Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays

By Sara Munson Deats | Go to book overview
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Sleep, Epic, and Romance in Antony and Cleopatra



Upon examining the dead Cleopatra, Caesar asserts that “she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.344-346). While this could mean simply that in death Cleopatra appears to be asleep, this essay asks that we consider what it would mean to take the line literally and see Cleopatra as one who “looks like, or is a figure for, sleep. In order to do so, I will first discuss aspects of the physiology of sleep and some of the ways in which that physiology informs early modern ideals for behavior. I will then turn to an early modern literar y trope, that of immoderate sleep in epic. In Spenser, for example, a female “temptress” lulls a hero to sleep, thereby preventing him, at least for a time, from achieving his quest and entering into histor y. Such episodes represent in miniature the tension between the imperatives of epic and romance-between purposive heroic activity that ensures the achievement of fame and the erotic divagations that threaten oblivion. Scenes of immoderate sleep trope the condition of romance, and the relation of romance to epic; within epic poetry, sleep represents, among other things, the counterpull of romance that is both disruptive and, in another sense, constitutive of epic narrative. In its own examination of relations among heroism, fame, and sexuality, Antony and Cleopatra provides an analogue to the epic conception of sleep; at the same time, the play makes Antony's romantic (in both senses of the term) divagation central to the narrative. In doing so, Antony and Cleopatra transvalues the association of sleep with sexual excess and hedonism, and it transforms what is within epic a threat to masculinity into something that lies at its very core. 1


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