Does Anybody Like
Antony and Cleopatra?
Is it blasphemy to say I just can’t like Antony and Cleopatra? I’m trying to like it, I really am. I’ve even asked for advice and explanations from people who like it, but no such person has replied. I’m sure I’m missing something important, the key, the essence. But until I see whatever it is, I simply don’t know what to do with this play.
Watching the BBC version helped a bit; it clarified a few things. I quite liked Eros, Antony’s valet (or whatever they were called then – he’s just listed as one of Antony’s followers) and Caesar Octavius was quite interesting, as well as Pompey. But Antony was a prat. Of course he was in the play too so I suppose it was well done. Cleopatra though. She was awful. I see her in the play as being quite clever with a wry ironic sense of humour and in the end a kind of noble intelligence, but in the BBC version she was hysterical, wimpy, weepy and dumb.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Antony and the play itself have caused critics problems since it was written. Since I have no idea what to write about it, no brilliant analysis to offer, this essay will simply be a presentation of what some of our Shakespeare books have to say about it. It’s a mixed bag.
Professor Harold Bloom is absolutely delighted with Cleopatra, calling her “the peer of Falstaff and of Hamlet” and “the most vital woman in Shakespeare, surpassing even Rosalind” (page 564). Well, that’s a bit drastic. Don’t see it myself. At least he recognises her in Shakespeare’s character as a “politician and as a dynastic ruler” (page 565), which few other critics seem to notice. Although Bloom seems to think everyone agrees that of “Shakespearean representation of women, Cleopatra’s is the most subtle and formidable” (page 546) – how does he reckon that? – he does see what I see and just mentioned, she is “essentially an ironic humorist” (page 551). And Bloom points out that while Antony dies in humiliation, “Cleopatra transcends any potential for humiliation by her ritually measured death” (page 559). Antony chose death because he was so humiliated; Cleopatra to avoid being humiliated. So for once, Professor Bloom and I are partly, though not completely, in agreement.
It’s harder, on the other hand, to agree with the notes for Soliloquy - the Shakespearean Monologues, the Women which, perhaps not surprisingly, emphasize Cleopatra’s theatricality. There’s nothing wrong with that; she is indeed very theatrical. In her lines after the death of Antony, the editors suggest that her “speech is not about Antony at all, but about what kind of show to put on...The actor needs to examine and question just how real is her passion for Antony?” (page 10.) Well, I can go along with that too. But in the next note we are told that her eulogy of Antony is an example of how she “is so given to highly-strung and hyperbolic metaphors” and that she tends “to wax lyrical” (page 12). She “prepares for her suicide the way some people prepare for parties” and that nowhere else “is the theatrical nature of Cleopatra more lavishly on display” (page 10). Again, maybe so but why do the editors make this sound like a shallow, frivolous thing, completely ignoring any tone of irony or depth?
Another little handbook, For Women: Pocket Monologues, has offered what I see is still more shallow advice, seeing only a femme fatale figure in the Egyptian head of state. Here is a list of verbs, nouns and adjectives used to tell us about Cleopatra’s character: bedazzled, bewitched, bewildered (in describing what she did to Antony), enchantment, sorceress, caprices, voluptuousness, insecure, passion, pleading, petulance, childish, conniving (pages 73-74). As if this isn’t bad enough, in case this list doesn’t convince us that Cleopatra is a bimbo, Antony’s political responsibilities are emphasized and Cleopatra’s are described as “nothing.” Even though I don’t love this play, I find myself indignant at this insulting, and I’m quite convinced incorrect, interpretation.
It is unfortunately not an uncommon interpretation. Throughout the years Cleopatra has presented a problem for audiences and critics alike. “Judgments of Cleopatra’s failings...or a fascination of her charms, inevitably revealed the critic’s desire for a natural empathy with a tragic protagonist. And since the universal audience is implicitly assumed to be male, it is taken for granted that Cleopatra, like women in general, is impossible for men to understand” (Singh, page 413, referring to an essay by L.T. Fitz), which is why Antony and Cleopatra, or more specifically Cleopatra probably, hasn’t been included among “the big four’ - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth” (page 413). Singh goes on to discuss how feminist critics like Fitz “have freed the image of Cleopatra from stereotypical clichés, while stressing her role as a ‘co-protagonist’ with Antony and insisting that in her journey of self-discovery we can find ‘ the tragic hero’s inner struggle’” (Fitz, via Singh, page 413). New historicists and other modern critics have since, according to Singh, “used Cleopatra for the larger feminist project of unfixing gender identity” and “the complex issues of politics and desire at stake in her life” are emphasized (Singh, pages 413-414). Well, yes. Since I tend to see things in a new historicist mode of analysis, this is how I’m trying to see the play. And I do, sort of. But that doesn’t make me like it.
Maybe the New Cambridge Companion will help. Hmmm. Scattered references to the play don’t offer much. Cleopatra is relegated to a supporting role. “If Antony recovers his shattered heroic identity, it is because Cleopatra puts the pieces back together in a loving act of remembrance and imagination” (page 162). She’s called the “queen of rhetoric and performance” (page 163) and the stereotypical interpretation of a powerful woman effeminizing a strong man in summed up in a few words: Cleopatra simply plays “her own entirely conventional role” (page 221). Well, that certainly put her in her place. No new historicist or feminist nonsense here, if you please!
OK, no help to be found from the New Cambridge Companion. How about the introduction to the Norton Edition? They can usually be relied upon for enlightenment. And indeed, Walter Cohen’s intro is very helpful. It starts with a background on the history behind the whole thing. These are, after all, historical people. The Roman Empire and Cleopatra’s Egypt were very real places. In the introduction Antony and Cleopatra are placed squarely in their political and historical context, which in fact does clarify the content of the play. And then Cohen helps us see the individuals in this broad and sweeping historical period: Antony and Cleopatra are and “remain maddeningly self-absorbed and self-destructive – lying, ignoring urgent business, acting impulsively, bullying underlings, reveling in vulgarity, apparently betraying each other” (page 2636). My goodness, maybe that’s why I don’t like them! But Cohen’s analysis of Cleopatra goes on: her “teasing frivolity, comic jealousy and cold calculation have rendered her motives suspect. Yet Shakespeare gives her passages of extraordinary dignity...when Antony decides to leave her upon hearing of his wife Fulvia’s death...Cleopatra’s playfulness is the mere surface of her essential depth” (page 2637). Yes, I did see that, I think. I wanted to, anyway. I wish the BBC production, the only one we’ve seen, had brought that out but it didn’t.
Cohen further shows the depth of her character when he points out that Cleopatra doesn’t decide to kill herself because Antony dies but because her own freedom and dignity are threatened by capture by the Romans. “The concluding triumphant rhetoric thus cleans up earlier dubious behavior and puts the best face on defeat. Heroic aristocratic individualism can act in the world only by leaving it” (page 2640). Food for thought, to be sure.
One more thin volume on our shelf sheds a few more rays of light on the Cleopatra. (This essay seems to have focussed itself on her, hasn’t it?) Eric S. Mallin in his Godless Shakespeare promotes her in fact to the role of a god. Sort of. With such phrases as “choosing self-images of her devising” (page 111) Mallin’s Cleopatra is in control. Everything she says is “always undercut by irony, or context, or her own complex dissembling” (page 111). Mallin claims boldly that “Shakespeare is playing with God in the canon. What distinguishes Cleopatra from any other figure...is the potent sense that her miracles of self-preservation and self-presentation are at once fully functional in history and gratuitously luminous. Not merely an empress, she is an avatar of divine play” (page 114).
Oh, I quite like that. Now it’s getting interesting. Maybe there is something in the play after all.
It’s a play about war. The fate of great empires and ancient civilizations is in the hands of foolish quarrelling men. Cleopatra is a part of this. She’s foolish too. But she is so much more. Critics and audiences have had a difficult time seeing her clearly. It’s probably impossible to do so. Shakespeare tends to be like that. In this play more than any of his others, it is difficult to care about, or for, the characters. Shakespeare’s characters are always ambiguous and often unlikeable, but they are almost always fascinating. Maybe the characters of Antony and Cleopatra are too, especially Cleopatra. Some of the critics presented in this study seem to think so.
I’ll keep all of this in mind next time around.
And especially on June 22 in London, at the Globe, when Hal and I will be seeing it. I am so curious to see how the director Jonathan Munby and his cast will do it.
I’ll let you know.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Cohen, Walter. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
- Dotterer, Dick, Editor. For Women: Pocket Monologues from Shakespeare. 1997.
- Earley, Michael and Philippa Keil, Editors.Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues – The Women. 1988.
- James, Heather .“Shakespeare’s Classical Plays” in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. De Grazia, Margreta and Stanley Wells, Editors. 2010.
- Mallin, Erik S. Godless Shakespeare. 2007.
- Singh, Jyotsna S. “The Politics of Empathy in Antony and Cleopatra: A View from Below” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works – the Tragedies. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, Editors. 2006.
- Antony and Cleopatra, BBC, 1980. Director: Jonathan Miller. Cast: Cleopatra – Jane Lapotaire; Antony – Colin Blakely; Caesar – Ian Charleson; Enobarbus – Emrys James; Octavia – Lynn Farleigh. Ian Charleson is good as Caesar and he makes him a character one would like to analyse more. The production does clarify some of the muddle of the play but Blakely as Antony is uninteresting and Lapotaire is very annoying as a silly, weepy and hysterical Cleopatra, so generally the production is very unsatisfying.
Seen on stage:
- Not yet but tickets have been bought for June 22, 2014 at the Globe Theatre in London.