Narcissim as Transformation and Shakepeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Narcissism as Transformation in Antony and Cleopatra

Anthony and Cleopatra Snake

  Antony and Cleopatra is perhaps Shakespeare’s most perplexing play.  In this play more than any other he does not explain his characters’ motivations or choose sides.  While readers may enjoy this break from tradition, it has frustrated critics.1 Being a most ambiguous text, it is one of the least written about and in need of an in depth study.   For Antony and Cleopatra, the answers are not to be found in the text alone, but within the understanding of the narcissistic phenomenon that runs throughout the play.2 An understanding of this phenomenon reveals the overarching theme of divinity and selfhood which then clarifies many of the other dichotomies and juxtapositions in the play.  This phenomenon, which is a process, provides the vehicle through which play and the characters transform.  Reading Antony and Cleopatra with this process of transformation in mind illuminates and completes the fragmented text.

Freud’s widespread use of the Greek myth of Narcissus to exemplify an excess of self-love is a misunderstanding, according to Jungian3 psychologist Edward Edinger.   He sees the figure of Narcissus as representing the alienated ego that cannot love.  He explains, “To fall in love with the reflected image of oneself can only mean that one does not yet posses oneself.  Narcissus yearns to reunite with himself just because he is alienated from his own being” (Edinger 161).  He goes on to say that narcissism in its original implications was just the opposite of self-love, it was the lack of self-love.  Those who suffer from narcissism are yearning to find that love that they are lacking within themselves.  Only when this love is found inside can one truly love another person.

Ego and ArchetypeIn order to find this love the ego needs to individuate.  The ego is a person’s identity according to Jung, which is different from the self.  The self is the objective center and the ego is then the subjective surrounding.  While the self is thought of as the unchanging core of a person, the ego then is the shifting surface of identity.  The self is born, while the ego is made, and Edinger believes that we are all born with what is termed an inflated ego, or a disillusioned sense of our own importance.  This state of self-centeredness occurs naturally in children and even adolescence, but when it extends into adulthood it becomes a problem.  The adult will behave immaturely without regard to others.   Someone with an inflated ego will not be able to live in the moment and will dream of a time when things will be better, when their dreams can come true.  Along with this often comes the savior complex.  The sufferer will often believe that he or she is larger than life and will be able to somehow save the world.  Everything for this person exists in potential, but nothing exists for them that is solid or real.

Edinger says this behavior goes back to the need to be whole.4 At this point the ego is still mourning its separation from the divine whole, and is longing to return.  He likens this state to the archetypal Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise.   In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve existed in complete bliss and in complete innocence, that was until Eve took a bite of the fruit of the Tree on Knowledge of good and evil.  It was then that she was suddenly aware of her individual soul or self.  This self-consciousness followed Adam and Eve out into the world, where they lived as individuals.  With this individuation often comes alienation.  The ego and the self become disconnected and the result is often despair and violence.  Edinger uses the archetype of the murderous Cain as to demonstrate his point.  Cain’s experienced an unbearable rejection, which led him try to regain a sense of power and control by murdering his brother.  Murder and suicide, are symbolically the same, and so when Antony and then Cleopatra commit suicide in the end they are recreating this myth.

Antony and Cleopatra exist only through their identification with these archetypal myths. They are not yet conscious of their roles, and their illusions.  They have not yet created an individual identity for themselves in the world, which is crucial to their journey to selfhood and eventual wholeness.  The characters are, in a sense, actors trapped within their roles.  They begin the play in their earthly Eden, but then are tragically cast out as their mistakes lead them toward realizing their individual identities.  Awareness of their individuality, loss of control and humiliation culminate into an unbearable rejection and alienation.  Only when they committed suicide are they able to escape humiliation, gain control and be reunited not with just each other, but with the divine whole, with God.

Cleopatra’s first role in her recreation of all these archetypal myths, is the role of Eve.  She exists in her desert paradise of Egypt, unburdened by a normal sense of real responsibility.  The world is her stage, her playground, and she is always in control.  There is nothing and no one that she cannot have.  She has seduced the great Julius Caesar, then Pompey and then moved onto Antony, the great triumvir of Rome.  As Eve she plays mother to Egypt and even Rome.  As Janet Adelman points out, “Inadvertently or not, Shakespeare rewrites history to make the fathers of both Caesar and Pompey Cleopatra’s lovers” (Adelman 179).   When Cleopatra takes Antony as her lover she completes a sort of oedipal circle.  Antony is both then a father figure to Caesar and a son to be nurtured by Cleopatra.  She identifies her self with images of womanhood and fertility.  Like Egypt’s Nile River itself, she is overflowing with life.  She imagines herself pregnant with idleness (1.4.114-115) and laboring over the absence of her lover.  She even has what she calls the “memory of my womb” (3.13.200) to carry her though and give her power.

Anthony and Cleopatra Classic

       Her power then, is related to the symbol of the original mother, the earth goddess.  Cleopatra believes, with her ego in its inflated state, that she is not just a queen, but an actual goddess.  She mentions Juno in passing (3.11.29) and easily associates herself with the Queen of the Roman Gods as she can with Egypt’s goddess Isis (1.2.66).   Later, Antony refers to both himself and her as the tragic lovers Dido and Aeneaus 4(4.14.63).  This particular association is a very yet another larger than life role that Cleopatra enjoys playing. That is what Cleopatra does throughout the play, she plays role after role, never really creating an identity for herself.  Through costumes, make-up and dramatic dialogue she is more like a little girl playing dress-up than a real Queen.

From the beginning of the play it is clear that Cleopatra’s role is as Antony’s lover, and she has come to define herself through Antony.  It is only when he is by her side that she feels complete or whole.  When he leaves for Rome she finds herself feeling melancholy and empty.  She yawns and asks her chairman for some mandragora, which is a narcotic.  He asks her why she wants this drug and she replies, “That I might sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away (1.5.5-6).   In Antony’s absence she begins to experience the alienation that comes with awakening to one’s own individuality.  Instead of reflecting over why this is, Cleopatra would rather go back to sleep and not suffer at all.  Edinger points out that this self-destructive behavior is typical of the alienated ego.  He explains, “The alienated person feels profoundly unjustified and is scarcely able to act according to his own best interests.  At the same time he is cut off from a sense of meaning.  Life is emptied of psychic content (Edinger 57).

       Cleopatra’s alienation, despair and violence stand out in a particular scene where her childish melodrama reaches a new height.  A messenger comes and tells her that her lover Antony has married Caesar’s sister Octavia.  This angers Cleopatra who is frustrated that things are not going her way.  The messenger then asks if she should have lied to her instead of telling her this truthful news.  She replies:

      O, I would thou didst  So half my Egypt were submerged and made A cistern for scalded snakes!  Go, get thee hence. Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me  Thou wouldst appear most ugly.  He is married?  (2.5.117-121)

Cleopatra says to the messenger that even if she were gazing upon herself, as Narcissus does in the legend, that she would be disgusted at that moment.  It might as well have been Narcissus, because she projects herself onto those around her.  At the moment the messenger is reflecting her emptiness and loss of control.  This when she takes out her suffering on the poor messenger, who receives a beating from her.  Her violence toward the messenger is really just deferral of the self-violence that she is inflicting upon herself.  Violence, according Edinger, is one the many ways that the alienated ego reacts to the world.  Usually the pain and suffering that accompany individuation is only temporary and simply a state of transition, but sometimes it can result in tragedy (Edinger 150).  Cleopatra’s illusion of complete control has been shattered, and it has been shattered too late.  Instead of embracing her individuality she chooses to indulge in her self- violence to its extreme.  She commits suicide and returns to that divine whole from which she came.

Antony both mirrors and contrasts Cleopatra’s personality.  In many ways he is her opposite.  If Cleopatra is embodied best in Egypt itself, then Antony is best embodied by Rome itself.  He is all about politics, war and making history, while she is all about romance, adventure, and sensuality.  He is the day to her night and the Apollo to her Dionysus, the Mars to her Venus.  They are opposites and opposites do attract, but they are more alike then one might think.  Both Antony and Cleopatra feel empty, incomplete and lost in the world.  Both of them have not discovered their identities, their selves or true love.  In their quest for individuation and a return to the original wholeness they are essentially the same.  It was as if they were two halves of the same person, two sides of one personality.

The driving force behind Antony is his search for his manhood.  Having proved himself to Antonybe a great warrior and leader, his life was still very empty.  He still does not have any sense of what made him who he is, of what makes him a man.   He has defined himself through his conquests and his glories, through the Roman Empire and even through his friend Caesar.  In aligning himself with Caesar he maintains a sense of power and stability.  Though he tries to show his devotion and loyalty by marrying Caesar’s sister Octavia, he does not succeed.  When he abandons his responsibilities at home for Cleopatra and Egypt the power shifts and the balance is upset.  With the illusion of friendship gone, there is nothing left to do but fight for power and control.  Antony is reluctant to face up to this brutal reality, but is forced to defend himself.  So long Cleopatra is there to support him his willing to fight, but when he receives the false news of her death he gives up.  Without her there is nothing left to fight for in his eyes.

        In merging with Cleopatra he begins to lose sight of what is important, like his Fulvia, his wife, and Caesar, his friend.  When Antony realizes that he has neglected things it is too late though.  Things have already begun to fall apart.  He apologizes to Caesar saying that he didn’t understand, that “poisoned hours had bound” his “own knowledge” (2.2.109-10). He believes foolishly that the world is his sandbox, and he can create and conquer whatever he wants.  He can take off and leave Rome at a moment’s notice to be with Cleopatra without worrying about the consequences.  Antony, with his inflated ego, acts impulsively and irresponsibly without regard to others throughout most of the play.  He doesn’t even think about what kind of affect his behavior has on his wife, Caesar and all of Rome.

His immaturity is particularly evident in his scenes with Cleopatra.  For example, when he receives the news that his wife Fulvia has died, he is drawn back to Rome.  This upsets Cleopatra who wishes him to remain by her side.  She tries to manipulate him by saying that he goes only out of obligation, not out of true grief for his wife.  “Now I see, I see, In Fulvia’s death, how mine shall received shall be” (1.3.77-78).  She accuses him feigning his love for her, as he did for his wife.  He attempts to convince her that he loves her truly, but that he has to take care of business.  This quarrel in the first act is like many others that the lovers have.  They are constantly insecure, possessive and jealous, as immature couples often are.  They demonstrate here that they more concerned for themselves than anything.

While his relationship with Cleopatra seems to bring out his worst qualities, it also brings out the truth. At first it would appear that his weakness for Cleopatra becomes his fatal flaw, but the real flaw lies in the illusion he has been living up until he meets her. When Antony begins his affair with Cleopatra he finds another way to define himself in way other than on the battlefield or political arena.  When Agrippa comments on how Cleopatra made Caesar put his sword to bed, he is commenting on Antony as well.  Adelman explains, “The word play makes the point very tidily, the sword is unmistakably both a sexual and military weapon, and the military must be put aside (or put to bed) before the sexual can be literally laid to bed or put to use” (Adelman 95).  Antony must put aside his military role before he can play the role of lover.  He can no longer define himself as both.  When begins to define himself through her and through Egypt he gives up his role as warrior and takes his place as Cleopatra’s lover.

Traditional roles are subverted, and Cleopatra eventually dominates him.  He loses any sense of his masculinity and begins to identify with Cleopatra’s femininity.  The lines become blurred between their personalities and identities.  This is necessary as Adelman points out, “As Antony must lose his visible shape to become infinite, so the lovers must die to find their life (Adelman 156).  This dissolution of the boundaries between the two lovers wakes Antony up to the truth.  The truth being, as Adelman points out, that “he himself has mimicked the shapes of masculine identity” (Adelman 189).  Antony played the role of the traditional male without really being able to identify with it. Only after he gets involved with Cleopatra that finally things become clear, painfully clear. Without the illusion of his manhood and some sort of individual personality he is left to experience emptiness, rejection, despair, confusion and alienation.  His ego has been deflated by this realization, but at this point it is too late.

As the play unfolds we see how the lovers’ selfishness and poor choices lead them into the unavoidable tragic ending of the play.  Though Antony and Cleopatra is very much a tragedy, it differs from Shakespeare’s traditional tragedies several ways.  It differs most noticeably in its lack of insight into the main characters.  Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth all offer the audience the tragic hero’s reasoning and thought processes through asides, but in Antony and Cleopatra the audience has to rely on the few insights provided by the minor characters for any sort of explanation of Antony or Cleopatra’s actions.   This is not so much an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, but a shift in perspective.  As he moves toward the lighter and larger romances we see the two genres blending.   Antony and Cleopatra then becomes a sort a tragic-romance rather than a pure tragedy or pure romance.  We still see fatal flaws causing death and destruction, but suddenly the scope and time span have grown a great deal larger.

According to Maynard Mack, the Shakespearean tragedy usually only has one tragic hero.  This tragic hero is an overstater whose reach exceeds his grasp, and whose ambition ends up costing him everything.  This statement not only describes Antony, but also Cleopatra.  Though his actions are the primary focus of the play, we see that Cleopatra echoes more of the tragic hero’s role than that of the villainess.  In affect, she steals the show and some of Antony’s glory for herself.  She is able to do this because of the nature of their relationship.  Their identities are so interwoven, that they really make up two halves of the same single character. Not having found or created an individual identity for themselves, they create an identity through their union.  They come to see themselves as a part of a whole, and when they are together a part of the larger, divine whole.

So Antony and Cleopatra becomes a tragic play with two tragic heroes and no apparent foil or villain.  This is yet another aspect that sets the play apart from the Shakespeare’s other tragedies. There are many things that set Antony and Cleopatra apart.  Adelman asserts that one of the most important differences is in the language:

In both romance and tragedy, then, the poetry and the action are in accord.  In tragedy the   poetry is usually at the service of the action; in romance, the action is usually at the service  of the poetry.  Antony and Cleopatra stands between the two, and each makes its own  assertions and has its own validity.  (Adelman 167).

The shift in tone and genre is reflected in the growing complexity of the meter and verse.  Shakespeare plays with not just the plot here.  He uses the words themselves to underline what is going on.  In the beginning this play is very much a tragedy, starting of in a dark and negative place, obvious from the very first word uttered.  “Nay, but this dotage of our general’s O’erflows the measure” (1.1.1-2).  From the beginning the idea of excess overflows out from the pages of the text and into the subconscious.   Through the many reports and rumors the ambiguity of the play makes itself known.  The characters’ really do not know each other and so we cannot know them.   Shakespeare even announces this in Cleopatra conversation with Antony.  “Do you not know me yet?” (3.13.193).   Though there is a great deal of ambiguity in Macbeth, the motives and characters are more clear cut.  The ambiguity in Antony and Cleopatra carries less weight.  It comes out of a distanced observation rather than a deliberate attempt to confuse or mislead.

Shakespeare shifts away from this darker tragic perspective in language and tone in the middle of the play.  This shift creates a sort of fragmented structure that supports the fragmented selves of Antony and Cleopatra.  Their constant change in attitude, thought and even ego is echoed in the form.  This allows for a better experience and understanding of what the characters are going though.  As the characters change, so does the language.  It shifts from a particularly tragic tone to a gentler, more romantic tone.  The strong wording gives way to more dramatic and lush rhetoric.  This is most obvious in Cleopatra’s speeches.  “O Sun,” she says, “Burn the great sphere thou mov’st in. Darkling stand the varying shore o’th’world (4.1513-14).  She speaks in a grand sweeping language that is more fitting for the romances.  We see here that Shakespeare’s exploration of the genre has come to an end, and he finds the underlying cause of tragedy is not so much Freud’s idea of excess selfishness, but Jung’s idea of the lack of love.  Through the two tragic heroes and the shift in perspective the genre transforms itself before our very eyes.

 It is the process of transformation that drives not just Antony and Cleopatra, but the entire play.  The transformation from tragedy to romance and from whole to individual and then back to the whole is strengthened by the references to Alchemy.  Antony is associated with the elements of fire and water, which the blood was thought to be a combination of.   Blood then, is a symbol for the combination of two opposites, just like Antony himself.  Alchemy essentially breaks down transformation into stages, not unlike the stages in the individuation of the ego.  Both Alchemy and individuation are often connected to the idea of redemption with God, the ultimate transformation.  The Alchemist’s prized Philosopher’s stone has come to represent modern understanding (Edinger 268).  When understanding takes place the transformation is complete.

 A reference to Antony as the Arabian bird known as the Phoenix continues the theme of transformation. In Act 3 Enobarbus asks Agrippa how he would describe Antony.  Is he the God of Gods?  Agrippa replies, “O Antony, O thou Arabian bird!” (3.2.13).  Agrippa makes it clear here that Antony is not meant to represent the idea of immortality, rather the idea of transformation.  The phoenix was a legendary bird that died on a fiery altar only to be born out of its ashes sometime later.  The rebirths for most people is a metaphoric, but in Antony and Cleopatra it becomes a literal, for both Antony and Cleopatra have to die in order to be reunited and reborn into the whole of the universe.

Even in the most serious of scenes the two lovers as still trapped in their Narcissistic, and perhaps even neurotic, behavior.  The scene where the fatally wounded Antony is haul up Cleopatra at her temple.  Cleopatra is frightened by the situation and refuses to come down to see Antony.  The attendants must then haul him all the way up to the top of the temple for her.  As he lay dying he says, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.  Give me some wine and let me speak a little (4.15.48-49).  To which see she replies, no, let me speak.  She pleads with him not to leave her alone the world.  To her he was the world.

Anthony and Cleopatra

After Caesar humiliates Cleopatra she decides to kill herself and join Antony in the afterlife.  Her most unusual method of suicide by the bite of the poisonous asp is significant.5 Cleopatra often associates herself with serpents and in turn to the fall man in the Garden of Eden.  Serpents are symbols of knowledge.  They were meant to represent not temptation, but the urge for self-realization and individuation.  She also refers to the asps as worms, which is also significant, because they refer to Job in the bible, who was once covered in worms as a punishment from God.  Edinger uses Job as an archetype of encounters with the self (Edinger 80).  Job represents a turning point in the process of individuation; he represents those who have entered the dark night of the soul.  This parallel shows that Cleopatra is now in the process of individuating, but she is unable to get past that initial period of darkness and suffering.

Forced into a realization of her aloneness in her life rather late in life and rather suddenly she reacts rashly and dramatically.  Cleopatra sees no other option for herself after Caesar has conquered and humiliated her.  She tells Iras, “Go fetch my best attires, I am again for Cydnus to meet Mark Antony”  (5.2.278-79).    There is nothing left for her in Egypt or anywhere else.  Her place is with her Antony.   Though her death is typically tragic, the idea that she will be reunited with Antony is very much a romantic one.  Adelman elaborates on this idea when she says, “As the lovers die, they are united sexually in a vast act of overflow (Adelman 156).  So Cleopatra commits suicide, not just in despair, but in the hopes that she will return back Antony and to the wholeness she feels when she is with him. She wants return to what Edinger would describe as the divine original state that, instead of remaining alone on earth in her painful individuality.

 Through the process of individuation, alienation and reunification Antony and Cleopatra move ever closer to that elusive wholeness and divinity that they seek, in turn they transform the play and the face of tragedy.  Through language, mythological archetypes and alchemy, the transformation wells up and overflows like the Nile itself to move us into a new place.

The Nile River


About carilynn27

Reading and writing and writing about reading are my passion. I've been keeping a journal since I was 14. I also write fiction and poetry. I published my first collection of short stories, "Radiant Darkness" in 2000. I followed that up with my first collection of poetry in 2001 called "Journey without a Map." In 2008, I published "Persephone's Echo" another collection of poetry. Since then I've also published Emotional Espionage, The Way The Story Ended, My Perfect Drug and Out There. I have my BA in English from The Ohio State University at Mansfield and my MA in English Lit from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I also have my Post BA Certificate in Women's Studies. I am the mother of two beautiful children. :-)
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