Monday, March 10, 2014

Does Anybody Like Antony and Cleopatra?

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 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.

Works cited:
  • 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.
Films seen:
  • 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.  



  1. Since an inferior Wordsworth Classics edition from 1993 happened to be in my hands, I chose this play to perform a strange experiment: reading Shakespeare without any notes whatsoever. Not the best play for such a stunt, is it? I barely managed to follow the plot and grasp the main outlines of the characters. I was sufficiently interested, however, to pursue re-reading with copious notes. It's been growing on me ever since (in the last two or three weeks that is).

    Enough preliminary nonsense, to answer your question right away. Yes, I do like "Antony and Cleopatra" as a play and Tony and Cleo as characters. Very real, very alive, very compelling. Deeply flawed of course, but aren't we all? Terribly irritating now and then, but aren't most of us so?

    The main part of their tragedy, as I see it, is not Antony's so-called degradation into a "dotting mallard" or Cleopatra's into the Grand Seducer and the Grand Manipulator, but the fact that they, unlike Romeo and Juliet, never did enjoy their love. Rather, it's a case study of mutual obsession and mental torture. Only when death finally came did they comprehend what bliss it might have been. So, in a way, death is positive and that is, I think, why the ending is not engulfed in gloomy pessimism, as in the other great tragedies, but seems elated and inspirational. I, for one, consider "A&C" quite on par with the Big Four. It's just different - which makes comparisons futile.

    Like you, I turned to the authorities, curious to see what they can offer. Bloom I found boring - and missing the point completely. Harold Goddard I found brilliant. He argues that those, like Bloom, who think Cleo kills herself to prevent being humiliated are just as much taken in by her as Caesar is. G. B. Harrison, my favourite Shakespearean scholar, flatly calls the play "the most magnificent of all Shakespeare's plays", but he concludes it is not a "deep tragedy" because the story of “a man who throws his wealth into the lap of a harlot and then kills himself” is not essentially tragic. Need I add, Mr Harrison missed the point, too. I found a very charming essay by one C. T. Winchester, written more than a century ago and first published posthumously in "An Old Castle and Other Essays" (1922); it's available on Internet Archive should be curious to read it.

    The notes of Emrys Jones in the New Penguin Shakespeare proved to be very helpful indeed. He traces many borrowings from Plutarch and invites his readers to compare the original with Shakespeare's "poetic paraphrase" (Mr Winchester's words). Few things convince me more strongly in Shakespeare's genius; those who still blame him for borrowing his plots couldn't be blinder. Plutarch's turgid prose is transformed into gorgeous verse in the same way as Liszt transformed the pedestrian themes of Meyerbeer and Donizetti into compositions of startling originality. We must not, of course, neglect Shakespeare's most notable addition to Plutarch, the wisest, the wittiest and the most quotable character in the whole play. I don't think anybody else could have made Tony and Cleo so coherent and believable, but it certainly takes a Shakespeare to create Enobarbus.

    I have not started with the movies yet, but I do intend to see three of them. More of that later this week.

    1. Thank you for this most interesting comment! Just when I needed it - we're off to see the play at the Globe and I will comment more thoroughly when next on line. We're re-reading it now and I must admit I'm getting more into it this time and am quite prepared to like the Globe production very much.
      So until next time...

    2. Now I've read your comment again after having seen the play. You’ve stirred my curiosity, both about the scholars you refer to, and your comments in general. I have begun to realize – maybe I always knew – that this is a very complex play. I’m quite sure I’m not finished with it yet!

  2. As usual - as always - it took much longer to sort out my thoughts than I thought, partly because I decided I should read and see "Julius Caesar" in between, partly because all movies took multiple viewings, above all because I'm incredibly lazy. Anyway, three movie versions, in chronological order.

    1972, Charlton Heston's one-man show. Judah Ben-Hur is not just Antony here, but director and co-screenwriter as well. The adaptation has some nice original touches (e.g. the first meeting between Antony and Octavius is coupled with gladiatorial combat, the opening lines are put in Enobarbus' mouth), but the cuts are more than substantial and much to disadvantage of both the poetry and the characters (e.g. Cleo's sarcastic reference to the messengers in the first scene is entirely missing, much of the final scene is cut; the text in virtually all scenes is ruthlessly butchered). Visually, it's a splendid exotic extravaganza, with a good deal of outdoor scenes, lavish sets and costumes, and epic battles; an honest attempt to outdo the Taylor-Burton epic with some 30 times smaller budget.

    I'm no great fan of Charlton Heston, but I like him well enough to appreciate his performance here. I don't know why reviewers often denounce him as hammy. Besides, there is a good deal of ham (and some eggs as well) in Antony, isn't there? I enjoy Heston's roaring "Let Rome in Tiber melt!", accompanied with the tearing of a pearl necklace, and on the whole is convincing and sometimes even moving. In any case, he does a much better job than Hildegard Neil as Cleopatra. She alternates between vapid and hysterical, mechanically chanting her lines all the time, exuding not a trace of the sensual charm that must be part and parcel of Cleo. John Castle has been much praised by the mighty reviewers online, but his Octavius strikes me as too wooden, not a man, not even an actor playing a part, but a speaking mannequin. Easily the finest performance in the whole movie is Eric Porter's as Enobarbus. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Porter escapes the trap that Enobarbuses from later movies readily fall into, namely making the character too buffoonish.

    Charming bonus: the young Jane Lapotaire as Charmian, a much better achievement than her Cleopatra a decade later. Personal "oh yeah him/her" reaction: Julian Glover as Proculeius; I thought really hard about this one, and finally, without the help of IMDb I'm pleased to say, I nailed him: Walter Donovan in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade".

    And one last note as regards cuts. One must be very careful because the movie seems to exist in several very different versions. I first saw some Spanish DVD which was only 123 minutes long, but later got hold of another version - 25 minutes longer! So the appalling cuts may not always be thanks to Heston and co.

    1. Haven't seen this one but now that we have a smart TV maybe we'll find it. I'd like to see it though I share your scepticism to Charlton Heston.

  3. 1974, directed by Jon Scofield, based on Trevor Nunn's RSC production. This is the best of the bunch. By far. It is filmed theatre, much like the BBC version but infinitely superior to it. The costumes are modest but evocative. Sets there are none, but lightning is wonderfully atmospheric; it’s almost a character of its own, “beaten gold” for Egypt, bright white for Rome. The only minor defect, purely visually, is the rough editing, but though a bit weird, it is seldom annoying. Anyway, any Shakespearean movie/film/theatre production must stand or fall on the acting alone.

    So far as I'm concerned, great Shakespearean acting doesn't get much better than this. Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman are very nearly perfect as Tony and Cleo. Both convey the complexity and the subtlety of the characters with stunning vividness and verisimilitude. Suzman is especially remarkable. She is hot, she is cold, she is dreamy, she is blunt, she is arrogant, vain, seductive, silly, commanding, vulnerable. She's everything - or nearly everything - Will's Cleo should be. Patrick Stewart is a fine Enobarbus, but lightweight compared to Eric Porter. Not to forget Octavius (the most often underestimated character in the play), Corin Redgrave gives a beautiful performance. That cold disdain, that implacable contempt for Antony's Alexandrian revels so characteristic of Octavius is given here its greatest expression on screen.

    At about 2 hours and 40 minutes, this is a relatively uncut version. Relatively. The oddest missing link is Pompey: the poor guy is entirely erased. 'Tis a pity, it makes the drinking party much less effective. Otherwise, however, the dialogue does feel like Shakespeare, unlike Heston's version where it feels like Hollywood pure and simple. Charming bonus: a very young Ben Kingsley as Thidias.

    1. Nor have I seen this though would very much like to. Trevor Nunn productions are always worth seeing! Patrick Stewart, too, and I agree that the character of Octavius deserves a good performance.

  4. 1981, BBC. Well, I like this one better than most, but, all the same, it is the worst of the bunch. Perhaps if I’d seen it first I might have found it more satisfying. Part of the problem is the production. The sets are passable, but the costumes are impossibly ugly. It’s hard to ignore them, and when Tony and Cleo are dressed in some sort of half-Elizabethan, half-modernist kitsch, it’s hard to take them seriously.

    Blakely is not a bad Antony, especially in his more robust moments where he manages to infuse the poetry with elemental passion without ruining it. But this is not a performance I would rank with his superb Kent in “Lear” (1983). Lapotaire also has her fine moments, especially in the final scene, but on the whole she makes Cleo just a little too pathetic for my taste. You put it very well: “weepy and hysterical”. Worst of all, if there is any chemistry between them, I haven’t noticed it. The rest is even worse. Ian Charleson is a melodramatic Octavius, just a little short of character assassination. Emrys James is the dullest Enobarbus imaginable.

    Last but not least, cuts are few but always questionable. Why cutting half of Enobarbus’ short comment about the two chaps? The omitted part - “And throw between them all the food thou hast, / They'll grind the one the other” - complements the rest to perfection. It’s an absurd cut.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.