The world presented in Antony and Cleopatra is one of friction, division and disagreement. In this world of impending and actual war, even the eponymous lovers frequently contend with each other in a battle of words and wills. Antony came to Alexandria to subjugate Cleopatra. Instead, she captivates him. It should be no surprise, then, that images of love and war go hand in hand throughout the play.
From the outset, Antony is associated with Mars, god of War, while Cleopatra in her barge is described as resembling Venus, goddess of Love, surrounded by ‘smiling Cupids’. These images of the pair are so potent that the eunuch Mardian, attempting to gratify his queen’s yearning for the absent Antony, deliberately sets her thinking ‘what Venus did with Mars’.
Venus and Mars are opposites. In classical mythology, Venus is associated with passion, joy, mirth and love of life. Her husband Mars is given to wrath, destruction and death. This attraction of opposites makes for a volatile affair, a union of unlikely bedfellows. Shakespeare’s Romans certainly think the same is true of Antony and Cleopatra.
Antony’s ‘goodly eyes’, that once ‘glow’d like plated Mars’, now turn from war to gaze on the ‘tawny front’ of Cleopatra. His ‘captain’s heart’, which could ‘burst the buckles on his breast’, is now ‘the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust’. The martial Antony is spoken of in the past tense. This ‘new’ Antony is the pleasure-seeking follower of Venus, whose love is considered to be ‘lust’, and his devotion ‘dotage’ by his compatriots. Cleopatra is the queen of ‘sport’, who turns even serious circumstance into an opportunity for entertainment. When Antony remembers his imperial persona he becomes exasperated by her lack of seriousness: ‘But that your royalty/Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself’ Cleopatra’s idleness, however, is a pretence that masks a deeper purpose. As long as Antony enjoys his Alexandrian revels, he remains distanced—both physically and emotionally—from the serious ‘business’ of imperial Rome. To detain him, Cleopatra becomes the ‘wrangling queen’ of ‘infinite variety’ who laughs him out of patience and into patience, who fascinates and confuses him. By adopting various dispositions, no-one, least of all Antony, is ever quite sure where her allegiance lies.
Cleopatra employs sport, pleasure, play, and levity to entangle Antony in her ‘strong toil of grace’. She rejoices when he declares, ‘There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch /Without some pleasure now’. Such a statement is the antithesis of Caesar’s declaration at the drunken banquet: ‘our graver business /Frowns at this levity’. In short, Cleopatra knows her man better than he knows himself, and rightly mocks Charmian’s advice to give him his own way: ’Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him. Antony is a hedonist, a sensualist; rather than lose him, she’d prefer to nourish his vices, emasculate him, and transform him from an ‘earthly Mars’ into a creature of pleasure-loving Venus.
It is this weakening of Antony which Philo and Demetrius discuss at the beginning of the play. Antony himself acknowledges the change when his good soldiership deserts him at the Battle of Actium. Savagely, he addresses Mardian, ‘O, thy vile lady! / She has robb’d me of my sword’. In metaphorical terms this is precisely what Cleopatra has done, by emotionally castrating the soldier within him. Antony’s sword, his prowess, which were once so central to his being, are now merely accessories to their relationship. This is illustrated earlier in the play when Cleopatra triumphantly recalls the night her power transformed Antony from Mars to Venus: ‘ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst/I wore his sword Philippan’.
Conquered by her, Antony tries to ignore his Roman critics. But there remains enough of Mars in him to make sparks fly when he and his earthly Venus disagree. The early scenes of the play accentuate the war of wiles and wills which constitutes this explosive relationship. Cleopatra is merciless in her public teasing and testing of Antony’s love:
CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
Here, she deliberately appropriates language more suited to the mercantile values of Rome by implying that she can determine love’s boundaries. By discussing love in quantitative terms (‘tell me how much’), she mocks the Roman pursuit of world domination, just as she ridicules Caesar’s commands: ‘Do this, or this / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that; / Perform’t or else we damn thee.’
By his earnest declaration about seeking ‘new heaven, new earth’, Antony shows how removed he now is from Rome’s sphere. Philo’s concern is justified. This is no earthly Mars but a man already discounting the value of war. Unlike Caesar, Antony no longer feels the need to conquer the world. The influence of Venus has brought a new reality: ‘Kingdoms are clay’. From such a position, Caesar and all he stands for seems transient: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall!’ Eternity and immortality are not to be found in all-conquering Rome but in the bliss of ‘lips and eyes’. Antony does not see his transformation as ‘dotage’ but as ‘the nobleness of life’. Cleopatra is not ‘a gypsy’ but his ‘space’. By publicly rejecting military Rome, Antony declares allegiance to ‘the love of Love and her soft hours’—in other words, the hedonistic Egyptian lifestyle captured in his question, ‘What sport tonight?’
Cleopatra recognises that she is in competition with Caesar for Antony’s attention. ‘Roman thought’ is dangerous, but by drawing his anger she may defeat it:
CLEOPATRA: [ … ] Good now, play one scene/Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honour.
ANTONY: You’ll heat my blood: no more.
CLEOPATRA: You can do better yet; but this is meetly.
ANTONY: Now, by my sword,—
CLEOPATRA: And target. Still he mends, / But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Chairman, / How this Herculean Roman does become / The carriage of his chafe.
This merciless harassing of Antony, which he is powerless to check, illustrates how utterly this Venus overwhelms her Mars. Yet beneath the wit and banter lies a dynamic sexual energy which transforms every situation into an opportunity to excite and arouse each other, a private and intimate linguistic foreplay which stimulates the body of their passion. Gentler exchanges seem merely a temporary truce, an opportunity to draw breath before the next offensive.
The conflict at the core of this play may be seen as operating on two principal levels: the personal and the public. At the opening of the play, on the personal level, Antony and Cleopatra (Mars and Venus) engage in a well-matched and mutually satisfying battle of the sexes. In the public arena, however, they are both seen by Rome as creatures of Venus. In Roman terms, Caesar is now perceived as a more powerful and ruthless Mars than the epicurean and dissipated Antony. Thus, as the action unfolds, the contention between Venus and Mars moves inexorably from the personal to the public arena.
Caesar’s is a world of politics, business and action. Antony’s is a world of domesticity, leisure and inaction. While Antony relies on his past reputation to define his honour, Caesar pays lip service to honour but rates political acumen more highly. The differences between the two ways of viewing the world are illustrated by the conversation between Pompey and Menas on board the galley. When Menas suggests murdering the triumvirate, Pompey replies:
Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on’t! In me, ’tis villainy;
In thee’t had been good service. [ … ]
Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done [ … ]
To Antony, honour equates with personal integrity: ‘If I lose mine honour, I lose myself’. To Pompey—and by association Caesar—it equates with political convenience.
An earthly Mars like Caesar has no room for such a purposeless emotion as human affection. What matter if Octavia becomes a pawn in the power struggle between himself and Antony? The sacrifice of his sister is worth the risk if it results in the elimination of his rival. By contrast, after the defeat at Actium, when Antony has every right to be angry, he comforts Cleopatra: ‘Fall not a tear [ … ] one of them rates / All that is won and lost’.
Caesar is no soldier, but has learned the more devious arts of ‘the brave squares of war’. Antony has military superiority, but he is warned by the Soothsayer: ‘If thou dost play with him at any game / Thou art sure to lose’. Swayed by Cleopatra’s tendency to seize every opportunity for sport, Antony fatally begins to adopt her mind-set. War itself becomes a game to play with Caesar. His decision to fight by sea is quite clearly wrong, undertaken because Caesar ‘dares us to’t’ and to impress Cleopatra.
Enobarbus recognises at once that when a general’s judgement is overruled by whim, his fate is sealed. Charisma and bravado are not enough. Antony’s conduct at Actium proved that ‘The itch of his affection should not [ … ] Have nick’d his captainship’, a fact which Antony himself recognises when he tells Cleopatra:
You did know
How much you were my conqueror, and
that / My sword, made weak by my
affection, would / Obey it on all cause.
When Antony challenges Caesar to fight him ‘sword against sword, ourselves alone’, Enobarbus sees it as a further sign of Antony’s diminution and soon decides, ‘When valour plays on reason, it eats the sword it fights with’. Antony is living on borrowed time.
It is only Cleopatra’s supposed death which persuades Antony to admit to military defeat. As he removes his armour with the words, ‘No more a soldier’, he finally accepts the inevitable. He belongs henceforth to another sphere, to a ‘new heaven, new earth’ with his immortal Venus: ‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.’ His acceptance of death is stoical— he recognises the sport in her latest act of deception and lacks rancour or bitterness. Instead, he feels justified in reclaiming his honour: ‘Not Caesar’s valour hath o’erthrown Antony, / But Antony’s hath triumphed on itself.’ In death, Antony’s spirit once more mounts to its destiny: ‘Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable.’
To Cleopatra, Antony now seems truly ‘godlike’, and to match him she too must embrace death in ‘the high Roman fashion’. Her earthly yearnings for her ‘noblest of men’ are replaced with ‘Immortal longings’. Yet even at the point of death she displays her old levity. Given her sensuality and love of sport, there is a poignant resonance in her assertion that ‘The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch /Which hurts and is desired’. By her suicide, Cleopatra defeats Caesar. Venus gains ultimate ascendancy over Mars. There is a triumphant note of celebration in her address to the asp which brings her ‘liberty’: ‘O, couldst thou speak / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied’. Caesar may have the Empire, but when the choice is between ‘new heaven, new earth’ or ‘this vile world’, Antony and Cleopatra are no longer in dispute: there’s simply no contest.
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
Patsy Hall, ‘‘Antony and Cleopatra: Venus and Mars in a ‘Vile World,’’’ in The English Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, November 2001, pp. 4–8.