Can I erase from my mind the images of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton making love? The "parade" when Cleopatra entered Rome? The magic sails of Cleopatra's barge? It's all Hollywood, of course...
Antony and Cleopatra is not one of the plays when I think of Shakespeare. I have only seen a dodgy film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as I've said above, and, of course, “Carry On Cleo” with the famous line said Kenneth Williams 'In for me I for me, they have all got it in for me.' "Dodgy version" hahaha! That film really should have been called "Dick & Liz in Egypt" - all I can remember is Richard's knees in that Roman outfit and Liz's ubiquitous eyeliner.
The first important tragedy by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (R&J), is a love story, like Antony and Cleopatra (A&C), the last of his greatest tragedies. But they are different on many aspects: first, the age of the lovers: teenagers in R&J, and approaching middle-age in A&C; in R&J the action lasts four days, in A&C it covers a period of several years; Juliet is candid, Cleopatra is deceitful; Romeo and Juliet prefer death to a life without love, Antony is torn between love and the desire to resume his position in the Roman empire; in R&J the obstacles to love are external factors, in A&C they are internal, as the lovers’ own hesitations, doubts and betrayals. But there are also many similarities: one of the two lovers’ death is due to poison and the other’s to a cutting weapon; both the men die in a sepulchral monument; in both the plays there is the false report of the woman’s death. These can’t be coincidences. The second theme at the centre of A&C is the conflict between public responsibilities and private affections, already dealt in Henry V: there the former prevailed, here the latter. This theme is worth being studied in depth because it’s topical when referred to the present day politics.
I remember have read Plutarch's "Parallel Lives" in my youth, not as a primal source of knowledge but as a consequence of so many novels and films and series -I mean historical fictions- I used to read and watch from my very own childhood. At some point I felt the need to get a further idea about how all these characters I've met through Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Bernard Shaw, Cecil B. De Mille, Manckiewiczs (and by derivation the very Shakespeare in this case) and so forth, had been portrayed by ancient historians, those who were closer to the historic period of them. I'm glad to have been able to understand the inverse path, I mean, how Plutarch had been the origin of Shakespeare historic plays.
After having read the play now along with “Parallel Lives”, I can’t stop thinking about Cleopatra’s behaviour and I can't also avoid associating her -the fictional and even the historical she- with Lady Macbeth's thirst of power, her incommensurable ambition and the warped ways she puts her partner under pressure to push him to uses any resource -even the most crazy or unscrupulous- to reach the top of the political stage. A sort of messianic delirium to be sure.
I was also intrigued by the first scene featuring the soothsayer, when Charmian and Iras are off duty. It's a fun moment that becomes poignant later when their fortunes come true. We've seen Antony share the stage with a soothsayer before, and wars are won or lost due partly to fortune, so I looked for that word. There are 45 instances, with the first dozen in that scene alone.
If fortune favors the brave, Antony must be a coward. He's such a politician, and it's only Cleopatra who sees him as a warrior or emperor. He even botches his own suicide: "I have done my work ill, friends. O, make an end / Of what I have begun." Then he has to die a slow death, thanks to the well-worn device of the messenger telling him too late that his lady has only faked her death. I feel he's being mocked here - by Fortune as well as Shakespeare.
In the end Cleopatra, like her women, recognizes Fortune's power. She remains defiant as she consoles herself: "'Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will." Publicly, though, she admits she's the vassal of Octavius' fortune. She's a politician too, but obviously that's not enough when one wants to rule the world.
I’ve said this before. Reading a play is not the same as watching it. This time round, I particularly liked it being brought to notice how Mark Antony, from Cleopatra's reflections, was almost 'God Like' ... I believe I would miss much and have seen, his being seen, as a great soldier ... Another indication of Antony's god-like status is the line 'His legs bestrid the ocean'. This is doubtless a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. This was a giant bronze statue of the titan-god of the sun Helios, and was thought to have straddled the entrance to Rhodes harbour.
Shakespeare also refers to the Colossus in other plays:
'Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs'
'And stands colossus-wise, waving his beam,
Upon the pashed corses of the kings
Epistrophus and Cedius'
("Troilus and Cressida")
Falstaff: Hal, if thou see me down in the battle and bestride me, so; 'tis a point of friendship.
Prince Henry: Nothing but a colossus can do thee that friendship.
("Henry IV, Part 1")
Reading the play really brought home the human tragedy of a great man with so much going for him, who 'loses it' - his reputation, his god-like status, the values and expectations of his country, all for the love of a manipulative, egocentric woman. I'm not sure whether someone can convince me to be more compassionate! (Though not great, nevertheless a king, it reminds me of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.)
Shakespeare's description of the very air being lovesick from Cleopatra is just stunning- his words leave me breathless in admiration.
What a performance Cleopatra is giving in the play! I love the scene where she tells her ladies in waiting what to tell Mark Antony. Or when she calls the messenger back to describe Octavia to her. These moments are the most sincere of all. That's who Cleopatra is! A spoilt capricious woman who has it her way. She is definitely always in performance in the play. Do you think she really loves Antony? He is clearly infatuated by her as all the secondary characters report to us (Philo, act 1, sci, Demetrius- ibid, Enobarbus, act 1, sc ii, Ceasar, act 1, sc IV, Pompey, act2, sci, etc...) we learn about the couple through the others, but we do not have them alone, the two of them on stage as we do have Romeo and Juliet) Therefore question : is this a play about a mature couple's love as we have usually said about A&C? Is Cleopatra really in love with Antony? What is Shakespeare telling us again? Look how one can lose a kingdom / everything he's got cause manipulated by a foreign element? Does this ring a bell? Is Shakespeare trying to tell England that if she wants to be powerful she has to stand on her own? Like Elizabeth had previously done?
Pascal remarked, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” As Plutarch said she was not the staggering kind of beauty, but she had the wealth and means to put on a show in which of course she was the main star. That she was charismatic we can only guess-after all she seduced two very powerful Roman generals: Caesar and Anthony. As for the rest she was probably well educated, manipulative, and histrionic and patient. She patiently waited for her wishes and dreams of power and magnificence to come true.
I was surprised at how closely Shakespeare drew from the Plutarch translation, but what he has done with the original is Shakespeare's own: classical, amazingly sensuous and sensual, just sublime. I love the section of the play as it tingles with the excitement and awe at the arrival of Cleopatra...just wonderful.
Shakespeare masterfully succeeds in transforming Plutarch's description of Cleopatra into a poetic paean of praise for her skills as an intelligent charismatic woman and not just for her beauty alone. The repeated sibilant sound of the letters throughout those lines brings to mind the soughing of the breeze as Cleopatra's barge is rowed down the Nile. Poor Mark Antony didn't stand a chance when pitted against such a feisty woman!
Shakespeare's admiration for her matches that of his admiration for Antony. Meanwhile Octavious comes across as a grumpy old man by way of comparison.
This is the first I’ve read, in parallel, one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the work on which it was based. It was quite illuminating.
The more I learn about Shakespeare the more I wonder how the son of a glover, without the benefit of a University education, managed to write such brilliant multi layered plays, capturing the imagery of distant lands as well as in depth characterisation and plotting, and all in a short space of time, in between his own acting career. We glibly say he was a genius, but he really was on a par, in his own way, with Leonardo da Vinci. The education Shakespeare received at the grammar school was the equivalent of a classics degree. And John Shakespeare wasn't just a Glover; he also mayor of Stratford and as one of the leading burgesses of the town his son would have had the automatic benefit of free education at the school. School days were incredibly long often starting at 6am and continuing till 6pm. And yes it did also help being a genius. I’m an Engineer and I always say that what you learned at University was not an end in itself, it was only the beginning. A student should be curious all the time and keep on learning not only in his chosen field but in all life's experiences. Shakespeare may not have had a University education but I think his reading and natural curiosity would have broadened his mind to the extent that he was able to write about all kinds of situations. His natural talent and genius would then take over and produce the beautiful poetry and fascinating plays based on his self-taught knowledge. I wonder about some elements in the culture or way of thinking about events or motivations or other things. Such as a thing and its opposite. Of course this is valid thinking. Yet it is dramatic thinking. So I'm just mulling over the idea of subtlety and whether subtlety itself is real or avoidant. We have conflict occurring more often when the thinking is I am right you are wrong than when people listen to each other with understanding as the focus. Do stories depicting conflict influence history as well as history influence stories? My question reminds me of some folk saying we need different narratives. Just puzzling out loud here as usual when I’m in Shakespeare mode…
NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.