restricted access VI. Antony and Cleopatra: Actionas Imaginative Command
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VI. Antony and Cleopatra: Action as Imaginative Command ι MOST ofShakespeare's tragedies—Romeoand Julietisperhaps the only arguable exception—are concerned, one way or an­ other, with human greatness. Their heroes are larger than life and recognized as such by those around them. Antony and Cleopatra, however, differs from the rest of the tragedies in that it is centrally aboutgreatness. Thediscussion of greatness is the activity to which the play's characters devote most of their time. In speech after speech, indeed scene after scene, they comment oneach other's greatness—acknowledge it, praise it, measure it by various standards, are moved and changed by it, proclaim their own greatness, consider what greatness means. Love is also a subject of the play, of course. But the claim of the lovers—and even of their enemies—is that they are great lovers, no pair so famous, as Caesar says, and their language of love, particularly when quarreling and making up, is the language of fame, nobility, and superhuman com­ parison. They measure their passion against the scope and power of the universe and against all competitors, human, legendary, and divine. The competition knows no bounds, and there is no interest in second place, even in the hereafter. Most critics of Antony and Cleopatra have recognized its concern with one aspect or another of greatness, but insuffi­ cient attention has been given to what the play conceives greatness to be. I would like to look into its definition of greatness not simply as an abstraction, but as a way of ex­ periencing life, a sense of process that critically affects our Antony and Cleopatra sense of action. What I have called a definition of greatness might more accurately, if more awkwardly, be described as a concern with a certain kind of greatness and its way of acting upon the world. It seems to me to offer a clue to the play's dramatic unity and to some of the problems it presents for performers and critics—to the way Shakespeare moves his actors on the stage, to the kinds of action we are shown and not shown, and to the difficulties and rewards of the main parts. In Antony and Cleopatra,greatness isprimarily acommand over other people's imaginations. It depends on what people think of you and what you think of yourself. At the lowest level, it is style, effective self-dramatization; at the highest, it is a means of overcoming time, death, and the world. It is registered in the behavior of audiences, and a concern for greatness is reflected in a concern for audiences.The audience for greatness in Antony and Cleopatra is multiple: it is, first, the small group of people on stage at any time; second, the entire known world to whom Antony and Cleopatra con­ stantly play and which seems always to regard them with fascination; it is also a timeless, superhuman audience, the heroes of history and legend and the gods themselves; finally, it is the audience of posterity, of whom we in the theater are a part. The play is very much aware that we have heard of its heroes before coming to the theater; their greatness, their ability to command imagination through time, has helped to draw us. When Cleopatra decides to stage her death—and it is a carefully planned spectacle—theimmediate causeshe cites is the prospect of an inadequate theatrical representation of her life, which will not do her justice but boy her greatness in the posture of a whore. And when Antony contemplates life after death with Cleopatra, he says that together they will make the "ghosts gaze" at them: Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours. (IV, xiv, 53-54) Antony and Cleopatra Once more, it is the ability to command other imaginations that sets the seal on their greatness. Very closely associated with it, in this passage and throughout the play, is the ability to go beyond natural limit and thus to takeon the transform­ ing power of imagination itself. Greatness, as Antony and Cleopatra possess it, is seen not as an aspect of one's deeds, nor even, primarily, as the po­ tential for specific actions, but as a kind of emanation ra­ diating from the two lovers across the civilized world and down through history. Even our first reference to Antony is not to his courage, strength, or martial skill, but to his eyes, "That o'er the files and musters...