Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 4, Scene 14 | Summary

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Summary

Alone with Eros, Antony describes different cloud shapes. Sometimes they look like dragons, sometimes like rocks, sometimes like trees. They are like pageants put on by the evening sky.

Antony describes the way a cloud can look like a horse one moment and float away until it cannot be seen. "Eros, now thy captain is even such a body." He is still Antony, and yet he has become someone completely different. His reality has turned out as insubstantial as a cloud. He fought these battles for Cleopatra, and she has betrayed him. Now all Antony has left is the chance to take his own life.

Mardian enters, and Antony denounces his "vile lady." Mardian says Antony is wrong: Cleopatra loved him totally. Antony snaps he'll have her put to death, but Mardian says she's already dead. What Antony wanted to do to her, she has done to herself, and her last words were of Antony.

Antony orders Eros to remove his armor. It has been a long day, and now they must sleep. He reminds his lieutenant he once promised to kill Antony if circumstances became desperate enough. That time has now come, and Eros must carry out his promise.

Eros draws back, but Antony insists. Surely Eros can't bear the thought of Antony being brought captive to Rome and being pulled behind triumphant Caesar's chariot? Killing him is the only way to prevent that disgrace. Now Eros seems to agree and asks for the chance to say farewell. Antony agrees almost impatiently. Eros responds, "Farewell, great chief"—and stabs himself to death.

Antony can only think, once again, he has been "out-nobled." Cleopatra and Eros have shown greater courage than he himself could muster. Now, though, he will follow their example. He stabs himself but doesn't succeed in dying. He calls for guards to finish him off, but they refuse. Dercetus, one of the guards, takes Antony's sword: if he brings it to Caesar, the Emperor will reward him.

Diomedes enters. Again Antony begs for death, but Diomedes tells him Cleopatra is alive and hiding in the monument. After sending Antony the false report of her death, Cleopatra suddenly realized the news might cause him to commit suicide. She sent Diomedes to tell Antony the truth, but he has arrived too late. "Too late," Antony agrees, and asks for guards to carry him to the monument. "I have led you oft; carry me now, good friends."

Analysis

By Roman standards of honor, Antony is doing the right thing in committing suicide. He is confident killing himself is the proper step to take and doesn't dread death. The notion of death, therefore, seems less tragic in this scene than does Antony's staggering loss of identity and his complete exhaustion.

Although he is not wounded physically, Anthony already seems at the point of death. "Eros, thou yet behold'st me?" he asks. So undone by his loss, Antony barely can believe he still has a discrete shape. To himself, he feels as "indistinct as water is in water"—a precise and striking image, especially because Antony's doom came by sea. His reference to "black vesper's pageants" is striking as well. Clouds are usually observed during daylight hours, but for Antony night is closing in fast.

Antony is too weak even to summon the energy to scold Mardian properly. To the messenger from the woman Antony believes betrayed him, all he can muster up is "Hence, saucy eunuch! Peace!" When Mardian reports Cleopatra has died, Antony's first thought is "The long day's task is done, And we must sleep." Of course he's speaking symbolically. By "sleep" he means "die." Yet the impression he gives is of a man so exhausted that only his armor keeps him upright.

Adding to the pathos in Antony's situation is the difficulty in arranging his next course of action. Although he is resolved to die, he feels unable to kill himself. Long ago, he reminds Eros, the lieutenant promised to kill Antony if he ever reached the point of "th'inevitable prosecution of disgrace and horror." But any soldier in ancient Rome would probably interpret these words to mean this terrible service would be required only if Antony were too impaired to kill himself. If he were on the point of certain capture or so gravely wounded to be unable to draw his own sword, then Eros would need to kill him. As matters now stand, Antony is perfectly able to manage the deed himself.

And when Eros's own suicide forces Antony to perform the act himself, he bungles the job. "O, make an end of what I have begun!" he implores his guards; when they refuse, he makes the same request of Diomedes. Only then does Antony learn he's made a botched attempt on behalf of a woman who isn't even dead herself and who has lied to him once again. He is in such pain it doesn't occur to him to wonder why Cleopatra pretended to be dead in the first place. The fumbling and awkwardness reinforce the pathos of the situation: here is a man who saw himself as godlike, unable even to die gracefully and well.

Antony's dialogue throughout this scene is so moving it may mask the highly punitive nature of the Roman concept of honor. Shakespeare makes Antony's point of view seem compelling and reasonable, but is he really called upon to kill himself because he lost the battle? According to Roman standards, yes: death is better than shame.

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