Antony and Cleopatra
Act One, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Mark Antony, a triumvir (one of three co-rulers) of Rome
Octavius Caesar, triumvir
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Antony’s lover
Domitius Enobarbus, companion to Antony
Octavia, Caesar’s sister (and soon to be Antony’s wife)
Sextus Pompey (Pompeius), rebel against the triumvirs
Antony’s followers: Demetrius, Philo, Ventidius, Sillus, Eros, Camidius, Scarus, and Decretas
Caesar’s followers: Maecenas, Agrippa, Taurus, Dolabella, Thidias, Gallus, and Proculeius
Pompey’s followers: Menecrates, Menas and Varrius
Cleopatra’s followers: Charmian, Iras, Alexas, the eunuch Mardian, Diomed, and Seleucus
Act One: Antony, Rome’s finest general, lazes away his days far from home: seduced by the good life in Egypt – feasting, parties, and first and foremost Cleopatra, his lover and Egypt’s queen – he has become a shadow of the man he once was. Or at least, such is the view of Caesar and his councilors, who are eager to have Antony back on Rome to help them deal with the threat of rebellion from Pompey, but to no avail. But, when Antony hears of his wife Fulvia’s death, he realizes that he can delay no longer. Cleopatra is dismayed that he must return to Rome, and although she eventually agrees to let him go, cannot stop worrying and obsessing over him. In the meantime, though, a soothsayer has predicted that the fortune’s of the world’s most glamorous couple are on the decline.
As sublime as the play is, Antony and Cleopatra is also very difficult to stage – and seems, quite frequently, to be on the verge of falling apart. Despite only a handful of main roles (and no crowd scenes), there are around forty characters in the play, with around 220 entrances and exits, many involving significant groups of people. The stage empties out over forty times (scenes are not marked in the only surviving text, the First Folio), and as the action builds, everything moves progressively faster. Even in the fluid, rapid-fire theatre of Shakespeare’s time, the effect must have been dazzling, even disconcerting, as a constant procession of people move across the stage; cross-cutting, filmic scenes that finish practically as they’ve begun. (A subject I quoted Camille Paglia on in my introductory post: “It’s choppy multitude of scenes, flying about the ancient Mediterranean, do not irritate sensibilities schooled on cinema.”)
In contrast to Shakespeare’s earlier Roman play, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra seems to willfully refuse to be Roman in tone – even though it is, in many ways it’s sequel, picking up political events as the post-Caesar triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus falls apart under the pressure of clashing personalities and egos. And where the action of Julius Caesar moves forward most often through reasoned debate, persuasion and counter-persuasion, Antony and Cleopatra seems to delight in ornament, fancy, and baroque excess. Shakespeare has sometimes been accused of indulging his love of language in this late play (and I love him for doing so) – there is some truth to the charge, but then, this tragedy is really all about showing off. Its most famous speech (and I’ll get back to this again when we get to Act Two), Enobarbus’s rapt description of Cleopatra’s arrival in her royal barge – the entrance that puts Antony (and us) fatefully under her spell – speaks directly to the heart, not the head. “The barge she sat in,”he declares, “like a burnished throne/Burned on the water,”
The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick 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’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
In this almost impossibly sensual scene (it really is, isn’t it?), time and life seems to come to a halt: the oars and the waves beat the time, but there is little impression of movement, just as the “dimpled boys” fan the Egyptian Queen’s cheeks and yet make them glow, doing “what they undid.” Nothing happens – but oh so beautifully.
In fact, for all of the play’s hustle and bustle, it has often been observed that looking at a wide view of the play, not all that much actually happens (not that that matters at all). Shakespeare streamlines the material in Plutarch’s Life of Antony, compressing or deleting many of its events and instead, dwelling on their personal and emotional implications. When the play begins, Antony is already under Cleopatra’s spell, and whatever else may happen we sense that he will be unable to stay from ‘his Egyptian dish,’ as Enobarbus so memorably describes her, for very long. The on-off affair between the protagonists persists in all its maddeningly unsettled state for nearly all the play. Much the same happens with the global events that Antony and Cleopatra ostensibly covers: the political match with Octavia, designed as it was to hold Antony and her brother Octavius “in perpetual amity,” breaks down almost as soon as it is agreed to, and it’s only too characteristic that the play’s defining political turning-point, the sea battle between the Egyptian forces and the Roman army of Octavius at Actium, ends in chaos.
The Romans themselves seem to be only too sure that Antony, formerly their greatest military leader, the towering personification of Roman values, is now an ageing joke. Plutarch, Shakespeare’s main source, often comments on the morality (or lack thereof) of his subjects, and in Antony and Cleopatra, those juicy comments often find their way into the mouths of Antony’s former colleagues. “He fishes, drinks, and wastes/the lamps of night in revel,” Octavius acidly observes (as his want, 1.4.4-5) and even early in the play, Philo and Demetrius, supposedly Antony’s faithful followers, join him in condemnation. ‘Nay, but this dotage of our General’s/O’erflows the measure,’ Philo insists:
Those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and munsters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain’s heart
Which is the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust.
Sexually enslaved to Cleopatra, the titanic Antony is a mere automaton: a killing machine being left on the scrapheap by a new world order. While on campaign with his Roman men, Octavian laments, Antony would “design [accept] the roughest berry on the rudest hedge…” (1.4.64); now he wastes his time (at least from Octavian’s perspective) in “lascivious wassails,” the endless rounds of banquets that make up life in the Egyptian court.
Egypt is, of course, the key to Antony’s decline and the storehouse for his “pleasure.” For Jacobeans (no less than Greek historians), Egypt held a seductive, exotic appeal – a land of desert at the same dominated by the mysterious Nile; the repository of wise yet alien civilizations. In Shakespeare’s play, Egypt most often appears in melting, fluid language, a direct challenge to the more masculine, chiseled certainties of Rome. Attempting to rid himself of his Roman responsibilities near the opening of the play, Antony snarls, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall’ (1.1.35-6). These words receive a resonant echo in Cleopatra’s curse a few scenes later, confronted with a recalcitrant messenger:
Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents!
Decadent, death-risking excess characterizes life in Egypt – the twelve wild boars slaughtered for a single breakfast, the “Alexandrian feast” and ‘Egyptian bacchanals” with which Antony and his followers entertain the shocked Romans after his fateful marriage to Octavia.
Egypt, sensual and sexual and…feminine, also poses a subversive threat to the seemingly uncomplicated world of Roman masculinity. It’s telling that the only Roman woman in the play is Octavia herself, whose “holy, cold, and still conversation” (2.6.122-3) will, as Enobarbus predicts, quickly tire Antony. In rich contrast, Cleopatra is surrounded by teeming swarms of handmaidens and attendants, who when Antony departs for Rome amuse themselves by gossiping about sex. Even the eunuch Mardian, though “unseminared” (emasculated) indulges in risqué fantasies. “I can do nothing/But what indeed is honest to be done,’ he informs his mistress, his words thick with puns,
Yet I have fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.
Little wonder then that the militant Octavius, serving the Roman god of war in a more straightforward sense, insists coldly at Antony’s Egyptian feast that, given the option, he would “rather fast from all” for four days than become dangerously drunk in one. He has no desire to suffer Antony’s (or even Mardian’s) fate – and become “not more manlike/Than Cleopatra.” (1.4.5-6).
Also, in the hyperbolic world of Egypt it is not surprising to find that for Antony, there is no world outside his love. It is boundless and illimitable (not unlike Cleopatra herself):
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 believed.
Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
The lovers can conceive of now “ bourn” (limit) to their love other than of what they themselves are capable. Later, Cleopatra will accuse Antony of forgetting that “eternity was in our lips and eyes,/Bliss in our brow’s bent; none our parts so poor/But was a race of heaven.” (1.3.33-7).
Cleopatra, as I hope to show, probably Shakespeare’s greatest female role, seems all too capable of constructing new worlds should she so desire. She is attended in the ceremony she jointly holds with Antony to celebrate her hold on power by the pick of the world’s kings. She makes a habit of dressing in “th’habiliments of the goddess Isis” (3.6.17), and in Enobarbus’s rapt description appears almost immortal: “Age cannot wither her,” he cries, “nor custom stale/Her infinite variety” (2.2.241-2). To many characters in the play (and to many in the audience and to many readers) she is also infinitely unknowable: on the one hand “great Egypt,” “most sovereign creature,” “a triumphant lady”; on the other, a “foul Egyptian,” a “witch,” a “cow in June.” That shimmering variety is the key to her appeal – for us as well as for Antony – but is also frequently a source of frustration (for us as well as for Antony). She’s eager for his commitment even as she makes herself impossible to love. “See where he is, who’s with him, what he does,” she orders her servants as soon as her lover disappears from the room:
If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick.
The moment is supremely comic, but also comically human. Cleopatra is capable of astounding changes of temper (her “infinite variety”), and like the great actress she is (and she is almost onstage playing the “role” of Cleopatra), ranges from comedy to tragedy at a moment’s notice. Struck by Shakespeare’s portrayal, the seventeenth-century poet Margaret Cavendish said, “One would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman,” in order to create a character herself so constantly (if not infinitely) changeable.
A.P. Reimer, from A Reading of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” (1968)
“Antony and Cleopatra can be read as the fall of a great general, betrayed in his dotage by a treacherous strumpet, or else it can be viewed as a celebration of transcendental love.”
From Marjorie Garber:
“The question [whether the play is about Egypt and eternity, Egypt and art, Rome and Time, Rome and history? the relationship between love and war, and love and order) is vital to an audience’s experience of the play, and a director’s approach to it, although needless to say there is no single answer. How we view the play’s values will determine how we view Antony, who stands at its center. Is he a failed hero, or a successful myth? The first act of Antony and Cleopatra lays out the conundrum clearly, since it offers a number of views of Antony, all persuasive, and each different from the next. The brief opening scene presents too Roman soldiers discussing what has happened to their general. These are insignificant characters in themselves, and the scene, like so many opening scenes in Shakespeare, gives us what is in fact the common view, the ordinary person’s view, of what has recently transpired. And what to the soldiers tell us? That ‘this dotage of our General’s/O’erflows the measure.’ (1.1.1-2) That Antony ‘dotes,’ and that his ‘dotage’ – a word that can mean both infatuation and the foolishness of old age – is related to excess, to overflowing, like that of the Nile, the symbol of Egypt, a river that notoriously overflows its banks. The word ‘dote’ in Shakespeare, as we have had occasion to notice in the romantic comedies, describing a kind of being-in-love-with-love that is usually superseded by a more adult and considered passion. The soldiers note, laughing behind their hands, that this former hero, who once ‘glowed like plated Mars’ in his armor, is now become ‘the bellows and the fan/To cool a gypsy’s lust’ (1.1.4-9). At the outset, then, there is excess and there is paradox. A bellows blows cool air to increase the heat of the fire. And of the fabled ‘four elements’ (earth, water, air, and fire), the last three are Cleopatra’s, just as the earth is Antony’s. ‘[Y]ou shall see in him/The triple pillar of the world transformed/Into a strumpet’s fool.’ (1.1.11-13). The jest on ‘trumpet’/’strumpet,’ used with ironic effectiveness in Othello, is also basic to these soldiers’ account of what has happened to their leader. Antony is a has-been, a general who has shirked his duty and abandoned his men, as he himself will shortly acknowledge:
These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage.
This is Caesar’s view of Antony as well. Octavius Caesar, fretting in Rome, feels the need of Antony’s heroic strength to defeat the threat of Pompey, and offers a heartfelt apostrophe to the absent general: ‘Antony,/Leave thy lascivious wassails,’ your drunken and besotted toasts. Once you were a hero, Caesar recalls, and endured famine:
Thou didst drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would couth at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on; and all this –
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now –
Was born so like a solider that they cheek
So much as lanked not.
Antony is a heroic, historical figure – a man of epic abilities, a representative of the old order of giants, a man who could regain his place in history as a ‘triple pillar of the world,’ but who has at the present moment lost himself in dotage, sex, and infatuation. This is the Roman view.
But the view from Egypt is very different, as we should expect. Cleopatra’s first description of Antony is deliberately juxtaposed to the view we have just heard espoused by Caesar. In Cleopatra’s eyes Antony is not historical, but mythic; not merely heroic, but also Olympian and godlike. She speculates on his whereabouts to one of her ladies, speaking, as is frequently her way, with a frank erotic appreciation:
Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he or sits he?
Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?
O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse, for wot’st thou whom thou mov’st? –
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men…
As Antony endorsed the Roman assessment of his behavior, so also he allies himself with the Egyptian account. The first time the audience sees him he rejects, out of hand, the whole Roman Empire and all of politics and nationhood, in favor of timeless love in Egypt:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twin can do’t…
Here is my space. Rome is nothing, and will disappear. Love is everything. ‘The nobleness of life/Is to do thus.’ True love is excess, and is not to be bounded. (This is a sentiment we heard well expressed by Juliet.) ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,’ says Antony (1.1.15), and when Cleopatra teases him, proposing a target or boundary for his passion – ‘I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved’ – his answer is instant and uncompromising. ‘Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.’ (17, 17).
Caesar sees Antony as a figure pointing backward, once glorious, now faded, losing his place in history, and Antony fears that this may be true. Cleopatra sees him as a transcendent being, pointing eternally forward, a kind of metamorphosed deity, and thus a crowning success, and Antony when he is with her shares this view as well. In short, the opening of the play presents Antony in a familiar situation for the Shakespearean tragic hero, a psychomachia or struggle of the soul, between the part of him that is Roman and the part of him that is Egyptian. Rome and Egypt. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is built on a contrast of antithetical places very similar to that of Greece and Troy in Troilus and Cressida. (The three love tragedies whose titles link the names of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, have a great deal in common thematically: each expands the personal onto a larger stage of history and myth.) Troilus’s speech on the ‘monstruosity in love,’ which is ‘that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit,’ is a useful gloss and forerunner to this play. Will and desire, infinity and boundlessness are all part of the world of Egypt, while terms like ‘execution,’ ‘confinement,’ ‘limitation,’ and ‘action’ are all associated, to some degree, with the politics of the Roman world.”
And finally, from Tony Tanner:
“This, from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius: ‘For they [Antony and Cleopatra] made an order between them, which they called AMIMETOBION (as much to say, no life comparable and matcheable with it). Later they invented another word – SYNAPOTHANUMENON (signifying the order and agreement of those that will die together.’ They invented words. That is, from what was available they put together special terms which would apply to them alone – using language as a repository of possibilities, trying to transcend the limitations of the available formulations, re-rehearsing reality by stretching language in new directions and combinations. Shakespeare gloriously takes the hint. His Antony and Cleopatra seem intent on pre-empting language to establish new words to describe their love. New words, new worlds – this is the linguistic atmosphere of the play; ordinary language must be ‘melted’ (a key word) and reconstituted, so that new propositions and descriptions can be articulated to project and express their emotions. In their speech, everything tends towards hyperbole – i.e., ‘excess, exaggeration.’ Rhetorically, this is related to Superlatio, which is a dictionary of rhetorical terms glosses as ‘exaggerated or extravagant terms used for emphasis and not intended to be understood literally.’ Of course, Antony and Cleopatra do not want to be understood ‘literally’ – they do not work, or love, or live, by the ‘letter.’ It is precisely the ‘letter,’ and all fixed alphabetical restrictions, that they talk, and love, to dissolve, so that, as it were, they can live and speak in a ‘higher’ language of their own inventing. For Antony, to burst his armour and his alphabet are alike, related to modes of energy moving towards transcendence.
In his introductory Lectures on Philosophy, Hegel wrote that ‘alphabetic writing is in itself and for itself the most intelligent’; he also wrote ‘everything oriental must be excluded from the history of philosophy.’ Alphabetic writing is transparent, an instrument of clarity, it maintains the unity of consciousness; the oriental thus becomes an opaque script, another, more iconic, language altogether, another mode of writing and thus of being-in-the-world, which threatens to disturb and disrupt, even destroy, the alphabetic clarity of consciousness. We can apply this opposition to the play. Caesar is nothing if not ‘alphabetic.’ He instructs Taurus and his army as he heads out his written orders before the battle of Actium – ‘Do not exceed/The prescript of this scroll’ (III, viii, 4-5). He never deviates from exact ‘pre-scriptions’ – the already written – and lives by and from within the orderings of his ‘scroll.’ Cleopatra, on the other hand, is quintessentially oriental – in Hegel’s terms: her actions, like her temperament, are impossible to ‘read’ in any alphabetic way. She is, from Caesar’s point of view, illegible; hardly to be ‘read’ in his Roman language. She is an ultimate opacity – from Rome’s point of view – confounding all customary alphabetic descriptions and decodings. She is in no way ‘prescribed’ or prescribable, and can no more be held within Caesar’s ‘scroll’ than she can be trapped by his plots and policies.
But first let me turn to the question of armour, the steel second skin of the man, the soldier, the roman. As so often in Shakespeare, the opening lines set up terms and problems which will reverberate throughout the play. Philo, a Roman soldier with Antony in Egypt, opens:
Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure.
(I, i, 1-2)
The play, unlike any other by Shakespeare, opens with a negative. It thus implies the denial of a previous assertion – perhaps more affirmative – and his speech goes on to negate, or attempt to degrade and belittle, Antony’s behaviour since he has been in Egypt. ‘Overflowing the measure’ immediately opposes the flooding Nile of Egypt to the concept of ‘measure’ – control, constraint, containment – which is the very language of Rome. The contest of the play is to be between overflow (excess) and measure (boundaries). Philo goes on to describe the transformation – or rather, in his terms, the deformation – of Antony the soldier into Antony the ‘strumpet’s fool,’ the victim of ‘lust.’ Philo always chooses the diminishing, pejorative word when referring to anything to do with Cleopatra and Egypt, anything which is not connected with Rome, Mars, and the ‘office and devotion’ of the warrior’s code. Thus it is that he goes on to recall the great soldier Antony, to contrast him with the man who now serves Eros and Venus-Cleopatra. Again, his terms anticipate much that is to follow:
His captain’s heart
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is to become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy’s lust.
In battle, then, Antony could not be confined within his own armour, such was his force and energy that it broke out of his soldier’s attire – it burst the buckles. Now his great heart ‘reneges all temper’ – renounces all restraint – but it is clear that it is not finally possible for Antony to be held within any ‘temper,’ any restraints, or, indeed, any bonds. To be sure, he occasionally tries to stay within Roman rules; but in whatever he does – in war, in love – he is driven to burst whatever is ‘buckling’ him.
In act IV, Antony is preparing for battle and calls for his armour. The aptly named Eros (as in Plutarch) brings it; but Cleopatra wants to help. She thus becomes, in Antony’s words, ‘the armourer of my heart’ as she fastens the buckles and asks – ‘Is this not buckled well?’ Antony:
He that unbuckles this, till we do please
To daff’t for our repose, shall hear a storm.
Thou fumblest, Eros, and my queen’s squire
More tight at this than thou.
Armour – amour: there is no etymological connection, but phonetically the words are close. And what we see here, with Cleopatra buckling Antony’s armour, almost while they are still in bed, is an overlaying of amour onto armour, so that the armour is eroticized and sensualized – the business of war (often referred to) here subsumed into the more all-embracing game of love. (B y contrast, we may say that any sensuality and physicality of love and play is ‘armoured’ by Caesar and Rome; there the policy of war tries to subsume love’s body, making marriage and mating into mere instruments of policy.) Antony’s armour, erotically saturated by the hands of Cleopatra, will not be taken off, he says, ‘till we do please to daff’t for our repose.’ This anticipates his death.
As he moves towards that death, Antony says to Eros:
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion…
…Thou hast seen signs:
They are black vespers pageants…
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water in water.
‘Dis-limn’ – that is, un-paint, efface – is Shakespeare’s own invention; it is part of the ‘reversal’ which is happening to Antony, whose role in the ‘pageant’ (which also meant a mobile play or stage) is nearly over. He is moving towards ‘indistinctness’ – he, the man of the greatest ‘distinction’ in the world: he is being physically ‘dis-limned’ (which sounds the homophone ‘dislimbed’), effaced by Caesar, by nature, by himself. (Cleopatra will ‘paint’ him again after death, but we will come to that dazzling act of retrieval and recuperation.) Antony continues:
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…
He is in fact moving towards physical invisibility [MY NOTE: Or ‘melting’] because Antony, the name, the individual, the specific and world-famous identity, can no longer ‘hold’ onto his bodily shape. He is moving out, moving through, moving beyond; melting, but also transcending the final barrier – the body itself. And so he takes his armour off, since he is indeed ready for ‘repose’:
Unarm Eros. The long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep…
Off, pluck off:
The sevenfold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart. O, cleave, my sides!
Heart, once be stronger than thy continent,
Crack thy frail case! Apace, Eros, apace.
No more a soldier. Bruised pieces, go;
You have been nobly borne…
The armour is not broken or burst, but discarded; it is almost as though he is taking his body to pieces and throwing it away – ‘Bruised pieces , go’ does seem almost to refer to the body as well, for it is that ‘frail case’ which he now wishes to burst free from. The body is the final boundary.
Boundary; bounty; bound; bond; band – these are words of varying importance in the play, but they all serve to set up a crucial series of echoes, half-echoes, indeed anti-echoes, if one can imagine such a thing…”
As a bonus for the weekend, if anyone is interested in reading Plutarch’s “Life of Antony,” click here.
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning – continuing our look at Act One
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.