Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra contains one of the most compelling character studies in all of literature. Amazingly, this can be said of several of the Bard’s plays. What sets Antony and Cleopatra apart is that this work contains not one, but two of these fantastically crafted personas, Antony and Cleopatra.

 A little clarification to start; my commentary here is restricted to Shakespeare’s play. Strangely, some sources seem to blur this fictional work with the real people and historical events that the play is based upon. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, may not be coincidental, but are essentially inaccurate! Some commentators seem also to confuse Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with other very different versions of the pair that have been portrayed in movies and television programs that have been produced in the past hundred years or so. This version is a fiction, and it is Shakespeare’s fiction.

The story is relatively simple. Antony, one of Rome’s rulers, and Cleopatra the monarch of Egypt are lovers. They ultimately lead the losing side of a Roman Civil War. After several battles and personal tribulations, the armies of Octavius Caesar defeat their forces. In the end, both commit very nobly portrayed suicides.

Both Antony and Cleopatra are represented as multi-faceted, complex people. Shakespeare had a knack, when he concentrated on a character, of seeming to create real people. He also endows these creations with plentiful doses of enigma and ambiguity. That is why these are so many alternate interpretations of his works.

Since volumes can be written about this play and its protagonists, I will confine most of my musings here to Shakespeare’s sublime portrayal of Cleopatra, who to me, is just a little bit more interesting then Antony.

An initial reading of Antony and Cleopatra reveals some obvious points about the Queen of Egypt. She is promiscuous, manipulative, self centered, hysterical, theatrical and dishonest. These are all accurate descriptors of her personality. When it comes to Shakespeare however, things are rarely simple. These personality flaws only tell part of the story.

Cleopatra is an expert seducer and manipulator of powerful men. To some extent she has wrapped Julius Cesar, Pompey and finally, Mark Antony around her finger. At one point she brags about her capture of Antony. In several other sequences she plays emotional games with him. Cleopatra ‘s conquests are not innocent and love smitten school - boys, instead they are the most powerful, experienced and confident men in the world. When her side is totally defeated by Octavius, she even manages to enthrall one of Octavius’s lieutenants into aiding her! The impression is that this woman exudes an unmatched erotic and sensual influence over men. She is the epitome of erogenous power. Many of the males soldiers and politicians on the outside of her affections looking in, describe her, using words such as “strumpet” and “whore.”

Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of another angle however. Many scenes involving Cleopatra’s intrigues are interposed with other scenes exemplifying the actions of the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Roman leadership consisting of Octavius, Mark Antony and other general/politicians are constantly using their expertise and skill in making political mischief and war. These conflicts are fueled by an insatiable petty lust for power. At one point Shakespeare seems to compare the Roman leaders to pirates. These men exert enormous and malevolent power.

With this contrast, Shakespeare seems to be putting Cleopatra's seductions and machinations in a little different light. While in no way a virtuous person, Cleopatra is using her erotic influences, in competition with men who wield vast military and political power. The Roman leadership and military’s way is to kill, rob and enslaving people over vast segments of the world. This is a world of not just hardball maneuvers; it is a world of blood –sport. The Queen of Egypt is using her talents to cope and compete, in a less brutal way as compared to the Roman powers, in a very tough and nasty world. She is startlingly effective in doing so.

The question that inevitably arises is, does Cleopatra love Antony? This is difficult to say since every word uttered by the queen is of questionable verity. She certainly does not experience a love of the healthy and balanced type. At one point she even seems to take several steps in the direction of betraying Antony to Octavius. Of course this is after Antony has taken more then a few steps toward betraying Cleopatra, by marrying and settling down of with Octavia, who is Octavius’s sister, for political reasons. I do surmise however, that Cleopatra’s consistent protestations of love and adoration for Antony, even at the moment of her own death, do point to a dysfunctional, unstable, and odd kind of love. In Cleopatra’s world, love, even if in some ways genuine, is close enough to being a tool, that it does not completely preclude the possibility of betrayal.

Finally, Cleopatra’s death is grand and dignified. Prior to her suicide, after Antony’s death, she seems certainly willing to continue to “play the game” to her advantage. When it becomes clear that Octavius will not succumb to her charms, and that enormous degradation lies ahead for her, killing oneself, is the clearly only alternative for a person such as she is. Throughout the play, her lines are a wonder to read, as they express the full range of her often theatrically expressed emotions. The language spoken by her at the end is some of the most eloquent and moving in all of Shakespeare’s works. It illustrates her majesty as well as her ultimate spiritual connection with Antony.

Does all this mean that Shakespeare was a Feminist? The portrayal of a woman who uses seduction to advance in the world, is in some ways the antitheses of Feminine ideology. In addition the concept of Feminism did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. However, at the very least, in my opinion, there is sympathy expressed here for the position and predicaments that women have found themselves in throughout history. I would describe these ideas as being “proto –feminist”.

The somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Cleopatra aside, the template of the emotionally manipulative and erotically irresistible woman, shaped in this play, has influenced writers down through the centuries. Many have imitated, but have never matched this magnificent portrayal of such a person.  William Shakespeare, created in Cleopatra is an enormous persona of unmatched gravitas and complexity.


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Brian Joseph said...

Angie - Thank you so much. I am embarrassed by your kindness! I appreciate the good word!

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, "Antony & Cleopatra" is one of my favourite plays, but the problem with favourite works is that when you want to talk about it, you don't know where to start. (Or, indeed, where to end.) I wrote about it on my blog a couple of years ago (see in the comments section that follows, I have a little discussion on the play with my brother.)Looking back on what I wrote, I don't think I'd even begun to scratch the surface.

One thing that strikes me now is that although Antony and Cleopatra speak some ebautiful lines about love, they rarely speak these lines to each other. The picture Cleopatra paints on Antony after his death is nothing like what Anony was in real life. It makes me wonder whether they actually love each other as people, or whether they love the concept of love itself. But then again, I think of that wonderful moment when Antony, dying in agony, hears that Cleopatra had only faked her death, and she is really alive: ther eis no bitterness, no acrimony - despite his own state, he is just happy.

Octavius is an interesting character. In many ways, he embodies the puritan ideals of work and responsibility. He speaks at one point of a time of "eternal peace" - a concept that would never have occurred either to Antony or to Cleopatra.

There is so much to say about this inexhaustible work. Thank you for writing about it.

I've been fortunate enough to see this on stge several times - most notably a production featuring Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter as A&C. This summer at the Chichester Festival, they're putting on a production with Michael Pennington, one of our finest Shakespearean actors, as Antony, and Kim Cattarall as Cleopatra. My wife & I will certainly be booking tickets for that.

Best wishes,

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the comments Himadri. You know I noticed that you had commentary up about this play when I first discovered your Blog, I think that I was in the middle of this current reread. I intentionally did not read your post at the time, as I was afraid I might unintentionally steal your thoughts. I just read your commentary, it is very insightful and well worth the read.

These great and complex works are very difficult to comprehensively cover in a blog. I like the idea of focusing on one aspect that intrigued me a going with it!

I agree that it is really difficult to determine if Antony and Cleopatra really loved one another. It might be dependent upon one’s definition of love. It certainly was no match made in heaven! You wrote above, “makes me wonder whether they actually love each other as people, or whether they love the concept of love itself” I agree and would add that they may also be in love with the idea of just talking about love! They are such theatrical personas.

I have heard about Michael Pennington's performances, but alas I do not believe that I have ever seen him in a Shakespeare production. Kim Cattrall seems like she was born for the role! Please let us know your impressions after you have seen it.

Brian Joseph said...

Himadri – I have been thinking about your comments on Octavius. I think that you got it exactly right when you observed that neither Antony or Cleopatra’s would ever have, or profess to have any kind of world vision. Of course they are much too narcissistic. It is also telling that Octavius does not succumb to Cleopatra’s charms, which makes him a rarity among males in the universe of this play.

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, one of the main problems with trying to discuss this play is that it's so hard to pin the characters down! They all seem to be so many things at the same time. Octavius, I think, displays the qualities associated with Puritanism. (Shapespeare mentions Puritanism directly in Twelfth Night, where it is suggested at one point that Malvolio is a Puritan.) He takes his responsibilities seriously, but is cold: that he is the only man in the play able to resist Cleopatra's attractions makes him good as a ruler, but unlikeable as a person. But then again, he is genuinely moved when he heats of Antony's death!

You're right of course - we can only focus on certain aspects of works as inexhaustible as this. I'll certainly report back on the forthcoming production.

All the best,

Brian Joseph said...

Hello Himadri - As usual your comments are thought provoking! I think that you are correct on the Puritanism - Octavius parallel. Though I am not certain whether or not Octavius will really make a good ruler (I must point out again, that I am not referring to the real Octavius, just Shakespeare’s fictional character). I often detect a cynicism in Shakespeare towards kings and other men of power. Octavius talks a great game, but like the other Roman leaders, perhaps the lust or power is his prime motivation. Of course, as you mentioned, these characters are so complex it is very easy to see it both ways!

by.suzette said...

Hi Brian,
I really enjoyed reading this post, although I'm not familiar on any of Shakespeare's work, it was very interesting to read. It has also inspired a bit intrest in me to do some research on Shakespeare.

The other reason I enjoyed this post is I'm facinated by the story of Cleopatra. I can't personally say I agree with her methods to compete in a blood and power thirsty world, but none the less her character is interesting.

As I'm not familiar with the original work, so my thoughts may not be accurate, after reading the above comments on Antony and Cleopatra loveing the concept of love and not actually being in love made me think of the comments you made about Cleopatra being a expert seducer and manipulator. Maybe they weren't in love and gave a vision of love, as a manipulator Cleopatra would well have know that two are stronger than one, and as Queen of Egypt the vision of power and control by love was far more valuble than love itself.

Anyways, I could write all day about what I think, so I may in fact do a blog post on both Cleopatra and Shakespeare.

Thankyou for the inspiration.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suzy - Thank you for the feedback. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post.

You make an interesting point about Antony and Cleopatra possibly attempting to project the image of a couple in love. Their characters are portrayed as super exhibitionists iand I suspect both would want such an image perpetuated throughout the world, both to enhance their power and to stoke their vanity.

I think that I would really enjoy it if you put up posts on both Cleopatra and Shakespeare. Though I have an avid interest in history, my knowledge about the real Cleopatra is sketchy at best. Stacy Schiff recently wrote a biography titled “Cleopatra: A Life “that looks great. I will really try to read soon.