“Age cannot with her, nor custom stale./Her infinite variety.”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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Theda-bara-cleopatraAct Two:  At Pompey’s camp, the news that Caesar has assembled an army is not exactly well-received. Antony has returned.  Meanwhile, Rome’s three rulers (the triumvirate) are locked in disagreement: Antony is criticized for Fulvia’s rebellion but denies undermining Caesar. Agrippa suggests that in order to strengthen their alliance and be reconciled, Antony should marry Octavius Caesar’s sister, Octavia. Both agree, but it isn’t long before Antony wants to return to Egypt and Cleopatra. News of Antony’s marriage has reached Cleopatra, however, and she is devastated. And even though the threat of civil war is averted when Pompey agrees to halt his campaign, it becomes all too clear that the “peace dinner” that his intentions are far darker than anyone realizes.

Let’s take a brief look at one of my favorite scenes:  the one in which Cleopatra discovers that Antony has betrayed her by marring Octavia.  It is, clear, a glorious set piece for Cleopatra and the actor who plays her: after receiving one of the play’s many many messengers (“twenty-several” of hers alone follow Antony to Rome), she is so frantic for news that she will not even allow him to speak. Responding to his guarantee that her beloved is “well,” she barks:

Cleopatra:

    But, sirrah, mark; we use

To say the dead are well. Bring it to that,

The gold I give thee will I melt and pour

Down thy ill-uttering throat.

Messenger:

Good madam, hear me.

Cleopatra:

     Well go to, I will.

But there’s no goodness in thy face. If Antony

Be free and healthful, so tart a favour

To trumpet such good tidings! If not well,

Thou shouldst come like a Fury crowned with snakes,

Not like a formal man.

Messenger:

Will’t please you to hear me?

Cleopatra:

I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st.

(2.5.30-42)

Although the scene grows even more broadly comic – particularly when she “hales him up and down” in a rage, as the stage directions have it – it is also tinged by a growing pathos. As we watch Cleopatra fight her urge to hear Octavia’s beauty described to her (albeit by a messenger who is far too terrified to tell her anything she doesn’t want to hear), it seems clear that she feels the loss of what she so touching called her “salad days” all too keenly.

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From Garber:

Augustus_Statue“In the Rome of Antony and Cleopatra one Caesar has succeeded another, one Pompey another Pompey.  [MY NOTE:  Keep in mind Jan Kott’s “Grand Mechanism”]  This Rome is a place of time and history, of realpolitik, business, and war. ‘He was disposed in mirth,’ says Cleopatra of Antony, ‘but on the sudden/A Roman thought hath struck him.’ (1.2.72-73). A ‘Roman thought’ is a serious thought, as well as a thought of Rome. This Rome is governed by a man who embodies all of its virtues and all of its shortcomings. Octavius Caesar, a man who has in the play no personal life, no vices; who does not like to drink wine because it brings out the irrational and emotional side of men. ‘Our graver business/Frowns at this levity,’ he observes censoriously in the great and comic drinking scene (2.7.15-116). The Caesar of this play has no visible wife. His loving attentions are centered on that apparently most pure and Roman of affections, the love of a sister, Octavia. Later Octavia will become Antony’s wife, in a transaction that has all the romance of a merger between two large corporations, which is essentially what it is. The proxy marriage – not uncommon for royalty in Shakespeare’s time – is sealed by a handshake between Antony and Caesar. Octavia is not present, nor is she consulted. And Antony is all business, all policy, when in Rome: ‘[T]hough I make this marriage for my peace,/I’th’ East my pleasure lies.’ (2.3.37-38).

But if Caesar is tender to his sister, he is ruthless in politics and war. He will arrange, for example, to have those soldiers who have deserted from Antony’s forces fight in the front lines of the Roman army, ‘[t]hat Antony may seem to spend his fury/Upon himself’ (4.6.89-10). And at the end of the play he cold-bloodedly tries to deceive Cleopatra into surrendering, because he wants the political benefit of bringing her in triumph back to Rome. Caesar is the spirit of Rome in this play: puritanical, efficient, bloodless. And Octavia, his sister and near-namesake, is the spirit of Roman womanhood. ‘Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation,’ says Enobarbus (2.6.120). ‘Conversation’ in this context means disposition, mode or course of life – what a wife for Antony! (It also means ‘sex,’ which is even more apropos.) ‘He married but his occasion here,’ but [h]e will to his Egyptian dish again.’ His ‘occasion’: the marriage is a business opportunity. Enobarbus knows his master, even if his master does not know himself.

The play deliberately contrasts Octavia with Antony’s former wife, the heroic Fulvia, an alternative model for the Roman matron, who leads an army into battle (‘Fulvia thy wife came first into the field’ [1.2.78]) and whose death makes this new marriage possible, even though Antony is still enchanted with Cleopatra. Octavia’s mildness and obedience, as we will see, are no match for Cleopatra, nor, indeed, fro Antony. She exemplifies the virtue of compromise, but she (like Cressida, and like Blanche of Castile in King John) finds that no middle way is possible:

     Husband win, win brother

Prays and destroy the prayer; no midway

‘Twist these extremes at all.

3.4.18-20

On the one hand, then, is Rome, and the ‘holy, cold, and still’ Octavia. And on the other, the antithesis of these, the burgeoning land of Egypt and its queen, who is everything Octavia is not. Egypt is a place of enormous, teeming fertility, the contrary of the relatively staid and sexless Octavius and Octavia. Its chief geographical emblem is the fertile Nile:

     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.

2.7.19-22

Like the river, the Queen teems with life:

She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed.

He ploughed her, and she cropped.

2.2.233-234

The joke is sexual and biblical: Caesar’s sword is made into a ploughshare. The ‘great Caesar,’ of course, is not Octavius but Julius. Cleopatra is the mother of Cesarion, by Julius Caesar. She is ‘the serpent of old Nile,’ at once wily temptress and genius loci, an Egyptian spirit of place. Repeatedly, Egypt is imaged and established as a place of excess, of boundlessness in desire and will, a place in which night replaces morning, so that, as Enobarbus – that detached and excellent witness – says, ‘we did sleep day out of countenance, and made the night light with drinking’ (2.2.184-185). Egypt is also a place of music, that transforming art of romance, that in this play, as so often in Shakespeare, breeds melancholy: ‘music, moody food/Of us that trade in love’ (2.5.1-2). In fact, Cleopatra, casting about for recreation when Antony is away, demonstrates at once the nature of Egyptian life and its changeability. First she calls for billiards and shouts, ‘Let’s to billiards,’ then, ‘We’ll to th’ river. There,/My music playing far off’ (2.5.3, 10-11). At the river she will fish, or as she says, ‘I will betray/Tawny-finned fishes’ (11-12), for the betrayal is as much a part of the sport as the angling. These are the entertainments of Egypt: sex, food, appetite, music, drinking, betrayal – and performance. Performances in which Cleopatra and Antony change places and costumes, male and female: ‘[I] put my tires and mantles on him whilst/I wore his sword Philippan’ (2.5.22-23); ‘tires and mantles’ are headdresses and scarves.  The sword, with or without Freud, is the sign of male adult prowess, as was clear as well in the image of Caesar ‘ploughing’ Cleopatra with his sword (though we should remember here also the example of the Roman warrior wife Fluvia).

The gender games of Egypt are among Cleopatra’s favorites, but so is that game of betrayal. She is willful, contrary, and in every sense provocative. Thus she delights in sending false messages to see how they are received:

    If you find him sad,

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.

1.3.3-5

As is so often the case in Shakespearean dramatic construction, this apparently negligible foible will come back, later in the play, with far more serious and tragic consequences. For when Cleopatra sends the message that she is dead, she provokes Antony’s suicide. But at the beginning of the play her charm is evident, and its politically disastrous effects are not yet brought to the fore. She captivates many in the audience as she captivates Antony. Her own nature is one of antithesis, paradox, opposites, and opposition. (For years I deployed a Shakespeare litmus test in my Harvard lecture course, polling the students as to whether they thought of themselves as Romans or Egyptians. Not surprisingly, the ‘Roman’ years coincided with relatively conservative upswings in U.S. politics, while the ‘Egyptian’ years were, by and large, liberal.)

Of all the activities typical of Shakespeare’s Egypt, though, one of the most striking in the early part of the play is that of fortune-telling. The Soothsayer is an Egyptian. In Caesar’s Rome no such fantasy is tolerated; in Rome the future is told by armies and policy, by Machiavellian manipulation and deception, and by artful shows of strength. In Egypt, by contrast, the future is just another entertainment, another game – a game in the form of a riddle that, like the riddle of the Sphinx, can be misinterpreted. ‘You shall outlive the lady whom you serve,’ says the Soothsayer to Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra’s ladies (1.2.27). And Charmian says, ‘O, excellent! I love long life better than figs’ (28). Figs are often associated with fecundity and fertility, and sometimes with lust and sex. In ‘Of Isis and Osiris’ Plutarch writes: ‘The fig leaf is interpreted as drinking and motion and is supposed to represent the male sexual organ’ – and which, of course, it often covers in statuary. Again, Charmian’s casual comment prefigures a more ominous moment late in the play, when the Clown, or rustic, comes to Cleopatra with a poisonous serpent in a basket of figs. The two elements, long life and sexuality, are part of the burgeoning texture of Egypt. But Charmian is wrong to interpret the Soothsayer’s message as a harbinger of long life. She will outlive her lady by a few moments only, and her lady, Cleopatra, will die an untimely death.

The Soothsayer will also speak to Antony when both of them come to the hostile climate of Rome. Again his warning is serious, and again it is disregarded:

Antony:

     Say to me

Whose fortunes shall rise higher: Caesar’s or mine?

Soothsayer:

Caesar’s. Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side.

Thy daemon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is

Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable,

Where Caesar’s is not. But her him thy angel

Becomes afeard, as being o’erpowered. Therefore

Make space enough between you.

2.3.14-21

Like all quasi-magical or prophetic figures in these plays – the witches in Macbeth, for example, of the Fool in Lear – the Soothsayer may be understood as existing both as an independent character (he has lines: an actor plays the role); and as an aspect of Antony’s conscience and consciousness, here warning him of dangers he partly comprehends but also resists. ‘Make space enough between you.’ But when Rome comes to Egypt, when the Egypt and Rome in Antony cannot any longer be disentangled, there is no space. “’[T]hough I make this marriage for my peace,/I’th’ East my pleasure lies.’)

Colbert, Claudette (Cleopatra)_01CAll the attributes of Egypt are also attributes of its queen: fertility, excess, playing, omens, sex, and appetite. Consider some of the names Cleopatra is given, and gives herself, in the course of the play. She is a ‘witch,’ says Antony when he is betrayed by her, but she is also an ‘enchanting queen.’ She is Thetis, the mother of that greatest warrior of all, Achilles; she brought him his armor, as Cleopatra buckles Antony into his. She is his ‘great fairy,’ a Fairy Queen, powerful and dangerous; she is Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the moon, and earth, and the Nile, and sexual generation, a goddess who appears in mythology always surrounded by snakes. She is Antony’s ‘grave charm,’ and ‘thou spell’ – both functions of language, as well as of beauty and sexuality – one who bewitches by magic.

The play is full of magic that seems to have Cleopatra as its source, magic that overpowers Antony in Roman eyes, robbing him of his reputation and his name, that most powerful and primitive of all magical properties. ‘[H]is name,/That magical word of war,’ Ventidius calls it (3.1.30-31). But increasingly Antony comes to doubt the rightness of names. ‘I am/Antony yet,’ he will assert defensively, and ‘what’s her name/Since she was Cleopatra (3.13.92-03, 98-99), in a passage behind which we can hear Troilus’s cry of despairing unbelief; ‘This is and is not Cressid.’ In many parts of the world in the early modern period, as in some places still today, to know someone’s real name was to have some measure of control over him or her. Thus the pattern of the losing and finding of names (‘This is I,/Hamlet the Dane’ [Hamlet 5.1.241-242); ‘My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son’ [Lear 5.3.164]) often accompanies moments of extreme danger, heroism, and self realization in Shakespeare’s plays. In this play, Antony’s quest is to find out what ‘Antony’ means to Rome, to history, and by implication to the generations that will come long after him, including the Shakespearean audience, then and now. Antony is Antony, but the name of Cleopatra, as we have seen, is many names. ‘[W]rinkled deep in time,’ she is somehow both ageless and timeless, apparently as beautiful now as when she was ‘[a] morsel for a monarch’ – and that monarch was Julius Caesar, the uncle and adoptive father of Octavius.

Of all the descriptions of Cleopatra in the play, none is so powerful or so justly famous as Enobarbus’s compelling picture of her first meeting with Antony ‘upon the river of Cydnus.’ In Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony,’ there is no direct model for the confidant figure Enobarbus, who fits into the Shakespearean mode of Horatio and Banquo. In Plutarch, we find one Domitius surnamed Aenobarbus, or ‘red-beard,’ who accompanied Antony on military campaigns, and another Domitius (without a surname) who deserted him. Shakespeare conflates these two figures and names his character Enobarbus. Of greater importance for the evolution of this dramatic character is the fact that Shakespeare gives to him a speech – the ‘Cyndus’ speech – that in the ‘Life of Antony’ is the words of Plutarch himself. Instead of the omniscient voice of the historian-chronicler, there is the highly critical voice of the loyal soldier skeptical about Cleopatra, skeptical about her power over his master, and finally entrapped in the tragedy that overtakes them all. And yet Enobarbus is, albeit unwillingly, dazzled by the spectacle, and by the woman, even as he disapproves of her effect upon Antony. This astonishing passage presents Cleopatra as a paradox of nature and a work of art. It describes an event from the past, a scene that took place, therefore, ‘offstage,’ and its lyric potential can be compared to that of the ‘[s]unshine and rain at once’ passage in King Lear.  This, too, is an ‘unscene,’ unseen by the spectators in the theater except in the mind’s eye. By contrast, the Cleopatra we see onstage is deliberately ‘human’ – often comic, domestic, playful, sometimes petty and cruel 9as she is, for example, with the unfortunate messenger who brings her the news of Antony’s marriage). That Cleopatra is flawed, and can be shown to us. But the Cleopatra of legend, the Cleopatra who has ensnared king after king, generation after generation, is a creature of poetry and myth rather than of drama, and so we are offered Enobarbus’s admiring and ruefully accepting vision. (Modern readers may have encountered this speech first in its satiric rewriting in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.) What is so striking about Enobarbus’s speech, though, is its complete lack of irony, despite the speaker’s resistance:

Enobarbus:

The barge she sat in, 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.

Agrippa:

O, rare for Antony!

Enobarbus:

Her gentlewoman, 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’ market-place, did sit alone,

Whistling to th’air, which but for vacancy

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,

And made a gap in nature.

(2.2.197-224)

[MY NOTE:  As a means of comparison, here’s the same passage from Plutarch:

Though she received many letters of summons both from Antony himself and from his friends, she so despised and laughed the man to scorn as to sail up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. 2 She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks. 3 Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight. The throng in the market-place gradually streamed away, until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone. And a rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.

Antony sent, therefore, and invited her to supper; but she thought it meet that he should rather come to her. 4 At once, then, wishing to display his complacency and friendly feelings, Antony obeyed and went. He found there a preparation that beggared description, but was most amazed at the multitude of lights. For, as we are told, so many of these were let down and displayed on all sides at once, and they were arranged and ordered with so many inclinations and adjustments to each other in the form of rectangles and circles, that few sights were so beautiful or so worthy to be seen as this.]

Cleopatra here is described in her element – or rather, in all her elements: fire, air, earth, and water. As we have noted, Antony’s element is that of what the play calls ‘dungy earth’ – so that when he decides later to fight Caesar on the sea rather than on the land he is ingloriously defeated, and the land is ‘ashamed to bear [him]’ (3.11.2). Above all, Enobarbus’s glittering description is of a natural work of art. Winds lovesick for the purple sails; silver oars whose strokes on the water are sexual, and desired; the fans of the boys, like the bellows mentioned in the opening scene, seeming to heat and cool at once (‘what they undid did’). Cleopatra herself is a Venus surrounded by Cupids. Even the air, we are told, wishes to violate its cardinal rule, the rule that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ so that it, too, may go ‘to gaze on Cleopatra,’ herself the ultimate exception to all rules. And yet this object of this consummate art is, in the next breath, described by the same Enobarbus in terms of her shortcomings. In fact, her shortcomings are part of the paradox that makes her irresistible:

Enobarbus:

I saw her once

And having lost her breath, she spoke and panted

That she did make defect perfection,

And, breathless, pour breath forth.

Maecenas:

Now Antony

Must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus:

     Never. He will not.

Age cannot with 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.

2.2.234-245

113711_1-1She makes hungry where she most satisfies. Cleopatra is more than a woman, she is sexual appetite itself, she is beauty and charm. Even the priests regard her carnal desire as holy. And at the same time, Cleopatra is human weakness, pettiness, and frailty, ‘hopping’ in undignified steps through the public street, panting with loss of breath. Her humanity, like her pettiness and her changeability; somehow increases rather than decreases her astonishing erotic power. She is paradox and contradiction, the incarnation of desire – fire, water, and air, dazzling a man of earth.

Enobarbus praises her as ‘[o]’er-picturing…Venue,’ and it is worth underscoring this evocation of Venus, since it is central to the iconography of Cleopatra throughout the play. (To ‘overpicture’ is to represent in excess of reality; in Enobarbus’s eyes Cleopatra is even more magnificent than the Roman goddess of love and beauty.) The story of Venus and Mars, the love goddess and the war god, is everywhere in Antony and Cleopatra, as, indeed, it was in Othello. From the opening moments of the play the audience has heard Antony compared to Mars. Philo – a soldier whose name means ‘love’ in Greek – laments the fact that Antony’s ‘goodly eyes,/That o’er the files and musters of the war/Have glowed like plated Mars’ (that is, Mars in armor) (1.1.2-4) are solely bent on Cleopatra. Enobarbus himself makes the comparison; ‘If Caesar move him’ (i.e., provokes him), he says,

Let Antony look over Caesar’s head

And speak as loud as Mars…

2.2.4-6

25_Venus_and_Mars_jpgThe story of Mars and Venus, the story of a war god enslaved by a love goddess, was a popular subject for Renaissance painters. Images of Venus or Cupid toying with the discarded armor of Mars, while the god of war sleeps, sated with sexual pleasure, are common in the period. When Antony calls Cleopatra ‘the armourer of my heart,’ and has her buckle on his armor for the ill-fated fight with Caesar, in which she will betray him, an early modern audience might well think of this famous scenario of unmanning by love. More specifically, Shakespeare’s audiences might also call to mind Helen’s unbuckling of Hector in Troilus and Cressida: one nonpareil woman buckles, the other unbuckles, but both disarm the heroes they tend.

Associations with Mars and Venue would also ‘explain’ another of the characteristic play activities of the Egyptian world, the exchange of gender roles and adornments. In a way, this is characteristic Egyptian inversion – night for day, love for war, timelessness for time, immorality for morality – but it is also a behavior in the world of love that is at odds with the usual conventions of war and politics. Thus Caesar’s contemptuous account of Antony’s life in Egypt includes a glance at what a Roman thinks is ‘unmanliness’:

    [H]e fishes, drinks, and wastes

The lamps of night in revel: is not more manlike

Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy

More womanly than he…

1.4.4-7

On the other hand, Cleopatra herself, as we have seen, tenderly remembers such scenes of cross-dressed costume and play:

Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed,

Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst

I wore his sword Philippan.

2.5.21-23

The rough soldier Enobarbus is alarmed by this tendency on Antony’s part, this power of Egypt to make the hero effeminate, subjugated to a woman. At the beginning of the play he cautions the ladies in waiting, ‘Hush, here comes Antony,’ and Charmian corrects him: ‘Not he, the Queen’ (1.2.68).

It is a telling theatrical moment: from the first, in the formal procession of state, the woman displaces the man. Enobarbus protests against Antony’s decision to fight by sea and not by land: he is rightly dubious about Cleopatra’s decision to attend the battle, and, indeed, to ‘appear there like a man’ (as it was said, after the fact, that Queen Elizabeth had done at Tilbury at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, costumed like ‘an androgynous martial maiden’). Enobarbus complains to Cleopatra that rumor says ‘an eunuch, and your maids/Manage this war,’ and in fact Antony is increasingly to be found in conversation with Mardian, Cleopatra’s attendant eunuch. At one point Mardian speaks wistfully of his own desire, for in Egypt, even a eunuch has longings. ‘Indeed?’ says Cleopatra, always alert to erotic possibilities. And Mardian answers,

Not in deed, madam, for I can do nothing

But what indeed is honest to be done.

Yet I have fierce affections, and think

What Venue did with Mars.

1.5.15-18

He hardly has far to look, since Venue and Mars are constantly before him. But Antony is, as we have seen, a Mars whose powers of war are sapped by his enslavement in love, by his ceding of armor, command, and judgment to Cleopatra-Venus. It is to Mardian, late in the play, that Antony will lament angrily,

O thy vile lady,

She has robbed me of my sword!

4.15.22-23

From such a hero, a line like this, spoken to a eunuch, can hardly fail to carry the obvious sexual implication. Cleopatra has ‘unmanned’ Antony, as Venus unmanned Mars.”

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And to end this post, from Jan Kott:

Antony_with_Octavian_aureus“Shakespeare’s world is historical not only because he remains more or less true to facts and dates. History in Antony and Cleopatra is present not only as material for the plot. The names of generals and geographical terms are taken from Plutarch. But Plutarch’s world, compared to Shakespeare’s, is flat. Heroes and history exist in Plutarch side by side. In Shakespeare history itself is the drama. Caesar had destroyed Pompey; Brutus had assassinated Caesar; Antony had crushed Brutus. Three men have divided the world among themselves: Antony, Octavius – who has assumed the name of Caesar – and Lepidus Against them has risen Sextus Pompey, son of the great Pompey. Antony, through his legates, orders Pompey to be murdered. The younger Caesar has imprisoned Lepidus and ordered him to be murdered. Only two remain:

Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps, no more;

And throw between them all the food thou hast,

They’ll grind the one the other.

(III.5)

This is Shakespeare. The world is varied and multifarious, but the world is small. Too small for three rulers. Too small even for two. Either Antony, or Caesar, must die. Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy about the smallness of the world. this is something not found in Plutarch. Plutarch’s world is not tragic. Generals and rulers are good or bad, wise or stupid, prudent or mad. Antony was mad, and he lost. The younger Caesar was prudent, and triumphed. History happens to be cruel, because tyrants happen to be cruel. But the world is arranged rationally; in the end virtue and reason win. The world is a great place, after all.

In Antony and Cleopatra the world is little. It seems much smaller than in Plutarch. It is narrow and everything seems to be nearer. The Messenger says:

Thy biddings have been done, and every hour,

Most noble Caesar, shalt thou have report

How ‘tis abroad.

(I, 4)

This sentence, too, is absent in Plutarch. Not only did Shakespeare read Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans in North’s contemporary version. He viewed the world through the experience of late Renaissance. In Antony and Cleopatra the sun still circles the earth, but the earth has already become a tiny globule, lost and of no importance in the universe.

His face was as the heavn’ns, and therein stuck

A man and moon, which kept their course and lighted

The little O, the earth.

(V.2)

The world is small, because one cannot escape it. The world is small because it can be won. The world is small, because to master it, chance, or a helping hand, or a skillful blow will do. Three men have divided the world among themselves. Another man, who wanted to resist them, has already humbled himself. He throws a feast and invites the triumvirs to his galley. They drink. Lepidus gets drunk first. He falls to the ground on deck. A servant throws him over his shoulder and carries the ‘pillar of the world’ out. The officers look at their generals:

Enobarbus:  ‘A bears the third part of the world,…

Menas:  The third part, then, is drunk.

This is the first confrontation. But on board the same galley another confrontation takes place, even more cruel and violent. The triumvirs are drunk, and Pompey is recalled from the feast by one of his followers. The man suggests that sales be put up, and the throats of the three rulers of the world cut.

It is one of the greatest scenes in Antony and Cleopatra, another scene not found in Plutarch, but taken straight from experiences of the Renaissance; a scene strikingly modern. Pompey refuses.  But how he does it. By reproaching Menas for not having done it himself; for asking his approval before and not after the deed:

     Ay, this thou shouldst have done,

And not have spoke on’t! In me ‘tis villainy;

In thee ‘t had been good service.

(II, 7)

….

Shakespeare’s characters are – with the possible exception of Hamlet – a puzzle and a surprise to themselves. His protagonists are torn apart by passion…the world is always there and constantly exerts its pressure, from the opening to the final scene. They too exercise a choice, but it is a choice through action. The theme of Antony and Cleopatra could be taken from Racine: dignity and love cannot be reconciled with the struggle for power which forms the matter of history. But neither the world nor the struggle for power is show in the abstract. The heroes are restless, like big animals in a cage. The cage gets smaller and smaller, and they writhe more and more violently.”

—————————-

So…are you enjoying the play so far?  And let’s go back to Garber’s question:  do you think of yourself as Roman or Egyptian?

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning — more on Act Two

Enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “Age cannot with her, nor custom stale./Her infinite variety.”

  1. Joe Simon says:

    “Shakespeare’s characters are – with the possible exception of Hamlet – a puzzle and a surprise to themselves.”

    This brings up something I just realized. Watching Shakespeare over the years, I wondered why I was enjoying it so much. And one of the main reasons is because he understood human nature so well. But at the same time some of his characters act in strange and mysterious ways. I realized now that this is a major part of the appeal, as it guarantees there will always be new insights and new approaches for the actors. And this too is part of human nature because real people often do act in strange and mysterious ways.

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