English 366B, Section S02: Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   Antony and Cleopatra: Octavius Caesar: A. C. Bradley To the previous page To the next page

Octavius Caesar: A. C. Bradley

One of the early twentieth century's most prominent critics, A. C. Bradley, wrote a major essay on Antony and Cleopatra (though he did not include the play in his survey of Shakespeare's tragedies). As the quotations from his work highlighted by Fitz demonstrate, Bradley was about as cheerfully unfeminist as it was possible to be. Despite the early date of his work, however, some of his views are a useful starting point in a discussion of the play, both because he embodies many attitudes we no longer share--so his critical stance is readily perceived--and because he was, after all, a great critic. Even when we disagree, the activity of disagreement clarifies our own position.

Bradley was above all a critic who was interested in the analysis of dramatic character; so much was he interested in this approach that at times he seemed to treat the characters in the plays as if they were real people with histories that one could uncover if one just knew enough: the appendices to his collection of essays on Shakespeare's tragedies include examinations of such topics as "Events Before the Opening of the Action in Hamlet," and "Duration of the Action in Macbeth. Macbeth's Age. 'He Has No Children' " This latter essay led to a famous response by L. C. Knights in an article entitled "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?"

You will get a good sense of Bradley's Victorian background when he comments on the question of whether the play is suitable for the stage:

Why, let us begin by asking, is Antony and Cleopatra, though so wonderful an achievement, a play rarely acted? For a tragedy, it is not painful. Though unfit for children, it cannot be called indecent; some slight omissions, and such a flattening of the heroine's part as might confidently be expected, would leave it perfectly presentable.

A modern reader is unlikely to have the slightly embarrassed reaction to Cleopatra's sexuality that Bradley has; and in addition we can remark that Antony and Cleopatra is now performed more often than it was a generation ago. Bradley goes on to comment about the play's structure--which, you may have already observed, is very different from his other tragedies:

It is, no doubt, in the third and fourth acts, very defective in construction. Even on the Elizabethan stage, where scene followed scene without a pause, this must have been felt; and in our theaters it would be felt much more. There, in fact, these two and forty scenes could not possibly be acted as they stand. But defective construction would not distress the bulk of an audience, if the matter presented were that of Hamlet or Othello, of Lear or Macbeth. The matter, then, must lack something which is present in those tragedies; and it is mainly owing to this difference in substance that Antony and Cleopatra has never attained their popularity either on the stage or off it.

Most of Shakespeare's tragedies are dramatic, in a special sense of the word as well as in its general sense, from beginning to end. The story is not merely exciting and impressive from the movement of conflicting forces towards a terrible issue, but from time to time there come situations and events which, even apart from their bearing on this issue, appeal most powerfully to the dramatic feelings--scenes of action or passion which agitate the audience with alarm, horror, painful expectation, or absorbing sympathies and antipathies. . . . Think of the ghost scenes in the first act of Hamlet, the passion of the early soliloquies, the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, the play scene, the sparing of the King at prayer, the killing of Polonius. Is not Hamlet, if you choose so to regard it, the best melodrama in the world? . . .

In the first three acts of our play what is there resembling this? Almost nothing. People converse, discuss, accuse one another, excuse themselves, mock, describe, drink together, arrange a marriage, meet and part; but they do not kill, do not even tremble or weep. We see hardly one violent movement; until the battle of Actium is over we witness scarcely any vehement passion; and that battle, as it is a naval action, we do not see.

You will see in this passage that Bradley is after all worth reading; you may not agree with his conclusions, but his discussion of them does highlight a quality in which Antony and Cleopatra is different from the other tragedies you have read.

Bradley writes insightfully of the character of Caesar:

Shakespeare, I think, took little interest in the character of Octavius, and he has not made it wholly clear. It is not distinct in Plutarch's "Life of Antony"; and I have not found traces that the poet studied closely the "Life of Octavius" included in North's volume. To Shakespeare he is one of those men, like Bolingbroke and Ulysses, who have plenty of "judgment" and not much "blood." Victory in the world, according to the poet, almost always goes to such men; and he makes us respect, fear, and dislike them. His Octavius is very formidable. His cold determination half paralyzes Antony; it is so even in Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra Octavius is more than once in the wrong; but he never admits it; he silently pushes his rival a step backward; and, when he ceases to fear, he shows contempt. He neither enjoys war nor is great in it; at first, therefore, he is anxious about the power of Pompey and stands in need of Antony. As soon as Antony's presence has served his turn, and he has patched up a union with him and seen him safely off to Athens, he destroys first Pompey and next Lepidus. Then, dexterously using Antony's faithlessness to Octavia and excesses in the East in order to put himself in the right, he makes for his victim with admirable celerity while he is still drunk with the joy of reunion with Cleopatra. For his ends Octavius is perfectly efficient, but he is so partly from his limitations. One phrase of his is exceedingly characteristic. When Antony in rage and desperation challenges him to single combat, Octavius calls him "the old ruffian." There is a horrid aptness in the phrase, but it disgusts us. It is shameful in this boy, as hard and smooth as polished steel, to feel at such a time nothing of the greatness of his victim and the tragedy of his victim's fall. Though the challenge of Antony is absurd, we would give much to see them sword to sword. And when Cleopatra by her death cheats the conqueror of his prize, we feel unmixed delight. . . .

Bradley continues:

Though the character of Octavius is neither attractive nor wholly clear, his figure is invested with a certain tragic dignity, because he is felt to be the Man of Destiny, the agent of forces against which the intentions of an individual would avail nothing.



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This page last updated on 4 March 2007. © Michael Best, 2002.