While Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.
Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.
Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.
It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.
Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.
The play isn’t about that momentous, historical change as much as it is about the men and women caught in the tide of history, cogs in its machine as it were. Although the bright stars in the events, they seem unable, some even unwilling, to control them. Both Anthony and Cleopatra have found in each other the partner to their passions: everyone and everything else plays second fiddle – until, of course, it is too late. They act as if they can’t see the tides changing around them.
It’s a bit like Romeo and Juliet acted by adults. And like that play, the outside world continually interferes in the lovers’ affair in challenging ways. But what was cute in adolescents playing at love is often tiring in adults and between them there is a constant tension. It’s there in colour, too, which Shakespeare’s audiences would have appreciated: the white-skinned Anthony and the dusky Cleopatra would have been a titillating couple in the more racist, Elizabethan times.
It’s also a play about gender and role: Cleopatra is the stronger of the two, more manipulative and witty than Anthony. She is the ruler of an ancient empire, while Anthony only shares his power – and is willing to abandon it for her while she always strives for Egypt. She has sexual power, still even though she has matured, and she uses it.
Shakespeare plays her up to her mythology but doesn’t allow her to become a cardboard caricature. He breathes life into her: she is at times charming, pouty, snarky, jealous, passionate, witty, angry, imperious and silly. She upstages every other cast member.
Still, she knows she is aging and has to consider her diminishing options. She says to her servant, Charmian,
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!
And in herself, she knows she has been used by the Roman generals who wooed and bedded her – “I was morsel for a monarch” she tells her maid. Three great Romans, in fact, have been her lovers: Pompey, Julius Caesar and finally Anthony. Shakespeare does not condemn her for her sensuality: rather he revels in it. But she knows that, should she be taken as hostage back to Rome and paraded in the city, she will be pictured as a whore.
Even the cynical Enobarbus, Anthony’s friend – until he switches sides – is enchanted by Cleopatra and in one of the most famous speeches, praises her beauty:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. (II.ii.225–245)
One can only wonder what, if any, reflection on Queen Elizabeth I Shakespeare was making in his Cleopatra. By some accounts the play was written in 1603-04. By the time of the play, Elizabeth had died: in her last years she was still sharp and in control but her own salad days were long gone. The once-charming queen had become an old, at times bitter, woman and her role as the “virgin queen” no longer had the power to sway the hearts and lusts of men. Yet as a symbol of womanhood and queenliness, she rose above all. She and Cleopatra would have been well-matched.
But other authorities suggest the play was written later, 1606-07, since it was not listed in the Stationer’s Register until 1608. By this time, James I was on the throne. Perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of his late queen when he wrote it.
It’s a complex play, with 42 scenes and 31 named characters and 34 speaking parts, which can make it difficult to produce, let alone follow in your reading. Plus it has pirates, battles, drunken parties and politics. It jumps around from Egypt to Rome to Athens and back, from bedroom to ship’s deck. It has love and betrayal in it in equal measure. Plus two suicides, of which, again, Cleopatra’s is the most dramatic. But there is also jocularity in it and a great drunken party scene. At times it can seem to jump and dart all over the place, like a play written in tweets.
One of my favourite speeches in the play is found in Act I, Sc. 2, when Anthony hears of his wife, Fulvia’s, sarcastic comments about Anthony’s tryst with Cleopatra while she helps his armies win battles:
Speak to me home. Mince not the general tongue.
Name Cleopatra as she is called in Rome.
Rail thou in Fulvia’s phrase, and taunt my faults
With such full license as both truth and malice
Have power to utter. Oh, then we bring forth weeds
When our quick minds lie still, and our ills told us
Is as our earing.
I love that wording: “We bring forth weeds, when our quick minds lie still.” It is meant as a comment that people don’t see their own faults and require criticism to be made clear of them. But in another sense, it speaks to how our minds grow to weed when they are passive – in our modern culture given to watching TV instead of reading, to accepting dogma instead of investigating, to believing nonsense because it’s easier than researching, we have become a society of more mental weeds than cultivated fields. I have always taken it as a reminder not to stop learning, not to stop exploring, not to stop discovering things anew.
The deaths of the two protagonists seem small compared to the world-shaking events that they ushered in, almost petty in comparison. Yet they dominate the story, the microcosm over the macrocosm.
Caesar comments on how the death of Anthony should have shaken the very stones, saying,
The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack. The round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets
And citizens to their dens. The death of Antony
Is not a single doom. In the name lay
A moiety of the world.
Yet Anthony’s death is messy and without thunder. The pillar of the world can’t even make a good end of himself. He drags himself to Cleopatra for a last kiss and she is reluctant, even imperious, not even bending over his body to grant him that last request: her attendants have to raise the dying man to her for that kiss.
Cleopatra’s last words over Anthony’s body express her grieving and her loss, yet she remains ever practical, always in charge:
No more, but e’en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares. It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught;
Patience is scottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that’s mad: then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?
What, what! good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian!
My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look,
Our lamp is spent, it’s out! Good sirs, take heart:
We’ll bury him; and then, what’s brave,
Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold:
Ah, women, women! come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end. Act IV, Sc. 14
Cleopatra’s death at her own hands is more spectacular, more passionate, always taking top billing until the very end. Just before she takes up the asp to her breast, she says to her attendants:
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. Act V, Sc. 2
Always the queen, even in her final moments.