ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare

Maybe it’s just me but I get the sense this play isn’t very popular these days, even among loyal Shakespeareans. I blame Hollywood, lush romantic paintings and that damn “Cleopatra” hairstyle! It seems probable that these slightly kitschy takes on Egypt’s famous queen scare a lot of people away from Shakespeare’s play. Understandable but a shame.  Antony and Cleopatra is indeed an epic historical drama but it is not troubled by any of the stiff artificiality and formality that often mark that genre in any era.
Sure, if you enjoy political dramas, this play offers plenty in that vein. The struggle for the future of the Roman Empire is about as high stakes as you can get and Shakespeare delivers it with thrilling excitement. Despite the plot’s monumental and somewhat episodic structure, it is quite easy to follow and held together by the central thread of the brutal youngster, Octavius Caesar, slowly getting the better of the old lion, Mark Antony. Octavius is a wonderfully sinister, purring villain. A good, subtle actor can do a whole lot with the part, toying with the audience’s expectation (and desire) for the old lion to win. Some scenes practically sound like Antony is telling Octavius to get off his lawn. Of course, in this play, the snot-nosed kid turns out to be sharper than everyone expects.
All of this is deftly handled, fascinating as a power struggle and great fun. However, the play is dramatically deeper and more penetrating than that. It is, of course, a love story. Maybe the greatest love story ever written, considering that the lovers basically pick each other instead of control over the destiny of the western hemisphere. But who are these lovers? In so many ways, they come off as WELL past their prime and utterly ridiculous. Shakespeare never lets us forget that these two are screw-ups. They shouldn’t be running anything, let alone an empire. (This may well be historically inaccurate which would be worth exploring but, for now, I’m focusing on the play.) The audience may hiss Octavius but, frankly, I’d rather have him as a ruler and, given time to think, I believe most people would. Yet we don’t love him. We love Antony and Cleopatra, for no particularly good reason. This troubling aspect of human existence, that love doesn’t always go where it should, has rarely been better explored. This is reflected brilliantly by Antony’s right hand man Domitius Enobarbus. He is totally clear-eyed about his master and Cleopatra and full of sarcasm. Eventually, he quite logically turns on them. Yet the act hollows him out and destroys his life. Shakespeare teasingly doesn’t insist this is right or correct, simply that it does and will happen. We simultaneously roll our eyes and bust into tears, something we do throughout the play.
Cleopatra is the essence of this. The pop culture version of this historical figure does a great disservice to Shakespeare’s character. Historically accurate or not, she is one of the greatest and deepest characters in all dramatic literature. She knows exactly how absurd she is but it is absolutely determined to play her role to the fullest. Why? The closest thing to an answer is her death scene of which SHE is the author. Octavius is rendered nothing more than a supporting character, a role he reluctantly accepts. The divide between the real world and the fantasy one we all REALLY care about sums up the whole play. The image of someone turning their total failure into a glorious victory is also extraordinarily moving, especially for anyone who has ever felt like a loser. The victory of the losers over the winners gives this tragedy a strangely joyous and sublime air. Ultimately, it is a play that celebrates our ability as human beings to overcome catastrophe, even if it is only in our own minds. 


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