Antony and Cleopatra: Love is a Battlefield

Antony and Cleopatra on the Nile

Antony and Cleopatra on the Nile

Antony and Cleopatra is a historic play told with poetic, passionate and playful verse, lending it much interest, and setting it apart from the other Shakespearian histories. Cleopatra and Antony are both larger than life; their stations and their passions for one another taking place on the eve of the world changing forever with the passing of Julius Caesar and the ushering in of a long period of peace under Augustus. The tapestry of the play is appropriately a battleground, while the threads that create the picture is the star crossed love affair of Antony and Cleopatra. Love itself is presented in the play as a battleground and the two lovers meet upon the field to war with one another, only to make peace treaties that declare their enduring love. The play opens with Philo narrating to the audience that the great captain Antony has “become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust” (Act 1, scene I, 9-10). There is much to gather from Philo’s narration, but the most important thing to take out of it is that this is a play about the love between these two people. A love that will eclipse everything else, and all will be pawns in it, all will be swallowed by it, and it will change the world forever. Cleopatra sums it up with her opening line, “If it be love indeed, tell me how much” (Act 1, scene i, 15).

While Philo’s description of the Egyptian Queen seems to be less than flattering, Enobarbus’ description is worshipful.

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

Elizabeth Taylor (opposite Richard Burton) as Cleopatra in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1968 screen adaption of Antony and Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor (opposite Richard Burton) as Cleopatra in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1968 screen adaption of Antony and Cleopatra

Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold,

Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that

The winds were love-sick. (Act 2, scene ii, 227-230).

Always there is two competing sides to Cleopatra, and Shakespeare sets Antony up to be her mirror, at once a different person in Rome, another in Egypt. And when he dies it is said that, “His taints and honors waged equal in him” (Act 5, scene i, 37-38). We are to see that Antony and Cleopatra really were the same person, a symbolic marriage, a fusion of flesh and spirit. We get that most definitely at Cleopatra’s death scene: “Husband, I come! Now to that name my courage prove that title” (Act 5, scene ii, 342-343). These two were above the biblical laws of marriage, they needed no priest to unite them, they were married of their own accord and power.

When Antony first goes to Rome, we see the queen as being playful and worthy of all of Enobarbus’ praise. She intellectualizes and tries to imagine him, “He’s speaking now, or murmuring, ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ For so he calls me” (Act 1, scene v, 29-31). The whole scene seems to prepare the way for and justify the action of Antony when in the sea-fight at Actium, he leaves the battle, and “like a doating mallard” (Act 3, scene x, 24) follows her flying sails. When they are not together, they are thinking of each other, where one goes, the other will follow, and if it is not physically possible to do so, they will conjure the other in their minds.

Cleopatra is voluptuous and hedonistic; she gives herself fully to the power of love, she heeds no other consideration but for her own immediate desires. Octavia is tedious compared to her, and Fulvia is a nag. In comparing Cleopatra to other women:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes me hungry

Where most she satisfies. (Act 2, scene ii, 276-279).

With a fiery spirit she deals with Antony’s messenger who brings her the unwelcome news of his marriage with Octavia. She uses her high rank with promised reward to him if only he delivers the news she wants, “There is gold, and here my bluest veins to kiss!” (Act 2, scene v, 34-35). She basically wants the messenger to join in her ultimate game of fantasy. When he refuses to play her game, the carefully crafted world of hers get jolted and sends her into a rage, where she actually strikes the man (Act 2, scene v, SD, 79). It is questionable at this point whether she truly loves Antony at all or simply the idea of him. She is a woman with a history of love affairs with powerful men who are drawn to her because she herself is so powerful that they see themselves reflected in her on every level.

What changes the entire direction of the play, and lends so much complexity to Cleopatra is when Antony dies in her arms; she laments his death and then tells her women that after they have buried him, they will do as he did, “after the high Roman fashion” (Act 4, scene xv, 101). At this point she seems to learn that she truly is in love with Antony, and the despair she seems to present at his passing makes her suicide, on one level at least, a redeeming act. However, after coming back from her summons with Caesar in Act 5, scene ii, and Dolabella has come and gone, she begins to bewail to Iras, “Thou an Egyptian puppet be shown in Rome as well as I” (Act 5, scene ii, 254-255) She mourns that they will be scorned and laughed at in Caesar’s victory procession, and this is the last truly intelligible thing she says.

After that she dissolves into what I see as feverish death murmurings. She says she is going to “Cydnus to meet Mark Antony” (Act 5, scene ii, 278-279). Then she says she can hear Antony calling her (Act 5, scene ii, 338-339). Then suddenly she is back to playing the role of mourning lover, “The stroke of death is as a lovers pinch which hurts and is desired” (Act 5, scene ii, 350-351). Her last words are a half-finished sentence. What was Shakespeare trying to say with that? Somehow it’s Cleopatra who reaches beyond the grave; it is she who gets the last words, it is she that has became the legend.

Death of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci, 1658, Italian Baroque

Death of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci, 1658, Italian Baroque

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