Shakespeare probably wrote Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 or 1607, shortly after he completed King Lear and Macbeth and shortly before he began focusing most of his attention on the tragicomic romances, among them The Tempest , with which he drew his career to a close between 1608 and 1613. In many ways Antony and Cleopatra hearkens back to the works that preceded it. As an exploration of "the idea of Rome," it builds on the sequence of historical tragedies that Shakespeare had commenced in the early 1590s with Titus Andronicus and continued in 1599-1600 with Julius Caesar. As a work that takes a critical, at times sardonic, view of the most celebrated heroes and heroines of classical antiquity, it is frequently reminiscent of Troilus and Cressida , an acerbically "intellectual" play that was probably completed around 1601. And as an analysis of the allconsuming power of grand erotic passions, it echoes themes in works as varied as Romeo and Juliet (1595), Othello (1602), and the Sonnets, most of which were probably written in the early 1590s.
But what is most remarkable about Antony and Cleopatra is the degree to which it seems unique-an achievement that could not have been anticipated, even from a genius as multifaceted as William Shakespeare, and a work of dramatic art that continues to astonish us nearly four centuries after its first appearance on the stage of the Globe.
Part of its hold on us derives, no doubt, from the sheer majesty of its poetry. In no other play do we hear such grandiloquent rhetoric. In no other work are we so tempted to feel that the English language itself is a major protagonist of the drama. If we are at times seduced into believing that Antony and Cleopatra really are "a race of Heaven," then, as Cleopatra would have us affirm, it is the transcendent medium in which they live and move that persuades us of their greatness.
But of course majestic language requires an imperial theme. And "empire" is precisely what Antony and Cleopatra is finally about.
The play is set in the decade between 40 and 30 B.C., when Rome is securing its hold on all the known world. The rise and fall of Julius Caesar has effectively ended republican government in a political order that has outgrown its era as an extended city-state. The assassins of Caesar have been eliminated from the scene. And as the play begins, an unstable triumvirate (Mark Antony, Lepidus, and the youthful Octavius Caesar) is being challenged by Sextus Pompelus, the son of the "great Pompey" whose untimely demise in 48 B. C. had paved the way for Octavius Caesar's father to seize power a brief time before his own assassination in 44 B. C.
In short order, Octavius cashiers the ineffectual Lepidus. Meanwhile he outmaneuvers and destroys Pompey, who turns out to be fatally lacking in the killer instinct his calculating rival possesses in just the right proportions. Then, with the tables cleared, Octavius makes it known to his colleague in Egypt that the hour has arrived for an epic showdown between a coolly efficient Caesar who is destined to become known as "Augustus, and a dissipated, "doting Antony who has surrendered himself to the charms of a Circean temptress he teasingly refers to as "the Serpent of old Nile." What is at stake, the play reminds us over and over, is not just Rome, and not just the Roman Empire, but the world itself.
As Octavius notes toward the end of the drama, "the time of universal peace is near." Audiences in Shakespeare's theatre would have recognized in that line a truth that Octavius himself could only have found incomprehensible: the fact that the age on which he was to bestow the name "Augustan" was soon to become better known for the advent of yet another "Prince of Peace," and one whose seemingly insignficant role on -the imperial stage would eventually trans- form not only the Empire itself but the very concept of the world to control.
The play contains oblique foreshadowings of the "new Heaven, new Earth" that lie yet to be revealed just over the horizon. And it is conceivable that these hints of things to come are meant to signal a perspective on the drama that casts an ironic light on the more insistent concerns of pagan Rome and Egypt.
But the most salient feature of Antony and Cleopatra is the play's presentation of what it means to wrestle with Fortune in a preChristian arena in which one must ultimately choose between absolute power in the political realm and absolute commitment to a personal realm whose values end up "costing not less than everything."
For if the import of this magnificent tragedy is in the end problematic, the issues that continue to render it so engaging are emphatically clear. On the one side are all those masculine virtues that made Rome the dominant force it came to be in world history: strength, clearmindedness, temperance, and an unyielding devotion to patriotic "duty." On the other side are all those softer virtues that make Cleopatra's Egypt such an appealing alternative to Roman fortitude: a willingness to accept and live in harmony with the natural forces of the universe (here symbolized by the fertilizing floods of the Nile); an awareness that the emotions and the imagination are Just as essential to humanity as the mental discipline so fundamental to Roman Stoicism; a healthy appetite for life's pleasures, including the pleasures of the flesh; and a refusal to concede that the claims of the state are ever so allencompassing as to cancel out all claims for personal fulfillment.
In our own day it is easy to see the "Egypt" that has captivated Antony as a holiday lark, a Roman workaholic's escape from his normal regimen to a vacation idyl that may serve as a restorative and help him regain a sense of balance and sanity. There can be no doubt that such a view of the matter was also possible in Shakespeare's day, and something like it is hinted at in the reflections of Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus. But as Prince Hal observes in Henry IV , "If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work."
As the play commences, Antony himself is growing uneasy wit an escape that is looking more an more like escapism. He thus begins to think "Roman thoughts" again, an he makes a concerted effort, despite Cleopatra's resistance, to regain his hold on the heroic qualities that drew her to him in the first place.
As subsequent events will demonstrate, however, the Antony who delivered the ceiebrated funeral oration and put his enemies to rout in Julius Caesar, the Antony whose military discipline was once the awe of even the most stalwart Romans, is no longer in control of his own destiny. His "will" is now "lord of his reason," his judgment is critically flawed, and he is no match for the wily Octavius. The yoting Caesar expresses only scorn for his aging adversary's last desperate challenge to decide the outcome in single combat. And he calmly stands aloof while the once-formidable Antony self-destructs and throws away "a kingdom for a mirth."
The Antony we see at the conclusion of the play is but a shadow of his former glory. But it should not be lost on us that that leaves much to admire. When the loyal Enobarbus is finally driven to desert his beloved general, Antony blames only himself and magnanimously sends along the possessions his trusted soldier has left behind. And in the end, despite the actions of his Queen that have contributed to his own demise, Antony expires lovingly in Cleopatra's arms and concerns himself solely with how she will fare under the new regime to be instituted by the victorious Caesar. One consequence of the nobility of Antony's dying moments is to inspire a similar self- transcendence in Cleopatra.
For all her charm—a power to enchant that is so overwhelming that it carries all before it and beggars all description—Cleopatra is also a woman who can be mercurial, catty, conniving, and sluttish. It may be, as Enobarbus says, that she has a mysterious capacity to "make defect perfection." But what the play also shows us prior to Antony's death is a meretricious beauty whose influence on her lover is largely detrimental. Once she finds herself without Antony, however, and faces the prospect of being paraded in Rome as one of Caesar's trophies, Cleopatra summons up the resolution to stage a death scene that both thwarts Octavius' political designs and demonstrate's a capacity for what she calls "immortal longings."
She recognizes that in the eyes of eternity " 'tis paltry to be Caesar: Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave." She therefore elects to rise above her Roman conqueror and join her "husband" in a new empire that is not subject to the "baser life" that Caesar will be left to manipulate and lord it over. With a scorn for Roman values, she exits in "the high Roman fashion." But, true to her own nature to the last, she does it in a manner that is quintessentially Egyptian.
Even Octavius is able to appreciate the exalted "order" in "this great solemnity." It may not prove to him that "kingdoms are clay." But it does serve to remind the audience, if not the conqueror, that there may be some "high events" that call for another order of evaluation.
John F. Andrews