The truly tragic figure in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is Cleopatra. Discuss

Essay by laurasmith999 June 2008

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Barbara Everett rightly claims that the play ‘is continually suggestively of different kinds and categories of drama.’ This is not simply a tragedy and no character is simply and ‘truly’ tragic. However, Cleopatra, Antony and Enobarbus have tragic elements – grandeur, nobility, fateful misjudgements and a fall from the heights – as well as lesser qualities. It would be true to add, though, that Cleopatra is the dominating presence in the play.

Even the hard-bitten Enobarbus is captivated by her, telling Antony he is ‘blest’ to have met her. In his great speech in Act 2:2, she is presented as queen, ricer goddess, rival to Venus and exquisite work of art. Gold, silver, mermaids, nymphs, perfumes and the enchanting sound of flutes combine to create a sensual paradise. This picture-painting is one f the chief means whereby Shakespeare establishes Cleopatra’s greatness; not moral or spiritual, but into the realm of myth: ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.’

Antony, ‘the triple pillar of the world’, is left ‘whistling to th’air’ and so, by bathetic contrast, her commanding presence is accentuated.

After Antony’s death her speeches of grief carry her into the tragic sphere since they piercingly convey her desolation: ‘The odds is gone, /And there is noting left remarkable/ Beneath the visiting moon.’ Equals Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…’ as an expression of devastating loss and apprehension of meaninglessness. Her ‘dream’ of Antony is the supreme expression of her love for him – his features ‘kept their course and lighted/ the little O, the earth’ – and coming, as it does, after his death, this expression contains not only love, but the tragic realisation of what she has lost: the whole world.

But is the final effect ‘truly’ or solely tragic? I A Richards claims that if a play has a compensating Heaven to offer the tragic hero, [the effect] is fatal.’ Cleopatra and Antony look forward to reunion in the Elysian fields and so, how can we feel the tragic reaction of pity? Jacobean audiences believed in some form of after-life and so would probably have been carried along on the promise of the lovers’ reunion; even a modern non-believer may feel their (deluded) belief counterbalances a ‘truly’ tragic effect.

In addition, it may be said that Cleopatra has too many flaws for a tragic hero. Her extreme mood changes, her violence when she is thwarted, her never-explained flight from the battle of Actium, these are a few of many. Moreover, there are times when she appears, not great or tragic, but comical or ridiculous (for instance, when she coaches her messenger to give a caricatured depiction of Octavia – and then is childishly pleased , believing the image that she herself has suggested.

Antony’s claim to the status of tragic hero may be considered as similarly compromised. He is sometimes a fool (even if not a ‘strumpet’s fool’) mocked in public by Cleopatra; he follows her ship out of the Battle of Actium; he sends Caesar an absurd challenge to single combat; he bungles his death, so that a suicide ‘after the high Roman fashion’ descends into a tragic comedy.

However, like Cleopatra, he has at times the tough of tragic greatness about him. In defeat, he thinks not solely about his won loss of ‘honour’ but also about his followers commanding them to take his gold and divide it amongst themselves, then desert to Caesar. Similarly, he sends Enobarbus his treasure after his desertion. And after Actium, his forgiveness for Cleopatra is swift and total: ‘Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates/ All that is won and lost.’ Antony is, moreover, caught in the wheels of the great tragic machine that will devour him. Shakespeare causes a sense of doom to hang over him for much of the play. When he is in Caesar’s company, his soothsayer claims: ‘Thy lustre thickens/ When he shines by’, and Antony notes the gods always favour Caesar in their games of chance. The sense of his being doomed by fate to suffer a tragic fall is intensified when, before the two battles at Alexandria, strange music prompts a soldier to announce: ‘ Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, /Now leaves him.’ Tragic inevitability surrounds him.

Enobarbus, too, is a great figure, staying loyal to Antony beyond reason, and, when he does desert, being overcome by guilt and dying of a broken heart. At least one critic (Ewan Fernie) finds him the tragic hero of the play, according to Aristotelian criteria. Certainly, his intelligence, breadth of sympathy and integrity make him enormously attractive; but he is overshadowed by the great personalities of the two lovers and the sheer bulk of great poetry spoken by or about them.

In conclusion, no one character is the centre of the play; and the two principals cannot be seen as wholly tragic. Indeed, the play transcends generic boundaries.

BibliographyBarbara Everett - The tragedy of Antony and CleopatraRex Gibson - Cambridge students Guide to Antony and Cleopatra