That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar "Ass Unpolicied."

By Levin, Richard A. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar "Ass Unpolicied."


Levin, Richard A., Papers on Language & Literature


Near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen apostrophizes the deadly asp which she takes to her bosom: "O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied!" (5.2.300-02).(1) Cleopatra only claiming that her suicide affirms a love for Antony nobler than any value in Caesar's world of cold political calculation, we would endorse her assertion. But her claim is disingenuous to the extent that until this moment she spoke of suicide yet sought favorable terms of surrender. That Cleopatra suppresses her efforts to survive most critics would agree, while arguing among themselves about when she fully commits herself to death. Another claim implied in her boast, one she herself probably believes and which is endorsed by almost all critics, is that she makes her decision to die possessing correct information about Caesar's secret plans for her in captivity.(2) To establish when Cleopatra irrevocably settles on suicide, and whether at this moment Caesar's "policy" prevails or fails, are our specific goals in this essay.

We set these goals because the attempt to reach them leads to the examination of an important issue affecting the shape of the closing action of the play. From the time that Cleopatra's (and Antony's) military situation begins to decline, Caesar and Cleopatra negotiate the terms of her possible surrender, yet at every stage of the negotiation their tactics and purposes are opaque. As a result we may fail to understand both the nature of his conquest and of her defeat, and also the momentous conclusion of the play, when Caesar stands peerless in the Roman world.

The negotiations of Caesar and Cleopatra include three well-recognized conundrums. In his dying words, Antony had besought Cleopatra to "seek [her] honour, with [her] safety" by putting her "trust" in Proculeius alone among Caesar's subordinates (4.15.48-50). If Proculeius nevertheless betrays her, as he appears to, offering false assurance about Caesar's intentions, then we must conclude either that Antony knowingly misled her or that he erred disastrously, two seemingly unacceptable alternatives. How, then, to interpret Proculeius's interview with Cleopatra is one conundrum. A second emerges from the interaction between another of Caesar's subordinates, Dolabella, and the Egyptian queen. As he has Caesar's complete trust it seems odd that he should, without advantage to himself, disclose his master's plan to humiliate her, and thereby enable Cleopatra (as it seems) to foil Caesar by taking her life. A third puzzle involves Cleopatra and still another subordinate, this one her own, Seleucus, a treasurer. When she presents an unsolicited inventory of her wealth to Caesar, her motive is unclear, as it remains when Seleucus, possibly speaking on her cue but possibly betraying her, exposes her inventory as fraudulently incomplete. She berates Seleucus's treachery when we are not sure he is treacherous. These conundrums, associated with the names of Proculeius, Dolabella, and Seleucus, are often pushed to the margins of critical discourse, as if they were either loose threads the dramatist failed to tidy up or inconsequential complications. It is much better to understand these conundrums as challenges to an audience, posed so that it will enter a political thicket and trace, as best it can, a duel of wits between Caesar and Cleopatra. As success depends on correct detection of a series of intricate moves, for heuristic purposes this essay will say little of Caesar and Cleopatra as complex characters with motives, some conscious, some unconscious, often at variance with the strategies they adopt in dealing with one another.

Antony and Cleopatra opens while Caesar shares power as part of a triumvirate, whose power is itself limited by the challenge of Sextus Pompey at sea. Once Pompey, made an ally, serves the triumvirate's purposes, Caesar moves against him, then against Lepidus, the weaker of Caesar's co-rulers, and finally against Antony.

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