Sunday, October 13, 2019

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare 

Some innocents scape not the thunderbolt ~ Cleopatra

Not that Cleopatra was innocent mind you. Ugh, what a shrew.

Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy by Shakespeare, though some call it a problem play – neither clearly historical, comedy, nor tragedy. It is of course about the turbulent love affair of Marcus Antonius, one of the triumvirs of Rome, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

The historical events of Antony and Cleopatra follow the assassination of Julius Caesar, which was portrayed in Shakespeare’s play of that name. After Julius Caesar, Rome was ruled by the triumvirate of Lepidus, Marc Antony, and Caesar Octavian (adopted heir of Julius Caesar), later known as Caesar Augustus.

But already, the triumvirate is challenged externally, and eroding internally. Antony is in Egypt while Octavius needs help back in Rome, holding off challenger Pompey. Antony delays his return, as he is loath to leave the beguiling queen.

Antony’s own men know that Cleopatra is making a fool of him, as one of them describes Antony as:
          The triple pillar of the world transform’d
          Into a strumpet’s fool

Though they are not without sympathy, as all men admire her charm and beauty:
          Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
          Her infinite variety: other women clay
          The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry

Eventually Antony can ignore the summons to Rome no longer, particularly when he learns his wife (yeah, he was married), has died. He tears himself away, in spite of Cleopatra’s protests and returns to Rome to patch things up with Caesar. The two have some terse words, but Antony eventually confesses his negligence, and to seal the renewed loyalty, Antony agrees to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia.

Cleopatra is not going to like that. In fact, there is a comical scene when a messenger brings word to Cleopatra. She makes it clear, she only wants good news and will punish the bearer of bad news.
          Messenger – Madam, he’s well
          Cleopatra – Well said
          Messenger – And friends with Caesar
          Cleopatra – Thou’rt an honest man
          Messenger – Caesar and he are greater friends than ever
          Cleopatra – Make thee a fortune of me
          Messenger – But yet, madam…
          Cleopatra – I do not like but yet!

When he breaks the news that Antony has remarried, she beats him.

He learns his lesson though, as later when she summons him again and asks him to describe Antony’s bride, who was a beauty herself – the messenger tells the queen that Octavia is short, fat, and dull. 

Let me warn you about these people (Shakespeare’s characters): they are as fickle as a Michigan spring. It’s back and forth, up and down, love and hate, friendship and treachery. And it’s a tragedy, so you know it doesn’t end well for the principals. Antony, takes his own life, not so much for losing in battle to Octavius, but for betraying his friend and ally. Cleopatra takes her own life, not so much for losing Antony, but because she isn’t about to be paraded through the streets of Rome as the conquered Queen. 

Caesar Octavius is magnanimous throughout. When he learns of the death of Antony, whom he was just battled against, he laments:
     The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack:
     The round world should have shook lions into civil streets
     And citizens to their dens

I did not care for this play as much as the prequel. I admired Antony in Julius Caesar, so it pained me to see him reduced and so ignoble. Cleopatra? Didn’t like her all. Octavius was pretty steadfast, but the play isn’t really about him, so it didn’t quite compensate. Still, and again, it is a tragedy and it is Shakespeare – a very compelling tale.

Other excerpts:

O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm
Whose eye beck’d forth my wars and call’d them home ~ Antony

And I especially like this line from a soldier, who advised Antony to fight on land, and not at sea:
Let the Egyptians and the Phoenicians go a-ducking: we have used to conquer standing on the earth


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