R.J. Askew's Reviews > Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
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Apr 03, 2012

it was amazing


Love. Power. Love. Power. Which is the eye drawn to? It’s said women love powerful men. So does love follow power? Wealth seems to. Are powerful men happier than all the rest? And powerful women? It’s said that men are terrified of them. And if the lover loves the power more than its holder? Can love conquor power? And if it does? What of power then? Can a powerful man surrender to love and remain powerful? Behind every powerful man… Power. Love. Power. Love. Antony. Cleo. Antony. Cleo.

‘Would I had never seen her!’ says Mark Antony.
But he does, and becomes in Rome’s eye, ‘the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust,’ and, ‘The triple pillar of the world transform’d into a strumpet’s fool…’
But then she is ‘…a wonderful piece of work…’, as Antony’s supporter Enobarbus says.
And she herself says, ‘I was a morsel for a monarch’.
‘Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both’, says Pompey’s son.
‘She is cunning past man’s thought,’ says Antony.
Musing on fishing, she says, ‘…my bended hook shall pierce their slimy jaws…I’ll think them every one an Antony, And say, ‘Ah ha!’ you’re caught.’
And he is.
On being entertained on her sumptuous barge he ‘…pays with his heart for what his eyes eat only.’
Such is her ‘infinite variety’.

Rome is power, the greatest there is. Power brings conquest, treasure, honour. Power is all. Power instinctively grows more powerful, loves power.
Rome has been a republic for five hundred years and is governed by a senatorial class of aristocratic families and tribunes elected by the people – the plebians.
But the power massed in the hands of men like Julius Caesar – warrior politicians – becomes too great for the old order to curb.
Julius Caesar, aided by Antony – a popular general, becomes dictator of Rome. This is the fulcrum in Rome’s history. The crisis deepens when the old order kills Caesar.
Antony takes revenge on the murders and joins a new ruling clique – the triumvirate – with the young Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and Lepidus, another of Julius Caesar’s allies.
Antony knows the hardships of war, and relates to common soldiers, the ‘lads’, with whom he is on familiar terms. He lives loose, drinks deep, and makes free with other mens’ wives.
The luxury of Egypt, in his third of the Roman world, is irresistible to him, as is its famous queen.
Cleopatra was the lover of Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son, Caesarion, and Caesar’s great rival, Pompey.
If Rome is power, order, reason, Egypt is pleasure, ease, romance.

‘…we did sleep day out…and make night light with drinking…’ says Enobarbus, adding later, ‘…we have used our throats in Egypt.’
Did you really have eight wild boar roasted whole at a breakfast? asks one of Caesar’s friends.

Enter a messenger.

But Mark Antony can’t forget Rome. Messengers fly back and forth. Antony’s brother and wife, Fulvia, war with Caesar in Italy, in part ‘to have me out of Egypt’, Antony says.
‘A Roman thought hath struck him,’ Cleopatra mocks.
She tries to beguile him by pretending to be sad if he is merry and merry if he is sad.
But Rome tugs at Antony. ‘Our Italy shines o’er with civil swords,’ he says. ‘I must be gone. These strong Egyptian fetters I must break.’

Enter another messenger.

But first a little bawdy joking among Cleopatra’s ladies and a soothsayer who tells Charmian, ‘You shall outlive the lady whom you serve.’ Such is Egypt.

Enter a messenger.

Fulvia is dead. And Pompey the younger challenges the triumvirate. Caesar says ‘…we do bear so great weight in his lightness’ of Antony’s absence.
But then he is in Rome and it is Cleopatra who misses him ‘…does he walk? Or is he on his horse? O happy, horse, to bear the weight of Antony!’
Antony the politician makes up with Caesar who marries his sister, Octavia, to him.
But Enobarbus says, ‘He will to his Egyptian dish again,’ and predicts that the marriage will later ‘prove the immediate author of their variance.’

Strikes him down.

Cleopatra is enraged at the hapless messenger who brings news of the marriage. ‘Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire, and stewed in brine.’

On board Pompey’s galley.

Lepidius, drunk, asks, ‘What manner o’thing is your crocodile?’ Antony mocks him, ‘It is shaped sir, like itself…’
Pompey declines an offer from a pirate to murder the triumvirs on his behalf as this would dishonour him. The pirate deserts him. Ventidius, a subordinate of Antony’s later says he did not do as much while fighting the parthains as he could have done, so as not to, ‘acquire too high a fame’. Lepidius, the weakest triumvir, is however caught between his love for Caesar and his adoration of Antony.
Will Caesar weep when he parts from Octavia? Antony ‘cried almost to roaring’ on Julius Caesar’s death.
‘Is she as tall as me? What majesty is in her gait?’ asks Cleopatra. ‘She creeps,’ says the now wily messenger.

The play is riddled contrasts between rivals and contrasts within in the principals, much as Plutrach’s Lives, Shakespeare’s source for this and his other Roman plays, contrasts the lives of noble Greeks and Romans and strengths and weakness of character in individuals. There are two sides to everything. Life is comedy and tragedy.

We are now almost at the mid-point of Act III and the fulcrum of the play, after which events spin out of Mark Antony’s control.


Antony complains that Caesar is at war with Pompey and has deposed Lepidus. Octavia is distraught, torn, like Lepidus, between praying for her husband Antony and her brother Octavius, saying there is, ‘…no midway twix these extrmes at all.’
Caesar is angered thatm ‘Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold were publicly enthron’d’.
‘He hath given his empire up to a whore; who now are levying the kings o’the earth for war.’

A plain near Actium.

Enobarbus the soldier, exasperated by Cleopatra’s presence, moans, ‘But why, why, why?’ He adds, ‘…if we should serve with horse and mares together…your presence must puzzle Antony…’
‘Sink Rome,’ snaps Cleopatra.
Antony is stronger on land than at sea and a common soldier pleads, ‘ O noble emperor! Do not fight by sea…’ And Canidius, who later deserts Antony, says, ‘…our leader’s led, and we are women’s men.’
But Anony fights Ceasar at sea and is undone when Cleopatra flees the battle with her sixty ships, ‘like a cow in June’, and Antony follows, ‘like a doting mallard’.
Scarus says, ‘Experience, manhood, honour, ne’er before did violate itself so.’

‘Love, I am full of lead,’ says Antony after, perhaps addressing the concept of love as well as Cleopatra. My heart was tied to your rudder, he tells her.
He is reduced to sending his old teacher, Euphronius, to treat with his younger rival, such is his impotence.
‘What shall we do, Enobarbus?’ asks Cleopatra.
‘Think, and die,’ comes the reply.
Antony is now so desperate he challenges Caesar to fight him, ‘sword against sword’.
Enobarbus in a scornful aside says Caesar triumphant will not risk all, ‘Against a sworder!’ and in another aside says, ‘Sir, sir, thou’rt so leaky, that we must leave thee to thy sinking...'
Antony has Caesar’s messenger whipped and rails against Cleopatra, ‘I found you as a morsel, cold upon dead Caesar’s trencher…’ She calls down poisoned hailstones on herself.
Antony rallies, ‘Let’s have one other gaudy night…’
Enobarbus sees it all, ‘Now he’ll outstare the lightning. A diminution in our captain’s brain restores his heart. I will seek some other way to leave him.’
‘He calls me boy,’ says Caesar.

‘Tend me tonight two hours,’ Antony bids of his servants, as if expecting doom. Soldiers hear, ‘Music i’ the air’, and suspect it marks his favourite god, Hercules, deserting him.
Cleopatra helps him on with his armour like a fussing wife and he kisses her, ‘This is a soldier’s kiss.’ This is their only kiss in the play’s text.
Later, when things go well for him, he refers to her as, ‘My nightingale…’ Previously he says fondly, ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ And he sends her a pearl from Rome, at which point he was to her ‘man of men’ and she was writing to him every day, saying to her maid,‘Ink and paper, Charmain.’

When Enobarbus finally deserts him, Antony, sees the consequences of his mistakes, ‘O! my fortunes have corrupted honest men.’ Enobarbus rues his desertion saying of himself, ‘I am alone the villain of the earth.’ When Antony’s fortunes rally briefly – pointedly in a land battle – Enobarbus dies, disconsolate, ‘A master-leaver and a fugitive.’
But then, ‘All is lost!’ during a second sea battle and Antony calls Cleopatra a ‘triple-turn’d whore!’ and says she ‘Hast sold me to this novice,’ Caesar.
At Actium, one of Antony’s soldiers called her, ‘Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt’ and Antony now calls her ‘a right gypsy…fast and loose’, as if coming round to the Roman view of her as ‘gypsy’ in the play’s opening lines.
He calls her ‘the greatest spot of all thy sex’, talks of Caesar hoisting her up ‘to the shouting plebians’, and says ‘The witch shall die: to the young Roman boy she hath sold me’.

Terrified by Antony’s rage, Cleopatra bolts to her monument and sends her eunuch to say she is dead.
Antony, ‘Dead then?’ Eunuch, ‘Dead.’
The news drives Antony to tell his man Eros to kill him. But Eros kills himself instead. Antony, shamed by Eros, falls on his own sword, but fails to kill himself.
‘Let him that loves me strike me dead,’ he commands of his guards. But they all refuse.
He is taken to Cleopatra’s monument. ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying.’
Cleopatra and her maids hoist him up. ‘How heavy weight my lord!’ she says. ‘Our strength is goint into heaviness, that makes the weight.’
The point is hammered home when all the women say, ‘A heavy sight!’ And Antony repeats, ‘I am dying Egypt, dying.’

Antony dies.

In the final act Caesar, ‘sole sir o’the world,’ makes his plans and Cleopatra treats with him. She dreams of Antony and speaks of him as a generous and outstanding man, but not in a romantic way, as a lover.
Caesar seems reasonable yet threatens her children if she does not comply. She then discovers his true intent is to parade her to through Rome ‘in triumph.’
Yet, she too remains slippery, disguising her true wealth from Caesar.
She is in horror of the Roman mob with their ‘greasy aprons…thick breaths…rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, and forc’d to drink their vapour?’
There seems more passion in this fear than in her dream of Antony, though Shakespeare was surely trying to make his own smelly audience think of themselves as Romans.
And so, to join Antony and foil Caesar, she applies an asp. But first she kisses one of her maids, who promptly dies. She applies a second asp, dies. Another maid applies an asp, dies.
Octavius Caesar, powerless to stop Cleopatra’s bid for immortality, goes on to rule Rome for decades and make good his comment that, ‘The time of universal peace is near.’

Power wins. Love for its own sake is nowhere. Cleopatra’s love of Antony’s power and Antony’s sensuousness permit her to cloak his power as a rampant ivy cloaks a tree until said tree falls, taking said ivy with it. Antony speaks with more passion about his honour, or hurtfully of Cleopatra when his cause fails, than he ever does in a romantic way to or about her. And she remains guileful to the end and as concerned with her royalty and spiting Caesar’s plan to show her off as she is about joining Antony in death. But the ‘boy’ Caesar is immune to her ways and does not even recognise her when they first meet. We also know from Plutarch that Cleopatra tested methods of suicide on prisoners to discover the gentlest, a woman who left little to chance.
But are things ever so simple? The complexity of all things is captured when Cleopatra says to her first asp, ‘This knot intrinsicate of life at once untie’. The joining of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘intricate’ in the portmanteau word ‘intrinsicate’ tells us that life is never one thing.
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matt This is terrific- written with zest and insight and with a detailed summary that reminded me of things I enjoyed when I read it myself

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