Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout love

So. We’re in the home stretch for Antony and Cleopatra. And just what is this thing? It’s certainly not a history (there’s too much of a huge chunk of the actual chronology missing–despite what I said Saturday). And as we discussed before, the concept of the tragic hero/ine/s here is sketchy at best.

Now some might argue that this is simply a love story.

OK, for argument’s sake, let’s go with that.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the first and last lines of both characters.

Cleopatra’s first words in the play are “If it be love indeed, tell me how much” (I.i.14). I’d argue that “if” is vitally important, enough so to make the first foot a trochee, and to set up the question: what is love? For Cleopatra, she needs to know more, she needs to know how much Antony loves her. This first-line need fits with what we were talking about in the examination of her character as a possible tragic hero of the piece: the abandonment of Antony in time of battle, most likely out of a sense of fear. That lack of self-assuredness (especially in battle / not in bed) and her neediness is consistent.

Antony’s first words are in response to that question: “There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned” (I.i.14). While “extreme poverty” (“beggary, n.;1” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 21 October 2016.) is one meaning of beggary, “contemptible meanness” and “rubbish” (“beggary, n.; 4 and 5, respectively” OED Online.) are others. And what would turn this love to poor trash? The mere capability for it to be “describe[d]” (“reckon, v.; 1a” OED Online.) or “recite[d]” (“reckon, v.; 1.b” OED Online.). A love that can be described is nothing but garbage. Interesting. On one hand, it’s a writer’s cheat: if it’s indescribable, then I don’t/won’t have to; on the other, Antony–living only in this moment in time–has no time for description. This, too, plays well with a possible cause for his “error in judgment:” his rashness (his quick marriage to Octavia, rashly choosing to battle Octavian on the sea, etc).

Jump cut to his final words (or at least those he thinks will be his last–the ones leading up to his botched suicide attempt). He says over the body of the suicidal Eros (and after the news of Cleopatra’s suicide):

 But I will be
A bridegroom in my death and run into ’t
As to a lover’s bed. Come then, and, Eros,
Thy master dies thy scholar.
  • IV.xiv.99-102

Run. And love will teach him shortly (as he expects to die presently). Again, rashness.

[And a quick tangent. Was no one else intrigued by Antony’s replacement of one right-hand-man–with a name that invokes violence and barbarism (Enobarbus)–with a new assistant whose name literally means “love”? (Eros)]

And Cleopatra’s last words? That enigmatic sentence fragment: “What should I stay—” (V.ii.313). We don’t know how that sentence, and thus don’t really have a handle on the meaning, but I like to think that beginning “What should” gives her a kind of mirror to her opening line, an answer to that question. Maybe something along the lines of “What I should defend against (fear) has no control over me now”? Has she moved beyond her fear (or at least realizes what that fear is)? Has she grown?

Would then this make Cleopatra a more singular tragic hero(ine)?

But that still doesn’t answer the question that first started me writing this:
In the world of the play, what is love?

I don’t think we–as an audience–are the only ones asking this question. In the first line of the play, Philo describes what he sees in Antony, “dotage” (I.i.1). Now, if we’re talking about love, we might use the secondary meaning of the “dotage” (“foolish affection; excessive love or fondness” [“dotage, n. 2a” OED Online.]), but we need to be aware, too, of the primary meaning “The state of one who dotes or has the intellect impaired, now esp. through old age; feebleness or incapacity of mind or understanding; infatuation, folly; second childhood; senility” (“dotage, n.; 1a” OED Online.). In a play that seems at least somewhat concerned with aging, this may be a factor, but I’m sticking to the concept of foolish affection because of the speaker. Who, Philo? What, a guy who appears in exactly one scene, with two speeches for a total of 16 lines? Yeah, him. Why? Look at his name. Philo. It calls to mind love (as being a Bardophile), just like “Eros.”

Cleopatra needs love. Antony trades barbaric exploits on the battlefield for it. They end up dead.

Maybe love is just foolish (affection).

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