Antony and Cleopatra: Fortunate son (and daughter?)

As longtime readers of the blog know, I love a good deep dive into the ol’ concordance. A concordance (as review for you non-longtime first-timers) is a reference that contains and counts word usage for any given collection of texts; I like to take a look at words that tend to pop up seemingly frequently in my reading [and as per usual: like all our discussions for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare]. As with every play, I did the same for ol’ Antony and Cleopatra (not that she’s that ol’…).

And I feel fortunate…

“Fortune” and its variants (“fortunes,” “fortune’s,” “fortunate,” “fortuned,” and “fortunately”) are found more frequently in Antony and Cleopatra than in any other play in the Canon, totalling nearly 50 uses (the next highest is The First Part of Henry VI, with 30); “fortune” itself is used 25 times, and “fortunes” 17; The First Part of Henry VI has 19 uses of “fortune,” Timon of Athens 12 uses of “fortunes,” for the next most highest of uses, respectively. So, it really isn’t even close.

Now, of the meanings found in the Oxford English Dictionary that were around in Shakespeare’s day, here are the main suspects:

    1.  Chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs. Often (after Latin) personified as a goddess; her emblem is a wheel, betokening vicissitude.
    1. A chance, hap, accident; an event or incident befalling anyone.
    1.  The chance or luck (good or bad) which falls to anyone as his lot in life or in a particular affair.
    2.  That which is to befall a person in the future.
  1.  Good luck; success, prosperity.
  2.  One’s condition or standing in life; often a prosperous condition
  • “fortune, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016.

Sure, I hear some of you saying, but isn’t counting all those “fortune”s in Antony and Cleopatra a bit of a cheat, as Act One, Scene Two contains the fortune-telling Soothsayer, and thus a wholebuncha uses of the word(s) using definition 3.d. above. True, I counter, but that scene’s mere existence says something about the importance of the word or concepts in the play as a whole. Definitions 2, 3, 4, and 5 are scattered throughout the text, primarily definition 2 in many of the soliders’ and attendants’ speeches in the final two acts (Scarus, Mardian, Decretus, for example).

Thus, we’re talking of the future, which–as we are in a tragedy–we know our title characters are not going to have. And yet we are also talking about chance or accident. \

Or are we?

These late uses are all to or within earshot of Antony. It’s completely possible that the speakers are actually talking about Antony’s situation/future; it’s not a bright one, but the definition makes clear that the meaning isn’t exclusively positive (definition 5). They’re using a word that Antony can interpret as chance or luck, but also in which they can mean condition. Do they believe Antony is so damaged at this point, that he must be handled gently, allowing him to believe that luck brought him here, when in reality it was his actions that brought this upon himself.

I can see that.

But what I find interesting are the uses of fortune with a capital F: Fortune (definition 1a).

Cleopatra uses the personified goddess of luck in two speeches. The first is just before Antony dies, proclaiming Fortune to be a “false huswife” (IV.xv.45), or a cuckolding wife (screwing us, perhaps?). In the play’s final scene, she say that Octavian is not “Fortune [herself], …but Fortune’s knave” (both V.ii.4). There is a greater force than coincidence and chance at work here, Cleopatra says, and this goddess has worked against them. When Cleopatra speaks to Proculeius of his master Octavian, she says she is “his fortune’s vassal” (V.ii.29). Octavian cannot control a goddess. This goddess will not even deign to control this knave’s life; instead, Cleopatra is a slave to Octavian’s luck.

Antony uses the goddess personified twice as well. The first is at the end of Act Three, Scene Eleven, as he realizes he must now entreat Octavian to allow him to survive: “Fortune knows // We scorn her most when must she offers blows” (III.xi.73-4); while the position of “fortune” at the beginning of the sentence can cause some doubt (as all first words are capitalized), the use of the pronoun “her” gives away the personification, and Antony feels beaten by the goddess. Then in Act Four, Scene Twelve, in the midst of a (new-ly found) soliloquy, he begins another sentence with our word of the day: “Fortune and Antony, part here, even here, // Do we shake hands” (IV.xii.19-20). I’ll argue the pronoun “we” and the collective verb “shake” personify Fortune.

Both characters also use the non-personified versions of the word earlier in the play; every one of these “Fortune” goddess references come from the back half of the play, however, after it’s become clear whose future is greater, who will come out on top, and it’s neither of our title characters. Is this evolution of meaning a way of making themselves feel more important as they know defeat is coming?

It’s something to think about.

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