Antony and Cleopatra Makes No Attempt to Rival the Four Great Tragedies – Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello

The question whether Antony and Cleopatra is a close compeer or rival of the four great tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello) is born of one page of Coleridgean general criticism where the great critic recorded his highest praise for the play by expressing his doubt as to whether the astonishing play was a formidable rival to the four great Shakespearean tragedies. A. C. Bradley, another great Shakespearean critic has construed Coleridge’s remarks as amounting to an assertion of great tragedies. Assuming this to be true, Bradley states that this is an error of judgment and evaluation on the part of Coleridge and proceeds to note the features which mark out Antony and Cleopatra as decidedly different from the famous four tragedies known as great in Shakespeare.

The peculiar marks of Antony and Cleopatra which discriminate it from the four great tragedies and put it in a different class are found both its form and substance. It is a presentable play generally, although not suited for children. It is defective in construction particularly in the third and fourth acts. It was felt on the Elizabethan stage and it is felt much more so on the modern stage. These forty-two scenes could not possibly be acted even on the Elizabethan stage where pause between scenes was unknown. This partly explains the absence of popularity of the play among the regular play goers. However, the main difference lies not in the plays form or construction; it lacks some very vital thing in its matter, that something which is associated with the four great tragedies.

In substance the difference with the great tragedies is grater. These tragedies are dramatic in both the special and general sense of the word. In them not only an exciting but an impressive story moves through a conflict of contending forces to a terrible issue appealing powerfully to the dramatic feelings – “scenes of actions or passion which agitate the audience with alarm, horror, painful expectation, or absorbing sympathies or antipathies”. Normally these scenes of action or passion are found in the first three acts of the tragedies. The street-fights in Romeo and Juliet, the killing of Mercutio and Tybalt or the rapture and despair of lovers are examples. The ghost-scenes are placed in the first act of Hamlet whose other early acts include the soliloquies of passion, the scene between Hamelt and Ophelia, the play scene and the killing of Polonius. We observe similar scenes of action or passion in the early acts of Macbeth and Othello.

There is nothing resembling these in Antony and Cleopatra in the first three acts. And above all “for a tragedy, it is not painful”, although it is a wonderful achievement. In the earlier and greater part of the play, to quote Bradley, “people converse, discuss, accuse one another, excuse themselves, mock, describe, drink together, arrange a marriage, meet and part; but they do not kill, do not even tremble or weep”. There is neither violent movement nor vehement passion till the battle of Actium. The conversation we hear is wonderful but breath-taking as between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth or between Othello and Iago. The play in its first half has only one scene of psychologically explosive or physically exciting character – the scene where Cleopatra storms at and strikes the messenger. And that scene again according to Bradley “is not essential to it all”.

“The first half of the play, though it forebodes tragedy, is not decisively tragic in tone”, says Bradley and he adds, “certainly the Cleopatra scenes are not so”. We have nothing to quarrel. And then, “Enobarbus, in this part of the play is always humorous”, and “even later, Enobarbus, when he dies, simply dies; he does not kill himself”. Even where the tragic tone begins to deepen incidents like whipping of Thyreus move mirth generally, despite Autony’s rage. “A play of which all this can be truly said” may be masterly and astonishing and may be even more delightful than Macbeth or Othello but it fails its main course to rouse the tragic passions. In fact, as Bradley says, Shakespeare makes no such attempt in Antony and Cleopatra and “to regard it as though it made this attempt is to miss its specific character and the intention of its author”. That intention was to present a different type of play “as wonderful as achievement as the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays” but not having an equal value. The character of the play only partly depended on Shakespeare’s fidelity to his historical authority. It has been pleaded in this respect that the loose dramatic effect and absence of deep tragic tone in the early part of the play are attributable to the intractability of the historical materials which Shakespeare had to handle and which he could not alter. This is not a very tenable thesis as his fidelity to historical authority “is often greatly exaggerated”. If he could not alter the events and situations in so famous a part of history, he could well have heightened the tone and tension of the play from the very beginning by devices well known to and practiced by him as a consummate tragic artist. Shakespeare ,in fact, did nothing to develop the inward struggle in his hero until the catastrophe enveloped Antony. “Antony breaks away from Cleopatra without any serious conflict. No serious doubt of his return is allowed to agitate us”. Thus says Bradley and very rightly, about the lack of sufficient inward conflict in a tragic hero. The downward movement itself is not exhibited but simply reported and not a single line depicts the preceding inner struggle. This is markedly in contrast with the four great tragedies where the development of the inner struggle gets a clear depiction and treatment. In fact, the play makes no attempt to rival the four great tragedies on this point, its peculiar character being to show Antony’s passion as a force that he refuses to resist. And here as nowhere else the scheme of the play differs from the scheme of the tragedies. Its external scale also fails to uplift or expand our imagination. A sense of emptiness oppresses us as we observe the world shares busy in their selfish ends proving that the splendid world is really false and petty. Against this hollow background, the fall of the hero from prosperity blunts our sense of greatness when this feeling of fall in the tragedies is so very acute. This leads naturally to a second effect in the presentation of the outward conflict. The world of love that the imperial pair conquers, after losing the hollow, selfish world of splendour, makes the positive element of reconciliation strongly emphasized. Although the final impression of these tragedies is not of despair but generally of reconciliation, this felling is no where stronger in the end than in Antony and Cleopatra.

Coleridge’s opinion that Antony and Cleopatra is an astonishing drama, by far the most wonderful among Shakespeare’s historical – and why historical, we may say all plays, will be echoed by all lovers of Shakespeare. “But”, as Dr. S. C. Sengupta remarks in his Aspect of Shakespearean Tragedy, “no one classes it with the four famous tragedies to which it is looked upon as somewhat inferior on account of its theme – sexual infatuation rather than love – which cannot have the seriousness or depth we demand from tragedy”.  
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