“I am fire and air; my other elements/I give to baser life.”

Antony and Cleopatra

Act Five, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


From A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker:

Antony-And-Cleopatra-001“Antony leaves cold, dry, military-political Rome for the wet, formless, erotic East (and South), for Egypt, much as Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novella centuries later would leave the Germany in which he had lived ‘like a clenched fist’ for warmth, love, and death in Venice, itself intensified in Aschenbach’s reverie to a tropical, steaming marshland of islands and alluvial channels. It has often been observed that the idea of loss of forms or outline pervades the imagery of Antony and Cleopatra, from ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt” (I.i.33) to the marvelous speech about the way we form pictures and lose them when we look at clouds:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,

A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,

A tower’d citadel, a pendant rock,

A forked mountain, or blue promontory

With trees upon’t that nod unto the world,

And mock our eyes with air.


That which is now a horse, even with a thought

The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct

As water is in water.

(IV.xiv.207, 9-11)

Antony is describing the loss of his clear Roman identity, an unmanning and an undoing, in the amniotic fluid of Egypt. Plutarch linked Antony to two deities, Dionysus and Hercules (Hercules became a deity at his death). This mythology can serve as a psychological shorthand, as astrological signs do in Chaucer Dionysus is the god of irrational energy, a little like William Blake’s Los, and Hercules is the strong man who was brought low by a woman. Shakespeare plays down Dionysus, perhaps because by his time Dionysus had degenerated into the comic, tipsy Bacchus (who gets into the play as the pink-eyed, Rubens-like god of the drinking song at II.vii.114). But Hercules is a powerful, unseen presence. When Antony’s fortune begins to slide, mysterious music is heard under the earth and a soldier says, ‘’Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,/Now leave him’ (IV.iii.16-17). In the old myth Hercules in the house of Omphale was dressed in women’s clothes and made to do women’s work, at the loom. This cross-dressing reappears in Shakespeare’s play when Cleopatra says,

     I drunk him to his bed;

Then put my tired and mantles on him, whilst

I wore his sword Philippan.


[MY NOTE:  Again, how amazing, and always…startling are those lines?}

Antony is here ‘effeminate’ in the old meaning of the word according to which Samson was the most effeminate of men – ‘subdued and taken over by a woman.’ For Antony as he both observes and feels the process it is dissolution. Dissolution marked the vanishing death of Timon. Yet in Antony and Cleopatra it entails neither reduction nor annihilation (though death will come) but an immense expansion of being, an amplification.

The Antony we see in Antony and Cleopatra is historically the same man we saw in Julius Caesar, but he is now conceived quite differently by Shakespeare. The Antony of the earlier play is emphatically ‘man of the future’ to Brutus’s ‘doomed man of the past.’ The earlier Antony is a controlled figure who can manage his own deepest passions to political effect. His rhetoric, however, as we saw, is technically ‘Asiatic’ – that is, swelling and exultant. It is likely that Shakespeare knew this rhetorical use of the word ‘Asiatic’ when he wrote Julius Caesar. It then becomes not likely perhaps but possible that further rumination on the word in connection with Antony gave him the idea of another play in which the frigidly linear structure of the Roman world could melt, not into nothingness, but into an Asian splendor, a sudden huge increase.

The Roman way of life seems, to those living it, to exhaust reality, to be all there is. To such a temperament the full experience of Egypt is very nearly unassimilable. It is a shock of a strangely fundamental kind. That is why I referred to ‘a reduplicated metaphysic.’ We saw something of the sort earlier in Shakespeare’s career when, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he set the daylit world against a counter-world of moonlight and imagination. There Hippolyta, so much more intelligent than Theseus, saw a separate coherence in the events of the magical night, a coherence that naturally becomes a truth-claim. In Antony and Cleopatra the love-vision of the play, richly colored though it is, is dreamlike when set beside the grey daylight of Roman politics. Cleopatra, like Hippolyta so many years before, philosophizes. Her metaphysical meditation follows the death of Antony just as Hippolyta’s speech follows the passing of the enchanted night of love in the wood. Cleopatra is talking to Dolabella, a high-ranking soldier in the service of Octavius Caesar. As if he wants to remind us of the early comedy, Shakespeare starts the speech with the word ‘dream’:


I dreamt there was an Emperor

O such another sleep, that I might see

But such another man!


If it might please ye –


His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck

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

This little O, th’ earth.


Most sovereign creature –


His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear’d arm

Crested 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!




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, nor 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.


‘I dreamt’ at the beginning is self-disparaging, skillfully aimed at Dolabella, who as a virile woman can be expected to despise women’s talk. But as soon as she thinks of Antony, Cleopatra is rapt; her vision takes over and her speech becomes a mounting wave that rolls irresistibly over the attempted interruptions of Dolabella. The energy in the speech is enormous. The ‘dream’ of Antony assumes a color and strength that will make it indeed a whole world in itself, as strong or stronger than Dolabella’s.

ANTONY-AND-CLEOPATRA-106As the amplification develops, much as a drowning man is said to see the whole of his past life flash before his eyes, the procession of Shakespeare’s oeuvre can be glimpsed, half hidden in the texture of the language. The ‘dream’ and the ‘moon’ are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the moon is no longer opposed to the sun, nor is it the thief of the sun’s pale fire as in Timon of Athens (IV.iii.438). The moon is set with the sun in a single blazing cosmos. The ‘little O’ is no longer as it was in Henry V the Globe Theatre mimicking the world but is instead the earthly element lit by Antony. The legs that ‘bestrid the ocean’ recall the ‘huge legs’ of Caesar in Julius Caesar (I.ii.137), but where Caesar was a frail colossus, Antony is entirely majestic. The glorious paradox of an autumn that grew (like the speech itself) by reaping may have started from etymology. Shakespeare would have been aware of the etymological link between the Latin autumnus or auctumnus and augere, ‘to increase.’ It is in accord with the logic of Cleopatra’s speech that the inner nature of ‘autumn,’ increase, should prevail over and defeat the practical business of (destructive) harvesting. The killer Coriolanus went to work like a harvester (I.iii.36), and Antony has been cut down by the iron swords of Rome, but the inner essence of Antony is still brighter than anything that has happened in the Roman political sphere. The sexual essence of Cleopatra has the same inner fecundity: ‘She makes hungry/Where most she satisfies’ (II.ii.236037). The ever-growing autumn is followed by the ‘dolphin-like’ delights. Here the subaudition is erotic. The reference to Antony’s back, showing like a dolphin’s above the wave, can take us to ‘the beast with two backs,’ signifying copulation, in Othello (I.i.116-17). A couple of years after Antony and Cleopatra the word ‘back’ is linked, with sexual reference, to Hercules by Ben Jonson’s Epicure Mammon, who desires a back as tough as that of Hercules ‘to encounter fifty a night’ (The Alchemist, II.i.144). If there is indeed an erotic nuance in this line, the sea in which the dolphin plungers, over and over, is Cleopatra herself, not too wild a thought in view of the identification of Cleopatra throughout the play with the liquid element.

Cleopatra has social skills. She can see that her experience of splendor is something the honest soldier she is talking to has not experienced and probably never will. So she borrows from the men their minimizing talk of old wives’ tales and dreams. But the content of her experience bursts through, as glory. In Hippolyta’s corresponding speech the distinctively Shakespearean thing was the hesitation, ‘but howsoever, strange and admirable’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.27). Any other writer, having come up with an insight as profound as Hippolyta’s, would have set about corroborating it. Shakespeare has her immediately question the scope of her own thought. Here in Antony and Cleopatra we have, again, a break in the movement of the thought. At first Cleopatra’s speech is a crescendo that seems unstoppable as it overwhelms the attempted interventions of Dolabella. But then she stops, focuses on the man standing before her and asks him point-blank whether he thinks the person she has just described ever existed, or ever could. Very politely, Dolabella says, ‘No.’ This provokes an explosion from Cleopatra – ‘You lie!’ – followed at once by a recovery of social amenity (almost as if she could agree with Dolabella): ‘But if there be, nor ever were one such…’ After giving him the strident like direct Cleopatra reverts back to the inoffensive mode of hypothesis. Where Hippolyta abruptly acknowledged that the experience of the night was clearly separate from ordinary experience and so a matter for wonder, Cleopatra, more emotionally, makes a last-ditch effort to see the whole thing from the outside, coolly. The word ‘nor’ is especially interesting. We might nave expected ‘or.’ The First Folio text, the sole authority for this play, gives ‘nor,’ but it was changed later to ‘or’ in the Third Folio. I hope ‘nor’ is right. It brilliantly communicates the way her half-embarrassed thought is tripping itself up, so that it falls into a momentary excess of negation.

But then comes, with a strange violence, the full philosophical counterblast. Though nature lacks to the means to match the wild fictions of imagination, the mere imagining of an Antony would instantly turn the tables, so that the imagined thing would become ‘nature’s piece,’ would assume the status of reality. When Hippolyta philosophized I suggested that she was working with an empirical framework, subverting its associated prejudices from the inside. Your sturdy empiricist is usually clear that the mental images are unreal. But Hume, the arch empiricist, was to discover that the only way he could distinguish percepts from images was by the great ‘vivacity’ of the percepts. Hippolyta, we saw, placed the main weight of her case on coherence rather than vivacity. But in Cleopatra’s speech vivacity, the Humean criterion does all the work.

[MY NOTE:  I’d just like to point out here that we’ve seen an astonishing range of readings, of ways of looking at,  Act Five, Scene 2, 76-100, a mere 24 lines.]

Empiricism is the philosophy of experience. If ‘experience’ means ‘all the things we experience,’ materialism is not threatened. But if ‘experience’ denotes a sort of private television screen, the perceptual ideas immediately before the mind, empiricism melts at once into idealism. This happened openly in the philosophy of George Berkeley. It is as if Shakespeare, long before these developments in ‘professional’ philosophy, smelled out the latent idealism in notions like ‘coherence’ and ‘vivacity’ and became interested in making them the basis of an objective idealism. To those who are sure that ‘good’ means more than ‘what I like,’ ethics is at once a promising field for objective idealism.

Yet we shiver when something we had thought merely ideal seems to turn real under our hand – and Shakespeare understands that shiver also. Anselm’s celebrated ontological proof of the existence of God produces such a shiver. First he obtains assent to the proposition ‘God is greater and better than we can conceive.’ Then he points out that a real thing is better than a painting of a thing (a real island, say, is obviously better than a merely notional island). Then he says, in effect, ‘That means that if God lacked real existence we could ‘conceive him greater than he is’ by mentally attributing real existence to him. But you conceded at the outset that God is greater than anything we can conceive. Therefore he must already have this ‘existence’ – he exists.’ The rabbit jumps out of the hat.

Of course philosophers have objected. Existence, they say, is not a virtue; it is absurd to say, for example, that Mr. Pickwick is a nicer person than Adolph Hitler but Hitler finally is the better man because he has real existence. Or they say that Anselm has only shown that if God were to satisfy the definition ‘greater than we can conceive’ he would have to be (rather than now is) an existent God. Meanwhile many ordinary people find the proposition that a real island is better than a merely notional one oddly persuasive.

The logical hook in Anselm’s argument is present in neither of the Shakespeare passages. But the flip-over from ideal to actual is there – and it feels weird – ‘strange and admirable.’ Note that Shakespeare, even while he is developing the astonishing thought of Cleopatra, retains sympathy with Dolabella and his ‘Gentle madam, no.’ The courteous firmness of his skepticism gives his counterposition its own quiet authority. Perhaps the final effect of this, in juxtaposition with Cleopatra’s huge assertion, is to suggest a plural ontology, as happened in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare, pretty consistently, avoids metaphysical theses beginning with the thrasonical word ‘All’: ‘All reality is a social construction,’ ‘All primary motivation is contextual, not from the individual,’ and so on. He recoils from the presumptuousness of the unitary system. The world seen by Dolabella is consistent, fully real (not ‘subjective to Dolabella’), and respected by the playwright.

Cleopatra’s praise of Antony is a feat of synthesis. We feel as we listen that the great antithesis, Rome versus Egypt, ahs become in the love-story a reciprocal relation. Cleopatra brings to her panegyric the rich colors of her Egyptian sensibility, but she is describing a great Roman imperialist, a soldier. We become aware that Shakespeare is subtly confounding roman and Egyptian traits in the latter part of the play. Romans are supposed to be experts in suicide, but Antony bungles his and Egyptian Cleopatra is given the grandest suicide in all drama. ‘Let’s do’t,’ she says, ‘after the high Roman fashion’ (IV.xv.87). Cleopatra, the incarnation of feminine inconstancy of mood, enters the inner sanctum of Roman male-dominated Stoicism with hits strange drive to turn human beings into statues.

I have nothing

Of woman in me; now from head to foot

I am marble-constant;


But as she puts the Stoic case for despising life and death, she sexualizes it: ‘The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desir’d’ (V.ii.295-96). The snake as it bites her becomes the ‘baby at my breast,/That sucks the nurse asleep’ (V.ii.309-10). This dizzy intertwining of male and female tropes might have resulted in humor, in a satirized Roman death. In fact the effect is symphonically powerful. The incongruities are synthesized.

N.K. Sugimura in a subtle essay offers a list of adjectives to describe the Egypt of the play: ‘the over-abundant,’ ‘the fluctuating,’ ‘the passionate,’ ‘ the disorderly’ and ‘the eternal.’ The surprise word in her list is ‘eternal,’ but it is accurate. ‘Eternity was in our lips and eyes’ (I.iii.35). We have already seen in the marriage endings of the comedies Shakespeare drawn to a quasi-Platonic sense of transcendence, marriage itself as a distant yet audible music, high in the air above the faulty persons of the play. The Sonnets that, taken as a sequence, exhibit an erotic life of tormented complexity and change, gesture at times towards the idea that love itself is timeless: ‘Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his binding sickle’s compass come’ (Sonnet 116). This looks more like Cleopatra’s version, in that it discovers eternity in love rather than in marriage. But Shakespeare will never keep still. In the sonnet, lips, subject to physical decay, are contrasted with timeless love. In Cleopatra’s speech,, lips are the proper habitation of love’s eternity. This means that the Shakespearean opposition to the Platonic chrosimos, or separation of the Ideal Form from the things of this world, is more emphatic in Antony and Cleopatra than it was in the sonnet. Similarly, where Plato associates rationality with the eternal Forms, Shakespeare turns rationality into low practical reason and locates it on the Roman side. It is now time-bound, a matter of endless competitive negotiation. Cleopatra is far from innocent, but there is something Arcadian and therefore timeless about their love, as she liberates Antony from the remorseless ‘and-then-and-then-and-then’ of political machination. Spenser’s phrase ‘eterne in mutabilitie’ (Faerie Queene, III.vi.47) may seem to apply here, but Spenser may simply have meant ‘continually changing, forever.’ Cleopatra means more than that: that their love admits them to another order of reality, is in itself wholly independent of historical change. It is the Romans who are associated with clarity of form, with clear definition. That is why Antony feels himself to be melting when his Roman-ness slips from him. For Plato, the lover of geometry, such clarity is the essence of the transcendent form. He is drawn both by philosophic reasoning and, one suspects, by temperament to place the heady turbulence of the erotic life on the other side of the equation, with mere un-meaning flux. But, as Sugimura saw, Shakespeare has effected a profound transformation of Platonism, fusing it with the physical. The lips of the lovers are transfigured.

It seems that in turning to Egypt Shakespeare found what was needed to expand and enrich a world starved and shrunk by narrowly masculine Roman culture. Certainly Egypt supplies passion and color in abundance. But something is missing still. What is missing is goodness. Cleopatra’s court is a place of dazzling light, entirely destitute of moral warmth. Marilyn French in an early feminist essay argued that Cleopatra represented real moral values, feminine values of warmth and fertility. There is no doubt that imagery of fertility permeates the representation of Egypt in the play. Usually however we find within it a hint of the disgusting: creatures form like maggots in the slime of the fertile Nile (II.vii.24); the primary sexual image of the play is the phallic serpent, a death-bearer. Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, is referred to in a curiously remote fashion at III.xiii.162; the union of Antony and Cleopatra, meanwhile, is childless. Here Shakespeare departs from Plutarch – I believe, deliberately. He wanted – not sterility – but a certain blankness to surround this spectacular case of egoisme a deux.  [MY NOTE:  In “real” life, Cleopatra had three children with Antony:  twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.]

If we think for a moment of Romeo and Juliet the ethical poverty of the later play will leap out. Early in the twentieth century L. C. Knights persuaded everyone that it was logically absurd to speculate on the previous lives of persons in drama: (he was wrong: all dramatists implicitly rely on such speculation in the audience). I propose now to do something that Knights would have thought even more scandalous, to speculate on the possible alternative later lives of two dramatic persons who actually die before our eyes. Romeo and Juliet, had they lived, would have had children and would thereby have helped to heal the dynastic would that racks Verona. Romeo and Juliet are mortal beings. Their death is far sadder than that of Antony and Cleopatra because of this simple fact. In comparison with the young lovers Antony and Cleopatra suddenly seem to be all splendor, all style.

In the earlier plays we saw a running tension between role-playing and a possible interiority, reaching a climax in Hamlet. In Antony and Cleopatra Antony feels the loss of public, Roman definition as a loss of identity but never discovers an inward self as Richard II did before he died. There is a strong sense in the play of performance. Antony and Cleopatra are putting on a show for the world to watch and wonder at. This indeed isolates them, and isolates the splendor of their love, but it leaves us with one more spectacle rather than any exciting disclosure of core identity. There is one faint trace in the play of Henry V’s conference, incognito, with the common soldiers: ‘To-night we’ll wander through the streets and note/The qualities of people’ (I.i.53-54). In the darkness conferred both by night and his disguise Henry was thrown back upon himself and his responsibility. Antony and Cleopatra go out into the dark streets, the public show suspended, but make no such moral discovery. Instead the theatrical dialectic is merely reversed: they become the audience, the people provide the show.

G. Wilson Knight was interested in those moments near the end of Shakespearean tragedy when the protagonist is allowed a glimpse of life beyond the grave. When Lear, near death, was united with Cordelia he felt that they were both entering a site of mystery, were becoming the eyes of God. (King Lear, V.iii.16-17). But for Antony and Cleopatra, the equivalent moment is a pagan spectacle – ‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand,/And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze’ (IV.xiv.51-52). Not so much ‘We’ll be together in heaven’ as ‘We’ll make ‘em sit up in Elysium.’ They are playing still – to an audience of ghosts. The word ‘ghosts,’ with its alien northern register, falls across the glowing picture like a cold shadow. It is magnificent but it is not warm-hearted. Marilyn French’s claim for strong female values is unsustainable. W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., came nearer the truth when he argued that the love shown in the play is immoral (though that word is too strong) and that what triumphed was aesthetic. Of course words like ‘love’ and ‘transfiguration,’ words I have used, carry a natural charge of value, but Shakespeare seems to have made a point of draining from them everything but splendor. It is technically interesting that it should be possible to write a play in which the hero and heroine are repeatedly humiliated, morally, and are afterwards effortlessly glorified by an infusion of lyric power that would seem cynical were it no so overwhelming.”


When A.D. Nuttall referenced L.C. Knights who “persuaded everyone that it was logically absurd to speculate on the previous lives of persons in drama” he was probably speaking about Knights’ most famous essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth. An Essay in the Theory and Practice of Shakespeare Criticism,” written as rebuttal to one of MY favorite critics, A.C. Bradley, whose look at Cleopatra is, I think, brilliant:

mirren-cleopatra_1781027c“To reserve a fragment of an hour for Cleopatra, if it were not palpably absurd, would seem an insult. If only one could hear her own remarks upon it! But I had to choose between this absurdity and the plan of giving her the whole hour; and to that plan there was one fatal objection. She has been described (by Ten Brink) as a courtesan of genius. So brief a description must needs be incomplete, and Cleopatra never forgets, nor, if we read aright, do we forget, that she is a great queen. Still the phrase is excellent; only a public lecture is no occasion for the full analysis and illustration of the character it describes.

Shakespeare has paid Cleopatra a unique compliment. The hero dies in the fourth Act, and the whole of the fifth is devoted to the heroine. In that Act she becomes unquestionably a tragic character, but, it appears to me, not till then. This, no doubt, is a heresy; but as I cannot help holding it, and as it is connected with the remarks already made on the first half of the play, I will state it more fully. Cleopatra stands in a group with Hamlet and Falstaff. We might join with them Iago if he were not decidedly their inferior in one particular quality. They are inexhaustible. You feel that, if they were alive and you spent your whole life with them, their infinite variety could never be staled by custom; they would continue everyday to surprise, perplex, and delight you. Shakespeare has bestowed on each of them, though they differ so much, his genius. He has given it most fully to Hamlet, to whom none of the chambers of experience is shut, and perhaps more of it to Cleopatra than to Falstaff. Nevertheless, if we ask whether Cleopatra, in the first four Acts, is a tragic figure like Hamlet, we surely cannot answer ‘yes.’ Naturally it does not follow that she is a comic figure like Falstaff. this would be absurd; for, even if she were ridiculous like Falstaff – vanity; and when she displays it, as she does quite naively (for instance, in the second interview with the Messenger), she does become comic. Again, though like Falstaff she is irresistible and carries us away no less than the people around her, we are secretly aware, in the midst of our delight, that her empire is built on sand. And finally, as his love for the Prince gives dignity and pathos to Falstaff in his overthrow, so what raises Cleopatra at least into pure tragedy is, in part, that which some critics have denied her, her love for Antony.

More unpleasant things can be said of Cleopatra; and the more that are said the more wonderful she appears. The exercise of sexual attraction is the element of her life; and she has developed nature into a consummate art. When she cannot exert it on the present lover she imagines its effects on him in absence. Longing for the living, she remembers with pride and joy the dead; and the past which the furious Antony holds up to her as a picture of shame is, for her, glory. She cannot see an ambassador, scarcely even a messenger, without desiring to bewitch him. Her mind is saturated with this element. If she is dark, it because the sun himself has become amorous of her. Even when death is close at hand she imagines its touch as a lover’s. She embraces him that she may overtake Iras and gain Antony’s first kiss in the other world.

She lives for feeling. Her feelings are, so to speak, sacred, and pain must not come near her. She has tried numberless experiments to discover the easiest way to die. Her body is exquisitely sensitive, and her emotions marvelously swift. They are really so, but she exaggerates them so much, and exhibits them so continually for effect, that some readers fancy them merely feigned. They are all-important, and everybody must attend to them. She announces to her women that she is pale, or sick and sullen; they must lead her to her chamber but must not speak to her. She is as strong and supple as a leopard, can drink down a master or revelry, can raise her lover’s helpless heavy body from the ground into her tower with the aid of only two women; yet, when he is sitting apart sunk in shame, she must be supported in his presence, she cannot stand, her head droops, she will die (it is the opinion of Eros) unless he comforts her. When she hears of his marriage and has discharged her rage, she bids her woman bear her away; she faints; at least she would faint; but that she remembers various questions she wants put to the messenger about Octavia. Enobarbus has seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment than the news that Antony is going to Rome.

Some of her feelings are violent, and, unless for a purpose, she does not dream of restraining them; her sighs and tears are winds and waters, storms and tempest. At times, as when she threatens to give Charmian bloody teeth, or hales the luckless messenger up and down by the hair, strikes him and draws her knife on him, she resembles (if I dare say it) Doll Tearsheet. She is a mother, but the threat of Octavius to destroy her children if she takes her own life passes by her like the wind (a point where Shakespeare contradicts Plutarch). She ruins a great man, but shows no sense of the tragedy of his ruin. The anguish of spirit that appears in his language to his servants is beyond her; she has to ask Enobarbus what he means. Can we feel sure that she would not have sacrificed him if she could have saved herself by doing so? It is not even certain that she did not attempt it. Antony himself believes that she did – that the fleet went over to Octavius by her orders. That she and her people deny the charge proves nothing. The best we can say is that, if it were true, Shakespeare would have made that clear. She is willing also to survive her lover. Her first thought, to follow him after the high Roman fashion, is too great for her. She would live on if she could, and would cheat her victor too of the best part of her fortune. The thing that drives her to die is the certainty that she will be carries to Rome to grace his triumph. That alone decides her.

The marvelous thing is that the knowledge of all this makes hardly more difference to us than it did to Antony. It seems perfectly natural, nay, in a sense perfectly right, that her lover should be her slave; that her women should adore her and die with her; that Enobarbus, who foresaw what must happen, and who opposes her wishes and braves her anger, should talk of her with rapture and feel no bitterness against her; that Dolabella, after a minute’s conversation, should betray to her his master’s intention and enable her to frustrate it. And when Octavius shows himself proof against her fascination, instead of admiring him we turn from him with disgust and think him a disgrace to his species. Why? It is not that we consider him bound to fall in love with her. Enobarbus did not; Dolabella did not; we ourselves do not. The feeling she inspires was felt then, as is felt now, by women no less then men, and would have been shared by Octavia herself. Doubtless she wrought magic on the senses, but she had not extraordinary beauty, like Helen’s, such beauty as seems divine. Plutarch says so. The man who wrote the sonnets to the dark lady would have known it for himself. He goes out of his way to add to her age, and tells us of her wrinkles and the waning of her lip. But Enobarbus, in his very mockery, calls her a wonderful piece of work. Dolabella interrupts her with the cry, ‘Most sovereign creature,’ and we echo it. And yet Octavius, face to face with her and listening to her voice, can think only how best to trap her and drag her to public dishonor in the streets of Rome. We forgive him only for his words when he sees her dead:

She looks like sleep,

As she would catch another Antony

In her strong toil of grace.

And the words, I confess, sound to me more like Shakespeare’s than his.

That which makes her wonderful and sovereign laughs at definition, but she herself came nearest name it when, in the final speech (a passage surpassed in poetry, if at all, only by the final speech of Othello), she cries,

I am fire and air; my other elements

I give to baser life.

The fire and air which at death break from union with those other elements, transfigured them during her life, and still convert into engines of enchantment the very things for which she is condemned. I can refer only to one. She loves Antony. We should marvel at her less and love her more if she loved him more – loved him well enough to follow him at once to death; but it is to blunder strangely to doubt that she loved him, or that her glorious description of him (though it was also meant to work on Dolabella) came from her heart. Only the spirit of fire and air within her refuses to be trammeled or extinguished; burns it way through the obstacles of fortune and even through the resistance of her love and grief; and would lead her undaunted to fresh life and the conquest of new worlds. It is this which makes her ‘strong toil of grace’ unbreakable; speaks in her brows’ bent and every tone and movement; glorifies the arts and the rages which in another would merely disgust or amuse us; and, in the final scenes of her life, flames into such brilliance that we watch her entranced as she struggles for freedom, and thrilled with triumph as, conquered, she puts her conqueror to scorn and goes to meet her lover in the splendor that crowned and robed her long ago, when her barge burnt on the water like a burnished throne, and she floated to Cydnus on the enamoured stream to take him captive for ever.

Why is it that, although we close the book in a triumph which is more than reconciliation, this is mingled, as we look back on the story, with a sadness so peculiar, almost the sadness of disenchantment? Is it that, when the glow has faded, Cleopatra’s ecstasy comes to appear, I would not say factitious, but an effort strained and prodigious as well as glorious, not, like Othello’s last speech, the final expression of character, of thoughts and emotions which have dominated a whole life? Perhaps this is so, but there is something more, something that sounds paradoxical: we are saddened by the very fact that the catastrophe saddens us so little; it pains us that we should feel so much triumph and pleasure. In Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, though in a sense we accept the deaths of hero and heroine, we feel a keen sorrow. We look back, think how noble or beautiful they were, wish that fate had opposed to them a weaker enemy, dream possibly of the life they might then have led. Here we can hardly do this. With all our admiration and sympathy for the lovers we do not wish them to gain the world. It is better for the world’s sake, and not less for their own, that they should fail and die. At the very first they came before us, unlike those others, unlike Coriolanus and even Macbeth, in a glory already tarnished, half-ruined by their past. Indeed one source of strange and most unusual effect in their story is that this marvelous passion comes to adepts in the experience and art of passion, who might be expected to have worn its charm away. Its splendor dazzles us; but, when the splendor vanishes, we do not mourn, as we do for the love of Romeo or Othello, that a thing so bright and good should die. And the fact that we mourn so little saddens us.

A comparison of Shakespearean tragedies seems to prove that the tragic emotions are stirred in the fullest possible measure only when such beauty or nobility of character is displayed as commands unreserved admiration or love; or when, in default of this, the forces which move the agents, and the conflict which results from these forces, attain a terrifying and overwhelming power. The four most famous tragedies satisfy one or both of these conditions. Antony and Cleopatra though a great tragedy, satisfies neither of them completely. But to say this is not to criticize it. It does not attempt to satisfy these conditions, and then fail in the attempt. It attempts something different, and succeeds as triumphantly as Othello itself. In doing so it gives us what no other tragedy can give, and it leaves us, no less than any other, lost in astonishment at the powers which created it.”


And finally, from W.H. Auden:

mirren-5-rex“A curious opposition is made in the play between the baser elements: earth and water. There are numerous references to the Nile. Antony calls Cleopatra the ‘serpent of old Nile’ (I.v.24), she fishes in the river, and she first presents herself to Antony on a barge on the water. Pompey says, ‘the sea is mine’ (II.i.9), and Octavius, by beating him, acquires the sea. Enobarbus and a lone soldier try to persuade Antony not to fight at sea (III.vii.42-49, 62-67). Cleopatra asks Antony’s forgiveness for her flight at Actium by saying,

    O my lord, my lord,

Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought

You would have followed.

Antony continues the image by answering,

     Egypt, thou knew’st too well

My heart was to thy ruder tied by th’ strings

And thou shouldst tow me after.


Antony’s only victory over Octavius is by land, and the decisive turn of his fortunes is signaled in the beautiful scene in which common soldiers hear supernatural music, ‘under the earth,’ announcing that ‘the god Hercules, whom Antony lov’d,/Now leave him’ (IV>iii.12, 15-16). Water is throughout associated with misfortune for Antony, with instability and fickleness, with the kind of lymphatic temperament that we see in Octavius’s patience. Cleopatra can say that Antony’s ‘legs bestrid the ocean’ and that

     His delights

Were dolphin like: they show’d his back above

The element they liv’d in.

(V.ii.82, 88-90)

But Antony is nonetheless destroyed by water. He goes to it, but he cannot control it.

The nature of the tragic flaw in Antony and Cleopatra. Critics have complained that the play is not strictly tragic, because Antony and Cleopatra are passive. What happens is not due to their will, they are caught: there is pathos, not tragedy. I don’t this complaint is quite true. It is true that the tragic flaw in Antony and Cleopatra is not of the ordinary specific kind, but this makes for the tremendous power of the play. We see malice and ambition in Richard III, ignorance in Romeo and Juliet, melancholy in hamlet, ambition in Macbeth, paternalism and the demand of love in Lear, pride in Coriolanus, the desire to be loved in Timon, and jealousy in Othello. These are pure states of being that have a certain amount of police court cases or psychiatric clinics in them, but we are not likely to imitate them. We may feel as they do on occasion, but these people are really rather silly. We wouldn’t murder a guest at a party, nor are we likely to run out of the house in the middle of a storm. We think people are crazy to behave like that. We read about such behavior in the papers. Antony and Cleopatra’s flaw, however, is general and common to all of us all of the time: worldliness – the love of pleasure, success, art, ourselves, and conversely, the fear of boredom, failure, being ridiculous, being on the wrong side, dying. If Antony and Cleopatra have a more tragic fate than we do, that is because they are far more successful than we are, not because they are essentially different. ‘Now is the time when all the lights wax dim,’ as Herrick writes in ‘To Athena.’ We all reach a time when the god Hercules leaves us. Every day we can get an obsession about people we don’t like but for various reasons we can’t leave. We all know about intrigues in offices, museums, literary life. Finally, we all grow old and die. The tragedy is not that it happens, but that we do not accept it.

Antony and Cleopatra therefore must present a plenum of experience. An historian might complain of the irrelevance of the love story, a classical playwright of the irrelevance of the historical detail, and a theatrical producer of the multitude of tiny scenes. But Shakespeare needs this comprehensiveness to show the temptation of the world, the real world in all its kingdoms, all its glories. The panoramic inclusiveness is essential to the play. Pascal’s remark in Pensees that had ‘Cleopatra’s nose…been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered’ is an historical falsehood, as Shakespeare’s detailed depiction of the political conflict in the play shows. Loyalty and treachery, prudence and rashness: all human traits are portrayed somewhere by the multiplicity of characters in the play. But the one thing you will not find in Antony and Cleopatra is innocence. [MY NOTE:  As opposed to Bradley’s absence of ‘goodness?’]  The characters in the play may get angry, but they won’t be shocked or surprised. Even the clown is sophisticated.

Why is the weather so good in Antony and Cleopatra? In other plays, nature reflects vices or hostility, but it is important in Antony and Cleopatra that the world be made to seem infinitely desirable and precious. The whole world of the play is bathed in brilliant light. In the last plays the physical tempests stand for suffering through which people are redeemed. The tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra is the refusal of suffering. As Kafka remarks, ‘You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.’ The splendor of the poetry expresses the splendor of the world in this play, and the word ‘world’ is constantly repeated. ‘Come’st thou smiling from/The world’s great snare uncaught?’ (IV.viii.17-18), Cleopatra asks. But Antony is caught. What Caesar calls Cleopatra’s ‘strong toil of grace’ (V.ii.351) is the world itself and in one way or another it catches us all. The moral of the play is quite simple, the same as that of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, when Troilus looks down ironically upon the world from the eighth sphere. Shakespeare presents it without faking – there are no sour grapes, no claims that the world is not really glorious, but tawdry. You can’t suggest that the world is destructive without showing it in all its seductiveness.

If we had to burn all of Shakespeare’s plays but one – luckily we don’t – I’d choose Antony and Cleopatra.”

I think I might have to agree with Auden here.  It seems to me (at least coming directly off reading it twice) that in this play, the power of Shakespeare’s language is at its height — direct yet startlingly poetic, his power of characterization…everything is here that we love.


And one last thing:  while most of the critics we’ve read seem to think that the play, ultimately, is Cleopatra’s, Joyce Carol Oates felt differently:

langtry cleo“The play is conceived in hyperbole, the controlled hysteria of Renaissance language to which no world was ever equal. If the confines of this Roman-Egyptian world are not admittedly fake, then they are, by necessity, without limitation. The known world is collapsed into Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar; nothing is missing from it, since they combine among them all its brilliance and its stupidity. Antony can say of himself that with his sword he “quarter’d the world” (4. 12. 58); Cleopatra can say of him—beginning the extended creation and re-creation of her lover that must be unmatched in literature for its audacity and beauty—that he destroys with himself all order in the world: “Young boys and girls/ Are level now with men; the odds is gone,/ And there is nothing left remarkable/ Beneath the visiting moon” (4. 13. 65-68). Even Caesar can say “the death of Antony/ Is not a single doom; in the name lay/ A moiety of the world” ( 5. 1. 16-18). The play is finally Antony’s, for Cleopatra is priestess to his apotheosis in the speech toward which all earlier poetry moves:

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm
Crested 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 ’twas
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.

(5. 2. 82-92)

The wonder of these flights of poetry is that they seem to give nothing of their certainty to the ceremony of the earlier acts of the play. If it is not possible that Antony was as he is dreamed, then it is not the lapsed Antony this play is about. If their “strength is all gone into heaviness,” this heaviness testifies simply for the magnitude of that former strength that has now destroyed itself. Antony’s death teaches Cleopatra the vanity of life, subject to fortune; the betrayal of her treasurer renders this education immediately suspect, just as the knowledge that Caesar will lead her in triumph obscures forever Cleopatra’s motives for dying. Shakespeare balances hyperbole with comic suggestion: the Antony as colossus and the Antony as ruffian, the Cleopatra equal to all visions of herself and the Cleopatra raging at the servant who has betrayed her.”

Read the entire essay here.

OK, so that’s it for Antony and Cleopatra – what did YOU all think?  How would you rate it?  What did you think of Antony?  Cleopatra?  The language?  Whose play is it ultimately?  Share your thoughts with the group!


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning:  Sonnet 140

Our next play:  Pericles!

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2 Responses to “I am fire and air; my other elements/I give to baser life.”

  1. Sandy Bucay says:

    I think Auden got a point when referring to A & C as a prominent play in the canon. Likewise, a more recent reckoning can be found in this moving podcast: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9723000/9723521.stm
    Thank you for this thrilling journey, Dennis!

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