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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”


The “triple pillar of the world,” as Antony is called in the first scene of the play, and the Queen of Egypt have their less attractive side. Their jealous, violent nature is reflected in two parallel scenes in which each threatens and attacks an emissary from Rome.  Thus, when Cleopatra learns that Antony has married Caesar’s sister, Octavia, she strikes the messenger, threatens to have him whipped with wire, and then pulls a knife on him.  Likewise, when Antony discovers Thidias, a Roman envoy sent by Caesar, taking liberties with Cleopatra, he orders his servants to “whip him, / Till like a boy you see him cringe his face, / And whine aloud for mercy.”


The most important parallels, however, between the two lovers cluster around their suicides, which are movingly and sympathetically presented.  For both Antony and Cleopatra, love and honor—grief over loss of the beloved and fear of disgrace as epitomized in the Roman triumph—are the twin motives, and Cleopatra’s tomb, an appropriate backdrop for the death of Antony, serves to prognosticate her own impending death also.  Early in the play each one alludes, unconsciously and by means of an apposite image to his death.  Cleopatra, thinking of Antony, feeds herself “with most delicious poison”; aboard Pompey’s ship, Antony suggests to his cohorts, through a reference to “soft and delicate Lethe,” a well-known river in Hades, that they drink themselves into oblivion.  


Furthermore, both lovers use the conventional comparison of death to sleep.  Antony, in fulfillment of an earlier statement  that his armor will not be unbuckled “till we do please / To daff’t [i.e., remove it] for our repose,” as he prepares for suicide tells his loyal soldier Eros to “unarm” and prepare for “sleep.”  After Antony’s death Cleopatra, wondering whether Antony was a dream, longs for “such another sleep, that I might see / But such another man.”   And she envisions Antony rousing himself, as if from sleep, to praise her.


Though Antony in his preparation for suicide specifically mentions Dido and Aeneas, Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe whose story greatly influenced Romeo and Juliet provide a more striking parallel to Antony and Cleopatra.  Though Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged and experienced, in contrast to the other four who are young and innocent, all three pairs are star-crossed lovers with the incompatibility of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra replacing the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet and the Ovidian tale. In all three cases a tomb is important as a meeting place; the men all commit suicide out of the misconception that the women are dead; the women subsequently follow their example of self-inflicted death; and each pair of lovers is buried side by side.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe and Antony and Cleopatra are not formally married.  But the latter two with vaguely defined hope, seek to rectify the situation in suicide.  Antony seeks to be “a bridegroom in my death”; and Cleopatra, as she is “again for Cydnus,” the site of their first meeting calls Antony “husband,” a title which she could not use while he was alive.


The imagery of marriage reinforces the similarity of the two lovers, hence their rightness for each other, as well as the cruel irony of their situation, which allows them true union only in death.  Moreover, since death is a normal concomitant of tragedy, and marriage a frequent characteristic of comedy, a play such as Antony and Cleopatra that ends in death but anticipates marriage forces us to redefine the conventional boundaries between the two genres. 


In addition to being a play about love, Antony and Cleopatra is also a play about honor.  For Shakespeare, as we have seen, the suicide of honor, connected especially with the philosophy of Stoicism was considered pre-eminently Roman.  Both Antony and Cleopatra are preoccupied with the “disgrace and horror,” to use Antony’s phrase attendant on marching in a triumphal procession to Rome.  Antony paints for Eros a bleak picture of having to follow “the wheeled seat / Of fortunate Caesar,” and Cleopatra describes for Iras an equally depressing scene of being on public display for “mechanic slaves, / With greasy aprons, rules and hammers.”


Antony’s suicide to vindicate his tarnished honor substantiates his earlier claim to Octavia:  “If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.”  And Cleopatra, who says about the clown with the basket of figs concealing deadly asps, “He brings me liberty,” a concept important for the Stoics, is equally determined to flee disgrace and a world which, without Antony, is “no better than a sty.”  When the dying Antony previously suggests to Cleopatra “Of Caesar seek your honor, with your safety,” she immediately retorts, “They do not go together.”


Shortly after Antony stabs himself, Cleopatra, in a moment of fear that she might be surprised by Caesar’s guards, locks the door to her monument and temporarily refuses to let him in.  But then, after she has determined to end her life, with “knife, drugs, [or] serpents,” she remains firm in her purpose.  Later she has the opportunity of trying out the first item on her list, a knife, which is wrested from her by Roman guards who do, indeed, surprise her in her monument.  But ultimately she achieves success by means of her third option, “the pretty worm of Nilus...,/ That kills and pains not.”



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