I will actually be very disappointed if my readers have just kept going here. Go read the comedies and then come back. I’ll wait.
It may seem surprising, but Shakespeare’s tragedies are often easier to understand than his comedies. We know what to expect in the tragedies, not just because the stories are so famous but because we know that a Shakespeare tragedy will end with the death of at least one major character and most of the play’s action leads directly toward that death. I am not saying that the tragedies are simple—no one could argue that point. I just mean that the comedies are less predictable, and though many of them end with marriages, often those marriages seem tacked on, while the action of the plays moves in a number of unpredictable directions. We may be surprised by how the conflicts in a comedy are resolved. We are seldom surprised in a tragedy. This difference may explain why the comedies are less often taught in schools: they are more amorphous and therefore more difficult.
On the other hand, difficulty does not determine quality. Shakespeare’s tragedies, predictable and well-known though they be, are magnificent plays that not only move us but that make us look at our world in new ways. The most famous of them, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, are so well known that they could become clichés, but so great are they that such a transformation never occurs. The less well-known among the tragedies, like Troilus and Cressida or (my own favorite) Coriolanus are also worth reading. In fact, for readers to whom the other plays have begun to feel like clichés, those less famous tragedies might be a good place to start. The tragedy we will examine here, Antony and Cleopatra, is not so well known as the most famous, but neither is it too obscure.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra are lovers, but they are not young lovers. Antony is often described in the play as being old, and historically he was about fifty at the time of his death. Cleopatra’s age is not given, but she is the mother of a child by Julius Caesar, who had been dead for fourteen years at the time of her death. Historically, she was thirty-nine when she died. Octavius, whose youth is often contrasted with Antony’s age in the play, was in his early thirties at the time. Of course, we will be mistaken if we look to history to determine our understanding of the play, or, worse, if we regard the play as faithful to history. Shakespeare took his story from Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian and biographer, but the playwright, as he always did, made the story absolutely his own, giving personalities to the historical figures and creating new characters when necessary.
Although the play is called Antony and Cleopatra, the relationship between these two characters is only one of the play’s key relationships. Another is between Antony and Octavius, and yet another is between Cleopatra and Octavius. And beyond these relationships is the story of Enobarbus, Antony’s friend and ally. And even beyond these aspects of the play are the contrasts between very different ways of looking at the world. These sharp contrasts, in fact, lie behind one of the play’s interesting characteristics, the rapid changes of scenes, from Egypt to Rome, from Rome to Egypt, from Egypt to the battlefield. In the third and fourth acts (keeping in mind that the acts were not so indicated by Shakespeare) there are thirteen and fifteen different scenes, respectively, as Shakespeare paints one contrast after another.
One aspect of these contrasts is evident from the very beginning, when Philo and Demetrius are speaking:
Philo. Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front…
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool.
“Dotage” means a kind of mental impairment that results from, perhaps, an infatuation, and Philo (whose own name, ironically, means “love”) is not the only person who thinks of Antony in this way. Everyone remembers him as a great general, as the conqueror of Brutus and Cassius, as the savior of Rome, and almost everyone now regrets the attention he shows to Cleopatra, for she distracts him from his martial Roman duties. To these Roman soldiers, Antony, a member of the triumvirate that rules the world, has become “a strumpet’s fool.” He has been seduced not only by a woman but by a degenerate Eastern woman. They are Romans—we will see what this means to them—and for them Egypt is a place to be plundered, a place where they can have a good time but not a place where they should stay. As Romans, their duty is to rule the world; and while they may relax and enjoy the sensuality of Egypt, they feel the need to be involved in the serious business of jockeying for power, of tyrannizing the rest of the world.
Antony, on the other hand, enters the play while conversing with Cleopatra about the extent of his love, and he says, “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth” (I.i.17). In the context of his conversation with Cleopatra, this line is figurative: “I love you so much that if you want to know the extent of my love, you need to create a new world.” But in the context of the play, the line is closer to being literally true, for their love cannot exist in the world as it actually is.
Everything in this world—Antony’s Roman background, his martial prowess, Octavius’ and Pompey’s ambitions—makes their love impossible, especially because Antony wants to live in both worlds, the world of Egyptian sensuality and love and the world of Roman conquest. The problem is that these two worlds are incompatible, and Antony cannot choose between them. So, when Antony learns that he has news from Rome, he responds, “Grates me, the sum” (I.i.18), or, in modern terms, “What a nuisance. Tell me quickly.” And when Cleopatra mocks even this small attention to Roman business, Antony declares
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space…
Antony seems to scorn Rome and opt for Cleopatra; but shortly after, we hear that
He was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden
A Roman thought hath strook him.
Cleopatra, as she so often does, here mocks both Antony and the seriousness of Rome. This contrast between “mirth” and a “Roman thought” defines the extremes between which Antony operates. It also makes us wonder how serious Cleopatra is about her love for him. Does she truly love him? Is she keeping him around only for her own security? Or is she just having a good time? At this stage in the play, we cannot tell.
At the play’s beginning, then, we see Antony unable to choose between two attractions, two ways of life, the mirth of Egypt and Cleopatra or the business of Rome. Even Antony’s wife, Fulvia, has been engaged in Roman military activities until she dies, thereby freeing Antony to marry Cleopatra. But Antony, who seems incapable of choosing between the two alternatives, marries Octavius’ sister Octavia for political purposes, telling her,
Read not my blemishes in the world’s report:
I have not kept my square, but that to come
Shall all be done by th’rule.
By assuring Octavia that he will reform his behavior, Antony appears to be reaffirming his devotion to Roman occupations. Nevertheless, at the end of this scene—and the scene is short—he declares,
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I’ th’east my pleasure lies.
Has Antony been lying? And if so, which time is he lying? Since he returns immediately to Cleopatra, he might be lying to Octavia, but since he has already acknowledged that Octavius always seems to triumph over him, it would be particularly stupid of him to purposely deceive Octavius’ sister. A more likely explanation is that Antony means both statements, that he is genuinely torn between these two aspects of his life. It would be to Antony’s advantage if he could make a definitive choice, but even when he fights with Octavius, he allows Cleopatra to come along as an ally, and twice when her ship flees the battle, he follows after her, then blames her for the resulting disaster.
Antony’s friends are quite right when they criticize his behavior. Camilius says, “So our leader’s led, / And we are women’s men” (III. vii.69-70), and Scarus, recalling the play’s opening, compares him to “a doting mallard” (III.viii.31). His inability to choose decisively leads to his death, and it is as difficult for us as it is for his friends to believe that this is the same Antony who had behaved so nobly earlier in his career.
In fact, Antony’s very identity is an issue for several characters. In the play’s first scene, Cleopatra says, “I’ll seem the fool I am not. Antony will be himself ” (42). Her implication is that she is playing at being frivolous, while Antony is truly a fool. Perhaps she is teasing him, as she does elsewhere in the play, but perhaps she is not. We have no way of knowing for sure. A few lines later, however, Philo says,
Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony
He comes too short of that great property
Which still should go with Antony.
While Cleopatra says, whether in jest or in earnest, that Antony is a fool, Philo implies that the real Antony has a nobility that does not show when he is not being himself, that Antony has abandoned his true self through his dalliance with Cleopatra. Again we see two views of Anthony and it is impossible for us to know which is more accurate. Somewhat later, Antony says, “If I lose mine honor / I lose myself ” (III.iv.22-23). Unfortunately, by the time he says this, Antony has lost his honor in virtually everyone’s eyes but his own, and, as virtually everyone agrees, he is not the Antony he used to be. He is, at best, rather pathetic.
Cleopatra’s identity is also something of a puzzle. As a woman in a clearly male-dominated society, she is forced to use her sexuality as a political tool, and it is consequently difficult to determine precisely what she is and whom she loves. At the play’s beginning, she seems to love Antony, but, as we saw, she also teases him and seems to think he is a fool. In II.v, she physically attacks the messenger who brings her news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, but we still cannot be certain about her feelings. She might be upset at the political implications of Antony’s marriage for her or she might be jealous that another woman has taken her place. Or she might really love Antony. Her anger is clear, but the true cause of her anger is not. She is certainly no fool, and all of her actions are calculated. We simply are not allowed to know what the calculations are. Cleopatra is too complex for us to be able to see through her.
Cleopatra’s problem is most evident in III.xiii, when Octavius’ man Thidias offers her the excuse that she allied herself with Antony not from love but from fear, and she agrees:
“Mine honor was not yielded, / But conquered merely” (61-62).
When Antony rebukes her for seeming to abandon him in favor of Octavius (though he is already married to Octavius’ sister), she responds, “Not know me yet?” (157). The answer to that question is “No.” Antony does not know her, and we do not know her. Part of the reason is the medieval and Renaissance notion that the monarch has two “bodies,” a public body and a private one. As a private woman, Cleopatra has feelings and desires; but in her public role as queen, she must have other feelings and desires. Sometimes these feelings and desires overlap, but often they do not. So Cleopatra is not being duplicitous when she shifts from one role to another. In fact, part of her tragedy is that she must try to play both roles in spite of their frequent incompatibility. Like Antony, she is torn between two legitimate desires.
We can see Cleopatra’s two roles quite clearly in the scene of Antony’s death. Antony has fallen on his sword but has only succeeded in mortally wounding himself rather than killing himself outright. As he is dying, he has himself brought to the tower where Cleopatra has taken refuge and he asks her to come out to him so that, in true romantic tragedy style, he can kiss her one last time. We might well expect her to come running, and if she were Juliet, she would. But this is Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and in real anguish she says,
I dare not, dear—
Dear my lord, pardon—I dare not,
Lest I be taken.
She loves Antony and she wants to be with him, wants to give him that parting kiss; but as the queen of Egypt, she does not want to be captured and paraded through the streets of Rome. She may love Antony, but not to distraction. Instead, in what must have been an incredible scene in Shakespeare’s theatre, Cleopatra and her attendants pull Antony up to the tower, where he can get his kiss and die. There is love in this scene, but not the heedless love of youth. These are two mature people who ultimately do love each other, but who, unlike Romeo and Juliet, unlike Othello and Desdemona, unlike Hamlet and Ophelia, recognize that they must temper their actions with prudence.
The one major character in the play who is not at all ambiguous is Octavius. His main interest, indeed his only interest, is power, and he is willing to use the other characters’ weaknesses to gain it. He speaks of himself in the third person and uses the royal “we”—It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate/Our great competitor,” he says (I.iv.2-3)—and his every action is aimed at consolidating power. He has no qualms about lying to Cleopatra when he tries to make her submit to him, and there is no ambiguity in his words. Antony may be torn between two ways of life and may therefore contradict himself, but Octavius is never torn. When he lies, he intends to lie. Lying and duplicity are just means to an end. He is efficient, ruthless, and cold. He lacks human feeling, a lack which makes him impervious to Cleopatra’s charms; and we must realize that when Cleopatra kills herself, she does so not because Antony is dead but because Octavius has not succumbed to her.
The emphasis on Antony’s age and Octavius’ youth, then, has a purpose. We are watching the death of an old world that is romantic, indulgent, and founded on personality and the birth of a new, that is efficient, bureaucratic, and flaunts its power. Antony had his faults, but Octavius is a machine. Perhaps the most revealing thing Octavius does, aside from his blatant lies to Cleopatra, can be found in V.i, when he hears of Antony’s death. His first reaction seems appropriate:
The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack. The round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets
And citizens to their dens.
And he continues to eulogize Antony. In fact, he really seems to get into the spirit of it, becoming positively eloquent. He is about to launch into a full-fledged oration. “Hear me, good friends—“ he says, but then a messenger enters and Octavius stops:
But I will tell you at some meter season,
The business of this man looks out of him;
We’ll hear him what he says…
Abruptly Octavius is brought back to business. He has an empire to consolidate and he cannot be bothered with sentimental nonsense.
Antony may be a troubled character, torn between conflicting loyalties, but compared to Octavius he is a heroic and human character. His death, with its nearly botched suicide, is typical of his life: he wants someone else to run him through but then does the deed himself (like Saul in the book of Kings), and yet even when he does it, he is not fully successful. His death is a heroic gesture that is made quite human. Cleopatra, too, despite her attempt to come to terms with Octavius, dies with some nobility, finally confirming her love for Antony. At the play’s end, these noble characters are dead and the world belongs to Octavius. That may not be an entirely bad thing, because Octavius will bring order to a disordered world, and the world of Antony and Cleopatra certainly is disordered. From the play’s opening words, “Nay, but…” we see that the play opens in the middle of a conversation; and the sense of movement and disorder can also be felt in the large number of rapid scene changes that characterize the play. Nonetheless, it is not entirely certain that the cold and efficient order that Octavius will bring will be better than the disorder of Antony and Cleopatra.
It is interesting to speculate on whether Shakespeare was thinking of his own world. This play was written in about 1609, six years after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Surely no one, with the possible exception of James I himself, ever thought of James I as Octavius. He was a dislikable, devious king who replaced the “romance” of Elizabeth’s reign with his own kind of efficiency. In this sense. James was rather like Shakespeare’s Octavius. For England, the transition from Elizabeth to James marked the same kind of change in sensibility that we see in the play. Such parallels can only be speculative and they should be viewed with caution, but they are worth thinking about.
Of course, there are other characters in the play as well, primarily friends or allies of the three principals. These are the characters who are most immediately affected by the actions of the principal characters, and the most interesting of them all is Antony’s friend Enobarbus. Enobarbus enjoys the pleasures of Egypt; but as the play’s resident cynic, somewhat like Jaques in As You Like It, he knows better than anyone what is really happening. He recognizes Cleopatra’s manipulations of Antony, for instance, and when Antony says that he must leave Egypt, Enobarbus responds, “Cleopatra, catching but the elast noise of this dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment” (I.ii.139-42). Antony does not always appreciate Enobarbus’ sharp comments and in II.ii he shuts him up rather rudely. Nevertheless, it is clear in scenes like II.vi and III.ii that the minor characters like Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Menas have a greater understanding of what is actually happening than do the central characters, and it seems as though Enobarbus has the clearest vision of all.
But Enobarbus, cynical and intelligent as he is, is also loyal. When so many of Antony’s allies desert him, Enobarbus says,
I’ll yet follow
The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason
Sits in the wind against me.
His reason tells him that Antony is doomed, but he will remain loyal; and soon he reaffirms his loyalty:
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly; yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall’n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place I’ th’ story.
He knows that Antony’s foolish behavior will lead to their doom, but as long as he maintains his loyalty, as long as he is constant, he will be the victor no matter what happens to Antony. Soon, however, in the face of Antony’s increasingly irrational behavior, Enobarbus comes to the opposite conclusion and resolves to flee, but we never actually see him leave. Instead, in a brilliant piece of stagecraft, Shakespeare has a soldier tell Antony that Enobarbus has gone, and Antony’s reaction reveals his true nobility. By IV.v, we have become accustomed to Antony’s posturing, to his often manic reactions; but when he hears of Enobarbus’ flight, he is subdued. Instead of raging, as we might expect, he orders Enobarbus’ effects to be taken to him, along with a note of greeting that is only slightly sarcastic. And then, in a truly surprising move, Antony blames himself: “O, my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (IV.v.16-17).
Even before Enobarbus hears from Antony, however, he knows that he has made a mistake, and Antony’s gesture merely confirms that knowledge. Among Enobarbus’ last words before he kills himself is an acknowledgement of Antony’s nobility. Rationally, logically, Enobarbus was right to abandon Antony, but truly correct behavior transcends the rational and logical. Antony has made a series of catastrophic mistakes, and the ethos he represents is clearly past. Nevertheless, in rushing to the world offered by Octavius, the world of Rome, Enobarbus has betrayed not only Antony but himself. The story of Enobarbus is almost a miniature version of the whole play.
One other aspect of the play requires attention, the poetry. A quick look at the play indicates how much of it is written in verse, and we must marvel at how Shakespeare uses his iambic pentameter lines to achieve so many effects. There are two passages especially in II.ii that should be noticed, both spoken by Enobarbus. One begins “The barge she sat in…” (191) and the other “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety” (234). Such poetry might make us wish that we could be there with Antony and Cleopatra.
So read Antony and Cleopatra and then go back and try to read the other famous tragedies with fresh eyes. Not long ago I was playing in an orchestra that was doing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I thought I knew the Fifth pretty well. After all, it is the most famous symphony in the world, but as we played, I began to see it in new ways and I discovered that there were things about it that I took for granted and really did not know. That should be your experience as you go through Hamlet, Lear, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet. You might think you know them, but if you read them closely, you will see how much more there is to know. Like all great literature, they are inexhaustible.