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KRONOS Vol. I, Issue 3
THE CATASTROPHIC SUBSTRUCTURE OF SHAKESPEARE'S ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
[* This paper was first presented at the symposium titled Velikovsky and Cultural Amnesia held at the University of Lethbridge, May 9-11, 1974.]
IRVING WOLFE Introduction
To encounter the work of Immanuel Velikovsky is to come up against a universal watershed. Once you cross over, you cannot look at anything as you did before. Every human activity, from war to government to science to religion to art, is seen in a new, revolutionary light. In this paper, I want to look at William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra from the Velikovskian optic. I will call the reader's attention to the many astonishing Velikovskian overtones in and beneath the play, and then use these to draw some tentative conclusions upon narrative art and the nature of man.
This paper is not presented as a closed hypothesis, but as a beginning, as the first steps into an area where almost no one, except perhaps Dr. Velikovsky himself, has ventured before – the application of his ideas to created art. The stakes are enormous and the challenge vast, for it is nothing less than our entire conception of what created art is, and therefore what we are, which hangs in the balance.
Antony and Cleopatra is a play saturated with catastrophic images and themes. First, Antony is consistently associated with Hercules and identified with Mars, as Cleopatra is with Venus and Isis. Their love, therefore, and the perturbation which it causes, is portrayed as an attraction between heavenly bodies which threatens the earth. Antony glows like plated Mars, 1.1.4, he is Herculean, 1.3.84, his faults shine like stars in the sky, 1.4.12, he is The demi-Atlas of this earth, 1.5.23, and when he utters sound, he can speak as loud as Mars, 2.2.6(1) Cleopatra, even when she suspects his fidelity, never questions his greatness.
He is a giant, a colossus who
and when he loses his military prowess, it is believed that Hercules' power has left him, 4.3.15 - 16.
Cleopatra is both Isis and Venus. The love between her and Antony is described as an attraction between Venus and Mars, 1.5.18, she is given to actually dressing as Isis, 3.6.16-19, and, at her death, where she again costumes herself for the role she will assume, she is addressed specifically as Venus, 5.2.308, the suggestion that carries through her death and colors the final memory we have of her. Thus, both of the lovers are presented in cosmic and significantly Velikovskian roles.
Second, the power contest between Antony and Octavius is likewise given worldwide terms. It is not a local political struggle between petty rivals for a petty piece of land, but a battle for the whole of the civilized world, for the territory of man. Antony is the greatest soldier of the world, 1.3.38, a grand sea, 3.2.10, and in his face the worship of the whole world lies, 4.14.86. Octavius is The universal landlord, 3.13.72, and the whole world listens to his all-obeying breath, 3.13.77. Together they are
Thus, because Octavius is given a cosmic or at least worldwide dimension, the mythical magnitude of the love affair is matched by that of the political conflict.
The consequences for Earth acquire the same significance, and indeed a greater one. In Old Testament terms, Egypt is the locale of the Exodus, and overtones of this event are recalled for us in Cleopatra's exclamation
This is reinforced at the Battle of Actium, where Scarus, Antony's lieutenant, compares Antony's defeat to
The image carries through in Shakespeare's creating mind, for Scarus then curses Cleopatra
In three lines of dialogue, there is a conjunction in Shakespeare's mind of pestilence, death, Egypt and leprosy.
Yet, while the defeat of Antony may have overtones of a divine Old Testament holocaust, its consequence, the victory of Octavius, is cast in a New Testament mould.
Octavius – Caesar as he is always called in Antony and Cleopatra – was to become Augustus, perhaps greatest of Roman emperors, creator of the Pax Romana that closed the long period of unrest, revolution, and war, with the time of peace in which Christ was to be born. Thus, in the war with Antony, when Antony's allies have deserted and sympathy for him is at its strongest, Caesar redresses the balance by a brief but significant reminder of his future role in history:
Thus, the political story acquires a vast religious dimension – it clears the way, prepares the ground, for a new life, for Christ. The turbulence in this tragedy leads to a welcome, beneficent stasis, a new situation much better and safer than the old one, and it is the same process which we discover in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
We have thus established that the lovers who cause so much damage to the Roman Empire are portrayed as Mars and Venus in dangerous conjunction; that Octavius, Antony's antagonist, is also given cosmic stature; that the defeat of Antony is Biblical in character, and that the whole process of the play is a movement from danger to conflict to order. If we now take the hazardous step of transposing the action into possible astronomical or catastrophic terms, we can see that Antony and Cleopatra are presented as heavenly bodies, specifically Mars and Venus, who have abandoned their roles, or left their accustomed orbits, to pose a vast danger to the Roman Empire, or Earth. They are then opposed and defeated by Octavius, who may be the Sun. When they are dead, their names and memories can be safely elevated to myth, just as Dr. Velikovsky tells us that the actual planets Mars and Venus, once so prominent in the skies and so threatening, are now safely distant, in fixed orbits, presenting no living danger to the Earth, and so they too can be safely venerated.
If one has read Velikovsky, the general action in Antony and Cleopatra is clearly catastrophic, and it is on this basis that I wish to analyze the corresponding celestial catastrophic imagery which Shakespeare has used to characterize the lovers at every important stage of their story's development.
Once they are in love, Antony's proximity or distance directly affects Cleopatra's brilliance, 1.1.9-10. Their attraction takes them beyond all established bounds, to find out new heaven, new earth, 1.1.17. When Antony renounces Rome for Egypt, his words are made to unknowingly prefigure the worldwide destruction this will cause.
To him, Kingdoms are clay, 1.1.35, or ground covered by floods, and of Cleopatra's passions, it is said sarcastically, but with unknowing truth
When trouble brews at this level
it is immediately associated with a serpent, 1.2.195 - 196, a quintessential primitive symbol of celestial disturbance, as Dr. Velikovsky has pointed out. (3)
When Antony protests his love to Cleopatra, he does in swearing shake the throned gods, 1.3.28, and his propensity to violence is governed by her influence, 1.3.70 - 71. Cleopatra is the serpent of old Nile, 1.5.25, and when she is aroused, she is unwittingly made to predict her fall, like Antony, in catastrophic terms.
The image is as reminiscent of the Exodus as of Velikovsky,
as indeed it should be if Dr. Velikovsky is correct, for he dates the Exodus to the time of the first catastrophe described in Worlds in Collision.
Later, when Octavia fears a battle between Octavius and Antony, what she says bears an eerie resemblance to catastrophic upheavals and floods.
We think of the evidence Dr. Velikovsky presents in Earth in Upheaval of rock fissures choked with massed broken fragments of bones.(4)
She herself, if considered a heavenly body consistent with the major personages, is drawn from Octavius to Antony, and then back to Octavius again, as if she represented the Moon, and her final return to the orbit of Earth is surprisingly tranquil, with no accompanying army, no troop of horses, no noise or debris, as may have been the case earlier.
Later, when the two triumvirs do at last meet in battle and Antony abandons his fleet, Scarus cries out
where cantle means a segment of the sphere, the globe, and Antony ascribes his errancy, his flight from orbit, as due to Cleopatra's influence, because she knew
Having lost humiliatingly to Octavius, he feels bereft of divine guidance, as if
and Cleopatra's apparent treason appears to obscure the moon and foretell Mars' destruction.
When she protests her innocence, her words ironically predict the destruction of Egypt accomplished by hail from a comet's cold heart, 3.13.159, which will also be poisoned, and will destroy all generations of life, leaving the dead unburied, prey for scavenging insects, 3.13.159 - 167.
For a brief moment, Antony's fortunes seem to improve, and Cleopatra becomes his Sun – O thou day o' th' world, 4.8.13. His soldiers are like scourges of heaven, fighting
and they glow like holy Phoebus' car, 4.8.29, like the chariot of the sun god. Then, when the two lovers, Mars and Venus, reunite, there is such vast noise
The false hope does not last long, for in the next battle Antony's forces are soundly defeated, and it appears that Cleopatra has betrayed him truly this time. Antony is driven into uncontrollable anger and compares himself to Hercules, who, near death through a poisoned garment, hurls the bearer of it on the horns o' th' moon, 4.12.45. We remember how Dr. Velikovsky showed that many myths of divine and sometimes horned animals scourging the earth are symbols of the catastrophic tempests,(3a) and so it is with the falling Antony, who Cleopatra says is
We perceive that Antony's magnitude is diminishing, and it is accompanied by great noise and rending.
Antony's last description of himself is one of cosmic dissolution. He compares his self, his identity, to a cloud which continually changes shape and so becomes nothing, a process which leads to an obscuring flood, which
In this last part of the play, concerned as it is with the deaths of Mars and Venus, the catastrophic images cluster most noticeably. When Antony is told of Cleopatra's alleged death, he describes himself as no longer incandescent, nor errant, and so
He then tries to kill himself, and, as he lies wounded, his soldiers too seem to recognize that an era is over, that their former astral guides are gone, and a new time, a new calendar, will begin after Antony's darkness, as two of them observe
With the approach of Antony's destruction, the relevant imagery becomes violently catastrophic. When Cleopatra, from her monument, sees Antony's body brought onstage, she cries out
When Antony speaks his last and expires, she erupts in imagery which might almost have been drawn from Dr. Velikovsky's theories.
She faints, and is revived, and conjures herself
which may suggest that, with Mars no longer incandescent, nor nearby, it no longer lights up Earth's space, so Earth no longer possesses its own star. She then continues the reference to Antony as a burned-out star.
In life it was hot, bright and life-giving, but in death it is dark, cold and contains no spirit. Velikovsky informs us that Mars, which is now simply a tranquil distant point of light in the night sky, was once a fiery, men acing, destructive entity much closer to Earth. When Octavius first learns of Antony's death, he is surprised by its lack of catastrophic noise.
He then explains that the solar system could not entertain two rival suns, and so a conflict between them was inevitable-, 5.1.37 - 40, and one of them would have to decline, or set.
Cleopatra remembers Antony as a figure of cosmic dimension and stability, whose
[* Italics the author's.]
This celestial phenomenon was a colossal being who threatened the Earth
Dr. Velikovsky tells us that, at certain times during the catastrophes of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., Mars appeared to be a giant warrior with his sword spanning the sky, and that, when in this aroused state, his approach caused such extreme havoc and thunder that the whole globe tottered, or shook. (4a)
With Antony gone, with Mars defeated, Octavius the Sun is the only ruler of the skies, or, as Cleopatra calls him, Sole sir o' th' world, 5.2.120. There remains, then, the death of Cleopatra, which occurs distinctly apart from Antony's. Like Antony's, it is described as a loss of brilliance and an explosion accompanied by loud noises and breaking. Just before her death, she refers to herself as almost extinct, although ready to flare up if provoked again.
As she prepares for her suicide, her handmaiden again emphasizes the loss of brilliance.
Once she has been poisoned, another handmaiden prays that her soul and body may rive, or break apart with a rending explosion, 5.2.310, and when she dies, when her eyes close and so symbolically she can emit no more rays, exert no more power, she no longer poses a threat to the Sun.
Indeed, Phoebus the Sun, or Octavius and the Roman Empire, must never again be beheld or challenged as an equal by eyes so royal, almost as powerful as the Sun, and that is the point Shakespeare wishes to make. That is why he includes, at the very instant of Cleopatra's passing, a reference to the Sun, to the paramount position of Octavius, who must be the one who acquires sole power at the end. When she is dead, the Sun has triumphed, and Earth is stable, more stable than it was at the beginning.
I might add, in closing this section, that Halley's (un-named) comet was visible in Europe's skies about 1606, just before the generally accepted period of the play's composition, and Kepler's Supernova burst into prominence in 1604. The supernova may not have been a matter of common talk, since the concept of change in the distant heavens was still a matter of fierce scientific and theological debate, but the comet may well have been a more popular sensation. This, however, is merely a tidbit, because catastrophic overtones appear in Shakespearian plays written before the celestial events I have mentioned, as we see elsewhere, and also because I have not established to my own satisfaction any distinct point of view regarding the role of actual events in triggering catastrophic associations in an artist's mind.
Such is the basic story of the play. Its meaning, however, has been the subject of much controversy, with opinion basically divided between those who side with the lovers and hold the world well lost, and those who support duty and responsibility, seeing Octavius as the necessary winner. Most recent criticism has tended to strike a note between these extremes, arguing that Shakespeare balances love versus duty so carefully that neither is solely to be preferred, but both are given attractiveness and importance.
To deal with this issue more fully – and it is the major topic in current criticism of the play – I will turn in a moment to two quite recent studies of the play. I adduce them for one reason in particular. It may be argued that celestial imagery in Shakespeare's play is in order because he is dramatizing material only recently available to his culture, material whose origin is Roman, and thus he might naturally use the Roman elements of the story, which include the celestial. One might even wish to explain the catastrophic as opposed to merely celestial associations surrounding Antony and Cleopatra in this way, as natural offshoots of their Roman identification with Mars and Venus, although this is much less plausible. The same, however, cannot be done for twentieth-century critics. If they show evidence of Velikovskian catastrophic overtones or parallels in their criticism, in a frequency and depth which seems to go beyond chance, one cannot attribute it merely to cultural fashion or historical inheritance. Instead, one may be led to wonder whether these similar features, produced some 400 years apart in relation to the same historical material, may have similar origins which lie beyond the conscious act of writing a play or commenting on it.
The first analysis I will deal with is by Robin Lee of the University of Wittwatersrand, in Johannesburg.(5) He is not by any means a conscious Velikovskian, yet his analysis of the play produces results which are surprisingly Velikovskian. First, he acknowledges the mythic, even divine status which is given to the lovers.(6) Speaking generally, he claims that all great tragedies contain archetypal patterns of general human experience, with a stress on general.(7) In this play, he feels, the acts of the lovers take on, in our imaginations as well as in their own, the dimensions of an archetypal human experience.(8) In this way, the whole play acquires a mythic quality through the ritual nature of several of the situations.(9) He suggests no cause for these archetypes and rituals; indeed, he seems to be suspicious of his own reactions, for he hastens to assure us
but he has nevertheless recognized and responded to the
The questions we must put to ourselves, of course, are – why are certain patterns felt to be archetypal? Why do we perceive certain actions, however vaguely, as ritual? Why do certain narratives, in prose or poetic or dramatic form, impress us with these features? The answer to all of these, I suggest, lies in the Velikovskian catastrophes.
Lee sees Antony as a sacrifice, a scapegoat, and he notes that Antony, as Mars, is given a poetic greatness which is contradicted by his smallness of action.(11) I suggest that a conflation of these two roles – scapegoat and Mars – is a significant clue to Antony's value, and that it derives directly from catastrophic memories. It is logical that, if another entity destroys itself to save us, we can have our cake and eat it by giving this entity mythic status, but making it deserve its destruction. In this way we can enjoy the result of its action without feeling guilt over its ruin. If we make the entity repudiate us and our values, we then repudiate it and our morality is satisfied. This, I feel, is what has happened to Antony, who suffers the fate of all scapegoats. The source may be the collisions between Mars and Venus in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Mars may have appeared to betray Earth by being drawn out of orbit by the attractive Comet, and was subdued by the god of light as a result, being forced to take a different position than before. Like the scapegoat, Mars became greater because of its act of sacrifice, but its greatness was more distant. In terms of the celestial pageant, if we make Mars guilty of some heinous deed which merits great punishment, our consciences can tolerate the fact of its sacrificial destruction, and thus the events of the later catastrophes which Dr. Velikovsky reconstructs may be the primal pattern behind the scapegoat figure which appears so universally in human cultures. Velikovsky's Mars is certainly one of the patterns underlying certain types of tragic hero, for what Velikovsky tells us about Mars at that period is what many tragedies show happening to the tragic hero.
Specifically, Lee notes a vast decline in Antony. He says that Shakespeare describes him as Mars, but Mars weak, old and obsessed – ready to become frenzied and erratic in behaviour.(12) In Velikovskian terms, the play pictures the last stages of the catastrophic events, and the actual features of the action, as Lee discerns them, are highly catastrophic. Lee describes the action as a series of vacillations or swings increasing in speed as they decrease in duration, until all movement stops and a final resting point is reached, so that
In other words, the action impresses him as a process of sorting out of space.
This quotation applies as readily to the catastrophic Mars and Venus as it does to Shakespeare's Antony.
Second, the image groupings which Lee discerns in the play also complement a celestial, and indeed catastrophic, interpretation.
He tells us that the play moves in an atmosphere of ambivalence which becomes the medium through which the play is perceived(16) and that this ambivalence is the product of opposed images.
Antony, wavering between solid Rome and fluid, changing Egypt, cannot keep his integrity whole, and so he melts.
We can thus see how the astronomic equivalences apply. Rome is Earth, land, that which must survive, and therefore Octavius is the Sun, Cleopatra is the Comet, and Antony is Mars. In the configuration of important entities, Antony is not a mere average man, but part of a triumvirate which rules the Roman Empire, or the civilized world. In cosmic terms, Mars is not a harmless star in distant space, but an errant planet threatening Earth and the solar system. In the social scale of values, Antony vacillates between love and duty. In the solar structure, Mars vacillates between a dangerous affair with Venus and a required role affecting the stability of the solar system. If Antony abandons his duty to pursue Cleopatra, the Roman Empire is menaced; if Mars leaves its orbit to pursue Venus, Earth is menaced. As we have already seen, the imagery in both cases is the same – land melts into water, the structure of existence breaks, nature is disrupted. For Mars, the result was extinction and expulsion. To Lee, Antony dissolves and is destroyed
Lee sees Antony's need to break out of Cleopatra's sphere of influence,(23) for Antony seems to recognize that this alone will save him. Like Mars, he becomes dangerous when drawn to her orbit, for then he loses his identity. He used to define himself in terms of soldiership, the army, and Rome. He then centered his world about Cleopatra and so lost his former role. Mars too, Velikovsky tells us, left its orbit and so
lost its previous role. Both Antony in the play and Mars of the catastrophe later acquire new and perhaps greater positions, but for the moment we shall concentrate on their parallel downfalls at parallel points in their stories.
With Cleopatra, the process is radically different, for
the images surrounding Cleopatra's death are conversely of steadiness and constancy.(24)
Antony was steady, Lee says, and was ruined because he becomes inconstant. Cleopatra was inconstant, and was suppressed by becoming steady. Again, this applies equally to Velikovsky's Venus and Mars.
Cleopatra's stature increases as she dies, as if Venus emitted a final burst of brilliance before expiring. Her purpose is
and the image is one of a passage from change to rest. When the poisonous serpent arrives, she says
As she is being dressed in her final garments, she anticipates becoming a celestial body like Antony.
That is, she renounces her earthly aspects, earth and water, to become like a star – fire and air. She, who had ravaged the earth, the Roman Empire, will go off into space and menace Earth no more.
As Lee sees it, death halts chance and change for Cleopatra. She passes to
and so her sacrifice is an act that finally fixes our sympathy with her.(25) We can afford to admire her now because in death she has at last become constant, and also less, for the process, in stabilizing her, has also diminished her. Thus, in her very last moments, she is forced to subside and to settle into a safe orbit by the influence of Antony, whose
When we last see her, she is brilliant but distant, and so we do not become emotionally involved as we watch her ritualistic death on the stage, her literal transformation into Venus, the Star of the East.
In conclusion, Lee says the attraction between Antony and Cleopatra produces
This corresponds with what several other critics, also totally un-Velikovskian, see in the play. To them, Antony and Cleopatra, each previously great in his or her own sphere, assert a new order because they come .together. This order is a challenge to what is and what must be, and so they are destroyed, which means catastrophic memories may underlie the pattern of Luciferian revolt. Furthermore, the overthrow of the lovers has consequences far beyond themselves. To these critics,
which we can recognize as a process of change, of a new order in both the natural and political worlds. This is what we also discover in the comedy*, and so we may suspect that the form of most great narrative art is dictated by suppressed catastrophic experiences. Imagine that man, considering the catastrophes, had to see good in what happened or his existence would become unbearably anxious. He might then construe the catastrophes as cleansing scourges provoked by, the revolt of certain heavenly bodies who had been duly chastised, and thus, in such a story, the solar system is left stronger than it was before, albeit bereft of several of its more. spectacular entities. Imagine then that this rationalization, which has imposed a beneficent ethical meaning upon a horrendous physical event, is transferred to creative art. The result might well be a play like Antony and Cleopatra, in which William Shakespeare's depiction of Mars and Venus bears so great a resemblance to Immanuel Velikovsky's.
[* A Midsummer Night's Dream (discussed in a separate study not yet published).]
. . to be continued.
1. All quotations and line numbers from Antony and Cleopatra
refer to the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition, ed. Barbara Everett. New
American Library, New York, 1964.