Sunday, 12 September 2021

Antony and Cleopatra

1/ How could anyone read Shakespeare and not be in awe of the language? 

“ANTONY Let Rome in Tiber melt, and my wide arch

Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, 

Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike 

Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life

Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair 

And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,

On pain of punishment, the world to weet 

We stand up peerless.” 

(Act 1 scene 1)

Antony and Cleopatra first appear like lovesick teenagers. Some messengers come from Rome, so Cleopatra taunts him and gets the reaction she wants: “Let Rome in Tiber melt”.

Now look at this passage—Cleopatra doesn’t know where Antony is, and sends Charmian to get him: 

“CLEOPATRA See where he is, who’s with him, what he does: 

I did not send you. If you find him sad, 

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

The exchange between Antony and Cleopatra in this scene is magnificent: she is being theatrical, playing the role of a spurned lover and cutting in whenever he’s about to speak, and the character feels so real, so alive, so “modern”. People don’t seem to have changed much. 

It’s a pity that Cleopatra uses the same trick again later, and realises it’s inappropriate when it’s too late. 

“ENOBARBUS […] her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a show’r of rain as well as Jove.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

I like that the highest praise of Cleopatra—the most famous line about the character—doesn’t come from Antony: 

“ENOBARBUS […] Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety: other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies; for vilest things

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests 

Bless her when she is riggish.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 


2/ I didn’t expect to find a eunuch in Shakespeare. 

“CLEOPATRA […] ‘tis well for thee 

That, being unseminared, thy freer thoughts 

May not fly forth of Egypt. Hast thou affections? 

MARDIAN Yes, gracious madam. 


MARDIAN Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing 

But what indeed is honest to be done: 

Yet have I fierce affections, and think

What Venus did with Mars.” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

(Unseminared means unsexed). 

It’s a pity that the dramatic Cleopatra changes the subject and again talks about Antony “Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?...”, because I want to hear more about Mardian. Shakespeare can get us interested in very small characters, with just a few lines. 


“CLEOPATRA […] O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!...” 


Yep, I’m adding Cleopatra to the list of horny women in Shakespeare.

3/ My favourite scenes are perhaps the ones where Cleopatra are present, or discussed by other characters. 

“CLEOPATRA […] There is gold and here

My bluest veins to kiss, a hand that kings

Have lipped, and trembled kissing.” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

When she’s mad, the language is still fascinating.

“CLEOPATRA […] Horrible villain! Or I’ll spurn thine eyes 

Like balls before me: I’ll unhair thy head, 

Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,

Smarting in ling’ring pickle.” 


I should steal those lines. 

“CLEOPATRA Some innocents’ scape not the thunderbolt. 

Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures 

Turn all to serpents!” 


Next to her, Octavia is insipid.

Cleopatra doesn’t look so good in battle however. 

“SCARUS […] Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt—

Whom leprosy o’ertake!—i’ th’ midst o’ th’ fight, 

When vantage like a pair of twins appeared, 

Both as the same, or rather ours the elder, 

The breese upon her, like a cow in June, 

Hoists sails, and flies.” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 

HAHAHAHAHA “like a cow in June”. 

Antony doesn’t look much better either: 

“SCARUS She once being loofed, 

The noble ruin of her magic, Antony, 

Claps on his sea wing, and (like a doting mallard) 

Leaving the fight in height, flies after her. 

I never saw an action of such shame; 

Experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before

Did violate so itself.” 


(Breese means gadfly, with pun on breeze; mallard is wild duck).

Antony’s speech of shame in the following scene is moving. 

4/ Enobarbus is perhaps the most clear-sighted character in the play: he knows Lepidus is the weakest of the triumvirate, he sees through Antony’s marriage with Octavia (Caesar’s sister) and predicts that “the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity” (Act 2 scene 6), he knows that Antony is besotted with Cleopatra and will return to her (more than Antony knows it himself)…

Enobarbus also has some of the best lines in the play. See this moment when Enobarbus watches the drunken Antony, after shamefully running away from battle, want to challenge Caesar to a one-on-one combat: 

“ENOBARBUS [Aside] Yes, like enough: high-battled Caesar will 

Unstate his happiness and be staged to ‘th show

Against a sworder! I see men’s judgments are

A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward 

Do draw the inward quality after them 

To suffer all alike. That he should dream,

Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will 

Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued 

His judgment too.” 

(Act 3 scene 8)

I love that bit, “answer his emptiness”. 

Another great line: 

“ENOBARBUS [Aside] ‘Tis better playing with a lion’s whelp 

Than with an old one dying.” 



“ENOBARBUS Now he’ll outstate the lightning. To be furious 

Is to be frighted out of fear, and in that mood

The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still

A diminution in our captain’s brain

Restores his heart. When valor preys on reason,

It eats the sword it fights with…” 


And so Enobarbus leaves Antony to join Caesar. In Caesar’s camp, he realises his own mistake. 

“ENOBARBUS […] I have done ill,

Of which I do accuse myself so sorely

That I will joy no more.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

But his soliloquy, his soliloquy after he gets the message from Antony is so deeply moving.

“ENOBARBUS I am alone the villain of the earth, 

And feel I am so most. O, Antony,

Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid

My better service, when my turpitude

Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.

If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean

Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do’t, I feel. 

I fight against thee! No, I will go seek

Some ditch wherein to die: the foul’s best fits

My latter part of life.” 


This must be one of the most moving moments in all of Shakespeare. His later speech before the moon is also great, but this moment somehow touches me more deeply. 

5/ I’ve realised that this is not a very good blog post, as I mostly quote the play and have very little to say, but…

Anyway, I love this speech from Anthony: 

“ANTONY Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,

A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,

A towered citadel, a pendant rock, 

A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory 

With trees upon’t that nod unto the world 

And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs: 

They are black vesper’s pageants.


That which is now a horse, even with a thought 

The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct

As water is in water.” 

(Act 4 scene 14) 

(black vesper’s pageants= evening’s brightly coloured but unreal scenery; pageants: floats of the mystery plays, hence plays, masques, etc.; even… dislimns= as swift as thought the cloud formation (rack) obliterates)

What a magnificent speech. 

He continues: 

“ANTONY My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is

Even such a body: here I am Antony,

Yet cannot hold this visible shape…” 


Tony Tanner says: 

“He is in fact moving towards physical invisibility, because Antony, the name, the individual, the specific and world-famous identity, can no longer ‘hold’ onto his bodily shape. He is moving out, moving through, moving beyond; melting, but also transcending the final barrier—the body itself.” (Introduction) 

And so he takes his armour off, discarding it. 

“… it is almost as though he is taking his body to pieces and throwing it away—‘Bruised pieces, go’ does seem almost to refer to the body as well, for it is that ‘frail case’ which he now wishes to burst free from. The body is the final boundary.” (ibid.) 

6/ Antony is multifaceted: in some scenes, he’s a foolish man and a bad politician who neglects his duties because of a woman; in some other scenes, he’s a brave soldier; in one scene, he acts like an old lion that is dying, naïvely sending Caesar a challenge to a one-on-one combat and whipping his messenger; in another scene, he accepts Enobarbus’s desertion with great nobility and magnanimity; throughout the play he’s presented as human, full of flaws and even ordinary, but in the last 2 acts and especially after his death, he’s achieved a god-like status. 

Frank Kermode mentions the scene where the soldiers hear the ominous music that means Hercules is abandoning Antony (Act 4 scene 3), and says: 

“In twenty-one lines it does much, giving to the fate of Antony a quasi-mythological grandeur which henceforth infuses much of the verse. Enobarbus deserts “O, my fortunes have/ Corrupted honest men!” (IV.v.16-17). But the tones of imperial grandeur persists. Anthony scores an inconclusive victory and greets Cleopatra as if she were more than human, calling her “this great fairy” (IV.viii.12), while she gives him the welcome due to a god: 

Lord of lords! 

O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from 

The world’s great snare uncaught? 


The marvel is that in this play bombast, or what ought to be at best nickel silver, is somehow transmuted into fine gold.” (Shakespeare’s Language

And then comes Cleopatra’s speech to Dolabella about Antony. She re-creates him. Or as Tony Tanner puts it:

“Cleopatra’s image of Antony out-imagines the imagination, out-dreams dream.” (Introduction) 

This is a great play, especially the last 2 acts. Let’s hope I have more to say next time I read the play. 


  1. It's so sad and beautiful: the world's most famous and glamorous couple, aging into a pair of jaded old voluptuaries who live inside a bubble of nostalgia, increasingly disconnected from the world. In their imaginations, he is still The Antony, and she is The Cleopatra. The grandeur surrounding them is more nostalgia, on the part of the world which has not yet seen who Antony and Cleopatra have become. I love this play. It's like the biggest, most sweeping, most intimate domestic drama ever written.

    1. Yeah, I like that moment when Antony is shouting "I am Antony yet" at the messenger, and he's clearly not Antony then.
      I don't love the play as much as some others, but perhaps it's because it's the first time. Later I may see things I missed this time.

  2. My personal favorite play. I especially enjoy how Shakespeare gives it his best to make challenge “common sense,” that is, to put it plainly, wisdom versus sublime. Leaves one asking where life was truly found in this play when all that’s left in the world is cold Augustus.

    1. That sounds a bit too bitter and negative, no? I don't really read the play that way.
      Check out this blog post and see what you think:

    2. Though Octavian, personification of the inexorable weight of history bearing down on Antony and Cleopatra, doesn't get as much attention as the famous couple. He is a sort of emotionless pressure that eventually flattens everything in his path, a walking and talking plot device, so well done that he's almost invisible.

    3. I wouldn't go as far as calling him a plot device, but (I think) I see what you mean.
      It's fascinating how he's said to be, and in some way depicted to be, the statesman and leader that Antony and Cleopatra are not, but Antony and Cleopatra, flawed as they are, achieve a kind of dignity and divinity at the end that he doesn't have. I have no idea how Shakespeare does it.

    4. Apologies, I may not have worded my point clearly as I'm not sure if you took my final sentence as a reflection on the play itself or as a reflection on Octavius, the character. It was meant to convey the latter. It was a tad hyperbolic but it's hard not to be about such a generally hyperbolic play. I largely in affinity with the post you linked. It edges toward what I mean by "common sense" and "wisdom" in describing how the two protagonists are portrayed. It's the reason virile and pragmatic men like Shaw come to this play and hate it. I don't really view either phrase as a positive when it comes to discussing this play and, in fact, I think those terms are kind of turned on their head here. In a general sense, it seems to me Shakespeare does the impossible through striving to show the power and wisdom of imagination or imaginative work—something that is often denigrated in favor of more "sensible" points of view, ways of living, even by readers of poetry. To be elusive, if you know anything about Keat's letters, the same conflicting issue arises there. Let me know if that makes anymore sense. I could discuss this play further but I wanted to first clarify what I was saying originally.

    5. Oh and apologies, I was logged into my work account when I posted originally, haha!

    6. I will have to get back to this.
      I didn't understand and feel this play as well as some others, so...


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