The Reading Room
Love and Change: Antony and Cleopatra
Shakespeare’s telling of the tale of Antony and Cleopatra is at once a story of erotic love and political transformation. Shakespeare understands erotic love as a disruptive force that compels and, just as often, reacts to change. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare couples the passionate relationship of the lovers with the revolutionary change in Rome to tell the story of transformation in the Western world, from a pagan society in which politics and the heroic model of military achievement dominate the very public way of life, to one vast Roman empire in which Christianity is incipient and self-governing political life is crumbling under the weight of a centralizing administrative order.
Of course, by the time of Antony and Cleopatra, the death knell of the Roman republic has already begun to ring out. Antony and Cleopatra begin the play as lovers and powerful leaders of their respective realms in Rome and Egypt, but the play concludes with their tenure as public figures diminishing, and with them struggling to find a path to happiness, perhaps privately together. In the end, Antony and Cleopatra are both culprits in and victims of the final transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire. Through Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare reminds us that the world does not stand still. The play suggests a certain regret on Shakespeare’s part about the end of self-governing republican life in Rome, but he is also intrigued by what its disappearance and the transformation to a universal imperial order portends.
It is certainly possible to read and understand Antony and Cleopatra as fundamentally a love story, the third of Shakespeare’s plays dedicated to paired lovers, after Troilus and Cressida and Romeo and Juliet, the latter two of which are dedicated to young love, ancient and modern. In this trilogy of love plays, Antony and Cleopatra stands as an account of the mature love of aging rulers, whose leadership was once brilliant, but is now moving past its prominence and worldly utility, a kind of parallel to the disappearing Roman republic from which Antony rose to power and distinction. In Shakespeare’s telling, it is a bridge love story between ancient and modern love, love in the ancient world that reflects the regime and the political life of the times, and modern love that is fundamentally private and held apart from the political. Antony, like Julius Caesar and Pompey before him, arrives in Egypt as a powerful leader, a “triple pillar” of the ruling Roman triumvirate, and like them, he succumbs to Cleopatra’s erotic theater and personal charms. Antony’s lieutenant, Enobarbus, explains to an audience of rapt Roman soldiers hungry for particulars about the exotic Eastern empire, that Antony was happily caught in the lair of the endlessly fascinating Cleopatra, who deploys the exotic purple and gold enchantments of Egyptian luxury to wield her soft power over the men who arrive from Rome seeking to impose their imperial ruler over her and her Egypt. But Cleopatra is no longer young, “A morsel for a monarch,” as she was for Julius Caesar or the great Pompey. Instead, she is “wrinkled deep in time,” and Antony is the mature and apparently true love of her celebrated career (1.5.32-26). Antony, in his turn, is a declining military hero, torn between his insatiable but now increasingly ineffectual desire for power and pleasure, and his love of Cleopatra. Even after Antony agrees to a political marriage with Octavius Caesar’s sister to reconcile the two ruling partners, Enobarbus reflects that Antony will “never” leave Cleopatra, for:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom staleHer 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 (2.3.276-281).
So, what begins as an erotically intense diplomatic dance, becomes a dazzling passion and an enduring love. With Caesar’s ultimate victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and with each finally putting aside the trials and betrayals of one another, they both begin to dream of a transcendent place where they can marry and live together permanently. Antony envisions that he will be “A bridegroom in my death and run into ‘t/As to a lover’s bed,” in his quest to follow Cleopatra to the next world (4.14.120). As is so often the case, Cleopatra has deceived Antony to save herself from his wrath after her retreat in the battle at sea, but they are reconciled before his death . When he is gone, Cleopatra observes that “there is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon” (4.15.78-79). It is at that moment in private with her servants that Cleopatra relinquishes her royal Egyptian title of “Empress” in favor of the observation that she is now “No more but e’en a woman” who throws her “scepter at the injurious gods,/ To tell them that this world did equal theirs/Till they had stolen our jewel” (4.15.86-91). To escape what Caesar’s lieutenant, Dolabella, confirms for her, Cleopatra pursues what we learn was her own predetermined but gentler suicide “after the high Roman fashion” (4.15.101). Cleopatra prepares to die through the poison of an asp by dressing herself in full royal regalia to meet Antony in the world to come. She tells her women: “I have immortal longings in me . . . Methinks I hear/Antony call. I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act,” and she calls out, fancying that he awaits her, “Husband, I come” (5.2.335-342)!
Antony and Cleopatra imagine a marriage that transcends the physical bounds of this world, but from the start of the play, Antony knows that to be together forever, they will “needs find out new heaven, new earth”(1.1.19), just as the Bible tells us that John “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelations, 21.1). Shakespeare thus foretells that there is nowhere on this earth short of the moment when heaven comes to earth that Antony and Cleopatra, the once mighty Roman military hero, and the great queen of Egypt, can live together in private, quiet love.
And yet, even in death, the love of Antony and Cleopatra is irreducibly public. The story of their love and the political transformation of Rome are inseparable. They crave public legitimacy for their private love. Antony imagines when he prepares to die that Cleopatra awaits him in the afterlife, but it is not a private life he envisages. “I come my queen . . . Stay for me!” he cries out. “Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand,/ And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze” (4.14.60-62). In the world beyond, Antony dreams that “such a pair” as Antony and Cleopatra will continue to “stand up peerless” and command the attention of the other unearthly specters (1.1.42-26). Private obscurity is beyond their imagination.
By taking their own lives, they seek to deprive Caesar of a final conquest over them, the power to parade them in triumph through the streets of Rome as a demonstration of his victory and his absolute power over all his rivals, Roman and beyond. In death, they do receive the public legitimacy of their love they crave, but it only arrives in a way that deprives them, at least in part, of their desired victory over Caesar. In fact, Caesar’s final triumph is to bury them together and proclaim his own glory by enhancing theirs, but perhaps a public recognition of their immortal love they would not altogether reject:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in itA pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented (5.2.430-434).
Shakespeare thus acknowledges the creation of a private sphere, away from the glare of the public square, from which there was no escape in the Roman republic of his Coriolanus. Private activity – a place for private love, study, philosophy perhaps - becomes possible under the empire of Rome as long as it does not threaten the crown, but it is a result of the elimination of vibrant political activity and civic honor won through individual achievement and the public notice for it. As always, there is a lesson for Americans here. Shakespeare asks his readers to consider the question of the relationship of the public to the private, a question we would be wise to contemplate further for maintaining the proper balance of the two spheres in a democratic republican form of government like that in the United States.