'Excellent Dissembling': A View of 'Anthony and Cleopatra'

G.A. Wilkes


'To regard this tragedy as a rival of the famous four, whether on stage or in the study, is surely an error'. Bradley made this judgement on Anthony and Cleopatra in a lecture in 1905, after he had excluded it from Shakespearean Tragedy. His lecture may be read as an attempt to justify the exclusion. Why is Anthony and Cleopatra different from Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth? Why does Shakespeare present no 'inward struggle' in Anthony before he decides to return from Rome to Egypt? Why is there a 'sadness of disenchantment' at the end of it all, mingled with the 'reconciliation' that we might properly feel? Bradley's perplexity has been shared by later critics, some pointing to the contradictions in the source material, or to Shakespeare's questioning of the heroic, or to his attempt to move across the frontier of tragedy into some new dramatic terrain. Recent criticism has diagnosed an 'ironic gap' in Anthony and Cleopatra, so that 'word and action seldom coalesce' in the play, and 'the vows, the dreams, the ideals, the evocation through speech of human greatness in the characters are at odds with what we are allowed to see in their behaviour'. There is no one way of accounting for these different impressions. But there is an element in the play which certainly contributes to them, though it has not itself been particularly remarked.

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