Not being a student of the stage, I only recently became acquainted with the concept of the “Machiavel” in Elizabethan theatre. This (according to the best defnition I’ve found) is “primarily a person who puts his own personal survival and power above any traditional moral restraint. He is a person who believes that the assertion of his individual desires is more important than observing any traditional ways of dealing with people and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve his personal desires. He is, thus, a self-interested individualist with no traditional scruples about communal responsibilities and morality. The Machiavel is thus commonly an inherent source of social disorder.” (Ian Johnston, VIU) Makes sense that the character-type named after Machiavelli would be those whose power-seeking (and maintaining ends) justifies all sorts of means… ultimately drivers of the plot from one point to the next.
Interesting too that there is rarely just *one* Machiavel in a given work – the villain without a worthy match is rather boring – and so rarely does Shakespeare depict good actually winning out over evil. Rather it is the operative with the most cunning who often comes out on top – independent of their moral weight – even as we may sympathize more with the characters who fall. King Lear and Cordelia in King Lear being our example from last term. In this term’s Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra it is difficult to distinguish a character with any particular morality, but the Machiavels are everywhere. Both our title characters, plus the character of Octavius to varying degrees share these characteristics. Antony least, Cleopatra moreso, Octavius the most. Guess who wins in the end? But ultimately it doesn’t matter because we aren’t sure how we feel about any of them throughout the play – so Shakespeare paints a picture of even the most ardent star-crossed lovers as being willing to throw each other under the bus if the power stakes are significant enough.
Despite what is supposed to be a deep and abiding love, both Antony and Cleopatra make arrangements in opposition to the other’s interests throughout the play – Antony by marrying the sister of Ceasar to seal his bond, Cleopatra by making promises to Octavius which emasculate Antony’s military prowess in order to save her sovereign Egypt from submission to Rome. And yet, we are left to wonder whether or not these characters ultimately believed they could play off Octavius to ultimately end up with each other *and* all the power.
Hard to believe in Antony who is the weakest manipulator of the three – his greatest downfall is his desire for Cleopatra and a certain arrogance that he can do what he likes, no matter what is being alleged, or what his wife Fulvia (who dies near the start of the play) is doing in his absence. He is irresponsible in his wants and the marriage to Octavia is not his own plot for dominance, but one that is suggested to him, and which he picks up on the merits of. He is not the master of his own fate, and his judgement is questioned by many throughout the play because it is obvious that even in his final anger with Cleopatra (after she militarily betrays him) that he cannot imagine living without her. Ultimately Antony is manipulated by Octavius and his friends, as well as his lover Cleopatra – so we might choose his side of things if he wasn’t so weak and if he didn’t show his own propensity towards morally questionable behaviour. (Not to mention his pitiful death scene where he can’t get anyone to kill him, so botches his own suicide).
Cleopatra is a villain with a bit more going on. Reigning monarch of Egypt she loves Antony only so much as she can control his actions and is furious when he betrays her by marrying Octavia. One wonders if its this first break between Antony and Cleopatra which sets the stage for her military betrayals later in the play…. that she ultimately doesn’t trust Antony enough to risk it all for him. Twice she betrays him militarily in order to save her own sovereignty, and close to the end of the play we find her entreating Octavius (falsely, it turns out) to allow her to maintain her sovereignty as ruler. While Antony kills himself over the lost love of Cleopatra (she arranges for him to think she is dead), Cleopatra kills herself over the loss of her power and the fear that Octavius will parade her through the streets as a prize of war, a fate she cannot bear to envision. Cleopatra can not live without herself, her self-image as a noble and powerful woman, and is required by her dignity to take her life which she does in a pseudo-erotic manner, followed by her maidservants who adore her.
And Octavius? He has it all by the end of the play – acheiving through force, manipulation and broken promises – but its with a hollow ring that he closes the play with the lines:
Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. 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. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.
Now soverign ruler of Rome, Octavius must still kneel before the strong personalities of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as their passionate love for one another. Not only were their lives notable, he says, but their deaths are the kind which make legends (who has ever forgotten that Cleopatra died from the bite of an asp, likely self-inflicted?). Tragic though their deaths are, they make the life of Octavius even moreso as he must live in the shadow of these events which he set in motion through his own struggle to acquire power.
Despite her glaring faults (the dishonesty, the vanity) – I find Cleopatra to be the most sympathetic of the characters – if only because she forces the male rules around her to accept her presence as *one of them* despite her gender. Frequently throughout the play we are treated to the perception of Cleopatra as a temptress, a witch, a mesmerizer – not to be trusted. And during battle scenes, her presence as commander of her forces is questioned because she does not belong in this most masculine of spheres. Even her self-inflected death is an act of self-empowerment as she cheats Octavius out of the victory of her debasement. ” Bravest at the last|She levell’d at our purposes, and, being royal|Took her own way.” Only Cleopatra has any real dignity at the end of the play, though Octavius honours Antony, we can’t quite get the image of him staggering around after stabbing himself out of our minds.
Some other areas of inquiry I am interested in exploring further with this work include:
- the destructive nature of desire
- the false “reason” which drives the acquisition of power
- feminine seduction/bewitchment/power/sexuality