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Would he were fatter !—but I fear him not;
When Cæsar was murdered, Cassius wished Antony to be sacrificed too, but Brutus would not hear of it: he was too noble to make use of the means necessary to accomplish the end he had in view. Those who rallied to his standard were too like himself-dreamy and visionary, men of the closet rather than of the camp, as is indicated by a poet rushing into the general's tent with his advice on the eve of battle. Worst of all, the cause, which was holy in the eyes of Brutus, bad at the outset been stained with murder; and this disturbed his conscience, as is indicated by the spectre of the assassinated Cæsar, which appeared in his tent and warned him that he would meet him again at Philippi. The attempt to restore the republic failed,
and Brutus perished along with the cause of which he had constituted himself the champion. The reasons of his failure are indicated in detail in the play ; but the true cause is rather in the atmosphere than actually expressed: it was that the hour had come.
If the political motive can be admitted only in a modified sense in Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar, the psychological interest comes clearly into predominance in Antony and Cleopatra. The political movement is, indeed, still going on: the republic is passing away, and its enormous possessions are steadily and inevitably accumulating in the hands of Octavius, who, though not the ablest of the competitors for them, yet, by his self-control and perseverance, proved himself to be the man whom the times required. From another point of view this play may be held to illustrate another momentous feature of the age-namely, how Rome, though she conquered the East, was herself conquered by Eastern magnificence and luxury. But it is the great character of Antony which fascinates Shakspeare; and on its delineation he expends an almost superhuman power.
Antony already plays a leading part in the play of Julius Cæsar. Reference has been made to the extraordinary speech with which he detached the populace of Rome from the cause of the conspirators;
and he was one of the leaders by whom Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi.
The Roman world, which Julius Cæsar had all but made his own, fell, at his death, into the hands of three men-Antony, Octavius and Lepidus. But, in the nature of things, it had ultimately to become the property of one of the three; and the question was, which of them was to be the favourite of destiny. Lepidus had little chance: he was a weak man and a drunkard : this is how Antony and Octavius speak of him, when they are alone together :
This is a slight, unmeritable man,
Though we lay these honours on this man,
in commons. The chances of Octavius were better, though his powers were not brilliant. But Antony appeared to be the
man. Pompey says of him, “His soldiership is twice the other twain”. Of his great past even Octavius, his rival, confesses :
Antony, when thou once
thy palate then did deign
Agrippa said of him: “A rarer spirit never did steer humanity”.
After Cæsar's death the third part of the world was his; and the chances were more than even that he might win the whole. But, when the play called by his name opens, he is in Egypt, bound captive by his unlawful passion for Cleopatra, the queen of that country. They are passing their time in lust and revelry, and he has forgotten home, honour and fortune, His affairs urgently require his presence in Italy, where
his rivals are profiting by his absence; but he cannot drag himself away from the sensual stye in which he is wallowing
At last he hears of his wife's death and, by a desperate effort, quits Egypt and appears in Italy. Here he soon picks up the threads of his affairs and takes his proper place. He renews his alliance with Octavius by marrying his sister. But, in no long time, the fatal spell drags him back to Egypt again. The deserted Octavia returns to her brother, who at once prepares for revenge; and to revenge Octavia is at the same time to grasp Antony's share of the Roman world. They meet at the battle of Actium, where Cleopatra accompanies Antony, confusing his brain and thwarting his counsels by her presence, In the height of the action she suddenly takes to flight; whereupon he,
like a doting mallard, Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.
When he has time to reflect, he is overwhelmed with shame and remorse; but, as soon as Cleopatra rejoins him, he is quickly comforted and pronounces her kiss or one of her tears to be worth all that is won or lost.
Octavius pursues the pair to Alexandria, where Antony, turning at bay, fights so desperately that for one day fortune promises to crown him with victory. But the voluptuary, thus encouraged, abandons himself, even in this crisis, to his passion :