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


Like Antony, Cleopatra demonstrates a Stoic disdain of Fortune.  Antony says his suicide will cause “the false housewife Fortune [to] break her wheel,” and Cleopatra contemptuously refers to Caesar as “Fortune’s knave.”  Indeed, for Antony, who in bygone days personified the Stoic ideal of austerity (if we can trust the judgment of Caesar), suicide is the only way to reassert his heroic identity.  And among the Stoics the very embodiment of the suicide of honor is Marcus Cato of Utica, who, as mentioned earlier, kills himself to avoid falling into Julius Caeasar’s hands; thus his reason for dispatching himself is not very different from Antony’s.  Judging from Shakespeare’s references in Julius Caesar, it is likely that he was familiar with the details of Cato’s life, if not from Cicero or Seneca, then almost certainly from Plutarch.  There is, to be sure besides the similarity of purpose, another major likeness between the suicides of Cato and Antony, namely, that neither one is able to destroy himself immediately by falling on his sword.  Cato, whose hand is weak from a swelling, cannot muster enough power to finish the job at once; and he eventually completes his task by disemboweling himself.  Antony, whose sword thrust does not dispatch him immediately, but allows him to linger long enough to conduct a final interview with Cleopatra eventually dies from the force of the wound.


For Cleopatra the heroism of her suicide is in reality the final step of a gradual process by which she comes to understand and accept Roman values.  Much has been said and written about her influence on Antony, but perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on the extent to which Antony has influenced her life and values.  At the beginning of the play she seems disconcerted by a “Roman thought,” a note of gravity which has struck Antony, as opposed to the Egyptian “mirth” to which he is more commonly disposed.  But subsequently she learns more about, and participates in, the two major areas of Roman expertise as seen in the play, war and politics.  She dons his “sword Philippan;” participates in the Battle of Actium as a fledgling warrior and retreats; helps Antony arm for battle; appears on the battlefield after Antony’s minor victory over Caesar; promises a soldier who has fought exceptionally well “an armor all of gold” that was “a king’s;” becomes adept very quickly at the art of policy, to the point of succeeding in making “great Caesar ass  / Unpolicied;” and dies an unexceptionable Roman death, though the manner of her death by poisonous serpents is not typically Roman.


When Cleopatra first considers suicide, she wonders about its permissibility: “Then is it sin / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?”  Unlike Hamlet, however, who ponders a similar problem in a more explicitly Christian context, Cleopatra answers her own question affirmatively: “What’s brave, what’s noble / Let’s do’t after the high Roman fashion.”  Her final act, like Antony’s, reinforces her essential nobility. 


In Antony’s death scene Eros and Cleopatra reaffirm his heroic nature by the dignity of the titles they bestow on him. In ascending social order, Eros calls him “my dear master, / My captain, and my Emperor,” and Cleopatra, with less restricted language refers to him as “noblest of men” and “the crown o’ th’earth” among other appellations.  Using a parallel technique, Shakepeare has the Fifth Act re-echo with the abundantly occurring word “queen” and its equivalents. Cleopatra dons her robe and crown before applying the asps to her breast and her arm, thereby fulfilling her “immortal longings.” Her death scene, one of the most memorable in all Shakespeare, is the final dramatic affirmation not merely of her rank but also of her greatness.


My concluding parallels in the death scenes of the hero and heroine concern the reactions of those closest to them and the response of Caesar.  Without question a major factor in determining the final worth of Anthony and Cleopatra is the willingness of their closest friends and subordinates to die for them, an honorable mode of death that we have noticed before.  Enobarbus and Eros, the soldiers who are with Antony the most, and their counterparts among Cleopatra’s women, Iras and Charmian, all die in behalf of their master or mistress. 


The punishment for desertion that Enobarbus inflicts on himself, a form of self-willed death for leaving Antony when he believes his general is bereft of his wits, is basically an extension of suicide; more simply,  it can be identified as a broken heart.  When Enobarbus, Antony’s second in command and one of the last hold-outs to remain with him, finally runs away to join Caesar’s camp Antony magnanimously sends after him all his worldly goods and possessions that he has left behind.  To punish his shame and dishonor Enobarbus chooses to die in a ditch, in ancient Rome considered an appropriate burial place for worthless, anonymous slaves.


Iras, too, dies of a broken heart as Cleopatra kisses her one last time.  Eros and Charmian, on the other hand, pursue more active kinds of self-destruction:  the former, before Antony’s death; the latter, after Cleopatra’s.    Like his master, Eros falls on his sword; and like her mistress, Charmian applies an asp.



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