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The Tragedy Of Imagination: Shakespeare's "Antony And Cleopatra" By Joyce Carol Oates

5036 words - 20 pages

Nature wants stuffTo vie strange forms with fancy . . .--Antony and CleopatraShakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra shares with Troilus and Cressida the obsessive and self-consuming rage of the tragic figure as he confronts and attempts to define "reality." But, more extravagantly than Troilus and Cressida, this reality is layered with masquerade; forms that are often as lyric as brutal shift and change and baffle expectation. The constant refinement of brute reality into lyric illusion is the work not simply of Antony, Shakespeare's hero, but the lifelong work of Shakespeare himself. Thus there is a curious, rather decadent air in this play of flamboyant desires having as much import--if not ultimately as much political strength--as events themselves. Lionel Abel states that among the characters of Hamlet there are four playwrights: Claudius, the Ghost, Polonius, and Hamlet.1 Among the characters of Antony and Cleopatra there are any number of mythologizing poets and/or playwrights, but the most important is Antony. Snared within the net of appearances and forced by politics (that most extreme form of fantasy) to break free, Antony's agony is curiously muted for someone who has achieved and lost so much; but this fact can be better understood if we examine the basis of the play and its relationship to "tragedy."The movement of most works of literature--whether the simple medieval morality play or the ambiguous Troilus and Cressida--is toward a dramatic confrontation with reality, with objective truth. The hero's downfall (or, in happier works, his conversion or enlightenment) is determined by the success with which reality overcomes appearances. If there is any great theme of literature this is it: the destruction of the faux-semblant and attendant illusions by the intervention, bitter or glorious, of reality. Tragedy works with this theme and is inseparable from it, and the problem of Antony and Cleopatra seems to be that the lovers either do not have illusions or, if they do, they never learn to substitute for them other visions of their predicament, in the classical way that Creon of Sophocles' Antigone does, or in the way Othello and Macbeth do. Orthodox and recognizable tragedy necessarily involves a process of learning and exorcism, which is manipulated by the tragic figure himself, as in Oedipus Rex, or by surrounding characters who may or may not be fragmented aspects of the hero himself, as in The Revenger's Tragedy, or by fate or external social forces, as in Ibsen's Ghosts. In Antony and Cleopatra all exorcism fails: just as Antony cannot rid himself of his obsession with Cleopatra, so Cleopatra cannot quite rid herself of the earth-bound and, in a crude sense, comic aspects of her own mortality. Exorcism works to dispel illusion, but the poetry of Antony and Cleopatra works to create illusion. The play is sustained by words alone, for its plot is certainly incidental; we are never interested in what a character does, but only in how he...

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