ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.
THIS is a very noble play. Though not in the
first class of Shakespear's productions, it stands
next to them, and is, we think, the finest of
his historical plays, that is, of those in which
he made poetry the organ of history, and assumed
a certain tone of character and sentiment,
in conformity to known facts, instead of trusting
to his observations of general nature or to the
unlimited indulgence of his own fancy. What
he has added to the history, is upon a par with
it. His genius was, as it were, a match for history
as well as nature, and could grapple at will
with either. This play is full of that pervading
comprehensive power by which the poet could
always make himself master of time and circumstances.
It presents a fine picture of Roman
pride and Eastern magnificence: and in the
struggle between the two, the empire of the
world seems suspended, "like the swan's down-feather,
"That stands upon the swell at full of tide,|
And neither way inclines."
The characters breathe, move, and live. Shakespear
does not stand reasoning on what his characters
would do or say, but at once becomes
them, and speaks and acts for them. He does
not present us with groups of stage-puppets or
poetical machines making set speeches on human life,
and acting from a calculation of ostensible
motives, but he brings living men and women
on the scene, who speak and act from real feelings,
according to the ebbs and flows of passion, without
the least tincture of the pedantry of logic or
rhetoric. Nothing is made out by inference and
analogy, by climax and antithesis, but every thing
takes place just as it would have done in reality,
according to the occasion.--The character of
Cleopatra is a master-piece. What an extreme
contrast it affords to Imogen! One would think
it almost impossible for the same person to have
drawn both. She is voluptuous, ostentatious,
conscious, boastful of her charms, haughty, tyrannical,
fickle. The luxurious pomp and gorgeous
extravagance of the Egyptian queen are
displayed in all their force and lustre, as well as
the irregular grandeur of the soul of Mark Antony.
Take only the first four lines that they
speak as an example of the regal style of love-making.
"Cleopatra. If it be love, indeed, tell me how much?|
Antony. There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.
Cleopatra. I'll set a bourn how far to be belov'd.
Antony. Then must thou needs find out new heav'n, new earth."
The rich and poetical description of her person, beginning--
"The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,|
Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick"--
seems to prepare the way for, and almost to justify
the subsequent infatuation of Antony when
in the sea-fight at Actium, he leaves the battle,
and "like a coating mallard" follows her flying
Few things in Shakespear (and we know of
nothing in any other author like them) have
more of that local truth of imagination and character
than the passage in which Cleopatra is
represented conjecturing what were the employments
of Antony in his absence. "He's speaking
now, or murmuring--Where's my serpent of
old Nile?" Or again, when she says to Antony,
after the defeat at Actium, and his summoning
up resolution to risk another fight--"It is my
birth-day; I had thought to have held it poor;
but since my lord is Antony again, I will be
Cleopatra." Perhaps the finest burst of all is
Antony's rage after his final defeat when he
comes in, and surprises the messenger of Caesar
kissing her hand--|
"To let a fellow that will take rewards,|
And say, God quit you, be familiar with,
My play-fellow, your hand; this kingly seal,
And plighter of high hearts."
It is no wonder that he orders him to be whipped;
but his low condition is not the true reason:
there is another feeling which lies deeper, though
Antony's pride would not let him shew it, except
by his rage; he suspects the fellow to be Caesar's
Cleopatra's whole character is the triumph of
the voluptuous, of the love of pleasure and the
power of giving it, over every other consideration.
Octavia is a dull foil to her, and Fulvia a
shrew and shrill-tongued. What a picture do
those lines give of her--
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom steal|
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."
What a spirit and fire in her conversation
with Antony's messenger who brings her the
unwelcome news of his marriage with Octavia!
How all the pride of beauty and of high rank
breaks out in her promised reward to him--
----"There's gold, and here|
My bluest veins to kiss!"--
She had great and unpardonable faults, but
the beauty of her death almost redeems them.
She learns from the depth of despair the strength
of her affections. She keeps her queen-like
state in the last disgrace, and her sense of the
pleasurable in the last moments of her life. She
tastes a luxury in death. After applying the
asp, she says with fondness--
"Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,|
That sucks the nurse asleep?
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle.
It is worth while to observe that Shakespear
has contrasted the extreme magnificence of the
descriptions in this play with pictures of extreme
suffering and physical horror, not less
striking--partly perhaps to excuse the effeminacy
of Mark Antony to whom they are related
as having happened, but more to preserve
a certain balance of feeling in the mind. Caesar
says, hearing of his conduct at the court of
Leave thy lascivious wassels. When thou once
Wert beaten from Mutina, where thou slew'st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against,
Though daintily brought up, with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou did'st drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beast would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge,
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed'st. On the Alps,
It is reported, thou did'st eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on: and all this,
It wounds thine honour, that I speak it now,
Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lank'd not."
The passage after Antony's defeat by Augustus
where he is made to say--
"Yes, yes; he at Philippi kept|
His sword e'en like a dancer; while I struck
The lean and wrinkled Cassius, and 'twas I
That the mad Brutus ended"--
is one of those fine retrospections which shew
us the winding and eventful march of human
life. The jealous attention which has been paid
to the unities both of time and place has taken
away the principle of perspective in the drama,
and all the interest which objects derive from
distance, from contrast, from privation, from
change of fortune, from long-cherished passion,
and contracts our view of life from a strange and
romantic dream, long, obscure, and infinite, into
a smartly contested, three hours' inaugural disputation
on its merits by the different candidates
for theatrical applause.
The latter scenes of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
are full of the changes of accident and passion.
Success and defeat follow one another
with startling rapidity. Fortune sits upon her
wheel more blind and giddy than usual. This
precarious state and the approaching dissolution
of his greatness are strikingly displayed in the
dialogue between Antony and Eros.
"Antony. Eros, thou yet behold'st me?|
Eros. Ay, noble lord.
Antony. Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapour sometime, like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs,
They are black vesper's pageants.
Eros. Ay, my lord.
Antony. That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
Eros. It does, my lord.
Antony. My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body," &c.
This is, without doubt, one of the finest pieces
of poetry in Shakespear. The splendour of the
imagery, the semblance of reality, the lofty range
of picturesque objects hanging over the world,
their evanescent nature, the total uncertainty of
what is left behind, are just like the mouldering
schemes of human greatness. It is finer than
Cleopatra's passionate lamentation over his fallen
grandeur, because it is more dim, unstable, unsubstantial.
Antony's headstrong presumption
and infatuated determination to yield to Cleopatra's
wishes to fight by sea instead of land, meet
a merited punishment; and the extravagance of
his resolutions, increasing with the desperateness
of his circumstances, is well commented upon
----"I see men judgements are|
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them
To suffer all alike."
The repentance of Oenobarbus after his treachery
to his master is the most affecting part of
the play. He cannot recover from the blow
which Antony's generosity gives him, and he
dies broken-hearted "a master-leaver and a
Shakespear's genius has spread over the whole
play a richness like the overflowing of the Nile.