In digesting this rather long play (3573 lines, from around 1606) I am trying to figure out what most makes it a tragedy. Possibly the (all too common) dismal portrayal of a leading female character; possibly the seeming lack of lesson learned or dawning of a new day that somewhat salvages many of the other tragedies in the end. Or possibly the fact that although Antony and Cleopatra’s is touted as one of the greatest loves of all time I actually see very little true love anywhere in the play.
I don’t know if Shakespeare was a misogynist, but one one of the things that strikes me strongly is his wholly unflattering characterization of Cleopatra (he’s not much kinder to many of his female leads) — especially in contrast with Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life. While I understand that Shakespeare might have been aiming more for entertainment value than historical accuracy, he need not have left her so completely bereft of redeeming qualities. In Antony & Cleopatra she is an anxious, impatient, unfocused, lascivious, overreactive, harsh, melodramatic, disloyal, violent, mean, shrewish, self-centered, fickle and histrionic harlot. And that’s in Act I.
Thrice she nearly “shoots the messengers” who bring tidings not to her liking (II,v,64-5). She grills them about her “rival,” Antony’s new wife Octavia (Caesar’s sister – a marriage created clearly of nothing but political convenience which hardly cements their relationship as intended) like a champion middle school mean girl. And she stalks Antony with missives equivalent to a text message barrage as soon as he’s out of her sight. She shifts her allegiances as often as the tides on the Nile turn, to suit her own purposes in the moment. Where is the regal bearing, dignity, confidence and shrewd planning of a queen? Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood Cleopatra sprung directly from these pages, and not from Schiff’s.
She is both Mary Magdalene and Judas to Antony’s Jesus. Friends, Romans, and countrymen view her as an emasculating, king-conquering strumpet. But she hasn’t either Marys’ loyalty or compassion. After what amounts to Antony’s Last Supper, she doesn’t hesitate to betray him to save herself. Much more Judas than Mary in the end.
But nor do the men shine with valor and insight. While they may not be as tempestuous and volatile in their demeanor as Cleopatra, they lack qualities one would hope to find in empire-building leaders. Pompey, Ocatvius Caesar (Julius’s adopted son) and Antony negotiate, trust, and then betray each other throughout the play. They seem unpossessed of minds for strategy, planning or foresight. They forgive, forget, turn the other cheek far too quickly, and then pillage and plunder their allies and rivals alike. Frankly, they are most often motivated by their swords and their penises, which, in Shakespeare, are often one in the same.
Cleopatra boasts of her conquest of Antony: “I drunk him to his bed;/Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst/I wore his sword Philippan.” (II,iii, 21-3), and Antony tells her “How much you were my conqueror, and that/My sword, made weak by my affection, would/Obey it on all cause.” (III,xi,67-9), and takes his leave from her “Now like a man of steel”(IV,iv,33). Finally, as he dies, Cleo wails and laments that “The soldier’s pole is fall’n!” (IV,xv,64). I point out all these ribald references – and many more abound – because they are plentiful and in stark contrast to the dearth of homages or even nods to gods, country, or constituents. For the men in Antony and Cleopatra, it’s all about who has the biggest…. territory.
In many of the other tragedies, those characters still standing after they wade through piles of corpses sacrificed to further the plot and some bigger point, emerge bruised but wiser. But I see no epiphanies in Antony and Cleopatra; not even a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Their deaths echo those of Romeo and Juliet – another pair of great lovers – but with some significant differences. In Romeo and Juliet, deep love triumphs and is blind to class, caste and family feuds. The survivors vow to mend their warring ways in the wake of the youths’ tragic death.
Not so here. Cleopatra sends fake word of her death via one of her messengers (who is probably very relieved to get away from her given her harsh treatment of messengers in general) to Antony as a test. Let’s see how much he loves me! What will he do if he thinks I’m dead! It’s a taunt. In his despair over lost love (??) and kingdom, he finally manages to fall on his own sword (there it is again) after his subordinate won’t run him through with it. But (like in Monty Python’s Holy Grail), he’s not dead yet! They haul his body over to Cleopatra’s monument and refuge and dump it at her feet where he finally succumbs. Yet she does not die, Juliet-like, by her own hand to escape the unbearable grief of lost love. She waits to see what Octavius Caesar plans to do with her, and only applies the asps to her breast to avoid him parading her through the streets of Rome as so much war booty. Vanity and pride, it seems, not true love, finally do her in.
Unlike in Lear, Hamlet, MacBeth or many of the other tragedies, no one seems much wiser for the mayhem. Caesar, despite having suffered repeated betrayals by Pompey, Antony and Cleopatra, deifies Antony after his death (drawing another parallel between him and Jesus), and treats Cleopatra’s trespasses “As things done by chance.” (V,ii,119) He grants her clemency with a light wag of his finger cautioning her, as one would a small child, to behave.
On finding Cleopatra dead, Caesar does not wax poetic; nor does he contemplate the destiny of Egypt, Rome, the military, politics,or the world… No. He does a post-mortem autopsy on her corpse: “If they had swallowed poison,’twould appear/By external swelling” (V,ii,345-6). In his final speech he looks not to the future or to his empire, but examines the motives for her suicide: “her physician tells me/She hath pursu’d conclusion infinite/of easy ways to die.” (V,ii,354-6)
In the end, all eyes are on Antony and Cleopatra, just as they’d have wished.
I recently heard news of the loss of two young men; both college juniors, in very different circumstances, just a few weeks apart. It’s unnerving, unimaginable, and heart-wrenching. We all struggle to make sense of these tragedies. Perhaps, though, there is simply no sense to be made.
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