Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Antony and Cleopatra - Shakespeare

The action in 'Antony and Cleopatra' takes place some years after the events of 'Julius Caesar'.  The power struggle in Rome is down to three men, Marc Antony, Pompey (the Great) and Octavious Caesar.  Antony has been spending time in Egypt and he is hopelessly fallen for their queen, Cleopatra.  So much so, that his men are whispering behind his back at how much of a fool he has become.  And she really does have him completely at her mercy.
Word comes to Egypt that Antony's wife in Rome has died.  (Yeah, he's a cad.)  He has to rush away.  Once there, he marries again(!) to secure an alliance with Caesar.  He does this with open eyes and it seems as if he is somehow more free away from the spell of Cleopatra.  Unfortunately for him, fate sends him back to Egypt and he is ensnared for good.
When the final showdown occurs, Antony loses and, for a moment, thinks that Cleopatra has sold him out.  She rushes away and sends word that she has killed herself.  Antony falls on his own sword, but botches the job.  He dies in her arms.  Caesar has won and though he tries to reassure Cleopatra that she'll be taken care of, she firmly believes that she will be taken to Rome and humiliated there.  She takes an asp to her breast and dies.
Shakespeare includes a simply wonderful description of Cleopatra:
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.
Isn't that great?  I've read a few items from various actresses who don't particularly like the role.  Cleopatra is so unrelentingly persuasive.  She has ploy after ploy to catch and bedevil Antony.  He is simply hopeless before her.  (I don't know if her head games make her the compliment of Petruchio or not.)  I found her breath-taking but frightening.

When I picked up the play, I told my daughter that I was reading it.  I asked her if she knew anything about Antony or Cleopatra.  She told me that 'Cleopatra died from a snake that Antony let in'.  I laughed and told her that wasn't quite right.  After I was done reading the play, I told her what the end was according to Shakespeare.  This brought up a long discussion of suicide.  She is firmly against it, of course.  Her young age, eight, keeps her from knowing how important pride and dignity are to people like Cleopatra.
Suicide was viewed differently at the time.  Prominent Roman citizens almost routinely committed suicide when charged with crimes.  Add in the high position of the queen of Egypt, and you can see where the 'death before dishonor' position comes.  (I did not work hard to explain that to my little girl.)

The main theme of the play is that Antony gave away enormous power, and eventually his own life, because he was driven mad by love.  Or, maybe not driven mad, but driven to distraction.  He seems bewitched, but maybe that's unfair.  Antony was deeply in love with a woman.  If he could have somehow safely set aside his military concerns, maybe he could have just been happily in love.  (Of course, the question remains whether or not Cleopatra would have stayed with him then.)
In 'Julius Caesar' we are asked to what lengths we should go to keep power from being abused.  Now we're being asked what we should give up for the sake of power.  The answers aren't easy.  And that is why Shakespeare is 'for all time'.

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