Antony and Cleopatra: A Non-tragic Study of Shakespeare’s Tragedy

In literature, “tragedy” can have any number of meanings or fluid interpretations. For William Shakespeare, tragedy generally involved the deaths of most of the main characters (in five Acts). His Antony and Cleopatra assuredly involves death, but is the play itself “worthy” of the tragic tag? From an interpretive standpoint, cohesive arguments could likely be made for both – either the play retains its traditional “tragic” label, or the label is removed by thoughtful and evidentiary consideration. The intention of this argument then becomes this: while there is certainly a great deal of thematic ambiguity surrounding the question of tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra, overwhelming evidence shows that the play really isn’t tragic at all – simply a causal effect of bad judgment, shallow self-analysis, and passive (if at all) reactivity.

To initiate any real and formative discussion on the subject of tragedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a working definition must be introduced. Literary-devices.com supplies one such appropriate definition of the term:
“In literature, the concept of tragedy refers to a series of unfortunate events by which one or more of the literary characters in the story undergo several misfortunes, which finally culminate into a disaster of ‘epic proportions’. Tragedy is generally built up in 5 stages: a) happy times, b) the introduction of a problem, c) the problem worsens to a crisis/dilemma, d) the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over, e) the problem results in some catastrophic or grave ending, which is the tragedy culminated.”

This definition works in several ways, but the most important is that it qualifies the rationale behind our ability to objectively classify a work as “tragic”. Not only does it set forth strong parameters, but it also provides a nice chronological timeline of events that works well as a template when entering into such a debate. It thus becomes the interpreter’s task to decide whether the work in question fits well within this established reasoning.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra are not tragic figures. By our definition, there is the caveat that “the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over”. This is where the crux of our argument resides. Antony and Cleopatra had every opportunity to prevent their deaths (if we contend that death is the ‘disaster of epic proportions’ in our definition). The problem is that they don’t do anything of any real relevance. Antony is seen as being driven by lust, and of having his heart “pursed up” upon first seeing Cleopatra. By succumbing to this emotion, he allows himself to be manipulated and all his decisions become rooted within that context. As lust overwhelmed his good judgment in terms of his relationship with his soldiers, his wife Octavia, and even within his own self-evaluation, the statement can be made that he had (and completely gave up) control over his situation. Antony, despite his successes in the political and military arenas, is a very reactive character – he waits until things are done to him before he acts himself. Cleopatra, relishing in the spoils of being queen of Egypt, is a master manipulator, making their relationship bad (or depending on the view, at least ill-fated) from the beginning. There is no tragedy in this. While she effectively loses the empire for Antony in Act 3, Scene 10 with the apt illustration of, “nag of Egypt…the breeze upon her… hoists sails and flies,” it can be interpreted not as tragic, but merely unfortunate that Antony has withered under her spell once again. The inference is that he could have denied her and disallowed her manipulative power.

Another problem with this play being categorized as a tragedy lies in the conclusion, with both characters being ordered to the same grave by Caesar. This act, many critics might say, smacks of a happy ending. Two lovers reconciled in eternity certainly doesn’t seem all that tragic or cathartic from this aspect. While some may argue that their deaths are what symbolize the tragic element, this argument maintains that death isn’t the end of the story. When Caesar states that, “no grave upon the earth shall clip in it a pair so famous,” that becomes the point when any discussion of “disaster” or “epic proportions” falls silent. They are now paired together in perpetuity, not because of any “tragic” timeline of events, but because they couldn’t see past themselves (selfishly), understand their inherent nature (rationally), or remove themselves from a sense of fate (willfully). If anything, there exists a trace of sympathy, or pathos, but not enough to be confused with tragedy.

Perhaps a final and more inclusive illustration of the entire argument is this: as representative of the audience, Enobarbus might be the best lens through which to study the main characters of the play. He is the somewhat cynical “Everyman”, but his opinion/loyalty to Antony gives us great perspective when studying and commenting on how actions turn into consequence (non-tragically). In Act 2, Scene 2, he reveals that Antony, “pays his heart / For what his eyes eat only.” From this perspective, Antony is completely smitten with something he cannot have, and pays an accordingly steep price.

In reality, this is just one interpretation of many that could be ascribed to Shakespeare’s work. As with any interpretive assignment, students probably split the opinion down the middle with equally compelling arguments. For the sake of this argument, however, it is essential to remember two things. One is that sad doesn’t have the same meaning as tragic. Death isn’t always tragic. It can sometimes be glorious and honorable and fated. Secondly, and if we are to remain true to our initial definition of the term, we will see that much of what happens within the context of Shakespeare’s play is merely unfortunate and does not fit within the actual definition. There were really no “happy times” to start our story, and it never escalated (or declined) to a level our definition would suggest. Behind this reasoning, a case for thoughtful interpretation becomes necessary and an argument is born. For all intents and purposes, although a sad commentary on some very important elements such as pride, lust, manipulation, and moral weakness, this play cannot be called a tragedy. To do so not only flies in the face of accepted definitions, but also infers that death automatically complements “tragedy”. In this case, “sympathy” would be a much more apt description.


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