Kevin O'Brien on the Christian themes of a Pagan story.
The Roman Solution and the Christian Dissolution
[The following article appears in the Jan. / Feb. 2014 issue of the St. Austin Review. Published here by permission.]
My website The Christian Shakespare (http://christianshakespeare.blogspot.com/) features articles by a great many Shakespeare scholars on the Christian elements in Shakespeare’s plays. Recently, I’ve found a reaction is brewing against this trend. Australian scholar Andrew Lomas contributed an essay recently that was very critical of Joseph Pearce’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and other plays, claiming that Pearce was reading into the plays elements that aren’t really there. I encourage StAR readers to check out that article, as well as rebuttals to it written by both Joseph Pearce and me. It makes for some engaging reading.
An assumption in the thinking of the Anti-Christian Shakespeare contingent seems to be that to be Catholic (as the documentary evidence demonstrates that Shakespeare almost certainly was, and as his writings certainly are) is to be limited. Even though the word Catholic means universal, and even though the Bard’s plays are the most universal of writings in the English language, they are not so universal (so the critics imply) as to be catholic - and certainly not Catholic with a capital C!
One of the things Andrew Lomas points out is that the plays show signs of a profound classical influence, that they incorporate a great deal of Pagan source material and express in a vivid way the Pagan spirit. Thus, Lomas sees Pearce’s criticism of the moral failings of the characters of Romeo and Juliet to be a Puritanical misconception of a story that lauds erotic love and romance in a way that breaks the bonds of what he sees as the Catholic / Puritan denigration of sex and romantic love, harkening back to a regard for sex that is more in the Classical tradition.
But what Lomas and the critics who resist the Christian Shakespeare fail to see is that even when these plays are most Classical or Pagan they are always playing off an implied contrast that is utterly Christian.
Perhaps the best example of this is Antony and Cleopatra, a late work that is a strange combination of Problem Play and Tragedy. Is this work a Pagan paen to a romantic love that challenges the Fates, a secular study of ancient politics, intrigue and warfare, a story in the Classical tradition of the great nobility of the Roman Way of suicide? No, it’s an examination of all these things from a profoundly Christian perspective.
As with Romeo and Juliet, the two protagonists and their love affair in this play are drastically undercut with a deep irony. The shallowness and pettiness of Cleopatra and her waiting women provide scenes that could be played for great laughs. Less funny is Antony’s tendency throughout the story to “make his will Lord of his reason,” and to hold no real loyalty toward the woman who has beguiled him, abandoning his paramour and marrying Octavia out of what appears to be sheer political self-interest combined with a randy curiosity to have yet another woman.
And yet this play is more than a satire, for both Antony and Cleopatra have moments of greatness, of tragic greatness. But these moments are never left to stand on their own or to take the fore for long. After hitting rock bottom, Antony rouses himself to a manly valor and nearly defeats Caesar, only to fall victim the very next day to utter despair and an almost infantile mistrust of Cleopatra (who is far from trustworthy to begin with), falling even lower than the near madman he becomes in Act Three.
Cleopatra, for her part, seems to rise to a level that nearly redeems the misgivings Antony (and the audience) have about her. Her stoic assertion of a lonely dignity in Act Five in the face of her conqueror Caesar almost makes this a pure tragedy in a Classic or Pagan style - until we learn that she continues to lie and to manipulate - about petty things. She proclaims to Caesar that she has renounced all worldly possessions, until we learn from Seleucus that she has kept back a great deal of stuff, “essentials” like make-up and jewelry and the giant blow dryer she picked up at the mall (so to speak). The Queen of the Nile ruins her great tragic moment and some really fine verse by getting defensive about her things and by having a typical tantrum in which she threatens to scratch Seleucus’ eyes out.
The audience tends to see this emotional rollercoaster through the eyes of Enobarus, a soldier serving Antony, whose cynicism is funny and perceptive and who seems more and more the voice of reason in a world gone slightly mad.
Enobarus also shows one of the keys to unlocking this strange and complex story. When Antony is in the throes of his near-madness, Enobarus offers an aside …
Mine honesty and I begin to square.
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly: yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer
And earns a place i' the story. (III xiii 41-46)
… in other words, I am a fool to be loyal to a foolish Lord - indeed a “fallen Lord” - but my allegiance is itself redemptive.
It is indeed our allegiance to our own fallen and crucified Lord that redeems us of our own folly. This speech thus resonates with a Christian audience - especially an oppressed Catholic audience in Jacobean England, forced to renounce their loyalty to a fallen cause; resonates as the most noble and truly tragic element in the whole play to that point.
But Old Will, master that he is, within ten minutes of stage time and in the same scene brings Enobarus around to the very opposite conclusion - and brings our sympathies around along with him!
Now he'll outstare the lightning. To be furious,
Is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still,
A diminution in our captain's brain
Restores his heart: when valour preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with. I will seek
Some way to leave him. (III xiii 194-200)
By now we can’t help but agree with Enobarus. He’s a sensible guy and Antony has totally lost it by this point and disloyalty seems the natural and even the sensible thing to do. Why go down with a sinking ship? Save your own skin. Abandon the loser and serve the winner. (And how many Jacobeans Catholics - priests even! - were doing that at the time).
But suddenly, in thinking this, in siding sympathetically with Enobarus the cynic, we are engaged as another character in the plot! For we find ourselves rationalizing a basic disloyalty, as Antony did when he cheated on Fulvia with Cleopatra, as Antony did when he glibly agreed to renounce Cleopatra and marry Ocatvia, as the Triumvirate do when they cheat on each other and backstab one another, as Pompey does when he comes to a convenient but ignoble peace, as Cleopatra herself makes a career of doing, and so forth.
Loyalty even in defeat is a Christian virtue. For the cross alone is a sign of defeat that is also a sign of final victory.
But loyalty is also a high Pagan virtue. Is not Antony and Cleopatra, then, simply playing ancient virtue off against modern self-interest and consequentialism? If loyalty is the virtue most ignored by the characters in this play, and if loyalty is the virtuous backdrop against which the confused and sometimes giddy action takes place, then why is the play Christian and not simply Classic or Pagan?
Here we come to a deeper answer.
Of all the Shakespearian tragedies, this is the only one I can think of where every character who dies onstage dies by suicide. True, Enobarus and one of the waiting women die before our eyes mysteriously and perhaps from broken hearts, but Enobarus dies with suicide in his mind, in his prayer and on his lips, and perhaps somehow by his own hand (stage directions do not indicate this, but stage directions are notoriously inadequate in Shakespeare). The rest are all clearly and notably suicides.
Suicide - the Noble Roman Way - is the single act that divides the Christian from the Pagan world. As Chesterton said, “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” It might be the Roman Solution. But it is the Christian Dissolution.
And while the characters in Antony and Cleopatra see suicide from the Classical, and not the Christian, perspective, the suicides themselves are undercut with a ridiculous kind of irony. Antony wants to die by the hand of Eros (literally), but ends up having to fall on his own sword, and botches the effort, dying for a good ten minutes, and leading to a scene that is probably supposed to look as awkward as it reads on paper - a scene where Antony is lifted up by a number of guards for a final encounter with Cleopatra in the balcony, sort of how Romeo and Juliet would be played if Romeo had a bad back.
And the imagery of snakes and serpents that permeate the play reaches a climax with Cleopatra’s suicide, using creatures that are even today associated in the Christian mind with the devil and his demons.
And so, far from being a Classical or Pagan drama, Antony and Cleopatra is utterly Christian - and even quite modern. For with the totalitarianism and religious persecution of Catholics in England the world sees the the beginning of the great modern disloyalty and apostasy that are the hallmarks of our age - the new men who commit a kind of cultural suicide that is as ill conceived and pathetic - indeed bathetic - as is so much of the modern world that Shakespeare began to describe some 400 years ago.
For more, visit The Christian Shakespeare website, christianshakespeare.blogspot.com.