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Chapter 5: Shakespeare

It is with real trepidation that I begin this chapter, for several reasons. One reason is that Shakespeare is among the greatest poets in history and it is always daunting and humbling to approach the works of such a poet—but of course the other chapters in this book also deal with great writers. Another, more important reason for my trepidation is that Shakespeare has become such an icon, both in the academic and non-academic worlds. At my own college, Shakespeare is the only author who has two separate courses all to himself, and to many people, the name Shakespeare is synonymous with literature. This phenomenon has its positive side because Shakespeare was, after all, so great. It also has a negative side, however, because in deifying Shakespeare, we distort literary history. Yes, Shakespeare was a great poet, but so, in his time, were Sidney and Spenser; and so, in other times, were other writers. For all his greatness, Shakespeare was as much a part of his time as any other great writer. He was a man of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries whose writings reflect sixteenth- and seventeenth-century modes of thought and, like the works of all great writers, say something to us as well. Whether Shakespeare says these things better than anyone else, whether he says the same things to all people, and whether what he says is universally true are other questions that are worth considering, but the first task is to read the plays.

One question that we might consider, however, is why Shakespeare is always taught in English literature classes. It is true that he wrote a number of poems—the sonnets, “Venus and Adonis,” and “The Rape of Lucrece” are the most famous—but generally when people think of Shakespeare, they are thinking of his plays. (Incidentally, in Shakespeare’s time, plays were hardly considered literature at all. In fact, it was Shakespeare’s works that helped persuade people that drama was more than simply entertainment.) Should not Shakespeare, therefore, be studied as drama? Should Shakespeare courses be taught in Theatre Arts departments rather than English departments? Such questions point to an unfortunate aspect of educational institutions, the division of knowledge into seemingly independent fields. The answer to the questions—or rather, my answer—is that the more ways we study Shakespeare, the better. Shakespeare was a dramatist who wrote dramatic poems. If we treat them only as drama or only as poems, we distort them. We must see them as both.

This approach to Shakespeare, or to any drama, has many implications. For example, elsewhere in this book I have expressed reservations about films based on novels, even when they are as good as David Lean’s Great Expectations. I want to imagine Pip and Estella and London and the whole action of the novel as Dickens presents them to me, not as a director and a screenwriter reinterpret them for me, with all the cuts and adaptations that the move from novel to film requires. Drama, on the other hand, was intended for performance and it is therefore vital to see the plays performed as well as to read them. We must remember, of course, that every production of a play is an interpretation of the play, and we may disagree with some of those interpretations. I do not think that we need to be like the composer Brahms, who said that he never went to performances of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni because none of them could match his own conception of the opera. Seeing an interpretation with which we disagree still reinforces our sense of the drama in Shakespeare and helps us, when we read the plays, to read them dramatically. And certainly it is vital when we see a film version of a play to keep in mind the differences between film and stage.

One helpful way to read these plays, or any play, is to pretend that you are a director trying to envision how the play should be performed. How should the lines be delivered? Where should the characters stand? What should they wear? What should the settings look like? These are questions that must be considered in staging any play, but they are especially challenging in Shakespeare. A person who begins reading a play by George Bernard Shaw will find, in addition to Shaw’s sometimes exhaustingly lengthy prefaces to the plays, detailed stage directions that describe what the characters look like, what they wear, what the room and its furnishings look like, where the characters stand, where they move, and how they think. None of these directions are in Shakespeare. Often we know that a character comes on stage because another character says something like, “Here comes Othello”; and often we can tell that a scene is ending because Shakespeare often ends scenes with a rhyming couplet (though not every such couplet signals the end of a scene). We only know what a character is wearing or what a character looks like if someone refers to that character’s appearance. Otherwise Shakespeare gives us nothing like modern stage directions, which means that as readers (or directors) we have many decisions to make, and some of these decisions are fairly difficult.

Let us consider just the matter of costumes. If we are presenting one of Shakespeare’s Roman dramas, like Antony and Cleopatra, what kind of costumes should the actors wear? We know that the play is set in Rome and Egypt at the time of Augustus, so ancient Roman garb might seem appropriate. On the other hand, we also know that Shakespeare’s actors wore the clothing of their own time, so that if we wanted to approximate a Shakespearian performance we might well have our actors in costumes from the early 1600’s. On the third hand, if Shakespeare’s actors wore clothing that was contemporary in their own time, we might want to have our actors in contemporary clothing, too. Each of these approaches to costuming has a clear rationale, and an inventive director might well have a rationale for yet another approach. Similar questions can be raised about every other aspect of a production, which means that the attentive reader must constantly be making decisions about the text.

Furthermore, that attentive reader should practice reading aloud. All poetry, as I said earlier, should be read aloud, but poetry that was intended for performance must be read aloud. And the reader need not try to sound like Dame Judith Anderson or Diana Rigg, Sir Laurence Olivier or Derek Jacobi. They are fine actors with fine, cultivated British accents, but what we now call a British accent is not at all what a British accent sounded like in Shakespeare’s time. (Surprisingly, the pronunciation of English in parts of the Appalachians or on the Delmarva Peninsula is closer to Shakespeare’s pronunciation than are the British accents of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.) In fact, thanks to changes in pronunciation, many of the puns in Shakespeare’s plays are overlooked. More important than the pronunciation, then, are the rhythm of the language and the way the words work together. The reader should just be sure not to pause at the end of every line unless there is punctuation there that requires a pause. Finally, reading aloud makes the reader more aware of Shakespeare’s incessant use of word play.

Let me add a word about that word play. It used to be commonplace that Shakespeare included in his plays a kind of low humor, like puns or sexual innuendoes, to satisfy the lower classes, who could not be expected to understand the more profound implications of the plays. That view is simply incorrect. There certainly is a lot of humor in Shakespeare, much of it explicitly sexual and much of it quite “low,” and there are puns and double-entendres everywhere. (A quick look at Eric Partridge’s book Shakespeare’s Bawdy can be instructive in this area.) But the humor, the sexual references, and the puns always have a meaning. A good example of the humor can be found in Macbeth, which so many people have read in high school. Just as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth are killing the king, there is a knock at the gate and the drunken porter comes onstage to admit Macduff and Lennox to the castle. His speech, delivered in a drunken voice as he staggers to the gate, repeating “Knock, knock, knock” every time the impatient Macduff knocks at the gate, has often been viewed as an episode of comic relief at a moment of high tension. Without question, the scene has its humorous aspects, but when we look closely at the porter’s words, at his references to Hell, to Beelzebub and other devils, to an “equivocator,” we can see that this speech refers directly to the horrifying action of the play and to the nature of its main character. And, since the word “equivocator” refers specifically to events that surrounded the Gunpowder Plot, an attack on the English government, the porter’s speech also serves to connect that action and themes of the play with current events, as virtually everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized. Not only is this speech not a distraction, not something inserted just to keep people’s attention or to keep them entertained, but it is an integral part of the play. In fact, whenever we come across a scene like this, a scene that seems so incongruous, we should concentrate on it, because such scenes frequently give us deeper insight into the plays.

As for Shakespeare’s puns—and I write as someone who loves puns—we must realize that in the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, puns were regarded as manifestations of the divine, since they indicated connections in the universe that would otherwise be hidden. Even Jesus used puns, as when he said to Peter, whose name means “rock,” “Thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church.” Consequently, Shakespeare’s use of puns is often humorous, but, as we shall see, it also often contributes another sense to Shakespeare’s words beyond their literal meaning.

And then there is the matter of Shakespeare’s sexual references. There are plenty of critics around who find sexual references everywhere, even when they seem non-existent to less highly trained eyes, but there is no question that Shakespeare, despite our veneration of his plays as “high” art, was indeed fond of sexual innuendo. The plays teem with double-entendres and sexual references. Many of these rely on slang from Shakespeare’s time (duly noted in the Partridge book mentioned earlier), but many are still clear today. Among the former are Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” in which Hamlet might be telling Ophelia to go not to a convent but to a brothel, which is entirely appropriate in view of his feelings about his mother’s sexual relationship with his uncle (although a convent, a place devoted to, among other things, chastity, might be equally appropriate). Among the latter are the passages at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet in which Sampson and Gregory discuss how to “thrust [Montague’s] maids to the wall,” after which Sampson clarifies what he means by “cutting off the maids’s heads” by saying, “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.” Some years ago, a major publisher, in preparing an edition of Romeo and Juliet for high school use, censored this passage, as though it were just some “funny stuff” that students had to be protected from. But Romeo and Juliet is about, among other things, sex and brutality and the relationship between them, and this opening passage helps to prepare the way for what follows. If we cut out or ignored every such passage, Romeo and Juliet would be a very short play indeed and Romeo and Juliet themselves might just as well be pen pals.

But they are not. They are real people who feel real passions, as do the other characters in the play. One striking quality of Shakespeare’s plays is how real so many of the characters seem. If we read other dramatists from his era, even the best, like Marlowe and Webster, their characters seem more two-dimensional. Shakespeare’s are more like people we know, or could know, which leads us to another misconception about Shakespeare, the notion that the heroes of his tragedies have a “tragic flaw.” Actually the idea of a “tragic flaw” derives ultimately from Aristotle’s Poetics, a book that Shakespeare seems to have pretty much ignored, where it means something like “mistake.” As the concept is now thought about and taught, it derives largely from Renaissance discussions of Aristotle which were heavily influenced by Christian ideas of original sin. Most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes do not have a single such “flaw” that leads to their downfalls, and it is a waste of time and a distortion to try to find such flaws. Is Hamlet indecisive? Perhaps at times he is, but if he took clearer action, we would probably think him headstrong. As it is, everyone in the play is fine as long as Hamlet dithers. It is only when he starts to act that the bodies begin to fall. More to the point, who in Hamlet’s situation would not be occasionally indecisive? Hamlet is not Superman. He is a real person trying to cope with an impossible situation. If he makes mistakes—and he does make mistakes—he does so because he is a human being, not because he is a towering figure who has a single overwhelming flaw. Macbeth offers an even clearer case: rather than being a good man with a tragic flaw, Macbeth is a weak, ambitious man who has a few redeeming qualities. We can hardly say that ambition is his tragic flaw because ambition very nearly defines him, nor does anyone weep at his death.

So was Shakespeare breaking the rules? Was he breaking them when he ignored the Renaissance requirement for “unity of time” and allowed sixteen years to pass during the intermission of/in The Winter’s Tale? Was he breaking them when he ignored “unity of place” in Antony and Cleopatra and allowed the scene to change from Rome to Egypt and back, over and over? The answer, of course, is certainly not. Shakespeare did not write to a formula, nor did he construct his lays by following rules. Like all great writers, he knew the conventions and used them to make his own rules. Looking for tragic flaws and imposed unities may make the reader’s task easier, but it has little to do with what Shakespeare wrote.

Another misconception about Shakespeare that is still taught is that Shakespeare’s tragedies have a structure that looks like this:

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This is an old notion that may once have seemed helpful to readers but that, like the idea of a tragic flaw, has little to do with the reality of the plays. We can make the plays fit the diagram, but only by distorting them. Perhaps the most telling evidence against the accuracy of this structural diagram is the fact that the act and scene divisions in the plays are not Shakespeare’s. They were added later, when the plays were printed. Again, instead of trying to fit Shakespeare into someone else’s scheme, we should look at the plays themselves.

Before we actually get to the plays, however, there are still several issues left to clarify. One came up recently at a dinner party I attended when someone, learning that I teach English, naturally turned the conversation to Shakespeare and asked why Shakespeare’s plots were always so silly. I carefully turned the conversation in yet another direction, but if my questioner reads this book, he will find an answer. One answer is that Shakespeare’s stories are generally not silly, but the real answer goes beyond that facile response. Even if someone thinks that Shakespeare’s stories are silly, we must remember that Shakespeare did not invent them. Almost without exception, Shakespeare took his stories from other sources. The history plays, of course, are based on various chronicles of English history, and the Roman plays are based on the work of historians like Plutarch, though Shakespeare made changes even in those sources, but the rest of the plays also have clear sources. Some derive from earlier sources and some come from contemporary works. It is true that Shakespeare often combined stories from different sources in his plays, which is a kind of invention, but even so, he did not create the stories. In twenty-first-century terms, then, Shakespeare was a plagiarist and a thief.

But Shakespeare did not write in the twenty-first century. It is only relatively recently in history that people have been so concerned about the originality of intellectual material. Previously the use of someone else’s material was regarded as a form of flattery. Furthermore, originality lay not so much in what story one was telling but in how one told the story. If we think back to Greek drama, we can see that the playwrights all relied on mythological stories for their plots. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each have a play based on the story of Electra, but those plays differ tremendously, sometimes commenting on each other. So it is with Shakespeare. It makes no difference that the stories were used elsewhere. What is important is the way that Shakespeare tells them, the poetry he uses, the twists he makes in the plots, his insights into the characters and their actions.

This last point leads to another frequently asked question: Did Shakespeare’s original audiences understand the subtleties of the plays? This is a difficult question to answer, since no one interviewed those audiences as they left the theatre and there was no London Times to review the plays. Clearly Shakespeare was considered an important dramatist, though drama was not considered in his time to have the high status of other forms of literature. Shakespeare may never have intended to publish his works—the first dramatist who did so was Ben Jonson, whose life overlapped Shakespeare’s—but whether he did or not, the publication of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, after his death, testified to the importance of those plays. We must remember that Shakespeare lived in a time before videotape, before instant replays. He would have expected his audience to see his plays once, not to read them, not to buy the DVD, not to wait for the movie. In those circumstances, could anyone, even in a more oral culture than our own, have grasped the full subtleties of the plays? Of course not. Even today, with printed editions and recorded performances, we cannot grasp them fully. Nonetheless, the plays were obviously considered good entertainment. Apparently Shakespeare made a living from them.

Or did he? Did a country actor named William Shakespeare really write these plays? This is actually a non-question. The answer makes no difference at all, and the question only concerns people who prefer not dealing with the plays. If the plays are so brilliant that we cannot believe they were written by a country actor, they are so brilliant that we cannot really imagine the mind that did create them. If that good-looking bald actor did not create them, then someone else did. What matters is the plays. We do not search Beowulf in order to learn its author’s identity, and we do not read these plays to learn about Shakespeare.

Speaking of Beowulf, though, I should point out that the language of Shakespeare’s plays is not Old English or even Middle English. It is Early Modern English, and, aside from notoriously obscure passages, it is not all that difficult. Furthermore, modern editions of Shakespeare modernize his spelling. Consider this passage from the second scene of As You Like It as in appears in the First Folio:

Yong Gentleman, your ſpiritſ are too bold for your yeareſ: you haue ſeene
cruell proofe of this manſ ſtrength, if you ſaw your ſelfe with your eieſ,
or knew your ſelfe with your iudgment, the feare of your aduenture would
counſel you to a more equall enterpriſe.

Shakespeare’s spelling and punctuation (and elsewhere even his grammar) differ from ours. The letter “j” is represented by “i” and the letter “v” by “u.” In addition, the modern letter “s” is represented by the long s, which looks like an “f” without the line all the way through the stem. If reading a modernized Shakespeare seems difficult, get a facsimile of the First Folio and read that. The modernized version will very quickly begin to seem easier.

Another, more important, problem has to do with determining what Shakespeare wrote. The quick response is that we often do not know, which is a big problem when we come to do close readings of the texts. Many of the plays were not printed until long after Shakespeare had died, but even for those that were printed earlier, we do not know how involved Shakespeare was in preparing the texts for publication. In those plays for which we have more than one early edition, the texts are often quite different. Editors since Shakespeare’s time have come up with fairly standard texts, but the relationship between those texts and the plays as they were performed in Shakespeare’s time is unclear.

It occurs to me that reading Shakespeare’s plays is analogous to painting a house. The painting itself is relatively easy once the preliminary work has been done. I have spent a long time on preliminaries here so that the reading itself might be easier and more enjoyable. Now it is time to turn to the plays. I have chosen two to discuss in the hope that if readers enjoy these plays, they will read others. The two plays I will discuss are the comedy As You Like It and the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. I chose the former because the comedies are important and not taught as often as they should be, and this is just a wonderful play. I chose the latter because it is a great tragedy, but it is not as well-known as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, or Othello.

As You Like It

Shakespeare’s comedies cover an enormous range of styles. His earliest comedy was The Comedy of Errors, based largely on work by the Roman playwright Plautus. This play is amusing, though it is rather simple, but with its two sets of twins separated in infancy and accidentally reunited, it foreshadows Shakespeare’s continuing concern with themes of identity, self-knowledge, and self-discovery. Among his last plays are several, including Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, that take the notion of comedy so far that they are classed together as romances. What could “comedy” mean that it covers so many different kinds of plays?

Although numerous comedies were written in fifth-century BCE Greece, very few have survived, and they are all by Aristophanes. If Aristophanes’ comedies were staged today as they were in his own day, they would be considered obscene. They are full of sexual jokes, both verbal and visual, and they are often quite funny. But they are also quite serious. Aristophanes, whose political views tended to the conservative side, used his comedies to comment on some of the most important moral issues of his time. His most famous play, Lysistrata, is a very funny yet devastating attack on the Peloponnesian War and on the male values that prolonged that destructive and useless war.

In the Middle Ages (how is that for a leap?), comedy came to mean a story that ended happily. The best example is a poem rather than a play, Dante’s early fourteenth-century Comedy (which his contemporaries renamed The Divine Comedy). There are not a lot of laughs in Dante’s description of his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but the heavenly ending, including Dante’s vision of God and his assurance of order in the universe, makes the poem a comedy, a divine comedy. It ends happily and it conveys a profound sense of order and truth.

Shakespeare’s comedies show this same progression. He begins with an imitation of Plautus, who himself imitated Aristophanes, and he ends with the sublime poetry of The Tempest. It should be clear by now that describing a work as a comedy does not necessarily mean that it is funny. There may be much to laugh at in these comedies—the last act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be particularly hysterical—but the comedies also present a view of the world that can be profound and moving and that even now challenge many of our assumptions. There are times in Shakespeare when comedy verges on tragedy and tragedy verges on comedy. For instance, if Romeo had not been quite so impetuous, if he had talked for only another minute or two in the last act, Juliet would have awakened, the tragedy would have been averted, and they could begin sending out wedding announcements. The play would have been a comedy. On the other hand, if Aemilia had not appeared at the end of The Comedy of Errors, the play would conclude with executions and other punishments and, despite all of its humor, it might have been The Tragedy of Errors. It may be a little too simple to say that the end of a play determines whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, but my point is that the comedies are not simple vacuous entertainments and they are hardly frivolous, funny though they may be. In fact they often provide profound commentaries on human existence. A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers serious reflections on a number of political issues, while Taming of the Shrew raises issues of gender relations that are still with us.

Actually, in many ways the comedies are more difficult to deal with than the tragedies. In a tragedy the hero dies—Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Troilus, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra all die, and so their stories end. In the comedies, the main characters’ stories will continue, because the comedies convey a sense of rightness, of wholeness, of preparation for a better future. In fact, the comedies usually end with weddings, with the promise of happiness to come. (Some of the plays, however, like Measure for Measure or All’s Well that Ends Well, conclude with the prospect of marriages that may not turn out well, which leads these plays to be classified among the “problem” plays.) Tragic heroes may learn about themselves and the world, but at the end they are gone, though the world continues. In the comedies, the characters also learn about themselves and the world, and at the end they are ready to apply that knowledge in a world where that knowledge might prove beneficial.

As You Like It is a wonderful example of Shakespearian comedy. It was written almost exactly in the middle of Shakespeare’s playwriting career and combines the fun and humor of the early comedies with the special kind of profundity that characterizes the later ones. The play is based on a romance by Thomas Lodge called Rosalynde that had been printed in 1590. Rosalynde is fun to read, though late sixteenth-century prose can take some getting used to, but we do not need to read it in order to grasp the play, for Shakespeare made the story his own as surely as Sophocles made the story of Oedipus his.

One of the key factors in this play is the way Shakespeare eventually moves all of his characters from the various corrupt courts that they inhabit into the forest of Arden, where harmony and order can be restored. Shakespeare used a similar device in other plays, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is not a device that Shakespeare invented. Rather it fits into the history of the pastoral. In numerous highly developed societies, the rural world has been used as a symbol of naturalness and simplicity. Of course, from the ancient Greek writers Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus through Virgil and modern writers like Robert Frost, there have been tremendous variations on pastoralism. Frequently the characters in pastoral poetry, who are usually shepherds, speak in very sophisticated ways about politics, poetry, and religion, a combination that Christianity developed in part based on the traditional imagery of Jesus as both the good shepherd and the lamb of God. The great age of Elizabethan poetry began in 1579 with the publication of Edmund Spenser’s pastoral collection, The Shepheardes Calender.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare uses a slightly different conception of pastoral. All of his major characters come to the forest of Arden, a rural retreat where the complexities of court life can be largely forgotten. In a sense, the Duke still maintains his leadership, but there is no pomp in the forest, no court behavior. He is the first among equals rather than the leader who must be obeyed. Even the tyrannical villains who enter the forest, Oliver and Duke Frederick, cease to be villains when they get there. This forest, or as it is often called, this “green world,” has therapeutic qualities. People come there and their problems are straightened out. The native inhabitants of the forest, however, like William or the shepherds Corin and Silvius, are presented as really simple, highly unsophisticated people. Occasionally Shakespeare, like other pastoralists, pokes fun at their simplicity, but just as often their simplicity is contrasted with the artifices of sophistication so that their native goodness is allowed to appear. As we read a play like As You Like It, then, we must avoid stereotyping the characters. Phebe and Audrey may be a little simple, but they are not evil. They provide some humor, but so, in different ways, do the more sophisticated characters. And we should realize, too, that Orlando is several times referred to as the son of Rowland de Boys. Since “de Boys” means “of the woods,” we can see how thoroughly the pastoral motif pervades the play.

Although the pastoral setting seems to have healing powers, it is not the Garden of Eden. There are, as we shall see, numerous references in the play to a kind of Edenic existence, but the effect of those references is to remind us that we live, in the Christian terms that Shakespeare would have grown up with, in a fallen world, a world that, no matter what we do, we cannot wholly repair. But by the end of the play, we certainly feel that at least some healing has taken place. In Shakespeare’s tragedies we often feel that there is evil in the world and that evil must be excised so that healing and reconciliation can take place. In the comedies, we often see healing and reconciliation. In both kinds of plays, the characters must come to terms with themselves, must learn who and what they are. Hamlet opens with the key words that resound throughout Shakespeare’s plays, “Who’s there?” At the end of Othello, Othello knows better than he has ever known in his life what he is, but along with that knowledge comes the necessity of death. In As You Like It, too, self-knowledge and self-deception play important roles, but no one dies.

Actually Shakespeare was always fascinated by questions of role-playing and self-discovery, which probably is not surprising for someone who was involved in theatre. In many of his plays, characters stage scenes, as Polonius and Iago do, while other characters adopt disguises or pretend to be other than they are. One of the best examples comes in As You Like It. One of the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatre was that women’s parts were played by boys. We do not know why, but it is interesting to note that in ancient Greece and in Japanese Noh dramas, women’s parts were played by men. Although the female characters are so important in all of these kinds of drama, women themselves were not allowed on stage. At any rate, at one point in the play, Rosalind, the young woman being played by a boy, disguises herself (or is it himself?) as a young man and that young man then pretends to be Rosalind. In other words, we have a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl, and each identity is real at some level. We even have Rosalind pretending not to be Rosalind pretending to be Rosalind. The reality keeps changing, depending on where the observer is.

Rosalind’s disguises, however, are voluntarily assumed. Many of the other characters also disguise themselves, but less self-consciously. The play abounds with references to role-playing. For instance, the Duke says,

This wide and universal theater
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in. (II.vii.137-39)

On one level he is talking about the world, and he is acknowledging that other people, elsewhere, also have their own stories; but on another level he may be referring to this scene, the seventh scene of the second act of As You Like It, and saying that the theatre, the reflection of human life, encompasses any number of stories. And when Jaques replies with his famous “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” speech, he complicates matters even more. If all the world’s a stage, then all the men and women watching him make this speech on a stage are also on stage, and what they are watching is—shades of Hamlet—a play within a play. And suddenly the boundaries of reality have been stretched again. Where does one play end and the other begin? That dividing line between the stage and the audience dissolves, as the audience becomes part of the larger play that includes both players and observers. If the actors in As You Like It are portraying characters who are seeking or affirming their identities, then so are the people in the audience, that is, the people who have undertaken to play the role of the audience in the context of the larger play of the world.

We can see this theme worked out in a number of ways throughout the play. At the beginning of Act II, we hear the Duke, who has been exiled to the forest by his usurping younger brother, comment on how nicely things have worked out:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. (II.i.12-17)

To which one of his attendants, Amiens, responds, “I would not change it.” The Duke claims to have found good in the evil that has befallen him, and Amiens agrees. Truly, by the end of the play, when order and harmony are restored and everyone is happy, this sojourn in the forest proves to have been universally beneficial. Still, as soon as the Duke learns that his brother Frederick has taken up a religious life and abandoned the court, he proclaims his intention to return there immediately. The forest may be nice in adversity, but none of the characters except Jaques want to stay there. Has the Duke been lying—even if only to himself? No. In adversity he loves the forest and finds it beneficial, but he is a man of the court and longs to return there. Perhaps at court he will live in accordance with the things he has learned in the forest. Perhaps he will not.

The words that the Duke uses in his adversity speech are also important in other ways. When he finds tongues, books, and sermons in the trees, brooks, and stones, he means that nature has taught him lessons, good lessons about proper living, the kind of lessons he might find in sermons. Shakespeare could have made that point in a number of ways, however, so that we must look at the significance of the words he used. When he made similes out of tongues and books and sermons, he focused our attention on nature and language, though this speech is hardly the first occasion in the play when these motifs are combined.

In the very first speech in the play, Orlando complains to Adam about his treatment at this brother’s hands. In a play in which the characters retreat to an almost Edenic forest, an old man named Adam is a significant character. Orlando complains that while his middle brother is off at school, he is kept at home and treated like an animal. He compares his situation to “the stalling of an ox,” says the horses are treated better, and adds that his brother “lets me feed with his hinds.” Surely Orlando’s complaints are justified, and yet he is also quite mistaken. Later on, he will obtain an education, but he will do so in the forest, not in a school, and his education will teach him that he must be more natural. When he falls in love with Rosalind, he makes the trees speak by hanging his love poems from them. In the Duke’s terms, he gives “tongues” to the trees, but unfortunately his poetry is not very good, full as it is of all the clichés that composed so much Elizabethan love poetry. He must go beyond the clichés and be able to feel and to express his natural love. One reason that doing so is so difficult is fallen human nature. What Orlando seems to want to learn in his opening speech is to be like the courtiers, perhaps even like his brother. What he ultimately learns is to be himself, to be natural—that is, as without artifice as a human being can be, at one with nature.

We can see these ideas in Orlando’s conversation with his brother in the first scene:

Oliver. Know you where you are, sir?

Orlando. O, sir, very well; here in your orchard.

Oliver. Know you before whom, sir?

Orlando. Ay, better than him I am before knows me. I know you are my eldest brother, and in the gentle condition of blood you should so know me. The courtesy of nations allows you my better, in that you are the first born… (I.i.40-47)

This exchange recalls two conversations from the beginning of Genesis. One is the conversation between God and Adam after the latter has eaten the fruit, when God asks, “Where art thou?” Whether or not Shakespeare knew that the word “paradise” comes from a Persian word that means “orchard,” Orlando’s answer makes us recall Eden, the archetypal orchard; but Oliver is not God. He is a simple human tyrant who uses human customs, the primacy of the first-born, to torment his brother. Thus the other biblical conversation that is recalled here is the one between God and Cain, when the latter asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The natural answer to this question is “Yes, of course you are,” but the customs of men have made the answer less clear. Again, the return to nature in the forest will result in Oliver’s learning the natural answer to his question as he ceases to be his brother’s oppressor. To return once more to the words of the Duke, there are “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones,” if only we learn how to read and hear them.

There are two visions here, then, and the characters can choose between them. Do they prefer the vision of Eden, though it must necessarily be a fallen Eden, or do they prefer the fratricidal vision of Cain? The whole plot focuses on two sets of brothers, Oliver and Orlando, the Duke and Frederick, who are at odds. Frederick has exiled the Duke, and Oliver tries to have Orlando killed; but by the end of the play, Oliver and Orlando are reconciled, and Frederick has withdrawn to a religious life and restored his brother to the dukedom. Furthermore, every available couple is about to be married. There are any number of new beginnings at the end of the play. Are we allowed to say, therefore, that everyone lived happily ever after? Well, no. They still have to live in the world, and the world is a tricky place. It is, as Jaques tells us, a stage, and the great play that is enacted on that stage is not over. At the play’s end, for instance, when Rosalind reveals her identity and all the couples fall naturally together, we may want to believe that things are what they seem, and we must remind ourselves that this Rosalind, who is no longer pretending to be the young man Ganymede, is still a girl being played by a boy. And lest we forget, Shakespeare sends him (or her?) to deliver the epilogue, which includes the words “If I were a woman” and which concludes with a request for applause. “Don’t forget,” Shakespeare is saying, “you are watching a play.” And yet, if all the world’s a stage, everything is a play, and this particular play is as real, or as pretend, as anything else.

In fact, though, things are seldom what they seem, and if the Duke finds reminders of language in nature, the play shows us time and again how slippery language can be. As I said earlier, much of Shakespeare’s word play is difficult to see because it depends on sixteenth-century pronunciations. A good example is the character Jaques. We cannot pronounce his name in the modern French way, “zhak”, because the meter of some lines indicates that the name has two syllables: “The melancholy Jaques grieves at that…” We also need to know, however, that the “a” is pronounced like a long “a”, which makes the name “jake-es” and which makes it sound the same as the word “jakes”, an Elizabethan term for an outhouse. Perhaps this is just an example of Shakespeare’s toilet humor, but the pun on this character’s name is appropriate for a character who takes such delight in being melancholy. Jaques’ cynicism represents another important perspective in the play, but the humor of his name makes that cynicism seem just a little bit ridiculous. It makes us question Jaques’ attitude—after all, he is the happiest when he is the most melancholy—and yet Shakespeare never makes things that simple, because at the play’s end, when all of the exiled courtiers who proclaimed their love for the forest are excited about getting back to the court, Jaques alone says that he will stay in the woods with Frederick. He may be slightly ridiculous, but he does have a serious side. He has learned something in the forest, and he is not ready to trade that knowledge in for a chance to be back at the court. The little word play involving his name makes us aware of, and adds to, his complexity.

Much of the word play in the play makes us aware of a subtext. The words, in their primary sense, mean one thing, but in their alternate sense they mean something quite different but something that bears on the major themes of the play. At one point Jaques reports the words of Touchstone:

‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ‘twill be eleven,
And so from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot:
And thereby hangs a tale. (II.vii.24-28)

This melancholy moralizing should appeal to Jaques, and yet he says that when he heard the fool being “so deep contemplative” he laughed for an hour. What is so funny about Touchstone’s reflections on human mortality and the passage of time? Nothing, unless we realize that when the play was written, “hour” was pronounced so that it sounded almost the same as “whore.” Touchstone has managed, therefore, to comment not only on human mortality but on courtly morality and to make a connection between them, for such courtly morality (or immorality) is sure to hasten the course of human mortality. And Touchstone makes this point with an appropriately earthy pun. Jaques not only find the fool humorous, but he wishes he were such a fool himself:

O that I were a fool!
I am ambitious for a motley coat.

Duke S. Thou shalt have one.

Jaques. It is my only suit— (II.vii.42-44)

The pun on “suit” in the last line, where it refers to the motley clothes of a fool and to Jaques’ desire to wear those clothes, shows that Jaques is correct. Like Touchstone, he can manipulate words and concepts.

We have seen two kinds of word play so far, one involving names and one involving puns. There is another type in which the speaker plays with other people’s words and somehow transforms them:

Celia. Were you made the messenger?

Touchstone. No, by mine honor, but I was bid to come for you.

Rosalind. Where learn’d you that oath, fool?

Touchstone. Of a certain knight, that swore by his honor they were good pancakes, and swore by his honor the mustard was naught. Now I’ll stand to it, the pancakes were naught, and the mustard was good, and yet was not the knight forsworn.

Rosalind. How prove you that, in the great heap of your knowledge?

Touchstone. Stand you both forth now. Stroke your chins, and swear by your Beards that I am a knave.

Celia. By our beards (if we had them) thou art.

Touchstone. By my knavery (if I had it) then I were. But if you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn. No more was this knight, swearing by his honor, for he never had any; or if he had, he had sworn it away before he saw those pancakes or that mustard. (I.ii.59-80)

I will not attempt to explain why the knight was eating mustard with pancakes. What is important here is what Touchstone does with the words. He swears by his honor that he is not a messenger but that he was sent with a message, a clear contradiction. To prove that he is not swearing falsely, he cites the knight, who swore by his honor that the pancakes were good and the mustard bad. When the women still do not understand, he has them swear by their beards that he is a knave, and then he explains that if they swear by that which they do not have, beards, they are not swearing falsely. Hence the knight, who had no honor, could swear by it without lying, just as Touchstone could swear by his honor that he has not come as a messenger though he has a message. Since Touchstone is obviously lying, he must have no honor and is therefore a knave, though he says that he is not because Rosalind and Celia have sworn by beards that they do not have. The intricacies and paradoxes of this argument could be traced even further, but the point is that Touchstone’s apparently silly arguments blur the distinctions between what is true and what is not. Is he a messenger? Does he have honor? Does the knight have honor? Were the pancakes good and the mustard bad? Do the women have beards? (Remember, they were played by boys!) The words in this passage, instead of presenting truth and clarifying reality, obscure the truth and make us wonder where reality is, if it exists at all. In fact what Touchstone does here, and elsewhere in the play, is analogous to what Shakespeare does in the play as a whole, with his use of disguises and his obscuring of the distinction between the stage and the audience.

If we think about Touchstone’s behavior in the play, we come up with some surprising ideas. We may be able to accept that Rosalind dresses like a man and no one, even her father or her lover, sees through the disguise. We may explain that someone, Shakespeare or someone else, made a mistake when Rosalind is described as shorter than Celia in I.ii and taller than her in I.iii. But how do we explain Touchstone’s dressing like a fool throughout the play? After all, when he is not at court, there is no reason for him to play the fool, and even a fool deserves a day off. Touchstone, however, both dresses as and plays the fool throughout the play. He distorts reality, he plays with words, and he himself gets caught up in his own confusion, even though he often sees the truth in things more clearly than the other characters. He is in many ways like the playwright, like Shakespeare, who makes us consider the nature of reality through the medium of words because he sees it more clearly. I am not saying that the fool is Shakespeare’s portrait of himself, but rather that the fool in this play, and in other Shakespeare plays where fools appear, is an image of the playwright, the worker with words who may seem foolish but who is ultimately very serious.

As with any great work of literature, no commentary, however lengthy, can replace actually reading the work or treat every aspect of the work, and this particular commentary is only intended to prepare the way for reading this multifaceted play. Nevertheless, there are still some points to be covered. One involves the family relationships in the play. Not only are there two sets of brothers in which one brother oppresses the other, but there are two sets of fathers and daughters as well—and (interestingly, as in most of Verdi’s operas) no mothers. The two sets of brothers we can relate to the Cain theme that we saw earlier, but it is more difficult to explain the absence of mothers. I like to think that if Celia’s mother or Rosalind’s mother or Orlando’s mother were in the play, then the evil men would not behave so badly. Aside from Celia, Rosalind, and the country women, the world of the play is a world of men who behave duplicitously, who try to exert power over each other, who deceive themselves and each other. Perhaps if the mothers were in the play, Shakespeare’s focus would have had to change. Or as a friend of mine suggests, if mothers were there, they would have to suffer, as they do in The Winter’s Tale.

Even without the mothers, however, love is still an important issue. As I said in discussing Astrophel and Stella, love was a major concern in Elizabethan literature. A great deal of literature was devoted to love, and a great deal of that literature was also devoted to making fun of the great deal of literature that was devoted to love. Astrophel and Stella seems to take the latter course, until Astrophel makes the situation sinister and threatening. As You Like It, too, mocks the cult of love, but in a more gentle and humorous fashion. Orlando, who is admittedly unschooled and unused to the ways of the world, is a naïve lover who hangs his poems from the trees. These trees may have tongues, but because Orlando’s poetry is so bad, what they say is foolishness. Touchstone, naturally, takes great delight in mocking these verses.

But bad poetry does not make a bad person. Orlando must forget about the conventions that are supposed to accompany love and simply learn what it means to be Orlando. We can see this point when Orlando speaks to the disguised Rosalind, who is describing the signs by which a lover can be recognized:

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not: but I pardon you for that, for simply your having in beard is a younger brother’s revenue; then your hose should be ungarter’d, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbutton’d, your shoe untied, and every thing about you demonstrating a careless desolation. (III.ii.373-81)

The signs that Rosalind mentions are those that are typically associated with lovers, and Rosalind is clearly teasing her naïve beau, who takes everything she says seriously. But then Rosalind, with her courtly background, says that the woman he loves is more likely to love him than to admit that she does, which in fact is a perfect description of what Rosalind is doing by making that speech. Once again the levels of reality become confused, as the disguised Rosalind, while telling Orlando what Rosalind would do, simultaneously does it, for she loves him without admitting it. Only in IV.iii, when Rosalind hears of Orlando’s narrow escape from danger, does she show her feelings for him, by fainting, and he is not even there to see her. If he has had to learn to be Orlando, she has had to learn to be Rosalind.

Soon Rosalind does reveal herself, but only after Shakespeare makes certain that we see how complicated the situation seems and how simple it really is. As long as we remember that Rosalind is a woman, we know that things will work out for the lovers: Orlando will finally have his Rosalind, Silvius will have his Phebe, and Touchstone will have his Audrey. The play is, after all, a comedy; and just as we may be sure that a tragedy will end with at least one death, we may be sure that a comedy will end with at least one marriage. And not only does romantic love triumph, but Orlando is reconciled with his brother and the Duke is restored to his office. Whatever has ailed the world has been healed through the magic of the forest, through the magic of the fairy tale.

As profound and moving as many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are, I find an even greater profundity in many of the comedies, for the comedies show beginnings, show how the world might be. In the tragedies, people tend to learn what As You Like It has to teach and then die. Their learning provides a conclusion. In the comedies, the learning is a beginning. There is a joy, a hopefulness in these plays that I find deeply moving. The tragedies may provide us with catharsis, but the comedies provide us with another, a healthier way, of looking at the world. So read As You Like It and revel in it, and then read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, which is a more disturbing comedy. Then look at those comedies whose worlds seem more seriously threatening, like Much Ado About Nothing or Measure for Measure. And then look at The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest to see how sublime Shakespeare’s plays can be. Then come back and we will look at Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra

I will actually be very disappointed if my readers have just kept going here. Go read the comedies and then come back. I’ll wait.

It may seem surprising, but Shakespeare’s tragedies are often easier to understand than his comedies. We know what to expect in the tragedies, not just because the stories are so famous but because we know that a Shakespeare tragedy will end with the death of at least one major character and most of the play’s action leads directly toward that death. I am not saying that the tragedies are simple—no one could argue that point. I just mean that the comedies are less predictable, and though many of them end with marriages, often those marriages seem tacked on, while the action of the plays moves in a number of unpredictable directions. We may be surprised by how the conflicts in a comedy are resolved. We are seldom surprised in a tragedy. This difference may explain why the comedies are less often taught in schools: they are more amorphous and therefore more difficult.

On the other hand, difficulty does not determine quality. Shakespeare’s tragedies, predictable and well-known though they be, are magnificent plays that not only move us but that make us look at our world in new ways. The most famous of them, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, are so well known that they could become clichés, but so great are they that such a transformation never occurs. The less well-known among the tragedies, like Troilus and Cressida or (my own favorite) Coriolanus are also worth reading. In fact, for readers to whom the other plays have begun to feel like clichés, those less famous tragedies might be a good place to start. The tragedy we will examine here, Antony and Cleopatra, is not so well known as the most famous, but neither is it too obscure.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra are lovers, but they are not young lovers. Antony is often described in the play as being old, and historically he was about fifty at the time of his death. Cleopatra’s age is not given, but she is the mother of a child by Julius Caesar, who had been dead for fourteen years at the time of her death. Historically, she was thirty-nine when she died. Octavius, whose youth is often contrasted with Antony’s age in the play, was in his early thirties at the time. Of course, we will be mistaken if we look to history to determine our understanding of the play, or, worse, if we regard the play as faithful to history. Shakespeare took his story from Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian and biographer, but the playwright, as he always did, made the story absolutely his own, giving personalities to the historical figures and creating new characters when necessary.

Although the play is called Antony and Cleopatra, the relationship between these two characters is only one of the play’s key relationships. Another is between Antony and Octavius, and yet another is between Cleopatra and Octavius. And beyond these relationships is the story of Enobarbus, Antony’s friend and ally. And even beyond these aspects of the play are the contrasts between very different ways of looking at the world. These sharp contrasts, in fact, lie behind one of the play’s interesting characteristics, the rapid changes of scenes, from Egypt to Rome, from Rome to Egypt, from Egypt to the battlefield. In the third and fourth acts (keeping in mind that the acts were not so indicated by Shakespeare) there are thirteen and fifteen different scenes, respectively, as Shakespeare paints one contrast after another.

One aspect of these contrasts is evident from the very beginning, when Philo and Demetrius are speaking:

Philo. Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front…
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool. (I.i.1-13)

“Dotage” means a kind of mental impairment that results from, perhaps, an infatuation, and Philo (whose own name, ironically, means “love”) is not the only person who thinks of Antony in this way. Everyone remembers him as a great general, as the conqueror of Brutus and Cassius, as the savior of Rome, and almost everyone now regrets the attention he shows to Cleopatra, for she distracts him from his martial Roman duties. To these Roman soldiers, Antony, a member of the triumvirate that rules the world, has become “a strumpet’s fool.” He has been seduced not only by a woman but by a degenerate Eastern woman. They are Romans—we will see what this means to them—and for them Egypt is a place to be plundered, a place where they can have a good time but not a place where they should stay. As Romans, their duty is to rule the world; and while they may relax and enjoy the sensuality of Egypt, they feel the need to be involved in the serious business of jockeying for power, of tyrannizing the rest of the world.

Antony, on the other hand, enters the play while conversing with Cleopatra about the extent of his love, and he says, “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth” (I.i.17). In the context of his conversation with Cleopatra, this line is figurative: “I love you so much that if you want to know the extent of my love, you need to create a new world.” But in the context of the play, the line is closer to being literally true, for their love cannot exist in the world as it actually is. Everything in this world—Antony’s Roman background, his martial prowess, Octavius’ and Pompey’s ambitions—makes their love impossible, especially because Antony wants to live in both worlds, the world of Egyptian sensuality and love and the world of Roman conquest. The problem is that these two worlds are incompatible, and Antony cannot choose between them. So, when Antony learns that he has news from Rome, he responds, “Grates me, the sum” (I.i.18), or, in modern terms, “What a nuisance. Tell me quickly.” And when Cleopatra mocks even this small attention to Roman business, Antony declares

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space… (I.i.33-34)

Antony seems to scorn Rome and opt for Cleopatra; but shortly after, we hear that

He was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden
A Roman thought hath strook him. (I.i.82-83)

Cleopatra, as she so often does, here mocks both Antony and the seriousness of Rome. This contrast between “mirth” and a “Roman thought” defines the extremes between which Antony operates. It also makes us wonder how serious Cleopatra is about her love for him. Does she truly love him? Is she keeping him around only for her own security? Or is she just having a good time? At this stage in the play, we cannot tell.

At the play’s beginning, then, we see Antony unable to choose between two attractions, two ways of life, the mirth of Egypt and Cleopatra or the business of Rome. Even Antony’s wife, Fulvia, has been engaged in Roman military activities until she dies, thereby freeing Antony to marry Cleopatra. But Antony, who seems incapable of choosing between the two alternatives, marries Octavius’ sister Octavia for political purposes, telling her,

Read not my blemishes in the world’s report:
I have not kept my square, but that to come
Shall all be done by th’rule. (II.iii.5-7)

By assuring Octavia that he will reform his behavior, Antony appears to be reaffirming his devotion to Roman occupations. Nevertheless, at the end of this scene—and the scene is short—he declares,

And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I’ th’east my pleasure lies. (II.iii.41-42)

Has Antony been lying? And if so, which time is he lying? Since he returns immediately to Cleopatra, he might be lying to Octavia, but since he has already acknowledged that Octavius always seems to triumph over him, it would be particularly stupid of him to purposely deceive Octavius’ sister. A more likely explanation is that Antony means both statements, that he is genuinely torn between these two aspects of his life. It would be to Antony’s advantage if he could make a definitive choice, but even when he fights with Octavius, he allows Cleopatra to come along as an ally, and twice when her ship flees the battle, he follows after her, then blames her for the resulting disaster.

Antony’s friends are quite right when they criticize his behavior. Camilius says, “So our leader’s led, / And we are women’s men” (III.vii.69-70), and Scarus, recalling the play’s opening, compares him to “a doting mallard” (III.viii.31). His inability to choose decisively leads to his death, and it is as difficult for us as it is for his friends to believe that this is the same Antony who had behaved so nobly earlier in his career.

In fact, Antony’s very identity is an issue for several characters. In the play’s first scene, Cleopatra says, “I’ll seem the fool I am not. Antony will be himself” (42). Her implication is that she is playing at being frivolous, while Antony is truly a fool. Perhaps she is teasing him, as she does elsewhere in the play, but perhaps she is not. We have no way of knowing for sure. A few lines later, however, Philo says,

Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony
He comes too short of that great property
Which still should go with Antony. (57-59)

While Cleopatra says, whether in jest or in earnest, that Antony is a fool, Philo implies that the real Antony has a nobility that does not show when he is not being himself, that Antony has abandoned his true self through his dalliance with Cleopatra. Again we see two views of Anthony and it is impossible for us to know which is more accurate. Somewhat later, Antony says, “If I lose mine honor / I lose myself” (III.iv.22-23). Unfortunately, by the time he says this, Antony has lost his honor in virtually everyone’s eyes but his own, and, as virtually everyone agrees, he is not the Antony he used to be. He is, at best, rather pathetic.

Cleopatra’s identity is also something of a puzzle. As a woman in a clearly male-dominated society, she is forced to use her sexuality as a political tool, and it is consequently difficult to determine precisely what she is and whom she loves. At the play’s beginning, she seems to love Antony, but, as we saw, she also teases him and seems to think he is a fool. In II.v, she physically attacks the messenger who brings her news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, but we still cannot be certain about her feelings. She might be upset at the political implications of Antony’s marriage for her or she might be jealous that another woman has taken her place. Or she might really love Antony. Her anger is clear, but the true cause of her anger is not. She is certainly no fool, and all of her actions are calculated. We simply are not allowed to know what the calculations are. Cleopatra is too complex for us to be able to see through her.

Cleopatra’s problem is most evident in III.xiii, when Octavius’ man Thidias offers her the excuse that she allied herself with Antony not from love but from fear, and she agrees:

“Mine honor was not yielded, / But conquered merely” (61-62). When Antony rebukes her for seeming to abandon him in favor of Octavius (though he is already married to Octavius’ sister), she responds, “Not know me yet?” (157). The answer to that question is “No.” Antony does not know her, and we do not know her. Part of the reason is the medieval and Renaissance notion that the monarch has two “bodies,” a public body and a private one. As a private woman, Cleopatra has feelings and desires; but in her public role as queen, she must have other feelings and desires. Sometimes these feelings and desires overlap, but often they do not. So Cleopatra is not being duplicitous when she shifts from one role to another. In fact, part of her tragedy is that she must try to play both roles in spite of their frequent incompatibility. Like Antony, she is torn between two legitimate desires.

We can see Cleopatra’s two roles quite clearly in the scene of Antony’s death. Antony has fallen on his sword but has only succeeded in mortally wounding himself rather than killing himself outright. As he is dying, he has himself brought to the tower where Cleopatra has taken refuge and he asks her to come out to him so that, in true romantic tragedy style, he can kiss her one last time. We might well expect her to come running, and if she were Juliet, she would. But this is Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and in real anguish she says,

I dare not, dear—
Dear my lord, pardon—I dare not,
Lest I be taken. (IV.xv.20-22)

She loves Antony and she wants to be with him, wants to give him that parting kiss; but as the queen of Egypt, she does not want to be captured and paraded through the streets of Rome. She may love Antony, but not to distraction. Instead, in what must have been an incredible scene in Shakespeare’s theatre, Cleopatra and her attendants pull Antony up to the tower, where he can get his kiss and die. There is love in this scene, but not the heedless love of youth. These are two mature people who ultimately do love each other, but who, unlike Romeo and Juliet, unlike Othello and Desdemona, unlike Hamlet and Ophelia, recognize that they must temper their actions with prudence.

The one major character in the play who is not at all ambiguous is Octavius. His main interest, indeed his only interest, is power, and he is willing to use the other characters’ weaknesses to gain it. He speaks of himself in the third person and uses the royal “we”—It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate/Our great competitor,” he says (I.iv.2-3)—and his every action is aimed at consolidating power. He has no qualms about lying to Cleopatra when he tries to make her submit to him, and there is no ambiguity in his words. Antony may be torn between two ways of life and may therefore contradict himself, but Octavius is never torn. When he lies, he intends to lie. Lying and duplicity are just means to an end. He is efficient, ruthless, and cold. He lacks human feeling, a lack which makes him impervious to Cleopatra’s charms; and we must realize that when Cleopatra kills herself, she does so not because Antony is dead but because Octavius has not succumbed to her.

The emphasis on Antony’s age and Octavius’ youth, then, has a purpose. We are watching the death of an old world that is romantic, indulgent, and founded on personality and the birth of a new, that is efficient, bureaucratic, and flaunts its power. Antony had his faults, but Octavius is a machine. Perhaps the most revealing thing Octavius does, aside from his blatant lies to Cleopatra, can be found in V.i, when he hears of Antony’s death. His first reaction seems appropriate:

The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack. The round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets
And citizens to their dens. (14-17)

And he continues to eulogize Antony. In fact, he really seems to get into the spirit of it, becoming positively eloquent. He is about to launch into a full-fledged oration. “Hear me, good friends—“ he says, but then a messenger enters and Octavius stops:

But I will tell you at some meter season,
The business of this man looks out of him;
We’ll hear him what he says… (49-51)

Abruptly Octavius is brought back to business. He has an empire to consolidate and he cannot be bothered with sentimental nonsense.

Antony may be a troubled character, torn between conflicting loyalties, but compared to Octavius he is a heroic and human character. His death, with its nearly botched suicide, is typical of his life: he wants someone else to run him through but then does the deed himself (like Saul in the book of Kings), and yet even when he does it, he is not fully successful. His death is a heroic gesture that is made quite human. Cleopatra, too, despite her attempt to come to terms with Octavius, dies with some nobility, finally confirming her love for Antony. At the play’s end, these noble characters are dead and the world belongs to Octavius. That may not be an entirely bad thing, because Octavius will bring order to a disordered world, and the world of Antony and Cleopatra certainly is disordered. From the play’s opening words, “Nay, but…” we see that the play opens in the middle of a conversation; and the sense of movement and disorder can also be felt in the large number of rapid scene changes that characterize the play. Nonetheless, it is not entirely certain that the cold and efficient order that Octavius will bring will be better than the disorder of Antony and Cleopatra.

It is interesting to speculate on whether Shakespeare was thinking of his own world. This play was written in about 1609, six years after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Surely no one, with the possible exception of James I himself, ever thought of James I as Octavius. He was a dislikable, devious king who replaced the “romance” of Elizabeth’s reign with his own kind of efficiency. In this sense. James was rather like Shakespeare’s Octavius. For England, the transition from Elizabeth to James marked the same kind of change in sensibility that we see in the play. Such parallels can only be speculative and they should be viewed with caution, but they are worth thinking about.

Of course, there are other characters in the play as well, primarily friends or allies of the three principals. These are the characters who are most immediately affected by the actions of the principal characters, and the most interesting of them all is Antony’s friend Enobarbus. Enobarbus enjoys the pleasures of Egypt; but as the play’s resident cynic, somewhat like Jaques in As You Like It, he knows better than anyone what is really happening. He recognizes Cleopatra’s manipulations of Antony, for instance, and when Antony says that he must leave Egypt, Enobarbus responds, “Cleopatra, catching but the elast noise of this dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment” (I.ii.139-42). Antony does not always appreciate Enobarbus’ sharp comments and in II.ii he shuts him up rather rudely. Nevertheless, it is clear in scenes like II.vi and III.ii that the minor characters like Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Menas have a greater understanding of what is actually happening than do the central characters, and it seems as though Enobarbus has the clearest vision of all.

But Enobarbus, cynical and intelligent as he is, is also loyal. When so many of Antony’s allies desert him, Enobarbus says,

I’ll yet follow
The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason
Sits in the wind against me. (III.x.34-36)

His reason tells him that Antony is doomed, but he will remain loyal; and soon he reaffirms his loyalty:

The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly; yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall’n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place I’ th’ story. (III.xiii.42-46)

He knows that Antony’s foolish behavior will lead to their doom, but as long as he maintains his loyalty, as long as he is constant, he will be the victor no matter what happens to Antony. Soon, however, in the face of Antony’s increasingly irrational behavior, Enobarbus comes to the opposite conclusion and resolves to flee, but we never actually see him leave. Instead, in a brilliant piece of stagecraft, Shakespeare has a soldier tell Antony that Enobarbus has gone, and Antony’s reaction reveals his true nobility. By IV.v, we have become accustomed to Antony’s posturing, to his often manic reactions; but when he hears of Enobarbus’ flight, he is subdued. Instead of raging, as we might expect, he orders Enobarbus’ effects to be taken to him, along with a note of greeting that is only slightly sarcastic. And then, in a truly surprising move, Antony blames himself: “O, my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (IV.v.16-17).

Even before Enobarbus hears from Antony, however, he knows that he has made a mistake, and Antony’s gesture merely confirms that knowledge. Among Enobarbus’ last words before he kills himself is an acknowledgement of Antony’s nobility. Rationally, logically, Enobarbus was right to abandon Antony, but truly correct behavior transcends the rational and logical. Antony has made a series of catastrophic mistakes, and the ethos he represents is clearly past. Nevertheless, in rushing to the world offered by Octavius, the world of Rome, Enobarbus has betrayed not only Antony but himself. The story of Enobarbus is almost a miniature version of the whole play.

One other aspect of the play requires attention, the poetry. A quick look at the play indicates how much of it is written in verse, and we must marvel at how Shakespeare uses his iambic pentameter lines to achieve so many effects. There are two passages especially in II.ii that should be noticed, both spoken by Enobarbus. One begins “The barge she sat in…” (191) and the other “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety” (234). Such poetry might make us wish that we could be there with Antony and Cleopatra.

So read Antony and Cleopatra and then go back and try to read the other famous tragedies with fresh eyes. Not long ago I was playing in an orchestra that was doing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I thought I knew the Fifth pretty well. After all, it is the most famous symphony in the world, but as we played, I began to see it in new ways and I discovered that there were things about it that I took for granted and really did not know. That should be your experience as you go through Hamlet, Lear, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet. You might think you know them, but if you read them closely, you will see how much more there is to know. Like all great literature, they are inexhaustible.

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Chapter 5: Shakespeare by Theodore L. Steinberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.