Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act II)

Here’s one of the great philosophical questions of all time: Do the gods reward good and punish evil?  One of the reasons Antony and Cleopatra is in the Great Books is because it tries to answer that question.  Here’s what the play has to say: POMPEY: If the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men.  This is a clear answer, mostly.  IF the gods are just THEN they will reward good men and punish bad men.  But this kind of “if-then” answer isn’t always clear in real life.  Sometimes it certainly looks like good men aren’t in fact rewarded for their good deeds and many times bad men are certainly NOT punished for their evil ones.  So how are we to explain this?  Is Pompey simply wrong?  One of his aides tries to give a more in-depth explanation: MENECRATES: Know, worthy Pompey, that what they do delay, they not deny… We, ignorant of ourselves, beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good; so find we profit by losing of our prayers.  This answer doesn’t really disagree with Pompey’s assessment that the gods will help us if we’re good.  But it does put a different spin on things.  First of all, we shouldn’t think that judgment from the gods won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.  There may be good reasons why justice is delayed but that doesn’t mean it will be denied forever.  We’re only human and see things from a human perspective.  In fact, we see things from an intensely personal human perspective.  Our beliefs have been shaped by our own personal experiences.  From a divine perspective this makes the human concept of justice flawed.  And that’s why it seems like the gods don’t always answer prayers, even from good people.  We ask for the wrong things at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.  We beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good.  We’re like children asking for more cake or candy.  This isn’t a definitive answer to the question “do the gods reward good and punish evil?”  But it’s a pretty good answer; especially since this is drama and not philosophy.  Which brings up another good question: why is this particular question coming up in this particular play?  Here’s why.  Antony wants Cleopatra.  He wants her like children want cake or candy.  The gods may well say no to our prayers.  Then what?  In fact, the way things are going in this second act of the play, it looks like that’s what the gods ARE telling Antony.  No; request denied.  He suddenly finds himself married to Octavia and Octavia is the sister of Caesar, one of the most powerful men in Rome.  Going back to see Cleopatra is not a good idea.  Anybody can see that; anybody except Antony.  This exchange takes place between a couple of aides to Caesar and Antony: MENAS (a friend of Caesar’s): Now Antony must leave her (Cleopatra) utterly.  Now that Antony has married Octavia he’d better settle down; Caesar is keeping an eye on them both.  --DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS (a friend of Antony’s): Never; he will not: age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety: other women cloy the appetites they feed: but she makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her: that the holy priests bless her when she is riggish (wanton).  Antony can’t give up Cleopatra and for a good reason.  She’s worth taking chances.  The priests themselves can’t resist her.  --MENAS: If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle the heart of Antony, Octavia is a blessed lottery to him.  Antony is lucky to get a woman like Octavia.  She’s got the good old-fashioned virtues of a Roman wife: beauty, wisdom and modesty.  Enobarbus still isn’t convinced: Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation.  Menas can’t believe it: Who would not have his wife so?  Isn’t this what all Roman husbands want?  And so we circle back to our original question: do the gods hand out rewards and punishments?  If so, is Cleopatra Antony’s reward or his punishment?  Regardless of the gods or of the consequences, Antony will to his Egyptian dish again…even if there’s hell to pay.  And this is one of the lessons from the Great Books, over and over again we hear this message: knowing what is good for us is one thing; doing it is a different matter.


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