Antony and Cleopatra
Act One, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
A couple of observations:
1. G. Wilson Knight called Antony and Cleopatra “probably the subtlest and great play in Shakespeare,” adding “This is the high metaphysic of love which melts life and death into a final oneness; which reality indeed is no pulseless abstraction, but rather blends in single design and petalled excellence from all life and death, all imperial splendour and sensuous delight, all strange and ethereal forms, all elements and heavenly stars; all that is natural, human, and divine; all brilliance and all glory.”
2. Note that in some ways, that the play itself contains all the variety that Enobarbus ascribes to Cleopatra herself: lyric intensity, rhetorical extravagance, the clipped notes of Octavius, the satirical prose of Enobarbus – no other play, it seems offers the greatest contrasts of mood and effect then Antony and Cleopatra.
3. When reading the play, you’ll notice that so much of all of the characters is uncertain and almost unknowable: Cleopatra’s true feelings in her relationships with Antony and Octavius and how much is playing the role of “Cleopatra”; how much of Octavius is true feelings and how much is political and how much is playing the role of “Caesar”; Antony who, as we learn in the first scene “is not Antony” – the list goes on and on. One way to think about this in way that we know influenced Shakespeare is through Montaigne. “He whom you saw yesterday so boldly venturous,” he wrote, “wonder not if you see him a dastardly meacock tomorrow next…We are all framed of flaps and patches and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part. And there is so much difference found between us and ourselves, as there is between ourselves and [an]other.”
In other words, the “self” is simply the site of endless theatrical self-inventions (which as you’ll see could describe Cleopatra to a tee). Montaigne felt that the self cannot be expected to “hang together” in terms of psychological naturalism, because it has no fixed and substantive existence.
In few there is no constant existence…of our being…for every human nature is ever in the middle between being borne and dying; giving nothing of it self but an obscure appearance and shadow…And if perhaps you fix your thought to take its being; it would be even, as if one should go about to grasp the water; for, how much the more he shall close and press that, which by its own nature is every gilding, so much the more he shall lose what he would hold and fasten.
As I mentioned earlier, I like to imagine that the book we saw Hamlet reading during his play was Montaigne’s essays. And also note that throughout the play, Cleopatra is identified with the act of “becoming” and is associated with water.
Are Antony and Cleopatra ‘in love with each other,’ to use our language, which for once is not at all Shakespearean? Are we in love with one another? It was Aldous Huxley, in one of his essays, who remarked that we use the word love for the most amazing variety of relationships, ranging from what we feel for our mothers to what we feel for someone we beat up in a bordello, or its many equivalents. Juliet and Romeo indeed are in love with each other, but they are very young, and she is astonishingly good-natured, with a generosity of spirit unmatched in all of Shakespeare. We can certainly can say that Cleopatra and Antony do not bore each other, and clearly they are bored, erotically and otherwise, by everyone else in their world. Mutual fascination may not be love, but it certainly is romance in the defining sense of imperfect, or at least deferred, knowledge. Cleopatra in particular always has her celebrated remedies for staleness, famously extolled by Enobarbus. Antony, also a mortal god, has his aura, really a kind of astral body, that departs with the music of Hercules, the oboes under the stage. There is no replacement for him, as Cleopatra realizes, since with his death the age of Julius Caesar and Pompey is over, and even Cleopatra is very unlikely to seduce the first great Chief Executive Officer, the Emperor Augustus.
The question therefore becomes: What is the value of mutual fascination, or of romantic love, if you want to call it that? Certainly it is less of a bewilderment, less of a vastation, than the familial love that afflicts Lear and Edgar. With monstrous shrewdness, Shakespeare modified Plutarch by having Antony abandoned by the god Hercules, rather than by Bacchus. A Dionysiac hero cannot be consigned to the past, as Hamlet’s more-than-Nietzschean career continues to demonstrate. A Herculean hero was not as archaic for Shakespeare’s contemporaries as he is for us, but clearly Antony is already a belated figure. Lear and Edgar are not as exposed to the audience’s range of perspectives as are Cleopatra and Antony. Whore and her aging gull is a possible perspective upon them, if you yourself are a savage reductionist, but then why would you want to attend or read this play? A Dionysiac Antony would call every value, whether erotic or social, more into question than a Herculean Antony is capable of doing. If there is a critique of value in the play, it must be embodied in Cleopatra, who is raised to an apotheosis after Antony breaks apart. He ceases to be a god, and then she becomes one.
What are we to do with an Egyptian goddess, even if we are free enough of Roman reductiveness that we do not fall into the operatic trap of seeing her as a gypsy whore? If my interpretation of King Lear has any imaginative accuracy, then familial love, far from being a value, is exposed as an apocalyptic nightmare. Romantic love can be said to have hastened Antony’s Osiris-like dismantling, yet it would be difficult, as I have been intimating, to demonstrate it either as value or as catastrophe, on the basis of his decline and fall. But Cleopatra is altogether another story, and her story certainly involves an augmentation of value. Is it the value of love? That seems to be a most difficult question, and a true challenge to what we used to call literary criticism. You could argue that the Cleopatra of Act V is not only a greater actress than she was before, but also that she becomes a playwright, exercising a talent released in her by Antony’s death. The part that she composes for herself is very complex, and one strand in it is that she was and still is in love with Antony, and so is more than bereft. Indeed, she married him after she dies, which is sublimely poignant, though it may remind us of Edmund’s reaction to beholding the corpses of Goneril and Regan: ‘All three/Now marry in an instant.’
Existence, we cannot forget Nietzsche’s observing, is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. I would hesitate, wicked old aesthete though I am, to judge that for Shakespeare, love is justified only as an aesthetic value, but that does seem (to me) to be the burden of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, at least as Cleopatra rewrites it in the act where she has no rival in usurping all the space. Her would-be competitive dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, who asserted that he felt only disdain for the mind of Shakespeare when he compared it with his own, is quite cutting but weirdly off-center in his preface to his own Caesar and Cleopatra:
‘I have a technical objection to making sexual infatuation a tragic theme. Experience proves that is only effective in the comic spirit. We can bear to see Mrs. Quickly pawning her plate for love of Falstaff, but not Antony running away from the battle of Actium for love of Cleopatra.’
One can grant that Shaw seizes upon one of the least persuasive episodes in Antony’s degradation, but surely Antony and Cleopatra hardly is a tragedy as King Lear and Othello are tragedies. More even than the rest of Shakespeare, the play has no genre, and the comic spirit has a large share in it. Enobarbus gives the answer to Shaw when he calls Cleopatra a wonderful piece of work. He means Cleopatra’s daemonic drive, her narcissistic exuberance, the vitality of which approaches Falstaff’s. Shaw abominated Falstaff, and associated Shakespeare’s Cleopatra with Falstaff, which is to make the right linkage for the wrong reason. Cleopatra, essentially an ironic humorist, even a parodist, presumably educated Antony in laughter even as Falstaff educated Hal, with the difference that Falstaff does not trade in sexual love, and Cleopatra does. Antony certainly is past his earlier glory almost throughout the play, except for sudden revivals or epiphanies, but Shakespeare was improving upon the model of decline he had established with his own Julius Caesar. And with Cleopatra, how can we, or even Cleopatra herself, ever establish the demarcation between her inwardness and her outwardness? She is surely the most theatrical character in stage history, far surpassing Pirandello’s experiments in the same mode. We need not ask if her love for Antony ever is love indeed, even as she dies, because the lack of distinctiveness in the play is between the histrionic and the passionate. The value of familial love in Shakespeare is overwhelming but negative; the value of passionate love in the most mature Shakespeare depends upon a fusion of theatricality and narcissistic self-regard. The art itself is nature, and the value of love becomes wholly artful.
Though the splendors of Antony and Cleopatra commence with Shakespeare’s loving farewell to his own invention of the human, the play is endlessly various, returning to Hamlet in that regard. In Hamlet, Shakespeare necessarily has to ram most of the variety into his infinite hero, while in Antony and Cleopatra, for all Cleopatra’s myriad guises, the variousness lies primarily in one historical world’s replacing another, with extraordinary persuasiveness and exuberance. An heroic age – the era of Julius Caesar – yields to the oncoming discipline of Augustan Rome. Shakespeare, as we learn always, does not let us see whether he himself prefers one side or the other, but the contrast among the perpetual intensity of Cleopatra, the dying music of Antony, and the grumpy efficiency of Octavius Caesar can lead us to a probable surmise on the poet’s preferences. In Macbeth, Shakespeare gives us no option but to journey into the interior with his hero-villain. Antony and Cleopatra, written directly afterward, allows us little intimacy with the doomed lovers, and sweeps us outward into the world’s perspectives upon them, and our perspectives upon their world. This movement away from inwardness is established immediately in the angry complaint of Phil to Demetrius, both of them Antony’s officers:
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.
Flourish: Enter Antony, Cleopatra, her Ladies, the Train, with Eunuchs
Look, where they come:
Take, but good note, and you shall see in him
The Triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool: behold and see.
Whether we behold dotage and a lustful gypsy depends upon whether there is something in us that would not make us very good roman soldiers:
Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
Antony: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d.
Cleopatra: I’ll set a bourne how far to be belov’d.
Antony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
She teases, he is grandiose, and his ensuing declarations are unconvincing:
Let Rome in 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.
To mean that, you need to fuse the outlooks of Falstaff and of Hamlet; Antony may not be merely on Egyptian holiday, yet he certainly sounds like it. roman thoughts, as Cleopatra complains, suddenly strike him, each time another messenger shows up. All through the play the messengers are both frequent and invariably truthful: they are the inviolable rules of the game. Reflecting accurately that he ‘must from this enchanting queen break off,’ Antony departs for Rome, but only after Cleopatra plays her first great scene, matador to Antony’s bull:
Cleopatra: Play one scene
Of excellent dissembling, and let it look
Like perfect honour.
Antony: You’ll heat my blood: no more.
Cleopatra: You can do better yet, but this is meetly.
Antony: Now, by my sword, —
Cleopatra: And target. Still he mends.
But this is not the best, Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.
Antony: I’ll leave you, lady.
Cleopatra: Courteous lord, one word:
Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it.
Sir, you and I have lov’d, but there’s not it,
That you know well, something it is I would, —
O, my oblivion is a very Antony.
And I am all forgotten.
Antony: But that your royalty
Holds idleness your subject, I should take you
For idleness itself.
Cleopatra: ‘Tis sweating labour,
To bear such idleness so near the heart
As Cleopatra this. But sir, forgive me,
Since my becomings kill me, when they do not
Eye well to you. Your honour calls you hence,
Therefore be deaf to my unpitied folly,
And all the gods go with you! Upon your sword
Sit laurel victory, and smooth success
Be strew’d before your feet!
Antony: Let us go, Come;
Our separation so abides, and flies,
That thou, residing here, goes yet with me,
And I, hence fleeting, here remain with thee.
This is an appropriate place to ask: How does Antony appear to Cleopatra, even at the best of their time? Leeds Barroll subtly argues that:
‘of the heavens…she sees him as a sight. Not great but gigantic; not compelling but pictureseque: not powerful but loud: visible, decorous giant of the world. Not the striving god Hercules, but the static god Atlas, colossal in his changeless holding.’
I welcome this, but think it very doubtful, unless we take it as Cleopatra’s widowed vision of her self-slain lover. In the passage I have quoted, Antony is a striving Hercules, who can be played with but remains always dangerous, at once a mortal god and a Roman politician. Following the pattern of Pompey and of Julius Caesar, Antony’s erotic relationship with Cleopatra is also an unstable political alliance, to be sold out, by either party, when and if the price is right. In this greatly savage play, you do not betray your love by bargaining it away: you honor it by being well compensated for your erotic loss by a gain in power. Though they both keep denying this, Cleopatra and Antony know well the rules of the game. She never does break them, he does, but not because his love for her surpasses her regard for him.”
From W.H. Auden, who once wrote, “If we had to burn all of Shakespeare’s plays but one – luckily we don’t – I’d choose Antony and Cleopatra.”
“Antony and Cleopatra reminds one technically of the kind of plays that lie a long way back in Shakespeare’s career – the English chronicle plays. It looks back as well to Julius Caesar, another play of Roman history, in which the characters of Antony and Octavius are first introduced, to Troilus and Cressida, which also represents both public and private live, and to Romeo and Juliet, the only other tragedy that centers on the relationship of a boy and girl, here a man and a woman. With very great daring, Shakespeare revives the multiple scenes of the chronicle plays and make s the fullest possible use of the Elizabethan stage’s resources. The action moves seamlessly from Alexandria to Rome to Messina to Rome to Alexandria to Messina to Syria to Rome to Alexandria to Athens to Rome to Actium to Alexandria. There is really no place where an interval is anything but arbitrary except from Act II scene ii to Act II, iii, the interval of Caesar’s war with Pompey. You feel the lack of an Elizabethan stage in modern productions of Antony and Cleopatra more than in any other Shakespearean play.
It won’t do as a movie at all. The play is exclusively about human history and the effects of human will. There is no background showing farmers ploughing fields, there are no conflicts between human beings and nature, no storms. The play is concerned with the desire for world power. Movies overemphasize particular localities and their uniqueness. In a movie scene of Ventidius in Syria (III.i), for example, you would see too much particular Syrian scenery. But what is important is the contrast with the immediately preceding scene on Pompey’s galley, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a galley or a house. What matters is the view it presents of the lords of the world in undress in contrast to the scene of Ventidius and his troops guarding the frontier. Space is the prize, and not any particular corner of space, but the whole space of civilization.
The enemy in the play is the passage of time, in its sense both of aging and death and of the fluctuating of spirit and public opinion. There are two important acts of will in the play: Cleopatra’s decision to flee at Actium and Antony’s decision to follow her. The depiction of the battle itself, the movement of the ships, is immaterial. The play shows an enormous advance in the treatment of history. Shakespeare has passed the stage of historie moralisie – there are no symmetrical set pieces like those of a son slaying a father and a father slaying a son in Henry VI. There are instead impressionistic scenes that are confined to what is absolutely necessary. Take the brief scene on a Roman street between Lepidus, Maercenas, and Agrippa (II, iv): it swiftly shows Lepidus’s feebleness, the slight contempt Maecenas and Agrippa have for him – the moment done, the scene is over. In the two quick scenes before the battle of Actium (IV.x-xi), Shakespeare allows the sparest of speeches to portray the indecision of Antony and the resolution of Octavius. Speeches are cut to the bone at these points, to be kept for where they are needed. A lot of history is included, some of which may seem irrelevant, but is not so, while other events, the war with Pompey, for example, take place off-stage or are compressed.
Julius Caesar, in comparison with Antony and Cleopatra, is a local play focused on the city of Rome, not the whole empire, not the world. Its subject is a single political conspiracy that draws in a person like Brutus, who is not politically gifted. It can be done successfully in modern dress, whereas Antony and Cleopatra cannot. Antony and Cleopatra deals with the unique politics of the establishment of a world empire and has a unity that develops from the particular events and persons it depicts – not the abstract pointing up of morals that forms the unity of the chronicle plays.
The representation of politics in Antony and Cleopatra is also different from that of Troilus and Cressida. Both plays represent big council scenes among heads of state. The first Grecian council scene in Troilus and Cressida (I.iii) presents a series of tremendous lectures by Agamemnon, Nestor, and others about nature, fortune, and political authority. Everyone talks to the air or to the audience in a series of soliloquies, and the scene goes on for 392 lines. What’s accomplished? Not much. There is no development of character and the result of all the talk is the decision simply to make Ajax, not Achilles, take Hector’s challenge. The meeting in Antony and Cleopatra of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony after Antony first returns to Rome (II.ii) is a real political conference between political figures who dislike each other but want to come to agreement. They stick to the point and poetic speeches are held in check. There is no real poetry until Enobarbus’s speech describing Cleopatra’s first meeting with Antony: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne…’ (Ii.ii.196ff.). But the richness of the poetry is kept relevant to the political situation: will Antony leave Cleopatra or won’t he? Enobarbus is telling Maecenas and Agrippa something they have to know. His rich description conveys the strength of Antony and Cleopatra’s affection, as he sees it. Antony and Cleopatra generally contains perhaps more first-rate poetry than any other play in the canon, but not a line of it is detachable from the context either of the scene in which it occurs or of the play as a whole.
Troilus’s private and public lives exist in two different compartments. His love story is parallel to the Trojan War, and history makes Cressida go away, but any other accident would have worked quite as well. In Henry IV, the relation between Hal and Falstaff dramatizes the gulf between the political and the apolitical. Falstaff would have been the same person if he had never met Prince Hal. In Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, public and private life are entirely interwoven, and the conflict in the play is between two kinds of public life. Antony could not have a relation with Cleopatra if she were just a beautiful slave girl, nor could she with him if he were just a handsome centurion. Their worldly position is an essential part of their love. Cleopatra is Egypt and Antony is one of the rulers of the Roman empire, unlike Romeo and Juliet who are any boy and any girl separated by a family feud. Two families having a row over who borrowed the lawn mower would be interchangeable with the provincial feud in the town of Verona.
There are two themes in the play: the long tussle of wits between Antony and Octavius, and the relation between Antony and Cleopatra. Returning to Julius Caesar, what picture of Antony and Octavius do we get? Brutus says, ‘I am not gameson. I do lack some part/Of that quit spirit that is in Antony’ (I.ii.28-29). Caesar tells Antony, in describing his suspicion of Cassius, ‘He loves no plays/As thou doest, Antony’ (I.ii.203-4). Cassius, however, in a debate with Brutus about whether to spare Antony, predicts, ‘We shall find of him/A shrewd contriver.’ (II.i.157-59). Brutus protests that ‘Antony is but a limb of Caesar’ (II.i.165), ‘given/o sports, to wildness, and such company’ (II.i.l88-89). Trebonius, agreeing, says that Antony ‘will laugh at’ Caesar’s death ‘hereafter’ (II.i.191). Cassius, of course, is right and Brutus wrong. After his inflammatory speech to the crowd, Antony says coolly, ‘Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt’ (III.ii.265-66). He himself takes what the moment provides without much scruple. Almost immediately afterwards, when he hears that Octavius has just arrived in Rome, he says, ‘Fortune is merry,/And in this mood will give us anything’ (III.ii.271-2). He later quickly and ruthlessly agrees to Lepidus’s proscription of the son of Antony’s sister: ‘Look, with a spot I damn him’ (IV.i.6), and he also makes clear to Octavius that Lepidus is a ‘slight unmeritable man’ (IV.i.12) of whom they both can make use. Octavius voices no opinion, though he draws Antony out to make him say enough about Lepidus that can be serviceable to him, enough to tell Leipuds later, if Lepidus should turn out not to be a fool. At the battle of Philippi, Octavius also insists on leading the right wing, and when Antony, the older and clearly more experienced general, protests, ‘Why do you cross me in this exigent?’ Octavius answers coldly, [MY NOTE: Answering coldly seems to be Octavius’ standing operating procedure.] ‘I do not cross you, but I will do so’ (V.i.19-20). Octavius’s wing does not fight hard – not an accident, he wants to see how the wind will jump. Antony is a politician, he is ambitious, he understands the motives and weaknesses of others. Like Hal, he learns from his love of company, which is an advantage over Brutus. He can be unscrupulous and hard, as he shows in deciding who is to be proscribed, h e can improvise brilliantly, as he demonstrates in his oration, and he is a good soldier. He is not good, however, at planning long-term strategy. Like many improvisers, he has a certain irresponsibility – ‘Let mischief work’ – and he is short on patience, which is where he fails to deal successfully with Octavius, who is slow and deliberate and who prevails over Antony by his willingness to wait.”
And to conclude, a bit more from Camille Paglia:
“Spencer makes England’s fierce Virgin Queen an ivory Diana. Shakespeare makes her an umber Venus. Antony and Cleopatra is a Baroque Venus and Mars, bursting Spenser’s chaste Botticellian line. Shakespeare repeats The Faerie Queene’s psychological dialectic of definitiveness and dissolution, but he reverses its meanings. Apollonian social order again opposes Dionysian energy and wins. But Shakespeare, unlike Spenser, gives his imaginative sympathies to the Dionysian extremists. The traditional persona of republican Rome, we saw, was fixed to the point of rigidity. Antony and Cleopatra takes place at a great transition in history, when empire replaces republic, creating the era of international peace in which Christianity would spread. The old masculine Roman virtues are suddenly passé. Only Antony, the sexually most unstable male in Shakespeare’s play, extols machismo. His contempt for Octavius Caesar, the politician who refuses to meet him in hand-to-hand combat, strikes even us as faintly anachronistic, and his challenge is dismissed as absurd by the gruff Enobarbus, the lone Roman who has not yet smoothed his blunt speech into the glib diplomacy of the dawning age of empire.”
(In case you’ve never read Paglia’s Sexual Personae from which this is taken – and you really should – here is how she defines Apollonian and Dionysian: The Apollonian and Dionysian concepts comprise a dichotomy that serves as the basis of Paglia’s theory of art and culture. For Paglia, the Apollonian is light and structured while the Dionysian is dark and chthonic (she prefers Chthonic to Dionysian throughout the book, arguing that the latter concept has become all but synonymous with hedonism and is inadequate for her purposes, declaring that “the Dionysian is no picnic.”). The Chthonic is associated with females, wild/chaotic nature, and unconstrained sex/procreation. In contrast, the Apollonian is associated with males, clarity, celibacy and/or homosexuality, rationality/reason, and solidity, along with the goal of oriented progress: “Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins.”
She argues that there is a biological basis to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, writing: “The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains.” Moreover, Paglia attributes all the progress of human civilization to masculinity revolting against the Chthonic forces of nature, and turning instead to the Apollonian trait of ordered creation. The Dionysian is a force of chaos and destruction, which is the overpowering and alluring chaotic state of wild nature. Rejection of – or combat with – Chthonianism by socially constructed Apollonian virtues accounts for the historical dominance of men (including asexual and homosexual men; and childless and/or lesbian-leaning women) in science, literature, arts, technology and politics. As an example, Paglia states: “The male orientation of classical Athens was inseparable from its genius. Athens became great not despite but because of its misogyny.”[)
In Antony and Cleopatra Rome follows a conservative republican psychology. Roman personality is strictly delimited, preserving the bounds of ego. At the news of Antony’s death, Caesar declares, ‘The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack’ (V.i.14-15). He means the announcing of so important an event should make a louder noise, like a thunderclap. But Caesar also envisions Antony’s death as the toppling and shattering of a statue, a colossus. Throughout the play, Roman personality is static and brittle, like stone. Caesar defines identity and kinship in legalistic terms. The abstract and public take precedence over the concrete, emotional, and sensuous (III.vi.6). the Romans constantly condemn Antony for abandoning the former for the latter. Roman social order is hierarchically inflexible, as Ventidius shrewdly sees. Rome’s voice is the bleak reality principle of political expediency. In Egypt, on the other hand, energy pours into self-expression. Antony and Cleopatra’s Alexandrian revels are an endless round of feasts and games. Enobarbus saw the panting Cleopatra ‘hop forty paces through the public street’ (II.ii.235). Dionysian beings are playful and democratic. As queen, Cleopatra is indifferent to decorum. Her hilarity contrasts with Caesar’s puritanical sobriety. Caesar stands on ceremony. He is driven by a single purpose, consolidation of the Mediterranean under Roman rule. He has no personal live. He completely identifies private with public interest. Hence he is unstoppable. Such men can be political geniuses or monsters.
Roman time and Roman space also obey Apollonian laws. Caesar sees time as a linear strip, a Roman triumph, the chronicle of civic history (V.i.65-66). Cleopatra blurs time in the eternal now of imagination. Narrated memories in Egypt have such emotional immediacy they seem more vivid than events before us. Enobarbus, a Roman in Rome, is overcome by Egyptian memory when he describes Cleopatra on her royal barge. Caesar remembers only for duty or revenge. Throughout the play, Roman space is defined by images of closure, contrasting with Antony and Cleopatra’s expansive ‘new heaven, new earth’ of love (I.i.17). Space is cut up like urban districts, the Apollonian borderlines of Greek demes and tracts. The Romans speak of hoops, edges, fences, stalls, pillars, the rigid language of public architecture and Apollonian containment.
Antony and Cleopatra respect no boundaries. Antony’s infatuation ‘o’erflows the measure.’ He sends ‘his bounty overplus’ even to defectors. His heart and chest burst his buckles. The heart of dead Cleopatra strains to blow free. Caesar places Antony’s old legions in the vanguard ‘that Antony may seem to spend his fury upon himself’ (I.i.2; IV.vi.22; IV.vi.10-11). Even his archenemy acknowledges Antony’s transpersonal extensiveness of identity. Everything in Egypt is abundance, profligacy, Dionysian too-muchness. ‘Eight wild boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there’ (II.ii.185-86). Caesar tried to channel and subdue the flood of emotion and sensation which is Egyptian experience. His victory is signaled when Cleopatra is ‘confined’ to her tomb, the ‘frame’ of his own Apollonian will (V.i.52-56). Like Blake’s tyrant Urizen, Caesar lays the cold compass of Apollonian measure upon Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety.’
Caesar’s Roman world-view is a desiccated or devivified Apolloianism: hierarchical order and dignity, the sharp-edged unitary ego, separation from sexuality and the sensory. Caesar’s patron is, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘Apollo, the founder of states.’ Cleopatra’s world-view is promiscuously Dionysian: abolition of limits and boundaries [MY NOTE: remember ‘melting’], multiple personae, eating and drinking, sex, anarchic energy, natural fecundity. Caesar and his retinue call Antony effeminate, yet Antony is more masculine than Caesar in the usual sense. Caesar, a bland managerial type, is sexually neuter. He is an Apollonian androgyne. The dominant sexual persona of Spencer’s Fairie Queene has completely lost its glamour in Shakespeare’s Dionysian genre. In Antony and Cleopatra, Apolloianism is merely officiousness, the spite and banality of small minds.”
And for those of you who just want to hear your Shakespeare…Vivien Leigh and Peter Finch…
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act One and other ways of looking at the play as we go deeper.