Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEPIDUS: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

LEPIDUS: What color is it?

ANTONY: Of its own color too.

This is Shakespeare’s most exiting play. The many and rapid changes of scene function like the shaky, shifting camera angles in a Jason Bourne movie: both accelerating the pace, and showing us a variety of perspectives from which to view the action, all the while keeping some angles carefully hidden from view. We see too much and not enough. The play is exhausting to read or watch, a constant torrent of development and action; and yet, by the end, it is terribly difficult to decide what stance to take towards the principle characters.

Antony cuts a poor figure in this play. Unlike the persuasive and savvy politician of Julius Caesar, here he is a bungler past his prime. In this he reminded me most strongly of Macbeth, another ruler who botches everything he tries to do (Antony even botches his own suicide). The two of them are charismatic, independent, and powerful personalities who, nevertheless, are much too susceptible to suggestion. I should say, rather, that they are too apt to ignore good and to follow bad advice. Antony illustrates this even more than Macbeth: all the play long, he is continually waving away his best counselors to follow the unruly impulses of his heart. He has no ability to put aside pleasure for practicality. It is impossible not to sympathize with him—the play would be tedious and dreary if he were totally unsympathetic—but it was, for me, also impossible to root for him.

Octavius is the perfect foil for this passionate hero. I admit that I like Octavius perhaps more than Shakespeare intended. He is so wonderfully efficient and commanding. In every scene he is issuing orders, rapid-fire, and every one of these orders is calculated and shrewd. He takes in all the essential facts of every situation at a glance, and at once his mind hits upon the correct course of action. He is unbending and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal. Compared with Antony’s agonizing indecision about whether he wants to be a Roman commander or an Egyptian paramour, this is terribly refreshing. There is no question—in my mind at least—that he should and must be the ruler of Rome, since Antony is so manifestly unfit for the role. And yet, for all his single-minded pursuit of his aims, there is an undercurrent of pity and tenderness—his love of his sister and his outrage at her betrayal, and his tears for Antony’s death—that makes him a complete, sympathetic character.

Cleopatra is the most complex character in this play. Like Antony, she is passionate and mercurial; but unlike Antony, there always seems to be a part of herself that is unconquered by her impulses, a more calculating awareness that allows her to cast a spell over everyone in her presence. Like Iago, she is always acting, playing the part of herself, although to what end is not always clear. Unlike Iago, we never see Cleopatra in private, and have no windows into her solitary consciousness. Also unlike Iago, Cleopatra is constantly overwhelmed by her circumstances; the play she is trying to write never goes according to plan, usually thanks to Octavius. Indeed, the only person impervious to her is Octavius, whose cold, stiff demeanor wards off her dramatic performance. That being said, Cleopatra is the only character whom Octavius can neither understand nor conquer. His silver-tongued messengers to her end up getting manipulated, ignored, or conquered themselves (as in the case of Dolabella).

By chance, I watched this play while making my way through Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, much of which focuses on the famous Master-Slave dialectic. Whatever the applicability of Kojève’s thesis to Hegel’s ideas (that’s for another review), it strikes me that this scheme sheds some light on this play. The Master, in Hegel’s famous chapter, is stuck in a paradoxical situation. He craves the recognition of another self-consciousness, and will risk his life for this recognition; and yet his desire leads him to subjugate the Other to the role of Slave, whose recognition cannot satisfy the Master, since the Slave is not supposed to have any perspective whatever.

Now, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra’s erratic and passionate behavior is shaped by this paradox. The two of them are the masters of the world, surrounded by servants and slaves. They command, and are obeyed. But—unlike Octavius, who is comfortable with the role of impersonal master—neither can be satisfied with this obedience. They are bored by it. The two of them do not wish to be recognized simply as “masters,” but as individuals: as Antony and as Cleopatra. Yet this recognition can only come from an equal, from another master: from each other. This is why, in every scene, they always seem to be performing for each other. They are the only suitable audience for each other’s performance, the only audience that can give the satisfaction of individual recognition.

I think this is why critics have disagreed about whether they truly “love” one another. They seem to be using one another, intimately but self-interestedly, to achieve the full feeling of selfhood. They are like two mirrors reflecting each other’s light. This recognition is so vital that they will risk power, fortune, even life itself, only to sustain it one moment longer. Octavius cannot play this role for either of them. He wishes only to be obeyed; his personality, his private feelings and sympathies, are ruthlessly repressed in order to be the ideal master. Likewise, neither Antony nor Cleopatra can give Octavius what he wants: unconditional obedience. Octavius quite literally wants to reduce them to slavery, dragged in chains in a triumphal procession. This would be a fate worse than death for these two actors.

It is only in the final act, after Antony’s death, that Cleopatra seems to discover that she does not need Antony: she can be an audience to herself, she can recognize her own individuality. This is what makes her performance in Act V so overwhelming. She emerges from the circumstances that constantly thwart her plans, she breaks free of the need to be seen to feel complete. At this moment, the only action which will preserve her autonomy and her individuality is her self-destruction, since Octavius will reduce her to the level of a trophy if she allows herself to live. Her death is not wholly tragic, therefore, but has the pathos of self-transcendence.

Then Octavius strides in, and true to form he begins issuing orders for their burial and mourning. (I wonder what percentage of his lines are direct orders.) This is the play’s emotionally ambiguous end. We miss the passionate intensity of Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius may be compelling in his way, but he is certainly not charismatic. And yet we can’t helping feeling—or I can’t, at least—that the self-destructive, wasteful, and egotistical love affair between these two mortal gods had to end, for the world’s sake if not for theirs.

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