by Mason Gray
An Undergraduate Shakespeare Essay
| Mason Gray 2015
'It is curious to place North's Plutarch and Shakespeare side by side. Incident upon incident, line upon line, and word upon word are adopted without hesitation or scruple as to their appropriateness and truth. After passing through the crucible of Shakespeare's genius, they come out from their fusion into dramatic form so little altered that Shakespeare's creative role appears negligible.'(Adapted from an unsighted book review, 'Plutarch's Lives: Clough', National Review 10, no. 20 , p.262)
Do you agree? Discuss this passage with reference to Antony and Cleopatra and the extract from Plutarch's Lives produced in your Reader.
This essay highlights and discusses critical ideas surrounding Antony and Cleopatra that inform the debate as to what extent the above is true. The essay looks closely at the areas that have been closely replicated while raising questions surrounding areas that have been omitted or changed. The essay focuses on how the pro- Roman point of view would have been received or been deemed appropriate by a Jacobean audience. Furthermore this essay investigates relevant sociological factors that inform the conclusion.
Plutarch's writing attempts to provide a qualitative account of the events of Mark Antony's life around a hundred years or so after the actual time of the events. Essentially Plutarch is bold and brazen in providing detailed accounts of state of mind and disposition of his character's, leaving reader's baffled as to how it could have been possible that he was privy to such information. An example of this is 'these words so softened Caesar's heart...'(cited in Danson-Brown, 2000, p.25), where clearly such dispositional insight can only be seen as a speculative inference without any necessity of fact. Plutarch's work heavily biased as it was, translated from Latin to French and in turn from French to English is by no means an accurate biography.
Plutarch's pro-Roman viewpoint views Mark Antony's opposition of Rome as a personal defeat or Roman deficit while Cleopatra is portrayed as a corrupter and callous calculator. Yet a recalcitrant undercurrent within the body of the narrative shuns the pro-Roman standpoint. That undercurrent is how the actual romance of the couple is framed as unadulterated animal attraction. Therefore the actual animal magnetism of Antony and Cleopatra is just as compelling as the roman plight. Though in the Jacobean era when English imperialism was it its embryonic stage audiences would have erred on the side of Roman caution of the voluptuous allure of the occident. The narrative perhaps fits the Hegelian model of two competing acts of good. It is bold to say that Shakespeare's role appears to be negligible since dialogue between Antony and Cleopatra crackles with chemistry and this is no mean feat. Plutarch only provides anecdotes and speculations of characters so Shakespeare can clearly claim to intelligent property rights of his particular genius in giving voice to the characterisations.
Philo (8 and 9 1.1 Norton) uses a fan and bellows metaphor of Antony and suggest that he cools 'a gypsy's lust'. This sets the tone for a tainted perception of Cleopatra very early on. 'Let Rome in Tiber melt' (Norton 1.1.35) in reply to Cleopatra's concern of his return to Rome is a statement that puts Antony on a collision course with Rome. Shakespeare presents the dichotomy of colonial Egypt and imperial Rome in no uncertain terms as the central conflict here. The second act begins with a notion of fortune that is an altogether Shakespearian invention where a soothsayer foresees the future as entertainment for Charmian and others. The concept of fortune gains centrality as the play unfolds.
There is some effort on Shakespeare's part in presenting Antony as blinded by love (1.2105-6) where Shakespeare uses 'fetters' and 'dotage' in describing Antony's dilemma of needing to break the news of his departure for Rome. Shakespeare marks Antony's coming to terms with Fulvia's death with trochaic tetrameter and repetition of the words 'Fulvia is dead' (1.2.142 and 144). In 1.3 (Norton) lines 86-102 when Antony acknowledges the death of Fulvia and signals to Cleopatra that he intends to return for Rome Cleopatra is given words of subjugation with repetition. Here Cleopatra fumbles with words symbolising an absence of a correct sentiment 'Sir you and I must part; but that's not it.-Sir, you and I have loved; but there's not it;'. Anaphora and epistrophe are deployed by Shakespeare to the effect of making Antony's choice of leaving being juxtaposed with his choice to have bodily relations with Cleopatra. This kind of creative energy channelled through the genius of Shakespeare gives vibrant colour and life to otherwise one dimensional beings of Plutarch's anecdotal creation. Further example of the almost palpable chemistry of Antony and Cleopatra is evident when Cleopatra blesses Antony's departure (1.3.94-102) Antony himself makes overtures of sweet/sorrowful parting and ends his reply with 'Away' preceded by a break or caesura almost inviting a sigh or appropriate amorous reflection. Much later on when Antony accepts that he will succumb to the might of Rome 'Alack, our terrene moon, is now eclipsed, and it portends alone, The fall of Antony' (lines156-8) the couple can find a final night of passion as the only recourse. Antony says 'Let's have one other gaudy night' to which Cleopatra gives affirmative assurance 'since my lord, Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.' Such exchanges add to a palpable animal magnetism of the couple and this is entirely of Shakespeare's creation. Hence to say that Shakespeare creativity seems negligible appears to be in terms of events of the narrative rather that the story telling itself. In Anthony's absence much of Cleopatra's dialogue surrounds pining for him. Cleopatra talks of sleeping out the time Antony is away (1.5.5) in a further monologue of pining (1.5.18-35). Cleopatra contemplates Antony speculatively 'stands he or sits he?- or does he walk' (1.519-20). The love affair tantalises the audience with a fond yearning of the Roman prince though this is merely a device that pits Cleopatra's affection as a toxic threat to the stability of the triumvirate.
The romance that Shakespeare creates one can only speculate is a device that adds to entertainment value as conflict is never far away. 'To flatter Caesar would you mingle eyes- With one that ties his points?' (3.13.158-159) speaking of Thidias Antony questions Cleopatra of her loyalty. Cleopatra swears on her life and that of her eldest son Caesarion that she would not wish ill upon Antony. 'Dissolve my life and the next Caesarion smite'(3.13.165) speaking of a poisonous hail Cleopatra actually foretells the fate of both herself and her son. Shakespeare clearly uses such tension to dowse the flames of passion that had hitherto existed between the couple and thus later Antony's suicide attempt is presented as a forlorn act of hopelessness rather than romantic as in the Romeo and Juliet sense. The battle scenes are a Shakespearian device as means to probe instabilities in Antony's reasoning. The battles are drawn out and Antony is given a victory in one battle. This is a Shakespearian twist on the related events as a purely Shakespearian invention and thus the negligibility of Shakespeare's creativity is again questionable.
The military theme that forms the backbone of the Roman side of the play is characterised by characteristic coolness and a prevailing edge. Agrippa's suggestion of the marriage of the widowers Octavia and Antony is one that is a cool attempt that brokers a peace between the fleeting amity of Caesar and Antony (2.2.133-4). A further example of this theme of military preoccupation is when Caesar asks of Pompey's military prowess (2.2.168-169) 'by sea he is an absolute master'. In fact the only juncture where Caesar loses his cool is after Antony and Cleopatra are crowned joining The Eastern Triumvirate of Antony with The Afric Triumvirate of Lepidus whom Octavion (Caesar) has imprisoned. Here Caesar laments the action 'in chairs of gold, were publicly enthroned. At the feet sat Caesarion whom they call my father's son'. Where Caesarion is believed to have been Julius Caesar's son and perhaps an heir yet this was unacceptable to Rome under the senate who viewed Egyptians as their subjects and gypsies. Caesar then reminds Maecenas that the kingdoms where annexed or given to Ptolemy by his adoptive father Julius and thus gave rise to Isis referring to Cleopatra. The angry tone of Octavious reaches something of a fever pitch when he bemoans his sister's anguish and the disarray of the empire by saying 'he hath given his empire up to a whore; who now are levying up kings o'th earth for war'(3.6.67-8) a rare rhyme is accorded to Caesar as moral high ground. Caesar talks of a wind and this is again a military preoccupation since the actual victory in battle was at sea in the battle of Actium where the term wind gage is an accepted military concept. 'And his affairs come to me on the wind'(3.6.62) Caesar enlightens his sister of Antony's double standards and thus is portrayed as acting in a spirit of brotherly love in contrast with Antony's self-serving wont on lust. In later scenes Antony's insistence to fight at sea (3.7.40 and 49) is portrayed as his undoing and this concept is intertwined with the idea of the prevailing wind' Octavia's patience (3.6.98-9 'Pray you- Be ever known to patience') and fortune favouring the just cause. Antony despairs at fortune by saying: 'fortune knows most when she offers blows' (3.11.73-4). Shakespeare's genius surpasses the reference text of Plutarch by framing the downfall of Antony in this manner. Though the play is prosaic the poetry is in the application of justice and Roman values and thus poetic justice plays out as Antony battles with Rome. The Jacobean audience that Shakespeare was writing for would have been familiar with war at sea having witness the Spanish Armada in 1588 and a parallel perceived divine justice carried on a prevailing wind would have enthralled and satisfied theatre goers. Furthermore tensions with Spain were high at the time the play was written. James I had taken the throne from a position that united kingdoms in the same vein as imperial Rome. James I in line with Ocatavius's pax Romana was a pacifist though to the detriment of his popularity (Danson Brown, 2000, p.152-153).
Cleopatra's immortalisation is a baffling concept in Shakespeare's play. If Shakespeare presents the deceit of the romance and the death of Antony in an altogether pro-Roman fashion then Cleopatra's suicide has an unabashed immortalisation undercurrent. An undercurrent that is aligns with a feminist viewpoint and one that is very leftist, creating something of a paradox. Shakespeare having presented Cleopatra as Isis throughout the play allows her fill of 'immortal longings' (Norton 5.2.273). The mass suicide scene at the end of the play gives Cleopatra a supernatural quality that hails to ancient Egyptian mythological god Apep. Though Cleopatra was a sixth generation Ptolemy she was steeped in Egyptian fetish taking up her identity as the living incarnation of Isis. The sculpture at Dendra is testament to Cleopatra's Egyptian persuasion yet there is much related as to her Macedonian heritage and it is related that she wore her hair in diadem symbolic of Macedonian royalty. Dusinberre argues that the presentation of Cleopatra on stage necessarily went through an evolution in order to voic the personality appropriately (Danson Brown, 2000. P.162-163). Dusinberre cites the example of Peggy Ashcroft who herself states historic Greek motivations, presumably, of political value as being reasons for evolving the character and eschewing Shakespeare's 'boy Queen'. The Cleopatra of history is an exact value of colonial and imperial paradox. During the battle of Actium the Romans burned down the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and with it the writing of great philosophers of ancient Greece that her people had built as part of a decadent urbane and sophisticated society. Nevertheless given that history is written by the conquerors and not the conquered. Romans presented the conquered Cleopatra as a vanquished resurgent reminder of a greater Macedonian empire and thus heralded a beginning of a new empire of Rome.
In conclusion Plutarch's account biased on appropriateness and truth percolates through Shakespeare's lens and emerges as essentially the same tale told with greater depth and dimension. The significant change is the life Shakespeare breathes into the carnal Egyptian scenes of animal magnetism. The undercurrent of romance as an accepted value of humanity is given some fuel by Shakespeare's creativity. Yet the moral Roman values are irrepressible and emerge triumphant given the edifying qualities of Shakespeare's storytelling. The sea battles and the and fall of Antony frame the narrative in the light of poetic justice as the Hegelian model of two competing acts of good results in the spirit of brotherhood prevailing. As such the sea battle theme would have had a certain amount of appeal to Jacobean audiences given the success of the English navy. Parallels of the roman peace, James I and tension with Spain would have had a significant impact on the audience of Shakespeare's time. James I as a pacifist aligns with Octavius Caesar who strives for a Roman peace. Caesar is presented as a cool even tempered individual while Antony repeatedly succumbs to baser desires. Shakespeare's creative role is substantial rather than negligible though it may appear negligible. I do agree that in essence the narrative mirrors Plutarch closely however Shakespeare's hallmarks are difficult to dismiss as negligible. Only through the immortalisation of Cleopatra and the poetic justice theme portrayed through Shakespeare can we appreciate the popular paradox of Cleopatra. Only then can we begin to understand the mystique that has transformed Cleopatra into an urbane and sophisticated immortal archetype of monarchic decadence rather than a colonial gypsy of the voluptuous occident. Likewise the fall of Antony too has decidedly Shakespearian rather than Plutarchian hallmarks.
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Brown, R. D. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2000) A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E. and Maus, K. E. (eds) (2008) The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, New York and London: W. W. Norton.
Ryan, K. (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, Basingstoke: Macmillan.