The Scarus-Episode in Antony and Cleopatra: A Response to Roy Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy
Published in Connotations Vol. 4.3 (1994/95)
When this short piece was ready for the press I heard that Professor Battenhouse had passed away. This is very sad news. I have always admired Professor Battenhouse as a scholar and, in the short period of our cooperation in Connotations, I have learned to know him as a senior colleague with whom it was a pleasure to enter into critical debate. Always amiable and completely unassuming, he gave me the impression of a man who did not only study the Christian premises of Shakespeare but lived according to them. I had been looking forward so much to discussing the contents of this paper with Professor Battenhouse. But for that it is now, sadly, too late.
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My response will begin with some objections to the way in which criteria and sources of Christian morality are applied to Shakespeare in Battenhouse's book. I will then plead for an interpretation of Shakespeare on Christian premises, proceeding from two reviews of Shakespearean Tragedy which contain some especially controversial points. In one of them, Battenhouse's suggestions concerning Antony and Cleopatra 4.7.7 are quoted as a paradigm of his inability "to resist excess." This is discussed in the second part of my paper.1)
Regarding "Shakespearean Tragedy" in the light of "Christian Premises" implies that there is such a thing as "Shakespearean Tragedy." But is there? Does not, rather, each single tragedy in the canon belong [→page 252] to an essentially different type within the tragic genre as seen in Shakespeare's day and is, accordingly, different in tone and purpose? Moreover, there is no reason why Shakespeare should have been content with the traditional types (as, for instance, revenge tragedy, or Senecan tragedy, or tragical history …) and refrained from creating some of his own as, for instance, a metaphysical tragedy (Hamlet) or a Sophoclean tragedy (King Lear), or a problem tragedy (Coriolanus). Of course all Shakespeare's tragedies are in a class of their own. But regarded on their own level, mere classification only scratches the surface of their individuality. This is, I am afraid, a bit of a truism, and a somewhat outdated one at that. It had its moment in Shakespeare criticism in about 1930 when it was fashionable to judge Shakespeare's tragic heroes against the background of contemporary moral teaching. It was not yet redundant, however, in 1968 when, in a study on Romeo and Juliet2) (implicitly supported by scholars like Kenneth Muir) I ventured to criticize the kind of criticism which subjected the poetic genius to the moralistic teaching of the period and did not see that Shakespeare's protagonists make such a universal impact just because they are (like every man or woman in the audience) absolutely and irreplaceably individual.
It seems to me that there are no such things as "Shakespeare's tragic heroes" in general, much less that they are all "slaves of passion," warning examples to be presented on the stage in a tragedy meant to effect a predominantly (or even exclusively) moral catharsis. Even in the Apology for Poetry, with all Sidney's emphasis on virtuous action, the didactic purpose of poetry is clearly subordinated to commiseration and admiration.3) The problem of moral teaching—Christian or otherwise—in the rapidly changing scene of Elizabethan theory and drama was given attention to by Madeleine Doran in 1954.4) Her short but elucidating description gives an impression of the enormous complexity of this subject which, of course, increases when it comes to its being considered in a study of Shakespeare.
To my mind, Romeo and Juliet is indeed "a story of more woe" than ever was or will be, not of moral offence and retribution; in Antony and Cleopatra the indeed "fallen" condition of the protagonists is surpassed by their loving metamorphosis, and King Lear, though certainly [→page 253] "sinning," is "sinned against" even more. If a rough and ready formula concerning Christian moral teaching as a criterion of Shakespeare's plays is permitted: a Christian−moralistic standard can be very useful when applied to a villain−hero like Richard III or Macbeth but gives a distorted view of Shakespeare's "middle" men (or women), let alone those who, not in spite but rather because of their "mere" humanity are felt to be transcendently charming and deeply moving and, therefore, capable of making a cathartic impact which is not merely moralistic but existential. While disagreeing, therefore, with Battenhouse's views on Romeo and Juliet, I am greatly impressed with his reading of Coriolanus, a play with perhaps not a downright villain but a problem−figure with more than one tragic flaw for a protagonist. I consider this interpretation as perhaps the best documented and most ingenious as well as congenial one I have read.
From the criticism with which Shakespearean Tragedy has met I select for my purpose Harry Levin's review which, true to its title, "Evangelizing Shakespeare,"5) raises some basic questions concerning an interpretation of Shakespeare in the light of religious premises. According to some of his critics, Battenhouse tends to go just a little too far, but, to my mind, so does Levin, although in the opposite direction. To give an example: Levin thinks it abstruse that to Battenhouse "Antony's gaudy nights are sinister parodies of the Last Supper."6) This seems to me an inadequate paraphrase of Battenhouse's statement: "Antony's farewell supper in Act IV … has a tantalizing similarity to Christ's Last Supper."7) Furthermore, Levin cannot have reread this scene which has nothing of Cleopatra's "gaudy night" about it and is, indeed, rich in allusions to the prototypical farewell supper of world literature.
To make his own attitude to an interpretation of Shakespeare on Christian premises quite clear, Levin remarks that "the last word on the subject" ought to remain R. M. Frye's dictum that "Shakespeare's works are pervasively secular, in that they make no encompassing appeal to theological categories and in that they are concerned with the dramatization (apart from distinctively Christian doctrines) of universally human situations within a temporal and this−worldly arena."8) This conclusion, which Levin, astonishingly, terms "well−tempered," calls for comment.
[→page 254] As to Shakespeare's delineation "of universally human situations within a temporal and this−worldly arena," this might be a description of certain parts of the Bible, too. And as to his works being "pervasively secular" this is either a definition of some kind of "social realism" or a mere generalization. Surely, any "secular" poetry worth reading is more than just one−dimensional, no matter how the various kinds of dimensions may be defined. There is no music (apart from the electronic variety) which works without overtones, similarly language deprived of symbolic meaning is not poetic language. But where symbolism comes in, metaphysics are not far away. In the English Renaissance, this meant, to a great extent, Christian metaphysics because, however strong the classical influences, the Christian ones where still basic.
Where the world of words is concerned there must have prevailed in a man or woman of the Renaissance a kind of anamnesis of the biblical canon. Shakespeare, at Stratford grammar school had learned to regard the Psalter as "an englishe booke"9) which had to be translated into Latin in daily instalments, that is from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, however, he officiated as a choirboy (like Sir John Falstaff, who on his deathbed "babbled of green fields") and in this capacity will have been very careful not to miss his lines but know his Collects, Epistles, and Gospels by heart. Then there was the sermon which, however dreary, could not but refer to some biblical stories as ravishing as any in Ovid, and to parables leaving an imprint of at least some worldly wisdom in any but a complete dullard's mind. The strongest impact on an ear like Shakespeare's must, however, have been made by the musical quality of the English Bibles of his day as well as the Vulgate. If it comes to the writings of St. Augustine on which Battenhouse (to many of his critics' dismay) so largely draws, they were not part of the curriculum of Stratford grammar school but they are such an important part of the tradition leading up to the Reformation that some of their main tenets may be regarded as common knowledge. And if a critic happens to realize that in De libero arbitrio parts of the intellectual pattern of Hamlet are surprisingly clearly foreshadowed, it would be an omission not to refer to the work.
Another question that comes up concerning the description of Shakespeare's stage as a "temporal and this−worldly arena" is whether [→page 255] any stage ever was? (Think of the "genealogy" of the clown.) Shakespeare chose the stage, not like the late Donne (a master of "dramatic" language if ever there was one) the pulpit. But it is a mere truism that, from Aeschylus onwards, the stage, the forum, and the pulpit have always been closely related. Surely Elizabethan drama made no exception from this rule. To quote someone who "has authority" in this field: "The secularity of Elizabethan drama is obvious. It cannot in any possible sense be called a sacred drama. But a secular drama is not necessarily irreligious. It may still expound religious ideas and express religious attitudes and feelings."10) To take a more modern and much more provoking example than the great Elizabethans, Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist partisan. What is Der kaukasische Kreidekreis11) if not (apart from Brecht's other sources) a dramatized version of the Judgement of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:27? Brecht's method is direct and sentimental and not in any way as revealing as Shakespeare's in that wonderful parody of the Last Supper in Antony and Cleopatra but on its own level it testifies to the essential religious potentiality of the stage, if not to that Judeo−Christian anamnesis mentioned above, which was obviously still working in the communist emigrant from Hitler's Germany in 1944.12)
In Shakespeare's "secular" drama parody rules supreme. "The King's a beggar when the play is done" but as a beggar he goes on playing his part as one of the men and women acting their seven ages on the stage of life. "All the world's a stage" and "the truest poetry is the most feigning." The mirror held up to a distorted world by the dramatist has to be, at least partly, a distorting mirror, especially where it is meant to show that it is not manners and good taste but the most vital issues of human existence which have got out of focus. Great dramatists of all ages have resorted to persiflage as a means of conveying religious truth. In Shakespeare's age (the early dawn of the Enlightenment) in particular, tragedy began to replace the morality and mystery play, entering into the heritage of both, be it in form, or contents, or message. Doctor Faustus and Measure for Measure are cases in point.
If Professor Frye rejects Battenhouse's theory of a Christian tragedy because it does not apply to "the one universally acknowledged example of Christian tragedy, Milton's Samson Agonistes,"13) this example, to my mind, helps to refute rather than prove his statement. Samson [→page 256] Agonistes is a unique neo−classical experiment, and an unbelievably successful one at that. Samson Agonistes is a very gem. But it stands alone in literary history and is quite as unqualified to serve as an example of classical as of Christian tragedy.
Last but not least there are some considerations of literary style which make it appear all the more probable that religious themes when brought on the stage induce the audience to follow Polonius' advice: "by indirections find directions out." I am sorry to disagree with Ben Jonson but Shakespeare though, surely, "for all time" was "of an age," too. In the English Renaissance it would be difficult to find a text untinged with analogy, or allusion, or periphrasis, or antonomasia, or paronomasia, or ambiguity, or irony, and, above all, tropical inversion, from simile to catachresis, and from allegoria permixta to allegoria tota, the latter being preferred by Shakespeare. This means that the surface of dramatic probability or "secularity" remains intact. Macbeth can indeed be appreciated as a drama of crime and passion, a "pervasively secular" spectacle. On the other hand, it may also be regarded as the middle link of a chain reaching from Doctor Faustus to Paradise Lost.14) Marlowe quite openly parodies the Everyman play and Milton appeals to the heavenly muse for inspiration to write a religious epic, his scene being laid, true to the hierarchical tripartite order of the miracle play, in hell, in heaven, and in the newly created world. Shakespeare, however, "copies" what he reads in the book of life as it lies open in this world (including its written books), and he does so in a style never obvious but always suggestive of the metaphysical substrata which have been our dearest concern since God made man in his image, that is, as a being aware of images, trying to read them as they appear on the back wall of his cave.
Turning from Professor Frye's review of Battenhouse's Shakespearean Tragedy to his own study, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963), the reader is due for a surprise: Frye proceeds exactly along the lines followed by Battenhouse though, instead of turning to St. Augustine, he goes to Luther, Calvin, and Hooker for instruction on religious undercurrents in literature:
[→page 257] … literature as one of the liberal arts, was understood by leading theologians as free from theological dominion and, indeed, as freed from theological infiltration. Literature was thus understood, approached from this perspective of theology, as being independent of any specifically Christian theology and as being endowed with its own integrity—a major point which has escaped the attention of the theologizers. (7−8)
Professor Frye's logic seems unconvincing to me. The very fact that the great theologians regarded literature as "free from theological dominion" confirms that, seen from this angle, religious subjects in literature were a poet's own concern. Moreover, in seeking and finding his standards in Luther, Calvin, and Hooker, Professor Frye implicitly contradicts his own tenet that "literature was thus understood … as being independent of any specifically Christian theology … ." This means succumbing to the same fallacy as L. B. Campbell's and F. M. Dickey's that Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes had to be regarded as Slaves of Passion because of the standards previously set by some moral teachers.15) Surely, great poets do not set pen to paper in order to provide exempla for the moralists of their times. Neither do they consult the works of the theologians for special permission to probe the religious depths of the second nature they are about to create. And Shakespeare was not the first great Elizabethan to do that. But Marlowe is not even mentioned in Frye's index.
The kind of theological reference in Shakespeare which Frye does admit is of a clearly denotative type, for instance "Sin of self−love" in Sonnet 62. This he comments: "'Self−love is always sinful …,' Luther writes" (249). Shakespeare, when he uses his "utmost skill" (Pericles 5.1.76) is not always as obvious and didactic as that but challenges us to use our "utmost skill" so that we may see some of the magic in his web including the theological strands hidden at the surface of his altera natura.
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The Scarus−episode in Antony and Cleopatra has been brought to our attention by Roy Battenhouse. The passage is quoted by R. M. Frye in his review of Shakespearean Tragedy (which, however sceptical, is always moderate or even amiable in tone):
[→page 258] "Perhaps even the detail of Scarus' scar has an emblematic significance. It formerly, we are told, had the shape of a "T" (which suggests true sacrifice, prefiguratively that of the cross), whereas now it has the shape of an "H" (which suggests, besides the pun on "ache," an upended and overdone "T," perhaps a "Hades' wound")."
Such comments abound in this book, and I must protest, in the words of Horatio, "'twere to consider too curiously to consider so," to which Roy Battenhouse would surely reply, in Hamlet's words, "No, faith, not a jot."16)
This is nicely put but it is also, I am sorry to say, little more than critical small talk. Hamlet is a dangerous person to quote, anyway, especially this remark from the meditatio mortis in 5.1, which is a kind of lesson for Horatio (needless to say a parodistical one) in the logical art of pursuing a causal sequence. By way of exordium Hamlet uses a well−known biblical quotation, only slightly paraphrased: "… not a jot" (Matt. 5:18). Not that he ever leaves off quoting the Bible (rather than Montaigne, whose acid Pyrrhonism is alien to Shakespeare's philosophy of life).17) The whole passage is a variation on the theme "then shall the dust return to the earth" (Eccles. 12:7), and even the "bung−hole" filled by the dust of death can be traced back to the book of Genesis in a strictly Hamletian regress: a bung−hole is an orifice, and what spectator gifted with anything like "imagination" (as mentioned by Hamlet) looking at Yorick's open−mouthed skull in Hamlet's hand, would not shudderingly recall the words: "… dust shalt thou eat" (Gen. 3:14).
"Too curiously"? "No, not a jot." I have hardly scratched the surface of Hamlet's meditation on "dust" and "dram" and "clay" and "earth," which latter is, of course, humus, and this is homo, and this is Adam… . The "jot" functions as the prototypical letter which must never be lost, because of its smallness. The Latin equivalent to the Hebrew iota, the I, has a similar significance. Its shape resembles Euclid's straight line, which is the basic component of letters like T or H.18) Moreover, it is identical with the mysterious number I and in English it also means ego, not to mention that in Shakespeare's time "aye" was still written that way.19)
One might as well say that a composer uses a note for no expressive purpose as that a poet uses a letter without meaning his audience to "consider it … curiously," indeed. Shakespeare's audience, to all appearances, would have booed him if presented with some talk about [→page 259] some letters (in a scene charged with great pathos, preluding the catastrophe of a great tragedy) without any palpable meaning whatsoever. But the T and H in Antony and Cleopatra 4.7.7−8 are intensely meaningful and thanks are due to Professor Battenhouse for having drawn our attention to their "Christian signality."20)
To outline the dramatic as well as linguistic context to which the T−H−initials belong: in the beginning of the tragic catastrophe when Antony is deserted by gods and men, a soldier not mentioned in Plutarch enters the stage. This man remains faithful when nearly every one else turns traitor and he goes on fighting in spite of being mortally wounded. All this is signified by his name, Scarus, which firstly is nothing but a latinized form of the English noun scar (4.5.2).21) But also scare, fear, comes in, in fact not only the fear of the enemies whom Scarus, irrespective of his death−wound, will chase like hares (4.7.12) but Antony's fear. Scarus himself brings this up, using the synonym of his name, "fear," instead of the homonym, scare (4.12.8−9).
Shakespeare goes on to employ these linguistic devices in order to stress the expressive energy of the name Scarus. "Let us score their backs" says Scarus when urging Antony on to follow the retreating enemy, and Antony speaks of "wounds" and "gashes" (4.8.10−11) to make it quite clear to the audience that Scarus bears his name like an emblematic inscriptio or an allegorical label, or a motto or device of some knightly order. But, to "make assurance double sure," Scarus' scars are outlined like the initials of a monogram: "I had a wound here that was like a T, ⁄ But now 'tis made an H" (4.7.8−9).
The pun on the name of the letter [eit ] and the noun ache (pain) is mentioned in the commentaries though without a reference to the serio ludere practised by sixteenth−century humanists with this name of a letter and this noun. An instance of this is provided by E. J. Dobson in English Pronunciation 1500−1700.22) Referring to a grammarian he values highly, Dobson writes:
… Hart, Methode, f. Aiiiir identifies the name of the letter h with the noun ache (formerly pronounced with [t ]), and goes on to say that with the names of the letters as they are, t h r (te ache er) can reasonably be held to spell Teacher. This does not mean that the each of teacher is the same in pronunciation as the word [→page 260] ache; Hart is obviously thinking of the visual appearance of the letter−names and of the word teacher in ordinary orthography.23)
According to A Methode or comfortable beginning for all vnlearned (1570) the cipher TH suggests teaching. This may apply to the didactic value of the Scarus episode where the initials appear not unlike a monogram of their bearer. In this context it is perhaps worth mentioning that there is a certain similarity to the abbreviated version of the Jesus−monogram, IH.24)
This "grammatical" interpretation of TH has a historical as well as an emblematic parallel, still known to Shakespeare's contemporaries. According to Geofroy Tory, the ancients used the letters Tau and Theta in their punitive proceedings to signify pardon by Tau and condemnation by Theta or T&H.25) There is a parallel to this in the descriptio of the Oleander−emblem in the Pegma of Petrus Costalius (1555): this plant contains, according to Pliny and Dioscorides, a poison which is salvatory for men but dangerous for animals. That holds true, too, says the descriptio, for the Bible, which leads the faithful to heaven but is, like the black Theta, the undoing of unbelievers: "Sed nigrum reprobis addere Theta solet."26) In the commentary this "Theta" is explained as the first letter of Θ&03AC;νατος, 'death,' used as a mark of condemnation on voting tablets, epitaphs, and lists of soldiers. From the context established by Petrus Costalius, it is fairly obvious that the Tau in contrast with the Theta stands for the signum Tau on the foreheads of the elect.27) When, accordingly, in Scarus' wound the T has melted into the H it is only too clear that he is a "death−marked" man.
The pattern would fit excellently were it not for the absence of one important trait: according to the topical meaning of Tau and Theta the man branded with the Theta nigrum is guilty of a criminal action and deserves to be punished. This is certainly not so with Scarus. Only an error of justice can have led to his being marked with the TH. The prototype of such a misjudgement is the Crucifiction of Christ. Thus by an apparent incongruity the symbolic pattern is thrown into relief. The miles Romanus, Scarus, who gives his life for his friends, appears as a miles Christianus. This interpretation fits well into a tragedy taking place just before the beginning of the Christian era and charged by Shakespeare [→page 261] with a mass of hints that the really new era is not the Augustan one but another in which Caesar Ausgutus is not cast for even a bit−part but only just mentioned as the author of that "decree … that all the world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1).
The parodical typology of the "stigmatized" Scarus as miles Christianus is made obvious when Antony, after having given his hand to the soldier bleeding from his deadly wounds, asks Cleopatra to let Scarus kiss her hand, saying: "Behold this man" (4.8.22). This is of course nothing but the translation of "Ecce Homo" and near−identical with the "Behold the man" of the King James Bible. Battenhouse has drawn our attention to this biblical allusion and very rightly described Antony's "Behold this man" as "a parody of the Ecce Homo of John 19.6" (174). I am afraid I cannot quite see how Professor Frye managed to find this "precious and recherché" (320). Shakespeare clearly quotes the Bible and if he had not wanted his audience to realize that connection he would have avoided the expression. "Ecce Homo" is exactly what the words "Behold this man" say; the analogy is self−evident and if a critic wants to reject it, the burden of proof revolves on him.
There is, however, further evidence in Antony and Cleopatra that Shakespeare purposely used the quotation. In the short preamble of the play, the words "behold and see" form the climax of a series of verbs denoting attention: "look … Take but good note … see … behold and see" (1.1.10 ff.).28) The persons to be beheld are Antony and Cleopatra with their train. But the formula "behold and see" is a quotation from the Good Friday and Holy Saturday responsories. 29) Here again, Shakespeare makes use of parody. In the liturgy it is Christ crucified who is to be beheld and seen by the crowd. On the stage Philo, the "Chorus," claims attention for the protagonists and the "crowd" of less remarkable everymen and −women who accompany them. This stage−crowd and, on a different level, the second chorus−figure and the audience, represent all those "who pass by" in this "two hours' traffic of our stage"; they are "omnes qui transitis" on the stage of the world.
Are we really expected not to be mindful of this intellectual reversal and parodic perspective? It strikingly unmasks greatness and transitoriness, and it is so compellingly worded, because "behold" (like German "behalten") originally means "To hold by, keep hold of, retain" or "… [→page 262] to appertain or belong to."30) The scene is one to be kept hold of and the word is to be remembered when it comes up again in Act 4, ringing with even mightier overtones than in 1.1.
These overtones are, moreover, emphasized by the immediate context in the Scarus−scene. The phrase "Behold this man" is closely followed by an apocalyptic image which strengthens the impression that the Scarus−episode is charged with numinous meaning. Scarus has fought "As if a god in hate of mankind had ⁄ Destroy'd in such a shape" (4.8.25−26). This image of a revenging god (as represented in Homeric theology but also in the Bible, e.g. Rev. 11:18 or Isa. 34:2) is followed by another one denoting regal exaltation: Cleopatra will present Scarus with a golden armour which had once belonged to a king (4.8.27). Now, this applies exactly to the armour of the miles Christianus which is nothing less than "The whole armour of God" (Eph. 6:11). Considering the synonymy as well as homonymy of "whole" and "all," Cleopatra's gift for Scarus, "an armour all of gold," differs from the divine armour of the miles Christianus, "The whole armour of God," by only one letter. But just this difference between "gold" and "God" brings into play the golden radience of the godhead. Luther translates or rather metaphrases Job 22:25: "Und der Allmächtige wird dein Gold sein."31)
It often happens in such interpretations of baroque wordplay that, when many connotations have been considered and many verbal tangents applied, the intellectual pattern which emerges is confirmed by the most obvious parallel of all: as Scarus is a latinized form of English scar it is an anagram of sacrus, the vulgar Latin form of sacer,32) which means, according to Cooper's Thesaurus (1565), "Holy" or "consecrate" as well as "Cursed," and is, therefore, qualified to describe Christ's Passion and Crucifixion.
All this means, in the context of the tragedy as a whole, that at the very beginning of the catastrophe, when Antony's heroism finally breaks down and Cleopatra's salutation "Lord of lords, ⁄ O infinite virtue" (4.8.16−17) is felt by Shakespeare's audience to be profoundly ironic if not blasphemous, a minor part is "interpolated" in the Plutarchan narrative. It foreshadows, in tragic parody, the idea of an expiatory death and its glorification which, however, is not to be realized on the stage of this world.
[→page 263] By the way, has the similarity between "Scarus" and "Eros" ever been explained? Here is a suggestion: Shakespeare found Eros in Plutarch and made him the true, loving friend, who is ready to suffer death rather than see his master die. But to complete the picture of perfect friendship, Shakespeare invented a second figure, whose name he made nearly rhyme with Eros.33) >[→page 265] a man ready to give his life for his friends, too, but not by suffering like a lamb but by fighting like an apocalyptic avenger.
If Shakespeare had not meant us to hear such assonances and see such parallels and hold on to such scriptural and topical and emblematic patterns and follow such parodic reversals and have in mind the whole of the play when regarding each detail, his own words (as they have come down to us) in their context from the very next word to all the relevant background would be misleading. Which, of course, they aren't.