Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why I Love Antony and Cleopatra

I am talking, of course, of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare presents us with two mature adults, world-wise and at the height of their powers, who are as head-over-heels in love with one another as Romeo and Juliet, callow youths in their mid-teens. That those youngsters should defy family and custom, what’s surprising about that? They know little of the hard business of making a life, they’re still under parental care. But Antony and Cleopatra, they’re different. She’s the ruler of Egypt and has had lovers both for pleasure and for politics, the great Julius Caesar among them. Antony’s a skilled general and a triumvir, one of three rulers of the Roman Empire.

Here’s how Antony’s friend, Enobarbus, described Cleopatra (Act 2, scene 2):
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
And then, one of the most famous passages in the play:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
“Riggish,” what a word, riggish. My copy of the play glosses it as lewd. And I suppose Cleopatra was. But I like the sound of the word, two syllables to lewd’s one, and the sibilant ending that just flows away rather than the hard thud of lewd’s “d.” A woman who could dance like Josephine Baker and yet had the political craft and steel of Margaret Thatcher. Could such a creature exist?

And here’s Cleopatra on Anthony, after he’s died and she’s been seized by the minions of Octavius Caesar (Act 5, scene 2):
His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.
Yes, “his legs bestrid the ocean,” a mighty man indeed. But “his delights were dolphin-like,” what is that? If you want to see it on film, go see Miyazki’s Ponyo, it’s there, I kid you not. Miyazaki knows that joy. To couple such joy with the power to shake the world, what was Cleo thinking?

Rather, what was Shakespeare thinking? Of course we don’t know. All we’ve got are the plays, and reasoning from them to the man is treacherous. And this play puts the love of Antony and Cleopatra over and against the ruling of Rome (Antony) and Egypt (Cleopatra) and finds the latter wanting. Statecraft looses against love-craft. Wooing defeats warring.


After all, Octavius does achieve his military and political victory, while both Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide. But the commit suicide in preference over being subject to Rome. In that limited sense they are victorious over Rome. Or rather, their values – which do not depend on their lives – are victorious over the temporal values of Roman politics.

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

In Shakespeare’s time people were much less likely to marry for love than in ours. The standard-issue Elizabethan marriage was a fundamentally public arrangement taking the form of an alliance between lineages. Arranged marriages were the accepted norm and mutual love but a secondary consideration. By contrast, we’re over two centuries into a world where mutual love is regarded as the all-but-necessary precondition for marriage. Ours is a world inscribed within the customs of what historian Lawrence Stone called the closed domesticated nuclear family (The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, Harper & Row 1977). This type of family is characterized by “intensified affective bonding of the nuclear core at the expense of neighbors and kind; a strong sense of individual autonomy and the right to personal freedom in the pursuit of happiness; a weakening of the association of sexual pleasure with sin and guilt; and a growing desire for physical privacy” (p. 8).

By affirming the values of Antony and Cleopatra – their eroticism and companionship – over against those of the state, the polis, Shakespeare was clearing the socio-cultural space in which this new approach to marriage – and family – could be created. We can get a better sense of this cultural vector by looking ahead just a bit, to John Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, published in 1644. Milton asserts that
. . . God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity.
This conception, centered exclusively on the relationship between husband and wife, was not commonplace in Milton's time, much less Shakespeare's. Yet we can find a similar sentiment from Shakespeare's time, in John Donne's "The Extasie." Using sexual orgasm as his vehicle, and after asserting that "Wee see by this, it was not sexe," Donne goes on to assert that
When love, with one another so
    Interanimates two soules,
That abler soule, which thence doth flow,
    Defects of lonelinesse controules.
Like Milton, Donne is concerned with loneliness, the evil of solitary life.

One could not, of course, lead a solitary life as the ruler of Egypt, nor as a ruler of Rome. But one could not have a private life either, a life centered on one’s spouse and, in time, upon one’s children. That’s what Shakespeare was setting the stage for, that’s why Antony and Cleoptra is so important. It’s a harbinger of a new world.

That, and all that glorious poetry.


  1. Cleopatra's rhetoric is the real hero in Antony and Cleopatra. It triumphs first over Antony - in having him forsake his political self and even his masculinity. It triumphs over Cleopatra herself - she so convincingly pretends to be in love with antony that by the fourth or fifth act she actually is in love with antony. Finally, she so elegantly frames her own death as to make it a triumph. Hamlet may be the author of his play, but Cleopatra is the author of death itself.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Justin. Sounds right to me.

    & it reminds me of a scene in and old Marx Bros film, Duck Soup, where it talks Groucho about a minute to talk himself into declaring war.