Monday, July 14, 2014

Antony & Cleopatra (Shakespeare Re-Read #10)

When last we left our pal Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar," he had overcome the cabal that had arranged Julius' assassination and was now part of the triumvirate (along with Octavius Caesar and the walking schmuck known as Lepidus) in charge of Rome.  Things weren't all roses and puppy dogs, however, as there were already signs that the power was going to Antony's head, and the issues all come to a boil in "Antony & Cleopatra," one of Shakespeare's more unusual plays from a structural standpoint and yet not one of his most successful.

I originally read this play in university about 12 years ago and remembered literally nothing about it, which probably wasn't a good sign for the second read.  Sure enough, there isn't much that stands out about the text, which is kind of stunning since it's a) Shakespeare and b) the plot centres around one of the most fascinating events in Western history.  "Antony & Cleopatra" comes off as, if you can believe it, Shakespeare's answer to movies like Titanic or Pearl Harbor --- i.e. those kinds of overblown love stories set against the backdrop of a major historical moment.  The problem with the play is that it isn't really able to manage either the love story or the history, leaving it thin on both fronts.

I don't even have a problem with the actual history being shuttled into the background, given that obviously Shakespeare couldn't properly represent a massive land and naval battle on a 17th-century stage.  There's no reason, however, why Antony & Cleopatra's relationship feels so underdeveloped.  They share remarkably little actual stage time together, and when they are joined, it's spent in Act I with Cleopatra in a jealous rage over Antony's Roman rage.  (Even if it's a mock rage, as I suspect it could be portrayed as on stage, I kind of expect more from a tragic romance than 'playfully petty' as the default setting.)  Later, we get them again dealing with the fallout of Antony deserting his fleet to go over Cleopatra's departing retreating boat, which is basically our last look at the couple until we get Antony's on death's door crawling to Cleopatra's tomb.  Interestingly, this is the only time we seem to see genuine love and affection between the couple; it is only when they've both been overthrown by Octavian can be they regard each other as actual people and not as "Queen Of Egypt" and "Leader Of Rome."  At their lowest, they finally take solace in each other.

(Cleopatra reportedly actually did kill herself via asp poison, though the way that Shakespeare presents things creates a bit of a dramatic problem.  If she really did end up with a Poison Ivy-esque killer kiss from the asp venom, instead of just basically shrugging after she kills Iras, you'd think Cleo would go for broke and try to kiss Octavian as a final bit of revenge.  Shame on Billy Shakes for introducing a comic book-y plot element when it doesn't correspond with history!)

With so little interaction for our title characters, that leaves Shakespeare whipping us around from scene to scene in the 17th-century version of quick-cutting.  There are a combined 28 scenes in Acts III and IV, several of which are just a few lines long with Octavian or Antony or someone barking out a few orders and exploring a quick plot point.  The effect actually helps the whole "can't actually show anything" problem since the quick scenes make it seem like there's a lot more action than is actually happening on the stage.  So basically, if you want to credit someone with the split-screen effects on 24, look no further than William Shakespeare.

The scenes changes also help obscure a general lack of character for anyone in the play, as there are a dizzying array of secondary characters who in many cases seem interchangeable.  Some of them literally have only a few lines, and you've got to believe that some of these roles are just combined in modern productions.  Cleopatra's crew of Iras, Charmian and Alexas all get some exploration in Act I, Scene ii, as does Enobarbus (whose lines I couldn't help but read in the voice of Liam "Davos Seaworth" Cunningham), and that poor messenger who Cleopatra almost tortures ends up as some decent comic relief, but for the most part, it's a staggering array of major and minor figures in the supporting cast, some of whom were actual people that you think Shakespeare was tossing in there just for semi-accuracy's sake.

The larger figures don't get much more depth, sadly.  You have poor ol' Lepidus, who seems like the most (only?) reasonable one of the triumvirate in some cases, yet is treated by all as a living joke.  Even Shakespeare can't avoid poking fun at him during his 'drunken stupor' scene in the third act.  (Man, Rob Ford has ruined that phrase).  As for Octavian, it's never fully established why he so suddenly turns from general displeasure at Lepidus and Antony in the first half of the play into outright warfare against them in the second half.  I guess you could argue that it's Antony still going back to Egypt despite his fresh marriage to Octavian's sister that serves as the last straw, though other than secondary character scuttlebutt, Octavian's motives aren't made too clear.  Again, it seems like a plot movement based solely on history rather than something Shakespeare dramatically sets the stage for within the narrative itself.

A&C was written many years after "Julius Caesar," and while it isn't really a sequel as much as it is just a continuance of Shakespeare's take on history, there are a few interesting parallels.  The characterization, for one, seems stable from play to play --- we had hints of the triumvirate's eventual collapse in JC, for one, though in that case it was Antony seemingly plotting with Octavian against Lepidus.  Also, like how Brutus' regrets about his disloyalty dominate the theme of the earlier play, we see a similar thread here with Enobarbus almost instantly regretting his decision to ditch Antony in favour of Octavian.

And finally, we get Cleopatra herself.  Depending on what edited version of either this play or "As You Like It" (and Rosalind) that you're reading, Cleopatra has the most lines of any female Shakespeare character.  I wish this title had gone to a character a bit more deserving of the honour, given how all over the board Shakespeare is with Cleo's personality.  As presented on the page, Cleopatra carries little of the grandeur or mystique that you'd normally associate with her historical image.  Even if Shakespeare was purposefully writing against that image in order to show how Antony's tragic downfall was his love of this woman, the author fails to illustrate 'why' Antony would risk everything for her and thus undercuts the tragedy.  Cleopatra ranges from being batshit jealous to rather cowardly (sailing away from the battle) to at least managing to summon some final dignity after Octavian's forces invade, but by then it's far too late.  Cleopatra the historical figure was a major force to be reckoned with in Roman history; Cleopatra the character from this play is essentially a pushover who was "allowed" to rule Egypt until the Roman Empire decided her time was up.  Again, I'm only going from the text here --- given the great actresses who have played the role of Cleopatra over the years, I'm guessing their performances imbued her with more more gravitas, yet on the page she just doesn't come alive whatsoever.


10. Pericles
9. The Taming Of The Shrew
8. Antony & Cleopatra
7. Much Ado About Nothing
6. Coriolanus
5. The Comedy Of Errors
4. The Winter's Tale
3. A Midsummer Night's Dream
2. Julius Caesar
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

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