Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra

This essay will try to assess to what extent the statement in the title is true with regard to Anthony and Cleopatra and Bacchae, and how the artistic material and cultural traditions associated with these two plays have shaped the way they portray tragedy. In order to do this it will first be necessary to outline the ideas expressed by Aristotle, Hegel and Nietzsche regarding the human condition and human nature, and precisely what is meant by these terms. Following this, there will be an analysis of each play, looking particularly at the ways in which the plays diverge from these ideas.


Aristotle’s view of human nature consists largely in the idea of “Eudaimonia,” or human flourishing. He maintained that human action was entirely caused by self-interest, egoism and the fulfilling of human desires – “The best life is one of excellent human activity.”1 In terms of his view of tragedy, Aristotle felt it to be not merely a form of entertainment, but “‘the imitation of action’ according to “the law of probability or necessity,'”2 and credited it with a greater philosophical status than History. In Aristotle’s view then, tragedy was a mirror held up to the world, and the actions of the characters within it and their actions must therefore be governed by the self-interest that Aristotle believed was at the route of humanity. Any fatal flaw of the protagonist was therefore a part of this idea and unavoidable, although Aristotle does place character second to plot in a tragedy.

Hegel’s theories of human nature owe a certain amount to Aristotle. For instance, his idea of Perceptual Consciousness of an individual is closely linked to Aristotle’s ideas of classification. In tragedy also, there is a link. Hegel theorised that “the sufferings of the tragic hero are merely a means of reconciling opposing moral claims…the struggle is not between good and evil but between goods that are making too exclusive a claim.”3 In this way, Hegel’s vision of tragedy shares with Aristotle’s its focus on representation of the psychological pressures placed upon the protagonist, with the distinction that Hegel focuses on the dilemma aspect, rather than a fatal flaw.

Nietzsche’s understanding of human nature is cultural, the idea being that the individual is encumbered with civilisation’s baggage – language, religion and so forth, and that this constitutes what we call human nature. In his view tragedy shows an attempt to rid oneself of this baggage – “Real tragedy, according to Nietzsche, depicts the doomed efforts of the Apollonian heroes to rise above the constraints of their individuality.”4 However, Nietzsche is to a certain degree optimistic about the way tragedy portrays the human condition, maintaining that the Greek Chorus shows that “life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.”5

Anthony and Cleopatra is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays. There may be many reasons for this, but one reason is perhaps the characterisation. Tony Randall suggests that the protagonists are “such loathsome people, monsters of self gratification, greed, lust – heedlessly and without remorse sending thousands to a terrible death just to satisfy themselves,”6 and cites this as a reason for lack of audience appeal. The play, he claims, has no one for the audience to champion. These characters would appear at first glance to show signs of Aristotle’s picture of human nature – they live to maximise their human potential, with every action intended for their own benefit.

However, it is worth noting that this is seen as a reason for the play’s lack of popularity. Indeed, Randall praises its faithful documentation and richness of material – “Its historically accurate and humanly real conflict…the variety is dazzling.”7 This is after all, a play that takes us right the way around the Mediterranean as mighty empires clash. In this sense, the “hostile voice” is correct, for it is not human nature of the kind Aristotle favours that is the play’s saviour. Indeed, the painting of Cleopatra and Anthony as fulfilling the ideal of realising their humanity is a doubtful one, since they are largely only interested in sensory gratification, whereas human endeavour is broader than this – we are thinking beings as well as sensual ones.

Not only is the material varied in terms of changes of scenery, there is also a large quantity of action and conflict, as is to be expected in a play centring on a political upheaval. Indeed, the plot itself is fairly simple, something of an anomaly in Shakespearean tragedy. It is the action and pace that carry it forward, as well as some of its wider themes. As Harley Granville Barker notes, “Roman and Egyptian are set against each other, and this opposition braces the whole body of the play.”8

In this respect, one could argue that tragedy is much bigger than the individual, that although it undoubtedly contains much in the way of human representation, it is not merely, as Hegel suggests, a conflict between opposing morals. Anthony is drawn away from Cleopatra by the worsening political situation and the obligations it puts upon him, rather than because he feels a moral duty to leave her side, “I must from this enchanting queen break off:/Ten thousand harms more than the Ills I know/My idleness doth hatch.”9 Moreover, Anthony pledges allegiance to Cleopatra before leaves – “My precious Queen, forbear,/And give true Evidence to his Love which stands/An honourable Trial.”10. This does not suggest any kind of moral indecision. Rather, it is indicative of the tragic character’s subservience to the plot. Therefore, the dramatic and artistic material, in this case, is more powerful than the dilemma suffered by the protagonist.

As well as the variety of the material featured in the play, it is also inextricably linked to certain cultural circumstances. For one, the world of the play is obviously that of antiquity, but of course this is not the true world of the play. Written in about the year 160711, Anthony and Cleopatra is indicative of a particular period in English history. It represents the late renaissance period, when, according to John F. Andrews, the play demonstrates Shakespeare’s concern with “the significance of Europe’s Graeco-Roman heritage.”12 Artists of the renaissance became particularly concerned with the classical past, and this is perhaps partly what led Shakespeare to write Anthony and Cleopatra.

How, then, are we to read Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy depicting characters trying to escape a culturally imposed individuality? It would appear that, far from running away from culture, Shakespeare attempted to embrace or at least understand it. Even looking at the characters, there does not seem to be any evidence of them trying to escape who they are. Anthony agrees to marry Octavia for political convenience, and Cleopatra and Anthony both kill themselves when they know they are beaten, but I can see no indication that they are threatened by their respective individualities. Rather, their individualities are threatened by the situation in which they find themselves. In the light of this, I cannot find any reconciliation between this play and the definition of tragedy put forward by Nietzsche.