Too Great a Price for Love

September 02, 2014

John Dryden

John Dryden (1631–1700). All for Love.
Vol. 18, pp. 88-100 of The Harvard Classics

While his soldiers fought the battle of Actium, Antony fled to the arms of Cleopatra. By his flight he forfeited his right to an empire. Dryden's story of Antony's love makes us realize the folly of his infatuation for the Nile siren.
(Battle of Actium, Sept. 2, 31 B. C.)

Act V


  Char.  Be juster, Heaven; such virtue punished thus,
Will make us think that chance rules all above,
And shuffles, with a random hand, the lots,
Which man is forced to draw.

  Cleo.  I could tear out these eyes, that gained his heart,
And had not power to keep it. O the curse
Of doting on, even when I find it dotage!
Bear witness, gods, you heard him bid me go;
You, whom he mocked with imprecating vows
Of promised faith!—I’ll die; I will not bear it.
You may hold me—  [She pulls out her dagger, and they hold her.
But I can keep my breath; I can die inward,
And choke this love.

  Iras.  Help, O Alexas, help!
The queen grows desperate; her soul struggles in her
With all the agonies of love and rage,
And strives to force its passage.
  Cleo.  Let me go.
Art thou there, traitor!—O,
O for a little breath, to vent my rage,
Give, give me way, and let me loose upon him.
  Alex.  Yes, I deserve it, for my ill-timed truth.
Was it for me to prop
The ruins of a falling majesty?
To place myself beneath mighty flaw,
Thus to be crushed, and pounded into atoms,
By its o’erwhelming weight? ’Tis too presuming
For subjects to preserve that wilful power,
Which courts its own destruction.
  Cleo.  I would reason
More calmly with you. Did not you o’errule,
And force my plain, direct, and open love,
Into these crooked paths of jealousy?
Now, what’s the event? Octavia is removed;
But Cleopatra’s banished. Thou, thou villain,
Hast pushed my boat to open sea; to prove,
At my sad cost, if thou canst steer it back.
It cannot be; I’m lost too far; I’m ruined:
Hence, thou impostor, traitor, monster, devil!—
I can no more: Thou, and my griefs, have sunk
Me down so low, that I want voice to curse thee.
  Alex.  Suppose some shipwrecked seaman near the shore,
Dropping and faint, with climbing up the cliff,
If, from above, some charitable hand
Pull him to safety, hazarding himself,
To draw the other’s weight; would he look back,
And curse him for his pains? The case is yours;
But one step more, and you have gained the height.
  Cleo.  Sunk, never more to rise.
  Alex.  Octavia’s gone, and Dolabella banished.
Believe me, madam, Antony is yours.
His heart was never lost, but started off
To jealousy, love’s last retreat and covert;
Where it lies hid in shades, watchful in silence,
And listening for the sound that calls it back.
Some other, any man (’tis so advanced),
May perfect this unfinished work, which I
(Unhappy only to myself) have left
So easy to his hand.
  Cleo.  Look well thou do’t; else—
  Alex.  Else, what your silence threatens.—Antony
Is mounted up the Pharos; from whose turret,
He stands surveying our Egyptian galleys,
Engaged with Cæsar’s fleet. Now death or conquest!
If the first happen, fate acquits my promise;
If we o’ercome, the conqueror is yours.  [A distant shout within.
  Char.  Have comfort, madam: Did you mark that shout?  [Second shout nearer.
  Iras.  Hark! they redouble it.
  Alex.  ’Tis from the port.
The loudness shows it near: Good news, kind heavens!
  Cleo.  Osiris make it so!

  Serap.  Where, where’s the queen?
  Alex.  How frightfully the holy coward stares
As if not yet recovered of the assault,
When all his gods, and, what’s more dear to him,
His offerings, were at stake.
  Serap.  O horror, horror!
Egypt has been; our latest hour has come:
The queen of nations, from her ancient seat,
Is sunk for ever in the dark abyss:
Time has unrolled her glories to the last,
And now closed up the volume.
  Cleo.  Be more plain:
Say, whence thou comest; though fate is in thy face,
Which from the haggard eyes looks wildly out,
And threatens ere thou speakest.
  Serap.  I came from Pharos;
From viewing (spare me, and imagine it)
Our land’s last hope, your navy—
  Cleo.  Vanquished?
  Serap.  No:
They fought not.
  Cleo.  Then they fled.
  Serap.  Nor that. I saw,
With Antony, your well-appointed fleet
Row out; and thrice he waved his hand on high,
And thrice with cheerful cries they shouted back:
’Twas then false Fortune, like a fawning strumpet,
About to leave the bankrupt prodigal,
With a dissembled smile would kiss at parting,
And flatter to the last; the well-timed oars,
Now dipt from every bank, now smoothly run
To meet the foe; and soon indeed they met,
But not as foes. In few, we saw their caps
On either side thrown up; the Egyptian galleys,
Received like friends, passed through, and fell behind
The Roman rear: And now, they all come forward,
And ride within the port.
  Cleo.  Enough, Serapion:
I’ve heard my doom.—This needed not, you gods:
When I lost Antony, your work was done;
’Tis but superfluous malice.—Where’s my lord?
How bears he this last blow?
  Serap.  His fury cannot be expressed by words:
Thrice he attempted headlong to have fallen
Full on his foes, and aimed at Cæsar’s galley:
Withheld, he raves on you; cries,—He’s betrayed.
Should he now find you—
  Alex.  Shun him; seek your safety,
Till you can clear your innocence.
  Cleo.  I’ll stay.
  Alex.  You must not; haste you to your monument,
While I make speed to Cæsar.
  Cleo.  Cæsar! No,
I have no business with him.
  Alex.  I can work him
To spare your life, and let this madman perish.
  Cleo.  Base fawning wretch! wouldst thou betray him too?
Hence from my sight! I will not hear a traitor;
’Twas thy design brought all this ruin on us.—
Serapion, thou art honest; counsel me:
But haste, each moment’s precious.
  Serap.  Retire; you must not yet see Antony.
He who began this mischief,
’Tis just he tempt the danger; let him clear you:
And, since he offered you his servile tongue,
To gain a poor precarious life from Cæsar,
Let him expose that fawning eloquence,
And speak to Antony.
  Alex.  O heavens! I dare not;
I meet my certain death.
  Cleo.  Slave, thou deservest it.—
Not that I fear my lord, will I avoid him;
I know him noble: when he banished me,
And thought me false, he scorned to take my life;
But I’ll be justified, and then die with him.
  Alex.  O pity me, and let me follow you.
  Cleo.  To death, if thou stir hence. Speak, if thou canst,
Now for thy life, which basely thou wouldst save;
While mine I prize at—this! Come, good Serapion.  [Exeunt CLEOPATRA, SERAPION,CHARMION, and IRAS.
  Alex.  O that I less could fear to lose this being,
Which, like a snowball in my coward hand,
The more ’tis grasped, the faster melts away.
Poor reason! what a wretched aid art thou!
For still, in spite of thee,
These two long lovers, soul and body, dread
Their final separation. Let me think:
What can I say, to save myself from death?
No matter what becomes of Cleopatra.
  Ant.  Which way? where?  [Within.
  Vent.  This leads to the monument  [Within.
  Alex.  Ah me! I hear him; yet I’m unprepared:
My gift of lying’s gone;
And this court-devil, which I so oft have raised,
Forsakes me at my need. I dare not stay;
Yet cannot far go hence.  [Exit.

  Ant.  O happy Cæsar! thou hast men to lead:
Think not ’tis thou hast conquered Antony;
But Rome has conquered Egypt. I’m betrayed.
  Vent.  Curse on this treacherous train!
Their soil and heaven infect them all with baseness:
And their young souls come tainted to the world
With the first breath they draw.
  Ant.  The original villain sure no god created;
He was a bastard of the sun, by Nile,
Aped into man; with all his mother’s mud
Crusted about his soul.
  Vent.  The nation is
One universal traitor; and their queen
The very spirit and extract of them all.
  Ant.  Is there yet left
A possibility of aid from valour?
Is there one god unsworn to my destruction?
The least unmortgaged hope? for, if there be,
Methinks I cannot fall beneath the fate
Of such a boy as Cæsar.
The world’s one half is yet in Antony;
And from each limb of it, that’s hewed away,
The soul comes back to me.
  Vent.  There yet remain
Three legions in the town. The last assault
Lopt off the rest; if death be your design,—
As I must wish it now,—these are sufficient
To make a heap about us of dead foes,
An honest pile for burial.
  Ant.  They are enough.
We’ll not divide our stars; but, side by side,
Fight emulous, and with malicious eyes
Survey each other’s acts: So every death
Thou giv’st, I’ll take on me, as a just debt,
And pay thee back a soul.
  Vent.  Now you shall see I love you. Not a word
Of chiding more. By my few hours of life,
I am so pleased with this brave Roman fate,
That I would not be Cæsar, to outlive your.
When we put off this flesh, and mount together,
I shall be shown to all the ethereal crowd,—
Lo, this is he who died with Antony!
  Ant.  Who knows, but we may pierce through all their troops,
And reach my veterans yet? ’tis worth the ’tempting,
To o’erleap this gulf of fate,
And leave our wandering destinies behind.

Enter ALEXAS, trembling
  Vent.  See, see, that villain!
See Cleopatra stamped upon that face,
With all her cunning, all her arts of falsehood!
How she looks out through those dissembling eyes!
How he sets his countenance for deceit,
And promises a lie, before he speaks!
Let me despatch him first.  [Drawing.
  Alex.  O spare me, spare me!
  Ant.  Hold; he’s not worth your killing.—On thy life,
Which thou may’st keep, because I scorn to take it,
No syllable to justify thy queen;
Save thy base tongue its office.
  Alex.  Sir, she is gone.
Where she shall never be molested more
By love, or you.
  Ant.  Fled to her Dolabella!
Die, traitor! I revoke my promise die!  [Going to kill him.
  Alex.  O hold! she is not fled.
  Ant.  She is: my eyes
Are open to her falsehood; my whole life
Has been a golden dream of love and friendship;
But, now I wake, I’m like a merchant, roused
From soft repose, to see his vessel sinking,
And all his wealth cast over. Ungrateful woman!
Who followed me, but as the swallow summer,
Hatching her young ones in my kindly beams,
Singing her flatteries to my morning wake:
But, now my winter comes, she spreads her wings,
And seeks the spring of Cæsar.
  Alex.  Think not so;
Her fortunes have, in all things, mixed with yours.
Had she betrayed her naval force to Rome,
How easily might she have gone to Cæsar,
Secure by such a bribe!
  Vent.  She sent it first,
To be more welcome after.
  Ant.  ’Tis too plain;
Else would she have appeared, to clear herself.
  Alex.  Too fatally she has: she could not bear
To be accused by you; but shut herself
Within her monument; looked down and sighed;
While, from her unchanged face, the silent tears
Dropt, as they had not leave, but stole their parting.
Some indistinguished words she only murmured;
At last, she raised her eyes; and, with such looks
As dying Lucrece cast—
  Ant.  My heart forebodes—
  Vent.  All for the best:—Go on.
  Alex.  She snatched her poniard,
And, ere we could prevent the fatal blow,
Plunged it within her breast; then turned to me:
Go, bear my lord, said she, my last farewell;
And ask him, if he yet suspect my faith.
More she was saying, but death rushed betwixt.
She half pronounced your name with her last breath,
And buried half within her.
  Vent.  Heaven be praised!
  Ant.  Then art thou innocent, my poor dear love,
And art thou dead?
O those two words! their sound should be divided:
Hadst thou been false, and died; or hadst thou lived,
And hadst been true—But innocence and death!
This shows not well above. Then what am I,
The murderer of this truth, this innocence!
Thoughts cannot form themselves in words so horrid
As can express my guilt!
  Vent.  Is’t come to this? The gods have been too gracious;
And thus you thank them for it!
  Ant.  [to ALEX]. Why stayest thou here?
Is it for thee to spy upon my soul,
And see its inward mourning? Get thee hence;
Thou art not worthy to behold, what now
Becomes a Roman emperor to perform.
  Alex.  He loves her still:
His grief betrays it. Good! the joy to find
She’s yet alive, completes the reconcilement.
I’ve saved myself, and her. But, oh! the Romans!
Fate comes too fast upon my wit,
Hunts me too hard, and meets me at each double.  [Aside. Exit.
  Vent.  Would she had died a little sooner, though!
Before Octavia went, you might have treated:
Now ’twill look tame, and would not be received.
Come, rouse yourself, and let’s die warm together.
  Ant.  I will not fight: there’s no more work for war.
The business of my angry hours is done.
  Vent.  Cæsar is at your gates.
  Ant.  Why, let him enter;
He’s welcome now.
  Vent.  What lethargy has crept into your soul?
  Ant.  ’Tis but a scorn of life, and just desire
To free myself from bondage.
  Vent.  Do it bravely.
  Ant.  I will; but not by fighting. O Ventidius!
What should I fight for now?—my queen is dead.
I was but great for her; my power, my empire,
Were but my merchandise to buy her love;
And conquered kings, my factors. Now she’s dead,
Let Cæsar take the world,—
An empty circle, since the jewel’s gone
Which made it worth my strife: my being’s nauseous;
For all the bribes of life are gone away.
  Vent.  Would you be taken?
  Ant.  Yes, I would be taken;
But, as a Roman ought,—dead, my Ventidius:
For I’ll convey my soul from Cæsar’s reach,
And lay down life myself. ’Tis time the world
Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.
We two have kept its homage in suspense,
And bent the globe, on whose each side we trod,
Till it was dented inwards. Let him walk
Alone upon’t: I’m weary of my part.
My torch is out; and the world stands before me,
Like a black desert at the approach of night:
I’ll lay me down, and stray no farther on.
  Vent.  I could be grieved,
But that I’ll not outlive you: choose your death;
For, I have seen him in such various shapes,
I care not which I take: I’m only troubled,
The life I bear is worn to such a rag,
’Tis scarce worth giving. I could wish, indeed,
We threw it from us with a better grace;
That, like two lions taken in the toils,
We might at last thrust out our paws, and wound
The hunters that inclose us.
  Ant.  I have thought on it.
Ventidius, you must live.
  Vent.  I must not, sir.
  Ant.  Wilt thou not live, to speak some good of me?
To stand by my fair fame, and guard the approaches
From the ill tongues of men?
  Vent.  Who shall guard mine,
For living after you?
  Ant.  Say, I command it.
  Vent.  If we die well, our deaths will speak themselves
And need no living witness.
  Ant.  Thou hast loved me,
And fain I would reward thee. I must die;
Kill me, and take the merit of my death,
To make thee friends with Cæsar.
  Vent.  Thank your kindness.
You said I loved you; and in recompense,
You bid me turn a traitor: Did I think
You would have used me thus?—that I should die
With a hard thought of you?
  Ant.  Forgive me, Roman.
Since I have heard of Cleopatra’s death,
My reason bears no rule upon my tongue,
But lets my thoughts break all at random out.
I’ve thought better; do not deny me twice.
  Vent.  By Heaven I will not.
Let it not be to outlive you.
  Ant.  Kill me first,
And then die thou; for ’tis but just thou serve
Thy friend, before thyself.
  Vent.  Give me your hand.
We soon shall meet again. Now, farewell, emperor!—  [Embrace.
Methinks that word’s too cold to be my last:
Since death sweeps all distinctions, farewell, friend!
That’s all—
I will not make a business of a trifle;
And yet I cannot look on you, and kill you;
Pray turn your face.
  Ant.  I do: strike home, be sure.
  Vent.  Home as my sword will reach.  [Kills himself.
  Ant.  Oh, thou mistak’st;
That wound was not of thine; give it me back:
Thou robb’st me of my death.
  Vent.  I do indeed;
But think ’tis the first time I e’er deceived you,
If that may plead my pardon.—And you, gods,
Forgive me, if you will; for I die perjured,
Rather than kill my friend.  [Dies.
  Ant.  Farewell! Ever my leader, even in death!
My queen and thou have got the start of me,
And I’m the lag of honour.—Gone so soon?
Is Death no more? he used him carelessly,
With a familiar kindness: ere he knocked,
Ran to the door, and took him in his arms,
As who should say—You’re welcome at all hours,
A friend need give no warning. Books had spoiled him;
For all the learned are cowards by profession.
’Tis not worth
My further thought; for death, for aught I know,
Is but to think no more. Here’s to be satisfied.  [Falls on his sword.
I’ve missed my heart. O unperforming hand!
Thou never couldst have erred in a worse time.
My fortune jades me to the last; and death,
Like a great man, takes state, and makes me wait
For my admittance.  [Trampling within.
Some, perhaps, from Cæsar:
If he should find me living, and suspect
That I played booty with my life! I’ll mend
My work, ere they can reach me.  [Rises upon his knees.

  Cleo.  Where is my lord? where is he?
  Char.  There he lies,
And dead Ventidius by him.
  Cleo.  My tears were prophets; I am come too late.
O that accursed Alexas!  [Runs to him.
  Ant.  Art thou living?
Or am I dead before I knew, and thou
The first kind ghost that meets me?
  Cleo.  Help me seat him.
Send quickly, send for help!  [They place him in a chair.
  Ant.  I am answered.
We live both. Sit thee down, my Cleopatra:
I’ll make the most I can of life, to stay
A moment more with thee.
  Cleo.  How is it with you?
  Ant.  ’Tis as with a man
Removing in a hurry; all packed up,
But one dear jewel that his haste forgot;
And he, for that, returns upon the spur:
So I come back for thee.
  Cleo.  Too long, ye heavens, you have been cruel to me:
Now show your mended faith, and give me back
His fleeting life!
  Ant.  It will not be, my love;
I keep my soul by force.
Say but, thou art not false.
  Cleo.  ’Tis now too late
To say I’m true: I’ll prove it, and die with you.
Unknown to me, Alexas feigned my death:
Which, when I knew, I hasted to prevent
This fatal consequence. My fleet betrayed
Both you and me.
  Ant.  And Dolabella—
  Cleo.  Scarce
Esteemed before he loved; but hated now.
  Ant.  Enough: my life’s not long enough for more.
Thou say’st, thou wilt come after: I believe thee;
For I can now believe whate’er thou sayest,
That we may part more kindly.
  Cleo.  I will come:
Doubt not, my life, I’ll come, and quickly too:
Cæsar shall triumph o’er no part of thee.
  Ant.  But grieve not, while thou stayest,
My last disastrous times:
Think we have had a clear and glorious day
And Heaven did kindly to delay the storm,
Just till our close of evening. Ten years’ love,
And not a moment lost, but all improved
To the utmost joys,—what ages have we lived?
And now to die each other’s; and, so dying,
While hand in hand we walk in groves below,
Whole troops of lovers’ ghosts shall flock about us,
And all the train be ours.
  Cleo.  Your words are like the notes of dying swans,
Too sweet to last. Were there so many hours
For your unkindness, and not one for love?
  Ant.  No, not a minute.—This one kiss—more worth
Than all I leave to Cæsar.  [Dies.
  Cleo.  O tell me so again,
And take ten thousand kisses for that word.
My lord, my lord! speak, if you yet have being;
Sign to me, if you cannot speak; or cast
One look! Do anything that shows you live.
  Iras.  He’s gone too far to hear you;
And this you see, a lump of senseless clay,
The leavings of a soul.
  Char.  Remember, madam,
He charged you not to grieve.
  Cleo.  And I’ll obey him.
I have not loved a Roman, not to know
What should become his wife; his wife, my Charmion!
For ’tis to that high title I aspire;
And now I’ll not die less. Let dull Octavia
Survive, to mourn him dead: My nobler fate
Shall knit our spousals with a tie, too strong
For Roman laws to break.
  Iras.  Will you then die?
  Cleo.  Why shouldst thou make that question?
  Iras.  Cæsar is merciful.
  Cleo.  Let him be so
To those that want his mercy: My poor lord
Made no such covenant with him, to spare me
When he was dead. Yield me to Cæsar’s pride?
What! to be led in triumph through the streets,
A spectacle to base plebeian eyes;
While some dejected friend of Antony’s,
Close in a corner, shakes his head, and mutters
A secret curse on her who ruined him!
I’ll none of that.
  Char.  Whatever you resolve,
I’ll follow, even to death.
  Iras.  I only feared
For you; but more should fear to live without you.
  Cleo.  Why, now, ’tis as it should be. Quick, my friends,
Despatch; ere this, the town’s in Cæsar’s hands:
My lord looks down concerned, and fears my stay,
Lest I should be surprised;
Keep him not waiting for his love too long.
You, Charmion, bring my crown and richest jewels;
With them, the wreath of victory I made
(Vain augury!) for him, who now lies dead:
You, Iras, bring the cure of all our ills.
  Iras.  The aspics, madam?
  Cleo.  Must I bid you twice?  [Exit CHARMION and IRAS.
’Tis sweet to die, when they would force life on me,
To rush into the dark abode of death,
And seize him first; if he be like my love,
He is not frightful, sure.
We’re now alone, in secrecy and silence;
And is not this like lovers? I may kiss
These pale, cold lips; Octavia does not see me:
And, oh! ’tis better far to have him thus,
Than see him in her arms.—Oh, welcome, welcome!

  Char.  What must be done?
  Cleo.  Short ceremony, friends;
But yet it must be decent. First, this laurel
Shall crown my hero’s head: he fell not basely,
Nor left his shield behind him.—Only thou
Couldst triumph o’er thyself; and thou alone
Wert worthy so to triumph.
  Char.  To what end
These ensigns of your pomp and royalty?
  Cleo.  Dull, that thou art! why ’tis to meet my love;
As when I saw him first, on Cydnus’ bank,
All sparkling, like a goddess: so adorned,
I’ll find him once again; my second spousals
Shall match my first in glory. Haste, haste, both,
And dress the bride of Antony.
  Char.  ’Tis done.
  Cleo.  Now seat me by my lord. I claim this place,
For I must conquer Cæsar too, like him,
And win my share of the world.—Hail, you dear relics
Of my immortal love!
O let no impious hand remove you hence:
But rest for ever here! Let Egypt give
His death that peace, which it denied his life.—
Reach me the casket.
  Iras.  Underneath the fruit
The aspic lies.
  Cleo.  Welcome, thou kind deceiver!  [Putting aside the leaves.
Thou best of thieves: who, with an easy key,
Dost open life, and, unperceived by us,
Even steal us from ourselves; discharging so
Death’s dreadful office, better than himself;
Touching our limbs so gently into slumber,
That Death stands by, deceived by his own image,
And thinks himself but sleep.
  Serap.  The queen, where is she?  [Within.
The town is yielded, Cæsar’s at the gates.
  Cleo.  He comes too late to invade the rights of death!
Haste, bare my arm, and rouse the serpent’s fury.  [Holds out her arm, and draws it back.
Coward flesh,
Wouldst thou conspire with Cæsar to betray me,
As thou wert none of mine? I’ll force thee to it,
And not be sent by him,
But bring, myself, my soul to Antony.  [Turns aside, and then shows her arm bloody.
Take hence; the work is done.
  Serap.  Break ope the door,  [Within.
And guard the traitor well.
  Char.  The next is ours.
  Iras.  Now, Charmion, to be worthy
Of our great queen and mistress.  [They apply the aspics.
  Cleo.  Already, death, I feel thee in my veins:
I go with such a will to find my lord,
That we shall quickly meet.
A heavy numbness creeps through every limb,
And now ’tis at my head: My eyelids fall,
And my dear love is vanquished in a mist.
Where shall I find him, where? O turn me to him,
And lay me on his breast!—Cæsar, thy worst;
Now part us, if thou canst.  [Dies.  [IRAS sinks down at her feet, and dies; CHARMIONstands behind her chair, as dressing her head.

Enter SERAPION, two Priests, ALEXAS bound, Egyptians
  Priest.  Behold, Serapion,
What havoc death has made!
  Serap.  ’Twas what I feared.—
Charmion, is this well done?
  Char.  Yes, ’tis well done, and like a queen, the last
Of her great race: I follow her.  [Sinks down: dies.
  Alex.  ’Tis true,
She has done well: Much better thus to die,
Than live to make a holiday in Rome.
  Serap.  See how the lovers sit in state together,
As they were giving laws to half mankind!
The impression of a smile, left in her face,
Shows she died pleased with him for whom she lived,
And went to charm him in another world.
Cæsar’s just entering: grief has now no leisure.
Secure that villain, as our pledge of safety,
To grace the imperial triumph.—Sleep, blest pair,
Secure from human chance, long ages out,
While all the storms of fate fly o’er your tomb;
  And fame to late posterity shall tell,
  No lovers lived so great, or died so well.  [Exeunt.

You Might Also Like


Like us on Facebook