Shakespeare – Antony and Cleopatra

At the very end of Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar says of the now dead lovers:

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous

In doing so he summarizes something very important about this play, which I think has consequences especially when held up to Shakespeare’s other big tragedies.  Tragedy as a genre tends to be obsessed with fate.  “What happens to” characters such as King Lear, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet is simply that.  Lear is forsaken by his daughters, gets rained on, and dies.  Othello is deceived, turns murderously jealous, and dies.  Romeo and Juliet fall in love, become unfortunate victims of a family quarrel, and die.  These are, of course, painfully cursory synopses of these plays and leave much out, but the fact remains that the fate of each of these characters is decided by the action of the play, and sealed by death at the play’s end.  We remember them in the way that fate forces us to: Lear as the bereaved father who has lost all and reduced himself to primitive childhood, Othello as the titan whose passions are his undoing, and Romeo and Juliet as the symbols of innocence who can not but die at the hands of a guilty world.

By comparison, the characters of Antony and Cleopatra, in at least one sense, emerge from a tragic play with a much less tragic end.  It is, as Caesar knows, not their fate but their fame that will hold out, effectively immortalizing them, and favorably at that.  That this distinction will carry such weight has already been suggested throughout the play; Antony is continually described as a god among men, despite being obviously past his prime, impotent as a political or military leader, and constantly under the shadow of female authority from the East, a position which the Roman outlook would necessarily find humiliating.  And while we get an exclusive spectatorship to the Cleopatra who orders innocent messengers to be beaten, and achieves her romantic advancement through petty manipulation, still she has fame enough that we might freely choose an idealized version of her over that which we see in the flesh before us.  

In one sense, the idea that things like memory, language, and appearance can hold greater sway than physical reality is a poetical one.  Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets insist on the power of art to preserve, and he is of course aware of his same power to do so in this case.  Despite how much their behavior can underwhelm and even appall, these characters are surrounded by language with the ability to exalt, to employ nostalgia and flattery in place of base description, and to replace a world of sobering all-too-humanness with one rich with poetry, and redeemed by promises of love beyond the grave.

Yet Caesar, speaking of the fame that will endure, is not a poet, or a lover.  As a foil for Antony, and for the entire paradigm of sensuality which we find in Cleopatra’s East, Caesar is instead the play’s poster child for Roman stoicism, cold calculation, and practical politics.  As much as he is offering a funerary tribute — one can picture him awkwardly and unconvincingly attempting to feign emotion — it requires no great stretch of the imagination to assume he is still thinking politically. The prospect of a funeral ceremony has simply replaced the prospect of parading Cleopatra as a show of successful conquest.  In either case, Caesar considers the advantage to be gained by the reception of such a performance, and he is well aware that the greater the legacy of the fallen lovers, the greater his ostensible achievement in Rome’s victory.  

Towards the end of the play, Cleopatra has also been thinking politically; it might surprise someone who insists on assuming her to be a one-note, love-crazy temptress, but surely wouldn’t surprise anyone truly able to appreciate what a woman of “infinite variety” is capable of (everything, right?).  Were she driven by passion alone, she would run to Antony’s side as he dies; instead he must come to her, while she and her attendants remain safely stowed in their monument.  In the play’s final scene she shows herself a shrewd negotiator, and an even shrewder deceiver.  If we are surprised that she acts with such calm calculation in her last moments and following the death of her lover, if we expected her instead to fall victim to crippling emotional outbursts, it’s because she has spent an entire play deceiving us as well.

Antony and Cleopatra is sometimes called a tragedy, sometimes not, and whether or not a precise distinction is necessary, there is a notable absence of certain elements which frequently appear in Shakespeare’s other tragedies.  One of these is a tension between freedom, or size, and confines, a tension which is associated with disaster.  The momentum of Macbeth’s rise to kingship seems unstoppable, but he is confined by the play’s sheer brevity, which offers a structural/mechanical analogue to the uncompromising inevitability of his demise.  We see Lear bellowing curses to the gods in the open air, yet the vastness of his environment collapses in on itself, as his children battle over the very lines he had drawn to divide and contain his country.  Even the “inexhaustible” Hamlet and Iago find their apparent freedoms challenged; Hamlet famously claims that bad dreams prevent him from counting himself “a king of infinite space”, and Iago’s seemingly boundless capacity to manipulate finds its most devastatingly just end in silence, muteness being the most crippling impotence he can endure.

One the other side of these boundaries which confine, we often also find in the unequivocal tragedies the fact, or sometimes only the sense, that there are greater forces at work.  Othello is a wonderful exception, where the evil we see unleashed finds its whole source in nothing otherworldly but a single person.  Elsewhere, witches toy with murder and upheaval at the behest of some unknown darkness, fathers come from beyond the grave to demand retribution, and the gods are said to “kill us for their sport”.  Fortune and her wheel find frequent reference, most interestingly perhaps when they’re not even necessary as scapegoats; Romeo calls himself “fortune’s fool”, but needn’t appeal to bad luck when he has a perfectly good family quarrel to blame for his situation (Frye 31).  Yet whether it is fate or family, whether the darkness is clearly intentioned or cruelly chaotic, those greater forces against which Shakespeare’s hapless victims are pitted form the basis of much that we’d indeed and rightfully call “tragic”.  

In Antony & Cleopatra there is none of this.  We have no need to search for mysterious motives lurking in the shadows, no need to ask which are the greater powers at work, because throughout the play we are looking at the greatest powers the world can offer us.  Our dramatis personae include the first emperor of Rome and the woman who defined celebrity status while ruling Egypt.  Based on our vantage of him in the play, Antony comes in at a distant third, but those who know him continue to refer to him as titanic, and his reputation as a demigod who drinks the urine of horses still seems a strong enough one for him to lean on.  The play’s massive setting — spanning entire continents over roughly a decade — is a fit stage for such imposing personages, and with the easy gait of giants we see them stride uninhibited by time or space.

Yet it is Cleopatra alone who can truly transcend, to whom confines are nothing.  Caesar wins the battle, but we know his life will be one of lines on maps, one in which he is confined to physical space, even if he owns all of it.  It is not so with Cleopatra, who lives up to her claim of autonomy like no one else can.  She will not be paraded as a spoil of victory, and she will not be confined by any world that does not have her as its center, so she does the most Roman thing (a noble suicide) better than any Roman — better certainly than Antony, who fails beyond all failure in an unsuccessful attempt to stab himself to death.  Caesar’s sendoff of the dead couple employs the language of freedom vs. confines (“no grave upon the earth shall clip in it”), yet the tension between the two is not, as in the other tragedies, the source of disaster.  Here instead we are invited to witness how that tension has faded altogether.  Like the Jesus of Raphael’s Transfiguration, Cleopatra’s way out, her escape from a base and physical word in which she no longer wants any part, is sublimation.  She laments not Antony’s death in the immediate sense so much as she laments the longer and larger death of an age past, when men and women strove with gods and goddesses.  That age had begun dying well before the play even begins, and the world that remains is not for her.  Her attendant Iras confirms, “the bright day is done, and we are for the dark”.  And so it is onwards and upwards for these boss queens.  

I stated earlier that the version of Cleopatra we see towards the end of the play is political to an extent that might at first appear uncharacteristic of her.  It is not that she has fundamentally changed from a lover to a diplomat; it is simply that her new circumstances (mainly, the fact that her lover is out of the picture) give her occasion to bring her political strengths to the forefront.  As we watch this shift we can begin to guess how many other strengths she hides behind how many fronts; again, we may finally appreciate what constitutes an “infinite variety”.  As Rome is terra firma, we are reminded throughout the play, Cleopatra’s Egypt is a land of water, the ceaseless flowing of the Nile, and a context in which transmutability and inconstancy are leveraged as the greatest strengths.

Caesar’s strength is that he is a man of unbreakable stone; Cleopatra’s is that she may melt through the bars of any cage, or ascend as pure vapor when she so pleases.  As she does, we see more clearly than ever how powerfully in control of her self and her situation she is.  For a character in a Shakespeare play, and especially one who dies, she has a tremendous, perhaps an unparalleled, amount of agency.  We easily see how the loss of agency against outside forces leads to what we call tragedy in Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello; in Antony and Cleopatra there is no such loss.  Cleopatra gets to decide how her life ends, she gets to decide how the play ends, and she gets to decide how she will be remembered.  It has been her life’s work to orchestrate all of this, and she remains to the end the composer of her fate/fame.

Of course, by the time we’ve gotten to this point in our thinking, we’ve effectively forgotten that, whether the real Cleopatra orchestrated her own real life or not, we have been reading, or perhaps watching, a version of it in which her agency has been completely forked over to some guy in England sixteen centuries later.  One of Shakespeare’s great strengths, one of his own endless agencies, is that power to grant his fictional characters a depth, indeed at times a variety, which spills far beyond the written pages or the edges of the stage.  As this relates to Antony there’s an irony at play that’s perhaps sad, perhaps hilarious.  In Cleopatra’s brilliant efforts to ensure her own legacy, Antony gets to be a lucky stowaway.  Formerly a great conqueror, reduced to impotence in his final years, it seems he’ll nonetheless get a happy ending as a man remembered once again for great deeds and godlike stature.  The irony I mention is the fact that Shakespeare is effectively undoing this to some extent, upsetting Antony’s heroic posterity with dramatized reminders of his worst failings.  

What we are left with in regards to any such relationship between Shakespeare and his Cleopatra I’d rather leave open ended.  At least one of them has done an incredible job in concluding an essential chapter in world history, and no less the lives of some of its greatest players.  

Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. Yale University Press, 1986.

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