Love Is a Mental Disorder—Love Is Psychosis—The Dark Side of Love: On Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA: Three Video Essays
by Joseph Suglia
The following is a series of partial transcripts of a video series that I created in May-June 2020. They are three lectures on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. The interpretive horizon within which I am analyzing the play is the psychology and philosophy of love.
What is love? Love is a mental disorder. Love is a form of psychosis. And today, I would like to talk about the dark side of love.
Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I would like to speak about the experience of love, the experience of being in love, to set up a context in which to talk about Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.
What is love? First of all, love is an emotion. Not merely a feeling, but an emotion. The two concepts are not identical, though they overlap.
What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion? Well, feeling is a general category that encompasses all kinds of states of mind. An emotion is a specific form of feeling. An emotion is a solidified, focused, concentrated feeling.
So, what is love? Love is the most intense emotion; it is a very intense fixation on the other human being.
It is interesting that we use this one word to denote many different modes of loving. The word love may signify romantic love, the love of God, the love of one’s sister or brother, the love of humanity, the love of the friend, the love of one’s parents, the love of literature, etc.
The single word love verbally unifies all of these significations, all of these denotations and the connotations.
All of these different modes of loving are verbally unified by one word: love, l’amour, die Liebe.
What we will talk about today is not love of God, not the love of the father, not the love of the mother, not the love of the sibling, not the love of the political leader. We will discuss what is called “romantic love,” which is distinguishable from these other modes of loving.
Now, one way of understanding love is to say that it marks the passage from the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) to the definite article (“the”). When someone is in love, one does not love A person, but THE person, as if that beloved were the only person in the world. In a world populated by 7.8 billion human beings, you love one person; you singularize and particularize one human being. What is this if not madness?
Love means that we fall in love with our own hallucinations, ignoring the shortcomings of the beloved and exaggerating the beloved’s strong points, as if the beloved had nothing but strong points and no flaws, no weaknesses. And the lover attacks mercilessly anyone who would discredit the beloved, anyone who would point out any flaws in the object of one’s loving.
As Nietzsche writes in Paragraph Sixty-Seven of Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “Love for only one person is a kind of barbarity, for it is exercised at the expense of all other people. This also includes the love for God.”
Of all the people who can fall in love with, you fall in love with one person and believe that this one person is the only person who is worthy of your love. You are willing to sacrifice all other love objects for the sake of the one beloved. Again, what is this if not madness?
This is why I say that love is a form of psychosis.
There are three fundamental impulses in the human being. The first of these is the egoic impulse—the drive to self-preservation, the drive to conserve the self (hunger, thirst, the need for clothing, the need for shelter, the need for safety, the avoidance of pain).
Beyond the egoic instinct, there are two fundamental social impulses: the nurturing impulse and the erotic impulse which is called “love.”
Most human beings instinctually prefer to nurture those in whom they recognize themselves. The nurturing instinct must be intellectualized, must be rationalized, in the way that Jesus taught, if someone is going to want to nurture someone whom one does not resemble. The intellectualization of the nurturing instinct is called “altruism.” Value is based on rarity, and “altruism” is considered to be a value (a virtue). Something is considered a “value” only if it is rare, only if it is difficult. This is because altruism goes against our more basic proclivity, which is to prefer the familiar-looking to the unfamiliar-looking.
Love is a social instinct that, ideally, leads to reciprocal determination—the beloved defines me in my being. And I define the lover in one’s being.
The sex or gender of the beloved does not matter. Sex is not subject to time; gender is subject to time.
We care about what the beloved thinks about us because the beloved defines us in some profound sense.
Reciprocal love means that the lover defines the beloved, and the beloved defines the lover. In reciprocal love, I define you, and you define me.
This does not mean that two lovers fuse together into a single being. This is Platonic nonsense.
There is no harmonization in love; there is, to a much greater extent, division and antagonism. I am approaching my main argument.
To quote Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, which is a somewhat overrated book, lines from which are tattooed on the arms, legs, backs, and shoulders of countless people:
“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.”
The concept of romantic love is not timeless; it has a history. Where does this myth come from? Where does our contemporary understanding of romantic love come from? It is probably traceable back to Petrarch, fourteenth-century Italian poet and scholar who dedicated a number of sonnets to his beloved Laura, whom he loved in a self-sacrificing and masochistic manner, and, much earlier, to twelfth- and thirteenth-century Spanish and French troubadours who sang love poetry. What we understand as “romantic love” is derivable from these sources.
No one will be surprised to hear that most popular songs are about love. Popular songs are hymns to love or prayers to love. Well-known examples of these include “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles or “What the World Needs Now Is Love” by Jackie DeShannon, a song that was used at the end of a film about polygamy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice from 1969. Or another, better song sung by Jackie DeShannon, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” All of these songs misrepresent the essence of love, as I will argue below.
Why should love be a value? Why should any emotion be regarded as a value?
Love has been praised as a virtue, as the affirmative emotion par excellence at least since Petrarch; indeed, it is quite possibly, along with the concept of freedom, the most dominant ideal in Western culture. (Is it even logical to make of an emotion an “ideal”?).
Love is a dark emotion. Love impinges on darker affects.
Let me discuss the darker dimensions of love—because love draws out our darker dimensions.
I freely admit that love offers some of the most exquisite delights that life has to offer. A loveless life is a life not worth living.
Love does offer some of life’s greatest delights, but love can also do a number on you; it can scuttle you, it can destroy you.
There is a dark side to love that is seldom acknowledged or addressed. Love is a mental disorder. Love is a psychological sickness.
The feeling of powerlessness that afflicts the lover is the reason that lovesickness is the most devastating subjective disaster that a human being can go through—unreciprocated love, the vertiginous experience of unrequited love, the viciously catastrophic abysses of unreciprocated love.
Why is it that the unreciprocated lover so often has thoughts of murder or suicide? Thoughts of murder and suicide are seldom absent from the mind of a beloved. The throes of unreciprocated love end often in death, in suicide or in parasuicide—parasuicide is an uncompleted suicide attempt in which the aim is not death.
There are many anecdotes that one could tell of the suicidally heartbroken. After multiple anecdotes are told, evidence ceases to be anecdotal.
Let me be empirical, then. There are neurophysiological reasons for the link between suicidality and unrequited love.
The experience of love leads to what psychologists call “limerence.”
Limerence refers to the obsessive thoughts that plague the mind of the lover. Love, again, is a kind of obsessive fascination with one human being as opposed to 7.8 billion other human beings. Even worse, romantic love suppresses the serotonin in the lover’s body. The serotonin levels of the lover plummet. Serotonin is helpful for sleep—serotonin is converted by your brain into melotonin, which helps you fall asleep. Lovers tend to have low levels of serotonin—again, this is the chemical predecessor of melotonin—which is why lovers tend to suffer from insomnia.
Moreover, low levels of serotonin make one easily irritable, irascible, querulous, peevish. Low serotonin tires you out, fatigues you, exhausts you.
And low serotonin often leads to appetite withdrawal. So: When you’re in the throes of love, you can’t sleep, you have no urge to eat, and you are besieged by insistent unwanted thoughts of the beloved.
That is what the word “obsession” means (it comes from the Latin verb obsidēre: to besiege): to be beleaguered, to be burdened, to be imposed upon.
More frighteningly, some neuroscientists have concluded that serotonin deficiency sometimes conduces to suicidal ideation. The entire world already knows this, though. Yes, unrequited lovers often ponder suicide and, disturbingly, violence against other human beings, which is another possible consequence of serotonin abnormality!
Here are the links to journal articles that give scientific evidence in support of the thesis that love has a narcoticizing essence:
One of the dangers of erotomania, of love-obsession, is that lovers are outsiders. Necessarily, always. A lover is an outsider, on the fringes, on the margins of society. Love is not a common experience. Being in love is a relatively rare subjective condition. Lovers appear wild, untrammeled—as if they had never been socialized.
Something that Nietzsche has taught us is that love is the desire for possession, for appropriation, for assimilation. Romantic love, for this reason, is ALWAYS accompanied by jealousy. Always, necessarily. There can be no love without jealousy.
You are not in love with your partner if you are not jealous of those who are erotically in proximity to your partner.
It is possible to be jealous of the love interest of someone you’re not attracted to. Sure. So it’s possible to be jealous and not to be in love. But there can be no love without jealousy. If you feel no jealousy for those who amorously surround the supposed object of your affection, then you are lovelessly related to that person.
The ubiquity of jealousy wherever there is love demonstrates that love is the desire for ownership, appropriation, assimilatory impulse. When the desire for possession is slaked, the lover ceases to desire the beloved. In other words: Reciprocal love is boringly disappointing.
As Nietzsche writes in the Paragraph 102 of Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “The discovery of mutual love should really make the lover sober about the beloved. ‘How is this possible? The person you love is unpresumptuous enough to love even you? Or stupid enough? Or—or—.’”
The other thing to consider is that love and hatred really do go together. Language is deceptive on this point. We have one word, love, and we have another word, hatred. Love and hatred form a single emotional complex. Love and hatred are intermeshed and intertangled. Language simplifies matters, as if we were discussing two discrete things. Love is always entangled with hatred, and, perhaps, hatred is entangled with love.
I hope that I have persuaded you, at the very least, that love is not pure. Love is not free from our most disagreeable impulses. Kafka said the following to Gustav Janouch about the interrelatedness of love and filth: “Love always inflicts wounds which never heal because love always appears hand in hand with filth.” Whenever you see an older person with a worn, ragged face, this person might have had the excruciating experience of being in love when young. Perhaps because love is intimately conjoined to pain, it leaves an indelible mark on our unconscious minds.
So, love is not immune from thoughts of destruction, from hatred, from pain—to the contrary. Moreover, the lover is analogous to a slave.
The lover exists in a one-sided dependency on the beloved, for the lover at the beloved’s whims, is subject to the beloved’s caprices. It would not be hyperbolic to claim that love is a form of enslavement. The lover is enslaved to the beloved, who is loveless or who is less in love than the lover. If you are in love with someone, you are bound to that person; being in love means the loss of independence. The one who is loveless has more power than the one who is in love. The one who is needed has power not the needful. As Baudelaire writes in his journal: “Even though a pair of lovers might be deeply devoted, full of mutual desires, one of them will always be calmer, or less obsessed, than the other. He or she must be the surgeon or the torturer: the other patient or victim.” That is, in love, one partner is more passive; the other is more aggressive. This same asymmetry or dissymmetry appears everywhere love exists.
All of this is to suggest that “true love,” that is, reciprocal love, does not exist. As La Rochefoucauld writes, “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” By love, he means so-called “true love,” which is equated to peacefulness and happiness, which like ghosts, many have spoken about, but no one has ever seen. For “true love” or “pure love” does not exist.
Bataille has a number of disturbing thoughts on love in his book variously translated as Erotism and Death and Sensuality. Though the second title is remote from the French original, it is more thought-provoking than the first. The word “sense” is contained in the word “sensuality.” The inclusion of the word “sense” in “sensuality” reminds me that there is a significance in sensuality, there in a logic in sensuality. There might be a logic in sensual love, but if there is, it is the logic of lunacy.
Bataille writes: “The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desires presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he or she exists in the realm of discontinuity.” In other words, love leads to the destruction of one’s self-possessedness, of one’s self-mastery. This passage sheds light on the co-extensivity, the co-terminousness between love and death: Love is death, as death is love. We are overcome, in love as in death, by something that is infinitely more powerful than us and have the experience of a non-experience of the annihilation of the individuated self.
The link between love and death has been a constant subject in the history of Western literature. We can find it in Goethe and in Shakespeare’s The Most Lamentable and Excellent Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedy of Antony of Cleopatra.
Western literature has often concerned itself with the darker side of love. Let us begin with Goethe (though Goethe, of course, postdates Shakespeare). In Goethe’s first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, twenty-four-year-old Werther falls in love with an inaccessible woman named Charlotte and shoots himself through the brain because he cannot have her.
If you have read The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, you know that Juliet is put into a coma and laid out in a tomb by the supremely idiotic Friar Laurence so that she can escape marriage to the repellent Count Paris. Romeo finds Juliet comatose in the tomb and mistakenly assumes that she is dead and commits suicide. The message that would have informed him of the Friar’s ill-advised stratagem arrives too late. Juliet discovers Romeo’s cadaver and dispatches herself in the vault, much in the way that Isolde does after discovering the corpse of Tristan.
Something quite similar happens in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, as if both of Shakespeare’s plays were suggesting to us that end of all erotic desire is misinterpretation and death.
As we shall see, Cleopatra dies from the bite of the venomous asp, but it is a self-envenoming, a self-inflicted envenoming. She envenoms herself.
In The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, we also have messages that don’t arrive on time—which might be read as an allegory of language, as a comment on the delay of meaning. Messages are always late. Poststructuralists would argue that the signified is never contained within the signifier, the signified forever comes after the signifier.
Let me, however, restrict my focus to romantic desire. Antony turns his back on Rome and migrates to Alexandria. He then expropriates territories held by the Roman Empire and donates these territories to Cleopatra’s children. Most scandalously, he gives a title of honor to the notorious Caesarion, the illegitimate son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The honorific makes Caesarion the rightful heir of Julius Caesar, implying the Caesarion should be the future emperor of Rome. This does not go over well with Caesar Octavius and causes a massive political conflict which leads inexorably to war.
To summarize: Loverboy Marcus Antonius commits treason against his homeland, gives away Roman territories to the children of his Egyptian lover while he was still married to Octavia (these are known as the “Donations of Alexandria”). He does all of this out of love.
If I may make a contemporary analogy: In 2009, the Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford vanished from the state that he was elected to govern. And where was he? He was spending his days erotically with Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentinian journalist, a woman who was not his wife, in Argentina.
The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is hardly a prayer to love, hardly a hymn to love, as “All You Need Is Love” or “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” certainly are.
A more accurate song on the subject of love is “Love Is the Drug” by Roxy Music.
The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare is no prayer to love. It is not a hymn to love. If anything, it is a critique of love in tragic form. It is a play that evokes the darkest dimensions of love. This is the thesis on which I will fasten my attention.
We are now within the second part of the video series in which I lecture on The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. My name is Joseph Suglia.
The personal is the geo-political, and the geo-political is the personal, in this play. The last war of the Roman Republic is the war with Alexandria, and this war is set in motion by personal conflict. Marcus Antonius represents the eastern territories of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra represents Egypt, and Octavius Caesar represents Rome proper.
The war is incited by emotion—Antony is a negligent, neglectful, love-obsessed leader, an erotomaniacal leader. Shakespeare’s play suggests that Antony is a ridiculously incompetent ruler. Why is he ridiculously incompetent as a political leader? Because he is in love!
One of Antony’s closest minions Enobarbus says of Cleopatra: “We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” [I:ii]. When she weeps, it is a meteorological disaster, metaphorically speaking. The passions of the main characters have super-geo-political consequences. The emotions of the characters set in motion geo-historical events.
The play perceives war—particularly, the war between Rome and Alexandria in 30 B.C.E.—through the speculum of two human beings who are erotically engrossed in each other—so the super-geo-political is the personal, and the personal is the super-geo-political.
In the opening scene of this work, one of Marcus Antonius’s followers Philo is discussing his master’s weakness for his Egyptian lover, his indolence and negligence. This is common technique in Shakespeare—before showing the main characters, have secondary characters talk about the main characters. (You see this in The Tragedy of Timon of Athens, for instance.) Philo says to his colleague: “You shall see in him [Mark Antony] / The triple pillar of the world transformed / Into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see” [I:i].
Antony is one of the members of the triumvirate that runs the Roman Empire. The other triumvirs are Lepidus and Octavius Caesar also known as Augustus. Octavius is not the legitimate son of Julius Caesar; he is Julius Caesar’s great-nephew. Octavius’s mother is Julius Caesar’s niece, but he is Julius Caesar’s heir. Lepidus is an ineffectual buffoon who doesn’t understand when he is being made fun of.
This is the opening conflict of the play: Marcus Antonius is voluntarily marooned in Alexandria with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, while being married to Fulvia. Mark Antony is summoned to defend the Roman Empire against the violent incursions of the army of Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, who was banished from the Roman Empire but took residence in Sicily.
Now, Sextus Pompeius is invading Rome and even has a groundswell of support from legions of young Roman men. But the observation that I want to make is that Mark Antony delays, postpones coming to the aid of Octavius and Lepidus. Why? Because he is in the thrall of Cleopatra.
Mark Antony is so besotted by his lover Cleopatra that he allows Rome to be infiltrated by the army of Pompey the Younger, Sextus Pompeius. Mark Antony is taunted and gibed and goaded and manipulated and provoked by Cleopatra—and he is so obsessed with her that he has been neglecting his official duties. He does not assist Lepidus or Octavius in their defense of Rome against the invasion of Sextus Pompeius, ignores the messages that they send, he doesn’t open their e-mails for days. And allows Rome to burn, metaphorically speaking!
Cleopatra is like Circe, marooning Odysseus on her island, beguiling Antony and bewitching him into remaining with her in Alexandria.
As Antony himself puts it: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space! / Kingdoms are clay!” [I:i]. Let the world burn, in other words; I would rather stay here with Cleopatra.
According to Plutarch, Antony and Cleopatra described their common life with the word amimetobion, which means “the life incomparable.” The problem is that it is a life that is shut off from responsibility—particularly, from Antony’s sovereign obligations, the triumviral responsibilities.
Because he is delaying his participation in the defense of Rome, his love-obsession has geo-historical consequences. The fact that Mark Antony is neglectful and inadvertent and is obsessed with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra is world-altering. The subjective experiences of the main characters—their affectivity, their emotions—sway the course of the world. The play concerns the relationship between the all-englobing engrossments of love—that is, it concerns the destructive effects of love.
Shakespeare’s play has a great deal to say about love and the fascinations of love and the obsessiveness of the obsessive fascination which is love, the destructive fixation upon the other human being, the One Human Being who is singularized and particularized, the One Beloved who becomes the single axis around which the world is oriented.
Now, Caesar Octavius doesn’t like any of this. Octavius notices that Antony is ignoring his sovereign responsibilities and is instead lounging around in bed with Cleopatra. Antony is charactered as a wastrel and a wanton who diverts himself with sport. Octavius says: “[Antony] fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel” [I:iv]. He likens Antony to those “boys who, being mature in knowledge, / Pawn their experience to their present pleasure / And so rebel to judgment” [I:iv]. In other words, Antony won’t stop playing around—and this infuriates Octavius.
Octavius, we come to understand, is a much different human being than Mark Antony. Antony is forever enraptured with Cleopatra and forever lacerated by his emotions; it is said that he wept at the death of Julius Caesar and at the death of Brutus, even though Brutus was the arch-architect of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavius is raptureless, by contrast. He is sober, moderate, abstemious. Octavius is reluctant to dance at the celebration of the armistice between the Second Triumvirate and the forces of Sextus Pompeius. And Octavius is twenty-three years old; Antony is around forty-three-years old.
Antony is wasting away, lying around like a layabout, while Lepidus and Octavius, the other members of the triumvirate, defend the Roman Empire.
Antony, apparently, was not always a profligate, according to Octavius. There is a passage that suggests this. In the battle of Battle of Mutina, which took place on 21 April in the year 43 B.C.E., Antony and his forces retreated. They were famished, and Antony resorted to drinking puddles of urine and eating bark from the trees. Octavius gives us this anecdote to demonstrate how much he admired Antony’s former austerity. Like much of the play, this passage is inspired by Shakespeare’s only historical source for the play, Plutarch, in the translation of Sir Thomas North. Caesar Octavius apostrophizes the absent Antony: “[Thou fought’st against famine] with patience more / Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink / The stale of horses and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign / The roughest berry on the rudest hedge. / Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets, / The barks of trees thou browsed” [I:iv]. The passage is beautifully disgusting.
In Scene Five of Act One, we are back in Alexandria again! This is not an Aristotelian play, violating, as it does, the unity of space. The unity of space means that a play takes place at a single location for the entirety of its duration—this is a rule that Aristotle mandates and that Shakespeare follows in The Comedy of Errors. This is very much a disunified play. It is a sprawling, extravagant, opulent pantomime. One of the most striking things about the play is that it transfers us across the world. First, we are in Alexandria. Then, we are shuttled to Rome (in Act One: Scene Four). Now, in the fifth scene of the first act, we are back in Alexandria again. The play is a bit like a teleportation machine, transposing us from one place to another, and a time machine, shuttling us from one time to another.
We next see Cleopatra lounging on her divan like an odalisque and asks her minion Charmian for a drink: “Give me to drink mandragora” [I:v]. Madragora is mandrake juice—it’s a kind of narcoticizing juice. Again, as I discussed in the first video of this series, love is related to narcosis in this play. For indeed, love is the drug, the drug par excellence.
In the second scene of the play, the servant girl Charmian’s gives us a chilling anticipation of how the play will end—namely, tragically: Charmian says as she is getting her palm read: “I love long life better than figs” [I:ii]. At the play’s gruesome conclusion, Cleopatra serves herself a dish of figs garnished with a venomous asp.
So, in Act One: Scene Five, Cleopatra is writhing on her bed, dreamily thinking. Of whom is she thinking? Of Antony, of course. “You think of him too much” [I:v], Charmian says. She is correct. Love is an obsessive fascination with the other human being, and that idea is suggested by this text.
Cleopatra says: “Broad-fronted Caesar, / When thou wast here above the ground, I was / A morsel for a monarch” [I:v]. “Above the ground” means “alive.” Cleopatra is probably to alluding to the legend in which she was bundled up in a mattress strapped by a leather belt and delivered to Julius Caesar as a “morsel,” as a dainty delicacy, for his enjoyment (with her consent). At the time, Julius Caesar was the most powerful leader in the known world.
Both Antony and Cleopatra make extreme, absolute statements. This is one of the ways in which both figures mirror each other. Many of their statements are silly; they aren’t particularly intelligent. Cleopatra vows to write a letter to Antony every day at the end of Act One: Scene Five. Or, she says, “I’ll unpeople Egypt!” [I:v]. In other words, if Cleopatra doesn’t have the opportunity to write Antony a letter every day, she will subject the Egyptian people to genocide. Both Antony and Cleopatra are psychotically ridiculous—and their psychotic ridiculousness results in the death of countless people.
Cleopatra, again, hyperbolizes. This puts her at the furthest remove, at the antipode to the Roman Empire. Ancient Romans were known for their laconic speech; they were known for moderation, for sophrosyne. This is a Greek word, an untranslatable Greek word that basically refers to temperance, moderateness, abstemiousness. Caesar Octavius is the antithesis of Cleopatra. Cleopatra writhes luxuriously on her bed and makes extravagant statements about how Antony will receive a letter every day from her or she will commit genocide against her own people.
Antony’s gesture of profligate, extravagant generosity is known by historians as “The Donations of Alexandria”: “All the East… shall call [Cleopatra] mistress” [I:v], Antony writes in his correspondence to Cleopatra. To allay Cleopatra’s anger, Antony orders the transference of all of the eastern territories of the Roman Empire. What does this mean? He gives the Eastern Roman Empire to Cleopatra and her children! This promiscuous donation of his regime is done from erotic desire; it is a squandering, a wastefulness that is prompted by love.
The lives of thousands of soldiers are destroyed because of one man’s obsession with one woman—namely, because of Antony’s love-obsession with Cleopatra.
Their love affair gives rise to the last war of the Roman Republic. Love leads inexorably to misinterpretation and to death.
The Final War of the Roman Republic would never have taken place were it not for Antony’s libidinal obsession with Cleopatra
Emotions impel the action of the play—love drives forward military action and mass death. Love leads to unspeakable destruction, in this play.
What, precisely, is the relationship between love and destruction? That will have to wait for the third and final video in this lecture series.
Hello, everyone. This is the third and final video in which I talk about THE TRAGEDY OF ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare. My name is Joseph Suglia.
Caesar Octavius has good reason to hate Antony. First of all, Antony divorces Caesar’s sister Octavia in 33 B.C.E., which is a good reason to hate Antony, I suppose. The marriage of Antony and Octavia is nothing more than a marriage of convenience; it is intended as an armistice between Caesar’s forces and Antony’s forces. But the armistice is short-lived. Antony says: “Though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” [II:iii]. Or, as Enobarbus puts it, “[Antony] will to his Egyptian dish again” [II:vi]. In other words, Antony will marry Octavia in order to smooth things out between him and Octavius, but he is obsessed with Cleopatra. So Antony soon divorces Octavius’s sister.
Secondly, Octavius resents Antony because Antony’s brother Lucius and Antony’s wife Fulvia waged war against Octavius.
Thirdly, Octavius bemoans Antony’s inactivity, his negligence of matters of state.
But what is the most impelling catalyst of the Battle of Actium, the final battle of the Roman Republic? Fought on 2 September 31 B.C.E. The Battle of Actium was fought in the Ionian Sea, near Greece, between Antony’s naval forces and Octavius’s naval forces.
What was the most impelling catalyst of the Battle of Actium? The fact that Mark Antony gave the eastern territories of the Roman Republic and honorifics to Cleopatra’s children. And one of Cleopatra’s children is Caesarion, who is Octavius’s arch-nemesis. Octavius is seething with white-hot rivalrous hatred for Caesarion, whom he calls that man “whom they call my father’s son” [III:vi]. Caesarion is the illegitimate love child between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
Octavius declares war against the forces of Cleopatra and Antony, who are still militarily allied and now a conjugal team. Octavius’s forces invade Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Octavius is incensed that Antony has made Caesarion the heir to the Roman Empire and incensed that Antony has divorced his sister in order to marry Cleopatra.
So, again, as I discussed in the second video of this series, the final battle of the Roman Republic was prompted by love.
Antony is more skilled at land than at sea—and his army suffers multiple desertions.
Antony abandons his own soldiers in Greece, where they go hungry and are compelled to surrender to the forces of the Roman loyalists.
Antony flees the Battle of Actium—he abandons his fleet, abandons his army, coward that he is.
Antony’s naval campaign shipwrecks, metaphorically speaking, because of love. He retreats prematurely, “turn[ing] the rudder,” following Cleopatra’s fleet, leaving his own army to famish in Greece [III:x]. Antony describes his cowardice thus: “I have fled myself and have instructed cowards / To run and show their shoulders” [III:xi]. He is pursued by the “itch of his affection” [III:xiii]—his libidinal inclinations.
Antony is clearly losing his mind. He challenges Octavius to a swordfight, which Octavius laughingly declines. And Antony acts oddly around his servants, addressing them as “Thou, and thou, and thou” (“Thou hast been rightly honest”) and thanking them profusely and supplicating himself before them with almost unbearable deference [IV:ii]. His behavior grows bizarre; he is clearly having a mental breakdown.
Antony is provoked into battle by love and he abandons the battle out of love. Antony: “My sword [is] made weak by my affection” [III:xi]. He is not much a warrior anymore because he is in love. Perhaps love should be banished from the Republic in the same way in which poetry should be banished from Plato’s Republic. Poetry is a form of mimesis, which makes it the replication of a replication; the world is a replication of a constellation of ideas. Poetry is an imitation, a mimesis, of the world, so poetry is the imitation of an imitation. Poetry would lead to the mollification of warcraft—and, in this play, love leads to the mollification of warcraft.
Love is neither logical nor rational in any other sense (according to the metaphorics of this play). There is even more textual evidence that would support this interpretation. Enobarbus says of Antony: “He… would make his will / Lord of his reason” [III:xiii].
“Will” here does not mean what we today mean by the word “will”; it means passion, it means desire, it means love.
In other words, Antony’s decisions are not purely intellectual; they are grounded in feeling—in particular, in his impassioned feelings for Cleopatra.
And later, in the same, scene Antony has this to say of himself: “The wise gods seel our eyes, / In our own filth drop our clear judgments, make us / Adore our errors, laugh at’s while we strut / To our confusion” [Ibid.]. Seeling is a rather disgusting practice in which the eyelids of falcons are sewn shut by their falconers.
In other words, lovers are mesmerized by their own delusions and thus are incapable of lucidity of thought.
There is one more citation that I would like to adduce:
“I see men’s judgments are / A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward / Do draw the inward quality after them / To suffer all alike” [III:xiii]. Enobarbus, in an aside.
Shakespeare is suggesting, again, that the human beast is an emotional animal and that its decisions, its judgments, are based on feeling, based on desire—in this case, on the emotion that we simplistically name “love.”
Let us talk about the character Enobarbus, who calls himself a “considerate stone” [II:ii].
In Plutarch, there are two men named Domitius. One accompanied Antony on this Parthian campaign, the other was a soldier who deserted Antony. Shakespeare conflates both of these people into a single figure: Domitius Enobarbus. Now, why did Shakespeare use the name Enobarbus? Perhaps because Enobarbus often makes barbed remarks, but probably because Enobarbus means “red-beard” and that evokes the red-bearded betrayer Judas Iscariot.
Enobarbus does, indeed, betray his master Marcus Antonius, much in the way that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.
Domitius forsakes Antony and joins the opposition in a Judas-like betrayal. Enobarbaus dies in a wasteland, sickened by his own sense of guilt.
Enobarbus at first appears as a raisonneur. What is a raisonneur?
A raisonneur is a character in a book who epitomizes and spells out the official meaning of that book—the authoritative, literal message of the book and often the author’s intentions or the author’s philosophy. Of course, this does not mean that every meaning that the book generates is the point of view of the raisonneur. Far from it. It is only suggests that the raisonneur’s point of view is the official, surface point of view of the book. The raisonneur exemplifies The Meaning of the book. Other examples in Shakespeare include Gower in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida or Apemantus in The Tragedy of Timon of Athens.
At first, Enobarbus such a character. He functions as a Greek chorus, explaining what is going on, as he does when he describes the glorious pageantry that surrounded Cleopatra when was carried on a barge. He also philosophizes and pontificates and tells jokes to alleviate the grief of Antony immediately after Antony learns that his wife Fulvia has died by giving him a philosophical perspective from which to view her demise. Enobarbus, at first, seems a detached character, not so much a character who moralizes as he is a character who immoralizes.
So, at first, Enobarbus is a raisonneur. But look what happens in this play, in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. He reveals himself to be an unreliable raisonneur!
Before I explain why I say this, I must pause over Hegel.
Each one of Shakespeare’s characters, in all of the plays, is compact of disparate and contradictory elements. They are similar to how Hegel conceived the object of perception.
In the 1806 edition of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel conceived the object of perception as an assemblage of Alsos. Each thing that we perceive is a cluster of disparate traits. This coalescence of disparate features is what Hegel called “indifferent passive universality.” For example: A piece of sugar is brown, and it is shaped like a cube, and it is dissolvable, and it is friable. It looks brown, and it is also in the form of a cube, and it also can be dissolved, and it also can be easily crumbled. It has all of these individual properties, so you could say that every object is this thing and also this thing and also this thing and also this thing. This is the first moment of perception, for Hegel.
You might wonder why I am bringing this up. Shakespeare’s characters are quite similar in that they are enormous complex. They contain a multitude of traits that are contradicting. They lack collapsibility—they are not collapsible, by which I mean they are not compact or simple. Octavius is cold, level-headed, and sober, and he is dead-set on defeating Antony, who is his mortal rival, and yet he also has an emotional breakdown when he learns of Antony’s death. Enobarbus is a raisonneur, and yet he also betrays his master Antony in the style of Judas—he is treacherous, and yet he also dies of grief for having been disloyal to his master.
During his meltdown, Enobarbus has this to say: “I am alone the villain of the earth, / And feel I am so most… I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die; the foul’st best fits / My latter part of life” [Act Four: Scene Six].
We get an impression from this text of how fragile, how contingent history is. It is interesting to talk about this play at a time of upheaval. I don’t know when you will be watching and listening to this video, but right now, it is a time of upheaval, a time of social upheaval, a time of cultural upheaval, a time of political upheaval.
There is a character in this play who might seem, at first glance, to be a minor character, but there are no minor characters in Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical tricks is that the characters that, at first, appear to be secondary or even tertiary characters turn out to be central characters of the play.
The wise water-thief Menas proposes slicing the throats of all three leaders of the Western world—Octavius, Lepidus, and Antonius—while they are wassailing on Pompey’s warship, on his galley. They are celebrating the armistice between the forces of Pompey the Younger and the combined forces of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony.
The pirate Menas makes the following proposal to Pompey the Younger. He will finesse the elimination of all three pillars of the Western world. He will cut the mooring of the galley and cut the throats of all three triumvirs while they are in a drunken stupor: “These three world-sharers, these competitors, / And in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable, / And when we are put off, fall to their throats” [II:vii]. Menas, then, offers to cut the mooring of the ship and cut the throats of Octavius, Lepidus, and Mark Antony. This opens up speculative possibilities: What if the pirate had killed off the Second Triumvirate? How would world-history have been transformed? Everything that we consider “normal” today would have been destabilized. Anything that we consider to be stable in life could be unsettled at any moment. We could easily be thrown into a state of disequilibrium, into a state of dis-ease by a disease, such as the novel Coronavirus, for instance. The today of Western civilization and the today of Eastern civilization would be entirely different than they are today. Too often, we conceive of history as being, as it were, divinely ordained, necessary, stable, fixed, preprogrammed—and yet history is arbitrary. The play evokes the contingency of history. It evokes how unstable life really is.
One of the reasons why this play is transcendent, why it is so exciting to read, is that suggests an alternative, speculative history beside the history which it presents, the material of which is almost exclusively derived from a single source: Plutarch in the Sir Thomas North translation.
I have noticed that throughout this play are there are images of deliquescence. To deliquesce means “to de-congeal,” “to dissolve,” “to melt away,” “to discandy,” “to de-coagulate,” “to de-coalesce,” “to de-solidify.” I have noticed figures that are melting, forms that are melting, shapes that are melting.
Antony uses the verb “to discandy” (“to melt away”); Cleopatra uses the same word.
Cleopatra exclaims: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures turn all to serpents!” [II:v]. Incidentally, Cleopatra is metaphorically associated with pyramids, the River Nile, and snakes, in particular, the venomous asp. (Lepidus gives the incorrect plural of “pyramid,” when he says, “pyrimises” [II:vii].)
Upon observing the dying of Antony, Cleopatra says: “The crown o’th’ earth doth melt” [IV:xv].
Charmian says in Act Five: Scene Two: “Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, that I may say / The gods themselves do weep!” [V:ii].
Cleopatra employs the verb to discandy in Act Three: Scene Thirteen:
Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source; and the first stone
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so
Dissolve my life! The next Caesarion smite!
Till by degrees the memory of my womb,
Together with my brave Egyptians all,
By the discandying of this pelleted storm,
Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile
Have buried them for prey!
Antony also employs the same metaphor in Act Four: Scene Twelve:
O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am:
O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,–
Whose eye beck’d forth my wars, and call’d them home;
Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,–
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguiled me to the very heart of loss.
What, Eros, Eros!
Notice that, at the very end of Antony’s soliloquy, he summons Eros—that is to say, erotic desire, love.
What is the significance of all of this imagery of deliquescence? The first answer is: Most of the principal characters have emotional meltdowns. Secondly, the fact that both Antony and Cleopatra use the word “discandy” is a verbal cue by which Shakespeare suggests that their fates are connected, which they surely are.
One of the hidden agreements that links Cleopatra to Antony is the fact that both maltreat their subordinates, their lackies, their minions, couriers who bring them messages. Cleopatra practices messenger abuse; she is immensely cruel to the messenger who brings her bad news. When a messenger comes to Cleopatra to inform her that her love Antony is married to Octavia, Cleopatra exclaims, “I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st” [II:v] and then beats the messenger, striking him down, haling him up and down with blows; these are the stage directions. She even draws a knife and brandishes it at the messenger. Antony has one of Caesar’s envoys flogged—his name is Thidias—in Act Three: Scene Thirteen. He does so out of jealousy, after descrying Cleopatra’s hand being kissed by Thidias (“Give me grace to lay / My duty on your hand,” he says before kissing her hand [III:xiii]. Antony is unaware that Cleopatra has done something much worse than kiss the hand of the messenger—she appears to agree to abandon Antony and give herself up to Caesar.[i]
Cleopatra and Antony are rude to their subordinates. This rudeness links them.
Is the ethical worth of a person not determined by the way in which one treats one’s subordinates?
With the exception of one favorable message (Act One: Scene Five), all of the messages in this play fall into one of three categories: There are messages that are bad, messages that are late, and messages that are false. The network of communication does not communicate—it is endlessly falling apart. The disrupted system of communication between Cleopatra and Antony suggests that there is only misinterpretation between lovers. Messages do not arrive on time, messages are flat-out false, or messages are unwelcome.
Characters are linked by a system of communication that is malfunctioning and only gives bad, late, and false messages. All of this suggests:
Love leads to reciprocal misinterpretation, and love is inextricably bound to death.
I will write very little about Cleopatra’s self-annihilation, for it has nothing to do with love. Cleopatra’s suicide, in contrast to Antony’s self-demise, does not appear to emerge from any intense passion for Antony. Cleopatra is afraid of ritualistic public humiliation. She is afraid that she will be subjected to the puerile defilements of the rabble. She suspects, correctly, that Octavius intends to humiliate her, the Pharaoh Queen, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, perhaps leading her through the streets naked with a lariat around her throat in a triumphal procession, as if she were a trophy of war.[ii] She decides, for this reason, to be “noble to [herself]” [Ibid.], to exert mastery over herself, to become godlike by choosing her own death instead of allowing it to be chosen for her, to become the goddess of her own finality. She prefers death to being subjugated to the whims of the rabble, of the mob, where she should be paraded around as if an “Egyptian puppet” [Ibid.], along with Iras, her servant.
Again, Cleopatra’s suicide does not appear to emerge from any deep, intense passion for Antony.
The self-demise of Antony is a much different matter. When Antonius sees that his soldiers have deserted him, he grows enraged against Cleopatra, whom he accuses of treachery against him. There is little textual evidence that she has indeed betrayed him, other than the conversation with Thidias. But there is no textual evidence that she actually has done so.
Cleopatra, terrified by Antony’s ebullition of rage, locks herself in a sepulcher and sends out a messenger to Antony to tell him that she is dead (“Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself” [IV:xiii]). Antony’s response is to assassinate himself.
Antony’s self-assassination is not romantic, but pitiful, protracted, abject, and absurd.
Antony destroys himself, he kills himself on the basis of an uncorroborated false rumor, a rumor for which he does not seek evidence. Much in the way that Romeo who finds Juliet comatose falsely assumes that she is dead, Antony assumes that Cleopatra is dead on the basis of a false report. Remember: Almost all messages in the play are bad, late, or false. In this case, we get a message that is false and another message that is late. A system of communication is installed that does not connect the characters, but which disconnects them from one another, as if to suggest that love is founded on misinterpretation.
The fact that we know something that Antony does not know is classical dramatic irony. What is dramatic irony? Dramatic irony is when we, the spectators or readers, know a piece of essential information that is denied to the characters on stage.
Antony suborns his own assassination by turning to his servant, Eros, and commanding him to strike off Antony’s head: “Thou art sworn, Eros, / That when the exigent should come—which now / Is come indeed… Thou then wouldst kill me. Do’t” [IV:xiv].
Now, if Shakespeare were an inferior dramatist, he would have had Eros kill off Antony directly.
Of course, this would have contravened the source from which Shakespeare derived nearly all of his material, Plutarch in the North translation. More pointedly, it would have been laughably fatuous and simplistic. It would not have been allegorical; it would have been symbolic in the Greek sense, sumbellein, which means “the coming-together” of meaning and image in a transparently obvious manner. Eros kills Antony, and this would mean: “Love kills the lover.” That would have been stupid. A much lesser dramatist than Shakespeare would have written the scene in such a fashion.
Instead, Eros (love) prompts Antony to end himself. Antony says: “There is left us / Ourselves to end ourselves” [IV:xiv]. One might object to this interpretation: The historical Eros is the name of the servant, as recorded by Plutarch. If the significance of the name Eros is limited to historical documentation, why is it, then, that Shakespeare manifests Eros in Act Three: Scene Eleven and has Antony incant the name Eros three times in Act Four: Scene Four, whereas Plutarch only cites the name once?
Shakespeare highlights, emphasizes, accentuates the name Eros in order to turn Eros into an allegorical figure. When Eros’s self-demise prompts Antony to assassinate himself, an allegory is being set up: an allegory about the relationship between romantic passion (love) and destruction, which is what I have been speaking about for three videos, the destructiveness of love.
I am tempted to read these lines metaphorically: Antony addresses Eros as “[t]hrice nobler than myself” and says, “Thou teachest me, O valiant Eros, what I should and thou couldst not” [IV:xiv].
Eros, Love, does not kill the lover directly; it prompts lovers to destroy themselves. Love and Death issue from the same source: an experience in which the self is overwhelmed and obliterated. I am arguing that Shakespeare is suggesting to us that Love (Eros) flows into Death (Thanatos).
This is, again, what psychologists call limerence.
Sadly, this is all too common. As I have discussed above, we know empirically that limerence, lovesickness, leads to a decline in serotonin, which, in turn, sometimes leads to thoughts of self-assassination. Antony is nothing if not limerent.
This is why Antony’s self-assassination is not romantic, but pitiful, protracted, abject, absurd.
It is strange that we use the word “love” to denote both the love of the parent for the child AND the love of one romantic partner for another. These are two different types of love, or they should be.
However, there is a telescopic coincidence between both types of love. Love is a form of intense emotional dependency on another human being. The parent is intensely emotionally dependent on the child, as the romantic lover is intensely emotionally dependent on the beloved. But this similarity ends there.
I quoted Georges Bataille earlier. He believes that Eros and Thanatos, love and death, issue from the same source. For both love and death afford the experience of a non-experience in which self-possessedness, self-mastery is overtaken.
What is it that drives us crazy about the beloved? What drives us crazy about the other human being, the human being whom we love, is the beloved’s freedom from our desire. The person we love has the freedom to do whatever one wants, independently of us. The beloved is uncontrollable, and this drives us insane. The absolute self-sufficiency of the other human being drives us into a frenzy. No one can control absolutely what the other person says or does; the other person can always respond negatively to something positive that we say or respond affirmatively to something negative that we say. Insofar as the beloved is absolutely free from our desire, the beloved forces us to experience the limits of our own presumptions.
We are drawn to what is within the beloved that escapes our mastery. This inevitably converts the desire for the other human being into the desire for the destruction of the beloved’s freedom. What do I mean? The lover wants to control the beloved, to turn the beloved into an object. And this desire for objectification is the desire for dehumanization and the desire for the destruction of the other person’s liberty. The end of all desire, it may be said, is destruction. The lover desires to turn the beloved into oneself, to nullify the beloved’s “otherness,” which means to reduce the other person into nothing.
Why else would thoughts of murder and suicide seldom be absent from the mind of the lover? The Oscar Wilde cliché “All men kill the thing that they love” is a propos to this context.
If you would allow me to quote myself, I would like to quote an essay that I wrote entitled “Dennis Cooper and the Demythologization of Love”:
It is perhaps the case that what is called “love,” the most intense form that desire may take, draws out the deeper dimensions of human selfhood. It exposes, perhaps, our most profound valences; it makes apparent our drive toward aggression, our desire for domination, our wish (whether conscious or unconscious) for the annihilation of the beloved.
So: Love is intimately bound to death. The idea that love is the absolute good is a myth. Love is an obsession, a fascination, and it is a form of psychosis.
Love flows into death, in this play. Love travels down a descending scale that results in death.
[i] “Tell [Caesar] I am prompt / To lay my crown at’s feet, and there to kneel / Till from his all-obeying breath I hear / The doom of Egypt” [III:xiii].
[ii] Some of her apprehensions: “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the dull varletry / Of censuring Rome?” [V:ii]. Cleopatra learns from Dolabella that Caesar Octavius will “lead” her in “triumph” [Ibid.].