King Lear—the character in the play of the same name—does not make a good first impression. He demands grandiloquent love-speeches from his daughters. When the one honest girl among them refuses to depart from moderation in her address, the rash king disowns her and banishes her from the realm. Then the tragedy that will claim his life—not to mention pretty much every other character’s life, too—begins.
But, although we hardly like the king after this first scene (he banishes his most stalwart knight, too, for telling him the truth, in the same scene), the violently flawed hero winds up making more sense than anyone else by the time the play is over. This fact explains why I adore “King Lear” and would worship it as my god—if it were not for the fact that I worship the actual God.
King Lear demands love, the sweet affection of his daughters—to whom he gave life and (we gather) a lavishly kind upbringing. Now his powers weaken with age. He has loved without measure, giving away all, even foolishly giving away the very governance of his kingdom. He asks—he demands—that he be loved in return, loved without measure: without a calculus of usefulness, without an analysis of whether or not his demands really “ought” to be accommodated. I’m your father. I say I travel with a train of 100 knights. Ergo, you will accommodate 100 knights when I come to visit you, and you will smile and kiss me when I walk in.
Unreasonable? Well, yes. What retiree needs the attendance of 100 men at arms? But, at the same time: reasonable? Certainly. He is the king. The princesses are his daughters. Why wouldn’t they accommodate his knights?
The king is losing his mind. He knows it; he admits it to himself with disarming humility, with astounding reasonableness. No one judges more equitably between the rages of King Lear and the penetrating, prudent observations of King Lear than King Lear himself does. When the king addresses the storm, having been tossed on the windy heath by his own immoderate choler, he speaks to the thunder and lightning with nothing but the calmest and most soberly observed facts:
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. (Act III, scene 2)
By the time Lear and Cordelia face imminent execution, the king has descended into a state of derangement. Yet he proceeds to say the most sweet and charming things that any daughter could ever want to hear from her loving father, his words perfectly fitted to lighten her heart.
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon. (Act V, Scene 3)
Okay, so why do I bring this up? King Lear possesses this quality of mind-blowing reasonable unreasonableness. And Hamlet, “essentially not in madness, but mad in craft”—he, of course, possesses this quality, too. I will dare to assert that the evocation of this quality by the Bard amounts to the most perfect distillation of Sacred Scripture that has ever been accomplished. I propose that it hardly constitutes idolatry to worship “King Lear” and “Hamlet,” because they depict the burning Sacred Heart of Christ with more genuine magnificence than any other work of art has ever achieved. The definitive evidence for this is: Nothing could ever be more believable than the tranquility with which both Hamlet and Lear die.
All this said, I grant that I have been myopic. I admit, in fact, that I have carried on like the basest male chauvinist. Because Cleopatra, too, has the divine quality.
As “Antony and Cleopatra” begins, the queen of the Nile has already left the salad days of her life long behind. She has had the love of Roman conquerors before; she enchanted and bewitched the greatest warrior of the preceding generation.
This time, though, Cleopatra has actually fallen in love. By play’s end, she will say of her Antony:
His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket. (Act V, scene 2)
Yes, she lusts after Antony in a puerile, really-rather-embarrassing fashion. Her approach to life has a central locus, an omphalos of her personal world, namely her bed.
But underneath all the libido, Cleopatra loves Antony with the perfectly icy dedication of the most chaste virgin. Yes, when circumstances part them, she longs after the pleasure of bearing the weight of his body. She loves him even more for his austere, martial romanitas (the tragedy of course being that falling in love with her has cost him this very quality). Above all, though, she loves him and wants nothing more than for the two of them to survive.
He lingers in her arms; she insists that he go to battle. (Indeed, she goes so far as to accuse him of negligence in persecuting the battles he directs for the good of her kingdom.) He marries Caesar’s sister as a political alliance, all the while fantasizing about returning to Cleopatra’s bed; she flies into a vicious schoolgirl rage when she hears he has married another woman, and then calmly admits to herself that she has no one but herself to blame for her pain. She then prudently proceeds to fool herself into believing that Octavia is ugly.
When Antony and Cleopatra’s fortunes plummet, and they have only their native wiles to fall back on, Cleopatra first humbly inquires into the situation (presumably in order to understand it better) then dissembles and prevaricates cleverly with Caesar’s ambassador—in order to try and buy time and favor. Meanwhile Antony can only pity himself and fly into rages.
Antony threatens Cleopatra’s life, foolishly thinking that she betrayed him; Cleopatra holes up for safety in her own mausoleum. Antony’s botched suicide becomes a pitiful anti-climax for the play’s drama. (“Wishes were ever fools,” Cleopatra says to herself.) The queen, on the other hand, jokes with the clown who sells her the asp that will take her life.
The Roman with the job of corralling Cleopatra for eventual display in Caesar’s triumph-parade chides the queen for wishing death would come. “O, temperance, lady!” She frantically answers, with disarming deadpan humor:
Sir, I will eat no meat, I’ll not drink, sir;
If idle talk will once be necessary,
I’ll not sleep neither. This mortal house I’ll ruin,
Do Cæsar what he can. (Act V, scene 2)
As the curtain falls, all the men of the play have wound up looking like dishonest boys, who never really got a grip on themselves. Cleopatra, on the other hand, reigns in air and fire, having transcended altogether her lascivious body. Moody as any eighth-grader, to be sure, Cleopatra nonetheless has pursued unswervingly, through every twist and turn of the plot, one single goal: to be with Antony.
The most interesting man of the second half of the twentieth century, Frank Kermode, distilled “Antony and Cleopatra” into: Egyptian carnality vs. Roman Stoicism, with neither the clear winner. This analysis is illuminating as hell, but I think it misses the all-important fact: The manipulative sex-kitten Cleopatra makes more sense than anyone else in this play. Just like the raving king Lear makes more sense than his “sober” interlocutors.
What sense do they make–these unreasonable reasonable heroes? The sense they make gathers like distant thunder as both plays get underway. Then it rises like the sun in Act Five. Both these characters say to us: “Open your eyes, you blind fussbudgets. There really isn’t anything but love.”