“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”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Harold  Bloom:

shakespeare5“Antony is a man upon whom the sun is going down; his genius wanes in the presence of Octavius Caesar. A swordsman, Antony is hopelessly outclassed by the first imperial bureaucrat, who has inherited the canniness, though not the generosity, of his uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar. The audience senses a weariness in Antony, a psychic fatigue with Rome and all things roman. Once astute in politics (as in Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar), Antony has become a bungler, who cannot take or give good advice. His major error is to renegotiate his ostensible alliance with Octavius on the absurdly unstable basis of a dynastic marriage with Octavia, sister to the future Roman emperor. That changes the political game to a version of Russian roulette, in which Antony is bound to shoot himself – that is to say, to get back to Cleopatra at much too high a cost. Fascinated as he is by her, and bored with Octavia, Antony will not lose all for love (or lust) but for changed in himself that he scarcely can hope to understand. I might have thought that on one in Shakespeare could go beyond Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Lear in change founded upon self-overhearing, but Antony – who certainly matches none of them in self-consciousness – is the largest instance of such metamorphic suspectability in all of Shakespeare. Generally, scholars overlook that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is closer to North’s version of Plutarch than is Shakespeare’s Antony, partly because Plutarch (for family reasons) did not much like the historical Antony, even though he admits some of the hero’s better qualities. For Plutarch, Antony’s failure at the Battle of Actium was partly motivated by cowardice, a nasty judgment totally alien to Shakespeare’s Antony, whose courage never wanes, in grand comparison to his judgment, political skill, and erotic self-control.

Though the play’s Antony necessarily cannot match its Cleopatra, Shakespeare creates a magnificent ruin, who becomes only more sublime as he falls. Doubtless, this Mark Antony is too multiform to be a strictly tragic figure, just as Cleopatra is too varies and too close to quasi-divinity for us to find in her a tragic heroine, a Cordelia or a Lady Macbeth. In his decline and fall, Antony transcends his personal limitations, and is humanized with a sumptuousness lavish even for Shakespeare. Pathos and grandeur mingle inextricably as the prodigal Antony shatters, in what must be Shakespeare’s greatest catastrophe creation, a fecund breaking of the vessels without parallel in all of Western literature. The sublime music of Antony’s self-destruction would be the play’s largest poetic achievement, except that nothing could surpass the immense harmonies of Cleopatra’s own death scene, which can be said to have changed Shakespeare himself once and for all. After Antony and Cleopatra, something vital abandons Shakespeare.

Plutarch’s Antony, whatever real brutalities and malfeasances he commits, is always distinguished by his love of honor, and by his capacity to arouse affection in common soldiers. Yet Antony, in Plutarch’s judgment, was the most self-indulgent of the Romans of his era, and succumbed to Cleopatra as the ultimate indulgence:

‘The love for Cleopatra which now entered his life came as the final and crowning mischief which could befall him. It excited to the point of madness many passions which had hitherto lain concealed, or at least dormant, and it stifled or corrupted all those redeeming qualities in him which were still capable of resisting temptation.’

I cite Plutarch only to emphasize that Shakespeare does not exclude this as one of a myriad of perspectives available to his audience as they confront the Antony-Cleopatra relationship, though I hardly view it as a very helpful judgment in itself. One of Shakespeare’s most beautiful ironies is that Antony is at his most interesting, and appealing, when he loses his sense of self-identity:


Eros, thou yet behold’st me?


     Ay, noble lord.


Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,

A vapour sometime, like a bear, or lion,

A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,

A forked mountain, or blue promontory

With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,

And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs,

They are black vesper’s pageants.


     Ay, my lord.


That which is now a horse, even with a thought

The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct

As water is in water.


     It does, my lord.


My good knave Eros, now thy captain is

Even such a body. Here I am Antony,

Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.


How extraordinary it is that Antony, swaggering swordsman and reveler, should sound momentarily like Hamlet! Eros is not Polonius, but then Antony is not being parodistic. Overhearing his own puzzlement, as to whether Eros still recognizes him as Antony, the hero broods upon his cloudlike wavering of self-identity. Antony’s doubt is the consequence not of a single reversal, but of the entire process of transformation he has undergone throughout four acts of dissolution, preludes to his suicide. This dying music is the most prolonged in Shakespeare, and may be the richest study of the nostalgias given us by any of the plays. It is another of the great Shakespearean inventions, a funeral music so prolonged and varied as to have no rival in all subsequent Western literature. To sustain our involvement, Shakespeare must persuade himself, and us, that his Herculean hero is grand enough to merit these obsequies. Plutarch’s Antony could never provoke such magnificence. Shakespeare shows us that a world goes down with Antony, and has Octavius say it best:

The breaking of so great a thing should make

A greater crack. The round world

Should have shook lions into civil streets,

And citizens to their dens. The death of Antony

Is not a single doom, in the name lay

A moiety of the world.


Octavius’s ‘moiety’ is the Eastern half of the Roman world, but the breaking here relates more to a temporal than a spatial entity. With Antony’s death, the age of Julius Caesar and of Pompey is over, an age that began with the death of Alexander the Great. For Shakespeare, it is the Herculean or heroic age, and as I have remarked, Antony – in the play – is already archaic, reflective of a time when charismatic flamboyance still could overcome every obstacle. A demagogue and brutal politician as well as a conqueror, Antony was Shakespeare’s final triumph over Marlowe’s shouting cartoon, Tamburlaine the Great. Iago undid Barabas, Jew of Malta, Antony outshines Tamburlaine, and Prospero will transcend Doctor Faustus, as Shakespeare sweeps Marlowe off the boards. Antony’s death, ironically bungled to begin with, is allowed to achieve an absolute music in contradistinction to Tamburlaine’s pathetic defiance of the necessity of dying. And yet I do not believe that audiences receive Antony’s death as tragic: this is not the death of Hamlet or of Lear, or the death of Falstaff as related by Mistress Quickly in Henry V. There is immense pathos when Antony dies, desperately trying to give Cleopatra sound advice, and recovering something of his dignity, largely through his authentic concern for her. Whether in some sense he has been dying since the play opens we well may wonder, and a four-act decline and fall necessarily disperses any tragic effect upon us. Still, Shakespeare is careful to show us the gap cut in reality by Antony’s death – most of all for Cleopatra, but for everyone else in the drama as well.

Is she deceived? Are they? As with Falstaff and with Hamlet, though Antony is not of their surpassing splendor, such questions return us to a central question in Shakespeare; What is the value of personality, particularly when the power of personality is as palpable as it is in Antony? The fate of Antony is catastrophic, because he is so often humiliated before he dies, while Cleopatra transcends any potential for humiliation by her ritually measured death. And yet Antony’s personality is a Shakespearean triumph: this Herculean hero’s intricate balance of qualities hardly could be more persuasively represented. Marvelous as Antony’s most characteristic gestures can be, the audience shares in the play’s given premise, which is that Antony’s vitality exceeds his actions, even when these are rancid. Hamlet’s infinite charisma, because it is intellectual and spiritual, is beyond Antony’s charismatic endowment, but Hamlet is isolated, except for Horatio. Antony is the grandest of Shakespeare’s captains – Othello and Coriolanus included – because his personality dominates every aspect of his world, even the consciousness of his enemy Octavius. And that personality, like Cleopatra’s, is exuberantly comic: extraordinarily, this tragedy is funnier than any of the great Shakespearean comedies. Shakespeare’s genius, remorseless in Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, totally and wonderfully indulges itself in Antony and Cleopatra, which is certainly the richest of the thirty-nine plays. Poetry itself constitutes much of that wealth, and the personalities of Antony and of Cleopatra constitute a great poem, Herculean and erotic, each an idea of order in that a violent disorder is also an order. Cleopatra, having more mind, wit, and guile, is closer, as I’ve remarked, to Falstaff, but Antony surpasses everyone in the essential gaudiness of his poetry. I cannot believe that any other male character in Shakespeare so fascinated his playwright, not even Hamlet and Falstaff. Antony is Shakespeare’s desire to be different, his wish to be elsewhere: he is the otherness of Shakespeare’s art carries to its farthest limit at representing the variety possible for a merely heroic male, whose inwardness is endlessly mobile, though lacking the intellectual force of Hamlet and of Falstaff. Gusto, comical and yet godlike, is the essence of Antony.”


From Tanner:

antony-and-cleopatra-history-1953-361x541“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. Rome is the place of bonds (Caesar: ‘I know it for my bond’); and bound (‘He’s bound unto Octavia,’ the luckless messenger tells Cleopatra); and bands (Caesar says to Octavia – ‘prove such a wife…as my farthest band/Shall pass on thy aproof’). It is also the place of ‘hoops’ and ‘knots’ (in relation to the problem of what can bind Caesar and Antony together), and of ‘squares,’ ‘rules,’ and ‘measures.’ Antony tries to make a return to this Roman world, but no matter what ‘bonds’ he enters into, no matter how much he intends to try to live ‘by the rule,’ it is, for him, finally not possible. This is not because he is a traitorous man, making and breaking promises for devious purposes. He simply cannot, as we say, be held ‘within bounds.’ When he is in Rome, in Caesar’s house – in the heart of the heart of Rome, as it were – he seems to lose his natural strength and spirit and fortune. As his soothsayer tells him: ‘If thou dost play with him at any game,/Thou art sure to lose; and of that natural luck/He beat thee ‘gainst the odds’ (II.iii.26-8). And Antony recalls that this is indeed true; whatever game they play, with dice, cocks, quail etc., Caesar always wins. These details are all in Plutarch, but note the word that Shakespeare gives to Antony – ‘and his quails ever/Beat mine, inhooped, at odds’ (II, iii, 38-9). ‘Inhooped’ refers to the game of putting the quails within a hoop so that they could not avoid fighting (apparently a very ancient sport, going back to China.) But of course it is really Antony who is ‘inhooped’ in Rome, and within the hoop he cannot be himself, rendered almost impotent within the ‘bounds’ of Caesar’s domain. Antony is most remarkable for his ‘bounty,’ with all that that words suggests of generosity, an endless spending and giving of a superabundant nature. In North’s Plutarch, this ‘liberality’ is often referred to – and with admiration, even when Plutarch is criticizing Antony for his riotous feasting and wasteful negligence. Antony, whatever else, is an example of ‘magnanimitas.’

In this play, this ‘bounty’ is constantly referred to and made manifest. I shall single out three notable occasions. On the night before the critical battle of Actium, Antony reasserts himself as ‘Antony.’ ‘Come,/Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me/All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more,’ and Cleopatra joins in the spirit of the occasions, reasserting the role which in this case is the reality, of both of them: ‘But since my lord/Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra’ (III.xiii.182-7). They are most themselves when playing themselves. They are out-playing history, as I shall suggest later. But we then immediately go over to Caesar’s camp and hear Caesar give his instructions on this important night: ‘And feast the army; we have store to do’it,/And they have earned the waste. Poor Antony!’ (Iv.i.15-16). Then we are back in Cleopatra’s palace, and hear Antony saying – ‘Be bounteous at our meal…’ (IV.ii.10). In the context and frame of Antony’s ‘bounty,’ Caesar’s arid, quantifying speech seems like the utterance of a very small soul indeed – the epitome of cynical parsimony, so that ‘feast’ is translated into ‘store,’ and then further degraded into ‘waste.’ Here is another absolutely basic opposition in the play, a confrontation and contestation of vocabularies so that what is ‘feast’ in one, is regarded as ‘waste’ in the other. Antony gives from bounty; Caesar works from inventories. ‘Poor Antony!’ – yes, from one point of view; from another he is rich Antony, since he gives unthinkingly from his spirit, while Caesar – poor Caesar – distributes carefully from his ‘store.’ ‘Feast’ celebrates excess: ‘waste’ defers to boundaries.

In North’s Plutarch (and Shakespeare took almost as much from Plutarch for this play as he did for Julius Caesar) there is la little incident during the battle of Actium recorded thus:

‘Furthermore, he dealt very friendly and courteously with Domitius and against Cleopatra’s mind. For, he being sick of an ague when he went and took a little boat to go to Caesar’s camp, Antonius was very sorry for it, but yet he sent after him his carriage, train, and men; and the same Domitius, as though he gave him to understand that he repented his open treason, he died immediately after.’

Shakespeare amplifies this in his account of Enobarbus. Enobarbus, a good though cynical soldier, begins to feel that it is foolish to remain loyal to Antony in his visible decline:

Mine honest and I begin to square.

The loyalty well held to fools does make

Our faith mere folly: yet he that can endure

To follow such allegiance a fall’n lord

Does conquer him that did his master conquer,

And earns a place ‘I th’ story.


But shortly thereafter he leaves Antony and goes over to Caesar. Antony’s reaction is immediate. He sends ‘gentle adieus, and greetings,’ and soon a Roman soldier is telling Enobarbus:


Hath after thee sent all thy treasure, with

His bounty overplus.

(Iv.vi.20-23); my boldface)

Bounty overplus – superabundant abundance, excessive excess. This is the mark of Antony. Enobarbus has no ague; but this act of bounty effectively kills him. His reaction:

I am alone the villain of the earth,

And feel I am so most. O Antony,

Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid

My better service, when my turpitude

Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart…

I fight against thee! No, I will go seek

Some ditch wherein to die; the foul’st best fits

My latter part of life.


His last words are:

     O, Antony,

Nobler than my revolt is infamous,

Forgive me in thine own particular,

But let the world rank me in register

A master-leaver and a fugitive.

O, Antony! O, Antony!


Thus Enobarbus dies in a ditch – the lowest earth – untranscended; unlike Antony and Cleopatra, who move towards fire and air from the mud of the Nile. To be ‘politic’ with Caesar after being loyal to Antony, is a degenerative deformation which cannot be endured. And Enobarbus effectively ‘loses his place in the story’ – he cancels himself, writes himself out of the poetic termination of Antony’s life, annihilates himself in a ditch. And his parting word is – not ‘Poor Antony!’; but the far more expressive ‘O, Antony!’ This Antony is the measureless measure of all that Enobarbus has deserted. After such bounty – what forgiveness?

My third reference is to Cleopatra’s imaginative re-creation and recuperation of Antony after his death. It takes place in the presence of Dolabella, and leads to one of the most crucial exchanges in the play. Cleopatra has her own oriental bounty, and she now speaks with an overflowing superabundance of language which makes her final speeches perhaps the most poetically powerful and coruscating in the whole of Shakespeare. Her recreation of Antony concludes:

     For his bounty,

There was no sinter in’t: an autumn ‘twas

That grew the more by reaping. His delights

Were dolphin like, they show’d his back above

The element they lived in. In his livery

Walked crowns and crownets; realms and islands were

As plates dropped from his pocket.


Such a way of speaking, which goes beyond hyperbole into another realm of ‘truth,’ is too much for the Roman-practical-empirical Dolabella, who interrupts her – ‘Cleopatra –‘ To which she says:

Think you there was or might be such a man

As this I dreamt of?

Dolabella is sure – ‘Gentle madam, no’.

You like, up to the hearing of the gods.

But if there be nor ever were one such,

It’s past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff

To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t’imagine

As Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy,

Condemning shadows quite.


Cleopatra’s image of Antony out-imagines the imagination, out-dreams dream. If you agree with Dolabella’s Roman negative, the Roman deflationary perspective – the ‘nay’ which starts the play, then you deny Cleopatra’s poetry and its power; deny Antony’s bounty and its power. And you are well in danger of ‘losing a place in the story.’ But is hardly possible, for by this stage, the soaring bounty of the imagination has passed beyond the boundaries and circumscriptions of nature itself. This is the awesome, magical excess which makes the world itself but a place of limits and limitations. Recall Antony and Cleopatra’s opening words:

Cleopatra:  If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

Antony:  There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

Cleopatra: I’ll set a bourn for how far to be beloved.

Antony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.


Philo’s ‘lust’ is immediately rephrased as ‘love.’ Cleopatra, playing, speaks temporarily in Roman terms – how much? (quantifying), and wanting to set a ‘bourn’ (boundary) on being loved. But Antony already points out the direction in which the play will move. For they do not have to find out ‘new heaven, new earth,’ a whole new world beyond quantification and boundaries, until the ‘truth’ engendered by their love, their imagination, their dreaming, goes far beyond the restricted and impoverished realism of the roman eye. By which point it simply is ‘paltry to be Caesar.’

There is a great stress on ‘time’ in Antony and Cleopatra, and it is well to remember that this is a history play. The outcome of the events it dramatized was the so-called ‘Augustan peace,’ during which Christ was born and the pagan Empire – which Virgil called the Empire without end – was established, according to later writers, as a divine preparation for the Christian Empire. Octavius Caesar, himself a pagan, unknowingly laid the way for the True City, so in Christian terms the struggles and battles in the play affect, not merely his society, but all human society, the orbis terrae of Augustine. The events of the play are indeed of ‘world’ importance – world-shattering, world-remaking (the word ‘world’ occurs at least forty-five times in the play). By the same token, an earlier pagan world is being silenced, extinguished, and history – as the audience would know – is on Caesar’s side. He is in time with Time. Antony and Cleopatra are out of time, in more than one sense. Thus, at the beginning, when Antony decides that he must return to Rome, Cleopatra silences his apologies, referring to the time-out-of-time when they were together – ‘Eternity was in our lips and eyes’ – while Antony, thinking Romanly for the moment, refers to ‘the strong necessity of time.’ Egypt, in this play, is a timeless present, which is to say an Eternity.

It can hardly escape our attention that the play is full of messengers from the start – two in the first scene, some thirty-five in all, with nearly every scene having a messenger of some kind. The play itself is extremely episodic, with some forty-two scenes (no scene breaks at all in the Folio), which makes for a very rapid sequence of change of place. There are nearly two hundred entrances and exits, all contributing to what Dr. Johnson called the ‘continual hurry’ and ‘quick succession’ of events, which ‘call the mind forward without intermission.’ This can be interpreted in different ways, but it certainly depicts a world in constant movement, in which time and place move and change so quickly that the whole world seems in a ‘hurry’ and in a state of flux – fluid, melting, re-forming. Messengers and messages bring information from the outside – they are interruptions, irruptions, precipitants of change. History is going on, and on, and at an ever accelerating pace. Yet the remarkable thing is that time seems somehow to stand still in Egypt – both within and without the reach of ‘messages’; both vulnerable to history yet outside it. When Antony is away, Cleopatra simply wants to ‘sleep out this great gap of time’ (I.v.6). (When she first approaches Antony in her ‘barge,’ the city goes out to see her, leaving Antony alone ‘Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,/Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,/And make a gap in nature’ – II.ii.222-4. It is as if Cleopatra creates ‘gaps’ – gaps in time, gaps in nature.)  For Rome, Egypt represents a great waste of time while the ‘business’ of history is going on. the word ‘business,’ more often than not, carries pejorative connotations in Shakespeare. It is notable that Caesar interrupts his formulaic (as I hear it), elegiac ‘praise’ of the dead Antony because of – a messenger: ‘The business of this man looks out of him;/We’ll hear him what he says’ (v.i.50; my italics). He never completes the speech. Conversely, Cleopatra interrupts history to complete her poetic re-creation of Antony – from which no ‘business’ can distract her. From the Egyptian prospective, history itself is a ‘gap of time,’ and Cleopatra, though growing physically older (‘wrinkled deep in time’), seems to linger in Eternity, waiting for Antony to return from the trivial – though world-shattering – distractions of history.”


And finally, from Frank Kermode:

mirren antony and cleopatra“Perhaps we should not trouble ourselves too much about dates and the exact order of composition of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is important that Antony and Cleopatra, usually dates towards the end of 1606, is very close in time to King Lear, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens, with Coriolanus soon to follow. The composition of these plays within a span of a couple of years is astonishing, and would be even if one left Timon out of account. And perhaps we should also congratulate the anonymous but marvelous boy who played Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and possibly also Volumnia in Coriolanus.

In theme, structure, and rhetoric Antony and Cleopatra is strikingly different from the others. It is a history play, but its principal source is Plutarch’s Life of Antonius, treated with the same blend of fidelity and freedom we find in Shakespeare’s rehandling of English historians. It treats of Roman history at its turning point, the time between the effective end of the republic and the establishment of empire. Its theme, therefore, is world history, and in its deliberate grandeur and political scope the play keeps us continually aware of the greatness of its subject. When Octavius prophesies that ‘The time of universal peace is near’ (IV.vi.4), he may simply mean that the period during which the Roman world was divided between him and Antony was about to end; but his auditors would recall the familiar idea of the ‘Augustan peace,’ the years when providence ensured conditions favorable to the birth of Christ and the foundation of an empire that would ultimately become the Christian empire. Of course Octavius, later Augustus, had to win; otherwise the center of the empire would have been Alexandria, and the style of empire Oriental and pagan. The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra was as necessary as the silencing of the pagan oracles, the replacement of the Roman gods by Christ.

In that sense the victory of Octavius at Actium was held to change the world. The play continually reminds us of the tremendous historical alteration produced by the ending of the war between him and Antony. A. C. Bradley calls the play ‘the picture of a world catastrophe,’ and so it is. Friendship between the two leaders would be ‘a hoop’ to hold them ‘staunch from edge to edge/A’ th’ world’ (II.ii.115-16). Menas repeatedly tells Pompey during the drinking party that by an act of murder, by killing ‘These three world-sharers’ (II.vii.70), he can be ‘lord of the whole world.’ Octavia remarks that war between her husband and brother would be ‘As if the world should cleave’ (III.iv.31), and Antony at Actium loses ‘half the bulk o’ th’ world’ (III.xi.64).

Shakespeare’s use of a particular word or set of words to give undercurrents of sense to the dramatic narratives is, of course, a device used in later literature – it is a feature of E.M. Forster’s novels and a trick also of Virginia Woolf’s. Bernard, the writer in The Waves, says he is tired of stories and longs ‘for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet upon the pavement.’ The ‘little language’ may be a muttered undersong to the main tune of the narrative, as it is in Between the Acts and sometimes in Shakespeare, or it may blare out like a trumpet entry.

And example of the quieter mode is the use, in Antony and Cleopatra, of the word ‘become’ and its derivatives; they occur seventeen times in the play (as against three times in Lear, six times in Macbeth, four times in Timon, nine in Coriolanus; ‘became’ is the sole occurrence in Hamlet).  What is to be made of this? The first occurrence is in the ninth line of the play: ‘his captain’s heart/…is become the bellows and the fan/To cool a gypsy’s lust.’ (I.i.6-10). Antony, hearing of his wife’s death, reflects that ‘The present pleasure,/By revolution low’ring, does become/The opposite of itself’ (I.ii.124-26). Cleopatra taunts Antony: ‘Look…/How this Herculean Roman does become/The carriage of his chafe” (I.iii.96-97). ‘Good Enobarbus, ‘tis a worthy deed,/And shall become you well…’ (Ii.ii.102). ‘She makes hungry/Where most she satisfies; for vildest things/Become themselves in her’ (Ii.ii.236-38). ‘Near him, thy angel/Becomes a fear…’ (II.iii.22-23). ‘’Till I shall see you in your soldier’s dress,/Which will become you both…’ (II.iv.4-5). ‘Enjoy thy plainness,/It nothing ill becomes thee’ (II.vi.78-79). ‘Observe how Antony becomes his flaw’ (III.xii.34). ‘A good rebuke,/Which might have well becom’d the best of men,/To taunt at slackness’ (III.vii.25-27)/ And so on.

Some of these occurrences would normally escape notice; ‘become’ is a useful word not earnestly to be dwelt upon. ‘Yet is has many senses, as the O.E.D. demonstrates ‘What’s become of Waring?’ ‘The powers given to us by Nature are little more than a power to become.’ ‘Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving of it’ (Macbeth, I.iv.7-8). ‘She will become thy bed’ (The Tempest, III.ii.104). in Antony and Cleopatra the word is often used, as it were naturally, in these senses, but occasionally it has enough strain on it to make one pause. For example, Cleopatra’s ‘my becomings kill me when they do not/Eye well to you’ is a noun usage noted as ‘rare’ by the O.E.D., which cites only Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150 (‘Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill…’) as a second example. The strain on the noun is enhanced by the peculiar use of ‘Eye’ as a verb to mean ‘appear under scrutiny.’ This is so out of the way that I think it fails to illustrate the sense it is cited to exemplify in the dictionary (I.5a) which offers nothing else very like it.

The strangeness of Cleopatra’s remark arises from its remoteness from the plain sense of the sentiment. She has just explained that the change in their situation has so disconcerted her that she hardly knows what she is saying. The speaker in the sonnet is saying that his friend has the ability to make unworthy things seem pleasant. Cleopatra calls her demeanor in general her ‘becomings,’ which, like her speech, are out of order when Antony treats her coldly, as he has just done. But the train of the words is very Shakespearean; one often, in these later plays, has the choice of pondering or passing on. ‘Vildest things/Become themselves in her’ is a little easier, but here ‘become’ means rather more than it usually does in this kind of context:  ‘make themselves becoming’ or even ‘become becoming.’ There is no special difficulty in Antony’s use of the word in I.ii.124, although the sentiment in which it figures is not expressed simply: in the turn of the wheel, pleasure, brought low, finds itself transformed into pain. ‘Thy angel/Becomes a fear’ is very striking; the guardian angel becomes a shapeless, abstract menace, and the verb, with an initial stress, is very conspicuous.

‘Becomes/becoming’ is, then, identifiable as part of Antony and Cleopatra’s ‘little language,’ and even its commonplace occurrences reinforce this sense of a semantic subplot. It may nag gently at us, reminding us how much the play is concerned with ‘becoming’: what becomes a Roman, in manners, including the manner of dying; what will become of the world when this contention is over and the entire history of Europe and Roman-Christian empire opens up. there is the question of what kind of behavior ‘O’erflows the measure’ (I.i.2) (like the Nile) – behavior such as submission to a ‘gipsy,’ and endless Egyptian carousing. To stay within measure is to live as Antony once did, when he bore adversity ‘with patience more/Than savages could suffer’ (I.iv.60-61). It is to conduct oneself with the habitual chilly reserve of Octavius, and that is becoming conduct, since it presages the morality and power of the world to come or, in the now obsolete expression, the becoming world.

The use of the word ‘world,’ however, is a different matter. The trumpets sound; attention is continually drawn to it. The same device, using ‘dog,’ is something of a failure in Timon, but here, with ‘world,’ it is a success because of its manifest relevance to the theme and ambitions of the play. It is sounded at once: Antony is ‘The triple pillar of the world transform’d/Into a strumpet’s fool’ (I.1.12-13). The antithetical relation between the two significant parts of the world, Rome and Egypt, is also put before us immediately, not only in Antony’s negligent treatment of the messenger from Octavius but also in his language: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt,’ he says, ‘Here is my space’ (34-35). He chooses to be where Egypt melts into the fertilizing Nile, and the point about the voluptuous flooding of Egypt is made vividly in later passages: ‘Melt Egypt into Nile! And kindly creatures/Turn all to serpents!’ cries Cleopatra in her anger at the news that Antony has married Octavia (Ii.v.78-79). The Nile has serpents (Antony considers her one of them (I.v.25), and ‘kindly creatures’ is a contracted idea: creatures, each in its natural kind, should turn into snakes; the other sense of ‘kind’ is also present.

What will decide the fate of the world? The answers are multiple; there is the cowardice of Cleopatra at Actium; the weakness of Antony in fleeing with her; and ‘the luck of Caesar.’ The second scene of the play seems lighthearted but is serious in so far as it is about luck, the hope of good fortune. The word ‘fortune’ recurs (14,26, 33, 45, 63, 74 – it is used forty-four times in the play; no other play has even half as many occurrences) and is related at once to the ‘o’erflowing Nile.’ Antony’s angel becomes a cloud; he loses to Caesar at cards and cockfighting. Fortune is leading him into ‘dotage’ – a word pronounced in the first line of the play and taken up by Antony himself (117). This is a word no associated mostly with old age, but in Shakespeare it normally (though not in Lear) means ‘infatuation,’ as often in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These brilliant opening scenes put all the cards on the table: Antony is still capable of a Roman thought; he would not dream of mistreating a messenger brining unwelcome tidings (later he has one whipped, in Cleopatra’s manner); and he is aware of his unbecoming conduct: ‘O then we bring forth weeds/When our quick winds lie still (109-10).

So the possession of the world is at risk; the politics of the piece is of universal import. The ribaldry of Enobarbus has to be stilled, and Sextus Pompeius has to be resisted. Octavius and Antony agree; Antony thinks of the fickle populace:

    Our slippery people,

Whose love is never link’d to the deserver

Till his deserts are past, begin to throw

Pompey the Great and all his dignities

Upon his son…

   whose quality, going on,

the sides o’ th’ world may danger.


One notes the freedom, the confined mental force of this, the conversational compression of ‘whose quality, going on’ and the quick figure of a world with two sides – sides not in the competitive sense but in the physical, as when Leontes, in The Winters Tale, says that he is like one who, having drunk, sees a spider in the cup, and ‘cracks his gorge, his sides/With violent hefts’ (II.i.44-45). And Octavius, also brooding on the news of Pompey’s successes, is no less vigorous:

It hath been taught to us from the primal state

That he which is was wish’d, until we were;

And the ebb’d man, ne’er lov’d till ne’er worth love,

Comes dear’d by being lack’d.


(Note the lines that follow: ‘This common body/Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,/Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,/To rot itself with motion’ (44-47). This metaphor was too compactly apt to be forgotten; Antony says of Octavia as they part: ‘Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can/Her heart inform her tongue – the swan’s down feather,/That stands upon the swell at the full of tide,/And neither way inclines’ (III.ii.47-50), the feather remaining constant as the tide changes, unlike the ‘flag’ of Octavius’s lines.)

The sentiment is the same, the imagery different, and even more energetic, with its mixed figures of tide and price. The marriage of Antony to Octavia is of course a political move. A Machiavellian sense of political reality tempers Antony’s licence and is the entirety of Octavius’s mentality; a lack of it causes Pompey to reject the advice of Menas to murder the triumvirs, an out-and-out Machiavellian prescription. When Ventidius declines to pursue the defeated Parthains, he tells us something new about the megalomaniac Antony: subordinates must not be threateningly famous. The temperaments, though not the ambitions of the great men are very different, and Octavius’s is the more Roman, but Antony’s is roman, too, with an Egyptian inclination. Hence the force of the comparison between them: a version of Virtue opposed to a version of Pleasure.”


So…what do you all think so far?

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act Two

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