Antony and Cleopatra and the poetry of John Donne

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra presents a variety of representations of love, including transcendent and forbidden love. Throughout, Shakespeare expresses an unsurpassed love between them. However through both of their actions, the dramatist creates doubt in the audience’s mind as to whether this love is genuine. Similarly to Shakespeare, John Donne’s poem ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, explores the idea of transcendental love through separation.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Act One, Scene One, Shakespeare introduces us to the protagonists before they appear in the play; here Philo presents the theme of love and politics in his speech, ‘His captain’s heart…A gypsy’s lust’.

The use of ‘captain’ and ‘gypsy’ denotes the opposites between the two individuals, just how their countries divide the two. ‘Gypsy’ is seen as a derogatory term to brand an individual who does not originate from Rome, almost like an outsider. Here already Shakespeare presents forbidden love.

In the play, the countries act as metaphors to love, Rome the political and cultural, and Egypt: sexuality and power, thus to why Cleopatra is referred to Egypt in the play by Antony.

The motif of love is automatically introduced with Cleopatra demanding Antony to declare his love to her. The audience is able to establish the relationship Antony and Cleopatra share, with Cleopatra expecting a declaration of affection. ‘If it be love indeed, tell me how much. ’ The use of ‘if’ can depict the doubt Cleopatra has, the uncertainty of whether his love is real or not.

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Antony’s response suggests that love that can be ‘reckoned’ is not a worthy love, such to why he also responds that if their love could be measured it would be beyond earth and heaven ‘ Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth’ . For transcendental lovers they believe their love exceeds the norm. The extravagant language used by Shakespeare to profess their feelings, suggests they believe their love is like no other. Like John Donne, Antony views the love they share spiritual rather than physical. A Valediction of Forbidding Mourning, John Donne illustrates how love can transcend mundane love, through a conceit.

A poem written for his wife, he explaining that their separation shouldn’t be an occasion for mourning but almost a celebration of the love they shared and still do. Donne uses metaphors to morph an image in the readers mind, using gold and the earth as a metaphor for love, like Shakespeare who uses Rome and Egypt to symbolise love and politics. John Donne compares their love to the most unlikely examples; the first stanza speaks on how his significant other must accept his leaving like one must accept death. ‘As virtuous men pass mildly

away, and whisper to their souls to go ’, Donne is expressing that when men pass away they do not complain nor do they make noise, just like them separating they shouldn’t complain, the use of ‘virtuous’ can connote that their love is righteous and good, like soldiers. Comparing their love to virtuous men, introduces the reader on how much Donne views that his love is superior to all other. John Donne’s metaphysical language is emphasised through his comparisons and points, ‘Twere profanation of our joys to tell the laity our love’, Donne makes a clear division between ordinary lovers and lovers that are beyond ordinary.

As by expressing their emotions to the ‘laity’ will devalue any joys they share, if they tell the ‘others’ it would be a profane act, as the love they share is sacred. Donne emphasises that due to the strength of their love, other lovers become fearful when distance separates them, much greater distance than the cracks in the earth after a quake ‘Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears’, but just like separation can cause fear for ‘normal’ lovers as their love is superior, the moving of planets (when an earthquake occurs) is ‘innocent’ to their love.

Their love cannot be disrupted due to separation; they should not be feared by the separation. The fourth stanza concentrates on how different their love is, ‘Dull sublunary lovers’ love whose soul is sense-cannot admit’. With love that is sublunary, physical proximity and attractiveness form the basis of their love, for why Donne says ‘care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss’ telling his wife that these things shouldn’t matter if they cannot touch and see each other, their love is far from being physical but is spiritual, as their love is not like the norm, it’s in the mind.

The love that Donne and his wife share is spiritual and no matter how far they part their love is ‘inter-assured of the mind’. For mundane love, lovers’ will use sayings such as ‘I love you to the moon and back’, why Donne may refer to their love as sublunary, transcendent love see their love stretching a further distance than the moon. Donne furthers the idea that their love transcends normal love by explaining to his wife they are connected through the soul, ‘Our two souls therefore, which are one’ wherever one goes the other one will follow unknowingly.

He expresses their separation should be seen positively, an expansion of their distance, like gold expanded and beaten into ‘aery thinness’, when gold is stretched it does not break, such like their love and connection shouldn’t break when one moves away. This leads John Donne to describe their souls like a pair of compasses, when one foot moves the other bends, when you bring the other foot in, the other straightens up. In this case his wife is the ‘fix’d foot’ that

sits in the centre, Donne departing, the fixed foot leans towards the bent foot and ‘hearkens’ after it. His wife is seen as the stability for him, if she is not in the centre of his ‘universe’ then he is not complete, ‘thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun’ . He ends on a positive note, citing that the separation will lead to his return, as the circle the compass draws will lead him back to her. This metaphor symbolises the unity of the two and that throughout their separation they will forever be connected.

Over the centuries, many have criticised John Donne’s metaphysical poems and metaphorical language like ones used in ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ as being outrageous and too unlikely, to which other people love the idea of the outrageousness and unlikeliest. From gathering sources, one question that arises is that because Donne believes his love is above everyone else’s version, by comparing it to supreme things, is it considered real love or make belief.

Through researching how people define their love as transcendent, I came across a quote ‘If we want real, transcendental love, we have to transfer our love to the supreme lovable object’[1]. This relates to the poem, as Donne compares himself to a ‘lovable’ and precious metal, gold. In order for those to achieve the admirable love they must first believe that they are something someone admires. Samuel Johnson pinned the term ‘metaphysical’ to describe John Donne’s style of writing, the use of their cleverness to construct outlandish paradoxes.

Aspired by this type of writing poets such as Eliot and Yeats used this to form a basis in some of their own poems, Eliot stated that Donne and Metaphysical poets like him wrote poems that celebrated through emotions the joys, sorrows and dilemmas. Other critics such as Robert Dowling also praised Donne’s style of poetry, In conclusion, Shakespeare and Donne present love through literary devices such as metaphors and the use of extravagant language. Donne’s poem can also be viewed as contradicting to his actions, expressing that they are one soul and she is his stability, yet he is leaving her, the one who makes her complete.

This is reflected in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare portrays their transcendent love, but eventually Antony marries another woman. Both the dramatist and the poet create a sense of doubt, to whether or not all of this was genuine at all, if at the end all they are doing is separating. Both Donne and Shakespeare use metaphysical structure and language to present the love. Although Shakespeare was before Donned time, there is a link between the two styles of writing.

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Antony and Cleopatra and the poetry of John Donne. (2017, Jul 12). Retrieved from

Antony and Cleopatra and the poetry of John Donne
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