Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act V)

In Psalm 8 of the Bible (King James Version) we read these lines: When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  From the dawn of history we’ve pondered the heavens and the earth; now we’ve numbered the stars and walked on the moon.  But what is man?  Astrophysics is easy compared to answering that.  If there’s any writer capable of capturing the essence of what it means to be human, that writer is Shakespeare.  In this play five people commit suicide.  By the time Shakespeare has finished the story of Antony and Cleopatra there are bodies strewn all over the stage.  If the question is “what is man” then surely one Shakespearian answer is “a creature capable of committing suicide.”  Why do people take their own lives?  Enobarbus commits suicide because he’s ashamed of what he’s done; Eros because of what he’s ashamed to do; Antony because of his honor; Cleopatra because she doesn’t want to be dishonored.  What other creatures act on such abstract principles?  Here’s how Caesar learns that Antony has committed suicide: He is dead, Caesar: not by a public minister of justice, nor by a hired knife; but that self hand, which writ his honour in the acts it did, hath, with the courage which the heart did lend it, splitted the heart.  The same hand that’s capable of fighting valiantly to save lives is also capable of destroying lives, even one’s own.  And of all earth’s creatures only creatures like Antony or Cleopatra do away with themselves rather than be dishonored.  Is suicide a good option for a human being?  The Great Books don’t dodge the hard questions.  And in the Great Books at least three distinct approaches to suicide have been given.  One response is the one taken by Antony and Cleopatra.  Life is like a play.  I’ll enjoy it as long as I’m here but whenever I feel like it’s time to move on I reserve the right to choose my own exit.  Many Romans felt that way.  Antony, Enobarbus and Eros are good examples.  A second response is that under certain circumstances suicide may be the best thing for me, personally, to do.  I’ll use my own judgment about doing what is best for me.  This is the kind of response a Utilitarian like John Stuart Mill might make.  In this view suicide is neither encouraged nor is it condemned.  People have to decide for themselves what’s right or wrong.  One may say yes, another no, and both are right.  The third response is simple.  Never, under any circumstances, is suicide acceptable.  Socrates felt that we don’t belong to ourselves.  We belong to God.  We don’t decide when it’s time for us to leave this life.  God does.  That doesn’t mean that we’re afraid of death.  In fact, Socrates faced his own death with amazing tranquility in Crito.  And in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the early Christians were adamantly opposed to suicide but many of them were eager to face martyrdom.  There are other lessons about suicide which we can draw from the Great Books.  Two in particular come from other Shakespeare plays.  Othello commits suicide because he was deceived into believing that he should kill his wife (Desdemona) for being unfaithful.  She wasn’t.  But even though it wasn’t his “fault” in the sense that he was deceived Othello couldn’t live with himself.  And Hamlet considered suicide in his famous “to be or not to be” speech but decided that suicide wasn’t worth it.  His thinking goes something like this.  We face big problems in this world to be sure.  But we don’t know what’s on the other side.  Maybe worse problems than we have now, maybe much worse.  Aye, there’s the rub.   And finally perhaps the most famous case of suicide in Western literature is found in the Gospel of Mark.  Judas Iscariot felt the same away about betraying Jesus that Enobarbus felt betraying Antony.  For betrayal on that level there is only one way out and Dante places traitors in the deepest part of Hell.  As usual the Great Books do not provide one “right” answer to the question of suicide.  They merely provide what is sometimes called The Great Conversation.  And with Shakespeare, as with the KJV Bible, this conversation takes place in the noblest English language ever used.  


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