At the end of Antony and Cleopatra both lovers are dead, and the victorious Octavius, finally respectful of them now they are no longer either a threat or a challenge, gives instructions for a solemn funeral and announces that they will lie next to each other in death. Moralists in the audience (should there be any) will conclude that the downfall and suicide of such a reckless pair was not only inevitable but just. Others may feel unwilling to identify with the triumph of a man as cold and calculating as Octavius, the consummate politician who never wavers in his command of statecraft but who never reveals his heart. Octavius’s victory seems to represent the triumph of prudence, reason, and practicality over the unruly world of passion and love. However, few in the audience are likely to embrace such a resolution with much enthusiasm because these two tragic lovers seem, through the imaginative, visionary, poetic language that Shakespeare grants them, to have propelled themselves in death into a transcendental realm of transfigured perception, an eternal sacred marriage that seems to dwarf their earthly incarnations and render them almost god-like. It is this startling metamorphosis of the lovers that most members of the audience will likely be contemplating as they leave the theater after a vibrant performance of this play, rather than an image of two corpses soon to be laid in a tomb.
How does Shakespeare accomplish this astonishing transformation? At the beginning of the play, such an outcome seems unlikely because the lovers are not presented in a very positive light. They seem quarrelsome and possessive, and it is hard to shake the negative portrayals that the Roman world insists on pinning on Antony. His greatness seems all in the past, recalled by others such as Philo or Octavius only to strike a note of regret about the man he has become. However, the very first words Antony speaks in the play, immediately after Philo has encouraged the audience to see ‘‘The triple pillar of the world transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool,’’ are certainly not ignoble. After Cleopatra asks him to tell her how much he loves her, he replies, ‘‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d’’. When Cleopatra responds that she will set a boundary to love, Antony replies, ‘‘Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth’’. If Antony is taken at his word (and why should he not be?), he has dared to conceive a love for this bewilderingly volatile and complex woman that reaches for the infinite. It is an intense, expansive, boundary-breaking love that seems entirely fitting for one whose vitality, generosity and power has raised him to pre-eminence in the competitive world of Roman wars and politics. Antony is not a man who does things by half-measures. Cleopatra is not exactly an easy woman to deal with, yet Antony, still in the first scene of the play, shows his appreciation and understanding of her in a very perceptive manner: ‘‘How every passion fully strives / To make itself, in thee, fair and admired’’. This is a remarkable tribute to Antony’s willingness to love qualities in Cleopatra that may not appear on the surface to be lovable. It also hints at the indefinable attractiveness of Cleopatra, in whom the expression of emotions that might be ugly in others— and which she fully demonstrates in this first scene—become simply an expression of the infinite range of her divine womanhood.
Although Antony’s feelings are as volatile as Cleopatra’s, and there is no denying the force of his outrage when he believes she has betrayed him at the battle of Actium—‘‘triple-turn’d whore’’ is quite an insult—he nonetheless sees Cleopatra through transfigured eyes as the ‘‘day o’ the world’’, the very light by which he lives. Hyperbole this may be (as many critics point out regarding the language in which the lovers describe themselves and each other), but Antony is completely genuine in his adoration of his beloved, his ability to see in her an infinite treasure more precious to him than, well, the entire Roman Empire.
It is when Antony hears the false news that Cleopatra is dead that the first intimations of immortality and sacred marriage in death are sounded in the play. ‘‘I come, my queen,’’ Antony calls out to Cleopatra as he summons his servant Eros to give him a death blow in act 4. Continuing to address Cleopatra, he says, ‘‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze’’.
Just as Antony sees Cleopatra through the eyes of love, she too possesses a unique vision of him. To most people, Antony is a man with two selves, the martial, Roman self and the ‘‘Egyptian’’ pleasure-seeking, sensual self, but in Cleopatra’s eyes he possesses what might be called a third or transcendental self, a vast cosmic presence that inspires in her nothing less than awe. In the dream vision of Antony that she relates to an uncomprehending Dolabella in act 5, for example, she says of her lover: ‘‘His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck / A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted / This little O, the earth’’.
This imagery of the lover as embodying a kind of cosmic light occurs also at Antony’s death. For Cleopatra, his fall is associated with the extinguishing of light: ‘‘O sun / Burn the great sphere thou mov’st in, darkling stand / The varying shore o’ the world’’. Antony was her light, as she was for him, and now that light is gone: ‘‘Our lamp is spent, it’s out’’.
It is this imagery of light and vastness that sets the stage for the translation of the lovers from the earthly to the spiritual realm. Theirs is a love so vast that it cannot be vanquished by death. It is at this point, when the lovers face their own deaths, that the play seems to take flight into the realm of myth; Antony and Cleopatra seem not so much two humans in despair who commit suicide but more like larger-than-life beings in the process of transformation, ready to fulfill their innermost longings for each other in an eternal union not touched by time or change and yet retaining all the delight and ecstasy they knew on the earthly plane of life.
This process of transformation reaches its fulfillment in Cleopatra’s final speech. In her determination to join Antony in death and transfiguration she attains a calm strength that has eluded her up to this point in the play. But what is remarkable about this speech is that, even as Cleopatra transcends her fear of death and is fixed in her new resolve, she remains utterly herself; she is still the mercurial, volatile Cleopatra we have known, and she shows herself in all her many guises, from queen and quasi-goddess to sexual temptress and jealous woman. First, as she calls for her royal garments, she stands before us as queen, aspiring to eternity: ‘‘Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me’’. But the lines that follow remind the audience of the sensual life of which Cleopatra has been the embodiment throughout the play: ‘‘Now no more / The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip’’. Next we see her at once visionary and vengeful, sensing Antony’s presence and exulting over her defeat of Caesar, a thought that occurs with greater force later in the speech. Now, as she identifies herself explicitly, for the first time in the play, as wife to Antony, she also reveals another side to her nature. No longer the female enchantress, the ‘‘triple-turn’d whore’’ of Antony’s invective, it is her masculine qualities which predominate:
Husband, I come!
Now to that name, my courage prove my
I am fire, and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.
But then as Iras falls after being kissed by Cleopatra, the simile that immediately occurs to Cleopatra is a sexual one: ‘‘If thou and nature can so gently part, / The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / which hurts, and is desir’d. She is once more the lusty Cleopatra we have known, and this is confirmed by her sudden jealousy, even in death, of Iras: ‘‘If she first meet the curled Antony, / He’ll make demand of her, and spend that kiss / Which is my heaven to have.’’ But as Cleopatra takes the asp to her breast and once more sneers defiantly at Caesar, Charmian interjects the expansive image, ‘‘O Eastern star!’’ (line 308) thus reminding us not only of the hyperbolic language that Antony used of his lover, but also the status accorded to her by her subjects.And finally, as Cleopatra calmly takes the asp to her breast, she presents herself as tender mother and nurse, a side of her nature that has not been glimpsed up to this point: ‘‘Peace, peace! / Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?’’
After her death, the final image of Cleopatra is spoken by Octavius, who remarks on the apparently easeful manner of her death: ‘‘she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / in her strong toil of grace’’. The word ‘‘catch’’ recalls Cleopatra’s earlier comment, in Antony’s absence, about going fishing and imagining the fish she caught as ‘‘every one an Antony.’’. ‘‘Grace’’ is perhaps a term that could be applied to Cleopatra only at this point in the play, suggesting that she has attained a final serenity, while ‘‘strong toil’’ evokes the Roman world of masculine effort, work and commitment. Thus the final image of Cleopatra in repose hints that at last those two mighty opposites, Rome and Egypt, have been brought together in an idealized moment of stillness and repose. The ‘‘serpent of old Nile’’ for so, Cleopatra tells Mardian in act 1, Antony calls her, is at one with that formidable figure whose ‘‘rear’d arm / Crested the world’’. In the literal sense, these two lovers may well have been brought down by their own folly, but the language Shakespeare gives them is surely enough to lift them, at least in the imagination of the audience, to an altogether finer plane.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Antony and Cleopatra, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.