Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Lives and Letters in Antony and Cleopatra

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Lives and Letters in Antony and Cleopatra

Article excerpt

WHEN OCTAVIUS CAESAR receives the news of Antony's suicide, at the end of act 5, scene 1 of Antony and Cleopatra, he invites his Council of War to

   Go with me to my Tent, where you shall see
   How hardly I was drawne into this Warre,
   How calme and gentle I proceeded still
   In all my Writings. Go with me, and see
   What I can shew in this.

(5.1.73-77) (1)

Octavius is anxious to furnish textual evidence that will support his account of his "calme and gentle" actions toward Antony and his reluctant entry into war against him. He is not alone in valuing how he will be viewed by posterity. Antony applauds the "Noblenesse in Record" (4.14.100) that suicide brings, and Cleopatra famously frets lest Rome's "quicke Comedians / Extemporally will stage vs," and, while still alive, she will be forced to witness "Some squeaking Cleopatra Boy my greatnesse / I'th' posture of a Whore" (5.2.215-16, 219-20). W. B. Worthen notes that "Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, centrally concerned with how events are written into narrative, transformed into history, literature, and myth"; (2) C. C. Barfoot has suggested that "the chief protagonists in Antony and Cleopatra are above all committed to fulfilling the destiny of their names," acutely aware "of how the future will regard them when they are entirely in the past"; (3) indeed, as Garrett Sullivan sums up, Antony and Cleopatra is "a play dominated by the retrospective characterization of people and events." (4)

In an important essay, Linda Charnes has demonstrated how, de spite their shared concern for posterity, the characters' approaches to posthumous reputation--and their success in achieving it--vary widely. While noting that "all the 'actors' in this play are obsessed with playing to reviewers near and far," she argues that "they are not equally in control of the effects of their performances" since Rome is "the play's 'original' center of the narrative imperative, of the incitement to discourse that drives imperialist historiography." In her reading the play "represents the ultimate triumph of Octavius, who will later sculpt himself into the Augustus of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid," writers who had a profound influence on Renaissance readers such as Shakespeare. Not only did he have "a monumental machinery of language at his disposal," but "[a]s Augustus Caesar, Octavius was to become chief executive of a massive discursive empire, the productions of which would be referred to again and again, from Dante to Pope, as models of literary, moral, and historical 'authority.'" (5)

The historical Octavius certainly provided for posterity, not only through his patronage of great writers, but also by leaving to the safekeeping of the Vestal Virgins "a catalogue of his achievements which he wished to be inscribed on bronze tablets and set up in front of his mausoleum"; in the sixteenth century, a copy of this text was found inscribed in the temple of Rome and Augustus in Ancyra in Galatia (modern Ankara), and fragments of the text were later found in Apollonia and Antioch in Pisidia, testifying to the emperor's success in disseminating his version of his life. (6) This emphasis on documentary culture chimes with the portrait of Octavius given in one of Shakespeare's sources, Sir Thomas North's Englishing of "The Life of Octavius Caesar Augustus" by the French Calvinist Simon Goulart (included in the 1603 edition of Plutarch's Lives). Goulart depicts Octavius as "learned in the liberall sciences, very eloquent, and desirous to learne," a bookworm for whom reading is a favorite and enthralling pursuit. Delighting in the great authors, he would plunder their works for "sentences teaching good maners," and "having written them out word by word, he gave out a copy of them to his familiars: and sent them about to the governours of provinces, and to the magistrates of ROME and of other cities." He was, Goulart reveals, "not curious to set himselfe out, as little caring to be shauen, as to weare long haire: and in stead of a looking-glasse, reading in his booke, or writing, even whilest the Barber was trimming of him. …

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