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An Obliquely Tragic Hero

An Obliquely Tragic Hero

“Nay, but this dotage of our general’s / O’erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes, that o’er the files and musters of the war have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn . . . upon a tawny front [face]; his captain’s heart, which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst the buckles on his breast, . . . is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust. . . . Look where they come! . . . The triple pillar [one of Rome’s three rulers] of the world transform’d into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see” (1.1.1–13; all line references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Philo, listed among the dramatis personae as a “friend to Antony,” thus bruits the already accomplished tragedy in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. The luxury and pleasure of Egypt, he says, have utterly seduced the military discipline and pride of Rome. “Let Rome in Tiber melt!” Antony exclaims as Cleopatra urges him to hear ambassadors from Rome (1.1.33). “Speak not to us,” he tells the messenger (1.1.55). Demetrius, to whom Philo uttered his opening critique, marvels, “Is Caesar with Antonius priz’d so slight?” “Sir,” responds Philo, “sometimes when he is not Antony, he comes too short of that great property [quality] which still should go with Antony.” Demetrius, “full sorry that he approves the common liar, who thus speaks of him at Rome, . . . hope[s] of better deeds tomorrow” (1.1.56–62).

If this is our introduction to the so-called “tragic hero,” what need have we for “two hours’ traffic of the stage”? One short scene reveals Antony’s decline and his abdication of Roman responsibilities. Only Demetrius’s “hope of better deeds tomorrow” suggests that Antony may not, in fact, be threadbare of greatness. Yet since we have witnessed neither the hero prior to his fall nor the fall that brings him low, “friends” Philo and Demetrius evoke little compassion for such a worthless hero.

Fortunately, Antony has other friends among the dramatis personae, ranked, it seems, according to their loyalty. Topping the list, a loyal friend and companion-at-arms—who now runs errands for Cleopatra and laments drinking in the boudoir instead of the battlefield—keeps us, the audience, grounded in the tragic nobility of our imploding hero, no matter how ignoble he might seem in his dithering or voluptuousness. Just as Horatio honored Hamlet despite his turmoil, just as Kent remained Lear’s blunt, plain-spoken touchstone, Domitius Enobarbus accommodates Antony’s ambivalent position. He recognizes not merely Antony’s doomed prospects and reputation, but also Cleopatra’s irresistible enchantment. If not for Enobarbus, we would agree with Plutarch, Philo, and Caesar that Antony wallows hopelessly, “a strumpet’s fool.”

From the beginning, Antony is pathetic, riding his pendulum between the “Roman thought [that] strook him” from time to time (1.2.82) and “these strong Egyptian fetters” (1.2.116). In Act 2, Scene 2, Antony unveils one last performance of Roman dignity. As Caesar and Antony discuss grievances, Enobarbus, accustomed to an easy-going camaraderie with Antony in Egypt, interrupts the blank-verse discussion with some irreverent prose, provoking this exchange:

Antony: Thou art a soldier only, speak no more.
Enobarbus: That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony: You wrong this presence, therefore speak no more.
Enobarbus: Go to then—your considerate stone. (2.2.107–10) 

As charged, Enobarbus speaks no more for sixty lines, during which Agrippa suggests a peace-making marriage between Antony and Octavia.

In Roman mode, Antony expects decorum from Enobarbus and agrees to marry Octavia. Enobarbus, however, perceives the inevitable. At 2.2.170, all exeunt except Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Maecenas, who warmly greet each other as friends, even though they are antagonists in the Mediterranean conflict. In this less formal setting, Maecenas asks about Egyptian excesses (“eight wild-boars roasted whole at a breakfast” for a mere twelve people [2.2.179–80]) and about Cleopatra’s magnificence. Here follows the famous description of Cleopatra, blank-versed straight from North’s translation of Plutarch. From the mouth of Enobarbus, so recently shushed in public by his general, such lush and sensory eloquence makes it comprehensible that Rome’s discipline and austerity may not universally represent the highest good. From lines 190 to 239, Enobarbus gushes forth, interrupted three times by Agrippa: “O, rare for Antony,” “Rare Egyptian!,” and “Royal wench!” (2.2.205, 218, 226). Agrippa, remember, has just engineered Antony’s marriage to Octavia.

Maecenas, less smitten, remarks, “Now Antony must leave her utterly” (2.2.232–33). “Never,” Enobarbus pronounces, “he will not: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety“ (2.2.233-39). Stoutly Roman, Maecenas affirms, “If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle the heart of Antony, Octavia is a blessed lottery to him” (2.2.240–42). Enobarbus knows better and says so in Act 2, Scene 6: “Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation. . . . [Antony] will to his Egyptian dish again” (2.6.122-23, 126). Enobarbus comprehends the power that has bewitched Antony’s soul with an awful (in both senses) magnificence.

Act 3’s multitudinous short scenes of Antony’s return to Egypt and Cleopatra’s presence in camp, however, strip away any splendor. Enobarbus cautions Cleopatra that her “presence needs must puzzle Antony, / Take from his heart, take from his brain” (3.7.10–11) and he warns Antony against fighting by sea because his “ships are not well mann’d” (3.7.34). Nevertheless, Antony will not be dissuaded. By the end of Act 3, Cleopatra’s ships “fly and turn the rudder” (3.10.3), followed by “the noble ruin of her magic, Antony.” “I never saw an action of such shame,” exclaims Scarus; “experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before did violate so itself” (3.10.18–23).

As loyalty becomes more hopeless, Canidius, lieutenant general to Antony, plans to “render” his troops to Caesar; “six kings,” he says, “already show me the way of yielding” (3.10.32–34). Loyal Enobarbus replies, “I’ll yet follow the wounded chance of Antony, though my reason sits in the wind against me” (3.10.34–36). 

In Scene 11, Enobarbus silently witnesses Antony’s meltdown for more than one hundred lines before he concludes, “I will seek some way to leave him” (3.13.199–200). When Antony learns of Enobarbus’s desertion (4.5), he tells Eros to send his belongings after him, adding, “Write to him; say that I wish he never find more cause to change a master. O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men! . . . Enobarbus!” (4.5.13–17).

Corrupted, indeed! Comparing Antony’s generosity to Caesar’s niggardliness, Enobarbus finds desertion intolerable—before a Roman soldier reports that Antony has sent “all thy treasure, with his bounty overplus. . . . Your emperor continues still a Jove” (4.6.20-21, 27–28). “I am alone the villain of the earth,” grieves Enobarbus, resolving to “seek some ditch wherein to die” (4.6.29, 36–37).

Whereas a Roman death requires falling on a sword, Enobarbus apparently dies of remorse, saying, “Oh Antony, nobler than my revolt is infamous, forgive me” (4.9.29–30)—reminding us yet again of the “real” Antony and cursing himself as “a master-leaver and a fugitive” (4.9.22). The First Folio mentions no weapon in this scene—not a word of a physical instrument of death. Enobarbus dies of a broken heart, thus fulfilling the drama’s tragedy. Throughout the play, Antony behaves too ignobly, irresponsibly, and inconsistently to provoke a tragic tear. I weep for the Antony Enobarbus sees.