It’s an epic saga of noble heroes fighting to uphold their ancestral honor, of corruption in the body politic, of conspiracy in the Senate, of a venerable Republic turning into an Empire. No, I’m not talking about George Lucas’ Star Wars but about William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. But the fact that these two plays can be described in the same terms as one of the most famous movie franchises of our day is testimony to the continuing relevance and perennial power of Shakespeare’s work. In his recreation of ancient Rome, Shakespeare was dealing with problems, social and political, that continue to haunt our age and thus our popular culture. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare portrayed the last days of the Roman Republic, a community that at its best upheld a common good and expected its citizens to participate actively in political life. The conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar because they believed he was destroying this way of life and ushering in a new era of one-man rule, which would replace the republican virtues with the decadence of empire—just what Shakespeare went on to portray in Antony and Cleopatra.
The mention of Star Wars also reminds us that Shakespeare was not averse to one of the most basic Hollywood formulas—the sequel. Early in his career, he wrote Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and later scored one of his greatest successes with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Is Antony and Cleopatra a sequel to Julius Caesar? The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s presentation of the two plays together gives us a rare opportunity to explore this possibility. They do share several characters (Antony, Octavius and Lepidus), the action of the second is roughly continuous with that of the first, and there are many references to Julius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra. To be sure, most scholars date Antony and Cleopatra as being written some seven or eight years after Julius Caesar, and there is no record of their having been performed together in Shakespeare’s day. But, whatever the historical details, when we look at Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra today, the two plays work together in a myriad of ways and benefit greatly from being staged together.
Some scholars might object that there are fundamental inconsistencies between the two plays, above all, in the character of Mark Antony. In Julius Caesar, he comes across as a master politician, able to manipulate the mob in Rome and defeat Caesar’s assassins in the public forum and on the battlefield. By contrast, in Antony and Cleopatra, he appears to be politically ineffective, frittering away his share of imperial command for the sake of his sensual indulgence with the Egyptian enchantress, Cleopatra. Which is the real Antony—the Master of the West or the Playboy of the Eastern World? And yet, seeing the two plays together allows us to grasp the deeper continuities in the hero and Shakespeare’s underlying sense of how differing political circumstances work to shape character and even alter a man’s destiny.
Already in Julius Caesar, Antony appears as something of a playboy, foreshadowing his role in the later play. Julius Caesar says that he prefers the fun-loving Antony to men obsessed with politics like Cassius: “He loves no plays, / As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.” Indeed, Antony evidently has a reputation as a party animal in Rome. When he shows up to accompany Caesar to the Senate in the morning, Julius is surprised: “See! Antony, that revels long a-nights, / Is notwithstanding up.” In Antony’s bitter confrontation with the conspirators before the battle of Philippi, Cassius harks back to his reputation as “a reveller.” In fact, the conspirators fatally underestimate Antony’s political capacity precisely because of his playboy image. In deciding not to kill Antony along with Caesar, Brutus dismisses his political importance: “he is given / To sports, to wildness, and much company.” This sounds like the Mark Antony we know from Antony and Cleopatra.
In short, it is actually the politically effective Antony of Julius Caesar who is “out of character.” He was generally thought of as a political lightweight, more interested in partying than ruling the city. What, then, transforms Antony into the powerful political force we see in the center of the play? The answer is: the murder of Julius Caesar. In a heroic act of self-mastery, Antony pulls himself together in the political crisis created by the assassination and devotes himself whole-heartedly to avenging his lord’s death and bringing down the conspirators. The memory of Julius Caesar gives Antony a cause worth fighting for, and, if need be, dying for. To Antony, Julius Caesar was “the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times.”
But the fact that it takes Caesar’s death to transform Antony from a playboy to a master politician has ominous implications for his future. It threatens to leave a void in his life once he accomplishes his revenge and no longer has Caesar as a cause to fight for. Antony’s dilemma is highlighted in the impassioned request he makes to the conspirators when he views them circling Caesar’s corpse:
I know not, gentlemen, what
Who else must be let blood, who
else is rank:
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar’s death’s hour.
In seeking to understand the hero of Antony and Cleopatra, we must take this earlier speech very seriously. These words come back to haunt Antony. By his own admission and prediction, in not joining his master at this moment in death, Antony misses his one chance to die nobly: “Live a thousand years, / I shall not find myself so apt to die.” Antony and Cleopatra chronicles his desperate search for another such moment when he would feel ripe for death, when he could find a cause as noble as Julius Caesar for which to die.
That cause, he hopes, will be Cleopatra. From the beginning of the play, Antony rejects conventional politics in Rome and seeks to create a new form of nobility in his imperial love affair with Cleopatra: “The nobleness of life / Is to do thus—when such a mutual pair and such a twain can do’t.” In Julius Caesar, his master’s death taught Antony a lesson in the vanity of ordinary political achievement: “O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low? / Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils / Shrunk to this little measure?” Given this insight, no wonder Antony does not pursue political power with the single-mindedness of his rival Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra. Shadowed by the transitoriness of even Julius Caesar’s achievements, the characters in the play develop grave doubts about political life, summed up when Cleopatra proclaims: “’Tis paltry to be Caesar.”
Antony’s disillusionment with the imperial political system he helped create reignites the hedonistic impulses that only his devotion to Julius Caesar held in check. He becomes again the playboy that people in Rome always thought him to be. The transition from Republic to Empire has changed the terms in which men evaluate their lives. In the waning days of the Republic, noble Romans like Brutus could still devote themselves to the common good of the city and place it above their private interest. But in the more personalized politics of the Empire, the public and the private tend to fuse and the system becomes one of every man for himself. Antony can still play the game of imperial politics, but he does so with an increasing sense of its ultimate hollowness and futility.
As Rome comes to mean less and less to Antony, Cleopatra comes to mean more and more. In the absence of the traditional loyalty to Rome as a higher goal, Antony places increasingly impossible demands upon his love. Cleopatra is to be the justification of his very existence, his new source of honor. In his love affair, he hopes to transform hedonism into a new form of nobility. Honor means everything to Antony as a noble Roman: “If I lose my honor, / I lose myself.” And he comes to identify Cleopatra with his honor: “Since Cleopatra died, / I have lived in such dishonor that the gods / Detest my baseness.” If there seems to be something self-defeating and self-destructive about the hero’s behavior in Antony and Cleopatra,
the reason is that, on the deepest level, Antony is searching for a noble way to die, having missed the perfect opportunity to go to the grave with the noblest of all men in Julius Caesar.
Far from being inconsistent, Shakespeare’s two Antonys form one complex character. His hesitations and wavering actions in Antony and Cleopatra, which contrast sharply with his decisiveness in Julius Caesar and frustrate even his most loyal followers, reflect his profound sense of having lost his way in the world—an imperial world in which all the old republican guideposts have disappeared. He hopes that Cleopatra will become the lodestar of his existence, but it is his ultimate tragedy that the rock upon which he seeks to build a new life turns out to be a slippery one indeed. Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” enchants Antony, but it also makes it impossible for him to know if she is truly loyal to him and thus worth dying for. In one last twist, this complex figure returns to his old Roman identity with his final words. The victim of the new imperial politics chooses to present his suicide as a patriotic act on the old republican model: “A Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished.” Even in death, Antony remains self-divided.
Paul A. Cantor
Professor of English,
University of Virginia