Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra’s Fatal Role Play

It is significant that Shakespeare begins Antony and Cleopatra with an audience judging a performance. Philo and Demetrius share the observing position of the theatre audience and guide expectations with Philo’s comments, which state that Antony has abandoned his warlike roles and his ‘captain’s heart’ and ‘is become the bellows and the fan/To cool a gipsy’s lust.’ The positioning of Antony and Cleopatra as objects for observation and wonder is emphasised by his exhortations to ‘Look where they come!’ and ‘Behold and see’, while his judgement is that ‘the triple pillar of the world’ is ‘transform’d/Into a strumpet’s fool.’ In this way, not only does he raise the question of Antony’s status in his relationship with Cleopatra, but Shakespeare also sets the tone for a play which is consistently focused on appearance, role and performance.

That balance between the military imagery of ‘plated Mars’ and the racist, misogynistic ‘tawny front’ and ‘gipsy’ encapsulates the opposition between duty and love, Rome and Egypt, masculine and feminine which anchors the whole play. And although Philo represents a disparaging, Roman view, those roles between which Antony has to choose are apparent throughout, even to Antony himself. This idea of roles and role-play, of characters performing roles and audiences watching them, also permeates the play and is given its initial impetus by Philo and Demetrius.

Which is the Real Antony?

Cleopatra demands the role of lover from Antony in the same scene. To be convincing in the role, he has to tell her ‘how much’ he loves her. He needs convincing dialogue to persuade her, and Shakespeare gives him stirring, hyperbolic lover’s talk, dismissing as ‘beggary’ the love which can be measured, but then suggesting ‘new heaven, new earth’ must be found to encompass his love. There is a playfulness in this exchange which suggests a consciousness of play-acting. While Antony plays that role convincingly, dismissing Rome and its ‘ranged empire’ and finding ‘nobleness’ instead in his lover’s embrace, it is not long before ‘a Roman thought’ strikes him and his political role reasserts itself. It is Cleopatra who says ‘Antony/Will be himself’, but Shakespeare gives the audience a number of different Antonys at the beginning of the play and it is difficult to gauge which is ‘himself’.

When in Rome, Antony plays his political role deftly, bettering Caesar in their game of courteous one-upmanship before sitting down and negotiating his way through Caesar’s accusations, while it is his diplomacy with Pompey which creates the temporary accord. Shakespeare shows his bonhomie and easy charm with other men, implying that Antony can play the skilled politician. He is, though, finally outmanoeuvred by Caesar and edged into marriage with Octavia. This, of course, leads to the ultimately fatal tension between the roles of lover and triumvir. As Antony himself says,

‘… though I make this marriage for my peace,

I’ the east my pleasure lies.’

It is the same dichotomy between Antony’s roles that leads Cleopatra to see him as two-faced, with two distinct aspects to his character:

‘Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,

The other way’s a Mars.’

Antony’s Decline

In the second half of Act 3 and through Act 4, Shakespeare dramatises Antony’s failing grasp of his political and military roles, while his role as lover becomes more questionable – Scarus calls him ‘The noble ruin’ of Cleopatra’s ‘magic’. It is significant that it is when he has lost all control in fury, demanding that Thidias be ‘whipp’d’ for kissing Cleopatra’s hand, that Antony claims to have restored his sense of his central self, claiming that,

‘I am Antony yet.’

Yet in his final stages, as he laments his decline with Eros, Antony shows his awareness of his inability to hold fast to any role. Shakespeare uses the metaphor of clouds, constantly shifting their shapes in the sky, to represent Antony’s shifting state:

‘The rack dislimns, and makes itself indistinct,

As water is in water.’

Antony admits that he no longer has any sense of what role he is playing and there is no sense of his own integral self:

‘… here I am Antony,

Yet cannot hold this visible shape’.

Crucially, he does admit that he has relinquished his central Roman role. He is no longer associated with Mars, no longer a commander of armies. He is ‘No more a soldier’.

Cleopatra the Actress

While Shakespeare shows Antony veering between different roles, he portrays Cleopatra as a consummate actress. This woman of ‘infinite variety’ is impossible to pin down, a shape-shifter for different occasions and moods. Enobarbus’ sardonic commentary alerts the audience first to her penchant for performance, noting to Antony that his departure for Rome will have disastrous consequences:

‘Cleopatra catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly. I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment.’

She manipulates Antony through her performances and it is not just Enobarbus who is alert to her tactics. Part of the humour which Shakespeare creates around her character is her own frank admission of her switching roles. She commands Alexas to find Antony after his ‘Roman thought’ and

‘If you find him sad,

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick.’

Shakespeare presents Antony’s uncertainty between roles as a significant dilemma, the nagging flaw of a formerly great man in the Aristotelian tragic sense. With Cleopatra, however, it is part of a comic presentation of feminine vacillation in the same vein as Hamlet’s ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’[1]. Such a differentiation might suggest a misogynistic portrayal of Cleopatra by Shakespeare, though she gets equal billing in the title and the whole of Act 5 is devoted to her, completely upstaging Antony. Indeed, Marilyn French argues that ‘Cleopatra is majestic and tempestuous, without shame and without guilt’, and that her character represents ‘the outlaw feminine principle embodied in a powerful female.’[2]

Theatrical Elements

What is striking about Cleopatra’s performances is that they go beyond mere role-play. With costume, props and setting, she is consistently theatrically staged. She reminisces with her women about her times with Antony, remembering that she

‘… put my tires and mantles on him

Whilst I wore his sword Philippan.’

The role reversal of the lovers is made explicit with the exchange of clothes and weapon. The clearest sense of this staging, however, is given by Enobarbus as he conjures up the appearance of Cleopatra for his wondering audience in Rome. It is through this speech rather than by anything else that Shakespeare gives the audience a real understanding of Cleopatra’s magical allure:

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne

Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold’.

His language creates a set more opulent than any created by Inigo Jones for his masques in London’s Jacobean court theatre, as the repeated plosives create extra emphasis. There is elaborate setting, music from the ‘flutes’ and an attendant cast of ‘Pretty dimpled boys’ and ‘gentlewomen, like the Nereides’. At the rudder of the barge is ‘a seeming mermaid’. There are two stages of performance here: on the one hand, Enobarbus’ narration is showing off the grandeur and exoticism of Egypt to impress Maecenas and Agrippa, while Cleopatra’s ornate entrance is a show designed to entice Antony. Soon he too is involved in the same kind of public display:

‘Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold

Were publicly enthron’d…

I’ the common show-place’.

The Other Side of Show

Antony and Cleopatra share a theatrical ostentation in their love, playing the roles of grand lovers to the hilt. They revel in public success, but the flip side is a fear of public show in failure. In his anger with Cleopatra, Antony envisages her being dragged after a triumphant Caesar,

‘Following his chariot, like the greatest spot

Of all thy sex.’

She too is afraid of being led on display for ‘the shouting plebeians’ and of

‘Some squeaking Cleopatra boy[ing] my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore.’

These two actors are eager to perform when they are in control of the production. Otherwise, it is a horror. It is to avoid that horror that Cleopatra stages her final show, with costume – her ‘best attires’ and crown’ – with a key prop – a basket of asps ­– and a determination to be in control of the performance:

‘Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion’.

Enobarbus’ Place in the Story

While Shakespeare focuses the grand sweep of this story on the two central protagonists, other characters contribute to the concern with roles. Caesar, of course, is disgusted by any kind of public display, revealed in his spitting condemnation of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s antics in Alexandria. Enobarbus’ character makes a significant contribution. While Antony at one point tells him to ‘speak no more’ because he is ‘a soldier only’, his role goes well beyond that reductive description. As much as any other character, he is explicitly concerned about his role and what ‘place’ he will have ‘i’ th’ story.’ His pithy comments punctuate the play, making him a kind of touchstone for the audience, and as we have seen, Shakespeare shows him rising to the heights of eloquence in giving the audience, as well as the Romans, an understanding of Cleopatra’s allure. Despite all this, he ultimately feels defined by his final act of betrayal. Though he has been clear-sighted about Antony’s failings, he claims that he himself is ‘alone the villain of the earth’. The audience will probably not agree, but at his death, Enobarbus’ sense of his place in the story is not the one he hoped for:

‘But let the world rank me in register

A master-leaver and a fugitive’.

Dichotomies between Rome and Egypt define Antony and Cleopatra, and those tensions run through Shakespeare’s characterisation too, as the audience judges between soldier and lover, lover and dotard, strumpet and queen, lover and egotist, faithful henchman and ‘master-leaver’.

[1] Hamlet I ii l.146
[2] French, Marilyn: Shakespeare’s Division of Experience