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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra–Older Men and Younger Women

As with Othello, I have been perplexed with the question of why Antony falls so far off the rails because of Cleopatra.  He, like Othello, was a respected Roman general and statesmen (one of the triumvirs of the Empire), older and presumably mature enough to understand the danger of a woman like Cleopatra would be to his career – after all, she had bedded Julius Caesar, Pompey (in Shakespeare’s play, not in history), was known as the Temptress of the Nile and reputed to be a harlot; and in her theatricality, truth was never evident. 

Antony’s greatness was so renowned, that even his competitor, Octavius limns his praises while urging him to “leave thy lascivious wassails”.  He says, referring to Antony:

Thou didst drink

The stale of horses and the gilded puddle

Which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign

The roughest berry on the rudest hedge…..And all this

Was borne so like a soldier that they cheek

So much as lank’d not (I.4)

History reports her ambitious political nature, and her liaison with Caesar was at least partly due to her desire to stay on the throne of Egypt and not become subsumed within the Roman Empire, and to have a child by him (Caesarion) who would have the blood line to give him access to the thrones of Rome.  She misleads Antony into engaging Caesar by sea, when it is clear to his own soldiers and to Octavius that his real power is on land; and then tricks him in the actual the Battle of Actium, turning tail and fleeing from Octavius’ fleet, knowing that he – Antony – would follow her.  Although it is possible that she withdrew for some strategic reason, it is unlikely.  She gives no explanation, so we are forced to speculate.  However, Antony believes she tricked him and he calls her on it:

Cleo. O, my lord, my lord.

Forgive my fearful sails; I little thought

You would have follow’d

Ant. Egypt, thou knew’st too well

And thou shouldst tow me after.  O’re my spirit

The full supremacy thou knew’st, and that

Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods

Command me.

Her retreat is problematic in any case, as we will see later; for one has to assume that her relationship with Antony was as politically-based as was that with Caesar and Pompey – to extend and consolidate her empire (She succeeded at least partially by bearing his children as she did Caesar’s; and Antony made her absolute queen of Lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia before his demise).

So, why should Antony – in his early 50s at the time of this play (old certainly for Rome of 41 BC but also for Elizabethan England) – behave any different than older men in general?  There is no doubt that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize Antony’s age. His colleagues, Philo and Demetrius talk of his “dotage” in the first line of the play.  Antony himself refers to his dotage a few lines later.  Octavius refers to him as the “old ruffian” in III.11. Enobarbus calls him an “old lion”. Yet Cleopatra seems not to have aged at all since they met ten years before; but only added to her youthful beauty and sexuality. Therefore, not only was Antony the lover of a beautiful younger woman, but one who could, at the end of this life satisfy all his life’s fantasies, and desires – all of which become more important when the individual reality of them is a thing of the past.

Cleopatra was a man’s dream – reported to be very intelligent, extremely beautiful, the embodiment of an earthy sexuality untamed by convention, and as theatrical as they come.  Such theatricality, that tease of knowing and not knowing, is an added sexual tension. Antony eventually marries Caesar’s sister, Octavia, who, according to one of Caesar’s camp, hoping that the relationship will be the reason for peace and not further dissension, says that she is the perfect wife – beautiful, faithful, obedient, and young; but what they miss is this sexual tension in Cleopatra’s theatricality that is what makes her truly irresistible. Antony knows of her duplicity, real or feigned from his friend Enobarbus, who says, referring to her theatricality:

Enob.I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment.  I do think there is mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying. 

Ant. She is cunning past man’s thought. (I.2)

Enobarbus in II.3 elaborates:

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.

And, of course, Cleopatra is not only a queen, but one who lives in an opulent splendor, clearly the kind of life Antony loves.  Many times in the play – before battles, after them – he calls for drinks, carousing, revelry. 

It is important also to remember that Julius Caesar was 31 years older than Cleopatra during their affair. The political alliance was all in Cleopatra’s favor.  Egypt did not represent a military threat.  Having children with her did not guarantee their accession – there was her brother/husband Ptolemy and her other brother who certainly wanted Caesarion out of the way.  I am speculating, of course and only slightly exaggerating for effect - age-unequal relationships have always been about women getting something concrete and men living out some younger fantasy.

He had to know that she was using him just like she used Caesar and Pompey; that she was manipulative and calculating; and that he was already on the outs with Lepidus and especially Octavious because of his dalliances with her.  Not only did he continue his relationship with her when the pressures from Rome made it clear that he was jeopardizing his reputation and his honor, he did it with a vengeance.

Did  Antony, really love Cleopatra? Yes, but only in that age-unequal way I have described above.  The Macbeths had a seemingly reasonable marriage – they at least wanted the same thing – but love? Othello was just insanely jealous that his young wife was sleeping around, so not love surely.  Julius Caesar and Brutus (in Julius Caesar) had good relationships with Calphurnia and Portia – at least they listened to them, more or less, but did the men love them?  I doubt it.  Caesar was gallivanting with Cleopatra; and Brutus was afflicted by an all-consuming sense of honor; and there was probably no room for love.   Shakespeare was not much for family love either in Lear, especially, or in the Histories when marriages were made for political reasons, and the women were always major actors in the Grand Machine or game of power and succession.

Since this final passionate and complex relationship with Cleopatra was certainly the high point in his life, it can be called love; but a conditional one. His botched suicide was not because of love for her, but because he lost honor in his military defeats, his indirect betrayal of Rome through neglect brought on by his slavishness to Cleopatra.  Love was the farthest from his mine.  Like Brutus, honor was all.  His “love” for Cleopatra was intense and complete, but very temporal, conditioned by his advanced years, love for an ideal fantasy which would last little longer.

What about Cleopatra?  Did she love Antony however you define the term.  I would say not.  First, she had a history of calculating, manipulating relationships with the greatest men of the time.  Second, she was successful in achieving at least limited political goals with Antony, and probably was satisfied with having his children as hedges for the future.  Third, her conversations with her servants, Mardian, Isas, and Charmian and Alexas in I.5 and later in II.4 reference to Antony are either bawdy or calculating.  Cleopatra, for example says, not so subtly referring to Antony’s weight on her, making love:

O, Charmian

Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?

Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?

O, happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony…(I.5)


Give me mine angle; we’ll to the river: there

My music playing far off, I will betray

Tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce

Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up

I’ll think them every one an Antony

And say, ‘Ah, ha! y’are caught’ (II.5)

As soon as Cleopatra saw the handwriting on the wall (the fall of Antony), she thinks about cutting a deal with Caesar.  As early as Act III.11 she says to Caesar’s messenger:

Most kind messenger,

Say to great Caesar this: in deputation

I kiss his conquering hand; tell him I am prompt

To lay my crown at his feet, and there to kneel.

Tell him from his all-obeying breath I hear

The doom of Egypt.

And later in V.2 after Antony’s death:

Pray you, tell him (Caesar)

I am his fortune’s vassal, and I send him

The greatness he has got.  I hourly learn

A doctrine of obedience, and would gladly

Look him I’ th’ face.

Antony apparently still is unaware of her duplicity; and when he gets wind of it, takes the lamest of apologies from Cleopatra:

Ah dear, if I be so,

From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,

And poison it in the source, and the first stone

Drop in my neck: as it determines, so

Dissolve my life…..(III.11)

“I am satisfied”, says Antony.

Did she really love Antony? After his death in her arms, she says:

All strange and terrible events are welcome

But comforts we despised; our size of sorrow,

Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great

As that which makes it.

Even at this moment when most lovers would be disconsolate, she is still playing the great stage actress, and in a long soliloquy in IV.11, 73-92 goes on about honor and the perception of it. Her death has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet.  She commits suicide so she won’t be shipped to Rome, paraded before: “mechanic slaves with greasy aprons…in their thick breaths, Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded And forced to drink their vapor”; and then kept as a captive prize.  This is not about love, nor even honor – it is about theatricality, show, perceptions.

So Antony and Cleopatra loved each other in their own way, and that way might have been more similar than it looks.  His fantasies of a man at the end of his life obscured the political realities obvious to everyone else.  He was as theatrical as Cleopatra.  Cleopatra loved Antony in a theatrical way and a practical, determined political way. 

When Antony’s political end and death became clear, love and all his fantasies went out the window and he dies for honor. Cleopatra’s death has nothing to do with love or politics any more, but theatre, perceptions, and her own dramatic version of dignity.  


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