Q. In what way is Antony and Cleopatra a departure from classical tragedy?
The term tragedy is usually applied to literary, and especially to dramatic, representations of serious actions which eventually end in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist. Precise and detailed discussions of the tragic form begin and as M. H. Abrams clearly points out; they should not end with Aristotle’s classic analysis in his 4th century work Poetics wherein he defined tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude complete in itself” where the narrative presentation involves “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions”. This classical conception of tragedy was based mainly on the examples available to Aristotle such as the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles.
There have been attempts to stretch Aristotle’s analysis to later tragic forms which inevitably would differ in narrative and form. Shakespeare’s tragedies were shaped by very different literary conventions and when seen within the tradition of Aristotle’s classical discussions, his concepts serve as a suggestive starting point for identifying differences. Most critics have agreed that Shakespeare’s tragedies do not follow a fixed literary pattern. Kenneth Muir, in fact, begins his survey with the warning : “There is no such thing as a Shakespearean Tragedy, there are only Shakespearean tragedies”
The departure of Antony and Cleopatra from classical tragedy can be attributed above all to the undogmatic delight of experiment that is so characteristic of many dramatists of Shakespeare’s day and age who, unworried by any fixed poetic precepts or narrowing conventions, produced a multiplicity of forms that resist any neat systemization. From the beginning, the problems of character, especially those of the protagonist’s character have been the focus of most criticism on Antony and Cleopatra and though much criticism time and again have denied this; for the audience too the impact of the play is produced most of all by the haracters. This does not necessarily happen in the case of a classical tragedy. It is not that interpretation is reduced to psychological speculation or that the play is being confused with more realistic literature of the later ages, however, in their painful struggle with destructive forces within themselves and from the world outside, Shakespeare’s heroes receive no help from any power beyond. Providence and fate are hardly blamed for Antony’s downfall, at least not alone. We are made to feel that tragedy is a matter of human responsibility and moral decisions rather than of an anonymous Fortune.
The interdependence of conflict within the individual character and the claims of community is crucial for Shakespeare’s idea of tragedy and this can be seen clearly in his ‘domestic tragedy’ Othello as well. The protagonists are surrounded by a more or less diversified group of minor figures some of whom are drawn into the catastrophe against their will or are deeply affected by it. In Antony and Cleopatra a much larger number of characters is involved or at least connected with the protagonist’s fate than in Greek tragedy and they are quite different in social rank.
So, on the one hand we have the suicide of Cleopatra and on the other the death of Enobarbus in Caesar’s camp with Antony’s name on his lips. By and large, the sentiments of the Roman soldiers under Antony’s charge reflect this trickle down effect throughout the play. A stylistic criticism of the play by H. A. Mason further throws light on how Antony and Cleopatra is a departure from the classical tragedy. Aristotle says that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if the hero is “better than we are”, in the sense that he is of higher than ordinary moral worth.
Mason draws our attention to the deliberate device employed by Shakespeare to throw a classical aura around Antony, however leading to very different consequences as to how the tragic hero comes across. Every classical reference takes Antony off the earth we know and delivers him over to hyperbole and bombast…as they accumulate we both become aware of the author’s intention and build up our resistance to the ‘try-on’.  For example, when Antony tells his men “you have shewne all Hectors” we note that Antony is sarcastically inflating a petty skirmish into a major campaign.
Also, Antony’s self-comparison with Herakles, far from casting over him a heroic or mythical tragic grandeur, makes him a mere stage figure. This is later reinforced by Cleopatra: “Oh he’s more mad Than Telamon for his Shield, the Boare of Thessaly Was never so imbost” Hence, here we see Shakespeare fashioning his hero in a way quite different from the way a Classical tragic hero would be conceived. This representation of Antony forces us to ponder again on the relative significance of what we have seen for ourselves and what has been merely said about the lovers.
Further the inversion of a favourable Roman epitaph appears rather deliberate on the part of Shakespeare. The Roman verdict is before our eyes throughout the play. Although there have been small suggestions that it was not to be taken as the last word on Antony since it was based on an external view of his behaviour, yet it has often enough been sustained by internal evidence. Nothing, for instance, coming from within, has mitigated the verdict on Antony’s flight at Actium. Yet now we find the Romans uniting to lament Antony as a fallen hero.
We cannot mistake the author’s intention here. Shakespeare lets himself go in his self-indulgent delight in hyperbole and gives incongruously to Caesar the following words: “The breaking of so great a thing, should make A greater cracke. The round World Should have shooke Lyons into ciuill streets. And citizens to their dennes. The death of Antony Is not a single doome, in the name lay A moity of the world. ” Thus, we see here a contrast being brought out between the Antony who walked the earth and fiction that might have been but never was.
Looking at the play from a strictly classical perspective we find that the Antony we were to see was never shown. The promise of the first scene is perhaps not realised. We are told numerous times that he was a supreme specimen of humanity, so lofty indeed that to indicate the scale it was necessary to suppose that this nature partook of the divine. The Antony who is presented dramatically makes us believe in these reports. As a result of this we see Shakespeare’s tragic hero to be rather different from Aristotle’s conception of the tragic hero.
In Antony and Cleopatra the stylised intensity of ‘Roman’ rhetoric, Antony’s past greatness is contrasted to the present aberration, and it is important to note that this negative portrait is not prompted by envious hate, but a rather sincere regret and uncomprehending anger. For the Roman soldier, anything that deflects the tried general from his glorious military career can only be evil and contemptible, but the particular dramatic technique of this scene leaves us guessing whether this is an authorial, chorus-like comment or a one-sided, at best limited voice of an individual observer.
In case of classical tragedy however, there is generally no room for such a blurring of the hero’s actual attributes through reportage. Besides these arguments, critics such as Bradley have found Antony and Cleopatra to have very little action in the first two acts and the first half of the play not tragic in tone. Other critics have complained that the treatment was episodic and the play as a whole to be lacking in unity.
Unlike the two neoclassical tragedies Antonie and Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra, which only select one or two critical moments and strictly preserve the unity of place, it is the very diversity and the geographical sweep that Shakespeare has attempted to recapture in his tragedy, which he has turned into a sequence of more than forty scenes. It is this loose dramatic structure which has been subject to criticism when looked at from the classical point of view, but for the Elizabethan stage such rapid change of scene and locality was not unusual and presented few problems.
Thus we can infer that because of the arguments discussed above, its unusual structure and ambivalent effect, Antony and Cleopatra cannot easily be compared with Shakespeare’s other tragedies, making it near impossible to view it inside the same bracket as the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripedes. Shakespeare evidently felt free to make a tragedy out of any episode from chronicle, historical biography, or novella-collection that appealed to him, without feeling obliged to adapt it pedantically to any fixed formula.
Antony and Cleopatra gives as astonishingly faithful impression of the fascinating variety and the forceful realism of Plutarch’s account, enriched by exuberant poetry and complexity of characterization and there is no consistent effort to make these anecdotic scenes conform to any strict rules of tragedy.
1. Kenneth Muir, Antony and Cleopatra, “Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence”
2. William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (1997)
3. H. A. Mason, “Telling vs Showing”, Antony and Cleopatra (Casebook series), ed. John Brown Russell (1966)
4. A. C. Bradley, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra (Casebook series), ed. John Brown Russell (1966)
5. Deiter Mehl, Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An introduction (1991)
6. Deiter Mehl, Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An Introduction (1991)
7. M. H. Abrams, A Handbook of Literary Terms (2009)
 H. A. Mason, ‘Telling vs Showing’ (1966), Antony and Cleopatra (Casebook Series), ed. John Brown Russell