Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Week 13, Antony and Cleopatra

Notes on Antony and Cleopatra.

Act 1, Scenes 1-2.

Antony and Cleopatra are introduced first by Antony’s friends, but almost at once we hear a dialogue between the two lovers. What is their image at this early point? How does the dialogue and presentation of Antony capture the dual impulse that runs through the man’s character? He is both a Roman and a man of the East. Antony is clearly aware of Cleopatra’s influence on him, and admires her whimsicality, excess, and sense for the absolutism of the dilatory moment as opposed to Roman thoughtfulness and adherence to necessity. Enobarbus is just as aware, and thinks women should not be so highly esteemed in proximity to great political and military matters. Antony’s response to his wife’s death is characteristically complex in that he’s riven by genuine sympathy and yet realizes that he had, after all, more or less wished this on her and that he is liberated.

Act 1, Scene 3.

Cleopatra explains how she manipulates Antony, admitting this even in part while talking to him. She calls him a dissembler and an actor when it comes to loyalty. To what extent does Cleopatra know how to speak the language of Roman honor? Around line 97, she takes on the strength to speak this language: “Your honor calls you hence,” she says to Antony, and to some extent seems actually to mean it: it’s time to “let Antony be Antony.”

Act 1, Scene 4.

Here and elsewhere, we should attend to Caesar’s (Octavius’) view of Antony’s conduct in the East. Caesar has complaints about Antony’s unseemly behavior, and suggests that he, at least (young as he is), knows how to wield power. Around line 55 and following, Caesar mentions Antony’s longstanding reputation for valor, and he feels that this reputation will shame him into returning to the field alongside Caesar. Antony’s admission of “neglect” doesn’t go over well with Caesar the Corporation Man, whose great model is Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.

Act 1, Scene 5.

We see another side of Cleopatra here, the one that is truly in love with Antony. This is not simply a political alliance. Cleopatra’s motives may be complex, but her connection with Antony is one of the world’s grandest tragic loves. She muses fondly about Antony, and mentions her earlier affair with Julius Caesar. She has an extravagant sense of Antony’s worth, one that fits his sense of himself and that he repays with similar extravagance towards her. We may not see this Antony in action through most of the play, but the mutual representation is something that bonds them together.

Act 2, Scene 1.

The son of Pompey thinks the people love him, while he’s convinced that Caesar wins no hearts with his soulless efficiency and that Antony is wasting his strength with Cleopatra in Egypt.

Act 2, Scene 2.

Caesar and Antony confront each other, each bringing his own grievances and assumptions to the table. Agrippa helps resolve the tension between them, at least for the present, by proposing a match between Caesar’s sister Octavia and Antony. Dynastic obligation will bring these two men of very different character together. Enobarbus, around line 174 and following, talks with Agrippa and Maecenas, offering us a new image of the famous Cleopatra. He describes her almost as a goddess, as a woman beyond description (197-98). He also mentions how savvy she is, how well she plays her charms to her advantage. Cleopatra, he knows, exercises a strong hold over Antony’s imagination and passions. She instills a kind of desire that doesn’t lead to satiation (235ff), and sanctifies things that would otherwise be vile, beyond the strict Roman sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness. That capacity is a big part of her attraction—Cleopatra is charismatic and “larger than life.”

Act 2, Scene 3.

Antony speaks to a soothsayer, who tells him to stay away from Caesar because this opponent is bound to rise higher than Antony. Caesar is almost as much an “evil genius” for Antony as Julius Caesar was for Brutus on the plain at Philippi; in his presence, the great Roman is afraid, unmanned. Antony knows this, and says that the very dice obey Caesar—fortune seems to be on the younger man’s side, even though Antony is more of a “ladies’ man” and so ought to be on better terms with Lady Fortune. So Antony resolves to return to the East, where, he says, “my pleasure lies.”

Act 2, Scenes 4-5.

In the fifth scene, Cleopatra has fun at Antony’s expense, saying that he’s like a great fish she has caught. She seems to delight in stealing from him his masculine symbolic power (the sword with which he earned victory against the conspirators who killed his friend Julius) and donning it herself. She learns around line 55 that Antony will marry Octavia, and this causes her to strike the messenger. Pompeius makes a deal with Caesar in which he’s to take Sicily and Sardinia, but rid the seas of piracy and send wheat to Rome. He reconciles with Caesar and Antony. Enobarbus shrewdly observes that this fellow has thrown away his future, and he says further that the marriage with Octavia is purely a matter of convenience—Antony’s heart is in Egypt with Cleopatra, and that is where he will return.

Act 2, Scenes 6-7.

In the seventh scene, the weakest member of the second triumvirate (Octavian, Antony, and Marcus Lepidus, 43-31 BCE; the first triumvirate had consisted of Julius Caesar, Gnaius Pompeius, and Marcus Crassus from 60-53 BCE) is made drunk, and Antony makes sport of him by answering his silly questions about crocodiles with ludicrous tautologies. Sextus Pompeius shows himself to be so indebted to the concept of Roman honor that it prevents him from taking Menas’ advice—why not simply invite the triumvirs on board his ship and kill them? Pompeius says that the man ought to have done this without telling him about it. Menas loses faith in Pompeius because of this rigidity—such an opportunity, he knows, will not come again. Scene 7 shows the triumvirs’ attitude towards drinking. As the old saying goes, in vino veritas. We find out that Lepidus can’t hold his liquor (he lacks self-mastery, and is a follower, not a leader); Antony bows to nobody as a wassailer; and Caesar would just as well stay sober. It’s obvious that he is determined to keep his wits about him, more responsible in his relationship to power than Antony. Judgments are being made in this scene about who is a “real Roman” and who is most likely to succeed.

We have seen how other Romans accuse Antony of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” to adapt a line from the 1960’s drug guru Timothy Leary. At this point in the play, Antony seems the strong master of revels; he seems beyond Roman austerity and severity. In his openness to experience, Antony is more of an Odyssean Greek than a Roman. But as T. S. Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (to paraphrase), “only those who have a personality know what it is to want to escape from it.”

Act 3, Scene 1.

We might take the first few scenes as a commentary on Roman values. Ventidius in Syria has returned in triumph, having defeated the Parthians who had done so much harm to Roman armies. But he doesn’t pursue the Parthians simply because doing so would mean upstaging his commanding officer, Antony.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Octavia weeps, and Caesar is sad at parting. Enobarbus seems to undercut the notion put forth by Agrippa that Antony wept at the death of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare seems concerned to remind us that we are dealing with historical events that have become shaded over with mythology, and the view he prefers at some points is the “practical Roman” perspective we find in Agrippa’s clear-eyed statements.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Cleopatra finds out that Octavia isn’t as beautiful as she, and now rewards the messenger she had earlier struck.

Act 3, Scene 4.

War is brewing between Caesar and Antony. Antony agrees that she might be helpful as a go-between, and he seems genuine in his desire that she should follow her heart in choosing sides, if that should become necessary.

Act 3, Scene 5.

Lepidus and Caesar have warred with Pompeius, and then Caesar has arrested Lepidus. Caesar is outraged when Antony and Cleopatra crown themselves in Asiatic splendor. The Roman people already know of this, says Caesar, who also declares himself annoyed that Octavia has come to visit him without the appropriate ceremony. Well, he had agreed to the match readily enough in spite of his reservations about Antony’s character. Now he invites her to stay on his side, suggesting that Antony has abused and betrayed her.

Act 3, Scenes 6-7.

In the seventh scene, Enobarbus tells Cleopatra to stay out of the war, and she’s insulted at the suggestion. She will take part in Antony’s wars, declaring herself “the president of my kingdom.” She is a ruler and doesn’t accept the role of a “weak woman.” Antony now makes the disastrous decision to fight Caesar by sea because the latter has dared him to do so. Enobarbus is aghast at this “un-Roman” impracticality, at this preference for chance and hazard instead of security. Perhaps Antony is foolhardy, but he’s also honorable and noble; power sits lightly upon Antony’s shoulders. The hair of wise and responsible rulers turns gray quickly, but one senses that isn’t likely to happen to Mark Antony. He’s too reckless to be weighed down by the demands of power, and prefers an unstable alliance between honor and hazard to a more stable one of the sort Enobarbus would counsel, and Caesar would certainly maintain. At the end of the scene, Antony seems very surprised at just how briskly Caesar’s forces are moving into position. The men around Antony (Canidius in particular) feel that since he’s led by a woman, so are they.

Act 3, Scenes 8-10.

Caesar and Antony strategize; the former is all about maintaining control over events. By the tenth scene, we hear that the Egyptian fleet has cut and run; Scarus laments that Antony’s Romans have “kissed away kingdoms.” The charge is that Antony is irresponsible in his deployment of military power. He has allowed his love of Cleopatra to blind him to sound counsel. Incredibly, he has followed Cleopatra’s shameful retreat at the first sign of danger. Canidius decides that he might as well go over to Caesar since Antony has lost control over his own destiny. Enobarbus knows what Canidius knows, but still can’t bring himself to abandon his commander.

Act 3, Scene 11.

Antony is horrified—”I have fled myself,” he says, and knows that he has thrown everything he worked for away. What makes the situation even more intolerable is Caesar’s relative lack of martial skill and experience; Antony reminds us that it was he who killed his friend Julius’ assassins while the fledgling stood by. Antony is the one who has been a world-historical actor, and now his star is eclipsed by a lesser man, at least in his view. Antony is at first furious with Cleopatra, but reconciles with her almost immediately. When she asks pardon, he grants it, considering himself well repaid with a kiss. He evidently places her above victory on the battlefield.

Act 3, Scene 12.

Antony sends his schoolmaster to treat with Caesar. Cleopatra says she will submit to Caesar, who orders that the Queen be comforted and promised all she wants, so long as she either exiles or kills Antony. He supposes this shift will work because women, as far as he is concerned, are infinitely malleable under the pressure of circumstance.

Act 3, Scene 13.

Enobarbus won’t blame Cleopatra. He says Antony has made his will “lord of his reason.” Antony challenges Caesar to single combat, which is absolutely ridiculous. Enobarbus is stunned, and feels that Antony has been entirely bereft of sound judgment. Enobarbus continues to mull his relationship with Antony; he thinks his loyalty will earn him a place in the story books, so to speak: by sticking with Antony, he’ll “conquer” the man who defeated that noble Roman. This might be labeled a metadramatic concern because Shakespeare himself is clearly interested in how legends become enmeshed with history—much of this play (to borrow a phrase from the New Historians) is about a kind of “self-fashioning” that, if successful, becomes the narrative by which we know the boldest among the ancients. Even in Antony and Cleopatra’s own time, mythmaking was at work, and so were its critics.

Around line 55, Cleopatra seems to be going along with Caesar’s program, while her lover is still saying “I am Antony yet.” He wants to re-embrace his identity as a valorous Roman commander, and orders Caesar’s messenger soundly whipped. Around line 110, his anger again turns towards Cleopatra, whom he accuses of latching onto and manipulating famous Roman men like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and himself to enhance her own power, which rests on the different and most un-Roman basis of alliance with divine splendor and awe. Cleopatra is the leader of an ancient personality cult, and while her stylistic affinity with Antony’s grandiose dimension is obvious, he now professes to find the whole affair disgusting. Above all, he says, Cleopatra lacks “temperance.” But Antony’s anger also rages at Caesar for “harping on what I am, not what he knew I was.” Antony supposes that the reputation he has justly won entitles him to the continued respect and esteem of those who have overcome him. The scene’s conclusion shows Antony reconciling yet again with Cleopatra (who after all seems to represent a tendency within him), and regains his composure. He calls for a night of drinking and celebration on the eve of the final battle to recover his lost glory. He may yet win at Alexandria. This recovery is the last straw for Enobarbus—his captain’s “valor preys on reason,” and it’s time to desert him at the earliest opportunity.

Act 4, Scenes 1-6.

These brief scenes convey the contrasting attitudes and reactions on the part of Antony and Caesar to towards the coming battle. Antony is at times elegiac in tone—”Perchance tomorrow you’ll serve another master,” he tells his men, to the dismay of Enobarbus. In the third scene, a soldier takes a noise to be Hercules abandoning Antony. In the fourth scene, Antony seems resolute—he will bring the willing to the battle. In Scene 5, he learns that Enobarbus has deserted him, and realizes that his “fortunes have corrupted honest men.” In Scene 6, Caesar declares that “the time of universal peace is near,” yet without compunction he also betrays the true nature of this “new world order”: he advises his lieutenant to place units recently revolted from Antony at the forefront, so that in the first rounds of the battle, Antony will be killing his own men. Enobarbus has now come to realize that he has destroyed his self-image in abandoning Antony, and when the latter generously sends him his treasure from camp, the desolation of Enobarbus is complete. He resolves to die in the nearest ditch.

Act 4, Scenes 7-8.

So far, Antony’s desperate gambit shows signs of success.

Act 4, Scene 9.

Enobarbus dies, with Antony’s name the last word on his lips.

Act 4, Scenes 10-12.

Caesar will fight Antony on land, knowing that the man has put too much energy and time into his fleet. For the second time, the fleet deserts Antony, even going over to Caesar’s side. Upon seeing this betrayal, Antony declares Cleopatra a “triple-turned whore.”

Act 4, Scene 13.

Charmian advises Cleopatra to shut herself up in a monument, and send word of her death. The Queen agrees.

Act 4, Scene 14.

Antony continues to lament what he considers Cleopatra’s betrayal, admitting that he “made these wars” for no one but her. When he hears that she has supposedly committed suicide, however, he is again instantly reconciled. She has shown him the way in conquering herself, he thinks, and thereupon makes a botched attempt to fall on his sword after his servant Eros commits suicide rather than assist his master in dying. Nobody will help him finish the job, and at lines 112-13, Decretas even takes his sword as a token with which to ingratiate himself with Caesar.

Act 4, Scene 15.

Antony and Cleopatra are together for one final scene, and when he tries to get her to seek safety and honor in Caesar, she bravely points out that “honor” and “safety” don’t go together. That has long been the creed Antony has followed, for better or for worse. Antony falls back on the classical notion that glory is a matter of what your peers and descendants think of you. His wretched present, he trusts, will not blot out the glorious remembrance he has earned by his brave deeds in the past. Cleopatra says she, too, will die “in the high Roman fashion,” as a hero should.

Act 5, Scene 1.

When Decretas informs Caesar that Antony is dead, he seems genuinely saddened. Antony lived prodigiously, and yet his passing has been noted as if it were a thing of nothing, no ceremony. Caesar may not be much of a pageantry promoter, but he shows some regard for the rites due to honor. His sense of loss seems sincere, and he regrets what his need to maintain and increase his power has “forced” him to do. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that he wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat. Caesar serves political expediency as his master, but this doesn’t give us the right to say he’s a mere hypocrite: it is not unreasonable to suggest that his strength consists partly in the attitude he takes up towards what his station as a public man leads him to do. His ruthless actions are taken in the name of “universal peace” and the greater glory of Rome. He sometimes deceives others about the nature of what he does, but he doesn’t deceive himself about the disjunction between his ideals and his deeds. At line 61-62, we see how he treats Cleopatra: he bids Proculeius to treat the Queen kindly and make her what promises he finds suitable, but this is only a shift to bring her in triumph to Rome, where she will be an object of mockery for the rabble.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Cleopatra is refashioning herself as heroic in the Roman style, as one determined to take her own life. We might suppose this is a matter of adopting a “style”; but then, Cleopatra takes style quite seriously, and her Pharaonic self-fashioning is no light matter. It wouldn’t be right to take that quality away from her. She is surrounded by Caesar’s soldiers, and now determines that she will not become the sport of the vulgar in Rome. From line 76 onwards, she refashions and aggrandizes Antony, saying, “I dreamt there was an emperor,” etc. Dolabella plays an honorable role, forewarning Cleopatra of the fate that awaits her in only three days. Caesar enters and plays both gracious conqueror and vicious threatener of Cleopatra’s progeny, if she should follow Antony’s self-destructive course. When Seleucis betrays her over her holding back some of her treasure from Caesar, she is shocked, which reaction suggests that she still doesn’t understand the dynamics of power: people obey those in whom they find real, actionable strength; they don’t long obey those who have only majesty and divine pomp to back their rule. She resents being “worded” by Caesar, and loathes the prospect of “some squeaking Cleopatra boy[ing] my greatness, in the posture of a whore.” She has always been an actor of sorts, but in her own proper sphere as Egyptian Queen, her “acting” the part of a goddess had been correlated with the exercise of power. But in Rome, what had been world-historical drama will be reduced to an entertaining farce for the multitude.

Around line 228, Cleopatra declares there will be a final meeting with Antony in death, one she will achieve by casting off the supposed weakness of her sex. And then comes the Clown, with his prayer that she may find “joy of the worm” or serpent he has brought her. It’s worth asking why Shakespeare has chosen to present Cleopatra with her death in this semi-comic, bizarre rustic. Caesar, whom Cleopatra now considers “an unpolicied ass” for allowing her to make away with herself, enters the scene after her death and declares it noble and an act of loyalty to Antony. He agrees to bury her next to Antony, apparently recognizing the high tragedy of their doomed love match, the “pity” of which equals the “glory” of his current status as military victor and his future as Rome’s sole ruler. There’s dignity in sublime failure, it seems, as well as in the establishment of peace and long-continued rule. Rome, Incorporated will have its shiny new CEO, and for Augustus Caesar, apotheosis to heaven can wait. Both Antony and Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar are great in their respective ways, but the former are crushed by the modern world in which Octavius moves more deftly, if not with the same tragic glory.

Antony and Cleopatra’s manner of dying, and Caesar’s of living and governing, show a clash of value systems, and a fissure in the concept of Romanness. I don’t think the play condemns either system, although it shows the consequences and historical import of both. We should bear in mind the strangeness of the final two acts’ tragic arc: Antony’s sudden condemnations and reconciliations, and Cleopatra’s dissembling and final adoption (at least in part) of Roman heroism. Cleopatra’s initial “fake” suicide teaches Antony to do the right thing in earnest. Moreover, Antony’s real suicide leads Cleopatra to marry her desire to avoid public humiliation with a desire to exit the world’s stage like the hybrid Egyptian Queen / Antique Roman she has become.

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