There are none so blind as those who can only see themselves. This is the tragedy of narcissism or what the psychologist Paul Vitz has called selfism. The modern narcissist no longer looks at himself in a pool of water, or even in the mirror; he sees himself in countless selfies, the icons of his own self-worship. Those who practice this witchcraft are no longer able to see reality, even when it stares them in the face; instead, they only see an image of themselves in everything they perceive.
This narcissism has poisoned literary criticism in general, and Shakespearean criticism in particular. Take, for instance, the only essay selected for publication in the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Antony and Cleopatra. Entitled, tellingly, “Antony and Cleopatra: A Modern Perspective,” it represents a perspective that would certainly have baffled Shakespeare and which bears no resemblance to the perspective of reality that Shakespeare elucidates in the play itself. Seeing the play as a Liebestod, a high romance about the beauty of dying for erotic love, Cynthia Marshall, the essay’s author, elevates sexual fantasy over mundane reality, arguing that Antony and Cleopatra illustrates “the capacity of erotic imagination to transform ordinary experience.” And speaking of the two doomed lovers, she claims that “Antony and Cleopatra make a claim for love as a force that dissolves established barriers, even established identities.” In short and in sum, Ms. Marshall turns the play into a piece of radical relativist propaganda, a weapon to be used by those who brandish their Pride with pride.
Let’s allow the play to speak for itself as a means of debunking this woeful and ludicrous nonsense. It begins, significantly, with the symbolically named Philo, i.e. Love, setting the scene from the perspective of love itself. In the very first sentence of the whole drama, we are told that Antony’s “dotage . . . o’er flows the measure” and that “[h]is captain’s heart . . . reneges all temper and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.” And then, having been introduced, amidst a flourish and on cue, Antony makes his first appearance, in the company of “Cleopatra, her Ladies, the Train, with Eunuchs fanning her.” In becoming “the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust,” Antony has, ipso facto, become a eunuch. He has lost his manhood. “Look, where they come” exclaims Philo. “Take but good note, and you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see.” Ecce homo. Behold the man. A strumpet’s fool.
Pace Ms. Marshall, this is how Love judges lust in the establishment of the theme in the play’s opening lines. In describing Antony’s “dotage,” in the very first line, Philo defines the very nature of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra. “Dotage” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being “deranged, infatuated or feeble-minded.” Antony has, therefore, lost much more than his manhood; he has lost his reason. The strumpet, the object of his lust, has become a goddess to be worshipped. His “love” demands a “new heaven, new earth” and consigns everything except his “beloved” to hell. “Let Rome in Tiber melt,” he proclaims, “and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall.” He cares nothing for his country or his people, or his responsibilities towards them, any more than he cares for the wife he has deserted to pursue his adulterous affair.
There are moments in the play when Antony almost comes to his senses. “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,” he says, “or lose myself in dotage.” At such moments, when sanity surfaces from the sexual fantasy in which Antony has immersed himself, he realizes that many people are suffering because of his own reckless disregard for the common good: “I must from this enchanting queen break off. Ten thousand harms more than the ills I know my idleness doth hatch.”
Caesar, on the other hand, always keeps his head while Antony and Cleopatra are losing theirs. Alluding to Antony’s lust-madness, he speaks of those who, “being mature in knowledge, pawn their experience to their present pleasure, and so rebel to judgment.” In living for today, such people are making a hell of their own tomorrow, and making it hell for others simultaneously. “Ten thousand harms more than the ills I know my idleness doth hatch.”
And yet, as always, Shakespeare is not confined by such worldly wisdom, as true as such wisdom is. His works are also and always transfused with, and transfigured by, a supernatural dimension, indicative of the metaphysical truths that underpin physical reality. This deeper level of applicable meaning is often signified by the employment of biblical metaphors or by the introduction of supernatural beings and characters. The former is evident, in Antony’s gift of an “orient pearl” to Cleopatra, claiming, via his messenger Alexas, that it is a token of his promise to lay the world at her feet:
Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms. All the East,
Say thou, shall call her mistress.
In this casting of a pearl of great price before swine, Shakespeare casts his own metaphorical pearl, interweaving two passages from the Gospel in one dexterous sweep of his pen. “Do not give what is holy to the dogs,” says Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, “nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” These words of Christ could serve as both a prophecy of what awaits Antony for this act of idolatry and also as an epigraph to the play itself. Simultaneously, the gift of the pearl will remind us of the “one pearl of great price” which Christ tells us is worth selling all that we have to obtain. In the parable, the pearl signifies Christ Himself; in the play it signifies Antony’s worship of Cleopatra and is therefore a scandalous denial of Christ.
If the employment of biblical metaphors adds a supernatural level of meaning literarily, i.e. allegorically, the introduction into the plot of spirits adds a supernatural meaning literally and not merely literarily. We see this through the character of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, or by the Weird Sisters and Banquo’s Ghost in Macbeth, or by the appearance of Caesar’s Ghost to Brutus in Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra this literal supernatural presence is made manifest when the soldiers hear music “under the stage,” i.e. from an invisible source, which we are told signifies that “the god Hercules, whom Antony loved” is now leaving him. Deserted by the gods and the grace that their presence signifies, Antony is doomed.
If the symbolically charged Philo, serving almost as a personified abstraction, gives Love’s judgment on Antony’s lust in the opening scene of the play, it is the equally symbolically charged Eros who accompanies Antony’s suicidal demise. Informing Eros of Cleopatra’s betrayal, he seeks solace in a suicide pact: “Nay, weep not, gentle Eros. There is left us ourselves to end ourselves.”
Eros, wishing to “escape the sorrow of Antony’s death,” kills himself, and then Antony follows Eros’s suicidal example: “Come then, and, Eros, thy master dies thy scholar. To do thus I learned of thee.” Seeking to die as the disciple and servant of one whom he was never able to master, Antony stabs himself. Although the wound proves ultimately fatal, his death is slow enough to facilitate one final climactic scene with Cleopatra.
As for Cleopatra’s own suicidal demise, it positively palpitates with biblical significance. She chooses to die by the venomous bite of a serpent, the significance of which is obvious enough from a biblical perspective, because its bite “kills and pains not.” Caesar learns from Cleopatra’s physician that “she hath pursued conclusions infinite of easy ways to die.” There is, therefore, a connection between the death chosen by Cleopatra and that chosen by Eros and by Eros’s servant, Antony. In each case, the suicide was marked by a desire to escape sorrow or suffering. Their respective deaths were, therefore, a reflection of their respective lives, each of which had been devoted to the pursuit of self-gratification and the denial of the self-sacrificial essence of true love, be it called philia, agape or caritas, which is synonymous with the embrace of suffering, especially as epitomized in the suffering on the Cross. Antony and Cleopatra died as they had lived, by refusing the Cross.
As though to ensure that we do not miss the biblical metaphor, one of the guards in the play’s final scene points to some fig leaves that have the serpent’s slime upon them, supplying us with all the forensic evidence we need to make the connection between the crime scene at the end of the tragedy and that Original Crime scene which serves as the archetype of all human tragedy. And as for the nature of the crime, it is not the Liebestod that Ms. Marshall imagines but a Lustmord, a lust-murder that destroys the lives of the innocent, as well as proving self-destructive to the criminals themselves.
As for Ms. Marshall’s laughable “modern perspective,” I am reminded of Chesterton’s complaint that it didn’t matter how much he made the point of the story stick out like a spike, the critics would still go and carefully impale themselves on something else. With this in mind, we’ll leave the critic dangling comically from her own imaginary spike or, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, hoist with her own petard.
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The featured image is “The Death of Cleopatra” (1892) by Reginald Arthur (1871-1934) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.