In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses one of the most famous lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra
‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’: these words are among the most well-known and oft-quoted from William Shakespeare’s late tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, about the love affair between Mark Antony and the Queen of Egypt. But what precisely do these lines mean? There’s more to them than meets the eye. So, in the tradition of these Friday Secret Library columns, let’s probe the words a little more closely.
The scene is Act 2, Scene 2 of Antony and Cleopatra. Enobarbus, a follower of Mark Antony, has just been describing the appearance of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, as she rode her barge down the river Cydnus and Mark Antony first clapped eyes on her and fell head-over-heels in love with her. Enobarbus’ companions, Agrippa and Maecenas, are struck by the almost magical description of Cleopatra on her barge, but awe soon gives way to worry. Cleopatra has previously brought no lesser a man than Julius Caesar under her spell; now, she’s done the same with Mark Antony.
Maecenas asserts that Antony must leave Cleopatra. But Enobarbus responds:
Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
Enobarbus replies that Mark Antony will never leave Cleopatra. In one of the most famous lines from the whole play, he says that age cannot wither her, and her charms are so endlessly varied that she never grows boring to Antony.
It is worth stopping to ponder these words from the play. They’re well-known and often quoted, but does Enobarbus mean them? Clearly he was impressed by the spectacle of Cleopatra on the river aboard her barge, surrounded by all her pomp; but one can also imagine, given the bluntness of that ‘Never; he will not’, a touch of annoyance that Cleopatra has brought Enobarbus’ leader, the man he follows and trusts, under her spell. One can imagine the actor playing Enobarbus rolling his eyes and delivering these lines in a tone of faint mockery: ‘Age cannot wither her, apparently, nor custom stale her infinite variety’ (followed by another eye roll).
And even if he is being serious, does he mean literally that Cleopatra does not seem to be capable of ageing (all that bathing in asses’ milk must be good for the skin)? Or does he mean that, although she will physically wither with age and develop wrinkles, Mark Antony is so lovestruck that she will always appear to him as she did on that barge, beautiful and smooth-skinned? ‘Nor custom stale’, John Wilders notes in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare), echoes an old proverbial expression, ‘as stale as custom’. Meanwhile, ‘nor custom stale her infinite variety’ as a whole recalls another proverb: ‘Variety takes away satiety.’ Catchy.
Enobarbus’ words have been alluded to many times by numerous writers and speechmakers down the centuries. But one of the most prominent allusions to ‘Age cannot wither her’, in one of the most famous poems in the English language, is often missed by those who hear the poem. And I say ‘hear’ because it is a poem more often heard than read. I’m talking about Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, often recited as part of Remembrance Sunday commemorations for those who fought and died in the First World War:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Note the slightly archaic wording of Binyon’s first line: ‘They shall grow not old’, rather than ‘They shall not grow old’ (Peter Jackson, in producing his remarkable 2018 film which modernised and colourised original black-and-white footage from the Great War, chose also to modernist the word order of Binyon’s phrase). But the other thing that is often missed is the allusion to Enobarbus’ lines about Cleopatra.
‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’ clearly recalls ‘Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ As with the Biblical and metaphysical allusions earlier in the poem, this allusion to Enobarbus’ grand description of the regal queen of antiquity associates the soldiers of the Great War with two great figures from the past: Cleopatra, a great leader of her people, and Shakespeare, the greatest English poet. The dominant tone of the poem is proudly patriotic, solemn yet celebratory of the bravery of the soldiers.
But of course, Binyon’s use of Enobarbus’ phrase also hides a dark truth: age would not weary the dead of the Great War because they will never have the chance to grow old. The line treads a fine line between glorification of the dead (they will not grow old because we will always keep their memory fresh) and mourning their loss (they will not, like many of us, have the opportunity to live long lives into old age).
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.
Image: by Eslam17, via Wikimedia Commons.