(The students in Humanities 105 have decided to cancel the remaining performances of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and A WINTER'S TALE.)
( This is the first of a two-part feature. The second will appear in Friday's CRIMSON.)
I would like to approach Antony and Cleopatra as a heroic drama written within a particular tradition, in order to encourage thought about the theme of honor, and to urge attendance at the Loeb production. Perhaps all of this will show how it is more than a "theme," but the deepest of all deep claims on trembling men, which by now must include most of us.
WE MUST begin with Homer, for both Antony and Cleopatra will be more intelligible in comparison with the characters of the Hiad, especially Achilles. The Hiad's hero strives to live life intensely in a brilliant world without falsifying his self-esteem. He is finely aware of what is owed to the self as warrior, yet he attempts to dissolve this self in allegiance to something greater. He scorns the esteem of men, for the honor which only the gods can confide. He will have honor from Zeus. His vision is the expression of his inner gloriousness. The Hiad presents us with two central heroic requirements: towering ardor of will, and a vision of immensity. The former loves the world, the latter seeks to scorn it. The ardor of will (not simply pride) demands action; the vision involves adoration of something transcendental. The gods, which were both transcendental and a figuring forth of man's own greatness, were profoundly involved in heroic action and love. Both were passionate, and both were sources of glory and over-reaching. Passionate action was for the Greek a burst of fire rendering the world; and man's place in it was comprehensible. In battle the warrior might briefly show his back above the element he lived in, and attain the glorious clevation and certainty of divinity.
Homer's poem also treats the bitter matter of choice as the source of tragedy. The hero lived for honor, which had a social and a metaphysical nature. The social was reputation, the praise of other soldiers; the metaphysical was self-esteem, a search conducted amidst darkness for some less venal vindication of a man's being. Tragedy results from the impossibility of living reputably while searching divinely. For the Greeks this was essentially a conflict of religion, in which the waters of the physical world streamed into the recesses of mental yearning. Achilles believed that only the gods' honor matters, that the gods honor a man as he values himself, and so chose to retire from the world (battle) into the private light of the gods' unsurpassable estimation. But he loves men and the action of arms. When we see his desolation by the sea, his grief over Patroklos's death, we begin to realize that the virtue of the hand and the longing of the heart are the complement and paradoxically antagonistic passions which engender tragedy.
The tragedy of Achilles is partially his bitter discovery that a man cannot will his own honor. He could neither ignore martial society nor realize his vision. The world could not please him, and it could not save him because it could not share his vision. To choose honor is to choose death.
The Renaissance preferred Odysseus, the archetypically educated, reasonable man. Here was amplitude of mind rather than the highest pitch of heroic intensity. The Renaissance was obsessed with the Odyssey's apparent lesson that magnitude of mind ensured mortal serenity. They preferred the radiance of learning to the blaze of heroic will. As we shall see, Enobarbus's opposition of will and reason is in many ways the Renaissance equivalent of Achilles and Odysseus. The resourceful Odysseus and brilliant Achilles are tragic archetypes for order and perturbation, longevity and death.
THE Orestcia counterposes order with violence and announces the historic theme of learning through suffering, with the lesson that the just order of the community is a matter of reason. Thus self-control begins to replace violence as the benediction of the gods. The just, peaceful order of the community accompanies the reconciliation of male will with female fruition. Aeschylus introduces the distrust of violence. Eventually, the gods will dissolve sufficiently so that the power of action gives way to that of moral perception. Battlefield gives place to City. The great transformation of the heroic from the Hiad to the Orestcia to the Elizabethan Renaissance, was from Fate to Law to Reason.
The Renaissance feared violence. Heroic passion obscured rather than clarified life. Brilliant energy became disordering passion. What was meant by the ancients was the perfect unification of the mental and physical being, the realms of heaven and earth. As man's thinking became more moral, the longing of the heart and striving of the mind were reduced to the mockery of hot blood, and the madness of proud discourse. The separation of the physical and mental, or earth and heaven, has continued linearly to this day, with one exception- the English Romantics. These poets, and their German inspirations, were the true neo-classics.
The Renaissance viewed the history of Antony and Cleopatra as a story of a great man's degradation due to the "Unreined lust of concupiscence," as North put it in his translation of Plutarch. But Shakespeare recognized that enormous passion is the essence of heroic drama. If Antony's blood batters down his mind in Shakespeare's source, in the play Antony's heart struggles toward reconciliation with his will. Antony and Cleopatra includes the traditional Renaissance argument of noble mind and temperate valor, but does not accept its sagacity.
Antony and Cleopatra explores the themes that the soldier in love is liable to betray himself as a soldier, that the hero in love is at war with himself. It gives pause when these themes are charitably considered in light of the seeming abyss between war and love throughout history. Shakespeare's original theme is that love can also serve to redeem the fallen soldier as it humanizes him. The power of Antony's death seene, as well as Cleopatra's, is provided by the knowledge that command depends on devotion as well as self-esteem. In Troilus and Cressida, a centrifugal labor on love and honor, the rejection of the mundane world seemed a base deception; in Antony and Cleopatra it seems like a nobler refuge. In East and West, Shakespeare scized on effective dramatic terms for the workings of love and war. Cleopatra replaces the gods as the highest reference for the hero's sense of self. Antony and Cleopatra are Achilles and heaven brought to earth in West and East. The struggle to be worthy of the gods has become in Shakespeare the strong toil of grace to be worthy of beloved person from another world. Achilles's "I will have honor from Zeus" has become "The nobleness of life is to do thus." In the scene of Antony's shame (III, xi) his loss of command is associated with the loss of the brilliant light of glorious action:
Hark, the land bids me tread no more upon's,
It is ashamed to bear me. Friends, come hither:
I am so lated in the world that I
Have lost my way for ever.
His shame, however, at this point, is black as he considers reputation. Command returns the moment reputation yields to woman.
Fall not a tear, I say, one of them rates
All that is won and lost; give me a kiss,
Even this repays me.
But we cannot say that Antony has convincingly regained his nobler self since the kiss recalls only more unconsidered love. The crucial dramatic connection between love and the honor of the gods has not yet been made. Antony's violent swervings between shame, rancor, and pleasure are the result of his pertinacious misconception that he can have both splendid reputation and unbounded love. The recovery of his nobler self must await his recognition of personal error. Lepidus says that his faults are
Rather than purchased; what he cannot change,
Than what he chooses.
Enobarbus, in the august Renaissance robes of right reason, tells Cleopatra that Antony is at fault,
Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason.
The answer is neither of these, for neither supports both Renaissance humanism and Shakespearean tragedy; and it is certainly not Antony's petulantly self-deceiving "O whither hast thou led me Egypt?" but some combination of Lepidus' pusillanimous fatalism, and Enobarbus' introspective free will.
ANTONY'S death seen is especially complex because he acts in the fire of heroic pride as well as the fire of self-dissolving love. He commits suicide as an act of love- self-love and love for Cleopatra. The fact that she is dissimulating shows that, as at Actium, she cannot comprehend manly honor until it demands the man's death. She will require the sad spectacle of Antony's expiration to realize her implication in his fate, his in hers, and their common destiny as honorable lovers. Antony, at death, finally associates honor with the divine nobility of Cleopatra's love and supposed action:
Since Cleopatra died
I have liv'd in such dishonor that the gods
Detest my baseness.
He positively regains the self-command which makes possible pure heroic action. The two suicides- as triumphs over Caesar- represent the greatest heroic acts possible in the world. Suicide is the last act to make life comprehensible. It is purified of self-contempt and vain resignation by the capture, through the suffering of shame, of that internal fire which burns the will clear. It is exonerated from the deeper vanity of despair, or storic contemptus mundi, by the perfect fusion of hand and heart. Decretas dispels all ambiguity:
but that self hand,
Which writ his honor in the acts it did.
Hath, with the courage which the heart did lend it,
Splitted the heart
Cleopatra's last scenes owe a great deal to the death of Dido. Vergil showed how both love and duty are a calling on the soul. Aeneas provides the greatest example of self-mastery through moderation. He is great for leaving Dido; Antony for joining Cleopatra. In Vergil love is the divine demoniacal; in Shakespeare what is best is demonic and divine. For Cleopatra, as for Dido, rule and passionate love prove irreconcilable, as Charmian's farewell line "Your crown's awry" beautifully explains. Death for both women brings no diminution of majesty but its highest pitch. Cleopatra, like Dido, loves without bound because she is natively glorious. But Cleopatra, who does not share Dido's shame, dies in knowledge of self-redemption. She loves Antony as she loves herself, just as he honors her as he honors himself. All of these destinations may be heard in her greatest speech, "Our lamp is spent, it's out."
Her majestical self-regard and her wish to be a noble wife, her recognition that her honor and her safety do not go together, tell us that glory is the visible brilliance of the inner fire of self-love. Hyperbolic self-esteem will lead to bitterness, as with Achilles, but in Antony and Cleopatra it visits grace. Antony is already asleep upon flowers while Caesar prosecutes war. Theirs is not perfect Christian love without touch of vanity; it is the love of heroes who appropriate the energy of heaven and earth, with only the god of internal fire both gentle and monumental.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA is neither more nor less Christian than King Lear. The grace of God has become the grace of heroic love. Redemption is impossible so long as Antony thinks only of reputation, and Cleopatra only of pleasure and safety. The Christian sinner cannot be saved who thinks despairingly of God's vengeance, or who boasts arrogantly of his exemption from divine activity. In each case vanity is present. The grace of love dissolves the vain strife of pride, fear, rancor, yearning, and the desolation of insufficient man. Antony's love will not let him be worldly; his honor will not let him be otherworldly. Neither East nor West is finally rejected, because each is imperfectly noble. East and West reconcile in souls which couch on flowers, in souls which possess the poetic intensity to summon such a vision. The heroiclyric movement of Antony and Cleopatra is from vain love, to shame, to regeneration. This corresponds generally to the threefold mystical way to salvation of purgation, illumination, and union. The even more general movement is from conflict with self, and therefore with God, to mortification, vivification, love.
At the very last Cleopatra is wife and soldier. She has by the light of her will somehow articulated the world, at the very moment she no longer desires the world underfoot. Sorrow is unexpungeable but joy is possible. In this play alone it seems that the heroes have succeeded in attaining their vision, and their souls, in uncompromised cloquence. This grief is crowned with consolation. It is a dream only to those who cannot feel the extraordinary conclusive beauty of Charmian's farewell to dead Cleopatra, "Ah, Soldier !" Heroic redemption demanded love to be gentle the violence of war, to give action meaning beyond action. Antony and Cleopatra are souls self-consumed and self-created, above the strife of hate and fear and shame, pure in the azure light of a lucid and refulgent sky, open to the sun. They die for love, they die to restore their lost dignity, to attain dignity impossible to other mortals. They die as soldiers and gods and sleepers on flowers.