Monday, July 3, 2017

Still trying to like...

Still trying…
to like
Antony and Cleopatra

     There seem to be many reasons to like this play. My friend and fellow Shakespearean scholar AA, for example, thinks it one of Shakespeare’s best and he helpfully tries to explain why:
  • The intensely alive, complex and contradictory title characters
  • Their love which, for all that seems to the contrary, gives the impression of a world well lost for
  • The gorgeous verse that manages to be stirring and visionary without the overblown rhetoric and clumsy verbosity that sometimes affect Will’s earlier plays
  • The elaborate structure that covers the whole known world of the 1st century BC
  • Enobarbus
  • The marvellously individual minor characters
  • The final scene in which Cleopatra is transformed from shallow to sublime and the Romans are taken in completely

     Most interesting, AA! And on some points we do agree.
     Enobarbus is indeed a strong character, the voice of reason in all the hysteria. He supports Antony but not blindly, telling Cleopatra that she was right to flee the battle and that Antony ‘would make his will/ Lord of reason…though you fled…why should he follow? …’Twas a shame… to leave his navy gaging’ (Act 3.13). When he then turns from Antony his guilt kills him. ‘I am alone the villain of the earth… I will go seek/ Some ditch wherein to die’ (Act 4.6). So yes, I like Enobarbus, a quietly tragic character.
     And Charmian. With humour and intelligence to match Cleopatra’s she keeps her frenetic queen under control while offering unwavering friendship and loyalty. Her two best lines: ‘O, excellent! I love long life better than figs’ (Act 1.2) shows the exuberance of Cleopatra’s private chambers and it is ironically tragic when Cleopatra dies and Charmian cries, or perhaps murmurs, ‘Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies/ A lass unparalleled’ (Act 5.2), then dies herself. What a wonderful word, ‘lass’. Two lasses who cheat the Romans. Oh yes, I like Charmian.
     As for Cleopatra, nothing in her life became her like the leaving it. I do agree with you, AA, that in Cleopatra’s final scene she is ‘transformed from the shallow to the sublime.’
     I also appreciate the historical sweep of the play. Fascinating and ambitious. But. Oh, woe is me, lover of history! – all the historical and military stuff is unbearably boring! And confusing. And unending. All of Shakespeare’s history plays plus Julius Caesar plus Coriolanus plus Cymbeline are so much better!
     ‘Gorgeous verse’? AA, many agree with you, but try as I might I find it verbose, long-winded, convoluted – as we read I mutter, ‘Yeah, yeah, get on with it!’ It’s a long play and could be cut by half just by striking every other line or so!
     Their love. Much heralded by bardolators. I am not a romantic and I have often commented on the strange love matches in Shakespeare. Of course I’m not alone in that. But it seems most scholars accept this love affair. Well, as much as Antony and Cleopatra go on about their love of one another and the other characters go on and on and on about it, I am, if not exactly unconvinced, completely unmoved.
     And now to your first point, AA, the intensely active and complex and contradictory characters. Yes, agreed! But so unlikeable! Marjorie Garber asks in her Shakespeare After All if Antony is ‘a failed hero, or a successful myth’ (p. 726). Neither, I say. In Julius Caesar he is brilliant. In Antony and Cleopatra he is a bore and a boor. Completely uninteresting and his death scene, where he has to be dragged up to Cleopatra’s platform – come on, Shakespeare! Clumsy staging! It doesn’t work. As for Cleopatra? Oh please, give me Queen Margaret, Queen Gertrude, Queen Hermione – any queen but this unpleasant diva! It is a relief when she dies.
     Oh what a terrible thing to write. But at least it means that this seemingly interminable play is over at last.
     Harsh. And blasphemous (forgive me, Shakespeare!). And unreasonable. I have had similar objections to many of Shakespeare’s plays but still loved them. So, AA, I fully accept your outraged, ‘Wha’? Are you daft??’¨when you read this.
     Probably. And no doubt missing the whole point. But so it is. I still don’t like Antony and Cleopatra.
     But thanks for trying, AA. Don’t give up. I might like it next time!

Works cited:
  • Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. Anchor Book. 2004.
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.  

Films seen this time:
  • 2014.The Globe. Director: Jonathan Munby. Cast: Antony – Clive Wood; Cleopatra – Eve Best; Enobarbus – Phil Daniels; Charmian – Sirine Saba
  • We saw this at the Globe in 2014 and now we watched the film version of it. It’s always fun to see Shakespeare at the Globe no matter what, but this production did not do much to make me like the play better. I didn’t like any of the interpretations of the characters, with the possible exception of Octavius. Watching it now on DVD did nothing to change my mind. A pity.


  1. You certainly *are* trying. Very hard. Fascinating to read about your struggles. You have nothing to be ashamed of: dislike is much better than indifference. I'm sure Will would have understood. I do agree the verse can be convoluted, occasionally perhaps trying to condense a little too much in too few lines. Also a very good point about the clumsy stage business of Antony's death. Even G. B. Harrison, who adored both the play and the Elizabethan stage, was troubled by this moment. I confess a very soft spot for Antony, especially in contrast with the brilliant and self-assured (but not terribly sympathetic) demagogue from "Julius Caesar". This one has, as G. B. H. says, the spark of divinity that robs the likes of Octavian of his victory. He is often played as a boor, alas, but at least Richard Johnson nailed him, quietly. I've always thought fits of histrionics should be used very sparingly in Shakespeare. What are they, after all, but an admission that the text is not good enough? It usually is.

    1. It's always uplifting to read your comments, Alexander! Thanks once again.