“Think you there was, or might be, such a man/As this I dreamt of?”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


031047Act Five:  When Antony dies, Cleopatra sees death as her only option, but she is prevented from stabbing herself by Caesar’s soldiers. When Dolabella reveals that Caesar intends to march her as his captive through the streets of Rome, Cleopatra is (naturally) appalled, and resolved to die at once. Placing asps to her breast and arm, she predicts her reunion with Antony in the afterlife. Caesar, discovering her body, arranges for the loves to share a tomb.

It is interesting to note that while Antony dies in Act Four, the play does not end there.  Instead, we have one incredible, drawn-out final scene, located in Cleopatra’s monument as the Romans close in on her, which proves that the play is, indeed, a double tragedy. Some (if not most) of Cleopatra’s most passionately beautiful speeches about her lover occur only when he is dead, and underline the fantasy that was at the heat of their relationship. “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony,” she says to Dolabella. “His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm/Crested the world…Realms and island were/As plates dropped from his pocket.” The image is deliberately unreal, and when Cleopatra asks, “Think you there was, or might be, such a man/As this I dreamt of,” Dolabella’s only possible reply is “Gentle madam, no.” (5.2.81-93)

But aside from fantasies of Antony, Cleopatra’s life is no longer under her control – the Romans have her there, and control is something she’s not at all prepared or able to relinquish. She cannot live to be paraded through Rome like a “strumpet,” to be jeered at by the Roman mob; she cannot bear the thought that “quick comedians” will put them on stage, that


Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’th’ posture of a whore.


The dramatic ironies are nearly overwhelming: on Shakespeare’s stage Cleopatra was already played by a “boy,” possibly the same talented actor who created the roles of Lady Macbeth and Volumnia (from our next play, Coriolanus). But only Cleopatra can be the star in her own tragedy, and so she puts on her queenly garments for the last time, expresses her “immortal longings,” and arranges her own death just like the great actress she is.


From Garber:

The_Death_of_Cleopatra_arthur“Dolabella, one of Octavius’s soldiers, is sent to guard the Queen. And it is with Dolabella that Cleopatra has a conversation that provides, in effect, the apotheosis for Antony. Notice that this is not a soliloquy [MY NOTE:  Cleopatra doesn’t have soliloquies – she NEEDS an audience.] any more than Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra on the Cydnus was a soliloquy. In both cases the great vision of one speaker is interrupted, periodically, by the skeptical interjections of another, and the result is a sharper picture of transformed and transformative greatness. Notice, too, that this conversation begins, once more, by invoking ‘boys’ and ‘women,’ conventionally unreliable sources:


You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams;

Isn’t not your trick?


I understand not, madam.


I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.

O, such another sleep, that I might see

But such another man!


If it might please ye –


His face was as the heav’ns, and therein struck

A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted

The little O o’th’ earth.


Most sovereign creature –


His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm

Crested the world. His voice was propertied

As all the tuned sphere, and that to friends;

But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,

He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,

There was no winter in’t; an autumn ‘twas,

That grew the more by reaping. His delights

Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above

The element they lived in. In his livery

Walked crowns and coronets. Realms and islands were

As plates dropped from his pocket.


Cleopatra –


Think you there was, or might be, such a man

As this I dreamt of?


Gentle madam, no.


You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.

But if there be, or ever were one such,

It’s past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff

To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t’imagine

An Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy,

Condemning shadows quite.


In Cleopatra’s vision Antony becomes a god, a tutelary spirit. Like a Colossus he bestrides the ocean, like Cleopatra herself he is infinitely fertile, infinitely generous (‘For his bounty,/There was no winter in’t; an autumn ‘twas,/That grew the more by reaping’).

‘Think you there was, or might be, such a man/As this I dreamt of?’ ‘Gentle madam, no.’ ‘No’ is the answer of Rome, the answer of realism and politics. But Cleopatra knows better. She knows that the reality of Antony is more remarkable than what the imagination can conceive. Like Cleopatra’s herself in Enobarbus’s description (‘O’er-picturing that Venue where we see/The fancy outwork nature’), he puts fantasy (‘fancy’) at odds with nature. In Cleopatra’s vision, Antony is reborn, and he takes his place as a kind of constellation in the sky, a tutelary emblem of love. This is an astonishing lyric moment in the play, the true pendant to Enobarbus’s description of the two lovers’ first meeting on the Cydnus. Tellingly, as she prepares for her own death, Cleopatra will choose to relive that moment: ‘I am again for Cydnus/To meet Mark Antony.’ (5.2.224-225)

And yet in this truly extraordinary play, there are more twists and turns to come. For the image of Antony as a natural work of art that defeats all art, as a man who transcends all dreams dreamt by mere boys or women, is closely followed by Cleopatra’s own rueful, and doubtless prophetic, vision of what would happen to her if she returned as a captive to Rome. There she would be made a spectacle. There she, and her waiting-woman, would be impersonated on a public stage, the pleasant Egyptian art of playacting turned to deadly ridicule in Rome (or in Jacobean England):

     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’th’ posture of a whore.


This would be the greatest indignity of all, for Cleopatra, the woman of women, the Venue, the Muse, the Dido, the serpent of old Nile, to be acted on the stage by a boy – a boy like the insolent and ambitious ‘boy Caesar.’ A boy Caesar who has, in some sense, wished to play Antony to her Cleopatra, perhaps even Cleopatra to his Antony.

But of course on the Jacobean stage Cleopatra would have been played by a boy. Like Juliet, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, and indeed every female character in Shakespeare who has come to stand in modern literary culture as some essential avatar of womanhood, Cleopatra was originally played by a boy actor, an accomplished stylist of femininity. Shakespeare’s company contained no women, and no women were permitted to appear on the public stage. In the first performances of this play, a boy would have played the part of Cleopatra, and spoken, feelingly, her passionate lines about the ‘squeaking Cleopatra’ who would ‘boy’ – and thus, she seems to say, parody or caricature – her ‘greatness’ on the stage in a foreign land. We may recall the love games of Egypt, the carefree and erotic playacting in which Cleopatra exchanged clothing with Antony (‘[I] put my tires and mantles on him…/I wore his sword Philippan’). Once again in a major Shakespearean tragedy we have a moment onstage that takes a huge dramaturgical risk, like the leap of Gloucester from Dover ‘cliff’ in King Lear, where the actor ‘fell’ not from a height, but from flat ground to flat ground. In this case the risk is, if possible, even more acute. Could we not, as a good Jacobean audience, see through the web of fictions, and say to ourselves, ‘It is a boy’? Would the ‘boy my greatness’ speech not provoke precisely the frame-breaking ridicule that Cleopatra here expressly says she fears?

The magic of the moment is such that – in most production, at least, unless they are calculated to go against the grain – we never come near such a feeling of theatrical disillusionment. The fictive character of Cleopatra is strong that she defeats mere ‘reality,’ if that is what we should cal it – the fact that in Shakespeare’s time she was acted by a boy, and that in any time the audience is seeing some version of what she predicts they will see in Caesar’s Rome, a play that shows Antony a drunk, Cleopatra a whore. Rather, this theatrical moment is a brilliant demonstration of what Cleopatra has just said to Dolabella about Antony, that the reality is great than what is merely imagined. But here it is the fiction, the legend, the character who is ‘real.’ Cleopatra is more enduring as a character than any actor or actress who portrays her, and this is her fullest and most conclusive transcendence.

The play now partners this apotheosis with a series of gestures that bring her out of time and into legend:

    I have nothing

Of woman in me. Now from head to foot

I am marble-constant…


Cleopatra has not rejected her womanhood, like the Lady Macbeth of ‘unsex me here.’ She has instead gone beyond it, become ‘marble-constant,’ a steadfast work of art. It is at this point that the Clown enters, with his ‘pretty worm/Of Nilus,’ the asp, carried in a basket of figs. As we have already noticed, the basket of figs is a sign of fertility. The snake adds sex and death, and summons the image, for a Judeo-Christian audience, of seduction in Eden. This Clown is a close relation of other sublimely comic and serious Shakespearean low figures, with their unintentionally meaningful malapropisms and clear-eyed acceptance of human foibles: Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the gravedigger (First Clown) in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth. Like them he speaks in unconscious truths, his observations more telling than he knows. Thus he can say of the poisonous snake he delivers to the Queen,

I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal; those that do die of it seldom or never recover.


‘[H]is biting is immortal.’ The Clown means ‘mortal,’ deadly – but he is righter than he realizes. He brings the worm of Nilus, representative of water, in a basket of figs, the emblem of the earth, to a queen who is now all fire and air, all transmigration and transcendence. Given Cleopatra’s consummate erotic nature, the snake is also, of course, a sexual symbol. ‘Yes, forsooth,’ the Clown says, ‘I wish you joy o’th’ worm’ (5.2.270).

Performance and playing are now for Cleopatra wholly merged with reality:

Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have

Immortal longings in me…


She arrays herself as she once dressed for her meeting with Antony on the Cydnus, appropriating all symbolic roles at once, actress and goddess, mother, lover, and Muse. Nursing the asp at her breast as she had nursed the children of her fertility, defeating in this perversely expressive gesture of nurture and death the ‘boy’ Octavius, adopted son of her earlier lover, she turns to address the snake as deliverer:

With they sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate

Of life at once untie…


‘Intrinsicate’ is both intricate and intrinsic. The man who could untie the Gordian knot was fated, said legend, to rule all of Asia. Alexander trumped the legend by cutting the knot with his sword. But the world that Cleopatra comes to rule, when she unties the knot intrinsicate of life, is even wider and more inclusive than ‘Asia,’ than Rome and Egypt, for it is the world of imagination, play, and art.

Yet this is a ‘history’ play, as well as tragedy, The story it tells is true in chronicle as well as mythic terms, and the play belongs to time as well as to timelessness, to the Plutarchan lesson about rule (and women) as well as to the Shakespearean vision of what fiction can to do mere fact, when deployed with such transgressive mastery. Predictably it is Caesar, the instrument of order, who has the last word in the play – Caesar, who has sent ‘[t]oo slow a messenger,’ and who himself arrives too late on the scene. As Caesar contemplates the spectacle of the dead Cleopatra, he comes to perceive that he is viewing the ultimate paradox, the death of a principle of life. Here is his epitaph for the lovers who have eluded him in death as in life:

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it

A pair so famous. High events as these

Strike those that make them, and their story is

No less in pity than his glory which

Brought them to be lamented…


Although it begins as the tragedy of Antony, the play is transformed, by its close, into the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, giving equal weight to each of its titanic titular heroes, and blending history and tragedy into a sublime transumptive genre. His glory is history. their story is legend, Pity, that quintessential tragic emotion, evoked by catharsis in Aristotle’s account, is what is produced here by the ‘[h]igh events’ in the life, love, and death of Antony and Cleopatra. Once again, it is the play, the work of art, that ‘clips’ or clasps them, that is both the grave they transcend and the monument that keeps the legendary lovers alive to the present day. Cleopatra’s death manifestly enacts that same sexual pun on ‘dying’ that has been performed, as well as cited, throughout the play (‘I am dying, Egypt, dying’; ‘I wish you joy o’th’ worm’). As she stages her own death as a return to the moment that brought the lovers together for the first time – ‘I am again for Cydnus/To meet Mark Antony’ – she defeats death, onstage and offstage, with her ‘immortal longings.’ For both Antony and Cleopatra, the play’s last acts are a dying into life, a dying into legend. Metaphor – two things becoming one – is their metaphor.

Octavius Caesar’s final, moving lines – spoken, as is usual at the close of Shakespearean tragedy, by the political survivor – are at once an attempt at control and an acknowledgement of his limits. As the Roman vanquisher of female power and ‘effeminizing’ passion – passion that inflames a man to love – he has, for the moment, restored a kind of order to both stage and world. As a historical actor, the August Caesar (or Caesar Augustus) of Roman and of Christian history, he has a major role to play. Yet the play that presents him is not, finally, content with history. Octavius is locked in time, in space, and in mortality. But for Cleopatra, the quintessence of paradox, the end is the beginning, the play waits only to begin itself once more, and always, as poetry begins itself again and always. This is as clear to the spectators on the stage as it is to readers and audiences across the centuries:

     [S]he looks like sleep,

As she would catch another Antony

In her strong toil of grace.


Significantly, in the second half of the play, Antony’s chief attendant, whom he will ask to assist him in running on his sword, is not Enobarbus but a soldier by the name of Eros. The name of the soldier is found in Shakespeare’s source in Plutarch, but Plutarch does not comment on its uncanny aptness; Shakespeare takes this apparent happenstance and makes it into a dramatic commentary, having his Antony call on ‘Eros’ repeatedly in the scene in which he urges Eros to help him with his suicide (much as Macbeth, in a similar doubled context, called on his attendant ‘Seyton’). When Eros, unwilling to kill his master, instead runs on his own sword, Antony learns the lesson from his death, and from the supposed death of Cleopatra that has provoked this high drama:

     Thrice nobler than myself,

Thou reachest me, O valiant Eros, what

I should and thou couldn’t not. My queen and Eros

Have by their brave instruction got upon me

A nobleness in record. But I will be

A bridegroom in my death, and run into’t

As to a lover’s bed. Come then, and, Eros,

Thy master dies thy scholar…



From Bloom:

antony-cleopatra-cleopatra-death“Never easy to interpret, Cleopatra in Act V is at her subtlest in her dialogue with Dolabella, whom she half-seduces, as is her style. She begins with her ‘dream’ of Antony, a godlike catalogue that stresses his munificence: ‘His delights/Were dolphin-like, they show’d his back above/The element they lived in.’ This is the prelude to the crucial interchange that determines Cleopatra’s suicide:


Think you there was, or might be such a man

As this I dreamt of?


Gentle madam, no.


You like up to the hearing of the gods.

But if there be, or ever were one such,

It’s past the size of dreaming: nature wants stuff

To vie strange forms with fancy, yet to imagine

An Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy,

Condemning shadows quite.


Hear me, good madam:

Your loss is as yourself, great; and you bear it

As answering to the weight: would I might never

O’ertake pursued success, but I do feel,

By the rebound of yours, a brief that smites

My very heart at root.


I thank you, sir:

Know you what Caesar means to do with me?


I am loath to tell you what I would you knew.


Nay, pray you, sir, —


Though he be honorable, —


He’ll lead me then in triumph.


Madam, he will. I know’t.


Dolabella, we sense, would be her next lover, if time and circumstances permitted it, but Shakespeare’s time will not relent. In Dryden’s All for Love, Dolabella and Cleopatra undergo a strong mutual attraction, and Dryden for good measure throws in a flirtation between Ventidius and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s Dolabella, an ambitious politician, as he was in Plutarch, is so smitten by Cleopatra’s passionate grief that he risks his own career by confirming her nightmare vision of being led in triumph. She is at her canniest in the subsequent scene with Octavius, persuasively enacting her outrage at being exposed at holding back half her wealth from the conqueror. Thus assured that she intends to live, Octavius withdraws, and her opportunity for death and transfiguration is preserved. ‘Again for Cydnus,/To meet Mark Antony,’ she calls for her ‘best attires.’

The summit of this magnificent play comes in the interlude with the Clown just before the apotheosis of Cleopatra’s suicide, an interlude that sustains Janet Adelman’s contention that Shakespeare’s ‘insistence upon scope, upon the infinite variety of the world, militates against the tragic experience.’ Uncanny perspectives abound throughout Antony and Cleopatra, but the Clown’s is the most unnerving. He dominates the interchange with Cleopatra, as her charm first melts his misogyny and then resolidifies it when he fails to persuade her against her resolve. Few exchanges in the world’s literature are as poignant and as subtle as these, in which the Clown offers Cleopatra the fatal asp:

Clown:  Very good: give it nothing, I pray you, for it is not worth the feeding.

Cleopatra:  Will it eat me?

How difficult it is to categorize that childlike ‘Will it eat me?’ Perhaps Cleopatra, before mounting into death and divine transfiguration, needs a final return to the playful element in her self that is her Falstaffian essence, the secret to her seductiveness. In the Clown’s repetition of ‘I wish you joy o’ the worm,’ we hear something beyond his phallic misogyny, a prophecy perhaps of Cleopatra’s conversion of the painful ecstasy of her dying into an erotic epiphany of nursing both Antony and her children by her Roman conquerors. Her artfulness and Shakespeare’s fuse together in a blaze of value that surmounts the equivocations of every mode of love in Shakespeare.

Cleopatra’s best epitaph is more impressive for being spoken by Octavius, far unlikelier than Dolabella to be captured by the enchantress:

     she looks like sleep,

As she would catch another Antony

In her strong toil of grace.


Not at all ‘another Antony,’ Octavius surpasses himself in this tribute to her seductive powers. By now, the audience very likely is, or should be, the world, and is crowded by multiple perspectives. ‘Will it eat me?’ jostles with ‘I wish you joy o’ the worm,’ and both are set a little to one side by our hope, against hope, that there is one more Antony for her to catch.”


And finally for today, from Jan Kott:

Theda-bara-cleopatra Theda-bara-cleopatra“Cleopatra is twenty-nine years old at the opening of the tragedy and thirty-nine years old at its close Antony is forty-three in the first scene and fifty-three in his last scene. This is not just the matter of historic chronology. Romeo and Juliet s a tragedy of first love. For these young lovers, in their abandon, the world does not exist. That is, perhaps, why they choose death so easily. Antony and Cleopatra is the story of love as experienced by mature adults. Even their embrace is bitter: they know it is a challenge and that they will have to pay for it. A seed of hate is inherent from the start in this love of the royal lovers. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra wants to give up their inner freedom; they accept love as if under duress, and they want to gain the upper hand over their partner.

Antony breaks away from Cleopatra, returns to Rome, concludes a marriage of convenience. He fights, but not with himself; he fights for the mastery of the world. He returns to Egypt again, and suffers a decisive defeat. He is beaten. Cleopatra wants to keep him, and to retain Egypt for herself. She mobilizes all resources, tries all possibilities, she is both brave and cowardly; faithful and ready to betray when she must, if she can sell herself to the new Caesar and save her kingdom. In Shakespeare’s world even rulers do not have the freedom of choice. History is not an abstract term, but a practical mechanism. Cleopatra loses, in the same way as Antony. She does not lose the battle with her own passion; she loses as a queen. She can only be a captive of the new Caesar and take part in his triumph as its main attraction.

Cleopatra can stay with Antony. But Cleopatra loves the Antony who is one of the pillars of the world; Antony the invincible general. Antony who has lost, who has been defeated, is not Antony. Antony can stay with Cleopatra. But Antony loves Cleopatra the goddess of the Nile. Cleopatra, who will be a captive of Caesar’s, who will be pointed at in the streets of Rome, is no more Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra make their final choice only after their defeat. The choice which for Racine would in itself be a subject for a five-act tragedy. In Shakespeare it is a compulsory choice. But a compulsory choice does not detract from his heroes’ greatness. Antony and Cleopatra become the great lovers only in Acts IV and V. And not just great lovers. They pronounce judgment on the world. At the close of the play the theme of the exposition returns. Heaven and earth are too small for love. Antony’s words will be repeated by Cleopatra just before her death:

     ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar.


          it is great

To do that thing that ends all other deeds,

Which shackles incidents and bolts up change,

Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,

The beggar’s nurse and Caesar’s.


In Richard III the entire kingdom turned out to be worth less than a horse. A swift horse may save one’s life. Antony and Cleopatra do not want to flee, and have nowhere to escape to. ‘Kingdoms are but ashes.’ In both these great plays, power and those who wield it have been judged. And there will be no appeal. When a hero of Racine’s kills himself, the tragedy is over, and, simultaneously, the world and history cease to exist. In fact they never have existed. When Antony and Cleopatra kill themselves, the tragedy is over, but history and the world go on existing. The funeral oration over the corpses of Antony and Cleopatra is spoken by the victorious triumvir, Octavius, the future Augustus Caesar. A very similar oration over Hamlet’s body has been spoken by Fortinbras. He is still talking, but the stage is empty. All the great ones have gone. And the world has become flat.”


What did you think of the play?  Of Antony?  Of Cleopatra?

More to come in my next post, Thursday evening/Friday morning.


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