Cleopatra’s ‘Roman’ Death

Rosy Colombo

Abstract


Suicide is necessary to the dramaturgical structure of Antony and Cleopatra –

and to the ‘infinite variety’ of the play. Like a prism, rotating and exposing

different faces to the light, it is a vital principle that responds to the play’s

needs as well as the tripartite configuration of Elizabethan theatre: the

stage, the pit and the heavens. That is, in this play: earth, the region of

originary identity for Antonio; the ditch, where Enobarbus will atone for

his treason; the Mausoleum (palace and tomb), a place of sacredness and

art which shields the mystery of Cleopatra.

This paper, however, deals with the crisis of suicide as the

quintessential Roman gesture, that is as the paradigm of a stable, manly

identity, fully coherent with the soldier’s code of honour. Antony and

Cleopatra interrogates that very gesture, by modulating it within an

anamorphic perspective that dislocates and dissolves its value as a means

to forge an identity, emptying it of all heroic meaning. For the Romans,

such meaning is a thing of the past: it is the trace of a wounded conscience,

yearningly implied in the ambiguous end of Enobarbus; it is the illusion of

sexual and warlike potency in the incomplete and grotesque performance

of Antony’s death. In Cleopatra’s refashioning of Roman ethics her vision

does not shackle her to pre-existing models; it rather takes the form of a

sublime rite of passage into a metaphysical space, in which the dispersion

of the self into an infinite cosmos merges with Christian afterlife and with

the eternal permanence of an artwork.

In Cleopatra’s early modern suicide the geometry of the centre no longer

holds. The Aristotelian ‘coherence’ of the world is superseded by a

Copernican revolution of perspective, according to which anamorphosis

prevails as a mode of representation.

 

Keywords: Suicide, Monument, Christianity, Theatricality, Foundation

myth, Aeneid


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.13133/2283-8759/14470

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