The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1883 Friday, 15 October 2004
Date: Tuesday, 12 Oct 2004 22:03:20 -0400
Not surprisingly, a passage in a Shakespeare play will sometimes recall
a passage in another Shakespeare play. An unusually interesting echo,
not previously noted in the literature, reverberates between Macbeth (c.
1606) and Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606).
There are two passages in Macbeth which contribute to this effect. In
III.iv Lady Macbeth hastily dismisses the guests who have witnessed her
husband's crazed reaction to the ghost of Banquo:
I pray you speak not; he grows worse and worse.
Question enrages him. At once, good night.
STAND NOT UPON THE ORDER OF YOUR GOING,
BUT GO AT ONCE.
A lifetime earlier, in I.vii, she tried to shame Macbeth into murdering
Duncan by comparing his earlier resolve with his subsequent reluctance:
Macbeth: Prithee peace.
I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.
Lady Macbeth: What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
WHEN YOU DURST DO IT, THEN YOU WERE A MAN;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. NOR TIME NOR PLACE
DID THEN ADHERE, AND YET YOU WOULD MAKE BOTH.
THEY HAVE MADE THEMSELVES, AND THAT THEIR FITNESS NOW
DOES UNMAKE YOU.
While working on Macbeth, or shortly after completing it, Shakespeare
wrote Antony and Cleopatra. In I.iii Cleopatra, like Lady Macbeth
before her, tries to shame her consort into submission. She launches
her tirade with an imperious dismissal, and then proceeds to contrast
his former steadfastness with his current ambivalence. The terms she
uses are remarkably similar to those employed by Lady Macbeth in the
immediately preceding play:
Antony: Most sweet queen--
Cleopatra: NAY, PRAY YOU SEEK NO COLOR FOR YOUR GOING,
BUT BID FAREWELL AND GO. WHEN YOU SUED STAYING,
THEN WAS THE TIME FOR WORDS. NO GOING THEN!
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows' bent; NONE OUR PARTS SO POOR
BUT WAS A RACE OF HEAVEN. THEY ARE SO STILL,
OR THOU, THE GREATEST SOLDIER OF THE WORLD,
ART TURNED THE GREATEST LIAR.
Juxtaposing the highlighted passages throws their resemblance into relief:
Lady Macbeth: Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
..Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.
Cleopatra: Nay, pray you seek no color for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words. No going then!
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows' bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven. They are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turned the greatest liar.
The similarity of the two situations--strong women seeking to dominate
equally strong but susceptible men--has led Shakespeare to use
strikingly similar language. Perhaps the fortuitous repetition of Lady
Macbeth's dismissal by Cleopatra triggered further associations with the
earlier character, a process abetted by their simultaneous or serial
creation and the likely fact that both roles were played by the same
actor. There are obvious differences between these female protagonists;
but as the echo reveals, there are also resemblances, as well as some
interesting consistencies in Shakespeare's imagination of women.
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