The Bardathon: 27 – Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra has long been something of an enigma. That it is a tragedy there is no doubt – after all, its protagonists die at the end, and that’s tragedy by any definition. But it doesn’t quite feel like a tragedy. There’s none of the terror that Aristotle spoke about, nor even, for that matter, the pity: of course, we don’t exactly cheer when Antony and Cleopatra die, but we can’t help feeling, perhaps, that this world wasn’t quite for them. These people are too used to power to become mere private citizens, but are too hedonistic and too indifferent to how they exercise their power to be good rulers. We may regret the death of a Hamlet or of an Othello, or even a Macbeth, and muse on how it might have been otherwise: we don’t even consider the possibility of an “otherwise” here. Tragedy it may be, we feel, but perhaps it’s better this way.

Shakespeare was, I think, attempting a tragedy entirely different from anything anyone had attempted before: a tragedy without angst, without terror – a tragedy where we may indeed see the tragic protagonists as essentially comic figures. The very first time they appear they are comic: here we have two mighty people – a great queen, and one of the triumvirate that rule the vast Roman Empire – and all we see are a couple of middle-aged people whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears like lovesick teenagers. As the play progresses, it expands opulently: Jonathan Miller likened it to a great Rubens canvas, overflowing with colour and exuberance. And somehow, it refuses to be pinned down. The carefree figures of Antony and Cleopatra we see in the opening scene are immediately contradicted by what follows: we now see Cleopatra deeply insecure and anxious, and Antony guiltily aware of the duty he is neglecting. It is a world in which nothing can keep its shape for long. In most tragedies, the tragic protagonist undergoes a painful journey of self-awareness, but by the end of Antony’s journey, he finds everything so infinitely plastic and mutable that he cannot even begin to understand his own self:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

Is Antony a great soldier, or a pathetic drunkard? Or is he the demi-god that Cleopatra imagines after his death? Is Cleopatra a great queen, or is she a spoilt unthinking brat? Is Octavius a cold, cynical manipulator, or is he a virtuous man who takes his responsibilities seriously? They appear to be all of these – often at the same time. The Antony who has a messenger whipped is the same Antony who magnanimously sends after Enobarbus his treasure. There seems no centre to anything, nothing is stable – everything is in a state of constant flux. This is, in many ways, the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in purely human terms: human beings do not need to metamorphose into trees or birds – merely the fact of their being human ensures the bewildering kaleidoscopic variety. Lear, on seeing poor Tom, had asked if man were no more than this; but this play gives the impression that humankind is so very much more, that one cannot even hope to capture the essence of humanity with its shifting, endless variety.

It is perhaps surprising that at the centre of a play that focuses on the richness of the human spirit are two characters who are essentially quite shallow. Antony has had his share of responsibility, both as a statesman and as a soldier: he now wants no more than to wallow in a life of hedonism with his soulmate, Cleopatra. (His situation is not unlike that of Prince Hal, torn between the weight of his responsibilities, and his desire to lose himself in pleasure; but Hal is, unlike Antony, a young man, and makes a very different choice.) Cleopatra herself is a queen, and has maintained her power by exercising her skills of seduction: but she is now middle-aged, and not as certain of her sexual powers as she used to be; and, for the first time, she is actually in love – although she possibly does not recognise it as such. And she is terrified that her powers are on the wane – that she might lose Antony. Neither is a particularly profound character. And yet, by some alchemy that is beyond my powers of analysis, Shakespeare through these figures convinces us of the sheer plenitude of life, the sheer richness and abundance of humanity. Generally, this play is held to be not quite of the same standard of a Hamlet or an Othello, but it is not to be judged on their terms: judged on its own terms I find this epic drama the most exhilarating of experiences.

And then there’s that final tableau in the monument. What can be said about this scene? Suddenly, a new tonality seems to emerge – a tonality of the greatest gravity and the most solemn beauty. Cleopatra is no more the ever-changeable creature of infinite variety: she is now “constant marble”. But somehow, this new tonality does not seem out of place. It seems a fitting ending to this vast, overflowing drama.

The final scene is possibly the most beautiful that even Shakespeare ever wrote. Iit is tempting to give here some examples of the exquisitely beautiful verse, but where does one start?

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

Or Cleopatra’s final words, the original liebestod:

As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,–

I never tire of this play: it is an audacious achievement. I cannot think of any other work that so reconciles one to being human.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Avi on November 24, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I had always been troubled by Cleopatra’s death scene. How does this shallow, skittish woman face death with such studied dignity? – it all seems very odd. It must be very tempting to sentimentalise the scene, and to play the death of the noble queen, to wallow in the gorgeous flow of verse, rather than to play what Shakespeare actually writes. It was Harriet Walter’s performance that revealed what I’d been missing. The clue is in the line, spoken almost the point of death, ‘…couldst thou speak/ That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass/ Unpolicied!’ Not ethereal or profound, but right in character. She remains the shallow, skittish woman that we have seen through the preceding acts. Her constancy and depth, like Antony’s, are in one thing only: her love.

    Antony’s greatest moment, unforgettable in Patrick Stewart’s performance, was his reaction when told that Cleopatra is not dead, that she was just kidding. Shakespeare does not write a reaction, but that Antony does not complain of her but simply asks to see her is obviously indicative of how to play the scene. Stewart simply laughed; a deep resonant laugh of joy.

    This is a departure from WS’s earlier tragedies in that neither of the principals really develops. We see more sides of them as the play progresses, culminating in Cleopatra dressing up as Isis to kill herself, but the basic motivations of these two don’t change after their first appearance. But even in such shallow people, a range is disclosed that includes the sublime. And that is the miracle of the play.


    • Hello Avi, good to see you’ve found your way here.

      Yes, it is noticeable that at the very end, Antony expresses not the slightest hint of bitterness, or of anger, even though he was raging at Cleopatra only a few minutes earlier: like the cloud Antony comments on earlier in that scene, nothing in this play can keep its shape for very long. Patrick Stewart’s laugh of joy was, I agree, a wonderful moment.

      There is, perhaps, a development of sorts in the characters: for instance, Antony at the start of the play could still hold his own at a summit meeting with Octavius; by the start of Act 4, he is merely ranting and raving about meeting Octavius in single combat. But yes, you’re right – rather than the sort of development we normally see in Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, here, the two protagonists display different aspects of their characters in diffrent scenes, and whatever long-term change they undergo is slight compared to the long-term changes we see in, say, Hamlet or Lear or Othello. Undeniably, a new tonality does emerge in the final scene, but given that this tonality does not seem incongruous , it must have existed – albeit mixed with baser matter – earlier in the play also.

      And as you say, Cleopatra does not really change: rather, that last scene focuses on an aspect of her that had already existed, although not in the foreground. And neither do those aspects that had been in the foreground disappear.

      These characters, though shallow, exhibit a range to them that, at certain points, touches the sublime. That such a range can be found within a single human character Shakespeare found intoxicating. This play, which possibly has the most gorgeous dramatic poetry of any of Shakespeare’s works, communicates for me that sense of intoxication.


  2. “Generally, this play is held to be not quite of the same standard of a Hamlet or an Othello, but it is not to be judged on their terms: judged on its own terms I find this epic drama the most exhilarating of experiences.”
    Could you explain?


    • This is a very old post, and had I written it more recently, I would have expanded on this somewhat.
      I do feel Antony & Cleopatra is a very different kind of play from the great tragedies that had preceded it. It ranges far more widely both in time and in space, and the direction of its dramatic is not apparent till we get to the later acts. It has a far bigger cast of characters, many of whom can barely even be called “peripheral”. It has more scenes, and often, much shorter scenes, cross-cutting from one to another almost in a manner that anticipates cinema. And, above all, I think, there is a surprising lack of angst. Or even of any great sense of loss. Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragic protagonists, Antony and Cleopatra don’t arrive at any self-knowledge by the end: the only awareness that Antony arrives at is that he doesn’t know himself, and never has done; and Cleopatra, by the end, mythologises herself. All this makes this a very different kind of play from Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. The criteria of excellence we use to judge these earlier plays don’t seem appropriate here.


      • That makes sense.
        I wonder if that’s the reason I didn’t like it as much as some other tragedies. The lack of angst or any great sense of loss, I mean.
        I’m still thinking about this passage in the play:

        Sometimes I really wanna know what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote certain lines, and it’s maddening that we can never know.

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