“Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have/Immortal longings in me…”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams

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From Tony Tanner:

cleopatra“Cleopatra is, of course, above all a great actress. She can play with Antony to beguile him; she can play at being Isis, thus anticipating her own move towards transcendence; and she can ‘play’ at her death, easily outplaying Caesar’s crafty political deviousness. In this way, she completely transforms her desolate state, not submitting to the downward turn of fortune, but inverting it into the occasion of her own triumph of the imagination:

My desolation does begin to make

A better life. ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar:

Not being fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave,

A minister of her will…

(V.ii.1-4)

Cleopatra will be her own Fortune – a triumph of the ‘will.’

She is aware that Caesar will display her in Rome, and that her life with Antony will be ‘staged’ in a degraded form, in keeping with that tendency of Roman rhetoric to devalue and translate downwards the life associated with Egypt:

     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.

(V.ii.216-21)

(Which, of course, exactly describes what is going on in the Elizabethan theatre at that moment, with some boy ‘squeaking’ Cleopatra. This is not Nabokovian self-reflexivity. Rather, it is effectively as if the drama is so incandescent that it is scorning its own resources, shedding the very medium to put its poetry into flight. It is as though ‘representation’ is scorching itself away to reveal the thing itself – an electrifying moment of astonishing histrionic audacity and magic.) So – Cleopatra puts on her own plan, on her own stage, with her own costume, speeches, and gestures:

     Now, Charmian!

Show me, my women, like a queen: go fetch

My best attires. I am again for Cydnus,

To meet Mark Antony. Sirrah Iras, go…

And when thou hast done this chare, I’ll give thee leave

To play till doomsday – Bring our crown and all.

(V.ii.227-32)

My resolution’s placed, and I have nothing

Of woman in me: now from head to foot

I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon

No planet is of mine.

(V.ii.238-41)

[MY NOTE:  How beautiful are those lines!]

She is moving beyond the body, beyond time, beyond the whole world of transience and decay, beyond her own planet the moon, with all that it implies of tidal periodicity. The clown enters with his figs, which contain the serpent she will use for her suicide (at the beginning, Charmian says ‘I love long life better than figs’ – I.ii.32 – by the end this, like so much else, is reversed: Cleopatra likes figs better than long life). We move to her final self-apotheosis, played with great dignity and ceremony, at which Cleopatra is at once   her own directress and her own priestess:

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have

Immortal longings in me…

…Husband, I come:

Now to that name my courage prove my title!

I am fire, and air; my other elements

I give to baser life…

(V.ii.280-90)

Out of the earth, mud, dung, water associated with the Nile and its fertility, she has distilled an essence composed only of the higher elements, air and fire. She is ‘marble’ for the duration of the performance; she is also, like Antony, ‘melting,’ dissolving, but melting into a higher atmosphere She gives a farewell kiss to Iras who falls down dead – perhaps from poison, perhaps from grief – and Cleopatra comments:

     Dost thou like still?

If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world

It is not worth leave-taking.

(V.ii.306-8)

To the snake she says:

     O, couldst thou speak,

That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass

Unpolicied!

(V.ii.306-8)

She has seen through Caesar’s tricks and stratagems – ‘He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not/Be noble to myself’ (V.ii.191-2); she knows, too, that he uses language instrumentally, merely for devious political ends. And when Proculeus refers to Caesar’s ‘bounty,’ she knows that it is but a pitiful and transparent travesty of the real bounty of Antony. In her superbly performed death, we see the triumph of the ‘oriental’ imagination over the ‘alphabetic’ utilitarianism of Caesar. The world will indeed be his, and another kind of Empire inaugurated; but from the perspective of Cleopatra, and just for the duration of the play, it seems a world ‘not worth leave-taking.’ So her last words are an incomplete question: ‘What should I stay –‘ as she passes out of language, body, world, altogether. There is no staying her now. Charmian completes her question with her own final speech:

In this wild world? So, fare thee well.

Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies

A lass unparalleled. Downy windows close;

And golden Phoebus never be beheld

Of eyes again so royal! Your crown’s awry;

I’ll mend it, and then play –

(V.ii.314-19)

Thus Cleopatra, and her girls, play their way out of the reach of history, with an intensity of self-sustaining, self-validating poetry which does indeed eclipse the policies and purposes of Caesar. (there are some recent readings which see Antony and Cleopatra as failed politicians who turn to aesthetics to gloss over their mistakes and cheer themselves up with poetry. I can imagine such a play, but this one is not it.) Cleopatra was ‘confined’ in her monument, a prisoner of Caesar’s force – apparently secure within the boundaries of his soldiers and his ‘scroll.’ It is by the unforgettable excess and bounty/beauty of her last ‘Act’ that she triumphs over all that would confine her, and turns death into ‘play,’ the play that will take her into Eternity.

Let me return to the opposition between feast and waste. Feast derives from festa – holiday – and in one sense, Antony and Cleopatra turn life in Egypt into a perpetual holiday. ‘Waste’ is more interesting. Just as ‘dirt’ has been defined as ‘matter out of place,’ so the idea of ‘waste’ presupposes a boundary or classification mark which enables one to draw a distinction between what is necessary, valuable, useable in some way, and what lies outside these categories – ‘waste.’ Antony, we may say, recognizes no such boundary. Indeed, he ‘wastes’ himself, in the sense that he is endlessly prodigal of all he has and does not count the cost. From Antony’s point of view, all life in Egypt can be seen as a feast; in Caesar’s eyes – the Roman perspective – it is all ‘waste.’ From the etymology of the word (uacare, to be empty or vacant, uanus, hollow, vain; uastus, desolated, desert, vast; up to Old English weste – see Eric Partridge’s Origins), we can say that there is a connection between vastness, vacancy, vanity, and waste. Antony is inhabiting a realm of vastness, vanity, vacancy – the ‘great gap’ named by Cleopatra (Caesar, indeed, refers to Antony’s ‘vacancy’). From Caesar’s point of view, and those who see with the Roman eye, Antony is indeed ‘empty’ while Caesar is referred to as ‘the fullest man.’ Thus Enobarbus, commenting on Antony’s challenge to Caesar to meet him in single battle: ‘that he should dream,/Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will/Answer his emptiness!’ Caesar is, from one point of view, full – full of history, of Fortune, of time. Antony is ‘empty’ – committed to vacancy, vanity, waste. The question implicitly posed is whether he and Cleopatra, and their way of life, are not ‘full’ of something quite outside of Caesar’s discourse and his measurements, something which makes him the empty man. Caesar is full of politics, empty of poetry; Antony and Cleopatra reach a point where they are empty of politics, but full of poetry. Which is the real ‘vacancy’? It depends where you are standing, how you are looking. But there is nothing ‘vast’ about Caesar: even if he conquers the whole world, everything is done with ‘measure’ and ‘temper’ (temperance). If Antony and Cleopatra melt and dissolve, it is into a ‘vastness’ which is the necessary space for their exceeding, their excess – ‘beyond the size of dreaming.’ In this play, Shakespeare compels a complete revaluation of ‘waste.’ Historically, it was not paltry to be Caesar, certainly not this Caesar, who is insured of, and will ensure, a ‘temperate’ imperial future, during which time Christ would be born. This Caesar certainly has his place in the story of history. But in this play, his conquest is registered as a gradual diminishment as he – alphabetically – takes over the orient, but in doing so merely imposes Roman ‘prescription’ on a vast world of pagan fecundity, spilled plenty, and an oriental magnificence which transforms ‘waste’ into ‘bounty,’ and makes Caesar seem like the ‘merchant’ he is, a calculating Machiavel – an ass unpolicied.

Boundaries are, of course, of central importance for civilization. For Vico, in The New Science, civilized man is precisely one who creates and guards ‘confines’ – ‘for it was necessary to set up boundaries to the field in order to put a stop to the infamous promiscuity of things in the bestial state. On these boundaries were to be fixed the confines first of families, then of gentes or houses, later of peoples, and finally of nations.’ There is much in Shakespeare which honors and defends the importance of recognizing the need for boundaries. But in this play, writing against the recorded, inexorable grain and movement of history, Shakespeare makes us re-value what might have been lost in the triumph of Caesar:

    O, see, my women,

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.

(IV.xv.62-8)

This is ‘waste’? Rather, the fecundity, plentitude and bounty associated with Egypt, and Antony in Egypt, have fed into and nourished Cleopatra’s speech, until she is speaking a kind of language of pure poetry about which alphabetic man can have nothing to say. The whole pagan age is over; the future belongs to Caesar – and Christ. But confronted with this kind of transcendental poetry, which is indeed all ‘excess,’ that future seems merely trivial, temporal, temperate. ‘The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom,’ wrote Blake. In this play, the poetry of excess leads to the unbounded, unboundaries, spaces of infinity. Saving leads to earthly empire; squandering opens an avenue to Eternity. All air and fire – and poetry. Bounty overplus.”

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From Frank Kermode:

cleopatra_xlg“There is a contrast with Caesar’s expressions of regret [regarding Antony’s death] that follow shortly. He undercuts Cleopatra’s extravagances by saying that the death of Antony should have been more portentous: ‘The round world/Should have shook lions into civil streets…The death of Antony/Is not a single doom, in the name lay/A moi’ty of the world’ (V.i.15-19). His Antony was not the whole world, only half of it; his portent signify not universal collapse but a temporary interference with the civic peace of Rome and his own imperial progress The eulogy is forma., but always attentive to the importance of victorious Caesar: ‘we could not stall together/In the whole world…my mate in empire’ (39-43). He breaks off his tribute at the call of business: ‘Hear me, good friends – but I will tell you at some meter season’ (48-49). And he plans to lead Cleopatra in his triumph.

She, however, has seen how she must triumph over Caesar: ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar;/Not being Fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave,/A minister of her will’ (V.ii.2-4). She has it in her power to do the deed ‘Which shackles accidents and bolts up change’ (6) – a wonderfully vigorous line, imprisoning chance and forcing change into a cell like a despised convict. To Caesar’s messenger she is crafty enough to say she is ‘his fortune’s vassal’ (29). Seized by Romans, she tells Dolabella her dream of the Emperor, the universal hero, the god. It has been suggested that the imagery derives from the Book of Revelation and from a mythographer’s description of the god Jupiter. This is plausible, and the passage is like the vision of a god or an angel:

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

A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted

The little O, th’ earth.

His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear’d arm

Created the world, his voice was propertied

As all the tuned spheres, 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 it was

That grew the more by reaping. His delights

Were dolphin-like, they show’d his back above

The element they liv’d in. In his livery

Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were

As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

(V.ii.79-92)

This colossal figure is credited with power over the world and then over the universe; his very voice expressed the harmony of the spheres, inaccessible to mortal ears. The rapid switch from the seasonal imagery to that of the dolphin leaping out of the sea is again typical of Shakespeare’s late style – no laborious working out of the figures, instead a sort of impatience at the unexplored resources of language. Then another move, to kings and princes as servants wearing his livery, and finally a cosmic image of liberality, ‘realms and islands’ carelessly dropped, like coins from his pocket. Cleopatra defends herself against Dolabella’s gentle skepticism: this was not a mere dream; it is true that fancy or imagination produces in dreams stranger stuff than nature can contrive, but in this case we are talking about reality, about nature’s masterpiece, something real and actual, not the mere shadows produced by dreaming.

With the entry of the new, actual Emperor, she reallocates the title she conferred on Antony: ‘Sole sir o’ th’ world,’ she calls him (120), for all the world is now his (134). The episode of Seleucus and the inventory reminds us that Cleopatra has not lost her cunning. She is trying to trick Caesar into believing that her withholding of much property signifies her intention to live; and he wants her for his triumph. Cleopatra wins this bout. Her last hours have the kind of splendor she attributed to Antony. It is at this point that her women, Charmian and Iras, catch the tone of royal magniloquence: ‘Finish, good lady, the bright day is done,/And we are for the dark’ (193-94).

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From Van Doren:

Cleopatra--44221“Cleopatra is too seldom at rest to be easily understood; we shall never be sure, any more than Antony would have been sure, what her intentions were with respect to the treasure she withheld from Caesar (V.ii.138-92), and whether her decision to die was inspired by loathing for Roman triumphs or by love for the ‘husband’ to whom death would bring her. When the basket of asps arrives she announces to her people:

My resolution’s plac’d, and I have nothing

Of woman in me; now from head to foot

I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon`         

No planet is of mine.

(V.ii.238-41)

Yet her demeanor in dying has no marble in it. She is still all mercury and lightness, all silk and down. ‘I have immortal longings in me,’ is said with a smile at the expense of the rural fellow who has just gone out wishing her joy of the worm and insisting that its bite is ‘immortal’; she must have on her robe and crown before she feels the loving pinch of death; when Iras precedes her in death she pretends to worry lest Antony’s first kiss in heaven be wasted on another woman; she saves enough breath to call Caesar ‘ass unpolicied,’ and spends the last of it in likening the immortal worm to a baby at her breast. Charmian, surviving her a moment, echoes ‘ass unpolicied’ with ‘lass unparallell’d,’ and bothers to straighten her mistress’s crown before she dies. The scene is great and final, yet nothing in it seems to be serious; and the conversation between Caesar and his train when they come in concerns a spectacle that is pretty rather than painful.

     She looks like sleep,

As she would catch another Antony

In her strong toil of grace.

The strength of Cleopatra has never appeared more clearly than in the charm with which she yields herself to death. Her greatness cannot be distinguished from her littleness, as water may not be defined in water.”

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And from Paglia:

cleopatra4“Did Shakespeare base Cleopatra on an Italian model? A.L. Rowse thinks the Dark Lady of the sonnets was the half-Italian Emilia Bassanio. Luigi Barzini describes ‘the importance of spectacle’ in Italian culture, with its public staging of emotional scenes. He speaks of ‘the transparency of Italian faces,’ which allows conversations to be followed at a distance: ‘Undisguised emotions, some sincere and some feigned, follow each other on an Italian’s face as swiftly as the shadows of clouds over a meadow on a windy day in spring.’ Shakespeare’s self-dramatizing Cleopatra has a fluid Italian expressiveness. In her amoral dissimulations, she confirms the negative Northern European view of Italian and papist character in the Renaissance. Renaissance England was more flamboyant than modern England but less so than Renaissance Italy. Hence in the spiritual geography of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt is to Rome as Renaissance Italy was to Renaissance England. Cleopatra belongs to an emotional and sexual southland. But Shakespeare is well aware of the anarchic danger in a life of impersonations. Caesar wins in Antony and Cleopatra because he represents political order, the dream of the fractured, fractious Renaissance. Antony and Cleopatra’s reactionary political premise is borne out by Italian history, where theatrical individualism weakened centralize authority, aiding the rise of the tribal Mafia. Since World War II, nearly fifty governments have come and gone in Rome. Restless change is the rule.

We turn now to the ultimate question of Shakespeare’s play. If Cleopatra contains all emotional modes and all powers of male and female, why is she defeated by the world? Why is she not a perfected image of man? Cleopatra dies, while Rosalind triumphantly survives, because Cleopatra is an incomplete Mercurius and as such cannot advance her play toward the goal of English Renaissance art; social and hierarchal consolidation. An important image pattern in Antony and Cleopatra has attracted little or no comment. Astrology, even more than alchemy, was one of the great symbols of the Renaissance. Its iconography pervaded Renaissance art, book illustration, and interior décor. The formidable combined forces of Judeo-Christianity and modern science have never succeeded in wiping out pagan astrology, nor will they ever. Astrology supplies what is missing in the west’s official moral and intellectual codes. Astrology is the oldest organized art form of sexual personae. Waging war on astrology, the medieval and Renaissance Church promulgated the distortion that astrology is fatalism, a flouting of God’s Providence and the necessity for moral struggle. But the predictive part of astrology is less important than its psychology, which three thousand years of continuous practice have given a phenomenal subtlety. Astrology does insist upon self-discipline and self-transformation. Judging astrology by those vague sun-sign columns in the daily paper is like judging Christianity by a smudged shop window of black-velvet-day-glo paintings of the Good Shepherd. The idea that the stars literally influence man (by a falling fluid, an influenza), is plainly untenable. But that the movements of all the constellations are a clock by which earthly changes can be measure is less easy to dismiss. I subscribe to what Jung calls synchronicity. Things happen in complex patterns of apparent coincidence, noticed by the keen eyes of the artist. Astrology links man to nature, its major point of departure from Judeo-Christianity. The Greek word zodiac means circle of animals. Most birth signs are symbolized by animals, whose character astrology identifies with human types. Our behaviorist age is generally resistant to the idea of genetic traits, for individuals, sexes, or races. But ask any mother of a large family whether personality is innate or learned. She senses a child’s inborn shyness or aggression from earliest infancy. People who dismiss astrology do so out of either ignorance or rationalism. Rationalists have their place, but their limited assumptions and methods must be kept out of the arts. Interpretation of poem, dream, or person requires intuitions and divination, not science.

The Renaissance embraced astrology as part of its infatuation with sexual personae. Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest drama of sexual personae, makes astrological metaphors crucial to its psychological design. Each sign of the zodiac is associated with one of the four elements, named by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. From long study, I summarize the astrological meaning of the elements as follows. Fire is will, originality, boldness, the amoral life force. Air is language, wit, balance, humane perspective. Water is intuition, sympathy, deep feeling, mystical oneness, and prophecy. Earth is order, method, precision, realism, materialism. Modern science discarded the four elements in favor of finer terminology. From the late Renaissance on, more and more basic elements were discovered, now approaching one hundred. John Antony West claims, however, that the four principal elements of modern organic chemistry, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, closely correspond in function to fire, earth, air, and water. Northrop Frye says, ‘Earth, air, water, and fire are still the four elements of imaginative experience, and always will be.’ A person’s natal horoscope sometimes lacks one of the four elements, a disturbing balance which can and should be compensated for through self-analysis and vigilant effort. My theory is that Shakespeare has cast for Cleopatra a horoscope lacking the element of earth and that this psychic incompletion, with her refusal to correct it, dooms both herself and Antony.

The most poetic speech in the play, by normally curt Enobarbus, is a gorgeous dreamlike memory of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus to meet Antony: ‘The barge she sat it, like a burnished throne,/Burned on the water.’ Cleopatra is Venus in motion, a Dionysian epiphany. Shakespeare is answering the frozen iconic entrance of Spenser’s Belphoebe, the Apollonian Diana. With its gold deck and purple sails, the barge is the Amazon sanctuary of Phoenician Dido, whom Virgil decks with red and gold. Cleopatra carries her own bower with her, getting it out of the swampy Spenserian glade onto the brisk high seas. Shakespeare’s motion picture has its own soundtrack, flute music and exudes a ‘strange invisible perfume.’ A magnetism or suction pulls people out of the marketplace toward the wharves. Cleopatra as Venus is the power of physical attraction among the elements, which Empedocles attributes to Aphrodite. She is in heat: Shakespeare carefully adds fire to his tableau. That the barge ‘burns’ is his addition to Plutarch’s description. Cleopatra is Venus born from the sea. In Enobarbus’ speech, she commands three elements: water, air, and fire. Earth is pointedly excluded. In fact, earth is evacuated, denuded of its properties by the rush of citizens shoreward. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is the free play of sovereign imagination, hostile to the steadfastness and stability of earth.

The climax of Antony and Cleopatra is the battle of Actium, a turning point in western history. Antony’s loss is Caesar’s gain and the beginning of Roman empire, united under one man. Shakespeare stunningly mythologizes Plutarch’s account, without loss of factual accuracy. He introduces elemental metaphors effecting a poetic transformation of history. Antony’s fateful decision to fight by sea ruins him. Commander of infantrymen and master of land warfare, he foolishly allows Cleopatra to dictate his battle plan. The Egyptians are seafarers. Cleopatra insists the ultimate contest with Caesar be by navy, not army. Antony’s seasoned soldiers passionately appeal to him, but blinded by love, he waves them away. In agreeing to fight by sea, Antony repudiates the element of earth, the foundation of his illustrious career. At the same time, he shrugs off common sense and practicality, qualities astrologically symbolized by earth. In imposing the element of water upon her lover, Cleopatra destroys him. Shakespeare weaves the elemental imagery into the play from the start, so that the words ‘land’ and ‘sea’ chime ominously in the deliberations at Actium.

The scene where Antony blithely severs his connection with earth ends with the naming of Caesar’s lieutenant, Taurus. The next scene, just a few lines long, begins with Caesar calling out to Taurus, who answers and departs, his sole appearance in the play. Shakespeare has plucked this name from Plutarch’s roster of military officers at Actium. A Renaissance audience, familiar with simple astrology, would immediately recognize that Taurus is the first of the three earth signs of the zodiac. Taurus was also Shakespeare’s birth sign. This is what Maynard Mack would call the ‘emblematic entrance and exit’ in Shakespeare’s plays. Caesar’s deputy is an earth-spirit because Antony and Cleopatra identifies Caesar with the astrological qualities of earth – patience, pragmatism, emotional reserve, discipline, application. Caesar is the reality principle, Realpolitik. He represents what Antony and Cleopatra have rejected, and because drama must take place in human space and human time, he defeats them. Psychic fixity overcomes psychic volatility. The historical Caesar was himself ruled by an earth sign. Suetonius reports that August Caesar commemorated an astrological prediction of his rise to power by ordering struck ‘a silver coin stamped with Capricorn, the sign under which he had been born.’ In Antony and Cleopatra Caesar consolidates his Capricornian earth-power by binding Taurus to him, taking away the heart of Antony’s military identity.

Ancient and modern historians have been puzzled by Cleopatra’s sudden flight from the battle of Actium, and even more by Antony’s shameful abandonment of his troops and ships to follow her. As Shakespeare presents it, Cleopatra and the Antony whom she has infected veer off from the theater of war because of a lack of the tenacity and resolution that earth contributes to a horoscope. Cleopatra is the ‘fire and air’ of imagination afloat upon the sea of perpetual transformations. Fire is her fierce or fiery character of aggression and violence. Air is her verbal energy and poetic power of image-making. Water is her uncontainable surges of emotion and her mercurial shifts of mood. Cleopatra’s personae are in constant, uncontrollable change because earth is not present to stabilize or set a single persona. The sea she chooses at Actium is Dionysian ‘liquid nature,’ a phrase from elsewhere in Plutarch. This is the watery chthonian which separates her from Rosalind.

PosterCleopatra03Cleopatra is Egypt, and Egypt is the Nile. In the Renaissance way, Cleopatra is addressed by the name of her realm, even by Antony. In Antony and Cleopatra, dry Egyptian earth has no inherent value. Fertility comes only when earth is subdued by water, turned to ‘slime and ooze’ by the flooding Nile. This muck is the primal swamp of Dionysian metamorphosis. The Egyptian serpent (already identified with Cleopatra) is bred from mud by the fiery sun. Cleopatra as Isis is Great Mother to her people. But Antony, in entering the humid Bower of Bliss of her liquid realm, loses his sense of self. He is not just a private person but a leader upon whom thousands depend. A leader cannot live by love alone. Antony betrays his men, and he betrays himself. The lovers’ indifference to public concerns and their exaltation of emotion over duty are prefigured from the start in metaphors which inundate land with water. Antony declares, ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall!’ – unadmirable sentiments for a Roman triumvir. Cleopatra angrily cries, ‘Sink Rome!’’ and ‘Melt Egypt into Nile!’. Antony and Cleopatra, obliterating earth in the waters of emotion, cannot resist the steady inexorable pressure of earth’s representative, Caesar.

The Renaissance Shakespeare knows Antony and Cleopatra are morally in the wrong, yet he projects into them the liquefied proteanism of his own artistic self. Antony, once the ‘pillar’ of the Roman world, sees himself turning into shifting clouds, shapes of horse, bear, lion, citadel, cliff, mountain. Cleopatra has dissolved and naturalized him. Jane Harrison says of the Greek Orphics, with their persistent cloud metaphors, ‘Their theogony, their cosmogony, is full of vague nature-impersonations, of air and ether and Erebos and chaos, and the whirlpool of things unborn.’ Orphism is anti-Olympian and hence anti-Apollonian. In Antony and Cleopatra, Apollonian Rome, with its statutory limits, sets up rational barriers to the chaotic flux of sensory experience. Antony is alchemized by Cleopatra, queen of Dionysian nature. He is hermaphroditized by his dissolution in watery Egypt. Mars drowns in Venus. At his darkest moment, Antony says to Cleopatra, ‘Love, I am full of lead.’ This is the play’s nadir, before the transformation begins into spiritual gold.

Magic and prophecies are efficacious throughout. After his death, Cleopatra sees Antony as the astrological cosmic man, his eyes the sun and moon. The hermaphrodite rebis of alchemy was often shown as a union of Sol and Luna, sun and moon. Both Antony and Cleopatra reach perfection in death. As the incomplete Mercurius, Cleopatra must achieve her magnum opus outside of life rather than in it. Before her suicide, she says, ‘Now from head to foot/I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon/No planet is of mine.’ Cleopatra is renouncing what Shakespeare elsewhere calls ‘the wat’ry moon,’ the symbol of emotional volatility we found in As You Like It and Midsummer Night’s Dream. At last she acquires that stony fixity of will which the play ascribes to Roman personality. Her ceaseless transformations end in the immobility of death – immutable as the Philosopher’s Stone. Death is already in her lips when she says, ‘I am fire, and air; my other elements/I give to baser life.’ Actually, she has finally mastered her too-combustible fire and air and achieved a spiritual integration of all four elements. With the addition of ‘marble-constant’ earth,’ the coldness of death, Cleopatra is now the complete Mercurius, enshrined upon her altar-like bier. ‘Husband, I come, ‘she says to the dead Antony. The medieval alchemic process was called both marriage bed and funeral bier. Those who have sought a redemptive pattern in Antony and Cleopatra are correct, but Christian it is not. Shakespeare ends his play with the alchemic purification of pagan personality.

The symbolic marriage of Antony and Cleopatra, enacted at the moment of death, removes the lovers from the social order. Their hedonism and self-involvement have damaged their nations and their cause. Eight boars for breakfast is no recipe for political success. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies, a three-hundred-year-old Macedonian dynasty. After her death, Egypt was annexed as subject state to Rome and never regained its former glory. Antony and Cleopatra demonstrates that life cannot be lived as a series of perpetual self-transformations without violating social and ethical principles. My generation learned this the hard way, going down in sexual disease and drug overdoses. Antony and Cleopatra takes a double point of view. Shakespeare acknowledges the eternal authority of beauty and imagination, but he renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Social order and stability were primary English Renaissance values. This is why Rosalind, unlike Cleopatra, is the perfected Mercurius. At the end of her play, Rosalind demonstrates the subordination of personality to society by relinquishing her theatrical androgyny and metamorphoses for obedience in marriage. Hierarchy is restored, in home and palace.

tina turnerIf Rosalind is a role difficult to play, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is even more so. A bad Rosalind is simply simpering or flat. But a bad Cleopatra is ludicrous. No one fits the part –except Tina Turner, Kent Christiansen’s superb suggestion to me. In the video of ‘What’s Love Got To Do With it?’ Tina Turner is Shakespeare’s ‘tawny’ Cleopatra in all her moods, regal, raffish, masculine, maternal, strolling among her people in the city streets. Cleopatra’s fiery sexual expressionism is Shakespeare’s reply to the cool introversion of Spenser’s chaste heroines. Cleopatra is Amazon and mother but also chatterbox…Nothing in literature is more majestic than the sound of a true king speaking in Shakespeare. The enormous assertion of that voice and the internal stability in the verse are functions of Renaissance hierarchy, overflows of the great chain of being. Unfortunately, the heroic Shakespearean sound is muffled these days for scaled-down television performances or productions by liberal directors with antifascist axes to grind. But Shakespeare’s aristocratic voice must be heard. It is a moral ideal. Rosalind and Cleopatra…strain at the limits of the Renaissance hierarchic code. Shakespeare dramatizes the Renaissance tension between sexual personae and social order, one of his profoundest concerns. The major theme of Shakespeare’s plays is personality-in-history the heart of western identity.”

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My next posts:  Sunday evening/Monday morning, final thoughts on Antony and Cleopatra, Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, Sonnet #140, and then Thursday evening/Friday morning my introduction to our next play, Shakespeare’s highly experimental and most political play, the rather startling Coriolanus.  (OOPS — my correction, our next play is Pericles — THEN Coriolanus.

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2 Responses to “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have/Immortal longings in me…”

  1. Mahood says:

    Though I’ve been following your posts religiously for the past month, I’ve only just started reading the play (for the first time) this week…this is wonderful stuff…taking just the character of Cleopatra alone…what is it that makes her so mesmerising? Her beauty, her power (political and otherwise), her qualities, her acting ability, her flaws, her vulnerability, her failings…it’s all here and it’s fascinating to read (especially from a male viewpoint!)…looking forward to catching up with the rest of the play in the next day or two.

    I’ve just come across a link from NPR : “The True Story Of ‘Antony And Cleopatra'” – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130190252

    Might be worth a listen…

    Finally, for our next reading…why is Coriolanus coming before Pericles? Your original chronological list listed Pericles before Coriolanus…or will you be dealing with it in your introductory text to the next play?

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