“I am dying, Egypt, dying; only/I here impórtune death a while, until/Of many thousand kisses the poor last/I lay upon thy lips.”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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antony dyingAct Four:  His challenge of single combat turned down (not surprisingly) by Octavius, Antony prepared for a decisive second battle. Although the omen are not promising – his soldiers are convinced that Hercules has deserted them and Enobarbus has defected – the first day’s fighting goes well for Antony and he returns to Cleopatra in triumph. But catastrophe strikes the next day when the Egyptian ships suddenly surrender. Antony, watching from land, blames Cleopatra and threatens to murder them both. When Cleopatra responds by sending news of her own pretended suicide to Antony, he takes it all too seriously, and attempts to kill himself. Fatally wounded, he is carried off to join her one last time.

In their utterly solipsistic, self-magnifying obsession with themselves (and, at least partially, with each other), Antony and Cleopatra resemble Shakespeare’s other pair of headlining lovers – Romeo and Juliet. But whereas the young lovers are torn apart by strife they can’t hold back, their middle-aged counterparts are themselves fatefully implicated in the events that are their undoing. ‘These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,/Or lose myself in dotage,’ mutters Antony just two scenes into the play, but Shakespeare makes his task far more complicated, and by the end of the play, he is, in some ways, floundering. As his commanders fear, Antony’s military instincts have been blunted, and against their advice he confronts Caesar at Actium by sea. After losing disastrously he dares Octavius to mano a mano combat (as any Roman of his generation would), only to have Octavius scorn the challenge (as any Roman of his generation would), and though the subsequent battle seems to go well for Cleopatra and her forces, their seeming betrayal is Antony’s undoing. When news arrives that the Egyptian Queen has committed suicide, it is, for Antony, the end.  Preparing for a valiant Roman suicide (can you imagine Octavius doing the same?), he muses to Eros that

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,

A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,

A towered citadel, a pendent rock,

With trees upon’t that nod unto the world

And mock our eyes with air.

(4.15.2-7)

‘My good knave Eros,’ he continues, ‘now thy captain is/Even such a body.’ It isn’t just Antony’s reputation that has dissolved – he seems himself disappearing (one could say melting) before his own eyes.

It seems somehow fitting, then, that Antony bungles his own suicide – a suicide initiated by the news that Cleopatra is dead. It is the play’s bitter joke (and again, vivid testament to her “infinite variety”) that she is nothing of the kind: Cleopatra put out the news in an attempt to defuse his anger after battle. The truth arrives only once Antony has tried, and failed, to kill himself, and he is doomed to die a lingering death, trying (and failing) to get her to listen to him even in his last moments. Although (unlike Romeo and Juliet and their initial feigned and then mutual suicide), they are given one last chance to see each other, Antony and Cleopatra do so at the cost of conventional tragic dignity: Antony’s last words are “no more” as his beloved Cleopatra begs, characteristically and comically, “hast thou no care of me?”

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From Garber:

cleopatra-and-the-dying-mark-anthony-1763-pompeo-batoni“The play speaks, then, repeatedly about the youth of Caesar and the age of Antony. Antony himself resents the passing of his heyday, and the fact that he can be bested by a boy. As he watches Cleopatra flirt with a mere messenger, as he is compelled to send his son’s schoolmaster – the lowest of emissaries – as his representative to Caesar, he feels a sense of morality, change, and loss. He is shamed that he must ‘[t]o the young man send humble treaties’ (3.11.62); he declares, ‘To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head’ (3.13.16); and later he cries out in rage, ‘The witch shall die./To the young Roman boy she hath sold me’ (4.13.47-48). In another mood, exulting after a victory at Alexandria, he preens before Cleopatra:

     My nightingale,

We have beat them to their bed. What, girl, though grey

Do something mingle with our younger brown, yet ha’ we

A brain that nourishes our nerves, and can

Get goal for goal of youth…

(4.9.18-22)

To him in this moment she is, affectionately, a ‘girl.’ Antony is already approaching the eternal world beyond ordinary time that will be indisputably his only after death.

And what of Caesar? Caesar in his quiet way is moved by an equally strong passion, angry at being treated like a child:

He calls me boy, and chides as he had power

To beat me out of Egypt. My messenger

He hath whipped with rods, dares me to personal combat,

Caesar to Antony. Let the old ruffian know

I have many other ways to die; meantime,

Laugh at his challenge.

(4.1.1-6)

Whipping with rods was a punishment for children. The invitation to personal combat, ‘Caesar to Antony,’ calls to mind for the audience, inevitably, that other Caesar, ‘great Caesar,’ the lover of Cleopatra.

Sexual and Oedipal jealousy may underlie Caesar’s excessive demonstration of pique and insult when Octavia, his sister, returns to him with a small train in attendance. The small train, the audience has learned, is her own idea, since she wrongly believes that she can make peace between Antony and Caesar, her husband and her brother. (Her misplaced optimism here recalls not only the situation of Blanche in King John, but also that of Desdemona, disastrously convinced that she can intercede with Othello on behalf of Cassio.) But to Caesar the small retinue is a mortal insult that slights him directly. It is Octavius, not Octavia, who feels ill-used. Consider, too, his zealous concern to satisfy all Cleopatra’s desires, to win her from Antony by false promises of honor and consideration, to take her captive and lead her in triumph through the streets of Rome. She will be his Cleopatra then, not Julius Caesar’s, and not Antony’s. The triangular relation of these three, Octavius, Antony, and Cleopatra, is as highly charged as the doomed triad of Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona. It is Antony as much as Cleopatra who occupies Caesar’s imagination, Antony whom he wishes to marry to his sister, a sister whose name so closely resembles his own. At the marriage ceremony, as we have seen, it is the brother who stands in for the sister, so that Antony marries her by proxy, but takes the hand of Octavius on the stage. It is Antony who has his father’s mistress, and his father’s epic greatness, and it is this same Antony who calls him ‘boy.’

Octavius’s determination is to humiliate a hero, to bring a legend to its end, since he cannot rival it. Again we might be reminded of the complicated web of love and hatred that bound Iago to Othello. With the death of Antony in the fourth act, it seems as if Octavius may indeed have succeeded. ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying,’ Antony declares, and his ‘dying’ here recalls for the audience all those many times when he ‘died’ with her in the double sense so common in these plays, and in the love poetry of the period. Yet in this scene (4.16) Antony dies in a mortal, not an erotic, sense, and he does so as the result of a false message from Cleopatra, the dark outcome of the play’s earlier comic scenes with messengers and their messages. Recall that she had used such false messages as a kind of flirtation, a love game (‘If you find him sad,/Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report/That I am sudden sick’). But the false message she sends of her own death brings the game to an end, destroys the re-creation of Egypt, and Antony runs to death, as he says, like a bridegroom to his bed:

Unarm, Eros. The long day’s task is done,

And we must sleep.

(4.15.35-36)

This self-epitaph is remarkably similar to the words that Iras will speak to Cleopatra in act 5: ‘Finish, good lady. The bright day is done,/And we are for the dark’ (5.2.188-189). To Cleopatra the death of Antony is nothing less than the end of the world, for they – these astonishing lovers – are each other’s world. As Cleopatra says when he dies in her arms,

The crown o’th’ earth doth melt. My lord!

O, withered 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.

(4.16.65-70)

‘Young boys and girls/Are level now with men.’ Octavius seems to have won, the ‘boy’ seems to have scored his victory over the ‘old ruffian.’ But this is to speak far too soon. For the death of Antony in the fourth act leaves the fifth act entirely to Cleopatra, and the fifth act will become the playing space for transformation, metamorphosis, and myth, a space in which the mortal becomes the immortal.”

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From Bloom:

antony-and-cleopatra-history-1979-541x361“Cleopatra, indisputably the peer of Falstaff and of Hamlet, is the most vital woman in Shakespeare, surpassing even Rosalind. Antony cannot be fully known, because of Shakespeare’s highly deliberate distancing. Cleopatra, even if the perspectives dissolved, would finally be unknowable anyway, for many of the same reasons that cause us to begin early on to know Falstaff, and then always to have to begin again. In the most brilliantly drastic of recent critical interpretations, Janet Adelman finds in Cleopatra Shakespeare’s reimagining of ‘the female mystery of an endlessly regenerating source of supply, growing the more it is reaped.’ Upon that mystery, in Adelman’s view, Shakespeare founds Antony’s ‘fully masculine selfhood that can overflow its own rigid boundaries.’ These are impressive contentions, but do they not idealize? Antony dies well, with a loving concern for Cleopatra, but Shakespeare keeps the hero within the boundaries of Roman selfhood: ‘a Roman, by a Roman/Valiantly vanquish’d.’ Falstaff’s death, playing with flowers and smiling upon his finger’s end, childlike and with a reverberation of the Twenty-third Psalm, overflows all boundaries, though some critics (Wyndham Lewis, Auden, and also Empson) have questioned whether Falstaff’s selfhood was fully masculine. A good Roman death, Antony’s, but it resembles more the deaths of Brutus and Cassius than those of Falstaff and of the transcendent Hamlet. Perhaps one could agree that Cleopatra indeed endlessly regenerates herself, but her power is not transferable, whether to Antony or to the audience.

Shakespeare invented our realization that we grow most aware of lovers only when our distance from them suddenly increases, and that when we have lost them, particularly to death, we can be visited by an ecstasy that masks as their enlargement but actually constitutes a reduction. Proust was Shakespeare’s greatest pupil in this ironic process, when Albertine becomes the narrator’s Antony, a lost and enigmatic sublime. Some commentators observe that Cleopatra is only in love with Antony throughout Act V, when he is dead. That seems to me a little unkind, but her devotion to him does not begin to touch its height until the end of Act IV, when he dies, rather cumbersomely, in her arms. As a politician and as a dynastic ruler, she has strong concerns for Egypt and for her children, considerations set aside when she ponders the consequences, for Egypt and for them, of her enduring the humiliation of being exhibited to the males of Rome. Historically (according to Plutarch), Octavius executed only Antony’s eldest son, but in Act V, Scene ii, lines 123-32, Octavius threatens Cleopatra with the destruction of all her children if she thwarts his triumph by her suicide. Despite Hollywood’s gaudy depictions of Roman triumphs, many of us still lack the realization of the ordeals these constituted for defeated monarchs and generals, exposed first to the viciousness of the populace and then to the likelihood of brutal executions. Cleopatra, in Octavius’s plan, is not for execution, but is to become a perpetual circus act for his glory. ‘For her life in Rome/Would be eternal in our triumph.’ Shakespeare takes a particular zest in Cleopatra’s rejection of this infamy:

Cleopatra:       Now, Iras, what think’st thou?

Thou, an Egyptian puppet shalt be shown

In Rome as well as I: mechanic slaves

With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall

Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,

Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,

And forc’d to drink their vapour.

Iras:                The gods forbid!

Cleopatra:  Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras: saucy lictors

Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers

Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us, and present

Our Alexandrian revels: Antony

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore.

(V.ii.206-20)

Shakespeare must have known that Roman theaters, like the continental playhouses of his own era, were not compelled to employ boys for women’s parts; do we hear his ruefulness that his Serpent of old Nile had to endure the travesty of some squeaker boying her greatness upon stage at the Globe itself? A play that imagistically identifies Cleopatra with earth and water will allow her, at the close, to exult, ‘I am fire, and air,’ thus escaping Octavius, ‘the universal landlord.’ The world, let alone Octavius, wants its triumph over Cleopatra, but Shakespeare at last takes sides, and denies the world its sadism, by appropriating Cleopatra for his play’s triumph alone. No one else in Shakespeare makes so find an end, in a personal ritual of exaltation. We are moved when Fortinbras commands that Hamlet’s body be taken up for a military funeral, on the grounds that Hamlet would have been another Fortinbras or Hamlet Senior, an assumption absurd enough to arouse our irony even as we welcome an apotheosis at which we know Hamlet would have scoffed. Prince of ironies, he would not have begrudged the audience its comfort. Cleopatra’s transmogrification is quite another matter; Shakespeare leaps to compose his most extraordinary dying music. But which is his Cleopatra? What precisely is being celebrated in her ritual?

Cleopatra dies as the representative of the ancient god-rulers of Egypt, though Shakespeare knew what we know, which is that she was wholly Macdeonian in ancestry, being descended from one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Still, only the panoply of her dying is hieratic; its purpose is simple and unbearably poignant: reunion with Antony. Here her art is that of the dramatist, her elegy for Antony is only partly personal since she laments lost greatness, her public passion:

     Noblest of men, woo’t die?

Hast thou no care for me? Shall I abide

In this dull world, which in thy absence is

No better than a sty? O, see, my women:

The crown o’ the earth doth melt. [Antony dies.]

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.

(IV.xv.59-68)

‘The odds is gone’ means that value, which depends upon distinctions, has been lost, the fallen soldier’s pole having been the standard of measurement. Cleopatra’s longing for a lost sublime hardly indicates that we have a new transcendental woman replacing the histrionic masterwork we have known. She is still actress enough to play her last and greatest scene, for which the dead Antony is the occasion and provocation. This is not to question their closeness, now forever enhanced by his absence, but to renew our awareness that like Antony, and like Cleopatra herself, we cannot disentangle her passion from her self-portrayal. Shakespeare, cunning beyond man’s thought, loads every psychic rift with ore, and we are left wondering by even her most poignant utterances:

No more, but e’en a woman, and commanded

By such poor passion as the maid that milks,

And does the meanest chares. It were for me

To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods,

To tell them that this world did equal theirs,

Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught:

Patience is sottish, and impatience does

Become a dog that’s mad: then is it sin,

To rush into the secret house of death,

Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?

What, what, good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian?

My noble girls! Ah, women, women! Look,

Our lamp is spent, it’s out. Good sirs, take heart,

We’ll bury him: and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,

Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,

And make death proud to take us. Come, away.

This case of that huge spirit now is cold.

Ah, women, women! come, we have no friend

But resolution, and the briefest end.

(IV.xv.73-91)

Where are the limits of the histrionic here? Cleopatra’s audience is made up of Iras and Charmian, and the audience itself, but most of all she is now her own audience, since she lacks Antony, her most appreciative fan (herself excepted). Iris and Charmian, and we, are very moved by her, but perhaps she surpasses us, since she moves herself so extraordinarily that the effect itself becomes an added aesthetic grace. We cannot reach the inmost level of Cleopatra’s ever-burgeoning inner self. That helps account for Shakespeare’s dismissal of inwardness, after its infinite development in the four high tragedies. Even with Macbeth we knew the limits of his self-dramatization, and could shudder at our involuntary identification with his powerful imaginings. With Cleopatra, we can never know where the performing self ends, and so we admire, while refusing identification. This does not lessen Cleopatra, but it estranges her, even where she most fascinates. Shakespeare knew what he wrought; as almost always, we are slow to catch up. Cleopatra’s comic intensities vie with her erotic energies; to regard her as a tragic heroine loses too much of her. When a hapless messenger informs her that Antony has married Octavia, she remembers Antony’s earlier declaration: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt,’ and replies with: ‘Melt Egypt into Nile.’ Shakespeare does not show us Antony’s return to Egypt, and to Cleopatra. We ought to surmise why, since their reunion belongs to public history, and not to their private encounters, which exclude us. It may be that Shakespeare prefers to show us their strained relationship by events, including Cleopatra’s catastrophic insistence upon taking part in the sea battle at Actium, and even more, her remarkable performance with Octavius’s ambassador, Thidias:

Cleopatra:    Most kind messenger,

Say to great Caesar this in deputation:

I kiss his conquering hand: tell him, I am prompt

To lay my crown at’s feet, and there to kneel.

Tell him, from his all-obeying breath I hear

The doom of Egypt.

Thidias:       ‘Tis your noblest course.

Wisdom and fortune combating together,

If that the former dare but what it can,

No chance may shake it. Give me grace to lay

My duty on your hand.

Cleopatra:    Your Caesar’s father oft,

When he hath mus’d of taking kingdoms in,

Bestow’d his lips on that unworthy place,

As it rain’d kisses.

(III.xiii.73-84)

One suspects that this is not so much treachery to Antony as payback time, since Cleopatra can assume that Antony will storm in (as he does), order Thidias soundly whipped, and salute the Empress of Egypt as ‘half blasted ere I knew you,’ ‘a boggler’ (an artist at shifting allegiances), and most nastily:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon

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

Of Gnaeus Pompey’s, besides what hotter hours,

Unregister’d 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.

(III.xiii.116-22)

They are too entangled to part, though they have bought and sold each other, and neither believes any longer that anything will end well for them. Their greatest mutual scene comes at the monument, where Cleopatra has taken refuge, and where the dying Antony is hoisted up to her. An astonishing medley of outrageous comedy and terrible pathos, their dialogue defies critical description:

Antony:

I am dying, Egypt, dying; only

I here importune death awhile, until

Of many thousand kisses, the poor last

I lay upon thy lips.

Cleopatra:

I dare not, dear,

Dear my lord, pardon: I dare not,

Lest I be taken: not the imperious show

Of the full-fortun’d Caesar ever shall

Be brooch’d with me, if knife, drugs, serpents, have

Edge, sting, or operation, I am safe:

Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes,

And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour

Demuring upon me: but come, come, Antony, —

Help me, my women – we must draw thee up.

Assist, good friends.

Antony:

O quick or I am gone.

Cleopatra:

Here’s sport indeed! How heavy weights my lord:

Our strength is all gone into heaviness,

That makes the weight. Had I great Juno’s power,

The strong-wing’d Mercury should fetch thee up,

And set thee by Jove’s side. Yet come a little,

Wishers were ever fools, O, come, come, come

They heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra

And welcome, welcome! Die where thou hast liv’d,

Quicken with kissing: had my lips that power,

Thus would I wear them out.

All:  A heavy sight!

Antony:

I am dying, Egypt, dying.

Give me some wine, and let me speak a little

Cleopatra:

No, let me speak, and let me rail so high,

That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel,

Provok’d by my offence.

(IV.xv.18-44)

Cleopatra is never more outrageously funny, or more vulnerable to a moralizing perspective that distorts her beyond measure. Poor Antony wants a final kiss, but she is afraid to descend, which is understandable enough, except that her taste and timing are more than dubious in bringing Octavia into this grotesque and terrible moment. Bad taste and worse timing are transcended when Antony repeats his gorgeous line – ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying’ – and begs for wine so he can ‘speak a little,’ only to have Cleopatra cry out, ‘No, let me speak,’ and then vault into a fustian rant, her most purely histrionic. Dr. Johnson angrily termed ‘That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel’ a ‘despicable line,’ but the great moral critic did not want to catch the play’s strange hilarity. Antony dies with as much dignity as he can summon up, in the face of a raving Cleopatra, and with the knowledge that he has bungled even his own suicide. The world is there, always, and Shakespeare negotiates a final division of honors between Cleopatra and the world in Act V, in which Antony, a great shadow’s last embellishment, is more present by being wholly absent, grander in memory than when we have seen him on stage.”

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And finally, from Van Doren:

Cleopatra holds body of Marc Antony following his suicide“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. This does not make them easy material for tragedy. It makes them indeed the most intractable material of all; for tragedy works with delusions, and they have none. They would seem to have been cut out for comedy, and indeed there is much comedy here. Only a supreme effort at writing keeps the play on its tragic keel. And even then it must do without the sense in any line that death is terrible. Tragedy counts, both in its hero and in us, upon the fear of death for its great effects. But these lovers, far from fearing death, embrace it as a third lover. Enobarbus says of Cleopatra: ‘I do think there is mettle in Death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying.’ (I.ii.147-9). He is satirical, and refers to the actress who puts on shows of death in order to hold her lord. But his intelligence has penetrated to the symbol which Antony no less than she will employ to express an ultimate passion. ‘I’ll make Death love me,’ swears Antony as he prepares for battle (III.xiii.193), and as he falls on his sword he elaborates the image:

I will be

A bridegroom in my death, and run into ‘t

As to a lover’s bed

(IV.xiv.99-101)

Cleopatra, however, gives it its most sophisticated form:

The stroke of death is a lover’s pinch,

Which hurts, and is desir’d.

(V.ii.298-9)

Antony is a great man, but his dimensions do not express themselves in drama. The play, such as it is, pauses while his praise is sung by Lepidus, by Euphronius, by Caesar, and again and again by Cleopatra. He deserves that such things should be said of him, but we must not expect to see them exemplified in act. They are often negative things: there are not enough evils to darken his goodness, his death is not a single doom, nothing is left remarkable after he’s gone, his bounty had no winter in it. And there is a further negative:

Who tells me true, though in his tale lie death,

I hear him as he flatter’d…

Speak to me home, mince not the general tongue.

(I.ii.102-9)

He does not trade in untruths. We learn much from such negatives, but we learn it directly, through lyric statement while the action rests. His delights were dolphin-like, they show’d his back above the element they liv’d in – the movement there goes on outside our practical vision, in a remote kingdom by the sea of metaphor. Nothing more interesting was ever said about any man, but it has to be said, it cannot be shown. Antony is finally ineffable, and Shakespeare has the tact to let him tower alone. Bounty, as the first half of ‘Timon of Athens’ proves, is not a dramatic virtue; nor is there any attempt in this play to make it seem one, though the suicide of Enobarbus (IV.vi) states it powerfully, and Cleopatra’s encomium is majestic in its range. The virtues of Antony cannot be dramatized because they are one virtue and its name is magnanimity. Actor though he is and orator though he has been, at his best he shows his back above the element he lives in. He can be moved to anger, jealousy, and pride, he can laugh within a minute after he has raged, he can be a man of forty moods; yet our last vision is of one whose spirit has grown stationary. For all his shrewdness Enobarbus does not see what has happened. He speaks of ‘a diminution in our captain’s brain’ (III.xii.198), but he is wholly wrong. There has been an expansion, not a contraction. Great as is the world of Roman thoughts, and Caesar reveals the limit of that greatness, Antony has found a greater world – one whose soft sky is of infinite size, and one where thoughts melt into one another as water does in water. A soothsayer warns Antony to keep space between himself and Caesar (II.iii.23), but the space is already there. The discomfort Antony feels in Caesar’s presence is based on more than political rivalry between an old lion and a young fox; it is based on an inability to tell Caesar or any other man why Egypt is so attractive. The reason is Egypt’s air, which cannot be felt until it is withdrawn; when it must be found and breathed again, for a full breath cannot be taken in any other. Antony grows until he occupies the whole of Egypt’s and Cleopatra’s air. And his final act of occupation is death – which, if it withdraws him from us, leaves us an exact equivalent in the greatness of that air.

Cleopatra’s dimensions express themselves on the other hand with an excess of drama – in many little plays rather than in one that is round and single. She comes at us in waves, each of which breaks before it reaches us, but the total number of which is great and beautiful. She is fickle, she is spoiled –

     Pity me, Charmian,

But do not speak to me –

(II.v.118-9)

she is vain, she is cowardly, she is incorrigibly unserious; yet she is a queen ‘whom everything becomes’ (I.i.49). Antony says that, and he means it even of one who is ‘cunning past man’s thought’; her cunning becomes her too, and the holy priests bless her when she is riggish (II.ii.244-5). For her variety is infinite; she perfectly expresses the elasticity of Egypt’s air. Antony’s immobility measures its amount, but its quality can be fingered only in her. She is mercury, she is changeable silk, she is a serpent of old Nile whose movements are too many to count. The messenger’s description of Octavia is nicely calculated for the woman to whom it is delivered:

     She creeps;

Her motion and station are as one;

She shows a body rather than a life,

A statue than a breather.

(III.iii.21-4)

Cleopatra is not like that; she is a breather, and her life is still more fascinating than her body. It is her life that makes her love so interesting. ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d’ – Antony has learned this from her, and from the boundless air of Egypt. She teaches him even while she tortures him; that is why he can forgive her the long, ghastly effort to die which her lie about the monument imposes upon him (IV.xiv). His pleasure in her alternates with pain, and in fact the play deals more with the pain than it does with the pleasure. But between the lines we read that he could have endured as much again from one whose behavior has never been what Octavia’s is, ‘holy, cold, and still’ (II.vi.131).”

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It’s interesting to read such a strong defense of Antony.  What are your thoughts on Antony and his greatness?  Is he diminished by the end of the play, or, as Van Doren writes, is that when he achieves greatness?

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – more on Act Four

Enjoy your weekend.

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