Antony and Cleopatra
Act Three, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
From A.C. Bradley:
“The political situation and its development are simple. The story is taken up almost where it was left, years before, in Julius Caesar. There Brutus and Cassius, to prevent the rule of one man, assassinate Caesar. Their purpose is condemned to failure, not merely because they make mistakes, but because that political necessity which Napoleon identified with destiny requires the rule of one man. They spill Caesar’s blood, but his spirit walks abroad and turns their swords against their own breast; and the world is left divided among three men, his friends and his heir. Here Antony and Cleopatra takes up the tale; and its business, from this point of view, is to show the reduction of these three to one. That Lepidus will not be this one was clear already in Julius Caesar; it must be Octavius or Antony. Both ambitious, they are also men of such opposite tempers that they would scarcely long agree even if they wished to, and even if destiny were not stronger than they. As it is, one of them has fixed his eyes on the end, sacrifices everything for it, uses everything as a means to it. The other, though far the greater soldier and worshipped by his followers, has no such singleness of aim; nor yet is power, however desirable to him, the most desirable thing in the world. At the beginning he is risking it for love; at the end he has lost his half of the world, and lost his life, and Octavius rules alone. Whether Shakespeare had this clear in his mind is a question neither answerable nor important, this is what came out of his mind.
Shakespeare, I think, took little interest in the character of Octavius, and he has not made it wholly clear. It is not distinct in Plutarch’s Life of Antony; and I have not found traces that the poet studies closely the Life of Octavius included in North’s volume. To Shakespeare, he is one of those men, like Bolingbroke and Ulysses, who have plenty of ‘judgment’ and not much ‘blood.’ Victory in the world, according to the poet, almost always goes to such men; and he makes us respect, fear, and dislike them. His Octavius is very formidable. His cold determination half paralyses Antony; it is so even in Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra Octavius is more than once in the wrong; but he never admits it; he silently pushes his rival a step backward; and, when he ceases to fear, he shows contempt. He neither enjoys war nor is great in it; at first, therefore, he is anxious about the power of Pompey, and stands in need of Antony. As soon as Antony’s presence has served his turn, and he has patched up a union with him and seen him safely off to Athens, he destroys first Pompey and next Lepidus. Then, dexterously using Antony’s faithfulness to Octavia and excesses in the East in order to put himself in the right, ha makes for his victim with admirable celerity while he is still drunk with the joy of reunion with Cleopatra. For his ends Octavius is perfectly efficient, but he is so partly from his limitations. One phrase of his is exceedingly characteristic. When Antony in rage and desperation challenges him to single combat, Octavius calls him ‘the old ruffian.’ There is a horrid aptness in the phrase, but it disgusts us. It is shameful in this boy, as hard and smooth as polished steel, to feel at such a time nothing of the greatness of his victim and the tragedy of his victim’s fall. Though the challenge of Antony is absurd, we would give much to see them sword to sword. And when Cleopatra by her death cheats the conqueror of his prize, we feel unmixed delight.
The doubtful point in the character is this. Plutarch says that Octavius was reported to love his sister dearly; and Shakespeare’s Octavius several times expresses such love. When, then, he proposed the marriage with Antony (for of course it was he who spoke through Agrippa), was he honest, or was he laying a trap and, in doing so, sacrificing his sister? Did he hope the marriage would really unite him with his brother-in-law; or did he calculate that, whether it secured peace of dissension, it would in either case bring him great advantage? Shakespeare, who was quite as intelligent as his readers, must have asked himself some such question; but he may not have cared to answer it even to himself; and, in any case, he left the actor (at least the actor in days later than his own) to choose an answer. If I were forced to choose, I should take the view that Octavius was, at any rate, not wholly honest; partly because I think it best suits Shakespeare’s usual way of conceiving a character of the kind; partly because Plutarch construed in this manner Octavius’s behavior in regard to his sister at a later time, and this hint might naturally influence the poet’s way of imagining his earlier action. (‘Now, whilest Antonius was busy in this preparation, Octavia, his wife, whom he had left at Rome, would needs take sea to come unto him. Her brother Octavius Caesar was willing unto it, not for his respect at all (as most authors do report) as for that he might have an honest colour to make aware with Antonius if he did misuse her, and not esteem of her as she ought to be.’ Life of Antony, sect. 29)
Though the character of Octavius is neither attractive nor wholly clear, his figure is invested with a certain tragic dignity, because he is felt to be the Man of Destiny, the agent of forces against which the intentions of an individual would avail nothing. He is represented as having himself some feeling of this sort. His lament over Antony, his grief that their stars were irreconcilable, may well be genuine, though we should be surer if it were uttered in soliloquy. His austere words to Octavia again probably speak to his true mind:
Be you not troubled with the time, which drives
O’er your content these strong necessities;
But let determined things to destiny
Hold unbewailed their way.
In any case the feeling of fate comes through to us. It is aided by slight touches of supernatural effect; first in the Soothsayer’s warning to Antony that his genius or angel is overpowered whenever he is near Octavius, then; in the strangely effective scene where Antony’s soldiers, in the night before his last battle, hear music in the air or under the earth:
‘Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,
Now leaves him.
And to the influence of this feeling in giving impressiveness to the story is added that of the immense scale and world-wide issue of the conflict. Even the distances traversed by fleets and armies enhance this effect.
And yet there seems to be something half-hearted in Shakespeare’s appeal here, something even ironical in his presentation of this conflict. Its external magnitude, like Antony’s magnificence in lavishing realms and gathering the kings of the East in his support, fails to uplift or dilate the imagination. The struggle in Lear’s little island seems to us to have an infinitely wider scope. It is here that we are sometimes reminded of Troilus and Cressida, and the cold and disenchanting light that is there cast on the Trojan War. The spectacle which he portrays leaves Shakespeare quite undazzled; he even makes it appear inwardly small. The lordship of the world, we ask ourselves, what is it worth, and in what spirit do these ‘world-sharers’ content for it? There are no champions of their country like Henry V. The conqueror knows not even the glory of battle. Their aims, for all we see, are as personal as if they were captains of banditti; and they are followed merely from self-interest or private attachment. The scene on Pompey’s galley is full of this irony. One ‘third part of the world’ is carried drunk to bed. In the midst of this mock boon-companionship the pirate whispers to his leader to cut first the cable of his ship and then the throats of the two other Emperors; and at the moment we should not greatly care if Pompey took the advice. Later, a short scene, totally useless to the plot and purely satiric in its purport, is slipped in to show how Ventidius fears to pursue his Parthian conquests because it is not safe for Antony’s lieutenant to outdo his master. A painful sense of hollowness oppresses us. We know to well what must happen to a world so splendid, so false, and so petty. We turn for relief from the political game to those who are sure to lose it; to those who love some human being better than a prize, to Eros and Charmian and Iras; to Enobarbus, whom the world corrupts, but who has a heart that can break with shame; to the lovers, who seem to us to find in death something better than their victor’s life.
This presentation of the outward conflict has two results. First, it blunts our feeling of the greatness of Antony’s fall from prosperity. Indeed this feeling, which we might expect to be unusually acute, is hardly so; it is less acute, for example, then the like feeling in the case of Richard II, who loses so much smaller a realm. Our deeper sympathies are focused rather on Antony’s heart, on the inward fall to which the enchantment of passion leads him, and the inward recovery which succeeds it. And the second result is this. The greatness of Antony and Cleopatra in their fall is so much heightened by contrast with the world they lose and the conqueror who wins it, that the positive element in the final tragic impression, the element of reconciliation, is strongly emphasized. The peculiar effect of the drama depends partly, as we have seen, on the absence of decidedly tragic scenes and events in its first half; but it depends quite as much on this emphasis. In any Shakespearean tragedy we watch some elect spirit colliding, partly through its error and defect, with a superhuman power which bears it down; and yet we feel that this spirit; even in the error and defect, rises by its greatness into ideal union with the power that overwhelms it. In some tragedies this latter feeling is relatively weak. In Antony and Cleopatra it is unusually strong; stronger, with some readers at least, than the fear and grief and pity with which they contemplate the tragic error and the advance of doom.
The two aspects of the tragedy are presented together in the opening scene. Hers is the first. In Cleopatra’s palace one friend of Antony is describing to another, just arrived from Rome, the dotage of their great general; and, as the lovers enter, he exclaims:
Look, where they come:
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool: behold and see.
With the next words, the other aspect appears:
Cleo: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
Ant: There’s a beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
Cleo: I’ll set a bourne how far to be beloved.
Ant: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
And directly after, when he is provoked by reminders of the news from Rome:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged 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.
Here is the tragic excess, but with it the tragic greatness, the capacity of finding in something the infinite, and of pursuing it into the jaws of death.
The two aspects are shown here with the exaggeration proper in dramatic characters. Neither the phrase ‘a strumpet’s fool,’ nor the assertion ‘the nobleness of life is to do thus,’ answers to the total effect of the play. But the truths they exaggerate are equally essential; and the commoner mistake in criticism is to understate the second. It is plain that the love of Antony and Cleopatra is destructive; that in some way it clashes with the nature of things; that, while they are sitting in their paradise like gods, its walls move inward and crush them at least to death. This is no invention of moralizing critics; it is in the play; and any one familiar with Shakespeare would expect beforehand to find it there. But then to forget because of it the other side, to deny the name of love to this ruinous passion, to speak as though the lovers had utterly missed the good of life, is to mutilate the tragedy and to ignore a great part of its effect upon us. For we sympathize with them in their passion; we feel in it the infinity that is in man; even while we acquiesce in their defeat we are exulting in their victory; and when they have vanished we say,
the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
Though we hear nothing from Shakespeare of the cruelty of Plutarch’s Antony, or of the misery caused by his boundless profusion, we don not feel the hero of the tragedy to be a man of the noblest type, like Brutus, Hamlet, or Othello. He seeks power merely for himself, and uses it for his own pleasure. He is in some respects unscrupulous, and, while it would be unjust to regard his marriage exactly as if it were one in private life, we resent his treatment of Octavia [MY NOTE: Do we?] whose character Shakespeare was obliged to leave a mere sketch, lest our feeling for the hero and heroine should be too much chilled. Yet, for all this, we sympathize warmly with Antony, are greatly drawn to him, and are inclined to regard him as a noble nature half spoiled by his time. It is a large, open, generous, expansive nature, quite free from envy, capable of great magnanimity, even of entire devotion. Antony is unreserved, naturally straightforward, we may almost say simple. He can admit faults, accept advice and even reproof, take a jest against himself with good-humor. He is courteous (to Lepidus, for example, whom Octavius treats with cold contempt); and, though he can be exceedingly dignified, he seems to prefer a blunt though sympathetic plainness, which is one cause of the attachment of his soldiers. He has none of the faults of the brooder, the sentimentalist, or the man of principle; his nature tends to splendid action and lusty enjoyment. But he is neither a mere soldier nor a mere sensualist. He has imagination, the temper of an artist who revels in abundant and rejoicing appetites, feasts his senses on the glow and richness of live, flings himself into its mirth and revelry, yet feels the poetry in all this, and is able also to put it by and be more than content with the hardships of adventure. Such a man could never have sought a crown by a murder like Macbeth’s, or, like Brutus, have killed on principle the man who loved him, or have lost the world for a Cressida.
Beside this strain of poetry he has a keen intellect, a swift perception of the lie of things, and much quickness in shaping a course to suit them. In Julius Caesar he shows this after the assassination, when he appears as a dexterous politician as well as a warm-hearted friend. He admires what is fine, and can fully appreciate the nobility of Brutus; but he is sure that Brutus’s ideas are moonshine, that (as he says in our play) Brutus is mad; and, since his mighty friend, who was incomparably the finest thing in the world, has perished, he sees no reason why the inheritance should not be his own. Full of sorrow, he yet uses his sorrow like an artist to work on others, and greets his success with the glee of a successful adventurer. In the earlier play he proves himself a master of eloquence, and especially of pathos; and he does so again in the later. With a few words about his fall he draws tears from his followers and even from the caustic humorist Enobarbus. Like Richard II, he sees his own fall with the eyes of a poet, but a poet much greater than the young Shakespeare, who could never have written Antony’s marvelous speech about the sunset clouds. But we listen to Antony, as we do not to Richard, with entire sympathy, partly because he is never unmanly, partly because he himself is sympathetic and longs for sympathy.
The first of living soldiers, an able politician, a most persuasive orator, Antony nevertheless was not born to rule the world. He enjoys being a great man, but he has not the love of rule for rule’s sake. Power for him is chiefly a means to pleasure. The pleasure he wants is so huge that he needs a huge power; but half the world, even a third of it, would suffice. He will not pocket wrongs, but he shows not the slightest wish to get rid of his fellow Triumvirs and reign alone. He never minded being subordinate to Julius Caesar. By women he is not only attracted but governed; from the effect of Cleopatra’s taunts we can see that he had been governed by Fulvia. Nor has he either the patience or the steadfastness of a born ruler. He contends fitfully, and is prone to take the step that is easiest at the moment. This is the reason why he consents to marry Octavia. It seems the shortest way out of an awkward situation. He does not intend even to try to be true to her. He will not think of the distant consequences.
A man who loved power as much as thousands of insignificant people love it, would have made a sterner struggle than Antony’s against his enchantment. He can hardly be said to struggle at all. He brings himself to leave Cleopatra only because he knows he will return. In every moment of his absence, whether he is wake or sleep, a siren music in his blood is singing him back to her; and to this music, however he may be occupied, the soul within his soul leans and listens. The joy of life had always culminated for him in the love of women: he could say ‘no’ to none of them: of Octavia herself he speaks like a poet. When he meets Cleopatra he finds his Absolute. She satisfies, nay glorifies, his whole being. She intoxicates his senses. Her wiles, her taunts, her furies and meltings, her laughter and tears, bewitch him all alike. She loves what he loves, and she surpasses him. She can drink him to his bed, out-jest his practical jokes, out-act the best actress who ever amused him, out-dazzle his own magnificence. She is his play-fellow, and yet a great queen. Angling in the river, playing billiards, flourishing the sword he used at Philippi, hopping forty paces in a public street, she remains an enchantress. Her spirit is made of wind and flame, and the poet in him worships her no less than the man. He is under no illusion about her, knows all her faults, sees through his wiles, believes her capable of betraying him. It makes no difference. She is his heart’s desire made perfect. To love her is to rejoin her. To deny that this love is the madness of morality. He gives her every atom of his heart.
She destroys him. [MY NOTE: Does she?] Shakespeare, availing himself of the historic fact, portrays, on Antony’s return to her, the suddenness and the depth of his descent. In spite of his own knowledge, the protests of his captains, the entreaties even of a private soldier, he fights by sea simply and solely because she wishes it. Then in mid-battle, when she flies, he deserts navy and army and his faithful thousands and follows her. ‘I never saw an action of such shame, cries Scarus; and we feel the dishonour of the hero keenly. Then Shakespeare begins to raise him again. First his own overwhelming sense of shame redeems him. Next, we watch the rage of the dying lion. Then the mere sally before the final defeat – a sally dismissed by Plutarch in three lines – is magnified into a battle, in which Antony displays to us, and himself feels for the last time, the glory of his soldiership. And, throughout, the magnanimity and gentleness which shine through his desperation endear him to us. How beautiful is his affection for his followers and even for his servants, and the devotion they return! How noble his reception of the news that Enobarbus has deserted him! How touchingly significant the refusal of Eros either to kill him or survive him! How pathetic and even sublime the completeness of his love for Cleopatra! His anger is born and dies in an hour.
One tear, one kiss, outweighs his ruin. He believe she has sold him to his enemy, yet he kills himself because he hears that she is dead. When, dying, he learns that she has deceived him once more, no thought of reproach crosses his mind: he simply asks to be carried to her. He knows well that she is not capable of dying because he dies, but that does not sting him; when, in his last agony, he calls for wine that he may gain a moment’s strength to speak, it is to advise her for the days to come. Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch the final speech of Antony. It is fine, but it is not miraculous. The miraculous speeches belong only to his own hero:
I am dying, Egypt, dyi9ng; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay upon thy lips;
or the first words he utters when he hears of Cleopatra’s death:
Unarm, Eros: the long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep.
If he meant the task of statesman and warrior, that is not what his words mean to us. They remind us of words more familiar and less great –
No rest but the grave for the pilgrim of love.
And he is more than love’s pilgrim; he is love’s martyr.”
I do love Bradley.
From Frank Kermode, picking up from his look at the version of Virtue opposed to a version of Pleasure:
“But these comparisons are not allowed to be simple. Dryden’s version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra is called All for Love, or the World Well Lost. Shakespeare offers Antony his choice, the choice between his supposed ancestor and patron, Hercules, between Virtue on its hilltop and Pleasure, with hell’s bonfire at the end of the path. It is plain that Antony finally makes the wrong choice, but it is clearly the business of the play also to complicate the issue by making pleasure admirable as well as weakeningly seductive and, sometimes, in the presentation, amusing. The characters of the lovers must be aggrandized. Antony is ‘The demi-Atlas of this earth’ (I.v.23) – Atlas, whom Hercules relieved of his burden, the world – and Cleopatra, self-described as ‘A morsel for a monarch’ (I.v.31), is allowed, in the extraordinary last act, all the poetic excesses associated with the language of the East, the Asiatic as compared with the Attic. She is to Octavia as Pleasure is to Virtue; she is Isis and Venus (as in Enobarbus’s famous passage about her barge (II.ii.206ff.], she ‘makes hungry/Where most she satisfies’ (II.ii.236-37). Octavia’s ‘beauty, wisdom, modesty’ (240) can offer no real competition; ‘I’ th’ East my pleasure lies’ (II.iii.41). Antony is Hercules to Cleopatra’s Omphale; she dresses him as a woman (II.iii.41), in Roman eyes a gross effeminacy and so recognized by the Renaissance poets (Spenser, for example), who signify the loss of manhood, virtus, in the same way.
In the confrontation of Octavius and Antony the former occupies the high moral ground. At Pompey’s party Caesar doesn’t get drunk; ‘Be a child o’ th’ time,’ says Antony; ‘Possess it, I’ll make answer,’ replies Octavius, (II.vii.100-1). The division between them soon declares itself. War between them, with Octavia the ostensible occasion of it, will be ‘As if the world should cleave’ (III.iv.31); it will be ground between ‘a pair of chaps’ (III.v.13). But so it must be, and the noble characters grow, in their own ways, nobler. Octavius becomes shrewder, and gets rid of Lepidus. Cleopatra appears in the habiliments of Isis; Antony, though proudly Herculean than ever, has ‘given his empire/Up to a whore’ (III.vi.66-67) but levied ‘The kings o’ th’ earth for war’ (68). There is an epic catalogue, lifted from Plutarch and not without its irony, of many kings of the earth. Antony is ‘the Emperor’ (III.vii.20) – a term reserved for him throughout the play until the quiet, scheming entry of Octavius in the last scene, when he is greeted by the title only a moment after Cleopatra’s ecstatic eulogy of Antony as a lord of universal bounty, the true emperor.
Antony’s defeat in the naval battle is called his ‘wounded chance’ (III.x.35), but luck comes into the matter only because Octavius has it all; it is against his luck that Antony, under Cleopatra’s influence, made so disastrous a bet. He has ‘lost command’ (III.xi.24). Now, he says, he must ‘doge/And palter in the shifts of lowness, who/With half the bulk o’ th’ world play’d as I pleased,/Making and marring fortunes’ (III.xi.62-65). Yet one notes the power of this complaint, the vigorous self-contempt of ‘doge and palter,’ the compression of ‘the shifts of lowness’ (the mean tricks forced on those without power), and finally the recollection of the possession of power as a power to play, as if at cards. In such games, we have been told, he always lost to Caesar, who has now made his fortune and marred Antony’s. Antony is left to defy fortune: ‘Fortune knows/We scorn her most when most she offers blows’ (y3-74).
But Octavius is now ‘Lord of his [Antony’s] fortunes’ (III.xii.11). In that brief scene of only thirty-six lines, ‘fortune’ or ‘fortunes’ occurs three times. In the next, when Cleopatra is answering Caesar’s messenger Thidias, we hear again of the ‘universal landlord’ Caesar’s ‘fortunes,’ and Thidias offers advice that might have come direct from Machiavelli: ‘Wisdom and fortune combating together,/If that the former dare but what it can,/No chance may shake it’ (III.xiii.79-81). As it happens, Thidias’s own luck has run out, and Antony has him whipped; another indication that his ‘wisdom’ has been depleted.
‘Authority melts from me,’ he says (90), melting being another recurrent idea in this play – the Nile, and Antony’s empire. He turns on Cleopatra, and the verse here is remarkable:
Antony: Cold-hearted toward me?
Cleopatra: Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source, and the first stone
Drop in my neck; as it determines, so
Dissolve my life! The next Caesarion smite,
Till by degrees the memory of my womb,
Together with my brave Egyptians all,
By the discandying of this pelleted storm,
Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile
Have buried them for prey!
Here she begins by taking up the accusation of a cold heart, imagines it as a shedding poisoned hail which melts (‘determines,’ meaning comes to an end, a remote way of saying ‘melts’ or ‘dissolves,’ which is reserved for the next line.) The destruction then becomes more general; her son – whose mention suggests ‘womb’ and its ‘memory,’ preserved in her children – will ‘discandy’ or, once more, dissolve as the hailstones melt; finally the whole pride of Egypt will be consumed, no longer by the hail but by the insects of the Nile. Antony is pacified by this transcendental rant, and swears to be wildly courageous, though understanding that his ‘hours’ are no longer ‘nice and lucky’ (189-79). As for Octavius Caesar, he is ‘twenty times of better fortune’ (IV.ii.3).”
And finally, from Northrop Frye, since I seem to have spoken mostly about Antony:
“I’ve often spoken of the theatre as the central character in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and this play revolves around Cleopatra because she’s the essence of theatre. Besides having the fattest female role in the entire range of drama, she’s a woman whose female identity is an actress’s identity. One wonders how the lad who first attempted the part got along, and how much he liked expressing Cleopatra’s contempt of having ‘Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness’ – a line that in any case took the most colossal nerve on Shakespeare’s part to write, even if the context is logical enough. One occasionally hears some such question about the play as: ‘Did Cleopatra really love Antony or was she just play-acting?’ the word ‘really’ shows how wrong the assumption underlying the question is. Cleopatra is not an actress who can be Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor offstage: the offstage does not exist in her life. Her love, like everything else about her, is theatrical, and in the theater illusion and reality are the same thing. Incidentally, she never soliloquizes: she talks to herself occasionally, but someone else is always listening and she always knows it.
The most famous description of her is in the speech of Enobarbus describing her appearance in the royal barge on the Cydnus. Enobarbus is a character who in this age of Brecht might be called an alienation character: it’s part of his function in the play to comment on how the principals are doing as theatrical figures. He has several other aspects, one of them being a plain blunt Roman soldier, and one wonders if a plain blunt soldier would really talk about Cleopatra in the terms he does if he were not half in love with her himself. At the same time, he calls her Antony’s ‘Egyptian dish,’ and has earlier commented to Antony himself about her carefully manufactured tantrums. He comes close to the center of his own feelings, however, when he says that ‘vilest things/Become themselves in her,’ echoing Antony’s earlier remark that she is someone ‘whom everything becomes.’ To translate this simply as ‘she can get away from anything’ would be inadequate: it means far more than that. Pascal remarked in one of his aphorisms that if Cleopatra’s nose had been an inch shorter the history of the world would have been different. But Shakespeare’s Cleopatra could have coped very easily with a snub nose (actually the historical Cleopatra may have had one, as some of her coins suggest). She doesn’t depend on any conventional attributes of beauty. The whole of Cleopatra is in everything she expresses, whether splendid, silly, mean, grandiloquent, malicious or naïve, and so her essential fascination comes through in every mood. She has the female equivalent of the kind of magnetism that makes Antony a born leader, whose soldiers would follow him in the face of obvious disaster.
Of course there is a price to be paid for being in contact with such a creature, the price of being upstaged by someone who is always center stage. At the beginning of the play we have this little whispered exchange among her attendants:
Hush! Here comes Antony
Not he: the queen.
The words could not be more commonplace, yet they tell us very clearly who is number one in that court. Her suicide is motivated by her total refusal to be a part of someone else’s scene, and she needs the whole fifth act to herself for her suicide show. Apart from Julius Caesar, who is a special case, Mark Antony is the only major hero of Shakespeare who dies in the fourth act. An obsolete proverb says that behind every great woman is a devoted woman, but Cleopatra is not a devoted woman and she’s not standing behind anybody. Octavia, now, is the kind of woman who does exactly what she should do in a man’s world, and she bores the hell out of Antony.
There is no character whom Cleopatra resembles less than Falstaff, and yet there is an odd link between them in dramatic function. Both are counter-historical characters: they put on their own show oblivious to the history that volleys and thunders around them. But the history of Falstaff’s time would have been the same without him, and Cleopatra, though very conscious of her ‘greatness’ in her own orbit, hardly seems to realize that she is a key figure in Roman history as well. Her great betrayal of Antony comes in the middle of the battle of Actium, when she simply pulls her part of the fleet out of the battle. What is going on in her mind is probably something like: ‘What silly games these men do play: nobody’s paying any attention to me at all.’ She may not even be aware that her action would lose Antony the battle, or that it would make any difference if it did. She says to Enobarbus, ‘Is Antony or we in fault for this?,’ and it seems clear that it is a real question for her, even though she’s obviously dissatisfied with Enobarbus’s patriarchal Roman answer that the fault was entirely Antony’s for paying attention to a woman in a battle. We may still wonder why she insisted on entering the battle in the first place: the reason seems to be that Caesar was shrewd enough to declare the war personally on her, putting her in the spotlight of attention. So, although Antony could have won handily on land, she insists on a seafight, because there would be nowhere to see her in a land operation.”
And while Cleopatra and Falstaff obviously have little in common — I find it very easy to imagine a battle of wits between the two…
I hope you’re all enjoying the play so far – any thoughts? Questions?
Our next read: Antony and Cleopatra, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning