“Antony and Cleopatra,” by William Shakespeare was written between 1599 and 1608. Cleopatra, the female protagonist, dominates the play. This play was the last of three love tragedies written; the others include “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Othello.” It is set against a backdrop of bloody political conflict from the East, represented by the Egyptians, to the West, represented by the Romans. In those days, Egypt was likened to Las Vegas, as Rome is to Washington D.C. In this play, Antony and Cleopatra avoid all soliloquies, and their motivation seems opaque―arguably, even to themselves. Antony believes marriage to Octavia will solve his political problem, but we never learn why. As well, we do not learn why Cleopatra flees at Actium, or why she negotiates with Caesar in the last act. Instead of self revelation, the play provides contradictory framing by minor figures. Therefore, “Antony and Cleopatra” is a new transitional tragedy, and the intimations of transcendence point toward the magical or supernatural resolution of the romance. This play relies on blank verse while nearly always avoiding rhyme.
“Antony and Cleopatra” covers the period from 40 to 30 B.C.E., and completes the narrative of Roman civil war and the final destruction of the Republic as the dominant military power throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Rome is ruled by Lepidus, Octavius Caesar, and Mark Antony, who governs the Mediterranean portions of Africa, Europe and Asia. The stylistic restrained of Rome’s internal political system gives way to Rome’s external imperial domains; which is represented by extravagant, hyperbolic verse in accordance with Rome’s expansive grandeur. Thus, the scene is set for heroic, legendary performances: Antony is compared to Hercules, and Antony and Cleopatra are repeatedly compared to Mars and Venus.
“Antony and Cleopatra” offers an epic view of the political arena but deprives that arena of heroic significance. Although Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar battle for political supremacy, the love formed between Antony and Cleopatra increasingly occupies center stage. The plays fascination arises from intertwining the empire and sexuality. This play elicits complicated judgments; Cleopatra routinely embodying Oriental sexual vice. Rome is contrasted to Egypt, West to East, and the conquerors to the conquered. Obviously, a sober, masculine military ethos opposes a frivolous, feminized, and sexualized court. Antony marries Octavia for political opportunism, Cleopatra provides love and sexual desire; he chooses between fidelity to a chaste yet frigid white wife, and adultery with a promiscuous “tawny” black seductress (I.i.6, I.v.28). Antony revels in extravagant generosity and challenges Caesar to combat; Caesar is a bureaucrat of the future, and Antony is a warrior of the past; Caesars concerns are public, while Antony’s are private. Antony is guilty by association with his brother and previous wife, Fulvia, who attack Caesar. Caesar promises “the time of universal peace is near” (IV.vi.4), an assertion that anticipates Roman peace, and the birth of Christ in a Roman province.
The play produces dichotomies only to undermine them. Antony boasts of his valor, while Caesar “alone / Dealt on lieutenantry” (III.xi.38-39). However, Antony’s officer, Ventidius remarks, “Caesar and Antony have ever won / More in their officer than person” (III.i.16-17). Caesar’s promise of universal peace is anticipated in a version of Christ’s Last Supper that Antony shares with his followers:
Tend me tonight.
Maybe it is the period of your duty.
Haply you shall not see me more; or it,
A mangled shadow. Perchance tomorrow
You’ll serve another master (IV.ii.24-28).
Enobarbus criticizes Antony for moving his friends to tears. However, the skepticism is challenged. Enobarbus becomes a Judas figure who betrays his master by defecting to Caesar and dies shortly thereafter, his heart broken with feelings of guilt by Anthony’s generosity.
The geographical contrast dissolves into parallelisms: Roman war is eroticized, Egyptian love is militarized. The external representation of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, the absence of them alone, and their pride in displaying their affair intensifies the feeling that love and war influence each other, and there is no distinction between public and private. Antony focus is on Cleopatra, and his servant Eros (love) commits suicide; an act foreshadowed in the opening by Philo (love) “this dotage of our General’s O’erflows the measure” (I.i.1-2), which means this infatuation of Antony’s goes beyond suitable bounds.
The eroticization of Rome takes the form of powerful feelings directed at Antony. Octavius Caesar acts almost as though he was the son―rather than grand nephew and adopted son―of Cleopatra’s former lover, Julius Caesar, whose paternal role Antony has usurped. Octavius Caesar is disgusted by Antony and Cleopatra coronation:
At the feet sat
Caesarion, whom they call my father’s son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them (III.vi.5-8).
There is a possibility for confusion here between Antony and the older Caesar, and a definite one between Caesarion and the younger Caesar, both of whom are “my father’s son.” At the death of Antony, Caesar movingly recalls his foe:
thou, my brother, my competitor
In top of all design, my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thought did kindle (V.i.42-46).
The display of emotion leads in different directions. By naming, Antony his “brother” and “mate,” and by invoking a meeting of “heart” and mind, Caesar suggest an intimacy between the two men that borders on the erotic. However, Caesar neutralizes any filial anxiety he may feel by describing Antony first as “my brother” and then as a subordinate, “the arm of mine own body.”
The opening of “Antony and Cleopatra,” displays the Republic all but dead. The independence of Egypt is at stake. However, the independence of Egypt occurs only to Cleopatra. Therefore, only the conflict between Antony and Caesar remains between two ambitious men. It is the end of the Roman civil war, but it is difficult to celebrate the victory of Caesar while lamenting the defeat of Antony.
The political symbolism of Antony and Caesar are antithetical; Caesar adopts republican style, whereas Antony offends Roman sensibilities with monarchical trappings (III.vi.1-19). Caesar, the antagonist of Antony, does not emulate the older Caesar, whose sexual and military conquests were intertwined (III.xiii.82-85). Hence, the younger Caesar represent the diminution of traditional Roman values, a constriction of heroic culture which Antony is the last survivor: The play insists that politics and sex or other grandeur are irrevocably sundered, that one can no longer have it both ways.
Obviously, Antony and Cleopatra cannot have it both ways. The characterizes Antony and Cleopatra through exalted language, shared by the protagonists and other minor characters; only to subvert the rhetoric through commentary and the behavior of Antony and Cleopatra, who remain maddeningly self-absorbed and self-destructive―lying, ignoring business, acting impulsively, bullying underlings, reveling in vulgarity, and betraying each other. The two lovers are peripheral participants regarding the military, as the fighting scenes, except the first Battle of Alexandria. The battle scenes occur offstage and helpless observers report on the debacle. Thus, Enobarbus laments at Actium:
Naught, naught, all naught! I can behold no longer.
The’Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral,
With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder (III.x.1-3).
During the last battle, it is the turn of Antony:
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me.
My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder
They cast their caps up, and carouse together
Like friends long lost (IV.xiii.9-13).
Antony and Cleopatra, despite their failings, are unable to fit into the narrowed world of self-discipline of Caesar. Their grandeur is described through paradoxical hyperbole. The heart of Anton “is become the bellows and the fan / to cool a gipsy’s lust:” his heart is a fan that cools the lust of Cleopatra by satisfying it, but by doing so, he rekindles her passion, as if his heart were also a bellows (I.i.9-10). When Cleopatra meets Antony, “pretty dimpled boys” (II.ii.208) attend to her―
With divers-coloured fans whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did (II.ii.209-211).
In the end, the marriage of Antony to Octavia will force him to abandon Cleopatra. Enobarbus demurs in the most famous lines of the play:
Never. He will not.
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 (II.ii.239-243).
These passages may be considered an accounting of middle aged lust or mid-life crises. The desire of the play is to convince the audience that the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra is about love. The feelings of Antony may be easier to believe than the feelings of Cleopatra. After all, it is Antony who gives up the empire. However, the teasing frivolity, comic jealousy, and cold calculation have rendered the motives of Cleopatra suspect. Yet the passages of Cleopatra give her extraordinary dignity early in the play, when Antony decides to leave her when he hears about the death of his wife, Fulvia.
Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part; but that’s not it,
Sir, you and I have loved; but there’s not it;
That you know well. Something it is I would―
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten (I.iii.87-92).
Cleopatra experiences something more than she can express. Its articulation initially takes the form of a failure to articulate. There is an echo of this later, when Enobarbus attempts to describe her to his fellow Romans: “her own person . . . beggared all description” (II.ii.203-204). However, here Cleopatra tries to convey her meaning through a witticism: her forgetfulness makes her like Antony, who is forgetful of her. She forgets and is forgotten. When Antony misses the point, thinking he has merely witnessed idle wordplay, she corrects him.
Tis sweating labour
To bear such idleness so near the heart
As Cleopatra this. But sir, forgive me, . . .
Be deaf to my unpitied folly,
And all the gods go with you (I.iii.94-100).
Cleopatra’s playfulness is the surface of her essential depth, a depth that involves a “sweating labour” like that of childbirth.
The last two acts of this play made Cleopatra the central character. The geographical restlessness of Antony and Cleopatra diminishes as the sphere of the protagonist is reduced to Alexandria. Cleopatra sends Antony a false and manipulative report of her death, Antony botches his suicide attempt in response, and she refuses to leave her monument to attend to him as he lies dying. Instead, Cleopatra hoists him up with her comment, “here’s sport indeed. How heavy weighs my lord!” (IV.xvi.33), where “sport” is both playful and bitter, and “weights” carries both physical and mental meaning. Hence, the scene as a whole combines grotesque comedy with genuine pathos. Antony’s presumably climactic death becomes a false ending that shifts the burden to the final act. Egypt and Cleopatra are the significant matter. Egypt is associated throughout the play with the overflowing that Antony is faulted at the outset. Antony declares his love for Cleopatra by rejecting the state he rules: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (I.i.35-36). When Cleopatra hears of the marriage of Antony to Octavia, Cleopatra prays, “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (II.v.78-79). This apocalyptic imagery anticipates the loss of Antony to self when he believes Cleopatra has betrayed him. The body of Antony seems to him as “indistinct / As water is in water” (IV.xv.10-11). The language of liquefaction is connected to the confusion of gender identity. Antony―
is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he (I.iv.5-7).
As Cleopatra reports, “I . . . put my tires and mantles on him whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (II.v.21-23). This statement either dangerously confuses gender roles, thereby leading to ignominious flight of Antony at Actium, or overcomes a destructive opposition.
Cleopatra, who metaphorically brakes through boundaries, is literally linked to Egypt throughout the play. In particular, Cleopatra identifies herself with the goddess Isis (III.vi.17). The conclusion seeks the regenerative powers of the Nile in Cleopatra. The play ponders whether she is the equivalent of Isis, whether she is the wife of Antony (Osiris), whether she does restore him after he is pursued to death by his brother (Caesar).
My resolution’s placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me. Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant. Now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine (V.ii.234-237).
As well, Cleopatra dies the death of a faithful Roman wife:
. . . methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act . . .
Husband, I come.
Now to that name my courage proves my title (V.ii.274-279).
Cleopatra takes the poisonous asp to her breast, and become a Roman mother as well, in a passage that equates her earlier representation of intense feeling in the language of childbirth:
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep! . . .
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle.
Nay, I will take thee too (V.ii.299-303).
Since the Folio does not have stage direction, the final line may mean that she take Antony to her breast, like a mother comforting her infant son.
Perhaps the words of Cleopatra “O Antony” is a cry of orgasm that back shadows earlier sexual assertions by Cleopatra, “I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony” (V.ii.224-225) and “Husband, I come” (V.ii.278), and forward to sexually ecstatic dying words of Charmian, “Ah soldier!” (V.ii.319). The manner in which Cleopatra dies is clearly Egyptian. The asp is a back shadow of a description made of her by Antony as “my serpent of old Nile” (I.v.25). Rome and Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra, martial valor and sexual ecstasy are united in death as they cannot be in life. Antony and Cleopatra eclipse “Dido and Aeneas” (IV.xv.53). They wonder together through the afterlife of the play.
Cleopatra is troubled by countercurrents “immortal longings” (V.ii.272). She resolves on suicide not after learning that Antony killed himself for her, but rather when she understands that Caesar plans to lead her in a humiliating triumph in Rome. Cleopatra understands that her suicide will ruin the plans of Caesar. She receives pleasure in imagining that Antony will “mock / The luck of Caesar,” that the asp will “call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied” (V.ii.276-277, 298-299). The concluding rhetoric puts a new face on earlier dubious behavior, and best possible face on defeat. Accordingly, heroic aristocratic individualism can behave in the world only be leaving it. The domestic Cleopatra is reduced to a conventional gender role of a woman who challenges sexual hierarchy; in her death, Cleopatra “lies / A lass unparalleled” (V.ii.305-306). This alliterative eulogy turns the Latinate “unparalleled,” typical of the rhetoric of the play, with the homespun “lass.” That humble word matches’ Cleopatra’s own rhetoric―”Husband,” “baby,” and “nurse.” As well, it echoes her contempt for “Caesar [that] ass / Unpolicied” which praises her at his expense.
Although Antony and Cleopatra may lie together unparalleled by others, the play registers ambivalence as well to the last. This duality is affirmed in the account by Cleopatra of the response she expects in Rome:
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’th’ posture of a whore (V.ii.212-217).
Cleopatra questions the absurdity of a boy actor badly impersonating her. However, during Elizabethan times the part of Cleopatra was performed by a boy, for woman were not allowed on stage. This reminder to the audience punctuates the dramatic illusion. It back shadows the deliberate blurring of gender division by Cleopatra. It emphasizes the artifice of Cleopatra, a veteran actress. Shakespeare is flaunting the power of his medium. To represent Cleopatra adequately, no “boy” could do justice to her “greatness.” To do Cleopatra justice the audience must look beyond what is shown, and take her “immortal longings.”
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