Q: Describe Antony and Cleopatra as a heroic act written in a post-heroic age. Antony and Cleopatra is a tragic play written by William Shakespeare; embodying the basic notions of most of the Jacobean tragedies that occurred during the reign of King James the first of England. The story follows a historical imitation of the events that occurred during the reign of the Egyptian and Roman Empire under the power of Cleopatra of Alexandria and the Triumvirs i. e. Ceaser, Antony and Lepidus of Athens.
Antony, one of the main Triumvirs of Rome, falls in love with the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, stirring up an affair seeped in political turmoil and war. Antony, torn apart between his duties to his kingdom and his love for Cleopatra, finds himself in the midst of the tragic remembrance of many of Shakespeare’s leading male characters like Othello, Kind Lear, and Macbeth etc. A man, destined towards an impregnable end due to one characteristic drawback, one fatal flaw. To understand the topic of “Heroism” and “Post Heroism” one must go back to the origin of the “Tragic Play”.
The idea of tragedy comes from the Aristotelian school of thought. Tragedy as an art form, from the earliest works of Western play writes like Homer and Sophocles; derives itself from a materialist mind, choosing to harness the problems of the inevitable in heroic, noble, aristocratic individuals. It is a matter of ‘masculinity’, noble warriors, fighting for a single minded, subjective socio political motive, devoid of the scepticism, sensibility and democratic ideologies that exist today.
It is also associated with myth, sacrifice and rituals, adhering to the rules and predestined location of the individual on a higher, transcendental platform. Adherence to a religious, or god like following. Examples of puritan ideas of tragedy are: Antigone, Agamemnon, Oedipus etc. Antony and Cleopatra was written in the late 16th century AD, during the reign of King James the first, making it a generalised Jacobean drama. Yet, the play is vastly different than any of its contemporaries, be it from other play writes of the time, as well as Shakespeare’s own tragedies.
It is different from its contemporaries by taking characters from a historical, heroic phase of the world and giving it the characteristics of an Aristotelian tragedy, not showing the situations in their respective time periods. Most of the other Jacobean dramas follow only the already existing notion of socio political norms in their timely reality. It surpasses the law of time and space continuum as scenes bounce back and forth between different places (Alexandria, Pompey, and Athens) and different time spheres not rendering to the Aristotelian idea of drama.
Also, it is only in Antony and Cleopatra, does Shakespeare have characters that encompass an ideology themselves, defining their identity. Cleopatra, as a character, embodies an alternative idea, the idea of the “other”’ the exotic, sexual, over feminised view of the Orient. Antony, the idea of the tragic hero, the fallen lover. Octavius Ceaser, the idea of duty, power, discipline. The mere fact that, the political ideologies of the racial other is significant in the play, when strategies and affairs go beyond the Eurocentric notion of duty and order is in itself a marvel.
The challenges met by the masculine, western order of the world goes beyond borders to the exotic orient, ruled by a powerful woman who dominates the entire play ; makes many critics treat Antony and Cleopatra as a transgressive play of the time. Yet, it cannot fit the pure idea of the classical tragedy either. It lacks the divine authority of Aristotelian tragedy, not condemning itself too much to predestination. It is devoid of rituals and noble sacrifices etc. The sacrifices made, for example, by Antony and Cleopatra was not for ascetic duties to anyone else, but fuelled by their passion for one another.
Cleopatra, as a character, is pivotal to the play. She is either being spoken of, or to in the venture and holds the most power amongst any of the other characters. A woman, being the centre of conversation and drive, is not befitting to a classical tragedy. Hence, Antony and Cleopatra lies somewhere in between, making many critics reassess the idea of the Jacobean drama itself as well as comparing and contrasting the play with its contemporaries to reach a higher understanding of why it was written as such.
From this difference is raised the question of the difference in era and time with relation to the notion of honour, heroism and post heroism. Heroism is described as a type of war; the strategy of which is based on a single man’s “heroic” socio-political motives. Hence, heroism in a literary sense, translates to a drama based upon the wanting’s of one or few men. The Iliad, by Homer is an excellent example of heroism in dramatic form. The war against troy, instigated by personal ambitions of a few men. Achilles’s want of “glory” (another heroic notion), Menelaus’s revenge against Paris, and Agamemnon’s quest for power.
Heroism is found to be the rock base of almost all the tragedies of the ancient western world. Homeric and Aristotelian tragedies base their motives upon the hands of a single person’s personal agenda. A war is caused, thousands is people are sent to their deaths over decades, to win a fight for one man’s honour. Based on myth and sacrifice, adhering to knowledge of ancient civilisations. Antony and Cleopatra, based on the history of civilisations, dating back to around 69 BC, written by William Shakespeare born during the renaissance, Elizabethean age dating to 14th century AD, provides a complex mechanism of thinking.
C. L. Barber quotes: “There was a decline in honour amongst aristocracy due to professionalism of warfare. “Heroism” no longer existed by the end of the 17th century. “ Thus comes the question of why a play such as Antony and Cleopatra, full of nobility, honour and the notion of “Heroism” was written during a post-heroic age. The content, befitting to an Aristotelian drama, is written in a subversive, moralistic fashion provided by the inevitable destruction of the essence to which it is formed.
The character of Antony is described as an autonomous figure, with personal drive and passions. Octavius Ceaser on the other hand, performs his duties towards his empire without tangling himself in personal dilemmas. And the character of Cleopatra, of course, renders to the main problem. That is; Cleopatra encompasses the political and personal problem, Antony the fallen lover entangled in the problem, and Ceaser, and the authorial figure who in the end, stamps his values as the winner and survivor of the situation.
Ironically, it is the very base of ancient heroism that becomes Antony’s fatal flaw. By the second half of the drama, Antony is trapped within his own ego, whilst Ceaser dissuades his honour. In Act 3, scene 12, Ceaser even foretells Antony’s self-destruction, in a conversation with Thidias upon the news of Antony returning to Egypt fleeing from his duties; “Observe how Antony becomes his flaw, And what thou think’st his very action speaks, In every power that moves. Shakespeare, reveals the strategy of the play from Ceasers perspective; the perspective of the post heroic age of duty and civilian authority against that of personal glory and ambition. This biasness shows the context with which the play was written; from a Eurocentric, masculine objectivity. Right before Ceaser and Antony go to war with their respective armed forces, Antony challenges Ceaser to a one on one, swordfight to determine their fates. This “heroic” gesture is then verturned with Ceaser refusing to accept the challenge. In Act 4, scene 1, Ceaser seems to laugh off his Antony’s proposal. “He calls me boy, and chides as he had power to beat me out of Egypt. My messenger He hath whipped with rods; dares me to personal combat, Ceaser to Antony. I have many other ways to die, meanwhile laugh at his challenge. ” Ironically, the Antony seems to be a heroic character driven by his “honour”, his “virtus”, yet it is this characteristic itself, that Shakespeare has twisted into a fatal flaw.
The character of Antony is destroyed because Shakespeare makes his personal heroism, his only drawback. Odd, as personal glory and passion, two man dual ship, etc. , was revered in the heroic stage of Aristotelian drama, in which historically, the play is located. Perhaps, abiding by the rule of King James the first, Shakespeare needed to adhere to social norms, by exoticising the east, and by condemning Antony’s heroism to death abiding by the Jacobean age which was devoid of such fantasy.
By taking the subject of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare seemingly reverses the whole idea of the myth, and transforms it to please and tutor the masses of 14th century England. Antony and Cleopatra hence becomes one of the most interesting pieces of Shakespeare as well as Jacobean drama, by transgressing itself completely from a heroic, materialistic, world to the dawn of the new age of political stability, democracy and sensibility.