Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Classics Club: Antony and Cleopatra

Fanda is hosting one of the greatest "challenges" for the end of the year:  aptly named "Let's read plays", it offers one classic play per month to enrich our knowledge of this great genre.  It starts now in November and goes on for a yearlong celebration! 

November is Shakespeare Tragedy month, and I chose to read Antony and Cleopatra.  I've seen the Hollywood version of it, with E. Taylor and R. Burton (I assume this is also the more famous interpretation), but I've always wondered how much the excitement and ups and downs in the film were because of this couple, or whether they were depicted in the play as well...

Well, for beginners, the storyline is more or less the same (I really don't like it when big studios change the plot for the sake of the audience's acceptance).  We find ourselves in Egypt, where Antony is living a decadent life with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, away from his home in Rome, his wife and from all trouble.  But trouble will find him, when he's informed of his wife's death.  He regards this death as his main fault in life, and he decides to go back to Rome and behave...

Antony and Cleopatra
I quickly remarked a slight tone of irony in Shakespeare's play with regard to Antony.  I'm not sure he approved of Antony's lifestyle, but Shakespeare has several characters note the wrong picture that is Antony in Egypt, but also talk of Antony in a manner as if they were sneering at him.  I could not think of him as the great Roman soldier, nor a sturdy hero - I found his character slightly weak, a sort of person who's guided by simple pleasure instincts, who can not decide in a logical manner.  I could well imagine Antony's doom from the moment when the soldiers lamented the bad luck that had befallen on them...

Cleopatra, on the other hand, is depicted like a true megaira. Displaying extreme theatrical manners, she is the queen and she's over the whole world (of the Mediterrenean, at least).  Everyone is her subject, and, while I don't doubt she had feelings for Antony, her behaviour is questionable to say the least.  She deserts him twice while in battle with Caesar, only to pronounce her love for Antony at the very end of the play (whether or not because of extreme circumstances, again, I'm not convinced). But, we must never forget, she's the most powerful woman of them all:  considered highly intelligent, Cleopatra used her charms to rise to power and remain there.  Whoever dared question her actions, was simply eliminated... I did enjoy her powerful character, and Shakespeare did her justice in this play.

The Death of Cleopatra
Shakespeare writes in Antony and Cleopatra about conflicts:  between Rome and Egypt, between duty and lust, between loyalty and reason.  We find ourselves in a period of absolutes however, and this play highlights why such a conflict is futile, and more importantly how not everything is what it seems:  people who show a sense of duty actually backstab others, just as people who claim to love/obey desert... But what I really liked about this play were the international politics (modern term, but has always been valid).  Gone are the days when people were born, lived and died in the same place.  Now it's the time of the empires - the Mediterrenean gives ample opportunity to gain control of a vast area and be elevated to the status of God.  When two such empires decide to confront each other, this is what happens:  one is smashed!  I found Shakespeare's description of the political scene a very good background to this story.  It filled in the gaps in the plot but also explained the shifts between places (Alexandria/Rome) and feelings (duty/pleasure) and provided additional points of view of a given situation (theatrics of a power-couple)... whatever event described in this play, must be read with a view of the effects this will have on the rise or demise of a power as well as the balance with its neighbours. (I'll now stop or I'll continue endlessly into the details of a subject that I've studied and which fascinates me still!)

Antony and Cleopatra was a pleasant surprise for me -- yes, it is the romantic story of a couple in love and in betrayal, but it's all the more a story about the clash of powers, the old vs. the new empire and the survival of the fittest, the complexity of different civilisations.  An exciting play, it kept my interest vivid up to the end.

(Did I leave out anything?  Why yes, the actual battles!  Sorry, I found them boring...)


  1. What I still didn't understand is, whether Cleopatra really betrayed Antony or not.
    But overall, I liked it (I have just finished it), it's more interesting and complex than Julius Caesar.

    1. I agree - Cleopatra is such a multi-faceted personality, we'll never know all the layers...

  2. I read this play as a teenager at school and it was my first introduction to the political intricacies of the ancient Roman world. I have been fascinated by it ever since. I think Shakespeare does a n excellent job of melding politics with a passionate love story. I love Cleopatra's suicide scene, it is so powerful and one feels sorry for this woman who as you said ruled the Mediterranean, was wooed by powerful men and dies alone.

    1. Glad you liked it as much as I did!

  3. I agree that Cleopatra is hard to understand and sometimes doesn't look like she loves Antony at all. I think both Antony and Cleopatra are torn between their political interests and their feelings towards each other.

    1. Indeed, too much is at stake in this play!




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