The Associates of Antony
The political setting of Julius Caesar had been the struggle between the Old Order and the New. The Old goes out with a final and temporary flare of success; the New asserts itself as the necessary solution for the problem of the time, but is deprived of its guiding genius who might best have elicited its possibilities for good and neutralised its possibilities for evil. In Antony and Cleopatra we see how its mastery is established and confirmed despite the faults and limitations of the smaller men who now represent it. But in the process very much has been lost. The old principle of freedom, which, even when moribund, serve to lend both the masses and the classes activity and self-consciousness, has quite disappeared. The populace has been dismissed from the scene, and, whenever casually mentioned, it is only with contempt. Octavius describes it:
Antony has passed so far from the sphere of his oratorical triumph, that he thinks of his late supporters only as “the shouting plebeians” who cheapen their sight-seeing “for poor'st diminutives, for doits” (IV. xiii. 33). His foreign Queen has [p. 345] been taught his scorn of the Imperial people, and pictures them as “mechanic slaves, with greasy aprons, rules, and hammers,” and with “their thick breaths, rank of gross diet” (v. ii. 208). Beyond these insults there is no reference to the plebs, except that, as we learn from Octavius, he and Antony have both notified it of their respective grievances against each other; but this is a mere formality that has not the slightest effect on the progress of events, and no citizen or group of citizens has part in the play. Even the idea of the State is in abeyance. The sense of the majesty of Rome, which inspired both the conspirators and their opponents, seems extinct. No enterprise, whether right or wrong, is undertaken in the name of patriotism. On the very outposts of the Empire, where, in conflict with the national foe, the love of country is apt to burn more clearly than amidst the security and altercation of the capital, we see a general, in the moment of victory, swayed in part by affection for his patron, in part by care for his own interest, but not in the slightest degree by civic or even chivalrous considerations. When Ventidius is urged by Silius to pursue his advantage against the Parthians, he replies that he has done enough:
This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.
And not only is Silius convinced; he gives his full approval to Ventidius' policy:
Who does i‘ the wars more than his captain can
Becomes his captain's captain: and ambition,
The soldier's virtue, rather makes choice of loss,
Than gain which darkens him.
I could do more to do Antonius good,
But ‘t would offend him; and in his offence
Should my performance perish.
[p. 346] Are things better with Octavius' understrappers? They serve him well and astutely, but there is no hint that their service is prompted by any large public aim, and its very efficacy is due in great measure to its unscrupulousness. Agrippa and Mecaenas are ready for politic reasons to suggest or support the marriage of the chaste and gentle Octavia with a voluptuary like Mark Antony, whose record they know perfectly well, and pay decorous attentions to Lepidus while mocking him behind his back: Thyreus and Proculeius make love to the employment, when Octavius commissions them to cajole and deceive Cleopatra; Dolabella produces the pleasantest impression, just because, owing to a little natural manly feeling, he palters with his prescribed obligations to his master. But in none of them all is there a trace of any liberal or generous conception of duty; they are human instruments, more or less efficient, more or less trustworthy, who make their career by serving the purposes of Octavius' personal ambition. Or turn to the court of Alexandria with its effeminacy, wine-bibbing, and gluttony. Sextus Pompeius talks of its “field of feasts”, “its epicurean cooks,” its “cloyless sauce” (II. i. 22, et seq.）. Antony palliates his neglect of the message from Rome with the excuse that, having newly feasted three kings, he did “want of what he was i‘ the morning” (II. ii. 76). But even in the morning, as Cleopatra recalls, he can be drunk to bed ere the ninth hour, and then let himself be clad in female garb (II. v. 21). It is not indeed to Egypt that this intemperance is confined. The contagion has spread to the West, as we see from the picture of the orgy on board the galley at Misenum; a picture we may take in a special way to convey Shakespeare's idea of the conditions, since he had no authority for it, but [p. 347] freely worked it up from Plutarch's innocent statement that Pompey gave the first of the series of banquets on board his admiral galley, “and there he welcomed them and made them great cheere.” But in the play all the boon companions, and not merely the home-comers from the East, cup each other till the world goes round; save only the sober Octavius, and even he admits that his tongue “splits what it speaks.” “This is not yet an Alexandrian feast,” says Pompey. “It ripens towards it,” answers Antony (II. vii. 102). It ripens towards it indeed; but more in the way of crude excess than of curious corruption. In that the palace of the Ptolemies with its eunuchs and fortune-tellers, its male and female time-servers and hangers-on, is still inimitable and unchallenged. It is interesting to note how Shakespeare fills in the previous history of Iras and Charmian, whom Plutarch barely mentions till he tells of their heroic death. In the drama they are introduced at first as the products of a life from which all modesty is banished by reckless luxury and smart frivolity. Their conversation in the second scene serves to show the unabashed protervitas that has infected souls capable of high loyalty and devotion.1 And their intimate is the absolutely [p. 348] contemptible Lord Alexas, with his lubricity, officiousness and flatteries, who, when evil days come, will persuade Herod of Jewry to forsake the cause of his patrons and will earn his due reward (IV. vi. 12). For there is no moral cement to hold together this ruinous world. After Actium the deserters are so numerous that Octavius can say:
Thou hast, Ventidius, that
Without the which a soldier, and his sword,
Grants scarce distinction.
There is not even decent delay in their apostasy. The battle is hardly over when six tributary kings show “the way of yielding” to Canidius, who at once renders his legions and his horse to Caesar (III. x. 33). Shakespeare heightens Plutarch's statement in regard to this, for in point of fact Canidius waited seven days on the chance that Antony might rejoin them, and then, according to Plutarch, merely fled without changing sides: but the object is to set forth the universal demoralisation and instability, and petty qualifications like that implied in the week's .delay or abandonment of the post instead of desertion to the enemy are dismissed as of no account. In another addition, for which he has likewise no warrant, Shakespeare clothes the prevalent temper in words. When Pompey rejects the unscrupulous device to obtain the empire, Menas is made to exclaim:
Within our files there are,
Of those that served Mark Antony but late,
Enough to fetch him in.
Menas is apirate, but he speaks the thought of the time; for it is only to fortune that the whole [p. 349] generation is faithful. Everywhere the cult of material good prevails, whether in the way of acquisition or enjoyment; and that can give no sanction to payment of service apart from the results. The corroding influence of the Zeitgeist even on natures naturally honest and sound is vividly illustrated in the story of Enobarbus: and the study of his character is peculiarly interesting and instructive, because he is the only one of the more prominent personages who is practically a new creation in the drama, the only one in whose delineation Shakespeare has gone quite beyond the limits supplied by Plutarch, even while making use of them. Lepidus and Pompey, with whom he proceeds in a somewhat similar fashion, are mere subordinates. Octavius and even Cleopatra are only interpreted with new vividness and insight. Antony himself is exhibited only with the threads of his nature transposed, as, for example, when a fabric is held up with its right side instead of its seamy side outwards. But for Enobarbus, who often occupies the front of the stage, the dramatist found only a few detached sentences that suggested a few isolated traits, and while preserving these intact, he introduces them merely as component elements in an entirely original and complex personality. It is therefore fair to suppose that the character of Enobarbus will be of peculiar importance in the economy of the piece. Plutarch refers to him thrice. The first mention is not very noticeable. Antony, during his campaign in Parthia, had on one occasion to announce to his army a rather disgraceful composition with the enemy, according to which he received permission to retreat in peace.
I'll never follow thy pall'd fortunes more.
But though he had an excellent tongue at will, and very gallant to enterteine his souldiers and men of warre, and that he could passingly well do it, as well, or better then any [p. 350] Captaine in his time, yet being ashamed for respects, he would not speake unto them at his removing, but willed Domitius Aenobarbus to do it.Thus we see Enobarbus designated for a somewhat invidious and trying task, and this implies Antony's confidence in him, and his own efficiency. Then we are told that when the rupture with Caesar came,
Antonius, through the perswasions of Domitius, commaunded Cleopatra to returne againe into AEgypt, and there to understand 2 the successe of this warre,a command, which, however, she managed to overrule. Here again in Enobarbus' counsel we see the hard-headed and honest officer, who wishes things to be done in the right way, and risks ill will to have them so done. It is on this passage that Shakespeare bases the outburst of Cleopatra and the downright and sensible remonstrance of Enobarbus.
More remotely too this gave Shakespeare the hint for Enobarbus' other censures on Antony's conduct of the campaign. Thirdly, in the account of the various misfortunes that befell Antony before Actium, and the varying moods in which he confronted them, Shakespeare read:Cle.
I will be even with thee, doubt it not.
But why, why, why?
Thou hast forespoke my being in these wars,
And say'st it is not fit.
Well, is it, is it?
Furthermore, he dealt very friendely and courteously with Domitius, and against Cleopatraes mynde. For, he being sicke of an agewe when he went and tooke a little boate to goe to Caesars campe, Antonius was very sory for it, but yet he sent after him all his caryage, trayne and men: and the same Domitius, as though he gave him to understand that he repented his open treason, he died immediately after.[p. 351] This, of course, supplied Shakespeare with the episodes of Enobarbus' desertion and death, though he altered the date of the first, delaying it till the last flicker of Antony's fortune; and the manner of the second, making it the consequence, which the penitent deliberately desires, of a broken heart. But this is all that Plutarch has to say about the soldier. He is capable; he is honest and bold in recommending the right course; when Antony wilfully follows the wrong one, he forsakes him; but, touched perhaps by his magnanimity, dies, it may be, in remorse. Now see how Shakespeare fills in and adds to this general outline. Practical intelligence, outspoken honesty, real capacity for feeling, are still the fundamental traits, and we have evidence of them all from the outset. But, in the first place, they have received a peculiar turn from the habits of the camp. Antony, rebuking and excusing his bluntness, says:
Indeed he is a soldier, if not only, at any rate chiefly and essentially; and a soldier of the adventurer type, carrying with him an initial suggestion of the more modern gentlemen of fortune like Le Balafré or Dugald Dalgetty, who would fight for any cause, and offered their services for the highest reward to the leader most likely to secure it for them. He has also their ideas of a soldier's pleasures, and has no fancy for playing the ascetic. In Alexandria he has had a good time, in his own sphere and in his own way indulging in the feasts and carouses and gallantries of his master. He tells Mecaenas, thoroughly associating himself with the exploits of Antony:
Thou art a soldier only, speak no more.
[p. 352] He speaks with authority of the immortal breakfast at which the eight wild boars were served, but makes little of it as by no means out of the way. Similarly he identifies himself with Antony in their love affairs when Antony announces his intention of setting out at once:
We did sleep day out of countenance, and made the night light with drinking.
Why, then, we kill all our women: we see how mortal an unkindness is to them: if they suffer our departure, death's the word. (I. ii. 137.)And after the banquet on the galley, when the exalted personages, “these great fellows,” as Menas calls them, have retired more than a little disguised in liquor, he, fresh from the Egyptian Bacchanals, stays behind to finish up the night in Menas' cabin. Yet he has a certain contempt for the very vices in which he himself shares, at least if their practitioners are overcome by them and cannot retain their self-command even in their indulgence. When Lepidus succumbs, this more seasoned vessel jeers at him:
Nor does he suffer love to interfere with business:
There's a strong fellow, Menas! [pointing to the attendant who carries off Lepidus.]Men.
A‘ bears the third part of the world, man: see'st not?
His practical shrewdness enables him, though of a very different nature from Cassius, to look, like Cassius, quite through the deeds of men. He always lays his finger on the inmost nerve of a situation or complication. Thus when Mecaenas urges the need of amity on the Triumvirs, Enobarbus' disconcerting frankness goes straight to the point that the smooth propriety of the other evades: [p. 353]
Under a compelling occasion, let women die: it were pity to cast them away for nothing: though, between them and a great cause, they should be esteemed nothing.
Antony silences him, saying he wrongs this presence; but Octavius sees he has hit the nail on the head though in a somewhat indecorous way:
If you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again: you shall have time to wrangle in when you have nothing else to do.
Just in the same way he takes the measure of the arts and wiles and affectations of Cleopatra and her ladies, and admits no cant into the consolations which he offers Antony on Fulvia's death:
I do not much dislike the matter, but
The manner of his speech.
Yet he is by no means indifferent to real charm, to the spell of refinement, grace and beauty. Like many who profess cynicism, and even in a way are really cynical, he is all the more susceptible to what in any kind will stand his exacting tests, especially if it contrast with his own rough jostling life of the barracks and of the field. It is in his mouth that Shakespeare places that incomparable description of Cleopatra on the Cydnus, and there could be no more fitting celebrant of her witchery. Of course the poetry of the passage is supposed in part to be due to the theme, and is a tribute to Cleopatra's fascinations; but Enobarbus has the soul to feel them and the imagination to portray them. Indeed she has no such enraptured eulogist as he. He may object to her presence in the camp and to her interference in the counsels of war; but that is only because, like Bacon, he believes that “they do best, who if they cannot but admit love, make it keep quarter, and sever it wholly from their serious affairs and actions of life”; it is not because he [p. 354] underrates her enchantment or would advise Antony to forego it. On the contrary, he seems to reproach his general when, in a passing movement of remorse, Antony regrets having ever seen her:
Why, sir, give the gods a thankful sacrifice . . . Your old smock brings forth a new petticoat; and indeed the tears live in an onion that should water this sorrow.
And he not only sees that Antony, despite the most sacred of ties, the most urgent of interests, will inevitably return to her: the enthusiasm of his words shows that their predestinate union has his full sympathy and approval.
O, sir, you then had left unseen a wonderful piece of work; which not to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.
And this responsiveness to what is gracious, has its complement in his responsiveness to what is magnificent. He has an ardent admiration for his “Emperor.” He is exceeding jealous for his honour, and has no idea of the mighty Antony stooping his crest to any power on earth. When Lepidus begs him to entreat his captain “to soft and gentle speech” towards Octavius, he retorts with hot pride and zeal, like a clansman's for his chief:Mec.
Now Antony must leave her utterly.
Never; he will not;
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
He glories even in Antony's more doubtful qualities, his lavishness, his luxury, his conviviality, his success in love, for in all these his master shows a sort of royal exuberance; and they serve in the eyes of this practical but splendour-loving veteran to set off his [p. 355] more technical excellences, the “absolute soldiership”, the “renowned knowledge” on which he also dwells (III. vii. 43 and 46). But with all his enthusiasm for Antony, he is from the first critical of what he considers his weaknesses and mistakes, just as with all his enthusiasm for Cleopatra he has a keen eye for her affectations and interferences. Knowing Antony's real bent, he sees the inexpedience of the Roman marriage, and foretells the result:
I shall entreat him
To answer like himself: if Caesar move him,
Let Antony look over Caesar's head
And speak as loud as Mars. By Jupiter,
Were I the wearer of Antonius' beard,
I would not shave't to-day.
He is as contemptuous of Antony's easy emotionalism as of Octavius' politic family affection. At the parting of brother and sister, Enobarbus and Agrippa exchange the asides:Men.
Then is Caesar and he for ever knit together.
If I were bound to divine of this unity, I would not prophesy so.
I think the policy of that purpose made more in the marriage than the love of the parties.
I think so too. But you shall find, the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity.
It is therefore not hard to understand how, when Antony wilfully sacrifices his advantages and rushes on his ruin, his henchman's feelings should be outraged and his fidelity should receive a shock. After the flight at Actium, Cleopatra asks him: “Is Antony or we in fault for this?” And Enobarbus, though he had opposed the presence and plans of the [p. 356] Queen, is inexorable in laying the blame on the right shoulders:Eno.
Will Caesar weep?
He has a cloud in's face.
He were the worse for that, were he a horse;
So is he, being a man.
When Antony found Julius Caesar dead,
He cried almost to roaring: and he wept
When at Philippi he found Brutus slain.
That year, indeed, he was troubled with a rheum;
What willingly he did confound he wail'd,
Believe't, till I wept too.
He is raised above the common run of the legionaries by his devotion to his master; but his devotion is half instinctive, half critical; and, as a rational man, he can suppress in his nature the faithful dog. For the tragedy of Enobarbus' position lies in this: that in that evil time his reason can furnish him with no motive for his loyalty except self-interest and confidence in his leader's capacity; or, failing these, the unsubstantial recompense of fame. He is not Antony's man from principle, in order to uphold a great cause,--no one in the play has chosen his side on such a ground; and fidelity at all costs to a person is a forgotten phrase among the cosmopolitan materialists who are competing for the spoils of the Roman world. So what is he to do? His instincts pull him one way, his reason another, and in such an one instincts unjustified by reason lose half their strength. At first he fights valiantly on behalf of his inarticulate natural feeling. When Canidius deserts, he still refuses in the face of evidence to accept the example:
Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason.
But Antony's behaviour in defeat, his alternations between the supine and the outrageous, shake him still more; and only the allurement of future applause, not a very cogent one to such a man in such an age, wards off for a while the negative decision:
I'll yet follow
The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason
Sits in the wind against me.
[p. 357] The paltering of Cleopatra however is a further object lesson:
Mine honesty and I begin to square.
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly: yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place i‘ the story.
Then the observation of Antony's frenzy of wrath and frenzy of courage finally convinces him that the man is doomed, and he forms his resolution:
Sir, sir, thou art so leaky,
That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for
Thy dearest quit thee.
There is something inevitable in his recreancy, for the principle that Menas puts in words is the presupposition on which everybody acts; and Antony himself can understand exactly what has taken place:
Now he'll outstare the lightning. To be furious
Is to be frighted out of fear: and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart: when valour preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with. I will seek
Some way to leave him.
Enobarbus' heart is right, but in the long run it has no chance against the convincing arguments of the situation. And yet his heart has shown him the worthy way, and, in his despair and remorse, it recovers hold of the truth that his head had made him doubt. Observe however that even his revulsion of feeling is brought about by the appeal to his worldly wisdom; it is not by their unassisted power that the discredited whispers of conscience make themselves heard and regain their authority. Enobarbus' penitence, though sudden, is all rationally explained, and is quite different from the miraculous conversions of some wrong-doers in fiction, who in an instant are awakened to grace for no conceivable cause and by no intelligible means. He is made to realise that he has taken wrong measures in [p. 358] his own interest, by Octavius' treatment of the other deserters.
O, my fortunes have
Corrupted honest men!
Then the transmission to him of his treasure with increase, makes him feel that after all loyalty might have been a more profitable investment:
Alexas did revolt; and went to Jewry on
Affairs of Antony; there did persuade
Great Herod to incline himself to Caesar
And leave his master Antony: for this pains
Caesar hath hang'd him. Canidius and the rest
That fell away have entertainment, but
No honourable trust. I have done ill:
Of which I do accuse myself so sorely,
That I will joy no more.
But he does not stop here. It is only in this way that his judgment, trained by the time to test all things by material advantage, can be convinced. But when it is convinced, his deeper and nobler nature finds free vent in self-recrimination and selfreproach. He goes on:
Thou mine of bounty, how would'st thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold!
And this too is most natural. Antony's generosity restores to him his old impression of Antony's magnificence which he had lost in these last sorry days. With that returns his old enthusiasm, and with that awakes the sense of his own transgression against such greatness. He is ready now in expiation to sacrifice the one thing that in the end made him still shrink from treason. He had tried to steady himself, as we have seen, with the thought that the glory of [p. 359] loyalty would be his, if he remained faithful to the last. Now he demands the brand of treachery for his name, though he fain would have Antony's pardon for himself:
This blows my heart:
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought: but thought will do't, I feel.
I tight against thee! No: I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul'st best fits
My latter part of life.
Thus he dies heart-broken and indespair. Personal attachment to an individual, the one ethical motive that lingers in a world of self-seekers to give existence some dignity and worth, is the inspiration of his soul. But even this he cannot preserve unspoiled: on accepted assumptions he is forced to deny and desecrate it. He succumbs less through his own fault than through the fault of the age; and this is his grand failure. When he realises what it means, there is no need of suicide: he is killed by “swift thought,” by the consciousness that his life with this on his record is loathsome and alien, “a very rebel to his will,” that only “hangs on him” (IV. ix. 14). Among the struggling and contentious throng of worldlings and egoists who to succeed must tread their nobler instincts underfoot, and even so do not always succeed, are there any honest and sterling characters at all? There are a few, in the background, barely sketched, half hid from sight. But we can perceive their presence, and even distinguish their gait and bearing, though the artist's purpose forbade their portrayal in detail. First of these is Scarus, the simple and valiant fightingman, who resents the infatuation of Antony and the ruinous influence of Cleopatra as deeply as Enobarbus, but whose unsophisticated soldier-nature keeps him to his colours with a troth that the less naif Enobarbus could admire but could not observe. It is from his mouth that the most opprobrious epithets are hurled on the absconding pair, the [p. 360] “ribaudred nag of Egypt, whom leprosy o‘ertake,” and “the doting mallard,” “the noble ruin of her magic” who has kissed away kingdoms and provinces. But as soon as he hears they have fled toward Peloponnesus, he cries:
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular:
But let the world rank me in register
A master-leaver and a fugitive.
He attends to good purpose, and is the hero of the last skirmish; when Antony's prowess rouses him to applause, from which he is too honest to exclude reproach:
‘Tis easy to't; and there will I attend
What further comes.
Then halting, bleeding, with a wound that from a T has been made an H, he still follows the chase. It is a little touch of irony, apt to be overlooked, that he, who has cursed Cleopatra's magic and raged because kingdoms were kissed away, should now as grand reward have his merits commended to “this great fairy,” and as highest honour have leave to raise her hand--the hand that cost Thyreus so dear --to his own lips. Doubtless, despite his late outbreak, he appreciates these favours as much as the golden armour that Cleopatra adds. Says Antony,
O my brave emperor, this is fought indeed!
Had we done so at first, we had droven them home
With clouts about their heads.
He has: for he is of other temper than his nameless and featureless original in Plutarch, who is merely a subaltern who had fought well in the sally.
He has deserved it, were it carbuncled
Like holy Phoebus car.
Cleopatra to reward his manlines, gave him an armor and head peece of cleene gold: howbeit the man at armes when he had received this rich gift, stale away by night and went to Caesar.Not so Scarus. He is still at his master's side on the disastrous morrow and takes from him the last orders that Antony as commander ever gave. [p. 361] In this Roman legionary the spirit of military obligation still asserts its power; and the spirit of domestic obligation is as strong in the Roman matron Octavia. Shakespeare has been accused of travestying this noble and dutiful lady. He certainly does not do that, and the strange misstatement has arisen from treating seriously Cleopatra's distortion of the messenger's report, or from taking that report, when the messenger follows Cleopatra's lead, as Shakespeare's deliberate verdict. If the messenger says that she is low-voiced and not so tall as her rival, is that equivalent to the “dull of tongue, and dwarfish” into which it is translated? And finding it so translated, is it wonderful that the browbeaten informant should henceforth adopt the same style himself, and exaggerate her deliberate motion to creeping, her statuesque dignity to torpor, the roundness of her face to deformity--which Cleopatra at once interprets as foolishness--the lowness of her forehead to as much as you please, or, in his phrase,“as she would wish it.” Agrippa, on the other hand speaks of her as one,
Mecaenas, too, pays his tribute to her “beauty, wisdom, modesty” (II. ii. 246). And if the praises of the courtiers are suspect, they are not more so than the censures with which Cleopatra flatters herself or is flattered. But if we dismiss, or at least discount, both sets of overstatements, and with them Antony's own phrase, “a gem of women,” uttered in the heat of jealous contrast, there are other conclusive evidences of the opinion in which she is held. Enobarbus speaks of her “holy, cold, and still conversation” (II. vi. 131 ). Antony thinks of her as patient, even when he threatens Cleopatra with her [p. 362] vengeance by personal assault (IV. xii. 38). Cleopatra, with her finer intuition, even when recalling Antony's threat, conjectures more justly what that vengeance would be:
whose beauty claims
No worse a husband than the best of men:
Whose virtue and whose general graces speak
That which none else can utter.
And elsewhere she asserts that she will not
Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes
And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour
Demuring upon me.
It is easy to construct her picture from these hints. Calm, pure, devout, submissive; quite without vivacity or initiative, she presents the old-fashioned ideal of womanhood, that finds a sphere subordinate though august, by the domestic hearth. And this is in the main Plutarch's conception of her too. But there are differences. The sacrifices of the lady to the exigencies of statecraft is emphasised by the historian: “She was maryed unto him as it were of necessitie, bicause her brother Caesars affayres so required it,” and that even in her year of mourning, so that a dispensation had to be obtained; since it was “against the law that a widow should be maried within tenne monethes after her husbandes death.” Nevertheless her association with Antony is far more intimate in Plutarch than in Shakespeare; she is the mother of his children, feels bound to him, and definitely takes his side. When relations first become strained between the brothers-in-law, and not, as in the drama, just before the final breach, she plays the peace maker, but successfully and on Antony's behalf. She seeks out her brother; tells him she is now the happiest woman in the world; if war should break out between them, “it is uncertaine to which of them the goddes have assigned the victorie or overthrowe. But for me, on which side soever victorie fall, my state can be but most miserable still.” In [p. 363] Shakespeare this petition, eked out with reminiscences of the appeal of Blanch in King John, and with anticipations of the appeal of Volumnia in Coriolanus, is addressed to Antony, and the even balance of her sympathies is accented and reiterated in a way for which Plutarch gives no warrant. In the Life again, even when Antony has rejoined Cleopatra, has showered provinces on her and his illegitimate children, and, after the Parthian campaign, is living with her once more, Octavia insists on seeking him out and brings him
once be chastised with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia.
great store of apparell for souldiers, a great number of horse, summe of money, and gifts, to bestow on his friendes and Captaines he had about him: and besides all those, she had two thowsand souldiers chosen men, all well armed, like unto the Praetors bands.She has to return from Athens without seeing Antony, but, despite Caesar's command, she still lives in her husband's house, still tries to heal the division, looks after his children and promotes the business of all whom he sends to Rome.
Howbeit thereby, thinking no hurt, she did Antonius great hurt. For her honest love and regard to her husband, made every man hate him, when they sawe he did so unkindly use so noble a Lady.And finally, when Antony sent her word to leave his house, she took with her all his children save Fulvia's eldest son who was with his father, and instead of showing resentment, only bewailed and lamented “her cursed hap that had brought her to this, that she was accompted one of the chiefest causes of this civill warre.” Her even more magnanimous care for all Antony's offspring without distinction, when Antony is no more, belongs of course to a later date; but all the previous instances of her devotion to his interest fall well within the limits of the play, and yet Shakespeare makes no use of them. [p. 364] It does not suit him to suggest that Antony ever deviated from his passion for Cleopatra or bestowed his affection elsewhere: indeed, on the eve of his marriage, he reveals his heart and intentions clearly enough. But Shakespeare also knows that without affection to bring it out, there will be no answering affection in a woman like Octavia. She will be true to all her obligations, so long as they are obligations, but no love will be roused to make her do more than is in her bond. And of love there is in the play as little trace on her part as on Antony's. It is brother and sister, not husband and wife, that exchange the most endearing terms: “Sweet Octavia”,“My dearest sister,” and “my noble brother,” “most dear Caesar”; while to Antony she is “Octavia,” “gentle Octavia,” or at most “Dear Lady,” and to her he is “Good my lord.” At the parting in Rome Caesar has a cloud in his face and her eyes drop tears like April showers. At the parting in Athens there is only the formal permission to leave, on the one hand, and the formal acknowledgment on the other. Evidently, if, as she says, she has her.
or if Antony describes her equipoise of feeling as
heart parted betwixt two friends
That do afflict each other,
it is not because she regards them both with equal tenderness. Her brother has her love; her husband, so long as he deserves it, has her duty. But when he forfeits his claim, she has done with him, unlike Plutarch's Octavia, who pursues him to the end, and beyond the end, with a self-forgetfulness that her mere covenant could never call forth. Of all this there is nothing in the play. Her appeal to Antony in defence of Caesar is far warmer than her appeal [p. 365] to Caesar on behalf of Antony, and when she definitely hears that Antony has not only joined Cleopatra against her brother but has installed Cleopatra in her own place, she merely says, “Is it so?” and falls silent. No wonder. She is following Antony's instructions to the letter:
the swan's down-feather,
That stands upon the swell at full of tide,
And neither way inclines,
Let your best love draw to that point, which seeks
Best to preserve it.
But this tacit assumption, fully borne out by her previous words, that the claims of husband and brother are equal in her eyes, and that the precedence is to be determined merely by a comparison of faults, shows how little of wifely affection Octavia felt, though doubtless she would be willing to fulfil her responsibilities to the smallest jot and tittle. The hurried, loveless and transitory union, into which Antony has entered only to suit his convenience, for as Enobarbus says, “he married but his occasion here,” and into which Octavia has entered only out of deference to her brother who “uses his power unto her,” has thus merely a political and moral but no emotional significance. This Roman marriage lies further apart from the love story of Antony than the marriage in Brittany does from the love story of Tristram. This diplomatic alliance interferes as little with Octavia's sisterly devotion to Octavius as the political alliances of Marguerite d‘Angoulême interfered with her sisterly devotion to Francis I. And much is gained by this for the play. In the first place the hero no longer, as in the biography, offends us by fickleness in his grand idolatry and infidelity to a second [p. 366] attachment, on the one hand, or by ingratitude to a long-suffering and loving wife on the other. But just for that reason Octavia does not really enter into his life, and claims no full delineation. She is hardly visible, and does not disturb our sympathies with the lovers or force on us moral regards by demuring on them and chastising them with her sober eyes. Nevertheless visible at intervals she is, and then she seems to tell of another life than that of Alexandrian indulgence, a narrower life of obligations and pieties beside which the carnival of impulse is both glorified and condemned. And she does this not less effectually, but a great deal less obtrusively, that in her shadowy form as she flits from the mourning-chamber to the altar at the bidding of her brother, and from Athens to Rome to preserve the peace, we see rather the self-devoted sister than the devoted wife. For in the play she is sister first and essentially, and wife only in the second place because her sisterly feeling is so strong. Still more slightly sketched than the domestic loyalty of Octavia or even than the military loyalty of Scarus, is the loyalty of Eros the servant; but it is the most affecting of all, for it is to the death. Characteristically, he who obtains the highest spiritual honours that are awarded to any person in the play, is one of a class to which in the prime of ancient civilisation the possibilty of any moral life would in theory have been denied. Morality was for the free citizen of a free state: the slave was not really capable of it. And indeed it is clear that often for the slave, who might be only one of the goods and chattels of his owner, the sole chance of escape from a condition of spiritual as well as physical servitude would lie in personal enthusiasm for the master, in willing self-absorption in him. But in a world like that of Antony and Cleopatra such personal enthusiasm, as we have seen, is almost [p. 367] the highest thing that remains. So it is the quondam slave, Eros the freedman, bred in the cult of it, who bears away the palm. Antony commands him to slay him:
When it appears to you where this begins,
Turn your displeasure that way; for our faults
Can never be so equal that your love
Can equally move with them.
But Eros by breaking his oath and slaying himself, does his master a better service. He cheers him in his dark hour by this proof of measureless attachment:
When I did make thee free, sworest thou not then
To do this when I bade thee? Do it at once;
Or thy precedent services are all
But accidents unpurposed. Draw, and come.
Thus do I escape the sorrow
Of Antony's death.