“Fall not a tear, I say. One of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.”

(Antony, Act III, Scene xi,
W. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.)

The lines quoted above have been taken from the play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, first performed in 1606 and first published posthumously in 1623. The quoted section is said by Antony (one of the protagonists of the play) to Cleopatra (his lover and the other eponymous protagonist) towards the end of Act III, Scene xi, where he asks her not to cry as even one of her tears is worth all that was won and lost (in the battle), and asks her to kiss him. Here, Antony has just retreated from battle against Octavius Caesar’s army and is responding to Cleopatra’s apology for her role in this.

Antony and Cleopatra
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Antony and Cleopatra, respectively.

In the opinion of critic, his referencing worth and tears here is reminiscent of his opulent gift of an Indian pearl to Cleopatra in Act I, scene v. This signals a shift in Antony’s speech marked by fluctuations between intimate and business-like tones and his swinging from uncertainty to composure, emphasised by energetic rhythm of speech and ending this dialogue in a rhyming couplet,

“Within there, and our viands! Fortune knows
We scorn her most when most she offers blows.”

One can see, through these lines, that Antony is entirely devoted to Cleopatra and she has him right where she wants him at this point, as he is eating out the palm of her hand. His response, to her apology (at having indirectly led to his defeat by retreating) and her believing that he would not have followed her, is to say “My heart was to thy rudder tied.  Antony thus is devoted to her, despite just having been blaming her for and accusing her of leading him to infamy. He requests of her a kiss, believing it will set everything right and remarking that it repays him for his shame. This and his easy acceptance of her apology shows clearly his love for her.

The patriarchal interpretation of this text, however, professes that Antony’s downfall is caused by Cleopatra, and critic A.C. Bradley considers her “the strumpet who brings [the tragic hero] down.” This statement is justified by critics such as these by professing that he is left guessing by his lover, whose love he is not completely convinced of. They feel that the elusive Cleopatra does not treat him well and that rather than hold his interest, her extreme behaviour actually drives him to his destruction. In the end, however, it is she who is actually dragged down with him, due to his being driven to foolish acts, despite attempting to restore the sovereignty of her country, her one goal. Where she tries to take charge of her destiny, he self-destructs and is rash.

The Conquerer, Magritte. Marc Antony.
The Conquerer, Magritte. 1926.

This ultimate fall of his is in fact not ‘great’ at all and becomes ridiculous. The arbitrariness of the suicide as well as Antony’s style of talking at that point are absurd. He is, in death, literally elevated to Cleopatra’s level. L.T. Fitz responds to the patriarchal interpretation, saying the narrative that views Antony and Cleopatra as essentially a play about Antony, without recognising Cleopatra as a tragic hero, is flawed. Fitz points out the tendency to emphasise Cleopatra’s “feminine wiles” and “childlike” qualities while ignoring her motivations as the ruler of a nation, saying that critics apply a double standard in assessing their actions: what is praiseworthy in Antony is damnable in Cleopatra. The assumption here is that for a woman, love should be everything; her showing an interest in anything but her man is reprehensible. For a man, on the other hand, love should be secondary to public duty or self-interest. Shakespeare, in actuality, allows Cleopatra the structural privilege conventionally granted to the male, by handing over almost the entire final act to her, in the opinion of critic Michael Neill.

The quoted lines are also seen to represent a fall in Antony’s character. The previous courageous, valiant Antony he mentions and laments over was off-stage and unseen by readers and audience through the course of the play. Even what he references has not been seen by audience, that is, the time he oversaw the death of Brutus and Cassius, expressed in the lines “I struck/ The lean and wrinkled Cassius, and ’twas I / That the mad Brutus ended.” (previously in the same scene, Act III, Scene xi.) Antony thus appears stuck in the past, with images of his former glory that he clings to that have not been recovered or even partially presented in the play.

Through these absences, Antony is seen as a shell of the man he used to be, clinging to old robes. The noble Antony we admired in Julius Caesar is absent, or rather reduced to a love-lorn sap, stripped of his dignity and the moral sense that made him heroic in Julius Caesar. Octavius Caesar, too, mentions this in Act I, scene iv, where he says that “the comparison between then and now shames you—in such a soldier-like way that you didn’t seem to suffer at all.” The victories of his past are diminished by his present shame due to his being torn between Rome of his duty and Egypt of his pleasure. His lack of nobility is even commented upon and questioned, in the previous scene, by Canidius, and even Enobarbus considers deflecting to Caesar’s side, as Canidius did, but reluctantly remains loyal.

marc-antony

The audience is able to recognise around this point his changed character, now slumped in defeat, and can note the contrast between the Antony of the later acts of the play — from this one on — and an earlier Antony trying to present himself as a heroic Roman warrior. In neither of these images is Antony as valiant as he used to or hopes to be. His heart and mind remain constantly in Egypt, even upon his wedding to Octavia Caesar, Octavius Caesar’s sister, “I’ th’ East my pleasure lies,” in Act II, scene iii. This serves to humanise Antony to some degree, with Shakespeare inverting common tradition and making his protagonists normal people who, even though they are high-born, possess human characteristics. They have contradictions, flaws, and shortcomings, despite the noble stature, and make bad decisions in love.

Even though this is humanising Antony to the audience and reader, for him it is a loss of identity. As he points out to Octavia in Act III, scene iv, his current actions imperil his honour, and without that—the defining characteristic of the Roman hero—he can no longer be Antony; he says, “If I lose my honour, / I lose myself.” His character has thus developed beyond his own understanding. The believes he has fled his military hero self; he now confronts a man whose heart can lead him into defeat as surely as his reason has led him Antony returns to the imagery of a stripped tree in Act IV, scene xiii, as he laments, “This pine is barked / That overtopped them all.

Rather than amend his identity to accommodate these defeats, Antony chooses to take his own life, an act that he feels restores him to his brave and indomitable former self. This is ironic since suicide is actually a cowardly escape. In his death, Antony believes in a flawed assumption of hara-kiri, convincing himself and the world (represented by Cleopatra and Caesar) that he is “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (Act IV, scene xvi.).

Advertisements