The Metamorphic Tragedy of 'Anthony and Cleopatra'

Anthony Miller


When he turned the pages of Plutarch, his principal historical source for Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare was confronted with the values of a sober ethical arbiter. Plutarch treats Anthony's tragic fall as the consequence of his subservience to fleshly pleasure. Such pleasure is a 'pestilent plague and mischief', a 'sweet poison'. It makes mature manhood regress to childishness: Anthony 'spent and lost in childish sports (as a man might say) and idle pastimes, the most precious thing a man can spend, ... and that is, time'. Even more shamefully, it makes courageous manhood descend to cowardliness. By his flight at the battle of Actium, Anthony 'had not only lost the courage and heart of an Emperor, but also of a valiant man.... In the end, as Paris fled from the battle and went to hide himself in Helen's arms, even so did he in Cleopatra's arms'. Yet Shakespeare's management of his tragedy, like his understanding of Roman history in general, is not circumscribed by Plutarch. There are indications that Shakespeare looked far afield to furnish his play with quite minor details, such as Anthony's account ofEgyptian farming practices, which apparently derives from Pliny or from the Renaissance historian of Africa, Johannes Leo. The play's treatment of the historical significance of Augustus Caesar's victory over Anthony and Cleopatra derives not only from Plutarch, but from the Augustan poets Horace and VirgiI. In dramatizing the tragedy of Anthony, and in amplifying it with the tragedy of Cleopatra, Shakespeare voices not only Plutarchan censoriousness. He adds generosity towards human weakness. He adds admiration of the spectacle of human excess - excess in folly as well as in heroic aspiration. He adds awe at the irresistible powers of Eros and mutability - powers that are by turns life-giving and destructive. These new voices speak in the accents of Horace's and Virgil's younger contemporary Ovid, especially the Ovid of the Metamorphoses.

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