Just after Antony dies from a self-inflicted wound, Shakespeare's Cleopatra asks, "is it sin, / To rush into the secret house of death, / Ere death dare come to us?" (1) The question appears to be rhetorical; Cleopatra soon announces her intention to prove her "resolution" by pursuing "the briefest end" (4.15.91). (2) This decision earns her the homage of her most assiduous critic: Caesar, fond of describing the living Cleopatra as a "whore" (3.6.67), refers to the dead one as "bravest at the last" and "royal" (5.2.333-34). Readers of the play have followed suit. The queen of Egypt herself is the subject of conflicting commentary, but her "end" typically earns critical applause. Even those who denounce Cleopatra's conduct as sinful tend to find her suicide splendid. (3) She is, to paraphrase Antony's comment about Fulvia, good choosing death.
As Cleopatra's question suggests, we judge suicide by precise ethical standards; as her answer about "the high Roman fashion" reveals, these standards are also culturally contingent. In Tudor England, those who had access to education, and therefore to classical literature, might indeed judge a suicide "brave" and "noble" if done "after the high Roman fashion" (4.15.86-87). (4) The classical tradition concerning suicide provided the only widespread and coherent interpretative challenge to absolute condemnation of the act in early modern society. (5) But for most people living in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, suicide was unquestionably a sin. Under the designation of "self-murder," it was regarded as a transgression against the laws of God, of nature, and of the state. (6)
Far from being rhetorical, then, Cleopatra's question calls attention to the difficulty of judging a suicide that does not conform to "Roman fashion." Prompted by the "poor passion" (4.15.74) that she suffers as a result of Antony's death, her question refers as much to his death as to her own. And Antony's final moments have earned less acclaim than hers, in part because Antony improvises a death that comprises elements of the "high Roman" and early modern models of suicide, but that cannot satisfactorily be explained by reference to either. In his treatment of Antony's suicide, Shakespeare inhibits both praise and condemnation, the two responses associated respectively with classical and early modern ideas about suicide. The ensuing ambiguity suits the story well: the pagan setting precludes strictly Christian readings of suicide, while Antony's status as history's most famous deserting soldier undermines Roman readings. Capitalizing on the potential of his source, Shakespeare overturns the categories by which suicide was understood in the early modern period; he evokes these categories only to demonstrate their inadequacy when it comes to describing Antony's tragic death.
Antony's refusal to follow a recognizable pattern in his suicide might account for the discomfort occasioned by his death among the play's critics. While from Cleopatra's perspective Antony has rushed into "the secret house," his critics have more frequently chastised his slowness in dying. Even Phyllis Rackin, whose reading of the play is sympathetic to its protagonists, considers Antony's suicide "a messy affair"; other scholars more categorically describe it as "bungled" or "botched." (7) Antony's motivations appear conflicted and his means suspect: he "cannot properly manage" his own death, he is "diminishe [d] ... in the eyes of the audience," he behaves "like a gulled, ineffectual comic figure." (8) Again and again, Antony's dying body elicits such condescension and confusion. Like Antony's guards, who upon discovering their bleeding master flee the room, critics eager to salvage Antony's reputation rush over the embarrassing particulars of his suicide and focus instead on its aftermath. Cleopatra's eulogies enable readings that emphasize Antony's achievement of some kind of transcendent "new heaven" (1. …