The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" by Joyce Carol Oates

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Nature wants stuff

To vie strange forms with fancy . . .

--Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra shares with Troilus and Cressida the obsessive and self-consuming rage of the tragic figure as he confronts and attempts to define "reality." But, more extravagantly than Troilus and Cressida, this reality is layered with masquerade; forms that are often as lyric as brutal shift and change and baffle expectation. The constant refinement of brute reality into lyric illusion is the work not simply of Antony, Shakespeare's hero, but the lifelong work of Shakespeare himself. Thus there is a curious, rather decadent air in this play of flamboyant desires having as much import--if not ultimately as much political strength--as events themselves. Lionel Abel states that among the characters of Hamlet there are four playwrights: Claudius, the Ghost, Polonius, and Hamlet.1 Among the characters of Antony and Cleopatra there are any number of mythologizing poets and/or playwrights, but the most important is Antony.

Snared within the net of appearances and forced by politics (that most extreme form of fantasy) to break free, Antony's agony is curiously muted for someone who has achieved and lost so much; but this fact can be better understood if we examine the basis of the play and its relationship to "tragedy."

The movement of most works of literature--whether the simple medieval morality play or the ambiguous Troilus and Cressida--is toward a dramatic confrontation with reality, with objective truth. The hero's downfall (or, in happier works, his conversion or enlightenment) is determined by the success with which reality overcomes appearances. If there is any great theme of literature this is it: the destruction of the faux-semblant and attendant illusions by the intervention, bitter or glorious, of reality. Tragedy works with this theme and is inseparable from...