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Of Infinite Variety: The Promise of Comedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Of Infinite Variety: The Promise Of Comedy In Shakespeare’s Antony And Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s comedies can generally be understood through their endings in marriage. In marriage, two particular individuals, with diverse and even opposing desires and interests, are reconciled as one. By focusing on romantic unions, Shakespeare’s comedy marks the movement of distinct, and seemingly opposed, subjective understandings and their capacity to be reconciled to one another. This can be seen in Much Ado About Nothing, where the “merry war” between Benedict and Beatrice is resolved when they recognize the limits of their own wills and the validity of the other’s. Having done so, they may will the other’s good and more fully love them and be loved by them. Moreover, marriage allows this reconciliation to be politically grounded, to be realized in time, rather than abstractly. Consequently, the marriages at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies often transform the political order. They allow for a political life based in integrating the subjective desires of others, just as in marriage; the multiple marriages at the end of As You Like It in pre-political Arden allow for and require a return to the political, and the “envious court” is ultimately able to integrate the subjective wills of its citizens through the recognition of these marriages. Shakespeare’s tragedies, in contrast, show the failure of reconciliation, not only of characters and their representative principles to one another, but to the political community as a whole. In tragedy, the characters’ wills are left unsatisfied. Hope for mediation is lost. The marriages that close Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It are contrasted with the dissolution of marital unions seen in Othello and Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra presents a more complex interplay between the two genres. While Antony and Cleopatra desire one another, their duties to their political communities are opposed, as the growing Roman empire ultimately desires to subsume Egypt, and take Cleopatra as a prize, to make her “infinite variety” subject to Rome’s universality. The play makes the dialectical aspect between opposing principles of comedy particularly explicit, as Antony and Cleopatra are portrayed as opposites who yet desire one another. Shakespeare uses Antony and Cleopatra as stand ins for the universal and particular. While the play follows their love affair, as a comedy might, their love is never sanctified in marriage. Rather, the play ends in both their suicides when Antony and Cleopatra’s romance becomes irreconcilable with their respective political duties in Rome and Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra both believe that the end they desire with the other is impossible and so choose to commit suicide. Their suicides suggest that a mediation between the two characters, and the universal and particular which they represent, is impossible. The only time they may be together is in death, which suggests they may only be together when they have moved beyond their particular forms. The failure for Antony and Cleopatra to be reconciled to one another and united in marriage makes the play appear tragic.

Antony and Cleopatra’s suicides, however, are not so simply understood. Rather than die immediately in the face of their failings, both Antony and Cleopatra’s lives are extended. This allows for them not only to become reconciled to each other, but to their participation in the world. Moreover, Shakespeare suggests Antony and Cleopatra do in fact achieve a kind of marriage in death. This marriage is in turn politically recognized by Octavius Caesar. Through his treatment of their suicides, Shakespeare suggests that the comedic mediation of two distinct particulars in marriage, even in death, transforms the otherwise tragic failure to reconcile them. The play ends in their union ultimately, if not in time, and through Octavius’ actions, a desire for the political order to realize the same union. Considering the historical setting of Antony Cleopatra, falling at the very end of the Ancient world and immediately before the onset of Christianity allows one to understand the play as bridging the gap between the ancient and Christian world. Since Antony and Cleopatra are married in death, the play suggests that it is possible for the particular to be maintained in death, rather than destroyed by it. Antony and Cleopatra looks beyond an Ancient understanding of the fate of the soul in death, wherein one’s particularity is lost, and towards the Christian account. That is, the play suggests the universal and particular desire, and ultimately achieve, a similar marital union. Through the interplay of tragedy and comedy, Antony and Cleopatra offers a way of reconciling the Ancient and Christian understanding by taking what could be tragedy and transforming it into comedy, such that the tragic vision of the ancient world may also be taken up and transformed by Christianity.


Shakespeare introduces Antony and Cleopatra through an exchange on the nature of their love. Cleopatra asks Antony, “if it be love indeed, tell me how much” (1.1.14). Antony responds, “there’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned” (15). With this, the lovers begin to take shape as opposing principles.

When Antony tells Cleopatra, “there’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” he is taking on a universal understanding of love. Antony’s love is infinite. To put it in temporal terms would be to pervert it. As he proclaims to Cleopatra, “kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike/Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life/is to do thus” (35). Antony understands his proper end in a union with Cleopatra. This end requires, for Antony, a purgation of all externalities. Antony seeks to make himself an essence of Antony, an Antony beyond all sensible particulars, and thereby prove Cleopatra’s love. If Cleopatra truly loves Antony, she would love this essence of Antony. Otherwise, her love could be for his adornments and actions alone. Ironically, using “thus” as a stand-in for whatever the deed is requires the deed to be staged, and thereby be made concrete. Antony’s language in its obscurity actually points past itself to a tangible act.

The limits of Antony’s desire for a love free from externalities are pointed to in his opening conversation with Cleopatra and are later fully revealed in his suicide attempt. Antony enters the stage and asks, “Eros, can you still see me?” (4.14.1). The personification of Eros as Antony’s friend makes his desire manifest and external to himself. Just as Antony’s words attempt to point to something abstract but actually require concrete deeds, rather than be infinite and beyond reckoning, Antony’s desire takes the form of a particular person. When he asks if Eros can still see him, Antony questions whether he is even still present to his own desire, as “here I am Antony,/Yet cannot hold this visible shape” (13-14). Antony tells Eros that all that is left is “ourselves to end ourselves” (22). What remains of Antony’s autonomy is the capacity to die. That is, Antony now understands himself as having his own destruction as his end. His object is his own non-being. Before any deed can be done, Antony’s thought here is interrupted by a messenger who tells him that Cleopatra has killed herself.

When Antony learns that Cleopatra has killed herself, he hopes to follow her into death, “and weep for [his] pardon” (4.14.45). In death, Antony could have an infinite union with Cleopatra, free from all externality; surely there can be no beggary in love if love is no longer subject to time. He tells Eros he will be “a bridegroom in [his] death, and run into’t/As to a lover’s bed” (100-101). Antony seeks death as a completion of his desire, and so commands Eros to kill him. Desire, however, is not as Antony understands it. Eros cannot fulfill Antony’s command and kills himself instead (95). When Eros dies instead of Antony, Eros gives Antony the opportunity to seek another end. Taking the image literally, desire takes Antony’s death for him; it becomes death, not as Antony understands it as the transcendence of the finite, but as the means by which one might act freely in the finite.

Antony is distanced from himself and so unable to understand the lesson Eros gives him. Rather, Antony understands both Eros and Cleopatra as having taught him how to die, not understanding that Eros dies to save him, or that Cleopatra is still alive. To imitate Eros, Antony falls on his sword. Antony, however, does not die straightaway. He has merely wounded himself. Shakespeare saves Antony from his misunderstanding of Eros and makes this act comedic. Antony exclaims, “how, not dead? Not dead?” (103). Antony’s failed suicide is indicative of his lost and forgotten self. He has forgotten his own, finite being, and so cannot even kill himself. By the time he decides to kill himself, Antony no longer has a self to kill, nor a self to do the deed. That is, Antony has become abstract to himself. By distancing himself from the particular world, Antony in fact distances himself from any recognizable being as Antony. Walking in and seeing Antony, the guards believe he is dead and exclaim, “time is at his period” (109).3 The understand Antony’s death as the end of time. As his suicide was a failure, however, rather than signifying the end of time, time is dramatically extended for Antony. Antony’s desire to marry death, and so be free from time, is interrupted by time. In so doing, Shakespeare allows the possibility for the play to end as a comedy rather than tragedy.

Though Antony has not yet realized it, his desire for the universal preserves rather than destroys his particularity. That is, this desire leads to Antony’s botched suicide, and thereby allows him to continue to exist as Antony. The failure of his suicide allows Antony to once again become present to himself, to recall himself as Antony in the world. Shakespeare renders this comic move through Antony’s reunion with Cleopatra. That Antony lives allows him to learn Cleopatra also lives. His failed suicide allows him to hope for a reconciliation with Cleopatra in time. Put another way, there is in Antony’s action an embrace of death that ultimately allows for life. Antony, now begging his guards to kill him, is again interrupted by a messenger, this time Diomedes. Before Diomedes can say why he’s come, Antony asks Diomedes to give him “sufficing strokes for death.” (121). Diomedes responds that Cleopatra has sent for Antony. Diomedes brings the truth necessary for Antony to move towards self-consciousness. The time granted by his failed suicide allows a return to Cleopatra to be substituted, at least momentarily, for his death.

Antony’s desire is now redirected towards Cleopatra in life rather than in death, and his hope for their union is restored. As his life has been prolonged, Antony does not give up the possibility of reconciliation with Cleopatra, and thereby the complete fulfillment in his desire, even though he knows he is dying. This allows Antony to likewise be restored to his body that he had lost sight of. In his wounded state, Antony has to be carried to Cleopatra and ridiculously hoisted to meet her in her monument. Drawing him up, Cleopatra notes, “How heavy weighs my lord!” (15.33). Rather than freed of externalities, Antony is now known in his body. There is a comic ascent from Antony to the “infinite variety” offered by Cleopatra’s sensuality (2.3.246).

When Antony is drawn up to Cleopatra, it is as though he is resurrected. Rather than “end” himself, he has given himself a new beginning. Antony is thus is able to return to his particular self. The tension Antony had between himself as Antony and his desire to be universal is thus mediated.

As a sign of his acceptance of this comic return to body, Antony tells Cleopatra, “The miserable change now at my end/Lament nor sorrow at . . . I live the greatest prince o’ the’ world” (52-55). Antony is restored to himself, “a Roman” (58). By granting Antony time rather than death, Shakespeare frees Antony from a wholly tragic fate. He gives Antony the capacity to act, and so restores Antony’s self-consciousness. By the time he actually dies, Antony knows himself in the world as Antony, a Roman. He no longer seeks to abstract himself from his worldly nature, from his actions and adornments, but understands them as equally essential parts of himself as Antony. Nevertheless, part of restoring the finite is recognizing its dignity. Shakespeare makes Antony and Cleopatra’s reunion here both comic and tragic. Upon seeing Cleopatra in her monument, Antony proclaims, “I am dying, Egypt, dying” (19). The pun on dying, as both sexual climax and actual death, has the comic weight of suggesting a romantic union, without forgetting this relationship will be consummated in death. Time cannot be extended forever to keep Antony alive. In his regained understanding of the world, Antony is both able to and must die.

The comic aspect of Antony’s death comes alongside an equally tragic component. Antony’s Roman nature separates him from, and opposes him to, Cleopatra. When he dies, he proclaims himself “a Roman” (58). Rome, in its ever-expanding empire, like Antony, universalizes the world. As Octavius Caesar will marry his sister to Antony for a political end, Rome wants to rule over human particularity, to make the finite subject to its laws. The particularities of the world, such as ones familial or romantic bonds, are rationalized and given their end only in the city. Rome makes itself the highest form of existence, an earthly paradise. Rather than a constant essence as Antony, a Roman, Cleopatra is “infinite variety” (2.2.247).

Before Antony dies, Cleopatra tells him that in Rome her honor and safety “do not go together” (4.15.48).


At the beginning of the play, Cleopatra tells Antony, “I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved” (16). She understands love in its discernible particularity, while Antony understands love in its universality. Not only does Antony’s death separate the two lovers, it emphasizes the irreconcilability of Cleopatra to Rome’s political order. Her future seems inevitably tragic. Cleopatra swoons when Antony dies, and Iris exclaims “she’s dead too, our sovereign” (4.15.70). Believing Cleopatra to be overcome by passion at Antony’s death, her sleep is mistaken for death. The spectators assume a tragic ending. Indeed, if the play was simply tragic, Cleopatra would meet the spectator’s expectations and die here, mirroring Enobarbus’ earlier death from heartbreak. Her freedom would be dissolved in a seemingly fated or necessary death.

Cleopatra, however, wakes from this sleep. Upon waking, Cleopatra says that she would tell the gods, “this world did equal theirs/Till they had stolen our jewel” (81-82). Cleopatra understands Antony’s death as further separating the human and divine. If Antony’s greatness cannot overcome mortality, there is surely no hope for the finite world. Cleopatra’s world loses its meaning. This leads Cleopatra to ask, “is it sin/To rush into the secret house of death/Ere death dare come to us?” (84-86). Shakespeare gives her here the only use of sin in the play. Cleopatra is setting out a problem that will be dealt with more directly in her suicide. She is asking if the knowledge of mortality also grants one freedom over that mortality, precisely what Antony assumed when he saw “ourselves to end ourselves.” The individual knows their fate in the finite world is to die, and yet this knowledge renders acting to achieve this end sinful. Put another way, Cleopatra wants to know the relationship between human freedom and self-consciousness. This is realized in a self-knowledge of mortality allowed by her love for Antony, and only really understood in his death. In Antony, she knows herself in the other. Consequently, in his death she sees her own death. The subjective is made objective to the self. Cleopatra’s experience of Antony, that is both her own and other, allows her own death to be extended, just as Antony’s botched suicide allowed him to do so.

In the same speech, Cleopatra acknowledges humans as mortal and thus distant from the divine, and aware of their mortality, and thus distant from mere beasts. Human self-consciousness seems absolutely limited by mortality. It is made tragic by the knowledge that it is limited. That is, the divine aspect of the human that is knowledge is put into conflict with mortality. Rather than be lost in her passion as a tragic death would require, Cleopatra is made more aware of her position in relation to the world. At this moment, this relationship is understood as distance. Cleopatra is inseparable from her grief, but is able to look at it as an object outside of herself; her infinite variety is looking outward at its limit.

Still, Cleopatra decides to follow Antony and kill herself. While Antony was alive, their love offered an image of eternity: “eternity was in [their] lips and eyes…none [their] parts so poor/But was a race of heaven” (1.3.35-37). Antony’s death is also the death of the potential for an eternal end in time with her beloved. Cleopatra says her suicide will be “the high Roman fashion” (4.15.91). In this, Rome appears to have overpowered Egypt. The Roman Empire seems to subsume even death, as the way for Cleopatra to free herself is itself Roman. Cleopatra will “make death proud to take [her]” (92). The play, however, does not end here. As an extension of Cleopatra’s self-consciousness, Shakespeare grants her, like Antony, more time. Once again time is extended, giving Cleopatra the opportunity to choose how to act.

Following Antony’s death, Octavius Caesar seeks to bring Cleopatra to Rome, “for her life in Rome/Would be eternal in [Octavius’] triumph” (5.2.65-66). Having Cleopatra as a trophy in Rome would show Rome’s complete conquering of the finite. Rome can be the absolute measure, the whole world subject to its laws. Cleopatra can reach a final mutation being led by Octavius “in triumph” in Rome (110).

Cleopatra knows that in Rome, she and Antony would be turned into a satire:

The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us, and present

Our Alexandrian revels; Antony

Shall be brought drunk forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ th’ posture of a whore (215-22).

The Roman comedians, Cleopatra notes, lower the bodily and sensual as something to laugh at but not something admire. Cleopatra’s nature, seeing the sensual as beautiful, is distinctly other than Rome; she would “rather a ditch in Egypt/Be gentle grave unto [her]” (5.2.67-68). Part of the problem for her is that this rendering not only lowers that body but will do so “extemporally.” It does not recognize the relationship of various particulars in time. The only comedy Cleopatra here sees is a low comedy of satire. Through Cleopatra’s movement at the end of the play, Shakespeare will not only look from tragedy to comedy, but elevate the nature and purpose of comedy itself.

Cleopatra tells Charmian and Iras, “’Tis paltry to be Caesar:/Nor being Fortune” (2-3). Cleopatra, following Antony’s death, understands Octavius Caesar, and so Rome, as essentially limited. By making the city the highest form of existence, Rome has limited itself to time, and so to the parts of time that are beyond human control. Cleopatra cannot be satisfied with the limits Rome is required to place on the finite. Cleopatra instead dreams “there was an emperor Antony” who embraces the whole world with limitless bounty (75). She longs for a more satisfactory end for humans. Seeing that no such end is possible in Rome, Cleopatra chooses death.

Octavius commands Cleopatra not to kill herself. As Cleopatra is now Octavius Caesar’s trophy, killing herself would be to “abuse [Octavius’] bounty” (1.43). Cleopatra’s life is not her own to take. It belongs to Octavius, who has taken the place of a god. In order to keep Cleopatra alive, Octavius Caesar warns that if she kills herself she “shall bereave [herself]/Of [his] good purposes, and put [her] children/ To that destruction” (2.131-33). Octavius presumes he knows Cleopatra’s nature and so may rule her. As is revealed in her brief trick, however, Cleopatra has kept something in reserve (139-60). Cleopatra shows the “infinite variety” of the soul for which Rome is unable to account. By choosing suicide, Cleopatra is explicitly disobeying Caesar; by disallowing Cleopatra’s suicide, Octavius in fact allows it to be an act of freedom rather than a fulfillment of Rome’s laws. Cleopatra’s self-consciousness frees her from Octavius’ subjugation. The time granted to Cleopatra by not dying with Antony allows her to contemplate her death and reveal herself as a free and rational being, capable of choosing.

Shakespeare expands on this freedom by presenting Cleopatra’s final scene and her suicide as an inversion of Genesis. As Cleopatra prepares to die, a Clown brings her a basket of figs that contains poisonous serpents. Cleopatra calls these serpents her “liberty” (238). She asks the Clown if this is the serpent “that kills and pains not” (245). Cleopatra wants her death to be as freed of the bodily aspect as possible. The Clown tells Cleopatra, “the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people, for indeed there is no goodness in the worm” (262). That the serpent is for the wise recalls the knowledge of good and evil, of mortality, gained in the Fall. This serpent is for those who already have that knowledge because the serpent is not free or wise, but “will do his kind” (263). The serpent does not discriminate who it bites based on who is or is not worthy of death, but will bite all alike. Consequently, what one does with the serpent is one’s own choice. The choice Cleopatra makes is in this way absolutely free. Cleopatra’s capacity to act is what frees not only her finite nature, but all humans, from the worm who can  only “do his kind” (263). Human freedom is tied to reason. It is the divine part of the self; as in the original Fall, “to know good and evil,” to have self-consciousness, is to become like God.

The Clown, however, does not state this self-consciousness as a consequence of the serpent, but rather as a precondition to handle it. Understood alongside the play’s dramatic context at the end of antiquity, just prior to the incarnation of Christ, Shakespeare positions this second, inverted fall to suggest that with Christ comes a fuller articulation of self-consciousness. On one hand, the Clown suggests the serpent ought only to be left with the wise because the wise will not use it. On the other, Shakespeare is using this inverted image to draw attention to this historical moment as a partial actualization of self-consciousness. This partiality is reflected in the strange mixture of comedy and tragedy in the play. Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship is pointing towards a reconciliation that is not yet fully there. In so doing, it allows that the particular may be more fully understood in relation to the whole.

At the beginning of the play, Antony tells Cleopatra that if she wants him to measure his love, she “needs find out new heaven, new earth” (1.1.17). Shakespeare puts the words of Revelation in Antony’s mouth.[1] The play begins with an end in Revelation, expressed by Antony, and ends with a beginning in Genesis, expressed by Cleopatra.[2] Shakespeare structures the play such that as Antony and Cleopatra desire each other, the end is desiring the beginning, and the beginning the end. In terms of the play’s dramatic setting, Shakespeare has the tail end of antiquity desiring the fulfillment and completion of its latent principles through Christianity. More broadly speaking, the image of Genesis in the last scene can be understood as the ancient world coming to know its mortality, or its limits; the ancient world looking forward to Christianity is time being made self-conscious. In this way, Shakespeare presents time as a comedy, wherein the end and beginning desire to be mediate to one another. Held alongside Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage in death, Shakespeare points to the possible marriages of time to itself, whereby the whole temporal world may be redeemed and restored.

If time is also coming to a more complete understanding of itself, Shakespeare suggests this is also the beginning of a new political order. When Eve takes the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she disobeys God. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden introduces the need for political life. When Cleopatra takes the asps and kills herself, she disobeys Octavius. Shakespeare replaces Eden with Rome. The nature of Rome aims to make the city the universal human end, to in effect be the earthly paradise. The need for Cleopatra’s suicide in order to articulate her freedom reveals a limit in Rome’s political order, suggesting that it too is nearing its end and will be replaced by something more complete. The possibility for this political order is taken up in the possibility of Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage in death.

The serpents “suck the nurse to sleep,” and Cleopatra’s death is mistaken for sleep (5.2.310). She continues, the serpents are “as sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle!” (312-13). Cleopatra’s death is coming to her in such a way her speech about it points beyond its temporal and finite nature. A guard enters, looking for Cleopatra, and Charmian answers, “speak softly, wake her not” (320). When Octavius sees her body, he remarks that her choice of death hardly left a mark, “she looks like sleep,/As she would catch another Antony/In her strong toil of grace” (345-47). Shakespeare reverses the spectator’s understanding of Cleopatra’s response to Antony’s death. As was noted, Cleopatra fainted and her sleep was mistaken for death. Now the spectator, and Cleopatra herself, assume a comic ending, as though Cleopatra is only sleeping. That Cleopatra’s takes her death as sleep recalls her dream of Antony from earlier in the scene, where “his face was as the heavens, and therein stuck/A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted/The little O, th’ earth” (82). Going into death, Cleopatra can imagine an Antony who has been restored and made perfect; she can imagine her death a marriage, an ending of comedy rather than tragedy.


Before Antony falls on his sword, he says he will be a “bridegroom in [his] death” (4.14.100). Likewise, as Cleopatra prepares for death, she calls out to Antony, “Husband, I come!” (5.2.284). As Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage occurs in death, it looks forward to the need for death to be the means of this reconciliation. Death is the absolute limit on the finite that seems to require the finite be kept forever distant from the universal. The tragedy of their death would in part suggest it is impossible for the universal and the particular to be reconciled. Shakespeare’s comic rendering of their deaths, however, suggests the opposite. That is, he suggests that they may be reconciled in and through death. Antony and Cleopatra’s love allows them to imagine a union beyond death, as God’s love in Christianity allows this union to be made actual, the universal made consubstantial with the particular.

The audience, however, cannot fully be satisfied with this end. In the actual moment of Cleopatra’s suicide, when the Clown has left, she applies the serpent to her breast and remarks, “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,/That sucks the nurse asleep?” (309-310). For the first time, Cleopatra appears as a mother. The serpents replace her children who she seems to have forgotten. Through her suicide, Cleopatra leaves the possibility of her children being killed by Octavius Caesar.[3] The comic image is incomplete. The finite world that Cleopatra represents is divided. At once, it finds its fulfillment in its final mutation in death. In so doing, however, it abandons is desire for generation.

With Cleopatra’s suicide, Antony and Cleopatra appears as a paradigmatic tragedy, completed by the suicides of the titular characters. Mistakenly believing Cleopatra is dead, Antony kills himself. In her grief and in order to free herself from Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra takes her life as well. Moreover, Cleopatra’s suicide leaves her children to be killed by Octavius. At the same time, however, several factors distance the end from a simply tragic interpretation. Antony’s suicide is not immediately successful. He stays alive long enough to meet with Cleopatra for one last kiss. Rather than immediately following Antony into death, Cleopatra lives for another Act. From the moments the characters first decide to kill themselves, they are given more time. The extension in time allows Antony and Cleopatra to act as free and rational beings. Though both characters still die, this set up provides space for the characters to understand themselves and be reconciled to both themselves and each other. The partial comedy given by Antony’s and Cleopatra’s delayed deaths, and finally their marriage in death, points to the larger theme of the play as laying the groundwork for a more complete comedy that comes with Christianity. As the play itself is so rooted in its historic moment, Shakespeare’s comedy seeks a new relationship to time than that of the Roman comedians, perhaps one more in tune with Cleopatra.

The freedom Cleopatra receives by not immediately dying alongside Antony is a freedom that still ends in her death, just as Antony also ultimately dies. The freedom the characters receive is not a freedom from death, but rather a freedom that allows them to more properly understand their particular existence is relation to death. This time does not guarantee a comic end, but grants the possibility for free and rational action. This, Shakespeare suggests, can be extended beyond private individuals to the political structure. When Cleopatra chooses to die she leaves her children behind to Octavius Caesar. Octavius previously told Cleopatra that should she kill herself, she would be putting her children “to that destruction” (132). With Cleopatra’s death, Octavius is also left free to choose how to act.

Suggested by the extension of both Antony and Cleopatra’s lives, the comedy that is promised is not only for the sake of souls ultimately, but for the sake of one in time, in life. Moreover, Antony and Cleopatra’s desire for marriage beyond what Rome could offer suggests a desire for a political order that will be able to more fully integrate the particular desires of its citizens. Through Octavius Caesar’s response to Cleopatra’s death, Shakespeare shows the beginning of this realization. In the closing lines of the play, Octavius states Cleopatra, “shall be buried by her Antony./No grave upon the earth shall clip in it/A pair so famous” (357-58). Just as Antony’s life is extended despite his own actions, Octavius’ honoring of Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage allows the possibility that Cleopatra’s children might similarly be saved despite Cleopatra’s actions. Moreover, Octavius’ recognition of their marriage requires he recognize it as more valid that the purely political marriage he orchestrated between Antony and Octavia. In this way, Cleopatra’s suicide lays the foundation for a political recognition of marriage as grounded in love rather than expedient contract. While Antony and Cleopatra’s reconciliation is not yet fully politically realized, it is looked towards, and the promise of its reconciliation ultimately is shown in their marriage in death. Reconciled in the two particulars are brought into union with one another without being destroyed. This does not occur with Antony and Octavia, as it is merely expedient. Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage, in contrast, is a fuller reconciliation, as it is the fulfillment of both of their desires, rather than in spite of them. Moreover, despite Antony and Cleopatra’s suicides, the political order is not entirely destroyed. Destruction of the individual is likewise avoided as Octavius allows for a place for human subjectivity by recognizing Antony and Cleopatra’s union.

While one can look forward from Antony and Cleopatra to a greater reconciliation, something of the world is still lost in time, if not ultimately. As Antony and Cleopatra both give way to death, the Ancient world must in turn give way to Christianity. Nevertheless, Shakespeare suggests time, just as particular individuals, desires to be reconciled to itself, not simply in the abstract, but in actuality. Through Antony and Cleopatra’s anticipation of Christianity, Shakespeare shows this desire to be the promise of a greater comedy that is to come. 



Shakespeare. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. A.R Braunmuller. The Pelican Shakespeare. New York, New York. 1960. Print.



[1] See Revelation 21:1, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first earth had passed away…”

[2] See Genesis 3:22

[3] Shakespeare of course also makes Antony’s death an image of the passion of Christ. By ordering the image of the passion and the fall as he does, with the passion coming first, Shakespeare allows the audience to imagine Cleopatra is forgiven. Antony, as the universal, comes to Cleopatra, as the particular. He goes wholly into death, only to not die, and by his death is transformed into a bodily self. This bodily self then ascends to Cleopatra, who has become the highest image of what a human soul is capable of being in time. Antony’s double death, as an image of the passion, forgives Cleopatra’s sin.


Also see Gary Throne’s “Augustine: Memory as Sacrament,” Barry Craig’s “Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Paulette Kidder’s review of “Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Sara MacDonald’s review of “Mary Cyr,” Andrew Moore’s “Doctor Faustus: On Power and Human Freedom,” and Mary Craig’s “On the Diamond and in the Pews: The Push to Legalize Sunday Baseball.”

Catherine CraigCatherine Craig

Catherine Craig

Catherine Craig is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Baylor University. She received her B.A. in Great Books and Political Science from St. Thomas University in Canada. Her research interests include classical political philosophy, specifically Plato; politics and literature, art, and film; and the history of philosophy.

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