First woman takes over.
Antony and Cleopatra

Both Romeo and Juliet may be excused because of their youth. We meet them in the “salad days”, to speak with Cleopatra, of the time when she had herself carried, wrapped in a carpet, to mighty Julius Caesar, to be rolled out at his feet.

The background is different for another pair of Shakespearean lovers. Antony and Cleopatra are long since grown up and no forces threaten to destroy their lives from without. On the contrary, both are rich, free and wonderfully endowed. Cleopatra is Queen of Egypt. Antony is master of a third of the Roman world and extends his rule to one half together with Octavius Caesar — Augustus.

Even so the tale ends in disaster. Why?

Antony is the simpler personality — a considerable military commander, at least twice as splendid as the other two triumvirs together. From his youth onwards he has been used to enduring almost anything and will dare even more; he is generous and magnificent right through to the end, the soldiers' idol, a staunch supporter of his friends. In his older days he wins a beautiful queen and starts a different life altogether.

Here in Egypt love is everything. The couple is unique and lead a wonderful life, days and nights taken up with excursions and feasts. Every minute must be filled with ever new delights. Life with Egypt's mature queen is an oriental dream. On the banks of the Nile Shakespeare creates a love story that makes Verona pale.

After a time, however, the environment makes itself felt after all. The power that opened for an enchanted life in the Nile valley must be guarded and maintained. Antony renews his alliance with Octavius and marries his sister. We perceive the first trace of cracks in the armour when shortly afterwards Antony neglects Octavia and clashes with his brother-in-law.

The extent of his dissolution is fully revealed in the battle of Actium. Antony does not attend to the war on land; instead he favours a sea-battle with support from an Egyptian fleet which lets him down. Cleopatra flees and the love-sick fool follows. The result is that he loses his allies and is defeated in more battles. He finally takes his own life.

Has the hero failed in love? — No, we can hardly say he has. Rather he has given up managing his capricious partner. After the battle at Actium Antony understands that Cleopatra is on the brink of betraying him. Once again he experiences a conflict between emotions and reason, and this time his love proves incompatible with the rest of his life.

The love goddess

So far matters seem clear. The question is what we are to make of the queen's behaviour. Is Cleopatra an even more shocking, female version of Romeo? After all, forces beyond his feelings played a considerable part in the downfall of the Veronese, whereas Cleopatra has long had the power to act on her own accord.

Yes indeed, her chance to be independent turns out to be her misfortune. The essence of love is to keep itself alive. But as a woman the queen is unable to participate in government on an equal footing with her lover. Instead, therefore, she must hold his attention and keep him enticed through the means at her disposal. These spring from their fairy-tale life together and are an important part of the enchantment.

Cleopatra sees clearly the maze-like workings of our emotions. People tire. Fascination can only be maintained through endless ingenuity. He who would be loved must be ever inventive. Long after the queen's bodily charms have ceased to exercise a hold on Antony, she holds him irresistibly captive.

The recipe is simple. Cleopatra is always different from whatever Antony expects. If her lover is melancholy, she is merry; when he is gay, she excites his curiosity by turning ill or low in spirits. Either way she rouses him. The queen's resourcefulness is a mixture of natural talent and insight. The spectators are presented with an absorbing study of the consequences of such behaviour. What happens when love becomes an eternal desire to last?

In the first round Cleopatra pretends a certain distance to her lover. Keeping him at arm's length is — equally with tempting him — a move in the game of inflaming the heart with passion.
Then the mistress prepares for ever new variations. Even the most tender proofs of love from her partner are turned into an objection. When Antony forgets to mourn his first wife's death out of absorption with Cleopatra, she reproaches him. If he is indifferent to his spouse, he will be the same when she herself is the one to die.

The effect is to hold her lover fast. This reasonable goal is the source of their downfall. For, since continued attention is the token of her partner's love, there is no end to the number of proofs that must be given. The triumvir Antony casts off Octavia and gives Cleopatra's children new titles in Asia. The queen is tempted to act the part of a man and is suffered to do so, for in her life with Antony she has taken the lead. The woman therefore believes herself master of every skill, including such as belong to men.

Confronted with war her self-confidence is exposed as presumption. She advises Antony badly; and when it comes to doing battle, Cleopatra the queen takes fright while Cleopatra the mistress begins to crumble — or is she once again trying to hold her beloved through doing the unexpected? This time, though, no further moves are possible. When the queen flees, her lover pursues her but is defeated by Octavius Caesar and makes himself ridiculous in the eyes of the soldiers.

At first Cleopatra is distressed at her mistakes and begs forgiveness. But further failures of the fleet follow at Alexandria, and she now turns traitor when she betrays Antony in order to achieve a rapprochement with Octavius. For a while she lies brazenly and gives out that she is dead. Then she switches back, feigning continued love, until Antony dies. She then stakes all on winning Octavius.

The spectators can sympathise with her attempts. Antony has after all lost to the much simpler Octavius. Her lover dead, the queen can hardly be blamed for trying to make a life for herself and the children. When she does not succeed, she even pulls herself together. Cleopatra dies with great dignity, her thoughts on her lover whom she let down.

The most important betrayal occurs much earlier in the play and has address to both parties. Cleopatra over-estimated her capabilities as warrior, while Antony took bad advice from someone who knew the din of battle exclusively from the bed. Both reveal a weakness in their love; they each over-estimated themselves and their partner.

The world is waiting

As a result Antony is caught in a similar trap to Juliet's: They give in to our human urge to idolise the person we desire. Such adoration may be in order if man and woman are equals. But in Shakespeare's time they were not, nor in Cleopatra's Egypt. The woman, on the contrary, was very much the weaker in several respects. When that is the case, a woman must defend herself. The weapon of her sex is rebuff as a means of increasing her partner's passion. The race continues for as long as the leader has anything to gain.

But from outside the rest of the world asserts itself. Antony is faced with his two wives in Rome, and behind them there is a coming emperor and the entire Roman empire. He must also consider his allies in the inner Mediterranean, together with the soldiers and officers who keep him in power.

These issues are seen clearly by other characters in the play. The queen's ladies-in-waiting remind her of the danger involved in defying Antony. The general Enobarbus doubts whether government by women is feasible at all. Octavius considers his older comrade-at-arms a mere boy after he has let himself be ruled by Cleopatra. At last the hero himself welcomes the disasters that strike him; long before the end he has felt drawn towards death.

For the world is a terrible place. Shakespeare lets us catch a glimpse in the scene where the triumvirs are gathered on the galley of Pompey the admiral. During a lavish feast Pompey's right hand Menas offers to kill all three guests and make Pompey lord of the world. The scene is short and Stalinistically sinister. Pompey is too honourable to accept the suggestion but admits that he would have thanked Menas had he acted without asking.

Octavius Caesar is no Menas; the hero's downfall would have been certain anyway. If not through a conflict with Octavius, Antony would either have been felled by others or would have tired of Cleopatra or fallen victim to her love of the sceptre. The queen is right: No emotion lasts forever. The heart will always tire,
unless it is placed within a wider framework. This expansion of interest failed for Antony. For Cleopatra it did not; she always had her own family in the background and was well able to make her love fit in with the rest of her life.

The rich capabilities of the queen are what makes her special. Antony receives the more lavish praise in the text. His personality, however, shrinks throughout; and besides, much of the adulation stems from the very woman who is constantly engaged in clipping his wings to turn her master into an obedient tool.

The comments on Cleopatra are more one-sided. She is praised mainly for her physical attributes. At an early age she started with the ageing Caesar as “A morsel for a monarch”. To Antony she is his “serpent of old Nile”. Even the critical Enobarbus is overwhelmed: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety.”

The queen's other qualities are passed over more or less unnoticed. This is rather strange, for her life is far more remarkable than that of her lover. By virtue of body and reason she takes the reins from one of the world's leaders.

The most down-to-earth summing up is given by the simple countryman bringing her a poisonous snake for her suicide. The peasant characterises her indirectly, through mentioning an earlier victim, “.. a very honest woman, but something given to lie, as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty”. — “A lass unparalleled”, says her lady-in-waiting. — “Bravest at the last”, is Octavius' comment. — “... a woman is a dish for the gods”, ends the Egyptian peasant, “if the devil dress her not.”

But the devil often did touch women, perhaps? Yes, “in every ten ... the devils mar five”. Just as with men, in fact. In spite of the queen's capabilities, the final outcome is unhappy. Power brings about the downfall of both, and Antony, a Roman ruler, ends like Romeo's sweetheart.

Juliet showed us the limits of a life built purely on emotion. With Cleopatra another issue is added: How much can reason secure for us?