The tragic in William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
by Isabelle Vignier
His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.
Antony and Cleopatra seems to have a special place in Shakespeare's works because it is at a crossroad between two types of play. It clearly belongs to what are generally called the 'Roman' plays, along with Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. But it is also considered a tragedy. The importance of history in the play cannot be denied, especially where it is compared to Shakespeare's 'great' tragedies such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. But one might wonder what is specifically tragic in Antony and Cleopatra, and what can be said about the tragic in a play which is so different from the other tragedies. It is clear that the notion of 'tragic' in the everyday sense is not necessarily the same as the notion of 'tragedy', which is a philosophical notion whose definition depends on which philosophic system one takes into account. In this article I shall take the term tragic in its literary and dramatic sense and try to define its main characteristics.
Taking into account a wide corpus of plays, from Antiquity as well as from France and England, we can detect several constant features that can define the tragic. A tragedy usually shows a character that is outstanding by his rank or/and inner abilities, falling into misfortune as a result of fate, and because of an error or a weakness for which he is not really responsible. Several tragic elements can be detected in Antony and Cleopatra. First, we find characters that have high rank because they are outstanding figures; we also see a tragic situation because from the beginning of the play we see no hope of a happy ending. In the end, even if it is hard to see a transcendence in action, the play shows a failure of human freedom, a determinism in the character's fate that can be considered as the essence of tragic.
The heroes of Antony and Cleopatra have high rank and ability because they are above the level of common people. This is a general characteristic in tragedies. Tragic heroes are extraordinary specimens of mankind. They can be remarkable for their intelligence (as is Oedipus, the main character of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles), their cruelty (like Medea, in the eponymous tragedy by Seneca), or their nobleness in mind, (like Caesar in Cinna by Corneille). Very often the tragic hero is from royal blood. Antony, in Shakespeare's play as well as in Roman history, is a military leader of incredible power, intelligence and courage. Caesar himself shows his esteem for him when he reproaches him for his present moral decay:
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew'st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against
(Though daintily brought up) with patience more
Than savages could suffer.
..................................................And all this
(It wounds thine honour that I speak it now)
Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lank'd not. (Act I, scene IV)
If Cleopatra does not have such a strong moral sense, she is remarkable for her royal rank - she is the last queen of Egypt - her beauty, her intelligence and her audacity. Enobarbus quotes the episode of her being brought to Antony in a carpet. Last but not least, her sense of honour and dignity gives her a special nobleness that is typically tragic. Although she fears death - which is why she flees from the sea battle - she'd rather kill herself than be exposed to Caesar's triumph. Cleopatra, even if she shows weakness and unpleasant traits, stands apart from other women. Even Octavia, who possesses all the typical Roman virtues, cannot compete with her. Barely married to her, Antony comes back to the Egyptian queen. Cleopatra and Antony are a mythic couple.
A tragic hero is usually outstanding, but not perfect. He/she is unwittingly guilty of some fault that makes him somehow deserve the disaster that happens to him. This view was put forward by the first theoretician of drama, Aristotle, and elucidated by Racine, in the XVIIth century:
Aristote, who is very far from asking us to create perfect heroes, on the contrary wants tragic characters, the ones whose unhappiness is the theme of the tragedy, to be neither all good nor all wicked. (...) They must consequently have an imperfect goodness, that is a virtue that is capable of weakness, and fall into distress because of some sin which would make people feel sorry for them and not hate them.
This view is exemplified in the character of Antony. One cannot deny that his love for Cleopatra is a weakness and even a fault. His passion makes him forget his duty, his honour as a soldier. He leaves the battle against Caesar because of Cleopatra, and he is an unfaithful husband to Fulvia and Octavia. On Cleopatra's advice he decides to fight at sea although his chances would be much better on land. On the other hand, his passion is not voluntary. He tries to resist it - by marrying Octavia, he tries to give politics a higher priority than love - but fails. As a result, the spectator - or reader - cannot but feel compassion for him, even if he more or less 'deserved' his terrible end. Cleopatra, even if many traits of hers are unpleasant (she mistreats the unfortunate messenger who announces the marriage of Antony and Octavia, and she is particularly mean to her rival) deserves our compassion too. Shakespeare creates in her a character that is much more likely to awaken pity than the Cleopatra described in Plutarch, the main source of the play. According to an article from Josette Hérou, 'Antony and Cleopatra: sources and influences' (2000)  although Shakespeare followed very carefully the historical events described by Plutarch, he took some liberties with his source, especially in the treatment of Cleopatra's character. Plutarch describes her as a woman without scruples, manipulative, ready to do anything to keep her throne. To her, Antony was nothing more than a puppet she had to seduce for political reasons. She did not care about his person but only about his power. In Shakespeare's play, she is truly in love with Antony. When he is away, she asks for mandragora, 'That (she) might sleep out this great gap of time', while 'My Antony is away' (Act I, scene V). We do not see any reason why she should feign in the presence of Charmian. This true passion makes us sympathise with her.
Another characteristic feature of tragic heroes is that their personal fate is always linked to the destiny of a community. Their unhappiness is not merely a domestic catastrophe, but concerns many people. This is particularly clear when heroes have a political role, which is very often the case, especially in Greek tragedies. But even when the heroes are not sovereigns or leaders, their fates have an impact on community life. In Romeo and Juliet the two young heroes are of noble origin and their deaths is what eventually seals reconciliation between their families. In Antony and Cleopatra, this characteristic is particularly obvious: nothing less than the future of the Roman Empire - that is to say, the whole world for Romans of the time - is at stake. The rivalry between Caesar and Antony is a tragedy for Rome, since it leads to civil war. Antony's death is of great consequence for the Roman Empire: 'The death of Antony / Is not a single doom, in the name lay / A moiety of the world' (Act V, scene I) says Caesar as he hears about his rival's suicide. The fall of Cleopatra is also the fall of Egypt, which becomes eventually a part of the Roman Empire. By killing herself, Cleopatra does not only save her honour and dignity, but also the dignity of her nation.
The fates of tragic heroes and heroines arouses compassion and terror, 'which are the true effects of tragedy (Racine, 1674, Preface of Iphigénie en Aulide). But the situation itself shows tragic features, because from the start of the play we see the characters in a deadlock. There is no hope for a happy ending. We have a situation such as described by Christian Biet in his definition of tragic: 'Les valeurs de l'homme tragique sont irréalisables, contradictoires et aucun compromis n'est possible, ni aucun choix qui puisse déboucher sur une situation heureuse ou harmonieuse'. (1997) 'The values of the tragic man are unrealisable and conflicting and no compromise can be made, nor any choice that might lead to a happy or harmonious situation'. Antony's two great passions: his ambition and his love for Cleopatra, are fundamentally impossible to reconcile. From the first verse of the play, we see that Cleopatra is not accepted by Antony's soldiers, she is shown as incompatible with his honour. Philo begins the play by complaining about the general's moral decline:
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust. (Act I, scene I)
The contrast between the greatness of Antony and the unworthiness of his love is shortly stressed again: Antony is 'The triple pillar of the world transform'd/ Into a strumpet's fool'. This passion is shown as unworthy, and we see that it is dangerous since it causes Antony to make serious strategic mistakes and lose a decisive battle against Caesar. It also makes him neglect his new wife Octavia, which breaks the brief reconciliation between the two rivals. A solution to the problem might be for Antony to give up Cleopatra, but to do so is not in his power and would not make him happy: 'I'th'East my pleasure lies' (Act II, scene III) he says soon after his wedding with Octavia. The love between Antony and Cleopatra is tragic because there is no way it could make them happy.
If the conflict in Antony himself cannot be resolved, the political conflict cannot but have a bloody end. Antony, Caesar and Pompey are in a struggle for power and the party organised by Pompey to seal reconciliation does not fool the spectator. After Pompey's death, the struggle between Caesar and Mark Antony is inevitable. Two men of such outstanding capacity and ambition cannot be satisfied with a half of the world each. Caesar sums up the situation after Antony's death:
Have shown to thee such a declining day,
Or look on thine: we could not stall together
In the whole world. (Act V, scene I)
Antony's death is fortunate for Caesar - from a strictly political point of view - but that does not stop him from weeping for Antony, whom he esteemed and perhaps even loved: 'my brother, my competitor' he says. The merciless conflict is tragic because no one is to blame for it. The two characters try not to fight each other, but they cannot escape their own nature. Neither of them is the 'good' or the 'bad' one. A situation where characters have no other choice than fighting each other, without one being more innocent than the other, is typically tragic. This aspect of tragedy is wonderfully expressed by the French dramatic author Jean Anouilh in his play Antigone (1944), in a passage spoken by the Chorus:
Tragedy is clean. It is restful, it is safe... (...) In a tragedy we have nothing to worry about. First, we're between us. We are all innocents in fact! One killing and the other getting killed doesn't change anything. This is all about casting.
Caesar cannot be held responsible for Cleopatra's death either. It is true that he, 'though he be honourable' as Dolabella says (Act V, scene II) intends to lead the queen in triumph, which would be a great humiliation for her. But he does not really have a choice: not using the Egyptian queen to enhance his triumph would be a political mistake. In this situation, Caesar and Cleopatra both do what they have to do in their respective situations. As a fallen queen, Cleopatra does not have any other possibility than death.
If the conflict between the two leaders is inevitable, so is the decline of a country, and a civilisation. The independence of Egypt is doomed from the beginning of the play. Cleopatra tries to preserve it but she has no chance. The love between Antony and the queen of Egypt may seem to offer some hope, but the submission of one nation to another is as inevitable as the victory of one of the two competitors. When Antony leads the battle by sea, it is because of his passion for Cleopatra; she makes him defend her country: 'I made these wars for Egypt', he says, believing himself betrayed by the queen (Act IV, scene XIV). As soon as Antony has lost, Cleopatra has no political power and has to submit herself to the master of Rome. The ambassador explains to Caesar, even before Antony's death:
Submits her to thy might, and of thee craves
the circle of the Ptolemies for her heirs,
Now hazarded to thy grace. (Act III, scene XII)
The tragic in Antony and Cleopatra is partially that the situation is from the beginning a knot that can only be undone by the death of some characters, and even of a country as an independent nation. No compromise can be found that would satisfy everyone. That makes for an important feature of tragedy - an insoluble conflict between the hero and his environment. But the main characteristic of tragic remains the fatum, a determinism that does not allow the heroes to be masters of their own lives. We know from the beginning that the end has to be disastrous, but do we really see how it is going to end? The length of the play, the numerous incidents in it (Antony's marriage with Octavia, the battle won by Caesar, Enobarbus's suicide, the death of Pompey, the false announcement of Cleopatra's death) make it difficult to see a logical chain of events in the play and therefore a determinism.
As Christian Biet explains: 'La définition minimale du tragique serait peut-être la suivante: est tragique tout ce qui relève du fatum, de la nécessité, et qui met radicalement en échec la liberté humaine, qui pourtant s'exerce' (1997). 'The minimum definition of what tragic is might be the following: tragic is anything that belongs to fatum, to necessity, and makes human freedom radically fail, although it is indeed exerted'. We do not hear (as we do in Classical tragedy) about gods pursuing vengeance against one of the protagonists, but nevertheless we can see elements of a determinism that does not let the hero master his fate. The first is the irresistible violence of passion, that Antony cannot resist, and against which his free will fails. Antony is perfectly aware that his passion for Cleopatra wrongs him: 'These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,/ Or lose myself in dotage' (Act I, scene II). He tries to escape the power she has on him, to use his freedom to be himself again. His marriage with Octavia shows this: he is not compelled to marry her, but shows enthusiasm for the idea: 'I am not married, Caesar: let me hear / Agrippa further speak' (Act II, scene II). This is an attempt to make use of liberty that fails. According to Lepidus, Antony simply cannot change his nature:
More fiery by night's blackness ; hereditary
Rather than purchas'd : what he cannot change,
Than he chooses. (Act I, scene IV)
The determinism that works in the play is more psychological than transcendental.
Antony is not only the victim of his own nature: his will also fails against the power of Cleopatra. This power is only human, but is no less mighty for that. It seems that Cleopatra is so cunning and attractive that there was absolutely no possibility for Antony to resist her once she had set her mind to seduce him. Enobarbus - who, interestingly, does not particularly like Cleopatra - gives a description of the queen the first time Antony saw her that clearly presents her as irresistible:
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth of gold, of tissue,
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy overlook nature. (Act II, scene II)
In the same scene, Enobarbus says that Cleopatra is a women a man cannot get tired of:
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most satisfies. For vilest things
Become themselves in her...
When Antony fails in his military duty by following Cleopatra, who flees the sea battle, he confesses that he could not have acted differently. Cleopatra's power on him is so strong it was impossible for him to resist it:
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th'strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O'er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew'st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me. (Act III, scene XI)
As Oedipus, who commits the most terrible crimes (killing his father, marrying his mother) without knowing it, and all typical tragic heroes, Antony is guilty, but not responsible.
Antony and Cleopatra also seem to have to submit to a force than makes Caesar inevitably triumphant. Here again, it is more about a psychological determinism than about the traditional will of gods. Early in Act II, the winner of the struggle for Roman power is foretold, since we hear the Soothsayer predicting to Antony that he has no chance to win against Caesar:
Becomes afeard, as being o'erpower'd; therefore
Make space enough between you.
If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose. And of that natural luck,
He beats thee 'gainst the odds. (Act II, scene III)
Caesar's victory may not be written in the stars, but it is ineluctable because he is a winner, he has a quasi supernatural luck. Of course, the Soothsayer might have been bribed by Caesar to discourage Antony (the hypothesis has often been put forward), but the latter recognises himself the veracity of the prediction:
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance; if we draw lots, he speeds.
Antony notices here that it is really about Caesar's luck, and not about any superiority in strategy or intelligence: there is no way to defeat him. It is almost futile to fight.
However, it cannot be said that the characters have no freedom at all. In their defeat they can find a new way of expressing their freedom and escaping the worst. When she finds out that Caesar will inevitably lead her in triumph, Cleopatra manages to avoid this dishonour by killing herself. For this, she has to defeat herself, to master her fear of death, although we saw her retreating from battle. Surpassing oneself is a common feature among tragic heroes who have to overcome most common human feelings to accomplish their fate. In the tragedies of Sophocles, and Antigone by Anouilh, the heroine must renounce her love for Hemon, and her legitimate desire to accomplish her duty and bury her brother's corpse. In Polyeucte by Corneille, the main character has to give up matrimonial happiness - although he is deeply in love with his wife Pauline - to accept death as a martyr for his Christian faith. By giving up life to save her dignity, Cleopatra uses the little liberty she has left to surpass herself and raises herself to the rank of the greatest tragic heroines.
We can say that the tragic takes a prominent place in Antony and Cleopatra and has various aspects. The play is tragic in the greatness of the main characters, but also in the situation that leaves no possibility of compromise or a happy ending. Eventually, even if it is hard and probably hazardous to want to see a transcendence working through the play, there are in Antony and Cleopatra many features that show a determinism which constrains the freedom of the characters, making their free will fail. In fact, we can conclude that the tragic in this play is for the most part of a 'Classical' type, since several features of it can be compared with classical Greek or French tragedies. In fact the tragic might be more prominent in this hybrid play (both historical play and tragedy) Antony and Cleopatra, than it is in some of Shakespeare's 'great tragedies' such as Othello.
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Anouilh, Jean. 1946. Antigone, Paris: Editions de la Table Ronde
Biet, Christian. 1997. La tragédie. Paris: Armand Colin
Cuddon, J. A . 1992. The Penguin Dictionary Of Literary Terms And Literary Theory. Penguin USA
Racine, Jean. 1674. Préface of Iphigénie en Aulide. Editions l'Intégrale
-- 1667. Première Préface of Andromaque. Editions l'Intégrale
-- 1677. Préface of Phèdre. Editions l'Intégrale
Suhamy, Henri (directed by). 2000. Antony and Cleopatra. Paris: Ellipses
1. Article published in Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Henri Suhamy
The tragic in Antony and Cleopatra
© Isabelle Vignier, June 2004