Let’s grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smells of sweat. Say this becomes him—
As his composure must be rare indeed
Whom these things cannot blemish—yet must Antony
No way excuse his foils when we do bear
So great a weight in his lightness. If he filled
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for’t. But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport, and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours—’tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to the present pleasure,
And so rebel to judgement.
In Act I, scene iv, Caesar meets with Lepidus to discuss the threat that Pompey poses to the empire. Here, he chastises Antony for staying in Egypt, where he pursues pleasure at the expense of his duty to the state. Caesar’s speech is significant for two reasons. First, it defines the Western sensibilities against which Cleopatra’s Egypt is judged and by which Antony is ultimately measured. As Caesar dismisses Antony’s passion for Cleopatra as boyish irresponsibility, he asserts the Roman expectation of duty over pleasure, reason over emotion. These competing worlds and worldviews provide the framework for understanding the coming clashes between Caesar and Antony, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cleopatra and Caesar.
Second, Caesar’s speech to Lepidus is significant for its suggestion that the oppositional worlds delineated here are a result of perception. For example, just as our perception of Antony changes according to the perceptions of other characters—to Caesar he is negligent and mighty; to Cleopatra, noble and easily manipulated; to Enobarbus, worthy but misguided—so too our understanding of East and West depends upon the ways in which the characters perceive them. To Caesar, Alexandria is a den of iniquity where the noontime streets are filled with “knaves that smell of sweat.” But we should resist his understanding as the essential definition of the East; we need only refer to Cleopatra’s very similar description of a Roman street to realize that place, as much as character, in Antony and Cleopatra, is a quilt of competing perceptions: “[m]echanic slaves / With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall / Uplift us to the view” (V.ii.205–207).
Upon her landing Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper. She replied
It should be better he became her guest,
Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony,
Whom ne’er the word of ‘No’ woman heard speak,
Being barbered ten times o’er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.
. . .
I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street,
And having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And breathless, pour forth breath.
. . .
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.
Enobarbus makes this speech, one of the most famous of the play. The lines before this oft-quoted passage begin with the description of Cleopatra floating down the Nile on her gilded barge. Enobarbus moves on to tell the men gathered on Pompey’s ship how Antony met Cleopatra. It seems that the general, particularly susceptible to the wants of women, fell under the queen’s spell immediately. Whatever power Antony had in relation to the queen, he surrenders it almost immediately—in fact, before the two even meet: “She replied / It should be better he became her guest,” and Antony, never having denied a woman’s wishes, agrees. In addition to demonstrating the queen’s power over Antony, this passage describes Cleopatra’s talent for performance. Her performance in “the public street” makes “defect”—her inability to breathe—“perfection.” Whether sitting stately on her “burnished throne” (II.ii.197) or hopping “forty paces,” Cleopatra never loses her ability to quicken the breath of her onlookers or persuade the “holy priests” to bless what they would certainly, in others, condemn.
You take from me a great part of myself.
Use me well in’t. Sister, prove such a wife
As my thoughts make thee, and as my farthest bond
Shall pass on thy aproof. Most noble Antony,
Let not the piece of virtue which is set
Betwixt us as the cement of our love
To keep it builded, be the ram to batter
The fortress of it; for better might we
Have loved without this mean if on both parts
This be not cherished.
Following the advice that Agrippa offers him in Act II, scene ii, Caesar offers Antony his sister, Octavia, as a means of securing peace between them. This gesture attests to the power that men ascribe to women and female sexuality in this play. What men consider the wrong kind of female sexuality—embodied proudly and openly by Cleopatra—stands as a threat to men, their reason, and sense of duty. What they consider the right kind, however, as represented by the modest “piece of virtue” Octavia, promises to be “the cement” of Caesar’s love for Antony. Caesar’s language, here, is particularly important: the words he chooses to describe Antony’s union to Octavia and, by extension, his reunion with Caesar, belong to the vocabulary of builders: “the cement of our love / To keep it builded, be the ram to batter / The fortress of it” (emphasis added). This language makes an explicit connection between the private realm of love and the public realm of the state, a connection that causes Caesar more than a little anxiety throughout the play.
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked 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 disdains, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
. . .
Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.
I made these wars for Egypt, and the Queen—
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine,
Which whilst it was mine had annexed unto’t
A million more, now lost—she, Eros, has
Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory
Unto an enemy’s triumph.
Nay, weep not, gentle Eros. There is left us
Ourselves to end ourselves.
After Cleopatra’s ships abandon Antony in battle for the second time, the general faces the greatest defeat of his military career. Antony is accustomed only to victory, and his understanding of self leaves little room for defeat, either on the battlefield or in terms of love. As a Roman, Antony has a rigid perception of himself: he must live within the narrowly defined confines of the victor and hero or not live at all. Here, he complains to his trusted attendant, Eros, about the shifting of his identity. He feels himself helplessly changing, morphing from one man to another like a cloud that turns from a dragon to a bear to a lion as it moves across the sky. He tries desperately to cling to himself—”Here I am Antony”—but laments he “cannot hold this visible shape.” Left without military might or Cleopatra, Antony loses his sense of who he is. Rather than amend his identity to incorporate this loss, rather than become an Antony conquered, he chooses to end his life. In the end, he clings to the image of himself as the unvanquished hero in order to achieve this last task: “[t]here is left us / Ourselves to end ourselves.”
Nay, ’tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
Soon after Antony’s death, Cleopatra determines to follow her lover into the afterlife. She commits to killing herself and, in Act V, scene ii, convinces her handmaids of the rightness of this decision. She conjures up a horrific image of the humiliation that awaits her as Caesar’s trophy, employing the vocabulary of the theater, fearing that “quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us.” She imagines that Antony will be played as a drunk, and a squeaking boy will portray her as a whore. Given that, throughout the play, Cleopatra is a consummate actress—we are never quite sure how much of her emotion is genuine and how much theatrical fireworks—her refusal to let either Antony or herself be portrayed in such a way is especially significant. To Cleopatra, the Roman understanding of her character and her relationship with Antony is a gross and unacceptable wrong. It does not mesh with the grandness of her self--perception—rather than being a queen of the order of Isis, she will go down in history “[i]’ th’ posture of a whore.” Just as Antony cannot allow his self-image to expand to include defeat, Cleopatra refuses to allow her image to be stripped to its basest parts.
In the Bard's hands and the amorous arms of Egypt, the courageous, gifted Antony of Julius Caesar becomes the doting fool of Antony and Cleopatra.
I just finished A&C in my attempt to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday next year. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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