Antony and Cleopatra and Others

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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.