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Duty and desire in Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Romeo and J uliet

The tension between duty and desire is used to great effect in all three plays.
In Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, the way in which desire affects the
characters ability to carry out their duty in general terms and in a military
context is demonstrated through Othello and Antony. It is also echoed in other
characters, and paralleled in Cleopatra and Desdemona.

The story of Desdemona is also reimagined by the Nobel Prize laureate Toni
Morrison, who with lyricist Rokia Traor and stage director Peter Sellars, has
created an extraordinary play of words, music and song that tells of
Shakespeares doomed heroine and her African nurse Barbary. It deals with
race, class, gender, war and the transformative power of love. In
Desdemona, Morrison has transported the most iconic and disturbing
question of racial treatment in medieval Western culture firmly into the 21


Marital and parental duties are contrasted in Romeo and Juliet and Othello,
together with the idea of misplaced duty and desire. In all these plays it
appears that duty and desire are contradictory and ultimately destructive, and
the tension between the two is central to the tragedy.

One striking similarity between the characters of Othello and Antony is that
the presence of their lovers in their war zone leads to their downfall. In both
cases, the women request to be present, consequently placing duty and
desire in direct conflict. Cleopatras status as a queen means that it is not so
unusual that she should be at the battle, but Desdemonas presence was
unusual during Shakespeares era it went completely against the
conventions of the time to have wives accompany the armies. Ironically both
Othello and Antony refer to the women as soldiers, despite the fact that it is
their presence that undermines both Othello and Antonys ability to carry out
their duties as military leaders. Arriving in Cyprus, Othello greets
Desdemona, O, my fair warrior (Act 2, Scene1 176) and similarly Antony
refers to Cleopatra as my warrior in Act 4, Scene 8 (although this is after the
battle at Actium). But when Cleopatra flees at Actium, Antony follows, leaving
his men without a leader. He later rebukes her for her actions, and when she
says she did not think he would follow her, replies:

You did know
How much you were my conqueror, and that
My sword, made weak by my affection, would
Obey it on all cause.

Antony builds on military imagery to describe their relationship but he is under
her control, she is his conqueror, and not his warrior. He is now subject to
his affection and can only obey it he has lost control of himself by loving
Cleopatra. This is expanded the in the image that his sword is made weak
by his passion for her. This image is not only phallic, but one of power,
showing that Antony not only sees his love of Cleopatra ultimately as a
surrender but also as a loss of manhood. Likewise, Desdemonas presence,
in leaving her vulnerable to Iagos slander, is Othellos undoing. As Iagos
power over Othello grows, Othello finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a
balance between his relationship with Desdemona and his public duties. For
example, in Act 4, Scene 1, Othello slaps Desdemona in front of a visiting
Senator, Lodovico, who is astonished at this behaviour. Othello is enraged at
Desdemona for wishing Cassio well and his inability to control his rage is
demonstrated in his language as well as his actions, when he addresses

Concerning this, sir O, well-painted passion!-
I am commanded home get you away!
Ill send for you anon.- Sir, I obey the mandate,
And will return to Venice. Hence, avaunt! (259-262)

Othellos disjointed speech darts between his official duties and his rage
towards Desdemona. His attempts to address Lodovico on the business at
hand are peppered with furious exclamations (O, well-painted passion), and
aggressive commands to Desdemona (-get you away!). It is evident to the
audience as well as the other characters that Othello has lost control of his
emotions, a fatal situation for a general. In this scene he cannot keep his
professional and personal feelings separate, just as Antony cannot carry out
his position as a leader around Cleopatra both men suffer a loss of self-
control which leaves them unable to carry out their duty as soldiers.

This tension between duty and desire in a military context is echoed and
varied in the actions of other characters. In Antony and Cleopatra,
Enobarbus suicide is in reaction to Antonys lack of self-control, and
structurally augurs Antonys own suicide. As it becomes clear that Antony is
doomed to fail against Caesar, Enobarbus defects, and in doing so defies his
duty to Antony. In recognition of his dishonourable behaviour, he leaves
Caesar and kills himself in a ditch. His miserable suicide prefaces Antonys
own botched attempt. However, it is clear that though unable to live up to it,
Enobarbus does feel a sense of duty even if his desire to escape it gets the
better of him. In contrast, Iago completely lacks a sense of duty to anyone
other than himself. In Act 1, Scene 1, in order to convince Roderigo that he is
not loyal to Othello, he says:

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.

Iago is lacks any sense of duty or indeed morality; he is only concerned with
seeming, not being. His lack of duty is morally abhorrent, whereas most
audiences sympathise to some extent with the difficulty Enobarbus, Antony
and Othello have in upholding their duties. These characters are not
maliciously undutiful, whereas Iago manipulates other characters perception
of his love and duty for his particular end. It is also interesting how Iago
links love and duty when it is Antony and Othellos love that makes it
impossible for them to uphold their duty. Perhaps it is instead an excessive of
emotion rather than love that contradicts their duty. In the Jonathon Miller
production of Othello, it is Othello himself who drops the handkerchief (Iagos
only piece of evidence against Desdemona) suggesting that Othello is in part
the cause of his own overwhelming jealousy that he desires to believe the
worst of Desdemona. As for Antony it is his passion for Cleopatra that is his
undoing, and for Enobarbus his desire to flee at Antonys increasing

Antony and Othello are also paralleled by Cleopatra and Desdemona
respectively. Cleopatra does not seem to have lost control or a sense of duty
in the same way that Antony has. She is as captivated by him as he is with
her; he talks of needing to be freed from these Egyptian fetters in Act 1,
Scene 2, whilst she says of Antony,

O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

Here it is clear that Cleopatra feelings for Antony are all consuming; though
she may not have lost control, I am all forgotten suggests that she has lost
her sense of self. But then Cleopatra seems to live by her sensuality and
charm (having had relationships with Caesar and Pompey the elder), and so
this passion seems to be a part of her and she does not seem to have lost out
by succumbing to it. In contrast to Antony, her suicide is majestic, and there
is a sense that she has won out in the end by cheating Caesar. Antonys
suicide, though motivated by love for Cleopatra, also seems to be an
acceptance of defeat, because as he is losing the war against Caesar and the
loyalty of some of his men, there is little else for him to live for, whereas
Cleopatra still has Egypt, and kills herself anyway. Similarly Desdemona
does not dishonour herself by her own standards. But in contrast,
Desdemona recognises that she does have a duty, a duty to her husband, to
uphold, and succeeds. Even when Othello kills her, she does not betray him,
and her last line, to Emilia, is,

Commend me to my kind lord O, farewell! (Act 5, Scene2 126)

Desdemona is clear where her duty lies, and even at the point when the
audience would sympathise with her revealing Othellos crime she does not.
Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that Othello is incapable of recognising
Desdemonas loyalty to him, because he primarily sees their relationship as
deceitful because Desdemona deceived her father. Yet both she and
Cleopatra remain true to that they perceive as their duties and so their deaths,
though tragic, do not signify a defeat or loss of character on their behalves.

Desdemonas unfailing sense of duty to Othello is more obviously paralleled
by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Although, as the play progresses, Desdemona
is bewildered at Othellos behaviour, she vows in Act 4, Scene 2,

Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love. (Act 4 Scene 2 158-160)

This is exactly what happens; Othellos unkindness against Desdemona
leads to her death but does not kill her love. Similarly, when Juliet hears that
Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt, she is at first horrified, but does not give
up on Romeo. When told she must marry Paris, she ignores the Nurses
advice to remarry and forget about Romeo and instead decides,

Ill go to the Friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.

Juliet would sooner die than betray her husband, and finally like Antony and
Cleopatra, as well as Romeo, she would rather dies than live without the one
she loves. Another parallel between Desdemona and Juliet, aside from this
devotion to their husbands, is that they flout filial duty in pursuit of their
desires. Both women marry secretly (although Desdemonas marriage is
soon made public), and both break social convention when they marry. In the
source thought to have been most relied on by Shakespeare in writing Romeo
and Juliet, Arthur Brookes The Tragicall Historye Of Romeus and Juliet,
Brooke prefaces his story with an address to the reader, in which he tells the
reader to take the story as a cautionary tale, the consequences of young
lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and
advise of parents, although the poem itself does not adopt this tone.
Likewise, Thomas Rymer, a seventeenth century critic, saw Othello as an
example of what would happen to young women who did not obey their
fathers. When Desdemona marries Othello, Brabantio believes his daughter
has been abused, stolenand corrupted, whilst in marrying Romeo, Juliet
breaks a time-honoured rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues, as
does Romeo (although this is undermined to some extent when he kills
Tybalt). These three characters choose where there duty lies, and ultimately
they do not betray it.

Romeo and Juliets relationship in relation to the tension between duty and
desire is quite different to Antony and Cleopatras and Othello and
Desdemonas. All three of these relationships defy social convention; Othello
and Desdemonas as well as Antony and Cleopatras to some extent as being
interracial, and also Antony and Cleopatras for being illicit. Romeo and Juliet
defy the rivalry of their fathers, but like Othello and Desdemona their
relationship is legitimized by marriage. On of the great differences between
Romeo and Juliets marriage compared to the other relationships is that at no
point do they directly betray each other. Antony remarries in order to save his
alliance with Caesar, and in Act 3, Scene 8, it is not clear whether or not
Cleopatra really intends to give up Antony in order to strike a deal with
Caesar. Othello is incapable of trusting Desdemona above Iago, even though
what little evidence he produces is flimsy. But Romeo and Juliet always
uphold their duty to one another as husband and wife, and there is no
breakdown in there relationship. Even when Juliet hears that Romeo has
killed Tybalt, Juliet quickly calms down and berates herself for being angry
with Romeo and doubting his goodness,

And Tybalts dead, that would have slain my husband
All this is comfort. Wherefore I weep then?

For Juliet, all that matters is that Romeo lives because she loves him and her
duty to him is greater than her duty to her family. Romeos misplaced sense
of duty in killing Tybalt, though it leads to Romeo and Juliets separation and
instigates the arrangement of the marriage for Paris and Juliet, it does not
lessen the love between the couple.

This duty to maintain the grudge, on the part of Tybalt and other members of
both households, seems somewhat misplaced. From the prologue, the
enmity is described,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

The rivalry is described as a mutiny, a rebellion against authority, and the
idea of making hands unclean is an image that implies dishonour. It
suggests the idea of having blood on ones hands, responsibility for
wrongdoing. This ancient grudge is presented as lacking reason. The
Prince sets a decree against these two households to prevent further
bloodshed. Furthermore, when Tybalt sees Romeo at the Capulet party, even
Capulet stops Tybalt from starting a fight with Romeo. It is clear that this duty
to fight is misplaced, and so Tybalts attempts to provoke fights are unjustified,
but although Romeo may be seriously provoked, he is not justified in killing
Tybalt and avenging Mercutio. But this duty creates a tension between
Romeo and Juliets desire to be together, because no matter how they try to
make light of it (Whats in a name?), it still exists and finally leads them to
their deaths.

In these plays, although the treatment of duty and desire is varied, it is only
ever really resolved by death. Antony, Othello and even Enobarbus (though
to a lesser extent) cannot act as soldiers when they are faced with
overwhelming desire or emotion; they are incapable of stopping themselves
and ultimately choose death. In contrast, though Desdemona, Romeo and
Juliet in upholding their duty to the ones they love, die, they dont compromise
themselves to the pint where this is the only way out, and this is true to some
extent for Cleopatra, though she does not seem to perceive a sense of duty.
In Romeo and Juliet social duties and duties to ones family mean that the
couple are essentially doomed because they pursue their desire. In the end,
though duty and desire are not always clearly in direct conflict in these
tragedies, it is one tension that undermines and breaks down the characters,
making death inevitable.