Sunday, March 6, 2011

Discussion: Antony and Cleopatra

The play: Antony and Cleopatra

The plot tweet: As young Octavius consolidates power in Rome, two lovers from the older generation, Antony and Cleopatra, lose their power and their lives.

My favorite line:
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. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her, when she is riggish.


Every week, having read a play and a stack of scholarly analysis, I come to this blog and try to say something insightful and interesting. But here's what I want to say about Antony and Cleopatra: Blah. That's it, just blah.

I already know what you're going to say. "But, Ashley, this is perhaps Shakespeare's masterwork, seamlessly incorporating tragedy, comedy and history. And it contains one of the greatest female roles--perhaps the greatest female role--in all of Shakespeare. And the play has what some critics call the most powerful poetry in the Shakespeare canon."

I know those things, objectively, but I don't feel them. Perhaps it's because I've never seen Antony and Cleopatra on stage (and no wonder, with half a dozen settings and acts that stretch on for 15 scenes). It's possible that the grandeur of this play only becomes evident in production.

Perhaps it's because I can't put my finger on Cleopatra as a "person." Because she is always playing a role, she denies us those interior glimpses we've come to expect with Shakespeare's characters. In fact, as Harold Bloom points out, this play marks the beginning of Shakespeare's "turning away" from the interior development of his characters. The great soliloquies are mostly behind us now, with the exception of one of Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest.

I have read this play only once before, but the thing that struck me most on this reading was the age of Antony and Cleopatra. She is irresistibly alluring, but she is no longer young and beautiful. This is her last of many affairs with various heads of state, and Antony isn't wrong when he says, "I found you as a morsel, cold upon dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment of Gnaeus Pompey's, besides what hotter hours, unregister'd in vulgar fame, you have luxuriously pick'd out."

If you think of Antony and Cleopatra as aging, the play becomes not merely about the values of Rome versus the values of Egypt but also about the younger generation of calculating, power-consolidating politicians (Octavius) versus the older generation of mythic heroes (Antony and Cleopatra). Once again Shakespeare has invoked the theme of inter-generational conflict, and once again he emphasizes that the old eventually gives way to the new.

When Bloom taught his undergraduate Shakespeare class, he always asked his students whether they considered themselves more Roman or more Egyptian. The answers always tracked pretty closely with whether conservative politics (Romans) or liberal politics (Egyptians) were on the upswing. It's not a bad analogy, and it shows that the value conflicts from Shakespeare's day--and even from ancient times--continue to plague us today.

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