"Antony and Cleopatra" as Tragicomedy


If Shakespeare matched Lope de Vega in designing plays which perpetually surprise and challenge audiences by unexpected reversals of character and plot, it is only to be expected that these expedient discontinuities should challenge the ingenuity of academics pursuing the high rationality that the original Academy of Plato was designed to foster. Shakespeare's contemporary, Lope de Vega, specifically advises dramatists to pursue such an oscillation of incident: "In the first act state the case; in the second entangle the incidents in such a way that until the middle of the [last] act no one can even guess at the solution. Always deceive anticipation and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may come about" (Gilbert, 546). Lope's aesthetic makes such gyrations less philosophically agnostic and more a function of pursuit of audience "affect." Such swings in audience expectations are a useful guide to understanding the design of another of Shakespeare's problematic historical plays: Antony and Cleopatra. Marvin Rosenberg has helpfully documented the seeming discontinuities in its characterizations which leads him to break down the history of criticism and production into two irreconcilable camps: "for" and "against" Cleopatra, with both camps being largely determined by equally selective readings of Cleopatra's character.

As an example of just how unpredictable this play is I should recall that it was cited as the climax of my investigation into the nature of Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy, yet I now find myself writing about it as a key example of his tragic series. In Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double Kent Cartwright asserts that "the play creates a domain of action in the positioning of the characters towards each other—their emotional distances, their maneuverings for psychological advantage—beyond the Aristotelian rise and fall of their fortunes" (228). He goes on to cite A. C. Bradley's essay on the play which expresses bafflement at its first three acts in which "people converse, discuss, accuse one another, excuse themselves, mock, describe, drink together, arrange a marriage, meet and part, but they do not kill, do not even tremble or weep" and neglect events which "appeal most powerfully to the dramatic feelings—scenes of action or passion which agitate the audience with alarm, horror, painful expectation, or absorbing sympathies and antipathies" (Oxford Lectures 283-4). These views seem to confirm that the play largely fits into some kind of mixed genre like that favored by Cinthio and Lope de Vega. However, the various divergences of evaluation of the script and its characters are not the result of genuine alternative readings that are incompatible with each other.

The oscillations of tone and attitude reflect a deliberate strategy of constant invitations for the audience to revise its expectations and judgments which effectively acts as a device to compel its attention to the constantly shifting perspectives. A consistent adherence to one view or another on such issues as our estimate of Cleopatra, or to finding a consistent aesthetic pattern would misrepresents the calculated multi-textured character of the script. Any attempt to make it tonally consistent is a betrayal of its complex audience effect, such as I regretted in a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The director obviously resented the script's alternation of humor and pathos and avoided this at the climax of the play by simply eliminating huge chunks of comic dialogue in the script in the final scenes, most obviously cutting all the Clown's sardonic remarks about women as he presents the fatal asps to Cleopatra. However, Lope de Vega sides with Shakespeare on this issue when he says:

I deny that it is contrary to nature and to poetic art in general that persons great and those not great should be introduced into one plot. What tragedy has there ever been that did not have many more servants and other persons of similar station than men of great consequence? Who unfastens the admirably tied knot in the Oedipus of Sophocles? Not the king, nor the queen, not Creon, not Tiresias, but two servants, guardians of herds. Then it is not contrary to the nature of the art that there should be united in a play persons of high rank and those of low station, not merely under the name of a mixed play such as is tragicomedy, but under that of tragedy.
(Gilbert, 508)

However, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare's ultimate shock effect is Cleopatra's notorious destruction of Coleridge's postulated "willing suspension of disbelief" by audiences, when she reminds Elizabethans of what exactly they have seen and are seeing:

The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th'posture of a whore.

This is deliberate, almost Brechtian-style alienation, reversing the audience's emotional empathy with a celebrity's death to an awareness of the unexpectedly comic effect of transvestism. One Renaissance authority for such mingled effects is Guarini, whose Il Pastor Fido is the source for The Faithful Shepherd of Shakespeare's collaborator John Fletcher. The preface to Fletcher's play introduces the concept of a new genre into English as illustrated by his pastoral drama, that of tragicomedy, with which Guarini had earlier defended his own play from its critics. Guarini had asserted:

that it is the mingling of tragic and comic pleasure, which does not allow the hearers to fall into excessive tragic melancholy or comic relaxation. From this results a poem of the most excellent form and composition, not merely fully corresponding to the mixture of the human body, which consists entirely of the tempering of the four humors, but much more noble than simple tragedy or simple comedy.
(Gilbert, 512)

In the comparable case of Antony, I have repeatedly seen performers flush with rage after audience laughter greets his Bottom-like clumsiness in his suicide attempt: "How, not dead? Not dead?" (4.14.103), an indignation coming from a failure to realize that the ultimate tragedy of Antony (like Lear) is to become ridiculous. There is a similar grotesqueness found in all directors' struggles to make a smooth effect out of the lifting of the mortally wounded Antony to the gallery of Cleopatra's monument, as specified by the stage direction "They heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra" (4.15.37). In their unavailing attempts to avoid awkwardness directors fail to see that this clumsy and insignificant rise of Antony is a gross parody of the apotheosis to lovers' heaven that he has anticipated in planning his romantic suicide (4.14.44-54). Lope again argues Shakespeare's case:

With respect to actions that are great or not great, I cannot see for what reason it is unfitting that they should appear in one single plot, not entirely tragic, if they are inserted with judgment. Can it not be that amusing events intervene between serious actions? Are they not many times the cause of bringing perils to a happy conclusion? But then, do princes always act majestically?
(Gilbert, 508)

If we accept this approach of seeing a deliberate inconsistency in sequential moods as the key to the staging of Antony and Cleopatra, it neutralizes the schism presented by Marvin Rosenberg, and allows us to see it as a forerunner of the "romances" which follow it, such as Cymbeline, which is in many ways a sequel to it, just as Antony and Cleopatra is a sequel to Julius Caesar. The plays make up a trilogy in which the career of Octavius Caesar is the linking theme, from his rise through his challenges at either extreme of his empire. In this sense Cymbeline marks a resolution of issues raised not only in the two Roman plays but it also provides a similar transcendence of the problems raised by the career of Cymbeline's predecessor as king of ancient Britain in King Lear. All these plays mingle comic low life with high state affairs and royal personalities, matching Lope's specifications: "The tragic mixed with the comic, Terence with Seneca, although it be like another Minotaur of Pasiphae, will mark one part grave, the other absurd: and this variety gives much delight. Nature gives us a good example, for, because of such variety, it has beauty" (Gilbert, 544).

Ostensibly Antony and Cleopatra follows a similar plot line to Othello: a great general becomes disastrously infatuated with a woman of another race and culture, with a distinctive personality—only to die as a result of a foolish misunderstanding. However, the difference in tone is extreme. Despite the black humor of Iago, Othello is nearer to a relentlessly sinister neoclassical tragedy, even coming close to meeting the unities of plot, time and place, once the action is established in Cyprus. By contrast, the exhilarating quicksilver flow of Antony and Cleopatra eludes traditional categories so completely that its anomalies have contributed to its relative neglect and frequent failure in performance. I have seen it played by many distinguished actresses but only one came even close to capturing Cleopatra's witty variability: Janet Suzman in a BBC television version (before the complete series). Most actors approach the central love affair as an ecstatic tragedy rather than as a study in volatility comparable to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?—a play also too often degraded into mere bitterness. It is precisely because Cleopatra can mock Antony and ridicule herself that she transforms her story from the lugubrious stereotype made of it by Chaucer's Monk and avoids the sentimental melodrama of the Cleopatra in Dryden's All for Love. In fulfillment of Guarini's sense of the superior reality of a mixed mode, Shakespeare integrates the spirit of his romantic comedies with the world of high politics and military campaigns, so that the quaint misunderstandings found in the comedies may unexpectedly result in outcomes of imperial significance. In the comic environment of Much Ado we know complacently that Hero will never be allowed to die of shame, nor Benedick to kill Claudio. But in Antony and Cleopatra we laugh heartily at the Clown's misogyny in the very presence of a royal suicide corroborated by history. Like Hamlet's, Cleopatra's verve and humor as death impends is a sign of Shakespeare's admiration for resilience in the face of threatened death. The merriness is not simply an evasion but reflects his sense that life is too complex to be subsumed under a single category. The relative unfashionableness of Antony and Cleopatra in comparison with the earlier tragedies like Julius Caesar lies in its confident rejection of both aesthetic and psychological consistency: those "for" and those "against" Cleopatra are both wrong: she is the heroine resultant from the creation of a unique hybrid: at once comedy, tragedy, and history play.

It is true that the play opens with a heavy-handed attack on Cleopatra's morals by a puritanical bunch of Romans, which many critics, surely prematurely, see as the play's definitive choric judgment on her. Yet later the tone shifts from morality play to something near farce in Cleopatra's teasing of Antony. Indeed, her variability brings her close to St. Paul's capacity to be "all things to all men"—though, no doubt, from very different motives. Marlowe's stiffly ideal portrayal of the impact of Helen's classic beauty on that solemn academic Dr. Faustus is completely alien to the portrait of the impact on her lover of the surely infinitely more fascinating Cleopatra:

Cleopatra: Give me mine angle, we'll to th' river; there,
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny-finn'd fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony
And say "Ah, ha! You're caught."

Charmian: ‘Twas merry when,
You wager'd on your angling; when your diver
Did hang a salt-fish on his hook, which he
With fervency drew up.

Cleopatra: That time? O times!
I laugh'd him out of patience; and that night
I laugh'd him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.

Like almost every part of the play, this passage has an extraordinary density of meaning. On one level it suggests an almost mythical range of personality, for it can be understood in both pagan and Christian terms: Cleopatra successfully assumes any role that she aspires to: in Terence's famous phrase, nothing human seems alien to her—including transvestism:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
When most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

She can tease Antony wittily, reconcile him to her mockery, drink him under the table and boldly usurp his virility in a way far more significant than Rosalind's bisexuality, or even Helena's relentless conquest of Bertram's will. Like Joan la Pucelle, or the Duchess of Gloucester in Henry VI, or Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra carries her affectation of virility beyond instructive play in her biological role, aspiring to serious military command with major strategic outcomes, like the battle of Actium, which seals the power of Octavius Caesar. Her capacity to reverse feminine and masculine roles is both amazing and risky, as Enobarbus warns her that it will "puzzle Antony; / Take from his heart, take from his brain" (3.7.10-1).

Far more apt is her regal role in the famous performance at Cydnus, or her assumption of the persona of the Great Earth Mother (in which she anticipates Albee's Martha), when she enthrones herself amidst her progeny, dressed "in th'abiliments of the goddess Isis" (3.6.17). These are still provocative postures but less startling than out-manning and feminizing Antony. However, it is usually in her comic roles that Cleopatra proves not merely sexually irresistible but as witty and ingenious as any of Shakespeare's comic heroines. Enobarbus neatly defines her skill in slyly dramatizing situations when he says of Antony's impending departure from Egypt: "Cleopatra, catching but the least word of this, dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment" (1.2.140-2). There is literal exactness in Antony's rueful rejoinder: "She is cunning past man's thought." Male reason cannot match Cleopatra's intuitive agility of mind, and expertise in stage management, which equal those of Julia in Lope's version of Romeo and Juliet. As he specifies in his treatise, "How shameless the lady always is, full of fraud and wiles of every sort" (548). In her response to Antony's planned departure this paradoxical ingenuity of Cleopatra's mind is fully displayed:

See where he is, who's with him, what he does.
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing: if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.

When Antony enters to take his leave from Egypt, he is shot through with her reproaches (1.3.13-91), until he stands stupefied, like a Benedick riddled by the barbed witticism of a Beatrice who, in Much Ado, is shown "huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs" (2.1.244ff). The total effect is a dazzling mixture of jealous recrimination, sentimental retrospect ending in crude abuse mixed with praise (in a single phrase "the greatest soldier" becomes "the greatest liar"), yet sinking to rueful reconciliation. For the mercurial queen ends the scene with an unpredictable reconciliation (1.3.95-105) anticipated in her recalling of a moment when "Eternity was in our lips and eyes" (1.3.35). Beatrice could never rise to this extraordinary blend of abuse and adoration.

Cleopatra's endless costume changing is the surface evidence of her mastery of the art of role-playing, with which only an expert actor-author could endow her. Her magnetism, bizarrely enough, resembles that which Falstaff has for Prince Hal, a psychological agility which hypnotizes the victim, and overpowers his will. However, Falstaff's ingenuity is largely governed by his physical limitations to the mode of parody of serious attitudes, while Cleopatra slips into each role so completely that it ceases to be an affectation. Each new quirk of personality thus proves less a momentary performance than a new revaluation of her potentialities, as Enobarbus illustrates:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And breathless, pow'r breathe forth.

Compared to his earlier manipulative females, a Rosalind, or a Portia or a Helena, Shakespeare's Cleopatra shows a sense of the richness of human personality as superior to theirs as they are to the mechanical stereotypes of modern psychology with which sophisticated critics still attempt to "explain" them. Like the fascinatingly Protean Buckingham in Dryden's Absolom and Achitophel Cleopatra merits the praise of being "so various that she seems to be / Not one but all mankind's epitome." This variability can produce astounding reversals, as when, after beating the messenger bearing news of Antony's marriage to Octavia, she abruptly censures her hands because "they strike a meaner than myself" and from rage progresses to calculation about Octavia's limitations: "Bring me word how tall she is" and "the color of her hair" (2.5.24ff).

Like Antony, Cleopatra would rather keep all her options open than maintain an honorable consistency. If Antony seemingly betrays Cleopatra in sealing an alliance with Octavius by marriage with his sister Octavia, Cleopatra later certainly entertains the possibility of switching from her lover to Octavius, only to be caught entertaining an enemy agent. Antony's abuse of her is no less justified than was Enobarbus' praise. Even to the end of the play, when she plots to conceal a reserve of jewelry from Caesar, Cleopatra illustrates Antony's judgment: "You have been a boggler ever" (3.13.110). But it is precisely this capacity to visualize the fullest range of options, from the best to the worst, which makes Cleopatra so fascinating a figure. She is committed narrowly neither to impossible and fatal standards of perfection like Desdemona or Cordelia, nor to relentless ambition like Queen Margaret or Lady Macbeth. At any instant she shows that her choices are totally open, and the duration and complexity of her life in history and on stage suggest that whatever their local limitations, her performances have been carefully calculated over a vast range of goals, including imperial domination. Only the icy Machiavellian finesse of Octavius eludes the mastery of her temperament, just as Falstaff finally meets his doom at the hands of King Henry V, whose subtlety he had himself fostered when he was Prince Hal. But both rulers triumph at the expense of their humanity, while Cleopatra is in no way as pathetic as Falstaff. Losing her characteristic comic options in the face of Octavius Caesar's detachment, she refuses to surrender abjectly: "I shall show the cinders of my spirits / Through the ashes of my chance" (5.2.173-4).

The last four scenes of the play present a dizzying complex of attitudes and situations. There is no attempt to sustain a consistent romantic mood such as marks the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet. Antony's premature attempt at suicide exactly meets Lope de Vega's specifications: "How wretched, unhappy, foolish and inept the lover!" (Gilbert, 548). Unlike Othello's judicial self-execution, Antony's attempt at suicide is doubly incompetent: it is unsuccessful and it is based on false report, for he has not recalled the admonition of Enobarbus: "I have seen her die twenty times" (1.2.141-2). In this she merely provides multiple echoes of the return from the dead of so many Shakespearean heroines: Hero, Helena, Marina, Imogen, even Juliet. Like such chastened figures as Claudio, Bertram and Posthumus, there is a curiously under-recognized humility in Antony's acceptance of Cleopatra's recurrent resurrections, for in the end he has not a single word of reproach for her survival, only concern for her well-being: "Gentle, hear me: / None about Caesar trust but Proculeius" (4.15.47-8). He even calmly accepts the final grotesqueness of his own fate: "The miserable change now at my end / Lament nor sorrow at" (4.15.51-2).

Typical of Lope's specification of the audience's need for such unexpected reversals to arrest its attention, Antony's death in Act 4 does not herald the end of the play: Cleopatra's virtuosity keeps it going for a full further act. The play resolutely refuses to endorse the romantic apotheosis via shared death aspired to by Antony, which is why it more nearly approaches the mixed feelings of tragicomedy, as when Cleopatra has to cope subsequently with the indignities of the discovery of her lies about her jewelry, the wry comments on women made by the Clown who brings her the asps, the repellent mode of her suicide, and even such minor details as the lapse in her last pose for death ("Your crown's awry" [5.2.318]). But perhaps the greatest undercutting of their status for both lovers lies in the historical element in the play's conclusion: the survival and triumph of Octavius Caesar, who is to become the founder of the Roman empire as Augustus Caesar, commemorated to our own day at the time of high summer in the very name of the month of August. As in Julius Caesar the voice of an endlessly resilient Octavius closes down the previous movement of history, for he will provides the name for the future one, the Augustan Age.

Nevertheless, the ultimate emotional resonance left by the play ensures a triumph for Cleopatra. Despite substantial opinion in favor of her final "reform," Cleopatra at the end of the play is scarcely a Roman matron like Octavia, even if she does call Antony "husband." The appeal of Cleopatra's final state of mind is simpler and more pathetic than Roman dignity: it lies in her admission of unaffected dependence on her beloved:

No more, but e'en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chores.

Predictably, this awareness matches well with Guarini's insistence that great people in both tragedy and tragicomedy need not behave imposingly: "Do princes always act majestically? Do they not at times deal with private affairs? Assuredly they do. Why then, cannot a character of high importance be presented on the stage when not dealing with important matters?" (508). In comparing herself to a milkmaid, Cleopatra herself resolves the contrast between high and low life characters. This plainness of expression matches her earlier candor about the physical nature of her sexual involvement: "O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony!" (1.5.21). Cleopatra presents the full complexity of sexual experience, from sheer sensuality to precarious idealism, but without forfeiting the wit, humor, and practicality which lend survival power to experience, ultimately lacking in Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare's great love scenes are not those usually enshrined by critical convention, where sentimental passion finds expression in frantic rhetoric and flamboyant imagery. These scenes are entropic, like the nihilistic rages of Lear or the jealous rants of Othello, full of wasted energy in which actors too often see their best options. As between Romeo's aureate fluency, and Juliet's first, delicately satirical rejoinders and her later, practical concerns, the latter combination is nearer to the mature range of Cleopatra. The merely passionate lovers in Shakespeare—Romeo, Troilus, Othello, even Antony—are all guilty of lapses in the commitment to survival, which are valued by wryer personae like those of Petruchio, Benedick, not to mention Rosalind, Portia and Cleopatra. The only viable personalities in Shakespeare appears to be those who accept the inevitability of their own ludicrousness and fallibility in the face of their beloveds' limitations, and strive to avert, or at least defer, its tragic potentiality. It is Cleopatra's presentation of this mixture of feelings and attitudes that is the greatest challenge to human preference for pure and unqualified feeling, what Guarini calls "excessive tragic melancholy" (Gilbert, 512). If this simplification of awareness is to be remedied on the stage it can only be thus: "if today men understood well how to compose tragicomedy (for it is not an easy thing to do), no other drama should be put on the stage, for tragicomedy is able to include all the good qualities of dramatic poetry, and to reject all the bad ones; it can delight all dispositions, all ages, all tastes" (Gilbert, 512). To the bewilderment of many, this fusion is what Antony and Cleopatra attempts.


Bradley, A. C. 1909. Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London: Macmillan.

Cartwright, Kent. 1991. Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Rosenberg, Marvin. 2006. The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra, edited and completed by Mary Rosenberg. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Related Play: 

Please offer comments and suggestions on any aspects the site to: Director Hugh Richmond at richmondh77@gmail.com. See samples at the site Blog.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.