The Triumph of the Lions? An Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra
[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released July 1999. It was last revised on September 3, 1999]
Antony and Cleopatra is obviously based upon a dualistic vision of experience, the world of Rome pitted against the world of Egypt. This central conflict also involves the antagonism between Antony, the old lion, and Octavius, the young Machiavellian fox, but it also includes a great deal more than the clash of these two very different characters. In organizing an initial response to the play, then, we need to attend carefully to the full implications of the visions of life associated with Rome and Egypt.
Before launching ourselves in this direction, however, we might also acknowledge the vast scope of this play, vast not simply in its geography but also in the spectrum of human responses to some very basic questions. The central force of the plot may derive much of its energy from a political quarrel, but the play is much more than simply a contrast of two political rivals. In the conflict between Egypt and Rome, we have to deal with relations between men and women, sexuality and power, East and West, efficient rationality and seductive mysteries, ancient heroism and youthful expertise. If, at the end of the play, we are in some doubt about where we stand, that may well be because this play demands that we take so much into account.
THE ROMAN WAY
Shakespeare is clearly fascinated with a particular vision of Roman culture. He wrote several so-called Roman plays throughout his career, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, exploring in each of them features of life for which the Romans were famous, particularly their dedication to efficient politics, the clash between republican and dictatorial visions of political life, and the tough (often very cruel) masculine ethos which, while having room to honour women in certain limited ways, has little place for them in public life, other than as useful political tools or upholders of very masculine ideals or as producers of soldiers.
I suspect part of the attraction of the Roman setting for the examination of such charged political questions is the remote historical time period. By using Romans, Shakespeare can ease the risk of potentially offensive characters and scenes (the usurpation and execution of Richard II, for example) and side step any religious issues (like the divinity of kingship or the morality of their Christian rule) because with the Romans he is dealing with a pre-Christian era. And, of course, Roman stories were popular material for public theatre. The point about the pre-Christian era is particularly important in Antony and Cleopatra because it enables Shakespeare to juxtapose the urge for world domination and the luxury of erotic experience without having to deal with the concept of sin.
In Antony and Cleopatra we are, in a sense, dealing with two Romes--an older one made up of famous warrior-figures, like Julius Caesar and Pompey, world conquerors and legendary leaders, who extended Rome's imperial control of the world and established a heroic reputation. Antony is the last of these figures, now a older man. The new Rome is the world of Octavius and Sextus Pompey (son of the elder Pompey), participants in a civil war, scrambling for power as the old figures are killed off. They come across as decidedly smaller in stature (they themselves at times acknowledge that point).
It’s important to note that the political fighting in Antony and Cleopatra is not based, as it is in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus and Richard II, on a conflict of political ideologies, pitting, say, republicans against would-be dictators or legal kings against usurpers. There is a reference to such a conflict, when Pompey talks of those who killed Julius Caesar ("but that they would/ Have one man but a man" 2.6.18-19), but that’s a passing irrelevance. Here Roman political life is a scramble for power, unmarked by any vision of how political life ought to be conducted. Octavius, in particular, obviously has no particular love or respect for the Roman people, "This common body,/ Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,/ Goes to, and back, lackeying the varying tide,/ To rot itself with motion" (1.4.44-47), and does not offer any political vision to justify his actions (other than a passing mention that peace will soon come). Whatever is motivating Octavius, it does not seem to be based on any sense of serving the public good. And Antony expresses much the same view of the people. In that sense, the new Rome lacks the heroic grandeur of the old Rome and of the earlier play, Julius Caesar, which introduces a serious debate about the legitimate forms of government.
But the Romans are by no means villains. In fact, there is no clearly evil presence in this play, no one whom we could set up as a companion for Edmund or Macbeth or Claudius or Iago. Octavius and Pompey are fighting a civil war which they did not initiate but inherited. Pompey’s father and Octavius’s adoptive father (Julius Caesar) were killed in the war, and Pompey’s property was confiscated. The world they live in demands that they fight and continue to do so until someone succeeds in establishing a peace. They both realize this and accept that that is the way things have to be.
The strongest sense we get of the qualities the Romans most admire emerges from the imagery, particularly the images which come in the passages where Romans express their admiration for Antony’s past qualities. Notable here is the praise of Octavius,
Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against-
Though daintily brought up-with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on, and all this-
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now-
Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek
So much as lanked not. (1.5.55-71)
This tribute to Antony’s past behaviour is, like other tributes Octavius gives, quite genuine. He sees this past behaviour of Antony’s as proof of his quality as a great man. What’s interesting here is the combination of qualities Octavius remembers: Antony triumphed in battle, but then, in the severe conditions which followed, imposed his will on himself, subordinating the most basic of human emotions to his own resolution, so that he could drink urine and sustain himself on berries and human flesh. But the really important feature of Antony’s behaviour here is that his appearance did not change; he maintained his military bearing while others around him quailed.
This speech, as well as anything else in the play, helps to define the Roman vision of experience: militaristic and male, marked by heroic restraint in difficult circumstances, a willed ability to combat one’s deepest feelings, a sustained composure when everyone else is falling apart. It is a way of living totally devoted to imposing a tightly controlled order upon experience, if necessary through military force, and its success is manifested by displays of military power. The imagery commonly associated with Rome (and with Octavius) stresses weapons (especially swords), speed, and discipline.
Rome is a world in which men compete for power in a high stakes game without clear rules. There is a notion of honour at work, but (as in Henry IV’s England) honour is not a controlling ethos which limits political double dealing in the name of a superior morality. It’s important to be able to display one’s honour publicly; it is less important to live by it. Pompey would happily have had all his dinner guests killed by his subordinate Menas, so long as he was not told about it in advance. And Menas, seeing Pompey give up this opportunity to attain supreme power, leaves his service. Pompey may claim that "‘Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;/ Mine honour it." But his vision of honour appears here considerably shallower than what we see of Hotspur’s honour in Henry IV. Moreover, there is a total absence of any religious sensibilities among the Romans; they live in the world as hard-headed realists, concerned with and limited by earthly power.
When Octavius thinks of how his sister should enter Rome in a manner fitting her importance, the only images he can reach for which might express his feelings are ones taken from the vocabulary of military triumphs:
The wife of Antony
Should have an army for an usher, and
The neighs of horse to tell of her approach
Long ere she did appear. The trees by th’ way
Should have borne men, and expectation fainted,
Longing for what it had not. Nay, the dust
Should have ascended to the roof of heaven,
Raised by your populous troops. (3.6.43)
This play gives every indication that Octavius genuinely loves his sister (as much as he can love anyone), and he is really shocked that she has come into Rome so clandestinely. It’s significant that he can convey his high esteem and strong feelings for her only in images more appropriate to a returning triumphant general.
In this Roman vision of experience, women occupy a very inferior role. If they can turn themselves into soldiers, like Antony’s wife, Fulvia, they may be able to play some political role. And they may be useful, as Octavia is, as guarantors of a new alliance. Octavia is praised by a Roman as "of a holy, cold, and still conversation"; to which Menas replies "Who would not have his wife so?" It’s not surprising that the Romans thus are incapable of understanding what Antony is doing in Egypt. For them, Cleopatra is, quite simply, a slut, an unworthy distraction from the important business of life.
The eastern world of Egypt is, of course, totally different. The main features of the difference emerge most clearly in the imagery repeatedly associated with Egypt. Central to this is the sense of the Nile as a mysteriously fertile source of life, a place where spontaneous generation magically takes place. Egypt is overflowing with life, full of fabulous creatures, like the crocodile, and exotic buildings, like the pyramids. A recurring image of the "serpent of old Nile" evokes the exotic and mysterious origins of life which are centred in Egypt.
Above all, Egypt is a place dominated by mature female sexuality, and this play is remarkable among all Shakespeare’s works for its depiction of mature female sexuality as something open, beautiful, seductive, natural, and ultimately triumphant. In Cleopatra’s palace, women talk openly about explicit sexuality, attended by men who serve them (some of them as eunuchs). They express their sexual feelings, joke about sexual matters, and establish a close female community, which is not marginalized but lives at the very centre of power, in the palace. Sexuality in Egypt is closely linked to play and to a whole range of pleasurable activities like feasting, music, dancing, play acting, and often to a general mocking of Roman values (implicit or explicit). The Romans, by contrast, have trouble holding their liquor at a relatively minor feast.
It might be worth pausing here for a moment to reflect upon Shakespeare’s treatment of women in the plays we have read so far. We have really met only one mature woman with a sexual life, Gertrude, and her sexuality is not something she openly discusses (we do not see her and Claudius speaking about love to each other, and we have to rely upon the staging to define the nature of their interaction). Moreover, a central issue in the play is her son’s overwhelming disgust with her sexuality. In the lecture on Hamlet, I suggested that we are not invited to share that disgust but to see in it an important part of Hamlet’s emotional immaturity (or displacement), and this therefore permits a sympathetic view of Gertrude. But her feelings for Claudius are clearly not a central concern in the play.
Similarly Regan and Goneril are mature women, both of whom express sexual feelings about Edmund. But these feelings are obviously not presented to us as something healthy; they are rather symptomatic of the vulpine destructiveness of the scramble for power, and the sexual attractions lead to mutual murder. Once again, we do not have to share Lear’s deranged view of his daughter’s sexuality as the source of his troubles, but the fact that their evil intentions eventually turn into sexual adulterous rivalry fostering murder prevents our coming to any understanding of them as sympathetic sexual beings.
In a provocative feminist reading of Shakespeare’s work (Shakespeare’s Division of Experience), Marilyn French explores Shakespeare’s treatment of female sexuality. For her, Shakespeare throughout his career worked with opposing masculine and feminine gender principles (symbolized commonly by the men and women in his plays), the former associated with efficient power, order, control, political rule and the latter with the generating, nutritive, and mysteriously subversive forces of nature. She sees in Shakespeare’s early work a deep fear of the feminine gender principle, which Shakespeare presents in two forms: the inlaw women and the outlaw women. The inlaw women are those who have properly subordinated themselves to masculine authority (like the heroines of the comedies) and who are therefore acceptable because they pose no political or emotional threat to the status quo (where men are in control); the outlaw women are those who threaten masculine order (and who thus are depicted as evil).
French’s review of Shakespeare’s plays is swift and inevitably cursory. It also suffers from a certain reductiveness which attends upon the wholesale application of a pre-set and relatively simple ideology. But she points out a number of fascinating elements in the plays, particularly Shakespeare’s growing sense that his earlier celebration of the masculine gender principle is fraught with problems. In fact, it is possible to see the sequence of great tragedies as hinging, in part, on this growing awareness.
We have considered how, in Hamlet, the rottenness in Elsinore might well be caused by (rather than just symbolized by) the forceful suppression of women through the actions of the aggressive masculine warrior principle (Hamlet Senior, Fortinbras), with Claudius and Hamlet trying unsuccessfully to fight against it. Lear has no sense of anything other than his own hard, masculine ego and rails against the sexuality of his daughters as the force which persecutes him unjustly. In Macbeth the multiple murders are made possible by Lady Macbeth’s and Macbeth’s rejection of sexuality and the powers of nature in pursuit of what they see as their rational self-interest. And Othello kills the woman he loves because he cannot rid his mind of the fictional images of her sexual infidelity, which strike at his sense of himself as a proud, independent soldier and which he desperately clings to without even giving her a chance to defend herself--it’s almost as if he wants or has to believe that the most beautiful and faithful wife is a sexual demon. There’s a sense here that the tragic experience, together with all the suffering which it brings (not just upon the central characters, but upon many others, especially innocent women, like Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, Emilia, and Lady Macduff), stems from some fundamental unwillingness or inability to harmonize the conflicting demands of the masculine and feminine gender principles.
This conflict, French points out, may come about because the world is disordered and harsh and requires the masculine principle in order to establish some form of order (thus the cost to the feminine principle is a necessary, if unwelcome, requirement, because the feminine principle is fundamentally opposed to civilized order), or it may come about because the world privileges the masculine principle unnecessarily (thus the suppression or containment of the feminine principle is oppressive). Shakespeare’s various explorations of the issue weave through both possibilities, a fact which helps to explain why his work has been (and still is) called both conservative and patriarchal and subversive and emancipatory.
I have necessarily summarized French’s argument much too simplistically, but I want to refer to it in connection with Antony and Cleopatra because, if we see some validity in her contention, then the depiction of Egypt in this play is something remarkably new, a celebration of the beauty, creativity, and value of the erotic, irrational energies at the heart of life. We are not talking here about the romantic excitement of young love which culminates in a marriage which confirms the existing order (as in As You Like It) but subversive mature female sexuality as the most important component in mature life (that’s why the age of Cleopatra is important; she is no longer young).
What is celebratory about Shakespeare’s depiction of sexuality in Egypt? Well, for one thing, it is presented as entirely natural; there is no sense of sin attached to it. Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra may well be adulterous, and she has had many lovers over the years, but there is no sense of opprobrium attached to their feelings for each other. It’s true the Romans call Cleopatra all sorts of names and criticize Antony severely for lingering in Egypt, but that’s simply because they are incapable of understanding such a celebration of erotic possibilities. Their view of the world does not permit them to recognize Cleopatra as anything more than a gypsy slut, but that’s more a reflection on the limitations of their world view than the play’s final judgment on Cleopatra.
EAST AND WEST
But the split between Rome and Egypt is more complicated than the brief outline above suggests, because the Romans are clearly so fascinated with Egypt that they cannot leave it alone. What Egypt represents does not fall within their sphere of understanding, but they always want to talk about Egypt. They ply Enobarbus with questions about Cleopatra, crocodiles, the Nile mud, pyramids. Their past history is full of military expeditions to Egypt. It’s as if the very presence of Egypt in their awareness might be a disturbing reminder of certain possibilities which their commitment to the dictates of masculine imperial power preclude or at least a temptation to indulge in some very non-Roman thinking.
It’s interesting that the greatest of the Romans--Pompey, Caesar, and Antony--all have sexual experience with Cleopatra, and Caesar and Antony have children with her in Egypt. There’s a suggestion in that pattern that the very greatest of the imperial rulers, those with the courage to take the greatest risks, embrace the otherness of Egypt and cast in their lot with Cleopatra. The fact that they subsequently all became victims of politics as a Roman blood sport is not without significance, of course (more about that later).
[At this point I was tempted to launch into a considerable digression about the various uses to which this dichotomy between east and west has been put by some writers, especially Joseph Conrad. But I will for the sake of time forgo that excursion and simply offer the suggestion that there might be more than a passing similarity between what Shakespeare is doing here and what Conrad does in, among other tales, Heart of Darkness].
The ambivalent nature of Romans towards Egypt comes out most noticeably in Enobarbus, the rough Roman soldier, who is simultaneously the most cynical of spokesmen for Roman values and, at the same time, the most eloquent admirer of all things Egyptian, especially Cleopatra. He can casually dismiss women as hardly worthy of consideration: “Under a compelling occasion let women die. It were pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause they should be esteemed as nothing” (1.2.125), a thoroughly Roman sentiment. But his famous tributes to Cleopatra are passionately sincere; he knows in his innermost heart that she has an inestimable, irrational, and very non-Roman value:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish. (2.2.240)
Like the famous description of Cleopatra in her barge on the Nile, this tribute attests to her infinite power to transform experience into something new, something passionately desired, something entirely at odds with the Roman emphasis on predictable order, law, and consistency. She exists, the last line suggests, in a realm beyond morality, for in her what other people might consider sins become life-affirming beauty and energy. When Cleopatra rides down the river, she draws to her the entire richness of nature and leaves the proud imperial conqueror sitting alone in the market place. As Enobarbus says in a speech immediately before this one, Cleopatra makes "defect perfection,/ And breathless, pour breath forth." She answers one’s most passionate demands on life and, in the process of satisfying one’s desires, reawakens them.
To the Romans, and perhaps to some readers, Cleopatra is far too changeable and unpredictable, a quality which makes her totally unreliable in warfare; one famous audience comment in the nineteenth century observed that in Cleopatra’s Alexandria (and I paraphrase) “Things are so different from the goings on at our dear queen’s palace.” Early in the play Antony calls her "cunning past man’s thought" (1.2.132), and that word man’s is an interesting insertion: measured by masculine Roman principles, Cleopatra cannot be properly defined, so she must be labeled with some derogatory word or impugned. The point is that Cleopatra, the human incarnation of Isis and the spirit of Egypt, simply cannot be controlled or categorized. That, as Enobarbus points out, is the source of her power over people, especially men like Antony and Caesar who are willing to respond to her attraction and to let her make contact with their emotional centres.
This open celebration of sexual feelings was really underscored in a production of the play I saw many years ago in which Cleopatra (played, as I recall, by Helen Mirren), lounging around dreaming of Antony’s return, quite publicly and casually masturbated as she talked about him. The action was presented as if she was doing the most natural thing in the world, for no one sitting around her on stage paid any attention to what she was doing. The shock I felt reminded me immediately of the extent of my Roman judgment; the erotic thrill was an instant challenge to that judgment. The same effect occurs in her suicide, of course, where as she dies she experiences an orgasm.
Octavius, of course, is quite impervious to Cleopatra’s appeal, and he has no understanding of why Antony or anyone else would want to associate with her. Octavius is not, I think, an unsympathetic character. He genuinely loves his sister, and there’s a strong sense that he truly admires Antony and would genuinely like some way of bonding with him (as he says “Yet if I knew/ What hoop should hold us staunch, from edge to edge/ O’th’world I would pursue it” 2.2.119). But he’s far too purely Roman to be able to comprehend Cleopatra. He thinks of her as an important trophy, but only because she will make his triumph in Rome all the more impressive (i.e., her political uses will be invaluable). For her feminine qualities he has no sympathy whatsoever. His final speech suggests that he senses something important about what she and Antony represent, for he will permit them to be buried together. But his most urgent thoughts here, as elsewhere, are centred on Rome.
Antony’s response, of course, is very different. He’s a great Roman, the finest soldier they have, a man who can appeal to his honour without irony. And it’s clear that a large part of Antony is still in Rome, judging his Egyptian time as bondage, as "fetters" which he must break. When in Rome, Antony does as the Romans do. He seeks to cement an alliance with Octavius through marriage and to sort out the various strategies they must undertake in that linear, rational way which lies at the heart of Roman power-politics.
There is no particular reason to think that Antony is being a cynical hypocrite in his marriage to Octavia. He may be, and, if so, that raises some questions about that honour which he appeals to. But it may well be the case that he is being quite true to the Roman part of him, which sees the purpose of life in conventional Roman terms. Similarly, when he later tells Octavia that he will now live "by th’ rule," there’s no need to see him here as a crass liar. Once again, he’s living up to what that Roman part of his personality demands.
Antony’s problem (and the source of his greatness) is that he is not willing to suppress the Egyptian part of him in order to win the political success which can be his if he will limit his life to the Roman way. With Cleopatra he has discovered something about himself, something about life, which he will not deny. Throughout most of the play, Antony is struggling about his allegiance; he moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt, suffering from Roman thoughts in the midst of his Egyptian pleasures and from Egyptian memories in the midst of his Roman deliberations. But he is not paralyzed by this conflict, because he can live the life of either environment to the fullest when he is in it. In Rome he is the greatest Roman of all; in Egypt he can surrender to the erotic pleasures, participate fully, and urge more.
When Rome invades Egypt, the tensions in Antony escalate, because now he has to act like a Roman in Egypt and with Cleopatra. This he cannot do, although he tries. Cleopatra is no soldier, and taking her into battle is disastrous. The sword she is interested in is not much use on the battle field, just as Antony’s battlefield sword is valuable to her only as a toy in bed. Antony repeatedly gets exasperated at Cleopatra because she is not Roman enough, because she cannot fight like a Roman and, in his eyes, "betrays" him. By Roman standards, this judgment is quite correct; but when Antony confronts her he realizes that such a judgment misses the point. He’s with her precisely because she’s not Roman. So when he finally has to choose, he chooses her.
It’s as if he realizes, once he hears the news of her suicide, that for all her protean changes of mood, Cleopatra has been true to him. She is totally loyal to the erotic attachment between them. Antony has wavered, but he resolves his doubts finally with a commitment to the same bond. The process that leads him to this takes Antony through some uncharacteristically petty moments, as he loses control of his Roman "virtues." He flogs Octavius’s messenger and makes an obviously futile gesture in challenging Octavius to single combat. These are vain attempts to assert his masculine power before he recognizes the futility of such power in the face of what he and Cleopatra have together.
Antony, in other words, is the only major mature male tragic character we have met in Shakespeare who successfully emerges out of his masculine shell and commits himself unreservedly and at the expense of his political power to a woman with whom he has found the most passionately vital form of life (unless we see Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia in that light). The tragic part of this story, of course, is that he makes the final commitment only in dying. It’s as if the ending is affirming something of the highest value but, at the same time, denying the viability of such a continuing union in the real world of modern history.
Cleopatra comes to a similar awareness. If she has been something of a political and military liability to Antony, she has always been true to her feelings about him. Once he is dead, she faces some political decisions which will enable her to continue living (and perhaps also ruling Egypt). If she will submit to playing her role in Octavius’s political triumph, she has every reason to believe her life will go on. This possibility she rejects. The world without Antony will not be worth living in.
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. (4.16.64)
And in her suicide, she rises to some form of ecstatic union with Antony, caressing the snake which sucks at her breasts (simultaneously the symbol of sexuality, fertility, and natural mystery), with a calm resolution which she has not manifested before in the play. No major character in Shakespeare has such a magnificent death:
Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras, quick--methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. 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. (5.2.271)
This wonderful speech may announce her rising above the sensuality that she has demonstrated throughout, but it is done in a thoroughly sensual way. Cleopatra is never more supremely feminine and passionate than when she renounces that part of her nature. In a sense, she is demonstrating that quality the Romans particularly admire, a resolved courage in the face of death, but doing so in a very Egyptian way, letting the heart of the Egyptian mystery, the poison of the Nile serpent, take her away to her husband.
RHETORICAL SENSUALISTS OR TRANSCENDENT LOVERS?
I have presented something of a case above that in their dying moments Antony and Cleopatra both establish a value for their lives and become the embodiments of something which lifts them far above the political world of Octavius. He may represent the forces of order on which civilization depends, but, as Marilyn French observes,
. . . how civilized is the civilizing principle? Roman values--order and degree, power-in-the-world, structure and possession--do not create harmonious order and a protective pale for procreation. They create contention and rivalry, one order superseding another, and a thin, pleasureless, stiff existence. The feminine principle may be doomed; it may always be defeated. But in the meantime it offers the richness of emotional and erotic dimensions of life--pleasure, play, and sex. At the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar has the world; Antony and Cleopatra had the living. (267)
This judgment finds much support among critics of the play, but it is also challenged by others, largely on the ground that, while Antony and Cleopatra rise to a fine rhetorical level at the end of their lives, their relationship together, as we witness it in the play, seems curiously unsatisfactory. They spend much of their time bickering and complaining about each other’s conduct. Some of their calls for “pleasure” comes across as somewhat urgent and strained, more a desperate search for diversion and stimulation than a celebration of mature erotic fulfillment.
Part of the problem, too, is that we never do see them alone together. They are always in front of people. We hear many comments about them, but the play does not bring us right into the heart of what they are experiencing (as for example in Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, or King Lear). There is no moving soliloquy in this play which we could match against any one of a number of speeches from those earlier tragedies. While Antony and Cleopatra has enormous breadth, it seems to lack the passionate depths of the other tragedies (a fact which may account for the general estimation that Antony and Cleopatra is not quite up to their quality).
Another way of pointing to this same quality may be to indicate that we are always being told about the larger-than-life qualities of Antony and Cleopatra, their heroic dimensions, but we don’t witness those in the actions that they carry out (except perhaps in Cleopatra’s death). The wonderful tributes given to Cleopatra by Enobarbus I have already referred to. We also have a number of similarly extraordinary tributes to Antony:
The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack. The rivèd world
Should have shook lions into civil streets,
And citizens to their dens. The death of Antony
Is not a single doom; in that name lay
A moiety of the world. (5.1.14)
His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tunèd 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 showed his back above
The elements they lived in. In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets. Realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket. . . .
Nature wants stuff
To view strange forms with fancy; yet t’imagine
An Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite. (5.2.81-99)
These are moving tributes to the quality of an amazing human being, but we might well ask ourselves how they match the man we see in the play. Is Shakespeare here trying to let the posthumous acclaim make up for something which he was not able to make us see in person? Or, alternatively put, these lines (and others) seem to invest the final moments of the famous lovers with a cosmic importance which their actions in the play have not earned for them. We are told they are figures of enormous significance; we do not see that for ourselves (that, at least, is the argument).
As I say, the point is disputed. There are critics who are carried away by the ending of this play, who see Antony and Cleopatra rising to a magnificent heroic greatness which matches the qualities celebrated in the tributes to them. Here is a well known sample:
In death man is triumphant, a ‘conqueror’ . . . . Eros, Iras, Charmian, Enobarbus, Antony, and Cleopatra--all die in the full flood and blaze of loyalty or love, so that ‘death’ is no more a ‘nothing’ . . . but rather the blue seas and teeming earth, the winds and gleaming clouds, the languorous beauties of a tropic night, the silver and gold of moon and sun, all intermeshed to the bridal music of the spheres, and, at the last, all indistinguishable from a human voice, a human form. We see the protagonists, in love and war and sport, in death or life or that mystery containing both, transfigured in a transfigured universe, themselves that universe and more, outspacing the wheeling orbs of earth and heaven. . . . So Cleopatra and Antony find not death but life. This is the high metaphysic of love which melts life and death into a final oneness; which reality is indeed no pulseless abstraction, but rather blends its single design and petalled excellence from all life and all death, all imperial splendour and sensuous delight, all strange and ethereal forms, all elements and heavenly stars; all that is natural, human, and divine; all brilliance and all glory. (G. Wilson Knight, "The Transcendental Humanism of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’’’ in The Imperial Theme)
Against this enthusiastic metaphorical endorsement of the affirmative qualities of the ending of Antony and Cleopatra one can set a much more reserved critical comment like the following:
Even Antony’s last labor, his attempt to ennoble death as a lover’s bed, is undercut by comic aspects. He bungles his suicide, and lives to learn that Cleopatra has merely faked hers. His dignity is then reduced to being carried, marred of body, to a Cleopatra who is more concerned for her own safety than for his. Unceremoniously he must be hoisted up to her, with what Cleopatra in mock-irony calls "sport indeed." And when at last in her arms, he finds his own efforts to speak interrupted by hers. The whole scene has a different import from Plutarch’s: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra wipes away no blood on Antony’s face, does not here greet him as husband, or forget her own misery for his. Instead, she upstages him in self-dramatization. The very hyperboles in which she sings his greatness call our attention chiefly to herself. And ironically, the self-discovery she proclaims after his death is that she has "no friend" except her own resolution. The Antony of her imagination, we infer, cannot be thought her friend. (Roy W. Battenhouse, “Toward Clarifying the Term ‘Christian Tragedy,’” in Shakespearean Tragedy).
These are only two points of view, of course, and there are others. But the central issue remains clear: Is the ending of the play the earned attainment of a higher state of being, a confirmation that the famous lovers have transcended the mundane world of Roman politics and thus moved us to some new insight about our own divided world, or is the ending a rhetorical and sentimental attempt to gloss over the earlier inability of these characters to convince us of their greatness in their own actions, separately and together?
Much will depend upon how any particular production translates the text into dramatic action. And there’s no doubt that giving Antony and Cleopatra heroic tragic stature is a notoriously difficult challenge for any player (How does any actress live up to the description of Cleopatra given in Enobarbus’s description?). Still, I incline to the former possibility (which is probably the majority view), that something of value here is affirmed. There is something about this pair that convinces me that they have truly moved past the confines of ordinary experience (whether in Egypt or Rome) and express, in their closing moments, the transcendent value of a life which moves beyond the limitations of Roman or Egyptian ways of life. But in making this claim, I must admit that I am moved a great deal by what other people say about and do on behalf of Antony and Cleopatra (especially the suicides of Enobarbus, Iras, Charmian, which Wilson Knight refers to), as much as I am by what the two famous lovers do together. People who can inspire that kind of love and bonding must be worth more than Octavius Caesar, no matter how necessary the latter may be to the establishment of a new world order.
POSTSCRIPT TO THE DEATH OF CLEOPATRA
The ending of Antony and Cleopatra is in an important sense quite different from the endings of King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth: Cleopatra’s death enacts for us her acceptance of what she and Antony together share. It is not, as in the other plays, the result of a continuing rejection of (or an inability to accept) what the world has to offer. Cleopatra’s suicide is (as Stanley Cavell rightly emphasizes in Disowning Knowledge) a staged marriage, a theatrically enacted reunion with the physical sensual world, presented in very erotic terms, including sexual orgasm. Cleopatra is, as Cavell points out, offering her “performance” as a viable counter to the political theatre of Octavius, who wants to use Antony and Cleopatra back in Rome to further his political agenda.
If we see Cleopatra’s final marriage to Antony as a movement beyond and above the historically contingent world of Octavius Caesar, then we might sense in the conclusion of this play a movement beyond tragedy towards a major concern of the plays which follow (the Romances), that is, the importance of reconciliation and acceptance of the given, particularly the given relationships which most closely bind us to the human community (especially family bonds). Perhaps, then, we sense here that Shakespeare is, to some extent, privileging the world of private relationships over the world of political action. If there is no more religion to turn to and if politics is simply a continuing scramble for power, in the last analysis we can define our relationship to the world in terms of the love we have for particular people.
That movement is not completed in Antony and Cleopatra, of course, because the union with the world acted out by Cleopatra occurs only in her suicide (and Antony is already dead). There’s no sense here that such a total acceptance of the world can occupy a meaningful place in Octavius’s world in any other way. And the play leaves us wondering whether something important has been affirmed or whether this is just one more bravura performance, another autoerotic illusion which cannot stand up against the march of historical power.
Still, the very fact that we can raise such alternatives indicates that this play offers (or seems to offer) something more uplifting than the very bleak or ominous conclusions to the other tragedies, where we are left with a sense that the given conditions of life lead inevitably to tragic suffering and death without any consoling revelation.