Love is of course the dominant theme of Antony and Cleopatra, though we are also always conscious of the struggle for power that lies behind the passion of the main characters. The running commentary as it were that is provided by Enobarbus, one of the most significant of Shakespeare’s minor characters, helps us keep the whole dramatic love affair in perspective, given indeed that what was going on was a struggle for the soul of Europe. Had Antony won out, I suspect Christianity would not have spread so readily, and a less structured system of government might have provided greater space for Middle Eastern cults rather than monotheism.
But while the background is important, and the powerful last words of the future Augustus Caesar make clear what was at stake
Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A 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. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome.
the power of the play lies in its depiction of love in a warm climate. The language exudes sensuality but also expressed devotion of a sort that governed perceptions of what romantic love means for future generations. One has only to set the earlier statements of passion
Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell, and go: when you sued staying,
Then was the time for words: no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven: they are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar.
against Cleopatra’s final lament to understand how love can grow and take the place of all else
I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony:
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!…….
His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course,
The little O, the earth….
His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket…
Think you there was, or might be, such a man
As this I dream’d of?
I once heard Manorani Saravanamuttu read these lines at one of the annual Shakespeare Day celebrations the English Association would put on. Her son Richard had persuaded her to participate, and she made a meal of it to begin with, losing her place and her glasses, but when she began to read, the whole room became hushed.
The spell Cleopatra exercised is most fully described in Enobarbus’ lyric account that T S Eliot later immortalized with a different purpose
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
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 outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did……
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.
Cleopatra’s volatility leads to Antony’s death, for when she has him told that she is dead, he commits suicide himself
Since Cleopatra died,
I have lived in such dishonour, that the gods
Detest my baseness. I, that with my sword
Quarter’d the world, and o’er green Neptune’s back
With ships made cities, condemn myself to lack
The courage of a woman; less noble mind
Than she which by her death our Caesar tells
‘I am conqueror of myself.’ Thou art sworn, Eros,
That, when the exigent should come, which now
Is come indeed, when I should see behind me
The inevitable prosecution of
Disgrace and horror, that, on my command,
Thou then wouldst kill me: do’t; the time is come:
Thou strikest not me, ’tis Caesar thou defeat’st.
But he is then told she still lives, and has himself taken to her, for yet another farewell
The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o’ the world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman,–a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish’d. Now my spirit is going;
I can no more.
Set against Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus seems of a lesser breed. It deals with a Roman general of a much earlier age, who was let down by his people and therefore joined their enemies. But at the last moment, moved by the pleas of his mother and his wife, accompanied by his little son in entering the enemy camp, he made the Volscians he was with sign a peace treaty.
I have claimed that the play is about identity and, though I may be motivated by my desire for symmetry, given my analysis of the five great tragedies, I think the question of loyalties that Shakespeare raises is an essential part of our quest for meaning in human life. Coriolanus, seeing himself as an individual, had no qualms about going over to the enemy, seen in terms of his nation. But he was then overwhelmed by family ties, so that he abandoned his personal ambitions for the sake of a collective to which he felt no emotional allegiance.
The verse in which these concepts are explored is unusually compelling, and sets the play as one of unusual cerebration
…… Thou know’st, great son,
The end of war’s uncertain, but this certain,
That, if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name,
Whose repetition will be dogg’d with curses;
Whose chronicle thus writ: ‘The man was noble,
But with his last attempt he wiped it out;
Destroy’d his country, and his name remains
To the ensuing age abhorr’d.’ Speak to me, son:
Thou hast affected the fine strains of honour,
To imitate the graces of the gods;
To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o’ the air,
And yet to charge thy sulphur with a bolt
That should but rive an oak. Why dost not speak?
Think’st thou it honourable for a noble man
Still to remember wrongs? Daughter, speak you:
He cares not for your weeping. Speak thou, boy:
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
Than can our reasons. There’s no man in the world
More bound to ‘s mother; yet here he lets me prate
Like one i’ the stocks. Thou hast never in thy life
Show’d thy dear mother any courtesy,
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has cluck’d thee to the wars and safely home,
Loaden with honour. Say my request’s unjust,
And spurn me back: but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest; and the gods will plague thee,
That thou restrain’st from me the duty which
To a mother’s part belongs. He turns away:
Down, ladies; let us shame him with our knees.
To his surname Coriolanus ‘longs more pride
Than pity to our prayers. Down: an end;
This is the last: so we will home to Rome,
And die among our neighbours.
Coriolanus gives in, but he knows what this will entail
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son,–believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevail’d,
If not most mortal to him.
Was Volumnia aware that, by persuading her son to let his country off, she is sealing his death warrant? Certainly we can see her too as engaged in a power play of a subtle sort, not least in the manner in which she uses her son’s love for his wife and child as well as his filial regard. And if Coriolanus, in comparison with other Shakespearian heroes, seems a bit of a wooden figure at times, none the less we sense the complexity of the passions he tries to control but that in the end contribute to a tragedy in which he understands, while at the same time carrying out, his decisive role.
The conclusion of the play, in which Coriolanus is killed by his old enemy and then ally Aufidius is worth citing at length – not least because what angers his most, perhaps realizing that he has indeed let the Voscians down badly, is the belittling word ‘boy’ that Aufidius uses in describing how he gave in to his mother’s pleading
Ay, Marcius, Caius Marcius: dost thou think
I’ll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol’n name
Coriolanus in Corioli?
You lords and heads o’ the state, perfidiously
He has betray’d your business, and given up,
For certain drops of salt, your city Rome,
I say ‘your city,’ to his wife and mother;
Breaking his oath and resolution like
A twist of rotten silk, never admitting
Counsel o’ the war, but at his nurse’s tears
He whined and roar’d away your victory,
That pages blush’d at him and men of heart
Look’d wondering each at other.
Hear’st thou, Mars?
Name not the god, thou boy of tears!
Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart
Too great for what contains it. Boy! O slave!
Pardon me, lords, ’tis the first time that ever
I was forced to scold. Your judgments, my grave lords,
Must give this cur the lie: and his own notion–
Who wears my stripes impress’d upon him; that
Must bear my beating to his grave–shall join
To thrust the lie unto him.
Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound!
If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it. Boy!