Shakespeare Saturday: Antony and Cleopatra

All strange and terrible events are welcome, but comforts we despise.

Antony and Cleopatra is another Roman play, a hard-to-pin-down, almost true history of the later years of the doomed affair between the Roman general Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt. The historical events it is based on lead directly to the birth of the Roman Empire (replacing the Republic), and to the annexing of Egypt as a province. Although Shakespeare makes no mention of Cleopatra in Julius Ceasar, this play is a sequel of sorts – following the assassination of Caesar, she was forced to seek another powerful patron to keep both herself and Egypt safe, and sided with Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus; the men fell out over political differences, and as Antony’s mistress, she found herself on the losing side of the conflict. As a play, Antony and Cleopatra carries the heavy weights of modern scholarship: gender, colonialism and imperialism, represented by the dichotomies of the rigid, rational masculinity of Antony and his fellow Romans, and fluid, passionate (histrionic) femininity of Cleopatra and her party; the ordered, moral Rome (west), and the indulgent, amoral Egypt (east, or rather “orient”).

Where it begins – Cleopatra arrives to Rome, wrapped in a carpet, and seduces Julius Caesar. She is almost invariably portrayed as bare-breasted; a seductive, sinful contrast to the virtuous Western woman, a true “other”.

Antony and Cleopatra is a play in which not an awfully lot happens. Some years has passed since Julius Caesar’s murder, and the triumvirate that has seized the power is having issues. Antony is in Alexandria with Cleopatra, and has ignored Octavius Ceasar’s requests to return to Rome and to offer assistance in seeing off a rebellion from Pompey. Antony’s wife Fulvia has been involved in the rebellion, and he receives to Alexandria the news that she’s dead. Leaving Cleopatra behind, he finally goes to Rome. There, to solidify his relationship with Octavius, Antony marries his sister Octavia. Following a brief peace between the triumvirate and Pompey, they resume hostilities and the triumvirate begins to fall apart. Antony – arrogant and condescending – and Octavius go to war against each other, and Antony’s fortunes finally wane. He doesn’t listen to his allies or advisors, and loses heavily. His relationship with Cleopatra begins to strain, and takes the hit when he blames her for their losses after a disastrous sea battle. He threatens to kill them both, and she responds by sending him the (fake) news that she has killed herself, causing him to run into a sword. Wounded, he’s taken to Cleopatra and dies in her arms. When Cleopatra, who is now firmly on the losing side, is threatened with public humiliation, she kills herself with asps. Octavius Ceasar – who is to become the emperor Augustus of new Roman Empire – offers final respects to the pair.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of those plays I found myself struggling with. It’s a bit *whispers* boring, truth to be told. Not an awfully lot happens, considering how seemingly complex the plot is. Cleopatra spends most of her time ranting and raving about the absent Antony. Theirs feels like a relationship that started out passionately, but rather than growing into loving companionship, has become merely co-dependent. Especially Antony’s relationship towards her seems ambiguous – the news of Fulvia’s betrayal and death do affect him, even after years of affair with Cleopatra. She is obsessed with him, offended by his political marriage, throwing a tantrum and attacking the servant who brings the news. She’s also vain and insecure, demanding to know every detail about Octavia’s looks.

Harriet Walter writes in her book about Shakespeare’s female roles that Cleopatra is about as far as an actress can get playing just women roles – she is the biggest, most mature of them, and (although the play doesn’t define her age) yet she died at 39. A Shakespearean actress cannot grow old with the plays like an actor can, progressing from Romeo to Hamlet to Lear (unless they actually do just that like Walter herself). Cleopatra would have been played by a teenage boy in Shakespeare’s time, and I still think that that had a huge effect on his writing – a boy as Cleopatra (or Lady Macbeth for that matter) seems almost too preposterous an idea, and even Shakespeare himself alludes to this in the text.

…the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.

She is the centre of the play – much of the time Antony is merely reacting to her, and her presence is felt even when she’s not on the stage. Yet, she’s ambiguous. She spends much of the first half of the play as lovesick for her man, overplaying her longing as if she was performing, and when they finally go into war, she doesn’t transform into a forceful, strong queen, but continues to lean on the men around her. She only shows defiance in the end, after she has been defeated, and does it by killing herself rather than live on to be paraded in triumph by Octavius. She is narcissistic and histrionic through much of the play, putting on an exaggerated display of her emotions, but in the end she somehow finally manages to become sincere. She has played and lost, and knows she must join her lover in death.

Is is any good?

I like it less than I thought I would, although the text does finally take flight in Act 5, Antony’s death inspiring some elegant poetics from Cleopatra.

Fun fact

According to toxicologist and zoologists, Cleopatra almost certainly didn’t die from an asp bite. Most likely she drank a cocktail of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium, which would have given the sort of instant, painless death she was looking for.

What say thou?

This play is not one for great quotes, but Cleopatra’s speech at the end of Ac5, scene 1, after Antony’s death is quite good:

No more, but e’en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares. It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught;
Patience is scottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that’s mad: then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?
What, what! good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian!
My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look,
Our lamp is spent, it’s out! Good sirs, take heart:
We’ll bury him; and then, what’s brave,
what’s noble,
Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold:
Ah, women, women! come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end.

Best character

This is Cleopatra’s play.


Globe 2014 production with Eve Best and Clive Wood. To be honest, I’m a bit bored by these Globe productions now – the endless dance numbers (the one in the beginning is particularly unappealing), the period-vague costumes, the pervasive audience presence (the soothsayer is up to his elbows in animal intestines, and in the same frame people are drinking beer from plastic cups and chatting). It’s certainly 16 steps down from the dark glories of last week’s Macbeth. Eve Best is a bit meh a lot of the time, although her performance in Act 5 is fine. Wood always makes me break out in hives, and this is not an exception – I did not need to see his moobs. The rest of the acting is unremarkable, and the set is just a red barn wall.






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