“Since my lord/Is Antony again, I shall be Cleopatra.”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


rickman and mirrenAct Three:  Rome’s campaign against the Parthians has been a success, but the calm is shattered when Antony, on the way to Athens with his new wife, criticizes Caesar’s renewed hostilities against Pompey. Octavia is sent to Rome to mediate, but it is soon reported that Antony has returned to Egypt without Octavia’s knowledge, and that he has promised the eastern empire to Cleopatra. Caesar, fresh from his trouncing of Pompey, intends to fight. And Antony, accompanied by his lover, is beginning to show dangerous lapses of judgment: spurning the advice of their military advisors, the two prepare for an ill-fated and ill-advised sea assault.  As predicted, they lose badly. Caesar rejects their peace terms, which would allow Antony to retire into private life with Cleopatra, and he attempts to turn them each other.


From Garber:

“But the story of Mars and Venus is only one of the mythological tales and stories suggested by this play, which itself ultimately aspires to the condition of myth. To many in the Renaissance audience the story of Antony’s heroism, his capacity to do the impossible, as Caesar so enviously catalogues it – to live on berries and tree bark, to drink from noxious puddles, to do wonders on the field of battle – would have called to mind the exploits of that premier hero Hercules – half man, half god, the son of Jove And Antony is repeatedly associated with Hercules throughout the play Cleopatra mockingly calls him a ‘Herculean Roman’ when she teases him about his love for Fulvia. He traces his descent from Alcides, another name for Hercules. One of his loyal soldiers swears by Hercules as Antony rejects his advice to fly by land. And in a mood of self-dramatization Antony complains that Cleopatra is a shirt of Nessus to him. (The shirt of Nessus was given to Hercules’ bride by a centaur who desired her. In all innocence she presented the shirt to Hercules, expecting that it would increase his love for her and inflame his passion, but instead it poisoned him and caused his death.) Most poignantly, the play’s spectators become witnesses to a scene (4.3) in which the spirit of Hercules – Antony’s tutelary spirit – departs. Much as in the opening moment of Hamlet, the scene is set at night, and there are confused soldiers on watch and a rumor of some apparition. A noise of ‘hautboys’ (oboes, from the French words for ‘high’ and ‘wood’) is heard under the stage, and one soldier observes,

‘Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,

Now leave him.


Hercules was sometimes imagined as a buffoon as well as a hero, because at one point in his ‘labors’ he became enslaved to Omphale, Queen of Lydia, and was forced to dress like a woman and do women’s work. Here the analogy is clear:  both heroes made captive to powerful Eastern queens, emasculated in the public view. Equally pertinent was the famous ‘choice of Hercules’ between Pleasure and Virtue, understood by Renaissance readers as a lesson in self-determination. Ben Jonson’s masque Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618) would later bring together the two classical criteria for poetry, that it delight and instruct, but Hercules’ choice was to be for the one or the other, and he, unlike his descendant Antony, chose Virtue. For Antony the choice is between Octavia, the ‘piece of virtue,’ and Cleopatra, where ‘[i’]th’ East my pleasure lies.’ Finally for him there is no question. Between Rome and Egypt, between the Roman and the Egyptian is himself, he chooses, or acknowledges, Egypt, and the world of desire, imagination, and art.

A Jacobean audience for this play would have been mindful both of James I’s complicated relations with powerful and seductive regal women – his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots; his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth – and also of the strongly held views among many political and religious thinkers of the time that women should not rule over men. (The audience would also have been reminded that it was really with men that James exercised his Egyptian side.)

The presence of women on the thrones of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had raised concerns among those who thought it was contrary to nature, to God’s law, and to political expediency. Scottish religious reformer John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women insisted that scripture and classical history proved that women could not and should not rule. (‘I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature,’ he wrote, citing the view expressed in Aristotle’s Politics and in other ancient sources that ‘wheresoever women bear dominion, there the people must needs be disordered…and finally, in the end, they must needs come to confusion and ruin.’) In particular, men governed by women reversed the proper order of nature. Tertullian, Augustine, Paul, Jerome, and others are all cited to emphasize the abomination of husbands being ruled by wives. Lest his readers think he is speaking only of married women, Know insists, with Saint Ambrose, that ‘from [every] woman, be she married or unmarried, is all authority taken to execute any office that appertains to man.’

How does the play invite us to view Antony’s choice? Are his soldiers right when they gossip about him at the beginning of the play – is this ‘dotage,’ the infatuation for an old soldier for a bewitching siren? What is the nature of the claim he makes when he tells Cleopatra that one tear equals all that is eon and lost, when he assures her that one kiss repays him for her treachery, when – as John Dryden would put it when he rewrote and retitled the play in 1678 – Antony trades ‘all for love’? Folly, or heroism? The crux of the play is embodied in this paradox, the essential paradox of Cleopatra’s nature.

As we have seen, the play deliberately charts a pattern based upon the four elements of classical and Renaissance lore: earth, water, air, and fire. It moves inexorably away from ‘dungy earth’ toward the quicksilver elements of magic and change:

     By the fire

That quickens Nilus’ slime, I go from hence

Thy soldier-servant, making peace or war

As thou affects.


This is Antony’s pledge to Cleopatra as he leaves for Rome, in the early moments of the play. Later, on the battlefield, he wishes he could include all four elements in his warfare against Caesar:

Their preparation is today by sea;

We please them not by land.


I would they’d fight i’th’fire or i’th’ air;

We’d fight there too…

(4.ii.1-2, 3-4)

But the key to Antony’s nature and his struggle is clearly the vision of Cleopatra on the river Cydnus, the woman whom everything becomes, whom air, and water, and fire alike adorn; a woman of contradiction and paradox whom the mortal Antony is constantly seeking to know and to posses. This Cleopatra, who is Antony’s Venus, is also his muse, a condition of language as well as of nature and art. This ‘mutual pair’ is also in a way an emblem of metaphor, in the way that they come to define each other. As Cleopatra will say, ‘[S]ince my lord/Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.’ (3.13.188-189). When in the comic drinking scene Lepidus asks Antony, ‘What manner o’ thing is your crocodile? (2.7.38), Antony’s riddling reply describes not only the symbolic animal of Egypt but the ineffable quality of his love:

It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.


The Shakespeare who could write knowingly about ‘the mournful crocodile’ in Henry VI, Part 2, is fully aware of the capacity of this changeable being to seduce and delude.

One of the unusual things about this play is the way in which its amorous stakes are mirrored in the oddness of its structure, its sprawling dramatic shape. It is not usual to find notations in these plays like ‘act 3, scene 12’ or ‘act 4, scene 14.’ The act and scene divisions are in the main the contributions of eighteenth-century-editors, rather than of Shakespeare or his company, but they are indicative, nonetheless, of change s in location and of the number of times the stage is cleared. The play as a whole is stretched, elongated, until it approximates in size and grandeur the epic and mythic events it contains – events, as we have seen, that span the globe from Rome to Egypt, and encompass the four elements. This is a more demonstrably epic structure than we have encountered before in Shakespeare, and the epic scope is matched by an ‘epic’ content, since among the literary and mythic forebears of Antony and Cleopatra themselves we should also count Aeneas and Dido, the key figures in what was, for Shakespeare’s England, the most celebrated epic of them all, Virgil’s Aeneid.

Aeneas is the legendary hero, the soldier, the man chosen by the gods to found Rome as the successor state to Troy – a Rome that would become the home of ‘universal peace,’ the Pax Romana, under his descendant Augustus (Shakespeare’s Octavius Caesar). Rome would become, in British lore, the cradle of another great empire and epic civilization, that of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Aeneas was also, famously, the lover of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and thus another powerful Eastern queen, like Cleopatra (and the Lydian Omphale, who enslaved Hercules). Aeneas’s love affair with dido was stage-managed by his mother, Venus, as a way of providing him safety and succor. Cupid, replacing Aeneas’s son Ascanius, won his way into Dido’s heart and inflamed her with passion for the Trojan refugee Aeneas.

At a key point in Antony and Cleopatra Antony, speaking fondly of a time when he and Cleopatra will wander hand in hand through Elysium, boasts that ‘Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,/And all the haunt be ours.’ (4.15.53-54). Spirits from the underworld will follow them, and desert those earlier, legendary lovers. But Dido and ‘her’ Aeneas may not be together in Elysium, since Aeneas deserted her, and deserted passionate love, to go on to Rome to marry Lavinia and to take up his responsibilities as the founder of the new city. Dido committed suicide on a burning funeral pyre. ‘Hic amor, haec patria,’ Aeneas declares, in Virgil’s poem: there is my love, there is my country – in Rome. The marriage to Lavinia is a political marriage of convenience, similar to Antony’s marriage to Octavia. But for Antony, from the beginning, ‘Here is my space’ – here in Egypt. And the marriage to Octavia is abandoned in favor of Egypt and art, and timelessness, and a legendary love with Cleopatra. So Shakespeare’s play presents both epic and anti-epic content, at times deliberately turning away from history and politics toward poetry, romance, fantasy, and desire.

The baseline of historical time, however, is clearly established by Octavius. ‘The time of universal peace is near,’ he declares, ‘…the three-nooked world/Shall bear the olive freely’ (4.6.5-6). This Caesar is the ‘Caesar August’ of the Christian gospels, and the time of Augustus was also the time when Christ was born in Bethlehem. The play moves toward this anticipation of what Christian England would have regarded as universal order in history, in time. [MY NOTE:  I suspect Bloom does not quite see this Christian aspect to the play.]  But these considerations of order, government, and peace are subjugated in the course of the play to the evolution of the two larger-than-life mythic heroes in its title. The play’s odd and unusual shape, then, is not only effective but also significant. It is a structural counterpart of the issues and figures it presents, and particular moments, like the raising of Antony to Cleopatra’s monument in act 4, have about them a decidedly baroque sensibility, producing a stage picture reminiscent of the glorious twisted figures in Baroque crucifixion and deposition in iconography; it is also erotic and sensual. In the monument scene Cleopatra again bears Antony’s weight, as he has gloried in doing from the play’s earliest moments.

In fact, the use of the stage is effectively made to mirror this split in the play’s historical and mythic designs, placing the baroque and eroticized narrative Antony and Cleopatra against the regularized Renaissance grid of order and symmetry that the play associates with Octavius Caesar, Consider, for example, the use of the double entrance, the two doors located on either side of the rear stage. In Antony and Cleopatra these two doors are used to display the two forces in tension with each other, so that we find stage directions like ‘Enter Pompey at one door, with drum and trumpet; at another, Caesar, Lepidus, and Antony’ Or ‘Enter Agrippa at one door, Enobarbus at another.’ Caesar’s man at one door, Antony’s man at the other. The two doors not only show opposition, they also suggest balance. The battle scenes, too, switch from Caesar’s camp to Antony’s from one part of the plain to another, and scenes in Rome are intercut with scenes in Egypt. A rhythm of thesis and antithesis is developed, with no synthesis in sight.

Under the leadership of Octavius Caesar, the Roman political world seeks to resist fragmentation, and to impose order: from three parts of the world, to two, to one. In the opening scene Philo had spoken of Antony as the ‘triple pillar of the world,’ one of the triumvirs, sharing equal power with Lepidus and Octavius. By the time of act 2, scene 7, the wonderful drinking scene, Lepidus is carried off the stage by a servant, as Enobarbus quips, ‘There’s a strong fellow…A bears the third part of the world.’ (2.7.83-85). But a triple division is unmanageable, disorderly: ‘[t]hese three world sharers, these competitors,’ Menas calls the triumvirs. (the unmanageable three-part division of the world seems to haunt Shakespeare’s political plays. It appears signally in 1 Henry IV and again in King Lear.) And so the third part of the world, Lepidus, is done away with, ‘the poor third is up, till death enlarge his confine.’ (3.5.10-11). At this point, as Enobarbus points out with customary skepticism,

     [W]orld, thou hast a pair of chops, no more,

And throw between them all the food thou hast,

They’ll grind the one the other…


Octavius and Antony are like a pair of jaws (‘chops’), devouring the world between them, and wearing each other down as well.

The play thus narrows to its central split, its central conflict: two doors, two nations, two forces, two philosophies, two generals. Once again the impulses of the rivals are exactly contrary. It is reported to Caesar that Antony has staged a public scene in Egypt, during the course of which, ‘enthroned’ in the marketplace, he gave away portions of his kingdom: Egypt, lower Syria, Cyprus to Cleopatra, other lands to his sons Alexander and Ptolemy. Antony’s impulse here, and always, is generosity. We will later see him send, in this same spirit, a box of treasure after the deserting Enobarbus. So Antony gives, Antony disperses, in a gesture as fertile in its own way as the nature of Cleopatra and the overflowing Nile. By contrast, Octavius engrosses up, collects, unifies, and consolidates (as James I would do, and as Prince Hal had done, and Lear, fatally, had not.) He wants to make of a dispersed and divided kingdom a single empire with a single ruler: himself. At the end of the play, in his moving lament on the death of Antony, he makes this impulse toward ruthless unity clear once again: ‘O, Antony,/…We could not stall together/In the whole world’ (5.1.35, 39-40). The world was not large enough to contain them both. This is the view of realpolitik, and thus the literally correct political view in terms of contemporary statecraft. Pragmatically, Rome is better off under Caesar than under Antony. The taxes will be collected; the chariots will run on time.

But at some cost. Efficiency and order – from three parts of the world to two; from two, one – displace passion and generosity. The system displaces the individual. Lepidus tries to reconcile the two forces, Antony and Caesar, and is ridicule by both sides as a flatterer:

Agrippa:  ‘Tis a noble Lepidus.

Enobarbus:  A very fine one. O, how he loves Caesar!

Agrippa:  Nay, but how dearly he adores Mark Antony!


Enobarbus:  Spake you of Caesar? How, the nonpareil?

Agrippa:  O Antony, O thou Arabian bird!

(3.2.6-8, 11-12)

The whole exchange is drenched in irony, and Lepidus is killed, ground between those two remorseless chops. Octavia in her turn attempts compromise, trying to reconcile her husband her brother, and she, like so many Shakespearean women before her confronted with this impossible choice, is defeated by it.

cleo_rmOctavius Caesar’s political ambition is relentless. Octavius gathers, and Antony disperses. The last half of the play is a continual series of desertions from Antony’s camp, as his loyal soldiers reluctantly leave him, one by one, culminating in the agonizing desertion by Enobarbus. As we have already noted, Enobarbus serves for Antony as Horatio did for Hamlet, Banquo for Macbeth, and Kent for Lear. All are confidants and advisors, ‘sane’ men rather than madmen, rational realists rather than tragic heroes. Enobarbus deserts from Antony’s camp, and in doing so he breaks his own heart. He cannot live in the cold cynicism of Octavius’s world.

In one sense, then, there is a real and absolute conflict of philosophies between Rome and Egypt, Octavius and Antony. Their enmity is necessary and unavoidable, and is mirrored in the conflict between the concept of a Renaissance or early modern history play, the play of Rome, and the baroque play of Egypt, which incorporates elements of tragedy, comedy, and romance. And yet it is not sufficient to say that Octavius Caesar is a faceless politician, that the conflict is one of ideology and statecraft, politics and policy. To look at Caesar this way is to disregard a set of highly personal feelings and attitudes that are crucial to the play’s design. The competition between Caesar and Antony can as readily be seen in generational terms as in ideological ones – as a battle between youth and age, the old order challenged by the new. This generational debate is one of the most familiar, and most dramatically powerful, in Shakespeare, whether it takes place in the English history plays, in Romeo and Juliet, in Troilus and Cressida, or in political tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth. The most passionate rivalry in Antony and Cleopatra has its seat in the feelings of Octavius Caesar.

It is important to bear in mind that this is Octavius Caesar, not Julius. The play explicitly posits an older generation of heroes, titans, or giants of the past, from which Octavius is excluded, and of which Antony is the last living representative. Antony is a hero in a world that has grown too efficient to contain and comprehend heroes, a world that has become merely political. Octavius’s tone, as he speaks early in the play about Antony’s heroic feats as a soldier, and especially his acts of personal deprivation and endurance, is a tone of wonder and disbelief. It is a tone familiar to modern audiences that look back upon the sacrifices and heroism of earlier ears (of pioneers, polar expeditions, the ‘Great Generation’). Antony is a heroic figure who thus closely parallels, in the Shakespearean pantheon of heroes, old-style champions like Hamlet’s father, and Hector, and Hotspur, and Tybalt. As with all these figures, his preferred style of combat is ‘single fight,’ the one-on-one duel to the death. Hector wishes to fight Achilles in single combat, but he is surrounded and ambushed by the Myrmidions: old Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras in single combat before the play Hamlet begins; Hotspur confronts Prince Hal face-to-face. So Antony wishes to meet Octavius, but this is not Caesar’s way. In fact, Enobarbus, who frequently speaks aside to himself – and to the audience – much as Edgar did in King Lear, is aghast to think that Antony imagines such a confrontation is possible. His tone here is, as so often, both heavily ironic and tinged with sadness:

Enobarbus [aside]:

Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will

Unstate his happiness and be staged to th’ show

Against a sworder!…


     Caesar, thou hast subdued

His judgment, too.

(3.13.28-30, 35-36)

‘Like enough’ is our modern ‘A likely story!’ Even the idea of such a challenge is wholly inappropriate to the world in which Antony and Cleopatra find themselves. For Cleopatra also insists that single combat is the best way. They are like a pair of splendid dinosaurs, who have outlasted the world for which they were made. They have outlasted Julius Caesar, and old Pompey, Gnaeus Pompey. But is this not, in a way, precisely the point? Antony is not a realist in his demand for a ‘single fight’ against Caesar – but is the world, yet, so securely Caesar’s? Caesar’s own problem is that he is haunted by the past, haunted by a world too great, a canvas too large, for him full to dominate or comprehend it. He is haunted by the myth of the past. And he is surrounded by its living revenants.

Sarah_Bernhardt_as_Cleopatra_1891Consider what we know about Cleopatra, her age, her beauty, her charm. Fairly early in the play comes the comic scene with the messenger, in which we see Cleopatra relentlessly quizzing him about Octavia and her defects. Once he realizes that she wants to hear only unflattering reports, he is eager to oblige. Octavia is ‘[d]ull of tongue, and dwarfish,’ and she is a widow, not a young virgin. But at this point the messenger goes too far. Seeking to add specificity to this unfavorable account, he volunteers his estimate of her age: ‘And I do think she’s thirty’ (3.3.28). Now, in strict historical terms, the Cleopatra of history was twenty-nine years old at the time of these events. But Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a woman of the world, a woman of experience – and, in modern terms, a ‘diva.’ Although we hear repeatedly about her past conquests, she never seems to grow any older. She is timeless, but she is not young. As he has done in many other plays when dealing with historical and chronicle material, the playwright artfully alters history to accord with his dramatic purposes. Thus the Cleopatra of this play is ‘wrinkled deep in time’ and a ‘serpent of old Nile.’ ‘Age cannot wither her.’ She talks about ‘[m]y salad days,/When I was green in judgement’ – when she was in love with Julius Caesar. (1.5.72-73). (It is tempting, although unhistorical to think of her as the original ‘Caesar salad.’ Alas, this Caesar was a Mexican restauranteur of the 1920s. Antony, in an angry mood, condemns her (also in culinary terms) for her past:

I found you a morsel cold upon

Dead Caesar’s trencher; nay, you were a fragment

Of Gnaeus Pompey’s, besides what hotter hours

Unregistered in vulgar fame you have

Luxuriously picked out.


Dead Caesar, and Gnaeus Pompey. These, rather than Octavius, are Antony’s near contemporaries. He is a little younger than they, but older by far than their sons, and he belongs to the remarkable world those heroes inhabited. Not only has Antony challenged Octavius to single combat, but he has also proposed that the combat take place ‘at Pharsalia,/Where Caesar fought with Pompey’ (3.7.31-32). And this Caesar and Pompey are old Caesar, old Pompey; Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The remembered scene is an epic contest between two world-shakers. But the new Caesar and the new Pompey, Octavius Caesar and Sextus Pompeius, are, by contrast, mere politicians, faint echoes of their fathers’ grandeur. This again is a familiar pattern to observers of modern politics, where great men’s sons often embark upon political careers based upon their famous surnames rather than their innate gifts.

The younger Pompey’s anger at Antony is expressed, significantly, in terms of dynastic rather than martial rivalry: ‘O Antony,/You have my father’s house’ (2.7.122-123). You live where he lived, you have displaced him – and me. In a way, Antony and Cleopatra is, along with Coriolanus, the most Oedipal of Shakespeare’s plays, full of submerged and smouldering love and resentment, expressed toward Antony, the father figure, the reminder and rebuker of sons. The contest is clearly defined. Young Pompey, and most of all young Caesar, feel not only political rivalry but also sexual jealousy against Antony, who possesses the love of the ageless and timeless Cleopatra, the woman who was mistress to each of their fathers. Time has them all in thrall – except for Cleopatra. She herself seems as desirable as ever.”


And from Bloom:

catrall cleopatraAntony and Cleopatra, as a play, is notoriously excessive, and keeping up with it, in a good staging or close reading, is exhilarating but exhausting. Teaching the play, even to the best of classes, is for me a kind of glorious ordeal. Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago all demand an energetic response, but there plays have a few flats, or resting places. Antony and Cleopatra surges on, prodigal of its inventiveness, daemonic in the varied strength of its poetry Critics rightly tend to agree that if you want to find everything that Shakespeare was capable of doing, and in the compass of a single play, here it is. I can think of no other play, by anyone, that approaches the range and zest of Antony and Cleopatra. If the greatest of all Shakespeare’s astonishing gifts was his ability to invent the human, and clearly I think it was then this play, more than Hamlet or King Lear, might be considered his masterwork, except that its kaleidoscopic shifting of perspectives bewilders us. A critical description or a performance of either Cleopatra or Antony seems doomed always to leave out too much, but Shakespeare would have it that way, as if had grown impatient both of players and of audiences. A drama with a remarkable quantity of scene shifts, Antony and Cleopatra seems to have no minor or dispensable episodes or sequences, even when neither Antony nor Cleopatra is on stage. Janet Adelman sensibly argues that this augments the patterns of uncertainty in the play, and she suggests that Shakespeare deliberately makes aspects of both major characters opaque to us. This may be, and yet the converse is equally plausible; since no privileged perspective is granted to the audience, the dramatic ironies proliferate and cannot be controlled by us. The uncertainties multiply because the highly histrionic protagonists themselves rarely know whether they are being themselves or acting themselves. Their characters are in that one sense transparent: they are role players, with all the world for audience. The world is always on their minds: the word world is a refrain throughout Antony and Cleopatra. If you cease to know when you impersonate yourself, then you are likely to seem more opaque than you are.

Falstaff dominates his plays, though scholarly critics crusade to reduce his magnitude. Hamlet encounters less critical resistance in pervading his drama, while Iago can be said to improvise Othello as he goes along. So varied and exuberant is Antony and Cleopatra that its protagonists never dominate; the world prevails, and the play, more than any other by Shakespeare, is itself a heterocosm. Cleopatra and Antony are parts of the world, they desire to be the world, and that alone is their tragedy. Octavius wins because he represents Rome, and Rome will ingest much of the world. Shakespeare neither endorses nor protests the Roman imperialism, when the victorious Octavius proclaims, ‘The time of universal peace is at hand,’ our own perspective will determine the degree of Shakespearean irony we hear. [MY NOTE:  Very unlike Garber!] The new Caesar ends the play with an ambiguous tribute to his dead enemies:

She shall be buried by her Antony.

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it

A pair so famous: high events as these

Strike those that make them: and their story is

No less in pity than his glory which

Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall

In solemn show attend this funeral,

And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see

High order, in this great solemnity.


What exactly is Octavius saying? Essentially he is praising the glory of his own victory, while graciously allowing ‘pity’ for the most famous, he thinks of all couples. One could remark that he had hoped to exhibit at least Cleopatra, if not Antony also, in his triumphal procession upon returning to Rome, and his inability to do so is the actual pity of it, for him. But whether Shakespeare desires the audience to be so little receptive to the roman victor, we cannot know. Even if history permitted it, how could we accommodate a vision of Antony and Cleopatra as Emperor and Empress first of the East, and then of the world? There would be no play, and Shakespeare exults in the opportunities afford him by his two titanic exuberances, each rammed with life, and careless of the costs of their flamboyances. The world’s report, in regard to both is of blemishes, and the audience cannot say that the world is wholly wrong. The great ones of this play – Antony, Octavius, even the younger Pompey – never speak for the world and the audience. It is their subordinates, military and at court, with whom we can identify, as in this dialogue between Antony’s chief man, Enobarbus, and Menas, who serves Pompey:

Menas:         — You and I have known, sir.

Enobarbus:  At sea, I think.

Menas:        We have, sir.

Enobarbus:  You have done well by water.

Menas:        And you by land.

Enobarbus:  I will praise any man that will praise me, though it cannot be denied what I have done by land.

Menas:        Nor what I have done by water.

Enobarbus:  Yes, something you can deny for your own safety: you have been a great theft by sea.

Menas:        And you by land.

Enobarbus: There I deny my land service. But give me your hand, Menas: if our eyes had authority, here they might take two thieves kissing.


‘I will praise any man that will praise me’ is, in context, great comedy, and out of it, a dark wisdom. Antony, Octavius, and Pompey cut their deals and divide up their world; the admirals and generals who execute their orders have a wonderful instructive comradeship, voiding their leaders’ grand rhetorics, and happily acknowledging land piracy and sea piracy. Their perspective is the world’s: the quarrel between East and West, Cleopatra-Antony and Octavius, is a vast dispute between pirates on a sublime scale. The center of Antony and Cleopatra is neither the relation between the celebrated lovers, nor their struggle with Octavius, wavering and varied; the circles that serve them mingle perspectives with the audience. The world is the center, personified by everyone in the drama who is not the supreme commander of an empire, or at least a faction (Pompey). Octavia, dealt by her brother to Antony in political marriage, becomes an image of the world, as Antony watches her reluctant farewell to her brother:

Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can

Her heart inform her tongue – the swan’s down feather,

That stands up on the swell at the full of tide,

And neither way inclines.


The world, like Octavia, is powerless to choose between full tide and ebb tide: she, and the world, are ‘the swan’s down feather’ that ‘neither way inclines.’ Antony’s metaphor, with its generous detachment, testifies to his endless capacity for empathy, and helps explain the love he evokes in his troops. Yet the metaphor’s implications do not favor him, or Octavius, or Cleopatra. Enobarbus, told that Caesar has eliminated Lepidus and Pompey, again speaks for the audience:

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.


‘Chaps’ here are ‘chops,’ jaws, and after devouring all the food the world afford they will seek to swallow one another. Like the world, something in us will not wholly take sides; Shakespeare takes great care to prevent this, for all the vitalism he assigns to Cleopatra and her Antony. When Antony returns from his final, desperate,, and momentary victory against Octavius, Cleopatra greets him with her usual magnificence:

O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from

The world’s great snare uncaught?


It will be only a step beyond this that Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet sells out to Octavius, provoking the final Herculean rage of Antony What then is ‘the world’s great snare,’ that much catch even the ‘infinite virtue,’ or matchless courage, of the descendent of Hercules? Is it the war, or a Cleopatran plot with Octavius, or simply the mutability of the world, its insatiability as an audience? The world does not choose Octavius, but in this most theatrical of plays we are given theater of the world, and the audience, glutted with Shakespearean richness, must finally be allowed its peace, in the death of its two heroes, before it returns for quite another play, a Coriolanus or a Pericles. If you require the world as audience, and Cleopatra and Antony will accept no less, then at last you must burn out, like Antony, or choose a private theater for your apotheosis, as Cleopatra does. No one has given more to the drama than Shakespeare, and here he is at his most prodigal, but he begins also to sense that the audience is a snare for him and soon will require less, rather than his more. Once Shakespeare loved the world, later in his career, Falstaff’s is a scornful love, one that scoffs the world aside, and bids it pass. The poet of Antony and Cleopatra neither loves nor hates the world; nor the theater; he has begun to weary of them both. The glory of Antony and Cleopatra is neither its ambivalence nor its ambiguities: of all Shakespeare’s dramas, it is the greatest as poem. It plays superbly still, when properly directed and acted, but as a reverberation it is too large for any stage, though still better perceived upon the right stage than in even the most acute study.”


I think Bloom makes a most persuasive case for the play…

As I mentioned, I’m taking a couple of actual days off, so my next post will be Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, and then back to our normal schedule.

Enjoy.  And please keep your questions and comments coming!

And finally, a bit off of A&C, but a fascinating look at how Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded…

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3 Responses to “Since my lord/Is Antony again, I shall be Cleopatra.”

  1. GGG says:

    On a Not Serious note, I too found it puzzling to have Cleopatra described as “wrinkled deep in time.” I am picturing Cher–who is certainly timeless and wrinkle-free! What a play that would be!

    (And in the realm of really overactive imagination–I found the description of Cleopatra hopping through the marketplace and then becoming out of breath–but so beautifully of course, made me think of Miss Piggy. Have the Muppets ever done Shakespeare? Please don’t throw me out of the group for this….)

    I read this post and the previous one tonight and found Auden’s comments very interesting about Cleopatra and Antony not trusting each other. Maybe that is one reason that the play is not as popular as some of the others–despite its amazing poetry, the characters are drawn so large and ambitious that it is a little hard to connect with them. Particularly Cleopatra–so mysterious, but that is part of her ageless spell, even for us modern readers.

  2. GGG says:

    Tina Turner, perfect! Cleopatra, the rock musical…

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