Antony and Cleopatra
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
My annotated Oxfordian edition of this play is now available: Anthony and Cleopatra.
(Shakespeare’s intention, as the First Folio consistently makes clear, was to have the character’s name no longer as Antony but as Anthony.)
Shakespeare uses Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (which he used for Julius Caesar as well) concerning the historical events between about 40 bce and 30 bce when Antony and Cleopatra died. He develops characters and mostly invents Enobarbus, or at least invests in the name reference enough to make him into an intriguing focal point.
Cleopatra is maybe the original “diva,” and I think we wouldn’t have Scarlett O’Hara nor Erica Kane without Shakespeare’s Cleo. It’s a knotty character phenomenon to try to explain, involving ironic self-awareness of outrageous egomania, but, you know, it’s cheeky and charming. Any frustrated theater major who believes in reincarnation insists that (s)he lived as this Queen of the Nile, but apparently the historical Cleopatra was rather unprepossessing, yet she obviously knew how to enter a room and generate a mystique. For a fascinating and conscientious history of Cleopatra and Cleopatra in popular culture, with important implications also discussed, check out Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions (NY: Harper & Row, 1990). Roman propaganda vilified her — a prototype for all patriarchal hatchet jobs on women in power.
Although the play smoothly contains all Shakespearean skills and could almost be classified as a history, comedy, or tragedy, the dominant mode of tragedy emerges from the clash of demands between the private life and the public. The play is surprisingly not moralistic. It has more to do with awareness of how others see one. Goddard calls it “a study in the power of personality versus the impersonality of power” (Goddard, II185). And for Antony it’s life crisis time!
The first word is “Nay”: a negation, or denouncement, or defiance. A soldier, Philo, is denigrating his general, Mark Antony, as a once-great warrior, “but this dotage … / O’erflows the measure” (I.i.1-2), and from the start we have the theme of excess. Addicted to life with Cleopatra recently, Antony seems, to the soldiers, reduced to a gigolo: “his captain’s heart … become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust” (I.i.6-10), “The triple pillar of the world transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool” (I.i.12-13). This opening perspective is not privileged, however; disapproval is cast by many knaves in this play. Philo’s line, “Behold and see” (I.i.13), haughtily cues what seems a show.
Antony and Cleopatra enter with attendants and with eunuchs fanning the queen. She’s wheedling, how much do you love me? (This is the theme of measurement and excess already emerging again.) And Antony is bombastic in his response. The whole world is the setting and these grandiose protagonists see themselves in hyperbolic terms: not just monarchical but godlike. “There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d” (I.i.15) — anything measurable is so much piffle. Is there a difference for Cleopatra and Antony between being themselves and acting themselves? Or does love do this to everyone? In their favor, they both seem perfectly aware of the histrionic games they’re playing with each other.
A message from Rome is announced. Antony is impatient and dismissive: “Grates me, the sum” (I.i.18). In other words: this irritates me; give me the bottom line — but Antony renders it in telegraphic brevity to convey the annoyance and impatience. Cleopatra petulantly and derisively suggests that it might be Antony’s wife Fulvia pitching a fit, or Octavius Caesar ordering Antony around with daily errands of the caliber of seizing kingdoms. But Antony pontificates:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall. Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus [embracing] — when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do ‘t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless. (I.i.33-40)
The “wrangling queen” (I.i.48) still commands Antony to hear the ambassadors, but Antony is geared up for their date of people-watching: “To-night we’ll wander through the streets and note / The qualities of people” (I.i.53-54). Philo and Demetrius shake their heads tsk tsk, though their discussion ends on a note of odd optimism.
The thematic Shakespearean concern for the “self” is clearly at stake in this play already. Cleopatra mentions, “I’ll seem the fool I am not. Antony / Will be himself” (I.i.42-43); and Philo makes a distinction between Antony as defined in and by the public realm and, conversely, “sometimes when he is not Antony” (I.i.57).
Cleopatra’s attendant Charmian requests that another, Alexas, call forth a soothsayer he recently praised. The soothsayer is called. “Your will?” (I.ii.7), he asks. Charmian wants a good fortune, but the soothsayer reads ’em like he sees ’em. Charmian giddily speculates about “having a child at fifty, to whom Herod of Jewry may do homage” (I.ii.28-29) and marrying Octavius Caesar, but the soothsayer says only, “You shall outlive the lady whom you serve” (I.ii.31) and it seems as if bad times are ahead. The implication is that Iras is of easy virtue, but the soothsayer prognosticates an identical fate for her as for Charmian.
In a parallel to the royal court in Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth’s chief gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, Blanche Parry “made a special study of palmistry” and occasionally told the fortunes of maids of honor (Wilson 7-8; qtd. in Rinehart 85). Furthermore, “the women of the Egyptian court have functions similar in most respects to those of Elizabeth’s attendants” (Brown 136); Charmian and Iras are not presented as slaves but as aristocratic gentlewomen (136).
Cleopatra comes looking for Antony, worrying that “A Roman thought” (I.ii.83) has struck Antony (meaning a thought about Rome, or in the character of Rome: serious, dutiful). Antony hears from the messenger that his brother and his wife, Fulvia, joined forces against Caesar but were defeated. Antony asks for the Roman perspective on Cleopatra and himself and seems desirous to break away from his life of luxury: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (I.ii.116-117). (This self-disgust resembles that of the poet concerning his sexual addiction to the dark lady in the Sonnets.)
Throughout the play, as in this scene, there are lots of “to-ings and fro-ings,” primarily of messengers (Wells 303), “creating a sense of continual movement and urgency” (304). Another messenger now brings Antony news that Fulvia is dead. “There’s a great spirit gone!” (I.ii.122), laments Antony, realizing he didn’t appreciate her until now when it’s too late. Enobarbus, Antony’s cynical friend and “the detached observer who [seems] least likely to be seduced by Cleopatra’s wiles” (Wells 302), enters and, regarding the rumored possibility of their returning to Rome, states that all the women will die if they leave. He’s probably punning with the Elizabethan sexual meanings of “die” and “nothing,” but this before he hears the news of Antony’s wife’s death. Enobarbus notes that Antony lost a wife he didn’t want, and tries to continue his bawdy punning, but Antony says, “No more light answers” (I.ii.176). He mentions that there are several reasons they must return to Rome, including the threat posed by Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great and now lauded by “Our slippery people” (I.ii.185).
Cleopatra, providing no pronoun antecedents, tells Charmian,
See where he is, who’s with him, what he does.
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. (I.iii.2-5)
Charmian expresses her opposing belief in being honest and agreeable with a lover, the silly git. Antony enters and can’t get a word in edgewise due to Cleopatra’s dying-duck fits. When she finally hears of Fulvia’s death, she still manages to play martyr and engage in the “childish histrionics” (Carey 453) and “beguiling craftiness” (460) of a “scheming coquette” (458). She laments Antony’s anticipated reaction at her own death since he sheds no tears for Fulvia now (as if his crying now wouldn’t have sent her on another worse rant) — in other words, how Fulvia’s death affects her is the focus. As a few students have pointed out, Cleopatra makes Antony’s “presence in her life more certain by drawing his attentions to her instead of his feelings.” Cleopatra snarks at Antony, “Good now, play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honor” (I.iii.78-80). Nevertheless, Antony will leave.
Antony’s “co-triumvirs” in Rome — Octavius Caesar and Lepidus — discuss the state of the State, with Caesar sniping about Antony and insulting his manhood and weakness for Cleopatra. News of the new Pompey at sea and his popularity prompts Caesar to insult the populace, much like Antony had. In an apostrophe to the absent Antony, Caesar lists his faults, but some of what Octavius Caesar considers dishonorable behavior actually seems admirable. Caesar recounts the debased extremes Antony resorted to during a famine following military defeat, but it sounds impressive (I.iv.56ff). “As a result, his attempt to turn these incidents into an indictment against Antony tells us, in reality, more about young Caesar’s insecurities than it does about Antony” (Carey 460) — in other words, Caesar and Cleopatra overlap in behavior somewhat.
Cleopatra is bored and thinking of Antony. She wants to sleep the time away with the help of a narcotic, mandragora, but banters a while with Mardian, a eunuch. She indicates that Antony calls her “my serpent of old Nile” (I.v.25) and compares herself to food: when Julius Caesar was alive, she was “A morsel for a monarch” (I.v.31). Alexas enters, bringing a pearl Antony has kissed and sent Cleopatra. When she hears that Antony was neither sad nor merry, she raves about his marvelously medium mood.
Cleopatra makes Charmian insist that Antony, not Julius Caesar, is her one true love, and she dismisses the earlier affair as having come during “My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood” (I.v.73-74). She is using the phrase not as we do to mean times of romantic poverty or colorful youth, but rather as an image of inexperience and passionlessness.