A Slightly More Optimistic Look or

Why Everyone Else is Wrong about the Play

Love is arguably the most written about topic that exists, but there probably isn’t an author who wrote about it more successfully than Shakespeare. In his play, Antony and Cleopatra, he makes a very bold statement about love and its effect on people, the way that an emotion as powerful as that can change lives, for better or for worse. The two lovers may be seen by some to be little more than poor leaders, but if one remembers their former success as generals and royalty, they will see that it isn’t some flaw within them that leads to their demise, but an overriding emotion that they hopelessly dedicate their lives to. They are not thoughtless people, they are strong people who are caught in a force much stronger than them, but caught at a very bad time. Shakespeare’s play tells us that sometimes there is no choice between public welfare and a personal life; when love comes along, no one has a choice but to submit to it.

The play isn’t necessarily about the battle between private and public, or passion and reason, but the triumph of one over the other. The victory is an incomplete one, but it is nothing less than inevitable. These two people, Antony and Cleopatra, are supremely powerful individuals, and though both have shown a dedication to a separate life, it is all thrown aside as love enters. We can see how their emotions overcome both of them, more and more each day, until they finally are so clouded that they can’t continue to keep their public and personal lives apart. As the play comes to an end we see that it’s not just their lives that are dominated by passion, but even their deaths. We all like to think that we have the fortitude to choose reason over emotion, but ‘love conquers all’ is the lesson to be learned.

Cleopatra begins the play as a symbol of detachment and free will. The queen waltzes through her servants, Antony in tow, commanding him to conform to her. “If it be loved indeed, tell me how much,” she tells her lover, expecting him to prove his worth for her. She is a woman who has probably lived her life able to drop one thing or another without a second thought – she survived the loss of Julius Caesar, one of the most powerful men to ever exist, how much more could there be? Further into the play, we see that she is put into anxiety if there are more than a few feet between her and her lover. As Antony leaves for Rome, she can’t help but exclaim to her servant, “O, Charmian, / Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?” And she goes even further to imply that she is jealous of Antony’s horse, simply because it bears him. Nothing shows the obsession greater than the queen of a third of the known world being jealous of a farm animal. Even further, we begin to see genuine rage as she nearly kills a messenger because she believes him to be bearing bad news. She promises him gold and jewels if he brings good news of her love, but if he brings news of his death, she swears that “The gold I give thee will I melt and pour / Down thy ill-uttering throat.” Her great mood swings and total release in front of her servants, and even a messenger from Rome, show that she has completely given in to her emotions now. Cleopatra, who once went to great lengths to make a constant show of her power and control in front of her servants, has melted away to how she is actually feeling. The most powerful woman in the world is now at the sway of love.

Antony struggled longer against the tempest of emotion that he felt, but even his force of will wasn’t enough to defend against it. In public he was a renowned statesmen and general, respected and feared by enemies and friends, a disciplined war hero, but in the end he was powerless against the love that he felt in his private life. At first it looks like he had given in far too easily, following Cleopatra around like a puppy, proclaiming his love in any way that he can. His ranks and medals define him in public, but they mean nothing to them now; “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall!” is his pledge. But, Antony’s progression doesn’t follow the same track as Cleopatra’s. Egypt’s queen has a steady descent into her submission, but Antony thrashes violently against it. He knows what is happening, speaking quietly to himself that “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage.” He leaves Egypt and returns to his homeland, regaining a portion of his self-control and marrying Octavia, but his heart leads him back to Cleopatra. Eventually he realizes that, even though the marriage is the only chance for peace between him and Caesar, he cannot keep it up. Releasing Octavia from the marriage, he can only hope for the best.

He finally loses himself totally as the war arrives. No doubt Antony has commanded similar numbers before, and no doubt he has faced greater odds, but in this war he makes a tactically unsound decision and makes his troops fight at sea, upon the urgings of Cleopatra. His reason is now all but completely overpowered by his passion, and he proves that his public life means nothing to him when he turns from the great sea battle and follows his love as she retreats. Now he too has lost power over himself.

Enobarbus is the third character who believes that reason can beat passion as he painfully tries to convince himself that leaving his friend and general, Antony, is really the best thing for him. Like Antony, his soldiership allows him the discipline to push back his emotions, and he finally convinces himself that, in this case, being a traitor is warranted. But the victory is short lived. Thoughts of his former friend and shattered honor torment him quietly until Antony shows his continuing love for friendship by sending all of Enobarbus’ abandoned treasure. This act of love to a traitor takes all of the quietness out of Enobarbus’ torture and forces him to yell at himself, “I am alone the villain of the earth, / and feel I am so most.” This is his passion catching up to him, and it seems that the more emotions are repressed, the more violently they break through. Enobarbus waits until the night, and then walks out of the Roman encampment by himself. Staring up at the moon, he begs the Gods to take his life, which is “a very rebel to {his} will.” The Gods answer his pleas and he dies, the last word upon his lips being a passionate cry - “O, Antony.”

Antony and Cleopatra regain control once more though, as the shock of defeat pulls them out of their dream state. Antony’s only thought as reason once again runs his body is to kill himself, and in that way to save what is left of his honor. But even then, the one thing that he thinks will keep him safe from passion is an act of passion in itself. In his decision to commit suicide, he is using reason to make himself commit a passionate act, once again showing that, in the end, passion rules over reason. And, one mustn’t overlook the fact that he kills himself along with one of his last remaining friends, a man who shares the name Eros with the Greek god of love. Cleopatra dies in a similarly regal fashion, killing herself in quite a calculated way, and taking great lengths to assure the quickest and most painless death. Pushing the asp to her breast is her last act of passion. She asks of Charmian, “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?”, showing that subconsciously she still thinks of her lover and children she could have had. After seeing the heartless actions of Octavius against Lepidus and Pompey, one would expect him to be almost infuriated to see that Antony and Cleopatra had escaped from his grasp, both of them escaping their punishment. But it seems that even he understands. He doesn’t disparage Antony for misleading his troops, he doesn’t condemn Cleopatra for causing the defeat of her country. He knows that there is nothing without love, and that a personal life with love takes precedence over a mere public existence. “High events as these / Strike those that make them; and their story is / No less in pity, than his glory which / Brought them to be lamented,” is what the ruler of the world says to those around him as he stares at the corpses. He doesn’t pity them or their story because there was no other choice; if he were put in the same situation he would probably act similarly. And so, Shakespeare’s message is this: no matter how powerful one is, or how much control they have, they can never overcome the pull of love - they can only hope that it comes at a more convenient time.