DRAMAS OF LUST: PART II
<i>Antony and Cleopatra</i>
We now come to the finest work of Shakespeare's maturity, to the drama
in which his passion for Mary Fitton finds supreme expression.
"Antony and Cleopatra" is an astonishing production not yet fairly
appreciated even in England, and perhaps not likely to be appreciated
anywhere at its full worth for many a year to come. But when we English
have finally left that dark prison of Puritanism and lived for some time
in the sun-light where the wayside crosses are hidden under climbing
roses, we shall probably couple "Antony and Cleopatra" with "Hamlet" in
our love as Shakespeare's supremest works. It was fitting that the same
man who wrote "Romeo and Juliet," the incomparable symphony of first
love, should also write "Antony and Cleopatra," the far more wonderful
and more terrible tragedy of mature passion.
Let us begin with the least interesting part of the play, and we shall
see that all the difficulties in it resolve themselves as soon as we
think of it as Shakespeare's own confession. Wherever he leaves
Plutarch, it is to tell his own story.
Some critics have reproached Shakespeare with the sensualism of "Romeo
and Juliet"; no one, so far as I can remember, has blamed the Sapphic
intensity of "Antony and Cleopatra," where the lust of the flesh and
desire of the eye reign triumphant. Professor Dowden indeed says: "The
spirit of the play, though superficially it appear voluptuous, is
essentially severe. That is to say, Shakespeare is faithful to the
fact." Antony and Cleopatra kill themselves, forsooth, and thus
conventional virtue is justified by self-murder. So superficial and
false a judgement is a quaint example of mid-Victorian taste: it reminds
me of the horsehair sofa and the antimacassar. Would Professor Dowden
have had Shakespeare alter the historical facts, making Antony conquer
Caesar and Cleopatra triumph over death? Would this have been sufficient
to prove to the professor that Shakespeare's morals are not his, and
that the play is certainly the most voluptuous in modern literature?
Well, this is just what Shakespeare has done. Throughout the play Caesar
is a subordinate figure while Antony is the protagonist and engages all
our sympathies; whenever they meet Antony shows as the larger, richer,
more generous nature. In every act he conquers Caesar; leaving on us the
gorgeous ineffaceable impression of a great personality whose superb
temperament moves everyone to admiration and love; Caesar, on the other
hand, affects one as a calculating machine.
But Shakespeare's fidelity to the fact is so extraordinary that he gives
Caesar one speech which shows his moral superiority to Antony. When his
sister weeps on hearing that Antony has gone back to Cleopatra, Caesar
bids her dry her tears,
But let determined things to destiny
Hold unbewailed their way ..."
This line alone suffices to show why Antony was defeated; the force of
imperial Rome is in the great phrase; but Shakespeare will not admit his
favourite's inferiority, and in order to explain Antony's defeat
Shakespeare represents luck as being against him, luck or fate, and this
is not the only or even the chief proof of the poet's partiality.
Pompey, who scarcely notices Caesar when Antony is by, says of Antony:
Is twice the other twain."
And, indeed, Antony in the play appears to be able to beat Caesar
whenever he chooses or whenever he is not betrayed.
All the personages of the play praise Antony, and when he dies the most
magnificent eulogy of him is pronounced by Agrippa, Caesar's friend:
"A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you, Gods, will give us
Some faults to make us men."
Antony is even permitted at the last to console himself; he declares
exultantly that in the other world the ghosts shall come to gaze at him
and Cleopatra, and:
"Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops."
Shakespeare makes conquering Caesar admit the truth of this boast:
"No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous."
To win in life universal admiration and love, and in death imperishable
renown, is to succeed in spite of failure and suicide, and this is the
lesson which Shakespeare read into Plutarch's story. Even Enobarbus is
conquered at the last by Antony's noble magnanimity. But why does
Shakespeare show this extraordinary, this extravagant liking for him who
was "the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust," for that Marc
Antony who might have been the master of the world, and who threw away
empire, life, and honour to be "a strumpet's fool?" There is only one
possible explanation: Shakespeare felt the most intense, the most
intimate sympathy with Antony because he, too, was passion's slave, and
had himself experienced with his dark mistress, Mary Fitton, the
ultimate degradation of lust. For this reason he took Plutarch's
portrait of Antony, and, by emphasizing the kingly traits, transformed
it. In the play, as Dr. Brandes sees, Antony takes on something of the
"artist-nature." It is Antony's greatness and weakness; the spectacle of
a high intellect struggling with an overpowering sensuality; of a noble
nature at odds with passionate human frailty, that endeared him to
Shakespeare. The pomp of Antony's position, too, and his kingly
personality pleased our poet. As soon as Shakespeare reached maturity,
he began to depict himself as a monarch; from "Twelfth Night" on he
assumed royal state in his plays, and surely in this figure of Antony he
must for the moment have satisfied his longing for regal magnificence
and domination. From the first scene to the last Antony is a king of men
by right divine of nature.
It is, however, plain that Antony's pride, his superb mastery of life,
the touch of imperious brutality in him, are all traits taken from
Plutarch, and are indeed wholly inconsistent with Shakespeare's own
character. Had Shakespeare possessed these qualities his portraits of
men of action would have been infinitely better than they are, while his
portraits of the gentle thinker and lover of the arts, his Hamlets and
his Dukes, would have been to seek.
The personal note of every one of his great tragedies is that
Shakespeare feels he has failed in life, failed lamentably. His Brutus,
we feel, failed of necessity because of his aloofness from practical
life; his Coriolanus, too, had to fail, and almost forgoes sympathy by
his faults; but this Antony ought not to have failed: we cannot
understand why the man leaves the sea-battle to follow Cleopatra's
flight, who but an act or two before, with lesser reason, realized his
danger and was able to break off from his enchantress. Yet the passion
of desire that sways Antony is so splendidly portrayed; is, too, so
dominant in all of us, that we accept it at once as explaining the
In measure as Shakespeare ennobled Antony, the historical fact of
ultimate defeat and failure allowed him to degrade Cleopatra. And this
he did willingly enough, for from the moment he took up the subject he
identified the Queen of Egypt with his own faithless mistress, Mary
Fitton, whom he had already tried to depict as "false Cressid." This
identification of himself and his own experience of passion with the
persons and passions of the story explains some of the faults of the
drama; while being the source, also, of its singular splendour.
In this play we have the finest possible example of the strife between
Shakespeare's yielding poetic temperament and the severity of his
intellect. He heaps praises on Antony, as we have seen, from all sides;
he loved the man as a sort of superb <i>alter ego</i>, and yet his
intellectual fairness is so extraordinary that it compelled him to
create a character who should uphold the truth even against his heart's
favourite. Dr. Brandes speaks of Enobarbus as a "sort of chorus"; he is
far more than that; he is the intellectual conscience of the play, a
weight, so to speak, to redress the balance which Shakespeare used this
once and never again. What a confession this is of personal partiality!
A single instance will suffice to prove my point: Shakespeare makes
Antony cast the blame for the flight at Actium on Cleopatra, and manages
almost to hide the unmanly weakness of the plaint by its infinitely
"Whither hast them led me, Egypt?
A little later Cleopatra asks:
"Is Antony or we in fault for this?"
and at once Enobarbus voices the exact truth:
"Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
. . . . . .
. . . why should he follow?"
Again and again Antony reproaches Cleopatra, and again and again
Enobarbus is used to keep the truth before us. Some of these reproaches,
it seems to me, are so extravagant and so ill-founded that they discover
the personal passion of the poet. For example, Antony insults Cleopatra:
"You have been a boggler ever."
And the proof forsooth is:
"I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher."
But to have been Caesar's mistress was Cleopatra's chief title to fame.
Shakespeare is here probably reviling Mary Fitton for being deserted by
some early lover. Curiously enough, this weakness of Antony increases
the complexity of his character, while the naturalistic passion of his
words adds enormously to the effect of the play. Again and again in this
drama Shakespeare's personal vindictiveness serves an artistic purpose.
The story of "Troilus and Cressida" is in itself low and vile, and when
loaded with Shakespeare's bitterness outrages probability; but the love
of Antony and Cleopatra is so overwhelming that it goes to ruin and
suicide and beyond, and when intensified by Shakespeare's personal
feeling becomes a world's masterpiece.
We have already seen that the feminine railing Shakespeare puts in the
mouth of Antony increases the realistic effect, and just in the same way
the low cunning, temper, and mean greed which he attributes to
Cleopatra, transform her from a somewhat incomprehensible historical
marionette into the most splendid specimen of the courtesan in the
world's literature. Heine speaks of her contemptuously as a "kept
woman," but the epithet only shows how Heine in default of knowledge
fell back on his racial gift of feminine denigration. Even before she
enters we see that Shakespeare has not forgiven his dark scornful
mistress; Cleopatra is the finest picture he ever painted of Mary
Fitton; but Antony's friends tell us, at the outset, she is a "lustful
gipsy," a "strumpet," and at first she merely plays on Antony's
manliness; she sends for him, and when he comes, departs. A little later
she sends again, telling her messenger:
"I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say, I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick: quick, and return."
And when Charmian, her woman, declares that the way to keep a man is to
"cross him in nothing," she replies scornfully:
"Thou teachest, like a fool, the way to lose him."
She uses a dozen taunts to prevent her lover from leaving her; but when
she sees him resolved, she wishes him victory and success. And so
through a myriad changes of mood and of cunning wiles we discover that
love for Antony which is the anchor to her unstable nature.
The scene with the eunuch Mardian is a little gem. She asks:
"Hast thou affections?
<i>Mar</i>. Yes, gracious madam.
<i>Mar</i>. Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing.
But what indeed is honest to be done;
Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.
<i>Cleo</i>. O, Charmian!
Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?"
She is with her lover again, and recalls his phrase for her, "my serpent
of old Nile," and feeds herself with love's "delicious poison."
No sooner does she win our sympathy by her passion for Antony than
Shakespeare chills our admiration by showing her as the courtesan:
Ever love Caesar so?
|Did I, Charmian,
||O, that brave Caesar!
<i>Cleo</i>. Be choked with such another emphasis!
Say, the brave Antony.
<i>Char</i>. The valiant Caesar!
<i>Cleo</i>. By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth
If thou with Caesar paragon again
My man of men.
||By your most gracious pardon,
|I sing but after
||My salad days,
|When I was green
||in judgement: cold in blood,
|To say as I said
Already we see and know her, her wiles, her passion, her quick temper,
her chameleon-like changes, her subtle charms of person and of word, and
yet we have not reached the end of the first act. Next to Falstaff and
to Hamlet, Cleopatra is the most astonishing piece of portraiture in all
Shakespeare. Enobarbus gives the soul of her:
"<i>Ant</i>. She is cunning past man's thought.
<i>Eno</i>. Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nothing
but the finest part of pure love....
<i>Ant</i>. Would I had never seen her!
<i>Eno</i>. O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful
piece of work; which not to have been blest withal would
have discredited your travel."
Here Shakespeare gives his true opinion of Mary Fitton: then comes the
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."
Act by act Shakespeare makes the portrait more complex and more perfect.
In the second act she calls for music like the dark lady of the Sonnets:
"Music--moody food of us that trade in love,"
and then she'll have no music, but will play billiards, and not
billiards either, but will fish and think every fish caught an Antony.
And again she flies to memory:
"That time--O times!--
I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan."
The charm of it all, the deathless charm and the astounding veracity!
The messenger enters, and she promises him for good news "gold and her
bluest veins to kiss." When she hears that Antony is well she pours more
gold on him, but when he pauses in his recital she has a mind to strike
him. When he tells that Caesar and Antony are friends, it is a fortune
she'll give; but when she learns that Antony is betrothed to Octavia she
turns to her women with "I am pale, Charmian," and when she hears that
Antony is married she flies into a fury, strikes the messenger down and
hales him up and down the room by his hair. When he runs from her knife
she sends for him:
These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself."
She has the fascination of great pride and the magic of manners. When
the messenger returns she is a queen again, most courteous-wise:
"Come hither, sir.
Though it be honest, it is never good
To bring bad news."
She wants to know the features of Octavia, her years, her inclination,
the colour of her hair, her height--everything.
A most veracious full-length portrait, with the minute finish of a
miniature; it shows how Shakespeare had studied every fold and foible of
Mary Fitton's soul. In the third act Cleopatra takes up again the theme
of Octavia's appearance, only to run down her rival, and so salve her
wounded vanity and cheat her heart to hope. The messenger, too, who
lends himself to her humour now becomes a proper man. Shakespeare seizes
every opportunity to add another touch to the wonderful picture.
Cleopatra appears next in Antony's camp at Actium talking with
"<i>Cleo</i>. I will be even with thee, doubt it not.
<i>Eno</i>. But why, why, why?
<i>Cleo</i>. Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say'st it is not fit."
Each phrase of the dialogue reveals her soul, dark fold on fold.
She is the only person who strengthens Antony in his quixotic-foolish
resolve to fight at sea.
"<i>Cleo</i>. I have sixty sails, Caesar none better."
And then the shameful flight.
I have pursued this bald analysis thus far, not for pleasure merely, but
to show the miracle of that portraiture the traits of which can bear
examination one by one. So far Cleopatra is, as Enobarbus calls her, "a
wonderful piece of work," a woman of women, inscrutable, cunning,
deceitful, prodigal, with a good memory for injuries, yet as quick to
forgiveness as to anger, a minion of the moon, fleeting as water yet
loving-true withal, a sumptuous bubble, whose perpetual vagaries are but
perfect obedience to every breath of passion. But now Shakespeare
without reason makes her faithless to Antony and to love. In the second
scene of the third act Thyreus comes to her with Caesar's message:
"<i>Thyr</i>. He knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love but as you feared him.
<i>Thyr</i>. The scars upon your honour therefore he
Does pity as constrained blemishes,
Not as deserved.
<i>Cleo</i>. He is a god, and knows
What is most right. Mine honour was not yielded,
But conquered merely.
<i>Eno</i>. [<i>Aside</i>.] To be sure of that
I will ask Antony.--Sir, sir, thou'rt so leaky
That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for
Thy dearest quit thee."
And when Thyreus asks her to leave Antony and put herself under Caesar's
protection, who "desires to give," she tells him:
To lay my crown at his feet, and there to kneel."
Thyreus then asks for grace to lay his duty on her hand. She gives it to
him with the words:
"Your Caesar's father oft,
When he hath mused of taking kingdoms in,
Bestowed his lips on that unworthy place
As it rained kisses."
It is as if Antony were forgotten, clean wiped from her mind. The whole
scene is a libel upon Cleopatra and upon womanhood. When betrayed, women
are faithless out of anger, pique, desire of revenge; they are faithless
out of fear, out of ambition, for fancy's sake--for fifty motives, but
not without motive. It would have been easy to justify this scene. All
the dramatist had to do was to show us that Cleopatra, a proud woman and
scorned queen, could not forget Antony's faithlessness in leaving her to
marry Octavia; but she never mentions Octavia, never seems to remember
her after she has got Antony back. This omission, too, implies a slur
upon her. Nor does she kiss Caesar's "conquering hand" out of fear.
Thyreus has told her it would please Caesar if she would make of his
fortunes a staff to lean upon; she has no fear, and her ambitions are
wreathed round Antony: Caesar has nothing to offer that can tempt her,
as we shall see later. The scene is a libel upon her. The more one
studies it, the clearer it becomes that Shakespeare wrote it out of
wounded personal feeling. Cleopatra's prototype, Mary Fitton, had
betrayed him again and again, and the faithlessness rankled. Cleopatra,
therefore, shall be painted as faithless, without cause, as Cressid was,
from incurable vice of nature. Shakespeare tried to get rid of his
bitterness in this way, and if his art suffered, so much the worse for
his art. Curiously enough, in this instance, for reasons that will
appear later, the artistic effect is deepened.
The conclusion of this scene, where Thyreus is whipped and Cleopatra
overwhelmed with insults by Antony, does not add much to our knowledge
of Cleopatra's character: one may notice, however, that it is the
reproach of cold-heartedness that she catches up to answer. The scene
follows in which she plays squire to Antony and helps to buckle on his
armour. But this scene (invented by Shakespeare), which might bring out
the sweet woman-weakness in her, and so reconcile us to her again, is
used against her remorselessly by the poet. When Antony wakes and cries
for his armour she begs him to "sleep a little"; the touch is natural
enough, but coming after her faithlessness to her lover and her
acceptance of Caesar it shows more than human frailty. It is plain that,
intent upon ennobling Antony, Shakespeare is willing to degrade
Cleopatra beyond nature. Then comes Antony's victory, and his passion at
length finds perfect lyrical expression:
"O thou day o' the world,
Chain mine armed neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing."
At once Cleopatra catches fire with that responsive flame of womanhood
which was surely her chiefest charm:
"Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue! Com'st thou smiling from
The world's great snare uncaught?"
What magic in the utterance, what a revelation of Cleopatra's character
and of Shakespeare's! To Cleopatra's feminine weakness the world seems
one huge snare which only cunning may escape.
Another day, and final irremediable defeat drives her in fear to the
monument and to that pretended suicide which is the immediate cause of
"Unarm, Eros: the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep."
When Antony leaves the stage, Shakespeare's idealizing vision turns to
Cleopatra. About this point, too, the historical fact fetters
Shakespeare and forces him to realize the other side of Cleopatra. After
Antony's death Cleopatra did kill herself. One can only motive and
explain this suicide by self-immolating love. It is natural that at
first Shakespeare will have it that Cleopatra's nobility of nature is
merely a reflection, a light borrowed from Antony. She will not open the
monument to let the dying man enter, but her sincerity and love enable
us to forgive this:
"I dare not, dear,--
Dear my lord, pardon,--I dare not,
Lest I be taken...."
Here occurs a fault of taste which I find inexplicable. While Cleopatra
and her women are drawing Antony up, he cries;
"O quick, or I am gone."
And Cleopatra answers:
"Here's sport, indeed!--How heavy weighs my lord!
Our strength has all gone into heaviness,
That makes the weight."
The "Here's sport, indeed"! seems to me a terrible fault, an inexcusable
lapse of taste. I should like to think it a misprint or misreading, but
it is unfortunately like Shakespeare in a certain mood, possible to him,
at least, here as elsewhere.
Cleopatra's lament over Antony's dead body is a piece of Shakespeare's
self-revealing made lyrical by beauty of word and image. The allusion to
his boy-rival, Pembroke, is unmistakable; for women are not contemptuous
"Young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon."
When Cleopatra comes to herself after swooning, her anger is
characteristic because wholly unexpected; it is one sign more that
Shakespeare had a living model in his mind:
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stolen our jewel. All's but naught."
Her resolve to kill herself is borrowed:
"We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us."
But the resolution holds:
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change."
It is this greatness of soul in Cleopatra which Shakespeare has now to
portray. Caesar's messenger, Proculeius, whom Antony has told her to
trust, promises her everything in return for her "sweet dependency." On
being surprised she tries to kill herself, and when disarmed shows again
that characteristic petulant anger:
"Sir, I will eat no meat, I'll not drink, sir;
. . . . . This mortal house I'll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can."
And her reasons are all of pride and hatred of disgrace. She'll not be
"chastised with the sober eye of dull Octavia," nor shown "to the
shouting varletry of censuring Rome." Her imagination is at work now,
that quick forecast of the mind that steels her desperate resolve:
Lay me stark nak'd, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring."
The heroic mood passes. She tries to deceive Caesar as to her wealth,
and is shamed by her treasurer Seleucus. The scene is appalling; poor
human nature stripped to the skin--all imperfections exposed; Cleopatra
cheating, lying, raging like a drab; her words to Seleucus are merciless
"O slave, of no more trust
Than love that's hired."
This scene deepens and darkens the impression made by her unmotived
faithlessness to Antony. It is, however, splendidly characteristic and I
think needful; but it renders that previous avowal of faithlessness to
Antony altogether superfluous, the sole fault in an almost perfect
portrait. For, as I have said already, Shakespeare's mistakes in
characterization nearly always spring from his desire to idealize; but
here his personal vindictiveness comes to help his art. The historical
fact compels him now to give his harlot, Cleopatra, heroic attributes;
in spite of Caesar's threats to treat her sons severely if she dares to
take her own life and thus deprive his triumph of its glory, she outwits
him and dies a queen, a worthy descendant, as Charmian says, of "many
royal kings." Nothing but personal bitterness could have prevented
Shakespeare from idealizing such a woman out of likeness to humanity.
But in this solitary and singular case his personal suffering bound him
to realism though the history justified idealization. The high lights
were for once balanced by the depths of shadow, and a masterpiece was
Shakespeare leaves out Caesar's threats to put Cleopatra's sons to
death; had he used these menaces he would have made Caesar more natural
in my opinion, given a touch of characteristic brutality to the
calculating intellect; but he omitted them probably because he felt that
Cleopatra's pedestal was high enough without that addition.
The end is very characteristic of Shakespeare's temper. Caesar becomes
nobly generous; he approves Cleopatra's wisdom in swearing falsehoods
about her treasure; he will not reckon with her like "a merchant," and
Cleopatra herself puts on the royal robes, and she who has played wanton
before us so long becomes a queen of queens. And yet her character is
wonderfully maintained; no cunning can cheat this mistress of duplicity:
"He words me, girls, he words me that I should not
Be noble to myself."
She holds to her heroic resolve; she will never be degraded before the
base Roman public; she will not see
"Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness."
It is, perhaps, worth noting here that Shakespeare lends Cleopatra, as
he afterwards lent Coriolanus, his own delicate senses and neuropathic
loathing for mechanic slaves with "greasy aprons" and "thick breaths
rank of gross diet"; it is Shakespeare too and not Cleopatra who speaks
of death as bringing "liberty." In "Cymbeline," Shakespeare's mask
Posthumus dwells on the same idea. But these lapses are momentary; the
superb declaration that follows is worthy of the queen:
"My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine."
The scene with the clown who brings the "pretty worm" is the solid
ground of reality on which Cleopatra rests for a breathing space before
rising into the blue:
"<i>Cleo</i>. Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.--
Yare, yare, good Iras! quick.--Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after-wrath. Husband, I come,
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life."
The whole speech is miraculous in speed of mounting emotion, and when
Iras dies first, this Cleopatra finds again the perfect word in which
truth and beauty meet:
"This proves me base:
If she first meet the curled Antony
He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
Which is my heaven to have. Come, thou mortal wretch,
[<i>To the asp, which she applies to her breast</i>.]
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool,
Be angry, and despatch. O, could'st thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar, ass
The characteristic high temper of Mary Fitton breaking out again--"ass
unpolicied"--and then the end:
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?"
The final touch is of soft pleasure:
"As sweet a balm, as soft as air, as gentle,--
Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too.
[<i>Applying another asp to her arm</i>.]
What should I stay--"
For ever fortunate in her self-inflicted death Cleopatra thereby frees
herself from the ignominy of certain of her actions: she is woman at
once and queen, and if she cringes lower than other women, she rises,
too, to higher levels than other women know. The historical fact of her
self-inflicted death forced the poet to make false Cressid a
Cleopatra--and his wanton gipsy-mistress was at length redeemed by a
passion of heroic resolve. The majority of critics are still debating
whether indeed Cleopatra is the "dark lady" of the sonnets or not.
Professor Dowden puts forward the theory as a daring conjecture; but the
identity of the two cannot be doubted. It is impossible not to notice
that Shakespeare makes Cleopatra, who was a fair Greek, gipsy-dark like
his sonnet-heroine. He says, too, of the "dark lady" of the sonnets:
"Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill,
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?"
Enobarbus praises Cleopatra in precisely the same words:
Become themselves in her."
Antony, too, uses the same expression:
Whom everything becomes--to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired."
These professors have no distinct mental image of the "dark lady" or of
Cleopatra, or they would never talk of "daring conjecture" in regard to
this simple identification. The points of likeness are numberless.
Ninety-nine poets and dramatists out of a hundred would have followed
Plutarch and made Cleopatra's love for Antony the mainspring of her
being, the <i>causa causans</i> of her self-murder. Shakespeare does not
do this; he allows the love of Antony to count with her, but it is
imperious pride and hatred of degradation that compel his Cleopatra to
embrace the Arch-fear. And just this same quality of pride is attributed
to the "dark lady." Sonnet 131 begins:
"Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel."
Both are women of infinite cunning and small regard for faith or truth;
hearts steeled with an insane pride, and violent tempers suited with
scolding slanderous tongues. Prolonged analysis is not needed. A point
of seeming difference between them establishes their identity. Cleopatra
is beautiful, "a lass unparalleled," as Charmian calls her, and
accordingly we can believe that all emotions became her, and that when
hopping on the street or pretending to die she was alike be-witching;
beauty has this magic. But how can all things become a woman who is not
beautiful, whose face some say "hath not the power to make love groan,"
who cannot even blind the senses with desire? And yet the "dark lady" of
the sonnets who is thus described, has the "powerful might" of
personality in as full measure as Egypt's queen. The point of seeming
unlikeness is as convincing as any likeness could be; the peculiarities
of both women are the same and spring from the same dominant quality.
Cleopatra is cunning, wily, faithless, passionately unrestrained in
speech and proud as Lucifer, and so is the sonnet-heroine. We may be
sure that the faithlessness, scolding, and mad vanity of his mistress
were defects in Shakespeare's eyes as in ours; these, indeed, were "the
things ill" which nevertheless became her. What Shakespeare loved in her
was what he himself lacked or possessed in lesser degree--that dæmonic
power of personality which he makes Enobarbus praise in Cleopatra and
which he praises directly in the sonnet-heroine. Enobarbus says of
"I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street,
And, having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth."
One would be willing to wager that Shakespeare is here recalling a
performance of his mistress; but it is enough for my purpose now to draw
attention to the unexpectedness of the attribute "power." The sonnet
fastens on the same word:
"O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?"
In the same sonnet he again dwells upon her "strength": she was bold,
too, to unreason, and of unbridled tongue, for, "twice forsworn
herself," she had yet urged his "amiss," though guilty of the same
fault. What he admired most in her was force of character. Perhaps the
old saying held in her case: <i>ex forti dulcedo</i>; perhaps her
confident strength had abandonments more flattering and complete than
those of weaker women; perhaps in those moments her forceful dark face
took on a soulful beauty that entranced his exquisite susceptibility;
perhaps--but the suppositions are infinite.
Though a lover and possessed by his mistress Shakespeare was still an
artist. In the sonnets he brings out her overbearing will, boldness,
pride--the elemental force of her nature; in the play, on the other
hand, while just mentioning her "power," he lays the chief stress upon
the cunning wiles and faithlessness of her whose trade was love. But
just as Cleopatra has power, so there can be no doubt of the wily
cunning--"the warrantise of skill"--of the sonnet-heroine, and no doubt
her faithlessness was that "just cause of hate" which Shakespeare
It is worth while here to notice his perfect comprehension of the powers
and limits of the different forms of his art. Just as he has used the
sonnets in order to portray certain intimate weaknesses and maladies of
his own nature that he could not present dramatically without making his
hero ridiculously effeminate, so also he used the sonnets to convey to
us the domineering will and strength of his mistress--qualities which if
presented dramatically would have seemed masculine-monstrous.
By taking the sonnets and the play together we get an excellent portrait
of Shakespeare's mistress. In person she was probably tall and vain of
her height, as Cleopatra is vain of her superiority in this respect to
Octavia, with dark complexion, black eyebrows and hair, and pitch-black
eyes that mirrored emotion as the lakelet mirrors the ever-changing
skies; her cheeks are "damask'd white"; her breath fragrant with health,
her voice melodious, her movements full of dignity--a superb gipsy to
whom beauty may be denied but not distinction.
If we have a very good idea of her person we have a still better idea of
her mind and soul. I must begin by stating that I do not accept
implicitly Shakespeare's angry declarations that his mistress was a mere
strumpet. A nature of great strength and pride is seldom merely wanton;
but the fact stands that Shakespeare makes a definite charge of
faithlessness against his mistress; she is, he tells us, "the bay where
all men ride"; no "several plot," but "the wide world's common place."
The accusation is most explicit. But if it were well founded why should
he devote two sonnets (135 and 136) to imploring her to be as liberal as
the sea and to receive his love-offering as well as the tributes of
"Among a number one is reckon'd none
Then in the number let me pass untold."
It is plain that Mistress Fitton drew away from Shakespeare after she
had given herself to his friend, and this fact throws some doubt upon
his accusations of utter wantonness. A true "daughter of the game," as
he says in "Troilus and Cressida," is nothing but "a sluttish spoil of
opportunity" who falls to Troilus or to Diomedes in turn, knowing no
reserve. It must be reckoned to the credit of Mary Fitton, or to her
pride, that she appears to have been faithful to her lover for the time
being, and able to resist even the solicitings of Shakespeare. But her
desires seem to have been her sole restraint, and therefore we must add
an extraordinary lewdness to that strength, pride, and passionate temper
which Shakespeare again and again attributes to her. Her boldness is so
reckless that she shows her love for his friend even before
Shakespeare's face; she knows no pity in her passion, and always defends
herself by attacking her accuser. But she is cunning in love's ways and
dulls Shakespeare's resentment with "I don't hate you." Unwilling
perhaps to lose her empire over him and to forego the sweetness of his
honeyed flatteries, she blinded him to her faults by occasional
caresses. Yet this creature, with the soul of a strumpet, the tongue of
a fishwife and the "proud heart" of a queen, was the crown and flower of
womanhood to Shakespeare, his counterpart and ideal. Hamlet in love with
Cleopatra, the poet lost in desire of the wanton--that is the tragedy of
In this wonderful world of ours great dramatic writers are sure to have
dramatic lives. Again and again in his disgrace Antony cries:
"Whither hast thou led me, Egypt?"
Shakespeare's passion for Mary Fitton led him to shame and madness and
despair; his strength broke down under the strain and he never won back
again to health. He paid the price of passion with his very blood. It is
Shakespeare and not Antony who groans:
"O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,--
* * * * *
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss."
Shakespeare's love for Mary Fitton is to me one of the typical tragedies
of life--a symbol for ever. In its progress through the world genius is
inevitably scourged and crowned with thorns and done to death;
inevitably, I say, for the vast majority of men hate and despise what is
superior to them: Don Quixote, too, was trodden into the mire by the
swine. But the worst of it is that genius suffers also through its own
excess; is bound, so to speak, to the stake of its own passionate
sensibilities, and consumed, as with fire.