had been set in motion. Europeans may not have been able to colonize every part of the globe in the seventeenth century but certainly their position in the New World or in parts of the old (such as the Moluccas, or Goa) cannot be described as ‘peripheral’. And two: even before colonialism, European (including English) writings do rehearse and repeat certain ideas about cultural and geographic difference. The Roman Empire may not have established Europe's global mastery, indeed the very idea of Europe did not exist at that time, but Roman imperial conquests did spawn negative images that were appropriated by later writers, especially because countries such as England looked towards Rome to establish their own genealogy as an imperial nation.

To acknowledge these repetitions is not necessarily to suggest a static unchanging discourse, or to misunderstand the actual power relations between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in different periods. Often, literary texts as well as historical documents reach back to previously established motifs in order to make them serve entirely new purposes, including that of establishing or asserting a superiority that does not exist. Shakespeare drew from Plutarch's tales about Cleopatra, but also infused them with other literary and cultural myths, as well as more contemporary materials, not because England was already an empire but because empire was one of the subjects of his play. Thus the older idea of a division between East and West, and specifically Egypt and Rome, energizes his play, although, as we will see, it is not as if England stands in for Rome in any straightforward way.

To some extent, all early modern European writings about non-European lands rehearse older accounts. For example, the Greek writer Herodotus had initiated the myth of Egypt as a land of inversion:

The Egyptians themselves in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay as home and do the weaving … men in Egypt carry loads on their heads, women on their shoulders; women pass water standing up, men sitting down.13

Johannes Boemus's The Fardle of Facions (1555) repeats this idea almost verbatim, but also infuses a specifically English imagery into it by commenting that Egyptian women ‘revelled at the Tavern and kept lusty cheer: And the men sat at home spinning, and working of lace and such other things women are wont’.14

Picking up on this, Richard Knolles writes that Egyptian women always choose their own husbands. Similarly, Leo Africanus informs readers that the women of Cairo ‘are so ambitious and proud, that all of them disdain either to spin or to play the cooks: wherefore their husbands are constrained to buy victuals ready dressed at the cooks' shops …’ (883). In repeating the idea of gender reversal, each of these reports also infuses it with contemporary references. Henry Blount even attributed it to Turkish occupation of Egypt, arguing that because Egyptians were a ‘false and dangerous people’, the Turkish Sultan Selim decided not to employ them as soldiers but use them to produce food for all his own people, ‘whereby, without scandal, the Nation is made effeminate and disarmed’ (54).

However, this is not to suggest that as time went on, there was a greater attempt to rationalize the idea of gender reversal. Often the opposite was true—as late as 1653, Bulwer's Anthropometamorphoses claimed that Egyptian men have breasts large enough to suckle their babies, while the women have ‘small and manlike Breasts’.15 Thus, what older texts regard as inversion of custom, Bulwer transforms into biological difference.


Gender reversal is also central to the world of Antony and Cleopatra. Early in the play, Caesar comments that Antony's revelry in Egypt has effeminized him; Antony is now

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


Whereas in the writings mentioned earlier, gender reversal is contained within Egypt, in this play, it becomes an aspect of Egypt's relationship with Rome. By effeminizing Antony, Cleopatra threatens the hierarchy between imperial Rome and its dominion, Egypt:

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.


Such cross-dressing is not just bedroom play but manifests a larger reversal of gender roles. Cleopatra persuades Antony that they should fight the Romans by sea rather than land, a decision that is seen to unman not just Antony but all his Roman soldiers. Enobarbus pleads with Antony: ‘Transform us not to women’ (4.2.36) and Camidius laments: ‘So our leader's led / And we are women's men’ (3.7.68-9).

In Shakespeare's England too, debates about appropriate clothing were actually battles about status and identity. Authorities legislated the kind of clothing appropriate to people of different genders and classes. A proclamation of 1588 seeking to enforce ‘the Statutes and Orders for Apparel’ frowned against the ‘inordinate excess in apparel’ embraced by many of the queen's subjects, and claimed that such excess led to both a ‘confusion of degrees of all estates’ (i.e. a blurring of differences in social rank) as well as to the import of ‘superfluity of foreign and unnecessary commodities’.16 The proclamation suggests that to transgress the dress code is both to challenge existing social hierarchies and to endanger the ‘natural merchandise of the realm’ by relying on alien goods.

A popular pamphlet against female cross-dressing could spot transgressive women everywhere:

Since the days of Adam women were never so masculine: masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the mother to the youngest daughter; masculine in number, from one to multitudes; masculine in case, even from the head to the foot; masculine in mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and masculine in tense, for without redress they were, are, will be still most masculine, most mankind, most monstrous.17

Antony and Cleopatra speaks to these gender debates; for many, an Egypt where women are granted too much freedom and gender roles are reversed would have offered an uncomfortable parallel with contemporary England.

In Shakespeare's England, several people could spot parallels between Cleopatra's seduction of a great soldier, and Elizabeth's affair with her favourite, Essex, who ultimately betrayed her and was executed in 1601. Apart from the fact that both queens encouraged identifications of themselves with goddess figures (Elizabeth with the Virgin, Cleopatra with Isis), the crucial parallel between the English queen and the Egyptian legend was that as women, they both held onto political power against many odds. But, rather than simply evoking Elizabeth in any singular sense, Shakespeare's Cleopatra plays upon widespread cultural fears and fantasies about powerful, emasculating, and cross-dressing women, which are expressed in plays, pamphlets, sermons, laws, and conduct-books during both Elizabeth's rule and that of her successor, James I.

In Shakespearian plays, and in Shakespeare's day, intense liaisons with all women were regarded as potentially effeminizing. In Antony and Cleopatra, the danger posed by women is fused with that of foreign lands. Earlier we discussed how such fusion was also central to the myth of the Amazons, who were ‘foreign’ women evoked in order to contain female unruliness at home. The French essayist Montaigne writes:

For the queen of the Amazons replied to the Scythian who was inviting her to make love: ‘The lame man does it best!’ In that feminine commonwealth, to escape the domination of the males, they crippled them from childhood—arms, legs, and other parts that gave men an advantage over them—and made use of them only for the purpose for which we make of use of women over here.18

Stories of Amazonian cruelty to men, Montaigne suggests, are projections of the real crippling of women in patriarchal Europe, a crippling that is necessary in order to produce compliant sexual partners. No wonder, then, that figures of Amazons abound in the debates about the proper place of women in England from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. John Knox's ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), which was directed at Mary Tudor but appeared after Elizabeth had become queen, describes an England ruled by a queen as ‘a world … transformed into Amazons’.19


Antony and Cleopatra maps such concerns about powerful, foreign women onto an imperial theme. As it contemplated its place in the world, England looked back in conflicted ways to the legacy of imperial Rome. Rome was both a model for the English to emulate and a reminder that the English had themselves been colonized in the past. The literature and mythology of imperial Rome, and especially of Virgil's Aeneid, were freely appropriated by English monarchs, but often by editing the meanings of the original stories. For example, when Elizabeth was identified as Dido, the African queen's chastity and heroism in founding Carthage provided the basis of the comparison, which could only be sustained by disregarding her abandonment by Aeneas. James I also disregarded this feature of the original story in order to encourage identifications of himself with Aeneas.20 James was also often identified as the new Augustus in official entertainments.

By the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, the classical literary tradition was not the only one to represent an encounter between a feminine ‘East’ and a masculine ‘West’. The biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba and the wise King Solomon also played upon this theme, and became a widespread cultural motif, as did stories of the Saracen princess who converts to Christianity and marries a European man. Leo Africanus had reported that Sheba was the queen of Ethiopia and had ‘brought unto Salomon an hundred and twenty talents of gold, which amount to 720,000 golden ducats of Hungary, that is, seven tons of gold, and 20,000 Hungarian ducats besides …’ (1032). Sheba gave all this wealth to Solomon after Solomon demonstrated his ‘wisdom’ to her; their contact resulted in a child called David who ensured that Ethiopia became a Christian land. The Sheba story sexualized the exchange of wealth and religion—an exchange that became a regular feature of the Renaissance stage. James encouraged identifications of himself with Solomon, and several English masques, pageants, and plays depicted foreign women gifting their wealth, beauty, and respect to Western monarchs, traders, and colonists. The homage-paying stranger or wild man of medieval court entertainments mutates into an ‘Indian’ king or queen in the London civic pageants, which were sponsored by various Livery Companies of London. Middleton's The Triumphs of Honour and Virtue (1622), for example, depicts ‘a black personage representing India, called, for her odours and riches, the Queen of Merchandise’. She asks the viewer to observe her ‘with an intellectual eye’ and to see beyond her native blackness and to perceive her inner goodness, which has been made possible by her conversion to Christianity. ‘Blest commerce’ has brought English traders to her land, and made possible a wonderful trade between them—her wealth for their religion. All ‘the riches and the sweetness of the East’, she thinks, are fair exchange for the ‘celestial knowledge’ that is now hers (43-61).

The Sheba story was also collapsed into that of the ‘black and beautiful’ woman and her fair male lover in the biblical Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. As discussed in Chapter 2, medieval and Renaissance interpretations of the Song which suggested that the black woman was emblematic of the physical body in need of being blessed and whitened by the power of Christ incriminated the sexuality of real black women, as when the medieval divine Abelard compared such a body to ‘the flesh of black women [which] is all the softer to touch though it is less attractive to look at’.21 The beauty of black women increasingly began to represent the paradox of sexual desire, its power as well as its shame, and the connections between such desire and particular exotic, dangerous, or promising territories of the world.

The stories of Sheba and Solomon, and of the Shulamite in the Song of Songs, are collapsed into one another and also retold with renewed vigour during the Renaissance because these stories offer a framework which can enclose the attractions as well as the anxieties of colonial and mercantile contact. Kim Hall suggests that Solomon provided ‘two models for relations between Western males and “Other” females’. In the first the ‘white male refashion(s) and whiten(s) the dark foreign female into an object of transcendent wedded love’ and in the second, ‘Solomon (is) too much given to pleasures of the flesh, which are associated with the allures of a foreign female’.22 I would like to suggest that both these models simultaneously shape the English theatricals which stage the encounter between foreign women and European men. The foreign woman is alluring, dangerous, and powerful, which makes her ultimate capitulation all the more meaningful. Thus the possibility of a European ‘turning Turk’ is averted by the conversion, assimilation (or in some cases death and destruction) of the alien woman.

This theme was revisited by many plays of the period. In Fletcher's The Island Princess, a Moluccan princess Quisara asks her Portuguese lover to convert to her religion. It ends with her own conversion to Christianity as the wife of another Portuguese suitor. In Philip Massinger's play The Renegado, Donusa, a niece of the Turkish Sultan, tries to convert her Italian lover Vitelli but finally converts to Christianity and escapes to Europe as Vitelli's wife. We find stories of Muslim and other foreign women's desire for white men not just in literary texts but also in some of the travelogues, although in the latter, such desire is often just speculation on the part of the European traveller and does not end in conversion or marriage. Stories about the Amazons also play upon a similar pattern, featuring the containment of an alien, seductive, and powerful woman, and in story after story, Amazonian queens are subdued and often married by Greek heroes like Theseus. The defeat and marriage of the Gothic empress Tamora in Titus Andronicus, we saw in Chapter 3, can also be situated within this scenario.

But there is a crucial difference between these plays and Antony and Cleopatra. These Amazonian figures and converted Muslim princesses are extremely fair, and their skin colour facilitates their assimilation into their new families. Dark-skinned women are allowed to pay homage to white men, but in English drama, they cannot be whitened, and cannot be invited to join the Christian family. The dark skin of Shakespeare's Cleopatra, the fact that she revels in it, and that Antony is ensnared by it, is thus especially striking. Earlier writers had visualized Cleopatra as black in order to indicate that inner virtue is more important than outer beauty, as in George Pettie's A Petite Pallace: ‘Did not Antonius (that lusty gallant of this city) prefer Cleopatra that black Egyptian, for her incomparable courtesy, before all the blazing stars of this city? … Whereby you see that bounty before beauty is always to be preferred.’23 Or else to suggest the blindness of love: Robert Greene's Ciceronis Amor, or Tullie's Love (1589) asks ‘Is not Antony enamoured of the black Egyptian Cleopatra: Doth not Caesar envy in his love. … Affection is oft blind and deemeth not rightly, the blackest ebony is brighter than ivory.’24 For the most part, however, in a culture that increasingly associated ideal femininity with whiteness, Cleopatra's fabled beauty was visualized as white, as in Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women which depicted her as ‘fair as is the rose in May’.

In Shakespeare's play, Cleopatra's darkness is part of her intractability and her stubbornly Egyptian identity. The recurrent food imagery suggests her sexual availability and desirability: ‘salt Cleopatra’ is a tasty tidbit; she is Antony's ‘Egyptian dish’ (2.6.126), a ‘morsel’ that he found left on Caesar's plate (3.13.117). But Cleopatra does not remain a delicious treat for Roman men, making ‘hungry where most she satisfies’; instead she threatens to devour them. She gleefully compares Antony to the fish she intends to catch:

                                        My bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say ‘Ah ha, you're caught!’


Such passages resonate with the Roman view of her as a predator, but they also remind us that Cleopatra is not Antony's Egyptian conquest. The role reversal complicates the pattern of representing the colonized land as a sexually available female.

Unlike the figures of Eastern royalty that were brought onto London streets in the mayoral shows, Cleopatra does not leave the shores of her native land and goes to great lengths to maintain her power within it. Like Quisara in The Island Princess and Donusia in The Renegado, Cleopatra is in love with a white man, but unlike them, she is sovereign as well as royal, and she does not surrender her sovereignty easily. She refuses to think of her relationship with Antony in matrimonial terms until he is dead, and is willing to negotiate with Caesar even while Antony is alive. After Antony's death, Cleopatra continues to resist being incorporated into Rome, although she now addresses Antony as ‘husband’. Her suicide is double-edged: it outwits her would-be captors, but it also marks her adoption of ‘the high Roman manner’—a trademark of Antony's culture. Antony and Cleopatra ends with the picture of the ‘serpent of the old Nile’ outwitting her adversaries by holding a snake to her breast, translating her defeat ‘in this vile world’ into ‘immortal longings’ (5.2.308, 276). Instead of a European converting an Eastern queen, in this play it is that queen who tempts him to ‘flee himself’. Given the precariousness of the English toe-hold in Eastern lands at this period, we can appreciate the meaning of the recurrent image of a converted and compliant queen for audiences at home. A slippery Cleopatra, ‘cunning beyond men's thought’, takes on a special resonance here, playing upon the pattern, altering it.

Antony's predicament echoes Othello's—both are soldiers who have given themselves excessively to women who anchor them to a new but fraught cultural identity, but also lay them open to charges of unmanliness. Antony's passion makes him oscillate between his Roman martial self and a newly acquired ‘Egyptian’ identity, which appears incompatible with military valour. Cleopatra's followers are either women or eunuchs, and an ‘unmanned’ Antony joins their fawning assembly. Eunuchs were prominent symbols of the luxury and decadence of the Eastern empires, as well as of the potential of these empires to ‘unman’ Christians. Moreover, conversion to Islam entailed circumcision, which Christians viewed as a sort of castration. The theatre featured the threat of both to English identity—in The Renegado, the Turkish damsel Donusia is attended by Carazie, an English-born eunuch. In Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, Gazet, a foolish English servant, hopes to gain wealth by converting to Islam but instead finds that he has been castrated. William Daborne's play A Christian Turn'd Turk depicted a conversion ceremony complete with circumcision; its hero Ward is circumcized and also ‘unmanned’ by his Turkish wife. Antony and Cleopatra pre-dates these other plays, but we can appreciate the contemporary significance of Antony's supposed loss of manhood in Egypt. The story of Antony and Cleopatra had always been a cautionary tale, a story that warned aspiring imperialists of the dangers of the East. We can understand why during Shakespeare's time, when the powerful markets of Asia and North Africa were both intensely desired and feared to lure Christians to Islam, this story acquired a new urgency.


The dangers of Antony's conversion are announced in the opening lines of the play by his comrade Philo who tells the audience that Antony's ‘captain's heart’ seems to have ‘become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust’ (1.1.9-10). The slippage between ‘Egyptian’ and ‘gypsy’ reinforces the dangers of conversion in the play, and brings them closer home to England.25 Samuel Daniel had previously associated Cleopatra with gypsies, as had Shakespeare himself in Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio says ‘Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench … Cleopatra a gypsy’ (2.3.37-9). In early modern England, the confusion between Egyptians and gypsies was not limited to popular usage, but became part of English legal vocabulary. John Cowell's dictionary of legal terms, The Interpreter (1607) explained that English statutes defined Egyptians as

a counterfeit kind of rogues, that being English or Welch people, accompany themselves together, disguising themselves in strange robes, blacking their faces and bodies, and framing to themselves an unknown language, wander up and down, and under pretence of telling of fortunes, curing diseases, and such like, abuse the common people, by stealing all that is not too hot or heavy for their carriage … These are very like to those, whom the Italian call Cingari …26

Cowell suggests that English gypsies are fake rogues who only pretend to be gypsies by blackening their faces and appropriating a strange language. But ‘real’ gypsies were also regarded as inauthentic—John Florio's Italian-English dictionary defines the Cingari as ‘the roguing Giptians that go filching about the countries’ and Montaigne refers to gypsy women as ‘Counterfeit Egyptian women who have shown up in our midst’.27

Gypsies were widely compared to Jews and Muslims, both of whom were also popularly associated with disguise, trickery, and conversion. Thomas Dekker writes:

They are a people more scattered than the Jews, and more hated. Beggarly in apparel, barbarous in condition, beastly in behavior and bloody if they meet advantage. A man that sees them would swear they had all the yellow jaundice, or that they were tawny Moors' bastards, for no Red-ochre man carries a face of a more filthy complexion. Yet are they not born so; neither has the sun burnt them so, but they are painted so. … If they be Egyptians, sure I am they never descended from the tribes of any of those people that came out of the land of Egypt.28

The defining feature of gypsies is their artifice; their darkness is not natural, and yet not less threatening for being artificial. Dekker pursues the idea of artifice further, comparing gypsies to ‘Morris-dancers, with bells’ and to actors (‘like one that plays the Rogue on a Stage’ (244)). It was often supposed that actors imitated ‘Moorish’ dances that Christians had become familiar with during the Crusades. The remark that gypsies look like ‘tawny Moors' bastards’ picks up on associations between Moors and gypsies that were rife since at least the mid-fifteenth century, when a Scottish laird who obliged the king by killing the captain of the gypsies adopted a Moor's head as his crest.29 Early gypsies were also referred to as Saracens.

The confusion between gypsies and Egyptians only strengthened the association of each with Moors, since, as we've noted earlier, contemporary Egypt was understood to be overrun by the ‘infidel’ Moors and Turks. It also underlined their supposed propensity for artifice: in early modern sermons, travelogues, and histories, the prophet Mohammed is repeatedly called a ‘juggler’ and trickster. Thus Cleopatra's ‘false soul’, her theatricality, and her cross-dressing pick up a complex web of connections between gypsies, stage actors, Moors, as well as local tricksters. Antony claims that Cleopatra

Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose
Beguiled me to the very heart of loss.


‘Fast and loose’ was one of the games with which gypsies were supposed to cheat the public. In his Art of Juggling (1612), Samuel Rid suggests that Egypt is the origin of such tricks:

Certain Egyptians banished (from) their country … arrived here in England, who being excellent in quaint tricks and devises, not known here at that time among us, were esteemed and had in admiration … insomuch that many of our English loiterers joined with them, and in time learned their craft and cozening. The speech which they used was the right Egyptian language, with whom our Englishmen conversing with, at last learned their language.30

Cleopatra as the ‘enchanting queen’ brings together magic associated with non-Western cultures, the sorcery associated with witches and enchantresses, domestic and alien, as well as the trickery associated with petty crime at home.

Royal acts of 1559 forbade the use of ‘charms, sorcery, enchantments, invocations, circles, witchcrafts, soothsaying or any like crafts or imaginations invented by the Devil’; a statute of 1604 reinforced the prohibition.31 Other legislation attempted to curb the tricks of gypsies and those who impersonated them. From 1530 onwards, the English authorities repeatedly banished gypsies from the realm and proclaimed harsh punishments for English people who associated with gypsies. In 1562, ‘An Act for further punishment of vagabonds, calling themselves Egyptians’ warned that anyone found

in any company or fellowship of vagabonds, commonly called or calling themselves Egyptians, or counterfeiting, transforming or disguising themselves by their apparel, speech or other behaviour, like unto such vagabonds … shall therefore suffer pains of death, loss of lands and goods, as in the cases of felony by the order of the common laws of this realm’.32

The legislation concerning gypsies reveals a fear of contamination that might pass from ‘real’ to ‘false’ gypsies and spread among the local populace; at the same time the laws suggest that all gypsies are ‘counterfeit’. In April 1577, eight people were hanged for associating with gypsies; in May 1596, 106 men and women were condemned to death for ‘having wandered in diverse parts of this realm in this country of York, some of them feigning themselves to have knowledge in palmistry, physiognomy, and other abused sciences, using certain disguised apparel and forged speech, contrary to diverse statutes and laws of this realm …’.33 Eventually most of these people were deported back to their place of birth but nine of them were hanged because they were found to be ‘strangers, aliens born in foreign parts across the seas, and none of the Queen Majesty natural born subjects’. English-born gypsies were treated differently to those considered ‘foreign’, and the laws sought to reinforce the distinction between the two, and to prevent any association between them.

‘Egyptians’ were regularly sentenced to death in England under these laws, but several contemporary commentators felt that legislation was not very effective, and Samuel Rid noted that even though Queen Elizabeth endeavoured

by all means possible to root out this pestiferous people, but nothing could be done, you see until this day: they wander up and down in the name of Egyptians, colouring their faces and fashioning their attire and garment like unto them, yet if you ask what they are, they dare no otherwise then say, they are Englishmen, and of such a shire, and so are forced to say contrary to that they pretend.


Rid points out that gypsies can only make a living by pretending to be what they are not, and yet, given the laws of the land, they can never openly admit to the impersonation.

Gypsies were especially disliked by the authorities because they were not simply ungovernable individuals but formed tight communities with their own hierarchies and forms of governance; Rid mentions a Giles Hather and Kit Calot who ‘style themselves the King and Queen of Egypt’. Analogously, Cleopatra is threatening to Rome because she is not just Antony's ‘Egyptian wife’ but a sovereign who resists Egypt's incorporation into the Roman Empire. Caesar is threatened because Antony gifts her entire kingdoms and territories which, in his view, belong to his empire. While English gypsies can hardly be read as embodying a similar threat of alternative governance and insurgency, stories of their theatrical and stubborn communities add another dimension to Shakespeare's depiction of the conflict between Rome and Egypt. Above all, the theme of Antony ‘going native’ or becoming an Egyptian by associating with Cleopatra and her train, brings together the fears of conversion generated by both the ‘infidels’ and imposters associated with Eastern empires, and the lowly gypsies. Gypsies, as well as Saracens and Muslims, are commonly spoken of in terms of a disease, a pestilence, an infection, that can threaten the health of the English body, and yet both are enormously seductive to Englishmen. The powerful Muslim empires hold out the promise of trade, luxury, and sensuality for the middle-class and noble adventurer, while the gypsies are similarly attractive to vagabonds and poor English wanderers.

Finally, it is the combination of uncontrollability and changeability in the gypsy lore that can be seen to inflect Shakespeare's picture of Cleopatra. Rid opens his book on juggling with the tale of the Moon asking her mother for a garment, ‘comely and fit for her body: how can that be sweet daughter (quoth the mother) sith that your body never keeps itself at one stage, nor at one certain estate, but changeth every day in the month, nay every hour?’ The gypsies were also called ‘moon-men’; their slippery nature is also Cleopatra's. She is ‘cunning past man's thought’, a person of various moods and disguises. At the end of the play she claims to have become ‘marble-constant’ and renounces the moon as her governing deity: ‘Now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine’ (5.2.236-7). However, even this gesture can be read as supreme theatricality, an attempt to outmanoeuvre Caesar and prevent him from displacing her from Egypt:

                                                  Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varletry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be a gentle grave unto me …



Roman emperors had displayed their captives in the official triumphs, and during Shakespeare's time, European monarchs imitated this practice by recreating extravagant processions which showcased captured slaves, animals, and goods, and also displayed personifications of the territories they traded with or colonized. Given her own propensity for cross-dressing and for theatrical display, it is significant that Cleopatra is averse to the idea of being displayed by Caesar, and especially to the possibility that a Roman actor may impersonate her, or ‘boy my greatness / I'th' posture of a whore’ (5.2.216-17). The remark draws attention to the fact that throughout the play, the audience has been watching a white male actor, not an Egyptian woman or a gypsy, play the queen.

Do the racial and cultural metamorphoses that we see on the Renaissance stage, as well as in the plays, suggest a flexibility with regard to ideologies of skin colour and race in early modern culture? We need to be cautious while jumping to that conclusion. Antony and Cleopatra's focus on performance and theatricality does not suggest that all identities are simply, or equivalently performative. Rather, it draws attention to the politics of performance—who is allowed to perform? Who is allowed to represent and appropriate others? Whose performance is effective? The answers, within the play, and in the culture at large, depend upon who has social and political power.34 Whereas the poor vagabonds of England were persecuted for impersonating ‘Egyptians’, the upper classes flaunted such impersonations. In 1515 two ladies attended court with their heads rolled in gauze, tippers ‘like the Egyptians, embroidered with gold’ and their faces, necks, arms, and hands covered with black ‘pleasance’ so that they appeared to be ‘negroes or black Mores’. In 1520 eight ladies appeared at a state banquet dressed also like Egyptians.35 Among royalty and upper classes, the wearing of foreign clothes suggested their social and economic power rather than a collapse of their identity. Queen Elizabeth received Thomas Platter dressed in a white gown ‘gold-embroidered, with a whole bird of Paradise for panache, set forward on her head studded with costly jewels’.36 The rare bird was found only in the East, and England had recently staked its claim in the Moluccas. All over Europe, the upper classes borrowed Asian fabrics, designs, and patterns, and court fashions reflected the contact between Europe and these other worlds. To mention one example here, the exposing of breasts among European court ladies may have been inspired by the transparent smocks (‘bajus’) that were worn in Goa by wives and mistresses of the Portuguese.37

Court entertainments went a step further—nobility and royalty impersonated gypsies, the Irish, Asians, and Africans, but the disguises were often dismantled at the end. Jonson's masque The Gypsies Metamorphosed in which several noblemen shed their disguises as gypsies was a favourite with King James. We have already mentioned The Masque of Blackness and The Masque of Beauty in which Queen Anne and her ladies blacked up as ‘Mores’ but were magically transformed to whiteness at the end. Such impersonations and cross-dressing, by controlling the terms and direction in which identities were ‘exchanged’, were reassuring in the context of pervasive fears that Englishmen would go ‘native’ or lose their identities overseas. The Masque of Gypsies was published in 1621; the very next year, Lord Keeper Williams asked the Justices of Berkshire to enforce the laws against the ‘whole troupe of rogues, beggars, Egyptians and idle persons’ in that county.38 An ideology which does not pathologize racial difference may be less pernicious than one which does, but that does not necessarily make the former either benign or ideologically flexible. The supposed fluidity of dark-skin colour that we see in the court masques works to reinforce the ultimate power of whiteness over it. Moreover, these theatrical scenarios of assimilation do not reflect an actual openness in the culture at large. Official legislation throwing out Jews, gypsies, and blacks reflects a fear of contamination; at a more popular level too there is a distrust of foreigners and outsiders. The contemporary diatribes against cross-dressing, against actors, as well as against Englishmen ‘turning Turk’, show that at least one section of the population feared, rather than embraced or celebrated, fluidity.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony's fatal attraction to Cleopatra speaks to contemporary English fears about the erosion of racial identity and masculinity. But the play offers no reassuring scenario of a foreign queen's assimilation. Cleopatra's love for Antony does not mean that she will submit to Rome. She plays with different personas to control Antony as well as to negotiate with Casear; in the end, she becomes both the goddess Isis, with an asp at her breast, as well as Antony's Roman wife. These images are contradictory, but Cleopatra inhabits them both. Cleopatra's ‘Egyptian’ self is constructed both by her and by the Romans; it is an essential aspect of the political struggle between the imperial power and its would-be colony. Cleopatra plays the Egyptian flamboyantly, thus appropriating, and flaunting the difference that Rome assigns to her. She knows that performance is a sign of power—she must impersonate whom she wants but no one else must be allowed to represent her. Once she has lost political power, and knows she will no longer be able to control the terms of the performance, she stages her suicide, the last performance she can script. Similarly, the extent to which Antony ‘goes native’ or remains a ‘Roman’ is determined by his need to gain a foothold in Egypt, a place from which he can assert himself against Caesar. His oscillations are controlled by Cleopatra on the one hand, and Caesar on the other because his position in Egypt depends upon the former, and in Rome upon the latter.

Thus the play suggests that to be an Egyptian or a Roman is to play certain roles which are defined by their difference from one another. But this does not mean that these roles can just be chosen at will, put on and discarded when one likes. Rather, they are shaped by long histories as well as political and cultural antagonisms. Individuals give these roles their particular meanings and force, but do not entirely control them. By showing us how identities which we call ethnic, or cultural or racial are fluid and yet not, for that reason, easy to manipulate, Antony and Cleopatra captures the contradiction that lies at the heart of race.


  1. ‘Introduction’, in Michael Neill (ed.), Antony and Cleopatra (Oxford, 1994), 87.

  2. Peter Heylyn, Microcosmus or A little description of the whole world (Oxford, 1621), 387.

  3. See G. K. Hunter, ‘Elizabethans and Foreigners’, in Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and Race (Cambridge, 2000), 62-3 n. 101.

  4. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra, Histories, Dreams, Distortions (London, 1990), 15, 99-100.

  5. Karl H. Dannenfeldt, ‘Egypt and Egyptians in the Renaissance’, Studies in the Renaissance, 6 (1959), 7-27, 2-21.

  6. Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa, ed. Robert Brown (New York, 1906), 856.

  7. Henry Blount, A Voyage into the Levant (London 1638), 51-2. See also Geraldo U. de Sousa, Shakespeare's Cross-Cultural Encounters (London, 1999), 131.

  8. Quoted James A. McPeek, The Black Book of Knaves and Unthrifts (Storres, Conn., 1969), 255.

  9. Florus, quoted by Christopher Pelling, ‘“Anything truth can do, we can do better”: the Cleopatra legend’, in Susan Walker and Peter Higgs (eds.), Cleopatra of Egypt, from History to Myth (London, 2001), 300.

  10. The Aeneid of Virgil, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1987), 202.

  11. Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), 43, 57.

  12. Andre Gunder Frank, Re-Orient, Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley, 1998).

  13. Herodotus: the Histories is quoted and its influence on subsequent representations of Egypt is discussed by de Sousa, Shakespeare's Cross-Cultural Encounters, 130-1.

  14. Joannes Boemus, The Fardle of Facions (1555) (Amsterdam, 1970), chap. B C7v.

  15. John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphoses, Man Transformed: or the Artificial Changeling (London, 1653), 317-18.

  16. ‘Enforcing Statutes and orders for Apparel’, in P. L. Hughes and J. F. Larkin (eds.), Tudor Royal Proclamations, iii (New Haven, 1969), 3.

  17. Hic Mulier; or the Man-Woman, in Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. Mcmanus (eds.), Half Humankind (Urbana, Ill., 1985), 265.

  18. The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford, Calif., 1965), 791; second emphasis added.

  19. John Knox, The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (Geneva, 1558), 13r.

  20. See Heather James, Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics and the Translation of Empire (Cambridge, 1997), 18-20.

  21. See pp. 61-2.

  22. Kim Hall, ‘Sexual Politics and Cultural identity in The Masque of Blackness’, in Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (eds.), The Performance of Power (Iowa City, 1991), 14-15.

  23. George Pettie, A Petite Pallace (London, 1590), 61.

  24. Robert Greene, Ciceronis Amor (London, 1589), 26-7.

  25. I am indebted to various critics who have commented on the connection between gypsies and Egyptians, particularly McPeek, The Black Book, 252-86; Charles Whitney, ‘Charmian's Laughter: Women, Gypsies and Festive Ambivalence in Antony and Cleopatra’, The Upstart Crow, 14 (1994), 67-88, and de Sousa, Shakespeare's Cross-Cultural Encounters, ch. 5.

  26. John Cowell, The Interpreter, or Book Containing the Signification of Words (Cambridge, 1607) Bb1r-v, also quoted de Sousa, Shakespeare's Cross-Cultural Encounters, 143.

  27. John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes (London, 1598); The Complete Essays of Montaigne, 40.

  28. Thomas Dekker, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, in Arthur F. Kinney (ed.) Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars (Amherst, Mass., 1990), 243.

  29. H. T. Crofton, ‘Early Annals of the Gypsies in England’, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 1: 1 (July 1889), 6.

  30. Samuel Rid, The Art of Juggling (Amsterdam and Norwood, NJ, 1974), B2r.

  31. Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, quoted by McPeek, The Black Book, 275.

  32. 5 Elizabeth C.20 (1652), in Danby Pickering (ed.), The Statutes at Large (Cambridge, 1763), 211.

  33. The official report of the Yorkshire Quarter Sessions is quoted by McPeek, The Black Book, 264.

  34. See also Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare Without Women, Repesenting Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage (London, 2000).

  35. Edward Hall, Chronicles, quoted by McPeek, The Black Book, 257.

  36. Thomas Platter's Travels in England (London, 1937), 192.

  37. Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe vol. ii, bk. 1 (Chicago, 1970), 102.

  38. Crofton, ‘Early Annals’, 23.

Arthur Lindley (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5159

SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Antony, Cleopatra, the Market, and the End(s) of History.” In Shakespeare Matters: History, Teaching, Performance, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 62-73. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Lindley argues that Antony and Cleopatra associates Octavius with the centralization and monopolization of trade—that it shows he wants, in effect, to be the sole proprietor of the world, fixing the value of every commodity, including time. By contrast, the critic suggests, Cleopatra is linked not only with the festivity and unrestraint of carnival but also with the idea of free trade, for she believes that the value of commodities, even sexual love, is negotiable and constantly changing.]

Commerce is the dirty secret of Bakhtin's theory of carnival. Throughout his definitive (if fictive) account in the first chapter of Rabelais and His World and elsewhere, he marginalizes what in practice is as inescapably central to carnival as is its hostility to outsiders: the normal activities of the marketplace and its inhabitants. Carnival is the festivity of the market, after all, and its celebration of change, its projection of values as negotiable and identities as reversible, as well as its reduction of life to appetite and everything spiritual or abstract to the material bodily level, all reflect its origins. A ruthlessly successful character, who happens to run a gaudy restaurant described as a “carnival,” in the 1996 film Big Night puts these shared principles simply when he says, “I'm a businessman. I'm anything I need to be at any time.” Octavius—or Rabelais—could not have put it better. A process of ironic marginalization of embarrassingly monetary valves takes place in Antony and Cleopatra, as it does in Bakhtin. Business is Rome's and Egypt's dirty secret. An important part of the business of Shakespeare's play is to publish that secret.1

The world of Antony and Cleopatra is a world of barter in which relations are customarily transactional and temporary. That fundamental but seldom acknowledged point shapes the presentation of time in a time-obsessed text. The difference between Rome and Egypt is not simply between business and pleasure, as is often assumed, but between two different kinds of business (and, for that matter, two different kinds of pleasure). One society trades in honor and hoarded treasure, the other “trade[s] in love,” as Egypt says of herself (2.5.2). Caesar, as Pompey notes, “gets money where / He loses hearts” (2.1.13-14). One culture saves, the other lavishes. Rome is associated with the newly emergent, increasingly centralized state of Shakespeare's England and with its business culture of purchased monopolies and joint-stock companies; Egypt with the traditional marketplace of independent small traders that is also, for Shakespeare as well as Bakhtin, the place of carnival. Octavius is proleptically identified with corporate ruthlessness, just as the bountiful Antony, Egypt's reluctant patron, is identified with a dying tradition of aristocratic largesse. What kills Enobarbus, of course, is Antony's sending of his treasure after him, a gift that reminds its victim of the difference between the two systems.

The train of Roman history runs on the clock-time of bureaucratic order and speeds toward an illusory millennium of monopoly and stasis, Caesar's “time of universal peace” (4.6.4). Egypt embodies and survives in the fluid time of a world of constant transaction that resists closure—the freedom of a market whose purpose is, after all, the indefinite perpetuation of trade—and for which Octavius's peace is death. One order hates flux; the other celebrates it. That means that the Roman order of Octavius is at war with the very nature of time in the fallen, mutable world and tries, like Bakhtin's official order, to defeat it by imposing the illusion of changeless stability. Octavius, an early version of Francis Fukuyama, aims at nothing less than the end of history. Egypt is immersed in mutability, in the ever-vanishing present that it can transcend only by rejecting the source of its vitality to become marble-cold and constant. Both orders attempt to escape the flux of fallen time in ways whose religious and metaphysical dimensions are often noted, but whose commercial bases have been largely ignored. Cleopatra embodies the vitality of the open market, Octavius the principle of monopoly and its agricultural extension, enclosure, which threatens that vitality in the name of order and an aristocratic superiority to trade.

As The Merchant of Venice reminds us, there is nothing anachronistic about referring to Shakespeare's interest in the market. The opposition of Rome and Egypt in this play is deeply rooted in the economic and social context of Shakespeare's time. Sixty years ago, L. C. Knights taught us the cultural and literary importance of the proliferation of monopolies in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.2 One particular form those monopolies took, of course, were joint-stock companies for exploration and trade such as the East India Company and the Levant Company, those precursors of empire. In his recent, magisterial study of the economic history of the period, Merchants and Revolution, Robert Brenner traces the rise to commercial and political power of these new merchants, their displacement of the older merchant adventurers, and the pervasive restraints of trade that accompanied the process, since “a free and open trade posed real dangers” for these merchants.3 The new monopolists were consistently supported by the monarchy since, as Brenner says, “a prosperous merchant community could offer an unrivaled source of financial support.”4 The monopolies—the commercial version of agricultural enclosure—were widely and correctly seen as threats both to free trade and what we would call consumer rights. They were also linked to two other prominent features of the period: the centralization and expansion of the state's revenue operations under Thomas Gresham and the proliferation of spies—who provided commercial information as much as or more than military information—under Francis Walsingham.5 Overseas ventures and spying, both internal and external, are, as we know, defining features of Octavius's Rome. Shakespeare thus represents the opposition between Rome and Egypt as one between independent traders, in either the marketplace or the exchange, and the arch-monopolist and encloser Octavius, whom Thidias calls the “universal landlord” (3.13.72). That conflict, as one might expect, is represented as one between carnival and Lent.

One need not, of course, assume that all these references are equally explicit, let alone that Shakespeare would have expected his audience to look at Cleopatra and think, “Ah, yes, free enterprise!” The closing of markets and fields, however, was very much a live issue at the time of the play: enclosure at the hands of local versions of Octavius produced riots in Kent in 1596 and a “rising” in the Midlands in 1607, close to the date of Antony and Cleopatra.6 Brenner further notes that the expansion of the Levant Company's monopoly in 1589 and 1590 “provoked substantial protests from merchant outsiders,” an old order fighting a losing battle against its successor.7 It does seem, in this regard, that the identification of the aging Antony with a myth of old-aristocratic generosity and the boy Caesar with the cost-accounting “new men,” like those of the East India and Levant Companies as well as their friends in government, is quite explicit and is spelled out in such parallel scenes as act 4, scenes 1 and 2, in which the two leaders—one coldly calculating, the other (at least in manner) generous—deal with their troops before battle.8 As is usually noted, Antony contrasts his old-fashioned mode of fighting with the strategic-planning style of Octavius, who “dealt on lieutenantry, and no practice had / In the brave squares of war” (3.2.39-40). That contrast has a commercial analogue, however, as well as a carnivalesque one.

Cleopatra's association with the carnivalesque is similarly explicit. In a sense, her association with the free market is the implicit product of imagining an opposite to Caesar's quite explicit drive toward global monopoly. The language of commerce in the play, however, is subversive and marginal, since it demystifies the processes of power. It emerges explicitly in the language of losers, such as Pompey, and subordinates, such as Enobarbus and Agrippa; it emerges only inadvertently in the language of the leaders. Its importance is thus registered by its very suppression, as when Octavius denies being a merchant, a charge no one has made (5.2.178-79). In the world of this play the leaders, such as Antony, talk reason of state while stealing another's house. In such a case, it is the man (such as Pompey) whose house has been stolen who is most likely to say what is really going on.

Cleopatra's carnival nature is directly related to the marketplace, the traditional site of carnival, where Antony sits “enthroned” (2.2.221), waiting for his first meeting with her, and where—arrayed in the colors of money—they 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, Antony and Cleopatra's affair is played out as public spectacle, available for promiscuous observation and participation, both royal and common. Enobarbus “saw her once / Hop forty paces through the public street” (2.2.234-35). When the lovers abandon Caesar's ambassadors to “wander through the streets, and note / The qualities of people” (1.1.55-56), they also make themselves available to be noted, both spectators and spectacle, as participants in carnival are supposed to be. As Julian Markels writes, “Cleopatra and the public street are ornaments to each other, and they measure each other's value.”9

Carnivalesque Cleopatra is linked to the earth and the time-sense appropriate to it. Identified with birth and decay, the cycles of the Nile, “she represents,” as Andrew Fichter puts it, “the unbroken circle of appetitive nature.”10 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” (1.5.28-29)—in Elizabethan eyes at least, a grotesque.11 A figure of such extreme and pervasive sexual voracity that Romans habitually regard her as debilitating, she figures, like the Wife of Bath, as sexual appetite abnormally prolonged as well as heightened, a summer with no winter in it or to it. She is also, at various times, a shrew, a virago, an ostentatious and self-glorifying liar, a beater of servants and browbeater of lovers, in short, a crowned version of the husband-tormenting wife at whom skimmington rituals were directed: “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.”12

While she may be “stigmatized” by this identification, as Tennenhouse argues, 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.”13 Cleopatra, of course, gives birth to a new, sexualized Antony in the process of subverting the military, Roman 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.”14 Egypt everywhere acts out that basic trope of carnivalesque subversion, women on top. Cleopatra “angles,” Antony is the fish (2.5.10-14); she drinks him to bed and wears his “sword Philippan” (2.5.21-23). In the most fundamental dynamic of the play, carnivalesque femininity confronts masculine officialdom in the person of Octavius or his various lieutenants. That much is obvious; the entrepreneurial basis of the confrontation, to judge from the criticism, is less so.

If Cleopatra is carnival, then crabbed, parsimonious Caesar, who typically regards feasting his victorious army as “waste” (4.1.16), is a Lenten representative of the plutocratic new lords of Jacobean England.15 She is, of course, everywhere identified with feasting, a trope Clare Kinney neatly calls “Cleopatra the Comestible.”16 It is her “lascivious wassails” from which Caesar pretends to call Antony back to business (1.4.55-56). She is, at various times “a morsel for a monarch” (1.5.31), an “Egyptian dish” (2.6.123), “a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar's trencher” (3.13.117-18), even (in her youth) a green salad, and finally, of course, “a dish for the gods” (5.2.265-66). She is not only the purveyor of feasts, but also Feast itself, the literary descendent of Rabelais's Gargamelle as much as Venus. Breakfast at her house is “eight wild boars, roasted whole” (2.2.186) for twelve people. By contrast, when Octavius wants to praise the former Antony, he seizes on the most antifestive kind of feasting: drinking “the stale of horses” and eating “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, an attitude also expressed in his desire to “possess” the time rather than enjoy it (2.7.95). For Caesar, privation is virtue; bodies, like kingdoms and moments, exist to be conquered. Lenten in his youth, by contrast, Antony has become carnivalesque in middle age, a testament to Cleopatra's powers of regeneration.

Cleopatra's liquidity is also that of the market as well as the Nile. When Enobarbus says that “custom” cannot “stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41), he clearly means the business sense of “patronage” as well as the familiar sense of “habit.” After “gipsy,” “strumpet” is the first and most frequent term of Roman abuse thrown at her (see 1.1.13), women who sell themselves being, of course, a threat to men such as Octavius, who wish to sell them.17 She “trade[s] in love” (2.5.2), and not merely by getting armies in return for her favors. (Sleeping with generals is, after all, Egypt's defense policy.) At their first meeting, as Enobarbus describes it, Antony “for his ordinary”—that is, his board—“pays his heart / For what his eyes eat only” (2.2.231-32). 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. That commodity is obtained by what we might call the negotiability of her character. Her moods are determined by the market: “If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing” (1.3.3-4). 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 customer.

At the same time, however, Cleopatra is the restaurateur as well as the meal. Octavia is only a commodity, however mystified, traded by males; Cleopatra is an entrepreneur. This agency conjures up the possibility of a world, outside Rome, where women operate independently. It also makes Cleopatra and carnival the embodiments of a free market of private traders. As his rivals find, Octavius aims for monopoly. In his new world order, values will be fixed because there will be only one purchaser: the sole surviving “factor for the gods” (2.6.10).18 His empire is a vast enclosure movement, driven, like enclosure, to maximize profit and control by eliminating subdivision until there is only a single “universal landlord.” By the end of the play, he can assert that “Caesar's no merchant, to make prize with [Cleopatra] / Of things that merchants sold” (5.2.179-80): an assertion of aristocratic superiority to the market that actually declares the market closed. His snobbery is directed not at commerce but at competition. The “sole sir o' th' world,” as she calls him (5.2.116), no longer needs to bargain. In effect, the plutocrat retires to his mansion and, like Ben Jonson's usurer in “The Praises of a Countrie-Life,” curses trade. Throughout the play, Caesar plays to end “play,” in both the carnival and market senses. Cleopatra gives Charmian leave to “play till doomsday” (5.2.227), but Caesar's advancing troops guarantee that doomsday comes a few moments later. Cleopatra bids, Octavius forecloses.

Cleopatra assumes that all relationships are functions of desire; Octavius assumes that they are functions of control. Her appetitive world is comic because it asserts that all desires (hence, all relationships) are renewable. Nothing really ends, nothing dies. 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. (Always selling the image of gratification and the promise of ownership, Cleopatra is an opportunity for venture capitalism, making promises not unlike those Drake made to his investors: vague but immense profits for a moment's investment. As with Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, the risks involved are associated with the uncertainties of the sea.) No value is fixed, nothing truly limited. Any emotional deal can be restructured. He who is sunk today can be refloated tomorrow, as the dead Antony rises in her imagination, bestriding the ocean, kissing Iras in a meadow in Hades. By contrast, Caesar insists on finality because his drive for control can only be fulfilled in universal stasis, to which both Cleopatra and the free 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 Antony's retreat than she expects her feigned death to cause his real one. Death in the carnivalesque, of course, only exists to occasion renewal, as bankruptcy is an aberration of the market, not its norm. 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. Her theatrical multiplicity functions throughout the play, of course, as a means of resisting possession and control—and eternity is, after all, the ultimate form of deferral. The play's notorious generic instability is a direct function of Cleopatra's insistence—beyond death—on the commercial, comic, and carnivalesque.19

The Roman sense of time, by contrast, is defined, like the Roman sense of identity, by both purpose and closure. Romans deal with mutability by organizing it into a single big, necessarily Roman, story, whose outline is the progressive emergence of order out of chaos.20 Time, as Octavius sees it (and his view prevails by the elimination of other views), hastens toward its end in “the time of universal peace.”21 That process he, of course, construes as a kind of manifest destiny, characteristically impersonal. “I must perforce / Have shown to thee such a declining day, / Or look on thine,” he says to the deceased Antony, “we could not stall together” (5.1.37-39). History or nature or market forces did it, not him. This (cover) story confers not only the retrospective sense of inevitability that stories customarily provide but a prospective one, since the story is known before it is completed. Time is mapped, plotted, foreknown. Since Shakespeare shows us the construction of this myth, it will appear to us rather as public relations: the version Octavius will tell to his followers in his tent after act 5, scene 1: not destiny but the calculated illusion of it. Like all of Rome's claims to solidity and dignity, this one is ludicrously false.

Even Romans who see that story as a mystification (such as the skeptical soldiers who watch Caesar's reaction to Antony's death) accede to it because it imposes a form on the chaos of experience. As Janet Adelman and others have shown, Roman rulers habitually equate flux with decay and death, and both with the shifty, unorganized populace they rule: “this common body, / Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, / Goes to, and back … / To rot itself with motion” (1.4.44-47).22 That is Octavius's view but it echoes Antony's earlier references to “our slippery people” (1.2.169-79). In the mythology of both leaders there is an essential Rome that coexists with the real one: the Rome of fortune, accident, and politic schemes. Octavius will rescue this ideal from the real. Rome, like the dying Cleopatra, will become marble-cold and constant. It will become its own monument, its own tomb.

Roman identity is centrally a matter of earning “a place i' [this] story” (3.13.45), as Enobarbus puts it before losing his place. Having a place in the story does indeed give one an identity, but only one, and it is necessarily built on denial. When one admits other possibilities, as Antony has done, one begins to wander into the other potential stories that surround him, the comedies of angling and cross-dressing that are Cleopatra's chosen narratives. One will eventually, if unknowningly, find oneself in the much greater dream-narrative of Cleopatra's “Emperor Antony” and one's afterlife together. Enobarbus's barge speech both describes this temptation (Antony being drawn into Cleopatra's performance), but enacts it (in the narrator's bemused fascination), and creates it (in the salacious dreaminess of Agrippa's and Maecenas's response). The speech, of course, describes the dissolution of the Roman general into the gawking tourist on his way to becoming the lover, heroic and besotted, of what is—whether he likes it or not—his defining other. To wander from one's single, self-defined story is to re-enter the flux from which the story was supposed to rescue him. It is to re-enter time and become the “cloud that's dragonish” (4.15.2).23 In commercial terms, it is to be renegotiated.

As we all know, when Antony advises Caesar to “be a child o' th' time,” Octavius gives the perfect Roman answer, “Possess it” (2.7.94-95). Here, Caesar is treating time not merely as a commodity to be owned, as is usually noted, but as space to be colonized. “Time” roughly equals “Egypt,” the nation or the person. If Octavius ever did decide to seize the day, he would send in the army first and then appoint a governor. To possess the time, in his sense, is to control it from a viewpoint outside it in a kind of virtual timelessness and thus to achieve a kind of imaginary immortality. He who possesses time is not subject to it. Ruling over his (also imaginary) time of universal peace, why should Octavius ever die? (What doesn't change, doesn't die.) On the other hand, children of the time, as Antony will soon demonstrate, have much celerity in dying. To possess the time, however, is inherently alienating: an attempt to live outside the medium in which one exists, dolphinlike. Caesar is to life what the chair of the Federal Reserve is to the American stock market: he stands outside the play, cautioning against irrational exuberance. Romans typically view time as history, as extension and therefore as conquerable space. Concentrating on the past and the future—which is necessarily where stories exist, since the present instant can never itself be a story—they are always inclined to miss the now. Antony, whistling in the marketplace, misses the show Cleopatra has prepared for him and which has to be expended on Enobarbus and his future audience. When at the start of the play Antony wishes to let “Rome in Tiber melt” (1.1.35), he is seeking escape from just this historical, longitudinal sense. The stones of Roman tradition will melt in some apocalyptic future, taking all Roman stories with them, and leaving Antony in the “space” of the present moment where he embraces Cleopatra (1.1.36). Egyptian time, which Antony is attempting to enter, is immersive: one swims in it like the dolphin to which Cleopatra will compare Antony (5.2.88). One possesses it by letting it possess oneself. Gaining the present, one tends to lose past and future. In the mercantile terms with which we started, the past too is constantly renegotiable—Julius Caesar's memory can be displaced by Antony's; both can, nay will, be endlessly rewritten—and the future can be deferred indefinitely. Of course, since Antony remains a Roman, the present moment of act 1, scene 1 must also be conquerable space and a rival empire. But it is an empire whose extension can be no more than the moment required to announce it; in the next instant the “nobleness of life” (1.1.38) turns to wrangling or wandering the streets.

Antony, Octavius, Cleopatra, and Enobarbus share a common purpose: to rescue an identity from the flux, especially by creating a heroic other—Antony as past hero or defeated rival or godlike lover or master—against which to define the heroic self. The Roman sense of identity requires complete control in order to impose complete fixity. Thus it can only be fulfilled in suicide, the ultimate self-defining and self-terminating act, which “shackles accident and bolts up change” (5.2.6), and which is the logical end of the Roman myth of the single defining act, like Enobarbus's betrayal, which defines one's place in the story. Antony makes his wars for Cleopatra, but makes his suicide to fix his own identity as a “Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (4.16.59-60). That Roman is himself, of course; he has written even Cleopatra's agency out of his death to create a closed circle of self-definition in which he is killer, victim, and historian. And, of course, it doesn't work. Antony's memory goes on being rewritten into Cleopatra's myth and appropriated by Caesar, who will bury Antony as a lover—thus erasing the political rival—and as a further proof of “his glory which / Brought them to be lamented” (5.2.352-53). Linda Charnes appropriately refers to Caesar in this final role as “the venture capitalist of notorious identity, the Merchant of Legend.”24

In this play, all roads lead to death. The choice is to melt like an Egyptian or freeze like a Roman. The Egyptian way has, of course, the advantage of not being at war with the condition of life in time, the continuously fluctuating market of desire. It is also not inherently absurd as the Roman attempt to put a stop to mutability is. As “our terrene moon” (3.13.156), Cleopatra, the goddess and not the mere emperor of this world, possesses time more effectively than Caesar: it will slow down, speed up, even pause with her desires. But it won't stay; Egypt loses the present as surely as Rome does. The Egyptian road offers the joy of play and the wealth of protean multiplicity, but it declares its own inadequacy by Cleopatra's attempts to become marble-cold and constant. The inadequacy of Caesar's way is registered not only by the cold knowing in apartness with which he attempts to rule the sublunary world, but also by the vast joke that enfolds his enterprises. He is, after all, God's fool as well as Fortune's knave, building his empire as the necessary stage for that great birth adumbrated by the play's many foreshadowings and biblical echoes. The next “Eastern star”—or “star in the east”—will announce the only agency capable of offering a way out of the deathward flux of the play's Augustinian world: the only love capable of defeating time and closing the market of desire.


  1. See M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984), 1-58. Big Night. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci. 104 min. Columbia/Tristan, 1996.

  2. L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936), 1-173.

  3. Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 64. For an outline of the basic process, see pp. 3-23. Without trying to force allegory on the play, I would suggest that the contention between old and new monopolists is eerily suggestive of the contention of the world sharers in Antony and Cleopatra, with Pompey and the Egyptians filling the role of the outside traders. However, if Shakespeare needed a model for the power struggle in Rome, he had a very public, important one available in the commercial life of London in his time.

  4. Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, 54.

  5. For a particularly vivid account of Walsingham, the employer of (among others) Christopher Marlowe, see Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992), especially 102-13; on Gresham, see Knights, Drama and Society, 42-45.

  6. See Alan G. R. Smith, The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England, 1529-1660 (London and New York: Longmans, 1984), 192-93.

  7. Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, 64.

  8. On Antony's and Pompey's association with feudal nobility, see Paul Yachnin, “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” Renaissance and Reformation 15 (1981): 1-20.

  9. Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World: “Antony and Cleopatra” in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1968), 45. I discuss Egypt's carnivalization of Rome in chapter 6 of my book Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse (Newark, Del., and London: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1996).

  10. Andrew Fichter, “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The Time of Universal Peace,’” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 103.

  11. “A brow of Egypt” is, of course, Theseus's antithesis to “Helen's beauty” in A Midsummer Night's Dream (5.1.11).

  12. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York and London: Methuen, 1986), 143.

  13. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 274.

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

  15. Shakespeare has heightened the contrast by omitting Plutarch's testimony to the historical Octavius's affability and fondness for plays and women. For a summary of the changes made to Caesar's character, see Vivian Thomas, Shakespeare's Roman World (London: Routledge, 1989), 102-3.

  16. 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, Mass.: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 177.

  17. The correct term would be “huckster,” the Middle English word, surviving in its gendered form at least into the late sixteenth century, for a female retailer of food and drink. See Eileen Power, Medieval Women, ed. by M. M. Postan (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), 54. The type survived, of course, in the form of Cleopatra's Henrician counterpart, Mrs. Quickly.

  18. Pompey's “Factors” clearly means “purchasing agents,” its common seventeenth-century meaning, not just “agents,” as the word is often glossed.

  19. For an excellent discussion of the conflict between Egyptian comedy and Roman tragedy, see Barbara Vincent, “Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and the Rise of Comedy,” English Literary Renaissance 12 (1982): 53-86. Vincent is not concerned, however, with market or carnival.

  20. On the Roman devotion to linear narrative, see Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 103-47, especially pp. 106-8. On Rome and the play's reaction to a world of “universal mutability,” see Geoffrey Miles, Shakespeare and the Constant Romans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 169-88.

  21. Roman references to the speed of events and the pressure of the times are, of course, innumerable, like the rush of messengers bringing news. On messengers and their significance, see Charnes, Notorious Identity.

  22. See Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), especially 151-57 and Susan Snyder, “Patterns of Motion in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 113-22.

  23. Allyson Newton, “‘At the Very Heart of Loss’: Shakespeare's Enobarbus and the Rhetoric of Remembering,” in Renaissance Papers 1995, ed. George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Baines (Raleigh, N.C.: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1995), 81-91, remarks on how Enobarbus, like Antony, “feels the pull of his attraction to Cleopatra drawing him from ‘firm security’ toward the fearful ‘gaps’ in time and nature that she inhabits” (85).

  24. Charnes, Notorious Identity, 146.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 3 August 1999)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Rylance's Cleopatra Fails to Match His Female Peers.” Financial Times (3 August 1999): 14.

[In the following review of Giles Block's 1999 production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe, Macaulay commends Mark Rylance's performance as Cleopatra for its liveliness and spontaneity. Although the critic lauds Block's movement of the host of characters around the stage, he laments what he sees as the lack of any new perspective on the play itself.]

Well, OK. The new production at Shakespeare's Globe of Antony and Cleopatra—with the much-anticipated casting of Mark Rylance as Cleopatra—really does have its merits. Not only is the Egyptian queen the best role that Rylance has yet given the Globe audience, but more importantly, Giles Block's staging comes nearer than anything hitherto to managing to make that audience take Shakespeare seriously.

You wonder in advance, of course, if Rylance will be either too effeminate in Shakespeare's greatest female role, or too butch. In the event, he is neither. Straightaway, it proves easy to accept the “travesty” convention of man-as-woman. And, by speaking the whole role with a bright tenor delivery, he makes his voice—a wonderfully expressive instrument, but so much better suited to closed auditoria than to this open space—project more successfully than it has in any male role at the Globe. His Cleopatra is sportive, merry, in most of the early scenes; and even as she/he faces defeat and death, she/he is always spontaneous, bright.

Block's production is effective simply because—the pun is unavoidable—he has blocked the action decently and has made his actors stand well. And so the geometries of the theatrical action beam easily outwards into the larger geometries—into the canopied cube of stage space and into the open-topped cylinder of the auditorium. After the fidgety nightmare of Rylance's own production of Julius Caesar this season, this Antony comes as a welcome relief, relatively speaking.

Relatively speaking, however, there is nothing in this Antony and Cleopatra that casts serious new light on to the play. Rylance is better than a few female Cleopatras I have seen, but when I compare him to the greatest Cleopatras of my experience—to Judi Dench, to Vanessa Redgrave, or (this season at Stratford-upon-Avon) to Frances de la Tour—he seems limited, lightweight. You buy Rylance as a woman, but in the way that you buy tall, healthy-looking women playing the fragile heroines of opera. (With his long wig, strong neck, and powerfully cut bodice, he really does resemble Joan Sutherland.)

Block's production, dressed along Jacobean lines by Jenny Tirameni, works, but only in a basic and old-fashioned sense. Half the time it feels like a very good example of boys'-school Shakespeare, the other half like decent old-fashioned rep. Paul Shelley is an efficient but uncompelling Antony: in fact, in the larger scenes I kept thinking “Where's Antony?” (Neither he nor anyone else can show us how to wear a Jacobean hat with any kind of theatrical eloquence.) John McEnery, with his clearcut voice and wry manner, is a fair Enobarbus. Octavia is the first female role at the Globe that Toby Cockerell has not played well (a coarsely assertive reading), but he plays several other roles and strikes wordless magic as a boy with a flag in Antony's army.

The crude vocal styles of Mark Lewis Jones, Benedict Wong, and several other Globe players continue to offend. And why bother with Jacobean costume when your acting ensemble plays in a range of American, Welsh, English, and Oriental accents?

To say that the audience paid more serious attention to this Globe production is also only relatively speaking. During one of my favourite speeches, Antony's “Now we see a cloud that's dragonish”, one of the standees dropped and kicked an empty beer can, two men began a conversation in Spanish, and someone in the galleries let a mobile phone ring for 12 full rings before answering it. The Globe is the brainchild of Sam Wanamaker—but now, alas, he must be rolling in his grave.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 6 August 1999)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Caught in the Coils of Old Nile.” Times Literary Supplement (6 August 1999): 18.

[In the following excerpt, Duncan-Jones comments on two productions of Antony and Cleopatra. She expresses disappointment in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1999 staging for its lack of connection to the play's dramatization of important historical events; she also faults Frances de la Tour's lack of charisma in playing Cleopatra, but commends Guy Henry for the depth of his performance in the role of Octavius Caesar. By comparison, Duncan-Jones praises Giles Block's 1999 production of the play at the Globe—which featured male actors in every role—for its rapid pace as well as Mark Rylance's portrayal of Cleopatra.]

Hearing the news of Antony's death, his rival and brother-in-law Octavius Caesar exclaims: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack. The round world / Should have shook lions into civil streets / And citizens to their dens.”

The RSC's Antony and Cleopatra, too, should have made a greater crack. For all its noise and visual busyness, Stephen Pimlott's production feels disappointingly empty and meaningless. Instead of suggesting that “High events as these / Strike those that make them”, Yolanda Sonnabend's vast set, with three outsize perspex panels which mirror and diminish what is acted out in the Shakespeare Theatre's newly extended “round world”, makes the play's bustle seem even more vacuous. Rear-view reflections of characters in deeply receding perspective could act only as ironic comments on their aspirations to greatness if they had appeared great in the first place. Whole areas of significance which one would have thought integral to the play are thrown away in the service of the RSC's increasingly irritating “eclectic” visual style. Instead of re-enacting great historical encounters on the boundaries of Europe and Africa and of history and legend, the company squanders its resources in no particular time and no identifiable place.

Egypt appears to be a colourful gypsy circus encampment, in predictable contrast to the formal stuffiness of Rome, where everyone is dressed in dusty black. But the distinction between the two cultures is uninteresting and readily dissolved. Frances de La Tour's Cleopatra is always energetic, yet never in the least enchanting or mysterious. Instead of approximating to the hieratic goddess marvelled at by Enobarbus (Malcolm Storry) in the “barge” speech, she is just a bossy madam in a rather pretentious brothel who has taken up sister-bonding and New Age therapy at the end of her career. And as “for her own person”, it certainly cannot beggar all description, as Enobarbus claims, for we see virtually all of it in the first few minutes. None of the rituals of dressing and undressing that the text subsequently requires can be of much interest when we have already seen her so scantily clad and embarrassingly self-displayed.

Also, in one vital respect, this commanding actress simply cannot represent that charismatic “serpent of old Nile”; she is entirely European in physique. Given that another play in the RSC's current repertoire, Oroonoko (Times Literary Supplement, May 14), has a superb cast of sixteen black players, this would surely have been the time to do the play properly, with all the Egyptians non-white, and preferably also, as in Oroonoko, palpably non-European in voice and movement. While Shakespeare's Othello, brilliantly played this season by Ray Fearon, is a partly Europeanized Moor, who has served the Venetian State for many years, Cleopatra and her court are genuinely “exotic”. Cleopatra has never been to Rome, and is stubbornly determined to die rather than be enslaved and taken there.

Caesar's astonishment at the erotic beauty and splendour of Cleopatra and her women in death—which has to be cut, here, because of a most unfortunate gimmick requiring characters to walk meekly off-stage when they die—is the amazement of an arrogant European dazzled by the mystique of a great African queen. Deployment of the black performers currently on the RSC's payroll, with the addition of more women, could have set off some exciting interchanges of post-colonial views between the plays in this last summer season of the twentieth century. As it is, this production feels stale and pointless. It's not just the death of Antony that should have “made a greater crack” here, but his life. One can't help feeling sorry for the woefully miscast Alan Bates, whose wig tosses about like the mane of a Shetland pony. So little “presence” does he achieve that it isn't always obvious whether he is on or off stage. Caesar's fortunes are higher than Antony's throughout, for Guy Henry, despite the many absurdities of the production's style, does succeed in delivering some of that depth and historical specificity that the famous title-characters are denied. In his stillness and introspection, he effectively challenges the uninteresting and undignified writhings of the superannuated lovers. He is also lucky to be one of very few performers who is at no point required to fling himself down on the stage and point his rump at the dress circle.

Things are very different at the Globe. Here it does indeed seem that great things are being made and broken. The severe limitations imposed by the theatre's fixed playing space with no scenery, the heavily concealing Jacobean costumes, and to a lesser extent the all-male casting, all contribute paradoxically to the production's success. Such a very complex play can clearly never quite be allowed to speak for itself; some overall vision and control of performance style and pace must be a prerequisite. But while Pimlott's RSC production is undone by an excess of “ideas”, most of which run perversely counter to the text, Giles Block has mastered the play at the Globe with a light hand, and has not been afraid to let the actors entertain us. Where scenes or speeches emerge as wholly or partly comic, they are allowed to be so. Antony's bungled suicide comes across like a scene in the worst sort of minor opera, except that we are entirely free to laugh at it, which is a relief. His precarious abseiling up to the Monument is also, as it should be, a nail biting stunt—“here's sport indeed!”—whereas the episode as played in the RSC version is simply baffling. When celebrated battles have to be depicted with barely a dozen players, opposing armies clank and clatter at high speed on and off stage, sometimes also shouting and yelling off stage, with many near-collisions both with each other and with the groundlings. This generates a high level of excitement, actively assisted by the music, which is superb throughout. It's worth missing coffee in the ten-minute intervals in order to hear more of the Globe's musicians, especially the trumpeters; and the dance at the end provoked such an enthusiastic response that I wondered whether the theatre should be used sometimes for interactive early music concerts.

Fast pace and a tone that wobbles perpetually between tragedy and farce, with the odd bat's squeak of high camp, keep the play interesting and captivating throughout. Mark Rylance's Cleopatra works almost perfectly, not so much because he is male, as because he is a versatile actor who turns out to be extremely well cast in the role, which yields surprising echoes of his famous 1989 RSC Hamlet-in-pyjamas. Here is another fascinatingly manic attention-seeker who pits his/her childish egotism against the pomposity of the grown-ups. This sweet-faced, skipping Queen could easily have hopped forty paces in the public street, and her perpetual quick-witted teasing of Antony and of the un-fortunate Messenger has about it something of Hamlet's cruel wind-up of Polonius. Rylance's Cleopatra is flamboyantly regal, yet never pompous. She wears her eight colourful and ingenious costumes (designed by Jenny Tiramani) with joyful assurance, and is never swamped or upstaged by them. However, she does somewhat upstage her sombre Antony (Paul Shelley), who could have done with a comparably appealing range of outfits to identify him as a truly Herculean hero, not just a Roman also-ran. Though he delivers his lines clearly and carefully, he—like Bates—fails to convince us that he either is, or ever has been, “famous”. He also seems distinctly uncomfortable in the love scenes. Apart from Rylance's Cleopatra, the Globe production is more distinguished for its confident and relaxed ensemble playing than for individual performances. It is curious, given the theatre's structure, how rarely any of the actors make eye-contact with the audience. Certain scenes, such as that of Enobarbus's solitary heartbreak, would have been very much more powerful if they had been allowed to do so.

Ian Shuttleworth (review date 21 January 2000)

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SOURCE: Shuttleworth, Ian. “Actors Survive the Gimmicks.” Financial Times (21 January 2000): 9.

[In the following review of Stephen Pimlott's 1999 staging of Antony and Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shuttleworth describes the performances of the four principal actors as “first-rate,” but he judges the production itself to be unimaginative.]

Steven Pimlott's RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra, which has now entered the Barbican repertoire from Stratford, shows all the defects of Director's Theatre: its strengths are almost entirely those of acting, its weaknesses those of conception.

Alan Bates rumbles and shambles wonderfully as a bibulous Antony who is all too conscious that he has seen better days. So insecure is he, even about his place beside Cleopatra, that Bates's Antony not only has the messenger from Octavius whipped rather than accept his terms of surrender, but then tortures him with repeated, sadistic attentions to the stripes on his back.

Frances de la Tour is a playful, self-dramatising Cleopatra, but maturely sardonic rather than coquettish. Malcolm Storry's Enobarbus speaks with the licensed bluntness of a long-serving lieutenant, but is plainly a man even more ill-at-ease with himself than Antony. Guy Henry's Octavius begins with tedious aridity and rapidly metamorphoses into a cold, hard warrior-politician. These are all first-rate performances.

Preparing for her finale, de la Tour enters bare-faced, so to speak, and dons both formal Pharaonic make-up and golden robe, beneath which she is visibly, even ostentatiously naked. This is the culmination of a vein of imagery of the lovers as self-conscious performers … or would be its culmination if Pimlott had not directed his actors, on their characters' deaths, to rise and walk slowly off the stage—backwards, in Antony's case; the deceased Cleopatra is even walked off by Dolabella.

While the symbolism of such a final exit is intellectually understandable, it remains a device more associated with smaller, more constrained companies who need to get their actors off so that they can return in another guise. On the Barbican stage it looks faintly embarrassing.

Yolanda Sonnabend's design, too, emphasises the aspect of staginess, dominating the playing area with three huge semi-transparent mirrors. Indeed, the stage is the only real setting for any of the action; although Sonnabend has constructed galleries and visible closets for actors half-offstage, no other location is even adequately suggested. Scenes in Rome and Egypt alternate in the same space so that at one or two points one loses track of where Antony is actually supposed to be situated.

The final business of Cleopatra immured in her monument—designated, at most, by a “magic circle” of salt on the stage—is at times frankly ludicrous in its inconsistency. Pimlott seems to be demanding that we use our imaginations whilst being unwilling or unable to use his own to resolve such problems; to ask us to accept the story as theatre without paying enough attention himself to the mechanics of its theatricality.

Luckily, the central performances are all powerful enough to counterpoise this High Concept gimmickry.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 25 April 2002)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “A Stunning Queen, But Where Is the Chemistry?” Financial Times (25 April 2002): 18.

[In the following excerpt, Macaulay reviews Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Antony and Cleopatra. The critic has high praise for Sinead Cusack's representation of Cleopatra, noting the freshness of her delivery, her devotion to the language of the play, and the variations in her tone and demeanor.]

Sinead Cusack is surely the most beautiful woman I've seen playing Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and her speaking of the lines—though here the competition is yet stiffer—may well be the most beautiful I've heard. In truth, I can't quite believe in her as the Egyptian queen—in voice and looks she is, even with dark wig and glamorous raiment, so very Celtic—but she's so intelligent and skilful an actress that it's impressive how often I suspend disbelief. Shakespeare, indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company, used to be her home terrain some 20 years ago, and she returns now to both playwright and troupe with only more authority, wisdom and style than before.

How many of Cleopatra's lines she sends winging out into the air with fresh impact as both sound and sense: “Now I feed myself / With most delicious poison”, “Then is it sin / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?” and “O, such another sleep, that I might see / But such another man!” were just my three favourites.

She has vowel and syllable in ideal balance, she lightly highlights assonances and alliterations, and gorgeously she weights this word or rhythm without ever distorting the phrase. She has wit, irony, rage, grandeur, intimacy, and sorrow. When she says, preparing to die, “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life,” she has such lyricism that you hardly realise that actually she is air but not fire.

As for her beauty—even though her shoulder/neck area has a tension that does not become a Cleopatra—your eye gorges on the brightness of her eyes, the breadth of her cheekbones, the full Cupid's bow of her mouth, the glow of her skin, the sensational curves and line of her naked back.

She listens more arrestingly than most other actors speak—I remembered how Rudolf Bing wrote of Maria Callas in Il Trovatore listening to Jussi Bjorling singing his aria to her: “He didn't know what he was singing about, but she did”—and she listens in character, listens differently in fact to different characters. Her doe-eyed act of demure fealty to Caesar's envoy Thidias is exquisitely ironic to behold; her solemnly lavish display of veneration for the conquering Caesar himself is in quite a darker key, though ironic too. Now and then, as when she chases the Messenger with a dagger, she can cut fast and loose (though in general she is a little too measured). And she springs surprises—as when she does a slow backbend that reaches the floor, flips right over in the next beat, and promptly hops away, calling “Let's to billiards!”—surprises that are just right for the role.

An enthralling, illuminating performance, it isn't moving. Stuart Wilson is physically her match as Antony, but never vocally. He speaks in a tight squillo tenor with a narrow range—he stands and breathes so well that you're puzzled that this hard constricted sound comes out—and he hasn't the Shakespearian experience to make all his words sound clearly. Like her, only more so, he needs to let the role relax and breathe. And to make us believe in some serious chemistry between them. Give the production a few weeks, and this could yet occur.

Michael Attenborough's direction, Es Devlin's designs, and Paddy Cuneen's music all pull the play in several different—if glamorous—directions. Where are we? The set's big silhouette map of the Mediterranean is distracting, especially in its hazy misconception of the Aegean and Asia Minor; Roman, Egyptian, and other scenes are more confused than distinguished; and the Egyptians go in for slow jazz at home and Central African dance display abroad. It's not a bad production, but it's not a resolved one.

Clive Wood is a striking Enobarbus: so communicative, so open-hearted. But he, too, has more to find in this role: more poetry, more force, more tragedy. Trevor Martin's basso profondo Soothsayer becomes a mysterious Messenger of Death: more striking than revealing. Cusack's Cleopatra is not the most “right” piece of casting in this staging, but it sheds the most light on this great play.

Randall Jarrell called this “the supreme literary expression of our culture”, and the production does nothing so wrong that I ever question that opinion while in the theatre. If there are two questions that most obsessed Shakespeare, they are “Who is worthy to rule?” and “What does love do to us?”; and there is no play in which both questions come together more potently than Antony and Cleopatra.

Further Reading

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Barfoot, C. C. “News of the Roman Empire: Hearsay, Soothsay, Myth and History in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 105-28. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Analyzes the thematic and structural functions of the many messages, second-hand accounts, reminiscences, and self-memorializing that occur in Antony and Cleopatra. Barfoot suggests that the principal characters' reliance on other people's reports for information about each other underscores the lack of direct and trustworthy communication between them; the critic also notes that because many of these reports are distorted, the audience cannot make definitive judgments about the characters and the dramatic action.

Brown, Elizabeth A. “‘Companion Me with My Mistress’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Their Waiting Women.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, pp. 131-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Focuses on the roles that Charmian and Iras play as Cleopatra's attendants, with an emphasis on their loyalty and devotion. Brown points out that, unlike the women who provided service and companionship to England's Elizabeth I, Charmian and Iras have no political or family connections outside their queen's court, and Cleopatra's heightened dependence on them after the battle of Actium reflects her increasing isolation from the world beyond the confines of her monument.

Charnes, Linda. “Spies and Whispers: Exceeding Reputation in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, pp. 103-47. Harvard, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Addresses the issue of how the central characters in Antony and Cleopatra construct identities—their own and others'—and try to control how they will be reported in history and legend. Asserting that “narrative destiny is precisely what is at stake in this play,” Charnes argues that Octavius becomes the ultimate definer of Antony and Cleopatra when he effaces their political significance and represents their story as a tragedy of love.

Falco, Raphael. “Erotic Charisma: The Tragedies of Cleopatra.” In Charismatic Authority in Early Modern English Tragedy, pp. 169-99. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Compares the way several early modern English playwrights portrayed the personal and political magnetism of Antony and Cleopatra. In his discussion of Shakespeare's play, Falco analyzes the basis of Cleopatra's charismatic appeal, especially in terms of its subversiveness, as well as the foundation of Antony's charisma in his military feats.

Heller, Agnes. “Antony and Cleopatra.” In The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History, pp. 337-65. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Discusses the multiple personal calamities in Antony and Cleopatra and likens it to a tragic opera. Dealing principally with issues of characterization, Heller views Antony as open and honest yet lacking foresight; Cleopatra as a woman caught between her public and private roles; Octavius as a resolute, calculating Machiavellian; and Enobarbus as a cynical yet direct speaking soldier who struggles to reconcile his loyalty to Antony with his own values and self-interest.

Hiscock, Andrew. “‘Here is my Space’: The Politics of Appropriation in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.English 47, no. 189 (autumn 1998): 187-212.

Sets the conflict between alternative value systems in Antony and Cleopatra within the framework of Octavius Caesar's determination to impose Roman meaning on what he regards as Egypt's inscrutable cultural space. Hiscock contrasts Caesar's need for permanently established concepts of personal and political purposes with Cleopatra's creative, constantly changing images of herself and her kingdom.

Kermode, Frank. “Antony and Cleopatra.The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Provides an introduction to Antony and Cleopatra, contending that it is one of “Shakespeare's supreme achievements.”

Little, Jr., Arthur L. “(Re)Posing with Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice, pp. 143-76. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Examines Rome's attempt in Antony and Cleopatra to deal with the threatening otherness of Egypt by defining its queen in racially and sexually derogatory terms. Little contends that by her suicide, Cleopatra successfully challenges Rome's characterization of her as a black whore and presents herself, instead, as synonymous with Lucrece: the chaste white woman whose self-slaughter became emblematic of female virtue. The critic also offers an extensive evaluation of Enobarbus as the principal agent of the imperialist project to define Cleopatra as sexually dangerous.

Marshall, Cynthia. “Man of Steel Done Got the Blues: Melancholic Subversion of Presence in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 4 (winter 1993): 385-408.

Employs different psychoanalytic theories as bases for understanding Antony's fragmented identity and his profound sense of loss. Marshall devotes particular attention to Antony's repeated self-denigration and to his suicide, as well as to the issue of audiences' and readers' identification with him.

Nichols, Nina da Vinci. “At The Royal Shakespeare Company: Good Play Yields Poor Theater, Poor Plays Yield Good Theater.” Shakespeare Newsletter 52, no. 2 (summer 2002): 53-4.

Faults the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Antony and Cleopatra for what the critic views as its lack of grandeur and attention to the political significance of the dramatic action. In Nichols's estimation, neither Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra nor Stuart Wilson's Antony was a tragic figure.

Royster, Francesca T. “African Dreams, Egyptian Nightmares: Cleopatra and Becoming England.” In Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon, pp. 33-57. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

Relates Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra to the discourse of early modern racial theory and travel literature. Royster contends that Antony and Cleopatra's depiction of the Egyptian queen as black-skinned reflects late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English social and cultural anxieties about miscegenation.

Stanton, Kay. “The Heroic Tragedy of Cleopatra, the ‘Prostitute Queen.’” In The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, edited by Naomi Conn Liebler, pp. 93-118. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Provides a feminist critique of Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra that emphasizes her multiple associations with goddess figures in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology. Noting that drama originated in religious festivals devoted to celebrating the cycle of fertility and renewal, Stanton links Cleopatra to these female divinities—especially Isis, who, by virtue of her mystical powers, reassembled the fragmented body pieces of her lover Osiris and provided him with a new, more potent and regenerative, phallus.

Starks, Lisa S. “‘Like the lover's pinch, which hurts and is desired’: The Narrative of Male Masochism and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Literature and Psychology 45, no. 4 (1999): 58-73.

Turns to psychoanalytic theories—particularly those of Freud and Gilles Deleuze—to explicate the connection between love and death in Antony and Cleopatra. Starks relates Antony's ambivalence toward Cleopatra to the concepts of Oedipal anxieties and male masochism, and comments on the many links in this play between Egypt's queen and mythological figures.

Taylor, Paul. “Mirren's Grace Fails to Save Dud.” Independent (21 October 1998): 9.

Reviews the National Theatre's 1998 production of Antony and Cleopatra, noting that the play is a major challenge for any director who attempts to stage it. Taylor praises the work of Helen Mirren as Cleopatra and disparages Alan Rickman's attempt to recreate Antony.

Thomas, Vivian. “Realities and Imaginings in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 93-153. London: Routledge, 1989.

Provides a detailed reading of Antony and Cleopatra that focuses on Shakespeare's departure from Plutarch and on the dramatist's rewriting of history.

Walker, Julia M. “Cleopatra: The Tain of the Mirror.” In Medusa's Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self, pp. 117-57. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Assesses Shakespeare's complex portrayal of Cleopatra, with particular reference to the way other characters—particularly Antony, Octavius, and Enobarbus—observe her and see not so much a true image of a powerful queen but a reflection of themselves. Walker also offers extended discussions of Cleopatra's association with the mythical female monster Medusa; Octavius's exploitation of Antony's and Cleopatra's suicide for his own political advantage; and the parallels between Octavius's revisionist representation of Cleopatra after her death and James I's attempts to demystify the cult of his own female predecessor, Elizabeth I, and personify himself as “the new Augustus,” a uniter, not a divider, of competing cultures.


Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 81)


The Luck of Caesar: Winning and Losing in Antony and Cleopatra