To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays
Chapter 8: O'erflowing the Measure: Transgression as Transcendence in Antony and Cleopatra
What are we to make of Antony and Cleopatra? Copia--copiousness--defies description. John Drakakis (1994) reminds us of Samuel Johnson's fascination with Cleopatra as the embodiment of the "promiscuity of Shakespeare's own style."1
John Danby (1952) comments on Shakespeare's dialectical process of subverting Roman rationality with the creative power of Egypt.2 In The Common Liar (1973), Janet Adelman refers to this dialectic as an indeterminacy where we as audience are forced to judge even though we can neither wholly believe nor wholly disbelieve the claims made by the poetry.3
Following Adelman's insight, H. W. Fawkner (1990) sees the problem of judgment in Derridean terms, in which the play deconstructs its own idealist meaning in a vast dialectical questioning that unravels the essentialist connection between language and reality.4
Other critics have emphasized mythical, social, and political meanings in Antony and Cleopatra, trying to pry open the play through allegorical allusions and correspondences. Echoing Samuel Johnson, Phyllis Rackin (1972) sees a subversive Cleopatra, flouting the rules of Rome, just as Shakespeare's play thumbs its nose at the new taste for neoclassical tragedy in Jacobean England.5
In a psycho-social reading, Nancy Cluck (1985) presents Antony and Cleopatra as an "unrelenting exploration of shame," of Rome as a "shame culture" in which Antony is abandoned by his followers for his abandonment of duty.6
Perhaps all of these approaches to the problem of Antony and Cleopatra have something in common. In various ways, they indicate that the play is a complex allegory in which rhetoric and dialectic confute simple judgments, and meaning spirals outward in ever widening gyres.
It seems to me that allegory is announced through the enigmatic figure of Enobarbus (and his stand-in, later, Dolabella). The allegorical aspects of Antony and Cleopatra are not to be construed as the moral of the play. The moral, if one cares to state it, is that Antony abandoned his duty and his reason to lust. The moral of the play sides with the Romans over the Egyptians, with Octavius over Antony.
The plot, or "argument" of the play as a Jacobean audience would have called it, invites such a judgment, but the rhetorical brilliance of the play carries us away from such a moral. Where then does the language take us?
Shakespeare's allegory in Antony and Cleopatra is a complex dialectic that sets up multiple categories or topoi. Within these categories, the play offers opposing values. In the course of the unfolding of the play's multiple perspectives, these oppositions tend to collapse into each other, allowing for higher categories that unite their lesser opposites.
The result is not negation, the interpretive aporia of the deconstructionists. Rather, Antony and Cleopatra becomes a celebration of transgression as transcendence, of the ability of human beings to inhabit the fantasies we create and escape the commonplace boxes (which, though mundane, may also be fantasies) in which we are usually forced to live.
The play begins with a Roman indictment of Antony and Cleopatra. Philo condemns Antony for "o'erflowing the measure" of reason and moderation in his "dotage" on Cleopatra, causing him to abandon his "captain's heart" and service to Rome (1.1.1-10).
Soon after, we hear Antony's own interpretation of his situation, as he ignores an urgent message from Rome:
Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do 't, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless. (1.1.35-42)
In contrast to the Roman judgment of his actions, Antony insists that, "by o'erflowing the measure" of what is expected or acceptable to the established authority of Rome, he has carved out a place for himself ("here is my space") with Cleopatra, but Cleopatra's response to this version of their life together in Egypt is "Excellent falsehood!" (1.1.42).
First, we have the values of Rome; second, contrasted to these values we hear the imaginative poetry of Antony's transgressive stand against those values; third, we hear Cleopatra's assertion that Antony's speech is a lie. Thus, the play presents in miniature the triple dialectical contrasts of its own structure, three notes that build outward in ever increasing complexity.
Although the ethical bias of the play favors the point of view of Octavius (emphasizing values to be found, for example, in Aristotle's Ethics or Cicero's De Officiis such as honor, duty, and patriotism) , the dialectic of the play undercuts such traditional, commonplace categories through the rhetorical power of the play's poetry, which favors the romanticism of Antony and Cleopatra; yet the romantic vision is itself questioned, even as the opulent language forces the reader's judgment toward the lovers and away from Octavius and Rome.
Of Cleopatra, Enobarbus says,
Age cannot whither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies" (2.2245-48).
We do not have to indulge in biographical criticism to see that such statements about Cleopatra refer equally to Shakespeare's language and his relation to his audience. Cleopatra is a showman.7 She could easily stand for Shakespeare the playwright in our dialectical unfolding of the play's allegory, but I would suggest that Cleopatra may be the play itself: showy, loud, boisterous, and passionate.
I have another role for Shakespeare to play in this particular allegory. Shakespeare gets to play Antony. If Cleopatra is the play, Antony can be seen as Shakespeare at the height of his powers. Like Antony at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare was about forty-three when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare had just written four of the greatest tragedies in the history of drama, plays which represented the summit of his career.
It might have occurred to Shakespeare that, like Antony, he could not tell whether he was still at his peak or over the hill. Like Antony, Shakespeare seems to have undergone a major humiliation in his life, if we believe the sonnets. Or perhaps for him it was just that, although he was the greatest playwright in England, he was only a writer of plays, an occupation that to many was equivalent to being a pimp or a prostitute. It is worth looking at Sonnet 72, which may be interpreted as the shame associated with his skill as a maker of plays:
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth. (1678)
The gist of these lines seems to be that his friend should abandon him because the work he "brings forth" in his plays is something to be ashamed of, or so he has been made to feel by persons unnamed.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, Nancy Cluck sees Antony and Cleopatra as Shakespeare's "most perceptive and unrelenting exploration of shame" (143). According to Cluck, "the complex of shame" includes "a threat to identity, a fear of abandonment, a sense of unlovability, and an adoption of shamelessness as a mask" (143). The lines from Sonnet 72 quoted above reflect the first three emotions; Antony and Cleopatra reveals the fourth, adoption of shamelessness as a mask. Philo's speech announces the theme of shamelessness, of Antony and Cleopatra "o'erflowing the measure":
Look, where they come.
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. (1.1.10-13)
Philo points at Antony and says "Look." This rhetorical strategy is deixis. It calls attention to the "transformation" of Antony, who has transgressed beyond the box, or commonplace, into which opinion has placed him. Philo sees this as a fall into whoredom. What Philo says is true enough in its way, but there is more to "behold" in the dialectic of the play than Philo's reductive moral would allow.8
To this allegory on the theme of shame we must add the condemnation of Antony by Octavius Caesar, speaking for all Romans who would censure Antony for his dissolute and licentious ways. If Antony is Shakespeare in this allegorical structure, Octavius' comments about Antony reflect an obsession with Antony's lust. In our first encounter with Octavius, he reveals this censoriousness when he says that Antony is
A man who is the abstract of all faultsTo Octavius, Antony is setting a bad example as a leader. His conduct is unseemly. Octavius expresses this point with deep sarcasm:
That all men follow. (1.4.9-10)
Let's grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolomy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat. (1.4.16-21)
Octavius seems to have spent considerable effort learning from messengers and spies how Antony has been misspending his time. He reveals a certain priggishness in his comment that Antony has exchanged a kingdom for a "tumble" with Cleopatra. Octavius objects to the way Antony mingles in the streets with common people, drinking with slaves and fighting "with knaves that smell of sweat." Octavius would not do such things.
Perhaps more to the point, he could not even if he wanted to. He lacks the common touch and would be uncomfortable in the marketplace or with the groundlings in a public theater, the place where Shakespeare spent his life.
Octavius finally makes what ought to be his main point: Antony is neglecting his duty. However, by the time he gets there, the main point has become secondary to his condemnation of Antony's sexual misconduct. Octavius is obsessed with Antony and perhaps envies him the freedom he can never allow himself. From an allegorical point of view, Octavius would be like the censorious Londoners who vented their rage at the public theaters while claiming they never attended.
A play and a playwright need an audience. In our allegory, the audience is inside the play itself, in the character of Enobarbus. He is a perfect theatergoer. Skeptical and witty, he does not miss a thing and makes sensible, "barbed" comments about the foolish actions and grandiloquent speeches of Antony and Cleopatra, undercutting their self-presentation.
Yet it is an enraptured Enobarbus who describes the wonder of Cleopatra at the end of Act Two, scene two. The cynical Enobarbus waxes romantic as he describes the woman who "o'erpictures Venus" (2.2.210). Enobarbus is Shakespeare's master stroke in Antony and Cleopatra, but Enobarbus does not stay for the whole play. Loyal to Antony as no other, Enobarbus finally deserts. What does it mean to the playwright when his audience deserts him? It means he does not make money! Perhaps Shakespeare feared that his offerings were no longer in fashion.
The characters, particularly Antony and Cleopatra, desire to be judged correctly, that is, on their own terms rather than by a standard external to themselves. In a broader, allegorical sense, Shakespeare may be insisting on the same thing, to be judged according to standards he sets for himself. He foregrounds his breach of classical decorum in Antony and Cleopatra, a standard to which he never adhered closely at any point in his career, just at the time when these rules were being put forward as dogma by his friend and rival, Ben Jonson.
This brings us to another turn in the play's dialectic, the conflicting interpretations of the action. Like Enobarbus, we as audience and interpreters of the action are confused. The dialectical structure of the allegory unfolds a commentary of the play as a play. Shakespeare uses the strategy of foregrounding the play as "play" as never before.
Antony and Cleopatra demands that the audience accept the imaginative exuberance (o'erflowing the measure) of the poetry or reject it. Perhaps Shakespeare as a playwright of the older Elizabethan style is throwing down the gauntlet to writers of the emerging neoclassical mode of expression. Why else would Shakespeare write such self-reflexive, hyperbolic poetry, just at the time it was going out of fashion?9
The audience is forced to take sides: to follow Antony and Cleopatra or to leave them in favor of Octavius, to follow Shakespeare's hyperbolic poetry or to leave it in favor of rational skepticism. Unlike his practice in earlier plays, Shakespeare self-consciously makes it difficult for us to believe in his imaginative construction by thrusting to the fore all the tricks and illusions that make drama believable.
This self-reflexive quality is particularly evident in the character of Cleopatra, who, as noted earlier, may be seen as an allegorical representation of the play itself. From the Roman perspective, Cleopatra is a whore, just as to certain Londoners, Shakespeare's plays are debased and shameful. The play's very self-consciousness presents Cleopatra as theater itself, and if she (or it) is a whore, Shakespeare will point this out himself and dare us to comment.
Shakespeare makes us believe in Cleopatra and theater despite, or even because of, its meretriciousness. Shakespeare demands that his audience judge his poetic practice, even as he calls attention to the fact that he is "o'erflowing the measure" of classical rules. This then is metadrama, a dialectical commentary that represents through the structure of the play an allegorical commentary on playwriting. Thus, Shakespeare's poetic method is like Cleopatra's description of Antony's greatness:
His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphinlike; they showed his back above
The element they lived in. In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets; reams and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket. (5.2.81-91)
Cleopatra's description of Antony fits the playwright far better than it does Antony. It may be the playwright's self-estimate, just after the greatest moment of his "reaping," the harvest of plays that made his reputation. As such, it constitutes a metadramatic moment of summation of both his technique and his achievement.
The audience for this speech is Dolabella. Cleopatra rides across Dolabella's attempts to converse with her, as she holds forth about Antony, and he is completely smitten by her. Because Dolabella accepts the words of her transcendental vision of herself and Antony, he tells her the secret of what Octavius intends to do with her. Dolabella has given his heart to Cleopatra, spiritually betraying and abandoning Octavius' more measured destiny.
After Cleopatra delivers her speech about Antony, she asks Dolabella, "Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?" His answer is "Gentle madam, no" (5.2.93). Seing that there never was nor could there be such a man, how can Dolabella be both a skeptic and a believer? The answer is that Dolabella has been "o'ermeasured" by the power of Cleopatra's (and the play's) words, despite his rational understanding that they are not literally true.
A further enfolding of this dialectic as an allegory of play and playwright opens for us through Dolabella's response to Cleopatra. Dolabella's "Gentle madam, no" debunks the rhetoric not only of Cleopatra's dream of Antony but also, as metadrama (that is, as allegory), it overturns the speech's fantastic claim for the playwright, the maker of poetic fiction. Yet Dolabella, knowing the truth, still believes. Like Enobarbus, Dolabella is self-divided; his heart affirms what his head denies. The effect of Antony and Cleopatra on the audience may be exactly this sense of self-division.
In interpreting the play, we as audience usually choose between these two responses, which break down into two camps: those who favor the close representation of reality versus those who prefer the fantastic imagination. The chief Elizabethan interpreter of sixteenth-century literary theory was Sir Philip Sidney, who says in An Apology for Poetry,
Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in theCleopatra and Antony evoke these "speaking pictures." However, Sidney also says,
word mimesis--that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring
forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to
teach and delight. (101)10
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [to what
occurs in nature], lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth
grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than
Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in
Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such
like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the
narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of
his own wit. (100)
Antony and Cleopatra (and Enobarbus in his romantic moments) are poets who figure forth a "golden world," as Sidney calls it, to outdo the "brazen" work of nature (100). Those who favor a realistic view of the world object to Antony and Cleopatra's poetic imaginings in Sidney's own terms, saying that their kind of "speaking pictures" are "phantastike, . . . infect[ing] the fancy with unworthy objects" (125).11
Characters in the play accept their golden world transcending ordinary reality, or reject it as unworthy fancy, according to their predilection for realistic representation (according to nature) or for imaginative invention. In considering the play's self-referential metadrama as an allegory requiring judgment, critics tend to divide along similar lines.
Interpretive debate tends to focus on whether or not the grand imaginative speeches of Antony and Cleopatra contradict the mimesis, the imitation of reality, presented in the play. This is always a question to some extent in Shakespeare's plays; however, in Antony and Cleopatra the contrast between imagination and mimetic reality is clearly marked throughout. Despite Cleopatra's magic words, there never was an Antony such as she describes--especially not in the play.
The problem of following or rejecting Shakespeare's poetic vision in Antony and Cleopatra is focused on the figure of Enobarbus.12 As noted earlier, if he is the audience within the play, Enobarbus' role is crucial. He is the arch-skeptic who fully realizes the problems caused by Antony's making "his will / Lord of his reason" (3.13.3-4). Nonetheless, Enobarbus follows Antony, and as we saw in Act Two, scene two, when he abandons his usual blunt prose and waxes eloquent about the fantasy of Cleopatra, he is not immune to the powers of imagination. Still, he is the skeptical Enobarbus, and if he can go along with Antony, why should we not? Then Enobarbus leaves Antony. After Cleopatra's flight and Antony's defection at the Battle of Actium, following his pragmatic instincts, Enobarbus joins Octavius' forces. There he discovers he has gained nothing:
Alexas did revolt and went to Jewry onEnobarbus finds that traitors are not to be trusted in their new loyalty. In leaving, Enobarbus has lost everything. When a soldier arrives from Antony with the treasure he left behind in sneaking away, Enobarbus is heartsick:
Affairs of Antony, there did dissuade
Great Herod to incline himself to Caesar
And leave his master Antony. For this pains,
Caesar hath hanged him. Canidius and the rest
That fell away have entertainment but
No honorable trust. I have done ill,
Of which I do accuse myself so sorely
That I will joy no more. (4.6.12-20)
Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do't, I feel.
I fight against thee? No, I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die. The foul'st best fits
My latter part of life. (4.6.32-40)
What has his skepticism gained him? Having left Antony, Enobarbus discovers that he can never leave Antony. In his heart, Enobarbus is still Antony's partisan. He followed a measured course only to discover that without Antony he could not exist. Even in death, Enobarbus is still in Antony's audience because Antony is in his mind and heart, as his last words "O Antony! O Antony!" reveal (4.9.26).
The play clearly shows that, by leaving, Enobarbus has betrayed himself. One could say that the metadrama points to the notion that the ideal world of Antony and Cleopatra's poetry (the world of Shakespeare and Sidney) is preferable to the everyday realities of Octavius.13 This sounds like a reasonable way to see the play, but is it enough?
Does this wrap up our allegorical consideration of Antony and Cleopatra? Perhaps my argument about the allegorical dialectic of Shakepeare's play has not yet resolved certain questions. For instance, I have not adequately explained the metadrama of Shakespeare's attitude toward his protagonists, Antony and Cleopatra; I have not dealt adequately with the metadramatic ways in which the illusions of theater are directly pointed out; nor have I fully explained what Shakespeare was doing by foregrounding the stuff of theatrical illusion.
Clearly the play demands a further look at the play's dialectic. The contradiction between represented action and fantastic, imaginative poetry in the play can be approached in a more skeptical way than we have done so far. We must turn for assistance to Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets to see how Shakespeare's poetic practice in the late sonnets helps explain what he is doing here.
In Shakespeare's Perjured Eye, Joel Fineman discusses Shakespeare's poetic theory in the sonnets.14 I think his discussion applies to Antony and Cleopatra. Fineman begins with the poetic theory of Sidney and his idea of poetry as "speaking picture." Fineman characterizes this as a traditional notion in sonnets from the time of Petrarch. The speaking picture or--Ideas Mirror, as Michael Drayton called his sonnet sequence--posits a visionary speech in which the poet describes in words the vision of reality he sees.
According to Fineman, "the visionary metaphor, the characterization of the poet as seer [vates], is significant, obviously, for the way it claims for the poet a special access to the divine" (11). This notion corresponds to the privileged place of visionary, imaginative poetry in Antony and Cleopatra, and it informs Shakespeare's poetic practice in the early, idealistic sonnets praising a young man.
In the Dark Lady sonnets, Shakespeare seems to have become aware of the disjunction in Sidney's theory between visually perceived reality and imaginative discourse. Fineman characterizes this awareness as Shakespeare's movement from the early sonnets of speaking pictures, of visionary speech, to the Dark Lady sonnets, in which true vision and utterance about that vision are at odds.
In the sonnets, both kinds of expression are presented in words, so that what one sees is a kind dialectical doubling or folding of language upon itself.15 The contrast between eye and speech creates an ontological gap between two different kinds of language, the mimetic and the imaginative. The result is that language is always double not single, even when the speaker strives for visionary truth.
It is worth considering Sonnet 152, where the phrase "perjur'd eye" appears, in order to examine Shakespeare's poetic practice. The speaker addresses the Dark Lady:
In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing:
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
But why of two oaths' breach do I accuse thee,
When I break twenty? I am perjured most,
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost.
For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy,
And, to enlighten thee, gave eyes to blindness,
Or made them swear against the thing they see;
For I have sworn thee fair. More perjured eye,
To swear against the truth so foul a lie! (1695)
The speaker announces that both he and the dark lady have been lying to each other, in that their pledges of faith are lies ("forswearing" and "perjury"). Moreover, he claims that he can see clearly even through his love blindness, but that his tongue gives the lie to what his vision knows is true. This is radically different from the unified vision of Sidney, whose words speak what the eyes see.
In drama there is the added specular element of visual and oral presentation of represented reality, so that the audience sees and hears what is "actually" occurring but also sees and hears individual interpretation of what has occurred, sometimes accurately described but at other times imaginatively, even fantastically, rendered.
Perhaps it is already obvious how Shakespeare's poetics in the sonnets fits into our earlier discussion of the paradoxical metaphysics of Antony and Cleopatra. The insight gained from the sonnets to the Dark Lady, particularly Sonnet 152, when turned toward the dramatic practice in Antony and Cleopatra, reveals a deep skepticism toward the imaginative, transcendental vision of the play. The visionary speeches of Enobarbus, Antony, and Cleopatra appear to deconstruct themselves into lies that have no relation to the represented truth we see and hear onstage.
In an odd sort of Derridean reversal, Shakespeare's presentation of Enobarbus' dream vision, Antony's heroic self-dramatization, and Cleopatra's strained theatrical sublimity reveal a deep distrust on the part of the playwright toward the visionary imagination. If the transcendental vision is only "fallen words," as Fineman says, then Cleopatra really is only a "lustful gypsy" and Antony a "strumpet's fool."
If we agree, then Shakespeare's presentation of the sublimity of Antony and Cleopatra is only the utterance of a "perjur'd eye." If so, we can apply Cleopatra's warning to her women as a warning to the audience about Shakespeare's practice: "He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself" (5.2.191-2). Moreover, according to this aspect of the play's dialectic, the words that contradict visually-represented reality ought not to be believed.
Where does such deep cynicism come from? Again, we need to turn to the sonnets of the Dark Lady, but this time we also must recall Nancy Cluck's discussion of Antony and Cleopatra as an exploration of shame because these sonnets explore the psychology of shame. Whether or not they represent an autobiographical account of Shakespeare's personal humiliation is irrelevant. That they deal with shame makes them important to our understanding of the play. In Fineman's Shakespeare's Perjured Eye, we can see that in Sonnet 152, as in the rest of the Dark Lady sonnets, the relationship between the speaker and the Dark Lady is shameful because it is erotic. They do not love each other. She has broken her marriage vow and is, thus, forsworn. Because he lies and flatters to get what he wants, he is forsworn twenty times over. As Fineman points out,
In the dark lady sequence, to "swear" is already to "forswear," to say is to gain-say. And because speech, as speech, is always one remove from ideal truth, always a "perjur'd eye," the relationship between language and desire is determined by the structural discrepancy between what the poet verbally says and what the poet visually wants: "In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn, / But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing" (152).
Poetically and erotically, therefore, the poet's "truth" is a complex paradox of lies. Further, fallen speech and fallen love are so closely linked in the Dark Lady sonnets as to be practically identical in their evocation of shame. "This intimate and thematized relationship in the dark lady sonnets between false language and erotic desire" ( 178) dominates the skeptical dialectic of Antony and Cleopatra.
If this be true, Shakespeare both loves and detests Antony and Cleopatra, just as he loves and is ashamed of the fallen language of his imaginative discourse. The self-annihilating insight about the "perjur'd eye" in Sonnet 152 may indicate the playwright’s cynicism and shame about his own craft.
It also explains the self-reflexive stage business in Antony and Cleopatra: Shakespeare is ridiculing his own play when he presents Antony being hoisted as he dies in a mockery of transcendence. He is also calling attention to the play's artificiality when the boy actor who plays Cleopatra "squeaks" his lines, saying, "I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore" (5.2.219-21). This sort of deixis, which points at the foolishness of play-acting, threatens Shakespeare’s whole world of make-believe.
As metadrama, Antony and Cleopatra becomes skeptical epistemology, deconstructing vatic utterance and visionary imagination into a tissue of lies. All in all, since the audience has a choice in such dialectical matters, I prefer imaginary vision to skeptical realism. Perhaps there is more to say about Shakespeare's complex allegory of rhetoric and dialectic in Antony and Cleopatra. We need to follow one more twist of the gyre.
At this point our metadrama expands into another realm of allegory. The poetry of Antony and Cleopatra seems to move toward a level where opposites become one another.16 Of course, this is not entirely new for Shakespeare. We are used to cross-dressed twins and boy actors playing the roles of women disguised as men, nor is it uncommon to find in Shakespeare's plays opposite categories merging. This is a basic principle of Shakespeare's application of the principles of rhetoric and dialectic in his plays. However, it is a new idea that a whole play is built upon the merging of opposites. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare is writing his way toward a level where dialectical opposites meld altogether.
This way of approaching the action has the virtue of explaining some of the deepest puzzles in Antony and Cleopatra. As allegory, it offers a higher perspective from which to judge the action--from within by the characters and from outside by the audience--by dealing with what H.W. Fawkner calls "the Absolute" in the play but which Shakespeare would probably call "cosmology."17 From this perspective, Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius are cosmic actors, a microcosm that shadows forth macrocosmic process.
The play contains two "economies." That of Octavius is a closed economy--rational, moderate, careful, frugal of himself and his resources; whereas, Antony's economy is open, emotional, reckless, and spendthrift of himself and his gifts. Caesar is constant, but Antony is constantly inconstant. Cleopatra knows this inconstancy in Antony is part of his nature. She refers to it ironically as his "well-divided disposition," which causes him to make commitments he cannot keep because he wants to share himself with everyone (1.5.56). In contrast, Octavius makes few commitments and breaks them for reasons of policy rather than from an excess of generosity.
Although paradox is an oft-used figure in Shakespeare, the paradoxical dialectic of Antony and Cleopatra is something new, in the sense that the play transgresses the fundamental assertion of Aristotelian logic, that something cannot be and not be at the same time. This is a basic precept of western thought. Of course, Shakespeare's realm is poetry--rhetorical logic, not logic per se.
As the play's dialectic becomes more and more metaphysical, the language transgresses the boundaries of fixed categories--overturning them, swapping them, and transcending them, without negating them. Thus, Shakespeare explores the metaphysical nature of paradox as never before. For example, when Antony leaves Cleopatra in Act One, scene three, he stays in her heart, and she loses (leaves) herself:
Courteous lord, one word:Cleopatra cannot quite put her tongue to the thought, but what she is getting at is that thing are becoming their opposites.18 Antony echoes this thought in lines that sound like Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning":
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it;
Sir, you and I have lov'd, but that's not it;
That you know well, something it is I would--
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (1.3.86-91)
Let us go. Come;
Our separation so abides and flies
That thou, residing here, goes yet with me,
And I, hence fleeting, here remain with thee. (1.3.102-5)
Antony names the contradiction in the first line, in which "going" equals "coming." It also suggests the chiastic organization of the play's metaphysics of paradox, as one concept slips into another.19 The play's illogical logic places us as audience in a peculiar hyperreality in which logical categories of opposition become one another or exchange places.
Antinomies merge or reverse themselves throughout the play. For instance, the motivation for Octavius' agreeing to the marriage of his beloved sister Octavia to Antony cannot be explained adequately by Octavius' usual political expediency. As allegory, however, it makes perfect sense. The polar opposition between Octavius and Antony exists on the rational level only. In his heart, Octavius loves Antony, admires him, and would be Antony if he could. To give his sister is to give himself, as the similarity between the names and the relationship of brother and sister implies.
In this valence of allegory, Octavius is the bride of Antony.20 Octavius' own language implies as much. Of Octavia, Octavius says to Antony, "You take from me a great part of myself" (3.2.24). After Antony's death, Octavius refers to him as
my brother, my competitor
In top of all design my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of my own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle. . . . (5.1.42-6, italics mine)
From this perspective, the dialectic reveals true affinities that rational reality sees as opposites. Octavius and Antony are connected by a deeper bond than ordinary reality can admit.
For his part, Antony is the master-connector and the master-leaver. (Enobarbus thinks he is the "master-leaver," 4.9.25, but the opposite is true.) The "well-divided" Antony is a charismatic figure who bonds with everyone he meets. He thinks there is enough of himself to satisfy everyone and spends his affection on them all. When, inevitably, he has to betray trust and leave, Antony is always sure he will be back and all will be well. This is his nature.
When he is offered Octavia in marriage, he is sure he will be loyal to her, even as he knows he will return to Cleopatra. Because he spends his affections and loyalties so freely, he never realizes there is a contradiction. In the sphere of metaphysical paradox, where oppositions disintegrate, the place from which Antony seems to judge, there is no contradiction.
The character of Cleopatra epitomizes the merging of polar opposites in the play. She is the very center, where hyperbolic paradox clusters. In the metaphysical allegory of paradox, Cleopatra is the absolute value. In Enobarbus' words, she is the embodiment of opposites:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish. (2.2.245-250)
Her "holy riggishness" suggest a cosmic value to transgression, both hers and Antony's. Having united opposites in transcendental oneness, the dialectic proceeds to transgress them. The transcendental is transcended when Antony botches his suicide and is physically hoisted up to meet the supposedly dead but very much alive Cleopatra. Transcendence is sent up in a parody of idealist elevation, and elevation becomes a dragging down.
Meanwhile Cleopatra is enjoying the show because she gets to witness the response (Antony's suicide) to her own death, since she lied to him. When Cleopatra is finally forced to commit suicide to avoid being put on display by Octavius in Rome, her death comes so softly that we hardly realize she is dead.
Her real death is not her real death. She died when Antony heard that she was dead even if it was a lie, and she lives long enough to turn his death and her own into something sublime, united in marriage with Antony as she never was in life, crying, "Husband, I come!" (5.2.287). Of course, if she is making love to death, Cleopatra's almost final words are an outrageous sexual pun.
1John Drakakis refers to Samuel Johnson's view that "the alleged equivocality of Shakespeare's poetic language [in Antony and Cleopatra] was given an ethical gloss through its inscription as a fascination with the verbal excesses comparable in their affective power to 'the fatal Cleopatra for which [Antony] lost the world, and was content to lose it,'" "Introduction," New Casebooks: Antony and Cleopatra, ed. John Drakakis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) 2.
2 John Danby comments upon the dialectical structure of the play, in which "opposites, merge, unite, and fall apart," "Antony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearean Adjustment" (Drakakis 44).
3Janet Adelman says of Cleopatra's fantastic vision of Antony at odds with what we observe and hear in his actions, ". . . Myth can set her emperor in an appropriate context, but it cannot in itself verify her vision. Mythic and iconographic meaning can participate in the significance of a play only if the play first invites their participation; if the work itself does not provide a fertile seedbed, then no amount of mythic analogy will flourish." Adelman adds that we as an audience "are given judgments that we must simultaneously accept and reject; we are shown the partiality of truth. But finally we are not permitted to stand aside and comment with impunity any more than Enobarbus is: we must choose either to accept or to reject the lovers' version of themselves and of their death; and our choice will determine the meaning of the play for us. But the choice becomes increasingly impossible to make on the evidence of our reason or our senses. How can we believe in Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra as Venus when we see the boy actor before us?" "Nature's Piece 'gainst Fancy: Poetry and the Structure of Belief in Antony and Cleopatra" (Drakakis 56-7).
4H. W. Fawkner says the play creates and then nullifies its own meaning as it reaches toward the ineffable or "hyperreal" beyond speech and beyond categories (16-17). Fawkner refers to this process in the play as a reach toward "hyperontology" (23), a place beyond our ordinary understanding of existence. He calls the dramatic technique "ontodrama," which he defines as "the drama of various subversions of ontology" as categories describing existence (23). It involves a metaphysics of paradox, and, as a dramatic technique, it involves a peculiar dialectic, a "chiastic organization" in which categories of opposites slide into and become one another (48). Shakespeare's Hyperontology: Antony and Cleopatra (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990).
5Phyllis Rackin notes the recklessness and excess of the play and the purposeful violation of emerging, neo-classical decorum, "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature and the Golden World of Poetry" (Drakakis 79-80).
6Nancy Cluck, "Shakespearean Studies in Shame," SQ 36:2 (1995): 141.
7Phyllis Rackin observes that
from beginning to end, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a dedicated
showman. In the opening scene of the play, she tells the audience, "I'll
seem the fool I am not; Antony will be himself," a remark that serves as
a pithy keynote to her character. Cleopatra's action throughout, like
that of a playwright or actor, is seeming: she is a contriver of shows,
mostly for Antony's benefit, but he is by no means her only
8Other forms of sexual transgression abound in the play, which is full of sexual puns and bawdy imagery, including the scene describing Antony and Cleopatra cross-dressing. Cleopatra says,
I drunk him to his bed,
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Phillippan. (2.5.21-23)
9Phyllis Rackin observes, citing Ben Jonson, "the neoclassical demand for a style 'pure and neat', 'plaine and customary' was beginning to discredit the older fashion for rhetorical exuberance" (79). In his 1616 preface to the readers of Sejanus in the Works, Ben Jonson shows strong interest in the rules of classical decorum in playwriting through his explanation of the reasons for the tragedy's deviations from strict "laws of time" and "want of a proper chorus," Ben Jonson: Five Plays, The World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988) 103.
10 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, 1965 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1980) 101.
11For a complete discussion of the debate over what constitutes correct mimesis, see Baxter Hathaway, who devoted two books to the subject of the debate conducted in Italy in the sixteenth century: Marvels and Commonplaces (New York: Random House, 1968) and The Age of Crticism, 1962 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).
12Janet Adelman points out that Enobarbus is the central figure in the play caught between accepting or rejecting the lovers' claims to imaginative truth (57).
13John Drakakis draws the conclusion that the play is saying that the ideal world of Antony and Cleopatra is preferable to the real world of Octavius:
It is as if the theater itself, through the figure of Cleopatra, is displaying
its artistic virtuosity in the matter of transforming reality at the same
time as it undertakes to represent its contours. It is through a desire to
recover a "golden" world from the quotidian reality of a sordid
imperialist politics that the play forsakes parody. . . and through death
elevates itself to the status of tragedy. (11)
14Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) 11.
15Joel Fineman says that the result of the disjunction between eye and tongue is
something corruptingly linguistic rather than something ideally specular,
as something duplicitously verbal as opposed to something singly visual.
16Fineman's anti-essentialist view of the Dark Lady sonnets shows that there is no
linguistic idealization, for which words in some sense are the things of which they speak. . . . Shakespeare's merely verbal words . . . will seem a kind of semiotic "lie." That is to say, because they are the discourse of the tongue rather than of the eye, because they are "linguistic," Shakespeare's verbal words are, in comparison to an imago, essentially or ontologically at odds with what they speak about. This is how these words are thematized in Shakespeare's sonnets, as fallen words that have lost their visionary truth. In this sense, because as speech they forswear vision, these words are what Shakespeare calls "forsworn." (15).
17H. W. Fawkner's theory is based on parts of Derrida's theory that derive from Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. These aspects of Derrida's theory have been ignored, Fawkner says, by "the reductive neo-formalist ideology that has institutionalized and popularized" Derrida (11). Fawkner's theory allows us to approach an allegorical Shakespeare who is pushing language to its utmost limits, toward the transcendental value of idealism (ontological meaning) and then beyond it, as the language of transcendence deconstructs itself into antiontology. Perhaps a wild play demands a wild theory. Fawkner cites J. Hillis Miller's comment that the critic should be willing to follow a text as far as it can be followed (13). Thus, Fawkner follows Shakespeare on a "quasi-ontological" or "hyperontological" journey through language toward the Absolute--and beyond.
18Fawkner says, "We are given the feeling of a movement that bends these opposites (leaving and nonleaving) into one another, absolutely. The one who stays leaves; and the one who leaves stays. Leaving is staying and staying is leaving" (43).
19Fawkner quotes Maynard Mack's comment on the play's paradox. As Maynard Mack describes the process:
[Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra] is disposed to jolt us from our usual automatisms and stock responses. . . . Even a great deal of the play's language seems calculated to question our habitual safe norms and logical expectations. (Fawkner 49)
20Jonathan Gil Harris makes the point that Octavia is Octavius' surrogate as Antony's bride, in "'Narcissus in the Face': Roman Desire and the Difference It Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra," SQ 45:4 (1994): 419.