By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

8. Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra (Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series)Some selected criticisms of the play:

From the introduction to the first Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, by R.H. Case (1906):
I retain some impression that Antony and Cleopatra  was rather hastily written, with as much advantageous as injurious result if this had anything to do with the daring language and treatment, the "happy valiance" that Coleridge admired. Haste may have caused some peculiarities of construction, and caused the ready utilization of similar thoughts and illustrations when they cropped up in parallel cases: the number of reminiscences in Antony and Cleopatra has been noted and is sometimes put down to profound art. By supposing haste also, we may account for the occasional occurrence of common-place exaggeration. 
It's true: There are a lot of rough patches in the play, sometimes producing a sense of clutter. For example, the Soldier who warns Antony against fighting at sea seems to be the same character who later turns up as Scarus. And Alexas disappears from the play -- Antony explains that Caesar had him hanged -- making it necessary for Shakespeare to introduce Diomedes and then later an anonymous Egyptian as Cleopatra's envoy. Shakespeare is carefully following Plutarch here when he doesn't really need to -- he could have ignored Plutarch and retained Alexas throughout. But to ascribe this to "hasty writing," as Case does, somewhat misses the point that the printed text was based on what the Folio editors had to hand. If they had had a later version of the play, such as a prompter's copy, they might have had found it cleaned up for performance. As for "the occasional occurrence of common-place exaggeration," I'm not quite sure what Case means. Is he, for example, objecting to the extravagance of language that later critics praised?

From The Oxford Shakespeare
In Antony and Cleopatra the classical restraint of Julius Caesar gives way to a fine excess of language, of dramatic action, and of individual behaviour. The style is hyperbolical, overflowing the measure of the iambic pentameter. The action is amazingly fluid, shifting with an ease and rapidity that caused bewilderment to ages unfamiliar wih the conventions of Shakespeare's theatre. And the characterization is correspondingly extravagant, delighting in the quirks of individual behaviour, above all in the paradoxes and inconsistencies of the Egyptian queen who contains within herself the capacity for every extreme of human behaviour, from vanity, meanness, and frivolity to the sublime self-transcendence with which she faces and embraces death.
The Oxford is uncontroversial here, embracing the prevailing contemporary view, articulated also in John Wilders's introduction to the Arden edition, of both the extravagance of the play's language and the fluidity of the motion from scene to scene -- as long as it's not encumbered by elaborate staging.  

From Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate:
Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Epicurean tragedy, takes the idea of the shifting self to an extreme of dissolution. Its action sprawls around the Mediterranean world as it gives historical form to the mythical encounter between Venus (the principle of love) and Mars (the god of war).  The play is structured upon a series of oppositions: between female and male, desire and duty, the bed and the battlefield, age and youth, Stoicism and Epicureanism, and above all Egypt and Rome.....

Against the grain of the Renaissance idealization of the age of Augustus, Antony and Cleopatra depicts Octavius as a mealy-mouthed pragmatist. The play is concerned less with the seismic shift from republic to empire than with the transformation of Mark Antony from military leader to slave of sexual desire.... To Roman eyes, eros renders Antony undignified to the point of risibility, but the sweep of the play's poetic language, down to its closing speech ("No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous"), celebrates the fame of the lovers, whose imagined erotic union in death is symbolic of cosmic harmony. Octavius himself has to admit that the dead Cleopatra looks as if "she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace": "toil" is sweatily sexual, but "grace" suggests that even the most Roman character of them all is now seeing Antony and Cleopatra as something other than self-deluding dotards. The aura of Cleopatra's last speech is still hanging in the air; the power of the poetic language has been such that a sensitive listener will half-believe that Cleopatra has left her baser elements and become all "fire and air." She is, as Charmian so superbly puts it, "A lass unparalleled":  just one of the girls, but also the unique queen and serpent, embodiment of the Nile's fertility and the heat of life itself....

[T]he historical structure of Plutarch's narratives is always premised on the lives of his male heroes. Shakespeare's play alters this focus to emphasize the death of the woman, not that of the warrior, as the climax of the story.... In tone and language Antony and Cleopatra may be described as a "feminized" classical tragedy: Egyptian cookery, luxurious daybeds, and a billiard-playing eunuch contrast with the rigors of Roman architecture and senatorial business.

At the end of the drama, young Octavius Caesar is left in sole charge of the empire. He will become Augustus, who was regarded as the embodiment of enlightened imperialism -- a model for the ambitions of Shakespeare's patron, King James. But all the poetry of the play has been on the Egyptian, the Epicurean side....

Shakespeare ... was perpetually both inside and outside the action, both an emotionally involved participant in the world he created and a wryly detached commentator upon it. So he invented a new character, Enobarbus,  the only major player in the story who is absent from the historical source. Enobarbus embodies the pliable self recommended by Epicurus and Montaigne, only to recognize, tragically, that pliability eventually leaves him with nothing but death. He berates himself for his abnegation of that cardinal Epicurean virtue, friendship. Intelligent, funny, at once companionable and guardedly isolated, full of understanding for womn but most comfortable among men (there is a homoerotic frisson to his bond with Menas and his rivalry with Agrippa), clinically analytical in his assessment of others but full of sorrow and shame when his reason overrides his loyalty and leads him to desert his friend and master, Enobarbus might just be the closest Shakespeare came to a portrait of his own mind. 
I find all of this unexceptionable.

From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):
Antony's ... lack of honor in public life ... partly results from the decadent political atmosphere in which he has to forge his career. It is a world in which no loyalties, save those of self-interest, prevail. Even the Roman generals on the frontiers of the empire plan their campaigns less to meet the thrusts of the enemy than to insure their political survival in the maze of conflicting selfish ambitions in which they must move. Ventidius, for example, refuses to press his victory over the Parthians to complete triumph for fear of awakening the envy of his superior officers.

This moral decay is most striking in Enobarbus' tragedy. He is a scoffing, realistic commentator, yet Shakespeare puts his qualities in the service of his extraordinary loyalty. His desertion to the enemy destroys him, for in deserting his master he demolishes the cornerstone of his nature, his devotion to Antony. Nothing is now left for him but a ditch wherein to die....

Cleopatra's ... death is a coda to Antony's tragedy. It does not ennoble her; it merely offers her a transcendent opportunity of exhibiting the artful self-indulgent creature that she has always been. Her death is not, like Antony's, heroic. She is merely a lovely object that Antony's fall topples to ruin with  him.
--Oscar James Campbell
This dismissal of Cleopatra's death as unheroic seems to me entirely wrong-headed, especially since Shakespeare concludes the play with her death as a thwarting of Caesar's triumph. Moreover, the manner of Antony's death is far less "heroic" than that of Cleopatra: He botches his suicide and finally has to be hauled as a bleeding carcass to the top of the monument. The comment on the "decadent political atmosphere" in which the imperial generals operate is a shrewd one, however.

This Play keeps curiosity always busy, and the passions always interested. The continual hurry of the action, the variety of incidents, and the quick succession of one personage to another, call the mind forward without intermission from the first Act to the last. But the power of delighting is derived principally from the frequent changes of the scene; for, except the feminine arts, some of which are too low, which distinguish Cleopatra, no character is very strongly discriminated.

... The events, of which the principal are described according to history, are prodeuced without any art of connection or care of disposition. 
--Samuel Johnson (1765)
Not one of Dr. Johnson's more perceptive critiques, though it's easy to see why he might be turned off by a sprawling play with extravagant language.

This play should be perused in mental contrast with Romeo and Juliet; -- as the love of passion and appetite opposed to the love of affection and instinct. But the art displayed in the character of Cleopatra is profound in this, especially, that the sense of criminality in her passion is lessened by our insight into its depth and energy, at the very moment that we cannot but perceive that the passion itself springs out of the habitual craving of a licentious nature, and that it is supported and reinforced by voluntary stimulus and sought-for associations, instead of blossoming out of spontaneous emotion.

But of all perhaps of Shakespeare's plays the most wonderful is the Antony and Cleopatra. [There are] scarcely any in which he has followed history more minutely, and yet few even of his own in which he impresses the notion of giant strength so much, perhaps none in which he impresses it more strongly. This [is] owing to the manner in which it is sustained throughout -- that he lives in and through the play -- to the numerous momentary flashes of nature counteracting the historic abstraction, in which take as a specimen the [death of Cleopatra].
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge (c. 1819)
To say that I don't quite get what Coleridge is saying here is to put it mildly, though  it's worth remembering that his comments on Shakespeare are derived from notes for lectures -- either his own or his auditors. He seems to feel compelled to condemn Cleopatra for "criminality" and licentiousness, and for the "habitual" nature of her passion and its lack of spontaneity, while at the same time praising its "depth and energy." But no, I can't make total sense of the comment. Which is why it's surprising to find him praising not only the play but also the way in which Cleopatra's death contains "flashes of nature."

What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction -- its consistent inconsistency, if I may use such an expression -- which renders it quite impossible to reduce it to any elementary principles. It will, perhaps, be found, on the whole, that vanity and the love of power predominate; but I dare not say it is so, for these qualities and a hundred others mingle into each other, and shift, and change, and glance away, like the colors in a peacock's train.
--Anna Brownell Jameson (1832)
Sometimes, when critics really don't have anything precise to say, they resort to a kind of paraphrase. All Jameson is doing here is restating Enobarbus's speech on Cleopatra's "infinite variety" in other (and less successful) words.

Shakespeare has elsewhere given us in ideal incarnation the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter, the perfect mistress, or the perfect maiden: here only once he has given us the perfect and the everlasting woman.
--Algernon Charles Swinburne (1880)
The conclusion to Swinburne's paean to Cleopatra is really all you need to read of it, although I would like to know which of Shakespeare's characters fall into those other categories of perfection. What we admire today in Shakespeare's characters is their humanity, not their perfection.

Why is it that, although we close the book in a triumph which is more than reconciliation, this is mingled, as we look back on the story, with a sadness so peculiar, almost the sadness of disenchantment? Is it that, when the glow has faded, Cleopatra's ecstasy comes to appear, I would not say factitious, but an effort strained and produgious as well as glorious, not, like Othello's last speech, the final expression of character, of thoughts and emotions, which have dominated a whole life? ... In Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, though in a sense we accept the deaths of hero and heroine, we feel a keen sorrow.... Here we can hardly do that.... It is better for the world's sake, and not less for their own, that they should fail and die.... [W]e do not mourn, as we mourn for the love of Romeo or Othello, that a thing so bright and good should die. And the fact that we mourn so little saddens us.   

A comparison of Shakespearean tragedies seems to prove that the tragic emotions are stirred in the fullest possible measure only when such beauty or nobility of character is displayed as commands unreserved admiration or love; or when, in default of this, the forces which move the agents, and the conflict which results from these forces, attain a terrifying and overwhelming power.... Antony and Cleopatra, though a great tragedy, ... does not attempt to satisfy these conditions.... It attempts something different, and succeeds as triumphantly as Othello itself. In doing so it gives us what no other tragedy can give, and it leaves us, no less than any other, lost in astonishment at the powers which created it.
--A.C. Bradley (1909)
The curious emptiness of this criticism results from Bradley's assertion that "we" don't feel something at the end of Antony and Cleopatra, when all along he simply means that he doesn't feel it. His subsequent effort at praising the play for doing "something different" falls flat largely because Shakespeare wasn't conscious of trying to make his play fit some pre-conceived notion of "Shakespearean tragedy" and therefore can't be judged by his failure to do so.

The whole play should be read with the opposition of Egyptian and Roman values in mind. First, then, Egypt and Rome stand respectively for love and duty, or for pleasure and duty, or even love-pleasure and duty....

Antony chose Egypt, intuition, the life of the spontaneous affections, with its moral and aesthetic corollaries; of all which Cleopatra is the focus and symbol.... In Cleopatra [Shakespeare] presents the mystery of woman, the mystery of sensuality, an exploration of the hidden energies of life, and a suggestion of its goal. Intuition or spontaneous feeling is opposed to practical wisdom, generosity to prudence, love to duty, the private affections to public service; and the former in each instance is preferred.... [T]he Egyptian values are affirmative; the Roman, negative or restrictive: the good life may be built upon the Egyptian, but not upon the Roman. It is a way of saying that the strong sinner may enter heaven before the prudential legislator. In Antony and Cleopatra the strong sinners meet their purgatory here.... Antony's purgatory lies in military failure and a bungled suicide prompted by the false report of Cleopatra's death; Cleopatra's in surviving Antony, and in the thought of a Roman triumph. In the end the better Roman qualities are needed to transmute the Egyptian into eternal validity.
--S.L. Bethell (1944)
Fortunately, the play doesn't work out this conflict of values quite so neatly or mechanically as Bethell does.

What is celebrated in Antony and Cleopatra is the passionate surrender of an illicit love, the victory of this love over practical, political and moral concerns, and the final superiority of the suicidal lovers over circumstance. That is a crudely one-sided statement which makes the play as plainly immoral as it can be made.... There is no escaping the fact that the poetic splendor of this play, and in particular or its concluding scenes, is something which exists in closest juncture with the acts of suicide and the whole glorified story of passion. The poetic values are strictly dependent -- if not upon the immorality as such -- yet upon the immoral acts. Even though, or rather because, the play pleads for certain evil choices, it presents these choices in all their mature interest and capacity to arouse human sympathy. The motives are wrong, but they are not base, silly, or degenerate. They are not lacking in the positive being of deep and complex human desire. It is not possible to despise Antony and Cleopatra. If one will employ the classic concept of  "imitation," the play imitates or presents the reasons for sin, a mature and richly human state of sin.
--W.K. Wimsatt (1948)
A shrewd and sensible warning against reducing any work of art to simple absolute moral categories.

Antony and Cleopatra, like life itself, gives no clear-cut answers. Shakespeare holds the balance even, and does not decide for us who finally is the strumpet of the play, Antony's Cleopatra, or Caesar's Fortune, and who, therefore, is the "strumpet's fool." Those who would have it otherwise, who are "hot for certainties in this our life," as Meredith phrased it, should turn to other authors than Shakespeare, and should have been born into some other world than this.
--Maynard Mack (1960)

From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:

Rosalie Colie made the nice point that we never see Antony and Cleopatra alone together. Actually, we do, just once, but only for a moment, and when he is dangerously enraged against her. What were they like when they were, more or less, in some harmony? Did they go on acting, each taking the other as audience? With Hamlet, Falstaff, and Iago, they are the most intensely theatrical personages in Shakespeare, and Cleopatra at last wears Antony out: it would take Hamlet or Falstaff not to be upstaged by her. 
[E]ven Cleopatra is very unlikely to seduce the first great Chief Executive Officer, the Emperor Augustus.
Calling Octavius the first CEO is something I wish I had said. I think that Ian Charleson caught something of this in his performance in the Jonathan Miller production. Unlike the rather effete Caesar of Corin Redgrave, Charleson's seems preoccupied with taking charge of the situation.

Whore and her aging gull is a possible perspective upon [Cleopatra and Antony], if you are yourself a savage reductionist, but then why would you want to attend or read this play?
Does Bloom have in mind here Shaw's comment that you can find their modern equivalents "in every public house"? Shaw could certainly be savagely reductive when it comes to Shakespeare. 

You could argue that the Cleopatra of Act V is not only a greater actress than she was before, but also that she becomes a playwright, exercising a talent released in her by Antony's death. The part that she composes for herself is very complex, and one strand in it is that she was and still is in love with Antony, and so is more than bereft. Indeed, she marries him as she dies, which is sublimely poignant.... She is surely the most theatrical character in stage history, far surpassing Pirandello's experiments in the same mode. We need not ask if her love for Antony ever is love indeed, even as she dies, because the lack of distinctiveness in the play is between the histrionic and the passionate.
 Yes, the stage managing of her death -- calling for her robes and crown -- is the epitome of Cleopatra's theatricality. She even chides Iras for upstaging her by dying first.
An heroic age -- the age of Julius Caesar -- yields to the oncoming discipline of Augustan Rome.... Antony is a man upon whom the sun is going down: his genius wanes in the presence of Octavius Caesar. A swordsman, Antony is hopelessly outclassed by the first imperial bureaucrat, who has inherited the canniness, though not the generosity, of his uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar. The audience senses a weariness in Antony, a psychic fatigue with Rome and all things Roman. Once astute at politics (as in Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar) Antony has become a bungler, who cannot take or give good advice. His major error is to renegotiate his ostensible alliance with Octavius on the absurdly unstable basis of a dynastic marriage with Octavia, sister to the future Roman emperor. That changes the political game to a version of Russian roulette, in which Antony is bound to shoot himself -- that is, to get back to Cleopatra at much too high a cost.
The political drama of the play is too often lost sight of in the love drama. Antony's mocking of Caesar as a "boy" has something of the blindness of the politician who can't see that the times they are a-changin'.

Though the play's Antony necessarily cannot match its Cleopatra, Shakespeare creates a magnificent ruin, who becomes only more sublime as he falls. Doubtless, this Mark Antony is too multiform to be a strictly tragic figure, just as Cleopatra is too varied and too close to quasi-divinity for us to find in her a tragic heroine, a Cordelia or a Lady Macbeth.

 A demagogue and brutal politician as well as a conqueror, Antony was Shakespeare's final triumph over Marlowe's shouting cartoon, Tamburlaine the Great. Iago undid Barabas, Jew of Malta; Antony outshines Tamburlaine, and Prospero will transcend Doctor Faustus, as Shakespeare sweeps Marlow off the boards. 
Antony is the grandest of Shakespeare's captains -- Othello and Coriolanus included -- because his personality dominates every aspect of his world, even the consciousness of his enemy Octavius. And that personality, like Cleopatra's, is exuberantly comic: extraordinarily, this tragedy is funnier than any of the great Shakespearean comedies. Shakespeare's genius, remorseless in Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, totally and wonderfully indulges itself in Antony and Cleopatra, which is certainly the richest of all the thirty-nine plays. Poetry itself constitutes much of that wealth, and the personalities of Antony and of Cleopatra constitute a great poem, Herculean and eroitc, each an idea of order in that a violent disorder is also an order. Cleopatra, having more mind, wit, and guile, is closer, as I've remarked, to Falstaff, but Antony surpasses everyone in the essential gaudiness of his poetry. I cannot believe that any other male character in Shakespeare so fascinated his playwright, not even Hamlet and Falstaff.

As fine an actor as Colin Blakely is, I thought him miscast as Antony, too plain and middle-class to have attracted and held on to a Cleopatra. There's not much magnificent about his ruin, other than the Shakespearean verse that he speaks so well.
I can think of no other play, by anyone, that approaches the range and zest of Antony and Cleopatra. If the greatest of all Shakespeare's astonishing gifts was his ability to invent the human, and clearly I think it was, then this play, more than Hamlet or King Lear, might be considered his masterwork, except that its kaleidoscopic shifting of perspectives bewilders us.
The glory of Antony and Cleopatra is neither its ambivalence nor its ambiguities: of all Shakespeare's dramas, it is the greatest as poem. It plays superbly still, when properly directed and acted, but as a reverberation it is too large for any stage, though still better perceived upon the right stage than in even the most acute study. 
Bloom's cheerleading for his favorites can sometimes get a little wearying.

No comments:

Post a Comment