“The triple pillar of the world transformed/Into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see” (I.1.12).
“I have eyes upon him” (III.6.61).
Shakespeare’s Antony invites speculation and a greedy voyerism that can only be instigated by a protagonist who, despite perpetually being at the centre of discussion, manages to elude classification.This impression of opacity of character is enhanced by the fact that his own idea of himself and of his uncontrollable infatuation with Cleopatra is constantly mutating.
Antony oscillates between wishing “Would I had never seen [Cleopatra]” (I.2.253), and admitting “I’th’East my pleasure lies” (II.3.41). One moment he wails “I have fled myself [...] I have lost command” (III.11.7, 23), the next he reassures himself with a mantra-like repetitiveness, “There’s hope in’t yet [...] There’s sap in’t yet” (III.13.175, 191). When the protagonist himself is never static, when the other characters define him in accordance to their own agendas or morbid curiosity, there is very little for the audience to hold onto in the way of tangible evidence of one mental state as opposed to another.
“This common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,/Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,/To rot itself with motion” (I.4.44) Caesar says this about the tendency of the masses to wish for the ruler who isn’t in power or is seen less, and then when he does come into the limelight, to lose interest and want someone else. But taken out of context, these lines are a disturbingly appropriate depiction of Antony’s state throughout the play. For he is discussed and prodded as if he were common property, and shifts continuously between du...
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...ity and littleness, an admission of his own weaknesses. The vagueness of “Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,/A vapour sometime like a bear or lion, [...] That which is now a horse, even with a thought/The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct/As water is in water” is juxtaposed against the profoundly personal, intrspective lines “Here I am Antony,/Yet cannot hold this visible shape” (IV.14.3-22). The result is the feeling that whether he has fallen or not, whether the Roman way is better than the Egyptian, whether the “old Antony” is a myth, his own self-disgust and deflated sense of self remains. Perhaps that is the closest we can expect to get to the real Antony: the one he reveals when in the throes of self-doubt. Perhaps that is all we deserve to uncover: for as Dante’s Virgil would say, “the desire to hear [others’ dispute] is a base desire” (xxx.148).
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