Antony and Cleopatra
Act Four, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
From Tony Tanner:
“As well as being a history play, Antony and Cleopatra contains within it the traces of the outlines of a morality play – for by the early Renaissance the ‘moral’ of the story of the illustrious lovers was well established. We can find it in Spenser’s Fairie Queene, Book V, Canto VII:
Nought under heaven so strongly doth allure
The sense of man, and all his minde possesse,
As beauties lovely baite, that doth procure,
Great warriours oft their rigour to represse,
And mighty hands forget their manlinesse…
So also did the great Oetean Knight
For his loves sake his Lions skin undight:
so did warlike Antony neglect
The worlds which rule for Cleopatra’s sight.
Such wondrous powers both womens fair aspect,
To captive men, and make them all the world reject.
This ‘moral’ reading is there in Plutarch’s version, in which Antony becomes ‘effeminate’ and made ‘subject to a woman’s will.’ He is particularly critical of Antony’s behavior at the Battle of Actium (when he followed the fleeing Cleopatra). ‘There Antonius showed plainly, that he had not only lost the courage and heart of an Emperor, but also of a valiant man, and that he was not his own man…he has so carried away with the vain love of this woman, as if he had been glued unto her, and that she could not have removed without moving of him also.’ In Spenser’s terms, Antony ‘rejected’ the world for the mere love of a woman. Whether he found or made a better world is not, of course, considered. But, while Shakespeare’s play does include these historical-morality elements (unquestionably, his glue-like relationship with Cleopatra ruins him as a politician and spoils him as a soldier, and, in worldly terms, she does – as he recognizes – lead him ‘to the very heart of loss’ – IV.xii.29) – it complicates any ethical ‘reading’ of the story, so there can be no question of seeing it simply as another version of a good soldier losing his empire because of a bad woman. To understand this more clearly, we have to take into account another figure. For, if Octavius Caesar is related to the onward and inexorable movement of History, Antony is related to a god, Hercules.
This relationship is suggested in Plutarch who, however, relates Antony more closely to Bacchus. Shakespeare strengthens the association with Hercules. Hercules was famous for his anger, and so is Antony. As his anger begins to rise, Cleopatra says: ‘Look, prithee, Charmian,/How this Herculean Roman does become/The carriage of his chafe’ (I.iii.84-5). Reacting in fury to Cleopatra’s flight from the battle and what ensues, he cries out:
The shirt of Nessus is upon me, teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Plutarch refers to Antony being deserted by a god, ‘it is said that suddenly they heard a marvelous sweet harmony of sundry sorts of instruments of music…as they use in Bacchus feasts…Now, such as its reason sought the depth of the interpretation of this wonder, thought it was the god unto whom Antonius bare singular devotion to counterfeit and resemble him, that did forsake them.’ Shakespeare takes the scene, and the interpretation, but makes one telling change. Lat in the play, some soldiers hear ‘Music i’ th’ air’ and decide ‘Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,/Now leaves him.’ (IV.iii.15-16). Where his Antony is concerned – despite his manifest taste for wine – Shakespeare wants us to think more of Hercules, less of Bacchus. Hercules was of course the hero – hero turned god – par excellence. There were many allegories concerning Hercules current by the Middle Ages. One (apparently from the Sophist, Prodicus), has Hercules as a young man arriving at a place where the road branches into two paths, one leading up a steep hill, the other into a pleasant glade. At the dividing point, two fair women meet him; one, modest and sober, urges him to take the steep path; the other, seductive if meretricious, uses her arts in an attempt to attract him into the glade. The hero, of course chooses the steep hill of Virtue over the beckoning glades of Pleasure. There were many medieval and Renaissance depictions of this struggle of Virtue and Pleasure over Hercules (there is a famous Durer engraving of it – Der Hercules), with Pleasure, hedone, voluptas, sometimes associated with Venus. The implications, for us, are quite clear: if Antony is related to Hercules, Cleopatra is related to Venus. The key difference, of course, is that Hercules-Antony chooses Pleasure, pays heed to the solicitation of Venus – thus inverting the traditional moral of this allegory. According then to the accumulated traditional lore which had grown up around the much metamorphosed and allegorized figure of Hercules, Antony is indeed a version of Hercules, but one who, as it were, decided to take the wrong road – not up the steep hill of (Roman) virtue, but off the track into the (oriental) glades of pleasure.
There are other divinities in the play, and if Hercules deserts Antony, he in turn goes on to play Osiris to Cleopatra’s Isis. The union of these divinities assures the fertility of Egypt: in Plutarch’s study of the myth (well known in Shakespeare’s time), Osiris is the Nile which floods and makes fertile the land – he is form, the seminal principle, and Isis is matter. From their union are bred not only crops, but animals, such as the serpents of the Nile. Typhon the crocodile, born of Nile mud, represents for Plutarch the irrational, bestial part of the soul by which Osiris is deceived and torn to pieces. There are, of course, numerous references to the Nile, its floods, its serpents, and so on, in the play, and Shakespeare clearly has this myth actively in mind. But it is not a stable or fixed incorporation. Cleopatra is Isis but also Antony’s ‘serpent of old Nile,’ and by a serpent of Nile will she die – a serpent by a serpent ‘valiantly vanquished,’ as Antony-Osiris is ‘a Roman by a Roman valiantly vanquished’ (that second Roman is more Antony than Caesar – as Cleopatra says: ‘Not Caesar’s valor hath o’erthrown Antony, But Antony’s hath triumphed on itself’ – IV.xv.14-15). The monster-crocodile who destroys Antony is, in this play, Octavius Caesar – though he is hardly seen in those terms. He is a disguised Typhon for Antony and Cleopatra, who are playing at being Osiris and Isis – but, really, he is not in their self-mythologizing act, not in their ‘play’ at all.”
I’d like to interrupt the discussion of the play with a brief diversion — one of my favorite poems (it is connected) — Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
your work that failed, your life’s plans
all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen — your final delectation — to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
From Northrop Frye:
“Let’s look at Antony’s death scene, in which, after a bungled attempt at suicide and mortally wounded, he makes his way to Cleopatra’s monument and asks her to come down and give him her last kiss. But Cleopatra has already started on her private war to outwit Caesar’s plan to make her part of his triumph in Rome. It sounds like a restricted operation, but it’s as important to Cleopatra as the mastery of the world is to Caesar. So she apologizes to Antony, but she’s afraid she can’t come down ‘Lest I be taken.’ She must stay in the protection of a monument that would hold up a cohort of Roman legionnaires for about a minute and a half. There’s no help for it: ‘we must draw thee up.’ What follows is a difficult scene to stage, but nobody can miss the humiliation for Antony of this grotesque maneuver, to say nothing of the physical agony of the ordeal for a dying man. ‘Here’s sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord!’ says Cleopatra. Our minds go back to an earlier scene, when, with Antony absent and Cleopatra stupefied with boredom, she proposed to go fishing, as she used to do with Antony:
my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up,
I’ll think them every one an Antony,
And say ‘Ah ha! y’are caught.’
To Antony’s exhausted murmur, ‘Give me some wine, and let me speak a little,’ her answer is, ‘No, let me speak, and let me rail.’ When Antony is finally going, she says first, ‘Hast thou no care for me?’, and then breaks into the tremendous rhetoric of her lament for her dead lover. I’m taking phrases out of their contexts a bit, and of course Shakespeare’s really intense scenes are so delicately balanced that emphasizing and overemphasizing any single aspect are almost the same thing.
The reason why Antony is in this situation, and mortally wounded, is that when his fleet surrendered to Caesar he assumed that Cleopatra had betrayed him, and Cleopatra had to counter this threat with the most dramatic action possible: of sending to Antony, by her eunuch Mardian, a report of her death, which Mardian was urged to ‘word piteously.’ All of which still does not show that Cleopatra is a monster of selfishness. Selfishness is a product of calculation, and Cleopatra, at least at the moment of Antony’s death, is not calculating. Her reactions are too instinctive to be called selfish: she’s just being Cleopatra.”
From Frank Kermode:
“In IV.iii, one of those scenes used by Shakespeare that comment on rather than advance the action, like the Parthian scene (III.i), the soldiers on watch hear the ominous music that means Hercules is abandoning Antony. (In Plutarch the god is Bacchus; Shakespeare takes the moment to emphasize Antony’s claim to protection from his ancestor god.) IN twenty-one lines it does much, giving to the fate of Antony a quasi-mythological grandeur which henceforth infuses much of the verse. Enobarbus deserts: ‘O, my fortunes have/Corrupted honest men! (IV.v.16-17). But the tones of imperial grandeur persist. Antony scores an inconclusive victory and greets Cleopatra as if she were more than human, calling her ‘this great fairy’ (IV.vii.12), while she gives him the welcome due to a god:
Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from
The world’s great snare uncaught?
The marvel is that in this play bombast, or what ought to be at best nickel silver, is somehow transmuted into fine gold. Given infinite virtue, unlimited manly power, Antony hardly deserves congratulations on managing, like an animal, to escape the hunter; there is a deliberate glory in the greeting, but it has a faintly ill-omened sound.
Fighting by sea again, with all the omens bad, ‘Antony/Is valiant, and dejected, and by starts/His fretted fortunes give him hope and fear/Of what he has, and has not’ (IV.xii.6-9). This is absolutely typical of the mature Shakespeare, part of the run of his mind; it sounds like Macbeth. The point is made by the time we have heard ‘hope and fear,’ but Shakespeare ties another knot in the concluding line, as if to make sure the sense cannot be unbound; this trick gives the reader or listener work to do, relating ‘what he has’ to ‘hope,’ and ‘what he has not’ to ‘fear.’
The final battle lost (‘Fortune and Antony part here’ [IV.xii.19]), Antony again turns on Cleopatra. Deserted by so many of his followers, he utters a very remarkable complaint:
All come to this? The hearts
That spannel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all.
Here is a strange mixture of metaphors; hearts (of course a synecdoche for ‘men’ or, ironically, ‘brave men’ or ‘friends’) that followed him like dogs now melt themselves, and also melt the sweets he has given them, slaving them over Caesar, represented as a tree in blossom compared with Antony, a taller tree but doomed to die by having had its bark stripped away, with a hint of the usual attention dogs give to trees. There are few passages even in this play that whirl so dizzily from one association to another. Antony heard Cleopatra’s ‘discandying’ speech, quoted [earlier], and echoes it in this unrelated passage some time later. Melting is his fate, and it impregnates this complaint.
And so Antony himself melts. The intellectual energy of the verse is now probably more intense than anywhere else in Shakespeare, except possibly in Coriolanus, yet it is never completely wild. Antony asks Eros to consider shapes seen in clouds: ‘That which is now a horse, even with a thought/The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct/As water is in water’ (IV.xiv.9-11). ‘Rack’ is a drifting cloud; ‘dislimns’ is an essential, irreplaceably apt new word (later uses are quotations of this one, as the O.E.D. notes); an artist ‘limns’ and the cloud breaking up does the opposite for the horse. Antony is dislimned like the shapes in the cloud; he ‘cannot hold this visible shape’ (14). He adds another complaint against fortune: he has been cheated at cards by the swindler Cleopatra and the lucky Caesar.
Antony’s death calls forth verse of an exalted tone peculiar to this play. ‘The star is fall’n./And time is at his period,’ says the guard (IV.xiv.106-7). Here the note of apocalypse differs from that sounded in Lear (‘Is this the promis’d end? Or image of that horror?’) because it suggests an enormous hyperbole – here the death of one godlike man, ‘the great prince o’ th’ world’ (V.xv.54) is the death of the entire world.
Octavian, however, remains to rule the world, for he is ‘the full-fortun’d Caesar’ (IV.xv.24). But his luck doesn’t quite hold out, for he is thwarted by Cleopatra. She utters her astonishing, almost triumphing lament:
The crowd o’ th’ earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n. Young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
The grandeur of Antony entitles him to be called the crown of the earth, but again this crown melts; he adorned the world like a victor’s wreath, but the wreath is withered. “pole’ is of grandly uncertain meaning: the pole star (the guard, over Antony’s not quite dead body, says ‘The star is fall’n’ [IV.xiv.107]), possibly the tent pole that upheld the soldier’s world. Each of these figures elevates Antony from ordinary humanity: he is a melting crown, a withered garland suggesting a defeated hero; a heavenly guide or a prop. The rest of the passage says that with Antony all distinction of merit or achievement dies; children are equal to grown men, the unevenness that allows a man to be great, to be an emperor, is abolished. And the conclusion drops into an extraordinary simplicity (‘nothing left remarkable’), qualified only by the strange redundancy of ‘visiting’ – though Cleopatra, resolved on suicide, will also renounced ‘the fleeting moon’ (V.ii.240) as the woman’s ‘planet.’ What is altogether striking about the speech is that it conveys a kind of keening quite unlike the formal expressions of mourning and lamentation found in the mouths of women in the earlier history plays, in place of rhetorical pattern one has a diversity of figure, that restless movement of intelligence that characterizes the later verse of Shakespeare.”
Isn’t Cleopatra’s constant interruption of Antony’s dying one of the most painfully funny scenes in Shakespeare?
And from Camille Paglia:
“Cleopatra’s Dionysian multiplicity is richly illustrated throughout the play. For example, when she hears of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, Cleopatra swerves back and forth between extreme emotions five times in the lines (II.v.109-19). Each mood-swing toward and away from Antony, has its own operatic tone, gesture, and posture Critics used to wonder which is the ‘real’ Cleopatra, or where is she? The secondary selves must be cunning stratagems. Worse, the issue of Octavia’s height with hair color, interwoven with Cleopatra’s lamentations and faintings, make the queen seem silly and superficial in academic eyes. How like a woman! But Cleopatra is an actress, and as we shall see, theatricality is the model of human psychology in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is the sum of her masks.
Cleopatra’s Dionysianism dissolves male into female. The fruitful female principle is so dominant in Shakespeare’s Egyptian Bower of Bliss that male power is dwarfed and stymied. Cleopatra is surrounded by eunuchs, disdained by the Romans. The historical Antony was already a notorious drinker and carouser before he met Cleopatra, but in the play he is charged with Egyptian degeneration after a nobly stoic Roman past. For the Romans, Antony suffers a reduction of identity through his feminizing association with Cleopatra. But Shakespeare see it as an aggrandizement of identity which Antony, unlike Rosalind, is unable to control. Cleopatra recalls a transvestite game where she decked Antony in her robes and headdress while she strapped on his battle sword (II.v.22-23). This detail is not in Plutarch, though everything else in the passage is. Surely Shakespeare is directly addressing Spenser here. He takes Artegall’s transvestite enslavement to the Amazon queen and recasts it with Dionysian dramatic energy. What is shameful and depressing in Spenser becomes playful and mirthful. Artegall is at a dead end. But Shakespeare’s transvestite Antony and Cleopatra give the impression of vitality, of identity opening and multiplying. Exchange of clothing is a paradigm for the emotional union of love. Antony and Cleopatra so interpenetrate that they are mistaken for one another (I.ii.80)
Even before she absorbs Antony’s identity, Cleopatra is robustly half-masculine. Rivaled only by Rosalind, Cleopatra appropriates the powers and prerogatives of both sexes more lavishly than any other character in literature. Her sexual personae are energized by stormy infusions of Dionysian nature-force. Here Rosalind is more limited because more civilized. Cleopatra is psychically immersed in the irrational and barbaric. She is voluptuously female, a rarity in Shakespeare. Her sexuality is so potent in European terms that the Romans are always call her whore, strumpet, trull. As the ‘serpent of old Nile,’ she is the archetypal femme fatale (I.v.25). Cleopatra appears costumed as Isis, whom as queen she literally embodies. Her main distinction from the mocking Rosalind is her materialism, which makes her cradle the asp like ‘my baby at my breast’ (V.ii.509). the mother is one of Cleopatra’s many personae, but Rosalind and Spenser’s Britomart will become mothers only outside the frame of their works. This is because the archetype behind Rosalind is the chaste beautiful boy. Cleopatra is a virago, the androgynous type I found in Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel nudes, with their thrusting breasts. Rosalind inhabits the crisp Forest of Arden, the Northern European green world. But Cleopatra belongs to the heat-enervated Orient, whose oppressiveness hangs over Michelangelo’s women. Cleopatra is not more feminine than Rosalind, but she is far more female. Cleopatra greets the messenger: ‘Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears.’ (II.v.24). A pagan Annunciation. Physically craving the absent Antony, Cleopatra is a sexual vessel forcibly filled. Yet the penetrating force is hers; she invokes it by command. Her overwrought metaphor incidentally implied a touch of homosexual per version in the murder-by-ear of Hamlet senior in his drowsy Spenserian bower.
Cleopatra’s male persona is equally strong. As queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, like Hatshepsut, is an impersonation of a royal male. Janet Adelman suggests that Cleopatra wearing Antony’s sword is a Renaissance Venus armata and that for battle at Actium she would appear in male dress. Psychologically, Cleopatra is always armed. She has a fiery belligerence. She threatens to bloody her maid’s teeth; she even threatens Antony, using a pun which advertises her penis-envy (I.iii.40-41; ii.58-61). When the messenger arrives with news of Antony’s marriage, Cleopatra moves beyond threats to actual assault and battery, hitting him, hauling him up and down, and pulling a knife. Such scenes caused the long critical resistance to Cleopatra. By modern middle-class standards, they require defense. Shakespeare gives Cleopatra an intemperate flair for masculine violence unique in the sympathetic portrayal of women in literature. The violence of Medea or Lady Macbeth is transient, either male-inspired or deflected through a male’s action. In Cleopatra violence is constantly present as a potential male persona. It is the raging warfare of her hermaphrodite character. For parallels we must go to villainesses like Lear’s daughters or outside social literature to mythic horrors like Scylla. Into Cleopatra as Isis flows the untransformed energy of nature, sheer sex and violence.
Is it unseemly for queens to brawl? Dionysian beings instinctively subvert the hierarchical. As an Italian, I have little problem reconciling violence with culture. Rousseau drove the wedge between aggression and culture, so colorfully united in the Renaissance. Cleopatra’s pugilistic energy is matched by her sadistic imagination and flights of daemonic metaphor, where eyeballs are punted like footballs and whipped bodies steeped in pickle brine. (II.v.63-66). Shakespeare shows us the turbulent emotion-in-action of the Dionysian androgyne. Language seethes like boiling oil. Cleopatra’s rabid speeches sound more shocking to an Anglo-American than to Mediterranean ears. A savage vehemence of speech is common among southern peoples, due to the nearness of agriculture and the survival of pagan intensity. Those who live on and by the land recognize nature’s terrible amorality. Cleopatra’s sadistic images are normal in Italian terms. My immigrant relatives used to say, ‘May you be killed!’ ‘May you be eaten by a cat!’ Common Italian-American expressions, according to my father, took the form ‘Che te possono’ (May such and such be done to you). For example, ‘May your eyes be torn out,’ ‘May you drag your tongue along the ground,’ ‘May they squeeze your testicles,’ ‘May they sew up your anus.’ The similarity to Cleopatra’s rhetorical style is obvious. Torture and homicide are immediately accessible to the Mediterranean imagination.
I called Dionysian impulses sadistic, but the proper term is sadomasochistic, both active and passive. Provoked, Cleopatra is off on runaway flights of masochistic vision. It is the psychic countercurrent to her aggression, what Heracleitus calls emantiodromia, ‘running to its opposite.’ When Antony calls her ‘cold-hearted,’ she blurts out a surreal fantasy of poison hail, blighted wombs, and unburied bodies covered with flies and gnats (III.xiii.158-67). Taken prisoner, she storms that, preferable to jeers I Rome, let her naked corpse be thrown into the mud and swelled up by waterflies – or hung in chains on a pyramid (V.ii.55-62). Cleopatra’s sadomasochistic imagination makes Dionysian leaps through nature. Her body is the earth mother torn by the strife of the elements in the cycle of birth and death. Ugliness, pain, abortion, and decay are nature’s reality. Cleopatra’s rough speech has a daemonic eloquence. Shakespeare opens a window into the unconscious, where we see the sex and violence we carry within us. There is the grinding dreamwork, spewing out metaphors which appall us. Cleopatra’s images tumble out with bruising force, like the boulders tossed like chaff in Coleridge’s underground river.
The passionately active Cleopatra contrasts with feminine, retiring Octavia. Chaste Octavia is a ‘swan’s-down father’ on the tide: she is will-less, the pawn of larger forces. She is of ‘a holy, cold, and still conversation,’ a model Roman matron. She moves so primly ‘She shows a body rather than a life,/A statue than a breather.’ (III.ii.48/ II.vi.l22-23); III.iii.23-24). Like brother, like sister. In Shakespeare, iconic Apollonian statues are dead wood. Cleopatra’s Dionysian proteanism and velocity take Shakespeare’s eye. He makes Octavia’s virtue seem torpid. Octavia is matter and Cleopatra energy. Cleopatra is scourge, not feather. Her dominion over gender is dramatized in athletic transformations of dizzying speed. ‘I am pale, Charmian,’ she murmurs – and a line later leaps at the messenger and slugs him to the floor (II.v.59-61). Cleopatra vaults from one sexual extreme to the other, barely taking breath. The delicate Lady of the Camellias switch-hits with burly Ajax. The genders so indiscriminately mingle in Cleopatra that she makes transsexual word errors under stress. (II.v.40-41, 116, 145). Cleopatra has a Dionysian all-inclusiveness. She breaks through social restraints to plunge into the sensual, orgiastic pleasure of pure feeling.
Cleopatra embodies the Dionysian principle of theatricality. Shakespeare often makes analogies between personality and stagecraft but never, save in Hamlet, so systematically as he does in Antony and Cleopatra. From first scene to last, public and private behavior is critiqued in terms of performance. Politics itself is stage-managed. Antony and Cleopatra are always going in and out of their legendary roles as Antony and Cleopatra. For Cleopatra, life is theater. She is a master propagandist. Truth is inconsequential; dramatic values are supreme. Cleopatra shamelessly manipulates others’ emotions like clay. Once her cleverness misfires, when she sends word she is dead and Antony kills himself. Cleopatra resembles Rosalind in the gleeful way she throws herself into a role. This is so even at her lowest moment, when she scripts her suicide. Like Rosalind, Cleopatra is producer and star of play’s end. She makes a masque-like tableau of her own death. Shakespeare presses Renaissance theatricality beyond moral norms. Metamorphoses are horrific for both Spenser and Dante, who consigns impersonation to one of the lowest circles of the Inferno: incestuous Myrrha, ‘falsifying herself in another’s form,’ is classed with liars and counterfeiters (XXX.41). Puritan hostility to theater was justified. Secular theater is Greco-Roman and therefore pagan. Shakespeare makes Cleopatra his accomplice and advocate for dramatic impersonation.
Cleopatra has a sensational flair for improvisation and melodrama. Her vamping and camping are more extreme than Rosalind’s as Ganymede. Cleopatra’s postures of romantic martyrdom are as self-parodying as a drag queen’s. Self-parody is always sex-parody. The virtuoso tone of Cleopatra’s theatrics recurs in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, where it clearly springs from wholesale desexualization of the characters. Cleopatra’s moment of maximum consciousness of persona is when she sets aside both feminine swooning and masculine intimidation for a briskly efficient interrogation of the messenger. She extorts intelligence on Octavia’s age, height, voice, hair, and face shape (III.iii). I consider this neglected scene one of the classic moments in all drama. A game of personae is being played. Cleopatra is mentally auditioning Octavia, cattily revising her virtues downward, always with her rival’s theatrical impact on Antony in mind. Cleopatra is gracious and queenly, but we tangibly feel her sense of her persona, as well as her maid Charmian’s sense of it. Charmian, like a church deacon, keeps piping up the required response, in ritual antiphony. Shakespeare makes us see Cleopatra’s detachment from her masks and her complete identification with them. Her showy self-representations have both intellectual duality and hierarchic authority. Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s despotic Muse of drama.”
The only character in literature whose theatrical personae rival Cleopatra’s is Auntie Mame. Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame (1955) is the American Alice in Wonderland and in my view more interesting and important than any ‘serious’ novel after World War II. The original book is far sharper than the wonderful play and movie (1958), starring the great Rosalind Russell. The subsequent musical and Lucille Ball movie (1974) are of little worth, turning the regal Auntie Mame into trivial spunk and cuddles. I mentioned Auntie Mame as a type of the Mercurius androgyne. She is an archaeologist of persona. Each event, each phase of life is registered in a change of costume and interior décor. Style and substance are one, in the Wildean manner. When the story opens in the Twenties, Auntie Mame is in her Chinese period, her Beekman Place apartment as exotic as Shakespeare’s Egypt. Like Cleopatra, Auntie Mame stands for a flamboyant, extravagant, wine-drenched, ethnically diverse world threatened by a rationalist prude, the WASP banker Mr. Babcock, Mame’s Caesar-like chief antagonist. Like Cleopatra, Mame is attended by androgynes – a giggling eunuch-like Japanese houseboy, a virago confidante (the actress and drunk, Vera Charles), and epicene party-guests (a ‘woman-man and man-woman’). Like Cleopatra, Mame is bossy, peremptory, and given to ‘a little half-hour show of histrionics,’ her lifetime habit.’ Like Cleopatra, she has so many feminine personae that, mysteriously, she ends up ceasing to seem female at all. My Hermes/Mercury principle: a multitude of personae suspends gender. One remembers Mame’s long green lacquered fingernails and sweeping bamboo cigarette holder, her Oriental robe of embroidered golden silk, her black satin sheets and bed jacket of pink ostrich feathers. Panic and crisis: how does one dress for Scarsdale? ‘Any discussion of clothing always won Auntie Mame’s undivided attention.’ Trying to avoid a Georgia fox hunt, Mame ‘powdered herself dead white’ and put on ‘an unbecoming shade of green.’ Auntie Mame is a study of multiple impersonations, the theatrical principle of western selfhood. Emotion is instantly objectified. Costume, speech, and manner are a public pagan language of the inner life.
Expiring with emotion upon learning of her new rival, Cleopatra manages to convey to her envoy, ‘Let him not leave out the color of her hair.’ Like Auntie Mame, Cleopatra, a creature of theater, sees persona as a mirror of soul. The pagan folk sciences, astrology, palmistry, and phrenology, have never forgotten that externals are truth. Beauty is only skin-deep, you can’t tell a book by its cover: these pious axioms come from a contrary moral tradition. The aesthete, who lives in a world of surfaces, and the male homosexual, who lives in a world of masks, believes in the absoluteness of externals. That is why Auntie Mame was a diva of homosexuals. Cleopatra’s multiple personae are far from feminine fickleness. She represents a radical theatricality in which the inner world is completely transformed into the outer.”
Or, as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…”
And that above excerpt from Paglia is why I love Paglia.
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, more on Act Four before we plunge into the glory that is Act Five.