Sunday, November 27, 2011

Antony! And Cleopatraaaaa!

I just finished listening to Antony and Cleopatra. I think this represents either my second or third reading of the play. It gets mixed up in my head with All for Love: Or, the World Well Lost by John Dryden, which I wrote a paper on comparing it with Shakespeare's version of the story, specifically Dryden's harmless, assimilated Cleopatra with Shakespeare's orientalized, Other-ed Cleopatra.

This Other-ing is a topic of critical focus for many scholars. Cleopatra comes to represent Egypt, the feminine, darkness, sensuality, licentiousness, things soiled and rotten, the East, etc, while Antony represents Rome, the masculine, light, rationality, sparseness, things clean and fresh, the West, etc. Cleopatra, as the eastern Other, is the force that divides Antony from "himself," meaning, his Roman head-over-heart, war-over-pleasure self. She un-mans him, making him soft and weak, eventually causing his flight from a sea-battle as he pursues her instead of sticking to his metaphorical guns and fighting Octavius Caesar.

I find neither character particularly compelling or sympathetic until around the fourth act. It could be the audio version I heard, which was bad Shakespearean bluster with little to no nuance, but both Cleopatra and Antony seem to be trying to out-do each other with protestations of forever love that seem both unmotivated and uninteresting. Cleopatra is openly manipulative; Antony is vacillating and weak, not at all like the Antony we see at the end of Julius Caesar who wins the crowd with his powerful rhetoric ("and Brutus is an honorable man") and fools the conspirators with a persuasive mixture of lies and honest principle. In Julius Caesar, Antony out-Cleopatras Cleopatra. I wonder if A&C Antony is the same character for Shakespeare as the JC Antony.

They seem as stupid and immature as Romeo and Juliet, only with less reason to be so. The fake death and double suicide is perhaps a reminder of that earlier play and the sense of waste, loss, and extravagant stupidity is hightened by the global relevance these leaders have. When Romeo and Juliet die, it's just two dumb kids; when Antony and Cleopatra dies, their deaths affect nations.

Later in the play, I like them better. Antony runs after Cleopatra even while he's furious at her for leaving and furious at himself for following; this was the only part of the recording where the actors emoted at all, Antony railing at Cleopatra and she begging for his forgiveness. Poor sod, Antony can't even commit suicide well; it's kind of endearing. Cleopatra seems less whiny and manipulative when she is asking her women to drag Antony up to the monument so that he can die with (some) dignity. She's finally doing something, having a tangible and physical effect on someone in the play, rather than stalking around like a wounded cat and playing out her dramatics. When she dies, she dies with dignity, making love to Death and refusing to be Caesar's plaything.

There is a thread in this play, though, which we see in other plays (Macbeth, notably) of a powerful and seductive woman who deprives a man of the power of action, emasculating him while "masculating" herself. Sometimes this is rationalized by other characters as the power of witchcraft, which the woman ostensibly wields over the man; think Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Sometimes the woman herself denies her femininity; Cleopatra says at the end of the play, "I have nothing of woman in me," Lady MacB asks the gods to "unsex [her] here" and take out "the milk of human kindness."

What is "love" in this play? Does Antony love Octavia, or is he lying to her? Did he love Fulvia? How is love expressed? Is love, like Cleopatra's Antony, a "dream"?

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