Absolutely sublime play. Re-reading it after many many years and still bowled over. A GCSE set text; an integral part of Degree level “tragedy” unit (other people got to play with dead bodies, I learned how to be miserable: thanks Cambridge!!); and a vital part of my make up!
As I write, please near in mind this confession: I adore Cleopatra! With and because of all her faults, I adore her. I see in her echoes of all my favourite Shakespearean characters and feel personally convinced that Shakespeare wrote the part for the same actor who played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in Henry IV, perhaps even Hamlet. That same boundary between comedy and tragedy, life and death, ribaldry and poetry is danced by them all!
Maybe more on that connection in a future post…
So, the story (which is by far the least important part of this play) revolves around the eponymous Anthony, one of the thee rulers of Rome along with Octavian Caeser and Lepidus, and the wonderful Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Our first scene Opens with soldiers Demetrius and Philo berating Anthony for allowing his gaze to “now bend, now turn… Upon a tawny front” and become nothing more than a “fan / To cool a gypsy’s lust”.
Even now I feel aggrieved at that description of my Cleo! But love the unreliability of our commentators: Roman to the core, bored in the hedonism of Egypt, aching for battle. Their words undermined by her scene stealing appearance.
We quickly learn of politics that drag Anthony from his lover’s bed: his wife has waged war on Caesar; pirate lords rule the sea; Caesar needs him. So Anthony heeds the call of duty. And herein lies one of the cores of the play: the dichotomy and conflict between Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, land (firm and solid and reliable) and the water (treacherous and changeable), the square and the circle, marriage and love.
It is when Anthony returns to Rome that we see the latter: being passionately in love with Cleo (and yes I do think it is love not infatuation) he agrees to marry Caesar’s sister in order to apologise for his first dead wife’s war. Seriously. Was that ever going to end well?
The war with the pirate lord Pompey dissipates in a scene with a peace treaty and Anthony is soon back in bed with Cleopatra (whose reaction to news of his wedding had not been terribly gracious and left the messenger rather bruised, timid and obsequious.
Anthony and Caesar fall out again, rather quickly – something to do with the division of Pompey’s lands and Lepidus but the politics really didn’t interest me: Shakespeare is at heart a domestic rather than epic writer. Another war starts and Anthony – with a massive aromas land army at his back – takes to the seas to attack Caesar’s superior, vaster, quicker navy, principally because he is lent the Egyptian navy. D’uh! Cleo, I love you, but you ain’t no strategist!
They flee; Enobarbus (Anthony’s lieutenant) and Hercules (his divine protector) abandon him; Caesar tempts Cleopatra to betray Anthony. Enobarbus’ abandonment and regret and Anthony’s generosity to him afterwards is a wonderfully lyrical scene which I had completely forgotten about! His death is tear jerking.
Another battle, another loss, another flight led by Cleopatra again.
Cleopatra gives word that she has died in order to win Anthony back; Anthony takes his own life; she takes hers in reality (once you’ve got a good ending why change it, eh, Will?!).
It is not the plot though that drives this play! It is the character of Cleopatra (I love you, Cleo). The beauty of the language here is outstanding even for Shakespeare: the
Age shall not wither her
speech is worth the price of the book or theatre admission itself. That Cleopatra – played in 1600, as everyone knows, by a boy actor – is horrified at the prospect of
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore
is a wonderful piece of modernist metatextuality 400 years before modernism!
It is sublime and amazing and so full of gems! Not the best Shakespeare play (which honour goes to King Lear) but sparkling poetry and – have I mentioned – I love Cleopatra!