The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. The culture was introduced to Egypt by Ptolemy and is reflected in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-08). Antony is seen indulging in leisure feasting and “all the charms of love”, neglecting his duties to Rome, “Let Rome in Tiber melt.” He is consumed by Dionysian delights as he promises Cleopatra her kingdom and in this, almost takes on the role of her father, Ptolemy. Unlike Paris from Homer’s The Iliad, Antony’s conscious choice to do so does not become a redeeming factor because of his desire to be a regal Roman virtuoso. In the Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra, Vanashree Tripathy states, “The Roman values stand for fixity of purpose and direct action and the Egyptian stands for languishing and promiscuous joys… Egypt may be symbolic of naked flesh, of voluptuous oriental sensuality, but also exists in the fancy of the Romans.” Although Pompey almost predicts Antony’s doom in his speech, “Salt Cleopatra, soften thy wan’d lip!” (2.1), he also wildly imagines the joys of “Ne’er lust-wearied” Antony. Pompey comments upon “Salt Cleopatra” and refers to her as an enchantress whose witchcraft and beauty is enough to captivate and tempt Antony towards a pasture of sensual delights from which he would not want to divert himself. Antony’s over-indulgence in sinful pleasure and inability to balance his Roman and Egyptian self is blamed upon Cleopatra’s image of an enchantress. This is evidenced in the dialogue between Maecenas and Enobarbus. Maecenas says, “Now Antony must leave her [Cleopatra] utterly” and Enobarbus replies:
“Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety”
Cleopatra is described by Enobarbus, not as a person but as an aura. She embodies insatiable desire in the eyes of the Romans, much like Egypt itself. Cleopatra is repeatedly labelled as a temptress and a receptacle of the devil. Within the first ten lines of the play, the men declare Cleopatra a lustful “gipsy” viewed as the “exotic other”, a symbol of seduction. Such accusations resonate with the ones that Othello faced by the Venetian society in Shakespeare’s domestic tragedy, Othello. While Ohello’s identity is confirmed in his mind by Desdemona’s acceptance of him, Cleopatra is well aware of the power she has over Antony. She loves Antony but as the Queen of Egypt, her interest also lies in flattering Roman conquerors in order to empower herself against the threats of Roman patriarchy. Such ambiguity about her motives stems from her past relationships with Julius Caesar and Pompey’s ancestor. Her gender renders her politically unacceptable but sexually acceptable and her “infinite variety” as part of her female charm reveals the repercussion of sexual politics according to Tripathy. She herself creates the temporary image of being “conquered” by Antony instead of wooed. The extent to which Antony is under her spell, however, is revealed in the tales of how she drew him into cross-dressing with her. She is also able to make him disregard a direct messenger from Rome, mocking all that the Romans could possibly have to say. She plays at being sullen to disconcert Antony, but sends endless messengers to him when he is away, and appears to be unable to focus on anything in his absence. She has fits of violent temper, and beats the messenger who announces Antony’s marriage to Octavia until he runs away and is scared to return to her presence. She sends him to find out what Octavia looks like, and manages to reassure herself that she is herself the more attractive, though the messenger’s youthful indiscretion on the matter of age does not help.
In Antony and Cleopatra: Character as Actant and Site, R. S. Sharma observes that Cleopatra is “at once the vitctim of male domination and conqueror of male territory.” As victim she is made to conform to the popular image of a woman as constructed by the Shakespearean age. For the sake of her love and protection of her kingdom, she must devise various means to keep Antony in Egypt. She ‘performs’ her character and engages Antony in twisted language. She taunts Antony on his subservience to Fulvia and overreaches Caesar in dissembling when, through their talk and conduct she creates an impression that she would be obedient to his wishes. She has to be allusive to be desirable. Her play of words can be compared with Iago’s who uses language to manipulate the action of Othello and delivers timeless soliloquies. On the other hand, this same use of language can be interpreted as her exploiting whichever ways she can to achieve the ends she desires. Her frequent use of erotic language needs no veil of mystery. In the words of Tripathy, “Her sexual allusions are not like those of the plebeians” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they are the full expression of her erotic being, “O, happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” (1.5.21). She is a rebel to the male dispensation. She rejected the racial and colonial discriminations set up by the Romans and demanded equality in all respects. When war comes between Caesar and Antony, she insists on joining in the war in person, despite being a woman, and argues for the battle at sea. In the middle of the battle, however, she takes fright and runs with all her fleet, and Antony follows. Despite this disgrace to him, she is able to apologize and remain in his good favour. V. Kiernan in his book Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare claims, “Cleopatra is about to vindicate woman against man, as well as East against West. Before the end she remembers her royal ancestry, puts on her robes of state, and feels ‘marble-constant’, emptied of all feminine weakness – as Lady Macbeth had wished to be.” Like Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cleopatra, according to some critics, ruins the man she loves and herself with him.
Antony seems to be aware of Cleopatra’s upper-hand in their relationship. In spite of acknowledging the fact that Octavia Caesar is the route to peace among the Triumvirs, he sabotages his marriage with Cleopatra’s anti-type and declares, “In the East, my pleasure lies.” Octavia strongly contrasts Cleopatra in her passiveness and idealism; she is used by her brother like a pawn, whereas, Cleopatra asserts herself in the public and male domain. While Antony loses his confidence in military matters and fully becomes an inconsistent and weak character by the end, Cleopatra maintains her dignity intact and keeps using her tricks on Caesar in hope of self-preservation. In fact, it’s the consistent inconsistency of her character that establishes her desirability. Antony’s vice is immoderation. His excessive passion fuels his love for Cleopatra which is why their private triumph of love fails to justify their failure in the public sphere. Unlike the love of Romeo and Juliet, their love is seen as adulterous because of the consequences it bears, not only on their public lives but also the lives of their people. Meanwhile, even though Othello faltered, he and Desdemona embody true love which becomes his saving grace in the eyes of the audience. Antony, on the other hand, literally and symbolically has to be risen to the level of Cleopatra in death in Act IV Scene XV. The use of props in this scene is noteworthy and comparable to the display of a bed in Othello, used to dramatize the death of Desdemona and Othello. Cleopatra is not reduced to ridicule by Shakespeare like Antony. He blames her for his failures and she allows him space to recover. He asks for assistance even in death and she embraces death in the place of her choice and prefers to die than to be taken captive by Caesar, thus, reasserting her political and feminist dominance.
Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy indeed, but not an Aristotelian one. Antony fails to invoke pity and fear in the audience while Shakespeare explores the limits of drama. Some critics view this play as transitional and a prelude to his Romances. The characteristics of the age manifest through this play, evidenced in the evocation of Renaissance carvings and paintings in the portrait of Antony and Cleopatra: the embodiment of Dionysiac spirit in lush colours and rich sensuous beauty. The lives of the commoners are taken into account more so in this play than other tragedies like Hamlet where all the action takes place within the court of Denmark, marking Shakespeare’s wholesome consciousness. Shakespeare presents flawed and humane characters with shifting loyalties, instead of populating the stage with nobility and virtue. While Rome represents order and discipline, Cleopatra uses time as she pleases, “That I might sleep out this great gap of time” (1.5.5). Cleopatra depends on her performative genius, “I am marble-constant”. In the last act, she participates in her own dismemberment, “I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’th’ posture of a whore” (5.2.218). Cleopatra calls herself a “strumpet” in this dialogue, confirming her Roman image, and establishes the male-dominant discourse of Shakespeare’s patriarchal society. This dialogue is also interesting because it is reminiscent of the inhibitions of the theatre which only allowed male actors to perform until post-Restoration period. Ergo, Cleopatra’s character is played out by a young boy who calls Cleopatra “a whore”. An even more complicated play of gender is witnessed by the readers in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, wherein, a male actor enacts the role of the female protagonist, Rosalind who pretends to be a man within the play, Ganymede, who pretends to be a woman. This trajectory is fully expressed in the epilogue delivered by the male actor playing Rosalind. The genius of Shakespeare lies in the fact that he is able to add new dimensions to his source texts with minor changes in the characters and their surroundings.
Shakespeare derives his historic play, Antony and Cleopatra, from Plutarch’s Lives. In Lives, Antony is the only tragic character. Plutarch was not concerned with Cleopatra’s thoughts or feelings in their own right; they were merely responses to Antony’s suffering. Shakespeare, however, makes Cleopatra every bit as tragic a character as Antony, and gives her beautiful and moving soliloquies befitting a queen. For this development of Cleopatra’s character, Shakespeare likely consulted Samuel Daniel’s play, Cleopatra, written in 1594. Evangeline Maria describes the character of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Characters: Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra) from The Works of William Shakespeare and comments on Shakespeare’s projection of her, “I am considering her merely as a dramatic portrait of astonishing beauty, spirit, and originality. She has furnished the subject of two Latin, sixteen French, six English, and at least four Italian tragedies; yet Shakespeare alone has availed himself of all the interest of the story, without falsifying the character. He alone has dared to exhibit the Egyptian queen with all her greatness and all her littleness – all her frailties of temper — all her paltry arts and dissolute passions — yet preserved the dramatic propriety and poetical colouring of the character, and awakened our pity for fallen grandeur, without once beguiling us into sympathy with guilt and error.“