Antony and Cleopatra The Luck of Caesar: Winning and Losing in Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

Rick Bowers, University of Alberta

Those critics of Antony and Cleopatra who touch on the subject of Caesar's involvement are usually brief and disparaging before moving on to consider the principal love interest or to draw cultural comparisons between Egypt and Rome. Janet Adelman calls Caesar 'the exemplar of measure' in the play, while Dipak Nandy characterizes him as 'the epitome of the Renaissance "politique" '.1 J. Leeds Barroll's lengthy characterization of Octavius reinforced the efficient but enigmatic nature of the character, while Lord David Cecil expressed guarded admiration in his study, describing Caesar as 'far-sighted, cool, self-controlled, and so single-mindedly intent on the achievement of his ambition, that nothing, neither the happiness of his sister nor a genuine feeling of pity for Antony in his fall, can turn him from it'.2 More recently David Bevington, in his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare, seems to have registered the last word on Caesar, calling him 'the voice inside the play for those male readers who cannot entertain the wholeness of Cleopatra and are threatened by the challenge she represents to a male desire for control'.3

Perhaps so. Those male readers thus described would benefit greatly from a quick perusal of an article by L.T. Fitz (better known as Linda Woodbridge), an article which Bevington cites, entitled 'Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism'.4 Caesar is clearly an unsympathetic, rank misogynist. Indeed, 'Tis paltry to be Caesar' (5.2.2) as Cleopatra claims.5 But such rejection out of hand nullifies learning anything about Caesar and his characteristic procedures, strategic procedures which, however detestable, are nonetheless effective within the play. These procedures mask personal power through civic piety, collapse military and political jurisdictions in populist fascism, subdue sensual representation, and proscriptively manipulate all opposition. Dispassionate information, plotting, and surveillance continually undermine romantic idealizations. In this essay I plan to argue that the play exploits romantic identification by inviting rejection of Caesar's attitude; and yet, at the same time, the play suggests that materialist survival is the most important single value.

Marilynn Williamson observes: 'We may never warm to Caesar (we seldom warm to effective rulers in Shakespeare), but we should not miss the fact that Shakespeare seems to have had some interest in stressing Octavius's control and responsibility'.6 Such stress reinforces sympathy with Antony and Cleopatra at the same time as it intensifies the nature of Caesar's effect: win at all costs; losers die. The play generates crucial contradictory responses wherein identification with the romance of the title couple is also slanted towards uncomfortable complicity with the mandate of Caesar. Consequently, audience response is richer and more complex than the trimly paradoxical one suggested in Bevington's introduction to the play: 'Better to be Antony and lose than to be Caesar and win'.7 Like Caesar, one might laugh at this sentimental rationalization about a story concerning power politics and personal notoriety.

Romantic critical associations, however, continue to thrive, as in the rhapsodic notions of Hélène Cixous: 'They have—from the moment Antony saw Cleopatra coming to him—abandoned the minuscule old world, the planet—the shell with its thrones and rattles, its intrigues, its wars, its rivalries, its tournaments of the phallus, so grotesquely represented by the game of penis-check played by the imperialist superpowers of the triumvirate, with the mean solemnity that makes history'.8 This, as if history is made only retrospectively by such 'tournaments' and 'superpowers' and not lived in a moment-by-moment construction of meaning. Cultural historians and materialist critics alike posit constructions of...

(The entire section is 6,197 words.)