Don’t Give in to a Woman’s Wishes, or She Will Be Your Undoing.
It’s a truism and a cliché to say that Shakespeare understood and articulated things about human nature better than any writer before or since. This is a point that can be endlessly debated and never settled, of course, but there is no stronger case than the one to be made for Shakespeare. For students of human nature, he’s a huge trove of pure gold.
I studied literature in high school and in college, and I read a great deal for pleasure now that I am all growed up. I’ve read some chunks of Shakespeare, including the Great Tragedies (you know the usual suspects: “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello”) a few times each, plus several times each my favorite Comedies and Romances (“The Tempest” is my favorite Shakespeare play, followed closely by “Hamlet”). But there are still several plays, including most of the Histories, that I have not read.
One of these still unknown to me until very recently was “Antony and Cleopatra.” I just read it a couple of times last week — another great thing about Shakespeare is, once you get your brain into gear language-wise, you can easily toss back even his most serious plays in a day or two if you want to; they’re quite short. As always, I was absolutely astonished at the insights Shakespeare puts into the mouths of his characters.
You don’t see “Antony and Cleopatra” performed that often these days. I suspect two reasons: One, it just isn’t as great of a play as, say, “King Lear.” The dramatic arc is a kind of herky-jerky in the last three acts, versus for example the terrible and irresistible inertia of “Othello.” “A&C” in the second tier of the Tragedies, like “Cymbeline.” But Shakespeare’s lesser works are still greater works than 95% of all literature, and the plays are still produced. Which brings me to the second reason you rarely see this particular one: The themes of this play are profoundly uncomfortable in our modern, post-feminist society.
People who produce plays are used to dealing with the sexist or racist themes in Shakespeare. Usually, these days, they either edit it out, try to wink at it and get the audience to titter along knowingly, or (and this is very popular) try to subvert it by suggesting Shakespeare was in fact mounting a critique of racism and sexism. So then, rather than being anti-Semitic, “The Merchant of Venice,” with its character of the scheming and venal Jew, Shylock, becomes a critique of anti-Semitism. Similarly, in “The Tempest” the embarrassingly racist characterization of the slave Caliban is taken as an avant-le-lettre critique of colonialism.
This method of subversion is occasionally stupid, but very often smart and effective. It is precisely because of the incredible depth and complexity of his characters, that Shakespeare is forever open to being reinterpreted. “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-anti-Semitic in a way; Shylock is in many ways a victim. And Caliban is in fact a very sympathetic character. His one real punishable act was trying to advance sexually on Miranda, the only fertile female he had ever seen in his entire life.
But “Antony and Cleopatra” presents much deeper problems for any PC police who want to explain away uncomfortable themes. Because the basic message of the play is: Don’t Give in to a Woman’s Wishes, or She Will Unman You and Be Your Undoing. It’s on nearly every page, in the mouth’s of a dozen different characters, and even in some not-so-subtle stage directions. It says: A great man will attract the most desirable women, but to maintain his greatness, he must never fully give in to their entreaties. Subverting this message in the interest of maintaining PC feminist lies would be a tall order (though anyone who could pull it off effectively would deserve some sort of Distinguished Medal for Drama Twisting).
For those of you who have not read it, or for whom it’s been a long time, here’s a very brief synopsis. (Keep in mind that the play is grossly inaccurate from a historical perspective, as Shakespeare was writing a tragedy, not a history… the actual story of Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Octavian makes for amazing reading too, if you are interested… for now we’re just dealing with the text of the play):
Mark Antony was one of the greatest generals in the history of the Roman Republic/Empire. The play takes place in the uncertain era between the death of the Republic and the birth of the Empire as such, a time of civil war and upheaval. Julius Caesar had been his good friend and fellow warrior, and Julius had been lover to Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Julius Caesar was of course murdered on the floor of the Senate in Rome, but Antony lived on. The play opens with Antony in Egypt, acting as ruler of the eastern third of the Empire, having fallen desperately in love with the beautiful Cleopatra and taken her as his lover. Back in Rome, Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (the man later to be known as Augustus Caesar) and other Romans are dealing with another serious civil war threat from the powerful naval captain, Pompey.
Antony’s Roman wife was in open rebellion against Octavian back in Rome, while Antony was busy fucking Cleopatra and having endless feasting and drinking bouts in Egypt. When she dies, he returns to Rome to make good with his old allies. Another war breaks out when Octavian fights Pompey, and Antony leaves again, preferring to return to Egypt and be with his lovely Queen, rather than fight another war in Italy.
Eventually Octavian prevails and then brings the war to the East, intending to re-conquer Antony’s portion of the empire. Antony leads his army to fight Octavian’s, but he has lost his warrior’s demeanor. In their first battle, Cleopatra, who had brought ships to support Antony, flees in fear and Antony flees after her. He immediately forgives her, and himself. In the second battle, Cleopatra betrays Antony and goes over to fight on the side of Octavian. This time Antony is incensed, but when Cleopatra fakes her own death to stir his sympathy, he once again forgives her and tries to kill himself too. He fails, and is wounded instead. In the final scene, Antony dies in Cleopatra’s chambers, upon which she clutches a poisonous snake to her breast, killing herself too. They die together and dream of being together forever in the afterlife. Meanwhile, Octavian conquers all and goes on to be unquestioned Emperor of the Known World.
Shakespeare was a sensitive motherfucker. He could write from a woman’s perspective more convincingly than most women can. Yes, all his greatest roles go to men, but considering the time in which he was writing, his female characters show an incredible diversity of interior experience. He could write innocent teenagers (Miranda); lustful teenagers (Juliet); insane power hungry harridans (Lady MacBeth); crazy poetic young women (Ophelia); graceful poetic young women (Portia); and devoted, loyal women who were morally better and yet more humble than all the conniving, power-hungry men surrounding them (Cordelia).
And yet for all his sensitivity, it’s pretty clear how Shakespeare felt about men who let their women control them. Right from the first page of “Antony and Cleopatra,” the great Mark Antony is painted as a fool who has given up his manhood to Cleopatra. The first speech of the first scene goes to Antony’s friend, Philo:
“His captain’s heart, which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst the buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.” (I, i, 6-10) Gypsy here means both “Egyptian” and also the pejorative “hussy.” Not only has Antony laid down his manly sword in order to drink and carouse with a woman and her eunuchs, but that woman herself, Cleopatra, mocks his valor with her own loose ways. Remember, Cleopatra used to fuck Antony’s best friend Julius Caesar before he was murdered.
Right from her first lines, Cleopatra is manipulative and emasculating. Antony professes his love to her, and she demands, “If it be love indeed, tell me how much.” Talk about milking compliments! Tell me how much you love me, now!
Of course, Antony is only too happy to oblige, praising her up and down and east to west. In our supposedly ultra-modern world of evo-psych enlightened sexual dynamics and game, we know that tripping over yourself to praise a woman (especially her physical beauty) will only elicit a woman’s contempt. She will demand you worship her alone, but if you turn a sucker and fall for this, she will immediately see you as less manly and less desirable. Well, my friends, our man Shakespeare knew this too.
As soon as Antony proclaims his undying love (he says that to find the boundary of his love for her, one would have to create “new heaven, new earth“), Cleopatra turns to mocking his manhood. “… who knows if the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent his powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this; take in that kingdom, or enfranchise that. Perform’t, or else we damn thee.” She’s saying, essentially, “Oh yeah? You love me that much? Huh. Too bad that mere boy, Caesar, has you at his beck and call like a little bitch.” Reading a line like this, even if you didn’t know how the story ends, you can tell from the start that Antony doesn’t have a chance in hell. Cleo’s got him by the balls and all he does is dance for her.
In fact, a few lines later, Antony asks her to go walking and dancing and drinking that night, and she says she’s not in the mood anymore. He whines, confused, saying, “Come my queen, last night you did desire it…” (54-55) He’s like a guy who gets laid once and then clings all over his girl the next day like a puppy and ends up confused when she loses interest and pushes him away. Later, he beta-izes himself in the worst way, even apologizing for merely speaking his mind: “I am sorry to give breathing to my purpose.” (I, ii, 14). Talk about being a little bitch! It’s hard to believe this man was considered basically the toughest motherfucker in all of the ancient Mediterranean.
Cleopatra in this play is a real piece of work, too. I got the idea to write this blog post/essay when I read that first scene, but it was in the next scene that I literally guffawed in shock as I read it (on the F-train, eliciting some curious stares from the Chinese dude sitting across from me). Cleo sends her messenger to find Antony, and her instructions are: “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.” (I, ii, 2-5)
Is this not one of the most astonishing lines in the history of literature? In it we can see the sum of Cleopatra’s character: manipulative, suspicious, cold, calculating, and selfish. Antony is supposedly her One True Love. And here she is telling her messenger to secretly fuck with his emotions: if he’s sad, let him know that I am having a grand old time without him; if he is happy, tell him I am sick so he feels bad for being so happy while I am suffering.
Cleopatra’s a bit of a student of game herself, you see, like many smart women. Her aide, Charmian, advises her about Antony thus: “In each thing give him way, cross him in nothing.” Cleopatra resonds, “Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him.” (I, ii, 9-10) She knows that people want what they can’t quite grasp, and that they quickly lose interest in a sure thing. As a chauvinist man, I’m tempted to say Charmian is right and that she should obey Antony in everything; but Cleopatra’s probably right. Men and women are alike in this regard: we love the chase, even if we have different ideas about how the chase should go.
Smart cookie though she may be, Cleopatra’s not above being catty and jealous. Antony actually goes to Rome to make peace with Caesar, and in so doing agrees to marry Caesar’s sister, Octavia, as a marriage of convenience (keep in mind this is ancient Roman times; indeed, even in Shakespeare’s day, loveless political marriages were commonplace). Cleopatra is jealous — and in fairness, who can blame her? — so she needles her servants with questions about Octavia’s appearance: her hair, her body, her face, her voice even. The humor of the situation comes when the messenger reports that Octavia is so-so looking 6 at best (keep in mind that Cleopatra is assumed to be a 10+, essentially the most desirable woman in all of the Empire — picture Jessica Alba with gold dust on her perfect skin and that sexy black Egyptian eyeliner, and amazing in the sack, not to mention an endless supply of gold that she doesn’t mind spending on her man), she decides the messenger is honest merely because he tells her what she wants to here: “He’s very knowing, I do perceive’t. There’s nothing in her yet. The fellow has good judgment.” (III, iii, 7-25) This comes up again later; essentially Cleopatra only believes the things she wants to believe. No comment.
Rather than go scene by scene, which would make this too-long essay even longer, I’ll just put in a few more quotes to give you the flavor of the play, and to show how deeply Shakespeare has woven the theme of castration and emasculation. The character of Enobarbus, Antony’s loyal lieutenant, someone who has seen the glorious best of his captain’s war days along with the pathetic worst of his groveling, gets in most of the good lines…
Of Cleopatra, Enobarbus says: “([F]or vildest things become themselves in her, that the holy priests bless her when she is riggish.” (II, ii 241-243) Vildest here means “most vile,” and riggish means “slutty.” Cleopatra is one of those women who is so frickin’ hot that she gets away with the most contemptible, vile and whorish behavior. The beta priests (and her beta-ized lover) sing her praises no matter what she does.
Enobarbus again, with some pithy words: “But there is never fair woman has a true face.” (II, vi, 101)
When Cleopatra insists on going to war with Antony, who never needed any help back in his glory days, Enobarbus argues with her: “Your presence must needs puzzle Antony; Take from his heart, take from his brain, from’s time, what should not then be spared. He is already trasduc’d for levity.” (III, vi, 10-13) In other words, pleeeease, you crazy bitch, we only have a chance in this massive battle with the mighty Caesar if our leader is at his most bad-ass, and if you’re around we all know that he’s going to act like a pussy.
And another lieutenant, Canidius, says: “…so our leader’s led, and we are women’s men.” (III, vii, 69-70)
Caesar himself observes of Antony: “He hath given his empire up to a whore.” (III, vi, 68-69)
In battle, Antony sees Cleopatra fleeing and like a coward he flees after her. One of the other generals, barely alive after the calamitous defeat, reports to a friend, “Leaving the fight in height [Antony] flies after: I never saw an action of such shame; Experience, manhood, honor, ne’re before did so violate itself.” (III, viii, 32-35).
You get the idea. I’ll leave it at that except to say that in Act Five, Shakespeare whips out the old sword-penis metaphor for Antony’s final indignity. Thinking Cleopatra is dead, he decides to kill himself (remember, this is after he’s forgiven her yet again for betraying him to Caesar), but he’s too pussy now to even do that, so he has his man Eros do it for him. Eros, surrounded by shame and indignity, instead kills himself, leaving Antony alone to do the deed himself. But when Antony finally tries to “fall on his sword” (as Shakespeare puts it in the stage directions), he only wounds himself and does not immediately die. The symbolism is so obvious it’s strained: Dude’s dick’s so soft and useless he can’t even fuck himself, let alone his enemies… or his woman.
Cleopatra fell for Antony because he was such a man’s man. Antony fell for Cleopatra because she was so sexy and bewitching. But in falling for her so hard, he gave up the very quality that made him so attractive. And because Cleopatra was such a firecracker, and so manipulative to begin with, when she turned on him she turned with the full gale force of a woman’s dark side. It’s a story about great emperors, heroes and queens, but it contains a lesson for every modern CPA, bartender and housewife. Don’t give up your sword, ever, even and especially for your woman. You need to be strong for your own good, and she needs you to be strong for her own good.