Antony’s Body

Joyce Green MacDonald
University of Kentucky

Joyce Green MacDonald. “Antony’s Body.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 11.1-23 <URL:>.

  1. Critics agree on Antony and Cleopatra’s debt to Ovidian myth, whether in terms of the specific stories from the Metamorphoses that the play appropriates (MacKenzie) or in the general sense of its allusive, symbolic style, in which every gesture and public presentation of the play’s namesakes seems to be aimed at generating personal legend (Barroll, Dean). While specific myths are indeed important to the play, and important to what I will have to say here about Antony’s bodily faculties, my discussion will focus instead on how the play crosses myth with its historical sources to produce our understanding of his body as both fallibly human, and as aspiring toward the divine. Antony and Cleopatra is both deeply engaged with myths of transformation, and deeply committed to its Plutarchan narrative source. In the play, each of these two apparently distinct bodies of knowledge work to inform the other.

  2. In the introduction to an important collection of essays on how Renaissance poets’ various Ovidian practices enabled “the creation of distinctly early modern representations of the body, gender, and eroticism” (Traub 260), Goran Stanivukovic suggests that the erotic and the historical may be two unalterably opposed domains as he wonders whether the project of coupling Ovid’s lush history of sexual bodies with a national history might be “complicated and often subverted by Renaissance writers’ use of the Ovidian body’s erotic manifestations” (5). But there is no compelling reason to assume that the subject of sexuality barred the way into history and politics. Renaissance readers can frequently be observed attempting to stabilize the Metamorphoses’ unnervingly wild stories around clear, if sometimes rather labored, moral lessons on the proper exercise of sovereignty, on citizenship, and on individual expectations of justice (James “Ovid”). Even if Antony’s dissident combinations of the erotic and the political are what eventually get him into trouble, the association is nevertheless made from the character’s first appearance in Julius Caesar. He enters in 1.2, stripped naked to run in the Lupercalia—the festival celebrating Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus—and ready to strike Calpurnia with the goatskin thong in the hopes of enabling her to conceive. He is thus introduced to us within a sexualized matrix that shapes Roman dynastic politics and is dictated by myths of patriarchal origin. Antony and Cleopatra will dilate upon and reconstruct this matrix as the play meditates on the formation of Roman bodies within still larger, alternative, imperial and racial concerns. The multiple kinds of information that the play finds in its Plutarchan histories and its Ovidian myths, with their common interest in bodily behaviors, are instrumental to its portrait of Antony as a new kind of imperial actor.

  3. Thinking about the combination of myth and history in Antony and Cleopatra begins with recognition of how Ovid blurred the boundaries between the two with his declared project of rereading Virgil, the poet of Rome’s founding, and the extent to which he defined himself and his work in relation to the formal, generic, and moral examples he found in him.1 From the beginning of his career, Ovid claimed the imperial for the erotic; the opening of his earliest poem, the Amores, invokes the Aeneid’s declared subject of arms and the man only to have Cupid imperiously interrupt the poet just as “arms and the violent deeds of war I was making ready to sound forth” (1.1.1-4). “Let others sing of Caesar’s wars,” Ovid concedes at Fasti 1.13; for him the founding events of Roman cultural history are of quite a different character. At least once he goes farther than merely asserting his choice of another subject matter, insisting that the true import and interest of Virgilian epic are not at all what most readers claim they are. Tristia 2 insists that what readers find truly compelling about the Aeneid is its account of erotic mischance: “And yet the blessed author of thy Aeneid brought his ‘arms and the man’ to a Tyrian couch, and no part of the whole work is more read than that union of illicit love” (2: 533-536). When Shakespeare read Ovid, then, he read an author who in many cases had already mounted searching reconsiderations of Roman history and politics, and recast the place of the erotic and of the bodily in them.

  4. The alternative history of body and affect advanced by a putatively Ovidian Antony and Cleopatra might be said to begin with the moment in Act 4 when Antony famously cries after Cleopatra, whom he mistakenly believes has preceded him into death, to “Stay for me”:
    Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand,
    And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.
    Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
    And all the haunt be ours. (4.15.50-54)2
    Obviously, Antony is forgetting his Aeneid, where Dido and Aeneas are specifically not reunited, not even in the underworld. Virgil tells us that “fiery, fierce-eyed” Dido (6: 467), her death “wound still fresh” (6: 450), refuses to answer his pleas or even to acknowledge his presence. The lover she is reunited with is her elderly husband Sychaeus, who “responds to her sorrows and gives her love for love” (6: 474). Instead of forgiveness, Aeneas is rewarded with a vision of Rome’s imperial future revealed to him by the shade of his father. Despite his genuine remorse, the value of his choice and of his reward are made abundantly clear. But, in a move similar to Ovid’s assertion that everyone really believes that the Aeneid boils down to a satisfying story of “illicit love” (Tristia 2: 533-536), Shakespeare’s Antony may have to dissociate himself from a Virgilian outcome in order to clear rhetorical and imaginative space for his personal vision of the underworld. As embryonic author of a new model of imperial authority in Egypt, he has somehow to forget the shaping power of Rome’s founding legends.

  5. In her discussion of Caribbean Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott’s relationship to his classical education, Mary Fuller argues that his claims to have forgotten most of his reading in the Latin and Greek poets are a rhetorical precondition for freeing himself to voice a new postcolonial poetry and history in a space that can only be created by his deliberate erasure of the canonical past. Walcott himself has remarked that the conditions of “servitude or rejection” that marked so many people’s arrival in the Caribbean forced them to create their own myths: “you look around you, and you have to make your own tools” (213). Here, I suggest that Antony’s overwriting of the legend of Dido and Aeneas with the new myth of himself and Cleopatra united in the afterlife serves an analogous purpose of denying what Virgil conceived as the Roman imperial necessity of quashing the claims of love. Antony’s new myth has an import that is political as well as romantic; he and she did, after all, intend to establish themselves as new sources of political authority in Egypt, naming their own children as their heirs there and keeping Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar under his mother’s protection.

  6. There is, of course, much Ovidian precedent for refusing the epic point of the legend of Dido and Aeneas. In the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas’ sojourn in Carthage occupies an entire book, but the Metamorphoses gives it fewer than ten lines. After the Trojan fleet escapes the perils of Scylla and Charybdis,
    the wynd did ryse so heady,
    And that it drave them backe uppon the coast of Affricke. There
    The Tyrian Queene (whoo afterward unpaciently should beare
    The going of this Trojane prince away) did enterteine
    Aenaeas in her house, and was ryght glad of him and fayne.

    Uppon a Pyle made underneathe pretence of sacrifyse
    Shee goard herself upon a swoord, and in most wofull wyse
    As shee herself had beene beguyld: so shee beguyled all.
    Eftsoone Aenaeas flying from the newly reered wall
    Of Carthage in that sandy land, retyred backe agen
    To Sicill, where his faythfull freend Acestes reignd. (14.77-87)
    Uninterested in pursuing a Virgilian contrast between the calls of love and of empire, the Metamorphoses instead elaborates on its own conviction of the transforming fatality of desire as it recounts the mournful story of the Cumaean Sybil, Aeneas’ guide into the underworld. She tells him that Apollo had once promised her any gift she craved if she would give him her virginity. “[L]ike a foole,” she told him that she wanted to live as many years as there were grains in a handful of dust; however, she tells Aeneas, “I quight forgot to crave / Immediately, the race of all those yeeres in youth to have” (14.162-64). Apollo was prepared to give her both eternal life and eternal youth in exchange for her body, but she still refused, and as a result she has never had a lover. She had held a thousand grains of dust in her hand; seven hundred years have already passed by the time she meets Aeneas, and, to match the number, “three hundred harvestes mo, / I must three hundred vintages see more before I go” (14.172-73). The centuries will eventually wither her body into nothingness as they have already erased her beauty, so that “none shall think that ever God was tane in love with mee” (14.176). Apollo himself will forget she ever existed, or deny that he ever lusted for her, “so sore I shall be altered. / And then shall no mannes eye / Discerne mee” (14.179-81).

  7. Excluding Dido from serious narrative consideration in the Metamorphoses, Ovid instead chooses to emphasize the ancillary figure of the Sybil, and through her poignantly to emphasize the evanescence of human beauty and love’s subjection to folly and vanity. Through elaborating on her tragic bodily transformation instead of on a Virgilian tragedy of state, the Ovidian story of the Sybil reconceives Aeneas’s call to empire as a thwarted drive toward romantic satisfaction. The story of the Sybil is thus both Virgilian—she does appear in the Aeneid—and not-Virgilian, since through her Ovid foregrounds the stubborn presence of romantic tragedy in a story that Virgil conceived as being about the sober costs of imperial triumph, and the roles of patrilineality (Anchises’ presence) and of lawful marriage (Dido’s retreat to the side of her dead husband) in upholding them. Ovid alters the Virgilian script so as to force consideration for the erotic—an “illicit love” (Tristia 2: 533-536) —as a powerful engine of human fate.

  8. When Shakespeare’s Antony forgets Virgilian detail and forgoes Virgilian judgment, he too is recasting the Aeneid’s epic provenance, reorienting history in order to excavate from it the value of a love outlasting death and dishonor.3 Shakespeare’s forgetful Antony might thus be seen as aspiring toward a kind of un-Virgilian authorship of his own as he rewrites the history of Dido and Aeneas.4 As I will be arguing, Ovid’s influence on the play’s will to historicize sexual bodies includes its ways of narrating their presence in Egyptian and Roman civil orders as well as specific mythological matter.

  9. And yet while its concern with affect and erotic passion is the first important way in which Antony and Cleopatra follows Ovidian example in its revision of Augustan narrative, the play also focuses great attention on the transformation of physical bodies. Its concern with Antony’s bodily experiences imaginatively builds on the attention its major dramatic source in Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius (Lives 970-1010) pays to the subject, even before it turns to specific Ovidian myths. Plutarch tells us, for example, that Antony demonstrated a consistent habit of disguise and self-concealment, long before he ever met Cleopatra. Casting his lot with Julius Caesar instead of Pompey, Antony “tooke a slaves gowne” and fled to Caesar (972). On marrying the “somewhat sower, and crooked of condition” Fulvia, he would sometimes “playe her many prety youthfull partes to make her mery” (975). He again “cast a slaves gowne upon him” to hide after Julius Caesar’s assassination (976), and after the defeat at Modena, he “suffred his beard to grow at length and never clypt it … and the heare of his heade also without koming: and besides all this, he went in a mourning gowne” to make secret contact with the soldiers in Lepidus’ camp (978). In Plutarch, Antony is a joker, a masked man whose disguises derive just as frequently from the sheer love of making merry as from political prudence. Often Plutarch sternly disapproves of Antony’s habits of disguise, which in his judgment often go beyond mere playfulness to something like the defacement of his Roman identity. One of the recurring themes of the Life of Marcus Antonius is Antony’s constant “rioting and banqueting,” from his youth, when he was corrupted by the “dissolute” Curio (970), through the first stirrings of his political ambition, when nobles who were impressed by his military valor were also disgusted by his “naughty life”:
    In his house they did nothing but feast, daunce, and maske: and him selfe passed away the time in hearing of foolish playes, or in marrying these plaiers, tomblers, jeasters, and such sort of people. As for profe hereof it is reported, that at Hippias mariage, one of his jeasters, he drank wine so lustely all night, that the next morning, when he came to pleade before the people assembled in counsel, who had sent for him: he being quesie stomaked with his surfet he had taken, was compelled to lay all before them, and one of his friends held him his gowne in stead of a basen. He had another pleasaunt player called Sergius, that was one of the chiefest men about him, and a woman also called Cytheride, of the same profession, whom he loved derely: he caried her up and downe in a litter unto all the townes he went, and had as many men waiting upon her litter, she being but a player, as were attending upon his owne mother…And furthermore, Lyons were harnesed in trases to drawe his carts: and besides also, in honest mens houses in the cities where he came, he would have common harlots, curtisans, and these tumbling gillots lodged. (974)
    Plutarch shares the republican distaste for open transgression of rules of behavior and status (Barton 221-25).

  10. Plutarch’s Antony seems to seek out identification with actors and other public performers, who were legally classified at Rome as infames, persons of ill-fame who were not permitted to give evidence in courts of law or accuse others of crimes or hold office, who apparently could be beaten or sexually exploited with impunity (Edwards 70-74). The “banckets and dronken feasts he made at unseasonable times” (Lives 974) are a familiar feature in critics of Roman moral decline writing in the late republic, not only because they seemed more sinisterly “eastern” or “Asiatic” than properly Roman, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because they seemed to exemplify a loss of control and self-mastery. Repeatedly, late republican authors associate gluttony with other failures at bodily discipline—lust; laughing too much or too loudly; dancing; getting drunk; dressing, acting, or allowing oneself to be sexually penetrated like a woman—which are repeatedly found to foreshadow the culprit’s failures at governing Rome (Corbeill 101-7, 110-12, 118-23). Sexual conduct was not relegated to a special category of its own, separated from other kinds of behavior as a measure of a man’s capacity for civic responsibility.

  11. On Antony’s banqueting, Shakespeare closely follows his Plutarchan source. Antony presides over that memorably drunken banquet on Pompey’s yacht in Act 2, and we learn through soldiers’ gossip that he and Cleopatra indulged themselves and their intimates in gluttonous feasts. Maecenas, doubting it could be true that they had ordered “[e]ight wild-boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there,” is assured by Enobarbus that such luxury “was but as a fly by an eagle” (2.2.186-87, 188). Antony vows that he and Cleopatra will have “one other gaudy night” (3.13.185) before his final confrontation with Octavius’s forces. And yet, as is often the case in the Lives, Plutarch is of two minds about Antony’s enthusiastic adoption of such unrepublican habits: on one hand, no Roman aristocrat should have been seen consorting with jugglers and prostitutes; but on the other,
    [t]hings that seeme intollerable in other men, as to boast commonly, to jeast with one or other, to drinke like a good fellow with every body, to sit with the souldiers when they dine, and to eate and drinke with them souldierlike: it is incredible what wonderfull love it wanne him amongest them. And furthermore, being given to love: that made him the more desired, and by that meanes he brought many to love him. (972)5
    At one point, Plutarch’s conflicted account of Antony’s flamboyance and generosity points directly to ways in which his bodily comportment was implicated in claiming a distinctly un-Roman national identity. For his biographer, Antony’s attraction to Asiatic styles of speech was of a piece with his general fondness for making a spectacle of himself: “Asiatik” oratory may have “carried the best estimation at that time,” but it was no surprise that Antony chose to study it, “for it was full of ostentation, foolishe braverie, and vain ambition” (Lives 971). Plutarch characterizes Antony’s choice to play up his family’s supposed descent from the demigod Hercules as part of this annoying predilection for eastern things. He went so far as to exploit his physical resemblance to images of the demigod by adopting his style of dress, with “his cassocke gyrt downe lowe upon his hippes, with a great sword hanging by his side, and upon that, some ill-favoured cloke” (972). Performing notional descent from a demigod may have struck Plutarch as vain and silly, and it may indeed have been, but the history of Antony’s banqueting and his eastern disguises are also useful to a reading of body politics of Antony and Cleopatra because they show him in the act of reaching toward an opulent, less-policed model of public identity (Wofford 37-40). Dionysius, or Bacchus, who was worshipped as far east as India as well as in Egypt and Roman Africa, figures in the drinking song Enobarbus leads at the banquet with Pompey:
    Come, thou monarch of the vine,

    Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
    In thy fats our cares be drown’d,
    With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d! (2.7.108-113)
    The song is insistently physical—eyes “pink” from drunkenness, workaday cares dissolved in immersion in the “fats” of the god’s body. But the drunkenness with which the god was associated was only the physical representation of the state of divine ecstasy over which he presided and into which his devotees sought access. Bacchus ruled over the harnessing of “mysterious holy powers” immanent in the universe and over these powers’ crossing into the body of one of his worshippers: “When an individual intrudes (literally or figuratively) upon this immanence, he becomes not the perpetrator but the victim of metamorphosis; his mind or body becomes reshaped after the image of that mysterious divinity” (Barkan 37). Antony’s revels, his disguises and revelations, his affiliations with foreign gods, his reaching across barriers of status to establish bonds of love and fellowship, resonate in a play about the struggle to imagine and embody an alternative to the Roman way.

  12. The play is full of moments where Antony sheds the dictates of Roman masculinity and adopts something new. Early on, observers believe he’s entering the scene when the newcomer is actually Cleopatra (1.2.68). She warms herself at the erotic memory of how she once dressed Antony in her “tires and mantles” while she strapped on his “sword Phillippan” (2.5.23). In Alexandria, this mutual exchange of gender identity is sexy. In Rome, for a man of Antony’s standing to be threatened even playfully with sexual penetration would violate every canon of the terms of the infinitely flexible and infinitely paranoid Roman catalogue of masculine engenderment. The employment of the sword with which he won his place in Rome’s political life as a kind of sexual prosthetic also marks an especially and appropriately intimate moment in his attempted construction of another public and masculine Roman style from an alternative set of sources and influences. His desire for Cleopatra threatens to breach, even to dissolve, his body’s boundaries.6

  13. For Victoria Rimell, this fluidity is absolutely characteristic of “Ovidian desire” which “often works to break down boundaries, and thus to threaten autonomy, identity, and to collapse difference into incestuous sameness” (5). A reader of Ovid as well as a dramatizer of a more traditional Roman history, Shakespeare crosses this Ovidian traffic in the erasure of sexual and gender difference with his own conviction of what Stanivukovic calls “the interweaving of sexuality, power, and nation building” (4). The resulting narrative of Antony’s labile engenderment, however, is only marginally successful in advancing its own creative response to more rigidly enclosed Roman norms of civic masculinity. His refusal and finally his inability to master his appetites according to stable Roman forms ultimately disrupts his claim on the public life toward which he aspires. Nor do others always grasp what he is attempting to create. Cleopatra muses on his apparently double nature: “though [he] be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way’s a Mars” (2.5.117-18). At least part of the time, that is, his aspect recalls nothing so much as a paralyzingly horrible female monster. Rimell points us to the significance of the Medusa myth for an understanding of Ovid’s entire oeuvre, as the erotically hypnotizing presence of a resisting feminine Other who challenges the process of masculine and poetic self-authentication often traced in the poems.7 The Medusa figure may thus be an apt one for expressing the significance of Antony’s willingness to be transformed by his love for Cleopatra and of the erotic anarchy with which they seek to counter sober Roman dynastic politics. But Antony can only embrace an alternative to the Roman way of masculine self-discipline and self-denial by surrendering conscious control of his own desire; desire so subsumes him that whether he appears as the Gorgon or as Mars is no longer a matter of his conscious will. If, in Ovid, the body is both “a bearer of meaning as well as a linguistic agent” (Enterline 6), what meanings are being spoken by the play’s descriptions of Antony’s only flickeringly male—and occasionally monstrous—body?

  14. One answer may lie in the remark he makes in Act Four when, temporarily heartened by victory at Alexandria, he urges his successful soldiers to boast of their martial feats to their wives who will with their tears “Wash the congealment from [their] wounds, and kiss / The honored gashes whole” (4.9.10-11). The image—with its juxtaposition of blood, women’s mouths and men’s wounds—is insistently and strangely vaginal. Masculine valor will be most properly saluted with women’s potently healing kisses; his men will become “whole” through submission to a female authority which is simultaneously maternal and erotic, and which asserts itself by loving the places where their bodies are most hurt and broken.8 The proximity of sex and violence in Antony’s image is surely no less Ovidian than the oddness of the image itself, which carries the kind of sensual extremity and distressed sensuality so much prized in Ovid by his imitators in Renaissance poetry. Although it invokes no particular myth from the Metamorphoses, it is also significantly Ovidian in its sense of revisionary and eroticized readings of imperial events, as it portrays kisses and not public monuments as the most proper tribute to military valor. Such bloody kisses would form their own kind of sensational testimonial to the counter-Augustan order Antony attempts to establish in Egypt, complete with memorialization of the role of female erotic authority in creating it.

  15. In striking contrast to the mythological origins of Rome in acts of sexual violence (the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucrece), Egyptian cosmography unfolded from the founding legend of Isis and Osiris—brother and sister, lovers and mates—and from the power of Isis’s healing love as it reassembled and reanimated Osiris’s dismembered body after he had been abducted and murdered by the evil Typhon. In Plutarch’s account of the myth in his Morals, “Of Isis and Osiris,” wherever Isis found a piece of Osiris’s body, “she caused a tombe to be made for it: others say no: but that she made many images of him, which she left in every city, as if she had bestowed among them his very body indeed: to the end that in many places he might be honored.” According to the myth, she found all parts of his body except one, “his privy member.” She “made a counterfet one, called Phallus, which she consecrated: and in the honor thereof the Aegyptians hold a solemne feast.” Reanimated by the power of Isis’s devotion, Osiris “returned out of the infernall parts” to help raise their son Horus and train him in the ways of battle (Morals 1294). The Lupercalia, where Shakespeare first shows us Antony, celebrated Romulus and Remus’s nurture by a she-wolf in a cave; they were raised to hardihood independent of woman’s touch. When he imagines his soldiers’ wives healing wounds with their kisses, Antony is speaking from within an emphatically non-Roman myth of origins, one in which sexual love holds sway over life, change, and death.

  16. After the debacle at Actium, however, Antony loses this sprightly authorial control of the bodily representations he invokes, and begins to regard shape-changing as the mark of instability and loss of agency: the hearts which had once loved him begin to dissolve and “discandy” (4.13.22) their approval onto Caesar. He compares himself to a “rack” of clouds which “distains” (4.15.10) before high winds. “Here I am Antony,” he declares in anguish, “but can no longer hold this shape” (4.15.13-14). These distraught references Antony makes to his own and others’ increasingly unstable corporeality, as well as earlier observations of his changeability and his proneness to various kinds of performance, point us to the ways in which the physical essences of bodies in Antony and Cleopatra are overtaken by metamorphosis, far beyond merely volitional changes in their external trappings.

  17. The play illustrates a way of grasping this difference between the exteriors of bodies and the fragile emotional spark which animates them when the declining Antony compares himself to Hercules:
    The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,

    Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage,
    Let me lodge Lichas on the horns of the moon,
    And with those hands, that grasped the heaviest club,
    Subdue my worthiest self. The witch shall die.
    To the young Roman boy she hath sold me, and I fall
    Under this plot. She dies for’t. (4.13.43-49)
    What Antony does not realize at this point is that the spirit of Hercules has already withdrawn its protection (in the haunting 4.3). As he reaches out to his great ancestor, that hero has already retreated from his grasp, crippling the possibility of sustaining the identification that Plutarch reports the historical Antony courted with his raffish copy of Hercules’ eastern dress and his own uncannily Herculean gaiety and boldness and good fellowship.9

  18. The speech containing the above-cited passage begins with Antony telling Cleopatra he hopes she’ll be put on display and humiliated in Rome (suggesting that he does indeed remain aware of the Roman equation of display and shame), and ends with him vowing her death, but its center is devoted to the almost desperate personal aside about Antony’s supposed descent from Hercules and his need for Hercules’ strength now to master himself. In order to exact the revenge that Cleopatra deserves, he will first have to subdue his own nature, as Hercules’ charm was eclipsed by the hero’s own moments of uncontrolled anger and finally by the “rage” which overtook him when he put on the shirt of Nessus. In Metamorphoses 9, his wife Deianira’s jealousy leads her to accept the shirt from the centaur Nessus in the mistaken belief that it possesses magic which will permanently secure her husband’s love. In reality, it is soaked in a virulent poison that burns him like fire; tearing away the shirt tears away his own flesh, and only his transumption to Olympus ends his unbearable pain.

  19. In begging for Hercules’ inspiration for his own “rage,” Antony is inserting himself into a myth of violent double transformation—from beloved hero into maddened sufferer, from mortal birth into divinity—caused, at least indirectly, by misplaced love. At this moment in 4.12, he seems ready to read his love for Cleopatra as the “last and extremest mischief of all other,” as Plutarch’s Life calls it (981): he has been “so ravished and enchanted with the sweet poison of her love” (987) that he cares more about being with her than about properly prosecuting the eastern war against the son of Orodes or about anything else. He wears no poisoned shirt, but freeing himself from the “grave charm” (4.13.25) of his love is as painful and violent as tearing away his own flesh would be. Before this terrible moment, Antony has imagined the power of women’s love as transcendentally healing. But here, Antony’s invocation of Hercules’ mortal crisis invokes a story in which a woman’s perverted love causes the hero’s death. In the Metamorphoses, Hercules goes to his funeral pyre on Mount Oeta as an act of purification and surrenders to the flames “As cheerfully, as if with flowres and garlonds on [his] crowne / [He] hadst beene set a banquetting among full cups of wyne” (9.286-87). The image is Dionysian, as befits both Hercules’ eastern origins and Antony’s “Asiatic” identifications. It is not Hercules’ madness or a Dionysiac frenzy which Antony’s enraged cry seeks to comprehend, but rather the roles of pain and madness in transforming him, burning away the tortured flesh and leaving divinity behind.

  20. Ovid pronounces Hercules’ epitaph in terms which emphasize his bodily transformation and the spiritual emergence it manifests:
    And now, O Hercules , thou haste

    No carkesse for to know thee by. That part is quyght bereft
    Which of thy mother thou didst take. Alonly now is left
    The likenesse that thou tookst of Jove. And as the Serpent slye
    In casting of his withered slough, renewes his yeeres thereby,
    And wexeth lustyer than before, and looketh crisp and bryght
    With scoured scales: so Hercules as soone as that his spryght
    Had left his mortall limbes, gan in his better part to thryve,
    And for to seeme a greater thing than when he was alyve,
    And with a stately majestie ryght reverend to appeere. (9.317-26)
    At this moment of performative self-sacrifice, Hercules confounds distinctions between “subject and object … agent and victim,” as Lynn Enterline observes of Ovidian narrative generally (10). The majesty and mystery Antony finds in Ovidian story is the “greater thing” he reaches for as he transforms myth and history to help find expression for his despair at hearing the false news of Cleopatra’s death. Alone, he unarms. “The sevenfold shield of Ajax,” he tells us, “cannot keep / The battery” of grief at this news from his heart (4.15.38-39).

  21. The moment of Antony’s disarming inevitably recalls the earlier moment in the play when Cleopatra does her best to dress him for battle. It also reiterates, but in a somberly different register, the inappropriate dress put on him by Cleopatra in their lovemaking and on his ancestor Hercules by the domineering Omphale.10 But, in an act of misreading significantly less triumphal than his imagination of himself and Cleopatra together in the afterlife, Antony’s assumption of the efficacy of “the sevenfold shield of Ajax” is jarringly out of place here. The sevenfold shield belonged first to Achilles and ultimately to Ulysses; Ajax only tried to claim it for himself after Achilles’ death. In Metamorphoses 13, Ajax is so furious at being outmanoeuvred for the shield that he fatally stabs himself, and his blood oddly generates the same hyacinth blossom which first appears in Orpheus’s story of the death of Apollo’s minion Hyacinth in Book 10. There, the Apollo-Hyacinth story is one of the accounts of “unlawful joys,” including those of Pygmalion and his statue, the incestuous Myrrha and Cinyras, and Venus and Adonis, that Orpheus sings after the final loss of Eurydice and before his own death:
    O Muse my mother, frame my song of Jove, for every thing

    Is subject unto royall Jove. Of Jove the heavenly King
    I oft have shewed the glorious power. I erst in graver verse
    The Gyants slayne in Phlaegra feeldes with thunder, did reherse.
    But now I neede a meelder style to tell of prettie boyes
    That were the derlings of the Gods: and of unlawfull joyes
    That burned in the brests of Girles, who for theyr wicked lust
    According as they did deserve, receyved penance just. (10.148-55)
    Orpheus’s train of tragically inconsonant love affairs thus associatively precedes and invites us to include the story of Antony and Cleopatra. So does Orpheus’s romantic fate: Ovid tells us that the shades of Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in Elysium, as Antony imagines he and Cleopatra will be. Either Antony is too distracted to remember his classics properly, or Ajax’s self-destructive wrath is what matters most to him about this event from the end of the Trojan war: the extreme emotional stress of the moment, powerful enough to transform the nature of Ajax’s physicality, recommends itself to Antony as he feels himself beginning to break apart under the influence of his own personality and of his subjection to an unlawful love of his own. That Ajax’s story rather lacks the dignity and gravity Antony seeks in order to speak his own grief points to the explanatory power as well as the unaccountability of Ovidian gestures. Antony compares himself to a man who loses the power to speak his own rage, whose rage is perhaps humanly inexpressible.

  22. Cleopatra, of course, has already seen a hint of Ajax in Antony’s behavior, and much more accurately read her Metamorphoses. After violently blaming her for the naval disaster he seemed to court, Cleopatra’s “Herculean Roman” (1.3.84) strikes her as being “more mad / Than Telamon for his shield” (1.14.1-2). Her mind skips from this common-sense reading of Ajax to a reference to his father, who pursued the enraged “boar of Thessaly” Diana sent to ravage Calydon (4.14.2). To her mind, that wild beast “was never so embossed” as Antony seems now (4.14.3). The sovereign queen of a social and erotic order diametrically opposed to what is identified as Roman in the play is ironically in closer touch with Roman myth and legend than her Roman lover. But the Ovidian qualities of Antony and Cleopatra are not a matter of quoting the Metamorphoses as carefully as it follows Plutarch. Following the Metamorphoses closely, after all, would require Antony to recognize that that sevenfold shield never properly belonged to Ajax, but ended up in the hands of a man who, after much travail, found his way back home to the wife and son with whom he had never stopped yearning to be reunited. The details of the stories Antony calls to mind are far less significant than the fact that it is this kind of story he calls on to explain himself, rather than the martial, the chaste, and the epic. Coming at the end of the passage in which he mistakenly assigns Achilles’ shield to Ajax, the reference to Dido and Aeneas cited earlier both compounds and redeems Antony’s misreadings. Beginning badly by comparing himself to the wrong Ajax, he ends with a boldly-conceived attempt at unwriting the national and martial certainties of epic.

  23. As in his misidentification of the new owner of Achilles’ sevenfold shield, Antony’s recourse to the Metamorphoses is strikingly idiosyncratic and partial. He, and his play, are not most truly Ovidian in that they merely invoke certain stories, but rather in that they take up and enlarge upon the models those stories provide of exchange, reinterpretation, and transformation—just as Ovid wrote against the certainties of Virgilian epic. Antony and Cleopatra’s use of Ovid pursues the Metamorphoses’ interest in “unlawful” loves and “shapes transformede to bodies straunge” (1.1), articulating Antony’s erotic and emotional crises through metaphoric—as well as metamorphic—readings of his own. It is left to Cleopatra to put an end to this textual vacillation, as she declares her intention to stabilize meaning in a set of terms which will be clearly legible to Roman understandings. She will be “marble-constant” (5.2.236), rejecting the narrative volatility and invention which have been her lover’s hallmark. Our last view of Antony is of his wounded body being drawn up to Cleopatra’s monument, where he dies in her arms. It remains for her to dress herself as a queen and a goddess and thus to second him in the project of performing the existence of that mysterious “greater thing” that would make him whole and glorious—only this time, in terms adapted to a resolutely un-metamorphic Roman understanding.


    1 The literature on the relation between Ovid and Virgil is large. Discussions of ways in which Ovid’s poetry transmutes Virgilian and Augustan values that I have found particularly useful for my purposes here include Curran; Desmond; Hardie; Hinds; James, Shakespeare’s Troy; and Tissol.

    2 All references to the play are to The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., and are cited parenthetically in the text.

    3 See the astute discussion in James, Shakespeare’s Troy 129-33.

    4 On this reading, see Hurworth.

    5 Here, one might usefully recall Plutarch’s assertion in “Of Isis and Osiris” that Osiris “travelled throwout the world, reducing the whole earth to civility, by force of armes least of all, but winning and gaining the most nations by effectual remonstrances and sweet perswasion couched in songs” (1292).

    6 On Augustan Rome’s deep investment in notions of the male body as impermeable and rigid, see Alston and Walters.

    7 See Rimell, esp. 6-40. Rimell advances the significance of Ovid’s Medusa, who escapes men’s attempts at possession and control, as an alternative to critical focus on the myth of Narcissus, which has come to serve as a chief exemplar of a kind of western philosophical discourse “which creates man’s desired object as the reassuring negative of his own reflection” (5).

    8 One might contrast this invocation of surrender and sexual healing with Octavius’ memories of Antony’s former hardihood, when he “didst drink / The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at” (1.4.61), when he “browsed … [t]he barks of trees” and “didst eat strange flesh” (1.4.66-67) and bore all this solitary deprivation “so like a soldier” (1.4.70) that he even seemed to thrive on it.

    9 On the affinities between Shakespeare’s Antony and Hercules, see Bate 205-11, Bono 154-63, Jones-Davies, and Shulman.

    10 Heroides 9 contains Deianira’s diatribe against Hercules’ having endured the shame of having been captured and dressed as a woman by the disorderly Lydian queen Omphale: “Had Busiris seen you in that garb, he whom you had vanquished would surely have reddened for such a victor as you. Antaerus would tear from the hard neck the turban bands, lest he feel shame at having succumbed to an unmanly foe” (113).

    Works Cited

    • Barchiesi, Alessandro. The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print.

    • Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. Print.
    • Barroll, J. Leeds. “The Allusive Tissue of Antony and Cleopatra.” Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays. Ed. Sara Munson Deats. New York: Routledge, 2005. 275-90. Print.
    • Barton. Carlin. “Being in the Eyes: Shame and Sight in Ancient Rome.” The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body. Ed. David Fredrick. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. 216-35. Print.
    • Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
    • Corbeill, Anthony. “Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective.” Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 99-128. Print.
    • Curran, L. C. “Metamorphosis and Anti-Augustanism.” Arethusa 5 (1978): 71-91. Print.
    • Dean, Paul. “Antony and Cleopatra: An Ovidian Tragedy?” Cahiers Élisabéthains 40 (1991): 73-77. Print.
    • Desmond, Marilyn. “When Dido Reads Virgil: Gender and Intertextuality in Ovid’s Heroides 7.” Helios 20 (1993): 56-68. Print.
    • Edwards, Catherine. “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome.” Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 66-95. Print.
    • Enterline, Lynn. The Rhetoric of the Body From Ovid to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
    • Fuller, Mary. “Forgetting the Aeneid.” ALH 4.3 (1992): 517-38. Print.
    • Hardie, Philip. “Ovid’s Theban History: The First Anti-Aeneid?” Classical Quarterly 40 (1990): 224-35. Print.
    • Hinds, Stephen. “Arma in Ovid’s Fasti Part 2: Genre, Romulan Rome and Augustan Ideology.” Arethusa 25 (1992): 113-53. Print.
    • Hurworth, Angela. “‘Dido and her Aeneas’: Transfiguration in Antony and Cleopatra.” Lectures d’une Oeuvre de William Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Christine Sukic. Paris: Éditions du Temps, 2000. 9-24. Print.
    • James, Heather. Shakespeare’s Troy: Drama, Politics, and the Translation of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.
    • ---. “Ovid and the Question of Politics in Early Modern England.” ELH 70 (2003): 343-73. Print.
    • Jones-Davies, Marie-Thérèse. “Shakespeare and the Myth of Hercules.” Reclamations of Shakespeare. Ed. A. J. Honselaars. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. 57-74. Print.
    • MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Antony and Cleopatra: A Mythological Perspective.” Orbis Litterarum 45 (1990): 309-29. Print.
    • Newlands, Carole. Playing With Time: Ovid and the ‘Fasti’. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. Print.
    • Ovid. Fasti. Trans. Sir James George Frazer. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1931. Print.
    • Ovid. Heroides and Amores. Trans. Grant Showerman. Rev. ed. G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977. Print.
    • Ovid. Metamorphosis. Trans. Arthur Golding. London, 1567. STC 18956. Print.
    • Ovid. Tristia and Ex Ponto. Trans. Arthur Leslie Wheeler. 2nd rev. ed. G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.
    • Plutarch. “The Life of Marcus Antonius.” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Trans. Thomas North. London, 1579. STC 20066. 970-1010. Print.
    • Plutarch. “Of Isis and Osiris.” The Philosophie, Commonly Called, the Morals. Trans. Philemon Holland. London, 1603. STC 20063. 1286-319. Print.
    • Rimell, Victoria. Ovid’s Lovers: Desire, Difference, and the Poetic Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
    • Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Gen. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
    • Shulman, Jeff. “At the Crossroads of Myth: The Hermeneutics of Hercules From Shakespeare to Ovid.” ELH 50 (1983): 83-105. Print.
    • Stanivukovic, Goran. Introduction. Ovid and the Renaissance Body. Ed. Goran Stanivukovic. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001. 3-18. Print.
    • Tissol, Garth. “Ovid’s Little Aeneid and the Thematic Integrity of the Metamorphoses.” Helios 20 (1993): 69-79. Print.
    • Traub, Valerie. Afterword. Ovid and the Renaissance Body. Ed. Goran Stanivukovic. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001. 260-68. Print.
    • Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Trans. H. R. Fairclough. Rev. G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard UP 1999. Print.
    • Walcott, Derek. Interview by Edward Hirsch. “The Art of Poetry XXXVII: Derek Walcott.” The Paris Review 101 (1986): 196-230. Print.
    • Wofford, Susanne. “Antony’s Egyptian Bacchanals: Heroic and Divine Inspiration in Shakespeare’s Plutarch and Antony and Cleopatra.” Poetica (Tokyo): 48 (1997): 33-67. Print.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).