Antony and Cleopatra

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 879-967).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, what view of Antony emerges, based on what others say about him and on his dialogue with Cleopatra? In particular, how do the first three scenes capture the duality of Antony as a Roman and a man imbued with “Eastern” sensibilities?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, and then in Scene 5, what complexities in Cleopatra’s character emerge, based on her interaction with Antony and her confidantes? To what extent does she understand Roman honor and sensibilities? How does she describe her relationship with Antony, and what seems responsible for the deep bond between them?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Caesar (Octavius, subsequently called Augustus Caesar) interpret Antony’s carryings-on in the East? What complaints does he have about his illustrious fellow triumvir, and why does he suppose Antony will return to his duties in that capacity? In addition, what does Caesar reveal about his understanding of power?

ACT 2

4. In Act 2, Scene 2, when Caesar and Antony confront each other, what grievances and assumptions do they bring to the table? How does Agrippa help resolve the tension between them, at least for the present?

5. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Enobarbus image forth Cleopatra? What does this description add to the things we have heard and seen about Egypt’s Queen so far? On the whole, how does Enobarbus view the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra? What insights does he have about the reason for the great impact she makes on Antony?

6. In Act 2, Scene 3, Antony speaks to a soothsayer. What does the Soothsayer tell him, and what effect does the information have on him? How does this affect your understanding, if it does, with regard to Antony’s character and his motives for dividing his time between the Roman theater of operations and Egypt?

7. In Act 2, Scene 5, how does Cleopatra further our understanding of her affinity with Antony and the Roman world of power and honor that he embodies? In what sense does Cleopatra chafe at the limitations imposed on her by her gender?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what political deal does Pompeius (the son of Pompey the Great) make with Caesar and Antony? What does Enobarbus suggest about Pompeius’ “deal” and about Antony’s reasons for agreeing to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia?

9. In Act 2, Scene 7, on the basis of the Triumvirs’ celebrations when they seem to have arrived at an understanding, what becomes apparent about the qualities required to hold power in Rome? For example, what character deficiencies does Lepidus reveal? Why does the supposedly honorable Pompeius lose Menas’ respect and loyalty at this point? How does Caesar respond to demands that he imbibe as heavily as Antony and the others?

ACT 3

10. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, with hostilities brewing between Caesar and Antony, how does Antony treat Octavia when she offers to help? Why is Caesar outraged over Antony’s latest actions in Egypt? How does he respond to his sister’s arrival on an embassy from Antony? Is his characterization of Antony’s treatment of her accurate or inaccurate? Discuss.

11. In Act 3, Scene 7, why does Antony decide to fight Caesar by sea instead of by land, where he seems to have the best chance? What role does Cleopatra expect to play in the coming battle, and why? What inferences do Enobarbus and Canidius draw about their great commander at this point? How does Antony’s decision affect your own view of his stature as a Roman? Discuss.

12. In Act 3, Scenes 8-10, Caesar and Antony refine their respective strategies. What concerns shape Caesar’s decisions? What concerns inform Antony’s? What happens in the course of the battle, and how do Antony’s closest associates respond to this disastrous outcome? What is Enobarbus’ thinking at this point with respect to his loyalty for Antony?

13. In Act 3, Scene 11, how does Antony himself react to the fiasco that was Actium? How does his self-described role as a world-historical agent or actor make the situation especially intolerable to him? What are his feelings towards Cleopatra at this point? Why is he able to reconcile with her so quickly?

14. In Act 3, Scene 12, what intentions does Caesar manifest regarding how he will treat Antony and Cleopatra? Why does he think he will be successful in carrying out these intentions?

15. In Act 3, Scene 13, how does Antony try to recover his self-command and snatch victory from what seems to others his certain disaster? As Enobarbus watches this attempt at self-recovery unfold, what rapid evolution does his attitude towards Antony undergo? What impact do Antony’s words and actions in this scene have on your understanding of him? Discuss.

ACT 4

16. In Act 4, Scenes 1-5, what is Antony’s apparent frame of mind as the battle draws near? How does he react to the news that Enobarbus has deserted him?

17. In Act 4, Scene 6, Caesar declares that the “time of universal peace” is near, but in what sense do his speech and conduct in this scene reveal a less than savory side to this man who will usher in the new world order? What resolution does Enobarbus come to, and why?

18. In Act 4, Scenes 10-14, the Egyptian fleet again fails Antony, going over to the Romans. How does the Queen behave upon hearing of this final disaster? What goes wrong with Antony’s attempt to die in the true Roman fashion?

19. In Act 4, Scene 15, what pattern again reasserts itself in Antony’s reaction to a military failure that involves Cleopatra? Why does Antony believe his present wretchedness will not altogether eclipse his reputation as a great Roman? Does it seem to you that his assumptions are reasonable, or self-deluded? Discuss.

ACT 5

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Caesar take the death of Antony? How does he deal with the fallen Cleopatra? While it’s obvious that political expediency is never far from Caesar’s mind, does this scene allow you to interpret his actions and words as due to something more than cunning and hypocrisy? Is the future Augustus a model Roman in his own way? If so, how?

21. In Act 5, Scene 2, in what sense does Cleopatra set about refashioning herself rhetorically as a hero partly in the Roman style? How does she refashion Antony as the noblest Roman and, perhaps, as something grander even than that?

22. In Act 5, Scene 2, why is Cleopatra particularly upset about the prospect that she will be put on display in Rome and that actors, as she says, will “boy my greatness” on the stage? In addition, how does her declared intent to rejoin Antony in death affect the play’s tragic dimension? Does it enhance the sense of tragedy, or diminish it? Explain your reasoning on this point.

23. In Act 5, Scene 2, consider the adaptation Shakespeare has made from Plutarch’s life of Antony, in which a rustic fellow brings Cleopatra a basket within which are concealed poisonous asps. Why do you suppose Shakespeare introduces a note of comedy or of the bizarre in rendering this scene’s dialogue? Does this enhance the scene’s tragic overtones in some way, or introduce a note of appropriate complexity? If so, how?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93860-9.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Romeo and Juliet

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 181-256).

Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (189-95, the nature of the tragedy;  squabbling of Samson / Gregory and Abraham, Tybalt and Benvolio; Romeo’s whereabouts and lovesickness)

It has sometimes been said that Romeo and Juliet is not much of a tragedy because unfortunate accidents seem to be responsible for most of the bad things that happen.  There is no prideful individual, no Oedipus the King in this play, who brings about his own downfall.  Following the Prologue, we may choose to distribute this function broadly and say it’s the corporate property of the scions and lesser members of both houses, but such an arrangement doesn’t seem as convincing or intense as individual error, and of course the emphasis of the play is squarely on Romeo and Juliet themselves.  

In any case, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows a unitary model of tragedy—he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one set of materials to the next.  A notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.  What, then, is the stuff of tragedy in this play?  We are dealing with a primal tragedy of youthful expectations and middle-aged fears, of existential rawness and fear of irretrievable loss.  Losing anyone we care about is difficult, but it’s hard to imagine a more wrenching loss than the loss of a child by a parent—it seems unnatural and undercuts our sense for the orderly progression of life: parents, we think, are supposed to precede their children in passing, not the other way around.  But that’s exactly the loss that both the Montagues and the Capulets suffer.  As for Romeo and Juliet, they are open to the intensities and extremes of passion that come with first love.  Romeo in particular idealizes love and fidelity to an extent that cannot help but be perilous.  He hasn’t had the experience to do otherwise.  There is a medieval quality to this play so full of turnabouts and sudden emotional passages from mirth to despair.

The Prologue announces that Romeo and Juliet will be a tragedy not only of two lovers but also of two extended families, the Montagues and the Capulets.  Antipathy has become habitual with them, and they have therefore embroiled the entire city of Verona in civil strife.  The quibbling servants of the first scene show how trivial the feud has become, and Samson’s obscene innuendos about Montague maidens suggests that the family feud is easily made to serve selfish purposes, base appetites.  Says Samson, “I will push Mon- / tague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall” (190, 1.1.15-16).  There is no nobility in such factional strife.  Tybalt and Benvolio are as absurd in prosecuting the quarrel as the low-born servants, with their melodramatic pronouncements: “Turn thee, Benvolio.  Look upon thy death” (191, 1.1.60).  The Prince breaks up the current fighting, but from his mention of “Three civil brawls bred of an airy word” (192, 1.1.82), we may gather that he has dealt too leniently with such disorders in the past.  As in Measure for Measure, the ruler has allowed his subjects’ petty desires to wreak havoc in his realm.

We first hear of Romeo when Lady Montague asks Benvolio where the young man has been hiding himself.  He shuns company, and as Benvolio explains to Lady Montague, he came upon Romeo “an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the east” (192, 1.1.111-12) standing under a grove of melancholy sycamore trees, and the root of his troubles isn’t yet clear.  But Benvolio soon learns from him that love is the cause; the young man says that he is “Out of her favour where I am in love” (193, 1.1.161).  The “her” in question is Rosaline, though she isn’t named until the following scene.  Romeo speaks with considerable wit, but his words are also full of Petrarchan extremes: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms …” (194, 1.1.171-72) and so forth.  Benvolio, a somewhat less inexperienced young man, advises Romeo to look around him and compare as many beautiful women as possible with the one who seems to be giving him the trouble: the solution to lovesickness, he advises, is “giving liberty unto thine eyes” (195, 1.1.220).

Act 1, Scene 2 (195-97, Capulet invites Paris to a feast where Juliet will be present; Benvolio urges Romeo to crash the party, and he reluctantly agrees)

Capulet is very pleased with the prospect of the Prince Escalus’ kinsman Paris marrying his daughter Juliet, with the proviso that he must be successful in winning Juliet’s love: “My will to her consent is but a part …” (195, 1.2.15).  Capulet invites the young man to a public feast that also presents Romeo with the opportunity Benvolio is pushing on him: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye …” (196, 1.2.47) to drive out the old one, he urges a dubious Romeo.  The latter prefers to maintain his distant Rosaline’s matchless quality, but Benvolio being the charming fellow he is, it’s hard to resist his pleas, and Romeo finally consents: “I’ll go along, no such sight to be shown, / But to rejoice in splendor of mine own” (197, 1.2.100-01).

Act 1, Scene 3 (197-200, the nurse gives us her perspective on Juliet’s life as a whole to her upcoming fourteenth birthday; Lady Capulet broaches the possibility of a union with Count Paris)

The nurse apparently has been with Juliet from infancy onwards to the present, with her fourteenth birthday coming up on Lammas Eve, which is August 1st, a festival day for the wheat harvest (198, 1.3.19).  She sees the girl’s life as a whole.  The bawdy joke made by her husband years ago, here repeated, implies that the nurse has been preparing Juliet for this time from her childhood.  It seems little Juliet took a tumble, and the nurse’s husband said, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit …” (198, 1.3.44).  The nurse’s words are poignant in that they remind us just how short is the time between carefree childhood and the consequential time of adulthood.  Juliet is intrigued about her aristocratic suitor when Lady Capulet informs her that she is to “Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face, / And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen” (199, 1.3.82-83).  But she is no more than intrigued since Paris is as yet only a name to her: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move …” (199, 1.3.99) says Juliet, and as for marriage, she tells her old nurse in formal tone, “It is an honour that I dream not of” (199, 1.3.68).

Act 1, Scene 4 (200-02, on the way to Capulet’s feast, Mercutio recounts his dream about Queen Mab; Romeo expresses an impending dread of bitter consequence)

On the way to their uninvited attendance at Capulet’s feast, worldly Mercutio parries wits with Romeo the idealist.  Mercutio ends up getting a bit carried away and turns to recounting the legend of Queen Mab to Romeo and others present: this “fairies’ midwife,” says Mercutio, is insanely busy stirring up mortals’ emotions: most pointedly, “she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love …” (201, 1.4.55, 71-72), but she also stuffs with fantasies the brains of courtiers, lawyers, parsons, and soldiers.  The substance of the speech is that this midwife to fairies inspires all sorts to follow their own particular desires.  By implication, we don’t have a great deal of control when it comes to our emotions and desires.  All of this wild talk is meant to deflate Romeo’s dream, but the deeper significance of Mercutio’s speech is to put everyone in the same condition as Romeo: a follower of idle dreams.  At the end of the conversation, Romeo is not in so light a mood after all.  He fears that some star-poised “consequence … / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels” (202, 1.4.107-09).

Act 1, Scene 5 (202-06, At Capulet’s feast, Romeo and Juliet meet: love at first sight; Tybalt’s wrath chastened for the moment by Uncle Capulet)

Benvolio’s plan doesn’t go quite as he had intended since Romeo, upon seeing Juliet, becomes just as smitten with her as he was with his former love: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” (203, 1.5.41).  The phrase is wonderfully appropriate—who hasn’t felt that strange “singling out” effect Romeo’s words evoke, when we first meet someone deeply attractive to us?  Old Montague and Capulet are willing to keep the peace, but the younger generation is always spoiling for trouble.  Romeo’s forebodings are fulfilled when Tybalt conceives a hatred for him at the very moment when he falls in love with Juliet.  Tybalt’s “I’ll not endure him” (204, 1.5.173) earns only Uncle Capulet’s annoyance, but it’s no less intense for that.  

The first meeting between Romeo and Juliet is a fine moment in Shakespeare’s canon.  Together the two speak an English sonnet (rhyming abab cdcd efef gg), with the ending “gg” couplet running, “[Juliet:] Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. / [Romeo:] Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take” (205, 1.5.102-03).  Romeo takes the lead and kisser Juliet, while she is passionate and poised throughout.  At the end of the scene, both are dispossessed of any notion that there is a clear path forwards for them: Romeo realizes Juliet is a Capulet, and she realizes he belongs to the Montagues (205-06, 1.5.114-15, 136).

Act 2, Prologue and Scene 1 (206-11, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about Romeo’s idealism; Romeo idealizes Juliet as “the sun” and Juliet muses about the power of words; the two lovers converse about vows and begin to plan their secret marriage)

Ever the realist, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about the supposed otherworldliness of Romeo’s new affection.  Mercutio stands for the view that any “idealizing of eroticism” is downright silly and perhaps disingenuous, since raw sexuality is always at the bottom of any romantic pose a lover may strike up: of Juliet he can only say, “O that she were / An open-arse, thou a popp’rin’ pear” (207, 2.1.39-40).  He says this to Benvolio, however, and not to Romeo.  Mercutio is frenetic and open-hearted in his way, but he’s not inclined to lie around in a chilly “field-bed” (207, 2.1.40) to keep watch over the passions of Romeo. 

Mercutio’s exit is unfortunate because it makes him miss one of Shakespeare’s most renowned passages.  Romeo says, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (207-08, 2.1.44-45).  And Juliet, believing she’s alone, puts her famous question about Romeo’s name: “O Romeo, Romeo, / wherefore art thou Romeo?” followed not long after by “That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (208, 2.1.74-75, 85-86).  It’s a fine sentiment, but most readers will see the difficulty with it: names, and words generally, are saturated with history and significance that isn’t in the control of those who claim an intimate relationship with them.  Romeo is a Montague, and he doesn’t have much say in what that proper name means in Verona.  A real-life Juliet would be very right to call us to agreement that what we call a rose ought to smell as sweet as it would if it were called a mugwort blossom or a “stinking Montague.”  Still, I’m only about 82½% sure it would get the same olfactory attention—such is the power of “words, words, words.”  They may be as powerful and determinative in our experience of the world as our senses: what are you going to believe—words or your own solitary nose?

But seriously, while Romeo’s romantic idealism is nearly absolute up to this point, Juliet’s idealism, though strong, shows more regard for the narrow dynastic concerns that hem in the two lovers.  In the lines I just quoted about names and roses, Juliet captures the dilemma of lovers right up to Shakespeare’s time: love is a universal passion and as such it ought to generate community, but this same passion is hindered by a host of social demands and expectations that are anything but charitable, so that it often creates rifts between individuals and the larger group, which we call society.

Juliet reveals her passion fully since at first she doesn’t know Romeo is listening, which spares both of them the awkward task of dissembling their love, the need for which is clear enough from her self-reproach when she finally becomes aware that Romeo is near, “I am too fond …” (209, 2.1.140).  Juliet’s language is tinged with realistic (if unfounded) concerns when she actually speaks to Romeo—in particular, she fears that his propensity to swear by the moon may indicate rashness rather than constancy (210, 2.1.  151), and she insists, “I have no joy of this contract tonight. / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden …” (210, 2.1.160).  But she is steadfast in her eagerness to marry Romeo, whatever the obstacles.  The language of falconry marks Juliet’s desire: “O, for a falconer’s voice,” she says, “To lure this tassel-gentle back again!” (211, 2.1.203-04)  There is recognition in such language that desire is a wild thing, not something safe and tame.  We can find the same insight, though in a darker vein, in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and other Tudor poets preceding Shakespeare.  In his sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt,” Wyatt makes King Henry VIII’s mistress and then wife Anne Boleyn described herself as, “wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”  Romeo’s plan seems mannerly enough, however, since he plans a present trip to Friar Laurence’s cell (211, 2.1.233-34).

Act 2, Scene 2 (212-13, Friar Laurence agrees to Romeo’s proposal to marry him secretly to Juliet)

Friar Laurence’s pronouncement near the beginning of this scene is instructive: “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).  The Friar is collecting a basket with “baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers” (212, 2.2.8) that will turn out to be useful—and harmful—in a way he doesn’t yet imagine.  Surprised by Romeo’s sudden transference of his attentions from Rosaline to Juliet, he nonetheless agrees to perform the secret marriage rite Romeo wants, in hopes of ending Verona’s unrest.  The Friar seems to think that the Montagues and Capulets will be charitable and reasonable once they realize two of their own have chosen to marry: “For this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households’ rancour to pure love” (213, 2.2.91-92).  The Friar is a good man, but perhaps a bit naïve to deserve as much faith in his practical acumen as Romeo and Juliet place in him.

Act 2, Scene 3 (214-18, Mercutio mocks the feuding; rattles Juliet’s nurse; Romeo explains to Nurse Angelica his secret plans to visit Juliet on their wedding night)

Mercutio shows his awareness of how silly the feuding amongst the two houses is: he takes on the persona of a grandsire to denounce “fashionmongers” like Tybalt (214, 2.3.29).  Mercutio is in on the hostilities, but he isn’t entirely circumscribed or defined by them.  Given the opportunity, he engages with Romeo in a battle of wits, and then takes bawdy aim at Juliet’s Nurse, who has come as the girl’s emissary: when she says good morning, Mercutio says, “the bawdy hand of the dial / is now upon the prick of noon” (216, 2.3.99-100).  Nurse Angelica (she is addressed by name in Act 4.4), is not amused.  Romeo promises he will arrive in good time to spend the night with Juliet after they are married – his servant will bring a rope ladder that must be Romeo’s “convoy in the secret night” (218, 2.3.172; see 169-72).  The scene closes on a note of wordplay with Romeo’s name.  The Nurse informs the young man that Juliet has “the pret- / tiest sententious of it, of you and rosemary …” (218, 2.3.193-94).

Act 2, Scene 4 (218-20, Nurse Angelica passes along Romeo’s marriage plan to Juliet)

In his lectures on Shakespeare, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is at the same time a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse.*  It’s easy to see that quality in her here—beset by the impatient Juliet, the Nurse holds her ground for a while, but finally gives the girl the information she wants: she is to go to Friar Laurence’s cell to marry Romeo (220, 2.4.67-68).  Angelica’s circumstances and pace are not the same as Juliet’s: “I am the drudge, and toil in your delight; / But you shall bear the burthen soon at night” (220, 2.4.74-75).  She is fond of Juliet almost to a fault, and certainly favorable to her pledge to Romeo, but always aware that the young girl is surrounded by a potentially hostile world of causes and effects, of limitations and consequences.  Pleasure and idealism are not free.

*Coleridge quotation: The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakspeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age…. (http://absoluteshakespeare.com/guides/essays/romeo_and_juliet_essay.htm )

Act 2, Scene 5 (220-21, Friar Laurence prepares Romeo and Juliet for their marriage ceremony)

Friar Laurence leads Romeo and Juliet off for the performance of the marriage ceremony.  Romeo is in the mood for absolutes: the marriage once completed, he says, let “love-devouring death do what he dare …” (220, 2.5.7).  The Friar’s advice to Romeo to “love moderately” (220. 2.5.14) is strangely ineffectual, given his willingness to facilitate such a hasty, secret wedding, even though Laurence insists on maintaining the propriety of the affair: he tells the two, “you shall not stay alone / Till Holy Church incorporate two in one” (221, 2.5.36-37).

Act 3, Scene 1 (221-25, Mercutio and Benvolio jest about violence; Tybalt and Mercutio quarrel and the latter is mortally wounded when Romeo interrupts; Romeo kills Tybalt; the prince banishes Romeo)

The scene begins with Mercutio ribbing Benvolio about his readiness to involve himself in trouble: “Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat …” (221, 3.1.21).  But soon events take a more serious turn.  Tybalt is determined to fight some Montagues, and Romeo’s attempt to get between Tybalt and Mercutio results in a mortal injury to the latter, who greets his fate with the bitter condemnation, “A plague o’ both your houses” (223, 3.1.86).  Romeo is honor-bound to avenge his kinsman, and having duly slain Tybalt, he laments that he is now “fortune’s fool” (224, 3.1.131).  The prince steps in and dispenses his characteristically tempered style of justice, banishing Romeo on pain of death (225, 3.1.188-89).  This decree is mild since, after all, Paris is the prince’s own kinsman, and Capulet’s wife has demanded Romeo’s execution (225, 3.1.174-75).

Act 3, Scene 2 (225-28, Juliet envisions Romeo in the stars; the nurse informs her that Tybalt is slain and Romeo is banished; Juliet despairs, but the nurse tells her Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence)

Juliet is indulging herself in a little romantic idealism around the time of the deadly quarrel: she imagines her Romeo patterned in the stars, whereupon “ … he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night” (226, 3.2.23-24; see 21-25).  But the Nurse soon brings her the bad news about Tybalt’s death (over which Juliet is genuinely aggrieved since he was her kinsman) and Romeo’s guilty flight, along with the bitter asseveration that men are “All perjured, all forsworn, all aught, dissemblers all” (227, 3.2.86-87).  Juliet’s own understanding flows from a medieval sense for the grotesque: “I’ll to my wedding bed, / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead” (228, 3.2.136-37).  In the end, Angelica provides hope, for she knows Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence (228, 3.2.140-41).

Act 3, Scene 3 (228-32, Romeo despairs at the pain he has caused Juliet and offers to stab himself; Laurence reproaches Romeo’s wild grief and advises him to go to Mantua)

Banished Romeo is unable to imagine a “world without Verona walls” (228, 3.3.17), and when the Friar tries to show him the sunny side of the whole affair, Romeo says, perhaps with some justice, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel” (229, 3.3.64).  Romeo’s willingness to kill himself if it will assuage Juliet’s grief over Tybalt shows the depth of affection that the Friar, as a holy man, supposedly lacks: “ … tell me, / In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge?” (230, 3.3.104-06), offering to cut it out with his knife.  Friar Laurence rebukes the young man’s “wild acts” (230, 3.3.109) and tells him to make his way to Mantua.

Act 3, Scenes 4-5 (232-38, Capulet plans Juliet’s marriage to Paris; newlyweds Romeo and Juliet spend the night together in Capulet territory and argue with the dawn; Juliet spurns her father’s demand that she marry Paris, and the old man becomes enraged; the nurse angers Juliet by advising her to give in; Juliet decides to seek help from Friar Laurence)

In the fourth scene, old Capulet tells his wife that Juliet should be married to impatient Paris on Thursday rather than on the Monday date he has requested (232, 3.4.20). 

In the fifth scene, Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in the Capulet stronghold, and engage in a traditional “argument with the dawn” of European troubadour lineage: Juliet begins the dialogue, “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day” (233, 3.5.1) but she is also the partner who finally admits that the day is upon them: “O, now be gone! More light and light it grows” (233, 3.5.35).  These dawn songs were called aubades in French, and a variant albas in Occitan poetic tradition.  Juliet is filled with dread, and tells Romeo, “Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (234, 3.5.55-56). 

When Lady Capulet professes her desire to poison Romeo in Mantua (235, 3.5.87-92), Juliet pretends to share the same wish, but she can’t bring herself to pretend any joy in the prospect of marrying Count Paris, to whom her father has decided she should be wed “early next Thursday” (235, 3.5.112).  Old Capulet’s rebuke of Juliet for her refusal is immediate and harsh: either she will marry Paris or he will disown her.  He is baffled by her obstinacy, complaining, “still my care hath been / To have her matched …” (236, 3.5.177-78).  Juliet is the Capulets’ only child, and in her stubbornness the father of the household sees his hopes of dynastic immortality frustrated.  When Nurse Angelica professes that it would be best to give in to father Capulet’s wishes and marry Paris, Juliet swears to herself she will have nothing more to do with the old woman: “Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain” (238, 3.5.240).  Off Juliet goes to be advised by Friar Laurence.

Act 4, Scene 1 (238-40, Friar Laurence outlines a plan that calls for Juliet to mimic death, be carried to the Capulet vault, and then escape with Romeo to Mantua)

Friar Laurence sees that Juliet’s situation is desperate, and offers an equally desperate remedy: she will pretend to agree to the match with Paris and take a drug that induces death-like symptoms for forty-two hours, and then Romeo will come to the tomb of the Capulets and take her away with him to Mantua (240, 4.1.89-117).  This is a common motif in literature: cheating the Grim Reaper, or at least attempting to negotiate a better deal with him.  Film students may recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval man plays a game of chess with Death in hopes of gaining more earthly time.  The Friar, for a holy man, has a flair for quick-thinking deception, and is able to put his earlier sententia about virtue and vice to good use: he had said, “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).

Act 4, Scenes 2-4 (240-47, Juliet goes through with her plan, and the Capulet household is distraught; but not the hired musicians, to whom a wedding or a funeral brings pay and dinner)

In the second scene, Juliet executes her pretense of agreement to marry Paris, and in the third scene, she rehearses her anxieties about the part of the plan that calls for her to feign death.  What if she should  “wake before the time that Romeo / Come …” (242, 4.3.30-31)?  Such fears are the very stuff of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic fiction, for which Shakespeare no doubt provided some inspiration.  Juliet shows remarkable courage and does not shrink from swallowing her potion, even when she conjures the ghost of Tybalt “Seeking out Romeo that did spit his body / Upon a rapier’s point” (243, 4.3.55-56).

The fourth scene leaps from joy to despair in a heartbeat, a characteristic pattern in this play.  The Capulet parents suffer (or rather think they suffer) an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear.  There is a strong medieval quality to the grotesque imagery here and elsewhere in the play: old Capulet says to Paris, “O son, the night before thy wedding-day / Hath death lain with thy wife” (244, 4.4.62-63), and to Friar Laurence he laments, “All things that we ordainèd festival / Turn from their office to black funeral” (245, 4.4.111-12). 

The scene ends with a comic exchange between some musicians who had been summoned earlier by the Capulets and the servant Peter.  Together, they introduce a devil-may-care, self-interested attitude into the midst of unspeakable woe.  These musicians have little to do with the goings-on of great houses.  They are just working-class stiffs, as we would say, and they seek their own security and comfort, when the latter is to be had.  The second musician speaks for them all when he says, “Come, we’ll in here, tarry / for the mourners, and stay dinner” (247, 4.4.165-66).  The scene doesn’t reach the synthesized profundity and silliness of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, but it’s effective.

Act 5, Scene 1 (247-48, Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, and he determines to lie in death by her side; Romeo buys poison from an apothecary, who protests but is forced to comply thanks to poverty)

Romeo hears from Balthasar that Juliet’s body lies in the tomb of the Capulets (247, 5.1.17-23), and, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, he determines “with wings / As swift as meditation or the thoughts of love” (Norton Tragedies 352, 1.5.29-30) to purchase a dram of deadly stuff from a poor apothecary (druggist), and die next to Juliet.  The apothecary becomes a common-born casualty of this noble tragedy, protesting, “My poverty but not my will consents” (248, 5.1.75).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (249-56, Friar Laurence learns that his letter couldn’t be delivered to Romeo; Romeo goes to the Capulets’ tomb and confronts death; Romeo kills Paris, swallows poison and dies; Juliet awakens and frightened Laurence won’t stay in the tomb; Juliet sees Romeo’s body and falls on his sword; Laurence and Balthasar give their accounts; the prince says both houses are punished by their losses)

Friar Laurence learns to his discomfiture that Friar John was detained by townsmen concerned about the plague, so he wasn’t able to deliver his friend’s letter to Romeo (249, 5.2.5-12).

Romeo boldly confronts death and all its accoutrements: imagining death as a “detestable maw,” he defies it: “… in despite I’ll cram thee with more food” (250, 5.3.45, 48; see 45-48).  The death-imagery in this play is quite ugly, and throughout, it has underlain the graceful words and actions of the young hero and heroine like the grotesque underside of a fair medieval decorative panel or casket.  Romeo also confronts the hapless Paris, who has come to the Capulets’ tomb to do his obsequies to his intended bride, and kills him, only to die after one last look at Juliet’s body: “Here, here will I remain / With worms that are thy chambermaids” (251-52, 5.3.108-09; see 91-120), he addresses Juliet, and promptly swallows the apothecary’s poison.  The “ensign” of Juliet’s beauty is still visible (251, 5.3.94), but the already aggrieved Romeo isn’t able to process this fact in anything but an ultra-romantic way, so surrounded is she by the architecture and trappings of death.

When Juliet awakens, her only comfort is Friar Laurence, and Romeo’s words in 3.3 about the Friar’s inability to enter into the deep passions of the two lovers ring true: at the critical moment, Laurence is frightened away from the scene when he hears the watch coming, and leaves Juliet alone.  The conventional fate he had imagined for her—delivery to “a sisterhood of holy nuns” (253, 5.3.157) is not for Juliet, who kisses Romeo’s poison-tinged lips, then embraces his dagger and dies, in stage versions often falling directly on his body (253, 5.3.164-69). 

Friar Laurence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven his less than wise or heroic interventions (255-56, 5.3.228-68).  As the Prologue promised, the “strife” of the Montagues and Capulets is “buried” by the death of their beloved son and daughter.  This family that has dealt in hatred, says the prince, is justly punished: “heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (256. 5.3.292), but neither does he exempt himself from blame since he has been guilty of “winking” (256, 5.3.293) at the chaos the two families have long visited upon Verona.  Love has indeed brought the warring houses together, but the price is the death of what they held most dear.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Othello

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Othello. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 425-507).

Act 1, Scene 1. (435-39: Iago’s resentment, Brabanzio’s rage at loss of daughter)

Iago may not be acting from world-historical outrage, but he sets forth two reasons for his hatred of Othello: first, his sense of injured merit because Othello has given the lieutenant’s job he coveted to Cassio (435, 1.1.19ff), and the possibility (stated in Act 1.3) that his wife has slept with Othello. Iago is a self-conscious Machiavel and a consummate actor (like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus). As he says to Roderigo, “I follow but myself” and “I am not what I am” (436-37, 1.1.42-65): he may be Othello’s trusted underling, but that isn’t how he sees himself “five years from now,” to borrow a phrase from the corporate interview playbook. Iago may be comfortable in his own skin, but he is not at peace with himself. There’s something impish about him, too, something of the downright evildoer—he seems to enjoy stirring up trouble for the hell of it, and he shows no regard for the destruction he brings to Desdemona, whom he knows to be innocent. He maneuvers with diabolical skill in the gap between what he seems to be and what he is, turning everything that happens to his own advantage. He and Roderigo regale Brabanzio with race-baiting taunts to find his secretly married daughter. (437, 1.1.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 2. (439-442, Othello willingly arrested, off to Venice)

Othello shows no fear of Roderigo or Brabanzio when they apprehend him: “Keep up your bright swords…” (441, 1.2.60ff). On the spot, Brabanzio accuses Othello of witchcraft: “thou has enchanted her” (441, 1.2.64), he tells the Moor; otherwise, he insists, the girl would never “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!” (441, 1.2.71-72) He can’t even imagine the attraction of the foreign or the exotic, even though he’s been listening to Othello’s stories with admiration, too. To Brabanzio, Venice is the world. (He’s strangely provincial given that Venice is a cosmopolitan sea empire that had long since known how to cut a deal or two with Arabs and Turks.) Brabanzio immediately accepts Iago and Roderigo’s reductive, grotesquely abstract “devil” and bestial “ram” characterization of Othello. Othello hardly lacks charm, but the father welcomes Iago’s stereotypes.

Act 1, Scene 3. (442-50, Othello vindicated, Desdemona strong, Iago enlists Roderigo)

Othello carries the day when summoned to Venice because of his military bearing and chivalric eloquence. When the Italians accuse him of witchcraft, he promises to deliver a “round, unvarnished tale” (444, 1.3.90); but then he romances them with his beautiful, moving words. Othello cuts a dashing figure, and he is aware of his effect upon others. He is proud of his conquest, like a soldier who has won the prize fairly. The tale he delivers is anything but unvarnished. It is filled with romantic extravagance. Perhaps he has been sold into slavery, fought tremendous battles, and seen many remarkable sights. But did he really see “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (445, 1.3.143-44)? No, these are tales he’s picked up and remembered the better to build up an image of himself as an adventurer. He exploits Desdemona’s interest in such stories, crafting from that propensity a contract-in-hand to “beguile her of her tears” and to “dilate” his life’s journey. What sanctifies Othello’s dilatory works of art? Well, the fact that he sincerely loves Desdemona—he means her only good, so it’s acceptable to incorporate some “make-believe” elements into an already exciting account of himself: “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (445, 1.3.166-67). Othello is rather like Sir Philip Sidney’s good Christian poet, whose “feigning” of “notable images” shouldn’t be condemned just because the images aren’t literally true. Othello isn’t a naïve other or a silent warrior but a poetical, confident man.

Perhaps his tragedy will be that he just can’t imagine anyone wielding such poetical power for anything but the good reasons that motivate him in his courtship of Desdemona, or in his speech to the Duke and Senators that frees them to return to considerations of State rather than dwelling on private grudges and love affairs. His way of “seeming” (i.e. embroidering his life story) is so pure that it’s folded into the essential goodness of his being. In a sense, all poets are liars—Plato tells us so, right?—but some feigning and pretending is nobly done and not engaged in as a means to do evil, as it is with Iago. Othello’s naivety, then, isn’t that he’s unable to speak anything but plain truth; it’s that he can’t conceive of a man who willfully spins lies for base purposes. A good man is free to gild the lily, but a wicked man ought to show himself for what he is. In this sense, it’s fair to say that Othello proves tragically unable to deal with the difference between seeming and being. Then, too, Othello may be poetical, but he’s not John Keats’ poet of “negative capability,” the kind who can throw himself into doubts and uncertainties as if they were his own proper element. Othello’s feigning seems more tactical and less supple, more task-oriented, than that of the Keatsian “chameleon poet” who wants to escape from his own skin.

Both the absolute otherness imposed on Othello by men such as Brabanzio (who can scarcely process the Moor at all) and the charismatic appeal of the man’s bearing and language are at work early in Othello. Perhaps both, taken together with the sad events later in the play, go a long way towards demonstrating how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. In spite of Othello’s wondrous gifts of bearing and speech, he is easily destroyed by Iago, a man with the sort of knowledge of Venetian society Othello lacks. Generalized virtues cannot permanently trump an intimate knowledge of local cultural practices, symbolism, and assumptions, at least not if someone is determined to use these specifics against an outsider. Othello is a classic tragedy in that a good man is destroyed by the virtues that have won him admiration—his inability to comprehend how devious and selfish others can be. It’s true that Othello has so far followed his personal desires, and we might suppose that he’s putting Venice at risk if a tumult ensues. But he deals so forthrightly with the Venetian authorities that the affair blows over, and he is free to return to his work for the general welfare. How, Othello might ask, could others be so petty as to damage the public good for purely private reasons, like those of Iago?

Our first glimpse of Desdemona shows us a strong-willed young woman who is not afraid to act boldly and speak her mind, even in the presence of her powerful father and Venetian statesmen. Her strength accords well with Othello’s soldierly virtue. (446-47, 1.3.180ff, 247ff) Later, Desdemona will be put in an impossible position—her considerable aplomb doesn’t translate into an ability to charm Othello out of his suspicions, so her goodness works against her. But with the devilish Othello out to destroy her, it’s hard to see how anything she says, no matter how skillful, would help. Terse protestations of virtue and fancy talk alike would fail to overcome the “ocular proof” by which Iago will falsely damn her.

Iago’s creed is worth noting. To Roderigo’s passive, faux-suicidal blubbering about the defects of his “virtue” (in this usage, it means “nature”), Iago blurts out “Virtue? A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are / thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the / which our wills are gardeners…” (449, 1.3.316-18). In terms of Renaissance psychology, this means that while we are subject to the pull of our appetites (which belong to the “sensitive” part of human nature), we can control these appetites. We can let our choice-making power, our “will,” be informed by reason and thereby control the effects of appetite. (The elements of the rational part of human nature are “understanding” or reason and “will” or rational appetite, the inner power of motion that can incline towards God and reason or towards our lower appetites.) Iago is suggesting that while the body and the appetites may hold sway for a time in Desdemona, she is bound, in due time, to become sated with Othello, and then her rational element will lead her to despise this older man whose appearance and culture are so unlike hers. (449, 1.3.342ff; also 455, 2.1.228-29) Like will return to like. Well, Iago hardly puts Renaissance psychology to the noble uses of Pico della Mirandola, who implies that the grandest goal of humanity is to transcend itself for the greater glory of God, but he knows how to craft a cunning scheme from its premises: Roderigo need only “put money in his purse” and wait for Desdemona to turn again to Venice.

Here Iago’s second motive comes to light: he’s heard that Othello may have cuckolded him. And although he may be patient in devising his wicked schemes, he shares Othello’s disdain of long-continued suspicion: the mere supposition that Emilia may have cuckolded him demands payback; the matter must be resolved. (450, 1.3.367ff) He will wage a pre-emptive war against this man who has already frustrated his hopes of advancement and who may also have insulted his marriage. In some cold, calculating way, Iago himself is subject to the cat-like “green-eyed monster” jealousy, and his way of dealing with the discomfort it’s caused him is to pass it along. That there’s also something to the “baseless evil” charge often leveled against Iago, we may see from his brazen determination to “plume up” his will “in double knavery” (450, 1.3.376).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2. (450-57, Iago sets up Cassio, airs his own suspicions)

This scene turns on trifles: witty banter, smiles, and an innocently flirtatious kiss between Desdemona and Cassio: how easy it is to weave an unflattering tale, and take advantage of others’ insecurities. (454, 2.1.167ff) As Iago will say of the handkerchief in 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (473, 3.3.326-28). In the second act generally, Cassio, who much values his martial reputation and is loyal, is easily typecast by Iago first as the genial soldier, then as the quarrelsome drunkard, and finally as the importunate suitor. Iago goes to work on Roderigo against Desdemona’s character (456, 2.1.243), and prevails upon Roderigo to assault Cassio and thereby anger Cyprus and Othello against the man. Iago again mentions his second reason for hating Othello, stating “nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him, wife for wife” (457, 2.1.285-86). He even has the same suspicion of Cassio – “For I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too” (457, 2.1.294). An ambitious man, Iago envies and opposes anyone who stands above him. Perhaps that is the ultimate reason for his villainy.

Act 2, Scene 3. (457-65, Cassio dismissed, Iago moves forwards with his scheme)

Enter Othello the honor-absolutist to render judgment. Iago plays Othello like a fiddle, and the final lyrics are, “Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine” (462, 2.3.231-32). Now Iago advances his diabolical scheme (463, 2.3.291ff) to advance Cassio’s suit by Desdemona’s pleading. Iago delights in his own equivocations, and triumphantly remarks, “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (464, 2.3.334-36).

Act 3, Scenes 1-2. (465-66, Desdemona takes Cassio’s part)

Emilia reports that Desdemona is making headway on Cassio’s suit: “The Moor replies / That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus… / But he protests he loves you… (466, 3.1.42-45).

Act 3, Scene 3. (466-77, Iago sows doubt, turns Othello against Desdemona)

While Iago and Othello look on from a distance, Desdemona promises to continue with Cassio’s suit to Othello (466-67, 3.3.20-22). She converses with Othello to great effect: “I will deny thee nothing” says Othello, and when she leaves, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (468, 3.3.77, 3.3.91-93). Chaos is Iago’s decreative aim, and he immediately begins to set doubts in Othello’s mind: “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?” (468, 3.3.96-97) Cassio’s earlier usefulness as go-between in Othello’s romancing of Desdemona now plays against him.

We should hear alarm bells in Othello’s admission of his great fondness for Desdemona: once Othello begins to suspect, he will be thrown off balance until the end. Iago makes the Moor draw “the truth” from him, and reinforces the Othello-principle that we must all be what we appear to be: “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (469, 3.3.132-33) Iago knows that Othello lacks (to borrow from Keats’ letters) “negative capability”—he can’t exist for an extended time in the midst of uncertainty. If there’s a problem, it must be dealt with presently, not left to fester. Othello is the kind of military man who insists on gathering hard evidence and rendering a firm decision, court-martial style, the way he judged Cassio. His lack of knowledge about Venetian mores and subtlety (an English stereotype for the Italians generally—subtle, devious, sly) makes him anxious, easy prey to the overblown trifles in which Iago trades, and very susceptible to the honest-sounding counsel his deceiver offers: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy? / It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (470, 3.3.169-71). Othello insists his trust in Desdemona and in himself is great: “she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago / I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, proof; / And on the proof… / Away at once with love or jealousy” (470, 3.3.193-96).

But Othello is older than Desdemona, and he is black: facts Iago exploits brutally and masterfully (471, 3.3.233-43). Othello now seems uncertain that his charm and rhetorical skill can hold his wife’s loyalty. Iago has already told him, “In Venice they do let (God) see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (471, 3.3.206-09). Generalized virtues can’t trump knowledge of local culture, symbolism, and assumptions. Othello is classical tragedy: a good man is destroyed by his virtues. The play demonstrates how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. Othello comes round to a characteristically absolute statement: “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings / I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (472, 3.3.264-67). Othello can’t reconcile his honor-ideal with the messy, ethically dubious world of Venice.

Shakespeare explores this rigid idealism often in his plays, and I believe he considers it a trap. For example, Brutus in Julius Caesar, or the title character in Coriolanus (as well as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, since his so-called eastern extravagance is the obverse of strict Roman honor, and disables him from combating Octavius’ machinations), or comic idealizers such as Orlando in As You Like It. There are many shades of gray, nuances, roles a man or woman must play, imperfections and exigencies to deal with. Idealism is noble, but it is a disabling quality in a saucy, ever-changing world.

The handkerchief device and marriage vignette (in which Othello and Iago kneel and vow revenge) mark the height of Iago’s villainy. Disturbed while talking with Desdemona, Othello drops his wife’s handkerchief (473, 3.3.290ff); from there Emilia finds it and gives it to Iago, who then resolves, “I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin, / And let him find it. Trifles light as air…” (473, 3.3.325-28). At next meeting, Othello is mad with jealous rage: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (474, 3.3.364-65). He demands absolute proof, as the uncertainty has become intolerable: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not” (475, 3.3.389ff). So the fact that Cassio has been seen to “wipe his beard” (476, 3.3.444) with Desdemona’s handkerchief drives Othello to distraction. Iago kneels and swears undying fealty to Othello (476-77), and his damnation consists in swearing by Christian symbols to do the devil’s work. His words are pious, but his intentions transform them into the markers of a black mass. Perhaps there’s irony in his swearing by “yon marble heaven” (476, 3.3.463) since the audience may see him swear by a painted image of the sky. Iago has become Othello’s lieutenant, and is engaged to murder Cassio while Othello plans Desdemona’s demise.

Act 3, Scene 4. (477-81, The Handkerchief! Emilia and Desdemona ponder cause)

Othello expects the same romantic extravagance from Desdemona as he lavishes upon her: the handkerchief, he tells her, is an emblem of the romantic magic, the charm, that underlies his erotic fidelity. Its loss is catastrophic now that it has come to symbolize her chaste loyalty. (478, 3.4.53ff) Othello is a romantic idealist as well as a military idealist. A version of the handkerchief’s history: it was given him by his mother, who got it from a female Egyptian sorcerer, and its possession guarantees loyalty in love. Its fatal consequentiality is further underscored by the claim that it was “dyed in mummy, which the skilful / Conserved of maidens’ hearts” (478, 3.4.73-74; later, he will claim his father gave it to his mother: see 5.2.224.) Desdemona is forced to dissemble (479), while Othello’s vocabulary moves towards perfect accord with his obsession: “the handkerchief!” repeated several times. (479, 3.4.90ff) Desdemona and Emilia ponder this strange behavior on Othello’s part (480, 3.4.137ff). Michael Cassio closes the scene by asking his girlfriend Bianca to make a copy of the handkerchief because he wants the pattern before he returns it to the owner.

Act 4, Scene 1. (481-88, Othello rages over Cassio and Iago’s talk, strikes Desdemona)

Othello, already driven into an epileptic fit at the loss of the handkerchief (482b, 4.1.41), will now be subjected to one further supposed proof: Iago engages Cassio in a conversation that Othello takes for lewd and contemptuous talk about Desdemona when in fact Cassio is only making jests about his relationship with Bianca (483, 4.1.79ff, 484-85). Bianca brings in the handkerchief (485, 4.1.143ff), making Othello think Cassio has given it to her out of contempt for Desdemona. Othello sees this spectacle and becomes deranged with contradictory impulses: “O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!” and “I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!” (486, 4.1.186, 190) Iago comes up with the idea of strangling her in her “contaminated” bed. (486, 4.1.197-98) When he strikes Desdemona (487, 4.1.235ff), Lodovico, who has come with a letter announcing that Cassio has been installed in Othello’s place as commander in Cyprus, is there to see it. He assumes Othello is an abusive husband.

Act 4, Scene 2. (488-93, Desdemona tries to defend herself, Othello unmovable)

Although Desdemona has shown some Venetian subtlety, piety and honesty are the hallmarks of her character. But Othello has been warped into taking signs of virtue for their opposite: evidence of whoredom and cunning. From now on, everything she says “can and will be used against her”; she is under arrest without even knowing it. Her self-defense (489-90), while moving, is rather feeble: “By heaven, you do me wrong” and “No, as I am a Christian” (490, 4.2.83, 85). Simply being accused of certain offenses (such as adultery) so strips a person of others’ good opinion that it’s tantamount to conviction: guilty until proven innocent. (One thinks of Kafka’s The Trial or the trials of 1984—to come under suspicion is already to have no identity except that constituted by one’s presumed malefactions.) It’s common in Renaissance plays for virtuous characters to prove themselves helpless when abused by the wicked and the cunning. If your name is something like “Bonario,” as is the case for a good character in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, look out!

Emilia, Iago and Desdemona hash out the sorry state of affairs – Emilia’s enraged: “The Moor’s abused by some most villainous knave…” (491, 4.2.143ff), Iago unctuously in false accord, and Desdemona prayerful, saying, “If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love … / Comfort forswear me” (491, 4.2.156ff).

Then Iago continues his work on the already angry Roderigo, egging him on to murder Cassio and thereby keep Othello in Cyprus, along with Desdemona. (492-493)

Act 4, Scene 3. (493-95, Emilia’s strength, Desdemona’s loyalty)

While Desdemona can only sing a sad song of frustrated love (“Willow, willow” 494, 4.3.38ff), Emilia proves more capable. A fit opponent for her husband, Emilia tries to temper Desdemona’s moral absolutism, which rivals that of Othello: advocating female adultery, Emilia argues, “I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (495, 4.3.84-85). Desdemona’s reply is a declaration of loyalty to Othello (495, 4.3.76-77), an attitude she will maintain even as Othello strangles her. Emilia’s bawdy pronouncements on gender relations are the stuff of Shakespearian comedy (one thinks of Portia and Nerissa’s “ring scheme” in The Merchant of Venice), but here they only deepen the sense of impending tragedy.

Innocence can seldom defend itself as eloquently or convincingly as evil can, even when the innocent person is as intelligent as Desdemona. One remembers Yeats’ line in “The Second Coming” that “the best lack all conviction” while “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In Shakespeare, it isn’t usually true that the best people lack conviction—what they sometimes lack (consider Cordelia in King Lear as an example to set beside Desdemona) is the right phrase, the moxy to take advantage of opportunities to advance their good cause. And even if our good folks have considerable linguistic capacity and courage, the disposition we call “goodness” seldom, if ever, gains by rhetorical sleight—the problem seems intractable. Lear’s daughter Cordelia may be a bit stiff and clumsy as a speaker, but we all feel the rightness of her lament, “What shall poor Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Or consider Machiavelli’s characterization of the problem: to paraphrase what he writes in Il Principe, “those who try to be virtuous in all things must come to grief among so many who aren’t virtuous.”

Act 5, Scene 1. (495-98, Cassio wounded by Iago, who then silences Roderigo)

Iago arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio, but the bungler only manages to wound Cassio in the leg, and Iago stabs Roderigo to death lest he blab the truth. (495-97) Othello applauds from above: “Thou teachest me. Minion, your dear lies dead, / And your unblessed fate hies” (496, 5.1.34-35). Iago insistently blames Bianca for the entire ruckus. (498)

Act 5, Scene 2. (498-507 end, Othello smothers Desdemona, dies on own terms)

Othello resolves to kill Desdemona softly: “I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / …Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (498, 5.2.3-6). Desdemona attempts to defend herself from Othello’s crazed accusations and calls to beg forgiveness of God, but there’s no chance of success, and he smothers her (499-501) in two successive bouts. When Emilia enters, Desdemona’s dying words amount to an attempt to remove all blame from Othello: “Commend me to my kind lord” (501, 5.2.134).

Othello initially wrangles with Emilia and engages in some waffling and denial: “You heard her say herself it was not I” (501, 5.2.136). But the truth comes out in short order, and Othello infuriates Emilia by accusing Desdemona of adultery, thanks to Iago’s information. (502, 5.2.148ff) Things move quickly: Iago mortally wounds Emilia for revealing the truth about that fatal handkerchief (504) and Othello wounds Iago, who will not speak further about his motives for working so much misery: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (505, 5.2.309). At last, with whatever small weapon remains to him – he had been stripped of his sword a bit earlier — Othello makes himself an example in all strictness, preempting Venetian justice (In Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Othello escapes, only to die shamefully later.) Othello bills himself extravagantly as a man who “loved not wisely but too well” (506, 5.2.353). His eloquence and elegance reassert themselves in his final struggle. Othello’s death seems right since his words and manner, as he understands, cannot make up for the destruction of a faithful wife. His epigrammatic self-description indicates a desire to control others’ interpretations of his downfall; perhaps that’s a tragic hero’s right (see Hamlet’s plea that Horatio should tell his story), but the ending remains disturbing. Othello had twice let loose the question, “Ha, ha, false to me?” (3.3.338, 4.1.190) as if especially incredulous that he should suffer the indignity of betrayal. My sympathy goes to Desdemona, not to Othello, in spite of his sincere horror at what Iago’s treachery has led him to do.

How should we assess Othello as a tragic hero? The moral quality of Shakespeare’s protagonists varies: Richard III is an effervescent villain, Macbeth an introspective man who appreciates from the outset the full evil of the path to power he contemplates; Brutus and Cassius betray dueling motives against Julius Caesar, noble and base; Romeo and Juliet die because of pitiable misunderstandings rather than grievous faults; King Lear is brought down in part by a fundamental confusion between his public and private selves; Hamlet the revenger undergoes strange alternations of stricken dawdling and rashness, Coriolanus isolates and debases himself in his patrician rage, etc.

Othello takes his place alongside them all, a warrior who becomes the victim of his own deeply ingrained all-or-nothing attitude towards everything and everyone, an exotic other who is the victim of cultural misunderstandings that put him at the mercy of subtle Iago. As I mentioned earlier, Othello’s fall from grace seems classical in that he is laid low and commits his deadly errors because of his noblest qualities: a soldierly, unwavering commitment to right conduct, fidelity and truth. His absolute generosity of spirit towards Desdemona, once put in question by Iago, gives way to cruel resolution and a refusal even to hear “the accused’s” honest plea. It may be that what underlies Othello’s downfall is in part the basic fact that if we turn heroic absolutist values over and view their obverse, what we will find is an equally strong counter-sentiment or counter-anxiety against which the heroic code is posited. Only those who act from some level of awareness of this unsettling relationship have any real chance of success: they are not so likely as others to be trapped by the productions of their own heart and imagination. Othello, it seems to me, lacks that awareness and never – not even after the worst is known and all lies exposed before him – shows an ability to mediate between the ideal and the anxiety that both underwrites and threatens it. Ideals are necessary and noble, but they’re also potentially lethal: “handle with care,” this play seems to advise us.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Julius Caesar

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 257-321).

Act 1, Scene 1

At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare introduces a Roman world where all people should know their place. Why is the carpenter not wearing the clothing he should be wearing? The cobbler introduces another theme—the idea that something is broken and must be mended. This is a holiday time when the ordinary laws that restrain and govern people seem to have been suspended. The strongest Romans on the scene are certain that their moral pronouncements and symbolic acts will set things right again, but in this belief, we must already begin to sense, they are gravely mistaken. The common people would just as well forget the past and live entirely in the present.

Act 1, Scene 2

In this scene we get our first view of Julius Caesar himself. He seems a grand enough figure, ordering great men about in an intimate way. Still, what Julius says to Marc Antony reminds us that his wife is unable to have children. In a way that has profound political implications, Julius is alone in the middle of this admiring crowd, and he must depend upon Marc Antony. Caesar will not listen to the soothsayer. Immediately afterwards we are treated to the first conversation between Brutus and Cassius, a conversation that turns upon the issue of representation tied together with the all-important Roman preoccupation with honor. Simply put, Cassius wants Brutus to see himself through the eyes of others who expect him to save the Republic. The honest reply that Brutus gives reminds us how difficult it is for a person to be self-contained, self-defining. It is clear that Brutus has been thinking along the same lines as Cassius—he would not find it tolerable for Julius to become king. But Brutus is circumspect about speaking what he feels. Cassius obviously resents and envies Caesar, and seems to hold him in contempt. His reference to Virgil’s Aeneid puts Cassius in place of Aeneas and Julius Caesar in the place of that hero’s father, who, readers of Virgil will remember, did not make it all the way to Italy after the Trojan remnant had set sail from their burning city. Cassius does not so much seek justice as the opportunity to take power for himself. He also sees a deep disjunction between what ordinary people think Caesar is and what he actually is to those who know him best. We like to think of the Romans as thoroughly upstanding and ancient times as somehow simpler and more noble, but the fact is that Roman political culture was at least as sophisticated as ours is today: “spin” would hardly have been a foreign concept to Roman politicians. Cassius tries to stir similar resentment in the breast of Brutus, and connects him to his illustrious ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, who helped drive out the last Tarquin King from Rome. Brutus seems naïve concerning the motives of his friend since he labels the speech something “high.” Brutus is an idealist who can’t help but transform everyone around him into something more noble and high-minded than is really the case.

Julius Caesar speaks to Marc Antony again, and makes it clear that he does not trust Cassius, finding in him an anxiety-provoking degree of pride. It is also manifest that Caesar surrounds himself with people willing to tell him what he wants to hear. He is always on stage, a quality that Casca’s comments reinforce.

Casca is scornful of Caesar’s “act” in the presence of the common people who would make him king. The “tag-rag” crowd seems like an ordinary Elizabethan rabble. They follow their own appetites and are greedy for emotional spectacle, which is exactly what they get when Caesar swoons in an epileptic fit.

At the end of the second scene, Cassius clarifies his scheme after Brutus makes his exit—the plan is to manipulate Brutus by taking advantage of his noble honesty. In this play, there are characters who stick to their ideals (or who idealize others), and there are cynical realists like Cassius.

Act 1, Scene 3

Cicero proves unwilling when he speaks to Casca to buy into all the high talk about prodigies and omens. Cicero believes what’s happening is all a matter of interpretation. Casca fears the omens, but Cassius is contemptuous, comparing Julius Caesar to such thunder and lightning. The man is fearful, and a Roman must confront his fears if he would be free. As far as Cassius is concerned, Caesar’s greatness is a mark of the people’s degeneracy. Of course, this comment shows the weakness in the entire conspiratorial plan: if Romans are in fact sheep, how are they supposed to maintain the virtuous Republic of old, even if an assassination restores that form of government? If they are fit only to be led, why then, someone must lead them. So the argument is really over who will dominate the populace. As Thomas Carlyle will later write, “In the long run, every government is the exact symbol of its people.” Democracies and republics die when the citizenry are no longer worthy of such noble experiments or capable of sustaining them. This is not to say that Shakespeare or his audience were sympathetic to republican arguments—monarchy was generally considered the best form of government in Shakespeare’s time. Both Casca and Cassius want to borrow Brutus’s connection to heroic Roman history, thinking to render their own bloody deeds noble and acceptable by reference to violent acts that helped found the Republic.

Act 2, Scene 1

Brutus says that he acts for the general good, not because he has anything in particular against Caesar, who has always been a friend to him and a man of reason. (As the introduction points out, Shakespeare brackets out the way Julius Caesar attained the level of power he held at the time of his murder. However, his bringing destruction to northern Europe’s tribes and crossing the Rubicon aside, it remains true that Caesar was a man of considerable merit—he was a cultivated man, not a brute.) The main argument Brutus makes is the abstract one that power would surely corrupt his friend, so it is necessary to extrapolate what that friend might do if given absolute power. A man who would be king is a serpent, and must be dealt with as such. Brutus himself is very much taken with the heroic past connected to his family name, and like many good Romans he is firmly wedded to the past.

At line 63, it becomes apparent how much of a toll taking part in a conspiracy has begun to exact upon Brutus: “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.” When he is introduced to the conspirators, he finds it necessary to explain just how un-Roman it is to require an oath in such matters as they are about to undertake, and he makes haste to check the bloodiness of their intent. Protecting Marc Antony turns out to be a mistake, of course, but it shows Brutus’s nobility of mind all the same. It’s possible to attribute to Brutus some degree of less than high-minded strategizing when he says that Antony “can do no more than Caesar’s arm / When Caesar’s head is off” (182-83), but perhaps that would be ungenerous. Brutus seems quite naïve throughout this scene, nowhere more so than when he says of Caesar, “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds” (173-74). As always, Brutus is most comfortable with theories and abstractions, and with ritual and ceremony rather than practical action: the conspirators are first and foremost “butchers,” whatever their intentions towards the state. Brutus recognizes that Caesar’s blood must be spilled, but it’s hard to see how his words connote recognition of the full horror in such a deed.

At line 233 and following, Portia shows herself to be perhaps the only character who understands Brutus, with the possible exception of Octavius, who treats him as a worthy opponent. She requests in strong terms that Brutus let her in on what is troubling him, and he promises to do so, although he is subsequently interrupted by Caius Ligarius. But he must tell her subsequently since later on she seems aware of what is afoot. In speaking to Caius Ligarius, Brutus again employs the metaphor of sickness and health—it seems he sees himself as a physician or a surgeon as well as a priest with respect to the body politic.

Act 2, Scene 2

When talking to his wife, Caesar seems genuinely magnificent in his disregard for death, but he also seems rather pompous in declaring himself more dangerous than danger itself. On the whole, he is a politician who has come to believe his own PR—always a dangerous thing to do because it unfits a person to exercise power in real-life, real-time situations. Because Decius Brutus understands this weakness in Caesar, he is able to use it to bring the man out to the Capitol, where he will meet his fate. I think Shakespeare follows the general line that the time had already come for Rome to turn imperial, but the fat and fond Julius Caesar he portrays is not the right man to wield such enormous power. None of this is to say that Caesar is to be portrayed as an old fool or a clown; rather, it seems likely that Shakespeare’s representation of this “great man” pays tribute to the difficulty of settling on any one image of such a colossal, polarizing figure as Julius Caesar. On display are certain physical and character weaknesses and a tendency towards exaggeration, but counter-balancing these traits, in almost any worthwhile production, will be the impressive pageantry, the sheer spectacle, surrounding Caesar’s every move.

Act 3, Scene 1

In the famous assassination scene, the conspirators crowd around Caesar, with the ostensible purpose of getting him to revoke his banishment of one Publius Cimber, brother of the conspirator Metellus Cimber. Caesar’s words make him seem grandiose and ungenerous, and he is instantly cut down. As in some ancient accounts, Caesar is most surprised to find Brutus amongst those who have betrayed him. (See Suetonius’ highly regarded narrative of the murder, which has Caesar maintaining dignified silence.)

Both Cassius and Brutus make bold to consider the historic nature of what they have just done, treating it as if it were a piece of stagecraft for the ages. Brutus is particularly concerned to strike the right ceremonial note, telling his fellow conspirators to bathe their hands in the blood of the slain ruler and make their way to the marketplace, where they will proclaim “Peace, freedom, and liberty” (110) for all. But subsequent audiences, of course, know perfectly well how the whole affair turned out—the death of Julius Caesar brought not the restoration of republican ways, but rather the supremely competent imperial rule of Augustus after a period of civil strife. So when we see the conspirators on stage smearing themselves with the blood of the man they have just killed, we are likely to concentrate more on the viciousness of their deed than on the high-minded ideals that set Brutus, at least, in motion.

Act 3, Scene 2

Immediately after the assassination, Brutus makes the fatal mistake of trusting Marc Antony. Antony appears diabolically skillful throughout this scene, beginning with his earnest-seeming demand to know why Caesar deserved to die and his eerie willingness to shake hands with the blood-spattered killers before him, then proceeding to his obviously genuine and yet carefully stage-managed outbursts of feeling for the murdered Caesar and his request to pay his respects at the man’s funeral. Cassius suspects the worst, but Brutus will have none of it, and he brushes aside Cassius’s objections with the ridiculous stipulation that he himself will speak first and thereby provide sufficient explanation for what has been done. He has just agreed to serve as the warm-up act for a master rhetorician who does not mean him well, and we shall see what Antony makes of the demand that he not blame the “honorable” conspirators. Operating by the ancient code of revenge, Antony plans to “let slip the dogs of war” (273) after his stirring words have driven the conspirators out of Rome. The deed that these deluded men believed would bring order and liberty, Antony correctly understands as the harbinger of violence and chaos. For the moment, these are his elements, and with them he will set to work forging a new order with Octavius.

The speech that Brutus makes to the Roman mob, while noble, is also absurd because it issues a call to Romanness to people thoroughly incapable of any such thing. Brutus insists that he has placed love of country above love for his old friend Caesar, and he may indeed have done so. But the rogues and peasants to whom he speaks have no understanding of such idealism. They value persons over principles, favors over sacrifice. They are moved by Brutus’s words, but their instinct is to offer him the crown they had meant to offer Caesar.

Marc Antony’s speech is a masterpiece, full of power and deception, strong feeling and a call to personal loyalty. Casting himself as Caesar’s friend, Antony highlights the qualities of Julius in this capacity: friendship, or amicitia, was amongst the highest Roman virtues, and Brutus has betrayed a man who loved and honored him. (In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest section of the inferno for that reason: they are traitors to their lord.) If a man betrays his friend, you cannot believe anything he says or trust him in any action. ( Cicero wrote a fine treatise called De Amicitia, or “On Friendship,” and Seneca’s Letters deal with the concept insightfully.) He attacks the notion that Caesar was ambitious or selfish, and employs a species of repetition to savage effect respecting the word “honorable,” which comes to signify the opposite quality after its first few uses. In the end, Antony does what he promised Brutus not to do: he calls the conspirators traitors. He convinces his audience that they have lost a generous, unique benefactor at the hands of men who do not even understand that all-important Roman concept, “honor.” Honor consists in standing by your friends, which is exactly what Marc Antony tells the irrational, inflamed crowd to do now. Fortune favors those willing to ride the waves of passion that arise from great and terrible events, not those who, like Brutus, believe troubled human affairs can be set to rights by the dispassionate operations of reason. The latter assumption hardly seems a good bet in the third scene, when the rabble decide that it isn’t even worth distinguishing Cinna the poet from Cinna the assassin.

Act 4, Scene 1

Antony the man of feeling now shows another side of himself—the side that allows him to “lay honors” on his fellow Triumvir Lepidus and yet call the man an ass when he’s out of earshot. This brazen contempt for “a tried and valiant soldier” (28) surprises the youthful Octavius, but Antony won’t change a word of his dismissive pronouncement against Lepidus. It’s time to head for the wars Brutus and Cassius are stirring up.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3

Back at the camp, Brutus and Cassius become embroiled in a bitter argument about funding for their armies—Cassius’s corrupt favoritism has made him deny Brutus necessary pay for his men. Although the fight sounds like schoolboy squabbling, it has a serious side: Cassius’ offense is a dangerous one for the cause since a mutinous army is no help, and his charge of untenderness on the part of Brutus seems genuine, so it reinforces the play’s interest in the importance of Roman honor and friendship. “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities” (86), pleads Cassius, and in the end he brings Brutus around. Shakespeare was capable of shredding cherished notions of classical chivalry, as he does in his later play Troilus and Cressida (1601-02), but here in Julius Caesar no such thoroughgoing cynicism seems to be afoot. When Cassius’s Thersites-like “cynic” struts onstage to offer his saucy rhymes, Brutus makes Cassius dismiss the fellow as untimely and impertinent.

Brutus and Cassius disagree more civilly about military strategy around line 200. Brutus comes down in favor of marching out to meet the enemy rather than waiting: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries” (218-21). This is one of the most famous pronouncements in the play, but the “tide” metaphor is also revealing—although Brutus counsels heroic action, he still sees this action as a reaction, as a principled response to what the rhythm of life brings. Contrast this attitude with Marc Antony and Octavius. Antony in particular, at least in this play if not in Antony and Cleopatra, is closer to the view of Edmund in King Lear: “all’s meet with me that I can fashion fit.” We might argue that Brutus, for all his unrealistic idealism, is at crucial points more grounded in reality as something given that must be acknowledged than his adversaries are. Antony is a supreme opportunist, but his manner of handling the opportunity that comes to him as a gift from Brutus is masterful, active, and creative: a fine word-chef, he whips up a generous Julius bound to please the common people. By the end of Act 4, Brutus is afflicted with a second vision of Caesar as his “evil spirit” (281). Even the supernatural is arrayed against him; history is not on his side in the struggle between republican principles and monarchical rule.

Act 5, Scenes 1-3

Brutus and Cassius exchange angry words with Octavius and Marc Antony, and a bit later Brutus says to Cassius that he abhors the prospect of suicide—evidently, he assumes he will either be victorious or be killed in battle. But when the battle goes against his side, he must confront the suicide of his own friend Cassius, who requires his Parthian servant to stab him with the very sword he had used during the assassination of Caesar. Brutus sees this act as the work of Julius Caesar’s vengeful spirit.

Act 5, Scenes 4-5

In the end, Brutus decides to run upon his own sword rather than face capture. He leaves it to the people of the future and to history to judge his actions, expressing confidence in the outcome: “I shall have glory by this losing day / More than Octavius and Marc Antony” (36-37). Octavius and Antony are impressed with the end Brutus makes, and Antony declares him “the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68) He acted for the general good rather than for his own personal interest. On the whole, I think we find in Julius Caesar not so much a wholesale or cynical rejection of the principles enunciated by the noble Brutus as a complex, at times ambivalent exploration of those principles. Ideals seldom, if ever, match events on the ground: participation in almost any kind of politics compels even the best people to abandon or at least compromise their noblest aspirations and their customary civility. This is not to abandon politics since that really isn’t possible; it is to see things as they are without flinching or dissembling.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Antony and Cleopatra

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 879-967).

Act 1, Scene 1 (890-91, Our first image of Antony with Cleopatra: he is both a Roman and a man of the east)

Antony and Cleopatra are introduced first by Antony’s friends, but almost at once we hear a dialogue between the two lovers.  What is their image at this early point?  How does the dialogue and presentation of Antony capture the dual impulse that runs through the man’s character?  He is both a Roman and a man of the East: “Let Rome in Tiber melt … / … Here is my space” (890, 1.1.35-36).  And what is he doing in this place of his?  Well, he spends part of his time carousing and walking the streets to “note / The qualities of people” (891, 1.1.35-36). 

Act 1, Scene 2 (891-96, Antony resolves to go back to Rome and deal with pressing matters; Enobarbus concurs about prioritizing war, politics over women)

Antony is clearly aware of Cleopatra’s influence on him, and admires her whimsicality, excess, and sense for the absolutism of the dilatory moment as opposed to Roman thoughtfulness and adherence to necessity.  Enobarbus is just as aware, and he thinks women should not be so highly esteemed in proximity to great political and military matters: “Under a compelling occasion let women die” (894, 1.2.125, see 125-31).  Antony’s response to the military movements of Labienus (Roman commander of a Parthian army) and to the death of his wife Fulvia is characteristically complex; with regard to the first issue, he says “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (894, 1.2.105-06).  As for the second, Antony is riven by genuine sympathy for Fulvia and yet realizes that he had more or less wished this on her: “What our contempts doth often hurl from us / We wish it ours again” (894, 1.2.112-13).  By the end of this scene, Antony is determined to make his way back to Rome.  Amongst other things, there’s Sextus Pompeius to deal with since this son of Pompey the Great is menacing the triumvirate by sea (895, 1.2.167-69).  He evidently feels he must get Cleopatra’s approval to take care of business, but he admits this freely (895, 1.2.161-63).  But in truth, he won’t have too much trouble with her in getting that approval, a fact that is apparent from her insightful remark, “on the sudden / A Roman thought hath struck him” (893, 1.2.72-73).  Antony is open to the pleasures and attractions of the east, but it’s just as certain that “Roman thoughts” will strike him when that becomes necessary.

Act 1, Scene 3 (896-98, Cleopatra manipulates Antony, but he understands her eastern self-fashioning; in the end his decision holds to return to Rome)

Cleopatra manipulates Antony, calling him a dissembler and an actor when it comes to loyalty: “Good now, play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honor” (898, 1.3.77-80).  And throughout this scene, we see him trying to justify his decision to return to Rome to deal with pressing matters.  Cleopatra knows how to speak the language of Roman honor: “Your honor calls you hence” (898, 1.3.98) she says to Antony, and to some extent seems actually to mean it: it’s time to let Antony be Antony.  This scene is subtle in its revelation of what the two lovers know about each other: when Cleopatra declares that her “oblivion is a very Antony, / And I am all forgotten” (898, 1.3.91-92), Antony’s response is, “But that your royalty / Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself” (898, 1.3.92-94).  In other words, he understands that she is just as much an actor as she claims he is: the “eastern extravagance” pose is something that this female Ptolemy (i.e. a Greek) employs to her advantage, not something she can’t help but assume.

Act 1, Scene 4 (898-900, Octavius Caesar’s complaints about Antony’s “wassails” and neglect, but also confidence in the man)

Here and elsewhere, we should attend to Caesar’s (Octavius’) view of Antony’s conduct in the east.  Caesar has complaints about Antony’s unseemly behavior, and suggests that he, at least (young as he is), knows how to wield power.  Caesar references Antony’s longstanding reputation for valor, he feels that this reputation will shame him into returning to the field: “Leave thy lascivious wassails” (900, 1.4.56), he scolds the older man in absentia, and expresses confidence that Antony’s shame at abandoning his Roman manner will “Drive him to Rome” (900, 1.4.74).  Antony’s later admission of “neglect” (in Act 2, Scene 2) won’t go over well with Caesar the corporation man, whose model is Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.

Act 1, Scene 5 (900-02, Cleopatra’s love for Antony and extravagant view of him foregrounded while he’s away in Rome)

We see another side of Cleopatra here, the one that is truly in love with Antony and would just as well “sleep out this great gap of time” (900, 1.5.5) in his absence.  Theirs is not simply a political alliance, it’s beyond that, and while Cleopatra’s motives are complex, her connection with Antony is one of the world’s grandest tragic loves.  She muses fondly about him, and mentions her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, who, she is certain, considered her “A morsel for a monarch” (900, 1.5.31).  Cleopatra has an extravagant sense of Antony’s worth, one that fits his sense of himself and that he repays with similar extravagance towards her.  Nowhere is this more evident than when she calls him, “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men” (901, 1.5.33-34).  We may not see this godlike Antony in action through most of the play, but a genuinely admiring mutual representation bonds the two lovers together.

Act 2, Scene 1 (902-04, Sextus Pompeius finds fault with Caesar and Antony, feels confident in his victory)

Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, thinks the people love him, while he’s convinced that Caesar wins no hearts with his soulless efficiency and that Antony is wasting his strength with Cleopatra in Egypt (903, 2.1.9-16).  Sextus has an illustrious father in the late Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or “Pompey the Great,” a member of the unofficial first triumvirate from 59-53 BCE along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus; the more official “second triumvirate” from 43-33 BCE and current in this play is composed of Marcus Antonius or “Antony,” Octavius (grand-nephew and adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Act 2, Scene 2 (904-10, Octavius confronts Antony over his shortcomings; Agrippa proposes a match between Antony and Octavia; Enobarbus describes Cleopatra grandly and pays tribute to her appeal for Antony)

Caesar and Antony confront each other, each bringing his own grievances and assumptions to the table.  Caesar’s claims are very ponderous: he tasks Antony with the fact that Fulvia and Antony’s brother stirred up wars against him in Antony’s name (905, 2.2.46-48) and that Antony ignored his messengers while carousing in Alexandria (906, 2.2.75-78).  But worst of all, says Caesar, in refusing to assist him with military supplies and money when required, he has broken faith (906, 2.2.85-87, 93-94).  Antony’s admission that he “Neglected, rather” (906, 2.2.94) doesn’t go over well with Caesar as Rome’s ultra-steady, responsible corporation man, so to speak: his model is Virgil’s Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.  While Antony goes around behaving like a wild Greek or luxurious Egyptian, Octavius is a high-level antecedent of our modern 1950s “man in the gray flannel suit”: he thinks of Rome first and does what’s needed to keep the machinery of state running and the coffers full.

Enobarbus is mildly rebuked for trying to butt in, but Agrippa helps resolve the tension between them, at least for the present, by successfully proposing a match between Caesar’s sister Octavia and Antony: “Thou hast a sister by the mother’s side …” (907, 2.2.124). Dynastic obligation will bring these two men of very different character together and keep them from tearing the country apart, or at least that’s the plan.

Enobarbus then talks with Agrippa and Maecenas, offering us a new image of the famous Cleopatra, one that Shakespeare has borrowed for him from the historian Plutarch’s Lives, specifically, “The Life of Julius Caesar,” which along with “The Life of Antony” is Shakespeare’s main source for the entire play.  (Sources for Antony and Cleopatra.)  He describes her almost as a goddess, as a woman beyond description: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne / Burned on the water…. / … / For her own person, it beggared all description” (908-09, 2.2.197-98, 203-204; see 197-211).  He also mentions how savvy she is, how well she plays her charms to her advantage, making Antony visit her rather than the other way around (909, 2.2.225-27).  Cleopatra, he knows, exercises a strong hold over Antony’s imagination and passions.  She instills a kind of desire that doesn’t lead to satiation (235ff), and sanctifies things that would otherwise be vile, beyond the strict Roman sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (909, 2.2.240-41).  That capacity is a big part of her attraction—Cleopatra is charismatic and larger than life.

Act 2, Scene 3 (910-11, a soothsayer tells Antony to stay away from lucky Caesar; uneasy, Antony resolves to return to Egypt)

Antony speaks to a soothsayer, who tells him to stay away from Caesar because this opponent is bound to rise higher than Antony: “If thou dost play with him at any game / Thou art sure to lose…” (910, 2.3.23-24). Caesar is almost as much an “evil spirit” (Norton Tragedies, 311, 4.2.333) for Antony as Julius Caesar was for Brutus on the plain at Philippi.  In his presence, the great Roman is afraid, unmanned.  Antony knows this, and says that “the very dice obey” Caesar (910, 2.3.31).  Fortune seems to be on the younger man’s side, even though Antony is a ladies’ man and ought to be on better terms with Lady Fortune.  Antony resolves to return to Egypt: “though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” (911, 2.5.37-38).

Act 2, Scenes 4-5 (911-14, Lepidus will be late to meet the triumvirs; Cleopatra teases absent Antony about their fishing trips, but is then stricken with jealousy when she hears about the match with Octavia: she strikes the messenger)

In the fourth scene, we learn that Lepidus will be late on his way to Misenum where the triumvirate will meet.  No doubt we are to understand his lateness as symptomatic of his weak position within the second triumvirate (911, 2.4.1-10).

In the fifth scene, Cleopatra has fun at Antony’s expense, saying that he’s like the great fish she proposes to catch in the Nile: “I’ll think them every one an Antony” (911, 2.5.14; see lines 10-14).  And Charmian reminds Cleopatra of the time when she tricked Antony while they were fishing together, hanging an already dead fish on his hook for him to haul in (911-12, 2.5.15-18).  Cleopatra seems to delight in stealing from Antony his masculine symbolic power (the sword with which he earned victory against the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, who killed his friend Julius) and donning it herself: she recounts how she drank him to bed and then “put my tires and mantles on him whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (912, 2.5.22-23). 

Cleopatra soon learns that Antony will marry Octavia, and this causes her to strike the messenger (913, 2.5.61), but then invites him back so that he may inform her about Octavia’s looks (914, 2.5.112-14). 

Act 2, Scene 6 (914-17, Sextus Pompeius reconciles with Caesar and Antony; Menas and Enobarbus trade wisdom on Sextus and Antony)

Sextus Pompeius makes a deal with Caesar in which he’s to take Sicily and Sardinia, but rid the seas of piracy and send wheat to Rome (915, 2.6.34-39).  He reconciles with Caesar and Antony, and Menas says to Enobarbus, “Pompey / doth this day laugh away his fortune” (917, 2.6.103-04).  Enobarbus, for his part, says that Antony “will to his Egyptian dish again; then shall the sighs of / Octavia blow the fire up in Caesar” (917, 2.6.123-24; see 122-27).  Enobarbus realizes that the marriage with Octavia is purely a matter of convenience.  Antony’s heart is in Egypt with Cleopatra, and that is where he will return.

Act 2, Scene 7 (918-21, Antony wins a drinking contest with Lepidus and Octavius; Sextus Pompeius puts honor before success and loses Menas’ respect)

Lepidus, the weakest member of the second triumvirate, is made quite drunk at the meeting between the three and their attendants at Misenum.  Antony makes sport of him by answering his silly questions about crocodiles with ludicrous tautologies: he tells Lepidus, the crocodile “is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath / breadth” (919, 2.7.39-40). 

Meanwhile, Sextus Pompeius shows himself to be so indebted to the concept of Roman honor that it prevents him from taking Menas’ advice: why not simply invite the triumvirs on board his ship and kill them (919, 2.7.67-70)?  Pompeius says that the man ought to have done this without telling him about it (919, 2.7.70-74).  Menas loses faith in Pompeius because of this rigidity—such an opportunity, he knows, will not come again: “Who seeks and will not take when once ‘tis offered, / Shall never find it more” (920, 2.7.78-79).

Scene 7 shows the triumvirs’ attitude towards drinking.  As the saying goes, in vino veritas.  We find out that Lepidus can’t hold his liquor, which suggests that he lacks self-mastery and is a follower, not a leader; Antony bows to nobody as a wassailer; and Caesar would just as well stay sober (920, 2.7.91-93, 96-97).  It’s obvious that he is determined to keep his wits about him, and is more responsible in his relationship to power than Antony.  Judgments are being made in this scene about who is a “real Roman” and who is most likely to succeed. 

We have seen how other Romans accuse Antony of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” to adapt a line from the 1960’s guru Timothy Leary.  But at this point in the play, Antony seems the strong master of revels; his range of experience and his appeal to others extends beyond Roman austerity and severity.  In his openness to experience, Antony is more of an Odyssean Greek than a Roman.  But as T. S. Eliot writes in his 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (921-22, Ventidius explains the Roman political star system: subordinates don’t upstage their commanders)

We might take the first few scenes as a commentary on Roman values.  Ventidius in Syria has returned in triumph, having defeated the Parthians who had done so much harm to Roman armies.  But he doesn’t pursue the Parthians simply because doing so would mean upstaging his commanding officer, Antony: “I have done enough.  A lower place, note well, / May make too great an act” (921, 3.1.12-13).  In a fiercely competitive Roman political universe, there is something like a star system in place: subordinates do not upstage their betters, if they know what’s good for them. 

Act 3, Scene 2 (922-24, Octavia and Caesar are sad at parting; Enobarbus’ gloss of the historical Antony)

Octavia weeps, and Caesar is sad at parting (922, 3.2.3-6).  Enobarbus undercuts the notion put forth by Agrippa that Antony wept without complication at the death of Julius Caesar: he says, “What willingly he did confound he wailed, / Believe’t, till I wept too” (923, 3.2.59-60).  Shakespeare seems concerned to remind us that we are dealing with historical events that have become shaded over with mythology, and the view he prefers at some points is the practical Roman perspective we find in Enobarbus’s clear-eyed statements.  What Enobarbus is suggesting is that Antony’s grief over the death of Caesar was no doubt sincere but also that his political wheels were spinning all the while, and the subject to be determined was how, exactly, Antony was going to position himself in the wake of this sad event.

Act 3, Scene 3 (924-25, Cleopatra rewards the messenger for reporting that she’s better looking than Octavia)

Cleopatra finds out that Octavia isn’t as beautiful as she—in fact, interprets Cleopatra from what the messenger says, she is “Dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (924, 3.2.16).  Cleopatra now rewards the messenger she had earlier struck (924-25).

Act 3, Scene 4 (925-26, War is brewing between Antony and Caesar)

War is brewing between Caesar and Antony, the latter of whom details his grievances to Octavia: Caesar, he says, has “waged / New wars ’gainst Pompey, made his will and read it / To public ear, spoke scantly of me …” (925, 3.4.3-5).  Antony agrees that Octavia might be helpful as a go-between, and he seems genuine in his desire that she should follow her heart in choosing sides, if that should become necessary: “Make your soonest haste; / So your desires are yours” (926, 3.4.27-28, see 20-28). 

Act 3, Scene 5 (926-27, Caesar has arrested Lepidus)

Lepidus and Caesar have warred with Pompeius, and then Caesar has arrested Lepidus (926, 3.5.10). 

Act 3, Scene 6 (927-29, Caesar is angry at Antony’s outrageous Egyptian self-crowning and at his treatment of Octavia)

In the sixth scene, Caesar is outraged when Antony and Cleopatra crown themselves in Asiatic splendor (927, 3.6.3-5).  The Roman people know of this, says Caesar (927, 3.6.21), who also declares himself annoyed that Octavia has come to visit him without the appropriate ceremony (928, 3.6.42-43).  His contempt for Antony’s conduct shows most when he says of the man, “He hath given his empire / Up to a whore” (928, 3.6.66-67).  Well, Caesar had agreed to the match between his rival and Octavia readily enough in spite of his reservations about Antony’s character.  Now he invites Octavia to stay on his side, suggesting that Antony has betrayed her: “You are abused / Beyond the mark of thought” (929, 3.6.86-87).

Act 3, Scene 7 (929-31, Cleopatra takes offense at Enobarbus’ suggestion to stay out of the wars; Antony decides to fight Caesar by sea on a dare; Antony is surprised at the speed and efficiency of Caesar’s forces)

Enobarbus tells Cleopatra to stay out of the wars, and she’s insulted at the suggestion, especially his remark that her “presence needs must puzzle Antony” (929, 3.7.10).  She will take part in Antony’s wars, declaring that she will, “as the president of my kingdom will / Appear there for a man” 929, 3.7.16-17).  She is a ruler and doesn’t accept the role of a “weak woman.”  Antony now makes the disastrous decision to fight Caesar by sea because the latter has dared him to do so.  Enobarbus is aghast at this “un-Roman” impracticality, at this preference for chance and hazard instead of security (930, 3.7.34-39).  Perhaps Antony is foolhardy, but he’s also honorable and noble; power sits lightly upon his shoulders.  The hair of wise and responsible rulers turns gray quickly, but one senses that such a transformation isn’t likely to overtake Mark Antony.  He’s too reckless to be weighed down by the demands of power, and prefers an unstable alliance between honor and hazard to a more stable one of the sort Enobarbus would counsel, and Caesar would certainly maintain.  At the end of the scene, Antony seems very surprised at how briskly Caesar’s forces are moving into position (930, 3.5.56-60).  The men around Antony (Camidius in particular) feel that since he’s led by a woman, so are they: “we are women’s men” (931, 3.7.).

Act 3, Scenes 8-10 (931-32, Antony and Cleopatra meet with disaster at sea; Camidius decides to desert, but Enobarbus stays on for the time being)

Caesar and Antony strategize; the former is all about maintaining control over events: “Strike not by land… / … Do not exceed / The prescript of this scroll” (931, 3.8.3-5). By the tenth scene, we hear that the Egyptian fleet has cut and run (931-932, 3.10.1-3).  Scarus laments that Antony’s Romans have “kissed away / Kingdoms and provinces” (932, 3.10.7-8)  The charge is that Antony is irresponsible in his deployment of military power.  He has allowed his love of Cleopatra to blind him to sound counsel, and Scarus laments, “Experience, manhood, honour, ne’er before / Did violate so itself” (932).  Incredibly, Antony has followed Cleopatra’s shameful retreat at the first sign of danger.  Camidius decides that he might as well go over to Caesar since Antony has lost control over his own destiny (932, 3.10.32-34).  Enobarbus knows what Camidius knows, but still can’t bring himself to abandon his commander: “I’ll yet follow / The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason / Sits in the wind against me” (932, 3.10.34-36).

Act 3, Scene 11 (932-34, Antony recognizes his error and loss of identity; he is furious with Cleopatra, but pardons her for a kiss)

Antony is horrified—“I have fled myself…” (933, 3.11.7) and “I have offended reputation; / A most unnoble swerving” (933, 3.11.48-49), he says, understanding that he has thrown away everything he worked for.  What makes the situation even more intolerable is Caesar’s relative lack of martial skill and experience; Antony reminds us that it was he who killed his friend Julius’ assassins while the fledgling stood by: “He at Philippi kept / His sword e’en like a dancer …” (933, 3.11.35-36).  Antony has been a world-historical actor, and now his star is eclipsed by a lesser man, at least in his view. 

Antony is at first furious with Cleopatra, but reconciles with her almost immediately.  When she asks pardon, he grants it, considering himself well repaid with a kiss (934, 3.11. 70-74).  He evidently places Cleopatra above victory on the battlefield.

Act 3, Scene 12 (934-35, Cleopatra behaves submissively towards devious Caesar, who demands that she exile or kill Antony)

Antony sends his schoolmaster to treat with Caesar (935, 3.12. 7-10).  Cleopatra says she will submit to Caesar and wishes only to remain Queen of Egypt, and while Caesar disregards Antony’s request to live in Egypt, he orders that the queen be comforted and promised all she wants, so long as she either exiles or kills Antony (935, 3.12. 20-24).  He supposes this shift will work because women, as far as he is concerned, are infinitely malleable under the pressure of circumstance.

Act 3, Scene 13 (935-40, Enobarbus blames Antony for the military disaster, but still can’t desert him; Antony offers Caesar an absurd challenge to single combat; Cleopatra cooperates with Caesar; Antony tries to recover what Caesar “knew I was” and rages at Cleopatra, though he again reconciles with her; Enobarbus finally decides to desert Antony)

Enobarbus won’t blame Cleopatra.  He says Antony has made his will “Lord of his reason” (935, 3.13.4-5).  Antony absurdly challenges Caesar to single combat (936, 3.13.24-27).  Enobarbus is stunned, and feels that Antony has been entirely bereft of sound judgment: “Mine honesty and I begin to square” (936, 3.13.40).  Enobarbus continues to mull his relationship with Antony, and thinks his loyalty will earn him a place in the story books, so to speak: by sticking with Antony, he’ll “conquer” the man who defeated that noble Roman.  The loyal friend who does this, he suggests, “… earns a place i’th’ story” (936, 3.13.45; see 42-45).  This might be labeled a metadramatic concern because Shakespeare himself is clearly interested in how legends become enmeshed with history.  Much of this play (to borrow a phrase from the New Historians) is about a kind of “self-fashioning” that, if successful, becomes the narrative by which we know the boldest among the ancients.  Even in Antony and Cleopatra’s own time, mythmaking was at work, and so were its critics. 

Cleopatra seems to be going along with Caesar’s program, flattering him with the words “He is a god, and knows / What is most right” (937, 3.13.60-61), while her lover is still saying “I am / Antony yet” (938, 3.13. 92-93).  He wants to re-embrace his identity as a valorous Roman commander, and orders Caesar’s messenger soundly whipped (938, 3.13.93).  Soon, his anger again turns towards Cleopatra in the memorable line, “You have been a boggler ever” (938, 3.13.111), whom he accuses of latching onto and manipulating famous Roman men like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and himself to enhance her own power, which rests on the different and most un-Roman basis of alliance with divine splendor and awe.  “I found you as a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar’s trencher…” (938, 3.13.117-18), he scolds Cleopatra.  The queen is the leader of an ancient personality cult, and while her stylistic affinity with Antony’s grandiose dimension is obvious, he now professes to find the whole affair disgusting.  Above all, he says, Cleopatra lacks “temperance” and indeed that she doesn’t even know the meaning of the word (938, 3.13.122). 

Antony’s anger also flows toward Caesar for “harping on what I am, / Not what he knew I was” (939, 3.13. 144-45).  Antony supposes that the reputation he has justly won entitles him to the continued respect and esteem of those who have overcome him.  The scene’s conclusion shows Antony reconciling yet again with Cleopatra (who after all seems to represent a tendency within him), and regains his composure: “I am satisfied,” he declares (939, 3.13.170).  Antony calls for a night of drinking and celebration on the eve of the final battle to recover his lost glory: “I and my sword will earn our chronicle. / There’s hope in’t yet” (940, 3.13.178-79).  He may yet win at Alexandria. 

This strange recovery on Antony’s part is the last straw for Enobarbus: “When valour preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with” (940, 3.13.201-02), says Enobarbus, and it’s time to desert his old commander at the earliest opportunity. 

Act 4, Scenes 1-6 (940-44, Battle is coming on and true natures are reckoned: Antony is elegiac but resolute and is magnanimous towards Enobarbus the deserter; Caesar shows the nature of his new world order in his ruthless military arrangements; Enobarbus abhors himself and determines to die)

These brief scenes convey the contrasting attitudes and reactions on the part of Antony and Caesar to towards the coming battle.  Antony is at times elegiac in tone, as in the second scene: “Perchance tomorrow / You’ll serve another master” (941, 4.2.27-28), he tells his men, and “I hope well of tomorrow…” (942, 4.2.42), to the dismay of Enobarbus. 

In the third scene, a soldier takes a noise to be Hercules abandoning Antony (942, 4.3.14-15), which is especially significant since Antony’s family claimed descent from that demigod. 

In the fourth scene, Antony seems resolute: he will bring the willing to the battle, and wishes Cleopatra could behold him in all his splendor: “That thou couldst see my wars today, and knew’st / The royal occupation!”  (943, 4.4.15-17). 

In the fifth scene, Antony learns that Enobarbus has deserted him, and realizes that his “fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (944, 4.5.16-17).  He says these words to Eros and not in soliloquy, but they seem heartfelt. 

In the sixth scene, Caesar declares that “the time of universal peace is near” (944, 4.6.4), yet without compunction he also betrays the true nature of this new world order: he advises his lieutenant to place units recently revolted from Antony at the forefront, so that in the first rounds of the battle, Antony will be killing his own men (945, 4.6.8-10).  Enobarbus has now come to realize that he has destroyed his self-image in abandoning Antony: “I am alone the villain of the earth …” (945, 4.6.30).  When Antony generously sends him his treasure from camp, the desolation of Enobarbus is complete.  He resolves to die as quickly and wretchedly as possible: “I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die” (945, 4.6.37-38).

Act 4, Scenes 7-12 (945-48, Antony enjoys temporary success; Enobarbus dies; Caesar will fight Antony by sea)

So far, Antony’s desperate gambit shows signs of success since, as Agrippa says, Caesar seems to have overextended his forces (946, 4.9.1-3) and Eros is able to announce to Antony, “They are beaten, sir” (946, 4.8.8).  For the moment, Caesar has been driven back to his camp, a fact that Antony trumpets in the ninth scene, with special instructions to inform the queen of this great feat (946, 4.9.1).

Enobarbus dies reasserting his admiration for Antony: “Forgive me in thine own particular, / But let the world rank me in register / A master-leaver and a fugitive,” he prays, and his beloved general’s name is the last word he utters. (4.10.19-21).  Friendship or amicitia was among the highest Roman values, and it is this value that Enobarbus realizes he has sordidly betrayed. 

In the twelfth scene, Caesar announces that he will fight Antony at sea one last time (948, 4.12.1-4).

Act 4, Scenes 13-14 (948-50, the fleet again deserts Antony, who becomes enraged with Cleopatra; Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument and play dead)

The fleet again deserts Antony (949, 4.13.3-4), even going over to Caesar’s side.  Upon this betrayal, Antony declares Cleopatra a “Triple-turned whore” (949, 4.13.13) and himself betrayed and finished, defeated by a cowardly queen and a journeyman politician: “O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more. / Fortune and Antony part here” (949, 4.13.18-19).  He is so infuriated with her that he seethes, “The witch shall die” (949, 4.13.47) and for a moment imagines her at the mercy of the Roman plebeians (949, 4.13.33-34).

Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument, and send false word of her death.  The Queen agrees.  (950, 4.14.3-4).

Act 4, Scene 15 (950-53, Antony believes Cleopatra has committed suicide, and botches an attempt at the same; Decretas takes his sword to give to Caesar)

Antony continues to lament what he considers Cleopatra’s betrayal, admitting that he “made these wars” for no one but Egypt and her (950, 4.15.15).  When he hears that she has supposedly committed suicide, however, he is again instantly reconciled: “I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (951, 4.15.44-45).  She has shown him the way in conquering herself, he thinks (951, 4.15.59-62), and thereupon makes a botched attempt to fall on his sword after his servant Eros commits suicide rather than assist his master in dying (952, 4.15.92-105).  Nobody will help Antony end his life, and Decretas even takes his sword as a token with which to ingratiate himself with Caesar (953, 4.15.111-12).

Act 4, Scene 16 (954-56, Antony and Cleopatra are together one last time, and as he is dying she plans to go out in the Roman way)

Antony and Cleopatra are together for one final scene, and when he tries to get her to seek safety and honor in Caesar, she bravely points out that “honour” and “safety” don’t go together (955, 4.16.49).  That has long been the creed Antony has followed, for better or for worse.  Antony falls back on the classical notion that glory is a matter of what your peers and descendants think of you.  His wretched present, he trusts, will not blot out the glorious remembrance he has earned by his brave deeds in the past: “please your thoughts / In feeding them with those my former fortunes …” (955, 4.16. 54-55; see 53-61).  Moments later, he dies.  Cleopatra says that she and Charmian, too, will evade the clutches of Caesar; they will exit the world instead “after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us” (956, 4.16.89-90).

Act 5, Scene 1 (956-58, Caesar, though ruthless, is saddened by Antony’s death; he tells Proculeius to deceive Cleopatra and thereby preserve her for an eventual spot in his triumph)

When Decretas informs Caesar that Antony is dead, he seems genuinely saddened: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack” (956, 5.1.14-15).  Antony lived prodigiously, and yet his passing has been noted as if it were a thing of nothing, no ceremony.  Caesar may not be much of a pageantry promoter, but he shows some regard for the rites due to honor.  His sense of loss seems sincere, and he regrets what his need to maintain and increase his power has supposedly forced him to do (957, 5.1.35-48).  Which doesn’t, of course, mean that he wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.

Caesar serves political expediency as his master, but this doesn’t give us the right to say he’s a mere hypocrite: it is not unreasonable to suggest that his strength consists partly in the attitude he takes up towards what his station as a public man leads him to do.  His ruthless actions are taken in the name of “universal peace” and the greater glory of Rome.  He sometimes deceives others about the nature of what he does, but he doesn’t deceive himself about the disjunction between his ideals and his deeds. 

We see all this in the way he treats Cleopatra: he bids Proculeius to treat the queen kindly and make her what promises he finds suitable, but this is only a shift to bring her in triumph to Rome, where she will be an object of mockery for the rabble: “for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph” (957, 5.1. 65-66; see 61-68).

Act 5, Scene 2 (958-67, Cleopatra engages in final self-refashioning as a Roman hero, exalts Antony to the skies; Dolabella warns her of Caesar’s plan, and she determines to meet Antony in death; Caesar personally tries to deceive and threaten Cleopatra, but she succeeds in committing suicide; Caesar recognizes his opponents’ mettle after their deaths)

Cleopatra is refashioning herself as heroic in the Roman style, as one determined to take her own life.  We might suppose this is a matter of adopting a style; but then, Cleopatra takes style quite seriously, and her Pharaonic self-fashioning is no light matter.  It wouldn’t be right to take that quality away from her.  She is surrounded by Caesar’s soldiers, and now determines that she will not become the sport of the vulgar in Rome: “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome?”  (959, 5.2.54-56) 

In the presence of Dolabella, Cleopatra refashions and aggrandizes Antony to the point of deification, musing, “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” and “His legs bestrid the ocean /  his reared arm / Crested the world …” (960, 5.2.75, 81-82; see 81-91, 95-99).  She has always shown this propensity to exalt the deeds and reputation of Antony, but now that death is closing in, her efforts intensify and take on heightened significance; this is the “Antony” to whom Cleopatra will soon attempt to return in Elysium, reunited there as a still grander couple than they were on earth.

Dolabella plays an honorable role, forewarning Cleopatra of the shameful fate that awaits her in only three days (960-61, 5.2.104-09). 

Caesar enters and plays both gracious conqueror and vicious threatener of Cleopatra’s progeny, if she should follow Antony’s self-destructive course (961, 5.2.120-29).  When Seleucis betrays Cleopatra over her holding back some treasure from Caesar (961, 5.2.144), she is shocked (962, 5.2.155-60), which reaction suggests that she still doesn’t understand the dynamics of power: people obey those in whom they find real, actionable strength; they don’t long obey those who have only majesty and divine pomp to back their rule.  She resents being “worded” by Caesar (962, 5.2.187-88), and loathes the prospect of “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy[ing] my greatness, / I’th’ posture of a whore” (963, 5.2.216-17; see 203-17).  She has always been an actor of sorts, but in her own proper sphere as Egyptian Queen, her acting the part of a goddess had been correlated with the exercise of power.  In Rome, what had been world-historical drama would be reduced to an entertaining farce for the multitude.

Cleopatra declares that there will be a final meeting with Antony in death: “I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony” (963, 5.2.224-25).  It is noteworthy that the place name refers to her initial seduction of Antony in 41 BCE, when he summoned her to Tarsus and she floated down the river Cydnus on that famous barge we recall from Enobarbus’ description (908-09, 2.2.197-211).  Cleopatra will achieve this meeting—essentially a return to an initial triumph—by casting off the supposed weakness of her sex: “I have nothing / Of woman in me” (964, 5.2.234-35). 

In comes the Clown, with his prayer that Cleopatra may find “all joy of the worm” or Nile serpent he has brought her (964, 5.2.253).  It’s worth considering why Shakespeare has chosen to present Cleopatra with her death in this semi-comic, bizarre rustic.  Perhaps it has something to do with the utter strangeness of each person’s ending, at least to that person; perhaps, also, it has to do with the fact that as Cleopatra lived and risked all for an erotic affair, the Clown’s patently phallic references (his puns on “dying” as orgasm in particular at 964, 5.2.244-50) end up being as pertinent  as they are indecorous and impertinent on his part.  A third consideration is that the Clown presents the queen with one last challenge to her royal and wished-for divine dignity.  Be that as it may, Cleopatra meets her death bravely, calling upon Antony to witness her courage, saying, “I have / Immortal longings in me,” and “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (965, 5.2.271-72, 280-81).  She dies at (5.2.303), Iras having preceded her in passing just moments before.

Caesar, whom Cleopatra considers almost with her last breath an “ass / Unpolicied” (965, 5.2.298) for allowing her to make away with herself, enters the scene after her death and declares it noble and an act of loyalty to Antony.  He ratifies Charmian’s dying words that Cleopatra’s death is “well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings” (966, 5.2.317-18), and agrees to bury her next to Antony, apparently recognizing the high tragedy of their doomed love match, the “pity” of which equals the “glory” of his current status as military victor and his future as Rome’s sole ruler (967, 5.2.348-53).  There’s dignity in sublime failure, it seems, as well as in the establishment of peace and long-continued rule.  Rome, Incorporated will have its shiny new CEO, and for Augustus Caesar, apotheosis to heaven can wait.  Both Antony and Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar are great in their respective ways, but the former are crushed by the modern world in which Octavius moves more deftly, if not with the same tragic glory.

Antony and Cleopatra’s manner of dying, and Caesar’s of living and governing, together show a clash of value systems, a fissure in the concept of Romanness.  I don’t think the play condemns either system, although it shows the consequences and historical import of both: modern, material politics wins.  We should bear in mind the strangeness of the final two acts’ tragic arc: Antony’s sudden condemnations and reconciliations, Cleopatra’s dissembling and final adoption of Roman heroism, Caesar’s recognition of the lasting narrative value of the great pair he has hounded to their demise.  Throughout the play, Antony and Cleopatra have been both each other’s downfall and salvation: in the end, Cleopatra’s initial false suicide taught Antony to do the right thing in earnest, and that suicide, in turn, led Cleopatra to exit the world’s stage like the hybrid Egyptian Queen and antique Roman she had become. 

There is just the hint of an imperfectly realized romance pattern in Antony and Cleopatra: we might say that this hint is to be found in the fourth act when the royal couple are forced to attempt a transition from the loss of supreme power to a more perfect union as lovers.  It’s true that this play, in terms of Shakespeare’s chronology, is crafted at the tail end of his so-called dark period and on the cusp of the romance plays that round off his career.  But romance entails selective survival; even as it provides second chances and near-miraculous reconciliations, instilling in us a sense that the world isn’t quite as harsh as we thought it was, romance requires us to accept the reality that recovery comes only with partial loss and the admission of alterations wrought by time and foolishness.  The romance pattern can’t altogether annihilate time or decay, and it doesn’t seem to allow for straightforward exaltation or apotheosis to perfection.  In the end, its miracles are profoundly human, and tinged with sorrow and mortality.  The historical record in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, of course, makes the romance pattern impossible: that record tells us of the liquidation of a famous couple at the hands of a power-consolidating corporation man in Octavius.  Shakespeare takes the two lovers in a different direction more consonant with tragedy.  Their persistent, impressive self-mythologizing and image-projecting lends them a measure of larger-than-lifeness, and they place their love beyond any power that Caesar’s politics and armies can wield against them.  The play remains firmly in the tragic camp since the relentless pursuit by Caesar at last yields the results he’s been aiming for: sole possession of the world’s first superpower, the Roman Empire. If there’s success for Antony and Cleopatra, it’s that audiences during and since Shakespeare’s time have probably found it difficult to decide between the romantic status of the two great lovers and the historical achievements of the enigmatic Octavius, thereafter to be known as Augustus Caesar.

What we are treated to, then, is not the bittersweet survival and renewal that we encounter in plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, but instead Antony and Cleopatra’s classical attempt by means of soaring words and exuberant perspectives to attain a new and marvelous love beyond the wreckage that was the end of the Roman Republic, with its proscriptions, assassinations, wars and internecine rivalries, and beyond even the birth of the Empire.  This sounds like a classical apotheosis to the heavens after the manner of ancient Greek heroes who became demigods after their deaths; this apotheosis involves the transposition of a perfect love into another and diviner key: this attempted transformation, at least if we do not grant Cleopatra her metaphysical reunion with Antony, fits the tragic pattern, and we are left with the crushing of a magnificent couple’s last-minute attempts at projecting themselves to a perpetual match in the heavens and thereby escaping their failure in the material world dominated by Caesar.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Romeo and Juliet

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 181-256).

ACT 1

1. What does the Prologue announce as the subject of this tragedy? What moral lesson does the Prologue promise the play will deliver?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, in what light does the bantering and quarreling amongst the servants and higher-status characters from the two houses cast the “civil strife” that has been going on in Verona? What seems to underlie their dissension?

3. In Act 1, Scene 1, what has the Prince apparently been doing about the problem between the Montagues and Capulets? What does he do about it now — what sentence does he pronounce, and how effective does it seem?

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, we first hear about and then meet Romeo when he talks with Benvolio. What state of mind does Romeo seem to be in, and why? What is characteristic of his speech? What advice does Benvolio offer Romeo, and how does the latter respond?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, what is father Capulet’s plan for Juliet? What opportunity does this plan create for Romeo, who at this point has never seen Juliet?

6. In Act 1, Scene 3, Juliet’s nurse (Angelica) is included in the family discussion — what has been the nurse’s relationship with Juliet? What is her perspective on the current plan to marry her to Paris, the Prince’s worthy kinsman? To what extent does the nurse seem wise or authoritative in her pronouncements?

7. In Act 1, Scene 4, Mercutio recounts the legend of Queen Mab. What is this legend, and what seems to be the point of Mercutio’s mentioning it at this point? How does Romeo react to Mercutio’s speech about Mab?

8. In Act 1, Scene 5, the Capulet festivities are the scene of Romeo’s first meeting with Juliet. What happens during this encounter — how does Shakespeare represent the process of “falling in love” as we discover it in the looks, actions, and words of Romeo and Juliet? On the negative side, how does Tybalt remind us of the obstacles the two new lovers will face?

ACT 2

9. In Act 2, Scene 1, what view of romantic love does Mercutio offer by way of deflating Romeo’s naive, wholehearted outlook? What are Mercutio’s strengths and limitations as a source of perspective in this play?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet meet again. Both are idealistic in their way, but what differences may be found between them in the degree and quality of their idealism regarding love and courtship? What concerns does Juliet show heightened awareness of that do not seem of immediate concern to Romeo?

11. In Act 2, Scene 3, Friar Lawrence goes along with Romeo’s plan to wed Juliet secretly. What assumptions does the Friar make about the situation? Lawrence is surely a sympathetic figure, but why is his conduct in this scene a portent of misfortunes to come?

12. In Act 2, Scene 4, Mercutio indirectly mocks Tybalt, the young man who will soon kill him in a fight. In what way is Mercutio both a participant in the hostilities between the Capulets and Montagues and yet capable of seeing beyond them? How does he treat Juliet’s nurse when she comes calling? How does he match wits with Romeo, and regarding what subject?

13. In Act 2, Scene 5, Nurse Angelica again offers advice and support to Juliet. In his lecture on Romeo and Juliet, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is also a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse. How is that apparent in this scene?

ACT 3

14. In Act 3, Scene 1, Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio. How does this deed unfold — what part does Romeo play in Mercutio’s death? What parting wisdom does Mercutio offer as he dies? Also, how does the Prince deal with this latest outbreak of factional violence in Verona? Does his sentence seem wise, or unwise? Explain your rationale.

15. In Act 3, Scene 2, what is Juliet doing when she gets the bad news about the death of Tybalt (her kinsman) and Romeo’s part in the fighting as well as his banishment from Verona. How does she react to this news? What dilemma does she face, and how does she bear up in light of it?

16. In Act 3, Scene 3, what advice does Friar Lawrence give Romeo to overcome his difficulties as a banished member of a warring house? What limitations does the Friar betray in this scene — how does Romeo himself characterize the Friar’s understanding of romantic love?

17. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in dangerous circumstances. What traditional poetic genre do they invoke at first light? How do they view their situation and their prospects at this point?

18. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, what expectations do Juliet’s parents (her father in particular) have for her? What might account for her father’s harsh words and threats, both in the most obvious sense and at a deeper psychological level?

ACT 4

19. In Act 4, Scenes 1-4, what is Friar Lawrence’s scheme to bring Juliet through her difficulties? How does Juliet receive this plan? What are her fears and resolutions as she puts it into action? Does she seem to have matured by this point in the play? Explain your rationale for responding as you do.

20. In Act 4, Scene 5, the Capulet parents believe they have suffered an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear: the loss of a beloved only child. Describe this scene as a whole in terms of its mixture of lamentation, grotesque description, and comedy.

ACT 5

21. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, what course of action does Romeo determine now that (so far as he knows) Juliet is dead? What discomfiting news does Friar Lawrence receive about the progress of his plan for Romeo and Juliet?

22. In Act 5, Scene 3, Romeo makes his way to the Capulets’ tomb. What is his intention, and what actually happens in the tomb? What mistaken assumptions and accidents help make this scene as tragic as it is?

23. At the play’s end, Friar Lawrence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven for his role in the sad events. It has been said that Romeo and Juliet is not tragic because accidents are mostly responsible for the disastrous outcome. Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not? If you see Romeo and Juliet as genuinely tragic, what is the tragic quality or dimension in the play?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Othello

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Othello. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 425-507).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what reasons does Iago give to justify his hatred of Othello? Do they seem sufficient grounds for such animosity? Also, to what extent (in this scene and in 1.3), does Iago seem like more than a one-dimensional stage villain?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, how is Othello’s elopement with Desdemona described to her father Brabanzio? That is, what specific racial or cultural terms do Iago and Roderigo use to urge Brabanzio to act against Othello? How does Brabanzio himself take the news?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, how does Othello confront the charge leveled against him? What wins over the Duke of Venice (if not Brabanzio)? Consider mainly Othello’s performance as a speaker — what is it about his bearing and his language that makes him attractive in this regard?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, Othello stakes his life on Desdemona’s faithful recounting of their love’s development. How does Desdemona explain and defend her love for this stranger to Venetian ways? What strengths does she show at this early point in the play, when we get our first look at her?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Iago counsels Desdemona’s admirer, Roderigo. What grounds for hope does Iago give Roderigo: how, that is, does he explain the nature of Desdemona’s affection for Othello and why does he claim that their love can’t last? To what vision of love does Roderigo himself subscribe? (2.1.213-85 is also relevant to this question if you are presenting on it or developing a paper topic.)

ACT 2

6. In Act 2, Scene 1, Desdemona banters with both Michael Cassio and Iago. What topics do they discuss, and in what manner do they talk about them? What in these innocent conversations might be said to signal trouble for Desdemona and Cassio, and opportunity for Iago? Why so?

7. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Iago contrive Cassio’s ruin? What role does Roderigo play in the plot, and what weaknesses does Cassio show in this scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 3, Othello dismisses Cassio from his service. What is the basis for his judgment? Characterize the process whereby he arrives at and then conveys this judgment. To what extent does Othello’s treatment of Cassio seem justified? Explain the rationale for your response to this last question.

ACT 3

9. In Act 3, Scene 3, discuss Iago’s rhetorical strategy in bringing Othello round to condemning his wife for adultery. What images and ideas does Iago plant in Othello’s head, and in what order? How does he keep his own base, self-interested motives from becoming plain to Othello?

10. In Act 3, Scene 3, what weakness or incapacity of judgment does Othello betray? By the end of 3.3, what deterioration or contraction has taken place in Othello’s outlook on his career and his marriage?

11. In Act 3, Scene 4, Othello manifests his famous obsession with the handkerchief he gave Desdemona. What underlies the power of this token — what history and qualities does Othello attribute to it, and why does its loss drive him nearly mad?

12. In Act 3, Scene 4, Emilia and Desdemona discuss men’s treatment of women and, in particular, men’s jealousy. In what sense is Emilia a foil to Desdemona’s sensibility here and elsewhere in the play? Also, when Desdemona says, “I never gave him {Othello} cause,” is her statement entirely accurate? Why or why not?

ACT 4

13. In Act 4, Scenes 1-2, consider how Othello’s dialogue with Iago affects his argument with Desdemona in 4.2. How does Iago’s cunning help make Othello deaf to Desdemona’s self-defense?

14. In Act 4, Scene 2, discuss Desdemona’s self-defense both in speaking with Othello and then with Emilia and Iago. What does she rely on to protect her reputation? And in 4.3, how does Desdemona respond to Emilia’s spirited assault on men’s deceptive ways?

ACT 5

15. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, how does Iago try to secure the final success of his wicked plan? What circumstances prove to be his undoing, and how does his fall help to cap off the play’s tragic ending in relation to Othello?

16. In Aristotelian tragedy, the protagonist must recognize his or her error and reassert some measure of personal dignity in the face of ruin. In Act 5, Scene 2, by what means does Othello come to understand his error? How does he reassert his dignity? To what extent do others recognize any such accomplishment? Do you find it sufficient? Why or why not?

17. General question: if you have seen Oliver Parker’s film of Othello (starring Laurence Fishburne), how well do you think it captures the movement and thematic significance of Shakespeare’s text? What did you like about the film? What, if anything, didn’t you like about it, and why?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Julius Caesar

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 257-321).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, a cobbler parries wits with the tribunes Murellus and Flavius. What is the subject of their conversation? What atmosphere surrounds them as they talk in the streets of Rome — what is the occasion for the large gathering of common people (i.e. plebeians) like the cobbler? What accusations does Murellus make against these commoners, and what is his own attitude towards Julius Caesar?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, we are introduced to Caesar at a few points. What is the “great man” like — what attributes does Shakespeare apparently mean to foreground? For example, what do you infer from the way Caesar handles the soothsayer’s urgent cry about “the Ides of March,” and what impression does Caesar’s concern about Cassius make?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Cassius sounds out Brutus on the issue of Caesar’s increasing power. Consider his statements as persuasive acts, as “rhetoric”: what specific images, insinuations, and arguments does he set before Brutus to win him over? What seems to motivate Cassius to oppose Caesar? What assumptions does he make about his friend Brutus?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Brutus receive and respond to Cassius’ attempt to enlist him in a conspiracy against Caesar? What qualities does he show that set him apart from Cassius? Is there anything disturbing or incongruous or revealing about his responses to Cassius? If so, what?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Cassius goes to work on Casca (with whom he had spoken earlier as well, in Scene 2). Taking into account Casca’s words in Scenes 2 and 3, characterize this conspirator: what seems to his particular attitude about current conditions in Rome, about the point of conspiring against Caesar, and drawing Brutus into the plan?

ACT 2

6. In Act 2, Scene 1, what feelings and thoughts occur to the solitary Brutus as he considers what to do? What reasoning process does he employ to convince himself that Caesar, his friend and benefactor, must die? What reflections does he make regarding the more general subject of “conspiracy” — what seems to be his attitude towards conspiracy in general?

7. In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus is introduced by Cassius to the other conspirators: Casca, Decius, Cinna, Metellus Cimber, and Trebonius (Caius Ligarius enters later). What problem does Brutus identify with the oath they want to swear? How does he handle the call to do away with Mark Antony, and how does he describe the actual violence that must be done to Caesar? Is his description realistic, or naive? Explain.

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, after speaking with the conspirators and before convincing Caius Ligarius to join the cause, Brutus returns home and faces his wife Portia’s concern. What has she been observing of late about her husband? What appeal does she make to get him to confide in her? What image or impression of this famous Roman couple does this brief scene provide?

9. In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus speaks briefly to Caius Ligarius and has no trouble convincing him to participate in the conspiracy. The language they employ is drawn from medicine: they speak of sickness and health. At what other points do those terms appear in the play? What is their thematic significance?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, what seems to be Caesar’s frame of mind when he hears of Calphurnia’s nightmare and gets bad news from his augurers? How genuine do you find his bravery in the face of these tidings? How does Decius change his mind and convince him to go to the Capitol? On the whole, what image of Caesar prevails in these brief moments before he goes to his death?

11. In Act 2, Scenes 3-4, Artemidorus (a rhetorician), alone, reads a letter of warning he intends to hand Caesar, and Portia briefly meets the Soothsayer Caesar had earlier called “a dreamer.” How does the dialog heighten the suspense in advance of the next scene? How do Portia’s words, in particular, affect your perspective on the murder to come?

ACT 3

12. In Act 3, Scene 1, Caesar is cut down by the daggers of Brutus and his fellow conspirators. What device do the killers employ to isolate and transfix their target? How well does Caesar live up to his star billing in this world-historical event — how well, that is, does he die? What do Brutus and Cassius respectively say and do right after the murder and before Antony’s servant enters at line 122?

13. In Act 3, Scene 1, Antony sends word by a servant that he wants to talk with Brutus and understand why he has killed their mutual friend, Caesar. What more does Antony ask of Brutus, and how does he take advantage of Brutus’ honorable character in the conversation that follows through line 253?

14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what does Antony reveal to be his true motive in the soliloquy (lines 254-75) that follows his conversation with the conspirators? Does this soliloquy make you think the worse of Antony, or does he have some measure of right on his side? When you hear the word “Roman,” what qualities come to mind first? What kind of “Roman” is this complex, cunning Antony?

15. In Act 3, Scene 2, what defense does Brutus make of what he and the other conspirators have done? Upon what principles does he say they have acted? How well does his rhetoric succeed with his audience of commoners or plebeians — what do they appear to want by the time he finishes speaking?

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, how does Antony, speaking in the wake of Brutus, persuade the commoners in favor of Caesar and against the conspirators? What specific appeals does he make to the people? What devices or tricks of rhetoric does he employ to hold their attention and win their hearts? By the end of his speech, what has he accomplished — what is the situation now?

ACT 4

17. In Act 4, Scene 1, Antony confers with Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) and the third member of the Second Triumvirate (43-33 BCE), Lepidus. What new facet of himself does Antony reveal in the course of his discussion with Octavius? How does the latter react to Antony’s characterization of Lepidus, and how does Antony respond? Finally, what is the plan against the conspirators at this point?

18. In Act 4, Scenes 2-3, what is the cause of the argument between Cassius and Brutus? What injustice has Cassius committed? How does Cassius manage to heal the rift between them — on what grounds does he appeal to Brutus, and why is his attempt so successful?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Brutus take the news of his wife Portia’s suicide? What reasons does he give for his decision to reject Cassius’ battle tactics and instead to meet the enemy forthrightly at Philippi? Why does Caesar’s ghost appear to Brutus towards the end of the scene — what, if anything, may we infer from this unearthly visit about the rightness of Brutus’ cause so far and about the value of his plans for the future?

ACT 5

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, describe the brief parley or meeting between the forces of Antony and Octavius and Brutus and Cassius: what charges and counter-charges do they level against one another? What philosophical meditation does Brutus share afterwards when he is alone with Cassius? How do you interpret what Brutus says at this point — what does he plan to do if he is threatened with capture?

21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what military error has Brutus committed, according to Titinius? How is that error symptomatic of Brutus’ mistaken assumptions throughout the play? Cassius orders his slave Pindarus to run him through with the sword he used to kill Caesar. What are Brutus’ reflections when he learns that his friend is dead?

22. In Act 5, Scene 5, what parting thoughts does Brutus offer about his course of action as he prepares to run upon his sword? Why does he think that he, and not Antony and Octavius, will be best remembered? A short while later, how does Antony memorialize his now-departed enemy?

23. In Act 5, Scene 5 and in general, since it is really Brutus and not Caesar who is the play’s protagonist, how would you characterize Brutus’ tragedy? What accounts for his failure as a political actor? To what extent do his Roman virtues redeem him? To what extent does he attain to tragic insight into the causes of his failure to defeat “Caesarism” and re-establish Republican virtues?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake