At first read, I couldn’t have been less interested in this play. But it is classed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. There had to be something in it besides an aging playboy slobbering all over a drama queen. It was finally the sheer extravagance of the language that worked its way into me. I found myself going around the house thinking, “I wish you joy of the worm” (V, ii) and opening the door on a glorious summer morning, thinking “O thou day o’ the world!” (IV, viii)
Here’s the plot:
Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus are the triumvirate holding down the Roman Empire. Caesar has the west, Antony has the east and Lepidus has the far west and Africa. Cleopatra is Queen of Egypt.
When the play opens, Antony and Cleopatra are debauching around Egypt when word comes that Fulvia, Antony’s wife, who has been waging war against the empire, is dead. Caesar thinks Antony has been aligned with his late wife. Antony has been more interested in dressing himself up in Cleopatra’s little things than aligning with his wife, but he knows that without the pre-occupation of fighting Fulvia, Caesar will come after him. Antony decides he must leave his “lascivious wassails” and hie to Rome. Or as Cleopatra puts it: “on the sudden a Roman thought has struck him.” (I, ii) Antony prepares to leave. Cleopatra pouts. She and Antony slobber over each other. But it’s exquisite slobbering:
*Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows bent.
*O my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten (I, iii)
So we leave the “strange invisible perfume” of Egypt and follow Antony to sterile, proper Rome where people yammer about honor while they kill each other. In order to assure Caesar of his loyalty Antony marries Caesar’s sister Octavia. The poor messenger who has to relay this news to Cleopatra is nearly mauled by her. But Antony longs for his “serpent of old Nile.” He finds a reason to leave Octavia. The reason isn’t good enough for Caesar who then pursues Antony.
Throughout the play, Antony is identified with the element of earth while Cleopatra takes up water, fire, and all the air, which seems about right for someone who today would probably be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. In any case, Cleopatra talks Antony, who was once a celebrated soldier, into fighting Caesar on the sea. Cleopatra joins him with her fleet. During the battle, she retreats, and Antony –because he is so besotted with her—follows. Many of his men defect to Caesar in disgust and fear, giving Caesar the day.
There follows scenes of recriminations, reminiscences and regret. Cleopatra for whom self-preservation trumps even Antony makes noises about aligning with Caesar. Antony erupts to the point where Cleopatra and her two women hole up in Cleopatra’s “monument,” that is, in the tomb she has built for her own burial. From here she sends a messenger to tell Antony that she has died, hoping to jerk him out of his rage. She wants a report his reaction.
She has tried this before. In Act I she demonstrated her technique when she wanted to keep Antony from leaving for Rome:
*See where he is, who’s with him, what he does:
I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick: quick, and return. (I, iii)
But now the stakes are higher and the game is more dangerous. In despair over what has happened to his life, his fortunes, and his love, Antony stabs himself. Barely alive, he is taken to Cleopatra. “I am dying, Egypt, dying. . .” he says to her. By now (Act IV) I have stopped rolling my eyes over Cleopatra’s manipulations and Antony’s infatuation and I am getting choked up. Something ancient and human seems to come pouring through the language. Antony dies and Cleopatra says:
*O! Wither’d is the garland of the war,
Th’ soldier’s pole is fall’n; young boys and girls
Are level now with man; the odds is gone;
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon. (IV, xv)
“The visiting moon.” What a lovely image. It suggests the movement and changeability of the moon, of Cleopatra, and of life itself.
Caesar shows up and assures Cleopatra that he is only concerned about her welfare, her needs, and her comfort. He wants to make sure she stays fattened up for the oven. Cleopatra offers him a complete inventory of her wealth but makes sure that he finds out she has held back half of it. She wants him to think she is planning for a future. Two reptilian politicians circling each other.
When Caesar leaves, one of his men, less than loyal and probably infatuated with Cleopatra, tells her that it is Caesar’s plan to lead her through the streets of Rome in chains before she is executed. She had guessed as much. She has her women dress her in her robes and crown preparatory to her suicide.
An odd little fellow comes to visit. “He brings you figs,” says the guard.
Amongst the figs are asps. “I wish you joy o’ th’ worm,” says the odd little fellow.
Cleopatra and her two women are found dead from snake venom when Caesar comes for her. He has her buried with Antony. More of The Language:
*Kingdoms are clay (I, i)
*In time we hate that which we often fear. (I, ii)
*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. . .
From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature. (II, ii)
*My salad days,
When I was green in judgment. (I, v)
*Give me some music: music, moody food
Of us that trade in love. (II, v)
*To be furious is to be frightened out of fear. (III, xiii)
*Secret house of death. . . the case of that huge spirit is cold. (IV, xv)
Burn the great sphere thou mov’st in; darkling stand
The varying shore o’ the world (IV, xiii)
*The bright day is done,
And we are for the dark. (V, ii)
*A woman is a dish for the gods,
If the devil drive her not. (V, ii)
*His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted
The little O, th’earth. (V, ii)
*From head to foot, I am marble-constant. (V, ii)