Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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Of course, many wondrous compliments are also paid to her in the text, and these stick in the memory much more; indeed they are the source of much critical idolatry of the character, some of which is amusingly quoted by M. R. Ridley in his edition of the play: ‘She has wit, grace, humour; the intoxication of sex breathes from her…’ Such feelings are perfectly understandable given the richness of the character Shakespeare has created, but they can tend to obfuscate his purpose.

Cleopatra’s quite brilliant manipulation of Antony in the first Act, when he hears of Fulvia’s death and decides to return to Rome, for example, is meant to establish a particular view of her character from the start. Her undermining of him is ruthless, and is far too scheming to be an access of uncontrollable passion. It is also, of course, very funny; particular when she commands Antony to act and then compliments him on his performance – ‘Still he mends./But this is not the best’ (I.iii.82-3) – so that he can make no protestations of his faithfulness to her that can sound valid and honest. And, of course, Cleopatra is quite right to be suspicious. Having mourned the death of one wife, he will return to her with another! The audience may be forgiven for feeling that these two deserve each other.

Such a clear and early portrayal of Cleopatra as, effectively, a Renaissance courtesan, though, is presumably meant to remain in the audience’s mind even as they listen to the sumptuous description of her meeting with Mark Antony, when she ‘purs’d up his heart’ – an expression which implies much about her motives at the time. It is beautiful . It is also fake. Cleopatra is not the goddess Isis or Venus, but a woman who is perfectly capable of shifting her attentions from Antony to Caesar when it is expedient; indeed, she effectively does just this when she answers Octavius’ overtures with a promise to ‘kiss his conquering hand’ (III.xiii.75).

Much of the dramatic interest of Act Five, therefore, is in whether Cleopatra will finally discover in herself the constancy to follow Antony in death – ironically, of course, demonstrating by her suicide her ability to adhere to the harshest code of Roman virtus . In a strange way, unprecedented in other Shakespearian tragedies, the audience are desperately willing Cleopatra to take her own life at the end. This is not something necessarily out of keeping with the tragic genre: there is a sense that some of Shakespeare’s heroes do have to die – especially suicides like Othello – but nevertheless this collective desire for the death of a central character is perhaps unprecedented.

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William Shakespeare