The Tragedy of Antony, and Cleopatra

The above is the first page of the play taken from the First Folio printed in 1623: it is also Antony and Cleopatra’s (Ant) first appearance in print. Take a close look at the title: “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra” – you may be wondering “why is there a comma between ‘Anthonie’ and ‘and’?” Some say that the comma is a mistake, a compositor was not careful enough. This is not an unreasonable claim, the Folio is by no means a perfect document and the comma could be a careless error, making any speculation about it as valid as a coffee spill on a Turner painting. But I choose not to believe that it was a mistake, and that the comma is there for a reason. And what is that reason? Take a look at this:

Unlike Ant, the folio of Romeo and Juliet does not have a comma between the two names. This is very telling. Romeo and Juliet are two characters whose fates are intrinsically linked. They are “star-crossed” lovers: this suggests a physical intertwining of the spirits that govern them. Add to this the fact that at the end of Act II of Romeo and Juliet the two get married: marriage seen as the strongest bond that can tie two people together. As Romeo suffers at the start of the play, Juliet suffers at the start of the play. As Romeo is thrown into the ecstasies of love, so is Juliet. As Romeo suffers, so does Juliet, and as Romeo dies so does Juliet. You cannot speak of one without the other and as characters, neither has the power to exist without the other. None of this can be said about Mark Antony and Cleopatra. They are in love, or least lust, as Romeo and Juliet are, but they are never married (a very important point), and they are not reliant on each other to exist. So the “Tragedy” in Romeo and Juliet refers to the events that cause the downfall of the singular entity that is Romeo+Juliet, whereas the “Tragedy” is Ant refers to the events which cause the downfall of two people, Antony, and Cleopatra. This is the purpose of the comma, to show that within one play we are dealing with two events. The title of this play is actually: “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and the Tragedie of Cleopatra” – the comma serves to shorten it to “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra”. Two characters, competing for the spot of tragic hero, and the question becomes, “who achieves it?”

First a bit of “the story thus far…” so some of this makes sense. It has been about four years since Julius Caesar died. The Roman world is controlled by three men: Octavian (Caesar), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. Caesar and Lepidus are in Rome, Antony is in Egypt with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Meanwhile in Rome, both Antony’s wife and brother attacked Caesar to try to gain power – Caesar was displeased. Furthermore, Pompey is amassing a force at sea in order to gain what he considers his lands. Now on to the play itself.

Act 1 of Ant answers the central question by saying “of course this is Antony’s tragedy!” The play opens with Philo talking about Antony, before Antony and Cleopatra burst prematurely onto the scene – not even letting Philo finish. I always like to picture Antony and Cleopatra drunk in this opening scene but there is nothing to support this. At any rate, Philo says:

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust. (I.i)

Flourish. Enter ANTONY, CLEOPATRA, her Ladies, the Train, with Eunuchs fanning her

Look, where they come:
Take but good note, and you shall see in him.
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool: behold and see.

Cleopatra is mentioned in these lines as a gypsy and a strumpet, but more so, she is not the subject of these lines. The opening of the play is about Antony, how great Antony was, and how much Antony has fallen. Now granted this speech is made by Antony’s man so we can forgive him for his singular focus, but based on what audiences have come to expect from Shakespeare by 1607, the stage is set for a play about the fall of Antony.

The rest of the act only serves to confirm this. The focus throughout the act is on Antony. Antony must decide whether he is to go to Rome or not, Antony learns of his wife’s death, Antony leaves for Rome, Caesar and Lepidus discuss Antony’s situation &c. When Antony is off-stage and Cleopatra is the central focus, all she does in this act is talk about Antony. In scene 2, the first time Cleopatra enters without Antony, she asks the assembled group: “saw you my lord?” Meanwhile Antony enters a few lines later and Cleopatra and the others flee. He speaks with the messenger about news from Rome. He urges the messenger to “name Cleopatra as she is called at home. Rail in Fulvia’s [Antony’s wife] phrase.” In Act 1, scene 5, Cleopatra becomes angry when her servant Charmian praises Julius Caesar instead of Antony – Cleopatra cannot bear to hear anything bad said about Antony, nor anyone praised higher than he. Yet Antony is urging the messenger to call Cleopatra a whore, or strumpet, or temptress or whatever unflattering names are given to her in Rome. The result is that Act 1 sets up the contrast between Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra as a character is dependent on Antony but Antony is not dependent on Cleopatra, he has other matters to tend to, Cleopatra can only praise or lament Antony.

In Act 2 we get a distinct shift in the play, one which further squeezes Cleopatra out. The Act opens with Pompey making ready to attack, talking about how advantageous it is that Antony is out of the picture (the audience is aware that Antony is on his way to meet Caesar, Pompey is not at this point). This act is primarily concerned with the reconciliation of Antony and Caesar and the defeat of Pompey. Antony and Caesar meet in Act 2 scene 2 and play a game of “I can one up you!”.




Welcome to Rome.


Thank you.




Sit, sir.


Nay, then. (II.ii)

The spacing of these lines (which WordPress does not allow me to maintain) suggests that they are spoken in rapid succession in a case of who can have the last line. Both are trying to outdo each other in generosity until Caesar calls a halt to it with his “nay, then” or “screw it, neither of us will sit!” Antony and Caesar have a good session of airing their grievances while Lepidus, Mecaenas (Caesar’s man) and Enobarbus (Antony’s man) try to smooth things out and get the two to focus on the present danger: Pompey. Eventually it is Agrippa (all around good guy) who proposes a solution – Antony, newly widowed, will marry Octavia, Caesar’s sister, therefore binding the two men together. Caesar jokingly responds: “Say not so, Agrippa: if Cleopatra heard you, your reproof were well deserved of rashness” and Antony goes on the defensive by stressing that he is not married to Cleopatra. This Antony is not the same Antony in Act 1, who initially said that he would see Rome sink into the Tiber before he left Cleopatra. The Antony of Act 2 is the Roman General who Philo spoke of in the opening lines. Antony’s men, Caesar, Pompey and even Cleopatra talk about Antony being himself, or not being himself. There is some residue of Hamlet that has dripped into Antony and he is having a great existential crisis of who he is. According to those around him, Antony being himself means that he is the great, manly Roman General, and Antony not being himself means that he is Cleopatra’s puppet. So it would seem that the Antony of Act 2, the one who immediately reminds everyone that he is not married to Cleopatra, the one who married Octavia – this is Antony being himself. And yet, we know full well that Antony does not wish to marry Octavia and does it for political reasons alone.

But the marriage happens and everything is grand between the three rulers, who then go to face Pompey. Instead of fighting they make peace and have a manly party on Pompey’s boat!

But we must first back up. What about Cleopatra? Act 2 shows that she suffers the same fate as Lady Macbeth, who comes out the gates strong at the start but disappears after the death of King Duncan. But Cleopatra will not be silenced – she will fight for that spot in the title of the play, she will prove herself a tragic figure! Aside from that quick joke by Caesar, Cleopatra only takes centre stage twice in Act 2 – and she is not even present for the first one. Enobarbus delivers to Agrippa and Menaecas the famous “barge speech”:

I will tell you.
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.


Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature. (II.ii)

There are a few reasons for why this speech stands out. First, it is the only part in this otherwise militaristic play in which lyrical or “poetic” language is used. It is like when directors use red in a black and white film – it will stand out. Also, post-colonial and Orientalism scholars love this speech for it is representative of how Renaissance England viewed the “east” – this land of gold and purple and exotic extravagance. For my purposes, this speech further illustrates the objectification of Cleopatra, as we see in Philo’s opening lines, since she is reduced to Antony’s object (of desire) she is pushed further away from the spot of tragic heroine.

Cleopatra does not help herself in her one scene of the act. We once again see her lamenting that Antony is not with her, because she could do nothing else. She is bored without Antony and begs her servants to play with her, they don’t. There is nothing pleasing about Cleopatra in this scene – she is has lost any force she had when with Antony in Act 1. She is a child begging for attention. Then a messenger comes in to report that Antony has married Octavia and she continuously beats the messenger for reporting what she demands him to report. Even her faithful servants are disgusted by this scene. As an audience we have no choice at this point to see her as the Romans see her, we are not given any other view. This play cannot be a tragedy of Cleopatra; no one in their right mind would be saddened if she died at the end of Act 2. But there is still a ways to go before we are through.

What about Octavia, so often overlooked in analyses of this play. True, like Hippolyta of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Octavia exists in the play for the sole purpose of being married to Antony. When the marriage is described in the play it is described by those in Rome as a marriage between Antony and Caesar (Octavian Caesar) – Octavia really just becomes the metaphorical knot to tie the two men into their asexual bond. In this way, the manly party boat at the end of Act 2 is like the honeymoon of Antony and Caesar – and suddenly it’s a whole new play! Getting away from a queer theory analysis of this play that I am sure already exists – you may think that Octavia should be put in the same category as Hippolyta and Lady Macduff: that is the category of useless female characters.

(On a side note: if anyone wonders why I don’t talk about useless male characters it is because there are too many of them to take note of in any given play, but there are only up to four women in any Shakespeare play that when a useless one comes along, it is worth noting. Thank you.)

But Octavia has a much greater purpose in the play than the other two. First she does help create a peace, as short lasting as it may be, between Antony and Caesar. More importantly, she is a foil to Cleopatra. We see very little of her on stage: she appears briefly in Act 2 following the wedding, and twice more in Act 3. More importantly is when, in Act 3, the messenger reports to Cleopatra about having seen Octavia. Since this is the same messenger who was just beaten for telling her about Octavia, and being a wise fellow, he is very careful to downplay Octavia’s character. The result is that we end up with very little knowledge about Octavia that we can actually trust. One telling piece of information the messenger provides is: “She shows a body rather than a life, a statue than a breather.” As false as his physical reports of Octavia’s beauty, or lack thereof, may be, he is very correct in saying that Octavia is more a statue than a living person. This is a complete contrast to Cleopatra herself, and an important one. Cleopatra as Enobarbus describes her in the barge speech is little more than an exotic statue or painting, but we know otherwise. Even if she is not a strong character in the first two acts, she is certainly more alive than Octavia is. She is full of passion, Octavia has none. And from the point where Cleopatra hears the messenger’s report, she begins to become even more alive, not only lamenting and loving Antony but taking action that could potentially earn her a spot in the title of the play.

There is an ambiguous passage of time that happens in this play. It is not specified how much, but there is a distinct shift. Caesar has taken it upon himself to convince Lepidus to once again attack Pompey. Caesar then deemed Lepidus’ actions cruel and disposed of him. Meanwhile he has once again returned to his smear campaign against Antony. Octavia tells Antony that she will go to Rome and make peace between him and Caesar, but by the time she gets there, Antony has already fled back to Egypt, where Caesar will pursue him. And that’s the end of Octavia, she no longer has a purpose and disappears from the play.

This time Cleopatra refuses to stay on the sidelines. She tells Enobarbus “I will be even with thee, doubt it not.” Enobarbus does not like this idea: believing that women have no place in battle and that Cleopatra’s presence will distract Antony. And he’s right. There are two and a half battles of Actium that take up the rest of Act 3 and a good part of Act 4. In brief: Caesar dares Antony to a sea battle. Enobarbus reminds Antony that Antony is much stronger on land and Caesar has the upper hand at sea. But Antony pulls a Marty McFly and in the face of being called a coward fights Biff – I mean Caesar – by sea. Cleopatra brings her fleet to join the battle but when things don’t go so well she retreats. Antony, consumed by love and not being able to die without Cleopatra, follows her and leaves his men to die. He berates her for making him a coward but then says something to the effect of “give me a kiss and all is forgiven.” He prepares for a second battle – this time on land. Enobarbus decides he has had enough of Antony and defects to Caesar, a decision he immediately regrets and eventually kills himself for. Antony wins the first part of the second battle of Actium, but then Cleopatra once again brings her naval forces out, creating another battle by sea, at which point she surrenders the fleets to Caesar. Losing the battle, Antony cries that “the foul Egyptian has betrayed me!” He resolves to kill Cleopatra.

But she will not be another Desdemona. So she creates a plan which she seals herself and her servants in her monument and writes a letter to Antony telling him that she killed herself: that’ll give her the upper hand. He will run to her and pledge his love and all will be well! Instead he kills himself.

Antony’s death is probably my favourite out of any Shakespearean death. It is so wonderfully tragicomic. Antony, believing that Cleopatra is dead, tells his servant, Eros, to kill him. He repeats the name Eros an absurd amount of times in this scene, which, as Emma Smith illustrates in her lecture on this play, is meant to really hammer the point that the servant’s name is Eros, the Greek word for and the god of love. Antony is asking, he is begging for love to kill him. Antony wants to die by love, as Romeo did when he thought Juliet was dead. But Antony is not Romeo and is not capable of Romeo’s love. So when he begs for love to kill him, what does love do? Eros kills himself! It is such a wonderful moment, made comedic by the fact that it is drawn out. Also, after Eros dies Antony tries to stab himself but screws it up. So he is left to slowly bleed to death on the floor. In this final moment he becomes the pathetic figure that Philo painted at the opening of this long play. Is this the way a tragic hero should go? While slowly dying he is brought to Cleopatra, where he at least gets a decent final speech:

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o’ the world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman,–a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish’d. Now my spirit is going;
I can no more. (V.i)

If this were the “Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra” and not “The Tragedy of Antony, and Cleopatra”, Cleopatra would die then and there for her love, but she doesn’t. She faints, but she doesn’t die. Antony has run his tragedy – he was on top of the world (literally) and was brought down by his own cowardice and crippled by his lust for Cleopatra. Cleopatra doesn’t want her tragedy to be so intermingled with his. She wants to prove that she has her own tragedy to run. She is Queen of Egypt, raised to the highest point by Julius Caesar and then by Antony, now she faces her tragic end as Octavian Caesar comes to conquer her. He demands her surrender and she fears she is to be paraded around Rome, a humiliation she cannot bear. In the final scene she a Clown bring her a basket with asps hidden in it, and when she faces Caesar she knows that she still has the power to die. Cleopatra’s death is the antithesis of Antony’s death. She is in full control of her own death. She opts for the feminine poison as opposed to the masculine sword. Her final speeches are dignified and in no way comedic. We leave this play seeing Cleopatra as the tragic heroine, almost forgetting that about Antony. In Caesar’s final speech that closes the play, Antony is now the object to Cleopatra.

Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity. (V.ii)

More than any other play with the possible exception of The Winter’s Tale, Ant is a play divided. Act 3, scenes 3-4 witness not only a shift in time and in tone, but a shift in focus. What was clearly Antony’s tragedy at the start, becomes the tragedies of Antony and Cleopatra. And it is Cleopatra who outlasts Antony in the end, claiming that coveted spot of the final one to die: a spot held by Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Juliet, and now Cleopatra. If I had to pick one, I would say that Antony is the greater focus of the play despite the ending, but this shift that happens in Act 3 at least justifies the place of the comma, and shows that it can easily be seen as “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra”


Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved


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Filed under Post-Hamlet, Tragedies

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