Antony and Cleopatra
Act Two, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
From Mark Van Doren:
“Once [Cleopatra] fails to see through [Antony], but that is when he is acting for men only and she does not catch the style. As he opens an old vein of oratory and contrives tremulos for the benefit of certain servitors on the eve of battle (IV, ii) she appeals to Enobarbus who is standing by: ‘What means this?’ Enobarbus puts her off by saying that it is an odd trick of sorrow; Antony is affected by thoughts of the next day. But as the instrument plays on she asks again: ‘What does he mean?’ And Enobarbus, who knows his master even better than she knows her lover, has to confess: ‘To make his followers weep.’ It is mere wanton art, an expert’s oratory. There is of course a final quarrel and a final attempt at deception, for the play is a tragedy and Cleopatra will not be able to undo her subterfuge at the monument (IV, xiii-xv). Yet even there the established style will prevail, and modify the tragedy. And long before that it will have subdued every item of the action to the tone of its own unique refinement. The drunkenness of the generals on board Pompey’s galley is as little gross as the love of Antony and Cleopatra is voluptuous. As wine makes the world-sharers witty, and steeps their senses at least in ‘soft and delicate Lethe,’ so love turns the lead of Antony and Cleopatra into gold. Pompey credits the Queen with sultry powers that keep the brain of her lover fuming, but the love we see is light with jest and mellow with amusement. This is because Cleopatra is really queen of her world. When Enobarbus pays her his famous tribute:
Age cannot with her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety…She makes hungry
Where most she satisfies, for vilest things
Become themselves in her,
he is placing her in that world which the style of the play is forever creating: a world which is ancient yet not stale, complacent yet still hungry, and as becoming in its vileness as it is cultivated in its virtues. Its infinite variety is as quality of its air, its land, its water, its animals, its clouds, its language, and its people. All are the creation of a style whose imponderable atoms are ever in graceful dance, no sooner combining to produce forms than separating to dissolve them. The next question is whether action is possible in such an atmosphere, and if so, what kind of action.
In one sense, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is actionless. A world is lost, but it is so well lost that it seems not to have been lost at all; its immensity was not disturbed. The peculiar greatness of this poetry defeats any conceivable dramatic end. Line for line it is perhaps the richest poetry Shakespeare wrote, but the reward it reaps is paradoxical: it builds a universe in which nothing can happen, or at any rate one in which the conflicts and crises of persons cannot be of the first importance. This explains, if it is granted that the gods ordained some sort of greatness for the play, the nakedness of its verbal intensity. The writing has to be wonderful because it is not supported by anything that Aristotle would have called a plot. And it is wonderful. Merely as expression it has that final force which permits many of its passages to stand alone, without the need of a context to recommend them. If they gain from being read in place, the place is an atmosphere rather than an action. The intensity of Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth was derived from their respective predicaments; the intensity of Antony and Cleopatra seems to be generated in themselves, and in the poet who is writing their speeches. This will tend to be true of all the plays to come. Shakespeare’s last plays contain his richest writing but they are not his best plays. Though Timon, Pericles, Imogen, and Leontes are not surpassed by any of Shakespeare’s poets, their stories leave them at a disadvantage. If the disadvantage is less conspicuous in the case of ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ the reason may be that its poetry has come as near as poetry can to the performing of miracles: the play has lifted itself by its language. This appears most regularly in the passages of praise which glisten everywhere as others like them will glisten through the later dramas. The final poet in Shakespeare is content to be lyrical. Praise becomes with him an occupation in itself. The explanation may be that he now has things to say about humanity which must be said directly; or that he cannot find, in the stories available to him, persons to match his thought; or that his dramatic energies have declines. Whatever the explanation, his lyre labors continually at the task of praise, and labors with regal result. Consider Lepidus on Antony:
I must not think there are
Evils enow to darken all his goodness.
His faults in him seem as the spots of heaven,
More fiery by night’s blackness; hereditary,
Rather than purchas’d; what he cannot change,
Than what he chooses.
Or Euphronius on Antony:
Such as I am, I come from Antony.
I was of late as petty to his ends
As is the morn-dew on the myrtle-leaf
To his grand sea.
Or Caesar on Antony:
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.
Or Cleopatra on Antony:
O, see, my women,
The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n! Young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
Or Cleopatra on Antony again – and this would seem to be the goal in the play toward which panegyric and poetry had been striving, for there is no better speech in Shakespeare:
His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm
Created the world; his voice was properties
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in ‘t; an autumn ‘t was
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphin-like, they show’d his back above
The element they liv’d in. In his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.
In another sense ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ has all the action it desires and deserves. There is as much drama in the deaths of its hero and heroine as there can be in the death of two persons who lived, at least while we knew them, without illusion; or lived, it may be more accurate to say, in the full light of accepted illusion. Change is a fairy toy for Theseus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and for Macbeth it is a growing terror. For Antony and Cleopatra it is what must be expected, and they have seen so much of it that more cannot surprise them. The changeableness of life is the only thing that does not change; they know this, and to that extent cannot be touched. Their love has been too thoroughly tested to be shaken now. It is founded on its own fact, and on the humorous knowledge they have of each other. Shakespeare put their case perfectly in his 138th sonnet:
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies…
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Yet not quite perfectly, either. Each knows the other to be a liar, and ultimately does not care if this is so; but one of their pastimes is telling their years. Their days are past the best, and they know this as well as Enobarbus knows that Antony is an old lion (III.xiii.95), or as well as Caesar knows, or thinks he knows that his rival is an old ruffian (IV.i.4). Antony’s remark that gray in both of them has something mingled with their younger brown (IV.vii.19-20) is only a courteous reference to the white hairs he elsewhere takes to himself (II.xi.13). And Cleopatra is content with the boast:
Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness.
As lovers go, then, they are old. That is why they can do without illusion – or, better still, why they know what to do with it. They prefer each other’s untruth to any truth that has yet to be tried.”
From W.H. Auden:
“The Roman empire is shared by the triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus. Lepidus is the unequal member. As Antony and Cleopatra opens, Antony is in Egypt, Octavius in Rome, Antony’s wife Fulvia and her brother have fought against each other and then united against Octavius, who has them kicked out of Italy. Syria on the frontier I lost, Fulvia dies, and Pompey revolts at sea. Pompey is formidable: ‘The people love me,’ he says, and the sea is mine.’ (Ii.i.9). Octavius is particularly afraid that Antony and Pompey may join against him, an alliance that Pompey indeed has tried to bring about. Antony remarks to Octavius and Lepidus that
I did not think to draw my sword ‘gainst Pompey;
For he hath laid strange courtesies and great
Of late upon me.
Octavius calculates that with sufficient time he can deal separately with Pompey and Antony, as long as they remain apart. He is lucky. He defeats Fulvia, and Antony, moved by his own unpopularity, returns to Rome. At their meeting (II.ii), Octavius registers his complaints about Antony’s failure to lend him arms and aid him, and Antony makes his excuses: I had a hangover, I forgot, etc. Antony’s real reason is that he does not trust Octavius. The suggestion is then made that to create a bond between them Antony marry Miss Octavius. Antony unwisely does son, and the immediate effect is to delay Antony’s joining with Pompey. Once Pompey is dealt with, the marriage doesn’t matter to Octavius. If Antony treats Miss Octavius badly, Octavius gets an excuse to make trouble, and in any case he doesn’t really care about his sister. Enobarbus, noting that Octavia is ‘of a holy, cold, and still conversation,’ predicts that Antony ‘will to his Egyptian dish, again.’
In the scene immediately following, on Pompey’s galley (II.vii), the characters are distinctly contrasted. Lepidus gets completely drunk and must be carted off. Antony drunkenly enjoys the party, and Octavius manages to get only a little drunk and to keep his head. As always, he knows what he is doing:
Enobarbus: There’s a strong fellow, Menas.
[Points to the Servant who carries off Lepidus]
Enobarbus: ‘A bears the third part of the world, man, see’s not?
Menas: The third part, then, is drunk. Would it were all.
That it might go on wheels!
Enobarbus: Drink thou, increase the reels.
Pompey: This is not yet an Alexandrian feast.
Antony: It ripens towards it! Strike the vessals, ho!
Here’s to Caesar!
Caesar: I could well borbear’t.
It’s monstrous labour when I wash my brain
And it grows fouler.
Antony: Be a child o’ th’ time.
Caesar: Possess it; I’ll make answer.
Shortly afterwards, with Lepidus’s help, Octavius defeats Pompey, and immediately arrests Lepidus.
Octavius now turns his attention to Antony, provoking him by speaking ‘scantly’ (III.iv.6) of him. Antony falls into the trap and, against Enobarbus’s clear counsel (III.vii.42-43), he insists upon fighting at sea. Octavius, for his part, deliberately refrains from fighting on land.
Strike not by land; keep whole; provoke not battle
‘Till we have done at sea. Do not exceed
The prescript of this scroll. Our fortune lies
Upon this jump.
Octavius knows that the Egyptian sailors will not be faithful. The slow, patient man undoes the brilliant improviser. Octavius may not be a terribly good general, but he is an extremely good politician.
The love story of Antony and Cleopatra. In Romeo and Juliet the love between Romeo and Juliet is the first affair for both of them. They discover sexual love, each other’s existence, and their own, they discover that there are more things in the world than being the child of one’s parents. But Antony and Cleopatra presents what is certainly Cleopatra’s last affair, and perhaps Antony’s. she has to make up very carefully indeed, and he is putting on weight – he wears corsets. They have behind them a lifetime of experience, and their worldly success makes them as unfree as children, public life taking the place of parents. Romeo and Juliet want to escape from the family into a word that contains only two people. It could be a cottage, it could be anywhere. Antony and Cleopatra want to escape from the future, from death and old age. You cannot imagine Antony and Cleopatra retiring to a cottage. They need the fullest possible publicity and the maximum assistance from good cooking, good clothes, good drink. In the comedies like As You Like It, the conflict is not between being a child and growing up, or remaining young and dying, it is the conflict between the wish for freedom from responsibility and the wish to marry.
Though we cannot tell how happy their marriage would have been, there is absolute trust between Romeo and Juliet, and I am convinced that Benedick and Beatrice, however much they may battle, will make an ideal couple. Antony and Cleopatra don’t trust each other a yard. They know exactly what will happen in the course of their affair, and they therefore need reassurance that they have feelings left. Indeed, publicity is especially important to Cleopatra to prove that she can still inspire feelings in others, which is why she behaves so badly.
Shakespeare employs three kinds of rhetoric of love in his plays. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet calls Romeo back, is composed of pure Petrarchan rhetoric, right out of the book. The two are bound to use such rhetoric because they have very little experience of live and can’t compare sets of emotions – they have to go to the book. In comedies like As You Like It, as we have seen, the rhetoric is quite different. Rosalind, in the disguise of Ganymede, instructs Orlando that ‘The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause…Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. She tells him, also, that she, like Rosalind ‘will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are dispos’d to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when thou art inclin’d to sleep. The moment Orlando leaves, however, she confides to Celia:
O, coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded. My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal.
Celia: Or rather, bottomless, that as fast as you pour affection, it runs out.
Rosalind: No, that same wicked bastard of Venue that was begot of thought, conceiv’d of spleen, and born of madness, that blind rascally boy that abuses every one’s eyes because his own are out – let him judge how deep I am in love.
[MY NOTE: Just that passage was enough to remind me how much I love that play…]
Cleopatra taunts Antony, saying that ‘shrill-tongu’d Fulvia’ will scold him for remaining in Egypt, and Antony replies:
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. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus [embracing]; when such a mutual pair
And such a twin can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless…
Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh.
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.
When later Antony returns victorious from a fight on land, he cries to Cleopatra;
O thou day o’ th’ world,
Chain mine arm’d neck! Leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing!
She answers him in the same key:
Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from
The world’s great snare uncaught?
These expressions of love are poetic, but very un-Petrarchan, entirely conscious of their exaggeration. The words are used to create feelings about which Antony and Cleopatra are in doubt, and the rhetoric is meant to prove their self-importance. When they quarrel, they express real hate, inspired by the terror of eventual betrayal:
I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar’s trencher. Nay, you were a fragment
Of Cneius Pompey’s, besides what hotter hours,
Unregist’red in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick’d out: for I am sure,
Though you can guess what temperance should be,
You know not what it is.
When Romeo and Juliet express their love, they are saying, ‘How wonderful to feel like this.’ Benedick and Beatrice talk as they do about love to test each other. Antony and Cleopatra are saying, ‘I want to live forever.’ Their poetry, like fine cooking, is a technique to keep up the excitement of living.
At the moment Antony dies, Cleopatra cries out, in marvelous verse,
The crown o’ th’ earth doth melt. My lord!
O wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n! Young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
The extraordinary thing about the speech is that it comes after Cleopatra has sold Antony out and is planning to come to terms with Octavius. She eventually kills herself not for Antony but because Dolabella gives away Octavia’s intention to humiliate her. [MY NOTE: Or not.] she feels good in triumphing over Octavius, but her suicide is also pathetic and terrifying. [MY NOTE: Bloom, among others, has a totally different take on this.] Octavius, in any event, doesn’t really care. It is unimportant to him whether she lives or dies. Compare the pretended deaths of Cleopatra and Juliet. Antony would have killed himself anyway. The report of Cleopatra’s death only hurries it up and provides the occasion for their greatest speeches.
Cleopatra sees in Antony a great hero, slightly faded and domitable. She’s excited about Antony most when he leaves for Rome. She’s slightly contemptuous of him when he’s obedient. She says, when she thinks of going fishing in the Nile,
My bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws: and as I draw them up,
I’ll think them every one an Antony,
And say, “Ah, ha! y’are caught!”
She says also, when reminded of how she once fooled Antony while they were fishing,
That time? O times!
I laugh’d him out of patience; and that night
I laugh’d him into patience; and next morn
Ere the ninth hour I drunk him to his bed,
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
Cleopatra is driven to see how far she can go. The older she gets, the more she loves power, and she has the power to destroy a man who has something to lose. Antony basically wants a child’s freedom to play, but he can’t be a child, or even a private citizen. He is no longer innocent. They physical attraction between them is real, but both are getting on, and their lust is less a physical need than a way of forgetting time and death. For that reason, they require the support of refinements and sophistication. But their relationship is therefore selfish and destructive, and it doesn’t work.”
And finally, from A.C. Bradley:
“Why, let us begin by asking, is Antony and Cleopatra though so wonderful an achievement, a play rarely acted? For a tragedy, it’s not painful. Though unfit for children, it cannot be called indecent; some slight omissions, and such a flattening of the heroine’s part as might confidently be expected, would leave it perfectly presentable. It is, no doubt, in the third and fourth Acts, very defective in construction. Even on the Elizabethan stage, where scene followed scene without a pause, this must have been felt, and in our theaters it would be felt much more. There, in fact, these two and forty scenes could not possibly be acted as they stand. But defective construction would not distress the bulk of an audience, if the matter presented were that of Hamlet or Othello, of Lear or Macbeth. The matter, then, must lack something which is present in those tragedies; and it is mainly owing to this difference in substance that Antony and Cleopatra has never attained their popularity either on the stage or off it.
Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are dramatic in a special sense of the word, as well as in its general sense, from beginning to end. The story is not merely exciting and impressive from the movement of conflicting forces towards a terrible issue, but from time to time there come situations and events which, even apart from their bearing on the issue, appeal most powerfully to the dramatic feelings – scenes of action or passion which agitate the audience with alarm, horror, painful expectation, or absorbing sympathies and antipathies. Think of the street fights in Romeo and Juliet, the killing of Mercutio and Tybalt, the rapture of the lovers, and their despair when Romeo is banished. Think of the ghost-scenes in the first Act of Hamlet, the passion of the early soliloquies, the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, the play-scene, the sparing of the King at prayer, the killing of Polonius. Is not Hamlet, if you choose so to regard it, the best melodrama in the world? Think at your leisure of Othello, Lear and Macbeth from the same point of view; but consider here and now even the two tragedies which, as dealing with Roman history, are companions of Antony and Cleopatra. Recall in Julius Caesar the first suggestion of the murder, the preparation for it in a ‘tempest dropping fire,’ the murder itself, the speech of Antony over the corpse, and the tumult of the furious crowd; in Coriolanus the bloody battles on the stage, the scene in which the hero attains the counselship, the scene of rage when he is banished. And remember that in each of these seven tragedies the matter referred to is contained in the first three Acts.
In the first three Acts of our play what is there resembling this? Almost nothing. People converse, discuss, accuse one another excuse themselves, mock, describe, drink together, arrange a marriage, meet and part; but they do not kill, do not even tremble or weep. We see hardly one violent movement; until the battle of Actium is over we witness scarcely any vehement passion; and that battle, as it is a naval action, we do not see. Even later, Enobarbus, when he dies, simply dies, he does not kill himself. We hear wonderful talk; but it is not talk, like that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or that of Othello and Iago, at which we hold our breath. The scenes that we remember first are those that portray Cleopatra; Cleopatra coquetting, tormenting, beguiling her lover to stay; Cleopatra left with her women and longing for him; Cleopatra receiving the news of his marriage; Cleopatra questioning the messenger about Octavia’s personal appearance. But this is to say that the scenes we remember first are the least indispensable to the plot. One at least is not essential at all. And this, the astonishing scene where she storms at the messenger, strikes him, and draws her dagger on him, is the one passage in the first half of the drama that contains either an explosion of passion or an exciting bodily action. Nor is this all. The first half of the play, though it forebodes tragedy, is not decisively tragic in tone. Certainly the Cleopatra scenes are not so. We read them, and we should witness them, in delighted wonder and even with amusement. The only scene that can vie with them, that of the revel on Pompey’s ship, though full of menace, is in great part humorous. Enobarbus, in this part of the play, is always humorous. Even later, when the tragic tone is deepening, the whipping of Thyreus, in spite of Antony’s rage, moves mirth. A play of which all this can be said may well be as masterly as Othello or Macbeth, and more delightful; but, in the greater part of its course, it cannot possibly excite the same emotions. It makes no attempt to do so; and to regard it as though it made this attempt is to miss its specific character and the intention of its author.
That character depends only in part on Shakespeare’s fidelity to his historical authority, a fidelity which, I may remark, is often greatly exaggerated. For Shakespeare did not merely present the story of ten years as though it occupied perhaps one-fifth of that time, nor did he merely invent freely, but in critical places he affected startling changes in the order and combination of events. Still it may be said that, dealing with a history so famous, he could not well make the first half of his play very exciting, moving, or tragic. And this is true so far as mere situations and events are concerned. But, if he had chosen, he might easily have heightened the tone and tension in another way. He might have made the story of Antony’s attempt to break his bondage, and the story of his relapse, extremely exciting, by portraying with all his force the severity of the struggle and magnitude of the fatal step.
And the structure of the play might seem at first to suggest this intention. At the opening, Antony is shown almost in the beginning of his infatuation, for Cleopatra is not sure of her power over him, exerts all her fascination to detain him, and plays the part of the innocent victim who has yielded to passion and must now expect to be deserted by her seducer. Alarmed and ashamed at the news of the results of his inaction, he rouses himself, tears himself away, and speeds to Italy. His very coming is enough to frighten Pompey into peace. He reconciles himself with Octavius, and, by his marriage with the good and beautiful Octavia, seems to have knit a bond of lasting amity with her brother, and to have guarded himself against the passion that threatened him with ruin. At this point his power, the world’s peace, and his own peace, appear to be secured; his fortune has mounted to its apex. But soon (very much sooner than in Plutarch’s story) comes the downward turn or counter-stroke. New causes of offence arise between the brothers-in-law. To remove them Octavia leaves her husband in Athens and hurries to Rome. Immediately Antony returns to Cleopatra and, surrendering himself at once and wholly to her enchantment, is quickly driven to his doom.
Now Shakespeare, I say, with his matchless power of depicting an inward struggle, might have made this story, even where it could not furnish him with thrilling incidents, the source of powerful tragic emotions; and, in doing so, he would have departed from his authority merely in his conception of the hero’s character. But he does no such thing till the catastrophe is near. Antony breaks away from Cleopatra without any strenuous conflict. No serious doubt of his return is permitted to agitate us. We are almost assured of it through the impression made on us by Octavius, through occasional glimpses into Antony’s mind, through the absence of any doubt in Enobarbus, through scenes in Alexandria which display Cleopatra and display her irresistible. And, finally, the downward turn itself, the fatal step of Antony’s return, is shown without the slightest emphasis. Nay, it is not shown, it is only reported; and not a line portrays any inward struggle preceding it. On this side also, then, the drama makes not attempt to rival the other tragedies; and it was essential to its own peculiar character and its most transcendent effects that this attempt show not be made, but that Antony’s passion should be represented as a force which he could hardly even desire to resist. By the very scheme of the work, therefore, tragic impression of any great volume or depth were reserved for the last stage of the conflict; while the main interest, down to the battle of Actium, was directed to matters exceedingly interesting and even, in the wider sense, dramatic, but not overtly either terrible or piteous: on the one hand, to the political aspect of the story; on the other, to the personal causes which helped to make the issue inevitable.”
Slight change of scheduling: My next post will be on Wednesday evening/Thursday morning, and then I’m going to take a few days off for personal reasons, and will continue our examination of Act Three of Antony and Cleopatra on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.