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.
“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.